Photo: Dan Winters

Be Afraid: 13 True Tales of Outdoor Terror

Who can resist a good mystery, the kind that leaves you both rattled and baffled? Certainly not us. So it's with sinister pleasure that we bring you 13 tales of unrighteous deeds, inexplicable vanishings, supernatural weirdness, and the stuff that nightmares are made of.

A Strange Disappearance in Alaska

A man, a boy, and a dog took a skiff to a small island for a quick jaunt. The man was never heard from again. Photo: Dan Winters

A Strange Disappearance in Alaska

Did Alaska's frigid waters take another life?

In May 1986, 17-year-old Virgil "Wade" Tackett departed his family's farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and embarked on a time-honored rite of passage for certain young men: head to Alaska, get a job on a boat, earn some money, and emerge at the end of the summer reeking of fish, perhaps having learned a few things.

But when Tackett arrived in the Southeast Alaska town of Sitka, the first thing he learned was that the family friends on whose crab boat he'd arranged to work had brought on another teenager. A Boy Scout and avid outdoorsman, Tackett signed on to work at a local cannery instead. Two weeks later, while spending the weekend near Chichagof Island with his family friends and the teenager on the crab boat, Tackett, the other boy, and a dog went out on a 14-foot skiff to fish and explore. Tackett hasn't been heard from since.

According to the other boy (whose name was never released because he was a minor), Tackett left him and the dog on a nearby small island and took the boat out to jump some waves. When Tackett didn't return, the teenager flagged down a passing boat. Soon after they found the skiff, run aground on a sandbar near Chichagof, its outboard motor still in gear. Coast Guard boats and helicopters searched the surrounding waters and beaches, but there was no sign of Tackett.

"The case never closes so long as someone remains missing," says Anchorage investigator David Hanson, of the Alaska State Troopers. "But up here, inexperience usually contributes to something bad happening." Tackett wasn't wearing a life jacket, according to his mother, Mary Tackett. He'd been told that "life jackets are only good for finding bodies" and investigators believe he probably fell off the skiff and drowned.

His parents aren't so sure. "We don't believe he was ever in the water," says his mother. "With all those fishing boats, with all their gear in the water, they would have snagged him or at least found his hat." Plagued by unanswerable questions, the Tacketts haven't ruled out foul play and have been frustrated by what they see as an inadequate investigation. "We've had 20 years of no answers," she says.

The Tacketts posted fliers, hired a private detective, and appeared on a 1988 Oprah episode. "As the parent of a missing child, you will go to the gates of hell looking for answers," says Mary. Over the years, they've received a steady trickle of tips and unconfirmed sightings of their son. He was supposedly seen in the Alaskan cities of Juneau and Hoonah and a couple of places in Canada. Then there was the beautician in Sitka who said she'd cut Tackett's hair and the hotel worker who swore she'd seen him staring confusedly at a photo of himself on a missing-person flier. Wade's parents have looked into each credible sighting, finding no real answers but encountering a disturbing recurrent theme: that he's suffering from amnesia and does not know who he is or where he's from.

"If Wade were a different kind of kid, maybe it would be easier to accept," says Mary. "But he was golden, just golden, and whether he drowned or doesn't know who he is, the boy I raised is gone."

Did a Wild Dog Eat This Baby?

Australia’s notorious dingos aren’t to be trusted. Photo: Dan Winters

Did a Wild Dog Eat This Baby?

A baby goes missing in the Australian outback.

"I won't talk about what happened on that night," says Lindy Chamberlain, 58, whose 1982 trial for the murder of her two-month-old daughter, Azaria, was the O.J. Simpson-esque media spectacle of its day in Australia. "I'm not going to put myself through that trauma anymore."

Lindy's now infamous cry for help, "A dingo's got my baby!" has spawned a thousand headlines since August 17, 1980, the night Azaria disappeared from the family's tent near Ayers Rock, in the outback of the Northern Territory. Lindy had returned from their campfire to see a dingo in the open doorway of the tent, shaking something in its mouth. Inside, the baby's crib was empty and there was a pool of blood on the floor. An initial search of the area yielded only a few marks in the dirt, possibly the trail of a dingo dragging a baby. A week later, pieces of Azaria's clothing were found by a tourist.

Though an initial inquest found that the baby had likely been taken by a wild dog, a flawed investigation resulted in murder charges against Lindy and her husband, Michael, in 1982. To the shock of many, Lindy was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. (Michael was convicted of being an accessory to the murder but was never imprisoned.) She spent three years in jail before the case was reopened in 1986, after Azaria's sweater was discovered near the base of Ayers Rock in an area full of dingo lairs. Lindy was released and a royal commission eventually exonerating her. In 1992 she received a settlement of nearly $1 million for wrongful imprisonment.

