People who disappear in woods and marshes are often found by those not looking for them—like hunters.
The hunters are seldom named in news reports. More often they’re identified by what they were hunting that day, be it deer, ducks, turkeys, shed antlers, mushrooms, or wild berries. The lead sentence in this 2007 Alabama newspaper article is typical: “A bird hunter found the body of a woman in a Macon County woods Saturday.”
A North Carolina TV station in November 2019 updated a murder case this way: “A deer hunter near Grayson, Virginia, found the skeletal remains of three people Monday morning inside a truck connected to a ‘mass murder’ in Alexander County.”
And an article in the Rochester (New York) Democrat & Chronicle reported Feb. 23, 2020, that a fugitive’s bones were found in the Finger Lakes region 18 months after he eluded police. “Two hunters were searching the ground for deer antlers in heavy brush off Route 20A when they found the skeletal remains of a human about 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The remains were not far from where (David Clyde) Morgan, a wanted felon, was last seen.”
In other cases, reporters mention nothing about who made the find. After two young men found the body of Cora Jones, 12, in a roadside ditch Sept. 10, 1991, northwest of Antigo, Wisconsin, initial reports said they were bowhunters setting up treestands. The girl had disappeared 100 miles south of there while bicycling on Labor Day in Waupaca County. A subsequent news recap about her killer simply stated: “(Jones’) body was found five days later in Langlade County.”
Most reports, however, simply say “hunter.” An infamous case in Wisconsin nearly 30 years ago began with the grisly find of a 16-year-old sex-trafficking victim. Her body was found Feb. 23 by a hunter training his dog in a remote public hunting area in Dane County. She had been stabbed to death, and her hands severed at the wrist.
A follow-up article five days later reported that hunters discovered the girl’s hands, minus the fingertips, along railroad tracks near East Troy in Walworth County (50 miles southeast).
Finding and Identifying
Data from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, indicate over 600,000 people disappear annually in the United States, but most are soon found alive.
NamUs data also show that an average of 4,400 unidentified bodies are found annually, of which 1,000 remain unidentified a year later. Unidentified cases remain active until solved. NamUs currently has 14,000 active cases, but it often has 22,000 to 23,000 active at a time. Those cases include victims of murders, suicides, freezing/exposure, heart attacks, bad falls, lost/disoriented, and other causes.
Neither NamUs nor any national crime unit tracks how many victims are found by hunters. But when bones and corpses turn up inside woods, forests, and marshes, it’s typically hunters who find them.
“We can’t put a number on it, but bodies always start turning up in spring when people are hunting turkeys and morel mushrooms, and again in fall through early winter when all the hunting seasons are open,” said Allen Neal, NamUs’s Midwest regional program specialist. “Hunters are out there in places no one else goes, they can see better because the foliage is down, and they’re just very aware of their surroundings.”
For those same reasons, hunters also find many of the clues and personal items that lead investigators to bodies. In late fall 2002, for example, a hunter noticed a blue swimsuit in a woods near Palmer, Massachusetts, roughly 10 miles from a lake in Warren where lifeguard Molly Bish, 16, disappeared two years earlier. The hunter told a policeman about the swimsuit, and the cop found it the next spring. Investigators located the girl’s remains nearby.
Requests for Help
Police and sheriff’s departments issue press releases before hunting seasons or the anniversaries of someone’s disappearance, requesting help in finding missing people. Hunters, after all, are more likely than hikers, runners, or birdwatchers to get beyond trails, roads, roadside ditches, or parking areas, and then spend hours scouring the ground for scrapes, pellets, droppings, deer beds, shed antlers, and dusting sites.
That’s why articles like this from upstate New York in September 2013 are common each fall: “Police are asking hunters to keep an eye out for signs of a teenager who disappeared in the Adirondacks after leaving a party 18 months ago. With hunting seasons starting, state police and forest rangers are reminding the public of the missing-person case of Colin Gillis, 18, of Tupper Lake.”
Police say hunters are more likely to spot things most people overlook in the woods. “Good hunters have the game eye,” said Kyle Rustick, a policeman in Antigo, Wisconsin. “They won’t see a ketchup bottle in front of them inside the fridge, but they can pick out a buck’s antler tip at 200 yards, and identify anything out of place in the woods.”
If hunters see something suspicious, Rustick cautions them to look, not touch. It’s possible that a shoe, bracelet or tattered clothing are clues to a crime scene. Stand still and take photos. If your phone has a mapping app with GPS coordinates, “drop a pin,” save a screenshot of the coordinates, and tie flagging where you’re standing. And then turn around and backtrack the way you entered. Mark where you left the woods and notify authorities.
If you find a body or remains that are clearly human, stay put and call 911 if you have cellular service. “The remains are the most important evidence of any crime scene,” said Lt. Kurt Pierce of the Dane County Sheriff’s Department in Wisconsin. “Document when you found it and take a GPS reading, but touch nothing and take nothing. You want to leave a pristine scene. Investigators can obtain lots of information from the remains and what’s underneath. They’ll dig up the soil for fluids and other physical samples. They might even get DNA off a piece of clothing the killer lost.”
