Let's do this criminal thing "out in the desert"

As a trope in movies and tv shows (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Casino, etc.) it seems as if one lives in a western state like Nevada, Arizona, or New Mexico, people can do anything they want, up to and including murder, by driving a relatively short distance from town and go “out in the desert” where the authorities will uncover nothing for years if ever. These places are all accessible by car.

What is the Straight Dope on this? Can I really bury money, hide a body, or drop off drugs at easily accessible desert locations? Note: Do not need answer fast. :slight_smile:

There is a lot of open space in Mojave but you have to be prepared:

Nicky Santoro : [voice-over] A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes. But you gotta do it right. I mean, you gotta have the hole already dug before you show up with a package in the trunk. Otherwise, you’re talking about a half-hour to forty-five minutes worth of digging. And who knows who’s gonna come along in that time? Pretty soon, you gotta dig a few more holes. You could be there all fuckin’ night


I think we covered this when Breaking Bad was on and someone said that the desert really is that vast and full of nothing. It also seems that, unlike trying to hide something (or someone) in a forest, you can get a reasonable distance away from the road in a short amount of time.

Would there not be a risk that remains will last a lot longer in the desert? Compared to erasing the bodies while in the city, dumping them at the bottom of the lake, and other methods of disposal.

That was part of my thinking as well. There are a lot of remote areas in West Virginia, but you would be driving and then walking (and climbing) for a large distance. Not as easy as rolling up in your 1970s model car and then flicking a cigarette to the ground.

Aren’t there also a lot of scavengers out there that would deal with the flesh fairly quickly?

On the other hand, depending on how dense the forest is, you’re out of sight pretty quickly. In a desert, I’d imagine ‘out of sight’, especially during daylight, could mean several miles. But I guess that’s why you want to make sure you prepare the area ahead of time.

There are large areas of mostly-empty land, but you need to know where you are going. You need to know who owns the land, and how fussy they are about trespassers. Once you get off of the paved roads, you need to know where the roads are, and how well they are maintained (and, most important, how often people travel on them). A pickup truck or a jeep is generally preferable to a 1970s model car.

There are a surprising number of roads. In the middle of a thousand-acre ranch, the rancher might have a water tank for his cattle. A phone company might have a repeater station, running mostly on automatic, but the company keeps the road graded for their maintenance workers. There are mines, and quarries, and gravel pits in unexpected places.

I lived in Reno Nevada for a year (my first year in the states, which was interesting) and I can definitely imagine some nefarious criminal activity could easily (and probably does) go undetected just a short distance out of town.

East of Reno the Great Basin gets very empty very quickly, I mean you’ll need to get off the big Highways (I80 and 50), but you can get somewhere very remote, very quickly.

Quite a few years ago I took a trip to the Grand Canyon, and then Meteor Crater. On the drive between them I took the less-traveled highway because I wanted to see something other than a regular old giant interstate highway. At one point I pulled off onto a dirt sideroad, and within about a 5 minute drive, I was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with the road the only sign of civilization. I have no doubt I could have done a lot of nefarious things out there with no witnesses for quite some time.

And there were a lot of side roads like that along the way.

This was all within about an hour or two drive of Flagstaff.

Desert scavengers will make quick work of the body. Out here in the desert, you shouldn’t even bury the body. Just leave it, naked, on the ground. There’s a LOT of desert out here. Yes a random person might stumble across the body, but chances are no one will.

I do NOT speak from personal experience.

These are just a sampling of bodies or parts thereof found in the desert months after the people had gone missing. There’s likely a lot more that never get found.

Unlike the East, South, and Midwest, most of the Western United States is Federal land (Bureau of Land Management, USDA/National Forest Service, National Parks, et cetera), and while some of it is occupied there are large swaths of remote areas that receive few visitors. Of course, you do need to know where to go lest you drive down a presumably unused desert road or jeep trail only to find yourself in the middle of the local party spot or an amateur astronomer’s haven, but some scouting with USDA Forest maps and Motor Vehicle User Maps will give you a good idea where ‘the middle of nowhere’ is.