Case closed, right? Well, sort of. When the final inquest into Azaria's death, in 1995, resulted in an "open finding," the case was left officially unsolved, prompting further imaginative speculation. Author Buck Richardson's 2002 book, Dingo Innocent, suggests that four-year-old Reagan Chamberlain, who'd gone to sleep in the tent with Azaria and whose parka was stained with Azaria's blood, killed his baby sister. In 2004 a 78-year-old Melbourne man named Frank Cole came forward with a claim that he'd shot a dingo with a baby in its mouth while on an August 1980 hunting trip with two friends near Ayers Rock. Fearing they would get in trouble for killing the dingo, he said, one of the friends buried the baby's body in his garden in Melbourne. Both of Cole's companions are now dead, and the story was never corroborated. Most recently, in 2005, a 25-year-old woman came forward in the outback city of Alice Springs saying she was Azaria Chamberlain, a claim that has since been dismissed.

Lindy, who was divorced from Michael in 1991 and has remarried, doesn't pay much attention to such theories and is even optimistic that the case, which is now studied by law students, has yielded some positive changes in the Australian legal system. "There is no mystery," she says. "All the answers have been filled in."

Chasing Gold in a Deadly Desert

A prospector left clues as to the whereabouts of a fabled gold mine. Photo: Dan Winters

Chasing Gold in a Deadly Desert

Untold riches may lie hidden in Arizona.

Concealed in the jagged Superstition Mountains of central Arizona, the Lost Dutchman gold mine has been attracting dreamers and fortune seekers for more than a century, none of whom have been dissuaded by the fact that this desert wilderness has claimed at least 100 lives.

The archetype of American buried-treasure legends begins with German Jacob Waltz, known as "the Dutchman," who died of pneumonia on October 25, 1891, in Phoenix, leaving beneath his deathbed a candle box containing 48 pounds of rich gold ore. Waltz, an old prospector with a flowing white beard, had been known to live modestly while in town then disappear into the mountains for months at a time. Upon his return, he'd occasionally pay for a round of drinks at the saloon with a gold nugget or two. During his final hours, he is said to have dispensed a few cryptic hints about the location of his mine.

"'The setting sun will shine through a window rock and illuminate the mine'... 'If you pass three red hills, you've gone too far'... 'The moon will cast a shadow from Weaver's Needle.' These are the sort of clues that have come down through history," says Josh Feldman, 26, who's been looking for the mine for years along with his father, 62-year-old treasure hunter Ron Feldman. "They make a good story, but as far as I'm concerned they're all bullshit." The Feldmans, who live near the Superstitions, suspect that these leads were fabricated by ranchers and others to throw people off the scent. The real treasure, they think, is buried near some old Spanish silver mines on the eastern slope of the Superstitions.

"There has to be something that preceded Jacob Waltz, the Mexican or Spanish workings of a mine or cache," says Ron Feldman, who believes that what Waltz found was a treasure that had been abandoned by its Mexican owners when this part of Arizona was ceded to the U.S. in 1848. The Feldmans' discovery of a Spanish mine shaft in the eastern end of the range lends credence to that claim and has imbued the legend of the Dutchman with new legitimacy.

Though they found no bullion, the elder Feldman deems it a satisfying culmination to his decades-long search. "If my main goal was to find the gold and get rich, I wouldn't have begun this," he says. "The fun's in the history and the searching." Still, he's not selling his shovel any time soon.

Man Overboard! Death on a Cruise Ship

If you were to fall off a cruise ship in the middle of the night, who would know? Photo: Vincent Lock/Flickr

Man Overboard! Death on a Cruise Ship

A honeymoon voyage proves lethal.

You go to pickle yourself with sunshine and booze, to shuffle and conga between exotic ports of call. But booking passage on a luxury liner could be your first step toward an untimely doom, as it has been for at least two dozen people since 2003.

"Cruises are really just small cities at sea, with potential for crime like any other city," says Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI agent with experience in high-seas villainy. And because ships are often registered overseas and visit numerous countries, he adds, the hodgepodge of jurisdictions can muddle investigations. Then there's the few billion gallons of water nearby, which can make recovering deep-sixed bodies difficult.

Go to the bottom of the Aegean Sea and you might find George Allen Smith IV, whose honeymoon float from Spain to Turkey in 2005 ended in tragedy. Four days after their June 25, 2005, wedding, Smith and his wife, Jennifer both in their twenties eased into cabin 9062 of Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas for a 12-day cruise. Their balcony overlooked the portside sea, with Spain, France, Italy, and Greece gliding by.

By the Fourth of July, when the 2,500-passenger ship left Mykonos, Greece, to overnight to Kusadasi, Turkey, the couple had befriended three Russian-Americans and a California man. After some cocktails and luckless gambling, the group aimed for the discotheque. Jennifer, drunk and rumored to have been flirting with another man, stormed off after some harsh words with Smith, who stayed. Sometime after 3 a.m., he went back to his cabin, new friends in tow, to find his bride. She wasn't there.

