The Lost Son 

Iraq War vet Noah Pippin went into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Did he ever come out?

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As the weeks passed, prayers and reflections punctuated the Pippins' lives. The Michigan State Police were slow to start an investigation, Mike says, but when they did, they found that Noah had returned his rented car in northwestern Montana in late August.

At the same time, Hegerle, in San Diego, began putting pieces together. He'd been trained to recognize the signs of PTSD in his soldiers, as all officers in the armed forces are. Now he saw the signs in Noah: resigning from the LAPD, moving out of his house, leaving his car behind in California.

Rosalie says they were "on alert for that in our boy." He'd seen battle, she says, he'd killed people, seen buddies incapacitated by PTSD. "Neither in the military nor in the LAPD did Noah ever feel he could seek out help even if he had a need."

Mike traveled to Kalispell to meet with Flathead County Sheriff's Detective Sergeant Pat Walsh. The department subpoenaed Noah's bank records and tracked his last known expense to the Mini Golden Inns Motel. Beyond that room charge and Noah's possessions, which were discovered in the motel's lost and found, there were no leads.

"We didn't know at that time that he'd been to the Bob Marshall Wilderness," Mike says. "We didn't find that information, that note of Noah's with directions to the Blue Lakes area, until about January or February, when it was already snowed in." (They found the notebook among possessions he'd left in Lake Ann.) "So we just had to wait through the winter until Detective Sergeant Pat Walsh told us that it might be good to come around the beginning of June. Maybe the snow would be off and we could search, see if we could find any evidence of Noah in the area."

A TV station in the Flathead Valley ran a story on Noah's disappearance in November 2010. About a week after Thanksgiving, the Pippins received a call from a woman in Missoula who claimed to have seen a man who looked like their son outside a bar.

This June, an elk hunter from Arlee caught a KPAX update on the case. He called his friend Robert Schall, believing the missing person to be the same man who had wandered into their camp at My Lake the previous summer. Schall called Mike and Rosalie Pippin several times and told them all the details he could recall, including that the weather turned "terrible shitty" shortly after they saw Noah.

Schall said he'd also seen a Forest Service ranger that day who might have seen Noah. Walsh tracked down Kraig Lang, who told him he'd made contact with a Great Falls family along Noah's route. An article in the Great Falls Tribune's outdoors section prompted Donelle and Vern Kersey to call in. Every one of the people to see Noah on September 15 agrees he was 15 to 20 pounds lighter that day than in the older images they later saw.

The Pippins received one additional call from Missoula early this summer. An unknown woman told them she saw a man in a military-style boonie hat standing outside the Army Navy store on North Higgins Avenue. The hat, with a wide, full brim, is common working garb for men and women in the armed services. The man looked like a vagrant, the woman said, but the hat, the short-cropped hair and clean face led the spotter to believe it was Noah. He was holding a sign stating he was broke and needed money for a bus somewhere, she said. The woman failed to note his destination.

click to enlarge From left, Rosalie, Noah, Caleb and Mike Pippin shortly before Noah left Lake Ann, Mich., on August 25, 2010. - PHOTO COURTESY ROSALIE PIPPIN

The Pippins visited Montana in June to search the backcountry themselves. They found nothing.

Deep snowpack prevented the Flathead County Sheriff's Department from conducting an aerial search of the Chinese Wall until early August of this year. Walsh worked alongside Flathead County Search and Rescue Coordinator Brian Heino as well as representatives from the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Department in an attempt to spot any trace of Noah Pippin.

One problem, Walsh says, is that it sounds like "everything he had on was green."

"It wasn't like he was wearing the usual red backpack, anything like that," says Heino. "It was green and camo. With all those difficulties, even right now, searching is difficult...You're looking for objects, especially when you're doing aerial searches, that don't blend into the environment."

Heino says that finding Noah—if he's there—will likely require a multi-agency ground search, with horses, a base camp, and supplies.

As for the odds that Noah made it out and is living off the grid, Walsh says he isn't holding his breath. "I think there would have been some activity on his credit cards, his phone, something...I suspect he didn't make it. We have nothing else to go on."

Shortly after the Kerseys made contact with the Pippins this summer, 11-year-old Trevor had difficulty sleeping for two weeks. Vern Kersey began having nightmares. "One dream, he'd made it his life's mission to find [Noah]," Donelle says. "Another dream he found him. He walked into this little hut up by the Wall, he walked in and there was this guy sitting at a table with his head down.

"He walked over and tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'Hey, hello, hello.' And he kinda lifted the guy's head up and here's this guy that's just like almost a skeleton—still alive, but almost like a skeleton."

The Kerseys have begun to see Noah everywhere. "You can't help it," Donelle says. "You look twice. You run it over and over in your head, thinking, 'Could he have survived?'"

Much of the time when Mike and Rosalie Pippin talk about their oldest son, their optimism shines through in their use of the present tense. The two sightings in Missoula have given them a sliver of hope. But occasionally, they slip.

"My son was a tough guy, he was," Mike says. "He was a brave, tough man. But he had a gentle heart."

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