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On July 27, 1973, forty years ago today, Mitchel Weiser, age 16, and his girlfriend Bonita “Bonnie” Bickwit, age 15, both from Brooklyn, disappeared somewhere between Narrowsburg and Watkins Glen, New York. Their disappearance on the way back from–or, more likely, the way to–the Summer Jam Festival in Watkins Glen has been the subject of speculation, reflection and confusion for nearly half a century. It is one of the most puzzling and most iconic missing persons cases of its era, but at its heart are two families who still, 40 years later, feel the loss of their children and siblings who went off to a rock concert one summer Friday morning–and never returned.
To say I am particularly interested in this case is something of an understatement. I am virtually obsessed with it. I can think of only one missing persons case (Pringle, whom I haven’t yet blogged about) where I’ve read and researched more. For this article I’m going to draw not only on my usual resource, the Charley Project, but the website the Bickwit and Weiser families created in their honor, www.mitchelandbonnie.com. I hope they don’t mind that I present some of their material, including photos, here.
The front page of http://www.mitchelandbonnie.com, showing the counter at 40 years, 0 months, 0 days.
What Do We Know Happened?
Mitch and Bonnie were two bright teenagers who met and fell in love at the school they both attended in Brooklyn, John Dewey High School. Mitch worked at a photography shop on Coney Island, while Bonnie worked that summer at Camp Wel-Met in Narrowsburg, New York. They were evidently really into each other–earlier in the summer they had exchanged wedding rings and considered themselves husband and wife, even though they were only 16 and 15, respectively. You can see Mitch’s wedding ring on this picture of him, though it’s on the wrong finger. Give him a break, he was only 16.
Being children of the groovy ’70s, Mitch and Bonnie really wanted to go to the Summer Jam Festival. They had plenty of company–about 600,000 people attended, and by one estimate, perhaps 20% of the entire population of New York State under 25 was in attendance. From everything I’ve read on the case, going to the concert was Mitch’s idea. His determination to see Summer Jam rivals my desire to go to Wacken Open Air every year. Bonnie wanted to see it too. She couldn’t get time off her job to go to the concert, so she quit her job.
Transportation was the problem. I recall reading or hearing–perhaps in one of the video stories on the case–that a member of Mitch’s family tried to talk him out of going, because it was too hard to get there. Mitch didn’t want to hear it. A resourceful kid, he set out on the evening of Thursday, July 26 for Narrowsburg, where Bonnie was in residence. Hitchhiking was the typical mode of transportation for kids in the ’70s, and at this time no one thought it was dangerous. How innocent we were!
Mitch did make it to Camp Wel-Met. We know he was there on Friday morning, July 27, because he had breakfast with his girlfriend at the camp’s dining hall. Sometime after that, they left the camp. According to the Charley Project:
Together they set off for the concert, which was 75 miles away. It is believed that Mitchel and Bonita had approximately $25 between them. They carried backpacks, sleeping bags, and a cardboard sign that read “Watkins Glen.” Mitchel also carried a gray and olive-green plaid flannel shirt. They were last seen hitchhiking along State Route 97. The truck driver who gave them a ride is the last confirmed person to have seen them. It’s unclear whether they actually arrived in Watkins Glen.
Did They Make It?
It is unclear whether Mitch and Bonnie actually achieved their objective of going to Watkins Glen. From my review of the case, I’m almost certain they did not. With 600,000 people crowding the race track where the Summer Jam concert was held, surely somebody would have seen them. Especially if 20% of New York State’s under-25 population was there, and as popular as these kids were, it’s a certainty that a fair number of their friends were there. I know from Wacken that trying to find a particular person at a big rock venue is like looking for a needle in a haystack–and Wacken at its height has 8 1/2 times less people than were at Watkins Glen–but with all the publicity this case received, I can’t imagine that if they were there, somebody has not come forward saying they saw them.
So logically, whatever happened to Mitchel and Bonnie happened on Friday, July 27, before Summer Jam began, and it seems to have happened somewhere on the road between Narrowsburg and Watkins Glen.
The “River of No Return?”
In the year 2000, Mitch’s classmates at Dewey High School organized a memorial for the kids, who had now been missing 27 years. They planted a tree and a memorial plaque was laid. The press focus on the case spurred officials, including then Governor Elliot Spitzer, to reopen the investigation, which the Weiser family in particular had called slipshod and incomplete. They were profiled on the MSNBC show “Missing Persons.” The show generated an interesting lead. The following material is quoted from a proposal, posted on the memorial web site, which was made to CBS’s “48 Hours” show to profile the case again. The document (in .PDF) is here:
Alan Smith, from Providence, RI, claimed to have hitched with Mitchel and Bonnie and to have witnessed their drowning…Smith said that he and Mitch and Bonnie got into an orange VW Bus with Pennsylvania license plates, the day after the concert to hitch home. Smith, 24 years old in 1973, described himself and the driver as very stoned. The kids not. He said they stopped at a big river, the Susquehanna or Chemung, to cool off. He heard Bonnie scream and then saw her in the river. He saw Mitchel jump in after her to save her. He said he and the driver watched as the kids were pulled by the current around a bend. Smith and the unknown driver went back in the van and drove away. They never notified police of the “accident” or tried to get help. Smith and the driver parted ways at the turnoff to Pennsylvania where the bus was headed.
