Case of missing A.T. hiker far from closed

Contrary to what the Maine Warden Service and the media are leading you to believe, the case of missing Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay is far from closed. The discovery last week of skeletal remains believed to be Largay raises more questions about her fate than it answers.

Largay, a 66-year-old retired nurse from Tennessee, vanished on July 22, 2013, along a section of the trail between Saddleback and Sugarloaf. She was nearly three months, and 1,000 miles, into a journey that began in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and was supposed to end at Mount Katahdin. Instead, it apparently ended in a remote patch of old-growth forest, thick with trees and brush, more than 3,000 feet off the A.T. and a substantial distance from the nearest discernible path through the woods.

The wardens leading the investigation say they do not think Largay was a victim of “foul play.” Though an official determination of her cause of death will not be made until the state medical examiner’s office completes its report, the authorities seem to think Largay died as a result of getting lost.

“Everybody thought there was criminal play around this,” Lt. Kevin Adam of the Warden Service said during a press conference last Friday. “We just never saw any of that. It’s just somewhere along the line she got off the trail and ended up in that spot. … I don’t know how she got there. I don’t know why she’s there.”

Reporters dutifully echoed this paper-thin theory, and there was much talk of “relief” and “closure.” The discovery of the remains “[brings] a somber close to a baffling case,” wrote Boston Globe correspondent Kathryn Miles in an Oct. 16 story headlined, “Foul play not suspected in death of hiker in Maine.”

With all due respect to my fellow scribes and the hard-working wardens, I say this case has only gotten more baffling and suspicious.

Geraldine Largay on the morning she disappeared from the A.T. photo/Dottie Rust

Geraldine Largay on the morning she disappeared from the A.T. photo/Dottie Rust

Largay was a very experienced hiker who meticulously planned and mapped every step of her route. In an earlier Globe story, she was described by a trainer as “smart, competent and realistic — the kind of person to keep her head on straight, no matter the circumstances.” Her hiking partner for much of the journey, Jane Lee, described the section of the A.T. from which Largay disappeared as “like a superhighway …. [I]t’s really, really well marked. There’s no way she got turned around,” Lee told the Globe.

To reach the rugged and remote spot where the remains were found, Largay would have to leave the clearly marked trail in broad daylight and bushwhack through thick undergrowth, toward no discernible destination, for half a mile or more. Then, presumably, after taking this irrational detour to nowhere, she stopped wandering and died of natural causes.

But, in fact, Largay was not “nowhere.” She was inside the borders of a secretive military facility the Navy has been using since the 1960s to conduct SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training. Enlisted personnel — and, more recently, private contractors and foreign troops — are taught wilderness survival skills in these woods, then hunted down and brought to a fake P.O.W. camp, where they are subjected to intense physical and psychological torture over the course of several days.

When Largay went missing, wardens (and, by extension, their parrots in the press) hardly bothered to even mention the existence of this huge military base that closely borders the A.T. exactly where Largay was last seen. Last July, The Bollard published a story by investigative reporter Hutch Brown (“M.I.A. on the A.T.”) that revealed the nefarious nature of this base and questioned why state authorities neglected to explore its potential connection to Largay’s disappearance.

Now that her remains appear to have been found inside the base’s borders, the authorities have no choice but to publicly acknowledge its existence, but wardens and reporters simply describe it as a “training facility,” as though troops there are subjected to vigorous calisthenics, rather than brutality and humiliation.

Google Earth reveals that the phony P.O.W. camp at the terminus of Mountain Road is much closer to the site of the remains than either of the two A.T. shelters along Largay’s route. The week she went missing, the Navy conducted a SERE training there uninterrupted by any search efforts.

At the press conference last week, I asked Lt. Adam if state investigators would now make an effort to interview the people who were at the naval facility when Largay apparently vanished there. Unless the medical examiner inspecting the skeletal remains finds evidence of foul play, “I don’t see that occurring,” he replied. “I don’t see a need to talk to them.”

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.