An army lieutenant disappears and is declared AWOL, but his family thinks he may have been sent on a secret CIA mission.

A black and white photo of Paul Whipkey, a caucasian man with short blonde hair.

Paul Whipkey

A red convertible pulls up to a security guard standing outside a security booth.

Paul left base one day and never returned


A red and white convertible car parked off to the side of a remote road.

Five weeks later Paul’s car was found

On August 17th, 1958, a fish and game warden in Death Valley, California, found a car abandoned in the desert 42 miles from the nearest town. The keys were still in the ignition and there was no sign of foul play.

The car was registered to Lt. Paul Whipkey of Fort Ord, California, almost 500 miles away. The Army reported that Whipkey had been missing for five weeks and, in fact, was wanted as a deserter. But, there was a problem: by all accounts, Paul Whipkey was the perfect soldier. No one who knows him believes he could have been a deserter. Carl Whipkey is Paul’s brother:

“I don’t think Paul deserted. It was completely out of character for Paul to do such a thing. He was a loyal American soldier, devoted to his work. I think the Army knew exactly what had happened to him. I think it was part of a big smokescreen cover up.”

Paul Whipkey was an R.O.T.C. honor graduate. After basic training, he won a spot in the Army aviation school. In 1957, at Camp Desert Rock in Nevada, Paul flew an observation plane during testing of the atomic bomb. He was exposed to radioactive fallout, and it soon after that when unusual blotches appeared on his skin. Several months later, stationed at Fort Ord, California, Paul had to have all of his teeth removed.

Two men packing up a small bedroom.

Why was Paul’s room stripped so fast?

On July 10th, 1958, late one afternoon, Paul left Fort Ord. He told friends that he was headed for the town of Monterey, less than a mile away. But Paul never returned. The next morning, Paul was reported AWOL and 30 days later, he was declared a deserter. The following week, his car was discovered in Death Valley.

The army says that on the day Paul left, he apparently ended up at Whites Motel in Mojave, California, some 350 miles from the base. Paul had signed the motel’s guest registration. Army investigators say they found a gasoline receipt in Paul’s car. It showed that he had bought gas in Mojave, before his car ended up in Death Valley, 145 miles away.

On the very morning Paul turned up missing, two soldiers stripped his room at Ft. Ord. Everything was removed, including Paul’s personal belongings. According to his brother Carl, this was an odd and perhaps illegal procedure:

“Regulations state that the next of kin or legal representative must be notified before packing belongings. And they didn’t notify us at that time. I was very suspicious of this action as soon as I discovered it had taken place.”

Four men in suits and hats standing near military aircrafts.

Mystery men met with Paul at the base

Four weeks after Paul was reported AWOL, a witness driving through Death Valley saw his car. He said it was being driven by a man in military uniform. However, when Paul left Fort Ord, he was wearing civilian clothes. When the car was found, a pile of cigarette butts was on the ground next to it: Paul didn’t smoke. Also troubling to Paul’s family was the fact that the Army waited nine months before looking for his body. And it was only by accident that Carl Whipkey heard anything about the car at all:

“The only way that I learned about the car was due to an unofficial call I placed to an enlisted man at Fort Ord. Within half an hour, he called back very excited and he said this is classified information and requested that I not tell anyone where I had heard it.”

The investigation into Paul’s disappearance also troubled his commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Charles Lewis:

I found it almost unbelievable that he would be classified as a deserter. I was curious what the basis for it was. And I was quickly and promptly told ‘Charlie, forget this. The case has been closed and I would recommend that you don’t carry it any further.’ In essence I was told to shut up and drop it and blow away.”

Charles Lewis and Paul Whipkey were both stationed in Nevada during 1957. Lewis recalls the day he saw two men in plain clothes talking to Paul:

“I noticed that they had gone directly to the airfield instead of reporting to operations, which was required for a purpose of security. So I asked them for their identification.
They showed me their military identification cards and the picture did verify who the two were.”

Over the next few weeks, Lewis often saw Paul talking to the same two men:

“When Lt. Whipkey would come in after they had departed, you could feel a rigidity in his personality traits and his mannerisms.”

In hindsight, Lewis now believes that Paul may have met with the two men for one simple reason:

“During that era, there was a tremendous amount of nationwide recruiting conducted by the CIA. And with Lt. Whipkey’s qualifications, he would’ve been an exceptional candidate for such an assignment.”

