The Ghost Hunter

The Ghost Hunter

For hundreds of years, there were rumors of a shipwrecked treasure on the Oregon coast. But no one found anything, until Cameron La Follette began digging.

By Leah Sottile

The Atavist Magazine, No. 99


Leah Sottile is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Playboy, The California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic, and Vice, among other publications. She lives in Oregon.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Illustrator: Peter Strain

Published in January 2020.

Prologue: The End

The story goes like this: Sometime around the year 1694, a ship wrecked near the foot of a mountain in Oregon. The area’s indigenous people named the peak Neahkahnie (knee-ah-kah-knee), “the place of the god”—a wide, tall mountain that appears to rise out of the Pacific Ocean like a giant climbing out of a bathtub. Its shoulders are cloaked in a dense forest of spruce and cedar, where elk find refuge in mists and leave hoofprints in the mud. For more than three centuries, the Nehalem-Tillamook people have told the tale of a ship that crashed there, a devastating collision of man and nature.

The ship was a Manila galleon, a “castle of the sea,” dispatched across the vast Pacific Ocean from the Philippines to Mexico and carrying the finest goods known to man: ivory statues, delicate china, exotic spices, golden silk. To lose a galleon was to experience death hundreds of times over: hundreds of men and boys foundering in inky black water, hundreds of hearts ceasing to beat, hundreds of lungs inhaling water. It also threatened the life of an economy. Only one or two galleons sailed east for Acapulco each year, packed with thousands of pounds of treasure. The cargo was traded for silver, which was brought back to Manila and then traded to the Chinese emperor. When the galleon wrecked near Neahkahnie, its cargo likely plunged into the ocean. Sculptures of virgins and saints spiraled down like white torpedoes. Blocks of beeswax plummeted like boulders. The ornate blue and white porcelain never stood a chance against the coast’s sharp rocks.

A huddle of malnourished sailors were said to have emerged from the water, dragging a heavy chest over the beach toward Neahkahnie. By some accounts, the sailors then murdered an African slave who’d helped carry the chest, dumping the man’s body in a hole with the treasure before covering it with earth. The wreck reverberated for generations, the stories of treasure repeated and retold, rephrased and revised, evolving with each telling: The galleon wrecked in an epic battle with two other ships. The survivors, once ashore, were slaughtered by tribal people.

But what really kept the tale going was the wax. Sergeant John Ordway of the Lewis and Clark Expedition wrote in 1806 of Native people trading in beeswax some 50 years before bees even arrived on the West Coast. Galleons carried wax molded into huge blocks and stamped with shipping numbers; Catholics in the New World fashioned the stuff into church candles. There was so much wax on the beach near Neahkahnie that early European homesteaders made a business out of mining it from the dunes. Still today, every time a slow morning beach walker unearths another brown knob of beeswax from the sand, the legend takes a new breath. If there’s wax from the shipwreck, why couldn’t there be treasure buried on the Oregon coast, far beneath the dirt and sand?

And so the story wends its way into new ears and new hearts. The possibility takes on a new shape. The bounty could be a chest filled with gold. Priceless artifacts from the Spanish empire. A pile of sparkling jewels.

It’s almost too much to resist.

Chapter 1: Rich Stuff

I first heard about the legend of the treasure in the spring of 2018. My friend Doug Kenck-Crispin, host of the Kick-Ass Oregon History podcast, and I were at a Japanese teahouse in Portland when he slid a packet of photocopies across the table toward me. The packet read “Tales of the Neahkahnie Treasure” and included a black-and-white photo of a large stone with some kind of code carved into its surface.

He told me that the Oregon coastline around the town of Manzanita was dotted with bits of beeswax and broken porcelain, the purported remnants of a galleon wreck. Native people once made arrowheads out of shards of china. Early white explorers made references to “redheaded Indians” in the area—were they the offspring of the ship’s survivors? Chief Kilchis, one of the last free Tillamook leaders, was rumored to be a descendant of a galleon crew member.

Some people believed that “marked stones” like the one in the photo Doug showed me were once meant to help triangulate the location of the buried treasure. But the stones were eventually moved from their original locations on and around Neahkahnie. So, while people assume they mean something—that they were placed by someone, at some time, for some reason—no one knows what. (Some scholars believe that they were actually put on the coast by Sir Francis Drake during his circumnavigation of the globe, aboard the Golden Hind, in the late 1500s.)

People have scoured the Oregon coastline trying to find the galleon’s riches for more than 150 years, ever since homesteaders arrived, heard the tale of treasure, and began digging. Doug told me that people were likely still out there looking.

My eyes went wide as he talked. How had I never heard this before? I grew up in Oregon in the 1990s, and like anyone raised in that place and time, I’d been obsessed with The Goonies, the 1985 film about seven Oregon kids who discover an old pirate map and set out to find the treasure. The Goonies was my sick movie, my “Mom, I’m bored” movie, my Saturday afternoon movie, watched over grilled cheese and tomato soup. Most of it was shot on the Oregon coastline: the spiraling wet roads of Ecola State Park, Cannon Beach’s mammoth Haystack Rock. The Goonies is a tale of good trumping evil and honor besting greed, a story that made me think kids understood how to find truth in a way that adults somehow forgot along the way.

What Doug was saying made me think that maybe, in a sense, The Goonies was real—maybe there was an actual Oregon mystery to be solved, one that took the right sort of person to crack it wide open. I left that day clutching the packet of papers Doug had given me, sure that I needed to know more.

Doug suggested I talk to another writer who’d become obsessed, a man named J.B. Fisher, who’d recently written a book called Echo of Distant Water, about one of the strangest missing-person cases in Oregon history. We met on a perfect Portland day, when the clouds and the Willamette River seemed to merge and it was hard to tell if the rain was coming from the sky or the ground. We shook off our jackets inside a coffee shop, and Fisher told me that he, too, had felt compelled to learn more about the galleon. But he’d barely begun his search for answers when suddenly he stopped. Someone who knew a lot about treasure hunting on the coast told Fisher about another writer who’d come sniffing around.

“He was met with an untimely death, a head-on collision,” the man said, suggesting that perhaps the accident had been caused by supernatural forces. Fisher thought the message was clear: Stay far away from the Neahkahnie treasure.

The wreck reverberated for generations, the stories of treasure repeated and retold, rephrased and revised, evolving with each telling.

The 362-mile Oregon coastline, stretching from Washington State to California, is entirely public land. Thanks to a 1967 law, everyone has the right to “free and uninterrupted use” of the state’s beaches. But for several decades, if you wanted to dig for riches in the sand, you had to request a treasure-trove permit. The first person to file for one was a man named Ed Fire, who made his initial request in 1967. In a photograph accompanying a front-page news story from May of that year, Fire stares with dark, fierce eyes into the camera, holding up an L-shaped hunk of metal he’s uncovered somewhere. In the background, his wife—a handbag slung over her arm and a kerchief covering her hair—holds open a book. The photo caption reads, ambiguously, “[She] shows the page in the book on the treasure which has given her husband his clues as to its location.”

Fire told reporters that he would dig only during the week, when fewer people would be around to stare. He was both private about his search and ostentatious; he would use an enormous bulldozer on a pristine beach to aid in his hunt but insist that no one watch as he did it. He told state employees that God was telling him where to look.

For 22 years, Fire hunted and hunted and never found anything of value—nothing he disclosed to the public, at least. He argued and quibbled with state employees over his right to rake up the land around Neahkahnie. “It is my every intention to execute my rights as an individual to do what I feel is right and my feeling is that what I am doing on the beach is beneficial,” he wrote in a 1968 letter to the state land board. To Fire, it was beneficial to dig for “gold, silver, precious ores, jewels” that could be worth millions. Two decades later he remained empty-handed, and he’d become outraged with Dave Talbot, the state parks administrator, over delays in obtaining a new permit. “I will not evaporate into thin air and disappear,” he wrote to Talbot. “I have finally unlocked the secret of what took place on the Oregon coast all those years ago. I will fight for that permit come hell or high water.”

Fire was hardly alone in his search. From 1967 to 1999, when the state’s treasure-trove system was repealed, effectively closing the door on digging on state land, more than a dozen people filed permits to search for the fabled galleon bounty. The applicants were all men in the sunset of their lives. Geriatric Goonies. And most claimed to be blessed with some special, secret knowledge. Their claims are chronicled in a set of boxes stored in a closet at the state parks department—boxes filled with letters written by men who said they’d been touched by God, men who claimed to know, without a shadow of a doubt, where the treasure was.

In 1983, L.E “Bud” Kretsinger—a trucker-hat-wearing Manzanita tavern owner with a beach-ball belly—told the Oregonian that he and his digging partner would soon unearth the treasures of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (It’s unclear how he got that idea into his head; several seekers assumed that biblically significant items might have been on board the galleon.) “We figure it’s a trillion dollars’ worth of loot, not counting the Biblical stuff,” Kretsinger said. Later that year, he inflated the story, telling a Tillamook Headlight-Herald reporter that he was digging for “ancient scrolls written by Moses himself.” He convinced himself he might even find the Ark of the Covenant.

The state, though, was always getting in his damn way—they revoked his permit for failing to comply with the rules and for causing environmental damage. “It’s very frustrating,” Kretsinger said. So, without a permit, he dug a 14-foot hole in Oswald West State Park. He came up with nothing.

In the late 1980s, Bill Warren, a Frank Sinatra impersonator from California who performed under the name Michael Valentino, focused his sights on the Neahkahnie legend. By March 1989, Warren was calling state officials several times every day over his application for a permit, which was crawling its way through the bureaucracy. He demanded that the people he wanted to speak to be pulled out of meetings. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Warren asked a secretary who answered his calls. “You are a public employee and do not have the right to tell me who I may or may not speak to. Do you understand, little girl?”

“This happens more days than not,” the secretary wrote in an interoffice memo.

In 1989, the State Land Board placed a moratorium on issuing any more permits until a few things were cleared up: The legislature needed to figure out a plan for who would keep the bounty if one were ever found. And then there was the fact that issuing permits conflicted with protections for archaeological sites. Fire called this “a deliberate plot” to steal the treasure.

If Fire and the other men who’d recklessly pursued the mythical riches had little regard for Neahkahnie’s environment or the people tasked with protecting it, they had even less for the people who’d lived there since long before the galleon’s wreck. “Neahkahnie Mountain is a very special place in Tillamook traditions,” said Robert Kentta, cultural-resources director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, which is made up of 27 tribal bands, including the Nehalem-Tillamook. When hunters dredged and shoveled along the coast in search of wealth, they were pillaging lands that the tribes considered sacred. “All the digging and things that went on on the mountain, looking for treasure, have had an impact on it as an important cultural place,” Kentta said.

For generations, many Oregonians had indulged that Goonie side of themselves, allowing every single bit of wax and porcelain to restart the song of buried riches. That’s the thing about being a kid—childhood is marked by impulsivity, shortsightedness. And it can be forgiven. But when grown men applied that mentality to Neahkahnie, they closed one eye to the truth of the place: They were digging up someone’s home, which once contained every treasure its inhabitants needed.

