When You Find My Body: The Disappearance of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail
Down East Books
I’ve gotta hand it to Denis “Dee” Dauphinee. His new book about the 2013 disappearance of Appalachian Trail hiker Gerry Largay is bad — maudlin, plodding, sycophantic and, arguably, exploitative — but it finally solves one of the biggest mysteries in Maine.
Dauphinee, an experienced back-country guide who participated in the massive manhunt for Largay, provides a simple explanation why the 66-year-old grandmother wandered into the woods and died weeks later camped atop a hill roughly 2,000 feet from the A.T. It’s an explanation that jibes with anecdotes and evidence Hutch Brown and I collected during our five-part investigative series on the Largay case, “M.I.A. on the A.T.,” back in 2015 and ’16.
Despite all the time and effort Hutch and I spent trying to figure out what happened and why, we never reached the commonsense conclusion contained in Dauphinee’s book, When You Find My Body. More disturbingly, it seems none of the hundreds of wardens, cops, fellow hikers, hunters and other volunteers involved in the weeks-long search did, either.
There’s a reason we all blew it, and that reason itself is deeply unsettling, but we’ll get to that at the end. Unlike the author, who buries his revelation as an afterthought deep in the final chapter, I won’t make you wait for it.
Gerry Largay died because she thought her cell phone would save her life.
After leaving the trail to heed nature’s call on a sunny Monday morning in late July, Largay, who was hiking alone, lost her sense of direction. (These episodes of near-total disorientation had been happening with increasing frequency in the months before she vanished, but that fact wasn’t made public until well after her remains were recovered.)
By the end of that first week, searchers had combed both sides of the A.T., as well as the streams and old logging roads that intersect the trail along the section Largay was travelling. Wardens told the teams of volunteer searchers to “think like a hiker.” That turned out to be the wrong advice.
When lost, experienced hikers know to follow a brook or stream until it leads to a river or a road. An older, less physically fit hiker like Gerry would presumably prefer paths on level ground. Hikers who are injured or otherwise unfit to bushwhack are advised to stay put, take shelter, build a signal fire, blow their emergency whistle, and take other steps to signal rescuers.
Largay trained and extensively prepared for her first thru-hike of the A.T, and had completed nearly 1,000 miles before that fateful day. But she didn’t think like a hiker when she got lost. She thought like the person she also was, a suburban housewife with bad cellphone reception, and that’s the way she behaved.
Largay climbed the highest ridge she could in the vicinity, hoping to get better reception, and tried to text for help. Other than periodic attempts to send more texts, there’s little evidence she did much else to signal rescuers during the final three, or possibly four, weeks of her life.
Had wardens made it a priority to search all the high ground in the area where she disappeared, it seems certain they soon would have found her. A call placed to her phone the afternoon she got lost was not received, but it produced a ping that, using cell-tower data, indicated her general location. Her body was found about a mile from that ping’s coordinates.
Reading back through our coverage of the case, I found numerous clues pointing toward the answer. The cell phone wasn’t an accessory that Largay carried on her journey to occasionally connect with loved ones. It was a crucial tool she used throughout each day to keep her husband, George Largay, appraised of her progress. George was following his wife in an SUV, meeting up with her at trailheads every two or three days to provide supplies and find lodging so she could rest and clean up.
The Largays had a “communication protocol” by which “Gerry would text George every couple hours at mile points” to update him on her location, according to an article in the Brentwood Home Page, an online news site that serves the suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, where the couple had roots. Around 11 a.m. on the morning she got lost, Gerry texted George to ask for help, but the message was not received. When the phone was recovered from her tent-site years later, authorities discovered she’d tried to resend that text to her husband 10 times over the next 90 minutes, to no avail.
The next day, July 23, at 4:18 p.m., Gerry attempted to send a text to George that read, “Lost since yesterday. Off trail 3 or 4 miles. Call police for what to do pls. Xox.” She didn’t try to send that text again until the afternoon of July 27. What wardens described as the “last four unsent texts” were written a week later, on July 30. And two texts were “deleted” by Gerry on Aug. 6, by which time she’d spent over two weeks alone in the forest.
On page 162 of Dauphinee’s book (14 pages shy of the end), the truth finally comes out, courtesy of a casual remark made by Doug Comstock, the author’s friend and assistant on this project. Dauphinee and Comstock and a third man are camped on the Railroad Road, an old logging trail that runs along a major stream not far from where Largay’s body was found.
