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Missing in the Park: Bizarre Disappearances in National Parks
Millions of people are visiting our beautiful national parks each year. They travel from one side of the continent to the other to see the breathtaking tall Sequoia trees on the west coast to the pristine beaches of South Carolina on the east.
Attendance numbers at national parks have set all-time record highs in the last few years. According to Los Angeles Times, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Sequoia and Yosemite national parks reported setting attendance records during 2016, with all parks reporting a whopping 330.97 million people visiting our recreational parks – and hundreds, maybe thousands, of those people are missing.
Amy Wroe Bechtel – Shoshone National Forest
It was 21-years ago on the afternoon of July 24, 1997, Amy Wroe Bechtel, 24, began her run outside of Lander, Wyoming, training for the 2000 Olympic Marathon she had hoped to qualify for. She never returned.
Wyoming is called America’s biggest small town and Lander is an outdoor enthusiast hub, where climbers gravitate to the unique geological formations in Sinks Canyon, in the Shoshone National Forest.
Sinks Canyon, in mid-central Wyoming, is part of a magnificent ecosystem stretching from sagebrush and juniper covered foothills, through conifer forests, aspen meadows to the alpine habitat up top.
Amy vanished while running along Loop Road, a route that includes Sinks Canyon Road that runs the Popo Agie River approximately 15 miles south of Lander. Her car was found by her neighbors Todd Skinner and Amy Whisler, parked at Burnt Gulch where Amy was marking the 10K hill climb she was planning for the fall.
When Amy had not returned that evening her neighbors got into their car and headed for the gravel road of switchbacks that ascends Loop Road. At approximately 1:00 a.m. they find Amy’s white Toyota Tercel wagon parked on the side of the road where Loop Road splits to the pine-shrouded Burnt Gulch turnoff.
The weather during July is mild with days averaging 85 degrees and evenings about 54 degrees. There had been rain that afternoon. Puddles of water surrounded the vehicle. Todd and Amy look for footprints or tire tracks but see nothing. Only Amy’s sunglasses, her keys left in the driver’s seat and a to-do list were found in the car. However, her green “Eagle” wallet was missing. Panicked, Todd calls Amy’s husband Steve Bechtel.
The search for Amy began early the following morning with her husband Steve and about a dozen of his friends, but by day’s end dogs, dirt bikes, ATVs, and over 100 volunteers had joined the search. The following day horses and helicopters began searching the rugged terrain. By the third day, police expanded the search to a 30-mile radius.
As with most missing person cases, or missing wives, police turn toward the husband. In this case Steve Bechtel. A move that 20 years later, appear totally unwarranted and limited the search with tunnel vision, the enemy of any investigation.
Amy and Steve both graduated from the University of Wyoming with degrees in exercise physiology and had been married a little over a year.
Steve was a climber. He and Amy both worked at Wild Iris, the local climbing shop. Amy taught a youth weightlifting class at Wind River Fitness Center and also worked part-time at the Sweetwater Grill.
By all appearances, Amy and Steve were the bubbly, happy newly-weds and had just bought their first home in Lander, with a population of 7,000.
Police searched Steve’s journals and acquaintances gave conflicting statements about their relationship. Some described the relationship as idyllic, while others stated Steve was often jealous and belittling.
The FBI would make accusations that Steve killed his wife. A claim that current detectives disagree with.
Actually, Steve had an alibi backed up by a fellow climber and had been about 75 miles from his home in Lander. He had met with his friend Sam Lightner and Bechtel’s yellow lab Jonz and rode north to Cartridge Creek area of Shoshone National Forest to scout for a climbing location.
According to a Runner’s World article, “Long Gone Girl,” Fremont County Sheriff’s cold case detective Sergeant John Zerga disagrees with the way the case was handled in 1997. “Nowadays everything is viewed as a homicide. Back then it wasn’t viewed that way. She was just a missing runner. For three days, we didn’t close off any routes out of here," Zerga continues. "We didn’t close off any vehicles. All we had was a bunch of people up here looking for a missing runner. We actually ruined it with the vehicle, because we allowed the Skinners to drive it home. [The investigation] was not good for at least the first three days. There was a lot of stuff that was lost.”
While all eyes had been on Steve, it would be over a decade later, the brother of Dale Wayne Eaton, 57, would talk to police. He had tried to contact law enforcement earlier but no response.
“I think our detectives who were working the case were so adamant that it was Steve that they weren’t looking in other directions,” said Sergeant Zerga. Fifteen years after Amy vanished, Zerga went and spoke to Eaton’s brother who told him that Eaton would often camp in the area Amy had vanished. “Few camped in the area, and few outside of Lander even knew about the area,” Zerga added. “If we could prove that Dale was in the area, that puts him as the number one lead.”
Eaton had tried to abduct a family that had pulled over with car trouble. After his arrest for the attempted kidnapping, he escaped and later found by authorities in the Shoshone National Forest. He was incarcerated and required to submit a DNA sample.