This is where things get murky. According to one account, the four men helped a very intoxicated Smith search for Jennifer then took him back to his cabin and left. But a California cop staying next door says he was awakened around 4 a.m. by a commotion, possibly a drinking game, in Smith's cabin. Shortly afterwards he heard an argument, then peeked into the hallway to see three men leave. Five to ten minutes later, he heard a terrific, bed-shaking thud, then all went quiet.

The next morning, a teenager two decks below cabin 9062 spotted blood spattered on a metal awning. By 9 a.m. officials had determined that someone had fallen overboard, most likely from the Smiths' balcony. Blood was reportedly found in the cabin, too. Jennifer, who'd spent several hours passed out on the deck, claimed to be unaware of what had happened.

That Smith, distraught at his wife's alleged flirtation, committed suicide, as has been theorized, seems off the mark. As does the possibility that he simply fell, though it could have been an unintended result of the fighting. The FBI has cleared Jennifer of any wrongdoing; they apparently have other suspects and motives to consider. "But," says Van Zandt, "here we are, more than a year later... Security tapes, the statements of witnesses, forensic evidence, if any, should have allowed the FBI to resolve this case by now."

Who Stole Geronimo's Skull?

Geronimo's skull is out there...somewhere. Photo: Dan Winters

Who Stole Geronimo's Skull?

The notorious Native American's bones were disturbed in the grave.

Everybody knows that to desecrate an Indian burial ground is to invite the wrath of the spirits. Especially if the grave is that of a great warrior, like the Apache medicine man Geronimo.

In the late 19th century, thousands of U.S. and Mexican troops were sent after the fearsome leader. Though nabbed several times, he was never a captive long. So it went until Geronimo's final escape his death, in 1909, as a prisoner of war in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Who would have the nerve to disturb the sleep of such a man? Only those born into the world to rule it. Only the Skull and Bones.

The ultra-secret Yale society is rumored to have connections to the mystical Illuminati, the Freemasons, and other brooding cabals supposedly bent on ensuring American military and economic dominance. About 800 Bonesmen, including George W. Bush and John Kerry, roam the globe today, and rumor has it that their initiation rites include kissing a skull: Geronimo's. During artillery training for World War I at Fort Sill, the president's grandfather, Prescott Bush, and five other members of the club allegedly plundered an unmarked grave believed to be the warrior's. They are said to have bathed the skull in carbolic acid and sent it back to Yale. Of course, the Bonesmen have always dismissed the gruesome tale as conspiratorial claptrap.

Chiricahua Apaches Clothing Cultural and ethnic dress Full-length portraits Full-length studio portraits Geronimo Holding Males People Portraits Prominent persons Rifle Studio portraits Traditional dress
  Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS

But last fall, Marc Wortman author of The Millionaires' Unit, a book about Yale war aviators was sifting through documents in the university's library when he made a startling discovery: a bit of Skull and Bones correspondence from 1918 claiming members had secured "the skull of the worthy Geronimo the terrible." Wortman says, "There's no question they robbed a Native American grave. If it's Geronimo's, that's hard to say."

The Apache's great grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, a 58-year-old Vietnam vet living in New Mexico, is mounting a legal campaign to have the remains returned. Hollywood producers have even stepped in to help. Geronimo the younger believes he has no choice but to tear up his great-grandfather's grave to do DNA testing and see if the corpse is missing its head. When Apache leaders first learned the society might have the remains, in the mid-eighties, the Bonesmen reportedly tried to hand over a skull. But, says Geronimo, it was that of a child, which raises all manner of other macabre questions. "The Skull and Bones people have been known to steal items like that," says Kris Millegan, editor of Fleshing Out Skull and Bones, a 700-page tome on the group. "They supposedly have Harriet Tubman's gravestone and other skulls, too. It has to do with having power over people."

According to Geronimo, though, it's a bad idea to trouble those on the other side of life: "Sooner or later, the spirits are going to take one of your loved ones."

Hawaii's Jungles Swallow Tourists Every Year

Getting lost in the Hawaiian jungle is no walk in the park. Photo: Eli Duke/Flickr

Hawaii's Jungles Swallow Tourists Every Year

A fateful trek into nature's tangled labyrinth

"There's this tendency to think the park's beautiful, so it must be benign," says Marsha Erickson, executive director of the Kokee State Park Museum on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. "People just have no idea how complex this ecosystem is, and how easy it is to disappear."

Indeed, disbelief was the most common reaction when 34-year-old doctor Stephen Reisberg and his wife of less than a year, 28-year-old Harvard doctoral candidate Jenny Sun-Reisberg, vanished in September 1990 during a hike in Kokee State Park.

Maybe it shouldn't have come as such as surprise. The local police department's files are peppered with tales of tourists lost in Kauai's tangled jungle, of others falling to their deaths, and of unexplained murders, like the 1981 killing of John and Michelle Klein, who may have blundered into a nearby marijuana plantation. This past November, 24-year-old Daniel Marks disappeared during a hike originating from the same trailhead where the Reisbergs' car was found 15 years earlier.

