Just as the short Alaska summer was beginning its slide into fall in the latter half of August 2018, 41-year-old Russian immigrant Vladimir Kostenko slipped into a backpack and hiked off into the Talkeetna Mountains not far from the booming, bedroom community of Wasilla made famous by one Sarah Palin.
None of Kostenko’s known friends or acquaintances would ever see him face-to-face again.
Come October of this year, the Anchorage Daily News – the 49th state’s largest newspaper – published a story declaring Kostenko dead and channeling the ghost of the late Chris McCandless. It claimed Kostenko had gone to a remote cabin high in the Purches Creek drainage on a “spiritual quest” and “he never came out.”
The first claim was based on the conjecture of Kostenko’s sister, Alla. The second was pure speculation.
What was more interesting, however, was what newspaper reporter Michelle Theriault Boots chose to leave out of her story or skim over: Vladimir’s connection to Dmitry Kudryn, a convicted conman with a pivotal role in the story who Boots described as a “charming self-made millionaire” and “successful entrepreneur in Wasilla”, the circumstance of Vladimir’s arrival in Alaska, and the strangely different stories Alaska State Troopers told Alla about her brother’s disappearance.
No one admits to knowing where Vladimir is today if indeed anyone knows. Friends and family say they don’t know if he is dead or alive. Troopers list him as a missing person.
Vladimir, or someone believed to have been him, was last seen in October by Kudryn and his brother Vitaly during a flight over the remote cabin where Vladimir was staying. The Kudryns air dropped two plastic, five-gallon buckets filled with food and shot some video that captured a man who could be Vladimir on the cabin deck.
Vitaly said in a Friday phone interview that he saw the man retrieve the buckets and is confident it was Vladimir. Dmitry could not be reached.
He was in August sentenced to a year in federal prison for wire fraud. Vitaly refused to say where his brother could be found, but admitted knowledge of Dmitry’s prison sentence.
Like some others, Vitaly said he believes Vladimir might have died trying to hike the 14 miles from the cabin to the Hatcher Pass Road a couple months after he was last seen, but Vitaly sounded far from convinced of that.
“What doesn’t make sense to me is that this guy was kind of totally a do-it-himselfer,” he said. “He could take care of himself.”
No body has been found to set the stage for a reiteration of “Into the Wild,” a book in which writer Jon Krakauer constructed a McCandless story that became a famous myth.
McCandless took up residence in an abandoned and decaying school bus 30 miles from the George Parks Highway near the northern edge of Denali National Park and Preserve. He spent the summer there before being found dead from starvation.
Krakauer portrayed the self-proclaimed Alexander Supertramp as a 24-year-old man engaged in a search for the meaning of life even though McCandless left behind so little recorded history it was impossible to tell the object of his search.
Kostenko, who was old enough to be McCandless’s father, had established more of a record. Described by acquaintances as a loner, raised in a Baptist family, he left the religion to dabble in the hippie lifestyle back in a Russian and for a time followed Ukrainian faith-healer Vladimir Muntyan, according to his sister.
In a Friday telephone interview from her home in Hawaii, she described her brother as someone who had spent most of his life trying to figure out what he wanted to be. Last year, he was supposed to come join Alla and her partner in Hawaii, but he got a better offer.
Dmitry arranged with Vladimir to drive a load of furniture north from Washington state to Alaska, Alla said. Dmitry had a nice little furniture scam going, according to federal prosecutors.
The 34-year-old Ukranian immigrant and “other uncharged co-conspirators” purchased $300,000 worth of Chinese, knock-off imitations of Italian furniture in that country in 2014, according to a federal indictment, and Dmitry then used Craigslist to sell it off as the real deal.
The business would appear to have been lucrative as Dmitry was ordered to repay $586,748.22 to buyers he’d deceived, according to a Daily News story that ran Aug. 15 – two months before he was portrayed as a charming “millionaire and aspiring YouTube star who has dabbled in cellphone repair stores and who now owns Crave, a business that manufactures phone accessories, as well as a construction company.”
