AT Thru-Hiker, “Bismarck”, Arrested at Trail Days on Embezzling Charges

This past Saturday, May 16th, a former Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, James “Bismarck” Hammes, was arrested at Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia, as first reported on Kentucky.com.

Hammes is accused of stealing $8,711,282 between 1998 and 2009 when he worked for G&J Pepsi-Cola Bottlers in Lexington, Kentucky. He had gone on the run in 2009 after being questioned by the FBI regarding missing money and allegations of laundering. There were also alleged reports of arson and possible links to his wife’s death in a fire. The story was featured on American Greed TV show and as a result is reported to leading to the arrest.

FBI Wanted Poster

FBI Wanted Poster

In 2014, as my son and I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, we met a varied and diverse group of amazing people. We bonded with strangers, even if just for a couple of hours, before parting ways. The companionship of joint experiences and misery certainly brings people together, whom, in the real world probably would not pass the time of day. We met literally hundreds of people, most I cannot recall; several are friends on Facebook, and some I stay in touch with more than my family. People not connected with the trail may feel that is strange. Especially when we consider; we rarely know each other’s real names, we don’t ask what each other’s jobs are, why we are hiking, or what our plans are. Instead we swap tales of bad weather, hard climbs, gear and food, great hostels and bad experiences. We may also warn each other of characters to watch out for along the trail.

Update: Read exclusive interview with hiker who reported Bismark to the FBI

Bismark, along with his hiking companion, Hopper, were names we only heard mentioned in a positive light. We first met them in Franklin after a particularly cold spell when several hikers had headed into town to rest and recuperate. Bismarck was staying at the Sapphire Inn and we were staying at the Budget Inn, both owned by Ron Haven. We had traveled on Ron’s shuttle and had a minimal conversation on the way to resupply and the outfitters. After that I do not recall seeing Bismarck until Trail days in Damascus this past Friday. He came by the Appalachian Trials booth where I was helping out, we exchange pleasantries and he walked on. That was the last time I would see him in person, however, I would see him in the news, as one of Americas Most Wanted, following his arrest Saturday morning.

Photo courtesy of the FBI

Photo courtesy of the FBI

For those that met Bismarck over the years (it appears he hiked the trail several times in the past few years), there is an overwhelming opinion of shock. Posts are springing up on social media regarding the arrest and as a popular and well-known member of the AT community there is a lot of interest.

So I would like to stress I am not standing in judgment nor defending Bismarck. We have laws and we have a judicial system that will do that. But the news is out there and we, as members of a close community are interested in the situation as it unfolds.

Reading comments on Facebook, it’s clear that the arrest of Bismarck’s arrest comes as a shock. But should we be so shocked that a member of our own hiking community could be a potential criminal?

Of course we should not. After all, the community on the AT is no different from any faction of society. It draws people from all walks of life and for a wide variety of reasons. Many are escaping and trying to get away from something, divorce, work, college, bad health; and crime.

Hiding on the AT

So should we be shocked that a member of the Appalachian Trail hiking community could be a criminal; not in the slightest. In fact what better way to hide from the law:

  • The majority of males have a beard and longer hair – perfect if you are trying to disguise yourself without standing out from the crowd,
  • Hard to describe – “the man had a beard, dirty scruffy clothes, smelt bad, and a pack”; that’s the majority of the males hiking the trail.
  • Anonymity – No one is suspicious when you don’t give your real name; in fact using a real name is suspicious.
  • Not using bankcards – paying cash for everything is not unusual, in fact several hostels, some restaurants and stores only take cash.
  • No technology – Not having a cell phone is not seen as unusual; being “off the grid” is an accepted way of life.
  • No job or visible means of income – No one questions you not having a job or income on the trail.
  • New friends – A complete new start with new friends and “family” without the difficult questions.
  • Moving around – The ability to move around freely, changing locations often and never settling in one place.
  • Minimal interaction with law enforcement.

So, if found guilty, let’s not be surprised that this happened.  I am sure it has several times in the past and it may well again in the future. But lets remember that the crime wasn’t committed on the trail, or because of the trail. Hiking is just that; hiking. A criminal hiking is no different than a criminal walking down the street in town. It is not walking down the street that is bad; it is the criminal. So for people to suggest this paints a bad light on hiking I would suggest you need to step back and look again. Hiking is a pastime along the trail, no more, no less. It is made up of all walks of life and as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy state: “it is not immune to criminal behavior—including crimes of violence.” But these are rare and especially in relation to urban life. The trail is not isolated from all of society.

Our 2014 experience was overall positive, there were, especially early on some characters whom I was weary of. But fair to say less of them than I am weary of in my day-to-day life; Bismarck was not one of those characters.

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Comments 25

  • A J MacDonald Jr : May 19th

    If I had 8 million dollars I wouldn’t be hiking the AT

    Reply
    • me_again : May 20th

      Don’t forget, having $8M that’s NOT yours does kind have some limitations on where you can go and what you can do. Anything involving showing identification is a problem.

