The Mysterious Disappearance Of Hugh Harlin Explained

Like many seaside towns, the town of Morro Bay, California, has an air of sleepy romance about it. But when the fog sweeps in from the bay, enveloping the town and the massive rock that photographers so admire, it can seem faintly sinister. Anything could happen in a place like that.

Unsolved Mysteries recently looked into an incident at Morro Bay that seemed to embody that eeriness: the unexplained death and disappearance of longtime residents Hugh and Dian Harlin in the 1980s. The Harlins were a middle-aged couple with a reputation for eccentricity. Hugh, a fisherman with a bushy beard and a taste for Greek fisherman caps, seems to have enjoyed working without pay, refusing money even after 10-hour shifts, according to one witness. His wife Dian was known around Morro Bay as the "dog lady," for her obvious affection for her dogs. The two squabbled over money — hardly surprising, given Hugh's habits — but Dian was hardly the normal partner in their relationship. She was known to have served her husband a tin of dog food for dinner once, allegedly as a kind of punishment.

A body on the shore

In October of 1982, a woman's body washed ashore at Morro Bay, decomposed beyond recognition. All that police could tell about her was that she'd been strangled with a dog leash (via The Charley Project). That evening, Hugh Harlin phoned the Morro Bay Police Department, claiming that the woman was his wife. He explained that Dian had been missing for almost two weeks. (This seemed like an unremarkable occurrence in the Harlin household.) He identified some jewelry found on the body as Dian's, but gave contradictory answers about whether his dogs had been wearing their leashes or not the night that Dian left home. First considered a suspect, the police eventually ruled him out for lack of evidence. 

The identity of the woman's body remained officially unsolved, as did the disappearance of Dian Harlin, but many people continued to suspect foul play. Hugh, for his part, continued to live more or less as he had before, working here and there with fishing crews or as a handyman and presumably turning down pay.

Gone without a trace

Almost exactly four years after Dian's disappearance, Hugh (above) drove to the nearby town of San Simeon for a construction gig. Shortly after he left, a friend of his, one Steve Mathieu, received a disquieting phone call. According to what Mathieu told Unsolved Mysteries, someone had seen Hugh's truck, parked on the side of the road in the town of Cambria on the way between Morro Bay and San Simeon. Apparently, the truck had been left there for "a day or so."

Mathieu and a friend discovered the red Chevrolet truck still parked on the side of the road (per The Charley Project). Hugh's glasses were on the dash board, beside the cheap marijuana and tobacco that he habitually smoked. The truck's keys were lying on the ground nearby. Hugh himself was nowhere to be found. 

Had Hugh Harlin decided to disappear? It was well in keeping with his bizarre ideas, but there's no obvious motive. Whether or not he murdered his wife, Hugh was no longer a suspect and was out of danger. And considering his poverty and his wild appearance — a small, strange man with a wild beard, missing the thumb and forefinger of his left hand — it's hard to imagine what he could have done with the rest of his life, or how he could have kept up the pretense of his inevitable new identity. 

No trace of Hugh has ever been found. Whether he met his end at the hands of others, or fell into the sea, or lived out his life somewhere else, will likely never be known.