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Texas Oblivion: An Interview with Author E.R. Bills PT 2
On February 2, 1963, a tanker with thirty-nine men aboard departed Beaumont and never returned. In the mid-spring of 1882, Billy the Kid’s friend, foe and equal escaped Huntsville Penitentiary and vanished. On December 9, 1961, a young boy in Wichita Falls disappeared without a trace. On November 18, 1936, a father and son were swallowed by a “Walled Kingdom.” On December 23, 1974, three girls went to a Fort Worth mall and were never seen or heard from again. This collection explores twenty baffling disappearances that investigators have studied for decades, to no avail. Homicide, patricide, filicide, genocide, devil worship, the Devil’s Triangle, the Devil’s River, the assassination of JFK, UFO abductions, legal limbo, literal limbo—oblivion. Award-winning author E.R. Bills drags the facts of these mystifying cases back from the void.
Award-winning writer E.R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious (The History Press, 2013), The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas (The History Press, 2014), Black Holocaust: The Paris Horror and a Legacy of Texas Terror (Eakin Press, 2015), Texas Far & Wide: The Tornado with Eyes, Gettysburg’s Last Casualty, the Celestial Skipping Stone and Other Tales (The History Press, 2017) and The San Marcos 10: An Antiwar Protest in Texas (The History Press, 2019). Bills has also written for the Austin American-Statesman, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas Co-Op Power magazine and the Fort Worth Weekly. He currently lives in North Texas with his wife, Stacie.
Er Welcome back to Crime Capsule. We are just so tickled to have you.
[00:00:06.770] - E R
Thanks for having me on business.
[00:00:08.530] - Ben
So last week we took a look at a few different cases from around Texas where folks just went on the Lamb. They up and disappeared, or in some cases, they got disappeared themselves. We are going to just jump right back in and take a look at a few more of the cases from Texas Oblivion, which is your book, which has just very recently been published. But this week, I want to take a look at a few cases that folks outside of Texas may not have heard of. The slightly more locally weird cases are the ones that don't necessarily even travel outside their counties in some instances. So let's start with Milton Sims, the pilot. This is a weird one. And you open the scene with a plane found in a hangar at Texas City. What kind of plane are we talking about? And what was so unusual about this discovery?
[00:01:16.790] - E R
Well, it was some kind of Cessna for short range flights, as I recall. Variation of the Cessna, not a big plane, maybe six Cedar or something like that. And I've been on some of those. In fact, at one point, I think it was 96. I flew over the Nascal lines in Peru. Figures in the desert, absolutely. That you can always see from the sky. And I remember every time we would pass over it, I had hitched a ride with some Japanese tourists. And every time you made it pass over, everybody want a picture? So everybody on one side of the plane, the pilot would flip the Cessna sideways, strapped in pretty well. And everybody on that like take a picture, and then he would flip it back the other way and go back over it. So the other side of the place. I'm not a huge fan of the smaller planes. I hear you.
[00:02:17.340] - Ben
Did you lose your lunch on that trip?
[00:02:20.310] - E R
No, but I did turn green. But anyway, so this was a smaller plane, and it was found in this hangar. And they didn't know what to make of it first, but there was a bullet hole in the roof and I think some markings, some identifying markings had been marked out. And so eventually they put out a Bolo trying to get more information. And they found out that there was a company had the plane for shore flights, for people you could hire people could hire a company to take them on short flights. So this guy, Milton Sims, had been contacted. And the person he was going to transport, his name was Michael Jackson, and they had paid cash. And so he transported this person. And I think he took him to some place north he used to I don't remember exactly the town. And then he's supposed to pick up the next day. And so he left picking the next day, and then he disappeared they lost track of radio silence and they never recovered the body. They never covered anything. In the meantime, the plane after it supposedly picked up Michael Jackson makes an appearance in three or four different communities around Texas, farther north and then right at the coast and then go somewhere after that and then shows up eventually back in this hangar.
