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The Very Weird Vanishing and Death of Don Kemp

There are many, many cases of vanished people and mysterious deaths out there, which I have frequently covered here at Mysterious Universe. They are always baffling and surrounded by oddities and weird clues, and some are often noticeably more bizarre than others. One that has continually perplexed and inspired deep discussion and debate is that of one Don Kemp, a man who mysteriously vanished and reappeared dead years later amidst numerous bizarre clues and incidents and whose death only served to pose more questions for what has become one of the more well-known disappearances in modern times.

The whole strange case revolves around 35-year-old Donald Kemp, also called Don, who was a successful advertising executive on Madison Avenue, in New York City, living the good life before a fateful and debilitating car accident forced him into a lengthy rehabilitation. He found himself reviewing the course of his own life, and according to friends and family, Don became withdrawn and often expressed a deepening contempt for and disillusionment over the materialistic society he had so long been a part of. Whereas he had always been eager to be a player in the materialism-driven lifestyle of an ad exec in New York, he now found himself yearning for something quiet and simpler, and he began to seek to escape the hectic life of the bustling city and all of its possessions and cast off the shell of his old life.

The first thing he did was to quit his advertising job, after which he became increasingly absorbed with, and by some accounts obsessed by, writing a book on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, that he would toil away on with every bit of free time he had, which considering the absence of his job was a lot. Still, he still often expressed dissatisfaction with being in New York. Perhaps it was because of this unhappiness and his desire to write his book in peace that prompted him to suddenly sell practically all of his worldly possessions and head out for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, way over on the other side of the country. It is known that he made it as far as Cheyenne, where he was reported as wandering about for several hours in a museum while keeping to himself and not talking to anyone, after which he left, forgetting his briefcase in the process, which would later be found to contain important things such as traveler’s checks and his diary. He would never reach Jackson Hole, and this would be the last time anyone reliably saw him alive.

Don Kemp

The day after Don’s visit to the museum, on November 16, 1982, at around 10AM, highway patrolman Randy Teeters and his partner came across an abandoned SUV on a desolate rural stretch of highway surrounded by bleak prairies for miles around and with no human habitation in sight. The vehicle’s engine was still idling, its doors were wide open, and various items and clothing were found strewn about on the highway and the frozen winter ground around it. The only sign of the occupant was a single set of footprints that led off into the snow out into the empty prairie. The whole sight was eerie to say the least, and Teeters would say of the surreal scene:

Neither of us had seen anything like this. The vehicle was left forty miles from any town, on an off ramp, running, stuff strung out of it, the doors open, a relatively new vehicle, not one that someone would just leave. I have no idea what would inspire anybody to walk out through that prairie in the middle of winter. We considered possibly someone under medication that didn’t know what they were doing due to the medication, or being out of the medication, possibly that would affect him to the point of where they would just walk out into the middle of nowhere.

Since there was obviously someone potentially in a lot of trouble a search was immediately called for, and aircraft flew over the prairie scouring it for any sign of the driver of the vehicle, and in the meantime a look into the SUV showed that it belonged to none other than Don Kemp. Despite a thorough search of the area by air over flat, open terrain, the missing man could not be found, but there were various signs of him. One was a duffel bag containing items of clothing, soap, and a teapot. Another was an abandoned barn 6 miles off the highway, which held signs that someone had recently been there and had tried to start a fire without success, as well as three discarded socks. Other than that there was nothing. At the time authorities speculated that he had had some sort of mental snap and had wandered off, with Sheriff C. W. Ogburn expressing concern that Kemp was mentally unbalanced, and a deputy Rod Johnson, who had spent hours flying over the prairie looking for him, later saying:

I felt the guy was disorientated, and I felt that he didn’t want to be found. If he would’ve wanted to be found, he would have heard the aircraft, could have waved his arms, got our attention, gone up to a ridge, anywhere, and been sighted.

Don Kemp’s abandoned vehicle

The search would drag on for the next three days, before a raging blizzard forced it to be called off. In the aftermath of the blizzard, with the absence of any other trace of Don Kemp, it was largely assumed that he had died in the storm. This did not sit well with Don’s mother, Mary Kemp, who adamantly insisted that her son had had no such mental issues and had had no reason to suddenly want to go wandering off into a prairie to leave all of his belongings and diary and notes behind. She refused to believe that he had simply died in the blizzard and was convinced that something terrible had happened to him, that he had been kidnapped or murdered, and that the duffel bag had been put there intentionally to merely make it look as if he had just wandered off. She would express doubt over the official theories by saying:

I was certain he was in a horrible jam. I just felt it, because this was so unlike my son. I knew that he hadn’t walked out there. I feel that he didn’t, and yet the sheriff kept saying that he was out there.

Perhaps she was right, as the case would get more bizarre when 5 months after the vanishing and the blizzard there was a report from someone claiming to have seen Don alive in Casper, Wyoming, around 150 miles away. The witness said that the man had been walking around at a traveling exhibit of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. Shortly after this there was yet another sighting, this time by a bartender in Casper who was positive that the missing man had recently come into his tavern for a drink. Although these sightings could not be confirmed to have been Don Kemp, more mysterious clues would start to come in as well. At around the same time as these sightings, one of Kemp’s good friends, Judy Aiello, claimed that she had come home one day in April of 1983 to find a series of mysterious messages left on her answering machine that she claimed were from Don. Aiello was convinced that it was the voice of her friend, and that he was still alive. She would say of the strange messages:

I’m absolutely certain that it was his voice. And it was a very brief message, ‘I’d like to speak to you again, call me,” and a phone number. The next day I called, asked to speak to Don. A man answered the phone and said that Don was out. I’m convinced he holds the clue to what really happened to Don.

