Land of the Lost

Los Angeles Times
February 15, 2005
By Alex Tizon

She does it without even thinking, as soon as she steps out of the truck: a sweep of her eyes across the sky for a sign of bald eagles. They’re as common here as ravens, as hawks, but they’re bigger and easier to see from a distance. Maybe a single circling eagle will spiral down to the spot where lies her son — or his body, whatever is left of it. Dolly Hills has come to think along those lines.

She is 53, one moment sprightly, the next sorrowful. Her grown son Richard, the younger of her two children, has been missing since last February. She believes he is dead, and his remains somewhere in the woods or waters near this Kenai Peninsula town.

Around here, scavengers are the quickest to locate a corpse, whether of a shot grizzly, a moose or a 37-year-old man on a simple errand who vanished into the subzero cold.

Richard Hills was one of 3,323 people reported missing in the state last year, not a record but far higher, relative to population, than anywhere else in the country. On average, 5 of every 1,000 people go missing every year, roughly double the national rate. Since Alaska began tracking the numbers in 1988, police have received at least 60,700 reports of missing people.

As everywhere else, most cases involve runaways who eventually return home or are found. But Alaska has the highest percentage of people who stay missing. Investigators have compiled a list of about 1,100 people who remain lost. This in a state whose population — 650,000 — is less than that of San Francisco.

“We live in a place,” Dolly Hills says, “where people disappear.”

It has now happened twice in her life. In 1962, outside a small village in western Alaska, she said, her 13-year-old brother, William, took a skiff onto the Kvichak River and was never seen again. Presumed drowned, the boy was not reported missing, which happens not infrequently in the bush. The number of people whose bodies are never accounted for probably far exceeds official tallies of the missing.

People vanish by accident and by design, by fluke of nature or quirk of circumstance, by foul play, misstep and bad luck. There are so many ways in Alaska to get lost, and so many reasons the lost may not be found.

Between the western tip of the Aleutian chain to the eastern edge of the Alaska Panhandle lie 39 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers, 5,000 glaciers and more than 3 million lakes, all of which offer nooks and envelopes for bodies to slip in and remain hidden forever. The mud flats are like quicksand, the days like nights (for half the year, anyway), the snowstorms like blankets that cover all tracks and traces.

In charge of searching this vast terrain are the Alaska State Troopers, whose field officers number just over 300. It works out to about one trooper for every 2,300 square miles, or an area just smaller than Delaware. This, according to Lt. Craig MacDonald, the department’s search and rescue supervisor, points to what makes his job so difficult: When someone gets lost, the search areas can be as large as many states, and considerably more rugged.

So much of the terrain is unknown. Often when searchers enter a remote area, it will be their first time there — a distinct difference from other places, where volunteers usually search areas familiar to them. In Alaska, even the largest cities lie in the middle of wilderness.

“From this building, you can walk five minutes and be in deep woods,” says MacDonald, sitting in his Anchorage office. “You can go a mile, two miles out, and never be found. It happens all the time.”

So many of the stories of the vanished begin routinely. MacDonald rattles off case after case, the narratives boiled down to bullet points.

Erin Marie Gilbert, 24. Girdwood. July 1995. Rode with a friend to a community fair. The car stalled in a parking lot, and the friend went for help. When the friend returned, Gilbert was gone.

Hiroko Nemoto, 36. East Lansing, Mich. June 1998. Last seen leaving a youth hostel in Wasilla. She had bought a train ticket to Whittier and a ferry ticket to Valdez. No one knows whether she made those trips.

Michael Timothy Palmer, 15. Town of Palmer. June 1999. Rode his bicycle out of a subdivision. The bicycle was found in the Little Susitna River. The boy’s muddy shoes were discovered in a field.

Richard Hills, 37. Soldotna. February 2004. Drove to Anchorage to pick up a paycheck. His truck was found in a snowbank outside Sterling, about 15 miles from home. The keys were in the ignition. His wallet and cash were on the front seat. His footprints led to a spot on an isolated road half a mile away, then ended.

MacDonald worked the Hills case. He and Dolly have retraced Richard’s steps. They’ve walked the route with volunteer searchers, family members and psychics. Search dogs repeatedly lost his scent in the same place, as if Richard had dissolved into air.

Dolly is walking that same stretch of road, near the spot. It’s only a 10-minute drive from where she and her husband live, and she goes out there occasionally. It’s a narrow, gently winding dirt road, bordered on each side by forest. The road leads to some fishing cabins and vacation homes along the Kenai River.

She scans the woods, the sky. She peers down long driveways, her breath gusting white clouds in the air. The temperature is just above zero.

“In my heart, I know he’s gone,” she says. “I can feel it. Ricky and I were bonded. We were close. Ricky is not someone who disappears. Something happened to him.”