And they find seats that have been torn out of the back down the road from the hanger, and they find empty gas canisters, jugs, whatever. I think they found marijuana residents or something like that in the plane. So they realized that somebody used to make drug run. The thing that was fascinating to me about this story was, again, another one I've never heard of. But the thing that really fascinated me and disturbed me was the fact that it was like, no follow up. The plane shows up in the hangar and they don't get hardly anywhere on the investigation because there's no body and it landed at two or three different small airfields. And so there's a jurisdiction issue maybe, but nothing was done. Nothing gets determined. And so he disappears. And outside of a friend or two, they may have, even though they never list any friends by name, they said, oh, he's a good guy or the other, sorry, the pilot disappears and there's very little done about it afterwards and there's very little mention of it.
[00:05:22.210] - Ben
This really of all the cases in your book, and I should say there are 20 cases in your book, there is a real smorgasbord to choose from, of all of them, from the funny to the grizzly to sort of just plain weird. This one struck me as uniquely suited for a Cormac McCarthy novel. I mean, you know, it's sort of like there's something that happened here and everybody is just left to try to piece together the aftermath and the consequences and to see those implications play out. I did want to ask you, er, aviation. I'm not a pilot. I enjoy riding on planes, but don't put me at the stick. You know, it'll get real squirrely real fast. But I am aware that aviation is, in general, a highly regulated field. I mean, movements are tracked and you have to check in and there's laws regarding airspace about. You have to broadcast where you are and bearings and things like that. What was it like? This case is almost 50 years old now, but as you were doing the research on it, what was it like trying to track ownership or flight logs or air traffic reports, the evidence of the movement of this aircraft around Texas?
What was it like working with material that was in some cases, four or five decades old and trying to do the work of the investigators yourself?
[00:07:08.770] - E R
Well, it's like a lot of investigations, a lot of police work, a lot of Pi work, a lot of it's guesswork, and a lot of it's just elbow grease. You keep digging in, you keep looking. You reference this, you reference that, you try to crossreference things, and then you realize, okay, so there's a disappearance or there's a crime, whatever that is in itself, it's something you're investigating. But for me, this story, particularly, was about the phenomenon of disappearance. In terms of the investigation, there just wasn't anything. It doesn't look like. Okay, so you read these books, even Cormac McCarthy's stuff. No country for old Tommy Lee Jones's character. He's still trying to figure it out. And I remember that. I love that quote about signs and wonders. This guy disappears and it doesn't look like there's no clear trail, that there's serious investigation. Now it's open. It's still technically an open case. So you can't examine the police document, which is what people run into. There doesn't seem to have been A-P-I. Haven't hired by anybody related to Milton Sims. And none of the police, they say, well, this or that, there's different jurisdictions, different.
It landed here. It landed there. It almost looks like maybe not a coordinated effort not to do anything, but whether it's coordinated or not, nothing was done. This guy disappears. And then they basically discovered that the plane was used to transport drugs at a time when the drug trade and the drug traffic across the Texas Coast was incredibly it was huge.
[00:09:13.110] - E R
And so there had been a crack down and a ship had been seized in one of the harbors with tons and tons of drugs on it. And so you can imagine I wasn't an economics major either. But I remember talking about supply and demand. Yeah. And so all of a sudden, if they need to get product here because of the demand, what links would a criminal organization go to? And then there's the flip side. If there are people involved in investigating these criminal enterprises and they were trying to turn a witness, what might they excuse for a testimony against one of these criminal organizations? To me, I mean, it's one of those that just takes off. Why wasn't there a serious investigation? Why weren't there more relatives coming forward asking about this? Because I still don't know. And why weren't there more friends? Because there's just nothing there. It's like two newspaper, maybe five in the end. But at the time, it was hard. It's like nobody really wanted to talk about it. Then nobody talked about it today. And this guy was still a human being. And it sounds like he was a pretty decent guy.
[00:10:29.590] - E R
Did something drop him off over the ocean? I don't know, because somebody did fly down to the coast either to pick up or drop off. And something's happened here. And you're right, there's probably a novel in it. There's no telling how many directions you could go. But the point is, nobody went anywhere with it. Not the police, not the FBI, not the FAA. Again, I hate to use the allude to the Wall Kingdom. Sometimes agencies circle ranks and wagon. Sorry. And so nothing was done. This guy was another just average Joe kind of guy, seems like. And nobody still seems to have missed today. And so what happened? I have no idea. It's another one of those it was a chapter I didn't have time. I actually had in one of these cases. I had a parent of someone who disappeared that I wrote about call me and say, why didn't they talk to them or why didn't I talk to them? I tried to talk to as many people as I could. They said, will you talk to this person and that person? But you didn't talk to me. There's not enough time to talk to everybody unless you give it like a book treatment.
