Beyond Our Horizons: Americans Missing Overseas
Americans across the country have a bizarre fascination with all things foreign. When it comes to international travel and foreign countries, attitudes can range from a wanton Western wanderlust to a macabre fascination with the fear of the unknown. Young people nearing a graduation often make plans to go backpacking through Europe in the hopes of broadening their horizons before taking the next step on life’s path. Many volunteer to assist in relief efforts overseas following a natural disaster. Others travel overseas to visit with family they might not have seen in decades.
On the reverse side of the coin, where some Americans might associate all things foreign with class or the exotic, there are others with a less favorable approach. American cinema, especially genres like action or horror, plays heavily on the American anxieties surrounding foreign countries and international travel. One of the most blatant examples of this is the Hostel film series, in which young backpackers trekking through the Slavic countries are kidnapped and held captive by a secret society with grisly motives. The American anxiety of being on one’s own in a foreign country—where you are a stranger to everyone and few strangers speak your language—is not lost on foreign filmmakers either. In 2008, when the English-language French action thriller Taken was released, it broke the record for best opening day ever for Super Bowl weekend. One of the unfortunate reasons Americans cling to the suspense and drama of films like these is because the horror is all too real. U.S. citizens go missing overseas and in North America every week, and with funding and resources for searches low, families are left with nothing but prayers for a Liam Neeson type to bring their loved ones home.
Despite the American anxiety surrounding international travel, the National Travel and Tourism Office saw an eight percent increase in international travel in 2016. In that year, 66,960,943 citizens utilized their passports to visit countries within North America and overseas. Many Americans have a Bucket List—a list of things they’d like to experience before shuffling off this mortal coil—and one of the most common items on bucket lists is travel, especially international travel. In 2009, David Gimelfarb was one of those millions of people travelling abroad. In the bustling hive of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Roma and Luda Gimelfarb said goodbye to their son before he departed for a week’s vacation in Costa Rica. “The last thing we know about our son,” they told the Chicago Tribune, “is that on August 11, 2009, he paid a $10 entry fee and signed up for a two-hour hike in Rincon de la Vieja National Park.” This month, it will have been nine years since David Gimelfarb went out for that hike and never came back. As recently as 2013, Roma and Luda were still fielding emails and phone calls from people who claim they have seen David wandering around Costa Rica. The reports described this person “spoke cautiously with people (David speaks Spanish fluently) and doesn’t appear to know who he is (possibly has amnesia).” Is it possible that David hit his head while on the hike and woke up with no memory of who he was?
The tragedy is that Roma and Luda Gimelfarb will likely never have that level of closure regarding their son’s disappearance. It’s important to remember that even in the United States missing adults are not a high priority for law enforcement. Adults have the liberty to go missing if they please, and police are not in the habit of pouring labor hours and resources into finding someone who might not want to be found. What’s worse is that once they’re out of the country, the American authorities are left with no jurisdiction and no recourse. The Gimelfarbs went on to say in the article, “American embassies have no budget or trained personnel to assist the families or local foreign governments in their search for missing Americans. Though the U.S. government provides funds for numerous programs abroad and spent $47.8 billion in 2012 to support them, none of these programs provides funds or personnel to search for missing Americans abroad.
An individual’s career can often take them overseas or beyond the United States, sometimes for an extended period of time. Such was the case with 41-year-old Robert Durbin, who went missing in Kingston, Jamaica. Robert was lecturing on law on the weekends on behalf of an international program run by the University of London. When asked about the reason for his visit to Jamaica, the West Hartford Town Councilman said he hoped to glean insight from learning about the culture of West Indian people, “I’m living and volunteering in a low-income development down here. It’s a very up-and-coming, low-income area, so it’s a nice opportunity to work with some social workers. Obviously, this area is a lot different from West Hartford… but my work here in the community will contribute to my service on the town council.”
Months later, Robert was charged with first-degree criminal trespass when he arrived on the scene of a domestic disturbance to offer his legal services to the persons involved. This led to him resigning from the Town Council while he was in the middle of a divorce. Arrested in development, he decided to return to Jamaica to continue the volunteer work he began during his initial visits. Following his return to Jamaica in May of 2012, all attempts to contact him proved fruitless. With so little information available at the time he was reported missing, his case still remains open as of 2018.
Natural disasters can have a devastating effect on a country’s tourism, but there a visible trend following these disasters: an influx of both American and other foreign individuals who travel to the effected area in hopes of volunteering for relief efforts. These “volun-tourists” are usually only in the country for a week or two, participating in a project that would serve underprivileged communities, such as building a school, or a clinic, or even a well so locals can have access to clean water. A website that serves as a guide to relief and volunteer programs overseas compared the data regarding where and what Americans are researching in order to seek out opportunities. The 2012 Annual Volunteer Report reveals that the top countries that are a point of interest for prospective volunteers are the Philippines, India, and Thailand. It makes sense, given that the same report showed that Asia is the top region for areas that receive droves of relief-volunteers. Over half the list of the top fifteen searched countries for prospective volunteers are located within the Asian region.
