Derrick James Engebretson

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A family lost

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Lori and Robert Engebretson shout into the trees.


The word hangs in the air, echoing off the flanks of Pelican Butte.

They know their son will not answer. But they need to call his name in the same way they need to breathe.


Six years have passed since the boy disappeared from this spot, a densely wooded mountainside above Upper Klamath Lake.

Derrick would be 14 now. But the eyes peering out from a poster nailed to a nearby tree are still those of an 8-year-old. The weather has all but destroyed the image, erasing the smile the boy wore when the third-grade photo was taken.

It was snowing hard that December night six years ago. Robert remembers how his son's footprints led back to the road, then vanished.

Hundreds came to search for him with snowmobiles, dogs and helicopters. Hours turned into days, then weeks. Eventually, only Robert and Lori remained. Torn by guilt and recrimination, they returned to the mountain again and again, calling for their child as they scanned the forest for his bones. Gripped by their obsession, they slid into a kind of suspended animation, drifting through life with no direction, no thought for the future.

For years, they returned to the mountain every weekend, retracing steps over ground they'd walked hundreds of times. They found nothing, not the small hatchet Derrick had carried that day or a shred of his blue snowsuit.

Authorities insisted that Derrick had wandered off into the woods and died, that animals had scattered his remains. But the Engebretsons never really believed that, and a compulsion took over their world. They came back to the mountain because it was the only thing they could do.

In their hearts they knew somebody had taken their son. They always had.

During the search, a witness said he'd seen a man struggling with a boy along a nearby highway. And Derrick had been missing for only a few hours when Lori called her mother. Lori's intuition told her Derrick was gone.

"He's not here," she remembers crying.

Her mother had tried to reassure her. Of course, he's there. You'll find him before morning.

"No, Mom," Lori remembers insisting. "He's not here. We're not going to find him on this mountain.

"Somebody took him."

"I thought he was with you"

They hadn't planned to go to the woods that year. Lori had somehow talked Robert, an enthusiastic outdoorsman who always looked forward to the family's annual Christmas tree hunt, into getting an artificial pine. Less mess, she'd said.

But when a disabled neighbor asked for help getting a real tree, Robert didn't hesitate.

The afternoon of Dec. 5, 1998, Robert; his 64-year-old father, Bob; and Derrick set out for the woods on the flank of Pelican Butte, about 30 miles from downtown Klamath Falls.

As Bob's red Toyota pickup climbed the Westside Road, Robert remembers telling his father they'd have to make it quick. It was already after 2 p.m., and it would be dark shortly after 4.

Bob pulled onto a turnout at Milepost 12. Robert helped Derrick wiggle into his snowsuit, and the three of them started up an embankment into the ponderosa pines. Robert remembers walking ahead, telling Derrick to stay with his grandfather.

But the boy scrambled through the snow, annoying Bob by chopping on small trees with his hatchet. Derrick told Bob he wanted to catch up with his dad. The grandfather eventually relented.

Derrick knew the woods. When he was a week old, his mother put him in a pack and carried him along on a bear hunt. He grew up hunting with his father and mushroom-picking with his mother's father. He'd been to Pelican Butte on several of those mushroom expeditions.

About 3 p.m., the two men met up.

"Where's Derrick?" Robert remembers asking.

"I thought he was with you," Bob said.

"He was with you!" Robert yelled, instantly furious.

Screaming amid the snow

Robert turned and sprinted back up the hill. The light was fading quickly, and heavy, wet snow fell steadily. He screamed Derrick's name. Nothing.

An hour passed, and darkness cloaked the trees. Still nothing. Robert was desperate by the time he flagged down a man driving along the road. "Please call 9-1-1," he remembers begging. "Please help us."

Throughout the night and for the next two weeks, hundreds of people trudged through thigh-deep snow, searching for Derrick.

Lori and Robert couldn't eat, drink or sleep. Robert crawled through drifts. A scratch on his leg turned black with frostbite. Soon, his chest burned with pneumonia.

