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DNA Of Skull In Alaska Solves Mystery Of New Yorker Missing Since 1976

It's suspected the free-spirited man was mauled to death by a bear.

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Tom Hale

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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A snowy highway drives through pine trees in Alaska towards mountains and blue sky.

The skull was found near the Porcupine River, a tributary of the Yukon River in Canada and the US. Image credit: Anton Rogozin/Shutterstock.com

A skull found in the Alaskan wilderness has been linked to an adventurer from New York who went missing in 1976. In a grisly surprise, investigators believe that the man most likely died after being mauled by a bear.

Gary Frank Sotherden, then 25, traveled to the Arctic Circle in the mid-1970s to go hunting, but he never returned home. His whereabouts remained a mystery until just a few weeks ago when a skull found in the 90s was linked to the missing man with the help of DNA analysis and genealogy, according to the State of Alaska Department of Public Safety.

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In the summer of 1997, a hunter found a human skull along the Porcupine River in north-eastern Alaska, around 12 kilometers (8 miles) from the Canadian border. It was collected by Alaska State Troopers and sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office as unidentified human remains.

A breakthrough came in April 2022 when DNA was extracted from the bone. Cold case investigators used genetic genealogy to tentatively link the remains to Gary Frank Sotherden of New York. 

In other words, a relative of Sotherden had submitted their DNA to a genealogy website to trace their family tree. This DNA was then entered into a public databank, which investigators noticed had notable similarities to the DNA of the missing man. It’s a similar tactic that’s recently been used to solve a number of cold case murders, most notably Joseph James DeAngelo – the “Golden State Killer” – in 2018. 


After finding the clue on the genealogy website, the team contacted a potential relative who was happy to provide a DNA sample. Just as the investigators hoped, it confirmed that the skull belonged to Sotherden. The relative explained how Sotherden was dropped off near Porcupine River where his remains were found. 

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State troopers said the suspected cause of death was a bear mauling, but they explain how they reached this conclusion.

Speaking to The New York Times (NYT), his brother Stephen Sotherden described Gary as a free spirit. After he went missing, aerial searches for the body were launched but failed to find anything of any note.

His parents later paid a mountain guide to search the Porcupine River in 1977. No remains were discovered, but they did find his smashed glasses. While he’s happy that Gary’s story has an ending, Stephen suggests some aspects of his death were darker than the family had expected. 

“We’ve been working on it for 45 years, and it’s nice that things came to a conclusion,” Stephen told the NYT. “It was a little more brutal than I was hoping for.”


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