Alla described the Kudryns as “family friends” from WallaWalla, Wash., where she and Vladimir grew up. She said she knew Dmitry was facing legal trouble in Alaska, but sounded surprised to learn he’d been convicted and sentenced to prison.
“Dmitry is in jail?” she asked. “I did not know that. We know Dmitry very well. I knew that there was a case open.
“That is so weird.”
She doubted her brother was tangled up in any of Dmitry’s illegal activity. As far as she knew, she said, Vladimir just drove a load of furniture to Alaska for a family friend and then texted that he wanted to enjoy a wilderness retreat.
“He really wanted to go to that cabin in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
Off the grid
The Purches Creek cabin to which he journeyed is remote, but by Alaska standards not that remote. Vitaly said he and his brother had regularly visited the cabin by snowmachine in winter, and “it’s not a hard place to hike out of.”
He believes, however, that conditions might have been difficult when Vladimir tried to leave in what Vitaly believes was early December. He ties the time of departure to the last ping picked up from Vladimir’s cell phone on Dec. 3. There was at that time no snowmachine track into the valley.
The thought is Vladimir’s phone was then near a fork in the trail along the creek about six miles from the cabin, Vitaly said. Troopers couldn’t triangulate the signal, he said, but “just said it pinged in that general area.”
The trail from the cabin down valley for six miles to the junction is easy to follow, Vitally added, but then it can get confusing. A winter trail continues generally west into a wide, increasingly marshy valley on its way toward the Parks Highway while the summer trail turns south for firmer ground and climbs 800 to 1,000 feet over a ridge to join the Willow-Fishhook Road.
“When he hiked in the summer, he came in over the top of the mountains,” Vitaly said. “The winter trail is not obviously that clear. It’s anybody’s guess at this point.”
If Vladmir tried to cross the creek to go south to the Willow road, he could have fallen down, gotten soaked, suffered hypothermia and wandered on until he died “or something like this,” Vitaly said.
“I’m really speculating at this point. It doesn’t make sense what happened. He’s a pretty self-sufficient guy.
“If you did want to disappear, it is kind of weird. What’s the scenario for that happening. He’d be kind of landlocked in Alaska. What would be the motivation to disappear? There’s no monetary gain.”
The oddities don’t end here, however. There’s also a five-part, reality-TV-style series aspiring YouTube star Dmitry made of his friend’s disappearance. The segments are quite nicely done.
They are also posted as if Dmitry’s Crave Life channel, for which he regularly solicits subscribers, is covering an actual search in spite of the fact the videos don’t start until after Dmitry reported to troopers that Valdimir was nowhere to be found and continue long past the time all searching was abandoned.
The videos can be found here: Crave Life.
The first posted on Jan. 9 – a couple weeks after Dmitry visited the cabin by helicopter, found it empty and notified troopers Vladimir had gone missing. Despite having made that report, the video is titled “Alaska Rescue Mission by Air – Dropping FOOD From Aircraft in Buckets” and features the vague, October video shot of someone who might or might not be Vladimir on the deck of the cabin.
It also contains an exchange between Dmitry and Vitaly that goes like this: “It sounds like he’s saying I’m out of here.”
“Yeah, it sounds like I’m going to be walking out of here soon.”
Vitaly said Friday that he believes he initiated that conversation, and it wasn’t about hearing anything. It was about seeing Vladimir making motions that Vitaly and his brother took as a signal Vladimir was planning to hike out.
The episode ends with Dmitry back home and proclaiming “the search and rescue had a great ending, and that’s what we want.”
Only there was no great ending as becomes obvious in the next video which posted on Feb. 5. It was headlined “Alaska Hike gone HORRIBLY wrong – Alaska State Troopers Notified!”
This video begins with the announcement that Dmitry’s “friend,” who is not identified in this or the previous video, didn’t hike out as planned. How Dmitry knows this isn’t explained. There is also the announcement “he may be starving to death.”
