It was supposed to be an ordinary mushroom foraging expedition for two Italian hikers when they decided to venture off the marked trail. This decision would bring them face to face with something far stranger than fungi, and thrust them into one of Europe’s most mysterious and unsolved cases.
1. A Foraging Trip Goes Wrong
It was an ordinary day for two mushroom foragers as they explored the dense woods near Italy’s Maremma Regional park near Tuscany. Frustrated and unable to find their prized fungi, the foragers decided to take a detour off the marked trail and venture deeper into the wild.
The pair were now miles away from civilization as they trekked deeper into the dark woods, through the thick brush and trees, as they searched for edible mushrooms. Little did these mushroom foragers know that their simple escapade into the wilderness, would thrust them into one of Europe’s most mysterious and unsolved cases.
2. “What Was That?”
As the foragers continued deeper into the woodlands, they were soon met with something strange and unexpected. Though they were far away from the nearest towns, the floor seemed to be littered with garbage — food wrappers, plastic, empty bottles and other forms of trash covered the forest floor.
Someone had clearly been living there. As the foragers pressed onward they noticed a tarp and make-shift tent. They also saw jugs of water, and more debris. Steps from the haphazard camp site, the group saw what looked like a ramshackle hut in a forest clearing. Their confusion quickly became fear as they heard a rustling noise. They were not alone.
3. “Let’s Get Out Of Here”
It was too late, the foragers stood frozen in fear as a figure emerged from the wilderness. In the day light, the group could see that it was a man close to middle age. His beard was wild and unkempt, and he looked like he hadn’t bathed or groomed himself for years.
The foragers were stunned at this shaggy stranger’s appearance, and feared for their safety. They immediately turned and ran from the sinister looking forest dweller. Now safely distanced from the strange man, the foragers decided to meet with the Italian park rangers and tell them what they saw.
4. “My Name Is Carlos…”
Questions swirled in the minds of the foragers and park ranger — who was this man, and what was he doing in this part of the woods? The group decided to venture back to where they encountered the man, this time with the assistance of local authorities.
Once again, they met with the disheveled man deep in the woods. The man looked at the group, and spoke, “I am Spanish, my name is Carlos and I have lived here for 20 years,” he told them. According to the foragers, the man seemed agitated and upset that his secluded home had been discovered.
5. Relics From Another Life
The man could see the shocked look on the hikers face after hearing that he, a Spaniard, had been living in the Italian woods for decades. While he declined to be photographed, he did agree to show them documents proving his identity.
He procured two documents, the only relics remaining from his former life. Though caked with dirt and torn, the foragers could still make out what was written. One document was a library card and the other was a school ID, both cards were issued by the University of Seville, in Spain. According to his ID, the man was a medical student named Carlos Sanchez Ortiz de Salazar.
6. “You Found Me…”
The foragers could sense the man’s discomfort at having to reveal his identity. After presenting them with his identification, he reportedly shouted to the foragers “You found me, now I’m leaving, leave me alone.” The foragers were shocked — why would he not want to be “found” or rescued?
With the help of social media, Carlos’ photos were quickly disseminated across the world in an effort to understand what happened to the Spaniard. Shortly after the photos went public, a connection was made. In November of 1996, a man with the same name had disappeared from the Spanish city of Seville. The man who had disappeared, would have been middle aged, just like the stranger in the forest.
7. Vanished Into Thin Air
Armed with new information, the authorities returned to the campsite to further question the man, hoping that they could find a way to connect this stranger with the man who had been missing for decades, but it was too late. All that remained were some camping supplies, threadbare clothing, and the tent. Carlos was gone.
The foragers recalled how the man had angrily shouted that he would have to escape again, after his hiding place had been discovered. Now, they were more curious than ever to understand why a Spaniard was living like a hermit deep in the Italian woods. What, or who, was he escaping from?
8. Clues From His Early Life
Carlos Sanchez Ortiz de Salazar was born in the Spanish city of Bilbao, but spent most of his life in a part of Seville called Cazalla de la Sierra. He was the oldest of his four siblings — one brother and two sisters, and displayed a great interest in academics.
Carlos was the son of a well-liked teacher and council member of Spain’s Andalusian Party. Carlos was often described as being very intelligent, but very lonely. He went on to study medicine at the University of Seville. Carlos was interested in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. So what went wrong?
9. The Dark Secret He Kept Hidden
Shortly after graduating, the young man became a licensed psychiatrist in Spain. As a doctor, Carlos was well-regarded by his patients. The quiet man was often referred to as responsible, intelligent, and was considered to be a “gifted doctor.” But behind his polite exterior, Carlos was complicated.
