A contractor conducting a forest survey about 3,000 feet off the Appalachian Trail on Wednesday discovered skeletal remains in the western Maine mountains. They are believed to be those of missing hiker Geraldine Largay, who vanished more than two years ago while hiking the AT.
The remains were discovered in a heavily forested area on federal land used by the U.S. Navy for training, according to the Maine Warden Service.
Positive identification and a cause of death will be determined in the coming weeks by the medical examiner’s office. However, due to the location of the remains and evidence gathered at the scene, the Maine Warden Service feels confident that Largay has now been located. Along with the skeletal remains, several pieces of clothing and belongings consistent with items known to be in Largay’s possession were also found at the scene and will be studied thoroughly in the coming weeks.
“These findings will bring closure to one of Maine’s most unique and challenging search and rescue incidents,” said Cpl. John MacDonald, spokesperson of the Maine Warden Service, at a news conference held at the Department of Public Safety building in Augusta at 1 p.m. today, reading a statement from the Maine Warden Service.
Lt. Kevin Adam of the Maine Warden Service, who led the search, and NCIS special agent Nathan O’Connor were also present at the press conference to answer questions.
“It’s a great sense of relief that we’ve found Gerry and we can return her to her family,” Adam said. “The other thing is — pending the medical examiner’s results — it puts to bed what everybody thought, that there was criminal play around this. We just never saw any of that.”
The search for ‘Inchworm’
Geraldine “Gerry” Anita Largay, 66, of Tennessee, started hiking the AT in April 2013 at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Her trail name was “Inchworm,” and her destination was the north end of the trail, atop Mount Katahdin in Maine.
With the help of her husband, George, who met her along the way with supplies, she made it to Maine.
Largay was last seen by two fellow hikers at Poplar Ridge Lean-to, a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, just north of Saddleback Mountain on July 22, 2013. From there, she planned to hike north 8 miles and spend the night at Spaulding Mountain Lean-To. And on July 23, she planned to hike about 13 miles over several mountains to meet her husband where the AT crosses Route 27.
But she never showed.
The search began the next day, on July 24, when wardens and K9 teams conducted what is called a “hasty search,” a method in which searchers look in likely areas and paths of least resistance such as old woods roads and streambeds.
“When we look at our stats, 92 percent of people are found with hasty searches within 12 hours,” MacDonald said.
For Largay, that wasn’t the case.
Since then, extensive searches have been conducted by the Maine Warden Service, state police and the Maine Association of Search and Rescue along the 23-mile stretch of the AT and surrounding land. Those search efforts yielded no clues about what happened to Largay, according to the Maine Warden Service.
“We did as much as we could,” Adam said. “We’d go up there to do trainings and search. Everybody wanted to find Gerry. It was a great effort, and we learned a lot from this.”
Investigators don’t know why Largay was off trail or how she died.
According to maps provided by the Maine Warden Service, three cadaver dog teams came within about a hundred yards of the site where the remains were found. One team passed near the site on Aug. 8, 2013, while the other two teams passed near the site in 2014.
“We like to run grid searches [by people] behind canines, but because of the terrain, and because we didn’t have enough trained, physically fit people, we couldn’t do that a lot for this area,” Adam said.
The remains were located on a slope about 3,500 feet east of the easterly shore of Redington Pond, about 100 yards inside the boundary of a 12,500-acre Navy range located in Redington Township. The land is used by the U.S. Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, instructors of which aided in the initial searches for Largay in 2013.
The contractor reported his findings to the Navy, which subsequently alerted the Maine Warden Service. Maine game wardens, state police detectives, NCIS investigators and representative from the medical examiner’s office hiked to the scene of the remains Thursday morning.
‘It’s worse if you go off trail’
The body was found in a mature wooded area, according to the Maine Warden Service, with a lot of mid-level brush and a thick canopy.
AT experts say it’s a challenging area.
“The trail goes over some very steep terrain,” said David Field of Hampden, who has been maintaining that section of the AT for the past 58 years as a volunteer of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. “But it’s worse if you go off trail.”
“On the east side, it’s almost impossible to walk because you’re talking 100-foot cliffs, boulder fields and caves,” Field said.
It’s there, to the northeast of Poplar Ridge, where the remains were found.
“It just blows my mind,” Field said. “The MATC has taken care of this trail since 1935. It’s well-maintained and clear and we’ve just never had anything like this happen before.”
Volunteers of the MATC maintain 276 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, as well as the AT corridor, a band of federally protected land that sandwiches the trail.
The MATC was not officially involved in the searches for Largay.
“Maine Appalachian Trail Club volunteers stand ready to assist the Maine Warden Service in searches of lost hikers on the Appalachian Trail,” said MATC President Lester Kenway in response to the recent discovery. “Our members possess knowledge second-to-none of current trail conditions and the most expeditious access routes.”
Kenway encourages hikers to fill out cards at MATC register boxes located at scenic points and key trail junctions, or journals at lean-tos. These records may help officials narrow the scope of a search for a lost hiker.
“We used our Maine Association of Search and Rescue professionals almost exclusively because we needed fit people who could navigate in the backcountry,” Adam said. “We needed experienced people, and there are only so many MASAR people … and we used those people hard.”
“I’ve love to have more searchers join MASAR,” he added. “There are always a bunch of people who want to come and search, and I say, channel that energy to a search and rescue group.”
Mourning and closure
The Largay family, which has been updated routinely about searches and investigative leads regarding her disappearance, has asked for time to come to terms with the discovery before making any further public statement, but did want to express gratitude to all the searchers and investigators who have taken the time to search for Largay.
The Largay family was offering a $25,000 reward to anyone who could offer information about her disappearance. They have been given the name and contact information for the contractor who found the remains, MacDonald said.
The investigation is ongoing. While the Maine Warden Service does not believe foul play is involved at this time, investigators have not ruled it out.
“At this point we do not see any evidence of foul play. That’s pending the results from the medical examiner,” Adam said. “That could change if they find something.”