What happened to Irish journalist Jonathan Spollen?

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NEW DELHI – Known as the “Yoga Capital of the World,” Rishikesh is a small holy city in northern India with roughly 100,000 people. It attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually. Most travelers seek spiritual connections through meditation and yoga and are desperate for a break from everyday life.

According to Trip Savvy, “Rishikesh is considered sacred, and it’s believed that meditation there leads to salvation. Rishikesh is situated on the banks of the Ganges River, surrounded by hills on three sides, not far from Haridwar in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas.”

Rishikesh hosts the International Yoga Festival yearly. The Beatles visited the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi here in 1968 to learn transcendental meditation. They also wrote dozens of songs there, later featured on The White Album in 1968 and Abbey Road in 1969.

While Rishikesh is a beautiful, picturesque place to find peace, it was here where a young Irish journalist vanished without a trace.

Jonathan Spollen, 28, grew up in Ranelagh, Dublin, Ireland, with his mother, Lynda Spollen. His father, David Green, had separated from his mother when Spollen was an infant. 

Spollen earned a politics degree in Dublin and then pursued a Master’s Degree in Middle Eastern studies in London. Spollen subsequently worked in Abu Dhabi as an assistant foreign editor at the National daily newspaper. He also worked in Cairo and Hong Kong. 

Spollen was a compassionate person, always looking out for others. For example, a Filipina maid witnessed his kindness years later at a Beirut airport. Spollen, then in his 20s, saw officials scolding the woman for bringing too much luggage. The BBC reported that he paid the woman’s $300 fine right there.

Spollen left his copy editor job in Hong Kong in 2011 and traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he was robbed in October. He then traveled to India on a three-month visa set to expire on Feb. 21, 2012, to contemplate what to do next career-wise.

“This was very much a time for him to decide whether he was going to continue in print journalism or go into documentaries,” his mother told Roland Hughes of the BBC. “Time to reassess things and make a plan.”

Spollen arrived in Delhi in November 2011 and Rishikesh in early December 2011. He spent the next couple of months traveling and trekking.

While some say he came for a spiritual journey like thousands before him, his family does not believe that to be the case. He had not expressed any interest in that to his mother.

Spollen last spoke with his mother on the phone at 3:44 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2012, for about six minutes. Spollen said he had changed his mind about traveling to Delhi. He decided to stay in Rishikesh for a short trek without a guide in a forested area near the city. He promised to text whenever possible, but cell service would be unreliable.

His mother said nothing about the conversation seemed unusual, and Spollen himself sounded lighthearted. He was looking forward to returning to Dublin in March 2012.

About 35 minutes later, Lynda Spollen sent her son a text:

“Have a wonderful experience and don’t worry as we are 100% behind you, so go for it. Love you so much. Send me an ‘I’m ok’ text, as often as possible, some might get thru.” 

Her son never responded. When Spollen failed to contact his mother within two and a half weeks, she knew something was wrong and reported him missing on Feb. 27, 2012. 

Later, Spollen’s family members, including his father, David Green, his uncle, and cousins, traveled to India to search for him. A few of his friends also went.

On March 11, 2012, a search team led by Detective Kundan Negi found some of Spollen’s belongings in a woodland clearing within walking distance from a small waterfall near Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge. 

Jonathan Spollen: photo of Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge.
Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge/Tylersundance, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Among the belongings was a bag that appeared untouched. It is believed the bag was not Spollen’s main one he carried and contained money, his passport, and spiritual papers. Spollen’s sleeping bag was neatly laid out with a book on top. The belongings were wet and might have been there for several days.

A few days later, police found crumpled cards and papers, including Spollen’s health card and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Travel Pass, on a narrow trail near the bags.

It appeared to the police that the discarded items pointed to Spollen “getting rid of his possessions and renouncing his identity to follow a new path,” Hughes reported.

Inside Spollen’s bag, police also discovered an X-ray from December 2011 showing he had suffered kidney stones, but they likely passed before he disappeared. Spollen had not mentioned the kidney stones to his mother.  

It was also believed that Spollen had fallen at some point because he was seen limping. He had lost weight and appeared frail to those who had seen him a few weeks before.

The local police considered the possibility that Spollen had drowned as water levels of the Ganges River were high. Spollen’s family spent hours scrolling through a website that gathered pictures of bodies fetched from the river, but none were of Spollen.

Posters with Spollen’s picture and information were plastered across Rishikesh and the surrounding area. His disappearance drew attention from an online forum for foreign travelers, IndiaMike.com, after Green posted a thread for help finding his son. Green left contact information for himself and Lynda Spollen.

The district police chief, Neeru Garg, told The Irish Times she believes Spollen is alive and may be at one of the region’s numerous ashrams. “We are searching scores of ashrams in Rishikesh and also co-ordinating with police from the neighbouring district of Haridwar to expand our reach to ashrams there too,” she says. “He may have wanted to ‘disappear’, and to do so in the ashrams is easy.”

