What Happened to Lawrence Joseph Bader aka John ‘Fritz’ Johnson

Seven years after Lawrence Joseph Bader went missing, he was discovered living as flamboyant TV personality John Fritz Johnson, with no memory of his past. Was this an extraordinary case of amnesia? Or a hoax?

Mysteries Mysteries
16 May 2022

Lawrence Joseph Bader disappeared on a fishing trip in 1957 and was presumed dead. However in 1965, he was discovered living a completely different life as John Fritz Johnson. He had no memory of his former life. The story divided opinions then and remains a mystery to this date. Did Larry Bader suffer some sort of amnesia? Or was it all a hoax?

Lawrence Joseph Bader

Lawrence Joseph Bader, known as Larry, was born in Akron, Ohio, on 2nd December 1926. As a young man, Larry considered becoming a dentist like his father. Instead, in 1944, he joined the Navy, serving for two years before enrolling at the University of Akron. His time there lasted just one semester, but in that time he met Mary Lou Knapp. The two married on 19th April 1952.

By 1957, Mary Lou and Lawrence Joseph Bader had three children and were expecting a fourth. Living in Akron’s respectable West Hills neighbourhood, Lawrence Bader was a family man, a keen archer and, according to the United Press International, was described by one friend as a “red-blooded, beer-drinking, all-around nice guy who could talk your ear off and you’d love to sit and listen. He was a family man, too.”

The Disappearance of Lawrence Joseph Bader

A boat on a jetty in sunset (Photo: Sergiopossitive via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, 15th May 1957, 30 year-old Larry embarked on a business trip to Cleveland. When he told his pregnant wife he’d be going on a fishing trip afterwards, she questioned whether he might not come straight home instead. His apparent response? “Maybe I will and maybe I won’t.”

He did not. In fact, he didn’t come home at all. After driving to Cleveland, Bader paid some bills and cashed in a $400 cheque. Then, he went fishing on Ohio’s Rocky River, off Lake Erie. He did so despite being warned of an imminent storm, not once, but twice. The first time was by Lawrence Cotleur, the owner of Eddie’s Boat House, where Bader had rented a motorboat with oars. According to Cotleur, Bader had a suitcase with him and paid extra for the boat to be equipped with lights, insisting on it despite Cotleur telling him it wouldn’t get dark for hours. The second warning was delivered by the coast guard who spotted him on the water.

That was the last time anyone saw the man known as Lawrence Joseph Bader. The storm blew in three hours later and his boat would be found the next morning some five miles away, only Bader, his suitcase and one oar unaccounted for. Aside from a bent propeller and a scratch on the hull, the boat was fine, the life jacket still on board. Some reports say the boat’s gas can was empty, others that the gas line was disconnected.

Despite thorough searches for at least two months, there was no sign of Lawrence Bader. He was declared officially dead in 1960. As for his wife, she was left widowed with four children and only monthly social security payments to support her. Fortunately for Mary Lou, one of the bills Larry had paid just before his disappearance was the premium for his life insurance policy, from which she received a substantial sum.

John Fritz Johnson

1950's Jukebox in Bar (Photo: Marti157900 via iStock)

Sometime between 18th and 20th May 1957 – the exact date is unclear – a charming stranger caused a stir when he arrived at the Roundtable Bar in Omaha, Nebraska in search of a bar job. With his Navy-issued driver’s licence and suitcase , he introduced himself as John Fritz Johnson, but went simply by “Fritz”. With 14 years of service, Fritz had just been discharged from the Navy due to a bad back.

Fritz was an instant hit with everyone he encountered. He got the job as bartender at the Roundtable, becoming a bit of a local celebrity. A fan of classical music and archery, Fritz was fun, outgoing and renowned for his bombastic bachelor lifestyle, which included driving around in an old hearse with a lounge area at the rear. The car was classified by the state as a “hunting vehicle”.

After a charity fundraising stunt where he sat on a flagpole for thirty (although some reports say fifteen) days in aid of polio, Fritz’s profile rose up a notch. He became a radio personality at local station KBON.

In 1961 or thereabouts, John Fritz Johnson married Nancy Zimmer. He adopted the former model’s daughter and the couple also had a child of their own. Fritz’s career was also on the up, with a job at local TV station KETV and a part-time role advising archery companies.

In 1964, Fritz lost an eye due to a malignant tumour. But even this did not deter him, his eyepatch only making him more memorable.

John Fritz Johnson and Lawrence Joseph Bader

Demonstrating archery (Photo: borabalbey via iStock)

On 2nd February 1965, 21-year-old Suzanne Peika got a strange call telling her to come to a sporting goods show in Chicago. The caller was an old acquaintance of her uncle, Lawrence Joseph Bader, presumed deceased for the best part of a decade.

At the show, John Fritz Johnson was demonstrating archery equipment. But when Peika saw him, she saw beyond the eye patch and moustache.

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

She was so convinced that even when Johnson laughed it off, she didn’t relent. Instead, she called her uncle Larry’s brothers. A fingerprints comparison was made using Bader’s military records. It was a match. John Fritz Johnson was Lawrence Joseph Bader.

A Conundrum

Medical observations being made (Photo: Medical observations being made via iStock)

Bader/Johnson described the revelation as a “physical shock” comparable to being hit in the face. He had no memory of being Larry Bader. And now his memories of being John Fritz Johnson were apparently false.

The repercussions were far reaching for all involved. For Bader/Johnson, it meant ten days under intense medical observation and enduring doubts as to his story. Was he truly suffering from some sort of episode? Was it amnesia? A result of his tumour, as his lawyer eventually argued? Some other medical event? Or was it an elaborate fraud? The doctors were unable to determine this, finding no evidence of dishonesty. And yet there were further issues.

Everyone from the boat rental service to the insurance company wanted their money back. There was also the small matter of unpaid taxes.

Additionally, Bader/Johnson was now in theory a bigamist, with two wives. His second marriage was deemed annulled and Nancy left him. For first wife, Mary Lou it meant unwanted media attention and financial issues, such as being liable to pay back the life insurance and social security money. It also meant she had to reject a recent marriage proposal as she was still technically married and unwilling to divorce due to her Catholic faith.

Nothing Conclusive

Unmarked grave for Lawrence or John? (Photo: SADLERC1 via Getty Images)

John Fritz Johnson died on 16 September 1966 after his tumour resurfaced. At the time, he was working once more as a bartender, having been fired from his TV role. He never remembered or admitted to being Lawrence Joseph Bader.

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