Explorer Roman Dial Talks About the Two-Year Search for His Missing Son

Credit: Photographs by Peter Bohler

After two long years of searching, legendary adventurer Roman Dial has learned the truth about his son’s disappearance. Dial, 55, is an Alaskan mountaineer, paddler, and backcountry racer renowned for surviving grueling feats, like trekking 620 miles through the Arctic with only a single bag of food in 2006. “My first trip to Alaska was in 1974, and you just heard stories about him,” Jon Krakauer told Men’s Journal in a 2014 feature story about Dial's search for his son, Cody Roman. “He made people rethink what you could do, how far you could travel.” Along with his wife, Peggy, Dial raised his two children, Cody and his sister Jazz, to embrace an adventurer’s life. So when Cody decided to backpack alone from Mexico to Central America in 2014, Dial supported his 27-year-old son’s wanderings. “We traveled the world not because we were rich, but because we were frugal,” Dial says. “I was able to take my kids camping and exploring in Australia, Borneo, Latin America, Europe. [Cody] Roman traveled like that too. He knew what he was doing.”

In July 2014, Cody disappeared while hiking alone in Corcovado National Park — a dense and dangerous Costa Rican rainforest full of venomous snakes, steep ridges, and flash floods. Along with a group of trained search-and-rescue friends from Anchorage, Dial flew to help local authorities search the park, located in the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean. After weeks of rappelling down waterfalls and chopping through jungle with a machete — at one point nearly getting killed by a falling tree limb — Dial found no trace of his son. But he refused to give up. For the past two years he has continued to search remote trails and chase leads, considering theories ranging from murder to Cody simply deciding to disappear and create a new life. Last May, a documentary crew began filming Dial’s search. The resulting six-part series, Missing Dial, debuted in May and is currently airing on the National Geographic Channel. Last month, in an interview with National Geographic, Dial said he and the show’s investigative team had finally solved the case. “We know that Cody was murdered,” Dial said.

But in an incredible twist, Cody’s body was found in Corcovado just days before the show’s debut. Dial, accompanied by the show’s producers, flew down to finally confirm what happened — and he says it wasn’t murder. Dial has an agreement with National Geographic to not reveal the exact details of Cody's death — which will be aired in an upcoming episode of Missing DialBut now, in his first major interview since finding his son, Dial tells MJ about his rocky experience filming the show, his self-doubt and battles while unraveling the mystery, and his relief in finally finding his missing son. “I felt like I had been underwater for two years and couldn’t breathe,” Dial says, “and I’d finally come to the surface for air."

Let’s start at the beginning. What happened after the Men’s Journal article came out in 2014?

Some television production companies approached us wanting to make a show, and I ignored all of them except for one. Paul Lima at This Is Just a Test productions reached out to my wife, Peggy, and said that his father had been murdered in Honduras and he had been unable to get his father’s killer convicted over a ten-year period until he involved television cameras. So he said, "Why don’t you let us try to help you solve this?"

How did the production company offer to help you?

They approached us with this two-pronged approach. Ken Fournier, a parajumper, and Carson Ulrich, a retired DEA agent, would help with the search. I knew Ken from my adventure racing days. Parajumpers are a branch of the Air Force who can do everything. They’re medics but they can shoot guns too, and in Alaska they’re legendary for their rescues. I wouldn’t have to fear for my friend’s safety. In the early days, I had been taking my friends down there [to Corcovado], and it just became increasingly obvious that it was dangerous to bring people who didn’t have a lot of experience. I mean, a big tree fell down and almost killed these guys while they were asleep in their tent. And so the idea would be that Ken and I would continue searching in the jungle, and then my wife Peggy and this guy Carson would do some criminal investigation in town. I had worked with TV before and realized that there’s a lot of resources that television can bring. In particular, television’s usually really good with permits for getting into national parks.


And that was a huge issue for you at the beginning of your search. Corcovado is so wild that it’s difficult to get permits from the government to explore it.

Yeah, exactly. I made 20 trips into the jungle over the last two years, and maybe four of those were legal. And so I thought this would be helpful.

Did you have any concerns about enlisting TV in your search?

