Part II: A lonely mountain
After a peripatetic existence in the wilderness of Oregon, prepper, preacher and outdoorsman Thomas Stofiel ended his days as a resident in a Tralee direct provision centre.
Noel Baker and Mostafa Darwish report
Thomas Stofiel PICTURE FBI
Thomas worked in a Tralee restaurant as a kitchen porter. He was regularly spotted walking Tralee's streets in his army jacket, sporting the same goatee beard he is seen tugging for emphasis and comfort in some of his videos. But it seems in some ways, at least, he was a different man once here in Ireland.
We know some of this thanks to Ali, a former asylum seeker who is now involved in his own business. At first mention of Thomas's name, he pulls both hands towards his chest. Ali has a sense of drama in his movements. He is originally from north Africa but his bond with the mysterious mountain man from America seems real. He says of Thomas: "he was a very nice guy, very quiet, not ignorant, humble, a lot of information about life - he's [a] wonderful man."
Ali does not know why Thomas came here, of all places.
Tralee town centre, Co. Kerry. PICTURE IRISH TIMES
Ali gave us a contact number for the person in Ireland with more information on Thomas than anyone else. Imad is a bright-eyed man, also from North Africa but utterly western in his style and dress sense. Over a coffee, Imad remembers Thomas with deep fondness and describes him as his best friend in Tralee. Yet, strangely, it turns out Thomas wasn't even the first American he encountered in Direct Provision. That was Eric, another asylum seeker who shared the same room with Imad before Thomas, and both Americans had something in common.
"They have same problem, like mental," Imad says, gesturing at his head. "Eric, he showed me pictures in the White House. Eric as well, he is talking stories as well." By stories, he means conspiracy theories. Eric was "a very, very strange guy", Imad says, someone who slept during the day and spent all night on his laptop.
Imad eventually had to ask him to stop, as he needed to sleep because he was working. Ultimately he moved into another room. It seems Eric received a deportation letter, and left, almost certainly on a flight back to the US.
Very soon afterwards, Thomas arrived.
"Thomas, he comes in 2019," Imad says. By then, Imad had been in direct provision for around six months, but he made an immediate connection with Thomas, his new roommate.
"He told me a little bit about his story, like [him being] homeless, and then before Ireland he was in Alaska, [he] showed me pictures there, snow," Imad recalls. Thomas had never been in Ireland before, and Imad never found out exactly why he arrived here.
"I ask him many times but he doesn't like [it]. I said to him, listen, I am Algerian, I am from north Africa, I am here as asylum seeker. You are American citizen, you can go anywhere. Thomas, he was very smart guy, at the same time he was a very good guy, but he doesn't like everybody."
Between 2011 and 2020 there were 50 applications for asylum/international protection from American citizens, according to the Department of Justice. None were granted protection status - either refugee status or subsidiary protection - and fewer than five were granted leave or permission to remain in Ireland. In the same period, 40 deportation orders were issued, 10 of which were effected.
Someone who was a former US soldier, if you are paranoid about the US, you are going to have a real fear for your data being used by anyone, anywhere. So anywhere where you would have to register for a service, he probably wouldn't have done."
Those numbers, though small, easily exceed the number of applications from people of other English-speaking countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, and the figures also show the rate of asylum applications from Americans has been increasing. Between 2011 and 2016 there were fewer than five applications lodged every year, and none in 2014, but 34 were lodged in the years 2017 to 2020, with 12 applications made in both 2019 and 2020.
Fiona Hurley is Policy and Communications Manager with Nasc, an NGO based in Cork that assists migrants and refugees. She never had any contact with Thomas, but is aware of a number of Americans in the direct provision system in recent years. While all cases are different, she senses that for some US nationals, there is an element of paranoia, legitimate worry, or both, that they are somehow at risk of being surveilled or monitored by US authorities; a post-Edward Snowden miasma of danger and fear.
