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Q&A with Jon Billman, author of THE COLD VANISH




Q: You cover dozens of cases in this book, both in quick mentions and chapter-long studies, but you must have encountered countless other missing person stories during your research. How did you decide what made the cut? Were there any you wish you could have included that didn’t make it?

A: I was much more drawn toward the cases that were not clearly criminal. The strangest, least-likely ones made the cut. Jacob’s case was foremost because it appeared that this smart, strong, outdoor athlete had just been raptured from his bike. Terrence Woods seemed to run frantically away—or toward—something unseen by witnesses. Michael Linklater may be dead somewhere in the Ontario bush, or he may still be tricking his family by leaving snowshoe tracks and pinching cans of food. There are cases that happen all the time that I’m sorry I couldn’t include, like David O’Sullivan, a twenty-five-year-old from County Cork, Ireland, who vanished on the Pacific Crest Trail just north of San Diego in April 2017. He’d reportedly taken on the trail name “Leprechaun” and there have been reported sightings, but none that have panned out. He wasn’t an experienced hiker, and his journey north had just started. Now his family back in Ireland has to get reports in the form of the leprechaun out in the desert that probably aren’t accurate, but for families like the O’Sullivans, tiny drops of hope are better than silence, I think, until more definitive news about David breaks. Bigfoot, portals, UFOs, now leprechauns.

Q: You mention a few possible changes to the current search and rescue system that might make it more efficient, such as having a missing persons database. Are there any other adjustments you’d like to see made to how S&R functions?

A: I’d like to see search and rescue incorporated into existing official organizations. In France the postal carriers are charged with checking on the elderly as part of their job. I’d like to see, say, federal and state wildland fire crews be on-call to deploy to missing persons searches. When I worked fire crew there was a lot of downtime, a lot of repainting buildings and cutting weeds—what more important job is there than finding a missing person? And as far as budgets go, there are few industries that burn money like wildland firefighting—they’d hardly notice the cost of a search.

The databases would certainly help, particularly in the colder cases. When you go to Grand Canyon National Park’s website, people missing in the park should be the first thing you see—scroll away from it if you’re not interested. There are a lot of people currently missing in that park. Hikers aiming for Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness might think twice about gambling with the weather forecast if they were reminded how many hikers go missing up there. The lower-ranking rangers in Mesa Verde didn’t even know Dale Stehling is still missing in their park—if visitors found a random shoe or pair of glasses or a cap and they were aware Dale is still out there, maybe a connection could be made. Is it likely, no. But then so much in the world of missing persons is unlikely.

Q: In many of the cases you describe, it’s surprising that a person went missing—the trail was simple, or they were expert outdoorsmen, or were surrounded by other people. Yet hiking, mountain biking, and trail running remain popular activities across the U.S. Given how treacherous the wilderness is, what advice would you give to those of us who still venture out?

A: Leave breadcrumbs, even when it seems like overkill. It should be a reflex to text someone where you’re headed, even if it’s a two-mile snowshoe on a familiar trail. And I’m a big proponent of the windshield note. Analog. Often authorities find a vehicle at a trailhead, but still can’t be sure the missing person is on the respective trail. And now I carry two rolls of surveyor’s tape in my pack—when I’m in thick, unfamiliar territory I leave ribbon blazes (ties around trees) and untie them on my way out. That used to seem silly to me, but not anymore.

Last year I was cross-country skiing in familiar maple woods with my two dogs. I was out of water and decided to take a shortcut off-trail. The sun was going down and it was cloudy and I thought I had my bearings. Of course, I was too stubborn to follow my tracks back out and essentially made a giant corkscrew which took us through a big cedar swamp. I kept snagging my skis in downfall and the dogs had to porpoise through snow over their heads for an extra hour. I eventually would have hit a road, but it was a good reminder that you can still get lost in your backyard.

Q: You were clearly deeply enmeshed in the search for Jacob. What was it like to be involved during such a painful time for his family? Was it difficult to then depict yourself on the page, encroaching in some way?

