The Bizarre Disappearance and Death of Charles McCullar at Crater Lake

Many of the strangest and most inexplicable disappearances and deaths have occurred in the remote wildernesses of our world. This seems to be for good reason, as often these are very treacherous, forbidding places that seem to not want us there. Yet while it may stand to reason that anyone venturing into these wilds might get lost or die, there are some cases that seem to be pervaded with strange clues and a sense of something not quite right. One of these was the incredibly strange vanishing of a man in the wilderness of Oregon, who would completely vanish before having his remains found in a completely bizarre, unexplainable state.

The scene of this very odd story is the region of Crater Lake National Park, located in Klamath County, within the majestic Cascade Range of Southwest Oregon, in the United States. Here the land is dominated by sprawling vistas of breathtakingly beautiful forests, fields of wildflowers, tranquil meadows, and soaring cliffs and peaks, all with some of the cleanest air found anywhere in the world. Sitting within all of this natural splendor, nestled among trees and sheer cliffs that reach 7,000 to 8,000 feet (2,100 to 2,400 m) into the sky, and contrasting with the verdant green around it is a striking circle of azure blue, its surface so placid and clear that it is almost as if it is a mirror reflecting clouds which seem to swirl upon the lake itself. This is the stunning Crater Lake, which covers 21 square miles (54 square kilometers) with intensely blue waters that plunge to depths of up to 1,949 feet (594 m), making it the deepest lake in the United States and the 3rd deepest in the world based on average depth, so deep in fact that it was long rumored to be bottomless. Crater Lake is a caldera lake, sitting in the dormant volcano Mt. Mazama, which formed the lake during its last spectacular eruption in 5700 B.C., a beautiful remnant of a violent natural cataclysm.

Crater Lake

It is to this majestic place that in 1975, 19-year-old Charles McCullar was drawn. In 1974 the aspiring photographer had left his home in Virginia to go on a cross country photography expedition, traveling by bus and stopping at various places along the way to go hiking, get in adventures, and take pictures for a photographic travel journal. In January of 1975, he arrived in Eugene Oregon, where he stayed with a friend for a few weeks, and it was during this time that he decided to go out and do some winter photography work at the scenic Crater Lake National Park. He planned to take a two-day trip out to the lake, packing up his camping equipment and heading out on his own. At the time the park was frigid, covered with snow, but he was well-prepared for the conditions and had outdoor experience. At the time it seemed like a normal thing for the intrepid adventurer and photographer to do, so his friend thought nothing of it when Charles said he would be back in a few days before heading into the wilderness with camera in hand. It would be the last time anyone would see him alive.

When two days came and went with no sign of Charles, his friend at first just assumed that he had decided to extend his camping trip, but when another day passed with still no sign, authorities were notified. They quickly found witnesses who had seen the missing man in the Diamond Lake area, about 45 minutes by car from Crater Lake, and it was believed that he had continued his trip from there and arrived safely at the lake. Other witnesses claimed that Charles had headed out hiking along the North Road, which was odd since there had been about 5 feet of snow along that route at the time. It was thought that he might have changed trails after encountering the thick snow, but no one knew for sure, and there was no sign of him or his campsite in the area. A search was launched of the wilderness where he was thought to have set up camp, which rapidly grew to involve the FBI, yet efforts were hampered by immense drifts of snow which were at times over 12 feet deep. The search included Charles’ own father, who flew out to spend throughout the summer aiding in search efforts and camping out on the shore of the lake. Even after the snows melted, not a single trace of the missing man was turned up during this time, despite exhaustive efforts on the part of authorities and the tireless efforts of Charles’ father, and it seemed as if the forest had just swallowed him up.

Charles McCullar

The complete lack of any sign of the missing man caused speculation that Charles may have changed his plans and left the national park altogether without telling anyone, possibly running off to start a new life somewhere, but family and friends insisted that he would have never done this. Law enforcement seemed to lean into the idea that he had simply gotten lost and died out in the wilderness. Another idea was that he had been kidnapped or even murdered. Indeed, Charles’ friends and family suspected he had been the victim of some sort of foul play, which would explain the FBI’s involvement. Although they made no public statement to this effect, typically the FBI does not get involved in missing persons cases unless there is some sort of foul play suspected. It was so odd that the FBI had become involved that a friend of Charles who was heavily involved in the search even sent a letter to then senator William L. Scott asking about this, and he would say of it:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation on two occasions has indicated that it has no authority to enter cases of missing persons. You can imagine my surprise while in Oregon searching for clues, I picked up a newspaper and read that the FBI, as well as other Federal agencies, were engaged in a search for a missing person — James Hoffa. The senator replied, ‘The FBI has no authority to investigate missing persons unless there is evidence to indicate a kidnapping has taken place.’ After returning home and reviewing the information contained in the police reports that we possess, plus maps of the areas searched and the intensity of these searches without finding any signs of equipment we concluded that Charles was not the victim of foul weather but rather a victim of foul play.

However, authorities shied away from the idea of foul play because there was no evidence of it. Their main theories were that he had run off or suffered some sort of misadventure out there in the wilderness. In the meantime, there was no sign of the missing man, no new leads, and it was as if he had vanished off the face of the earth. It was not until the following year, in October of 1976, that a pair of hikers found a battered, torn up backpack down in a remote canyon located a full 12 miles from where Charles had been supposedly camped out, which they brought to a ranger’s office. Within a side pocket of the backpack was found a set of keys belonging to a Volkswagen, which had been the type of car that Charles had owned. Sensing that a break in the cold case had been found, Rangers Larry Smith and Marion Jack ran a comparison with a photocopy of Charles McCullar’s actual car key and found it was a perfect match. A patrol was immediately sent out on horseback to the area where the backpack had been found, near a place called Bybee Creek and it was not long before human remains were found near Bybee Creek, and although it seemed like the final piece of the puzzling disappearance, things would only get stranger from there.

There upon a log was a pair of jeans that seemed to be in remarkably good condition for how long they had been out there in the elements, but there was no shirt, coat, or boots anywhere too be seen. Within the socks that poked out from the jean legs were found to be broken off toe bones and the jeans themselves contained nothing but some pieces of snapped off shin bones. Adding to the weirdness was the fact that the belt on the jeans had been undone and the buttons opened, as if he at some point had decided to take them off in the frigid cold. Besides the toe and shin bones, the rest of the body was simply gone, and one ranger described it as if the man had simply “melted away.” Lying a full 12 feet away from this bizarre sight was the crown of a skull and some tiny fragments of bone. A meticulous, thorough search of the surroundings turned up no further trace of Charles’ remains, and the majority of his body remained missing, as did all of his clothing except those jeans. Additionally, none of Charles’ other personal belongings such as his wallet and camera were found either.

Besides the completely bizarre condition of the remains, it was baffling as to how Charles had even gotten to that location to begin with. The area was extremely rugged and remote, and at the time of the disappearance would have been engulfed in deep drifts of snow that even skiers and snowmobiles would have had a hard time with. How had he managed to hike 12 miles away from his camp in deep snow on foot and without his shoes on? Indeed, why would he have gone to that location to begin with? The missing clothing was explained by authorities as being due to something called “paradoxical undressing,” in which someone with hypothermia will have the sensation of being too hot and paradoxically take their clothes off in freezing conditions. However, where had the clothes gone? Also, how would that explain the condition of the body? Where had the rest of him gone and why was it in that state? Despite all of these anomalies, authorities would deem it a case of death by natural causes, with the body having been ravaged by wildlife after death. Case closed. Charles’ family thinks differently, and his brother Steve would say:

If only those broken-off shinbones could’ve talked to us … what do you think they’d say? I bet they’d say something like this: ‘I hitched a ride with this creepy guy who stole my camera equipment and money and shot me in the head. Then on a clear day in the dead of winter he hauled my body into the remotest part of Crater Lake, took my shirt and boots off and set me up on a log and left, figuring the animals would destroy the evidence by spring. And hey, I guess it worked, because the cops ruled my death to be from natural causes. My dad doesn’t buy it, though.

The case of Charles McCullar was brought out into the open by David Paulides, author of the Missing 411 series of books, and indeed he claims it is one of the most unsettling he has ever encountered. It seems to be for good reason, because many eerie and spooky clues seem to orbit this case. How did McCullar end up in that lonely spot and what are we to make of the otherworldly condition of his remains? What happened to him out there? Was this just death by misadventure and the work of scavengers, or is there something else going on here? Whatever the case may be, the mysterious vanishing and subsequent death of Charles McCullar is rather ominous and creepy, and something we seem to be unlikely to ever get to the bottom of.

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