On a Saturday morning in May, 2015, a group of law enforcement agents, the FBI among them, knocked on the front door of the Montgomery Homestead Inn in Damascus, Virginia. The proprietor, a retired kindergarten teacher who lives across East Laurel Ave. from the inn, happened to be there at the time. She does not know for sure how many agents were on the inn’s porch. She guesses three or four, though her husband told her later another man was positioned at the back door.
“There were just a lot of men out there,” Susie Montgomery said.
Damascus (pop. 800) is in a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains, along the Appalachian Trail. Downtown consists of about five blocks “but in those blocks there are five churches,” Montgomery said. A visitor crosses one bridge coming in, another heading out. Idyllic is the word. The Montgomery Homestead Inn is only an old, two-story brick home with four bedrooms travelers can rent. On the morning those FBI agents came knocking, it was the weekend of the annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival, when something like 20,000 hikers descend on the town for fellowship and revelry, and the inn’s four rooms had been booked for weeks. Montgomery did not know what business the men crowding the porch could have there.
When she opened the front door, one of the agents held up a photograph of a man and asked if she knew him. She looked at it and said, “Yes. That’s Bismarck.”
Bismarck was the trail name of an Appalachian Trail hiker who had checked in the previous day. He had been staying at Montgomery’s inn periodically since 2010. She considered him an “easy guest.” He usually stayed for three days, paid in cash (like everyone else), and each time he left, the bed would be made and the room was clean.
The agents asked if Bismarck was inside. Montgomery said she was not sure, and what was this about, anyway? The men identified themselves as law enforcement agents and said they needed to talk with Bismarck about a case of fraud. Montgomery asked for identification, which they provided, and she took them to the room where Bismarck was staying.
She knocked on the door and a man answered. She said there were some people who wanted to talk to him and the door opened from the inside. The agents stepped in.
“At that point, I got back out of the way,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery could not make out what words were spoken, but the tone, she said, was calm. No guns were drawn, no voices raised. After a brief chat, the agents put Bismarck in handcuffs, walked him out of the room and took him away.
“There was nothing mean about it,” Montgomery said recently, cooking dinner as she spoke. “But apparently he was who they were looking for.”
Two days later, on Monday, May 18, the FBI announced the search for a 53-year-old accountant accused of embezzling $8.7 million from an Ohio-based Pepsi distributor had come to an end. His name: James T. Hammes. His story had been featured on two fugitive TV shows, America’s Most Wanted and CNBC’s American Greed. Authorities say Hammes, over the course of 11 years, took the funds through a series of banking transfers while working as a controller for the distributor. Then he vanished.
The amount of money he is accused of taking could unleash a man from most things that hold him in place. The world bows to that amount of money. You could pay the toll on any of life’s roads. You could step through any of life’s doors. What would you do with that freedom?
Sip cool drinks in the shade on a beach in Mexico and feel small before the Pacific Ocean? Pay a plastic surgeon to change your appearance, plant a young and willing blonde on your elbow and drive a Bugatti across Europe? Or find a quiet spot and live an unassuming and comfortable life off the stash?
James T. Hammes, aka Bismarck, apparently did none of those things.
James T. Hammes went hiking.
On the Appalachian Trail.
For six years.
Several weeks after being handcuffed beside a queen bed at the Montgomery Homestead Inn, Hammes appeared inside the Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Federal Magistrate Karen L. Litkovitz denied bond. The order stated Hammes “poses a substantial risk of flight given he has no current residence and no identifiable place to live … and no contact with family or employment since 2009.”
Today, the man who spent six years eating gorp, sleeping beneath stars and in hostels, and swatting mosquitoes while walking through wilderness and washing his clothes in laundromats is inside a jail cell in Butler County, Ohio. He has pleaded not guilty. A September trial is scheduled. Zenaida Lockard, his attorney, did not respond to messages. Late last week, however, she filed a motion stating that “plea negotiations are ongoing and more time is needed to see if a non-trial disposition can be reached in this matter.” Hammes faces up to 1,130 years in a federal prison if convicted.
There are people who cannot believe he was in the United States all this time. But apparently, he was.
And there are people who cannot believe the man they knew as Bismarck could possibly have done any of these things.
Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, those who walk the entire 2,100-mile trail in a single season, beginning in Georgia in spring, knew Bismarck as a smiling Catholic with a Jerry Garcia beard, baker’s belly and fondness for hammocks. They liked him. There is something hikers call “trail magic” that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines as “an unexpected act of kindness.” In nearly every story about Bismarck on the Appalachian Trail, or AT as it is commonly called, trail magic appears. He took to people. People took to him. Up and down the length of the trail, he was well known for his gentle, good nature. Beginning in 2010 the name Bismarck began appearing regularly on blogs written by hikers recounting their trips. His picture pops up in their snapshots.
