A map that shows where Trenny Gibson was last seen in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
A map that shows where Trenny Gibson was last seen in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
A map of where Trenny Gibson was last seen — photo Knoxville News-Sentinel

A MURDER RUNS THROUGH IT

Whatever Became of Trenny Gibson?

Friday, October 8, 1976, was, in many ways, an ordinary mid-autumn day in Knoxville, Tennessee. It had rained throughout the night, but as daybreak neared, the rain tapered off while the humidity continued to hovered around 96%.

That morning, when Teresa Lynn “Trenny” Gibson got up to get ready for school she needed to prepare for a long bus ride. There was a field trip planned to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park for a horticulture class that the high school junior was enrolled in. Despite her long-term goal to study landscape architecture at the University of Tennessee, on this day, her short-term wish was that her high school field trip to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) would be canceled. Days earlier, she and her father had discussed their mutual misgivings about the upcoming trip.

Trenny was so confident that the outing would be canceled due to the weather, she did not dress for a day’s hike. Instead she chose an all blue ensemble: a blue blouse, a pastel blue striped sweater, blue jeans, and blue Adidas shoes.

From a distance of more than four decades, it seems that Trenny’s ensemble was selected to showcase the $600 sapphire and diamond ring she also wore that day. She had it bought for herself from money she had saved from her summer at her job at Morrison’s Cafeteria.

When Trenny finally did leave for school, no one — not her mom, not her dad, not her brothers, not her sister, not her dog, and most likely not even Trenny, knew that it would be the last time she would ever see 1427 Whitower Dr.

Bearden High School

While Trenny Gibson may have harbored the hope that the field trip would be cancelled, by the time she arrived at Bearden High School that day, it turned out the the field trip was going to happen after all.

Trenny got on the bus and sat next to a friend of hers, Robert Simpson. No one at the time or later noticed anything untoward or problematic with their interactions. Somewhere around 12:30 that afternoon, the bus, along with the bus driver, Wayne Dunlap, the teacher who had organized the trip, , and 41 students, one of whom was Trenny, pulled into the Clingmans Dome parking lot in the GSMNP.

The parking lot was near the Forney Ridge Trail — the 1.8 mile route (one way) that the students would be taking to Andrews Bald and back. Trenny seemed to have made it to Andrews Bald and was about three-quarters of a mile from the parking lot when she was last seen by multiple classmates.

By then, she was wearing a brown plaid coat that she had borrowed from Robert Simpson, her seat mate on the bus. Multiple students saw her stop to look at something to the right of the trail as she headed toward the bus.

Trenny Gibson was never seen again.

Trenny’s disappearance was first noted about thirty minutes after she was last seen. The students were to have been at the bus by 3:30. When no one could find Trenny, the teacher and another student hiked the trail she was known to have been on while the other students waited on the bus.

When Wayne Dunlap, the teacher, determined that Trenny was indeed missing, he contacted the National Park Service and filed a report at 4:30 pm. Soon after, the bus, minus Trenny and Mr. Dunlap, headed back to Knoxville. Mr. Dunlap, meanwhile, stayed behind to assist with the search.

Two hours later, 19 volunteers had gathered to begin looking for the missing student. The weather conditions had begun to deteriorate, and the initial search for Trenny was hampered by the rain and fog.

Back in Knoxville

The school bus carrying the students and bus drive arrived later than originally scheduled, and when it did, school officials had to tell the Gibsons that their daughter was missing.

Mr. Gibson had just gotten in from a business trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but he and his wife acted quickly, packing up their family, and heading east with to the Smoky Mountains to wait for news of their daughter Trenny.

Both the media and search responses were robust, even by today’s standards, and certainly by the standards of the mid-to-late seventies.

The Gibsons wait and the search effort continued stretched on for days. Then, when the National Park Service and National Guard had done all that they could, the search team size was trimmed, and the Gibson’s went back to Knoxville.

A moment of silent meditation

On October 12, 1976, four days after Trenny Gibson disappeared on a field trip to the Smokey Mountains and while the Gibson family was still in Gatlinburg awaiting news of what had become of Trenny, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported on a school board meeting.

