The True Story Behind Mazes & Monsters
The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III
In 1982, a TV movie released on CBS called "Mazes and Monsters." Starring a very young Tom Hanks in his first lead role, the show wasn't particularly noticed (not until later, when Tom Hanks shot to superstardom and everything he'd ever done was resurrected, for better or worse).
What is Mazes & Monsters About?
The film depicted the deterioration of a young man's mind as he suffers from schizophrenia while playing a new fantasy game identical to Dungeons & Dragons: Mazes & Monsters. Obviously, for copyright reasons, they couldn't use the Dungeons & Dragons moniker without getting sued.
Hanks and his college friends play the game in full costume in a nearby cave system. While there, Hanks' life bleeds into the fantasy world. He loses his grip on reality, unable to discern what is true and tangible and what is imaginary and false. Modeled after the book by Rona Jaffe a year prior, both book and film were based on a true life case in 1979 that helped spawn a decade's worth of paranoia collectively known among the media and D&D circles as "The Satanic Panic."
This extremely public event involved the disappearance of 16-year old James Dallas Egbert III at Michigan State University. An already famous private investigator named William Dear was hired by the parents of the college student to find their son after the local police had failed. This actually did happen, and it created a media frenzy across the world. This author was too young to care then, but apparently I lived through the dramatic backlash as a blissfully ignorant eight-year old.
It is important to note that Rona Jaffe's book was not based on the book by investigator William Dear. Her book was based on public information and media sensationalism provided by Dear during the case. He gave many, many news interviews during the investigation. Various intimate details came to light years later when he actually wrote his non-fiction story in 1984, but by then, the damage had been done and the stigma of D&D as a Satanic, dangerous game was already fully accepted by many parents. As a fascinating bit of publicity though, it also shot sales of D&D through the roof.
If at all curious, a low quality copy of the full Mazes & Monsters movie can be watched for free on YouTube below. As you can tell from the tagline: "Four players in a dangerous game...risking their hearts, their minds, and their lives," is absolutely not what Dungeons & Dragons represents, yet this paranoia consumed many parents.
The TV movie focuses on Hanks' character Robbie, along with his college friends Kate, Jay Jay and David. Robbie already has a past with Mazes & Monsters, and his mother sternly insists he must not play it again. He agrees, but there wouldn't be much of a film if he obeyed his mother. He is persuaded by his new friends to join them in the caves, but Robbie increasingly sees horrible monsters that aren't really there. His reality ruptures, and he eventually finds himself in New York City, believing The World Trade Center to be the "The Two Towers" of Tolkien fame. His friends rescue him before Robbie throws himself from the parapets, but in a harsh twist ending, when they visit Robbie in the hospital, he still plays the game in his mind. He is permanently trapped in the Maze with no hope of escape. Fun times indeed.
So, that sets the baseline of how Dungeons & Dragons was largely perceived by the public in the early 80s: a game that will seduce your child and ultimately kill him or her in a maze of death and occultism.
I am amused that a "Dungeon Master" (DM) of D&D was refitted in Jaffe's book to be a "Maze Controller" (MC) like some kind of awkward airline flight controller.
To contrast, let's look at the true story of James Dallas Egbert III in 1979, and how his missing person's case was cracked by private investigator William Dear. The real investigation is far more interesting than the sensationalized version dreamed up by Raffe, and ultimately – despite Raffe's insistence – it has almost nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons.
What Really Happened in 1979?
Dallas Egbert was a 16 year old child prodigy. He boasted a 180 IQ. At age 12 he was repairing computers in 1975 when the concept of "computers" didn't even register with the average American. He graduated high school at thirteen. At age 16 – where this story begins – he had been accepted at MSU for a computer science degree, and thrust into a world for which he was ill prepared.
William Dear began his book with a recap of past cases, to give readers a feel for some of the strange experiences over his career. Aside from the US, jobs took Dear to Hong Kong, England, South Korea, Thailand, East Germany, the Netherlands and China. Some of these cases even inspired episodes of old buddy cop shows like Simon & Simon and Matt Houston. So, even well before Rona Jaffe wrote her book based on Dear's work, his investigations had already influenced television.
