In 1991, a Montana man and his beloved dog failed to return from a 4-day hike searching for shed elk antlers in Yellowstone National Park. Questions surrounding what happened to them range from accident to animal attack to murder and the truth of what really happened to Daniel Campbell remains hidden even three decades later.
- NPS info on Yellowstone National Park
- Hellroaring Trail Head info on NPS
- Dan’s supposed route from Hellroaring to Jardine
- Montana DOJ Listing
- Missing NPF
- Listed on NPS cold case site
- Article on how many people have disappeared in Yellowstone
- General article about people missing in national parks – Dan is mentioned
- Death in Yellowstone book
- The Charley Project: Daniel Lynn Campbell.
- The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT): Park rangers search for missing hiker, by Michael Milstein.
- Casper Star-Tribune (Casper, WY): No clues of man missing in Yellowstone, by Associated Press.
- Casper Star-Tribune (Casper, WY): Snowstorm hampers Yellowstone search, by Associated Press.
- The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT): Ranger search fails to find missing man, by Associated Press.
- Casper Star-Tribune (Casper, WY): Weather hinders search for missing Yellowstone hiker, by Associated Press.
- The Montana Standard (Butte, MT): Missing hiker’s brothers believe he’s still in park, by Associated Press.
- The Jackson Hole Guide (Jackson, WY): Park scales down search for missing Montana man.
- The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT): Hiker’s camps found, by Associated Press.
- The Independent-Record (Helena, MT): Family not happy with search for missing man, by Ken Pekoc.
- The Montana Standard (Butte, MT): Man’s disappearance to be probed, by Associated Press.
- The Montana Standard (Butte, MT): Many lost in Yellowstone Park over the years, by Scott McMillion.
- Outside Magazine: Law Enforcement: Drop that Rack, or I’ll Vaporize You, by Todd Wilkinson.
- Bozeman Daily Chronicle (Bozeman, MT): Family sues former Park County sheriff over missing brother, by Scott McMillion.
- National Park Service: Response to Freedom of Information (FOIA) Request NPS-2018-00871, United States Department of the Interior.
- NBC Montana: Officials discuss missing persons cases in Montana national parks, by Madison Doner.
- Article on elk antler hunting and profitability
- More info on hunting shed antlers/selling them
- Nat Geo article on illegal antler hunting
Hi park enthusiasts…
I’m your host Delia D’Ambra. And the story I have for you today is about a man and his dog who literally vanished into thin air in Yellowstone National Park… and have remained missing for more than three decades
It’s the kind of story where so many theories abound that your head starts to spin.
Yellowstone is one of the most iconic national parks in the world.
According to The National Park Service, Yellowstone spans over 2.2 million acres. The majority of it is in Wyoming, but it stretches into southern Montana and even has a small sliver of its boundary in Idaho.
I traveled there last summer and I’m pretty sure hit up all three of those states in the two days we hiked and drove around.
There are more than 900 miles of backcountry hiking trails, and much of those are made up of rugged terrain that sits over 7,000 miles above sea level.
The thing that’s widely known about Yellowstone is that when it snows…it snows. Like a lot.
Ice and fresh powder remain on trails inside the park until late May and sometimes even into June.
Rivers that can be over 20-feet wide and six feet deep – stay frozen for months and only thaw out when temperatures start to rise.
In the winters…the landscape definitely transforms. Long gone are the crowds of tourists everywhere. Instead, natural wildlife survives in the park… Black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, Bison and mountain lions are just a few of the staple predators and big game that live in Yellowstone.
The park is also home to an abundance of wild elk, which attract hunters looking to illegally profit off their shed antlers.
In April of 1991, that’s exactly what a man from Montana named Daniel Campbell was aiming to do when he set out on a four-day scavenging trip but never returned
The questions that still remain surrounding his disappearance are…did he succumb to the elements? Was he hunted by one of Yellowstone’s many natural predators? Or… was a human predator responsible for his mysterious fate?
On Monday, April 8th, 1991, Tracy Erb hopped into her car and headed towards Jardine, Montana. She wanted to be right on time pick up her boyfriend, 42-year-old Daniel Campbell, who was dropped off a few days earlier near Hellroaring Trailhead—a spot in Yellowstone National Park that was about eight miles Southeast of Jardine but equated to just shy of an hour-long drive.