Fiona believes that in addition to any possible element of paranoia among some US applicants, there can be a perception that Ireland is more rural than it actually is, that it offers a kind of bucolic obscurity unlike the UK or other European countries. Despite this, and the obvious appeal of a common language, Fiona doesn't see any evidence of special treatment for Americans within direct provision, and argues that in some ways, seeking asylum is more difficult for US citizens who enter the system.
"They would possibly have their case heard faster because they would be from a country that's seen as a safe country, so it's a harder barrier to prove that they have a legitimate case," she says.
Fiona also believes someone like Thomas was unlikely to link in with an NGO or community group, meaning the groundings for his asylum application may be written on a file in a government department, and so few people are privy to the reasons he gave. "Someone who was a former US soldier, if you are paranoid about the US, you are going to have a real fear for your data being used by anyone, anywhere," she says. "So anywhere where you would have to register for a service, he probably wouldn't have done."
The usual method for an American to enter Ireland is through a 90-day visa, followed by an application for the appropriate immigration permission to the Minister for Justice or an application for an employment permit to the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment prior to entering the State.
And so, for whatever reason, Thomas applied for international protection, becoming one of the small but growing number of US nationals entering the asylum system in Ireland. Was Yah directing him, as per his beliefs? "Well, I'm running out of time," he says in his very last Youtube clip. "I'll see you down the road. Shalom..."
A strident Thomas in one of the last clips he posted, outlining his plans to preach across America - only to arrive in Ireland the following year." VIDEO STOFIEL YOUTUBE
‘He was happy, actually’
For Imad, the reasons for Thomas applying for asylum became less important than having him around as a friend. When he first arrived in Ireland, Imad spoke Arabic and some French. First Eric began assisting him in learning English, and then Thomas, to much greater effect. In fact, Imad began speaking English with an American accent. He beams at the memory.
"Thomas as well, he was very busy," Imad says. "In a restaurant in Tralee, in town [working]. In the kitchen, kitchen porter, he was working four, five days, sometimes six days, he liked the job, he liked to be busy, get some money, meet some people. He was happy, actually."
From reproaching himself in his Youtube videos for craving cigarettes, now Thomas would smoke outside with his coffee, sitting with Imad. They would occasionally smoke weed, like many of the residents. Not long before this, Thomas had been accusing his brother of similar behaviour, of falling foul of the scriptures. But some of the old fire still burned, and the incorrigible beliefs remained.
"If you see someone in the face you will know, if someone is 100% mental health - Thomas was not 100% mental health," Imad explains. "He told me before he was a Christian, after that he became a Jewish. I told him I'm Muslim, I pray every single day in my room, I never had problems. [We were] talking about the Koran and the Bible."
It turns out Thomas didn't like Donald Trump, or any politicians, but his own conspiracies were never far away. "Always he was thinking about that. He ask me when we die, where we are going, he ask me about the paradise and the hell.
"Sometimes I, like, scared, after that I get scared."
He went to the mountain, for maybe 10 days, something like that, and then 10 days, no food, no water, nothing
Imad says Thomas spoke to his daughter regularly while in Tralee, although according to Martin Elle, Thomas's longtime friend in America, it may only have been once or twice. Did Thomas tell her where he was? What he was doing? Imad isn't sure, but he could see the positive impact of that contact.
"His daughter. He always, he loved her, when he spoke to her ... when I remember him and feel that.. Sometimes two times a week [speaking to her]. Sometime [for] one hour. He give her advice."
Thomas wasn't in Atlas House that long when, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, he went missing from the centre. According to Imad, "He went to the mountain, for maybe 10 days, something like that, and then 10 days, no food, no water, nothing. When he come back it was first lockdown. Everyone in Atlas House, if someone leaves the hostel for just 24 hours, they have to go quarantine for two weeks, after that come back to the hostel."
Fiona Hurley is Policy and Communications Manager with Nasc, an NGO based in Cork that assists migrants and refugees . PICTURE SUPPLIED
Thomas Stofiel PICTURE YOUTUBE
The period away, wherever he had gone, had ravaged Thomas's already skinny frame. "He told me 10 days, two weeks no food, no water, if you see his face - I [was] shocked," Imad says, recalling Thomas's spell in a room away from the other residents as he quarantined.
"I give him food, his dinner, if I am working the security would do it, because he was very, very bad. When I see him [the] first time I said 'Thomas, what happened to you?' I thought maybe coronavirus.
"After isolation in the room, after that, he comes back. I went to his room because I like him, I asked the manager, [to] be in the same room because we are comfortable together. I tried to help him every day, we go outside, drink coffee, we go outside to go for a walk in the park, I tried many times to help him but the problem with Thomas is he doesn't trust anybody to tell you exactly, you know, he doesn't talk so much - just about the paradise, the hell, something is coming to this planet, maybe next year, everybody is gonna die. He was always talking about that."
In echoes of some of his online testimony, Thomas told Imad that in America, he'd had a big house, three cars, a good quality of life, and that he'd been homeless. It didn't seem to matter. He was "happy, actually", to use Imad's words, but he was still unhappy. His 10 days in the mountains wasn't a misadventure, but a warning. He was still conflicted, things were still not right.
According to Ali: "Believe me, believe me, he was saying this to me, he told me: the peace he got here a thousand times better than America. He told me and I remember what he was saying: he told me the big lie is the American Dream. He told me there is no dream, there is a devil in America. Thomas, in this chair, I remember him saying. ... All your dreams, they just fly, you cannot reach them, because" - and he waves his hand in the air - "just disappeared."
Slieve Mish Mountains, Co. Kerry
Only a short distance from Taralee, Slieve Mish is predominantly a sandstone mountain range at the eastern end of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. Stretching 19 kilometres (12 miles), from the first major peak of Barnanageehy outside of Tralee in the east, to Cnoc na Stuaice in near Central Dingle in the west
The Iron Man
At the top of Barnanageehy on the Slieve Mish Mountains outside Tralee, the ‘Iron Man’ still looks out across the countryside. The remains are of a telephone deflector dish erected by the old Department of Posts and Telegraphs many years ago. Not too far away, in a valley of the same mountain range, Thomas Stofiel, the journeyman ironworker, was found.
The remains of a telephone deflector dish erected by the old Department of Posts and Telegraphs many years ago sits at the summit of Barnageehy on the Slieve Mish Mountains.
Imad can't quite remember the sequence of events the second time Thomas went missing. Was it that he awoke and found Thomas was gone, or that he returned in the evening to find his friend wasn't there?
"He left everything," Imad says. "He had two phones, and the money, and he left everything on the table. One day, two days, I know he has no [other] friends here, where is [he] gone? I thought maybe he is gone back to the mountain, but he has [a] small tent, a small one, but he leave it there." Thomas hadn't even taken his bicycle. "He left everything, and the money and cigarette - everything."
The Slieve Mish Mountains rising up behine the Blennerville windmill in Tralee.
Thomas was missing for three weeks, by Imad's guess, from late October 2020. In Ireland, it was the second lockdown. Everything was closed. People were mostly staying inside - except Thomas.
"The manager and the security, every single day they asking [me], because if someone doesn't sleep in the hostel for just 24 hours you have to send them to quarantine [for] two weeks to Dublin," Imad says.
"Every day they were asking me. I tried the phone but they were in the room. After two weeks they didn't tell me anything, after then the guards [Gardai], they come to my room. After that I said no, something is happened."
Thomas was reported missing on October 25, 2020, and a missing person request was sent by investigating gardaí to various agencies in the US, checking to see if he had returned home. But he hadn't.
In and around November 14, a local farmer herding sheep spotted something across the small valley at Tonevane on Slieve Mish. It was Thomas's body. The emergency services were immediately contacted. The scene was consistent with a man having taken his own life. It's understood there was no note.
Gardai hiked up the mountain, as did the eight-man team from Kerry Mountain Rescue that recovered Thomas's body, including Gerry Christie and Seamus O'Shea.
