Into The Abyss — How People Go Missing In America’s Wilderness

September 27, 2021

By Deepti Govind

At Biometrica, one of our key areas of focus is missing persons. We’ve repeatedly published pieces on this tragic epidemic — from the intersection of internet vigilantism and missing persons of color, to federal government measures, to how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) handles missing children cases, to pieces on missing and murdered indigenous people and children of color, and even some that offer an inside look at what it takes to be a canine handler working in Search and Rescue (SAR) and Search & Recovery. People going missing is the “nation’s silent mass disaster,” the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) website says.

In our previous pieces, we’ve already mentioned that, per NamUS, around 600,000 children and adults go missing and 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year in the country. The disaster of missing persons has been in the limelight over the past few weeks because of the case of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, a 22-year-old lifestyle vlogger (video blogger) from Long Island, who was reported missing by her family around Sept. 10 while she was on a cross-country road-trip with her 23-year-old fiance Brian Laundrie.

It has also brought to the forefront, albeit to a more muted reception, the issue that cases involving missing persons of color do not receive the same media attention. For instance, hundreds of indigenous people were reported missing in Wyoming, where Petito disappeared, but their cases have not been met with the same furor. Between 2011 and September 2020, 710 Indigenous persons were reported missing in Wyoming, according to one report.

There are 20,698 missing persons cases, 13,818 unidentified persons cases, and 11,941 unclaimed persons cases still open and unresolved in the United States, according to NamUS. But what remains a bigger mystery is how many of those persons went missing in America’s vast wildlands. Even in Petito’s case, for instance, her body was found in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. The initial determination by the FBI for Petito’s manner of death is homicide. Neither the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, nor the Department of Agriculture’s US Forest Service keep track of people who go missing in the wild, says a New York Post article.

Over the past several years, many media reports on the number of people who have gone missing in the wild appear to cite a single, somewhat unlikely source: Bigfoot hunters. In 2011, David Paulides, the founder of the North America Bigfoot Search, launched a database of wildland disappearances that occurred under “mysterious circumstances,” the Post article adds. Based on Paulides’ research, there are at least 1,600 people missing in the wild somewhere in the United States.

According to Paulides’ data, per the Post article, most people disappear in the late afternoon and during or just before severe weather. Bodies are often found in previously searched areas, and often without clothing or footwear. Children are sometimes found at improbably far distances from the point where they went missing. Handling missing person cases is hard enough in urban areas, where there’s a chance that there could be several witnesses who may have last seen the individual who went missing. Needless to say, going missing in the wild complicates the SAR process a whole lot more.

In this piece, we examine in brief a couple of cases of people who have gone missing in the wild (selected at random), in a bid to answer how it happens, and the even more elusive why.

1997 — Amy Wroe Bechtel

In 1997, Amy Wroe Bechtel was a 24-year-old Olympic Marathon hopeful living in Lander, Wyoming. She went for a run and never came back. Even today, 24 years later, she remains officially missing and her case is unsolved. After all these years, there’s barely been any evidence other than what was found in her car in the early morning hours of July 25, 1997. Those weren’t much either: her sunglasses, her car keys left on the driver’s seat, and a to-do list — a small scratch of paper, an article by Jon Billman in Runner’s World said in 2016.

Billman is the author of the book The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wilderness. He is a former wildland firefighter and high school teacher. Amy Wroe Bechtel’s case is one of several Billman has covered.

Back to 1997 and Amy’s case: On the day she disappeared, her white Toyota Tercel wagon was parked by the side of the road where the Loop Road splinters out to the smaller, pine-shrouded Burnt Gulch turnoff. There were puddles below the driver’s door and behind the vehicle, but no footprints, and no tire tracks in the mud. It had stormed the day she disappeared and there was a downpour. If she parked before it had stormed that afternoon, did she get caught in the rain; and where did she go? These were the questions that plagued her loved ones, as well as investigators back in 1997 and that still remain unanswered.

The search for Amy initially began with just her husband Steve Bechtel and two dozen of his friends on the day of her disappearance. But later that same day, it expanded to include ATVs, dogs, dirt bikes, and over 100 volunteers on the ground. The next day horses and helicopters joined in and, by the third day, the search area had been expanded to a 30-mile radius. But not many people who go missing in the wild have this big a search party looking for them.

Amy’s husband, Steve, was the prime suspect in her disappearance for years. But in his 2016 article, Billman says nearly two decades after Amy vanished, it appeared as though there were hardly enough facts to merit such an intense focus on her husband. Fremont County Patrol Sergeant John Zerga was assigned Amy’s cold case file in 2010 and remained the lead detective as of Billman’s 2016 article.

