RAY BROOK - An intensive, nearly two-week search for a missing Australian solider ended late Wednesday morning when a state forest ranger found Paul John McKay's body on a shoulder of Scarface Mountain.
"This is not the outcome we hoped for," village Police Chief Bruce Nason said at a press conference this morning at the state police Troop B headquarters in Ray Brook.
While the discovery of the 31-year-old Australian Army captain's body ends the search, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding his disappearance, none bigger than why he traveled to the Adirondacks, seemingly out of the blue.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff points to a map showing the search area for Paul McKay, whose body was found Wednesday off the Scarface Mountain trail in Ray Brook.
(Photo — Chris Knight)
"We still do not have confirmed information that would tell us why he was in the area," Nason said.
A person fitting McKay's description had last been seen walking east on the railroad tracks near the federal prison in Ray Brook, carrying a large backpack and wearing a winter jacket and snow pants. That was around noon on New Year's Eve, two days after McKay flew to the U.S. from Australia and then took a bus to Saranac Lake. He spent the night of Dec. 30 at the Best Western Mountain Lake Inn in Saranac Lake and was seen the following morning, walking east on Lake Flower Avenue toward Lake Placid.
McKay's father reported him missing to village police on Jan. 3 after he received a New Year's Eve email from his son, sent from the hotel, saying he was leaving him all his possessions. His family hadn't known he had traveled to the U.S.
McKay was on a break in between assignments with the Australian Army at the time of his disappearance and wasn't due to return until Jan. 20. Police have said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. McKay is an Afghanistan war veteran.
Teams of volunteers led by state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers were brought in over the weekend and on Monday to conduct a grid search for McKay in densely forested area along the railroad tracks east of the federal prison. On Tuesday, the primary search area was expanded east and south.
DEC Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff said two rangers conducted an aerial search on Wednesday using a state police helicopter. No signs of McKay were found.
At the same time, Ranger Scott Van Laer hiked areas south and west of the trail up Scarface, a roughly 3,000-foot-tall peak due south of the hamlet of Ray Brook. Around 11:15 a.m., Van Laer found a body on what Streiff described as a promontory on the northwest shoulder of Scarface, roughly 400 to 500 feet off the trail.
State police and DEC investigators were notified. Using the helicopter, forest rangers removed the body, which was brought to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. It was subsequently identified as McKay. An autopsy is scheduled today to determine his cause of death. Police didn't say whether there were any obvious signs of trauma to McKay's body.
Asked what gear McKay had with him, Nason and Streiff said he had a ground cover and "winter-type" clothing, but no sleeping bag, tent or any kind of shelter. Streiff said he didn't believe McKay had a gun or any other weapons with him. His possessions have been turned over to state police.
Streiff said it appeared to forest rangers and investigators like McKay "had been there for a while," but they don't know how long. He said the Scarface trail had been checked several times during the search.
"We had been up the trail," he said. "We had done sweeps next to the trail. We had searched the top of Scarface, but our search area was still incomplete, and that's why one ranger started going up and searching some promontories and that's when his body was located near a rock outcropping. He was not visible by the air, nor was he visible by the searchers who had been on Scarface the previous date."
Nason and state police Capt. John Tibbits said authorities are continuing to investigate what led to McKay's death and what brought him to this area.
"We're still on the ground floor of this," Tibbits said.
Within the last couple days, police have received more contacts from McKay's family and friends in Australia, Nason said. He said police were able to get access to McKay's email account but it contained no clues as to why he came here or what his mindset was in the days leading up to his disappearance.
McKay created a Facebook page for himself and uploaded a dozen pictures to it on Dec. 27, the day before he flew to the U.S. Nason said people police have talked to in Australia described McKay as "a very private person, and they were surprised that he created that Facebook page."
The Facebook page, along with a LinkedIn page that listed all of McKay's military background, skills and college degrees, have both been removed, but Nason said he doesn't know who took them down.
Nason said the Australian Defence Force notified McKay's family in person that his body had been found. The chief said he talked to the family a short time later, expressing condolences on behalf of all those involved in the search.
"It was a tough conversation," Nason said. "I can't describe it any other way."