As for the Reisbergs, upon arriving at the 4,000-acre park, they spent nearly an hour in the museum looking at maps of Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on earth, and consulting with museum employee Mark Jeffers. "They were really excited with this idea they had about getting to the summit of the island," recalls Jeffers, the last person known to have seen the couple. "I tried to explain to them that it's not really such a good idea, but they thought they could handle it."

Two weeks went by before local authorities discovered that the Reisbergs were missing and located their rental car at the Puu o Kila lookout. Their fully packed backpacks and camping gear still sat in the car, suggesting that the couple, experienced hikers and campers, had intended nothing more than a short day hike. A massive search that utilized helicopters, tracking dogs, and local hunters turned up a scarf similar to one in Jenny's luggage and a vague report that a hiker may have heard a woman groaning.

David Boynton, a naturalist who helped in the search and acted as guide for Stephen's parents when they came to the island, suggests that they may have tried to hike out along a ridgeline that is visible from where their car was found. It would have offered tremendous views of the Kalalau Valley but also taken them to the brink of a 4,000-foot drop. "There is a fern that grows in thick mats along these ridges," Boynton says, "and I know from personal experience that you can try to push your way through this green layer and wind up stepping off into air."

Still, the simultaneous disappearance of two people begs the question of foul play and, perhaps, intent: maybe they wanted to disappear. There was a rumor that Stephen was dissatisfied with his work, and island gossips wondered if Jenny, a highly educated Chinese national who had chosen to remain in the U.S., needed to disappear to escape pressure being put on her family by the Chinese government.

"It's one of our cold cases," admits Lieutenant Roy Asher, of the Kauai Police Department. His response to the suggestion that there seem to be an awful lot of strange things going on out there? "Man, you don't know the half of it."

The Riddle of Cerro Torre

Cesare Maestri's claims about Cerro Torre have been widely doubted. Photo: Geoff Livingston/Flickr

The Riddle of Cerro Torre

Did Cesare Maestri ever really summit the famed Patagonia peak?

Italian climbing legend Cesare Maestri has spent nearly half a century refuting those who dispute his 1959 ascent of Patagonia's 10,262-foot Cerro Torre, and he's getting tired of it. "His defense? 'Listen to me, damn you! I did it, I did it. How can you doubt my word? I am Cesare Maestri. If you doubt me, you doubt the whole history of mountaineering,' " says Italian journalist Giorgio Spreafico, paraphrasing Maestri, with whom he spent time while researching his recent book, Enigma Cerro Torre.

Maestri's claimed first ascent, with Austrian Toni Egger, would rank as one of the most stunning mountaineering feats in history: a seven-day conquest of an infamously difficult peak, in unfavorable weather conditions, via an exceptionally technical route. In tragic fashion, Egger was swept to his death by an avalanche during the descent, taking with him the pair's only camera. Subsequent lack of corroboration fanned the flames of one of climbing's most contentious debates.

For many, the climb surpassed the limits of plausibility, and doubts emerged almost immediately. In 1976, an American team made the first ascent of neighboring Torre Egger (named in memory of Maestri's late climbing partner) via a route that retraced the first half of the Maestri-Egger line. "I went from being very pro-Maestri before that climb to absolutely 110 percent convinced that he had not climbed Cerro Torre in 1959," recalls team leader Jim Donini, 63. "For the first thousand feet, it was like climbing in a vertical museum, there was so much stuff old pitons and carabiners and bits of rope and then above that, nothing." Adding to the lack of material evidence, Donini found that virtually everything in Maestri's description of the route above that first thousand-foot face was erroneous.

The doubters' case gained strength in November 2005, when the Italian climbing team of Ermanno Salvaterra, Alessandro Beltrami, and Rolando Garibotti made the next or first ascent of Cerro Torre via the alleged Maestri-Egger route. "I felt even before going up there that there were just too many inconsistencies," says Garibotti, 35, who has written extensively on the subject. "And once you go up there and have a look around you cannot help but sort of chuckle, because nothing matches his description."

For his part, Maestri and his defenders have stuck to his original story, arguing that mountains can change, that avalanches can sweep away evidence, and that memory is fallible especially after 50 years. As powerful as any defense is Maestri himself, embittered by the fight against those who would impugn his name and that of his fallen friend. According to Spreafico, Maestri has dreamed of an earthquake destroying Cerro Torre. Although, even such a disaster could hardly be expected to end the debate.

Forever Lost in the 'Devil's Triangle'

Once you enter the Bermuda Triangle, you may never come out. Photo: Andrew/Flickr

Forever Lost in the 'Devil's Triangle'

The horror of the Bermuda Triangle extends into the 21st century.

