Search in Smokies for lost boy, Dennis Martin, produces lessons for future searches
By Jim Balloch (Contact)
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Just six days shy of 7 years old, Dennis Martin was a boy with curly brown hair and a happy smile. The red T-shirt tucked into his green hiking shorts made it easy for the grown-ups in his group to see him run along Spence Field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His dash from the bright sunlight into the dark brush on the afternoon of June 14, 1969, was the last time Dennis Lloyd Martin - "Denny" to his family and friends - was ever seen.
People lost in the wilderness are not typical missing persons cases. Regardless of the age of the lost person, they prompt a quick search. The search for the Knoxville boy was the most massive in the park's history. But it was marked by errors and hampered by fog and flash floods.
Forty years later, the child's fate remains one of Tennessee's greatest mysteries.
The case still haunts Dwight McCarter, 64, of Townsend, a retired park service ranger who took part in the search. The Dennis Martin case takes up a good portion of "Lost!", his book about searches for lost campers and hikers.
"Children are important to us," he says in his slow, deep mountain drawl. "They tug at our hearts."
A prank that ended in heartache
There are three main theories as to what happened to Dennis Martin.
The first is that he simply got disoriented and perished in the rugged terrain. The other two are that he was attacked by a hungry bear, or taken by a human predator.
But there is no mystery about the happy events before his disappearance. He was on his first overnight camping trip, part of the long Martin family tradition of Father's Day outings in the Smokies. With him were his 9-year-old brother Doug; his father, Knoxville architect Bill Martin, and his grandfather, Clyde Martin. The group spent the night in Russell Field with Dr. Carter Martin of Huntsville, Ala. and his two sons.
The next morning, June 14, the group hiked to Spence Field, where several other Martin family members were gathered.
Around 3 p.m., the grown-ups watched Dennis, Doug and Carter Martin's sons huddle up, look over at them, then split off. The grown-ups knew the children were planning to circle around and startle them, and readied themselves for the prank.
Doug and the Alabama Martin kids went one way. Dennis went in another direction, alone.
When the first three kids sprang, everyone thought Dennis was late, since he was smaller and had a longer route to make the circle. But less than five minutes passed before the adult men in the group split up and began a search.
McCarter, believes that what most likely happened to Dennis is that he got lost, became disoriented and Dennis perished in the wild. But he does not rule out either of the other two theories.
He cites several reasons why the massive search could have missed Dennis or his body.
A 48-inch-tall boy can easily elude detection in rugged mountain terrain, and especially in a rhododendron or laurel thicket. The sound of a roaring creek can prevent a searcher from hearing a child's shouts for help. And in some cases, lost and disoriented children have been known to hide from searchers.
As for an animal attack, McCarter said, "That is possible." Bears normally will not attack humans, but in June 1969, their normal food sources were greatly diminished. And near Spence Field about two weeks before Dennis disappeared, McCarter said, rangers released a "bony, scrawny bear" caught in a wild boar trap baited with corn - something that bears normally do not eat.
The Martin family declined to be interviewed for this story.
They came to believe someone took Dennis, said McCarter, who stayed in touch with the Martins for several years.
Dennis Martin, 6, the son of Knoxville architect William Martin, went missing June 14, 1969 at Spence Field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Despite the effort of some 1,300 searchers including U.S. Army Green Berets, no trace of the boy was found.
Mysteries of the missing
Today, the News Sentinel begins a series looking at the nature of missing-persons cases as well as specific disappearances that have baffled authorities and families through the decades. Next month: How a network of private citizens, including a very persistent Tennessean, has helped law enforcement put names to some unidentified bodies, solved a few missing-persons cases and paved the way for a new federal approach to missing-persons cases.
The afternoon that Dennis disappeared, Harold Key, 45, of Carthage, Tenn., was near Rowans Creek in the Sea Branch area with his family when he heard an "enormous, sickening scream." A few minutes later, he noticed a rough-looking man moving stealthily in the woods near where he had heard the scream.
"I thought he might have been a moonshiner," Key later told News Sentinel writer Carson Brewer.
Unaware of the search for a lost boy, Key did not report the incident until several days later, after he had returned home and learned of Dennis Martin.
But Key did not recall the exact time this occurred, and part of the time frame he gave included a period that would have made a connection to Dennis Martin's disappearance impossible. Park officials also discounted the likelihood of a connection because of the distance from where Dennis was last seen, and the FBI concluded it did not have sufficient evidence to launch a complete investigation.
