It was the 5th of December, 1998, and the Engebretson family were preparing for their traditional search for the perfect Christmas tree. The family were from Bonanza, Oregon, and their ideal spot for the annual search was the Winema National Forest, located near Rocky Point, which was replete with fir, pine, and manzanita.
That afternoon, 8-year-old Derrick Engebertson set off on the search with his father, Robert, and his grandfather, Bob. He was dressed warmly in a blue snowmobile suit, hat, and felt-lined boots. He was also carrying with him a hatchet which he carried in anticipation of helping chop down the perfect trees.1
Derrick was a brown-haired third-grader and his family had nicknamed him “Bear Boy” due to his love for the wilderness. The family lived on forested land, and Derrick had distinguished himself as a mushroom picker. He enjoyed tagging along on the family hunts as well, seeking out black-tailed deer, bobcat, and black bear. “Ever since he was a baby, he’s been out in the woods hunting and stuff,” said Lori.
In addition to his love for the outdoors, Derrick also loved sports, especially baseball, basketball, soccer and football. He had even taken a few swings with a golf club. The only time Derrick was ever really indoors was at nightfall, when he liked to curl up in front of the television and watch shows about animals.
There were really only two things that scared little Derrick: the dark and cougars.
The search for the Christmas tree got off to a good start. They had purchased permits for three trees – one for each family and then another for a friend. The family had driven to Rocky Point at around 2PM, and they hiked into the woods together. They had hiked around 150 yards, and were heading in the direction of a nearby ridge.
Derrick was armed with his hatchet, as the family moved through the woodland together. After a while, however, Derrick and his grandfather had found themselves trailing behind Robert. As Bob later explained, Derrick had a penchant for wandering off. “Footloose and fancy free,” Bob recollected.
Bob was trying to keep an eye on Derrick, but also keep an eye out for the perfect tree. Derrick also kept commenting to his grandfather that he wanted to run ahead, to catch up with his father. He asked his grandfather again and again if he could run ahead and Bob reluctantly agreed.
As Bob continued in his search, he could see that based on the snowy footprints, Derrick was following Robert’s footprints perfectly. He had no reason to worry, so he turned around and continued in his search, as Robert continued in his. He surmised that his grandson had caught up with his father, and assisting him in his search.
A short time later, Robert and Bob met up on the road. They were both noticeably alone. “Where’s Derrick?” asked Robert. Bob replied: “I thought he was with you.” Robert responded: “No, I told him to stay with you.”2
Somehow, Derrick had vanished. The family called out his name but received no reply. They attempted to search for Derrick, but a snowstorm had rolled in, wiping out any footprints that could indicate which direction he headed in. Robert and Bob did come across a snow angel near a forest road, which they speculated was made by Derrick, but where did he go from here?
Darkness quickly fell over the area, and concern for Derrick quickly transformed into fear. Within hours, police were called in to assist in the search.
Hundreds of volunteers took part in the search, fanning out in a line, poking through the foliage and snow as they searched for any sign of Derrick. The family were all pro-active in the search for Derrick, scouring through the dense wilderness. “Derrick will go till he finds his daddy,” said Derrick’s sister, Susan.
Robert said: “I’ve just got to find him. I can’t leave him up here.” He said he was holding onto the belief that his son was alive and well. Having grown up in the mountains, he was an avid hunter and very familiar with the outdoors. However, the snowstorm had ramped up in severity, and the temperatures were subfreezing.
The community really came together to try and bring Derrick home safely. The Klamath Motorsports Shop in downtown Klamath Falls donated a number of snowmobiles for the search, while employees at Jackson County Financial in Medford put forward a $1,000 reward for anybody who found Derrick alive.3
In addition to the volunteers searching on foot, a police helicopter hovered overhead, hoping to catch a glimpse of Derrick. Police also called in sniffer dogs to search on foot, but the search was hampered by the heavy snowfall. “This is hard, these ups and downs. It’s just frustrating,” said Capt. Roger Pitts.
As the search continued, one volunteer spotted what looked like child-sized footprints in the snow on top of a rock. Robert rushed over and followed the dainty footprints. They led downhill into the forest, and then toward the banks of Upper Klamath Lake, but then the footsteps vanished.
With each day that passed, the likelihood of Derrick being found alive dwindled. On day seven of the search, the helicopters were pulled out of the search and it was declared that the goal was now to recover a body as opposed to find Derrick alive.4
By the following week, the official search ceased. Search coordinator, Bud Wilson, said: “It’s a tough decision.” It was a decision that crushed Derrick’s family, who continued in their own personal search alongside a couple of hundred volunteers who refused to give up.5
The following month, somebody in the forest came across a school bookmark and a candy wrapper. The bookmark had come from Bonanza School, where Derrick was a student. There was also an ominous finding: a couple of spots of blood. The discovery was made a couple of miles away from where Derrick was last seen by his grandfather.6
It was hoped that the discoveries could lead to Derrick, but it wasn’t to be. A couple of weeks later, Derrick’s family shared their belief that he had been kidnapped. They put forward a $20,000 reward that could lead to Derrick.
