The Last Hike of David Gimelfarb

Four years ago, a Chicago grad student entered the Costa Rican jungle and simply vanished. What happened?

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I spent the better part of six months trying to untangle the mystery of
what happened to David Gimelfarb. I interviewed dozens of friends and people familiar with the case, sifted through reports from investigators, and spent hours with his parents. In the end, I don’t believe that this young man chose to disappear.

But he may have been more emotionally fragile than anyone realized. In the confessional he penned on Facebook two weeks before his trip, David said that he sometimes loved the “adventure of being single” but also suffered through “excruciating loneliness.” And that the experience of losing his grandmother brought the idea of his own mortality closer. “I will die someday,” he wrote. “There is no way to know what the future holds, and it really never comes exactly as we envision it.”

The odds are that David Gimelfarb is dead. But we may never know for sure. Mike Byrd and Maggie Felker, the parents of David Byrd-Felker, the other missing Phi Kappa Psi, ultimately came to peace with the idea that they’ll likely never find out what happened to their son. “Western society is enamored with the concept of closure,” says Byrd, who founded David’s Educational Opportunity Fund to help young Ecuadorians go to school. “But there is ambiguous loss all around us. I’m probably better off not knowing what happened.”

For the Gimelfarbs, the search goes on. Roma says he was too consumed by the search to be useful to his company, so he retired. Luda also left her job; she says she has tried therapy but found it too painful.

Each August, Roma and Luda return to Costa Rica on the anniversary of their son’s disappearance to chase leads and to press for a renewed investigation. Every time there is another sighting, they pursue it.

Earlier this year, a family friend, Nicolas Bridon, volunteered to travel to Costa Rica to investigate the tip from the minimart in Limón. Bridon met with the family who had taken the dirty, disoriented mute to the police, and he interviewed the officer who had been at the station. The family seemed sincere, and the police officer insisted that the young Caucasian he encountered was indeed the same man as on the flier.

While these people could be mistaken, it’s clear that David Gimelfarb, with his pale skin, red hair, and freckles, would stand out in a crowd in Costa Rica.

“We look at every face that could be David and wonder, Could that be our son?” says Luda, measuring her words, trying not to break down.

Every day, rain, snow, or sleet, she leaves her home on a quiet street near Ravinia and walks to Rosewood Park, where she always sits on the same wooden bench facing Lake Michigan. There she talks to her son.

“I tell him what’s going on,” she says. “I tell him I love him. And I ask him questions. But he never answers.”
 

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12 months ago
Posted by Missing Americans

Thank you for writing this piece about David Gimelfarb's disappearance. His case, while unusual, is not exceptional. In the past month, two more Americans have gone missing in the region -- one in Ecuador, the other in Panama -- and two more families are struggling with official and media indifference to their ordeals. Articles like this one are essential to helping people become aware of the risks of Third World travel and prodding government to take a more proactive role in documenting and investigating these cases.

Jeff Dunsavage
The Missing Americans Project
www.missingamericans.ning.com

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