On June 14, 1969, Dennis Lloyd Martin, a six-year-old boy from Knoxville, Tennessee, was camping with his family in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when he vanished without a trace.
As Father’s Day weekend 2019 arrived, it marks the 50th anniversary of the child’s disappearance; and after the passing of so many years, there are still few leads that help to indicate what the fate of the child might have been.
However, a renewed effort to discern any new details about the case, and what fate might have been met by the Martin child, has led to some compelling new conclusions about what might have happened in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1969.
The hiking and camping trip that year was part of an annual Father’s Day tradition going back many decades. Clyde Martin had brought along his 33-year-old son, William or “Bill” Clyde Martin who, like his own father had done for so many years, brought along his two sons: nine-year-old Douglas, and his six-year-old brother Dennis. This trip was to be young Dennis’s first overnight camping trip with his family.
The family, joined by another family, that of Carter Martin, Ph.D., a teacher from Huntsville, Alabama (there is some question over whether the two families were related, as some sources say their shared last name was purely coincidental, while others refer to Carter Martin as a “distant cousin” to Clyde Martin). Carter, like William Martin, brought along his two sons, and the group traveled together up the Anthony Creek Trail to the point where the trail splits and, forking to the right, continued up the long trail that eventually leads to the Russell Field Shelter, where they stayed their first night on the mountain.
The following day, the Martins packed up their gear and made short work of the next 2.9 miles of their trek, which carried them along the Appalachian Trail to Spence Field Shelter. There, Carter Martin’s siblings and other family members were waiting, having arrived there the night before.
Later that afternoon, the sons from the two Martin families were playing in the meadow between the Appalachian Trail and the Spence Field Shelter. William Martin recalled that the boys appeared to be planning a “surprise attack,” and had split off into two groups: Douglas Martin, joined by Carter Martin’s two sons, headed south toward the shelter, while Dennis (who was less conspicuous with the red shirt that he wore) headed up the hill in the opposite direction, toward the Appalachian Trail. Within minutes, the boys came running out of the nearby brush toward the adults, although Dennis, who according to Clyde’s sister Irma had never been further than 30 feet from the adults, failed to make an appearance.
William Martin later said that within 3-5 minutes of his son’s disappearance, he became worried and began calling for the child. As others called to Dennis, Mr. Martin jogged approximately one mile back up the Appalachian Trail in the direction of Russell Field, while Clyde Martin went the opposite way toward Thunderhead Mountain. After a fruitless search, Park Officials were notified that evening, and a complete search effort coordinated by Chief Ranger Lee Sneddon was initiated the following morning at 5 AM.
It became one of the largest search efforts in National Park Service history, lasting from June until the first weeks of September that year, and yet despite comprehensive grid searches and other efforts to find the missing boy, no tangible leads were ever uncovered that gave clear indications about the child’s fate.
The story at the time–and in years since–has received an unprecedented amount of attention (this point was further expressed to me in a recent email exchange with a National Park Service FOIA officer in Denver, Colorado). When Dennis went missing, “good neighbors” from the surrounding region came out by the dozens, and eventually hundreds, to try and aid the search effort. National Park Service employees that ranged from Park Rangers to maintenance staff, as well as search and rescue clubs, hiking organizations and even Army Green Berets were involved. Despite this, nothing was ever found; no clothing, or any other evidence that the boy had been in the area.
The most baffling aspect of the case is that, as noted by Irma Martin, Dennis managed to disappear within just a few feet of his father and grandfather, who had been calling to him and searching for the boy within just minutes of last seeing him. How a child could become lost so quickly, and remain unseen or heard by those searching for him in such a short span of time is beyond perplexing.
Because of this, many (including the Martin family) have suspected over the years that a kidnapping might have occurred. While this theory remains popular today, there is limited evidence to support it. Despite this, a series of interviews and other information with key witnesses to what can be fairly deemed suspicious activity, which occurred within miles of where Dennis vanished on the day of the disappearance, has led to new considerations about this theory. The information even compelled this author to write a lengthy report detailing new considerations about the case, in an effort to better understand what might have occurred.
The report can be read online here.
