A 1986 Double Murder Cold Case in the Mojave Desert Is Finally Unraveling
On the afternoon before they disappeared in 1986, Barry and Louise Berman followed a bone-jarring road deep into the California desert. They were bound for the hot springs in Saline Valley, 50 miles from the nearest pavement and long a popular Mojave Desert draw for nudists and eccentrics.
Desert campers who hung out with the couple the day they vanished had no clue that Barry was heir apparent to a vast fortune. His father, liquor importer Jules Berman, became known as “Mr. Kahlua” after turning the Mexican coffee-flavored drink into America’s top-selling liqueur. In 1960, when Barry was 10, his father segued into real estate by buying private Lake Arrowhead, a vast mountain hideaway for Southern California gentry such as the O'Malleys and Dohenys.
The elder Berman owned a Beverly Hills estate north of Sunset Boulevard, sailed a yacht christened Kahlua and drove a Rolls-Royce. His friend Pat Brown, governor of California, appointed him to the state athletic commission. But Barry was "repulsed by his dad's money and wanted to go the other way," recalls Brent Lieberman, a teenage buddy, now a surf photographer in Santa Barbara.
Nearly three years after Barry and Louise Berman vanished, setting off one of the most elaborate searches of its era, the couple's bleached bones and bits of clothing were discovered after a desert hiker spotted a skull, uncovered by heavy rains. Police found the murdered couple's grave nearby — they were buried atop one another.
Retired Inyo County Sheriff's deputy Leon Boyer, who has lived with the baffling case for three decades, today says, "You can't commit a homicide and get away with it."
But for the longest time, the killer has gotten away with it. Now, spurred by L.A. Weekly's three-month investigation into the double murders, and 17 years after family patriarch Jules Berman died, Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze has reactivated the troubling cold case.
Lead investigator Dan Williams says they have a "super strong person of interest," after the Weekly linked the unsolved desert murders to a modern atrocity: sexual predator Michael Joseph Pepe and his sentencing in Los Angeles in 2014 for vicious crimes against children in Southeast Asia.
Louise and Barry Berman at the ashram in India known as the Dera
The Weekly has learned what three law enforcement agencies have kept to themselves for years: that the former Marine officer, now serving 210 years in federal prison, is "Mike the Marine," a desert camper who was extensively questioned in the 1980s and viewed by local police as the prime suspect after Barry and Louise Berman were killed.
Old police interviews obtained by the Weekly show that the last day they were seen alive, Barry and Louise hung out with Pepe and a laid-back bunch of other strangers at Saline Valley's natural hot springs. The next day nobody saw the Bermans, who were assumed to be exploring. The man known as Mike the Marine also went off and, upon his return to the springs later that day, gave one female camper the creeps by asking if she was interested in threesomes.
Former sheriff's deputy Boyer says, "Pepe has skated and skated and skated. I'm not going to rest until we have this guy." According to Williams: "Solving it is possible."
Although the elder Berman threw himself and his money into solving the disappearance of his son and daughter-in-law, the father and son had deep issues between them. While Barry Berman gravitated in the 1960s and '70s toward the counterculture, his dad was making enemies with the Sierra Club — by destroying forestland to build a golf course. His father sparked more outrage when he bought much of Runyon Canyon — and razed its historic San Patrizio mansion in order to avoid paying taxes. And Barry probably winced when his dad, as a California athletic commissioner, voted to deny a boxing license to Muhammad Ali, who had refused the draft.
Barry spent time in India at a sprawling ashram known as the Dera, home to the spiritual society Radha Soami Satsang Beas, attending a daily satsang, or "truth group," led by a guru master. Back in California, he formally joined Radha Soami, pledging to follow "the Path" of a vegetarian diet, moral behavior, daily meditation and abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
Then in the early 1970s, Barry moved to Santa Barbara County, where his father owned the historic and breathtaking El Capitan Ranch, a 3,638-acre property overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His dad, naturally, was going to develop it. But political activist Selma Rubin, later dubbed the "Mother of Earth Day," forced Berman's plan onto the ballot. Santa Barbara area voters defeated it by a wide margin.
Barry, who had chosen ironworking as his craft, settled into one of three weathered cottages on the El Capitan land overlooking the ocean. Friends of his lived in the other cottages, including jewelry maker Arthur Korb and healer Mary Sullivan, all disciples of the same guru master. Sullivan even gave birth to her daughter in one of the cottages as Barry's looked on.
