When we hear of a person going missing without a trace, it’s often in municipalities, such as cities. The moment a loved one has realized the person is missing, they contact their local police department to file a missing persons report. From there, search and/or rescue efforts are launched by the local law enforcement. Hundreds of labor-hours are spent canvassing the area where the missing persons were last seen, speaking to witnesses who knew the missing person, and gathering information that could unearth plausible leads. According to the NCIC, as of May 31, 2018, there were 87,608 active missing person cases in the United States. However, that number may be inaccurate, as disappearances within the public lands of the United States, such as national parks, are poorly cataloged and filed. When you go missing in the city, the local police will likely look for you. But who is there to answer the panicked call when the only other human being for miles might be a single park ranger?
Available data on the exact number of missing persons cases varies by source, but the fact is, no one is immune from going missing—even in national parks. One of the youngest missing persons to vanish in a state park was Alfred Beilhartz in 1938. When he was reported missing during a family camping trip over the July 4th weekend in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, he was just five years old. The family noticed Alfred was missing when the family reunited at the camp after a trip to the river. A search party of 150 people searched for Alfred, but after ten days, the authorities decided the little boy must have drowned in the river.
In a more recent case, one of the oldest missing persons to go missing was John Devine in 1997. John was 73 when he disappeared from Olympic National Park in Washington State. Despite his age and the intrepid 24-mile hike from Mount Baldy, John Devine was an experienced hiker who was known to handle himself well in the wilderness. The search for John was conducted in terrible weather conditions eventually causing a helicopter crash killing three people who were searching for John in the air while other search party members scoured the land on foot. The search was called off on the sentiment John would not want others put in harm’s way.
People go missing every day for a myriad of reasons, such as being the victim of a crime, or running away. In national parks, however, the disappearance is usually attributed to one of two things, one being the wrath of Mother Nature. In July 2004, David Gonzales and his family were on a camping trip in Northern California’s San Bernadino National Forest, when he asked his mother if he could have her car keys. Why? Because there were cookies in the car. His mother handed him the keys, thinking nothing of it. After all, the car was only 50 yards away. What happened next was the stuff of every parent’s nightmare. David’s mother turned her back for only a short moment, and by the time she turned back to look for her son, he was gone. It was mystifying. She recalled hearing no sound, no struggle indicating her child was in peril. She recalled later in her report, she saw a beige truck spinning its tires as it flew out of the campground around approximately the time her son went missing, but since there were no signs of abduction, authorities had no reason to investigate. The boy’s remains were discovered a year later by hikers, a little more than a mile from the family’s campsite. Authorities finally decided the boy must have been the victim of a mountain lion attack.
When national park missing persons cases finally go cold, after exhausting all leads and resources, it’s not uncommon for the locals, or even law enforcement, to shrug their shoulders and say, “They were ‘spirited away’.” Many are familiar with the 2001 Miyazaki classic film of the same name. In the film, a young girl named Chihiro is moving to a new neighborhood, during the move, the family gets lost in the woods. She loses her parents to the temptations of the spirit world and spends the rest of the film trying to reunite with them. The family goes missing from the outside world without a trace or without reason, and this is called being “spirited away.”
One of the oldest missing persons cases occurring in a national park is the disappearance of Bessie and Glen Hyde in 1928. They were newlyweds who were on a mission to traverse the intense rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was a bold mission, and if successful, Bessie would have been the first woman to accomplish this mighty feat. The couple was last seen on November 18th, when they were photographed before going back into the canyon to complete their route. After they didn’t show up in Needles, California in early December of that year, Glen’s father initiated the search for his son and daughter-in-law. After two weeks, their boat was finally spotted from a search plane. It was upright, undamaged, and full of supplies. There have been many theories about what became of the newlyweds, including running aground in choppy rapids, and a possible domestic dispute that might have ended violently. A woman even came forward in 1971 saying she was the long-missing Bessie Hyde, who had stabbed her new husband in a rage on the trip, but she later recanted. Without the investigative resources of the 21st century, it’s easy to believe two young people in the roaring twenties would just vanish without a trace. However, as we’ve discussed in previous articles about Americans who go missing overseas, we know it’s still possible today, as was the cases of both David Gimelfarb and Aubrey Sacco, who went missing in national parks in Costa Rica and Nepal respectively.
