M.I.A.

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M.I.A.

Half a century ago, an American commando vanished in the jungles of Laos. In 2008, he reappeared in Vietnam, reportedly alive and well. But nothing was what it seemed.

By Matthew Shaer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 64


Matthew Shaer is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a correspondent for Smithsonian. This is his third article for the Atavist Magazine.

Portraits: Patrick Brown
Editors: Joel Lovell and Evan Ratliff
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Additional Research: Calvin Godfrey and Nhung Nguyen
Video and Film Stills: Courtesy of Myth Merchant Films

Published in January 2017. Design updated in 2021.

The distress call was picked up by the radio crew at Forward Operating Base One, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, on the morning of May 20, 1968. Some 250 miles to the northwest, on the other side of the border with Laos, a team of American and South Vietnamese soldiers had come under heavy enemy fire—the group’s commander was reporting several South Vietnamese and at least one American killed in action. Immediate resupply and medevac were requested. Shouldering his rifle, John Hartley Robertson, the operations sergeant at FOB One, exited the main compound and dashed across the dirt courtyard in the direction of a waiting CH-34D Sikorsky Seahorse helicopter.

At 36, rangy and lean, Robertson was a military lifer in a recruit’s war: He’d enlisted in the Army in his native Alabama out of high school, tested into the Green Berets, and spent several years training paratroopers at Fort Benning, Georgia. In the mid-sixties, as the U.S. was ramping up its bombing of North Vietnam, he’d been dispatched to Asia to join the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group, or MACV-SOG, a top-secret unit that worked closely with the CIA. Robertson was a natural fit for the group, which routinely carried out sensitive search-and-destroy and reconnaissance work inside Cambodia and Laos. As a precaution in case of capture, the men of MACV-SOG wore no patches or insignia on their fatigues. In April of 1968, two years into his stint in Southeast Asia, Robertson had been awarded the Bronze Star for bravery, for leading his men safely out of a firefight with the Vietcong.

“His actions during this time were an inspiration to those members who were evacuated,” the Department of the Army later wrote in its commendation letter, noting Robertson’s “exemplary courage.”

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Now, strapping himself into the Seahorse’s jump seat, Robertson gave the thumbs-up sign to the South Vietnamese Air Force pilot and sat back as the chopper shimmied off the landing pad. Robertson would have fully understood the stakes of the mission he’d been asked to undertake: He was the lone American soldier on board an SVAF helicopter headed for the heart of a country, Laos, where the United States military was not officially active, and a region, the A Shau Valley, that was protected by two battalions of crack Vietcong troops and several rings of anti-air emplacements. Robertson was the cavalry. If the very worst happened, his own prospects of rescue would be slim.

Close to midday, Robertson’s chopper established radio contact with the American and South Vietnamese commandos, who had created a defensive perimeter around a clearing atop a hill referred to as 1045. According to American troops on the ground that day, the helicopter was on final approach when the first enemy soldier opened fire. The Seahorse was sturdy—some 8,000 pounds unloaded—but not bulletproof, and the South Vietnamese pilot attempted to yank the machine around for another pass. He did not get far: As the commandos watched, an enemy rocket spiraled out of the undergrowth, smacking the Seahorse on the flank. Losing power and coughing orange flame, the helicopter drifted into a nearby valley and exploded.

The body of Sergeant John Hartley Robertson was never found.

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Downed helicopter, Vietnam (Photo: Bettman / Getty Images)

In the spring of 2008, a Christian missionary named Tom Faunce was digging wells in rural Cambodia when he heard a rumor, from a local pastor, about an American soldier who had managed to survive a helicopter crash over Laos in the spring of 1968. According to the pastor, the soldier, a decorated Green Beret, had later married a nurse from a North Vietnamese Army prison, taken the identity of the woman’s dead husband, and migrated with his new wife to the southern Vietnamese province of Dong Nai. Locally, the man was known as Dang Tan Ngoc. But his real name, the pastor said, was John Hartley Robertson.

Another person might have dismissed the story as pure fantasy. Tom Faunce found that he could not. “I know what it’s like to be abandoned—the toll it can take on a person,” Faunce told me recently. “And I thought to myself, What will it say about me if I find out there’s an American out there and I don’t do anything to get to him?”

Growing up in Michigan, Faunce, who is stout and silver-haired, with a hunched posture that shells him up into a permanent defensive crouch, spent a lot of his time in group homes and juvenile detention centers. At the age of 12, returned temporarily to the custody of his parents, he watched his father perish in a house fire. At 17, he was arrested for felonious assault, for breaking a bottle over a man’s head. Faunce denied the charges, but a judge found him guilty and gave him a choice: jail or enlistment. Faunce chose the latter. He was assigned to an Army infantry unit and sent to Vietnam. He got there in 1968, just in time for the Tet Offensive. “If you want to stay alive, forget everything you ever learned,” a soldier told him by way of welcome.

Faunce survived two tours of duty, but plenty of his friends did not. “Seeing others as young as I was—dead—and knowing that it could have been me crushed my heart and I felt I had died, too, along with them,” Faunce wrote in his self-published 2007 memoir, A Soldier’s Story. In the 1980s, he channeled his guilt into a series of increasingly risky personal missions abroad. He traveled to the Balkans and South Sudan, where he distributed food and clothing, and he smuggled bibles to rebels on the Mosquito Coast. He contracted malaria, typhoid, and hepatitis. The months away from home took a toll on his wife, Julie, and their four children. But Faunce believed he had been handpicked by the Lord. He was fond of saying that he’d taken two oaths, one to his fellow soldiers—no one left behind—and the other to God: “No one left unloved.”

In the person of Dang Tan Ngoc, the mysterious stranger in Dong Nai, Faunce recognized a clear test of his values. “I kept remembering the parable of the lost sheep from the Gospels,” he told me. “There’s this shepherd, and he’s got 100 sheep in his flock. Well, one sheep disappears, and the shepherd leaves the other 99 to go after the one.” He recited the parable’s conclusion from memory: “And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices more over that one sheep than over the 99 that did not go astray.”

Faunce began making inquiries through the Cambodian pastor, who went by the Western name of Ames, about the man in Vietnam. Ames said he could get Ngoc’s phone number. Unfortunately, Faunce would not be able to make the call himself: John Hartley Robertson, Faunce was informed, no longer spoke any English, the result of severe mental and physical trauma suffered at the hands of the NVA.

Instead, Faunce listened as Ames made the call. It did not take long. “John says we can visit him,” Ames told Faunce, in Faunce’s recollection. “It’s no problem.”

The next day, Ames, Tom Faunce, and his cousin Joe Faunce, a paramedic who often joined Tom on missionary trips abroad, climbed into a van and drove overland from Cambodia to Dong Nai province—an eight hour trip, most of it on steep mountain roads and rutted asphalt. They arrived at a small bungalow in Dong Nai in the late afternoon. Thick-canopied hardwoods hung over the driveway, blotting out the sun.

Robertson appeared in the doorway of the bungalow. He was slender and wizened, about six feet tall, with thinning gray hair swept back in strands from his forehead. His eyes shiny with tears, he led his guests into the house and encouraged them to take a seat in the living room. But as soon as the Americans had made themselves comfortable, Robertson’s elderly wife emerged from the kitchen, shouting at Tom and Joe Faunce in Vietnamese. The pastor did his best to translate: “He’s not American,” she was saying. “He’s Vietnamese!” Robertson quickly steered his wife out of the room.

When they returned, the woman’s story had changed. “She says, ‘No, I lied,’” Faunce told me. “She said, ‘He is an American soldier. I just fear for my family.’”

Over the course of the next few hours, Robertson regaled Ames and the Faunces with tales of his military career, listing the American bases and outposts from the 1960s and correctly identifying aircraft used by the American military of that era. He had questions, too: Was his family OK? Were his parents still alive?

Faunce didn’t have the answers and recommended that Robertson accompany him to a United States embassy for a fingerprint test that would establish his identity and give him access to his old life. Fearing interference from the Vietnamese government, Faunce suggested they travel to the embassy in Phnom Penh rather than the closer American consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To Faunce’s surprise, Robertson assented. The Faunces and their passenger made the journey to Phnom Penh in less than a day. Robertson sat at the window, a peaceful expression on his face.

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Green Beret John Hartley Robertson circa 1966. (Photo: Robertson family archives)

Between 1965 and 1975, approximately 58,000 American service members perished in the war in Southeast Asia. An estimated 153,000 were injured. And more than 2,000 were listed as missing in action, lost to a complex conflict that spilled across borders and oceans and hundreds of miles of jungled and mountainous terrain.

For many years, long after the fall of Saigon, it seemed eminently credible to many Americans that those soldiers might still be chained up in remote prisons, waiting to return home. (The 1984 Chuck Norris vehicle Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood Part II, where the titular hero travels to Vietnam to retrieve a group of POWs, helped establish that belief in the public’s consciousness.) Black POW/MIA flags hung in the New York Stock Exchange and flew above the White House. “A prudent person,” the Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin wrote in his 1992 study,  M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America, “would not question the existence of live POWs at a public gathering or in a strange bar, for the belief in their existence, their suffering, and their betrayal often has all the intensity of a religion.”

In 1993, a Senate committee chaired by John Kerry—and convened in part to tamp down speculation on the MIA issue—concluded that “while the Committee has some evidence suggesting the possibility a POW may have survived to the present, and while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”

Still, many veterans, Faunce among them, refused to accept the findings of the committee, which to them looked to be born of political expediency. This conviction endured well into the 2000s. “I was there, and I know for a fact that whole squads were totally lost in Nam,” Faunce told me last spring. “You can’t say to me that we brought home everyone we could have.”

Before he met with the man in Dong Nai, Faunce had done his best to piece together the details of John Hartley Robertson’s biography. By poring over old military records, he’d learned that, officially, the Green Beret was listed as presumed dead. And yet Faunce thought it possible that Robertson survived the crash. After all, on the afternoon of May 20, 1968, the South Vietnamese had conducted a few flyovers of the A Shau Valley, but no ground troops had been dispatched, due to the thick enemy presence; by evening the search was called off entirely. (The troops Robertson had been sent to rescue, ironically, all came back alive.) Wasn’t there a scenario where Robertson leapt from the helicopter as it was going down and, badly injured, allowed himself to be taken captive by the NVA?

“I thought to myself, What will it say about me if I find out there’s an American out there and I don’t do anything to get to him?”

Now, at the front desk of the U.S. consulate in Phnom Penh, Faunce identified himself as a veteran and told the wary Cambodian guards that he’d located a man he believed to be a missing American soldier. Faunce says he and Robertson were met by two American officials and led into the main building for the fingerprint test. (Citing privacy concerns, the State Department declined to discuss Faunce’s visit on the record, but declassified government documents I viewed confirm that a fingerprint test took place.)

Robertson and Faunce retreated to their guesthouse to await the results. Faunce’s cell phone rang around dinnertime: The prints didn’t match. Faunce recalls urging the embassy staffers to conduct additional tests. Robertson knew too much to be a fake, he protested—if he wasn’t John Hartley Robertson, perhaps he was a different missing American service member. But the embassy staffers were adamant. “They said, ‘We don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars,’” Faunce remembered. “I go, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re sitting there in that multimillion-dollar compound, and you’re not going to conduct more tests on a guy who says he’s an American citizen?’ To be honest, it just made me want to fight harder,” he went on. “Something most certainly was not adding up.”

Until that point, Faunce had been carrying out his investigation largely on his own. But in 2009, he was connected by church friends to a filmmaker named Patrick Portelance, who had heard from a mutual acquaintance about Faunce’s discovery in Dong Nai province and wanted to make a documentary about John Robertson. Faunce was fascinated by the possibilities: A movie might help put pressure on the American government.

Joe and Tom Faunce purchased tickets for a flight to Phnom Penh, covering Portelance’s costs, and then drove with him out to Dong Nai. Portelance told me that before leaving, based on the Faunces’ research, he was about “50 percent” sure that the man in Dong Nai was Robertson. “Once I talked to the guy, though, I’d say I was at 75 percent,” he said. Portelance noticed that when Robertson was questioned, through a local translator, about his youth or his family, he’d furrow his brow, tap his forehead with one slender finger, and apologize: Those memories were lost. And Robertson’s description of the crash—he said there were multiple Americans on board the helicopter—didn’t fit the Army account.

Still, Portelance, who had recently been involved in a helicopter accident himself while filming a speedboat race in upstate New York, knew that a head injury could muddle the brain. “To this day, there are pictures that I can look at, and I’m in them, but I have no recollection of the photo being taken,” Portelance told me.

Robertson, pliant as always, accompanied Portelance and the Faunces to their hotel in Dong Nai province, where Joe Faunce, the paramedic, asked Robertson to strip naked for a physical examination. The absurdity of the request seems not to have bothered Robertson: He quickly removed his shirt, pants, and underwear. Joe took note of Robertson’s circumcised penis—circumcision is a rarity in Vietnam—and the heavy scarring on his stomach and waist. He had Robertson open his mouth for a buccal swab, for DNA-testing purposes, and took blood from his arm.

Outside, the summer dusk was gathering. The Faunces and Portelance promised to do what they could with the fluid samples. In response, Robertson embraced them one by one, wrapping them in his long arms. His face was again shiny with tears.

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Ed Mahoney of the 82nd Airborne Division in the early 1960s. (Photo: Mahoney family archives)

Reviewing the footage from Vietnam, Portelance realized he had stumbled onto the story of a lifetime. But he’d collected only about 20 hours of tape. In order to do his subject justice, he’d have to go back to Dong Nai—an impossibility, given his weakened physical state. His head injury left him constantly fatigued and dizzy, and he was having trouble sleeping. In 2010, he told me, he reached out to a respected Canadian director named Michael Jorgensen, whose body of work included an Emmy Award–winning episode of PBS’s Nova, with the aim of convincing Jorgensen to partner with him on the documentary. According to Portelance, he and Jorgensen later struck a coproduction deal.(Portelance has since accused Jorgensen of elbowing him off the project; Jorgensen disputes Portelance’s account.)

Jorgensen spoke by phone with Tom Faunce and ordered a copy of Faunce’s book, A Soldier’s Story. He devoured it in a single sitting. “Here was a guy who had been really damaged as a kid, had been damaged by his experiences in Vietnam, and was on a journey to heal his heart and his soul,” Jorgensen told me. “And that was the deciding factor for me, regardless of whether this individual was actually John Hartley Robertson.”

He ultimately made two trips to Vietnam, the first with the Faunces and Hugh Tranh, a Vietnamese-Canadian translator, and the second with a former Army paratrooper named Ed Mahoney, who had been trained by John Hartley Robertson at Fort Benning. As a young recruit, Mahoney had been enamored by Robertson’s poise and intelligence, as had the other noncommissioned officers under him. “He was the embodiment of what we thought a perfect soldier should be,” Mahoney told me recently.

In 1991, at a reunion for the 82nd Airborne, Mahoney had discovered Robertson’s fate and sunk into a state, as he put it later, of “complete denial.” It was inconceivable to him that his former mentor could simply have vanished in a ball of fire. He’d spent the next two decades speaking to MACV-SOG veterans and attempting to piece together the details of the crash. He’d also reached out to various members of the Robertson family, which had, by all accounts, been shattered by John’s disappearance. One family member told me that the news had hit John’s father particularly hard—John had been Joe Robertson’s favorite, the golden child, the decorated Army hero. Joe had a difficult time going on without him; he died in 1970. “John being gone, that killed Joe, I know it,” the family member said. “And from there, everything just sort of fell apart.” Robertson’s wife remarried and took her new husband’s name; without John as the glue, his sisters became estranged from his only brother and gradually grew apart.

In 2002, Mahoney had obtained an email address for Robertson’s wife, only to be rebuffed. “She had been contacted many times about John,” Mahoney later wrote in a blog post. “All these contacts were bogus ones that claimed they had info about John that turned out to be totally false. Looking back at this contact with John’s ex-wife I could understand why she was not interested in what I had to say, so I let it be and never contacted her again.”

Now Mahoney was finally being offered a chance to reunite with Robertson, almost half a century after he’d last seen the tall Green Beret. “I was absolutely thrilled,” he told me of his 2012 visit to Dong Nai. “I remember getting there, too, and taking one look at him, I knew right there on the spot that it was him. There was no mistaking it.” (That the real John Hartley Robertson had been Caucasian, while the man in Dong Nai had Asian features, did not seem to give Mahoney pause. When I asked him about it later, he said he’d reasoned that age often blurred appearances.)

Their encounter, filmed by Jorgensen at a restaurant in Dong Nai, is a wonder to behold: Tom Faunce leads the way, hugging Robertson and greeting him as “homey.” Mahoney, clad in a white T-shirt, cargo shorts, and white sneakers, hangs back a few steps. He and Robertson start with a handshake and fall into an awkward embrace. “Long time no see,” Mahoney tells Robertson. For his part, Robertson appears not to recognize Mahoney at all.

Later, Jorgensen films Joe Faunce asking Mahoney if he thinks Robertson is the real deal. Mahoney replies emphatically in the affirmative. “This is John Hartley Robertson, the man I served with in Delta Company 1503, 82nd Airborne, in 1959 to 1961,” he says.

Jorgensen told me that Mahoney’s ID of Robertson was a “pretty strong testimonial.” But he lacked forensic proof that the Robertson in Dong Nai was John Hartley Robertson. Fortunately, it was a problem Jorgensen had overcome before. In 2005, he had produced a film for the Discovery Channel called Arctic Manhunt: Hunt for the Mad Trapper, about Albert Johnson, a murderous Canadian vagabond. To help shed some light on Johnson’s early life, Jorgensen had asked a forensic expert to measure the oxygen-isotope levels in Johnson’s teeth; since oxygen-isotope levels don’t change after childhood, the test can be used to determine where the subject grew up.

The filmmaker advocated doing the same for Robertson, and with the cameras rolling, Robertson allowed a local dentist to pluck a molar from his mouth. Placing the tooth in plastic, Jorgensen brought it to Lesley Chesson, the president of a Utah firm called IsoForensics

Chesson, a respected forensic expert, told me in an email message that before 2012, she’d never conducted a test on a tooth from a living person—oxygen-isotope analysis is customarily utilized by archaeologists and anthropologists to source long-buried human remains. But on Jorgensen’s insistence, she tested the tooth for both oxygen and strontium isotopes, a second possible indicator of geographic origin. Later, Jorgensen came to her lab in Salt Lake City to interview her. “Based on the oxygen and strontium data, in combination, we measured for the tooth enamel, it is very unlikely the individual JHR was from France or Vietnam,” she told the camera. “It is very likely that he actually lived, during young childhood, between the ages of 3 and 12, in the United States. In other words, it’s very likely that he is an American citizen.”

That was enough for Mahoney. In the fall of 2012, he called Jean Holley, Robertson’s eldest sister, at her home near Tuscaloosa. “I think we’ve found your brother,” he told her.  

It has since been pointed out by critics of Jorgensen’s film that the crises that followed might have been averted had the filmmaker simply ordered a test comparing Jean’s DNA to the fluid samples collected by the Faunces. But the documentary team claims—and a family member agrees—that Jean didn’t want the tests: She preferred to talk to the man in person.

In the winter of 2012, Jorgensen sent Hugh Tranh to Vietnam to retrieve Robertson and bring him to Edmonton, Alberta, where Jean would be waiting. People who spoke to Jean Holley in the run-up to the meeting recall a changed woman, buoyant with optimism. Johnny had been Jean’s favorite sibling growing up; his disappearance had left “a part of her forever missing,” as one family member recalled. Now near the end of her own life, she was being presented with a chance to hold Johnny again. She couldn’t stop smiling.

Jean flew from her home in Tuscaloosa to Canada with her husband of 63 years, Henry Holley, and one of her daughters, Gail Holley Metcalf, who had last seen John Hartley Robertson at her tenth birthday party. The reunion took place on December 17. In the final version of Jorgensen’s film, it is depicted from a variety of angles: Robertson and Tranh in a taxi cab, speeding through downtown traffic; Tom and Joe Faunce and Ed Mahoney striding confidently toward Jean Holley and Metcalf; Jean Holley in a wheelchair, her eyes watery and wide.

When Robertson enters the room, the synthetic string soundtrack surges. Jean gets out of her wheelchair, emitting a happy groan, and she and Robertson embrace. Both are sobbing. “We absolutely never, never forgot about you,” Jean says, clutching Robertson’s head. She later told family that she had “no doubt” that the man was her brother.  

On February 4, Jean and Henry Holley were involved in a severe car wreck near their home in Tuscaloosa. Henry passed away as a result of his injuries. Jean, who suffered severe head trauma, remains in full-time rehabilitative care.

When I reached out to Gail Metcalf this spring, she told me that in 2012, “my mother believed that she’d found her brother, and she was happy.” That was enough for Metcalf. As a family, she added, “we’ve closed the book on that chapter in our lives.”

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Jorgensen’s film, Unclaimed, premiered on April 20, 2013, at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto. In a feature published in the Toronto Star, staff reporter Linda Barnard called the documentary “dramatic” and “heart-wrenching.” Unclaimed, she went on, makes a “compelling case” that Tom Faunce had found John Hartley Robertson.

A few days later, the Huffington Post picked up on the story and published its own article under the headline, “Vietnam vet, presumed dead in combat, reportedly found 44 years later.” Among the readers of the HuffPo piece was a Virginia man named Rodney Millner, who happened to know a whole lot about John Hartley Robertson.

Millner is 67; he spent the majority of his professional life in the Air Force, as an intelligence analyst. In the early 1990s, facing retirement, he’d transitioned to a desk at the Department of Defense’s POW/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, where he was tasked with sorting through the seemingly endless number of live sighting and dog-tag reports coming out of Southeast Asia. If the evidence warranted, he would forward the cases to field operatives for further investigation. “At the peak, in the mid-1990s, we were handling 500 cases a year,” Millner, who recently retired from the DPMO, and thus is able to speak freely for the first time about the Robertson case, told me. “You’d get a lot of tags and bones, because there was a rumor that if you had evidence that led us to an MIA, you’d be able to come to the U.S. It wasn’t true. Still, it’s hard to quash a good rumor.”

Reading the HuffPo article, “I remember being pretty frustrated.” Millner told me recently. “Because [the documentary] was false on a couple of different levels: Not only had we known about the guy in Dong Nai for a long time, but we’d proved conclusively that he was a fraud.”

In 2009, after Tom Faunce escorted Robertson to the embassy in Phnom Penh, Millner was asked to compile a report on all the recent claims involving John Hartley Robertson. Millner had long been familiar with the name of the missing Green Beret—most people on the DPMO’s Vietnam desk were. “Dong Nai, for whatever reason, was always a fertile source of live sightings,” Garnett Bell, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s POW/MIA office, a predecessor to the DPMO, told me last spring. “I’d estimate we had four or five half-Asians from that area claiming to be American POWs.”

During his tenure in the 1980s, Bell told me, he had dispatched an investigator to Dong Nai to fingerprint a “John Robertson”; the results had been negative. But by 1992, “Robertson” was back on the government’s radar, this time courtesy of a Laotian dissident, Khambang Sibounheuang, who claimed to have knowledge of the whereabouts of an American POW hiding out in Dong Nai. Intrigued, Mark “Zippo” Smith, a retired Army Ranger then working a private security detail for the princess of Cambodia, drove to the Vietnamese border to meet with the man. “I get out of the car, and here’s this tall half-Asian guy,” Smith recalled. The man’s name was Larry Stevens, Smith was told.

Smith knew that Stevens, a naval aviator missing since 1969, had been one of the subjects of a widely circulated photo that purported to show three American POWs in Vietnamese custody. (The two others were Colonel John Leighton Robertson and Major Albro Lundy Jr., both of the Air Force, but the photo, which appeared on the cover of Newsweek in the spring of 1991, was itself later revealed to be fraudulent.)

“I looked at him and said, ‘You’re not Larry Stevens,’” Smith recalled. “Then I drove away.” A few years later, Smith was given new intel on an American POW. He traveled to Phnom Penh and found the same man waiting for him, along with a pair of Vietnamese men. “Only now the guy says his name is John Leighton Robertson,” Smith recalled. Brandishing his pistol, Smith suggested that the world might be better off if he shot the imposter then and there. I emailed Smith several photographs of Faunce’s John Robertson, and Smith confirmed that it was the same man he met at the Vietnamese border.  

Smith says he reported the incident to the Defense Department. But the DIA—and later the DPMO—had its hands tied: Aside from alerting the Vietnamese government, there was nothing the agency could do to punish a sovereign resident of a foreign country.