A region of the Atlantic triangulated from the three points of Bermuda, Miami, and Puerto Rico, the Bermuda Triangle aka the "Devil's Triangle" is still baffling us. Just five years ago, 50-year-old Paul Vance and 55-year-old Doug Gerdon were in a sailboat 12 miles off West Palm Beach, Florida, when something very strange happened. The pals from Indiana had planned to use the engines to reach the Bahamas then hoist sails to return. But at nightfall something flew overhead, stopped, and hovered. Judging from its searchlight, the men estimate it was about a half-mile away and 1,000 feet high. Vance, who has a pilot's license, didn't think too much of it until, he claims, the boat's motor failed and a cloud of mist suddenly formed under the light and began spinning.

"It was really shocking," Vance says. "I used to read Bermuda Triangle books as a kid but I never bought into it." After several minutes, the light dove into the mist, which then began glowing orange. Soon it all dissipated to reveal a starry sky.

Since 1800 more than 1,000 ships and boats have inexplicably gone missing there along with 200 airplanes, since World War II. In 1945 five torpedo bombers on a training mission off the Florida coast disappeared without a trace after the leader reported a malfunctioning compass. A plane dispatched to rescue them was never heard from again, either. Early in the morning of February 4, 1963, the SS Marine Sulphur Queen, traveling from Texas to Virginia with a bellyful of molten brimstone, should have been cruising easily through the Bermuda Triangle. But sometime after a sailor radioed the mainland the night before, the ship and all 39 men aboard vanished.

"It's the most tangible of the world's mysteries," says Gian Quasar, author of Into the Bermuda Triangle. "We know these ships and aircraft existed, who was on board, and where they were."

Some say movement in the earth's core makes the area prone to electromagnetic vortices that disrupt compasses. In 1986 a pilot on a flight from Bermuda to Jacksonville, Florida, claimed an "electronic fog" had appeared out of nowhere, stuck to the sides of his plane, and stayed there for four hours, during which his digital instruments read 8888888. As for how the Sulphur Queen could have disappeared fast enough to thwart even a mayday call, one theory holds that immense bubbles of methane rising from rifts in the ocean floor the result of stores of the gas building up beneath sank her in a matter of seconds. For 27 days the search went on. One of her life jackets was discovered off the Dry Tortugas. But of the men and their vessel, nothing.

What Really Killed this Tour de France Champion?

What Really Killed this Tour de France Champion?

Italian cycling legend Ottavio Bottecchia's macabre end remains murky.

The man lay on the side of the road, his head smashed in. Bruises purpled his lean, muscle-braided body, and one of his collarbones had been snapped. A bike rested unscathed against a nearby post, glinting in the Italian sun. Lorenzo di Santolo, a Peonis farmer, rolled the man over he was still breathing and saw the unmistakable face of Ottavio Bottecchia, two-time winner of the Tour de France and one of Italy's greatest heroes.

It was June 1927, three years since the beloved cyclist had first dominated the Tour, punishing the peloton with his indefatigable climbing power. After languishing in a hospital for 12 days, the 32-year-old husband and father of a bricklayer and former prisoner of war who'd spent World War I in an elite corps of cycling snipers died from the trauma, the circumstances of his fatal encounter unknown. Philippe Brunel, in his book, An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France, says some theorized that the former champion had stopped to pick grapes and incurred the wrath of a murderous winemaker. But any Italian worth his weight in vino knows that grapes are too sour to eat at that time of year. After a suspiciously perfunctory investigation, the police would later claim that Bottecchia had either wrecked his bike, been hit by a car, or, while taking a drink of water and struggling to get out of his primitive toeclips, suffered a freak accident involving a roadside rock.

But the truth would seem to be much more sinister.

In the late 1940s, a man dying of stab wounds in Manhattan, in a final confession, said he'd killed Bottecchia "under contract." But why and for whom? The name he supplied was never linked to anyone living or dead. Then, in 1973, the priest who'd given Bottecchia last rites claimed, from his deathbed, that Fascists loyal to dictator Benito Mussolini had beaten the rider to death. But Bottecchia, a socialist, is not known to have publicly criticized the regime. According to Brunel, though, shortly after the incident, journalist Giulo Crosti discovered that thugs from the region's right-wing militia had summoned the local sergeant and allegedly demanded his report state that Bottecchia's death was an accident.

Chances are no one will ever know why the first cyclist ever to wear the yellow jersey throughout an entire Tour died such an ignoble death. Once, while winning a race, Bottecchia told another cyclist, "I go." But he was gone far too soon.

India's Deadly UFO Encounter

From a beam of light in the sky came the horrific 'Face Scratcher.' Photo: Dan Winters

India's Deadly UFO Encounter

An unholy terror descends on South Asia.

Something evil roamed the sky over Uttar Pradesh, India, in August 2002. Witnesses said the beast, which looked like a giant insect with steel claws, attacked from a swirling beam of red and green light, raking the flesh off people's faces. Over about a month, 70 victims came forward with burn wounds.

