Ronan's Spooky Mysteries: Missing 411

If you go onto the weird part of Amazon, you'll find a large number of ostensibly non-fiction books predicated on the idea that people are disappearing in America's woods under mysterious and Certified-Spooky circumstances. My favourite example is the no-nonsense HUNTED IN THE WOODS, which features a scary clown.

By far the most famous brand in the hot-ticket People Vanishing In The Woods genre is the Missing 411 series, written and self-published by David Paulides. The books can be bought on the CanAM Missing Project website, which bills itself as "The first website dedicated to understanding the complexity and issues of searching, rescuing and investigating people missing in the wilds of north America." 

That description is sort of accurate, in the same way that a UFO research site could be billed as "dedicated to understanding the aerodynamics of various objects in flight." Paulides's basic thesis is that people are going missing in US and Canadian national parks and forests at an anomalous rate, often under unusual or mysterious circumstances, and that there's a pattern of similarity in these cases that becomes evident if you examine enough of them.

Actually buying the books was way more time and investment than I was willing to put into a single blog post, so I opted instead to watch the recently-released documentary and some of the podcast and radio interviews that are available on Youtube. I went into the movie with the expectation (reasonable, I think) that it would present the best evidence that Paulides could muster for his idea.


The movie focuses mainly on a single case, the disappearance of Deorr Kunz Jr in 2015, cutting away occasionally to five other cases from Paulides's research. Except for a few brief bits of audio from Paulides's radio interview, there's very little in the way of framing or cluing the view into what the overall point is meant to be, which makes me assume this is a project mainly aimed at pre-existing Missing 411 fans rather than a general audience; I can imagine someone watching the whole thing and not realizing it isn't just a documentary about normal missing person's cases.

A big part of the problem is that Paulides (who is mostly absent from the narration apart from the radio interviews) never actually suggests what he thinks is responsible for these mysterious vanishings. According to people who have delved more deeply into the David Paulides Extended Universe, this is par for the course; apparently he does have an idea in mind, but doesn't want to say what it is in public in case people ridicule him for it. Which is a novel approach for a paranormal investigator, I have to admit.

In fact, Paulides is often infuriatingly coy about what point he's actually trying to make, even in direct interviews. He runs--and sells his books through--a bigfoot research organization (which doesn't seem to be the overall solution to the big mystery, at least not in the majority of cases) and will sometimes teasingly emphasise the presence hair or signs of an animal attack, but without actually coming out and saying that he thinks a bigfoot was involved. The entire documentary takes this tone, so that you often have to puzzle through what it is the film is actually trying to claim.

There's a frustrating "just asking questions" aspect to the whole thing, where Paulides and his film-makers will let witnesses and people involved in the case come to the more out-there claims rather than just stating them for themselves.

And when you do parse those claims, most of them are underwhelming, as the "mysterious" aspects of the cases that are meant to point to this overarching mystery are pretty unconvincing. Early on, Paulides states in an interview that many of the disappearances he's looked into involve people with (in his words) "physical impairments or genetic deficiencies" and suggests that people with those traits are being "targeted". I can think of many reasons why people with certain disabilities would be more likely to go missing in difficult wilderness terrain, none of which involve them being snatched away by a supernatural force (or whatever Paulides thinks happened to them).

A lot of the movie is like this. The fact that search and rescue dogs sometimes tried to follow branching trails or led searchers to dead ends is treated as suspicious, even though dogs are known to not be 100% reliable. The remains of very young children are found far from their last known whereabouts and at high elevations, which is flatly stated (again, by interview subjects and not the film-makers themselves; they're just asking the questions, remember) to be completely impossible, which I'm not sure I buy. Elsewhere, remains are said to have been found in places that had already been searched multiple times. I'm really not sure how you can verify that searchers definitely looked in that one particular spot, especially in dense forest (to say nothing of the possibility of animals moving the bodies).

