Sorry for the long write-up.
I’m a long-time lurker from Central Oregon. In early 2022, after exhausting the internet of unsolved mysteries elsewhere (Tom Mahood hasn’t updated Otherhand since 2019!), I decided I wanted to investigate something local that would draw me out of the house. COVID had us all trapped indoors, and I was craving a real adventure of sorts. This post has all the information I've gathered since. The Skeleton Rock Mystery
I remembered one of the stories my grandma used to tell me and my cousins. She said that two bandits in the old west robbed a stagecoach carrying gold and jewels but were soon pursued by Paiute Indians and had to bury it all somewhere out near Prineville Reservoir, a man-made lake forty minutes southeast of Prineville, Oregon in Crook County. The flair of the story then was that the men were tracked and killed by the Indians and now haunted the hills searching for their buried treasure. I also know she would embellish the story by insinuating that one of the men was ‘The Golden Arm Man’, which I now know stems from The Andy Griffith Show.
I asked my grandma and some of the elders in our community if they knew anything about the story and its origins, but nobody knew anything, and my grandma couldn’t even remember telling us about it. Googling ‘Crook County Oregon Treasure’ brought up a few promising options, a treasure hunting website called The Rocker Box provided me the title of the mystery. In the Crook County section of their Oregon Treasures tab, it lists two treasures. The first is called “The Lost Four Dutchman’s Mine” located in the Ochoco Mountains. There isn’t any more information on it. The second is for Skeleton Rock. “Skeleton Rock, located near Prineville, is the location of the Skeleton Rock Treasure, consisting of about $50,000 in gold coin and gold bars.” And they provide a poor-quality map.
The Rocker Box website with the Skeleton Rock Treasure Map: https://therockerbox.com/crook_county_or_lost_treasures.htm
That gave me something more I could dig into. I googled ‘Skeleton Rock Prineville Oregon’ and was welcomed to a geocaching website where a user gave coordinates to the rock, a picture of Skeleton Rock, and a detailed story, the same story my grandma used to tell but with more detail.
Geocache Description: “This is an ammo box hidden among the rocks above Prineville Reservoir at an elevation of 3350 ft. My family has camped annually at this reservoir since 1968. My father used to tell us kids a campfire story of buried treasure along the shore of the reservoir and every year my friends and I would go hunting for it. Of course, we had doubts about the validity of his story, but later he showed me an article from an Old West magazine, and since then I’ve seen the story referenced in other publications and web sites. Here’s how the story goes: In 1870, a man named John Holt and his friend Jack robbed a mail stage carrying the army payroll and a strongbox of gold to the forts in Southern Oregon and Northern California totaling somewhere around $50,000. During the robbery, Jack shot and killed the guard. The two then loaded the mail sacks and the strong box onto their horses and planned to head west towards Willamette Valley. Their plans were thwarted as they approached a creek that feeds into the Crooked River valley when they found themselves being pursued by a band of raiding Indians. They were able to stay ahead of the Indians by staying in the brush and willows of the creek bed, but as they reached the Crooked River their situation became dire. Their only hope was to find a place to hole up and stave off the attack. A hill jutting up to their right with a cap rock looked like their best chance, so they decided to make a break up the hill and hole up at the top. As the Indians fired wildly at them, they ditched their horses, grabbed the mail sacks and strongbox and scrambled up the hill. Both John and Jack were shot but able to make it to the rocks at the top of the hill and stave off the attack. Jack soon died from his wound. John decided to hide the body of his friend and hid the mail sacks and strongbox before slipping by the Indians in the night. John followed the willows of the Crooked River until he came to the settlement of Prineville. Unfortunately, an army patrol was in town and upon hearing word of a wounded man in town he was arrested and eventually convicted for the stagecoach robbery. By the time John was released from prison in 1923 he was a blind old man. He hired a young man as a guide to search the rock where he had hidden the treasure. Holt tried his best to describe to his guide the area where the treasure was hidden but after several days of searching, they gave up. As they were leaving town, the guide told Holt’s story to two young ranchers Elton and Wayne Carey. The Carey’s found nothing more than half of a human skeleton, presumably belonging to Jack, but no one has claimed to have found the treasure. Perhaps it is still there waiting to be found. Until then, I thought I’d provide a “strongbox” that you might be able to find. I would recommend geocachers use a boat, raft, kayak, inner tube, etc. to get to Skeleton Rock, hence the 4-terrain rating, as the south side of the reservoir has almost no roads leading near the cache and would involve a very long hike. However, when you get to the rock, I recommend getting to the top from the backside where there is a gentler slope. Original contents: new brass whistle, card deck, wire saw, sharpening stones, new folding scissors, Geocaching compass keyring, GEO sticker, GPS sticker, various wakeboarding stickers, new mini-brite keychain, windsurfing pin, and a huge figurine of Watto. Good Luck.”
Geocaching website feat. ‘GCGF26 The Skeleton Rock Strong Box’ and picture: https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GCGF25_the-skeleton-rock-strong-box
I was on the right track, and spending more time combing through google of any mention of this provided me news articles from local newspapers and websites that have over the decades attempted to draw attention to the mystery but seem to have failed. Reading these articles, which are pretty much identical, led me to finding the authotreasure hunter Daniel ‘Dan’ Petchell, author of Treasure Tales of the Oregon Coast. The articles talk about Dan going out to Skeleton Rock with a metal detector over the years but never finding anything that pointed to a treasure being buried there.
Reaching Dan was a difficult process because the only information I could find on how to contact him was a link to his author’s website that hasn’t been up in years. I had to comb through the WayBackMachine to find it, which eventually led me to his email address, as well as an upcoming book about Central Oregon Treasures, which looks like it was never released. Then it was smooth sailing as he answered my request to speak with him that afternoon. He wanted to look over his notes and call me on the phone the next evening, which I agreed to.
The results of our conversation:
- Dan first heard of the story while working at his father’s mining equipment shop in Prineville during the 1980’s. The miners that would come in told him the story. The Carey family owned a mine up in the Ochoco Mountains.
- Elton Carey’s nephew said it was family lore but that it was accepted as being true. This is the only ‘proof’ outside of Elton’s story which he wrote an article about for an old magazine. Dan said the Bowman Museum had a copy of it.