Here’s the thing I realized about The Goonies: It’s a story where, in the end, wealth brings happiness. Jewels are salve for the world’s problems—foreclosure, gentrification. The final scenes of the movie tell aspiring Goonies to take note: Adventure itself is only good if it turns up something of value. Your spirit and cunning are, in isolation, frivolous things to be tucked away in an attic, just like Mikey’s dad did with that dusty old map. Had they found nothing, Mikey and Chunk and Stef and Data merely would have worried their parents sick for a day.

Kentta warned me that prioritizing the tantalizing prospect of riches over the true story of a wreck and its aftermath could have consequences. There have been children’s books, a movie called The Legend of Tillamook’s Gold. “These stories have fueled the fevered search by others in the past, and we do not want to trigger more,” Kentta said.

All that feverish hunting hadn’t unearthed so much as a flake of gold. I looked for every permittee whose name was in those files at the state parks department, hoping to talk to an actual treasure hunter. Eventually, I realized that the most dogged among them were dead, including Ed Fire. But as Kentta had implied, there was another story here, another hunt to embark on.

Few people had ever tried to mine the other mystery of Neahkahnie: Who were the hundreds of men on the galleon when it sank in the shadow of the mountain? The answer to that question had remained buried for some 300 years, as if the men’s souls were waiting for the right person to be born, someone who could both exhume them and lay them to rest once and for all.

She came, of all places, from the desert.

Chapter 2: The Obsession

Cameron La Follette can’t remember the first time she saw the ocean. Maybe it was at a summer camp in Maine? Maybe on a trip to California? She isn’t sure, but for all her life she considered the sea wild and vast and strange. “I must have absorbed something, somewhere along the line, that was setting the stage for this,” she told me, “because it’s unlikely that I would fall so hard for something that I knew absolutely nothing about. Absolutely nothing.”

La Follette was born in Phoenix, Arizona. In the early 1970s, she moved to Oregon to attend Reed College. She dropped out after two years, taking a job with the Oregon Wilderness Coalition (now called Oregon Wild) working to protect old-growth forests. Four years later she took up school again, this time at the University of Oregon, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in journalism. “I always did love words above all things,” she said.

After graduation she began law school at the University of Oregon but moved to New York City, where she completed her degree at Columbia University, then got a master’s in psychology from NYU. For a decade she studied and worked, amassing knowledge and degrees. Deep down she felt like she wasn’t home and might never be. Home wasn’t the desert, where her family had raised her. And it wasn’t New York, which was an assault on her senses. Pizza. Perfume. Constant motion, a static of visual human noise. She couldn’t focus there, could barely jot down words on a page. She dreamed of the primeval smell of forests, of soil and Douglas fir, of the roiling ocean—of Oregon. “I really like being rained on,” she said.

One New York winter day, she passed a sidewalk vendor selling Christmas trees mounted on wooden stands. She heard the breeze pass through their branches. She missed that sound. But she didn’t want to hear it from trees on stands. She wasn’t herself here, not the person she’d always wanted to be. I need to get home, she thought.

Then, on the morning of September 11, 2001, she received a phone call. “I thought, Who’s gonna be calling so early in the morning?” It was a distant cousin, wanting to know if La Follette was OK. “Of course. I’m having breakfast,” she replied. She turned on the radio, realized what was happening, and went outside, where she saw crowds of people looking up at a perfect autumn sky. In the distance, sirens screamed. Fighter jets carved arcs over the city. She knew this was the moment. She had to go back to Oregon. Now.

“I think it was two or three weeks later. I frantically got things packed, closed my bank account, said goodbye to some close friends, closed out everything I needed to do, rented a car, and headed over the George Washington Bridge,” La Follette told me. She drove across the country—across the Great Plains, over the mountains of Wyoming and Idaho, and into the desert of eastern Oregon, where she veered the car to the side of the road, opened the door, and stepped out onto the shoulder to snap a picture of the “Welcome to Oregon” sign. Home. Finally.

La Follette again landed in the environmental sector, this time concentrating on land-use protections in the state’s coastal region. She stayed with the job. By age 60, when I met her, she had become the executive director of the Oregon Coast Alliance.

It was a stroke of luck, or perhaps magic, that led her to the galleon. In 2014, in connection with a work project, she was looking for historical records about the town of Bayocean, a place once touted as the Atlantic City of the West that literally fell into the sea in 1960. La Follette went to the website for the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, looking for information about the doomed town, and her eyes fell on an announcement for an upcoming lecture. It was about the wreck of a Manila galleon.

She thought: What? A galleon had wrecked in Oregon? “The instant I heard about it, I wanted to know not some things, not a few things, not the basics, but everything.”

She dreamed of the primeval smell of forests, of soil and Douglas fir, of the roiling ocean—of Oregon.

One hot summer day in July 2018, La Follette stood in front of a crowd of graying history buffs and told a tale of tragedy and treasure. “When the galleons wrecked, it was always a horrifying and spectacular thing,” she said, looking through wire-rimmed glasses at the room of faces. Hers wasn’t a dry PowerPoint presentation. She told a complex story that kept the room of retirees—and me—riveted, like a schoolteacher reading a storybook to a classroom of gaping children. At times her telling drew gasps from the crowd.

I had dropped in to her talk at the Oregon Historical Society on my way to a heavy metal show. This is to say: I stuck out. I sat in the back, craning my neck to see the screen at the front of the room and filling my notepad with questions. Afterward, I waited in line to meet her.

When I reached La Follette, I couldn’t help but notice her eyes flick down at my dark clothes and the tattoos covering my arm. Did a flash of doubt cross her face? She agreed to speak to me on the phone, and two weeks later I called. One of the first things she said was that I was absolutely not allowed to write about her galleon research for Playboy, a magazine I often freelance for. I told her no problem, writing for skin mags wasn’t my sole focus.

Even with that assurance she was prickly, in a professorial way. I got the sense that she thought I was incapable of telling the story of the galleon with the necessary care. “This is a really important part of Oregon history,” she said. “It’s a tragedy. It needs to be treated with gravity.” I assured her that I could do that. And I told her that I felt I had to tell this story. I talked about being from Oregon. I talked about the reporting I’d done. I listed my credentials. I promised to be careful, factual, accurate, precise.

She reluctantly agreed to go on the record. I asked if I could visit her at home; she said no. Instead, she suggested a restaurant at a sleepy motor lodge in Salem, the state capital. We met there on a cold day in January 2019. I sipped hot coffee, poured by a server at the end of her shift who told us to sit as long as we’d like, then put on her jacket and left.

Over the next five hours, La Follette drank one glass of ice water. She spoke differently than before. During the lecture I’d attended, the story of the galleon came from her lips like a fairy tale. Now she talked about it as an event that had shifted the tectonic plates beneath her own life, even if it had happened hundreds of years before she was born. I asked her what could make someone become so obsessed with a 17th-century shipwreck.

She shook her head and looked me in the eye. “It was immediate, it was visceral, it was absolute, it came without warning,” she said. “And it has never ended.”

It was as if she’d turned her back to the sea for a split second and found herself knocked flat by waves that dragged her to a place from which she could never return.

“It was immediate, it was visceral, it was absolute, it came without warning,” La Follette said. “And it has never ended.”

Back in 2014, after she learned about the lecture on the galleon, La Follette called Scott Williams, the maritime archaeologist who would be delivering the talk. She asked him if he knew what had happened to the galleon. Williams, in fact, knew a lot. He had spent years doing fieldwork with other archaeologists, geologists, and researchers as part of the volunteer Beeswax Wreck Project. The group had set out hoping to learn the name of the ship that had turned the coastline near Neahkahnie into a potential archaeological site.

Williams emailed La Follette a 2011 paper in which he and other researchers revealed that the galleon that crashed on the Oregon coast was very likely the Santo Cristo de Burgos. Radiocarbon dating on broken porcelain had pinpointed manufacturing to the Kangxi period in China, and the patterns consisted of designs common before the 1700s. Cross-dating that information with records of lost galleons, the researchers narrowed the possibilities to two ships: the Santo Cristo de Burgos, which vanished in 1693, and the San Francisco Xavier, lost in 1705. In the middle of the 12-year span between the vessels’ final voyages, something monumental struck the Oregon coastline: the Cascadia earthquake of January 26, 1700, which is believed to have measured up to 9.2 on the Richter scale. It sent a tsunami—a wall of water taller than 25 feet—crashing into the shoreline, forever reconfiguring it.

Based on the high elevations and inland locations where wax and porcelain had been found on the Nehalem Spit, a thin ribbon of land between the Pacific Ocean and Nehalem Bay, the Beeswax Wreck Project, together with geologists from Portland State University, concluded that the unnamed galleon was almost certainly the Santo Cristo. Normal tides could never have reached those places. The tsunami was the only thing powerful enough to carry wreckage that far.

Williams told La Follette that his team had conducted some archival research into the Santo Cristo to support their findings. They knew that the ship had sailed to Mexico once, returned to port in the Philippines, and set out again in 1693. The captain had left some 30 crew members behind on the dock in Manila, though the researchers didn’t know why. Then the galleon disappeared forever.

Williams’s team wants to find the ship, any remaining part of it. La Follette had a different concern. “I remember thinking, But what happened?” La Follette told me. “Who was this captain who left his crew onshore? And why?”

She disappeared into stacks of books. New books, old books, rare books. Books on galleons, books about life on the ruthless sea, books about colonial Spanish silver mines in the New World. She would work at her job all day, then read all night. She’d finish a book and think, More. I need more.

Douglas Deur, an anthropologist friend at Portland State University, suggested she contact the Archivo General de Indias, a home for valuable documents pertaining to the Spanish empire in the Americas and the Philippines. It’s located in Seville, Spain. La Follette began searching for an archivist there who was familiar with maritime records. She found Esther González Pérez.

La Follette wanted a cargo manifest for the Santo Cristo. Initially, González couldn’t find one, but she found other things that filled out the story of the galleon—for instance, taxes and salaries paid to crew members on the ship’s earlier journey. At one point, González excitedly emailed La Follette with a discovery that the Santo Cristo had carried liquid mercury in its hulls, by order of the viceroy of New Spain. Liquid mercury was essential for silver mines in the New World, used in the process of extracting metal from ore.

Every time González got back to her, La Follette had new questions. They went back and forth like this for a few years—new requests, new reports; new reports, new requests. Between 2015 and 2017, La Follette spent more than $10,000 of her own money paying González, other archivists, and translators in Spain, Mexico City, and Manila. “I couldn’t get a new garage door. I couldn’t get glasses that actually worked very well,” La Follette said. “I was looking at things blurry in the distance and was like, I really gotta get glasses, but it’s gonna cost $800, and I have to pay Esther’s bill.” Just like Ed Fire, La Follette couldn’t rest until she reached the bottom of her curiosity.

Eventually, González unearthed a partial cargo manifest buried deep in the archives, the best evidence yet that the Santo Cristo had, in fact, been packed with treasure: fine bedsheets embroidered with flowers, ivory sculptures of the infant Christ and saints that would be placed in New World churches, gold paper fans, delicate lace. And wax for candles.

