Unsolved Mystery of the The Sarah Joe

Scott Moorman
Scott Moorman was born in 1952 and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He watched the TV series Adventures in Paradise as a child and started telling his parents that one day he was going to move to Hawaii. He married young and had a son, but his dream of living in Hawaii never left so when Scott and his young wife called it quits in 1975, he fulfilled his dream by moving to the small community of Nahiku on the east coast of Maui. 

Nahiku was a town of native Hawaiians and a growing population of "haoles," mostly Caucasian refugees looking for their version of paradise - hippies, earth mamas, nature freaks and Vietnam vets trying to forget. Women and men both wore their hair long, grew and smoked dope, lived with each other with no thought of being married and partied way more than they worked. 

The natives didn't take to them as a group, but a few of the new-comers, including Scott, made an effort to get to know them, learned to speak the pidgin-English they spoke, learned their customs and so, gradually, some of the haoles became at least casual friends with some of the natives. The locals called the remote area where they lived "inside" and the populated areas, like Hana, "outside." After a while, Scott and the other newcomers came to see it the same way. Scott went back to California once, for his son's birthday and to see his parents. They asked him to stay, but he told them he couldn't see living anywhere else now. He had to go back to Nahiku, he had to go back home. It was the last time they would see him.

On February 11, 1979, Scott and four friends, Peter Hanchett, Patrick Woesner, Benjamin Kalama, and Ralph Malaiakini, were working constructing a house, but the ocean was smooth and the sky almost cloudless. According to Hawaiian time, things happen when they happen - "yes" means probably later, "maybe" is a nice way of saying probably not, and if the weather is good, then work goes into the later category. The 5 men decided to work later and go fishing now. 

They drove the 7 miles to Hana and borrowed a boat, a 17-foot  Boston Whaler, from an acquaintance. The 85-horsepower outboard needed new spark plugs so the 5 men bought the plugs and installed them. They also purchased beer, soft drinks, snacks, and filled a large cooler with ice for the fish they hoped to be bringing back. 

The Alenuihaha channel between the Big Island and Maui is perhaps the roughest and most dangerous waters in Hawaii. Flowing next to Mauna Loa, the world's largest volcano, the water is 17,000 feet deep and has strong surface currents moving swiftly to the southwest. On this day, a low pressure system had formed near the islands and it intensified as it approached the Alenuihaha channel, but since Hana received no television stations and the radio stations issued weather reports mostly for the western side of Maui, boaters were accustomed to heading out to sea without consulting weather reports beforehand. They simply played the weather by eye. The day Scott and his friends decided to go fishing, the bay had barely a ripple and the sky was void of all clouds except a few little stray puffs. By 10:00 that morning, the men had the boat in the ocean and motored out of the bay. They were heading straight into an enduring mystery which will likely never be solved.

By noon, just 2 short hours after the men put to sea, the wind had shifted to the north and picked up considerable speed. Two hours later, gale-force winds were whipping up large waves in the Alenuihaha channel and a torrential downpour had begun. Residents said later the storm was the worst one they had seen in 50 years. A good portion of Hana was flooded and a number of houses and businesses were damaged by the high winds. Three boats out fishing that day made it back to Hana just as the storm got really bad, but the Sarah Joe wasn't one of them.

The Coast Guard was notified at 5:00 PM that the boat and men were missing. A helicopter and a large fixed-wing plane were dispatched to search for the men, but the winds were high, the ocean boiling and the visibility was very poor. One searcher said the weather was so bad, "they could have been just 50 feet in front of us and we wouldn't have seen them." More planes and helicopters were dispatched to the hunt. Eventually, over the next 5 days, 44 planes and boats covered more than 56,000 square miles of ocean, but they found not a trace of the Sarah Joe or her occupants. After 5 days, the official search was called off.

