It was around 4 p.m. on July 3, 2020, when Paige Gershman sent a text to her 15-year-old son Jack after her husband, Ari, a physician and pharmaceutical executive, didn’t respond to his phone. That morning, the father and son had gone on an off-roading trip to California’s Tahoe National Forest in the family’s new Jeep.
“I texted Jack, and I said, ‘Are you guys okay?’ And I didn’t hear back from Jack, either. So I started to get worried, but not too worried because I knew they were so far out that they probably didn’t have a signal,” she says.
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Around 5:30 p.m., Paige noticed two video texts from Jack. “The first was just woods, very Blair Witch Project, and I’m like, ‘They’re messing with me,’” Paige tells PEOPLE in the new issue.
The second video was perfectly clear.
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“He was talking about how he’s in the woods, doesn’t know where he is, needs help,” says Paige. “I immediately called him. I saidWhere’s Dad?’ and he saidHe was shot. He’s dead.’ I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I told himI need to get to you,’ but I didn’t even know who to call. He could be anywhere in four counties. His battery was dying. I was panicked.”
Courtesy Gershman Family
Jack, after escaping the gunman who fatally shot his father, ran into the woods, where he would spend the night. He made at least a half dozen video messages, sending them all to his mom. “They’re basically goodbye videos,” says Paige. “In one of them, he’s like, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it out of here, and I just want you to be happy and prosper, and try to smile and remember me as the happy-go-lucky kid I was.’”
But Jack survived.
Courtesy Gershman Family
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The following day, around 4 p.m., teams trained in human tracking from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife — along with their dogs, Beedo and Champ — found Jack near a stream. “He was strong,” says Fish and Wildlife captain Patrick Foy.
Not long after Jack’s rescue, an ATV attempted to ram a police checkpoint. After a chase, the driver, John Conway, 40, was arrested. He was later charged with Ari’s murder, attempted murder, burglary and firearms crimes. Conway has yet to enter a plea.
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.
Back home, the outpouring of love from the family’s community, including money raised through a GoFundme page, has been “overwhelming,” says Jack’s mom, Paige.
“He always tried to help people,” says Jack about his late dad. “Knowing that makes me feel more like his life is more complete, like he was successful in the time he had.”
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