And then we come to Deorr Kunz Jr, the centerpiece of the documentary. The choice to make this particular case the main focus is odd, because it seems increasingly likely that Kunz's parents are responsible for his disappearance; two separate private investigators hired by them to look into the case turned on them and came to the conclusion that they were involved, and the police have named them as persons of interest. The documentary dutifully goes through the facts of the case, including all of the details that make the parents look suspicious as hell, and then at the last minute has to try and exonerate them since that's not the conclusion Paulides wants us to come to.

It's a shame, because the documentary is for the most part well-produced and professional-looking--this isn't some slapdash project that comes off like it was made by cranks to push their pet conspiracy theory--and it gives a good overview of the Deorr Kunz disappearance, a case that seems like it's going to go down in the true-crime annals once all the facts shake out and the dust settles. It would have been nice if the film-makers had waited for that to happen and then applied their obvious documentary-making chops to the subject without Paulides's "research" getting in the way, but they clearly had other priorities.


Ronan's Spooky Mysteries: Henry McCabe and the Smiley Face Killer

On the 8th of September, 2015, 32 year old Henry McCabe went missing after spending the night drinking with two friends. His body was found in a nearby lake, and it was determined that he had drowned, probably as a result of being inebriated.

However, the police noted some odd inconsistencies in the the testimony of his friend William Kennedy, who claimed to have dropped McCabe off at a gas station and who was the last person to see him alive. The discrepancies weren't serious enough to get Kennedy arrested for murder (McCabe's death is still considered an accident), but questions remain about what exactly happened that night.

Oh also, McCabe made a totally spooky phone call to his wife shortly before he died. Yeah, it's another one of those.

The call (which I can't seem to find in its entirety online) consists of McCabe screaming, moaning, and making odd gurgling sounds; the audio is choppy and distorted, and at times you can hear what sounds like growling, and other animalistic noises. Naturally, this led to speculation that McCabe had been attacked by something; if you search around for information about this topic, you'll find a lot of stuff from someone named Dave Paulides hinting at the possibility that he was killed by a bigfoot, or possibly multiple bigfeet (keep that name in mind for the next post).

This idea, along with more believable theories about McCabe being murdered by Kennedy or someone else, face the signficant problem that his body didn't have any defensive wounds or other signs of trauma that you'd expect after a life or death struggle. But at the same time, something clearly happened to the guy, and we've got audio of him screaming in terror right before he died. 

I don't have any theories about what that might have been (although I will say that the sounds on the call seem in line with a disoriented and drunk person who's just fallen into cold water and can't get out), but I wanted to use this case as a lead-in to a wider subject. I think some of the interest in McCabe's death stems not just from the mysterious call but an unwillingness to believe the mundane explanation. The lake McCabe was found in was miles away from any place he would have gone to that late at night and not easily accessible, so how did he end up in the water?

Those questions are often asked about unexplained deaths in water. America in particular seems to be plagued by cases of people (usually young, college-aged men) disappearing and then turning up dead in water with no convincing explanation of how they got there, and at least two former detectives believe that not all of them are accidents. Enter: the smiley face killer theory.

The idea is that there are tons of cases of young men dying in water near conspicuously-placed smiley face graffiti, which are actually the work of a serial killer or killers. Before we get any further, I should say up front that this is almost certainly not true--it's been debunked by everyone from criminal profilers to the FBI, the "evidence" seems like nothing but confirmation bias (drownings and smiley face graffiti are very common; it's only natural that they'd overlap from time to time) and the sheer breadth and number of supposed victims would require a vast network of killers who somehow manage to pull off their murders without leaving a trace of evidence.

But the existence of the theory, and its widespread popularity, speaks to something in the human psyche, a need to draw connections between isolated data points and an unwillingness to believe in random coincidence. In the drowning cases factored into the smiley face killer theory, there's a conspicuous gap in time between the person last being seen at a party or a bar, and their body being discovered in water. When the human mind is presented with white space like this, it immediately tries to fill it in, and thus we get a conspiracy theory.


Ronan's Spooky Mysteries: The Disappearance of Brandon Lawson

Unsolved missing people cases can be vexing for armchair detectives (and anguishing for relatives) because most of them have a distinct lack of clues. In case after case, the same pattern plays out: the person in question vanishes, no evidence of foul play is ever discovered, there was nothing anomalous about their activities prior to the disappearance to explain what happened to them, and no trace of them is ever seen again.

