Episode 089: Eugene Prins

August 28, 2023

A small-town man walked away in the dead of night… or did he? What really happened to Eugene Prins?

Episode Media
Eugene Prins (Mitchell Republic)
Surveillance image of Eugene and Dan leaving the bar on March 26, 2020 (The Vanished)
Search teams look for bone fragments on a farm near Woonsocket (South Dakota DCI)
Timeline of Eugene’s last known movements (Google Maps)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. Last week, while researching the disappearance of Rachel Cyriacks, I came across another mysterious case from the same small South Dakota town. Like many of the cases I research, this one has very little information and didn’t receive much news coverage, but there is still a story to be told and a family that needs answers. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Eugene Prins was born in 1974 in the rural town of Woonsocket, South Dakota. His mother Pat was a high school senior when she gave birth to the tiny four-pound baby boy. She told The Vanished podcast, “The rest of my class was getting a diploma that day, and I got a baby.”

A few years later, Eugene’s brother Tim was born, and then his sister Becca. In 1980, Pat moved her little family to Minnesota, where she met and married Jeff Hotchkiss. Jeff had three kids of his own, and soon they were a big, blended family. In 1992, Pat and Jeff moved the family back to South Dakota, where Pat later gave birth to her youngest son, Colton. From everything I can tell, this was a loving, happy family, and Eugene was a great big brother.

Growing up, Eugene had a happy childhood. He loved playing outside and riding his bike around the neighborhood. He was kind-hearted and tended to be shy, preferring a small group of friends to more widespread popularity. According to Pat, Eugene was loyal and true. “When you were his friend, you were his friend… If he really liked you, you were his friend for life.”

Eugene was also a hard worker. In high school, he started washing dishes at various restaurants to make money. After graduation, he got a job with a tree service company, then eventually landed at a honey farm in the neighboring town of Artesian. Eugene loved working at the farm, and even after he moved on to other jobs, he often returned to help out when needed.

In 2008, Eugene married Jennifer Gibson and moved to Chicago, and it seemed like he might finally get what he’d always wanted – a family of his own. But the relationship didn’t last long. Pat told The Vanished podcast that Eugene and Jennifer’s marriage was rocky from the start, and the couple soon divorced. But Eugene still loved Jennifer deeply and made it a point to stay in touch with her in the years following their separation. So when Jennifer was tragically murdered, Eugene was devastated.

On August 31, 2016, Jennifer – by then a mother of four – was at her home in Woonsocket when her boyfriend, Matthew Novak, stabbed her fifteen times with a kitchen knife. Earlier that same day, police had been called to the house twice – once when Jennifer called to report that Matthew had pushed her up against a wall, and again when Matthew called to report that Jennifer had kicked him. Both times, officers responded to the scene but did not make any arrests, even though that is common practice with domestic violence calls. Hours later, Jennifer was dead, and Matthew was charged with her murder. He is currently serving out a 40-year prison sentence.

After Jennifer’s tragic death, Eugene struggled with his grief. He became more private, more reserved. He spent most of his free time at home, just himself and his beloved dog, Shadow. Eugene’s brother Colton told KELO, “[He] didn’t go out much, didn’t hang out with anybody; kind of lived his life, went to work, came home, came over to eat. Just kind of lived his life private.”

But the years passed, and eventually Eugene started to seem more like his old self. By early 2020, he was in a much better place. According to Pat, he had just gotten a big raise at work, and he really felt like things were looking up.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020. However, South Dakota mostly stayed open. Governor Kristi Noem told residents that there was little to no risk of infection, mainly due to the state’s low population density, especially in rural areas like Woonsocket. There was no stay-at-home order, only recommendations for residents to take care and limit their social interactions.

So when Eugene left home on Thursday, March 26th, it was pretty much business as usual.

Eugene’s day started with some errands, including a trip to the grocery store where he stocked up on food and supplies. He then met up with his best friend Dan. They had plans to drive to the town of Fedora, 25 miles east of Woonsocket, to return a wood splitter that Eugene had borrowed from another friend. They loaded up Dan’s white pickup truck and headed down state road 34. On the way, they stopped to see Eugene’s brothers. Colton told The Vanished podcast that they were at Tim’s workshop when Eugene and Dan arrived, and everything seemed normal. Eugene told them about the short road trip they were taking and said he would be home later that night.

Eugene and Dan continued to Fedora, where they dropped off the wood splitter. Then, they headed back towards Woonsocket. But instead of going straight home, the pair first stopped in the town of Artesian to talk with a friend, then made another stop in Forestburg to meet up with more friends at a local bar.

According to InForum, other patrons at Doren’s Bar later described Eugene as slightly intoxicated but otherwise fine; typical behavior for someone who’d had a few drinks, but nothing that would cause concern. One patron mentioned that Eugene said he had to get home soon because he had work the next morning.