In 1988 Lisa Marie Kimmel had vanished on a trip from Colorado to Billings, Montana. Fourteen years later DNA would be linked to Eaton. An autopsy would determine Kimmel had been beaten, bound and raped for at least six days, then taken to the Old Government Bridge where she was hit on the head with a blunt object, stabbed six times in the chest and abdomen, then thrown into the river.
Police searched Eaton’s property about one hour away from where Kimmel was last seen alive. They excavated a spot on the property and unearthed Kimmel’s Honda CRX bearing her license plate “LIL MISS.”
Eaton was sentenced to death on March 20, 2004, for Kimmel’s kidnapping, rape, and murder. As for Amy, Eaton had remained tight-lipped but as with everything, justice has a way of coming around.
Anyone with information should call the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office at 307-332-5611.
David Barclay Miller – Coconino National Forest
The Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness is a collection of buttes, cliff, and canyons and known as one of the most magnificent places on the planet. The red-rock cliffs of the Mogollon Rim mark the edge of the Colorado Plateau in the Coconino National Forest on the west. Sycamore Canyon Wilderness borders on the east, the high mesas of Secret Mountain and Wilson Mountain jutting out into lower canyons as deep as 1,500 feet that drain out into Oak Creek and the Verde River.
Red is the predominant hue in the 43,950 acres. It is a 360-degree view of wind and water sculpted pinnacles, arches, windows and slot canyons. It is a place where sound bounces back and forth, almost in a musical chorus.
Trails crisscross the area that takes one from the deepest gorges to protuberant panoramas that overlook the beauty. There is rock art on the walls from the area’s early inhabitants, along with abandoned dwellings high in the canyon walls.
The area draws hikers, photographers, backpackers, and horseback riders from around the world to wander among the manzanitas and red rocks.
An experienced hiker, David Miller, 22, was last seen at the Beaver Creek Ranger Station preparing to leave on a two-day hike on May 19, 1998, in the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness area.
At the time of his disappearance, David was employed by the Sedona Forest Service. The weather would have been mild with days reaching 83 degrees and nights about 51 degrees.
David has never been seen again. He was last seen wearing a T-shirt, black hiking boots, and carrying a forest green Gregory backpack.
It is thought David may have fallen on slippery terrain or became lost. Anyone with information should call Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office at 520-771-3260.
DeOrr Kunz – Salmon-Challis National Forest
It has been nearly two years since 2-year old DeOrr Kunz vanished on July 10, 2015, while on a camping trip at the Timber Creek Campground in the beautiful mountains of Idaho.
DeOrr’s father Vernal DeOrr Kunz, mother Jessica Mitchell and grandfather Robert Walton, along with Isaac Reinwand, Walton’s friend, and fishing buddy had set up camp in the remote wilderness of the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest is over 4.3 million acres in east-central Idaho. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area takes up 1.3 million acres, the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Continental United States.
The area is remote and rugged and draws those seeking adventure, solitude and breathtaking scenery. The scenic Salmon River area is popular for fishing, hunting, and white-water rafting.
The winter weather in Salmon-Challis can be brutal, but in July averages 85 degrees during the day and 52 overnight.
The day of DeOrr’s disappearance, Kunz and Mitchell said the took their son to the general store for snacks and supplies. Upon their return, they say they walked down an embankment to scout a place to fish. Within minutes, they found minnows and quickly turned back to get DeOrr so he could see them and found he was not in his chair and was not with his grandfather. There had been about a 7 to 10-minute gap where DeOrr was not supervised. Panicked, they searched the surrounding campsite and could not find the little boy. They called the police.
Within three hours, authorities from the Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office quickly responded and began swarming a two-mile radius with search and rescue crews using ATVs to search the landscape and divers scouring the nearby reservoir.
For two-days, approximately two hundred volunteers responded, searching the wilderness for the tiny toddler to no avail.
“At this point, I have kind of accepted that I might not see him, I might not bring him home like I want to,” Mitchell said. “Any answers are better than what we have now.”
Two years later, there is little else to go on. In a KTVB interview, Mitchell says she believes her son is still alive but admits she is losing hope.
Impossible to move on without answers, Mitchell and her husband are also named suspects in the disappearance of their son by former Lemhi County sheriff, Lynn Bowerman. A common response for law enforcement to look closely at all family members, they both maintain their innocence. No arrests or charges have ever been filed.
There is no evidence found that leads authorities to believe DeOrr was attacked by an animal. Investigators remain baffled.
Mitchell and her family believe someone abducted DeOrr. She has returned to the campground several times to search but to her frustration has not found anything. “Every time I leave there and there is still nothing, it just goes back to I think someone has him,” Mitchell said.
Trina Clegg, Mitchell’s mother has spearheaded the search for little DeOrr handing out business cards and flyers with age-progression photos of what DeOrr would look like today.
“In my opinion, he could be anywhere,” Clegg said. “We just want you to care about baby DeOrr. We want you at night to say your prayers for baby DeOrr. We want you to wake up in the morning and hope that he’s there,” she added.
Anyone with information about DeOrr’s disappearance should contact Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office at 208-756-8980.
Government doesn’t keep track of missing on federal land
Experts believe the public would be concerned and alarmed if they knew how many people simply vanish, never to be seen again, while visiting national parks.