Tracy parked her car and patiently waited for Daniel to show up…
She’d come prepared to wait a little bit because she knew Daniel had been hiking in the backcountry of Yellowstone from where the trailhead started in Wyoming. The plan had been for Daniel to make the trek from Wyoming over the Montana border and end up in the town of Jardine.
Back in 1991 there was no way for Daniel to contact Tracy as he hiked let her know if he’d be delayed. So, when minutes ticked by and 15 minutes turned into a half hour…and a half hour into an hour…Tracy didn’t immediately panic. She figured he was just running late or maybe the going had been tougher than he’d anticipated.
But after a few hours passed with no sign of him, Tracy got worried.
When she couldn’t take it anymore, she called the local sheriff’s office in the town of White Sulphur Springs, Montana and told them that Daniel was overdue from his 4-day hike.
Tracy explained that the last time anyone had seen Daniel was when he’d been dropped off at the trailhead and was seen going in to the national park with his Australian-blue heeler mix dog, Freckles, by his side.
Tracy told authorities that Dan—as everyone knew him—wasn’t JUST hiking. He had actually gone into the park to collect elk antlers…a lucrative side hustle that many locals did, despite it being illegal.
Dan was from Big Timber, Montana, just about an hour and a half north of the park and had worked as a logger and pole cutter in the past. He was an experienced outdoorsmen who’d figured out how to make a profit off selling shed elk antlers.
Not long after taking Tracy’s call, White Sulphur Springs deputies contacted National Park Service rangers in Yellowstone. NPS generated an official incident report listing Dan as an “overdue hiker”. That term “overdue hiker” is used a ton in missing persons cases involving parks or forests. Really all it means is that authorities assume the missing person is either lost or injured somewhere inside the park. Usually, it prompts search and rescue efforts to get underway quickly.
But in Dan’s case…that didn’t exactly happen.
According to The Charley Project, an initial ground search for Dan didn’t get underway until April 9th— the day after he was reported overdue.
It’s not clear why this delay happened or when authorities reached out to Dan’s family to notify them or if Tracy got word to Dan’s family first about his disappearance, but however the news reached them, two of Dan’s brother’s, Bill and Rod Campbell, got involved right from the start.
Both men lived in Idaho, and as soon as they could they jumped in their cars and drove to the Park County to join in the searches for their brother and help however they could.
One of the reasons I tend to think that authorities reached out to them to deliver the news about Dan is according to an Incident Objectives report from the National Park Service, officials conducted something known as a “Bastard Search” prior to actually sending crews of rescue searchers out on foot in Yellowstone.
A “bastard search” is park officials’ way of ensuring that a missing hiker is actually missing and not just sitting at home watching a football game completely ignorant to the fact that there is a search party looking for them.
The only way I can think that authorities were able to get anywhere with the bastard search would have been for them to contact friends and family who knew Dan. But again, the research material isn’t super clear on this, so that’s just my best guess.
Anyway, what’s even more bizarre is that according to Search and Rescue reports prepared by the NPS, an official like full-scale search for Dan didn’t begin until like two and half days after he was reported missing—which would have been Thursday, April 11th.
Depending on what sources you read, it’s like a small search kind of got started on the 9th but it wasn’t really that serious…but then by the 11th, it’s all hands-on deck to find Dan.
I also want to note for clarity that some sources list the last sighting of Dan as April 6th and some as April 4th. I lean towards the 4th being more likely since it is consistently reported that Dan’s hike was supposed to be a four-day hunting trip and he was reported missing on April 8th.
Either way, a major search for him NOT starting until April 11th seems a little odd to me, since at that point no one had laid eyes on Dan since around April 4th.
To me, why there wasn’t a greater sense of urgency from law enforcement in those initial 24 hours is alarming. I mean, almost a full week had passed since anyone had seen Dan. If he was lost or in trouble, authorities knew he had only packed four days’ worth of supplies with him to survive. He didn’t have forever to wait for rescue teams to find him.
When search efforts did finally get underway, National Park Service Officials and deputies from both Sweet Grass County and Park County Sheriff’s Offices conducted ground searches on foot, and on horseback.
They also did aerial searches that focused on what they referred to as “high probability zones” which essentially followed the assumed route Dan would have taken to get through the back country and end up in Jardine, Montana.
But we’re talking about a lot of land and wilderness here—in the early spring. Which for Yellowstone meant there was still lots of snow and ice on the ground in places.
