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The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III (Part II)

By Shaun Hately

A full and detailed report, serialised in two parts


Last issue, I looked at the facts behind Dallas' disappearance and the subsequent investigation. I conclude by examining the effects of the investigation, and explain what really happened to Dallas.


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.

Roleplaying As A Scapegoat

William Dear wanted to make use of the media to help locate Dallas. 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 the Dungeons & Dragons theory. Unfortunately, this theory was seized upon by the media and sensationalised, much to the detriment of the game Dungeons and Dragons. Later, this controversy would also be used by anti-gaming campaigners as "proof" of the damaging effect of the game. This has been looked at more in the History of Roleplaying.

In fairness to Mr Dear, his sole interest was the safety of a child. Everything else was secondary, and rightly so. Also it did not help that the theory was taken seriously by the gaming community. As evidence for this, I will quote from The Dragon #30, October 1979. The Dragon, later called Dragon Magazine, is the world's largest selling roleplaying magazine. It is published by TSR Inc who are the publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons family of games. The article also illustrates some of the effects of the disappearance on the hobby in general.

"As I am writing this (11 Sep). DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is getting the publicity that we used to just dream about, back when we were freezing in Gary's basement in the beginning.

If we had our 'druthers', it would not have happened in such a fashion. By now, as you read this, I hope the mystery surrounding James Egbert has been happily resolved. Whatever the circumstances of the incident, it has been a nightmare for his parents and family, as well as for TSR Hobbies, Inc.

It has been speculated that James was involved in some sort of D&D game that went beyond the realm of pencil and paper roleplaying, and may have mutated into something tragic. D&D was seized upon as a possible connection for a number of reasons. First, James was an avid player. Indeed, I have met him at past conventions and he used to subscribe to TD [The Dragon].

Secondly, there was the matter of the pins in the bulletin board, and the speculation that they formed some sort of clue ala a D&D map or clue. Added to this was the fact that the pins possibly resembled the steam tunnel system under James' college, and an anonymous tip that 'live' games had been played out there in the past, as well as other places on the campus. Pictures of the map were sent to TSR, for analysis, with no concrete results.

Third, the day of his disappearance was the day prior to GENCON XII, and there have been reports that attendees think that they may have seen him at the con. Sadly registration doesn't show him registered anywhere.

Finally, James had an IQ that qualifies him as a genius, and D&D is a very intricate and complex game, appealing to bright people. This was seen as sufficient evidence to link the two, at least in the headlines.

Some of the reporting has been every bit as bizarre as the circumstances surrounding the whole affair.

The chief detective hired by the parents has made some incorrect statements regarding the game that have only fuelled the controversy and added to the misconceptions surrounding it. Unfortunately, the nature of the incorrect answers has led to sensationalist type speculation. D&D has been described as a cult-like activity, and every editor knows that cults sell papers, or dogfood, in the case of TV.

These basic mistakes have linked the supposed method of playing D&D to this disappearance. The detective is quoted as saying, but both UP and AP, "You have a dungeon master - he designs the characters. Someone is put into the dungeon, and it is up to him to get out." He was further quoted as saying that ". . . in some instances when a person plays the game 'you actually leave your body and go out of your mind'". A campus policeman said that dozens of D&D games were being played by "very secretive groups".

All of this had been grist for the journalist's mill, and has resulted in some pretty bizarre headlines, all playing on the esoteric aspects of the game, some slanted from the incorrect assumptions. A few choice samples that we have seen here, and only the gods know how many we haven't seen, include "Missing youth could be on adventure game", "Is Missing Student Victim of Game?", "'Intellectual fantasy' results in bizarre disappearance", "Student May Have Lost His Life to Intellectual Fantasy Game", "Student feared dead in 'dungeon'", and more of the like.

The most unfortunate consideration here is that all of the supposed link to this unfortunate incident was somehow assumed to exist, when in truth no such link has been proven.

No one connected with D&D, from the authors, through the editors, typesetters, proofreaders, down to the final stage, the shippers, ever envisioned anything like this happening. The slightest hint that this game somehow may have cost someone their life is horrifying to each and every one of us.

If this is true, and the worst fears are realized when this mystery is resolved, something is drastically wrong. If James is located and all ends happily, the amount of suffering and grief has certainly been disproportionate.

