The latest forensic results now confirm New York native Gary Frank Sotherden died of a bear mauling 47 years ago in Alaska.
In 1997, a hiker traveling Alaska’s northeastern country found a human skull along the Porcupine River. After reporting this find, a decade’s-old case would resurface for a family in need of closure.
In 1977, Gary Frank Sotherden travelled into the north of Alaska with a friend. An avid outdoorsman, Sotherden’s friend and family were shocked when he disappeared during their trip – a trip that took them along the Porcupine River. After splitting up for part of their hike, Sotherden never returned, and his friend reported him missing.
Extensive search and rescue by foot, water, and air would follow. But Sotherden’s body was never found. And not a single trace of his physical body would surface until that skull was found in 1997.
DNA forensics weren’t able to identify the skull at the time, however, and so the Sotherden family was left wondering for further decades if this was, in fact, what remained of Gary. Thanks to advances in technology, they finally have that answer.
‘It’s been hard all the way along, but it’s nice to at least know what happened’
Gary Frank Sotherden’s case was reopened in April of 2022. His brother, Stephen Sotherden, has never been able reconcile with his brother “getting lost” in the wild, then dying. Stephen has never given up his search for the truth. And he was right to do so.
Using a commercially-available 23andMe DNA test, authorities were able to compare Stephen’s genetic makeup to that of the skull. It could take up to a year for results to arrive, but at least they would have a definitive answer. Now, that answer is in.
The match has been confirmed, and the skull discovered in 1997 does, in fact, belong to Gary Frank Sotherden.
“It’s been hard all the way along, but it’s nice to at least know what happened,” Sotherden told local reporters. He’s now planning a memorial service for his brother later this year.
Not only does Gary’s family have a match to his skull, but they have an official cause of death, too. According to decades-long study of the skull, bear mauling is the culprit for his demise.
Alaskan Bear Mauling Claimed Gary Frank Sotherden’s Life in 1977
“Based on the shape, size and locations of tooth penetrations to the skull, it appears the person was a victim of bear predation,” Tim DeSpain, an agency spokesperson, confirms.
In Alaska, the most likely culprit in Sotherden’s place of death is the brown bear (Ursus arctos). Although attacks are rare and fatalities even rarer, brown bears can and will illicit predatory attacks on humans. So, too, do black bears (Ursus americanus), which are responsible for the majority of bear-related injuries and deaths in North America. The state is also home to polar bears, with a polar bear mauling occurring in Alaska’s remote village of Wales, resulting in the death of a mother and her 1-year-old boy at the beginning of 2023.
Regardless of the culprit, Stephen is finally able to let his brother rest in peace after decades of searching. At one point, Stephen had even hired private investigators and mountain guides to search for his brother.
“‘He did find my brother’s site. He found his broken glasses, he found identification,” Stephen laments. To this day, Gary Frank Sotherden’s tombstone reads “‘Lost in Alaska in the 1970s” as a result.
Perhaps now that will change as the tragic fate of Sotherden settles once and for all.