Barry and Louise came together in Santa Barbara in the 1980s through the same guru master. She was working as a secretary and living with her teenage daughter, Laura, in Goleta. She had joined Radha Soami, and at a satsang meeting she mentioned she needed a place to live.
Barry took note of the beautiful woman who had a way with men. Although they began as roommates in Barry's seaside cottage, Korb recalls how one day he "saw Louise playfully grab Barry's balls" and realized that the two had become intimate.
"The relationship was sweet — they were good partners," says Sullivan, then an El Capitan dweller and now an acupuncturist in North Fork, California.
Today, the cliffside cottages are owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but long ago the land was home to Chumash Indians. Korb says that sometimes, after a heavy rain, ancient artifacts on the land are exposed — including human remains.
It was a terrible irony when flash floods in a distant desert uncovered the remains of his friends.
Louise Berman turned 52 five days before she and her husband set out for the desert on Jan. 3, 1986. Strikingly pretty, with gray-streaked blond hair and blue eyes, she sometimes was mistaken for Barry's mother due to their 17-year age difference. Like Barry, she was a rebel.
"My mom didn't have a conventional mind," says Michael Westerman, a government purchasing manager in Vancouver, Washington. Westerman, Louise's son from her first of four marriages, still chokes up remembering her.
Louise joined the counterculture in the 1960s, living in Box Canyon in Chatsworth, then a hotbed of hippie life, where she experimented with LSD. Her ex-husband, former L.A. firefighter Wes Westerman, now retired in the San Juan Islands, remains bitter about her radical awakening, complaining, "She met people who brought in drugs. ... There were people coming and going at all hours of the night."
Years later, after Louise found her soul mate in Barry, a fellow spiritual seeker, the couple received a generous wedding gift: In May 1981, Jules Berman bought property for Barry high above the ocean on exclusive Refugio Road near Santa Barbara.
Not just any property — it was adjacent to President Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo. Korb says the property was so remote that when he brought Mike Love of The Beach Boys to visit the couple, Love's vintage Rolls-Royce, leaking oil and straining up their corkscrew road, caught fire.
Life was good, with Barry focusing on his ironworking business, Valley Forgeworks, and hosting satsang meetings with Louise. But their happiness was soon shattered.
In January 1983, as an Alaskan storm pounded California, Louise's daughter, Laura, 19 and pretty like her mother, decided to drive her VW fastback up the mountain to see her mom. But the brook that sometimes trickled across Refugio Road had become a raging torrent, and Laura and her VW were swept downstream and slammed into a bridge. A front-page photo in the Jan. 24, 1983, Santa Barbara News-Press showed Laura's car marooned with its roof torn open.
Laura Westerman's body was never found.
Louise's faith in Radha Soami helped sustain her. "Barry and Louise had strong spiritual grounding — 'what has to be has to be,'" recalls Ray Castellino, a Santa Barbara natural health care practitioner.
But by 1985, their May-December marriage had hit rough waters. Barry, who owned a sailboat and sometimes navigated the Pacific coastline, talked about sailing alone to New Zealand. Louise "was concerned that they were falling apart," recalls her son Michael Westerman.
Eventually, they worked things out. Their excursion to Saline Valley was meant as a make-up trip: They'd visit Death Valley and tour Scotty's Castle to see its exquisite ironwork. Then, using Korb's directions to a natural hot springs, they'd see Saline Valley in the Mojave. At his home in Carpinteria, Korb recalls telling Barry, "Man, you've got to check this out."
The stark desert site where the Bermans' remains were found
Photo by Doug Kari
On Jan. 5, 1986, Barry and Louise drove through the tiny outpost of Panamint Springs, and about 20 miles later left the pavement for a 50-mile dirt road trek into Saline Valley. With rippling, wind-formed sand dunes, the valley boasts some of California's most magnificent scenery. Mountain ranges rise abruptly from open desert and on one of the lower slopes, an enormous peace sign, crafted from volcanic rocks, has been left by desert visitors.
