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black and white Nepal by Andrew BydlonNepal (Photo by Andrew Bydlon)
March 2014

Gone Girl: Aubrey Sacco’s Disappearance Hiking in Nepal

Like many hikers, Aubrey Acco walked into the Himalayas with joyful excitement. But she encountered a dark side of Nepal all trekkers should know about.
Nepali soliders, near the Namaste teahouse

Nepali soldiers, near the Namaste teahouse in Langtang National Park, resume the search for Aubrey in fall 2012. (Tracy Ross)

I spent the next five days hiking up and down the Langtang Valley, walking over the same ground Aubrey covered. In the stretch of trail where she disappeared, it would have been exceptionally difficult—without being drunk, or having been pushed—to fall in the river, 200 feet below. Over and over, villagers told me that they knew nothing about Aubrey and they wished people would stop asking. Two young girls giggled, then turned bitter, saying they didn’t care anymore that this girl had vanished. At the top of the valley, on day three, we met two young soldiers, one in a black Adidas sweatsuit, one in a uniform and red scarf. The uniformed soldier said, “Look. When that girl went missing, we did everything we could. We went in a helicopter. The Army searched. If a Nepali went missing in America, would your Army look?”

But the search for Aubrey did continue. The pressure applied by the Saccos appeared to be paying off. At the Namaste teahouse, we encountered a large troop of soldiers hiking up the trail. They wore camo and carried AK-47s. A pair of search dogs nosed the sharp-edged stone steps leading to the patio. They confirmed to me the search was for Aubrey. More than two years after she disappeared, 76 soldiers were back on the case, looking for her.

More than three years after Aubrey vanished, Paul and Connie keep her cell number live so they can call, hear her voice, and leave tender, tearful messages. It’s a poignant symbol of their grief, but also of their hope that she’s still out there, among the living.

“You know, I’ve been looking for Aubrey a long time now,” Paul tells me when I return from Nepal and describe the Army’s fruitless search. “As you know, all leads are on the table. But … I’ve come to believe … that your family will surprise you. I almost don’t want to say this. But I think there’s a chance that Aubrey made herself disappear. At the time she left, she was very disgruntled with Western culture. She dreadfully did not want to live trapped in a life like ours. She’d been reading a lot of Osho [an Indian guru] and another spiritual leader, Mooji [Jamaican Anthony Paul Moo-Young]. Mooji says you have to leave your family to find true enlightenment. There’s a chance she just traipsed off and renounced her old life, which is possible but hard to believe. If that did happen, I would forgive her. But our relationship would never be the same.”

Could Aubrey have vanished of her own accord? It didn’t seem right. This from a girl who called or emailed her mother every day of her trip, and who wrote, I love you, Daddy Poo, in the last letter to her father? A girl who recorded three songs for her dad before leaving home, to help him cope with her traveling so far away from him? Paul got her to sing, he says, because he wanted a piece of her that he could listen to while she was gone. “I loved this girl from her bows to her toes,” he says, “probably to the point that it hurt her brothers.”

When you love someone that much, is it better to believe she abandoned you than to imagine she’s gone forever? Do you ever stop searching?

Paul and Connie returned to Nepal for a third time exactly three years after Aubrey disappeared, in April 2013. If nothing else, they wanted to remind police and military officials that they had not given up. In meetings with witnesses, they learned of reports that put soldiers near the Namaste teahouse on the day Aubrey departed. The news reminded the Saccos of an earlier lead, initially deemed unreliable, that three men had been seen attacking a woman near Namaste, then dumping her body in the river. But news about these leads, like so many others, faded when the Saccos returned to Colorado.

So they were shocked when, three months later, they received news that Aubrey’s killers had been caught. On July 31, 2013, Dawa Lama, a Nepali man from Langtang, phoned to tell them that the police had arrested three men, and that they’d confessed to murdering Aubrey.

The next night, I went to the Sacco’s home, a brick colonial in an affluent neighborhood of Greeley. Aubrey’s paintings—oils and pastels, landscapes and self-portraits—hang prominently in the Italian-tiled foyer. We sat at a picnic table and parse a conversation the Saccos had with Consular Section Chief Patrick McNeil, of the U.S. Embassy, hours earlier.

According to McNeil, an undercover Nepali police officer met a man who told him that he had murdered Aubrey. The officer befriended the man, who later implicated two accomplices. The Nepali newspaper Republica reported that one of the suspects had Aubrey’s camera. News circulated that pieces of Aubrey’s clothing were found in another suspect’s home. All three were handcuffed and marched out of Langtang, and the news quickly spread to the AP, CNN, and news outlets around the globe.

The morning after Dawa’s call, Paul’s phone rang at 5:20 a.m. It was a Colorado reporter, who asked, “How does it feel to know your daughter was murdered?”

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