On August 29th, William Dear received a call from a man named Dr. Melvin Gross; Dallas Egbert's uncle. His nephew had been missing for about a week at that point, and his parents were understandably distraught. The boy's young age intrigued Dear, and his uncle insisted that Dallas would never run away; he was a precocious child and a certified genius, and not the type to abandon college. Dear talked to the mother Ann Egbert on the phone in Illinois, and she was afraid that her son had committed suicide or been kidnapped.
Dear agreed to take the case. In the fifteen years of his career at that point, nearly half had been missing persons, and he had found them all.
Dear called in his team; he didn't work alone, not on a big case such as this. There was a lot of ground to cover, and they needed to get to Michigan from Texas. Dick Riddle, James Hock and Frank Lambert were his backup men, covering such eclectic past careers as a police officer, helicopter pilot and Green Beret. The men brainstormed the job but couldn't rule out that James Dallas Egbert might have been murdered. At that point they had zero clues, no leads, and open ended possibilities. William Dear personally suspected suicide, and since Dallas Egbert had not been seen in a week, he expected to find his body in a remote open grave.
They brought two cars with them, a private plane, suitcases of surveillance equipment, magnetic tracking devices, recorders, walkie-talkies, and yes, firearms. In the event that James Dallas Egbert had been kidnapped for ransom reasons (although no ransom had been demanded) then he might be in the hands of very unsavory people.
By the time all four investigators arrived piecemeal in Michigan a week later, the story had already been published in the MSU newsletter and quickly spread to local news stations, creating a media frenzy of reporters and cameras.
Dick Riddle, arriving first in East Lansing ahead of Dear, determined that James Dallas Egbert had connections to the gay community, a detail unknown to his parents that the investigators did not share until much later. Egbert's hidden homosexuality – and his age as a minor – came to have major repercussions.
Dear and the other investigators began heavily interviewing the few people that considered Dallas Egbert a "friend." It turned out that he had very few friends, although several young women did have a fondness for him, despite his age and immaturity. By interviewing Peggy Hogan, Dear discovered that Dallas Egbert loved a new game called Dungeons & Dragons that was taking college campuses by storm across the nation. At that time, the concept of a roleplaying game was practically unknown; D&D had only been in existence for roughly five years, as compared to now in 2022 when the game is in its 5th edition and more popular than ever during its 50 year lifespan.
In addition to gay bars, gay social clubs, and Dungeons & Dragons, William Dear found an apparent handwritten suicide note in Dallas's dorm room.
"TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
SHOULD MY BODY BE FOUND, I WISH IT TO BE CREMATED."
A second tantalizing clue was found in the immaculately cleaned dorm room: a pushpin corkboard where all the pushpins had been arranged in a shape that looked roughly like a gun.
Lastly, as others testified, Dallas lived in a notoriously untidy room; someone had rigorously cleaned it after his disappearance. To further complicate matters, they had a handwriting expert look at the suicide note, and it was determined that Dallas Egbert did not write the letter. This caused enormous problems; another party was involved.
In another surprise twist, Lambert did a flyby in their plane and snapped photos of campus. From the air, the corkboard pins looked exactly like the outline of the old abandoned power plant. So, was it a gun or a building? Or both? Who was doing this? And why? Was Dallas playing some kind of game with his advanced intellect? William Dear began to suspect that was possible. Maybe, just maybe, this was a real life game of Dungeons & Dragons, and Egbert wanted to draw the investigators into a complex trap. Maybe he had gone down into those tunnels and lost his mind, trapped in a permanent game of make believe. It was this early hypothesis that Jaffe later latched onto when writing Mazes & Monsters.
So, off the bat, Dear and his team faced an extremely difficult job. Dallas Egbert had been missing for two weeks now, and between the homosexual angle, possible suicide, possible kidnapping, possibly tricking law enforcement and increasing media presence and pressure, they doubled down in their attempt to find him. Dead or alive.