Mary Fitzgerald, The Irish Times, April 28, 2012

According to India Today, “Spollen was last sighted with a woman named Lauren, who met him at the German Bakery in Rishikesh.” The sighting was posted on IndiaMike and occurred around mid-February, two weeks after the phone call with his mother. Spollen and Lauren discussed a book they were both reading, “Shataram,” and how the media affects society. Spollen told Lauren he was “a writer” and “coming from somewhere he didn’t like,” Lynda Spollen told Fitzgerald.

The sighting suggests Spollen was alive for at least two weeks after he spoke with his mother. However, it is possible “Lauren” lied to throw people off track, or someone made up the whole thing.

Babu, who claimed to be a dentist from India but living in Australia, sent the Spollen family an email, saying he met Spollen on a bus in Chennai, 1500 miles south of Rishikesh, on the Bay of Bengal. Babu said Spollen was traveling to Mamallapuram, a coastal town near Chennai, via a connecting bus from Chengalpet. Spollen allegedly said he was on a spiritual journey, and the two men chatted for several hours while traveling together.

According to Lynda Spollen’s January 2013 post on the forum, Babu said Spollen appeared “very thin, with long hair, in slightly shabby saffron clothing and carrying a small brown bag on his shoulder.”

Babu knew much about Spollen, and his message was the most promising lead. But Spollen’s cousin, Liz McCauley, decided to do an internet search to see if Babu was legit.  

“We Googled his name and an email address that he had, and we didn’t find anything,” McCauley said. But McCauley remembered something and returned to the website another missing man’s parents set up.

Ryan Chambers, 21, disappeared from Rishikesh on Aug. 24, 2005, two months after he arrived in India. The night before, Chambers stayed in an ashram and was restless all night. He walked out of the building in the morning and vanished into thin air, leaving all his belongings behind. 

Chambers originated from South Australia, and his family established a website to find him. 

McCauley: “We went through the guestbook there, and found a message from ‘Babu’, with the same email address saying, ‘I met your son’ – and we noticed it was basically the same story.”

Babu’s story was a hoax and a huge letdown to the Spollen family. 

The investigation into Spollen’s disappearance then fizzled. Negi led a second major search in 2014, but he is no longer on the case. Despite that, he still distributes missing posters across the city, and he and his wife keep in contact with Lynda Spollen.

“Initially, I gave my own phone number on the poster, and my phone wouldn’t stop ringing,” Negi told BBC. “It was like swinging between hope and hopelessness every time my phone rang. People would spot any foreigner who resembled Jonathan, and they would call me.

“I know hope is fading with time, but I will not give up. I strongly feel that he is alive, and I will continue to believe in it until somebody tells me otherwise.”

Lynda Spollen hopes her son is still alive and maybe has amnesia and someone helped him. 

“But I just know that if he could contact me, he would. That’s something I have never doubted, not for a minute.”

Over the last 30 years, numerous foreigners have traveled to India and died or disappeared.

When prodded by foreign journalists, the locals hush up and refuse to talk. The reason is that, for many years, hash has been a hot commodity among the locals, selling it to tourists for a hefty profit. Tourists also carry desirable items such as cash and cameras that the locals can sell for money, so robbery is a risk here.

It is believed that some locals have gone as far as disposing of bodies to cover their tracks and protect their drug business. Many disappearances have occurred near Rishikesh in Parvati Valley, or India’s “Bermuda Triangle.”

Despite knowing others have vanished or died before them, travelers still flock to Rishikesh and other areas in India to seek peace, practice meditation and yoga or go on a spiritual journey. 

Some foreigners go there to voluntarily disappear and leave their old life behind for a more spartan, peaceful existence where they do not have to pay bills or deal with everyday life. 

Did Spollen disappear by choice, or did something more sinister happen to him?

His family has set up a Facebook page to assist in finding him.

True Crime Diva’s Thoughts

I don’t know why I torture myself by writing about bad things that happen abroad. These stories make me want to stay in the U.S. However, even if I did travel, I have no desire whatsoever to see India. There are many more desirable places in Asia to visit, in my opinion.

I was surprised to discover only a few articles on Jonathan’s disappearance. My primary source was one covered by the BBC. I tried newspapers.com but found nothing. It’s strange, considering Jonathan disappeared in 2012.

I don’t believe Jonathan voluntarily disappeared. He would have contacted Lynda at some point and never has to date.

It’s possible that Indian locals killed him for cash or items he carried; robbery could be a motive. That might explain his discarded belongings found. I don’t think he went on a spiritual journey and never contacted his family again. The items should have been a red flag to the police, but I’m not sure the Rishikesh police could be trusted anyway.

I think something happened to Jonathan shortly after he got off the phone with his mother because she texted him 35 minutes later, and he never responded.

I’m cautious about “Lauren,” mainly because she posted the sighting on the forum. Did she meet with the Spollen family? Take pictures of Jonathan?

There is also the possibility that he started on the trek and fell or became ill and died. Cell service was not good, so he would not have been able to call for help.

I believe people in India and elsewhere know what happened to Jonathan. I hope they will talk one day, for his family’s sake.

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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