First, a moment of levity before launching into today’s case: last night we went to a Tony Awards viewing party hosted by our friends Devan and Will. After the Tony broadcast, the local news came on and we heard a news brief about some “overdue kayakers.” We were all very confused about what that exactly meant, until the newscaster explained that the kayakers were supposed to come back at a certain time and were unaccounted for after that time. My husband Jarred then asked, “So, they mean these people are missing?” We thought it was an amusing and really strange way to refer to missing people. Devan said she would judge me harshly if I did not begin referring to missing people on my blog as “overdue,” so we are about to go into what out local news would apparently call an “overdue” person case. (Seriously, library books are overdue, not people.)
“So many people don’t report their loved ones missing as adults because, well, they’re not worthy. That’s a prostitute, that’s an alcoholic, that’s a drug addict. I don’t care what they are. They are lives. They have names.” -Gloria Denton, April Pitzer’s mother.
In my previous blog post, I discussed Missing White Women Syndrome and how certain factors such as race play a role in how much attention and media coverage missing persons’ cases get. Race is not the only factor, however; if a person has some other “undesirable” quality, such as drug addiction, mental illness, or a troubled past, these can also lead their disappearance to be dismissed by media or, as Gloria points out, sometimes their own family. Both families and law enforcement may mistakenly believe that someone’s past means they don’t want to be found.
The case of April Pitzer is a case I had heard about years ago while watching an episode of the TV show Disappeared that covered the case. I’m probably a bit desensitized to true crime because of how much I have consumed it over the years, but this is one of the few cases that has given me actual nightmares, which I attribute to the general creepiness factor of the setting of vast desserts and abandoned mines. This case has haunted me in other ways as well, mainly by Gloria Denton, a mother who so clearly loved her daughter and who is unstoppable in trying to find her, and also by April herself, who strikes me as a kindhearted soul, a person with so much to offer, whose demise has come from a combination of bad luck and some poor life choices. While some will dismiss people like April, I see all of us in April. None of us are perfect; we all make bad choices at times. As the old saying goes, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
April was last seen in June of 2004 in Newberry Springs, CA. At the time of her disappearance, she was 30 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighed approximately 120-130 pounds, and had brown hair and hazel eyes. According to the Doe Network website, April had a small scar on her lip, another small scar on her elbow, and a third round scar on the left side of her chest.
April was born in 1974 in Arkansas to Gloria Denton, who was only nineteen and who lost custody of April to relatives due to her young age. However, she stayed a constant presence in April’s life and spent as much time with her as possible; mother and daughter had a tight bond and when she turned 17 and was legally old enough to decide for herself, April moved in with her mother. Family and friends describe April as sweet, caring, and someone who made friends easily. April is noted for having a very caregiving nature, while also enjoying outdoor activities like hiking and hang gliding.
April’s troubles began when she was in her early twenties. One night while at a bar, she offered two new female acquaintances a ride home and was pulled over. She was cited for driving while intoxicated and the two other passengers had methamphetamine on them, which added to the situation. In exchange for dropping the DWI charges, the police asked her to work for them as drug informant. This seems like a rather extreme deal for a young woman driving under the influence of alcohol; she had no other drugs in her system and no evidence of ever using drugs at that point, aside from her passengers having drugs on them. April was terrified of having a criminal record and took the deal; at the time, she had no idea that she was infiltrating a major drug ring that smuggled and traded from Arkansas all the way to Southern California.
At some point, April was compromised and the police advised her that it was no longer safe to live in Arkansas. She relocated to Texas and began to start over again; she lived near family and met Chase Pitzer, who she married and with whom she had two daughters.
Unfortunately, April’s past would catch up with her. When she was eight months pregnant with her first child, officials from the DEA showed up on her doorstep and told her she was being summoned to testify in proceedings against people in the drug ring she had infiltrated. April’s testimony led to the conviction and sentencing of more than thirty participants in this major drug ring.
After testifying, April returned to Texas, but, according to her mother Gloria, “April was never the same.” She became extremely paranoid, convinced that she would be stalked, hurt, or killed as retribution for her testimony. She refused to let her daughters sleep separately from her and stayed up all night to watch over them, insisted on locks and surveillance equipment, and began to drink heavily to cope with her fears. She eventually had some sort of mental breakdown and was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. I question whether she really had bipolar disorder or whether her declining mental state was due to PTSD as a result of her work as an informant; perhaps it was both. Medications for bipolar disorder didn’t seem to help April much, and eventually she went off her meds. The stress of all of this took a toll on her marriage, and despite counseling and numerous attempts at reconciliation, April and Chase eventually divorced. April lost custody of her two young daughters due to her declining mental health, which caused her to spiral even further. Reeling from the loss of her marriage and children, April met a new romantic interest, John Lopez, who offered to take April back to California with him. Having nothing left to lose, she agreed. She hoped she could regain some footing by starting over in a new place, rebuild her life, and then be fit to be reunited with her daughters. This, unfortunately, is not what happened.
