The German Tourists - Disturbing deaths in U.S. national parks and deserts

Egbert Rimkus, Georg Weber, Cornelia Meyer, Max Meyer, Disappeared 23 July 1996, Bodies found (Rimkus and Cornelia Meyer) November 12, 2009, Death Valley National Park

rimkus and meyer death valley

On October 21, 1996, Death Valley National Park (DVNP) Ranger Dave Brenner was on a helicopter flying over the southern part of Death Valley, which straddles California and Nevada.  He was involved in an aerial surveillance mission looking for illegal drug manufacturing labs. 

In the late morning he spotted a car in Anvil Canyon, about 2.4 miles downstream from Willow Spring.  This was surprising to him as it was a standard passenger van and not an off road four wheel drive and in most circumstances wouldn't get far in the Canyon due to the terrain.  Also, there was no official road down Anvil Canyon any longer as of October 1994 as a result of the Desert Protection Act which meant it was designated an official wilderness area, thus prohibiting vehicle use in it. Local miners had stopped using the area to access their activities.  

When the chopper landed, Brenner checked the area and the car, which turned out to be a dust covered, green, 1996 Plymouth Voyager with California license plates.  The car was locked and it looked like it had been there for some time and was stuck, with the axles deep in the sand. The front left and two rear tyres were flat and tracks in the sand looked like it had been driven some distance with these flat tyres. 

Anvil Canyon Death Valley

Checks on the license plate with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) revealed the car was reported stolen by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on September 10, 1996.  It was owned by Dollar car rentals and had been rented to a group of four German tourists in Los Angeles on July 8, 1996 - Egbert Rimkus, 34, his son Georg Weber, 11, Egbert’s girlfriend Cornelia Meyer, 28, and her son Max Meyer, 4.  It had been due back in Los Angeles on July 26, but had never been returned to the renters.  Dollar usually waited at least 30 days before reporting one of their cars stolen to police.

Further investigations showed the German group left Frankfurt Airport and arrived in the United States at Seattle on July 8, then immediately flew to Los Angeles where they picked up their rental car.  Cornelia Meyer was recorded as the driver.  They had plane tickets on TWA to return to Germany on July 27th but they failed to board. They lived in Dresden. 

In early July the Germans explored the San Clemente area of Southern California and on July 12th, Egbert Rimkus made a call to his bank in Dresden requesting $1,500 be wired to a Bank of America branch in San Clemente, though it was wired on to a Bank of America branch in Los Angeles.

Pictures on their recovered camera suggest they travelled on to the California coast before heading to the Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas. They checked out of the hotel on July 22nd and drove on to Death Valley. At the time of their visit to the Valley, temperatures were hitting a super hot 124˚ Fahrenheit (51˚C). Their ultimate destination was Yosemite National Park in California.

Receipts at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center showed that on that day someone bought two copies of the “Death Valley National Monument Museum Text” in German.  One of these booklets was found in the abandoned car in Anvil Canyon.

Death Valley missing germans car

On October 22,  DVNP Investigator Eric Inman was flown into the area of Anvil Canyon and he started an initial search and photographed the scene.  Apart from Dave Brenner’s tracks from the previous day, no other footprints were visible around the vehicle.  Some food wrappers were found near the people carrier, as well as some faeces and toilet paper. 

Inman returned via the CHP helicopter to Badwater Road in Death Valley where he met with Detective Jim Jones and Corporal Leon Boyer from the Inyo Sheriff’s Office. They then went back to Anvil by car and Inman was flown back in around 1 PM. They opened the car's doors and inside was an American flag with “Butte Valley Stone Cabin” on it. This cabin, also known as the “Geologist’s Cabin” is located in Butte Valley 4.1 miles west from the car's location in Anvil Canyon.  This cabin is a shelter with some food and water from Anvil Spring.  The flag had apparently been taken from the cabin. They also found two unopened bottles of Bud Ice beer and one empty bottle, one empty and one ¾ full bottle of bourbon, several empty large water and juice containers, luggage and clothing, several rolls of 35 mm film and a “Practika” 35 mm camera, one new Coleman sleeping bag in its box and one empty Coleman sleeping bag box, a tent, a pipe with tobacco, a leather card carrier containing bank cards and a Citicorp credit card, a card from the “Sea Horse Resort” in San Clemente, childrens's toys an unused compact spare tyre and jack. The van was removed from Anvil Canyon on October 23rd.

