The Vanishing of David Lovely

The land outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming is a stark and uncompromising place. It’s a fractured terrain riddled with cliffs and deep ravines, an easy and dangerous place for someone to get lost. During the day, the desert bakes in the heat of the sun, but as soon as the sun slips behind the western mountains, the temperature plummets. Such was the case in August of 1985, when a family of three was making their way east on I-80 towards the Nebraska border, one leg of a cross-country move from California to Massachusetts. A woman named Jackie, accompanied by her twenty-year old daughter Allison, was driving a Ryder moving truck and towing a pick-up truck. With them, but seldom in their sight, was her nineteen year old son David Vernon Lovely. David was piloting his new motorcycle, carrying some of his own supplies and possessions. Since the motorcycle was considerably faster than the Ryder, it was simply not practical for David to remain with the group at all times. However, they had gotten in habit of stopping approximately every thirty miles to check up on each other, and they were using family members on both the east and west coast as points of contact. On August 5th, the group left Salt Lake City, Utah, and met up again in Evanston, Wyoming. Here, David told his mother and sister that he had been having “some trouble” with his bike and wanted to push onto the next rest stop in Fort Bridger to see if he could get it looked at. Although David would contact a family member from a pay phone later that day, no one who knew him would actually see him again after this point. Nine days later, his motorcycle and belongings would turn up abandoned near Rock Springs, seventy miles from David’s last known location. What happened to David between Fort Bridger and Rock Springs has been a mystery for almost thirty-eight years.

David was one of five siblings, and has been described by his family as “imaginative, artistic, and creative”, although still a bit naïve. At nineteen, he appeared to be the picture of health, but his mother and siblings knew something about him that most people didn’t, which made them all the more concerned for his safely. When he was three years old, David suffered from kidney failure and required extensive surgery. Because of this, he was extremely vulnerable to abdominal trauma and it was not considered safe for him to play sports or consume any more than small amounts of alcohol. David was originally from the east coast, but he went with his father to California after his parents divorced. His mother briefly moved to California too, in the spring of 1985, but then decided to move back to Massachusetts. David decided to move back with them, which brings us right back to the point of his disappearance in the Wyoming desert. 

After he reached the Bingo Truck Stop in Fort Bridger, David used a payphone to call his aunt on the east coast to update her on the situation (this was 1985, pre-cellphone). He told her that after speaking with his mother and sister, his bike had broken, forcing him to push it the rest of the way to the rest stop. While broken down, he had seen the Ryder pass him on the highway, apparently without Allison or Jackie seeing him.  He encountered a man he described as “scary looking”, but said the man had actually turned out to be very nice and helped him fix the motorcycle. At some point, he also contacted his younger brother Brian back in California and told him essentially the same story.

When Jackie and Allison reached the rest stop, they saw no sign of David and assumed he had continued onwards. They spent the night in their vehicles, parking close to the ramp so David would see them if he was still behind them. Jackie contacted the aunt on the morning of August 6th. She relayed what Davide had told her, and said that the was planning to meet up with them again in Rock Springs. However, he did not turn up in Rock Springs, although his family spent the night there too. He did not show up in Cheyanne, or in Lincoln, Nebraska. At that point, Jackie notified police of her son’s disappearance.

The early investigation into David’s disappearance was somewhat of a jurisdictional nightmare, since it was unclear if he had vanished Wyoming or in Nebraska, all while driving a motorcycle that was still registered in California. Jackie and Allison stayed in Lincoln for two days waiting for David, but were forced to continue their journey. Once they reached Massachusetts, they spoke to David’s friends from when he lived there to see if he had contacted them, but there was no trace of him. Years later, Allison would find out from her cousin (the son of the aunt that David had been calling), that he too had spoken with David on the phone the day he disappeared. However, he offered a small piece of strange information. David told his cousin he was calling from Fort Bridger and that he was going to “grab a beer” and wait at the rest stop. Although the legal drinking age in Wyoming at the time was eighteen, this still seemed strange to Allison.  David seldom, if ever, drank alcohol due to his kidney problems, and the conversation seemed out of character for him.