While backpacking through Southeast Asia, Dahlia Yehia decided to rest in the town of Pokhara, Nepal while she determined the next stop on her trip. She’d put together a modest sum of savings from her time as an art instructor in order to backpack across the pan-Asian continent. On August 5th, 2015, she arrived in Pokhara, only a few weeks after an earthquake that registered 7.8 on the Richter scale shook the whole of the Kathmandu Valley and nearby villages. In the interim, Dahlia decided she would be useful by volunteering for the relief effort. For lodging, she turned to the economy-travel site Couchsurfing, where she connected with a local by the name of Narayan Paudel. He had great reviews on the economy-travel website, so Dahlia decided to stay with him.
Despite inconsistent cell phone service at the foot of the mountains, Dahlia still found time to check in with friends and family when she could. She had nothing but nice things to say about her new Couchsurfing host, claiming she had dinner with him and his girlfriend. Then, when several days went by with no word from Dahlia, a friend became concerned and started reaching out to Dahlia’s family to see if anyone had heard from her. He also reached out to Couchsurfing support staff to tell them he was concerned for Dahlia, but that came to nothing. Her family had to turn to Apple, where an emergency support team advised that they might be able to track her movements using a unique 15-digit code assigned to all cellular hardware known as the International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI.
Finally, the U.S. Embassy was notified that Dahlia was missing in Nepal, and the family provided them with her IMEI for the investigation. They told the embassy that the last person to see Dahlia was likely her Couchsurfing host, but the information obtained with Dahlia’s IMEI revealed that someone had put a new SIM card in the phone long after Dahlia was reported missing. The SIM card was purchased by Narayan Paudel. This led to Paudel’s arrest and subsequent confession to her murder.
Were it not for the intervention of Apple, who knows if the family might have ever received a modicum of closure in Dahlia’s disappearance? Sharing services like Couchsurfing are on the rise as more apps like Uber and Airbnb continue to grow in size and in revenue creating what has been referred to as a “sharing economy”. There is a legal gray area that attorneys would call “assumption of responsibility” when it comes to utilizing these services. When Generation X was young, there was no second thought when it came to getting into a stranger’s car for a ride. Now, placing your trust and safety in a complete stranger—especially a stranger you met through the internet—is considered one of the most dangerous decisions you can make. Businesses in the sharing economy are not insensitive to these anxieties, and most offer some form of a verification system. However, most companies take pains to distance themselves from the actions of their individual employees in order to avoid litigation. Couchsurfing, for example, offers user verification for $20 per year, but in the fine print, there is always a disclaimer that frees Couchsurfing from responsibility involved in any relations between host and guest. Users are urged to report “anyone through our services who you feel is acting or has acted inappropriately.” It emphasizes, however, “[W]e are not obligated to take any action.”
Unfortunately, Dahlia is not an isolated incident. It’s frightfully common for people to vanish while visiting Nepal. Until 2011, the U.S. State Department had an active travel warning in effect for Nepal. In addition to cautioning tourists about the civil unrest occurring in the country, the State Department also had a piece of advice for the tourists who travel to Nepal in hope hiking some of the most coveted treks on any backpacker’s list:
“Solo trekking can be dangerous, and the lack of available immediate assistance has contributed to injuries and deaths, while also making one more vulnerable to criminals. Although it is not prohibited by local law, the Government of Nepal has reiterated its strong recommendation against solo trekking. In separate incidents in the last several years, a number of foreign women (including U.S. citizens) on popular trails have been attacked and seriously injured while trekking alone.”
This warning did not shake 23-year-old Aubrey Sacco, who was dead-set on witnessing the beauty of the Himalayan Mountains up close and personal. She was nearing the end of her post-college adventure, maintaining nearly constant contact with her parents throughout. On the day Aubrey went missing, she told her mother she had decided to make the “tea-house trek” in Langtang National Park—the first Himalayan national park. Her mother was concerned because her father was having surgery that day, and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to contact her daughter if something went wrong, but Aubrey assured her, “Don’t worry. It’s teahouse trekking.” In the investigation following her disappearance, Aubrey’s parents learned that the day she went missing, she had an encounter with three men she met at the Sherpa Lodge on the hike. The men initiated a conversation, and at first things were cordial, but when Aubrey announced that she had to be moving on to the next village, Riverside, things took a tense turn. The men began repeatedly insisting that it was too long of a hike to start so late in the afternoon. Firm in her conviction, Aubrey said, “Riverside is only an hour from here, don’t lie to me.”
