Remains of airman missing for 40 years are found, foul play suspected

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jenn Womble
  • AFOSI Public Affairs

Forty years ago an airman assigned to K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Mich., disappeared without a trace and subsequent investigations into his whereabouts turned up no clues.

In 2017, Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Charles Pipkins of the Cold Case Team opened the case file and began retracing the steps of Sgt. Donald C. Rexroth in the days before his disappearance. 

SA Pipkins talked to family members, friends and Sgt. Rexroth’s wife. Rexroth’s mother and siblings were adamant that foul play had been involved in his disappearance, insisting that he wouldn’t have left without saying goodbye. 

In November of 2017 hunters discovered human remains in the woods near K.I. Sawyer. The Michigan State Police recovered the remains and they were logged into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

It wasn’t until 2018 when SA Pipkins was reviewing NamUs, that he had a break in the case. 

“I searched the database in 2018 and noticed the unidentified remains of a male matching the age and height of Rexroth,” SA Pipkins recalled. “I began working to match the DNA of the bones to that of Rexroth’s family members to confirm my suspicion that the remains were those of Sgt. Rexroth.” 

In July 2019 he was successful. He found the missing Airman, Sgt. Rexroth. 

A few weeks later AFOSI deployed an 18-member team to search for and recover any additional remains possible. They were joined by Michigan State Police, the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Forestry Service’s Law Enforcement Division and a team from the Anthropology Department at the University of Northern Michigan.

For four days the team worked tirelessly to recover additional remains and personal effects from Sgt. Rexroth. 

Although his remains have been recovered, there are still several unanswered questions surrounding Sgt. Rexroth’s death. Foul play is suspected. If anyone has any details they think might be relevant to the disappearance of Sgt. Donald C. Rexroth from K.I. Sawyer AFB, Mich., in May 1979, contact the AFOSI Tipline at 1-877-246-1453, or submit the tip anonymously online at:

“I’m glad we could offer some closure to Sgt. Rexroth’s family,” SA Pipkins said. “Now our hope is that someone comes forward with new information to help us figure out what happened to Rexroth.”  

The AFOSI Cold Case Team is relentless in finding missing airmen to offer closure to families, while seeking the truth, and if warranted, ensure that justice is served no matter how long it takes.