The mystery of an airman who disappeared from a Michigan Air Force base 44 years ago

Foul play suspected after remains of Sgt. Donald Rexroth found in 2017

Sgt. Donald Curtis Rexroth. (Office of Special Investigations)

MARQUETTE COUNTY, Mich. – It’s been exactly 44 years since a 23-year-old airman mysteriously disappeared from a Michigan Air Force base in the middle of the night. Officials are still trying to solve this case after his remains were found a few years ago.

Airman goes missing from base

Sgt. Donald Curtis Rexroth was 23 years old when he went missing from the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Marquette County.

Rexroth’s wife said he was cleaning another couple’s military quarters at the base around 11 p.m. May 3, 1979. She said he seemed argumentative and depressed that night.

He left the house on foot wearing only a white thermal underwear top, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. Temperatures were below freezing.

That was the last time anyone heard from Rexroth. He was officially reported missing by the United States Air Force the following day.

Donald Curtis Rexroth (NamUs)

Remains found 38 years later

In 2017, Special Agent Charles Pipkins, of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations’ Cold Case Team, looked into Rexroth’s case and began retracing the steps that led up to his disappearance.

Pipkins spoke to family members, friends, and Rexroth’s wife. They were certain that his disappearance was the result of foul play.

In the fall of 2017, hunters found human remains in a wooded area close to the former base in Skandia Township, Michigan.

Michigan State Police logged the remains into the state database. When Pipkins reviewed that database, he made 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,” Pipkins said. “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.”

Two years later, in July 2019, DNA testing confirmed those remains belonged to Rexroth.

Authorities said foul play is suspected in the case, and they still have unanswered questions. Family members insist Rexroth wouldn’t have left without saying goodbye.

Anyone with information on this case is asked to call the Cold Case Team at 1-800-246-1453, or submit an anonymous tip at

Additional remains discovered

Weeks after identifying Rexroth’s remains, the Air Force sent an 18-person team to the wooded area. They were joined by officials from Michigan State Police and the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office, among others.

The search lasted four days, and the team found additional remains and personal items that belonged to Rexroth.

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

Rexroth background

Rexroth was born March 1, 1956, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Chambersburg Area Senior High School and studied electronics at the Franklin County Career and Technology Center.

His obituary says he was a talented stone and brick mason and loved country music and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Rexroth joined the Air Force in 1974 and was assigned to the K.I. Sawyer base. He worked with bombing navigation and terrain avoidance systems and was tasked with analyzing mission support capabilities.

His funeral was held Dec. 6, 2019, in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. He received full military honors at Spring Hill Cemetery.

Sgt. Donald Curtis Rexroth received full military honors during his funeral service. (Office of Special Investigations)

Why is ClickOnDetroit covering so many cold cases?

We’re working to bring attention to as many unsolved and missing persons cases from around the state as we can. Our hope is that getting this important information out to the public will help generate tips for investigators and potentially lead to closure for the affected families. If you have a cold case you’d like us to look into, please let us know by using the form below.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.