What is the Likeliest Solution to the Indiana Dunes Mystery?

Three young women disappeared from a very crowded beach in Indian Dunes State Park (the park’s name at the time) on July 2, 1966. You can read the particulars concerning this unsolved disappearance here or here or on this Websleuths message board.

I wanted to compile in one place the scenarios most often espoused as explanations for this mysterious disappearance and briefly list the pros and cons of each theory.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspects of this disappearance, besides the horrific fact that three women disappeared at once and were never found, are that it happened in plain sight of nearly nine thousand people, and that no one theory proposed for the young women’s vanishing ever seemed to be able to gain traction or credence.

So what happened that hot summer afternoon to Ann Miller, Patricia Blough and Renee Bruhl?

Here are the theories most often advanced to explain this disappearance:

  1. THE WOMEN DROWNED WHILE SWIMMING.

Make no mistake, this is a dangerous lake. The lake referenced in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (the current name of the park) is Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan drowns the most people of any of the Great Lakes. Half of the drownings in all five of the Great Lakes occur in Lake Michigan. It has devious currents and strong swimmers can be in peril before they even realize it. Drownings can happen mercilessly fast. This park has drownings fairly regularly and they seem to come in spates, probably because of the episodic, seasonal nature of those deadly currents.

But I haven’t seen many cases where bodies of drowning victims have not been recovered. This would seem to be especially unlikely if the young women were swimming just off the shore. It just seems unlikely to me that all three women drowned. There would most likely have been witnesses on that super-crowded beach. One of the three was known to be a prodigious swimmer and the other two were adequate or better swimmers. It strains credulity that none of the three bodies would be recovered, despite an extensive search of the beach and environs involving the Coast Guard, and an extended aerial search.

This seems a very unlikely solution.

2. THE WOMEN FLED THEIR LIVES TO BEGIN NEW LIVES ELSEWHERE.

These women ranged in age from nineteen to twenty-one.

“Evidence” often given to bolster this theory include a possibly unwanted pregnancy or pregnancies among one or two of the women (one seems confirmed), a letter stating intent to divorce found among Renee Bruhl’s belongings left on the beach and recent trouble Ann Miller said she had been having with the “horse syndicate people.”

That horse syndicate business was nothing to take lightly. This scam of killing horses for insurance money involved many people and the man behind this, Silas Jayne, was clearly a sociopath and born murderer. He was like a dark star of evil, gathering in orbit around him all the bad elements of society, who would do his bidding. He covered up the Peterson-Schuessler murders, committed by one of his creepiest associates. Was Silas Jayne capable of having the three women murdered because one of them knew or had seen something of this insurance scam at the stables the women frequented? Yes. The question becomes, would this be the way in which the three women disappeared to avoid such a fate, to just fake their deaths by mystery on the beach that day?

This seems far-fetched. By most accounts, they climbed from the water where they were swimming into a smaller boat with a young, dark-haired man at the wheel and then never returned to the beach. This is what was reported by the young couple sitting near the three women on the beach that day. (Other eyewitnesses contradicted this, claiming to see the young women back on the beach hours after they were seen boarding the boat.) These individuals were the first ones to raise the alarm that something may be wrong, when the trio failed to return for their belongings by evening. They notified park employees, who took custody of the women’s belongings as night fell.

Those who believe this scenario seem to believe that the boat operator was in on the plan and that the three women were awaiting him on the beach that day.

Has there ever been a documented voluntary disappearance like this of multiple people this young in age? Has there been one in which the individuals chose to vanish in such a convoluted manner? (“And let’s do it from a crowded beach and in our bathing suits to really confuse people!”) It seems extremely doubtful.

Could these three young, loving women torture their families in this way? Because no further contact was ever made. I don’t think any of the women ever stated that they felt any great animus towards their families, and it’s clear the families agonized over these disappearances and searched for the women for the rest of their lives.

3. THE WOMEN WERE MURDERED BY AN AGENT OR AGENTS OF SILAS JAYNE OR SOMEONE ELSE INVOLVED IN THE HORSE SYNDICATE.

Maybe the women were lured into the boat by some promise of fun or even monetary gain. Maybe they were asked to be part of a photo shoot or to come to a party out on the water.

Maybe they were subdued and taken somewhere else to be murdered, their bodies buried far from Lake Michigan. Silas Jayne allegedly once creepily bragged about having three bodies buried on some property of his. Were these the women?

Other accounts mention detritus out on the water found during the search that indicated a smaller boat might have come apart due to an impact with a certain intake element that protrudes above the surface of the lake or some other natural feature. These pieces of a boat found three miles west of where the young women were last seen could not be linked to that particular boat. There were no identifying features found in this minimal wreckage. The craft the women were seen to board remains a mystery in itself. No one came forward to identify himself as the young man piloting the boat that day. There are variable descriptions of the boat from eyewitnesses. Law enforcement did confirm that the boat described by several witnesses was also seen in home movies taken that day from the beach. This clip has not been released to the public.

