AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Missing in Alaska

Ben Anderson
Aaron Jansen illustration

It’s been a summer of disappearances in Alaska. In early June, Iditarod musher Melanie Gould went missing from her hometown of Talkeetna, vanished in the middle of the night. Her truck was found days later, at the end of a remote mining road, more than 100 miles from her home.

An extensive search with dogs and aircraft ensued, only to be called off a week later, with still no sign of Gould. There was no telling what had happened to her then, whether she had been in the woods for more than a week, or she’d gotten into another vehicle -- voluntarily or otherwise -- and was missing elsewhere.

And then, two days after the official search ended, she was unexpectedly found, alive. She came out of the woods, tired, hungry, and cold. Then she disappeared anyway, gone to live with family elsewhere, leaving behind many unanswered questions about her vanishing act, including a report that she had stayed away from the initial search effort despite hearing them in the woods.

In July, two men weren’t as lucky as Gould. John Gamble’s body was found near Dollar Creek after a weeklong search following the discovery of his pickup stuck in the mud near the Petersville Road, an old dirt road that leads toward Denali National Park. Soon after, Seward welder Rob Gage’s body was discovered in the area near the Interior Alaska community of Healy, not far from his own locked truck.

Also in July, the search was suspended for a California man who vanished from a cruise ship en route to Ketchikan.

On Wednesday, Alaska State Troopers reported that two men were missing and presumed dead following the discovery of an unoccupied plane washed ashore in the Cordova area. Troopers said that it appeared the men had landed on the beach near the mouth of the Seal River before taking back off and crashing back into the water.

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said that even if the men had survived the crash, it was unclear whether either had life preservers, and they would have been swimming against the current in water so cold that chunks of glacial ice float in it.

Whether it’s just a matter of succumbing to the wilderness or something more sinister, Alaska has played host to its fair share of disappearances over the years. In 1972, then-Congressman Nick Begich, the father of current Alaska senator and former Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, disappeared while flying  to Juneau from Anchorage. The plane was never found.

End of the road

The vast emptiness of much of Alaska and its reputation as an end-of-the-road kind of place has contributed to many disappearances, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Alaska Missing Persons Clearinghouse.

A collection of people gone missing over the years in the Last Frontier, the clearinghouse is a collection of 80 photographs, and it’s eerie to look through these past disappearances -- all of them still unsolved -- like a Facebook for the vanished.

There’s no rhyme or reason to the demographics of the missing people: they are male, female, young, old, black, white, Alaska Native, and otherwise.  A few of the pictures are in black and white, despite their disappearances being fairly recent. Melanie Gould was listed in the database for a brief time before her reemergence from the woods.

At the bottom of the page are two bulletins for people who have never been identified: one of them is a John Doe, a white male found dead in the woods off of Third Avenue in August 2001 (fair warning: the photo is of an actual deceased person). The other is the infamous Eklutna Annie, one of the victims of notorious Alaska serial killer Robert Hanson -- now the subject of an upcoming film starring Nicolas Cage and Jon Cusack -- found near Eagle River in the summer of 1980.

Some of the people would be old by now: Cora Andersen went missing in July 1979, last seen leaving the Eureka Lodge on the Glenn Highway before her truck was found at the Moose Creek Campground, 70 miles away. She was 51 when she vanished -- she would be 83 today.

Others, like Avi Keys, would still be young, perhaps starting a family or a career -- Keys went missing from Fairbanks in 2004, and would be 25 years old today. Police suspect foul play in the disappearance of Keys -- in 2004, Keys was tied to a gruesome murder off the Steese Road near Fairbanks. In that crime, then 19-year-old Jason Fisher killed 23-year-old David Mason and then -- with help from Keys and another man, Josiah Thurneau -- dismembered Mason and stuffed him in the trunk of their car. The men had been using methamphetamine for days.

Keys was apprehended two days later as he and Fisher drove around in the same car, with some of the body parts still in the trunk. Fisher got away in that instance, but police impounded the car and later discovered Mason’s remains. Keys and Thurneau became state’s witnesses in the case against Fisher. After being bailed out by his father David Keys, Avi told him, “Dad, don’t worry if I don’t come back for a few days,” David said in a 2009 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article. Avi hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Many disappearances captured the public’s imagination at the time of their disappearance. Erin Marie Gilbert, 24, vanished from the Girdwood Forest Fair in July 1995. An Anchorage Daily News article at the time said Gilbert and her date, David Combs, were separated after Combs went in search of a friend’s house to ask for help with his car, which wouldn’t start after he discovered he’d left his lights on. When he returned after two unsuccessful hours of searching for the house, Combs discovered that Gilbert had disappeared.

Gilbert had been living with her sister in Alaska for the past year. Her father, Curt Gilbert, flew up to Alaska from Baltimore to search for his daughter.

“There are so many areas to search,” Curt Gilbert said to the Daily News. “Alaska is so immense. I look up at the hills and don’t know what to think.”

An intense search for Gilbert turned up no clues to her whereabouts. Police were never able to determine if Gilbert was a victim of foul play. Now she stares back in the bulletin, a tall girl with shoulder length brown hair, wearing bright red lipstick. This past May would have been her 40th birthday.

On Oct. 27, 2008, then 40-year-old Sheila McBroom was supposedly headed to work at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, but a state trooper made contact with her in a pullout at mile 106 of the Seward Highway, just north of Indian at 8:30 a.m. Someone had called saying McBroom’s vehicle was driving erratically, and the trooper performed a sobriety test, which she passed before the trooper recommended she take a nap.

The next day, McBroom was reported missing by her husband, and her car was recovered on Halloween in the same area she’d been contacted by the trooper.

Mile 106 of the Seward Highway is known as Windy Point, and the highway sits above Turnagain Arm, with its well-known and dangerous currents. McBroom’s cell phone and other belongings were untouched inside her car, parked across the highway from the bluff on the other side.

“Police are now left to wonder if McBroom's pickup was moved after the trooper talked to her -- a possible sign of foul play -- or if she simply ditched it and hitched a ride,” an Anchorage Daily News article asked at the time. “Or, given the proximity of the embankment, did McBroom jump or fall into the frigid water below, surging with tides up to 30 feet that day?”

Nearly three years later, the question still hasn’t been answered.

Searching for answers

Perhaps the reason these disappearances grab hold of our imaginations so tightly are the unanswered questions that inevitably surround them. It takes a lot for someone to go missing in the modern world, where our electronic fingerprints and ease of connection means that someone who vanishes either doesn’t want to be found, or has become the victim of some other, hard-to-confront fate.

Why do disappearances like this tug at us? Every victim has a story, and it’s easy to get lost for hours following the fascinating circumstances behind each disappearance. Each of the photos represents a kind of mystery story for someone who’s been ripped from society, and the final pages of these mysteries have also been torn away, leaving loose ends splayed out in every direction.

Do these missing people vanish of their own will? Do they fall victim to foul play? Are any of them trying to hide from something?  Do some of them simply wander off to die, for whatever reason? 

Some of the vanishings are more vague than others. Some involve small communities where a missing person is hard to miss. In July of 2000, Charlie Chocknok Sr., an 84-year-old man, disappeared from New Stuyahok, a town of fewer than 500 people. He was last seen on foot near the airport.

Some cases achieve a semblance of closure, as in the strange case of Cynthia St. John, a woman who went missing from Fairbanks in February 1995. “The circumstances surrounding her disappearance (are) suspicious,” the bulletin reads.

St. John’s husband, Roger, was found dead three months later from an apparent drug overdose in a hotel room in Little Rock, Ark., where he left behind a 14-page suicide letter in which he admitted to killing Cynthia’s parents, Lyla and Clinton Watson, on May 9, 1995, in Mississippi. In his note, he also accused the Watsons of mistreating Cynthia and said that it had driven her to kill herself, which he subsequently attributed as his reason for murdering them.

“He stated the reason he killed them was because (Cynthia) committed suicide,” Forrest County (Ala.) Sheriff Billy McGee said in a 1995 Biloxi Herald-Sun article. “He doesn't pinpoint where (her) body would be.”

Despite the possibility that Roger may have also killed Cynthia and combined efforts between Alabama and Alaska police, the case was never fully solved, and Cynthia remains in the clearinghouse, a small black-and-white picture.

One bulletin, in two lines, conveys a strange sense of poignancy: Leonard Lane was 73 when he disappeared in 1995 from Fairbanks. A tough looking, broad-faced Alaska Native man with gray hair and beard and bushy black eyebrows looks out with bright eyes from the bulletin.

“Leonard Lane was last seen 7/4/95 in downtown Fairbanks watching the Fourth of July parade,” the bulletin reads. “Lane is a wounded veteran of World War II and walks with a pronounced limp.”

Picture it: a veteran of one of the world’s greatest conflicts, standing along the road in Fairbanks on the Fourth of July, watching the parade move slowly by as the community rejoices in the freedoms he helped maintain. Then, without fanfare, perhaps he turns away, limping slowly down the street past the assembled crowd, never to be seen again.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.