According to Bruce Albert, a Bureau of Land Management ranger who drove through that day, about 50 travelers were camping at Lower Warm Springs, whose waters fed an oasis of palm trees and hot tubs. Trailers housed permanent residents, including "Chili Bob," the campground host, and "Major Tom" Ganner, now a glacier guide and photographer in Alaska.
Saline Valley was peaceful — Chili Bob had a two-way radio but mainly used it for medical emergencies. Alcohol flowed, and people often wandered around bare-ass naked. When Ganner came to the aid of his future wife, who got a flat tire at the hot springs, he joked he was her "knight in naked armor."
Above Lower Springs, about a dozen campers orbited the less-developed Palm Spring oasis. Camper Brian Casey tells the Weekly that a small pickup pulled up that evening, its headlights shining into the hot tub, and soon Barry and Louise, conspicuous because they wore swimsuits, climbed in. "I checked her out, of course," he says.
Also in the tub were Casey's friend Greg Snyder and a military man, "Mike the Marine." "The Bermans talked about wanting to visit Indian ruins," Snyder says.
The next day, Jan. 6, Casey, Snyder and their buddy Mark Muscio drank coffee spiked with Kahlua and rode off on Yamaha dirt bikes, following a ragged set of tracks called the Eureka-Saline Corridor, which leads to Eureka Valley and some of North America's tallest sand dunes.
No one saw Barry and Louise that day. But Casey, now a mechanic living in Browns Valley, California, tells the Weekly that he saw Mike the Marine unloading gear from his pickup, apparently preparing for a day trip.
Around midday, a man and a woman, who've asked not to be identified, rolled into camp. Recently, in the doorway of her desert trailer home, the woman told the Weekly that she saw Mike the Marine return down the Corridor in his pickup that afternoon. Dust-covered and sweaty, she recalls, "He was super nervous. He said he'd quit smoking, [but] he wanted to trade some canned goods for a pack of cigarettes."
After the trio of dirt bikers returned, talk turned to the couple from Santa Barbara — had anyone seen them that day? The riders hadn't. According to Inyo County Sheriff's records obtained by the Weekly, Mike the Marine said that he might've spotted the couple hiking the Corridor with backpacks — a comment now considered a key admission by investigators. The unnamed woman repeated to the Weekly what she told long-ago investigators: Mike the Marine "told us he'd been in a threesome. That was not something we were interested in. It made me upset. I wanted to get that guy out of there. I had a bad feeling about him."
When the various visitors broke camp, no one immediately thought to tell the authorities that the Bermans were still out there — a serious oversight. But as retired deputy Boyer recently said, it's "not that unusual for people to take off into the desert and never come back."
Retired deputy Leon Boyer says that Chili Bob finally radioed in on Jan. 10, five days after the Bermans were last seen in camp, to report an abandoned Datsun truck at the Palm Spring campground. Another three days passed before a deputy ran the license plate on the Datsun truck.
At that point, the shit hit the fan.
Michael Joseph Pepe handcuffed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
AP Photo/Heng Sinith
The two campers, the sheriff's office realized, weren't your average missing visitors — they were neighbors of President Reagan and had disappeared into an unforgiving desert of mazelike canyons.
Yet it wasn't until eight days after their disappearance that a search-and-rescue team headed by Sgt. Dan Lucas from the Inyo County Sheriff's Office began scouring the area. Then more teams descended, not to mention helicopters from the Navy, Army and California Highway Patrol. Though nobody acknowledges it, the massive government response clearly was prompted by Jules Berman's political and business connections.
BLM ranger Albert, now retired, calls it "the largest search effort in Inyo County history."
Lucas, who rose to Inyo County sheriff before retiring in Arkansas, today says: "I kept calling in more and more people. We worked and worked and worked."
Lucas' team jimmied open the Datsun and found two cameras with undeveloped film inside. The photos provided a clue: Barry and Louise were wearing Nike sneakers. After trackers found promising shoe prints, the National Guard took the unusual step of sending in a massive CH-47 helicopter.
They searched a maze of narrow canyons and dry waterfalls but found nothing. Lucas recently told the Weekly, "Foul play was in the back of my mind." The sergeant even ordered his team to roll the couple's Datsun pickup into the belly of the CH-47 so it could be flown to the high-desert town of Bishop for examination.