      Reply
  • kab421 : May 20th

    I would hike the trail if I had 8M. I might splurge a little more but I would just travel if I had financial security.

    Reply
  • Joiner : May 20th

    Holy Cow! My wife and I hiked for several days with Bismarck and Hopper on our 2012 AT thru-hike. This is crazy news. Bismarck and Hooper were extremely friendly, and he didn’t ever hesitate to share where he worked (I knew he worked in the soda bottling industry). I would have never guessed.

    Reply
  • Shawn Hudson : May 20th

    My wife and I met this guy north of Franklin last year, and then she met him again this year in the Smokies through her job (ATC ridgerunner). She said she’s always curious as to how some people can hike back to back, and we had a decent first impression of both of them back in the day. I guess now we know. In addition, I’m inherently distrustful of people who HAVE to get off of the trail to go to church on Sunday, as he did when we first met him. That’s right – don’t trust anyone who takes church that seriously.

    Reply
    • Crowley : May 21st

      I followed along with everything you said, until the last two sentences. Those don’t track.

      Reply
    • Crazy Larry : May 25th

      I am glad he went to church every Sunday, now we should see the results of that I hope.

      Reply
  • Karl Humbarger : May 20th

    Big Tex I will go one step further from your apt observations and say that Bismarck was by hiking standards more honest than most hikers I’ve encountered from my experience. He was “work for stay” for 3 years at The Cabin in Maine in the Fall. He helped build a garage here and was as meticulous and conscientious as any experienced craftsman I’ve worked with. Most AT hikers I’ve encountered here do “work for stay” as a joke. If one hiker is stacking wood 3 or 4 will join in uninvited and they all expect freebies galore. Often hikers will fib about not being able to pay for meals and yet hang around looking for a freebie, which we usually gave in on that on occasion included lobster and steak and yet I’d see them often swilling expensive brew pub beers on the side. And a lot of fibs they’d use as excuses not to pay for The Cabin’s services after rendered would get them arrested at the local Walmart. Bismarck if you read this, after your ordeal is over, I welcome you back with open arms at The Cabin and Thank You for your help.

    Reply
  • avonsford : May 23rd

    I just joined this blog to give important information about Bismarck AKA James T Hammes.

    He is my first cousin and he was wanted for embezzling 8.7 million dollars over several years. He has a lurid history of mysterious fires one of which his first wife died in. That was during his several years of ripping off his employer. He abandoned his daughter and second wife when charges were brought to him. He is an embarrassment to his side of the family and has brought pain to many. His gregarious personality got him far but always made me suspicious. Be careful of overly friendly people because sociopaths hide behind a smile.

    PS: He had an illegitimate daughter by an earlier girl friend early on in his first marriage that was kept secret until he disappeared in 2009.

    Here is a good link that summarizes his background:
    https://www.sj-r.com/article/20150521/NEWS/150529846

    Also check out the American Greed episode on YouTube: The Deceitful Dad and the Missing Millions.

    Reply
  • Crazy Larry : May 25th

    I certainly did not know Bismark as some of you did, I do recall doing his laundry once or twice.

    But it is no surprise that he was a fugitive and the reason I say this is because at one time I too was a fugitive from justice living on the Appalachian Trail until the night of September 17, 2003 when I had a spiritual experience out of this world. Actually it was two months later when I turned myself in to get it behind me.

    This report here is a good report on life on the Appalachian Trail. I lived on and off the trail for a little over three years without any trouble from the law, I just blended in with the community and with the town folks along the trail. I could talk redneck with the best of them or I could talk philosophy and so forth.

    I know Circuit Rider was ministering to Bismark, lets hope some of that sunk in and he will do what is best for all involved in this tragedy.

    Whether he has to spend the remaining of his life in prison or he is able to see freedom once again I hope he makes the right choices in telling the truth and own up to his own.

    He has had a taste of what a good life it can be, the Appalachian Trail provides that. It did for me, all the great interactions I had with the abundance of positive thinking folks that walk on this trail in the woods helped steer me in the right direction…..

    Reply
  • Cabana Boy : Jun 5th

    My wife and I first met Bismark back in 2010 when we were all attempting our first thru hikes. Up until his arrest a few weeks ago we considered he and Hopper as a few of our best trail friends. We thought we knew a lot about them both as they freely shared information, phone numbers, email etc. Over the past few years we have gone out of our way to catch up with them on the trail. We live in Massachusetts but traveled to Maryland, Newhampshire, Virginia and western Mass to do trail magic and visit with them. We’ve even had them stay at our home! With all the hours and days we have spent in his company, not in a million years did we ever think that he was capable of anything like this. As Bismark, he truely was a fantastic guy. We knew him by his alias, Brian Wafford, and we both hope that Hopper (Theresa) was unaware of his past. She certainly doesn’t deserve to be dragged down by this unfortunate turn of events. We are really mourning the loss of our trail friend but are glad that those affected by James Hammes actions can finally get some closure.

    Reply

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