The disappearance and reappearance of Duncan MacPherson
March 16, 2014 10:00 AM   Subscribe

In August 1989, 23-year-old professional ice-hockey player Duncan MacPherson travelled from New York to Europe, to enjoy a holiday before starting a new job in Scotland. He hired snowboarding gear and took a lesson on the Stubai Glacier. Then, according to the Austrian authorities and the owners of the ski resort, he simply disappeared. In Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, John Leake details the coverup and corruption that started then and continued for years after MacPherson's body melted out of the ice in 2003. Warning: the website contains close-up pictures of MacPherson's damaged body.

Leake was asked to write Cold a Long Time (link to buy the book) by MacPherson's parents, Linda and Bob MacPherson, who have spent years campaigning to find out the truth behind their son's disappearance. The website contains several long articles about how they were repeatedly stonewalled by the authorities, and about the forensics of the case. For the curious but squeamish: his likely fate is described in this book review, with no pictures.

Florian Skraber had previously investigated the case — the only Austrian journalist to do so. His 2009 article 'On Thin Ice' (German original | good English translation) paints a frightening picture of lax safety standards and disinclination to investigate the tragedy.

An Austrian friend of Leake's, quoted in the book and in this article, suggested this reason for the cover-up:
"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. When Canadians like 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."
In the case of the President of the Austrian Society of Forensic Medicine, Dr. Walter Rabl, who was responsible for what forensic attention MacPherson's body received, the problem might lie deeper. In controversial cases he has repeatedly appeared "unable or unwilling to see the significance" of injuries to the dead under his care. Writing about the old boys' networks of Tyrolean justice, (Google translation) commented:
Hushed-up murder, fraud, corruption — if you seek information about unexplained deaths in the Tyrol, you get the sneaking suspicion that the average consumer of CSI series would investigate better than the police, the courts and the forensic pathologists. — my translation
Duncan MacPherson's death has been covered in several other outlets. CBC's The Fifth Estate investigated twice and their second video is available online. ESPN's article has more detail on his personality and ice-hockey career. Esquire is poetic but not altogether accurate, focussing mainly on the effects of the tragedy on Bob and Linda MacPherson. The Süddeutsche-Zeitung Magazin's article (Google translation) has more background on the Stubai Valley.
posted by daisyk (22 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I'd never heard of this case -- but just from reading this post it sounds totally engrossing. Looking forward to delving into the links. Thanks!
posted by scody at 10:16 AM on March 16, 2014

I just realised I misspelled Lynda MacPherson's name twice in this post. Sorry.
posted by daisyk at 10:49 AM on March 16, 2014

Sad and fascinating story. His poor parents.

The description of the hushing up and stonewalling of outsiders trying to investigate reminded me immediately of Michael Dibdin's Medusa. I sort of assumed Dibdin was exaggerating the closed-off, secretive nature of some of the villages, but perhaps not as much as I thought.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:58 AM on March 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I bounced off the book review summation hard when I hit this paragraph:

Psychic Carole Wilson told the MacPhersons to look for the left side of Duncan’s head and to pay attention to his left leg. She was right.

I'm sure something terrible may have happened, but I stop taking stories seriously once they start citing psychics.
posted by tavella at 11:03 AM on March 16, 2014 [18 favorites]

"In addition it seems noteworthy that one year before, almost at the same spot, a Japanese lost his life because he fell out of the mentioned lift, took the short cut across the fenced-off area with the crevasses toward the piste", can further be read in Krappinger's report.

I read a few weeks ago about a skier in Washington State who died from exposure after getting separated from his friends and falling in a tree hole. Mountains are dangerous. Mountains with glaciers and crevasses even more so. This seems like a tragic accident that happens all the time in the alps. Why look for other causes when the most obvious, most likely, and hardly unusual answer is an accident? Also the lack of motive.
posted by three blind mice at 11:04 AM on March 16, 2014

hurdy gurdy girl: that looks like a great book and I'm ordering it right now, thanks.

To a mobile urbanite like me, this level of community hushing-up seems like something from history or fiction. I guess it's good to be reminded that it happens today as well.
posted by daisyk at 11:06 AM on March 16, 2014

(Slightly gory details in this comment.)

I'm sure something terrible may have happened, but I stop taking stories seriously once they start citing psychics.

The psychic isn't mentioned anywhere else online, and her advice would have been completely unnecessary once they actually found Duncan MacPherson's body. His left leg was pretty much destroyed.

This seems like a tragic accident that happens all the time in the alps. Why look for other causes when the most obvious, most likely, and hardly unusual answer is an accident? Also the lack of motive.

Yes, that seems to have been the reaction of the Austrian police. However, looking for other causes has proved that MacPherson must have been driven over by a snow groomer, caught up in its mechanism, manually extracted from it with three limbs detached from his body, and then deliberately concealed and lied about for over twenty years. So... good thing they checked, I guess?

