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Dennis Martin: Lost boy a 45-year Smoky Mountain mystery

This summer marks 45 years since six-year-old Dennis Martin vanished during a family camping trip in the Smokies. He was never found. The failures of the largest search in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains taught rescue crews across the nation several life-saving lessons.

WBIR Staff

(WBIR - May 21, 2014) If you ever want to find someone in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains, retired Park Ranger Dwight McCarter is a solid choice for a tracker to put hot on their trail.

"I was lucky to pick things up from coworkers who were great trackers. With the years of experience, I see things the majority of people don't see at all," said McCarter. "A good tracker knows to look for the white. Always look for white. That bright white leads you to fresh tracks, new breaks in twigs, scuff marks. Things that lead you to people."

From the time he started working at the national park in the 1960s until he retired in the mid-1990s, McCarter became a nationally renowned man-tracker who successfully located fugitives, missing aircraft, and several small children in the Park. He has enough tales to fill a book, which he did when he wrote Lost! A Ranger's Journal of Search and Rescue.

In a chronicle of several success stories, an early chapter in McCarter's career as a novice searcher stands out due to the inability of hundreds of people to track down definitive answers. There was no trace of a missing child, despite the largest search and rescue mission in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"Dennis Martin, on June 14, 1969, disappeared off the face of the earth never to be found," said McCarter. "It sticks with you."

Father's Day Family Tradition

The 1969 search for Dennis Martin is a tale with a beginning and a middle. Yet, the story still has no end even after 45 years.

On Father's Day weekend in 1969, the men of the Martin family from Knoxville went on an annual hiking and camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains. Six-year-old Dennis was just a few days shy of his seventh birthday when he made the trip with his father, grandfather, older brother, and another family who had a couple of young boys.

At around 4:30 in the afternoon on June 14, the group played in the grassy area of Spence Field along the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. The boys huddled up and planned a playful prank on the adults.

"The boys were going to sneak up and scare their family. The three older boys went one way and Dennis went the other way. The plan was for them to jump out of the woods on both sides and scare the adults. The older boys jumped out and everyone laughed and had a lot of fun. Then they asked where was Dennis. When it came time for Dennis to show up and scare the family, he never showed up."

At that point, official reports say it had only been between three to five minutes since the group last saw Dennis. Nonetheless, his father, Knoxville architect Bill Martin, wasted no time and immediately started searching for his son.

"They hollered for him, but couldn't find him. For anyone, it is very easy to get turned around in the thick rhododendron and rugged terrain up there. But especially a little boy," said McCarter. "Another problem at Spence Field is there seems to be an incessant wind that comes out of Tennessee and whips over the mountain. You could blow and whistle up there and the wind drowns it out."

Flood of Searchers Wash Out

Bill Martin hiked the paths in several directions searching for Dennis. The grandfather, Clyde Martin, hiked down to Cades Cove and back. Park Rangers and other people in the park were notified and a search began.

As darkness started to fall, so did extremely heavy rain. It came in buckets at the worst possible time. The storm dumped an estimated 2.5 inches of rain on the mountain that night.

"The storm was so vicious, the people there at the shelter had trouble even lighting a fire. You have lightning and thunder and all of this rain. You can imagine the people there in the shelter just imagining what the little boy was going through. That's all you could possibly be thinking. Where was he? Where could he be?"

The following days crews started searching the trails and swollen creeks for any sign of Dennis Martin. Special Forces were in the area performing exercises and were made available to assist the search. The search party now included Green Berets with experience fighting and navigating in the jungles of Vietnam.

"And bless all of the rescue squads and local people who came out. They came from all over and were there to help," said McCarter. "The turnout was great. But you have to use those resources wisely. That was a failing of the Dennis Martin search."

While the initial search lacked clear organization associated with modern searches, the issue was complicated by rain that kept coming in large amounts. Several more inches of rain washed clues away and made roads too muddy to travel by vehicle. Helicopters began transporting search crews from Cades Cove to the mountain top, but foggy and cloudy conditions frequently kept the aircraft grounded.

The manpower on the ground grew to a gargantuan amount of volunteers ready to scour the Smokies for Dennis Martin.

"It went from hundreds of people to where you eventually had 1,400 people saturating the search area. If you've got 1,400 people, they've stomped on everything. It just doesn't work. Every broken branch or 'piece of white' an experienced tracker looks for has been trampled. You've got search dogs that cannot sniff out any clues because there were 1,400 people there. We did searches back then like they were forest fires. You surrounded it and drowned it."

Any clues not washed away by the rain were drowned by the flood of good-hearted people trying their best to help. The search became a classic example of how the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.