[00:11:46.610] - E R
This guy, I'm not sure you could get a book out of it unless it was a fictional treatment, because who knows what happened to him? And it's another strange anomaly. And I'm not conspiracy minded necessarily early, but to me, the lack of investigation was the story, not the investigation. Even more than the disappearance. The disappearance of the investigation is what kind of blew my mind. I was like, well, that doesn't track. This stuff happens and people research it and try to figure it out. Our family members poke. There was never even missing family still missing. Milton Sip. There was nothing. And that is very strange.
[00:12:36.870] - Ben
It did strike me. In your account, Sims comes across the pilot. He comes across as this kind of uniquely serious and sober guy. He was not prone to wild, unpredictable maneuvers. He does not sound like he led these secret lives that folks who didn't know him called him a straight arrow. Right. And he got co opted somehow. And we can only speculate, was it at gunpoint? Was he actually entangled in something that nobody else knew about? I mean, it's all speculation. And that's what is so captivating and infuriating at once.
[00:13:19.250] - E R
Yeah. And I've listed all these possibilities conspiracy, or did he actually get approached? And I don't know why he would abandon the plane, but you could see a scenario where someone could take an opportunity to start transporting drugs and make a lot more money than transporting Michael Jackson for $400. But the plane winds up back or in this hangar and he's missing. And it's an enigma. It's very strange, and it's just not how things usually go in terms of investigations and even official reports.
[00:13:56.330] - Ben
Well, you never know what might come out of the woodwork in days to come with the publication of your book. It sounds to me that somebody else made a great escape and they used him to do it. And I hate the thought that this innocent guy would have been caught up in all of that. But it does happen. Let's travel over to Denton, Texas, to the home of Hazel Carpenter and her daughter Virginia. We are going to dial the clock back a little bit to the late 1940s.
[00:14:35.500] - E R
Here, let me stop you there. Let me stop you right here. Okay. First of all, yesterday was the 74th anniversary of her disappearance, June 1.
[00:14:44.060] - Ben
[00:14:44.700] - E R
Okay. Second of all, the mother Hazel lived in Texarkana. They were from Texarkana. And basically Virginia winds up going back to school at Texas Women University. It was called something else back then. North Texas Women's College.
[00:15:03.270] - Ben
[00:15:04.320] - E R
The thing that I think investigators sorry, I not speaking in a turn. Hopefully some of these I do vaguely remember, but that one was strange. So if you have someone that's in some way related to another horrific crime spree, sometimes the authorities don't see the forest for the trees. The interesting thing on the face of it was that Virginia Carpenter and mother Hazel, they knew three of the victims of the Phantom killer in Texarkan, which was a different crime screen. Do you remember the movie The Town of Red Sundown? All that?
[00:15:50.800] - Ben
Yeah. And our listeners for our listeners who are not aware, this is very, very high profile series of murders that took place in this area. And one of the really interesting crossovers between your case of Virginia Carpenter and this particular instance, it kind of came out of the blue almost as I was reading your book. I thought, my goodness, here we have. For all the true crime junkies out there, this is just catnip, right? It's like we've got one crime which may or may not be embedded into another extremely famous crime. Before we get to the moonlight murders, for folks who aren't aware, just give us a quick rundown of who Virginia was and what she was doing at the time and what happened to her. And then we'll come to the overlap. Right. With this other high profile.
