M.I.A. on the A.T.
What role did a covert Navy “torture school” play in the disappearance of Geraldine Largay?
by Hutch Brown
This July 22nd will mark two years since Geraldine “Gerry” Largay vanished from the face of God’s green earth.
Largay, a 66-year-old grandmother and retired nurse from a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, was attempting to complete a “thru-hike” of the Appalachian Trial. Her journey began on April 23, 2013, in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. It ended somewhere in the mountains of western Maine, in the thick forest between Saddleback and Sugarloaf. Her disappearance prompted the largest search-and-rescue effort ever undertaken in this state, a search that is still ongoing.
Largay was last seen early in the morning of Monday, July 22. She spent the previous night at the Poplar Ridge lean-to, a covered camping area next to the trail, where she’d befriended two fellow female hikers on their way south. The next day, one of them took a photo of their new friend just before she continued north, toward her ultimate destination: Mount Katahdin.
That snapshot is the last known image of Gerry Largay. There she is, smiling excitedly, wearing a bright red fleece, her strong legs taut and tanned, an orange safety whistle fastened to one of her backpack straps.
Largay’s plan was to hike eight miles to the Spaulding Mountain lean-to and spend the night there, then continue up the trail another 13.5 miles to where it intersects with Route 27. Her husband, George Largay, was waiting for her there. When she didn’t arrive late Tuesday afternoon, George figured she’d been delayed by that day’s heavy rain. so he slept in his vehicle next to the trail. By Wednesday afternoon, Gerry still hadn’t arrived, so George flagged down a passing police car and the search began.
The searchers first scoured the trail and the thick forest 100 feet on either side of it. Then they searched the side trails, roadways and streambeds between her last known location and her destination. Over 100 wardens and trained volunteers covered more than 30 miles of territory in the week following her disappearance, aided by dogs, horses and helicopters.
Data compiled by the Maine Warden Service, which has been leading the rescue effort, indicates that 95 percent of missing persons reported to the agency are found within 12 hours; 98 percent are found within 24 hours. To this day, not a trace of Largay has been found.
“This one has really got us all stumped,” Steve Mitman, a volunteer with Franklin County Search and Rescue, told the Lewiston Sun Journal after a week of fruitless searching. It’s “like a spacecraft popped down and picked her up,” he said.
I know this area fairly well. In 1987, I thru-hiked the A.T., and in 2007, after my father died, my brothers and I bought a small camp on Route 142 in Freeman Township, between Kingfield and Phillips. Largay vanished about six miles, as the crow flies, from my family’s camp.
There are three things that puzzle and trouble me about this case, only one of which is the disappearance itself.
The second is the fact that Largay vanished along a section of the trail bordered, to the north, by a secretive military facility where trainees are left to fend for themselves in the woods, then hunted down and tortured in a mock prisoner-of-war camp. Operated by the U.S. Navy, and located in Redington Township, the facility is one of our country’s notorious SERE Schools. The acronym stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, though very few students have ever managed the last part.
The SERE School’s boundaries are not shown on most maps, including some commonly used guides to the A.T., but DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer indicates exactly where it is.
Turn to page 29 and find the grid for E2. The Poplar Ridge lean-to can be found near the center of that square. As you follow the red-dotted line of the A.T. from there, you can see that the purple-shaded boundary of the “US Naval Training Facility” follows within half a mile of the trail for several miles in either direction from the lean-to. The facility’s border appears to actually touch the trail just east of Oberton Stream and the Railroad Road — a point Largay would have reached late Monday morning. None of the hikers traveling north or south through this stretch of the A.T. that afternoon saw Largay on the trail.
The facility’s borders are not fenced, and there are no signs along the A.T. warning hikers not to enter the area, though the trailside terrain discourages bushwhacking. The Railroad Road, which is more like a wide trail north of the A.T., provides easy access into the military facility, but hikers heading that way soon encounter signs warning against trespass. (The presence of one of Maine’s tallest waterfalls, the 321-foot Redington Pond Falls, inside the facility’s boundaries, may tempt some to try anyway.)