Jules Berman also sprang into action, arranging his own plane to bring in a group of family and friends, then returned to Saline Valley in a Winnebago to join a private search party. He and his wife, Ruth, were so desperate that they enlisted psychic Char Margolis, known for her appearances on Regis Philbin's TV show AM Los Angeles.
"I could feel the energy of their spirits," Margolis tells the Weekly now. "They wanted to be found." At her urging, the sheriff's office redoubled its search around the peace sign and the Corridor.
When police were done inspecting the Datsun pickup truck, Pauline Colbert, a friend who had dinner with the Bermans before they left Santa Barbara, drove their truck to their house on Refugio Road — and saw their Christmas presents still under the tree. "It was surreal," she recalls. "A nightmare beyond a nightmare."
As hope of finding the couple alive faded, Jules Berman formed a dark theory about their fate. He'd spent years building the nationally known Kahlua Collection — an awe-inspiring number of pre-Columbian burial effigies — by cutting deals with relic hunters. He told the Santa Barbara News-Press that he feared Barry and Louise had been abducted while hunting artifacts.
"From the lack of any kind of clues, I think they were taken out of the area and probably killed somewhere else," he said. "I have a shotgun ready for the day I find out whoever may have done this."
Six weeks after Barry and Louise disappeared, Inyo County investigators landed their first solid lead: Two pairs of Nikes were found tucked under a bush by the dirt road below Palm Spring. Deputy Boyer tells the Weekly that "thinking like a deviant" led him to conclude that a perpetrator had hobbled the Bermans in the desert by removing their shoes.
Boyer, who pegged Mike the Marine as a likely suspect, drew a composite sketch of him and set out to find him. He "came alone, hung around, ogled at girls with no clothes on and had a sexual motivation."
At the time, the BLM was undertaking a controversial land-use study, and Boyer noticed a petition posted by activists at Lower Springs for visitors to sign. He looked for signers named "Mike" — and found one who'd written down his address at a Marine Corps base. It turned out to be Michael Joseph Pepe.
The Marine captain seemed an unlikely suspect. His father, Joseph, was a career Navy man, his mother, Dorothy, a registered nurse. He played football at Hueneme High School, although according to former teammate Dan Marple he was "not very popular." By the time the Bermans disappeared, Pepe was on his second marriage and was aide-de-camp to a general at a Marine Corps logistics base in Barstow.
On Nov. 20, 1986, nearly a year after the couple vanished, Inyo County Sheriff's investigators Randy Nixon and Marston Mottweiler asked Pepe for a meeting. The Weekly obtained a copy of the transcript of that meeting, which reveals that the Marine captain's life wasn't so square-edged after all. He'd been having an affair, his marriage was in trouble and, he'd said, the "stress was building and building."
Pepe admitted that he had visited Saline Valley around New Year's but claimed not to remember where he camped. When asked if he met any couples there, he answered, "There's couples up there all the time." Shown pictures of the Bermans, he responded, "The guy looks somewhat familiar." Asked if he talked to them in the hot tub, he said, "I don't know."
Yet Pepe revealed the fact that Barry was an experienced boater and navigator.
"Mike: Well, they told me they had a boat, and they told me they were into astrology.
"Mott[weiler]: What kind of astrology?
"Inv[estigator Nixon]: Astronomy.
"Mike: Astronomy, he's a navigator."
The two investigators pressed him, and Pepe eventually said, "Oh hell, I might have gone to the peace [sign] that day." Pepe said he didn't remember if he was on foot or in his truck, saying, "I think I went off um checking up whatever area it was."
Deputy Leon Boyer’s sketch of “Mike the Marine”
Photo by Doug Kari
Asked if he'd brought up the idea of a threesome at the camp, he responded, "I do recall conversations like that coming up."
An investigator said, "Perhaps ... you had put feelers out towards the Bermans to see if they would be willing to participate in such an activity?" The Marine responded, "I don't think that's true."
Investigator Mottweiler, now retired, says, "Pepe was evasive and ambiguous. ... We were pretty sure he's the guy." But they had no bodies yet, and no evidence.
The next year, on July 19, 1987, a sheriff's spokesman told the News-Press, "We believe the Bermans were the victims of foul play [but] we have absolutely no motive, and don't, in fact, have any evidence of a crime."
It took an act of God to change that.