They found it very difficult interviewing students and faculty. Even when some witnesses did talk, they often found later that they withheld vital information. People didn't want to get involved in the case. Dear began digging into this strange Dungeons & Dragons game that Dallas Egbert was obsessed with, and sent one of his men to the local hobby store to buy the material. He returned with the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual. More on that later.
Dear spoke with the MSU psychologist, and in her opinion, many of Dallas Egbert's problems were caused by,"....parental pressure, criticism, academic pressure, and the failure of all persons to realize that, although Dallas Egbert was a genius, he was socially retardant, and in some respects could be considered mentally retarded."
In modern terminology, Dallas would have been considered functionally autistic and not mentally retarded. Here was a brilliant child with social ineptitude, thrust into a college campus with college level stress and courses, and pressure from his mother Ann Egbert to achieve a perfect 4.0 GPA.
The psychologist went on to say: "A young genius is seen as a mascot or a rarity. Very often, he or she becomes some kind of exhibit. We should be aware that there is a person there, not just a phenomenal set of test scores. What kind of setting are we putting such children into?"
MSU had promised James and Ann Egbert that they would protect their young child. Dear found this factually untrue. The campus police and local cops had failed to follow up in any meaningful way, and every minute that passed it became more and more likely that Dallas would be found dead. Or not found at all. Still, as a professional, William Dear acknowledged that law enforcement did not have the manpower or expertise to solve such a difficult case. There were few leads, no suspects, and only vague hints as to what might have happened.
Drugs & Addiction
Early into his investigation, William Dear found that Dallas Egbert not only consumed marijuana and cocaine on a regular basis, but he also cooked drugs by stealing ingredients from the college chemistry labs and made them in his dorm. PCP – also known as angel dust – is a highly addictive and brain-destroying narcotic that Dallas cooked and sold. He was literally a 16-year old Walter White breaking bad. The drug angle added a whole new twist; had Dallas pissed off drug dealers to the point that they wanted to off him? It was entirely possible. His parents were clueless to their son's drug addiction and homosexuality, and Dear did not tell them. Not yet.
The Steam Tunnels
In Rona Jaffe's book Mazes and Monsters (and the subsequent TV show), a system of labyrinthine caves offered college students a visceral setting to carry out their in person D&D games. At MSU, and other college campuses, this actually happened to some extent in very twisty (and horrifying) steam tunnels built as part of the college infrastructures. Why anyone would go there willingly is beyond me, but maybe the appeal of a setting that replicated an actual D&D dungeon overpowered their common sense. Rats, mold, slime, cockroaches, stifling heat and steam jets all contributed to an extremely hazardous and disgusting underground lair. The obviously on-set cave system of Mazes and Monsters was a paradise compared to the real hellhole under MSU. The most glaring catch though is that Michigan State University officially denied that the tunnels could be accessed. They claimed they were sealed, locked, bricked and mortared. Maybe an occasional engineer could enter for maintenance purposes, but that was all.
This caused trouble for William Dear. The more he suspected that Dallas Egbert might have gotten lost in the tunnels while flipping out on angel dust and weed, playing an imaginary game of D&D that Dear barely understood at that point, the more he needed to access those tunnels to look for Dallas, but the university would not authorize it. Dear needed clearance before he could get in there, and bypassing that could result in his arrest for trespassing, although he learned from several covert interviews that students and faculty entered the steam tunnels all the time to play Dungeons & Dragons. The fact that faculty members had brazenly broken the rules – which could lead to their expulsion from the university if discovered – created a brand new barrier to his investigation.
William Dear plays D&D
Chapter 9 of the book was one of my favorites. Dear liked to delve into the minds of his quarry to think how they think; to do what they might have done so that he could retrace their steps. Up until now he had only been hearing about this weird fantasy game called Dungeons & Dragons; now he wanted to find out if it was as dangerous as he suspected.