A safety message that went out to all the rescue crews warned searchers that the elements they were up against were bad and that they should quote – “Guard against hypothermia. Be aware of avalanche hazard. Watch footing. Be cautious and observant of unlawful activities occurring in search area.” end quote.
According to the weather forecast from search and rescue reports, it was 30 degrees with high winds and snowstorms rolling in during the days volunteers were out. That weather forecast coupled with the mountainous terrain and deep, cold rivers, meant the stretch of wilderness that groups were going to be traversing was a dangerous place to be. Period.
The last sentence of that memo is particularly interesting to me—” “Be cautious and observant of unlawful activities occurring in the search area” … I have to think that what authorities were alluding to was other elk antler hunters or poachers operating in the park. I mean, there’s clearly some information we’re not getting with that brief statement, but I think it’s important to note. It teases to NPS and Park County Sheriff’s Office having some kind of knowledge or at least expectation that they knew people may be in Yellowstone who shouldn’t be and doing things that were illegal
For three days, crews searched tirelessly all throughout the ‘high probability zones’, making sure to search any places where Dan maybe could have fallen or become injured, or any place they thought he could be using as shelter from the elements. Rock overhangs, thick trees, anything that might entice someone to set up a makeshift camp to survive.
Unfortunately, no sign of him surfaced. Even when they widened the scope of their grid searches…not a trace of Dan popped up.
To make matters worse, bad weather started to move in on April 14th… According to reporting in The Casper Star-Tribune snowstorms grounded helicopter searches and only about twelve searchers were brave enough to go out on foot in the freezing temperatures to keep looking for Dan.
Not only was it dangerous, but it wasn’t productive. The visibility in the park got so bad that it was actually possible to walk right passed someone and never know it.
This obviously was counterproductive for rescue operations because a searcher could have walked right passed Dan and not even have seen him or Freckles.
According to that same article by the Casper Star-Tribune, the park’s assistant superintendent, a man named Joe Alston, told reporters that while they hadn’t found any sign of Dan in the days they’d been looking they were holding out hope that Dan had prepared himself before leaving for his hike.
Because authorities knew Dan had planned to camp for at least four days, they presumed he had sharp enough survival skills and knowledge of the backcountry to be able to stretch out his supplies and make it through the bad conditions.
If he had not packed skies or snowshoes, then traversing the terrain, given the recent storms and snowfall, would have been nearly impossible.
According to reporting by The Billings Gazette after the first week of searches in brutal conditions, a spokeswoman for Yellowstone National Park, told reporters quote —“He may be aware he is being looked for and does not want to be found. We simply don’t know and there is always a chance we will never know. But we’ve done an extensive search and we believe we should have been able to find at least a sign of him or his dog”. —end quote.
That statement stood out for two reasons.
One—it indicated that authorities were considering Dan willingly disappeared in the park…or had left on his own free will and was out there in the world somewhere living his life and just didn’t want to be found.
And two—investigators no longer felt hopeful that searching for him was going to result in finding him or Freckles—alive.
This announcement by the NPS didn’t come like months later; this happened like less than a week after the search for Dan began.
The spokeswoman went on to state that during the almost ten days Dan has been missing, the area of the park he was last known to be in had been covered in 4 to 6 feet of snow. His chances of survival had dwindled with every passing day.
In 1991, Yellowstone had a history of hikers going missing or being killed by the elements. That should come as no surprise. According to a piece by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, in the five years preceding Dan’s disappearance four people had disappeared in Northern Yellowstone. All of those cases were still unsolved by the time Dan went missing.
Authorities officially concluded their formal searches for Dan by May and said if the weather cleared up they would organize one last final sweep of that section of the park.
Dan’s brothers, Rod and Billy, were both pretty upset by this move. They were adamant in their belief that Dan had NOT come out of the park and was just choosing to be missing. The brothers said that Dan was never more than a day late when he’d taken trips into the park in the past.
They said he had sharp survival skills and could probably have lasted days if he was injured or battling the elements. They told the Montana Standard, that Dan would do anything to protect his dog Freckles, but more than likely coyotes would try and get to the dog first if they had the chance.
Rod and Billy started up a search effort of their own search efforts and handed out flyers in multiple towns throughout Southwest Montana. They were determined to leave no stone unturned.