- Dan said he talked to a woman in Prineville who knew Elton his whole life and she said he never said anything to them, however Dan thinks this could be because his uncle owned the property Skeleton Rock sits on, and he didn’t want people up to look for it.
- Dan couldn’t find any living relatives of Elton’s because they moved to Nevada at some point and nobody in town seemed to be in contact with them either.
- Most interestingly, however, Dan also mentioned he heard of a man who worked for the producers of White Metal Detectors who would come down to Prineville on a normal basis and come back with $50 dollar gold pieces that he’d find at the base of a cliff. But that’s all he knew about that.
Dan Petchell’s ****** Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.com/stores/Daniel%20Petchell/authoB001K8XI96
2001 Statesman Journal article about Dan Petchell’s Skeleton Rock search: https://imgur.com/zuIZ8fb
2005 Bend Bulletin article about Dan Petchell’s Skeleton Rock search: https://www.bendbulletin.com/localstate/history-in-the-hills/article_a0da3db3-2fa2-56cb-aa06-63f48adeda65.html
2006 Bend Bulletin article about Dan Petchell’s Skeleton Rock search: https://www.bendbulletin.com/outdoors/skeleton-rock/article_312b9090-801d-5a66-9318-cf7bfc7d5366.html
Another 2006 Bend Bulletin article about Dan Petchell’s Skeleton Rock search: https://www.bendbulletin.com/outdoors/gold-fevearticle_06c47241-8f4a-52f7-a51d-da7f8f48d95c.html
I attempted to contact someone at White Metal Detectors via email and phone, but they denied any knowledge of someone from their company finding gold pieces in Prineville.
I took his advice and contacted the Bowman Museum to set up a time when I might come and go through the archives. I wanted to know 1.) if there were any local papers in the 1870’s that might have reported about John Holt being arrested in Prineville, and if so did they have any copies, 2.) if they had any copies of the old magazine that Elton Carey published his story in or where I could find one. I gave them my phone number and one of the local historians called me back within an hour.
He said that there were only two papers in the 1800’s: The Ochoco Review and then Prineville Review of which nothing but a few pages survive. Neither of them has anything to do with the robbery.
Ochoco Review started in 1885 - ??: https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn00063648/
Prineville Review started in ?? - 1914, tragic article called “A Sad Christmas”: https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn00063658/
He also said that over the years he’s received hundreds of inquiries about the Skeleton Rock Treasure and that they do indeed have a copy of the magazine titled Old West Magazine Summer 1968 that contained Elton’s story, “The Story of Skeleton Rock”. He also mentioned that they have his original draft, then provided me with a scanned PDF copy of it.
This is what Elton said: “In 1925, when I was fifteen, my older brother Wayne and I rented a ranch from our uncle and proceeded to go into business, raising hay and cattle and grain. The place we rented is located on the upper Crooked River, in Crook County, Oregon, about twenty miles south of Prineville, which is the oldest town in the Central Oregon country. At this place the river runs through a wide fertile valley. About midway on this ranch is a creek running into the river from the south, called Sanford Creek. Both the creek and the river are quite heavily lined with a lush growth of willows. Set back a little from this juncture, and rising directly from the valley floor, is a very steep flat-topped hill. On the back side of the hill from the river there is a short steep pitch of about fifty feet and then the hill slopes out into the foothills. The top of this hill is covered by a jumble of lava, rocks which have spilt into tiers as if they had been piled up by a stone mason. In some places the tiers have tilted and formed crevices which have filled with sands to form little paths. The top is about an acre in size, and is nearly oval in shape. Coming up from the shallow side, the rocks have spilt to form a steep trail which goes up and directly across the middle of the rock. The rock is also spilt on the steep side and it is possible to climb from the steep side to the flat below. It is about 150 feet to the bottom. One day in August my brother and I were finishing the last of the haying when late in the afternoon we saw an old covered wagon coming up the road. A covered wagon was a thing you seldom saw in that country, even in 1925, so we watched with much curiosity when it turned in at our gate. When it approached where we were working, we saw that one man was very old, with a long white beard. The driver was a man about my brother’s age. When it approached where we were, the one man came over and ask if they could camp by the hill across the river. My brother said “Sure, camp any place you want and stay as long as you wish.” The stranger thanked us and they drove on across the river. After they had driven away, we discussed how odd the old man had acted. He did not look around him like a person in a strange place usually will, nor did he show any interest in what was going on. He finished hauling the last of the hay to the stack and went on home. It was in the morning, two days later, when we got back over to the place. When we came up the gate we saw that the campers were preparing to leave, so we rode over where they were After we talked a little, the young man motioned us to follow him and led us out of the old man’s hearing. And then he told us this story: It was back in the year 1870, when a young man named John Holt and, a friend called Jack, decided to make their fortunes in one bold try. So together they held up the mail stage caring the army payroll to the forts in southern Oregon and northern California. In 1870, the army had its camps and forts spread from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. And from the Canadian border to the border of Mexico. Many of these outposts, such as Fort Klamath and Camp Pendleton in Oregon were supplied by army wagons or by stage lines which carried weary travelers and the United States mail. The roads ran through country which was uninhabited or very sparsely settled. Under such conditions the stages were always subject to Indian attack, or became the prey of that era’s holdup artists. There was a shipment of gold on the stage, besides the payroll. They loaded the mail sacks and the strong box on their horses and headed across country to the west. They planned to close their tracks in the Crooked River breaks, then cross the desert country to the west and drift into the settlements in the “Willamette Valley” where strangers and gold were nothing new. The one thing they failed to consider was Indians. Late in the afternoon on their second day of flight, they were riding along slowly, resting their horses, when they came out into the top of a hill over-looking a deep canyon. They could see patches of willow and brush in the bottoms and were glad to be near water and grass for the horses. Farther down, the canyon widened out and they knew they were coming to the Crooked River where they might be able to lose their tracks. An army patrol would soon be in pursuit of them. Their elation was short lived for when they started down into the canyon they were brought up short by the blood-curdling yells of a small war party of raiding Indians, who liked nothing better than to catch a couple of white men out by themselves. The two men took one look back at the brush of the creek bottom and chance lay in getting down into the brush of the creek toward the river in hopes they could find a place to hole up. Though the outlaws had some close call, they managed to stay ahead of the Indians and get into the creek bottom, which they followed to the valley where the creek and the river joined. Just short of the river was a round steep hill jutting up from the valley floor, on the side next to them a horse could be ridden up to the cap-rock which covered the top of the hill. If they were lucky maybe they could save the horses. Both the Indians who were following them and some who were flanking