The Mystery of Montana’s Toilet Man

A man who jumped into a vault toilet to retrieve his phone—and was stuck inside for hours—proved more difficult than expected to track down.

Last week, a striking image appeared on Reddit’s r/WellThatSucks forum. The photo, taken from a voyeuristic angle by someone standing outside of a rural concrete outhouse, shows a man protruding out of a hole in the ground inside, resting on his elbows with the rest of him dangling out of sight underground, very obviously too large to shimmy out of this hole on his own. His face has been mercifully censored with a black scribble. A pile of denim—presumably every piece of clothing this man had on his body before taking a dive—is hooked to the back of the open door. 

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The photo’s caption tells the story: “Guy dropped his phone into a pit toilet. Decided to take his clothes off and dive in. Got stuck and wasn’t found until the next day. He never got the phone.” 

Posted by Reddit user BozoTheTown, the since-deleted photo gained almost 50,000 upvotes, several awards given by other users (including the Wholesome Award and, inexplicably, the Helpful Award), and 1,500 comments ripping on this poor man’s predicament. 

“Not my photo. But the photo and story have been circling around my small community for the last few days. I believe this happened on Friday or Saturday,” BozoTheTown wrote in the comments. “I’ve only heard details through friends of friends so accuracy is not guaranteed. But I understand cooking oil was involved.” 

When people fall into outhouses and can’t get out, it makes the news—like when a woman fell headfirst into a vault toilet in April near Washington’s Olympic National Park trying to retrieve her phone—but this man seemed to escape the situation with only one incriminating, viral photo by a pseudonymous shitposter to show for it. 

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I messaged BozoTheTown to see if they could send me in the right direction to try to learn more about what happened, but didn’t hear back. I assumed, from some of the comments mentioning Montana, plus their username, that the small community they referenced being abuzz with the gossip of Toilet Man might be near Bozeman, Montana. 

Taking their original caption as the first lead in this saga, I could infer a few things. This guy probably wasn’t in a “pit” toilet, but a vault toilet; pit toilets require sawdust to cover and process waste, and aren’t very good for use on public lands—they need to be emptied more often, and you have to trust the public to reliably cover their shit after use. Pit toilets are also more shallow, and a grown man could reasonably stand up and climb out of one. Vault toilets, however, are huge on the inside, usually at least five feet deep, and because they hold more volume and are more permanent, they’re often used on US Forest Service land. Also, if this was near Bozeman, and this guy was in there for 24 hours, he might not have survived: It was nearly 90 degrees in the area every day on the weekend OP claims the photo was taken, and this outhouse is clearly made of concrete or some other stone, with little ventilation and direct exposure to the sun all day. For comparison, rescuers said that the woman who fell into a similar toilet near Olympic National Park was “extremely fortunate not to be overcome by toxic gasses or sustain injury,” and she was only down there for about an hour. 

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Bozo’s story was already falling apart, but the photographic evidence couldn’t lie.

Motherboard senior reporter Joseph Cox, who specializes in opsec and tracking down otherwise impossible to find people and places, examined the photo for clues. Cox looked at all of the Google Image search results for 'vault toilet Montana' and looked for matches. He then searched Google Maps with a similar term and viewed each result on Google Street View to see if any compared to the original photo, but most of these were much bigger than the one in question, he said. He then tried Yelp and official park agency maps in Montana, but couldn’t locate the elusive toilet.

Still coming up short, I started emailing the image to fire, police, and public safety offices, going virtually door-to-door across southern Montana to try to find out more about this anonymous hero’s predicament. 

I started with the Gallatin County sheriff’s office, which would encompass the city of Bozeman, because I imagine the first thing an unsuspecting person might do if they opened a park toilet door and saw a nude, shit-covered man stuck in the ground up to his nips would be to call the cops. The sheriff’s office did not respond. 

I also tried the Bozeman city police department; Police Chief Jim Veltkamp told me that if it was in the area, it wasn’t them that responded. “The background and restroom are definitely not located in our City,” he said. “I also don’t immediately recognize the terrain in the background.” 

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Next I tried the Bozeman fire department; when someone’s stuck in something (cats in trees, kids in claw machines, etcetera) I assume that’s who’s typically called in to unstick them. Bozeman Fire Captain Josh Charles told me that “this event was not associated with the City of Bozeman or any of our response agencies that we are aware of so we have no further information.” He did, however, title the subject of his email “USFS toilet incident.” A useful clue that perhaps suggested he knew more than he was letting on: This was potentially within the US Forest Service’s purview.   

Before I received Charles’ answer, however, I tried the contact form on the City of Bozeman website. A spokesperson who responded there gave me a new lead: They said that the vault toilet looks like “ones that are all over public fishing access, camping, etc. sites all over Montana,” and suggested Three Forks or Ennis fire departments, nearby areas that are more rural. 

A spokesperson at Three Forks said they hadn’t heard of this incident and couldn’t identify the toilet from the photo—none of the Three Forks public toilets have the same handicap sign, or the sage brush that’s in the background of the photo, they said. But they had more clues to share. “That could be anywhere in Montana really: Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Headwaters State Park – both have sage brush around the area but that looks pretty dense to me in that picture,” they said. “And both are pretty popular parks that I don’t think would have a whole 24 hour period without someone using the toilet.” So, I could rule those out. 

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As for Ennis, no one at that fire department recognized the location, either, according to the assistant chief who replied to my email (and who, I assume, showed it to everyone in the station). 

Sometime during the week I spent contacting half of southern Montana, and after I and Cox both tried contacting them for help, BozoTheTown deleted the original post without explanation. Another lead, gone cold. I started to doubt I’d ever find this man, slippery and elusive as he was, hiding from me just out of reach in his toilet hovel.  

I moved on to email the Billings Interagency Dispatch Center, a part of the US Department of the Interior for the state of Montana that’s responsible for fire dispatch (among other things). Someone there forwarded my request to the public affairs department for the Bureau of Land Management's Eastern Montana office, who said in an email to me, “That's a great pic!” and valiantly forwarded it to 10 other people within the nearby BLM system to see if anyone recognized it, with the message, “Would you go swimming in $#%^ to retrieve YOUR phone?”

Finally, five days after this hunt began, a hit: Someone at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ southwest Montana region replied on Friday, and said they recognized the photo. “Turns out it's our site - Fish Trap Creek FAS on the Big Hole River,” wrote Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' southwestern region. According to the FWP website for southwest Montana, this region has 95 fishing access sites and 26 percent of all of Montana's angling takes place in the region. This man was a shit-covered needle in a very big haystack.

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I screamed internally for several minutes after seeing Jacobsen’s email—of course our champion got stuck at the Big Hole River—then calmed myself to request more details.  

It turns out that this rescue was an off-books job, and the information Jacobsen had was from someone who called his office to report that the door handle of the toilet was damaged in the process of rescuing this fella. He’d locked it from the inside—as one does before getting totally naked and hopping six feet into a toilet chamber—and they had to break it down to get in and pull him out.

“A man dropped his phone in the latrine. He then undressed, removed the toilet and climbed in to retrieve it,” Jacobsen told me this person relayed to him. “He was unable to climb out and was stuck for about three hours (not overnight) until a few other people came along and were able to help him. They had to damage the door handle to get inside. They lowered a camp chair into the vault that the man stood on to climb out.” 

The staff at southwest Montana’s FWP weren’t involved in the rescue, Jacobsen said, but they did visit the site early last week to fix the toilet. 

The only missing component to this story, now, is our intrepid friend’s firsthand account of his harrowing three hours in the toilet. If you have information on the identity of Montana’s toilet diver, please get in touch; I’d love to talk to you.

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