Up to this point, The Bollard’s investigation into the mysterious disappearance and death of Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Geraldine “Gerry” Largay has focused on what the Maine Warden Service did — or failed to do — in the weeks following her vanishing in July 2013. But there’s another side to the story that may be equally significant: the account of what Largay did, or failed to do, to be found.
In “M.I.A. on the A.T.: Evasion” (January 2016), we shared a tip we received that Largay had kept a journal during her hike that was found with her remains. The journal, according to our source, indicated that she was alive at that site for as long as 19 days. By the wardens’ own account of their search, the first time a team got close to the site was Aug. 8, 16 days after Largay was reported missing.
The wardens have been tight-lipped about any details that suggest Largay was lost in the woods for a significant amount of time. For example, they refused to confirm or deny reports that Largay kept a journal or had a tent, even during private meetings late last year with members of volunteer search-and-rescue organizations that participated in the effort, which has been described as the largest and longest search in Maine history.
On Jan. 28, Bollard editor Chris Busby revealed, in his column for the Bangor Daily News, that Largay did have a tent, a fact contained in the report on her death issued by the state medical examiner’s office. The revelation sparked renewed public interest in the case, but was met with continued silence by the Warden Service.
The Bollard can now also report with certainty that Largay kept a journal during her hike. Excerpts from the journal were provided by the Largay family to a media organization in Tennessee, where the Largays previously resided. The typed transcript of Gerry’s handwritten journal entries given to the press covered a time period that ended in early July 2013, about two weeks before Gerry went missing. The entries themselves are unremarkable, and contain no details that shed light on the events that followed, according to a reporter who’s read them.
Reporters are hardly the only people who’ve felt frustrated by the Warden Service’s handling of the Largay case, which made national news at the time and was featured on an episode of the reality television show North Woods Law. Numerous civilian volunteers who participated in the search effort that summer have shared their frustrations and concerns with us regarding the way wardens organized and conducted the search.
Speaking off the record, in deference to the ongoing working relationship these civilian groups have with state authorities, the volunteer searchers all voiced similar complaints. Wardens refused to share basic details with them during the search, such as whether Largay had a tent, what color the tent was, and other basic information that could have been helpful. Wardens also either failed or refused to inform volunteer searchers of which areas had already been searched, leading the civilians to believe they wasted many valuable hours looking in places that had already been covered.
Largay’s body was found about half a mile from the A.T.. and about 30 yards off an old logging road that’s clearly marked on maps. The volunteers found the wardens’ excuse for not searching the logging road sooner — a lack of trained, fit people capable of walking this “challenging” terrain — especially galling.
As we pointed out in “Evasion,” the area where the remains were found is not steep or otherwise treacherous to traverse — which is why the logging road was cut through that area in the first place. The volunteer searchers are trained and physically fit, but none of those we spoke with knew of any effort by wardens to recruit a team to search the logging road, which enters highly restricted Navy property.
There’s an intriguing word in the medical examiner’s report. That report lists Largay’s cause of death as “inanition.” It’s an obscure word that has two related meanings. One is simply a synonym for starvation, the physical emptiness and exhaustion of the body. The other meaning, listed first in sources such as The New Oxford American Dictionary, is “lack of mental or spiritual vigor and enthusiasm.” The example that dictionary provides reads, “she was thinking that old age bred inanition.”
According to a credible source involved in the search, that is the meaning that explains what happened to Largay. She lost the will to live.
Citing remarks made within the past few months by a member of the Warden Service to civilian volunteers who’ve been clamoring for answers, this source said Largay had stopped taking a prescription medication shortly before she got lost. The brand name of the medication was not shared with the source, but the drug is in the class of chemicals known as benzodiazepines; “benzos,” for short. Common drugs containing the compound include Valium, Xanax and Ativan, all of which are widely prescribed to treat anxiety.
The withdrawal symptoms associated with benzo drugs are numerous and dangerous, and the risk greatly increases if usage is ceased abruptly, as is believed to have been the case for Largay, according to this source. Rapid-withdrawal symptoms include confusion, delusions, psychosis, suicidal ideation and suicide.
