Unsolved Mysteries

A Killer Hiding on the Appalachian Trail?

The feds picked up an alleged embezzler hiding out for 6 years on the Appalachian Trail—and now authorities are looking into his wife’s mysterious death.

09.27.15 4:01 AM ET

The Kentucky fugitive who ducked the feds for six years by going off-the-grid, disguised as a bushy-haired beatnik on the Appalachian Trail, could be headed to the big house for allegedly bilking millions from his Pepsi employer. But authorities say they are now wondering whether the accused embezzler, James Hammes, is also a closet arsonist who got away with slaying his wife.

In February of 2009, bosses at the Cincinnati headquarters of G&J Pepsi Bottlers Inc. discovered in an internal audit improprieties in their books stretching back decades. They quizzed Hammes, their controller, about almost $9 million in missing cash, according to a criminal complaint and indictment originally filed in federal court in Ohio’s Southern District in 2009.

Meanwhile, federal agents had already recovered a series of transactions allegedly indicating Hammes was cutting a series of six-figure checks from the company and dumping the dough into an “unauthorized account” he’d set up in 1998, according to the criminal complaint and indictment, which were filed before Hammes went missing.

Those illicit funds were then dumped into Hammes’s TD Ameritrade brokerage account, the court papers allege. When confronted by his employers, Hammes lawyered up and was subsequently charged.

That same month, the controller vanished.

Up until May 18 of this year, when authorities caught up with him, Hammes had managed to remain an outlaw by pacing away his woes as a vagabond "thru-hiker,” wandering along the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail that spans Georgia all the way up to Maine.

The financial scheme had enough intrigue to draw interest from television shows like America’s Most Wanted and American Greed, which profiled the now-53-year-old fugitive.

But it’s the other skeleton in the accused white-collar crook’s closet that remains shrouded in mystery. That would be the death of his wife, Joy Hammes.

Relatives and authorities say they are still wondering if the 2003 fatal blaze that left Hammes a widower and stripped their daughter, Amanda, of her 40-year-old mom, was really a freak accident.

The fire was deemed to be of “undetermined” cause by investigators shortly after the Hammes home went up in smoke. Lexington, Kentucky, Fire Chief Mark Blankenship wasn’t blind to the fact that Hammes later fled from the feds, accused of draining the bottle company’s reserves.

“Once he disappeared we went ‘Uh-oh. I bet there was more to that fire,’” Blankenship told The Daily Beast. “At the time there wasn’t enough to jump out and make that accusation.”

Two years ago, federal agents returned to Lexington to reexamine that very fire report, Blankenship confirmed. “The FBI requested a copy of it since the suspicions arose about him within the past two years,” he said.

The fire investigation failed to render “any signs of accelerants,” but Blankenship warned, “You can still set a fire without accelerants.”

Still, Blankenship noted that “there wasn’t enough [evidence] to say one way or the other absent a confession from him.”

It was around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 23, 2003, while his daughter was out on a date, that Hammes left the family’s two dogs and his wife alone in the house—on Turkey Foot Road in Lexington—allegedly to go out for a jog, witnesses and officials told The Daily Beast.

Soon after he’d left, neighbors spotted flames and pluming smoke coming from the Hammes family home.

Jack Edmiston grabbed the spare key given to him by the Hammes and rushed over to the three-bedroom ranch-style home to unlock the front and back doors and free the dogs. He had no clue Joy Hammes was still trapped inside.

In a phone interview Edmiston remembered the events of that night well. “We went to the front door and unlocked it and there was smoke coming from every direction,” he said. “Then we went to the back door and the flames were shooting every which way. It quickly developed into a real bad fire.”

As firefighters arrived to ax open the windows and pull Joy Hammes from her bedroom, her jogging husband Jim was on his lawn gawking at the inferno.

Edmiston’s wife, Lois, was trying to keep her three grandchildren safe from the fire after returning home from the ice cream parlor. “I was standing on the front yard watching them trying to fight the thing and Jim comes up and he says, ‘What happened?’”

He eventually would discover that his wife had been rescued and rushed to a hospital where she would later be ruled brain dead and where she succumbed to her injuries.

The house was reduced to a pile of rubble.

“[James Hammes] seemed like he was grieving when he came back down the street,” Lois Edmiston said.

Sorrow gripped Joy’s neighbors, who said the devoted volunteer dedicated her time to working at the local charity God’s Pantry Food Bank.

She took extra pains to help the Edmistons with their yardwork after Jack suffered a stroke. “She was a wonderful neighbor who came over to mow our lawn,” Lois Edmiston recalled.

In return, the couple gifted another member to the Hammes family with a golden retriever named Chelsea; and in turn looked after the pooches whenever the family went out of town.

“It seemed to me like they were really happy,” Lois Edmiston said.