González also found a passenger list, filled with the names of the people who’d been aboard the ship. Artillerymen Pedro de Echavarría, Juan de Cretio, and Pedro Posadas. Seamen Sebastián Ximenes, Fabián Faxardo, and Constantino de la Cruz. Apprentice seamen, blacksmiths, artillerymen. Names upon names upon names that no one had uttered for centuries.

Chapter 3: Our Captain

As La Follette told me the story of her quixotic quest, an unfortunate thing kept happening: Right when she would get to an important part of the tale, a man on the other side of the restaurant who seemed to be on a conference call would shout into his cell phone excitedly, as if he were at a hockey game. I set my recorder on top of a coffee cup and inched it closer to La Follette. I shielded the microphone with my hand in a feeble effort to block the man’s voice. “Yeah! Two hundred bucks!” he yelled at one point. I don’t think he even noticed us; if he did, he didn’t consider us worthy of his manners. We rolled our eyes at each other across the table.

“Don’t say anything important right now,” I told La Follette at one point. She laughed, and I felt like she might be starting to like me. We traded ideas about somewhere else to go, somewhere quieter, somewhere a man wasn’t taking up so much space. Ultimately, we decided to do our best to ignore him.

The man left an hour and forty minutes into our interview, and the restaurant went quiet. La Follette could finally tell me how her story of the galleon ended, where it all went.

In the winter of 2016, La Follette realized that she knew very little about the Santo Cristo’s captain. Research showed that he was one Don Bernardo Matias Iñiguez del Bayo y de Pradilla. Something about his name struck her as interesting; del Bayo didn’t sound traditionally Spanish to her ear. La Follette determined that it was, in fact, a Basque name. She purchased The Basque History of the World—which isn’t about ships or shipping at all—and devoured it, just to get a better sense of the culture the man grew up in. Soon she was emailing another faraway academic: Alvaro Aragón Ruano, a professor at the University of the Basque Country, near Bilbao. “I emailed him. In English, not Spanish. I don’t speak that much Spanish. And I said I was researching a galleon wreck in Oregon,” La Follette said. She asked if he might be able to help find out more about the captain’s family history. “He emailed me back within two hours.”

Aragón did some sleuthing and discovered that del Bayo was a knight in the Order of Santiago, an elite military organization of Spanish nobles that still exists today. The captain would have had to fill out a detailed application with his entire family history. Such a document would surely be housed at the National Archives of Spain.

La Follette rushed to ask González to visit the archives in Madrid. The application was there. González scanned the ancient document, and La Follette hired a translator. Finally, she thought, I’m getting somewhere.

She learned del Bayo’s parents’ names and where he was baptized. Aragón even sent her a photo of the baptismal font where del Bayo was christened. She hired a graduate student in Mexico City to go to the Archivo General de la Nación. The student unearthed more about del Bayo—before his galleon days, he was the mayor of a silver-mining town called San Luis Potosí, back when Mexico was known as New Spain. During his tenure, del Bayo used his own money to pay for municipal improvements that would carry floodwaters away from the town.

Much of La Follette’s research was guided by questions she could not explain the origins of—questions that led her to breakthrough after breakthrough. The details about del Bayo’s life gave the story new shape. He wasn’t just a name anymore. La Follette felt that she knew him as a real person.

She continued to trade emails with Aragón. She asked him if perhaps he could locate an image of del Bayo’s family’s land, maybe an old Basque farmhouse that had been preserved—something she could feature alongside her research when she published it. By then, La Follette had decided to work with Douglas Deur, the anthropologist, and a few other galleon obsessives to write several articles for the Oregon Historical Quarterly. In fact, her research was so extensive, the editor at the OHQ agreed to devote an entire issue to the Santo Cristo

“I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I don’t think I’ll see anything like it again,” Eliza Canty-Jones, the OHQ’s editor, told me. I asked her what made La Follette’s research so exceptional. Her answer: La Follette herself. She wasn’t the first person to become obsessed with the galleon—at one point during my reporting, I sat in a maritime museum poring over a trove of files gathered by someone, now deceased, who believed the ship to be the San Francisco Xavier. But La Follette was one of the few people driven by a sense of humanity, a deep and serious respect for the people who lost their lives on the ship. “She’s amazing,” Canty-Jones said.

Canty-Jones is right—La Follette is amazing. Amazing and strange and wonderfully deliberate. I’d never met anyone like her. After our meeting at the restaurant, we talked more. I found myself wanting to be more like her. What if I were driven by a curiosity so intense that I became single-minded in a quest? What if all of us were so thirsty—unquenchably so—about the questions in our hearts?

“Do you have fans?” I asked her during one of our conversations.

“I hope not,” she replied quickly.

What if all of us were so thirsty—unquenchably so—about the questions in our hearts?

On July 11, 2017, two days after La Follette asked Aragón for help finding an image of del Bayo’s home, he responded with something even better. Attached to his email was an image of a painting.

By a stroke of luck, Aragón happened to know a history professor in San Luis Potosí. He’d reached out to her to see if she knew anything about a man named del Bayo who had once been mayor of the town. She went to a local church and, with her smartphone, snapped a photograph of an intricate altarpiece. From Mexico back to Spain, from Spain to Oregon, the photo came to La Follette’s inbox. In the painting, the Virgin Mary stands atop a Roman column, the crowned baby Jesus nestled in her arms, angels peeking out from her skirts. Below her feet, a crowd of men have fallen to their knees, awestruck. At the Virgin’s left foot, a sharp-nosed man wearing a suit of armor clasps his hands in prayer, lips parted, gazing upward. According to the painting’s caption, it is del Bayo.

La Follette gasped when she saw it. It was him! Right there! “I would never have guessed we would get a likeness of our galleon captain,” she told me, her voice softening. Here was the image of the man she’d been imagining for so long—the man who had led others across a vast ocean, had been thrown off course, had perhaps caught a glimpse of Neahkahnie just as his ship was about to capsize in a deafening storm against the rocks.

I saw a shimmer in her eyes as she talked—not from tears, it seemed, but from wonder. This was not the stern-faced person I’d first met. She had become someone else entirely. She was a treasure hunter—cunning and smart, and seemingly guided by an invisible hand, the kind of force that, if you haven’t felt it, you may never fully understand.

Chapter 4: The Gyres

There was still one more secret to be revealed, a part of the story that La Follette had kept almost entirely to herself. She confessed to me that there was a purpose behind her unusual research—maybe not a method to the madness, but a motive. There was something in it for her.

“As soon as I heard about the galleon, I wanted to do one thing only: I wanted to write an epic about it,” she said. I raised my eyebrows. Epic? Was she a poet? This was all for a poem?

I’d done research on La Follette before our meeting and hadn’t seen a thing about poetry. Turns out, that’s because almost nothing she’s written has ever been published. But she told me that the University of Oregon Archives houses more than 2,000 pieces of her work. My jaw dropped. (The University of Oregon confirmed that it houses her prolific output.)

She’d always been a poet. As a teenager, La Follette would scribble verse that was raw and angsty. Her cheeks flushed at the memory. By the time she was 25, she’d written 1,000 poems. “All of which were terrible,” she told me. As she continued to write, she devoted herself to composing poetry that read almost as if it were written in another time. She stuck with that form. Her work is never experimental, the point never diffuse or unclear. She writes about history, about nature.

Poetry was the reason she left New York City. She was living the wrong life there because she wasn’t writing. She couldn’t even bring herself to tell anyone who she really was. “Not being able to say, ‘I’m a poet,’ gave me an unspeakable sense of misery,” La Follette told me. Her voice was lost. “I couldn’t find it.”

In Oregon, she devoted herself to finding her voice again—or, really, to determining if it was ever there at all. “I was so afraid it was fly-by-night or a shallow well,” she said. Soon she was writing weekly. Poetry became her purpose. She gave herself to it. She would isolate herself if that was what it required.

But what to do with everything she produced? “The only thing I really care about, if something happens to me, God forbid, is the poetry. I have no place to give it, or no place to take it,” La Follette said. She can’t stand self-promotion, but she wanted something to come of her years of devotion. So one day she called the archivist of the special collections at the University of Oregon, a man named James Fox, and asked if he’d be interested in having her work. “There was kind of a cold little silence,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Usually, if the archive is interested in someone, we contact you.’” La Follette argued her point—her poetry wasn’t in vogue in the publishing landscape, but she had something important to say.

Fox agreed to look at a handful of poems. “She was assertive. She had a vision,” Fox, now at California State University Sacramento, told me. La Follette anguished over which poems to send and then waited for a response. When she didn’t hear from him in due time, she called Fox. “He said the words I’ll never forget. Quote, ‘Your poetry definitely has merit,’ unquote,” La Follette recalled.

Fox agreed to take it all, intrigued not only by the volume of her work but also by its connections to La Follette’s environmental activism in Oregon. “She’s certainly an anomaly,” Fox said. “Her poetry was powerful.” It overflowed with spirituality, “of seeing God in nature. Whatever your idea of what God might be, the landscape is sacred,” Fox explained.

Fox went to Salem and took La Follette to dinner. They became friends. Every three years, she sends a new bundle of poems to the archives. It has continued to take them even though Fox has moved on.

I asked who her favorite poets were, and La Follette named a few. Among them was one that I, too, had great affection for: William Butler Yeats. It’s not uncommon to like Yeats. Still, I jumped in my seat when she said his name.

As La Follette spoke, I saw images of gyres in my mind. Gyres were of great interest to Yeats. Made of a pair of interlocking spirals, they form a shape much like an hourglass, one ascending, growing smaller as it meets the belly of another, which simultaneously descends into the first. Time in geometric form. One spiral beginning only because another ends. Death and life. The Basque nobleman and the poet who found him, connected.

As the galleon was crashing, and the story of the men on board was ending, a new story was beginning. It was one of myths and searchers and romantics. Two tales woven together, each incomplete without the other.

Poetry became her purpose. She gave herself to it. She would isolate herself if that was what it required.

What La Follette had embarked on was unlike anything I’d ever heard among the writers I know: historical research spanning years and years in order to write a single poem. The special issue of the history quarterly was a byproduct. All the mining, the money, the people assisting in other parts of the world—La Follette wrangled it to write a poem that might never be published, that might sit forever in an archive.

After I left our meeting at the restaurant, I pulled my car to the side of the road and jotted down a note about La Follette, one that felt addressed to my future self. That finally I’d met someone who’d found a way to block out all the inessentials of the world, who’d sequestered herself inside her curiosity and never lost her focus on protecting that. In the days and weeks and months after our meeting, I thought of her every time I became distracted. I thought about rising early in the morning, stationing myself in a corner of my house with only a candle and a pencil and the thoughts in my head. But I never did it.

In March 2019, I asked La Follette for another interview. I wanted to talk about her poetry, I told her. I wanted to know where she wrote, and how. She said yes.

She lives in a white World War II–era home on a long Salem street full of houses just like it. The branches and leaves of tall trees condense the misting rain into thick, heavy glops that fall on the people walking below. We sat in La Follette’s small dining room, off a kitchen painted a quiet mint green, at a table covered in a white floral tablecloth. There were stacks of books piled on top, mostly nonfiction books about maritime culture. There wasn’t any fiction; she doesn’t read it. Framed photographs hung on a wall next to the table—a dramatic slot canyon, a coastline shrouded in clouds.

