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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.

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Gary Dodd’s Portsmouth PD mugshot.


Gary Dodd’s Portsmouth PD mugshot.


Sgt. Richard Mitchell investigated the Dodds campaign.

Search Cmdr. John Wimsatt.

Search Cmdr. John Wimsatt.


Condos near the Bellamy River.


Dodds in court on July 8, 2008.

Eli, the search & rescue dog that found Dodds.

Eli, the search & rescue dog that found Dodds.


Stafford County Attorney Tom Vilardi.

Gary Dodds was laughing.

We were standing at opposite ends of a cramped hallway outside the main courtroom in Strafford County, New Hampshire. Much of the cast of characters from Dodds’s recent trial–state cops, Fish and Game officers, rescue personnel, reporters–were shoehorned in there, too, waiting for the doors to open. Many of these people had recently testified against Dodds, helped turn him into a convicted felon. Today, they’d returned to see him sentenced.

Dodds either didn’t notice them or pretended not to. He and his wife, Cindy, worked their way to a small circle of friendly faces by the door, where he started hugging people, his face creasing into a big, rubbery grin. His brown hair had yielded to a pronounced bald spot on the crown of his head, but otherwise Dodds looked a youthful 43. He was dressed in a sports coat and slacks, and appeared poised and confident, almost festive, as if this were a good day to announce another run for Washington, as if someone might draw a curtain and unveil a “Dodds for Congress” sign.

Observing all this from a back corner, I surmised that Dodds had cut a deal. Somehow. Despite having rejected the state’s plea-bargain offer and insisting on a trial, and despite the jury quickly finding him guilty on all counts–after which he’d gone on national television and called several witnesses liars and asked that God have mercy on their souls–somehow, despite all that, he must have cut a deal to avoid jail time. I’d covered trials before–murder and drug cases–and defendants facing prison terms always march in with faces tight, mouths set hard. Not Dodds.

But when his time came to defend himself once more, Dodds’s confident aura evaporated, and, between sobs, he managed to choke out only a few sentences about how he’d tried to help people and hoped the court would consider that. And then Judge Peter Fauver lit into him, denouncing Dodds for inventing “a fairy tale.”

One thing was eminently clear: No one believed Dodds’s story. No one bought the tale of him swimming a frigid river, then hiking until he passed out in the snowy New Hampshire woods, one shoe missing, legs frozen, and enduring 27 hours in the early-April chill, huddled in a pile of leaves.

Gary Dodds, a resilient survivor? The people had spoken, and the unequivocal answer was no.

It’s rare enough to be accused of inventing a survival hoax. But charged with faking one in order to revive a struggling Congressional campaign? Unheard of. Still, no one could fully explain what had happened to him that night. And after investigating Dodds’s background, his quixotic Congressional campaign, and the dramatic arc of his life, I came to this conclusion: Gary Dodds was caught up in a survival epic after all. It just wasn’t the one he set out to tell.

The night of April 5, 2006, brought brought a classic early-spring New England storm: big, moist, tumbling gobs of snow, but the temperature–about 34°F–was too warm for the squall to amount to much. The flakes were mostly an inconvenience to drivers on the Spaulding Turnpike, a highway that slices through southeastern New Hampshire, linking the city of Portsmouth to the suburbs northward.

Gary Dodds was driving his 1997 Lincoln Continental–plastered with “Dodds for Congress” stickers–southbound through Dover. It had been a long day in a series of long days for the grassroots-style candidate. He was in a four-way race for the Democratic nomination, and had a business to run, too. At 8:16 p.m., according to his recollection, he glanced at his car radio. When he looked up again, he thought he saw something dart in front of him: a deer, maybe.

He instinctively yanked the wheel right. The car veered into and over the guardrail, skidded across a snowy swale, and after rotating clockwise came to a stop facing into the woods. The airbags had deployed. Dodds had banged his head, and he thought he smelled smoke. According to Dodds’s telling, he hurriedly disengaged his seat belt and crawled out.

