I first stepped through the missing-persons portal back in 1997, when researching updates on Amy Wroe Bechtel, a runner who’d vanished in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, where I lived.
My intrigue only grew. I tend toward insomnia and the analog, and each night in bed I listen with earbuds to Coast to Coast AM on a tiny radio. The program, which explores all sorts of mysteries of the paranormal, airs from 1 to 5 a.m. in my time zone. It’s syndicated on over 600 stations and boasts nearly three million listeners each week. Most of the time, the talk of space aliens and ghosts lulls me to sleep, but not when my favorite guest, David Paulides, is at the mic.
Paulides, an ex-cop from San Jose, California, is the founder of the North America Bigfoot Search. His obsession shifted from Sasquatch to missing persons when, he says, he was visited at his motel near an unnamed national park by two out-of-uniform rangers who claimed that something strange was going on with the number of people missing in America’s national parks. (He wouldn’t tell me the place or even the year, “for fear the Park Service will try to put the pieces together and ID them.”) So in 2011, Paulides launched the CanAm Missing Project, which catalogs cases of people who disappear—or are found—on wildlands across North America under what he calls mysterious circumstances. He has self-published six volumes in his popular Missing 411 series, most recently Missing 411 Hunters: Unexplained Disappearances. Paulides expects Missing 411: The Movie, a documentary codirected by his son, Ben, and featuring Survivorman Les Stroud, to be released this year.
Last May, I met him at a pizza joint in downtown Golden. The gym-fit Paulides, who moved from California to Colorado in part for the skiing, is right out of central casting for a detective film.
“I don’t put any theories in the books—I just connect facts,” he told me. Under “unique factors of disappearances,” he lists such recurring characteristics as dogs unable to track scents, the time (late afternoon is a popular window to vanish), and that many victims are found with clothing and footwear removed. Bodies are also discovered in previously searched areas with odd frequency, sometimes right along the trail. Children—and remains—are occasionally found improbable distances from the point last seen, in improbable terrain.
It’s tempting to dismiss Paulides as a crypto-kook—and some search and rescue professionals do—but his books are extensively researched. On a large map of North America on his office wall,
Paulides has identified 59 clusters of people missing on federal wildlands in the U.S. and southern Canada. To qualify as a cluster, there must be at least four cases; according to his pins, you want to watch your step in Yosemite, Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Parks. But then, it would seem you want to watch your step everywhere in the wild. The map resembles a game of pin the tail on the donkey at an amphetamine-fueled birthday party.
Paulides has spent hundreds of hours writing letters and Freedom of Information Act requests in an attempt to break through National Park Service red tape. He believes the Park Service in particular knows exactly how many people are missing but won’t release the information for fear that the sheer numbers—and the ways in which people went missing—would shock the public so badly that visitor numbers would go down.