The search dragged on. People claiming to have psychic powers started sending messages to the Park and showing up to influence the search.

McCarter said some potentially solid clues were disregarded or lost in the shuffle of speculative leads.

"The two big pieces of evidence I wish they did more with are a boy's footprint and a report from a man that he heard a child scream the day Dennis went missing. Some local guys found a footprint on one side of the mountain of a small boy's Oxford shoe like Dennis was wearing. But there were possibly other children in that same area with some searchers, so it was assumed to be one of the tracks of those children. Then another guy from Carthage, Tennessee, reported hearing a small boy scream in the woods and noticed an 'unkempt' man at the edge of the trees. The FBI said that area where he heard the scream was too far away from where Dennis went missing to possibly get there in that time frame, so they never checked."

People across East Tennessee and the nation desperately searched for what happened to Dennis Martin. How could a young boy wearing a bright red shirt vanish so quickly? How could 1,400 people not find a single trace of him?

Theories ran rampant, but were mostly based on rumors or speculation. Some thought he may have been attacked by an animal. The shorelines from the mountain top to Fontana Lake were searched in case he washed away in the heavy rains. The family offered a reward for their son's return for fear the total disappearance meant Dennis was kidnapped.

There were tons of possible leads, but none of them led to Dennis.

After weeks went by, survival grew unlikely for Dennis if he was still in the Park. With the strong possibility of death in the air, that's where many searchers turned their attention. They searched the air for any decaying odors in the woods. They watched for vultures and buzzards circling overhead. The searchers found lots of small animals, a dog carcass, and a dead bobcat. Still, no sign of Dennis.

The Smokies Bury Secrets

If Dennis Martin perished in the mountains, you might assume his discovery would be inevitable. After all, the disappearance happened in the most-visited national park in the country near the heavily-traveled Appalachian Trail. Over the course of 45 years, surely some sort of remains or piece of clothing would be discovered.

That is not so, according to ecologists with the National Park Service. With each passing season, Mother Nature buries the secrets of the Smokies deeper and deeper beneath a layer of leaf litter and debris that can range from one to three inches in depth every year.

"You have a window of opportunity and it is very short," said McCarter. "For every year, the forest layers up one inch of debris. So this is 45 years? That's 45 inches underneath the earth. We've found missing planes after a few years and there will be no sign of the pilot. A lot of the plane and the pilot will be buried."

The environment in the Great Smoky Mountains full of high heat, humidity, animals, and rich organic material can accelerate decomposition. The thick forest canopy also makes even large objects such as aircraft difficult to locate.

"We've found planes and walked 10 feet past it several times before we ever see it. The park can really conceal things a lot more than you would ever imagine," said McCarter. "If it takes years to find a plane, think about a small child."

Hindsight leads to life-saving vision

Crews learned a lot of lessons about search and rescue missions the hard way during the failed search for Dennis Martin. Those lessons have been taught ever since the tragedy.

"In the search operations class, on day one what they do is review the Dennis Martin search," said Steve Kloster, the Tennessee District Ranger who coordinates search and rescue missions in the Great Smoky Mountains. "You had people with very good intentions, but you had hundreds and hundreds of people showing up and a lot of them had no training."

The nation placed a big emphasis on training and research to help locate missing people.

"Today we block trails leading to a search area and let people out but do not let new people into the area. The people who go in are smaller groups of expert trackers who have training. Anyone who leaves the area is interviewed and we get their contact information if we have questions," said McCarter.

"There are studies with hard data to show the different risk levels and probability of how someone will behave depending on different circumstances. We know how a missing person frequently behaves depending on age, weather, and emotional state to determine how large an area to focus our search," said Kloster. "On average, we do 100 search and rescue missions a year here in the Smokies. Luckily, we don't have a lot of large scale searches every year."

Kloster said in addition to immediately setting up command posts and organizing searches, another big advancement in search and rescue missions is assigning an individual to communicate with the press.

"We have public information officers who get the critical information and get it out to the public. They get the media the information to let people know what we need and what we don't need. That includes letting people know we have all of the expert resources and trackers we need and for volunteers to avoid going into an area that could compromise a search," said Kloster.

"The training and the organization today is so much better. From the failure of one, you learn how to get better. And I think we get better in life," said McCarter.

Child Comparisons

McCarter is the first to admit he does not know what happened to Dennis Martin. However, he says the lessons learned from the Martin search have helped him successfully save the lives of other missing children. Some of the lost youngsters were boys of a comparable age to Dennis Martin.