He remembers little of what happened next. Dodds recalls suddenly being over his head in frigid water, which he swallowed in gulps, and swimming ferociously to avoid drowning. He clawed his way onto land and stumbled, disoriented, through dark woods.

Dodds is 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. He is a sometime hiker and martial-arts practitioner. Now, though, according to his account, after climbing a steep hill his legs felt wooden and he couldn’t go on. He was wearing a gray fleece jacket over a dress shirt. His khaki pants and black dress shoe (he’d lost the other) and socks were soaked. But it was dark and cold and he had no idea where he was, or how far he’d come. Maybe he could figure out what to do when daylight came.

He found a hemlock tree and lay down under a bough, in some leaves, and fell unconscious.

Cheryl Hurley couldn’t beliEve how fast the driver had disappeared. She’d been driving slowly in the squall when she saw the brake lights flash up ahead and then swerve off the roadway. She pulled over and dialed 911. But the Lincoln’s driver was already gone. There was just enough snow to show footprints leading back toward the highway.

When state police Trooper Brian Strong arrived, the accident reconstruction specialist noted the footprints as well and surmised that another motorist had picked up the driver. A phone call was made to Dodds’s home, and eventually Cindy showed up. By that time, Strong’s supervisor, Sgt. Gary Woods, had also arrived. Woods recalls that Cindy seemed concerned but calm. She asked whether the police would call in search dogs; Woods demurred, pointing out that footprints led back toward the turnpike. In the absence of any solid leads, a third-shift trooper who arrived later simply drove around, poking his cruiser’s spotlight into the woods.
The next morning, Sgt. Richard Mitchell headed to the scene. When Mitchell arrived, he met Cindy, who by then seemed upset. She’d returned that morning with friends, family, and campaign workers to search. “Her first words to me,” Mitchell recalls, “was that the Democratic Party was out to get her husband.” She explained that his campaign was threatening the party apparatus, which was supporting another candidate and thus wanted Dodds out of the picture.

“I didn’t believe that for a second,” Mitchell says. “I live in the district, and I’d never heard of him.” Mitchell, a burly man with a fleshy, red-cheeked face, is a 25-year state police veteran, and the sort of cynical, guile-free cop who populates crime-fiction potboilers, offering up self-deprecating maxims such as “I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but…”

Mitchell had reason to be skeptical. In his experience, people left accident scenes only when the car was stolen, or the driver had been drinking or was otherwise in trouble. Cindy assured him this was a legitimate missing-persons case. By noon, with still no sign of Dodds more than 16 hours after the accident, officials called New Hampshire’s Department of Fish and Game, the agency responsible for search-and-rescue operations. But this wasn’t a typical search. “There was everywhere to look and nowhere to look,” Trooper Craig Vetter later recalled. “There was nothing to follow.”

Any meaningful political campaign starts with a narrative. A story. Movie star ascends to White House. The son of single mother from a place called Hope, Arkansas, gets elected president. The child of a mixed marriage becomes America’s first black presidential nominee.

Gary Dodds had his own narrative. It’s the kind of hard-knocks-and-bootstraps story that voters love. He grew up rough, without much of a father figure. The old man was a drinker during Gary’s childhood in Illinois. Drank himself out of the family. The family relocated to Portsmouth when Gary was around 9; his mom raised three boys on a Dunkin Donuts salary while holding down a part-time job on the side.

Fortunately, help came from the government: food stamps, fuel assistance, low-income housing subsidies. Gary’s mother, rather than focus on the hardships, told her kids: Life can be humbling, but find the best in things, be thankful for what you have.
According to the Dodds narrative, he took these lessons to heart. He got through high school and plunged into a trade, working as an auto technician. Eventually, he decided he had talent to do more, and in five hard-driving years he got his bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in public administration–all while working full time and starting a family, with Cindy, that included two baby girls.

Dodds continued his upward trajectory after graduating. He began buying worn-down properties and rehabbing them, eventually scooping up investment properties in Portsmouth, on New Hampshire’s narrow sliver of Atlantic coast. Some were historic properties he aimed to preserve. He also cofounded Accent, a home-and-garden magazine.

