One half of a quirky married couple is found dead, and the other disappears.
Weight: Between 130 & 150 lbs.
Hair: Thinning gray
Defining Characteristics: Missing the thumb and forefinger on his left hand
On the surface, Morro Bay, California, is a picture-postcard seaside fishing village. But this charming town holds the secret to a murder, or perhaps two.
Dian was murdered with a dog leash
Hugh Harlin, a well-known resident of Morro Bay, sometimes worked as a fisherman. Hugh fished when the spirit moved him. Morro Bay businesswoman and resident Catherine Cordero knew him well:
“There were a number of times he would stop by our business. We would be unloading fish and he’d roll up his sleeves and pitch in. And six or seven to ten hours later, when we’re finally done, you know, he wouldn’t take any money for his help. He wasn’t just a weirdo. He might have been weird at times, but he wasn’t a weirdo.”
Unfortunately, his wife, Dian, squandered what little money Hugh earned. According to Catherine Cordero, it led to more than one bitter argument:
“They weren’t getting along very well, and Dian would do bizarre things, including opening a can of dog food and serving it to Hugh for dinner.”
It seemed Dian cared more for her dogs than she did for Hugh. In fact, around town, Dian was known as “The Dog Lady.”
Keys found by Hugh’s abandoned truck
On October 13, 1982, the badly decomposed body of a woman was found just off the beach at Morro Bay. Police could not identify her. But they could identify the murder weapon. According to Det. Manny Silva of the Morro Bay Police Department, the victim had been strangled with a dog leash:
“The investigators immediately put out a news media release with a description asking for the public’s assistance identifying this individual. Later in the evening, the department was contacted by a Hugh Harlin. Hugh Harlin was shown several pieces of jewelry, and he identified that jewelry as belonging to his wife Dian.”
Hugh told police that Dian had been away from home for twelve days. He said he wasn’t worried until he heard about the body. First, he told detectives that the night Dian disappeared, the dogs had come home with their leashes on. Then he said the dogs were not wearing leashes when they came home. Det. Silva:
“When Hugh Harlin changed his story, the investigators began to look more closely at him as a possible suspect.”
Catherine Cordero questioned Hugh point black:
“I asked him, I said, ‘Hugh, you know, a lot of people suspect you, and did you kill her? I know she’s bizarre and I know she tried to push your buttons, did you do it?’ He said he didn’t do it. I knew when he answered that question he was telling the truth.”
Was Hugh murdered, or did he just disappear?
Police eventually ruled out Hugh as a suspect. The case remained unsolved and four years passed. Then, on November 1, 1986, Hugh went to a friend’s house to borrow some tools for a construction job up the coast. Hugh set off for San Simeon, 27 miles north of Morrow Bay. Hugh’s friend, Steve Mathieu, said he soon received a disturbing phone call:
“The next thing we knew, I had gotten a call from a mutual friend in Cambria, wondering why Hugh’s truck was sitting off the side of the road and had been for a day or so.”
Steve Mathieu said he and a friend, Eddie Grimes, drove to Cambria to check out Hugh’s abandoned truck:
“I got curious as to what was going on. I took a look inside, I saw Hugh’s glasses on the dash, and I saw a couple of tins on the dash. One was tobacco and one was just some ragweed pot that he smoked quite regularly. All of these things weren’t really adding up to me since three days or so had transpired since the last time I’d seen him, and this is basically the way he had left.”
Before Steve and Eddie returned to Morrow Bay, Steve said they did a quick search of the area and found Hugh’s truck keys:
“It was at that point that I had decided that there were just too many elements involved here to be a straight up situation.”
Hugh and Dian Harlin
Did Hugh Harlin meet with foul play or did he just choose to disappear? Det. Bill Wammock of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office:
“There are several possibilities as to what could have happened to Mr. Harlin. Number one, he simply could have staged his disappearance. He knows he had been at one time questioned regarding the homicide of his wife.”
Knowing Hugh, Steve thinks that’s possible:
“I totally believe that Hugh was smart enough and crafty enough to engineer his own disappearance. And just in exactly this manner. The thing that I’ve never been able to decide is, if that’s actually what he did or if there was some foul play here.”
Det. Manny Silva suspects that Hugh had been hiding a secret:
“Hugh Harlin, I knew, I believe, and I think the investigators at the time believed, knew more about the case than he was telling them. And my concern is that he was possibly harmed by some individual who may very well have harmed Dian Harlin.”
The case of Dian and Hugh Harlin remains unsolved. The key to the mystery lies in finding Hugh Harlin, if he is alive.
Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season six with Robert Stack and in season four with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.
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