It wouldn’t be until May that the search for Derrick was ramped up. By now, the snow had finally begun to melt. The initial search was practically impossible due to the heavy snowfall. Not only was it difficult to see anything, but it was hard to trample through such thick snow that had landed on the ground.
Searchers came from Douglas, Josephine, Jackson, Lane and Klamath counties. There were also 14 sniffer dogs, including ones from both Portland and California. The searchers set off where Derrick was last seen, and they searched an area that was three miles long and a half a mile wide. Essentially, they were searching for Derrick’s remains.7
Unfortunately, the renewed search did not offer any insight into what happened to Derrick, but a couple of months later, some ominous graffiti appeared at a rest stop in the Oregon desert. The rest stop was around 150 miles east of where Derrick vanished, and the graffiti read something crude about Derrick. It did not personally name Derrick, but as one investigator said, it was “Derrick-specific.”
It was never disclosed what the graffiti had read, but Derrick’s mother, Lori, said it suggested that her son had been abducted.
“At first you think, ‘Oh my God, he might be alive and somebody is actually going to give him back.’ 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. If he died on the mountain, he just closed his eyes and went to sleep. There would have been no pain or anything.”Lori, Derrick’s mother
It could never be determined whether the graffiti was linked to the disappearance of Derrick or whether it was nothing more than a cruel joke.
A couple of years later, it was announced that investigators working on the case were looking at a new angle: whether Derrick had been abducted. Investigators appealed to the public for information about a late-model black two-door Honda which had been in the area on the day that Derrick disappeared.
They announced that the car was driven by a man who may have stopped and asked for directions near the community of Rocky Point, and he may have been seen struggling with a boy.8
The new lead had come in from a tipster, who had contacted police. He said that she had seen a man and boy struggling near the road, but he didn’t stop because he assumed that they were father and son.
“We don’t know if the tipster really knows something or if they’re trying to get attention.”9Lt. Dale Rutledge
Unfortunately, the tip never panned out, but two years later, another tip would surface.
Frank J. Milligan was serving a thirty year sentence for abducting, raping, and slashing the throat of a ten-year-old boy in Dallas in 2000. Investigators working on Derrick’s disappearance now speculated that Milligan could have abducted and killed him.
Back in July of 2001, Milligan had pleaded guilty to charges of attempted murder, kidnapping, sodomy, and sexual abuse. Thankfully, the boy in this case survived. At the time of the attack, Milligan was out on bail for the sexual assault of another young boy.
Milligan had surfaced as person of interest in Derrick’s case when a fellow inmate contacted police and told them he had bragged about abducting and killing Derrick. Investigators made contact with Milligan, and he confessed to killing Derrick and agreed to lead them to where he had buried his body. Investigators embarked on the scene, but despite an extensive search, Derrick’s body was never found, and Milligan later recanted his confession.10
As of 2022, the whereabouts of Derrick Engebretson remains a mystery. The theories as to what happened to him still remain very polarized. Some believe that Derrick simply perished from exposure and then his remains were scattered by animals. Others, however, think that Derrick fell victim to a much more terrifying predator: a paedophile.
Derrick’s family never really gave up in their search for him. For years, they returned to the woods where Derrick vanished and searched for anything which could indicate what had happened to their precious son. For his birthdays, they took balloons to the woods and tied them to a tree. “I haven’t given up on him being alive. I pray every single night for him to be alive in somebody’s safe hands.”11
- Associated Press, 9 December, 1998 – “Anguished Father Tracks Snowy Footprints in Search for Missing Son”
- The Oregonian, 11 December, 1998 – “Lost Boy’s Family Won’t Give Up”
- The Columbian, 11 December, 1998 – “Search Expands, But Still No Sign of Boy Lost”
- The San Diego Union-Tribune, 12 December, 1998 – “Hope Dims for Finding Boy”
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 14 December, 1998 – “All But Family Members Give Up Search for Youth”
- The Seattle Times, 15 December, 1998 – “Searchers Find Bookmark, Blood”
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 3 May, 1999 – “With Snow Mostly Gone, Search for Boy Resumes”
- The Columbian, 17 July, 2002 – “Boy, 8, May Have Been Abducted”
- The Oregonian, 18 July, 2002 – “Tips Energize Search for Boy”
- The Oregonian, 13 November, 2004 – “Convict is Prime Suspect in Boy’s Disappearance”
- Associated Press, 4 October, 1999 – “Graffiti Analysed in Search for Boy Missing Since Christmas Tree Hunt”