Evil Among Us
by Ken Driggs
[p.1] On Sunday, November 3, 1974, Elder Gary Smith Darley, twenty, and his roommate Elder Mark J. Fischer, nineteen, didn’t show up for the all-male priesthood meeting at the Austin Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
No one had heard from them since late Monday afternoon, October 28. In the thoroughly regulated life of the full-time volunteer Mormon missionary, this was unusual, especially for two dutiful young men. Darley was a district leader responsible for the spiritual and physical well-being of six to ten other young missionaries; Fischer was an earnest “greenie” barely five weeks into his two-year mission.
Alarm bells had begun to ring in the Austin Mormon community a few days earlier. The two missionaries were last seen heading for a dinner engagement at the rural trailer home of Bob Kleasen, a troublesome recent Mormon convert they hoped to reactivate. They were wearing the Mormon missionaries’ standard dress: white shirts, ties, dress slacks, and dress shoes. They also wore distinctive black plastic name tags over their breast pockets. Both were tall and thin, the green-eyed Darley standing 6′ 1″ and 150 pounds, while Fischer was 6′ and 170 pounds.
Local church authorities had been warned by Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City that Kleasen might be a con man who should be watched closely. The previous week Kleasen had had an angry confrontation with other church members. He loved firearms and violent talk. The lay bishop of the Austin Ward, Frank McCullough, had advised the young missionaries not to have any further contact with Kleasen. Darley, the more experienced “senior companion,” told McCullough they felt obligated to keep this last dinner commitment.
The two missionaries had failed to show up for another dinner on [p.2] Tuesday, October 29, with Larry and Sandy Wall, a young Mormon couple near their age. Church members are encouraged to feed the low-budget missionaries often. Their no-show was uncharacteristic and the Walls were immediately concerned. By 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., they were calling other Mormons who knew the missionaries, wondering what had happened to them. One of those calls was to Richard and Lynn Odell, recent converts who’d been taught about Mormonism by Darley. Local Mormons soon learned the missionaries had also missed an appointment with another investigator, Rollo Greene.
The young missionaries’ landlady, Dora Jones, became concerned after not seeing them for several days. She contacted Austin Stake president Amos Wright through a relative. (A Mormon stake is roughly the equivalent of a Catholic archdiocese.) Jones had rented a small two- bedroom upstairs apartment in her home to many Mormon missionaries and had come to know how regulated and predictable her tenants’ lives were.
“I knew something was wrong,” Jones later told a reporter. “Those boys never took off like that before.”
Wright contacted the local mission zone leaders, young men of a similar age who supervised the goings and comings of the thirty or thirty-two Mormon missionaries in the Austin area. Elders Conrad Brent Hardcastle and Christopher Warnock made repeated calls to Darley’s and Fischer’s little 313 West Mary Street apartment but got no answer. They then alerted the headquarters of the San Antonio Mission that something was wrong.
The anxious zone leaders decided to check the missing young men’s apartment. What they saw concerned them even more.
The missing elders’ luggage, clothing, money, and possessions all were there. University of Texas t-shirts Fischer had bought for younger brothers and sisters the previous Monday were in their store bag on his dresser. Their beds had not been slept in. Mormon missionaries typically limit the number of clothes they take on a mission, including for some a maximum of eight shirts, always white. Hardcastle found seven neatly hung shirts for each missionary in the closet. None were in the laundry even though it was several days since the two could [p.3] have last done their wash. The apartment suggested that no one had entered it for several days.
Their now very concerned mission president, Ronald Lee Loveland of Idaho, called Hardcastle and Warnock at the apartment for a report. The two told Loveland they’d last seen the missing missionaries on Monday, the 28th. Darley and Hardcastle had been missionary companions earlier and their bond was sufficiently close that they made a point to spend free time together.
Monday is the missionaries’ day off, a time to do laundry, write letters home, and get some exercise. Darley, Fischer, Hardcastle, Warnock, and two other missionaries, Charles Rogers and Randall Lomax, met at the LDS institute building on San Antonio Street next to the University of Texas campus. They played ping pong and chess, then walked to a UT gym, Belmont Hall, where Hardcastle worked out with a gymnastics team. On the way Fischer stopped at the Co-op Book Store on Guadalupe Street to buy the Longhorn t-shirts that were found on his dresser.
As the clock drew towards 3:30, Darley and Fischer had left the gym, saying they had a regular dinner engagement with Kleasen set for 5:00. Recently they’d joined the man for Monday night dinners in an effort to befriend him. Active Mormons gather on Monday nights for “Family Home Evening,” a time of fellowship and religious discussion. Mormons who aren’t part of families often gather together in their own groups, which was why Darley and Fischer joined Kleasen on Mondays.
That Monday afternoon they had invited Hardcastle along. Darley told him, “We’re going out to the country to eat venison with a member who feeds us all the time.”
But Darley had also told his four missionary friends he “felt uneasy” about the dinner engagement, that he was “apprehensive.” He was probably thinking about the recent warning from Bishop McCullough as well as his own growing personal discomfort with Kleasen.
Hardcastle thought about joining them until he remembered a conflicting appointment to teach investigators about the church.
About 4:00 p.m. a neighbor, James Thomas, saw Darley and [p.4] Fischer driving west on West Mary Street, toward Kleasen’s trailer, in their little white American Motors Hornet. He was the last person—except Kleasen—to see the two alive.
What none of the concerned Texas Mormons knew was that Darley’s father, David K., back in Simi Valley, had heard a disturbing message. In the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 29, he’d been awakened by a voice calling out to him, “Dad” or “David.” He thought it was his son Clark, the only person in the house with him that night. Groggily, he walked to Clark’s room but found the boy asleep. Puzzled, the father returned to bed wondering what he’d heard.