So within a few hundred yards of the section of trail where Largay disappeared, there’s an unfenced military base where enlisted fighters and, on occasion, non-enlisted contractors (soldiers of fortune), as well as foreign troops, run around the woods in mortal fear of being captured and tortured. The elaborate war games at SERE Schools also involve scenarios in which the trainees encounter “allies” in the field, who later betray them and turn them over to the interrogators at the fake P.O.W. camp. After being subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, and numerous other torments and humiliations over the course of several days, many trainees forget the “scenario” is fake.
The SERE School’s proximity to the spot where Largay was last seen would appear to warrant further investigation. But that’s the third thing that disturbs me.
Largay’s disappearance was covered extensively by media in Maine, Tennessee and elsewhere. It was a national news story. But aside from a passing reference in a Tennessee publication noting that searchers have accessed the A.T. via military property, I’ve yet to find a single mention that the facility even exists in any news coverage of the search.
In part, that’s because officials with the Maine Warden Service, who are leading the investigation and providing reporters with updates, consider the possibility that someone connected to the SERE program could be involved in Largay’s disappearance so remote as to be unworthy of consideration.
But is it?
Is it just a coincidence that the baffling vanishing of this person took place a stone’s throw from a place closely associated with programs designed to make people disappear? SERE instructors, SERE tactics and, perhaps most controversially, psychologists involved with SERE training have all been linked to the torture of detainees abducted abroad and sent to clandestine “black sites” run by the military and the C.I.A. For the first 11 years of its existence, The Redington facility was essentially a domestic “black site” for the torture of our own troops.
State authorities have not ruled out the possibility of foul play. They say they simply lack any solid leads to pursue that angle. But again, if Largay was abducted or otherwise met a violent end, is it merely a coincidence that such a crime took place next to a school where the infliction of human suffering is part of the curriculum?
In the wake of Gerry’s disappearance, over a dozen family members and friends gathered in Maine to follow the results of the investigation. “All we did was speculate and go through every possible scenario,” her daughter, Kerry Bauchiero, told the Brentwood Home Page, an online publication that serves the Largays’ hometown in Tennessee. “The truth is, at the end of the day, none of them makes any sense. And that’s the hardest part.
“If something had happened to her on the trail, she would have known to stay put, and someone would have found her,” Bauchiero continued. “Clearly something other than that happened.”
Indeed, among the least likely theories of Largay’s disappearance is the idea that she wandered off the trail, either on purpose or by accident.
Gerry was exceptionally prepared to undertake a thru-hike of the A.T. Well before she began the journey, she read over half a dozen books about hiking the trail and took a course at the Appalachian Trail Institute, in eastern Tennessee, taught by director Warren Doyle, a legendary thru-hiker who’s completed the trip 16 times. To practice, Gerry hiked 200 miles through Georgia and Tennessee.
“She had gazetteers for reference and Excel spreadsheets to plan her hike down to the infinitesimal detail,” wrote Brentwood reporter Jessica Pace. In the same article, her husband George recalled the time Gerry “was figuring out what to put in her backpack, and she had a scale that weighed things in grams.”
The couple had been happily married for 42 years. They met while they were serving in the Air Force — Gerry as a nurse, George as an administrator. Hiking had been a passion of theirs since 1998.
For her thru-hike, Gerry adopted the trail name “Inchworm,” a self-deprecating reference to her relatively slow pace. George, who followed her in their Toyota Highlander, meeting Gerry at trailheads every couple days to provide supplies, adopted the nickname “Sherpa.”
For the first nine weeks of her journey, Gerry was joined by a good friend named Jane Lee. In late June, family matters compelled Lee to discontinue the hike, but Gerry was perfectly capable of going it alone. After Lee left, George would often hike in with Gerry for an hour or so at the beginning of the day, or hike in to meet her before their rendezvous, which they planned beforehand and confirmed via cell phone whenever possible.
