The Trail Went Cold – Episode 9 – Don Kemp

November 16, 1982. An abandoned SUV is discovered in the middle of a desolate Wyoming prairie and numerous possessions are scattered all over the highway. The vehicle belongs to Don Kemp, a former New York City ad executive who has left his old life behind and vanished without a trace. In spite of an extensive search of the area, it is four years before Don’s skeletal remains are found on the prairie. However, five months after Don originally disappeared, one of his friends allegedly received a series of bizarre phone calls from him. Did Don die of exposure shortly after abandoning his vehicle? Or was he killed elsewhere before his remains were somehow returned to the prairie years later? Join me for a new episode of “The Trail Went Cold”, as I analyze the very first case to ever be featured on “Unsolved Mysteries”.

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The Trail Went Cold is produced and edited by Magill Foote.

All music is composed by Vince Nitro.

11 thoughts on “The Trail Went Cold – Episode 9 – Don Kemp

  • Thank you for another great show, Robin! This one was very well done. As you said, though, most of the story can be explained fairly readily. The only part that really needs explanation is the phone calls.

    I think your idea that Dennis got ahold of Don’s address book and prank called that woman is certainly possible, (and I must say your insight that she would have been the first person in his address book was a stroke of genius!), but I thought of another theory too. What if the phone calls have nothing to do with Don at all?

    What if Dennis called Aiello(sp?) by mistake, intending to call someone else, and it’s just a weird coincidence that the person he called by mistake had some connection with someone who died 150 miles from where Dennis lived? They say that any two random people in the United States are separated, on average, by two degrees of separation. The connection here seems to be very tenuous. Aielo seems to have worked with Don, but she didn’t even know him well enough to recognize his voice on her answering machine. And the only connection that Dennis had with Don, that we’re sure of, is that he lived 150 from where Don died.

    This raises the question, why wouldn’t Don just tell the police that yes, he had called Aiello, but had only done so by mistake when he was trying to call someone else? There could be all kinds of reasons. Maybe he didn’t make the calls at all, but they were made by someone visiting him, and Dennis didn’t want to bring that person into the story. Maybe Dennis didn’t want to admit to dialing a wrong number because the police would have asked him who he was actually trying to call when he dialed Aiello’s number, and he would have had to tell them that he was trying to call a drug dealer or a prostitute or some other criminal associate. Or maybe Dennis just plain didn’t like cops, and didn’t want to talk to them, and his lawyer told him he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to. Maybe he was afraid he would become a suspect in Don’s disappearance, and not knowing much about the law maybe he figured he would be safer if he denied the whole thing.

    I think there are lots of explanations for the phone calls, as you said, and once you dismiss those it does seem fairly straightforward. But I really liked the story, and can’t wait until next week!

    • Thanks for listening to the podcast and the kind words. I’d thought about the wrong number theory, though it does seem pretty obsessive that the caller would leave five messages on Judy Aiello’s answering machine over the course of a year-and-a-half. I just wish I knew more details about the actual content of those messages because it would provide a better idea about what the caller’s intentions might have been. If he used Judy’s name at any point during those messages, then that would rule out the possibility of it being a wrong number.

      I’ve also pondered if Dennis might have tried to call other people in Don’s address book, but they just wrote it off as some prankster and didn’t think it had any connection to Don. The only reason Judy Aiello’s calls stood out was because she was away on an extended vacation, giving Dennis the opportunity to leave five messages by the time she got home.

  • One thing I thought was that maybe some acquaintance of Dennis gave him their phone number, and he wrote it down wrong, writing instead a number which happened to belong to Aiello. Dennis kept calling the number he had written down, and didn’t get any response because Aiello was on vacation, so he kept calling back and getting increasingly annoyed because he didn’t get any response, which it seems Aiello picked up on while listening to his messages. That’s why he left maybe increasingly urgent messages for her to call him back, all the while not knowing he was talking to the wrong person, and not knowing why he wasn’t getting a response.

    But yeah, if we could know what he said in those messages that would go a long way towards unraveling this bizarre story.

  • Robin, thanks for yet another awesome podcast! Lately I find it so very hard to wait two weeks for another one.

    I just read an interesting comment over at the unsolved.com archives on Don Kemp’s profile page. A person named “Robert” claims that he was a friend of Don’s and revealed some intriguing info. He says he discovered that Don was holding seances to contact Lincoln’s spirit during the time he was conducting research for his book. Robert states that Don’s girlfriend believes there were papers inside of Don’s SUV that pertain to these seances and trying to contact Lincoln’s spirit. She feels that due to the nature of these papers, law enforcement concluded they were dealing with someone who was mentally unstable or possibly on drugs. Could it be that investigators didn’t act as diligently as they could have because they jumped to conclusions?

    Now, I know that anyone can comment on those pages over at unsolved.com, and we can’t say for sure that Robert is genuine. But the overall tone of the comment seems like it could very well be an account from someone who knew Don rather than a troll making up lies for attention.

    Your thoughts?

    • Thanks a lot, Mel. I didn’t go into it in too much detail on the podcast episode, but the poster from the Unsolved Mysteries message board claiming to be Don’s sister said she once accompanied Don to a seance at Mary Surratt’s boarding house. It sounds like Don was really into that stuff, so I can believe that comment from “Robert” is genuine.

      A few days ago, another poster at the Unsolved Mysteries message board discovered an old newspaper article from when Don’s remains were found and it mentioned another piece of info I didn’t know before. Apparently, Don had been telling people he was planning to start a religious cult and there was a diary found in Don’s vehicle in which he talked about this. Strangely, Don’s own mother even acknowledges in the article that he may have walked off to meditate and gotten lost. So it’s even more apparent to me that Don was mentally unstable at the time he disappeared and I’m sure investigators knew this right from the outset and probably never would have suspected foul play without the mysterious phone calls.

  • Hi Robin. Another great podcast!! I really enjoy listening to your podcasts. I remember the Don Kemp story from the UM Early days. Is there anywhere at all that the messages left on Judy’s machine can be published? Does anyone know what was said? Also maybe Don was having mental issues, maybe he ‘thought’ he heard Abraham Lincoln to leave his car and find him on foot or something…. it seems like a pretty intense thing to do, pack up your car and sell all your belongings to do research for a book… well in my opinion it is. Hmm it’s a head scratcher though!

  • Hey Robin. Loving the podcast. You mentioned the good old days of Unsolved Mysteries being on YouTube. I found a channel with hours of Unsolved Mysteries segments. The quality is pretty poor though. Search “Tim Sydal”.

    You’re welcome 😀

    • Oh, I’m sure there’s no doubt the body actually belonged to Don Kemp. The thing his family is uncertain about is whether he died on the prairie right after he went missing or if he was killed somewhere else at another time and his remains were planted on the prairie later.

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