I’d noticed before that when La Follette talked about the galleon, she mentioned the sensory experience of what it must have been like on board the Santo Cristo—how it smelled, what the men ate. She imagined what their moans sounded like once they realized they’d run off course, wandering the ocean. She saw things differently, felt things differently, too. She told me why; it’s a neurological condition called synesthesia.

When she looks at the color of someone’s shirt, a taste emerges across her palate or a tone buzzes in her ears. That day, she was wearing a purple fleece jacket that tasted of warm apple cake and butter. She had a gray one that put the earthy texture of dried mushrooms in her mouth. “After I wear it for an hour or two, I’m like, I gotta get out of this thing,” she said. “The colors that you see in the house are all colors that I can handle.” The tastes they generated were good ones; the tones weren’t too loud.

For all her life, even before the galleon business, poetry to La Follette was like prayer or meditation or feeding herself regular meals. It was also a way of expressing the interconnected sensory experience she was living. A routine that allowed her to focus her way of seeing the world.

She writes most days, and she begins late, after she’s finished working in her home office, made dinner, and read a book. It could be 11 p.m. She boils water for tea, then carries two kerosene lanterns into the dining room. She sets them on the table, touches a match to their wicks, and carefully replaces their glass chimneys. A pad of lined paper and a Bic pen are ready for her. She sits, turns around a small wooden clock so that it faces away from her—“I’m not in the world of time anymore,” she told me—and begins. The only image in her line of sight is a small woodcut of a seeker: a man whose head cranes upward, as if he’s looking beyond earth and sky into an unknown celestial world.

She doesn’t stop writing for hours; the lanterns cast shadows that jump across the walls until one or two in the morning. “I’m in a very small pool of light, and there’s darkness all around me,” she said. There is only her small, looping cursive and the rhythm of the words on the page. And, occasionally, more tea.

Two months after the OHQ hit local shelves, La Follette began work on her epic poem about the galleon. For years she’d kept to a strict routine, writing on Wednesdays and Thursdays, editing on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Now she added a new day: Sundays were for the galleon.

On the day I visited her, she’d been at it for months, though she said she was taking a short break after writing about the wreck and the bloody aftermath. She’d known it was coming. Eventually, she’d write of a massacre, when indigenous men killed some of the sailors for assaulting local women. She knew it might stop her cold. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to continue. “I’ve been dealing with these men and their fates, trying to bring them back into history, for three years now,” she told me.

But she marched into the breach headlong. She wrote and wrote, and her body was wrecked when she finished. She was exhausted, panting. “It was so emotionally intense,” she told me, her face slack at the memory.

The poem would cover everything: the voyage, the wreck, the oral histories, the treasure hunting—all of it. Even the men like Fire and Kretsinger, whom I’d come to think of as a little wild-eyed. She rejected that idea. “Nobody who walks the borders of new ideas is going to be ordinary,” she said. “It’s not appropriate to dismiss them as wild-eyed crazies rooting in the mud of Neahkahnie. I look at them very differently. They were responding in their own way to the enormous and powerful presence of Neahkahnie Mountain. And also responding to the ancient but vague tragedy.”

They were dreamers, like her.

Epilogue: The Beginning

On a November morning, I went to a place near to where the Santo Cristo ran aground some 326 years earlier to see if just maybe I might find a bit of wax or a piece of porcelain. Neahkahnie Mountain was watching. I walked along the shoreline, following beachcombers in the mist, their heads down and their shoulders slumped. We were the wonderers and wanderers, the scavengers and optimists who thought that maybe Neahkahnie would smile on us in a way it had no one else. My eyes fell on every rock and shell fragment as if each were a possible discovery. But no, they were just rocks and shells.

Why was I here? What was I looking for if not the Goonies-style adventure I once thought I might find? I knew so much now about what really happened here, and it was bittersweet to see it differently than I’d imagined.

I was thinking about all this when I spotted a small plastic bottle, about the size of a cheap pint of vodka. When I got close, I could see it wasn’t trash. Inside was a rolled up piece of yellow paper. I looked around for someone who might have dropped it, but there was no one.

This couldn’t be an actual message in a bottle, could it?

I picked it up and speed-walked down the beach toward the house where I was staying, where my retired mom was reading on her iPad. “Mom!” I yelled, throwing the door open like I hadn’t in thirty years. “I found a message in a bottle!” Scuffing my boots on the front mat, I held up the bottle, caked in sand, so she could see it.

“Holy shit! You meant it!” she said, flinging the iPad away, padding toward me as I withdrew the yellow scroll from the bottle. I carefully unfurled the wet paper, releasing sand fleas onto the kitchen counter. Mom stabbed at them, screeching, with a paper towel.

When the note was laid flat, all I could see were the pencil scribblings of a toddler. There was an s, an f. The figures in between looked more like cave drawings than letters. I couldn’t help but think of a kid somewhere, probably not far away, scratching a message onto the paper, tucking it into the bottle, then chucking it into the ocean. Maybe it came from long ago; maybe it had been thrown out there yesterday.

Once it was dry, I put the note where it belonged, in between the pages of La Follette’s research in a copy of the OHQ—a treasure hunter’s equivalent of a flower pressed in the pages of an old book.

As the galleon was crashing, and the story of the men on board was ending, a new story was beginning.

It was the New Year, early 2020, when I heard from La Follette again. An email. Subject line: “The epic is done!!”

I was standing at my kitchen counter, and I rushed to plug my phone in, heart thudding against my ribcage as I opened the attachment. The Wreck of the Santo Cristo, the title page read. I took a deep breath. What spirals would I find? I slid down to the floor, a pot of rice simmering above me, and began to read.

This is the tale of the unknown tragedy,   The wreck and disappearance of the Santo Cristo,A Manila galleon, a strong castle on the sea,   That fought winter gales and pride’s pitiless blow,   Warring constellations and winds turned foe,And ghastly fate. Hounded by an evil star,A ship forced to shores remote and far.

I thought about how, at one of our meetings, La Follette had told me about the time she knocked on the door of a Manzanita beachcomber and asked to hold a piece of porcelain he’d pulled from the sand. She’d never actually touched anything from the galleon. The man placed a bit of china into her palm. When she held it, she didn’t taste a thing, didn’t hear a low aria. But she did picture a man in her mind, a noble captain whose fingers might once have brushed up against its cold white surface.

As I read La Follette’s poem, my eyes and cheeks were hot knowing finally, with certainty, that the treasure of Neahkahnie had always been real. It was something no man could ever find in the earth. It was something else entirely. The senses, distilled. Moments in time, converged. It was the work of a seeker who poked her head among the stars.

She saw something up there. And she brought it back.


Click here to read a selection of Cameron La Follette’s poetry about the lost galleon, published exclusively by The Atavist.


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The Wild Ones

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The Wild Ones

People said that women had no place in the Grand Canyon and would likely die trying to run the Colorado River. In 1938, two female scientists set out to prove them wrong.

By Melissa Sevigny

The Atavist Magazine, No. 96


Melissa Sevigny is a science writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona, and the author of two books, Mythical River and Under Desert Skies (both 2016).

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Images: Norman D. and Doris Nevills Photograph Collection, courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Acknowledgements: The narrative is primarily informed by the Lois Jotter Cutter Papers, Cline Library Special Collections and Archives, Northern Arizona University. Special thanks to Peter Runge for access to material not yet curated for research, and to Ted Melis and Victor Cutter III.

Published in October 2019. Design updated in 2021.

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Prologue

The river had cut into the plateau, or else the plateau had risen around the river. No one could say for sure in 1938. But what did it matter how it formed? It was there, this sunset-hued cleft of stone in the high country of Arizona. A warning. A challenge.

An Englishman who toured northern Arizona that year declared, “Out here is a country almost without a history,” a fantastical landscape of weird pinnacles, sheer cliffs, and menacing canyons. He was wrong, of course. The Grand Canyon had a history, printed in lines of pink and beige down its mile-deep walls, with trilobites as punctuation. Generations of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, Hualapai, Southern Paiute, and Yavapai-Apache had called this place sacred and considered it home. For some of them it was the place of origin, where all humankind arose.

Tourists at Grand Canyon National Park—numbering more than 300,000 annually by the end of the 1930s—did not think of it that way. They came to the South Rim to lean over the low stone walls and gape at the Colorado River far below, a loose silver thread in a tapestry of stone. They gasped, they marveled. The river was a wild place, maybe the last wild place in America. Tourists thought of it as untrammeled, untouched, and nearly impossible to explore. And after they saw it, they went away.

Dams, though, had begun to tame the river, especially since the Boulder Dam (renamed the Hoover Dam in 1947) slammed shut its gates in 1936 and knotted the river into Lake Mead along the Arizona and Nevada border. River runners had begun to float the Colorado, but not many, and not very often. Only a dozen expeditions—just over 50 men, all told—had traversed the Grand Canyon by boat since John Wesley Powell led a government-funded expedition to map the river in 1869, during which boats were destroyed and three men vanished. Those who ventured into the canyon emerged with stories of wreckage flung along the rocks and skeletons tucked into stony alcoves clutching withered cactus pads in their bony fingers. The Colorado was considered one of the most dangerous rivers in the world.

When an expedition arrived in the town of Green River, Utah, in the summer of 1938 with an ambitious itinerary in hand, local residents and veteran river runners were quick to shake their heads. The group planned to row the Green River 120 miles to its confluence with the Colorado, then drift through Cataract Canyon, the fabled graveyard of the Colorado, where whitewater and hidden rocks conspired to smash boats to smithereens. They would resupply at a landing site called Lees Ferry, near the Utah-Arizona border, and then enter the Grand Canyon, where the only way to communicate with the outside world would involve a long, grueling hike to the rim. Ninety miles downstream, they’d have one last chance to break—abandon the river—at Phantom Ranch. After that, there’d be no choice but to make the harrowing descent downstream to Lake Mead. If they did, they’d have traveled more than 600 miles by river.

“You couldn’t pay me to join them,” declared one river rat.

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It was high summer, a season when broiling heat gave way to black, booming thunderstorms. The Green River was already muddy and swollen with rainwater. The Colorado ran at nearly full flood stage. In addition to terrifying rapids, the expedition’s members would face heat, hunger, and fatigue.

Not least among the journey’s many dangers, according to “experienced river men” who refused to give their names to the national newspapers covering the expedition, was the presence of women in the party. Only one woman had ever attempted the trip through the Grand Canyon. Her name was Bessie Hyde, and she’d vanished with her husband, Glen, on their honeymoon in 1928. Their boat was found empty. Their bodies were never recovered.

Unnamed sources told reporters that the two women in the crew were “one of the hazards, as they are ‘so much baggage’ and would probably need help in an emergency.” They were scientists—botanists, to be precise. “So they’re looking for flowers and Indian caves,” a river runner said. “Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know they’ll find a peck of trouble before they get through.”