As Rodney Millner noted in his 2009 report, Robertson’s name next cropped up in the early aughts, with the arrival, at the Virginia offices of the DPMO, of a set of fingerprints purportedly belonging to John Hartley Robertson. The sender was a Vietnamese-American woman in Maryland, and like Khambang Sibounheuang, the Laotian, she was well-known to DPMO investigators: The suspicion in the agency was that she was serving as an American front for con artists in Vietnam.  

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A number of photos had followed, all showing a slender, silver-haired man identified as currently living in Dong Nai province. The images appeared Photoshopped and were captioned with erroneous information: In one, the name “Robby” is scrawled over the subject’s chest. In another, Robertson’s last known address is listed as 518 South Louis St., in Boston, an address that does not exist, and has never existed, on any map.

Still, in 2006, an investigator had again been dispatched to Dong Nai to speak with the alleged MIA. According to this investigator, the man, who looked to be of mixed Caucasian and Asian extraction, immediately admitted he was a lifelong citizen of Vietnam named Dang Tan Ngoc. “Despite DPMO requests, no source has provided any information that proves their claim is valid,” Millner wrote near the end of his report. He filed the document under the reference number 1184 and sent it to his bosses.

On May 1, 2013, as Jorgensen was preparing to take Unclaimed into wide release, the British paper The Independent obtained a copy of the 2009 report compiled by Rodney Millner and published a summary of Millner’s findings. Confronted with the allegations that Robertson was a fraud, Jorgensen argued that his critics misunderstood him: His movie was not about one man’s identity. Instead, it was “about one man’s”— Tom Faunce’s—“emotional journey.” The criticism, he said, “doesn’t make me rethink my film.”

Tom and Joe Faunce retreated to their homes to be with their families. “We were frustrated by the public reaction,” Joe Faunce told me recently. “We felt like people weren’t asking the right questions.” He pointed me to a 2013 investigation by Robert Burns of the Associated Press, depicting the government’s POW/MIA recovery operation as “woefully inept and even corrupt.” The article, which centered on a confidential internal evaluation, found that the MIA database employed by government investigators was incomplete and that the process used to test remains was “acutely dysfunctional.”

To trust the word of the DPMO, Joe and Tom Faunce concluded, would be a mistake. The DPMO could explain neither the IDs made by Holley and Mahoney, nor Robertson’s unprompted and correct recollection, during a scene that does not appear in Unclaimed, that Henry Holley once owned a pharmacy. (“No one on our crew was aware of that,” Jorgensen says.) “How would he know so much about the real Robertson?” Joe asked me.

I raised this last question in conversations with several current and retired POW/MIA investigators. All of them responded in the same way: Digging up biographical information on a missing soldier is the easy part of any MIA scam. “I actually thought about this a lot during my time as an investigator,” one retired official told me. “And what I figured out was that a lot of these con artists had contacts in the North Vietnamese government or had access to U.S. personnel files that had been stolen from bases.” He recalled once recovering files from a North Vietnamese soldier that “had a ton of data on American personnel, down to the size of the boots the soldiers wore.”  

Other potential sources included magazines such as Task Force Omega, which collected intel on American service members lost in Vietnam and were widely available in Southeast Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. (John Hartley Robertson, John Leighton Robertson, and Larry Stevens are all featured in the Task Force Omega archives). “The bottom line,” the official told me, “was that it was out there, if you were unsavory enough to use it.”

Harder to comprehend, for me, were the findings of the oxygen-isotope test on the molar, which are presented in Unclaimed as definitive proof of Robertson’s country of origin and thus his citizenship: “No matter what, the test shows you are an American,” Tom Faunce says to Robertson in one on-camera exchange captured by Jorgensen.

And if he’s a fraud? “Then I want to know that, too.”

This spring I emailed Lesley Chesson of IsoForensics to ask for a copy of the results of the test she conducted on Robertson’s tooth. Chesson said she couldn’t give it to me without the permission of Myth Merchant Films, Jorgensen’s company, but a producer at Myth Merchant agreed to send me a summary. The summary does indeed state that a number of areas in the U.S. have oxygen-isotope values consistent with the ones found in the molar. A measuring of precipitation oxygen-isotope levels (a slightly different metric that relies on weather models), though, shows values consistent with a range of locales—China, Myanmar, and a scattering of European countries.

I sent Chesson’s summary letter to two leading experts in oxygen-isotope analysis. In an email message, Carolyn Chenery, a scientist with the British Geological Survey, told me that “there is a possibility of North American origin.” Still, she added, “much of the rest of the world cannot be ruled out.” Wolfram Meier-Augenstein, a professor at Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen, Scotland, concurred: The “tooth data do not provide evidence the man is Western,” he said. “He might be, but he might equally be Asian.”

In 2014, Gail Holley Metcalf and John Michael Robertson, the sole child of John Hartley Robertson’s only brother, submitted DNA samples to a lab in Alabama for comparison against the saliva samples collected by Joe Faunce in Dong Nai. The samples did not match. “At present, we do not have DNA proof of a biological relationship between my Mother and ‘John,’” Holley Metcalf wrote in a statement at the time.

But John Michael Robertson, who goes by Mike, has continued to hold out hope that the man in the documentary is his uncle. “There’s something the government isn’t saying,” he told me in a phone conversation this spring. He wondered aloud about the possibility of obtaining new saliva from Robertson, or of bringing John to the States or Mexico for a more rigorous battery of tests under more stringent conditions.

I asked Mike what he’d say if he had a chance to speak to the man in Dong Nai. He replied that he’d mailed Robertson a card for Veterans Day, along with an old black-and-white photo, dated to the mid-1960s, of John Hartley Robertson and his family standing outside their home in Alabama. “I guess I want to know how that photo made him feel, you know?” Mike said. “I want to know if he’s happy with his new family in Vietnam. And I want to know if he still thinks of his old family back home.”

And if he’s a fraud? “Then I want to know that, too,” he said.

Tom Faunce had always been the most obvious conduit to Robertson, and when he informed me, not so long ago, that he was planning another mission to Cambodia—and that it might be possible to get Robertson to join us there—I jumped at the opportunity. We met in Phnom Penh, in a guesthouse in the backpacker district of the capital. Faunce answered the door to his room in cargo shorts and an MIA T-shirt. A long knife hung from his belt.

“My thing is this: If the guy is a phony, then arrest him,” Faunce told me over lunch at a nearby café. “As a veteran, I’d want him punished, too—no one should be able to impersonate a soldier. But I don’t understand how you can try to just write a man off.”

He was worried about his friend: He’d heard that Robertson was having some kind of problem with his legs, or maybe his back, and that it was difficult for him to leave the house. Faunce wanted to purchase a wheelchair for him here in Phnom Penh; some medication, too, if he could figure out exactly what pills Robertson needed.  

“Do you think John might still meet us in Cambodia?” I asked.

The trip would be taxing for Robertson, Faunce responded, but he promised we could call him later on that day. We did; no one picked up.

I spent the next three days accompanying Faunce on his pre-expedition rounds. Soon it would be dry season, and Phnom Penh was already shadeless, swirling in diesel fumes and dust. We drove to the offices of a local printer and loaded up a truck with bibles and Christian audiobooks. We stopped at a warehouse where Faunce haggled with the proprietor over the price of a 50-pound bag of Chinese clothing.

But there was still no news from Dong Nai, and I was getting anxious. On the eve of his departure for the mountains, I pleaded with Faunce’s local fixer, Ratha Soy, to try Robertson one last time. Surely he’d be open to meeting us at the Cambodian border. Reluctantly, Soy punched in the numbers on his mobile. The call was short. “Sorry,” Soy said, hanging up. “He cannot do it. The police are there and he is scared.”

“Are the police there, or is he sick?” I asked.  

“Both,” Soy said.  

I told Faunce that I had no choice: I’d be buying a bus ticket to Vietnam. We said goodbye on bad terms. “You won’t be able to find him,” Faunce told me. Even if I did, Robertson wouldn’t talk to me, he insisted: “The only Americans he trusts are me and Joe.”

At home in the U.S., I had pored over every minute of Unclaimed, looking for the kind of identifying detail that might lead me to Robertson. To no avail: The Vietnamese hotels and restaurants depicted in the film were nameless, the houses generic. But when I showed the movie to a friend in Ho Chi Minh City, he caught something I had missed: The phone number, on a billboard, of a fruit wholesaler next door to Robertson’s dentist.

Through a translator, I got in touch with the dentist’s wife, who helped book clients for her husband. Of course she remembered the con lai, or mixed-race man, she said—he lived in the next hamlet. And she still had his phone number.

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To reach Dong Nai from Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of the Republic of South Vietnam, you drive due east on the sleek new blacktop of Route CT101 before turning north over a series of steep hills humped like the curves of a dragon’s spine. The hills give way to shaded groves of rubber trees, the rubber trees again to city.

As recently as the 1970s, Dong Nai province was mostly wilderness, but at the end of the war, the victorious Communist government made it part of the New Economic Zones program, opening the area to hundreds of thousands of northerners. Today, Dong Nai is a rapidly industrializing exurb of Ho Chi Minh City, full of rubber processing and machine-parts plants, indistinguishable in its unlovely sprawl from any other Vietnamese manufacturing hub. Smog clings to the horizon; petrol stands crowd the road.

The dentist’s office, which doubled as the dentist’s home, was located off a busy avenue in the city’s Dinh Quan district. On the morning I visited, along with a photographer and an interpreter, I passed a half-dozen patients waiting on a bench outside the front door—one was holding a bag of ice to his chin. “Root canal,” the dentist’s wife explained, smiling broadly. If she was at all unsettled by our presence, she didn’t show it: She guided us to the living room and turned a rickety fan in our direction.

Over iced coffee, I pressed her on what she knew about Robertson. She responded in the same way as nearly everyone I would interview in Dong Nai: He was of French-Vietnamese ancestry, one of dozens of mixed-race people left over from the long Western occupation of her country. She shrugged to show she hadn’t given it much thought. But what about the documentary film crew that had brought the con lai to her office? That must have signaled that there was something special about Dang Tan Ngoc. Another shrug. “Maybe it was a movie about the war?” she asked.

She dialed Ngoc on her cell phone. “He’ll be here in ten minutes,” she said, hanging up. “He lives right around the corner.”

The next time I looked up, the man from Unclaimed was sitting on the bench outside the front door, alongside the waiting patients, one long leg crossed over the other, his hands gently steepled on top of his knees. He was dressed neatly, in creased slacks and a beige dress shirt. On his wrist he wore a fake gold Rolex. Not for the last time, I was struck by his placid demeanor: the unworried smile, the long cigarette collecting ash. We’d called him, and he had come—it had been as easy as that.

The dentist’s wife waved him inside. He declined a cup of coffee, accepted a glass of water, and folded himself into the chair to my right. “I’m pleased to see you,” he said, in what my interpreter later identified as a distinctly southern Vietnamese accent.

While we exchanged pleasantries, I examined his face. It might have been true, as Tom Faunce had told me, that Robertson’s height was the same as John Hartley Robertson’s, or, as Ed Mahoney had it, that his hairline matched the Green Beret’s. But I could see only the barest flicker of resemblance in Robertson to the man from 1968: The chin was square, not rounded, as Robertson’s was, the eyes an entirely different shape.

“We heard you were sick,” I told him.

His legs, he said. There was a lot of pain. I asked him about the card Mike Robertson had sent; he said he had not received it. He smiled and touched my wrist.

“Can you tell me your real name?” I asked.

“He only remembers his name is Johnson,” the interpreter translated.

“Johnson?”

The interpreter held up a hand. “No, he can’t remember his last name. Yeah, because of the torturing sometimes even now his head still feels pain.”

Do people in his village know that he’s an American?”

“No, because his wife—she knows he’s American, but she’s afraid of revenge from the local people, so she told everyone he’s a mixed-race French guy.”

It was almost one in the afternoon. Robertson did not want us to come to his house, but he happily accepted an offer of lunch. On his recommendation, we drove together to an open-air restaurant on the outskirts of town. At a table in the shadow of a crooked palm tree, Robertson lit a fresh cigarette and recalled that the area had been full of tigers when he arrived. People had hacked at the jungle with knives to make their homes. Now things were getting better, but Dong Nai province was still poor. He was still poor.

I asked if he worked. “I was a motorbike-taxi driver for a while,” he said—he used a nice motorbike that Tom Faunce had purchased for him. But he was getting too old for that. “I grow pomelos,” he said, a grapefruit-like crop native to Southeast Asia.

A waitress placed a hot pot of cháo, a kind of herbed rice porridge, on the table. Could Robertson tell us about the crash? Anything he wanted to share. He recited the outlines of the story that appear in the documentary: He was an American, he’d been in a helicopter crash, his wife had saved him. But slippage was occurring, the gears were rusty—now the crash had taken place at night, not in the morning; he’d been near the Cambodian border.

“I was on the helicopter preparing some artillery to shoot down, and there were three to five Americans there with me,” he explained. “Then a rocket came.”

Would it be possible for him to show us any of his government papers—identification documents, for example? His house had been robbed, he answered. The thieves had taken some money and all his papers.

“What are your dreams for the future?” I asked.

“I wish I had more money to buy a bigger piece of land and a farm.”

“But not to go back to the United States?”

“Yes, and to go to the United States. To Boston.”

“Why Boston?” I asked.

“My sister lives there, the old lady,”” he said.

“You know,” I said, “there are people back home who think you are not John Hartley Robertson. There were tests,” I added, waiting for the translation to reach Ngoc.  

He pointed at his head. “The accident,” he said. “It was a bad accident. I was hurt. My memory is bad.”

“Is it possible that you are not Robertson?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe you’re a different American soldier.”

“OK,” he said.

“Isn’t it possible that you are Vietnamese?”

“OK,” he said. “Yes.”

Ngoc was getting tired; a sheen of sweat coated his brow.

“I would like to go home,” he said finally.

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I had promised Ngoc that we’d stay away from his house, and I intended to keep my word. But there was nothing stopping us from visiting his neighbors. After depositing Ngoc at his motorbike, we climbed back in our truck and, following directions provided by the dentist’s wife, drove south out of town on a narrow single-lane road. At one house, a young amputee took a look at us and hopped off in alarm, calling in a high-pitched yelp for his mother. At another, a fearsome-looking dog was standing guard. At the third, we asked the balding owner what he could tell us about the local con lai. “Why don’t you go ask him yourself?” he replied and spit tobacco theatrically in our direction.

We stopped at a roadside food stand to rest. In a hammock, a black-haired man with a panther tattoo emblazoned on his chest was sipping beer. The light was soft and golden, the shadows long. The proprietor of the stand, an elegantly dressed older woman, confirmed that she knew a con lai called Ngoc, but not nearly as well as her father did—her dad and the con lai were close friends. The father was produced. His eyes were radically different colors, one brown and one lapis; his white hair stood up in a proud cowlick. “I’ve known Ngoc since 1976,” he said. “Good man.”

What kind of work did Ngoc do? I wondered.

The man rattled through the list: motor-taxi driver, quality-control inspector at a nearby factory, police officer.

“A police officer?” the translator blurted out. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely,” the man said. “You should talk to Tan Som. Som, he explained, had been Ngoc’s son-in-law for 20 years; Som and Ngoc’s daughter were now divorced, but Som had worked with Ngoc on the force, and he’d seen Ngoc’s personnel files.

“I would like to go home,” he said finally.

It took a while for Som to get to the food stand; he’d been hanging out at a buddy’s house, drinking rice wine. Arriving, he shook my hand, lit a cigarette, and proceeded to talk, without interruption, for 15 minutes. Ngoc, Som said, had been born in 1947 and raised at an orphanage in Saigon. At 18, Ngoc had left the orphanage and joined the Navy, serving with the South Vietnamese military during the war—a tour of duty that would partially explain Ngoc’s familiarity with U.S. bases and commands. Later he’d come north, to Dong Nai, and taken a position as a cop. For a few years, Ngoc had been chief of police.

“And he has two kids,” I said.

“Ten, I think. And four are in the United States.”

“Did Ngoc ever think about joining them there?”

“In the 1990s, he thought about it, but in the end he didn’t want to leave his family in Vietnam,” Som said. “He got too emotional when he was saying goodbye.”

Had any of the villagers spotted Western filmmakers in their hamlet? They had, he responded, but Ngoc had brushed off questions, and his neighbors had let it drop. They’d certainly never seen the finished product.

“Did you know that in the movie, Ngoc says he is an American soldier?” I said.

Som shook his head. In the stillness, I could hear him breathing. There was no guile in his gaze. Only shock. “That is impossible,” he said.

For the entirety of our conversation, the man with the chest tattoo had remained in his hammock, drinking his beer and listening quietly. Now he spoke up. He asked if we might be confusing fiction with fact: He remembered that in the late 1970s, he’d had a temporary gig guarding the set of a Vietnamese movie shot here in Dong Nai. He recounted the plot of the movie: An American helicopter pilot is shot down over enemy territory and nursed back to health by a kind-hearted Vietcong nurse. The nurse and the pilot fall in love and live happily ever after.

“Ngoc,” he went on, “played the pilot.”

According to Vietnamese film archivist Do Thuy Linh, downed American pilots and their noble Vietnamese saviors were a central trope of Vietnamese cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1984 adventure film Con Lai Mot Minh (translation: Left for Dead), for example, a dying American aviator receives succor—and at one point breast milk—from a Vietnamese peasant. Still, Linh was unable to locate a movie starring a lead that resembled Ngoc. “If that film indeed exists,” she said, “there might also be a chance that it was shot but wasn’t released,” in which case it wouldn’t appear on lists of productions from that time.

Listening to the man in the hammock, I felt profoundly disoriented, in the way you sometimes do when you’re climbing an unfamiliar staircase and your foot lands on a stair that isn’t there. Reality, for a moment, stutters.

Night fell over the hamlet. In the surrounding trees, the birds were singing. We said our goodbyes to Som and the proprietor of the stand and her father, and drove back by taxi to Ho Chi Minh City. In the backseat, I closed my eyes and envisioned the last moments of John Hartley Robertson’s mission—the rocket rushing up to meet the helicopter, the helicopter corkscrewing toward the valley floor. How amazing that those few incontrovertible details had come to form the foundation of such vivid fiction. And not just any fiction, but the type of fiction that held up a mirror to the people consuming it, allowing them to locate in it a piece of themselves. It was a fable that had fulfilled dreams and answered prayers. And what sustained it? Only the willingness of a poor con lai in Dong Nai province to say yes. Yes: I will tell you I am a long-lost American soldier. Yes: I will travel to the embassy in Phnom Penh for a fingerprint test. Yes: I will remove my pants for you. Yes: I will offer you my molar. Yes: I will accept this shiny new motorbike.

Yes: I will give you permission to believe.

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Two weeks after returning from Vietnam, I received a strange email from Tom Faunce. He had “kept in contact with John because I was trying to send him a few dollars,” he wrote. I’d told him I found Ngoc, but now he said Ngoc was denying it. “Do not know why he would lie to us,” Faunce wrote. “Said he never met with you.” I sent Faunce a photo of Ngoc and myself in Dong Nai. “Not sure what is going on,” Faunce replied.

In subsequent weeks, I spoke by phone with Joe Faunce and Hugh Tranh, Jorgenson’s translator. Faunce could not be budged from his insistence that Ngoc was Robertson. He texted me that he and Mike Jorgensen “have careers to protect pending what u write. Firestorm to come. Help the little guys!” He promised to send a “line item list” of “what myself & many others believe are facts” regarding Robertson’s identity, but the list never materialized. (I have been similarly unable to verify that Ngoc has relatives in the U.S.)

Hugh Tranh was more standoffish. Tranh still talks regularly to Ngoc and has helped raise money to send to Dong Nai. He said he doubted the validity of the DNA tests and mentioned Jean Holley’s embrace of Ngoc as proof of the man’s identity. (Ed Mahoney took much the same tack: “If I’m wrong, well, how could I be so wrong?” he asked me.) To Tranh I could only respond that sometimes we see what we want to see.

“You may have your facts, but I have mine,” he said and hung up on me.

My last conversation with Tom Faunce took place in April. We spoke for an hour, during which Faunce appeared to be ricocheting from one stage of grief to another: anger to denial, denial to acceptance, acceptance to sadness. He told me he’d never been entirely convinced that his Robertson was John Hartley Robertson. Then he took it back, saying he had found the missing Green Beret, or at the very least an American citizen.

Still, Faunce acknowledged that he was unnerved by Ngoc’s fib about not meeting with me in Dong Nai. “I guess it just makes me wonder, you know?” he said. “A person who will lie about one thing is capable of lying about a lot of other things.”

But there was still time to get to the bottom of it: Soon, Faunce plans to return to Cambodia on a bible-distribution mission. Maybe, he mused, he’d take a cross-border side trip to that leafy hamlet in Dong Nai and at long last discover the truth.


We welcome feedback at letters@atavist.com

Whatsoever Things Are True

The Atavist Magazine, No. 52


Matthew Shaer’s previous story for The Atavist Magazine, “The Sinking of the Bounty,” was a finalist for the 2014 National Magazine Award for Reporting. A contributing editor at Smithsonian Magazine, he has written for GQHarper’sThe New York Times Magazine, and Men’s Journal, among other publications.


Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Researchers: Cara McGoogan and Katie Nodjimbad
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Photography: Jonathan Lurie, Chicago Sun-TimesChicago Tribune, AP Photo, Courtesy of Paul Ciolino

Published in September 2015. Design updated in 2021.

Listen to the audiobook

Prologue

This is the account of a 1982 double murder and the two men separately accused, convicted, and exonerated of the crime. It is based on thousands of pages of court documents and interviews with almost a hundred people close to the case, most of whom agreed to speak on the record, some of whom requested anonymity, and a few of whom were speaking to a journalist for the first time.

When I started the reporting process, 11 months ago, I assumed that every new interview would bring me, in a straight line, one step closer to solving the case. But more often than not, as the red light on my recorder went dim, I encountered new alleys, new questions, new ways of interpreting the available evidence.

Undoubtedly, the uncertainty was a product of the remarkable duration of the case and the confessions, retractions, and reverse retractions that have accumulated, like so many sedimentary layers, atop the first police report filed on the sweltering morning of August 15, 1982. But other cases have lasted decades. What made this one particularly confounding was the way it had been used as a vehicle for a dizzying constellation of agendas, with each party framing his or her truth as the only truth.

In the end, I found myself faced with a surprisingly complex story—a story of ruined reputations and failed memory, of courage and corruption, of a pair of poor black men who became pawns in a bitter political war, and of the inability of a broken system to render justice in a 33-year-old murder.

What follows is my investigation into how that came to be.

Part I

One

On a mild day in the fall of 1998, sixteen students filed into a classroom in Fisk Hall, on the Evanston campus of Northwestern University, for the first session of a seminar called the News Media and Capital Punishment. From the tall windows, the students could see out across Sheridan Road and toward the verdant canopy of Centennial Park. They arranged themselves around a U-shaped set of tables and waited for the professor to begin his lecture.

At 52 years old, with silver hair and a face that crinkled into a baby’s fist when he smiled, David Protess was the closest thing Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism had to a genuine celebrity—a profanity-slinging, old-school muckraker who sped around town in a Mustang and encouraged his students to “shed their objectivity and get their hands dirty,” as he once told an interviewer. Unlike most of his colleagues, Protess trained as an academic, specializing in public policy and community organizing. After earning a doctorate from the University of Chicago, he moved on to a job as research director for the Better Government Association, a nonprofit watchdog group. In 1981, Medill, looking to bolster the number of investigative courses it offered, came calling.

Initially, Protess taught classes on the same kind of topics he had covered at BGA: racketeering, payola schemes, the workings of the infamous Chicago Machine. But in the early 1990s, he shifted his attention to the Illinois criminal courts and the then burgeoning wrongful-conviction movement. His first success came with the case of David Dowaliby, an Illinois man convicted of killing his seven-year-old adopted daughter. Protess published a series of influential articles in the Chicago Tribune exposing serious errors in the prosecution’s narrative; a year later, Dowaliby’s conviction was overturned. “I was there when [Dowaliby] walked back to the arms of his wife and family, and I saw the power of investigative reporting—not just to expose injustice, to right a wrong, but also to restore a family,” Protess later told a student newspaper in Chicago.

He began assigning old murder convictions to his classes, focusing on cases notable for their lack of evidence or for allegations of police or prosecutorial misconduct. At the start of the semester, he’d split the students, by case, into investigative teams. The students reviewed court transcripts and affidavits, interviewed witnesses and alternate suspects, and, by the end of the quarter, compiled dossiers summarizing what they’d learned.

In his lectures, Protess stressed the need to view every conviction in context: The arresting cops, judges, and prosecutors were typically white and part of the entrenched power structure that controlled Chicago; the defendants were poor and black—members of the city’s trampled underclass. All too easily, they could slip through the cracks.