I mean I’ve done TV stuff before. I don’t really like doing it that much. They said they wanted a documentary, and so I asked the producers right off the bat, “Well, what to you is the difference between reality TV and a documentary?” Because I really didn’t want to be in some sort of reality TV show. And they told me that reality TV is over-produced. So that became kind of my code word whenever I felt that they were manipulating me or making me do something I didn’t want to do. I just said, “This feels really over-produced.” And they weren’t paying us to do anything, so I felt like it was sort of a mutual exploitation thing. They wanted to get my story and I wanted to find my son. At first, I didn’t really know these guys, so sometimes I was a bit antagonistic. But over time I realized the main producer, Aengus James, his heart was really big. I think he was coming from a good place.

When did you discover Cody’s backpack?

It was almost July 1, and we were about to head down to Costa Rica with the production crew when we heard from the Embassy that they found our son’s pack. I was like, “What? You found our son’s pack?” It kind of suggested that he’d come back from the jungle and I was really annoyed, because they had the pack for like six months. And then they’d given it to the Embassy, who had it for two months before they even called us. I was really irritated about that.

Of course.

And so we went down and looked in the pack, and it had [Cody’s] blue Jetboil stove, which I had interpreted was the stove that he’d taken into the jungle when some miners encountered him, cooking in the middle of the jungle, cooking his breakfast. And I thought, “OK, well he did come out of the jungle and then he must have gone back in.” I don’t know if you remember from [MJ contributor] Damon [Tabor’s] story, but you know there was this local bad guy named Pata de Loro [who had claimed he had guided Cody in the jungle, leading to a theory that Cody had entered and exited the jungle at least two times]. I had discredited that story. I went through the jungle, I talked to people, asked Pata de Loro questions, and then I hired a private investigator and I gave him a list of 35 questions to ask Pata de Loro. And I was 99 percent certain that [Cody] Roman had never been with him.

But then this guy Carson Ulrich picked up the story. Carson was a DEA agent for 25 years and he’d just retired. He spoke Spanish and was pretty much the kind of guy I wanted — big, muscular, and intimidating. He was 10-feet tall and bald and tattooed and maybe 50 or so. I wanted someone who could push buttons and get answers. But generally he just pushed my buttons and didn’t really get great answers. He just got this Pata de Loro story, and he sunk his teeth into it and I was exasperated: Hey, Pata de Loro wasn’t with our son. [Editor’s Note: Pata de Loro had been seen with another young white backpacker, but Roman didn’t think the descriptions matched his son. For example, the backpacker seen with Pata de Loro had been smoking pot and carrying a lot of money.] And Carson got all huffy and says, “This is why we don’t let next of kin get involved in investigations — they’re all emotionally clouded.” When I first went down there, the guy who was directing the search for the Costa Rican Red Cross, a guy named Gilbert Dondi, wouldn’t even let me into the jungle. He eventually just said, “We don’t think your son ever went into the jungle.” [Cody] was never in the park because they couldn’t find any sign of him. And they were all convinced that he had never gone into the park, and he certainly wouldn’t go off trail.

But the thing is, I know my son. I raised him, and he had been in constant communication with me. Maybe a lot of fathers don’t know their sons, and a lot of children and their parents kind of lead separate lives, but we were quite close. So the fact that he’d written me and told me what he was going to do made it clear to me that he was really letting me know what was going on. [Editor’s Note: Cody had emailed his father that he intended to hike across Corcovado to the Pacific shore, then walk to a village and catch a bus back to Puerto Jiménez, the town on the edge of the jungle where his backpack was later discovered.]

So you were convinced Pata de Loro had nothing to do with Cody’s disappearance?

I knew my son, and he would have never gone with Pata. Number one, Pata de Loro, as I got to know him, is not the type of person my son would have hung out with. And then number two, Everybody who saw him said “Oh, he had a GPS.” So [Cody is] on a trail with a GPS and a guide? That’s kind of like wearing a onesie with suspenders and a belt.

That’s just not your son. He wouldn’t be doing that.

That’s not my son. But this guy Carson, he had none of it. And he would get in my face. On this television show, they captured him just getting in my face about it, you know? And he would accuse me of beguiling everybody.

There were all these things that just didn’t add up, and I would try to explain that to Carson, and he would just push them all aside. He just dismissed them and dismissed me. But ultimately, you know, I was right. My son was doing what he said he was doing.

How did your and Carson’s differing viewpoints affect the show?

The original idea was that Carson was going to do all this kind of urban criminal investigation, and Ken and I were going to go back into the jungle. But the TV people were never able to get permits that work in the jungle. They thought they would be able to do it but [the authorities] wouldn’t give them the permits. So that whole side of things was sort of nixed because I wasn’t going to go look around some jungle that was open just to make TV. Ultimately, they wanted to get some pictures of me rappelling down waterfalls and stuff like that, and I was like, "Yeah let’s go back to where I rappelled down a waterfall, let’s go look over there again." I was always going back to that area, which is ultimately where he was found. Where my son was found was within a half a kilometer or kilometer of where we had been looking.

So I was forced into this “Carson show” because they couldn’t get permits to go elsewhere, and the director was sort of lured into Carson’s approach. Carson is a forceful guy, and I think he wanted to be involved with television and production. So he would try to make TV to make things happen. To his credit he worked really hard to solve the case. He was exactly who I wanted, and even though I didn’t really agree with him, I appreciated what he was doing. Ultimately, I showed him respect even though I didn’t believe in Pata de Loro’s story. I didn’t believe it, but I was willing to accept Carson’s efforts, and support him. If you hire a consultant, you don’t hire a consultant to argue with him.

In some of the clips from the show, we see you and Carson doing exactly that.

Right, well I mean that makes for dramatic television, and I did [get upset]. In the beginning I was like, “Hey, you’re going the wrong way.” And [Carson] would just get louder and storm off. You know, ultimately I thought, “Well he is exactly the kind of guy that I asked for, and maybe he is right.” Even though in my heart it didn’t make sense, but eventually we looked in that backpack and there was that blue stove and I put the tape together so that Roman could of gone into the jungle, turned around, came back, and met up with Pata de Loro. Personally, I just had to push aside all of these details that didn’t match my son. I had to push aside him walking in sandals, you know Crocs, and my son would never walk in Crocs. He went on a trip with me when he was 12, and I had a group of college students. One of the college students was walking around in Tevas and jumped off a log and a palm spine went into his foot to the bone, and he had to wear a waist pack of antibiotics for six months. They had to evacuate him out of the jungle, and [Cody] Roman, at 12, was super impressionable. He would be like, “Yeah, I am not going to walk barefoot or in opened-toe shoes or Crocs in the jungle, that is about as stupid as you can get.”

So basically, you had to suspend your own disbelief to go along with Carson’s theory.

Yes, exactly, because I wanted to show him respect. He was working for me, he was trying to solve my case, and he was doing everything he could. I don’t want to disrespect him. I am disappointed that I was dismissed, but he did a good job doing what he does. What he does is investigate and get people to look around for him, and he did everything. But I think when the cameras were there… I don’t know. I kind of have a sense that he was looking for a career, a second career in the entertainment business. He seemed kind of over-dramatic to me. Honestly, I felt like I was just being myself. I was just trying to find my son.


You began to believe Carson’s theory.

I got tired of arguing with him. Here is another thing that happened: The production company had hired these former FBI guys who were kind of like Hollywood consultants, and we would get on these Skype calls with them, and Carson would say what he was doing and what he was finding. They would just say, “Oh yeah, you’re right Carson.” And then they would always validate what Carson had done. So you’ve got the whole town basically saying, “Oh yeah, your son was with Pata de Loro.” You’ve got Carson who’s tracking all these leads down going, “Everybody is saying it’s Pata de Loro.” And then I would have my doubts because of what I heard and what I knew, I was worried in my disbelief. This happens to all of us all the time. When you believe something to be true but social pressures kind of make you accept otherwise. You know what I mean?

So last month, just days before the premiere of Missing Dial on National Geographic, you learned that they found remains where Cody went missing. What happened next?

I think it was on Tuesday, May 17, that someone stumbled on camping gear and a skeleton in the jungle. Two days later, I was meeting with the FBI in Washington, D.C, trying to spin the Carson story about Pata de Loro and get the FBI to put pressure on the Costa Ricans [to press charges]. I got out of that meeting and got a call from the American Embassy in Costa Rica. They said, “Hey, we got some news: a body was found and it was with some equipment, but we don’t know anything else.”

So on Tuesday a body was found. Thursday I hear about it. Friday, they send me photographs on my phone and I look at them and say, “Yeah that is my son’s stuff.” Saturday I fly down [to Corcovado]. Sunday, I walk in to the site and meet [authorities] as they are carrying up my son’s gear and his remains. I can see the gear in these plastic bags. There is a foam pad that I know was his. There was this red strap that we use for packrafting. I have a whole bunch of them. I know he got them from me. I saw the backpack, I saw all of the stuff he had. And [the location where he was found] was very close to where I had camped. Where Damon had been turned around [in his 2014 MJ story]. 

When I got out of the jungle, the producer was there and he said, “Hey you need to get all this stuff checked by the FBI.” And I said, “No, I don’t need to get this stuff checked by the FBI.” Because he was still kind of convinced there was foul play involved, and it was one of those things he wasn’t sure. He wanted to make sure that A) It was [Cody] Roman and B) Somebody hadn’t placed it there. Honestly, there is no way that somebody would of planted it there because it is in a very remote spot. Secondly, all of his money in his pack was there. So nothing was missing. I was kind of bothered that they wanted to keep pressing on this sort of murder [theory].

How did it feel to finally find your son?

I was – I can’t say I was shocked. I definitely wasn’t shocked because I’d expected him to be dead for the last 18 months or so. So I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t crushed that he was dead. I mean, I have the chronic pain that will never go away, but I have to say that, maybe, I was a bit relieved. The worst thing that could happen to you as a father is to have a son commit suicide. I can’t think of anything worse than that, honestly. And then the next worse thing is to have him killed by somebody, because then it’s not about your son anymore. So if he kills himself, then you’re going to hold yourself responsible for the rest of your life. And then next is, you know, somebody kills your son, then, you’re just really torn. Believe me, I felt like I wanted justice, and maybe I wanted revenge. But I was never 100 percent sure. Every time I talked to Pata de Loro, I just couldn’t really believe his story. 

I was relieved that it looked like it was just a natural death. That it wasn’t murder. And also, I was, um, the word’s not "satisfied," I’m not quite sure what the word is... but he was where he said he was going. He was doing exactly what he said he was going to do. He was off trail, and I found his compass and I found his little map — the remainder of his rotten map — and the rotting passport, and it’s the same map that he’d sent me online. And his compass had the bearing over to the Madrigal River that you get if you’re going to go to the coast. I don’t want to say that I found him, because I didn’t really find him. But I think that if I had more access to the park, [I may have found him]. I just feel like all I needed was a few more trips, and if the Red Cross had said, “Yeah, okay, Roman, let’s look for him; where do you think he would be?” instead of saying, “Hey, we’re worried about your mental state and you have to stay out of the jungle or we’re going to arrest you.”

Right.

I think this is sort of a bigger problem with today’s society. What we’ve done is just hand over all of our responsibilities. He’s my son. I feel responsibility if he goes missing, I feel it’s my responsibility to look for him, not society’s. And the only reason I was trying to get your help, like in the beginning when you reached out to me [for a 2014 interview about Roman’s efforts to search the park], the only reason I was trying to get more help was because they wouldn’t let me into the park. I had to sneak in. And so we’ve handed it over. If something bad happens, well, “family members get out of the way, let the professionals take over” — even though the professionals might not really have the best information or know the best approach. And when everybody says, “Your son was with this guy Pata de Loro, everybody says so, everybody knows,” I couldn’t say anything, I was completely dismissed because I was apparently an emotional parent. Even though I really wasn’t. I thought I was pretty rational.

What did it feel like when you saw his stuff in person? It had been such a long journey.

There was a certain finality to it that was sad, but actually more of a relief than anything else. I felt like I had been under water for two years and I couldn’t breath and I’d finally come to the surface for air. 

And the film crews were back with you the whole time?

Yeah, as soon as it happened they went down. They had to change the whole ending [of the show].

In the 2014 MJ feature, Jon Krakauer said: "A lot of parents would be appalled to think of letting their kids take those kinds of chances. But I got it with Roman — his kids were the same way he was. The whole family had this philosophy that is really admirable. To live an overly cautious life in many ways is as dangerous as its opposite.” Do you agree with that idea, or have your feelings on that approach to life changed?

I don’t want to say, “Well it’s great that [Cody] died doing what he loved.” I would never say that. I don’t think it’s great to die anyway. But there are risks anywhere. You know there’s risks when you cross the street, and there’s risks that you take when you’re in the wrong part of town, and I guess that we all have to die and, you know, if you’re going to die a natural death, his was about as natural as it gets. And the fact that he was doing what he said he was doing, you know, like he was off trail in the wilderness... I guess I feel a lot better now than I did two years ago. And I feel way better — far far better now — than I did just in May when I was trying to convince the FBI and Washington, D.C., that they needed to push on the Costa Ricans more to go after murderers. So yeah, I feel so much better.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.