Millions of people step somewhere onto the AT each year. That anyone stands out to the degree he did is astonishing. Yet Bismarck did. Veteran hikers, encountering newbies, sometimes asked, “Have you met Bismarck?” It was a way of gauging just how experienced a hiker was, how long they had been on the trail and how well they fit in with others. If you knew Bismarck, your boots had many worthy miles already worn on their soles. A man who hiked with him last September said the general consensus along the AT was that he was “on his way to becoming a trail legend” - someone whose story hikers share amongst themselves, one with inspirational overtones. Like that of the late Earl Shaffer, who in 1948 became the first person to hike the entire AT in a single season. Like Matt Kirk, who two years ago hiked the trail in 58 days. Such was Bismarck’s reputation that this past spring, David Miller, the author of AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, a popular book about hiking the AT, was on his phone talking with the owner of a North Carolina hostel along the state’s western edge, near Nantahala Lake. In an offhand way, the proprietor mentioned Bismarck was there, similar to the way Grateful Dead followers once mentioned an encounter with Jerry, a measure of his own familiarity of trail culture, a touchstone showing he, too, knew the ways of the wandering tribe.
When the other hikers learned that Bismarck had been taken into custody at Trail Days, shock bloomed through the AT community. Word spread along every step of the trail - hushed tones spoken at campfires from Georgia to Maine - in a matter of days.
“So many people liked him,” Susan Montgomery said. “I feel sorry for him, if he did what they say he did, because he loved the outdoors. He really did. He loved the outdoors so much.”
Karl Humbarger, who works at a hostel in Maine where Bismarck stayed the last few winters, said, “At least in my book, if he faces what he’s accused of, pays whatever debt he has coming, then he is welcomed back here always.”
What Montgomery and Humbarger and other Bismarck acquaintances likely did not know is that some believe he did more than allegedly take $8.7 million that was not his.
They believe James T. Hammes had committed a crime and walked away once before.
They believe he may have played a part in his first wife’s death.
During the summer of 2003, Joy Hammes was in her bedroom in Lexington, Kentucky, sleeping alone, when her home caught fire. She was 40 years old and had been married to James T. Hammes, her college sweetheart, for nearly two decades.
Things seemed to be going well. She had taken a job at a food pantry she had been volunteering at for years. Her daughter, Amanda, a smart, successful high school student with medical school in her future, was out on a date that night. Joy Hammes went to bed early. Her husband, James, did not.
Then the fire started.
Joy Hammes survived the flames, but never regained consciousness. Investigators would eventually rule that the fire was accidental. No criminal charges have ever been filed in connection to it.
There are those, though, who believe James T. Hammes could have orchestrated the fire.
On the night of the fire, he was not at the house on Turkey Foot Drive. He had been there earlier, but by the time the flames grew and sirens of fire trucks and ambulances began bleeding into the neighborhood air, he was nowhere to be found.
He had gone on a walk.
American Greed is a true crime series that claims to “examine the dark side of the American Dream.” The episode featuring James T. Hammes aired in 2012, and it included a narrative about the fatal fire, raising the question that he may have been involved. Recently, a relative of James Hammes described their family as “boring.” But he also said that when he watched the segment of American Greed on Hammes, called “Deceitful Dad and the Missing Millions,” the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
“We learned a lot of things,” Jeff Sadler, one of Hammes’ cousins, said.
Joy Hammes had no life insurance policy. But the life James Hammes was living at the time of his wife’s death feels like one on the verge of crumbling: Solid on the outside, rotting on the inside. He had at least one girlfriend. He also had a daughter no one knew of. And if the FBI is right, he was embezzling from the company he worked for. Joy Hammes, until getting the job at a food pantry, had mostly been a mother and a wife and a community volunteer. Her husband earned a good salary, but she had become suspicious. She had started asking her husband, who handled the finances, how he could afford to take week-long scuba diving trips to the Caribbean, alone, while she stayed at home with their teenage daughter.
“Maybe he got tired of her asking questions,” Jane Ryan, the sister of Joy Hammes, said.
Two days before Bismarck was arrested in Damascus, he ate dinner with a group of hikers he had met on the AT over the years. Thru-hikers tend to move together in a loose pack that stretches along the trail. It is not uncommon for them to encounter each other over and over again as everyone travels at their own pace, resting and moving according to whim and the weather. Friendships are made and often hikers keep up with one another after leaving the wilderness. Hiking the trail is both a physical and spiritual challenge and each day spent walking alongside another hiker links you together in personal, emotional ways to one another. Bismarck made plenty of bonds and had many friends.
One of the hikers he dined with that Thursday night was Patrick Bredlau, a retiree who lives near Chicago. They also ate lunch together Friday. They had met on the northern end of the AT in 2014, at Speck Pond Shelter in Maine, on the last stretch of the trail before it reaches its end on Mount Katahdin, and kept in contact over winter.
Bismarck had told his fellow hikers many, many times through the years that he would stay on the AT as long as he could.
“He wanted to live out his days in the woods,” Bredlau said. “He loved the simplicity of living in the woods.”
Bismarck told Bredlau his plan was to slip back out onto the AT on Saturday morning, when dew still laid across the ground.
“The FBI just barely caught him,” Bredlau said. “According to his plan, he wasn’t hanging around.”
