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An Investigation of the Missing411 Conspiracy

Kyle Polich

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.4, July/August 2017

People are going missing from America’s national parks under mysterious circumstances, and the National Park Service is obstructing attempts to investigate these events. At least that’s the claim made by author David Paulides in his “Missing411” series of books.

Paulides has classified over 1,440 missing persons cases under the Missing411 label. At its core, Missing411 is the vague claim that something unusual is occurring related to deaths and disappearances in national parks. The concept has been steeped in the milieu of conspiracy and the supernatural, as Paulides frequently appears on paranormal-oriented radio shows and podcasts to discuss it. A forthcoming documentary appears to be in the works as well. (I have been unable to ascertain the meaning of 411. I can only speculate that it’s a slang synonym for “information,” although “MissingInfo” isn’t much better of a moniker.)

Interestingly, Paulides has consistently avoided providing any explanation for the cause of these supposedly mysterious disappearances. He’s joined the ranks of those who are “just asking questions.” One might assume Paulides, founder of the “North American Bigfoot Search” and author of the book Tribal Bigfoot, would arrive at a cryptozoological explanation. While this hasn’t happened yet, it may, as Missing411 appears to be an evolving mythology.

When pressed for a causal explanation, Paulides has remained evasive. He sees his role as an investigator pointing to a problem, not a cause. Alien abduction, ghost involvement, faerie kidnappers, and transdimensional chupacabra can all be swapped in and out as possible explanations for this apparent mystery. The topic seems to be constructed with intentional ambiguity, promoting any nonscientific idea to fill in as a possible explanation.

Despite Paulides’s appearances on Coast to Coast AM, talks at MUFON conferences, and interest in Bigfoot, proper skepticism requires us to entertain the Missing411 claims independently of his history and other beliefs. We should not dismiss this idea outright, in the same way we wouldn’t dismiss Linus Pauling’s legacy in chemistry because of his pseudoscientific beliefs about vitamin C.

Could it be that an underfunded and understaffed National Park Service and related police departments lack the tools and ingenuity to determine that an unidentified serial killer is at work in the parks? This is not outside the realm of possibility. Though Paulides has never put this particular claim forward, there is a nontrivial possibility he’s inadvertently produced a dataset from which this conclusion could emerge. Of course, it does seem that Paulides leans toward more supernatural conclusions.

I was fascinated by the intrigue of the Missing411. Its Blair Witch vibe would have me eagerly in line on opening night of a Hollywood thriller with this premise. My curiosity was also piqued by the vagueness of the claim and the remote possibility that Paulides could be onto something legitimate—but with a practical explanation.

I embarked on a skeptical investigation using some of the approaches I’ve learned here in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer and in similar books on the subject. I determined that following “Hyman’s Categorical Imperative”—do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained—was the best place to start.

Are the supposed Missing411 cases real cases or works of fiction? I used a random number generator to select several pages from Missing411: Western United States & Canada to conduct a detailed verification for the first case on each page. Every case I checked related to real events; Paulides is not making these disappearances up.

One case involved a hunter who never returned from his hunt. His car was found but his body was never recovered. A second case involved a hiker. Paulides mentions that “law enforcement officials have said they believe foul play was involved.” As with any unexpected loss of life, both cases are tragedies. Yet both cases are banal and devoid of any apparently unusual qualities.

In another case, two stranded parents with known drug problems had a car breakdown during a snowstorm. Paulides reports the parents’ remains were found scattered. I was unable to confirm the scattering, but I was able to confirm their infant child was never located.

The oldest victim in my audit involved a sixty-nine-yearold hiker climbing Mount Shasta, moving alone in wind conditions estimated at seventy miles per hour. Once he split off from his companions, he was never seen again.

I was finding these cases to be fairly mundane until I arrived at the hiker’s disappearance. Following a deadpan factual reporting of the details, Paulides quotes a local person saying cryptically that “according to local legend, beings called Lemurians lived underneath Mount Shasta . . . maybe the Lemurians got Carl.”

