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Teen Witnessed Dad's Murder and Escaped into the Woods — and Then He Found a Way to Call for Help

Christine Pelisek
·4 mins read

GoFundMe Ari Gershman and family

Jack Gershman, 15, was traumatized and terrified. But he knew he had to figure out a way to call for help.

Jack and his 46-year-old father Ari, a physician and pharmaceutical executive, had been off-roading in Tahoe National Forest on June 3 when they stopped to get their bearings. When a blue ATV pulled up behind their Jeep, Ari suggested they ask the driver for directions.

Before they could do so, gunshots rang out and hit Ari, who fell out of the Jeep fatally wounded.

Jack was able to escape and he took off running into the woods. He tried to call 911 but couldn’t get reception. That’s when he realized he had to make his way up one of two nearby mountains to get cell reception so he could get help.

“When I got high enough, I looked at my phone and it had one bar, so I called police, and it went through,” he tells PEOPLE. Jack's harrowing ordeal is featured in this week's issue of PEOPLE, and was also featured in a recent episode of PEOPLE (the TV Show).

After he reached authorities, he was told to stay put, and that helicopters would come for him.

Courtesy Gershman Family Ari Gershman

RELATED: Teen Who Escaped His Dad's Killer Sent Goodbye Videos to Mom: 'Don't Think I'm Going to Make It'

But later that day, at about 6:30 p.m., his cell phone battery died.

He saw helicopters flying overhead of him and waved his arms, but the forest was too thick for them to see him, and after nightfall, the helicopters left.

Now covered in bug bites, scared of the dark and the shooter and dressed in just a T-shirt and shorts, Jack curled up in a ball beside a bush. He pulled his shirt over his legs to keep warm in the 50-degree mountain air and tried to sleep.

For more on this brave teen’s escape – and the Gershman family – subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

The sunrise woke Jack, who managed some sleep despite worries about bears “and a few branches snapping in the night that scared the crap out of me,” he says. He made his way back to the stream and started in the direction of a dam whose lights he’d seen in the night.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s K-9 teams

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Beedo and Champ

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What Jack didn’t know was that two California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s K-9 teams, trained to find illegal marijuana plantings in the forest, along with dogs Champ and Beedo, had set out to find him.

At about 4 p.m. Beedo alerted authorities to a faint sound while Champ alerted them to a human scent.

“I heard people calling me,” says Jack.

Smeeta Mahanti

RELATED: Terror in the Woods: Inside a California Teen's Harrowing Escape from His Father's Killer

Soon, the teams found him.

"He was strong," says Fish and Wildlife captain Patrick Foy.

A few hours later, Jack was reunited with his mother Paige, Ari’s cousin Marlo and his brother Evan at the sheriff’s department's headquarters in Downieville.

For more on this brave teen’s escape – and the Gershman family – subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

“He was filthy head to toe, his eyes like saucers, in shock,” says Paige. “I just grabbed on, and he was hugging me back, and he’s very much not a hugger.”

About his ordeal, Paige believes Jack got a little help from his father.

“I just kept saying over and over to Ari, ‘Please just help him get out of there,’” says Paige. “There’s no rhyme or reason or logic to how he got a [cell] signal. No one in that area can get a signal ever. And that was Ari’s way of helping.”

PEOPLE (the TV Show)! is a half-hour daily TV show inspired by the brand's unique combination of the most popular celebrity and inspirational human-interest stories, including entertainment news, exclusive interviews, feature stories, beauty and style, true crime and more. The show airs Monday-Friday in all 12 Meredith markets, including Atlanta, Phoenix, St. Louis, Portland, Nashville, Kansas City, Hartford-New Haven, Greenville-Spartanburg, Las Vegas, Mobile-Pensacola, Flint-Saginaw and Springfield-Holyoke.

The show is hosted by Kay Adams and Lawrence K. Jackson with correspondents Jeremy Parsons and Sandra Vergara. You can also stream the show daily at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on People.com, PeopleTV app (OTT) and PEOPLE’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts.