Great Smoky Mountains

Jenny Bennett - Disturbing deaths in U.S. national parks

Susan J. Bennett (Jenny), disappeared June 1st 2015, Body Found June 8th 2015, Lester Prong area of Greenbrier, above campsite 31, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Jenny Bennett, Great smoky mountains death

Jenny Bennett, aged 62,  was an experienced hiker in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a member of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club and the author of a popular blog called "Endless streams and forests" in which she documented many of her hiking outings and illustrated them with her photography.. She also wrote two fiction books based in the Smokies. A 2014 book, "The Twelve Streams of LeConte" and "Murder at the Jumpoff" in 2011. Jenny also wrote an ongoing Wordpress blog called "Endless Streams and Forests" 

On March 31, 2015, Jenny decided to leave North Carolina and move to St. Johnsbury, Vermont due to her desire to live nearer to her sister in Massachusetts. Those who knew her described her as being excited by the move. She had located a home to buy.  She was supposed to have moved out of the house in Sylva by Monday, June 1, 2015. A prospective renter who came to the house found boxes but no trace of her or her car. Her landlord and brother contacted authorities and she was subsequently reported missing to park rangers on Sunday June 7th.

There were few hikers tougher than Jenny Bennett. She took on any challenge in the Smoky Mountains. She had hiked many routes that most hikers don't know, and would not attempt even if they did. She developed a knee problem in 2012, in which the knee would periodically dislocate and she would force it back into place, then continue with the hike. Ultimately the knee problem became nearly unbearable, and she concluded that an operation to correct the condition would be required. Nonetheless, Jenny kept on with the big hikes as long as she could.

After Jenny's inspiration and mentor in the 1980's, Charlie Klabunde, passed away in February 2015, Jenny organised an outing on March 22, 2015, to pass the Jumpoff on the Smokies' Boulevard Trail, then descend into Lester Prong to a spot to disperse Charlie's ashes. Jenny made it from Newfound Gap to the beginning of the descent from Boulevard Trail, but her knee gave out yet again, and she could not continue. She returned to her car and back to Sylva, while the remainder of the group continued on and completed the memorial as Jenny wanted. That she could not accompany the group to do this for her beloved mentor was tough for Jenny.

Jenny Bennett back pack on trip to scatter ashes

For many years Jenny did off-trail hikes in the nearby wilderness and often on her own. Her blog had its last post on May 27, about hiking in the Balsam Mountain area, following trips on May 24th and 27th. She had an undeniable sadness about leaving the mountains she so dearly loved. She was having a hard time saying goodbye to the Smokies, and the many memories they held for her.

Friend and fellow hiker Peter Barr said at the time "She was one of the most experienced off-trail hikers that I knew, and she knew the backcountry of the Smokies as well as anybody. That was absolutely her passion, exploring all of the creeks and slopes of the Smokies and particularly in the Greenbrier area.". Barr got to know Bennett through an online group interested in off-trail hiking. He met her for the first time during a hike in the Greenbrier area. "Jenny was a really strong hiker but could also talk off-trail exploration for hours and hours and hours," he said. "She was really fascinated with every single creek and every ridge in the Smokies and in that particular region of the park had hiked almost all of them."

Jenny Bennett, Great smoky mountains death

Her car was quickly located at the Porters Flat Trailhead on June 7th and then Jenny's body was found about 9:30 am the next day in the Lester Prong area of Greenbrier above campsite 31 in the Smokies. Strangely, she was found by park rangers in a sitting position in Porter's Creek with her head resting on rocks.

The autopsy report  from the Sevier County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that Jenny had died of environmental hypothermia due to cold exposure from partial submersion in the creek. She also had bruises on her right hip and elbow consistent with a fall. However, she did not have any internal or musculoskeletal trauma. In addition, the coroner reported she had a toxic level of the anti-histamine drug, diphenhydramine, in her blood which was considered a significant contributing factor in her death and pointed towards an intentional overdose.

Jenny Bennett Mount Jefferson back pack on trip to scatter ashes

The death of Jenny Bennett is very disturbing and sad. She seemed to be optimistic about starting a new life in Vermont but at the same time sad to be leaving the Smokies behind. Was she sad enough to take a toxic overdose of an antihistamine? Did her knee give out again, causing her to fall in Porter's Creek and freeze to death? She often went hiking alone, off-trail but this can be very dangerous in the rugged terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. What happened to Jenny in May 2015 will never be clear but certainly she was an amazing lover of the outdoors.

