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10 Mysterious Trips Into The Wilderness That Went Horribly Wrong

by Robin Warder
fact checked by Jamie Frater

For many people, the wilderness represents paradise since it provides an opportunity to get away from the rigors of everyday life and experience nature. This is why millions of people take trips into the wilderness every year in order to participate in activities such as hiking, hunting, and camping.

However, the wilderness can also be a very creepy and ominous place. If something goes horribly wrong, you are a long way from civilization and it may be impossible to seek help. It’s very easy for a person to disappear into the wilderness and never be seen again. In most cases, the likely explanation is that they simply got lost and succumbed to the elements, but some trips into the wilderness are shrouded in mystery.

10The Disappearance Of Keith Reinhard

5 Mountains
In 1988, 49-year-old Keith Reinhard was a sportswriter for the Daily Herald in Chicago, but he decided to take a leave absence for a unique outing. He moved to Silver Plume, Colorado, a small mining village near the Rocky Mountains. Reinhard became fascinated by the story of Tom Young, a Silver Plume resident who disappeared under mysterious circumstances the year before. On September 7, 1987, Young closed up his bookstore and walked into the mountains with his dog but never returned. Reinhard decided to open an antique shop in the former location of Young’s bookstore and started working on a novel based on Young’s disappearance. In an eerie coincidence, Keith Reinhard soon became the center of his own unsolved mystery.

On July 31, the remains of Tom Young and his dog were found in the mountains. They were both shot in the head and, since a revolver was found at the scene, investigators ruled that Young likely shot his dog before committing suicide. One week later, Reinhard closed up his shop and told people he was planning to climb the summit of Pendleton Mountain. After leaving the village, he was never seen again.

The circumstances of Reinhard’s disappearance were strange since it was a six-hour hike to Pendleton Mountain and he did not leave until 4:30 PM. At the time, Reinhard was not carrying any equipment and was not dressed appropriately for a mountain climb. A search of the area turned up no trace of him and, tragically, one of the searchers was killed after crashing his plane. There was some speculation that Reinhard staged his own disappearance. Others believed that both Reinhard and Young were victims of foul play and that their cases were somehow connected. Whatever the truth, Keith Reinhard’s disappearance remains a mystery.

9The Cline Falls State Park Axeman

9 Axeman
In 1977, Terri Jentz and Avra Goldman, a pair of undergraduates from Yale, decided to spend the summer going on a cross-country bicycling trip. On July 22, they stopped at Cline Falls State Park in a remote area of Oregon to camp for the night. However, both women were suddenly awakened by a pickup truck which came barreling into the campsite and crashed into their tent. The two women initially assumed this was an accident, but they were shocked to see a man in a cowboy hat emerge from the truck with an axe. He used his weapon to attack Jentz and Goldman before climbing back into his truck and driving away.

Both women were seriously wounded but still alive. Jentz managed to stumble to a nearby road and flag down a passing car for help. After a teenage couple stopped and went to the campsite, they saw the lights of another vehicle approaching them. It came to a brief stop before turning around and driving away. They suspected the pickup truck driver had returned to finish the job, but he fled the scene after seeing other people there. Jentz and Goldman were both taken to a hospital and wound up surviving the horrific attack. The investigation eventually uncovered a suspect named Dick Damm who was a known violent offender in the community.

In 1995, while being detained for another crime, Damm was questioned about the Cline Falls State Park attack and given two polygraph tests. He showed signs of deception, but the results were inconclusive since he had illegal drugs in his system and there was no evidence to link him to the crime. Even if the axeman is identified some day, he cannot be prosecuted since Oregon’s statute of limitations for unsuccessful murder attempts has since run out.