Accurate data surrounding the exact amount of people who have disappeared in our Nation’s national parks is either unreliable or flat-out inaccurate, depending on the source, because the government does not engage high levels of research into these statistics. In an article for Outside, Jon Billman makes an important point, “The Department of the Interior knows how many wolves and grizzly bears roam its wilds—can’t it keep track of visitors who disappear?…The Department of Justice keeps a database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, but reporting missing persons is voluntary in all but ten states, and law-enforcement and coroner participation is voluntary as well. So a lot of the missing are also missing from the database.” He goes on to say in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York, the Department of the Interior attempted to build a database called the Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System (IMARS) “to track law-enforcement actions across lands managed by the National Park Service.” Alas, ten years and $50 million in taxpayers’ dollars later, the database suffered from numerous issues, and the project was written off as a failure.
Including national parks and national forests, the amount of federally-owned land in the United States comes to about 640 million acres. How are we keeping track of these visitors coming to these beautiful places and vanishing without a trace? Depending on the amount of funding, these vast expanses of wilderness owned by the government might be patrolled by a single park ranger. Once a person is reported missing, hundreds could join the search, but it begs the question of how preventable would these missing person cases be if parks were well-staffed. There are also private citizens out there who make it their personal mission to investigate disappearances in national parks, like famed author and investigator David Paulides. He is an ex-cop from California, whose interest in the wilderness began with his founding of the North American Bigfoot Search. But while the existence of Bigfoot may never be successfully proven, Paulides has made a career out of studying the phenomenon of individuals who go missing in national parks, including the founding of the CanAm Missing Project. Jon Billman tells us about Paulides’ approach:
“I don’t put any theories in the books—I just connect facts,” he told me. Under “unique factors of disappearances,” he lists such recurring characteristics as dogs unable to track scents, the time (late afternoon is a popular window to vanish), and that many victims are found with clothing and footwear removed. Bodies are also discovered in previously searched areas with odd frequency, sometimes right along the trail. Children—and remains—are occasionally found improbable distances from the point last seen, in improbable terrain.”
The lack of reliable information on behalf of the government to track these missing persons cases can create a lot of problems for investigators who are on the trail of a person who vanished in a national park. We know the blunder of the IMARS system, and the fact only 14% of information on missing persons in the NPS was actually entered, means the quest for answers will be murky and slow-going after the search party has given up and gone home. This is why hiring a private investigator to find a loved one who has gone missing in the NPS is a solid strategy.
While there are boots on the ground conducting a grid search, private investigators have the independence and experience to conduct a concurrent investigation in which all leads can be exhausted. Take for instance the disappearance of David Gonzales. What if a private investigator could have followed the lead his mother remembered about the beige truck? It’s entirely possible David Gonzales was the victim of a mountain lion attack; however, to have the remains discovered half a football field distance from where he vanished? It seems unlikely a lion would drag their prey such a distance. If David was indeed abducted, a private investigator could use the tools they have at their disposal to pursue all leads. There are also no jurisdictional restrictions preventing a private investigator from performing their due-diligence when entertaining explanations that have nothing to do with nature or the paranormal. A private investigator is beholden only to their client—not to the government, or to the weather, or to ‘the most likely scenario.’
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.
In May 2009, New Jersey resident Joe Dunsavage vanished during his international trip to Honduras. He left his wallet, passport, and luggage in his hotel room and set sail on his Catamaran to go fishing – never to be heard from again.
The 49-year old mortgage company manager also had a business in the Central American country, so he was familiar with Honduras and its culture.
His family searched for him for months in Honduras. His brother Jeff Dunsavage maxed out his credit cards and even mortgaged his home paying for planes and helicopters to search Honduran waters and other Central American countries nearby.
(Jeff and his father Ed Dunsavage hold a picture of Joe Dunsavage.)
Each May 10th marks another year of not knowing. Not knowing if Joe is alive or dead. Joe’s father Ed Dunsavage told NJ.com, “It’s an anniversary for everyone else,” Ed said. “To us, it’s what we live with every day.”
It has also been a learning lesson for the Dunsavage family. Initially, the Dunsavages tried to get the US Military to assist in the search for the missing American. Then they contacted the State Department, Consulate, and federal representatives to no avail.
In addition to lacking assistance in the effort to find Joe, the family has faced other challenges because Joe was missing while traveling internationally. For example, even though the Dunsavage family believes Joe to be deceased, they were initially unable to collect Joe’s $150,000 life insurance for Joe’s two teen sons.
