Larry Bader Gravesite

Ohioans You Should Know – Lawrence “Larry” Bader

In a previous post, I raised the question if there had ever been, as many police officers have suggested, that a missing person was in reality someone with amnesia who walked away and came back some time later. I was not able to find a single case where that happened – the closest I got was discovering the story of Larry Bader.

Who Was Lawrence Joseph Bader?

Lawrence Joseph Bader was an average fellow living in 1950’s Akron, Ohio. For the most part, there was nothing special about the dude, at least nothing that would ever get the interest of historians. He worked selling cookware, went fishing on Lake Erie, and was generally well-liked by those who got to know him, even though some said he could talk your ear off. He had been married to Mary Lou, who gave him three kids (and there was one more on the way). The Bader family was far from being considered rich or wealthy, but they were far from destitute. Life got hard for them from time to time, just like many other American families in the 1950s, yet they seemed to be doing okay. 

If Lawrence had a fault (and later we will learn he might have had a few) it was that he was looking to get into the next best Get Rich Quick scheme. Selling cookware to suburban housewives in post-Depression America paid the bills, but Lawrence wanted a bit more. And that just ended up adding to his troubles when after a few of his more promising schemes turned to failure and he found himself in about $20,000 debt. And now the IRS was wanting to talk to him, so things were starting to look kind of bad for him.

In May, 1957, Lawrence headed to Cleveland for a business meeting. Afterwards, in spite of Mary Lou wanting him to come home, he suggested he might stay up there an extra day, take a break, and maybe spend some time fishing. Once his business had concluded, he paid a few bills, cashed a $400 check, and then headed off to Eddie’s Boat House where he attempted to rent himself a fishing boat.

At first, the owner of the Boat House (whose name was not Eddie, but Lawrence Cotleur) was reluctant to rent the guy a boat, not because of his troubles, but because a nasty storm was brewing and would be upon the city soon. But Lawrence (Bader) was insistent, and he demanded some extra lights be placed on the boat, so after some negotiations, the boat was rented and off he went.

A short while later, Bader was approached by the coast guard who again warned him of the impending storm. Lawrence didn’t seem to care, so the coast guard left him and continued searching for people who might have actually welcomed their help.

The following morning, the boat Lawrence had rented was found about five miles away in relatively good condition, although with a few new scratches and some minor repair work to be done. What they didn’t find was any trace of Larence Joseph Bader. For months, the coast guard and other individuals searched the waters of Lake Erie and Rocky River, but no sign of the man was ever found.

In 1960, Bader was legally determined to be dead. There was just no way he could have survived that storm out in the water.

Life for Mary Lou did get harder without her husband’s income to support her or their now four kids. But, at least, one of the bills Lawrence paid while he was in Cleveland was his life insurance policy, so once he was declared dead, that helped quite a bit.

At this point in the story we’re going to just pause a second because there is someone else we need to take a quick look at, and his name is…

John Francis “Fritz” Johnson

In mid May, 1957, a young man named John Francis Johnson (or, Fritz to his friends) arrived in Omaha after having recently been discharged from the Navy. He was charismatic and fun to be around, and quickly got a job as a bartender at a club called The Roundtable where he quickly became one of the most popular employees.

A short time later, Fritz gained even more notoriety when, in an effort to raise money and awareness for Polio, spent over two weeks atop a flagpole. After this, Fritz was one of the biggest local celebrities in the Omaha area. He left the bar and started working first for Omaha’s KBON Radio station, then on to television with KETV. 

In 1961, he married 20-year old Nancy Zimmer (so, fifteen year age gap) who had recently been divorced and adopted her daughter before giving her another child of his own.

In 1964, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor behind his left eye, which was removed (along with the eyeball) however the resulting eyepatch he wore seemed to gain him even more notoriety. 

Most people just loved and adored Fritz. Charming, quirky, Fritz.

Suzanne Peika

On February 2, 1965, Twenty-one year-old Suzanne was at home just chilling out being herself when she got a phone call suggesting (or, demanding, really) that she come down and check out this archery demonstration. She wasn’t going to believe what the guy had seen, and he didn’t seem to be able to explain anything over the phone. Needless to say, Suzanne headed off to the sports show, found the archery demonstration, and the guy was right. She couldn’t believe what she was looking at. A man, with a bushy mustache and eyepatch over his left eye was, she was sure, someone she knew very well. During a break, she approached the man and asked a very interesting question.

