Sunday, May 14, 2017

1967 Stony Creek Search for 11-Year-Old Debbie Butler

Search for 11-Year-Old Debbie ButlerWhen historians look through archival photos, it can be difficult to analyze an image’s authenticity. The question is not whether the image is genuine, per say, but how frank or candid the photo really is. This can be especially challenging when looking through photographs taken by government agencies who, understandably, have an agenda and often preserved images that were created with a certain narrative in mind. This is why, while the historic photos of Forest Rangers that graced the glossy pages of the Conservationist Magazine have become iconic, I tend to prefer to obtain photos from the rangers personal collections.

I recently discovered some black and white photos of an Adirondack search from half a century ago that look as though they had come straight from central casting. Each one was so extraordinary they could have been used for a movie poster for a Hollywood film starring Gary Cooper. I immediately questioned what I was looking at. Was it from a training or simulated search? Thankfully some information was written onto the back of the photos, including the year, 1967 and the incident name and location, “Debbie Butler Search, Stony Creek”.

Search for 11-Year-Old Debbie ButlerWhile the search report that had been completed following the incident had long been purged and lost to the landfill, newspaper accounts from the era exist. One of them was written by the ranger likely in charge of the mission, Charlie Severance, who is also pictured in five of the seven photographs I found. Two of the rangers who were part of the mission are still alive and enjoying retirement, Louis Curth who was the photographer, and Lance Killmeier of Fort Ann. Specifics of a single incident are difficult to recall 50 years later, especially if you were on hundreds of searches, but after speaking with the retired rangers as well as the then 11 year old missing girl, Debbie Butler, a written record can now be attached to some incredible, real photographic history of an Adirondack search.

There is no search call that raises the “red flag” and anxiety more for a Forest Ranger than a missing child. While every search is an emergency, you can’t help but yourself in the parent’s position. You can see the distress in their eyes, their expression, and their posture. As a forest ranger myself, I have had parents in such panic and despair that I can’t adequately obtain necessary information from them as to what happened. The entire community feels the call to help and search managers can sometimes even be overwhelmed by volunteers.

All of this occurred 50 years ago as well, when on Sunday afternoon, April 2, 1967, eleven-year-old Debbie Butler walked away from her family’s camp in Stony Creek. Today she remembers it as “running away” like kids sometimes do but the reason for her leaving is unknown and a memory lost. The family and a friend searched on their own at first but soon it became apparent they needed help. The search developed quickly with sheriffs, state troopers, volunteer fireman and forest rangers responding. Tracks were found and followed for 3 miles as there was still snow in the woods. Bloodhounds may have even been on her “scent” that night but it didn’t lead to success. Despite searching late into the night, young Debbie Butler remained alone, unprepared in the Adirondack backcountry. The search organizers kept a positive attitude as temperatures were mild for April, the cruelest of all months in the Adirondacks.

Search for 11-Year-Old Debbie ButlerMany more resources were brought in the next day, including the Conservation Department’s helicopter, N600, a “huey” that was piloted by “Ace” Howland. Not long after beginning their search pattern, the missing girl was spotted by the crew of N600. Flying low they could see she was moving and waving to the helicopter. The helicopter was equipped with a hoist but there was such a large clearing nearby the decision was made to land and walk to her. The helicopter moved slowly and Debbie followed the helicopter on foot. After they landed the rangers made their way to the girl, who had climbed over a mountain and through a beaver swamp the night before. She was very happy to see them and was carried in their arms back to the helicopter. Placed in a sleeping bag, she was flown out of the backcountry to a waiting ambulance and then transported to the hospital in Glens Falls more out of an abundance of caution than any obvious medical condition. Despite a nerve wracking night for family, all was well that ended well.

Debbie Butler still lives in the area today and has a vague recollection of the event as an adult. She did not wish to be quoted directly but expressed gratitude to all those involved who helped bring her to safety. The importance of photos in recording history became very apparent to me in researching this article. Memories fade. Images last forever.

Photos: The 1967 Stony Creek Search for 11-Year-Old Debbie Butler.

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Scott van Laer has been a forest ranger for 21 years and is currently a delegate for PBA of NYS, the union which represents forest rangers.

12 Responses

  1. Richard A MacKinnon says:

    It’s beyond me why this search was different from many, many others? What was the photographic aspect which warranted comment. Why was Debbie allowed to be so uninformative? After all a lot of people seemed to have expended a lot of sweat on her behalf. So beyond: “girl lost .. girl found .. everyone safe,” I’m not sure what a general reader should conclude.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      The only aspects that would make it different from any other in 1967 were the subjects age, 11 and the use of the helicopter, which was relatively new to the department at that time. Unfortunately not all the photos are included in the article but I thought they were very compelling. People didn’t carry cameras in their pockets at all times back then. I actually thought it may have been a training or staged photos when I first saw them.

      “Why was Debbie allowed to be so uninformative?” We communicated a half century after an incident in which she was 11 years old at the time. I was grateful for what she could recall.

      I agree this was not the most gripping missing person story. The participants I spoke with did not have vivid recollections. I mostly wanted to share the photos and narrate them. “girl lost..girl found..everyone safe.” Yes, a happy ending and that indeed is all a general reader can conclude.

      • Bruce says:


        How about something on little Douglas Legg, the boy who was lost and never found around Santanoni in 1971. My Boy Scouts and I were involved with that search one entire weekend. We travelled to the area from Constantia, on Oneida Lake.

        If we’re open to theories, mine is that he went down in a beaver meadow with floating vegetation and drowned. We almost lost a searcher that way but were able to pull him out.

        • Bruce too says:

          I am also from Constantia, and was 13 at the time. Spent that weekend up there with my Dad and a couple others in an organized search line. Nights were spent on the local school’s gym floor. After hunting years in the ADKs by now, we figure either he fell through a floating bog mass or was kidnapped. Just no trace.

      • Paul says:

        The one where they are kneeling down and the girl is running toward them does look pretty strange? Spent all night in the woods climbing over a mountain and through a beaver swamp (?) – and she still has what looks like a thin white shirt on that is pretty clean! In it someone is clearly standing back to take the photo as an action shot.

    • Paul says:

      Richard what did you want Scott to do beat it out of her?

  2. Deb Evans says:

    As a member of CASART I enjoyed the story.
    The photos are great and beg to tell the story.I was glad she was found alive and well.
    There are more searches in the adks then ever before.
    Some are long with a dire ending and we’ll documented.
    The good outcome searches are always good news for search and rescue folk.

  3. R. Carey says:

    My only comment is that I wish the photos in this story were reproduced larger! (or ‘clicked-up’ to larger versions)

    “Each one was so extraordinary they could have been used for a movie poster for a Hollywood film starring Gary Cooper.”

    Show us the goods! 🙂

    • John Warren says:

      Right click on the photo, select ‘view image’ and then you can blow the photo up by holding down the control key while using the scroll wheel on your mouse.

  4. Maureen Wrightsman says:

    I spent many years on my Grandmothers farm in Redfield. I recall the directions that I was given that I could not go into the forest behind the farm.I also recall the boy from Newcomb who wandered away and was never found.

  5. Paul says:

    Debbie was one tough 11 year old girl! Wow.

    I don’t see much snow in the pictures they were lucky to find some tracks. Very little snow left on April 2?

  6. Keith Silliman says:


    Nicely done. Your description lends context to the excellent photos.