On the morning of Sunday, July 21, George saw Gerry for the last time when he accompanied her for a stretch of the trail after it crosses Route 4, south of Rangeley. Gerry hiked nearly 11 miles that day, over Saddleback Mountain, to the Poplar Ridge lean-to, where she met the two female hikers and bonded with them over dinner. By this point, she had completed almost 1,000 miles of the A.T.
George received a text from Gerry on Monday morning, around 7:15 a.m., letting him know she was on her way to the Spaulding Mountain lean-to. After some initial confusion caused by a mysterious phone call, authorities eventually determined that Gerry never made it to Spaulding Mountain.
The Largays had planned to spend Tuesday night at the Stratton Motel, an R&R destination for many thru-hikers. On Wednesday afternoon, around the same time George was providing information to the authorities, someone called the motel and asked manager Sue Critchlow to tell Gerry’s husband she would be late. The caller, who sounded female to Critchlow, implied that she had spent Tuesday night with Gerry at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to.
Wardens now believe either the caller, or Critchlow, was mistaken, though it’s unclear how someone who hadn’t seen Gerry would have known she had a husband waiting for her at Route 27, or that the couple planned to spend the night at the motel.
When I asked Lt. Kevin Adam of the Maine Warden Service about this, he said, “We’re sure we know who made the phone call, but the verbiage was screwed up.” After I expressed surprise that they’d identified the caller, Lt. Adam backtracked a bit. “I believe we know who made the call,” he said. “A little got lost in translation.”
Unfortunately, the call led wardens to believe Gerry was much farther along the trail than she could have been. The precious hours spent searching between the Spaulding Mountain lean-to and Route 27 were basically wasted time.
More confusion was caused by a case of mistaken identity. Another female hiker on this part of the A.T. that week was a woman who’d adopted the trail name “Ivanich.” Described by fellow hikers as a quiet person who kept to herself, Ivanich had also spent Sunday night at the Poplar Ridge lean-to, and was also hiking north. A group of three southbound hikers who later reported encountering Inchworm apparently saw Ivanich, instead.
As the Boston Globe noted in a lengthy story last December, Ivanich was a faster hiker than Inchworm. She reportedly left the Poplar Ridge lean-to “a couple hours” after Largay, and should have passed her on the trail sometime Monday afternoon, but the only hikers she reported seeing were the three heading south.
The section of trail between Poplar Ridge and Spaulding Mountain isn’t a cake walk — it includes a fairly steep descent, followed by a similar ascent — but neither is it particularly challenging or dangerous. The trail is well marked (or “blazed,” in A.T. parlance) with white lines painted on the trunks of trees all along the way.
The weather was sunny and seasonable all day Monday. The rain didn’t begin until Tuesday morning, though it was heavy and steady most of that day, amounting to nearly an inch. This led some searchers to surmise that Largay may have fallen into rain-swelled Oberton Stream and been swept away. But that theory has two big flaws.
For one thing, Largay should have reached that stream well before noon on Monday morning. Furthermore, a search party followed the stream for seven miles and found no trace of her. Not to be macabre, but people do not decompose quickly, especially when fully clothed. Even naked and soaked, our bodies are resilient. On a river trip in China’s Yunnan Province, my friends and I encountered a drowned body, naked, with hands and feet bound. The yellowed and waxy corpse was floating among the driftwood at high tide, and had likely been in the river for many days.
Dogs, and horses, can catch the scent of bodies much better than we can. And they’re not the only animals capable of giving us clues.
“If you die in the woods, you don’t just become one thing’s dinner, you become a lot of things’ dinner,” a local guide in Kingfield remarked to me. “It takes quite awhile for a human body to get eaten up.”
“So you don’t think her body is out there?” I asked him.
“Nope,” he said. “If it were, the birds would’ve told me” — meaning the turkey vultures, ravens and crows that scavenge the forest for food.
