Death in the Desert

On June 18, 1977, the body of 39-year-old businessman Charles Morgan was found in the desert approximately 40 miles west of his Tucson, Arizona, home. He had been shot once in the back of his head. The investigation into his death would prove one of the most complicated in Arizona history. Morgan himself emerged as a murky figure who may have literally been running for his life.

The life and death of Charles Morgan and the investigation into his murder sounds like a story concocted by Hollywood screenwriters. But this movie does not yet have an ending.

Who was Charles Morgan is a hard question to answer. Who killed Charles Morgan is a question that may never be answered.

Tourism is one of Arizona’s biggest industries as it attracts some of America’s wealthiest people. It is important for the economy, but it also brings some unsavory characters.

During the 1970s, Tucson became a favorite mafia haven as more than five-hundred racketeers moved to “The Old Pueblo,” including former New York crime boss Joseph Bonanno. The warm climate was pleasant, but for the dons, the best feature of the Grand Canyon State was its criminal justice system. One particular state law allowed the mafia leaders to buy land through numbered blind trust accounts, allowing them to remain anonymous as they laundered money.

Charles Morgan was the President of his own real estate escrow agency in Tucson. He is known to have done escrow work for at least one Mafia “family,” and he was a potential witness in a land fraud case involving an organized crime boss.

After driving two of his daughters to school on March 22, 1977, Morgan disappeared. At 2:00 a.m. on March 25, he stumbled into his home, discombobulated and unable to speak. He was missing one shoe, had one plastic handcuff around his ankle, and both hands cuffed. He could not talk but managed to write a note to his wife, Ruth, saying his throat had been doused with a hallucinogenic drug.

Morgan wrote if the drug didn’t kill him, it could drive him terminally insane or destroy his central nervous system. He adamantly conveyed to Ruth that she was not to call the police because, he said, if she did, “they” would kill them both, along with their four daughters. Morgan refused to say who “they” were.

For the next week, Ruth nursed her husband back to health. Before his voice returned, he alluded to a secret identity. Ruth said her husband wrote, “They took my treasury identification.”

Morgan explained that he had been secretly working for the United States Treasury Department for 2-3 years.

Two months later, in May, Charles Morgan disappeared again. Nine days later, Ruth received a phone call from a woman who said Charles was all right and would be home soon. The woman, who refused to identify herself, quoted the Bible passage Ecclesiastics 12: 1-8.

12 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

Three days later, Morgan again returned home, this time he was uninjured. He refused to say where he had been and insisted the authorities not be contacted.

Three weeks later, Charles Morgan disappeared for the last time. He came home in a coffin.

On June 18, 1977, Morgan was found shot to death in the desert approximately 40 miles west of Tucson. He had died from one gunshot wound to the back of his head. The bullet had come from his own .357 magnum, which was beside him. No fingerprints were found on the gun. Morgan was also wearing a bulletproof vest and a belt buckle, which concealed a knife and holster.

Items found inside Morgan’s car indicated the businessman was preparing for war. Besides containing a cache of ammunition and weapons, Morgan’s car had been modified so it could be unlocked from the fender. Also found inside the vehicle were several CB radios and a pair of sunglasses not owned by Morgan.

The crime scene had the appearance of suicide. Still, investigators had a hard time fathoming that a successful businessman and happily married father of four would have put on a bulletproof vest to drive 50 miles from his home to the Arizona desert in the middle of the night and, once there, shoot himself in the back of the head. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Morgan’s death a murder.

As the medical examiner removed the clothing to conduct an autopsy, he found a $2 bill clipped inside Morgan’s underwear. Seven Spanish names, numbered 1-7, were written on the front of the bill.

Written above the names was the same Ecclesiastics biblical reference the unknown female had quoted to Ruth.

On the back of the bill, the Declaration of Independence’s signers were numbered 1-7.

On the back of the bill was a crudely drawn map of several roads between Tucson and the Mexican border. All roads led to a place called Robles Junction. From there, they headed south to the town of Sasabe and ultimately to a ranch with landing strips likely used for drug smuggling.

On June 20, two days after Morgan’s body was found, an anonymous woman calling herself “Green Eyes” phoned the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. She told them Morgan had met her at a motel shortly before his death and that she was the same woman who had contacted his wife, Ruth. “Green Eyes” claimed Morgan had shown her a briefcase containing what she guessed was between $50,000-$100,000. Morgan told her the cash would buy him out of a contract that had been put on his life.

“Green Eyes” has never been identified, and her relationship with Charles Morgan has never been learned.

