The Bizarre and Baffling Wilderness Vanishing of Gary Earp

Some mysterious disappearances are strange not just for there weird clues and strange circumstances, but also for their lack of anything at all. In some cases there have been those people who just seem to have spontaneously stepped out of existence, to leave pretty much nothing for investigators to even work with. These tend to be some of the eerier of missing person cases, and one of these that certainly seems to fit is that of a man who just rode off into nowhere out in the wilderness, to leave behind merely his truck and absolutely no inkling of what has happened to him. 

Memorial Day weekend of 2017 was mostly great for 45-year old Gary Shannon Earp. He had just gone out to the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Virginia, in the United States, with his friends and family to do some camping and fishing at a place called Tumbling Creek, and by all accounts they had had a really fantastic time. Upon returning from the trip they all went about their normal lives, and that Wednesday Gary got up as usual and asked his father, Gary Earp Sr., with whom he had been living since his separation from his wife, if he wanted breakfast. After that he left as usual, saying goodbye and heading off in his pickup truck and it was the most normal thing in the world. Little did anyone know that this would be the last time anyone would see Gary again.

When Gary didn’t return home that evening or the following morning it was seen as pretty odd for sure. Family became worried and for the rest of the week no one knew where he had gotten off to, with him not answering any calls on his phone. When authorities were notified that Friday, June 2, it did not take long at all for them to find Gary’s truck, which they found just after midnight on Saturday morning and was just sitting on the side of an isolated gravel pull-off along Tumbling Creek Road at the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This was not really all that odd in and of itself. After all, Gary often went there to go camping and fishing and knew the area there well, but it was a little strange that the truck was sitting there with the driver’s door open, the keys in the ignition, and the engine idling, as well as Gary’s wallet with cash and cards still inside, as well as his glasses and a half-eaten breakfast from a fast food joint. Considering that all of his belongings were there, the engine was running, and the breakfast hadn’t been finished, authorities expected that he had just gone off into the trees to perhaps relieve himself, but he never would come back.

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It was a pretty odd and eerie situation that the truck should be out there idling in the middle of the night out there. Gary had been missing for several days by that point, yet here the truck was, engine still going and with a half-eaten breakfast that was still fresh. He had obviously come to that spot not long before the truck was found, so where had he been since Wednesday? He hadn’t contacted anyone to tell them where he was, calls to his phone had gone unanswered, and he had not expressed any plans to go fishing or camping there in that area on his own. There was no mention of anything like that in his cell phone or social media records either. Indeed, the last time he was seen was when he offered his father breakfast and had gone off for a quick drive. Where had he gone and why had he ended up out there along that lonely road days later? 

Perhaps even more bizarre than the truck being there in the first place was the state of the vehicle. Not only had Gary’s wallet, cash, and other belongings been left behind, but the engine was still running, and by all appearances it seemed as if he had left in a hurry and then just simply never come back. It was theorized that perhaps he had seen something or went off to relieve himself and had been attacked by a wild animal, but there was no sign of a struggle, and none of the blood and torn fabric that one would expect to find if that were the case. In fact, the entire area was totally pristine, and the truck also had no sign of anything amiss. The vehicle was also mechanically fully functional, with no engine problems or flat tires, and full of enough gas to get back home, so he hadn’t broken down or been stranded out there. Why had he stopped his car there, why did he get out, and what had happened to him? It was completely baffling.

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The Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, covers 25,477-acres (103.10 km2) of mountain forest and is the largest wildlife management area in the state, spanning across four counties, the whole of it dominated by steep mountains and narrow valleys. Despite this rough terrain, the area is also open to the public for hunting, trapping, fishing, hiking, boating, and primitive camping, and there are plentiful trails and gravel roads throughout. Indeed, there was a gravel road right there where Gary had parked, so it was seen as a bit strange that he should choose to wander off into the forest. He also knew that particular area very well, having been visiting since when he was a kid and often hiking and camping there on his own, so it seemed odd that he should get hopelessly lost. 

Police would launch a massive search operation, covering a vast swath of land and involving police with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, the Virginia State Police and the Smyth and Tazewell county sheriff’s offices, utilizing hundreds of personnel, tracker dogs, and helicopters. In the meantime, police interviewed his friends and family to see if they could piece together what might have happened. Gary Earp Sr. said that his son had shown no strange or unusual behavior in the days leading up to the disappearance and had not expressed anything to indicate that he had some problem with someone, nor any plans to go out to that area. It would come to light that Gary did have issues with his mental health, having been discharged after a lengthy stay at the Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Marion about six months prior to his vanishing, but his family insisted that he had been doing much better and had been getting his life on track, and his social media accounts and messages to various people showed no evidence of poor mental health, suicidal ideation, or anything strange at all, for that matter.

A curious thing police found was that Gary had had an arrest warrant out on him for missing a review hearing in court on a not guilty by reason of insanity plea connected to a 2014 charge he had received for alleged child abuse, and he also hadn’t shown up to perform his court-ordered community service. This led to rampant speculation that he may have been trying to run away from the law, but Gary’s own probation officer doubted that this would have been the case, calling him a “model probationer,” always punctual and with no signs of drug or alcohol abuse and abiding by all of the conditions of probation. He had always shown up for probation related matters and been very cooperative with authorities, and even the court seemed surprised that he would miss that hearing. 

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In the meantime, the search would go on for weeks, and while there a few scattered sightings of the missing man reported by campers and loggers, who said that he was acting entirely normally, these ultimately led nowhere, and nothing concrete came of this. Another man reported that he’d run into Gary in Saltville, the town nearest the wildlife area, early Friday morning the day before the truck was discovered, and the witness claimed that he had not been acting strangely or erratically at all. Other than this, there was nothing. Police could find no trace of Gary Earp, as one searcher would say, “No footprints, no articles of clothing, no trash left behind, no signs of a campsite, no signs of an animal attack or struggle.” During this time there was no activity on Gary’s social security card or his bank account, no evidence that he had used his cell phone, nothing. There weren’t even other fresh venicle tracks that would point to him having been picked up by someone. It was as if he had just stepped out of that truck and simply evaporated. 

There have been no new leads on the case, no tips, no further sightings, no sign whatsoever as to what happened to Gary Earp. Flyers distributed around the country have turned up nothing, as have additional searches with volunteers.  We are left to wonder. What happened to this man? Why did he just head out without saying anything and what happened to him out on that lonely road that left his running car, all of his belongings, and a plethora of questions behind? Was this some sort of psychotic snap, foul play, or something else? He remains missing, and we may never know for sure. 

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