Click here for Christine Pelisek's related blog about the hunt for remains.
Click here for Ted Soqui's accompanying slide show.
AUTHOR WESTON DEWALT was researching the jogging trails near his home in Pasadena in the fall of 2005 when he came across a brief mention of an 8-year-old boy who disappeared along a beautiful Arroyo Seco trail more than 50 years earlier.
DeWalt was intrigued. How could little Tommy Bowman, who had been on a short hike with his father, brother, sister, uncle and two young cousins on March 23, 1957, just disappear forever?
The sandy-haired youngster had run ahead of the pack and was bent on beating them to the family car, parked less than a quarter of a mile away. But something went horribly wrong. The Redondo Beach boy vanished in the blink of an eye, and a weeklong search by frantic family, friends and police came up empty.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department helicopters buzzed over the Arroyo Seco, a stretch of verdant creek land that begins at Red Box, near Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains, and meanders through steep mountain canyons for 11 miles to South Pasadena. Bizarre theories abounded. Was Tommy dragged away by a mountain lion? Was he whisked into a car in the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory parking lot?
“People were grabbing in the dark for answers,” says DeWalt. However, two women did provide one eerie clue. The day Tommy went missing, they saw a crying boy who resembled Tommy walk out on a trail near Altadena Drive in Pasadena. They said a tall, “deeply tanned” man dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt was not far behind him.
The cops talked to known local sex offenders. Northrop Corporation, which employed Tommy’s father, put up a reward, and Northrop employees helped in the search. A few days after the boy vanished, a man demanded $2,500 in ransom money, and when the suspect picked up the money at an Eagle Rock gas station, the cops nabbed him. But the supposed kidnapping turned out to be a hoax, a vicious play for cash.
The Pasadena Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department concluded that Tommy had probably been abducted. But without further clues, the case went cold in 1960.
“I was intrigued by the story that a child could vanish seemingly without a trace, and being a father myself, I couldn’t imagine enduring that,” says DeWalt, an engaging man in his early 60s. “I made a decision that if I could find some of his relatives alive, I would write a book about what it meant to a family to wonder for 50 years.”
DeWalt produced a 1985 documentary about American POWs killed during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and he co-wrote The Climb with Russian mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev, about Boukreev’s experiences during a May 1996 attempt to scale Mount Everest that resulted in eight deaths.
Little did DeWalt know that his effort to document one family’s grief would help lead authorities to the boy’s killer — and spawn an unusual friendship between the persistent author and a tenacious LAPD cold-case detective, Vivian Flores.
Officials credit the odd couple with causing authorities to open a new investigation, focused on the disappearance of another boy believed snatched by the psychopath who murdered Tommy Bowman. The body of that second boy, Roger Madison, is believed to be buried along the 23 freeway on Caltrans land in Moorpark.
“It is not what I set out to do,” says DeWalt. “Some time in the middle of the night, it took a turn, and I have been following it ever since.”
In Moorpark on the morning of October 6, while a media throng looked on, dozens of investigators began excavating along the 23 freeway’s southbound Tierra Rejada Road off-ramp, in hopes of finding the bones of Roger Madison. An orange Caltrans front-end loader tore through the dirt as a forensic anthropologist looked on and a team of experts sifted soil.
FBI agents from the evidence-response team hovered nearby, ready to identify, collect and preserve evidence. At the ready were four corpse-sniffing dogs, who “alerted” authorities to the spot.
The dig continues all week, and the author and the cop hope they’ve found a long-secret burial site, thanks to their own ingenuity and the help of a retired Caltrans bridge engineer.
In late 2005, DeWalt tracked down and interviewed Tommy Bowman’s now-elderly father, Eldon Bowman. When DeWalt arrived at Bowman’s home in Simi Valley, the dining table was stacked with old newspaper clips, photographs and letters — an archive of Bowman’s sorrowful decades-long effort to find out what happened to his son.
