The Bermans...

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Posted by Dezdan on May 13, 2003 at 03:48:57:

For those that missed it the first time around and are still confusing the missing Germans with the Bermans, this should help...

December 21, 1986

A Couple Disappear in Bermuda Triangle of Death Valley

By Ann Japenga

The joy of success for Beverly Hills real estate developer and liquor importer Jules Berman was in providing for his only child.

When he was 7, Barry Berman asked to go to Hawaii, so his father took him there. There would be more trips as Barry got older--to Africa and India. Last year at Christmas, Jules Berman and his wife, Ruth, gave their son, then 35, a dinghy for his sailboat.

But the dinghy was never launched.

Around New Year's, Barry and his wife, Louise, 52, drove to Death Valley National Monument. They camped at Saline Valley, an area just outside the National Monument boundary and about 40 miles east of Lone Pine by car.

A Walk in the Desert

On the morning of Jan. 6, the pair apparently took a walk into the desert wearing tennis shoes, jeans and thin shirts. They were not equipped to go far.

Five days later, another camper alerted authorities that the couple had not returned. The Inyo County Sheriff's Department, finding no trace of them, airlifted their 1982 Datsun pickup truck out of the valley. Back at headquarters, sheriff's personnel broke a window and retrieved the couple's clothes and camping gear from the vehicle. On the front seat, there were two undeveloped rolls of film--snapshots of Scotty's Castle and other Death Valley tourist attractions.

"We have absolutely no motive; we don't even have a crime at this point," Sheriff's Lt. Jack Goodrich said. Though Barry Berman had credit cards with him at the time of his disappearance, the cards were never used. There was no ransom demand. And no one tried to collect the $25,000 reward Barry Berman's parents offered in a full-page announcement that ran in local newspapers.

"It wasn't for money; it wasn't for revenge. Nobody hated them; nobody followed them," said Jules Berman, 76.

The Bermans, who have been married 40 years, left last month on a cruise that will take them as far from home as possible through the holidays. With their son missing, Jules Berman said, "Thanksgiving means nothing; Christmas means nothing."

Richard Lingenfelter devoted much of his recent history of Death Valley ("Death Valley and the Armagosa: A Land of Illusion") to squashing the notion that Death Valley is any more mysterious or evil than any other place.

"I don't think on the average that it's as dangerous as most large cities," he said in a recent telephone interview.

Yet Lingenfelter, a research physicist at UC San Diego, said that because the area is so sparsely inhabited, there were regular disappearances as long ago as the time miners began roaming the valley early in the century. Disappearance even plays a part in Death Valley legend--there was said to be an entire emigrant wagon train consumed by the vast and convoluted terrain.

Indeed, there are plenty of places in and around Death Valley to hide a person, dead or living. There are abandoned mine shafts, caves, narrow canyons and unstable sand dunes.

Foul play is another consideration in Death Valley-area disappearances because eccentric and extreme characters traditionally have been attracted to the region, as documented in Lingenfelter's book.

Less than a year before the Bermans vanished, a Death Valley character known as Cave Man Mike (Michael Keating is his real name) took a walk out of the same Saline Valley campground where the Bermans were last seen; he, too, was never seen again. (Lt. Goodrich said he considers the two disappearances to be coincidental.)

12-Mile-Long Corridor

Goodrich described Saline Valley as a very remote desert area with little vegetation, surrounded by steep mountain walls. It's a 12-mile-long corridor, 2 1/2-miles wide at the widest point. Despite the rugged road into the campground (Goodrich recommends four-wheel-drive vehicles for those who make the trip), the area attracts as many as a few hundred visitors on weekends. They come to bathe in natural hot springs. The habitues of the area, said Goodrich, are "mostly nudists."

Inyo County sheriff's investigators have been working the Berman case for almost a year, and in that time they've rejected several scenarios. Because of the extensive search involving at least six different agencies, "the odds are very slim" that Barry and Louise Berman simply were injured or lost and died in the desert, their bodies not found, he said.

Sheriff's investigators dismissed the possibility of a suicide pact after interviewing the missing couple's family and friends.

They checked out the theory that someone who knew them and stood to benefit financially from their disappearance could have had a hand in the matter, but that led nowhere.

Possible Motive

There's another possible motive, one that Goodrich also thinks unlikely--that for religious or spiritual reasons, Barry Berman disavowed material comforts and his father's affluence by intentionally disappearing.

Theirs was a classic father-son clash in values, albeit a respectful one, as described by Jules Berman in a recent interview at his plush home, filled with an extensive collection of African Benin and pre-Columbian art. He affectionately recalled the occasions on which Barry had demonstrated his discomfort with displays of wealth.

There was the time when Barry came home from college and the only cars in the family garage were a Maserati, a Rolls-Royce and a Cadillac convertible. Preferring not to be seen around town in any of those vehicles, Barry made his dad rent a Ford for the duration of his stay.

Barry avoided visits to the Hillcrest Country Club, where his parents are members. And he dressed simply, so much so that no one who ran into Barry and Louise Berman would have suspected Barry was from a wealthy family.

"To see Barry and Louise, you wouldn't know they had a dime," said Pauline Colbert, a friend of the couple. "Barry just looked like a guy in a flannel shirt."

Barry Berman worked for his father briefly after graduating from Beverly Hills High School. (Jules Berman was responsible for promotion and development of the liqueur Kahlua; he also developed much of Lake Arrowhead and Huntington Harbour.) "But Barry did not like business," his father said. "He liked to be creative."

