What ever happened to Derek Lueking? A man walked into the Smoky Mountains but never walked out

“Don’t try to follow me,” a note on an abandoned car read. Searchers with the National Park Service located this note on the car of Derek Lueking, 24, of Louisville, Tennessee, who had vanished into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Saturday, March 17, 2012, according to The Daily Times of Maryville, Tennessee.

Derek Lueking, 24, of Louisville, Tennessee, in this undated photo.

Derek Lueking, 24, of Louisville, Tennessee, in this undated photo.

With the search underway in the Great Smoky Mountains, it was clear finding Lueking would not be easy. His family had already been engaged in an exhausting search and it had been several days since anyone had heard from him, the Lueking family told the Smoky Mountain News.

Lueking worked as an orderly at Peninsula Behavioral Health Center in Tennessee. His family became concerned when they found out he had stopped reporting to work and would not return their phone calls. Compounding their concern was the fact that his disappearance coincided with the first anniversary of his grandfather’s death, with whom he was very close.

After the family discovered he had spent the night at a hotel in Cherokee, North Carolina, they set out to find him. But when they arrived at the hotel, he was long gone. On their journey back to Tennessee they unexpectedly happened across his car parked along the Newfound Gap Road and immediately phoned it in. The parking area where his family found his car is where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Newfound Gap Road.

A search of his vehicle turned up the note. Great Smoky Mountain National Park officials expressed doubt about whether the note was Lueking’s. Inside his car his family and searchers found his wallet and credit cards, as well as his tent, sleeping bag and maps of the park, all of which he had recently purchased. Questions arose: Had he walked into the woods without any gear to help him in the late winter? Why had he done that?

A friend of Lueking’s had told CNN that he was a fan of Bear Gryll’s TV show “Man Vs. Wild” and could have set off in search of such an adventure to clear his mind. It is possible, his friend said, that he did have the gear needed to survive for a time in the woods.

Park rangers, however, were not so sure what gear he had and if the gear he had would be enough to survive a stay in the dense half a million acres of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Sixty searchers and three dog teams hit the woods to find Lueking, searching 70 miles of trails near where his car was found, even going so far as to rappel down cliff faces.

As the search unfolded, even Appalachian Trail hikers were spreading the word to anyone who would pass through the area.

Despite the presence of many people visiting the park on a nice sunny day, no one had seen any sign of Lueking, the Smoky Mountain News reported. Searchers began to consider that he had gone off trail, making it unlikely that anyone would have seen him that day, further confounding efforts to find him.

But by March 23 no sign had turned up since Lueking’s vehicle was found the week before. The search was scaled back with a small group of searchers to stay on and check areas no one had looked in yet, The Mountaineer reported.

The missing pile up

Michael Cocchini, 23, of Nashville, Tennessee, in this undated photo.

Michael Cocchini, 23, of Nashville, Tennessee, in this undated photo.

Just days after the search for Lueking started on Sunday, March 18, a second man vanished into the Great Smoky Mountains near the Newfound Gap. Michael Cocchini, 23, of Nashville, Tennessee, was last seen outside an area Wal-Mart Sunday afternoon, according to a WVLT report.

Soon park rangers with assistance from other law enforcement agencies began a quick search to locate the second man. Nothing turned up.

It was revealed as well that Cocchini was not an avid hiker and his motivation for entering the Smoky Mountains was a mystery.

Later that summer the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that on Aug. 21, 2012, searchers found several items consistent that were believed to belong to Cocchini. Not far from those items human remains, including skull fragments, were located.

On Sept. 6, 2012, an examination of the remains by the Sevier County Medical Examiner’s Office, Knoxville Regional Forensic Center and the Knox County Sheriffs Forensic Unit determined to be those of Cocchini, WBIR reported. Cocchini was found only three-tenths of a mile from where his car was found in March.

Forensic teams concluded it was not possible to definitely tell how Cocchini died, but there were strong suspicions that he may have taken his own life.

What ever happened?

While the Cocchini story has come to a tragic close, the Lueking story has yet to reach its denouement. The third anniversary of his disappearance is 43 days away and his missing person case remains open, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a unit of the U.S. Department of Justice.

It has also never been determined why Lueking walked into the woods and never came out. Had he, like officials believe Cocchini did, set out to end his life? Or was he looking for an adventure in the spirit of Bear Grylls or Christopher McCandless? Or had he gone looking for a quiet space in which he could collect his thoughts at a time when he was reliving a great trauma?

Whether his stay in the woods was meant to be short or permanent will only be known when Lueking is brought out.

Until then, a Facebook page, “Find Derek Lueking,” keeps the vigil while he is still out there somewhere in the world.

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