The families, friends, and neighbors didn't give up. One of the men who continued the search stated, "These were young, strong, healthy guys. They were experienced fishermen and good swimmers. They were all capable and had each other to rely on. If someone had found debris, we would have agreed they didn't live through the storm, but nothing was found - nothing. And so we felt there was still a chance they were afloat and alive." A fund drive was begun and over $50,000 was raised. It was used to hire commercial boats and private planes to join the volunteers in an extended search. Dozens and dozens of volunteers combed the isolated south shore of Maui and the Hamakua coast of the Big Island in case the boat or it's crew had managed to land there. Absolutely nothing was found that could possibly be related to the Sarah Joe or the men who vanished with her. A full week after the Coast Guard had given up the search, the volunteers admitted they had no idea what had happened to Scott and his friends. While in the area, commercial and private fishermen and boaters kept their eyes open for any sign of what happened to the Sarah Joe for months after, but no trace was found.

Exactly one year after they disappeared, a memorial service was held for the five men who had vanished so suddenly, so thoroughly, it was like the sea had opened its mouth and swallowed them up.

The area southwest of the Hawaiian Islands is a vast expanse of empty open ocean stretching for more than 2,300 miles. At that point a small atoll, a group of uninhabited little islands named the Taongi Atoll, is encountered. Considered a part of the Marshall Isles, the islands were little more than strips of arid land slightly higher than the ocean. A few scrub plants have found a foothold on a couple of the strips of land, but none of them are palatable for humans. There is no fresh water. The only inhabitants ever recorded had been a few Japanese soldiers whom the Allies wiped out in 1944 during WWII.  The atoll is far from the shipping lanes and the nearest land is over 200 miles further west. The area is so isolated, it was under serious consideration as the site of atomic bomb testing. This is no tropical island paradise for anyone.

On September 10, 1988, marine biologist John Naughton and 4 other men went ashore one of those little islands looking for green sea turtles and nesting sea birds. They had been hired by the government of the Marshal Islands to find a suitable site for a wildlife sanctuary.  The team had been on the land for less than 30 minutes when they spotted something sticking up out of the sand. Upon closer inspection, it was the battered fiberglass hull of a Boston Whaler with the letters "HA" painted on the side. Naughton, a resident of Maui, Hawaii, knew those letters meant the boat was registered in Hawaii. After clearing away some of the sand, the letters S, a, h and j became visible. Ironically, Naughton had been one of the volunteers who had so diligently searched for the Sarah Joe almost 10 years ago. He knew what they had finally found. There were no traces of the five men; no remains, no notes, no clothing. Naughton and his crew decided to scour the whole little island, hoping against hope to find survivors even though nobody could have remained alive on this sand bar for long.
The Sarah Joe after she was found and pulled from the sand.

About 100 yards further on, the men came across a crude wooden cross marking a shallow grave. A cairn of flattened coral stones had been fashioned to mark the grave and on top of these stones was a single human jaw bone. One rock held down a sheaf of partially burned papers. There was no writing on the sheets of paper. Carefully unstacking several of the stones, the men could see more human bones underneath. They put the stones they had disturbed back in place and stopped. Naughton later stated, "We didn't dig up the grave. We could see it was a Christian burial and the Marshallese men with us were somewhat superstitious. We immediately saw there were fillings in the teeth and we could see it was not a very old burial just by the fact the bones were not very bleached. Also, you could see the area had been washed by really high storm waves sometime in the recent past so the grave had to have been made after that."

After completing a search of the whole island and finding nothing else, their discovery was reported to the Marshallese authorities. The U.S. Coast Guard was informed and they sent two forensic experts from the Army Central Identification Lab in Honolulu to see if the remains could be identified. When they arrived, additional bones were discovered in the grave, but a complete skeleton was not recovered. Bringing the bones back to Hawaii, they soon proved by dental records and DNA to be those of one man, Scott Moorman. The cause of death could not be determined. Two months after they were found, Scott's family held a memorial service and buried his remains in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Along the sandbar where the grave of Scott Moorman was found.
Family members of the other 4 men hired a private detective who tried for a number of months to determine what happened to the men still lost. He took a crew to the Taongi Atoll where they once again scoured the spit of land and dove in the lagoon looking for clues. The outboard engine of the Sarah Joe was found underwater wedged in the coral reef. Digging and sifting the sand, they found a handful of human bones a few yards further down from the grave site. Nothing more was discovered. The private detective and crew declared they were absolutely positive there was nothing more to find. Forensic work later determined the bones were more of Scott Moorman. 