Dear hired a college student for $50 to run a game in his motel room. He wasn't sure what to expect, as if the student might show up in a Merlin costume, but when he arrived with a friend, they were both normal looking young Mid-Westerners in casual clothing. Dear explained that he had never played but he had read the Player's Handbook, which was good enough. The DM helped him roll up a 3rd level human magic-user that Dear named Tor, while the other player (Louis) brought a human 2nd level fighter/thief named Dan. Dear understood that Dan in the game could be a wonderful ally or a dangerous opponent not to be trusted.
They began in a tavern. Of course they did.
Tor and Dan end up stealing a mysterious box from some locales and get chased by the town guard into a system of tunnels beneath town. Dan and Tor bicker a lot, arguing over the box and its contents and their decisions. Their arguments get so heated (in-character) that Dear has his wizard charm Dan so that he would do as he commands. While down in the tunnels they fight giant rats, carrion crawlers, they get captured by orcs, they nearly get burned to death by a dragon, and ultimately they steal the Ring of Karn for someone named the Avatar. The chapter is twenty pages long and William Dear undoubtably played for many hours that day. He came away with the conclusion that the game was extremely immersive, forcing players to think creatively, dynamically and visually. He wasn't convinced that Dallas Egbert had lost his mind to the fantasy, but it was still a possibility.
That wasn't the only way he tried to follow in Egbert's footsteps. Dear learned that the student also enjoyed "trestling," a very dangerous sport where you either lie on train tracks while the engine roars over you, or you dangle under the tracks on a bridge, trying to hold on for as long as possible or drop into the river below. He and Lambert found the location where Egbert was known to do this, searching for his body in the vicinity. Dear went so far as to lie on the tracks, willing to let the train roll over him, only at the last second he envisioned a triangular cow-prodder mounted on the front of the train that would surely have killed him. He rolled away before the train and the horrified engineer arrived. He and Lambert did however dangle under the tracks for a second train, but ultimately their trestling experiences did not get them any closer to finding Dallas Egbert. He wasn't dead on the tracks, but he was definitely suicidal for even attempting it.
An Admission, an Unexpected Ally, and a Mystery Stalker
Frustrated by their lack of progress, Dear interviewed Dallas's friend Karen Coleman again and discovered that she had cleaned Egbert's room the day of his disappearance! She denied having anything to do with the suicide letter about cremation, and had no idea who might have put it there.
A day or so later, a stranger from New York City showed up wanting to meet Dear: private investigator Don Gillitzer. Gillitzer had heard about the case and became infatuated with Dallas Egbert and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance. Some of Egbert's personality and struggles he saw in himself. More importantly though, Don Gillitzer was a homosexual, and he volunteered to enter gay bars and bath houses where Dear, Lambert, Riddle and Hock would not be welcome; or, to make it explicitly clear, Don would need to engage in sex acts to even get inside and look for Egbert or people who might have known Egbert. Dear wholeheartedly accepted his offer. Later, he learned that the pressure of Gillitzer investigating inside the bath houses truly did rattle certain parties who did not wish to be discovered.
And in yet another unanticipated event, Dear discovered that a mystery woman driving a red Vega had been snooping around his hotel. This bothered Dear, and one night he received a phone call from the desk clerk that the woman was spotted on his second story balcony. Dear exited onto the balcony with gun in hand, only to find the red Vega peeling off into the night, but too dark to get the plate numbers.
Into the Tunnels
Dear entered the tunnels once without permission. He spent six hours there, discovering firsthand how dangerous and depressing the place was. When he finally gained official university approval, he returned with his crew of four and four maintenance engineers, and they paired off in teams of two to systematically sweep the 8.5 miles of steam labyrinths beneath MSU. Dear described part of the descent:
"The heat was clammy now, like a swamp's, and seemed to rise with each tentative step I took. A hundred and fifteen degrees I guessed, and I hadn't gotten to the good part yet. But the worst was the darkness. It was simply absolute. The darkness wrapped itself around me, disorienting me, depriving me of my most valuable sense. I can think of very few phenomena more frightening than total darkness. Not without reason does the Bible speak of it in terms of the ultimate horror, God's rejection.
