In solving a youth’s odd disappearance and the mystery at Tupper Lake, is dead serial killer Israel Keyes the key, or something even more nefarious?
The sprawling Adirondack mountain region of upstate New York is a dense world of water and woods. Sometimes serene, sometimes sinister, it remains a sparsely populated and unspoiled wildlife habitat, peppered with small, historic hamlets and connected by a network of mostly nameless footpaths, dirt roads, winding county routes, and, here and there, slicing through the countryside like a machete, a superhighway that seems to go on and on and on…to nowhere.
Major, minor, or backwoods, in spring, summer, autumn or winter, none of these passageways ever sees any significant amount of traffic. Not one, regardless of length or width, maintenance or neglect, is ever congested.
That peace and quiet is part of the appeal of this northern U.S. territory, for both year-round residents and the thousands of visitors who annually hike or vacation in these pristine hills during the hot, humid, and much too brief summertime.
Summer is when this tranquil place fully comes to life, when it is at its most peopled and inviting. In wintertime, though, the same idyllic landscape becomes a great deal more stark and forbidding. Deadly even, if one disrespects it.
Blizzards, howling arctic winds, and subfreezing temperatures which can grip the area for six months or more each year bring tourism to a virtual standstill then, restricting access to roads, seasonal camps and the out-of-the-way locations tourists usually like to probe, and lighting up a vacancy sign in nearly every hotel, motel and inn.
Winter and its isolation comes here early and stays late, driving away all those merely dabbling at nature, and generously returning stewardship of the mountains and lakes and beasts of the forest to the hardier full-timers.
Year after year, these rugged individuals fearlessly embrace the snow and cold, firm with the knowledge that, if they’re extra careful, they’ll surely live to feel the warmth of spring again. And that, if they aren’t, they won’t.
Vanishing into thin air
At any given time of year there are probably more dead people here than living. And, whether one believes in such things or not, countless numbers of ghosts, ancient and recent, also call the Adirondacks their home.
It’s just that kind of terrain: Haunting.
By now, although hearts are still filled with hope, there is little doubt that dwelling restlessly amongst those mountain spirits is the soul of a young man born and raised in the township of Tupper Lake named Colin Gillis. He was only 18 when he mysteriously disappeared without a trace on March 11, 2012, and no one has seen or heard from him since.
When Gillis had returned from college on Spring Break that March, the days had already begun to grow longer and warmer, although the nights, dipping down into the teens and well below, were still characteristically unforgiving.
The pre-med student was excited to once again be in that familiar neck of the woods he “knew like the back of his hand” and was particularly looking forward to a party being held on the evening of March 10th.
There, he was planning to meet up with some of his former high school classmates, some of whom he hadn’t seen since graduation.
Gillis was dressed for a 40-degree day when he grabbed a backpack and set out for the gathering shortly after having dinner with his parents. But it was already down into the twenties and the mercury still falling when he later left that party on foot at around two in the morning, presumably intoxicated and reportedly annoyed.
The youth was last observed by a passing motorist “flailing his arms” at the side of Route 3, a desolate section of roadway between Tupper Lake proper and the village of Piercefield, where the Gillis family lives.
As it turned out, the driver of the car that passed Colin Gillis at the early morning hours of March 11th was the editor of the local paper The Lake Placid News. This trusted eyewitness happened to be ferrying his elderly mother back to her home in the village of Tupper Lake and, concerned by Gillis’ frantic conduct and for the safety of a vulnerable passenger, decided not to stop. He went instead to the nearest police station to relay the incident.
Officers from that police department have since repeatedly stated that they responded immediately to this man’s urgent-sounding report and quickly drove out to the area in question but, upon arrival, saw no one there at all. Days later, however, when a massive rescue mission was fully launched searchers came across Gillis’ driver ID card together with one of his sneakers in that exact same spot.
It’s not known therefore who it really was that last saw Colin Gillis alive. Or what.
For many thousands of years Native Americans freely traversed the domed mountain range that serves in present times as the border between Canada and the United States. Then, like now, it was a formidable and at times extremely inhospitable environment—suitable for hunting, trapping or fishing, but little else—so no one ever thought to make it a permanent residence.
The name "Adirondack" is in fact a bastardized version of the Mohawk word Ratirontaks which roughly translated means "they eat trees." The full force of that translation is somewhat lost on us today though, because it was a deeply derogatory term which the Mohawk used to describe the Algonquian-speaking tribes whom, they claimed, dined on tree buds and bark whenever better food became scarce.
Fate has been unkind to all Native American peoples, so it is therefore impossible now to verify either the superiority of the Mohawk way of life or the Algonquians lowliness. But the historical grudges and insults of one tribe lobbed against the other are probably best dismissed as amounting to nothing more than ordinary cultural bias, such as has plagued every civilization since the beginning of time.
Still, the Adirondack Mountains are not, by virtue of their majestic stature, somehow exempt from having an actual lowlife element crouching in their shadows, and the record shows that some of these individuals have been far more onerous than the tree-eating variety.
A lake and a lair
In the northernmost tip of the Adirondack mountain region there sits a rundown cabin on a fairly modest-sized piece of property consisting mainly of old growth forest, towering pines, and swampland.
A ramshackle abode nestled within the darkest recesses of upstate New York, it was of little or no interest to anyone for all the years that its mostly-absent owner had quietly paid the taxes on it. But recently this rustic hideaway has become the subject of much speculation and mad searches.
Here, from 1997 to 2012, the now-dead serial killer Israel Keyes had set up his home-away-from-home for whenever he was on the east coast and prowling. Here, the FBI continues to diligently hunt for clues as to the identities and locations of his many unknown victims. Here, police dig intermittently for bodies and bones.