The posters featured a picture of Dan kneeling next to Freckles, and gave a detailed description of the two of them. It said Dan was 5 foot 8 inches tall, weighed 165 lbs., had brown hair and green eyes and was last seen wearing blue jeans and a blue jacket. Freckles was described as a one-year-old Australian shepherd-blue heeler mix.
Rod and Billy spent days knocking on strangers’ doors asking around hoping anyone might have seen or heard from their brother…but their efforts were all in vain.
Not one person they spoke with reported seeing or talking with Dan since he walked into Yellowstone National Park on April 4th.
In late May—about two months after Dan vanished—the snow melted and a group of searchers went back out looking for him.
According to The Billings Gazette these volunteers found something…
Campsites stocked with supplies that appeared to be completely untouched…
According to the Billings Gazette, volunteers who returned to the backcountry of Northern Yellowstone National Park on May 30th, 1991 stumbled upon two separate campsites stocked with supplies.
Among the belongings they found were ready-to-eat meals, tobacco, tea, and dried beans. The article doesn’t clarify who these camps belonged to or how far apart they were, but authorities assumed at the time they might have belonged to Dan or other elk antler collectors who’d staged them in order to have pitstops for supplies as they traversed the park.
What’s interesting though is that according to a U.S. Department of Interior Incident Report, officials did mark a camp on the map that they designated as likely belonging to Dan but it’s unclear when they located that camp…how they tied it to Dan or if this is one of the camps mentioned in the Billings Gazette article or a different camp altogether.
Regardless, the site authorities believed to be one Dan had set up was found with a fire ring, tent poles, a gas can that was ¼ full and burnt cans in the fire. There was no sign of Dan’s body though…or Freckles. No bones. No tattered clothing, nothing.
Some of the source material for this story says that no camp determined to be linked to Dan was ever found…so I’m not sure if this department of the interior incident report was just a preliminary finding that eventually got changed, but in my mind, I have to think that at least for a short period of time they assumed the campsite was tied to Dan, even though they couldn’t prove it.
The Park County Sheriff at the time who was leading the investigation was a man named Charley Johnson, and he told reporters that they weren’t sure what to make of the campsites. He explained that Dan had voluntarily quote –”disappeared and reappeared before in his life”–end quote.
This statement by the sheriff I think goes back to the whole idea that they were considering the theory that Dan voluntarily walked away from his life.
One of the big reasons authorities thought this theory might be true was because they’d discovered that right around the time Dan vanished, he’d been having some financial problems…not to mention he was technically conducting an illegal activity within the boundary of the park. So, they figured maybe he had just cut his losses, gathered as many elk antlers as he could and then high tailed it out and was laying low somewhere.
At the same time the Sheriff announced that theory was a possibility, he sort of contradicted himself and also said that that foul play could still be a factor too.
Essentially, the cops had nothing. They were considering all theories and really had no hard evidence to prove one over the other.
By the end of June 1991, Bill and Rod Campbell were a little fed up with Park County and Sheriff Johnson’s handling of the case. No good leads had been developed and all official searches in the park had completely stopped.
To make matters worse was the fact that for a brief period of time, Dan’s name had been taken off a national computer listing of missing people.
According to an article in the Independent Record, a state justice department missing persons coordinator in Montana’s capital noticed that the name Daniel Campbell was just gone from this database list one day.
Apparently, miscommunication between Park County officials and Sweet Grass County officials had somehow resulted in Dan’s name being taken off the list…which was a really big deal considering outlets and agencies all over the country pulled their data about missing persons from that list.
Rod and Billy Campbell, along with their elderly parents, Marge and Gordon, were furious about this mistake and felt like authorities were just not taking the case seriously. They desperately wanted one of their other brothers, who was a Montana law enforcement officer in a neighboring jurisdiction to at least be brought in on the case to help…but officials in Park and Sweet Grass counties wouldn’t allow it.
Despite what authorities believed, the Campbell brothers were fully convinced someone had killed Dan and buried him in Yellowstone. In their minds, it was the only thing that explained why no one had found a trace of his body.
Billy told the The Independent Record, that the family knew Dan was having problems paying his bills and was in need of money to save up to move from where he lived in Big Timber to White Sulphur Springs—but there was no way he just walked away from his life.
Bill defended his brother’s illegal elk antler collecting actions, saying it was the only thing he knew to do to make money fast and utilize his skills as an outdoorsman. Sometimes the folks who engaged in that trade with Dan were not the most upstanding people. Bill told The Independent reporter quote— “He had been running with some shady characters… I’m not saying he’s an angel, because he’s not”—end quote.
