On June 14, 1969, six year-old Dennis Martin, his two brothers, and a cousin were playing a fun game of hide-and-go-seek as his father and grandfather talked nearby in the grassy area of Spence Field, a meadow which serves as a “crossroads” for several trails in the higher elevations of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
Three boys went one way, little Dennis opted to hide behind a bush. A few minutes later, the three boys jumped from their hiding places and frightened the grown men. It was supposed to be a joke, but the pounding of the hearts would never subside.
Dennis Martin, just six days shy of his seventh birthday, was nowhere to be found. He hasn’t been seen since despite the diligent efforts of law enforcement, the National Guard, Green Berets from Fort Bragg in nearby North Carolina, and thousands of volunteers whose search lasted through mid-September 1969.
The disappearance of the young boy slowly faded from the area headlines until October 8, 1976, when sixteen year-old Trenny Gibson seemingly vanished into thin air while on a hiking trip with her Bearden High School class. Although Trenny was walking alone, there were groups reportedly behind and in front of her but no one claimed to have seen anything – especially not an abduction. During the search for Trenny, scent dogs followed her trail to the highway before it was lost.
Again thousands of volunteers as well as military personnel spent months searching the mountain terrain for the teenager but it was to no avail. Treeny was gone without a trace.
Just as it was with Dennis, the missing Treeny began to slowly fade away from the headlines when suddenly 58 year-old Polly Melton of Jacksonville, Florida, disappeared while hiking with a couple of friends on September 25, 1981.
Polly, said the friends, was a smoker, overweight and suffered high blood pressure so they found it odd she was walking at such a brisk pace several yards ahead of them. Overhearing the comments, Polly turned and laughed before she went out-of-sight as she descended a hill. Initially her hiking companions believed she had went back to their campsite but upon their return they learned such was not the case.
Like Dennis and Treeny, Polly vanished without a trace, never to be seen again.
This time when the headlines became fewer, there would not be another one to revive the stories. Over time their disappearances have become something of urban legend to visitors, and especially residents, of the Great Smoky Mountains. Not only does the failure to locate the missing leave much to the imagination but no evidence whatsoever of who, or even what, could be responsible makes the stories fantastic.
Are these three a victim of an unidentified serial killer? Although it would not be the usual modus operandi, victims of such varying ages and even gender isn’t outside the scope of possibility for a serial killer. But why were there no other victims? It’s always possible the killer moved from the area or died, I suppose.
Other folks, however, swear by the “Bigfoot theory” and their ideas seems only to be bolstered by the recent release of a book titled Missing 411: Easter United States: Unexplained Disappearance of North Americans That Have Never Been Found by Bigfoot expert David Paulides.
In his book, Paulides summarizes newspaper articles about persons missing from U.S. National Parks, including the Smoky Mountain Missing trio. Paulides calls out the lack of suspects as one of several reasons why he theorizes a Bigfoot is responsible for the missing, although he fails to explain why Park Rangers, frequent visitors to the areas they patrol, have never fallen prey – or even witnessed such a “thing.”
On the other hand, Paulides does make mention of “wild men” (i.e., Deliverance-style) who live in the extremely rural areas of the park and the possibility of their involvement, as allegedly seen by a family from Carthage, Tennessee, on the day Dennis went missing. I’m not in total disagreement with such a theory. I’ve seen what lives in the “civilized” mountains near my home, so I can only imagine what lurks in those.
But isn’t it always possible the vanishings were more simplistic? Say, horrible accidents or planned disappearances?
Dennis Martin was a young boy fairly familiar with the area, living in nearby Knoxville. His family spent a great deal of time camping and hiking the Great Smoky Mountain park trails. He was energetic and fearless. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of reality for a six year-old to explore and become lost. Not to mention, children that age have a knack for finding the oddest places – places adults would never think of.
Trenny Gibson had walked on-and-off with friends during their field trip but the area from where she disappeared is known for its steep incline, sharp drop-offs, and dense undergrowth. Some locals also claim there are abandoned mine shafts whose openings are often covered with brush and easy to fall into. Those are definitely things to consider.
Then there is Polly Melton. She had been suffering bouts of depression following the death of her mother a few years before. Her doctor had prescribed her Valium to help ease the depression. Polly had supposedly stopped taking them by the time of her disappearance but her husband later reported his prescription for the same medication couldn’t be found. And Polly’s husband told police he suspected she was having an affair.
But Polly disappeared without her identification and, being unable to drive, she had no keys. Of course, if such were the case, Polly wouldn’t be the first person to skip out with no ID, with a paramour, from a predetermined meeting place in hopes she would be classified as a “victim” rather than a marital deserter.
Truth is, it’s been more than 40 years since little Dennis disappeared and almost 32 since Polly vanished, we’ll probably never know what happened – short of a miraculous discovery.
I do, however, have my own theories -
I am of the opinion that Dennis Martin and Trenny Gibson were abducted by opportunistic predators. Both were separated from their “pack” and easily snatched – by separate individuals. Each was probably whisked from the park and their bodies are now in graves somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. May they be at peace.
Alternatively, I feel strongly Polly Melton walked away voluntarily, which contradicts with the thoughts of her family. The sudden change of routine the day before wherein she didn’t volunteer at the Senior Center, the mysterious phone call to an unidentified person, and the strange behavior noted by friends of her walking pace all lead to this conclusion.
Unofficially, Park officials have said they believe Trenny and Polly were abducted and taken from the park while they theorize Dennis simply wandered off and eventually died of natural elements.
I could be wrong but, then again, I’m not basing much of my theories on the proclamations of a celebrity psychic so…
If you have any information about any of these cases, please contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations at 615.744.4000 or visit www.tbi.tn.gov.