DNA Reveals Fate of Man Who Vanished in Alaska in 1976

Investigators believe Gary Sotherden died in bear attack
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 6, 2023 5:56 PM CST
DNA Reveals Fate of Man Who Vanished in Alaska in 1976
The hills overlooking the Porcupine River Tundra in the Yukon Territories, Canada.   (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Upstate New York man Steve Sotherden says the fate of his brother was "much more brutal" than he had hoped would be the case —but at least he now knows what happened to him, more than 46 years after he disappeared during a hunting trip in Alaska. Gary Frank Sotherden was last seen in late 1976, when he and a friend set out to walk on opposite sides of the Porcupine River in northeastern Alaska and meet when it had frozen, the New York Times reports. After the 25-year-old failed to meet his friend, searches on land and from the air found no trace of him. In 1977, a mountain guide hired by the family found a campsite, broken glasses, and Sotherden's identification, but no human remains.

A hunter found a human skull in 1997 along the Porcupine River about eight miles from the Canadian border, close to where Sotherden went missing, though Steve Sotherden says the family wasn't told about it at the time. State authorities said that the skull showed signs of a bear attack and that no other remains were found. DNA was extracted from the skull last year and investigators matched it to a cousin, the Times reports. Steve Sotherden says he agreed to submit a DNA sample, but the case was resolved quickly when his wife suggested that a test he had recently submitted to the 23andMe genetic testing service be used for confirmation.

Steve Sotherden tells Syracuse.com that his parents died without knowing what had happened to his brother. He says other family members plan to hold a memorial service in their hometown of Clay, near Syracuse, in the spring. He says Gary traveled through the US and Canada after finishing high school and ended up in Alaska in 1972, where he worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System for years. He says he spoke to Gary the day before he flew out for the Porcupine River trip. "I remember saying to him, ‘Please come back and visit us. You haven't seen us in years and you're going to be in the (outdoors) alone for months,” he says, but his brother said he was committed to the trip and couldn’t change his plans. "He was very calm and kind, but also a free spirit who did the things he wanted," he says. (More cold cases stories.)

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