• Kym Pasqualini

Missing in the Park, Bizarre Disappearances in our National Parks

Millions visit our national parks each year, many of them go missing.

Millions of people are visiting our beautiful national parks each year. They travel from one side of the continent to the other to see the breathtaking tall Sequoia trees on the west coast to the pristine beaches of South Carolina on the east.

Attendance numbers at national parks have set all-time record highs in the last few years. According to Los Angeles Times, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Sequoia and Yosemite national parks reported setting attendance records during 2016, with all parks reporting a whopping 330.97 million people visiting our recreational parks – and hundreds, maybe thousands, of those people are missing.

Amy Wroe Bechtel – Shoshone National Forest

It was 21-years ago on the afternoon of July 24, 1997, Amy Wroe Bechtel, 24, began her run outside of Lander, Wyoming, training for the 2000 Olympic Marathon she had hoped to qualify for. She never returned.

Wyoming is called America’s biggest small town and Lander is an outdoor enthusiast hub, where climbers gravitate to the unique geological formations in Sinks Canyon, in the Shoshone National Forest.

Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming is a climber’s paradise.

Sinks Canyon, in mid-central Wyoming, is part of a magnificent ecosystem stretching from sagebrush and juniper covered foothills, through conifer forests, aspen meadows to the alpine habitat up top.

Amy vanished while running along Loop Road, a route that includes Sinks Canyon Road that runs the Popo Agie River approximately 15 miles south of Lander. Her car was found by her neighbors Todd Skinner and Amy Whisler, parked at Burnt Gulch where Amy was marking the 10K hill climb she was planning for the fall.

When Amy had not returned that evening her neighbors got into their car and headed for the gravel road of switchbacks that ascends Loop Road. At approximately 1:00 a.m. they find Amy’s white Toyota Tercel wagon parked on the side of the road where Loop Road splits to the pine-shrouded Burnt Gulch turnoff.

The weather during July is mild with days averaging 85 degrees and evenings about 54 degrees. There had been rain that afternoon. Puddles of water surrounded the vehicle. Todd and Amy look for footprints or tire tracks but see nothing. Only Amy’s sunglasses, her keys left in the driver’s seat and a to-do list were found in the car. However, her green “Eagle” wallet was missing. Panicked, Todd calls Amy’s husband Steve Bechtel.

Amy Wroe Bechtel has been missing from Wyoming since July 24, 1997.

The search for Amy began early the following morning with her husband Steve and about a dozen of his friends, but by day’s end dogs, dirt bikes, ATVs, and over 100 volunteers had joined the search. The following day horses and helicopters began searching the rugged terrain. By the third day, police expanded the search to a 30-mile radius.

As with most missing person cases, or missing wives, police turn toward the husband. In this case Steve Bechtel. A move that 20 years later, appear totally unwarranted and limited the search with tunnel vision, the enemy of any investigation.

Amy and Steve both graduated from the University of Wyoming with degrees in exercise physiology and had been married a little over a year.

Steve was a climber. He and Amy both worked at Wild Iris, the local climbing shop. Amy taught a youth weightlifting class at Wind River Fitness Center and also worked part-time at the Sweetwater Grill.

By all appearances, Amy and Steve were the bubbly, happy newly-weds and had just bought their first home in Lander, with a population of 7,000.

Police searched Steve’s journals and acquaintances gave conflicting statements about their relationship. Some described the relationship as idyllic, while others stated Steve was often jealous and belittling.

The FBI would make accusations that Steve killed his wife. A claim that current detectives disagree with.

Actually, Steve had an alibi backed up by a fellow climber and had been about 75 miles from his home in Lander. He had met with his friend Sam Lightner and Bechtel’s yellow lab Jonz and rode north to Cartridge Creek area of Shoshone National Forest to scout for a climbing location.

According to a Runner’s World article, “Long Gone Girl,” Fremont County Sheriff’s cold case detective Sergeant John Zerga disagrees with the way the case was handled in 1997. “Nowadays everything is viewed as a homicide. Back then it wasn’t viewed that way. She was just a missing runner. For three days, we didn’t close off any routes out of here," Zerga continues. "We didn’t close off any vehicles. All we had was a bunch of people up here looking for a missing runner. We actually ruined it with the vehicle, because we allowed the Skinners to drive it home. [The investigation] was not good for at least the first three days. There was a lot of stuff that was lost.”

While all eyes had been on Steve, it would be over a decade later, the brother of Dale Wayne Eaton, 57, would talk to police. He had tried to contact law enforcement earlier but no response.

“I think our detectives who were working the case were so adamant that it was Steve that they weren’t looking in other directions,” said Sergeant Zerga. Fifteen years after Amy vanished, Zerga went and spoke to Eaton’s brother who told him that Eaton would often camp in the area Amy had vanished. “Few camped in the area, and few outside of Lander even knew about the area,” Zerga added. “If we could prove that Dale was in the area, that puts him as the number one lead.”

Eaton had tried to abduct a family that had pulled over with car trouble. After his arrest for the attempted kidnapping, he escaped and later found by authorities in the Shoshone National Forest. He was incarcerated and required to submit a DNA sample.

In 1988 Lisa Marie Kimmel had vanished on a trip from Colorado to Billings, Montana. Fourteen years later DNA would be linked to Eaton. An autopsy would determine Kimmel had been beaten, bound and raped for at least six days, then taken to the Old Government Bridge where she was hit on the head with a blunt object, stabbed six times in the chest and abdomen, then thrown into the river.

Police searched Eaton’s property about one hour away from where Kimmel was last seen alive. They excavated a spot on the property and unearthed Kimmel’s Honda CRX bearing her license plate “LIL MISS.”

Eaton was sentenced to death on March 20, 2004, for Kimmel’s kidnapping, rape, and murder. As for Amy, Eaton had remained tight-lipped but as with everything, justice has a way of coming around.

Anyone with information should call the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office at 307-332-5611.

David Barclay Miller – Coconino National Forest

The Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness is a collection of buttes, cliff, and canyons and known as one of the most magnificent places on the planet. The red-rock cliffs of the Mogollon Rim mark the edge of the Colorado Plateau in the Coconino National Forest on the west. Sycamore Canyon Wilderness borders on the east, the high mesas of Secret Mountain and Wilson Mountain jutting out into lower canyons as deep as 1,500 feet that drain out into Oak Creek and the Verde River.

Sedona Red Rocks is one of the most popular traveler’s destinations in the world.

Red is the predominant hue in the 43,950 acres. It is a 360-degree view of wind and water sculpted pinnacles, arches, windows and slot canyons. It is a place where sound bounces back and forth, almost in a musical chorus.

Trails crisscross the area that takes one from the deepest gorges to protuberant panoramas that overlook the beauty. There is rock art on the walls from the area’s early inhabitants, along with abandoned dwellings high in the canyon walls.

The area draws hikers, photographers, backpackers, and horseback riders from around the world to wander among the manzanitas and red rocks.

David Miller has been missing from Sedona, Arizona since May 19, 1998.

An experienced hiker, David Miller, 22, was last seen at the Beaver Creek Ranger Station preparing to leave on a two-day hike on May 19, 1998, in the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness area.

At the time of his disappearance, David was employed by the Sedona Forest Service. The weather would have been mild with days reaching 83 degrees and nights about 51 degrees.