[Investigators] checked out all the coroner offices along the Chemung or Susquehanna rivers. No bodies had ever been found…During these 27 years a body, bones, let alone two bodies should have “surfaced.”
Smith never could identify Mitchel and Bonnie from photos or clearly describe what they wore. He claims not to find ID, yet their belongings still had to be in that VW bus after they drowned.
Investigators evidently pressured Mr. Smith to submit to a polygraph examination, which he refused. There was also, at this same time, a supposed “confession” to the murders of Mitch and Bonnie by a serial killer who was, as of that time (2000 and early 2001) in custody. No one seems to have taken this confession seriously, as the killer was quite insane. There was also a “lead” not even worth mentioning because it came from a psychic. No psychic has ever solved a missing persons case, and none ever will; all they do is leech off grieving families.
I don’t believe the “River of No Return” story. In my opinion the author of the .PDF document–Mitch’s sister–is absolutely right to be skeptical. For starters, supposedly this happened after the concert was over, and you’ve already heard my theory on why I believe they never made it to Summer Jam. Why would these two guys not report a drowning? If it happened as they said, they would have no fear of legal repercussions–maybe they would get tagged for being stoned, but when two innocent people are dead, is a misdemeanor pot charge really a big deal? From my own years as a lawyer I’m very skeptical of people who refuse polygraph tests, especially when they have absolutely nothing to lose, legally, by being proven to be telling the truth. I don’t believe this story.
So What Did Happen?
Whoever knows what happened to Mitch and Bonnie has been remarkably closed-mouthed about it for 40 years. That suggests a crime was committed, which the perpetrator was obviously reluctant to discuss; perhaps he or she is now dead. But even criminals sometimes do confess, years later, especially if they’re dying or already in custody for other crimes.
Or, it could be that whatever happened, no one was there to witness. This is probably less likely, but still possible. It’s remotely possible that some circumstances arose where Mitch and Bonnie went off alone into a wilderness area, where they might have fallen victim to some sort of genuine accident. Less likely still is that, if this happened, both of their bodies vanished without a discernible trace. I guess it’s possible but not likely.
Another possibility is that they did reach Watkins Glen, perhaps late at night on July 27, and something happened to them there. This doesn’t seem likely. With 600,000 people around and more arriving every minute, what do you do with a body, much less two bodies? Who isn’t going to notice something out of the ordinary?
Where does this leave us? I’m not sure it leaves us much of anywhere. From studying missing persons cases, my best hypothesis is as follows.
1) Mitch and Bonnie were the victims of a crime.
2) The crime occurred before, rather than after, they would have reached Watkins Glen, which means it happened on July 27.
3) The perpetrator was alone. If he/she wasn’t, where are the witnesses?
4) The perpetrator is now deceased, and probably died before 2000, when the flurry of publicity surrounding the case arose.
I believe these are logical inferences, but beyond these bare inferences, anything else is just pure conjecture.
Will There Ever Be Closure?
Even as young as they were and as long as they’ve been gone, the disappearance of these young people has had a ripple effect that can’t be understood unless you’re a part of it. I know that Mitch’s family has kept the same phone number they had in 1973 active, even though they now live in Arizona, in case he ever wants to contact them. In the era of cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and text messaging that’s rather quaint–it’s not like he’s going to step out of a time warp, still 16 and unaware that any time has passed since 1973, and try to pick up where he left off; that sort of thing only happens in science fiction movies. But you see in this detail the anguish of a family who never had closure, and to whom this anniversary, like all the others, like every day, must be particularly painful.
Mitchel Weiser and Bonita Bickwit were bright kids, loved by their families. You can tell that just from the memorial website, and especially the comments left by people who knew them or by people who are (like me) total strangers but who have been touched by the case. I never try to forget, when I deal with missing persons cases, that they are at their hearts deeply human tragedies. You cannot wish this hell on anybody. It’s awful, it’s life-scarring.
I pray tonight for Mitchel Weiser, Bonita Bickwit and for their families. Let them not be forgotten.
Here are some videos about the case.
MSNBC show on the case, part 1:
The tree planting ceremony at John Dewey High School, 2000:
The short video I made to publicize the case: