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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 5 of 6)

A sweeping view of the 34,800-acre national park and its volcano

A sweeping view of the 34,800-acre national park and its volcano.

Ticos, as Costa Ricans are called, can be fiercely patriotic. And they don’t like to consider the possibility that something bad happened to a tourist in their country. Sitting at a table in his motel’s open-air restaurant with the panoramic view of the verdant, mountainous landscape behind him, José Tomás Batalla, the fit, deeply tanned Costa Rican who owns Hacienda Guachipelín, waves the crime theory away. “You can get mugged anywhere,” he says when I ask about the machete attacks in the park. “Rome, Amsterdam, Paris—even Chicago. The Gimelfarbs are channeling their grief against Costa Rica, trying to link every robbery that occurs to their son.”

Batalla believes that David is alive and living the life of a hermit somewhere, perhaps even on a Nicaraguan beach not far from the park. (Neither Nicaragua nor Costa Rica strictly enforce their immigration laws, so foreigners can easily live in the area without a visa.)

Geothermal mud pots line the trails
Geothermal mud pots line the trails.

“A lot of people assumed that he was running away from something in the States, trying to hide or escape,” said Laurens Alvarado Hidalgo, a guide I met at Rincón. Nicaragua is a cheaper alternative to Costa Rica, so if David had wanted to disappear, it would be a logical option.

Intrigued by a lead from a local man who told OIJ investigators that he had smuggled someone who matched David’s description across the border, I showed the missing-person flier to dozens of people at hostels and expat hangouts in San Juan del Sur and Granada. I encountered nothing but curiosity or indifference.

Rob Thomas, a 50-something Vermont native who moved to San Juan del Sur in 2006 to open a café, smiled when I asked him if David looked familiar. “I can’t say I remember the face,” he said, studying the flier. “But a lot of people come down here to get lost.”

David’s closest friend from Adler, Christine Shaw, scoffs at the notion that her classmate traveled to Costa Rica to fall off the grid. The night before he left, she says, he called to confirm dinner plans they’d made for the Sunday night after his return.

For a long time, she was certain that her friend was still alive. Now, she says, her voice cracking, it is “just too hard for me to keep believing.”

Ben Clore, the fraternity brother, says that, early on, he thought it possible that David had decided to live in the forest for a while. But he now fears the worst. “He was a free spirit,” says Clore. “I could see him disappearing for a year, maybe. But four? No. As time goes on, that theory becomes less realistic.”

Then there’s Sean Curran, a detective with the Highland Park Police Department, who was brought on to the case when the Gimelfarbs reported their son missing to U.S. authorities. (The FBI typically takes on overseas missing-person cases only if the host country requests agency assistance.) After combing through David’s belongings, reading his journals, talking to his friends and teachers, and examining his financial situation, Curran says there is little evidence that would point to a conscious decision to disappear.

Only two clues give him pause: the copy of Vagabonding, which is the book about long-term travel that he found in David’s apartment, and a series of maps he discovered during a search of the graduate student’s laptop. On the night before David was to leave for Costa Rica, he had examined maps of Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Peru, and Chile—a curious detail, since his trip was to last only six days.

But David’s bank account was not touched after he left the United States, and he never applied for any additional credit cards. And his adviser at Adler provided a psychological profile attesting to the fact that the young man seemed mentally strong and highly unlikely to abandon his family and clients.

Sitting in a conference room at the police department on a gloomy day in late April, Curran, a father himself, said the case remains troubling. “I don’t think he intentionally did this to his parents.”

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