As for disposing of a body, the desert is full of scavengers that will dig for a meal, and while in the pre-genomic sequencing days a few weeks of exposure would reduce a corpse to being identifiable only by dental records and old bone fractures, really ‘erasing’ a body is much more difficult than you’d imagine. Cremating a body to ash requires intense heat—far more than you could generate with a normal bonfire or high temperature kiln—and digging a deep grave is exhausting work. Many people make the mistake of thinking that a body weighted down will stay under water without considering that wave action and decomposition can easily allow enough remains to surface and be blown to shore for identification. Walter White’s favored method of corpse disposal of reduction using hydrofluoric acid is certainly workable but HF is pretty dangerous stuff to handle in large quantities and it isn’t as if you can just dump the result down the drain without thoroughly neutralizing it, and if you are ordering large quantities to a private residence someone is going to be asking questions.

Comparatively, if you have a nearby desert or bog, disposing of the body by finding a remote location and letting nature do its work is difficult to trace provided you aren’t seen coming or going. And every year people go missing in the desert, in national parks, and out in the ocean, and their bodies aren’t found for years if ever even when it turns out that they are only a few miles from civilization.


My brother (with a macabre sense of humor) would joke about dumping a body in the desert.

Friends of mine found an abandoned car when they were camping in the desert. They reported it to the authorities, and it turned out to be a missing person. I can’t remember how long he’d been gone, but long enough that he’d either be dead or trying to re-start his life by making people assume he was dead. To my knowledge, they never did find him or a body.

I question the wisdom of doing bad things in the desert. You can see for miles and there easily could be someone watching that you can’t know is there. They will investigate what you are doing as soon as you leave and report you. If you can do it without being spotted initially then you can get lucky and no one find the evidence for a long time. Since it is an area with little wildlife I would expect that anytime buzzard are circling someone would check it out. Most areas are grazing land and the ranchers love it when they have a cow die because they can charge it to the govt a lot easier than they can catch it and sell it.
It looks good on tv but I think it would much easier to do something secretly in the woods than out in the desert.

Just remember to do things in the right order. Don’t put the dog in the grave first.

They used to warn us about that in Maricopa County. Over the hill or down the hill or across the rise, and once you can’t see the road, you’re gone and may not be found for months or years.

I suppose that depends on how many hills there are. Not all deserts are flat. Find a nice little valley between some hills, and you’re out of sight.

Make your way to Winnemucca NV. Head north on 95 until you get over the Oregon border. You might think it’s pretty desolate and isolated out there but we’re not done yet. Eventually you’ll hit Highway 78 and it will strike off to the west. Take that road. I did just that once and I kid you not, in the 50 or so miles between the turnoff and Crane hot springs where I camped there was NOTHING. No fences, no phone lines, no ranches, no oddball little dirt roads coming off the main road–nothing. I saw three cars the entire stretch and one of them was parked off the side of the road, driver probably already murdered and dumped in the brush. The other two were within a mile of Crane. Scariest damned drive I’ve ever taken and I’m no stranger to deserted places but this was a whole order of magnitude on the solitude scale. Steen’s Mountain is no place to mess around–anyone who’s been there knows to take along a shitload of emergency gear and a jerry can of gas. Just in case. Hide a body? Oh hell’s yeah, no problem.

AAUI, the simplest, most complete way to eliminate a body is to take it to Yellowstone NP and (at night, of course) drop it into one of those pools. There will be absolutely nothing left in about 24 hours. On Firehole Lake road, there is a pool that is right next to the road, so, if you have an accomplice, you could even do it without stopping.

(perhaps that is what happened to Jimmy Hoffa)

I don’t have much experience in criminal activity. Well, none. OK, none that I’m going to admit to.

But my teenage experience of trying to do various, errrm, private activities and pranks and etc even late at night and even in remote areas is that it’s amazing the extent to which people pop up unexpectedly. I think doing these things with absolutely no witnesses is harder than you think. Bearing in mind that it isn’t even necessarily required that someone see you doing something actually illegal - someone even seeing you turn off the main road onto a quiet road could be enough to sink you.

I’m in Tucson and our desert is full of vegetation. Cactus, shrubs, grasses, trees - it’s not the bare Sahara. This is part of Saguaro National Park. Look how much vegetation there is: Cactus Forest Drive Pictures - Saguaro National Park Eastern District

And this is not unusual. Add in coyotes, bobcats, vultures, insects - yeah, you’re lucky if the find you.