Derrick Engebretson - Strange disappearances from U.S. forests

Derrick Engebretson, disappeared December 5th, 1998, Rocky Point Area, Winema National Forest, Klamath County, Oregon.

Derrick Engebretson disappearance

On the afternoon of December 5th, 1998,  Derrick Engebretson, aged 8, Dad Robert and 64-year-old grandfather, Bob, set out for a densely wooded mountainside above Upper Klamath Lake near Pelican Butte, about 30 miles from downtown Klamath Falls. This was the last day Derrick was ever seen. 

Derrick was also known as "Bear Boy" because of his love of the outdoors. When he was a week old, his mother put him in a pack and carried him along on a bear hunt. He grew up hunting with his father and mushroom-picking with his mother's father. He'd been to Pelican Butte on several of those mushroom expeditions.

Upper Klamath Lake is a large, shallow freshwater lake east of the Cascade Range in south-central Oregon. Pelican Butte is a steep-sided dormant shield volcano and it is located 28 miles (45 km) due south of Crater Lake and rises over 3,800 feet above the shore of the lake.

pelican butte, Upper Klamath Lake, oregon

The Engebretson family hadn't planned to go to the woods that year to go christmas tree hunting. Lori, Robert's wife, had talked him into using an artificial tree that year despite the fact that he was an enthusiastic outdoorsman who always looked forward to the family's annual Christmas tree hunt. Lori wanted less mess, but when a disabled neighbour asked for a real tree, Robert headed off into the forest.

Pelican Butte Trail

As Bob's red Toyota pickup climbed the Westside Road, Robert remembers telling his father they couldn't hang around as. it was already after 2 pm, and it would be getting dark around 4pm since it was late in the year. Bob pulled onto a turnout at Milepost 12, on the way to Rocky Point Resort. Robert helped Derrick get into his blue snowsuit, and the three of them started up an embankment into the pine forest. Robert walked ahead of the other two, telling Derrick to stay with his grandfather.

As Derrick chopped at small trees with his hatchet he nagged his grandfather that he wanted to catch up with his dad. The grandfather eventually relented and then he was gone. 

About 3 pm with the darkness closing in, Robert and Bob met up and asked each other "Where's Derrick?" Robert remembers asking. "I thought he was with you," Bob said. "He was with you!" Robert turned and sprinted back up the hill as heavy, wet snow fell steadily. He shouted out for Derrick but there was no response

At 4.13pm, Robert flagged down a man driving along the road, Fred Heins , asking him to dial 911 to call for help from the authorities. Heins makes the call from the resort two miles from the area of Derrick's disappearance.

Throughout the night and for the next two weeks, hundreds of people searched through snow several feet thick, looking for Derrick on foot and using snowmobiles and dogs. Lori built a bonfire at the turnout, sleeping in a donated camper van, hoping Derrick would see it and come to her. Delirious from lack of sleep, she once thought she saw Derrick walk out of the woods toward her, waving and smiling. But it was not to be.

In the hours immediately after Derrick's disappearance, Robert and other members of the family found Derrick's tracks in the newly fallen snow. The boy's small boot prints made a short loop from the spot where Robert had last seen him to a clearing near the road, where Derrick had lain down to make a snow angel. Unfortunately, a snowplow had come by, obliterating the tracks that led away from the angel.  No tracks led from the angel back toward the woods. The cuts Derrick had cut in the trees with his hatchet were confined to a small area near the road. Robert felt certain his son hadn't walked back into the trees. By early evening the snow was estimated at 5 to 8 inches on Rocky Point.

A candy wrapper and a make shift lean-to shelter made out of branches were discovered but it was unclear whether they were related to Derrick. Family members were convinced that Derrick had made his way to the road and might have been picked up by a stranger. But the sheriff discounted those concerns.

A hole in the ice was discovered in the lake by Bob during the search, and a child's footprint on the bank. Divers searched the next day and an additional search was done in the area during the spring thaw. No luck.