In the fall of 1998, Protess was coming off the biggest victory of his career. Three years earlier, he and three undergraduates had investigated the convictions of four black men jailed for raping a young white woman and then killing her and her boyfriend in Ford Heights, a suburb of Chicago. The convictions were based on the recollections of a bystander, who claimed to have seen the defendants in the vicinity of the crimes, and the testimony of the girlfriend of one of the accused assailants, who told police she’d been present for the rape. Protess’s friend Rob Warden had taken a critical view of the prosecution’s case in Chicago Lawyer magazine. Building on Warden’s reporting, Protess and his students called the bystander’s testimony into question and elicited confessions from the real killers. The exonerees were dubbed the Ford Heights Four.

In A Promise of Justice: The Eighteen-Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men, a 1998 book Protess and Rob Warden cowrote about the Ford Heights Four case, the investigation is recounted as a cautionary tale of the dangers of overreliance on eyewitness testimony and interrogation-room confessions. (The book also revealed practices that seemed at odds with Medill’s commitment to journalistic ethics: In one scene, several of Protess’s young female students agree to pose for photos with a convicted killer in the visitors room of an Illinois prison in an effort to persuade the man to change his story.) Protess and his students were greeted as heroes: They’d gone up against the corrupt Chicago criminal-justice system and won. Disney bought the film rights to the story; Protess and Warden both donated part of the money to the freed men. The students appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “I’m thinking now,” she said to the students, “all over Hollywood they’re looking at you, and they’re thinking of the series they can start. You’ll have, like, the Mod Squad of the nineties, Charlie’s Angels—Stephanie, Stacey, Laura. You’ll be [a] weekly series. You’ll be breaking men out of jail every week.” (The Disney film was never made, but the story of Dowaliby’s exoneration became a television miniseries called Gone in the Night, starring Shannen Doherty as Dowaliby’s wife.)

At Northwestern, Protess cut a dashing figure. His classes filled up far in advance; students schemed to make it onto the roster. For the 16 undergraduates on hand that afternoon in September of 1998, mere enrollment in the News Media and Capital Punishment was an achievement—never mind the possibility that they, too, could be involved in a case as meaningful as the Ford Heights Four. “I remember being really excited,” one of the students recalled. “In other classes, you might not have a chance to actually make a difference, to work on something important. Here you did.”

Protess wasted no time: He explained that the students could choose from four cases, two of which had carried over from a previous academic quarter. (Protess often kept cases open from one class to the next.) Each represented an instance of potential wrongful conviction; each was interesting in its own way.

But there was one, Protess confessed, that he found particularly fascinating: It was the newest case, and possibly the most dangerous for the team that took it on. It contained all the elements that had preoccupied the professor over the course of his career: alleged police corruption, apparently incompetent lawyering, a callous media, shoddy evidence, and a young black man wasting away on death row for a crime that he denied committing.

Protess could hardly think of a better learning opportunity, a better window into the limitations of the criminal-justice system. What he failed to anticipate was how completely the case would come to swallow his life and the lives of his students in the decades to come. How 17 years later, it would still be yielding unforeseen lessons: about the limitations of memory, about the dangers of challenging institutional power, about the perils of bending the rules for a higher purpose.

But at the time, the weather was fine, the school year was new, and Protess was on top of his game, still in what he called “troublemaker” mode. He looked out at the class. Who wanted the case? Four undergraduates raised their hands: Shawn Armbrust, Lori D’Angelo, Tom McCann, and Cara Rubinsky. Protess gave the students a handful of documents and some phone numbers and wished them luck.

Two

The case was a gruesome and tragic thing: Sixteen years earlier, on the evening of August 14, 1982, a pair of young lovers, Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard, had hopped the fence to the pool area at Washington Park, on the South Side of Chicago, and climbed to the top of the adjoining bleachers. At around one in the morning on the 15th, a gunman approached the couple and fired a series of shots, at close range, with a .38-caliber revolver. Hillard was hit in the head by two bullets; Green was shot twice through the neck and once through the hand, likely as she raised an arm to shield herself. Bleeding heavily, she staggered out of the park. A nearby patrol car rushed her to a hospital, but she died before dawn.

August 14 had been the day of the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, the largest African-American parade in the country. Tens of thousands of revelers, many of them residents of the nearby project houses, had flooded the streets of the South Side; at one in the morning on the 15th, Washington Park was still bustling. The first detectives arriving on the scene, Geraldine Perry and Dennis Dwyer, quickly zeroed in on two potential witnesses: William Taylor, 39, and Henry Williams, 29, who said they’d come to the park for a late-night swim and to drink beer and vodka. The detectives sent the two men to the Area 1 precinct for further questioning, but not before Taylor and Williams were recruited to help carry Jerry Hillard to an ambulance.

Detectives in Chicago’s Area 1 worked in shifts, with the first team manning the desk from early morning through the afternoon and the second arriving at around 4:30 p.m. On the afternoon of the 15th, the casework was handed over to detective Charles Salvatore and his longtime partner, detective Dennis Gray. Salvatore and Gray separated their two witnesses, who had spent the past 17 hours in the precinct house.

According to the detectives, Henry Williams told them that shortly before Hillard and Green were shot, Williams had been mugged by a man he recognized as Anthony Porter. Porter, a member of a local gang called the Cobra Stones, had a reputation as a stickup man—he’d recently served time for robbery. Williams alleged that Porter had shoved a pistol in his face and pulled two dollars from his pocket. Then Williams watched Porter climb the bleachers. He hadn’t seen the actual shootings.

But his friend William Taylor had, he said. The only problem: Taylor wasn’t talking. According to Salvatore, Taylor was scared of Anthony Porter. Salvatore and Gray drove the two witnesses to Harold’s, a nearby fried-chicken joint. Over dinner, the detectives would later testify, Taylor identified Porter as the killer.

In Illinois, a warrant for a felony crime cannot be issued without the sign-off of a state’s attorney prosecutor, who must conduct what’s known as a felony review—a measure intended to ensure that investigators have probable cause for the arrest. The prosecutor on call that night was David Kerstein. Kerstein didn’t think Williams’s and Taylor’s statements were enough to justify a warrant, but he did agree to accompany Salvatore and Gray and their witnesses to the scene of the crime. If Williams and Taylor separately told their stories in a way that persuaded Kerstein, he might change his mind.

While Williams and Taylor were talking to the prosecutor, Dennis Gray climbed the bleachers to canvass for additional witnesses. Salvatore would later recall that Gray returned with two men, Kenneth Edwards and Michael Woodfork, who claimed to have seen Anthony Porter at the pool on the morning of August 15. Those two witnesses gave Salvatore and Gray the names of two more friends, Mark Senior and Eugene Beckwith, who had been with them that night; the detectives collected their statements.

Kerstein asked a judge to issue a warrant; accompanied by his family, Porter turned himself in. He was innocent, he said, and could prove it. The cops had the wrong man.

The case went to trial in the fall of 1983. There were no fingerprints linking Porter to the crime, no blood evidence; the state’s case rested entirely on witness testimony. The head prosecutor, Paul Szigetvari, called 14 witnesses in all, including a medical examiner who testified that the shots had decimated Green’s voice box, so she couldn’t speak to the EMTs.

Henry Williams told the jury his story of being robbed by Porter, and Taylor repeated his account of seeing Porter shoot Hillard. (Taylor said he never saw Porter kill Green.)

Under questioning from Szigetvari, a patrolman named Anthony Liace said he’d responded to a shots-fired call at Washington Park and stopped a young black man fleeing the scene. Liace told the court that he later realized the man was Anthony Porter, although he acknowledged that he’d never filed a report about the incident. Nor had he found a gun on the man he claimed was Anthony Porter, meaning that if the person he stopped had killed Hillard and Green, that person had managed to ditch the pistol somewhere in the pool area, and the police had failed to locate it.

During cross-examination, Porter’s attorney, Akim Gursel, pressed Dennis Dwyer on how Anthony Porter initially became a suspect in the case. Dwyer responded that he’d “overheard” Williams or Taylor mention Porter, but he testified that neither witness had immediately identified the shooter, leaving Gursel free to suggest that the two men had subsequently been pressured into implicating Porter. To the Northwestern students, who had been warned about the strong-arm tactics of the cops assigned to the projects, coercion seemed a likely factor.


When it was his turn to present his case, Gursel called three witnesses. The first was a professional photographer named Eric Werner. Gursel had hired Werner to take pictures of the pool area from William Taylor’s alleged perspective, with Gursel standing in for the shooter. Gursel asserted that it was difficult to make out his own face in the photographs. (Szigetvari countered that the weather and lighting conditions might have been different in the pictures than on the morning of the killings.)

Stronger was the testimony of Georgia Moody, a longtime girlfriend of one of Porter’s brothers. Moody was able to put Porter at his mother’s apartment all day on August 14, 1982; Moody said Porter hadn’t left until around two in the morning on the 15th. A second defense witness, Porter’s friend Kenneth Doyle, confirmed Porter’s presence at the apartment and testified that he’d later accompanied Porter to the playground of a nearby project house, where the men had continued drinking until dawn. Doyle added that he, Hillard, and Porter were all members of the Cobra Stones gang. Why, he implied, would one member kill another?

In his closing statement, Gursel did not ignore Porter’s reputation. “Many times people are disadvantaged,” he said, “they have problems, but this country offers you an opportunity to overcome it…. So I don’t condone Anthony Porter’s past acts or the nature of his lifestyle, and I say to you it’s wrong, and I have told Anthony it’s wrong.”

Still, Gursel went on, Porter was innocent of the killings of Green and Hillard. The prosecution’s case was thin, he argued, and the testimony of Williams and Taylor unreliable. “I don’t know what happened out there that night, but I’ll you tell you one thing,” Gursel said, “both those men [Williams and Taylor] were lying through their teeth.”

The jury did not agree, and in September of 1983, Porter was found guilty. A month later, a judge sentenced him to death. He was sent downstate to Menard Correctional Center. The serial killer John Wayne Gacy was housed in an adjacent cell. Porter would later claim that the guards abused him physically and mentally: He found ground-up cockroaches in his food. “They just like stomped Anthony all the way down,” Porter said. “Boom, boom, boom.”

Three

Kenneth Flaxman, the veteran litigator hired to represent Porter on appeal, saw plenty of issues with the original conviction: no hard evidence, no murder weapon, a defendant who had consistently maintained his innocence, eyewitness testimony that was at best flimsy and at worst showed signs of having been coached or coerced.

Flaxman developed a theory: The police wanted Porter put away and had seized on this case to do it. Over the course of a decade, he filed a fleet of motions—direct appeal, writ of habeas corpus, petition for post-conviction relief. All were denied. By 1998, Porter had seemingly exhausted his options. The state scheduled his execution for September 23.

In desperation, Porter’s mother and sisters turned to a young attorney named Daniel Sanders. A former engineer, Sanders had graduated from law school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign four years earlier and had wandered his way through a series of unglamorous gigs—freelancing for a company that created trial exhibits, picking up the odd case from a personal-injury attorney in Skokie. He’d gravitated to appeals work because the demand was high and had focused on death-row appeals because they paid well. He agreed to represent Porter for a fee of $25,000.

Sanders was relatively inexperienced with death-penalty law; for help he leaned on the expertise of Chicago’s sizable community of anti-death-penalty advocates, among them the lawyer Aviva Futorian. Futorian encouraged Sanders to have Porter’s mental capacity evaluated: If Sanders could prove that Porter was mentally disabled, and thus legally unable to fully comprehend the role he may or may not have played in the shooting, his life might be spared. (Flaxman says this strategy did not occur to him. “I was focusing on [Porter’s] innocence,” he told me recently in an email. “I thought that the difficulties he had in expressing himself were caused by being on death row for a crime he had not committed, rather than by a severely-low IQ.”)

A subsequent psychiatric test confirmed Futorian’s suspicions: Porter’s IQ came in at 51, a level defined by the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as reflecting “moderate mental retardation.”

Late in August of 1998, with weeks left until Porter’s scheduled execution, Futorian reached out to David Protess, whom she knew from work on previous wrongful-conviction cases. Maybe Protess would be interested in assigning the case to his students?

But Protess declined: it appeared that Anthony Porter would be executed before fall classes got under way. He was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to help.

Then Porter received some good news: The Illinois Supreme Court agreed to a mental-competency hearing, based on the results of the IQ test. Porter’s execution would be stayed for four months while Sanders and the prosecutors made their preparations. Futorian updated Protess with the developments, and Protess penciled the case into the calendar for his next seminar, the News Media and Capital Punishment.


Before heading into the field, the students in the News Media and Capital Punishment course attended a series of lectures on investigative journalism. The most memorable was delivered by Paul Ciolino, a private detective and a good friend of Protess’s. Ciolino was a native Chicagoan; he’d been raised on the South Side, the son of a car salesman and a homemaker. As a teenager with a teenage wife and two young kids he needed to support, he’d enlisted in the Army and spent seven years conducting investigations for the military police in Germany and the U.S. In the 1980s, he’d hung out his own shingle.

Heavy browed and dark haired, Ciolino had a fighter’s nose, a chewy Chicago accent, and a broad-shouldered bulk he wielded like a weapon—to the students he was a throwback, like something out of a hard-boiled detective novel. Ciolino schooled the students on interview techniques, and in a lecture he’d nicknamed “Ghetto 101,” he shared advice for working in primarily poor and African-American communities: Don’t dress ostentatiously. Bring a cell phone and pepper spray. Make sure you’ve got enough gas in your car. Conduct your interviews in the mornings, when people are “groggy” and “not on top of their game.”

As Ciolino explains in his self-published book, In the Company of Giants: The Ultimate Investigation Guide for Legal Professionals, Journalists and the Wrongly Convicted, all investigators, amateur or not, should expect potential witnesses to ask for money. Tread carefully, Ciolino advised:

It is acceptable to take a witness to a fast food restaurant or diner for a burger and fries. It’s not OK to take them down to the local tavern and buy them eight or nine beers. If it feels inappropriate it generally is inappropriate. Remember at some point all of your actions will be closely examined by the state. If you do anything that could be considered illegal, unethical or immoral they will hold you accountable. You do not want to become the lightning rod in this manner.

The four students on the Porter case listened carefully to Ciolino’s lecture, as patronizing as it might have seemed. In the African-American section of the South Side—the overgrown tenement yards and the hulking mass of the Robert Taylor Homes—the only white faces often belonged to police officers, and they needed to be prepared to encounter distrust and hostility.

They should also be prepared for disappointment, Protess warned them over a subsequent lunch. There was no guarantee they’d be able to save Porter from death. But the students were undeterred. After reading the police reports and court transcripts, they came away convinced that Anthony Porter deserved a new trial.

Their first stop was the office of Dan Sanders, Porter’s attorney, who had been conducting an inquiry of his own in recent weeks, reviewing thousands of pages of transcripts from Anthony Porter’s previous appeals and speaking to some of the witnesses to the 1982 murders.

One set of documents stood out. Ken Flaxman, Porter’s appellate attorney prior to Sanders, had collected several affidavits from people close to Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard. Although a judge had ruled in 1995 that the affidavits did not counteract what he described as the “overwhelming” evidence of Porter’s guilt, the contents contrasted with the case presented by the state in 1983.

Carl Morrow, a friend of Hillard’s, had sworn that shortly before the shooting he had watched Hillard argue with a “tall” man with “brown skin”—not Porter, whom Morrow would have recognized from around the neighborhood. And Tanya Mardis, another of Hillard’s friends, recalled that on the night of the murders, she’d seen Hillard and Green in the presence of a woman named Inez Jackson and Jackson’s boyfriend.

But the most damning allegation came from the mothers of the victims, Allie Hillard and Offie Green. Both women indicated that Marilyn Green had recently cashed a welfare check—a fact that had not escaped the attention of Inez Jackson, who had been present when Marilyn bought Jerry a ring and fresh fish to cook for dinner. (Salvatore told me he did not talk to Offie Green.)

“I told the officers that I didn’t think that Tony Porter was shot [sic] Marilyn and Jerry,” Offie Green swore. “Each time I asked about Inez, the officers told me I should not worry about the investigation and that the police were sure Tony Porter was guilty.”

In an affidavit, Offie Green outlined her theory of what had occurred on the night of August 14, 1982:

I suggested to the police that Inez had lured Marilyn to Washington Park to set her up to be robbed, and I told the police that I believed that Inez’s boyfriend had shot Marilyn and Jerry Hillard…. Before Marilyn was shot, Inez lived with her four children in the building located at 5323 South Federal [Street] in Chicago. The day after Marilyn was killed, Inez moved from the housing project. I do not know where she is now, or if she is still alive.

The identity of Inez Jackson’s boyfriend does not appear anywhere in the affidavits collected by Ken Flaxman. Still, the students found it easily: His name was Alstory Simon, and like Jackson, he had apparently left Chicago after the murders.


In October, the students visited Anthony Porter at Cook County Jail, in downtown Chicago, where he was awaiting his competency hearing. If a court found him mentally deficient, his death sentence would likely be commuted to life in prison. If he was found competent, the state would set a new execution date.

The undergraduates and the inmate seated themselves at a table in the brick-walled visiting room. Porter told the students that he was innocent. “I heard people say that before, but he was more convincing,” Shawn Armbrust later recalled.

The Northwestern team was moved by the meeting. Soon after, the students visited the Washington Park neighborhood, looking for new witnesses, and staged a reenactment at the swimming pool, with one student acting as the shooter and another as William Taylor, who testified at the 1983 trial that he could see Porter fire the shots from the poolside. They came away convinced that it would have been impossible for Taylor to recognize Porter from his position, the same conclusion drawn by Akim Gursel, Porter’s first attorney.

Henry Williams, the man who testified that Anthony Porter robbed him at the park on the night of the killings, had died not long after the trial. But Taylor was still living on the South Side. Paul Ciolino and Tom McCann went to visit him.

As McCann would later recount, Taylor stood by his testimony, telling them, “I know beyond a doubt that Anthony Porter is guilty. I just wish he were executed and I can get on with my life.” But Ciolino and McCann were persistent, and in a signed affidavit they obtained in December, Taylor retracted his original testimony. His new statement said that he didn’t know who shot Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard—and that the two Area 1 detectives, Charles Salvatore and Dennis Gray, had forced him into fingering Porter for the shooting. “Who are you more afraid of, Porter or us?” Taylor claimed the detectives had said during the interrogation.

It was a major development: The only eyewitness to testify at Porter’s criminal trial had just walked back his testimony. (Williams had testified to being robbed by Porter but had not actually seen Porter pull the trigger.) Yet the affidavit alone wouldn’t be enough to get the conviction overturned. Protess and the students gathered at Fisk Hall to discuss strategy for the months ahead. The team decided that their best bet was to try to track down Alstory Simon’s girlfriend. If she had seen the shooting, she might be persuaded to testify against Simon.

In a second interview at the Cook County Jail, Porter told the students that while he was at Danville, he’d crossed paths with an inmate who had been locked up with Inez’s nephew Walter Jackson. At the time, Jackson was in prison for a murder conviction of his own and had mentioned knowing something about the 1982 killings. Protess wrote Jackson a letter, and in December, Jackson phoned Protess at his home. Yes, he told the professor, he knew who killed Green and Hillard, and it sure as hell wasn’t Anthony Porter.

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Anthony Porter. Photo: Chicago Tribune 
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David Protess and his students, from left, Shawn Armbrust, Cara Rubinsky, Tom McCann, and Erica LeBorgne. Photo: AP Photo

Four

In early January, Protess convened the first session of his winter seminar, Investigative Journalism. Armbrust, Rubinsky, and McCann had enrolled in that class so they could stay involved in the Porter case, but Lori D’Angelo was replaced by two new undergrads, Syandene Rhodes-Pitts and Erica LaBorgne. The team brought Rhodes-Pitts and LaBorgne up to speed and scheduled a visit with Walter Jackson at Danville.

Jackson told the students that in the summer of 1982, he had been living with his aunt Inez Jackson and her boyfriend, Alstory Simon. On the evening of the murders, Inez and Simon had gone out with two of their friends, Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green. Later that night, Inez and Simon had returned to the apartment, and Simon told Walter that he just “took care” of Hillard and Green. Hillard was apparently dealing drugs for Simon and owed him some money. He needed to get out of town for a while. Maybe to Milwaukee.

Walter Jackson signed an affidavit swearing that the information was correct, and a few weeks later, Armbrust, using real estate records, managed to track down a niece of Inez’s—Inez was in Milwaukee, the niece said, living under the name Inez Simon. She and Alstory had gotten married, although the two were now separated.

In late January, David Protess and Paul Ciolino accompanied McCann, Armbrust, Rhodes-Pitts, and LaBorgne on a trip to Wisconsin. Inez was living with her children in an apartment in Milwaukee. The team extended an invitation: Come eat some food at a local pub. Inez, according to Ciolino and one of the students, was clearly terrified. She said that if she talked, Simon would track her down and kill her. He’d hit her before, she said.

Still, she assented to lunch, as well as a videotaped interview, conducted at Armbrust’s parents’ home nearby. Speaking into the camera with assurance, Inez recalled the events of August 14, 1982. Yes, she’d gone to the park with Green, Hillard, and Simon. Simon was drinking and smoking weed, as he often did. An argument had broken out between Hillard and Simon, and Simon had opened fire on Green and Hillard. Simon and Inez had fled together, with Simon holding her biceps with a painful grip. “He said [to] shut up,” Inez recalled. “He said [if] I said anything … he’d do the same thing to me”—shoot her dead.

Ciolino made a copy of the tape and delivered it to CBS News, where he had a contract as an investigator. The producers promised to get the footage on the air as soon as possible. He also called Protess and told the professor that he was worried for Inez: He did not think Alstory Simon was the kind of person to make idle threats. And the best way to keep Inez safe was to have Simon .

And the quickest way to get Alstory Simon arrested, Ciolino believed, was to obtain a confession from Simon himself.

Ciolino already had Simon’s address in Milwaukee: Back in November, Protess and two of the students had showed up unannounced. Simon had shooed them away. But that was before Walter Jackson’s affidavit, before Inez’s confession. Ciolino prepared to try his luck. The night before he left for Milwaukee, he stashed a secret weapon in his bag: a videotaped interview with a 20-year-old process server from his office. On the tape, the process server poses as a witness to the 1982 murders and says he saw Alstory Simon fleeing the scene. (In actuality, the kid would have been a toddler in 1982.) It was the kind of trick that wouldn’t pass muster in a journalism class. But as Ciolino would explain in a 2005 interview, for an investigator it was a legally permissible tactic: “The Supreme Court says I can lie, cheat, do anything I can to get him to say whatever I gotta get him to say.”

Cops did it all the time, he added. Why shouldn’t he?


On a bitterly cold morning in February of 1999, Ciolino pulled his bright red Mercedes-Benz coupe to a halt in front of a sagging bungalow on Wright Street in South Milwaukee. Beside him, in the passenger seat, sat his most trusted employee, a former security guard named Arnold Reed. At just under six feet tall and weighing close to 300 pounds, Reed was there as both witness and additional muscle. “Quite frankly,” Ciolino told me recently, “I’d asked Arnold to come along in case things got ugly.”

Ciolino and Reed stepped out of the Mercedes and, bracing themselves against the winter wind, walked to the porch. According to Ciolino, Alstory Simon answered the door, and the two men explained that they were working with Northwestern. “You’ve got two minutes,” Simon told them.

Ciolino recounted the substantial evidence against Simon: the accusations from Walter Jackson and Inez Simon. Simon shook his head. “What else you got?” Ciolino remembers him asking.

“A recording with a young man who was in the park that night,” Ciolino said.

Using the flip screen on his Panasonic camcorder, he played Simon the staged interview he’d recorded the night before. Simon watched the 20-year-old process server recite the lines that Ciolino had written for him.

“Man, that motherfucker wasn’t there,” Simon said.  

“Al, the only way you know that is because you were there,” Ciolino shot back. But Simon was unmoved. The gambit had failed, Ciolino remembers thinking: “He’s not shook up, he’s not fucking rattled, he’s not upset.”

The investigator was pulling on his coat when he saw Reed frantically flapping his arms. An old TV set in the living room was carrying the news out of Chicago, and the news out of Chicago that morning was Inez’s taped confession recorded in late January by Ciolino and the Northwestern students. Simon turned toward the set.

“Inez, in all her fucking glory, is fucking nailing [Simon] to the cross, and he’s standing there with his hands in his pockets and he’s hunched over and he’s kind of rocking,” Ciolino told me. “Arnold’s looking at me going, ‘You lucky motherfucker.’”

