John Leake's painstaking investigation uncovers what almost certainly happened to the late New York Islanders prospect, and how a community misled his grieving parents to protect its own.
"This couldn't have happened to nicer people."
That's how John Leake opens the prologue of "Cold A Long Time: An Alpine Mystery," his book investigating the disappearance and death of New York Islanders 1984 first-round pick Duncan MacPherson. The line refers to MacPherson's parents, who were kept in the dark about their son's death for two decades by an assortment of Austrians who to this day pretend it was a normal alpine accident.
It's a line that haunted me throughout my reading of the book's 200-plus pages.
There is some level of guilt in "enjoying" this concise, painstakingly researched book, but it's a story one can't help but appreciate on a human level: For the innocence it depicts and its combination of random circumstance and human failings that conspired to rob a family of its son and brother and bury the truth for 21 years.
For the average Islanders fan, there is not much here specific to the team -- MacPherson never played an NHL game, and in fact the Islanders' decision not to renew his contract in 1989 is what led him to pursue coaching work in Europe, a random twist of fate that almost inconceivably led to his tragic end just months later.
But for Islanders fans of a certain age, his story cuts deep thanks to its mystery and to the many years it went unsolved. (For a hypothetical parallel, imagine Mark Katic, who signed in Europe earlier this summer, suddenly disappearing without a trace this month.)
As fans we grow attached to players without really "knowing" them, then turn on them when they dare seek personal gain that doesn't include us. We also project our hopes (and disappointment) upon young prospects, then discard them in our minds when they don't pan out.
There was a time when I saw MacPherson in that list of disappointing '80s first-round picks whose inability to be Bossy, Potvin, Trottier or Gillies (the nerve!) seemed to speed the franchise's decline. (Like several picks from that era, he also faced multiple injuries.) Then I read about his strange disappearance (it must have been in The Hockey News, but I can't recall), and I had a reality check about what kind of disappointment I can place on another human being for not growing into a star wearing the particular uniform I want him to wear.
(I also vividly remember the day reports of MacPherson's body being found surfaced in 2003 -- reports that unwittingly amplified a lie by Austrian police.)
Now, 23 years after the disappearance, I can't help reflecting that in the time between MacPherson's death and his family's resolution, I experienced high school, college, a couple of careers, and travels to all the countries MacPherson visited that summer and then some. So much time and so many wonders he never experienced, which have zero to do with silly little hockey.
In that time we all saw the World Wide Web change everything, we saw new wars trumpet and then discard humans per usual -- and of course hockey fans went from following the game in monthly periodicals to being able to watch any NHL game and track practically any NHL prospect in real time with video and endless "expert" analysis.
The world changed so much, Duncan never lived to see it, and during all that time his parents dealt with the worst kind of tragedy, squared: The loss of a child and the inability to know how it happened.
(Pardon all the personal digression, but I wanted to set the context at this Islanders-focused site. On that note, one more way this book haunted me: Around the time Duncan MacPherson disappeared on the slopes of Innsbruck, my brother was working in Europe and getting away to ski Innsbruck every time he had a free weekend. Just...random twists of fate, you know?)
An Alpine Mystery
Leake's story -- begun at the request of MacPherson's parents -- focuses on the circumstances of Duncan's disappearance and the many people who at best stuck their heads in the sand and hoped the whole thing would go away.
You may have seen the excellent Fifth Estate -- a Canadian investigative TV program -- coverage of the case, and that also helped instigate Leake's research. I also have to point out the coverage of Roger at Isles Esoteric, who kept up with this story and corresponded with the MacPhersons to keep the story alive (you can see several links to his stuff in the final bullet of this LHH post back in 2009).
It was in late 2009 -- 20 years after Duncan's death -- that Leake met MacPherson's parents for several days of interviews, theories and discussion of facts and deception they'd gone over and over countless times. (As the MacPhersons told Roger in 2007: "For 14 years we had to live with their lies.")
