The Old and the Restless

The Old and the Restless

An indecent proposal, a crime of passion, and legends of murder in an enclave of bohemian retirees.

By Chris Walker

The Atavist Magazine, No. 75


Chris Walker is a former staff writer at Denver alt-weekly Westword. Prior to living in Colorado, he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for NPR, ForbesThe Atlantic, and Vice. His website is chrisallanwalker.com


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Bijou Karman

Published in January 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Act I

Ajijic. Such a strange word, Jackie Hodges thought as she rode in a Porsche convertible through a stretch of lush, rolling mountains in central Mexico. The 45-year-old American knew virtually nothing about the small town where she was headed, including how to pronounce its name. “Ah-hee-heek,” locals would patiently repeat again and again after she arrived. In Mexico’s indigenous Nahuatl tongue, the word means “place where the water is born.”

It was the fall of 1969, and Hodges needed a distraction. Her second marriage was coming apart at the seams. Eager to get away from her home in Pasadena, California, she’d seized upon an invitation to visit Lona Mae Isoard, a friend who lived in Ajijic. Hodges had always puzzled over Isoard’s decision to move there. A talented painter who liked to wear her gray hair in a French twist, Isoard was a seasoned traveler who’d lived in Paris and Rome. Why settle down in a Mexican pueblo of barely 5,000 people just south of Guadalajara?

The environs were pretty, at least. Hodges spotted Ajijic as the Porsche, in which Isoard had picked her up at Guadalajara’s airport, crested a mountain pass. She took in the expanse of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It stretched some 11 miles south and 50 miles east to west. Dotting its northern edge were picturesque fishing communities, one of which was the women’s destination.

They wended their way down the highway until the convertible’s tires met cobblestone. The Porsche rattled into the heart of Ajijic, where blue tin placards proclaimed the narrow streets’ names, children ran around shoeless, and bare-chested men hawked fish pulled from the lake. Hodges spied a pig strung up outside a home, rivulets of blood running from a gash in its neck down its snout to the ground. Nearby a group of caballeros with spurs on their boots rode sidestepping horses. The women drove past the Posada, a lodge and watering hole that had served as the de facto center of Ajijic’s expatriate scene since it opened in 1938. Eventually, they came to a row of brightly painted brick-and-mortar homes, one of which was Isoard’s.

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“Rest up,” the painter told Hodges after they’d gotten settled. She would need energy.

The following evening, Isoard threw nothing short of a bacchanal. Some 60 people came, martinis flowed, and conversations slurred. “Have you met Jackie?” Isoard said to guest after guest, nudging the newcomer into the night’s starring role. The air was thick with smoke from Cuban cigars; a group of businessmen had just returned from Havana. At one point, they launched into a spirited argument with a couple of former diplomats over America’s embargo of the island nation. Rolling her eyes, Isoard directed a five-piece band she’d hired for the night to stand close to the men. Then she gathered up several women and displaced the debate with a dance floor.

Before the party was over, Hodges had a good if drunken understanding of Ajijic’s expats. Most of them were retired or nearly being so, but they refused to act like they were aging. Among them were many artists, writers, and actors—both has-beens and still-wannabes—who made the town feel like a Shangri-la for sun-setting bohemians. The wild party scene was fabled among those who’d experienced it, and some impressive names had made cameos. D.H. Lawrence wrote the first draft of his novel The Plumed Serpent while residing in the area in 1923. During the 1950s, Beat writers swallowed a drink or five at the Posada. Then came the hippies, who earned Ajijic a shout-out in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Acid Kool Aid Test as a stopover during a drug-fueled escapade by the LSD evangelists known as the Merry Pranksters.

The discomfiting contrast between their privileged existence and the substantially poorer one of the Mexicans they lived among didn’t seem to bother many expats. Ajijic’s low cost of living was a draw, along with its bucolic setting and temperate weather. To foreigners, whatever the town lacked—paved roads, telephones, TVs—it made up for with characters who embodied a popular saying: Once a private crossed the border into Mexico, he could be a general. People’s pasts became whatever they said they were. Take Zara Alexeyewa, known as La Rusa, who’d lived in Ajijic since the 1920s and claimed to be a ballerina from Russia. Over time local journalists and historians would uncover some 18 aliases she’d used and pinpoint her birthplace as New York. Alexeyewa fancied herself queen of the expats. Her attitude was imperious, and she was never seen walking anywhere. She rode around on a black horse, sitting sidesaddle in a long dress and wide-brimmed hat.

Hodges, a free spirit who’d always lamented that she missed visiting the Paris of Gertrude Stein by a generation, was enamored. After her visit with Isoard, she returned to Ajijic for longer stretches over the next three summers. By 1972, she was looking to buy a casita. By 1976, she was divorced and living in Ajijic year-round. She began dating a housing contractor, got married again, and never looked back.

I know this because she’s my grandmother. Now 93, Hodges has lived in Ajijic all my life. The place has changed since she first arrived. Development has altered the landscape, and Mexico’s drug war has taken a toll. My grandmother, though, is a time capsule. A flamboyant raconteur, she embellishes stories of parties that evolved into orgies and acquaintances who turned out to be CIA spooks with dialogue she couldn’t possibly have been privy to. I take everything she says about Ajijic with a grain or two of salt.

In 2015, she told me a story I couldn’t shake, about a person she couldn’t shake. Around Thanksgiving, we were in her living room discussing the litany of outrageous people and situations she’d encountered. Short and rail thin, with a dyed platinum-blond bob, she gesticulated as she spoke. Suddenly, with dramatic flair, she declared, “I’ve only met one person in my lifetime that I thought was truly evil.” The way she emphasized the last word jolted me. She meant it.

That person was Donna McCready, a charismatic, controversial figure in Ajijic in the 1970s and 1980s. So incredible were the instances of seduction, betrayal, and violence in which McCready is said to have played a part that they are now the crown jewels of local lore. Many of the old-timers who got entangled in McCready’s web are long gone, as is the woman herself, but some are still alive. I sought them out to hear their accounts, which added layers both macabre and poignant to the story my grandmother told me.

It boils down to this: In Ajijic, Donna McCready’s name is synonymous with murder.