But being in that tunnel really was similar to the game of Dungeons & Dragons I played in my motel room. For me that game had been exciting enough, because my imagination is a good one. But maybe if I had played the game more, I would have wanted more. These tunnels were practically guaranteed to get your imagination racing, but you didn't need an imagination down here."
The men entered the tunnel system on three different days, canvasing as much of the terrain as possible. They found ample evidence that students often used the tunnels, and Dear was shocked to learn that certain buildings and dorms could be directly accessed. Including the dorm where Dallas Egbert lived; a door in the basement led straight into the maze. The university had wanted to downplay this; the tunnels were a liability and had been used to commit crimes.
One of the most important clues Dear found while in the tunnels was a small ten by twelve foot room extremely difficult for a full grown man to access. On the floor were a milk crate, two half gallons of soured milk, a carton of cheese crackers and a blanket. But why the blanket? The tunnels were mostly blistering hot (aside from a few shocking areas where the temperature plummeted 70 degrees within seconds). Was this the room where Dallas Egbert had come to die? William Dear put himself in the boy's shoes, envisioning him crouched in this room alone, hiding from a world that did not want or need him.
They didn't find Dallas in the steam tunnels either dead or alive. They surmised that he had been there, but his current whereabout were unknown, and the case hit a brick wall. They didn't know what to do next.
A Break in the Case
The gay investigator from New York City – Don Gillitzer – reported to Dear that his inquiries about Egbert in clubs and bath houses led to stonewalling and silence. The gay community was hiding something, and Gillitzer suspected this was above and beyond Dallas depressed and trying to kill himself. He thought that part was true too, but he theorized that Dallas had survived his suicide attempt and been picked up by a "chicken hawk" – an older man who preys on boys. Dear and Gillitzer agreed to keep the pressure up, to increase it actually, and see if someone would crack. The tactic worked.
On September 8th, William Dear received an anonymous phone call.
"Get out of town. Get out of town, out of this state, do it right away."
Dear said absolutely not; I'm not leaving the state until the case is solved. He asked the caller if he knew where Dallas was.
"I can't tell you that right now. You've put a lot of pressure on a lot of people. As a result, there are people that want to talk to you but are afraid. There are too many eyes watching and ears listening."
The caller refused to give any further information about himself or Dallas, insisting that Dear and his team needed to leave as soon as possible before he would convey anything else.
Don Gillitzer returned the next day with even more information. He had found informants who wanted to share what they knew with Dear, but were scared. They knew that Dallas was alive and knew where he was located. Dear suspected that his anonymous caller was undoubtably one of Gillitzer's secret contacts. This was a delicate situation. If they handled it wrong the informants would scatter and hide, and the whole thing would shut down.
The informant called again the next day, agitated. "You're not taking us seriously. The information you need won't be forthcoming as long as you stay in Michigan."
Dear insisted that he couldn't drop the whole case and return to Texas based on an anonymous caller with zero proof. In fact, he played hardball with the caller, threatening police interaction and lessened chances of cutting a deal. He wanted the caller to tell him something the media wouldn't know, something that couldn't be gleaned just from watching the evening news. So, finally, he does.
The caller told Dear about the small ten by twelve room with the empty milk cartons, cheese crackers and blanket. Something that only Dallas Egbert could have told him in such detail, unless a policeman or maintenance engineer knew the details, but Dear found that unlikely. This sounded genuine.
He tells Don Gillitzer to return to New York. Dear gathers his team, tells them they're pulling out, and to pack their gear. They're all headed to home to Dallas where he expects the caller to tell him more. He left a single spy/contact in East Lansing in case something came up there, a D&D player whom Dear had befriended. The contact (named Cliff) called him just a couple days later, after Dear had arrived back in Houston, his voice bubbly with excitement.
