For almost two years, Mike and Rosalie Pippin have tried to discover what happened to their eldest son, Noah. They've blanketed media outlets nationwide with appeals for help. They've traveled to Montana from their Michigan home several times in search of leads. They've worked with law enforcement personnel and search crews to better understand where in the vast Montana backcountry he may have gone. Most of all, they've prayed.
In September 2010, Noah Pippin, a former Marine, former member of the Los Angeles Police Department and veteran of three tours in Iraq, walked south past Hungry Horse Reservoir and into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He crossed the Continental Divide and followed the towering Chinese Wall into one of the most remote areas in the lower 48 states. He left the trail at Moose Creek and clambered over scree at the headwaters of Burnt Creek. On Aug. 24, a search crew discovered his remains there.
"My suspicion is he expired from exposure to the elements," says Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton, whose department led the search alongside volunteers and members of the U.S. Border Patrol. Dutton added that Pippin appeared to have taken shelter from bad weather under a massive rock, explaining why a flyover search of the area by the Flathead Sheriff's Department last summer failed to turn up any evidence.
While the underlying question of why Pippin ventured into the Bob Marshall remains unanswered, the scene of his death puts to rest some of the uncertainties that arose in the wake of his disappearance. First, Pippin did, in fact, have a map and a sleeping bag. Both were recovered by the search crew along with a digital music device and Pippin's .38 revolver, which Dutton says was too rusty to tell if it had been fired. Pippin was more prepared than the observations by hikers along his route initially led authorities to believe.
Pippin was caught in bad weather. The last people to see him alive–Vern and Donelle Kersey of Great Falls–assumed as much when they learned he'd gone missing. The Kerseys woke to freezing rain the morning of Sept. 16, hours after bumping into Pippin. They had a difficult time making it out to the Benchmark trailhead, west of Augusta. Pippin would have been at a much higher elevation. According to authorities, it appears he tried to shield himself from the blizzard. An investigative team uncovered signs that Pippin perhaps attempted to tether some sort of wind-breaking shelter to the scree.
And the cause of Pippin's death has been the subject of considerable debate. Many, including Sgt. Scott Hegerle, Pippin's commanding officer in the California National Guard, suspected Pippin suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Rosalie told the Indy in 2011 that she and her husband had been constantly on alert for signs of PTSD in their son. The possibility that Pippin may have taken his own life in the backcountry weighed heavily on discussions of his disappearance, despite testimony from witnesses on the trail that he didn't appear suicidal.
Dutton has all but abandoned that theory based on what he saw below the Chinese Wall last week. Among the possessions recovered near Pippin's remains were a photo of his parents, extra food and a shaving kit. It seems Pippin was taking good care of himself and his appearance, Dutton says, which is not the type of behavior one usually associates with a suicidal mind. And he had the map, Dutton adds. "I think he had every intent on coming out the other side. I don't think it was a 'go in and never come out' quest."
Pippin's parents long held out hope that their son was alive. Following a flurry of media coverage in the last year, they received several tips that he had made it out of the backcountry. One woman said she'd spotted him in Missoula. Another called from Mexico to say Pippin was living across the border from San Diego.
Facing the increasingly long odds of finding their son, the Pippins drove out to Montana in mid-August to meet up with their youngest son, Caleb, a U.S. Border Patrol agent. The family attended Dutton's search planning meeting near Swan Lake Aug. 21, providing information on Pippin's behavior for use in a lost-person profile. Dutton's crew used that profile to determine where Pippin may have gone, and where they should search.
Caleb joined the search effort despite having broken his foot in June. Pat Walsh, the retired Flathead County Sheriff's detective who originally worked the Pippin case, joined too. Vern Kersey, the last man to see Pippin alive, was among the first on the 14-man search team to discover the remains. Pippin was found about a mile from where bad weather halted last year's search effort, which managed to save a young diabetic man whose insulin pump had stopped working. That man was from Pippin's home state of Michigan.
Dutton says the Pippin case, and its conclusion, are unrivaled in his experience with missing persons.
"It just hasn't happened," Dutton says. "Being missing for that long and then finding fairly definitive remains is a miracle. I would like to term it divine intervention."