Death in the Desert: Who Killed Sex Worker Brenda Broyles?

Stephen LemonsJuly 6, 2023
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Photo Courtesy The Broyles Family
Photo Courtesy The Broyles Family

Valley sex worker Brenda Broyles shared a bed with TV star Bob Crane and met a similarly gruesome end. Now, a local private investigator is hoping to crack the decades-old cold case.

On the morning of September 21, 1986, two hikers discovered Brenda Broyles’ skeleton, or what was left of it, in a desert wash near 16th Street in North Phoenix.

Located just north of the present-day Loop 101 freeway, the area is now adjacent to an upscale housing community. But it was wilderness in 1986, a desiccated expanse covered in cactus and creosote. The freeway was still years away. It was the ideal place to dump a body. 

According to a Phoenix Police Department missing person’s report, the remains were found atop a mound of dirt, wrapped in four layers of black tarp and bound by loops of rope tied off with sheet bend knots. 

A skull was located about 6 feet away, minus its lower jaw. The skeleton’s hands and feet were missing, and the plastic tarp contained “an unknown substance such as lime.” 

In the tarp, the remains were further wrapped in a faded yellow bedspread. Police also found a pink hair curler and a pair of blue pantyhose tied in a knot. There was nothing to identify the remains. DNA testing was still in its infancy and not as common as today.

The police didn’t know they had the body of a 26-year-old blonde, blue-eyed Phoenix resident first reported missing in 1980 – a woman whose name would be forever linked to that of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane and his 1978 murder in Scottsdale.

An anthropologist consulted by the PPD shortly after the discovery did provide some basic information, identifying the skeleton as that of a female, about 5-foot-3. The Maricopa County medical examiner in 1986, Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig, determined the cause of death to be “blunt force injury to the front of the head.” 

Phoenix police detective Charles Masino was the head of the PPD’s missing persons unit at the time. Now retired and living in the West Valley, Masino estimates that he began working on Broyles’ case around 1981, after the mayor’s office or the Phoenix police chief – 40 years later, he can’t recall precisely which – called him.

“They said, ‘Hey, some lady’s bugging the city council about her missing adult daughter. Can you talk to her?’” he recalls.

Masino met and interviewed Broyles’ mom, Kathleen Anderson. She told him that Broyles was reported missing from the home she was renting, which police now say was somewhere near the area of 7200 N. 11th Pl. in Phoenix. 

According to Masino, adult missing-person cases are notoriously tricky for police investigators. Unless there’s evidence of foul play, detectives are limited in what they can do. For Broyles’ part, there were no signs of mayhem at her home, nor was there evidence of burglary. Only her blue, tricked-out 1977 Chevy van was missing.

“Her mother convinced me that her daughter would never just leave everything and disappear,” Masino says. “So, I took the case.”

Anderson gave him boxes of Broyles’ effects so he could learn more about her. But the case languished – for five long years.

When the skeleton was discovered in 1986, he wanted to see it for himself, in case it matched a case he was working. He was told – incorrectly, as it later turned out – that it had been cremated. 

Poring over police photos of the remains, he had a hunch that the skeleton might be Broyles’. He showed Anderson the photos and took her to the spot where the body was found.  

Anderson, now deceased, believed it was her daughter based on the hair curler and the bedspread. In a subsequent police interview, Anderson remembered seeing a scarf in the photos that she believed belonged to her daughter.

(The missing person’s report contradicts itself in places, sometimes mentioning “curlers,” plural. Also, the day and month Broyles disappeared and the day and month her remains were later discovered are often transposed in the document, further confusing things.)

Her family says Broyles, a sex worker, would walk around in curlers all day long, a scarf around her head. But the family’s hunch was too flimsy to constitute a positive ID. Her body would not be conclusively identified with DNA until 2007.

Forty-three years after her disappearance, Broyles’ murder remains unsolved. Responding to PHOENIX’s inquiries by email, PPD spokesperson Sergeant Robert Scherer writes that the investigation is “open,” adding, “We are still waiting for the public to come forward with any information about this case.”

But Kelley Waldrip, a private investigator licensed in Arizona and California who has been digging into the case for going on three years, says the PPD has been less than helpful and has even tried to obstruct his investigation into Broyles’ homicide. A former cop and FBI analyst, Waldrip has a suspect and a possible motive, but the PPD will not work with him.