"Do you know that mystery lady you told me about? The one who drives the red Vega? Her name is Cindy Hulliberger. She's right here. I think we have the breakthrough we need."
He went on to say that Cindy wanted to help Dallas. She knew where he was, had seen him personally. He ran away because of pressure from his parents, especially his mother, but had suffered a mental breakdown of some sort. Cindy went on to say that Dallas had been moved around several times to hide him, and never stayed too long in one location. All of the subterfuge by Cindy was due to the fact that the people who took Dallas would hurt her if they knew she had come forward. What followed was a complicated rendezvous between Cliff and Cindy Hulliberger, but eventually Dear got her on the phone.
"The people involved with Dallas," she said, with an urgency that would be hard to fake. "There have to be assurances that they won't be prosecuted."
"I can tell you this," Dear said. "My interest, and the interest of the Egberts, is in getting the boy back. Right now no one is thinking of revenge. We want Dallas safe and sound."
"Well, that's why I've come forward. It's reached the point, Mr. Dear, where Dallas will have to be killed or released."
And there it was. Dear's concerns and fears were validated. This was some type of sex and/or drug-related kidnapping of a handicapped minor. This wasn't anything to do with playing Dungeons & Dragons in the steam tunnels under MSU. This was deadly serious.
Dear called his man Jim Hock immediately and told him to get on the first plane to East Lansing in the morning. Something was about to go down fast and he needed an armed professional in the streets, not the kid he'd left behind in a potentially very dangerous situation.
The next day, Jim Hock arrived in East Lansing, Michigan, and followed Cindy and Cliff to their first destination. The plan was to meet someone who knew someone else who knew where Dallas was being kept. The perpetrators were very, very careful to keep their identities hidden. William Dear hated not being on the ground in Michigan as this all unfolded, but he had to be ready for the phone call from the guy who had urged him to leave East Lansing in the first place.
Cindy, Cliff and Jim Hock met at the apartment of a man named Archibald Horn. Hock was able to determine that Horn was gay and spent a lot of time in the gay section of Lansing. At the time of their meeting, an eleven year-old boy was in the apartment. Horn didn't tell them much, and ultimately kicked them out, but soon afterward a Lansing policeman showed up and spent thirty minutes in the apartment. For William Dear, this was both a good and bad thing. When a suspect is distraught they often call associates as soon as possible, and a good investigator will be watching. On the other hand, Archibald Horn told law enforcement that Dear's team was back in East Lansing. Still, it had an unexpected side effect the next day. William Dear received a phone call at his Houston home, from a voice he had hoped to hear for a very long time.
"This is Dallas."
Trip to a Backwater Oil Town
His voice sounded simply pathetic, like that of a frightened, injured animal filled with terror and doubt and pleading to be cuddled and squeezed and made safe. My heart wanted to speed across those telephone lines to be with him.
But Dallas wasn't alone. An adult male stood nearby, coaching the conversation. Dear told Dallas how many thousands of people wanted to see him return home alive and well. Dallas had more friends than he realized, and Dear even invited him to stay at his home in Texas. Dallas Egbert could hardly believe that so many people had expressed their concern for his welfare. Dallas talked with Dear a short while, then hung up to call his parents. He called Dear back hours later, still debating if he should tell the investigator his location. He finally did, but Dear told no one the name of the town until he actually wrote the book in 1984: Dallas was in Morgan City, Louisiana, a far cry from his starting point in Michigan. How the hell he wound up on the ass end of Louisiana near the Gulf of Mexico, Dear had no clue, but he promised Dallas he was coming to get him.
Dear was given explicit instructions as to which street and building to enter, and what time. He took Riddle and Lambert with him as backup, as they didn't know what kind of situation they were getting themselves into. That very evening, all three men landed at Patterson Airfield, ten miles from Morgan City, and drove rental cars the rest of the way. Dear described Morgan City as, "...abysmal, seedy, rundown, disreputable; it was an oil town filled with transients. I imagined that the police had long ago stopped trying to control the casual, ubiquitous violence that I seemed to sense everywhere." Winos, bouncers, prostitutes and other unsavory types dotted the streets.
