Editor’s note — This is the first part of a four-part story about Virgil “Wade” Tackett, who as a 17-year-old left his family’s Hillsboro home in 1986 to find work in Alaska. Three weeks into his stay working for a local cannery, Tackett and a friend went exploring in the Alaskan wilderness near Chicagof Island. Tackett was never heard from again. Between strange sightings and psychic visions, the search for Tackett has turned up more questions than answers. Information for this case comes from author RW Swartz. His book “Cold Water, Cold Hearts” was released this month.
Wade Tackett was born Dec. 26, 1968 to Mary and Virgil Tackett. He grew up on a farm, was a devout Mormon, and was just three merit badges short of an Eagle Scout.
“I just remember him as shy, quiet, funny and nice,” said Kathy Williams, a former student at Whiteoak High School in Mowrystown. She grew up in the area around the same time as Tackett and heard about his disappearance while she was in college. Like many residents of Highland County, she was shocked and saddened at the news. Newspapers in Cincinnati covered this case extensively, and as people listened for news back in Hillsboro, the following story became clear.
In May of 1986, Tackett set out for Sitka, Alaska to claim a job on a family friend’s crab boat. When he got to Sitka, he learned that they had found another teenager to work on the boat. Luckily, Tackett was able to find a job working for a local cannery.
On June 11, 1986, just three weeks after his arrival in the small town of Pelican, Alaska, Tackett went on an afternoon excursion with his friend, 16-year-old Nick Bevans. The two teenagers explored the abandoned gold stamp mill on Chicagof Island. Then the two boys boarded a 14-foot skiff and set out for Junction Island, where they had a picnic lunch together.
Bevans told investigators that Tackett then decided he wanted to explore solo. So he took the skiff and circumnavigated the island for an hour. When Bevans didn’t hear Tackett come back, he flagged down a fisherman. The two quickly located the skiff stuck in a sandbar on a nearby island, but Tackett was nowhere in sight. The 25-horsepower motor was still in gear and there was a tie-up line tossed inside. In the skiff, investigators later noted a radio, two life jackets, and a high-powered rifle. Police never checked to see if the weapon had been fired.
Local authorities searched for Tackett with commercial boats, a Coast Guard helicopter, and a patrol vessel. After half a day of searching and no sign to point to Tackett’s whereabouts, law enforcement speculated that he had drowned in the 40-degree water. They theorized that he had been operating the skiff standing up without a life jacket, perhaps losing his balance after trying to retrieve a fallen hat or oar.
When the Tacketts were notified of their son’s disappearance, they immediately flew to Alaska to conduct an investigation of their own. Tackett was a Boy Scout, an avid outdoorsman, and a responsible young man, and they believed the police explanation of his disappearance didn’t add up. When they searched the scene of the crime, they discovered three dead seals near the site of the skiff and the zipper pull to Tackett’s nylon vest lying in the bottom of the boat. Mary and Virgil Tackett didn’t know what to make of the scene or what to think of their discoveries. All they knew is that they couldn’t give up on finding their son.
In the years after Wade’s disappearance, family, friends, and even psychics worked together to try to answer one baffling question: What happened to Wade?
This remainder of this four-part story will appear in upcoming editions of The Times-Gazette and will explore the case and the theories surrounding it, with the help of author and case expert RW Swartz. The next article in the series will cover Frances Cannon, the notorious “Singing Psychic” and a private investigator hired by the Tacketts to uncover the truth.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.