Dennis Martin - Strange disappearances from US National Parks

Dennis Lloyd Martin, Disappeared June 14th, 1969, Russell Field, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennesee.

Dennis Lloyd Martin Great Smoky Mountains

On June 14th, 1969 Dennis Lloyd Martin and his 9 year old brother Douglas plus his father Bill and grandfather Clyde and some family friends with two young boys, went camping for the father's day weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great smoky mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains are a mountain range rising along the Tennessee–North Carolina border in the southeastern United States. They are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains, and form part of the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province. The range is sometimes called the Smoky Mountains and the name is commonly shortened to the Smokies.

Dennis from Tennessee, was 6 years old but almost 7 years and on the day of his disappearance he was wearing a bright red t-shirt. He was a quiet boy and would not normally call out, but he would respond to his name being called, even by strangers. He was in a special education group at school, his mental age was a half year behind his age. 

The Smokies are covered with drainages eroded by creeks, with many giant boulders as well as steep cliffs cut with crevices. There are occasional wild cats and resident black bears but the landscape also features thickets of trees and vegetation that can trap you if you stray from an established trail. The thicket can be so thick that in one case it took a year to find an airplane, it could be almost impossible to find a lost child in that type of terrain. Roaring rapids especially after heavy rain (which there was at the time) could drown out sounds of screaming or crying. In March or April hungry bears come out of hibernation and they are at their most dangerous as there isn't much food around, but even in the summer they are known to attack people. 

The Martin family had set out from the Cades Cove Campground, they continued on for several more miles in the warm summer weather. They moved along Leadbetter Ridge above the Left side of Anthony Creek and made their final walk of the day to Russell Field, a grassy clearing in the forest with panoramic views across the Smokies. There the Martins camped the night, and headed on June 14 for the 90-minute walk east to Spence Field.

Late in the afternoon, the boys were playing a game of "hide and seek" in a grassy area of Spence Field and were planning to sneak up and scare the adults. Douglas and the other two boys went south and then west, Dennis went northwest, towards the Appalachian Trail, and disappeared into the forest. Literally a few minutes later, the boys jumped out of the woods but Dennis was nowhere to be seen.

Dennis martin disappearance

Between three and five minutes had passed without anyone spotting or hearing Dennis. At that point his father, Bill Martin,  began calling out to Dennis. Bill then followed the Appalachian Trail west for about a mile before heading back and he headed west again, this time all the way back to Russell Field, only to return, alone, to Spence Field.  But no sign at all of Dennis was found.

While the boys’ father was making this journey, the grandfather, Clyde, made his way back down Anthony Creek to Cades Cove, a distance of roughly 8.5 miles, and reached the ranger station shortly before 8:30 p.m. to summon help and at this point it began to rain very heavily with a nasty storm. In common with many, many disappearances in the National Parks, bad weather seems to hit the immediate area either immediately or within hours, hampering rescue efforts especially for sniffer dogs.

Specialist searchers began looking for Dennis in the following days and Green Berets even turned up unexpectedly, but had little or no contact with the core group. The search group increased to around 1,400 people and 1,110 helicopter sorties were flown. Several more inches of rain washed clues away in addition to the hordes of people and the weather made roads too muddy to travel by vehicle. Helicopters began transporting search crews from Cades Cove to the mountain top, but fog frequently kept them grounded.

Dennis Martin search
Dennis martin search

Despite all this manpower and two weeks of official searching (and unofficial searching until September) nothing was ever found. Not a trace!

Some time later, a family reported hearing a small boy scream in the woods around 3 miles from the spot where Dennis had vanished and noticed an "unkempt man" at the edge of the trees with something over his shoulder. The FBI said this was impossible and too far away, so they never even informed the Martin family. A shoe print was also found by the West Prong.

Several years afterward, an illegal ginseng hunter would come forward, claiming he had found the skull and other remains of a small boy in the same vicinity; however, a search of the area yielded no results so many years after the incident, as the man had feared that he might be arrested for his illegal activity in the area that led him to the discovery.  A ranger called McCarter said that the skull remains were allegedly found about 3 to 3 and a half miles downhill from where Dennis was last seen.

The lead park investigators believe that Dennis "Got disoriented, and perished in the wild." But death could have been caused falling or drowning, or animal attack.The family believes he was abducted as there was a road track near the field.

