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  • Writer's pictureJohn Wick

Mysterious Deaths in Gorda Springs

During the 2003 Autumn season, staff at a holiday resort in California contacted the police and reported having discovered the bodies of two of their guests. Unanswered questions still remain over the exact circumstances surrounding this tragic incident. In this post, we investigate the mysterious deaths in Gorda Springs.

The Two Problematic Women

As he made his way along the gravel path that wound its way through the center of the resort, Leonardo Flores could feel himself becoming anxious. The guests he was on his way to see had proven somewhat problematic ever since they had checked in at the start of the week, and he was unsure exactly how they were now going to react to being asked to leave the site. The two women had arrived on the Monday morning, paying for a week's stay and asking if the room next door to theirs could be left vacant for the duration of their visit.

When it had been explained that the staff could not facilitate this request due to pre-existing bookings, the pair had become upset and then requested that they be left alone whilst they were staying at the resort. The women had even gone as far as to insist that there be no maid service until after they had departed.

The venue had agreed on condition that they sign a waiver against using this arrangement to write an unfavorable review later on. Despite this request, Flores had still managed to sneak into the room whilst they had been in the nearby diner ordering a meal and had found nothing out of the ordinary. The morning after they had checked in, the guest staying in the room next door had informed Flores of an incident that had happened on the previous evening. He and his family had been disturbed by a persistent and irritating pounding noise coming through the adjoining wall. It took him 15 minutes of knocking on the door to the cottage, until one of the women had answered in a confused state, before she then closed it again without speaking.

Now, on the day they were due to check out, the pair had failed to do so, and whilst it was not uncommon for a guest to be running a little late for their departure, there was something about the couple which troubled the hotel employee. Something that he could not quite put his finger on. As he arrived at the door to the cottage, Flores attempted to shrug off these thoughts, before politely knocking.

When there was no reply, he knocked again more forcefully this time, but was still unable to elicit a response. With the curtains closed and being unable to see into the room, Flores had no choice but to open the door with the master key, and to go inside. Moments later, the horrified clerk was running as fast as he could back to the main desk to call for the police, with the cottage door left swinging wide open behind him.

The police officers who were called to the Gorda Springs Resort on the morning of the 7th of October 2003 found the bodies of Abigail Tapia and Jacqueline Toves lying next to each other on the double bed of their holiday cottage. Black plastic bin liners had been securely taped over both of their faces, and their hands and legs have been bound using a number of identical lengths of white rope.

Investigators reported that there were no obvious signs of injury or trauma anywhere on the bodies of either woman, both of which were dressed in t-shirts and their underwear. There was no evidence of a weapon or any other mechanism that might have ended their lives, and no obvious suicide note was located. But by far, the most unusual aspect of the scene was the presence of two very different types of face covering. Secured on top of the plastic bag which covered the face of Jacqueline Toves was a grinning Japanese-style Kabuki mask, decorated with black, red and green patterns.

Lying on a table beside the bed was an eye mask covered in feathers, much like those seen at masquerade balls. These two items were very much out of place considering the rest of the scene, with no other Halloween paraphernalia anywhere to be found. The room was relatively tidy with the door locked and secured and no signs of a break-in. Personal effects and valuables belonging to the two women were clearly on display, and it did not appear that any form of robbery or burglary had taken place. With the scene photographed, the bodies were duly removed by the undertaker and sent for post-mortem, under the assumption that the cause of death would help to steer the investigation as it moved forwards.

Days later, the local medical examiner had little of use to offer the detectives in charge of the case. The couple had died as a result of asphyxiation, most likely from the bags which had been taped over their heads. There was evidence of alcohol and recreational drug use in both of their bloodstreams, but not in sufficient quantities to incapacitate or overdose either of the women. Enquiries with staff at the resort, other guests who had been staying there and the friends and families of the victims also produced little in the way of usable evidence. They had dined alone, taking their meals back to their room rather than eating in the hotel restaurant. Nobody had reported seeing them angry or upset, and they had not ventured outside of the complex to visit any of the neighboring attractions.

The Investigation

When investigators attended the rented apartment in Long Beach where the couple had lived, they found a third mask hanging outside on the front door of the premises. This was similar to the one that had been found on Toves, only with the mouth this time turned upside down into a haunting grimace. The manager of the complex was located and spoken to, describing the pair as good tenants, who were quiet and always paid on time.

Enquiries with neighbors revealed that Tapia's sister had attended the location during the week, asking if anyone knew where they had gone and it became apparent that nobody close to the women had known about their trip to Big Sur. Inside the apartment, the officers found photos of a recent holiday to Las Vegas to celebrate Tapia's birthday. But beyond this, there was little of evidential value to be found.

The case that was later presented at the inquest into the deaths proposed that the women had died as a result of a suicide pact. The investigating detectives highlighted the fact that whilst the ropes that had been used to secure Toves were tightly secured, a certain degree of looseness had been found on Tapia's. They hypothesized that Tapia had secured the bag to Toves, asphyxiating her, before then incapacitating herself in the same way.

