A Boulder City mystery born 70 years ago

Boulder City has always seemed like “Average Town USA” with its carefully manicured lawns, tidy houses and neat street grids. Indeed, it’s often called the country’s first planned community.

But that doesn’t mean that the community doesn’t have its share of tragedies or mysteries. Take, for example, the strange case of Raymond Spilsbury, one of the original investors and owners of the Boulder Dam Hotel.

After spending several decades working in Peru as general manager of the Cerro de Pasco copper mine, he retired in 1944 and moved into the hotel with his wife and son. At the time, his brother, G.C. Spilsbury was manager of the hotel, an elegant Colonial-style lodging house that had opened in 1931 to house workers building nearby Hoover Dam.

During the 1930s and 40s, the hotel became a playground for celebrities, particularly those from Hollywood. Actress Bette Davis vacationed at the hotel after filming a movie nearby and actor Boris Karloff (“Frankenstein”) lived there while gaining residency for a quickie divorce.

On January 19, 1945, the 56-year-old Spilsbury drove out to Emery’s Landing, a fishing camp on the Colorado River to go fishing with its owner, Murl Emery. According to newspaper accounts of the time, Spilsbury never met up with Emery but was seen taking a walk along the river.

The next day, Emery saw that Spilsbury’s car still parked in the lot at 3 a.m. and the next morning started to look for the owner. According to one account, Emery discovered Spilsbury’s hat and coat about a day later. The latter had been carefully folded and a rock had been placed on both to keep them from being blown away.

Inside the coat pockets, was a check for $12,352.40, $1,100 in traveler’s checks, $53 in cash, two pairs of glasses and keys to the car and Spilsbury’s hotel room.

For the next five weeks, searchers combed the river and surrounding area looking for any sign of Spilsbury. Finally on February 27, a group of three fishermen from Los Angeles spotted his body tangled in a clump of bushes about eight miles from Emery’s Landing, near Nelson, Nevada.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect, however, was that when Spilsbury’s body was pulled from the river, authorities found that his ankles had been tied together using his own belt and his pockets were filled with heavy stones.

A few days later, authorities said they believed Spilsbury, who, according to his brother, had been in ill health for several years, was depressed about his health and committed suicide.

But was it suicide? According to one account, Spilsbury’s wife, Vona, was suspicious of the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death and never completely accepted the determination that her husband had killed himself.

Ultimately, no other motive—certainly he wasn’t robbed—than suicide could be found and the case was closed.

But even today some believe there is more to the story. In fact, one theory is that Spilsbury—and perhaps Emery—may have hidden caches of money in the vicinity.

A web site called Thunting.com, for treasure hunters and metal detecting fans, notes “Lots of threads that could be followed here. Most will be dead-ends, but pull the right couple of threads, and who knows what you might find at the end.”

Indeed, who knows?

Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.


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