When we meet them in Blennerville, not far from the foot of the mountain, it's spitting rain and a low wind is whistling around us. It's a dirty January afternoon and Gerry and Seamus - accompanied by Seamus's dog, Halley - are taking us up the mountain.
Gerry turned 69 on his last birthday and is officially retired from the Mountain Rescue Team, but there has been no dulling of his skills. Both he and Seamus skate up the boggy, steepening terrain. Gerry was already in his forties when he joined the mountain rescue team and his whirring pace is matched only by his speed of thought and turn of phrase. Seamus, himself a 13-year veteran of mountain rescue, describes Gerry as "one of the legends". Gerry replies: "What Seamus means is, I can't shut up..."
Both recall the day Thomas was found.
"Actually, what was coming was a storm," Seamus recalls. "We ended up in a storm force on the way down, we could barely stand up in the jeep and get the stretcher back up, it got really bad. It got vicious in the afternoon."
“These are very easy mountains to get lost in. When you get up here in the cloud, it's very easy to get disorientated."
Gerry believes Thomas followed the line of the stream, on what he says was probably "a one-way trip". An inquest scheduled for later this year will hear details of the discovery of Thomas's body, and the results of a post mortem examination, but both of the rescue men believe it is unlikely Thomas had trekked elsewhere, or that he simply got lost.
Seamus O'Shea, Kerry Mountain Rescue
Imad remembers some hints that things had not been going well for his friend. "Thomas, before what he did, what happened, he was not talking, he was very stressed."
Imad remembers his roommate "24 hours in the room, staring at the ceiling". But, as ever, "he don't tell me the real story".
Figures published last year by the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) showed that from the introduction of the system more than two decades before, up by June 2021, 88 people had died in direct provision facilities. That figure included four cases where a person died by suicide.
No data is collated on the number of people in international protection who go missing from DP centres. The department says applicants are not required to live in IPAS accommodation and are free to live in private alternative accommodation, provided they advise the International Protection Office (IPO) within the Department of Justice of their address. IPAS does not record medical information of International Protection (IP) applicants when it comes to seeking assistance for their mental health. A spokesperson said people in international protection would access those services in the same way as any Irish citizen, through primary care, GP referral or emergency services, although any IP applicant who resides in IPAS accommodation is entitled to a medical card.
According to Fiona Hurley of Nasc: "When someone comes into the state and applies for asylum in Ireland, they should be provided with a vulnerability assessment, so you can opt into that or opt out of that. Someone like Thomas may choose to opt out of it but generally that's there to identify any vulnerabilities that the person may have."
She believes someone like Thomas - avowedly sceptical of people in general and agencies in particular - could easily become isolated. She says those seeking asylum often show incredible levels of resilience, but it's a fine line.
"It is quite possible his needs would be overlooked. We have definitely seen people who have health issues and mental health issues and they weren't assessed. When someone is assessed, even if Thomas had been assessed, then he goes into the same waiting list that Irish citizens would go into."
Imad says of his friend: "I told him many times, 'you need a GP'. He always 'I'm fine'. And then he was ok. He had special problem, mental."
After the discovery of Thomas's body, gardai paid a second visit to the room at Atlas House, removing his belongings. Imad finally learned from others at the centre that his friend was dead. It hit him hard, and even now, seated in a cafe in Cork, when he recalls those moments he sinks lower to the table, like he's been struck in the chest by a bag of sand.
"I was feeling very bad. I hate the room just because [of] Thomas - his bed, his bag, his clothes. The first week I was very stressed. I never had something like that.
"They told me that if you need to see doctor or something like that, I said no, I was looking just for rent, just to get a room - I just wanted to leave the hostel. Big stress there. More and more and more. In the night I did not sleep.
"Before what happened, when he [Thomas] was very stressed, [I tried] to give to him advice to book a ticket for his daughter to come to Ireland, to meet her. He said 'oh, good idea', something like that, but the airport, it was closed, First lockdown, everything was closed."
Still from one of Thomas Stofiel's many YouTube videos
Imad didn't know about Thomas's Youtube channel. Maybe by the time Thomas arrived in Ireland, it had ceased being important to him, or didn't fully represent who he was in this new country. For Imad, Thomas had peculiar, sometimes troubling ideas, but he was not always the raging man of years before, who spoke of taking up the sword for Yah and who had declared: "It just burns me up man... Yah has to do something soon cos I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to take this nonsense around here."
His school friend Aaron Cearley had no knowledge of what happened to Thomas. Neither did Marles Lazur. Both learn of his death after being contacted by the Irish Examiner.
"That makes me so sad," she says.
For me it is difficult. After that I left. I go to Cork. I forget Tralee. I don't want to go back there.
"Sometimes I deleted the video," Imad continues, "I don't want to remember him, and the pictures in the phone because what happened, [it] is still here, you know?" He pulls his hand towards his heart.
"The thing I know is, he has a daughter, he always talking to her and sometimes he tell me about her. Sometimes he cry. I ask him Thomas 'why you cry?' After that he say he has a daughter, she 14 - he love her. More than you can imagine."
Picture of Thomas with his daughter. The Irish Examiner is not naming her. TOM STOFIEL FACEBOOK
Before Thomas ever passed away, there were small requiems for him from his daughter. She is not named in this article for privacy reasons, but she is aware of the investigation and welcomes it.
In public social media platforms, she pinpointed how she felt about his absence, including as far back as 2018 in one poignant post. She writes of "the joy and laughter I had with my Dad".
"I miss him and I see him in my dreams. Some may be bad but there are good memories that I relived in my sleep.
"I wake up in joy or in tears but I shall always remember the amazing father that he always was and if you could meet him you would see the love joy caring and understanding in his eyes.
"He had a big heart that would show love for all the years you live just like now how he lives with in my heart and always."
Heartbreakingly, it transpires she didn’t know what had happened to her Dad, While Thomas may have believed he was being monitored or watched, once An Garda Siochana informed US authorities of his death, they did not or could not trace any relatives – including his daughter.
And so Tom Stofiel’s beloved daughter, with whom he had so many adventures, only found out about his death 16 months afterwards, as a result of this investigation. She learned the news of her father’s lonely end from Martin, the trusted family friend, who had been contacted by this newspaper.
Thomas Stofiel's final resting place in Rath Cemetery in Tralee, Co Kerry.
Thomas was laid to rest in a plot at Rath Cemetery on the edge of Tralee town. The simple wooden cross, bearing a plaque, says he died on November 14, 2020. The plot is untouched, bar a wreath.
A minute-long clip sent to the Irish Examiner shows Thomas's coffin being lowered into the ground at his funeral. A small knot of mourners, maybe 10 people, are close to the graveside, as the rain patters down. Imad was not among them.
Thomas Stofiel burial at Rath Cemetery, Tralee, Co. Kerry. VIDEO SUPPLIED
"I don't know where I was," he says. "I was very stressed. I don't know how I can explain to you, I wasn't ok. I want to move to start a new life outside Tralee. After what happened I hate it."
Does Thomas's brother, Don, know what happened? We can't say, mainly because for quite some time, he dropped off the grid. Up until May last year he was posting videos, sometimes live streams, on some of his different Facebook accounts. One involved an apparent stand-off outside a Walmart with someone Don claimed had threatened him. In another, he says he is living between the towns of Frisco and Breckenridge in Colorado, two places synonymous with the Gold Rush.
But then the posts stopped, and attempts by the Irish Examiner to message him or contact him by other means - including contacting authorities and others in different Colorado towns - proved fruitless. And then, in the weeks before we went to print, a new social media account appeared. We tried messaging Don again, but at the time of publication, he had not responded. Maybe he will. If he does, we will certainly be interested in what he has to say.
