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The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III (Part I)

By Shaun Hately

A full and detailed report, serialised in two parts


In Brief

On August 15th 1979, James Dallas Egbert III (known as Dallas Egbert) disappeared from Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. Dallas was a 16 year old child prodigy. He was an expert on computers (he had been called in to repair computers for the United States Air Force when he was 12), a Science Fiction and Fantasy fan, and a player of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. On August 22nd a Texas Private Investigator, Mr William C Dear was called in by Dallas' family in an effort to find the boy. Dallas' uncle, Dr Melvin Gross, knew Mr Dear socially through his sister, who worked for Mr Dear as a secretary. Mr Dear is a celebrated and highly successful Private Investigator, and after speaking to Dallas' parents agreed to take the case. During his investigation he suggested that Dallas may have been involved in some sort of Dungeons & Dragons game that had gone horribly wrong. This theory was widely reported in the press. In 1982 a movie called Mazes & Monsters' which bore a superficial resemblance to the case debuted in Cinemas. Many people with vague memories of the Dallas Egbert case assumed the movie was a true story rather than a work of fiction. The media's reports, coupled with this misconception, and the fact that William Dear was prevented from clarifying the case, helped to create the common misconception that Role Playing Games (RPGs) in general, and Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in particular were in some way dangerous. In 1984, William Dear wrote a book entitled The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in which he presented the facts of the case as he saw them. This book, which forms the basis of my article, was largely ignored by the media and critics of the game.


At times in this article I will refer to theories involving possible homosexual child abuse of Dallas. I wish to make clear that I am in no way suggesting that gay men are any more likely to molest children than heterosexual men, nor that any form of sexuality is more or less valid than any other. References to child molestation amongst the gay community refers only to the actual events in question. This information is presented for the sake of completeness and I apologise to anyone who is offended by it.

Why Have I Written This Article?

The reason is simple. Very few people are aware of the facts behind this case. That is true of both the games critics and its supporters. There are a lot of rumours circulating, most of which can be described only as urban myths. The Dallas Egbert case is only one of the cases which form the basis for the games detractors, but it is the one I am most familiar with. It is also one of the most famous.

My qualifications to write this article are also simple. The first is just that I am doing it. Anyone could do likewise. But there are some reasons why I am writing it. I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons, its derivatives, and other roleplaying games, for over a decade and a half now. I also understand, to an extent, some of the problems that Dallas faced. There are some similarities between his life and my own. The primary one is that I too was a profoundly gifted child and adolescent who suffered many of the same pressures that Dallas was forced to endure, and so I believe I have some knowledge and insight into Dallas that others may not share.

The Facts In This Case

Dallas Egbert, aged 16 years, disappeared from his dorm (Case Hall) at Michigan State University on the 15th August 1979, after having had lunch with Karen Coleman, one of his few friends. Despite his age, his parents were not notified of his disappearance until the 20th of August. On the 22nd August Mr William Dear was called in by Dallas' uncle, Dr Melvin Gross, and his parents, James and Anna Egbert. Mr Dear immediately dispatched three of his associates to East Lansing, arriving there himself a week later.

Dallas was a D&D player. That is not in dispute. It is also not in dispute that students at Michigan State University (MSU) played games including a 'live action form' of D&D in steam tunnels under the University buildings. It should be pointed out that D&D is not meant to be played in this way, and in fact, the students were not playing D&D. That is what they called what they did, and there may well have been elements of D&D in this live action game. But D&D is designed to be played sitting down around a table. It is not designed to be acted out.

Versions of RPGs called LARP or LRP (Live Action Role Playing or Live Role Playing) do exist. They are not D&D however. D&D is one example of a roleplaying game, LARPs are another. To refer to LARPs as Dungeons & Dragons is akin to referring to American Football as Soccer or as Rugby. They are similar. They share the same derivations and similar principles. But they are separate entities.

The facts of Dallas' roleplaying were concentrated on by the media, partly due to the investigative efforts of William Dear. There are other facts to be considered, however, which got nowhere near as much coverage.

Dallas was either gay or bisexual. He was also a drug user who used his knowledge of chemistry to manufacture drugs. These facts are of far more relevance in discussing Dallas than the fact he played D&D.

