A surprising number of missing persons are found by hunters in the field, and sometimes the clues are pivotal to solving crimes
Hunters discovered the remains of missing people at least 22 times in 2023. Illustration by Bailee Valentini
Marc Zancanella was hunting elk with his wife, daughter, and grandchildren near Wamsutter, Wyoming, on November 11, 2023, when he stumbled upon a grisly discovery. Zancanella had been scouting in the area, and he got an opportunity at a nice bull elk. He took aim with his 7mm Magnum, and watched the bull drop in its tracks.
“I made a great shot on it and was sure it was dead,” he said. “My wife, and the kids and I started walking up to the elk. Surprisingly, it got up and ran up the hill, so I chased it for about 10 minutes. I could see the top of his antlers behind some sage brush. When I got to where he was, he was gone,” Zancanella said.
But the hunter then spotted the elk again, a couple hundred yards away. He got into a prone position for a steadier rest, and shot again.
“I laid down and shot and could see I hit him again. I said, ‘Yeah, I got him!’ I told my wife to get the truck and find a road around so we could get the bull out easier. I start walking toward the bull. I get to within 30 yards of it and see that, surprisingly, it’s still moving. I step around some sage brush and I notice something white in the corner of my eye.”
Zancanella owns and operates Artistic Taxidermy, and he immediately recognized what he was seeing as a skull, and he knew it wasn’t from any of Wyoming’s wildlife. “I realized it was a human skull. I was stunned,” he said. “I’ve got an elk ahead of me and a human head next to me. After dispatching the elk, I return to the skull. I take off my Chicago Bears beanie and put it on a bush to make it easy to locate.”
After marking the scene, Zancanella returned to his truck and called 911.
“I could tell the lady I talked to didn’t think I knew what I was talking about, but I’m a taxidermist, and I know my stuff. It took the sheriff approximately an hour to show up. I could tell he didn’t believe me at first either. But, as soon as he saw the skull, he said, ‘Don’t go any further,’ for fear we’d mess up the crime scene. He and the investigators took hundreds of photos. I was getting worried about my elk because it was 40 degrees and I hadn’t gutted it yet. Eventually, he let me drag it away from the scene and gut it.”
Zancanella says the skull is currently being carbon dated.
“They told me if it’s been out there for 75 years or less, they’ll send it to get DNA tested. If it’s been out there longer than that, I don’t know what will happen.”
According to Missing People of Wyoming, the skull might belong to David Williams, who’s been missing since November 11, 1980, after last being seen at a nearby service station.
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A CALL TO HUNTERS FOR HELP
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUS) database, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 600,000 people go missing annually. Fortunately, the vast majority of missing persons cases are quickly resolved. For example, in 2021, 521,705 missing person cases were reported, but more than 485,000 of the cases were resolved within the year. Still, more than 20,000 missing person cases remain open and approximately 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year. A surprising number of them are found by hunters.
In fact, hunters play such a large role in discovering missing people that some states actively engage with them to help solve crimes. An organization called Missouri Missing has called on hunters to remain observant throughout hunting season. The organization asked hunters to be aware of their surroundings and note if anything seems off, out of place, or there are things that don’t belong in the area.
“Clothing could be covering human bones. An abandoned car could contain remains or give clues to what happened to a missing person. Personal items like a watch, eye glasses, jewelry, shoes, a cell phone, etc. could also be important clues. You may have found a crime scene,” Missouri Missing said. Hunters, hikers, runners, and dog walkers have been credited with finding 51 unidentified remains in the state of Missouri so far.
Because hunters spend so much time covering rugged and remote ground, it’s no surprise that over the years, they have stumbled upon clues that have been pivotal to solving unsolved crimes. What is a surprise is how often that actually happens. A Google search revealed multiple news stories of hunters who discovered the remains of missing people during the 2023 hunting season — 22 cases to be exact, including Marc Zancanella’s story, told above. The rest are listed below.
Dec. 16: A man leaving the woods after a day of hunting found remains in Calhoun County, Mississippi. Investigators were sent to the scene. According to darkhorsepressnow.com, they determined the body had been there since May or June of this year. The body, which had a tentative ID, was found near a makeshift tent the person made in a wooded area outside of Bruce. According to the ID, the man was Hispanic and his family will be notified once his identity is confirmed.
Dec. 13: An Alabama hunter stumbled upon a human skull off a county road in Lauderdale County. According to Islandpacket.com, investigators found more of the remains, and two weeks later, through forensics and dental records, the body was identified as belonging to 39-year-old Bradley Eugene Lard, who’d disappeared Feb. 28, 2019. Investigators said he was at an acquaintance’s home until he walked off, and was last seen at a gas station in Cloverdale. Investigators have not yet determined if foul play was involved.
Nov. 29: A hunter was training his bird dog in St. Charles, Michigan, when the dog discovered the body of 60-year-old Kelly McWhirter. According to Fox2detroit.com, McWhirter and her ex-husband, Steven Higgins, were reported missing more than a month prior. After finding a bloody scene at the couple's Flushing home, authorities determined foul play was likely involved. Shortly after the pair was reported missing, Higgins shot and killed himself during a traffic stop, while McWhirter was still missing.
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Nov. 27: A group of hunters in Sumter County, South Carolina, stumbled upon a body wrapped in a tarp in a wooded area. According to wach.com, hunters investigated the contents inside the tarp after noticing a strong odor. After an autopsy was performed, the remains were identified as 34-year-old Frederick Ricardo Nelson Jr. of Sumter. According to Carolinafishandhunt.com, testing determined the man was killed by multiple gunshot wounds.