With Bowman’s blessing, DeWalt petitioned the Pasadena Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to review the missing-person file on Tommy. There, among investigative notes written by detectives now long dead, the author found a sketch of the “darkly tanned” man purportedly seen following a crying boy on the Arroyo Seco trail that March day.
To DeWalt, the 51-year-old sketch resembled a black-and-white photo, circa 1970, that he had seen while researching child abductions, of a man being led into a Los Angeles courtroom in handcuffs.
“I was thinking to myself that this guy looks familiar,” DeWalt explains to L.A. Weekly. “I recalled the photo I had seen of a guy who turned himself in to the LAPD in March of 1970, after he and a juvenile accomplice botched a kidnapping of three Sylmar girls.”
That man was the then-51-year-old heavy-equipment operator Mack Ray Edwards, who admitted to LAPD Foothill Division detectives in March 1970 that he had planned to sexually assault and murder the three girls. Because he was a former neighbor of the girls, “he knew he was made” and turned himself in, says DeWalt.
Edwards, a married man with two adopted children, confessed to kidnapping and murdering six children between 1953 and 1969, including one of his own relatives. His victims were Stella Nolan, 8, who disappeared on June 20, 1953, from a flea market in Norwalk; Gary Rocha, 16, who was found shot in his Granada Hills home on November 26, 1968; Donald Todd, 13, who disappeared on May 16, 1969, after leaving his Pacoima home; Don Baker, 13, and Edwards’ own sister-in-law, Brenda Howell, 11, who disappeared on August 6, 1956, after they went bicycling together in San Gabriel Canyon; and Madison, 16, his teenage son’s classmate, who disappeared on December 14, 1968.
Edwards, a native of Arkansas, led police to Nolan’s remains a few days after he turned himself in. A freeway worker who operated large equipment and sometimes worked under contract for Caltrans, Edwards had buried the child in an embankment along the Santa Ana Freeway near Downey.
His family and neighbors were shocked. Yet the news barely made headlines. Nothing could compete with the huge story that June of 1970: Charles Manson and his followers were in custody and about to go to trial for the murders of actress Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
Edwards, with his glasses and dorky demeanor, was a heavy-equipment expert who worked as a combat engineer during World War II. In the ’50s, he became a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 12. He settled in middle-class Sylmar, kept horses and allowed neighborhood kids to ride them. He took local kids camping.
“I never talked to anyone who met Edwards and didn’t like him,” says DeWalt. “He didn’t drink. He didn’t cuss. … The father of the girls who were kidnapped in Sylmar said Edwards was a great guy.”
Edwards pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and three counts of kidnapping, and was sentenced to death. But he saved the executioners the trouble: He hanged himself with a TV cord in his Death Row cell in November of 1971.
He cheated the victims’ families in more ways than one. The bodies of children Don Baker, Brenda Howell and Roger Madison were never found, and Edwards never confessed to murdering Tommy Bowman or several other murdered children now thought to be his victims.
IN AUGUST OF 2006, DEWALT got a huge break in the case. He had the chance to have dinner with the killer’s 76-year-old widow and her family, and took along with him Bill Gleason, a consultant to the California Department of Justice. Sitting at dinner, the widow’s sister-in-law divulged a terrible secret to DeWalt and Gleason: Edwards had given his wife a confessional letter before he killed himself, essentially admitting to being Tommy’s abductor.
“I was going to add one more” name, the serial killer wrote, “and that was the Tommy Bowman boy that disappeared in Pasadena. But I felt I would really make a mess of that one so I left him out of it.”
Gleason, who had investigated the Manson murders for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said the letter also implicated an alleged crippled neighbor of Edwards’ in the killings of five of the six children Edwards is believed to have murdered. In his letter, Edwards told his wife that he’d killed just one child, but took the rap for the rest of them because he wanted to spare his crippled friend.
“He wasn’t really a bad guy, but he confessed to the murder to help the paraplegic,” Gleason tells L.A. Weekly, laughing darkly. “There was no paraplegic that anybody knew of. He also never mentioned the paraplegic at his trial.”