April ended up in San Bernadino County, near Barstow and Newberry Springs. This area of California is very desolate and full of large areas of dessert and huge mines. It’s also an area known for seedy characters and drug use. According to the Trace Evidence podcast about April’s disappearance, Barstow is often referred to as the methamphetamine capital of the world. April unfortunately started to hang around with people caught up in that lifestyle, including Steve Wilkinson, Chuck “Uncle Chuck” Hollister, and Dan “Dan Dan” Dansbury. She broke up with John and became homeless, staying on friends’ couches.
One night, April found herself distraught on the side of the highway, completely shattered by the turn her life had taken. Mark Killibrew was driving down the highway and pulled over to see what was wrong with the clearly upset and disheveled April. She told him what she had been going through and he brought her to his invalid mother, Barbara, who befriended April and for whom April worked as a caretaker for a brief time. It was Barbara Killibrew who convinced April to call her mother and let her know how she had been living in California. Once Gloria was aware of the situation, Gloria sent clothes and told April she would pay to bus her home. April agreed, but wasn’t quite to ready to leave California just yet; Gloria was in the process of moving from Texas back to Arkansas and April wanted to wait to meet Gloria in Clarksville once she was settled. Unfortunately, this hesitation might have cost April her life.
April’s past as a drug informant would come back to haunt her when, at a gathering with Steve Wilkinson and some others, April realized that among the group was Brandy Brooks, a woman whose husband had been jailed as a result of April’s testimony back in Arkansas. According to Wilkinson, April tried to apologize and thus made herself known as a drug informant among a group involved with the particular drug ring she had testified against, and thus made herself a target.
April called Gloria shortly after the encounter, and Gloria begged April to leave California as soon as possible, feeling her life was in immediate danger. April still wanted to wait another week or so until Gloria had moved, and April told her mother she would be staying with Chuck in the meantime. This was the last time Gloria spoke to her daughter.
As far as I can find, the last people we can confirm to have seen April alive was Barbara Killibrew, who April visited in the hospital shortly before her disappearance, and Chuck, who drove April over for the visit. Barbara claimed that April was in good spirits and excited to go home to Arkansas, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Over the next few days, Gloria would try to call Chuck’s house, which was the only number she had at which to reach April, and receive no answer. Gloria did not think this terribly strange until she received a call from Barbara, asking Gloria “how it felt to have her baby home.” When Gloria replied that April wasn’t home, Barbara said that she was sure April was on her way to Arkansas the last time she saw her, and that she had even given her a white suitcase to pack in. At this point, Gloria realized it had been eight days since she could confirm anyone had spoken with or seen April. This phone call occurred on July 4, 2004, but it wasn’t until July 16 that police were willing to take a missing person’s report. According to Gloria, the police told her that she probably chose to disappear because of her failed marriage and depression over having her children taken away. It’s pretty common for police to dismiss the cases of missing adults in this type of way; after all, there is nothing illegal about choosing to start a new life and adults have the freedom to go missing if they choose. However, the number of cases of adults who actually chose to disappear and start a new life are statistically small in comparison to those who meet some other fate (foul play, suicide, accidental death, etc.), and this attitude unfortunately often leads to wasted critical time directly following someone’s disappearance.
April was declared legally dead in 2010, and almost everyone agrees there is foul play involved with her case. There have been some recent investigations surrounding sexual predators in the Newberry Springs area at the time of her disappearance, but the majority of suspicion has focused on Chuck Hollister, Dan Dansbury, and Steve Wilkinson, or some combination thereof.
April was staying with Chuck before she went missing and Barbara last saw April with Chuck. After April disappeared, Gloria tried calling Chuck for weeks with no response. When he finally responded, he told Gloria he had been helping a friend move to Oregon (keep Oregon in the back of your mind) and that April had left one day while he was at work, and he assumed she had taken a bus to Arkansas. When he is interviewed by police, he provides conflicting stories. He tells one officer the same thing that he had told Gloria, but also said April had left her stuff, including the white suitcase, behind, so why would he assume she’d gone to Arkansas without her things? He tells another officer that April had gone to stay with Steve Wilkinson for a few days. He refused to let police search his property and changed his phone number after Gloria attempted to contact him.
Oregon come into play with Chuck because, during the time he claimed to be in Oregon helping a friend move, some graffiti was found at a truck stop in Oregon on a men’s bathroom stall. The graffiti read: “Looking for missing girl from Arkansas?
Three miles east of Barstow, 1-15 freeway.” This location would be near the residence of Chuck and also near the mines of Barstow (more on those mines later). Is it a coincidence that this graffiti pops up in Oregon while Chuck is also allegedly in Oregon? Police watched surveillance video from the truck stop, which shows the men’s bathroom entrance pretty clearly, and are unable to conclusively say Chuck or any other person of interest was there. As is unfortunately the case with all three suspects in this case, Chuck has since passed away. Detectives interviewed Chuck just before his death and asked him if he wanted to “clear his conscience” before he died, but he gave them nothing.