Act II

One balmy afternoon in late 1976, Judy Eager was sitting near the entrance of the Posada when she saw two women roar into view astride motorcycles. They were newcomers, sporting black leather jackets and stony expressions that seemed to say fuck you. Expats rolled into Ajijic all the time, usually in less dramatic fashion. Eager and her husband had arrived only two years earlier, on the recommendation of a cab driver in Guadalajara, where they’d been vacationing. Soon after, they moved to town and took over stewardship of the Posada. Slinging drinks at the bar, they got to know everyone.

In the pair of leather-clad women, Eager sensed trouble. They pulled up to the Posada and came in for drinks. Their names were Donna McCready and Lois Schaefer, they were from Sausalito, California, and they were on a road trip through Mexico. They were also dating. Ajijic hosted a sizable gay population, but its members tended to be discreet about their relationships. The women were anything but: At the Posada, they were all over each other. The “dykes on bikes,” as Eager described them, took a liking to Ajijic and decided to stay.

Schaefer was middle-aged and boisterous, while McCready was in her thirties—young for an Ajijic expat—and resembled a school-age tomboy, with a short, shaggy haircut and thick glasses. On first impression she was quiet, but she relished making a scene and telling shocking stories. According to one Ajijic resident, McCready and Schaefer once decided to get a drink at Azteca, a dark cave of a saloon on the town’s main plaza. It catered to blue-collar Mexicans and featured a trough under the bar where patrons could relieve themselves. When an inebriated man insulted Schaefer, McCready came at him swinging. The women were hauled off to jail on assault charges—which McCready later claimed were dropped because she gave the station chief a blow job.

Schaefer and McCready didn’t stay together long. Mundane arguments over things like doing the dishes could turn violent. After they split, Schaefer struck up a new romance with a blonde named Susie Emery. One night during a squabble, Emery pulled out a gun and shot Schaefer through the breast; the bullet entered one side and came out the other. Judy Eager recounted the aftermath in her diary, which she recently showed me. “They both ended up in jail, had to pay a large fine to get out, and were both on probation for three months,” Eager wrote. “They became lovers again. Lois had Susie’s name tattooed above the bullet hole.” In Ajijic, it was a characteristically crazy incident.

McCready, meanwhile, got around romantically, according to Jan Dunlap. The two women bonded over a mutual predilection for mischief. Dunlap had moved to Ajijic with her five kids in 1967, after federal agents raided her home in New Mexico as part of a crackdown on a marijuana-trafficking ring involving her husband. She later opened Big Mama’s, a bar located across the street from the Posada that quickly earned an unholy reputation as a site for drug transactions. (Dunlap swore she wasn’t involved.) In comparison with the Posada, where caballeros only occasionally engaged in pistol shootouts—Eager called them “misunderstandings”—Big Mama’s was a dive. Patrons stumbled between the two establishments every night, until someone drunkenly announced whose house everyone could migrate to for a party.

McCready came by Big Mama’s alone around 11 a.m. most days to have a nip of tequila and chat with Dunlap before checking her mail at the post office. The women traded gossip, and McCready talked about her recent flirtations and sexual conquests. No one was off limits. McCready even propositioned Dunlap one day. “I already tried that once and didn’t like it,” she replied with a hearty laugh.

McCready wasn’t beautiful, in Dunlap’s opinion, but she could switch seamlessly from controlling an interaction with her charm to listening with apparent sympathy. Dunlap suspected that McCready’s savvy was why some people were drawn to her. Others thought it signaled a proclivity for manipulation. “If you studied her closely, her cold gray eyes gave away the secrets of a hard diabolical mind and a mean spirit,” reads the treatment for an unpublished screenplay about McCready, written in the 1990s by a former actor and Ajijic resident named Bob Jones. “The time left to her would be littered with victims.”

Around 1979, McCready began working as a home nurse for Steve and Pat Harrington, an older couple who owned a large estate on a hill above town. The home had a private drive, up which expats climbed to attend lavish parties—the sort that made other locals, who thrived on a culture of one-upmanship when it came to entertaining, green with envy. Steve had developed a serious heart problem that required constant care. McCready landed the job by claiming to have nursing experience. (No one I spoke to could remember whether she really did.)

As the weeks passed, McCready spent increasing amounts of time at the Harringtons’ tending to her sick charge. She also spent a lot of time wooing and then sleeping with Steve’s wife.

When Dunlap heard about the affair, she thought it fitting for McCready and her scorn for social mores. Dunlap would later recount it when crafting her own screenplay about McCready, called With Money Dances the Dogs:

PAT

Kiss me, DONNA. I need your arms around me.

DONNA caresses PAT. She has her hands inside PAT’S clothing, fondling her breast. One hand moves further down. PAT is in ecstasy, forgetting everything. DONNA is being very methodical, she knows what she’s doing.

Steve’s health declined quickly, and before long he died. According to Mexican law, a body must be buried or cremated within 48 hours of death. Unless there’s suspicion of foul play, autopsies are not routine. Steve was interred, and that was that.

McCready and Pat soon went public with their romance. For some residents, especially those who’d been friends with the Harringtons for many years, the affair was terribly gauche. When Judy Eager heard the news, she was angry. How could Pat move on from Steve just like that? Was she lonely or confused? My grandmother visited Pat, whom she considered a friend, and noticed that she’d undergone a makeover intended to take years off her appearance. She wore a pink dress and had curled her hair. “She was flitting about like a little kid,” my grandmother recalled.

Gossip began to swirl, including the conjecture that Steve may have succumbed to a most unnatural death at the hands of his wife’s lover. It was the sort of gross speculation that expats relished, especially while sipping cocktails. “If you live in Ajijic,” Dunlap told me, “you know it thrives on scandal.”


The first time I spoke to Dunlap, she told me that, not long after Steve died, McCready arrived at Big Mama’s for one of her visits. The place was empty. McCready marched over to the bar and announced, apropos of nothing, that she’d killed Steve.

Dunlap stood waiting for the punch line, but it never came. Instead, McCready doubled down on her claim. “She said she smothered him with a pillow,” Dunlap recalled, “and that Pat was watching from inside the coat closet.” Later, McCready told Dunlap that she and Pat had plotted the murder in order to collect Steve’s inheritance, only to discover that he’d changed his will to give some relatives the Ajijic estate and most of his money. Perhaps he’d sensed something nefarious afoot.

In another interview, Dunlap remembered McCready jesting publicly about murdering Steve. “She used to brag about it at cocktail parties,” Dunlap told me. “She’d say jokingly, ‘Sure, I killed him.’ Everyone would just listen to her and laugh.”

