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COLUMN ONE

Alaska, Land of the Lost

In its rugged, lonely vastness, there are so many ways and places for people to disappear, so many reasons the missing are never found.

February 15, 2005|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

STERLING, Alaska — She does it without even thinking, as soon as she steps out of the truck: a sweep of her eyes across the sky for a sign of bald eagles. They're as common here as ravens, as hawks, but they're bigger and easier to see from a distance. Maybe a single circling eagle will spiral down to the spot where lies her son -- or his body, whatever is left of it.

Dolly Hills has come to think along those lines.

She is 53, one moment sprightly, the next sorrowful. Her grown son Richard, the younger of her two children, has been missing since last February. She believes he is dead, and his remains somewhere in the woods or waters near this Kenai Peninsula town.

Around here, scavengers are the quickest to locate a corpse, whether of a shot grizzly, a moose or a 37-year-old man on a simple errand who vanished into the subzero cold.

Richard Hills was one of 3,323 people reported missing in the state last year, not a record but far higher, relative to population, than anywhere else in the country. On average, 5 of every 1,000 people go missing every year, roughly double the national rate. Since Alaska began tracking the numbers in 1988, police have received at least 60,700 reports of missing people.

As everywhere else, most cases involve runaways who eventually return home or are found. But Alaska has the highest percentage of people who stay missing.

Investigators have compiled a list of about 1,100 people who remain lost. This in a state whose population -- 650,000 -- is less than that of San Francisco.

"We live in a place," Dolly Hills says, "where people disappear."

It has now happened twice in her life. In 1962, outside a small village in western Alaska, she said, her 13-year-old brother, William, took a skiff onto the Kvichak River and was never seen again.

Presumed drowned, the boy was not reported missing, which happens not infrequently in the bush. The number of people whose bodies are never accounted for probably far exceeds official tallies of the missing.

People vanish by accident and by design, by fluke of nature or quirk of circumstance, by foul play, misstep and bad luck.

There are so many ways in Alaska to get lost, and so many reasons the lost may not be found.

Between the western tip of the Aleutian chain to the eastern edge of the Alaska Panhandle lie 39 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers, 5,000 glaciers and more than 3 million lakes, all of which offer nooks and envelopes for bodies to slip in and remain hidden forever.

The mud flats are like quicksand, the days like nights (for half the year, anyway), the snowstorms like blankets that cover all tracks and traces.

In charge of searching this vast terrain are the Alaska State Troopers, whose field officers number just over 300. It works out to about one trooper for every 2,300 square miles, or an area just smaller than Delaware.

This, according to Lt. Craig MacDonald, the department's search and rescue supervisor, points to what makes his job so difficult: When someone gets lost, the search areas can be as large as many states, and considerably more rugged.

So much of the terrain is unknown. Often when searchers enter a remote area, it will be their first time there -- a distinct difference from other places, where volunteers usually search areas familiar to them.

In Alaska, even the largest cities lie in the middle of wilderness.

"From this building, you can walk five minutes and be in deep woods," says MacDonald, sitting in his Anchorage office. "You can go a mile, two miles out, and never be found. It happens all the time."

So many of the stories of the vanished begin routinely. MacDonald rattles off case after case, the narratives boiled down to bullet points.

Erin Marie Gilbert, 24. Girdwood. July 1995. Rode with a friend to a community fair. The car stalled in a parking lot, and the friend went for help. When the friend returned, Gilbert was gone.

Hiroko Nemoto, 36. East Lansing, Mich. June 1998. Last seen leaving a youth hostel in Wasilla. She had bought a train ticket to Whittier and a ferry ticket to Valdez. No one knows whether she made those trips.

Michael Timothy Palmer, 15. Town of Palmer. June 1999. Rode his bicycle out of a subdivision. The bicycle was found in the Little Susitna River. The boy's muddy shoes were discovered in a field.

Richard Hills, 37. Soldotna. February 2004. Drove to Anchorage to pick up a paycheck. His truck was found in a snowbank outside Sterling, about 15 miles from home. The keys were in the ignition. His wallet and cash were on the front seat. His footprints led to a spot on an isolated road half a mile away, then ended.

MacDonald worked the Hills case. He and Dolly have retraced Richard's steps. They've walked the route with volunteer searchers, family members and psychics. Search dogs repeatedly lost his scent in the same place, as if Richard had dissolved into air.

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