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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.

"He says he's really saved?" asks Bob Gray, for 20 years the chief park ranger for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, until his retirement in January 2007. Gray laughs, long and low. "Yeah, they usually are."

"He's the ultimate con artist," says Mike Pierson, whose VW Beetle Lescoe stole, whose house he robbed. "He used Christianity as a cover, as an excuse, as a way around things. I think it makes a real mockery of people who are great Christians." "The allegations are molesting a six-year-old," says Lieutenant Detective Timothy Paul, the public information officer for the Woonsocket, Rhode Island police department. (The investigation is ongoing, and authorities plan to interview Lescoe.) "I can see why he'd want to go find God or kill himself or something."

I tell Lescoe's story to a friend in late January. I have it down to two sentences and a punch line. "So this guy conned and robbed people on the Appalachian Trail, then he met a guy who fed him and let him clean up and they read the Bible together and he was saved. And then he conned and robbed a bunch of more people on the trail, until he got caught and thrown in prison. And now he says he's really saved."

The punch line usually gets a laugh, or some bitter wisdom about criminals and crocodile tears. This time, there's silence.


"Maybe he is saved," my friend says.

"Yeah, right," I say. More silence, and then I almost smack my forehead. Lescoe isn't the only one with a sad story. In her 20s and early 30s, my friend had lost friends, jobs, much of her health, a husband. Eventually, she swore off booze. She was sincere, and she was desperate, and she never meant anything as much as she meant her promises to stop drinking. But she broke them, again, and again. She tried and tried and regularly told those few who hadn't abandoned her that this time, she really was going to make it. But she didn't. Until, finally, despairing and alone, she prayed. She hasn't had a drink in almost 20 years.

"I believe in salvation," my friend says. "I kind of have to."

What's worse? The laissez-faire ethic of the AT? The reflexive skepticism of the journalist? Or the boundless faith of the sober drunk and the born-again Christian? Is it better to be vigilant, to protect your food bag and your community and your steely-eyed sense of self, or to feed and shelter the hungry stranger, no matter how sketchy? Which is safer? Which is more corrosive to the soul? And why is it that the people who offer the most meaningful answers to the most difficult questions are so often men like Lescoe?

He is on a waiting list for a substance abuse class. He's got a job in the prison kitchen, and plans to enroll in Bible college while he's serving time. He has been carving sets of hands in prayer from soap. He spends his time reading Scripture, and watching the black-and-white television he bought with $100 that Nicholls sent him, along with a note comparing Lescoe to Jonah. "The Lord told him to go to Niveah," Nicholls wrote, "but he went the other way, and you went the other way, too. I forgive you as a brother if you repent for this."

He especially likes the Sci-Fi Channel and American Movie Classics. "And in the mornings there's all kinds of gospel on. Believer's Voice of Victory with Kenneth Copeland. That's part of my morning praise and worship."

He wants to live a religious life when he gets out. He wants to stay away from drugs and alcohol. He has always wanted to do right, but he has never been able to stop blaming others for his troubles. As much as he seeks forgiveness and understanding, he seems incapable of extending much empathy to others, even those to whom he brought pain.

He is angry at his ex-girlfriend for taking out the Protection From Abuse order against him, says she is "that type of woman, spiteful and vindictive." He says if Nicholls had answered his calls from the trail, if he had sent him a new pair of socks, maybe he never would have been forced to commit the crimes he did. He says he doesn't remember walking into Wanda Clance's home without knocking a few days before his arrest, or warning her about strangers. Not only does he not remember, he says, but "it hurts me that she remembers that."

He'd like to finish the AT as a free man. He's already walked at least most of the way from New York to Georgia. It was a special place for him, a safe place for a long time. It was a glorious, primitive path and a kind of leafy, sun-dappled, mosquito-infested, hilly heaven. For a few glorious late-summer weeks, he felt peace there.

He says he envies people who are on the trail now. Some, he pities. All of them he views with his odd, maddening fusion of piety and self-absorption.

"If you can't feel God's presence out there," he says, "well, then. I feel sorry for you."

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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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