Eugene Prins still missing after 3 years, family fears 'We will never know what happened to him'
The strange disappearance of South Dakota man nicknamed 'Beaner' remains unsolved.
WOONSOCKET, S.D. — Almost three years ago, Eugene Prins went missing after a short-road trip with a longtime friend.
His friend made it home that night.
Today, Prins' whereabouts still remain unknown.
On March 26, 2020, 45-year-old Eugene "Beaner" Prins went grocery shopping. According to his mother, Pat Scholtes, he "bought hundreds of dollars" worth of groceries. He stopped at the shop he and his brothers worked at to tell them he had an errand to run, that he needed to drop off some equipment he'd been lent, and that he was going with one of his closest friends, with whom they were all familiar.
Prins was dressed in a grey sweatshirt, khaki pants, and his signature black, wire-framed glasses. He left his beloved dog locked in his house and his I.D. and wallet in his car.
He told his brothers that it was a short trip, but that he would be back that night.
Prins left in his friend's vehicle, an early-2000s white Dodge pickup. They made it to their destination and stopped at bar in Forestburg, South Dakota, on their way back to Woonsocket, South Dakota.
Bar-goers described Prins' behavior prior to his departure as slightly intoxicated, but that he seemingly had his wits about him. One even noted that they overheard him saying about the fact that he needed to get back as he had to work in the morning.
Prins was captured on video surveillance leaving at approximately 7:38 p.m.
From there, the family said that the friend — who has gone unnamed to the public due to fear of his retaliation — explained to them that they made a quick pit-stop at a mutual friend's farm, located a few miles east of Woonsocket. The friend left Prins in the truck.
When he returned about 20 minutes later, Eugene Prins had vanished.
According to Colton Hotchkiss, Eugene's youngest brother, the friend arrived at the shop sometime before midnight without Prins. The friend, with a bag of pork rinds and beer in hand, was seemingly unbothered as he explained that he didn't know his best friend's whereabouts.
Prins' brothers both tried calling him. No answer. It wasn't like him to not let them know where he was, let alone not answer his phone.
Authorities immediately went to work searching the farm and the area surrounding it. Light rain and marshy conditions made for a tough search, and authorities quickly realized that the search was beyond just their abilities.
From search to recovery
By mid-morning the next day, Eugene Prins' mother said that the authorities arrived at her door to inform her this was no longer a search and rescue mission — it was a recovery.
No reason was given as to why the investigation went from a search and rescue to recovery, according Scholtes.
"I didn't think to ask why," Scholtes said. "I don't think any of us did."
According to Sanborn County Sheriff Tom Fridley, who became aware of the situation nearly 17 hours later, "it was fairly early on" that the search became a recovery, though he was unable to confirm dates.
"We had that conversation with the family pretty early on that it was most likely going to be a recovery," Fridley confirmed via a phone interview.
With little information and few ways to obtain it, the family struggled. Oftentimes, Sholtes recalled, they felt discouraged by authorities constant denial that Prins' disappearance seemed strange at best.
"They told us they didn't have the resources, and then COVID hit," Scholtes recalled, noting that, basically overnight, the search for Prins was called off.
Despite this, Scholtes and the rest of her family fought tooth and nail to bring their son and brother home. According to Scholtes, Eugene's eldest brother called every government agency for whom he could find contact information, from the state Division of Criminal Investigation to the FBI. He even went as far as renting two charter planes to perform aerial searches of the farm where he was last seen.
“Beaner lived about a block and a half away from us,” Scholtes said, describing Prins as a very happy-go-lucky type of person who was extremely close to both his family and friends, and, though sometimes quiet and shy, had an impeccably unique sense of humor. She also noted that she hadn't known him to have ever struggled with mental health problems.
As a mother, she described his disappearance as an emotional, three-year-long nightmare.
“I've been on this emotional rollercoaster for three years,” Scholtes described, wiping a stray tear away. “We’re going on three years with no more answers than what we started with. And it still doesn’t feel real.”
Bone fragments, phone found
Scholtes recalled that, in the fall of 2022, it seemed like all the family's questions would soon be answered when a farmer found what looked like human remains a few miles away from the area where Prins was last seen. The farmer contacted authorities, who quickly got to work under the assumption that the bone fragments found belonged to Prins.