Due to the of altitude of around 3000 feet at the location, the high temperature at the car’s location on July 23 would have been about 107˚F (42˚C) and the low around 79˚F (26˚C).

warm spring mine site log book Germany tourists death valley

Then another discovery was made by investigators. The visitor logbook for the Warm Spring mine site, on the route between the main valley and Butte Valley, had an entry by the German group on July 23rd, saying in German, “We are going over the pass”, and was signed, “Conny, Egbert, Georg, Max”.

Butte Valley Death Valley

The pass referred to in the mine site book was probably Mengle Pass, located a few miles from Anvil Canyon at the southwesterly end of Butte Valley, and the only means by which to cross the Panamint Mountain range for many miles.  However , t is an extremely rugged route, only able to be traversed by 4WD vehicles and certainly not by the Plymouth Voyager.

Further investigation indicated the group had not stayed at the Furnace Creek Ranch or Inn, the Stovepipe Wells Resort or at the Furnace Creek Campground.  Their whereabouts between being at the DVNP Visitor Center on July 22nd and signing the Warm Spring log book on July 23rd were unknown at the time. It is likely they decided to stay in the car, using the sleeping bags, as they appeared to be short of money.

On the morning of October 23rd a search effort was begun by the China Lake Mountain Rescue Group (CLMRG), trackers from the Indian Wells Valley Search and Rescue Group and eight mounted units from the Kern County Sheriff’s Mounted Search and Rescue. They focused on Anvil Canyon to its entrance at the Warm Spring Road.

Members of the CLMRG found a Bud Ice beer bottle stuck in the sand in Anvil Canyon next to a bush around 1.7 miles east from the people carrier's location.  A ledge had been cleared in the dirt, and someone left a large seat print next to the bottle.   

On Day two, the search area was expanded and SAR teams arrived from Nye County, Nevada and Inyo County and two helicopters were brought in.  Areas searched this day included more of Anvil Canyon, portions of Warm Spring Road and Butte Valley, Mengle Pass, the area adjacent to Warm Spring Road between the canyon mouth and Westside Road and from the van location easterly to the head of Anvil Canyon at Willow Spring.  

On October 25th a team from DVNP searched the area between the mouth of Anvil Canyon and the far side of the main valley at Badwater Road and a SAR team from Victorville searched the southeasterly perimeters of Butte Valley.  A BLM ranger began a search of the route on the west side of Mengle Pass, between Ballarat and Barker Ranch.  A team from Lake Mead NP searched from Anvil Canyon northerly, over the mountains and down into Butte Valley.  The Indian Wells team did an intensive search around Willow Spring, at the head of Anvil Canyon.  CLMRG started from the middle of Anvil Canyon, then went north, then westerly.  

The fourth day, October 26th, was the final day of searching for the group in this hostile environment  The DVNP team checked areas northerly of Warm Spring Canyon as well as mine areas a lost person might have sought shelter in.  The Victorville team performed searching around Striped Butte in Butte Valley.  The Lake Mead team also checked Striped Butte, as well as walking the Warm Spring Canyon Road.  The BLM ranger on the west side of Mengle Pass continued searching that area, as well as other possible routes the party may have used if travelling westerly towards Ballarat.  The Indian Wells team searched the vicinity of Warm Spring Road and Westside Road when some footprints had been found.  A vehicle SAR team from Apple Valley, new to the search, searched areas along Westside Road from Warm Spring Canyon Road northerly, where a party may have sought shelter.  Finally, aerial reconnaissance was made via two helicopters in all quadrants surrounding Anvil Canyon (including south), but was hampered by high winds. 

At the end of the day, with no new clues found since the beer bottle on the first day, and no hope whatsoever that the party would be found alive, the search was called off. It was estimated by a DVNP spokesperson that at least 250 people were involved in the search.  The areas searched were well reasoned and a high probability of success was expected.  But no sign of the Germans was found.

Many additional searches were made over the years by search and rescue teams as well as by private groups (Emmett Harder and Dick Hasselman produced details reports, the former report called “Cauldron of Hell Fire”).  CLMRG searched additional areas and examined mine shafts. Still no signs. 

Emmett Harder had been granted access by the Inyo Sheriff’s Office to view the pictures recovered from the Germans’ camera.  Due to his familiarity with the area, he recognised a sunset picture, looking easterly down into the main valley as having been taken in Hanaupah Canyon, located about 17 miles northerly of Warm Spring Canyon.  Given the presence of the Germans at the DV Visitors Center on July 22, and their Warm Spring log book entry of July 23rd, this suggests the Germans made camp in the upper reaches of Hanaupah Canyon the night of July 22nd.