Dallas also suffered from severe depression caused or exacerbated by, in the opinion of an MSU psychologist, "parental pressure, criticism, academic pressure, and the failure of all persons to realise that, although Dallas Egbert was a genius, he was socially retardant, and in some respects could be considered mentally retarded." According to Dr Louise Sause, an MSU Professor who specialised in child psychology, the case was an example of "the very costly price asked of some children . . . Their own image becomes one so perfect that they dare not fail to live up to it . . . At the same time, fear of success can become just as great as, or greater than, the fear of failure. It's the constant demand to be star."

As an example of this, three days before he disappeared Dallas spoke to his mother, and told her how happy he was to have earned a 3.5 for a computer science course. She told him that he should have got a 4.0 (the highest grade possible).

The immediate investigation into Dallas' disappearance uncovered several things in his room. These included a note, suggesting suicide, a handwriting analysis of which said that it had not been written by Dallas. There was also a collection of poems, part of one (called 'Final Destination') I will quote below as it may give some insight into the character and mindset of Dallas at the time of his disappearance.

Probably a town up
ahead, maybe a farm.
Probably could make it,
wouldn't be too hard.
If I can find a reason,
then I'll leave the car.
At the moment, I just don't know
where the reasons are.
Whenever I decide there's
a place I'd like to be,
soon as I can find there's
a goal to be achieved,
come the time I'm shown that
there's something left for me,
then I'll go, but until then,
I think I'd rather sleep."

When William Dear was called in, he learned all of this. He also found a notice board in Dallas room which had a strange arrangement of drawing pins placed into it. Mr Dear was convinced that these pins were some sort of message, perhaps a clue to where Dallas was, or what his intentions had been. Over the course of his investigation he considered several possibilities.

  1. The first which gained the most coverage was that the pins were in the shape of a map, possibly of the tunnels under MSU. This was considered possible based on the most prominent part of the design which was L-shaped and bore a distinct resemblance to the old power plant at the school as seen from overhead.
  2. The shaped design was also considered to possibly represent a gun, and perhaps an indication of suicide. There were also thirty eight pins, which was considered to possibly represent the calibre of a gun.
  3. When it emerged that Dallas used to 'trestle' (meaning that he would play chicken with trains on an old trestle bridge near the University) the possibility was considered that the L-shape represented a train and the scattered arrangement of the other pins represented the path of a body hit by a train.
  4. An expert on Braille postulated that the pins could represent a Braille message. He worked out a possible translation as being "And for it you braved."

Of these four theories, the first three turned out to have some validity. The design was a map. Dallas had attempted to mark all the rooms in the steam tunnels underneath the University, as close to scale as he could manage. The only one he had not marked was the room he intended to hide in. The dichotomy of the L-shape representing a train and a gun had also occurred to him. The message in Braille, however, was a complete coincidence - or rather the expert had tried to find a message that wasn't there and had managed to come up with something, in a similar way to seeing pictures in clouds if you look for them.

William Dear is a somewhat unorthodox detective. He is, however, a very successful one. At the time of writing his book, he says that he had never failed to locate a missing person. He investigates all possibilities. After reviewing the evidence he considered a number of possibilities.

  1. That Dallas had committed suicide.
  2. That Dallas had gone into the steam tunnels and been injured or killed.
  3. That Dallas was playing a game. He had disappeared for the sole purpose of making people look for him.
  4. That Dallas had overdosed on drugs.
  5. That Dallas was being held by a gay man or a group of gay men.
  6. That Dallas was being held by people who were using his knowledge of how to make drugs.
  7. That Dallas had been kidnapped by some sort of intelligence group to make use of his special talents and intelligence.
  8. That Dallas had been murdered.
  9. That Dallas had come to identify so much with his D&D character that he believed he was his character.
  10. That Dallas had been sent on some sort of a mission by a D&D Dungeon Master in order to prove that he was worthy to play in an advanced game.
  11. That Dallas had been killed or injured while engaging in some sort of dangerous activity - perhaps trestling.

