by Chris Busby and Hutch Brown
In late May, the Maine Warden Service released its report on the case of Geraldine “Gerry” Largay, the Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who disappeared and died in the woods between Saddleback and Sugarloaf in the summer of 2013. Made public in response to Freedom of Access Act requests filed by The Bollard and other media organizations last fall, when her skeletal remains were discovered by a surveyor, the documents contain a trove of previously undisclosed facts that shed light on the circumstances behind this mystery.
The report’s revelations that Largay survived for several weeks and kept a journal during that time propelled her story back into the national news cycle. Publications ranging from The New York Times to Cosmopolitan and People covered the tragic news, as did television shows like Inside Edition. Nearly all the coverage quoted the only excerpt from the journal contained in the 1,500-plus pages authorities made public. Dated Aug. 6, 2013, it reads: “When you find my body please call my husband George … and my daughter Kerry. … It will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you found me — no matter how many years from now.”
Largay had been alone at her makeshift campsite, just over half a mile from the A.T., for two weeks when she wrote those words. The last major effort to find her had ended two days prior. Largay continued to make daily entries in her journal through Aug. 10, and there was an additional entry dated Aug. 18. There’s some doubt whether that date is correct, though it’s also possible she survived for some time after Aug. 18. Regardless, by Aug. 11 her family, who had travelled to Maine during the search, was already back in Tennessee, planning a memorial service.
Most of the “revelations” in the documents were previously reported in earlier installments of The Bollard’s investigation of this case, which began a year ago this month (“M.I.A. on the A.T.,” July 2015). To us, the most significant quote in the report was not Largay’s heart-wrenching journal entry (though it offers a clue about her ordeal), but a remark made by Lt. Kevin Adam, the warden who oversaw the search effort.
Adam describes the events of Oct. 14, 2015, when he heard that a surveyor had found human remains inside the Navy’s training facility in Redington Township, just north of the section of the A.T. where Largay was last seen alive. An NCIS agent en route to Maine to investigate sent Adam the coordinates of the site where the bones were discovered.
“This area was a very likely area to contain Gerry Largay,” Adam concluded after he saw the location on a map.
That statement begs what’s become the central question of this story: Why wasn’t this “very likely area” thoroughly searched in the days and weeks after Largay was reported missing?
The Warden Service has no answer to this question. In a clip from the reality-TV show North Woods Law, which had a crew at the scene when authorities recovered the remains last October, Adam glumly remarked, “She’s in a place just off the trail that was kinda the last place we hadn’t gotten to.”
The documents released in May show wardens had strong evidence early on that should have made this area “just off the trail” one of the first places they looked for Largay. Although statements by other hikers initially led wardens to mistakenly think Largay had walked farther north than she did, when those leads were determined to be false wardens still failed to properly search this “very likely area” — which also happens to be a very restricted U.S. Navy SERE School.
In addition, the documents contain evidence that strongly suggests Largay was experiencing dangerous withdrawal symptoms associated with the abrupt discontinuation of prescription anti-anxiety medication. Those symptoms, which are known to include panic attacks, depression, lethargy, confusion, memory problems, and even the loss of one’s sense of identity or reality, likely explain why Largay apparently made little effort to signal her location to rescuers by building a campfire or blowing her emergency whistle.
The absence of such signs of life seems to have been a big factor in the wardens’ fateful decision to effectively suspend the search about a week and a half after it began. As we now know, Largay survived at least a week or two after that. Had wardens realized that Largay could have been incapacitated by severe withdrawal symptoms, it’s possible they would not have cut the search short. But there’s little indication in the documents that wardens understood the debilitating conditions caused by abrupt discontinuation of anti-anxiety meds like Ativan and Lexapro — conditions that are especially severe for people, like Largay, who are over 65 and who’ve been taking the drugs daily for many years.
