An American backpacker would seem about equally useless; however, several things happened in the summer of 2004 — things that had nothing to do with David Sneddon — that now, to interested parties, seem potentially relevant.
The first was that the U.S. House passed the North Korean Human Rights Act,
which highlighted human rights violations, offered assistance to defectors, and created a special envoy position in the State Department to focus on these issues. North Korea responded with a press release advising the U.S. to "ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its extremely hostile moves to isolate the DPRK."
The second was that the South Korean government granted asylum
to 460 North Koreans who'd been in Vietnam, a record number that riled the DPRK, which accused Seoul of "abduction and terrorism." A week later, North Korean media issued another release aimed at the U.S. and South Korea, stating, "The DPRK will certainly make non-governmental organizations in some countries pay for their flesh traffic worldwide." This was two weeks before David disappeared.
Shrill North Korean press releases aimed at the U.S. aren't especially rare, but then also, seven months earlier, a high-ranking North Korean defector was arrested on the Yunnan-Laos border. This, along with several other reports of activity in the region, makes it seem likely there were North Korean agents in the province where David was last seen.
The Sneddon family wasn't thinking about any of those things when they heard David was missing. Two of his brothers, Michael and James, spoke on the phone, half-seriously contemplating going to China to look for him. Michael then saw the hand of providence at work when his wife was able to pull up three last-minute round-trip tickets to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, that she could buy with frequent-flier miles.
"I was just stunned," Michael says. Next he called his father. "I don't think it was more than half an hour, a decision was made to leave that week."
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Asia mobilized to help plan their trip. Not knowing what to expect on the trail, the Sneddons packed the full spread — stove, tent, water filters. Michael did not want a state-sponsored interpreter. "You have an embedded informant, so to speak," he said. "Of course you're going to be followed anyways, but we still didn't want our thought processes shared." Members connected the Sneddons to an interpreter, a Chinese Mormon, who was living in Kunming.
In Yunnan, the State Department helped facilitate meetings with local police who assured the Sneddons they were doing everything they could. Michael sensed an emphasis on presentation. Officers made sure the Sneddons saw their 4x4 and bloodhound, never mind David was already four weeks' gone and it had been raining.
"This is a dog-without-the-pony show — showing us how they tried to find him, and I'm thinking, This is ridiculous
." Michael recalled.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge trail is fairly developed. The narrow 10-mile path wends past terraced-farm villages and rocky overlooks, with views of jagged snow-capped peaks and the brown river deep below. There are snack hawkers and guesthouses along the way, so the Sneddons left most their gear and traveled light.
They hoped to find someone who'd remember a handsome young man with braces and a widow's peak, who spoke Chinese well and carried only a small bag. They hadn't been on the trail more than two hours when they ran into a trail guide who said a month earlier he'd been escorting a group of Chinese hikers when a young Westerner caught up to them.
The Sneddons say he told them this young man had been studying Chinese in Beijing and previously in the U.S., and that he hiked with the group the rest of the way until they reached Tina's Guesthouse at the end of the trail, where they all stayed the night. When they were done speaking with the guide, all three were satisfied he'd given an accurate description of David.
When the Sneddons reached Tina's, they saw a police satchel and jacket laid out, so they knew cops were around. One of the workers said the owner was out shopping for food. "It didn't occur to me until months later that the policeman was there to prevent her from talking to us," Michael says. Though they weren't able to confirm his stay at Tina's, the Sneddons also found a few workers at a nearby guesthouse who described David's widow's peak. "Knowing him, he saw a couple cute Asian girls and, you know, decided to talk to them," Michael says.
The family was elated: They believed David made it out of the gorge. He'd mentioned in his final email that after the gorge he would head "really, really close to Tibet," so after their hike they continued north to Shangri-La. The northern town is home to a sprawling Tibetan-style monastery. (It used to be called Zhongdian, but renamed itself after the fictional utopia in order to reel in tourists.)
Lacking any leads, the Sneddons prayed for guidance as to where to start their search. They picked an area and spent all day knocking on doors with no results. It was deeply discouraging, but they started out again the next day and came upon the Korean restaurant Yak Bar.
