They found what was left of him in the spring of 2014. Firefighters battling a huge blaze on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula first spotted a boot in the dirt. Then they noticed some bones scattered across a wide grassy area. Fire crews in Alaska are used to seeing the bones of moose, caribou, bears, and other large creatures that live and die in these woods. So it wasn’t until crew members found a human skull that they stopped to consider that the pieces might go together. The skull was resting on its side, the face angled toward the ground. A few blackened molars clung to the upper jaw. The lower jaw was missing.
The Alaska State Troopers arrived by helicopter and salvaged what they could. “The bones were close to being ash,” Lieutenant Kat Shuey later recalled. “They weren’t quite to the point where if you touched them they would disintegrate, but close.”
The remains were spread across an area about 60 yards in diameter, presumably the work of scavenging animals. Also found at the site were three hunting knives, two quarters, two metal buttons, a zipper, and part of a Samsung mobile phone. All of the items were charred to varying degrees, like most everything else in the path of the Funny River Fire, which burned nearly 200,000 acres in the western lowlands of the Kenai Peninsula, a remote corner of this remote part of the world, a place one local described as “the middle of the middle of nowhere.”
No one knew at the time that the Funny River bones would set in motion a series of other discoveries, adding a surreal twist to a long and disjointed tale of people lost and found and lost again, and in the process reminding everyone involved of their smallness in this vast land.
Troopers guessed that the bones were those of an adult male, based on the size and style of the boot and the fact that in these circumstances, the deceased is usually a man. But the condition of the bones made determining the cause of death impossible. The man may have gotten lost and frozen to death. He could have tumbled down one of several steep embankments nearby and broken his neck. He could have run into the wrong bear; as many as 4,000 of them roam the peninsula, including some of the largest brown bears on the planet. He might have eaten poison berries, by accident or by design—the location was ideal for someone who wanted to vanish, and Alaska is famous for attracting dropouts, runaways, and end-of-the-roaders who wish to conduct a life, and sometimes a death, in isolation. There were, to borrow one trooper’s phrase, a great number of “equally plausible alternative inferences.”
Within hours, news of the discovery spread from the firefighters’ camps to the small communities along the Sterling Highway, the road that transects the peninsula. In the town of Soldotna, about 20 miles from where the bones were found, Dolly Hills got a call from one of her granddaughters. The granddaughter was upset. Why hadn’t the police told them about the bones? Later, Dolly began to hear from people around town. They wondered the same thing that Lieutenant Shuey wondered aloud at headquarters, a question Dolly wasn’t prepared to entertain quite yet. She listened and mostly kept silent. In private, though, she could think of nothing else: Could it be Rick?
When I first met Dolly, in January of 2005, her son Richard Thomas Hills had been missing for almost a year. I was working on a story about the phenomenon in Alaska of ordinary people disappearing while doing ordinary things. In Anchorage, the statewide coordinator of search-and-rescue at the time, Lieutenant Craig Macdonald, had told me about some recent cases, including that of Rick Hills. He described the case as tragic for the family but typical of what troopers dealt with almost every day. More than 3,000 people had been reported missing the previous year in Alaska, a state with a population smaller than San Francisco’s.
Curious to know what Macdonald meant by “typical,” I flew south to the Kenai, a peninsula shaped like the craggy profile of a T. rex’s head, extending 150 miles southwest into the Gulf of Alaska. Glacier-topped mountains spread across the eastern and southern parts of the peninsula; marshy lowlands cover much of the rest. From the air, it was easy to see why Alaska attracts certain kinds of people—not just loners and misfits but explorers and adventurers as well, anyone drawn to wild, wide-open spaces.
Soldotna, a fishing town of about 4,000 people, sits along the Kenai River in the western lowlands. I was met there by Dolly Hills and Heidi Metteer, Rick’s longtime partner. Heidi and Rick had two children together, and he had also been raising her eldest, a daughter from a previous relationship, as his own.
Dolly was 53, petite and gregarious, with short black hair, glasses, and an angular face. She had a high, lilting voice that sounded cheerful even when she wasn’t. Heidi was 33, tall and robust and dressed for the outdoors, but with a soft manner that seemed to belong inside. Heidi worked at a coffee shop; Dolly helped her husband, an electrician, run his business.
