News

A tragic end

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Cody Roman Dial/GoFundMe photo

News that a body found this week in Costa Rica appears to be that of  Cody Roman Dial – R-2 to a lot of friends and acquaintances of the Dial family here in Alaska – brought feelings of regret and a little guilt.

Twenty-seven-year-old Dial was the sort of smart, capable young person upon whose future Alaska depends, and when he went missing in Costa Rica in July 2014 the search there started off rather slowly. A pair of Red Cross search teams on foot went out on July 23 to begin probing the edges of the lush and overgrown, 164-square-mile Corcovado National Park along the southwest coast of the Central American nation.

A day later, the Alaska Dispatch News first reported that a search was underway for the son of well-known local adventurer Roman Dial. The story was not well received. Some people thought it some sort of invasion of the privacy of the Dial family, though R-2’s story was already out there. It had been reported previously in “The Tico Times,” an English-language online newspaper based in San José.

Still,  because of the negative reaction in Anchorage, a story that should have stayed in the news and might have mobilized a wide world of adventurers familiar with the Dials to launch a large-scale search for R-2 disappeared for a time from the state’s largest newspaper.

No, actually, it was worse than that.

Four days after the first story appeared, there was another with a headline that said this:
“Cody Dial reportedly seen in Costa Rica hostel a week ago.”

Below the headline, the 13-paragraph story said that “the news comes from his father, Alaska Pacific University Professor Roman Dial, who is now in the Latin American country searching for his son.

“Peggy Dial, Cody’s mom, was too distraught to talk on Sunday, but indicated it should now be reported that Cody is no longer missing. In a Saturday post on Roman’s Facebook page, she reported, ‘Good News! Cody Roman was seen on the 21st and Roman is following confusing leads! Getting closer to our boy!'”

Whether that report slowed efforts to organize the kind of search that might have found Cody is hard to say, but Men’s Journal magazine, which wrote an exhaustive story about the hunt for R-2, indicated that the search didn’t really amp up to include a helicopter and a significant number of ground teams until Aug. 2.

Only days later, Costa Rican authorities suspended the search, having found no sign of Cody. “Search-and-rescuers believe it is possible that (Cody) Dial left the park and may be elsewhere in Costa Rica,” The Tico Times reported.

Over the course of the days that followed, Roman with help from then Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska tried to get the U.S. military involved in the hunt for Cody as it had been involved in the search for other Americans lost there. But the effort eventually went nowhere.

It wasn’t until the middle of August, with Cody now missing for almost a month, that Roman was able to enlist Brian Horner from LTR Training Systems (Learn to Return) in Anchorage and some other Alaskans to help him launch his own covert search and rescue mission.

It, too, proved futile. Afterward, it was hard not to wonder how differently things might have gone if Cody’s story had attracted the kind of attention it deserved in Alaska where the Dials were well-connected to a broad network of wilderness survival experts, including a bunch of the pararescue jumpers  (PJs) from the Alaska National Guard’s fabled 210th and 211th Rescue Squadrons.

Public exposure invariably influences bureaucratic action. There is no denying this. When three gray whales became trapped in the ice off Barrow in 1988, the U.S. government raced to rescue them not because there was any sort of environmental crisis – there wasn’t; the North Pacific ocean is chock-a-block full of gray whales – but because dramatic television video of the doomed whales sadly surfacing to breathe through a fast closing hole in the ice had stirred strong public emotions.

Personal guilt

I wrote that first ADN story about R-2. I admit to hoping it might stir the sort of organized SAR effort that was going to be required to find Cody if he was going to be found. Journalists probably shouldn’t confess to thinking such things, but I’m long past done with playing the game wherein we pretend we’re somehow objective robots immune to human thoughts and responses.

The reality is that journalists are anything but.  It was human weakness that led me to write the second story.  It downplayed the situation in a way I knew at the time was wrong, and it may have undercut initial efforts to organize a larger search for R-2.

The story was written in response to what was going on at the Alaska Dispatch News, and not in response to what was going on in Costa Rica. It was written because although the Dials aren’t quite friends they’re more than acquaintances and because there were those mumbling about how the reporting on Cody’s disappearance had made life miserable in Anchorage for his parents.

The second story was a huge mistake, and I regret it. R-2’s disappearance was news. The ADN should have stayed the course to cover it as news no matter what the public opinion.

Someone should  have told me: “Do your damn job.”

Or at the very least assigned the story to another reporter to follow the search or lack thereof.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, the story disappeared from the news for another week, and by the time it briefly returned the sense of immediacy that might have spurred Alaskans and the U.S. government to action was gone.

The Coasta Ricans, meanwhile, appear to have done the best they could with limited assets, a huge search area, and what appears to have been some reservations about looking for a renegade hiker from Alaska who ignored a Costa Rican requirement tourists hire guides.

As The Tico Times pointed out in almost every story it wrote, R-2 “planned to enter the park through an entrance near the Conte River, a region off-limits to tourists.”

