At around 3pm on Monday 28 June, Lauren Cho walked into the California desert with no phone, food or water and disappeared.
That, at least, is what her friend and former partner Cody Orell, the last person to have seen her, told Morongo Basin sheriffs after she did not return.
Ms Cho, 30, is one of the most prominent missing persons brought to new public attention by the death of “van life” YouTuber Gabby Petito in the Wyoming wilderness.
Ms Cho’s friends and family have pleaded for her case to get the same level of media coverage as Ms Petito, whose death has been ruled a homicide by officials, though they stressed that there are also many differences between the two incidents.
Here is everything we know about the disappearance of Lauren Cho.
— hollyjolly_scrunchies (@hollyjollyscrun) September 19, 2021
A ‘super talented’ singer with dreams of becoming a cook
Lauren Cho, known as “El” to her friends, is described as a 30-year-old Korean-American woman, 5’4 tall and weighing about 110 lbs. She was last seen wearing a yellow T-shirt and jean shorts, near the Hoopa Road and Benmar Trail just off California State Route 62.
The San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Department has asked anyone with information to contact Detective Edward Hernandez or Sergeant Justin Giles at (909) 387-3589, citing case number 092101115. Anonymous tips can be submitted at WeTip.com.
When Ms Cho vanished, she had had been living with Mr Orell on a friend’s land in California’s high desert, having recently quit her job as a high school music teacher in New Jersey to travel across the country with him.
A talented soprano singer, she had toured with choirs in Europe as a teenager and was active in a local church choir. By last winter, however, she was disenchanted with that life and joined Mr Orell in a converted tour bus, winding up in a ghost town turned artist’s commune called Bombay Beach on the edge of California’s inland Salton Sea.
“Lauren wanted a different life,” Mr Orell told the Hi-Desert Star. “She wanted to move from the East Coast and taste freedom. She quit her job and moved into the bus with me.”
Mr Orell and other friends described her as a “super-talented person” with a black belt in tae kwon do and many plans for the future. She had bought an old school bus to convert into a food truck, hoping to turn her knack for cooking into a career.
The pair wintered in Bombay Beach, an unincorporated community of about 415 people that was once a beach resort before the Salton Sea’s ecology collapsed. Mr Orell said that “El” tested her recipes by making large group dinners for their circle.
“She makes this basil ice cream that’s vegan and everyone who tries it tells her she ought to be famous for it,” said RJ Okay, another friend.
By June, Ms Cho was working as a private chef for her friend’s Airbnb between the Yucca and Morongo Valleys, just outside Joshua Tree National Park.
‘There was a ten minute window and she evaporated’
According to Mr Orell, and the Morongo Basin sheriffs’ report on his call to them, Ms Cho “evaporated” during a ten minute window around 3pm while he was inside the converted tour bus.
Mr Orell quickly phoned some friends and set out to search, and then at 5.13pm called the sheriffs for help. He told them that Ms Cho had gotten upset and walked into the desert, without taking her phone or any food or water.
The sheriffs looked for her by helicopter and on foot, starting from where she had vanished near the Hoopa Road and Ben Mar Trail. They found nothing, and on 2 July they reclassified her absence as a missing persons case.
Since then the search has continued, with light planes used to scan the mountainous wilderness and dogs used to search the friends’ property where she was last seen.
Ms Cho’s friends and family set up a Facebook page to publicise her case and seek information. They began gaining access to some of her online accounts, while her parents and brother in law travelled from the East Coast to California to meet investigators.
At the time, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller told a New Jersey radio station that there was no evidence of foul play, no persons of interest, and that Ms Cho was considered “voluntary missing”.
On 21 September, however, the sheriffs’ department said that it had called in its Specialised Investigations Division, which probes murders, suspicious deaths, and crimes against children. A spokesperson said that they were working with Ms Cho’s friends and family.
‘Somebody knows something’
In the first days after Ms Cho’s disappearance, Mr Orell said he suspected that she had got into someone’s car. He told the Hi-Desert Star that she had started dating again and had gone to meet someone the previous day.
In August, an internet comment apparently by Mr Okay, who helped in the initial search, said she had had an argument with Mr Orell just before she disappeared, but that the two had broken up amicably without jealousy.
He said that police had been questioning people with whom she had gone on dates in the weeks beforehand, adding that the dogs who searched her friend’s property were trained to sniff out dead bodies, and did not find any.
In September, the Facebook page set up by Ms Cho’s family began to end each post with the ominous message “somebody knows something”. There is no suggestion that sheriffs suspect any person of wrongdoing.
Addressing public comparisons with Gabby Petito’s case, it said: “We realise that on the surface, the public information for both cases share some similarities. We understand the frustration many of you have expressed about how and why certain cases receive national coverage.
“Ultimately, these two cases are not the same and the differences run deeper than what meets the public eye. We empathise deeply with Gabby’s family and hope that both our cases bring forth positive resolution.”