Episode 21: Broken Dreams
The Mountain Mysteries
The Mountain Mystery of Derrick James Engebretson
Derrick James Engebretson was an eight-year-old boy who loved R.L. Stiens “Goosebumps” and whose nickname was “Bear Boy” due to his love of the outdoors. There is a story of how at a week old his mother strapped in in a pack and took him on a bear hunt. He grew up hunting with his father and grandfather and mushroom picking with his mother’s father. Derrick went on many mushroom hunts in Pelican Butte, which is a steep-sided dormant shield volcano in Oregon.
It was less than 3 weeks before Christmas of 1998 when Derrick Engebretson joined his father and grandfather on a trip to the Winema National Forest, Oregon. The Engebretson's had headed out to the forest on December 5 to find a Christmas tree. Christmas was an exciting time for Derrick. Not because of the presents, but because he would go Christmas tree hunting with his family. The Engebretsons’ would select one of Oregon’s postcard-worthy evergreens for their Christmas tree.
The Engebretson family hadn't planned to go to the woods that year to go Christmas tree hunting. Lori, Robert's wife, had talked him into using an artificial tree that year despite the fact that he was an enthusiastic outdoorsman who always looked forward to the family's annual Christmas tree hunt. Lori wanted less mess and was convinced an artificial tree would achieve that. However, one of their neighbors wanted a real tree, but their disability prevented them from going to the woods and chopping one down. The neighbor asked the Engebretsons’ to chop down a tree for them, which they were happy to do.
They started their search on the mountainside of Pelican Butte, a steep and densely wooded area almost 4000 feet above Upper Klamath Lake. As Bob's red Toyota pickup climbed the Westside Road, Robert remembers telling his father they couldn't hang around as it was already after 2 pm, and it would be getting dark around 4 pm since it was late in the year. Bob pulled into a turnout at Milepost 12, on the way to Rocky Point Resort. Robert helped Derrick get into his blue snowsuit, and the three of them started up an embankment into the pine forest. Robert walked ahead of the other two, telling Derrick to stay with his grandfather.
Unsurprisingly, Derrick swung his hatchet at every passing tree; he had to make his trademark indents. As he dashed from tree trunk to tree trunk, he repeatedly asked his grandpa if he could go catch up with his dad. Bob, annoyed, eventually gave in and let him scurry off into the white thicket. Bob wasn’t worried about Derrick taking his own route, because the boy knew his way around the wilderness. Little Derrick ran off in good spirits and decked out in his bright blue snowsuit, a denim jacket, navy blue Route 66 pants, a black sweatshirt, an Oakland A's t-shirt, a hat, camouflage-print boots, and gloves with the Goosebumps logo.
When they regrouped less than an hour later, they realized that Derrick was nowhere to be found. Each thinking the other had been watching him, the little boy had wandered off into the forest. "Where's Derrick?" Robert remembers asking. "I thought he was with you," Bob said. "He was with you!" Robert immediately ran back into the forest. He had to find Derrick, and he had to do it quickly. Daylight was fading by the minute and heavy snow was beginning to fall. Robert screamed out his son’s name as he sprinted through the wet, falling snow. His voice echoed through the frosty trees, but there was no response.
An hour passed, darkness set in, and the snow fell harder. Robert reunited with Bob, and the two men continued calling for Derrick. The silence was deafening.
Derrick was reported missing that evening by his father and grandfather, who stopped a passing motorist, Fred Heins, around 4:13 p.m., an hour after starting the search for Derrick. The motorist traveled to a nearby resort 2 miles away, where he placed a phone call to 9-1-1. Reading over the 9-1-1 transcripts Mr. Hiens becomes agitated as the dispatcher insists that before they can send anyone out the father must call to give more information as “ [the dispatch office] can't send out an army”.
It would be another 2 hours before police arrived at the scene and almost 5 hours before a true search team began. This was in part due to the blizzard conditions and in part due to a Search and Rescue banquet taking place that police did not want to disturb.