So what really happened to the Sarah Joe and the 5 friends who went out in her that fateful day? Had she been floating around in that vast expanse of empty ocean for almost 10 years, her crew slowly dying one by one of hunger and thirst? There was only one narrow entrance through the reef and islands where a boat can enter the lagoon of 
 the Taongi Atoll. Did the Sarah Joe, against all odds, just happen to float through that narrow channel to land on an interior sandbar or could she have been guided by someones hand? What happened to the 4 men who have never been found? All sailors know, the sea rarely gives up her dead. Who buried Scott Moorman? How did he come to be freshly buried at least 9 years after his disappearance? What were those partially burned sheets of paper on his grave? Why was his jawbone on top of the grave and his other bones buried? So many unanswered questions, but it all remains a mystery.

Sex, Murder, and Mystery on the Island of Floreana

How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude;
But grant me still a friend in my retreat,
To whom I may whisper - solitude is sweet.
William Cowper, "Retirement"

Dore Strauch was a teacher who was convinced she was meant for greater things than a life as the wife of a cruel man and working beneath a headmaster who was twice her age. Dr. Friedrich Ritter, a dentist, desired to map the human brain and felt civilization had nothing more to offer him. As fortune would have it, Dore met Friedrich when she came to him for some dental work and in 1929, they left their spouses and ran away to Floreana, a remote, lonely island in the Galapagos, a place where the authority of the state ended and the law of necessity reigned. When the pair came ashore, the island was deserted, having successfully resisted several attempts at colonization. There simply wasn't enough fresh water to support a colony of people.

Dore and Friedrich
Before leaving, to prevent dental problems, Friedrich pulled all his teeth and made a set of metal false teeth. Some reports state Dore also had her teeth removed and the two shared the one set of false teeth, but no proof of that has been found. Once they arrived on Floreana, they immediately removed all of their clothing and lived from then on as nudist, only putting clothes on when visitors sometimes came to their island. They soon built a hut of corrugated iron in the green crater of an extinct volcano and cultivated an acre of land, successfully raising a nice garden from which they harvested almost all of their food sustaining them as vegetarians.
Friedrich and Dore at home on Floreana
The press got word of this modern-day Adam and Eve, the rugged doctor and his lover, living naked and alone on a far off island. They became international celebrities, exactly the opposite of what they had wanted. For several years, people would come to visit them, arriving every few weeks. The couple complained bitterly about how often people would come and thus, how often they would have to wear clothes. Occasionally a few of the visitors came with the intention of staying on the island, but invariably, the harsh conditions of the island and the hard work it took to survive shattered their dreams of idyllic living on a tropical isle and they all left when the next boat stopped by.

Margret, Heinz and a pet cat at their home on Floreana
In 1932, Heinz Wittmer arrived on the island with his pregnant wife Margret and their teenage son. Heinz was seeking a place far away from post-war Germany which was in the midst of a severe depression with 30% unemployment, rioting in the streets, and the rise of the Nazi Party. Unlike the others though, the Wittmer family were knowledgable, independent, and determined and willing to endure the hardships. They stayed on the other side of the island away from Friedrich and Dore, making their home for a while in a cave. The families visited each other occasionally, but the women didn't like each other so they mostly stayed to themselves and that's the way they both preferred. When their son Rolf was born in the cave house, it was the first birth ever recorded on Floreana Island.

The Baroness, Philippson and Lorrenz
The next year brought unfortunate changes. A party of four people arrived and declared their intention to stay. They were led by "Baroness" Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, an attractive young Austrian. The other 3 people were her two lovers, Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorrenz, and Manuel Valdvieso, a handyman who had been hired to do all of the work. Manuel built a hut on the beach for them to live in which the Baroness called "Hacienda Paradise." She began to call herself the "Empress of Floreana" and announced plans to build a grand hotel which would be built and operated for her rich friends and other millionaires. She managed to get her plans announced by the international media and soon there were many more yachts anchoring in the little bay. The Baroness began inviting yacht captains and select male passengers into her bed and eventually seduced the Governor of Galapagos. Yachts began to go out of their way to visit the island of Floreana. With the Baroness' scandalous living arrangements and rumors of her seemingly insatiable sexual appetite, everyone sailing the Pacific wanted to be able to boast of an encounter with her.