Dan-Dan was a member of the same friend circle as Chuck and April, and was also known as a “rock hound.” He and Chuck mined together in many of the hundreds of mines in Barstow, looking for gems and making jewelry. Dan Dan was owner of the Red Dog Mine, an especially creepy-looking mine with graffiti scrawled on it, reading things like “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Rumors that April’s body could be found in a mine shaft began early in the investigation, after a woman on a bus was overheard saying, “I know where she is. She’s in a hole” while looking at a Missing Persons flier of April. Many more witnesses told various stories of April being killed and her body thrown into a mine shaft. This would make locating her extremely difficult, as Barstow is home to hundreds of deep mine shafts. In December of 2005, a tour group exploring some mines found a flannel jacket that Gloria identified as April’s. In January of 2006, Gloria visited the Red Dog Mine in person, where she found a white suitcase matching the description of the suitcase Barbara gave April, a black lace bra, and various other clothing items that Gloria identified as April’s. Because of the extreme dessert weather and amount of exposure time, there was nothing of forensic value that could be found. Since it was determined the items had been subject to so much exposure, that means they must have been in the mine for a while. I wonder why they weren’t found sooner, and why it took April’s mother to find these items rather than investigators.
Graffiti from the Red Dog Mine.
Dan-Dan has also since passed away of cancer. While he was dying in the hospital, Gloria confronted him and he denied killing April, crying and saying that she was a wonderful person. Gloria found him believable, but rumors circulate that Dan-Dan suffered from dissociative identity disorder (DID), and Gloria wonders if this is true and if one of Dan’s more violent personalities could have been responsible. Also, before his death, Dan allegedly told a close friend that he considered a surrogate grandmother that he killed April and that “her mother is in the right place, she just hasn’t been far enough.” The Red Dog Mine has been thoroughly explored, with Gloria as witness, and no remains have been located. However, April’s body could be in any number of the other hundreds of mines in the area.
Steve Wilkinson is an interesting suspect as well. In the Disappeared episode,
Wilkinson’s lower third describes him as “April’s friend” and he is not mentioned as a suspect at all, which is a pretty major oversight, in my opinion. I remember watching the episode and thinking that he seemed pretty angry when describing April’s testimony against the drug ring, and there’s good reason for that: he had served time in federal prison for his connection to that very ring. When April was exposed as an informant, was this his opportunity for revenge? There are rumors that Steven hired Chuck or Dan Dan or both to murder and dispose of April. He is also, according to one of Chuck’s accounts, the last person April stayed with, although of course that account is questionable. There was also a previous violent incident between Steve and April: allegedly in the weeks before April met the Killibrews, Steve accused April of stealing car parts and shot her in the leg. Chuck, Dan, and April’s boyfriend at the time all corroborated this story.
Strangely enough, Steve Wilkinson is also dead, and some rumor and speculation surrounds his odd death. In September of 2015, Wilkinson was arrested in connection with a drug raid and posted bail. The day after that, he purchased a life insurance policy and then boarded a small plane in Daggett, CA, that was piloted by his father-in-law. Two other friends were also on board and the plan was apparently to fly to Texas to celebrate Steve’s birthday. The plane made a brief stop in Flagstaff, Arizona, before flying markedly off course and crashing near Silverton, Colorado, killing the four passengers. There is speculation that, since Wilkinson’s body was identified by tattoos and not DNA, that he exited the plane in Flagstaff and staged his own death. Others speculate that April’s body had been removed from the mines and then dropped off somewhere in Flagstaff. Again, with Wilkinson dead (as far as we know), there don’t seem to be any answers.
This case seems to be a never-ending maze of rumors and dead ends. April’s young daughters are grown, and one has a child of her own. Gloria continues to search the mine shafts with volunteer organizations, but with so many mines to search and speculation about whether April is even there, chances of finding her seem pretty slim. This is an incredibly sad case, but if we can take anything positive away from it, it is to look at the strength of Gloria, whose love for her daughter has never faltered, no matter what her daughter was going through or how bad things got for her, and who is an example of endless strength and determination in seeking answers for April
Sources Used in This Blog Post:
“April Beth Pitzer.” The Doe Network International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons, 2016, http://www.doenetwork.org/cases/3579dfca.html
“Missing- April Beth Pitzer.” Facebook, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/Missing-April-Beth-Pitzer-203568679736761/
“Mojave Mystery.” Disappeared. Investigation Discovery, 2010. Amazon Prime, https://www.amazon.com/Disappeared-Season-2/dp/B0045YGLF0
Pacheco, Steven. “The Vanishing of April Pitzer.” Trace Evidence, 18 September 2018, https://player.fm/series/series-2330752/ep-059-the-vanishing-of-april-pitzer
Quintero, Jose. “Authorities Ask For Public’s Help in Locating Remains of Missing Woman.” The Daily Press, GateHouse Media, 2016, https://www.vvdailypress.com/news/20161012/authorities-ask-for-publics-help-in-locating-remains-of-missing-woman