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Rescue Me!

On a snowy night in New Hampshire, Congressional candidate Gary Dodds crashed his car, wandered into the woods, and collapsed. Twenty-seven hours later, rescuers carried him out. And then the real drama began.

The night of April 5, 2006, brought brought a classic early-spring New England storm: big, moist, tumbling gobs of snow, but the temperature–about 34°F–was too warm for the squall to amount to much. The flakes were mostly an inconvenience to drivers on the Spaulding Turnpike, a highway that slices through southeastern New Hampshire, linking the city of Portsmouth to the suburbs northward.

Gary Dodds was driving his 1997 Lincoln Continental–plastered with “Dodds for Congress” stickers–southbound through Dover. It had been a long day in a series of long days for the grassroots-style candidate. He was in a four-way race for the Democratic nomination, and had a business to run, too. At 8:16 p.m., according to his recollection, he glanced at his car radio. When he looked up again, he thought he saw something dart in front of him: a deer, maybe.

He instinctively yanked the wheel right. The car veered into and over the guardrail, skidded across a snowy swale, and after rotating clockwise came to a stop facing into the woods. The airbags had deployed. Dodds had banged his head, and he thought he smelled smoke. According to Dodds’s telling, he hurriedly disengaged his seat belt and crawled out.

He remembers little of what happened next. Dodds recalls suddenly being over his head in frigid water, which he swallowed in gulps, and swimming ferociously to avoid drowning. He clawed his way onto land and stumbled, disoriented, through dark woods.

Dodds is 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. He is a sometime hiker and martial-arts practitioner. Now, though, according to his account, after climbing a steep hill his legs felt wooden and he couldn’t go on. He was wearing a gray fleece jacket over a dress shirt. His khaki pants and black dress shoe (he’d lost the other) and socks were soaked. But it was dark and cold and he had no idea where he was, or how far he’d come. Maybe he could figure out what to do when daylight came.

He found a hemlock tree and lay down under a bough, in some leaves, and fell unconscious.

Cheryl Hurley couldn’t beliEve how fast the driver had disappeared. She’d been driving slowly in the squall when she saw the brake lights flash up ahead and then swerve off the roadway. She pulled over and dialed 911. But the Lincoln’s driver was already gone. There was just enough snow to show footprints leading back toward the highway.

When state police Trooper Brian Strong arrived, the accident reconstruction specialist noted the footprints as well and surmised that another motorist had picked up the driver. A phone call was made to Dodds’s home, and eventually Cindy showed up. By that time, Strong’s supervisor, Sgt. Gary Woods, had also arrived. Woods recalls that Cindy seemed concerned but calm. She asked whether the police would call in search dogs; Woods demurred, pointing out that footprints led back toward the turnpike. In the absence of any solid leads, a third-shift trooper who arrived later simply drove around, poking his cruiser’s spotlight into the woods.
The next morning, Sgt. Richard Mitchell headed to the scene. When Mitchell arrived, he met Cindy, who by then seemed upset. She’d returned that morning with friends, family, and campaign workers to search. “Her first words to me,” Mitchell recalls, “was that the Democratic Party was out to get her husband.” She explained that his campaign was threatening the party apparatus, which was supporting another candidate and thus wanted Dodds out of the picture.

“I didn’t believe that for a second,” Mitchell says. “I live in the district, and I’d never heard of him.” Mitchell, a burly man with a fleshy, red-cheeked face, is a 25-year state police veteran, and the sort of cynical, guile-free cop who populates crime-fiction potboilers, offering up self-deprecating maxims such as “I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but…”

Mitchell had reason to be skeptical. In his experience, people left accident scenes only when the car was stolen, or the driver had been drinking or was otherwise in trouble. Cindy assured him this was a legitimate missing-persons case. By noon, with still no sign of Dodds more than 16 hours after the accident, officials called New Hampshire’s Department of Fish and Game, the agency responsible for search-and-rescue operations. But this wasn’t a typical search. “There was everywhere to look and nowhere to look,” Trooper Craig Vetter later recalled. “There was nothing to follow.”

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