“Pardon me, but aren’t you my uncle Larry Bader, who disappeared seven years ago?”

The man replied that no, he wasn’t Larry, his name was John Johnson, but his friends called him Fritz. He said he had no idea who Larry Bader was, it certainly wasn’t him.

The problem was that several years ago, Larry and Suzanne had been fairly close and she knew, without a doubt, that Fritz was her uncle Larry. And, if he wasn’t going to admit to it – she was going to have to get Larry’s brothers in Akron involved.

When they met Fritz, they, too, were certain that he was their brother Larry. After Fritz’s fingerprints were compared to the ones from Larry’s military records, the results stunned everyone when they did, in fact, match. This seemed to be proof – John Francis “Fritz” Johnson was, in fact, Lawrence Joseph Bader.

Larry Bader
Fritz Johnson

“It was like a physical shock. Up until that moment, I had no doubt that I was not Larry Bader. But when I heard that, it was like a door had been slammed and somebody had hit me right in the face.” He told a reporter from Life Magazine.

He also started to be seen by a psychiatrist who found that his patient did, in fact, suffer from Amnesia. The man truly seemed to believe that he was, in fact, Fritz, not Larry. This was fairly new territory for just about everybody and nobody was sure what to do next.

So Many Questions And Concerns

Even though a lot of people were fascinated with the Larry-Fritz story, there was one person who wasn’t taking this revelation very well – Larry’s (first) wife Mary Lou. She was still struggling to make ends meet and raising the four children, but when Social Security stated that she would no longer be getting Larry’s death benefits of $254 per month, and that she would have to pay back the $39,500 life insurance policy that had been paid to her – let’s just say that she wasn’t exactly happy with the whole situation. Another thing she wasn’t happy about was how she had just accepted a marriage proposal, which would now need to be called off because according to the Catholic Church she attended, she was not a widow as her husband was still alive, and they would not allow her to get remarried. 

Legally speaking, Larry’s marriage to Nancy was deemed null and void, although the two seemed to still love each other and Nancy swore she would continue to stand by her man.

Life for television personality Fritz Johnson also seemed to take a hit when he was fired from KETV, although The Roundtable did welcome him back as a bartender, even if everyone seemed to comment that it just wasn’t the same anymore.

Part of the problem was the series of events that occurred at the time Lawrence (Larry) disappeared. Even though his wife, Mary Lou, wanted him to return to Akron, he decided to stay in Cleveland an extra night without offering a solid reason why. Mary Lou said the last thing he said as she was begging him to come home was, “Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t.” 

The first thing Larry did after his meeting in Cleveland was to pay some bills. This included getting his life insurance policy up to date, which many seem to think is an indication that he knew he was either about to die, or disappear forever. 

The third strike against Larry was that the owner of Eddie’s Boat House was very reluctant to rent Larry the boat because of the storm, which was set to begin hitting the Cleveland area within hours. Larry insisted on renting a boat, and having that boat fitted with a large light. 

Larry was getting in trouble with the IRS. Larry’s other debts were growing. He’s become involved in a few get-rich-quick schemes and when they fell through, his reputation (as well as it wallet) was taking a substantial hit. 

And for a lot of reasons, many people began to say that Larry had reasons to disappear, he acted strangely before his “disappearance” so he most likely knew exactly what he was doing the night he disappeared, and all that time he was a local celebrity in Omaha.

But, that’s far from proof of anything.

The Mysteries That Remain

Larry aka Fritz passed away two years later and in that time, nobody figured out what the heck to do. The brain tumor that took his left eye had returned and this time there was no hope. 

The big question that never got answered was if Larry-Fritz really suffered from Amnesia, or if this whole thing was a hoax. After his death, it became all but impossible to solve this mystery one way or another.

The other thing that many people want to know is what happened on that boat the night that storm hit Cleveland. Due to his strange behavior, it was clear that Larry was up to something, but what, exactly? Many people want to believe that Larry was faking his own death to escape the financial ruin and damage to his reputation he had gotten in the months before the event. But, while that is one viable explanation, it’s not the only one. Others have suggested that he truly was trying to kill himself that night, but somehow managed to survive, just with Amnesia. Somehow he made his way to Omaha, where he began his life as Fitz. 

If that second scenario was the case, how did he wind up in Nebraska? And, where did “Fritz” come from? 

Unfortunately, the answers to all these questions are things we may never get to know.

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