Phoenix investigative journalist Don Devereux began investigating the Morgan murder in 1986. He found Morgan lived a double life as he was on the edges of a couple of large crime families at his death.

Morgan was known to have done real estate escrow work for at least one mafia family, but Devereux believes that was only the tip of an illicit iceberg. Devereux concluded the Mafia was using Morgan for escrow work for gold bullion purchases and platinum, convenient means to launder money. These transactions existed only on paper. The money changed hands by changing escrow accounts in Los Angeles and Atlanta banks.

Devereux believes organized crime, worried about Morgan’s testifying against them in an upcoming trial, put out a contract on his life. Devereux theorizes a hitman told Morgan about the deal referenced by “Green Eyes,” and Morgan acquired the money to pay him off. However, when the two men met in the desert, the hitman double-crossed Morgan by killing him and taking the money. In a perverse way, Devereux believes Morgan paid for his own death.

Devereux concluded Morgan was working for someone in the government who blew his cover. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Devereux contacted the FBI to get more information on the Morgan case. He said the FBI denied knowing who Morgan was, even though agents had interviewed his lawyer.

Devereux’s investigation determined Morgan was extensively involved in money laundering activities through his escrow company. From 1973 until his murder in 1977, Devereux says Morgan facilitated illegal gold and platinum transactions in excess of $1 billion. Much of the loot appeared to be coming from southeast Asia, beginning at the end of the Vietnam War.

Devereux contends many intelligence community operatives appear to have been involved, including renegades in the CIA and Defense Department. Perhaps they were operating undercover for the agency, but they were more likely lining their own pockets. Devereux says exiled Vietnamese officials may also have been involved.

The case of Charles Morgan was profiled on Unsolved Mysteries on February 7, 1990. Don Devereux was interviewed in the segment, and his articles about his investigation into Morgan’s death were soon published.

Three months later, just after midnight on May 15, Doug Johnston of Phoenix was found dead in his car in the company parking lot of ICM Inc., the computer graphics company where he worked. He had been shot once behind his left ear.

Similar to the Charles Morgan crime scene, Doug’s death appeared to be a suicide at first glance. However, no gun was found, and his hands contained no residue. The only evidence at the scene was a .25 caliber bullet casing. The murder weapon has never been found. Johnston’s death, ruled a homicide, is still unsolved.

Devereux’s office was across the street from ICM Inc. He was struck by several similarities between Doug Johnston and himself. The men resembled each other, and they drove similar Toyotas. Devereux’s home and Doug’s work address differed by only one number.

Six months later, in November of 1990, Devereux was contacted by a fellow investigative journalist who told him he had heard from a “high place” CIA source that Devereux’s suspicions were correct; the bullet that killed Doug Johnston was meant for him. According to the journalist, the “source” said there was still a contract out on Devereux’s life because of his investigations involving the CIA and organized crime, i.e., the Charles Morgan case.

Devereux says two other sources, one from the CIA and the other from Israeli intelligence, later confirmed the death threats. He has the warnings from the sources on tape.

In August 1991, Devereux was contacted by Washington, D.C. investigative journalist Dan Casolaro. Casolaro told Devereux that he had uncovered information about Charles Morgan’s illegal gold transactions while researching another story. Casolaro agreed to share the information with Devereux. Shortly after that, Casolaro was found dead under strange circumstances.

Devereux believes the same network of people, including the mob and the renegade intelligence community officials involved in the 1970s money laundering transactions, killed Dan Casolaro and tried to kill him for his investigation into Charles Morgan’s murder.

Charles Morgan claimed he was working against organized crime, but it appears he was instead involved with the mob. He probably started legitimately but could not resist the bribes and temptations. Perhaps he tried to go straight but was coerced into staying in the Mafia’s pocket. By the time he tried to get out, it was too late.

Charles Morgan was in way over his head, and for that, he got a bullet in his head. Forty-three years later, his murder remains unsolved, and no suspects have been named.


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Further Reading:
Unsolved Mysteries

Verses taken from Bible Gateway


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More About Our Wonderful Guest Blogger:

Ian Granstra is a writer and a native Iowan now living in  Arkansas.Growing up, he enjoyed watching real-life crime shows and further researching the stories featured. He wrote about many of them on his personal Facebook page, and several people suggested he should start a group featuring his writings. Ian founded the Facebook group “Murders, Missing People and More Mysteries” in August of 2018 he writes about many cold cases. The group also features many current criminal cases in the news. When Ian isn’t writing, he enjoys exercising, traveling and collecting sports cards. He’s also a big animal lover (his Facebook nickname is “beagle lover.”)


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