According to the FBI National Crime Information Center, there are currently 86,190 active missing person cases in the United States.
The federal government does not track the number of missing persons in national parks, but experts believe about 1,600 individuals mysteriously vanish each year while visiting parks throughout the United States. While many reported missing are found, it is estimated hundreds remain missing.
Many never to be seen again, leaving families suffering the trauma of ambiguous loss – not knowing. Families who have experienced this say knowing your loved one is dead is easier than the “not knowing” what happened.
Joe Keller – Rio Grande National Forest
Joseph Keller, 19, was an adventurous young man from Cleveland, Tennessee. He was spending his summer with friends Collin Gwaltney and Christian Fetzner exploring the west between his freshman and sophomore years at Cleveland State Community College. They had visited San Francisco, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon on their way to Joe’s aunt and uncles dude ranch, the Rainbow Trout Ranch in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.
Rated as one of the top fly-fishing ranches in the country, it is based in southwestern Colorado, with private angling along the Conejos River, a tributary to the Rio Grande flowing right through the property.
The young men were in for a treat visiting a place that combines the splendor of the Rocky Mountains with the enchantment of New Mexico, where Wild West legends like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and gang chose as one of their getaways.
About four hours south of Denver, the Rio Grande National Forest surrounds the ranch with 1.83 million acres and considered a jewel of Colorado. The Continental Divide runs 236 miles along most of the part of the forest and the tops of the Sangre de Christo Mountains form the eastern border. In between sits the spectacular San Luis Valley which is a large agricultural alpine valley. This majestic sprawling land is the last place you want to get lost.
Joe was a competitive runner and obstacle course racer. His friend Collin, a varsity cross-country runner and they had been spending time running together during their travels.
Neither was used to the high elevations, the ranch sitting at approximately 9,000 feet.
It was July 23, 2015, and they had planned an hourlong run, along Forest Road 250, that crosses the ranch into the national forest, following the Conejos River upstream.
Joe left shirtless, wearing only red running shorts, blue trail shoes, and his Ironman watch. At 4:30 p.m. the friends started out together, but Joe soon fell behind as he was the slower runner.
Collin’s GPS watch shows him turning off Forest Road 250 onto the ranch drive that snakes up behind the lodge. The run became a scramble, so Collin headed back toward the road and upstream. A fly-fisherman spotted Collin about 2.5 miles up the road but never saw Joe. Collin finished his run and began puking due to the high altitude.
Joe never returned.
When Joe didn’t show up for dinner, Collin and Christian drove up the road honking, while ranch hands and guests hiked up the rocks toward a mountain formation called “Faith” that towered above the valley. By 9:30 p.m. there were 35 people out searching for Joe.
Sheriff Howard Galvez of the Conejos County Sheriff Department, along with two deputies arrived about midnight and began assisting the other searchers.
Joe’s parents were notified, leaving their home in Tennessee, along with their 17-year old daughter, to travel to the ranch; they were there in less than 24 hours. It was now Joe’s birthday.
Search efforts were upgraded with about 200 people on foot, horseback and ATVs and about 15 canines. The family posted a $10,000 reward for information. Dressed only in shorts, Joe was not prepared for the evenings in the San Juan Mountains, where it is about 62 degrees during the day, down to only 30 degrees at night. time was of the essence.
Helicopters and even an infrared-equipped plane was used to search for Joe.
The response to Joe’s disappearance swift, the resources used in the search for Joe are unmatched by most searches for missing persons, but after a week most volunteers had gone home and after 13-days, the official search stopped. The family left with questions and desperation.
Following is a roller-coaster of emotions, anger, and theories.
May 2016, the search resumed with approximately 30 volunteers, drones and 11 dogs from Colorado Forensic Canines. The search was organized by the Jon Francis Foundation, a Minnesota nonprofit specializing in wilderness search and support. Still no sign of Joe.
In an Outside Online article, “How 1,600 People Went Missing from Our Public Lands Without a Trace,” talked to Neal Keller, Joe’s father. “For a lost person, the response is limited to five days on average, he said. “There needs to be a plan for applying resources for a little bit longer.
The Keller family hired two private investigators whose efforts were fruitless.
Nearly a year later Neal Keller was traveling back and forth from Tennessee to Conejos County, searching for his son every minute he could.
On July 6th, John Reinstra, 54, a former offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, an endurance runner and search and rescue hobbyist, located Joe’s body in a boulder field below a cliff. His body 1.7 miles northwest of the ranch.
Soon after Joe’s disappearance, Gwaltney told Tennessee’s WTVC-TV, “We went running on a forestry road that was pretty well maintained,” he said. “It was gravel and pretty flat, with a few curves. But if you ran off the road, there were pretty steep places.”
And, so Joe is found, and his family now has answers. He is no longer a missing person is a gray area of estimates with limited resources and minimal government attention.
Extensive searches failed to find him 1.7 miles away with one thing very clear. The initial search closed down after 13-days, didn’t last long enough.
© 2018 Kym L Pasqualini