What happened to Amy has stayed a mystery. But the last theory authorities and investigators in the case were working on appears to be the most plausible one, for the moment: that Amy was a victim of a serial killer named Dale Wayne Eaton. Eaton was found by the police just outside the mountain town where Amy went missing, nearly a year after her disappearance. He was wanted for a botched kidnapping of a family of three in Patrick Draw, less than a three-hour drive from Lander.

A series of murders between 1983 and 1997 were all suspected to have occurred at the hands of the Great Basin Serial Killer, but only one of them has been solved: that of 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell or “Lil Miss,” as her case was also called. It was Eaton who was held responsible and sentenced to death for the abduction, rape, and murder of Kimmell. She’s said to have been kidnapped from a remote area in Waltman, Wyoming. Nearly seven years ago, when Eaton was the only inmate on Wyoming’s death row, his sentence was overturned. But he will remain in prison where he is serving a life sentence plus 50 years, writes Billman.

Solving the cold case of a runner who went missing 24 years ago in the wild holds importance even today. It may help other families of possible victims of a serial killer get much-needed justice and closure. A lot of women allegedly vanished without a trace from the Great Basin region of Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. As Billman puts it: “A confession by Eaton may resolve not just Amy’s case but numerous other cold-case mysteries swirling in the abyss of the Great Basin.”

2017 — Jacob Gray

The other case we have picked to examine happened around two decades after Amy’s disappearance, this time in the wildlands of Washington state. Jacob Gray, who was then 22 years old, rode his bicycle during a rainstorm into Washington state’s Olympic National Park and vanished. His bike and camping gear were discovered near the Sol Duc River, but otherwise there was no trace of him, the Post article says. Months of SAR missions made no progress.

As with Amy’s case, this one too caught the attention of Billman. Chief Ranger Jay Shields is said to have told Billman that the odds of locating Jacob were “beyond finding a needle in a haystack.” After all, the park where he vanished spans an area of 3,734 km². And SAR efforts don’t always amount to anything. For instance, take the case of a woman named Kara Moore who went missing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Although dozens of searchers with canines managed to cover 73,000 acres almost immediately, they found nothing. Luckily in that case, Moore wandered home a week later on her own.

When it came to Jacob’s disappearance in Washington, his father Randy Gray wasn’t about to give up, though. According to Billman, per the Post article, Randy went on to “liquidate his world in order to find his son,” by selling his house and closing his successful contracting business. He loaded up a camper with food and gear and invited Billman along as he set out for Washington to find out what happened to his son on his own.

Unlike Amy’s case from 1997, nothing about Jacob’s disappearance suggested foul play. His bike wasn’t damaged, the tires weren’t flat, and there was no evidence he’d been in an accident or purposely hit, the Post article says. But since his parents’ divorce four years before he vanished, Jacob had shown signs of depression and, his family speculated, possible schizophrenia. It concerned Randy and his ex-wife Laura enough that they sent him to Bellevue, Wash., to live near family, attend community college, and look for a job, the article adds.

It took Randy 18 months to finally find the closure that many families of missing loved ones have had to learn to live without on a more permanent basis. On Aug. 10, 2018, a team of biologists who ventured into the mountains to study marmots stumbled upon Jacob’s clothing in a remote area of the park, the Post article says. Rangers searched the area and found his skeletal remains, 5,300 feet above sea level and 15 miles from where Jacob left his bike. The body was identified, but what happened to Jacob has remained a mystery. The coroner called the official cause of death “inconclusive.” His boots were found wrapped in trash bags.

There are several other cases of people who have gone missing in America’s vast wilderness. In another article, Billman lists some of those: 51-year-old Dale Stehling, who vanished from a short petroglyph-viewing trail near the gift shop at Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park in 2013; Morgan Heimer, a 22-year-old rafting guide who was wearing a professional-grade personal flotation device when he disappeared in 2015 in Grand Canyon National Park during a hike after setting up camp; Ohioan Kris Fowler, who vanished from the Pa­cific Crest Trail in 2016 — the list goes on.

We end this piece with a few chilling lines from the excerpt of Billman’s book that underscore why missing persons cases are heartbreaking for everyone who are involved in it: “These are the missing whose situations are the hardest on loved ones left behind … It’s a tricky thing to write about missing persons because the story is the absence of someone. A void. The person at the heart of the story is thinner than a smoke ring, invisible as someone else’s memory.”