Even with the passing of half a century, it would be wrong to say that no new information about a case like this could be gleaned. Some time ago, a listener of my podcast (on which I recently covered the Dennis Martin case in depth) wrote to me about a short book written by a law enforcement officer and investigator of missing person cases named Michael Bouchard, who managed to interview many of the family members and other individuals related to the case (some of whom, by now, have passed away). Many of these interviews are invaluable since they provide details about the case which are not available to the public otherwise.
Specifically, the fact that Bouchard was able to speak with the late Mr. Harold Key, of Carthage, Tennessee, is of great potential significance, and for a number of reasons. Key and his family were in Cades Cove on the day of the disappearance, and roughly at the same time that it occurred, and were hiking along Rowan’s Creek in the Sea Branch area when they heard what sounded like a “terrible scream” coming from someplace on an adjacent mountain ridge. Although this was reported on at the time in various newspapers, Key told Bouchard in 2016 that he heard what appeared to have been another scream, which sounded like a child calling for “help.”
Shortly after the screams were heard, Key and his family observed a disheveled looking caucasian man moving through the forest nearby, who went to the main road at the base of the trail they were on, and left quickly in a white automobile.
Because the only known interviews with Key were brief Associated Press articles that appeared in print at that time (many were published in The Tennesseean, a regional newspaper), and interviews Key gave to the FBI on two occasions, the fact that he discussed this with Bouchard is certainly significant. Key also told Bouchard that he was advised by the FBI during those interviews “not to discuss the case” publicly.
The fact that Key was told not to discuss the case publicly by FBI agents James H. Rike and Wallace F. Estill is understandable. This was very likely requested with the intention of attempting to preserve the integrity of the investigation since, by virtue of there being FBI involvement, the possibility of there being an abduction was being considered. Hence, the FBI no doubt hoped to proceed with the investigation of that potential without interference or misinformation that might result from Key’s testimony getting public attention.
However, a more tantalizing element of Key’s statements to Bouchard in 2016 involves the fact that Key said he received two anonymous phone calls around the time of the investigation into the Dennis Martin disappearance, which further advised him to “forget about what you saw in the park that day.”
Speaking on the phone with Bouchard recently, he told me that Key expressed to him at the time of the interview that, with nearly 50 years now having passed, it was time that he shared his story. Harold Key passed away earlier this year.
The other reason Harold Key’s story is significant is because Associated Press articles from around the time of the disappearance that reported what the Key family witnessed at Cades Cove were vague. At least one of these, for instance, gives the impression that Key’s children were able to mistake the man that they observed for being a “bear”; this odd descriptor appears to have contributed to a number of speculations over the years about whether a “wild man,” or even something akin to the legendary Sasquatch, might have been involved with the kidnapping.
Such insinuations are completely unfounded, but the fact that Key was advised by the FBI not to discuss what he saw, and only after The Tennesseean published articles that played up the “mystery” of the Key family’s experience–whether or not that was the intention–did little to help the matter.
For purposes of clarity, what Key described during his interview with Bouchard in 2016 had been as follows: Key and his family observed, “a middle-aged white male walking quickly through the woods in the direction of the road.” They noted that “the man walked quickly to the road and entered the white vehicle and drove off at a high rate speed throwing gravel in the air,” and that “the vehicle was heading in the direction of Cades Cove.” The individual “appeared to be perspiring heavily and was acting nervous,” and Mr. Key further recalled that “he said to his wife ‘That man, he is thinking strange thoughts’.”
Numerous attempts have been made by individuals to obtain the FBI’s records on the case, which would provide further details about the nature and scope of their investigation (which, as noted earlier, had relevance to a possible kidnapping by very nature of the Bureau’s involvement, although this does not in any way prove that a kidnapping occurred). Several individuals, including Michael Bouchard, have attempted to file FOIA requests for the FBI’s information on the case, which have only been released in redacted form. According to the FBI, the stated reason for the redactions is because the case is still technically open, despite the passing of half a century, and with few–if any–significant leads that might help bring a resolution to the disappearance.
In conclusion, it is the opinion of this author that perhaps the release of this, and any other relevant information on the disappearance of Dennis Lloyd Martin, is in the public interest, and would actually be beneficial in the furtherance of bringing about a resolution to the case. With deep respect in mind for the Martin family and their loss of a family member half a century ago, I feel such calls for a renewed interest in the case are warranted.
Responsible further investigation into the case can, and should be undertaken. With any luck, it might also bring a resolution to a case that has baffled researchers now for 50 years.