November 16, 1982
Elk Mountain, Wyoming
Paul Donald “Don” Kemp (35) disappears
Kemp had been involved in a car accident 5 years before his disappearance, which left him with a disability. During his time in recovery, he began to develop a fixation with Abraham Lincoln — a subject he had been interested in since childhood — and decided to write a book about him. Kemp left his job as an advertising executive in New York to travel to Jackson, Wyoming approximately 2,200 miles (3,500 km) away for research and, apparently, with the intention of “gathering the masses and starting a cult,” according to Carbon County Sheriff C.W. Ogburn. “He told one person that he was going to start a cult, that he was a prophet and a leader of man,” Ogburn elaborated.
Kemp’s van was found on November 16 in Elk Mountain, Wyoming, approximately 330 miles (531 km) southeast of his intended destination. The vehicle was idling, the doors open, and the radio playing. Left behind inside was various food, including a fresh container of orange juice, beef jerky, and chocolates. A single set of tracks were left in the blowing snow which ventured north of the van. A search team followed the tracks until the snow obliterated the path, though several items belonging to Kemp were found. An orange teapot was found along the footprint trail Kemp had left, three socks were found in an abandoned barn, and a cache of items (clothing, sunflower seeds, and a laundry bag) were found hidden in a haystack days after Kemp’s disappearance.
While a single-engine airplane was used to survey the area to search for Kemp and several members of law enforcement searched on foot, no additional trace was found of the missing man. The search was called off after three days when a snowstorm entered the area and made rescue efforts dangerous. “I don’t think he’s out there,” Deputy Sheriff Rod Johnson, who had headed the search, said. “If he was, I would have found him.”
A close friend who wished to remain unnamed believed Kemp’s mental health had affected his judgment. “I think poor Don was sitting on the fence of reality, and as he was driving down the highway he finally crossed over to the other side of the fence. I think he saw some sign in the desert and walked off.”
Kemp’s mother Mary E. Kemp initially seemed to agree with her son’s friend’s assessment, noting Kemp was “deeply religious” and may have taken a walk in the snow to meditate before becoming lost in the snowstorm. By August of 1983, however, she told reporters she believed Kemp had been abducted and “maybe kept crazy with drugs,” as The Sun reported on August 7, 1983. Mary Kemp quit her job to free up time to search for her son, traveling to Wyoming several times. “I will never give up trying to find my son,” Mary Kemp said. “I know he is still alive. He didn’t disappear into thin air. My son would not do this.”
I will never give up trying to find my son. I know he is still alive. He didn’t disappear into thin air. My son would not do this.
One clue in Kemp’s disappearance which kept his mother’s hope alive was a series of phone calls made to one of his longtime friends. Judith A. Aiello, who had known Kemp for 10 years, received two phone calls on February 27, 1983, two more on April 5, and a final call on April 10. The caller left two messages on Aiello’s answering machine and, while the caller did not leave a name, Aiello was adamant the voice was Kemp’s.
At the time, Aiello had been traveling extensively and was unaware Kemp had gone missing. In a “very brief message” which was “very precise and fast,” the caller provided a phone number in a “strained, urgent voice” and said, “I would like to speak with you again.” Aiello called the number. A man answered. Aiello asked if Don Kemp was there, to which the voice replied “yes” before quickly correcting himself to “no.” Aiello left a message with the voice saying she had returned Kemp’s call before the man said “yeah” and hung up.
The number Aiello had called belonged to a house in Casper, Wyoming, about 125 miles (201 km) due north of Elk Mountain. Mark Dennis, the man who lived in the home, told reporters, Kemp’s family, and law enforcement he did not know who Don Kemp was nor who had made the phone calls to his friend. “It is bizarre,” Dennis told reporters. “Nothing this strange has ever happened to me before. The only explanation I can think of is somebody got in my house to make the phone calls, or there was something wrong with the [phone] records.” By August 1983, Dennis moved 300 miles (483 km) away, in part to avoid the constant phone calls from Mary Kemp and questioning from the local sheriffs. Strangely, Dennis looked similar to Kemp, to the point sheriffs were confused when they first made contact with him regarding the phone calls. When shown a picture of Kemp, Dennis also saw the similarity. “It’s amazing,” he remembered thinking to himself. “This guy looks just like me.”
For years, Mary Kemp held onto the hope her son was still alive, though she was left with constant questions. How were the calls being made if he was already dead? And why was there no further contact from him if he was still alive? “It is awful. It is like a nightmare that I cannot wake from,” Mary Kemp said in one of several interviews. In another interview, she said, “I’m not going to give up. There’s no way my son is going to be swept under the rug.”
I’m not going to give up. There’s no way my son is going to be swept under the rug.
The skeletal remains of a man, later identified as Don Kemp, were found on October 4, 1985 by hunters. The remains were located 4 miles (6.5 km) from Kemp’s abandoned van. No obvious signs of violence were found on the remains. It is believed Kemp died of exposure after becoming lost in the snowstorm in the days following his disappearance.
Mary Kemp immediately expressed her doubts about her son’s death, saying she was “a little skeptical” of the information she was given. Others expressed doubt in the finding, as well, citing the fact Kemp was relatively close to the location of his van, he had been found in an open area, and Deputy Sheriff Rod Johnson’s assertion he would have found Kemp alive or dead if he was in the area.
Kemp’s case was the first segment of the first episode of the TV series Unsolved Mysteries, airing on January 20, 1987.
Mary Kemp passed away in 2014 at the age of 86. The details of her son’s death remains unsolved.
“Mary E. Kemp.” The Sunday Star [Easton, Maryland]. May 25, 2014
“TV crew studies ad man’s death.” The Billings Gazette. October 2, 1986
“Paul Donald Kemp.” The Sun [Baltimore, Maryland]. November 8, 1985
“Md. man’s body found.” The Morning News [Wilmington, Delaware]. October 9, 1985
“Body of Salisbury ‘prophet,’ missing since ‘82, recovered.” The Star-Democrat [Easton, Maryland]. October 9, 1985
“Mother Tormented By Son’s Mystery.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. April 13, 1984
Struck, Doug. “Marylander on way west disappears.” The Sun. August 7, 1983