[00:16:44.660] - E R
Right. And then we'll talk about this one is one there's been a few things written about her disappearance, but in this case, at the end, obviously read the chapter. I covered some stuff that nobody had really never talked about. It seems like this case might have been solved. It's impossible to prove now, but it seems like it might have been solved. And I felt pretty good about some of the stuff I just stumbled onto practically accidentally. But she was a young woman. I think she had gone to North Texas Women's College, Texas Women's University now for a while and then came back home. Her mother was ill. Hazel was ill. And so she was home for a while, worked for an insurance company, this, that and the other. And then she decided to go back. So she took a train. She met another older woman on the train who was going to attend studies at what is now called Texas University. They wind up the train station there in Denton, and they need a ride to the dorm. Now they get a taxi, and they get in the taxi, and they go to their dorm, or they range transport.
And then Virginia realizes she's left some of her luggage at the station. So the taxi driver, real polite, amicable guy, says, Well, I'll take you back there. There's no big deal. And the woman that's with her says, I'll go with you. No, don't worry about it. Go on. I'll be fine. Because taxi driver seems like a real sweetheart. So she leaves, and that's where you hear that's?
[00:18:28.910] - Ben
[00:18:31.970] - E R
Yeah. Winds up back at the train station, supposedly. And so then there's the disappearance. The next morning, they find some of her luggage out on the lawn in front of the dorm she was going to stay in. And the taxi driver, they talked to him, and he says, well, these two boys in this Tan bag car stopped talking to her when I dropped her off. And so the police pursue that. They pursue this car, and these two guys, they never find them. They contact the mother. She hasn't received a call. The ex boyfriend checks in. They look at him, he has an alibi, and he's not involved. He was calling to check on her. And so she just completely disappears, and nobody knows what's happened. And they take a run at the taxi driver. Do you remember his name?
[00:19:33.240] - Ben
Oh, I do indeed. Mr. Edgar Ray. Zachary. Oh, yeah. You got to love those alleged murderers with three names. We had Edgaray killing in Mississippi, who definitely was responsible for some of the civil rights murders of the 60s. But whenever I see an Edgar Ray, I just kind of tense up a little bit.
[00:19:55.510] - E R
E. R. Stands for Eddie Ray, by the way. But my real name anyway, Zachary. He checks out, his wife gives him an alibi. He was home this hour or whatever. So it's the end of the story. And in most discussions of this disappearance, that is the end of the story. Nobody really picks up. Okay, well, then, yes, you're right. The midnight murders come into play. People say, well, she knew three of the victims, her and Hazel, blah, blah. So please check that out. Of course, they never found that murder, even in Texas, Canada. So obviously true to form, if it was him, they didn't find him and didn't. But the thing is, basically, the story kind of ends there. But then I just kept digging. I kept thinking, there's something strange about this. And I found some more recent stories about where they had dug up some dams around ponds and stuff, trying to find the remains or where this young woman's remains might be. I don't get anywhere, but I start with the fancy Internet machine stuff that people tried to do in terms of research 50 years ago or 30 years ago when I was in College.
It's really tough, but you can top names into your computer machine, the search engines, and stuff that comes up and you have to just pour through it, whatever link you can. And so I started doing that. And basically this Zachary guy pops up again about ten years later, and he pops up in a very strange way. He is accused of assaulting this woman and tying her up and putting her in the floorboard and all this crazy.
[00:21:51.380] - Ben
Stuff, some Edgar Alan Poe kind of stuff. Right. I mean, different Edgar, but same McCabe.
[00:21:57.800] - E R
Yeah. So he gets accused of this. And supposedly after he does all this, he drives her off. And then he's sitting there talking to her and breaks down in tears. And then he lets her go and says, don't go to the local police. Go to the police out of town, which is very strange. The Dallas police go out of town. So she goes out of town. She's a fortress guy. And the people from Denton, the authorities from Denton come down and basically it looks like they've got him. I mean, he's committed this crime. He doesn't kill her and he doesn't assault her. In the end, he ties her up and all this stuff. He lets her go. Is it conscience? Is it concern? I don't know. But he lets her go when she goes to the farmers branch, I think, police Department and reports this. And so it looks like, well, the older of us have seen Perry Mason, the younger seen, I don't know, law and order or whatever this is.
[00:23:01.050] - Ben
Damning CSI, I think, for the younger kids.