The human population in this part of Franklin County is sparse. Ten or more miles south of the A.T. lay Reeds, Madrid, East Madrid and Madrid Junction. There are no stores or post offices in the first three hamlets. Homes are either few and far between or clustered together against the wilderness. The housing stock ranges from shacks to farms to rustic second homes. A bit further south is the bona fide town of Phillips.
It’s pretty easy to access the A.T. corridor from all these places. The region is crisscrossed by old logging roads and Maine’s Interconnected Trail System, used primarily for snowmobiling. The Railroad Road runs due north out of Reeds. A two-wheel-drive SUV can take you within a mile of the A.T. From there, it’s an easy walk to Oberton Stream.
Dave Field has been a member of the Appalachian Trail Club since 1955. He maintains the section of trail Largay was traveling when she vanished, and has done so for 48 years. I asked him what he thought of the possibility Largay was a victim of foul play.
“There’re a lot of nosy people in Madrid,” Field replied. “Impossible.” Besides, he added, the reward for information leading to her discovery has been increased from $15,000 to $25,000 — a big paycheck for anyone living south of the poverty line.
Lt. Adam said wardens, who are sworn officers of the law, have visited houses in the area, “but we haven’t come up with anything.”
North of the trail, in Redington Township and Coplin Plantation, permanent residents are even harder to find. In 2010, the Census Bureau pegged the population of the latter, which covers an area of over 33 square miles, at 166 souls.
In Redington Township, where Largay disappeared, students and staff of the SERE School are pretty much the only humans around.
Welcome to PRONA
As documented in journalist Michael Otterman’s 2007 book, American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond, SERE Schools have their roots in the “stress inoculation courses” the U.S. military developed after World War II. The courses were intended to train troops to resist the types of torture employed by countries that, in America’s view, did not adhere to the Geneva Conventions.
Each branch of the military has its own SERE program, but the system was standardized and codified by the Pentagon in 1984, Otterman reported. There are three levels of SERE training: A, B and C — C being the toughest. The Navy has two facilities, both dating from the early ’60s, that offer C-level training: one at the naval air station in Warner Springs, California, an unincorporated territory outside San Diego; the other in Redington Township.
The Navy initially occupied 4,000 acres leased from the Hudson Pulp and Paper Company. These days, the range encompasses over 12,500 acres. Although the training facility’s southern edge ends just short of the A.T., the Navy owns or controls land within the township’s border to the south of the trail, as well.
According to a 1976 front-page story in the Bangor Daily News — headlined “Navy has ‘torture’ camp” — the Redington facility, built in 1961, was a “well-kept secret” for over a decade.
“The first public indication that the Navy was operating a secret base in Maine’s western mountain wilderness came during the summer of 1972 when a 19-year-old Navy frogman stumbled out of the woods into a hippie commune and blurted out a tale of physical harassment and torture he said he had taken at the hands of military instructors at Redington,” wrote the BDN’s John S. Day.
Day wrote that when the Maine Times published an article about the incident, by reporter Bill Langley, Navy officials flatly denied the frogman’s allegations of torture. “Everyone from [U.S. Sen.] Margaret Chase Smith on down branded me as a liar,” Langley told Day four years later.
The frogman told the hippies that guards at the phony P.O.W. camp — “dressed as Chinese communists” and speaking with “simulated Oriental accents” — “cursed and kicked him to the ground, blew smoke up his nose, stuffed his mouth with wet rags and locked him into a small wooden cell called a ‘sweatbox.’”
The Washington Post picked up the story and it got some attention nationally, but, as usual, other news happened that year (Watergate, for example) and the public moved on to the next outrage.
SERE was back in the news in 1976, when a Navy pilot sued the Warner Springs SERE facility for $15 million, alleging that an instructor broke his back with a judo flip during the training. (The suit was dismissed, Otterman reported, after the Navy invoked the Feres Doctrine, which shields the government from lawsuits initiated by military personnel injured during service.)