The text is decorated sparsely with this and other head-scratching nonsequiturs. For example, in the last case of my brief audit, a woman named Amy disappears while exercising. Her body was never recovered but her wristwatch was found in a river bed years later. Paulides points out that years after that, a woman named Ann disappeared from the same place. He felt the need to point out that “both of their names start with A, and their first names only had three letters.” I can only presume Paulides is open to the possibility that some nefarious Batman villain is at work in this area. Beware the three-lettered killer!

It’s moments like these—or his statement that “the fact that berries and berry bushes play a common role in many disappearances is quite intriguing”—sometimes make me wonder if this work isn’t a satire. Could such a statement be a wink to the reader? Or could this be a viral marketing technique for an upcoming video game or feature film? While not implausible, I don’t think that’s the case.

Everything about Paulides’s work seems sincere. My interpretation is that he genuinely believes something mysterious is going on. He’s factual in most of his reporting and generally respectful of the missing. Never is someone faulted for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If anything, Paulides praises the missing for being in peak physical condition and deeply experienced with outdoors activities, making their disappearance by natural causes seemingly all the more unlikely.

Not all missing persons cases qualify as Missing411. Paulides describes the “pattern” of these cases. The pattern consists of some loose criteria such as canine rescue dogs not being able to pick up a scent. If true in a given case, it’s evidence for labeling it as Missing411; if false, this contrary fact can be ignored.

Another optional criterion is victims being found deceased with their clothing removed—typically pants and shoes or boots. Paulides is quick to point out that voluntary removal of such items is totally irrational in most circumstances. I didn’t know what to make of this detail until someone pointed me to the phenomenon of paradoxical undressing. This is a condition sometimes found in people experiencing hypothermia who feel irrationally hot and remove clothing to cool themselves. I presume Paulides, like me, must not have been aware of this fairly simple explanation.

Another optional criterion is cases where a deceased body is recovered but found a distance or elevation away from their last known whereabouts that “defies common sense.” Yet Paulides doesn’t present any Twilight Zone-esque cases of people showing up in bafflingly distant places. In truth, most of these supposedly common sense–defying distances are just a few miles.

Granted, terrain and conditions have a huge impact on lost hikers. I don’t want to dismiss anything outright due to low magnitude, but I don’t find anything exceptional in the cases I reviewed. The “strangest” case I recall was a hiker who was found three days later fourteen miles from his last known location. To me, as a hiker, this is not an implausible distance to cover in that time.

It would be interesting if Paulides would rank his cases by inexplicable distance. If I found nothing odd about the best example, it would be simple to dismiss his second best, and so on.

Failing to meet these and any of the other criteria of the Missing411 “pattern”does not disqualify a case from fitting in the category. In fact, actually being missing is not technically required! A minority of cases in the catalog involve missing people who were recovered alive. Curiously, these all seem to be young children. I suppose an adult, gone missing and found, can self-attest that their missing time was explained by ordinary circumstances. Children may not have the same developmental functions to coherently account for their whereabouts, thus leaving a gap to be filled with the possibility of something unusual.

With such imprecise criteria, it seems Paulides considers himself the only person fully qualified to identify a missing persons case as belonging to the Missing411 or not.

On the whole, I find no outstanding cases in my research of Missing411. There’s a surprising absence of anything spooky. No one is found a decade later without having aged a day; a Missing411 victim hasn’t appeared enigmatically on the opposite side of the world; no cryptic notes or cyphers appear in the books’ pages. The cases are disappointingly typical of what one would expect from a missing persons case.

The proposed unusualness of these cases seems hardly greater than one would find for a rare and unplanned occurrence such as a disappearance.

But could there be a mystery in the aggregate of these cases? Perhaps in total they paint a grim picture. Unfortunately, Paulides does not explore this idea. The argument (such as it is) seems more of the form of “look at all these cases; even if one or two are explainable, they can’t all be explainable.” No matter how many half-truths one collects, they never sum to a whole truth. To be sure, within the Missing411 dataset are cases of unsolved foul play, kidnappings, private suicides, animal attacks, people looking to disappear and assume new identities, and other natural explanations.

