Followers of the blog know I’m somewhat obsessed with the case of Joseph Burgess, a fugitive wanted for the murder of a young couple on Vancouver Island in 1972. For thirty-seven years no one knew what had become of Burgess. Then, in July 2009, sheriff’s deputies in a mountain town in New Mexico were involved in a shoot-out with “the Cookie Bandit,” a mysterious survivalist loner who’d been stealing supplies from local cabins for years. Both a sheriff’s deputy and the Cookie Bandit were killed in the shoot-out.
Fingerprint analysis revealed that the Cookie Bandit was Joseph Henry Burgess.
We’ll probably never know where Burgess was in the intervening years, or what acts of violence he committed. He was a troubled loner reading survivalist books when he was last seen in 1972, and it appears he remained remarkably consistent for nearly four decades. “People don’t change” is a helpful rule when tracking fugitives. Just ask the investigators that nabbed John List.
List was the unassuming New Jersey accountant who killed his mother, wife, and three children on November 9, 1971 and then disappeared. In 1989 a forensic artist crafted an age-progressed clay bust of List that ran on America’s Most Wanted. The artist, Frank Bender, added glasses after it was decided List would affect a more professorial look. A viewer saw the program and instantly recognized “Bob Clark,” an unassuming accountant in Richmond, Virginia. List was wearing nearly identical glasses as those depicted in the bust when he was caught.
There are two unsolved fugitive cases that particularly intrigue, and worry, me. Carl Alfred Eder killed a family of five in El Cajon, California in 1958. John William McGrath killed his family in New Hampshire in 1962. In a strange coincidence both men escaped --- Eder from prison, McGrath from a state mental hospital --- just months apart in 1974. Neither man was ever caught.
“Why did you do it?” Thomas Pendergast screamed at Carl Eder. “They were all I had in the world.”
Eder, 16, slumped in his chair at the police station and hung his head. The best answer was likely the one he gave detectives when they arrested him.
“I just flipped.”
Several weeks earlier, in November 1958, Pendergast, an aircraft worker, had picked up Eder hitchhiking on the freeway. The teenager said he was homeless, and Pedergast agreed to let him stay with his family (wife Lois and four small children) in El Cajon, outside San Diego, until he got on his feet.
On December 12, while Pendergast was at work, Eder lashed out at four-year-old Diane when he felt she was making too much noise. When Lois rushed to tend to her injured daughter Eder grabbed a gun from the garage and shot Lois in the head. The explosion of violence spiraled from there --- Eder killed Diane and her three brothers, and fled.
Fortunately the lanky, 6’3 Eder was distinct looking. He was spotted three days later walking on the boardwalk at Mission Beach and arrested.
His family was tracked down to a suburb outside Rochester, New York.
“I’m glad they got him,” Karl Eder, his father, said.
Carl Eder in custody
Eder received two life terms.
But in November 1974, while serving his sentence at the state prison in Tehachapi, Eder escaped.
There doesn’t appear to have ever been a great lead on his whereabouts; according to a news article from February 1975 investigators considered him a suspect in the “Skid Row Slasher” killings in Los Angeles, but the real killer, Vaughn Greenwood, was caught soon after the article was published.
One thing’s almost certain --- he didn’t seek refuge with family. Eder’s grandmother’s response to his arrest in 1958 was even harsher than his father’s.
“The only thing I wish is they hadn’t found him alive,” she said.
Carl Eder would be 70 now.
Age-progression composite of Carl Eder
Like Carl Eder, John McGrath was a teenager when he “flipped.” McGrath, who was voted “class intellectual” by his Towle High School classmates in Newport, New Hampshire, said family pressure to succeed left him feeling “trapped” on the evening of Saturday, March 10, 1962. His answer was to load a high-powered rifle and shoot his 14-year-old brother in the face. He later explained to a psychiatrist that he felt no emotions, just “washed out,” as he proceeded to kill his 5-year-old brother. Then he waited for his parents to return home, and killed them too, chasing his father out the front door.
John William McGrath
McGrath drove 45 miles to the state hospital in Concord, where he’d been treated in the past, and turned himself in. In 1965 a grand jury found him “insane and mentally deranged,” and the judge committed him to life in the state hospital.
He did well there. He helped remodel the interior, took math and science correspondence courses, and was given greater responsibilities and freedom over time.
Eventually McGrath slipped. He began using drugs, and was accused of burglarizing the hospital pharmacy. He was transferred to prison for several years. In 1972 he returned to the hospital. Good behavior led to supervised walks and incremental rewards of freedom.
But August 13, 1974 McGrath escaped, vanishing without a trace.
Officials have made a point of saying not a single investigative lead has developed on McGrath’s whereabouts. They don’t have a DNA profile for him, as no close family remain. Dental records and fingerprints are on file.
Carl Eder was homeless as a teenager. He was familiar with street life, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he remained there after his escape. But McGrath came from a much more superficially stable environment. He was considering attending Dartmouth when he killed his family. His trajectory may have mirrored John List’s --- fashioning a new identity but sticking to his bookish tendencies. He would be 68 now. On the state police’s wanted page for McGrath, under “Interests,” is “computer programming.” It’s a job that has a reputation for attracting intense introverts. For a man with McGrath’s past, it would be a perfect fit.
If you have any information on Carl Alfred Eder contact the Cold Homicide Unit of the El Cajon Police Department at 619.441.5530.
If you have any information on John William McGrath contact the New Hampshire State Police Narcotics and Investigations Unit at 603.223.3857.