This time, Newsweek picked up the ball. Its investigation revealed that the Navy forced SERE students into tiny boxes, kept them awake by blaring Vietnamese music, and “subjected them to the ‘dread water board,’” as recounted in Otterman’s book. The trainees at SERE were “strapped head down onto an inclined board, with a towel placed over their faces and cold water poured onto it. They choke, gag, retch and gurgle.”
The pilot who sued, Lt. Wendell Richard Young, told an interviewer he could “hear the gurgling screams of people on the water board, you could hear people being smashed into walls.”
And that wasn’t all. Young also claimed SERE students were forced to spit, piss and shit on the American flag, masturbate in front of guards and, on one occasion, engage in a sex act with an instructor.
Two decades later, more allegations of sexual abuse at SERE Schools surfaced, this time on 20/20. The television newsmagazine’s investigation turned up over two dozen incidents of alleged sexual assault at an Air Force SERE program in Colorado.
After trying to defend the abuse as integral to SERE’s “sexual exploitation scenario,” the Air Force dropped the torture part of the program in 1995. But in 1996, a female cadet who’d sued the Air Force for her sexual mistreatment there (circumventing the Feres Doctrine by claiming her Constitutional rights were violated) accepted an out-of-court settlement of several million dollars.
In an almost farcical attempt to keep the program “realistic,” every decade or so the military updates the ethnic identity of the “enemies” in the “scenarios” SERE instructors act out during training.
Last December, Ward Carroll, a retired Navy pilot and military journalist, posted an account of his time at the SERE School in Redington, during the winter of 1984, on the website We Are the Mighty, which he also edits. Carroll also considers himself a novelist, and the full story of his experience, which is too lengthy to relate here, is worth reading on wearethemighty.com.
Back then, as now, SERE students were given several days of classroom instruction before being bussed into the field. Carroll said this instruction focused on the military Code of Conduct for soldiers in enemy captivity, which has six articles. “When questioned,” begins the fifth, “I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability.”
When the students arrived at the Redington facility, they were greeted by “friendly locals who welcomed us to the Peoples Republic of North America — PRONA,” Carroll wrote. The story, as explained to them by amateur actors trying to pull off “thick eastern European accents,” was that the Soviets had taken over this part of Maine and the friendly “partisans” were rebel freedom-fighters.
The partisans split the students into groups of 10, gave them lessons in wilderness survival, and fed them “meat of unknown origin,” Carroll recalled. The next day, the partisans, claiming the Soviets were closing in, told the students they had to try to evade the enemy on their own, which Carroll managed to do until the day after, when a partisan woke him inside his crude snow fort and told him everyone was gathering to march to a safer place.
Instead, “the formation was interrupted by gunshots,” wrote Carroll. The partisans evaporated into the forest and the students were captured by uniformed troops, “yelling at us in a foreign tongue,” who roughed them up and forced them onto a transport truck headed to a fake “prison camp.” Carroll said he was blindfolded and brought to a cell, where a guard, after removing the blindfold, “forced me to sit on a box that was barely a foot tall and place my arms along my legs with my palms facing upward.” This is known, in the vernacular of torture, as a “stress position,” and when Carroll failed to maintain it, the guard reentered his cell and beat him.
A speaker mounted high in the corner of the cell blared “a mind-numbing cacophony of an out-of-control saxophone,” followed by “Rudyard Kipling reciting his poem ‘Boots’ over and over in a very haunting voice.”
An interview with the “camp commander” followed. After some friendly banter, Carroll said he was asked questions he’d been trained not to answer, like the type of plane he flew. When he refused to respond, he was sent back to his cell for more torture with free jazz and poetry. Next, a guard brought him to another part of the camp and ordered him into a “small box, barely big enough for me to fit,” which the guard banged upon while demanding more answers.
The most harrowing part of the P.O.W. scenario was the abuse Carroll suffered at the hands of a character he calls Red Beard. “Red Beard asked me a few questions about my military profile, and each time I didn’t answer he slapped me,” Carroll wrote. “He produced an American flag and threw it on the ground and told me to dance on it. I tried to avoid it but he pushed me and I wound up stepping on the flag and as I did a photographer appeared and snapped a shot.