Paul’s brother, Carl, thinks there may be some truth to this as well:

“January of the year he disappeared, he told me during a telephone conversation that he was going to be going on an assignment, that he was going to make a name for himself. Before he could tell me what it was, he was interrupted by some officers moving in the proximity of his desk and he could no longer talk to me about the subject. I theorize that Paul was recruited into an Army/CIA joint program that was going on at that time. When Paul left Fort Ord, he drove to the town of Mojave, California and checked into White’s Motel. There’s a possibility that he was met there by Army intelligence agents or the CIA and transported to Southeast Asia, possibly from Edwards Air Force Base, which is nearby.”

Carl now believes that his brother was assigned to a secret mission and left his car with the Army. He thinks they kept it four weeks before driving it into the desert. But not knowing the answer leaves him always wondering:

“I think the Army took his car out to the desert to get rid of it. Out of sight, out of mind. If they would just say, ‘Yes, he died on a secret assignment,’ we could live with that. We’re all loyal American citizens in our family and we would buy that. And until the Army tells us what happened, there will be no peace in our family.”

In 1982, the Army reviewed Paul Whipkey’s case and found no basis to support his status as a deserter. Two months later his final status was officially changed from “deserter” to “died in the line of duty.”

Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season three with Robert Stack and n season seven with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

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  1. TonyG

    I am wondering if the men he met with were from the Atomic Energy Commission, and if he was a potential whistleblower on the effects of troops being so close to the fallout areas.
    If his teeth were falling out because radioactive poisoning that would make a lot of sense. Also, the Army removing his personal effects so quickly – they could have been highly radioactive/contaminated!
    Those Cold War tests involved a lot of lying to the servicemen who were involved with them.
    They couldn’t take a chance of him revealing this to the public.


  2. Dan Rickard

    What is possible is that the mission he was recruited to was a mission everybody involved knew was a one-way street a mission of no return. A short time before he disappeared he removed all his teeth a thing that in that pre-DNA time made his body unidentifiable and it’s possible that “damaged by radioactive fallout” was a cover story to explain the removal. The car and the motel were false “breadcrumbs” left to hide in what direction he went and it’s probably he left hidden in an airplane. His belonging was collected in case there was something he left that could identify his destination. So in short -Whipkey was recruited to a very important mission with zero survivability in a hostile territory. Success or failure -he would die so it was important that the body could not be identified or be traced back from where it came from.


  3. Deanisaclown

    You are quite a clown thinker, Dean.


  4. Jenny from the Block

    So in 1958 when America is not actively engaged in a military conflict with another country, an American soldier stationed at an American base goes missing without explanation – and decades later, the Army declares the soldier killed in action? What action? Killed when? Usually when a soldier is KIA, there’s a conflict or war that their death is connected to. No such thing in Mr. Whipkey’s case here.


    • Jenna Darby

      They did not declare Whipkey killed in action though, they declared him to have “died in the line of duty.” This is an entirely different classification than KIA, which as you stated would apply to military personnel killed during an active war or hostile conflict. To have declared him “dead in the line of duty” is applicable because it changes his status as a deserter to someone who was killed while on active status in the military, even though they don’t know what happened to him, all evidence suggests he would never abandon his post.


    • Mojave Tim

      Are you the same Jenny that lives in Lake Isabella,or should I say “Lake is a puddle” ?


  5. Carmel Dennison

    This is really eerie…
    Strangely enough this case has eerie similarities to another disappearance/ awol
    In 1993 Justin Burgwinkle also stationed at Fort .Org military base in California
    Disappeared and 3 months later his car was found abandoned at a motel
    Wallet, car keys, dog tags, credit cards
    Left in the car.. he was never found or located
    Mystery also surrounds his disappearance..
    I didn’t even realize until I started reading about
    Paul whipkey and Fort .Org. Military base
    Then I realize this case was somewhat similar.
    Although few details are different
    Both stationed at the same military base
    Just 40 years apart
    Both disappeared/ awol
    Both left the military never to be seen again
    Both had cars found abandoned
    With keys in the car
    No sign of foul play
    Like poof they walked off
    Never to be seen again
    Both families distraught with little to no answers
    No bodies, no sightings
    Both very little investigating in cases
    Although both cases have none to do with the other
    Both are extremely strange
    Fort Org. Military base shut down 1994..