8The Disappearance Of Derrick Engebretson

8 Blizzard
On December 5, 1998, Derrick Engebretson, an eight-year-old boy from Bonanza, Oregon, went on a trip to Winema National Forest in Klamath County alongside his father and grandfather. The family was planning to get a Christmas tree while hiking near Rocky Point. A snowstorm soon hit the area and Derrick wandered away and disappeared. When Derrick’s family notified the authorities, a search was conducted for him but they were undermined by the terrible weather. Searchers found some blood in the area along with items which may have been connected to Derrick including a candy wrapper and a bookmark from his school. They also found a makeshift shelter made out of fir boughs.

While the likely explanation seemed to be that Derrick had frozen to death in the wilderness, there was evidence to suggest he might have been abducted instead. A set of footprints led searchers to the road where the imprint of a snow angel was found. Around the time of Derrick’s disappearance, a witness saw an unidentified man struggling with a young boy near the road.

In 2002, a prison inmate came forward to claim that a convicted child rapist named Frank J. Milligan had bragged about murdering Derrick. Years earlier, Milligan received a 36-year prison sentence for the rape and attempted murder of a 10-year-old boy and for sexually abusing another boy. When questioned, Milligan told authorities that Derrick had made it out of the woods and that he murdered the boy after picking him up by the road. Milligan said he would lead them to Derrick’s body but, after a search of the area turned up nothing, he decided to recant his confession. Officially, there is no evidence to connect Milligan to the crime and Derrick Engebretson’s disappearance remains unsolved.

7The Falcon Lake UFO Encounter

There are thousands of recorded sightings from people claiming to have encountered a UFO, but it’s very rare to find someone with actual physical evidence on their body to support their story. One of those people was Polish-born Stephen Michalak, who made his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. On May 20, 1967, the 51-year-old Michalak went out on a prospecting trip to Falcon Lake Provincial Park.

He eventually spotted two glowing silver objects hovering above him. One of them flew away and disappeared, but the other one landed on a large rock formation. Michalak approached the strange craft which was over 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter. The door opened, a bright light emerged from the object, and Michalak thought he heard muffled voices inside. After Michalak touched the craft, the door suddenly closed and the craft took off again, knocking him over. This set Michalak’s shirt on fire, forcing him to tear it off.

After the experience, Michalak became nauseous and disoriented and it took him nine hours to find his way home. The object had left several first-degree burns on his abdomen which resembled a grid-like pattern of holes. When he showed the burns to doctors, they were completely baffled. The burns emitted a sulfuric stench but, even though Michalak was frequently nauseous, tests found no signs of any radiation poisoning.

Weeks later, Michalak returned to the original site and found a 9-meter burned-out circle on the rock formation. Analysts also found traces of non-lethal radiation in the area. The unexplained burn marks remained on Michalak’s torso for the rest of his life. No one knows for sure if he actually saw a UFO, but the physical evidence found on his body and at the scene indicates that he definitely encountered something strange that day.

6The Disappearances Of David Tyll And Brian Ognjan

6 Pigs
David Tyll and Brian Ognjan were 27-year-old residents from the Detroit area who traveled to northern Michigan for a hunting trip on November 22, 1985. They were planning to stay the weekend at Tyll’s cabin, but both men disappeared and were never seen again. The Ford Bronco they drove also went missing which seemed to indicate they never arrived at their destination. In fact, they never even got around to purchasing their hunting licenses so it seemed unlikely that they simply got lost in the wilderness. The case remained cold until 2003 when a witness named Barbara Boudro was subpoenaed by the authorities and shared a horrifying story.

According to Boudro, Tyll and Ognjan stopped off at a bar called the Linker’s Lounge in the rural community of Mio. It was there that they ran afoul of Raymond and Donald Duvall, a pair of brothers who lived in the surrounding woods. The Duvalls allegedly beat Tyll and Ognjan to death outside the bar while they begged for mercy. Afterward, they chopped up the victims’ bodies and fed the remains to their pigs. Apparently, numerous people witnessed this incident and the Duvall brothers repeatedly bragged about it over the years.