If the worst is true, let it serve as a painful and sad lesson to all of us that play games, that games are simply games, meant to be amusing diversion and a way to kill time in a fun fashion, and nothing more.

TSR has never ever suggested that D&D was meant to be acted out. How would it be, when half of what makes it so much fun - magic - can not be simulated?

This incident could conceivably affect each of you who reads this. If the 'bizarre' tag sticks, all of us should consider the idea that we might meet with scorn, or macabre fascination, or be branded as 'intellectual loonies' in the media. In view of the distortions caused by the media, it may become incumbent now upon all of us to actively seek to correct the misconceptions now formed or forming whenever and wherever possible.

For now, we can only hope and pray that James will be located and in good health. No game is worth dying for . . ."
- "Dragon Rumbles" by T.J. Kask. The Dragon, October 1979, pages 1, 41.

One point may need to be clarified. GenCon is the world's largest gaming convention. GenCon XII was held at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside on the weekend of August 19, 1979. Despite reports that suggested otherwise Dallas was not at the Convention. A Gaming Convention is exactly what it sounds like. A large number of players of various games, including roleplaying games meet at a set location and play games. There are organised tournaments as well as a great deal of unorganised and demonstration games.

It is very unfortunate that Mr Dear's comments were inaccurate. However, it is understandable. In 1979 D& was still a very new phenomenon. The game had been in commercial existence for less than six years, and was still relatively unknown. Mr Dear had no real knowledge of how it worked and yet his statements, and those of others, were accepted as facts. To Mr Dear's credit, he did make an effort to understand the game. He purchased rulebooks and paid a Dungeon Master to take him through a game. He also enlisted the aid of Mr Cliff Perotti, a published gaming author, and owner of a small gaming company to help him in his investigations when Mr Perotti offered his services. He made genuine attempts to understand how the game was played, if for no other reason than he thought it might help him to understand Dallas.

But certainly there are no circumstances in a D&D game where 'you actually leave your body and go out of your mind'. The concept is ridiculous. A D&D game is normally played around a table. You are always physically and mentally at that table. Your character - the persona that you play in the game - may range anywhere that the Dungeon Master allows. This is done by the Dungeon Master describing the environment, and by the players stating what their character is doing. The game does not involve any travel of any sort, physical or mental - except perhaps to the refrigerator for another can of Coke.

Eventually Mr Dear began to make contact with several people who stated that they knew where Dallas was. These contacts took the form of anonymous phone calls which told him that if he left Michigan they would help him find Dallas. When these people provided him with evidence of their claims he decided to return to Texas. Because his fellow Private Detectives (three men who worked with him as well as New York Investigator Don Gillitzer) were apparently known to the anonymous caller they withdrew as well, leaving Cliff Perotti, a 19 year old games designer, as his only person on the ground in East Lansing. After Mr Dear was back in Texas, a woman named Cindy Hulliberger made contact with Mr Perotti and said that she knew where Dallas was. She set up a meeting between Mr Perotti and a man who she said would leave them to Dallas. This first meeting did not go ahead because a police car passed by at an inopportune moment and by the time the meeting did take place the following night, one of William Dear's men Mr Jim Hock was back in Lansing. The initial meeting was with a Michael Barnes who took Mr Hock and Mr Perotti to see a man named Archibald Horn. Mr Horn admitted freely that he was gay, and had had teenage boys in his apartment. He denied knowing Dallas and he demanded that Mr Hock and Mr Perotti leave. They did so. Later that same night Dallas Egbert telephoned William Dear. Over the course of that day, Dallas phoned several more times and finally revealed his location - Morgan City, Louisiana. Mr Dear charted a Lear Jet, and along with two of his associates flew to Morgan City where they recovered Dallas. He was released into the custody of his Uncle, Dr Melvin Gross at 8.30 PM that evening September 13 1979.

What Happened To Dallas?

It is difficult to explain exactly what happened to Dallas, what prompted his disappearance, and kept him missing for nearly one month. This is partly because Dallas was reluctant to talk about his experiences, and partly because Mr Dear agreed to maintain his confidentiality. The following is as accurate a description of the events that occurred as I have been able to construct from the material in William Dear's book.

