Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
They called me a vulture, so I leaned into it. Shortened it to Vulture for simplicity. I’d prefer to be called Thomas Langford, but sometimes you have to give in to nicknames. It can feel like a forced label, but for me, I guess it has provided a level of notoriety.
Why do they call me The Vulture?
I find dead bodies. Even worse according to most people is the fact that I get paid to do so.
It’s a little less morbid than it sounds.
While most people are satisfied with mundane existence, I managed to find a way to commingle my only two passions in life: true crime and backpacking.
After four years of college, an unpaid internship, and an entry-level position as a crime scene tech in a major metro area, I was already burnt out. Too young to be fed up, too old to start again. My only escape from the daily grind was to pack up my camping gear and head to the woods.
I would hike for miles, set up camp, then wake up to do it all over again. Sleeping under the stars recharged my batteries. After a weekend in the woods, I could return to work with a little less weight on my shoulders.
More often than not, I stuck to the forest and trails close to home, but over the years I began to travel out of state to experience new places. I’d spend hours online researching scenic trails and hiking destinations.
As all burgeoning hikers do, my attention eventually fell on the Appalachian Trail.
I knew I couldn’t do the AT from end to end on one trip. That’s called a thru-hike for those who are unfamiliar. Making it two thousand two hundred miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine takes roughly five to seven months. The department would never allow me a leave of that length.
Rather than hike it from end to end, I settled on section hiking. You start at either end of the trail and travel a predetermined distance. When your next vacation hits, you pick up where you left off. It may take years, but this method allows nearly anyone to complete the trail in their lifetime.
That became my plan. A pretty good one, if you ask me. It didn’t end up working out for me though. I only made it about eighteen miles out of Springer Mountain when I discovered a dead body.
I started on June 8th, 2015.
I was making decent speed all things considered, but I was drinking too much water. Dehydration on a trail is bad news and I tend to overdo it with water and electrolytes. I didn’t make it more than two miles at a stretch without having to stop and take a piss.
That’s probably how I ended up finding her. You see, when you’ve got to use the bathroom on the trail, property etiquette dictates you head about two hundred feet away from the trail or camp. So, every two miles, I had to break away to relieve myself.
During my second day on the trail, the sun was starting to get low. I knew I wanted to make a few more miles until I set up camp, but my bladder wasn’t going to let me make it to my overnight destination. With a thick enough tree line to block the view from the trail, I figured it was as good a time as any. I made my way in and walked under the shadowy canopy.
I was just finishing up when I saw what looked to be an old hiking pack half buried underneath a few fallen branches. As I walked over, I could tell it had once been nightmarishly bright pink but the color was as though it had been bleached by the sun. The thickness of the tree cover overhead had to have blocked out most of the light until winter.
It would have taken years for the seasonal sunlight to degrade the pack that badly.
I crouched down and began to reach for the pack when my crime tech voice rang out in my head.
Don’t touch it, man. You don’t have gloves on. Take a look around. If nothing else seems out of place, then you can take a look.
Even in the heart of the Georgia wilderness, my work was haunting me. It was just an abandoned pack that some lazy day hiker left behind because it got too heavy. It wouldn’t hurt to look inside.
But what if that wasn’t what happened?
I decided to search the area for a half hour to see if I found any other “clues” before I touched the bag. There was no reason to assume that anything bad had taken place, but too many years documenting crime scenes made my mind travel down dark corridors.
Sometimes those dark corridors lead to accurate assumptions.
This is the part where I wish I could tell you that my years of education and experience helped me solve the mystery, but it was dumb luck. I expanded one of my walking sticks and began to push the undergrowth to the side as I scanned the area for anything out of the ordinary.
I was trying to use the walking stick to turn over a fallen log, but I couldn’t get the proper leverage. Shifting my foot back for better balance, I began to slide backward. Leaves and branches crackled under my weight as slid into a knee-deep hole. Fearing I had stumbled into an animal den, I flailed wildly as I pulled myself back out.
As I sat panting and trying to calm myself, I turned toward the hole. It wasn’t a den at all. The fallen foliage on top was disrupted during my sudden descent. With all of the debris moved away, I could see there were thick branches carefully bridged across the hole. I fumbled for the flashlight in my pack and pointed the beam into the opening.
Partially obstructed by the cave-in of branches in leaves, I could see the ivory outline of legbones.
After a relentless hike back to my truck, I hauled ass to the nearest police station. No matter how often I tried to call, my cellphone never found a signal.
The local agency took me back to the site on a damn ATV, thankfully. I showed them the shallow grave and gave them a detailed explanation of how I found it as their tech crew investigated the scene. I decided to end my hike early but the department asked me to stay in town for a few days in case they had any follow-up questions.
