This post thanks to Spertierra, who jogged my memory about it:
Many guesses, no clues on tourists
Author: Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
DEATH VALLEY - The discovery of an abandoned minivan in a desolate sandy wash here a decade ago spurred a massive search for four German tourists.
No trace of the visitors was ever found, sparking speculation about the fate of the foursome: architect Egbert Rimkus, 34, his girlfriend Cornelia Meyer, 28, his 10-year-old son Georg Weber and Meyer's son Max, 4.
Close to 100 searchers on foot joined by eight on horseback and four helicopter crews overhead scoured a wide area surrounding Anvil Spring Canyon near the southern boundary of Death Valley National Park in late October 1996.
The search was launched after Park Ranger Dave Brenner, during an aerial reconnaissance, spotted the green Plymouth Voyager minivan on Oct. 21, 1996. Its tires were buried deep in the sand. Three were flat.
An investigation confirmed that the van, rented on July 7, 1996, in Los Angeles by Rimkus and Meyer, was not returned to the rental agency by a July 26 due date and was subsequently reported to police as stolen.
On Aug. 14, 1996, Interpol issued a missing-persons report for the four Germans.
Few clues were discovered in or near the minivan.
"No tracks were found which could be related to the missing persons," said Eric Inman, an investigator for the National Park Service, in his official report.
"No purse, passports, rental-car contract, keys, wallet, money or airline tickets were found."
Among items in the van were two Coleman sleeping-bag boxes, along with a new Coleman sleeping bag, various pairs of shoes, and clean clothing for a woman, man and two children. There was also a 12-pack carton of Bud Ice beer, two unopened bottles of beer, empty one-gallon bottles of water and apple cider and a Swiss cheese wrapper.
A camera, numerous rolls of exposed 35-mm film and a portable CD player also were found, along with an American flag, which had been taken from a stone cabin in Butte Valley, five miles away.
"A beer bottle was found a half-mile away that matched bottles in the vehicle," Inman said. "Other than these clues, nothing else conclusive was found."
Striped Butte, where the van was found
Inman said the van's tires had cut about 200 feet of deep tracks into the sand, indicating the vehicle had been driven with flat rear tires. "Both rear tires were gouged, punctured and ruined," he wrote in his report. "The front right tire was completely flat, and the bead separated from the rim. Both front tires were very abraded from spinning in the rough gravel.
"Later examination revealed that the spare tire and jack had not been used."
Author and investigator Emmett Harder of Devore said little effort would have been required to jack the van up, remove rocks from under the vehicle, put on the spare tire and continue down the road.
"The grade was downhill enough to roll easily, even with the rear tires flat," Harder said.
The official search for the missing tourists was called off on Oct. 26, Inman said. But subsequent efforts to learn the fate of the missing tourists continued for years, conducted by private parties and search-and-rescue groups.
Theories vary widely about what happened to the foursome as temperatures soared to 120 degrees and above during the summer of 1996.
"I expect some day that someone will find their mummified remains under a rocky overhang where they attempted to find shade," speculated veteran Park Ranger Charlie Callagan, who briefly took part in the initial search at Anvil Spring Canyon.
"But in Death Valley's rugged outcroppings, you would have to crawl right up to such a location to find anyone's remains."
Most people who participated in the search parties agree that any remains most likely would have been disturbed by animals that frequent the badlands of Death Valley.
But many, like Callagan, wonder why Rimkus, Meyer and the children didn't hike the five miles back to the stone cabin in Butte Valley where they had found the American flag.
"There was water there," the ranger said. "But in intense heat, people don't always make logical decisions."
With the loss of a little more than a quart of water, the body experiences the first sensations of thirst, wrote Richard Lingenfelter in his 1986 book "Death Valley and the Amargosa - A Land of Illusion." "By the time you have lost a gallon, you begin to feel tired and apathetic. Most of the water lost comes from your blood, and as it thickens, your circulation becomes poor, your heart strains, your muscles fatigue and your head aches.
"With further loss of water you become dizzy and begin to stumble; your breathing is labored and your speech is indistinct. By the time you have lost two gallons of water, your tongue is swollen, you can hardly keep your balance, your muscles spasm, and you are becoming delirious."
In its spring 1997 edition, an Inyo County newsletter, the Butte Valley Bugle, offered three theories that might explain the disappearance of the German visitors.
The first, which supposes the tourists made a decision to abandon the disabled minivan, poses serious questions, according to the Bugle. "Why would they drive down the relatively unknown Anvil Spring Canyon in the first place? If they got a flat tire, why didn't they put on the spare? (And) why didn't they simply walk back to Butte Valley?"
Did the German travelers fake their disappearance? This second theory postulates that Egbert Rimkus had substantial debts and wanted to escape his financial woes.
"Thus, he staged the disappearance with the hope that he would be declared lost and presumed dead so he could begin a new life somewhere else," the Bugle speculated, adding that there is no evidence that Rimkus had financial problems.
However, Heike Weber later said in a 2004 letter that Rimkus, her former husband, was in debt and had built a new house that he couldn't pay for.
Ranger Callagan scoffs at the theory. "That doesn't make much sense," he said. "If you want to disappear, there are better places to do it than Death Valley."
The third theory, according to the Bugle, is the most ominous. "In this version, the hapless tourists encountered foul play at the hands of the wrong people . . . who killed the Germans, dumped their bodies somewhere as yet unsearched, and abandoned the van."
Still other theories have been put forward. Retired engineering professor Dick Hasselman, who conducted a dozen searches for the missing Germans, speculates that Rimkus, experienced in industrial design and a co-developer of a rocket-propulsion system, might have driven to southwest Death Valley in hopes of visiting the nearby China Lake Naval Weapons Center.
His ex-wife said Rimkus "was fixated with the idea" of penetrating a secret area to observe tests of new propulsion devices. Rimkus, a first-time visitor to Death Valley, might have become confused about the route leading from Warm Spring Canyon over Mengel Pass toward China Lake. In that confusion, the minivan ended up in Anvil Spring Canyon.
Heike Weber believes the missing travelers are still alive somewhere, she told Hasselman in 2004. But Cornelia Meyer's parents think otherwise. They already have declared their daughter and grandson dead.
"I think someone, some day will stumble on evidence - such as bones, belt buckles or shoes - to solve this case," Harder said.
Looking at the facts and theories, Callagan sums up the case this way: "In the 10 years since these visitors vanished, there have been no obvious signs of them - no letters, no credit-card receipts, no cashed checks, nothing. It's one of those unsolved mysteries that still endures over the years."