“He says he’s really saved?” asks Bob Gray, for 20 years the chief park ranger for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, until his retirement in January 2007. Gray laughs, long and low. “Yeah, they usually are.”
“He’s the ultimate con artist,” says Mike Pierson, whose VW Beetle Lescoe stole, whose house he robbed. “He used Christianity as a cover, as an excuse, as a way around things. I think it makes a real mockery of people who are great Christians.”
“The allegations are molesting a six-year-old,” says Lieutenant Detective Timothy Paul, the public information officer for the Woonsocket, Rhode Island police department. (The investigation is ongoing, and authorities plan to interview Lescoe.) “I can see why he’d want to go find God or kill himself or something.”
I tell Lescoe’s story to a friend in late January. I have it down to two sentences and a punch line. “So this guy conned and robbed people on the Appalachian Trail, then he met a guy who fed him and let him clean up and they read the Bible together and he was saved. And then he conned and robbed a bunch of more people on the trail, until he got caught and thrown in prison. And now he says he’s really saved.”
The punch line usually gets a laugh, or some bitter wisdom about criminals and crocodile tears. This time, there’s silence.
“Maybe he is saved,” my friend says.
“Yeah, right,” I say. More silence, and then I almost smack my forehead. Lescoe isn’t the only one with a sad story. In her 20s and early 30s, my friend had lost friends, jobs, much of her health, a husband. Eventually, she swore off booze. She was sincere, and she was desperate, and she never meant anything as much as she meant her promises to stop drinking. But she broke them, again, and again. She tried and tried and regularly told those few who hadn’t abandoned her that this time, she really was going to make it. But she didn’t. Until, finally, despairing and alone, she prayed. She hasn’t had a drink in almost 20 years.
“I believe in salvation,” my friend says. “I kind of have to.”
What’s worse? The laissez-faire ethic of the AT? The reflexive skepticism of the journalist? Or the boundless faith of the sober drunk and the born-again Christian? Is it better to be vigilant, to protect your food bag and your community and your steely-eyed sense of self, or to feed and shelter the hungry stranger, no matter how sketchy? Which is safer? Which is more corrosive to the soul? And why is it that the people who offer the most meaningful answers to the most difficult questions are so often men like Lescoe?
He is on a waiting list for a substance abuse class. He’s got a job in the prison kitchen, and plans to enroll in Bible college while he’s serving time. He has been carving sets of hands in prayer from soap. He spends his time reading Scripture, and watching the black-and-white television he bought with $100 that Nicholls sent him, along with a note comparing Lescoe to Jonah. “The Lord told him to go to Niveah,” Nicholls wrote, “but he went the other way, and you went the other way, too. I forgive you as a brother if you repent for this.”
He especially likes the Sci-Fi Channel and American Movie Classics. “And in the mornings there’s all kinds of gospel on. Believer’s Voice of Victory with Kenneth Copeland. That’s part of my morning praise and worship.”
He wants to live a religious life when he gets out. He wants to stay away from drugs and alcohol. He has always wanted to do right, but he has never been able to stop blaming others for his troubles. As much as he seeks forgiveness and understanding, he seems incapable of extending much empathy to others, even those to whom he brought pain.
He is angry at his ex-girlfriend for taking out the Protection From Abuse order against him, says she is “that type of woman, spiteful and vindictive.” He says if Nicholls had answered his calls from the trail, if he had sent him a new pair of socks, maybe he never would have been forced to commit the crimes he did. He says he doesn’t remember walking into Wanda Clance’s home without knocking a few days before his arrest, or warning her about strangers. Not only does he not remember, he says, but “it hurts me that she remembers that.”
He’d like to finish the AT as a free man. He’s already walked at least most of the way from New York to Georgia. It was a special place for him, a safe place for a long time. It was a glorious, primitive path and a kind of leafy, sun-dappled, mosquito-infested, hilly heaven. For a few glorious late-summer weeks, he felt peace there.
He says he envies people who are on the trail now. Some, he pities. All of them he views with his odd, maddening fusion of piety and self-absorption.
“If you can’t feel God’s presence out there,” he says, “well, then. I feel sorry for you.”