Surveillance cameras captured Eugene and Dan leaving Doren’s Bar at 7:38pm. After that, the story gets strange.

According to Dan, he and Eugene made one last stop after leaving the bar – a friend’s farm just outside of Woonsocket. Dan left Eugene asleep in the truck while he ran inside, but when he returned just 20 minutes later, Eugene was gone.

Dan said that he went back to the main house to tell his friend what was going on, and she suggested that maybe Eugene had wandered over to the shed; they often partied in there, and Eugene could have gone in to use the bathroom. But Eugene wasn’t there, and by this point, Dan realized he needed more help. He called his girlfriend, and the two of them drove down different back roads from the farm to Woonsocket, looking for Eugene.

Just after 9pm, Dan and his girlfriend showed up at Tim’s workshop. Colton told The Vanished podcast that Dan staggered in with a beer in one hand and a bag of pork rinds in the other, saying that he had lost Eugene somewhere. Dan seemed unbothered by the whole situation, and not long after, his girlfriend drove him home, saying he was too drunk to drive any further.

At first, Tim and Colton thought that Eugene must be playing a prank on them – he could be quite a jokester when he wanted to be. However, they also knew it was not like Eugene to just walk away without telling anyone. The farm where he and Dan had stopped was a good 10 miles from Woonsocket, and the weather was cold that time of year – there was still snow on the ground. It seemed very unlikely that Eugene would have tried to walk home in the dark, even for a prank.

The brothers tried calling Eugene’s cellphone over and over again, but there was no answer. Of course, it was the middle of the night. Maybe Eugene was already home in bed and would be there in the morning with a funny story about where he’d been.

Unfortunately, that did not happen.

The next morning, Dan made a call to Eugene’s family. He told Eugene’s stepdad that Eugene still hadn’t shown up and that he was getting worried. Jeff agreed to go over to Eugene’s trailer and check on him. But when he got there, he knew immediately that something was wrong. Eugene’s car was parked in front, but Jeff could see his wallet was locked inside. The front door of the trailer was locked as well, and Jeff could hear Shadow barking from inside. That alone was enough to set off alarm bells – Eugene would never have left Shadow overnight. It was clear that Eugene had not made it home from the farm. Jeff called Dan back and told him what he’d discovered. Dan said he would drive back to the farm to see if somehow Eugene was still there.

While Dan headed to the farm, Jeff drove around town looking for his stepson. By this time, the rest of the family knew that Eugene was missing, and they began calling friends and posting updates on Facebook, asking if anyone had seen Eugene. But no one had.

By noon, they had called the Sanborn County Sheriff’s Office and reported Eugene missing.

Sheriff’s deputies immediately began searching the farm where Eugene was last known to be. The family joined the search, looking for any sign that might lead them to Eugene. According to Jeff, he and Sheriff Tom Fridley followed a set of footprints for a while, but they didn’t end up leading anywhere. “We continued to walk down the road… probably half a mile… following these footprints that went from the side of the road, they kind of wandered off to the middle, then they kind of wandered back to the side of the road. They never did wander off into the ditch side where the grass and water was. We got about a half mile down the road and then they just stopped.”

The search team checked neighboring farms as well. A patrol plane flew overhead, and they even tried using a drone, but there weren’t any obvious signs that Eugene had been there. It was also raining, and the melting snow made the land marsh-like, which just hampered their search efforts. As night fell, the search was put on hold.

The family was still hopeful that Eugene was out there somewhere. But the next day, the sheriff showed up at their door to say that it was no longer a search and rescue mission – they were now focusing on recovery. Pat told InForum that they weren’t given a reason for this sudden change. “I didn’t think to ask why. I don’t think any of us did.”

But Sheriff Fridley said it was obvious from the start that they wouldn’t find Eugene alive. “We had that conversation with the family pretty early on that it was most likely going to be a recovery.”

After that, the searches slowed. COVID restrictions in South Dakota were getting stricter, and the sheriff’s office just didn’t have the resources to launch a large-scale search effort.

However, Eugene’s family wasn’t giving up. They called other agencies, hoping to drum up interest in Eugene’s case, everyone from the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation to the FBI. His brother Tim even rented two charter planes to search the area where Eugene disappeared. Colton went on local news shows to spread the word. And every day, Pat posted on her Facebook – letters lovingly written to her oldest son, expressing how much she missed him and begging him to come home.

After a year of searching and hoping, the family was frustrated with the lack of movement in Eugene’s case. Sheriff Fridley maintained that there just weren’t any leads to follow, even though the case remained open and active.