Simon was visibly spooked. “It’s all coming to an end,” Ciolino told him. “This is the only chance you have to get in front of this thing and man up and do the right thing.”

A few minutes later, Simon was sitting on the living room couch, delivering his confession into the lens of the Panasonic. Yes, he admitted, he’d been in the park with Inez, Hillard, and Green. There’d been an argument. Hillard had pissed Simon off. But it was self-defense, Simon swore: “I was thinking of trying to live. I had fear [for] my life,” he said, adding, “Before I knew anything … I just pulled it up and started shooting.” In the video of the confession, he looks calm if resigned, his voice quiet and steady.

Simon asked Ciolino what would happen next. Ciolino told him the truth: He would be arrested. He’d need a lawyer. Ciolino wrote down the names and of two experienced attorneys. One was Jerry Boyle, a seasoned criminal defender in Milwaukee. The other was Jack Rimland, a veteran defense attorney, whom Ciolino knew from previous cases.

It was a decision that would come back to haunt him.

Alstory Simon’s confession. Video: Courtesy of Paul Ciolino
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The pool at Washington Park. Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

Five

Back in Chicago, Ciolino handed over a copy of Simon’s confession tape to the office of Richard Devine, the Cook County state’s attorney. “After seeing the video and discussing it,” Devine later recalled in an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune last year, “I concluded that our office should undertake an immediate reinvestigation of the Washington Park murders and that we should allow Porter an opportunity to be out on bail while the investigation took place. No one was prepared to conclude that Porter was innocent and Simon guilty based on the video, but there clearly were questions about Porter’s guilt that had to be resolved.”

Under normal circumstances, an inmate whose murder conviction was under review would remain incarcerated until a new trial could be arranged. Capital cases are notoriously hard to overturn; successful appeals are extremely rare. But these were not normal times: The Ford Heights Four case had rattled the public’s faith in the Illinois criminal-justice system, and statewide, support for the death penalty was fast eroding. Devine asked a judge to free Porter on bail in light of the new developments, and the judge released Porter on his own recognizance. (Devine, now an attorney in private practice, did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.)

On February 5, after 16 years on death row, Anthony Porter walked out the gates of Cook County Jail. Protess and the Northwestern students were waiting for him; Protess took a running start and leaped into Porter’s arms, burying the newly freed man in a bear hug. Porter, his black Atlanta Falcons hat now crooked on his head, was dazed but triumphant. “It feels marvelous to be outside!” he shouted to a nearby reporter.


After Paul Ciolino left Simon’s home, Simon placed a call to Jack Rimland, one of the attorneys Ciolino had recommended. Rimland drove to Milwaukee and told Simon he’d take on the case pro bono. In the following days, he negotiated the terms of Simon’s surrender.

Meanwhile, Inez Simon had arranged to turn herself into the police. By delivering the videotaped statement to Ciolino and the students, she had left herself open to charges of obstruction of justice. An attorney named Martin Abrams picked her up in Milwaukee and drove her to a station house on 51st and Wentworth in Chicago. Inside the station house, Abrams told me recently, he and Inez ran into Alstory Simon. “What the fuck are you doing here?” Simon asked, in Abrams’s recollection.

“I’m here to tell them you did it,” Inez said. “What are you here for?”

“To tell them the same thing,” Simon responded.

Abrams whisked Inez away from Simon and took her down the hall to give her statement. He told me prosecutors later agreed to waive any charges against Inez in exchange for her cooperation.

Devine, the Cook County state’s attorney, assigned oversight of the case to Thomas Epach, the head of his criminal division. Epach empaneled two grand juries. The first was an investigative grand jury, a tool sometimes used by prosecutors to evaluate evidence, gather information, and interview witnesses—without cross-examination from a defense attorney. Prosecutors called Ciolino, the Northwestern students, and David Protess, who said that neither he nor Ciolino had ever offered Simon anything in exchange for his statement. As far as Protess was concerned, Simon was telling the truth about killing Green and Hillard.

The first grand jury also heard the first sworn testimony from several people whom police interviewed during the original murder investigation. In August of 1982, hoping to convince the state’s attorney to authorize an arrest warrant for Porter, detectives Salvatore and Gray had turned up four witnesses who could put Porter in the park’s pool area: Eugene Beckwith, Mark Senior, Michael Woodfork, and Kenneth Edwards.

Thomas Gainer, the assistant state’s attorney tasked with presenting evidence to the jurors, called Beckwith, Senior, Woodfork, and Edwards to the stand.

Beckwith testified that he saw Porter and another man with the victims in the bleachers and recognized Porter, even though he recalled that the area was dark. Senior testified that he also saw Porter in Washington Park but couldn’t finger him as the shooter from 80 yards away. “I couldn’t see who that was who pulled the trigger,” he said. Woodfork said that he had heard shots and had seen people running. When Gainer asked him if he could remember the day in question, he responded, “Vaguely.”

The most definitive testimony came from Kenneth Edwards, who recalled observing Marilyn Green come tumbling down the bleacher seats and hearing shots. Edwards and his friends fled:

Gainer: And how did you do that?

Edwards: We had to climb back over the way that we climbed in.

Gainer: So you went over the wrought-iron fence, right?

Edwards: Correct.

Gainer: And then you went into the tennis courts?

Edwards: Yes. We went across the tennis courts to King Drive, and then we sat on 57th and King Drive.

Gainer: OK. And how long after you heard that last shot did it take you to get out of there?

Edwards: Not long.

Gainer: As you sit here today … can you tell this grand jury who it was that fired those shots?

Edwards: I sure can.

Gainer: And who was it?

Edwards: It was Tony Porter.

The jury was disbanded without being asked to decide whether the evidence warranted an indictment. The second grand jury met in March and heard from a smaller pool of witnesses: Ciolino; Celeste Stack, an assistant state’s attorney; and Allen Szudarski, a violent-crimes detective assigned to reinvestigate the murders. In his testimony, Szudarski told jurors that he’d reinterviewed Inez and she’d stood by her previous allegations that Simon had shot Green and Hillard over drug money. Stack testified that she had spoken with Walter Jackson, who had confirmed what he had said to the Northwestern team: Simon had told him that he’d shot Hillard in the head. The jury returned an indictment for murder.


In the weeks after his arrest, Simon greatly expanded on his original confession, copping so many more times to the murders, at such impressive length, and in so many different venues—in letters from his cell, in interviews with TV news reporters, in the courtroom—that it appeared obvious to anyone following the case that Simon was desperate to unburden himself: that, like Rodion Raskolnikov, the tormented murderer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he had belatedly found catharsis in the truth.

Simon confessed to his attorney, Jack Rimland. He confessed on camera to a reporter from WISN, an ABC affiliate in Milwaukee. He confessed to David Thomas, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, to whom he had written asking for counsel. (“I was only defending myself from a young man who was trying to kill me and another person was killed by accident,” Simon wrote to Thomas.)

And in a document that has never been made public but was provided to me by someone close to the case, he wrote a confession letter to Porter himself. Simon begins the note by hoping he “finds [Porter] in an open frame of mind” before describing what happened when Arnold Reed and Paul Ciolino arrived at his Milwaukee bungalow:

What I’m about to express is deep from the reservoir of my heart. I never knew that someone had been blamed for the double-slaying. As I sat in the privacy of my home watching TV you appeared on the network, and the clock was ticking. I knew then that it was true. It was no thing of conscious, nor pity or trickery by the investigators. When I saw you I could not let that happen to you. Despite the long time…, I’m glad I could be there, when it really counted the most. I was willing to sacrifice my life and freedom to save a life. I don’t know why this monstrosity of a tragedy had to happen to us. Man I am so sorry that you had to live like that. Some people feel I’m a damn fool to confess and some say I should have let you dies. But I don’t care what they think. That’s what wrong with our people. They show no compassion for their fellow man.

In early 1999, Simon was under investigation by Milwaukee police for his connection to a pair of local murders committed around the time he arrived in Milwaukee. Rimland worked out a deal with Gainer, the assistant state’s attorney, and a prosecutor from Milwaukee: If Simon pled guilty to the Chicago killings, he’d receive immunity from prosecution in the Wisconsin case.

In September of 1999, Alstory Simon stood in front of Cook County judge Thomas R. Fitzgerald, and with his bespectacled attorney, Jack Rimland, at his side, he pled guilty to killing Green and Hillard. (Soon after, Simon would write an effusive letter to Rimland, thanking him for his service on the case.) Fitzgerald asked Simon if he was making the plea of his own volition; Simon answered in the affirmative. There would be no criminal trial. Before Fitzgerald imposed a sentence, Simon was given a chance to speak. He took it, delivering one last confession, addressing Offie Green, Marilyn’s mother—the woman who had been accusing Simon of killing Marilyn for years.

“I never meant to hurt her. Never meant to do it,” Simon said:

Never meant her no harm at all. I had things between Jerry and I. And when the shots started she just, she was coming past and happened to got in the way when the shot went off. Before I realized it I had already squeezed the trigger, she was trying to stop me from coming at Jerry. She threw up her hands, and trying to hit her in the hand, I didn’t even realize she … was even hurt that bad.

“There is no question in my mind that there is true contrition on the part of this particular defendant,” Judge Fitzgerald said before imposing the 37-year sentence recommended by the prosecution. Because the offense was committed prior to 1998, Simon could serve as little as 50 percent, or 18 and a half years—a lenient punishment for the crime that had earned Anthony Porter a death sentence. (Murders committed after 1998 were subject to a new law that required offenders to serve 100 percent of their sentences.) The next day, Simon was transferred to Danville Correctional Center in Vermilion County, Illinois.

Public reaction was instantaneous and loud. The Ford Heights Four case had been bad enough. But the Washington Park murders were something else entirely—an innocent man had escaped execution by mere hours.

“Why didn’t the police or the defense lawyers do a better investigation?” the Chicago Tribune asked in a lengthy editorial. “Was the only witness intimidated by policing into lying so Porter could be framed? How could this case come so horrifyingly close to the point that an innocent man would be put to death? Does Illinois want to answer these questions before an innocent person dies, or after that happens?”

One of the Illinois residents watching the drama play out was the Republican governor, George H. Ryan. “I turned to my wife and I said, ‘How the hell does that happen?’” Ryan later recalled. “How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years?”

He instituted a temporary moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, until a more thorough review of the judicial process for capital cases could be conducted.

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Anthony Porter and David Protess embrace following Porter’s release. Photo: Chicago Tribune

Part II

Six

Between 1982, the year Anthony Porter was arrested for the murders of Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard, and 1999, the year he was exonerated, the field of criminal justice changed in dramatic ways. Courts began allowing the introduction of DNA evidence, throwing doubt on convictions that had once seemed airtight. Eyewitness testimony was being treated with far more skepticism. (By 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court would order all judges to read to juries a set of instructions detailing the inherent problems with such testimony. “Human memory is not foolproof,” the instructions read. “Research has revealed that human memory is not like a video recording that a witness need only replay to remember what happened. Memory is far more complex.”)

The public’s faith in the ability of prosecutors and police to get the right man was shaken. Support for the death penalty plummeted from its peak in 1994; by 1997, the American Bar Association was advocating for a nationwide moratorium, until courts were sure they’d “minimiz[ed] the risk that innocent persons may be executed.”

A fundamental societal shift was under way, and few people had been as instrumental in effecting it as David Protess. In the months following Porter’s release from jail, Protess and his students sat for dozens of magazine, newspaper, and television profiles, in which they were consistently depicted as diligent sleuths whose digging had helped to overthrow a conviction based on sloppy police work. “I just believe that the higher calling of journalism is that after you find the truth, you can in fact right the wrong,” Protess proclaimed to The New York Times in March of 1999.

Four months later, Protess presided over the inauguration of the Medill Innocence Project, an offshoot of the national organization. was named director. Other universities, inspired by Northwestern’s accomplishments, followed suit. “I saw what Protess was doing and said I’d like to try something like that up here,” recalled Bill Moushey, the founder of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, in Pittsburgh.

The establishment of the Medill Innocence Project highlighted the tension of Protess’s dual roles: It was a journalistic enterprise headed by an activist. With Protess, the former Medill dean Michael Janeway said, “it was always kind of fuzzy whether he was engaged in journalism or a kind of guerrilla social-justice law operation where the ends justified the means.” Another acquaintance, a journalist himself, told me that Protess developed “boundary issues with journalism and activism. He could sometimes get out over his skis.”

In 2003, Illinois governor George Ryan held a press conference to announce his intention to empty death rows across the state. From the podium, he made sure to single out Protess in the audience. “Most of us wouldn’t have even paused for a second except that Anthony Porter was innocent,” Ryan thundered. “He was innocent for the double murder for which he had been condemned by the State of Illinois to die.” (Later that year, Ryan was indicted for racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering, and tax fraud; he was convicted and served six and a half years in prison.)

For members of the wrongful-conviction movement, the case became shorthand for all they stood against: the flawed nature of the death penalty; police coercion and prosecutorial negligence; the inequities of the criminal-justice system. But for Protess’s enemies, it was something else: a target.


None of the investigations carried out by Protess and his students had occurred in a vacuum. To look into an old case was to dissect it with an eye toward understanding where it had gone wrong—under whose control and how. Each exoneration unraveled a carefully orchestrated conviction and, more often than not, implicated the cops and attorneys who had helped stitch it together. The city was forced to pay out thousands of dollars to the freed men. Unsurprisingly, in Chicago’s conservative law-enforcement circles, David Protess was increasingly viewed as a threat.

“He’d get these kids out in front, and he’d say, ‘These coeds, it’s unbelievable how smart they are. They just go in and get a confession!’” James DeLorto, a former investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, told me recently. “And there was nobody around saying, ‘That’s a crock of shit,’ you know?”

DeLorto is short and snowy haired, with close-set eyes and a parchment-dry sense of humor. At the bureau, he was a member of the Organized Crime Task Force, which investigated mob operations; “When there were no more Italians left,” he likes to joke, “they had to start us on gangs.” In 1995, he and his longtime partner, John Mazzola, retired from the ATF and founded their own private investigation outfit.

Two years later, David Protess’s work on the Ford Heights Four case led to a federal investigation into corruption in the Chicago suburb. Mazzola and DeLorto were hired by lawyers representing Jack Davis, the longtime chief of police, who was charged with accepting bribes from area drug dealers. To understand the context of the accusations, the former ATF agents examined Protess’s original exoneration investigation. Davis was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in a federal lockup, but the case taught Mazzola and DeLorto a lot about how Protess and his Northwestern team operated. “We knew the part that Ciolino played, the part the students played, and the part that the news media played,” DeLorto told me.

To DeLorto, it was all a liberal conspiracy; the public had been hoodwinked, and good “coppers,” as he put it, were paying the price. The professor needed to be taught a lesson. And in 2002, DeLorto and Mazzola stumbled across the right opportunity: Alstory Simon had filed a pro se motion, a legal document made without the assistance of an attorney, alleging that he’d been forced into admitting to the murders by Paul Ciolino, Arnold Reed, and Jack Rimland.

A judge had denied the motion, but DeLorto and Mazzola arranged a visit with Simon anyway. In the Danville visiting room, Simon told the investigators his new story: Ciolino and Reed had shown up unannounced at his Wright Street bungalow in Milwaukee and barreled past him, brandishing pistols. (Ciolino told me he was unarmed: it would have been “crazy” to transport loaded handguns across state lines, he said. Reed has since passed away.) They spent the next hour alternately threatening him and cajoling him with bribes, until Simon broke down and told the two investigators what he thought they wanted to hear: that he had killed Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green.

In a subsequent court filing, Simon explained:

For the first time, I believed that I was actually going to be charged with committing the murders…. [Ciolino] said he had all the evidence they needed to put me on death row, and that the Chicago police were on their way to arrest me right then. He said that once the police get to my house, there would be nothing more he could do for me, and this was my one and only chance to help myself by giving a statement saying that I shot the two victims in self-defense. Ciolino said that he and [Protess] wanted to free Anthony Porter, that when he got out, millions of dollars were going to be made on movies and book deals, that I would be entitled to a lot of the money…. He said that if I gave a statement saying I did the crimes in self-defense … that he would get me a free lawyer, that the professor could make it so that I only had to serve a short time in prison, and that when I got out, I’d be taken care of financially and would not have to work again.

But after several years at Danville Correctional Center, Simon went on, he stopped hearing from Jack Rimland. He concluded that Paul Ciolino, Arnold Reed, and David Protess had hoodwinked him into confessing and then saddled him with a lawyer, Rimland, who was determined from the start to leave him to rot in Danville.

In fact, Ciolino told me that he didn’t have an ulterior motive when he gave Simon the names of those two attorneys back in 1999: He knew both men and trusted them. Furthermore, each lawyer had an extensive track record of litigating death-penalty cases. Ciolino’s supporters, including Rob Warden, who calls Rimland a “fine attorney,” have said that they saw nothing wrong with the recommendations.

“The options included refusing to give him the name of a lawyer, giving him the names of lawyers he didn’t know or trust, or asking him to call the bar association for a legal referral,” David Protess later argued. “I’d call it the best of all the bad options.”

But to DeLorto and Mazzola, the referral represented a clear conflict of interest—and, more than that, evidence of a conspiracy to frame an innocent man.

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Paul Ciolino. Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

Seven

The two investigators were ecstatic. Returning to their offices in Batavia, they contacted James Sotos, an attorney based in the nearby suburb of Itasca. Sotos runs something of a specialty shop: On any given year, he and his partners defend a dozen cops or prosecutors who are accused of excessive force, false arrest, or worse. (“You work hard for us, let us work hard for you,” reads the firm’s website.) Typically, his fees are paid either by city or county governments, as in the case of Sotos’s most famous client, Jon Burge—a police commander convicted of overseeing a culture of witness and suspect torture in Chicago’s Area 2. (The scandal cost the city more than $100 million in reparations and associated costs.)

Sotos had worked with DeLorto and Mazzola for many years—he outsourced a lot of shoe-leather investigative work to the two former ATF men. Still, when it came to the Alstory Simon case, his gut reaction was to politely turn them away. “It was my feeling that it was kind of an obvious case, that Northwestern had the right guy, because I had seen [Simon’s confession] on television,” Sotos told me recently.

In preparing his pro se motion, Simon had collected all the court documents and police reports associated with his case. He mailed the files to DeLorto and Mazzola, who shared them with Sotos. “It became that stack of papers that sits on the corner of your desk that you don’t have time to get to,” Sotos told me. “But [DeLorto and Mazzola] kept pushing me to do it, and they said, ‘Review the grand jury documents, and if you don’t want to get involved after that, we’ll leave you alone.’”

The results of the second grand jury convened in the Simon investigation by Thomas Epach, head of the criminal division of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, were well known: The jury had indicted Simon for murder. And for good reason, Sotos saw, paging through the documents. All three of the witnesses—Celeste Stack, an assistant state’s attorney; detective Allen Szudarski; and Paul Ciolino—had focused on the statements given by Inez Simon and Walter Jackson, and on the contrite confession delivered by Alstory Simon himself.

But the transcripts from the first grand jury, which was tasked in February of 1999 with conducting the initial review of the case, were foreign to Sotos. He saw that the first grand jury had heard from an array of people the indicting grand jury had not: the Northwestern students, Protess, and the four men—Eugene Beckwith, Mark Senior, Michael Woodfork, and Kenneth Edwards—who were present at the pool area at the time of the killings. The men had not testified at Porter’s 1983 trial, but they had given statements to police implicating Porter in the killings. In 1999, they had delivered echoes of those statements from the stand to Thomas Gainer, the state’s attorney charged with presenting evidence to the first grand jury. Their recollections were vague, decayed over the years, but to Sotos, they suggested a possible road map to Alstory Simon’s exoneration.

Sotos was also struck by Protess’s acknowledgement, under oath, that he’d only studied the files generated during Porter’s appellate proceedings, along with summaries written by his students and the 1982 statement given by William Taylor. That meant that before assigning the case to his students, he hadn’t read Salvatore and Gray’s report of the interview with Kenneth Edwards in which Edwards had identified Porter as the killer, nor the testimony of the other witness, Henry Williams, called by the State in 1983:

Gainer: You didn’t read [Henry] Williams?

Protess: Correct.

Gainer: You didn’t read any of Mr. Porter’s alibi?

Protess: That’s correct.

Gainer: You didn’t read any of the police witnesses?

Protess: That’s correct.

The professor’s decision is understandable: Given the shoddy testimony of the witnesses the state had called, Protess might have been skeptical about what police claimed they learned from four other young black men. Porter was facing execution, and with only 11 weeks in each Northwestern quarter, Protess and his students had great incentive to move quickly—it made sense that they would start with William Taylor, the one witness to the crime to testify at the 1983 trial, and with the contents of the Offie Green affidavit, which pointed in the direction of a different killer.

But Sotos saw barely concealed bias: It appeared to him that Protess had been selective about the witnesses he focused on. Perhaps he’d already had his mind made up about the innocence of Anthony Porter and was determined to overlook any evidence that might disprove his theory. Sotos came away convinced that Protess had gone too far.

“I decided I would get involved and do whatever I could,” he told me.

He phoned his friend Terry Ekl, a former prosecutor with extensive courtroom experience, and asked if Ekl would be willing to lend a hand on Simon’s appeal. Ekl agreed.


In the fall of 2003, Sotos and Ekl arranged a meeting with the Cook County state’s attorney and his senior staff. Between Simon’s retraction and the transcripts from the first grand jury, Sotos and Ekl believed they had enough to persuade Devine to give Simon a new hearing. But the meeting went nowhere. “I didn’t get the sense there was any real serious consideration given,” Sotos told me. “There was some smirking.” (In his opinion piece last year, Devine defended his actions: “Was there evidence pointing to Porter? There was. But there was also evidence pointing to Simon, and Simon pleaded guilty,” he wrote, adding, “there should not be any issue about the need to investigate Simon’s role in the murders or the professionalism of the prosecutors in conducting that investigation.”)

Sotos resolved to talk to Protess. Maybe he could make the professor see things from his point of view. The three men—Ekl, Sotos, and Protess—had lunch at Ina’s, a now defunct brick-front restaurant in the West Loop. Sotos and Ekl laid out what they had. Sotos remembers telling Protess that “the anti-death-penalty movement will survive Porter’s guilt. There’s so much momentum it’s not going to turn that back. But the facts of this case are the facts of this case, and you can get out in front of this.”

Protess, Sotos says, took the tone of “a hardened police detective who didn’t want to hear the other side.” He stood by the Northwestern investigation, calling it “one of the strongest criminal cases” he had ever worked.


While Sotos and Ekl lobbied to have Simon released from prison, Anthony Porter was struggling to adapt to life on the outside. In 2000, Porter had been granted a certificate of innocence from the governor and a restitution check in the amount of $145,875—less than ten grand for each year Porter had spent behind bars. The money vanished within months, spent on a luxury SUV, gifts to friends and supporters, and booze.

Not long after his release, Porter was arrested for assaulting his daughter and her mother—“He was really hitting hard. You wouldn’t think he would do that to his own blood,” a relative told reporters—but was spared jail time by . Porter moved in with his mother and spent much of his time on the couch, watching daytime TV. “All I wanted was to get home. Then I got to go home. I feel like I’m going through the same thing as before,” he complained to a visiting reporter. “I just want to get a life.”

In 2001, he filed a $24 million lawsuit against the City of Chicago, claiming that detectives Charles Salvatore and Dennis Gray, in a rush to have him indicted for murder, had ignored key evidence and conspired to force Henry Williams and William Taylor to testify against him. A civil trial was slated for the fall of 2005. There would be three main defendants in addition to Salvatore and Gray. Anthony Liace, a patrolman, had responded to the shots-fired call and seen a man he later identified as Porter fleeing the scene. And detectives Geraldine Perry and Dennis Dwyer had also arrived at the pool area in the early hours of August 15, 1982; they’d been the first cops to talk to Taylor and Williams.

At trial, James Montgomery, who represented Porter, sought to depict the 1982 police investigation as a frame job. He called to the stand William Taylor, who repeated what he’d told McCann and Ciolino: that Salvatore and Gray were already certain that the shooter was Porter and that things would be much easier if Taylor “went with the flow.” Taylor said the detectives coerced him into identifying Anthony Porter.

Montgomery also questioned Eugene Beckwith, Kenneth Edwards, and Michael Woodfork, three of the four men who, according to detectives Charles Salvatore and Dennis Gray, had seen Porter shoot Hillard and Green—and had testified accordingly in front of the investigative grand jury in 1999. (Kenneth Edwards’s testimony was delivered via videotape, from prison, where he was serving time for murder.)

The three men disputed the accuracy of the police reports, which Salvatore and Gray had produced after their interviews; according to the detectives, Edwards and Woodfork had identified Porter as the shooter. They maintained that they said no such thing in 1982.