“I remember at the time the search was going on, the investigators pretty easily ruled out all but two possible scenarios,” Dauphinee said to his companions. Largay had either fallen into a crevice and died, or she “simply wandered throughout the forests and dug herself into some remote, difficult spot, which of course we now know was accurate.”
“This technology — it can be a problem,” Comstock replied. “She worked so hard to find cell service, and, not finding it, she had to fall back on survival skills. Which we know weren’t there. It’s heart-wrenching. If she’s just followed one of the friggin’ brooks, she’d have walked right to here. Or to the navy property. Either direction, she’d have been found.”
Ah yes, the infamous navy property.
Readers of the Bollard series know Largay went missing along the short stretch of the A.T. that borders a secret base run by the U.S. Navy. Called a SERE School (the acronym stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), the controversial program teaches military personnel how to survive in the wild, evade capture, resist torture while in enemy hands, and “escape” confinement.
In the fall of 2015, Largay’s body was discovered by a land surveyor inside the borders of the roughly 12,500-acre SERE facility, which is off-limits to unauthorized civilians. Although some members of a search-and-rescue team associated with the SERE School — known as D.B.A.P., for Don’t Be A “Problem” (or, more likely, a less politically correct P-word) — helped look for Largay, there’s little indication the Navy itself did much of anything to find the former Air Force nurse who’d wandered onto their property.
The military failed to act even when it became clear that: 1.) Largay’s disappearance was a very extraordinary case (98 percent of people lost in the Maine woods are found within 24 hours of being reported missing), 2.) it happened in their proverbial backyard, and 3.) the Maine Warden Service lacked enough able-bodied volunteers to cover all the areas they wanted to search.
The day after Largay was reported missing, over 40 SERE students arrived at the base, and the trainings typically include as many as 30 SERE staff. So perhaps 70 or more physically fit adults, including a squad of highly trained search-and-rescue professionals, conducted their war game as usual that week and into the next, separated from Largay’s campsite by what a SERE officer later described to us as a “significant ridgeline.” In other words, although they weren’t near the spot where Largay suffered for weeks, they weren’t very far away.
Dauphinee pussyfoots around the most notorious aspects of SERE training. In his overview of the program, he describes the survival and evasion parts, but leaves out the other half of the ordeal. That half includes a mock P.O.W. camp and, for a top-secret program, a fairly well-documented history of physical and psychological torture techniques applied to the trainees there, including waterboarding, beatings, forcing prisoners to maintain “stress positions” for long periods of time, and stuffing them into coffin-like boxes. The sole reference to torture appears toward the end of the book, in a quote from a Bollard article, as if Hutch and I are the only ones claiming torture takes place there.
The Bollard reported comments by the warden leading the search, Lt. Kevin Adam, and the officer in charge of this SERE School at the time, Sheldon Prosser, that demonstrate a clear lack of communication or coordination. For example, Prosser told us he learned of Largay’s disappearance by reading about it in a newspaper, and Lt. Adam couldn’t recall ever informing SERE personnel about the hiker’s disappearance. Prosser said the training went on as usual, and the students weren’t asked if they’d seen any sign of Largay while they were running around the woods inside the base. (To do so would have compromised the war game, which, based on past accounts of the program, typically involves extensive role-playing by staff who pretend to be hostile forces during the training.)
Both Prosser and Lt. Adam claimed they’d never heard of D.B.A.P. when The Bollard asked them about the search-and-rescue (SAR) group in 2015. D.B.A.P. was the first search group on the list of SAR organizations posted on the website of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue at the time. Kenneth Riendeau, the contact person for D.B.A.P., told us his group facilitated access to the Navy property for other searchers, but got testy and hung up when Hutch asked about the mock P.O.W. camp, so we learned nothing more from him.
When the Warden Service’s full report on the case was released in the spring of 2016 — in response to a Freedom of Access Act request filed by The Bollard and other news organizations — Hutch and I scoured it for evidence that any Navy personnel took part in the manhunt. We found a handful of references to “SERE guys” and “DBAP members” conducting searches, but no evidence the Navy was formally involved in the effort.
