What Really Happened to Geraldine Largay?

The Bollard, an alternative newspaper in Maine, has published an article about the disappearance of Geraldine Largay, the retired nurse who vanished on the Appalachian Trail two years ago this month, that puts into print a rumor that that I have only heard before in conversation.

Largay's disappearance was an important influence on my decision to write The Precipice — although I took pains to separate my novel from her story. I didn't want to exploit what is very much an ongoing missing persons case with family and friends still mourning the loss of someone they loved. If you are unfamiliar with what happened to Gerry Largay, the best place to start is Kathryn Miles's great Boston Globe piece.

The Bollard article, written by Hutch Brown, takes the story into the realm of conspiracy theory:

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.
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.

I have heard this rumor before, and I agree that the mention of the SERE base being adjacent to the section of the AT where Gerry Largay disappeared was curiously absent from media coverage of the search. There is a lot about what Hutch Brown has written here that I like, and I applaud The Bollard for pointing out the existence of the SERE school and its proximity to the AT. 

Here's my issue, though: Buried in this article is some unstated speculation about what might have happened to Largay. She was killed by someone at the SERE school? (Why?) She died but the Navy was so protective of its privacy that no one cared to look for her body? (Really?) This speculation leads inevitably to some sort of massive government-authorized cover up. I would suggest that the responsible way to put forward this theory would be to admit these implications. I'm not a fan of the "raises questions" school of journalism.

UPDATE: As compelling as conspiracy theories can be, the truth is usually more mundane. One of my readers pointed me to this entry from the Franklin County Sheriff's log the week before Largay disappeared:

"07/06/2013 Deputy Zecher responded to the Appalachian Trail in Wyman Township regarding a complaint from a female hiker. The complainant stated that there was a strange man who goes by the name of Richard (nickname brown blazer) had been acting strange. He has been leaving threatening messages on the AT trail recording logs. No one person has been targeted, however, she wanted to report it to law enforcement. A check of the trail heads did not reveal any vehicles that came close to the alleged offender’s first name. Notification has been made throughout the hiking community."

POSTSCRIPT: In the Bangor Daily News, Michael Kessock, a retired Navy pilot, offers a devastating response to Busby's depiction of SERE school. 

POSTSCRIPT TO THE POSTSCRIPT: Because this post continues to show up on Internet searches, people who find their way here often don't know that Geraldine Largay's body was indeed found and the circumstances of her death established beyond doubt. Kathryn Miles wrote a comprehensive account of what we now know about this tragedy for the Boston Globe. It's worth reading.