Derek Joseph Lueking - Strange Disappearances from U.S. National Parks

Derek Joseph Lueking - Strange Disappearances from U.S. National Parks

Derek Joseph Lueking, Disappeared March 17 2012, Newfound Gap, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Derek Joseph Lueking disappearance

On March 15th 2012, 24-year-old, Derek Lueking didn't show up for work, and calls to his cellphone went unanswered. When a mutual friend alerted room mate Ryan Moulden that Derek hadn't arrived at work that morning, he called Derek’s family. The Luekings traveled from their home in Virginia through the night to Tennessee.

Ryan and family members checked Derek's computer and found a search for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a reservation for a hotel. On March 17th, surveillance video showed Derek leaving the Microtel Inn and Suites in Cherokee, North Carolina, near the National Park. On the bed of the hotel room his family found a bible and on the floor was a liquor bottle. He was wearing just a day backpack and this video footage would be the last sighting of Derek before his strange disappearance from the Great Smoky Mountains area.

The family went out looking for him that same day and by luck managed to find Derek’s car, a white Ford Escape, in the parking lot of an area called Newfound Gap, on the Tennessee-North Carolina line.

Lueking, born in Northern Virginia, was a graduate of Johnson University (formerly Johnson Bible College) in Knoxville and worked as an orderly for Peninsula Behavioural Health Centre.

He was last seen wearing dark colour track pants with white strips down each leg, dark athletic sneakers, dark blue or black book bag, and possibly a waterproof watch.

In the abandoned car, there was a lot of newly purchased survival gear, including a pack axe, compass, lamp, pocket knife, knife sharpener, tent, sleeping bag, 100’ of black parachute cord, granola bars, and a survival belt containing a multi-tool, flashlight, and fire starter rod.  Kit worth around $1000. Pages from a military survival manual, Derek’s wallet and cash were also found in the vehicle.

Derek had obviously been preparing for a trip into the wilderness, but strangely he had not taken any of his newly purchased outdoor gear with him. Another disturbing clue was a note that Derek had left behind in the car that said “Don’t try to follow me.” suggesting he just wanted to disappear, perhaps with suicidal thoughts.

Earlier that year, Tim Lueking, Derek's father had noticed a change in his son.“He started drinking a little bit and smoking cigarettes, which was highly unusual for him, He wasn't happy with his job, where his life was going."He assumed Derek was dealing with the post-graduation stress and transition to adulthood.

But his family and friends dispute that he had any serious depression or suicidal tendencies which would have caused him to kill himself in the National Park. Perhaps the note was left by someone wishing to throw the authorities off the scent. 

Derek Joseph Lueking disappearance great smoky mountains

Despite the note, search and rescue workers persevered and did try to follow him. An intensive search was launched of the area where his car was found, and rangers interviewed campers and hikers in the vicinity asking whether they had seen Derek. But strangely no one could remember seeing Derek, despite it being a sunny day and the area was full of people picnicking, hiking and so on. As a result, authorities believed that he might have gone off trail immediately after leaving his car and quickly got lost or intentionally avoided people in the area to avoid detection. 

There were reports of a possible sighting report along Newfound Gap Road, where Lueking may have entered the woods. But this came to nothing.

Although the trail was popular and well used, walking off it led quickly into dangerous wilderness. One ranger said at the time, "We would have felt better if he had bought all this gear and brought it with him. In this case, he made preparations, but he didn’t follow through." Did he change his mind on the equipment or did he bump into someone that forced him off trail and told him to write the "don't try and follow me" note? 

There were about sixty people and three dog teams assigned to continue the search for Lueking. The searchers had been organised into 14 search teams that have walked more than 70 miles of trails, surrounding the Newfound Gap parking area.

Trail search teams explored any area along the trail where it would appear relatively easy to get off the trail into the woods and once off-trail, the teams would look for tracks or clues that anybody passed that way. The teams continue into the woods until they reach a point where it is either unsafe to continue or until they reach a barrier, such as a rhododendron thicket, where Derek could not have gone without leaving evidence of his passage.

Derek lueking disappearance

heories behind Derek Lueking's disappearance?

Derek’s family stated that Derek had been a big fan of the TV show of Man vs. Wild, in which host Bear Grylls gets left out in the wilderness by himself, with little to no gear, to find his way back to civilisation, whilst living off the land. This led authorities to speculate that he may have been trying to emulate Bear Grylls. Could Derek have suddenly decided to leave his own equipment behind to make things more challenging like in the TV show? Unfortunately, according to his family, Derek was not particularly experienced with the outdoors, so if this was his decision this was very foolhardy as even experienced outdoors people can struggle in the Smoky Mountains National Park.