After experiencing unimaginable frustration and going into debt to find his brother, Jeff decided he wanted to ensure other families who have loved ones missing in other countries do not go through the same heartache his family has in their attempt to find assistance.
Jeff started an organization called the Missing Americans Project to advocate for families of missing persons while setting out to change the way the government deals with cases of missing persons. “It’s about getting the policy changed and getting a fair and humane interpretation that enables families who are in our situation to not have to wait many years or go through a third world corrupt court system,” Jeff said.
Much of the problem the Dunsavage faced could have been avoided if the State Department’s Foreign Affairs had issued a finding of a presumption of death. However, officials informed Jeff that he needed to go to Honduran authorities to obtain a declaration of death – something Jeff Dunsavage does not believe would be advantageous given the infamously corrupt judicial system in Honduras.
But according to the State Department’s own handbook, the department’s decision to issue a declaration of death is “discretionary” based up the circumstances of each case and “whether the government exercising jurisdiction over the place where the death is believed to have occurred lacks laws or procedures for making findings of presumptive death.” Yet, the State Department declined to help.
While the State Department’s own website concedes corruption exists within the Honduran judicial system in matters of business, it doesn’t acknowledge corruption in any other capacity.
The website states, “There are complaints that the Honduran judicial system exhibits favoritism and vulnerability to external pressure and bribes.”
“The real story is that the state Department won’t do what it is authorized to do by law, and our senators have given up on helping us.”
The State Department’s website reads, “Honduras Travel Advisory Level 3: Reconsider Travel.
“Reconsider travel to Honduras due to crime. Some areas have increased risk. Violent crime such as homicide and armed robbery is common. Violent gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, rape and narcotics and human trafficking, is widespread. Local police and emergency services lack the resources to respond effectively to serious crime.”
Sadly, the Dunsavage family is not alone when dealing with both American and foreign governmental entities that are unresponsive when a loved one goes missing across borders.
A Son Missing in Costa Rica
On August 11, 2009, Luda and Roma Gimelfarb said goodbye to their son David at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. David, a 28-year old graduate student of Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, was on his way to Costa Rica for a six-day vacation. They had no idea that would be the last time they would see their son.
Four days later, they found themselves going through the same customs line their son had encountered at Liberia Costa Rica Airport. The previous night they had received a call from the hotel manager where David had been staying notifying them their son had not slept in his room for the two previous nights. His rental car was found in the parking lot of nearby Rincon de la Vieja National Park.
(Hacienda Guachipelin, where David Gimelfarb stayed.)
David had been staying at the Hacienda Guachipelin, a 54-room motel-style compound located on a desolate road that leads to Rincon de la Vieja. This was his last adventure before starting his fourth year of graduate school.
David had been volunteering as a therapist for a mental health facility on the West Side of Chicago which he found rewarding but stressful. In fact, David’s parents were worried he was having a hard time coping with the recent loss of his Russian grandmother, whom he was very close.
As reported in Chicago Magazine, David was introverted, described as socially awkward at times. Before his departure to Costa Rica, he told his adviser at Adler that he thought the trip would be a way to build his confidence. “I told him I was worried about him,” recalls Janna Henning, a coordinator for the school’s traumatic stress psychology program. “But he said that he’d traveled alone before and would be fine.”
David had been a reserved and shy little boy whose English was broken. He had always felt like an outsider and the early experience had always stuck with him according to his father Roma, a chemical engineer at Morton Salt.
According to David’s friends, David adjusted in college and joining a fraternity Phi Kappa Psi. They describe him as having a dry sense of humor, never having had a serious relationship with a girl.
David was very introspective for his age and wrote in a private Facebook message 13 days before his trip, that he feared his own mortality and was struggling with how to confront his future. “Life is finite,” David wrote. “We must love it no matter what, so we can be satisfied with it when we look back on it.”
David seemed to be making life memorable and had traveled to Hawaii by himself to hike and in his apartment, he kept a copy of the book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel which encourages readers take immerse themselves in the local cultures they are visiting.
David knew well of the risks of traveling alone. Ironically, just before his senior year one of his fraternity brothers disappeared in southern Ecuador while hiking alone in a national park.
On August 11th, David woke up and ate alone in the outdoor dining room at 9 a.m., then left the Hacienda to make the five-mile drive to the park in his rental car. One of the motel employees described David as appearing contemplative or sad that morning.
