M.I.A. on the A.T.: Survival

Questions outnumber answers after hiker’s remains are found

The last known photo of Geraldine Largay, taken the morning she disappeared. photo/Dottie Rust

This past summer, The Bollard published a story about the mysterious disappearance of Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Geraldine “Gerry” Largay, a retired nurse from Tennessee who vanished in the mountains of western Maine in July 2013 (see “M.I.A. on the A.T.,” July 2015). Largay’s case generated a lot of news coverage — and was the subject of an episode of the popular reality television show North Woods Law — but very few media reports noted the existence of a U.S. Navy base that borders the section of trail from which she disappeared, and none of our colleagues were willing to even mention the disturbing nature of the activities that take place there.

In mid-October, the Maine Warden Service announced that “skeletal” remains believed to be Largay were discovered by a contractor conducting an environmental survey inside the boundaries of the Navy’s facility, which encompasses over 12,500 acres of forest in Redington Township, between Saddleback and Sugarloaf. The discovery compelled reporters in the mainstream media to finally acknowledge the existence of this “training facility,” but the controversial nature of the training remained unmentioned in their coverage, many troubling questions are still unanswered and numerous new ones have been raised.

The Redington base is a SERE School, one of two such programs operated by the Navy (the other is on the West Coast, and other branches of the military run their own SERE programs). SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. Its purpose is to train troops (and, these days, private military contractors and foreign soldiers) whose missions may result in them being stranded in hostile territory and captured and tortured by enemy forces.

SERE trainees are taught how to survive in the wilderness (e.g., how to start a campfire, build a shelter, and forage for food) and evade capture (i.e., how to accomplish those tasks undetected). They are also taught strategies to resist interrogation under torture and escape captivity.

The details of SERE training are classified military secrets, but published accounts and anecdotes by past participants have shed some light on the program. Inside SERE “prisoner-of-war” camps, trainees have, over the years, been subjected to waterboarding, beatings, sleep and sensory deprivation, confinement inside tiny “sweatboxes,” and treatment intended to humiliate and infuriate them (e.g., desecration of the American flag and the Bible). Participants have said their experience inside the camp was so realistic — and their senses so dimmed and disoriented — that they forgot they were undergoing a training exercise and believed they were actually in enemy hands.

Our story last July sought to understand what significance the SERE School may have to Largay’s case. Was it merely a coincidence that this mysterious disappearance took place next to a mysterious military facility where troops and mercenaries are subjected to brutal and humiliating treatment? The SERE program gained global notoriety around the same time Largay vanished, as it became known that psychologists involved in SERE training later helped interrogators of terrorism suspects apply and justify “enhanced interrogation” techniques deemed by many to constitute torture.

We also questioned why the wardens leading the investigation apparently failed to contact the officers in charge of the SERE facility to inform them of the hiker who’d gone missing along their border. SERE instructors have worked with wardens and search-and-rescue groups in the past to find missing persons, and have trained civilian searchers in their tracking techniques. The day wardens realized Largay’s disappearance was an extraordinary case was the same day scores of able-bodied trainees and SERE instructors arrived at the Redington facility.

Wardens seemed reluctant to find out who was on the base, where they were on the property that week, and whether staff or trainees noticed anything that could’ve helped locate Largay.

Sheldon Prosser, the assistant officer in charge of the Redington SERE School and its liaison to the public, told us last summer that he learned of Largay’s disappearance from an article in the local paper. He said staff and trainees were never formally interviewed by anyone regarding the disappearance. The massive search-and-rescue operation launched for Largay did not interrupt the training conducted there that week or the next.

The land surveyor who reportedly spotted the remains on the morning of Oct. 14 first informed the Navy of his discovery, and Navy officials then informed the Warden Service, which made a public announcement on Oct. 15. Although the wardens acknowledged, during an Oct. 16 press conference, that they had no idea how or why Largay, a very experienced and notably slow hiker, ended up in a remote wooded area over 3,000 feet off the Appalachian Trail, they said they did not suspect “foul play.” Their theory was that Largay simply got lost and died of natural causes, but they added that an official determination of her cause of death would not be made until the state medical examiner’s office examined her body.

On Oct. 30, the Warden Service announced that, working in tandem with the state medical examiner, they had concluded Largay’s death was an accident — the result of a lack of food and water, and of exposure to the elements.