I didn’t mind. Dead bodies were an everyday occurrence for me at work. Finding one unexpectedly hit a little differently. Knowing you’re driving to collect evidence at a triple homicide settles a bit easier than falling in a hole with skeletal remains.
On my second day in a local motel, a detective called and asked if I would come to the station and talk. I agreed, assuming it would be more investigative questions.
When I arrived, Detective Waterson shook my hand and led me inside. He had been with the team that went with me to the crime scene on the trail. I followed him into a conference room where an older lady with a mess of gray hair sat behind a table.
“Are you the one that found my baby?” she said, tears running down her cheeks. She stood from the table and walked toward me before throwing her arms around me. “You brought my baby home. My Stella…”
I uncomfortably returned the hug and gave her my best attempt at a comforting pat on the back.
“Deborah,” said detective Waterson. “This is Mr. Langford. He is the gentleman who found your daughter.”
She squeezed me tighter.
“Mr. Langford,” the detective began. “Stella Arnold has been missing since 2001. After you discovered the unmarked grave, we found some… evidence that allowed us to confirm her identity. You’ll understand if I keep the nature of the evidence private at this time. We don’t know if we are dealing with foul play yet, but how her body was discovered certainly indicates that likelihood.”
“I understand, sir. My department would expect the same discretion,” I replied. “I’m glad I could help bring some closure, but I need to get ready and head back home. Is there anything else?”
Deborah Arnold began to dig through her purse and pulled out an envelope. She handed it to the detective and he extended it in my direction. I was confused but took it from the man.
“That’s the reward for locating Stella,” he said. “Her family, friends, and some local businesses put the fund together over the last fourteen years. Thank you, Mr. Langford. Safe travels.”
I crawled behind the wheel of my truck and opened the envelope. My jaw hit my chest when I saw the amount.
Twenty-two thousand dollars.
That wasn’t the moment I became The Vulture, but it was the moment the “egg” began to hatch.
A bad pun, I know.
Social media planted that seed.
After details of Stella’s case were revealed to the public, the press hounded me. I did a handful of interviews. The reporters congratulated me and thanked me for helping bring closure to the family. It made me feel ten feet tall. I’d never been one for standing in the spotlight, but I admit it felt great.
An unexpected side effect of the media coverage was an explosion of activity on my Twitter account. I’d had it for years and used it to post photos and videos from my hiking trips. My tweets usually got a handful of likes and a retweet or two, but not much action. After the interviews, my account was receiving thousands of likes and comments.
I relished the attention. It was something I never knew I enjoyed. Once you get a taste of adoration, it is a hard thing to give up.
As the months carried on, the attention died down. Life returned to normal. The reward money helped me pay off some debt and reset my finances. I was even able to take extra time off from work to plan some additional trips. It was fantastic.
My Twitter account remained pretty popular. The posts always got tons of interaction. I enjoyed the trail suggestions. A few companies even sent me free hiking gear if I agreed to post photos of me using it. It was wild.
Then someone made the suggestion.
I opened my account one morning to find someone had retweeted something from my account. Above their post, they wrote, “Why doesn’t this guy try to find other missing people?”
In the comments, hundreds of people responded with names and locations of people who had gone missing in local forests and national parks. Some of them even had a reward amount with the information.
From 2015 to 2017, I did just that. In two years, I made seventeen trips. While I didn’t succeed every time, I managed to find the location of five missing people. The reward total was over one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. Nearly three times my annual salary.
The media ate it up. Most outlets hailed me as a hero, but there was a growing number who were beginning to question why I only searched for bodies with a monetary reward attached. I did my best to explain to them that while I loved to help these families find closure, travel was expensive and I had bills to pay.
That quote made it into the Associated Press.
A popular online news outlet wrote what I consider to be the first hit piece of me. It was a punchy little op-ed. This was my favorite part.
Thomas Langford, known for his cross-country treks in search of missing and deceased persons, says “I have bills to pay.” Yes, sir. We all do, but most of us don’t make a living by being a vulture of misery circling above grieving families.
You have a morbid talent for locating missing people. I celebrated your discovery of Stella Arnold in 2015. The reward was well deserved. But everything that followed has been an effort to profit off of the misery and desperation of grief-stricken family members.
You aren’t just a vulture. You are The Vulture.
I never read an article or blog post about my exploits after that day when that charming little nickname didn’t pop up.
To the delight of my critics, I hit a dry spell from 2018 to 2020. After more than twenty-five trips, I failed to locate a single missing person. I had foolishly quit my job in an attempt to dedicate my time to recovery efforts. My bank account dwindled quickly, and the press ate it up.
