(Orig. pub. July 5, 2018; updated January 2023)
I was just beginning 8th grade In August 1967, when news flashes shrieked that two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Lea Koons, both 19, had been killed by two different grizzly bears at campsites 20 miles apart in Glacier National Park on the same night, August 13th. The chilling last words of Koons, which I never forgot, were “Oh, my God, I’m dead!”
Helgeson’s hiking companion, Roy Ducat, was also mauled, but survived. Until then Glacier had had no fatal bear-human interactions in its entire 57-year history.
The attacks on Helgeson and Koons were the impetus for significant operational changes at the national parks, notably the elimination of garbage dumps where the bears had been feeding–and even more notably the elimination of grizzlies themselves. Park Service rangers killed four bears immediately afterwards, with no evidence these individuals were involved. A friend of mine who lives in Kalispell, Montana, told me, “Both female bears were shot and one had cubs. Someone blew the lower jaw off one of the cubs by Granite Park chalet and it suffered for a couple of months before dying.” Yeah, that baby certainly deserved to suffer. The operational changes not only did not reduce human-bear conflicts, they put grizzlies on the endangered species list. Dozens of grizzlies in Glacier and Yellowstone were killed.
For the record, grizzly bears are primarily vegetarians, their diets consisting of berries, grasses, and nuts supplemented with grubs, moths, and rotting animal carcasses when they can find them, although that link does admit they may eat larger mammals such as moose and elk and their calves. When a grizzly has attacked a human it has almost invariably been a mother defending cubs. Bears usually flee people. Grizzlies’ long curved claws look terrifying, but are used for digging, like those of armadillos or meerkats. The bears are active in the morning and early evening.
Jack Olsen, a true-crime writer, wrote the book Night of the Grizzlies, which I thought, upon reading when it was reissued in 1996, was fair and balanced, zeroing in on errors in park policies. In 2018, thinking how improbable it was to have these fatal attacks by two different bears 20 miles apart on the same night, I started looking into the people involved.
Julie Marie Helgeson was from Albert Lea, Minnesota. There is a death certificate for her, here:
The first thing I did on receiving this was to input the Social Security number, 476-56-4567, into the Social Security Death Index. Nothing came up, not under the number alone, or the number with or without Julie’s name, birth year 1948, or death year 1967. So the Social Security number is fake. The death certificate of Michele Lea Koons also bears a fake Social Security Number.
I made requests, at $21 a pop, by mail to the Social Security Administration for the original applications for Social Security numbers for both women, under the Freedom of Information Act. The SSA says on its website applications of deceased people are public records. I have never received a response, despite emailing follow-up requests, and my checks have never been cashed. This is contrary to SSA’s response to a similar request I made in another matter, where I received a copy of the original application within 60 days.
There’s supposed to be a signature of the coroner on the death certificate in Box 22a, as well as a signature of the registrar in Box 26, but instead the names are typed in. So anyone could have filled this form out. There’s no seal on it, either. Presumably the coroner, Sol Catron, was responsible for putting the fake Social Security number on the death certificate, although someone else could have typed his name in, so maybe not. Catron ran a funeral home on the side, so would have had access to human corpses, if any were needed, although I doubt they were. He made an emergency budget request in December 1967 for $1,800, equal to his annual budget, claiming he had had an unusual number of deaths in the county. That was approved, although Box 19 of the death certificate indicates he did no autopsy in this case.
According to news reports Julie Helgeson had been a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1966-67. I was able to get her grade card from UM–whose lawyer, instead of stonewalling, as usually happens, said, amazingly, that records over 30 years old were no longer confidential! Here’s that:
Oops–more problems! The father’s name on the transcript (Charles T. Helgeson) is not the same as that on the death certificate (Milton O. Helgeson), and Julie’s date of birth is given as Jan. 12, 1948, when on the D.C. it is Feb. 21, 1948. If the transcript is correct that makes six false entries on the death certificate (not counting the misspelling of the mother’s maiden name, which is “Bagaason.”) I have a problem with the time of injury, 11:45 p.m. on August 12th, with death at 4 a.m. on August 13th, as well. Grizzlies raising Cain in the middle of the night doesn’t jibe with their documented behavior.
