Molester is top suspect
Posted: 11/3/05 5:06 pm
Molester is top suspect
Published November 14, 2004
Authorities search for link between convicted man, Derrick Engebretson
Combined staff and wire reports
Klamath County authorities Saturday confirmed a report that a man serving a prison sentence for attempted murder is a suspect in the disappearance of a young Bonanza boy nearly six years ago during a family Christmas tree hunt near Rocky Point.
The Oregonian reported Saturday that Frank J. Milligan, convicted of raping a 10-year-old boy then slashing the boy's throat and leaving him for dead, may have been in-volved in the disappearance of 8-year-old Derrick Engebretson on Dec. 5, 1998.
The possible link between Milligan and Derrick was made two years ago said Ed Caleb, Klamath County District Attorney. It was made public only this weekend after it was uncovered by an Oregonian reporter working on a story about sex abuse.
In 2002, Milligan confessed to killing Derrick, only to later retract his confession.
"Now the question is whether he is telling the truth or not telling the truth," Caleb said.
A confession is not enough to convict a suspect, Caleb said. It is not even enough for the filing of charges. Evidence that backs up someone's confession is needed, he said.
After the confession State Police investigators tried to find evidence that Milligan had come in contact with Derrick or had been near Klamath Falls at the time of the boy's disappearance.
"No one at this point has been able to do that," Caleb said.
Without the evidence there is no grounds to charge Milligan with a crime, he said.
Derrick, who was a third-grader and known to family as "Bear Boy," was searching for a Christmas tree with his father, Robert, and grandfather Bob Engebretson when he wandered away in a snow storm near Pelican Butte. His disappearance led to a massive search with dogs, snowmobiles and hundreds of volunteers that lasted for weeks.
"For 18 days and 18 nights we never quit," said Ben Davis, Derrick's other grandfather.
Eventually the Air National Guard and the U.S. Forest Service were brought in to aid in the search, but the boy wasn't found.
Over the years authorities have looked into multiple leads and have had other suspects and people of interest, but none of the leads have panned out, said Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger, who inherited the case from former sheriff Carl Burkhart. The case is still classified as a missing person.
"There has been no new information for investigators recently," Evinger said. He said they are still trying to put enough of the pieces of the puzzle together.
Davis said the investigators told Derrick's family about Milligan's confession about two years ago. The family was kept abreast of the developments in the case and brought up to the Willamette Valley when Milligan told authorities he killed the boy and he would show them where he buried Derrick's body.
Despite the intensive initial search and many searches since, Derrick was never found and was presumed to have frozen to death in a snowstorm. But law enforcement officials now say they believe Derrick found his way to the roadside, where he was picked up by Milligan.
''He is a suspect,'' said Oregon State Police Detective Ken Pecyna.
Evinger confirmed that authorities have a theory that Derrick made it to the road, but he would not go into specifics of how they came to that theory.
The Oregonian said other high-ranking law enforcement officials confirmed that Milligan is a suspect. Evinger said an Oregon State Police investigator told him that Milligan is the only suspect in the case.
In July 2001, Milligan pleaded guilty to charges of attempted murder, kidnapping, sodomy and sexual abuse after he lured a 10-year-old boy into his car at a Dallas park in 2000 by offering the child $100 to mow his lawn.
Milligan raped and strangled the boy, slashed his throat and left him for dead. The child survived. At the time of the attack, Milligan was out on bail after being charged with the sexual assault of an 11-year-old boy in Seaside.
Milligan surfaced as a potential suspect in the Derrick Engebretson disappearance after a fellow inmate claimed that Milligan had bragged about abducting and killing the boy, sources close to the case told the Oregonian.
When confronted, Milligan, who had been sentenced to 36 years in prison for the Dallas and Seaside crimes, confessed to killing Derrick and agreed to lead detectives to the place where he claimed to have buried the boy's body, the newspaper said, citing law enforcement sources.
But nothing was found, and Milligan later recanted the confession, according to police and Derrick's family.
''He took them to the spot where he said he had buried the body, then he didn't do much to help them find it,'' said Lori Engebretson, Derrick Engebretson's mother. ''He said, 'Well, I guess I don't know where it's at. It was night, dark, and I was trying to hurry.' ''
Davis said county, state and FBI investigators combed the wooded area near Silverton but didn't find a trace of Derrick.
"All they found was some dead animals," he said.
Based on evidence found at the scene of the disappearance, family members believe Derrick was making a snow angel near the road and was abducted by someone who happened to be driving by. ''We think it was a crime of opportunity,'' Lori Engebretson said.
Word of Derrick's disappearance got to Davis late the night of Dec. 5, 1998. He rushed up to Rocky Point and joined the search near Rocky Point.
Davis said he has been hunting and tracking all his life and he knows how to find and follow people's tracks through the snow. He found Derrick's tracks that night, he said.
"I knew it was Derrick's because I had got him the boots," Davis said.
The tracks lead Davis from where the boy disappeared in a circle back to Westside Road. There there was the imprint of a snow angel. Nothing more.
Davis said he told authorities that he thought his grandson had been abducted, but he said they insisted he was missing in the woods.
One witness reported seeing a man struggle with a boy near the road but didn't stop because he assumed that they were father and son, Lori Engebretson said.
During the search, a search dog owned by Kathlynn Petty of Portland kept urging Petty to return to Westside Road in its efforts to find Derrick.
The Engebretsons weren't the only ones searching for Christmas trees that snowy night. Davis said two or three other families were in the woods off of Westside road on tree hunts.
Police had never publicly identified Milligan as a the suspect. But in 2002, they announced they were investigating a tip that Derrick might have been abducted by a man driving a black Honda sedan.
At the time, police also released a photo of a black Honda parked in front of a white ranch-style house. The Oregonian, however, obtained an original copy of that photo that includes Milligan - meaning law enforcement officials had used a computer program to erase him from the photo released to aid the search.
The newspaper learned of Milligan's alleged involvement in the Derrick Engebretson case while researching a story about child sex abuse on the children's ward of the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. Milligan, a longtime state worker, was a psychiatric aide on the children's ward from 1994 to 1997.
For Derrick Engebtetson's family the search for their lost son and grandson continues.
"We go up there every once in awhile," Davis said.
The put ribbons on trees in memory of Derrick and go over the now too familiar land again, on the lookout for clues.
"We kept hoping, we are still hoping," Davis said. "Someday, maybe, we will get a closure."
H&N Staff Writer Dylan Darling contributed to this story.