Derrick's grandfather managed to retrace his grandson's steps back to where their pickup was parked. After going up the hill and then looping back around, Derrick had stopped to make a snow angel in the road. Derrick had a small hatchet with him at the time, and cuts were also found on trees in the same general area. Unfortunately, since that time a snow plough had passed through, obliterating any other tracks the little boy had made. Robert felt certain his son hadn't walked back into the trees.
Upon hearing Derrick was missing, his mother raced to Pelican Butte to start searching. Word soon spread of Derrick's disappearance, and volunteers quickly grouped together to search the snow-covered mountain, which by that time was cloaked in darkness. His mother, Lori, kept watch in a donated camper van at the edge of the woods, a bonfire burning brightly to help Derrick find his way to her. The Engebretsons’ practically lived in Pelican Butte throughout the search. During one of Lori’s many sleepless nights, she gazed out the window and thought she saw Derrick emerging from the wilderness with a smile. However, she quickly realized it was a hallucination. Initial searches were completed by foot with search canines, as well as aerial searches using a Civil Air Patrol plane and an Air Force Reserve helicopter. Several relatives also undertook independent searches. Over the next couple of weeks, on snow-mobile and foot, hundreds of people would search Pelican Butte.
But for police, the search was as good as over. After 8 days, they pronounced Derrick dead, asserting that there was no way he could have survived in the inclement weather. Derick’s parents stated that their son had "grown up in the mountains" and was used to walking distances of 20 miles in steep terrain. As the volunteers soldiered on, they found several potential clues: a makeshift shelter, candy wrapper, and a bookmark from Derrick's school.
A candy wrapper, a bookmark from Derrick’s school, and a crude lean-to shelter made out of branches were discovered but it was unclear whether they were related to Derrick. Search dogs were unable to detect his scent there. Knowing Derrick’s love of reading, the bookmark was intriguing, but authorities failed to connect the findings to Derrick’s disappearance. Due to the extreme conditions of the area, law enforcement speculated he would have quickly succumbed to the elements. Family members were convinced that Derrick had made his way to the road and might have been picked up by a stranger. But the sheriff discounted those concerns.
A hole in the ice was discovered in the lake by Bob during the search, and a child's footprint on the bank. Divers searched the next day and an additional search was done in the area during the spring thaw. But no luck. The belief was that Derrick’s hatchet would be in the lake if he had fallen in. If a hatchet were found in the sediment of the inlet, it could have meant that derrick had fallen into the lake and got stuck under the ice. Portland diver, Jeff Preece, spent several hours carefully working his way through the shallow water using a metal detector designed to work underwater. He found several metal objects, including an oil filter and a metal road sign. But no hatchet and no trace of Derrick.
Subsequent reports of a mysterious vehicle in the area that day were made. A witness claimed to have seen an unidentified man struggling with a young boy in the area during the day Engebretson disappeared. The witness ignored the struggle as they had assumed the man was the boy's father. Additional reports were made of an unidentified man driving a two-door Honda asking passersby for directions in the forest that day. It is theorized that this man may have been the one to have abducted derrick.
But on December 18 all searches ended. The Engebretson’s were concerned that the snow and sub-zero temperatures were putting the volunteers at risk. For the next 2 years, Derrick's parents devoted every spare moment combing the mountain for their boy.
There was plenty of criticism of the search and rescue effort as many believed authorities had been slow to get to the scene the night that Derrick disappeared. The search was not started for nearly five hours after the first 911 call by the passing motorist, because the coordinator was reluctant to interrupt the Christmas dinner for Klamath County Search and Rescue team annual awards dinner at Mollie's restaurant until he was sure a rescue was actually warranted.
Friends of the rescue team wrote negative letters about the Engebretson’s to the local paper, Lori recalls. The group's leader was even quoted in a newspaper saying defensively, "We didn't lose the kid." Likely pushing the blame off themselves and onto the father and grandfather.
The sheriff was publicly dismissive when the Engebretson’s announced they believed Derrick had been abducted and posted a $20,000 reward for information leading to his safe return. "If I were a parent," he said, "I guess I'd be hanging onto that, too." The family did not care for the dismissiveness of this comment.