The report of the Park Service about the two deaths on Aug. 13, 1967, says that the person who observed the bear’s attack on Julie (p. 10 of 21) was the dead girl herself–“Helgeson”! For Michele Koons, the person who called it in is stated as “Fatality.” The steaming pile grows higher.
A man named Mark Helgeson created a Find-a-Grave memorial for Julie, his cousin, and shared a few family photos with me. The Albert Lea Public Library then provided me an extensive record of Julie from yearbooks of Albert Lea high school, and I accessed 92 newspaper articles featuring her. So I cannot dispute that Julie was a real person. She had an older sister, Suzanne, born in 1943, whose existence I also confirmed but I can’t locate to interview. Curiously, while there is a baptism record for Suzanne in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s book, there is no baptism record for Julie. The pages online stop in 1944, even though the index says the records run through 1960. I emailed the church asking for information which might be in the rest of the book and got no response.
Roy Ducat died in 2011. One would think that being mauled by a grizzly bear, and witnessing the savage killing of his companion, might merit a mention in his obituary; but there is nothing about it.
As for Michele Lea Koons, her memorial had been removed from Find-a-Grave when I originally worked on this blog post, so I had very little info about her to start with. It was then restored in August 2018, I am guessing by Mark Helgeson, whom I’d contacted by then. There is also now a Facebook page about Michele and Julie which wasn’t there when I first looked into this in Spring 2018, nor was this 2010 Public Broadcasting Service documentary online. The documentary was uploaded in August 2018–more about that below. So the story is being revived, maybe because of my blog post about the faked death certificates, which was briefly published on Dr. James Tracy’s Memory Hole Blog, and then taken down at my request, because I hadn’t known about the documentary (he’s the one who found that) and needed to follow up on information in it which was new to me.
I made a Freedom of Information Act Request to the National Park Service to check information in the movie, and found, for starters, that its assertion that Michele and Julie were NPS summer employees was false. At 11:38 and 19:14, the documentary gives us a glimpse of contracts summer employees were required to sign prohibiting Beatles-type haircuts and requiring them to phone home for permission to camp overnight in the park. I asked NPS to produce employment records for Michele and Julie and their co-workers who supposedly went on the camping trips with them, and NPS said these people were not park employees, and there were no contracts. See also here.
As relates to Michele, the PBS documentary interviews two people represented as her brother and sister, Wes Koons and Krista Koons Petersen. I find no record of either person anywhere. The 1968 San Diego city directory does list Michele, at the same address as her parents, Harry M. and Shirley M. Koons. (But wait–Michele died in 1967!) The San Diego city directory lists the parents alone in 1961 and 1973, the only years the directory is available on ancestry.com, and Michele’s newly restored Find-a-Grave entry does not list a brother or sister (nor are Wes and Krista listed as children on either of the Koons parents’ entries). The tearjerker update in the movie about Krista’s baby “Courtney Michele” born nine years later, on Aug. 13, 1976, is not only weird (who commemorates a date of death?), but contradicted by records on ancestry, which say Courtney Michele Petersen was born on Aug. 13, 1986. After learning from the documentary that Michele Koons’s nickname was “Micki” I found her 1965 high school yearbook online. She was in Marquees, the drama club, which would have given her some acting skills if she needed to take up a new identity, such as when she went to work for the CIA, which is what both girls may have done (assuming they did not simply get married and change their names, as Amy Biehl did); and participated in Americans Abroad, which she was also in during her senior year, along with American Friends Service, according to the 1966 Kearny Senior High yearbook. If Micki became an exchange student and lived abroad in Spring 1966, or left home later, she might simply have never come back, although her college did at last confirm she was enrolled in 1966-67. It provided no records, though, unlike the University of Minnesota, so–who knows? The picture of Micki in a white gown and mortarboard, holding a trophy (or whatever), shown in the PBS documentary, is strange, since graduation gowns are not generally white. I was told by a Kearny school representative that her own gown was maroon, in 1982.
