Aficionados of cold case files and forensic mysteries often experience excitement as the clues come together, and then a sense of sorrowful satisfaction when--on behalf of someone perhaps long gone--the circumstances of a death or the identity of a killer is finally revealed. John Leake’s latest book, Cold a Long Time, offers that sense of closure for suffering parents, 23 years after their son’s disappearance.
Leake, a Texan who worked in Austria and whose first book,
Entering Hades, concerned an Austrian serial killer, was uniquely positioned to assist Lynda and Bob MacPherson, Canadian parents of Duncan, a promising young athlete who went to Europe to begin a career as a hockey teacher in 1989. When Lynda and Bob had no word from Duncan for more than a week, they naturally began to worry. Once they arrived in Europe to search for him, they carried 2,000 Missing Person flyers in their luggage. The trail to Duncan’s disappearance led them finally to a ski area called the Stubai Valley, near Innsbruck, Austria. Innsbruck—the site of the Winter Olympics, where so many international athletes and thousands of tourists have been welcomed—proved a less than welcoming host to the MacPhersons. Thus began a journey through the valley of the shadow of death that lasted more than 20 years.
Through Leake’s eyes, as he builds his case bit by agonizing bit, we are able to envision the last days and hours in the life of Duncan MacPherson, an enthusiastic and very strong young sportsman who would have been better able than most people to cope with a traumatic accident. That he had an accident, was injured and immobilized is not disputed. It was what happened afterwards that seemed, over the years, to have been covered up, literally shoveled under the snow and figuratively buried in a flurry of bureaucratic paperwork that kept the MacPhersons from understanding the precise details of Duncan’s misadventure and death for far too long. Because of the parents’ persistence, especially Lynda’s tenacity over the years, there was a TV documentary in Canada (in the series
fifth estate) that highlighted some of the mysterious and frustrating elements of the cold case.
Both the MacPhersons and John Leake felt that the consistent lack of evidence combined with a consistent reluctance to help on the part of Austrian officials pointed to something more complicated, more sinister, than a mere accident in which Duncan, presumably while snowboarding, fell into a crevasse in the ice and was crushed and buried. The condition of the dismembered body when it was finally discovered on an anomalously hot day in Innsbruck indicated injuries inconsistent with a simple fall.
Later grisly photos revealed further evidence of probable foul play.
By the end of Cold a Long Time, Leake has constructed a rational though horrifying scenario that at last gave the family closure on the matter of young Duncan’s death. It points to cover-ups among Austrian officials at all levels, perhaps patched together in the most banal way at the time but growing over the years into what became a dirty ice mountain of detours, switchbacks, and dead ends.
Reasonably comparing the events in the MacPherson disappearance to the recent Jerry Sandusky scandal, Leake states: “The ugly side of
esprit de corps, rooted in primitive, tribal instincts, may cause an otherwise decent man to ignore or even cover up heinous acts in order to protect his association.” Innsbruck is a world-renowned tourist destination. It has to the greatest extent possible kept news of all accidents to foreigners who visit there, some of them fatal, off the front page. Duncan MacPherson’s body was allowed to vanish in hopes that no one would care about one foreign skier. The authorities did not bank on the dogged determination of the MacPhersons and the investigative acuity of John Leake to ferret out and publicize the facts.