RAY BROOK — Australian soldier Capt. Paul J. McKay died of suicide on the Adirondack mountain where his body was found Thursday, Essex County Coroner Francis Whitelaw ruled.
An autopsy on the man was performed at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake by Dr. C. Francis Varga, who ruled the cause of death to be arrhythmia due to hypothermia.
A forest ranger located McKay's body on a shoulder of the Scarface Mountain summit, according to State Police.
The tragic discovery ended nearly two weeks of backcountry search efforts. McKay, 31, had been missing since Dec. 31.
Saranac Lake Police Chief Bruce Nason said in an interview Thursday that McKay did not have any shelter equipment with him on the mountain.
“He was lying on the ground covered with a blanket. He was 400 to 500 feet off the trail.”
Official notice of the Australian Army soldier’s death was made in person by members of the Australian Defense Force, Nason said.
But the police chief has since been in direct contact with McKay’s family.
“The family has been informed of this news, and we have expressed our deep sympathy for their loss,” the chief said in a statement.
“His disappearance ended tragically, and at this time we continue our investigation. This is not the outcome we had hoped for.”
Saranac Lake Police opened an investigation when McKay was reported missing by his father, John McKay, on Jan. 3.
They are still working with the Australian Consular’s office in Washington, D.C., to ascertain why McKay came to the United States without notifying anyone of his travels.
They have not found a particular reason why he chose Saranac Lake.
“We still have not been able to get any confirmed information as to why he was here,” Nason told the Press-Republican on Thursday.
“We are still receiving information from Australia, as some of the members of (McKay’s) military unit that were on break at the same time (as McKay) have been returning.”
On a holiday break, the military unit is due to return to duty on Jan. 20.
State Police are now conducting a death investigation, Nason said.
Numerous local and state police officers, StateDepartment of Environmental Conservation forest rangers and search-and-rescue teams participated in grid searches of forestlands adjoining the railroad tracks in Ray Brook.
“State Police forensic investigators were flown to the mountain by State Police helicopter. No signs of foul play have been determined in the initial investigation,” police said.
“Essex County Coroner Francis Whitelaw authorized the removal of the body, which was then transported to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake by New York State Police Aviation.”
DEC forest rangers organized teams of volunteers over the past week.
DEC spokesman David Winchell chronicled daily efforts that sustained through freezing rain, snow and ice conditions.
During the search Wednesday, Winchell said, “two DEC forest rangers in a helicopter from the State Police Aviation Unit conducted an aerial search of the general search area. No signs of Mr. McKay or other evidence of his presence were seen. A forest ranger also undertook a search assignment south and west of the trail on the summit of Scarface Mountain.”
The ranger found the body off the marked trail at about 11:15 a.m., Winchell said.
Forest rangers had conducted a grid search on Tuesday on the summit of Scarface but found no signs of McKay or evidence of his presence, Winchell said.
“The body was located outside of (Tuesday’s) search area. Forest rangers assisted in the removal of the body from the mountain." Winchell said via email.
“The large black bag that he had been previously seen with was present at the location. All of the materials found at site were turned over to the State Police for their investigation into Mr. McKay's death.”
From Canberra, Australia, McKay had arrived in Saranac Lake shortly before New Year’s Eve and stayed one night at a local hotel.
He sent an email to his father in Australia from the hotel lobby. His correspondence gave all of his personal belongings to his father, indicating he did not plan to return home.
The soldier had breakfast in Saranac Lake on Dec. 31 then proceeded to walk out of the village headed east toward Lake Placid. He was spotted by passers-by on Route 86, and then again walking down the railroad tracks not far from the Federal Correctional Institute in Ray Brook.
The trailhead to Scarface Mountain is not far from Route 86.
McKay had served in Afghanistan. His father had alerted police that the soldier suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.
— Staff Writer Dan Heath contributed to this report.
A WIDE SEARCH NET
Saranac Lake Police Chief Bruce Nason expressed gratitude for assistance from numerous law enforcement agencies, volunteers and search-and-rescue personnel from near and far. The assistance and support was exceptional, he said, naming a roster of local, national and international agencies that helped find Paul J. McKay's body.
Assistance came from forest rangers, along with experienced volunteers, State Police, Lake Placid Village Police, Tupper Lake Village Police, Elmira City Police, Saratoga Springs Police, Clinton County Sheriff's Department, U.S. Border Patrol, Newark Port Authority Police Department, TSA representatives from Newark and Los Angles, Los Angeles Airport Police, Penn. Adams County Sheriff's Dept., National Park Service, Lt. Colonel Rob Crawford representing the Australian Consular's Office and Australian Defense Force, from Washington, D.C., and the Australian Federal Police.
WHERE TO GET HELP
If you’re considering suicide, instead get help by calling the following numbers:
Clinton County Mental Health, 565-4060.
Behavioral Health Services North Adult Clinic, 563-8000 (staffed around the clock).
Essex County Mental Health Clinic, 873-3670; after-hour emergencies, (888) 854-3773.
In northern Franklin County, around the clock, 483-3261; southern Franklin County, 891-5535.
For emotional crises:
The toll-free Clinton County suicide hot line number is (866) 577-3836. Out-of-county calls are accepted but other options are:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-TALK (8255).
The Essex County Mental Health Association Hope Line, (800) 440-8074. That number is staffed 24-7; leave a message and your call will be returned within 10 minutes.
Mary Anne Cox holds a Suicide Survivors Support Group in Plattsburgh the second Wednesday of the month. Register with her ahead of time at 563-1141.