On August 14th, a man contacted law enforcement to report an abandoned motorcycle that turned out to be David’s. It was seventy miles away from his last known location, outside of Rock Springs and close to the grounds of a local airport. The man and his wife had been moving around the country doing construction work, and were camping off of Middle Baxter road when they came across the bike with David’s books, helmet, and backpack propped next to it and the keys in the ignition. When examined, it proved to have half a tank of gas and to be fully operational (in fact, David’s father would later retrieve it and drive it back to California). David’s wallet, containing about $150, and a bag of change were among his possessions. The man who found the bike mentioned that on August 8th or 9th, he had seen someone with long hair driving a turquoise and chrome motorcycle away from the dirt road where he would later find David’s bike. He could not tell if the long-haired person was a man or a woman. During the nine days that David’s bike had been missing, thunderstorms had swept through the area, washing away potential evidence. The local terrain, full of ravines and washouts, also hampered searchers. Nevertheless, searches of the area were conducted, and flight records out of the nearby airport were checked.

This would be a good time to clarify a discrepancy that exists among the sources about this case. Some state that the motorcycle was found off of South Baxter Road, but when being interviewed for the Vanished podcast, David’s sisters clarified that it was actually off of a dirt road on the east side of  Middle Baxter Road. It was parked about a mile from the roadside, towards the airport grounds.

David’s older sisters, Allison and Karen, have different interpretations of what could have happened to their brother. Allison is more inclined to think that David traveled down Middle Baxter Road on his own and met with an accident somewhere out in the harsh landscape. She remembers it being cold during the night she spent in the Ryder, and thought that David might have gone looking for a more sheltered place to sleep.* Karen has given more attention to the possibility of foul play, and has attempted to link known serial killers to his disappearance. I looked into this angle some myself when researching this case, and I only came up with two cases of possible significance, the Great Basin Murders and Marvin Gray. The Great Basin murders were a series of murders committed in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Idaho between 1983 and 1997, most likely not linked to a single perpetrator. However, the victims of these crimes were  females, mostly in in their late teens and early twenties. Marvin Gray, who died in a Colorado prison in 2013, claimed to have killed 41 people in eight sates, but was only convicted of three murders. However, he was convicted of a murder in 1984 and would still have been incarcerated as of 1985. In other words, neither of these seem especially relevant to David’s case. I realize that there are unknown serial killers, as well as those who are not especially choosy about their victim type, but there still does not seem to be much information to work with from this angle.

The fact that the motorcycle showed no evidence of tampering or damage is crucial, because we can eliminate a lot of possibilities based on this information. We can safely say that David was not involved in a riding accident, that the motorcycle did not break down on him again, and that neither the “scary guy” from the rest stop or anyone else sabotaged the bike. This leaves us with two broad possibilities: either David went to the Baxter Road site on his own and abandoned the bike for unknown reasons, or he abandoned the bike at some other location and then someone else drove it to the Baxter Road site. That person may or may not have been directly involved in David’s disappearance. The motorcycle had half a tank of gas left, and one source mentioned that this was consistent with the distance driven from his last known location. While it is certainly possible that the bike was driven off-route and then refueled during the nine days before it was located, it is equally probable that it was driven directly from Fort Bridger to its final location with little or no deviation.

If David did go to the Baxter Road site of his own volition, why would he choose that spot? One possibility is that someone at the Fort Bridgers rest stop told him about it and suggested it as a spot to “camp” and wait out the night before continuing down I-80. The fact that the couple who found the bike were camping in the area makes me wonder if that stretch of road had become known as some sort of informal overnight rest area for interstate travelers. Or he may have found the spot on his own. Perhaps he attempted to continue past Rock Springs, but noticed the day was getting late and so sought out someplace to rest for the night. One thing I would like to know is if David had anything resembling camping equipment among his belongings. There is no mention of a sleeping bag or the remains of any kind of campsite near the bike, or if any such items were missing from his backpack. If he went to that spot to rest for the night, its possible someone offered him a ride to go and get something to eat, and that some kind of foul play ensued. Rock Springs at the time was a somewhat rough area, with a high crime rate. That being said, there may well be merit in Allison’s idea that he left the bike to find a more sheltered spot, and became lost or injured.