More than a dozen people were killed in the riots and lynchings that followed the attacks of the Muhnochwa. Though all manner of descriptions and theories were bandied about, no one could say what the "Face Scratcher" was. But it had been filmed: One video allegedly showed people running in horror from a beam of light spinning furiously over darkened streets. According to The Times of India, a team of investigators on the scene of one attack did not rule out "the possibility of the presence of an extraterrestrial body with electromagnetic effect."

Was it an alien? Or had agents from archrival Pakistan unleashed a hysteria-inducing genetic experiment on the people of India? The Indian air force was enlisted to track the Muhnochwa via radar. But holy tantrics claimed it was just another angry spirit and needed prayer and sacrifices to be pacified. Professor Ravindra Arora, of the Indian Institute of Technology, theorized that the phenomenon was nothing more than instances of ball lightning resulting from the severe dryness of a local drought.

Tennessee Department of Health epidemiologist Timothy F. Jones, an expert on the psychology of populations, says supposedly supernatural occurrences like this may seem like ridiculous hoaxes but, for people under the spell, "it's very real and terrifying." In the case of the Muhnochwa, though, Jones believes a potent mix of imagination and fear just drove folks a little crazy: "It's called mass hysteria," he says.

Which might explain the Monkey Man, an apelike abomination that had people in New Delhi jumping to their deaths the year before; or Nigeria's Genital Thief scare of 1990; or El Chupacabra, "the Goat-Sucker," which has terrorized Latin American cultures since the mid-seventies. Or not.

As for Scratchy, whether monster or mass delusion it was nowhere to be seen by the end of August.

A Mystery Writer Goes Missing

Ambrose Bierce vanished without a trace. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

A Mystery Writer Goes Missing

A lost legend—was it suicide or murder?

To merely die would have been average. But to disappear completely and assure one's immortality as a literary mystery betrays a black genius and has Ambrose Bierce's fingerprints all over it. When the noted author vanished in late 1913 at the age of 71, he left behind a remarkable body of work that ranged from caustic journalism to dark fiction to his incomparable Devil's Dictionary, a compendium of acerbic redefinitions of familiar words. An iconoclast to the end, Bierce was not the type to go gently into a feeble-minded dotage.

After closing out his affairs, he told reporters that his plan was to travel south, into the teeth of the Mexican revolution, and hinted that he might attach himself to Pancho Villa's forces. He mentioned a desire to extend his quixotic journey to South America, but his farewell letters were suffused with a sense of finality. He wrote to his niece Lora shortly before setting off, "If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico ah, that is euthanasia!"

His final letter, dated December 26, 1913, but later destroyed, suggested that he was in the city of Chihuahua and planning to depart soon for the battle at Ojinaga. Many have concluded that he died in the chaos of that battle or another. Other theories have him executed on orders from Villa or killed by rogue soldiers or, as he predicted, a firing squad. (In the film Old Gringo, based on a novel by Carlos Fuentes, Bierce, as played by Gregory Peck, is shot after arousing the ire of a Mexican general.) Half a dozen cities and towns, from Sierra Mojada, Mexico, to Marfa, Texas, have been posited as his final resting place, and his disappearance instigated State Department and U.S. Army investigations.

"We simply don't know what happened," says Craig Warren, a professor of English at Penn State Erie and editor of the university's Ambrose Bierce Project Web site. "I think it's likely that he died of wounds or illness in Mexico, but given the lack of evidence, it seems unwise to try to push for conclusions."

Of course, not everyone has taken such a noncommittal view. "I think Mexico was clearly a red herring, an elaborate feint," says New York literary investigator Joe Nickell. Nickell has found evidence supporting the belief of Bierce's friend and publisher Walter Neale that, rather than crossing into Mexico, Bierce merely used it as a smoke screen. His real destination, Nickell says, was a secluded canyon of the Colorado River, the perfect place for a quiet suicide with a German revolver he'd kept for the purpose. "The later reports that Bierce was seen in Mexico are about the equivalent of today's Elvis Presley sightings," says Nickell. "In my opinion, he planned this all."

Swept Away: A Windsurfer Disappears at Sea

French windsurfer Baron Arnaud de Rosnay set sail for China and never returned. Photo: Gemma Stiles/Flickr

Swept Away: A Windsurfer Disappears at Sea

The doomed sea crossing of a French baron

When the stratospherically wealthy decide to undertake a newsworthy adventure to broadcast a message, the results are sometimes disastrous.

In November 1984, the dashing Baron Arnaud de Rosnay, a Parisian aristocrat and heir to a Mauritian sugar fortune, planned to windsurf from China to Taiwan across the South China Sea's 100-mile Taiwan Strait. He believed this symbolic bridging of the two countries would somehow help reconcile them. The 38-year-old had already completed six other major open-water crossings by sailboard, some of them far riskier. He'd sailed from Miami, Florida, to Cuba. He'd blasted across freezing whitecaps in the Bering Strait to reach Siberia without permission from the Soviets. He'd slipped out of ports under the cover of night to avoid military ships with orders to stop him in the South Pacific.