them began shooting wildly, fearing their prey might get away. The horses seemed to sense the urgency of the riders for they put on a last burst of speed as they raced up the slope to the rock wall; but just short of the wall John’s horse was shot. He snatched the saddle bags from his saddle and followed Jack up to the rock wall which covered the top of the hill. The horses were abandoned and the pair started climbing up the crevasse which led over the top. Just before they reached the top Jack was hit by a bullet and John had to help him over the top. He then ran down and brought the mail sacks and the gold, but before he got over the wall again he received a flesh wound in the thigh. It was not a dangerous wound, but was quite painful. They were able to stave off the Indian attack which followed, and the Indians drew back and surrounded the hill but did not attack again. Jack died from his wounds. John hid the body of his partner to keep the Indians from knowing he had been killed. When darkness came he slipped out of the rocks and escaped up the willow-lined river. The next day he reached the small settlement now called Prineville, where he had his wound dressed; but before the day was gone , and he could acquire a horse and go back for the holdup loot that he had buried beside his dead partner, an army patrol rode in. When they learned a wounded man was in town, they became suspicious and he was placed under arrest. When John came to trial, there were witnesses who recognized him as one of the holdup men who robbed the stage and he was sent to the pen for life. John was a good prisoner who found life behind bars not too hard, but when he was about sixty he began losing his eyesight and by the time he was seventy, he was totally blind. In 1923 John Holt was given a pardon and at last found himself free to go pick up the treasure he had buried nearly forty years before. When he finally found a man he could trust, they got together a wagon and team, and in the month of August, 1925, they arrived at the place on Crooked River where he had lost his partner and almost lost his life. The man John had hired was the young man who told us this story. When he and the blind man got up on the rock the young man was unable to find the place the old man described to as where he had buried the treasure and the body of his partner. After two days of searching, they were giving up for they could not be sure if this was even the right rock. And the young man was beginning to doubt the old man's story. So they got in the wagon and drove away, and we never saw either of them again. Of, course my brother and I lost no time getting up on the rock with a pick and shovel. After a thorough search we decided to dig in one of the crevices half filled with sand and grown over with rye-grass. We had dug only a foot or so when we began to find human bones, teeth, then we found rib and arm bones, but no bones from the lower part of the skeleton. We found pieces of rotting wood, and steel straps made from old horseshoes which could have been used to strengthen a strong box, but when we had dug as deep as we could in the crevice, we still had found no treasure. We searched but never found the other half of the skeleton. of course we didn't find the treasure either, but still believe it is there...for someone . While our uncle lived, we never told the story for he did not want people digging all over the place. It was thirty years later, after I moved to Arizona that I read in a book, Indian wars of America, where in 1870 a stage carrying the army payroll to southern Oregon and northern California, was held up robbed of the payroll which was never recovered. This account seemed to confirm the old man's story. So some day I hope to go back and again search the rock which was called Skeleton Rock after we found the bones buried there. The spot is partly surrounded by water now, for the government built a large dam a few miles down the river, and water backs up beyond the rock. However, the part I am interested in is still there, well above the water line, with its horde of gold buried in some crevice. Maybe when I find the other half of a body, covered with rock and sand I will have learned the secret of Skeleton Rock.”
Picture of Old West Magazine Summer 1968 feat. ‘The Story of Skeleton Rock’ by Elton Carey: https://images.app.goo.gl/ssgUvYdcgMpgGh2D9
In his own words, Elton Carey gave me exactly what I was looking for: a basis for the entire mystery. The first actual document found provides first-hand knowledge of the original story. The following day, I purchased the original magazine from the Bowman Museum. He does reference a book called Indian Wars of America, and I’m assuming he’s talking about “Indian Wars of the United States” by William V. Moore, and if so it’s unfortunate because it seems to be extremely rare and expensive. The only websites that ping when I google the title are scant sales listings for over a hundred dollars. It could very well not be the book too, given that there seem to be hundreds of books with variations on the title “Indian Wars of the United States”
I decided to contact the Oregon State Penitentiary to verify a resident John Holt. The story says that Holt was sentenced to life ‘in the pen’, and there was only one penitentiary in Oregon. The Oregon State Penitentiary was opened in 1855 in Portland but was moved to Salem in the 1860’s. If Holt had been arrested in the 1870’s, he would have been taken there.
The woman I spoke to told me the information I was requesting would be held at the Oregon Archives, and I would need to submit a request for retrieval form. I called the archives and was told to submit the form on their website and pay a small fee (I think it was five dollars) and they would get it back to me within a week.
I received their email three days later. She confirmed a record of a John Holt being held at the penitentiary in 1891 when he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. Attached to the email was the original court documents including a picture of John Holt at the time. He appears to be young in the photo, and the time of the arrest didn’t match with Elton’s story.
Scans of court documents for a John Holt:
Searching through Ancestry has provided many individuals with the name John Holt who lived in Oregon during the 1800’s and 1900’s, and as of now I have yet to find any evidence that any of them were arrested for stagecoach robbery in the 1870’s.
Dan told me he hadn’t been able to contact any living relatives of Elton, but at this point I was rabid and needed answers. I’ve had an account on Ancestry.com for years and know what a great resource for research it can be. I figured I could use their search engine to trace Elton's family to try and find someone living I could contact.
At first, it took a few days to sort through records to make a picture out of it, but I eventually discovered that Elton Carey's full name was Harland Elton Carey, and he named his son the same thing. Giving Elton a son on Ancestry leads me to a family tree by another user that included both Carey’s just as I had in the tree I was working on, and on a whim, I messaged them. I didn’t explain the mystery or anything, I simply asked if they happened to know either Harland Elton Carey or his son.
To my surprise, I was messaging with Harland Carey Jr. After telling him briefly about the story I was investigating and asking him for a bit of family info, he was willing to share. He said: “I am Harland Elton Carey Jr. My father was known by our middle name. He was borne in Loraine Oregon in 1910. I was born in Prineville in 1939. His mother was Bertha Smith. Bertha’s father either bought or homesteader a bit of land known as Owl Hollow. When I was born, Bertha lived there. She moved to Washington when I was small and my father Elton took over Owl Hollow. I lived there, attended Bailey School, down by Crooked River, one mile away. When I was 11, my Uncle Leroy Carey bought the old farm. Last I heard it belonged to the Prineville Chief of Police. Both Elton (my father) and I aspired to be writers, and I think I have copies of all his stuff in a file drawer full of short stories and histories.”
