In April 2017, Jacob Gray rode his bicycle during a rainstorm into Washington state’s Olympic National Park and vanished. The 22-year-old’s bike and camping gear were discovered near the Sol Duc River, but otherwise there was no trace of him. Several months of search-and-rescue missions uncovered nothing.
The mystery caught the attention of journalist Jon Billman, who has been investigating “missing persons in wild places” since the late ’90s. As he writes in “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” (Grand Central Publishing), out Tuesday, most disappearances are easy to explain — hypothermia, falls, avalanches, eaten by a mountain lion, etc. — but Billman has long been fascinated by cases that “defy conventional logic . . . the proverbial vanish-without-a-trace incidents, which happen a lot more (and a lot closer to your backyard) than almost anyone thinks.”
According to NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), more than 600,000 persons go missing in the United States every year. Anywhere between 89 percent to 92 percent of those missing people are recovered every year, either alive or deceased. But how many of those disappear in the wild is unclear. Neither the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, or the Department of Agriculture’s US Forest Service keeps track.
Strangely, the most reliable info on missing people in the wild comes from Bigfoot hunters. In 2011, David Paulides, founder of the North America Bigfoot Search, launched a database of wildland disappearances that occurred under “mysterious circumstances.” From his research, there are at least 1,600 people, give or take, currently missing in the wild somewhere in the United States.
Most people, according to his data, disappear in the late afternoon and during or just before severe weather. Bodies are often found in previously searched areas, and often without clothing or footwear, even when hypothermia has been ruled out. (During the last stages of hypothermia, people often feel hot and remove their clothing.) Children are sometimes found at improbably far distances from where they went missing.
The biggest obstacle to getting any information about missing people in the wild, according to Paulides, is National Park Service red tape. He speculates that the Park Service conceals the true data on how and where people disappear and how many have actually been found because it “would shock the public so badly that visitor numbers would fall off a cliff,” Billman writes.
“I don’t think there’s a grand conspiracy to keep the numbers hidden,” he says. “But the National Park Service certainly doesn’t advertise that there are dozens of still-missing visitors in Grand Canyon or Yosemite, and a county sheriff isn’t gonna put a missing person on his reelection poster.”
The odds of locating Jacob Gray were “beyond finding a needle in a haystack,” Chief Ranger Jay Shields told Billman. Despite a several-month coordinated effort by hundreds of park rangers, local police and volunteers, they found no trace of him.
But Randy Gray, Jacob’s father, wasn’t about to give up so easily. A 63-year-old house-builder from Santa Cruz, Calif., he went on to “liquidate his world in order to find his son,” writes Billman. He sold his house and shuttered his successful contracting business. Loading up an Arctic Fox slide-in camper with food and gear, Randy invited the author to join him as he set out for Washington.
National parks like Yosemite operate almost as sovereign states. When somebody goes missing in their territory, they’re not inclined to seek help from outside government agencies. “It would be like the US asking Mexico for COVID-19 ventilators,” Billman says. “There’s pride at stake, egos, not to mention budgets. A virus is as invisible as a missing person.”
A search-and-rescue effort doesn’t always make a difference. In 2017, a middle-aged woman named Kara Moore disappeared in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Almost immediately, dozens of searchers with canines covered 73,000 acres and found nothing, only to have Moore wander home a week later on her own.
A similar search made no difference for Joe Keller, a 19-year-old who went for a run in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado in 2015 and never returned. The search was called off after 13 days — “We even collected bear crap,” said local Sheriff Howard Galvez. “We still have it in the evidence freezer.” Keller remains an unsolved disappearance.
Nothing about Jacob’s disappearance suggested foul play. His bike wasn’t damaged, the tires weren’t flat, and there was no evidence he’d been in an accident or purposely hit. Randy claimed that his son, a lifelong surfer, was “ionized by water” and never wore a wetsuit, even in the coldest temperatures. At 5-foot-11 and 145 pounds, he was in excellent shape, and was even planning a cross-country trip by bicycle from California to Vermont to visit his brother.
I could see Jacob being adopted by a family of Bigfoot. Hanging with them, you know. Which would be good.
– Randy Gray, whose son went missing in Olympic National Park
But, since his parents’ divorce four years earlier, Jacob had shown signs of depression and, his family speculated, possible schizophrenia. It concerned Randy and his ex-wife Laura enough that they sent him to Bellevue, Wash., to live near family, attend community college and look for a job. He quickly dropped out of school, worked at a nursing job and climbing gym, and was always on his bicycle, exploring the mountain trails at every opportunity.
The park seemed convinced Jacob had either drowned in the river or had hitchhiked out of the area and “any resources would have been a waste of money and manpower.”
Disembodied human feet — many of them still in shoes — wash up on the shores of Washington state and British Columbia with alarming regularity. “Some come in pairs, some don’t,” Billman writes. For Randy, every time he learned of a beachcomber finding a dismembered foot inside a New Balance shoe — his son’s brand of choice — it was “another catalyst for another bad dream.”