On Saturday, November 24, de Rosnay set sail from Quanzhou, China an area off-limits to tourists with two cans of orange juice, expecting to dodge Chinese warships and make land in no more than eight hours. He promised to call home as soon as he finished the crossing. He was never heard from again.

The baron had been in trouble at sea before. In 1980, he'd set out to windsurf 500 miles from the Marquesas Islands to Tahiti, a journey he expected to take five days. On day ten, he was still at sea. On day 13, having endured five aggressive sharks, blistered hands, and sun-seared retinas, de Rosnay finally reached the nearby Ahe atoll, in French Polynesia's Tuamotu Archipelago, exhausted but otherwise healthy.

So when he didn't show up in Taiwan, his wife, California-born champion windsurfer Jenna de Rosnay, wasn't overly worried. "It was rather normal not to have news from him for 24 hours or 48 hours," she recounted in an interview with a French TV station a few years later. "But by Monday night I began to really worry, and I realized it was serious."

For 11 days, Chinese and American pilots searched from the air while ships patrolled the sea. The Taiwanese combed fishing villages, thinking maybe he'd made landfall after all. But no one found a board, a sail, or a body. Satellite images later showed no storms had been in the area when de Rosnay disappeared. The wind was strong, gusting up to 37 miles per hour, but those conditions were within the baron's capabilities. "Of course, we can't discard the hypothesis that he fell from his board and couldn't catch it again," his older brother, scientist and writer Joël de Rosnay, told a French TV network. Other theories had de Rosnay somehow sailing woefully off course and drifting too far south, into pirate-infested seas, but years went by with no news of his capture or demands for a ransom. "We thought maybe he had landed on another island, that a fisherman had taken him to the Philippines, that he had amnesia," Jenna said. "You tend to hold on to any reason for hope like a life buoy."

But there was no hope. The baron had disappeared, leaving no will and his wife and nine-month-old daughter with no husband and father. Now, when Jenna looks back at the last photos taken of her husband, she sees a tired, even worried, adventurer. The last shot shows de Rosnay swallowed by the horizon, his red sail angling over a purple sea.

The Ranger Who Never Returned

A desperate California ranger wanders off. Photo: Tom Hilton/Flickr

The Ranger Who Never Returned

A California forest ranger meets his fate in the forest.

Backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson knew California's Kings Canyon National Park better than most anybody. If he'd wanted to wander into the High Sierra like some ancient mountain lion to die and never be found, you can bet he'd still be up there somewhere.

The high wildflower meadows had always brought joy to the 54-year-old, but in the summer of 1996 everything turned sour. Morgenson, a deeply tanned romantic with a bushy beard, had an affair with another ranger, and his marriage and professional relationships suffered for it. In July, from his remote outpost near Bench Lake, Morgenson arranged to return unsigned divorce papers to his wife, Judi; he apparently wanted to work it out. Shortly afterwards, though, he radioed two fellow rangers and said he wouldn't be bothering them anymore. The next morning, he tacked a note to his cabin door, saying he'd be back in three or four days, and left on patrol. It was his 28th season in the park.

Despite a massive effort to piece together what happened next, it seems no one but Morgenson will ever know. For ten days after the ranger was declared missing, searchers used dog teams, thermal-vision-equipped helicopters, and nearly 100 people on the ground to scour cliff bases, creeks, and rocky ravines. They found nothing.

Hunters, hikers, even airplanes have gone missing for decades in the Sierra, but the disappearance of such an experienced ranger seemed too perfect. Was it a carefully planned suicide? Had he walked out of the park to start over somewhere in South America? Or had he run into the wrong person? Most took the least troubling option and assumed that Morgenson had simply had a terrible accident, damaging his radio, and then died alone deep within Kings Canyon.

It was anybody's guess until July 2001, five years after the search was called off, when a trail worker found bones along a creek in the Window Peak drainage. Rangers soon discovered a tattered shirt with Morgenson's badge, a two-way radio switched on, and a backpack with the waist belt buckled, meaning it had probably never been removed. Most likely, says retired Sierra subdistrict ranger Alden Nash, Morgenson had fallen through a snow bridge and broken his leg, and his body had simply been hidden beneath ice throughout the search. (During the rescue attempt, Judi had dreamed of a dead man floating in a lake.)

But finding the bones proved only that Morgenson had died in the park.

"I don't think it was an accident," says Eric Blehm author of The Last Season, a book that traces an investigation into the disappearance. Blehm says Randy may have wanted to appear to have died on the job to make sure Judi, his wife at the time, got her $100,000 benefit from the government, a policy not honored in the case of suicide. "If he wanted to throw off the dogs or sucker people into believing something happened, he did a great job," Blehm says. "After so many years, with the bones gnawed, there's no way to say exactly what happened."