As darkness fell on the first day of Dennis' disappearance, thunder and lightning filled the sky, and 2 1/2 inches of rain fell. It rained again June 17. Early in the second week of the search, nearly 3 inches fell.
Each storm would have demolished any new tracks that Dennis might have left after the previous storm.
"The rain washed everything away," said McCarter.
Too much of a good thing
Volunteers helping park rangers in the search included college students, Boy Scouts, hunters, on and off duty firefighters and police, members of 57 rescue squads from four states, and military personnel, including 60 Green Berets diverted from a training mission.
"The thing that stood out to me was what a huge search it was, and the mystery of what happened to the boy," said Gerald Segroves, who covered the story for the Associated Press. Now a retired News Sentinel copy editor, Segroves told of searchers on their hands and knees, looking into brush for the boy.
According to the park's final official report, the number of searchers rose steadily from a few hundred to a peak of 1,400 on June 21. After that, the numbers began dwindling, along with hope that Dennis could be found alive. By the time the search officially ended in September, the searchers had logged 13,420 man hours. Helicopters spent nearly 200 hours in the air.
All of that was too much of a good thing, states an internal Park Service memo written after the search.
As the search began, "Everyone kept feeling that the boy would be found in the next hour, and it was probably this reason why the search organization did not keep pace with the rapid manpower buildup," park Superintendent Keith Neilson wrote. "This search developed so fast that we failed to realize the need for quick organization, from the standpoint of manpower, overhead and public relations."
The large numbers of people would have overlapped or even obliterated new clues or signs of the missing boy.
Dwight McCarter, a retired Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger, worked on the case of Dennis Martin, who went missing at age 6 in 1969.
"There were so many footprints, a mass confusion of footprints," McCarter said.
Several days into the search, two men from Townsend noticed a shoe print near the West Prong of the Pigeon River. It was the size of a child's Oxford type shoe, which Dennis Martin was last seen wearing. McCarter said this lead was not fully followed up because searchers had already been in the area.
McCarter was just 24 years old and still learning from senior rangers and other mentors. Today, he says the two things he most wishes would have happened were massive searches of the area where that print was found and of the Sea Branch area where the scream was heard and the rough-looking man was seen.
Mickey Creager/News Sentinel
William Martin, right, gives park officials an account of the first hours of the search for his son, Dennis Martin, 6, on June 20, 1969 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Pictured are, from left, unidentified, Park Superintendent George Fry and Chief Ranger Lee Sneddon.
McCarter said Sea Branch is downhill of where Dennis was last seen, and it is possible for a physically fit man to carry a small boy between the two points. Perhaps more significantly, Dennis Martin could have reached that location alone.
A few years after Dennis was last seen, a man came across the skeletal remains of a small child in Tremont's Big Hollow. The bones included the skull, and were already being scattered by animals. The man kept the find to himself for years because he had been illegally hunting ginseng and feared he would be prosecuted.
In 1985, he contacted McCarter, who he knew personally, and told him about the skeleton. McCarter and 30 volunteer rescue squadsmen from Swain County, N.C., searched the area but found nothing. By this time, animals would have had more than enough time to destroy the remains.
The area is about 3 to 3 1/2 miles downhill from where Dennis was last seen and in the same direction as the Oxford shoe print found by the West Prong, McCarter said.
It is about 9 miles from where the scream and unkempt man were reported.
About six or seven years ago, a man searching for his birth parents contacted park officials to explore the possibility that he might be Dennis Martin, Park spokesman Bob Miller said.
Miller does not recall what made the man think he might be Dennis Martin. But after a quick comparison of the known facts of the man's life with those of Dennis Martin, Miller said, "We were able to put to rest his suspicions that he was Dennis Martin."
The size and scope of the Martin search produced many lessons that led to improvements in future searches.
"It's the old adage of it being better to work smarter, not harder," park Deputy Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said. "We learned that flooding an area with huge numbers of people is not the way to go in all cases, because you tend to lose some valuable clues and good tracking sign."
Authorities also learned how to more efficiently manage searches.
In 1972, in Utah, a loosely knit group of search and rescue workers formed a fledgling organization that became the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), now recognized internationally as a leading conduit for exchanging information and developing new methods. Though it was not a direct outgrowth of the Dennis Martin case, lessons learned from the search for him quickly made their way into NASAR guidelines, McCarter says.
"And that has saved lives, definitely," McCarter said.http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2009/jun/28/m...-dennis-martin/