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Backpacker Magazine – April 2007

The Long Trail to Jail

Is he a pilgrim, a victim, or a thief? The Appalachian Trail provides a path and refuge to all sorts of seekers. Few are as baffling as the man they called Saved.

by: Steve Friedman

David Lescoe in VA's Dillwyn Correctional Center  (Michael Darter)
David Lescoe in VA's Dillwyn Correctional Center (Michael Darter)
Photos taken November 15, 2006 (Michael Darter)
Photos taken November 15, 2006 (Michael Darter)
Dan Nicholls with Lescoe - July 29, 2004
Dan Nicholls with Lescoe - July 29, 2004
Lescoe (left) with his mother and brother Andrew in 1975
Lescoe (left) with his mother and brother Andrew in 1975

This article was the recipient of the Gold Award for Travel News/Investigative reporting at the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation's 2008 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition.

On a raw, windy November afternoon last year, Lescoe sat in the assistant warden's office at Dillwyn Correctional Center, in the rolling hills of Virginia, 40 minutes south of Charlottesville. (Prison authorities won't allow reporters into the dormitory where he lives.) Dillwyn is a medium-security prison, a collection of concrete buildings housing slightly more than 1,000 inmates, many of them parole violators. A cabinet in the office contains videocassettes labeled "Chow movement" and five years' worth of "Serious Incident Reports."

Lescoe walks a few miles on the track every couple of days, but is still 55 pounds heavier than when he was on the AT. The prison has weights, but he doesn't use them. "I used to. I don't need to be any stronger. The Bible says, 'For bodily exercise profiteth little.'" Later, he says that "I might do a little strength training at the end of my time."

He says he is sorry for the crimes he committed. He says he never molested anyone. He says he has mixed feelings about fleeing the Rhode Island investigators. Does he wish he would have stayed and cooperated, rather than walking onto the AT and into all sorts of trouble? "Kinda yeah and kinda no." On that November afternoon, he quoted Scripture, talked about his troubled past, his uncertain future. He says he's turned his life over to God, this time for good. He says people should believe him, because it's the truth. He says it was the truth in New Jersey, too, next to the tomato patch.

"I was saved from that night on, but...I was still fleshly minded," he says. "I didn't totally know what it meant to be spiritual. And not carnal. My knowledge has grown immensely, especially being here. I mean, I can't complain. I can't say 'God, why did you do this to me?' I did it to myself. But He made it to His benefit. Definitely. Me being here has benefited the Lord. In my life. My understanding."

"I was sincere then," he says. "But I took my eyes off the Lord. I learned never to take my eyes off the Lord again. 'Trust in the Lord in all thy ways.' You know, 'trust in the Lord in all thy ways and lean not to thine own understanding and then in thy ways He will direct thine path...'"

He won't be eligible for release until 2013. Depending on whom you ask, and how well that person knows Lescoe, that day will be cause for rejoicing, or deep unease.

"Write that his family does love him and he knows he's always been loved," says his brother Andrew. "We've given him multiple chances. We got him out of jail; we were at his courts all the time. We did everything possible to help him straighten himself up. He could have made something of himself. But now? He's an asshole. Plain and simple. I don't want anything to do with him." "He's got a wonderful personality," says his mother. "He can win anyone over. My fondest memory? I don't know. I try not to think of him."

"I was the biggest advocate for David," says his aunt Shirley Sincavage. "I don't know whether I trust him or not myself. I don't know. I've heard it too many times. I don't know."

It was so easy for Lescoe's family to believe the young man with the open face, and the ready smile, and the confessions, and the many proclamations of conversion and promises to be good, if only he could have one more chance. And then he used up all his chances andfound another family, and even more chances. There, on that sinuous 2,175-mile ribbon of dirt, where the past is no more than a collection of fables, and the future doesn't extend much beyond the next bend, or stream, a man isn't judged by what he was, or might be, but by what he is. And Lescoe seemed to be just like a lot of other hikers–a little lost, a little unbalanced, but harmless. Until he wasn't.

"I'm reluctant to believe anything he says now," says Mary Parry, the trail angel whose bathroom Lescoe scrubbed. "He's a smooth talker, and a smooth talker like that you can't trust."

"He says he took his eyes off the Lord?" says Janet Hensley, with a bitter laugh. "I'm not a religious person, but the best sociopath is the most likable, charming person in the world. They're survivalists. They'll do whatever it takes to get what they need. He found a group of people, some of the best, most trusting family in the world. And he was surviving. For him, that meant preying on people."