So Dmitry goes to Fred Meyer and the European Deli, fills some more buckets with food, and says he’s “hopefully saving a life right before Christmas.” In the video he reports the date as Dec. 23.
The Kudryns fly toward upper Purches Creek talking about how “there’s people who die here all the time” and arrive at the cabin to find the door covered with a brown, sheet of metal roofing and no sign of Vladimir. They make a show of dropping the food buckets anyway.
“There’s no point in bringing them back,” one of the brothers says.
On the flight back to Wasilla, they spot where a hunter has killed a moose not far from the cabin, an indication that a snowmachine trail into the valley is now packed in to some degree.
This segment ends with talk of how maybe Vladimir is “chopping wood somewhere in the area,” “or he’s there waiting for help to arrive,” or “I literally hope there’s not a frozen body inside this cabin right now.”
The former and latter comments are out of sync with reality. The cabin is a considerable walk from any timber, and it would be hard to be inside the cabin when the only way to effectively cover the door with a sheet of metal roofing is to nail the roofing in place.
Obviously, the Kudryns are cognizant enough of this that they hire a helicopter to take them back to the cabin the next day though that video isn’t posted until March 15. It is titled “Searching Alaska Backcountry for Missing Man…What I saw, left me speechless.”
In between, there is a video posted on Feb. 22 titled “When All Hell Breaks Loose…..How do you handle it!?” The video focuses on several fly-bys of the boarded-up cabin. The footage appears to have been shot the same day as the “HORRIBLY Wrong” video.
Eventually the video of the helicopter necessary to put the Kudryns on the ground at the cabin appears in a March 15 video. By that time, Vladimir has been missing two and a half months, according to the troopers’ missing person report.
Despite that, Dmitry in the video talks about “getting a rescue underway.” There is, however, no one to rescue. The Kudryns pry the metal off the door and enter to find a well-kept cabin with plenty of food, but no sign of Vladimir.
Everyone acts very concerned as they get in the helicopter and fly away. Ominous music plays as they fly out. Back on the ground in Wasilla, Dmitry announces, “my gut feeling is he is probably OK…maybe he died…or maybe he just wants to be left alone.”
The last video posts March 29 and is headlined “Alaska State Troopers – Backcountry Mountain Search for Missing Man.” This time the Kudryn’s go back to the cabin on snowmachines accompanied by troopers. They find nothing more than in the previous visits.
On the webpage for this video, Dmitry dates the first video to when “I saw the hiker on November 3, 2018.” But trooper spokesman Ken Marsh said Friday that troopers were told Vladimir was last seen at the cabin on Oct. 22.
Made for YouTube?
The troopers visited the site in December, Marsh added, three months before the video of that search posted. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Vladimir’s disappearance – whatever happened – had by then been transformed into a made-for-YouTube event.
There is a very strange moment in the final video when Dmitry and a trooper stop to poke around a broken-down, old cabin along the Purches Creek snowmachine trail and Dmitry observes it could provide some sort of shelter for a hiker. He then seems to say “there’s nothing here for Dustin (or Justin).”
But the “hiker” is finally IDed in this video as Vladimir. It is all strange, says Alla, who has been through a variety of ups and downs since December.
She is adamant that in late December 2018 troopers told her that her brother was on a plane to Portland with a reservation to Hawaii.
“They told me he flew out of Alaska to Oregon,” she said. “I asked several times if for sure that was him. I asked repeatedly. They said our ‘analytical team’ is sure it’s him.”
Vladimir was reported as on a flight to Portland with the “same person traveling from Portland to Hawaii,” she said. But Vladimir never showed in Hawaii.
Afterward, Alla said she kept pestering troopers about where her brother had gone, and in May of 2018 they notified her he was traveling on an international flight through Portland. This time Alla demanded someone personally ID Vladimir or pull a photo off a surveillance camera at the airport to show her.
“They did ID in May,” she added, and this Vladimir Kostenko turned out to be an older man traveling with a wife and two kids. Vladimir Kostenko ‘is a pretty popular name in Russia,” Vitaly said, “like Jeff Smith.”