“When that happened, officials were afraid that rumor was going to get out — which it did — so they came to us and told us what they’d found and that they were going to go out and do another search,” Jeff Hotchkiss, Prins' stepfather, recalled. “Upon the following search (after they'd found the bones), they found a phone in the same area."
"There were no findings of bigger bones. From what we understand, the small, fragment bones – they couldn’t even tell us what they were for sure… what part…” Jeff Hotchkiss trailed off, overcome with emotion.
“From an investigation standpoint, they were thinking those fragments were hand bones,” Colton Hotchkiss noted, finishing his father's thought.
“At that point, they didn’t find (anything else) — no leg bones or nothing — and called and said to us, ‘unless somebody calls again, we’re done,’” Jeff Hotchkiss said. “Which tells me, they don’t think he’s there. It just doesn’t make sense, to find those things and then just give up and not do anything else."
Another odd detail, Colton Hotchkiss explained, was that the Tracfone flip-phone was identified as belonging to Prins despite being exposed to the elements for over a year and a half.
“The bone fragments and phone were found in an area that had been searched over for the last two years,” Colton Hotckiss noted. “It’s interesting that nobody found them until a farmer was putting some hay up and just happened to see them.”
Despite the finding, however, the bones weren't all that helpful to the investigation, as investigators couldn't pull enough evidence from them to prove that they belonged to Prins.
“(Investigators) said they couldn’t get any DNA off the bone fragments they found,” Scholtes explained. “But they found some skin fragments on the phone that they were going to try to re-hydrate and maybe try to get his DNA off that. They found it in the same area they think he disappeared in.”
The last they'd heard of the bone fragments and phone were that they'd been shipped to separate testing locations in October of 2022, and that results — if any were available — would come within six to nine months.
'We'll never know'
The family has gone in circles with theories, desperate for answers, with theories ranging from potential drug usage gone wrong, or Prins possibly getting lost trying to find his way home to suspected foul play.
"It doesn't make sense why he'd choose to stay in the truck when they're all friends," Scholtes noted. "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?"
Authorities and the family have briefly skimmed over the idea that drugs were involved. Prins was not a known drug user at the time of his disappearance. However, he had been arrested in the '90s for possession of marijuana, but, according to his family, drugs were not a recent issue prior to his disappearance.
Another theory that crossed their minds was that he potentially lost his way in the dark, and, with the light rain and nearly freezing temperatures in the area that night, he could have potentially succumbed to hypothermia.
However, with no evidence and the extreme lack of information the family faces, their theories will remain just that: theories.
“Unless there was foul play, and somebody comes forward and admits to doing it, we’ll never know what happened,” Jeff Hotchkiss said with a sigh. “There’s not enough evidence, there’s not enough theory, there’s not enough push.”
According to Sheriff Fridley, the mysterious case of Eugene Prins' disappearance is anything but.
"We believe he wanted out," Fridley said, noting that authorities believe there's a possibility that Prins could have attempted suicide. "He wanted out and it's our belief that he succumbed to the elements."
Fridley also noted that there is no suspicion of foul play, and that, until more evidence surfaces, his theory will remain as such.
"We don't intend on conducting any more searches unless more evidence were to arise," Fridley said.
This could explain the lack of further response from law enforcement. However, according to Prins' mother, authorities have never mentioned that they believe Prins attempted or completed suicide, stating in an email, "They have never mentioned anything like that once."
Search continues for family
For Eugene's family, the search is far from over.
“The leading issue in this (for us) is that nobody’s stories are adding up,” Colton Hotchkiss said, which, he noted, could potentially stem from Prins' friend's alleged lack of response to the entire ordeal.
According to the Prins’ family, the friend has had little-to-no contact with them besides the first couple of days of Prins' disappearance back in 2020.
“The first couple days, he went searching with us. Nothing after that,” Scholtes said. “We had a lot of searches — he never came to any of them.”
The friend's only explanation offered of what happened the night that Prins disappeared was that he "was too drunk to remember anything."
According to a more recent encounter with said friend, he informed Jeff Hotchkiss that he'd passed a polygraph test administered by authorities for the investigation, which was later confirmed by Sheriff Fridley.
Despite this, the family refuses to give up until Prins is found.
“I told the DCI guy when they found those bone fragments, I said, ‘I’m not gonna settle for that and you [expletive] know it,’” Scholtes said.
“I lost all of my son. I want all of him back.”