Dallas had been planning to disappear for a long time. His reasons differed at different times. He planned suicide over a nine month period, and at other times decided merely to run away. One of his reasons was a belief that his mother was putting too much pressure on him to succeed, and expected too much from him and the belief that she would continue to do so, no matter what the circumstances. He apparently wished to make her suffer in addition to wanting to be free of her. He also felt that he had no control over his own life. He didn't know what he wanted to do with it, and he thought that by getting away for a time, he might be free to think.

"There was never enough time, the way I was living. Interruptions. Pressure. My parents hounding me. I wanted my life to get simpler and it just got more complicated."
- Conversation with Dallas reported by William Dear in The Dungeon Master.

Finally on August 14 1979, he decided to stop thinking about it and do it. He wrote what he described as a contingency suicide note, disguising his handwriting by writing with his left hand. He created the pattern of pins on his notice board.

"I meant it as a combination map and suicide note. The map would show where I was, if you could find me. The note, the message I intended to convey, was that I was dead. Of course, if that's how it turned out. I didn't really know what was going to happen."
- Conversation with Dallas reported by William Dear in The Dungeon Master.

He had lunch with Karen Coleman, and then from the basement of Case Hall walked into the steam tunnels. He took with him a blanket, cartons of milk, some cheese and crackers, some marijuana, and what he believed to be enough sleeping tablets to kill himself. He went to the small room he had selected in the tunnels. He smoked his marijuana and considered his life. He thought about computers, his drug problem, his relationship with his parents, and his sexuality. For the first time in months he felt he was thinking clearly.

"No, it was clear to me what had to be done. I was depressed and miserable and not even sorry. I should have done it before. Life was no good to me, and this was the best and only solution."
- Conversation with Dallas reported by William Dear in The Dungeon Master.

He took the sleeping tablets with the deliberate intent of ending his life. He awoke the following night. He crawled from the tunnels and then over a mile to a friend's house. This was a gay man in his early twenties. This man wanted to call for help but Dallas told him if he did he would kill himself. The man cared for him for approximately a week until Dallas had recovered.

I should make it clear that according to Dallas, this man did not take advantage of him. Dallas insisted to William Dear that any sexual activity was totally consensual, and that Dallas knew what he was doing and chose to do it. The fact remains however that the man concerned was an adult and Dallas was a minor. And when the story of Dallas' disappearance broke, this man felt himself to be in danger from the police. Dallas was moved to another house on about the 24th of August. By his own admission he spent a great deal of his time taking drugs and had no knowledge of the news interest surrounding his disappearance. On about the 1st of September, Dallas was moved yet again to another house. This time matters took a sinister turn. The man in this house seemed to regard Dallas as a burden, possibly because he was worried that the police might find him and assume Dallas was being used for sex or other nefarious purposes. He told Dallas not to leave the house, and the boy was genuinely afraid for his life. On the 4th of September the man took Dallas to a bus station and gave him a ticket to Chicago, and some money. He was told to take a train to New Orleans after he got to Chicago and was given a number to call upon arrival. He felt he was sent to New Orleans because people were scared to have him in East Lansing any longer. William Dear had other ideas. He suspected that Dallas was sent away in case it became necessary to dispose of him.

"If something was going to be done to Dallas, it was better for it to happen far away in New Orleans."
- William Dear in The Dungeon Master.

Dallas came off drugs while on the train. He began to think again. He felt he had been rejected by the people he had gone to for help after his first suicide attempt and decided, once again, to kill himself. He purchase the ingredients needed to make cyanide, and rented a hotel room. He mixed the cyanide in root beer and drank it.

Once again he woke up the following day. Having run out of money he tried to phone the number he had been given. It was disconnected. He called the house he had first stayed in, in East Lansing and the person there told him to stay in touch and he would try and help him. He told Dallas that if he was found, he mustn't tell anyone where he had stayed. Dallas agreed. William Dear believed that this was the first stage in an attempt to arrange Dallas' reappearance. This first man had cared for Dallas when he was ill. It seems likely that he did want to help Dallas. However he had to ensure that it would not create problems for himself.

Dallas lived on the streets of New Orleans for several days before meeting a man from New York. According to Dallas, they became friends, and this man helped him to get a job as a roustabout in the oil fields near Morgan City. He stayed in regular contact with East Lansing. Finally the man he spoke to told him that matters had gone far enough and that for everyone's sake he should contact William Dear. Dallas discussed matters with his friend from New York who persuaded him to make the call.