In fact, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter had come from Michigan with much hardier plants in mind. Tucked into side canyons, braving what Jotter called “barren and hellish” conditions, were tough, spiny things: species of cactus that no one had ever catalogued before. Clover and Jotter would become the first people to do so—if they survived.

But the newspapers didn’t much care about that. Journalists crowed that the women had come to “conquer” the Colorado, and they fixated on the likelihood of failure. In the privacy of her journal, 24-year-old Jotter had a one-word reply: “Hooey.”

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Lois Jotter on the banks of a placid stretch of river.

1.

On her birth certificate she was Mary Lois Jotter, except that a clerk had transposed the a and r and given her a mangled first name—Mraythat no one could pronounce. The state of California was not particularly concerned with correcting the mistake. It took her parents some two decades to amend the spelling on official records. No matter: She preferred to go by Lois anyway.

Jotter spent her teenage years in Michigan, roaming the woods on Sunday afternoons, delighting in the exotic plants of a botanical garden near her home. Her father, E.V. Jotter, was a forester from a German Mennonite family. Her mother, Artie May Lomb, had come from a lineage of distinguished engineers. They encouraged, even expected, their daughter to love science. She could trace her desire to be a botanist back to a particular moment, when her father pointed out Acer negundo, the box elder maple. She was seven.

She studied biology and botany at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and plowed ahead with her Ph.D. work in a department that had only two female faculty members. Jotter’s focus was the cytogenetics of Oenothera, the evening primrose. She spent summers as a camp counselor in Michigan, and she learned to row a boat so she could rescue any kids who toppled into the lake. In 1937, while still in graduate school, she worked in Yosemite as a National Park Service naturalist.

As much as Jotter loved the outdoors, she thought of herself as bookish and a bit of a klutz. She wasn’t particularly adventurous—certainly not as much as her mentor, Elzada Clover, a professor at the university. The two women shared an apartment in Michigan for two years and were friends as well as colleagues. Born on a Nebraska farm, Clover was drawn to the open spaces and fierce beauty of the desert. She spent the summer of 1937 collecting plants in a lonely corner of Utah. There she met a river runner named Norman Nevills in a dusty town called Mexican Hat. Clover suggested that they take mules into the Grand Canyon to collect plant specimens for research. Nevills was enthusiastic. But, he said, why not take boats instead?

Each agreed to invite two more people on the expedition. Nevills found Don Harris, a young engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey, and William Gibson, an artist and photographer from San Francisco. Clover invited Gene Atkinson, a 25-year-old zoologist at the University of Michigan. The final slot needed to be filled by a woman, for the sake of propriety: It wouldn’t look right for Clover to be the only female in the group.

At first, Clover hesitated to invite Jotter. As Jotter put it, “She knew my parents had no spare daughter.” But Jotter jumped at the chance to go; what botanist could resist the lure of collecting material from a place as remote and mysterious as the Grand Canyon? The prospect caught her imagination. Jotter had to request time off from her thesis work, and she needed her father’s permission to go, written up in a formal letter to show the head of the botany department at the University of Michigan. She also needed $200 to cover her share of the cost of the expedition’s boats and supplies. She wrote her family a flurry of letters in the months before the trip. 

“If I weren’t almost certain (cheerful thought) that we would get thru OK I wouldn’t go,” she wrote to her father, though she admitted that she’d probably be “scared pink” most of the time.

Jotter filled her letters with reassuring details: a careful accounting of the costs involved, her confidence in Clover to protect her from the “familiarities” of men, the river experience of the rest of the crew, and the greatly improved maps of the Grand Canyon. She even listed the clothes she’d wear: long-sleeved shirts, fitted overalls, cork helmet, wool socks. “This is carefully planned,” she wrote. “I know that I’m not getting into any lark, but you know, that it will be something I’ll always regret not doing, if I don’t.”

Her father gave his blessing and sent the $200. When the spring semester ended, Jotter told a friend about her summer plans. The friend’s mother overheard the conversation and was aghast. “Have you seen that river?” she asked.

“Yes,” Jotter lied. She hadn’t seen the Colorado, but she’d read everything about it she could get her hands on. The title alone of Clyde Eddy’s 1929 book Down the World’s Most Dangerous River might have scared her off. But there were also the tales of Powell’s footsore crew eating handfuls of moldy flour. Or the drawings she’d seen of ominous rock spires blotting out the sun. Jotter felt she’d done her homework: She knew what to expect.

The friend whose mother had been aghast mentioned Jotter’s summer plans to journalist at the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. The story made the front page, with the headline: “Faculty Women to Face Danger on Stormy Colorado for Science.” Cameramen from The Detroit News were in the parking lot on June 7 when Jotter, Clover, and Atkinson loaded up their gear. The trio agreed to a last-minute photo shoot—perhaps, though nobody said it aloud, a final photo shoot.

Then the three scientists piled into Atkinson’s car for the weeklong drive to Utah. Even that comparatively tame adventure had moments of foreboding. Clover admired a long black car that passed them on the road before realizing it was a hearse. Jotter woke in her hotel room one night to wailing sirens as a bakery across the street went up in flames. “I am saved for the Colorado,” Jotter noted in her diary as firefighters doused the blaze.

Only her roommate back in Michigan, Kay Hussey, knew that Jotter had boxed and labeled her possessions for distribution before she’d left for Utah. Just in case.

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Norm Nevills’s father, William, building a cataract boat.

2.

The town of Mexican Hat, Utah, named for a rock formation that looked like a jaunty stone sombrero, had no electricity. Nevills, his father, William E. Nevills, and Harris used hand tools to build the three boats that would carry the expedition down the river, working out of the little hotel that Nevills ran in town. Each boat measured 16 feet long and was held together by some 2,000 screws, with watertight compartments at either end and a hull reinforced by oak ribs. They were newfangled vessels of Nevills’s own design—he called them cataract boats. They had a shallow draft and eight-foot-long wooden oars thrust through eye hooks on each side. The boatman sat in the center and faced downstream. Though the cataracts were wider than the boats traditionally used on the Colorado, there wasn’t much room for passengers. They had to cling to the front or rear deck or get out and walk in rough water.

Each boat had its name printed on the side—the Botany, the WEN (Nevills’s father’s initials), and the Mexican Hat—along with big block letters reading “Nevills Expedition.” The sight dismayed Jotter. She had envisioned the trip as a scientific voyage under Clover’s direction, during which their collected plant specimens would be carefully transported to the University of Michigan for study. Nevills had a different idea entirely: This was a business venture with paying passengers. He hoped to make a name for himself as the Grand Canyon’s first commercial river guide—though he’d never run the Colorado River before. (No one on the trip had.) Nevills’s experience included floating the San Juan, a tributary of the Colorado that passed through Mexican Hat. The journey ahead could make or break his career. He needed publicity, as much as he could muster. It helped that the two women brought a frenzy of news coverage with them from Michigan. When he got the chance to talk to reporters, Nevills emphasized the care and precautions he’d taken preparing for the expedition. It was as safe as any journey downriver in nearly unknown territory could be.

They were risking their lives—everyone in the group was clear about that. They just weren’t in agreement on why. Was it for publicity or for plants? News wires picked up the Michigan Daily story, and each retelling was more sensationalized than the last. The “relic flora” and “important cacti” mentioned in the original article became “botanical freaks” in an Associated Press story. Eventually, nothing much was said about science at all. One reporter noted, “The women, besides their scientific work, will do the cooking.” Articles described “Miss” Clover as a 40-year-old college professor, plump and bespectacled, while Jotter was thin, freckle-faced, and nearly six feet tall. Indignant, Jotter corrected that description whenever she could: She was five feet seven and a half inches.

On June 19, a caravan of cars left Mexican Hat pulling the three boats on trailers. The six expedition members drove to Green River, where they were mobbed by reporters and autograph hunters. Clover and Jotter, hot and dusty from the drive, were dressed in practical brown overalls.

“Do you think women can do anything a man can do?” an Associated Press newsman wanted to know.

No, the women replied emphatically. The question annoyed Jotter. In terms of strength, she probably couldn’t do the same work as a man. But her mind, her abilities, and (she hoped) her endurance in the rough country ahead were just as good. Or better.

“What do you think of the riverman’s statement in the Saturday Evening Post?” came the next question.

They’d seen the article, of course. Everyone had. The riverman was Buzz Holmstrom, a 29-year-old from Oregon who’d run the Grand Canyon solo the year before—the only person on record to achieve that feat. The Post had printed a seven-page, blow-by-blow account of his thousand-mile journey from the Colorado River’s headwaters in Wyoming all the way to Lake Mead. Holmstrom was speaking of the vanished honeymooner Bessie Hyde when he said, “Women have their place in the world, but they do not belong in the Canyon of the Colorado.”

Jotter smiled at the journalist who asked the question. “Just because the only other woman who ever attempted this trip was drowned,” she replied, “is no reason women have any more to fear than men.”

At least that’s what the newspapers reported. In her diary that night, Jotter scribbled wearily that she’d tried to speak as little as possible, knowing how easily her comments could be misconstrued. “My dear, don’t believe anything you do see that is supposed to be something we said,” she wrote in a letter to Kay Hussey, her roommate, “because we’ve been beautifully misquoted out here.” Jotter also enclosed a schedule of the journey in the short letter to her friend: “Lees Ferry, Arizona, July 4. Grand Canyon, July 14. Boulder Dam, July 30,” she wrote. “Please do not be worried if we don’t get there on the exact date, as we may lay over for a week for high water.”

The two botanists stayed up late that night creating makeshift plant presses—strips of newspaper layered with blotting paper to absorb moisture, held between cardboard and cinched tight with leather straps. They’d insert plants and squeeze them flat to preserve them, a tricky proposition with cactus, and send them back to Michigan in three shipments: one at the start of the Grand Canyon, one halfway down, and one from Lake Mead. The presses would be stuffed into the boat hatches along with the food, life preservers, and Clover’s sewing kit. Other supplies included Jotter’s bedroll: a mammoth creation of overlapping blankets around an air mattress—a gift from her parents—wrapped in heavy canvas ground cloth. Most of the food was canned, even the potatoes, the fruit, and a brand of dried milk called Klim.

Early the next morning, the party put into the Green River. “Two flora-minded women from Michigan join four equally adventurous men today in a daring boat trip down the restless Colorado river’s mile-deep gorge in quest of nature’s secrets,” began the adjective-riddled Associated Press story. For all her bravado in letters to her parents, Jotter felt relieved when the three boats floated just fine in the water.

On the placid river, sliding in the shade of cottonwood trees, the memory of dire predictions began to fade. Everything seemed planned, predictable, safe. “Much singing and sitting on sundeck,” Jotter wrote in her logbook of those early days. On the third night of the trip, Nevills gave the group a lecture on how to run the rapids ahead. Jotter recorded his advice: “If you do get sucked in, hit stern first and square, current not too strong at cliff walls, quarter up-stream, row against, always hang on to boat, etc. etc. Finally and so to bed.”

Later, Jotter added a wry note to that entry, “I guess I really must not have listened to all this with any sense of responsibility.”

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3.

