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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.

For Dodds, there was a bigger problem. While his clothes did contain river particles, they lacked urine. As a cold-weather specialist later testified in his trial, a human cannot last 27 hours without urinating–especially in cold weather, and after having been in frigid water. A person who passed out for that length of time would simply pee involuntarily.

As the weeks unfolded following the crash, Mitchell began compiling a criminal case. The rescue effort had cost more than $20,000. If Dodds had faked his disappearance, he had effectively stolen that money from the SAR community.

In a June interview with Mitchell, Dodds recalled most of the day clearly, but professed unlikely memory lapses. Dodds couldn’t remember passing through the Dover tollbooth, headed south of the accident scene, at 7:39 p.m., 37 minutes before the crash, and couldn’t explain how he ended up north of there, on the same highway, again driving south, before his wreck. When Mitchell told Dodds that EZPass records proved this sequence, Dodds said: “Wow.” He paused. “7:39. So I went through the toll. That doesn’t make any sense.”

The talk ended without closure. Dodds continued to campaign, walking with a cane. But his candidacy never generated any voltage, and in the September primary he finished a distant third. The following year, on the anniversary of the crash, his 14-year-old daughter stood in church and explained why the day was special, how grateful she was that her father pulled through his ordeal. But when Dodds got home, the police were waiting with an arrest warrant.

His trial on three charges–falsifying physical evidence, causing false public alarm, and leaving the scene of an accident–began in January 2008. Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi argued that Dodds faked the disappearance because his campaign was getting more attention from the FEC than New Hampshire voters. He was desperate. What better way to win overnight fame than to star in a survival story? Velardi theorized that Dodds spent the night indoors, then soaked his feet in ice water to simulate exposure.

The trial lasted three weeks. Velardi called Murray Hamlet, a retired Army officer who spent decades studying cold-weather injuries. Hamlet testified that exposure to frigid water is profoundly unpleasant. “A scenario that involves someone voluntarily going into cold water and continuing forward instead of going back,” Hamlet said, “it just doesn’t wash.” He doubted that a five-minute river crossing would have caused Dodds’s serious injuries, and also diagnosed trench foot.

The story never seemed more unlikely than when I visited Dodds’s refuge, in a patch of woods off dead-end McKenna Street. I followed an informal trail out to the hemlock tree. I could plainly hear traffic noise. From the tree I counted steps back toward McKenna Street–the same direction Dodds would have been heading. After 25 strides, I’d walked up a slight rise and could see the roof of the nearest home, a tidy beige cape. Wimsatt had done the measurements: The tree is 470 feet from the house, and 550 feet from a schoolyard.

The jury deliberated for only six and a half hours. Guilty on all counts. On March 31 this year, Judge Fauver sentenced Dodds to a year in prison (with all but 20 days suspended) and ordered him to repay $21,500.05 for the SAR operation.

Things have gotten uglier since. Dodds has been arrested twice after altercations with Cindy; in July, a judge ordered him to undergo a mental-health evaluation. Dodds’s friend Deb Crapo believes he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I used to tell him, ‘It’s so wonderful because you have such a good attitude,'” she says. “He’s not like that anymore. He’s kind of beaten down.”

In fact, the Gary Dodds who emerged from under that hemlock is hard to recognize as the man running for Congress a day earlier. Dodds’s tragedy is not just that he lost his way–people make bad decisions–but that he made so many wrong turns afterward, deepening his dilemma just like a lost hiker who stumbles onward instead of staying put.

He lacked the critical ability to recalibrate–to assess all that had happened and all that could happen next, and react accordingly. With his reputation and future at stake, he has repeatedly slid deeper into the void. “The basic message of this case,” prosecutor Tom Velardi told me, “is what I would tell my kids: ‘If you’ve done something wrong, admit it.'”

Dodds didn’t even have to do that. If he’d simply repaid the rescue costs, Velardi would have dropped the case. Instead, Dodds hired lawyers and attacked. The morning after his conviction, Dodds appeared on Good Morning America and reiterated the claim that witnesses had lied, telling Diane Sawyer, “May God have mercy on their souls.”

One thing about survival situations: They strip away artifice. In Dodds’s case, maybe there never was a steely Congressional candidate there. Maybe at his center resides a wounded, insecure, fatherless kid who never quite got over life’s random injustices.
What are we to make of Dodds’s downward spiral? Is he more at fault than the summit-obsessed mountaineer who foolishly ascends into a storm, then requires rescue at great cost–and risk–to others? Or the inexperienced hiker who, on a scorching July day, marches blithely past the warning signs at the Grand Canyon’s rim and later needs to be helicoptered out after collapsing from heat exhaustion?

Paradoxically, by inventing a hoax and stumbling through its disastrous aftermath, Dodds actually provides a blueprint for real life, both in the wilderness and out. The lessons are not surprising: Be humble. Have a plan, but remain flexible. Think through every scenario before acting. Avoid unnecessary risk.

I spoke to Dodds after his sentencing. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but insisted he would not go to jail, that he would win on appeal, that he would be redeemed. He didn’t seem to realize how much was already lost.
A man running for Congress crashed his car on a snowy night and went missing. Only one person can rescue him now. His name is Gary Dodds.

David Howard’s first book, about a stolen copy of the Bill of Rights, is due in spring.

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