McCarter says children can become frightened, injured, and disoriented to the point they instinctively behave in a manner that makes them more difficult to find.

"Children will hide. I remember one case we followed some drag marks because this young boy had hurt his foot. We followed them to this rhododendron thicket. There the little fellow sat, still alive. But he would not move. I can see him and he can see me. You say their name. He would not come out. He would not answer. Why is it that children will not answer? My opinion is because parents and teachers teach children about safety and say 'do not talk to strangers.' The schools are good about teaching children not to be afraid of police or firemen who might be coming in their house in an emergency. But we [park rangers] don't look like firemen. We look like strangers. And boy, kids obey their parents. Someone will try to rescue a child and the kids will run away. If you grab them, they will bite you."

McCarter said the rescuer is able to relieve a great deal of his or her own stress by easing the stress of a rescued child.

"With all of these kids, you're not only the rescuer. You've got to repair anything that happened to this child during this ordeal," said McCarter. "I remember asking one boy to tell me what worried him when he was lost. There were three things and he did not know what these things were. He described a noise of deer snorting at night. Then he described an owl hooting. Then there was a little mouse crawling over his nose at 2:00 in the morning. And I explained each one of those and that none were harming him. I knew those things must have sounded weird and scary because he was from a different part of a country and did not hear those things before. He went away happy. You've got to take the stress off of them and it helps take the stress off of you."

As for what happened to Dennis Martin, the question still has no answer. The story has no ending. But the narrative is clear in the mind of Dwight McCarter. Ultimately, those involved in the search must free themselves of the stress that comes with participating in a search that has become a case study in failure and folly.

"For the searchers and the rangers and the family, it's not your fault. It's not your fault. I've been on a lot of these searches and it's not your fault. It was just circumstance. There are a lot of things that have gone unsolved in our world. You can't take the burden of feeling bad about not finding him. You did the best you could with the resources that you had. It's not your fault."

Life-Saving Tips and Tools of the Trade

A big difference in search and rescue missions today compared to 1969 is obviously the advances in technology. No tool has proven more powerful than the GPS.

"When I first started, we would go out and search an area as a team. Then we would come back and have to look at a topographical map and report where we had searched," said Kloster. "Today we have GPS units that our search teams carry with them. When they get back from the search, we download that information to a computer and can see a clear map of exactly where we have searched and where we have not."

Both Kloster and McCarter say if you are lost and require rescue, you should stay put in the same spot until emergency crews can locate you.

"It's hard to stay in one spot, especially for children. But adults are better at it. I remember one time a lady who was lost in the snow walked around the same tree over and over to stay warm. The path around the tree looked like a caged animal, but she did the right thing," said McCarter.

McCarter says he has personally become enthralled with the development of a device called the SPOT GPS messenger.

"I know one guy who has used the SPOT three times. Now, the thing is you have to buy the device and then pay a subscription fee. But I would absolutely buy it for kids or anyone who does a lot of hiking in remote areas where you don't have any cell service. The gadget has a button you can push that will send an emergency signal with your exact latitude and longitude. The company gets that message and contacts the closest emergency agency to give them your location," said McCarter.

For those unable or unwilling to spend the money on a SPOT GPS unit, McCarter said a roll of cheap toilet paper can also help you mark the spot for rescue crews during an emergency.

"If you can get to a clearing, you take that roll of toilet paper and drag a big long white line. Then you drag another big white line and make a big X. If someone is searching for you from the air, they'll see a big white X on the ground," said McCarter. "The other thing you can do is get your watch, set a course in one direction from the X and walk 10 minutes. If you don't find anyone or the trail in that time, turn around and go back to the X. Then do the same thing in another direction. That way you can still be looking for the trail, but not get too far away from the X if someone spots you."

Kloster said toilet paper and other tricks are sometimes useful. However, the most reliable tool essential to survival in almost all situations is a trusty whistle.

"One of the ten essentials when you're hiking is a whistle. Something you can use to make noise. One of the things we are going to do is try to make noise hoping you will answer us," said Kloster.

Most of all, Kloster says hikers and campers should know their physical limitations, plan their trip, and share those plans with others.

"In a lot of cases, our search and rescue missions are for people who are overdue rather than truly missing. They have not shown up at a place they were supposed to be. We can find those people and help them because they did the right thing and filed an itinerary and told someone when and where they would be," said Kloster.

Reporter's note: I spoke to the family of Dennis Martin prior to the broadcast of this story. I thank them for being so gracious, poignant, and polite to a journalist contacting them about a personal family tragedy from so long ago. WBIR fully understands and respects the Martin family's request for continued privacy and their decision to not participate in this story.