Broyles’ family expresses similar complaints, wondering if, over time, the PPD didn’t follow through because Broyles was a sex worker, one who catered to prominent and powerful men, including Crane and, allegedly, David Bowie, as well as other famous rockers. 

The PPD’s reticence to release more information on Broyles’ homicide or assist Waldrip contributes to such perceptions.

Broyles’ case haunts Waldrip, who met the victim early in his law enforcement career and was fascinated by her case. And while the PPD seems stuck in park, Waldrip, with the family’s help, is still on the hunt for Broyles’ killer.

missing women article from the Republic, March 22, 1992; Photo Courtesy Scottsdale Public Library archives
missing women article from the Republic, March 22, 1992; Photo Courtesy Scottsdale Public Library archives
Crane’s Hogan’s Heroes publicity photo; Photo Courtesy
Crane’s Hogan’s Heroes publicity photo; Photo Courtesy
Bob Crane murder headline from The Arizona Republic, June 30, 1978; Photo Courtesy
Bob Crane murder headline from The Arizona Republic, June 30, 1978; Photo Courtesy

According to her eldest sister, Sharon Reese, Broyles was born in Alton, a city in southwest Illinois, which sits on the Mississippi River.

The second of four sisters, Broyles and her family lived for many years in Brighton, Illinois, a small town 12 miles north of Alton. Their father worked in a glass factory. Their mother was a homemaker.

When Broyles and her sisters were little girls, their mom became a Jehovah’s Witness, converting from Catholicism. “She tried to get [our dad] to become a Witness,” Reese recalls. “He studied [it] for a while, but it just didn’t resonate with him.”

Their parents divorced when the sisters were in their teens. Their mom, who was a devout Witness and a strict parent, moved to Phoenix, taking the children with her. Though their father paid child support, their mom had to take a job, and they became latchkey kids, lacking supervision.

“We were all attractive, so the neighbor boys and the neighbor men – it wasn’t just boys – were very interested in us,” Reese says.

Her mom could no longer watch them every minute. And they were missing their dad and getting attention from older men. “Once we got older, we all rebelled,” she says.

Reese, who now lives in Missouri, explains that she got married when she was 16 and moved away, leaving the other sisters with her mom. Broyles had Paul, her only son, when she was just 16. Dancing at strip clubs was one way she made money, according to Broyles’ younger sister, Elizabeth “Liz” Broyles.

Liz, who grew up sleeping in the same room as Broyles, says she also danced professionally, part time at a Phoenix club called the Squeeze Box. Also like her sister, she had children early and needed to provide for them. “It was hard, and we did what we had to do,” Liz says. “I’m not apologetic for that at all.”

Liz says she enjoyed dancing on stage to Led Zeppelin, the Steve Miller Band and Jimi Hendrix – first in a leotard, and when the laws changed, topless. She was young and the money was good.

“Brenda started out dancing, too, somewhere, and she ended up doing the other thing [prostitution] because it was better money,” she says.

Broyles aspired to be a model, according to Liz, who says Broyles could make as much as $600 a night – or about $2,800 in 2023 dollars – as a call girl working in the late 1970s. Broyles could get by with just working twice a week sometimes, and could afford her own home.

Reese visited her sisters in Phoenix periodically and came to learn of Broyles’ profession.

Once, Broyles took her to a concert by a popular ’70s rock band. Broyles got them backstage and into the band’s dressing room, Reese says, but it soon became apparent that it was more than a wholesome meet-and-greet. “We were supposed to let them take pictures of us,” she says. “And that we would do some things in front of them. I wasn’t going to participate in that.”

Reese left, but Broyles stayed behind. Reese says her sister also tried to rope her into a three-way sex act with a “rich, wealthy developer,” but she shot that down, too.

She says Broyles dabbled in the occult, and she once caught her performing some kind of ritual with candles while wearing a sheer cape.

Reese also knew about her sister’s dalliances with Bob Crane and other stars. “She told me about David Bowie,” Reese says. “She said she was a witch, and he was a warlock.”

Masino learned about Broyles’ “diverse lifestyle,” as he calls it, in part by combing through her “black book,” which documented a vast array of lovers, both paying and non-paying, including, “bikers, Hollywood actors, drug addicts,” among others.

The retired detective, whose mind is still as sharp as a steak knife, remembers phoning and pulling up rap sheets on all of them. “None of those guys panned out as murderers,” he says. “They were like the stupid guy that has sex with some girl and gets caught by a detective.”