In the days after his truck was discovered, fliers were posted along the Highway 1 corridor that connects all the little towns in this part of the peninsula. The photo shows a handsome man — sun-bronzed skin, white teeth, boyishly mischievous eyes just below a skier’s cap — cradling a glimmering salmon.

Richard grew up on the Kenai Peninsula. He worked as a roughneck on the North Slope, but always came home to Soldotna, where his longtime partner, Heidi Metteer, and their three children waited for him. Heidi said Richard never failed to call home.

She shares Dolly’s feeling that Richard was a victim of foul play. Richard could not have simply become lost and failed to survive the elements. He was a strong man, resourceful and fit. “He knew these woods!” Dolly said in frustration.

But MacDonald isn’t convinced. His 23 years of conducting searches and rescues are rife with stories of experienced hikers, climbers, hunters, even survivalists, who didn’t think it could happen to them. In Richard Hills’ case, there are, in trooper lingo, “equally plausible alternative inferences.” MacDonald, with practiced professional detachment, lists some possibilities:

Richard could have lost control of his truck, slid into the snowbank and injured himself. He could have been disoriented and walked for help. He was wearing jeans, a turtleneck and a Carhartt work jacket, which would have been no match for the cold — below zero even without wind chill.

He could have been picked up by a snowmobiler, which might have explained why his tracks ended so abruptly. He might have been taken somewhere and killed, although Hills had no known enemies.

To keep warm, Richard could have crawled into thick brush or a hole in the ground, or buried himself underneath something — a log, a boulder, debris. MacDonald once found a lost hunter who had wrapped himself in the bloody hide of a newly killed moose, the brown fur making him almost impossible to detect.

It was cold enough that Richard could have suffered hypothermia within 90 minutes, and frozen to death in hours. Animals could have found the body in the spring, devoured or moved it. Bears are sometimes known to bury their kills for later. Foxes and birds could have taken apart the corpse and scattered it over a wide area. This is known among Alaska searchers as “the critter element.”

A short walk from Richard’s truck is the Kenai River, a wide, swift, light-green ribbon of glacial water that courses through the peninsula to Cook Inlet. Hills could have fallen into the river and drowned. Whenever anyone goes missing near a body of water in Alaska, there’s a high probability that person is at the bottom. Water accidents and drowning are suspected in more than half of all vanished-persons cases.

Bodies that sink into Alaskan waters tend to stay there. In warmer climates, corpses decompose and generate gases that eventually bring them to the surface. Alaska’s frigid waters tend to preserve corpses, and glacial silt — fine dust created by glaciers grinding down rock over centuries — gets into clothing and crevices, and further weighs down the bodies.

Richard felt comfortable on the Kenai River. One of his favorite fishing spots was just downriver from his truck.

“If he’s in there,” MacDonald said, “we’re not going to find him.”

*

The Kenai, renowned for its robust salmon, is also famous for its powerful undercurrent. Richard’s body, pulled by that current, could be making its way toward Cook Inlet, about 20 miles west. It’s a trifling distance by Alaska standards.

David Hanson, an investigator with the state troopers, solved a missing-persons case in which the body had traveled 800 miles. The case came to him in August 1998, when two teenage hunters found a mangled survival suit containing human remains crammed in a bear den on Shuyak, a remote island north of Kodiak.

Inside one of the neoprene gloves was a dime-sized piece of skin from a right index finger. The fingerprint matched that of David Hanlon, 46, one of five crew members of the fishing schooner Le Conte.

The schooner had gone down in rough seas eight months earlier near Sitka in southeast Alaska. Three crew members were rescued, one drowned and the last — Hanlon — had not been found.

That any part of Hanlon remained intact was a wonder, considering the voyage his body took. Investigators speculated that Hanlon had probably drowned soon after the Le Conte sank (sudden cold, even with a survival suit, causes the body to lose control of its movements), but that the suit probably kept his body afloat as it drifted west along the arc of the Gulf of Alaska.

Any number of creatures — birds, crabs, sharks, orcas, seals, sea lions — could have fed on the body before it washed up on Shuyak Island. Once there, a brown bear took what was left and brought it to its den.

“What are the chances that the single piece of good skin was an index finger, and that we would have a match on file?” Hanson said.

Without that stroke of luck, that speck of membrane, Hanlon would still be among the vanished.

Searchers in Alaska are saluted by the public for their skill and daring. In private they seem to dwell more on the people they don’t find.

Paul Brusseau, a member of one of the state’s most respected search teams, can talk in great detail of the many barriers to finding a body. Brusseau helps lead the Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs. He is one of about 1,100 on-call volunteers — most with day jobs — whom police depend on to look for the missing.

Brusseau, who makes wood moldings for a living, said a searcher could be right on top of a body and not see it if it was obstructed by snow and ice, or thick brush, or debris kicked up by a windstorm. The banks of Alaskan streams and ponds are often permeated with clay that blocks scent, so even the most talented dog can miss something just inches below the surface. But the most difficult searches, he said, involve people who don’t want to be found.