For all intents and purposes, there is no evidence that Aubrey made it to her next destination. No other witnesses could place her at any location beyond Riverside. Given the last witnessed encounter between Aubrey and the locals, it’s easy to assume that these aggressive men might have been the architects of her disappearance, but there are many other theories that exclude their encounter altogether. It’s important to remember the U.S. State Department’s warning regarding solo-trekking in the Himalayas, citing natural hazards and the implications of being injured on the hike with no immediate help nearby. It’s possible that Aubrey shared the fate of many who had attempted the trek alone, maybe slipping from a rain-soaked embankment, or toppling over a cliff.
Another theory inculpating harm at the hands of another person is the predatory culture surrounding the military bases that are scattered throughout the Himalayas. Tracy Ross, a journalist digging into the mystery surrounding Aubrey’s disappearance, detailed some of the incidents involving soldiers that had been reported in the past, “In July 2010, three French girls reported being sexually assaulted by the soldiers manning a check post called Ghora Tabela, not far from where Aubrey vanished. Later, two more Western women were attacked in the same region in separate incidents, one in 2011 and the other in 2012.” Ross goes on to illuminate just how difficult it was to get information about this American woman’s disappearance. “If the Nepali police keep records of exactly how many female trekkers have been the victims of violent crime, they won’t say (the police didn’t respond to repeated requests for information for this story). For that matter, it’s hard to determine how many trekkers, male or female, have gone missing over the years, whatever the reason.”
This is not surprising, as police departments in developing countries like Nepal are woefully underfunded and often do not have the resources to properly investigate missing persons cases. Given Aubrey’s age at the time of her disappearance, if she had gone missing within the United States, the investigation would still have had significant roadblocks because she was not a minor. But Aubrey didn’t go missing in America. She went missing over 8,000 miles away. Search efforts conducted by U.S. Embassy, the Nepali Army, and Aubrey’s own father turned up nothing, but continued for more than two years after her disappearance. It is the longest, most expensive search in Nepal’s history.
During the more frustrating phases of the investigation, when it was impossible to get any information from Nepali law enforcement, Aubrey’s parents hired a private investigator. According to The Daily Camera, it was one of the factors that kept the case alive long after Nepali authorities stopped looking for Aubrey. The issues in Nepal that American law enforcement often encounters when investigating a missing adult that were only compounded by the distance and the jurisdiction. There are many cases like Aubrey’s in which underfunded, underequipped, disorganized law enforcement in countries overseas cannot connect with United States embassies or refuse to release information outright. However, with a private investigator chasing leads in an overseas disappearance, there are no jurisdictional issues, no red tape preventing them from contacting agencies, governing bodies, or law enforcement. There is no issue of paperwork, such as warrants to track individuals that might sit on a superior’s desk for days while precious time and leads are lost. Private investigators are beholden only to the client, and thus their search for the truth is unbridled and in-depth.
In America, there are rights and laws that protect private citizens from persecution on behalf of law enforcement without cause. As a country, Americans have only recently begun to cultivate a suspicious attitude towards law enforcement, but abroad, distrust of law enforcement is ubiquitous depending on longitude. In countries where citizens live in fear of a corrupt system and retaliation from the police, it can be impossible for investigators to pull valuable information from witnesses. This is where private investigators truly have an advantage over law enforcement. Because they have no powers of arrest—in the United States or anywhere—witnesses feel more at ease providing details to someone who cannot arrest them. Considering that police interrogations can take hours just to get a simple answer, private investigators can use that time to pursue leads and garner more case progression.
Even though private investigators have no powers of arrest, it can still be difficult to interview witnesses who know they’re being interrogated, or even witnesses who are—at best—uncooperative. When Tracy Ross traveled to Nepal for background on the story she was writing about Aubrey, the locals were less than enthusiastic about talking to her, “Over and over, villagers told me that they knew nothing about Aubrey and they wished people would stop asking. Two young girls giggled, then turned bitter, saying they didn’t care anymore that this girl had vanished.” Soldiers who assisted in the search for Aubrey told Ross that they had done their due-diligence and there was nothing left to talk about. When this is the case, private investigators have the necessary skill and experience to go undercover and blend in with tourists and locals. From this inconspicuous position, they can conduct surveillance, pull information from unsuspecting witnesses or suspects, and document it every step of the way.
When loved ones vanish into thin air, everyone who would miss them feels helpless, and everyone feels as if there could be no cause more pressing than finding that loved one again. The reality is that Americans go missing every day, both children and adults, and it is nearly impossible for law enforcement to treat every single case with the attention it ultimately deserves. It usually comes down to simple facts when law enforcement is triaging their case load: Is this person in immediate danger? Are they over the age of 18? Could they have disappeared of their own accord? These are questions that bear little weight in the minds of loved ones when it comes to their diligence in getting answers. However, regardless of your circumstances, the universal truth behind hiring a private investigator to locate your missing loved one overseas is that their expertise is applied to the specifics of your case. They are beholden to you and only you. They have very similar expertise and resources to law enforcement with the added peace of mind that your child or loved one will never just become a file laying idly on a desk.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.