Gary Dodds was laughing.
We were standing at opposite ends of a cramped hallway outside the main courtroom in Strafford County, New Hampshire. Much of the cast of characters from Dodds’s recent trial–state cops, Fish and Game officers, rescue personnel, reporters–were shoehorned in there, too, waiting for the doors to open. Many of these people had recently testified against Dodds, helped turn him into a convicted felon. Today, they’d returned to see him sentenced.
Dodds either didn’t notice them or pretended not to. He and his wife, Cindy, worked their way to a small circle of friendly faces by the door, where he started hugging people, his face creasing into a big, rubbery grin. His brown hair had yielded to a pronounced bald spot on the crown of his head, but otherwise Dodds looked a youthful 43. He was dressed in a sports coat and slacks, and appeared poised and confident, almost festive, as if this were a good day to announce another run for Washington, as if someone might draw a curtain and unveil a “Dodds for Congress” sign.
Observing all this from a back corner, I surmised that Dodds had cut a deal. Somehow. Despite having rejected the state’s plea-bargain offer and insisting on a trial, and despite the jury quickly finding him guilty on all counts–after which he’d gone on national television and called several witnesses liars and asked that God have mercy on their souls–somehow, despite all that, he must have cut a deal to avoid jail time. I’d covered trials before–murder and drug cases–and defendants facing prison terms always march in with faces tight, mouths set hard. Not Dodds.
But when his time came to defend himself once more, Dodds’s confident aura evaporated, and, between sobs, he managed to choke out only a few sentences about how he’d tried to help people and hoped the court would consider that. And then Judge Peter Fauver lit into him, denouncing Dodds for inventing “a fairy tale.”
One thing was eminently clear: No one believed Dodds’s story. No one bought the tale of him swimming a frigid river, then hiking until he passed out in the snowy New Hampshire woods, one shoe missing, legs frozen, and enduring 27 hours in the early-April chill, huddled in a pile of leaves.
Gary Dodds, a resilient survivor? The people had spoken, and the unequivocal answer was no.
It’s rare enough to be accused of inventing a survival hoax. But charged with faking one in order to revive a struggling Congressional campaign? Unheard of. Still, no one could fully explain what had happened to him that night. And after investigating Dodds’s background, his quixotic Congressional campaign, and the dramatic arc of his life, I came to this conclusion: Gary Dodds was caught up in a survival epic after all. It just wasn’t the one he set out to tell.