Model Goes Missing in the Mojave Desert: The Story of April Beth Pitzer
April Beth Pitzer, 30, was a former model and mother of two from Texas who mysteriously vanished on June 28, 2004, a few months after moving to the small town of Newberry Springs, California.
Newberry Springs is a town along Route 66, with a population of under 3,000 people. Located at the foot of the Newberry Mountains, the town is located 20 miles east of Barstow, and just west of the Mojave National Preserve.
There is not much in the town, and only three restaurants to speak of. The Bagdad Cafe stays in business as a pit stop for travelers and fans of the quirky film “Bagdad Café.” The restaurant is a tiny place where tourists stop to take selfies and are welcomed into what seems like a film set, with hundreds of world flags, postcards, and notes lining the walls and ceiling.
There is not a lot in the Mojave and the desert unforgiving, but for decades people have gravitated to the desert to follow their dreams—at any cost.
She Had it All
Prior to leaving Fort Worth, Texas, April had it all. She was married to Chase Pitzer and they lived in a beautiful new home. Everything was headed in the right direction until April got a knock on her front door. It was the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), wanting April to return to her home state of Arkansas to be a federal witness.
When April was 22, she had been arrested for DUI and agreed to become a drug informant instead of facing charges. Six years later, the Arkansas DEA was calling upon her to testify against dozens of players in a large methamphetamine drug ring. After the trial, April began to withdraw and started suffering from paranoia.
“She was never the same,” her mother told Investigation Discovery. “She looked over her shoulder everywhere she went.”
Then, April had her daughter, and with that, a renewed happiness and stability—but before long, the paranoia set in again.
“She wouldn’t even let her daughters sleep in their rooms because she was afraid someone was going to come through the window and kill them,” said her mother Gloria Denton. “And all of this paranoia began taking its toll on the marriage itself.”
To quell her fears, April began drinking and doing drugs. With her marriage almost over, April had a breakdown and was diagnosed with Bipolar. Various medications did not seem to help and some even exasperated the problem with her paranoia.
“She was so beautiful and then, she just started getting skinny and it was so sad,” said Gloria.
April left her husband and moved out with her two daughters into a small apartment. She took a job at the local Shamrock convenience store. Despite the overwhelming stress, April was described as a “hands-on” mother and the girls had never been away from her.
Just when April thought things could not get any worse, April’s in-laws gained custody of her daughters due to her mental health issues. On the verge of another breakdown, and separated from her children, April began socializing with a different crowd.
Change of Pace
April met John and Rose Lopez through their son. They were both from California and staying with relatives in Texas. John and his wife took April under their wings. A few months after meeting, John and Rose began making plans to return to California and asked April if she wanted to go. In 2003, April left for California.
Once in Barstow, California, April realized there was little opportunity. Instead of jobs, gangs, drugs, and homelessness were prevalent. In fact, Barstow is called the “Methamphetamine Capital of America.”
John and Rose say they tried to warn April that there are certain places she should not go but those were the very places April was drawn to.
At a desert party with John and Rose, April met another man, Mike Bernal, who showed up on a dirt bike and April wanted a ride. When April and Mike returned, John and Rose had left her at the party alone.
With nowhere to go, April was forced to go to Mike’s house who owned 20 acres with several mobile homes on his property Newberry Springs. So, April moved to the desert community, but the new life April had been seeking, turned out to be a far cry from the one she left behind.
“They didn’t even have electricity in that house she was at,” said Gloria. “I didn’t know.”
April's new boyfriend had been arrested several times on drug offenses and introduced April to a new underworld of drug dealers and addicts. The southern beauty stood out among her new friends. Then, when April and the new boyfriend broke up, April had nowhere to go and began living on the street.
She had been lying to her mother about her life in California. “I didn’t know that April was homeless and living from place to place,” said Gloria. “I thought she had a job, and everything was okay.”
But April’s life was far from okay.
Twist of Fate
In a bizarre twist of fate, April ran into a woman who recognized her as being a federal informant from back east, and April’s world would begin to crumble once again.
All the years of paranoia and fear came back to haunt her. Thirty-two people had gone to federal prison as a result of April’s testimony for the manufacture and sales of methamphetamine.
“I said, oh my God April, you’ve got to get out of there!” said Gloria. “You are gonna die.”
Gloria wanted to send April money to leave immediately but April told her to wait. Gloria begged April to go to someone’s house that she could trust, where she would be safe.
Staying With a Friend
April agreed to go to Uncle Chuck’s house.
Chuck Hollister was a quiet, middle-aged man; well-known for taking people in at his home in Newberry Springs. April had stayed there before.
While there, Gloria got April to agree to leave Newberry Springs. “She had really high hopes and she was so excited,” said Gloria.
According to Investigation Discovery, one week later, when Gloria tried to reach April at Chuck’s house, April was nowhere to be found and Gloria's calls went unanswered.
It had been eight days since April had talked to her mother, so she frantically called San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office to make a missing person report. The response she got from the department was that April was not missing, she probably just did not want to be found. “You don’t know my daughter,” Gloria said.
Law Enforcement Searches the Area
After a month had passed, authorities finally began searching for April and made fliers, distributing them in Newberry Springs and surrounding towns. The tactic worked and they received a lead.
On September 9, 2004, police received a call from a Barstow city bus driver who overheard a comment from a bus rider. The rider had seen a flier posted at the bus stop and told the bus driver she knew April. The rider said, “I know where she’s at—she’s in a hole.”