Dauphinee spoke with Lieutenant Commander J.D. Walker, an officer working at the SERE School back then, who said private “contractors” at the base “continued to search for Gerry” the week she disappeared. Walker “wanted to search for her himself but knew that would be impossible,” Dauphinee wrote.
The reason why that wasn’t possible is not provided, but the clear implication is that the war game was considered more important than locating an American (and military veteran) who was actually in danger in the area. Walker “encouraged” the “men under his command” to “look for Gerry when not actively teaching and supervising students,” Dauphinee wrote.
Dauphinee doesn’t share our concern that the Navy didn’t do more to help. To the contrary, he gives voice to Navy personnel who claim, incredibly, that The Bollard’s reporting on the case, which began two years after Largay’s death, somehow hampered efforts to save her. “Words won’t replace the raw emotion I feel when people like [the Bollard author] impede success for personal gain,” Senior Chief Dennis Haug — a SERE guy, and the third man camping with Comstock and the author that night — told Dauphinee. “The Bollard article is a piece that demonstrates artistic freedom from an author who obviously never purposed himself for the betterment of the situation,” Haug continued. “Instead of grabbing his boots, putting on a pack, and volunteering to look for Gerry, he chose to condemn the very people who did so anonymously.”
“There’s nothing ‘sinister’ about the SERE school or any other training facility in the navy,” Haug added. “These same sailors, marines, civilians, and contractors the Bollard articles accused are dedicated men and women. We’re serving, dammit! We cared about Gerry, and we cared about her family. All the Bollard seemed to do was make up shit … How is that helping?”
Dauphinee characterizes The Bollard’s reporting as a “conspiracy theory” that “stirred emotions and ran the risk of being counterproductive.” He takes us to task after detailing numerous efforts by wardens to follow up on “leads” provided by psychics during the search. The Warden Service also had to accommodate the crew of the reality show North Woods Law, who filmed the tragedy as it unfolded for cable TV.
If we lived in a country where there was no history of our military lying to the public with grave consequences, and no record of soldiers and private contractors going off script and harming civilians, that’d be a fair criticism. Dauphinee seems to live in this imaginary nation.
But history — from “Remember the Maine!” to the Gulf of Tonkin to the Tailhook scandal to the Iraq War — repeatedly proves him a stooge. When a sailor freaked out and escaped the Maine SERE School in the 1970s, telling members of a hippie commune he encountered that he’d been tortured, everyone from the Navy brass to Sen. Margaret Chase Smith called the reporter who wrote about the incident a liar. In fact, the Navy had been hiding the existence and true purpose of the base for over a decade prior to that escape.
There’s another big wrinkle in the Largay case that Dauphinee tries to smooth over: Gerry was on two powerful anti-anxiety medications when she went missing, and almost certainly suffered the nightmarish effects of abrupt withdrawal when her supply ran out. Dauphinee describes the drugs Ativan and Lexapro as harmless sleep-aids that Largay probably didn’t need anyway, on the theory that hiking would’ve sufficiently tired her out each night.
Her doctor, and the Warden Service, had a very different opinion. Her physician told Warden Phillip Dugas that Largay “had a long term issue with anxiety” and “she would be very susceptible to anxiety and panic” without her meds, especially the Lexapro. Dugas’ handwritten notes allude to a med Largay had been taking since 2005. “Been on, too long,” Dugas wrote.
The horrific, debilitating symptoms people experience when they abruptly stop taking drugs like Ativan and Lexapro have been thoroughly documented. People of Largay’s age who also, like her, have been on these meds far longer than is recommended, are especially susceptible to adverse reactions when they go cold turkey.
Dauphinee, determined to paint Largay as a saintly survivor, acknowledges those withdrawal symptoms are real, but criticizes The Bollard for suggesting they inhibited her ability to function when she got lost. “Gerry’s predicament was not pharmacological …. It was psychological,” he wrote. “It would have come down to three things: lost-person behavior, decision making (she did not know what to do if lost), and the effects of hunger and exposure — all of which were connected.”
There were clear signs at the makeshift campsite that Largay, who was also afraid of the dark, was not in her right mind during those harrowing final weeks. Chief among these is the fact there was no evidence she’d made a rational attempt to build a signal fire — no fire pit, for example, despite being surrounded by lots of dry brush and dead wood. Largay had lighters and matches, which she appears to have used to try to ignite the trunks of three dead trees (two of which were still standing) near her tent.
