Solving the mystery of the Appalachian hiker "Mostly Harmless"

He was a mystery who intrigued thousands: Who was the hiker who walked almost the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, living completely off the grid, only to be found dead in a tent in Florida? It took years, and the persistence of amateur sleuths. to crack the case. Nicholas Thompson of The Atlantic Magazine tells the tale of the man who went by the name "Mostly Harmless," and about the efforts stirred by the mystery of his identity to give names to nameless missing persons.

Video Transcript

JANE PAULEY: An online community of some very concerned people has proven, against the odds, that indeed no man is an island. Contributor Nicholas Thompson, who has just become the new CEO of The Atlantic, has the tale of the hiker.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: It's believed he started walking the Appalachian Trail sometime around April of 2017. From a state park in New York, he hiked south, and about 1,000 miles and 10 months later, crossed into Florida.

KELLY FAIRBANKS: I saw a man walking on the side of the road. The thing that stood out to me first was his beard, also his trekking poles. His trekking poles let me know that he was a hiker.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Kelly Fairbanks was a so-called trail angel, offering help to weary hikers.

Why did he make an impression on you?

KELLY FAIRBANKS: He just had a really kind aura about him.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Yeah.

KELLY FAIRBANKS: He was joking and laughing with me. Had a beautiful smile, and he had beautiful eyes.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Sounds like you thought he was kind of handsome.

KELLY FAIRBANKS: [LAUGHS] Yeah, most of the women do.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: [LAUGHS]

Fairbanks took a few pictures of him, so did other hikers. Some caught him on video.

Did you ask him his name?

KELLY FAIRBANKS: He introduced hisself to me as Mostly Harmless.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Mostly Harmless-- that's what he called himself when he was on the trail and off the grid.

KELLY FAIRBANKS: He said, I'm not using a cell phone. And I said, what do you mean you're not using a cell phone? And he said, you know, sometimes people just want to disconnect.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Six months after that, in Southern Florida, hikers made a terrible discovery.

- Collier County 911. What is the address of your emergency?

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: They were calling from the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida's Alligator Alley.

- We just found a dead body.

- OK. Are you on the trail?

- Yeah, I'm on the trail, and the dead body is at the Noble-- Camp Noble site.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: The body was curled up in a yellow tent.

DAVID HURM: We had a white male. We had no electronics, no identification, no wallet, no personal information. There was nothing there that gave us a hint at the time.

[DOOR BEEPS]

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: David Hurm is a detective with the Collier County, Florida, Sheriff's Office.

DAVID HURM: We just typically don't see people go to that lengths. Most people are not comfortable being completely off the grid like that.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: The Sheriff's Department put out a sketch.

So you're looking at Facebook at work. You open up a group that you're part of, and you see a picture of this person you recognize.

KELLY FAIRBANKS: Yes.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: How do you react?

KELLY FAIRBANKS: Freaked out a little bit.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Kelly Fairbanks was sure it was Mostly Harmless, but his real name remained a mystery. Sheriff's detectives searched databases using his face and fingerprints. Nothing. The autopsy couldn't even pinpoint a cause of death. But over the next two years, the case slowly gathered attention.

NATASHA TEASLEY: I do a lot of hiking and things like that, and that's part of the agreement is, we all know that we look out for each other. You know, you don't leave someone behind.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Natasha Teasley manages a canoe-and-kayak company in North Carolina. Surfing online, she became fascinated by the case of Mostly Harmless. She helped form a Facebook group to try to identify him, named for an alias he sometimes used-- Ben Bilemy. The group grew to more than 6,000 members.

NATASHA TEASLEY: And my phone stays blown up all the time with people sending me messages of like, could it be this person, or could it be that person?

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Teasley went through public records, including a government website called NamUs, a clearinghouse for missing-and-unidentified-persons cases across the country. According to NamUs, 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year.

You have a look at the face of every white man between the age of 25 and 60 who is listed as missing in the entire United States.

NATASHA TEASLEY: I have. And there-- [LAUGHS] there are a lot of them. There are a lot of missing people in our country. I was not aware of how many missing people there are in our country.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: The search didn't pan out, but a new high-tech tool held out hope.

DAVID MITTELMAN: We're the only lab in the United States that does this kind of advanced forensic testing in-house.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: David Mittelman is the founder of Othram just outside Houston. Testing there would cost $5,000, money not in the Collier County Sheriff's Office budget. Enter the online sleuths.

DAVID MITTELMAN: There was a dedicated group of folks that really wanted to see this case move forward, and so being that funding was the only bottleneck-- and when we encounter that situation, we open it up for crowdfunding. In this particular case, you know, there was so much pent-up interest in the case that we crowdfunded it with the crowd, in the truest sense of the word, in about, I think, like eight days. It was really quick.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Othram received some of Mostly Harmless's DNA from the Sheriff's Department and went to work.

DAVID MITTELMAN: What we do is, we capture tens of thousands of markers to hundreds of thousands of markers, and-- and we do a more of a relationship search instead of an exact match. Some people call it a genealogical search.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: The results showed that Mostly Harmless was probably from Assumption Parish in Louisiana. Articles appeared online. One that I wrote for Wired was read by 1 and 1/2 million people. Still, months went by with no positive ID. But then Randall Godso from Louisiana saw a post.

RANDALL GODSO: And as soon as I saw the pictures, I knew immediately. It was like, oh, that's Vance.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: It was his college roommate.

RANDALL GODSO: A tingle ran down my spine.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: Two and 1/2 years after his body was found, the hiker had a name.

DAVID HURM: Today we know that Mostly Harmless was a man by the name of Vance Rodriguez.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: The thousands of people following the case soon learned that Vance Rodriguez was complicated. He indeed grew up in Louisiana, and he moved to New York in his 30s. He was a brilliant computer programmer whose notebooks found in the tent where he died were filled with computer code. Vance Rodriguez was estranged from his family, had troubled, even abusive romantic relationships, and he'd sometimes disappear on his friends. Still, why had it taken so long to identify him? Partly because he had erased his tracks and partly because no one was looking for him. It wasn't entirely the answer that the people who had been working on his case wanted to hear.

All the people who met him on the trail describe him as friendly, amiable, easy to talk to, whereas all the other people who knew him in real life describe him as a little distant, a little bit of a loner. What's the difference? How did that happen?

RANDALL GODSO: It's not really a difference. It's a difference in when you were talking to him. When he was in a good mood, he was very easy to talk to. He was very friendly, but he would also turn off and be in a bad mood, and the trail people never saw that, because if he decided he wasn't going to talk to anyone, he literally just would not talk to anyone. And so no one would know-- no one would remember him, I'm sure.

NATASHA TEASLEY: To me, like, him being imperfect was always a possibility. We're all humans, and we all have really complicated pasts, you know. I don't think it changes the value of what we did as a community, you know. Like, we came together out of human kindness.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON: And so Natasha Teasley started the Kindness Project. The idea is to harness the online energy that helped identify Vance Rodriguez and to use it to identify the thousands of others who remain missing and unidentified. It's a postscript to the strange story of Mostly Harmless, an effort to give names to the nameless.

NATASHA TEASLEY: My hope is that it doesn't end here, that every single person who was impacted by this story in some way will at least carry away with the knowledge of, like, care about it. Care about who these people are and that they have friends and family. They do. Even if you've given up that they have friends and family, they have friends and family.