What Bismarck did not know is that one night in March someone who had thru-hiked the AT in 2014 was at home in Mississippi, sitting in front of a TV, when a rerun of the 2012 episode of American Greed came on. As the story unfolded, and images of Hammes spread across the screen, the hiker recognized him as Bismarck, who he had spent a short amount of time hiking with the previous year. The hiker then emailed Joy Hammes’ family and the FBI. Working off that tip, agents learned Bismarck typically attended the Trail Days celebration in Damascus. They began coordinating with the Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office, the Damascus Police Department and the Virginia State Police, and circled in.
James Hammes’ last walk was about to end.
At the Ohio jail where U.S. Marshals are keeping Hammes today, inmates cannot accept phone calls. I wrote him a letter in June. I addressed him not as “Bismarck” but as “Jim,” which is what people who knew him before 2009 call him. I asked him about himself and his past; about his time on the AT; about where he stayed in deep winter, when the trail grows too cold to camp alongside; and about what he might want people to know about him.
In the package I sent I included some paper, an envelope and some Janis Joplin stamps, and I asked him to drop me a note. Or call me collect.
As of this writing, he has not responded.
I found the answers to most of my questions without his help.
But others remain unanswered. Like the one about the money’s whereabouts.
“That’s the $8.7 million question, isn’t it?” Jane Ryan said.
Authorities are not talking.
“At this point, we are not going to discuss the money that was allegedly embezzled,” Todd Lindgren, a public affairs specialist with the FBI in Cincinnati, said. “That is something that may be discussed at trial.”
Federal court documents indicate that of the millions Hammes is accused of embezzling, only $698,956 has been seized.
The other unanswered question, the one that will likely stir back-country rumors and campfire theories for decades, is of all the places James T. Hammes could go, Why the Appalachian Trail?
“That’s the biggest mystery,” said Jeff Sadler, Hammes’ cousin. “And it’s one only he can answer. We may never know.”
The Appalachian Trail stretches nearly 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. The idea was borne less than a century ago. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy describes on its website how in 1921 a Harvard-educated conservationist named Benton MacKaye proposed “a series of work, study and farming camps along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains.” MacKaye envisioned a refuge from industrialized urban settings. “Hiking was an incidental focus,” the Conservancy states. The AT was completed in 1937.
Its popularity has exploded since the 1970s, mainly because of magazine articles and books that suggest to readers the ways that walking the trail can help travelers find themselves. Even in the digital age, the romance of the trail continues to resonate. Author Bill Bryson’s classic memoir, A Walk in the Woods, which came out in 1998, will appear as a movie this September, starring Robert Redford. Ben Montgomery’s current best-seller, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, tells the inspiring story of the first woman to walk the trail from top to bottom. At this moment, people are eagerly following ultra-runner Scott Jurek on social media, in the midst of his quest to run the entire length of the AT in record time.
With the swell of the Internet in the past 20 years, which provides ready resources for hikers and hundreds of personal memoirs about the AT, the number of people who take to the trail has more than doubled. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says 2 to 3 million people step foot somewhere onto the trail each year, some hiking for an afternoon or a day, others for weeks or even months at a time. Larry Luxenberg, the author of Walking the Appalachian Trail, said that is a conservative estimate. He noted a poll taken not long ago at Newfound Gap, a well-known mountain pass on the AT along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, indicated 9 million people passed through the area.
When considering the high number of travelers, petty crime on the trail is rare; violent crime is more rare. There have been a handful of murders - tales of shootings, stabbings and strangulations circulate - but they are mainly isolated incidents committed by criminals who happened to be crossing trail areas, not living or hiking there, and they are conveyed like ghost stories between hikers. Tales of fugitives are exceptionally rare. Kori Feener, a filmmaker who released a documentary about the AT in 2013, said that taken as a whole, there have been fewer killings on the AT “than there were murders in my hometown of Boston last year.” Fifty-two people were murdered in Boston in 2014, but since the trail first opened, only a dozen or so people are known to have been killed while hiking the AT.
Hiking the AT is a personal experience. Its pull varies from person to person. But in a broad and figurative sense, it is fair to say a majority are on a search. Thru-hikers are usually in their early 20s, looking for adventure before settling down, or past 50 and seeking something else. “You sometimes have the middle-age crowd,” one AT veteran said, “who hike because of a change in life. They get divorced or lose a job or quit or job.” A center yet to be found is sensed, and someone finally has time to look for it and believes they will find it on that narrow pathway that runs almost the entire length of the Appalachians. One hiker called the experience an escape.
But hiking from Georgia to Maine from spring to fall is no party. It requires months of planning. Supplies must be loaded into packs with the understanding that the next town and opportunity to restock may not come for three or four days. Many hikers send supplies to themselves ahead, care of “General Delivery” at post offices along the trail.
The terrain, some of it rugged, at first tries you physically. “Over time, your body takes a beating,” AT author David Miller said. “You lose a lot of weight and accumulate aches, pains and blisters.” Then the mental aspect of facing thousands of miles looms. Couple those challenges with the natural introspection that happens while hiking, and the culture on the AT is an accepting one.
“The trail is a present endeavor,” Feener said, “with the focus often being on the pain you are in, the beauty you saw that day, where you are going to sleep that night and where your next water source is.”
Every step puts distance between a hiker and the worries of the world. Days run together. Previous lives slip away. Hikers may delve gently into each other’s pasts, but acceptance is the norm.