 

Journalistic chaos

In the summer of 2014, the Alaska Dispatch News, a merger of AlaskaDispatch.com and the Anchorage Daily News, was still in its infancy. Dispatch majority owner Alice Rogoff had purchased the Daily News only about three months earlier from The McCaltchy Company, but she’d really never taken over.

The new ADN was sort of living in limbo as less than a dozen online journalists from Dispatch tried to adjust to life with a couple dozen or more print journalists from the Daily News. Tony Hopfinger,  an aggressive editor semi-famous for being arrested by goons working for U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller while trying to ask some pointed questions, had moved up to the job of president of the new company.

David Hulen, a self-described “fair and decent” guy who’d previously worked for McClatchy, had taken over as managing editor. The Hopfinger-Hulen marriage was an interesting one. Where Hopfinger was bold; Hulen was restrained.

When the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew out in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and started spewing more crude oil into the water than anyone could have imagined, Hopfinger had a reporter on the scene with days. Given that BP was one of the biggest players in the Alaska oil patch and that the 49th state had lived through the Exxon Valdez oil spill nightmare, Deepwater was a story Hopfinger, his then-wife and business parter Amanda Coyne, and others at Dispatch thought had to be covered by Alaska reporters.

No other news organization in the state sent a reporter. The Daily News, which had far more resources than the Dispatch, was content to save money and run whatever coverage the wires provided. Hulen was schooled in that system.

It is not bad; it is not good. It just is.

When it came to the R-2 story, Hopfinger’s instinct would have been to send a reporter to Costa Rica to join the search for the missing son of a local wilderness celebrity. Hulen’s instinct was to hold a meeting.

We talked about the Cody story. It was decided not to further any pain the Dials might be suffering.  I confess I did not argue. Hulen prides himself on being thoughtful and considerate. He likes to roll things around a lot before making a decision.

Hopfinger was always the opposite. He was old school journalism. That school had simple rules:  Follow the story. If people don’t like it, tough. Follow the story.

Nothing to criticize

Following a story is not always popular. Sometimes it can anger readers. Sometimes it can get reporters fired, something with which I have some personal experience. Sometimes it can upset newspaper owners.

In some ways, Hulen was in 2014 just trying to follow directives. Rogoff wanted a kinder, gentler Alaska Dispatch News. We talked about it. She told me she wanted to find me a job “where you don’t generate so much controversy.” She might have told Hulen the same thing, though I’ve never asked him about it. The last time I called him to talk he didn’t return the phone call.

Clearly the least controversial thing to do with R-2 missing in Costa Rica was to generally ignore the story. Media are rarely, if ever, criticized for what they don’t report. It’s the big bias the public generally doesn’t understand.

Cody’s story was an interesting and heart-tugging mystery involving the son of a local celebrity, but there were plenty of good reasons to justify not doing it. There are always good reasons to justify the stories not done.

I’m generally not a go-along guy, but I went along on this one. I’d heard enough about “adding to the Dials’ pain.” I didn’t want to hear anymore.

Sometimes journalism sucks. If you want to do it right, you sometimes have to write difficult stories. You sometimes have to ignore the fact some news will make some people unhappy and just cover the damn news. You sometimes have to upset friends.

I didn’t want to do it. I confess.

Roman, Peggy and I go way back. I’m a parent, too. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to lose my daughter. Not only did I not want to write about Cody, I didn’t even want to think about him.

I knew full well how dire the situation. He’d been missing almost two weeks when his disappearance was first reported. That’s a long time. If he was somewhere out there in the Costa Rican jungle injured but alive, the survival window was closing and closing fast.

I did suggest ADN assign another reporter to follow the story and keep it in the news. Then I  begged off as personally too close to the situation. Another reporter was assigned, but not much more ever got done. R-2 just sort of faded away.

On Sept. 6, the ADN reported Roman’s suspicions Cody might have fallen victim to “foul play.” It was the last R-2 story of 2014.

When the Dials set up a GoFundMe account four days later to try to finance a continuing search, it never made the news. Cody would be gone until this year when there came the report of human remains found along with Cody’s passport in a ravine in Corcovado some ways north of what Roman thought the prime search area.

A cause of death has not been determined, but The Tico Times reported “foul play unlikely.”

It is hard now to avoid the thought Cody might have fallen into a ravine and died there because he was injured and couldn’t get out. It is hard not to wonder what might have happened if more SAR assets had been made available to launch a massive search. It is hard to keep from thinking about what might have happened if Cody’s disappearance had stayed in the public eye in Alaska.

The media influences everything and in many ways. Dropping the Cody story was the kinder and gentler thing to do. Friends and family in Anchorage were freed from regular reminders he was missing. But at the same time, the lack of news killed any sense of urgency for anyone to push for a greater effort to find R-2.