In this final installment of our investigation, Hutch Brown and I revisit the question we raised a year ago: What role did a covert Navy “torture school” play in the disappearance of Geraldine Largay? We’ll also address the question posed in the installment published last March (“M.I.A. on the A.T.: Inanition”): Was Largay’s ability to function affected by withdrawal from prescription drugs?
The answers to those queries inform the answer to the central question: Why did the wardens fail to find her? We believe we now have the answer to that one too.
The SERE School
When Gerry Largay left the Appalachian Trail on July 22, 2013, she wandered into the workplace of some of the most skilled search-and-rescue personnel on the planet: SERE instructors. The fact that these expertly trained human bloodhounds failed to find a woman living inside their base for almost a month is either the biggest outrage or the most bitter irony of this tale.
To recap for those who may have missed our earlier coverage, SERE is an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. This training involves elaborate war games during which students are taught survival skills and techniques to evade capture in the wilderness. Those tactics are then put to the test as SERE staff hunt the trainees down, one by one, inside the boundaries of the facility. The captured students are taken to a mock P.O.W. camp inside the base and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques and other mistreatment. They are supposed to apply their training to resist their captors’ demands for information, so that after their escape or liberation they can “return with honor,” as the saying goes.
SERE instructors have been running these top-level military programs in Redington Township since the 1960s. Of the many thousands of elite troops who’ve been trained there over the decades, only one is known to have actually escaped — a Navy frogman who bolted from the fake P.O.W. camp in the early 1970s. One of the instructors who tracked the frogman through the woods and found him at a hippie commune outside the base told The Bollard the escapee was recaptured within hours.
SERE instructors have led training sessions on their base for civilian search-and-rescue groups, and they have their own search-and-rescue organization, called DBAP, that participates in searches organized by the Maine Warden Service. But civilians are otherwise forbidden to enter the military property, which covers over 12,500 acres, and signs warning against trespass are posted on trees along its unfenced borders. According to Kate Meadows, a public affairs officer assigned to the Naval Education & Training Command, hikers, loggers and locals rarely breach the base’s boundaries. “The SERE staff normally encounters one or two such individuals per year who are then escorted off the property,” she told us.
In addition to the eyes and ears of staff and students, the Navy apparently has other means of conducting surveillance on its property — most likely hidden cameras and remote listening devices; and possibly, these days, drones. “The students, although they think they’re alone, are never unsupervised,” said Sheldon Prosser, the assistant officer in charge at the Redington base.
SERE personnel have two compelling reasons to find trespassers as soon as possible. One is national security. Due to the highly “sensitive” nature of the activities that take place, the SERE program is classified. The other reason is the nature of the war games conducted in those woods. Navy personnel go to great lengths to make the training seem as realistic as possible. Were a couple of dopy locals to stumble upon the scene, the illusion that students are operating behind enemy lines would be shattered.
Not long after Largay disappeared, administrators of the Navy’s East Coast SERE program — which has been based at Naval Shipyard Portsmouth since the Naval Air Station in Brunswick was closed in 2011 — applied for federal funds to protect land around the Redington facility from development. Last summer, the Department of Defense awarded the Trust for Public Lands (working in partnership with the Maine Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited and other environmental groups) $2 million to conserve nearly 10,000 acres in the area. The military benefits of the conservation project, according to a fact sheet prepared by the Navy, are that it “protects the ability to perform sensitive training,” “improves operational security” and “preserves a realistic isolated training environment.”
So, again, how is it possible that a 66-year-old grandmother who, one assumes, desperately wanted to be found, lived unseen for weeks in the same woods where thousands of sailors, spies, pilots and Marines desperate to avoid detection (and the tortuous treatment they knew would follow) could not stay hidden for more than a day or two?
Well, first off, 12,500 acres of forestland is a lot of woods, and Largay was not in the specific area where the SERE exercises were taking place the week she got lost. Prosser said last summer, before Largay’s remains were found, that students were not being trained “in the vicinity of the disappearance or where authorities expect [Largay] to be.” The two areas are “separated by a significant ridgeline,” he added. (That also suggests the only “bugs” in the forest Largay camped in were insects.)
