Crater Lake stuns visitors with its natural beauty and the story behind its rare formation. But much of that gorgeousness begins to fade when more tales about the caldera come to light. Namely, the United States’ deepest lake has set the scene for some terrifying, mysterious deaths. Just ask the guy who hiked the grounds, rested on a tree trunk, and then saw a person’s skull staring back at him.
Nearly 8,000 years ago, a volcano called Mount Mazuma crumbled to the ground. This left a gaping, half-mile-deep caldera in Oregon. Over time, rainwater and mountain run-off filled the void to create a body of water that’s 1,949 feet deep at some points. It’s the deepest lake in the U.S., and the ninth deepest on Earth, when measured at its deepest point.
No waterways drain into Crater Lake, which keeps many pollutants out of the massive body of water. To that end, its waters are incredibly clear – it’s possible to see up to 115 feet into its depths. And yet, secrets lurk below and around the lake. Needless to say, Crater Lake is not as placid and pure as it may seem.
In 1974 Charles McCullar decided to go west. The then-19-year-old forewent his Volkswagen in favor of hitching rides from strangers and catching buses around the country. What McCullar refused to leave behind, though, was his photography equipment. Even as a teenager, with now-outdated technology on his hands, he had a knack for taking great photos.
By the start of 1975 McCullar had made his way from his home in Virginia to Eugene, Oregon. There, he had a pal with whom he could crash for a few weeks. But adventure called to the young photographer once again. He decided to hitchhike his way from Eugene to Crater Lake, which sits 128 miles away from the Oregonian city.
McCullar informed his Eugene-based friend of his travel plans, letting them know he’d be back in a couple of days. Two days later, though, the photographer hadn’t returned. And, just like that, the FBI was on the case, trying to help find the missing teen. McCullar’s father, too, raced from the East Coast to Oregon to help with the search effort.
But McCullar’s father and the FBI would walk away from Crater Lake without answers. Indeed, it seemed as though the 19-year-old Virginian had vanished without a trace. In a year’s time, however, the case would be cracked wide open, thanks to a pair of hikers who made a wrong turn while trekking around Crater Lake.
The hikers walked off from the beaten path, a misstep that led them to a desolate canyon in Crater Lake National Park. It was in that very area that the pair found something. Inside of a dirty backpack, they found a car key. As it turned out, it was the key to start McCullar’s Volkswagen, the one still parked in Virginia.
That discovery kickstarted a second search for McCullar. And this time, authorities wouldn’t come up empty-handed. Instead, they finally discovered the body of the missing photographer. However, his remains did little to answer questions that investigators or McCullar’s family may have had about his untimely death.
For starters, McCullar’s remains were a dozen miles away from the beginning of the track. He may have gotten lost, but probably not on the particular day he chose to visit Crater Lake. At that time, more than seven feet of snow had piled up on the ground. Those familiar with snowshoeing or cross-country skiing know that it would’ve been nearly impossible for the teenager to have walked 12 miles off course in such conditions.
On top of that, authorities had a grim realization as they pieced together McCullar’s skeleton – only a few pieces of it remained. His foot bones had stayed in tact inside of his socks, and his jeans were on the ground, too. But his shin bones had been snapped, the ends of which creepily stuck up from the earth.
Twelve feet from these remains, detectives uncovered the top of McCullar’s skull. And that – combined with his feet and shin bones – was all that remained of the hitchhiking teen. The rest of his bones seemed to have vanished into thin air, adding to the mystery and terror surrounding his death.
Some people believe that McCullar suffered from a life-ending case of hypothermia as he traipsed through the snow. Indeed, those who suffer from hypothermia often act erratically. Many will misinterpret their extreme cold for the opposite sensation and end up stripping out of their clothes. This is just what McCullar seemed to do – investigators only found his jeans and socks.
There’s a good chance that Crater Lake National Park’s wildlife had a hand in erasing McCullar’s body, as well. He disappeared in winter, when animals would be struggling to find a meal. So, something may have eaten the rest of his corpse, thus explaining why only his shins and feet remained.
Nevertheless, McCullar’s family didn’t agree with the idea that natural causes ended the 19-year-old’s life. His sibling Steven, for example, hung onto one reported sighting of his brother before his untimely death. Supposedly, a store worker had sold McCullar a sewing kit to repair his ripped coat. Later, this person described the photographer as having looked upset about something.
And that’s why many others believe that McCullar’s death wasn’t an accident at all. Instead, they wonder if someone – perhaps a driver who picked him up – hurt the teenage trekker. To that end, authorities never found any of the photographer’s high-end equipment, which he’d brought with him. Some wonder if an assailant robbed and murdered McCullar to take ownership of the pricy wares.
Ultimately, the police deemed that McCullar had died of natural causes during his fateful trip. Yet his family, meanwhile, always contended that this hadn’t actually been the case. The truth, it seems, is still something of a grim mystery. And it’s not the only one to have taken place at Crater Lake.
Many decades ago, 45-year-old Dave Nunn left the Air Force and transitioned into life as a teacher’s assistant. He also worked as a flight instructor and continued to hone his own aviation skills. In fact, he hoped to use a flight on February 26, 1975, as a means to sharpen up his abilities.
Nunn also roped in a pair of trainee pilots, Jim Pryor and Matt Perkins, who were both 17 at the time. The teens wanted to rack up flight hours, so they agreed to fly alongside the Air Force veteran. His plan was to helm his Cessna 182 aircraft, taking his daughter and his child from Klamath Falls, Oregon, to the state capital of Salem.
Nunn’s wife Jean brought her three family members – husband Nunn, their daughter and their grandchild – to the Klamath Falls airport. Then, this trio – along with Pryor and Perkins – successfully made it to Salem. And when Nunn’s kin had disembarked from the plane, the pilots prepared for the return leg of the journey. This should have taken them back to Klamath Falls in no time.