*

Alaska lies at the end of the continent, and many who come here are end-of-the-roaders: people fleeing or seeking one last chance, dreamers and schemers, and loners hoping to conduct a life — and in some cases, a death — in private.

“If someone wants to drop off the face of the earth and not have anybody know,” Brusseau said, “this is one place you can do it.”

James Miller didn’t want anybody to know. An eccentric with a wild streak, Miller had his 15 minutes of fame when, in 1993, he para-glided into the outdoor ring of a nationally televised boxing match between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe. He was called the “Fan Man,” and spent 10 days in jail. He later pulled off other public stunts that got him in trouble.

In 1996, he moved to Alaska to start anew, but soon after was diagnosed with diseased arteries. He underwent three bypass surgeries and fell deep into debt. In September 2002, Miller, 39, disappeared. Police and family members spent a month looking for him.

Six months later, hunters bushwhacking their way through thick woods found his body. Miller had hanged himself from a tree. Police said he had chosen the remote Resurrection Trail in the Chugach National Forest, veering deep off-trail to a spot that might not have been discovered for years, if ever. For every case like Miller’s, there are those of untold others who won’t be found.

Kristin Marie Snyder left a note saying she didn’t want anybody to look for her. She was 35, an environmental consultant in Anchorage, last seen in February 2003. Friends later told investigators she had been feeling sad and unsettled.

Searchers found her pickup at a seaside campground in Seward, 127 miles south of Anchorage. The note was inside the truck. Camp operators reported that a single kayak was missing, and police speculated that Snyder, an avid kayaker, took the boat onto Resurrection Bay. The bay opens into the Gulf of Alaska, and beyond that, to the Pacific Ocean.

“It makes you want to cry sometimes,” said Paula Sweetwood, the senior researcher and statistician for the state’s clearinghouse for missing persons. A division of the Alaska State Troopers, the clearinghouse collects data from every police agency in the state.

A few feet from Sweetwood’s desk, across from the hundreds of files that she tends with such care, hangs a mural-sized map of Alaska. Pushpin flags mark the spot of every active missing-persons case in the state. Red flags, the most numerous, indicate water-related cases; green stands for ground; blue for anything involving aircraft; yellow for suspected homicides or suicides; and black for unidentified remains. It is a crowded swath of colors. Says Sweetwood: “You feel worse for the people looking for them.”

*

Kevin Gay, 34, travels to the village of Skagway in southeast Alaska every year in hopes of finding a clue to what happened to his younger brother.

Charles Brian Gay disappeared in September 2000 in the mountains that begin right at the edge of town. He was 28, a geologist who stopped in Skagway to take in the scenery and snap a few photos. He told a motel desk clerk he was hiking up to the Dewey Lakes, and was never heard from again.

The only evidence that Charles made it to the top was a torn-up, yellowed sign-in book inside a trapper’s shack at Upper Dewey Lake, about three miles away and 3,100 feet above town. That Charles had signed the book was discovered by accident, a year after he went missing, when someone noticed pen markings pressed into a crumpled page. With the proper light and angle, the words became clear: “Great day, great hike, but this goddamn pen ran out of ink. Brian G.”

Charles often went by his middle name. Every member of the family has a copy of that page, a memento of what might have been one of Charles’ last acts.

Martin Beckner, the former Skagway fire chief who led the search, said Charles probably slipped and fell behind or under some rocks, where his body could remain for a long time.

Kevin Gay believes his brother is dead.

“Every single day, I still think about him,” Kevin said. “My mom, she still hopes he’ll walk through the door at Christmas.”

Back in Sterling, Dolly Hills visits regularly with her son’s family — Heidi Metteer and their children. Sometimes Dolly and Heidi drive out to the spot where Richard’s truck was found. Dolly is trying to organize another search party to drag the Kenai River in the spring. There’s one stretch in particular that she has been brooding about: a bend a few hundred yards downriver. In her mind, it’s the only way to break down the search into comprehensible parts. Otherwise, the Kenai is too big. Alaska’s too big.

Heidi, a coffee-shop manager, recently filed a court petition to have Richard legally declared dead. The petition would allow her to get financial help from the state. More important, the family would be able to hold a memorial.

“Up till now,” she said, “I don’t have anything to say, ‘Look, this is what happened to your dad.’ ”

MacKenzie, 14, has come to believe her father is dead but can’t say so. Katibeth, 10, sees him in dreams that are hard to distinguish from the real world. The youngest, 6-year-old Calvin, continues to think that, like their dog Daisy that ran away, his dad went to do his own thing for a while and soon will return.

The memorial would be held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Catholic church in Soldotna. The whole family would go, and probably a good portion of the town. Friends would tell fish tales, and family members who’ve been keeping grief at bay could finally let it in. When it’s all done, the Hills children would have an answer, proper and certified, for all those times in their lives when people will ask.