A hiker named Sherry Leitner said, “It’s sort of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality. If someone wants to share something with you about their ‘real life’ - meaning life off the trail - then fine, but we don’t probe.”
In keeping with the escapist culture, trail names are common.
“A rite of passage” for thru-hikers is how Feener described the naming process, which serves to further separate long-distance travelers from their real lives, or pasts, while they are on the trail. Some choose their own names; others are given names by other hikers.
“Just one of the things most of us do to embrace the sense of escapism that goes with the adventure,” said Miller, who is known on the trail as “AWOL.”
Hammes’ name was “Bismarck.” He seems to have given it to himself.
It is an odd name for someone wandering the AT to choose. In its adoption of the name of a remote American city in the Dakotas, it brings to mind the Coen brother’s film, Fargo, a dark tale that includes a mild-mannered protagonist who arranges for his wife to be kidnapped and eventually murdered. It also conjures up images of Otto van Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Germany who in the 19th century established the modern world’s first welfare system, or the German World War II battleship that sank killing more than 2,000 crewmen. One family member of Hammes’ thought it could be a reference to a crude sexual act. Or maybe a nod to a hamlet by that name in east West Virginia, where he could have laid low occasionally, or a small village in Illinois, near where he once lived.
Hammes, though, told some hikers he was born in Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital, a place most have heard of but few know. (“No one is ever from Bismarck,” one hiker said. “Who else on the AT is going to be from Bismarck?”) He told others he had invested in a lucrative software company based there, in that cold city of 60,000. Both of these stories - one involving a personal history, the other the roots of a livelihood - served to establish along the trail things he undoubtedly needed: a past and place that were likely foreign to people he met and that explained his presence.
Neither is true.
This is what is true: James T. Hammes was born approximately 800 miles southeast of Bismarck, North Dakota, in Milwaukee on April 30, 1962. As a young man his father, a Catholic, toyed with entering the priesthood, but married and became an accountant. Three sons followed. Only James, the oldest, would follow the father’s footsteps into accounting.
Everyone called him Jim. In the 1970s, the family moved to Springfield, Illinois. In the backyard of their home was a lake. Hammes attended Glenwood High School in Chatham, Illinois. He played football and wrestled at only 5′8″ and someone who knew him then said there was a suggestion of the “All-American boy in him.” Nothing felt amiss then. After graduating high school in 1980, he went to a mechanic’s school in Iowa on a scholarship, but did not stay. Back in Springfield again, he began studying accounting at Sangamon State University (now known as University of Illinois at Springfield). There, during the spring semester of 1984, he met another accounting student named Joy Johnson, and a friendship began. She was the smart and smitten daughter of a farmer, and on their first date wore a white dress and red belt.
Joy Johnson’s sister, Jane Ryan, met Hammes shortly afterward. He had a beard, long hair and seemed nice enough, Ryan said, if a “little different.” There was a suggestion of the show off in him. Around one of his wrists, he wore a big watch. “He wanted us to like him,” Ryan said. Recently, she used the word “charming” to describe him. Her tone made it sound like a sickness.
Hammes married Joy inside a Catholic church on Dec. 22, 1984, and they moved into an apartment on Seventh St. in Springfield. He went to work for a Coca-Cola distributor and in 1986, their daughter, Amanda, was born. Then they relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio. On the surface, the move appeared to further Hammes’ career. But he was also walking away from something he preferred to keep hidden.
In Springfield, Hammes had a girlfriend - an old fling named Jill from Glenwood High - and she became pregnant. Hammes’ second daughter was born in 1989, a secret to his family. Years later, when the FBI was trying to track Hammes down, agents discovered that in December 2008 he had purchased her a plane ticket from New York City, where she was a student at Columbia University, to Oklahoma, where her mother lived.
The girl - her first name is Carrie, and she is a woman now - could not be reached for comment.
Joy Hammes did not know of the second daughter. She told her family her union with Hammes was stronger than ever. They moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and Hammes took a job with G&J Pepsi-Cola Bottlers and their life entered a normal pace. There were Florida vacations. They attended Christ the King Catholic Church. Hammes, who leaned conservative, seemed to take pride that his wife was a homemaker who volunteered at God’s Pantry, a local food bank. He took care of all the money. When holidays came, they often went to Springfield to visit Jane Ryan and her husband. Hammes would usually make the drive from Lexington alone a few days after his wife and daughter, because, he said, of work obligations. Ryan also recalls that he liked to take long walks, alone. There were times when he spread his accounting books across the Ryan’s dinner table, working and working and working. Ryan doubted at the time that any job short of president of the United States of America required that level of commitment at Christmastime. She laughed recently, and said, “Maybe he was working that hard because he was keeping two books.”
That may be. What is certain is that as the years passed, the secrets kept piling up.
Federal prosecutors say Hammes began embezzling from G&J in the late 1990s. A few years earlier, he had become controller for the company’s southern division, and in that position was responsible for the company’s accounting and internal controls. Court documents reveal that in 1998, Hammes opened a bank account only he could control, which was tied in name only to a vendor doing business with G&J. He then moved G&J funds into the account before transferring the money into his personal accounts. Sometimes he moved as little as $9,200. Sometimes he moved as much as $200,000. Usually it was some amount in between.