Lori built a bonfire at the turnout, hoping Derrick would see it and come to her. She remembers lying awake night after night, staring out the window of a donated camper to make sure the fire kept burning. Delirious from lack of sleep, she once thought she saw Derrick walk out of the woods toward her, waving and smiling.

In the hours immediately after Derrick's disappearance, Robert and other members of the family found Derrick's tracks in the newly fallen snow. The boy's small boot prints made a short loop from the spot where Robert had last seen him to a clearing near the paved, well-traveled road, where Derrick had lain down to make a snow angel.

Sometime after Derrick vanished, a snowplow had come by, obliterating the tracks that led away from the angel. That quirk of fate erased any chance of quickly determining what had happened.

No tracks led from the angel back toward the woods. And the blazes Derrick had cut in the trees with his hatchet were confined to a small area near the road. Robert felt certain his son hadn't walked back into the trees.

Family members repeatedly said that they believed Derrick had made his way to the road and might have been picked up by a stranger. But the sheriff discounted those concerns.

The official search ended eight days after Derrick disappeared, when Klamath County authorities broke camp after telling Lori and Robert that their son was dead.

They would look for his body in the spring.

Rumors, criticism spread

Robert, Lori and at least 100 volunteers stayed on the mountain for another seven days. Speculation deepened that Derrick had been abducted.

On Dec. 18, 1998, below-freezing temperatures forced the Engebretsons to call off the search, fearful that they were putting the lives of the volunteers at risk. Lori tearfully addressed the crowd. "Go home and take care of your own families," she said, vowing to return to the mountain as soon as weather permitted.

The couple did just that, spending the next two months trudging -- sometimes crawling -- through the snow. By February, they were behind on their mortgage payments. So Robert gave up the search on weekdays and returned to the Klamath Falls mill where he'd worked for 18 years. Every weekend for the next two years, he drove straight from his graveyard shift to the mountain.

Lori often joined him. They kept a map in their glove compartment and inked out areas where they'd searched. In the woods, they'd kneel to sift through piles of animal scat, looking for Derrick's teeth or fingernails.

But their ardor did nothing to quiet growing criticism in their close-knit mountain community.

The couple and others had openly criticized the popular county sheriff and the search-and-rescue coordinator for being slow to the scene the night Derrick disappeared. The search team was not mobilized for nearly five hours after the first 9-1-1 call, records showed, because the coordinator was reluctant to interrupt the group's Christmas banquet.

Friends of the team wrote negative letters about the Engebretsons to the local paper, Lori recalls. The group's leader was even quoted in a newspaper saying defensively, "We didn't lose the kid."

The sheriff was publicly dismissive when the Engebretsons announced they believed Derrick had been abducted and posted a $20,000 reward for information leading to his safe return. "If I were a parent," he said, "I guess I'd be hanging onto that, too."

Robert and his father passed lie-detector tests, but rumors swirled around the family. Once, Lori was standing in line at Kmart behind two women as they discussed Derrick's disappearance. "I heard the dad killed him," she remembers one woman saying, with the other replying, "Well, I heard the mom could have had something to do with it."

Retreat into darkness

Lori and Robert retreated into their own world, a triple-wide manufactured home perched amid the pines about five miles north of Bonanza -- a half-hour drive from Klamath Falls. Lori's thoughts turned so dark, her doctor put her on antidepressants. She gained 80 pounds. Robert gained 70.

Robert couldn't speak to his father. He blamed himself for not finding Derrick, but he blamed Bob for losing him. Bob Engebretson was too racked with guilt to even talk about it.

Lori watched her own father, Ben Davis, fall apart. He and Derrick had been inseparable and had spent hours in the woods hunting for morels. Three days into the search for Derrick, a distraught Davis punched Bob Engebretson in the face.

Lori, known for her hot temper, never turned on Robert, though her family expected her to. She was too afraid of losing the only person who fully understood her loss. But the couple, married when they were teenagers, drifted from their other two children, Amy, then 18, and Kenny, 15.