Secondly, the Navy made no concerted effort to find Largay, even after it became obvious that her disappearance was an extraordinary occurrence that called for an extraordinary response — and after wardens determined, a few days later, that she most likely left the trail in the section that cuts right through Navy property.
Largay’s body was recovered about 100 yards inside the training facility’s border, north of the A.T. and in the southeastern corner of the SERE School range. The Navy also owns a smaller section of land directly south of the trail, though that area is not used for SERE training, as far as we know. The A.T. is part of the National Park System, which legally controls a roughly 1,000-foot corridor around the trail. The section of the A.T. that cuts across the southern half of the Navy’s land — from Poplar Ridge to the rectangle of Maine Public Reserve Land located east of Oberton Stream — is the section Largay was known to be hiking shortly before she vanished.
Largay made camp inside the SERE range on Tuesday, July 23, the day after she got lost. According to Prosser and Meadows, on Thursday of that week “approximately 42” SERE students arrived at Redington for the field portion of their training, having already had several days of classroom instruction in Portsmouth. A typical field training session involves about 25 or 30 SERE staff, Prosser said, so there were upwards of 70 people on site at the time. The trainees in that course “graduated” on Friday, Aug. 2, according to Meadows.
Prosser told us last summer that SERE training was not interrupted during the search for Largay. Lt. Adam said last fall that wardens’ efforts to search the woods where Largay was found were limited, in part, “because of the terrain and because we didn’t have enough trained, physically fit people for this area.” The tragic truth is that wardens did not receive assistance from the scores of physically fit SERE students and staff who were in that area during the height of the search effort.
There’s scant reference to anything related to the SERE School in the voluminous cache of documents the Warden Service released, under legal pressure, last May. For example, a lengthy synopsis of search efforts outlined in a report by Warden Scott Thrasher specifically mentions the naval base only once. Among a list of activities undertaken on July 25, the first full day of the search, Thrasher wrote: “Inv. Dugis [sic] search Reddington [sic] Naval Base at 1215pm notifying them of missing hiker.”
Of course, Warden Service investigator Philip Dugas could not have singlehandedly performed much of a “search” of the 12,500-acre property that afternoon, though it’s notable that Navy personnel were notified of Largay’s disappearance the same day the students arrived for training.
In order to assess the decisions the Warden Service made in this case, we need to understand the sequence of events during the first few weeks Largay was missing. The documents released in May fill in numerous blank spaces along that timeline.
Early in the morning of Monday, July 22, Largay left the lean-to shelter at Poplar Ridge, headed for the shelter at Spaulding Mountain, where she intended to spend Monday night. Her plan was to leave the Spaulding lean-to on Tuesday morning and hike to where the A.T. meets Route 27. Her husband George Largay, who’d been following her by car and regularly meeting up with his wife to help her rest and resupply, expected to meet her at that juncture late Tuesday afternoon or early that evening.
George received a text message from Gerry at 7:15 a.m. Monday morning informing him that she was leaving Poplar Ridge. That was the last message she sent that anyone received.
According to an article on the Brentwood Home Page, an online news source serving the community in Tennessee where the Largays have roots, the couple had a “communication protocol” by which “Gerry would text George every couple hours at mile points.” The Largays knew from experience that cell phone reception in the mountains could be spotty, so when George sent a text to Gerry on Monday afternoon and did not receive a response, that may have been cause for concern, but not necessarily alarm.
Indeed, George did not alert authorities that Gerry was missing until the early afternoon of Wednesday, July 24. He told wardens that he figured Gerry’s progress had been delayed by heavy rainfall on Tuesday, so he was not especially worried when she didn’t emerge from the woods that night. (On Wednesday morning, George spoke with A.T. hikers passing through the Route 27 juncture to ask if they had seen Gerry or would spread word that he was waiting for her. Those inquiries eventually prompted one of the false reports that led wardens to think Gerry had made it to Spaulding Mountain — the so-called “mystery call” to the Stratton Motel made late Wednesday afternoon. More on that shortly.)