Neither was Barry particularly drawn to scholastics. He attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for a period, thinking he might go into agriculture. It was while living in San Luis Obispo that the bespectacled, curly-haired young man first discovered an affinity for ironworking. He went on to study the ancient craft with two different masters in the field.

He moved to Goleta, and, on his new property, about a half-mile from President Reagan's ranch, Barry Berman opened a shop called Valley Forgeworks, specializing in hand-wrought ironwork. (The Secret Service was initially concerned that the Bermans' disappearance might involve someone's attempt to get access to Reagan's property, Goodrich said. That possibility was quickly dismissed.)

The brochure for Barry Berman's forge shows a photograph of the craftsman intent on his work. There's a fan of fire in the picture where his hammer meets the iron. In his typically self-effacing manner, Barry is wearing a floppy hat which nearly covers his face.

Louise Berman worked hard for most of her adult life, supporting her three children from a previous marriage by doing secretarial work, according to Pauline Colbert.

Three years to the day before the couple disappeared, Louise's 20-year-old daughter, Laura, met a tragic fate while driving to visit the Bermans in Goleta. On the winding road that led up to the house, she crossed a bridge over a storm-swollen river when her car was apparently swept over the side by rushing water. The car was retrieved, but Laura--like her mother--is still officially missing. (Louise Berman also has two sons, one of whom is said to have moved around a lot and rarely kept in contact with his mother, and another who lives with his family in Washington state.)

Guidance From a Swami

Louise and Barry Berman were married six years ago. Louise worked energetically around the couple's home on Figueroa Mountain, which they shared with two dogs and a cat named Daisy. She hauled rocks and planted flowers, added on a sun porch and built cedar closets in the bedroom. She sewed Barry's shirts, cut his hair, and taught him how to dance to '50s music. The two operated the iron forge business together, and together they found spiritual guidance in an Indian swami.

"Barry followed a teacher in India," Jules Berman said. "That's how he met Pauline and most of his friends. He used to go to India about every year."

The only trouble Barry's beliefs caused the family, his father said, was when it came time to go to a fancy restaurant. One of Barry's tenets was strict vegetarianism. Ruth Berman recalled one memorable Thanksgiving dinner at a Santa Barbara restaurant during which Barry ate only a baked potato, onion rings and mushrooms.

Pauline Colbert, who works in the film industry and lives about 45 minutes from the Bermans' Goleta home, is reluctant to discuss her friends' spiritual beliefs, in part due to insinuations made during the investigation. Colbert feels that investigators tried to establish that Barry and Louise had belonged to a cult which had something to do with the disappearance.

She denies that there was a cult, and insists that Barry would not have vanished intentionally to renounce his family's affluence. She said he did not so much reject his father's wealth, as he used it in accord with his own values: He had an expensive sailboat, but drove an inconspicuous pickup truck, she said. His home was not as "uptown" as his parents, but still he had a swimming pool and a sauna.

As for the swami, "That's really a private thing," Colbert said. "I don't talk about it, ever, ever. He's a teacher and he's in India, and I go see him once in a while."

She did say that Barry Berman lived "a nonviolent life, like Gandhi. He was a very passive, a very peaceful man."

While planning a visit to Death Valley, Barry Berman had asked his mother her impressions of the place because she had been there with a friend two years before. Ruth Berman advised her son not to miss Scotty's Castle. "We loved it," she said of the scenery. "The dunes change color in the late afternoon, from lavender to pink. It's exquisite."

On Jan. 13, Jules Berman received a call from Pauline Colbert, whom he did not know at the time. She said Barry and Louise had not shown up for a dinner they'd planned, and the couple's dogs were still in the kennel, past the date they were due to return home.

Jules Berman flew to Independence. While sheriff's investigators interrogated him about possible motives ("Would Louise have wanted to get rid of Barry; would Barry have wanted to get rid of Louise?"), Jules Berman inquired all over town whether anyone had seen the couple.

A group of Barry's friends--some going back to his days on the Beverly Hills High School track team--drove to Saline Valley, stocked with enough food to camp out there for a week. For the Bermans, who also made the trek, camping in a primitive campground was an exotic experience--even with a borrowed Winnebago.

They searched all day, hiking over the rough terrain. (Some of the dogs from the organized search parties had to be carried back to camp with bleeding paws, so sharp were the rocks underfoot.) They dug in places where a body might be buried.

In the evenings, the Bermans and friends soaked their sore muscles in the hot springs. Pauline Colbert, who was a member of the encampment, remembered that one night they all sat around a bonfire while a campground perennial known as Chilly Bob told them tales of strange occurrences in the area.

"It's scary out there. It's really scary," Colbert said.

No Place to Turn

In the months that followed the unsuccessful search, the Bermans began to unravel the complicated legal affairs of their missing son and daughter-in-law. (Until seven years pass or the two are declared legally dead, the couple remain officially missing, with their estate essentially in suspension.)

Looking for some ease from her grief, Ruth Berman telephoned a support group for parents of missing children, but all the other parents in the organization were dealing with the loss of a small child. There seems to be no place to turn when your only son, a grown man, is missing, she said.

Characteristically, because he enjoyed being able to give his son whatever he desired, Jules Berman once asked Barry to list the objects in the family home he would want to inherit someday. Also typically--because he did not overly value possessions--Barry said the only thing he wanted was a piece by the Mexican sculptor Francisco Zuniga. The statue, of a solidly built nude woman, curled in repose beside the family's swimming pool.

It would have pleased the Bermans to leave the sculpture, "Elena Asleep," to their son. Now, when they plan for the future, they discuss donating it to a public garden.

Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1986.

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