He also offered his personal email address and PO Box which I could reach out to him with.
I emailed him a very long and detailed description of the Skeleton Rock mystery as well as the PDF copy of his father’s story and an image of Skeleton Rock. After a few weeks of not getting a response, I messaged him again on Ancestry asking if he’d received my email and he responded the same day stating he was working on a response.
Almost a year later and I have not received anything back from him. I did find a landline for him and tried to reach out that way, but it just rings infinitely. He was 84 when I spoke to him in 2022, but that was at the height of COVID so hopefully he’s ok. Every few months I check obituaries in Nevada, a lot of the time those include surviving family members I might be able to contact.
Eventually, I remembered that Elton's brother had also been with him when running into John Holt in the 1920’s and attempted to locate him through the same method, but it seems if I did find the right Wayne, he died in the 80’s.
Unfortunately, I’m leaning on the theory that Elton Carey made the whole thing up. He wanted to be a writer, so said his son, and stagecoach robberies were a very real thing back then providing ample suggestion for his fiction. I really want to believe that somewhere out on Skeleton Rock is buried some treasure waiting to be found, but I feel there would be more documented evidence of the first event when John Holt was arrested.
Also, the story itself feels unlikely. I can’t image Holt having the time or energy to bury 50k in gold as well as his dead friend while being injured himself and hunted by the local Indians. And what was the name of the man he hired to search for the gold, anyway? He was the one who recounted Holt’s story to Elton and Wayne, not Holt.
And can I really buy that the two brothers found a partial skeleton in the 1920’s and didn’t report it? He mentions that they didn’t tell anyone because it was on his uncle’s land and he didn’t want people snooping around. Did they tell the uncle about it? Did the uncle or the brothers find the gold at some point after the meeting in 1925?
The whole goal of me doing this was to find something that I can go explore outside of mysteries on the internet, which I feel I’ve exhausted. I’ve attempted to go out to Skeleton Rock on multiple occasions but have never made it. Last year, when I felt I had enough information to physically investigate, the water was not low enough to cross where the Crooked River feeds into Prineville Reservoir and was not high enough for a boat. Also, the few times I attempted last year the Prineville Lake Road access was shut off requiring an hours long hike through thick dead lake grass which was not ideal.
In a few months, I’m planning on making another trek out there with my brother and his metal detector. The water this year is so low that we’ll be able to walk across with waders, if we’ll even need those, and it’s a short walk across the dry lakebed from where you can park on the access road. It doesn’t look that far a hike without the use of the road if you’re looking on Google Earth, but I can guarantee you it’s long. It’s also difficult with the sediment of the dry lake and the dead, knee high lake grass.
Even if we don’t find anything substantial, it would be cool to try and find the Skeleton Rock Geocache, given that it hasn’t been located in almost a decade. It’s also really cool to be out of the house walking the land where I’ve been researching for so long. You really feel like it could be all real when you’re out there.
Like the geocache user said, if you do go out to Skeleton Rock, be prepared for the difficult terrain. Just getting there is difficult if you aren’t going when the water is low enough, it requires a miles-long hike around the south end of the lake on very steep, rocky terrain that is also prime rattlesnake country. It’s on the east side, and if you can get there when the Prineville Lake Access Road is open, you can drive far enough that you’ll end up directly across from the rock. There’s a little bathroom and a pull-out area for you to park, but it’ll still be a trek across the lakebed.
If anyone has any information to contribute, please do.
Extra Links: Map of Skeleton Rock Location Landscape Shot of Skeleton Rock
It was about 1:30 p.m. on February 7, 1983, and classes had just let out at Chaparral High School on the southeast side of Las Vegas. 17-year-old junior Catherine Tighe was supposed to meet a friend to pick her up from school, but she never showed up to meet her ride. Adding to the mysterious circumstances of Catherine’s no-show for her ride, none of her fellow classmates remembered seeing Catherine on campus after classes ended that day.
Failing to come home from school was far from Catherine’s typical behavior, which prompted her parents to immediately involve law enforcement in searching for their daughter’s whereabouts. Police had no luck in locating the young student, and contemporary local news reports indicated this was a case where someone had truly disappeared without a trace.
Nearly a month would pass before Catherine’s fate was discovered. A man collecting empty cans in a vacant desert lot between Twain and Indios near Boulder Highway discovered the partially clothed body of a young woman lying face down under a bush on the morning of March 2, 1983. The man immediately contacted the police, and investigators soon identified the remains as those of Catherine Tighe.
The Clark County Coroner’s Office determined that Catherine died from manual strangulation and that she had been sexually assaulted prior to her murder. Homicide detectives believe Catherine was murdered within one to two hours after her abduction, and they noted the remains were discovered not far from Chaparral High School. But investigators had as little evidence to go on regarding the circumstances of Catherine’s murder as they did her disappearance.
Chief of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department homicide division, Lieutenant John Conner, told local reporters, “She left school at 1:30 pm as she normally did, and we have no idea who picked her. We don’t know if she went willingly. We have nothing to go on.”
There is not much background information about the Tighe murder. Catherine was born in New York, but she had lived in Vegas for the eight years preceding her murder. She was described as quiet and polite, as well as a good student, by her classmates. She had recently taken a part-time job working at the school cafeteria to make some extra money. Catherine's pastimes were going to the movies and shopping. Her parents told the police that she didn't have a history of running away.
Detective Dave Hatch, a homicide detective that worked the case, told reporters in 1996, "It was one of those cases where it started and ended right at the scene. She was raped and murdered. Whoever did it put cardboard over her body like she was a piece of garbage and left her on the side of Boulder Highway. We've never come up with anything on it. She was just a kid walking home from school and never made it."