“After another round of questions I didn’t answer, Red Beard decided it was time for stronger measures,” Carroll continued. “He pushed me to the floor and made me sit on my hands. He straddled my legs as he fired up some pipe tobacco and started blowing smoke into my face using a large rubber tube.
“I couldn’t breathe. The room started spinning. My head hit the floor. I puked.”
Carroll had several more similar encounters with Red Beard, followed by forced labor outdoors in the cold, where one prisoner was “stripped to his underwear and forced to stand at attention as his clothes were burned in front of him.”
The camp commander then gathered the group together and, “holding a Bible aloft, told us our beliefs were bullshit and that the only religious figure Americans truly worshipped was St. Walt Disney,” Carroll recalled. “He threw the Bible down and stomped it, which caused some of the prisoners to react enough that the guards felt obliged to slap them and throw them on the ground.”
The ordeal finally ended with “another burst of gunfire” as a group of camouflaged troops, purportedly Navy SEALs, rappelled over the camp’s walls and took the torturers into custody. “The flag of PRONA hung against the main guard tower was replaced by the Stars and Stripes as the National Anthem played over the camp PA,” Carroll wrote. “There wasn’t a dry eye among us as we sang along.”
Carroll is staunchly pro-military. He wrote that he’s sharing his tale to counter criticism of the SERE program in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s scathing report on C.I.A. torture techniques. SERE was “the most important school the Navy ever sent me to,” he stated.
Regardless, nearly all the reader comments below his story blast him for revealing details of the program, even though the events he described took place three decades ago. “Jesus,” wrote a commenter identified as Martin Fernandez, “The first thing you learn about SERE is you DO NOT talk about SERE — whether it exists or not…”
More talk about SERE
SERE exists. It may have been relatively easy to keep the Redington facility a secret in the ’60s — and who knows how long it would have remained so had the frogman not made his daring escape — but these days that’s mission impossible.
So whenever SERE officials have to talk about the base, they stress its function as a survival school and downplay the resistance bit. The Sun Journal recently did a story about teens and pre-teens with the Naval Sea Cadets Corps attending a weekend-long survival-skills course there. Reporters have never been allowed to see, much less photograph, the mock P.O.W. camp.
We might never get a glimpse of that sinister set were it not for Google Earth. Zoom in around the 45th parallel, nearabout 70 degrees longitude, follow Mountain Road to its terminus and you’ll see an eerie image dated Sept. 17, 2013.
About two dozen people are standing behind what appears to be a fence at least 15 feet high, with loudspeakers mounted around it on poles. Some rudimentary buildings sit behind the fence, too. Figures are walking in single file, etching a wide circle in the dirt yard. Inside the circle, others are tracing a triangle.
Dave Field, the longtime trail caretaker, told me that from the A.T. he’s heard “machine gun fire in there. I’ve heard the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”
The SERE program in Maine is a 12-day course. After five days of classroom instruction, trainees are bussed to the Redington facility and the “scenarios” take place over the course of a week. Officials say 23 courses are taught there during the year, with about 60 students per course and up to 30 staff on site. It’s estimated that over 56,000 students have completed a SERE course at Redington.
Until the fall of 2010, the classroom portion of the program was held at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, which also served as the school’s administrative headquarters. When that base was closed, classes and administrators were moved to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, in Kittery.
At the time, Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree applauded the Navy’s decision to keep the torture program in Maine. “We have been proud to host the school over the years and will be proud to keep it here in the future,” Pingree said in a prepared statement issued in March of 2009. “The training that men and women get at SERE can save their lives.”
A couple months before Pingree’s press release, a former Marine infantry officer wrote a piece for Slate that took a decidedly different view of the program.
David J. Morris said he underwent SERE training as a lieutenant in 1995. “I was hooded, beaten, starved, stripped naked, and hosed down in the December air until I became hypothermic,” he wrote. “When I forgot my prison number, I was strapped to a gurney and made to watch as a fellow prisoner was water-boarded a foot away from me. I will never forget the sound of that young sailor choking, seemingly near death, paying for my mistake.”