Another theory is that Derek went off to commit suicide. The family has stated that the day he disappeared was the one year anniversary of the death of his grandfather, with whom he had been close. But if he was planning to kill himself, why buy all the expensive new survival gear?

Others believe include that he went out to check out the trail, planning to come back for his outdoor kit and somehow getting lost on the way, or that he was attacked by a wild animal or kidnapped. If he was attacked by a bear or cat there would have been a trace e.g. blood or torn clothing.

Giovanni Cocchini

Giovanni Cocchini

The strange circumstances around this story continued. Some months after Derek's disappearance, a backpack and then subsequently human remains were discovered in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, close to the area where he disappeared. But it was actually found to be Michael Giovanni Cocchini, 23, who was last seen by friends on Sunday, March 18th, 2012. 

Rangers located Cocchini's abandoned car parked at a walkway along Newfound Gap Road, about 1 mile south of the Park’s Sugarlands Visitor Centre, on March 20th, whilst the search for Derek was ongoing. The walkway does not connect to the Park's trail system, so there would be no reason that backpackers would leave vehicles there overnight. The walkway is a short, easy, trail that extends into the woods a short distance off the road and then dead-ends at the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Like Lueking, the search was called off after more than a week of efforts turned up nothing. The skull fragment was located within a mile from where Cocchini's car was found. 

Two men of a similar age, going missing in the same area at the same time. Coincidence or something more sinister?

Despite the discovery of this evidence, since 2012, no sign of Derek has ever been found and he is still listed as missing.

Derek’s father had posted a letter regarding his son’s disappearance on Help Find Derek, a Facebook page. The letter says:

"I know many of you have questions concerning Derek’s disappearance and have seen conflicting information in the news reports. I have put together the following information in the hopes of clarifying questions you may have.

Derek went missing Wednesday March 14th from his home in Louisville Tennessee. Over the next two days he purchased over $1000 in camping supplies from Bass Pro Shop, Knifeworks and Coleman’s. We believe he stayed at the Motel 6 on the 14th, the Smokemont Campground in the Park on the 15th and the Microtel Hotel in Cherokee on the 16th. His car was found March 17th at 8:30am at Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountains after family saw him leave the Microtel Hotel alone in Cherokee, North Carolina through video footage at 4:00am. A note stating only “Don’t Look For Me” was found in his car along with wallet and car key. The note was not addressed to anyone, so it could have been for us or the rangers.

The Great Smoky Mountain Park Service has never quit searching for Derek as they repelled down some high cliffs March 29th and did not find anything. The Rangers, Park employee’s, volunteer’s and Trail runner continue to look for him. Rangers are also still looking into the investigation aspect of this case following up purchases he made and trying to find out if there are any other significant clues in the recent past. We are extremely grateful for their continued efforts.

Derek was a fan of the survivalist Bear Gryll’s TV show and theoretically, he did have the necessary supplies to live in the woods for a long period of time, but he did not take all the camping gear he purchased. We believe he had at least a backpack, a waterproof watch, a Bear Grylls survival tool pack (including a multi tool, small flashlight, firestarter rod), a Gerber pack axe, Several pages of a military survival manual, a knife sharpener, a compass/thermometer, 100’ of black parachute cord, a head lamp, pocket knife, IPod Touch and some granola bars. He also purchased additional supplies from Wal-Mart for cash (5 empty bags were found in the car with opened packaging listing Wal-Mart), but we have not been able to confirm what he purchased. Appalachian trail hikers who have talked to the family have said that Derek could survive for a long time with the supplies he had.

Searchers have hiked hundreds of miles of trails the weeks after his disappearance which included using multiple dog sent trackers, three different days using helicopters, and one-night helicopter. Unfortunately, no significant clues were found leading to Derek, but Rangers still believe he is in the park somewhere possibly off trail.

The Park Service initially asked our family not to search directly for Derek to avoid contaminating clues and wanted trained park service searcher on the trails, so we handed out flier with Derek’s picture to everyone who hit the trails. As the Park Service’s direct search wound down we started. Our family, and friends along with other concerned people gathered the 24th and 25th of March to search for Derek. A total of over 60 people show up to hike and hand out flyers. Hikers that showed up hiked a total of about 175 miles of trail and people handed out about 3000 flyers to people in the park and the surrounding areas.

There is still the possibility that Derek is not in the Great Smoky National Park, so we would like to make sure the information about him is available to the public.

The family has not given up hope on finding Derek and is doing anything in their power to work with and help the rangers who are investigating as well as trying to make sure the information is out in the world as well. There is a Facebook page Find Derek Lueking that the family is keeping up to inform anyone interested about the case. Please help spread word to anyone hiking in the Smoky Mountain area to keep an eye out for Derek."