Dear and Lambert entered a dark, decrepit building together at the address Dallas had given them. He knocked at an interior door, heard nothing, and feared that this had all been a wild goose chase; yet one more infuriating hoax. He turned the knob and stepped in, Lambert on his heels, and saw Dallas Egbert immediately.
William Dear was taken aback by how small Dallas was. Although 16, he reminded Dear more of a 7 year old. He sat at the edge of a cot, head bowed, hands clasped before him, crying uncontrollably. Dear put his arm around the boy and gently helped him up. He had no other belongings other than what he wore, which was oddly the same outfit he had last been seen wearing the day he disappeared.
They had just gotten to the front door and stepped to the sidewalk when four grizzled men appeared. "You movin' that boy? You ain't moving that boy nowhere."
"Come any closer," Dear had said, "and I'll take your head off." He drew his .38 snub nose pistol and held it toward the ground. Dear suspected they were transients who worked the oil fields, like lawless cowboys from earlier days, looking for trouble. His gun deterred them, and Lambert, Dear, Dallas and Riddle managed to escape and drive away. They loaded into a waiting Lear jet and Dear called Dallas's favorite uncle in Texas – Dr. Melvin Gross – the man who had originally contacted Dear. He was bringing Dallas straight to a hospital in Texas and wanted Dr. Gross to meet him there, to which he immediately agreed. He then called the Egberts and told them the good news. He'd found Dallas.
Aftermath and Repercussions
When Dear returned home after dropping Dallas off at the hospital with his uncle, he was greeted by a barrage of reporters, cameras and lights, to the tune of three hundred people and two helicopters on his property. Dear ended up giving a live press conference right then and there, and shared that James Dallas Egbert was alive and well physically, but emotionally, he had suffered through a terrible ordeal. He was asked about Dungeons & Dragons, the steam tunnels, the parents' reaction, and whether or not Dallas would be returning to Michigan State University (he did not). Dear answered their questions as best he could, but since he had not interviewed Dallas yet, he still didn't have all the answers. What had happened the day Dallas vanished, and how did he end up in Louisiana a month later?
Early the next day, Jim and Anna Egbert flew into the Dallas-Fort Worth airport where William Dear picked them up and drove them to Dr. Gross's home in Irving. William Dear went in to talk to Dallas first, but the boy had a strange request. Dear reassured him that he was his friend, and could trust him with anything he needed to say.
"It's Mom. She will want to know everything that happened since I disappeared. Do I have to tell her? "
Dear told him no, he did not have to tell his mother anything he didn't want to. He realized that the hard drugs and homosexual aspects of his life were very difficult to talk about, and he didn't want his parents to know. Dallas Egbert, in fact, was very intimidated by his mother. He loved her, and she loved him, but she was one of the chief causes of his mental breakdown. She urged him to do better no matter what, and the pressure to succeed as a child genius pushed him over the edge. Still, moments later they had a joyful family reunion of crying and hugs and laughter, and for a short while, William Dear believed that everything would work out.
Two days later, after even more hectic press conferences, William Dear picked Dallas up at his uncle's house and drove him to his own house to stay a while, just as he had promised. As a friend would do. He needed to ask Dallas some very important questions that the boy had not answered yet. So, over burgers and fries at a local diner, Dallas Egbert finally told William Dear what had happened.
The day he disappeared, he had indeed gone into the steam tunnels to commit suicide. He had few friends in the world, and had been rejected by nearly everyone. Pressure from his parents – especially his mother – was overwhelming, and the release of death was preferable to life. He wanted to disappear and not be found, but he wrote the cremation suicide note as a backup plan. He wrote it with his left hand though, and that is why the handwriting experts thought someone else had written it! Dear and other members of law enforcement had wasted an exorbitant amount of time thinking that someone else was involved in his death.