On another occasion she called this number again and a man answered to at first confirm that he was Don before changing his mind and saying he wasn’t. Since this was all such a promising lead in the case, the sheriff’s department decided to have a look at phone records to see if they could track down where the calls had come from, and it turned out that they had originated in Casper, Wyoming, which was spooky considering this was where the unconfirmed sightings of the missing man had taken place. The calls were further tracked down to an old trailer rented by a Mark Dennis, but the man showed no knowledge of anyone ever making such calls, that he had no knowledge of the calls, and told authorities that they had made a mistake. Even under extended questioning the man remained adamant throughout that he had no idea what they were talking about, and Capt. Mark Benton of the Natrona County Sheriff’s Department would say:

He told us on all occasions, in all interviews, that he had no knowledge of the phone calls and that he had not made the phone calls. I had an occasion to show him a picture of Donald Kemp and he said that he did not know Donald Kemp, had never seen Donald Kemp, and knew nothing of his whereabouts.

Don’s mother was nevertheless suspicious, and convinced that the man in the trailer had had something to do with her son’s disappearance, but when she confronted him about it he would either deny any involvement or simply hang up. Although the police extensively interviewed him, there was no evidence that Kemp had ever been in the trailer, nothing to link him to any sort of crime, no evidence to hold him on, and they eventually dropped him as a suspect, even when he rather suspiciously moved away 3 weeks after being questioned. Sheriff C. W. Ogburn, who had been present in the original search for Kemp, would say of the mysterious man in the trailer:

In all three times that I spoke with him, he was always very cooperative. And I have no reason to feel that the individual here in Casper had any knowledge of this man even being in Wyoming, other than these phone calls, and I don’t have an explanation for it and neither did he.

Oddly, it was found that, based on photographs, Mark Dennis and Don Kemp had had a striking physical resemblance in their high school years, although this is probably just coincidence. Or not? Who knows? Regardless, there were no further calls, no further sightings of Kemp, and the case went cold again, that is until nearly 4 years after his initial vanishing, when some hunters came across his body just a few miles from where his abandoned vehicle had originally been found. Yet although the missing man’s ultimate fate was now known, the discovery would just add further strangeness to the whole mystery. For instance, the body was found out in the open in a place that had already been thoroughly searched, so where did it come from? Also, an official autopsy showed that there were no signs of foul play, so just what was going on here?

Making the whole thing even stranger is information that apparently popped up on the Unsolved Mysteries forum discussing the case by a commenter claiming to be Don’s sister. The commenter claimed that, while the authorities said there had been nothing strange about Kemp’s body, it had in fact been sent to the Smithsonian Institute to be analyzed and that they had found some intriguing things. One was that it was allegedly found that the body had suffered no damage from animals or scavengers, showed no signs of the damage from exposure that it would have incurred  if it had been lying out on the prairie for such a long time, and there was not as much decomposition as one would expect either, if he had in fact died at the time of the vanishing. Indeed, the analysis supposedly showed that Kemp had only been dead for around a year. Another anomaly claimed by the commenter was that there was found a small hole bored into Kemp’s skull for unknown purposes. Is any of this true, and if so what significance does it all have? Although Kemp did indeed have a sister, was this commenter really her or not? It is unknown.

So what in the world happened to Don Kemp? The answer to that really depends on who you ask. Authorities more or less still officially think that Kemp froze to death out on that prairie in the blizzard, and that there was no foul play, but this does little to explain the unconfirmed sightings of Kemp in the years after, or the phone calls received by Judy Aiello. Don’s mother still thinks that her son was kidnapped, murdered, and then later dumped back onto the prairie, and that the man from the trailer, Mark Dennis, had had something to do with it. If this were true, though, then why would anyone want him dead?

Oddly, it seems that in the years after his disappearance and subsequent death, some of Don’s belongings were reportedly stolen, most interestingly notes, research, and work he had done on the Lincoln assassination. It also seems that several of the people who had been in possession of some of these documents apparently died under suspicious circumstances, such as a curator of Lincoln memorabilia who purportedly died in a motorcycle crash after receiving some of Kemp’s notes, and another man named Frank Carrington, who died in a mysterious house fire shortly after receiving some of Kemp’s research on Lincoln. It is thought by the more conspiracy-minded that this means that someone did not want Kemp to write his proposed book, perhaps because he had found some revelatory information about Lincoln that someone did not want the world to know about. In this theory, whoever was trying to cover up this information had had Kemp silenced before going about trying to destroy all of his research. Could this be true, and if so was Mark Dennis involved in it? No one knows.

The mysterious case of Don Kemp has gone on to become one of the strangest and baffling cases out there, and in fact was the first case to ever appear on the famed TV show Unsolved Mysteries, which aired on January 20, 1987 in a special before going on to become a long running series on unexplained vanishings. Even now the case is surrounded by mysteries and questions. What happened to Kemp after that initial vanishing? Why was he seen in the following years in Casper, and was that even really him? What were those calls from the trailer about and who was Mark Dennis really? Why was his body found years later miles from his vehicle in an area that had been searched, and if the unverified information on the condition of his corpse is true than what does it mean? If Kemp was the victim of foul play, then why was that? Was it because he had dug too deep in his research and was subsequently silenced for it? All of these years later we don’t really know the answers to any of these, and the only people who know for sure was Kemp and whoever might be behind it all, if anyone. It is a case sure to hold its place in the pantheon of great unsolved mysteries.