Why You Needn't Worry About the Missing 411
It's no surprise that people do sometimes go missing in the wilderness, including America's national parks. But one notion, called the "Missing 411", claims that inside the parks that number is much higher than it should be, and that the National Park Service covers up these disappearances. Is this true, or does the data say it's just another unfounded conspiracy theory?
You may or may not have heard of the so-called Missing 411 conspiracy theory, but whether you have or not, it does make what initially appears to be a compelling case. Missing 411 is the creation of David Paulides, a Bigfoot evangelist, and it's the name he has chosen to describe what he believes is a large number of people who have gone missing from inside US national parks over a period of many decades, many of them in unusual or inexplicable circumstances, and nearly all such cases either denied or covered up by the National Park Service. Paulides has compiled a frighteningly huge number of such disappearances and has been quite open with his inability to get a satisfactory explanation from the park service. So today we're going to listen to his claims, compare them against verifiable facts, and see if Missing 411 is a real thing, or if it's the theory's own substance that's what's actually gone missing.
Many have observed that the name Missing 411 is confusing. Paulides has not, to my knowledge, explained what it refers to; but the consensus best guess is that it means "information about missing people", 4-1-1 being the number to dial for telephone information in the United States. It's nothing to do with 411 people missing, just to clear up an obvious point of confusion.
David Paulides himself is an interesting character. He's done Coast-to-Coast AM and quite a few podcast interviews, so it's easy to hear him talk about his theory if you want. He had worked as a police officer in San Jose, CA until 1996 when he was charged with a misdemeanor and subsequently fired. Shortly thereafter he began self-publishing books about Bigfoot, and did Bigfoot business under the name North America Bigfoot Search LLC. He became a leading proponent of Melba Ketchum, who made extravagant claims in 2013 of having discovered Bigfoot DNA despite having no relevant background in the field, and who invented her own scientific journal to publish her own paper because no actual journals would. But it was when he began self-publishing his books on Missing 411 in 2012 that he finally made a name for himself. Bigfoot was old news, but a new claim of thousands of missing people and a government coverup were fodder for instant Internet and paranormal celebrity. Since then, he's published at least 10 books on Missing 411, more books evangelizing the reality of Bigfoot, and at least two Kickstarter-funded documentary films, all produced under his North America Bigfoot Search moniker.
Although Paulides' writings are almost entirely about disappearances in national parks, the total number of disappearances he gives — about 1,600 — includes missing persons from all federal lands, which is a much larger area. As anyone who hikes or backpacks knows, people go missing in wilderness areas all the time. There are simply too many mistakes that an inexperienced person can make, and too many sources of danger that can strike anyone, regardless of experience level. Obviously, people can get lost. People can get sick or injured and be unable to hike out. Weather and the elements can strike. Cars can get stuck, roll over, blow a tire, overheat, and strand their passengers anywhere. And out at the long tail of the curve are even predatory animals and people. All of these result in missing persons reports, and the larger national parks have to respond to these literally every single day during their busy seasons. The vast majority of such people are found; usually alive, but sometimes too late; and, unfortunately, sometimes never. The elements, decomposition, and especially predation can eliminate the evidence very quickly. And so, regardless of whether there's a conspiracy or not, it's a certainty that some people will go missing in national parks, and some of them will never be found — and, predictably, that's exactly what we observe.
So the question becomes one of whether people are disappearing more often than should be expected. National park attendance varies wildly, season to season and year to year, but most (not all) track their numbers of visitors, and it should be possible to compute the percentage. It is important to point out that the cases Paulides talks about are real cases; he didn't make any of this up. Data scientist Kyle Polich took a sample of many the cases from the books and verified that they are all real and that Paulides did report them accurately. But for all the research Paulides has done tracking down every shred of information about missing persons in national parks, he has never taken this most obvious first step — to check whether the number of missing persons is actually high or unexpected. In fact, he never — in any of his books — claims that the disappearances happen at an unexpected rate.
Instead, his claims are more exotic. In a 2021 paper, student Madilyn Oster analyzed these. In summarizing some of his claims, she writes:
She then proceeded to disprove Paulides' own conclusions, using the information presented in his own research:
Other researchers have pointed out that many aspects of the cases have explanations that are well known, just apparently not to Paulides. One example is the people who strangely took off some of their clothes. Search and Rescue people will tell you this is common. It's called paradoxical undressing, and it's something people sometimes do in the final stages of hypothermia as they experience vasoconstriction. They feel hot and loosen or remove their clothes.
Paulides has indeed been diligent about trying to get to the bottom of the disappearances he believes are inexplicable. He has filed many FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests with the National Park Service requesting their records of missing persons, but has been stonewalled every step of the way. My first question was whether the National Park Service was the right agency to ask?
There isn't a single clear answer to this. There are different kinds of park rangers, from the seasonal employees who mostly do maintenance, to the helpful guides at the visitor center desk, to the professional experts who protect park resources, all the way up to National Park Service Law Enforcement Rangers, known as US Park Rangers. These officers are fully trained law enforcement, and are also empowered to enforce state laws. Their job is a serious one; in fact, US Park Rangers are killed in the line of duty at a higher rate than any other federal employee. There are currently fewer than 2,000 US Park Rangers — about one for every 200 square kilometers of parkland over 423 national parks. They are comically understaffed. So most national parks — every one is different — have agreements with local law enforcement agencies who have authority to enforce certain types of crimes within the parks. There is a requirement in place that serious incidents, including "Critical missing persons or Amber Alerts," be reported to the Department of the Interior's Office of Law Enforcement and Security (OLES), but this applies only to DOI personnel, not state or county law enforcement; thus many cases would never get input.
In addition to that, most or all of these agencies are members of NLETS, the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, which is a national clearinghouse of law enforcement data. While missing persons reports that become criminal investigations would indeed all be entered into this system, to find them you'd need to search by specific data, like the missing person's name or drivers license. It doesn't really have search functions like "show me everyone who was reported missing in Yellowstone National Park last year." The query result formats — which are available on their wiki — don't include fields like what type of land use a crime was committed on: private, commercial, national park, and so on.
So when David Paulides or anyone else asks who had responsibility for some particular missing person report, it might take a bit of digging to find out even that basic fact in every individual case. The expectation of getting a single clean list of all missing persons from all national parks might seem straightforward enough, but the more you know about national park service law enforcement, the less you expect it to ever be practical to assemble any such list. Polich did confirm that Paulides had indeed made all the FOIA requests he claimed he did, and that at least some of them were denied. While Paulides asserts a coverup conspiracy, a review of what data the National Park Service might actually be able to provide suggests a more mundane explanation. They simply don't have it.
At the end of the day, I find that the Missing 411 non-mystery is a virtual clone of the Bermuda Triangle non-mystery. Check out the similarities. You've got a patch of ocean where planes and ships sometimes go down, and the US Coast Guard finds that the numbers are no higher than the rest of the world; and though some are lost without ever being found, the majority have perfectly natural explanations. Paulides cites missing persons reports from national parks, and not even he asserts they are at an unexpected rate; and though a few are never found, the majority all have one of the usual explanations. The Bermuda Triangle would be unknown if it were not for the efforts of a few imaginative authors who cited actual disappearances, and then made all sorts of insinuations of mysterious conditions and inexplicable circumstances, cloaking ordinary but tragic events with an air of mystery. Missing persons in national parks would never have received any undue attention had not David Paulides done exactly the same thing, taking ordinary but tragic events, and making all sorts of insinuations about them to weave an air of undeserved mystery.
And that's where I think the Missing 411 fictional universe should be left; some ordinary events, made interesting only by one author's layer of false intrigue.
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