That’s evidence of something worse than poor “decision making.” I don’t believe Largay forgot how to build a campfire, or decided it would be safer to try to torch standing trees. Yes, people do dumb shit when they’re delirious with hunger, but Largay had at least a couple days’ worth of food when she set up that campsite, and she should have had both the strength and the presence of mind to accomplish a task most Girl and Boy Scouts can complete with ease.
Instead of building a signal fire, Largay wrote text messages and goodbye notes in her journal to loved ones. Dauphinee takes the title of his book from the one journal entry that was made public.
The first installment of The Bollard’s series did emphasize questions regarding what role, if any, the presence of a secret Navy “torture school” played in Largay’s disappearance. We found it troubling that the wardens, as well as our colleagues in the mainstream media, thought the SERE School’s close proximity to the place where she vanished was so unremarkable as to be unworthy of mention.
No members of Largay’s family are directly quoted in Dauphinee’s reporting, and he got no special access to her journal, so the bookadds little to what’s already been published about the case. Since we all know how the story ends, the book lacks any narrative tension or suspense. It takes some nerve for a dude who’s profiting from a book called When You Find My Body to let the Navy’s Torquemadas accuse our free publication of exploiting this tragedy for “personal gain.”
The revelation regarding Gerry’s single-minded effort to find cell service is not discussed in depth beyond the general consensus that all hikers should know how to use a compass. And before we get to that revelation, the reader must slog through some muddy prose, including pointless side trips into the history of the A.T. and a 19th century Arctic expedition.
There’s a tantalizing tidbit early on from a hiker who met Gerry and George on the trail and spent a happy evening in their company. The hiker notes that the couple seem to have had some sort of disagreement that soured their moods the last time he saw them, not long before Gerry disappeared. That last encounter had haunted the hiker when he learned of Gerry’s predicament, and he eventually went to the Warden Service to share his account. They told him that whatever the Largays may have been arguing about, it wasn’t a big deal.
No one wants to speak ill of the dead, especially a kindly grandma like Gerry Largay, but Dauphinee does a disservice to all involved by downplaying the inescapable conclusion: She should not have been hiking alone without any wilderness survival skills, a reliable sense of direction, the GPS device she’d left behind, or extra meds. “[B]eyond the personal responsibility to learn self-rescue techniques, it wasn’t Gerry’s fault,” Dauphinee writes, unconvincingly.
That brings me to the unsettling thing I mentioned earlier. As a society, we’ve grown so accustomed to living under looming catastrophes that we’re blind to their impending threats. Three such slow-motion doom scenarios are in play in this story.
One is American militarism — the fact that despite the end of the Cold War, the decimation of Al-Qaeda, and the economic, cultural and technological ties that bind the world together as never before, the U.S. continues to prepare for global-scale warfare that would effectively end human civilization. The sadomasochistic role-play at SERE Schools is just one lurid aspect of this insanity, and the fact it took priority over an effort to save someone’s life is further evidence of our tragically misguided path.
The second is the fact many millions of otherwise successful, seemingly well-adjusted Americans — folks just like Gerry — cannot handle the stress of daily life in this country without taking powerful drugs every day. What would America be like without the mountains of pills, rivers of booze, and countless tons of other dope we collectively consume just to get some sleep at night? Gerry’s ordeal gives us a tiny window into that horror, and even that is too much for most people to acknowledge.
The third, and most germane problem in this case, is our addiction to these fucking phones. It goes beyond the Faustian bargain by which these magical genies assist us while simultaneously making us dumber, lazier, and easier to exploit. It’s the fact that like the other two epic threats, we’re incapable of seeing our predicament, much less taking action to address it.
Hutch and I were as guilty as Dauphinee and the Warden Service in this respect. We initially assumed Gerry was a competent hiker because she’d covered almost a thousand miles by following the marks on trees (albeit with the assistance of a hiking partner who had to leave the trail a few weeks before Gerry got lost). We were all incapable of seeing the other Gerry, the one who was helpless without her cell phone, the one who believed this digital talisman was all she needed to conquer the wilderness.
It seems insulting to conduct a rescue operation while working on the assumption that the lost person was so deluded and foolish. But she was — we all are to some degree — and our inability to acknowledge that ultimately cost Gerry Largay her life.