However, since the Duvalls were known for being intimidating characters in the community, everyone was too frightened to go the authorities. In their defense, aside from eyewitness testimony there was no physical evidence linking the Duvalls to the disappearances, and Boudro was reportedly intoxicated on the night she witnessed the murders. Nevertheless, the Duvall brothers were both convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The remains of David Tyll and Brian Ognjan have still not been found and, if the story about the pigs is true, they never will be.

5The Disappearance Of James Harrod

10 Hunting
During the 18th century, James Harrod was one of America’s most notable explorers. He founded the very first settlement in Kentucky which became known as Harrodsburg. In 1792, the same year Kentucky officially became a state, Harrod was living in Harrodsburg with his wife and daughter. He decided to go into the wilderness on a hunting trip with two companions.

Harrod never returned, and there were numerous theories about what happened to him. Some believed that Harrod deliberately abandoned his family and traveled to another part of the country. There were unconfirmed rumors that Harrod’s wife was often flirtatious with other men and may have had extramarital affairs. While Mrs. Harrod got remarried after his disappearance, she managed to get a divorce in 1804 on the grounds that she believed her husband was still alive.

However, Mrs. Harrod had only used that as an excuse to get a divorce. In actuality, she believed her husband was murdered by one of his companions.

Apparently, the real purpose of his trip was not to go hunting, but to find a silver mine for a mysterious man known only as “Bridges.” The third man who accompanied Harrod and Bridges on the trip claimed that Harrod disappeared after Bridges told him he was attacked by Native Americans, but the man never actually witnessed anything to support Bridges’s story.

Later on, Bridges was seen pawning off some silver buttons which matched the buttons Harrod had on his shirt. Shortly thereafter, Harrod’s friends found a skeleton in a cave wearing a shirt with its buttons missing. In the end, the skeletal remains were left behind and never identified as Harrod, and Bridges disappeared before he could be questioned. The truth about what happened to James Harrod remains unknown.

4The Death Of Philippe Halsman’s Father

4 Alps
After leaving Europe and moving to the US during the 1940s, Philippe Halsman became one of the world’s most renowned portrait photographers. However, before Halsman’s career even began, his life was almost derailed by a controversial murder case. On September 10, 1928, the 22-year-old Halsman went on a hiking trip with his father, Morduch Halsman, in the Zillertal Valley in Tyrol, Austria.

According to Halsman, he was walking ahead of his father when he suddenly fell into a ravine. When Halsman found his father’s body near a riverbank, he was still alive so Halsman went off to get help. By the time he returned, his father was dead and his empty wallet was now resting beside him. A stone was found with Morduch Halsman’s blood and hair on it, indicating that he was robbed and murdered sometime after his fall.

Authorities soon made the shocking allegation that Philippe Halsman was responsible and charged him with his father’s murder. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, Halsman had no discernible motive to kill his father and there was no evidence to implicate him. Since Halsman was Jewish and Tyrol was known for being an anti-Semitic community at the time, this seemed to be the motivating factor behind his conviction.

He had many notable supporters who believed in his innocence, including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. The prosecution had presented Freud’s Oedipus complex as a possible motive for Halsman murdering his father, but Freud himself refuted this idea. Halsman eventually garnered a new trial and received a lighter sentence of four years, but his supporters weren’t satisfied. They successfully petitioned the President of Austria to grant Halsman a full pardon, and he was released in October of 1930. The real murderer of Morduch Halsman was never found.

3The Disappearance Of Jared Negrete

3 Scout
On July 19, 1991, Jared Negrete, a 12-year-old boy from El Monte, California, traveled to Camp Tahquitz in the San Bernardino National Forest. He was going on an overnight camping trip with his Boy Scout troop and they were planning to hike to the top of the 3,500-meter (11,500 ft) Mount San Gorgonio. As the troop neared the top the summit, Jared wandered away and disappeared after apparently straying onto the wrong trail. When the troop discovered that Jared was missing, an extensive search was conducted of the area by rescue teams. They found a lot of matching shoe prints and some items which belonged to Jared including his backpack, beef jerky, and candy wrappers. In spite of these clues, they could not find any trace of Jared.