Although Keyes killed himself in an Alaskan jail cell before officials could fully extract all the details of his heinous crimes, based on those he did confess to, he is believed to have been one of the most mobile and possibly most prolific serial slayers known to date.
Moreover, he had been operating throughout the entire country for approximately a decade without his neighbors, family, friends, wife, or daughter ever suspecting he had such a lethal hobby.
Burying “kill kits” all over America. Plotting murders months and even years in advance. Traveling hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to snatch a victim. Robbing banks along the way. Burning buildings. Raping. Torturing. Dismembering. Keyes was certainly one of the most methodical, heartless, and criminally insane of all serial murdering sociopaths.
An exceptionally depraved man who enjoyed every aspect of doing wrong, except getting caught for it.
By 2009, when Keyes decided to rob a bank in the small but quaint Adirondack village of Tupper Lake New York, he was already descending into uncontrollable madness: breaking his own rules in targeting a town so close to his own turf, and taking more and more unwarranted risks to accomplish his numerous other misdeeds.
That was an inevitable decline, experts say. Even the most “organized” breed of killer, like Keyes was, will someday fall prey to their own psychosis and start compulsively offending until they finally get nabbed. And although Keyes was never pursued or fingered for the Tupper Lake heist, it wasn’t very long after committing this rash act that he was apprehended.
March 13th, 2012, to be exact.
Stalker, thief, kidnapper, rapist, torturer, arsonist…Israel Keyes was a deadly and sadistic predator. A former U.S. soldier, he skillfully and opportunistically hunted in public parks, boatyards, campgrounds, cemeteries, or highways, abducting and slaying the young or the old, males or females—whomever struck his fancy—sometimes pairs of them.
It is understandable why evil men like that are often rumored to have supernatural powers aiding them, but it’s unlikely that even this demonically possessed killer could have been in two places at one time. Not at the height of his crime spree, nor in March of 2012 when it was abruptly brought to an end.
Yet this is what some spooked citizens of Tupper Lake, on learning it was Keyes who pulled off the 2009 bank job there, now believe.
They suspect he was not really in Texas in March of 2012, as authorities claimed, but, rather, driving along Route 3 to his secret shack at the very moment that Colin Gillis was stumbling homeward.
They think that Keyes then stopped to offer the cold, befuddled and unsuspecting youngster a ride, and at some point he killed the boy, chopped him into bits and pieces as he’d done to all his other victims, and then scattered the remains where they’ll never be found again.
And to defeat those cruel ends the Gillis family has posted a $25,000 reward.
End of the road for wanderlust killings
Agents from the FBI are dead certain that Israel Keyes’ last and final victim was 18-year-old Samantha Koenig, who, on February 1, 2012, he’d abducted at gunpoint from an Alaskan drive-through coffee stand, transported in bondage to a shed at his residence, raped, tortured, and strangled.
After that, a giddy Keyes took a mini-vacation in New Orleans to celebrate the heartless crime, using his victim’s ATM card to finance the excursion with, until, eventually, her limited funds ran out and he was forced to go back home again.
When he returned, he dumped Koenig’s dismembered body in a semi-frozen lake close by, but, before mutilating it, snapped a lifelike-looking photo in order to deceive the girl’s distraught family into replenishing her drained debit card with a $30,000 ransom.
The fact that the teen’s banking account remained active throughout her inexplicable absence, also gave her loved ones false hope they would see her alive again.
At roughly 1:30 a.m. on March 11th, when 18-year-old Colin Gillis also uncharacteristically went missing, killer Keyes was once more in travel mode, but this time journeying the Texas highways, the FBI insists, although still using Koenig’s debit card to illicitly finance his trip. A trail of ATM withdrawals he left like breadcrumbs across the Lone Star state would also seem to confirm the killer’s whereabouts on that morning.
Two days later, however, on March 13th, wayward Keyes’ whirlwind would end abruptly in his arrest by a trooper who pulled him over for a traffic violation and recognized he was the “person of interest” being sought in the abduction of a pretty “Alaskan barista” from Anchorage.
There were shreds of withdrawal receipts from her account strewn on the passenger seat of his car, a stack of ransom cash at his fingertips, a murderer’s arsenal stored in his trunk, and a dark confession on the tip of his tongue.
At this point in time though, nobody knew yet that the young lady was in fact slain. Nobody knew yet of this man’s taste for blood. Nobody knew yet that Colin Gillis would never be seen again…
Gillis is described as a Caucasian male, approximately six-foot tall and 180 pounds, with light hair and blue eyes. He was a second-year pre-med student at the State University of New York at Brockport when he vanished.
Did a group of partygoers he’s alleged to have quarreled with before leaving on foot that day seek him out for revenge? Did the police successfully intercept him instead and, in the process, cause his death by applying excessive force while attempting to make an arrest? Did a pack of hungry wolves stalk the youth as he was obliviously walking the remote road in darkness and then drag his body into the woods to devour it?
Or did an infamous roaming serial killer, sensing capture was imminent, elude the Texan posse so to visit his New York hideout for one last time, and on the way seized upon a convenient kill?
This has become the number one mystery at Tupper Lake now, which the Gillis family desperately hopes to solve someday.
True crime writer Eponymous Rox is the author of THE CASE OF THE DROWNING MEN and HUNTING SMILEY. You can learn more about Colin Gillis and follow developments in his missing person case—as well as others like it—at the Killing Killers website. Visit the 'Find Colin Gillis' Facebook page here.