Pierce said it’s easy to foul a crime scene, even if you think you’re being careful. “It’s like following a blood trail,” he said. “You don’t want someone who’s overly helpful, and moving too fast and messing things up. Leave the crime scene to professionals. Almost every homicide investigation involves something the (killer) left at the scene or took from the scene without realizing it; whether it’s threads or cloth, their own blood, or soil in their shoes. You don’t want to confuse investigators by scattering your own DNA around the site.”
Tim Lawhern is a retired conservation warden who spent over 30 years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He used to teach outdoor crime scene investigation courses for law enforcement officers. He echoed Pierce’s cautions, and said it can take days to comb a crime scene in the woods.
Lawhern once helped solve a deer season shooting by using a metal detector to find a spent .280 slug 4 inches into the ground. The slug still held a blaze-orange thread from the victim’s clothes pressed into a rifling land.
“We found lots of metal from an old fence, too, but based on the hunter’s entry and exit holes, and a clipped branch nearby, we pieced together the bullet’s likely path,” Lawhern said. “The shooter was about three-quarters of a mile away, and his shot missed a deer. He was shooting uphill, and somehow that bullet went through the woodlot without touching a twig. Then it flew over the hill, started dropping, and clipped that branch right before hitting the guy. By then it was going so slow it didn’t mushroom. It passed through his abdomen without touching bone. He survived, and I gave him the bullet. He made a necklace out of it.”
Lawhern said people don’t intend to mess up crime scenes, but they’re often confused by shock. After all, who goes duck hunting expecting to find a body?
“Anyone who stumbles across human remains will be agitated or frightened, and not thinking straight,” Lawhern said. “You have to ‘visually protect’ yourself by remaining as calm as possible. When you’re worked up, your brain can override your eyes and tell you things your eyes didn’t see. If you’re way back in the woods, make sure you’re thinking clearly and have your bearings. You need to get out safely so you can lead officers back down the route you took out.”
In addition, weather can quickly change outdoor crime scenes. Lawhern suggests taking photos of the scene and its surroundings from where you stopped, and some more as you backtrack out.
“Crime scenes change with every click of the clock,” Lawhern said. “Don’t pick up any brass or shell casings,” he said. “Photograph them. If leaves blow or snow falls, pictures re-create the scene. If you see anyone else, note everything, moving from head to foot: male or female; hat style and color; hair color, clean shaven or beard or mustache; general shape; tall or short; clothing and its color. Are they carrying anything? What is it?”
Lawhern said hunters often can’t remember much about someone they saw, but they somehow know the make and model of the person’s rifle, shotgun, scope, bow, or truck. Also try to recall if you saw other vehicles parked nearby when you arrived, and note “new” vehicles when you return. If possible, photograph license plates.
Pierce advises hunters not to take offense or be alarmed when investigators question them. “If you find human remains, you’re going to be questioned,” he said. “Sometimes people get upset and think they’re being doubted or accused, but make yourself available. Investigators will want to see your boots and check their size and treads. They might want to photograph your boots so there’s no questions about footprints they find.”
Whether a body is from a suicide, murder, or accident victim, the person finding the remains never forgets the experience. In murder cases, they typically follow the investigation and trial closely, even though few discuss their role publicly.
Investigators report similar long-term dread and fascination, even if they were only loosely connected to a case. Pierce and Lawhern, though both worked in Madison, Wisconsin, never collaborated on a case during their 30-plus careers in law enforcement. Nor did they work much on the case that still bothers them three decades later: the Goose Lake girl with no hands.
Wisconsin’s Goose Lake Wildlife Area covers about 2,300 acres. Early newspaper accounts described it as “remote,” but it’s just off Interstate 94, 20 miles east of Madison and 50 miles west of Milwaukee.
When a hunter took his dog to train there Feb. 23, 1991, he found the girl’s battered, weathered, snow-dusted body in a weedy field just off the parking area. And when hunters 50 miles away found her frozen hands Feb. 28, the final day of rabbit season, they discovered the skin literally bitten off each fingertip. Police estimated her age at 15 to 20, and assumed her killer knew she had a criminal record and fingerprints on file.
Police eventually learned she was 16-year-old Doris Ann McLeod, who had lived in 17 foster homes. She had run away Feb. 1 from a group home in Decatur, Illinois, with help from a Milwaukee man named Joseph White, 26. After living in White’s basement and forced into prostitution for three weeks, McLeod apparently refused to keep working for the pimp. Police reported that White hung her by her wrists from the basement’s pipes overhead, and savagely beat, tortured and stabbed her to death. The man’s 3-year-old son later identified pictures of the girl as “Dee,” and told police a “monster” bit off her fingertips.
“Cases like that defy human understanding,” Lawhern said. “That happened early in my career, and I’ll never forget it. I’m just glad they found her killer and that he’ll die in jail.”
Feature image via Captured Creative.