This story would probably be a straightforward and tragic case of a boy succumbing to the elements after getting lost in the wilderness, but Jared managed to leave behind one very haunting image. Jared’s camera was also found in the woods, and its film contained 12 recent photographs which were eventually developed. Most of the pictures were landscape shots which were taken before he disappeared, but the last photo was a self-portrait which Jared had taken of himself. Since Jared’s arms were too short to hold the camera out very far, the photo only wound up capturing his eyes and nose. It seemed clear that Jared looked scared and that the mysterious picture was taken after he went missing. This self-portrait of Jared Negrete remains the last existing trace of him.

2The Murders Of Julianne Marie Williams And Laura “Lollie” Winans

2 Murder
On May 19, 1996, a young lesbian couple traveled to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia for a hiking trip. The women were named Julianne Marie Williams and Laura “Lollie” Winans; Winans also brought along her pet golden retriever. Nearly two weeks later, after neither of the women’s families had heard from them, the authorities were notified.

When park rangers launched a search on June 1, they came upon a campsite and discovered that Williams and Winans had been brutally murdered. Both women were bound and gagged before their throats were slit. Winans’s golden retriever was also found wandering around the area, unharmed. Given the women’s sexual orientation and the brutal and calculated nature of the murders, authorities wondered if they were victims of a hate crime.

In 2002, an incarcerated man named David Darrell Rice was charged with murdering the two women along with two counts of committing a hate crime. Rice was already serving an 11-year sentence for attacking another young woman in Shenandoah National Park in 1997 and was known for expressing his hatred toward women and homosexuals. It was believed that he deliberately targeted Williams and Winans because of their sexual orientation. Two years later, the charges against Rice were dropped once it was determined that DNA and hair samples from the crime scene did not match him.

However, suspicion eventually turned to a serial killer named Richard Evonitz. In June 2002, Evonitz was about to be arrested for an unrelated crime but shot himself when police tracked him down. Forensic evidence eventually linked Evonitz to the unsolved murders of three teenage girls from the mid-1990s. Since these crimes also occurred in Virginia around the same time Williams and Winans were murdered, Evonitz is considered a suspect but thus far nothing has connected him to the crime.

1The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Disappearances

1 Smokies
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park borders Tennessee and North Carolina and is the most visited national park in the US. Therefore, it’s probably inevitable that the park has its fair share of unsolved disappearances.

On June 14, 1969, six-year-old Dennis Martin went on an outing to the park with his family. Dennis and three other boys split off in separate directions to play a prank, but Dennis did not return and a massive search of the area turned up nothing. A nearby witness recalled hearing a frightening scream sometime that afternoon before he saw a rough-looking man running through the woods.

Years later, a man found what appeared to be the skeletal remains of a child in the park but did not inform the authorities because he was hunting illegally at the time. When he finally reported it during the 1980s, the remains could no longer be found. No one knows if either of these events had any connection to Dennis Martin’s disappearance.

Another unsolved Smoky Mountains disappearance involved 16-year-old Trenny Gibson who vanished during a school trip to the park on October 18, 1976. While the students were hiking, Trenny somehow became separated from them and disappeared, never to be seen again. On September 25, 1981, 58-year-old Thelma Melton was hiking through the park on Deep Creek Trail with two friends when she got way ahead of them and disappeared after walking over a hill. No one could find her afterward.

More recently, 24-year-old Derek Joseph Leuking went missing on March 17, 2012. His vehicle was found in the Newfound Gap parking lot. All his gear had been left behind, but there was a note on the windshield which read: “Don’t try to follow me.” No trace of Leuking could be found anywhere in the park, adding his name to the list of people who have mysteriously disappeared into the Great Smoky Mountains.

Robin Warder is a budding Canadian screenwriter who has used his encyclopedic movie knowledge to publish numerous articles at He is also the co-owner of a pop culture website called The Back Row and recently worked on a sci-fi short film called Jet Ranger of Another Tomorrow. Feel free to contact him here.

fact checked by Jamie Frater