At the Oct. 16 press conference, I asked Maine Warden Service Corporal John MacDonald whether the discovery of the body inside the Navy base would now prompt wardens to interview the military personnel who were there when Largay died. Cpl. MacDonald said that unless the medical examiner found something “that we hadn’t anticipated, I don’t see that occurring.”

“You won’t talk to them?” I asked.

“I don’t see a need to talk to them,” he replied.

Survival

The discovery of the remains brings “a somber close to a baffling case,” the Boston Globe reported on Oct. 16. As happened when Largay disappeared, the major media outlets have continued to simply parrot the pronouncements of the Warden Service and ignore gaping holes in the investigation.

In this, the second installment of The Bollard’s investigation into the Largay case, we’ll attempt to define those holes and begin to peer inside. Future installments will shed more light on this mystery as additional information is made available to us through Maine Freedom of Access Act requests and other means.

The biggest gap in the official accounting of what happened to Largay concerns the location of her remains — over 3,000 feet (nearly two-thirds of a mile) off the A.T., in what wardens described as a slightly sloped, “mature wooded area” with “a lot of mid-level brush along with high canopy.” This implies that Largay died in a sheltered, secluded spot situated a significant distance from any recognizable path through the forest — not the kind of place a lost hiker would go if she wanted to be found.

There are two fundamental problems with the wardens’ conclusion that Largay simply lost her way. The first is that they’ve offered no explanation, evidence or theory to support that conclusion. The second is that almost everything we do know about Largay and her surroundings on the day she disappeared undercuts the credibility of that conclusion.

As a hiker, Largay was no novice. She had been actively pursuing the hobby for at least eight years, attending camps, courses and seminars, including a five-day course with renowned thru-hiker Warren Doyle. She meticulously planned, prepared and practiced for this journey. Doyle “remembers thinking Gerry was smart, competent, and realistic,” the Globe reported in a Dec. 30, 2014 article, “the kind of person to keep her head on straight, no matter the circumstances.”

In addition to being eminently sensible, Largay was an exceptionally slow hiker. The nickname she adopted for her trek along the A.T. was Inchworm. If she took a wrong turn the day she disappeared, it wasn’t because she was in a hurry. In the North Woods Law episode, her husband George, who’d been following Gerry in his SUV and periodically meeting up with her to replenish her supplies, said she’d taken a wrong turn once or twice before, but had soon realized her mistake and returned to the trail.

The A.T. is trodden by thousands of hiking boots every year and maintained by dedicated volunteers. It is not difficult to follow, and is clearly marked by white “blazes” painted on trees. Largay had been following the trail and those blazes for over three months, and nearly 1,000 miles, by the time she vanished. If she was on the wrong path for a half mile or more, then she must have continued on that unmarked path for at least half an hour.

The section of the A.T. where Largay vanished — between Poplar Ridge and Route 27, a distance of roughly 22 miles — is commonly described as one of the most challenging and exhausting parts of the trail in Maine. It involves several climbs and descents through the mountains, and there are steep cliffs not far from the trail in some areas — including Poplar Ridge, where Largay was last seen alive. Some hikers and searchers have suspected the terrain was a factor in Largay’s disappearance, but a closer examination of her route suggests it was not.

Largay left the lean-to shelter at Poplar Ridge early in the morning of Monday, July 22. From Poplar Ridge, the trail makes a relatively long and quite steep descent toward Oberton Stream and the Railroad Road — an old logging trail that runs beside the stream. The stream-cut valley is fairly wide and flat, a natural place to rest before beginning the gradual ascent toward Spaulding Mountain, where Largay planned to spend that evening in another lean-to shelter.

The Spaulding shelter is about eight miles from the one at Poplar Ridge, but it’s unlikely Largay hiked even halfway there that day. Based on interviews with other hikers who traversed that part of the trail on Monday, as well as data obtained this fall from Largay’s cell phone, wardens believe she left the A.T. shortly after she crossed Oberton Stream and the Railroad Road. She would have been only about three miles, and three hours, into her hike that day. If she got lost, she did so before noon, and well before she encountered the steep part of the climb to Spaulding.

