When Kris Martin heard that his younger brother Kyle went missing during a kayak trip down the Hoback River outside of Jackson, his immediate thought was that he would fly out from Pennsylvania to go find him. Even today, more than 26 years later, Kris still remembers the phone call from his father Paul and mom Linn and the fear and grief in Paul’s voice when he delivered the news to Kris.
“Kyle’s missing,” his dad said. He still hears that in his mind like it was yesterday.
He’d fallen to the floor as he tried to make sense of it. In his mind, Kris thought that Kyle was likely just lost in the woods and fantasized that he would be the one to find him, at which point, Kris would hand him a beer and the two would laugh about it later.
That fantasy never came to pass.
Instead, four days later, Kris had been on an airplane en route to Wyoming while his older brother Kevin, his father, Kyle’s long-time girlfriend Michelle and other family members stood on the river bank and briefly watched Kyle’s body bob to the surface before plunging under the water.
His body was then carried downstream after the kayak was momentarily freed from a snarl of trees in the river in what was, by all accounts, a harrowing rescue attempt by a helicopter pilot and Teton County Search and Rescue.
It was May 30, 1995. Kyle, then 24, had gone kayaking with a buddy. He’d just moved out to Wyoming in fall 1994 with a couple friends from college, who like him, had moved West to live in the mountains for a year. Kyle worked at the Wort Hotel, and according to Kris, had discovered a love of cooking that he’d plan to pursue once he returned home.
Lost In The River
He never made it. Instead, his body was now lost in the river.
Kris never imagined he’d see his brother’s body ever again but was at peace knowing he died doing something he loved in a beautiful location.
“He was buried in the river and I liked that he was one with nature,” Kris told Cowboy State Daily on Sunday.
Then Kris got a phone call this spring from a dogged deputy sheriff in Jackson who told Kris that they might have found Kyle after a skull and other bone fragments were discovered by a hiker in September 2002 in the Palisades Reservoir.
The bones, including a sacrum and other fragments, were found between Big Elk and Blowout Canyon by detectives from the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office in Idaho. The detectives sent the bones to an anthropologist at Idaho State University, according to a release from the sheriff’s office, who theorized that they belonged to a male between 25 to 45 years old and of no determined race.
The sheriff’s office thought they might be belong to one of the two adult men who, along with two children, drowned in a boating accident in 1980 but were eventually able to rule them out.
This March, the bones were sent to a biotechnology lab in Texas who were able to extract DNA from the bones to determine a genealogical profile for the unknown male they had since began referring to as “Palisades Pete,” a nickname created by a National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) employee in 2014.
The Idaho sheriff’s office chipped in $1000 to pay for the process while the lab kicked in the rest from donations.
Now, they had a profile for the body and just needed a genetic match.
Enter Dave Hodges
Dave Hodges with the Teton County Sheriff’s Office was involved in Kyle’s rescue attempt in 1995.
He was leafing through a forensics magazine in March when he read about the discovery.
Immediately, Hodges wondered if that might be Kyle.
Hodges recalled that attempted rescue on the Hoback River 26 years ago. It was his first year with the sheriff’s office though he’d been a Teton Search and Rescue volunteer for a few years.
He remembered that day. It’d stuck with him for a couple reasons. First, the rescue mission itself had been nothing short of heroic, he said.
Kyle’s submerged kayak had been lodged between several thick trees that had fallen in the river. The helicopter pilot had been able to dislodge a couple of the branches in a maneuver that was both death-defying and heroic, Hodges said.
It was also the first and only body never recovered by the search and rescue team.
“I did not expect Kyle to submerge almost as quickly as he emerged,” Hodges said. “He was on the surface for just a few moments and then he was just gone.”
Hodges had been waiting down river in a boat to grab the body after it was released and was within a boat length of Kyle when his body sunk. He’d jumped into the murky, fast-moving water in a wetsuit with his hook.
“We tried to do our best,” he said. “The water was chocolate brown and discolored. We were planning to reach over and grab the body, but he went under and disappeared.”
It was a haunting moment that stuck with the young deputy.
DNA Sample Positive
Over the years, Hodges had thought of Kyle every time he passed that particular spot along the river which is distinct and viewable from the road.
When he’d read about the DNA profile and where the bones had been found, he’d immediately thought of the 24-year-old man from Pennsylvania.
Hodges then contacted the Bonneville sheriff’s office and ran the profile through the missing person’s database where no match was made. Hodges then coordinated with local police in Pennsylvania who were able to track down Kyle’s mother to get a DNA sample.
His father has since passed, Kris said, but his mother had called him about receiving a call from the Wyoming deputy and was more than eager to participate. The day police contacted her, she’d just been moved into an assisted living facility in Lancaster. The call bolstered her spirits, her son said. Like the rest of the family, she resigned herself to the fact that she’d never see her son’s body again.
Turns out it was a perfect match.
He saw the results for himself, Hodges said, and was able to call Kris with the good news.
“It was an emotional call for us both,” Hodges said.
Kris couldn’t put into words how important Hodges had been in this discovery; he was just too overwhelmed.
“We’d long given up hope of having his remains returned,” Kris said, adding that once they do get the bones they plan to cremate Kyle and sprinkle around the tree that his friends planted for him in their hometown to which the family members frequently visit.
The discovery brings a sense of closure, Kris said. It’s bittersweet. One on hand, his brother has been returned to the family but on the other, the loss is still raw. He likes that Kyle was able to go West and seemed to be finding himself, but he regrets not seeing the man that his brother would have become.
Kyle had even grown the obligatory beard, Kris laughed, stereotypical of mountain men which coincidentally is in their blood.
Their great, great-grandfather, Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones had been friends with Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill and was the first game warden at Yellowstone National Park, hired by Theodore Roosevelt.
Their Buffalo Jones had been an ardent conservationist and instrumental in helping to preserve the bison herds throughout the park. He’d been a mythical character to them as kids, Kris said.
He likes that Kyle had been able to experience a little of that history, and once he arrived in Jackson, he understood what had drawn his brother in the first place and why he loved living there.
“He had been coming into his own,” Kris said, noting that he was just a couple months away from returning home to Pennsylvania.
His father commissioned a sculptor to create a tribute to his son on a rock in the rugged terrain close to the river. Kris and Kevin found it on a trip to Jackson four years ago.
Kris, too, lauded the bravery and skill of the search and rescue team, particularly the pilot, who even his uncle, a pilot and Vietnam veteran, said defied anything he’d ever seen in his flying experience. One errant log might have pulled the helicopter down and the man who ultimately help bring his brother home.
“Dave had felt a lot of guilt that he hadn’t been able to capture the body,” Kris said, “but we have nothing but gratitude for him.”
He also appreciated the nickname given to his brother and the fact that people called him Pete and thought about him. He, too, thinks about his brother every day, despite his worry that one day he might forget about him and just move on. Not a chance, he said.
Now, his brother is finally coming home.