Dolly introduced Heidi as “my daughter,” and I would come to know the two women as a unit. Dolly was the talker, the instigator who moved things along. Heidi was the thoughtful one, more apt to listen and absorb. Dolly seemed to rely on Heidi for steadiness, Heidi on Dolly for uplift.
“Praying 24/7,” Dolly told me, was the only way she “didn’t just lose it.” She said she’d been reciting the Lord’s Prayer silently, over and over, since getting up that morning. “I don’t want to come across as super-religious,” she added. “I swear now and then. And I like beer.”
I spent two days with them, going over the investigation, discussing theories, and retracing Rick’s last known movements. On February 24, 2004, he had been home from an oil-rig job for just a few days when he left Soldotna in his red Dodge truck to pick up a paycheck in Anchorage, about 150 miles away. The company confirmed that Rick had gotten his check that day, but his truck was found two days later, plowed into a snowbank in the town of Sterling, just 15 miles from home. The keys were in the ignition and his driver’s license was on the front seat. In the center console was $292.
Rick’s tracks in the snow—right foot dragging, as if he’d injured his leg—led into the woods. After about a quarter mile, he’d come upon a house and walked up to the back porch, perhaps hoping to find help. Then he’d wandered onto an abandoned airstrip, and there his footprints ended. Search dogs lost his scent, as if Rick had been plucked from the snow and lifted straight into the air. He was 35 years old.
Dolly and Heidi ruled out suicide: Rick had never shown any inclination, and they didn’t believe he would abandon the children, who were 5, 9, and 13 at the time. He adored them; he had nicknames for each of them and took them fishing every chance he got. A couple of months before he disappeared, Rick made a secret trip to Anchorage to buy Christmas presents for the kids and then drove to a friend’s house to wrap them, coming home with an armful of ribboned gift boxes. “It made him happy to see the kids so tickled,” Dolly said.
On the day he left home for the last time, Rick had asked two of the kids whether they wanted to come with him. A man planning to kill himself wouldn’t have done that. Heidi and Dolly also couldn’t accept that he might have gotten lost and succumbed to the elements. “He spent a lot of time in these woods,” Dolly said. “He knew them.”
The two women feared that Rick might have been a victim of foul play. Devoted as he was to his kids, he had a wild streak. He liked to get high on cocaine or pills and then go out drinking all night, and he ran with a crowd of men and women who had been in and out of jail. For the sake of his family, Rick had tried many times to quit partying, only to be drawn back in. “But he would never not come home,” Heidi said.
“Or call home, at least,” Dolly added. “Even when he was impaired, he never failed to call.”
After the police stopped searching, Dolly and Heidi kept the case alive. Dolly’s husband, Tom, helped but mostly kept busy with work. The two women plastered the communities along the Sterling Highway with missing-person posters. They interviewed friends and acquaintances police had overlooked. Dolly recruited snowmobilers and pilots to go over the search area again and again. She even consulted psychics.
One, a British woman who lived in Anchorage, told Dolly that two men had been nearby as Rick was dying, that they had rifled through his coat for drugs and then left, and that Rick had frozen to death. The psychic seemed to intuit aspects of Rick’s disappearance that matched what police had told Dolly and Heidi. The two women came to believe she was closer to the truth about what had happened to Rick than anyone else, certainly closer than the Alaska State Troopers. She said it would be 10 years before they found Rick.
“Ten years?,” Dolly replied. “We can’t wait that long.”
The first year was particularly hard on Dolly; she essentially stopped eating, and by the time I met her she’d dwindled to about 100 pounds. In the middle of telling me about one of their searches for Rick’s body, she lost her train of thought and fell silent, then shook her head, as if trying to dispel some unpleasant notion. “If a truck came along and ran me over, I wouldn’t care,” she said under her breath.
I’d covered many stories of loss, but Dolly and Heidi’s seemed especially cruel because it had no foreseeable end. They knew Rick was likely dead, but without his body, they couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was somehow still alive, perhaps injured or in pain, or even held against his will. When they let their minds go there, the possibilities multiplied, became endless. They tried to block those thoughts, but they never went away completely.
By the end of my visit, I came to believe that whatever had happened to Rick couldn’t have involved more prolonged suffering than what Dolly and Heidi were going through. Yet the two women would keep searching for the next 10 years. As I left to catch my flight home, they were bent over a map on the dining-room table at Dolly’s house, discussing the logistics of dragging the Kenai River.
