A year after Hutch Brown and I published our first article in The Bollard about the mysterious disappearance of Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine “Gerry” Largay (“M.I.A. on the A.T.”), we’ve published the fifth and, most likely, final installment of our investigation (“M.I.A. on the A.T.: No Escape”). Documents released by the Maine Warden Service in late May — in response to Freedom of Access Act requests by The Bollard and other news outlets — confirm the conclusions we reached in the course of our year-long quest to find out what really happened. The truth is finally out there, and it ain’t pretty.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the Maine Warden Service, which organized and directed the unsuccessful search for Largay, bears the lion’s share of it. They began their search too late, ended it too soon, and failed to take into account a host of strong evidence that should have led them to Largay’s campsite, which was located about half a mile from the A.T. and 70 yards from an old logging road.
An oft-cited statistic, touted by the Warden Service itself, claims that 92 percent of people missing in Maine’s wilderness are found within 12 hours of the report of their disappearance. As the documents released in May show, wardens waited about 18 hours after Largay was reported missing before they launched a concerted effort to find her. By the time the search began in earnest, the morning of July 25, 2013, Largay was over 36 hours late for her appointed rendezvous with her husband, George Largay, and it had been three days since she’d texted George. The couple’s practice had been to communicate via text every few hours.
Yes, cell phone coverage in the mountains is spotty. But later that same day, when wardens obtained information from Verizon about the whereabouts of Gerry’s phone, the “ping” was located about a mile from where her body was eventually found last fall. And wardens had another compelling reason to search the area around the “ping” — it’s the first place after her last known location where side trails intersect with the A.T. Gerry’s hiking partner, Jane Lee, who left the trail at the end of June, told wardens that Gerry routinely wandered off onto side trails and had no sense of direction. Lee, who hiked ahead of her friend, had gotten into the habit of stopping and waiting for Gerry whenever she encountered a side trail, because otherwise she’d have to backtrack, find Gerry along an intersecting path, and then argue with her over which way to continue.
Two false sightings, neither of which was a strong eyewitness account, led wardens to think for about a week that Largay had hiked farther north along the A.T. than she did. But even after those leads were proven false, wardens failed to search what Warden Lt. Kevin Adam later observed was “a very likely area to contain Gerry Largay.”
This “very likely area” is also part of a very restricted Navy training base, a SERE School, where even the wardens could not set foot without permission. The documents released in May show that SERE personnel, occasionally accompanied by wardens, conducted a few searches on their property in the first couple days of the effort, but then basically gave up, as the wardens also did about a week later. Gerry likely survived about two weeks after the last major search was undertaken on Aug. 4, 2013.
The Navy owns land on both sides of the trail where Largay was last seen, but even after wardens realized she must have left the trail in that area, the Navy made no discernible, concerted effort to search their property again — despite the fact SERE instructors are some of the most skilled search-and-rescue personnel on the planet.
Wardens extensively scaled back their search efforts after Aug. 4 in part because they’d seen no sign that Largay was alive. What they failed to understand was that Largay must have been suffering from the debilitating symptoms caused by abrupt withdrawal from prescription anti-anxiety medication — in this case, Ativan and Lexapro. Wardens didn’t contact Gerry’s doctor until Aug. 13, though even a quick Google search will inform you that those symptoms can effectively paralyze a person with panic, delusions, muscle pain, fatigue and other afflictions.
Wardens tried, and failed, to redact all references to the names of those drugs from the documents made public in May, and they are still acting as though the prescription drugs played no significant role in this case. Of all their ongoing effort to cover their collective behinds, this omission may be the most egregious, since many millions of people take those drugs and should be warned not to hike or hunt for a day or more without enough pills to last through an unexpected delay.