I can’t fault Hulen. He made a rational decision that largely reflected the desires of his boss. I can fault myself. I should have just gotten on a plane and gone to Costa Rica to do what we did at Dispatch when Deepwater started spewing oil: Cover the damn story.

But sometimes that’s a lot easier to say than to do.

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10 replies »

  1. It was obvious the bias towards the criminal theory would blossom when after hiring x-DEA investigators. Someone was likely to end up in a Costa Rican prison over this when that was not likely ever indicated. Sorry for the loss, Cody perished doing what he loved to do and that take courage.

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  2. I travel in Central America quite a bit but I’d never expect the American government to mobilize a huge search for me if I didn’t show up. Frankly, I don’t think it should happen for anyone if it doesn’t happen for everyone. Being well-connected shouldn’t mean you get special favors or treatment that others don’t get in the same situation. I thought it was appropriate to cover the original story (even that is a stretch, unless the ADN would cover a story about any Alaskan missing in another country) and then drop it until more information was obtained.

    People who purposefully seek remote and dangerous places to travel accept the risk of a tragic end, and there was no reason to assume this guy was the victim of anything but an accident in a remote area. Why this story ended up with any slant towards “foul play” is beyond me, there was never any evidence of that and it was the least likely scenario, given the known facts.

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    • Tyler: agree. if it doesn’t happen for one it shouldn’t happen for all. “A three-week search of the park – which spans 14,000 hectares of rugged rain forest terrain – by Costa Rican Red Cross, National Police, foreign volunteers and even U.S. Blackhawk helicopters with infrared technology turned up no sign of (American) David (Gimelfarb) in 2009.http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/08/11/another-year-and-still-no-answers-for-parents-of-missing-us-tourist
      disagree on “drop it until more information was obtained.” the way you obtain more information is to go look for it and certain people, because of their status in society, are of more news interest than others, be they POTUS or Kim Kardsashian. that’s just the way it is.
      and i think we both can surmise why the suggestion of “foul play” arose.

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  3. The truth is that area is a conflict zone & this was the potentially 5th murder of a white person since 2010.

    Between the cocaine mule line from Columbia & the illegal mining it is very dangerous, but the 2.1 billion dollar white Ecotourism industry wants more silence than justice.

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    • I looked it up and 2 of the 5 murders of foreigners in Costa Rica since 2010 were committed by the husband and boyfriend of the victim. One was a crime of passion, the other for insurance money. Next time do some research.

      The truth is, the remains were found miles from any trail or illegal mining. Apparently you didn’t bother to follow the story to know that.

      His parents recently (in the last two days) have given statements indicating they no longer believe he was the victim of foul play based upon the location of the remains and that nothing of his was taken. So you can stop with the murder bullshit.

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  4. In response to Steve Stine:

    “like a bag-pack at US embassy that was found at a hostel in town well before body was discovered”

    This was most likely his travel backpack that Cody left at the hostel when he went into the jungle. His hiking backpack was found with his remains.

    “Also, Cody’s sleeping mat was found in a miner’s tent”

    That has proven to be false. Cody’s sleeping mat was found along with his remains.

    “Investigator Carson Ulrich states “prime suspect in case is a gold miner with a bad reputation.”

    Ulrich is a leech feeding off the grieving parents. He’s making money from the NG reality series and is milking it. There is no prime suspect. There was no crime. All evidence points to a tragic accident. But even up until yesterday Ulrich is pushing that it was a murder.

    “Nat Geo is doing a good job here and should be commended for their work and assistance to the Dial family.”

    That is pure bullshit. They are adding to the family’s grief by making the reality series into a murder who done it when it’s clearly the result of a tragic accident. If NG had any scruples and really wanted to help the family, they would cancel the series.

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    • I confess it’s hard to believe anything Nat Geo does these days or Discovery or Animal Planet. They’ve all pretty much pissed away any credibility with their phonied up reality shows. Parts of “Alaska State Troopers,” one of the better Nat Geo shows, were make believe. In fact, it’s hard to believe almost anything on TV after NBC participated with Bear Grylls in Obama’s Alaska fraud. Along those lines, go look at the nicely photoshopped Obama art: http://www.nbc.com/running-wild-with-bear-grylls?nbc=1 Hot-diggity, our first presidential mountaineer!

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      • Now that it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, NG will get further away from the quality they were once known for.

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  5. Sad story…the Alaskan gag orders seem to run rampant.

    National Geo has a new story coming out May 29th & there is a good write up on their website.

    Lots of new clues…like a bag-pack at US embassy that was found at a hostel in town well before body was discovered.

    Also, Cody’s sleeping mat was found in a miner’s tent…one site says up to 400 illegal miners in this area each year.

    Investigator Carson Ulrich states “prime suspect in case is a gold miner with a bad reputation.”

    Nat Geo is doing a good job here and should be commended for their work and assistance to the Dial family.

    My thoughts and prayers are with them tonight…

    Like

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