Despite appearances, Carlos had been suffering from depression. Depression can often affect a person’s way of thinking and their behavior. Carlos, despite having a specialized degree in mental health science, hid his depression from his friends and family. But for how long could he keep it up?
10. Breaking Point
One day in November of 1996, Carlos, the beloved local doctor, disappeared. The 26-year-old, who had always been described as responsible, strangely didn’t show up for work and was nowhere to be found. Carlos was gone, and so was his favorite bike. It soon became clear that the doctor, who had been suffering from severe depression, wanted to escape from his life.
For the next couple of years, Carlos traveled across Europe, sending his family the occasional letter. This changed when Carlos made a strange phone call from a Russian city. According to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Carlos told his parents that he “was fine” and told them not to look for him.
11. Difficult Decisions
By April 13, 1998, Carlos’ parents hadn’t heard from their son following his cryptic phone call from Russia telling them not to look for him. Concerned for his safety, the family decided to get the Spanish authorities involved, who officially declared him a missing person.
Without any leads or communication, his family was forced to make the painful decision to declare Carlos as deceased. According to Spanish law, a missing person can be declared legally dead after ten years. But Carlos’ mother still felt her son might be alive, and requested a reopening of the case in 2009, a year after the ten-year mark.
12. An Ideal Hiding Spot
Little is known about where Carlos Sanchez Ortiz de Salazar traveled to after his phone call from Russia. It is believed that not long after contacting his parents, Carlos traveled to the Tuscan coast of Italy. There, he set up camp in the Maremma forest, near the towns of Scarlino and Cala Violina.
According to Patrizio Biagini, director of a nearby agricultural complex called Bandite, “If you up there [the woods], you become invisible.” He also recalled an event in which rescuers took almost two days of navigating the impenetrable woods to locate mushroom farmers, despite knowing their location. Carlos was very well hidden.
13. Survival and Secrecy
Park rangers sent to Carlos’ campsite were impressed by the man’s drive to survive by using the barest supplies. Rangers found three buckets used to collect rain water, a large tarp, and a makeshift pantry filled with cans of food, which rangers believe he collected from areas outside the park.
They suspect that Carlos was able to travel to the more populated areas under the cover of darkness. The forest is full of natural food sources including wild boars, birds, berries and of course, edible mushrooms. Carlos, being a trained doctor, would have known how to make the most of his surrounding resources in order to survive.
14. What Brought The Foragers Face to Face With Carlos
The mushroom hunters who encountered Carlos were in the pursuit of edible mushrooms in an activity known as foraging. This increasingly popular outdoor hobby has many medical professionals worried — stories from around the world have reported people dying or being poisoned by wild mushrooms.
Another risk of this activity is the threat of getting injured or lost. Fungi foragers often travel deep into remote woods, and even dangerous environments. Going off marked trails, or into unknown areas has led to many injuries or worse. Instead of finding their prized mushrooms, many foragers have found their deaths. In this case, the foragers weren’t sure what, or who, they’d found.
15. Lost In The Woods
While the foragers who found Carlos Sanchez Ortiz de Salazar may have been able to find their way back out of the forest, others haven’t been so lucky. Each year, people around the world go missing in the woods, some never to be seen again.
Luckily, many heavily wooded areas are equipped with trained search and rescue teams who can quickly find hikers and foragers who have gone missing. In 2019, a 75 year old Washington woman disappeared after going foraging alone. The woman, named Jung VanAtta, spent three days in the harsh conditions of the forest before being rescued alive.
16. The Hunt For Carlos Goes International
The foragers who found Carlos knew that something was strange about the Spanish doctor living in the remote Tuscan woods, thousands of miles away from his country. After they uploaded their pictures of Carlos’ documents, word spread to a Spanish organization called SOS Desaparecidos (disappeared).
SOS Desaparecidos, a non-profit dedicated to finding missing people, quickly reached out to a similar organization based in Italy called the Penelope Association. Together the two organizations were able to locate Carlos’ family. The family was in shock, and immediately flew to Italy where they met with Antonio La Scala, the director of the Penelope Association which supports families of missing people.
17. SOS Desaparecidos
Carlos’ disappearance was a top priority for the Spanish nonprofit, SOS Desaparecidos (disappeared). The organization has been actively helping relatives of missing people since 2007. The organization helps disseminate images and information related to the missing, across a variety of platforms.
