Four missing people over 30 years, four lives with no closure. Police think a Las Vegas businessman may be involved. But with no bodies ever found, will we ever know what happened?
Thu, Jul 23, 2009 (midnight)
The picture of Diana Leone shows a 34-year-old who still has a little baby fat in her cheeks. Her blond hair is feathered and curly; there’s a slight doll-like quality to her.
But her expression is oddly spooked. She couldn’t have known that this photo would end up on a missing-persons website as the lasting image of her, yet you can’t help but wonder whether she had an inkling that her future would roll out as a tragic Vegas story.
Leone was 16 in 1981 when she met David Morgan, a 50-year-old who owned Abacus Mini-Storage just west of the Strip on Sunset. They began a relationship and had a child. By the late 1980s Metro had visited the couple on several occasions upon reports of domestic violence. In 1989, Morgan was charged with attempted murder after allegedly beating her up, breaking some of her bones. She refused to cooperate with the police and the charges were dropped, but the violence continued: He was charged with child endangerment in 1992; domestic violence in 1997; and domestic violence again in March of 1999, less than a year before she disappeared. and charges were dropped again. Morgan didn’t notify police of her absence; they pieced together her disappearance after her family reported her missing that October. Morgan told the police she left with a boyfriend, but according to police reports, their daughter told police that the night before Leone disappeared in February, Morgan pushed her through a plate glass window and smashed her head into the refrigerator.
When Lt. Mark Reddon recounts this story in a Metro substation nine years later, it seems unreal—somehow the details of a missing-person case like this feel papery thin precisely because of a lack of resolution. It’s as if without the solid conclusion, the narrative floats aimlessly, awaiting an anchor. There’s no body, no proof of a murder, not even an arrest. There’s only an unfinished story hanging in front of her family, Metro detectives and prosecutors, and there’s an old man who is still not accused of her murder living in Las Vegas.
Reddon has been working this case for nearly half of his career. As he sits in an empty conference room one late afternoon retelling the details, his frustration is palpable. He’s told this story so many times he knows dates by heart, and yet he can’t put the period at the end. Maybe someone will come forward, he tells me. Maybe someone who doesn’t know that what they know is important will contact us. Maybe.
Thing is, the story keeps growing, fattening, stretching wider and further back, even as its conclusion eludes everyone. Reddon and his team eventually arrested Morgan one day, but for an entirely separate crime—one of many authorities have tried, and so far failed, to tag on him.
Before Diana Leone disappeared, before David Morgan allegedly beat her up, before Leone even met Morgan, the wealthy business owner was married to a woman named Marie.
- From the Sun
- Police believe missing woman killed (Las Vegas Sun, 2/27/01)
“Marie was the mother of two, pretty much a house mom while Mr. Morgan did a lot of tractor-trailer runs in a state-to-state moving company,” Reddon says of a relationship in the 1970s. He ticks off the details of Morgan’s life as he knows them: Morgan came from back East, once owned a small amusement park with a merry-go-round, doesn’t drink problematically or do drugs, has had his hands in numerous business deals in Vegas and elsewhere.
Morgan and Marie and their two children, Nevada and Alicia, lived on-site at Abacus Mini-Storage, where Morgan also allowed Fred Hackett and his wife, Avis, to live and work. “Back then, there was one big storage unit on the desert lot, and a junkyard along with a couple of homes,” Reddon says. Today the site has been built out to include large storage warehouses painted bright pastel colors with ample parking space; there’s only a bit of junk still scattered on the rear lot. Reddon says Morgan’s business practice was that if a renter was late with payment, the property reverted to Morgan to sell, and that this is one way he built wealth quickly.
In the late 1970s an orderly at Sunrise Medical Center named Gabriel Vincent rented a storage unit and got to know Marie. Vincent was a drifter from California and had a criminal record—he’d spent time in prison for auto theft and robbery; he’d been arrested 14 times. The two began an affair. During the course of their relationship, Vincent took pornographic photos of Marie. He also tape-recorded her discussing plans to leave Morgan, and then allegedly showed the photos to him in an attempt to blackmail the businessman. Marie’s sister Kim Smith later told detectives that Morgan went nuts upon seeing the photos, and hid in the bushes near Vincent’s storage unit “for days” waiting to ambush him. When Vincent finally showed up, Morgan allegedly shot him in the testicles and then in the chest.
Morgan’s attorney did not return telephone calls from the Weekly.
Years later, after the Hacketts had disappeared from Vegas and resurfaced, Avis Hackett told police that she had heard the shots from their home on the property, and thought, “Oh my God, somebody got killed.” Fred Hackett also later said that Morgan had asked him to help bury the body that night in 1979. The two men allegedly put the corpse in Vincent’s 1970 Dodge van and drove up U.S. 95 to the Mount Charleston exit, where this story, as so many Vegas stories, tries to end: They dug a hole in the desert.
