|"Pomona Progress Bulletin," April 6, 1938, via Newspapers.com|
The Frome family of Berkeley, California exemplified mid-20th century American prosperity. Weston Frome, a top executive at Atlas Powder Company, made all the money needed to give his wife Hazel and his two daughters, Nancy and Mada, a life of pampered contentment. The three attractive, chic Frome women traveled extensively, shopped, and took a prominent part in Bay Area society. The Fromes could have stepped out of a magazine ad. As an icing on the cake of the family’s seemingly endless good fortune, Weston Frome won a lottery where the prize was a lavishly equipped, brand-new silver Packard. He gave the car to Nancy as a college graduation present.
This proved to be the worst decision of his life.
1938 did not start out well for Nancy. Her fiance, a San Francisco optometrist, broke their engagement. Upset and anxious to “get away from it all,” in March, twenty-three year old Nancy announced that she would like to take a train cross-country to visit her sister, who was married to an active-duty Marine stationed in South Carolina. However, Hazel worried about her young daughter making such a long trip on her own. She had an alternate idea: how about if the two of them use Nancy’s plush new car to drive there? For a mother and daughter who loved traveling, it would be a fun adventure. Nancy readily agreed, and the pair were soon on their way.
The road trip was uneventful until they reached West Texas, where the Packard developed engine trouble. The local auto repair shop had to send for replacement parts for the luxury car, leading to an unavoidable delay before it could be fixed. Rather than just sit in their El Paso hotel room, the women took a tour of the town and its sister city, Juarez, Mexico. Five days later, on Wednesday, March 30, their car was finally ready for them. When the Fromes came to pick up the Packard, they asked for directions to Dallas, and, at about 10:30 a.m., resumed their trip.
The following afternoon, two army surveyors found the Packard parked on the side of a lonely road eleven miles west of the town of Balmorhea. They reported the find to their sergeant, who in his turn notified the Reeves County sheriff’s office.
The two deputies who arrived at the scene were baffled. The car was unlocked, and the keys in the ignition. No luggage or anything that would identify the car’s owner was found. Aside from a few minor scratches, the car was in perfect condition. Why would anyone abandon an expensive auto out in the middle of nowhere?
The California license plate enabled the sheriff, Louis Robertson, to at least determine who owned the car. When Weston Frome was contacted, he became hysterical, immediately assuming that his wife and daughter were both dead.
A search was immediately launched using all of West Texas’ available resources. Robertson drove the Packard back along the route the Fromes had taken, asking at every stop if anyone remembered the car and the women driving it. No one had. Law enforcement, volunteers and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps searched the area on foot and horseback. The Coast Guard was called in. Despite these efforts, no clues to the women’s disappearance were found until five days later, when an El Paso truck driver named Jim Milam went to police with a strange story. Early Wednesday afternoon, as he was driving from El Paso to Wickett, a silver Packard had passed Milam about 13 miles west of Sierra Blanca. Closely following the Packard was a dark coupe, with two license plates and white writing on the right door. Both cars were traveling east. Two hours later, six miles east of Van Horn, he saw the same coupe driving toward him, slowly, along the edge of the highway. A woman was driving. Twenty miles later, the Packard passed him again, headed east and driven by a man. Following the Packard was the coupe with the female driver. Milam took investigators to the spot. As they searched the area, it was Milam who found the bodies of Hazel and Nancy Frome.
Their deaths had been unusually brutal. Although both were nearly naked, neither woman had been sexually assaulted. However, they were gruesomely abused in other ways. They had been badly beaten, one of Hazel’s forearms looked like the flesh had been bitten off, and Nancy’s right hand had been burned to the bone, probably from a cigar or cigarette. Death finally came when they were shot execution-style in the head. It was as if someone had tortured the women in order to obtain something that the Fromes wouldn’t or couldn’t provide. A massive manhunt was instantly launched to find these very, very dangerous murderers.
|"El Paso Times," June 28, 1981|
Investigators were flooded with tips. Other motorists remembered that on the day the Fromes disappeared, the Packard seemed to be followed by another car containing several people, but that promising clue wound up going nowhere. At first, law enforcement assumed the obviously wealthy women were the victims of a random highway robbery. However, the fact that a diamond watch and Hazel’s gold wedding ring were left inside the car forced them to abandon that theory. Perhaps, some lawmen thought, the women were mistaken for drug smugglers, and tortured to force them to turn over their stash of dope? The El Paso sheriff was of the opinion that the savagery of the murders indicated a personal motive; that someone they knew from California was for some reason inspired to take a bloody revenge on the women. Or maybe, he suggested, the Fromes were murdered by people they encountered in Juarez?