“It’s just a couple guys in a boat,” I heard Dolly say. “They drop a long pole with a big hook in the water, and the boat goes back and forth. The hook grabs onto whatever’s on the bottom.”
The e-mail appeared in my inbox in September 2014. In the years since my visit to Soldotna, I’d thought of Dolly and Heidi whenever I ran across stories of people who had disappeared. There was something about them that stayed with me, growing more vivid as the years passed and I suffered losses of my own. The image of two women studying a map, a single light overhead, spoke to me of an inner toughness rising to the occasion. A resilience equal to the worst thing that can happen.
Now they wanted me to call.
“You’re not going to believe it,” Dolly told me. “I hope you’re sitting.”
“We found him,” Heidi said.
She and Dolly took turns filling me in. I’d never heard of the Funny River, much less the fire that had ravaged the Kenai. They told me a body had been found, and that its DNA had been tested.
“It wasn’t Rick,” Heidi said.
“It wasn’t Rick,” I repeated. “Who was it?”
For the next hour, Dolly and Heidi described a series of events that I could barely follow. They were still piecing the narrative together themselves. The three of us would wind up having regular phone conversations, trying to make sense of what had happened.
Four months later, in January of 2015, I flew back to the Kenai Peninsula. I arrived 10 years to the month after my first trip and found Soldotna exactly as I remembered it: a gritty little village trying to be a town, drab in its winter coat of month-old snow and ice. Dolly and Heidi had obtained a thick stack of official case files, many of them marked privileged. Among a hodgepodge of field reports, lab results, correspondence, handwritten notes, and transcribed witness accounts dating back to 2004 was a two-page letter from the director of the Alaska State Troopers, Colonel James Cockrell, dated August 28, 2014.
The letter had been hand-delivered by Captain Andy Greenstreet, the commander of the detachment that covers the Kenai. He’d knocked on the front door of the Hillses’ tidy rambler on a Thursday, around 10:30 in the morning. Only Dolly was home. She called Tom and Heidi and told them to come to the house. When everyone was settled around the dining-room table, the captain started reading.
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Hills:
I begin this letter knowing full well that mere words on a page cannot adequately express the magnitude of apology which you and your family are due based upon errors made by the Alaska State Troopers. A failure on our part has created a circumstance which will undoubtedly bring you and your family a great deal of sorrow during the grieving process and leave you with more questions than answers.
Halfway through, Heidi interrupted him.
“Are you kidding me?” she said, glaring.
“Ten years,” Dolly muttered.
“Are you fucking kidding me?,” Heidi said.
Captain Greenstreet paused without looking up from the letter. He let Heidi’s question hang in the air. “I felt for them,” he told me later. He was relatively new to his post, and hadn’t been involved in the investigation. He was just the messenger. By the time he finished, Dolly and Heidi were weeping.
“Ten years,” Dolly repeated. It was just as the psychic had predicted.
That same morning, in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, Lieutenant Kat Shuey read an almost identical letter to a man named Leon Bennett. He was home alone that day; his wife, Bette, was sick and being cared for by relatives in Washington State. The Hillses and Bennetts hadn’t known of each other’s existence, but now their lives were inextricably linked, the peace of one family coming at the expense of the other’s. Delivery of the letters had been coordinated so that they would get the news at roughly the same time.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Leon Bennett told me, recalling the days and weeks after Lieutenant Shuey showed up at his house. In early 2015, I traveled to Lake Havasu City to meet the other family that had gotten a knock on its door the previous August. Leon sat with his elbows propped on a small table, his hands clasped as if in prayer. He spoke slowly, his voice like gravel. “How could this happen?”
A retired contractor in his early 70s, Leon is a compact, sturdily built man, naturally reserved but with a lot on his mind. Bette Bennett was in the last stages of a terminal lung disease. She was at home when I visited, only partially lucid, so I spent two days with Leon at the house of his sister, Jane Potter, who lives down the street. Jane and her husband, Leroy, are snowbirds, Alaskan residents who winter in the Southwest.
The Bennetts’ only son went missing from his home on the Kenai Peninsula in 2005. His name was Richard too. He and Rick Hills must have crossed paths many times—at the Safeway and the hardware store, at gas stations and stoplights—given that they lived only a few miles apart along the same highway. But they traveled in different circles, and no evidence exists to suggest they knew each other.