The weather has also been widely cited as a factor that could help explain why Largay left the trail. It began to rain before dawn on Tuesday, July 23, and heavy rainfall reportedly continued into that afternoon. George had expected her to arrive Tuesday evening at the junction where the A.T. meets Route 27. When she failed to show up, he slept there inside his vehicle, figuring she’d been delayed by the rain. He didn’t alert authorities to her disappearance until Wednesday afternoon.

But again, Largay vanished on Monday, July 22, and archived weather data for that date records no precipitation in the area, mild temperatures and partly sunny skies. The sun didn’t set until after 8 p.m., and was followed by a full moon. If, as the wardens believe, Largay got lost before noon, she would have had at least eight hours of daylight to find her way back to the trail.

There is only one path recognizable enough to warrant being marked on a map in the vicinity of the knoll where Largay’s body was found. Like the Railroad Road, it’s an old tote road cut by loggers years ago. But unlike the Railroad Road, this tote road is not cleared or mowed with any regularity. It’s overgrown with weeds and saplings. Hutch Brown — the lead author of our first article on this case, with whom I’m continuing to collaborate in this investigation — said this logging path was relatively easy to follow this fall, but would have been much less recognizable in the middle of summer, the time of year Largay was there.

Wardens have refused to speculate regarding which side trail Largay may have taken on that sunny Monday morning, but as we see it, there are only two options.

The Railroad Road. photo/Hutch Brown

The first, and least likely, is the Railroad Road. As you can see from the accompanying photo, the Railroad Road is wide and straight. The A.T. is narrow and winding. To confuse one with the other is akin to mistaking Baxter Boulevard in Portland for the Maine Turnpike. Furthermore, after walking a half mile or so along the Railroad Road, one encounters signs declaring this area a U.S. Navy training facility where entry is forbidden.

Volunteers looking for Largay were advised to “think like a hiker” during searches. It’s unthinkable that even a far less experienced hiker would make the series of huge mistakes Largay would have had to make in order to end up where she did via the Railroad Road.

The more likely option is the older, overgrown tote road a bit further along the trail. This path crosses the A.T. twice, because it follows a crooked loop north of the trail. Largay’s remains were found not far outside the loop, in the crook where its otherwise oval shape bends inward. Unlike the Railroad Road, this path is not posted as Navy property. (Following this tote road, Hutch found the makeshift memorial for Gerry erected near the site of the remains.) It runs in the general direction of the fake P.O.W. camp, but loops back around to the A.T. well before it reaches a ridgeline between the camp and Largay’s final resting place.

In response to questions The Bollard e-mailed to the Navy in November, public affairs officer Kate Meadows wrote, “The human remains were located in a remote area of the property not typically used by the SERE school.

The boot-shaped dotted line near the site where the remains were found is an old, overgrown logging road.

Prosser, the assistant officer in charge at Redington, told us last summer that there were just a handful of staff at the base when Largay disappeared that Monday, and trainees didn’t arrive until Thursday evening that week. (Prosser directed our follow-up questions last month to the Navy’s PR office.)

Participants in the SERE program spend the first few days getting classroom instruction at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard before being bussed up to Redington. Meadows wrote that a SERE class convened on July 22 and graduated Aug. 2, 2013. Although she did not specify when the trainees were at Redington, that timeline aligns with Prosser’s recollection, given that the trainees would most likely have arrived on Thursday for the field portion of the program.

This leads to another big question: How long was Largay alive after she got lost? If she was still alive at the end of that first week, wardens and Navy personnel must confront the prospect that she could have been found and saved had they made a joint effort to search for her inside the base’s boundaries.

Wardens have repeatedly said their manhunt was limited by a lack of able-bodied searchers capable of navigating, or being guided, in challenging terrain. They also noted that the vast majority (92 percent) of people lost in the Maine woods are found within 12 hours of being reported missing, when wardens conduct what’s called a “hasty search” of trails, side trails and streambeds. Nearly all such missing persons (98 percent) are found within the first 24 hours of a search.

By Thursday night of that week, it had been over 24 hours since Largay was reported missing, and over 72 hours since her last contact, via a text message with George, on Monday morning. So wardens must have realized this was an exceedingly rare case by Thursday night — just as, according to the Navy, 42 physically fit SERE students arrived at the facility under the supervision of instructors with expertise finding people in the woods.

