Searching for my family: One mother’s journey after her son went missing in Fairbanks

Published: Jul. 6, 2021 at 6:32 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - For 232 days Gladys Derendoff has been holding on to hope, but now it’s time to say goodbye.

Her son, Willis Derendoff, has been missing in Fairbanks since November 10th, 2020. The 34-year-old Huslia resident first came to the interior after finishing seasonal work. His last known location was at the Extended Stay Hotel near Airport Road.

Gladys flew into Fairbanks just days after her son’s disappearance.

“I’ve been here since then, and I’ve been searching, it was kind of hard during the winter, but I still looked for him no matter what,” Gladys said.

Since Willis’ disappearance, Gladys has carried out her own searches – around a hundred of them. Sometimes several dozen people would show up; other times, it was her core group of friends and family that helped her out. Gladys said over a dozen people have flown into the Interior to help with the searches. She has used money for their travel, hotel, and car rentals from donations by family, friends, and the community.

Gladys said it’s tradition in Huslia that if someone goes missing, the community doesn’t give up looking.

“We always search until we find them,” Gladys said tearfully. “But this is really hard. And it’s been a long winter and a long spring.”

Gladys Derendoff joins friends and family at a barbeque.  The mood was bittersweet as she...
Gladys Derendoff joins friends and family at a barbeque. The mood was bittersweet as she thanked volunteers for their support while staying in Fairbanks these last seven months.(Sarah Hollister)

But this day is bittersweet; Gladys is getting ready to return to Huslia, to her own home and her more than 15 grandchildren.

“We’ve been at this since November and today we decided to close it down for a while,” Gladys explained, “Or slow it down, not really close it down because a lot of people are still searching.”

In Huslia, Gladys says she wants to have a celebration of life for Willis.

“Since we didn’t find him, we wanted to have some kind of closure for our family and our friends,” Gladys said. “We decided we are going to have some music and food in Huslia. He was a musician. He played all kinds of instruments, so we are going to have a dance also. We are just going to have fun. Time to have fun. Let him go.”

And before she left, Gladys gave one last plea that if anyone knows what happened to Willis Derendoff, to please say something.

“We just encourage people to come forward if they know anything,” Gladys said tearfully. “That they please come help.”

Leaving town, but not giving up. Gladys promises to forever keep searching for her son.

There is a $12,000 reward for information on Willis Derendoff's disappearance. Tips can also...
There is a $12,000 reward for information on Willis Derendoff's disappearance. Tips can also remain anonymous. (Sarah Hollister)

Alaska State Trooper Update

The Alaska State Troopers, with the assistance of PAWS and Wilderness Search and Rescue, found no signs of Willis Derendoff during their last search in mid-May of 2021.

Officials are asking the public for any assistance in helping them understand everything about where Willis Derendoff was in November of 2020 before he went missing.

If you have any information on Willis Derendoff or any other missing person, you are asked to contact the Fairbanks Police Department at (907) 450-6500 or the Alaska State Troopers (907) 451-5100. Tips can always remain anonymous.

To see more coverage on Willis Derendoff’s case, please visit these stories:

Fairbanks man missing since Tuesday, family pleads for his safe return home

Alaska State Troopers: Four missing Alaska Native individuals in Fairbanks not connected

Large search underway in Fairbanks for missing man, Willis Derendoff

A Huslia man’s mysterious disappearance leaves family asking for the public’s help

‘Call the FBI’, Fairbanks community pleads for help locating 8 missing individuals

REWARD $7,500: Troopers investigate the disappearance of Willis Derendoff as a homicide

$25k reward, massive citywide search planned for Fairbanks’ missing persons

Search dogs and ground crews hunt for clues of Fairbanks’ missing persons

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