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The Last Hike of David Gimelfarb

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

(page 4 of 6)

The Rincón de la Vieja ranger station

The Rincón de la Vieja ranger station.

The Gimelfarbs spent countless sleepless nights pondering what other misfortunes could have possibly befallen their son. Had he been attacked by a jaguar or bitten by a snake? Investigators all but ruled out those theories after no trace of his remains was found.

His parents’ best hope was that David had experienced some sort of mental breakdown and was perhaps wandering in a fugue state, which can occur when a person cannot process a stressful situation and forgets his identity. This temporary amnesia could have been triggered by a physical injury, such as a fall or a concussion.

Gimelfarb’s signature in the park visitor log
Gimelfarb’s signature in the park visitor log.

A local resident brought Luda a megaphone, and the 63-year-old woman spent several days hiking the serpentine trails calling her son’s name. “We thought that if he had gone through some sort of traumatic experience, like a breakdown, that hearing my voice would be soothing to him,” she recalls.

Larry Maucieri, a neuropsychologist who was one of David’s professors at Adler, says that the fugue state scenario is highly unlikely—that such events are so rare they usually become the subject of academic studies. “One-in-a-million-type cases,” he explains.

The Gimelfarbs established a $10,000 reward (later upped to $100,000) and distributed thousands of fliers bearing a photo of David, along with a computer simulation of what he’d look like with long hair and a beard. With the money serving as an incentive, leads began to trickle in. One farmer said that he saw a disheveled hiker who, when confronted, had darted into the forest.

The family contacted Sarah Platts, a professional dog handler from Virginia, who in late September volunteered to fly to Costa Rica with her eight-year-old German shorthaired pointer, Jack, to join the search effort. Jack showed no interest in the trail to the volcano but seemed to pick up David’s scent near where the farmer had reported seeing the man flee. (The trail went cold when Jack fell into one of the volcanic mud pots and burned a paw.) Another dog team they hired to sniff for dead bodies found no evidence of a corpse in the park.

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The Gimelfarbs couldn’t ignore a darker possibility: that their son had been the victim of a robbery—or worse. While the vast majority of the two million tourists who visit Costa Rica annually return home safely, crime is a serious concern. (The country of 4.7 million reported 525 homicides in 2009, giving it a per capita murder rate lower than Chicago, which reported 459 that year.)

In the four years since David vanished, at least eight foreigners have gone missing in Costa Rica, and 19 U.S. citizens have been murdered there since 2011. (In May 2011, the British Home Office issued a travel warning flagging the rising crime rate in the country.) Only two of the missing-person cases have been resolved: In 2011, about a year after a pair of Austrian expats disappeared in the remote Osa Peninsula, their bodies were found on a beach there. Investigators determined that they had been robbed and bludgeoned to death.

What if David had seen something in the park that he wasn’t supposed to? Drug smugglers, maybe. Or poachers. Perhaps he had left the park, headed back toward the motel, and somewhere along the way fallen victim to a con. One tip came in that the American hiker—who friends say did not use alcohol or drugs—had been spotted the evening after the hike at a bar in Liberia, about 30 minutes from the motel. “It turned out to be a whorehouse,” says his mother, who went herself to investigate. “But I showed all the girls his photo and nobody remembered him.”

What if he had been robbed on the way back to the motel? Or abducted and his organs harvested? It sounds far-fetched, but the black market for donor organs is a growing problem in Costa Rica and Nicaragua (and was the subject of an investigation by the Mexican newspaper El Universal earlier this year).

The list of frightening scenarios was endless. To investigate every credible one, the Gimelfarbs hired four private detectives, both in Costa Rica and back in the States. Vugar Askerli, a former military intelligence officer from Azerbaijan, spent a month in Central America looking for David and came away believing that the young man left the park and was killed near the motel.

Initially, three motel employees had claimed that they saw the American back at the Hacienda Guachipelín around 2 p.m. the day he vanished. (Two employees later changed their stories.) Given that information, Askerli supposes that the perpetrator drove the car back to the park to make it look like David went missing while hiking. “It would be easy to cover up a crime like this in that area,” contends the investigator. “The rivers are filled with crocodiles. No one would ever find the body.”

Another private investigator suspects that David got lost after sunset, wandered onto private property on the edge of the park, and was mistaken for a poacher or a thief. He could have been shot dead and his body disposed of, either in the jungle or in a river.

The Organismo de Investigación Judicial—Costa Rica’s equivalent of the FBI—conducted its own investigation. Agents interviewed motel employees and park rangers but, according to the final report, failed to talk to other Hacienda Guachipelín guests or hikers in the Rincón area.

What’s more, they did not conduct a forensic search of David’s room or rental car. (The lead investigator on the case, Luis Guillermo Fonseca, agreed to answer questions but never did so, despite repeated requests.)

On November 6, 2009, the OIJ closed its investigation without a conclusion. Translated into English, the report ends by saying: “All our efforts have come up empty.”

“We just want a complete and thorough investigation,” says Roma, who estimates that he and his wife have spent $300,000 on their search. “We’ve never had that.”

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