Erin Gilbert was excited as she got ready for her first date with Dave Combs on the afternoon of July 1, 1995. He was taking her to the Girdwood Forest Fair in Girdwood, Alaska, and had promised to pick her up at 4:00 pm. When she went outside to wait for him, she wasn’t alone. Her sister and brother-in-law, along with their children, waited outside with her, eager to meet the man Erin had told them about.
Dave arrived right on time, and once he got out of the car Erin introduced him to her family. Her brother-in-law asked Dave to take his sunglasses off so he could get a better look at him, and Dave complied with a smile. Sunglasses were pretty much a requirement in Alaska during June and July, when the sun never set. Once it appeared that Dave had been approved by the group, Erin climbed into his car. Her 4-year-old nephew told her she should take a mobile phone with her; Erin laughed and told the child she would be fine. She gave them a final wave, and the couple drove off. It was the last time Erin’s family would ever see her.
Erin was 24 years old and had moved to Anchorage, Alaska about a year earlier. Her older sister, Stephanie, had persuaded her to make the move; Stephanie’s husband was in the military and often away from home, and she didn’t like being by herself with their two children all the time. Erin, who had been living in San Francisco, agreed to move in with her sister on the Elmendorf Air Force base. Stephanie got Erin a job working as a nanny for one of her friends. In addition to working, Erin was scheduled to start cosmetology school in a few weeks.
Erin didn’t know many people in Alaska, and would often frequent Chilkoot Charlie’s, a bar in Anchorage. Affectionately referred to as Koot’s by those familiar with it, the place called itself the most historic bar in Alaska and was a lively hangout for locals. It was there that Erin met Dave, and the two hit it off right away. They had exchanged phone numbers earlier in June, and when they ran into each other at Koot’s on June 30, they made a date to go to the Girdwood Forest Fair the following day
he drive from Anchorage to Girdwood took about an hour. They reached the fair around 5:00 pm, and spent some time walking around and looking at the various stalls. At least one witness remembered seeing Erin and Dave at a beer garden on the fairgrounds in the early evening, and Dave said they left at 6:00 pm to go back to his car. Unfortunately, he was unable to get his car to start and assumed the battery had gone dead. Alaska had recently made it a requirement for drivers on Seward Highway to have their car headlights on at all times, whether it was daylight or not. Dave, still not used to having his headlights on during the day, had neglected to turn them off when he parked his car.
Dave told Erin that he had a friend who lived nearby, and he said that he would walk there and get help while Erin waited with the car. According to Dave, he walked around for two hours but was unable to find his friend’s house; when he finally made it back to the fair’s parking lot, Erin was gone. He assumed that she had gotten annoyed at having to wait for so long and had left. Unsure what to do, he climbed back into his car and tried to start it. Some sort of miracle apparently took place, because now the car started.
Dave told police that he searched around the fair for Erin until about 1:00 am before deciding that she must have found another way home. He waited until 7:00 am before he called Erin’s house to see if she was there.
Stephanie knew something was wrong as soon as the phone rang. Erin had never come home the night before, something that was completely out of character for her. She had never stayed away for an entire night, and the few times she had been late coming home she had called Stephanie to let her know ahead of time. Grabbing her husband and children, Stephanie immediately made the 1-hour drive to Girdwood and they began scouring the fairgrounds for any signs of Erin. Standing almost 6 feet tall, Erin had always stood out in a crowd, but they had no luck finding her. Stephanie got someone on stage to make an announcement that they were looking for a missing person, and some of the fair’s attendees joined in the search for Erin. When it became clear that Erin wasn’t at the fair, Stephanie called the police. She also made the wise move of stopping by the studio of a local television station and got them to include Erin’s picture on the news.
Police arrived and immediately conducted their own search for Erin, combing through the fairgrounds and the woods surrounding the area. It was a daunting task, but fairly routine for the officers. Alaskan police take thousands of missing person reports each year, and nearly all of them are successfully resolved in a short amount of time.
Erin’s family continued to conduct their own search as well. Curt Gilbert flew to Alaska to help look for his daughter, and his heart sunk as he realized just how large the state was. The area was underdeveloped when compared with most states, leaving vast open spaces that seemed to go on forever. He knew his daughter could be just about anywhere.
Over the next several days, police conducted an extensive search of Girdwood. Tracking dogs were brought in, but they were unable to determine where Erin might have gone. Helicopter crews completed numerous flyovers of the area, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
Detectives interviewed Erin’s family and considered the possibility that she had disappeared voluntarily, but Stephanie was certain that was not the case. Erin had too much to live for, and absolutely no reason to run away. She was a mature and responsible girl, loved her job, and was about to start cosmetology school. She dreamed of one day becoming a successful author, and loved reading to her sister’s children. She was close with her family, and would never have gone off and not called them. They all believed that the thought of Erin running away was absolutely ridiculous.
As the last person who saw Erin, Dave Combs was of great interest to investigators. He cooperated in the initial stages of the investigation and gave several statements to detectives. His account of the day Erin went missing never varied; he insisted that he left her at the car, and when he returned two hours later, she was gone.
Detectives categorized Erin’s disappearance as a missing person case, and stressed that it was not a homicide investigation. They noted that they had no reason to believe that she wasn’t alive; they had no crime scene or body to indicate otherwise. Even if she were dead, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that foul play was involved. Many people have died in Alaska after simply getting lost in the woods. Erin had never been someone prone to wandering into the woods, though, and it seemed unlikely that she would have gone into any wooded area alone.
It’s possible that Dave wasn’t actually the last person to see Erin; she may have gotten tired of waiting for him to return and had decided to accept a ride with an unknown person who then did something to her. Detectives were frustrated by the total lack of evidence in the case. They simply had no idea where Erin might have gone.
Stephanie refused to give up the search for her younger sister, and made regular trips to Girdwood to continue looking for any sign of her. She walked through miles of woods and hung up thousands of missing posters, but nothing brought her any closer to finding Erin. She and her family moved to Washington in September of 1996, but she continued to return to Alaska, constantly searching for any shred of evidence that might point to Erin’s whereabouts. In 2017, the family pooled their resources and offered a $35,000 reward for information leading to Erin or the person responsible for her disappearance; a few tips were called in, but detectives were unable to develop any solid leads.
The case has been assigned to the Alaska State Police cold case unit, and a detective routinely goes through the thousands of pages in Erin’s case file, hoping to find something that may have been missed. There have been no recent developments in the case, but it is still considered active and detectives believe that it can still be solved.
According to police, Dave Combs is not a suspect in Erin’s disappearance, but they do still have some questions they would like to ask him. He cooperated with them at first, but hasn’t spoken to anyone about the case in years. A cold case detective has made multiple attempts to speak with him, but he has not returned any phone calls.
Detectives believe that Erin made it to the fair safely, as they have witnesses that recall seeing both her and Dave there. They have not been able to find anyone who saw Dave during the hours that he claimed he was walking around looking for his friend’s house, so this part of his story cannot be confirmed. His story about his car suddenly starting after sitting for a few hours with a dead battery is also a matter of concern, as a dead battery cannot suddenly recharge itself.
Erin’s family has not had any contact with Dave since the disappearance. They continue to hope that Erin is still alive but are well aware that the amount of time that has passed makes a happy ending unlikely. They believe that someone out there knows what happened to Erin that night, and they continue to offer a reward for information in the hopes that someone will finally come forward and allow them to bring their sister home.