October 16, 2019

It's a story that involves the RCMP, a potential murder investigation, an American late-night TV show and a missing wallet filled with cash.

Not what you'd expect to hear from an elderly couple from Newfoundland.

And it's not the details we initially heard some six years ago, when Ches Sweetapple first spoke with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, after he'd returned home from a harrowing excursion in the woods.

Those details add a whole new level of intrigue to a rescue story that had already captivated everyone who heard it.

At the time, the then-74-year-old stopped into his cabin in central Newfoundland, and dropped by a nearby bog to pick some bakeapples.

But it started getting dark, and Sweetapple lost his way... only to be found unconscious in the area about a week later.

When Sweetapple eventually arrived home safe and sound, he shared the emotional details about his survival story: how, as a diabetic, he had subsisted on berries and bog water, before becoming delusional.

As part of the series This Is My Story, Sweetapple and his wife Florence are opening up about that moment, reflecting on the incident, and revealing what has happened in the time since.

'I must've had a thousand mosquito bites'

It was July 26, 2013. Ches Sweetapple was heading out alone to the couple’s cabin in Millertown. He dropped off his things, and then went to a bog near Red Indian Lake to look for some berries.

"When I went into the bog, it was orange," he said.

"I had a Ziploc bag, and I just started picking, and picking, and picking. And I guess it got a little dark and I decided to take a shortcut through the woods — which I've done numerous times. But anyway, it didn't work out that way."

Watch Ches Sweetapple describe his journey:

Sweetapple spent that night near the bog.

"The next morning, I walked and heard a river running, and my intention was to keep to my left and walk down this woods road to where my truck was," he said.

He didn’t know it, but he was walking in the wrong direction.

Sweetapple said he wasn't fearful, and never gave up hope that he would be found.

"My two arms, I must've had a thousand mosquito bites," he recalled.

Sweetapple said he had a jacket that he sometimes put over himself. He was also wearing long rubber boots up to his knees — "Goat boots," his wife called them — that he would take off and place one on top of the other, to use as a makeshift pillow.

"The third day, I said, 'Well, what am I going to do?' I start looking at mountains in the background. But they were a long ways off. I said, 'No good going that way.'"

It was around that time, Sweetapple believes, that he went into a diabetic coma.

A ‘crime scene'

Ches Sweetapple had a habit. He always called his wife when he got to the cabin.

So when Florence Sweetapple didn’t hear from her husband, she got worried.

The next day, she started calling friends in the area, and confirmed that Ches had been spotted heading through there the previous afternoon.

However, he still wasn’t answering his calls. (It turned out that his cellphone had been left — and turned off — on the seat of his truck.)

She asked a friend to drop by the cabin to check things out.

"She said, 'All your sheds are open, but your cabin is locked,'" Florence Sweetapple recalled.

"I said, 'Put a little note on the door for me, and say: You better call Florence, because she's going to murder you.'"

She said the RCMP were investigating her husband’s disappearance — and had found her note.

"So now, it's a crime scene. Our cabin and our truck were all roped off," she said.

"That's only a figure of speech. Anyway, I had the Mountie here for two days with me, and asked me all kinds of questions."

Following different leads

On the second day of questioning, Florence Sweetapple said the RCMP realized she had nothing to do with Ches's disappearance, and they started looking at other possibilities.

"[The officer] said, 'He must have left... He might have went off with someone,'" she recounted. She knew, though, that wasn't right.

"My husband would never leave his truck and the cabin to go off with someone."

The RCMP also investigated money that they thought was missing — $1,700 in cash that Florence Sweetapple said her husband had taken with him to the cabin.

"They figured he might have stopped and got gas and opened up his wallet and someone [saw] all the money," she said.

She dismissed that possibility — “We're in Newfoundland, not New York” — so the police asked her what she thought happened to it.

"I said, 'He walked into his cabin... He took his wallet out, hoisted up his mattress, and threw it right underneath,'" she recounted.

Florence Sweetapple said there are two rooms at the cabin: one with a queen-sized bed, and another with two single beds.

"[The officer] said, 'No, they can't find a wallet, so he must have it on him.' I said, 'No, he would never go on that bog with that money,'" she said.

But little did the RCMP know that when Ches Sweetapple arrived at the cabin, he would sleep in one of the smaller beds.

"Now, if that was me, I would check three beds. No, not them — they checked the one big one," she said.

(When the whole ordeal was over, friends of the Sweetapples went out to the cabin, lifted up a single bed, and lo and behold: the missing wallet, money and all.)

The rescue

After two days of searching, Florence Sweetapple said the police had slowed their investigation — but, as far as she knew, they were still on the chase for new information.

At the time, her son, Dave Sweetapple, who lives in Vermont and works in the music industry, was on tour overseas with a band that he manages.

He said he remembers the moment so vividly.

He had just gotten back to North America, and was in New York City, because a friend of his was asked to play on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon as a guest musician with the house band, The Roots.

Dave Sweetapple said he was sitting backstage, in a small green room.

“I’m watching Marky Wahlberg be interviewed about some new film he was doing on the screen in the green room. And with that, I get a text,” he said.

It was from a friend asking about his missing father. At first, he thought it was a joke. But then, he started looking up local news articles about Ches Sweetapple’s disappearance.

“I’m staring at the screen, and I remember seeing Marky Wahlberg talking and joking with Jimmy Fallon. And nothing seemed real,” he said.