The Vulture is Starving: Thomas Langsford and the fall from glory.
Those were the headlines I saw. Well, not even headlines. Backpage, small print articles, or low column posts on internet news sites.
I lost my house and most of my possessions. There was still some money in the bank, but not enough to cover my expenses. I ended up living in my van, but I refused to give up. Going back to the daily grind seemed like a prison to me.
So, I doubled down on my efforts.
Wouldn’t you know it? 2021 and the first half of 2022 were my years.
I carried out more than thirty trips and found fourteen bodies. Fourteen! Almost half of my trips ended in a successful recovery! The money was a bonus, but I reveled in the media coverage of my “comeback.” The Vulture nickname never disappeared, nor did the criticism, but they had no choice but to recognize my talent.
I felt vindicated.
That’s not why you’re here though, is it? No, you want to hear about my last hike. I understand. That’s what every new outlet that comes to see me now wants to talk about. Sure, I’ll tell you about it.
After my wave of success over the last two years, I decided I was entitled to a bit of a break. My trips had taken me all over the country, but one trail I had never hiked was on Old Rag Mountain in Virginia. I was due a little relaxation, so I loaded up the van and headed that way.
I took my time on the trail. There was no missing person and no reward, so why rush it? The scenery was breathtaking. I hadn’t been that relaxed in years. My financial woes were behind me, the media was (mostly) behind me again, and I could afford to spend most of my time doing what I loved.
Old Rag isn’t a difficult or long trail, but I drew it out. Only two or three miles a day. I set up camp often and just relaxed. Camping isn’t legal on most of Old Rag, by the way. If you want to set up camp, you’re going to have to leave the trail. That’s where I met Barry Watkins.
The light was getting low and I was pushing through some scrubby bushes as I searched for a good place to set up camp. A few hundred feet away, I saw a small fire and the top of a tent peeking over a stone outcrop. When I got closer, I saw a middle-aged man sitting by the fire.
I tossed him a wave and he threw one back.
“Ahoy!” I shouted. “Good spot to put up for the night?”
“Oh, I’m not camping here, sir,” he replied. “Just a bit of a break.”
I laughed. “No worries, my man,” I responded. “I’m just a hiker looking to set up camp too. We can both be outlaws this evening. Mind if I set up nearby? It’s about as flat a piece as I’ve found and I want some rest before I finish the trail tomorrow.”
“Why the hell not?” he said happily. “A little company never hurt anyone.”
Poor Barry. He should have told me to move along.
Barry and I spent the next few hours shooting the breeze about various hikes we had taken through the years. He told me a bit about the remains of the Old Rag hike and we shared a warm meal around the fire. He was a nice fella. Good cook. A bit heavy though. I should have thought through my plan a little more carefully.
A half-hour after Barry crawled into his tent, I could hear him snoring loudly. I pulled out a knife and waited patiently. You always want to give someone time to get into a deep sleep before you move in for the kill. It isn’t as difficult if they are sleeping in a hammock or under the stars, but zippers can be quite loud. You don’t want the noise to wake them.
An hour and a half later and I moved in. I was kind to Barry, just like the others. A deep cut from ear to ear and you’re gone in just a few minutes. He didn’t struggle much.
I watched the lights go out in his eyes before I pushed the lids closed.
Don’t get me wrong here. I didn’t kill Stella Arnold or the five souls I found after her. Someone else had done that. All I did was bring closure to those families. That kindness has been long forgotten.
My dry spell in the following years made me desperate. When I couldn’t find any more missing people and the reward money wasn’t coming in, I had to do something. My mother and father always told me to plan for my future, and while this wasn’t what they meant, I figured the same logic applied.
Once my luck ran out, I decided to make my own luck. If I found an unwitting camper during my travels, I killed them in their sleep and hid their bodies. The trick is waiting around a year before you “discover” them. You have to let the family get desperate. Let the community put a reward fund together.
After enough media coverage and a decent payday, I would go back and “help” them find their missing person.
The family gets closure, I get paid. Everyone wins.
I got too careless, though. Barry was a bit heavier than I could move comfortably. A park ranger out on patrol heard me grunting as I pulled him through the underbrush. The beam of his flashlight hit me like a deer in headlights. I tried to make a break for it, but hauling Barry had taken most of my energy.
My half-hearted attempt to dart through the scrubby mountainside was short-lived. Even unarmed, the park ranger was more than enough to overtake me in my exhausted state. What a way to go down.
So, there’s your story. Thomas Langford. The Vulture. Whatever you want to call me. I’m not a monster. I just love the outdoors.
And I had bills to pay.