During his investigation, Masino found a piece of paper with Bob Crane’s name on it. He later learned that Broyles had several trysts with the notorious Hogan’s Heroes actor, including the occasional ménage à trois, filmed by Crane with his bulky, Soviet-looking video equipment, which was state-of-the-art for the late ’70s.

In fact, the Scottsdale Police Department interviewed Broyles as part of its investigation into Crane’s murder. According to the Scottsdale PD’s homicide report, Broyles told police that she and a female friend had sex with Crane a couple of weeks before he was bludgeoned to death by persons unknown in apartment 132A of Scottsdale’s Winfield Place Apartments (now Winfield Place Condominiums), where he stayed while performing in the play Beginner’s Luck at the now-past-tense Windmill Dinner Theater.

In his true-crime potboiler Auto Focus (originally published as The Murder of Bob Crane), author Robert Graysmith reports that Broyles may have briefly been considered a suspect in Crane’s killing. The book inspired a 2002 Paul Schrader-directed film of the same name, starring Greg Kinnear as Crane.

Graysmith writes that an anonymous tipster told the Scottsdale PD that he’d seen a woman with blonde hair exit Crane’s apartment with a young boy the morning that Crane’s corpse was discovered. Broyles was blonde and had a son, and Graysmith suggests the woman could have been her. But he presents no evidence to support this hypothesis.

Graysmith, who names a chapter in his book after Broyles, describes her sexual encounters with Crane, discusses her belief that she was psychic and details some of the visions she supposedly had. But most of the book focuses on other suspects.

First published in 1993, the book also mentions that Broyles had disappeared, citing a rumor that she “went to Mexico to make a film and was killed in the desert.” He also writes that Broyles had a “For Sale” sign in her yard around the time of the Crane homicide and makes it seem as if she disappeared in 1978.

Broyles did sell the Glendale house where she’d been living in 1978, but, according to her family, she subsequently moved to a house in Phoenix that she rented.

It was from this location that she disappeared in 1980.

No note. No clues. Nothing for Phoenix PD investigators to work with when they opened her homicide investigation six years later.

Kelley Waldrip in North Phoenix, not far from where Brenda Broyles’ remains were found; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Kelley Waldrip in North Phoenix, not far from where Brenda Broyles’ remains were found; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

Slim and wiry, with thinning hair and a cop mustache, private investigator Kelley Waldrip can often be found holding up the bar at Durant’s during happy hour, nursing a greyhound.

The bachelor’s spare, book-lined condo is conveniently located less than five minutes away. When he’s not bending an elbow at Durant’s, he’s watching classic films at home, like the Humphrey Bogart crime flick High Sierra or anything with his favorite actor, Sterling Hayden, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Otherwise, he’s freelancing for various law firms, finding people who don’t want to be found.

Waldrip likes to recall the first and last time he saw Brenda Broyles. The year was 1978, and he was still a rookie cop with the Glendale Police Department, having been sworn in just two years before.

Broyles’ house on West Maui Lane in Glendale was notorious for being a magnet for off-the-wall calls, he says. A woman screaming, a peeping Tom, it was always something.

He’d heard wild tales of a “hot blonde” who lived there. One day in 1978, he drove past the address and saw the “For Sale” sign in the front yard. He was in the market for a new place to live, but he was also curious about what was behind all those calls to the Glendale PD. Since he was off duty, he figured he’d check it out.

He knocked on the door a couple of times. He was about to leave when he heard the door open. He turned around. “In front of me was this beautiful [woman] wearing basically a transparent negligee,” he says during an interview in his condo. “She goes, ‘Hello, can I help you?’”

He mentioned the sign in the front yard. She told him she had a buyer already, but he could come in to look around if he wanted.

She excused herself to put something on, while he checked out her well-appointed pad. In front of a couch was a coffee table with burning candles on it. “On the table, there was some kind of devil-worship pentagram,” he remembers. “Adjacent to that, facing the couch, was a framed photograph, an 8-by-10-inch publicity shot of David Bowie in black and white.”

Broyles returned, wearing a satin body suit, and gave him a tour. He remembers a garage with no cars and a floor so clean “you could eat off it,” with “two chickens running around.” He didn’t know she worked as an escort and saw nothing of a sexual nature in the house.

Broyles made an impression on him, one that would remain with him for decades.

Over the next 14 years, Waldrip thought little of the missing single mother, but in 1992, he read an article in The Arizona Republic about the cases of six women who “vanished without a trace,” one of whom was Broyles. The piece, which gives Masino as its source, mentioned that Broyles called the police a week before her disappearance, “in a fit of hysteria, saying someone was chasing her.”