Beckwith and Edwards admitted that they’d seen Porter at the pool but couldn’t say that he’d killed anyone; Woodfork didn’t know who Porter was. Edwards asserted that he had testified against Porter in 1999 in exchange for leniency on a pending charge.

Walter Jones, the city attorney representing the officers, did his best to cast doubt on the witness reversals and introduce compelling witnesses of his own. There was Liace, who claimed to have stopped and frisked a man he later identified as Anthony Porter near the pool area. And there was the still-intact testimony of witness Henry Williams. (Being dead, Williams could hardly reverse his original statement, although Montgomery called Williams’s best friend at the time, Sheffield Younger, to testify that no mugging had occurred.)

At the close of the one-week trial, the judge directed the jury to reject the claims against Perry, Liace, and Dwyer and instructed them to focus wholly on Salvatore and Gray. But there, too, the jury members’ purview was to be limited: They weren’t deciding whether Anthony Porter was guilty. They were deciding only if Salvatore and Gray had probable cause to arrest Anthony Porter and whether the two detectives had acted with malice.

On November 6, 2005, the jury foreman announced that the plaintiff’s claims were rejected. Anthony Porter would receive no money from the City of Chicago.

In coming weeks and months, the verdict would be interpreted in radically different ways. Walter Jones saw it as cementing Porter’s guilt. But Porter’s family and supporters were able to take some solace that the jury had agreed that Salvatore and Gray failed to arrest the real shooter. “We unanimously believed [Porter] was innocent, that he was wronged,” a jury member told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But we couldn’t [find for Porter]. The case was, ‘Was there probable cause?’”

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Inez Jackson. Photo: Chicago Tribune

Eight

In 2006, Terry Ekl and James Sotos filed a petition in a Cook County court requesting a fresh review of Simon’s conviction. As part of the process, they had DeLorto and Mazzola track down Inez Simon. The private detectives found her living with her son in Milwaukee, suffering from advanced-stage emphysema and AIDS, which left her bedridden and hooked up to an oxygen tank.

In a deposition given to Ekl, Inez retracted her statement implicating her ex-husband in the murders and said she’d done so only under duress from the Northwestern team. “I didn’t want to die carrying it to my grave, knowing he was innocent,” she told Ekl. Four months later, Inez was dead. The lawyers obtained a similar retraction from Walter Jackson, Inez’s nephew: Jackson said he’d only implicated Simon because he’d hoped David Protess and the Northwestern students would help him with his own appeal.

In September of 2006, Cook County judge Evelyn Clay agreed to hear Ekl and Sotos’s petition, arguing that Rimland did not provide adequate counsel to his client.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune, the columnist Eric Zorn, who had applauded Northwestern’s efforts to have Porter released from prison, cast doubt on Sotos’s single-minded interest in Simon’s innocence. “I believe that those behind the effort to re-open Simon’s case are interested only in discrediting the integrity of those whose work has attacked the criminal justice system,” Zorn wrote.

Still, he argued, Simon was entitled to a “full evidentiary hearing”:

If I’ve learned anything in more than a dozen years of banging my shoe on the table about the fallibilities of our legal system, it’s that beliefs and conflicts of interest can be poisonous to the search for truth, no matter how good anyone’s intentions. And that the first step toward injustice always involves people abandoning principle when it threatens to conflict with what they “know” to be true.

Later that month, Judge Clay ruled against Simon, noting that she had not seen “evidence of erroneous legal advice” and adding that Rimland had “negotiated an excellent plea bargain” for Simon. Clay also cast doubt on the recantations that Sotos had secured. “Recantations are inherently unreliable and do not constitute new material evidence,” she wrote. “Both Inez Jackson and Walter Jackson have severely impaired credibility rendering their recantations untrustworthy.”

An appellate court upheld the decision; in 2008, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision. There were few legal avenues remaining.

For all intents and purposes, Sotos recalled, “we were dead in the water.”

Inez Jackson’s deposition. Video: Courtesy of the Sotos Law Firm 

In the spring of 2009, a writer named William Crawford showed up at Sotos’s offices in Itasca. Before he became a PR man and a crisis-management strategist, Crawford had spent his cub years at the now defunct Chicago City News; in 1970, he’d joined the investigations team at the Chicago Tribune, where he’d been part of a group that won a Pulitzer for exposing corruption at two local hospitals. In his retirement, he occasionally looked into old murder cases for cop buddies, and after reaching out to Mazzola and DeLorto about a decades-buried arson case, the two former ATF men had steered Crawford to Alstory Simon and Anthony Porter.

Crawford, Sotos believed, could be a useful part of the team: The legal efforts to exonerate Simon were flagging, and besides, a major part of Protess’s success had been his ability to draw media attention to his work—with Crawford on board, Team Simon would now have an investigative journalist of its own. He showed Crawford into one of the conference rooms, which was piled high with cardboard file boxes, and encouraged Crawford to take as much time as he needed.

Crawford started with the transcripts from the two 1999 grand juries and Simon’s sentencing. “I realized immediately,” Crawford told me recently, “that the investigation had been absolutely inane, meaningless, unprofessional, childish. There was no merit to it at all.” In his reading of the record, the Cook County state’s attorney, under pressure from Protess and the media, had mistakenly released a guilty man and incarcerated an innocent one. Rimland, a friend of Ciolino’s, should never have been allowed to represent Simon; the second grand jury should have heard from the same witnesses as the first.

He launched himself into the case at a velocity he would later describe as unhealthy—spending days on end reviewing and organizing documents. “Everybody had heard bits and pieces of this story,” he recalled, “but when you pieced it all together it was so abundantly clear, the wrongdoing. But nobody had the entire picture.”

This spring I met Crawford at a Starbucks near O’Hare airport. I asked him about his motivations for getting involved in the case. Did it have to do with the death penalty? “I don’t give a shit one way or the other [about the death penalty],” he told me. “I just want to expose the fucking wrongdoing that went on here.”

But later in our conversation, he dropped a clue: “Without blowing my own horn, there was a time when I was a central member of the media in Chicago, print media in particular, but I got out in ’95,” he told me. “It is now 2000-and-whatever-it-is, and the name Bill Crawford is meaningless to a lot of people. But the cheerleading that went on for Protess…” There he trailed off.


In March 2011, the State of Illinois abolished the death penalty and commuted the sentences of all prisoners on death row, bringing new acclaim to Protess and Northwestern. Meantime, Crawford began work on a lengthy document he titled Chimera, after the two-headed monster of Ancient Greek myth. He outlined his goals in the introduction: “One, to set the record straight—the official public record that has been spread over thousands of pages since the 1982 crimes were committed. Two, to get that record in front of those men and women, in private and public office, who are in a position to begin at once the task of righting the colossal wrong that has taken place.”

Despite Crawford’s ambition to lay out the facts in an orderly fashion, the tone of Chimera is by no means impartial. It begins with the assertion of Anthony Porter’s guilt and Alstory Simon’s innocence. The initial 1983 conviction is described as “a rather open and shut case”; Porter is repeatedly referred to as the killer, despite his having been exonerated.

And here is Crawford on Protess:

The journalism profession at least in theory is grounded in the time-honored tradition of seeking the truth, not the absolute truth, which is not possible given time constraints. But the approximate truth. For Protess, the goal of his death penalty class—judging by his conduct and the course’s content—apparently was to get Porter off Death Row or freed altogether, by hook or by crook, the facts be damned, and whoever may be harmed in the process.

Beyond Protess’s wrongdoing, Crawford suggested a broad conspiracy, perpetuated by lazy local journalists: “The lead actors in this farce? Certain members of the print and electronic media, especially in Chicago. Reeled in hook, line and sinker, routinely regurgitating information spoon fed to them by a Northwestern journalism professor without any effort on the part of reporters to validate the underlying facts.”

Chimera weighs in at 105 pages; it is exhaustively researched and unapologetically skewed. The underlying argument can be summarized as follows: The jury had it right in 1983. Everything after the early months of 1999 had been a horrendous reversal of justice, propagated primarily by Northwestern and Paul Ciolino, in order to bolster credentials. In Crawford’s telling, the Northwestern students were naive and Ciolino a fearsome gumshoe “with a checkered past.” It detailed, for the first time, the testimony heard by the first grand jury. (Crawford would later publish a full book, essentially a longer version of Chimera, titled Justice Perverted: How the Innocence Project at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism Sent an Innocent Man to Prison.)

In late 2011, Crawford emailed the document to approximately 100 individuals: politicians, prosecutors, senior administrators at Northwestern University. He received a couple of short responses, but nothing that would move the case forward. To Crawford, the silence was further proof of omertà on the part of Protess’s supporters: “They were all stonewalling—by not acknowledging this thing is out there and nobody’s talking about it and the press wasn’t going to touch it.”

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Cook County courthouse, Chicago. Photo: Jonathan Lurie

Nine

David Protess’s response to the allegations made by Crawford, Sotos, and Ekl was to retreat further into his work, expanding the scope of the Medill Innocence Project and the number of wrongful-conviction cases it took on. He arrived on campus early in the morning and did not leave until late at night. He drank more; smoked too many cigarettes. The cause had consumed him, so much so that he may have been blind to the single-minded purpose of his critics.      

In 2006, Protess and his students presented Richard Devine, the Cook County state’s attorney, with the results of a potentially groundbreaking investigation: the reexamination of the conviction of Anthony McKinney, an Illinois man accused of shooting a security guard in 1978. Protess and his students had obtained crucial evidence that seemed to indicate that the wrong person was behind bars. Together with the members of the Bluhm Law Clinic at Northwestern, they petitioned Devine to reopen the case. But Devine’s term expired before he could act, and in 2009, the evidence wound up in the hands of career prosecutor Anita Alvarez, the new Cook County state’s attorney.

Alvarez shocked Protess and Northwestern by responding to the petition with a subpoena, demanding that the university turn over all emails and notes pertaining to the case and the grades of the students involved. “I said, ‘Holy shit. They don’t want to just litigate [this] case. They want to litigate us,’” Protess later recalled. That night he told his wife, “Well, Anita Alvarez just declared war on our Innocence Project.”

Protess’s supporters viewed the subpoena as an attempt to stop the journalists from meddling in old cases. “It is a flagrant attempt to intimidate the Medill Innocence Project and other similar projects which have been so successful in overturning wrongful convictions,” a high-ranking former federal judge wrote in a column at the time. (Alvarez has repeatedly denied the existence of any vendetta.)

The state’s attorney went on the offensive, unleashing a string of allegations against the Medill Innocence Project: Students had flirted with witnesses in order to extract information, Alvarez claimed, posed as census workers, and paid out money to a witness. Northwestern refused her subpoena on principle: The students’ emails should be covered by the same Illinois shield law that protects professional journalists.

The university hired the white-shoe law firm Jenner and Block to reinterview students and staff familiar with the case and to go over material scraped from staff hard drives. During that search, emails were uncovered that showed Protess had shared materials with lawyers representing Anthony McKinney—in doing so, he’d legally voided his right to be protected under Illinois’s shield law.

More embarrassingly, the probe produced evidence that Protess had attempted to cover his tracks. The most glaring example involved a 2007 email sent from Protess to the program assistant for the Innocence Project. In the original email, Protess had written that “My position about memos, as you know, is that we share everything with the legal team, and don’t keep copies.” But he had altered that communication before sending it to the dean and the lawyers to read: “My position about memos, as you know, is that we don’t keep copies.” (Protess later said that he altered the text to better reflect reality, because he didn’t want to imply that they had shared literally everything.)

A close friend of Protess’s told me that Protess had temporarily “lost it,” possibly a result of caring for his wife, who had been ill, while balancing the demands of the Innocence Project. “I think he was probably under extreme emotional stress,” the friend says.

But Protess had been caught lying to Northwestern officials—a particularly grave sin at a university whose motto is Quaecumque Sunt Vera, a line from Philippians 4:8 that translates to “whatsoever things are true.” Northwestern, citing Protess’s violation of its values, announced his retirement from the university.

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Anita Alvarez announcing the release of Alstory Simon. Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

Ten

By 2011, Sotos and Ekl were starting to feel confident about their client’s case. Protess was gone from Northwestern. Simon was maintaining his innocence. They had a deathbed retraction from Inez. They’d attracted the support of Chicago beat cop and writer Martin Preib, the author of Crooked City, a blog popular in law-enforcement circles. They’d added a new member to their legal team: Andrew Hale, an attorney who had spent years defending police officers against wrongful-conviction charges.

And they’d been working with a filmmaker from Cleveland, Shawn Rech, on a documentary about the 1982 murders. Funded in part by Hale, the film, which would be released in 2014 under the title A Murder in the Park, is more pro-Simon propaganda than objective journalism: It features interviews with Charles Salvatore, Alstory Simon, Ekl, and Hale, but not with Protess, Ciolino, Rimland, or any of the students—the entire Northwestern team declined to participate.

And it floats a spectacular theory: that David Protess and Anthony Porter conspired to convince Walter Jackson to give a false statement and to persuade Inez to participate in the plot to frame Alstory Simon, with Jack Rimland acting as a knowing accomplice. (Porter was interviewed for the film and again denied his involvement in the killings; he later said Rech offered him cash to confess on camera, a charge that Rech has denied.)

As the public relations campaign wore on, Sotos sent a letter to Alvarez ticking down the evidence he had amassed and asking the state’s attorney’s office to take another look at Simon’s conviction. Sotos cited Simon’s allegations of coercion; Inez Simon’s and Walter Jackson’s retractions; the testimony of Kenneth Edwards; and the involvement of Rimland—it was a conflict of interest, Sotos argued, to have Rimland on the case at all. (On this last point, Sotos, the Chicago Tribune editorial board, and Eric Zorn, who has long supported the wrongful-conviction movement, were in agreement. “Simon should have been represented by an attorney who wasn’t a pal of the guy who took his confession,” Zorn wrote in 2013.)

Sotos’s case was bolstered, in September of 2013, by an affidavit signed by Thomas Epach, the head of the criminal division at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in the late 1990s. In the affidavit, Epach swore that he’d always been dubious about Simon’s guilt and that he’d asked Richard Devine, the Cook County state’s attorney, for more time to look into the case. Devine, Epach said, turned him down. “I was told that the decision to prosecute Alstory Simon had been made by Mr. Devine,” Epach wrote.

Devine could hardly have been expected to look the other way when Alstory Simon was so loudly confessing to the murders of Green and Hillard. But Simon’s supporters viewed the Epach affidavit as corroboration that Simon’s conviction was political in nature: Even the head of the criminal division of the state’s attorney’s office had been skeptical, and still Devine plowed ahead. (“If Mr. Epach had these issues, I don’t recall their being raised with me,” Devine has said. “Maybe he raised them with other people. That’s possible, but I don’t recall them being raised with me.”)

Alvarez agreed to assign the case to the attorneys in her conviction integrity unit, a new group created in response to public pressure for more accountability at the state’s attorney’s office. Celeste Stack, the state’s attorney who had testified before the grand jury that had indicted Alstory Simon, would oversee the investigation.


On October 30, 2014, Alvarez called a press conference at her office in downtown Chicago. Bill Crawford and Martin Preib were in attendance. The state’s attorney strode into the room in all-business gray, her face drawn. Flashbulbs clattered. The Simon case, Alvarez said haltingly from the podium, “has undoubtedly been the most complicated and the most challenging reinvestigation that we have undertaken” since the formation of the conviction integrity unit.

Alstory Simon had “made more than one incriminating statement to this crime,” she said. “In fact,” she went on, “he had made arguably inculpatory statements in the year following his guilty plea—in a television news interview and in letters that he wrote to Mr. Rimland, another attorney, and a letter that he wrote to Anthony Porter himself.”

For Alvarez, though, “the bottom line is that the investigation conducted by Protess and private investigator Ciolino, as well as the subsequent legal representation of Mr. Simon, were so flawed that it’s clear that the constitutional rights of Mr. Simon were not scrupulously protected as our law requires. This conviction therefore cannot stand.”

Crawford and Preib leaned forward, waiting for Alvarez to say the magic words: that the real killer had been Anthony Porter. But the state’s attorney equivocated. “I can’t definitely tell you that it was Porter that did this, it was Simon that did this,” she said. “I’m just saying based on the totality of the circumstances, based on the way I think Mr. Simon was coerced, then in the interest of justice, this is the right thing to do.”

Alvarez vacated the charges against Simon, and a Cook County judge ordered his release. As the Chicago Tribune later noted, the move was an extraordinary one for Alvarez: “As state’s attorney, Alvarez has given great weight to confessions, often refusing to throw out convictions because defendants had confessed, even in the face of compelling evidence undercutting the confessions.”

Here, she’d shown no such compunction. (Alvarez’s office declined to comment or to make any documents collected during the case review available to me.)

In a written statement provided to the Tribune, Ciolino stood by the work of the Northwestern team. “I believe Anthony Porter was innocent, but no one can deny the state fell far short of meeting the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt in securing a death sentence for him,” Ciolino wrote in the statement. “But for the work we did together with David Protess and his students, Porter’s life would have been taken.”

On the afternoon of the 30th, under a low-bellied sky, Simon, clad in a gray hoodie, strode out of prison. Rain flecked his shoulders. His hood was pulled over his head. “I’m not angry,” he said, and, catching himself, added: “At first I was angry when I first came in here. I was very bitter. Like a person would come up to me, and I’d cuss ’em out, be ready to fight. Then I thought about it, and I thought, I got to let that go.”

A few hours later, Simon went with Sotos, Ekl, DeLorto, Mazzola, and Crawford to Gibson’s Steakhouse in Rosemont, a few miles west of Chicago. He had whiskey and a T-bone. Crawford recently sent me a photo from that night: Simon is still in his hoodie, and Crawford has one arm draped over his shoulder. Both men are smiling.

The next morning, the Chicago Tribune published an unsigned editorial on the case, lamenting the fact that “nobody will be held accountable for a double murder, despite two convictions. That’s a hugely unsatisfying outcome, but it only underscores our belief that the death penalty has no place in a just society,” the editorial continued. “A case that sent a man to death row has come unraveled, twice, leaving only uncertainty. Who killed Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard? We still don’t know.”

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Alstory Simon at his release, 2014. Photo: AP Photo 

Eleven

In the wake of his release from prison, Alstory Simon filed a petition for a certificate of innocence—the same certificate granted to Anthony Porter in 1999. Cook County circuit judge Thomas J. Byrne returned a decision in June. “It is more likely true than not that [Simon] is actually innocent in the murders of Hillard and Green,” Byrne ruled. But citing Simon’s confessions and apologies to Green’s family, Byrne found “Simon’s conduct [not] in line with the conduct of an unwilling victim.” He denied Simon the certificate of innocence and with it legal and binding proof that Simon wasn’t a killer.

Still, James Sotos, Terry Ekl, and Andrew Hale are pressing forward with a massive lawsuit against Northwestern University, David Protess, and Paul Ciolino, alleging that the Northwestern team “intentionally manufactured false witness statements against [Alstory] Simon and then used the fabricated evidence, along with terrifying threats and other illegal and deceitful tactics, to coerce a knowingly false confession from Simon.” (The defendants have denied the accusations.) They are asking, on Simon’s behalf, for $40 million. Even if they don’t prevail, the suit has already succeeded in silencing Protess and many of the people who worked on the case; few agreed to speak with me on the record.

One exception was Paul Ciolino. When I met him in April, the private investigator, clad in a blue UnderArmour hoodie and jeans, vibrated with rage at the allegations detailed in the lawsuit. It was costing him business, he said. “They want you to let this shit take over your life,” he said of Sotos and Ekl. “They don’t want you doing anything else but dealing with this nonsense.” But he was determined to fight back: “No one has really come back at them. I’m going to tell you, man, World War III is getting started with these people.”

The Northwestern students involved in the 1998 and 1999 investigation are not targets of the complaint, but some have retained counsel anyway, fearing that they could eventually be sued by Simon. “I think a lot of us would like to get on with our own careers,” one former student told me. Of the four undergraduates assigned the case in 1998, only one, Cara Rubinsky, an editor at the Associated Press, ultimately became a journalist. Tom McCann works as an attorney in Washington, D.C.; Shawn Armbrust is the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a D.C.–based nonprofit; Lori D’Angelo is a writing instructor.

As for David Protess, he is still president of the Chicago Innocence Project, the organization he founded after leaving Northwestern. “The situation is so painful that he wishes to receive no communication regarding it,” one friend told me, after I asked the friend to pass along a message to Protess on my behalf. (An attorney for Protess declined to comment.)

Protess’s most recent public communiqué was a lengthy 2013 column for The Huffington Post suggesting that any effort to overturn Simon’s conviction was the result of a “hidden agenda” on the parts of Sotos, Ekl, Hale, and the filmmaker Shawn Rech. “Sure enough,” Protess wrote, “a little digging shows that Porter has been dragged back into the spotlight for a more sinister reason. The motive is money.”

On a stormy day this spring, I rented a car and drove out to Washington Park. The air was heavy and damp, the sky filled with dancing white cottonseeds. The pool area would not open for a few more weeks, but the grounds crew had left the gate open. As I climbed the bleacher steps, I did a mental roll call: Inez Simon, dead. Henry Williams, dead. Arnold Reed, dead of stomach cancer. Daniel Sanders, recovering from bankruptcy and struggling to make ends meet as a self-employed attorney. Tony Porter, living in poverty, having been arrested three times since his release from prison, twice for assault and once for shoplifting. Alstory Simon, putting his life back together far from the South Side. Bill Crawford, convinced that the entire case has been his curse—his “infection.”

I stopped at the top of the bleachers and peered out over the park. I could find nothing in the way of commemoration: no Sharpied memoriam with the initials M.G. and J.H., no weather-bleached bloodstains—no hint that 33 years ago, two young people had been killed here, inaugurating a legal drama that would end the death penalty in Illinois but leave their deaths unavenged and all but forgotten. If the case had ever really been about Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green, it wasn’t any longer.

The Sinking of the Bounty

The Sinking of the Bounty

The true story of a tragic shipwreck and its aftermath.

By Matthew Shaer

       

The Atavist Magazine, No. 22


Matthew Shaer is a regular contributor to New York magazine and the author ofAmong Righteous Men, a book of nonfiction. His reporting and essays have appeared in Harper’sPopular ScienceThe Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications.


Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski and Gray Beltran
Copy Editor: Emily Votruba
Fact Checker: Thomas Stackpole
Research and Production: Nicole Pasulka and Rachel Richardson
Video: Edited from U.S. Coast Guard rescue footage
Audio Clips: Edited from the U.S. Coast Guard Bounty Hearing
Music: “Mingulay Boat Song,” performed by Charles Homans and Jefferson Rabb
Illustrator: Damien Scogin
Simulation: Professor Shuyi S. Chen, University. ofMiami



Published in February 2013. Design updated in 2021.

“And tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks—and sometimes a chance to feel your strength…”

—Joseph Conrad, “Youth”

One

MONDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2012 5:30 A.M.

Five hundred feet over the Atlantic Ocean, Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Randy Haba jammed himself into the rear bucket seat of the Jayhawk helicopter and waited for the doomed ship to come into view. Through the window he could see the crests of the waves and a flotilla of detritus that seemed to spread out in every direction toward the horizon—wormy coils of rope, sharp splinters of yard, tatters of sailcloth. The phosphor screens of his ANVIS-9 night-vision goggles rendered the ocean neon green—a flat, unceasing green that bled into the gray-green of the clouds and the yellow-green of the sky. The kind of green that made it difficult to distinguish distance or depth of field, let alone the blink of the chest-mounted strobe that the guys up in the C-130 transport airplane had sworn was out there, somewhere in the hurricane-roiled sea.

Haba felt the helicopter lurch into a hover. The winds were blowing at close to 90 miles an hour, and in the cabin, Lieutenant Commander Steve Cerveny was fighting the sticks. “Left side,” Lieutenant Jane Peña, the safety pilot, called over the radio. “Got it?”

“Roger,” Haba, the crew’s rescue swimmer, replied. Setting down the ANVIS-9s, he pulled on his fins, dive helmet, mask and snorkel, and thick neoprene gloves. He checked the neck seal of the flame-retardant dive suit and the pockets above the harness, which contained flares, a radio beacon, and one very sharp, spring-loaded knife.

Haba, a six-foot-three former high school football star with hard blue eyes and a weather-beaten face, had been based at the air station in Elizabeth City, North Carolina  for more than eight years, the majority of his Coast Guard career. He’d participated in plenty of rescues in the waters off , a dangerous patch of sea known by generations of mariners as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” There, past the pastel beach houses and salt-stained crab shacks, the North Atlantic’s cold Labrador current collides with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, yielding frequent storms and high waves capable of swallowing a ship whole.