Robert and his father passed lie-detector tests, but rumors swirled around the family. Once, Lori was standing in line at Kmart behind two women as they discussed Derrick's disappearance. "I heard the dad killed him," she remembers one woman saying, with the other replying, "Well, I heard the mom could have had something to do with it."
"All I can say is I hope if Derrick did die, I hope he died on that mountain and not at the hands of some sick person," Lori once said. "If he died on the mountain, he just closed his eyes and went to sleep. There would have been no pain or anything."
Authorities insisted that Derrick had wandered off into the woods and died. They insisted that animals must have scattered his remains. But the Engebretson family never really believed this version of events, especially, as no evidence had been found to suggest this was true. No bones or torn clothing was ever found. This further supported the idea that Derrick had been abducted on the mountain by the man struggling with a boy along the nearby highway.
Lori and Robert retreated into their own world. Lori's thoughts turned so dark; her doctor put her on antidepressants. She gained 80 pounds. Robert gained 70. Robert couldn't speak to his father. He blamed himself for not finding Derrick, but he blamed Bob for losing him. Bob Engebretson was too racked with guilt to even talk about it.
Lori watched her own father, Ben Davis, fall apart. He and Derrick had been inseparable and had spent hours in the woods hunting for morels. Three days into the search for Derrick, a distraught Davis punched Bob Engebretson in the face. The family was starting to blame each other for derrick’s disappearance.
Lori, known for her hot temper, never turned-on Robert. Even though many of her family expected her to. She said she was too afraid of losing the only person who could fully understand her loss. But the couple, married when they were teenagers, drifted from their other two children. Amy was 18 during this time and Kenny was 15. Amy had been a straight-A student with plans for medical school; when her baby brother disappeared, and her family started to mourn her grades plummeted. She spent more and more time away from home. She would later admit to having begun experimenting with drugs during the years after. Kenny, who had shared a room with his little brother, Derrick, had gathered all of Derrick's belongings, boxed them up, and moved them to the garage several months after Derrick disappeared. When Lori discovered what Kenny had done, she screamed in anger.
Robert had taken a lot of time off work. At the same time, the couple had spent thousands of dollars searching for Derrick, paying for everything from psychics to a boat to search Klamath Lake. Eventually, they went bankrupt. Family hunts and trips to the beach ended. One event after another kept the family trapped in despair.
On September 24, 1999, graffiti was discovered in a rest area bathroom at the Sagehen Rest Area, approximately 300 miles south of Portland. Law enforcement identified the graffiti as being referential to Derricks's case and disappearance. The graffiti imagery and or text was never made available to the public. Derrick’s parents drove to view the graffiti upon being notified of it’s finding. Lori, stated to the press: "I think it's just a big, sick joke. I thought, if somebody would have had Derrick, if they put this on the wall, they were wanting to be caught. If they were wanting to be caught, why didn't they leave something of Derrick's there?" She said there was no clothing or any of his favorite items, like his goosebump books, found in the restroom or surrounding area. Even the FBI insisted it was a hoax.
A boy, named Derrick, was found in Texas under unusual circumstances and even looked a lot like the Engebretsons' son. This Derrick later proved to be someone else though. There was also a bone discovered in Pelican Butte in 2000, but it turned out to be from a deer, after the family waited several days to confirm its identity. Both of these leads led to no answers.
In 2002 it seemed that the case had been cracked when a letter arrived through the Engebretson's door from an inmate claiming to know who killed their son. "I know," it said, "who took your son." The letter gave the name of Frank James Milligan.
In 2004, investigators announced that convicted child rapist Frank J. Milligan was the prime suspect in Derrick's disappearance. Mr. Milligan was employed by the State of Oregon as a Troubled Juvenal councilor aide. Mr. Milligan often traveled across Oregon counseling troubled juveniles including locations such as Burns, Salem, Portland, etc... Milligan is now serving a sixty-year prison sentence for the kidnapping a ten-year-old boy in 2000, raping him, and slashing his throat. The child survived the attack. Milligan also was convicted of sexually abusing an eleven-year-old boy. During the time of speaking to the authorities, Millian had already been already sentenced 36 years for crime involving the 10-year-old boy. He was speaking to police on the condition that he wouldn't be handed a death sentence, Milligan even told authorities where they would find Derrick's body.