Great smoky mountains map

Russell Field: This is where the whole family was the day/night before the tragedy. They hiked the next morning to Spence Field.

Spence Field: The site of the tragedy, where Dennis Martin vanished without a trace after splitting off from his brother, and the unrelated Martin family friends' children when planning to sneak up and scare the adults at the site. This was on June 14th, 1969. 

Sea Branch: (Rowan's Creek) The area where a witness heard a "sickening scream" on the afternoon that Dennis Martin vanished and saw an unkempt man about three minutes later moving in the woods toward the scream. The time frame he gives is about 7PM. The distance is about 7-9 miles from Spence Field. 

West Prong (Near Pigeon River): The area where the Oxford type shoe print similar to what Dennis was last seen wearing was found. Investigators did not examine the shoe print finding in detail because the area had already been searched. However, it is noted that there were no small children involved in the search. This print was found at least after one rain storm had already been in the area.

Tremont's Big Hollow:The area where the skull bones of a small child were allegedly found a few years after Dennis went missing. The person finding the skull did not report it until 1985. The area is around 3 miles away from where Dennis was last seen at Spence Field, and 9 miles away from where the scream and unkempt man were reported by the witness.

Trenny Lynn Gibson - Strange Disappearances from U.S. National Parks

Teresa "Trenny" Lynn Gibson, Disappeared October 8, 1976,Clingmans dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee 

Trenny Lynn Gibson great smoky mountains disappearance

On October 8th, 197616 years old, Teresa  (known as"Trenny") Lynn Gibson went with 35-40 of her classmates from Bearden High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, on a field trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The students were hiking around 1.8 miles to Andrews Bald from Clingmans Dome and then back on the Forney Ridge Trail.

The group separated into small groups when they arrived at the trail depending on how fast they could walk. Despite there being such a large group, there was only one teacher supervising, in addition to the bus driver. According to some accounts, no one was informed by the school where they were going until they actually arrived or were on the way to the trailhead.

Clingmans Dome Great Smoky mountains map

Trenny hiked with several different sections of her classmates at different paces during the day. She was last seen at approximately 3:00 p.m. near Clingman's Dome, walking on a moderately steep trail with sharp drop-offs and dense undergrowth on both sides and she was said to have left the path to the right after spotting something. She was wearing a blue blouse, a blue and white striped sweater, a borrowed brown plaid heavy jacket, blue jeans, blue Adidas shoes and a diamond and star sapphire ring. Trenny was never seen again and her body never found.

Great smoky mountains national park

The trail was popular with walkers and her sudden disappearance was strange given that that she had been with other people and there had been groups of students both in front of them and behind, as well as other hikers.

Trenny Gibson disappearance

Because of the weather, helicopters couldn't begin searching for Trenny until the afternoon of October 8th and fall foliage made it harder for search and rescue teams to look down onto the ground.

Searchers used about a half-dozen dog teams with Bloodhounds and German Shepherds to look for Trenny. Three of the tracking dogs picked up her scent at the intersection with the Appalachian Trail. They followed it by Clingmans Dome Tower, Some of the dogs last detected her scent along the roadside about a mile and a half from Newfound Gap but then then the dogs stopped.

Since the dogs led to a local road this gave credence to a theory that she had been abducted but would someone involved with foul play wait in the bushes on a steep slope away from the trail with so many hikers around? Some accounts tell of cigarettes and a beer can found in the area near the road whether the sniffer dog had come to a halt. A second search from April 18th to May 5th 1977 also failed to turn up any leads.

Clingmans dome trail great smoky mountains
Clingmans dome trail great smoky mountains

A fellow Student, Robert Simpson was said to have been implicated as Trenny's hair comb was found in his car, but police did not consider him a serious suspect.

Parents Robert and Hope Gibson alerted authorities about a past incident in which a young man had tried to break into their home. Hope Gibson shot him, and the young man later threatened to harm Trenny. Knox County deputies looked into the incident, but the lead went nowhere.

One theory goes that Trenny was taken to the Clingman's Dome observation tower and held against her will or voluntarily whilst the area was being searched. The tower itself was not investigated at the time. Subsequently when searchers left, she was taken to the roadside and left by car. 

Clingmans dome trail great smoky mountains observation tower

A classmate and friend, Kim Pouncey said in an interview in late November 2017 (Appalachian unsolved) that she wonders if  Trenny just took off from the park and that maybe she just wanted to leave, to get out."My feeling is somebody was waiting for her (in the park)," she said. "There was a parking lot very close. ... I've always felt like Trenny planned it, and that was her way out."