They reached the Colorado River on June 23. That’s when the trouble began. 

Here, at the confluence with the Green River, they’d enter Cataract Canyon—with its 63 rapids, the most treacherous stretch of river they’d encounter. The group pulled their boats ashore to scout the rapids and search the canyon walls for an inscription left by Powell. The river was a churning white maelstrom, crunching logs and trapping boulders in its maw. While the men plotted their course, Clover took the opportunity to snatch up a few plant specimens and Jotter rested on the shore. The character of the river had changed, it seemed—it was now deep, swift, and powerful. Then Gibson shouted: “My God! There goes the Mexican Hat!” Jotter’s boat had tugged free from its mooring on shore, empty except for much-needed supplies. She dashed to the river’s edge. Her rowing partner, Don Harris, ran past her, calling for Jotter to follow him. They both climbed into the WEN.

“We’re going right through, so hang on!” Harris shouted.

Jotter bailed water with an empty coffee can while Harris put his back into the oars. In no time, the river had swept them around a bend, out of sight of their companions. Somewhere between terrified and exhilarated, they rode out four rapids before Harris pulled into an eddy to rest.

“Do you want to stay here while I go on?” he asked between heaving gasps. 

“No,” Jotter said.

Back into the main current they went. Waves crashed as the sun went down. Soaked and chilled, they beached again—there was still no sign of the Mexican Hat. But Jotter thought she glimpsed a sandy patch of land ahead, the kind of spot where a boat might run ashore. They continued along the riverbank until they saw a flash of white paint and a curved prow. The boat had indeed run aground, with all its food, clothing, and blankets still safely stowed. It had traveled five miles.

Harris left Jotter and walked back upriver to deliver the news to the rest of the crew. He promised to return as quickly as he could. He found his companions waiting around a little campfire on the opposite bank, cooking a dreary dinner of canned peas. Harris shouted to get their attention.

Clover, Nevills, Gibson, and Atkinson quickly climbed into the Botany and crossed the choppy water, fighting to hold a straight line. In giddy relief, they shook Harris’s hand and clapped him on the back. He and Atkinson decided to walk back to Jotter, taking the only flashlight. The rest of the group resigned themselves to a miserable night. The Botany had no cooking utensils and hardly any bedding among its cargo. They had to “chuck conventions”—Clover’s words—and huddle together for warmth. “What a night for the first one on the Colorado!” she wrote in her journal.

Harris and Atkinson didn’t make it back to Jotter straight away. The boulder-strewn terrain proved too difficult to navigate in darkness, and they lay shivering on a rock in wet clothes until dawn. Jotter spent the night alone. She dried out the food and bedding on the Mexican Hat and collected driftwood for a fire. She put her back against a stone and kept her face toward the flames. She toasted some bread and ate it. The river was rising, and soon Jotter had to move the fire back from its encroaching edge. Stars bloomed in the night sky above the canyon’s close walls—a great river of stars, perfectly echoing the real river below.

Jotter should have been afraid. Almost no one believed that she belonged on the expedition, let alone out on her own in the treacherous wilderness. The journey had barely begun—500 dangerous miles stretched ahead. Cataract Canyon was the expedition’s first test, and it seemed they were failing it. They were cut off from any hope of help if someone was injured, a boat was damaged by the rocks, or their food supply spoiled.

The noises of the night rose around Jotter—water rushing amid the roots of willow trees, the susurration of the river, small creatures rustling in the brush. She wrote in her logbook, “Felt quite alone.” But the solitude didn’t frighten her. She confessed, “I had a lovely time.”


Morning dawned pink and gold. Jotter woke early, washed her face in the river, and carefully applied her makeup, just as she and Clover did every morning in the early days of the expedition, before Jotter gave it up as “useless.” Then she waited. Harris and Atkinson arrived first, relieved to find her safe, and the rest came down in the Botany not long after, hungry for breakfast. 

Reunited, they continued downriver. Nevills and Harris, who had the most rowing experience, sometimes took the boats through the rapids one at a time, walking back between each run. It gave Gibson a chance to film with his 45-pound movie camera as the boatmen ran the rapids. But the arrangement also meant long periods of separation and nerve-fraying waits. Once, Gibson announced that he would abandon the river and walk to Moab, Utah, if Nevills turned up dead.

The mishap in Cataract Canyon had shaken the expedition. Sometimes Nevills didn’t want to plow through the whitewater before them. Instead, the group “lined” the boats—guiding them by rope from the shore—or dragged them overland on skids. Or they unloaded and carried them. Everyone pitched in when a portage was required; it was grueling work in the heat, with loose stones to dodge and pink rattlesnakes coiled in the sand. Nevills fretted that the women were taking on too much of the physical labor.

They drank river water that left their mouths lined with clay and grit in their teeth. A week into the trip, everyone grew nauseous. Prescription: a shot of whiskey. Gibson awoke one night in terror, yelling about the river closing over his head. After a while, even the rocks seemed to ripple and heave.

Like the river, Jotter’s journal took on a different character. During the wearisome drive from Michigan to Utah, she had delighted in plants—or, in her words, “botanized lots.” She noted the sinuous tracks of cottonwoods, recorded goatsbeard, white larkspur, and evening primrose, and lamented a “rather barren stretch as far as flowers go.” Now, on the Colorado, she and Clover rose every morning before the rest of the crew to gather plants, make notes, and cook breakfast for everyone. In the evening, one of them would press the specimens collected that day while the other made dinner. Jotter had little to say about their findings in her logbook. The botanists’ collection, she believed, would speak for itself once it was back in Michigan.

Jotter’s writing focused instead on the novelty of river life: cooking food over a campfire, washing clothes (her own and sometimes those of “the boys”), trying to bathe in the river or change in the privacy of her bedroll—all the daily domestic concerns of making and breaking camp. Only one topic consumed her more, and that was running the rapids.

On June 29, the group awoke to a landslide in the distance raising a cloud of white dust. The river was still high, muddy and red with runoff from the rain. Gypsum Creek Rapid lay ahead. The water seemed smooth, and Nevills decided to run it without stopping first to scout. Nevills and Clover went first in the WEN, then Gibson and Atkinson in the Botany. Without warning, the boats plunged over a steep drop. The Botany was tossed up, then overturned. Atkinson clung to the hull, but Gibson was gone, swept into the river—his nightmare come true.

Clover wrote that the little boat caught in the curl of the wave would have been a “beautiful sight if it had not been so dangerous.” Nevills bent to the oars of the WEN, heading to intercept Atkinson and the overturned boat. Atkinson clambered aboard while Clover grabbed the Botany’s trailing rope and hung on. Six feet from the shore, Nevills jumped out, intending to tie up the boats, but the slick rope ran through his fingers. He went into the river, too, while the boats swept on without him.

Some ways behind, Jotter and Harris made the run safely in the Mexican Hat, though they nearly lost the oars as the waves pummeled their boat. They found an exhausted Gibson struggling to keep his head above the water and pulled him aboard. Downstream they picked up Nevills, who had managed to swim to the riverbank. But the WEN and capsized Botany were gone from sight, lost to the raging river.

The foursome made their way downstream with painful slowness, sometimes walking and lining the boat, sometimes rowing with all four of them crammed together in the tiny craft. (“Felt like a blooming ferry,” Jotter noted.) Dark Canyon Rapid was looming—they could hear its hollow, ominous boom. Had their companions made it to safety before reaching it?

Then Clover and Atkinson came into view, waiting on the shore around a fire, the two boats tied up beside them. They’d come through nine rapids in a little more than five miles, all while towing an upturned boat—a wild, battering ride. Atkinson had a deep gash in his leg, and Clover had a purple bruise blossoming on her thigh. Everything in the Botany was soaked, including the food supplies and Gibson’s prized movie camera. “Much rejoicing,” Jotter wrote in her logbook that night.

Nevills did not echo the sentiment. He reckoned that he’d brought a group of greenhorns onto the Colorado, and everyone could imagine what the newspapers would say if an empty boat washed up at Lees Ferry. The were behind schedule—the party was expected by July 4, but they weren’t going to make it. The river had shown its claws and teeth. In a moment of despair, Nevills told his companions, “This is the end of my career as a riverman.”

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4.

Back then, the Department of the Interior planned to construct dozens of dams along the Colorado River, for hydropower, water supply, and recreation. Government engineers envisioned a series of ponds from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other to reduce the rough, silt-laden river into a clear, controlled stream. Jotter carried the specter of that possible future with her in the form of topographical maps made by Colonel Claude Birdseye of the Geological Survey in 1923, when he was tasked with identifying potential dam sites. She’d gotten copies of the maps from the colonel himself before the trip—though before giving them up, Birdseye tried to dissuade her father from letting her go at all.

Jotter didn’t know that the canyons the expedition drifted through would one day be submerged beneath the waters of an artificial lake. The group lined Dark Canyon Rapid rather than risk another disastrous run. It was here that a tributary called Dirty Devil River poured into the Colorado. A few decades later, that confluence would vanish behind Glen Canyon Dam under the waters of Lake Powell.

The group sometimes spotted the names of travelers who had made it that far, painted up on imposing walls of rock. “Buzz Holmstrom” still shone fresh from 1937, an unwelcome reminder of his declaration: “Women do not belong in the Canyon of the Colorado.” Eight miles farther along, another sheer cliff bore the words “The Eddy Expdtn,” badly faded, and “Hyde,” with a date below: November 1, 1928. Bessie and Glen Hyde hadn’t lived to see December.

While the others labored to unload and line the boats through a nearby rapid, Atkinson took a can of white paint and added “Nevills Expedition” to the cliff, with all six of their names below. At first, Jotter winced at defacing the stone, but she didn’t voice an objection. It was hard not to wonder: Would this be a record of their accomplishment or an epitaph?


Reporters in the world above the canyon seized on the expedition’s nonappearance at Lees Ferry to speculate, with ghoulish glee, about its fate. The Geological Survey reported unusually high water on the Colorado, and plenty of rivermen were willing to speak about the “unimaginable difficulties” of the trip and condemn the expedition for being “thoroughly unplanned.” Unnamed sources believed that the party was “drifting helplessly on the crest of the stream, or already smashed to bits on the jagged rocks.” Journalists took every opportunity to remind their readers that “no woman had ever before conquered the Colorado.”

One reporter cornered Holmstrom, then working as a boatman for a Lake Mead tour company, and asked his opinion of the “lost” expedition. Holmstrom detailed the dangers the group were facing, then added, “I’m glad I’m not on that trip, but I certainly hope they get through all right.” Soon after, he hitched up his boat to his car and set out for Utah: He would stage a rescue if need be.

Meanwhile, Jotter’s family lived in daily expectation of news—bad news. Jotter’s mother traveled to Ohio to visit her mother, who wept in terror over Jotter’s fate. “I have a deep and growing realization and conviction of personal responsibility,” Jotter’s father wrote to his wife while she was away. “No use to tell you not to worry. You will and so will I.”

