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Remains of Mount Rainier National Park employee were found 1996, her case remains unsolved

Sheila Kearns, 43, loved her job at Mt. Rainier National Park. When she didn't show up for a shift one fall morning in 1996, her coworkers knew something was wrong.

PARADISE, Wash. — Mount Rainier is one of Washington's most beautiful landmarks.

But for friends and family of Sheila Kearns, it is haunted by an ominous past. Her body was found in Mount Rainier National Park seven months after she went missing.

The 43-year-old was working at the park when she disappeared in 1996. 

Her former coworkers still wonder what really happened to the woman they knew. They spoke with the Unsolved Northwest team about Kearns' life and the details surrounding her disappearance.

"She was beautiful," Alexa Martin said. "I mean, she was absolutely beautiful. "

Martin worked with Kearns at the park and the two were close friends.

"She had like, these very, very clear eyes that, you know, to me, reminded me of the mountain streams that we had up there," Martin said.

Credit: Kearns family

According to her coworkers, Sheila Kearns arrived at the Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park in August of 1996.

"Around August, most of the kids go back to school," Hayden said. "So the crews are kind of down but we still need to finish up for about six weeks."

Kearns worked the front desk at the inn and is remembered as always being kind to guests and her coworkers.

"She always would say hi to me, and we would talk and she just had this infectious smile about her," Hayden said. "She just glowed, really a nice person, really nice person."

"You definitely got the sense that she loved being up at the park and at Rainier," Martin said.

Credit: KING 5
Sheila Kearns working the front desk at the Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier National Park.

Paradise Inn closed for the season on Oct. 1, 1996. Hayden said she would throw farewell parties for all the park employees at the end of every summer season. 

"Sheila came up, I'll never forget that she came up to the fire, and just the glow on her face. And she goes, 'Jules, I got hired on for the winter crew'. She goes, 'I'm so excited we'll be working together.' And I was just like, 'Wow, that's great!' And that's the last time I saw her," Hayden said.

Sheila Kearns went missing on Oct. 4, 1996.

Credit: The News Tribune
1996 newspaper clippings of Sheila Kearns' case

The FBI has been investigating the case because it took place in a national park. Special Agent Terry Postma said at the time she was reported missing, she was moving into her new employee housing. 

"Her employers, I believe, realized that she hadn't reported for work and reported her missing right away," Postma said.

The manager of the inn went to Kearns' residence to check on her but only found a nicely made bed and her belongings that seemed to be untouched.

Her remains were found almost seven months after she was reported missing

Kearns' remains were found in May of 1997 near the housing she was moving into for the upcoming season.

Her remains were initially found at the community building on the old Longmire campground. They were found by a volunteer who was setting up a navigation course for park rangers early in the season.

Her remains were scattered around a 300-yard area. 

When she was reported missing, there was an intensive, three-day search.

"How could they not have found her? I find that strange. That seems very, very odd to me," Martin said.

Mount Rainier remains a 'haunted place' for Kearn's former coworkers

When Kearns went missing, the FBI looked at a number of people as possible suspects, including some of the people we spoke with for this story. Investigators cleared everyone they interviewed.

"Just because a person was cleared in an investigation a number of years ago, doesn't mean that new information might come to light, which makes them a subject or suspect again," Postma said.

"It's just a sinister type of aura around what had happened to her," Jules said. "And it made you wonder like, you know, is there somebody out there?"

Martin says what happened to her old friend changed the way she lives her life, even when she tried to prevent it. She returned to the campground for the first time this year, after over two decades.

"I didn't want that fear to limit how I lived my life. And simultaneously it did limit how I lived my life," Alexa said. "Even to this day, when I look at Mount Rainier, it's a haunted place for me because of that, because of what happened to her."

Do you want to hear more about Unsolved Northwest? Text the word UNSOLVED to (206) 448-4545 to get messages from the team about the latest cases and updates on past stories, or to send them your questions.

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