Wardens are declining to publicly speculate regarding how long they think Largay survived. But their official theory — that she died from exposure and lack of food and water — suggests she must have been alive for at least a week after getting lost. You can’t die of starvation in a day.

The theory that lack of water was a contributing cause of death is the least credible of the three factors authorities have cited. The Brentwood Home Page, an online news source that covers Largay’s hometown in Tennessee, published a list of the gear she was either known or believed to be carrying when she disappeared. The list includes “two quart-sized milk bottles for water,” as well as a water filter.

It’s reasonable to assume those bottles were full, or nearly full, when she left Poplar Ridge on Monday morning. But even if, for some reason, they were empty, there was fresh water running throughout this part of the trail. Largay’s route crossed several streams and brooks, one of which runs quite close to the place her remains were found. Even if those streams were running low on Monday, Tuesday’s heavy rains would have more than restored their flow.

It’s also hard to believe starvation was a cause of death. We know from the fellow hikers Largay met at Poplar Ridge that she ate dinner on Sunday night and drank an instant-breakfast drink before she left on Monday morning. The Boston Globe noted that she was “religious about stopping for breakfast” between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., and would check her cell phone for messages at that time — one of which was received, from a relative, mid-morning on that Monday.

The Brentwood news site lists “Powerbars” and “dehydrated food in baggies” among the items she was believed to be carrying, as well as a cooking pot, a camping stove and the fuel tablets to light it. The fact she was seen downing the breakfast drink, which was not included on that list, suggests she had additional food, too.

Gerry, meticulous planner that she was, knew when she left George on Sunday that she had to have enough food for the rest of that day, all of Monday, and nearly all of Tuesday, when the plan was to meet him that evening. Unless she was uncharacteristically careless, she vanished late Monday morning with about two days’ worth of provisions in her backpack.

That leaves exposure. We all know Maine’s weather can be capricious, but it was mid-July. Archived weather data recorded at the airport nearest her location, in Berlin, New Hampshire, lists a low temperature of 48 degrees on Monday morning, 62 degrees on Tuesday (the day it rained), and 55 degrees on Wednesday. Berlin is just over 1,000 feet in elevation; the area where Largay was found is about 2,000 feet above sea level. Even taking regional temperature variations into account, it seems unlikely Largay was exposed to air colder than 50 degrees for an extended period of time.

But even if that was the case, she was, as always, prepared. She had the means to build a fire for warmth — or to signal distress. The gear list published by the Brentwood site includes rain pants and a rain jacket, the red fleece she was photographed wearing on Monday morning, a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, a “space blanket” (a reflective emergency blanket that reduces heat loss from the body), a hat and other clothing she could have donned for additional layers.

Intriguingly, the Brentwood site reported on Oct. 16 that Largay’s remains were discovered “inside a tent” — an item not included in the list they previously published. A reporter at the press conference in Augusta that day asked Lt. Kevin Adam of the Warden Service if Largay was found in a tent, and he dodged the question. “All’s I’m gonna say is we packed up all the gear that was there and it was hers,” he said.

The Bollard requested that the Warden Service provide a complete list of the items recovered at the site of the remains. Their reply basically repeated the vague information they released in mid-October. “The scene included skeletal remains and several pieces of clothing and belongings consistent with items known to be in Largay’s possession,” Cpt. MacDonald wrote in an e-mail. “As for any personal effects found at Geraldine’s final location on October 15th, 2015, those items would be property of the family and have been returned to them as such.” (Note: as previously mentioned, Largay’s remains were actually found on Oct. 14 by the contractor working for the Navy; Navy personnel apparently accessed the site to confirm the discovery a day before state authorities arrived.)

The Warden Service’s position at present is that no additional records related to the case will be released, including the investigators’ final report, unless they are legally compelled to do so by Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. The Bollard sent its FOAA request to the Warden Service last month and received a preliminary reply, shortly before deadline, that outlines additional administrative procedures and lists numerous categories of information they are not required to disclose (including “the identity of suspects” and information that could “constitute an invasion of personal privacy”).

In the next installment of our investigation, tentatively scheduled to appear in our next issue, we’ll address, among other things, state authorities’ willingness, or lack thereof, to reveal details related to this case. The working title of that chapter: Evasion.