[00:23:04.580] - E R
Yeah, CSI. So this guy, they kind of got him, I think, at that point. But what happens is that, again, I don't want to be political, but obviously today they're sort of an assault on some aspects of women's rights, especially here in Texas. And back then, there was no assault on it because they hardly existed. The women had started going to the workplace in the 50s, but not a whole lot yet. And so they didn't have positions of power. Well, obviously, they weren't paid as much as the men. They didn't have much standing. And so she's involved with an aerospace company, a big firm. And this young lady realizes and she's got kids. She realizes, if I come forward with this accusation, I could lose my job. He's not working there. But just the tank and the fear of retaliation for a woman. Yeah. In the 50s, they didn't have rights. And people don't realize women couldn't even have their own credit cards of 73. They couldn't even say, oh, honey, I have a headache tonight. I mean, spousal race was legal basically, till 93, 93. Insane stuff. So anyway, she decides she doesn't want to pursue it and she won't testify.
So this guy walks. And of course, his wife later says the alibi, she just gave it at his request that it was not true, that he didn't show up at 10:00 A.m. Or whatever the time was when they investigated Virginia Carpenters murder, basically that he showed up around 200 a. M.
[00:25:06.490] - Ben
For those 4 hours. Right. What was he doing?
[00:25:10.030] - E R
Yeah, you think this is pretty much soft. But anyway, it's never revisited after that because she wouldn't testify, because that's not the kind of thing that women trying to make it in the workplace back then want to be associated with. And Edgar Zachary basically probably got away with murder. Now, you're right. At the time when they were fishing and before this incident, ten years later, they were looking at her possible connection or the possibility of her being a final victim of the Phantom killer of the moonlight murders in Texas, which is also a crazy story, but I don't really think there's anything to that the difference. I like talking about this one after mill some Sims, because in a lot of these disappearances, you're not getting very far. You're not finding a lot of evidence. But there are family members or friends who are like harassing and badgering the local authorities. What have you found?
[00:26:15.420] - Ben
They take it on themselves. They say, look, if you all aren't going to do the job, we will.
[00:26:19.610] - E R
Yeah. So Hazel Carpenter moves from Texas Cana out here to the Metroplex, and she stays after these people, and she gets letters from people saying this and that. They pay her. They'll tell her what happened and she remarries and stuff, but she keeps her sort of thumb to the pulse of the investigation, and that helps, which again, to me, that's why the Milton Sims thing was so odd. I was like, nobody has their thumb to the pulse of the investigation and disappearance. Nobody seemed to there didn't seem to be that kind of anybody has lots of care like Hazel Carpenters or some of the other cases in the book where the relatives were distraught, the friends were distraught, and they drove all over the state and the neighboring States posting missing person signs with the pictures of their loved one of their friends. In this case, they did that for Virginia Carpenter got that kind of attention, but Milton didn't. Anyway, I think they still think it was probably Edgar Zachary or they may think it after my book came out, I don't know, but they're still booking in one form or fashion for her remains.
And it's one of those crazy, unsolved mysteries that, again, took on a lot of time.
[00:27:44.550] - Ben
There was something I was intrigued by this chapter, like one or two others in the book actually had kind of a surprise cameo appearance, not by another mass murderer, the moonlight guy, but actually, er, I was interested to see the role that the Texas Rangers actually play in this particular case. They make an entry in order to investigate her disappearance. And I was just wondering, for our listeners who are are not familiar with the actual Texas Rangers as opposed to the Chuck Norris variety. I watched my TV when I was a kid. But would you just help us to understand the role that they play structurally in investigating these crimes? I mean, they're not local police. They're state police of a sort they reminded me a little bit of almost like we had a member of the South Carolina law enforcement division, Sled, which is sort of a Pera state entity, like an autonomous entity out in South Carolina. It's a really unusual structure. And could you just help us to kind of fit it into how that works in law enforcement or investigation in Texas?
[00:29:22.210] - E R
Well, that's a good question, Benjamin. I haven't thought about that a lot, but I think like, okay, I'm going to get pop culture reference here.
[00:29:33.280] - Ben
That's all right.
[00:29:33.780] - E R
We'll take it here. While back, there was a series on well, there was a series called True Detective Mac and McConnell.