It went on: “Occult practices were part of her lifestyle. Investigators learned that she kept cats heads in her freezer and had an altar on which she kept the names of people she didn’t like.”

The piece added that police believed it was “possible but unlikely that her disappearance was linked to [Crane’s] death,” but Masino now definitively says there was “no connection” between Crane’s and Broyles’ homicides.

By this time, in March 1992, Waldrip was working at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Joe Arpaio would win election to office for the first time later that same year. Waldrip secretly regarded Arpaio as corrupt and despised him, he says. He began tipping local reporters off to wrongdoing in the sheriff’s office and says he was nearly fired as a result.

After almost 17 years with the MCSO, Waldrip moved on to a gig with the U.S. Navy’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) as a reserve agent, working assignments across the globe. He eventually ended up at the FBI as a high-ranking intelligence analyst, retiring from the bureau in 2014.

He’s been a P.I. since 2015. One day in 2020, he wondered whatever happened to Brenda Broyles, so he plugged her name into his account, finding that someone had uploaded what looked like a high-school portrait of Broyles.

Waldrip emailed the person who posted the photo. He was answered by a Broyles family nephew, who informed him that Broyles was dead and that her body had been discovered in the desert in Phoenix, murdered.

This came as a surprise, since the last news of the case he’d seen was the 1992 Republic article, which speculated that Broyles had gone missing in Mexico – a rumor fully dispelled when her body was positively IDed in 2007.

Waldrip was hooked. He filed a public records request with the Phoenix PD, receiving a missing person’s report and a massively redacted homicide report with nearly no information on it.

He began tracking down and interviewing family members, including Broyles’ sisters and her stepfather. He noted that little attention had been paid in the missing person’s report to Michael Aust, a then-18-year-old vagrant who was living with Broyles in her Phoenix home when she disappeared. Other than Aust’s initial contact with the police when they knocked on Broyles’ door looking for her, it seemed the PPD had not talked with him.

Though Waldrip says the Phoenix PD will not work with him, he has consulted extensively with Masino about the case. “I talked to Masino about Aust,” Waldrip says. “He said he couldn’t believe that he didn’t talk to [Aust] at the time.”

Masino told Waldrip that he may not have known about Aust, since he was getting all his information from Broyles’ mom, and she may not have been aware that her daughter was harboring a houseguest.

After a few false leads looking for the mysterious lodger, Waldrip caught a break.

“Checking Phoenix police records, I found that [Aust] got a jaywalking ticket [in 2022] on Glendale Avenue in the area of 19th Avenue. I tracked him down to a house in West Phoenix and interviewed him over a couple of days,” he says.

But Waldrip came away with the gut feeling that Aust had nothing to do with Broyles’ demise. “He was very helpful and very forthcoming,” Waldrip says. “And I didn’t get the impression that he was at all obstructive of my efforts.”

Aust was also upfront about being an ex-con, and being a big drinker and pot-smoker back in the day. He told Waldrip that he “went clean in 1988 and became a Christian.”

Waldrip says Aust denied having anything to do with Broyles’ disappearance. Now 61, the one-time hobo even rode around with Waldrip in the P.I.’s car, looking for the exact house that he had briefly lived in with Broyles, but they had no luck.

PHOENIX contacted Aust independently, meeting him at a senior center in Central Phoenix. Aust says he met Broyles at a gas station in Phoenix and helped fix her van, which had broken down. In return, she let him sleep in a spare bedroom on the other side of her house in Phoenix.

One day, Broyles and her van were gone, Aust says. In a glimpse of his mindset at the time, he recalls that his main concern wasn’t for her safety, but for some missing vinyl LPs he owned. He thought she’d stolen them.

“I had the first Motörhead album,” he remembers, with a mischievous glint in his eye. “It was in brand-new condition. You can’t find that on the internet. It’d be worth a fortune. I was really bummed about that. Her van wasn’t there, so I knew she wasn’t coming back.”

Eventually, police came to the house, looking for Broyles, but he had no idea where she’d gone.

He had just moved to Phoenix from Chicago and was admittedly naïve. He knew Broyles ran a business, but only later did he figure out she was a call girl. “I didn’t realize that as a kid,” he says. “You know, at 18, you don’t know nothing.”

Aust does remember a big wall calendar Broyles had in the kitchen, with the notation “David Bowie for the weekend” scrawled on one month’s page.