Morris argues that the SERE curriculum, based on Cold War–era assumptions about enemy interrogation methods, lost its relevance long ago. Insurgent groups “don’t water-board their captives,” Morris wrote. “Nor do they have the resources to mount a program of systematic sensory deprivation and humiliation.”
Furthermore, the SERE program “unintentionally serves to legitimize the use of torture by U.S. personnel in the field,” Morris wrote. “It’s not hard to imagine them thinking, Well, if I survived this, then it’s OK to do it to this guy.”
Some trainees are able to keep the experience in perspective, to remember it’s only a 12-day class being taught by their own countrymen. Dan Reynolds, a Portlander who went through the SERE School in 1997, likened the experience to “a P.O.W. funhouse.” It was “more theatrics,” he told me, “with lots of psychological stimulation and fabrication.”
Other have a harder time remembering it’s just a war game. “I was incarcerated at SERE for only a few days, but my mind quickly disintegrated,” Morris wrote. “I became convinced that I was being held in an actual prisoner of war camp. … We had crossed over into some murky shadow land where the regulations no longer applied. I was sure that my captors, who wore Warsaw Pact-style uniforms and spoke with thick Slavic accents, would go all the way if the need arose.”
The training also got too real for Carroll. During the second or third time Red Beard blew pipe smoke in his face while he vomited, Carroll recalled: “This felt like real torture, and I was convinced he was going to kill me.”
Scientific studies of SERE’s effects on the mind and body strongly suggest the kind of experience Carroll and Morris reported is by far the most common. A chilling article from 2000 in the U.S. Army publication Special Warfare noted that “SERE stress caused significant changes in students’ hormone levels. Recorded changes in cortisol levels were some of the greatest ever documented in humans. In some cases … greater than the changes noted in patients undergoing heart surgery.”
“Changes in testosterone levels were similarly remarkable,” according to the same article. “In some cases, testosterone dropped from normal levels to castration levels in eight hours.”
It’s worth noting here that not all SERE instructors are enlisted members of our military; many are basically guns-for-hire employed on a contract basis by private companies and corporations. In May of 2014, for example, Prevailance, Inc., a company based in Virginia Beach, was awarded a $12.2 million contract to provide “instructor only training services” for the Navy’s SERE program.
We get a glance of these mercenaries in a 2007 post on a blog called Northern Forest By Canoe. The author, an explorer and educator named Zand Martin, writes: “We had just spotted the height of land about a half mile ahead when a jacked-up Ford F-250 pick-up with Virginia plates roared past us and careened onto the dirt shoulder fifty yards ahead of us. Both doors flew open, pouring country music thick and loud into the landscape, and discharging two rather large men with mustaches, aviator sunglasses, and US Navy hats. Their southern accents were as thick as their Super Swamper mud tires, and they grinned at us with obvious interest.”
The salary range for a SERE instructor, according to a job posting last year, is between $52,390 and $68,103. “Secret” security clearance is required.
If the section of trail where Largay disappeared is a crime scene, rather than the scene of some freak accident, one would think the presence of a place like the SERE School would warrant some serious investigation. But the wardens in charge of the case display a curious lack of curiosity about the facility.
When I first called Lt. Adam, a lead investigator and spokesperson for the Warden Service, I asked him about the SERE School. “I don’t know anything about that,” he said. He wasn’t sure whether there had been a SERE course in progress the week Largay vanished or not. (At the end of that week, helicopter pilots spotted campfires inside the facility and initially thought they were a sign of Largay; they later determined SERE students had set them.)
Lt. Adam seemed taken aback when I suggested it was possible someone associated with the SERE School could have played a role in Largay’s disappearance. “It’s in the realm of things, I guess, but it’s not easy,” he said. “It’d be extremely difficult.”
The wardens are “going off probabilities,” said Lt. Adam. “That’d be a very, very low probability.”
