Missing in Paradise
Out of the void: The many ghosts of the McKenzie Valley
September 28, 2023 | View PDF
The McKenzie River Valley — the collective name given to Lane County’s nine unincorporated communities known as Cedar Flat, Camp Creek, Walterville, Leaburg, Vida, Nimrod, Finn Rock, Blue River, and McKenzie Bridge — is known for its small-town charm, beautiful outdoors and, currently, scorching wildfires.
But the area also has a dark underbelly. Numerous people have gone missing in the area recently, and the bodies of two of those people have been recovered in just the past few months, leading some to speculate that something sinister may be going on.
However, according to the Lane County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO), none of these cases appear to be connected.
In a July 18, KMTR News story on four people missing in the Blue River/Vida area, LCSO Public Information Officer Sgt. Tom Speldrich says, “The best I could do to put any minds at ease on that is to say we have not discovered any evidence that leads us to believe that they are linked or related or that there is a serial killer.”
He adds, “Certainly if we’re able to uncover any information that would lead us to believe that, we would be letting the public know for safety reasons, but we have nothing that tells us that that’s the case right here. It’s a wooded, wilderness, rural area. It’s tough terrain. It can be hard to find people if they go missing in those areas, so while I can’t say definitively that there’s not a link, we have nothing that makes us think that there is at this point.”
Even if the cases are not connected — and even if it turns out there is no foul play involved in them — it seems clear that there are many hidden skeletons in the vast wilderness of the McKenzie River Valley that are waiting to be found.
Some of these skeletons undoubtedly belong to people who got lost and disappeared; others seem to belong to people who chose to disappear; in other cases — such as the case of Shane Sprenger — it seems possible something more nefarious happened. I do not personally believe any of these cases are linked and, in my opinion, only Sprenger’s case has hints that foul play was involved.
The following is an overview of some of McKenzie River Valley’s missing persons and mysteries.
Mekenna Christine Reiley
Mekenna Christine Reiley, 40, was reported missing by loved ones on April 5, 2023, after a bizarre encounter with construction workers and LCSO deputies at a construction site in Blue River.
Reiley drove herself there for no apparent reason, and workers found her naked and called the police. She told officers she was scared and “had nowhere safe to go,” according to her sister, Bevin Stepp, in an August 14 Fox News story.
Stepp says investigators told the family that Reiley appeared to have either been “roofied” or on “a lot of acid” when law enforcement arrived at the construction site, but LCSO has denied making those remarks.
Officially, LCSO has said that Reiley “was possibly suffering from a mental health crisis” when she vanished.
At the time of her disappearance, Reiley had an Arkansas-bound plane ticket and plans to visit a friend there, according to her sister.
Reiley, originally from Pennsylvania and the granddaughter of longtime former GOP state Rep. Merle Phillips, told relatives she wanted to move back because she did not feel safe in Lane County.
Media reports indicate Reiley’s ex-boyfriend has been ruled out as a suspect in her case despite a history of domestic violence between them and an active no-contact order at the time of her disappearance.
Police found Reiley’s phone, car, fresh groceries, and dog at her home. Searchers later found a bag of her clothes in the woods but no other signs of her.
On Saturday, August 12, Reiley’s body was found in the Blue River Reservoir. According to an August 17 story in McKenzie River Reflections, “The State Medical Examiner’s office has ruled the cause of death as drowning. Officials say there are no signs of foul play.”
It is assumed that, due to psychosis or delirium, Reiley got in the water and drowned.
While it may be that no foul play was involved, it seems regrettable that Reiley — who was naked and fearful and apparently disoriented from drugs or mental illness — was allowed to return home instead of being sent to the hospital by the LCSO officers who contacted her just prior to her disappearance, which might have prevented her terrible fate.
Shane Eldor Sprenger
Shane Eldor Sprenger, 47, of Blue River went missing in November 2021.
According to a March 31, 2022, episode of The Vanished podcast, “Shane Sprenger disappeared from Vida, Oregon, on Nov. 2, 2021.” Sprenger was a contractor who was working at a job site near McKenzie Bridge. The podcast says that around 9:30 am, Sprenger left the job and returned to his home in Vida. He was never seen again.
Sprenger’s truck was found abandoned on a logging road near Blue River Reservoir, about 16 miles away from his home near one of Sprengers’s favorite mushroom picking spots. Some people close to him suggested that maybe he had gone mushroom picking and got lost, but it was later discovered that Sprenger had planned to return to the job site to meet with a subcontractor.
Sprenger’s family in Minnesota had no idea that anything was wrong until they got a phone call several days after he vanished. “They made the trip to Oregon to search for him. They began to hear strange stories about the day Shane disappeared, tales that simply weren’t adding up.”
Sprenger, who had a reputation as a hard worker and seems to have been a well-liked member of the Blue River community, previously lost his home in the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020 and was in the process of rebuilding his life.
In June 2023, LCSO announced they had discovered the partial remains of Sprenger’s body off Quartz Creek Road, about five miles southwest of the Blue River Reservoir, where his truck had been found in 2021.
In a July 7, KMTR News story, LCSO’s Sgt. Tom Speldrich says, “We did not locate his entire body, we are still looking for that.”
In the same story, Speldrich is quoted saying, “We don’t have any reason to believe that there is foul play involved, but we also don’t have reason to rule it out at this point.”