Dunlap wasn’t sure what to think, much less say. Why would her friend admit to a crime and risk getting caught? Was she trying to deflect suspicion through morbid humor? On the other hand, if she was lying, it was a bizarre yarn to spin, even for someone with a devilish streak and a fondness for shock value.

In the absence of proof, Dunlap uneasily let the matter lie. Years later, in her fictionalized take on the story, she tweaked the narrative to depict McCready poisoning her elderly employer:

STEVE is in bed, reading a book. DONNA enters the open doorway and knocks.

DONNA

Stevie Poo, I’ve brought you a pot of hot tea, made English style. See, I’ve even added milk, just the way you like it. My mother used to serve it to me like this, she always said it made me relax and sleep better. Here’s hoping it does the same for you.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the stuff of cinematic melodrama, a scenario Dunlap dreamed up for her screenplay. (The script was never produced, but there is periodic chatter around town of Meryl Streep or Sharon Stone being attached to it—wishful thinking in a community of lifelong dreamers.) No one else I spoke to remembered McCready boasting openly of killing her lover’s husband.

Dunlap, however, wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

In 1982, at a New Year’s Eve dinner party at the Posada, a distraught-looking Pat pulled my grandmother aside. “I’m losing her, Jackie,” she whispered miserably. “Donna is in love with someone else.” She was right: McCready broke up with Pat, prompting the spurned widow to leave Ajijic for good. McCready then moved on to occupy one corner of another love triangle.

Dunlap wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

Like the Harringtons, the Taylors were a wealthy retired couple. Albert had been a producer of Broadway shows, and Hildegard was a former model. They maintained an aura of elegance—Albert often wore a monocle—and fawned over one another. When he developed dementia, however, Albert’s personality changed. Pamela Duran, who knew the Taylors well, described how Hildegard would take him to social gatherings, where he sat silently among friends as if in a stupor. In other instances, he grew abusive, yelling at his wife for reasons he couldn’t articulate.

Hildegard sought someone with nursing experience to care for her ailing husband, and McCready got the job. Given how sick he was, no one was surprised when Albert died. But Duran was stunned when, one afternoon, McCready sidled up to her on the Posada’s patio, where she liked to watch the sun set over the lake. McCready sat down at Duran’s table and admitted out of the blue to killing Albert.

According to Duran, McCready leaned forward so that other happy-hour drinkers couldn’t hear her. “I killed Albert by smothering him with a pillow,” she whispered. Duran could only stare at her blankly. “He just didn’t have any quality of life,” McCready continued. “He couldn’t finish a sentence. He peed on himself all the time. And he was mean to Hildegard, so I went in and put a pillow on his face, and I killed the old bastard.”

“You… you did?” Duran finally stammered.

“Yeah, I did.”

Duran told me that she didn’t reveal McCready’s confession to anyone. “I knew that if I did, she’d say, ‘Oh, I was just bragging. I didn’t do that,’” Duran said. “I knew she was telling the truth.” Jan Dunlap also said McCready told her about killing Albert, but by dropping a radio into a tub where he was bathing—and with Hildegard’s knowledge. No one else I spoke to had heard anything about Albert being electrocuted.

The verifiable outcome of his death was that Hildegard and McCready announced their relationship as if it were an engagement. “Everyone, I want to tell you something,” Hildegard said at a dinner party, after clinking her glass with a fork to get the room’s attention. “I am in love with Donna!” Once again, though, McCready’s relationship with a new widow didn’t last long. This time the reason was tragic. Hildegard developed a nasty cough, and when she and McCready traveled to a hospital in Houston to have it checked out, they learned that the cause was terminal throat cancer. Hildegard’s demise was fast and ugly. She had a tracheotomy, and McCready would indulge her requests at parties, which Hildegard still attended, to pour gin down the tube in her throat.

Hildegard died in March 1984. For a brief time, McCready’s spark for trouble seemed to dim. She wasn’t seen at many social gatherings, though she did host a prime-rib dinner in Hildegard’s memory. Some residents felt sorry for her. But when McCready received a sizable inheritance, including at least one property the Taylors had owned in Los Angeles, the cloud of suspicion around her darkened once more. She really is just a gold-digger, people whispered, some with genuine disdain, others with morbid glee.

By all accounts, McCready moved on, setting her romantic sights elsewhere; my grandmother claims that McCready once made a pass at her, right after her third husband died. McCready’s most fateful entanglement, however, was yet to come. It involved a couple with an outwardly idyllic marriage who kept painful secrets, and an indecent proposal gone horribly wrong. No one disputes that the affair ended in a brutal crime.

Act III

When Joe and Barbara Kovach decided to retire in 1980, they had no idea where they’d wind up. They just knew that they wanted to explore the world outside the Chicago suburbs where they’d spent most of their marriage and raised their daughters. Joe, 61, and Barbara, 50, had been movers and shakers in Bolingbrook, a small town Joe had helped to incorporate in 1965.

Joe spent his days behind a typewriter as editor in chief of Beacon, a local newspaper. Barbara ran the paper’s sales department and was active on the board of Bolingbrook’s library and park district. When they decided to leave, the Kovaches wrote a farewell column:

We have lived here for 17 years and have been publishing Beacon for 16 years. Without qualifications, this has been the richest and most rewarding time of our lives, and it has been our friends, associates and readers who have made it so. We will be going to warmer climes and will be facing new challenges and experiences, but leaving will not be easy…. The only way to say good bye is to say it. Good bye. We love you. JJK and BAK.

Then the Kovaches made that classic American move: They bought an RV, which they christened the Pinta, and decided to drive until they felt like staying somewhere. Over several months they headed east, then south, sending their adult daughters postcards from a hit parade of monuments and museums. They crossed the border into Mexico and, like my grandmother more than a decade prior, eventually came upon a panoramic view of Lake Chapala. “Barb, I don’t know about you,” Joe said as they looked at the water, “but I’m never leaving.” It was December 1980. They settled in Ajijic, sold the RV, and rented a house.

The couple came with extra baggage—the emotional kind. Joe wasn’t faithful. He was always flirting with other women and had even made public gestures that landed him in hot water with Barbara. He’d had trouble explaining why, when he’d met a woman in Bolingbrook who owned a cherry tree that wasn’t producing fruit, he’d bought two pounds of cherries and individually tied them to the tree’s branches. Then there was the period when he spent weekends in Indianapolis, supposedly to get better acquainted with a son from a previous marriage whom Barbara had never met. When the son called the Kovaches’ house one day and announced that he was trying to establish contact with his absent father for the first time, it became evident that the tall, slender man with whom Joe had taken pictures in Indianapolis wasn’t really his son. Presumably, the photo was part of a scheme to cover up the fact that he was visiting another woman.