Bill went on to explain that he felt strongly that the “shady characters” he’d referred to had something to do with Dan’s disappearance. Rod and Bill swore their brother would never just choose to disappear…saying quote— “If Dan is in the park, he’s buried.”–end quote.
Bill and Rod expressed their concerns to the Park County Sheriff and even offered up four names of men who were acquaintances of Dan’s that they thought could be involved. One of those four acquaintances was a man who’d been in a dispute with Dan just two years earlier in 1989 over a stash of elk antlers worth about $20,000 that the two men had gathered. The acquaintance sold the antlers without sharing any of the profit with Dan—swindling him out of roughly $20,000.
Dan’s brothers begged and pleaded with the Sheriff’s department to polygraph that guy and the other three men they felt could be involved, but in response to this outcry Sheriff Johnson told reporters quote— “We’ve interviewed most of these people multiple times and haven’t developed any information…at what point does it become harassment?”–end quote.
And I mean—the sheriff kind of has a point here. Don’t get me wrong…the point that Bill and Rod raised about the sketchy acquaintances of Dan is a legit one…but law enforcement only has so much power and reach to be able to force people to talk to them. And if you think about it…what good would a polygraph really do? Since it’s not like it can be used in court. It’s merely a tool.
Anyway, in the brother’s defense I totally get where they’re coming from too. They knew their brother and they knew the people in his life better than police did. I find it interesting that Sheriff Johnson said “most of these people” when he refers to how many of the acquaintances detectives had interviewed. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’d like to know what ‘most’ of four people means… are we talking 1, 2, 3? It’s not THAT many people to cross off your list, so I can definitely understand the Campbell family’s frustration there.
Anyway, the next glimmer of hope that some sort of traction was happening with the case outside of local investigators handling it came in early July 1991when the Montana Criminal Investigation Bureau was brought it to assist in the investigation. Interestingly, the request came from the Park County Sheriff, Charley Johnson.
The MCIB sent a special agent to Park County to sort of get a handle on the case and everything investigators knew so far. His presence gave the Cambell’s renewed hope but that hope quickly faded because it seemed like after that…there was silence on the case.
The special agent reportedly met with Park County officials and Yellowstone law enforcement investigators…but then nothing came of it.
After this blip of an update about the state bureau of investigation coming in to assist, the coverage on Dan’s case just stops.
There is almost NOTHING out there about his disappearance… until five years later in 1996. That year, Outside Online published an article that mentioned Dan’s disappearance while comparing elk horn hunters in Yellowstone to drug cartels.
The author Todd Wilkinson interviewed park officials about how much of a problem horn hunting was inside Yellowstone and how lucrative of a business it was on the black market. The article stated that officials estimated that antler poachers collected roughly $500,000 worth of elk antlers inside Yellowstone alone in 1995.
The article goes on to state quote —“Most disturbing, though, was the disappearance a few years ago of Dan Campbell, a Yellowstone-area man last seen in the park and now presumed dead. Authorities say that he was a horn hunter and was probably murdered in a bloody dispute over turf.” –end quote.
For the article, Wilkinson interviewed a man named Brian O’Dea, who was a criminal investigator for Yellowstone National Park at the time. O’Dea, was probably someone who had good insight into Dan’s case, however, what Wilkerson wrote about authorities thinking Dan was murdered in a bloody dispute over turf is not a direct quote, so I don’t know who exactly he is referring to as “authorities” or where he got that information from…because up until this point in the investigation, no law enforcement official had doubled down on the theory that Dan was even confirmed to be dead…let alone killed in a fight with another elk antler collector.
This was the first time anyone saw this claim about a murder made public alongside law enforcement interviews.
I wish we knew more about the source for that quote about a bloody dispute and murder, but regardless of who said it, it IS a plausible scenario. One that Dan’s brothers believed was more in the realm of possibility than Dan just walking away from his life and problems.
When you do a little research into elk antler or horn collecting in general, you’ll find out pretty quickly that poachers who operate in that space stand to make a LOT of money from selling what they find.
There is no doubt that Dan was out in the backcountry along with other collectors in April of 1991. Yellowstone is home to the largest congregation of elk in the world.