And then there's cases like this, where we have an abundance of clues indicating that something extremely bad happened, but it only deepens the mystery.

On the 8th of August, 2013, then-26 year old Brandon Lawson had an argument with his girlfriend and set off near midnight to drive to his father's house in Texas. Forty-five minutes later, he called his brother to say that he was out of gas and parked on the side of the road. His brother and his brother's girlfriend set off with a gas canister to bail him out.

Unknown to either of them, while they were en route Lawson made a 911 call, and this is where the real mystery starts. Lawson is extremely difficult to make out on the recording of the call--even the 911 dispatcher is having trouble understanding him--but he's obviously in a great deal of distress and asks for the police to come immediately.

This is significant, because Lawson had a warrant for his arrest at the time and seems to have been making some effort to evade the police (when his brother later couldn't find him, he apparently assumed initially that he had moved away from the road for this very reason). The fact that he urgently requested police seems to indicate that he was in an extremely dire situation, potentially one of mortal peril.

The police and Lawson's would-be rescuers arrived at the same time and found Lawson's truck parked somewhat haphazardly. His keys, phone and wallet were missing. Lawson's brother called him again; Lawson answered and said that he was ten minutes up the road and bleeding before the call abruptly cut out. He was never seen or heard from again.

Naturally, a great deal of the amateur sleuthing around this case has gone into decoding the 911 call. Due to a combination of poor audio quality, Brandon's obvious panic and his heavy Texan accent, it's extremely difficult to make out what he's saying, and there are dozens of interpretations. Somewhat unbelievably, the points where the recording are the most garbled appear to be the moments where he's giving the most pertinent information about what the hell is going on. For example, you can pretty easily hear him saying "I'm in the middle of a field" and "my truck broke down", but in between the words are too muddled to make out clearly.

Listening to the call myself, it sounds to me like he's saying something like "a scraper(?) just pushing guys over." "Scraper" obviously doesn't make sense, and I'm pretty sure I'm mishearing that word, but it's been suggested that "pushing guys over" means that Lawson witnessed people being killed by whoever or whatever this "scraper" is. At times in the call it sounds like he's implying there's someone else with him (people have speculated that he may even be talking to someone else at one point), and he seems to state that he "ran into them." The dispatcher takes this to mean that he hit someone with his car, but as there was no sign of this at the scene, it's widely believed that Lawson meant he came upon someone unexpectedly, which led to his current predicament. 

Given all of that, the most plausible scenario I can come up with is that Brandon ran out of gas, got out of his truck for whatever reason (possibly to avoid police by hiding away from the road), wandered into some kind of violent altercation, and was abducted or killed by someone trying to shut him up. This would explain why he suddenly stopped talking at the end of the call--he may have been trying to hide from someone.

Granted, searches of the area didn't reveal obvious signs of violence, but the "field" he mentions was apparently a vast hunting area; if he was running from something (he's pretty clearly out of breath), at night, in terror, it's very possible he ended up getting much further from the road than either he or anyone else realized.

But if he did stumble onto something he shouldn't have, what was it? A No Country For Old Men style drug deal gone wrong? 

There's a slightly more sinister theory doing the rounds. Remember that word I said sounded like "scraper"? Other people hear it as "strooper" or "staper" and have speculated that this was a garbled version of "state trooper" (I've seen people confidently declare that staper is common Texas slang for State Trooper, only for other people presumably from the state to insist that they've never head the word in their lives, so I don't know). Could that explain why the police never managed to find a body despite extensively searching the area Brandon was thought to last be in? Did he come across a police shooting?

A slightly more plausible idea is that Brandon saw someone he thought was a state trooper (or someone else encountered someone they thought was a state trooper--it's difficult to tell at times if he's talking about something that happened to him, or something that he witnessed happening to someone else) but was actually...I don't know. A member of a drug cartel? A serial killer? Someone in the grip of a really bad case of road rage?

