The popularity of cold case file television programs is clear. Combining long ago mystery with edge-on-the-seat excitement, they offer mystery lovers hours of interesting entertainment.
Perhaps the longest running missing person cold case in Lehigh Valley history, with the possible exception of Judge Crater (the Easton born jurist who stepped into a New York taxi cab in 1930 and was never seen again), is that of Warren W. York. If Earle Stanley Gardener, the creator of Perry Mason, was around today he might have called it, the case of the disappearing stock broker.
By the late 1940s, York, a 46 year old Scranton native, was a widely known and respected figure in the Lehigh Valley. His Allentown stock brokerage business was a major player locally in the world of the bulls and the bears. Over the years his hard work had made York a wealthy man. He was also known for being strong willed.
That is what the general public knew of Warren York on November 18, 1948. And that is where the mystery began.
On that day, for reasons that are unknown and probably unknowable today 65 years later, York was in Dallas, Texas. With him was his wife Jean. The couple had recently married.
On that morning they checked out of a small hotel in Big D, got into a car and drove 50 miles to the town of Mineral Wells. This was the pre-interstate highway era, and the roads, although probably relatively empty, were probably not good.
But despite its “hick” sounding name, Mineral Wells in 1948 was far from a one horse town. Its health spa mineral waters drew a crowd to the handsome Baker Hotel, a1920s Spanish Moorish structure with an in-ground swimming pool that dominated the flat landscape.
Among its guests in the 1930s and 40s were bandleader Glenn Miller, movie legends Clark Gable and Judy Garland, and a rising Texas politician Lyndon Johnson. All this suggests that Mineral Wells was not an isolated spot, and not an unusual place for a man of York’s wealth.
Mineral Wells was also big enough in 1948 to have an airport. And it was here that York and his wife were met by Joel Ritter, a Lehigh Aircraft Company pilot, who had flown down in York’s plane- a single engine Beech Bonanza that seated four. Ritter, married with three children, had been a military pilot in World War II.
According to the web-site “The Skytamer Archive,” the Beech Bonanza had just gone on the commercial market in 1947.
“The model 35 Bonanza was the first truly modern, high performance personal aircraft, and was a very fast, low-wing monoplane at a time when most light aircraft were still made of wood and fabric. The model 35 featured retractable landing gear, and its signature V tail…which made it both efficient and the most distinctive private aircraft in the sky.”
But there were questions about the Beech Bonanza. After a series of crashes, some suggested that its V-tail design was to blame, but an internal investigation led to a different conclusion. “A study by Beech” says the Skytamer web-site,” concluded that the cause was primarily the use of the Bonanza for long distance travel in all types of weather, and that the inflight breakups were mainly the results of excursions into extreme turbulence (as might be found in thunderstorms), not any inherent flaw in the design.”
At 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, the three of them took off from Mineral Wells airport. According to early newspaper accounts, it was believed that they were headed for New Orleans. But later newspaper stories said this was never clearly established, so nobody knows for sure. The plane touched down to refuel in Waco. It did the same at Lufkin Airport. Ritter asked for weather information at both airports.
And then it vanished, never apparently to be seen again. At that time there was no real way for a small private plane to be located if its pilot did not radio in. Apparently after stopping at Lufkin Airport, it never did. It was one thing for Amelia Earhart to disappear over the South Pacific, but it was quite another to have a plane do so over land in Texas.
When word got back to the Lehigh Valley that Warren York and his wife were missing, the news didn’t seem possible. Ritter was known to be an excellent pilot. He would not have been allowed to fly York’s plane if he wasn’t.
Adding to the mystery was York’s even being in Texas. What was an Allentown stock broker doing so far from home, and not traveling in an airliner or train, but in a small, private plane? And the fact that he was staying in a small hotel in Dallas also raised eyebrows. A man with his money could afford the best.
Rumors were rife. Was it a meeting with a Texas oil man? Maybe a uranium ore deal (a hot speculation in 1948). Or maybe York wanted to take his new wife on a trip and just wanted to enjoy some privacy.
Headlines in the local press were huge. The Civil Air Patrol and the U.S. Air Force were mobilized. They went over and over 12,000 acres of wooded wilderness in east Texas without finding a thing. Interestingly, a retired Air Force officer told the Associated Press that weather conditions were particularly bad, with a thunderstorm brewing, when the plane took off from Lufkin.
Over the next several years there would be stories in the press that they had been found. On November 25, 1949 a squirrel hunter claimed to have found the plane in rural Louisiana, but it was the wrong plane.
On May 13, 1953, banner headlines in a local paper claimed York’s plane had been found in the Gulf of Mexico. But on May 25th, a small article appeared, saying the plane was a Lockheed Lodestar not a Beech Bonanza.
And there the matter has rested for 65 years. Perhaps the plane crumbled apart in a turbulent thunderstorm over the Gulf of Mexico, a fate that that model was supposedly prone to. As far as is known, no one has suggested the Bermuda Triangle.