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.”