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10 Baffling Missing Person Cases at Indiana Dunes National Park
Situated along Lake Michigan close to the Indiana coast, Indiana Dunes National Park’s complex history and attractive features, including 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) of sand dunes, woodlands, prairies, and wetlands, make it a popular destination for birdwatching and fossil hunting.
However, despite the park’s beauty, several people have gone missing from Indiana Dunes National Park over the last few decades. This list looks at ten cases of people who likely went missing in or close to the park. From unidentified individuals who went missing to an infamous 1966 case involving the disappearance of three young women, we focus on examining the details surrounding some disappearances that have occurred at this beautiful and nuanced park.
10 Michael Steven Bickel
In March 2012, Michael Steven Bickel was last seen in Portage, Indiana before disappearing during a trip to Lake Michigan. Bickel’s Subaru was located and seized after Bickel went missing. Oddly, Beckel wrote two suicide notes, with one note indicating that Bickel went for a lengthy 30-mile (48-kilometer) swim from Portage Lakefront Park to Chicago’s Navy Pier. Authorities later stated that Bickel drowned in Lake Michigan while swimming. One of the notes also suggested that Bickel intended to take his life.
Even though drowning is not an uncommon suicide method, trying to swim 30 miles in Lake Michigan is an unusual feat. Another unusual aspect of this case is Bickel’s missing toenail on his right foot, which would likely help distinguish him from other unidentified bodies.
9 Mary Jo Klen
Following her disappearance in 2000, what happened to Mary Jo Klen is still a mystery in 2023. Klen was 40 years old when she was last spotted in Valparaiso, situated in Porter County, Indiana, close to the Indiana Dunes National Park. Over the last two decades, little information has been found about Klen’s case, making it even more challenging to determine the mystery of what happened to Klen.
Unusually, no details about Klen’s clothing, jewelry, or personal items that she might have had on her at the time of her disappearance. Often, small clues left on or by an unidentified body can make a difference in later distinguishing this person’s identity.
One potential lead involving Klen is a Jane Doe found in Indiana a month after Klen went missing. Many of Jane Doe’s physical characteristics, including her weight and height, matched Klen. However, it’s impossible to confirm what happened to Klen without additional details. Klen’s case emphasized the important role that even the smallest clue can play in missing person cases. Without small clues like vehicles or clothing, it is much more difficult in most situations to determine what happened to a missing person.
8 Unidentified 2007 Victim
Rangers at the Indiana Dunes National Park discovered the deceased body of a missing person in one of the park’s rental houses on April 23, 2007.
The man was facing charges related to possession of child pornography and bomb-making. Earlier, the United States Secret Service served a warrant on the man’s property and seized his computer and other items associated with the production of child pornography. No explosives were found in the rental house or the man’s vehicle at the time his body was discovered.
While many properties at Indiana Dunes National Park are routinely rented for recreational purposes, the man appears to have been using the houses to hide from the federal government. It is uncertain whether he lawfully rented the house or snuck into it illegally. Given the seriousness of the charges he was facing, he likely had the motivation to avoid being found by law enforcement.
7 Bryce Dunfee
A 22-year-old man, Bryce Dunfee from Indianapolis, went missing in 2022 after he fell through Lake Michigan ice while exploring West Beach, Indiana, close to Indiana Dunes National Park with a group of friends. A graduate of New Haven High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Dunfee had previously lost a brother. Following his disappearance, law enforcement searched for Dunfee despite challenging weather conditions, including high wind and wave conditions that temporarily caused boat searches to be postponed.
Dunfee was walking with his friends on the ice when an ice shelf collapsed. Unfortunately, Dunfee’s friends could not rescue him because of the strength of the surrounding waves. Law enforcement claims that ice shelves should only be observed from the land because they are routinely not stable.
Dunfee’s case highlights the high degree of caution that people should apply when exploring outdoor areas, especially ice shelves, which are natural features created when strong winds press water against lake shores and then freezes. While ice shelves serve the purpose of protecting shorelines from erosion, they can be deadly if not solid.
6 Ann Miller, Patricia Blough, and Renee Bruhl
Three women—Ann Miller, Patricia Blough, and Renee Bruhl—visited the Indiana Dunes National Park on July 2, 1966, and mysteriously vanished. What happened to these women is still unknown. The trio was last spotted on the beach, where they left their belongings after entering Lake Michigan.
A massive week-long search effort was performed by the police, the Coast Guard, and volunteers, but no traces of the women were ever found. When three females fitting the women’s descriptions were noticed aboard a smaller boat, the search was widened to a 6-mile (9.7-kilometer) circumference of the beach, and more witnesses began offering substantial initial reports about the women.
Various theories about the women’s disappearance have been proposed. Witnesses claimed to see the women talking to an unidentified man in his early twenties with dark, wavy hair and wearing a beach jacket, who was operating a boat. What the women discussed with the man remains unknown. All three women enjoyed horses and had connections to men with criminal histories involving the horse market. One of the women is reported to have lost a great deal of money gambling on horses, which might have been behind the disappearance.
