For 10 years, Derek Lueking’s mother has maintained a constant presence on a dedicated Facebook page to search for her son, a young man who was reported missing from Great Smoky Mountains National Park on March 17, 2012.
The tone of the Find Derek Lueking page inevitably morphed over time, shifting from initial calls for Derek to reach out to heartfelt memories as birthdays and anniversaries rolled by, year after year.
“My biggest fear is not that Derek is gone, but that he looks at this page and thinks he’s been forgotten,” Sheila Lueking wrote more than five years ago. “That’s the reason I keep posting.”
She is not alone in her heartache. Derek Lueking is among those who disappeared from the rugged, mountainous park on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.
“Do not look for me”
Derek Lueking was 24 when his roommate, fearing he wouldn’t show up for work at the Peninsula Hospital in Louisville, reported him missing on March 15, 2012.
Over the next few days, Derek Lueking purchased over $1,000 worth of camping supplies and stayed at several motels. Security camera footage showed him leaving the Microtel hotel in Cherokee, North Carolina at 4 a.m. on March 17. That was Derek Lueking’s last sighting.
Her sister, Kim Jackson, told Knox News the family found her vehicle at Newfound Gap around 8:30 a.m. that day and alerted park authorities that Lueking was missing.
He had bought a sleeping bag and a tent, as well as maps of the park, but had left them behind. He also left behind a cryptic note that read only “Don’t look for me”, along with his wallet and car key.
But Lueking, described by his family as a fan of survivalist TV show Bear Grylls, took supplies he could have used to live in the woods for a while. In a statement released by his family after his disappearance, they said he took items including a backpack, a pack of Bear Grylls survival tools, an axe, several pages from a military survival manual , a headlamp and even cereal bars.
In the days after Lueking disappeared, park spokeswoman Molly Schroer told Knox News that he might have “wanted to get lost” and live off the land, but he “s ‘is put above his head’.
The official search during that first week included more than 60 people, as well as tracking dogs and helicopter spotters. These search teams initially focused on the off-road areas surrounding the parking lot.
Adding to the confusion and concern over foul play, a second man went missing in the park – 23-year-old Michael Giovanni Cocchini of Nashville. No evidence was ever found that the pair shared a bond, and Cocchini’s remains were later found in August.
On March 26, the National Park Service announced it was canceling its search, with park spokesman Bob Miller telling Knox News, “We don’t want to give up, but we’ve pretty much exhausted what we can. make.”
Lueking’s friends and family continued the search on their own, distributing thousands of flyers in and around the park to no avail.
Cases of missing persons in the park date back to 1969
Given the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – 522,419 acres – and its status as the most visited national park in the United States with 14.1 million visitors in 2021, you might think more people would be there. disappeared in the years following the creation of the park. created in 1934.
But as is the case with most parks, searches for missing hikers are much less frequent than rescues.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park conducts an average of 103 search and rescue missions a year, including 118 in 2021, said Liz Hall, the park’s emergency manager.
“Based on data from 2016 to Search Assets 2020, 80% of those searches were for injured people, 6% for missing people, and 14% are recoveries or fall outside of these parameters,” Hall said.
A total of five people remain on the park’s missing persons list who have never been found, dating back to 6-year-old Dennis Martin, who disappeared on a family camping trip on June 14, 1969.
16-year-old Trenny Lynn Gibson disappeared on October 8, 1976, while on a field trip with Bearden High School. She was hiking with classmates near Andrews Bald and Clingmans Dome but disappeared sometime after 3pm that day.
Thelma Pauline Melton, 58, was hiking near Deep Creek Campground with two friends when she walked out in front of them and disappeared on September 25, 1981.
Christopher Lee Cessna, 35, was reported missing and possibly suicidal on April 27, 2011. Park officials later discovered his 2009 Audi in the Newfound Gap parking lot.
Follow-up of the missing
The National Parks Service’s Cold Cases webpage lists a total of 28 people missing from national parks who have never been found, nearly half from Yosemite (a much less visited park with 3.2 million visitors in 2021). Rocky Mountain National Park is listed as having five cold missing persons cases, while the Great Smoky Mountains are in third place with four (Cessna is not on the list, possibly because it is considered a suicide).
An astonishing number of people – more than 600,000 – go missing in the United States every year, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Many of them are quickly found safe and sound, but tens of thousands of people have been missing for more than a year.
The National Crime Information Center listed nearly 522,000 missing person reports in 2021, most of which have been “purged” due to cases being resolved. According to the center’s database, 93,718 missing persons cases remained active at the end of the year.
So who disappears, maybe forever? The vast majority, 61%, are minors who do not fall into the category of involuntarily disappeared (kidnapped) or who are believed to be in danger. Nearly 73% of missing minors were coded as runaways, according to the data. Among those who are still missing, people under the age of 21 represent 42%.
In 2021, nearly 42,000 people were reported missing in circumstances indicating their physical safety was at issue, while 13,621 were reported as unintentionally missing, i.e. kidnapping or abduction. Nearly 30,000 are said to have a mental or physical disability that could have put them at risk.
And nearly 23% of those missing simply fell into the “other” category, meaning they were missing adults where there was a reasonable concern for their safety.
Lueking, it seems, falls into this category, one that provides few answers when the missing person cannot be found.
As the anniversary of Derek’s disappearance approached this year, Sheila Lueking declined to speak to Knox News, saying she had no new information to provide. She then posted a final message on the Find Derek Lueking Facebook page, announcing her decision to shut it down.
“Until we know, we HOPE,” she wrote to the page’s nearly 3,000 followers. “If we hear back, I will reopen and share. Thank you ALL for your continued support, love and prayers over the years.”