The late summer of 1988 brought flash flooding to Saline Valley. On Nov. 12, 1988, a hiker stumbled upon a human skull. He marked the spot with a cairn and carried the skull to camp.
Tom Ganner, the new campground host, called the sheriff on his two-way radio. Sgt. Lucas found the skull jauntily arranged atop a picnic table with flowers in its eye sockets and a patch of moss for a hairpiece. "I quickly took care of that," he says.
Lucas, Mottweiler, Ganner and the hiker drove up the Corridor for miles, beyond where most of the searching took place in 1986. The hiker led the way up a dry wash, and Ganner soon found the second skull.
Then, in a narrow side channel of the wash, which easily could have been overlooked, the men discovered a grave-sized pile of rocks.
The next day a forensics team unearthed human remains, the underwire from a bra and the waistband from a pair of underwear. There was no sign of Louise's wedding ring or Barry's silver belt buckle, unique pieces that Korb, the jewelry maker at El Capitan, had handcrafted. And the forensics team found an item of spine-chilling significance: a handcuff key.
Dental records confirmed the remains were Barry and Louise. "Barry was our only child," the grieving Jules said in a Nov. 16, 1988, Los Angeles Times article. "It just leaves our lives completely empty."
Despite finding the remains, the Inyo County Sheriff's Office, hampered by lack of funds, shelved the investigation — a decision the couple's friend Pauline Colbert calls "a monumental fuck-up." Retired deputy Boyer says, "I was bummed out."
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which can investigate crimes involving Marine Corps personnel, began working on the case, and lead NCIS investigator Cheryl Craycraft dogged Michael Pepe. But she, too, developed no solid evidence.
Two decades had passed when, in 2006, the retired Marine was arrested and accused of being a vicious child rapist in Cambodia. The charges drew global attention for the shocking crimes against little girls at his home in Phnom Penh. He eventually was turned over to U.S. agents and flown to Los Angeles to stand trial — committing a sex crime against a minor anywhere in the world is a federal offense.
The NCIS, the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office and Inyo County Sheriff's Office all knew and shared with one another the fact that Pepe had been the key suspect in an old double murder, but they never went public with it. Craycraft even flew to Cambodia when Pepe was arrested, but sources tell the Weekly he refused to talk to her about Saline Valley. A federal prosecutor told the Weekly that the double murder didn't happen in her jurisdiction, so it wasn't up to her to act on it.
In the end, the media covering Pepe's sex-predator trial and conviction in California never linked the cold case sitting in files in Inyo County. Craycraft retired from the NCIS, and Inyo County officials didn't pick up the case — until the Weekly began connecting the dots and discovered that circumstantial evidence clearly points in Pepe's direction.
Michael Westerman, Louise Berman's son
Photo by Doug Kari
Barry and Louise's remains were found seven rugged miles above the Palm Spring campground — it's unlikely they hiked in, given that Louise had a sore ankle. The only vehicles seen in the Corridor on Jan. 6, 1986, were three dirt bikes and Pepe's pickup. The dirt bike riders cooperated with authorities and provided the Weekly with photos date-stamped "Jan 1986" showing they rode the Corridor to Eureka Valley and back on Yamaha bikes that didn't have foot pegs to carry passengers.
Pepe, who told investigators that when alone in the desert he carried a gun, did not respond to multiple letters seeking comment sent by the Weekly.
Spurred by the Weekly's probe, investigator Dan Williams of the Inyo County Sheriff's Office has opened a formal homicide investigation into the Berman case.
They're looking for a way to bring charges. Williams recently drove to the federal prison in Tucson, Arizona, and met with Pepe. "It was a very short interview," Williams says. "He was very smug."
Some of Barry and Louise's fellow spiritualists believe that, in the truest sense, they are still alive. Healer-acupuncturist Mary Sullivan says, "We have a living master, his job is to take you back home — it doesn't matter how you die."
Jules Berman, who died in 1998, didn't enjoy such peace. Three years before he died, Berman told UCLA's oral history program that, because of the brutal killings of his son and daughter-in-law, "My philosophy is, if there's a God, he's not for me; he's for someone else."
Michael Westerman says his mom and Barry "were two souls headed in the same direction." That direction led them to the vanishing point.
Note: An earlier version of this story said Mary Sullivan gave birth in Barry Berman's cottage. The birth took place in a nearby cottage.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.