DeWalt then made another key link — he figured out that Edwards’ employer, Kirst Construction, kept an equipment yard less than half a mile from where Tommy Bowman was snatched at the Arroyo Seco.
By coincidence, while DeWalt was conducting his private cold-case probe, LAPD cold-case detective Vivian Flores was digging into the disappearance of 11-year-old Karen Tompkins, who vanished near her school in Torrance on August 18, 1961. Flores recalls that DOJ consultant Gleason told her about DeWalt’s private investigation, suggesting, “Maybe [Edwards] did this one.”
Flores tells the Weekly that when she met DeWalt, he “started to tell me a tale” that intrigued her. She was even more intrigued when, shortly after that meeting, DeWalt again played detective, tracking down Edwards’ old arresting officer, who recalled that while Edwards was awaiting transfer to San Quentin, he befriended a Los Angeles County jail guard.
DeWalt found the retired guard, who told him that Edwards had admitted inside the jailhouse to killing 18 kids — 12 more than he had previously confessed to murdering. But the guard told DeWalt that Edwards refused to repeat his jailhouse confession to the police at the time because the cops had said “bad things about me in court.”
DeWalt then identified a former prison mate of Edwards’. The inmate, who was 17 and in Los Angeles County Jail on a rape charge back then, told DeWalt that Edwards had confessed to killing not 12 but about 20 children.
The former inmate also told DeWalt a bizarre related story: At the time, he occupied a cell with Edwards on one side and Charles Manson on the other.
DeWalt says Manson formed a freakish relationship with the then-teenage inmate, an African-American: “Manson would facilitate between trying to be his friend [and] calling him a ‘nigger,’ and telling him that if he had a chance to get a hold of him on the outside, he would kill him.”
More bizarrely, DeWalt continues, Edwards would intercede, trying to “get Charlie to lay off. … It was a challenge dealing with Edwards because one moment he would tell [his teenage friend] about the boys he killed who were his age, and the next moment he would be attempting to stop Charlie from threatening him.”
Unfortunately, cold-case detective Flores could no longer find the “murder book” of police clues and records involving Roger Madison. But she finally found a transcript of Edwards’ confession to killing Donald Todd. In that transcript, Edwards said he stabbed Madison in an orange grove in Sylmar before burying him along the Thousand Oaks Freeway, still under construction at the time.
“The night of Roger [Madison’s] abduction, it was raining,” says Gleason. “Edwards took him up to Ventura County and got his pickup truck stuck.” Gleason believes that Edwards used a piece of heavy Caltrans equipment to pull his truck out of the muck, and then to bury Madison.
With that theory in mind, Detective Flores sought help from Caltrans, where an employee directed her to a retired bridge engineer who worked with Edwards in 1968 along the Thousand Oaks Freeway, now known as the 23 freeway. Recalls Flores, “I said, ‘This is ludicrous, but do you know where you were on December 16, 1969?’”
Amazingly, the Caltrans retiree told her, “I know exactly where I was.” He’d kept a detailed log of each work day, showing the exact locations where he worked — a trail that showed cops exactly where Mack Edwards, his co-worker that day, had also been.
Three months later, Detective Flores sent four corpse-sniffing dogs to the site where Edwards was that day. Ironically, last May, one of the dogs, a black Labrador named Buster, worked on the unsuccessful Manson body dig at Barker Ranch in Death Valley.
The dogs independently “alerted” at the same spot, and a month ago, Flores contacted Madison’s family for family DNA samples in case human remains are found. “It is a moral obligation for me to look for these kids,” she says. “After a while, these kids become your kids.”
Pasadena author DeWalt is clearly hoping that this week will bring a partial end to a dark tale he unraveled while writing the somber story of one family’s grief. He’s fairly certain more bodies are out there. But his friend, detective Flores, isn’t getting her hopes up yet about finding Roger Madison’s remains: “It’s going to kill me if we don’t find something. But you have to try, you just have to.”