A: I felt like an intruder at times. A voyeur. An ambulance chaser. But Randy, Mallory, and Micah—Laura too—welcomed me in. That’s a hard thing about the book coming out—I don’t want to violate their trust, misrepresent them. That’s one of the many things that keeps me up at three a.m. But without the book I wouldn’t have met the Gray family. They’ve taught me about heart and courage. Randy has taught me volumes about what it means to be a father and a friend and a human being.

How does a writer just seamlessly insert himself into a family crisis? I don’t think that’s possible. But Randy is a rara avis, he truly never met a stranger. You’re here, you’re gonna be part of finding Jacob. And that was it, the next thing I know I’m trying to keep up with Randy in the forest. Randy never introduced me to people as a writer. “This is my friend Jon from Michigan,” he’d say. “He’s helping me look for Jacob.” I was much more comfortable in that role than the guy writing about Jacob going missing. That’s Randy, the coffee cup is always half full, sunshine, and high tides.


1. Billman estimates that tens of thousands go missing each year. He follows dozens of cases, both solved and unsolved, in The Cold Vanish, and certainly leaves many more unmentioned. Why do you think Billman chose to center his book around Jacob in particular? How is his story emblematic of the larger issues that Billman is exploring?

2. Perhaps more than anything else, The Cold Vanish underscores the danger we put ourselves in each time we venture into the wilderness. Jacob was an experienced outdoorsman and highly athletic; Jaryd Atadero was surrounded by adults; Marty Leger disappeared off a popular trail network. Why do you think many continue to venture into the untamed outdoors, given the known danger?

3. The Cold Vanish has a few happy endings. Sajean Geer eats pine needles and builds a lean-to. Kara Moore stumbles back onto a trail, effectively finding herself. Considering these cases in contrast with those where no one is found, what seem to be the defining differences? What can we learn from them?

4. With little physical evidence to go off of in some cases, search and rescue relies heavily on eye witness accounts. What do the cases Billman discusses reveal about the reliability of our memories? In this way, how can those with the best intentions complicate the search process?

5. Throughout his investigations, Billman encounters a myriad of fascinating characters who dedicate themselves to searching for the vanished. There’s Duff the hound-handler, Laurie the psychic, and Tanya Barba, probation officer and Bigfoot aficionado, to name a few. What qualities do these searchers seem to share? What drives someone to search when it’s not a loved one’s life at stake?

6. In the epigraph to Chapter 14, Ann Patchett describes hope as a plague. Randy’s hope for Jacob unquestionably buoys him, but also leads him to upend his life. In light of Randy’s experience, does Patchett’s claim ring true or false? How does this play out in the attitudes of other family members who Billman interviews?

7. Different cases have drastically differing amounts of resources allocated to them, and also differing levels of media attention. Amanda Eller had several private helicopters dedicated to her search, and her GoFundMe page raised $70,000 to offset the cost after her story made national news; meanwhile the search for Khiara Henry garnered little attention outside Hawaii and her GoFundMe raised under $3,000. What does this say about how the public views different victims, and about who we deem worthy of being found?

8. Billman catalogs the way government and law enforcement agencies are failing to respond to the epidemic of missing persons in the United States. Why do you think the government isn’t dedicating more resources to these searches, or doing more to keep track? What difficulties do you think agencies encounter when trying to improve their practices?

9. The demands made of volunteer searchers are significant. The search leader for Amanda Eller announces that he needs volunteers “comfortable being outside six to eight hours a day,” while Noah Mina’s father discourages average volunteers from searching for his son because of the treacherous terrain. How does one draw this line for volunteers?

10. There are many magical and spiritual dimensions of The Cold Vanish. Psychics, Bigfoot sightings, supposed personal mystic quests, and religious groups like the Twelve Tribes are mentioned and discussed frequently. What do you think it is about missing persons in the wild specifically that inspires this kind of mysticism?


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