There was a lot of attention given to the school board setting more stringent requirements for the number of chaperones for upcoming field trips as a result Trenny’s disappearance.

In addition to those discussions, there was a also a moment of silent mediation observed for the safe return of Trenny Gibson.

While no one knew it at the time, there was to be no return of Trenny Gibson, safe or otherwise.

Five years later, when her father was interviewed by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the Eagle Scout and former Boy Scout scoutmaster, expressed appreciation for all that the FBI and the searchers had done, and he also expressed disappointment that the school district had not had policies in place to better protect the students. Based on his experience as both a scout and a scoutmaster, he thought that one adult chaperone for 40 students was at least 3 chaperones too few.

The years have continued to pass and now it has been over forty years since Trenny was last seen. It is as if when she stopped to look down that trail (as described) she simply walked off the face of the earth into another dimension.

What she left behind

What Trenny left behind were her savings passbook that showed that even after her jewelry purchase, she still had $2,000, her purse, other jewelry, a warm coat, and her much beloved dog, Mitzi.

While a few of her classmates thought it was possible she had run off, after so much time had passed, her parents thought Trenny had been abducted.

The FBI agreed with the Gibson’s conclusion, but it wasn’t because of what she left behind, it was because of what she didn’t leave behind. In all of the searching that was done for Trenny Gibson not one scrap of fabric could be linked to the clothes she was known to have been wearing at the time she disappeared, and sometimes what isn’t there tells a person as much as what is.

Dwight McCarter

Dwight McCarter is a now retried National Park Service Ranger, but the day Trenny Gibson vanished, he was still working, and it was his assignment to head up the search effort that would look for her.

Part of the search effort included six dog teams, and three of those dog teams tracked Trenny to the Appalachian Trail, around the Clingmans Dome Tower, to a road about a mile away. Of the 115 searches Dwight McCarter has done, Trenny’s is one of the two he was unable to solve

Two theories

After an extensive investigation and equally extensive searches in the park, the FBI came up with two theories:

  • Trenny was abducted from where the Fourney Ridge Trail intersects with the Appalachian Trail and was taken out of the park.
  • Trenny followed the Appalachian Trail by mistake and made her way to the tower on Clingman’s Dome. She then went down to a nearby road where she was abducted or met with some other kind of foul play.

One woman, Kim Pouncey (née Emery) who went to school with Trenny has gone on the record saying she thinks that Trenny just up and left.

Why I don’t think Trenny ran away

Trenny had goals, dreams, a dog who loved her, a drivers license, and she was going to be getting a car for Christmas.

From a purely practical standpoint, it makes no sense for Trenny to leave behind all of her money and things and run away to a new life while on a field trip when in just over 11 weeks, she would have a car which would make running away much easier.

The effect of a disappearance on those left behind

The Gibsons did everything they could to keep their family together after Trenny disappeared, including selling their home and moving to a new neighborhood to not have so many now painful memories. But over time, the loss continued to take its toll, and in the wake of her disappearance, Trenny’s parents divorced.

Trenny’s father and two of her three siblings are now deceased. Robert, Jr. her older brother, died in 2000 at the age of 42, Robert, Sr. her father, died in 2004 at the age of 67, and Tina, her sister, died in 2016 at the age of 54.

Her mother and her younger brother were last reported to be living in West Virginia.

There is a lot of sad to go around in this story, but the image that stuck with me most as I did my research was that of Mitzi, Trenny’s then seven-year-old poodle. At the time of this October 10, 1976, interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Trenny’s father noted this about Mitzi:

She gets up on the back of the couch upstairs, and looks out the window for Trenny when she’s gone from home. She’s been looking for her for three days. — Robert Gibson

Trenny Gibson remains missing to this day.

Sources

Greensboro Daily News

Greensboro Record

Knoxville News-Sentinel

WBIR

Crocheter on a mission to make the world a better place — one stitch at a time. Twitter: @crochetbug. Crochet blog: https://www.crochetbug.com

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