Owner Zhang Xiaofen told the Sneddons someone matching David's description had stopped in two or three times over two days. Each time they'd spoken in Korean to one another, she described how he was careful with what he spent on food and how he'd joked with her. (David, by all accounts, had no trouble chatting with women.) "When we pulled out those photographs and showed her, her face just lit up, like wow
. This is a girl who not only recognized him, but enjoyed talking to him," Michael says. Ms. Zhang told them that on his final visit, he said good-bye in a way she understood to mean he was leaving the city.
Near the restaurant, they also found an English-speaking Tibetan guide who said a man matching David's description talked to him several times; the conversations were in Chinese, about possible guided hikes in the area.
In the end, they found 12 people they thought had encountered David, but the most important among them was the owner of Yak Bar. Ms. Zhang's confident description, plus the fact they'd used Korean to communicate, made the Sneddons sure David had been there.
Using Zhang's sightings and David's plane reservations, they built a timeline. After David's lunch on the second day in Shangri-La, it seemed he had only a few hours to spare before he needed to board a bus in order to make his domestic flight from Kunming, which he missed.
Though they hadn't found him, the Sneddons weren't disheartened. Locals repeatedly told them the prefecture was a low-crime area, and there was no body, so they felt safe ruling out foul play. Perhaps there was a mix-up and he'd been arrested and now someone was too embarrassed to admit it, the Sneddons thought. Michael felt the whole Chinese search effort was less than sincere. He says people at the American embassy implied local police weren't competent: "I think that's garbage. They knew exactly what they were doing."
The Sneddons returned home and put together a report on their findings, trusting the State Department would take it from there.
In November, provincial officials told the U.S. consulate they'd checked all the family's leads and the results were unclear. Months of diplomatic back-and-forth ensued until finally, the following June, 10 months after the fact, American consular representatives and Chinese officials went out for a follow-up.
Their conclusions weren't nearly as assured as the Sneddons'. Of the eight sightings followed up on, most people weren't certain whom they saw or said different things than the family had reported the previous fall. According to the investigation summary, the Tibetan guide in Shangri-La said he remembered the Sneddons and that he'd talked to someone who looked like David and spoke Chinese well, but he couldn't be certain it was him. He said the man didn't want to pay for a guided trip and asked about places he could visit alone. Ms. Zhang at Yak Bar said she also couldn't be certain she'd seen David Sneddon; she told investigators she had exchanged "Korean greetings" with a man who came in twice with an Asian woman but that when he left the second time he said he'd come back — a contradiction of what the Sneddons understood her to say.
The Sneddons view this as a watered-down version of their own work, an effort bent on discrediting instead of truth-seeking. Here is where it's clear the family should have hired an investigator, though no one plans for this kind of situation. The family's report shows they made calculated efforts not to lead witnesses and to make sure people identified multiple characteristics of David, but it's unclear how much their natural desire to find him colored those findings. And a professional would have been more methodical with the details: The Sneddons, for example, weren't able to ascertain where David slept, and Chinese authorities maintain there is no record of him at any area guesthouses (foreigners always have to register their passport numbers at hotels).
Does that indicate a cover-up? Not necessarily. David could've taken a night bus from Kunming to Lijiang, the town where he last emailed from, and that would explain the lack of hotel record. In a family email discussing the joint follow-up investigation, James Sneddon wrote, "I wasn't totally convinced they saw David anyway" of a group of witnesses that officials re-interviewed, and yet in the Sneddon's report this same group gets a 7/10 "rating of authenticity."
The joint U.S. consul–provincial authority investigation also mentioned there'd been a landslide on a portion of the lower trail that would have made passage treacherous. There was a rumor in the gorge area that a local youth employed by a guesthouse found David's passport in a waterfall. The kid told investigators he knew nothing, that perhaps it was a rumor started by a rival guesthouse.
"I regret that we did not interview the owner of Tina's," Michael said. "I just didn't realize that the Chinese government and even our own government would kind of just turn the other way and say, 'Oh, we don't really buy into this.'"
My efforts to explain the discrepancies in the two investigations were complicated by the fact that Michael Sneddon wanted to retract his interview in order to give another publication exclusivity. He encouraged me to use only public sources, insinuated he never agreed to be interviewed, and promised to provide more details if I held the story. He is adamant that Ms. Zhang was a stronger witness than investigators said she was, but had trouble specifying how. There is misinformation about the misinformation.
The joint investigation summary stopped short of dismissing the Sneddons' findings altogether. Results were inconclusive. And that's where they stood for a long, long time.