Barbara nearly left Joe a couple of times. Once, she packed her bags and bought a plane ticket to Miami to stay with her sister-in-law. Joe convinced her to let him drive her to the airport and, before they even reached the terminal, to cancel her ticket. It wasn’t wholly surprising; she’d always been susceptible to his persuasions. The Kovaches had met in 1950 in Boston, where Barbara grew up and was studying at the Massachusetts School of Physiotherapy. Joe, born in Hungary, had come to the United States as a child and wound up in Boston after his first marriage ended. He was six foot two, strapping, and a real charmer. When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Joe’s charisma, however, was a facade that shielded troubling behavior from public view. To his four daughters, Kitt, Karen, Kim, and Kandi, in order of age, he could be a tyrant. He was obsessed with instilling an appreciation for the arts, literature, and history. Most family dinners took place at 6 p.m. sharp and began with a quiz. Joe asked trivia questions, and if one of his daughters gave the wrong answer, he replied with cutting commentary like, “You need to worry about getting married, because you’re clearly not going to make it in school.” As the girls grew up, small infractions of house rules could trigger disproportionate responses. Once, Joe woke Kandi up around midnight and made her hand-wash every dish in the kitchen because she’d put one back in the cupboard with a trace of food on it. Another time, Joe had her spend an entire Sunday walking back and forth across the street in front of the house because he’d caught a glimpse of her forgetting to look both ways.

When tragedy struck, Joe was similarly controlling, and Barbara went along with him. Kitt developed leukemia when she was a young teenager. Her parents decided not to tell her that she was dying; in fact, they told no one except Kim and Karen—their youngest was spared from the news—and a few close friends. They claimed that they didn’t want Kitt to fear dying and acted as if her nosebleeds and waning energy were nothing to worry about. One day in 1968, when she was 15, Kitt went to the hospital for a particularly severe nosebleed. She never came home. After her death, the Kovaches grieved and continued to celebrate her birthday privately, but Joe and Barbara also insisted on keeping a stiff upper lip. “It was as though, if you didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen,” Karen later told me.

Setting out in the RV a dozen years later was a chance for the Kovaches to put the past behind them. Barbara saw it as an opportunity to move past Joe’s affairs and reset their marriage. But things didn’t exactly work out that way.


Ajijic had always had painful colonial undertones: foreigners staking their claims to various pieces of property and hiring locals as their gardeners, drivers, and maids. The extent to which the two worlds—white and not—meshed depended on what sort of life an extranjero (foreigner) envisioned on the shores of Lake Chapala. Each of the Kovaches had different priorities.

Barbara committed to learning Spanish and hoped to model herself on longtime expat philanthropists like Neill James, who after arriving in the 1940s supported aspiring Mexican painters and donated to the Lake Chapala Society, which provided funds and school supplies to area children. Barbara’s good works took the form of cooking and delivering meals to residents, both foreign and Mexican, when they were sick. To bring in additional income, she worked as a cashier at a clothing boutique that catered to wealthy tourists and Mexican vacationers.

Joe, by contrast, didn’t bother to learn much Spanish. He started running bridge games and organizing luñadas, guided nighttime horseback rides that promised a dude-ranch-like experience with meals cooked over a campfire. The moonlit trips quickly became popular among extranjeros, who put a wild spin on them. One night, after swigging vodka atop their horses, two women charged into the streets of Ajijic like cavalry, announcing themselves as “the rowdy bunch.”

Where the Kovaches had a shared interest was parties. They cultivated a reputation in the town’s Rolodex of social hosts and wrote letters to their daughters back in the States saying that retirement was the most fun they’d ever had. They had so many friends, they held a small “practice party” the night before throwing a big shindig, inviting B-level acquaintances who wouldn’t fit in their house for the main event.

By the mid-1980s, McCready had also jumped into the hosting game. Her signature was a lobster feast. She would travel to Mexico’s Pacific coast and come back with at least a dozen crustaceans, which she then served to impressed dinner guests. Also impressive to inebriated crowds was the pet duck she kept in the swimming pool in her front yard. “Donna was now the hostess with the mostess,” reads Bob Jones’s script treatment. “She developed her own fan club, of which Joe and Barbara were her key members.”

McCready and the Kovaches also got to know each other through the Lakeside Little Theatre. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1965, organized productions of classic English-language plays, as well as scripts written by expats. Joe was an actor, while Barbara worked behind the scenes fundraising to secure the company a permanent venue so that it could stop staging shows at the Posada. McCready was the theater’s treasurer and also directed plays. In December 1985, she helmed Send Me No Flowers, a comedy about a man who thinks he’s dying and tries to find his wife a new husband; the movie version starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Joe had a small part in the show as a salesman of burial plots.

At cast parties, according to one Ajijic resident, McCready displayed a “cruising mentality” as she eyed potential love interests. Joe gave her a run for her reputation. Retirement hadn’t cured his wayward eye as Barbara had hoped it would, and he garnered a social profile as an arrogant, irredeemable flirt. At one of Joe’s luñadas, my grandmother recalled, a woman fell off her horse and broke her arm, after which he showed up at her door with flowers and profuse apologies. The woman found the gesture kind, but when he kept coming back day after day, she told him to stop or she’d have to call the police.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. In late 1986, after deciding he was attracted to McCready, Joe asked her to have an affair. If she had sex with him, he claimed, she’d never want to sleep with a woman again. Amused and not entirely opposed to the idea, McCready made a counterproposal: First she’d whisk Barbara away on a trip. If she couldn’t seduce Joe’s wife, then she’d sleep with him.

Joe agreed to the wager, and the women went on the trip. What exactly transpired, no one who’s still alive knows. But McCready won the bet—and more. After the women returned to Ajijic, Barbara had news for Joe: She was leaving him, for good this time, to be with McCready.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. 

At first the Kovaches didn’t tell their family about the separation. Letters they wrote in late 1986 make no mention of McCready. One such missive was the couple’s Christmas letter:

This month marked our sixth anniversary in Mexico. How time does fly. We have been living in our present home in Ajijic over two years and plan to stay here indefinitely. The place suits us to a T and there is just enough work and gardening to do to make it interesting and not tedious…. Perhaps in the near future you will head down our way. It is still the best bargain vacation spot.… Just give us a little notice to make sure the casita is available. Again, a merry Christmas and a happy new year. As ever, Barbara and Joe Kovach.