Let’s explore the second possibility, that the bike was abandoned on Middle Baxter Road by someone other than David Lovely. In this case, something happened to David or he left his bike either between Fort Bridger and Rock Springs or in Rock Springs itself.  Now, I am not sure why someone would choose to abandon a working motorcycle in such a remote spot, when there was still gas left. Worth noting is that there did not seem to be a great deal of effort to hide the bike. The site was off the beaten path, yes, but whoever left it there did not conceal it, destroy it, or attempt to get rid of the items that could be linked to David–things that someone who had actually murdered David and stolen his bike would likely attempt to do. In other words, the placement of the bike seems more consistent with someone who wanted to be at the particular spot and intended to come back for the bike rather than someone fleeing after committing a crime. I also have a hard time believing that, if someone had murdered David, regardless of the original motive, that they would not also have stolen the money from his wallet.

There are a few further items that need addressing. One is the “scary guy” at the Bingo Truck Stop in Fort Bridger. I do not attach much significance to this man. After all, he not only helped David fix his bike, but also let David walk away and phone his family after they met. Yes, it is possible that this man followed David or that he roped him into some kind of illegal activity, but there is absolutely nothing that indicates this. Based on David’s description, the man would have had ample opportunity to isolate David or sabotage his bike–or simply refuse to help him–but this did not happen. The other item is David’s phone conversation in which he allegedly mentioned going to get a beer. This, too, does not seem like the indication of anything sinister. First of all, the cousin only mentioned the conversation years later. I do not know why this was the case–perhaps he never made the connection that the conversation occurred on the day David disappeared–but what it indicates to me is that he may have misremembered or misunderstood what David said. Perhaps David had simply said he wanted to get something to drink before leaving the truck stop. Perhaps he did try drinking some beer, perhaps not. Either way I think we can conclude that he was alone and not under duress based on what little we know about the phone call.

Despite the long years that have passed since they last saw their son and brother, David’s family is still searching for the truth. They have submitted their DNA in order to test against any human remains that might turn up. So far, there have been no matches. When I first started researching this case, I was about 70/30 in favor of foul play. However, after reading more deeply into the circumstances and surveying the location, I’m closer to 50/50 between foul play and an accident. While there is nothing that rules out foul play in David’s case, there is nothing that points too it that could not be just as easily accounted for by him perishing by accident or exposure after leaving his motorcycle. I used Google Maps to cruise up and down Middle Baxter Road, and although I do not know exactly where the bike was found, I can tell you that there are no man-made structures visible from the road during its entire length. There are no trees, but there are steep-sided gorges, low-lying shrubbery, and jagged drop-offs. The situation may have been somewhat different in 1985, but I doubt it was drastically so. It would not be the safest terrain to navigate, especially after dark (it is never mentioned if  David was carrying a flashlight, or if there was one left with the bike). Similarly, if might not be quite as tough as searching the Florida Everglades for a human body, but it would not be easy, either.

I encourage everyone to take a look at David Vernon Lovely’s Charley Page, as well as the other sources I have posted below. Please form your own conclusions, and contact Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office at (307) 872-6350 or the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation at (307) 777-7181 with any information.


David’s Route (taken from this reddit discussion about the case). 

Revised Map  I took the map posted above and adjusted the route the reflect the approximate location of David’s motorcycle as clarified in the Vanished episode.

Vanished Podcast  This is an interview with David’s sisters, Karen and Allison, and provides invaluable first-hand information about his disappearance.

Great Basin Murders

Marvin Gray

Charley Project Page

New Wyoming Missing Persons Database

True Crime Diva Article

Coffee and Cases Podcast

*The Old Farmer’s Almanac tells me that there was a high of 84° Fahrenheit and a low of 48° on the night of August 5th, 1985, in the Rock Springs area.

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