New details shed disturbing light on Largay case

As each new piece of the puzzle is put in place, the picture that emerges of the mysterious disappearance and death of Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Geraldine “Gerry “ Largay appears more tragic — and more scandalous.

Largay disappeared on July 22, 2013, while hiking a section of the A.T. in Redington Township that borders one of the Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) Schools. SERE is a highly sensitive and classified program that involves elaborate war games during which trainees are hunted down in the woods and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques.

The Maine Warden Service, which took the lead in the search for Largay, has consistently attempted to downplay the significance of the SERE School’s proximity to the area where Largay vanished. Last October, when Largay’s remains were discovered inside the Navy facility’s boundaries, wardens continued to act as though the activities that take place there had no bearing on the case. But that position is becoming increasingly untenable.

In the most recent installment of The Bollard’s investigation (“M.I.A. on the A.T.: Evasion”), reporter Hutch Brown and I noted the wardens’ curious reluctance to reveal basic details about the case, such as whether Largay had a tent.

The existence of a tent is potentially damning for the authorities, because it indicates Largay could have been alive for many days — possibly two or three weeks — before she died of thirst, hunger and exposure to the elements.

Last week, I finally received a copy of the report by the state Office of Chief Medical Examiner. The report reveals that Largay did have a tent, and refers to the area where her remains were found as her “campsite.”

Thru-hikers are instructed that if they become lost in a situation like the one Largay faced, they should make camp for the night and remain there until searchers arrive, rather than continuing to wander and making new camps in different places each evening. It now appears that Largay followed her training in this regard. She “constructed a sleeping platform out of soil and pine needles,” according to the examiner’s report, and placed her sleeping bag, inside her tent, atop that cushioned platform. The evidence indicates she died in her sleeping bag, inside her zipped-up tent.

A topographical map of the area where Largay was found. Courtesy of The Bollard.

A topographical map of the area where Largay was found. Courtesy of The Bollard.

The duration of Largay’s time at her campsite is almost as problematic for the authorities as its location. The camp was atop a small hill, or knoll, next to an old logging trail, also called a “tote road.” This boot-shaped tote road, which intersects the A.T. in two places along the route Largay was known to have traveled the day she vanished, hasn’t been cleared or used for logging for many years, so it’s moderately overgrown with weeds and saplings. But the old road is significant enough to be clearly marked on numerous maps — topographic maps and DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer — so there’s no way wardens were unaware of its existence.

A competent rescue effort should have involved a thorough and prompt search along this tote road. But, according to the wardens, this area was not searched until Aug. 8 — 16 days after Largay was reported missing, and 18 days since she got lost. The Aug. 8 search was conducted with a team of specially trained “cadaver dogs,” but the medical examiner’s report states that the sleeping bag and tent significantly limited “transmission of detectable scent” during the “early weeks after death.”

After the discovery of the remains last October, Lt. Kevin Adam of the Warden Service told reporters the area was not thoroughly searched “because of the terrain, and because we didn’t have enough trained, physically fit people.” But as the topographic lines on the maps clearly show, the boot-shaped tote road is not in difficult terrain. The area is relatively flat and easy to walk — which is why the road was cut there in the first place.

I suspect the “difficulty,” for state authorities conducting the search, is that this area is highly restricted military property. Furthermore, a SERE training began the day after Largay was reported missing, and the nature of the training is such that trainees must neither hear nor see anyone not associated with the program, lest that dispel the impression that they are behind enemy lines.

So, in deference to a classified war game designed to help soldiers survive, it seems a former Air Force nurse could have suffered for weeks and starved to death in the Maine woods right under the Navy’s nose. That’s a tragedy, and a scandal, for which there must be accountability.

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.