Richard Bennett’s family described him as a boy of few words who grew into a man of even fewer words. When he did interact with people, he was soft-spoken and kind, especially to his young nieces and nephews; at family get-togethers they would listen in rapt silence as he read children’s books aloud—the only time many of them heard him speak at length. One of his neighbors in Alaska told me that Richard would occasionally come over for a beer, but wouldn’t come in the house. He preferred to stay outside, on the front steps.
Richard was most comfortable in the wilderness. He’d fished and hunted since he was a child. One of Leon’s favorite pictures is of Richard at age 5, wearing fishing boots given to him by his grandfather. The boots are too big; the tops reach all the way to his crotch. The boy is grinning from ear to ear. “For a long time, he never took them off,” Leon told me. “He slept in those things.”
In 2005, Richard was 39 and living alone in a trailer on the outskirts of Sterling, a short walk from the Kenai River and half a mile from the spot where Rick Hills’s red Dodge truck had been found the previous year. I’d walked right past Richard Bennett’s trailer when I retraced Rick’s last steps, and Richard had probably been home. For several years, he’d struggled to find steady work. He did auto-body repair, but so did a lot of other people on the Kenai.
In August of that year, Jane and Leroy stopped by Richard’s trailer. They lived less than a mile away and hadn’t heard from him for a while. They were startled to find the trailer completely cleaned out. Jane called Leon, who was living in Bremerton, Washington; he flew to the Kenai the next day. The three of them went to Richard’s place and looked around in silence. Richard’s belongings had been moved into a shed. Several large Rubbermaid bins were each labeled with the name of a friend or relative. A few were marked for Jane, with whom Richard had always been close. Inside she found household items: coils of rope, a few tools, frying pans, spatulas, mismatched bowls. “They were things he knew we could use,” Jane told me. On a shelf were the titles to two old pickups, which Richard had signed over to her.
“If you would’ve told me ‘suicide,’ I would have said you were full of crap,” Jane said. “Richard wouldn’t do that. But seeing all his things packed up and labeled, the trucks signed over, it looked like he got his affairs in order.”
Nothing was certain, however. Leon, Jane, and Leroy reported Richard missing to the Alaska State Troopers, noting that they hadn’t found any of Richard’s camping gear—his tent, sleeping bag, and mess kit—on the property, and that some of his guns were missing too. They learned that no one had seen Richard in several months and that just before Memorial Day weekend, he’d withdrawn his last $10 from an ATM in Soldotna.
Richard’s closest neighbors, Frank and Nancy Kufel, retirees who lived down the road, appeared to be the last people who’d had contact with him. Nancy said that Richard had come over in March or April to use their fax machine to send out job applications, and that he had seemed despondent about his prospects. In mid-May, the Kufels noticed he was burning a lot of stuff in a large metal barrel. That’s how people in these parts dispose of garbage, but this seemed far more than the usual amount. Then in June, the Kufels noticed what they described as “a tremendous amount of bird activity” in the woods across the street from Richard’s trailer. Every seasoned Alaskan knows that a large number of ravens and eagles circling in one area means a carcass below, but Frank and Nancy assumed it was a moose or a caribou or some other large animal.
The morning after they talked to the Kufels, Leon, Jane, and Leroy went into those woods, a dense forest of spruce, alder, and birch. They proceeded slowly, scanning their eyes over everything. After almost four hours, Jane entered a meadow and peered into a small, shaded clearing. Off to one side, next to a rotting log, something caught her eye. Jane felt her heart pound. “You guys better look at this,” she said. The men rushed over, and the three stood in silence. It was a human skeleton, minus a head.
“It was just lying there on the ground, kind of turned on its side, legs stretched out,” Jane later told me. “First thing I noticed, it had Levi’s on. Richard always wore Levi’s. Under the Levi’s, blue sweats. Richard always wore blue sweats.”
Leon can barely talk about the scene now, but at the time, he kept his emotions in check. He looked at the skeleton and thought it seemed about the right size. He felt the urge to touch it. He leaned down and gently turned the torso “to make sure it was what it looked like,” he told me. “When my hand touched, I thought, That’s him.”
The Alaska State Troopers came to the same conclusion. The skeleton was found about 300 yards from Richard’s trailer. The accounts of Richard’s state of mind, the approximate height of the skeleton, the jeans and sweatpants—they all added up.