The body was never found.
Business at the Regional Justice Center is hopping—lines at the elevator are long as usual, people waiting to get up 17 floors to face whatever issue of justice they face: Battery? Embezzlement? Domestic violence?
In the court clerk’s office, a small line forms at the window. A young man is running errands for a law firm, picking up copies of cases; a young woman is asking where to go to get copies of the solicitation charges against her—another brisk day on both sides of the law in Las Vegas. I sit at the computer and fish out years and years of files on Morgan. Here, the mysteries come alive a tiny bit more; other detectives weigh in, attorneys, witnesses.
“When Vincent failed to show up for work, no one filed a missing person report, given his checkered past,” says one document. Vincent never picked up his final paycheck at Sunrise, and his story simply faded away, unresolved.
Of Morgan, though, there are more recent details: “He is a successful businessman ... For over 30 years, he owned Nevada Trailer Rentals, which provided office trailers for commercial and construction job sites,” writes his attorney in a 2007 letter to the court. “In addition, he owns Abacus Industrial Trailer Park, which operates a moving and storage company. He has five children. He has three adult daughters, one minor daughter and one adult son ... David had serious heart problems recently. Twice in 2006 he suffered heart attacks which resulted in hospital stays ... David Morgan is a law-abiding citizen. He has had no adult [convictions] in the last 50 years.”
There is little mention in this set of files of Marie, who also disappeared—shortly after Vincent in 1980.
As with Leone 20 years later, Marie had allegedly experienced domestic violence at the hands of Morgan, and once again, he did not file a missing persons report when she disappeared. When police began poking around after her family became suspicious, Morgan told them she had left town with a boyfriend: Gabriel Vincent.
So I ask Reddon about Marie. At first, it wasn’t clear to detectives what happened to Marie. But 20 years later, when Leone went missing, Metro refocused its investigation, Reddon says.
“At that point Marie was still a missing person with no body and no implication of foul play,” he says. “But it’s compounded because now we have a pattern of events ... The pattern is these are both domestic relationships ... So we have a history of extremely violent domestic relationships. In both cases, the female would go missing. That’s a good indication there’s a problem.”
He recites this as professional boilerplate, but not as if it’s the entire story as he sees it.
“All indications are that Marie Morgan was murdered,” he says cautiously. “We have a least three people here that something happened to.”
It makes you wonder how many people just disappear here, their stories left dangling. We’ve all heard the myth that you can’t report someone missing until they’ve been gone for 72 hours—not true; you can report them missing right away. In fact, the sooner the police start working, the better the chance that the missing person will be found or the crime will be solved.
But for police, that’s the fine line: Is the person missing or kidnapped? Missing or murdered? Missing or run away? Roughly six adults go missing every day in Las Vegas—more than 200 a month. The majority return home within three days of being reported missing.
The Metro missing-persons policy, as spelled out on its website, reads, “Because being a missing person is not a crime, police are given a very limited role while conducting these types of investigations. As a general rule, all people have a right to be left alone, and police intrusion into their lives must be minimal. However, in cases where ‘foul play’ exists, police can investigate just like any other criminal act. Also, in cases where the missing person is ‘endangered’ due to medical problems, or life-threatening situations, police will investigate ...
“In cases of ‘foul play’ or ‘endangerment,’ the police can use the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Persons File to assist in locating any missing person. Because of strict standards, not every missing person can be included in this file. Generally speaking, the investigator assigned to the case will make this determination.”
By the time a missing-persons case turns into a homicide investigation, it may well be one of Metro’s 450 open cold cases, which date back to 1952.
“Time passes and makes it even harder,” Reddon says.
“A homicide is a simple case. If I had a body, it’s just a simple homicide case. You have to prove Person A killed Person B. We have to prove Person B is even dead.”
So often, circumstances seem to tell a reliable story, but fall short of providing a conclusion in court. Sometimes, you end up with an unbelievable set of events—a wild story, but still only a story—and a story that breeds other stories, none of which have a satisfying ending.
And then there were four. Gabriel Vincent, Marie Morgan, Diana Leone and Donald Cowan.
Although no charges were filed nor details given, prosecutor David Stanton and Reddon have stated that Morgan’s former business associate, Donald Cowan, went missing in 1982, and that they suspect Morgan is involved. Reddon says, “I can’t say for sure—I have nothing to connect [Morgan] to that except that he’s involved in a business deal with someone who disappears.”
So they backed up and honed in on the facts they thought more reliable. Detectives’ interviews with relatives and others led them to believe that Morgan had dug up Vincent’s body from somewhere near the Mount Charleston turnoff (they searched that desert area several times unsuccessfully) and reburied it on his property on Sunset, possibly along with the bodies of Marie Morgan and Diana Leone. So police searched a portion of the land in 2000 for Vincent’s body, but still turned up nothing.