Amy had been a straight-A student with plans for medical school, but her grades plummeted, and she spent more and more time away from home. She began experimenting with drugs, she would say later.

Kenny, who had shared a room with Derrick, gathered all his brother's belongings, boxed them up and moved them to the garage several months after Derrick disappeared. When Lori discovered what he'd done, she screamed in anger.

Robert had taken a lot of time off work. At the same time, the couple had spent thousands of dollars searching for Derrick, paying for everything from psychics to a boat to search Klamath Lake. Eventually, they went bankrupt.

Family hunts and trips to the beach ended. One event after another kept the family trapped in despair.

Graffiti that turned up on a rest-area bathroom wall near Burns in 1999 said Derrick had been killed and buried. But an FBI profiler concluded the writing was "a cruel hoax." A boy named Derrick who was found in Texas under unusual circumstances looked a lot like the Engebretsons' son but proved to be someone else. A bone discovered in Pelican Butte in 2000, after three agonizing days, turned out to be from a deer.

The Engebretsons hung suspended in time. Their 1998 Christmas tree, the artificial one, stood in their living room for three years, Derrick's gifts still piled around it.

They couldn't help thinking that if they accepted Derrick's death, they would be betraying him. If by some chance he was still alive, he might be devastated to learn they'd given up.

Then in late 2001, a handwritten letter arrived in their mailbox.

"I know," it said, "who took your son."

A confession, then no deal

A year and a half after Derrick disappeared, a horrific crime shocked Oregon.

Frank J. Milligan, a 31-year-old state youth authority worker , approached a 10-year-old boy at a Dallas park on the afternoon of July 11, 2000. He offered the boy $100 to mow his lawn. The boy agreed. But when he reached Milligan's car, the man asked him a chilling question: Do you want to live or die?

Milligan bound the boy's hands with duct tape. Later, he stopped just north of Salem, forced the victim to walk down a dirt road and sexually assaulted him. Then Milligan choked the boy and pushed his face into the dirt so hard he blacked out. He cut the child's throat and left him for dead.

The boy woke up. Drenched with blood, he stumbled to a road, where a motorist stopped to help.

At the time of the attack, Milligan was out on bail from the Clatsop County Jail, accused of a 1997 sexual attack on an 11-year-old boy in Seaside. Detectives tracked him down, and he eventually pleaded guilty in both cases, drawing a 36-year sentence.

Months later, Milligan's cellmate wrote a letter to police and the Engebretsons saying that Milligan had confessed to abducting and killing Derrick. It arrived at the Engebretson home in late 2001.

An Oregon State Police detective who had investigated the Dallas case and others confronted Milligan. The pedophile confessed to killing Derrick and agreed to lead detectives to the boy's body.

Lori and Robert remember their hearts pounding as they drove five hours to Silver Falls State Park southeast of Salem. They stood at the park's entrance, feeling weak as the FBI used ground-penetrating radar to scan for Derrick's bones.

After several days of searching, police gave up. But a Marion County assistant district attorney told the Engebretsons that Milligan had agreed to plead guilty to killing Derrick if they agreed to spare him the death penalty.

Lori remembers her hand trembling as she signed the papers that would spare Milligan's life. Robert broke down in sobs.

But when Milligan faced the paperwork a few days later, he balked.

A prosecutor later told Lori that Milligan, who at 33 might live long enough to eventually walk free, had pushed away the pen.

No deal, he said.

From bad to worse

After Milligan recanted, the Engebretsons struggled with competing emotions.

On one hand, they felt relief because Milligan's failure to produce Derrick's body meant they didn't have to mourn his death. On the other hand, they still didn't know what had happened to their son.

Lori slipped into deep depression. She was irritable and lost her temper for no reason. She asked for some time off from the Klamath Falls craft store where she'd worked for 11 years.

When she returned a month later, she heard that a co-worker had talked behind her back. She blew up. She remembers standing in the shop, shouting angrily at co-workers. Soon after, Lori said her boss sat her down and told her she was going to find a new store manager. Lori could stay and take on less stressful tasks. When Lori resisted, the women agreed that she needed to quit.