[00:29:45.790] - Ben
[00:29:46.860] - E R
Okay. Yeah, it's really incredible series, Woody Harrelson. But anyway, they have a state police. They have a state police investigation. And I don't know exactly I haven't had enough of running with the law, but I don't think we have sort of official state police. I think what we have is Texas, which is sort of they call it something different. In Louisiana, everybody has a lot of States have different things. During the Reconstruction area. Sorry, during the Reconstruction era, after the Civil War, we had a state police for three or four years, not very long. But the Texas Rangers are sort of like our state police, but they aren't necessarily directly affiliated with any of our local civic or city police departments or the Sheriff's Department. So that's just what it is. Texas Rangers certainly has more glamorous nomenclature involved. And actually, one of my old Ruby teammates played a thug in Walker Texas Ranger. And he always got beat up by Chuck.
[00:30:56.680] - Ben
Well, hey, talk about a claim to Fame, getting your ass kicked by Chuck Norris. I mean, come on.
[00:31:02.190] - E R
Yeah, he's also a red headed character, but he also wound up playing on you mentioned earlier Friday Night Live, he was the opposing coach whose wife dies of cancer. He has a recurring appearance on that. So Ron, my old rugby teammates, he's had sort of a minor career in Hollywood. I'm a big fan. But anyway, this guy from the Texas Rangers, his name is Lewis Wrigler, and he happened to be early on the job with Texas Rangers when Virginia Carpenter disappeared and followed the case for many years.
[00:32:55.830] - Ben
So, er here on Crime Cap School, we like to talk about aftermaths of cases that we explore with our authors. But in Texas, Oblivion, there are very few aftermaths or epilogues or nice neat stories with bows tied up on top of them. What I wanted to ask you about instead was a little bit about your methods and about your sources. Our last guest was Tobin Gilman out in California, who in our series On Great Escapes, he studied this appearance of a guy named James Dunham who killed his entire family and took off in the Santa Clara Valley, never to be seen again. Sightings of Dunham popped up for years even as sort of hard evidence, and good material began to dry up over time. I want to ask you the same question that I asked Tobin, which is what do you do when those leads start to run out, when you as a researcher are faced with the same questions as the investigators and there's just no water left in the well anymore? What do you do in that case?
[00:34:18.550] - E R
Well, this is going to sound strange. Maybe, but I better preface it with asking you a question. Is the Chandelier Islands part of Mississippi?
[00:34:29.290] - Ben
We have four main Islands off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Yes, the Chandeliers. Excuse me. We call them the Barrier Islands, and Chandelier is one of them. But if I remember correctly, and I'm going to have to pull out my map of the Gulf Coast.
[00:34:45.690] - E R
No, that's all right. That's where the BP World depart.
[00:34:49.840] - Ben
Horizon? Yeah, off the Barrier Islands a little further. I think it's about 60 miles out in the Gulf. Maybe 100 miles out in the Gulf. But, yeah, why do you ask?
[00:34:58.690] - E R
Okay, so here's the thing. The company that I kind of worked for for a long time, they used to go on for the employees fishing trips, and they would charter 110 folk foot boat out of Biloxi. We would drive down from here and we would be at the casino that night and then get on the boat at twelve and then go out. So these 110 folk foot boats have 813 foot skiffs on it. And so you get out the next morning, you're hungover or not, and you go fishing. And I've probably done this with people that I knew, some family members, I don't know, probably ten or twelve times over 15 or 16 years. And in 2008, the last time that I went the buddy that I was going to fish with was too hungover to go out. So I went out myself in the boat by myself and I had a hand radio that was supposed to be that was connected to the boat. And we had a frequency 69. Of course, fishermen has visited imaginations. But we went out and I went out by myself and I was trying to get to one of the Islands and find some of the other guys I was fishing with.
I have to make a profession. I'm sort of the snotnose College guy. And a lot of these guys were over hand who work more with their hands. I was kind of like an easy target for jokes about being solved. Like I said, I'm a rugby player and all that. But anyway, I couldn't reach anybody on the radio. And so it starts to rain, a storm blows up, the waves get bigger. And I'm going to try to keep this brief, but I can't reach anybody on the handheld and I'm like hitting 69. Hello, Ron, come in.