MacPherson disappeared in August 1989, but his body did not surface until 2003 -- painfully late, yet ironically much sooner than when it would have resurfaced if what Austrian authorities suggested had been true. Leake chronicles a heartbreaking, endless series of lies, half-truths, and carefully worded non-denials that the MacPhersons received from Austrian law enforcement, ski resort personnel, medical investigators and even Canadian consulate officials. Many of the responses have a bureaucratic Orwellian nightmare feel to them, if not echos of the complicated contemporary acknowledgments of the Holocaust. (Not trying to throw exaggerated comparisons in here; the point is, when we are ashamed of something our collective community or society has done, we react in strange ways.)
Leake structures the book in roughly two parts -- the first half reviews all of the things the MacPhersons had been told over the years since the time they traveled up and down central Europe to find him three weeks after he was last seen. The fact his car sat alone and unreported in the ski resort lot for 44 days is just par for the course in this tale.
The second half of the book relays what Leake did with that material and how he carried the investigation further. Producers for The Fifth Estate actually suggested that the MacPhersons find an author who could dig more deeply than a TV program could, and Leake, as an American author who spent a decade in Austria, made an ideal candidate. (Leake's first book "Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer" examined Jack Unterweger, an Austrian who was imprisoned for murdering a woman, was paroled, then killed 11 more.)
The Spectrum of Human Response to Crisis
I won't spoil Leake's ending here, but suffice to say his investigation leads to some shocking conclusions that are far worse than the original theory espoused by Austrian authorities, who claimed an inexperienced skier went adventuring and surely died in some remote area beyond the resort's boundaries. Anecdotal understanding of MacPherson's character at the time made that theory unlikely; the discovery of his body proved it impossible.
Very few people responsible for investigating this case come off looking good -- and the impression is inescapable that most of them at the very least knew they were deflecting attention from the true story because it would make them or their neighbors look very bad, and some of them might even be legally responsible for a Canadian's death. In a moment where you want to peer into someone's soul, one of the slope workers on duty when Duncan's body was found may also have been complicit in its burial 14 years prior.
In the process, Leake brings the reader close to MacPherson's parents and their frustrating, tireless search for answers. You see glimpses of Duncan's father, Bob, who isn't quoted often but whose mechanical and geological knowledge is poignant in several instances of exposing lies in the case. More disheartening, you also see Duncan's mother, Lynda, go from viewing people as mostly honest to a jaded amazement at how many of them can lie and lie again to grieving parents.
Having grown up in Texas, Leake also explores the mindset of the Tyrol Austrian locals who did the obfuscating, speculating that if an Austrian couple came looking for their son in the heart of Texas they might well face similar obstacles. (That said, if as suggested the loss of a child is the most painful loss of all, at what point do you stop ignoring that and come clean to help ease mourning parents' pain?)
At one point an Austrian friend of Leake's theorizes:
"As you describe her, Lynda MacPherson believes personal integrity to be the highest good, and to abandon it would be to abandon herself. But to a simple man in that valley, the highest good is protecting his community. He may personally dislike people in his village, and he may secretly resent its powerful members, but he will always be terrified of ostracism, because he can't imagine living anywhere else. He understands why the MacPhersons are outraged, and he feels sorry for them, but if he knows something about what happened to their son, he will never tell them. Whenlike them and an American like you show up and start asking questions, he will perceive you not as a truth-seeker, but as an assailant."
p. 143, paperback edition
Perhaps that's Leake's achievement here: underlying a forensic investigation with the familiar traits of the human condition which confound us all too often. Exactly who caused Duncan MacPherson's death is unknown (at least by those willing to speak). But the reaction of his family, of media, of whoever knows the whole story, of the Austrian authorities who know enough to at least ask better questions -- or any questions at all! -- and even the reactions of the Austrians who sincerely did what they could to help the MacPhersons -- all of these reactions paint the full spectrum of human potential and human character.
If fully solving tragic mysteries depends on the right people coming clean, or on the right people placing ethics over social pressures, then those people never emerged in the Duncan MacPherson case. That's why his body was buried, rather than found, for 14 years. And that's why even after his body was found with obvious, specific injuries, the official record of his case only got stranger and murkier.
The final tragedy is that it took Duncan's parents 21 years, a TV magazine's multi-part series, and an investigative author's legwork to finally clear most of it up.
Related: Plenty of resources about this book -- and how to buy it -- at coldalongtime.com