Suddenly, the family that was already struggling had $1,600 less each month. Lori felt lost without the structure of work. She was anxious and worried all the time. Intrusive, upsetting thoughts overcame her, particularly when Robert went out to the mountain. She began to fear she'd lose him, too.

"You get up there on that mountain, and you start screaming Derrick's name, and even though Derrick isn't around now, you're still up there screaming his name," she would later say. "You get up there, and you just think about killing yourself."

Days blurred into months. Lori would get so lost in her thoughts that when she'd drive to the grocery store, she'd wake from a daydream and find herself at the mountain.

Faced with mounting bills, they were forced to sell their land and the triple-wide manufactured home with the big white kitchen that Lori had always called her dream house.

"This is it," she remembers telling Robert as they packed the last box, bound for a 30-foot camper trailer that was parked in a Klamath Falls mobile home park. "We've lost it all."

A frightening wake-up call

A while ago, Lori had a dream so real she thought she was awake.

She remembers seeing three figures -- one in a crimson cloak -- standing around her bed. A silvery cloud hung above her, and she could see a child's hand reaching out.

She grabbed the hand and pulled on it. Derrick fell from the cloud and landed on her. It reminded her of the moment he was born.

"I can feel his body on top of my body," she would later recall. "I'm crying and squeezing him so tight."

Then, she says, the figure in the red cloak spoke: "It's one for one."

She says she looked into the hallway and saw the figure take Amy. She screamed and woke Robert.

They hadn't seen their daughter in weeks. Amy's cell phone had been disconnected. She rarely stopped by, and when she did, she sometimes didn't speak at all.

Lori remembers speeding to the Klamath Falls house where they thought Amy had been living. She wasn't there, and for two days they searched at houses throughout the city. Lori hadn't cried that hard since that long-ago search in the mountains.

When they found her, Lori broke down. "You're alive," she remembers sobbing again and again. "You're alive."

It was a breakthrough. For the first time in years, they were thinking of something other than their lost son. Although Milligan had not led them to Derrick, his confession had allowed the Engebretsons to stop blaming themselves for the boy's disappearance. The thought that they could lose their other two children terrified them. It shifted their focus away from the past and toward the future.

They worked on reuniting their family. After more than a year at the trailer park, Lori and Robert had saved enough to rent a small house in Klamath Falls, a place big enough for Amy to move back in with them in November 2003. After she returned home, Amy stopped using drugs and started talking about going back to college.

Kenny moved back to Klamath Falls after graduating from trade school. Last year, Lori and Robert took him to the ocean, their first deep-sea fishing trip since Derrick had disappeared. They agreed to start a tradition and meet their now 21-year-old son and his girlfriend for weekly card games.

Robert, now 44, and Lori, now 42, also started bowling again, the first thing they'd done for fun as a couple in years.

They don't feel closure. They still don't know exactly what happened to Derrick, who comes to Lori in dreams. He smiles and makes a promise: "I'll see you soon."

The pain of losing him is as sharp as ever. They can't bring themselves to put up a live Christmas tree.

New sign of hope

But for the first time in years, the Engebretsons have hope.

Six months ago, they learned that Amy, now 23, was pregnant with their first grandchild. They're anticipating the birth like nothing that's happened since Derrick disappeared.

Lori and Amy have spent hours decorating a nursery in the rental house. They've been shopping at Wal-Mart for baby clothes and furniture. Robert assembled the white crib that stands in the center of the nursery. A large, purple stuffed unicorn leans in one corner, and framed Anne Geddes prints hang on the walls.

Six years ago, three generations of Engebretson men went to cut a Christmas tree. One never came back, and the family lost their way. Finally, with the crushing guilt that nearly destroyed them lifted from their shoulders, they are living as a family again.

And the granddaughter they have already named is the new life that is bringing them back. They will call her Adrianna, and she is due on Christmas Eve.

Michelle Roberts: 503-294-5041
©2004 All Rights Reserved.


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