COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. — After more than two years, the identity of the deceased hiker who went by the trail name Mostly Harmless is finally known.
On July 23, 2018, two hikers stumbled upon the body of a man at a small campsite deep within Big Cypress National Preserve. The man had no identification, phone or computer with him and exhaustive efforts to identify him through traditional means were unsuccessful.
Today, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) revealed that Mostly Harmless was a man by the name of Vance Rodriguez, an IT worker in New York with roots in Louisiana.
Through investigation, deputies learned that Mr. Rodriguez set out to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2017. He spent several months hiking south, toward Florida using only paper maps. He was friendly with other thru-hikers, but also reserved. No one we interviewed knew his real name even after spending time with him on the trail, sharing stories, and snapping photos of him.
Mr. Rodriguez had reached Southwest Florida by April of 2018, which was the last time a witness reported seeing him on the trail. A few months later, his body and his belongings were found in a tent at Noble’s Camp Ground in Ochopee, near mile marker 63 of Interstate 75.
An investigation began with traditional means, combing missing person databases for matching fingerprints and dental records. Later that summer, the agency posted a composite photo to Facebook. Within minutes, fellow thru-hikers had sent dozens of photos of Mostly Harmless and reported meeting him along the trail.
Investigators interviewed the hikers, pieced together a timeline, and looked into dozens of tips submitted by members of the public.
This past year, CCSO partnered with Othram, a DNA lab in Texas that works exclusively with law enforcement to solve cold cases through forensic genealogy.
But the case was ultimately solved this month when a former coworker of Mr. Rodriguez saw his photo online and reached out to CCSO after seeing a 2019 bulletin the agency issued. The coworker provided Mr. Rodriguez’s name and photos.
CCSO enlisted the help of the Lafayette Parish County Sheriff’s Office, which made contact with the hiker’s family. The family agreed to provide a DNA sample for comparison, and Othram has made a positive identification based on that DNA.
No foul play was indicated in his death.