Despite the fact Gerry was almost 24 hours late at that point, and had not texted George for over 50 hours, wardens made little effort to find her Wednesday afternoon or evening. Warden Thrasher’s synopsis makes brief mention of an “initial search” on Wednesday, but in the Call for Service report for that day, Warden Durward Humphrey wrote that he called Warden Lt. Tim Place, “who advised that we would not search today but give her some more time to come out on her own as there had been a lot of rain the day before.” Humphrey also noted a communication from Warden Sgt. Justin Fowlie, who “told me we [would not] be doing anything this evening.”
According to the Warden Service’s own statistics, 92 percent of people reported missing in the wilderness are found within 12 hours of the report. According to the wardens’ own documents in this case, they waited about 18 hours before they really started looking for Largay.
The search began in earnest on the morning of Thursday, July 25. “AT and area roads are searched” that day, according to Thrasher’s synopsis. Wardens and members of a civilian search-and-rescue group also covered numerous side trails that Thursday, and apparently had two teams of searchers in the vicinity of Largay’s campsite that evening. At 5:45 p.m., Thrasher was informed that two teams were “at the logging road north of Barnjum where AT crosses … and they are headed out.” Largay’s camp was quite close to one of those logging roads, which are distinct enough to be marked in the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.
Two significant clues arrived on Thursday. A warrant faxed to Verizon for information on Gerry Largay’s cell phone indicated that a call made to her phone on Monday at 3:36 p.m. was not received, but did produce a “ping” located “just north of the AT south of Caribou Pond,” Thrasher wrote. That’s the general area where Largay actually was — the coordinates of the ping are about a mile northeast of where Largay eventually set up camp on Tuesday.
Had wardens scoured this area with grid searches, they likely would have located Largay before the end of the week. But this is the same area Lt. Adam claimed they lacked the manpower to search, despite the fact the terrain is relatively flat and easy to navigate, which is why logging roads were cut through the woods here half a century ago.
In his final report, Lt. Adam describes his first foray into this area. It took place Oct. 18, 2015, when he and three other wardens brought Largay’s husband, son, daughter and son-in-law to her campsite.
“Once we navigated through the thick boundary along the AT, the woods transitioned from softwoods to open hardwoods,” Adam wrote. “I could see for several hundred yards in either direction. It was fairly easy walking although may have been different in summer with ferns. I noticed several old skidder or logging trails that were running through the property. These were very old, maybe 1940’s and 1950’s era logging roads.” [Emphasis added.]
The second major clue received on Thursday, July 25, arrived at 6 p.m. and drew the wardens’ attention away from the area the ping was in. That’s when the owner of the Stratton Motel, Sue Critchlow, told wardens about the “mystery call” she’d received on Wednesday evening from a hiker who, according to Critchlow, claimed to have spent Tuesday night with Gerry at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to. The caller knew Gerry’s trail name, Inchworm, and that George was waiting for her at Route 27. The caller allegedly asked Critchlow to inform George that Gerry would be late.
The documents released in May solve this mystery. Wardens were eventually able to find the caller, a woman about Gerry’s age who was also hiking northbound. This woman, whose trail name was Kaleidescope, had grown concerned about Gerry after numerous hikers heading south, who’d spoken with George at the Route 27 trailhead, asked her about the missing hiker named Inchworm. That prompted Kaleidescope to call the Stratton Motel late Wednesday afternoon to help spread the word, but the substance of that call got garbled somehow, because Kaleidescope didn’t know Gerry and had not stayed with her at the Spaulding shelter.
Three teenage boys hiking south on the A.T. that week also unwittingly sent wardens in the wrong direction early in the search. They reported seeing a woman who might have been Gerry near Lone Mountain, which is about halfway between Poplar Ridge and Spaulding. “The Maine Warden Service thought, for more than a week, that Mrs. Largay was the woman seen by the teenagers on Lone Mtn.,” Warden Dugas, the investigator, wrote in his report.