After Broyles disappeared, Aust says he was afraid he would be cited for trespassing. Plus, he didn’t have a key to the place, and had to re-enter the locked house via a dog door. When the electricity was cut off, he moved out.

Broyles’ portrait, circa 1980; Photo courtesy the Broyles Family
Broyles’ portrait, circa 1980; Photo courtesy the Broyles Family

Waldrip says he is working on the case pro bono and is not interested in any form of compensation. He says he just wants to solve a murder “that’s haunted me for 40 years.”

But he’s frustrated that the PPD will not let him at least look at the unredacted homicide report. He sent the PPD’s Cold Case Homicide Squad a brief he had written on his investigation to date, but he says the squad has been unresponsive.

Worse still, Waldrip accuses the squad of trying to hinder his investigation. “Sometime after I had first made contact with them, the detective that I talked to at Phoenix PD actually went to see Liz Broyles. And in the midst of the conversation recommended to Elizabeth that she not deal with me anymore,” he says.

Liz confirms that this happened. She also says she requested a copy of the homicide report, but that detectives told her they wouldn’t give it to her for fear she’d give it to Waldrip.

Generally, all of the family members express disappointment with the PPD’s handling of the case.

Sharon Reese praises what Waldrip has done so far. “To be honest with you, Kelley’s uncovered more than the police ever did. And here this is, years later, a cold case, but that just goes to show you if maybe they’d gotten on it and really did some work on it that they might have been able to solve it,” she says.

The family lauds Masino’s work, but believes the PPD dropped the ball after he retired. They also think that her case may not have received the attention it deserves because Broyles was a sex worker.

Masino says that’s not true. He thinks failure to close the case is because Phoenix detectives are “overworked.”

In fact, the Cold Case Homicide Squad is woefully understaffed. According to PPD spokesperson Scherer, there are between 2,500 and 3,000 cold-case homicides in Phoenix at any given time. The squad has just three sworn officers and two civilian investigators who are retired detectives.

At the same time, Masino thinks Waldrip may be on to something with his investigation.

Waldrip now suspects another man, who knew Broyles at the time of her murder and lives in Phoenix. The detective interviewed him twice, finding him evasive and defensive. The man admits he knew Broyles, but called suggestions of his involvement “total bullshit” in recordings Waldrip shared with PHOENIX.

Reached by phone for this article, he denies having anything to do with Broyles’ disappearance.

“I’m not that kind of man,” he says.

Waldrip’s suspicions are based on interviews with people who knew Broyles and on other information that PHOENIX is withholding, along with the man’s name.

The man claims he has never been interviewed by the PPD, though Waldrip says this person is known to the Cold Case Homicide Squad. He believes Broyles was killed to keep her quiet about having slept with his suspect.

Responding to statements by Waldrip and Broyles’ family, Scherer denies that Broyles’ profession has affected the PPD’s investigation of the murder.

“Each and every homicide, whether it is a cold case or not, is investigated fully, and any element or demographic about the victim is not taken into account, in regards to [efforts] in the case, in any way shape or form,” Scherer explains via email.

He says the case has been investigated “to the fullest extent since it began,” and each agent assigned the case continues “to review and look for new leads.” But so far, “this hasn’t resulted in the identification of a suspect.”

As for Waldrip’s complaints, Scherer writes that the PPD “conducts . . . investigations independent of any other investigation,” including those done by private detectives. Redactions in homicide reports are often necessary to “protect the integrity of an unsolved case.”

It’s a truism that the longer a homicide case remains unsolved, the less likely it is to ever be solved. Broyles was missing for six years – from 1980 to 1986 – before her body was discovered in the desert. Any remaining evidence was seriously degraded by the elements.

Masino, who has taught classes on missing persons cases like Broyles to other detectives, says it’s still possible to close the Broyles case, but he acknowledges the difficulties involved.

Take the skeleton’s lack of feet, hand and lower jaw, which he ascribes to wildlife. “Animals pry stuff out,” he says. “Usually, the only thing left is the skull.”

But the ravages of time on the case are even worse. “Now you’re way behind the eight ball,” Masino sighs. “You’re 40 years behind… a lot of people are not alive anymore.”

Persons with information about Brenda Broyles’ murder can contact the Phoenix Police Department’s Violent Crimes Bureau at 602-262-6141 and ask to speak with the Cold Case Homicide Sergeant. Anonymous tips can be submitted to Silent Witness online at or by calling 480-WITNESS.