On Halloween one year ago, a father and son drove along a winding road in the waning Luzerne County light, whipping up dead leaves until they pulled the pickup into a gravel turnout beside a well-worn hunting trail.
The dog in the backseat probably caught the scent before the ignition was off, because the body wasn’t far off or hidden all that well, a head and torso exposed in the brush on a little hill just 10 yards away. The dog bolted straight for it.
The remains, dismembered and scattered off White Haven Road in Bear Creek Township, were later identified as Grace Packer, a 14-year-old girl from Bucks County reported missing by her adoptive mother, Sara Packer, more than three months earlier. The missing persons case quickly evolved into something far darker, and that same mother was arrested in January and charged with helping her boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan, allegedly beat, rape, and slowly murder the girl.
The hunters went unnamed in court documents and news accounts, a small detail in a story deep with sadness. The men still won’t talk publicly about last Halloween.
“It really, really bothered them,” Trooper Lisa Brogan of the Pennsylvania State Police said at the site this month. “They called the police. They stayed at the scene. They did everything right.”
No agency keeps count, but every year across the country, hunters consistently find human remains. There are well over 10 million registered hunters in the United States, men and women accustomed to time off-trail, with eyes trained to pick out the minutiae of the landscape.
On Oct. 24, in Idaho, hunters found the remains of a woman whose car crashed into a river in 2016. Two days before that, hunters found remains in an Idaho desert. On Sept. 29, two bow hunters found human remains in Somerset County in western Pennsylvania.
A hunter in Michigan found human remains on Sunday.
Often, the dead are other hunters who’ve fallen from trees or had accidents. Most are missing people, hikers who lost their way or senior citizens who wandered off from assisted living centers. Hunters find people who’ve taken their own lives and people who’ve been killed, like Grace Packer.
With the bulk of hunting seasons in fall and winter, Matthews said, hunters are heading out at an ideal time, when the weather kills off vegetation.
“Anything that puts thousands of people in the woods scanning for details helps us, even mushroom hunters,” he said.
On a late summer afternoon in the early 1970s, Bill Dominick was scouting in a forest not far from where Grace Packer was found in Bear Creek Township. He had just returned from tours of Vietnam with the Marine Corps. He did demolition work during the war. Hunting, he said, was a way to dull the noise in his head.
Dominick was surprised to see a young man sitting on a tree stump by a tent far off any trail and went to say hello.
“Where this kid is, people just don’t go,” Dominick, 70, said last week.
When he approached, he saw a .22 rifle between the man’s legs.
“There was just one little trickle of blood running down by his ear,” he said.
Police were grateful, Dominick said, and he faded into the background when they arrived. The suicide victim was a young man from New York.
“I really didn’t think that much about it at the time,” he said. “But I don’t think I had been back to that spot since then.”
The district attorneys’ offices in Bucks and Luzerne Counties didn’t mention the two hunters much in statements and news conferences about the Packer case. Brogan said neither man responded to a request to be interviewed by the Inquirer and Daily News.
In Atlantic County, N.J., hunters have found numerous bodies of murder victims. On Dec. 8, 2008 in Hamilton Township, a hunter found the body of Marc Rubin, 46, of Abington, wrapped in a carpet. Rubin’s daughter, Christina, and her boyfriend were convicted of his murder.
Another body was found in the same township by a hunter less than a year later.
A spokeswoman for the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment for this story or reach out to those hunters.
On November 3, 2005, a hunter found the remains of a man identified as Bryan K. Hunter in Franklin Township, Gloucester County. Hunter’s death was ruled a homicide, and the case remains unsolved.
One sheriff’s office in Tennessee sent out a news release in 2014 telling “hunters, hikers, construction crews, etc.” what to do and not do if they find remains. Not touching anything is key.
“It’s a little nerve-racking. I’d never done anything like this before,” Jim Schoenstein of Absecon, Atlantic County, said of his drive to a police station to report the skeleton he’d found.
Schoenstein, 58, was moving a hunting tree stand in Hamilton Township in March 2003 when he saw a skeleton.
“There were no clothes, no jewelry, nothing,” he said. “It’s a real thick piece of woods, very overgrown and sandy, and swampy. I doubt this person would have ever been found.”
Schoenstein said he heard the remains were an older male, but didn’t learn of an identity.
Joe N., a hunter from Lower Bucks County, did learn the identity of the remains he found while tracking a deer his friend shot near the Route 611 bypass in Plumstead Township in fall 1996.
Kurt Kleber, a Bensalem dentist, was last seen when he dropped his wife off at Philadelphia International Airport in 1991. The hunter, who asked that his full name not be used for reasons of privacy, said he found Kleber’s skeleton five years later.
“I lifted the shirt and all the rib bones fell out,” he said.
Police found no evidence of foul play in Kleber’s death, and the hunter has not spoken to the man’s family. Joe N. said he never felt like a hero, but always hoped his discovery brought some closure to Kleber’s family.
“I think if I had found a child, it would have really messed me up,” he said.
Packer’s remains were eventually handled by a funeral home in Carbon County, where they were cremated and given to her grandparents. Sara Packer and Sullivan are scheduled for trial in April.
“That poor girl,” Brogan said.
The trooper didn’t know if the hunters who found Packer’s remains followed the case afterward. She didn’t know whether the father and son felt they granted the girl, dumped like trash in the autumn leaves, some semblance of dignity.