Dugas goes on to note that wardens realized the error on Aug. 8, when two other investigators interviewed a hiker whose trail name was Ivonic. Ivonic stayed at the Poplar Ridge shelter with Gerry the night of Sunday, July 21, and left Poplar Ridge around 9:30 a.m. Monday morning, two and half hours after Gerry departed. Ivonic was also hiking north, and recalled seeing the three southbound teens, but said she never passed Gerry and did not see her again at the Spaulding Mountain shelter on Monday night.
In fact, the Warden Service spoke at length with Ivonic on Aug. 2, the Friday of the week after Largay vanished. A field interview report made that day by Warden Troy Dauphinee makes it clear that Ivonic did not see Gerry on Monday. Combined with the teens’ account, Ivonic’s comments practically proved that Gerry must have left the trail before she reached Lone Mountain, which is what actually happened.
So, to return to our timeline, the extensive search efforts undertaken between Thursday, July 25, and Tuesday, July 30, were based on faulty information that led wardens to focus on areas too far north along the A.T.. On Wednesday, July 31, after six full days of searching with no sign of Largay, the effort was suspended and one final big push to find Gerry was planned for Sunday, Aug. 4. A map of the grid searches performed that day shows rescuers were still looking too far north along the trail, in the area between Lone Mountain and Spaulding.
As for the Navy, the window of time within which the scores of SERE staff and students could have helped look for Largay likely closed a couple days before the search effort was suspended on July 31. As previously noted, most details about the SERE program are classified, but accounts by past participants indicate that the Survival and Evasion portions of the training last for two or three days, and are followed by several days of confinement and interrogation at the fake P.O.W. camp. The students that arrived on July 25 were probably inside the camp by Monday, July 29, at which point their ability to assist with a search would have been severely limited.
The wardens’ official reports on this case make no mention of any effort by SERE staff to assist, but in the daily notes buried amid the 1,500-plus pages released in May there are several references to SERE personnel looking for Largay on their property and, in some cases, discovering clues.
- On Friday, July 26, a document listing “Search Assets” refers to a “SERE Team,” consisting of four-to-five people, that “located a single track” made by boots with Vibram soles “east of Redington Pond,” which is the general vicinity of Largay’s campsite. A photocopy of the relevant page of the DeLorme atlas shows hash marks along the eastern boundary of the Navy’s property, and the preceding Team Assignment sheet refers to a K-9 team whose “assignment” is “east side perimeter fense [sic].”
- Another assignment sheet, also completed on July 26, lists seven “DBAP (SERE)” members, in the company of a civilian searcher, whose assignment was “west of Redington Pond.”
- A Communications Log dated July 27 seems to refer to the same team, minus the civilian: a SERE leader with three “trackers” and three “flankers” searching the “backside” and north side of Redington Pond.
- A handwritten note, dated July 28, references “Warden Hammond going in with Sere team” to collect evidence. Parts of the note were redacted prior to its release, but its author wrote “((Blood))!!” on the page. This note most likely refers to a rock with a blood stain on it that was later determined not to be Largay’s blood.
- A Team Assignment sheet for Aug. 4 refers to a grid search at “Corner of Barnjum Rd — AT” conducted by five wardens, who are listed by name, and this remark: “+ Sere Team.”
- A K-9 search conducted on Navy land near Poplar Ridge on Aug. 14 included two people, one of whom is referred to only as “SERE worker.”
- There are a few scattered references to “SERE guys” or “DBAP members” in notes referring to searches conducted in September and October of 2013, well after Largay could have survived.
Here’s how Lt. Adam described the Navy’s involvement when questioned about it during the press conference last fall: “There is a group of instructors that are part of a search-and-rescue group [DBAP] for Maine Association of Search and Rescue and we used them extensively during the beginning part of the search. It was easier just to communicate with them there, find out what they had done, give them a new assignment, and they would search around that area. They’ve been very helpful with us, letting us in there whenever we needed to be, and helping us with their knowledge of the land.”