Several letters, a mixture of typed and handwritten messages, had been left on one side in a manila envelope, addressed to the families of the two women. The contents of these were not disclosed during the inquest, other than to state that they were of a personal nature and explained that both women were clearly in a state of emotional turmoil. It is however believed the content of these letters could not be interpreted or construed as a suicide note. Evidence was also presented to the court that Tapia had been in a significant amount of debt at the time of the trip to go to Springs, believed to be in the region of $60,000. At the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner found himself in agreements with the evidence that had been presented to him and the case was closed off as suicide.

Taking events at face value, it is hard to disagree with the Court's ruling. There was no evidence of foul play found at the scene, or that a third party had been involved in the incident. It was clear that there were significant issues at play in the personal lives of both women, and without knowing exactly what was written in the letters recovered from the envelope, there are no other obvious alternative explanations which can be argued.

And yet there seems to be something missing from this case, a frustrating factual void, which only serves to invite speculation and argument to bridge the evidential gaps. And key amongst the unsolved issues with the Gorda Springs deaths is the proposed version of events put forward by the police, which some commentators still believed to be an unlikely explanation. The accepted account is that Abigail Tapia killed Jacqueline Toves by tying a bin liner around her head, with sufficient restraint to prevent her from breathing.

Toves had her hands and legs tied and would have been unable to prevent this from taking place, even if she had wanted to. But it is what happens next that prompts debate. The police contend that having carried out the murder, Tapia then tied her own hands and legs together, before taping the bag that would end her own life over her head. She then laid down perfectly still and died alongside her partner. While possible, this does, however, seem unlikely.

It is human instinct to reflexively fight against the restriction of a body's air flow, which is why it is impossible for a human to strangle or voluntarily drown themselves. There were no signs such as friction burns or bruising, that either woman had struggled or tried to break free of their bonds. The peaceful, almost serene nature of how the women were found, as if they had each just lay down to take a nap, raises red flags for many people. And whilst it can be argued that the alcohol and drugs in their bloodstreams may have affected their ability to resist their own deaths, the autopsy results do not seem to support this.

It is a case that bears strong similarities to another mysterious death that would take place seven years later in Central London.

Similarities to the mysterious death in Central London

In August of 2010, staff at Britain's GCHQ headquarters alerted their superiors to the absence of a work colleague, 32 year-old Gareth Williams. The intelligence worker had not been seen or heard from for several days, and so officers were sent to his flat in Pimlico to see if they could locate him.

On forcing entry into the address, the police found the decomposing remains of the missing analyst in a large sports bag, sitting in the tub with the flat's bathroom. The bag had been secured from the outside with a padlock, and Williams was lying naked inside it. Again, no evidence of a third party could be located, or of the criminal offense having taken place.

While it was argued that it would have been virtually impossible for the victim to have secured himself in the bag voluntarily, experts conceded that there was a small possibility, he could have achieved such a feat, and evidence of an interest in bondage found on William's computer seemed to support such a theory. Just as there is a belief that a third party was involved in the death of Gareth Williams, some believe that the same is true in the Gorda Springs case. Big Sur is notorious for the importation of drugs by Latin American cartels, due to its isolated nature.

Is it possible that the couple had somehow been persuaded to become involved in illegal activity to clear their debts or were perhaps the unfortunate victims of a reckless criminal endeavor? As compelling a theory as this is, it remains unlikely. There is no evidence of this found in the testimony of the other guests at the resort, or back in the apartment belonging to the women. And whilst the presence of the masks at the scene of the death seem to point to something more sinister, the proximity of the incident to Halloween does somewhat explain this. Finally, it should also be noted that, not unlike Gareth Williams, Jacqueline Toves was also attached in some way to the military industrial complex.

All that aside, Big Sur does seem to be the setting of a significant number of suicides, when compared to similar regions. Some have put this down to the feelings of loneliness and helplessness that such a vast and foreboding area can instill. But there are others who point to mysterious forces which are believed to have made the region their home. For centuries, shadowy spectral figures known as the "Dark Watchers" have been reported stalking groups of hikers and visitors to the area.

Others have reported suddenly feeling overcome by a sensation of utter helplessness and despair, that virtually incapacitates them. This sensation has become known locally as "The Terror", to which nobody is able to offer a viable explanation. There are also stories of a strange entity which has confronted people at the nearby Fernwood Campground, a humanoid figure wearing a mask made of woven corn, which materializes from the trees during the hours of darkness.

This apparition is believed to be related to the indigenous Essenes tribe, still harboring feelings of anger and vengeance towards the settlers who caused the demise of its people. Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever to connect the unfortunate deaths of these two young women with these alleged sightings or supposed phenomena, but it is something which is talked about nonetheless.


In the years since this incident, few further details have come to light. Francis Toves, the father of 26 year old Jacqueline, has revealed that his daughter had struggled in the past with depression and had previously taken an overdose two years before her death. Other than this, all that remains are arguments over the feasibility of the murder-suicide hypothesis. As time has passed, other strange deaths have since been reported in Big Sur. These include a cluster of apparent suicides at the Carmel Middle School, located a little further up the coast.

There are also numerous cases of visitors who have lost their lives on the Bixby Creek Bridge, or along the roads and coastal footpaths nearby in tragic and mysterious circumstances. Sadly, it seems that even in an area that is filled with such great warmth and beauty, there is a dark and sinister undertone. Something intangible, capable of driving people to make decisions that leave little other than sorrow and unanswered questions in their wake.


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