The documentary’s treatment of Julie Helgeson is sparser, since no family members are interviewed, an inexplicable omission since mother Harriet lived until 2017. Mark Helgeson provided me the picture below, apparently taken at Suzanne’s graduation*.
As for the enigmatic Charles T. Helgeson, there are a gazillion Helgesons in Minnesota. Given no record of Julie in the Lutheran baptism log, I wondered if she might’ve been an exchange student herself, maybe from Norway, or adopted, a cousin living with the family for awhile, etc. The absence of a baptism record may indicate unwed parents, and a mother who, as a devout Lutheran, was ashamed of her indiscretion. My friend Anne Berg, who is Norwegian, found a Charles Thomas Helgeson in a town near where Harriet’s parents lived, Lerdal, and speculated that, during the 3-1/2 years Milton was in the Navy, she’d begun a dalliance with him. Thus, although Julie was raised by Milton Helgeson as his daughter, he never knew she wasn’t his child (or knew and didn’t care). Suzanne was herself conceived out of wedlock: Milton and Harriet were married on Sept. 5, 1942 and Suzanne was born April 3, 1943. Both Milton and Harriet switched churches at some point after their wedding (from East Freeborn Lutheran to First Lutheran), which Anne thought unusual, as is the fact that Milton, Harriet and Julie are buried at Graceland Cemetery, not a Lutheran cemetery. But of course Julie is not really there, unless she was dispatched by other means.
The above, about an affair Harriet had with Charles, is admittedly speculative–and there’s a simpler explanation for the different father’s name and birth date on Julie’s college transcript, which is that–like the death certificate–it is a forgery. While the high school yearbook pictures could have been faked, too, the sheer number of them over several years makes that possibility a lot less likely than it was, for example, with the fake yearbook photo of “9/11 stewardess Betty Ong.” (That link is highly recommended!) An uncertified copy of the birth certificate I just received from the Minnesota Dept. of Public Health is additional confirmation that Julie’s birth date was Feb. 21, 1948, and father was Milton, not Charles, thus bolstering the case that the college transcript is a bald-faced fraud. Julie was never at the University of Minnesota.
Jack Olsen, as an employee of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated, as well as a noted “true-crime” author, was undoubtedly part of the Operation Mockingbird infiltration of the U.S. press by CIA. It strains credulity to think he didn’t know the attacks were a lie, all the more given the 1966 movie by the same name, Night of the Grizzly, where a bear named Satan terrorizes a town. Talk about your foreshadowing, planting seeds in the public consciousness so people are conditioned to kill the grizzly before anything even happens. Then here comes the government’s “Public Broadcasting System” to put the patina of legitimacy on the event with a “documentary” bursting at the seams with lies. But think over how many actors were involved in the real production: not only the girls themselves, who had to agree to disappear (unless they were in fact killed by some other means), and their parents and “hiking companions,” but the National Park Service, Flathead County coroner, Lutheran Church, at least one person in the University of Minnesota registrar’s office, and more, all doing unethical things in the course of carrying out their duties, all before you get to the government-subsidized PBS movie pushing this fiction, made years later.
Of course we’re all wondering what the purpose would have been, in faking these horrific deaths. It looks like the authors of the event wanted to scare people away from the national park. Maybe there was a need to close Glacier for some illicit purpose, say to move a few missiles in or conduct a seismic survey with dynamite. Vast areas of the park were in fact closed due to fires around the same time. Fires are good cover, too! In the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that very scenario–a ruse to keep people out of the park–played out. The military closed Devil’s Tower National Monument to the public on the pretext that a poisonous gas had been released, when in fact the top brass knew an alien spaceship was planning to land there.
I had to laugh when I saw the line in a couple of newspaper articles about the grizzly maulings, such as this one, about someone’s face being “frozen in fear,” the expression famously used by Sandy Hook shill Gene Rosen. The CIA needs some new scriptwriters.
*I think that date of “Nov. 61” on the border is the date the picture was developed, since graduations are not normally held in November. See here.