Elk antlers are sold for a variety of different uses across the globe. Some people in North American buy them to decorate their homes or lodges as expensive furniture. While other consumers use them for medicinal purposes.
According to Todd Wilkinson’s article, customers in Asian countries buy the horn in order to thinly slice them and make powders that are used in folk medicines. The article stated that at the time the cost of a ground up batch of antler went for upwards of $300 per ounce.
The article quotes park officials who explained that the tactics elk antler collectors used to protect their different territories of Yellowstone were kind of similar to drug cartels. Rangers said they knew poachers to carry semi-automatic weapons and monitor the radio frequencies of park police in order to avoid getting busted. In the mid 90’s the issue got so bad that rangers were given military-grade surveillance cameras, satellite imaging devices, night vision and remote-controlled ground cameras to try and combat the poachers.
The main point the article drove home was that on any given day, elk antler collectors could earn a lot of money fast in the form of horns…and they were going to do whatever they need to ensure their turf wasn’t encroached on.
A lot of citizens in rural Montana, men like Dan in particular, who were having a hard time finding long term employment would often resort to poaching like this to make ends meet. But it’s an illegal trade…and with illegal activity comes serious risks.
Anyone who consumes true crime knows, money is the oldest motive in the book when it comes to murder. It’s entirely possible that Dan got in someone’s way while out in the backcountry, and whoever he came in contact with decided to rob him and kill him and just let people assume he got lost or injured or died from the elements of the harsh weather.
I mean when you think about it…Dan was planning to be collecting antlers for four days…if he had a successful start or by the end of his trek had bagged a lot of antlers, he would have been walking around with a small fortune—all alone, isolated in the wilderness.
In 1998—seven years after Dan disappeared—a new sheriff was elected in Park County. Charley Johnson who’d been running the show thus far was out and was replaced by a new guy named Clark Carpenter.
During Carpenter’s first two years in office, no new developments occurred in the case and by the year 2000 the Campbell family had finally had enough.
It was time to take drastic measures…
Scott McMillion reported for The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, that in January of 2000 that Dan’s brothers, Rod and Billy, filed a federal lawsuit against former Park County Sheriff, Charley Johnson claiming quote—“intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress” end quote.
The suit sought $100,000 in punitive damages for both Rod and Billy.
The brother’s maintained that Dan had been murdered, and alleged former Sheriff Johnson knew that homicide was a strong possibility but yet he continued to treat the investigation as a disappearance any way, rather than a murder.
Bill told news outlets that he’d spent thousands of dollars of his own money to investigate what happened to his brother and what he’d discovered was eye-opening.
The family’s lawsuit claimed that not only had investigators in Park County been incompetent from day one…they’d also disposed of, lost and mishandled evidence deputies initially found in the first few weeks of the investigation.
For example, Billy said that he found out that during the first week or two of searching for Dan, Park County deputies had run into a pair of local horn hunters who’d been camping outside of Yellowstone’s northern boundary—right in the area where Dan would have been collecting antlers during his hike.
The men, like Dan, were illegally in pursuit and possession of elk horns. According to the lawsuit filing, police confiscated camping gear, firearm ammunition, spent cartridges and what was quote— “reasonably believed to be a firearm--end quote, from these two guys…
But here’s the wild thing –all of that stuff was quickly returned to the men without undergoing fingerprint examination, forensic testing or any of the normal analysis law enforcement would do to figure out if it they were involved in what happened to Dan.
On top of the allegations of evidence mishandling, some really damning news broke about former Sheriff Charley Johnson around this same time.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, in 1997 Johnson had been charged with misdemeanor sexual assault and misuse of office. It stemmed from an incident in which a woman accused him of fondling her.
Eventually he was acquitted of those charges but the woman who came forward sued Park County. The ordeal ended with the county settling and paying the woman…but that wasn’t the end of Johnson’s problems.
In 1998, while running for office, deputies in the Park County Sheriff’s office sort of had a mutiny and signed an internal petition essentially boycotting Johnson and supporting Clark Carpenter for sheriff.
So, needless to say, even though the claims the Campbells were making about how the agency and Sheriff Johnson handled Dan’s case were totally separate from the former sheriff’s other issues…the public sentiment was pretty clear that law enforcement in Park County had had serious problems in the 1990’s.
Billy claimed that those issues directly affected the department’s ability to thoroughly investigate his brother’s case. He told news outlets that during his investigation he’d done his own detective work and spoken with another horn hunter who was out in the backcountry around the same time Dan was supposed to be. Billy said this guy told him that he’d heard two gunshots while out in the wilderness.