Perhaps we might find room for unusual observations if we consider the frequency of these events. People disappear. Of all the disappearances in a year, are a suspicious number of them coming from national parks? In truth that’s a difficult statistic to analyze. People do disappear, and any disappeared person must have a last known location. However, that doesn’t make every location on the planet equally probable for generating a missing person. I looked into this briefly and found that if anything, you’re less likely to disappear from a national park than from a major city.

I’m willing to play along a bit. Let’s assume a disproportionately high number of disappearances occur in national parks. What exactly is the responsibility of the National Park Service (NPS)?

Paulides has called the day-to-day operators of the parks “good people.” He takes issue with the administration, finding them somewhere between incompetent and complicit. He’s frustrated with their response to his FOIA requests and accuses them of obstructing his investigation. There are moments where it seems he’s implicating the NPS in a conspiracy, but other times his perspective is softer. He claims, “It would be incorrect to state that the [NPS] had not cooperated with my efforts.... However, in some cases they were evasive.” Yet elsewhere, Paulides is frustrated the NPS won’t produce the documentation he seeks. He asserts, “I believe they do have the data, and that the data they possess would shock the average American citizen.”

I have confirmed he made many FOIA requests, and some were denied. Apparently, to learn more, I would need to initiate an FOIA request for a list of the FOIA requests Paulides made. You can do that! I don’t think I have much to learn, however. Paulides doesn’t seem to lie about details. With multiple books under his belt, satisfying his requests might indeed be costly. If the NPS has been dismissive or evasive, that’s not proof of anything mysterious.

I spoke with an NPS public affairs representative about the handling of missing person cases. Cases are entered into the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS). This is a federated data sharing system used by law enforcement nationwide. I await proof that any case has failed to be entered.

To be fair, it would not shock me if independent law enforcement organizations did not have the resources to extensively review the NLETS. If a suspicious pattern existed, it could plausibly go unnoticed. Of course, the burden of proof is on the claimant.

I got in touch with former ranger Andrea Lankford, author of Ranger Confidential. She brought to my attention that there exists some degree of controversy about the operation of the parks and the ranger system.

It’s a broad topic, but I’ll give some highlights. Rangers may be asked to wear too many hats without appropriate training. Some believe the parks are understaffed. There’s a perspective that rangers are not equipped to handle some law enforcement activities that fall under their jurisdiction. Some people call for reform.

I’ve yet to reach a personal conclusion on these side topics. It is an intriguing discussion, but not one that has anything to do with making disappearances unusual. If the NPS is poorly structured, over-extended, incompetent, or corrupt, it would be unfortunate but not mysterious.

Surely Paulides knows of these claims. I am unaware if he’s taken a position. Whether he agrees with criticisms of the ranger system or not, it’s curious a comment is not more prominent in his research. I encountered no place where he weighs in.

Paulides is also displeased with the response of the media, stating, “news services sometimes temper the story or don’t ask specific questions in regards to the scene.”This hovers between accusations of conspiracy or incompetence. It’s a claim made broadly without any specific evidence. What specific evidence are the news media failing to ask about and the NPS trying to silence?

I’ve exhausted my exploration for anything genuinely unusual. After careful review, to me, not a single case stands out nor do the frequencies involved seem outside of expectations.

The lack of any specific claim affords this idea the elasticity to be unfalsifiable, and its sinister veneer makes it attractive to the conspiracy-minded. From the way in which I’ve observed it proliferate through the paranormal media, I suspect Missing411 will remain a curio shelf theory for some time to come. When any missing persons case comes up, believers may be reminded of it, giving it a small injection of life in their cultural consciousness.

For me, as someone who visited his first national park (Yosemite) last year, I’m grateful we have these national treasures. I look forward to visiting many more with only the most prosaic of concerns any responsible hiker or camper should have.

Kyle Polich

Kyle Polich is a data science consultant and founder of DataSkeptic.com, which explores the skeptical perspective on machine learning, artificial intelligence, statistics, and all things data related.