[00:36:47.870] - Ben
Do you copy?
[00:36:48.680] - E R
Right. Yeah, stuff like that. I can't find them. And also I can't even see the Islands in the boat. The weather was bad. So basically I become, I guess, disoriented or maybe the waves were too big. But as I'm going in, I'm going against the waves, waves. I'm just hitting them as the boat. I'm in the back of it. And at that point I think I can't see the Islands. I can't reach anybody. I'm turning back. I turned back. I can barely see the boat or actually it was right after the boat disappeared. I could barely see it and it disappeared. And I thought, I know where it is. I'm just going to go back. But when I turned around, I'm sitting in the back of this boat and now the waves, which are considerable, they're coming into the back of the boat. And so in short order, the motor foul and there I am. And so I stand up in the back of the boat and I start trying to crank the engine.
[00:37:45.040] - Ben
[00:37:46.550] - E R
Got your outboard going?
[00:37:47.660] - Ben
[00:37:53.010] - E R
The wrong wave hit. The boat caps. So I'm in the water. I don't even have a lock preserve.
[00:37:58.830] - Ben
[00:37:59.360] - E R
I see the radio floats. The fishing gear is gone. It's floating or sinking. There's a cooler. And I think, should I grab the cooler or the radio? And I go and grab the radio. And so the boat turned over. I grabbed the radio and I don't have a laptop. There's a seat cushion that floats. I grab it and I get back on the hole that spoke. Right, sorry. But anyway and I start trying to continue to reach people on this radio and I can't on 69. I try other channels. I can't and I never reach anybody. And at first I think, damn, I'm going to miss lunch or something like that. It's early. And I'm like, this sucks. I'm going to miss lunch. And so it's just an inconvenience. But four or 5 hours in, after getting up on the whole of the boat, on my knees with my glasses and the seat cushion on one hand, the radio and looking around, getting hit by waves and getting knocked off and climbing back on. I'm vomiting. I have diarrhea. I mean, I've swallowed seawaters. So I'm in trouble. And I think, oh, crap. Anyway, to make a long story short, about eleven or 12 hours in.
Well, let me take that back. About eight or nine or 10 hours in, I'm like, Whoa, I don't see anybody. I can't see anybody around me. I can't reach anybody. I'm worried. And so I start taking this dumb radio and I start hitting a steep button. And if it stops anywhere and it's not stopping, but if it does, I'll say, Mayday, Mayday SOS. And so that business going on. This goes on for like 30 minutes, and I'm down to two bars on this radio. And I did this for like 30 minutes. And then finally someone answers, and it's the US Coast Guard out of Pensacola, which I don't know what my signal. Instead of US Coast Guard in New Orleans or wherever else, Pensacola gets my signal. And they're like, Captain, captain, how many survivors are there? And I'm like, I think, Holy crap, they're not going to come and get. I just want idiot out here.
[00:40:16.100] - Ben
They will come and get you. My dad was Coast Guard Auxiliary, and they will come and get you.
[00:40:20.450] - E R
Yeah, exactly. So I said, listen, I'm the only one on the boat. There were no other people on the boat, and I'm here. They try to get my bearings, tell me where I think I am, or I try to tell them where I think I am. And so they're searching for me. Okay, so like, two or 3 hours later, they've got two helicopters out. Supposedly, they have no idea where I'm at. I can't see them. The waves are like 10ft by then. The guys have heard by then that my boat is capsized and I'm gone. So that's very disturbing to these people that knew me. But they're on the boat, 110 foot boat. It's in ten foot way, a raging sea. And they're throwing up stuff sliding all over the boat. They're sick. And Meanwhile, I'm still live out on this. They'll make a long story short. Eventually, the Coast Guard. I see the plane. I'm down to like 1 bar. I'm freaking out. And they fly right over me. They can't see me. The white cats. I'm like, you guys just went over me. So if your relative was involved with Coast Guard Auxiliary or whatever, it was the whole thing.