“I was very confused,” Alla said.
She only got more confused, she said, when then told “our brother probably never made it out of Alaska.” Not only did troopers then say they thought Vladimir (or his body) still somewhere in Alaska, they denied ever telling Alla that Vladimir was on a Portland flight, she said.
They insisted they’d only told her of a Vladimir Kostenko on a flight from Portland to Hawaii in December, she added, but that makes no sense given her brother Vladimir couldn’t have gotten on a flight from Portland to Hawaii without going through Anchorage.
She described herself now as “lost and confused. We’re all very confused. In December (2018), I asked repeatedly. They said he left Dec. 17.”
At the time, she added, she also asked repeatedly for a security cam photo of her brother in the Anchorage terminal or some other positive ID, but all she got were assurances Vladimir was on the Portland flight until being told that she somehow must have misinterpreted what was said.
“It was just so much hassle,” she said. “I was lost. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever had happen to me.”
Now she fears she’ll never know what happened with her brother. The general family view is that Vladimir somehow probably died somewhere in Alaska. No one sees an obvious reason why he’d want to cut off contact with the family despite always being something of a loner, she said.
“We have no reason to think our brother has disappeared,” she said. “But we’re still all kind of hopeful he will show up someday.”
If he doesn’t, however, it will be no surprise. Alaska remains the land of “Disappearance,” as former state poet laureate Sheila Nickerson observed in a 1996 book of that name.
Three years ago, Texan Brad Broach walked away from the Alyeska Resort Hotel for a hike on the popular Winner Creek Trail and disappeared into the Chugach National Forest. No sign was found of him despite an exhaustive search of the popular recreation area just southeast of Anchorage.’
He remains missing.
Probably the best-known Alaska disappearance came in 2012 when 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre disappeared while running the Mount Marathon race, the state’s longest running endurance event and a July 4th party that brings a mob of people to the small town of Seward at the head of Resurrection Bay.
The last runner up the mountain he was only a few hundred feet below the 3,022-foot turnaround point when race, checkpoint volunteers calling it a day started down. They were sure LeMaitre would momentarily make the turn and pass them on the way down.
Instead he disappeared. He remains missing.
Some are, however, eventually found even in remote areas.
Two years after 68-year-old Paul Schoch from Brule, Wisconsin disappeared in 4,500-foot Skolai Pass in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, hikers discovered his remains about 12 miles from where park rangers had earlier found his campsite.
Schoch had a history of high blood pressure and diabetes. Rangers investigating the case said it appeared he went for a hike, sat down on a rock – possibly to rest – suffered a heart attack and died.
Hikers in Denali National Park and Preserve early in 2016 found the remains of 22-year-old Etienne Terrell from Atlanta who disappeared in July 2015. The body of 51-year-old Bartlett Barnes of Wasilla, who disappeared in the fall of 2012 while trying to cross Butte Creek in the Talkeetna Mountains on a four-wheeler, was found a year later along the banks of the Susitna River.
Sometimes it just takes time.
Seventy-one-year-old Jerry Warner from Missouri was missing for more than a year before his body was found along Willow Creek just upstream from the busy George Parks Highway.
More than two years passed before 32-year-old Clifford Greist came home for the last time to be buried. He disappeared during a May 2013 snowmachine trip in remote Northwest Alaska and was not found until September. 2015.
Thirty-two-year-old French adventurer Francois Guenot paddled his kayak out of Kamishak Bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast in June 2014 and disappeared along the north shore of Shelikof Strait. His patched together boat was found on a beach at Cape Douglas. It was thought he might join the missing forever.
But in November of that year, a beach clean-up crew working on Shuyak Island on the south side of the strait found human remains. They turned out to be those of Guenot. It was a lucky discovery that brought closure for the family.
If Kostenko did die in or around the Purches Creek valley, there is hope some sign might eventually be found. The area is popular with moose hunters in the fall and occasionally explored by hikers in the summer.
As for now, his disappearance remains a mystery.