Early on the morning of July 7, a plane flew over the Colorado River, searching for the missing group. It wasn’t until evening that the pilot spotted them, preparing for supper on a willow-shaded sandbar. The plane circled and dropped leaflets like snow. The expedition party scattered, each person trying to catch one. Nevills and Harris went to scale a nearby cliff, and Gibson climbed a willow, while Clover found herself mired in mud. Jotter stayed where she was—she was busy cooking—and Atkinson stayed with her. They were rewarded when a fluttering piece of paper landed nearby. It read:

We are U.S. Coast Guard plane searching for a party of six U. of Michigan geologists reportedly late at Lee’s Ferry. If you are they, lie down all in a row, and then stand up. If in need of food, sit up. If members of the party are all ok, extend arms horizontally. It is imperative that we know who you are, so identify yourself by first signal first.

Jotter and Atkinson went through the necessary gymnastics. Gibson returned and joined in. The plane dipped its wings and departed, ready to send good news to the world.


The expedition arrived at Lees Ferry four days behind schedule. Reporters were sprawled on the sand, asleep. When they woke to the three boats and six crew members pulling in, they scrambled. Ultimately, the weary group were persuaded to stage their arrival a second time so that news cameras could capture the moment. Then they devoured watermelon, too absorbed in the delight of fresh fruit to answer questions.

Jotter had letters waiting, along with a piece of her brother’s wedding cake. He’d been married on July 1, a date chosen to distract their parents from worrying too much about his sister. The expedition would stay a week at Marble Canyon Lodge to rest and resupply. Jotter had time to dash off letters of reassurance to her family and friends, making light of the “terrible accounts of our suffering” printed in the newspapers. “Girl Left Alone,” screamed one headline on July 9, telling a vividly imaginative story of the night the Mexican Hat had gotten loose. It painted a picture of Jotter stranded on the tempestuous river’s shore while wild animals howled. Jotter wrote emphatically to her father not to believe a word of it. “At no time was I cold, unfed; nor did I hear animals growling from the rim.… Really most of the stuff written has been absurd, and so wrong that the only right thing was the date-line.” To her roommate, Hussey, she wrote, “May not continue trip, but keep that quiet for the present.”

Two of the group decided to depart. Harris and Atkinson had new jobs waiting for them back home, and Atkinson was disgruntled that he’d had no time to collect zoological specimens, which he’d planned to sell to make up the cost of the trip. This meant that the crew were short two oarsmen. The expedition had reached the mouth of the Grand Canyon, but it wouldn’t enter unless it could recruit two people who could handle a boat and were willing to take on the river’s most dangerous rapids. Clover and Nevills borrowed a decrepit truck and drove straight through the night back to Mexican Hat, where they hoped to find volunteers.

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Bill Gibson, Buzz Holmstrom, and Gene Atkinson (from left) with Jotter on Navajo Bridge.

5.

Jotter and Gibson were finishing up a long, lazy breakfast the next morning at Marble Canyon Lodge when a rattling Buick towing a battered gray boat pulled up outside. A stocky, weather-beaten man climbed out of the car: Buzz Holmstrom. He’d learned the expedition wasn’t lost soon after arriving at the boat launch in Green River. No one needed a rescue, but curiosity drove him to the lodge: Holmstrom had come about these women on the river.

Born in a logging camp in Oregon, Holmstrom had run the Rogue, Salmon, and Snake Rivers in handmade boats. He didn’t do it for money; running rivers didn’t pay. Between boat trips, he drifted from job to job. When he wasn’t broke, he sent money home to support his mother. He’d proved too shy to make a good tour guide at his current job on Lake Mead, so he spent much of his time scraping paint and sopping up bilge water.

Holmstrom hadn’t sought any publicity for his solo trip down the Colorado, worrying that some government official might try to stop him from attempting it. Afterward, the Saturday Evening Post made him famous anyway—and paid him handsomely. Holmstrom disliked media attention, but he knew its worth. Secretly, he was concocting a plan with a fellow river runner named Amos Burg to repeat his 1937 Colorado trip. This time, Burg would make color movies of the journey. They had a half-formed idea of showing them at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.

When Holmstrom first got word about the Nevills expedition, he worried that the era of derring-do on the Colorado—his era—was coming to a close. Soon anyone with money to spare would be able to pay a guide to take them down the most dangerous river in the world. Why would they want to see films of an adventure they could go on themselves? “If that weren’t enuf trouble,” he wrote to his mother, “now these women are in the canyon—if they make it I guess it will be time for me to go and hide somewhere.”

His plan for a rescue mission wasn’t entirely altruistic. When he met Jotter and Gibson at breakfast, he told them, “I brought my boat with some idea of going hunting for you.” Jotter thought there was just a trace of embarrassment in his manner when he looked at her. “Course, I thought it would be good publicity for me, too,” Holmstrom added. 

She was disarmed by his frankness. The trio spent the day together, wandering around the lodge. Holmstrom was a sympathetic listener. Jotter and Gibson relayed their difficulties, and Holmstrom described the rapids ahead: Soap Creek, House Rock, Hance, Sockdologer, Grapevine. He had no qualms admitting that he’d been terrified on his solo trip. One night in Cataract Canyon, he awoke in the darkness and stumbled down to the river to cling to the bowline, in a cold sweat at the thought of his boat tearing away downriver without him. But it had been worth it. What Jotter felt about plants, she realized, Holmstrom expressed in a kind of rough poetry about the Grand Canyon. “The spell of the canyon is awfully strong and it holds something of me I know it will never give up,” he once told an interviewer.

Jotter didn’t hold Holmstrom’s feelings about female river runners against him. She thought him “simply swell” and joked about losing her way in the canyon so that Holmstrom could indeed come to the rescue as he’d planned. She was open-hearted, candid, and eager for his advice. “I’ve never felt so much like a hero-worshipper,” she wrote in her journal.

She asked him if she should keep going, revealing the same doubt she’d shared in her letter to Hussey. He told her that she should.

The next day, Holmstrom treated his new acquaintances to lunch. Afterward, they said their farewells on Navajo Bridge, an enormous arch made of steel spanning the Colorado just below Lees Ferry. The river, 500 feet below, was an unfathomable green and deceptively calm. The canyon’s faces caught the sunlight and flashed vermillion. Gibson took a photograph of Jotter and Holmstrom leaning against the metalwork of the bridge, smiling and relaxed.

Holmstrom gave Jotter a good-luck charm to carry the rest of the trip: his waterproof match case with a compass attached to one end. She told her father in a letter that she’d accepted the souvenir as a representative of the crew but thought privately that it was a pity she was taller than Holmstrom—she didn’t like to date anyone shorter than herself. Holmstrom wrote his mother with a warm description of his visit to the lodge, filling his letter with the haphazard dashes he liked to use in lieu of proper punctuation. “They are all fine & I hope they go thru O.K. tho it would probably be better for me if they didn’t,” he wrote. “The women on that party are really doing better than the men—this Lois J. is almost 6 feet tall—rawboned—freckled & tanned—very strong works like a horse helping portage & trying to get specimens & a good sport—never complaining.”

But would they have the chance to continue? Clover and Nevills had made it as far as Tuba City, in the bleak highlands of Arizona, before they had to look for some other means of transport—the borrowed truck threatened to rattle itself apart on the washboard roads. Ed Kerley ran the trading post there. Nevills pounded on his door until he woke up and agreed to give them a ride. Better yet, Kerley had more than a working vehicle: He had a cousin, 24-year-old Lorin Bell, who was raised on the Navajo Nation and loved to travel. As Clover described the scene, they shook Bell awake and asked him if he’d like to run the river. “Hell yes!” he said. “What river?”

They continued on to Mexican Hat, where Nevills picked up a friend of his to be the second boatman, 44-year-old gold prospector Dell Reed. Nevills saw his wife, Doris, and his two-year-old daughter, Joan, before dashing back to Lees Ferry with the new recruits. Jotter was relieved. “I’m all pepped up,” she wrote to her father. The two women were tasked with repacking the boats while Nevills scheduled pictures with the press. Clover also arranged the first of three shipments back to Michigan, this one including all the plants she and Jotter had collected so far.

On July 13, cars and people lined Navajo Bridge to get one final glimpse of the three boats setting out downriver. After the near disastrous first leg of the journey, Nevills was again feeling buoyed. “This is a swell gang and we’re going to town!” he wrote as they set off. 

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From left: Jotter at camp; expedition members hiking along Havasu Creek in the Grand Canyon.

6.

At last the expedition entered the Grand Canyon. The Colorado became like a plunge into the past, each river mile revealing another chunk of prehistory. First were the pale, water-pocked ledges of the Kaibab limestone formation, laid down 250 million years ago when the desert was a sea. The farther the expedition went, the higher above them the limestone rose, all the way to the canyon’s rim, where tourists leaned over the abyss. Beneath the Kaibab was the Coconino sandstone, ancient dunes that rippled with the imprint of long-ago winds; then the Hermit shale, split with strange fossils; and then bands of Redwall limestone shot through with petrified shellfish.

There were secrets to be learned here, about past climates, warm shallow seas, and the inexorable work of uplift and erosion. But Jotter wasn’t a geologist; she’d come to find plants. In her journal, acknowledging the spectacle of stone, she scribbled, “nice clouds and red cliffs.”

On July 15, they pitched camp in a spot with an overhanging ledge in case of rain. While Clover cooked dinner, Jotter scrambled up a hillside to pluck samples of plants with fierce and lordly names: scorpionweed, catclaw, yellow spiderflower, desert prince’s plume. She cut a few leaves from an agave with a 12-foot stalk and puzzled over its curious red spines before realizing it was her own blood. “The red was my contribution!” she wrote. That night, too restless to sleep deeply in the heat, she dreamed of pressing plants in sleeves of newspaper.

Clover couldn’t sleep either. She stood spellbound beneath the gibbous moon as it illuminated the high cliffs, a play of silver light and deep shadow. She’d been warned about the Grand Canyon—its oppressive walls and gloomy crags, how the sound of water striking rocks preyed on travelers’ minds. But what she saw wasn’t fearsome. It was a nameless beauty.

Both women rose early. Scientifically, it would be the most important day on the river. They’d made Nevills promise to make a special stop at Vasey’s Paradise, where freshwater springs cascaded from the Redwall limestone in ribbons of white. Powell had looked at this spot with a geologist’s eyes, describing the spray from the sunstruck fountains as a “million brilliant gems,” but he’d named it Vasey’s Paradise after George Vasey, a friend and botanist who’d explored the upper Colorado with Powell in 1868. Plants there reveled in water: mosses, ferns, desert paintbrush, red monkey flower. Penstemon tempted hummingbirds with scarlet trumpets. “We collected furiously,” Jotter wrote in her logbook. The women sampled everything they could see except the poison ivy, which lay in green hummocks over rocks printed with the silver tracks of snails.

Bell and Gibson, meanwhile, stripped down to shorts and showered beneath one of the waterfalls. By noon the men were waiting hungrily for lunch; they expected the women to cook, as always. Clover suggested that they get out the canned food and cold biscuits left over from breakfast. They managed that, but when the women had finished pressing their samples, they found the rest of the crew “waiting bug-eyed and expectant under a rock,” still hungry. In a rare moment of impatience, Clover wrote, “We have spoiled them completely.”