Renewed interest in the Tighe murder was generated in 1987 after the arrest of Herbert James Coddington in South Lake Tahoe for murdering two women chaperoning a pair of young models. After his arrest, Coddington was also charged with the 1981 murder of 12-year-old Sheila Jo Keister in Las Vegas. The fact that Keister had been kidnapped in the middle of the day and died from strangulation caused some to speculate about connections between Coddington and the Catherine Tighe murder. After all, Coddington lived in Las Vegas between 1980 and 1984. But Metro homicide detectives were clear to reporters that they did not believe Coddington was Catherine’s killer.
Several aspects of Catherine’s abduction and murder bear similarities to another crime that occurred almost exactly four years earlier. 16-year-old Kim Bryant was waiting at the Dairy Queen across from her Las Vegas high school just after 10:00 a.m. on the morning of January 26, 1979. Bryant was abducted by an unknown man in a vehicle, and her body was later found in a desert area near Buffalo Avenue and Charleston Boulevard. Bryant died due to several blows to the head from a large rock, and her body bore signs of sexual assault. Her slaying remained unsolved for decades.
It took over forty years, but the work of Othram Labs and local Las Vegas philanthropists eventually solved the murder of Kim Bryant. Her killer was a Las Vegas resident by the name of Johnny Blake Peterson.
Little information is available about Johnny Blake Peterson. He was born and raised in Las Vegas. Peterson worked as a plasterer and was married with two children. He died at age 32 in January of 1993 at a Las Vegas hospital, but his obituary is silent on his cause of death.
Kim Bryant had been abducted from her high school just like Catherine Tighe, and both girls were sexually assaulted before being murdered in a desert area not long after their disappearances. Police announced that they are looking at Peterson’s involvement in up to five unsolved murders in the Las Vegas area. And one 1983 news article about the Tighe murder stated that her abduction was part of “an alarming number of teenage girls and young women who have vanished mysteriously from the streets of Las Vegas in broad daylight.”
This month marks 40 years since Catherine Tighe's abduction and murder, and the case still remains unsolved.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department cold case site with info about Tighe's murder (cases listed chronologically - the Tighe case is around the middle of the page): https://www.lvmpd.com/en-us/Homicide/Pages/casesbyyear1980-1989.aspx
Las Vegas Sun article from 1996 about the case with quote from Det. Hatch: https://lasvegassun.com/news/1996/dec/28/retiring-homicide-detective-took-unique-approach-t/
Article about the Kim Bryant murder being solved and Johnny Peterson: https://abcnews.go.com/US/dna-helps-identify-suspect-16-year-girls-1979/story?id=81465838
1983 article from the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the Tighe murder: https://www.reddit.com/VegasTrueCrime/comments/116u2xl/article_covering_the_murder_of_17yearold/
- Jacques Vergès, prominent French defense attorney, communist, and militant anticolonial activist, who had been active in defending Algerian pro-independence militants in the late 1950s-early 1960s and Palestinian militants throughout the mid- to late 1960s, disappeared in 1970 without telling his wife, children, or friends what had happened to him. They thought he was dead, maybe killed by resentful French colonialists or the Mossad.
- After more than eight years underground, he resurfaced very much alive in Paris. For the rest of his life, he would openly relish this mystery around himself, never clarifying where he had spent the last near-decade of his life but hinting at participation in a cause and time spent in East Asia.
- In the more than three decades after his reemergence, he became the preeminent French lawyer for war criminals and despots the world over, from Barbie to Milošević to Samphan. He seemed to rarely actually win cases, but he often got his clients a lot of publicity.
- Theories about Vergès near-decade underground abound, from him hiding out in Paris from his wife and children to going to Democratic Kampuchea to visit the Khmer Rouge at its ugliest to living in a Palestinian militant camp to facilitating donations for the Red Army Faction or PLFP. But even more than fifty years after his disappearance, the evidence that has emerged has been limited to eyewitness accounts and Vergès's evasive, perhaps deliberately misleading hints. Where was he?
"The Lawyer [Sees] All the Wickedness"
If Arthur Schopenhauer's quote that "the doctor sees all the weakness of mankind; the lawyer all the wickedness, the theologian all the stupidity" is true, Jacques Vergès must have been a lawyer among lawyers. Most infamous for defending Butcher of Lyon Klaus Barbie
in his 1987 French trial, Vergès earned his nickname "the devil's advocate" by spending the last three decades of his life defending every high-profile terrorist, serial murderer, génocidaire, despot, and Holocaust denier who interested him, from long-deposed Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan
to serial killer Charles Sobhraj
to Butcher of the Balkans Slobodan Milošević
to Togolese dictator Gnassingbé Eyadéma
to Chadian dictator Idriss Déby
(whom you may remember for his assassination in 2021). Vergès was even consulted by the family of Saddam Hussein
as a possible lawyer for him after the American invasion in 2003, although they ultimately did not retain his services. He also took on other highly-publicized cases that may be familiar to those in this subreddit, like his defense of Omar Raddad for the murder of Ghislaine Marchal.
For all his skill at gaining notoriety, he was not known for consistent success in the courtroom: life sentences were common among his most notorious clients.
But Vergès was a sensation long before his defense of Barbie revealed his willingness to defend, with panache, the most despicable. A communist in his youth, he rose to prominence at age 31 when he defended Algerian anticolonial militant Djamila Bouhired
in 1957. In the midst of the Algerian War of Independence
Bouhired planted a bomb in an Algiers café popular with French people that killed eleven civilians. Moved by Bouhired's resolve to be unflinching and unapologetic in the face of an unsympathetic French colonial court system and her suffering after being tortured, Vergès trademarked his signature "rupture defense," where he aimed to turn Bouhired's trial into an exposé of French colonial brutality. How could the French, who murdered 6,000-30,000 Algerians in the Sétif and Guelma massacre
in 1945 and engaged in torture of pro-independence fighters like Bouhired, denounce said fighters for carrying out much smaller-scale bombings in the interest of evicting the French from Algeria?
Vergès's defense didn't immediately spare Bouhired the guillotine, since she remained imprisoned, but ultimately his appeal to global public opinion had an effect. Bouhired was lionized as a hero of the anticolonial struggle, ultimately spared execution, and released in 1962 into the arms of her infatuated lawyer, who converted to Islam, seemingly for her. Soon married with two children, the pair might have faded into being a historical footnote if not for the central mystery bisecting Vergès's life: where did he disappear to without telling anyone in the eight years between 1970 and 1978? With absolutely no warning to his wife, children, or friends, he disappeared from view for almost a decade. And for the thirty-five years after his reappearance in Paris in 1978, he guarded the story of his near-decade underground from everyone, clearly delighting in the secrecy. So I ask: where was Paul Vergès during his hidden decade? A deeper look at his life offers many clues and several theories, but few clear answers.
Life Before Disappearance
Jacques Vergès was born in Siam (modern Thailand) in 1925 to a French Reunionese father and Vietnamese mother. His father, a physician, had been a member of the French diplomatic corps but was forced out because interracial marriages were not considered permissible for consular staff. The family returned to his father's native Indian Ocean island territory, La Reunión, where he grew up.
Vergès's mother died when he was only three, but life as a biracial child in a French colony in the 1930s surely wasn't easy. He recalled how non-white colonial subjects were expected to step out of the way for their colonizers to pass them, how he saw an "incredibly fat European couple" in Madagascar being pulled around in a rickshaw by a Malagasy man and kicking him when they wanted him to stop. Years later, in Algeria, French colonists hurled abuse about his Asian eye shape. While disclaiming any personal victimhood himself, these experiences would leave Vergès with an anti-Western anticolonial streak he would cultivate in later years.
In 1942, aged seventeen, at the urging of his father, Vergès joined the Free French Forces under de Gaulle to fight the Nazis. Despite his lifelong ambivalence towards France, Vergès thought Vichy was an outrage and wanted to restore independent French rule, so he was excited to go. He recalled that his greatest fear was not death but being physically emasculated by an explosion. Thankfully for Vergès, even after deployment to England, France Italy, and Germany he came away with only a hand injury unrelated to direct combat.
After World War II, as his father founded what would become Communist Party of Réunion and his twin brother Paul was given a five-year suspended sentence for the murder of one of his father's political opponents, Vergès found common cause in Paris with other far left-wing students there. Between his student years in Paris and his time as secretary of the International Union of Students in Prague, his politics and especially his anticolonial activism exposed him to multiple future movers and shakers in the emerging Cold War: (briefly) Soviet general secretary Joseph Stalin, South African anti-apartheid leader, political prisoner, and future president Nelson Mandela, and future East German general secretary Erich Honecker in Prague; French Algerian communist Henri Alleg, future Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, and future Khmer Rouge leaders Saloth Sar (not yet living under his nom de guerre
Pol Pot) and Khieu Samphan in Paris. In the emerging Sino-Soviet split of the era, he, like his Khmer comrades, became a devotee of Maoism. To him, while he sympathized more with the Soviets than Western countries, the Soviet Union still seemed insufficiently committed to revolution in the formerly colonized world.
The way Vergès told it, he fell into law in 1955 because it was a career path he found reasonably interesting. But more than most lawyers, he related to defendants. Perhaps influenced by his brother's murder conviction or his zeal for revolutionary violence, he could see himself in his clients, from the first small-time petty criminal he defended, and could see himself easily as a defendant if something went slightly different in his life. And become an enemy of the French state he did: by the late 1950s, less than a decade into his law practice, he had left the French Communist Party due to what he said was its insufficient tolerance for anticolonial violence and heavily involved himself in the Algerian cause by taking then-19-year-old Djamila Bouhired and other FLN revolutionaries' cases. His deliberately disrespectful courtroom antics--refusing to stand for colonial judges, berating the court as illegitimate since Algeria should be free--helped to make them a cause célèbre worldwide and in France, but won him no friends in the French colonial government. The French drafted up a hit list of FLN-sympathetic lawyers, and after the torture and murder of Ali Boumendjel (recently confirmed by Emmanuel Macron as a targeted killing
), Vergès was told by a security official he was apparently next on the list and hid out for a while. Eventually, colonial authorities got his license pulled for about a year and he received a two-month jail sentence, but the writing was already on the wall: the violence of the Algerian War and the pace of torture and killings by the French authorities were unsustainable. Algeria would become independent in 1962.
Vergès had fallen in love with Bouhired throughout the ordeal of the Algerian War. His friends were skeptical it would last, but he surprised them with his seeming dedication: he converted to Islam at least partially for her, stopped drinking, and after flying with Bouhired, by then a national anticolonial heroine, to meet Mao in 1963, settled into relative obscurity as an ordinary lawyer in Algeria. He set up and ran a Maoist journal for a time and met Che Guevara in Paris.
The Immediate Lead-up
By the late 1960s, Vergès seemed bored and discontent being the lesser-known partner in his marriage to a national hero. In 1967, he showed what might (or might not; put a pin in this) have been his first divergence from ideological type in clients by agreeing to defend Moïse Tshombé
, puppet president of the "breakaway" Belgian-controlled state of Katanga during the Congo Crisis
and American and European conservative darling then under house arrest in Algeria, facing treason charges in Zaire. Tshombé died mysteriously in 1969, apparently leaving Vergès in significant debt to the Tshombé family (since the retainer they paid for Vergès was conditional upon his release).
A longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause, Vergès spent his years in Algeria trying to involve himself in the defense of Palestinian militants. In 1965, he flew to Israel to defend Mahmud Hijazi, who had been sentenced to death for entering Israel setting off a charge near the National Water Conduit. Perhaps his reputation preceded him, because his petition to serve as Hijazi's lawyer was summarily rejected and he was deported on the first flight the next morning.
In 1969, he involved himself in the El Al Flight 432 trial
. He zealously defended the attackers using the same "rupture" defense he often deployed, this time against Israel, and wrote glowingly of the attackers and their cause in the book Pour les Fidayine
"Through the Looking Glass"
In early 1970, Vergès told his wife and some friends he was going to Spain on a routine trip. (Some sources claim he actually disappeared from Paris after an anticolonial protest. These aren't necessarily in contradiction.) He vanished and did not resurface again for more than eight years. His history of being a French potential target for assassination more than a decade earlier due to his legal activism in Algeria raised questions about his whereabouts: could some bitter French Algerians have gotten to him at last? Given his association with the PFLP, could Israel have targeted him for assassination? His wife and children, clueless as to his whereabouts, apparently sincerely believed he was dead.
For his part, Vergès was always smugly tight-lipped about his lost decade. "I am a discreet man," he said when asked about his time underground five years after his reappearance. "I stepped through the looking glass, where I served an apprenticeship."
He reveled in the secrecy and seaminess of those years. According to GQ
"I love snakes," Vergès once said. “They live a secret life; they are solitary; they thrive in darkness. I am that snake. No matter how many showers I take, I can’t wash from my reptilian brain the smell of death, the undergrowth and,” he added, “of life.”
It was hardly unprecedented for far-left activists to go underground in the early 1970s. But many, like members of the Weather Underground, have talked about their years underground in the decades since. Vergès is unusual in his stubborn and proud silence. What could he have been doing in those years that he didn't want to talk about?
Theories of a Life Underground
Was he in Democratic Kampuchea as a guest of the Khmer Rouge?
According to the 2007 documentary Terror's Advocate
, 77% of people who knew Vergès thought he was in Democratic Kampuchea during the Cambodian Genocide
(I must say, that is a pretty bizarre survey and stat). I believe this may be how I first heard about Vergès, from the book When the War Was Over
, a historical account of the reign of terror the Khmer Rouge inflicted on the country, which led to almost one quarter of Cambodia's 1975 population being dead by 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown thanks to Vietnamese intervention.
I could see why this is a favored theory. Vergès was a Cambodian Genocide denier, claiming all
deaths in Cambodia in the era could be attributed to American bombing (plenty could, but the Khmer Rouge can squarely be blamed for 1.5-2 million deaths). He had been friends with Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan. He defended Khieu Samphan at his last trial, where he was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide. And it's just an interesting theory because from Day 1 of "Year Zero," Democratic Kampuchea was incredibly
cut off from the outside world. The idea that Vergès was in Phnom Penh relaxing while the rest of the Cambodian population was being forced onto collective farms and/or murdered would be sensational and chilling.
There are real reasons to doubt it though. As I mentioned, Democratic Kampuchea was extremely isolated even from the communist world, largely by choice, from April 17, 1975. It would have been a huge pain to get in and not enjoyable to be in Phnom Penh when there. For all his Maoist trappings, Vergès clearly loved his luxuries: Cuban cigars, pretty apartments, luxe offices. I doubt he would have embraced the peasant life easily. High-ranking Khmer Rouge enjoyed more luxuries than the pure agrarian drudgery of anyone else in the country at the time, but even they lived pretty modestly.
Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two under only Pol Pot, spent almost all the years of the Cambodian Genocide with Pol Pot constantly, and he denies Vergès was there. An architect of a genocide is hardly a reliable source, so of course I don't think he is extremely credible, but on the other hand I'm not sure what purpose Vergès would have served for the Khmer Rouge anyway. A go-between between Democratic Kampuchea and China? Seems unlikely. Personally, I think Vergès in Democratic Kampuchea isn't extremely likely.
Was he hiding in Paris the entire time for non-political reasons?
Multiple acquaintances of Vergès claim to have seen him in Paris in those years, and he would occasionally crash on a couch, so he was in Paris sporadically. But was he there the whole time just laying low? Some friends claim he was hiding out and living a nomadic life for non-political reasons, likely that he was bored and unhappy with his marriage but too cowardly to confront his wife about wanting to end it or was hiding from debtors.
I do believe his disenchantment with his marriage and need for attention certainly contributed to his completely cruel move of disappearing with no notice. Some sources claim that Vergès and Bouhired ended things amicably, but the fact that she sincerely believed he was dead, wouldn't participate in Terror's Advocate
in 2007, and his friends say he told them he didn't ever contact her again after vanishing and reappearing says a lot. I think his love life was less separated from his revolutionary life than he makes it sound in the below quote:
“I’m a bit like Don Juan,” Verges has said. “I love revolutions like he loved women. I like to go from one to the other, and I like them when they are young. When they get older, I lose interest.”
But I still don't think he spent almost a decade on the lam from his wife in Paris. The fact he openly says he saw Mohamed Boudia in Paris before he was killed by a car bomb care of Israel's Operation Wrath of God in 1973 is telling: their meeting likely was not the chance street meeting he claims.
Was he in a PFLP camp?
This is entirely plausible. Vergès seemed to be getting drawn increasingly into the fedayeen cause in the late 1960s. Multiple sources also seem to have seen Vergès in various places in the Levant at the time, and he was apparently being talked about then by Arafat, Wadie Haddad, and others.
Exactly what he would have been doing for the PFLP is more unclear. 1970 was a year of escalation for Palestinian militancy and terror: the Black September Organization was formed in September of that year, and then the Munich Olympic attacks were in 1971. Vergès seems likely to be a funding go-between (maybe between ardent Swiss Nazi and Arab terror funder François Genoud and the PFLP) or some other logistics planner. As I stated above, his reference to seeing Boudia in Paris supposedly by coincidence on the street not long before his 1973 death could be telling (or not).
Was he hiding out because he murdered Moïse Tshombé?
Tshombé was only 50 when he died of an alleged heart attack in his bed. While Algeria had eleven total physicians look at him postmortem, his family was not satisfied that a doctor of their choosing had not performed the autopsy. Daniel Monguya Mbenge, a Zairan political refugee in Belgium and former Katangan governor, claimed in the late 1970s Vergès was paid by Zairan dictator Mobutu Sese Seko to poison Tshombé.
Mobutu was absolutely instrumental in the CIA assassination of Patrice Lumumba, so you'd think bona fide America hater Vergès would not be a fan. But Mobutu spent the remainder of the Cold War after his coup playing the First and Second Worlds off each other, and he could act avidly anticolonial.
As well, Tshombé was exactly the kind of person Vergès was likely to personally despise: a former colonial subject of perhaps the
single most brutal colonial regime anywhere, the Belgian Congo, who was close to colonial forces and chose to support those colonial forces in their blatant attempt to retain access to Congolese resources during the Congo Crisis. He was exactly
the kind of Black African leader American and Belgian right-wingers agreed was "a good one" because he was so amenable to their interests. Vergès would hate him for that.
Plus, I don't consider such a mission above Vergès, whose moral compass appeared to relax further and further as time went on. I don't think he would be unwilling to poison.
The reason I'm skeptical is because monetarily, having to repay Tshombé's family took Vergès decades (until the 90s). I suppose Mobutu could have paid better but why draw up a contract with terms that allow the family to recoup their money conditionally at all if assassination was the intent? And why would he have to hide out eight years instead of fleeing to France or elsewhere?
Was he a Stasi or KGB agent activated alongside the Red Army Faction?
Also entirely possible IMO. Vergès identified as a Maoist but the timing fits very
cleanly with the first generation of Red Army Faction activity. He went missing not long before the Baader-Meinhof Gang became active and reappeared a couple months after Baader, Raspe, and Ensslin died by suicide and Möller just barely survived her attempt in prison. The years he spent in Parisian anticolonial communist student groups in the late 1940s and early 1950s would have been an incredibly fertile environment for recruitment to Eastern Bloc spy agencies.
He defended confirmed Stasi agent Klaus Croissant, among others. He was a frequent messenger between various second-generation RZ and RAF elements. Put this together with his onetime friend Erich Honecker leading East Germany, and I could see him being a spy for the Stasi. Maybe he could also be a go-between for money here as well, similar to what I would imagine him doing for the PFLP. Sadly, HVA (responsible for foreign intelligence and missions) records were assiduously destroyed in the final days of East Germany, so we may never know officially.
Was he delivering Chinese money to some guerilla group through Europe?
Vergès suggested he was repeatedly going to East Asia during this time. Not Southeast Asia. An acquaintance reported seeing him in Paris once in this time period with a suitcase full of bills. Could China have used him as a conduit for something? Maybe, although the PRC wasn't exactly rolling in the dough in the late years of the Cultural Revolution. Not sure what it could/would have been.
Just as abruptly as he had disappeared, and apparently without any contact with his family in Algeria, Vergès reappeared in either late 1978 or 1979 in Paris. Whatever compunction he had ever had about taking on the most heinous defendants had vanished by his reappearance. His friends said he was less interested in politics and more cynical. He was seeking the most publicity possible, and he also seemed attracted to violence itself. "One of my principles is to have no principles. That's why I would not turn down anyone," he told Der Spiegel
In 1987, he shocked people who had admired his WWII service with the Free French Forces when he launched a full-throated defense of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. (As an aside, Barbie's extradition to France from Bolivia also ended up a shameful chapter for the US, who as it turned out had helped Barbie escape in the first place so he could advise the Bolivian military dictatorship on optimal torture techniques.) At trial, he focused on French and "imperialist" war crimes worldwide, arguing that Barbie's actions were no worse than those. He went out of his way to act deferential and almost reverential towards Barbie, calling him things like "my captain." At least one of Vergès's attempts to ensure Barbie's comfort, his request that Barbie be allowed to return to his cell (which was granted), actually likely played out in the prosecution's favor. Victims who might have been rendered terrified and tongue-tied by the menace of Barbie did not have to face him directly.
Vergès's legal record grew to include the worst of the worst violent criminals. He seemed to relish his closeness to that violence. But he appeared to retain a special soft spot for left-wing violent revolutionary women. When he defended Revolutionary Cells terrorist and future wife of Carlos the Jackal Magdalena Kopp, they shared a kind of mutual infatuation they said was platonic. Kopp knitted Vergès a sweater in prison, which she didn't do for Carlos; Vergès bought Kopp jewelry she wore multiple decades later.
Vergès defended Carlos the Jackal for a time, but their longstanding friendship ended badly. When Stasi surveillance files were released in the early 1990s (not the HVA files mentioned earlier; everyone was surveilled while in East Germany, including those considered friends, and Carlos in particular was not particularly well-regarded despite his association with Warsaw Pact states), Vergès was unexpectedly directly implicated in planning a terror attack on a train orchestrated by Carlos in the early 1980s in order to free Kopp from prison. American and French authorities apparently began sniffing around Vergès's associates at the time. Carlos, an incredibly unreliable source, alleges antiestablishment Vergès did the surprising and turned snitch on him to avoid prison for his involvement in the train attack.
He lived until age 88 and died in 2013 without (as far as the public knows, at least) the deathbed confession about the lost years he claimed he might make.
Vergès was a fascinating figure. His life was a bit like a far more sinister Forrest Gump's in the way it intersected even in his youth with multiple future world leaders. But the true love of his life seems to have been proximity to violence. At first, like many young communists of the era, he romanticized violence because he saw it as a force for good: wars defeated the Nazis, after all, and ultimately liberated a large portion of Africa and Asia from colonial oppression. His smittenness with Bouhired and Kopp, two women who he perceived as committing acts of just violence, can likely largely be attributed to that.
But ultimately, I believe, for him, violence surpassed ideology as an attraction. He didn't necessarily agree with the violent criminals he defended ideologically, although I do believe his tendency towards defending Holocaust deniers and antisemites stemmed from his own ingrained sense of antisemitism (from what I can tell he tended towards Holocaust denialism-adjacent views), but he was primarily drawn to their dangerousness and the infamy he could gain by full-throatedly defending them, even when it meant downplaying or denying genocide. Their likely ability to pay him generously via funders like Genoud was a large additional incentive to continue defending them. He enjoyed being considered a villain.
I strongly believe Vergès spent his decade underground as a go-between between terrorists like Carlos the Jackal, Black September, and the Red Army Faction, their funders throughout the world, and the French government. (That he was a go-between between Carlos and the French government is not in dispute, but I also think he was a bag man for these groups and funders like Genoud and Eastern Bloc states as well.) His disappearance right as the Stasi and KGB-funded terrorists like the RAF significantly increased activity in Western Europe and reappearance merely a couple months after the original Baader-Meinhof leadership died in their infamous suicide pact is likely no coincidence. His loyalties were to the terrorists until, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stasi files definitively proved he himself was implicated in plotting Carlos the Jackal's terror attacks. When his own freedom became at stake in the early 1990s, perhaps he did what he needed to do to save himself, including snitching on Carlos, which could explain why he was ultimately never arrested for crimes in France. I believe the rumor about Democratic Kampuchea was probably a misdirection Vergès welcomed and maybe encouraged. The claim he poisoned Tshombé cannot be dismissed offhand, because there was nothing in Vergès's character that would likely prevent him from becoming a poisoner, but I'm even more skeptical of it.
What do you think? Do you buy any of the above hypotheses for why he disappeared, or are there other, more logical explanations? This is the first of what I hope can be a Minor Cold War Mysteries series. I have several more ideas of small Cold War-adjacent mysteries that I've come across over the years, most involving espionage and none previously discussed here.
Sources (not alphabetizing; sorry!):