Investigators sent a bone sample along with a swab of Bette Bennett’s saliva to a Texas lab for DNA analysis, to confirm that the remains were indeed Richard’s. But the lab warned that the test could take up to 18 months, and the Bennetts wanted to bury their son. They called the medical examiner’s office several times, asking when the remains could be released. Both the medical examiner and the State Troopers were reluctant to declare the remains Richard Bennett’s without DNA confirmation.
What finally tipped the scales for the investigators seems to have been the skeleton’s right leg, which showed the markings of an old injury. Richard had fractured his shin and calf bones in a 1980 motorcycle accident. Investigators from the medical examiner’s office tracked down the X-rays at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage and gave them to two forensic anthropologists. The anthropologists found them “consistent” with the markings on the skeleton. Robert Hunter, the lead investigator on the case, received the anthropologists’ findings in March 2006 and discussed them with a superior. “We decided that with the information discovered during the investigation that it is reasonable to believe the human remains are that of Richard Bennett,” he wrote in an official report on March 28.
The medical examiner’s office released the remains, and the Bennetts had them cremated. On June 23, 2006, the family held a memorial in Anchorage. The next day, a small group hiked up a grassy hillside overlooking Lower Summit Lake, one of Richard’s favorite places to hunt. Bette was still healthy enough to make the 20-minute hike from the highway to a picturesque clearing between two large birch trees. A high-school friend of Richard’s, Harold “Hap” Pierce, dug a hole and buried the urn. Jane placed a wreath on the freshly turned soil. Under a blazing sun, Leon said a short prayer and bid farewell to his son.
For Leon, Bette, and Richard’s two sisters, the ceremony marked the end of a nightmarish year. They could begin to move on. Jane felt relief too, but something nagged at her.
“There was closure in the sense that the family said goodbye and maybe he was laid to rest,” she told me. “I still couldn’t believe he would take his own life. I guess if he did it, he did it. But in the back of my mind, there were still questions.”
“Like what?,” I asked.
“Questions like ‘Was that really him?’ ”
“Errors were made.”
Lieutenant Kat Shuey says it with the practiced detachment of a 28-year police veteran. She isn’t the one who made the errors. She’s the one who uncovered them, and felt honor-bound to deliver the news face-to-face. Shuey spent 14 years as a trooper in the field. Now she’s the deputy commander of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, a special unit within the Alaska State Troopers that handles, among other things, missing persons. Last year, 2,295 people were reported missing in the state. Many were runaways who eventually returned home, but some were people who will never be seen again.
“Families ask, ‘How come you can’t find our son? How come you can’t find my husband?,’ ” Shuey told me. She understands why they ask. But, she said, “sometimes I think they forget how big Alaska is.” Between the westernmost tip of the Aleutian Islands and the eastern edge of the Alaska Panhandle—a span roughly equal to the distance from California to Florida—a total of 1,332 law-enforcement officers keep the peace. About a third work in and around Anchorage, the only Alaskan community that can pass as a city. A few hundred more patrol towns and villages, mere flecks in the landscape. The rest of Alaska is policed by fewer than 400 troopers.
When someone goes missing in Alaska, search areas can be as large as entire states in the Lower 48, and considerably more treacherous. Alaska encompasses 39 mountain ranges, 12,000 rivers, 100,000 glaciers, and 3 million lakes. The mudflats can be like quicksand; ice and snow can erase a person’s last traces. Landslides, avalanches, fissuring glaciers, overflowing rivers, and collapsing riverbanks all make travel unpredictable at best. Everyone I met there seemed to know of people still missing or “unfound.” Dolly Hills herself lost a 13-year-old brother, William, in 1962. He was presumed drowned, but his body was never recovered.
In June 2014, soon after the discovery of the Funny River bones, Shuey asked for a list of people in the area who’d gone missing in recent years. At the top of the list were Rick Hills and Richard Bennett, whose last known locations were close together and only about three miles from the Funny River site. She wasn’t involved in either case, and knew little about them.
While cross-checking records with the state medical examiner’s office, Shuey learned that Richard Bennett’s remains had been found and released to his family years earlier. This puzzled her—Bennett was still listed as missing in the police database. She went back to his file. Tucked among the documents was the notification letter that the Bennetts had been waiting for in the months after they’d found the skeleton. The letter, from the University of North Texas, concluded: “The individual represented by the unidentified remains F-3677.1 is excluded as a potential maternal relative of Bette P. Bennett.” The DNA did not match. The body found in 2005 and released to the Bennett family in 2006 was not Richard Bennett.
Shuey was stunned.