After tracking down more witnesses, including Fred Hackett in 2006, they felt certain that the bodies were buried somewhere on his property. So in January 2007, Metro executed another search warrant and began digging.
“We did extensive searches on the warehouse property,” Reddon recalls. The Review-Journal ran a photo of workers using equipment to search the site, with the caption: “Las Vegas police officers talk with people from World Wide GPR Services about ground-penetrating radar equipment that was brought in to help police search an area near Sunset Road and Polaris Avenue on Wednesday. At least one body is believed to be buried in the area, police said.” The R-J noted that the property was assessed at $4 million and that Morgan also owns property in the county valued at $20 million.
But again, nothing was found. “We have exhausted the areas covered in the search warrant,” an officer told the R-J at the time. “I wish it was an excellent, perfect lead.”
Then a turn of events that to detectives seemed suspicious: Morgan ran.
“It was during the excavation of that site that we drafted the arrest warrant. And while we were excavating that site is when Mr. Morgan left California [where he was visiting family] and went to Arizona upon hearing that we were excavating. It was our belief that he was in a fight or flight, and there was no valid reason to be in Arizona ...”
Morgan was arrested in Kingman, Arizona, in January 2007, and charged with one count of murder with a deadly weapon in connection with the 1979 death of Gabriel Vincent.
“When he was brought back into Clark County I met with him to allow him to give his statement or any side of the situation that he wished, and at that time he did not want to talk, on the advice of an attorney.”
David Morgan has not been to trial yet. He’s under house arrest, having eluded the detention center by virtue of his old age, poor health and business ties to the area. He was scheduled to be tried for Gabriel Vincent’s murder this month, but the trial was postponed until early next year because of attorney scheduling issues; it seems the nature of his story is one of elusiveness: He’s 74 and these cases date back 30 years.
“No bodies have ever been found,” Reddon says. “There’s very limited physical evidence. It’s a very circumstantial case based on some facts ...
“Punishment becomes a moot issue because what is the state going to do when you are on your death bed?”
Still, the desire for resolution outlasts the desire for retribution. Stories need endings; missing persons need to be found, mysteries need to be solved. We don’t like the imbalance of it, of entertaining the possibility that we might never know. When those associated with Morgan’s case who haven’t experienced the personal loss of the families take in the breadth of it, whether they’re law enforcement or just onlookers who’ve opened up this tale, they experience a different sense of injustice: wanting. How can such a web of egregious mysteries lay undone right in front of us?
We start speculating and scraping around for possibilities, preferring to seal this with any answer rather than none at all. Stories begin playing out without facts almost uncontrollably; in this case, as in many Vegas cases, they snowball into a tale involving the Mob.
“There’s a lot of past history that’s still a mystery about David,” Reddon says. “Some of it could be nothing. Some of it could just be stories because people hear things, and they put two and two together, and the reality is, it’s an awful coincidence to be connected to so many missing people ...”
I ask him to elaborate; I want to hear the stories—and he whips through tales of Morgan possibly running a host of illegal schemes, from moving contraband cigarettes, to changing the VIN numbers on stolen Lake Mead boats; from building a house for Marie and raffling it off to a conspirator who gave it back to him, to making fraudulent titles for Cadillacs.
Reddon—who spent years in the Missing Persons unit and has this set of stories still hanging out there even though he’s moved on to other cases—is game to pass along the hearsay, he says, because of the possibility that someone, somewhere, will have their memory jarred and come forward with more details that may lead to truths. He says some people may have been afraid of talking about Morgan for fear that he was associated with the Mob—or prominent Las Vegans—years ago:
“Some of the reports from back in the case file had concerns that Mr. Morgan was involved with the Mob ... [People] had concerns over the police department, was the police department corrupted or not? They had concerns with corruption in the police department and connections with the Mob. His name has been associated with several prominent figures, but it’s only hearsay. There’s rumors of politicians involved, and I’m not saying they had knowledge of what he was doing, but maybe [they were] at the same fundraisers or drinking locations, so it was not unreasonable for people to believe that if Morgan was at the same establishment as some prominent people, there was a connection. But I don’t think it’s true, but it still gave that perception to people he dealt with to prevent them from coming forward with information.”
Morgan also allegedly has a wife and son in Brazil, along with some property. Two of his other sons died in separate motorcycle/ATV accidents here in Vegas.
“There’s a few more things about the case that are even a little bit more incredible, and someday that information will come out and become public knowledge, too,” Reddon says. “There’s always a little bit more to the story.”
Morgan’s attorney did not return calls from the Weekly.
The disappearances of Gabriel Vincent, Marie Morgan, Diana Leone and David Cowan remain open threads; storylines that perhaps only Morgan can complete.
“[He] is getting up there in age,” Reddon says. And at some time, I’m hoping he will be a little closer to facing his maker, and give Marie and Diana the final rites they need.”