It was less than 3 weeks before Christmas of 1998 when 8-year-old Derrick Engebretson joined his father and grandfather on a trip to the Winema National Forest, Oregon. No stranger to the great outdoors, Derrick had earned himself the nickname "Bear Boy", and could often be found hunting or scavenging for mushrooms with his family.
In something of an annual tradition, the Engebretson's had headed out to the forest on December 5 to find the Christmas tree that would decorate their Oregon home that year. They started their search on the mountainside of Pelican Butte, a steep and densely wooded area almost 4000 feet above Upper Klamath Lake. Derrick's father, Robert, and grandfather, Bob, set out on separate paths, but when they regrouped less than an hour later they realised that Derrick was nowhere to be found. Each thinking the other had been watching him, the little boy had wandered off into the forest.
After over an hour of searching, Derrick's father flagged down a driver to call 911. But it would be another 2 hours before police arrived at the scene, in part due to the whiteout conditions and in part due to a Search and Rescue banquet taking place that police did not want to disturb. An expert tracker, 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.
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 home. 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. As the volunteers soldiered on, they found several potential clues: a makeshift shelter, candy wrapper, and a bookmark from Derrick's school. But on December 18 this search ended too, with the Engebretsons concerned that the 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, spending thousands of dollars on psychics and search boats until they eventually went bankrupt.
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. The letter gave the name of Frank Milligan, a former juvenile counsellor who was already 36 years for the rape and attempted murder of a 10-year-old boy. Speaking to police on the condition that he wouldn't be handed a death sentence, Milligan told authorities where they would find Derrick's body, but when a search proved fruitless he recanted his confession. 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.
For the Engebretsons, almost 20 Christmases have now passed without Derrick; a once-happy day now forever marred by tragedy. In many ways, life has moved on. Bob passed away in 2012, and Lori and Robert are now grandparents themselves. Yet in the midst of change, one thing remains constant - the hope that come December 25 this year, Derrick Engebretson will have found his way home.