He and Cindy entrenched in the well-to-do seacoast town of Rye, where Gary became immersed in community service. He signed on with the town’s planning commission out of concern for the environment. On the board of education, Dodds led the charge to create a weapons-free zone around the town’s schools. He was a volunteer firefighter and EMT. A steady churchgoer, he joined several fellow parishioners on annual summer trips to Bolivia to build schools. Unlike his father, he didn’t drink.

The depth of Dodds’s commitment caught the attention of Deb Crapo, a former state Democratic Party vice chairwoman. “He did anything the community needed,” Crapo says. When Dodds proposed the idea of seeking higher office, Crapo encouraged him.
Dodds had a story to tell. He came up hard but he succeeded. And in November 2005, he announced his quest for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Congress in New Hampshire’s first district.

To John Wimsatt, the call sounded unusual: Find a Congressional candidate missing in Portsmouth’s suburbs. As a lieutenant on the Fish and Game Department’s advanced-rescue team, Wimsatt responds to many of the 200 or so search-and-rescue requests the agency receives annually. He has plucked drowning victims from lakes; reeled in elderly dementia patients from nighttime wanderings; guided GPS-aided grid searches for missing backpackers; and conducted technical rescue operations to help stranded climbers in the White Mountains. Wimsatt, with his lean build, Native Eyewear sunglasses, and chaw of tobacco, appears built for wilderness.

The town of Dover was an unlikely place to get lost. There were stretches of woods, sure, but this was a far cry from the Whites. There were houses to bump into. Still, Wimsatt treated it like any other call, organizing a line search between the Spaulding Turnpike and the tidal Bellamy River, just to the west. Here, 10 miles upstream from the Atlantic, low tides expose stretches of smooth, clay-like mud. An impression made in that mud will hold its shape for roughly 24 hours, even after rising waters submerge it. Which is how, in mid-afternoon, Wimsatt got his first break: Officials in a helicopter spotted tracks leading into the river.
“That was the first clue to start searching on the other side,” Wimsatt told me. He dispatched searchers to the opposite bank, where they found similar prints emerging from the mud. But even then, the search turned up nothing. Impatient, Sgt. Mitchell changed gears. Cindy Dodds had told him there were political motives behind this bizarre disappearance? Fine. Mitchell would investigate the Dodds campaign.

Gary Dodds had a compelling life story to tell. But he quickly discovered that a run for Congress requires more than an inspiring history. A relatively unknown candidate running against higher-profile politicians needs powerful public-speaking skills. But Dodds’s lack of oratory polish was immediately clear.

In an introductory YouTube video, Dodds sits in front of a wrinkled red backdrop, ticking through his personal story in a halting delivery laced with Bush-type malapropisms (“A sense of community is a wonderful thing if everyone’s in it together”). His boilerplate Democratic platform–extract troops from Iraq, balance the federal budget, reform education–offered few details and little to inspire confidence that he was ready to graduate from small-town boards to Capitol Hill. By April 2006, he’d neither generated much electricity nor raised much money. He trailed far behind the establishment candidates.

His performance raised questions. If you struggle mightily on YouTube, how will you fare in a live, head-to-head debate? Was Dodds legitimate? Or was he merely a classic fringe candidate–a narcissistic, self-funded, self-promoter with zero chance to win?
Perhaps Dodds recognized his dilemma and began grasping for something transformational–something that would turn his campaign around, make him instantly better known and more sympathetic. Maybe he’d noticed the curious celebrity of people who survived ordeals in the wild. The media (yes, this magazine included) loves a good survival tale, and every wayward hiker–or hypothermic Congressional candidate?–could expect a heroic ride through the 24-hour news cycle.

Many backcountry epics, of course, are precipitated by errors in judgment. People who wind up in trouble–lost, or buried by avalanches, or pinned in raging rivers–often are first guilty of hubris: I can handle this. And when things go wrong, they panic and make poor decisions.