Cover of a magazine story about the Baroness and her life on Floreana
The Wittmer family, who by now had managed to build a house and were actually doing rather well given the difficult conditions, lived on the other end of the island and didn't associate much with the Baroness and her entourage. Friedrich though made no effort to conceal his hatred of the Baroness and her friends and "visitors" and plans for a grand hotel. He blamed her for totally upsetting the lifestyle he and Dore had worked so hard to establish.

Eventually, Rudolf Lorrenz, one of the Baroness' original lovers, evidently grew tired of his lady's penchant to bed others and heated arguments began taking place in their camp. Lorrenz began visiting the Wittmer family, sometimes staying for days until the Baroness herself would come to fetch him back. A drought occurred making fresh water extremely scarce and the pressure apparently drove Friedrich and Dore into bitter arguments between themselves. The Wittmer family, Friedrich and Dore became even more upset with the Baroness and her friends when she started badmouthing them to the international press which published every word whether true or not. For some unknown reason, Philippson stole the Ritter's donkey one night and turned it lose in the Wittmer's garden where it proceeded to destroy a good portion of it. When Heinz found it the next morning, he thought it was a feral donkey and shot it.

The Baroness and Philippson on Floreana
On March 27, 1934, the Baroness and her lover Philippson disappeared, never to be seen again. When questioned later, Margret Wittmer said the Baroness had come to their home one morning and said some friends had arrived in their yacht and were going to take her and Philippson to Tahiti that very day. She also told Margret that whatever they were not taking with them was being left to Lorrenz. But neither the Baroness or Philippson ever appeared in Tahiti or anywhere else. Lorrenz claimed to know nothing about it and neither he, the handy-man Valdvieso, nor Friedrich or Dore saw any kind of boat in the harbor the whole week in question. Almost every possession of the Baroness and Philippson were left behind, including luggage and other items of a personal nature that the Baroness would have taken with her even for a short trip. Relations between the Wittmer's and Friedrich and Dore became even more strained when they told people of their belief that Lorrenz killed the Baroness and Philippson, burned their bodies and the Wittmer's helped him cover it up. The Wittmer's talked of Friedrich's dislike of the Baroness and claimed Lorrenz and he had suspiciously split the items left behind by the disappeared couple.

The handy-man Valdvieso convinced the very next boat that stopped to take him off the island. It is assumed he apparently escaped back to wherever the Baroness had found him.

The bodies of Lorrenz and Nuggerud
Soon thereafter, Lorrenz convinced a Norwegian fisherman named Nuggerud to take him to Santa Cruz and then to San Cristobal where he could catch the ferry to Guayaquil. They landed in Santa Cruz, bought supplies, set sail for San Cristobal and then vanished. A number of months later, the mummified, desiccated bodies of both men were found on Marchena Island, a parcel of land in the northern part of the Archipelago which is not on the route to or anywhere near Santa Cruz or San Cristobal.  There is still no clue as to how they got there.

In November of that same year, Friedrich Ritter died. The official reason was listed as food poisoning from eating a badly preserved chicken. What makes this interesting is the fact that Friedrich was an avowed vegetarian who had not been seen to eat meat of any kind for years. Plus, he was by then an experienced veteran of island living and perfectly capable of knowing when meat had gone bad. Margret Wittmer claimed that Dore had poisoned him as his treatment of her had become worse during the last year. Both women claimed to have been by his side when Friedrich died, but their accounts could not be any different.
Dore Strauch: “Suddenly he opened his great blue eyes and stretched his arms towards me. His glance was joyously tranquil. He seemed actually to say to me: “I go; but promise you will not forget what we have lived for.” It seemed to be as if he would draw me with him. Then he sank back, and I began to caress his forehead tenderly. He became quite still, and that was death.
Margret Wittmer: “Whenever she came near him, he would make feeble movements as if to hit or kick her. He looked up at Dore, his eyes gleaming with hate. [He] wrote his last sentence: “I curse you with my dying breath.” His eyes filled with a wild feverish flame. Dore shrieked, and drew back in horror. Then he collapsed soundlessly, falling back on the pillows. He had gone.
Three dead and two missing in the space of a few months on a barely populated island captured even more world-wide attention than the Baroness' antics. The "Galapagos Affair" as it became called, has confounded historians, police, and armchair detectives since 1934. The Baroness and Philippson have never been found. The mummified bodies of Lorrenz and Nuggerud ending up on Marchena Island is still a complete mystery. Friedrich's death is still officially listed as an accidental food poisoning despite all the raised eyebrows and questions. The Wittmers remained on Floreana and became wealthy years later when the Galapagos became a tourist destination. Until she died in 2000, still living on Floreana Island at the age of 96, Margret never changed her story that the Baroness and Philippson left for Tahiti on a yacht. She often hinted she knew more than she was telling, but no one knows whether she really did or was just having fun with the tourists and interviewers. Dore eventually put on clothes and returned to Germany where she wrote a book about the whole affair. It wasn't a big success and it didn't settle any of the mysteries, but it proved interesting due to the stories of the hardships she and Friedrich endured and for details of the sordid goings-on that took place after the Baroness took up residence on the island. In the book she was adamant that Lorrenz killed the Baroness and Philippson, but she offered no proof other than her "gut feelings." 