Each time he did so, James T. Hammes took one more small step away from the life he was living toward something else.
For an accountant, who people expect to be quiet and reserved, Hammes was something of an anomaly, a man with a lot of personality. People who knew him say that about the time he allegedly began embezzling his temperament, never quiet to begin with, began to become more explosive. Everything he did and said began to have exclamation marks around it.
Sadler, the cousin who lives in Colorado, said Hammes was always gregarious but started to go over the top, and he had begun questioning how genuine it all was. They drifted apart. Jane Ryan said her brother-in-law liked to “one up” people. He developed a loud persona and could be overbearing.
“When he laughed everyone in the room knew it,” Ryan said. “There was nothing quiet or understated about his personality.”
Hammes dressed casually (khakis, tucked-in polos) and kept less than flashy cars parked in his driveway (a purple Chrysler, a black Jeep, a Sebring convertible), but he began going on expensive scuba diving trips, sometimes leaving Joy for two-week stretches home alone with Amanda. When she kept asking about where the money for the vacations was coming from, Hammes told her he had invested in a software company and cleared an easy $100,000. He swore her to secrecy, but she told her sister. Jane Ryan said if that story were true, Hammes would have talked about it. Growing up with two brothers instilled in him a competitive nature. He was not the type to keep successes quiet.
“I think it gave him a thrill,” Ryan said, “that he could steal and no one knew about it and he could live so well.”
In Lexington, the Hammes family lived in a spacious, three-bedroom brick house on Turkey Foot Rd. Joy liked it there. On the night of July 24, 2003, her daughter had gone on a date and she was home alone, in bed.
James T. Hammes had gone on one of his walks.
About 11 p.m., a friend of Amanda’s, curious about her date, drove by the home, saw smoke and dialed 911. Emergency crews pulled Hammes’ wife from the burning home, but the carbon monoxide had already left her unconscious.
There are two theories of how the fire began. The fire investigator concluded a chest of drawers sitting on an extension cord caused it. The insurance people said faulty wiring in a ceiling fan was the culprit. That there were two theories has always bothered Ryan. If there was a reason for the fire to begin, she said, you would think it would be a single cause.
At the hospital, an unconscious Joy Hammes was placed in a hyperbaric chamber. But a brain scan indicated no brain activity, and she was placed on life support. “There was nothing else to do,” Jane Ryan said. “She was brain dead and being kept alive by a ventilator with no hope of recovery.”
Ryan remembers being in the hospital room, holding one of her sister’s hands while Hammes held the other. She remembers the way Joy’s body smelled like smoke and walking out of that sad room just before doctors took her off life support. Hammes, there in the hospital hallway, hugged her tight and then said, “I’m sorry.” She thought that was odd, that his wife was dead, “and he is apologizing to me.” Today, more than two decades later, it is a cold moment in her memory.
But the image Jane Ryan cannot shake is this one: James T. Hammes, about six weeks after Joy’s death, was visiting her family. She looked out her window and stretched out on the ground beneath a tree in the yard, he was on the phone, laughing.
Hammes met a woman named Deanna, who worked for the state of Kentucky, and they married in 2006. They made a home in Lexington. By now, Hammes was telling some family members about a mysterious software business he had invested in the Carolinas, where he would sometimes drive, alone, to check on things. The company appears to be fiction. The FBI says he was continuing to embezzle from G&J. Someone eventually caught on.
Court documents show a special agent with the FBI interviewed G&J’s chief financial officer on Feb. 17, 2009. Five days later Hammes was summoned to Cincinnati, where the company was headquartered. He did not know the purpose of the meeting. There, he was confronted about the missing funds. He said he wanted to tell his wife in Kentucky, and speak to an attorney, and he was allowed to leave. Two days later, a federal magistrate in Ohio signed an arrest warrant but it was too late. Hammes had slipped out of his life. Investigators found his wallet and cellular telephone abandoned on a road in a tough part of Cincinnati, suggesting he had met a bad end … or wanted people to think he had.
Roughly three months after he disappeared, the Hammes family held a scheduled family reunion in Milwaukee. Hammes did not show up. He had always promised his mother - divorced now and living out West (she declined to comment) - that he would take care of her when age caught up. At the reunion, his mother signed over power of attorney to another family member.
Jeff Sadler believes his cousin, from the day he allegedly began transferring money illegally, had a plan to disappear with the money. He remembers Hammes telling him once, “I want to retire at 50.”
“In a way,” Sadler said, “I guess he did.”
He believes the FBI catching on panicked him, and sent him on the run prematurely, before his plan was ready.
Hammes was two months shy of 47 when he disappeared. He left his wife Deanna, who has since divorced him. And he left his daughters, Amanda and Carrie.
A little more than a year later James Hammes stopped running and Bismarck started walking the Appalachian Trail.
The FBI, soon faced with a stagnant search and few leads, eventually put a headshot of James T. Hammes on its website beneath the word “Wanted.” The photograph was taken from Hammes’ 2008 Kentucky driver’s license, and the man in it has a professional look, clean-shaven, with short hair. It looks nothing like the man known along the AT as Bismarck.
