Searching for Tommy
By Kenneth Todd Ruiz, Staff Writer
Posted: 10/14/2007 12:23:06 AM PDT
Fifty years after Tommy Bowman vanished from an Upper Arroyo Seco trail, Pasadena police have relabeled the case a homicide. Cold-case detectives believe Tommy was the victim of Mack Ray Edwards, as suggested earlier this year by local author Weston DeWalt and a team of investigators from other law-enforcement agencies.
But now, as DeWalt seeks to fill the gaps in Edwards' criminal biography, Pasadena's prime suspect falls under suspicion of unsolved crimes from Santa Barbara to Tijuana, prompting police to consider the unsettling possibility he might have murdered the most children in state history.
"Everybody needs to know about Mack Ray, who may be one of the most prolific child killers in history," said Pasadena police Detective John Dewar. "DeWalt's done a magnificent job, and I have to give him credit for everything we've been able to do up to this point. I'd hire him any day as a detective here."
Although Pasadena's new cold-case unit shares DeWalt's belief about where Tommy's body could be buried, the 63-year-old investigative journalist has added six more children he suspects Edwards killed.
Dead man's trail
What began as a study of how the Bowman family survived without ever knowing 8-year-old Tommy's fate has turned into a macabre puzzle for DeWalt.
Every hunch that becomes a theory and arouses law-enforcement's interest is a new piece to fill out the portrait of Edwards, whose life ended 36 years ago with thekiller hanging from the end of a television power cord on San Quentin's death row.
In recent months, DeWalt's added a jailhouse exchange with Charles Manson, a dead girl in a muddy Mexican creek and more children who just seemed to have vanished as more chilling stops along the decades-cold trail he's felt pulled along for the past three years.
"Cold-case detectives have a unique capacity to walk those trails, and I have learned a great deal from them during the course of my research," DeWalt said. "The trick for me ... is how to to leave the those trails behind when you go home at night."
In 1970, Edwards confessed to the murder of six children: Stella Darlene Nolan of Norwalk; Donald Baker and Brenda Howell of Azusa; Gary Rocha of Granada Hills; Roger Madison of Sylmar; and Donald Allen Todd of Pacoima.
A heavy-equipment operator, Edwards reportedly chose victims near the highways and freeways he was building, where some of their bodies are believed buried.
"His (method) was to have the kill site picked out and the burial site picked out ahead of time, and they had to be close together," DeWalt said.
Then and as now, police believe there were many more murders he never owned up to. But with few living witnesses who knew Edwards — reported to have been an amicable loner — establishing the extent of his criminal career has been difficult.
Eighteen was the number he gave one of his jailers but refused to repeat under subsequent interrogation.
Apart from Edwards' widow, whom police have interviewed several times during the past year, at least one person remains alive who heard much more.
Neither police nor DeWalt would identify their source beyond his first name — Roberto.
A minor at the time of his unrelated arrest, Roberto was locked in a Los Angeles County Jail cell, flanked by Manson on one side and Edwards on the other.
Manson would offer him a cigarette, then threaten to kill him minutes later, according to DeWalt.
Edwards was consistently friendly, according to that account, but no less frightening. He'd keep Roberto awake at night talking about the different children he'd murdered.
DeWalt said he asked how many stories Edwards told him.
Upward of 20, Roberto recalled with certainty.
In March of this year, police detectives went on the record with their belief that Edwards abducted Tommy Bowman along Altadena Drive on March 23, 1957.
They also were giving serious consideration to DeWalt's suspicions that Edwards might also have killed Bruce Kremen in Angeles National Forest, as well as Karen Lynn Thompkins and Dorothy Gale Brown of Torrance.
Doing the grisly math, that's 10 children Edwards is either known or suspected of killing.
If Roberto's account is true, who were the other eight?
Having convinced police he was right about Tommy and possibly others, DeWalt hopes detectives will now review six other unsolved crimes he suspects may have been Edwards' victims.
"The issue, in my mind, is that in these cases, he should be considered a suspect," DeWalt said Friday.
As his theories lead him north into Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and south to the Mexican border, DeWalt has received mixed responses from various agencies.
A Santa Barbara County sheriff's detective said they were working with DeWalt regarding the 1964 disappearance in Goleta of Todd Eugene Collett, 3, but referred inquiries to a spokesman who did not respond to calls for comment.
Nearby, Santa Barbara police Lt. Mark Vierra said they've ruled out Edwards as a suspect after DeWalt brought him to their attention in the case of Ramona Irene Price, 7, who disappeared while walking unsupervised on Sept. 2, 1961.