No one is alive today who actually have knowledge of all that happened. Some mysteries, it seems, are destined to never be solved. And isn't that what makes the world just a bit more interesting?

Postcard From The World's Smallest Police Station

Carrabelle is a rather small, quiet town along the Florida panhandle about 20 miles east of Apalachicola. The town is surrounded by the Crooked, Ochlockonee, and Carrabelle rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. With a population of about 1,300 happy souls, the major business is fishing and it is noted as a nice deep-water fishing village. It's a nice, peaceful, family-friendly type of place. What it is most famous for however is a phone booth. You see, Carrabelle is home to the world's smallest police station.

The town used to have a problem with tourists making unauthorized long-distance calls on its unattended police phone. The phone harked back to a time when folks could mostly be trusted to not do what they weren't supposed to do - the call box was simply bolted to the side of a public building with a little sign beside it saying, "For police business only." In the early 1960's though, the town's phone bill began to be hundred's of dollars per month after fishermen and tourist figured out there was nothing to prevent them from calling home or anywhere else.

At first, the town's lone employee simply moved the phone to the side of another building that wasn't located right on the main road through town, but it didn't take visitors long to find it and continue making their calls. About that time, the phone company decided to replace the town's aging phone booth in front of the pharmacy. Johnny Mirabella, the town's employee, talked the phone company into letting him have the old booth and with the help of Curly Messer, a deputy sheriff, moved the booth to its present location on Highway 98 and on March 10, 1963, installed the police phone in it and placed police station decals over the booth's glass. Unfortunately, people would still make their illegal calls from it until Johnny finally got a bright idea and simply wired the phone directly into police dispatch and removed the dial. No more illegal long-distance phone usage!

The phone booth police station has been featured on numerous television shows such as The Today Show, The Tonight Show, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and Real People among others and was used in the movie "Tate's Hell." The town has copyrighted the design and makes additional income by selling t-shirts, hats, postcards, and calendars featuring the "World's Smallest Police Station."

Of course, there are negatives that come with fame - vandals have occasionally ripped the phone out, shot bullet holes in it, and knocked it over several times with trucks. One time a tourist tried to get a local help him load the booth into his pickup so he could take it back home to Tennessee with him. But the iconic little police station always gets repaired eventually and it still stands at the corner of U.S. 98 and CR 67.

Rock, Paper, Scissor

In Gillette, Wyoming, in front of the Gillette News-Record newspaper offices at 1201 W. 2nd Street, there is a bronze statue of the decision-making game Rock, Paper, Scissors. The sculpture is by Warren Cullar and Kevin Box. While it certainly is not worth a long trip to see, if you happen to be in the area for some other reason then you should check it out because, well, just because it's kind of cool.

After getting your picture taken next to the Rock, Paper, Scissor statue for posterity, less than a mile away at 902 W. 2nd Street is a pretty cool county museum named the Rockpile Museum. It is not a museum of rocks; it got its name because it is located next to a big pile of rocks. Evidently, during those long, cold, winter days in Gillette, the residents do not spend their time coming up with exquisitely intellectual names for their city features.