The Bollard was not able to confirm this source’s account with the Largay family or state authorities, none of whom are commenting to the press at this time. This publication is still awaiting documents requested from the Warden Service under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act in early November, including a full accounting of items found at the site of the remains and the Warden Service’s final report on this case. The Office of Chief Medical Examiner has not responded to numerous requests for comment or clarification on the report they released in January.
It’s not inconceivable that a hiker on a long journey out of state could run out of a prescription medication and fail to get it refilled in a timely manner. One must also keep in mind that Gerry Largay did not anticipate being on the trail longer than three days when she left her husband George on July 21. She planned to meet up with him again on July 23 for some rest and to resupply.
The symptoms associated with benzo withdrawal could explain many of the deepest mysteries associated with this case, beginning with how or why Largay wandered off the A.T. in the first place. The heavily travelled trail is well marked in the woods where she vanished. As we noted in January’s installment, Largay’s former hiking partner said she had a very poor sense of direction, a problem that could have been exacerbated by confusion caused by withdrawal.
There’s also a question many readers have asked us since our coverage began: Why didn’t Largay build a fire to signal rescuers? She was known to be carrying a camp stove and fuel tablets, and is assumed to have had a lighter or matches. She gathered pine needles to build a sleeping platform of sorts beneath her tent and sleeping bag, according to the medical examiner’s report. Why do that and not collect combustibles to light a fire? There’s been no evidence presented to indicate there was a fire pit at what the medical examiner described as her “campsite.”
As previously noted, that campsite was only about half a mile from the A.T. and much closer to a side trail, the old logging road, that intersects with the A.T. twice. It’s mystifying how a hiker with Gerry’s extensive training and experience could not have found her way back to the A.T. She could have simply followed one of several brooks nearby downhill, to where it met Oberton Stream, which she crossed shortly before she left the trail, according to data the wardens collected using her cell phone. (The phone is another tool she seems not to have used to alert rescuers, though reception is bad in that area.)
The site she chose for her campsite, atop a small hill or knoll, was protected from the elements, but not easily seen from the old logging road. Trees also obscured the view from above, where numerous aircraft searched for her. The medical examiner’s report estimated that the canopy above her campsite covered about 75 percent of the area from view.
Our source said the journal contains entries indicating that Largay was aware the aircraft were looking for her, and also heard the dog team that came close to her campsite on Aug. 8, but was either unable or unwilling to respond.
Again, this theory is as yet unconfirmed, but it answers a lot of thorny questions, including the way wardens have handled the case since the remains were discovered last October. If, as we believe, the wardens recovered the journal at the site and read it, they would know Largay was at the campsite for nearly three weeks, enough time to die of starvation, thirst and exposure, just as they said. They would know, by her own personal account, that there was no “foul play” involved and no reason to ask Navy officials about activities happening on the base that week — just like they said during the press conference in October.
(Granted, there’s also the unsettling possibility that Largay heard the training while sheltering at her campsite inside the base that first week. We know from previously published accounts of SERE trainees and other sources that loud “recordings” of gunfire are used to simulate weapons fire during the mock capture and rescue of SERE trainees, along with all the shouting and yelling one might expect to hear from scores of people during such simulations. If Largay, unaware this type of unconventional training was taking place, heard such things, hiding from helicopters and dogs and people could be a rational response to the situation.)
Ultimately, none of this absolves the Warden Service of the responsibility it had to locate Largay in a timely fashion, especially given her proximity to well-known trails. When wardens found the journal and read through it, their response was, “Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit,” our source said. If that source is correct, then Largay was alive for four or five days after official search efforts were significantly scaled back in early August.
There’s profound tragedy in such a realization, but also, one suspects, a strong desire to keep that revelation from the public, not least because it would reflect poorly on the wardens’ management of the search. As more civilians involved in that search speak out, it becomes less possible to keep the truth of what happened to Gerry Largay buried in state government files. And we’re determined to keep digging.