Like the Guardian with Ashley Kushner and Kevin Costner the helicopter, they spot me. Finally, the diver drops out and he swims over and he says, okay, I want you to slide into the water. And I'm like, what do you mean? I've been here all day. He's like, no, just swiding. Why? Didn't realize I was completely hypothermic. My lips were blue. I was in bad shape. It was like October anyway. So I get rescued. They take me to the Coast Guard there in New Orleans and get me an ambulance. They can't find a vein because the blood has started retreating to my internal.
[00:42:06.610] - Ben
[00:42:07.130] - E R
I mean, I almost died out there. You were talking about the Bayou and the alligator or the Crocs. The pilot joked about that. He said, you know, another hour or so, you float in Louisiana swamps and you probably could have walked out. You could avoid the alligators, which was.
[00:42:24.260] - Ben
Kind of funny, funnier now at the time.
[00:42:27.910] - E R
Good heavens, yeah. The point is, I almost disappeared. I was almost one of these people that disappeared. And in most of these cases, there was human interference and criminality. But in this case, I was amazed at the indifference, sort of the ocean of nature. I was so far outside my security zone, people don't realize you can wind up places. And maybe some of these victims did where you think people care or people at a red light or in the car over, somebody will help, but you can get a situation where there's nobody to help and you can just disappear and nobody knows. So I really got lucky. And really, it wasn't too long after that that I started really sort of pursuing writing more seriously. And of course, the subjects in this book appealed to me sort of in a way because of that, because I literally was almost lost in oblivion.
[00:43:29.990] - Ben
Every single time you write about one of these, it's got to hit home for you. Good Lord.
[00:43:35.750] - E R
And so when I think about, when you mention, I'm sure now that you know that story, if you rephrase it, you would say, pardon the pun, but what do you do? You go back to the well, you know what? In some situations, that is exactly what I try to do in Virginia Carpenter's case and Kelly Wilson's case out in East Texas. I'll drive back out there and I'll try to look at some of the information I have on some of the locations where the video store was located, maybe in Kelly Wilson's case or twice around the surrounding area, at the tanks, at the landforms and try to get a sense of the vibe if there is such a thing, but just a sense of the landscape. And then I think in some cases, if I was a person who disappeared myself, how would I try to do it? How would I try to achieve it? What around me would help me or if I was a person that was trapped somewhere, I just try to place myself, which it's not exactly method acting or anything. It's like, go back to the scene sort of the crime and place yourself there and try to put yourself in the position of the victim.
And not just the victim but maybe the perpetrator. What would you do? How would you dispose of this body? How would you try to get out of this if you were in the full board of a car or you were suddenly bound and gagged in the back of a plane? What would your last thoughts be? I mean, sure, we see lots of this stuff and live vicariously through this stuff on TV, but I'm sure it's something completely different when it's actually happening. And since it sort of happened not in terms of any kind of criminality to me, there are lots of things that go through your head. Like, should I have grabbed a cooler? Sometimes it doesn't do any good. You're just driving around and the places become too developed or overrun. Or in the case of Wichita Falls, the Andy Sims Sims kid who disappeared. You drive out there and you try to find some of the places they last. They saw some caves and this and that. And you just go there and try to artificially possibly create some context. Yes, some of the landmarks are still there and sometimes it makes you think of it a little differently and sometimes it doesn't.
But it's always worth a shot because you're right. You do hit a dry spot and you try to reignite somebody.
[00:46:22.070] - Ben
Well, look with that kind of doggedness and that kind of tenacity as well as the insight that you're bringing to these particular cases, that is a hell of a story. I'm glad that you lived to tell the tale. No, it's remarkable. I mean, it's as dramatic as anything that you've written about. And we get a lot of alleged boating accidents in the newspapers here down in Louisiana Where folks conveniently fall off the back of a skiff. Maybe an estranged ex wife just kind of disappears in that way. But in some cases you're giving me reason to kind of look differently at some of these stories and think, well, hell, maybe there was an actual accident there from time to time. Er, I cannot wait to read your next book, which I am quite sure will have some follow on some agenda, some new material that's come to light based on what you have managed to dig up with that kind of perseverance. So please keep us posted and write that sucker as soon as possible because I know we all want to read it. I appreciate thank you so much for joining us. This has been an absolute pleasure.