"Very charming and a likable guy," Steve Southworth says. "But I would consider people like that, of the criminal element, to be manipulators. We all hit mountains and valleys, and when he hits a valley, will he turn to the right people and make the right choices, or will he go back to where he was?"

Before I visited Lescoe in prison, I had been corresponding with him for almost a year, retracing his long, strange southbound trip, talking to those he robbed and others who trusted him, coming upon one shiny lie here, another murky truth there. Puzzling out what had really happened was exasperating at times, especially considering the dependably unreliable narrator at the center of the tale. Maybe that's why I found such mean catharsis and petty joy in telling those he had "confessed" to on the trail about some little details he had left out, about the way he excused his post-salvation misdeeds.

"He says he took his eyes off the Lord," I would say, and chuckle. Or snicker.

Many would chuckle along with me.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Jul 25, 2010

i pray he has been healed
i miss my cousin
he is an honest to goodness man who made mistakes and payed for them to,let us not judge

Apr 02, 2010

Im related to him and miss him and love him from the bottom of my heart,,,,JR!

Trail Angel in Lizella
Nov 25, 2008

I knew him for the brief time he was here before he was arrested. He obviously wrestles with demons, maybe in the form of mental illness. He has a heart of gold and a servant's attitude, but he does need to pay for his crimes. We pray that once he has served his sentence he will indeed walk in the ways of Jesus.

Oct 25, 2008

It was an interesting article...for another magazine. Just bring us the usual great information about backpacking that you have done so well.

Oct 25, 2008

I hike with my kids, so I'm glad the perp is in jail and off the trail. As far as people saying only God can pass judgement, that's a bunch of bull. Imagine a world without any accountability. I hope the guy changes his ways, but let him work on that for 10 or so years away from other people. Bottom line, it's good to be friendly to passing hikers on the trail, but you don't know them.

Oct 23, 2008

I remember reading this article. It was very interesting and different from what I am used to reading in Backpacker. Good to see it was honored with an award. Keep up the good work.
Now back to the boot reviews!

Oct 23, 2008

And, most who read this mag are worried about bears?
I figured it for crap before reading the article, but with lines like "why is it that the people who offer the most meaningful answers to the most difficult questions are so often men like Lescoe?
REALLY??? Horse shit!

Oct 23, 2008

What ever happened to "Don't judge lest you be judged"? No one knows what happened except him and God. Let God be his judge.
It's a great story about how the "trail" can do miraculous things for people searching or running. It doesn't matter. Maybe he really did find his answer. We will never know.

Don Asper
Oct 23, 2008

God does change the heart and lives of individuals if we are truly repentant. I emphasize true repentance. Even with a change of heart we are still responsible for the consequences of our actions. Time will tell if there is a true change.

Oct 23, 2008

this article goes nowhere. what is the point? is it just about a refugee that traveled the AT and then got caught? hmm.

Oct 23, 2008

This guy is user and still convincing people that God is in his heart. Rediculas.

Oct 23, 2008

Just like all crooks he is looking for away to find a communities weakness. He used religion to work his way into a small town so he could hide. I don't think this story has anything to do with the AT other then it was an escape route.

Oct 23, 2008

What a waste of space in such a good magazine. He is still conning and you have fallen for it by providing this space. When he is released from prison he will use and steal from people again and you will be partly responsible.

Oct 23, 2008

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I am a fairly cynical person who is not surprised by the actions of a person like Lescoe. One of the few things that keep me from abandoning altruistic behaviour is the realization that only a small subset of the population is capable of such insidious acts. Granted, what the “right” thing to do under strenuous circumstances is sometimes debateable but most people agree on what should be tolerated. This article not only explores a rather interesting personality it also shows me that the problems caused by this individual are not normal within the community that surrounds the AT. The next time someone breaks my trust when extending a helping hand I can remember articles like this one which illustrate that people like these are the exception rather than the rule.

Oct 23, 2008

I disagree, this is a powerful story, which does take the time to repeatedly point out the healing power of being alone and hiking in the wilderness. As a mental health professioanl, it is my opinion this man has anti-social personality disorder, and it rarely changes. Given his early life, experiance and choices, what used to be called a psychopath or sociopath. But that's not as important as how there may just be truth that his time on the trail did make enough of an impact to his future after he is released.

John Kozma
Oct 23, 2008

Looks like you were conned by him too.

Oct 20, 2008

What is it with all the stories of crooks and low character folks on the trail? Award or not I don't enjoy reading stories like this.


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