‘That’s the life he chose’: Family of man missing in Alaska for 46 years finds closure
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A gravemarker in Pine Plains Cemetary, tucked into a small town in upstate New York, displays the name of a man who went missing in the Alaska woods 46 years ago.
Engraved into the stone are his name, Gary Frank Sotherden, his birth year of 1951 and — by all accounts — his year of death, 1977, above the words “Lost in Alaska.”
The gravestone was erected only a handful of years after Sotherden’s disappearance, but his family only now has found closure, decades after his death, after authorities used genetic testing to identify his remains and close a cold case.
For Gary’s living sister, Ann Bunyan, and his niece, Shantha Bunyan, it was the end of an age-old mystery.
“It is a welcome closure,” Ann said. “It is not really any different, I’m sure, than all of us thought. But we know now.”
Sotherden’s story begins when he went alone into the Alaskan wilderness in the fall of 1976 on a hunting trip. It was the last time he was seen alive.
Sotherden’s remains went undiscovered until 20 years later when a hunter happened upon a human skull in July 1997 near the same area of wilderness where Sotherden was last seen.
The genetic testing technology of the day wasn’t as developed as it is now, as was the DNA database, but improvements in genealogy combined with the boom in ancestry websites have given investigators a huge leg up in solving cold cases that have stretched on for years.
In the case of Sotherden, investigators extracted DNA from the skull to identify who it originally belonged to. They found a match logged in a database on 23andMe.
Alaska State Troopers alerted Sotherden’s living family in late December that a potential match was found before announcing last week that, finally, they had indeed found Gary.
“It maybe took a while to understand that this is exactly what happened to him,” Ann said. “First you go through the denial and the anger, and all the rest of that stuff. But I’d say for quite a few years, I’ve been accepting of this, but it’s wonderful to have the closure, and to know.”
Bunyan and her daughter Shantha both live in Loveland, Colorado, now, but said many in their family still live in New York state. Ann said she and her three siblings grew up in Clay, New York, a small town north of Syracuse.
Shantha said the communication between the family in New York and investigators in Alaska in the 1970s was not very strong, and the little information Alaskan investigators came up with then was not relayed back to the family.
“It’s just been a lot of information and — really good to have those details filled in after all this time,” Shantha said.
Sotherden would’ve been 71 years old today if still alive. He was 25 when he was last seen alive.
The information that authorities sent Sotherden’s family in the current day has helped them fill in the missing pieces of his story. Ann described her brother as a “hippie kind” of person.
“He was very open,” Ann said. “He was very accepting of people. He was easygoing, whatever happened, happened is fine.”
Ann said Gary played trumpet and weight lifted as his hobbies and attended college for a couple of semesters. She said he spent a few winters in Canada with friends who had worked on the Alaska Pipeline.
It was then that he got the itch to go trapping in the rugged Alaskan wilderness, and Ann said he was undeterred in his efforts.
The Bunyans said Gary and another man — who the family only knew as “Stan” — were dropped off in the area around Porcupine Creek, an isolated region of Interior Alaska just a handful of miles from the Alaska-Canada border, in September 1976. Gary and Stan ultimately parted ways; one of them took off to the north of the Porcupine River, while the other went south. Both had plans to meet back up in the spring to catch a plane out.
When Stan called in the plane early due to medical problems in November or December 1976, Gary was nowhere to be found, but no one believed he was in trouble as the plan was to return in the spring.
Once springtime arrived and Gary didn’t show up, Ann said her family filed a missing persons report.
They also paid a friend of his to go searching for him that summer. They said the search turned up a campsite where they found Gary’s wallet and glasses, but not much else.
But it was the scant remains that were found that gave Ann and her parents a small clue of what may have happened. The Bunyans said they determined that Gary had a second pair of glasses made as a backup.
“Those were just small details, that was nice to — ‘Oh, he had another pair,’ or — you know, finding out all the gear he was dropped off with and where he was dropped off and being able to connect that with where the remains were eventually found,” Shantha said.
When the months searching for Gary turned into years, Ann said her family eventually came to terms that Gary was either dead or had possibly suffered some sort of horrible accident that left him unable to remember who he was.
“I mean, we couldn’t understand — we never believed that Gary would not call us,” Ann said. “So he must have been dead.”
Shantha said she never knew her uncle, who disappeared before she was born, but always had a nagging curiosity as a child as to who he was.
“I had also been thinking, ‘Was it at the bottom of a cliff?’ Was it — you know, ‘Were there bear markings?’ ‘Was it in a river?’ ‘Was it at the bottom of a lake?’’” Shantha wondered. “Like ... what kind of information can we glean here?”
Once authorities matched the skull — which was scarred with bear claw markings — to Gary’s family, the link helped them find closure.
Ann said her brother’s cremated remains were sent to her older brother, Steve. The gravestone in New York was put up when the family decided that they were not going to find Gary; Ann says it was the “late 70s or early 80s” when it was placed in Pine Plains Cemetary.
Gary’s gravestone was later joined by two others; his parents Donald and Lucile, who are listed on the Town of Clay website as successful business owners.
Today, Ann believes Gary spent his final days doing what he loved in a place that he loved most.
“That’s the way Gary was,” Ann said. “So, that’s the life he chose. And not that he chose his death, but he chose a life that was a possibility. So we just have to allow him to have chosen what he wanted.”
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