Nov. 26: Deputies responded to private property in Idaho’s Twin Lakes region after a group of hunters found human remains that at appeared to have been there for many months. According to krem.com, the identity of the remains and cause of death are not known.
Nov. 25: A hunter discovered possible human remains near a wooded area in Lincoln County, Mississippi. According to wlbt.com, investigators sent the remains to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for further testing.
Nov. 17: A hunter in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, stumbled upon a human skull. When investigators arrived, they found more bones and clothing. People.com says the remains were found in a wooded area off Route 422 near Ambrosia Road.
Nov. 17: A hunter discovered a skull near a tree line in a field in Williston, Vermont, according to wcax.com. The rest of the skeletal remains were found approximately 200 yards away by Vermont Search and Rescue K9 crews. Investigators say the man was identified as Kevin Leland, 56, of Panton, and that he died by suicide.
Nov. 17: The remains of a hunter missing for almost three years were discovered by another hunter in Clay County, Kentucky. According to fox56news.com, 59-year-old Robert Estep was found by an anonymous hunter who was hunting in a remote area. Estep died as a result of an ATV crash.
Nov. 12: An Illinois deer hunter found the remains of a man who’d escaped from Carle Health Methodist Hospital in Peoria, where he had been admitted “against his will.” According to kansascity.com, Logan Dunne, 32, had bipolar disorder, and family feared he was “not thinking, communicating or behaving rationally” because he had stopped taking his medication. Crews searched extensively for months until the deer hunter found him.
Nov. 4: While scouring a wooded area for deer in Burnet County, Texas, a hunter uncovered human remains that appeared to have been there for quite some time. Deputies said the partial human remains could have been in that area for several months or multiple years. According to ksat.com, the remains have been preliminarily identified and next of kin have been notified. No foul play is suspected.
Nov. 2: Hunters putting up a treestand in Greene County, Tennessee, found the body of a female. According to wcyb, the body was sent to ETSU’s William L. Jenkins Forensic Center for positive identification and to determine the cause of death.
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Oct. 30: A man hunting on Colorado’s blackhead Peak found the body of a hiker who’d been missing for more than two months. The hiker’s dog was still alive and by his side. According to whiskeyriff.com, Search and Rescue had spent more than 2000 hours searching for Rich Moore, 71, who’d left his house on August 19 with his dog for a hike, but never returned. They found his car at the trailhead, but could not find him. The local hunter found his body over 2 miles east of the mountain’s summit. Moore’s Jack Russell Terrier, Finny, was standing next to his body. After receiving veterinary care, the white terrier was reunited with family.
Oct. 30: A hunter found human remains while hunting in Wisconsin’s Menominee Forest. According to the greenbaypressgazzette.com, the person's identity and cause of death are currently unknown. Since the body was found on the Menominee Reservation, the FBI is being joined in the investigation by Menominee Tribal Enterprises.
Oct. 28: Hunters discovered human remains in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. According to citizen-times.com, the hunters alerted the Madison County Sheriff's Office, which contacted the FBI. Agents and officers helped recover the human remains from "a remote wooded area off Stackhouse Road in Marshall, North Carolina," and sent them to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia. It is too early in the investigation to know the identity of the person or their cause of death.
Oct. 27: Hunters in Plainfield, Vermont, discovered a body in a remote area and Vermont State Police say the death “occurred under suspicious circumstances.” According to vtdigger.com, this discovery marked the second time that week that hunters found a body in central Vermont. Police said an autopsy was planned “to determine the cause and manner of death and help determine the victim’s identity.”
Oct. 25: Hunters in Plainfield, Vermont, discovered the body of a 23-year-old identified as Tanairy “Tanya” Velazquez Estrada, whose mother reported her missing to police in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, on the same day her body was discovered. According to vtdigger.com, police said the cause and manner of death was pending but it was labeled suspicious.
Oct. 17: A Tennessee hunter called authorities after discovering a human skull while he was out scouting for deer. According to wate.com, a K-9 unit was brought to the scene along with the Criminal Investigation Division where they discovered more skeletal remains. According to WJHL, the remains were identified as Homer Marshall Ricker, who was reported missing by family members in February 2019. No foul play is suspected.
Oct. 1: A hunter in Laurens County, South Carolina, found the remains of a man missing since July 26, 2017. According to wyff4.com, the remains have been identified as Gregory McSwain Morgan, who would have been 45 years old. No traumatic injury has been noted on the bones. The cause of death has been ruled undetermined.
Aug. 12: Hunters were at a camp in Lorman, Mississippi, when they discovered human remains after smelling a foul odor. According to wlbt.com, the hunters followed the odor and discovered the remains of a human body that was partially covered. The Jefferson County sheriff says there’s not an active missing person report, which means the body may be been brought into the county. An investigation is ongoing.
July 6: Hunters in Maui discovered human remains wrapped in plastic in a remote area of Kula. Authorities say the crime scene is an approximately 30-minute drive into the woods. According to hawaiinewsnow.com, detectives are still investigating the crime and an autopsy will be performed on the body.
While out hunting, remain vigilant, observant and report anything out of the ordinary to the authorities. Keep in mind that you could be the one to help bring the family of a missing loved one resolution.