Dave Sweetapple said he then went out by the elevators, and started calling his mother.

When he finally reached her later that night, he was annoyed because she hadn't told him sooner, but Florence Sweetapple said she was trying not to ruin his tour.

She said her son later made it home to St. John's, and called the RCMP.

"He said, 'Get in and look for my father! ... He's in there, roaming around,'" Florence Sweetapple recounted.

Spotted from the air

It turned out, Dave Sweetapple knew his father well.

Ches said he had walked about a mile and a half up the pond, trying to get back to his truck.

On the seventh morning — Aug. 2, 2013 — searchers spotted him from the air, and went into the woods to save him.

"[A searcher] said, 'Ches, we've got you, we've got you.' And my words to him was: 'What took you so long to find me?'" he said with a chuckle, though he added he doesn't remember being rescued.

He was airlifted from Millertown to the hospital in Corner Brook.

At the time, Florence Sweetapple said she was chatting with her son back home in St. John's.

'He said, 'Now Mom, this is seven days, so you got to make up your mind about what you're going to do,'" she said.

"And I said, 'Well, I just bought the house in Florida. I guess I'm going to have to sell that, and... the cabin in Millertown, I'm going to burn that down,'" she said.

“And with that, the phone rang."

It was the RCMP.

"[The officer said,] 'I want to let you know we found your husband.' I froze... And he said, 'He's alive,'" Florence Sweetapple recalled, as she started to cry.

But police told her that her husband was very weak. Many of his organs had begun to shut down.

"When they found him, it was not much life: his liver, his kidneys, and his bowels were gone, and his heart was so weak that they didn't know if he was going to make it," she said.

The recovery

Dave Sweetapple stayed with his father while he was in the intensive care unit in Corner Brook.

“I remember sitting in the hospital, he was unconscious, but he looked twice his normal size… He was just so bloated because there were literally thousands and thousands of mosquito bites,” he said.

“His whole body was red with the bites, there were just welts all over him.”

Meanwhile, Ches Sweetapple said it’s wiped from his memory.

"I don't remember a thing,” he said. “Nothing."

He laughs while retelling stories about some of the delusional moments he had while in hospital.

"I said, 'David, get a broom... The damn moose, they're all over the place in here. Look at the mess they got made!'" he said.

After about a week at Western Memorial Regional Hospital, he was flown to St. Clare's Mercy Hospital in St. John's for further recovery, before being cleared to go home.

While Ches Sweetapple had, literally and figuratively, made it out of the woods, he had a lot of rehabilitation to do.

He made daily trips to the Miller Centre, where he had to learn how to walk again.

Overall, he said he didn't have any lasting effects — but, now that he's 80, he finds his legs have gotten weak (something he attributes to age, not the ordeal).

Dave Sweetapple said he was worried that his father would have some lasting effects from what he'd lived through.

“[At the time,] he just looked 20 years older than he was, because he had a cane, he could barely stand up, because his body had taken such a hit from this thing,” his son said.

“He’s bounced back, and he seems younger [now] than he was when he went missing.”

From Millertown to the Sunshine State

After all was said and done, Ches Sweetapple lost interest in the cottage in Millertown.

"We drove up to the cabin, and I said, 'Just as well to get rid of it,'" he said.

They sold it soon after, with everything left inside.

"When we went out and closed the door, we never looked back. We just kept going," Florence Sweetapple said.

Shortly before Ches went missing, the Sweetapples bought a house in Florida, and the couple said they followed through with their plans to spend their winters there.

"I'm out in the garden all day long," Ches Sweetapple said.

He said he’s in his glee planting flowers and tending to his tropical bushes, cacti and fruit trees.

"I just love it down there," said Florence Sweetapple. "No wonder they call it the Sunshine State. It's every day, the sun shines. It is so beautiful."

But it's meeting people and being social where the couple seems to thrive. They also do a lot of visiting, and they love sharing stories — especially about their home province.

"The [Florida] neighbours — we had two of the couples up here already, and they loved St. John's, they love Newfoundland," Ches Sweetapple said.

"Matter of fact, they showed all of the videos they took here. Now, [all of the neighbours] want to come!"

Ambassadors of the Battery

The Sweetapples aren’t just proud Newfoundlanders — they are ambassadors for the Battery, the close-knit neighbourhood right on St. John’s Harbour.

The couple live in a prominent property on Outer Battery Road, where many locals and tourists alike pass by on their way to historic Signal Hill.

"We like to talk to people and tell them the history," Ches Sweetapple said.

They share stories, as well as business cards. On one side, a picture of the Outer Battery, and on the other: their contact information in both Newfoundland and Florida, with a Newfoundland flag in the background.

"Newfoundlanders are known to be friendly,” Florence Sweetapple said. “That's our trademark, and I'm proud of it.”

While the Sweetapples are busy with their social lives, there’s one activity that’s out of bounds.

"No, no. I don't go picking berries anymore," said Ches Sweetapple, who celebrated his 80th birthday over the summer.

They now get a couple of gallons every year from a friend down on the Burin Peninsula.

Ches has some advice for anyone heading out to a wild berry patch:

"Go pick 'em! But take your cellphone with you too," he said.

His wife chimed in: "And turn it on!"

This Is My Story

This Is My Story is a special series from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, where we check back with people who have overcome some tremendous struggles in their lives.

Read other stories from this series: