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The Forest of Disappearing Children

A look at one of the San Gabriel Mountains' more macabre tales.

The San Gabriel Mountains are steeped in natural beauty, but within the area's scenic pine forests, towering granite peaks and rich mining history lies a darker past, often filled with mystery and death.

Growing up in the Los Angeles area, I heard many macabre tales about L.A.’s forest, involving dumped bodies, ill-fated hikers and disappearances.  Usually the tales were told during youthful jaunts with friends in search of haunted places, such as the sites of some old car wreck or some long forgotten ruins.  While most of the tales were pure fiction, told over a campfire or inside a dimly lit Volkswagen van to incite reactions from friends, some were based on actual events.

One tale I will explore this week was the story of “The Forest of Disappearing Children,” this urban legend/Internet myth centered on the unexplained disappearances of four children between the years of 1956 to 1960 and ended with an eerie warning to all those who enter the park with their young ones. 

This creepy campfire tale was, I believe, sparked by a book entitled Mysterious California: Strange Places and Eerie Phenomena in the Golden State by Mike Miranacci, published in 1988, which discussed the very real disappearances of children from the area in a chapter appropriately entitled “The Forest of Disappearing Children.”

The vanishings discussed in the book began in August of 1956, when Donnie Baker and Brenda Howell--two young girls from Azusa, aged 13 and 11--rode their bikes into the forest and disappeared, according to a 1961 article in the Washington based Tri-City Herald. Crews of mountaineers, volunteers and law enforcement personnel at the time searched the area, but found no signs of foul play or any physical evidence indicating where the two girls were, according to a 1956 article in  the Los Angeles Times.

Altadena Boy

A year later, in July of 1957, an 8-year-old boy, Thomas Bowman, was visiting family in Altadena and went hiking into the area with his father, Eldon Bowman. Little Tommy was hiking near the Arroyo Seco trail when he went ahead of the group and was never seen again. According to a 1957 article in the L.A. Times, his family scoured the rugged canyons and ridge tops in search of Tommy but found no trace of the boy.

Three years later, in 1960, an 8-year-old Granada Hills boy,  Bruce Kremen, went on a hike with his YMCA group and was last seen by some companions a half mile from Buckhorn Flats.  An extensive 11-day search by volunteers and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputies yielded no results.

The mystery of what happened to Bruce and Tommy wasn’t solved until more than 50 years later, when Pasadena author Weston DeWalt stumbled across the case of Tommy’s disappearance while researching a hiking trail in the Arroyo Seco.

The author became fascinated with the case and began his extensive research to solve the mystery. Based on DeWalt’s research, which included interviews with Tommy Bowman’s father, police reopened their search for answers.

It was 1970, when Mack Ray Edwards confessed to the murders of six children, two of which included the young girls from Azusa, Baker and Howell. The other four children the Caltrans employee confessed to killing where Stella Darlene Nolan, 8; Gary Rochet, 16; Donald Allen Todd, 13; and Roger Madison, 16.

But Edwards was not charged for the murders of Madison or the two Azusa girls because their bodies were never found by authorities. According to the L.A. Times, the 51-year-old killer told police he had molested and murdered the six children over the span of 20 years throughout Los Angeles County.

Resembled Police Sketch

It wasn’t until 2007, while DeWalt was searching old newspapers, that he made the connection between Edwards and Tommy’s disappearance. Staring at a black-and-white image of Edwards in handcuffs, DeWalt "was struck by the resemblance to a sketch [he] had seen in a Pasadena Police Department file," he told the L.A. Times.

The rendering was of a man who was seen following Tommy before his family lost sight of him further down the trail.  DeWalt--whose research included interviews with Edward’s widow and family--was shown a letter from the killer to his wife:

"I was going to add one more to the first statement [to the police] … and that was the Tommy Bowman boy that disappeared in Pasadena," he wrote, reported  the L.A. Times. "But I felt I would really make a mess of that one, so I left him out of it."

Authorities have come to believe that Edwards was responsible for Kremen’s disappearance as well as that of Tommy’s and a slew of others in the Los Angeles area between the times he arrived in Los Angeles and his arrest.

The body of one of the serial killer’s victims was found underneath the Santa Ana Freeway. The heavy equipment operator allegedly buried other victims underneath the freeways he was paid to construct, including the Ventura Freeway. In 2008, authorities actually dug up a portion of freeway they believed hid more bodies but were unable to recover any more evidence.

Edwards was only convicted of three of the six murders and hung himself while on death row in 1971. Unfortunately, the parents of young Kremen went to their graves never to know what happened to their son.

Check back next week for photos and an exploratory hike into “The Forest of Dissapearing Children."

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