There presumably wasn't a motive to drive over him, but there certainly was one to hide the body!
posted by daisyk at 11:13 AM on March 16, 2014 [17 favorites]

To a mobile urbanite like me, this level of community hushing-up seems like something from history or fiction. I guess it's good to be reminded that it happens today as well.

Human nature is human nature and instinct is instinct. For every intrusive NSA-type meddling, there is an equal "keep your trap shut" force swimming out there at the same time with everyone else caught in the middle of two extremes and getting their lives ruined in the bargain.

It seems like a jaded theory until (a) you become a journalist or (b) you get in trouble.

People do need that wake up call every waking moment of their lives -- not just to prepare them when it hits their backside, but to ensure they don't patronizingly dismiss those who are going through it and turn into unhelpful jerks.

Thank you for the link...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:20 AM on March 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just watched the Fifth Estate episode. It certainly seems like, even if you don't accept the specific reconstruction of events they present, the body and the snowboard were mangled in a machine of some kind and then moved. And the police personnel interviewed do seem remarkably incurious; even if the statutes of limitation or whatever for any possible lawsuit have all passed, you would think they'd at least want to get a better idea of how their procedures could have missed something like that.
posted by XMLicious at 11:48 AM on March 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you can hold your nose for the nasty images, the arguments presented are extremely convincing and logical. The psychic is merely noise - it doesn't say anything one way or another.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:09 PM on March 16, 2014

I've just read about the other cases (warning, graphic images) and I can't imagine how dr Rabl is still a head forensic pathologist in Tirol and not an inmate.
posted by hat_eater at 12:44 PM on March 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've skiied Stubai Glacier a few times. It's pretty big. There are definitely crevasses (some trails actually have crevasses marked with nothing more than hurricane fencing that's open at the bottom). The weather can change pretty abruptly, and the thickest fog you can imagine rolls in and out. Add to that that European ski resorts have more of a live and let live policy that puts more responsibility for personal safety on the skiers themselves, and I can see how this is plausible. Still shocking.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:02 PM on March 16, 2014

I can see how this is plausible.

What do you mean by "this"? That the glacier has separated the hand, arm, both legs and a foot from the body, leaving crescent incisions on the skin, bones and the snowboard? And the drivers licence and boots left by MacPherson in the rental service have spontaneously evaporated?

Or that the snow grinder operator has failed to notice the incapacitated skier and then decided that there is no need to add his own misery to the pool of suffering and dumped the mangled body into a crevasse, then sympathetic authorities helped cover everything up?

If the latter, we are in agreement.
posted by hat_eater at 4:01 PM on March 16, 2014


I am Duncan MacPherson's mother.

I am happy to see so much interest in the story. I can tell you that John Leake's book, together with the website, provides an accurate account of the story.

If you have questions that are not answered, feel free to contact me at

Again, thanks to everyone for your interest, and for caring,

Lynda MacPherson
Saskatoon, Canada
posted by Lynda MacPherson at 8:36 PM on March 16, 2014 [23 favorites]

In 2012, I put on a event where John Leake walked us through the facts of the case, then gave a hands-on presentation of the physical evidence that Duncan MacPherson's family was able to retain, with the assistance of former LASD forensic investigator, current Criminalistics professor Professor Don Johnson.

It's very clear that Duncan was grievously wounded by a large machine, his body hidden in the crevasse and evidence of his presence on the glacier ignored or hidden by multiple parties. It is terribly sad, and I greatly admire his parents, and John, for how bravely and tenaciously they've sought the truth.
posted by Scram at 9:21 PM on March 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Welcome, Lynda. I am so sorry for the loss of your son.
posted by scody at 10:21 PM on March 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've read the book and can confirm it's a good read. Conspiracy and cover-up theories usually don't convince me, but the book is engrossing and convincing. It also makes an argument for doing one's job accurately and with attention to detail, even if the answer seems "obvious" at first glance, including pathologists, snow groomers and cops.
posted by andraste at 10:42 PM on March 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

One thing it said in the Fifth Estate episode was that in addition to the x-rays from the forensic examiner's office, an MRI scan that would show the condition of the soft tissue in the body was available but hadn't been provided yet. Does any of the information at the other links, or the book, mention whether that eventually showed up?
posted by XMLicious at 1:17 PM on March 17, 2014

Admin link update needed? "this book review" is forwarding me to google ( of all places) whether directly clicked, copy-pasted, or opened from google. For anyone interested in reading the book and hence reading it's review before buying, check the following text copied from the google cache:

The case of Duncan MacPherson (February 3, 1966 – August 9, 1989) started as a missing person case. After reading John Leake‘s book it is clear at least to me that it was murder or manslaughter (3rd degree).

