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Missing no more – behind the effort to solve the mystery of Gwen Brunelle

The volunteer in Texas pitched in to solve the mystery of Gwen Brunelle’s disappearance.

In early April, she pulled up one aerial photo after another on her computer screen, examining each with care and patience, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

The drone photos – 13,399 of them ­– had been compiled in the effort to locate Brunelle, missing on the high rangeland of southern Malheur County since late June 2023.

The reviewer was among a half-dozen volunteers working with Aloft Drone Search, an Oregon nonprofit that helps finding missing people.

Working on a Sunday afternoon, she spotted a clue in a photograph taken 150 feet above the landscape.

She texted the nonprofit’s founder, John Jones of Sherwood.

“I think there’s a pretty high chance I just located human bones,” she messaged.

She was right.

Gwen had been found.

Word of the discovery and confirmation that the remains were those of the Idaho woman came in announcement last week by her family and by Malheur County Sheriff Travis Johnson.

The development brings to a close one of the most intense searches ever for a missing person in Malheur County.

For Andy and Betsy Brunelle of Boise, last summer’s discovery of their daughter’s abandoned car on a gravel road in rural Oregon had triggered an unceasing drive to answer what had become of their only child.

The remains of Gwen Brunelle have been recovered from rangeland north of Jordan Valley. The Boise woman disappeared in the area in June 2023. (Brunelle family photo)


When Brunelle left her Boise home the morning of Monday, June 26, her fiance and parents believed she was on her way to a California town outside of Fresno. She took 11 of her prize show rabbits, telling her family she was going to meet a show judge who could tutor her on her own judging ambitions.

The mysteries soon piled up.

She stopped three hours later but only 20 miles from home, wearing clothing different than what she wore out the door.

She burned up nearly a tank of gas but never made it to California, instead fueling up in Jordan Valley the day after her departure. The town is less than two hours from Boise.

A gas station attendant later reported that Brunelle seemed to be in a hurry. The attendant is the last person known to see Brunelle alive.

A day later, a delivery driver noted a Honda Element parked in a pullout where he liked to stop for lunch. No one was around. The spot is about a half mile off U.S. 95, on Succor Creek Road. The driver saw no one, but didn’t think much of that. People often left a vehicle staged there while they continued on with others west toward the Succor Creek recreation area.

That Friday, a Malheur County sheriff’s deputy checking out another call stopped at the pullout. As routine, he ran the Idaho license plate. He got an alert that the driver was listed as missing.

Inside the vehicle, five rabbits had perished in the summer heat, apparently untended for days. The surviving rabbits were rescued, later moved to the home of Brunelle’s parents.

Near the vehicle, police found Brunelle’s bathrobe, folded on the ground, as if to form a makeshift seat.

Nothing gave police or searchers any clue what had become of Brunelle.

Gwen Brunelle’s vehicle was found in June 2023 abandoned on Succor Creek Road just off U.S. 95, about 17 miles north of Jordan Valley. (Google Maps)


The woman disappeared in an area of open range, coursed by trails left by grazing cattle and a few rutted dirt roads, little used.

There is no home within miles in a territory spotted with high desert grasses and brush.

In the coming days, the sheriff’s office and Brunelle family organized one search after another. They moved by foot and on horseback and ATV. A helicopter pilot donated flying time. Airplanes flew patterns over the area.

Andy and Betsy Brunelle maintained hope she would be found. There was a slim chance, they considered, that she had arranged to meet someone at the remote spot and left with them. Or that she may have been abducted.

As the weeks wore away, the couple resolved themselves to the likelihood their daughter was somewhere out on that range.

In September, searchers found a clue – a shirt of Brunelle’s snagged on a barb wire fence. Three days later, they found more clothing – her high-top boots and socks. The find was about a mile and a half from her Honda.

That discovery suggested Brunelle might have continued on, now barefooted.

“We thought if she was barefoot, she wasn’t going to be far from those boots. It’s rocky and rough where the boots were,” the sheriff said at the time. It was possible, he said, that she changed into tennis shoes, missing from her car.

But more relentless searching found no more evidence of Brunelle.

Through the rest of 2023, the Brunelles and relatives would return to the area repeatedly. In all since that June, they made 17 trips from Boise, the last on Dec. 16, facing hoar frost, snow and mud. Four days later, family friends would make one more try to find the missing woman.