From these facts as related by Dallas, the following scenario seems possible - perhaps even likely. Dallas after attempting suicide and seriously ill went to the house of a man of his acquaintance, possibly a lover. This man cared for Dallas. He wanted Dallas to get proper help but Dallas threatened to kill himself if the man contacted anyone. Just as the boy was getting well, all hell broke lose with the police investigating his disappearance. Because of either an actual sexual relationship with Dallas or merely the fear that such would be suspected, this man did not feel able to contact the authorities. He enlisted the help of friends to keep Dallas hidden. Eventually when the danger of discovery in Lansing became too great, they sent Dallas to New Orleans. These men then contacted Mr Dear anonymously. They wished him to leave Lansing in order to increase their chances of avoiding detection. They were also attempting to negotiate a way of handing Dallas over to the authorities safely. Cindy Hulliberger somehow knew where Dallas was (Dallas said he believed he had met her at one of the houses). She, either of her own volition, or as some sort of go-between, made contact with William Dear through Cliff Perotti and eventually arranged meetings with people who knew of Dallas and his whereabouts. Finally, perhaps as a result of the meeting with Archibald Horn, Dallas was told to contact William Dear.

In this scenario, D&D plays absolutely no part, and I do not believe that anyone who is cognisant of the facts in this case can possibly believe that D&D played any significant role in Dallas' disappearance. The question then needs to be asked: Why did D&D get so much blame?

As I have said before, Mr Dear had several theories concerning Dallas' disappearance. The D&D related theory gained publicity because of its unusual and sensational nature, and because Mr Dear felt it unwise to widely publicise some of his other theories for a number of reasons, which I have outlined above. But why, after Dallas was found, did the facts not become clear?

The answer is simple. Dallas did not want the publicity associated with his case, both for his own sake, but also for that of his younger brother Doug. He did not want Doug to endure teasing about his "faggot brother, the dope addict." (quoted from The Dungeon Master) Mr Dear agreed to honour Dallas wishes for silence on the case, despite being offered large amounts of money for information.

This meant that Mr Dear was placed in a position where he was unable to clarify or withdraw the statements he had made to the press. When he finally wrote The Dungeon Master after Doug had finished school and that was no longer a problem, it was nearly five years after the case. The media were not particularly interested in setting the record straight.

The End of the Story

Unfortunately even though Dallas was found, his story does not have a happy ending. For a time after his disappearance his life improved greatly. His relationship with his mother improved and he reenrolled at University, this time at Wright State. In early 1980 matters began to revert to type however, as his problems re-emerged. William Dear remained one of his few friends and attempted to help him. On April 14 1980, Dallas quit school. He wanted to work in a computer store, but instead took a job in one of his father's shops. In late July he moved into a flat with a twenty three year old acquaintance. Mr Dear attempted to persuade him to return home but Dallas insisted that life with his parents was unbearable.

On the 11th of August 1980, James Dallas Egbert III shot himself in the head in the living room of his apartment. He died at Grandview Hospital on the 16th August, just over a year after his disappearance.

It is interesting to note that Dallas' parents seem to have considered his status as a gifted child to have been the primary influence on his unhappiness, and not roleplaying. As evidence of this, I will quote from the preface of 'Guiding the Gifted Child' by James T. Webb Ph.D., Elizabeth A. Meckstroth M.S., and Stephanie S. Tolan M.A.:

"The suicide of bright, talented, 17 year old Dallas Egbert in 1980 led his parents to inquire about programs designed to meet the emotional needs of gifted children and their families. It soon became apparent that such programs rarely existed, even though the need for such services seemed clear . . . these children and their families have special emotional needs and opportunities that are quite overlooked and, thus, neglected. Most often this neglect results "only" in unfulfilled potential and missed enjoyments - but sometimes it leads blatantly to misery and depression."
- taken from "Guiding the Gifted Child" by James T. Webb et al, p i

Dallas Egbert's death was a tragedy. There is no denying that. But to blame the game of Dungeons & Dragons for it is ridiculous. It ignores or makes light of the very real psychological problems affecting Dallas, the ignorance of which could allow further such tragedies to go unprevented. Dallas died because he was exposed to pressures which he was unable to handle. He died because he suffered from severe depression, from which he could find no relief. He died because he no longer wished to live.

He did not die because of a game.


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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