The official search ended eight days after Derrick disappeared, when Klamath County authorities told Lori and Robert that their son was likely dead. Robert, Lori and at least 100 volunteers stayed on the mountain for another seven days. Speculation deepened that Derrick had been abducted. On Dec. 18, 1998, sub-zero temperatures forced the Engebretsons to end the search but every weekend for the next two years, Robert drove straight from his graveyard shift at work to the mountain, meeting Lori. They kept a map marking areas where they'd searched. 

There was plenty of criticism of the search and rescue effort as many believed authorities had been slow to get to the the scene the night that Derrick disappeared. The search was not started for nearly five hours after the first 911 call by the passing motorist, because the coordinator was reluctant to interrupt the Christmas dinner for Klamath County Search and Rescue team annual awards dinner at Mollie's restaurant until he was sure a rescue was actually warranted. 

Robert and Bob both passed polygraphs, but some in the community were convinced that they may have murdered Derrick or been negligent in some way. Robert couldn't speak to his father. He blamed himself for not finding Derrick, but he blamed Bob for losing him. Bob Engebretson was too racked with guilt to even talk about it.  Robert had taken a lot of time off work. At the same time, the couple had spent thousands of dollars searching for Derrick, paying for psychics and a boat to search Klamath Lake. Eventually, they went bankrupt.

Authorities insisted that Derrick had wandered off into the woods and died, that animals had scattered his remains. But the Engebretson family never really believed that, especially as no evidence had been found such as bones or torn clothing. This was supported by a witness who said he'd seen a man struggling with a boy along a nearby highway. 

Then in 1999, some graffiti was scrawled on a rest-area bathroom wall near Burns which said Derrick had been killed and buried. But the FBI insisted it was a hoax.  A boy named Derrick who was found in Texas under unusual circumstances looked a lot like the Engebretsons' son but proved to be someone else. A bone discovered in Pelican Butte in 2000, turned out to be from a deer after a wait of several days to confirm its identity.

In late 2001, a handwritten letter arrived in the family mailbox. It said, "I know who took your son." In July 11, 2000, Frank J. Milligan, a 31-year-old state youth authority worker, approached a 10-year-old boy at a Dallas park and offered the boy $100 to mow his lawn. When the boy reached Milligan's car, the man said to him "Do you want to live or die?" Milligan bound the boy's hands with duct tape and then stopped the car just north of Salem and forced the boy to walk down a dirt road and sexually assaulted him. Milligan choked the boy and pushed his face into the dirt so hard he blacked out. He cut the child's throat and left him for dead.  But against the odds, the boy woke up, covered with blood and got to a road where a passing motorist stopped to help. At the time of the attack, Milligan was out on bail from the Clatsop County Jail, accused of a 1997 sexual attack on an 11-year-old boy in Seaside. Detectives tracked him down, and he eventually pleaded guilty in both cases.

Months later, Milligan's cellmate wrote a letter to police and the Engebretsons saying that Milligan had confessed to abducting and killing Derrick. It arrived at the Engebretson home in late 2001.

An Oregon State Police detective who had investigated the Dallas case and others confronted Milligan. Milligan confessed to killing Derrick and agreed to lead detectives to the body.

Lori and Robert drove five hours to Silver Falls State Park southeast of Salem and waited as the FBI used ground-penetrating radar to scan for Derrick's bones. After several days of searching they came up with nothing. But a Marion County assistant district attorney told the Engebretsons that Milligan had agreed to plead guilty to killing Derrick if they agreed to spare him the death penalty. But when Milligan faced the paperwork a few days later, he refused to sign.

One theory was that the boy's hatchet would be in the lake if he had fallen in. If a hatchet were found in the sediment of the inlet, it could indicate that the boy died there. Portland diver Jeff Preece spent several hours carefully working his way through the shallow water using a metal detector designed to work underwater. He found several metal objects, including an oil filter and a metal road sign. But no hatchet.

Did Derrick die of cold or from an animal attack as the Sheriff thought or was he abducted by Frank J. Milligan or another paedophile? Or did something else happen on that fateful and sad day in December 1998? A mysterious case for certain.