As promising as all these theories initially sounded, no real evidence could be found for any of them. For all their efforts, law enforcement came up with no solid leads, let alone likely suspects, for the very sinister deaths of Hazel and Nancy Frome. It remains one of Texas’ creepiest murder mysteries.
Over the years, there have, of course, been efforts by armchair detectives to solve the case. One of the more interesting scenarios was laid out by former journalist Clint Richmond in his 2014 book “Fetch the Devil.” It is built around the fact that in 1930s San Francisco, the German consulate was a hotbed of Nazi spies led by Baron Manfred von Killinger. At the time of the murders, there were also many German agents operating around the Mexican border.
Richmond believed that Weston Frome, as a German-born executive of a major explosives company, was targeted by the Nazis in order to learn his business’ secrets. However, Frome rebuffed all efforts to either bribe or blackmail him. The German agents then went after the more vulnerable quarry: Weston’s wife and daughter.
Richmond noted that while the Fromes were stranded in their El Paso hotel, Nancy came down with a bad cold. As the regular hotel doctor was away, a hotel bellboy referred them to a local doctor, Wolfgang Ebell. Unfortunately for the Fromes, Dr. Ebell was part of an extensive Nazi spy chain which operated through San Francisco, Latin America, and Berlin. Hazel was a chatty, outgoing woman, so Richmond thought it likely that when she learned the doctor was German, she mentioned to him her husband’s similar ancestry, as well as his important position at Atlas Powder Company.
Ebell, according to this scenario, called his boss von Killinger to report his encounter with the women. The spymaster instantly recognized the Frome name, and saw his opportunity to finally get some leverage over Weston. Von Killinger instructed Ebell to do everything in his power to exploit this unexpected gift while the women were still in the area.
Ebell first sent two Russians, Romano Trotsky and G.N. Gepge, to try to romance the Frome women. However, the mother and daughter merely laughed off their efforts. While the Fromes were at the hotel, a letter was dropped off for Hazel at the front desk. Although it is not known what the letter said, it clearly greatly upset both women. Richmond theorized that the Nazi agents wrote to Hazel threatening to expose Weston’s peccadilloes, either real or fictional. It caused the two panicked women to flee as soon as they could.
When Ebell learned the Fromes were preparing to leave, he quickly enlisted Trotsky, Gepge, and an unidentified woman in a plan to waylay the mother and daughter. On the remote Highway 80, the spies were able to force the Packard off the road. After that, it was a simple matter to detain the Fromes at gunpoint. The men forced their way into the Packard, ordering Nancy to drive. Ebell’s female agent followed them in Ebell’s car. The Fromes were taken to some isolated place where Ebell’s thugs could question them under torture. Meanwhile, Ebell searched the Packard for the incriminating letter that Hazel had received. Unable to find it, he abandoned the car, taking the Frome luggage to be searched at his leisure.
Despite the terrible abuse the women suffered, they proved to be as stubbornly uncooperative as Weston had been. When Ebell reported to von Killinger his failure to get information out of the Fromes, the spymaster said that there was no other option but to murder them. Accordingly, the women--probably already nearly dead after hours of torture--were brought to the remote area where their bodies were later discovered, and shot.
The debacle of the attempt to recruit the Frome women--and the even more unwelcome publicity the murders received--caused the spies to quickly tie up loose ends. The bellboy who had summoned Ebell to treat Nancy’s cold was kidnapped, taken into Mexico, and killed. Baron von Killinger was recalled to Germany, far away from the reach of any investigators who might stumble across the link between his spy ring and two now-infamous murders. By the time Dr. Ebell was arrested in December 1941, the Frome case was so cold, it never occurred to anyone to note his possible connection to the mystery. The Nazi spies may have failed in their espionage activities against the Fromes, but they were very successful when it came to killing them.
Richmond’s scenario may sound like something out of a cheesy spy thriller, but it is not impossible, and would explain many of the odder elements of these unusually odd murders. It is still possible that some day, some information will emerge to prove whether or not his theory is correct.
[Note: El Paso sheriff Chris Fox, who spent years trying to solve this case, did manage to uncover a couple of interesting details which might--or might not--have been significant. When he interviewed family members, he learned that Weston and Hazel Frome had marital problems for some years--in fact, they were separated at the time Hazel made her fatal road trip.
Also, in one of those unbelievable coincidences which often dot true-crime cases, it transpired that on the day the Fromes disappeared, there was another silver Packard with California plates containing two women on Highway 80. Fox was able to contact these women, and satisfied himself that they had no connection to the case. However, this did lead some people to wonder if perhaps the Fromes had been mistaken for someone else.]