The letter was dated November 5, 2007, some 16 months after the Bennett family had buried the remains of a man they’d believed was their son. Shuey said that the letter had been filed away by a clerk who no longer works for the Alaska State Troopers, and that the agency hadn’t adopted electronic filing until 2012—facts that she acknowledges are no excuse and no consolation to the families.
“It was the Alaska State Troopers that failed,” she told me.
Was it possible that the remains released to the Bennetts and now buried near Lower Summit Lake were those of Rick Hills, and the scattered bones found in the Funny River fire, Richard Bennett’s? Troopers privately hoped so. That outcome would lessen the agony for the Bennetts, and the humiliation for the State Troopers. The medical examiner’s office ordered a round of expedited DNA tests. The results came back in two parts. The first concluded that the bones found at the Funny River site were neither Rick Hills’s nor Richard Bennett’s. The second concluded that the original DNA sample taken from the remains released to the Bennett family in 2006 was in fact that of Rick Hills.
Three months after the Funny River bones were discovered, Shuey and another investigator found themselves speeding through the Arizona desert in the middle of the night to reach Lake Havasu City by morning. Both knew they were about to deliver upheaval to an unsuspecting family.
“The Bennetts had closure for eight years,” Shuey told me. “Now we have to go down there and take it away from them. We have to tell them, ‘The remains you received in 2006 were not your son, and we don’t know where your son is.’ ”
The letter Lieutenant Shuey read to Leon Bennett in Lake Havasu City ended exactly like the one Captain Greenstreet read aloud to Dolly and Tom Hills and Heidi Metteer in Soldotna: “I understand that there is nothing that I can say that can ever repair the devastation that your family is experiencing. For this, I am truly sorry. Sincerely, Colonel James Cockrell, Director, Alaska State Troopers.”
Even in shock, Leon Bennett knew right away that he would never tell his wife about the troopers’ visit. Bette had been so distraught when the skeleton was discovered in 2005, and so relieved—more than anyone else in the family—when they’d laid the remains to rest on the mountainside. Now she was on oxygen and struggling to breathe. She became confused easily. Sharing the news would have destroyed her. In Bette’s final weeks, Leon muffled his sobs and strained to hide his devastation. There weren’t many people with whom he could share the burden: Jane and Leroy and, it turned out, Dolly, Tom, and Heidi.
Dolly and Heidi contacted Leon shortly after getting the news. They felt bound to him by circumstance, and by their shared experience of a grief few others could understand. “If there’s anything we can do, or if you just want to talk, call us,” Dolly said. He offered the same.
Dolly and Tom spend winters in Phoenix, just 200 miles from Lake Havasu City, and the families decided to meet. They got together for the first time on a sunny Sunday morning in February 2015.
Everyone settled around the dining-room table at Jane’s house, with Dolly and Tom at one end, and Leon, Jane, and Leroy at the other. On the table were photographs and police reports, dog-eared and riddled with Post‑it Notes. Atop one stack was Colonel Cockrell’s letter to the Bennetts. Everyone glanced at it. “We have one,” Dolly said. Nervous laughter.
The two families talked about “my Richard” and “your Richard” and human remains and bone fragments and detached skulls. Rick Hills’s skull hasn’t been found. Dolly and Heidi still suspect foul play, but they fear they may never know the truth about what happened to him.
The conversation turned to the uncanny similarities between Rick and Richard—two men close in age, roughly the same height, who disappeared in the same area about 15 months apart. They even wore the same kind of clothes, and both had old fractures in their right leg—Richard from his motorcycle accident, and Rick from playing hockey. Rick may have re-injured his leg when his Dodge plowed into the snowbank. That would explain why he had been dragging his foot.
“They told us there was no one else missing in the area,” Leon said.
The case documents I read show that the State Troopers indeed did not consider that the bones found near Richard Bennett’s trailer could have been anyone else’s. In going through police reports, Dolly and Heidi counted 17 different troopers who’d had a hand in their son’s case over the years. Of those, three were also involved in the Richard Bennett case. But the troopers didn’t make the connection. “They said it was because they didn’t put their reports in computers then,” Dolly said.
She talked about how her family had searched and agonized for 10 years, only to find out that Rick’s ashes were buried above a lake they drove past all the time on their way to Anchorage. After Captain Greenstreet delivered the news, Dolly said, it took another month to find the exact location of the urn. She, Heidi, and other family members hiked to the spot above Lower Summit Lake, held hands, and tearfully recited the Lord’s Prayer before digging the urn out of the ground eight years after the Bennetts had put it in.