One wonders with what degree of certitude that statement was made, since the video was allegedly shot from a considerable distance. The sighting of a second, larger boat with three women and three men later in the day may be a red herring. I know some accounts say that law enforcement believed the women came back to shore, ate, and then got onto the larger boat seen in the film, onto which their earlier boating companion had (theoretically) transferred. I’m not sure why anyone came up with this convoluted theory. I get the impression the earlier manifestation on film seems to have convinced more people that they were seeing the three women. I’m not so sure that is the case with the larger boat seen later on the home movies. It sounds as though someone might be forcing an unwieldy theory, trying to make it fit.

Some have speculated that the young women were tied up or already dead on a boat when explosives were used to destroy it. After all, the horse syndicate had used dynamite to kill before. This most likely presumes a rendezvous with another boat. One questions whether this would be a plan adopted by even the most foolhardy criminals, since there were thousands of boats out on the lake that afternoon. But Lake Michigan is obviously huge. Maybe they did find an isolated spot on the lake on that day. Maybe the detritus found was from such an explosion which was staged to look like a boating accident (had remains been recovered). Forensics were pretty primitive in that period. Such a plan might have succeeded at misleading those making any recovery of victims’ body parts. Did they even know how to check for explosives residue in that period?

The objection most would raise to this scenario is the strange staging on a crowded beach. Why would such an abduction by guile be carried out with the maximum number of witnesses? Why not lure the women somewhere isolated without thousands of potential witnesses on both land and sea? On the other hand, if you read about other hits done by Silas Jayne and his associates, they were all pretty blatant and brazen. He really didn’t seem to care about who was around when the hits went down. This might actually fit with his “in your face” murder m.o.

If this is the solution to the disappearance, if one or more of the women “knew something” about Jayne’s criminal misdoings, maybe Silas or one of his associates told the young women that all could be “made good” if they agreed to meet his representative on the beach that afternoon and go with him. One could imagine various pretexts, a payoff, etc. Maybe the crowded beach was selected as the meeting site to give the young women a false sense of security.

A person alleged to have insider status stated on the Websleuths site that the Jayne associate who is believed to have been driving the boat which picked up the women that day was Ed Nefeld. Silas Jayne had hired this dirty cop (actually a chief of detectives) for a hit on Jayne’s own brother. Nefeld contracted another man, Adams, to do the hit. This didn’t happen either, but Si’s brother George was eventually killed by another hitman and Nefeld later pleaded guilty to conspiracy and served time. This insider on Websleuths alleges that Nefeld put in an insurance claim two days after the women’s disappearance for a boat fitting the description of the one which picked them up. He allegedly told the insurance company that the boat had burned up in an accidental fire. I haven’t seen any documents backing up this claim, but if it’s proven true, knowing Silas Jayne’s love of dynamite hits, and taking into consideration the boat debris that washed up three miles west of where the women were last seen (“pieces of metal and Styrofoam, believed to have been parts of three boat seats, along with oil and gasoline cans and a piece of oil-soaked wood”) this has got to make any rational person question whether this points to a grisly fate for the young women.

4. THE WOMEN WENT JOYRIDING WITH A STRANGER ON A BOAT. IT CRASHED AND SANK AND NOT ONE OF THEIR FOUR BODIES WAS RECOVERED.

This is a pretty straightforward theory. Maybe the debris mentioned above was from this wreck and nothing more surfaced. Or maybe there was an explosion as a result of a crash or something which ignited on board.

No boats were reported missing in that period.

An extensive search was conducted, including aerial searches taking extensive photographs. Nothing lending credence to this theory was discovered.

I would be interested, however, in hearing an expert opinion on the likelihood of this scenario, whether it’s probable that the wreckage and bodies could have just been swallowed up by the lake.

If this is what happened, one would have to be able to correlate the women’s disappearance with the disappearance of a young man about their age or slightly older, who either lived in that vicinity or was known to be visiting that area at the time.

5. ONE OF THE WOMEN DIED IN A BOTCHED ABORTION WHICH TOOK PLACE ON A HOUSEBOAT ON LAKE MICHIGAN. THE OTHER TWO WERE MURDERED TO COVER IT UP.

I find this theory, espoused by one individual who has studied the disappearance for a number of years, wholly unconvincing.

Frank and Helen Largo, who ran an illegal abortion clinic on dry land, were never known to maintain a clinic on the water. This theory focuses on the fact that the young man who might have picked the women up with the boat superficially resembled the Largos’ son. That very thin “fact” is about all this theory has going for it. It is true that abortions were illegal in Indiana at the time, but we have no way of knowing if any one of these three girls wanted an abortion.