By October 12th, four days after her disappearance, the search was scaled back to about 20 people. Extensive searches of the park continued until the end of October 1976, but Trenny has never been found. The chief ranger told reporters he was almost certain she was not in the park. Searchers went back to the park in 1981, but again nothing. She had vanished off the face of the planet.

Sources

https://www.findthemissing.org/en/cases/4524

http://www.wbir.com/article/news/local/appalachian-unsolved-trenny-gibson-lost-in-the-smokies/51-494178428

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT5vuH8oNGo

https://www.reddit.com/r/Missing411/comments/611xui/trenny_lynn_gibson_missing_in_great_smokey/

http://www.websleuths.com/forums/showthread.php?213960-TN-Trenny-Gibson-16-Great-Smoky-Mountains-National-Park-8-Oct-1976&p=12034203&styleid=21

Thelma Pauline "Polly" Melton - Strange Disappearances from U.S. National Parks

Thelma Pauline "Polly" Melton, Disappeared September 25, 1981, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Thelma Pauline "Polly" Melton disappearance

58-year-old Thelma Pauline Melton, often called “Polly” by her friends, was hiking with two of her friends on the Deep Creek trail near the Deep Creek and nearby campground in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It was an easy trail that Polly had been hiking for 20 years and she knew the area well. For some reason during the course of the hike at around 4 pm, she decided to quicken her pace and rounded a bend or hill in front of her friends and literally disappeared forever. 

Great smoky mountains Deep Creek

Her friends searched the area where she had been just moments before, but could find no sign of where she had gone. She suffered from high blood pressure and nausea for which she took medication, making it seem unlikely she could have got a long way in a short time. Her friends had actually been teasing her about her slow pace not long before she disappeared. Melton's friends assumed that she had returned to the campground where the Airstream trailer owned by Polly and her husband was parked. Her companions arrived at the campground at approximately 4:30 p.m., but there was no sign of Polly. Her husband was inside the trailer, while his wife and the others hiked the trail, but he had not seen Polly since the group left. Her medical problems had caused her to lose her driving licence and she did not have any car keys with her.  

Great smoky mountains Deep Creek trail sign

The two ladies and her husband reported Polly missing at around 6 pm and a large search was launched, but no sign of her could be found. Authorities were unable to even get a good set of tracks to follow, which would have made things easier considering Melton’s left shoe had apparently had a noticeable crack in the sole which would have made her tracks easy to differentiate from those of other hikers. No trace of Polly Melton has ever been found and she remains missing.

One theory is that Polly ran off with a secret lover. She had no children and worked at a facility as a volunteer serving meals to the elderly. She did not sign up for work on the day she vanished, which was a little unusual and on the last day she worked, the day before she vanished, she used the telephone at work several times to make local calls, the first time ever that she had done this in the 4 years she had been there. Perhaps Polly arranged for someone to pick her up whilst on her hike, to make it look like she was lost in the woods, thinking that this way would be easier on her husband, rather than him knowing she left him for somebody else. This is postulated as a reason why she picked up her pace and moved ahead of her companions on the trail.

Michael Hearon - Strange Disappearances from U.S. National Parks

Michael Hearon, Disappeared 23 August 2008, Happy Valley, Blount County, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Mike Hearon disappearance Blount County

At around 11am on August, 23rd 2008, 51-year-old Mike Hearon was last seen on his 4-wheel-drive ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) heading toward some heavily forested land near his 100 acre home on Bell Branch Road, Blount County, Tennessee. The area lies within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He was wearing a faded red t-shirt and pants. This was the last time he was ever seen and he has apparently disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Both of his sons, Andy and Matt, last heard from Mike on the Saturday that he disappeared. Andy said his dad called him about 9.30am to let him know that he was coming over to get a lawn mower they shared to mow his property in Happy Valley. Matt, 25, said he got a voicemail from his dad stating the same thing. Andy said he passed his dad on Gateway Road as he was returning to his home that morning. His dad had the mower and was travelling toward East Lamar Alexander Parkway, probably heading toward Bell Branch Road. Andy said, "I didn't pick up on anything different, nothing in particular,". Matt and Andy said one of their dad's best friends also talked to him that morning, with no sense of anything being wrong.

