Arizona Myths and Legends: The Lost Patrolman’s Slaughterhouse

After the Santa Fe Line vanishings, the Lost Patrolman’s mythic record returns to his low profile of distant lurking along the Rim Country, spotted most often by lumberjacks and rangers as part of their typical duties. Few of these stories merit much mention, except to note that sightings did occur between 1924 and 1957. In fact, a notable story occurred in the dying hours of World War II, when three lumberjacks near Heber found themselves approached by a man who matched the description of the Patrolman. The lumberjacks, who say they spoke leisurely with the Patrolman about their economic anxieties as the wartime industries began to wind down, found him an easy-going campfire companion.

Shortly thereafter, the lumberjacks found themselves trapped by a blaze they barely escaped. To avoid blame for the conflagration, the men pinned ultimate responsibility on the Patrolman, who had vanished somewhere before dawn. Perhaps they had made the entire story up.

On the other hand, the 1957 encounter of Brian and Cheryl Whitaker on the Rim Road stands out not only because it involves a comparatively credible witness, but also for its bloody details — and for the ultimate fate of Cheryl Whitaker herself.

The Rim Road in 1957 was still an isolated place, far from the growing cities of the Phoenix valley, with only dirt roads leading the path from SR 179 into the back country. To be a hiker in these parts required a particular determination, as well as some skill in navigation, on the unmarked and often lonely roads of the Rim. Brian, a young insurance salesman, found the temptation to escape the city’s unbearable heat simply too alluring, and took a week off work to bring his wife camping along the quiet Ponderosa pines.

Brian was an Eagle Scout and a Korean War veteran, and was considered by friends and neighbors to be a skilled camper and thoughtful planner. Cheryl, a homemaker, did not have quite the matching reputation as a backcountry trekker, but was nevertheless seen to be athletic and in good health before they embarked on their trip in July 1957. Although the Rim was, and still is, replete with coyotes, mountain lions, and the occasional bear, Brian’s .357 hunting rifle, and a box of ammunition, seemed sufficient to ward off the wildlife and preserve the safety of the couple on their vacation.

Much of what we know about the story comes from the Phoenix Gazette, which detailed what happened in a series of articles from October 5–11, 1957.

The first article’s headline was on page 3 of the newspaper, and sat starkly above an advertisement for a Chevrolet. It read: “Did A Ghost Kill A Hiker’s Wife?”

It is, perhaps, best to let the article speak for itself:

Brian Whitaker, of Phoenix, almost certainly murdered his wife on a hiking trip to the Mogollon Rim. Or did he? To hear Mr. Whitaker tell it, the untimely death of his young wife, Cheryl, was the product of a cruel conspiracy brought upon him by an ethereal spirit, who tricked him into making the shot that killed his beloved.

Mr. Whitaker, who will stand trial in the coming months, has claimed under oath that a ghoul of some kind spent days harrying the couple, and that the episode culminated in his attempt to rescue her from a butcher’s cabin, but which instead left her dead with a single shot to the chest by his own rifle.

Cheryl Whitaker was indeed killed by the very rifle Brian Whitaker had brought along for their protection and Mr. Whitaker made no attempt to dispute the fact that he had pulled the trigger. What he argued, however, was that he was not shooting at Cheryl, but at her captor, who he described as a man with a broad-rimmed hat and the golden stripes of a 19th-century cavalryman.

The Gazette goes into sensationalist details of the episode, including, at one point, a claim by Mr. Whitaker that he had been warned about the Lost Patrolman by an eagle who was the spirit of Geronimo. Brian, in fact, is the first in the historical record to use the term “Lost Patrolman,” in both interviews with the Gazette and in court records.

“The Patrolman,” he insisted in the second article of the series in the Gazette, “had intentions to take my wife from me, and cut her apart as he did the Indians back in the 1800s.”

Brian’s take on the story was sensationalist and did not save him from eventual execution in 1972. But it also, interestingly, did not waver from its original telling. Although none took him seriously on the point of the Lost Patrolman, his recollection, in interviews in 1957, 1965, and right before his execution in 1972, remained remarkably consistent — including the all-important timeline, an aspect of lying that requires some skill to accomplish, and which is the serious investigator’s first place to examine a storyteller for inconsistency and falsehood.

To hear Brian tell it, the Lost Patrolman had methodologically harassed and harried the couple, over the course of four horrifying days.

On July 8, 1957, Brian and Cheryl left Phoenix for the Rim, taking eight hours to arrive by dusk at their first camping site not far from an empty logging site. They were the only people for miles, as the loggers had already cleared out for the season — the Arizona lumber industry was undergoing a downturn as the Recession of 1958 loomed. The first night passed uneventfully, according to Brian, with the exception that they believed they heard an animal rustling near them sometime during the night.

On the second day, they drove further into the Rim along a rarely-used track of the trail of General Crook, and camped in an area of greater wilderness on July 9. It was that night that they began to hear strange sounds from the tree lines, including what sounded like sawing.

“It did not sound like wood,” Brian would say in each of his three interviews. “It sounded like bone.”

The next morning they woke but saw nothing out of the ordinary. They decided to continue eastward, as was the plan, towards Heber, where they intended on staying for the final days of the trip. It was the third day, July 10, that turned out to be the fateful day.

While on a short hike near their third camping site, the couple found a hunter’s cabin that Brian described as “rustic and unkempt but lived in.” A skin of an undetermined animal hung from a nearby tree.

In the investigation that followed, Forest Rangers searched the area along the General Crook trail that Brian claimed they had stayed in. They discovered the couple’s campsite, but never did find the cabin.