He talked to his parents every day and had called his mother Luda the day before telling her that he had met a girl and hoped to meet up with her again. His mother asked if she was local and David only responded that she “seemed very nice”. He told Luda he planned to hike the park the following day but complained the motel was too quiet and too far from beaches implying he might not stay at the motel the entire six-day visit. That was the last time she spoke with her son.
(Geothermal mud pits that line the path David Gimelsfarb took that fateful day.)
Rincon de la Vieja National Park is a vast area of beauty with ancient trees, waterfalls and bubbling geothermal mud pits that can reach upwards to 200 degrees. Visitors flock to the area to hike near the active volcano, which is often masked by cloud cover offering a mystique to the land. As legend has it an old witch inhabits the volcano’s peak and became a recluse after her father threw her lover into the crater in disapproval.
(Rincon de la Vieja National Park.)
David was excited to visit the lush tropical destination. However majestic the forest, locals will tell you the area is as wild as it comes with at least four varieties of poisonous snakes, pumas, jaguars prowling the dense rainforest.
The trails are like labyrinths and not well marked. In fact, drug traffickers are known to use them to smuggle narcotics into Nicaragua, only 25 miles to the north.
It is known approximately 300 visitors from all over the world were also there on August 11, 2009. We know he walked into the Visitors hut at approximately 10 a.m. and wrote his name in the visitor’s log.
David spoke to the ranger in Spanish telling him he intended to hike the easy almost two-mile loop called the Las Pailas or Cauldrons, named after the numerous steam holes along the path. David walked out of the hut, up a wobbly footbridge crossing the beautiful cool waters of the Colorado River, and was never seen again.
Luda had called the motel several times when she did not hear from David that evening. The following morning, panicked, she requested someone from the motel enter his room and conduct a welfare check.
That evening, the owner of the motel Jose Tomas Batalla called the Gimelfarbs to inform them David had not slept in his bed the evening before, his suitcase still in room 16. He also told Luda and Roma that David’s car had been found parked in the lot at the park.
David’s parents went online and immediately booked a flight to Costa Rica.
On August 13th, the motel manager opened the room and let the Gimelfarbs inside. The found the bed made, his suitcase, a couple of books of poetry on the nightstand. The manager then opened the room safe where David’s parents found their son’s passport, $600 of the $800 David was known to have on hand, and his cell phone.
It is believed David took his Northface backpack, his wallet with driver’s license and a couple credit cards. Also missing was David’s journal and a camera.
In the months that followed David’s disappearance, the Red Cross, local police, dog teams, hunters, volunteers and even the U.S. Army Search and Rescue team stationed on a nearby air base in Honduras helped conduct intensive searches of the park and surrounding areas.
Thousands of flyers were distributed along with a $100,000 reward offered. The family still receives email and phone calls from people who claim to have seen David, who speaks fluent Spanish, around Costa Rica. Some describe seeing a person who cautiously speaks to people and doesn’t appear to know who he is, possibly suffering from amnesia.
When the Gimelfarbs called the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, to request assistance, they were told it is not the embassy’s responsibility and that he had traveled there on his own. Basically, the Gimelfarbs found out they were on their own.
“We believe that when Abraham Lincoln said, “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities,” he was right, said Roma Gimelfarb, David’s father.
(Luda and Roma Gimelfarb sit on a park bench hoping to see their beloved son David again.)
The Gimelfarbs, both Russian emigrants, say they have suffered nine years not knowing if their only son is sick, hungry, cold, held hostage or abused, and feel utterly powerless.
One of the last sightings of a man with a slight build and red hair came in from Limon, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, about a five-hour drive from the park. Witnesses said the man was disoriented, dirty and unable to speak but gestured he needed something to drink to the owners of a small mini-mart. The witnesses recognized the man from news reports about David’s disappearance. They felt so strongly it was David they took the man to a police station where police conducted a short interview and released him without even taking a picture.
Some believed David may have gone to Costa Rica with the intention of “falling off the grid.” Sean Curran a detective at Chicago’s Highland Park Police Department told Chicago Magazine that after going through David’s belongings, financial situation, reading his journals and talking to relatives and friends there is little evidence that points to a conscious decision to disappear.
However, two clues did make Curran take notice: the copy of Vagabonding, a book about long-term travel in other countries and a series of maps he discovered on David’s laptop. On the night before his disappearance, he had studied maps of Honduras, Columbia, Peru, Chile, and Nicaragua, a baffling aspect since David had only planned to be gone for six days.