Additionally, each of the three women was ultimately facing personal issues that could have led to their disappearance or faking their deaths. Some reports stated that Blough was having difficulty with “horse syndicate people” before she disappeared. In 2023, Blough’s sister also said that Blough was dating a married man and might have been pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
5 Johnice “China” White
Park ranger notes reveal that on August 7, 1995, a girl went missing from her home close to Indiana Dunes National Park. The following day, the girl’s deceased body was found in an isolated section of the park in Gary, Indiana. Incident notes state that the park was prepared to work in coordination with Gary police on investigating the offense. No further notes are made of the disappearance or death within Indiana Dunes National Park ranger notes.
In 2015, Barry Taylor of Gary, Indiana, was first questioned about the death of a 15-year-old girl, Johnice “China” White, whose body was discovered in the park on August 8, 1995. Due to the date and age, this J.W. appears to be the girl referenced in park ranger notes. White, who attended Wirt High School, disappeared a few hours before her 15th birthday. The Gary community searched for her for over a day before finding her body at the bottom of a hill in the park with her bike close by.
4 Roxanne Shah
Roxanne Shah, an Indianapolis resident who enjoyed camping and hiking, went missing in February 2011, leading to search efforts. Her minivan was later discovered in the parking lot of Mt. Baldy, an Indiana Dunes National Park landmark. Shah, however, had brought no camping equipment with her, though. Additionally, temperatures in the area that month were below zero overnight.
Shah’s husband initially expressed hope that she had traveled to Chicago because it was not uncommon for her to spontaneously leave home several times a year.
On October 11, 2011, however, the body of an unidentified person, referred only to as R.S. in park ranger incident notes, was found on one of the park’s beaches. These notes appear to reference Shah’s disappearance, and her obituary uses the date her body was discovered as her date of death. A medical examiner determined that Shah’s cause of death was drowning without any signs of foul play.
3 Martha Nehring Pilnok
Martha Nehring Pilnok disappeared approximately twenty minutes from Indiana Dunes National Park on January 15, 1944, in Valparaiso, Indiana. At the time she disappeared, Pilnok resided on a farm with her husband and father. A Caucasian female, 5’2″ tall, between 130 and 150 pounds, Pilnok is believed to also have sometimes used the name Martha Lena Pilnok.
In 1965, Martha’s daughter approached law enforcement and stated that she had not seen Martha in over 25 years. This means that Martha’s daughter would not have last seen Martha in 1940, several years before Martha’s disappearance. Over a decade later, in 1958, Martha’s husband, Fred Pilnok, filed a divorce petition stating that Martha was alive and living out of state. Martha contacted neither her husband nor her children after 1944. It remains uncertain whether Martha remarried or went missing.
2 1989 Burns Harbor John Doe
The body of a 17- to 25-year-old John Doe of an uncertain race was discovered in a wooded area on March 28. 1989 between U.S. 20 and Old Porter Road, close to Interstate 94 between Gary and Michigan City, Indiana.
The man was discovered wearing green/aqua shorts and a baseball cap. Interestingly, while NamUs reports that the cap bore the logo of the minor league baseball team, the Rochester Red Wings, the Doe Network believes the hat bore the Detroit Red Wings logo.
The man also had on low-cut Fila tennis shoes. Around the man’s body were white plastic cigarette holders, an empty Coca-Cola bottle, and a bottle that contained white residue. While the man had almost perfect teeth, he had cosmetic caps on his two upper front teeth.
Law enforcement is not sure how John Doe was killed but has stated that he was likely struck by a large vehicle. The man’s leg and collar bones were broken, suggesting that he was dragged off the road and then passed away.
It’s possible that John Doe passed through Indiana Dunes National Park before he passed away, given how heavily traveled the involved roads are, along with the perspective that John Doe might have been a hitchhiker struck by a vehicle. While an investigation is ongoing into the case by the Porter County Coroner’s Office and the Burns Harbor Police Department, John Doe has never been identified. As of 2023, however, the case remains open and unexplained.
1 1945 Porter County Jane Doe
A Jane Doe was discovered in Porter County, Indiana, in 1945 by a hunter in a thicket situated about half a mile south of U.S. Highway 6 and one and a half miles from the La Porte County line.
Jane Doe, believed to be younger than 60 and standing 5’6″, was wearing a bluish-gray coat and nylons and had gold-filled teeth. Only partial skeletal parts were found, indicating the woman had been deceased for approximately a year before being discovered.
Oddly, in 2021, law enforcement investigators attempted to exhume the 1945 Jane Doe’s remains but discovered another woman’s remains instead. They believed the body belonged to another Jane Doe as the remains lacked natural teeth and had only upper dentures. The body’s deteriorated condition left law enforcement unable to distinguish the sex, race, age, or other identifying characteristics. Material from the bones was taken for DNA analysis, though.
After several investigations, the identity and circumstances leading to the death of the 1945 Porter County Jane Doe are not known. Open for 77 years, this Jane Doe case represents one of the longer-standing unsolved Jane Doe cases in Indiana’s history.