Many thru-hikers keep online journals in public forums. They are updated sporadically, and the musings they contain typically note their progress, the most recent terrain, notes on hikers they befriend and photographs from the journey. It appears Bismarck did not keep an online journal. But dozens of other hikers’ journals contain references to him, as well as photographs of the well-known hiker. In each of them, his grin is wide and easy.
His smile, in fact, litters online journals.
“Bismarck was surprisingly engaged for a person on the run,” Miller, aka AWOL, said. “He seemed not to avoid having his picture taken.”
There is a snapshot of Hammes from early May 2010, only 15 months after he vanished. In it, he is reclining on a couch inside Braemar Castle Hostel in Hampton, Tennessee. He is in conversation with another hiker. His boots are off, and he already has a beard. Hair covers his ears. Comparing photographs from that time to his latest mugshot, he does not appear to have cut his hair or shaved again. That change in appearance certainly helped him evade authorities. Others say the immediacy of the trail, coupled with the culture, made it a good place to lay low. Most hikers on the trail are already more attuned to nature than current events. They do not watch a lot of television.
“The fact of the matter is, the culture of the trail almost welcomes people that are trying to hide a place to go,” Feener said. “Not intentionally … but most people you meet are running away from, or looking for something.”
But Bismarck appears to have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail multiple times, and Luxenberg said that likely played a part in his capture. The thru-hiker community each year essentially amounts to a small town - a couple thousand people. Most start at the southern end of the trail in Georgia in early spring and head north, in something like a pack, until they reach the end. Along the way, histories are shared.
“A thru-hike is transformational for many,” Miller said, “and so conversations on the trail tend to be more open and personal than in ‘normal’ daily life … you’ll certainly be asked many times about your background and what inspired you to thru-hike.”
Aside from making the grandiose claim one night in 2010 around a glowing campfire at Moreland Gap Shelter in Tennessee that he briefly played professional hockey, Bismarck seems to have offered a distorted version of the truth through the years.
The story: His wife had died and, stricken with grief, he told his two daughters goodbye and began wandering the trail, framing his journey as a search for peace. He missed his children, he would say, but they were both doing well in medical schools. He would occasionally bring up the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. He could be opinionated but rarely obnoxious, and seemed to have damped down his personality a touch. Explaining how he appeared on the trail each spring, disappeared in winter, only to return when the weather broke the following March, he said that his work allowed him to take six months off each year.
Patrick Bredlau hiked with him through Maine for three weeks last year and said sometimes the story left him scratching his head. But, Bredlau said, he reminded himself of the nature of their endeavor.
“Yes, there were things that were strange,” he said, “but these are people who live their lives in the woods. It’s weird.”
For the most part, however, Bismarck fit right in.
Other thru-hikers say he was chipper and exceedingly friendly. When he shared a car ride he always offered to split the cost. (Once, in 2013, he left a $20 bill with a friend with instructions to give it to a woman who had given him a ride because he was sure she would not accept it from him.) At Bearfence Mountain Shelter in Virginia one night a woman, spooked by a bear, decided to stay inside a shelter and he offered her a sleeping pad. Near Jo-Mary Road in Maine he once taped a bag containing ramen noodles and power bars to a tree along with a note explaining that the food was for an older hiker that he knew was behind him and struggling to finish the trail. When a well-known thru-hiker known as Buffalo Bobby died in 2011, Bismarck offered to carry his ashes up to Mount Katahdin. He was also eager to share his knowledge of the trail. “But not overly so,” one hiker said. “Just social in the way most people on the trail tend to be.”
Miller updates his guidebook to the AT each year. “There are thousands of hikers with the book,” he said, “but only a few dozen write to me with updates.” Over the last six years, Bismarck, from different places along the AT, was one of those who did, emailing him bits of useful information.
“David, just wanted to let you know that the Quality Inn in Waynesboro, Va., is not honoring the rate published in the guide,” one reads. “In fact, the gentleman at the front desk seemed perplexed when I asked for the hiker rate.”
In March, a hiker with the trail name Bingo was staying in a lodge at Nantahala Outdoor Center, near Bryson City, North Carolina. He showered and ate a lunch at River’s End Restaurant, and as he was leaving, met Bismarck. They had a brief, pleasant conversation in which Bismarck said he was looking forward, after time on the trail, to a warm meal at a table.
“I remember him calling me ‘brother’ in that passing way male colleagues sometimes talk,” Bingo said.
Later, they met again, this time at Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At 6,643 feet, the peak, which includes an observation tower and is accessible by a paved road, is something of a gathering place for hikers, a destination where the might pause and linger. Bismarck had been there at least once before: An online journal post from April 2010 makes mention that he took a three-hour nap in a hammock there. This time, it was cold out, and raining, and Bismarck complained that the Frogg Toggs brand of rain gear he wore tore too easily. Then he was off, catching a ride toward Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where he could resupply and get some rest in an inn.
“I don’t think he was a stranger to staying at hotels in town,” Bingo said.
