Four years have passed since Stephanie Higgins’ husband, Shawn, vanished in the Oregon wilderness, but she says it feels like it happened yesterday.
“I wake up every morning thinking about him… wondering where he is,” Stephanie told Dateline. “I know he didn’t just get lost. Something happened to him.”
Stephanie and Shawn started dating when they were just 15 years old. They got married when they were 20 and started their family in Coos Bay, Oregon where they raised two sons. They often went on family trips to the Siskiyou Mountains in Southwest Oregon.
“We knew that area well,” Stephanie said of where her husband went missing. “When we were teenagers, we’d skip school and go turkey hunting,” she added, laughing. “Since then, it’s always been a place for our family.”
It was the last place anyone ever Shawn.
On October 14, 2016, Shawn, his 21-year-old son Trevor, and Trevor’s uncle were out hunting at the Shasta Costa drainage in the Bear Camp area about 45 miles east of Gold Beach, Oregon. Trevor and Shawn had gone their separate ways, but the plan was to meet back at the truck later that day and then drive to pick up Trevor’s uncle who at had been dropped off at another area of the woods earlier that day.
Stephanie told Dateline that Trevor, who had killed a buck the day before, was waiting at the truck for his dad, but he never showed up. He began to worry as it started to get dark and a storm rolled in.
“Shawn was on a footpath that ran alongside a road,” she explained. “He’s an outdoorsman who knew the area and he knew Trevor was waiting for him. It doesn’t make any sense that he didn’t make it out that evening.”
Stephanie added that Shawn knew it was such a quick trip into the woods, he didn’t even take his backpack with him. Inside the backpack was his GPS.
“If only he had taken it, we’d know where he is,” Stephanie said. “But he knew he’d be right back. In his mind, there was no reason to take it.”
As the hours passed, Trevor’s uncle made it to the truck at the meeting place and the two of them split up to look for Shawn. But as it got darker, Trevor got turned around. But rather than risk getting deeper into the wilderness, Stephanie said her son stayed where he was and built a shelter.
It was early the next morning when Stephanie got the news that both her husband and son were missing. She said Trevor’s uncle wasn’t able to find either one of them and ended up calling the Curry County Sheriff’s Office.
“I was in shock,” Stephanie said. “Shawn would have never spent the night up there - not without the proper gear. He would’ve made it out. The only thing I could hope for at the moment was that they had found each other.”
Search and rescue teams from several counties around the state responded to the area and assisted Curry County Search and Rescue in scouring the treacherous terrain as the weather remained wet and cold.
Four days into the search, Trevor was found by search crews about two and a half miles from where he entered the woods to look for his father. He was then airlifted by the U.S. Coast Guard to Bay Area Hospital, suffering from severe hypothermia due to his extended exposure to the cold, wet weather.
“He wanted to know if his dad had made it back to the truck,” Stephanie said. “But I think he knew from the beginning — when his dad didn’t come out on the first day — something was wrong.”
Stephanie told Dateline she hoped that her son had seen Shawn or some trace of him, but he hadn’t. No one had.
“I just find it strange that nothing of Shawn’s was found,” Stephanie said. “He had layers of clothing, a gun, bullets - yet, nothing was found?”
The search continued and many crews spent the night braving the cold, wet weather in order to search longer and cover a greater area. K-9 units were brought in as drones and helicopters circled the sky above the trees. Hundreds of people in the community showed up to help search and to provide food, clothing and supplies.
“Shawn is well-loved,” Stephanie said. “And that was evident from how many people showed up for him in those weeks. There’s still good in this world. And I’ve seen it in that community.”
But nine days later, on October 23, Shawn’s 42nd birthday, search and rescue crews from all over Oregon started demobilizing to return home. Shawn’s friends and co-workers continued the search on Monday, but on Tuesday, October 25, 2016, the sheriff’s department suspended the search for Shawn.
According to Curry County Sheriff John Ward, in the 11 days since Shawn had disappeared, search teams had uncovered no trace of him and were no closer to knowing where he might be. With so much time having passed, Sheriff Ward said the odds were against his surviving.
“It is with a heavy heart that we have to suspend the search for Shawn at this time,” told media outlets at the time. “Our hearts go out to the family, friends and community that love Shawn so dearly. We pray that they will find a way to make sense of this tragedy and heal their hearts. The connection that the people of Coos County have with each other and the way they come together to help each other is nothing but astonishing and an example for other communities to live by. I am very humbled.”
Shawn’s friends and family were devastated by the announcement.
“We weren’t ready to give up,” Shawn’s sister, Tara Fisher, told Dateline. “We still don’t want to give up.”
Tara told Dateline there have been countless stories and rumors over the years about what could have happened to her brother. Stories from drug cartels to Big Foot. Some people believe Shawn fell into a ravine so treacherous, it wasn’t reachable by search crews. Others believe he’s not even in the woods at all anymore.
“We’ve heard it all,” Tara said. “But we’re no closer to finding Shawn. And that’s all we want.”
Stephanie and Shawn’s sons, who are now 25 and 18, still live in Coos Bay. Stephanie busies herself with nursing school and Trevor now works with the Operator’s Union like his father. She said both of her sons continue to hunt.
“I’m worried every time they go into those woods,” Stephanie said. “But I know it’s something that makes them feel close to their dad. As a mom, I’m supposed to protect them. So the hardest part is not being able to protect them from this pain.”
While there have been smaller searches throughout the years, the hope of finding Shawn has faded. Curry County Sheriff John Ward told Dateline that Shawn’s disappearance is still an open and active case, believes the hunter succumbed to the elements in the wilderness four years ago.
"We did the best we could, scoured the area with 200-300 searchers a day," Sheriff Ward said. "But it's a vast area. And unfortunately, we never found any trace of Shawn."
Stephanie told Dateline that she understands people have to return to their lives, but wishes she could send thousands of people out searching every day.
“It’s hard, because we have no clues, no idea of where he might be. Some of his friends don’t even believe he’s there, in the woods. They tell me, ‘he hasn’t been found because he’s not in the woods,’” Stephanie said. “My hope now is that maybe someone saw him that day or knows where he is. Something to put our minds at peace.”
Anyone with information regarding Shawn’s disappearance is asked to call the Curry County Sheriff’s Office at (541) 247-3276.