The Hasselman report indicated there was a story of an individual on an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) finding two “German canteens” in an area described as being the midpoint of a straight line drawn been Sugarloaf and Needle Peak.  This would have been about 3-1/2 miles southeasterly of the people carrier's location.  It also said that in the three month period between when the Germans went to Death Valley and their vehicle being discovered, a ranger on patrol about 18 miles to the south found a sleeping bag in the middle of a remote dirt road. Could it be the missing sleeping bag from the Plymouth Voyager? The sleeping bag was discarded as trash by the ranger. The road where the bag was found is very remote, ending at a microwave relay tower at the time owned by AT&T.  

AT&T tower Death Valley

What happened to the German Group back in July 1996?

Some postulated at the time that the Germans staged a disappearance and started new lives.  Egbert's co-workers said he talked about moving to Costa Rica. But why choose Death Valley?

Another theory was that Egbert was trying to get to the  China Lake NWC facility to find “hybrid propulsion” technology and either the group had been forcibly conscripted into a black ops US government program or they saw something they weren’t supposed to see and were “eliminated” by the government.  Maybe they met foul play by coming across criminals involved in illegal activity or a psychopath out in the desert? 

Tom Mahood, Death valley Germans search

It wasn’t until 2009, when Tom Mahood, a search and rescue worker with Los Angeles County, began reading about the case. It was one of the things, he said later, that inspired him to train for and join a Search and Rescue team.

He theorised the following may have happened to them:

The maps in the  "Death Valley National Monument Museum Text” booklet they had purchased showed a route to the west, via Butte Valley and Mengle Pass, past the infamous Barker Ranch where Charles Manson’s followers stayed, then north to the ghost town of Ballarat and on to Yosemite.  The most likely scenario is that on the morning of the 23rd, they left Hanaupah Canyon and continued south to Warm Spring Road and turned west. They would have experienced a very fine dirt road at that point and at the Warm Spring camp, they probably stopped because they thought it was an active settlement of some sort to make inquiries as to road conditions further west. Instead, they found the deserted Warm Spring camp so they signed the register, indicating they were going over the Mengle Pass. Continuing west toward Butte Valley, they would have encountered poor road conditions before finding the Stone Cabin. They probably stopped and make another attempt to inquire about road conditions, but when doing so, found it empty and so they went on with the stolen flag. As they approached Mengle Pass they could go no further.

Their booklet offered an alternative, shorter route back down to the valley in the form of a road down Anvil Canyon. Of course, this route wasn't a good one, especially in the late afternoon with daylight fading. The Germans return to the intersection at the Stone Cabin and turn right onto Anvil Canyon Road and probably with a desire to get to Yosemite they were driving way too fast for the road conditions. Then the rocks burst the tyres and they were really in trouble. With three flats, it was impossible to go on.

Perhaps, Egbert, looking at the maps available to him, would have seen the northern boundary of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center (NWC) to be only about 8 or 9 miles to the south of them.  It would be easy to imagine crossing the hills he was looking at to the south and seeing the safety of a military installation just a few miles further.  

The group then probably spent the night at the van (a stay of some duration was evidenced by the presence of the faecal material in dug holes) and then early the next morning locked the vehicle and headed east down Anvil Canyon to a little past the bottle bush, then turned south toward the China Lake NWC boundary in hope of rescue.  

While official searchers maintained that Rimkus and Meyer and their children would not have gone south into Wingate Wash and so decided not to search there, Mahood concluded that they were wrong and it was their likely destination. He decided to search toward the boundary of the China Lake Naval Weapons Station. He reasoned that the Germans may have believed that rescue could be found at the station on a false belief that it would be protected by soldiers and have personnel on site.

Mahood and his search partner Les Walker after hours of hiking found scattered human bones and Conny Meyer’s tattered day planner, southeast of the isolated area called Goler Wash. Conny Meyer and Egbert Rimkus’ bones were found about eight miles from their van in very rugged, desolate terrain leaving behind beer bottles as well as two empty water containers. The discovery put an end once and for all of the questions and the hope that the missing Germans had been living a secret life somewhere in America. Subsequent searches by the pair and official investigators found more bones, but there was not enough DNA to positively connect them with the children. 

Bravo to Tom Mahood and Les Walker for persevering and spending many hours researching the case and hiking in dangerous wilderness to find the remains to bring the case to a close after 13 long years. The family in Dresden in Germany could finally find some sense of closure of wondering so long after the fate of the Rimkus and Meyer family. Certainly Mahood was frustrated with the lack of co-operation from the authorities responsible in that part of Death Valley and without Mahood the Germans would still likely be lost in the desert wilderness, never to be found.