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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.

Likewise, Gary Dodds’s survival tale seemingly began long before his car swerved off the highway. More likely, it started with his vainglorious decision to run for Congress. Only after committing much of his own money and time did he begin to grasp his quandary. Anyone who’s been lost in the wilderness might understand the desperation Dodds must have felt.

The more Sgt. Richard Mitchell examined Dodds’s campaign, the more it troubled him. The campaign headquarters initially had been located in Cutts Mansion, an 1805 building Dodds owned in Portsmouth that had been modified into 14 apartments. But Dodds had recently moved his operation to a rental in Manchester. Cindy explained that she’d pushed Gary to relocate after he’d become too close to a campaign staffer who lived in a first-floor apartment.

There were funding questions. Dodds was financing the campaign with $90,000 of his own money. He’d told his campaign manager that he’d taken out two mortgages–but hadn’t told his wife about the second one. And Dodds had just appeared on the Federal Election Commission’s radar for financial irregularities. The agency sent a letter on March 14 asking him to explain discrepancies in his two most recent quarterly reports; the FEC gave him until April 13 to respond–one week after Dodds’s disappearance.

Then there was a curious bit of information from the previous day. Dodds’s EZPass records showed that, less than an hour before his accident, he’d actually passed the crash scene going in the same direction. To Mitchell, this suggested Dodds was scouting for a choice spot to stage his wreck.

In Dover, meanwhile, the search-and-rescue effort intensified. Wimsatt called in reinforcements, including a canine unit. He organized grid searches of the patchy forest near the Portsmouth Christian Academy, where the tracks had been spotted, and where a constellation of television satellite trucks was forming.

Shortly before 11 p.m., volunteer Donna Larson was searching nearby with a German shepherd named Eli. Suddenly, Eli hit on a scent. Larson pushed forward, following the beam of her headlamp, when she heard a voice say, “I’m over here.”

Larson followed the voice, and Eli, until she found Gary Dodds lying under a tree. “Oh, thank God,” he said.

She kneeled. He looked gray and disoriented and complained about his feet. She removed his socks, checked for a pulse in both feet; after finding one, she slipped wool socks on him. He responded feebly to questions, or not at all.

As EMTs loaded Dodds into an ambulance, Sgt. Mitchell couldn’t help but notice that Dodds was found just before the 11 o’clock news.

Dodds’s condition did little to allay Mitchell’s initial suspicions. The first paramedic to take Dodds’s temperature came up with 96.8°F. Twenty-five minutes later, it was 98.6°F. “His temperature,” says Wimsatt, “was not very low for someone who had endured what he had claimed to endure.” The seat of Dodds’s pants was damp, but otherwise his clothes were dry–all except for his socks and shoe, which were soaked.

Mitchell did notice that Dodds’s feet and his lower legs, almost to mid-calf, were grotesquely wrinkled and discolored. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Mitchell recalls. “They were as purple as Barney the dinosaur.”

Doctors who examined Dodds arrived at different conclusions. One saw signs of frostbite; another later testified to evidence of hypothermia and dehydration. But a third diagnosed only trench foot–a serious injury inflicted by immersion in cold water for a period of five to 10 hours.

To gain further insight, Wimsatt conducted an experiment: He crossed the Bellamy River at a tidal stage identical to Dodds’s purported crossing. The river was fiercely cold, 46°F, but Wimsatt walked nearly three-quarters of the way across–the water rising from his ankles to thighs to chest–before he had to swim for about 30 yards. Wimsatt climbed the steep streambed on the other side, and when he returned the next day at low tide, his tracks were still visible in the mud. “I am confident that someone crossed that river,” Wimsatt says, “whether Gary Dodds did or not.”

Police tested both Wimsatt’s and Dodds’s clothes, and found they both contained diatoms–algae particles–unique to the Bellamy River. But Wimsatt couldn’t fathom how a wet, debilitated Dodds–who would have been shivering hard–would have made it through the night. “To be in that condition at night, prone for 27 hours,” Wimsatt said, “it would not likely be a long-term survivable situation.”

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