Boots and mismatched socks belonging to Gwen Brunelle of Boise were found Friday, Sept. 22 roughly a mile from where her vehicle was abandoned in June. The clothing was found roughly a mile away from the vehicle in a small creek drainage about 15 miles north of Jordan Valley. (Malheur County Sheriff’s Office photo)


Jake Pool had never used his sophisticated drones to searching for a missing person when a Brunelle relative reached out last September.

Pool worked for an agriculture consulting in Homedale, Idaho, about 30 miles southeast of Ontario. The work sometimes used drones to assess farm fields.

In 2021, he and a partner founded Terravata, selling drone services. Terravata can apply beneficial insects instead of pesticides to crops. And it uses heavy-lift drones to wash windows in high-rise buildings in the Boise area.

Using maps provided by Brunelle’s father, Pool made repeated trips to the area where she disappeared. He spent hours flying a drone about 150 feet above the ground, taking a photo roughly every half second.

“I was mainly trying to go over areas not searched on foot,” Pool said.

He then used software to electronically stitch together the thousands of photographs, generating a “high-resolution drone map – what you might see on Google Earth,” he said. Every pixel represented ground as small as one-third of an inch – roughly the width of two tines on a fork.

Pool shared the images with the Brunelle family.

“It was like looking for needle in haystack. We didn’t really come up with any clues,” Pool said.

On March 8, Andy Brunelle reached out by email to a nonprofit called Aloft Drone Search.

John Jones, a remodeling contractor from Sherwood, founded the organization in 2022 after having a drone built to help search for a missing man.

The nonprofit uses drones to search for people and uses a volunteer team of reviewers to study the resulting images.

Jones hadn’t heard of Gwen Brunelle’s disappearance.

He agreed to dispatch his team in spring or early summer to conduct drone flights. He suggested to Andy Brunelle that meantime his team could review drone photos taken by Terravata.

Just downloading the 13,000 images took 10 hours. Then, Jones grouped them into folders and alerted reviews of the task ahead. They are in Oregon, Arizona and Texas and they examine photos as they can, logging their names onto the folders to keep organized.

The work is tedious, requiring patience, Jones said.

A reviewer opens one photo, zooming in.

“We’re looking at every single pixel,” he said. “We’re looking for anything that looks out of place.”

That could be distinct coloring, an odd shape or clothing.

A reviewer spends up to 45 minutes on each photo.

One reviewer went through files for a time on Sunday, April 7, before taking a break.

She then sat down on her couch, worn down from the reviewing and deciding to shut down her work after looking at just a few more.

She scanned one.


She opened a second.

Something caught her eye.

She looked more intently.

That’s when she texted Jones that she thought she spotted remains. The photo she was examining had been taken by Terravata on Oct. 7, 2023.

By that point, reviewers had assessed 3,322 images.

Jones considered the photo, and then shared it with other reviewers for their assessment.

All agreed – the image appeared to capture human remains.

Jones that evening emailed Johnson, the sheriff, with the image, coordinates and an explanation of why he was reaching out.

The sheriff opened the message at his office the next morning.

“This came out of the blue,” Johnson said, and he dug into Aloft Drone to ensure who they were dealing with.

Meantime, Undersheriff Dave Kesey and Brian Belknap, a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the back country, headed for the spot pictured in the image.

They found human bones, roughly a mile northwest of where Brunelle had left her boots – and just outside the area searched last year. Andy Brunelle later calculated that his own searching on foot last Nov. 18 had taken him to within 400 feet of his daughter’s remains.

A secondary search was launched, seeking more clues but none was found.

The Oregon Medical Examiner’s Office on April 29 concluded through dental records that the remains were of the Idaho woman.

Johnson said no cause of death has yet been established, but murder or other violence isn’t likely. He said she likely died where she was found.

The family had worried that Gwen Brunelle’s mental health led to her disappearance. They had discovered from her private writings that she had developed what her mother, a psychiatric nurse, described as “delusional thinking and paranoia.”

Now, as they consider a memorial service sometime in Boise, they have ended at that assessment again.

“There were periods of time in Gwen’s life when she encountered mental health issues. We feel she suffered from an undiagnosed psychotic illness,” a family statement said. “We believe these factors may have created a state of anxiety and confusion in her final days and ultimately contributed to her passing.”

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].


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