Whether the handful of searches listed above can accurately be characterized as “extensive” is questionable, but the list does indicate that DBAP’s involvement was mostly limited to the first two or three days (“the beginning part”) of the search effort. There may have been additional searches conducted by Navy personnel that we don’t know about. A list of the reports supposedly included in the documents released in May refers to a four-page “N.C.I.S. report” that is not actually among the pages made public. The Warden Service did not respond to our inquiry regarding this missing report.
Lt. Adam’s comments last October also make it clear that wardens were not free to enter the SERE property without the Navy’s permission. The NCIS agent who joined Adam at the press conference referred to the base as a “control area — it’s a controlled Navy training facility.” One wonders whether the presence of a video crew from North Woods Law, which had cameras rolling throughout the first week or so of the search, was another reason why wardens considered it “easier” to leave that “control area” to DBAP, especially since there was a SERE training in progress at the time.
In addition to the cell phone ping, something else should have pointed the wardens toward this “very likely area” in the first week of the search: the shocking description of Largay’s hiking habits provided by her hiking partner, Jane Lee.
Gerry Largay never intended to hike the 2,184 miles of the A.T. alone. The plan was to hike it with her good friend, Jane Lee. The pair set out from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on April 23 and aimed to reach Mount Katahdin, then return to Harpers Ferry and hike the trail south to its terminus in Georgia — what thru-hikers call a “flip-flop.” George was following them in his vehicle to provide support every couple days — his nickname for the journey was Sherpa.
The Largays had been married for 42 years. They met while Gerry was working as a nurse at an Air Force hospital and George was an administrator on the base. George described his wife to reporters as someone who lived her life to serve others, be they patients, children or friends from church. The thru-hike was her big opportunity to finally do something for herself. The couple, who were retired and living in Atlanta, sold their house and put all their domestic belongings in storage shortly before embarking on the trip. They uprooted their very staid and stable lives to make this once-in-a-lifetime journey.
This helps explain why Gerry was so determined to finish the northern leg of the hike even after Lee had to leave the trail at the end of June to attend to a family emergency. And it helps explain why George agreed to let her continue alone. That, and the fact that, as Warden Dugas wrote — then circled and starred — in his notes, “George doesn’t know the extent of [Gerry’s] inability to deal.”
Lee noticed troubling changes in her friend’s behavior the year before they began their big hike. According to Warden Dugas’ notes on his first conversation with Lee, which took place July 26, Gerry was “slower, less steady … and more careful” than she’d been during hikes they took in the summer of 2012, and she “had become forgetful.” As they hiked the A.T. in the spring of 2013, “Ms. Lee said that she had to go backwards on the trail and find Geraldine on an ever increasing basis.”
Elsewhere in the notes there are remarks like “off the trail four times in Dartmouth,” “no confidence” and, “If she took side trail she’d forget where she was.” Lee told the wardens she hiked ahead of Gerry, who was slower than her younger friend, but soon got in the habit of stopping and waiting for Gerry wherever side trails met the A.T., because otherwise her friend was likely to take the side trail and get lost and flustered.
The Warden Service emphasized Gerry’s lack of a sense of direction in a sworn statement they provided to Verizon to obtain her phone records with a warrant. “[Lee] had stated that GERALDINE routinely would become disoriented throughout their hike and they would have frequent arguments about which direction to hike in along the trail,” investigator Joshua Bubier said in his July 26 statement. “[Lee] felt that GERALDINE would have easily taken a wrong trail or gotten off the Appalachian Trail into the woods or down what might appear to be a trail and have gotten lost or injured.”
The first distinct side trails Largay would have encountered after leaving her last known location, Poplar Ridge, were the Railroad Road next to Oberton Stream and the logging roads, marked on the DeLorme atlas, a short distance beyond that. Sure enough, Largay made camp on a knoll located about 70 yards from one of those logging roads.