  6. John J Whipkey

    can anyone tell me where i can find the episode about Paul Byron Whipkey?


    • Steve

      Im watchin it right now on hulu “mysteries of the outdoors” s1e2-“Evil in the Desert” half hr show pauls section comes on 13 min in and lasts mabe 5 min. But these programs always leave parts out because its about the mystery its not about solving anything. They just have him walking out into the desert never to be seen again. And “50 years later his family is still looking for answers” apparently his status
      was changed from deserter to KIA
      35+ years ago.
      Mabe the government can actually fess up at times. LoL


      • Jenna Darby

        No, it was not change get to KIA, it was changed to “died in the line of duty”…these are 2 very different classifications. Many people are misunderstanding these classifications as the same and perpetuating further conspiracy theory around the classification itself where there should not be any.


  7. J. Jackson

    J. Jackson

    I’m adding some important details to the story I told previously, above. On the second occasion 1st Lt. Whipkey had the other recruit and myself come to the Ft. Ord airfield, to talk about us joining the special mission, we saw those two mysterious men in suits, waiting in the back of a hanger. Nothing was said about who they were. At the time, I spoke no foreign languages, but the other recruit was born and raised in Belgium and spoke French, as well as English. Since French was one of the official languages of South Vietnam, that’s another reason I suspect that’s where we would have been going, to take aerial photos and make maps. I and the other soldier were sent to advanced training at the same Army base, although we were in different schools. I saw him once, during our time there. I asked if he’d heard anything more about our secret mission, but he said no and then chided me for talking about it, as it was supposed to be kept completely secret. I never saw or heard anything of him again. When my training was finished, I was shipped out to duty at a stateside base, but no special orders came. At my duty base, I asked our company’s training and education sergeant to make a confidential search for possible orders that might have come for me, from Fort Ord. He understood that it was about a secret mission, which I didn’t describe and sent a personal message to an old friend who worked at the Ft. Ord personnel office. But nothing was found and I just put it out of my mind, until i saw the TV program, 33 years later. I never mentioned the name of Lt. Whipkey or said anything about aviation being involved. I came to the attention of Lt. Whipkey, because I was selected to go to helicopter training, although I declined the offer.


  8. kat

    Paul Whipkey was my mother’s first cousin. I have heard different stories from the family. All we know is he is gone and my Grandfather’s brother never knew what happened to his son. The military NEVER gave our family a straight answer!!


  9. Titus Stauffer

    Can anyone please advise? I would like to buy a copy of the “Episode 84”, (Season 3), Aired: April 3, 1991 (repeated August 7, 1991), “Viacom” owned TV show from “1991 unsolved mysteries”, which covers this, but my internet research is coming up short. If you can help me, please post here, or email me at Thanks! -Titus


  10. Anonymous

    Check the SSDI (Social Security Death Index) with his name and Social Security # to see he is on the index. I am a genealogist and recently found the grandfather of a friend on the SSDI (with the help of another genealogist). The grandfather had left home in Sept. 1938 and said he was going to San Francisco and would be back that day but he never returned. The genealogist that helped me find him had searched his name and birth date in the SSDI and found that he died in Phoenix, Arizona in 1975 and was buried in a cemetery in Phoenix (she found that in a death notice in a local newspaper). The SSDI is available on and also by writing the correct federal agency with his name and birthdate.


  11. J. Jackson

    The story told here on this website is almost totally different than the one that is told on the 1991 Unsolved Mysteries TV program. Watch that old program and you’ll see what I mean. I had personal contact with this Army Lieutenant two days before his disappearance and was told about a secret detail he would be leading, which I think most likely was to be in SE Asia. I and another person had been summoned to the post airfield and there, he invited us to join that detail, which he said was to be aviation-based. He said we would go to Australia and spend two months learning to speak with the accent of that country. We would then pose as employees of a civilian Australian map-making and aerial photography company, flying in planes marked accordingly and go to an unnamed place. My best guess is that this place was to be Vietnam. Afterwards, he drove us back to our barracks in his red, ’55 Chevy convertible. He was supposed to contact us later about getting orders back to Fort Ord and joining the detail. But I heard nothing more and no special orders ever came. I didn’t know about his disappearance until 33 years later, when I saw the TV show.


    • Dean

      This country is the most corrupt country on this planet and always will be.The home of the free,brave,corrupt and ignorant.


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