Curran, also a dad, told Chicago Magazine he still finds the case troubling. “I don’t think he intentionally did this to his parents.”
Exhausted and shattered, David parents believe their son may still be alive. They live the daily rollercoaster of despair and maintaining hope – and they know they are not alone.
Like Jeff Dunsavage, the Gimelfarbs decided to create the David Gimelfarb International Rescue Resources Foundation to help other families find their loved ones who have gone abroad – and gone missing.
As of May 31, 2018, there were 87,608 active missing person cases in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, statistics involving those who go missing overseas are not available. Experts estimate the number of individuals missing in foreign countries is in the thousands.
Family members of those who go missing while traveling internationally find police in other countries are less equipped to investigate missing person cases. Behind each missing person case is a shattered family.
American embassies do not have trained personnel or a budget to assist families. Despite funding billions in programs in foreign countries, not one penny is allocated to assist in the search for missing Americans abroad.
Most families have no idea where to start searching for their loved ones, nor the budget to hire a private investigator, helicopter pilots, canine search teams and other search-related expenses. They receive little to no guidance from their government.
In the years since David disappeared, at least 10 foreigners have gone missing in Costa Rica and over 20 US citizens have been murdered there since 2011, with several other countries issuing travel warnings citing the rising crime rate in the country.
The Gimelfarbs live every day wondering if maybe David had seen poachers or smugglers in the park and killed. They wonder if he may have headed back to the motel and been the victim of a con. Who was the “very nice” girl David had referred to?
What if he was robbed on the way back to the hotel? Maybe abducted and his organs harvested. Though that scenario might be unbelievable to most, the black market for donor organs is a growing problem in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
The number of situations is never-ending.
To ensure every lead was followed the Gimelfarbs hired four private investigators. One private investigator and former military intelligence officer from Azerbaijan spent approximately a month in Central America searching for David. He concluded David had left the park and was killed near the motel (even though his vehicle was found still sitting in the lot at the park).
Another private investigator came to the conclusion David got lost after the sun went down and wandered onto private property at the edge of the park and killed after mistakenly being taken for a thief or poacher (even though David arrived at the park in the morning and only intended on staying a few hours).
The Organismo de Investigacion Judicial which is Costa Roca’s equal to the FBI conducted an investigation interviewing the motel employees but never talked to park rangers or visitors at the park.
The official never conducted an official search of David’s room at the motel yet closed its investigation without any inference. The report indicates “All out efforts have come up empty.”
Like the Dunsavage family who bankrolled their own search, Roma estimates they have spent over $300,000 on their search efforts. “We just want a complete and thorough investigation,” said Roma. “We’ve never had that.”
Thomas Lauth, owner of Lauth Investigations International has worked over 20 years on missing person cases both within the US and internationally says, “As all families of missing persons will agree, they have become a member of a club no one wants to join.”
Americans across the country have a bizarre fascination with all things foreign. When it comes to international travel and foreign countries, attitudes can range from a wanton Western wanderlust to a macabre fascination with the fear of the unknown. Young people nearing a graduation often make plans to go backpacking through Europe in the hopes of broadening their horizons before taking the next step on life’s path. Many volunteer to assist in relief efforts overseas following a natural disaster. Others travel overseas to visit with family they might not have seen in decades.
On the reverse side of the coin, where some Americans might associate all things foreign with class or the exotic, there are others with a less favorable approach. American cinema, especially genres like action or horror, plays heavily on the American anxieties surrounding foreign countries and international travel. One of the most blatant examples of this is the Hostel film series, in which young backpackers trekking through the Slavic countries are kidnapped and held captive by a secret society with grisly motives. The American anxiety of being on one’s own in a foreign country—where you are a stranger to everyone and few strangers speak your language—is not lost on foreign filmmakers either. In 2008, when the English-language French action thriller Taken was released, it broke the record for best opening day ever for Super Bowl weekend. One of the unfortunate reasons Americans cling to the suspense and drama of films like these is because the horror is all too real. U.S. citizens go missing overseas and in North America every week, and with funding and resources for searches low, families are left with nothing but prayers for a Liam Neeson type to bring their loved ones home.
