WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
Dennis Martin was a 6-year-old chid who disappeared from the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee on June 14, 1969. The search for him was the most extensive in the park's history, but despite the 56-square mile search and approximately 1,400 searchers, he was never found.
DISAPPEARANCE AND INVESTIGATION (1)
During Father's Day weekend of 1969, Dennis accompanied his father, grandfather and older brother from their Knoxville home to the Great Smoky Mountains. It was an annual trip that the Martin boys took.
They hiked throughout the day, from Cades cove to Russell Field, and then spent the night. The next day, they hiked to Spence Field near the Appalachian trail, where they had planned to stay the night.
He disappeared in one of the most mysterious ways I have ever heard. On June 14 at around 4:30 PM, Dennis and his brother planned to jump out from behind a bush to surprise his family, along with some other children from a different family the Martin's were camping with. His dad saw him go behind a bush to hide. However, when all of the other kids came out, Dennis didn't, so his father went to check behind the bush.
He wasn't there.
His father became concerned and began frantically searching for his son. He ran nearly 2 miles down the trail, far and fast enough that he was sure Dennis couldn't have wandered off that far. After a few hours of searching for the boy, they notified the National Park Service rangers.
The area from which Dennis disappeared is filled with steep slopes and ravines, and wild, dangerous animals such as copperhead snakes, bears, feral hogs and bobcats are common in the area. Shortly after he disappeared, 3 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours which washed out trails and caused streams to flood. To be a 6-year-old out alone in those conditions would have been extremely dangerous, or fatal.
This is a case where a child literally disappeared without a trace. Search efforts were hampered by the heavy rains and heavy mist in the area. Additionally, the 1,400 searchers could have done more harm than good, obscuring possible clues. Child-sized footprints led to a stream and then stopped. In the footprints, one foot was barefoot and one shoe was in the type of shoe Dennis had been wearing. Some investigators believed the small footprints to belong to a Boy Scout troop who were helping with the search, but they were not near other footprints, insinuating a group, and none of them would have been barefoot. A shoe and sock had also been found.
Within 8 days, 56 square miles were thoroughly searched, but the search was cut back on June 26 and abandoned on June 29, despite searchers who offered to continue to look. Officially, the search was closed down on September 14, 1969. It remains the largest search in the history of the National Park.
There are 3 main theories in the child's disappearance, some more plausible and accepted than others. The first, and most popular theory, is that he simply wandered off and became lost and ultimately died of exposure. His footprints leading to the stream also indicate he may have drowned, especially given the intense rainfall after he went missing. Park officials believe that the most likely scenario is that he somehow ended up lost, and died from exposure somewhere in the park. If he had been carried away by the stream or fell into a ravine, it would make sense why his body was never found.
The second theory is that he was attacked by a hungry bear or another animal and carried off. However, given the proximity to other people, I have a hard time believing that if a bear had come to him behind the bush that people would not have seen or heard anything. He likely would have screamed or audibly reacted in some way to a bear grabbing him. Of course, this could be coupled with the first theory, which is that he wandered off, far enough away from the camp that when he was attacked by an animal, nobody heard.
His father believes the third theory, which is that he was abducted and taken out of the park by someone. One tourist said that on the same day Dennis disappeared, he had heard a sickening scream and then saw a man covered in hair trying to flee the scene. Though this sighting is creepy, the FBI concluded that it wasn't enough to sufficiently link to Dennis' disappearance. I actually find this theory more likely than the wild animal theory, because a human can sneak up behind you and cover your mouth so you don't scream, but I also find it unlikely that if someone wanted to kidnap a child that they'd do it in broad daylight, surrounded by people, when hours later he would be sleeping in a tent with all of his supervisors sleeping, as well. In a situation where a tragic accident seems plausible, a calculated kidnapping seems unlikely.
Dennis's father offered a $5,000, 2019 equivalent to about $35,000, reward for any information leading to his son. Psychics offered clues, but they turned up nothing. A few years after Dennis disappeared, a hunter discovered the scattered skeletal remains of a small child in Tremont, but kept it to himself out of fear he would be prosecuted for illegal hunting. Once he came clean, a search turned up nothing. (1)
The National Park Service reviewed and amended its policies on searching for missing people after the unsuccessful search for Dennis. Similar agencies around the world study the case of Dennis Martin to create the most efficient search and rescue for missing people. (2)
Dennis's case makes a tragic short list: the list of people who disappeared in the Smokies who was never found. He is on that list with only 4 other people. (2)
Also on that list are Trenny Lynn Gibson, Thelma Pauline Melton, Christopher Lee Cessna, and Derek Lueking. (3)
Trenny Lynn Gibson was 16 at the time, and visiting the park with her high school on a field trip. She was never seen again after October 8, 1976. (3)
Thelma Pauline Melton was reported missing on September 25, 1981 at the age of 58. She had been camping with 2 friends and went out ahead of them, never to be seen again. She had hiked the trail many times before and was very familiar with it. (3)
Christopher Lee Cessna, 45, disappeared on April 27, 2011. His car was found in the parking area, but he was not anywhere to be seen. His family claimed he was depressed and potentially suicidal, and his gun could not be found so it is believed he went into the park with the intention to commit suicide. (3)
And lastly, Derek Lueking, 24, was reported missing on March 15, 2012 when he didn't show up for work. When his vehicle was found, they also found a handwritten note asking for no one to come look for him. (3)
So in total, it is assumed that only 3 people went missing in the park accidentally, met with foul play or more likely, a tragic misstep or accident. The other 2 more likely went into the park with the intention of not coming out, but having never found their bodies, it is impossible to say.
The Smoky Mountains National Park is a place so many people hold in high regard. A fun weekend getaway, a bonding trip with dad, a beautiful scene to remember forever. But for 5 families, it is the last place their loved one ever was. The beautiful mountains and challenging hiking trails are now tarnished with the memory of losing their child, friend or loved one. Lest anyone was kidnapped and removed from the park, or the very high possibility their bodies were met with a wild hungry animal, 5 people went into the Smoky Mountain National Park one day and never came back out.
And Dennis Martin was one of those, the first and the youngest, 51 years ago today.