Privately, however, losing Barbara drove Joe nuts. He was feeling particularly vulnerable because he’d just learned that he had prostate cancer and would need surgery to remove the tumor. He’d started taking medication to relieve his pain and counter erectile dysfunction—an insult to his bruised sexual ego. In desperation, Joe faked a suicide attempt to get Barbara’s attention. He called her at McCready’s house and begged her hysterically to come home, claiming that he’d taken a bunch of pills. The ploy didn’t work.

Joe, Barbara, and McCready kept their strife under wraps. The wider expat community was unaware of the disintegration of the Kovaches’ marriage and McCready’s role in it. Not even the troupe at the Lakeside Little Theatre knew. Only very close friends were told what was happening. In retrospect, this may have been because Barbara and McCready hoped to slip out of Ajijic without much of anyone knowing.

In early January 1987, they told Joe that they were moving to California to start a life together. McCready would sell property in Los Angeles that she’d inherited from Hildegard and use the money to buy a house in Palm Springs. The women elected not to cut off contact with Joe, operating on the shaky understanding that they could all stay friends. In an undated letter to the two women, which I obtained from the Kovach family, Joe kept a cordial tone as he addressed their pending departure:

It is evident that you will have to stay at Donna’s house for some time to take care of some practical matters which concern all of us, mostly Barb and I. Following are a list of these matters, though I doubt if they are all inclusive.

Notifying our kids and your parents and other relatives. I will offer no objection on how or what you tell them but for the sake of consistency I should get a copy of these letters. Perhaps the same should hold true for mutual friends in the states. You will also be giving explanations to your co-workers and our mutual friends in this area.

I still think it is very important that you and Donna make some arrangement for your benefit if things do not work out for you. You know you can always come back to me but feeling the way you do about me I do not think you would. Rest assured however, that if you want to come back and I am living with someone else at the time, that person will know that you have first priority because it is you that I love.

In any case, I believe we should all get together at our house after work tomorrow, sober and calm, and discuss all this. You will want to pack your bags in any case.

The women agreed to meet with Joe but flipped the invitation, asking him to McCready’s house for dinner on the evening of January 9. Two days later, they planned to drive away for good.


The gathering began smoothly enough. Joe arrived at McCready’s house at 7 p.m. He and Barbara poured aperitifs as McCready readied the meal. The trio made it through at least a couple of drinks and accompanying niceties before the conversation went south.

Joe had come prepared with a Hail Mary appeal, as he had when he’d dissuaded Barbara from leaving him on the way to the airport many years prior. Couldn’t the women delay their departure, at least until he had his prostate surgery in Guadalajara? McCready said no. But how could they just abandon him like this? They’d be kicking a man who was already down. McCready again flatly refused. She and Barbara were leaving, she told Joe, on January 11.

That’s when Joe lost it. He yanked out a hunting knife that he kept tucked inside one of his boots, common knowledge to anyone who’d seen him use it during the luñadas. According to what Barbara later told friends, he lunged toward McCready, who yelped and dived underneath her dining room table.

Barbara threw herself in front of Joe. She could feel McCready’s arms wrap around her legs as she faced down her husband.

“Go ahead and kill me!” she screamed.

“I would never kill you, Barbara!” Joe yelled back.

Barbara kept her gaze locked on her husband and his hunting knife. Then the thought occurred to her, Why isn’t Donna helping me?

She felt her lover’s grip weakening on her legs and heard a gurgling sound. She looked down and saw that McCready’s neck had been sliced open. Joe had managed to do it when he’d first come at her with the knife. McCready was bleeding out on the Turkish rug beneath the table.

She gasped for air a few times through her punctured trachea, then stopped. She was gone.

“You see what you’ve done?” Barbara cried.

“Yes, I’ve killed her!” Joe responded. “And they’re going to hang me for it.”

Joe didn’t chase Barbara as she burst out of McCready’s house and ran a block to the home of her friend Kathy Curtis. “Joe just killed Donna,” she blurted out when Curtis opened the door. Curtis brought Barbara inside and called the police. When they arrived, they took Barbara to the station to be interviewed. Then officers walked with Curtis over to McCready’s house, where a crime-scene investigation was already under way.

By the next morning, the news had spread. As expats ran into each other in Ajijic’s main plaza and tight lanes, there were hushed conversations, and some not so hushed ones. The rumor mill went into overdrive. One version of the story involved Joe beheading McCready. A neighbor claimed to have heard Joe sharpening a knife before he left for the dinner. Could the murder have been premeditated? When my grandmother heard the news, she was shocked by the barbarity of the crime.

Barbara didn’t want to talk to anyone. After leaving the police station, she holed up in McCready’s house, which hadn’t been scrubbed of her lover’s blood. Joe was nowhere to be found. Clothes, cash, and his yellow Volkswagen bug were gone from his house. He’d fled in the middle of the night.

The buzz continued at a long-planned bake sale to benefit the Lakeside Little Theatre. Every gringo in town seemed to be there. Cookies, bread, and pastries exchanged hands as people shared information and opinions about the murder. There was shock, along with speculation that Barbara might have helped Joe escape. They were still married, after all, and he was the father of her children.

The gossip also contained a heavy dose of she had it coming, which calcified as the days and weeks passed. Xill Fessenden, an artist who moved to Ajijic in 1985, remembered people talking about how McCready had stolen three wives and probably killed two old men. “So many people came to the defense of Joe,” she told me. “People kept saying that Donna deserved it.”

“I mean, she may not have been the nicest person in the world,” Fessenden added, “but who deserves to be murdered?”

Act IV

Interest in that question evaporated quickly. After McCready’s death, there were new scandals for expats to fixate on, like the revelation that a couple of their own were CIA operatives associated with the Iran-Contra affair. “The thing that people always said about the stories that came out of Ajijic was that, once all those stories were collected, no one would believe them,” Ron Wallen, a former resident, told me. “Because that’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

No one heard from Joe again. Barbara organized McCready’s cremation and remembrance, to which none of the deceased’s family came. Then she found herself marooned. Joe had taken the checkbooks, the Social Security payments they received were in his name, and she didn’t qualify for any of her lover’s estate. A stipulation in McCready’s will assigned her assets to her most recent “live-in” spouse, and when lawyers asked Barbara for mail sent in her name to McCready’s address, she couldn’t provide any.

Some townsfolk who felt sorry for her offered distinctly Ajijician gestures. One artist invited Barbara over to unveil a large painting that depicted the murder. In the work, Joe loomed over McCready’s crumpled body, clutching a bloody knife in one hand. The artist thought that seeing it might be cathartic for Barbara. Instead, she started crying and asked to leave.

By 1989, Barbara had saved up enough money selling textiles and working as a caterer to move away. She headed to Barbados, where she worked at a bed and breakfast, then to Maine to care for her elderly parents. She remained in contact with a few people in Ajijic but never set foot there again.

“That’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

Over the years, the absence of key players in the crime, combined with many locals’ aging memories, distaste for McCready, and fervor for juicy lore, allowed falsehoods to become accepted fact. Joe cutting off McCready’s head, for example, hardened into the plot. Paradoxically, the effect of countless retellings was reductive. Characters were essentialized—the wily predator, the long-suffering wife, the jealous husband—to support the tale’s operatic scaffolding. The internet and the ability to scout for information about the event and the people involved didn’t become part of the cultural mainstream until well after 1987, making it easier for the story to remain cocooned.

Separating myth from truth meant diving into a murky quagmire of loose ends that most Ajijic residents had never been concerned with. Why did Barbara enter into a romance with a woman who’d used her as a sexual bargaining chip? How did Joe evade justice? Did the Kovaches ever meet again? And, above all, did anyone know the truth about Donna McCready?


First I traced the Kovaches’ trajectories to find out where they’d wound up. In December 2016, I tracked down their daughters, all of whom live near Phoenix. At Karen’s house, we sat in a ring around the dining room table. The women all possessed the same almond-shaped eyes and easygoing smile, which looked a lot like Barbara’s, based on pictures of her that I’d seen. I explained how I’d first heard about Joe’s crime and produced a copy of Jan Dunlap’s screenplay, which they didn’t know existed. They eagerly paged through it. Kim read some of the dialogue aloud:

BARBARA

I’ll go home and talk to JOE. It may take a while, so don’t get all bent out of shape if I don’t come back until tomorrow.

“Oh, Mom would never say that!” Kim declared with a laugh. Her sisters agreed.

Collectively, the women then shared what they knew about the events that transpired after McCready’s murder. Some of it their parents had told them; other details were divulged in family letters.

After leaving McCready’s body on the dining room floor, Joe decided that he had to get across the U.S. border as quickly as possible. His yellow Volkswagen was a fugitive’s nightmare, but he got behind the wheel anyway and headed for the safest place he could think of: his sister Ann Garey’s house in Berkeley, California, some 1,800 miles north. During a pit stop in Puerto Vallarta, he called Garey. He refused to explain what had happened but said that he would be at her door in a few days. He continued driving north, then ditched his conspicuous coupe before leaving Mexico. He worried that border security might have been told to look out for it. Joe walked into America.

Whether he took a bus or hitchhiked north, no one can remember. By the time he arrived at Garey’s home, he was a wreck: paranoid, haggard, and lacking a plan for what to do next. He told his sister, who’s now deceased, that he’d killed a woman in Ajijic. She was horrified, but Joe swore that he’d acted in a moment of madness. McCready drove him to do it, he said, by mocking him.

In a letter to the Kovach daughters dated February 6, 1987, Garey wrote that Joe was heading to a local hospital for his prostate surgery:

Emotionally, of course, he is still in sad condition, but physically he at least looks much, much better than when he arrived. We all know that this is not the kind of thing Joe would do if he were rational—no matter what she [McCready] said. Something inside him must have snapped and who can say what it was. It’s such a terrible thing to have happened—to everyone concerned. Unfortunately there is no way to undo it—so it seems we all have to go on doing what we are doing—each in their own way—and that is coping and trying to make the situation as bearable as possible.

By then, Kim and Kandi had traveled to Ajijic to be with their mother. They were stunned by everything they learned. They’d known very little about McCready before her murder, and they had no idea Barbara was interested in women. They were told about the bet that had initiated the affair; Barbara had been angry about it, but not enough to ignore her attraction to McCready. As for Joe, he was a philanderer and a cruel father, but he’d never been physically abusive. That he could murder someone seemed unthinkable to his daughters. By his own confession, though, he’d done it.

In Berkeley, Garey found Joe a therapist and a lawyer. Harold Rosenthal was the attorney; he’s retired now. When I spoke with him, he said that he received at least half a dozen calls from the FBI regarding Joe in the winter of 1987. There was no formal charge against his client, but the agency wanted him to “answer some questions.” Rosenthal advised Joe, whom he found to be a “very, very nice man,” not to agree to it. Meanwhile, Rosenthal focused on readying a defense, operating on the assumption that the FBI would eventually obtain a warrant and arrest Joe.

That never happened. Months passed, and the FBI stopped calling. Rosenthal finally decided that there must not have been enough political will or interest to mount a transnational legal case. (Though the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara reportedly cooperated with local authorities immediately after McCready’s death, no one I talked to at the State Department, including representatives of its historical archives, could find any documentation to that effect.) Joe could live his life having gotten away with murder.

Joe’s therapist was named Richard Delman. He’s still in practice near San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. Delman described Joe as “regretful and remorseful about the death of Donna.” He also said that Joe “desperately wanted to be rescued” from the situation he’d dug himself into but refused to pay for intensive psychotherapy. Joe was shocked by the cost of treatment and talked about how everything was cheaper in Mexico, where he’d grown accustomed to the peso. The best Delman could do was recommend that Joe establish regular routines for himself rather than worry about whether he’d find himself in handcuffs on any given day. “He suggests I try to get back into the same kinds of things I’ve been doing: bridge, theater, etc.,” Joe wrote to Kim on February 23, 1987. “This is exactly what I would like to do after getting settled down and getting a job.”

More than anything, Joe wanted Barbara. “That is still the most difficult part for me, not hearing from Barb,” he wrote to Kim. “I’m 67 and feeling old for the first time. I just hope there is enough time left for her to forgive me before it is too late. Thirty-four years and four children is a lot to throw away because of one moment of insanity.”