And yet, Randy followed every lead, no matter how disturbing. Whether it was a psychic named Lauren who insisted that Jacob had been abducted, or an eerie clue that was “puzzling to the rangers” of four arrows stuck in a meticulously-placed line on the ground near Jacob’s abandoned camp, Randy took everything seriously.
Jacob could have ended up in jail. Mark Curry, who runs a search-and-recover nonprofit in Houston, Texas, told the author, “You wouldn’t believe how many missing persons they find in jail.” Or he could have joined a cult. Randy learned that Twelve Tribes, a cult founded in Tennessee during the ’70s, had been recruiting new members along the Pacific Crest Trail. So he traveled to Vancouver, Canada, their home base in the Pacific Northwest, to meet with members and ask questions. But it was another dead end.
Eventually Randy was led to a team of Bigfoot researchers called the Olympic Project, one of the most renowned sasquatch investigator organizations in the world. Founded in 2008 by a deputy sheriff convinced that there were sasquatch in the woods around him, the group had long taken a scientific approach to tracking Bigfoot, focusing on fossil records and DNA evidence. In response to Jacob’s disappearance, they created the Olympic Mountain Response Team, an offshoot devoted to “responding to missing persons in the mountains.”
They welcomed Randy and Billman to stay at the Bigfoot Barn, a facility filled with supplies, maps and a library of sasquatch information. It’s also the closest private property to where Jacob’s bike was found, allowing Randy to “live where his son vanished,” Billman writes.
But more than a place to sleep and eat, the hunters offered their expertise and intimate knowledge of the region. These mountain-savvy Bigfoot researchers were “smart, fit men and women who take a scientific approach to the fossil record,” Billman says. “They volunteered hundreds of hours and hiked hundreds of miles searching for Jacob in the Olympic Peninsula.”
Over four straight months, Randy searched the wilderness for 12- to 14-hour days. No one involved in the group tried to convince Randy that his son’s disappearance was connected to sasquatch, but many in the group do think Bigfoot has played a role in missing person cases. Tanya Barba, a longtime Bigfoot hunter and Olympic Project member, told Billman she believes Bigfoot is involved in many missing-toddler events.
In January 2019, a 3-year-old boy named Casey Hathaway disappeared near his great-grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina. Temperatures dropped below freezing and rain blew sideways. Three days later, the boy was found alive, entangled in briars a quarter of a mile from where he went missing.
“How does a child travel 4,000 feet in elevation in his bare feet in two days?” Barba asks. She is “100 percent certain” that Casey and other children “are picked up by Bigfoot.”
Randy entertained the idea.
“I could see Jacob being adopted by a family of Bigfoot,” Randy told the author. “Hanging with them, you know. Which would be good.”
Losing a family member to the unknown is one of the worst psychological traumas a human can endure, says Pauline Boss, a researcher and family therapist. She coined the term “frozen grief” for this mental anguish. The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, calls it “the nation’s silent mass disaster.”
In the majority of states, a person isn’t classified as legally dead unless they’ve been missing for seven years. At that point, Billman writes, they’re declared dead unless there’s evidence otherwise. They’re dead in absentia, which for many survivors is even worse than finding a body.
Marcel Leget, the brother of a bicyclist who went missing in Nova Scotia in 2014, says he’s still haunted by not knowing how — or if — his brother died or suffered.
“I keep telling myself it would be easier if it was a heart attack or car accident — at least we could be angry at something,” he says. “It might have been a quick ending, but the thought of him being really hurt and yelling for help will stay with me for a while.”
He and his family will likely never know what happened, so there’s no way to make peace with the loss.
“Closure isn’t an option,” Leget says.
It took 18 months, but Randy finally had that closure. On Aug. 10, 2018, a team of biologists who ventured into the mountains to study marmots stumbled upon Jacob’s clothing in a remote area of Olympic National Park. Rangers searched the area and found his skeletal remains, 5,300 feet above sea level and 15 miles from where Jacob left his bike.
While the body was soon identified, it remains a mystery what happened to Jacob. The coroner called the official cause of death “inconclusive.” His boots were found wrapped in trash bags, which Jacob’s brother Micah wondered might be a sign of suicide. “People do crazy things before they commit suicide,” he said.
Days after the remains were found, Randy, Micah and Billman hiked up to the spot where Jacob perished, just to see where it happened. They stumbled upon two human bones, one of them a finger bone, that they believe belonged to Jacob. Rather than bringing it to authorities, they had a burial on the mountain, fashioning a cross of tree limbs tied together with a parachute cord.
Randy may not have been responsible for finding his son, but he was on the right track with one detail. Most people lost in the mountains tend to go down, Billman writes. But Randy insisted, “Jacob would have gone up.” He couldn’t explain why, it was just a gut feeling. And in the end, he was right. Sometimes even the best statistics and search-and-rescue data can’t compete with a parent’s instincts.