Despite the American anxiety surrounding international travel, the National Travel and Tourism Office saw an eight percent increase in international travel in 2016. In that year, 66,960,943 citizens utilized their passports to visit countries within North America and overseas. Many Americans have a Bucket List—a list of things they’d like to experience before shuffling off this mortal coil—and one of the most common items on bucket lists is travel, especially international travel. In 2009, David Gimelfarb was one of those millions of people travelling abroad. In the bustling hive of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Roma and Luda Gimelfarb said goodbye to their son before he departed for a week’s vacation in Costa Rica. “The last thing we know about our son,” they told the Chicago Tribune, “is that on August 11, 2009, he paid a $10 entry fee and signed up for a two-hour hike in Rincon de la Vieja National Park.” This month, it will have been nine years since David Gimelfarb went out for that hike and never came back. As recently as 2013, Roma and Luda were still fielding emails and phone calls from people who claim they have seen David wandering around Costa Rica. The reports described this person “spoke cautiously with people (David speaks Spanish fluently) and doesn’t appear to know who he is (possibly has amnesia).” Is it possible that David hit his head while on the hike and woke up with no memory of who he was?
The tragedy is that Roma and Luda Gimelfarb will likely never have that level of closure regarding their son’s disappearance. It’s important to remember that even in the United States missing adults are not a high priority for law enforcement. Adults have the liberty to go missing if they please, and police are not in the habit of pouring labor hours and resources into finding someone who might not want to be found. What’s worse is that once they’re out of the country, the American authorities are left with no jurisdiction and no recourse. The Gimelfarbs went on to say in the article, “American embassies have no budget or trained personnel to assist the families or local foreign governments in their search for missing Americans. Though the U.S. government provides funds for numerous programs abroad and spent $47.8 billion in 2012 to support them, none of these programs provides funds or personnel to search for missing Americans abroad.
An individual’s career can often take them overseas or beyond the United States, sometimes for an extended period of time. Such was the case with 41-year-old Robert Durbin, who went missing in Kingston, Jamaica. Robert was lecturing on law on the weekends on behalf of an international program run by the University of London. When asked about the reason for his visit to Jamaica, the West Hartford Town Councilman said he hoped to glean insight from learning about the culture of West Indian people, “I’m living and volunteering in a low-income development down here. It’s a very up-and-coming, low-income area, so it’s a nice opportunity to work with some social workers. Obviously, this area is a lot different from West Hartford… but my work here in the community will contribute to my service on the town council.”
Months later, Robert was charged with first-degree criminal trespass when he arrived on the scene of a domestic disturbance to offer his legal services to the persons involved. This led to him resigning from the Town Council while he was in the middle of a divorce. Arrested in development, he decided to return to Jamaica to continue the volunteer work he began during his initial visits. Following his return to Jamaica in May of 2012, all attempts to contact him proved fruitless. With so little information available at the time he was reported missing, his case still remains open as of 2018.
Natural disasters can have a devastating effect on a country’s tourism, but there a visible trend following these disasters: an influx of both American and other foreign individuals who travel to the effected area in hopes of volunteering for relief efforts. These “volun-tourists” are usually only in the country for a week or two, participating in a project that would serve underprivileged communities, such as building a school, or a clinic, or even a well so locals can have access to clean water. A website that serves as a guide to relief and volunteer programs overseas compared the data regarding where and what Americans are researching in order to seek out opportunities. The 2012 Annual Volunteer Report reveals that the top countries that are a point of interest for prospective volunteers are the Philippines, India, and Thailand. It makes sense, given that the same report showed that Asia is the top region for areas that receive droves of relief-volunteers. Over half the list of the top fifteen searched countries for prospective volunteers are located within the Asian region.
While backpacking through Southeast Asia, Dahlia Yehia decided to rest in the town of Pokhara, Nepal while she determined the next stop on her trip. She’d put together a modest sum of savings from her time as an art instructor in order to backpack across the pan-Asian continent. On August 5th, 2015, she arrived in Pokhara, only a few weeks after an earthquake that registered 7.8 on the Richter scale shook the whole of the Kathmandu Valley and nearby villages. In the interim, Dahlia decided she would be useful by volunteering for the relief effort. For lodging, she turned to the economy-travel site Couchsurfing, where she connected with a local by the name of Narayan Paudel. He had great reviews on the economy-travel website, so Dahlia decided to stay with him.