A Marion County assistant district attorney told the Engebretsons that Milligan had agreed to plead guilty to killing Derrick if they agreed to spare him the death penalty. Lori has said she remembers her hand trembling as she signed the papers that would spare Milligan's life, these papers being the family consenting to not push for the death penalty in Derrick’s case. Robert broke down in sobs. But when Milligan faced the paperwork pleading his guilt a few days later, he refused to sign and recanted his statement. A prosecutor later told Lori that Milligan, who at 33 might live long enough to eventually walk free, had pushed away the pen. No deal, he said.
Lori and Robert drove five hours to Silver Falls State Park southeast of Salem and waited as the FBI used ground-penetrating radar to scan for Derrick's bones. After several days of searching, they came up with nothing. When a search proved fruitless, he recanted his confession. The car was searched during the investigation of the 10-year-old boy's case with nothing found pertaining to Derrick’s case. While no physical evidence has ever been found, some witnesses reported seeing Milligan's 1998 black Honda in the area at the time of Derrick's disappearance.
Frank Milligan has not been charged in connection with Derrick's case but is still considered a strong suspect. These authorities theorized that Derrick made it to the roadside on the day of his disappearance and was picked up by Milligan. An inmate of Milligan's told police and Derrick's family that he bragged about killing the missing boy while in prison.
Not a trace of Derrick; not his gloves bearing the logo of the Goosebumps books he loved to read; not the jacket he hated to wear or the hatchet he carried. Nothing has turned up since he disappeared December 5th.
After Milligan recanted, the Engebretsons struggled with competing emotions. On one hand, they felt relief because Milligan's failure to produce Derrick's body meant they didn't have to mourn his death. On the other hand, they still didn't know what had happened to their son.
Detectives now have received tips from as far away as San Francisco and as recently as the past couple of years. "This is probably the largest volume of information we've got on any cold case," Detective Nick Kennedy said.
Even after 20 years, you can still see all the nails and the tacks left in the trees and light poles in Klamath County. After all this time, Derrick's mom still has hope that he will one day walk through their front door.
The remote-controlled Big Foot truck and laser-sighted BB gun Mrs. Engebretson bought her son for Christmas are still wrapped and underneath the artificial tree in the family's home. The family has never put up a live tree again. "There's clothing I can't imagine would fit him now, even if he does come home," she said. "The paper is starting to come off [the presents] because it's so old."
"At first, it was tough, but now it's just a permanent fixture in the house. Nobody says anything about it anymore. Every once in a while, we just stare at it. But nobody talks about it anymore," she said. "I haven't given up on him being alive. I pray every single night for him to be alive in somebody's safe hands."
Bob, the last person to see Derrick alive, passed away in 2012. He never found out what happened to his grandson.
Lori and Robert are now grandparents themselves and have close relationships with their kids and their kids’ families. Yet in the midst of change, one thing remains constant - Lori still believes her son was kidnapped and is not in Pelican Butte. Despite the passage of time, Derrick never left their hearts. Every year, they hope their beloved son will come home for Christmas. The Engebretson’s have now celebrated 22 Christmases without Derrick, each more painful than the last. They don't feel closure. They still don't know exactly what happened to Derrick, who comes to Lori in dreams. He smiles and makes a promise: "I'll see you soon."
“I want to believe that he’s still alive to this day,” Lori said in 2018. “...and until someone shows me different, I don’t think I’m ever going to give up on him.”
The family is stronger than ever now though. When they found out their daughter, Amy, was having their first grandchild, they had their hope again. The granddaughter’s due date was even set to be Christmas eve of 2006.
Derrick would now be 31 years old as of July 5th, 2021. Lori describes him with a scar on his chin and a scar underneath his nose from a dog bite. Derrick has brown hair and brown eyes. If you have any information about Derrick James Engebretson’s disappearance, please contact the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office at 541–883–5130