But Haba had never encountered a situation like this. An hour and a half earlier, he’d been snoozing on a lumpy leather couch at the air station when the call came in: A large wooden ship was in trouble 100 miles east of with 16 people on board. The ship’s water-removal systems were malfunctioning, and it was limping into the path of Hurricane Sandy, the vast superstorm over the North Carolina coast. Haba had trotted downstairs and rendezvoused with his helicopter crew. One of the command center staffers had printed out a picture of the ship in question from Google Images, and only when he saw it did Haba grasp how strange his morning was about to become. Because the distressed vessel wasn’t a yacht. It wasn’t a schooner. It looked more like a pirate ship.

Bounty, as she was known, was a working replica of the 18th-century tall ship of the same name, commissioned half a century earlier for a film. She measured 120 feet from stern to bow, and 128 feet from keel to masthead. Her three wooden masts held 10,000 square feet of sail. A couple of days earlier, she’d departed   under the command of Robin Walbridge, a veteran tall-ship captain. At first she’d tacked east, in an effort to avoid the worst of the storm, but at some point, Walbridge had turned the ship southwest, toward shore and Sandy’s perilous center mass. Until 4 a.m., when the crew abandoned ship, she’d been in contact with a , which was still circling overhead at 1,000 feet. After that, there was only silence on the radio.

The number of survivors was uncertain. But the C-130 crew had spotted at least one figure bobbing alone amid the debris—a small shape swaddled in an immersion suit, with a blinking strobe on his chest. The straggler, they called him. Maybe he was dead—a floater—but maybe he wasn’t. Either way, Haba was about to find out. He clipped into the winch, gave a thumbs-up to the flight mechanic, and, the cable whistling behind him, dropped into the waves.

Almost immediately, he began to eat seawater. He was swimming against the current, against the wind. It didn’t help that Cerveny had the Jayhawk so low. The rotor wash was spectacular, drowning out any other sound. Still, Haba paddled like hell, and a minute later, he reached the straggler. The hood of the immersion suit was pulled tight around the guy’s head and all Haba could see was his face, which was covered in fresh lacerations. His skin was pale and his cheeks sunken. One arm hung limply at his side.

With some effort, Haba angled the sling under the man’s other armpit, and pulled the man close to his chest. Sometimes survivors fight back, out of confusion or panic—the surest way to drown is to fight us, rescue swimmers like to say. But the straggler was docile, barely even able to talk, and Haba made good time back to the winch. He gave the thumbs-up to the mechanic and waited for the cable to pull them skyward. Beneath the Jayhawk, illuminated by the rising sun, the tall ship Bounty was slipping under the surface of the sea.

Two

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25 11:00 A.M.

It amused the hands on the Bounty—a motley collection of retirees, bearded and tattooed twentysomethings, and midlife reinventionists—to watch the Navy guys go all weak-kneed at the sight of the . Bounty sailors knew every inch of that rigging, from sheets to spar. But to the local nuclear submarine crew in , who had come aboard that afternoon for a demonstration in square-rig sailing, it was utterly unfamiliar territory. In the end, only a few of them were brave enough to strap up and attempt a climb. The weather was calm and overcast, a pleasant 58 degrees.

Later that day, after the sub crew departed, Captain Robin Walbridge convened a brief all-hands meeting. Walbridge was a naturally reserved man, but at musters he presented a calmly confident mien. Peering out over the top of his eyeglasses, a ball cap partially obscuring his brow, he outlined the course for the two weeks ahead. Bounty would depart New London that night—setting sail on a Friday was considered to be bad luck—and head south. If they kept up a pace of 100 miles a day, they could easily make Florida by the second week of November.

That would allow them to meet an obligation in , a tour for members of an organization that promoted awareness of Down syndrome—and maybe even make a pit stop in , where the crew could swim, hit the bars, and recharge after what was sure to be a difficult voyage south. In mid-November, the Bounty would sail around the tip of Florida, across the Gulf of Mexico, and into , where she’d be put up for the winter.

Walbridge was 63, with unruly silver hair and meaty, callused hands. He had come relatively late to professional seafaring, after a series of stints on oil rigs and a short career as a long-haul trucker. He’d grown up in St. Johnsbury, a cloistered town in northeastern Vermont, and claimed to have first sailed at the age of 18, although he was tight-lipped about that part of his life; when his crew members asked his age, he would offer an array of different numbers. Perhaps something painful lurked in his past, they thought. Or perhaps Walbridge simply preferred to talk about his ships.

He’d worked on plenty over the previous two decades, all of them throwbacks in one way or another. There was the 19th-century schooner Governor Stone; the HMS Rose, a tall ship built in 1970 to the specifications of 18th-century British Admiralty drawings; and the USS Constitution, the famous frigate christened by George Washington, on which Walbridge had once in the 1990s. But his true love was Bounty, a vessel he’d captained since 1995.

Tall-ship crews are usually drawn from two cohorts of people. First there are the amateur adventurers—the retirees and armchair admirals, the recent college graduates putting off adulthood. These volunteers might sail with a tall ship for a week, or a few months, or a year, but they are not paid; in many cases, they are actually billed for berth and board. The second cohort, the mates, tend to be experienced sailors who have decided to make a career out of tall-ship sailing. Generally speaking, they have worked their way up the totem pole, from volunteer to paid hand.

On average, the crew of Bounty numbered around 18, with a small cadre of paid officers, a paid cook, a few lower-ranking hands, and the occasional volunteer. Walbridge never discriminated among the various groups. If anything, he seemed to lavish more attention on the sailors who were still learning to navigate the ship, to take in line and climb the rigging. He was intoxicated by the old-fashioned way of doing things, and he was pleased to be around those who were in the process of becoming intoxicated themselves. “He considered square-rigged sailing a truly dying art, and he was the one keeping the idea alive,” one longtime Bounty hand has said.

And yet Walbridge was no fusty antiquarian. He had sailed the Bounty up and down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal and over to the West Coast, and twice across the Atlantic. Along the way, he’d seen plenty of bad weather, including a pair of hurricanes and pants-shittingly high waves that heaved across the decks, and he had acquired a certain bravado about it. Walbridge was “clearly brilliant,” says a former first mate of Bounty, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The kind of guy who could play three games of chess at once, who could take apart a diesel engine and put it back together with his bare hands. But the term ‘prudent mariner’ doesn’t really enter the mix.”

The former first mate recalled a series of harrowing close calls aboard the ship, including a “36-hour nightmare ordeal” off Cape Hatteras in 1998, when rough seas sent water pouring into the Bounty’s engine room. Both the Coast Guard and the Navy had sent vessels to the scene, and extra pumps were dropped on board to clear out the water. But in the end, Walbridge declined to be towed back to shore by the Coast Guard—fearing, the first mate believes, that it would prompt a federal investigation. Instead, Bounty managed to sail under her own power back to Charleston for repairs. In a few days, she was at sea again.

Around the same time that Walbridge was convening his crew on Bounty’s deck in New London, on October 25, a new storm, Hurricane Sandy, was on the Florida coast, 1,000 miles to the south. Several crew members who were in the meeting on deck say that Walbridge believed Sandy would barrel up the coast and eventually track inland, somewhere near North Carolina. By sailing southeast before turning south, Bounty could stay windward of the storm. Remaining in Connecticut, Walbridge felt, wasn’t an option—he subscribed to the old maxim that a ship was always safer at sea than at anchor. In a crowded port like New London, there would be practically zero “sea room,” and Bounty would be hemmed in, dangerously close to the docks. Better to take our chances “out there,” Walbridge told the crew.

It was an unusual decision—few other captains in the region, and no other tall-ship captains, were taking any such gamble. And Walbridge, likely mindful of his less experienced hands, was careful to stress that no one was obligated to stay on the Bounty. “I know that quite a few of you all are getting phone calls and emails regarding the hurricane,” Chris Barksdale, the 56-year-old engineer, recalls Walbridge saying. “I wouldn’t blame anyone if you want to get off and I won’t think any worse of you and I won’t hold it against you.”

Josh Scornavacchi crossed his arms and nodded. Scornavacchi, 25, was short and stoutly built, with an earring in his left ear and a mop of unruly reddish hair, which he wore swept across his forehead and cowlicked up in the back. He’d grown up in landlocked Mohnton, Pennsylvania  and studied biology at Penn State before signing on as a whitewater-kayaking guide in the Lehigh Gorge. It was there that he’d caught the adventure bug, and hatched a series of increasingly grandiose plans—someday he would hike Everest, float down the Amazon, travel to Congo and Papua, New Guinea. He would buy a boat and sail around the world. But in order to do that, he’d first need to learn how to sail, so in 2011 he’d signed on for a Hudson River tour aboard , a sloop owned by the folk singer Pete Seeger.

After the tour, Scornavacchi returned to Mohnton, where he worked shifts at the local Red Robin and looked for another opportunity to ship out. The world of tall ships is tight-knit, and through a friend on Clearwater, Scornavacchi heard of an opportunity on Bounty. He interviewed with John Svendsen, the ship’s 41-year-old first mate, and in the spring of 2012, he flew to Puerto Rico to start a stint as a paid deckhand. The money wasn’t much, but Scornavacchi was deeply enamored with the ship. He loved scrambling up the high-masts, loved the sight of the big canvas under sail, loved the rhythm of life on board—the nights in his gently rocking bunk and the days exploring strange new cities.

With Bounty, Scornavacchi had sailed from Puerto Rico to Florida, up the East Coast to Nova Scotia and back down to Maine, stopping in dozens of ports along the way. Now he would have the chance to experience his first real hurricane. It was a prospect that had not particularly delighted his mother. Earlier that day, he had spoken to her on the phone, and listened to the way the worry made her voice heavy and syrupy. “Mom, I’m not going to die,” he told her. “I promise.” Walbridge was a veteran sailor, he assured her, a man who had crossed the Atlantic multiple times and maneuvered Bounty through some of the most dangerous passages on earth. And Walbridge was backed up by a pair of extremely able lieutenants: Svendsen, the long-haired and taciturn first mate, and second mate Matthew Sanders, an affable 37-year-old with a degree from Maine Maritime Academy. Together, Walbridge, Svendsen, and Sanders had decades of storm experience. “We trusted them,” Scornavacchi recalled later. “We all did. We trusted them completely. And we trusted the boat.”

In the end, none of the crew members took Walbridge up on his offer to get off in Connecticut. Around 8 p.m. that evening, Bounty glided out of the New London harbor, past the navigational buoys and the shuddering glow of the nearby boats, her dual John Deere engines rumbling underfoot, Long Island Sound opening up before her.

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Photo: Magic Madzik/Flickr

Three

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26 8:00 A.M.

All storms start in miniature, sucking in moisture and matter as they grow, and in this respect, at least, Hurricane Sandy was no different. She had been spotted in the radar images for the first time on October 19, in the Caribbean Sea, that blue breeding ground for hurricanes, an unspectacular whorl of cloud perched southwest of Puerto Rico. Meteorologists dubbed her Tropical Depression 18. She worked her way west, along the coasts of Venezuela and Colombia, before turning north toward Jamaica. Her status was upgraded with alarming regularity, from a tropical depression to a tropical low—a cyclone with a low-pressure core—to a tropical storm. By 11 a.m. EST on October 24, she was a full-fledged hurricane.

Outside the Jamaican capital of Kingston, a city that had not seen a hurricane in 24 years, a man was struck and killed by falling rocks. In Haiti, floods coursed across the lowlands and swept through the post-earthquake tent cities of Port-au-Prince, claiming 54 lives and the homes of 20,000 people. In Cuba, 11 perished and 200,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. In the Dominican Republic, the streets of the capital city of Santo Domingo were submerged and 30,000 people evacuated.

Still accumulating size and strength, Sandy rumbled northward. By October 25, she was . News reports indicated that she could eventually reach the magnitude of Katrina and impact the entire Eastern Seaboard from the Southeast to New England. “Now is the time to update your family communication plans, check your supplies, and stay informed,” a high-ranking Federal Emergency Management Agency official warned. “A hurricane isn’t a point on a map—it’s a big storm and its impact will be felt far from the center.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted gale force winds of up to 70 miles an hour in some areas and widespread storm surges—the rising of the Atlantic Ocean itself. The National Hurricane Center called for a “long-lasting event,” with “two to three days of impact” after the storm had hit.

But the morning of October 26, standing on the stern deck and gazing out in the direction of the Maryland shore, Doug Faunt found it hard to believe there was a storm out there at all. The day was calm and comparatively mild, and above the Bounty’s towering masts, the gulls were circling. Robin is right, Faunt thought. Get clear of the hurricane to the east, and then tack south. Nothing to it. They’d be in in no time, drinking Coronas on the beach. They’d be laughing.

At 66, Faunt was the oldest person on Bounty, and the only volunteer. For most of his life, he’d been a computer engineer in Silicon Valley, a job that had made him plenty of money—not enough to be filthy rich, but enough that he was able to fully retire, without worry, shortly after his 48th birthday. He’d always been an avid reader, and among his favorite books were nautical adventures, like Patrick O’Brian’s novels. And so in the late 1990s, married but without kids, Faunt had set about finally fulfilling his sailing dreams. He’d taken a tour on the Rose, the tall ship re-christened Surprise for the 2003 Master and Commander movie starring Russell Crowe—the same vessel that Robin Walbridge had once helped helm—and sailed across the Atlantic on a century-old steel-hulled barque called the Europa. In his spare time, he rode motorcycles in the war-torn Balkans and backpacked through the western Sahara.

In 2008, as his marriage was disintegrating, Faunt had learned of a vacancy on Bounty, a ship whose history he had studied extensively. The original vessel, he knew, had been built in 1784, in the city of Hull, and christened Bethia, only to be purchased by the British Royal Navy and renamed HMS Bounty three years later. In December of 1787, Bounty had sailed from the port of Spithead, in Hampshire, England, under the command of , a 33-year-old lieutenant who had once served with Captain James Cook. Bligh was bound for Tahiti, where the Bounty would pick up a hold’s worth of breadfruit trees and transport them to the West Indies. Sir Joseph Banks, a prominent naturalist with the ear of the king, hoped breadfruit, a meaty and filling food, could eventually become a staple in England; others saw it merely as a cheap source of sustenance for slaves in the colonies.

But Bounty was cursed almost from the outset. She ran into extremely rough weather near the southern tip of Chile, and after 30 days of unsuccessful attempts to round Cape Horn, Bligh was forced to head east, for the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. Over the ten months it took to reach Tahiti, a deep and abiding tension developed between Bligh and his crew, especially the master’s mate, Fletcher Christian.

In early April, after half a year in Tahiti, Bligh announced that the procurement of the breadfruit trees was complete—Bounty would for Jamaica, unload her cargo, and return to England. The members of the crew boarded the ship as ordered, but unhappily; many of them had started relationships with Tahitian women, and none of them much enjoyed the prospect of a return voyage as arduous as the first. A few days later, on April 28, 1789, 18 crewmembers under Christian’s direction led Bligh out of his chamber at and deposited him in a along with 22 loyal sailors.

In an exceptional display of seamanship, Bligh managed somehow to pilot the boat 3,618 nautical miles to the Dutch-held port in Timor  and went on to enjoy a long if unspectacular career in the Royal Navy. The mutineers, meanwhile, sailed to Pitcairn Island via Tahiti—where they deposited a few of their number—and, after burning and sinking the Bounty there, established a small, self-sufficient colony. The mutineers who remained in Tahiti were eventually apprehended and sent in chains to England to stand trial. The Pitcairn crew, however, succeeded in staying out of view of the admiralty. Their outpost was only discovered in 1808, at which point almost all the mutineers were dead or gone, including Christian.

Beginning with Bligh’s publication of his own account in 1790, the Bounty mutiny became an enduring subject of public fascination, the facts of the incident increasingly obscured beneath layers of speculation and literary invention. Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s popular 1932 novel Mutiny on the Bounty—in which Bligh is cast as a sadistic disciplinarian and Christian a brave upstart—was adapted four times for the screen and once for the stage, with Christian portrayed by half a century’s worth of leading men: Errol Flynn, , , and .

It was for Brando’s outing that MGM Studios had asked the Smith & Rhuland shipyard in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, to build a replica—the most exacting and accurate that had ever been created for a film. The shipbuilders consulted the Bounty’s drawings in the archives of the British Admiralty. Their only significant amendments to the original were the ship’s size—the 18th-century ship was 90 feet from stem to stern, close quarters for a film crew—and a pair of diesel engines. Once filming concluded, Brando insisted that the ship be preserved and not burned for the final scene, as the producers had originally intended. So Bounty was sent to , where she remained for more than 20 years.

In 1986, Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, acquired MGM’s entire library of film props, including Bounty. In the years that followed, the ship appeared in a handful of other movies—among them a 1990 Treasure Island adaptation starring Charlton Heston and, later, two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films—but Turner had no great desire to hang on to the ship. In 1993, he donated her to the Fall River Chamber Foundation, in Massachusetts, which in turn established the Tall Ship Bounty Foundation. was brought on a year later.

Under Walbridge’s direction, Bounty joined the community of tall ships that crisscross the globe in the summer months. It was a sort of inverse tourism circuit: The ships would lay up for a few days in one harbor, long enough for locals and visitors to admire the high masts and ballooning sails, then push off for another port of call. Maintenance, supplies, and crew salaries were financed with ticket sales, the ten bucks they charged people to climb aboard, wander belowdecks or pose for pictures beside the replica cannons.

Before joining the replica Bounty as a volunteer, in 2008, Doug Faunt made it his business to read every book he could on the original ship. He kept pictures of Bounty around his house in Oakland, and tacked additional images above his berth. The vessel bewitched him; he believed Walbridge when the captain told him that Bounty was “the most famous ship afloat in the entire world.”

And yet Faunt was not unaware of the subpar condition in which the Bounty found herself at middle age. In 2001, Robert Hansen, the millionaire founder of Islandaire, an air-conditioning company, had purchased Bounty from the Tall Ship Bounty Foundation. He had kept Walbridge as captain, and also provided a much-needed infusion of funds to help maintain the vessel and pay the sailors. But even with his respectable fortune, he seemed unable to keep up with the intensive and regular maintenance a ship of Bounty’s size required. There were always repairs to be done, and never enough money to do them.

Before arriving in New London, Bounty had spent several weeks in dry dock in , where workers and crew members replaced some rotted planking and installed a pair of new fuel tanks. In Connecticut, two new stoves had been driven down by Tracy Simonin, an employee of the HMS Bounty Foundation, and installed by Faunt and Barksdale. Very much a work in progress, was how Faunt referred to the ship. Still, like practically all the hands on board, Faunt, one of Bounty’s volunteer engineers, believed the ship would get them to Galveston, where he had planned to undertake an array of improvements.

Now Faunt leaned against the railing on the stern deck, listening to the reassuring gurgle of the John Deeres. They were at full power, motoring fast southeast, and the entire ship shook with their effort. At the bow, his fellow sailors were double-checking the lines, shimmying up the mainmast. The wind was blowing, but not violently, and he could feel the sun on his neck.

Four

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 11:00 A.M.

The Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale separates storms into five categories. A Category 1 hurricane, the weakest on the spectrum, is defined as having sustained winds of 74 miles per hour; in a Category 5 storm, winds regularly reach 157 miles per hour—enough to rip the roof off a house. On Saturday, October 27, two days after Bounty left New London, Sandy was a mild Cat 1, flirting with tropical storm designation. And yet her low intensity belied her remarkable size. NASA satellite images taken at the time show a swirling gauze knot, with a compact core and tendrils that extended across a  of the Atlantic Ocean, from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay.

According to Laura Groves, Bounty’s 28-year-old boatswain—an officer in charge of equipment maintenance—beginning on Friday, the crew had printed out maps from the ship’s weatherfax. They posted them in the hallway belowdecks so all hands would have a chance to track the storm’s progress and the location of Bounty relative to it. Those maps would have shown Bounty approximately 200 miles from the Virginia shore, on the eastern edge of the storm. So far, so good—if the storm kept up its current pace and trajectory, the ship could still skirt the worst of the winds and bypass Sandy once she turned inland.

And yet it seemed increasingly probable that Sandy would soon clash with a fast-moving cold front, which had swept down from Canada and across the Midwest. As NOAA forecasters pointed out, the two systems, both dangerous in their own right, threatened to merge into one colossal “Frankenstorm.” The prospect was terrifying. The last major hybrid storm to hit the East Coast was the Halloween Nor’easter of 1991—the “perfect storm” immortalized by Sebastian Junger—which occurred when a low-pressure system from Canada swallowed the Category 2 Hurricane Grace and slammed into the coast of Massachusetts, killing 13 people.

On the Bounty, sea-stowing preparations began in earnest. Anything loose, from heavy appliances to the crew’s baggage, had to be lashed down. The crew  most of the sails to reduce weight aloft, leaving only the forecourse, the lowest sail on the foremast. This was the Bounty’s storm sail—it would be needed to help steady the ship in a gale.

spent most of the morning belowdecks. An inveterate radio geek, a couple of years earlier he’d installed a Winlink system that could be used to transmit email messages via shortwave radio signals in the event of an emergency. Faunt double-checked the wires and booted up the system—all was in working order. Next he made his way aft, where the washer and dryer, previously secured, had moved six inches. They had to be tied down again, this time with extra line.

Faunt was joined for part of his shift by Claudene Christian, one of the newest members of the Bounty crew. Christian was 42, a bleach-blond former beauty queen who seemed to have lived enough lives for 10 women. She had grown up in Alaska, where she’d competed in pageants from an early age. At the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, she’d been a cheerleader—experience she parlayed into a career when she founded the company Cheerleader Doll. In 1997, the Barbie manufacturer Mattel sued Christian and her father, Rex Christian, for patent infringement, and Claudene was forced to abandon the company. According to Los Angeles magazine, Christian subsequently sued her own lawyer for “gross misconduct,” and settled out of court for $1 million.

Suddenly flush with cash, Christian bounced around the West Coast. She sang with a band named the Mad Tea Party, did PR for a racetrack in Hermosa Beach, and became a partner in Dragons, a trackside bar. She drank heavily, dated the wrong men, and acted erratically—at one point, she reportedly purchased an expensive, life-size statue of a policeman for her front porch. In 2007, she was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder and hospitalized. Her bank account nearly depleted, she moved back home. Several years later, she discovered the sea.

 She shipped out for the first time in 2011, as a cook on the Niña, a 65-foot replica of Columbus’s ship. She spent three months on board, lived for a time in rural Oklahoma—where her family had moved—and in May 2012, trucked out to Wilmington, North Carolina, to join the crew of Bounty. When she was growing up, Rex Christian had always told his daughter she was a descendant of Fletcher Christian, the leader of the 1789 mutiny. This may or may not have been true, but Claudene certainly believed it; it was one of the first things she told the other Bounty hands.

Christian was immensely popular on board Bounty. She was charming, warm, and unflaggingly ebullient—a “sparkplug,” Faunt called her. But Faunt knew inner darkness when he saw it. His father had been an alcoholic, and his mother, who had struggled with mental illness, had committed suicide with a shotgun shortly after Faunt graduated from high school. He told Christian stories of his childhood, in South Carolina, and listened while Christian spilled the details of her own past.

For Christian, Bounty was a chance to start over—to make up for what she described as her “failures” in California. She threw herself into her daily duties with alacrity, taking on tasks others tried to shirk. In the evenings, sweaty and soused with salt water, she’d often join  on deck for an impromptu jam session. Scornavacchi had brought a pair of bongos, and Christian sang along to old rock songs, her voice bright and unwavering.

Shortly before Bounty departed from Boothbay Harbor, Christian was promoted by  from volunteer to paid hand—a position for which she’d earn 100 bucks a week. “Volunteer with drinking money,” was how Walbridge phrased it, but Christian was immensely proud of her new position. It gave her status, but more importantly, it validated her feeling that she belonged on the Bounty.

But Christian was still a green sailor, and she had never experienced bad weather at sea. The approaching storm clearly scared her in a way that it did not scare the more seasoned hands. In an email conversation with her friend Rex Halbeisen after leaving Connecticut, she said she was “praying to God that going to sea was the right decision,” and expressed concern with the equipment on Bounty. “You know me, I am not a mechanical person but the generators and engines on this ship are not the most reliable,” she told Halbeisen. “They are always stewing over them. I would hate to be out to sea in a storm and the engines just quit or we have no power.”

But by the time she sent a subsequent text message to her mother, probably late on Saturday night, Christian seemed to have made peace with her misgivings. “Just be sure that I am ok and HAPPY TO BE HERE on Bounty doing what I love,” she wrote. “And if I do go down with the ship & the worst happens… Just know that I AM GENUINELY HAPPY!! And I am doing what I love! I love you.”

