Pain stalks lost boy's family
December 01, 1999
Photo from AP
Lori and Robert Engebretson revisit the Pelican Butte site near Bonanza where their son Derrick, 8, disappeared a year ago Sunday. Family and friends have created a small shrine around a fir tree there. The Engebretsons' lives have been frozen in pain since their son's disappearance.
Derrick, 8, vanished a year ago Sunday
The Associated Press
BONANZA -- An artificial tree adorned with ribbons and pink ornaments has been standing near a corner of the living room since last Christmas.
Lori and Robert Engebretson can't bring themselves to take it down or remove the gifts for their son, 8-year-old Derrick, who disappeared in a mountain snowstorm Dec. 5 while searching for Christmas trees with his father and grandfather.
These have been 12 awful months for the Engebretsons, whose lives have been frozen in pain since Derrick vanished on Pelican Butte about 29 miles from Klamath Falls.
The Engebretson family struggles with waves of grief and guilt. Simple family outings usually end in painful memories. The Engebretsons have taken their other children -- Amy, 19, and Kenneth, 16 -- to the coast but found it too painful because it was Derrick's favorite place. They considered camping, a favorite family pastime, but avoided it because Derrick loved it so.
"There's just nothing that we did that Derrick wasn't involved in," Lori said.
While the tragedy has brought some family members together, it has pulled others apart. The two men on the mountain the day Derrick disappeared, Robert and his father Bob, rarely speak now.
The three were walking together most of the time that day and were never very far from the paved road. But, at one point, Robert walked ahead of Derrick and his grandfather. A little later, Derrick wanted to catch up with his father, just up the snowy hill and out of sight. The grandfather told Derrick to follow his father's footsteps in the snow. The boy has been unreported since.
A massive two-week search turned up no trace of the boy.
The family still clings to hope that Derrick was abducted. Far more likely, authorities said, Derrick never left the mountain.
Sitting in their home amid the pines near Bonanza, Lori and Robert Engebretson try to explain what 12 months of suffering has done.
Lori Engebretson says pain-free moments are fleeting. "If we laugh and have fun, we feel guilty, because why should we have fun?'' she said.
If she tries to accept that Derrick is dead, she feels like she is unfaithful to him if he's still alive.
Robert Engebretson's life has been consumed with near-weekly treks back to Pelican Butte, where he continues to look for traces of his son.
Robert's father, Bob Engebretson, who was probably the last person to see Derrick alive, has barely spoken to his son since that night. Lori said her father-in-law is racked with guilt.
Lori's father, Ben Davis, has become withdrawn. He and Derrick were best friends and spent countless hours in the woods hunting.
"We all have guilt," said Lori Engebretson.
But she insists she has never blamed her husband or father-in-law for Derrick's disappearance, and the Engebretsons say their marriage has remained sound.
"We have never argued once about this," Lori said.
If there is blame, the Engebretsons say, it belongs with those who led the county's search efforts.
The Engebretsons and others have criticized Sheriff Carl Burkhart and Search and Rescue coordinator Detective Bud Wilson for being slow to search, being disorganized, and for declining many offers of help.
While a sheriff's deputy responded to the first call for help from the mountain, the Klamath County Search and Rescue team was not mobilized for nearly five hours after the first 9-1-1 call.
Robert has tried to draw some meaning from his son's disappearance. Even in those first mind-numbing days of searching, suffering pneumonia from the all-night forays in the bitter cold, Robert said he hoped people following news of the search would treasure their own children.
Copyright © The Mail Tribune 1999, Medford, Oregon USA