A Guide to Undiscovered Treasure

Not all gold caches are fables. Photo: Tatiana Vdb/Flickr

A Guide to Undiscovered Treasure

Does "X" really mark the spot?

Cape Canaveral, Florida

The Treasure: Upwards of $100 million in gold and jewels lost when 11 Spanish ships went down in a hurricane on July 30, 1715, off Florida's Atlantic coast.
Your Chances: Decent. Not only is this one a proven winner (it paid out to the tune of 60,000 gold and silver coins in the 1960s), but five of the 11 ships are still unaccounted for and probably lying within an easy day trip of your parents' retirement community.

Bronx, New York 

The Treasure: $5 million in British gold sunk with the HMS Hussar—in the East River, 50 yards offshore of East 138th Street—when it struck a rock during the 1780 British evacuation of New York.
Your Chances: Decent. That is, if you can get past the floating trash, acrid smell, and cement-shoed skeletons on the bottom.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica

The Treasure: Cocos is thought to be home to no fewer than six buried treasures, chief among them the $125 million hoard that pirate captain Henry Morgan is said to have carried off to the island after sacking Panama City in 1671.
Your Chances: Long shot. There's probably been more money spent looking for the treasure to date than it's worth, and doing so without the required permits could land you an unwanted vacation in a Costa Rican jail.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

The Treasure: Spoils of the Spanish conquest of South America solid-gold Inca statues, barrels of gems, tons of gold and silver ingots were supposedly buried here in 1715 and could be worth up to $10 billion today.
Your Chances: Longer shot. Thus far, the island has defeated hundreds of scavengers far more talented than you, including, in 2005, a sonar-equipped robot.

Michigan City, Indiana

The Treasure: 2,000 cases of Al Capone's whiskey, supposedly hidden in a cave along the shores of Lake Michigan by his henchmen.
Your Chances: Worth a try. The relatively low monetary value on this one $300,000 or so means fewer people have come looking. And just think: You could break out a bottle from Capone's private stash at your next party.

Cracks in Creation: A Round-up of Earthly Mystery

Earthly enigmas persist in all corners of the globe. Photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes/Flickr

Cracks in Creation: A Round-up of Earthly Mystery

The Bermuda Triangle isn't the only place you might witness the unexplained.

Within Mexico's Mapimí Biosphere Reserve lies a vaguely defined area roughly 30 miles in radius that's known as the "Zone of Silence." Believers claim all radio signals are lost, compasses go wild, meteorites pelt the ground, and minds go a little haywire there. Among other incidents, in 1970 a test missile fired near White Sands, New Mexico, traveled off course some 400 miles to hit the zone. Supposedly, the area is covered in magnetic pebbles and the plants and animals there grow to unnatural proportions. Despite stories of NASA, Mexican, and Canadian research teams scouring the place, no solid scientific data confirming its reputation for disrupting the natural order has been made public. How appropriate.

In the Indian Ocean, over the last century, ship's captains and crews have reported more than 100 incidents of giant, terrifying ocean light wheels rolling over the face of the deep. These phenomena, which range from a few hundred feet to a mile in diameter, typically have a series of eerily glowing "spokes." In 1977 in the Strait of Malacca, off Malaysia, the crew of the Cardigan Bay watched in awe for ten minutes as one wheel metamorphosed into a row of giant V's, emitted a separate wheel, and, at one point, even slipped under the ship. German researcher Kurt Kalle believed the phenomena results from seismic-wave interference patterns stimulating bioluminescent plankton. But who ever heard of flying plankton?

Since the 19th century, boaters on Yellowstone National Park's Shoshone and Yellowstone lakes have reported mysterious water music, like that from a pipe organ, coming from nowhere. In 1893, Stephen Forbes, of the Illinois Natural History Survey, described it as "the vibrating clang of a harp lightly and rapidly touched high up above the tree tops, or the sound of many telegraph wires swinging regularly and rapidly in the wind, or of faintly heard voices answering each other overhead." But maybe as ranger Neil Miner said after hearing the sound in 1937 it's just air moving over the water. Or ghosts.

Outside the town of Boulia, in the outback of Queensland, Australia, you may see the Min Min Lights‒eerie illumination with a particularly dark backstory. In the 1880s, one version of the story goes, citizens fed up with the sins of patrons of the Min Min tavern, a way station conveniently located near a graveyard, burned it to the ground. Ever since, locals have reported hovering balls of light near the ruins or in the distance. Some hardened outbackers have even been brought to tears when the lights invaded their homes. Neuroscientist Jack Pettigrew has said it's all a fata morgana, probably created by headlights during atmospheric inversions. But the sightings began decades before the Model T made it down under.