Last year, in April, a hiker called Second B stopped for a break near Pearisburg, Virginia, and Bismarck and another hiker walked up beside him. Over the next two days they shared the trail in spots.
“I had been thinking and talking with them off and on about religion,” Second B said. “I am not a religious person but I’m spiritual.”
Over hand-rolled cigarettes that Second B supplied, they discussed faith. During the conversation, Bismarck spoke ill of churches that he felt focused on scare tactics and guilt, instead of love and kindness.
It is not surprising.
Bismarck, everyone agrees, had a religious streak. Like many who espouse their faith, he seemed to be a man searching for serenity, a simple life. People say he tended to wear a Christian cross around his neck, always tilted his head in prayer before each meal and plotted his route so that each Sunday he could be near enough to a church to attend a service.
His search for religious peace seemed to be a constant.
So was the company of a woman with the trail name Hopper.
She is one of this story’s mysteries.
She met Bismarck in 2010, and they seem to have been in a relationship by 2011. Some hikers described them as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” Others say they were married. Regardless, they remained a couple until Bismarck’s arrest in Damascus in May. In fact, she was there at the Montgomery Homestead Inn when he was placed in handcuffs. A law enforcement officer in the room when Hammes was apprehended claims Hopper’s reaction to the arrest suggested she knew nothing of his past. Most hikers interviewed for this story showed a genuine concern for her emotional state and whereabouts in the wake of all that has happened.
In photographs of Bismarck and Hopper - behind the sign atop Mt. Katahdin or having milkshakes in some cafe along the AT - they are usually side-by-side. And smiling.
A tall, attractive woman with strawberry blond hair, Hopper’s real name is Teri Hanavan. She was hiking the AT at least as early as 2001, when she met a retired police officer from California known by the trail name Spike. They bonded on the trail and married in late 2002. Spike died of cancer in April 2009. The following year, Hanavan was on the trail spreading his ashes. Around that time, she met Bismarck for the first time.
Without knowing Bismarck’s true past, hikers thought he and Hopper were perfect for one another. They had both lost spouses and were grieving. They were both well versed in AT etiquette and culture. They were both trail lifers. And Hopper, people say, was as religious, if not more so, than Bismarck.
In 2002, when Hopper thru-hiked the AT, she posted her name on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy “2000 Milers” list. She listed her home state then as California.
In 2014, when she posted her name again, she listed her home state as Kentucky, where Hammes had come from.
I found an email address for her and sent her a note.
She did not respond.
Bismarck did not hike year round.
In the winter, much of the trail is covered with snow and almost impassable, and weather conditions make long treks hard. Where he lived in the offseason varied, but he spent parts of each winter in East Andover, Maine, holed up in a hostel called The Cabin operated by a couple who hikers refer to as “Honey” and “Bear.”
Karl Humbarger, who works there, said Bismarck did this in 2012, 2013 and 2014. At The Cabin, travelers can exchange work for a discount on the $20 per night rate for room and board and Bismarck usually helped out to save money. Humbarger described him as always being in “good humor” and “very social.” He noted that Bismarck took the work seriously, which was a welcome site for Humbarger, who said most hikers do not. Bismarck helped build a garage at The Cabin. He helped install a heater, too.
When Humbarger heard about the things people say Hammes did, he had a hard time coming to terms with that person being the same person as Bismarck.
“You would have never guessed that he was accused of what they say,” Humbarger said.
Last winter, after leaving The Cabin, Bismarck lived in Apartment 234 at Parkview Studios on Harris Road in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Guests pay $158 for a week’s stay; $520 for a month. “There is never a credit check, no deposit and no lease,” the website states. This, of course, would appeal to a man on the run.
The apartment is a two-story building with approximately 61 rooms, each one heated and cooled with wall units. The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo and Interstate 69, which runs 635 miles from Texas to the Canadian border, are both less than a mile away. There Bismarck sat, waiting on spring to return, when he would head once again to Springer, Georgia, and begin another trek north.
One day in February, he wrote from his Gmail account - his handle was wanderingcatholic0712 - to his old hiking buddy, Patrick Bredlau.
“Been working crazy hours here in Fort Wayne,” he said, “but the end is in sight. So looking forward to getting out of here as I’ve been going at it very hard. Good for the paycheck but not the best for the soul.” He described a Christmas card he had mailed Bredlau, then continued: “Hope you’ve had a good winter … springer [Georgia] fever is setting in deep here and if all goes well we’ll be in Springer two weeks from Sunday.”
In less than a month, the American Greed episode featuring Hammes would air again. When it did, a 2014 AT thru-hiker was watching in Mississippi.
Earlier this year, I sat in a coffee shop and talked across a table with Hayden Crume, the 32-year-old hiker who had met Bismarck and turned in Hammes. His trail name is Chair.
“Nicest guy ever,” was how Crume described Bismarck.
Crume, a successful businessman, found himself with some free time and financial freedom last year after his business was acquired by a larger corporation. He said he wanted to “accomplish something big” and set off on the AT, hiking from Georgia to Maine.
“Going to Disney World just seemed too cliché,” he said.