According to their daughters, Barbara and Joe never saw each other again. When they signed divorce papers in 1989, they did so separately. It was Barbara’s decision. She ignored Joe’s pleas for forgiveness, which he expressed in letters as he moved from California to Arizona, then to Illinois, and finally to Budapest, his birthplace. In a missive dated December 1, Joe wrote:

Dear Barb,

Another year older. Two years ago, I did not think I’d last this long. Even a year ago I had doubts. Strangely enough, I feel quite well, mentally and physically. Have not had a depressed period for over a month or more. Have put on a few pounds. Nightmares are much less frequent and I often sleep through the night. My guilt feelings have not abated, and I suppose they never will, but I am learning to live with them. Why this discourse? Well, Hon, I still entertain the thought that you still retain enough feeling for me to be glad to know that I’m feeling and doing better. Perhaps you do not care at all, which is probably closer to the truth. I find it so very difficult to cling to the hope that you are concerned. I love you so very much.

She didn’t respond, and Joe eventually gave up writing to her. But he frequently asked his daughters how Barbara was doing, including when they hosted him in their homes. He wore out his welcome in every instance, proving the same overbearing presence he’d been in the women’s childhood. “He’d blame my kids for everything,” Kandi told me. Karen wondered where a man who’d murdered someone and destroyed his marriage found the audacity to return letters she wrote to him with grammatical corrections appended.

Kandi and Karen severed contact with their father in the final years of his life, as he lived off $900 a month in Social Security checks and whatever he made occasionally writing for Hungarian newspapers. Only Kim stayed in touch with him until he died in November 2011. She was the one who broke the news to her family, including Barbara. Her mother hardly reacted. “She was emotionally and physically divorced from him,” Kim recalled.

Joe’s body was donated to science. No funeral was held.

By then, Barbara was living in Phoenix to be close to her daughters and grandchildren. She avoided talking about what had happened in Ajijic. Kandi brought up McCready with Barbara just one time.

“Mom, do you think you’re a lesbian?” she asked tentatively. “Do you want help finding a partner?”

“I think I was just lonely,” Barbara responded, then changed the subject. She never spoke of McCready again before dying of pancreatic cancer in December 2013.

For three decades, the woman their mother loved and father killed had been a lingering mystery to the Kovach sisters. They listened with rapt interest as I described my grandmother’s proclamation that McCready was evil. They’d never heard the rumors about her murdering Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor. In fact, they’d talked to very few Ajijic residents who knew McCready or their parents.

It wasn’t entirely a surprise, then, when Kim offered to join me in Ajijic as I looked for evidence of McCready’s life. She wanted to find it, too, and share it with her sisters. We agreed to meet in Mexico in August 2017.


Ajijic no longer feels like a secret. Cheap flights arrive regularly in Guadalajara, and snowbirds—people who travel south to escape the winter in second homes along the lake—are more common than ever. The breathtaking natural views that lured my grandmother and many others have been irreparably altered. Development has been swift and aggressive. There are power lines, radio towers, and rambling McMansions in the foothills above the water. Along the lakeshore are crowded bars, convenience stores, and a Domino’s Pizza. In 2008, Walmart set up shop on the highway leading to Guadalajara.

Juxtapositions define Ajijic. On my first day there, I went on a stroll and passed a parade of horses and a brass band—a funeral procession. Then I turned a corner and saw a Google Street View car, bumping along the cobblestones with its roof-mounted camera.

Longtime expats bemoan this state of affairs. A friend of my grandmother’s blamed NAFTA. “We began to get satellite TVs, telephones, imported items, and all sorts of creature comforts that you wouldn’t have here before,” she told me. “Plus, there were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

“There were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

Like many foreigners in the community, she was quick to gloss over expats’ complicity in the disparities between the lives of foreigners and natives. It’s true, however, that the days when residents ran into each other on a daily basis in a handful of haunts have all but vanished. Big Mama’s is gone; Jan Dunlap, the onetime proprietor, now lives in California. The Posada moved in the 1990s, and the new version just isn’t the same.

When I pressed locals for their memories of McCready, I found their recollections similarly diminished, save those pertaining to her love affairs and death. People who talked with authority about her as a local legend knew remarkably little about her life, particularly before she came to Ajijic. It was as if she had only ever existed in a paradisiacal version of the town and become fossilized as a social upstart with an untamable libido.

Even residents who kept notes about life in Ajijic had little to share. When I met Judy Eager for coffee at the new Posada, which she now runs with her son, she produced a large bound diary. The only entry Eager could find about McCready from the years leading up to her death described her arrival with Lois Schaefer in 1976. It said that the women had lived together “for eight years” in California before relocating.

Schaefer died in 1988, but her son, Ed, lives in the Bay Area. We spoke on the phone, and he remembered McCready, whom his mother met in 1965 or 1966, shortly after she split with Ed’s dad in an acrimonious divorce. Ed spent summers with the two women at their home in Sausalito, and he said McCready, whose background was a mystery to him, “wanted nothing to do” with a kid. She and Schaefer drank heavily, hosted large parties, and sometimes got into scary arguments. Once, they came home “drunker than skunks,” and when McCready noticed that Ed hadn’t done the dishes, she threatened him with a butcher knife. Ed stayed outside wearing only his underwear until his mother had calmed McCready down enough that it was safe for him to go back into the house. Another time, he came home and noticed three fresh bullet holes in the side of the house.

“To me it was no big deal,” Ed said. “It was like water off a duck’s back, because it was always crazy,” meaning life with his mom. Before we hung up, Ed confirmed the story about Schaefer being shot through the breast by a lover in Ajijic.

One afternoon, I paid a Mexican driver named Chevy, who patiently ferries elderly expat women around town, to take me to McCready’s house. We talked in Spanish, and I told him I was working on a story about un asesinato (a murder). This didn’t faze him. Today there are a number of sensational murders associated with Ajijic. In 2000, an American couple, Norris and Nancy Price, were shot to death in their home. Police suspect that it was a contract killing, ordered over a land dispute. In 2005, authorities arrested Perry March, who was living with his young children and father in Ajijic, for murdering his wife in Tennessee a decade prior. He was convicted the next year. In 2012, hit men from a drug cartel killed, decapitated, and disposed of 18 Mexicans just outside town.

McCready’s home on Avenida las Robles was painted bright blue and orange and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. The pool where her pet duck once swam was still in the front yard. When we pulled up, Chevy instantly knew whose murder I was interested in. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Señora Donna!”

It turned out that when he was a teenager, McCready had hired him to wash her car every weekend and deliver copies of the local newspaper to her doorstep. Chevy said she was always very nice to him.