Finding witnesses like that only fueled the family’s belief that something very bad had happened to Dan in the park…but they just couldn’t prove it. And every time they’d taken what they knew or been told to the police; they’d been turned away.
After filing the federal lawsuit, Bill told reporters quote– “From the evidence I’ve acquired through the years, I believe that my brother was murdered there. There was 14 people up there horn hunting in the area at that time.” —end quote.
The article also briefly mentioned that family members had become aware that Dan was about to receive a significant settlement from an ongoing court case that had been going on not long before his disappearance.
Now–I don’t know what court case this is referring to because the research material doesn’t go into further detail, but I do wonder what the details of that case were. If it was a civil suit and someone was being forced to give Dan money or settle with him over some amount of cash, that seems like a really big reason to maybe want Dan gone. It could point to motive for someone needing him to disappear.
It also works against law enforcement’s theory that Dan willingly disappeared too. Because in my mind at least, why would someone who was about to get a significant influx of cash just walk away from their life if they were known to be having money problems? It just doesn’t make sense.
This reference to another lawsuit prior to Dan vanishing is just another strange thing with this case. Odd things like this just being brought up without context is such a common theme in this case.
It’s frustrating. Another thing that really had my brain spinning was the fact that Billy brought up discovering there were 14 horn hunters or poachers in the same area of Yellowstone as Dan in April of 1991…
So, like, if that’s true, how did not one of those hunters see or hear a thing or even bump into Dan? 14 PEOPLE hunting for shed elk antlers is a lot even in the vast backcountry of Yellowstone. I mean—who were these 14 people? Did investigators interview all of them? How did Billy come to learn about them?
I spoke with Bill over the phone before writing this episode. He and his brother Rod are still alive. He declined to participate in an interview but said he still thinks about Dan every day and wishes more would have been done to find him and find out what happened to him.
Eventually his family’s lawsuit against Park County went nowhere and though it made a lot of noise in the media in 2000, ultimately the threat of litigation from the family did not push the police’s investigation forward.
After the year 2000, the case went cold for 18 years.
In December 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior fulfilled a FOIA request that a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle had submitted related to records in Dan’s Case.
The reporter, a guy named Michael Wright, published the entire FOIA response online. A lot of the documents are just initial incident reports, as well as search and rescue maps and charts, along with Dan’s missing persons flier, and other information already released to the public.
A lot of the good stuff was left out due to the government claiming “ongoing investigation” exemptions. In total the National Park Service only provided 48 pages and stated that there were more than 400 pages they could not release because doing so could compromise the investigation.
Included in what Michael Wright did get though was an incident report filed in February of 2017 by the U.S. Department of the Interior…
The summary of that document states quote “During the year 2016” and then the entire rest of that sentence is REDACTED, and it finishes “Further investigation is now being conducted considering the new potential evidence” —end quote.
Even more interesting is that in an enclosed letter to the The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the FOIA officer who fulfilled the request wrote that the reason for redacting so much information was that certain individuals names would be identified in the case that the law enforcement did not want released to the public yet.
The FOIA officer went on to say quote “We have determined that the individuals to whom this information pertains have a substantial privacy interest in withholding it” –end quote.
To me, this means that law enforcement knows much more than they’re saying and that they may even have suspects. Like, legitimate suspects they became focused on likely in 2016 when they said that further investigation was being conducted in light of new potential evidence.
Now—I don’t know what the heck they meant by that but it gives me some hope that more is being done on this case.
Sadly, after this FOIA release in 2018, there wasn’t much movement in Dan’s case, so all we are left with is speculation.
While Dan’s family is certain that he was the victim of foul play, it’s not the only theory that has been put out there. From my research, it seems like there are only at least several options for what could have happened to the 42-year-old.
The first theory is that he went into the park, got lost or injured somehow along the backcountry trail he was on and succumbed to either his injuries or the elements. I don’t doubt that this could have happened in Yellowstone’s backcountry. Like I’ve already said, hikers deal with harsh weather and dangerous terrain all the time. According to the NPS reports in that FOIA request I was just talking about…there were active avalanche warnings in Yellowstone while searchers were out looking for Dan. Him being overtaken by the outdoors is totally a possibility.