Dear considered some of these theories less likely than others. He seems to have favoured the theories of suicide, being held hostage, murdered, injured in the tunnels, or on some sort of elaborate game. First, I will deal with the suggestions that have something to do with D&D. These are theories 3, 9 and 10.

Theory 3 indicates that Dallas was playing some sort of game with the police and detectives looking for him. Dear did consider this possible at first. He even thought that it might be an effort to run the ultimate dungeon. He came to discard this theory as the case dragged on as it went on too long to be a game.

Theory 9 is the most dangerous one. It presents a common misconception held by many people, and one chiefly used by the anti-D&D movements. The simple fact is that becoming this attached to a alter-ego or a persona is a sign of mental disturbance. If a person is at the stage that they cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, they have a medical problem. Such a problem could not have anything to do with D&D in the first instance.

If a person is a roleplayer, it is possible that they could then become this attached to a character. Likewise, if a person is a fan of a television show, they can become attached to a character in the show, and take on that character as the basis for their own personality. In such cases, the idea of blaming television is ludicrous, and likewise in RPGs. The cause is internal to the person, and a game could not cause this type of medical condition.

I should also point out that while I accept the possibility of a person becoming this attached to a character, my research has failed to find any documented case where this has occurred. Rona Jaffe's novel Mazes & Monsters was based on a fictional case, and this has led many people to believe that that book (and the subsequent movie) was a true depiction of the Dallas Egbert case. This perpetuates this theory, despite the fact that no evidence supports it.

As to Theory 10, while it is possible for a sadistic and cruel person to send a 16 year old boy on such a dangerous real-life mission, in order to prove their worth, such actions have more basis in gang cultures than in D&D. Any such action has nothing to do with D&D at all, and again there is no evidence of this ever having occurred anywhere.

Besides theory 3, the theories that Mr Dear felt were most likely were, as I have said; suicide, murder, being held hostage, or being injured in the tunnels.

He believed suicide was a distinct possibility because of the suicide note (which he felt to be genuine despite the handwriting analysis - he was correct), the depression that was evident from Dallas' poetry and from conversations with those who knew him. However he based his investigation on the assumption that Dallas was alive, as that gave him the best chance to find the boy safely.

He considered murder, possibly by drug types, or child molesters. Again, however, he concentrated primarily on the theories that allowed a hope that Dallas would be recovered alive.

Mr Dear did consider the theories that Dallas was being held hostage. He considered it possible that Dallas was being held by what is called a 'chicken hawk': a gay man who uses children for his own sexual purposes. Dear attempted to investigate this and when a gay Private Investigator from New York, Don Gillitzer offered his services to assist in the investigation, Dear accepted as Mr Gillitzer had a better chance in that area. Mr Gillitzer's job was to ask questions in the gay community, and if there was a chance anyone was holding Dallas to put pressure on them to release him. The theory that he was being held by drug dealers, for his skills was also investigated.

As to Dallas lying injured in the steam tunnels, Michigan State University refused to accept this possibility. They claimed it was impossible for the tunnels to be entered despite evidence to the contrary. Eventually Mr Dear managed to get permission to search the tunnels. He found them to be extremely dangerous and concluded that if Dallas had gone down there, he was not still down there. He found evidence that Dallas had been down there - a blanket, a carton of sour milk, and some cheese and crackers in a small room.

Mr Dear was not adverse to using the media to help him, and the Dallas Egbert case was world news. He was faced with a dilemma however. He wanted to keep the drug and sex theories out of the papers for several reasons. The first one was that he didn't want any people holding Dallas to panic and kill him, because they thought the law was closing in. He also wanted to protect Dallas, and Dr and Mrs Egbert as much as possible. For these reasons, he pushed a version of the Dungeons & Dragons theory.

In fairness to Mr Dear, his sole interest was the safety of a child. Everything else was secondary, and rightly so. But his decision had many unfortunate side effects. The media picked up on this story and sensationalised it, and this led to much damage to the image of the roleplaying industry. More on this, and the facts on what actually happened to Dallas will be included in the second half of this report.


Dear, William C. The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, London, 1991.

Kask, T.J. "Dragon Rumblings". The Dragon. Vol IV, No 4. October 1979.

Webb, James T et al. Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers. Ohio Psychology Press, Ohio, 1982.

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