Gary Sotherden went missing in the remote Alaskan wilderness during a hunting trip in 1976. Decades later, investigators have finally identified his remains, thanks to DNA testing.
In 1976, Gary Sotherden, 25, and his friend Stan made their way to the Artic Circle for an adventure of a lifetime. The duo planned to explore the Porcupine River in northeastern Alaska separately, starting on opposite sides, and agreed to meet back up in the spring.
It was the last time anyone would see Sotherden alive.
When he failed to meet up with Stan after their trip, Sotherden’s family reported him missing, embarking on a decades-long search. Now, more than 40 years later, DNA extracted from a skull found in the area where he vanished has helped investigators finally solve the mystery of what happened to Gary Sotherden.
The Porcupine River trip had been just another experience Sotherden could add to his adventure-filled resume. In an interview with the New York Times, Gary Sotherden’s brother Stephen Sotherden described Sotherden as a “free spirit.”
“He was very open,” Sotherden’s sister Ann Bunyan told Alaskan News Source. “He was very accepting of people. He was easygoing, whatever happened, happened.”
Previously, the New York native had traveled around the United States and Canada after graduating high school. He eventually picked up a job working on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline before embarking on his next — and final — adventure.
That winter, Stan, Sotherden’s partner on the hunting trip, ended up leaving the field early for medical reasons, and when the medical plane arrived to fly both Stan and Gary out, Sotherden never showed up. Stan assumed Sotherden would return after the spring season began as planned.
But spring arrived, and Sotherden did not return. Panicked, Sotherden’s family began searching for him.
“I mean, we couldn’t understand — we never believed that Gary would not call us,” Bunyan said to Alaskan News Source. “So he must have been dead.”
The family paid a friend of Sotherden’s to canoe up the Porcupine River and search for any sign of him. According to Alaskan News Source, the friend found Sotherden’s campsite, his wallet, and his glasses, but little else. Efforts by police, aerial searches in the area, and mountain rescue team missions were all fruitless. Gary Sotherden had simply disappeared.
In 1997, Alaska State Troopers in Fairbanks received a call from a hunter reporting the discovery of a human skull near Porcupine River. According to a Alaska Department of Public Safety press release, state troopers arrived on scene and collected the skull. Unfortunately, they were unable to locate any other remains.
The skull was sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for testing, and while investigators were unable to identify to whom the skull belonged, they were able to determine that a bear mauling was the likely cause of death. After testing concluded, authorities made few developments in the case over the next 25 years.
In 2022, investigators found a renewed interest in the case after hearing about the use of genealogical DNA testing to solve other cases.
In April 2022, investigators were able to extract DNA from the skull and use online genealogy websites to link it to Sotherden’s second cousin, tentatively suggesting the remains were Sotherden’s. But to confirm their suspicions, they needed the DNA of a closer relative.
In December, Stephen Sotherden received a call from Alaskan State Troopers requesting permission to compare the skull’s DNA to his own. Stephen quickly agreed, and within days investigators were able to use samples Stephen had submitted to the at-home genetic testing service 23andMe to confirm their theory: The skull belonged to Gary Sotherden.
While the Sotherden family is happy to have answers about Sotherden’s disappearance, the brutality of his death has been hard to deal with.
“We’ve been working on it for 45 years, and it’s nice that things came to a conclusion,” Stephen said in his interview with the New York Times. “It was a little more brutal than I was hoping for.”
Sotherden’s remains are being sent to his family, who plan to hold a memorial for Sotherden this spring.
While Sotherden’s death has taken an emotional toll on the Sotherden family, Bunyan noted while speaking to Alaskan News Source that he had died doing what he loved.
“That’s the way Gary was,” she said. “That’s the life he chose. And not that he chose his death, but he chose a life where that was a possibility. So we just have to allow him to have chosen what he wanted.”
After reading about Gary Sotherden’s identification using genetic DNA testing, read about how the same testing method identified the sadistic Golden State Killer after 40 years. Then, read about how DNA testing only deepened the mystery of four-year-old Bobby Dunbar’s abduction 90 years later.