Adrift

Did Alaska's frigid waters take another life?

    Photo: Photograph by Dan Winters

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-based 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, 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, Mary Tackett. "With all those fishing boats, with all their gear in the water, they would have snagged him or at least found his hat—something." 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."

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