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Deposition details growing distress of Peggy LeMaitre after her husband disappeared on Mount Marathon

Craig Medred
An Alaska Air National Guard Pave Hawk helicopter searches for Michael LeMaitre on Mount Marathon in Seward, Alaska. Photo by Luke Rosier

As a wrongful death suit against the Seward Chamber of Commerce Conference & Visitors Bureau moves toward an October trial in Anchorage Superior Court, previously undisclosed details have emerged describing the horror Peggy LeMaitre endured the day her husband, Michael, disappeared forever somewhere on Mount Marathon.

The 65-year-old Anchorage man went lost on Independence Day 2012 during Seward’s Mount Marathon race, one of Alaska's biggest sporting events. Peggy has since sued the organization that runs the race, seeking undisclosed damages.

She has never talked publicly about the case. Immediately after Michael's disappearance, friends said she was so traumatized that she had trouble just holding herself together. But in January of this year, she sat for a deposition in the wrongful death suit. 

In that deposition, she describes almost begging race officials to look for her husband in the hours long after the race officially finished on the main downtown street in the community of 3,000 on Resurrection Bay. They kept telling her to be patient and wait. 

Finally, she testified, "I went to the bottom of the mountain (in the family car), and I honked my horn. And I got out and I hollered and screamed, thinking that because I had been out on the street all of that time ... and I knew I was cold. And so I figured he must be really cold."

No one answered. So she waited. Eventually, she called her children to ask them what to do.

"I said, 'Your dad's not off the mountain yet,'" she testified. "I'm really worried."

Last seen near turnaround

The time was close to 8 p.m. The race that began at 3 p.m. was long over. The winner had finished in less than 45 minutes. The last official competitor, an aging hiker from Anchorage who'd taken more than 2 hours to reach the turnaround point, had come in at 6 p.m.

Many of the more than 10,000 people who gather to watch the race were on the Seward Highway headed back toward Anchorage or partying in the Seward area.

Michael had last been seen just before 6 p.m. within 200 feet of Race Point, where the race turns and heads downhill. The downhill on Mount Marathon being much easier than the uphill, no one in the race had taken more than an hour to descend. 

Peggy had been asking about her husband since about 6 p.m., too. That went on for more than two hours, "and then I think it was 8:30, 9 o’clock,” she said in the deposition, "and I couldn't tell you if it was my son or if it was my son-in-law who said, ‘You need to call; you need to call search and rescue.’"

Peggy called the only number she had handy. It was the number for race officials. They didn't know what to do, but Peggy said the woman who answered the phone said she'd find out and call back.

"She called me back," Peggy said. "Maybe it was 10 minutes. Maybe it was 15 minutes. ... And (she) said, they told her that search and rescue would not come. ... I couldn't believe that that they would not come."

Peggy called her children again. They told her to demand search and rescue. 

So Peggy called the race official again. The official, who is not identified in the deposition, told her that the "wrong terminology" had been used to request a search.

"Apparently there's some sort of terminology that you have to use to request search and rescue," Peggy said. "I don't know. I've never called search and rescue before. I've never called 911 before."

Her last call did, however, start things rolling. Between 10:30 and 11 p.m., she testified (or nearly five hours after Michael was last seen), Seward Fire Department personnel showed up at the base of Mount Marathon to talk to her about organizing a search. 

"They took me down to the fire department," Peggy said. "... And there was some confusion about getting a helicopter down there, the (Alaska) Air (National) Guard helicopter.

"One of them -- one of them wouldn't come. The other one wasn't going to be available. One of them didn't have … the heat sensor device on it."

FLIR turns up nothing

Fortunately, Peggy did have some idea of how to bust through the bureaucratic roadblocks.

"I work with Sen. (Mark) Begich's wife," she said. "And so I called her, or my son called her, to see what we could do to get the Air Guard or the Army Guard helicopter down there with the heating-sensing device."

Deborah Bonito, Begich's wife, called her husband, who made some calls, and by about midnight, Alaska State Trooper Helo 1 was on the way to Seward. Helo 1, like the Guard helicopters, was outfitted with a forward-looking infrared camera, or FLIR as it is often called, that can detect warm objects -- humans or animals -- the eye might miss.

By sometime after 1 a.m., the helicopter was scanning the mountain with its FLIR. It found nothing. Neither did several more days of searching, both from the air and with a small army of ground searchers on foot.

It is now widely believed that a lightly clad Michael followed an obvious trail past the Mount Marathon turnaround at 3,022-foot Race Point and disappeared who knows where. 

Race Point is a little more than 1,000 feet below the 4,124-foot summit of the mountain. Beyond Race Point, the terrain gets increasingly rugged.

The 2012 race was run under adverse conditions of occasional heavy rain and chilly temperatures. The mountain was so muddy, race officials asked spectators to stay off. And it was cold enough that on the night of the day Michael disappeared, it was snowing near Race Point, some searchers testified in their depositions.