They wrapped the urn in a brown-paper grocery bag, and Heidi took it home. Late that night, she stared at the bag, beside her bed, and said, “I never thought you’d be in my bedroom again.” Dolly laughed as she told the story.
The room went silent.
Dolly told Leon, Jane, and Leroy that they had chosen a beautiful spot at Lower Summit Lake. She thanked them.
“I want you to know he was well taken care of,” Jane said.
“I want you to know that we know how you’re feeling,” Dolly said. “The hurting that never goes away, we know. We also know, the way this turned out … It could have been the other way around.”
This past July, I received an e-mail from Leon Bennett. There was no message, only a link to a story from the previous day’s Alaska Dispatch News. The headline read, “Troopers Identify Human Remains Found During Last Year’s Funny River Wildfire.” The bones belonged to a Soldotna resident, James Allen Beaver, who’d been missing since 2011. He was 42 when he disappeared. Investigators had traced the Samsung phone to Beaver, but they’d decided to wait this time for DNA confirmation before releasing the bones to his family. Vast as the peninsula is, it can still seem like a small world. Rick Hills went to high school with James Beaver, and Heidi knows his brother Roy.
I called Leon.
His voice as gravelly as ever, he told me he was frustrated. He’d lost a son, thought he’d found him, and lost him again. He was frustrated that his grief felt so raw, as if Richard had disappeared just yesterday. And this time, he bore the grief without his wife. He had let Bette continue thinking that Richard had been laid to rest. “It was the right thing to do,” he said. She died last April.
“I’m frustrated that the Alaska State Troopers aren’t looking for Richard. They say they are, but I’m almost sure they’re not,” he said. “I’m frustrated that I’m not out there looking for him myself.”
Leon was caring for one of his daughters, who was recovering from a quintuple bypass. He couldn’t just drop everything and go off to the Kenai. All he could do from Arizona was check the news from Alaska every day for updates on the Funny River bones. He had quietly hoped the man would turn out to be his son, even though troopers had ruled out that possibility the previous summer. “I have zero confidence in them,” he said. “So yes, it was in the back of my mind that it could be Richard.”
With the bones now identified, a new thought has taken root in the back of Leon’s mind: What if Richard is alive? It’s less a hope than a torment, the reflex of a parent who has no evidence to the contrary, even if 10 years have passed and all signs point the other way.
Leon isn’t the only one who’s had that idea. Jane has always thought that Richard may have just wanted a clean start somewhere else. “We never found his firearms,” she reminded me on several occasions. “And we never found his camping stuff.” Richard’s friend Hap Pierce told me he wouldn’t be surprised if Richard one day knocked on his door. “I’d be pissed,” he said, “but I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Alaska brims with stories of people who vanish and are given up for dead. Once in a while, the dead return. A woman named Lucy Ann Johnson made headlines a few years ago. Born in Skagway, on the Alaskan Panhandle, she eventually moved to British Columbia. Her husband reported her missing in 1965, and police learned that she hadn’t been seen in almost four years. Police suspected he’d killed her, but they had no evidence, and he died in the late 1990s. Then, in 2013, the couple’s only daughter, Linda Evans, went searching for answers and, to her shock and amazement, found her mother living with a different family in the Yukon Territory. The mother-daughter reunion is now Alaskan legend. Lucy Ann Johnson was 77 when her daughter found her. She had been missing for 52 years.
Leon Bennett believes his son may have wanted to leave his life. But what if he left it to find a different life? When he allows himself to follow this train of thought—that maybe Richard is roughing it in the wild, or hiding out in some tiny native village far off the beaten track—he feels a tinge of comfort. But then the not-knowing returns, and it keeps him awake at night.
“There’s a possibility,” Leon told me, speaking in a faint voice, as if not wanting to hear himself say it. “You don’t want to dwell on it. He’s probably gone. But you can’t ignore that there’s a possibility.” The Alaskan bush would suit his son’s temperament and skills. There are places out there with enough space for a man to remake himself without anyone bothering him. Places where people fish and hunt to eat. A single moose can feed a person for a year, Leon told me. “It’d be hard living. Not a lot of people could do it. But if there’s anybody who could, it would be my son.”
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the nonprofit organization Images & Voices of Hope.