Sheldon Prosser was previously the naval officer in charge at the SERE School in Redington. After his retirement from the Navy, he stayed on as a civilian employee and is now the assistant officer in charge and the liaison to the public.
When I first reached Prosser by phone, he said he couldn’t remember if there had been a training session at the facility that week, either, but said he was certain that if there had been one, it was not halted or otherwise interrupted by the massive manhunt taking place in the area.
In a follow-up phone conversation with my editor, Prosser said, “there was not a class at the mountain the day [Largay] disappeared.” He said students arrived from Kittery on Thursday night that week. The only personnel at the facility earlier in the week would have been two staff members, he said.
Asked when students would have been on their own during that training, unsupervised by staff, Prosser said, “They’re never on their own. … They’re always supervised. Sometimes they don’t realize they’re being supervised.”
Were students and staff interviewed to find out if they’d seen any evidence of Largay in the woods that week? “I can’t recall,” Prosser said, “To my best recollection, no.”
“Students weren’t being trained in the vicinity of the disappearance, or where the authorities expect the disappearance to be,” Prosser added. The two areas “are not really close,” he said. “They’re separated by a significant ridge line.”
Lt. Adam said he can’t recall when or if wardens notified SERE staff that a hiker was missing in their backyard. When I asked him if the naval property had been searched, he directed me to Deb Palman, a former game warden who co-founded the organization Maine Search and Rescue Dogs, one of numerous groups that took part in the search effort. Palman said “part of the property” had been searched.
The only proper road leading into the SERE facility is Redington Road, and it’s gated to prevent entry by unauthorized civilians. When I asked Palman how her group got access to the property, she told me it was arranged by D.B.A.P., a search-and-rescue organization associated with the SERE School.
D.B.A.P. tops an alphabetical list of over a dozen volunteer search-and-rescue organizations posted on the website of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue. The initials purportedly stand for “Don’t Be A Problem,” though I suspect the “P” word is actually a far less politically correct one. (That may partially explain why Lt. Adam claimed he wasn’t aware of D.B.A.P. when I asked him about it, and why Prosser told my editor he’d never heard that name, either.)
In any case, the contact person for D.B.A.P. is listed on the association’s website as Kenneth Riendeau. Riendeau has an official Navy e-mail address, but declined to disclose the nature of his work for the military. He confirmed that he’d facilitated access to the property for search teams, and said areas between the A.T. and Redington Road were searched for evidence of Largay.
Then I apparently crossed a line. I asked Riendeau about the fenced-in camp and he got testy. “There’s no fence up there,” he said.
“Yeah, but I can clearly see it on Google Earth,” I replied.
“It has nothing to do with that,” he said, then hung up.
The staff and students of the SERE School aren’t just inclined to be secretive about what goes on there; they’re legally bound to keep it classified. But according to Prosser, neither he nor his staff have even been questioned by state authorities about Largay’s case. “I was never interviewed,” he told my editor, “and I don’t recall any interviews with members of my staff.”
Lt. Adam said SERE officials have granted search teams access to their property anytime they’ve been asked. But there are still areas of the military’s range, some of them treacherous terrain, that have not been searched. Last summer, wardens, state police and members of local search-and-rescue teams walked parts of Redington Township that had not been searched before. Lt. Adam said there are swaths of the facility that remain unsearched because, in order to have accessed them, Largay would have had to “cross a road.”
“If you get to [a road], you probably shouldn’t be crossing it,” he remarked. “I still believe she’s in the woods, that she became lost up there.”
Last winter, Lt. Adam told Boston Globe reporter Kathryn Miles that he’s still trying to answer some basic questions about the case, including whether Largay was abducted. “The case still wakes him up in the middle of the night,” Miles wrote, “and he’s replayed every scenario a million times.”
Well, maybe not every scenario.
Hutch Brown lives in Portland. Bollard editor Chris Busby contributed research and reporting to this story.
Correction: In the print version of this story, Dan Reynolds was incorrectly identified as Dan Nelson.