Without pointing fingers at anyone, Sprenger’s family has made it clear they believe foul play — possibly stemming from his failing marriage or conflict with local drug users — may be involved in his case.
Sprenger’s family released the following statement on social media following the announcement that his partial remains had been discovered:
“It’s been an excruciating year and a half for our family since Shane went missing on Nov. 2, 2021. He was 47 at the time of his disappearance. We are devastated and our hearts shattered to receive confirmation of his passing. Shane was a gentle soul, a selfless provider, a skilled and trusted carpenter, and the hardest worker we know. He was accepting of everyone and loyal to all who loved him. His was a senseless death, and there is more to uncover on what transpired the day he went missing.”
The family asks people to contact LCSO with tips and reference case #21-6268 if they have information or to submit an anonymous tip on CrimeStoppersofOregon.com.
Eric Ray Brazil
Eric Ray Brazil, 34, of Springfield has been missing since March 14, 2022. He disappeared after “he drove away from his home in a paranoid state” and may have been experiencing a mental health crisis, according to a March 30 KVAL News story.
Brazil was working as an assistant apartment manager at the time of his disappearance.
Brazil’s friends report he became obsessed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prior to his disappearance, and seemed to believe it was necessary to flee the area for his safety.
Despite attempts by friends to calm him down, he frantically drove away in his vehicle, which was located days later in a treacherous, remote area near Vida. His phone was located near his vehicle and nobody has heard from him since his disappearance.
Chayston Eugene Robertson
Chayston (“Chase”) Eugene Robertson, 25, has not been seen since April 29, 2020. He was reported missing by his family on May 2, 2020. His car was found two days later up Quartz Creek Road near Vida along with his cellphone and other belongings.
Few details about his disappearance are available, but public records indicate he has a history of substance abuse and associated legal problems.
Daming Xu, 63, has been missing since Nov. 4, 2007. He is the only person discussed in this article who did not disappear under suspicious circumstances or come from a troubled background.
All accounts indicate Xu was a beloved husband and father of two children and a well-liked University of Oregon professor.
According to a Nov. 3, 2017, article from StrangeOutdoors.com, Xu came to the U.S. from China in the late 1980s and he became a professor of mathematics at the UO. “He and his wife, Shixiu, loved traveling to Oregon’s wilderness areas for day hikes and both were very fit for their age.”
Xu headed to the Three Sisters Wilderness area to climb the Olallie Mountain in what was intended to be a day trip. His wife reported him missing the next day after he failed to return home.
His 2003 White Chevy Impala was found on Bear Flats near Terwilliger Hot Springs on Nov. 6.
Xu took a hiking book with him titled 100 Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades by William L. Sullivan. Tattered remnants of the book were found in the woods a couple of weeks after his disappearance, according to a Register-Guard article at the time. The other half of the book was in his Impala.
Extensive search efforts by the Army National Guard, LCSO, University of Oregon faculty members search and rescue teams, and others failed to find Xu.
Strangeoutdoors.com reports that “Despite a beautiful sunny day and a good map, he appears to have got disorientated and wandered off in the wrong direction to an unknown fate, for some reason. It was unfortunate that the weather turned bad soon after he was reported missing. Given the thick, inaccessible forest around the French Pete Creek drainage where his guidebook was found, it is likely his remains will never be discovered.”
Rebekah Noel Bramel
Rebekah Noel Bramel, 26, of Portland, has been missing since April 30, 2007. Family and friends report she was having a mental health crisis at the time she disappeared and may have been suicidal.
According to The Charley Project, in early May 2007, “the vehicle she’d borrowed from a friend was found five miles up an isolated logging road between Deerhorn and Goodpasture Roads, in a rural area east of Springfield. The vehicle had a flat tire and the gas tank was empty.”
The contents of Bramel’s wallet were laid out on the dashboard, The Charley Project says, including the cigarette case she cherished. “There was no sign of Bramel at the scene. She had previously visited the area with her boyfriend, but she has no relatives living there and authorities don’t know why she would go there again.”
As I wrote previously in an April 29, 2021, article “The Disappearance” for Eugene Weekly, “A major setback in figuring out what happened to Rebekah was the gap between when her vehicle turned up and when the tow company notified the owner that it had been recovered.”
Her vehicle sat on the tow lot for about a month before the friend who owned the car was notified. “The tow company should have notified the police about the vehicle immediately, which would have triggered a search effort,” I wrote. “The tow company’s negligence resulted in a major delay in search efforts that might have been successful had they been conducted sooner.”
My personal opinion is that every case mentioned above, other than Xu’s, involves mental illness and/or substance abuse. Lack of treatment for mental illness and addiction, along with homelessness, are the biggest issues facing Oregonians. According to an April 17, 2020, article by Molly Harbarger in The Oregonian, “Oregon’s chronically underfunded mental health system is nearly universally accepted as being broken. It ranks at or near the bottom on many national metrics.” Until that changes, Oregonians can only expect more tragedies involving those suffering from mental illness and substance dependency.
This article first appeared in the September 14th issue of the Eugene Weekly. Brenton Gicker is a registered nurse in Eugene who has worked for local mental health services for most of his adult life. He began writing stories about missing people in 2018. He can be reached at [email protected]. More information on these cases can be found on the Charley Project at charleyproject.org and from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System at namus.nij.ojp.gov.