Bell Branch road, happy valley, tennessee

Neighbours on Bell Branch Road later told authorities they saw Hearon around lunchtime pulling into his neighbourhood. About 30 minutes later, two people reported seeing him on a 4-wheeler and said he waved as he drove down Bell Branch Road. Matt and Andy went on with their weekends and said it was not unusual not to talk to their dad over the weekend. At about 2 p.m. the following Sunday, they said they got a call from their grandmother who was worried that she had not heard from Mike. At about 8.30 a.m. the following Monday, their grandmother called again and said she still had not heard from her son.

Andy decided to check his dad's condo on Brown Court off Amerine Road, where he stayed three or four nights a week to be close to work. Mike was a builder and both of his sons worked with him as licensed contractors. Andy and Matt said two of their dad's three vehicles, a car and a motorcycle, were still in the garage. His bed was made and the lights were off.

Their grandmother decided to go and check the Bell Branch Road residence, where their grandfather had seen Mike's truck earlier that weekend while passing through. She told Andy and Matt that his 4-wheeler was still there and that the lawn hadn't been mowed.

Andy and Matt immediately drove to the residence. They said the windows of their dad's truck were down, the doors were unlocked and Mike's keys, ID clip, money and cell phone were still in the vehicle. They also realised the 4-wheeler their grandmother had seen, was an old ATV and that the newer 4-wheeler was missing. Mike's truck was also parked in a position that he would not have normally left it in, given that a bus parked on the property, and Mike always moved the truck before the bus came.

Matt and Andy repaired a flat tyre on the old 4-wheeler and began searching their dad's 100-acre property. They said they drove all of the ATV trails and checked the campground. Around 3 or 4 p.m., the sons decided to call the National Park Service who transferred the report to the Blount County Sheriff's Office to file a missing person report.

Between 6 and 7 p.m., authorities began arriving at the residence. They talked to Mike's friends in the neighbourhood and tried to pick up a scent with a sniffer dog, but were unable to track him.

They agreed that members of the sheriff's office, park service, emergency personnel and the family would meet before daylight the next morning to search. In the meantime, it began to rain heavily.

The next day, the missing ATV was found by a friend at 12.05pm, who just happened to be checking the area near Happy Valley Loop, about a mile from Hearon's house. Andy said it was found in a location that his dad did not frequently visit. Matt said "Once they found it there, I knew whatever happened was not an accident,"The 4-wheeler was found in a high gear on a steep hill and the ignition switch was left on, something that apparently Mike would never do. 

In the vicinity of the All Terrain Vehicle, there was no trace of Mike or where he had gone, with the rain not helping. No footprints could be found, nor any trail through the dense underbrush that he could have used. Additionally, dogs could not pick up a scent, apart from in the truck back at the house, and searchers could find no evidence of an animal attack or foul play - torn bits of clothing, no blood or tissue, no bones, no sign of a struggle. In fact, there was zero evidence that Hearon had ever even been there at all. It was as if he had just spontaneously ceased to exist.

Hundreds of volunteers and officials covered about 450 acres, with some areas being searched more than once and included an aerial search with assistance from the Knox County Sheriff's Office helicopter, cadaver dogs from North Carolina, sheriff's deputies on horseback, private citizens with horses, ATVs and grid searches of the backcountry on foot. About 50 miles of hiking trails were also searched.

On the following Wednesday, cadaver dogs were also brought into the area. On Friday, the sheriff's office made the decision to scale back the search after nothing was found.

Some think that Mike went missing in a suspected drug deal gone bad, or by stumbling across an illegal pot farm. But it was strange that neither the tracker dogs or Cadaver dogs found a scent and no physical evidence was ever found. The fact that the ignition was left switched on in his ATV indicates that for some reason Mike suddenly left the trail and perhaps saw or heard something in the woods or was confronted by something or someone forcing him to abandon his vehicle immediately. Very mysterious!

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."

Sources

https://www.findthemissing.org/en/cases/14466/231

http://www.thedailytimes.com/news/don-t-try-to-follow-me-note-found-in-missing/article_eecd5e39-7da8-5992-984a-931bd3abadf3.html

http://smokymountainnews.com/archives/item/6618-motives-of-disappeared-man-remains-a-mystery

http://www.knoxvilledailysun.com/news/2012/march/gsmnp-search-cocchini.html

http://www.wbir.com/article/news/crime/appalachian-unsolved-derek-lueking-missing-in-the-smokies/51-499811610

https://www.facebook.com/FindDerekLueking/