Five

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 1:00 P.M.

By Saturday afternoon, Bounty was a couple of hundred miles due east of the border of North Carolina and Virginia, and made the decision to change course. He would now steer the ship southwest, toward the coast.

It was a tactic he had used before when sailing in the vicinity of large storms. “You try to get up as close to the eye as you can, and you stay down in the southeast quadrant and when it stops you stop, you don’t want to get in front of it,” he said in a 2012 television . “You’ll get a good ride out of the hurricane.” As third mate Dan Cleveland later recalled, Walbridge reasoned that by October 27, Bounty had made it out far enough beyond Sandy’s eye that if he steered inland again, the winds whipping counterclockwise out along the margins of the storm would help propel the ship to St. Petersburg.

Walbridge reminded his senior officers that he had a good sense of how storms behaved. “He [was] never a yeller or a screamer,” Cleveland later testified. “When things would go wrong, you’d never see him freak out, he’d handle situations in a calm manner. I never saw him get nervous or scared. It made you feel like you could handle things.”

Cleveland, a 25-year-old former landscaper who other crew members say “worshipped” Walbridge, had been through a few bad storms on Bounty, too, including one in 2008 that hit the ship as she made her way north to Louisiana from the mouth of the Panama Canal. He had heard the saying, popular among crew members, that “Bounty loves a hurricane,” and although he was loath to go that far himself, he did believe that the ship handled well in strong winds. “She works hard and you work hard,” was the way he put it. In the end, neither Cleveland nor the other senior officers who might have had a say in navigational matters ever objected to the new southwestern tack.

But Walbridge had made a miscalculation. His plan assumed both that the forecasts of Sandy’s path would hold, and that it was possible to get around Sandy at all—that she was a hurricane of normal size, a few hundred miles across. Irene, in 2011, had been 600 miles in diameter; Katrina, in 2005, measured only 415 miles from edge to edge. Skirtable distances, if your ship was well-equipped and moving fast. But Sandy was not skirtable. Meteorologists later estimated that she was the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin, with a diameter of 1,000 miles, and a wind swath of 2 million square miles. If Walbridge had kept to his original southeasterly course, it was conceivable that he might have made it to Sandy’s edge. Instead, now he was unwittingly sailing Bounty directly into her maw.


That afternoon, the weather . Winds were now reaching over 30 miles per hour, waves were climbing to 15 and 20 feet. A cold rain fell periodically overhead. Bounty rocked irregularly, making it hard to get any rest belowdecks. Even simple actions, like moving around the cabin or walking down the passageway to the head, required concentration and energy.

More distressingly, it had become clear that Bounty was taking on a considerable amount of water. It seeped through the ceiling and across the floorboards and through the forepeak. It spouted through the walls and squirted down from the ceiling and collected in greasy little pools in the corners of the cabins. The floors turned slippery, the stairs and ladders downright murderous. All wooden ships leak, of course, and some of the crew members comforted themselves with the fact that Bounty had pumped herself out of a few disasters before. There were five pumps on board—two electric, two hydraulic, and one “trash pump,” a smaller unit that could be hauled around to different locations on the ship. But the hydraulic and electric pumps were working at peak capacity, and still the water was rising.

At 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, after a long and mostly sleepless night, Walbridge gathered his mates in the navigation shack for a meeting. Chris Barksdale, the engineer, was also invited. Barksdale, a handyman by trade, was already seasick—later that day, when a crewmate gave him a pill for it, he vomited it back up. Walbridge pinpointed Bounty’s location on a map, and reviewed the plan for the day ahead: southwest and then south and straight on toward .

At this point, later recalled, the seas were 25 feet and the wind was blowing at nearly 60 miles per hour. After the meeting concluded, around 8:45 a.m., she departed to help adjust the jack lines, the bow-to-stern lines that allow sailors to move safely around the deck of a storm-struck ship. Groves believed that the end was in sight, especially once they’d swung over the bottom quadrant of the hurricane and put the storm behind them. There was not yet much cause for concern, she thought.

This was not an opinion shared by , who had spent Saturday night and much of Sunday morning in the engine room, monitoring the pumps. If the devices were unable to keep up with the seawater, the engine room would flood. And if the engine room flooded, Bounty would eventually find herself entirely at the mercy of the growing storm, batted about by the waves like a toy boat. The replica Bounty would be forced to rely solely on her sails, just as her namesake once had.

Faunt dashed from one engine to the next, minding the meters, tinkering with the levers, cursing under his breath. It must have been 120 degrees in that room, and humid as hell. He stripped down to his T-shirt and underwear and hiking boots, occasionally ducking through the hatch for a breath of fresh air. It was exhausting work, and at noon, he handed off the baton to another crewmember and crawled back upstairs to try to catch a few hours of sleep. When he got to his cabin, he found the room flooded and his gear soaked. He climbed naked into his sleeping bag. The bag was polyester, not cotton, and although the sensation was uncomfortable—not unlike folding your body into a used athletic sock—it did afford a bit of warmth.

Faunt had barely closed his eyes when he heard someone shout the “all hands on deck” call. You’ve got to be kidding me, he thought. He shouted his acknowledgment, fumbled for his sweat- and seawater-soaked clothing, and dressed in the damp darkness.

hmsbountyla-1454456942-37.jpg

Six

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28 12:30 P.M.

made it on deck a few minutes before . Looking up at the masts, he saw the reason for the all-hands call: the forecourse was split, and the canvas was flying free. The forecourse was the Bounty’s storm sail; it helped steady her. It had to be furled. So Scornavacchi began to climb. He was a strong climber, comfortable with heights, but the rigging seemed to just get smaller and wetter as he shimmied upwards. The wind whipped the ropes around him into a fury, lashing him on the arms and neck hard enough to draw welts. Nevertheless, within the next hour, Scornavacchi, , and were able to secure the sail to the gaskets on the top of the yard.

While Scornavacchi was aloft, Faunt and were taking up or paying out the lines as needed. The task had fallen to them partially because they were late in arriving on deck, and mostly because Faunt was fatigued and Christian couldn’t be trusted aloft. Despite having been on the Bounty for several months, Christian was still very much a novice when it came to the workings of the ship. Faunt, who often shared shifts with her, regarded her as something of a slow learner. “It wasn’t that she wasn’t brave,” he would later recall. “She was. She was brave and she had a lot of heart and she had passion for the Bounty. But you usually had to repeat things several times before she really got it.”

Now she fixed Faunt with an intent stare, and complained that no one on the ship was listening to her. “What aren’t they listening to?” Faunt asked. He had to holler over the roar of the storm. Behind them, 30-foot waves were breaking over the foredeck.

“We’re taking on too much water. The pumping isn’t going well. We’ve got big problems.”

“I know,” he said. “We all know.” There wasn’t a person aboard the Bounty who didn’t know the ship was in trouble. But it did no good to complain about it. It was better to keep your head down and do what you could to make sure everyone got out of this mess alive. Faunt tried to reassure Christian. “Listen,” he said. “It’s going to be fine.”


That evening, Sandy closed in on . The storm had now merged as predicted with the easterly moving cold front. Meteorologists were reporting a noticeable drop in the atmospheric pressure off the coast of North Carolina, a sign that the storm was entering an even more . Bounty, a couple of hundred miles southeast of the cape, had found herself square in the middle of the , with little hope of sailing her way back out.

As night fell over Bounty, visibility that had been limited enough at twilight, when a veil of rain enclosed the ship, was whittled down to practically nothing. The swells rose like battlements around her. Scornavacchi ducked through the aft hatch to check on his cabin. What he saw startled him: several boards had been ripped up from the floor and were swirling around in the wash. He understood the gravity of the situation, but he also felt strangely energized. Back home in Pennsylvania, he had longed for an adventure. Now he had found one.

Around 8 p.m., the winds again tore the forecourse loose, and again Scornavacchi was sent aloft to deal with it. He scaled the foremast with extreme caution. A hard hail pelted him in the face; he could barely see, let alone hear anything. A couple of dozen feet below him, the bow of the ship shot down the trough of one wave and up the sheer face of the next. Black water coursed across the deck. Occasionally, the ship would list nearly at beam-ends, the deck at an almost perpendicular angle to the sea and the crew clinging to anything they could get their hands on.

The sail furled, Scornavacchi made his way belowdecks. There, the water had risen further still, and the crew was working microshifts to keep it at bay, a couple of minutes lying down followed by a couple of minutes working the pump. Then, suddenly, the world went sideways, then straight again. There was a scream and then a moan. Scornavacchi and his shipmates assessed the situation. Having to abandon ship was now a real possibility. But surely the Bounty would stay afloat, even if she were to permanently topple over on her side. Surely she wasn’t about to sink just yet.

At this point, there were already two injured sailors aboard the Bounty. One was a 27-year-old named Adam Prokosch, who had been tossed headfirst across the mess by a particularly high wave. Christian set up a mattress in a dry part of the ship, and made Prokosch lie on his back, with his hands at his sides. It was clear that he was badly hurt; Christian worried that he might be partially paralyzed. She told him not to move.

Meanwhile,  had suffered an injury of his own, likely caused when he collided with the table in his cabin. Several sailors on board later recalled that he was moving only with extreme effort, bracing himself with both hands. Scornavacchi believes Walbridge broke his back; Faunt thinks it may have been a leg. Either would have been an ominous development. Unless you’re extremely lucky, escaping a sinking ship without full ambulatory control is all but impossible.


As Bounty’s engineer, it was ’s job to maintain the generators, the pumps, and the diesel engines that powered the ship. In a subsequent interview with Popular Mechanics, Barksdale recalled that the pumps became clogged early Sunday afternoon; Walbridge himself did the unclogging, but it was to little avail. The water was flooding into Bounty much faster than it was going out. As the ship rolled, the water in the engine room and the bilge would heave up the walls and slosh back down over the equipment. The engines sputtered, churned, and sometime after nightfall, with a dull whine, gave out completely. The Bounty was now adrift.

At 9 p.m. Walbridge and Faunt descended to the radio room to call for help. Bounty was noticeably light on communications systems—most of the time, the crew members relied on their cell phones. Closer to the coast, in calm weather, this wasn’t a problem. But Bounty was now a hundred-odd miles out to sea, and no one on board had any reception. It was too windy abovedecks to conduct a conversation, which meant that the ship’s satellite phone—which got no reception belowdecks—was no good either. So Walbridge and Faunt decided to issue the Mayday call on the Winlink system. You almost had to laugh, Faunt thought—they were going to peck out their damn SOS via email.

Still, the system worked fine, and after confirming that the message had gone through, Faunt left Walbridge and made his way forward toward the galley, bracing himself with both hands. The generators were surging badly, and the lights were flickering on and off like disco strobes. After a while, the backup generator kicked in. In the yellow glare of the emergency lights, Faunt could see the other crew members organizing emergency supplies and tending to Prokosch, who was on his back on the mattress.

The next two hours passed in a delirious blur. Salt water would get into one light fixture, and Faunt would no sooner get it clean and working again than the next one would burst. There were electrical fires to put out, pumping to do in the engine room, and loose wood to secure in the tank room, which was now fully flooded. The Bounty was coming apart before Faunt’s eyes.

He dashed back to his cabin and took a quick inventory. He wouldn’t be able to bring much with him—he was going to lose his bicycle, most of his clothing, his radio gear, his books. In the end, he settled on his rescue knife and his teddy bear, Mush, which he strapped to his chest.

Engineless, the Bounty spun windward up the crest of one three-story wave only to be knocked leeward by the next. At around midnight, the first Coast Guard C-130, piloted by Lieutenant Wes McIntosh, came into range, and the Bounty was able to establish radio contact. There was a small cheer from the navigation shack. McIntosh requested that the crew shine a light on the rigging, and Faunt activated the search beam.

For the next couple of hours, the C-130, heavy with fuel, circled overhead, sometimes at 1,000 feet and sometimes at 500. “Someone tell that guy we’re 110 feet,” Walbridge joked. “He’s going to clip us!” There was still time for levity: according to Faunt, despite the six feet of water in the belly of the ship, Walbridge and Svendsen believed that the Bounty might yet be saved, if only the Coast Guard could find a way to lower some working pumps. But McIntosh could barely see half a mile in the rain, and the winds were blowing at between 80 and 90 miles an hour. A gear drop was impossible. The only thing the crew of the Bounty could do was hold on until morning, when a helicopter could be summoned from . It seemed to Faunt an awful long time to wait. 

Seven

MONDAY, OCTOBER 29 2:00 A.M.

Around two in the morning, the crew donned their bright-orange survival suits. was still not convinced that the Bounty would have to be abandoned, but he knew it was better to be safe than sorry. The suits—what sailors call “,” after the bulbous, ungainly form their wearers assume—were made of heavy neoprene. They would protect against both cold water and flame, in the unlikely event that the electrical fires spread through the Bounty. Scornavacchi zipped the waterproof seal on the collar closed and attached a small rubberized plastic bag to his climbing harness with a carabiner. Inside the bag was his ID, a pocketknife—the essentials.

Svendsen, the first mate, was in the navigation shack, his Gumby suit only halfway zipped. He seemed to Scornavacchi to be much less concerned with his own safety than with the safety of the crew. He inspected each sailor carefully, like a commanding officer before a battle, tugging on straps, double-checking rescue lights, slapping shoulders and patting backs.

Scornavacchi thanked Svendsen, and joined  near the   which surrounded the aftermost mast. The clouds he could make out overhead in the darkness were low-bellied and full, and a strong wind blew across the deck. Christian was clearly scared but putting on a brave face for her friend, and she smiled brightly at Scornavacchi.

He looked up at the ghostly lights of the C-130 circling above him in the rain. Then he felt the deck lurch violently beneath him. The Bounty was once again leaning perilously over on her side. Bodies slid past him in the night, some silently and acquiescently, some with horrific screams, their hands desperately clawing for a handhold, a stray piece of rigging, anything at all.

He took a deep breath and jumped.


After receiving the OK from Svendsen, waddled sternward in his Gumby suit and lay down on the deck alongside , the sailor with the injured back. Prokosch was not paralyzed, as Christian had feared; he would later learn that he had separated his shoulder, broken two ribs, and severely damaged a pair of vertebrae. But it had taken time to get him up on deck, and he looked bad: his eyes were half-closed, and he had his hands crossed over his chest, kind of like a corpse.

The Bounty was heeling badly to , 40 degrees or more, Faunt guessed. He wasn’t so much lying down as standing up now, with his feet on the railing, the sea frothing below him and lapping at his feet, the ship looming over him. The C-130 passed once overhead, the sound of its engines reduced by the storm to an insect-like whine. Gazing up, Faunt caught a glimpse of the big silvery wings of the plane, and the moon glowing faintly through the clouds, and then he was asleep.

That he was able to nod off on the deck of a doomed ship was a testament to the extent of his exhaustion. He had been working for 48 hours straight, give or take, many of them in the sweltering hell of the engine room. He was dehydrated, he was hungry, his joints ached and his lungs burned. He was strong, but he was also 66 years old, and he had his limits. Faunt later figured that he might have slept for an hour, but given the speed at which the Bounty rolled over, it was probably half that. When he opened his eyes again, the deck was fully vertical. He bent his knees and pushed off into the sea. The storm swallowed him.

Now commenced a jarring, vicious cycle. Faunt would push his way to the surface, and a wave would drive him back under like a hammer pounding the head of a nail. The Bounty’s engines were submerged now, and there was plenty of diesel in the water. Faunt was an experienced diver, and he did his best not to open his mouth. But the strength of the ocean was stupendous, and he couldn’t keep the salt water and diesel out of his throat. He spit out what he could and swallowed the rest.

At irregular intervals, a body in a survival suit would float past him, and Faunt would holler and wave, but it was useless. Nobody could hear him, and he couldn’t distinguish one sailor from another. Zipped into the Gumby suits, they all looked the same, cartoonish orange shapes silhouetted against the dark sea. He caught hold of a life preserver, but it appeared to be tethered to something—maybe to the ship herself, he thought. He was afraid she would plunge, and that he would plunge with her. So he let go.

What surprised Faunt—what he would often think about in the days to come, first back at the Coast Guard station, and then in his cluttered bedroom in Oakland—was the strange tenacity of the human brain. The brain, the mind, maybe the spirit—whatever you wanted to call it, the thing that did not allow Faunt to give up, even when he probably should have given up, dropping his hands and surrendering to the ocean. It simply never crossed his mind that he might be dying. The fact that it didn’t, he figured, probably saved his damn life.


A sinking ship creates a funnel on the surface of the sea—planks of wood, life rafts, and human bodies can be sucked down behind her. From his training, Scornavacchi was familiar with this effect, and after jumping clear of the Bounty, he fought hard to get a safe distance away from her. But swimming in a Gumby suit is incredibly awkward, and his progress was maddeningly slow. The sea around him looked like a flushing toilet.

Everything he grabbed at—stray planking, strands of line—was ripped out of his hand. Gasping, his lungs filling with salt water, he fought his way back to the surface. There appeared to be no one left on board the Bounty, which had now fully capsized. Indeed, there appeared to be no one around at all. Before he could ponder the particulars of his plight, he was yanked underwater again by some invisible force.

In movies, sinking ships lurch through the deep like whales, their every contour visible to the camera. Scornavacchi could see nothing. It was dark enough on the surface, and an inky pitch underwater. But groping around with both hands, Scornavacchi did figure out what was pulling him down: some of the rigging had caught onto the small bag of essentials lashed to his harness. The weight of the ship pulling on him made it impossible to unhook the carabiner, and the bag was made of heavy-duty PVC plastic, which offered little hope of breaking. He was going down—five feet, then ten, fifteen. He could feel himself starting to drown, losing the ability to think or use his muscles. His lungs were filling with seawater and diesel.

Just before the Bounty left New London, Scornavacchi’s mother had fretted about the storm. “Mom, I’m not going to die,” he had told her. Now here he was, about to break his promise. He was furious with himself. He thought about his 11-year-old brother, too, and of all the other people he would never see again. I’m sorry, he thought. I’m so sorry.

Eight

MONDAY, OCTOBER 29 4:15 A.M.

The two emergency life rafts on the Bounty were rated for 25 passengers each—nearly twice the number of sailors abandoning the ship. Inflated, the rafts resembled orange polyurethane igloos, with a wide base and a domed roof. Sausaged into their silvery casings, they were just a couple of feet long and pellet shaped. Now saw one of the capsules float past him. He instinctively reached out and grabbed hold of the line, he later told a reporter for Popular Mechanics. His other hand clutched a heavy piece of wooden grating, which the Bounty had shed as she sank. He was sharing the grating with a couple of other sailors, including .

“Don’t let loose!” Cleveland shouted to him.

“You don’t have to worry about me letting loose of this son of a bitch,” Barksdale replied. “I’m going wherever it goes.”

Within an hour or so, Barksdale and Cleveland had inflated the raft and helped four other sailors inside: Drew Salapatek, Jessica Hewitt, , and . They tried to be optimistic, but it wasn’t easy—the storm, far from weakening, actually seemed to be blowing harder.


Several months after the sinking, still could not explain his salvation in practical terms. He was drowning, he was going under, he was dead—and then he was not. The bag on his harness had somehow broken free of the rigging. He climbed fast upwards, pulling with his hands and kicking his feet. “I believe God did it,” he says. “That he helped me in some way.”

He , sputtering and coughing, alongside a makeshift raft of emergency supplies that Claudene Christian had assembled hours earlier. He clung to the side and took stock of his location. He was still dangerously close to the Bounty, which had rolled temporarily back to an upright position.

After a while, he saw Jessica Black, the ship’s cook, drape herself over the other end of the raft. Black was clearly panicking; her face was a mask of shock. Scornavacchi was making his way toward her when he heard a sharp crack, like a rifle shot. It was a large piece of the mast, breaking loose and crashing down toward the raft. The masts on the Bounty weighed several tons apiece; a direct hit would have been fatal. Instead, the piece of mast fell neatly between them, and sent both sailors flying high into the air, as if they’d leapt off a trampoline.

Black vanished into the waves. Plunging back into the water, Scornavacchi cursed to himself. He’d finally found another survivor, and now she was gone. He was alone again. Worse yet, when he’d been pulled underwater, his survival suit had flooded, and his boots were loose in the legs. He was trying to tread water with the equivalent of a 20-pound weight lashed to each ankle. And the water kept pulling him back toward the doomed Bounty.

The ship was equipped with hundreds of miles of rope, and now they had taken on a menacing life of their own, writhing in loops and coils in the dark water. Every time he tried to move, Scornavacchi felt one of them reaching for him. Nearby he could see the Bounty’s mizzenmast, the aftmost mast on the ship, lying flat across the surface of the sea. Out of other options, he hauled himself up on top of it, and held on.

Suddenly the Bounty, buoyed by a large swell, began to roll back upright. Scornavacchi, both hands wrapped tightly around the mizzenmast and hanging on for dear life, went with it. Soon he was more than 40 feet in the air. From somewhere out in the storm he heard a voice. “Jump,” the voice said. “You’ve got to jump.” .

The next day, safe on shore, Scornavacchi would ask his shipmates who had issued the order, and receive only blank stares. No one remembered telling him to jump. No one had seen him up on the mizzenmast at all.


It was about 4:30 a.m. by the time Scornavacchi managed to reach one of the life-raft capsules. He was working to get it open when his shipmate John Jones bobbed up alongside him. Soon they were joined by two more, Mark Warner and Anna Sprague. For hours Scornavacchi had thought that everyone else was gone; now it seemed like a familiar face was popping up every few minutes. By now, Sandy’s central mass was likely a little more than 400 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., according to the National Hurricane Center, and bound for New York. The worst of the storm had now passed the Bounty, but the strong winds and high seas had persisted.

Once the raft was inflated, the four survivors were faced with the prospect of actually boarding it. The hatch was far above the water, the rubber was slick and the whole craft was pitching wildly in the waves. They were all exhausted from battling against the ocean for hours; Scornavacchi’s forearms were burning, and he found he could barely make a fist. He was helping to boost up Sprague when he heard voices nearby. On the other side of the raft were , , and Jessica Black. One by one, they all piled inside and, shivering in the cold, settled down to wait. Scornavacchi, Jones, Warner, Sprague, Sanders, Black, and Faunt—seven in all. As far as they knew, they were the only surviving crew members of the tall ship Bounty.


Ingested in trace amounts, salt water is not particularly harmful to the human body. But swallowed in large quantities, it wreaks havoc on metabolism, impairs the nervous system, damages the kidneys, and dangerously elevates blood pressure. By the time Faunt climbed aboard the inflatable emergency raft, he had consumed, by his estimate, a couple gallons of salt water. He could still breathe normally, and his brain was functioning, but there was an ominous ache in his stomach. He lay back on the floor of the raft and evacuated his bowels into his Gumby suit.

To either side of him, the six other survivors had assembled in a circle, leaning back against the walls in an effort to keep the raft stable. Scornavacchi and Sprague suggested a group prayer, and although the other five sailors on hand were, by Scornavacchi’s reckoning, mostly atheists, everyone joined hands and asked in their own way for deliverance.

Having been involved in the communications efforts before abandoning ship, Faunt believed that help would eventually arrive. The only question was when. The Bounty was many miles from the shore, the weather was still squally, and there were no other ships in the area. Even the U.S. Navy had been wary enough of a run-in with Sandy that when the Bounty capsized, the nearest naval vessel was 260 nautical miles away. Faunt knew they could be facing a day or more in the orange raft.

Still, the crew members did their best to keep spirits high. They told stories about happier voyages aboard the Bounty, days when the weather was fair and the sailing smooth. They reminisced about the missing shipmates. They wondered when day would finally break. As they waited for dawn, Scornavacchi, Sprague, and Warner sang “Mingulay Boat Song,” a Scottish sea chantey. Lying on his back, Faunt listened to the words:

What care we, though, white the Minch is? What care we for wind or weather? Let her go boys; every inch is Sailing homeward to Mingulay.

Wives are waiting, by the pier head,
Or looking seaward, from the heather;
Pull her round, boys, then you’ll anchor
’Ere the sun sets on Mingulay.

Nine

MONDAY, OCTOBER 29 5:30 A.M.

By dawn, there were two Coast Guard helicopters hovering over the wreck of Bounty. It was , the rescue swimmer from the first of the two, who scooped up . The first thing Faunt saw when he was hauled into the cabin of the Jayhawk was the face of —the straggler that Haba had spotted amid the wreckage of the Bounty. Svendsen had remained in the navigation shack long after the rest of the crew had jumped overboard, but eventually the Bounty heeled so vertiginously that he had no choice but to leap clear of the deck and into the water. Behind him, he could hear the VHF radio sputtering: Are you still there, Bounty? Do you read me, Bounty? Come in, Bounty.