Not long after starting off, he met Bismarck at a shelter along the southern half of the AT. Hopper was there, too. Crume, who had never hiked the trail before, was cooking oatmeal near the shelter. This is frowned upon by hikers, because food aromas attract bears. Bismarck approached and politely told him it was best to not do so there.
Altogether, Crume and Bismarck spent approximately 24 hours together on the AT. After that, their paths did not cross again.
I asked Crume what it was he noticed, while watching the American Greed episode, that reminded him of Bismarck. He was not sure.
“I just happened to look up at the right moment I guess,” he said, “and subconsciously I immediately recognized I knew him, but [at first] couldn’t quite place him.”
Shocked, he later sent three emails. One went to the American Greed producers. One went to the FBI. And one went to Amanda Hammes, Bismarck’s daughter, and it contained photographs Crume had taken of Bismarck. In one, the image was zoomed in close on the eyes, and Crume asked if the eyes looked familiar.
Amanda declined to comment for this story. But after receiving the email, she contacted her aunt, Jane Ryan, wondering if someone was playing a cruel joke.
It was no joke.
Agents kept Jane Ryan in the loop, but over the next few weeks told her to keep quiet, as locating Hammes would take some work.
“The FBI had told me before,” she told an Illinois newspaper columnist earlier this summer, “that the trail is 2,000 miles long, and it may take a little while to find him. But the thing is that Jim had to be lucky every single day of his life. The FBI only had to be lucky one day.”
Patrick Bredlau goes by the trail name “RW.” It began as Road Warrior, but early in his trail journey he fell in with some hikers connected to the Wounded Warrior Foundation. He admires what they do for military veterans, and did not want to suggest that he was among them, so he shortened his name to RW. Along the trail, each time someone asked him what the initials stood for, he would ask them what they thought it stood for, and their answer stood until the next time he was asked.
On Sept. 3, 2014, at Speck Pond Shelter in Maine, Bredlau met Bismarck and Hopper for the first time. Bismarck asked what RW stood for, and Bredlau told him how it worked. A heavy thunderstorm had come the previous night and Bismarck told him RW stood for “Rumble Water.”
Bredlau sensed that Bismarck and Hopper - “It’s like they were meant for each other,” he said - were experienced hikers with a good rapport with the trail. “Taking one step at a time,” he said. “Enjoying life. Moved slow.” It had been a long journey for Bredlau, and he liked the couple’s approach. They hiked toward Mount Katahdin together for the next three weeks, sharing their stories.
Bismarck must have liked his companion. Though he lied about his real name - he said his name was “Brian Wafford” - he offered more truths from his past to Bredlau than he typically allowed others to know. He said he was from Wisconsin (true), was 52 years old (true at the time), and a widower with a daughter (partially true). He also mentioned that he liked scuba diving (true).
When Bredlau shared his past, it must have sent a shock down Bismarck’s spine.
Bredlau is a retired federal bank examiner, a former certified civil fraud examiner for the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
When asked about the fact that Bismarck sent him a Christmas card last year, Bredlau, at his home in a suburb Chicago, laughed.
“Was it one of those situations where you keep your friends close and your enemies closer?” he said. “Or was it a game?”
Bredlau said he never suspected Bismarck’s past.
“He had his story down,” he said. “I took it hook, line and sinker.”
Asked where he would look for the $8.7 million, Bredlau said he would begin in the Cayman Islands. Hammes, after all, enjoyed scuba diving. And traveling alone. And the FBI confirmed that Hammes traveled to the Caribbean and Curacao, which the U.S. Department of State listed as a “jurisdiction of primary concern” in a 2014 report on money laundering.
“I’ll always want to know his motivation,” Bredlau said.
So do many other people, but not Jane Ryan.
There was a time when she wanted to confront him. But not anymore. She does not want to speak to James T. Hammes ever again. Not because she has nothing to say - she still cries when talking about her sister - but because she feels it would be a waste of time.
“I have no desire to look at him,” she said. “I know he would not tell me the truth. He lied about everything for so long. It came so easy to him.”
Asked if she believes Hammes could have had it in him to kill her sister, Ryan said if he did the things the FBI said he did, “He’s capable.”
Then, of her sister’s death, she said, “I don’t think he cared.”
Despite his obvious love of the outdoors, I struggle to understand his motivation as well, why he went to the Appalachian Trail and stayed there, so public, for so long. The thru-hiking community each season is the equivalent of a small town, and Bismarck became one of its best known, most respected citizens. It is so easy to find photographs of him, smiling among others in the community.
Then I remember something a hiker told me and I have not been able to separate his words from the image of Bismarck on the AT since.
“The outside world and its problems don’t exist to you while you’re walking,” the hiker wrote in an email. “They might creep in at night if you’re alone or away from other hikers … but generally it’s a whole other life and it feels good. Very good.
“I dream of it still a year later.”
I wonder what Hammes dreams of in that Ohio jail, and if he walks much beyond the confines of his cell. But mostly, when I think of James T. Hammes, I see Bismarck glancing over his shoulder on the sun dappled trail, his eyes meeting others hiking toward him, halting a moment to offer a greeting, but also to gauge what they might know. Then, realizing they know nothing, he smiles, and begins walking, one step after the other, trying to leave behind the man he used to be.