The thing that sticks out to me about this though is the fact that he had Freckles with him…Like in the event say Dan got hurt or fell or something…and maybe Freckles didn’t. Wouldn’t searchers or someone have heard him barking, like for help? I don’t know…no trace of Freckles being found or running around without Dan is just really strange to me.
The second theory to consider is the undeniable fact that there are actual animal predators in Yellowstone that Dan could have run into. Though NPS will tell you that animal attacks are rare, they do happen occasionally. Grizzly bears and mountain lions are wild animals and especially coming off the winter season, their hunger could have made them ravenous. It’s entirely possible that Dan and Freckles disturbed one of these predators and were attacked.
The problem I have with the animal attack theory though is, animals aren’t going to worry about cleaning up a crime scene. They’re animals – so they feed until they’re full and then move on leaving the carcass of their prey behind. So, again, it is hard for me to believe that not a single shred of Dan’s clothing was left behind for searchers to find if this is what happened.
The third theory that took over this case for a long time at least in law enforcement’s eyes is that is that Dan walked out of his life on purpose with no intentions of returning. There is even speculation that he never went into the park in the first place according to news reports. Some rumors that have circulated around his case have suggested he said he was going on a hike but instead disappeared to start a new life.
Authorities have pointed to the fact that they learned Dan had a history of going M-I-A for a few days and then would reappear. Even his family members and girlfriend said that was common for him. There’s no source material that strictly explains this but I think just based on the fact that he lived a hard life, Dan would just get away on his own for a while in the backcountry but then always return. Combine that pattern of behavior with his alleged financial problems and police felt pretty sure he just took off.
The problem with this theory is that Dan and Freckles have NEVER been seen again. I mean not even a trace. Now, I know its 2022 and Freckles is long gone…but if Dan is still alive…why has he never contacted his brothers? He has to have seen all the effort they put into finding him. So, why just abandon your life and take off?
If he is still alive somewhere today, he would be in his early 70’s.
The final theory is that Dan fell victim to foul play. Like I’ve said, Dan’s surviving family whole heartedly believes this is the case and that he was buried somewhere in the park. But police in this case have said multiple times that they have no reason to suspect foul play,
I don’t know what it is that makes them think it couldn’t be true but to me money is a classic motive for murder and Dan was in the park collecting elk antlers, which according to an article on Go Hunt Online can sell for up to $1,000 PER ANTLER depending on their size.
I think to be thorough you have to at least consider the possibility that Dan was killed because he was poaching antlers in someone else’s territory or simply because he had something they wanted. He could have been robbed and just a victim of a crime of opportunity. Who knows.
Another possibility is that someone actually planned to kill Dan. As we know, Dan’s brother Bill mentioned that Dan had a previous dispute with another horn hunter over a $20,000 stash that was sold without Dan getting his cut. It’s possible there could have been serious bad blood with that situation.
Bill mentioned that this person was one of four people he thought were shady and could have had something to do with Dan’s disappearance.
The other thing that makes me tend to believe foul play was involved was that incident report from the U.S. Department of the Interior where they summarized potential new evidence found in 2016 and then there is a full sentence redacted.
If the potential evidence was just remains or belongings of Dan’s that had been found, it wouldn’t make sense that they would need to redact any of that information.
What they said was that the redacted information would identify certain people and that quote “We have determined that the individuals to whom this information pertains have a substantial privacy interest in withholding it” end quote.
At the very least, this means there is someone else that is of interest to authorities in this case and if someone has had information all this time about Dan’s disappearance, then why would they conceal it for over thirty years if they’re not involved in a crime?
I have to be honest; this case has driven me a little bonkers. The information out there suggests that authorities know more than what has been reported on and right now there’s just no way of getting around that.
To this day, the Campbell brothers and law enforcement are still divided about whether or not Dan’s vanishing is a result of a purposeful disappearing act or murder.
No matter what you believe may have happened to Dan Campbell after he walked into Yellowstone National Park in the spring of 1991, the heartbreaking reality is we may never know the truth.
The park is filled with thick forests, mountains, rivers, and diverse wildlife. So, the possibilities of where he ended up are endless. More than 30 years passing by only makes the chances of finding his remains slimmer.
The vast and dangerous terrain on the backcountry trails of Yellowstone may forever hold the answer to the mystery.
Park Predators is an audiochuck original show.
So, what do you think chuck, do you approve? *howl*