Almost immediately, Svendsen was clocked by a falling piece of yard. He managed to shield his face, but the force of the impact shattered his hand. Maimed and badly shaken, he found himself snared by the foremast rigging, unable to wrest himself free. He felt like he was on a bad amusement park ride: Each roll of the ship lifted him dozens of feet into the air, then the next wave dropped him back into the waves, until Svendsen could barely distinguish the sky from the sea.

Working desperately with his good hand, he finally shook off the rigging and dropped into the water. Somewhere in the swirling wash, he found an orange “man overboard” buoy, the kind that inflated automatically when it hit the water, and he clung to it as hard as he could. Behind him was the ruined, heaving mass of the Bounty, backlit by the moon.

Faunt was ecstatic to see Svendsen—he’d worried that he had gone down with the ship. But he hardly had time to greet the first mate before the Coast Guard helicopter’s mechanic, Petty Officer Third Class Mike Lufkin, was hollering in his ear. “Take off the suit,” Lufkin said.

“I can’t,” Faunt replied. “I’ll foul your bird.”

“Just take it off,” Lufkin said.

Faunt didn’t want to expose the crew to the sight of his shit-stained Gumby, but he knew Lufkin was right. The cabin doors were open and the wind was blowing cold and Faunt was drenched. It was a recipe for hypothermia. He unzipped the suit and dropped it on the floor.

“I’ve really got to piss,” Svendsen shouted.

“Well, it’s already fouled,” Faunt said, nodding toward the suit. “Might as well piss in there.”

He turned away while Svendsen did his business. A few minutes later, with the Jayhawk rattling around in the rough air, an airsick Svendsen opened up the Gumby suit again and threw up inside. It was a veritable piñata of bodily fluids now, Faunt thought.

Haba was able to make three more trips to the raft to retrieve more survivors before the Jayhawk was low enough on fuel that the pilot announced he was turning back toward Elizabeth City. He had six survivors on board. It would be up to the other Jayhawk crew that had just arrived from Elizabeth City to retrieve the rest.


, Jones, and  spread out across the floor of the rubber raft in an effort to keep it steady. Without the presence of the four other bodies, the craft had turned skittish, scudding over the sea like a skipping stone. All Scornavacchi could do was hold on.

Around eight a.m., Petty Officer Third Class Dan Todd, the rescue swimmer from the second Jayhawk, poked his head into the raft’s hatch. Scornavacchi allowed Todd to strap him into the basket, and leaning on his side, took in the view. He could see the flank of the Bounty, lying on her side, and the snarled remainders of the 10 miles of line that had once kept her at sail. She was still afloat, but just barely, and she would not be for long.

The basket swung higher. There was a clank, and Scornavacchi pulled himself into the cramped cabin of the Jayhawk. Pretty soon there were 11 people crammed inside: Sanders, Jones, and Scornavacchi from the first raft; , , Salapatek, Hewitt, , and  from the second; plus Todd and the Coast Guard flight mechanic. There wasn’t enough room to move, let alone strip off the survival suits, so everyone just kind of piled on top of one another, a knot of limbs and neoprene.

Two hours later, the helicopter set down in . In a single-file line, the survivors . It always felt strange to have land under your feet after a few days at sea, but this time it felt stranger than usual to Scornavacchi. He walked gingerly, letting the blood seep back into his toes. A light rain was falling. A pack of local news photographers waited nearby, jostling against hastily erected barriers. There were camera flashes, shouts, the sound of someone crying. Scornavacchi kept his head down.

Inside the Coast Guard station, Faunt went to wash the shit out of his drawers and get a change of clothes. Prokosch and Svendsen needed patching up. Scornavacchi was led to a harshly lit conference room, where his mates from the first raft were waiting. There the tallying-up began in earnest. The Bounty had left New London with 16 sailors. Fourteen had been rescued.  and  were still out there somewhere.

Among the last crew members to see them on board the ship was Laura Groves, the boatswain, who had helped conduct a headcount of the crew in the frantic last moments before abandoning ship. She would later remember that Svendsen was in the navigation shack, communicating with the C-130 pilots, and that Dan Cleveland was beside her, his Gumby suit halfway on, working on connecting a line to the capsules that held the inflatable life rafts, so they’d be easier to find if the ship capsized. Christian was on the . Walbridge was just forward of Groves, on the weather deck.

Time had gone baggy, elastic. Groves heard Svendsen shout that the foredeck was underwater, and she raced to help Cleveland get the rest of the way into his Gumby suit. Then the ship was on her side, Groves was kicking as hard as she could to keep her head above water, and Walbridge and Christian were gone.

Initially there was cause for hope. The Bounty had sunk only a few hours before, and the water was not particularly cold—a person in a survival suit could last for a day out there, easy. And hadn’t Svendsen been plucked alone from the water? Just because Christian and Walbridge hadn’t made it to a life raft, just because they weren’t sitting there now in that conference room, it didn’t mean they were dead. But the coastguardsmen said nothing, and as time passed, the shared optimism of the survivors dwindled.

Scornavacchi was in his room in an Elizabeth City motel when definitive word arrived. The crew from a third Coast Guard helicopter had finally found Christian in the water near the Bounty, but she was unresponsive, with no vital signs. Two Bounty crew members later said that her corpse bore the signs of severe cranial trauma: heavy bruising on one side of the face and a partially crumpled skull. That could have meant that she was killed by a blow from one of the falling masts, or it could have meant that she slipped unconscious into the water and quickly drowned. As for Walbridge, the search was ongoing. A day later, it would be called off.

Unresponsive, no vital signs. The official terminology, the way it depersonalized the dead and the lost, it unnerved Scornavacchi. He summoned an image of Christian as he had last seen her, lashing together the gear and supplies on the deck of the Bounty. She had looked almost peaceful there, even as the ship was going down, an easy smile on her face.

That night, Scornavacchi called his mother in Pennsylvania. She’d seen the news—she knew what had happened to the Bounty. “But I’m alive, Mom,” he said. “I made it.” He held the receiver to his ear and listened to his mother sob.

Ten

FEBRUARY 12, 2013 9:00 A.M.

It was not hard to pick out Dina and Rex Christian in the crowded ballroom. They sat a couple rows back from the microphones, alongside their lawyer. To their left was a battery of television cameras, and behind them, arranged across a wide expanse of brightly patterned carpeting, were the reporters, maritime lawyers, and local sailors with a few hours to kill.

Dina Christian passed most of the hours of the Coast Guard’s hearing on the Bounty sinking in rigid silence, sometimes dabbing her eyes with a tissue, sometimes shaking her head furiously, and sometimes leaning in to whisper to Rex, a rumpled man in his sixties. Anyone who looked closely at Dina—small, blond, with a gently upturned nose and round cheeks—would have noticed the striking resemblance she bore to her only daughter, .

The Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel and Conference Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, where the hearing was held, looms over the Elizabeth River. From the hallway outside the second floor ballroom, you could look out across the wind-chopped water to Norfolk, where a Navy aircraft carrier and a handful of smaller ships, bristling with scaffolding and plastic tarp, awaited repairs. Every morning, at precisely 8:50 a.m., , clad in his dress blues, arrived and took his place in the front of the ballroom, a few yards from where the Christians sat.

Carroll is in his 40s, thickly built and tall, with a high-and-tight military style haircut and a brusque, if not entirely unfriendly, interrogative style. Three and a half months after the Bounty’s sinking, Carroll had been tasked with conducting the official inquiry into the incident, with sorting out the messy particulars of what exactly had gone wrong. He opened each day of testimony with a lengthy invocation of the pertinent federal regulatory code—a paragraph on marine casualties and investigations—followed by a standing moment of silence for the lost.

It had taken only a few days after the sinking for the second-guessing to begin. The questions percolated in the comments sections of articles about the incident, on the message boards and Facebook pages frequented by tall-ship buffs, in the letters pages of sailing magazines. Although they spoke fondly of him as a person, few of ’s fellow tall-ship captains seemed able to comprehend his decision to sail through the hurricane—or, more bafflingly, to cut across its center mass on October 28.

In an open letter to Walbridge circulated in mid-November, Jan Miles, the captain of the schooner Pride of Baltimore II, had compared the Bounty’s sinking to that of the Fantome, a schooner that went down off the coast of Belize in 1998, killing all 31 crew members aboard—the worst Atlantic sailing disaster in 40 years. Like Walbridge, Miles wrote, Fantome’s skipper had tried to outrun a hurricane on a set of underpowered engines, and placed too much faith in the accuracy of hurricane forecasts. Addressing his still-missing colleague, Miles wrote,

[Y]ou aimed all but directly at Sandy. That was reckless my friend! Was it wise or prudent to set off into the teeth of Sandy in BOUNTY[?] Did it make any sense at all? Virtually all of your professional friends and colleagues back here do not think so … Yeah, you were a reckless man Robin. I would not have continued to proceed as you did.

Joining Miles in his criticism were the Christians, who believed that their daughter would still be alive if Walbridge had kept Bounty in port. “Fact: Walbridge took [Claudene] into the worse hurricane & did not except help from the [Coast Guard] until it was to late for her,” Dina wrote on Facebook in January. “When everyone else was in the water, she was seen holding on to the ship for dear life. Too scared to go into the water! After reading all this, how can any of you defend this Crazy Nut?”

There was one group of people who did not buy the emerging consensus that Walbridge’s navigational errors and hubris were wholly responsible for the Bounty’s end: the ship’s crew. As many of them would point out, the ship had been through bad storms before and survived them all. Bounty had crossed the Atlantic in foul weather, motored through gales in the Gulf, threaded some of the most treacherous passages on earth. And in each circumstance, Walbridge had acquitted himself well.

It stood to reason, then, that the sinking was not only a matter of the Bounty’s position relative to the hurricane on October 29—that factors beyond Walbridge’s control had turned an ill-advised voyage into a doomed one. In this scenario, the blame that had fallen on Walbridge belonged more properly to  and the HMS Bounty Foundation.

Hansen had long struggled to adequately maintain the ship with the meager funds earned from dock tours and day sails. Patchwork measures had been undertaken to get Bounty from one port of call to the next. “Being a Bounty alumnus was kind of a point of pride,” one former mate recalls. “You’re part of a club. And you’re part of that club because you’ve been sailing around the world on a boat that you’ve been constantly digging around in the bottom of the Lego drawer trying to put back together. Not to mix metaphors, but Bounty was the Bad News Bears of the tall ship world.”

According to one legend circulated among new crew members, shortly before a Coast Guard inspection in the 1990s, a small fire had broken out on the Bounty. It allegedly smoldered for a full three days, and was smoldering still when the coastguardsmen came aboard, but the crew—in a scene that sounded like something out of a bad sitcom—was able to keep the inspectors distracted and away from the fire. “I learned a lot about how to handle boats from Robin,” a former crewmember says. “And I learned far more about how to handle people.”

Since 2008, Hansen had been attempting to sell the Bounty, and Walbridge had taken an active role in the discussions. At one point, the captain had reached out to the British billionaire playboy Richard Branson, who had sailed on the Bounty, asking him to buy the ship; Branson declined. Later, according to Outside magazine, Walbridge established contact with the Ashley DeRamus Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and raising awareness about people with Down syndrome, in the hope of outfitting the Bounty as “a place of learning and inspiration” for special-needs visitors. In , in fact, Walbridge had planned a tour for the foundation’s members.

Coast Guard hearings do not have the authority to determine criminal responsibility or levy any civil penalties; Carroll was in Portsmouth as an investigator, not a jurist. But his findings—drawn from nine full days’ worth of testimony of survivors, coastguardsmen, surveyors, and ship inspectors—would be admissible in civil or criminal court. And since the Christian family was widely believed to be preparing a lawsuit against the HMS Bounty Foundation, the hearings had the feeling of a practice trial.

On one side were the Christians and Jacob Shisha, their lawyer, a veteran maritime litigator with a showman’s demeanor and a trace of a New York accent. On the other side were Tracie Simonin and Robert Hansen of the Bounty Foundation, and their two attorneys, Frank Ambrosino and Leonard Langer. There was also a third, unexpected party: , the Bounty’s first mate and the first survivor who had been pulled out of the water in the gray dawn of October 29.

The Coast Guard had named Svendsen a “party in interest” in the investigation. In maritime law, this can mean one of two things. A party in interest may be a person, company, or organization suspected of bearing some responsibility for the accident in question. Or it may be someone with an unusually large stake in the investigation’s outcome, one way or another—someone who stands to lose or gain from the inquiry’s findings, perhaps, or someone who holds the key to understanding what happened.

The Coast Guard did not specify the grounds on which Svendsen had been summoned to Portsmouth. But whatever Carroll’s reasoning, making Svendsen a principal in the investigation filled what would otherwise have been a conspicuous vacancy in the proceedings. Hansen had taken the fifth, and was not on hand for the hearing. Walbridge was lost at sea and presumed dead. So Svendsen, Walbridge’s deputy, became the de facto defender of the Bounty, and of the people who had looked after her maintenance and charted her course that last week in October. He was the stand-in for the captain whose actions, many now believed, had come at the expense of Claudene Christian’s life and his own.

As a party in interest, Svendsen was given a chair near the front of the room and the opportunity to question every witness. Shisha had petitioned the Coast Guard to give the Christians the same standing, and shortly before the hearings began, Rex and Dina were granted it. The reason for Shisha’s request wasn’t stated. But the implications seemed obvious: By directly questioning the witnesses, he could potentially begin building a case against the HMS Bounty Foundation.

Svendsen was the first witness Carroll summoned when the hearing commenced on the morning of February 12. The first mate had sustained serious injuries to his face, hand, shoulder and torso during the storm, and he moved slowly and deliberately to the front of the ballroom. He was dressed in a floral button-down under a black fleece, and his dirty-blond hair hung lankly to his shoulders. A conspicuous murmur arose in his wake. Seating himself in front of the microphones, Svendsen steepled his long fingers on the table, and allowed Carroll to walk him through the days leading up to the sinking of Bounty.

Of particular concern to Carroll was Walbridge’s August  in which he had spoken of chasing hurricanes. At the time, the comments had seemed like the boasts of a daring sailor. Now they looked a lot more like tragic foolhardiness—proof of Walbridge’s poor judgment.

“Did Bounty chase hurricanes?” Carroll asked Svendsen bluntly.

“Not in my opinion,” Svendsen replied. He maintained that Walbridge’s comments had been widely misunderstood. The captain had not been advocating the “chasing of hurricanes” as a matter of pleasure or thrill, he said. He had simply been stating the truth—that hurricanes can generate a strong but manageable boost of wind power to a full-rigger like Bounty. “I never witnessed Robin seeking out a storm. If there was a storm, he would put the ship in the safest position in the storm,” Svendsen said.

Svendsen appeared to imply that Walbridge had been correct in the abstract—“you’ll get a good ride out of the hurricane”—and wrong in the case of Sandy, which was much larger than Walbridge had assumed. As Brock Vergakis of the Associated Press later noted, Walbridge had inveighed in the same interview against ever getting “in front” of a hurricane—but by cutting southwest toward , Walbridge had inadvertently done exactly that.

Svendsen, however, made it clear that he did not hold Walbridge entirely blameless for the sinking. He recalled that he had stressed to Walbridge the historic nature of the storm and worried aloud about the Bounty’s ability to withstand it. “I had mentioned other options as far as staying in and not going out to sea,” Svendsen said.

These pleas were apparently offered semi-privately, in the presence of other mates, and in at least one case, privately to Walbridge. But Walbridge, Svendsen testified, had faith in the Bounty, and was determined to press southward. “Robin felt the ship was safer at sea,” he said.

Equally striking was Svendsen’s recollection that twice in the early morning hours of October 29, he had requested that Walbridge issue an abandon ship order. Twice Walbridge refused. The captain apparently believed that the Bounty, even without power, would remain afloat, and that the crew would be safer on board than in the life rafts. In hindsight, Walbridge had badly misjudged the condition of his ship. It was not safe at all—it was sinking fast.

Had Walbridge issued the abandon ship order earlier in the morning, when the ship was more stable, an orderly procession to the life rafts might have occurred. Instead, she began to roll over before the rafts were even fully inflated. Chaos reigned on deck, and in the end the entire crew was dumped more or less unprepared into the sea. For an inexperienced sailor like Claudene Christian, an earlier order might have meant the difference between life and death.

Eleven

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13 10:00 A.M.

Hardly anyone on board the Bounty during her final voyage in October had failed to note that the ship was taking on water. Even in relatively calm weather, there was always a leak—a trickle here, some seepage there. Were those leaks ordinary for a wooden ship her age? Or were they evidence that Bounty was dangerously dilapidated?

The task of answering those questions fell to Todd Kosakowski of the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, who had worked on Bounty during the month she spent in dry dock in the fall of 2012, shortly before she sailed for St. Petersburg. The crew at Boothbay had caulked leaky seams, installed new fuel tanks, replaced rotten planks, and touched up the Bounty’s paint job. Kosakowski, a clean-cut man who bears a closer resemblance to an accountant than a shipyard worker, had been the manager for the project. As such, he was one of the last naval professionals to see the Bounty in one piece.

Kosakowski told that shortly after the Bounty had been brought to the shipyard, he and his workers had pulled up some planking near the mizzenmast and mainmast and found significant amounts of rot—a “dry, almost charred-looking” kind of rot, Kosakowski said.

“Did you tell Captain Walbridge?” Carroll asked.

“Yes,” Kosakowski said.

“What did he say?”

“He was a little shocked when we first started looking into it,” Kosakowski admitted. “His shock turned to awe when we were prodding the other framing and finding the same signs of degradation. Once we started looking at the other frames, we saw it was more widespread.” Kosakowski came to believe that as much as 75 percent of the framing above the vessel’s waterline was rotten.

The rotten wood needed to be removed and replaced, Kosakowski said, and he had recommended to that he allow the shipyard crew to inspect the rest of the Bounty, cutting out the worst of the damage and installing fresh white oak in its place. Kosakowski testified that Walbridge agreed to a few replacements, but resisted a deeper—and inevitably more costly—investigation. “[Walbridge’s] response,” he said, “was that they would deal with the hull at the next year’s hull exam”—the annual inspection conducted by the Coast Guard. But that exam wasn’t scheduled until 2014, which worried Kosakowski.

He told Carroll that he met twice more with Walbridge to talk about the rot. On that second occasion, Walbridge told Kosakowski that he wanted the issue to “stay between the two of us,” Kosakowski testified, “and that he explained these problems to the owner, [and] that I didn’t need to be worried.”

An audible murmur passed through the crowd in the ballroom. The captain of a ship that would sail into a hurricane two months later, allegedly asking a yard worker to keep quiet the extent of the rot on his vessel—in the words of one prominent maritime safety analyst, the disclosure was nothing short of “stunning.” Had Walbridge, as he promised Kosakowski, actually informed about the rot? Or had he chosen to keep Kosakowski’s discovery to himself?

No one could say—one of the men was missing and the other had refused to testify or grant interviews since the wreck. But it wasn’t hard to imagine the horrible bind in which this revelation would have placed the captain. For Walbridge, everything was riding on Bounty’s fate. His sense of identity was irrevocably linked to the ship. Had she been mothballed, or forced into commission as a “moored attraction vessel”—a stationary museum, essentially—it might have been devastating to him. Would he have taken that risk and told Hansen? Or would he have done whatever it took to keep Bounty sailing?


The strongest counterargument to Kosakowski’s bombshell, as it happened, came from his own former colleague. Joe Jakomovicz, a veteran shipwright with a shock of white hair and a thick Maine accent, was a former yard manager of the Boothbay shipyard, where he had overseen previous repairs on the Bounty, including a 2006 renovation. Testifying before Carroll, Jakomovicz argued that Kosakowski was drastically overstating the extent of the rot on Bounty. Kosakowski, he pointed out, had “five or six years of experience,” while he had 40. “I’ve seen worse,” Jakomovicz of the damage. “The key thing here is that it’s a 50-year-old boat,” he added. “You have to realize that that’s tired.”

That didn’t mean that the ship was seaworthy or that it wasn’t—Jakomovicz was retired when the Bounty arrived in Boothbay in 2012—only that Jakomovicz had encountered such situations before. He remembered seeing a few of the Bounty sinking, and had marveled that, despite the rough seas, the ship had not split apart. “I said, ‘My God, that boat’s still floating and intact.’ ” Jakomovicz recalled, shaking his head. “That was surprising to me.”

And yet the crew had seen it: the ocean sluicing through dozens of open seams, overwhelming the pumps. told the coastguardsmen as much in Portsmouth when it was his turn to testify later that week. Besides John Svendsen, Cleveland was the officer with perhaps the fullest understanding of Bounty, having spent five years on the ship, including a significant amount of time dealing with yard work and repairs. On the night the ship sank, while John Svendsen was in the navigation shack communicating with the Coast Guard, Cleveland was mostly belowdecks, trying to bail out the ailing vessel. Around midnight, Cleveland said, the ship had lost power, then flickered back to life again. But the Bounty was rolling hard now—hard enough that the starboard engine was temporarily underwater.

Casting about for options, Cleveland and his shipmates turned to the “trash pump,” the portable gas-powered pump that could be used to supplement the overwhelmed hydraulic units. They hauled it down to the engine room, but the thing wouldn’t start. “We got out the manual because we were trying to figure out if we were missing something simple,” Cleveland remembered. It was funny, maybe, in the grimmest way possible—a few sailors flipping through an old instruction manual while their ship sank and the seas surged around them.

svendsenlan-1454457372-77.jpg
Photo: Thé Pham / The Virginian-Pilot

Twelve

By the end of the hearings in Portsmouth, the Bounty’s loss had begun to take shape, in the way that shipwrecks often do, as an unsparing aggregation of mistakes. Any one of them, had it occurred in isolation, would not likely have been fatal; it was only gathered together that they acquired such terrible weight. Had  kept the ship in port, the Bounty might have lived to sail another day, even in her decaying state. If the Bounty had been in better shape, the storm might have been survivable; Sandy was extremely large, but her wind-speed never rose above Category 1 status, and vessels smaller than the Bounty have weathered much worse. If the generators had stayed online, if the pumps were able to keep up with the rising water, the Bounty might have limped back to shore as she did during her near-disastrous trip past Cape Hatteras in 1998. These are the hypotheticals that haunt a lost ship and her survivors.

In an interview with CNN in February, Claudia McCann, Walbridge’s widow, said she believed her husband acted honorably in steering the Bounty south, and she has made it clear that she intends to protect his legacy. This will be no easy task—the captain’s crew demonstrated loyalty in their testimony, but the story they told in spite of themselves was a damning one. In the most generous scenario, Walbridge made a single bad decision that was fatally complicated by terrible luck. But it was just as possible that he committed an act of unforgivable hubris, knowingly pushing a dilapidated ship beyond its limits and endangering the young, largely inexperienced crew he had sworn to protect.

Whether this ambiguous picture translates into legal responsibility may now be a matter for civilian courts to decide. Jacob Shisha, the Christians’ attorney, says he was only attending the inquiry to “listen,” but if a lawsuit is filed, the HMS Bounty Foundation will undoubtedly be the chief target. It is not inconceivable that , as the highest-ranking officer after Walbridge, could find himself named as a defendant as well.

In November of 2012, the surviving crew members of Bounty went to New York to tape a segment for ABC’s Good Morning America. The producers shot more than an hour of tape, but used barely two minutes of it, a fact that annoyed some of the crew members. After that, they granted few interviews. Some took to switching off their phones or deleting emails from reporters without even reading them. Like soldiers returning from a particularly harrowing deployment, they worried that no one else would understand what they’d been through. They became even closer than they’d been on Bounty­, sealing themselves off from the world. They started an email listserv to exchange memories from their time on the ship, and posted reassuring messages on each other’s Facebook walls.

Thinking of you, they wrote.

It will get better, they wrote.

I’m having bad dreams, too, they wrote.

On a recent winter afternoon,  stood on the back porch of his house in Oakland, surveying his tangled, overgrown backyard. An aging cat wove between his legs. Even a couple of months on, his stomach still bothered him. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the storm and what happened out there,” he said, pushing a neon-yellow watch cap back over his brow. “I assume it will be that way for a very long time.”

But the funny thing was, he also couldn’t stop thinking of the things that he missed—the sound of canvas flapping overhead, the slap of saltwater on his skin. Lately he had found himself returning often to tall-ship forums online. Tall ships are typically taken out of commission during the winter months, laid up in October and back at sail by April or May. There was a ship sailing out of New York in the spring that he had his eye on—another full-rigger. Maybe she had room for one more sailor.