The wardens’ failure to take Largay’s hiking habits into account was compounded by their failure to take her prescription drug habit into account. But in this failure, they were hardly alone. It seems that neither Jane Lee, not George Largay, nor the doctor who prescribed Gerry’s meds fully understood the danger those drugs posed for Gerry in this situation.
The Warden Service attempted to redact all references to the prescription anti-anxiety medications Largay was taking, but either failed or forgot to erase those references from the handwritten notes included among the documents released in May. Those notes identify the meds as Ativan and Lexapro.
Ativan is the brand name for lorazepam, a benzodiazepine (or “benzo”) drug prescribed to tens of millions of Americans for the short-term treatment of anxiety. Due to the high risk of addiction — which can negatively affect memory and balance, among other symptoms — it’s recommended that Ativan be taken for no longer than a few weeks. Largay had been popping the pills nightly for about a decade.
Lexapro, the brand name for the drug escitalopram, is an antidepressant also widely prescribed to treat anxiety disorder. As with Ativan, patients are strongly cautioned not to abruptly discontinue its use. The withdrawal symptoms of both drugs include the “rebound” of anxiety and panic attacks, depression, loss of balance, disorientation and sensory disturbances. But benzo withdrawal is especially dangerous. Its lengthy list of symptoms includes muscle pain and weakness, fatigue, hypersensitivity to light and sound, depression, delirium, and paranoia.
After interviewing George the day he reported Gerry missing, a warden filled out a Missing Persons/Wanderers Information Sheet that includes a line for “Consequences of Not Taking Medication.” The answer the warden wrote was: “no.”
Warden Service investigator Dugas asked George about Gerry’s medical conditions on July 25. George gave him a Ziploc bag with several pill bottles containing meds for back spasms, high blood pressure, and difficulty sleeping.
It was not until Aug. 13, 2013, that the Warden Service contacted Gerry’s doctor, Carolyn Sigman. Dugas typed in his report that, according to Dr. Sigman, “Mrs. Largay was in good health and the prescribed medications would have caused no problems.” However, among the medications contained in the Ziploc bag, which Dugas listed for Sigman, one very important med was missing.
“Dr. Sigman said that the [redacted] was Geraldine’s base medication,” Dugas wrote. “It was prescribed for daily use in a 10 mg. dose for anxiety. Dr. Sigman said that if Mrs. Largay was not taking the [redacted], she would be susceptible to anxiety and possibly panic attacks. … According to Dr. Sigman, Geraldine Largay had a long term issue with anxiety and without the baseline medication she was likely prone to anxiety.”
Dugas called Jane Lee the following morning, Aug. 14. Lee, who is also a nurse, claimed she and Gerry had discussed all the medications they were taking, but said she was unaware Gerry was taking this so-called “baseline” anti-anxiety med in addition to the pill she took nightly to help her sleep.
The handwritten notes list Ativan as the drug Gerry was taking to sleep, which suggests the “baseline” med was Lexapro. Dugas’ handwritten notes on his talk with Dr. Sigman contain the phrases “same medication 2005” and “been on, too long.”
“It would be a problem if Gerry wasn’t taking prescribed Lexipro [sic] or generic equivalent,” Dugas wrote. “That is her baseline medication. Would be very susceptible to anxiety and panic without med.”
To reiterate, anxiety and panic are but two of a host of nightmarish, debilitating symptoms associated with abrupt withdrawal from Ativan and Lexapro. Those symptoms can be easily researched in medical literature and the copious personal accounts online. By the time wardens realized this could be a problem, Gerry had been missing for over three weeks. The search effort had been “extensively scaled back” nine days before Dugas spoke with Dr. Sigman, in part because authorities had no indication that Gerry was still alive.
