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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In 1963, little Bobby Panknin vanished on a family camping trip

His brothers wrestle with the tragedy to this day

A 4-year-old Spokane boy’s disappearance nearly 48 years ago is laser-etched in three brothers’ memories. Spokane County Fire District 9 Capt. Jim Panknin was 6 at the time, but he remembers the tragic Saturday afternoon of Aug. 3, 1963, “almost like it was yesterday.” From that day to this, there has been no trace of his little brother, Bobby. Despite a massive search, perhaps the largest in the history of Stevens County, no one knows whether the 2-foot-8, 30-pound boy was abducted or - more likely - taken by a bear or a cougar. Older brothers Bill, of Broomfield, Colo., and Ted, of Killeen, Texas, also have indelible memories of the little boy who vanished almost in the family’s presence. It happened when Bobby, Jim and 10-year-old Bill were hiking with their mother on a logging road near their campsite at the now-defunct Deep Lake Resort in northern Stevens County. They saw no one else on the rocky, isolated track. Bill left the road to see a small creek he thought sounded like the Laughing Brook in the Thornton Burgess children’s stories the family liked to read. Their mother, Edna Panknin, followed Bill and told Jim to wait on the road with Bobby. “She was making sure I wasn’t going to get into any more trouble than I could,” said Bill, who’s now 57. “As boys, you tend to do things that cause your mom heartburn.” That’s when Jim did one of those things. He followed Bill and their mother to the “Laughing Brook,” leaving Bobby. Bill said he quickly discovered the creek wasn’t what he expected. “We went back in a matter of minutes, five at most, and Bobby was gone,” Bill said. “We couldn’t have been any more than 100 or 150 feet away.” Jim said he didn’t immediately appreciate the gravity of his action, but at 53 he thinks about it frequently: “I left my little brother.”

Brothers feel the weight of their decisions

Panknin carried the experience into his firefighting career but seldom discusses it. He suspects some of the younger men he supervises don’t understand his passion for following instructions. They would if they’d been through what he has, Panknin said. “I was given a responsibility and didn’t follow through with it,” he said. “On this job, if you don’t follow authority, it can have grave consequences.” No one blamed him, and Panknin knows that staying with Bobby might have resulted only in him disappearing, too. Still, he blames himself. “I know he feels that way,” said his brother Bill, “but I shouldn’t have taken off and run after the sound of a creek, either. It isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just something that happened.” Ted Panknin, who was 12 at the time, shares that assessment but nevertheless has second-guessed his own conduct. He had been fishing with their father, Howard, when they learned Bobby was missing. The oldest brother searched the road where Bobby disappeared. “Maybe I should have walked down further than I did,” he said. “Maybe he was just a little bit further down.” Jim recalls “more of an outpouring of support” from the public than might be expected in today’s more cynical world. Still, Bill thinks their mother “got a lot of blame” over the years. She didn’t deserve that, all the brothers agree. “Don’t go blaming my mother,” Jim bristles. “That was something that she thought I could handle, or she wouldn’t have told me to do it.” Ted said their parents kept them away from the organized search for Bobby and seldom spoke of the tragedy as the surviving brothers grew up. “My parents probably had a lot more fortitude than I would have had under those circumstances,” Bill said. “But I think that it’s generally different when you grew up in a time when not everybody survived. Now, no one is expected to die.” He said the family never went back to Deep Lake, but remained avid campers.

Parents were haunted, but stoic

Howard Panknin had just returned from spending a year in Turkey, finishing up his Air Force career, when his youngest son was lost. Once retired, the former master sergeant drove a bread delivery route that took him to Colville and allowed him to keep in touch with Stevens County Sheriff Albert “Dutch” Holter. “We would occasionally have lunch with him,” said Bill Panknin, who sometimes rode with his father. Then Howard Panknin landed a state park ranger’s job that briefly took the family to Elma, Wash. He transferred back to Riverside State Park, where he served until his second retirement. The family lived in the 6100 block of North G Street. Howard Panknin died in 1999 at age 81, less than six months after 74-year-old Edna Panknin died. Jim recalls his parents as “pretty religious,” and believes they accepted their loss as God’s will. “My mom never lost her faith in God or the church,” Bill said. “She continued to teach children, mostly young teens, at Gloria Dei (Lutheran Church) in Spokane up until the year of her death.” Nevertheless, Howard and Edna Panknin were haunted by Bobby’s disappearance, Ted said. He trusts that their stoicism was right for the family, but recalls a church youth group meeting that gave him pause. He said the group was discussing various topics when Bobby’s disappearance came up. Bill’s emotions “flowed out at that time,” Ted said. “Maybe it would have been better to have had that happen at the house instead of there at church,” he said. “Bill was talking out the loss, the missing of Bob. He felt very sad that he had lost a brother that way.”

‘Is he alive?’

The family remained intact. Jim launched a firefighting career with the state Department of Natural Resources. Bill did a hitch in the Army and since then has worked on automated control systems - for Denver Metro Wastewater for 20 years and now for the Amgen biotechnology company. Ted earned a business degree from Gonzaga University and served 12 years as an Army officer. He’s now a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and an Army civilian contractor at Fort Hood. Jim feels he may have been too protective of his daughter at times, but Bill says his children enjoyed the same freedom he had as a child. Ted is a bachelor. As he’s grown older, Ted said, he wonders more frequently what happened to Bobby. “Is he alive, and what’s he doing?” The odds may be against it, but Ted doesn’t rule out the possibility that Bobby grew up with another family and forgot his early childhood. “It’s a better memory to think of it like that,” he said. Spokane County Fire District 9 Capt. Jim Panknin was 6 when Bobby disappeared. Now 53, he carries vivid memories of that day. “I left my little brother,” he said.
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