That night, Jean supposedly had a strange chill as she lay down to go to bed, as she later recounted to the Herald and News. She eventually slipped under an electric blanket to help boost her body temperature. Although she expected Nunn home by 10 p.m., something woke her up 30 minutes prior to that time.
Jean described a strange sensation as having ripped her from her slumber – and what it signified for her. In her words, “I woke up at 9:30 p.m. with the sensation of a hand on my leg. I looked at the clock. I knew. I called the airport and told them the plane had gone down at 9:20 p.m. and [Nunn] had died at 9:30 p.m.”
Air traffic controllers confirmed to Jean that at least some of her suspicions were valid. The plane had, indeed, disappeared from scanning systems at approximately 9:20 p.m., when the aircraft had been flying at approximately 11,000 feet. They invited the pilot’s wife “to go with the search planes,” but she refused.
Ultimately, those overhead searches would turn up nothing – Nunn’s plane seemed to have vanished into thin air. That left Jean to provide for her family. This meant that she eventually had her husband declared legally dead, even without a body. She revealed, “I was accused of wanting to get rid of him.”
Within seven years of her husband’s disappearance, though, another of Jean’s instincts would be proven correct. In 1982 Nunn’s plane was discovered on Huckleberry Mountain, close to Crater Lake National Park. It happened to have crashed into a densely forested area, concealing the plane from view for all that time.
Authorities discovered a few personal effects with which to identify Nunn. Namely, they found his wallet, the contents of which were eventually passed along to Jean. These items included some worn money, a military ID card and a sheet of paper upon which Nunn had ironically written, “Lose not thine airspeed lest the ground rise up and smite thee.”
One year after the discovery of Nunn’s plane, Jean decided to leave their hometown of Klamath Falls. But she decided to move back in 2006, citing the number of memories she’d made in the town as its biggest draw. Likely bringing her further closure was the decision to write a book about the loss of her husband. This was called We Fly Away, and it was self-published in 2007.
Others Crater Lake happenings can perhaps be considered more sinister than Nunn’s accidental death. In 1952, for instance, two prominent businessmen named A. M. Jones and C. P. Culhane made their way there. The pair had apparently intended to conduct both a little business and some fishing during their trip.
Neither Jones nor Culhane would make it out of the wilderness alive, though. Instead, someone “cruelly beat” them, according to a September 19, 1952, issue of the Oakland Tribune. Both men had been tied up and robbed of their valuables. Then, the assailant put a bullet in the back of both their heads.
One detail at the crime scene helped police to identify a suspect right away. The guilty party seemed to have pulled Culhane’s footwear from his corpse, which told authorities that they likely needed new ones for themselves. As such, they thought that a particular Cascades-based prospector might have been behind the crime.
This man, George Dunkin, had already been in huge trouble with the law. Authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest after he’d once fired over officers’ heads, chasing them away instead of letting them catch him poaching. And when police officer Phil Lowd walked toward Dunkin’s home, the prospector shot and killed him.
Dunkin admitted to killing Lowd, although he said he hadn’t done so on purpose. He refused to admit, however, that he’d been responsible for Jones and Culhane’s slayings. And as it turned out, witnesses could attest to him being far from the crime scene when the businessmen had died. But police had other suspects to consider, too. These were members of a group called the “Mountain Murder Gang” – two men named Emmet Perkins and Jack Santo.
Authorities considered Santo and Perkins to be their main suspects, right up until their executions for earlier murders. However, the pair wouldn’t admit to any of their other alleged crimes, which included a killing spree in the early 1950s. So, when they died in 1955, they did so with their secrets in tact.
Ten years prior to that execution, another grim occurrence rocked Crater Lake National Park. World War II had just ended, so seven Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter planes made their way from Redmond over to Red Bluff, California. The weather didn’t cooperate with their journey, though – the cloud ceiling hung low over the jagged terrain.
More specifically, the cloud ceiling was 6,000 feet high, which was only 2,000 feet above the jutting landscape below. This ceiling got lower and lower, pushing the planes down to a mere 500 feet above the trees beneath them. To make matters worse, snow and fog materialized, too. The ground was completely obscured from view.
This left all seven Hellcat pilots having to rely on their flying instruments alone to navigate their way out. And six of them were successful. One, however, disappeared into the mist. As it turned out, the missing Hellcat had crashed into none other than – you guessed it – Crater Lake National Park.
By 1970 a seasonal Crater Lake ranger named Dave Panebaker had heard about the Hellcat and how its remnants had lodged into a cliff and been hidden in thick vegetation. What hadn’t been found, though, was the pilot’s body. The obvious impact of the crash led people to presume that he was deceased, though.
Of course, Panebaker had to see the World War II aircraft for himself. So, one day he slipped into his hiking boots and hit the trail in search of the plane’s shell. At some point, the seasonal ranger lost his way. So, he grabbed a seat on a log to consider his best options for escaping the woods – and that’s when he saw it.
Panebaker had felt like someone had been looking at him as he sat and pondered his situation. Then, he looked up to see a skull peering out from another log, its eye sockets pointed right in the ranger’s direction. Although certainly a spooky sight, Panebaker had the wherewithal to grab the head before making his exit from the forest.
From there, the Navy was able to establish who this skull had once belonged to. With the help of dental records, Ensign Frank Lupo was identified. He’d been just 22 when he flew with the Hellcats. This positive ID, in turn, allowed Lupo’s mother to lay him to rest a quarter-century after his death. And, with that, at least one of the many mysteries surrounding Crater Lake was solved – but more still remain.