Relatives of James Hammes say they also were in the dark on any problems—financial or otherwise—that James and his wife may have had. “We thought he was going to be the first [in the family] to be a millionaire—just not like this,” Hammes’s cousin Jeff Sadler told The Daily Beast.

“He was talking about this great [software] business of his, which we realized was a big lie,” Sadler said, reflecting on a visit he made to Cincinnati a year after the fatal fire.

Sadler also questioned the circumstances around the fire after Hammes fled town. “The minute he disappeared on the embezzlement, that was the first question that came to our minds: ‘What about that fire?’” Hammes’s cousin said.

Before he disappeared onto the Appalachian Trail, the Pepsi controller managed to find time to notch a pilot’s license and was constantly taking solo sojourns to the Caribbean to scuba-dive, his cousin said.

“He wanted to retire at 50… He was getting adventurous,” Sadler said. “That’s where the scuba diving, wanting to fly a plane… that sense of adventure was starting to take different directions.

“I thought it was strange,” the cousin added.

The man of the house also kept a secret illegitimate child, Sadler said. Authorities later discovered Hammes had paid airfare for his other daughter while he was in hiding.

Hammes fled from the authorities just as they were about book him. On the trail, he shed the coat and tie and metamorphosed into a grizzly man by becoming “Bismarck.” The Jerry Garcia doppleganger started befriending fellow trailblazers who wandered the Appalachian Trail. On various blog posts by fellow “thru-hikers” Bismarck was a constant character popping up all over the trail.

With his handy iPod, Bismarck helped fellow hikers “relax” and groove to some tunes. Not one to pitch a tent, the former numbers man preferred instead to string a hammock.

He was referenced twice by two different hikers as falling ill; once with dry heaves in March 2010.

But when others were weak, the wanted man showed love. Such was the case when a hiker named Recon fractured his leg and Bismarck gave a shout-out in email he sent on April 24 of this year.

Bismarck and his fellow hiking muse named Hopper wrote to tell Recon to “Heal well and we hope to see you out here next year.”

One hiker who had known Bismarck well on the trail said he managed to strike up a couple romances in the wilderness. After his capture one of of his jilted girlfriends allegedly posted that she felt the hikers had been hoodwinked, writing, “We hikers should have been more suspicious of him because of his evasive behavior.” Another hiker, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Beast, “She was basically saying that Bismarck’s stories didn’t add up.”

Even in the woods, Hammes apparently remained a devout Catholic.

On August 28, 2010, a hiker named Troll said he’d accepted a ride in a car from Wiggy and two other hikers named Signage and Greywolf to get a “hearty breakfast” while “Bismark stayed behind to attend church.”

Bismarck, who said he was a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was also known to catch a hockey game on TV while crashing at various inns. At one point he boasted about being a former pro.

“Bismarck played hockey in the minor leagues years ago,” Troll wrote of his Appalachian walking pal. “In fact he did play in some NHL games as a fill in. I was amazed when he told me that around the campfire at Moreland Gap Shelter.” It's unclear if Hammes ever played hockey professionally.

In the end it wasn’t enough to have the beard and nowhere-man mantra. Hammes couldn’t elude capture forever.

Maybe he should have thought twice about mugging for a smorgasbord of snaps with hikers.

When the American Greed episode on Hammes replayed, one of Bismarck’s newfound nature friends, Hayden Crume, happened to be watching. The hiker imagined a beard and glasses affixed to the wanted embezzler’s likeness.

And right then Bismarck was Hammes. Hammes was Bismarck.

“I just happened to look up at the right moment, I guess,” Crume told SB Nation. “I immediately recognized I knew him, but [at first] couldn’t quite place him.”

On a Saturday in May a handful of federal agents stood outside the Montgomery Homestead Inn in Damascus, Virginia. They identified themselves and showed a photo of a clean-cut Jim Hammes. Susie Montgomery immediately said aloud, “Bismarck.”

She proceeded to alert her faithful tenant, who had called her bed-and-breakfast a trail mainstay for four years and forged a friendship with her, that the FBI were there and wanted to talk to him.

Bismarck marched down the stairs wearing handcuffs. “I hugged him,” Montgomery remembered in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. “He whispered to me ‘I’m sorry,’” she said.

She has contemplated what the apology meant. The same man who had always volunteered to help her move furniture, had told her he was a widower, and always made sure to catch a Catholic service in nearby Abingdon, Virginia, was now some sort of criminal. “He knew how highly I thought of him,” she said. “He became my friend and maybe he was just sorry that my trust in him had been broken.”

Or maybe it was Hammes’s only way to admit he’d been caught.

During the moment that doctors pulled the plug on Joy Hammes’s life support, there was a similar sorry.

Joy’s sister, Jane Ryan, told SB Nation that she was puzzled by Hammes’s reaction. He also hugged her and said, “I’m sorry.” His wife, and her sister, was dead, “and he is apologizing to me.”