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Beloved Chef, Baker, Singer and Tattoo Artist Lauren ‘El’ Cho Went Missing in California Desert After Cross-Country Trip With Boyfriend


Lauren Cho appears in an image provided by law enforcement

“God damn it,” one side of her black-and-white Kurt Vonnegut tattoo stylized as the Ten Commandments reads, “You’ve got to be kind.”

Lauren “El” Cho was last seen wearing a yellow tee shirt and jean shorts just after 5:00 p.m. on June 28 at a series of Airbnbs called “The Whole” in Yucca Valley, Calif. where she was living and working as a chef.

The 30-year-old woman from New Jersey has been missing since then after taking that California trip with her then-boyfriend in late 2020.

According to the Hi-Desert Star, Cho and her by-then-just-friend Cody Orell were staying with the permission of The Whole’s owner, Tao Ruspoli, who the outlet described as “a filmmaker and musician who owns vacation rentals and is part of the community of artists and other bohemians living in Bombay Beach and the Hi-Desert.”

Cho and Orell had moved from the northeast to the Golden State together. Before she disappeared, the missing woman had purchased an old school bus and was in the process of converting it into a food truck — living as a chef and testing recipes doing private dinners.

“Lauren wanted a different life,” Orell told the Star in early July. “She wanted to move from the East Coast and taste freedom. She quit her job and moved into the bus with me. The idea was she was going to come here and open the food truck and follow her dreams.”

That dream came close to fruition in December of last year. Cho and Orell settled at Bombay Beach, an enclave of various artistically-inclined individuals near the Salton Sea — a shallow and saline body of water tucked into the southern edge of the Golden State between Imperial and Riverside Counties roughly two-and-half hours from San Diego.

On the day of her disappearance, Orell told the outlet that Cho was upset. She then got out of the bus and walked into the hills between Yucca Valley and Morongo Valley, specifically towards an area near Hoopa Road and Ben Mar Trail. Orell was the last known person to see her.

R.J. Okay was one of the friends Orell called to help look for Cho.

“I had seen her the night before, we had dinner the night before,” he told the Star in an early July interview about the missing woman. “I thought for sure she’d be back for dinner again that night.”

At 5:13 p.m., after a group of friends came up empty-handed, Orell called the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Morongo Basin Station. In that initial call to law enforcement, the woman’s friends said Cho hadn’t taken a phone, water, or any food with her.

“There was a 10-minute window there and she evaporated,” he told the outlet. “I searched all in the hills and no tracks, anywhere.”

The sheriff’s department mysteriously also couldn’t find any of Cho’s tracks — a particularly curious turn of events. According to another friend named Jeff Frost, Cho was wearing Doc Martens — a brand of combat-style boots with a unique sole pattern. That friend echoed the narrative that Cho was out of sorts when she vanished.

“She expressed some wishes to self harm before she left, and that’s why we have the urgency trying to locate her,” he told local ABC affiliate KESQ. “Looked everywhere we can from 29 to Barstow.”

A massive search ensued in the days following her disappearance.

On July 2, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department formally suspended search and rescue efforts.  It classified Cho as a missing persons case — citing no evidence of foul play.

On July 31, sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant on The Whole one week after an aerial search of the immediate area, according to a press release.

“During the search warrant service seven canines searched the last known location where Cho was seen and surrounding unincorporated areas for evidence,” the sheriff’s office said in early August. “On July 24, 2021, Sheriff’s Department fixed-wing aircraft conducted aerial searches of the remote mountain terrain near the scene. Ongoing search efforts continue with future operations planned as further leads are developed in the investigation.”

Law enforcement did not publicize what, if any, leads or evidence resulted from the late July searches of the areas in question.

“We sought a search warrant due to the property owner not being present and multiple people on site living at the location,” Sergeant Eric Smoot told the Star. “This is the second search warrant served here. The additional searches we have conducted are based upon follow-up of investigative leads and resources available.”

Renewed focus was all-but forced into the case following the Sept. 11 disappearance of social media star Gabby Petito.

The overwhelming national attention paid to Petito’s disappearance and homicide have prompted various other missing persons investigations to receive such focus — often under the supposition or criticism that Petito became a cause célèbre due to her race.

On Sept. 21, the sheriff’s office offered an additional update.

“Investigators with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s, Specialized Investigations Division are assisting the Morongo Basin Station in the effort to locate Lauren Cho,” a press release noted. “Investigators are investigating all leads and working with family and friends of Ms. Cho. Future search operations will occur as further leads develop.”

A Facebook page set up by Cho’s family contains rolling updates and various pictures of the beloved chef, baker, musician and tattoo artist.

“El has a number of tattoos,” a recent post notes. “Many of them are not regularly visible in everyday street clothing, but we want to point out a few that could be easily noticed and are fairly unique.”

“Someone knows something,” the post says. “Maybe someone has seen something, and these pictures will jog their memory.”

[image via Morongo Basin Sheriff’s Station]

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