CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. (KGET) — For the last 12 months, this dusty desert town has been known around the world as “the place those two little boys went missing.”
It’s a notoriety unwelcome in a working class community where many of the 14,000 residents are just trying to get by. But it’s not an unfamiliar reputation.
California City has always had a reputation for disappearances, and murder was here long before Orrin and Orson went missing.
“Her husband had put a shotgun to her face in front of my granddaughter and basically threatened her life,” said Sheri Smith, who’s daughter Desiree Thompson has been missing from California City for nearly 10 years.
The day she disappeared was the same day Desiree was in a domestic dispute with her estranged husband. Desiree was planning on moving away from her husband but that day.
But it started out as just another day.
“She was in good spirits,” Smith said. “We discussed the fact of her moving and she was waiting for grant money for college courses that she had applied for, and she was going to find another place and move away from him.”
Desiree called her mom at about 8:30 that night. It would have been an unremarkable call, except that Smith now realizes it was the last time she heard her daughter’s voice.
Smith filed a missing person’s report, an investigation began. There were interviews, searches, posters and then… Nothing.
The California City Police named the estranged husband, Edward Gibson III, as a “person of interest.’
When 17 News checked in October, officials said they didn’t know where he was or if he was even in still in California. The investigator in charge of the case told 17 News a lack of resources and turnover in personnel over the years has delayed the investigation.
As Orrin and Orson’s anniversary passes, Jan. 7, Desiree’s 10th anniversary, approaches for a heartbroken mother who sees an investigation that has discovered nothing.
“Nothing…,” Smith said, choking up. “My daughter would’ve never left me, she loved her children.”
Debi Fone knows this pain. She is the mother of 23-year-old Deverrie Schiller.
On June 26, 2016, Deverrie’s body was found in the park across the street from the home she shared with her mother. Investigators said they believe Deverrie was strangled to death.
“She didn’t come home and she didn’t answer my calls and didn’t answer my texts,” Fone said.
Five years later, as in the Desiree Thompson case: Nothing.
In the Schiller case, the mom did most of the investigating.
In 2019, she saw the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Inspired by the film, she made three billboards outside California City begging for help solving her daughter’s killing.
17 News’ Christian Galeno interviewed Fone.
Christian Galeno: “Somebody out there knows something, what would you want them to do?”
Debi Fone: “Do you want the friendly answer or the pissed-off-because-she’s-been-grieving-for-5-years answer?”
California City holds other secrets, murders and missing persons.
Just this summer, the NBC program Dateline featured eight CCPD cold case homicides. Robert Tharp, missing since 2014. Pete Hammond, missing since 2017. Demetri Thomas, murdered. City Planning Commissioner Charles Pieper, murdered. Doctor Burdette Thorbus, murdered. Matt Lininger, murdered.
It’s a lot for a town of 14,000.
Those crimes have been documented.
There’s no telling what unreported mysteries lie in the sagebrush of the huge desert that borders Cal City on all sides.
“There should not be that many cold cases not being solved, not being cared about,” Smith said. “And that is what I didn’t want with the boys.”
Inaction from local police is a common complaint.
“I believe the line is, it goes something like, ‘it is being worked on and it is progressing,” Fone said.
17 News’ Christian Galeno asked California City Police Chief Jon Walker about the city’s amount of cold cases.
Jon Walker: “We have a very small department. I don’t know if you know but in land mass, we are the 3rd largest city in the state of California behind Los Angeles and San Diego. We have 205 square miles and including myself, sworn personnel we have 14 people.”
CG: “Is that the reason why so many cases have gone cold?”
JW: “No, I don’t think so, in fact the cold cases we do have we are actively working, I have one criminal investigator that he’s here 4 days a week and actively following up on any leads. We’re still actively working it, I can’t tell you more than that, but we are still actively working it.”
The grief these mothers have been through has left them with a sour taste in their mouths for California City.
“I despise it, I despise everything about California City,” Smith said.
“It’s horrible, I grew up here, I don’t care what they say, it’s horrible,” Fone said.
These are just some of the cases that have gone cold or unanswered out of California City.
If you have any information that can bring justice to these families you are asked to contact the California City Police Tipline at 1-855-227-3656.