Likewise, Gary Dodds’s survival tale seemingly began long before his car swerved off the highway. More likely, it started with his vainglorious decision to run for Congress. Only after committing much of his own money and time did he begin to grasp his quandary. Anyone who’s been lost in the wilderness might understand the desperation Dodds must have felt.

The more Sgt. Richard Mitchell examined Dodds’s campaign, the more it troubled him. The campaign headquarters initially had been located in Cutts Mansion, an 1805 building Dodds owned in Portsmouth that had been modified into 14 apartments. But Dodds had recently moved his operation to a rental in Manchester. Cindy explained that she’d pushed Gary to relocate after he’d become too close to a campaign staffer who lived in a first-floor apartment.

There were funding questions. Dodds was financing the campaign with $90,000 of his own money. He’d told his campaign manager that he’d taken out two mortgages–but hadn’t told his wife about the second one. And Dodds had just appeared on the Federal Election Commission’s radar for financial irregularities. The agency sent a letter on March 14 asking him to explain discrepancies in his two most recent quarterly reports; the FEC gave him until April 13 to respond–one week after Dodds’s disappearance.

Then there was a curious bit of information from the previous day. Dodds’s EZPass records showed that, less than an hour before his accident, he’d actually passed the crash scene going in the same direction. To Mitchell, this suggested Dodds was scouting for a choice spot to stage his wreck.

In Dover, meanwhile, the search-and-rescue effort intensified. Wimsatt called in reinforcements, including a canine unit. He organized grid searches of the patchy forest near the Portsmouth Christian Academy, where the tracks had been spotted, and where a constellation of television satellite trucks was forming.

Shortly before 11 p.m., volunteer Donna Larson was searching nearby with a German shepherd named Eli. Suddenly, Eli hit on a scent. Larson pushed forward, following the beam of her headlamp, when she heard a voice say, “I’m over here.”

Larson followed the voice, and Eli, until she found Gary Dodds lying under a tree. “Oh, thank God,” he said.

She kneeled. He looked gray and disoriented and complained about his feet. She removed his socks, checked for a pulse in both feet; after finding one, she slipped wool socks on him. He responded feebly to questions, or not at all.

As EMTs loaded Dodds into an ambulance, Sgt. Mitchell couldn’t help but notice that Dodds was found just before the 11 o’clock news.

Dodds’s condition did little to allay Mitchell’s initial suspicions. The first paramedic to take Dodds’s temperature came up with 96.8°F. Twenty-five minutes later, it was 98.6°F. “His temperature,” says Wimsatt, “was not very low for someone who had endured what he had claimed to endure.” The seat of Dodds’s pants was damp, but otherwise his clothes were dry–all except for his socks and shoe, which were soaked.

Mitchell did notice that Dodds’s feet and his lower legs, almost to mid-calf, were grotesquely wrinkled and discolored. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Mitchell recalls. “They were as purple as Barney the dinosaur.”

Doctors who examined Dodds arrived at different conclusions. One saw signs of frostbite; another later testified to evidence of hypothermia and dehydration. But a third diagnosed only trench foot–a serious injury inflicted by immersion in cold water for a period of five to 10 hours.

To gain further insight, Wimsatt conducted an experiment: He crossed the Bellamy River at a tidal stage identical to Dodds’s purported crossing. The river was fiercely cold, 46°F, but Wimsatt walked nearly three-quarters of the way across–the water rising from his ankles to thighs to chest–before he had to swim for about 30 yards. Wimsatt climbed the steep streambed on the other side, and when he returned the next day at low tide, his tracks were still visible in the mud. “I am confident that someone crossed that river,” Wimsatt says, “whether Gary Dodds did or not.”

Police tested both Wimsatt’s and Dodds’s clothes, and found they both contained diatoms–algae particles–unique to the Bellamy River. But Wimsatt couldn’t fathom how a wet, debilitated Dodds–who would have been shivering hard–would have made it through the night. “To be in that condition at night, prone for 27 hours,” Wimsatt said, “it would not likely be a long-term survivable situation.”

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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