It seems unlikely the women would leave all their belongings on the beach if they were heading out for one (or more) of them to get an abortion. And it seems unlikely that they would have stopped for suntan lotion and teen magazines on the way to the beach on such a solemn occasion.

And would illegal abortionists host this procedure on a day when thousands of boaters were out on the water? It seems a very outre theory.

6. THE WOMEN WERE SWALLOWED UP BY A HOLE IN THE DUNES.

Speaking of outre theories, there is the one where the three women were swallowed up by the dunes themselves.

Don’t laugh. This happens.

A young boy disappeared in just this manner. He sank twelve feet into the sandy earth within seconds. The dunes just closed over him. He was buried alive. What if no one had been watching? Isn’t it possible that we could be talking about his disappearance to this day as a likely abduction?

The question becomes, how big a hole can open up? Can three grown women disappear into such an impromptu tomb? I think a geologist would need to field that one. It’s a spooky scenario, for sure.

7. THE MAN ON THE BOAT THE WOMEN CLIMBED ABOARD WAS A SERIAL KILLER

I don’t want to give you nightmares, but if you read about Oba Chandler…

This could have happened. It’s horrific to consider, but multiple abductions have happened on numerous occasions. And once a maniac has you isolated far out on the waters of Lake Michigan, especially if he has a gun or other serious weapon, what can you do?

Yes, it was a crowded beach. Ted Bundy also abducted women from crowded beaches like this. They’re sociopaths, so they think they can do anything, remember? Apparently, this type of creature gets a thrill out of taking huge chances.

Some theorists speculate that Richard Speck found a boat and was hunting humans on Lake Michigan that day. There are some facts that militate in favor of this theory, and some that seem to contravene the theory.

The Indiana police did want to question Richard Speck about the disappearance of these women, but I haven’t found any evidence that this actually occurred. His murder of eight student nurses on July 13, 1966 started a media blitz of taboid-style headlines across the country. That story seems to have canceled out any further media coverage these disappearances might have received. Speck might actually be the answer to this mystery. Those nurses were not his first victims. While he was never convicted of other murders, there is ample evidence his spree had started much earlier, and that he already had a body count at the time the young women disappeared from the Dunes. Mary Kay Pierce is almost certainly one such victim. There are likely several others. Speck was clearly fully committed to murder at this point and he was free and in proximity. One wonders if modern image analysis techniques could help to ascertain if the young man in the boat the women boarded resembled Speck.

But maybe the boat ride was an innocent lark and ended well. Maybe it is a red herring. While the women were seen on a boat with a young man, they could have returned to the beach (some eyewitness accounts allege this) and been abducted from there or in the woodsy parts of the park or even the parking lot.

FINAL NOTES

I don’t find any of these theories convincingly probable. I believe that one must entertain the possibility that some improbable fate befell the young women that day. In that case, any of the above scenarios is possible.

I think the possibility that Richard Speck was responsible for these disappearances deserves serious consideration. Disqualifying facts might be readily available for this suspect. I searched and found timetables for his movements for much of July, but could not find any information for the particular date in question.

If someone can provide documentation for Ed Nefeld’s insurance claim on his boat, and if that craft can be reliably matched with the boat in the home movie footage (if the film was retained or copied as evidence) maybe this cold case should be opened again. I’m guessing that film is long gone or hopelessly degraded. But the insurance records might still exist. These probably identify the make and model of the boat, the color, etc. It would be interesting if it turned out to match up with that white boat with the blue interior. It would be even more interesting if this Jayne associate placed himself at the scene of the disappearance in that insurance claim’s documentation. It was alleged Nefeld was still alive and residing in the greater Chicago area in 2016.

Patricia Blough seemed to hint that she was about to vanish. And she would presumably not have anticipated a fateful encounter with Richard Speck.

A man who stated that he was the brother of Patricia Blough gave some interesting input on this mystery on the Websleuths site to which I linked above. He stated that he was verified with the site’s administration. Nobody contradicted this statement on the site.

He stated that his older sister told him that she had a big secret she wanted to share with him, but that she couldn’t. One wonders whether this was about the “horse syndicate” people, or her possible pregnancy, or something altogether different. This was just before she disappeared. I can’t help wondering whether we might know her probable fate if she had told her little brother what that secret was. Most disturbing in his account of that exchange is her sizing him up as a potential caregiver for her beloved horse. Did she believe she was going to die? Or was she planning a permanent disappearance?

One thing is certain. For a popular vacation destination, the Indiana Dunes is a mare’s nest of mysteries, a true American Gothic, and a place where you might want to watch your step (and your swimming strokes) very carefully, should you ever decide to go.

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William Keckler

Writer, visual artist. Books include Sanskrit of the Body, which won in the U.S. National Poetry Series (Penguin). https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/532348.