Television audiences love cold cases. But in real life, these long-standing unsolved crimes bedevil detectives and haunt families. Often there are no clues, no evidence, no indication of foul play, and no note suggesting suicide. A person has simply gone missing, and no one knows why.
Families and friends suffer great anguish. They wonder if their loved one was murdered or wanted to escape an old life. They wonder if detectives are searching as aggressively as they could be. They wonder if they could have done more to prevent the disappearance. They wonder if sightings were mirages.
Here are four of the most confounding Orange County cold cases, plus a woman who has successfully used DNA to solve a number of intriguing disappearances.
The Surf Photographer: Ron Stoner
He was the finest surf photographer of the 1960s, and some aficionados of the sport consider him the best ever. His photos are treasured because they capture a period of innocence before the commercialism, high-profile contests, and violent localism of today’s surfing scene.
Surfer magazine featured seven of Stoner’s photographs in its 1965 inaugural issue. Between 1967 and 1968, six consecutive magazine covers displayed his magnificently framed shots, suffused with vivid, evocative shades of blue, aqua, and green. His photographs portrayed a sport on the cusp. “Ron depicted a simpler time, and distilled it so well,” says Matt Warshaw, a former editor of Surfer and the author of “Photo/Stoner,” a biography that showcases many of Stoner’s finest photographs. “Surfing has never looked as inviting or beautiful as when Ron was at his peak. People look back at his photos and the era with great nostalgia. Things seemed to get really ugly in the ’60s—in society and even in surfing.”
Stoner, too, was a casualty of the era. His occasional use of LSD became frequent, precipitating psychotic episodes, and he was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. When he was 23, he was hospitalized and underwent numerous electroshock treatments. His obsession with surf photography waned, and one of his last great series of photos, featuring Hollister Ranch before it was known as a world-class surf break, appeared in a 1968 issue of Surfer. At the end of the article, Stoner wrote: “I sold my boat and went to Maui.”
During the next eight years, he wandered between Hawaii and California, occasionally taking photographs and living off small amounts of money sent by his parents. Letters his mother wrote to him in Maui in the 1970s were returned and stamped “Address Unknown,” says Stoner’s sister, Ellen Tripp. The family contacted police and the FBI, and eventually he was listed as a missing person. In 1982, a Laguna surfer claimed he spotted Stoner in a bar in Idaho and they chatted briefly. Stoner was taking skiing photographs, the surfer said. Tripp investigated but couldn’t find a trace of her brother, and no one has reported seeing him since.
Stoner, who grew up in Altadena and later lived in San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point when he was shooting for Surfer, was a self-taught savant. He was known for transcending the traditional limits of surf photography. “He didn’t just shoot someone’s turn or nose ride,” says Warshaw. “His gift was to capture a scene, an entire tableau. He would shoot a guy surfing but also frame the headlands in the background and the fields in the distance, while capturing the sun bouncing off the ocean and the glitter in the wave. He’d capture a fantasy.”
Stoner’s former girlfriend, Paulette Auster, wonders if he’s still alive. She knows that drugs led to his descent, and the electroshock treatments wounded him profoundly. She hopes he is simply living a reclusive life. Stoner’s sister believes he’s alive. If he is, he would be 72.
“Until somebody tells me otherwise, I’m not going to change my mind,” Tripp says. “I believe that because he never said goodbye to me. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see a homeless man and I look at him and wonder: ‘Is that my brother?’ It’s been almost 40 years, and I still miss him. I hope and pray he’s happy and well. If he is, I wish he’d contact me.”