According to an article in Spanish newspaper, El Pais, it wasn’t until 2013 that the Interior Ministry finally released a number estimating how many people have gone missing. The article reported that about 800 people disappear every year, their police reports unsolved. Carlos’ case had long-ago been put to rest, but now it was reopened, and possibly on the brink of being solved.
18. The Quest For Answers
According to news outlets, Carlos’ parents were both shocked and elated at the news that their son was still alive after all of these years. They told reporters, “When they told us it was him it was as if our son had been reborn.”
His parents were brought deep into the woods to see Carlos’ campsite. While nervous, they were “very excited” to see the proof showing that their son was still alive. Unfortunately Carlos wasn’t there. The man had kept his promise of disappearing again, and hadn’t been seen in the area for 15 days. Still, his parents continued investigating the strange circumstances involving their son’s disappearance and reappearance in the Tuscan woods.
19. A Mother’s Wish
While Carlos’ disappearance emotionally affected many people close to him, his parents had spent decades agonizing over his mysterious disappearance and presumed death. After learning that their son may have voluntarily gone to live off the grid, they said they, “…only want to see him and that they will leave him quiet.”
His sister has publicly thanked the Spanish and Italian organizations for their involvement in the case saying it gave “hope to the families suffering from these tragedies.” Meanwhile, his mother has implored Carlos to meet with them even briefly, “…then if he wants we will never see him again,” she told media outlets.
20. Choosing To Disappear
The case of Dr. Carlos Sánchez Ortiz de Salazar, has raised interest in cases of people who choose to disappear from society. According to an article in the SC Times, while missing children “are almost always considered endangered due to their age and vulnerability, adults of sound mind and body may legally decide to disappear.”
While many people who go missing disappear against their will, there are a number of people who choose to disappear into thin air, so to speak, to start over or escape certain circumstances. But what about the families and loved ones these disappeared people leave behind?
21. Going Off The Grid
While Carlos Sanchez Ortiz de Salazar may have succeeded in living off the grid, others haven’t been as lucky. One of the most famous cases of someone wanting to disappear into the wilderness is the tragic story of the American hiker, Christopher McCandless.
McCandless, like Carlos, was an accomplished student and well-liked by his peers. Similarly, little is known as to why McCandless decided to leave his family and life behind to live in the remote wilds of Alaska. However, unlike Carlos, McCandless’ story ended in tragedy — his starved and decomposing body was found in an abandoned bus, less than half a year after arriving in Alaska.
22. How Does One Disappear?
In the United States, adults who have been reported as missing and cannot be located by the police will be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. The database also records any relevant information or context related to the investigation.
In Europe, finding a missing person is much trickier. Until 2019, when Amber Alert Europe was initiated, there was little communication between European police forces to work together with their counterparts across the continent. This lack of cross-border communication may have helped Carlos escape Spain, but it also helps children and adults easily “disappear” against their will.
23. When the “Dead” Are Really Alive
While the news that their son may be alive, may have brought joy to Carlos’ family, it also raised questions — what happens when someone who is presumed to be dead, suddenly reemerges, alive? It turns out that countries have different laws regarding how long it takes before someone is declared “dead.”
In general, most countries abide by the ‘seven-year’ common law in which a person can be declared dead if they have been missing or haven’t made contact in seven years. Other countries like Spain and Germany have a ten-year law, while it can take up to 20 years to be declared officially dead in Italy.
24. The Spanish Hermit
As word of the Spanish hermit reached local and international media, journalists descended upon the small towns bordering the forest where Carlos was found. Locals began to share how they had seen the man occasionally sifting through the garbage, presumably to add to the “pantry” found at the campsite.
One biker, Marco Tiberi, recalled meeting Carlos in the woods. Tiberi described meeting the former doctor, “He was shy and wasn’t happy that someone had interrupted his loneliness.” Park rangers also shared that they had seen him on occasion but kept their distance as the man seemed like a “quiet person, who did not want to talk.”
25. A Long-Awaited Answer, But Many More Questions
After learning that their son had been discovered, Carlos’ family arrived in Italy only to find out that he had fled once again on bicycle. Carlos’ fascinating case had not only captured the attention of the Italian media, but of the world.
Today, the man declared by the Spanish government as dead, is still alive — presumably stalking the remote woods of another European city. While no news has emerged regarding his whereabouts, his family remains undeterred. Although they have returned to Spain, they have remained in contact with Italian authorities. For Carlos’ family, simply knowing that their son is alive after all these years, gives them the strength to continue searching.
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