A new HBO Max documentary directed by Patricia E. Gillespie, They Called Him Mostly Harmless, showcases a puzzling case involving a hiker’s deceased body being found in Big Cypress National Preserve in 2018. After the investigation started and no one could identify the body, some web sleuths decided to start their own independent investigations, which finally led to the discovery of this man’s identity. The documentary not only focused on this case and the subsequent investigations but also pointed out how independent investigations led by these web sleuths brought complications to the case and led to several arguments among them. The documentary simultaneously showed the positive as well as the negative side of these cybersleuths while also focusing on the details of the investigation. Let’s talk about this puzzling mystery and see how the internet uncovered the identity of the man.
Who Was The “Most Harmful?”
In July 2018, an Appalachian Trail hiker’s deceased body was found inside a tent. A hiker quickly called 911, and the lead investigator, David Hurm, arrived at Big Cypress National Preserve to investigate further. The emaciated dead body gave the impression that the man had been starving for days, even though there was enough food and money inside his tent. It didn’t seem like murder, as there was no external wound in his body. There was also no sign of harmful drugs in his blood except for a normal amount of Tylenol. The tent had been searched, but no crucial evidence was found except for a journal filled with code language that was difficult to decipher. The investigators started asking around, focusing on the other hikers on the trail and made a flyer with a sketch of the man with a beard. They posted those flyers in the surrounding area and finally met a woman named Kelly Fairbanks, who used to provide food and other necessary things to the hikers. Kelly told the detectives that she had met the man, who had introduced himself as “mostly harmless.” According to Kelly, he was a nice man with a friendly demeanor. He was also nicknamed “Denim” because of the jeans he always used to wear. Kelly had also taken a picture of him, and she later posted it online. After the picture of “mostly harmless” went viral, it drew the attention of many cybersleuths who took it as a mission to find out who he was and how he ended up dead. A delivery woman named Christie Harris, whose dream was to become a detective decided to look into the case and started her independent investigation.
Nicholas Thompson, a journalist who worked for Wired, deciphered the code language that “mostly harmless” had written in his journal. The code language led him to find out about an online game, Screeps, but it didn’t lead to any specific discovery of who the person was. In the meantime, several online groups were created by the sleuths, who started crowdfunding to continue the investigation of this case. Finally, in 2020, the members of the Facebook group contacted a biotech company called Ortham, which eventually helped with the DNA analysis of this deceased body. The DNA analysis resulted in the finding that the deceased was from Southern Louisiana. The investigation proceeded one step ahead, and seeing the success of the DNA test, the web sleuths contacted people from Baton Rouge and other areas nearby. They finally got a clue from one family and collected DNA samples from them. As the DNA was a match, the cybersleuths ultimately concluded that the man found dead in the National Preserve was Vance John Rodriguez.
What Was Vance John Rodriguez Like?
Nicholas Thompson further investigated the personal and other details of Rodriguez, and what they found was completely different from what Kelly had said earlier. When Kelly met with “mostly harmless” Rodriguez and had a brief encounter, he seemed to be friendly and kind, whereas, in real life, Rodriguez was nothing short of a monster. The more we dug deeper, the more we realized that the man was a deeply troubled individual. According to his girlfriends, Rodriguez had always been a serial abuser with everyone he had ever been with. Even his relationship with his family wasn’t good because of the mental health issues he had been suffering from. He had isolated himself from his family and didn’t want to be found, which was the reason his deceased body was so incredibly hard to identify, and it took years for the detectives to uncover who he was. It was also revealed that Rodriguez had previously tried to commit suicide several times, as evidenced by a deep scar on his stomach. Therefore, there were many potential reasons for his death including suicide. Rodriguez’s true story was revealed, and the case was eventually concluded, but as I said before, there was more to talk about in this documentary apart from Rodriguez’s dead body.
Thanks to the cyber sleuths, the case was concluded with a satisfactory answer, but the quest for the truth was not as easy or quick as we imagined. It took years to conclude, and in between, several people from social media took it as an opportunity to spread bizarre rumors about this case. Some claimed that this man was an alien, while others said he was a time traveler. So many bizarre theories clouded the investigation, while the real truth seekers wanted to concentrate on actual evidence that could lead them to a realistic explanation. The documentary showcased that modern investigation might include common people and give them a chance to seek the truth, but it also shed light on the dark aspects of human nature, which are to spread lies. People with easy internet accessibility sometimes believe they are given the power to do whatever they please, and this sense of power is dangerous. However, while doing digital sleuthing, some people also showed their genuine intentions and proved that, as common people, they have the right to seek the truth, especially when the police are unable to do any good.