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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.

On a raw, windy November afternoon last year, Lescoe sat in the assistant warden’s office at Dillwyn Correctional Center, in the rolling hills of Virginia, 40 minutes south of Charlottesville. (Prison authorities won’t allow reporters into the dormitory where he lives.) Dillwyn is a medium-security prison, a collection of concrete buildings housing slightly more than 1,000 inmates, many of them parole violators. A cabinet in the office contains videocassettes labeled “Chow movement” and five years’ worth of “Serious Incident Reports.”

Lescoe walks a few miles on the track every couple of days, but is still 55 pounds heavier than when he was on the AT. The prison has weights, but he doesn’t use them. “I used to. I don’t need to be any stronger. The Bible says, ‘For bodily exercise profiteth little.'” Later, he says that “I might do a little strength training at the end of my time.”

He says he is sorry for the crimes he committed. He says he never molested anyone. He says he has mixed feelings about fleeing the Rhode Island investigators. Does he wish he would have stayed and cooperated, rather than walking onto the AT and into all sorts of trouble? “Kinda yeah and kinda no.” On that November afternoon, he quoted Scripture, talked about his troubled past, his uncertain future. He says he’s turned his life over to God, this time for good. He says people should believe him, because it’s the truth. He says it was the truth in New Jersey, too, next to the tomato patch.

“I was saved from that night on, but…I was still fleshly minded,” he says. “I didn’t totally know what it meant to be spiritual. And not carnal. My knowledge has grown immensely, especially being here. I mean, I can’t complain. I can’t say ‘God, why did you do this to me?’ I did it to myself. But He made it to His benefit. Definitely. Me being here has benefited the Lord. In my life. My understanding.”

“I was sincere then,” he says. “But I took my eyes off the Lord. I learned never to take my eyes off the Lord again. ‘Trust in the Lord in all thy ways.’ You know, ‘trust in the Lord in all thy ways and lean not to thine own understanding and then in thy ways He will direct thine path…'”

He won’t be eligible for release until 2013. Depending on whom you ask, and how well that person knows Lescoe, that day will be cause for rejoicing, or deep unease.

“Write that his family does love him and he knows he’s always been loved,” says his brother Andrew. “We’ve given him multiple chances. We got him out of jail; we were at his courts all the time. We did everything possible to help him straighten himself up. He could have made something of himself. But now? He’s an *******. Plain and simple. I don’t want anything to do with him.”
“He’s got a wonderful personality,” says his mother. “He can win anyone over. My fondest memory? I don’t know. I try not to think of him.”

“I was the biggest advocate for David,” says his aunt Shirley Sincavage. “I don’t know whether I trust him or not myself. I don’t know. I’ve heard it too many times. I don’t know.”

It was so easy for Lescoe’s family to believe the young man with the open face, and the ready smile, and the confessions, and the many proclamations of conversion and promises to be good, if only he could have one more chance. And then he used up all his chances andfound another family, and even more chances. There, on that sinuous 2,175-mile ribbon of dirt, where the past is no more than a collection of fables, and the future doesn’t extend much beyond the next bend, or stream, a man isn’t judged by what he was, or might be, but by what he is. And Lescoe seemed to be just like a lot of other hikers–a little lost, a little unbalanced, but harmless. Until he wasn’t.

“I’m reluctant to believe anything he says now,” says Mary Parry, the trail angel whose bathroom Lescoe scrubbed. “He’s a smooth talker, and a smooth talker like that you can’t trust.”

“He says he took his eyes off the Lord?” says Janet Hensley, with a bitter laugh. “I’m not a religious person, but the best sociopath is the most likable, charming person in the world. They’re survivalists. They’ll do whatever it takes to get what they need. He found a group of people, some of the best, most trusting family in the world. And he was surviving. For him, that meant preying on people.”

“Very charming and a likable guy,” Steve Southworth says. “But I would consider people like that, of the criminal element, to be manipulators. We all hit mountains and valleys, and when he hits a valley, will he turn to the right people and make the right choices, or will he go back to where he was?”

Before I visited Lescoe in prison, I had been corresponding with him for almost a year, retracing his long, strange southbound trip, talking to those he robbed and others who trusted him, coming upon one shiny lie here, another murky truth there. Puzzling out what had really happened was exasperating at times, especially considering the dependably unreliable narrator at the center of the tale. Maybe that’s why I found such mean catharsis and petty joy in telling those he had “confessed” to on the trail about some little details he had left out, about the way he excused his post-salvation misdeeds.

“He says he took his eyes off the Lord,” I would say, and chuckle. Or snicker.

Many would chuckle along with me.

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