Or maybe he's actually saying "sniper." It could be sniper. Or maybe not. It's kind of infuriating that this entire mystery potentially boils down to the interpretation of a single word.

The bottom line is that there's only so much information you can glean from a recording like this, and eventually you just end up investigating the back of your own mind. People have claimed to hear all sorts of stuff on the call that I can't hear, including gunshots and second voices. If no one has managed to work out what the hell the guy is saying after four years of continuous scrutiny, I don't think we're ever going to. At this point, the only way anyone solves this case is by finding Brandon Lawson, alive or dead.

For what it's worth, my personal feeling is that the guy is dead. One popular theory is that he ran away to escape his legal troubles, but if you were going to disappear specifically to avoid police attention, then making a panicked 911 call in the middle of the night where you beg for the police to come to your aid seems like a strange way to kick it off.

Believe it or not, this isn't the only case involving an indecipherable phone call. We're going to look at another one in our next post--one that will lead us down a rabbit hole of mysterious deaths and disappearances.

Ronan's Spooky Mysteries: The Flannan Isles Lighthouse

It's the spooky time of year again, which usually means horror movies, horror games, and other scary media. But this year, I've decided to do something a little different.

I've always been a huge fan of unsolved mysteries and unexplained phenomena. As a child, I used to devour books about ghosts and UFOs. I now consider myself a skeptic (but not the gross Reddit kind) and don't believe that concrete evidence for any paranormal occurrence has ever been found, and my interest has shifted to more earthly mysteries like missing persons and unsolved murders.

Over the course of October, I'm going to share some of my favourite mysteries with y'all, and have a go at coming up with plausible explanations. Join in in the comments!

Our first mystery is the disappearance of the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers. In 1900, the captain of a ship approaching the outer reaches of the Scottish Hebrides noticed that the lightouse on the remote island of Eilean Mor was unlit. An investigation discovered that the three-man crew was nowhere to be found, and that there was a high concentration of weird clues inside: half-eaten food suggested that the men had abandoned their posts in a hurry, the clock was mysteriously stopped, and the logbook was full of spooky nonsense about the keepers acting strangely, and ended with the eerie phrase "God is over all."

The biggest puzzle of all came from the weather, and the lighthouse keepers' odd discrepancies in recording it. There had been a bad storm on the day of the last log entry, but the logbook stated that the weather was clear. The keepers had recorded a storm, but they claimed it had taken place days earlier, during a time when the weather was known to have been calm. Oh snap! Did they phase into another dimension or something? Were they all high as kites and lost track of the date?

Actually, the explanation is a lot simpler: most of what I just wrote is total BS.

The Flannan Isles light house mystery is a great example of how a spooky story can be embellished over the years. The detail about the uneaten food came from a poem about the disappearance, and was almost certainly influenced by the Mary Celeste case, where a half-eaten meal was discovered on board. The logbook didn't have anything strange in it. The clock was stopped because it was a 19th century design that needed to be wound periodically.

In fact, the first person on the scene noted that everything inside was perfectly tidy and normal, save for two details: a single oilskin coat hanging next to the door and an overturned chair, both of which seem to indicate that one of the keepers had left in a hurry while the other two were outside (the lighthouse was never meant to be left unmanned under any circumstances).

So what happened? The most plausible theory is that two of the keepers were out at the cliff-side hauling supplies up from a storage area when the third spotted a rogue wave approaching and rushed out to warn them; all three of them were then swept away, and their bodies never found. Rogue waves can be extremely unpredictable and dangerous, and the very same part of the island that the accident is speculated to have taken place on was badly damaged by something in the preceding days--possible another rogue wave.

Granted, there is a problem with this theory: the front door and gate of the lighthouse were both locked, and it seems unlikely that someone rushing out to save his colleagues from mortal peril, in such a panic that he didn't stop to put on his raincoat even though there was a storm raging outside, would take the time to lock up on his way out. The combination of the locked doors and the oilskin are the kind of tantalizing detail that give mysteries like this legs, as it's hard to envision a scenario that explains both of them neatly.

What's your take on this? Can you come up with a plausible story?