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April 2007

The Long Trail to Jail

Is he a pilgrim, a victim, or a thief? The Appalachian Trail provides a path and refuge to all sorts of seekers. Few are as baffling as the man they called Saved.

“When I had money and food,” Lescoe says, “I kept my eyes on the Lord and I was reading my Bible, hiking every day. Then I started running out of food, took my eyes off the Lord, and started worrying about my earthly needs. Took control from the Lord and put it back into my own hands. Trusted in my own resources, trusted in my old nature instead of trusting in the Lord.”

Translation: Saved started stealing. His trust in the Lord seems to have wavered most fiercely in Wintergreen, Virginia, a ski resort town filled with second homes. At one, he shattered sliding-glass doors with a rock to get in. At another, he clambered into a crawl space, then kicked through drywall until he broke through to a closet. By the time Lescoe left town, he had broken into four homes. At each, he drank liquor, gobbled food, grabbed clothes and camping equipment.

“I said to him,” says Wintergreen police investigator Steve Southworth, “‘You were only there for a few days, it looks like a small army was here.’ He said he was starving.”

On September 10, his last day in the town, Lescoe came upon a house with a green 1968 VW Beetle parked in front. “The whole time I was walking to the house,” Lescoe says, “I was telling myself I wasn’t gonna do it. I can’t do it. But after so many miles, what else you gonna do? You can’t live on tree bark.” He left with a North Face tent, trekking poles, a backpack, eight pounds of crabmeat, and a set of car keys.

Later, when he was imprisoned, and insisting that this time, locked up, he was really saved, I asked him why anyone would believe him after what happened in Wintergreen. He told me I had him all wrong. He had been saved in Wintergreen. He had been following God. But he’d been hungry. That’s when I started to understand the many people who had been so enraged and frightened and confused by Lescoe. I believed him.

Lescoe drove the Beetle 50 miles to an AT trailhead at the James River Foot Bridge, just north of Lynchburg.
Southworth suspected the thief had come from the AT, because of the stolen camping gear and the missing car. And he had a grainy security picture from Wintergreen’s Nature Center, one of the places Lescoe had asked directions. It showed a white man with dark hair and a light beard.

Southworth called the National Park Service, and ended up talking to Todd Remaley. By late September, based on Southworth’s leads, Remaley surmised that the hiker was on Forest Service land. So he called USFS officer Teddy Mullins. They calculated the hiker was walking 8 to 10 miles a day. That meant he’d be just south of Pearisburg, Virginia. That’s where Mullins found him, on the trail, on October 2.

Mullins carried a .40 caliber Glock, but he knew that Lescoe had a knife and might be suicidal, and he was under orders not to attempt an arrest by himself. So he made small talk. The hiker said his name was Saved, and when pressed, offered his real name. They talked about the storm that had just swept the area. Mullins said he was investigating damage on the trail. Then Mullins wished him well, hiked up to a mountaintop, called for backup from his cell phone, went back to his car, and drove eight miles down the trail. He waited four and a half hours.

Lescoe had seen the Glock, and later told Southworth that no officer investigating storm damage would be carrying a weapon like that. He continued hiking, but when he heard people talking ahead, he scrambled off-trail and hid in bushes until he was sure they had left.

A short time later, he came upon a hunting cabin. He broke in, grabbed some food and clothes, and fled. He would break into three more cabins and steal two more cars (including one in Tennessee), which he would use to drive farther south along the AT.
Remaley knows that thru-hikers are not the kind to get into others’ business. He also knows that the trail often beckons powerfully to people who aren’t exactly model citizens. But by mid-October, even among the drifters and the live-and-let-livers of the AT, Lescoe was getting to be a nuisance.

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