Edwards made regular visits to the area after a longtime friend moved to Goleta in late 1959 to work as a maintenance man near two major construction projects — a housing tract and a highway.
"Certainly, Edwards is someone we should have worked at and we had to listen to what Mr. DeWalt had to say about him," Vierra said. "Our stance was that he would not be a person of primary interest to us. We think that the two people we looked at ... are probably our primary suspects."
Two convicted sex offenders, Raymond and William Panno, admitted under a voluntary, sodium-pentathol-fueled interview that they saw the 7-year-old from their vehicle and paused to urge her away from the side of the road that day.
A forensic examination of their car discovered no evidence of abduction, and even concluded no effort had been made to clean it.
"The sum of all our investigative leads have been evaluated to a blank," concluded a police summary of the extensive investigation.
Ramona Price might have been the first child to go missing in that area in a decade, DeWalt said. After Edwards' 1970 confession, Santa Barbara Police Chief William Hague formally requested that Los Angeles investigators ask their suspect about Price.
DeWalt, who reviewed records of those interrogations, said it was never brought up.
But not long after the Pannos said they addressed the girl, someone saw a girl matching Ramona's description get into a Plymouth stopped along Modoc Road near La Cumbre Country Club.
Just like the police sketch that proved the crucial break in solving Tommy's disappearance, a sketch of that car's driver is what snags DeWalt's attention.
It shows a tall, thin man, 30 to 40 years old, with his dark hair swept back. Edwards was known to have driven several Plymouths, DeWalt said.
Vierra said his department would continue listening and give serious consideration to any new information but acknowledged that, like most police agencies, "cold-case units are kind of a luxury, especially to have someone doing it full time."
That's something Dewar in Pasadena understands. Pasadena police had taken no action on the Bowman case, even after other agencies publicized their conclusions.
"LAPD and (the Sheriff's Department's) cold case were both working the Tommy case as a homicide, and we weren't, which was kind of embarrassing," he said. "We dropped the ball on that entirely here, so I changed that around."
Edwards also had a friend he would visit in National City, a small suburb of San Diego. On Jan. 3, 1960, 10-year-old Mary Lou Olson vanished after telling her father she was walking to a nearby mall.
Her body was found nine days later in a muddy creek bed just south of Tijuana, an area DeWalt said two people have claimed Edwards was familiar with.
On Friday, a representative of the National City Police Department said detectives had looked into Edwards as a suspect and determined there was no connection.
DeWalt also considers Edwards a "possible" in the 1965 murder of Stephanie Lynn Gorman of Los Angeles, Dixie Lee Arenen's disappearance from Granada Hills in 1968, and that of Cindy Lee Mellin in 1970 from Ventura.
The Bowman case is one of the oldest among 130 unsolved homicides being reviewed with renewed vigor by Lt. Kate Favara of the new cold case unit funded by Pasadena this summer.
As to why such old, cold cases are important, Dewar looks no further than Tommy's father, Eldon Bowman, who held out hope for 50 years his son might yet contact him.
"The bottom line is that it's in everybody's best interest to get the information out about Mack Ray and see if anyone else can have closure," Dewar said. "There are other families out there still wondering what happened to their kid."
Last month, Favara and Dewar traveled to Simi Valley to tell Eldon Bowman they'd reclassified Tommy as a homicide -- and to ask if they had ever fallen short of his needs.
"I never understood how the Police Department could classify it as a missing (person) when neighbors saw this strange guy, Mack Ray, following Tommy out of the Arroyo, and even did a composite drawing," Dewar recounts Eldon saying.
Interviewed Wednesday, Eldon Bowman said he appreciated the visit.
"They didn't have to," he said. "I've been aware of what was going on. Probably so - 50 years is a long time to expect something else."
Both Dewar and DeWalt said they've narrowed the likely location of Tommy's body to two locations - an El Monte residence or somewhere under the freeway in Pasadena.
"Even his wife never understood why they moved out" of an El Monte home they'd been at for less than a year, Dewar said. During part of his career, Edwards worked for Kirst Construction, a contractor with offices near the west end of Woodbury Road in Pasadena, near the south end of the parkland where Tommy went missing.
At the time of Tommy's disappearance, nearby stretches of highway were in various stages of construction.
At the time of Tommy's disappearance, nearby stretches of highway were in various stages of construction. Determining those exact locations in March, 1957, has been held up since this past spring, when Caltrans began searching for project records.
Read past stories on Tommy Bowman and more about Mack Ray Edwards on reporter Kenneth Todd Ruiz's blog at