Police tracked down the witness for further questioning.
“She denied she was in a hole but did say she was at a party and somebody at the party, she couldn’t remember who said that April was dead and in a mine shaft,” said Detective Steve Pennington of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities finally had a lead—but the fact there are over 20,000 abandoned mine shafts in San Bernardino County alone is formidable. For detectives, finding April in a mine shaft would be like finding a needle in a haystack.
It was not just the witness coming forward that led authorities to think April was killed. Another piece of evidence surfaced that same week over 800 miles away, in a neighboring state.
A note on a men’s bathroom stall at an Oregon truck stop said, “Want to find missing girl from Arkansas? Look 3 miles east of Barstow on the I-15 freeway.”
“From Barstow to the Calico exit, a ground search was conducted,” said Detective Pennington. “Again, that’s an area where there are hundreds of mine shafts. We had nothing more to go on than that.”
Authorities also obtained weeks of surveillance tape of everyone going into and coming out of the bathroom at the truck stop, but neither the footage nor the ground searches produced any results.
“No evidence was found, but that doesn’t mean the rumor isn’t true,” said the Deputy Coroner of San Bernardino County.
Cryptic Notes in the Desert
One consistent lead kept coming up in the chatter around town and calls to police. The mines of Ludlow.
One of Chuck Hollister’s friends named “Dan Dan,” owned a mine in Ludlow called the Red Dog Mine. Dan Dan and Hollister were known “rock-hounds” who worked the Red Dog Mine for gold. Authorities say Dan Dan had been working the mine since the late 1970s.
Police investigated a possible connection to the leads involving the Ludlow mines and April’s disappearance.
“I went by his house numerous occasions and his vehicle would be there and I would knock on the door but he wouldn’t answer,” said Detective Pennington. “I would leave my business card and missing person fliers, asking him to contact me.”
Eventually, Dan Dan talked to the police but said he didn't know anything about April’s whereabouts.
Law enforcement decided to search the area, beginning with the dilapidated buildings that Dan Dan was known to frequent and stunned at what they found.
Dan Dan had written “No trespassing” and other ramblings on the walls, and some of the writings bone-chilling. One such writing was, “You can leave, or you can disappear. I can help you disappear. No Problem.”
Investigators wondered if Dan Dan did write these things, was he referring to April’s disappearance? Or could all the chatter about the Red Dog Mine be desert folklore?
Police went to the mine and spent 2 days with cadaver dogs searching the 200-foot depth mine and the dogs hit on the airshaft.
Authorities flew another set of cadaver dogs in but had to stop searching due to rain.
December 22, 2004, the police again returned to the mine and searched for hours. Detective Marie Spain said to April’s mother, “Gloria, you're a strong woman and I know you can handle this so I’m going to tell you that April has been moved from the Red Dog.”
The detectives were certain April was no longer in the Red Dog Mine.
A Discovery in the Desert
In late December 2005, a tour group was visiting the old mines of Ludlow and the leader, a local historian, came across a bunch of women’s clothing in an abandoned shack.
Gloria took the first plane out from Arkansas to California to help police identify if the clothing could be April’s. It would be the first time Gloria visited Newberry Springs.
“I just dropped to my knees when I got out there and seen it,” Gloria said. “Just vast sand, hills, desert, and shacks.”
Gloria reflected on one of the last conversations she had with April. “Mom, it’s a dog eat dog world out here. You do what you can to survive.” Gloria said she finally knew what April meant.
Police took Gloria to a mine called the Indian Queen several miles from the Red Dog Mine to see if she could identify the clothing. The first thing Gloria saw was a women’s red and black flannel shirt just like the one Gloria had sent to April in a care package.
Police thoroughly searched the Indian Queen mine for April’s body and found nothing. Gloria went home to Arkansas heartbroken and disappointed.
A Mother Refuses to Give Up
One year later, Gloria went out to the mines again with a volunteer search party.
This time, Gloria found April’s suitcase and other clothing scattered in the desert between Red Dog and Indian Queen mines. The items had not been there during the initial police search, but due to the scorching heat, police could not gain any forensic evidence.
Police interviewed Chuck Hollister one more time to find out how the suitcase got into the desert, but he was not forthcoming. He passed away shortly thereafter.
Not too long after Chuck's death, Dan Dan was on his deathbed and told friends that Gloria was looking in the “right place” but just had not gone far enough. He passed away without ever clarifying what he meant. Authorities believe he meant they had not searched far enough at Red Dog Mine.
Other search attempts have turned up nothing.
A Mother's Hope
As the case goes cold, both Gloria and the authorities become more frustrated.
“There are so many rumors that have floated around out here," said Detective Pennington. "We don’t want to hear any more rumors. We want to know what someone actually knows.”
For April’s mother, time is the enemy.
“At first, I was real hopeful you know, and you get people telling you all these different things, but I finally threw my hands up,” said Gloria. “I’m like, look, April didn’t die that many times. She wasn’t killed that many ways, and she can’t be that many places.
Gloria believes her daughter will receive justice one day and continues to raise awareness of her daughter’s disappearance.
“I have peace April is with the Lord,” said Gloria. “One thing is for sure—nobody can hurt her, nobody can take her from me, and she doesn’t have to be afraid.”
April was declared legally dead on August 27, 2012. Her missing person case is still open and police continue to search for that one lead that will bring justice so deserved.
If you have any information about the disappearance of April Beth Pitzer, please call 909-884-0156.
© 2020 Kym L Pasqualini