The corkboard was also meant as a backup to find his body. The "gun" was indeed the powerplant, and periphery pushpins were notable areas, such as the small room where he took his blanket and milk cartons.
Dallas told William Dear that he had played Dungeons & Dragons hundreds of times in the steam tunnels. It was escapism. It was fun. When he played a character he became that character, and for a while, he wasn't the hated James Dallas Egbert. Dear made an interesting observation:
"It occurred to me that Dallas had been, in a way, a dungeon master. By disappearing, leaving clues, and setting up alternative outcomes for his adventure, he had created a game in which the other adventurers – me and my men, his parents, anyone else who was involved – never knew what to expect. In Dallas's ultimate game of Dungeons & Dragons, his only real opponent had been death."
Dallas told Dear that he had brought Quaaludes down to the alcove; more than enough to kill him. He'd done the research. He swallowed them all with milk from the container and waited to die. Some twenty-fours later he woke up vomiting, in agonizing abdominal pain. He somehow managed to crawl out of the tunnels in the dead of night and reached a friend's house over a mile away, but wasn't seen by anyone. The friend's identity was not revealed, and Dallas insisted that no one would be identified, and no one at all would be blamed for what happened. This "friend" was a gay man in his early 20's that Dallas had previously met at a bar. The man took care of Dallas and nursed him back to health. No sex was involved at first, but later it happened, consensually. Dallas insisted again and again that no charges were to be brought against anyone.
While at the house for a week or two he did a lot of drugs and was stoned the whole time. Eventually his friend got spooked – probably by an investigator – and told Dallas he needed to leave. He ended up going to three different houses in East Lansing, all with different gay men and guests, doing drugs both alone and with others. He was so out of touch and high that he had no idea Lansing was filled with people looking for him.
He remained at the third house for two days, but by then his "captors" were very nervous. The investigation was getting too close and might discover they had committed drug and sex crimes with a minor. They gave him some money and a phone number and put him on a train to New Orleans, promising he would be in serious trouble if he didn't agree. They wanted Dallas as far away from them as possible. While there, miserable and alone and suffering withdrawal symptoms, he decided to kill himself a second time with cyanide he'd made. He drank it, but woke up again the next day deathly sick but alive.
Dallas actually got a job in the oil fields of Morgan City for four days. He met a man from New York and they got to be friends, and that was the man who had been coaching Dallas on the phone. Again, no name or identities were ever revealed. Eventually, his contacts in East Lansing and his friend in Morgan City urged Dallas to call Dear. Dear could help him, but Dallas had to promise to never reveal anyone's name. He didn't.
Dallas eventually returned home with his parents after staying several weeks in Texas. Things were better for a while, but as Dallas suspected, his relationship with his mother soon deteriorated. A year passed, and William Dear stayed in touch with his friend almost daily, and even visited time to time. Dallas enrolled at Wright University in a computer science program. Still, between pressure in school and pressure from mother, his mood began to downward spiral.
In July of 1980, Dallas moved from home into a one-bedroom apartment. He told Dear that this was a last resort, and that his home life was unbearable. William Dear talked with him once more in August, and he seemed excited about his new apartment. However, on August 11th, Dallas Egbert put a .25 caliber pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. His third attempt at suicide succeeded.
It was a sad ending to a sad story about a very disturbed but brilliant young man. I have written this article to expressly show the differences between the Mazes & Monsters book and TV show, and the true story that actually spawned them. Although Dungeons & Dragons was blamed for his death and suicide, Dear's book proves this untrue. As I prefaced earlier, the true story is far more intriguing and complex than the fabricated one. If interested, I highly encourage reading William Dear's book. There are far more details than I could include, and his breezy style of writing lends itself to a quick binge read.
Tom Hanks made it to the end of his story alive. Dallas Egbert did not, but his story remains one that should be remembered.
About the author
I am a writer, artist and poet from North Carolina. I recently self published a children's/YA book called Harold and the Dreadful Dreams. You can learn more about it at my blog https://jmhauser.com, as well as other projects.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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