Wardens knew at the start of their search that when Gerry left Poplar Ridge she had about two days’ worth of food, a tent, a camp stove, an emergency whistle, lighters and waterproof matches. They also surmised that she had only enough prescription medication for the three days she’d expected to be on the trail. Had Gerry been blowing her emergency whistle at regular intervals, there was a very good chance a passing hiker or searcher would have heard it (again, she was only about half a mile from the A.T., during a month when the trail is fairly heavily travelled). Building a smoky campfire also would have been a relatively easy way to alert authorities to her location.
When they finally entered Largay’s campsite last fall, wardens observed that there was plenty of dry wood and brush around and a stream nearby with rocks small enough to be carried and used to make a fire pit. Largay had apparently attempted to signal rescuers by tying her reflective space blanket to tree branches about 25 yards from her campsite, but her efforts to build a signal fire were either nonexistent or irrational.
Wardens found no evidence of a fire pit, but about 30 yards away from the site there were two dead trees, still standing, and a third tree that had fallen — all of which had “charred burn marks,” Lt. Adam wrote. Wardens initially thought the marks were caused by a lightning strike, but after “further investigation it looks like some sort of fire was attempted on these trees by Gerry.” Had the trees ignited during dry, windy conditions that summer, they could have caused a forest fire of disastrous proportions.
The other bitter irony of Largay’s story is that while the Navy was busy “torturing” our troops on one part of their base, a former Air Force nurse was likely suffering torments of her own on another part of their property.
Lee told the wardens that Gerry was “scared of the dark,” “scared of being alone” and hated to sleep in her tent in the woods. A northbound hiker going by the trail name Gummy Bear, who accompanied Gerry for a few days before she reached Poplar Ridge, told wardens Largay had expressed fear of being attacked. When one considers those fears in conjunction with the symptoms caused by abrupt withdrawal from her meds, the nightmare of Largay’s ordeal strains the imagination and breaks the heart.
The documents released in May offer only glimpses into Gerry’s state of mind during this time. For example, an examination of her cell phone, recovered at the campsite, revealed that at about 11 a.m. on Monday, July 22, she attempted to send a text to George alerting him that she’d gotten lost and asking him to send help. She tried to send that message 10 more times in the next hour and a half, to no avail. On July 23, at 4:18 p.m., Gerry tried to send a text that read, “Lost since yesterday. Off trail 3 or 4 miles. Call police for what to do pls. Xox.” She didn’t attempt to send that text again until the afternoon of July 27.
“The last four unsent texts [sic] messages all occur on 7-30-2013 between 4:35 pm and 4:41 pm,” Lt. Adam wrote in a report. The content of those messages is not revealed. And two texts were “deleted” on Aug. 6, the last day any activity is recorded on the phone, according to Adam’s report.
August 6 is also the day Gerry wrote the one journal entry authorities have released to the public. That entry indicates her state of mind was hopeless and fatalistic, although she may have survived another 12 days after she wrote it. Largay’s lack of activity during most of the time she was lost suggests she lacked the will to take the types of actions that could have saved her life.
The wardens, having read her journal, are well aware of what she was thinking in those days. The official description of the journal’s contents is vague: “personal messages to Gerry’s loved ones and day to day thoughts.” But wardens have also produced a couple pictures of Gerry’s journal pages, as well as an A.T. guide she wrote upon, that contain illegible or incoherent passages. A warden described those passages to civilian rescuers during a debriefing session as “a lot of rambling.”
The Warden Service has not issued any further statements on the case since they made their disclosures last May, and did not respond to a request for comment before this story went to press.
The Largay family released a statement in late May, through a public relations firm, that read, “While we grieve for Gerry, we do not second-guess any of the efforts to find her when she went missing. We witnessed firsthand the passion and commitment of the hundreds of game wardens and volunteers who searched for her. And having hiked into the site where she died, we know how hard it would have been to find her.”
The Largay family’s statement appeared to challenge the conclusion that Gerry was unfit to undertake the hike by herself. “Gerry was doing exactly what she wanted to do,” the statement read. “She’d hiked a thousand miles … and as the warden’s report indicates, she was lucid and thinking of others, as always, until the very end.”