In April of 2021, Colton gave an interview with KELO in which he spoke about the emotional journey the family had been on. “Some days I wake up, I’m angry; I’m bitter. Then in an hour, I’m cool, collected, but then I’ll think of something that’s completely random, like a Pink Floyd song will come on, which is Eugene’s favorite band and… I’ll lose it. I’ll start crying… That’s been the way for all of us. It’s kind of been a running thing now — our emotions change hour by hour depending on what is said or what we hear, or even our own thoughts.”

Six months later, the search for Eugene got another boost. In September of 2021, the South Dakota Department of Criminal Investigation brought a team of cadaver dogs to search the farm where Eugene was last seen. According to DCI officials, the dogs alerted on four hay bales, which were then unrolled and processed for evidence, but in the end, they didn’t uncover anything of importance.

After that, the family continued to organize searches and keep Eugene’s story out there, but it was slow going. Then, two and a half years after Eugene disappeared, there was a new discovery.

On August 30, 2022, a local farmer baling hay spotted what he believed to be human remains just a mile and half west of the farm where Eugene was last seen. Authorities responded right away and began processing the scene.

According to InForum, what they found was actually small bone fragments, nothing bigger than a few inches. They weren’t even completely sure what part of the body the bones would have come from, but as Colton told InForum, “From an investigation standpoint, they were thinking those fragments were hand bones.”

Search teams began scouring the immediate area, but they were unable to find any more remains. However, they did find a prepaid Tracfone nearby. According to Colton, they were able to determine that the phone belonged to Eugene, although he wasn’t sure how since the phone had been left outside for over two years. He told InForum, “The bone fragments and phone were found in an area that had been searched over for the last two years. It’s interesting that nobody found them until a farmer was putting some hay up and just happened to see them.”

Although the discovery brought a small measure of hope to Eugene’s family, they still had to wait for answers as the state crime lab processed the evidence. Finally, in March of 2023, they got the news: DNA testing had confirmed that the bone fragments belonged to Eugene.

In a press release, the Sanborn County State’s Attorney’s Office announced that there was no evidence of a crime in the death of Eugene Prins. It seemed as though Eugene had simply wandered away from the truck and succumbed to the elements.

There was a sense of relief that came with the news. Colton told KELO, “My first initial thought was ‘it’s over.’ The years of wondering and running scenarios through my head of ‘is he gonna come back’ or ‘are those his remains they found,’ or questions about what they had found — are over.”

But even with those answers, Eugene’s family still has questions. If Eugene really did just wander off, why did he do it? He was very familiar with the area, but the weather that night was cold and wet – why wouldn’t he have just waited for Dan? Even if he was in a hurry to get home, he could have just asked Dan to wrap up his visit at the farm rather than set out on his own. According to Pat, Eugene knew the people in the house. She told InForum, “It doesn’t make sense why he’d choose to stay in the truck when they’re all friends. It would make sense if it was a house he’d never been to before, but if they were friends, why didn’t he go inside?”

Dan’s story is that he left Eugene in the truck because he was drunk and had fallen asleep. It’s certainly possible, but the family questions just how drunk Eugene could have been. The other patrons at the bar said that Eugene wasn’t overly drunk when he’d left, and the farm was only a few miles down the road from the bar, about a ten-minute drive. It seems unlikely that Eugene would have gotten that much more drunk along the way.

For Eugene’s family, Dan’s story just doesn’t add up. The fact of the matter is that no one other than Dan actually saw Eugene after he left the bar that night. The owner of the farm said she only spoke to Dan, not Eugene, who she believed was asleep in the truck. We only have Dan’s word that Eugene made it to the farm.

Pat told The Vanished podcast that she was frustrated with Dan’s lack of concern over Eugene’s disappearance. “How do you lose a 46-year-old man?” She also told InForum that Dan wasn’t helpful in the search for his best friend. “The first couple days, he went searching with us. Nothing after that. We had a lot of searches — he never came to any of them.”

That being said, Dan was questioned by law enforcement, and Sheriff Fridley confirmed that he passed a polygraph exam. He has never been named a suspect, and the sheriff’s office maintains that there was no foul play involved in Eugene’s death.

And that seems to be the end of it. Jeff told InForum, “Unless there was foul play, and somebody comes forward and admits to doing it, we’ll never know what happened. There’s not enough evidence, there’s not enough theory, there’s not enough push.”

As it stands now, Eugene’s case sits on the shelf. Unless someone has new information to propel it forward, his death will remain a mystery. His family and friends mourn his loss but keep his memory alive. Every day, Pat posts a new letter to her son, telling him about her day and reminding him how much she misses him. Every day she signs off, “I love you son Always and Forever.”

If you have any information about the death of Eugene Prins, please contact the Sanborn County Sheriff’s Office at 605-796-4511.