Paula Holter-Mehren was just two years older than Bobby Panknin when the 4-year-old Spokane boy disappeared in 1963.
She still remembers how frustrated her father, the late Stevens County Sheriff Albert “Dutch” Holter, was that he couldn’t find the child despite what may have been the largest search in the county’s history.
“He really felt they should be able to find out what happened,” Holter-Mehren said.
Up to 500 people a day participated in a nine-day search that drew thousands of volunteers to the remote Deep Lake area where Bobby vanished while camping with his family.
Dutch Holter kept a photo of Bobby under the glass on his desk until he left office in 1971.
“That picture was there forever,” said Holter-Mehren, who went on to become Juvenile Court administrator for Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties.
Bobby’s mother, Edna Panknin, carried another copy of that photo with her until she died in 1998.
Holter-Mehren said her father tried everything he could think of, including getting a child’s perspective.
He took Holter-Mehren and her 10-year-old sister, Michelle, to the spot where Bobby was last seen and asked them where they would have gone if they had wandered off.
Afterward, Holter-Mehren said, “My parents were a little bit more protective of us.”
The Sheriff’s Office search began just before dusk on the August Saturday when Bobby Panknin disappeared while hiking on a logging road with his mother and two of his brothers, 6-year-old Jim and 10-year-old Bill.
Deputies and others searched throughout the night. Deer Park resident Clyde Creek and his bloodhound searched until 5 a.m.
“When we turned the bloodhound loose at midnight Saturday after giving him a sniff of the boy’s shoe, I had no doubts but that the party would be back in an hour or so with the child,” Holter told a Spokesman-Review reporter. “It just doesn’t figure.”
He said the dog appeared to have a track and ran nearly two miles before stopping abruptly at a fork in the road. That happened twice, Holter said in another report, which put the distance at 4 ½ miles.
Later, German shepherds from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and two bloodhounds flown in from Seattle also tried unsuccessfully to track the missing boy.
Bobby was barefoot, and no footprints were found.
The search area, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, was largely undeveloped then. It was hilly and heavily timbered.
Volunteers poured in from both sides of the international border. Residents of Northport, 15 miles northwest of the lake, opened their kitchens to feed the searchers.
Campers abandoned their vacations and loggers left work to join sheriff’s deputies, Forest Service employees and national guardsmen in combing the woods.
Riders on horseback scoured areas favored by bears while boaters and divers probed 2-mile-long Deep Lake. Cougar and bear hunters applied their skills, and the Stevens County Air Posse conducted an aerial search.
Holter didn’t rule out the improbable possibility that an eagle could have snatched the 30-pound boy, and nesting areas along Republican Creek also were examined.
The official search didn’t end until the following Sunday, Aug. 11. Holter later estimated that 4,000 people tried to find Bobby.
He was open to the possibility that Bobby had been abducted, but considered that highly unlikely in view of the remote location and the short time the boy was left alone.
A March 10, 1964, letter from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said the bureau “has maintained close liaison with local authorities and no evidence has been developed indicating a kidnapping had occurred.”
Nevertheless, Holter appealed to Canadian doctors to be on the lookout in case Bobby was living with another family.
In the May 9, 1964, edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Holter provided a photo and a detailed description of Bobby and his disappearance. He noted the boy’s chocolate allergy, susceptibility to severe ear and bronchial infections, and his difficulty with “R” and “C” sounds.
Bobby would respond to the names of the family dog, Frisky, and a family friend, Mary Upp, Holter stated, quoting the boy’s mother. Also, he said, Bobby was “greatly interested” in cowboys, parades and Cheyenne, Wyo., where the family had lived.
Again, Holter was disappointed.
“I remember my dad getting excited because they found something in the lake two or three years later, but it turned out to be nothing,” Holter-Mehren said.
More recently, said former Stevens County Sheriff Craig Thayer, who is now the U.S. marshal for Eastern Washington, hopes were raised and dashed when skeletal remains of a child turned out to be from an old Native American burial.
Bobby Panknin’s disappearance predates the 1981 formation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center has no information on the case, nor does the Washington State Patrol’s Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit or the Missing Children Society of Canada.
Luci Stewart, manager of the WSP unit, and Ted Davis, an investigator for the Canadian society, said child abductions by strangers are rare. Cases of abducted children growing up with strangers, unaware of their past, are rarer still.
“I think it’s certainly a possibility, but there are not a lot of documented cases out there that I’m aware of,” Stewart said.
Davis, however, said there are “quite a few” unexplained disappearances – including 42 reported in Canada since 1984.
It’s important to keep even very old cases open, Stewart said.
“There are still family members out there that are wondering,” she said.
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