You do not have to lie in wait or have done meticulous planning. Your state of mind, the knowledge that your actions will result in death due to the heavy machinery you are handling, require no prior formed intention to kill. Just knowing that you are handling a machine that can cause death in a second should put you on alert from the moment you mount it.

Not checking whether someone is still alive and choosing not to seek help just to save your own skin … well, that tells me you accepted his death as mere collateral damage, a mere inconvenience that might tarnish your reputation or that of the ski resort.

You did not set out to kill but you did it anyway. You see, there is this distinct moment of cooling down after the act. You climbed off the machine and saw what you had done. You, whether with others or alone, pried the victim loose and shoved him in a crevasse in hopes that the glacier would never give up your secret.

But it did.

Duncan MacPherson was the beloved son of Bob and Lynda MacPherson and brother to Derrick. He was excited to start a new career and was full of life.

The author’s website is full of documentation, clips, and more. WARNING: that website is not for the faint hearted as it includes graphic photography of Duncan’s mangled body. You view it at your own risk.

Leake describes in excruciating detail how the MacPhersons were railroaded from the start by local police officers, scientists, and consulate personnel. For example, after Duncan’s remains were found the area was not cordoned off, there was no coroner present while Duncan’s remains were extracted from the ice, and there is no documentation how exactly his body was extracted (by whom, who supervised, in which order where things done, what items were found, etc). If it had, we would have had a clue from day one: a cable.

Back to the book.

Psychic Carole Wilson told the MacPhersons to look for the left side of Duncan’s head and to pay attention to his left leg. She was right.

Duncan was most likely in shock after having hurt himself badly. The strong professional hockey player was a beginner at snowboarding and he had inappropriate equipment: the board was not suitable for a beginner, the boots and binders did not match, the binders were not adjusted for Duncan’s height and the clips projected over the edge of the snowboard causing him to scrap ice with every bend.

Duncan most likely broke his left leg and possibly twisted his knee. Hurting badly, he took off his left ski boot to comfort his injured leg and foot.

Everything hinted at Duncan’s intention for a short trip, just read what he left behind in his car. He was also dressed in a cotton sweatshirt underneath a jacket that is not weather appropriate if you intend to stay on the ski piste for a prolonged period of time.

He possibly tried to massage his foot and had his arms and hands extended when he lost consciousness. He faced the slope with his back to the oncoming tractor pulling the grooming tiller. The tiller is wider than the tractor so you need to be aware of the space you need to pass anything
or anyone.

For whatever reason the driver did not see Duncan who had lost consciousness and was curled up with his hands trying to hold his left leg together. The tiller drove over his left leg and extended arms and hit the left side of his head. When the driver finally realized what he had done, the cover up started.

This book is a MUST READ for forensic pathology students, scientists, law enforcement officers, and anyone interested in glacier accidents. In fact, everyone should read this book. Then, if you have questions for the author join John and I for a themed #cclivechat about this case on September 7, 2012, from noon-1pm EST.
R.I.P Duncan MacPherson

posted by whatzit at 1:46 PM on March 17, 2014

Lynda, welcome to Metafilter and thanks for stopping by. I'm so sorry you were forced to fight this way, and for what happened to Duncan.


whatzit: That's weird. It works on my phone in Geneva. *shrug* Thanks for pasting in the text for anyone else having trouble.
posted by daisyk at 2:04 PM on March 17, 2014

Thanks to those who have expressed their understanding of our situation; your thoughts are appreciated.

Accidents are one thing; they can happen to anyone. Cover-up of an accident adds a whole other dimension to the "accident;" and is unforgivable.

Given the lies told to us by all public officials that touched the file, I think any parent in that situation would do the same - even animals stand up for their young.

To the question from XMLicious as to an MRI, no, an MRI was not made available.
posted by Lynda MacPherson at 3:28 PM on March 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Mrs. MacPherson, I am so sorry for your loss.

I only just stumbled across this post today. After reading about the difficulties you have faced, simply trying to understand what happened to your son, I can only hope that at least the people involved in this investigation who have been stone-walling you would have the decency to come forward with the full facts at their disposal. Surely, 14 years after his death, you are due some closure at last.

I do not know where else you could go--does Interpol involve itself in crimes like these? I wonder if there is any possibility of asking them for assistance, or any organization outside the Tyrol, that is not so invested in protecting the reputations of the local authorities? Has anyone looked into the financial situations of this Dr. Rabl and others who seem more dedicated to covering up potentially embarrassing errors in judgment than serving the public good?

As a parent, I can't even imagine what it must be like to lose your son. To then have to deal with what certainly seems to be a massive cover-up condoned by, if not coordinated by, the authorities you trust to help you find the answers to his death--well, there are no words. My heart goes out to you and your husband. Both of you, and Duncan, are very much in my thoughts.
posted by misha at 1:38 PM on April 4, 2014

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