A rookie Mount Marathon racer, Michael had never been on the race course. But he knew there was an electronic timing mat near the rocks at Race Point, and that racers were supposed to step on the mat before turning and heading downhill.

"He probably found the rock," Peggy said. "But there was no pad there, and he knew that he had to go around that pad."

Only moments before Michael's arrival at the summit, race officials had shut down the turnaround checkpoint and started down the mountain. The timing pad Michael was looking for would not be there when he arrived.​ 

'On his bucket list'

At a presumptive death hearing in September 2012, after which a panel of six Alaskans declared Michael legally dead, Peggy went into some detail about the electronic timing mat or pad.

"We talked about that pad numerous times," she testified under oath, "and (Michael) was going to run around that pad because he wanted to be registered that he made it to the top of Mount Marathon."

Finishing the Mount Marathon race, Peggy said, was something her 65-year-old husband yearned to do.

"...He was very excited about doing the Mount Marathon Race," she said. "He had decided to do this race about a year ago, and it was on his bucket list."

His wife was not keen on the idea.

"Of course, I didn't want him to do the race," she testified. "You know, I thought he could fall and, you know, break an arm, break a leg, you know, hurt himself. You hear all the horror stories. My daughter works for a neurosurgeon and, you know, needless to say, she didn't want him to do it."

The year LeMaitre disappeared, Mount Marathon saw the worst accident in race history. Anchorage's Matt Kenney plummeted from the cliffs along the course and nearly died from a traumatic brain injury. The 43-year-old is still recovering from his injuries, but was well enough to return to Mount Marathon this summer and complete the course, accompanied by old running friends.

The motivation for Kenney's 2014 race was much like that for LeMaitre’s 2012 run.

"He just wanted to complete it," Peggy said. "He wasn't there to race it. He wanted to go up the mountain and, you know, come back."

Michael didn't think it would be all that dangerous to go to the top of the course, put his foot on that pad to prove he'd made it, turn around, and come back down. He dressed lightly for the trip in a T-shirt and shorts because that was the way other Mount Marathon competitors dressed.

He is known to have gotten within about 200 feet of Race Point. Race volunteers headed down as he continued up. They told him to make the turn and follow them.
It does not appear anyone told him the mat was gone.

Was LeMaitre hypothermic?

Peggy was told at about 5:30 p.m. that her husband had been seen near Race Point.

"... I was incredibly relieved that they, you know, they said they saw him and they -- at the rate he was going, they figured it would be an hour and a half before he got down to the base of the mountain," she said.

This was about the time she went to the base of the mountain to wait, she said at the presumptive death hearing.

"Me and Mike's dog. We were together at the base of the mountain. There was nobody else there," Peggy said. As the minutes ticked into tens of minutes and then hours, she started to feel sick.

"I was worried that he was hypothermic and not in his right mind," she said. "And at the top of the mountain they have a pad every racer has to run around and Mike was very focused that he had to go over that pad. They have these clips on your shoes, and it registers that you have made it to the top of the mountain.

"And so that was his goal -- to run over the pad. And when Mike got there, if he made it that far, there was no pad because they had removed the pad,. They'd removed the water. And there was no reference point for him as he was a first-time racer. So if he got to the top, he might not have known he was at the top because the pad … was gone."

Since LeMaitre disappeared, there has been speculation in Alaska that he might have staged a disappearance. Alaska State Troopers, who were in charged of investigating the case, have dismissed that idea. And Peggy, at the wrongful death hearing, argued that it makes no sense.

Michael had just bought a camper for Christmas so the couple could spend more time touring Alaska. And he was devoted to his grandchildren and excited that a third was on the way. He was talking about retiring to spend more time with them. 

"I go, 'Why'd you buy me this camper?'" she said, "and he says, 'Well, that's so when we retire, we can go camping, and we can take the grand kids with us, and, you know, we were planning on traveling.

"Michael was a family man from his heart … His family was the most important thing his life. He would never, he would never run away from his family."

Nonetheless, attorneys for the Seward Chamber are challenging the presumptive death determination. They are also arguing Peggy is not legally entitled to claim "emotional stress" in the case.

No matter what the court might find as to whether the Seward Chamber is to blame in whole or part for LeMaitre’s death, the Chamber's court filings say, she cannot claim emotional stress because she "never saw her husbands injuries at the scene or a hospital. ... She never learned of any actual accident at all. She simply never found out what happened to him. 

"As the Supreme Court has made clear, NIED (negligent infliction of emotional distress) claims must be tied not just to generalized emotional harm, but that resulting from a view of the injured victim soon after the accident,'' according to the Seward filings.

Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter, who is overseeing the case, has yet to rule on those motions.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com