After discovering the cabin, Brian and Cheryl returned to their campsite. It was there that Brian said Cheryl first saw the Patrolman. He was looking down on them from the treeline, and he had behind him a burlap sack. They called out to him, but he did not answer. Brian says he decided to load his rifle and carry it openly, so that the intruder would know he was armed. This did not move the Patrolman, who stayed still on the edge of the treeline. So Brian decided to approach him, but Cheryl insisted they leave the figure alone.

“She said,” Brian recalled later, again and again, “that she could hear him breathing in her ear, despite the great distance between them.”

Cheryl was upset and wanted to return to the city as soon as possible, and Brian agreed to load up their equipment and leave early to calm her nerves. As they did so, the figure continued to watch them. This left Cheryl increasingly agitated, and it angered Brian as well. It was nearly dark, and the figure had not so much as moved from his spot as they finally got into their truck and prepared to leave. Despite the imminent nightfall, Brian decided he would rather risk a collision with an elk or cow than continue to put up with the harassment of the intruder.

But only a few minutes after they began to drive away, Cheryl insisted they stop. She claimed she had forgotten something at the campsite. Brian was sure they had loaded everything up. But she was quite unnerved, and he decided to mollify her by turning around. When they returned to the site, they found the Patrolman gone. Cheryl, as it turned out, had left nothing behind. But she instead rushed to the treeline, where Brian lost sight of her.

Brian claims he spent several hours calling for her, and, rather than leave her behind, decided to camp at their campsite overnight to await her return. During the night, he heard the sound of bone being sawed in the distance again, and claims he did not sleep for more than a minute as he hoped to hear the footsteps of his returning wife.

At dawn, he decided to search the forest, and returned to the hunter’s cabin. This time, a fire was lit, and the chimney was smoking. Hoping he might find a local able to better locate Cheryl, he knocked on the door. When no one answered, he looked in the window.

“There she was, sitting in front of the fire, staring blankly forward,” Brian said, “as if she owned the place.”

Brian then claims he went inside and tried to convince Cheryl to come home with him. But she was insistent that they remain, at least until dusk. Brian argued with her, and then, he said, he grabbed her and tried to pull her back to their truck to leave. But she fought him off, and he decided he would stay, rifle in hand, until dusk arrived.

To hear his telling, Cheryl said nothing during the long day that passed. He would ask her questions, and he attempted several times to convince her to leave, but she remained stony-faced and staring at the fire, getting up to tend the blaze even as the warmth of the summer day baked the cabin they sat in. To avoid the heat, Brian sat outside, until, somewhere around 6 pm, he heard the sound of a bone being sawed yet again.

It was this noise that seemingly changed the demeanor and outlook of his wife, who began screaming. She claimed to have no memory of how they arrived at the cabin, and Brian insisted they leave as quickly as possible. To his relief, this time she agreed. But despite being parked only a few minutes away, neither he nor she could clearly remember the path back. They found themselves, instead, turned about and lost as dusk gathered and the sun slipped over the horizon.

Eventually, they found themselves funneled into a canyon. There, they stumbled upon a scene of gruesome horror: both animals as well as people had been butchered at the end of the canyon, their skins pulled off their bloody bodies, with great stacks of meat and bone piled high here and there. Once more, they saw the Patrolman, standing in the midst of the bloody scene. This time, Brian decided to use his rifle, but found the weapon jammed, a consequence, he claimed, of bad luck and poor manufacturing.

The couple fled back to the cabin. But here they discovered it too was beset with horror, filled with skins and blood, and, worse, the Patrolman appeared not far off in the distance, steadily walking towards them. They raced in the direction they thought was their vehicle, but found no clear path, and were lost for sometime as night fell. But after hours of stumbling, they finally came upon their truck — and saw, sitting in it, the Patrolman, staring blankly forward.

Brian once more tried to fire his weapon. This time, it went off, shattering the glass on the passenger’s side. Cheryl, he claimed, went into hysterics as soon as he did, shouting “He’s not gone, he’s not gone!” She rushed towards the truck, and Brian gave chase to her. They both found the truck empty, with no blood to show sign of injury to the Patrolman.

“That’s when Cheryl really lost it,” Brian said. “That’s when she said she saw him right on the road. I looked and I didn’t see anything. She said he was walking towards her, and I asked where he was, and she pointed to nothing. So I decided to prove there was nothing by firing a shot in that direction. And then she let out a howl — a real shout — like a dying animal. And I turned around to see her and I saw that he had her from behind, his arms wrapped around her throat. She was begging me for help, and I panicked. I raised my rifle, and like I’d been trained back in the Army, I fired right over her shoulder. Except the gun moved — I swear, it did this by itself — and the bullet went right into her chest. And the Patrolman, he laid her down, and he slipped away, even as I fired two more rounds after him.”

Cheryl died almost instantly, a mercy of sorts to this sordid tale. Brian brought her body to Heber, where he explained the story in detail to the sheriff. They decided to arrest him on the spot, and they shipped him to Flagstaff for trial.

It took the jury only a few minutes to convict Brian Whitaker of murder in 1959, and the judge immediately handed down a death sentence. To his final hours, he insisted that he was not responsible for her killing.

Was it murder, covered up by the fantasy of a tale Brian might have heard over some late night in a Rim country bar? Or was it a terrible accident, with the tale used for the same? The court was clear on the matter, but the Patrolman’s fingerprints, so to speak, did appear some years later, as another pair of hikers claimed to have found his cabin, filled, as they said, with skins and blood. But while they escaped unharmed physically, they reported that, alongside the Patrolman, a half-skinned woman, whose mutilated features matched those of Cheryl Whitaker, sat tending a fire, and bid them join her before they both fled.