My conversation with Chevy led me to Carlos Hernandez Del Toro, a local attorney who also knew McCready. He was wary of talking to a reporter but said that McCready came into his life when she and Pat Harrington organized a drive to collect supplies for his high school. McCready took a liking to Del Toro and eventually supported him through law school in Guadalajara. He went on to represent her interests and said she was like a godmother to him. As with Chevy’s recollections, the generosity Del Toro described was absent from most expats’ depictions of McCready. But anything he knew about her personal life Del Toro wasn’t willing to discuss. As soon as I mentioned Hildegard Taylor and the property she’d left to McCready, he blurted out, “I have no interest to talk to strange people I do not know!”

I then turned to public records in search of McCready. The only news item I could locate was the dramatic 1987 article about her murder in a Mexican newspaper, accompanied by her obituary. It said that McCready was 45 when she died, that she kept “manikins in her home she used for target practice,” and that she was originally from North Carolina, where she attended “the state university.” I called the registrars at both of North Carolina’s main higher-education systems and found no record of her attendance. Through searches of government databases, I found a Donna L. McCready, which seemed promising, given that the newspaper article about her death had said that McCready’s middle name was Leason. But the birth year (1936) and location (Los Angeles) of the person I’d found conflicted with McCready’s obituary. I emailed a surviving brother of Donna L. McCready and one of his sons, who replied, “Donna never lived in Mexico, hope that helps you.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if McCready had used her real name when she was in Ajijic and before, in Sausalito. Maybe she was someone else entirely. Given her affinity for stirring up intrigue, it didn’t seem out of the question.


The most revealing insights about McCready came from a small cluster of people who considered themselves her friends. They don’t run in the same Ajijic circles as my grandmother, and their take on what happened 30 years ago is different from prevailing opinion.

Helen DesJardins and Joan Gamma have lived in Ajijic on and off since 1983. When I met them at their home, a short walk from Lake Chapala, they told me that the rumors about McCready murdering the husbands of her lovers were ludicrous. “Donna wasn’t like a lot of people thought she was. She was very loyal,” Gamma told me. She would know: Gamma was with McCready at the hospital in Houston when Hildegard Taylor succumbed to throat cancer. Gamma described her friend as devastated by the loss.

She also dismissed the idea that McCready tried to seduce women for financial gain. “If she was all out for money, then why did she end up with Barbara?” Gamma asked. “Barbara had no money.” She and DesJardins hadn’t known about the bet with Joe Kovach when it happened, but they were certain that no matter how it was formed, the bond between McCready and Barbara was genuine.

“Donna was a somewhat tragic figure,” Gamma continued. “She had a rough childhood. She had a terrible stepfather, and her mother was dead.” I asked for more details, but that was all she knew.

It wasn’t the only reference I heard to McCready having a traumatic history. Jan Dunlap said that McCready once described an uncle sexually assaulting her when she was just eight or nine. But Dunlap’s knowledge ran no deeper than Gamma’s. McCready, it seemed, hadn’t liked to talk much about her early life, and no one pushed her to reveal more than she wanted to. In Ajijic, after all, a person’s past was whatever they said it was.

Gamma suggested a connection between McCready’s younger years and her liaisons with married couples. “What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both,” Gamma explained. “She wanted to be accepted by them.” If true, it would mean that Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor dying in succession, with McCready in their employ and sleeping with their wives, was mere coincidence. In which case people’s assumptions about McCready’s ulterior motives might have derived from astonishment that Pat and Hildegard would take a female lover.

“What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both.”

Toward the end of my trip, Kim Kovach arrived in town. Together we met with Estela Hidalgo, an artist and sculptor who was a friend of Barbara’s. The encounter started out awkwardly, as Hidalgo didn’t mince words about Joe. “I’m sorry,” she said to Kim, “but I didn’t like your father from the first moment I met him.” Hidalgo described Joe as “rude” and said she knew people who wouldn’t invite him to parties because his womanizing made guests uncomfortable. “I know,” Kim replied.

Then Hidalgo pivoted to talking about Barbara and how deeply affecting the events of January 9, 1987 must have been for her. “She loved Joe and Donna, so she lost two people in one second,” Hidalgo said. As for McCready, Hidalgo said, she “looked for trouble. There were dinners when she tried to seduce two or three women in a single evening.” When she fell for Barbara, though, she changed.

“When she was with Barbara,” Hidalgo said, “it was only Barbara.”


What I came to realize was that when McCready was alive, prejudice ran deeper in Ajijic than its carefree expats were willing to admit. It carved lines around crowds and cliques on the basis of class and identity. These borders were largely invisible to the people they divided; everyone mingled at the same parties and bars and dinners, because that was life on the shores of Lake Chapala. Still, social and cultural rifts defined the local appetite for gossip—in particular, what sorts of behavior were considered beyond the pale and who was cast in the recurring role of the town villain. When I regaled my grandmother with Gamma’s and Hidalgo’s theories about McCready, she balked. “I don’t buy it,” she said. Never mind that, as she eventually admitted, Hildegard once wrote her a letter rejecting outright that McCready had killed Albert. (My grandmother said she later lost the letter.)

When Ajijic’s old-timers pass away, the legend of Donna McCready will slip quietly into oblivion. It’s vexing not to have an answer to every question about the enigmatic woman. Yet it also feels fitting for someone who enjoyed inspiring a mix of ire, suspicion, and yearning. Even in death, McCready wreaked havoc.

The morning before we left town, Kim Kovach met with Gamma and DesJardins to pour a vial of Barbara’s ashes, which she’d brought from Phoenix, into the lake. They did it at the end of a pier next to Ajijic’s esplanade. “It was lovely,” Kim later told me. Gamma and DesJardins mentioned to Kim that, over the years, they’d scattered several friends’ ashes on the lake. “You should write a book about all of them,” Kim told the women, “and you should call it Our Friends in the Lake.

Among those friends was McCready. Her memorial wasn’t lovely, I learned, but it was perfect.

On a January day in 1987, Barbara and a few friends gathered on the same pier where Kim later stood. After a wine toast, the executor of McCready’s will, a retired lawyer from California, inverted a plastic bag containing her ashes in order to dump them in the water. Just then there was a gust of wind. The executor lost his grip on the bag, dropping it into the lake, and a portion of the ashes blew over the small crowd.

“She was all over everybody,” one of the attendees told me. “Donna got the last word and the last laugh.”


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