Youtube clips of his outdoor life show him giving thanks to Yah and outlining how he is taking unleavened bread and observing the Shabbat, all while constructing a cabin up in the Rockies. His dream is simple: build a cabin, and in such a way that he doesn't wake up with a bear inside it.
In an April 2020 clip Don says of his woodsman ways: "Like I said, I've been doing it 37 years. Now, a couple of years back I was with my brother in Superior and building a cabin and almost got it completed, but we got caught." He laughs. "And got fined.
"Now it's not a jailable offence, unless you continue in the area you got in trouble in, if you go back to that area and try to rebuild again. Then it's going to escalate for you to go to jail. But if get caught up here it's basically tonnes of fines, federal fines - this is federal property. I really don't consider it federal property. There's only one God that made the heaven and the earth and that's Yahweh, hallelujah Yah. And He sent his salvation, Jesus, the Messiah, and so He's the one who really owns it as far as I'm concerned. Shalom."
Video from Don Stofiel's Youtube account titled 'My outdoors life building my cabin'.
Live and let live - but that wasn't quite how Thomas lived his life. The intensity and uncompromising nature of his beliefs came at a price: broken relationships, the loss of his daughter, and an already tough life that veered ever more to the ragged margins. Maybe it's worth asking where those unyielding beliefs ended and the paranoia and mania took over. Then there's the worry of his daughter’s other family, missing her for years, or the upside-down existence she experienced, the wild oscillations of being with him.
Maybe a line in the police report, detailing the scene following the March 2017 incident, provides a clue: “[She] appeared to be tired, was not shivering, and was smiling and responsive to general conversation. On several occasions, [she] hugged Thomas' left arm in what appeared to be an attempt to comfort him and keep him calm.” It turns out snowflake, who is reference in the Warm Springs police report, was her cat.
Imad didn't delete all the mementos. "I have some videos with him. Summertime, for memory, me and him." Both Thomas and Imad had bikes and would head off cycling, including to the mountains. But the best spot, and Thomas's favourite, was a beach near Tralee. Imad shows us photos, including a selfie, taken there. It's Cockleshell Beach, or in Irish, Trá an Ruacain.
Cockelshell Beach on the coast. PICTURE ALAMY
"He loved the nature, he loved mountains, and especially this place."
The iteration of Thomas who cycled out here, pedalling along the Atlantic coast, seemed less like the paranoid, addled 'truther' on Youtube. Maybe these were better days. With his scattered, illogical and often scary thoughts and actions, in some ways, he was a man seeking refuge. A would-be prophet in the wilderness, in a rootless, razor's edge America, he lost it all and then pitched up here, in south Kerry. Maybe he felt there was something inside him that he couldn't outrun.
The cross bearing Thomas' name... his final resting place in Rath Cemetery in Tralee.
On our slog up to Tonevane, Gerry referred to the very British concept of 'conquering the mountain'. "You don't conquer a fucking mountain," he said, with goodnatured disdain. "The mountain is not humbled or conquered or diminished at the end of any day."
True enough. Surely the reward on climbing any mountain is what you see from the top. In that beautiful, desolate place, Thomas was a man in acute crisis and before him was a panorama of the sea and the land, with Tralee a grey thumbprint surrounded by greens and browns, all under the rusting eye of the Iron Man. Is Cockleshell beach visible from up there? We asked Gerry, and sure enough, it is.
PART II: A Lonely Mountain
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If you are affected by any of the issues highlighted in this documentary, helplines are available, including samaritans.org, or by calling
'The Lost American' is an Irish Examiner two-part podcast and immersive read, with research and reporting by Noel Baker and Mostafa Darwish.
This podcast was produced and narrated by Noel Baker. Sound recorded by Jim Coughlan , Sound Engineer was JJ Vernon and project editor was Deirdre O'Shaughnessy. The music in this documentary was provided by Casino Versus Japan, with special thanks to Erik Kowalski.
This immersive read was designed by Jim Coughlan, Philip Williams and Tiernan King of the Irish Examiner Visual Media Department.
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