There are so many cases of mysterious vanishings that it is sometimes hard to keep track of it all. They come in all varieties and often come surrounded by anomalous clues and details. It would seem that the earth simply swallows people up at times, with no answers or closure, leaving behind questions that may never be answered. Many of the most mysterious vanishings have happened in the national parks of the United States, and one of these revolves around a boy that walked off and kept walking right into the annals of strange disappearances.
The year was 1998, just three weeks before Christmas, and 8-year-old Derrick Engebretson was out with his father and grandfather engaging in a bit of a family Christmas tradition. They were out at the Winema National Forest, in Oregon, the United States, on December 5 for the purpose of picking out and cutting down a Christmas tree in their annual tree hunt, and on this occasion they were on a steep forested area on the mountainside of Pelican Butte, above Upper Klamath Lake, just south of Crater Lake National Park. Derrick’s father, Robert, went ahead to look around while his boy stayed with his grandfather, but at around 2 PM Derrick said he wanted to go catch up to his dad. Since Robert was just a short distance away, the grandfather said it was alright, and little Derrick ran off, in good spirits and decked out in his bright blue snowsuit. Little did anyone know, this would be the last time anyone would ever see the boy.
When the grandfather finally caught up to Robert around 40 minutes later, they both asked each other where Derrick was, and the grandfather told him that he had sent the boy to see him. He had never arrived, and at first it wasn’t seen as an emergency. After all, little Derrick was used to being out in the wilderness, often going out hiking or to hunt for mushrooms in the thickly wooded area near their home, and having earned the nickname “bear boy” for his love of the outdoors. They walked around and called out to Derrick, thinking he must have just wandered off, but there was no answer from the trees and they steadily became more worried. The only sign of him they could find at all were some footprints in the snow, which seemed to go in a loop back up to their vehicle and away again, some wood chips and cuts in trees that Derrick had apparently made with his hatchet, and oddly a snow angel the boy had made, and that was it. When the sun began to dip towards the horizon and dusk crept in, with no sign of the boy through the growing gloom, the two told a passing motorist to call 911, the authorities were notified, and the hunt was on.
Police mounted a major search of the area on both the ground and from the air, but they were unable to find the boy. Strangely, tracker dogs that were brought in were also not able to get a trail, even when they found what appeared to be a crude lean-to shelter of fir boughs, thought to have been made by Derrick but never used. Unfortunately, a blizzard had moved in, destroying any footprints that might have been there and hampering search efforts. It would not be until several days later that the search could commence, and some volunteers were able to find a candy bar wrapper and a bookmark from Derrick’s school, as well as alarmingly what appeared to be blood in the area, but none of this could be conclusively linked to the missing boy. There was also found a hole in the ice of the nearby lake and some footprints on the shore that could have been those of a boy, but this led nowhere and a search by divers turned up nothing. The official search was eventually suspended on December 18 due to frigid, dangerous conditions, but volunteers continued to camp out in the area looking.
At this point the only real lead that came in was an account from a witness who claimed that they had seen an unidentified adult male driving around in a black Honda in the Rocky Point area at about the time Derrick had gone missing, and there was another report of seeing a boy walking with a man and seemingly in an argument or confrontation of some sort, but it could not be confirmed if this had anything to do with it all. Nevertheless, Derrick’s case was being increasingly seen as an abduction, while others were sure that he had simply gotten lost. Either way, considering the worsening weather and subzero conditions, his prospects did not look good. By this time the disappearance was all over the news, but even with Derrick’s picture making the rounds there were no further leads and the case was going as cold as those mountains.
It would not be until the following year, in September of 1999, that any new evidence would appear. On September 24, 1999, there was found graffiti in a rest area about 300 miles south of Portland that was claimed to refer to the boy’s disappearance, but authorities never released what it actually said, and it was officially seen as a cruel practical joke. In 2002, there was another possible lead, when the Engebretson family received a letter from an inmate who claimed to know who was behind the vanishing, a man by the name of Frank Milligan, who was already serving time for the unrelated rape and attempted murder of a 10-year-old boy. Police questioned him and he would admit to killing Derrick, but when he told them where the body was buried and no corpse was found, he recanted the whole confession and wouldn’t talk about it any further. Milligan was never officially charged in connection to the mysterious Engebretson case.
There have been many theories as to what happened to Derrick Engebretson over the years. One idea is that the father or grandfather had something to do with it, or that they had been dangerously negligent in some way, but there has never been any evidence for this and they have never been considered suspects in any capacity. Indeed, they both went bankrupt from the large amounts of money they were spending to keep the search going, so it seems odd that this should be the case if they had some hand to play in it all. Another idea is that Derrick wandered off to the highway and was abducted, and of course there is the theory that he simply got lost and succumbed to the elements, although if that were the case then it seems strange that trained tracker dogs were unable to get a scent, and no trace of any remains or his hatchet have ever been found. Derrick Engebretson has seemingly simply cease to exist.