Despite inconsistent cell phone service at the foot of the mountains, Dahlia still found time to check in with friends and family when she could. She had nothing but nice things to say about her new Couchsurfing host, claiming she had dinner with him and his girlfriend. Then, when several days went by with no word from Dahlia, a friend became concerned and started reaching out to Dahlia’s family to see if anyone had heard from her. He also reached out to Couchsurfing support staff to tell them he was concerned for Dahlia, but that came to nothing. Her family had to turn to Apple, where an emergency support team advised that they might be able to track her movements using a unique 15-digit code assigned to all cellular hardware known as the International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI.
Finally, the U.S. Embassy was notified that Dahlia was missing in Nepal, and the family provided them with her IMEI for the investigation. They told the embassy that the last person to see Dahlia was likely her Couchsurfing host, but the information obtained with Dahlia’s IMEI revealed that someone had put a new SIM card in the phone long after Dahlia was reported missing. The SIM card was purchased by Narayan Paudel. This led to Paudel’s arrest and subsequent confession to her murder.
Were it not for the intervention of Apple, who knows if the family might have ever received a modicum of closure in Dahlia’s disappearance? Sharing services like Couchsurfing are on the rise as more apps like Uber and Airbnb continue to grow in size and in revenue creating what has been referred to as a “sharing economy”. There is a legal gray area that attorneys would call “assumption of responsibility” when it comes to utilizing these services. When Generation X was young, there was no second thought when it came to getting into a stranger’s car for a ride. Now, placing your trust and safety in a complete stranger—especially a stranger you met through the internet—is considered one of the most dangerous decisions you can make. Businesses in the sharing economy are not insensitive to these anxieties, and most offer some form of a verification system. However, most companies take pains to distance themselves from the actions of their individual employees in order to avoid litigation. Couchsurfing, for example, offers user verification for $20 per year, but in the fine print, there is always a disclaimer that frees Couchsurfing from responsibility involved in any relations between host and guest. Users are urged to report “anyone through our services who you feel is acting or has acted inappropriately.” It emphasizes, however, “[W]e are not obligated to take any action.”
Unfortunately, Dahlia is not an isolated incident. It’s frightfully common for people to vanish while visiting Nepal. Until 2011, the U.S. State Department had an active travel warning in effect for Nepal. In addition to cautioning tourists about the civil unrest occurring in the country, the State Department also had a piece of advice for the tourists who travel to Nepal in hope hiking some of the most coveted treks on any backpacker’s list:
“Solo trekking can be dangerous, and the lack of available immediate assistance has contributed to injuries and deaths, while also making one more vulnerable to criminals. Although it is not prohibited by local law, the Government of Nepal has reiterated its strong recommendation against solo trekking. In separate incidents in the last several years, a number of foreign women (including U.S. citizens) on popular trails have been attacked and seriously injured while trekking alone.”
This warning did not shake 23-year-old Aubrey Sacco, who was dead-set on witnessing the beauty of the Himalayan Mountains up close and personal. She was nearing the end of her post-college adventure, maintaining nearly constant contact with her parents throughout. On the day Aubrey went missing, she told her mother she had decided to make the “tea-house trek” in Langtang National Park—the first Himalayan national park. Her mother was concerned because her father was having surgery that day, and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to contact her daughter if something went wrong, but Aubrey assured her, “Don’t worry. It’s teahouse trekking.” In the investigation following her disappearance, Aubrey’s parents learned that the day she went missing, she had an encounter with three men she met at the Sherpa Lodge on the hike. The men initiated a conversation, and at first things were cordial, but when Aubrey announced that she had to be moving on to the next village, Riverside, things took a tense turn. The men began repeatedly insisting that it was too long of a hike to start so late in the afternoon. Firm in her conviction, Aubrey said, “Riverside is only an hour from here, don’t lie to me.”
For all intents and purposes, there is no evidence that Aubrey made it to her next destination. No other witnesses could place her at any location beyond Riverside. Given the last witnessed encounter between Aubrey and the locals, it’s easy to assume that these aggressive men might have been the architects of her disappearance, but there are many other theories that exclude their encounter altogether. It’s important to remember the U.S. State Department’s warning regarding solo-trekking in the Himalayas, citing natural hazards and the implications of being injured on the hike with no immediate help nearby. It’s possible that Aubrey shared the fate of many who had attempted the trek alone, maybe slipping from a rain-soaked embankment, or toppling over a cliff.
Another theory inculpating harm at the hands of another person is the predatory culture surrounding the military bases that are scattered throughout the Himalayas. Tracy Ross, a journalist digging into the mystery surrounding Aubrey’s disappearance, detailed some of the incidents involving soldiers that had been reported in the past, “In July 2010, three French girls reported being sexually assaulted by the soldiers manning a check post called Ghora Tabela, not far from where Aubrey vanished. Later, two more Western women were attacked in the same region in separate incidents, one in 2011 and the other in 2012.” Ross goes on to illuminate just how difficult it was to get information about this American woman’s disappearance. “If the Nepali police keep records of exactly how many female trekkers have been the victims of violent crime, they won’t say (the police didn’t respond to repeated requests for information for this story). For that matter, it’s hard to determine how many trekkers, male or female, have gone missing over the years, whatever the reason.”
This is not surprising, as police departments in developing countries like Nepal are woefully underfunded and often do not have the resources to properly investigate missing persons cases. Given Aubrey’s age at the time of her disappearance, if she had gone missing within the United States, the investigation would still have had significant roadblocks because she was not a minor. But Aubrey didn’t go missing in America. She went missing over 8,000 miles away. Search efforts conducted by U.S. Embassy, the Nepali Army, and Aubrey’s own father turned up nothing, but continued for more than two years after her disappearance. It is the longest, most expensive search in Nepal’s history.
During the more frustrating phases of the investigation, when it was impossible to get any information from Nepali law enforcement, Aubrey’s parents hired a private investigator. According to The Daily Camera, it was one of the factors that kept the case alive long after Nepali authorities stopped looking for Aubrey. The issues in Nepal that American law enforcement often encounters when investigating a missing adult that were only compounded by the distance and the jurisdiction. There are many cases like Aubrey’s in which underfunded, underequipped, disorganized law enforcement in countries overseas cannot connect with United States embassies or refuse to release information outright. However, with a private investigator chasing leads in an overseas disappearance, there are no jurisdictional issues, no red tape preventing them from contacting agencies, governing bodies, or law enforcement. There is no issue of paperwork, such as warrants to track individuals that might sit on a superior’s desk for days while precious time and leads are lost. Private investigators are beholden only to the client, and thus their search for the truth is unbridled and in-depth.
In America, there are rights and laws that protect private citizens from persecution on behalf of law enforcement without cause. As a country, Americans have only recently begun to cultivate a suspicious attitude towards law enforcement, but abroad, distrust of law enforcement is ubiquitous depending on longitude. In countries where citizens live in fear of a corrupt system and retaliation from the police, it can be impossible for investigators to pull valuable information from witnesses. This is where private investigators truly have an advantage over law enforcement. Because they have no powers of arrest—in the United States or anywhere—witnesses feel more at ease providing details to someone who cannot arrest them. Considering that police interrogations can take hours just to get a simple answer, private investigators can use that time to pursue leads and garner more case progression.
Even though private investigators have no powers of arrest, it can still be difficult to interview witnesses who know they’re being interrogated, or even witnesses who are—at best—uncooperative. When Tracy Ross traveled to Nepal for background on the story she was writing about Aubrey, the locals were less than enthusiastic about talking to her, “Over and over, villagers told me that they knew nothing about Aubrey and they wished people would stop asking. Two young girls giggled, then turned bitter, saying they didn’t care anymore that this girl had vanished.” Soldiers who assisted in the search for Aubrey told Ross that they had done their due-diligence and there was nothing left to talk about. When this is the case, private investigators have the necessary skill and experience to go undercover and blend in with tourists and locals. From this inconspicuous position, they can conduct surveillance, pull information from unsuspecting witnesses or suspects, and document it every step of the way.
When loved ones vanish into thin air, everyone who would miss them feels helpless, and everyone feels as if there could be no cause more pressing than finding that loved one again. The reality is that Americans go missing every day, both children and adults, and it is nearly impossible for law enforcement to treat every single case with the attention it ultimately deserves. It usually comes down to simple facts when law enforcement is triaging their case load: Is this person in immediate danger? Are they over the age of 18? Could they have disappeared of their own accord? These are questions that bear little weight in the minds of loved ones when it comes to their diligence in getting answers. However, regardless of your circumstances, the universal truth behind hiring a private investigator to locate your missing loved one overseas is that their expertise is applied to the specifics of your case. They are beholden to you and only you. They have very similar expertise and resources to law enforcement with the added peace of mind that your child or loved one will never just become a file laying idly on a desk.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.
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