Mere steps away from the springs, the canyon’s desert vegetation asserted itself—scowling cactus, shrubby saltbush. This place followed none of the neat rules Clover and Jotter had learned in botany textbooks. The naturalist C. Hart Merriam had come to Arizona in 1889 to work out his theory of life zones. He’d used the San Francisco Peaks, just east of the Grand Canyon, as a living laboratory, describing how plants grew in predictable zones determined by climate: alpine tundra descending to desert. The Grand Canyon defied all such categories. Clover and Jotter sampled moss one moment, plucked succulent pads the next. Barrel cactus blushed pink with sunburn on exposed rock faces, while across the way redbud and hackberry trees hunkered gratefully in shade. Mormon tea, with its stubby green fingers, clung to steep talus slopes. Dismembered prickly pear pads washed into the spaces between flood-tossed boulders and took root. They found an extraordinary number of hedgehog cactus, their pink blooms faded in the heat, on ledges hundreds of feet above the river.

“Here is a case,” the botanists wrote, “where drought vies with flood waters in exterminating plants struggling for existence in a trying situation.” It was what they’d come for—not to conquer or impress, but to learn.


On July 18, they entered Upper Granite Gorge, where the basement of the world lay exposed—gray Vishnu schist ribboned with pink granite, formed 1.7 billion years ago when life had not progressed beyond a single cell. No way to portage or line the boats here: They had to brave the whitewater. Holmstrom had warned Jotter about Grapevine Rapid in particular. As she looked out over the churning whirlpools, she felt “the old before-the-exam feeling in the pit of my stomach.” She smoked a cigarette and felt better but then lost her balance and nearly took a bad fall as she navigated a narrow ledge above the river. She climbed into the boat feeling weak and shaky.

“Here we go,” she told Bell, her partner on the ride.

“We’re in for it!” he replied.

A wave on one side, a hole on the other—they dashed through the rapid on what Jotter called “considerable of a ride.” There were more rapids ahead, but none so large, and before Jotter knew it the Bright Angel suspension bridge loomed ahead, bearing a gaggle of reporters. “Look as if you’re glad to be landing!” one of them yelled down.

Jotter wasn’t glad at all. “It meant people, fuss, and the end of a perfect day,” she wrote.

For generations, a narrow path here had wound from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, down stony switchbacks, and into a green oasis of cottonwood trees. The Havasupai, whose feet had worn the path, called it Gthatv He’e (Coyote Tail Trail), a reference to the brushy ends of spruce trees. When the Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, authorities worked to clear away old mining claims and tent camps. The government also denied the ancestral claims of Native people who moved seasonally into the canyon and onto the plateau above to hunt, gather plants, and conduct ceremonies. The Havasupai were confined to a reservation. Their path was built over and renamed Bright Angel Trail.

Floods of travelers now came down the trail on mule trains to see the river and sleep at Phantom Ranch, a hostel built in 1922. When the expedition members arrived at the ranch, weary and sunburned, they faced an admiring chorus of photographers, cowboys, and tourists. They ate dinner amid the hubbub and then headed to the river’s edge to camp in the quieter company of cottonwood trees. In celebration of their arrival, Clover passed around a jigger of whiskey. Under the cover of darkness, Jotter secretly poured hers out on the sand. They still had nearly 200 miles to go, from Bright Angel to Boulder Dam.

Most of the crew hiked to the South Rim the next morning, where civilization awaited in the form of a hot bath. Reed stayed behind with the boats. The others spent two days at the top, ushered around for photographs, interviews, and lectures, testing Jotter’s patience. She was eager to get back to the river. 

Jotter wrote to Hussey, “The canyon is lovely, Kay, and not particularly terrifying.” She added, “We’re being lionized pretty badly and as you say the emphasis has been on”—here she sketched a small circle with a cross below, symbolizing the female sex—“rather than on Botany.” Still, what they’d gathered in their press, now bulging with plants, made her proud. It was heavy and unwieldy. So rather than carry it 11 miles up the canyon herself, Clover arranged to have someone haul it up the Bright Angel Trail and ship it to Michigan. They continued downriver, leaving the press for the time being exposed to the elements at the base of the trail.

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Norm Nevills, Elzada Clover, and Emery Kolb (from left) between Bright Angel Creek and Lake Mead.

7.

The plants they saw began to change. Ocotillo appeared, bundles of sticks with firework-red sprays of flowers. Barrel cactus and agave thickened on the talus slopes. Clover and Jotter found it difficult to collect anything. There was hardly any time to stop and no easy way to dry the plants. Nevills strained an old knee injury; Bell hurt himself pulling on the oars during a bad run of whitewater. They navigated rapids—big ones—nearly every day. The women often walked, on Nevills’s orders. Jotter had high hopes of being allowed to run a rapid herself; she’d rowed a boat before, though only in calm water. But Nevills wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t mention her request in his journal but noted that he considered Jotter “too reckless.” Perhaps it was her habit of sitting up on the stern in rough water that annoyed him.

They reached Lava Falls, the Grand Canyon’s most infamous rapid. The river made a dizzying, nearly 40-foot drop here; only one or two people had ever tried to run it. “All members would like to run, of course,” Nevills noted, but he chose to line, the safer option. Somehow it had all become routine. Clover wrote, “It was just a part of the day’s work to make a flying leap for shore, to climb steep cliffs after plants, and to get photographs.”

Early in the morning on July 29, when they were just a day or two from the shores of Lake Mead, a small plane flew overhead. Nevills was cheerful that the world would soon receive word of their safety—that is, of his success helming the expedition. But the moment set off a deep melancholy in Clover. “Can’t even get away from the world here,” she lamented.

They camped that night at Diamond Creek, where 81 years earlier, Lieutenant Joseph Ives of the U.S. Army became the first non-Native to visit the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He’d come upriver by steamboat, and when it broke on the rocks at Black Canyon, he kept going on foot. “The region last explored is, of course, altogether valueless,” he’d reported. “It can only be approached from the south, and after entering it is there nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.” What his Hualapai guides thought of the river wasn’t recorded, but Ives was convinced that the Colorado River, “along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”

He was wrong on both counts. Disturbance had already crept in from European influence. Jotter and Clover found tamarisk trees, an imported Eurasian species, thick along the riverbanks. They had recorded other exotic plants: tumbleweed in Cataract Canyon, Bermuda grass below Bright Angel Creek. Plants weren’t the only symptoms of change. Feral burros and cattle grazed the side canyons. Government officials had introduced non-native fish into the Colorado River system: rainbow trout, common carp, channel catfish, and others favored in sportfishing. Populations of native Colorado pikeminnow were crashing, their migration blocked by Boulder Dam. Within a few decades, not one would be left in this stretch of river. Only the canyon walls stood fast, recording time yet seemingly untouched by it.

The crew passed the point where the Hydes’ boat had been found by a search party. Clover wrote in her journal, “Makes me feel almost ashamed to enjoy it so much. It is a great river with a hundred personalities, but it is not kind.” Thirteen miles downriver, they reached Separation Rapid, where the three men had abandoned Powell’s crew. Below this point, the rapids marked on Colonel Birdseye’s maps no longer existed; they’d been submerged by the slack water of Lake Mead.

A despondent feeling settled over the party. “There was a feeling of regret as the last rapid came into view,” Clover wrote. “No more would we have that feeling of uncertainty and expectation. Lake Mead lay placid ahead.”

Boulder Dam had been completed just two years before, and the Colorado was still pouring into the reservoir. Lake Mead would rise nearly to capacity in 1941. (Stressed by drought and water demand, it would only reach that level of abundance again in the wet winter of 1983–84.) The group camped, and by the light of a fragrant mesquite-wood fire, they scrubbed their clothes and faces clean and signed one another’s helmets, like high school kids with yearbooks. “Enjoyed fighting Botany and the old Colorado with you,” Clover wrote to Jotter, who replied, “It was a pleasant two months—and thanks for showing me so much.”

So much of what they’d collected would soon be lost.

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From left: Clover; expedition members resting in the lower Grand Canyon.

8.

Without a current to carry the boats, the crew traded turns at the oars, rowing with blistered hands in blistering heat, fighting for every mile. They slept in a narrow, barren spot by the lake and awoke at 4 a.m. to start all over again before the sun returned. That morning, another plane dipped low overhead as they pushed through the water. The only other excitement came from a live rattlesnake Bell caught at their campsite that he carried with him in an empty bacon can.

Beneath the sun-bleached boats, the water was no longer muddy and red—it had turned clear blue. When they decided to pull into a side canyon for an early lunch, “the boys swore violently when they found they had only rowed six miles,” Clover wrote.

They hadn’t yet begun to eat when a distant rumble echoed over the lake water: a motorboat. Everyone dashed to the water’s edge to shout and wave. The boat turned toward them. They soon saw that Holmstrom was at the helm. It turned out he’d also been in the plane that spotted them that morning. He’d come to welcome them to the end of a journey.

Hastily, the crew tied the three boats behind Holmstrom’s, like ducklings bobbing in their mother’s wake. They barreled five miles to Emery Falls, a silver cascade tucked into a cove of the Grand Wash Cliffs. This marked the end of the Grand Canyon. Everyone piled out for a swim and a hike to a nearby cave that contained the ancient remains of extinct giant ground sloths. Clover passed out briefly from the heat but recovered enough to identify ephedra and other bits of plant material in the fossilized dung.

Soon they were joined by a larger boat from a Lake Mead tour company, carrying park officials and cameramen. They rode in style to Boulder City, Nevada, at the far end of the reservoir, with boxed lunches, ice-cold sodas, and endless requests for photographs, autographs, and interviews. “Women Make Perilous Trip Through Colorado Gorges,” declared the Associated Press, describing Clover and Jotter as “two Michigan schoolma’ams” with “copper-tanned cheeks.”

The first non-Native women to make the journey through the Grand Canyon had done it in 43 days—almost exactly as long as expected, despite the early delays. It was strange to be off the river. That night in the hotel room they shared, Jotter washed her face and hands in the bathroom sink and then asked, “Elzie, do you want to reuse this water?” The women stared at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.


The party broke up a few days later. Clover, still in Boulder City, missed the sensation of the boat moving up and down on the waves. One day alone in her hotel room, she gave in to anguish and wept. Then a call came from the lobby: Holmstrom was there. He’d just given his boat, the Julius F, a fresh coat of paint and wanted her to see it. Clover splashed cold water on her swollen eyes and went to meet him. Holmstrom understood: He had experienced what he described as an “all-gone feeling” after leaving the Colorado. He told Clover his secret, that he planned to float the river again that fall with Amos Burg. “He’s as lonely as I am for the river,” Clover wrote in her journal.

A week later, Clover and Nevills left for Mexican Hat, the WEN rattling in a boat trailer behind them. They’d made plans to descend the San Juan together, along with Lorin Bell. It was a sweet, lazy river compared with the Colorado. On the way back to Utah, they stopped at the South Rim. It was there that Clover made a terrible discovery: The plant press she’d left for shipment at the base of the Bright Angel Trail had never made it out of the canyon. Everything from Vasey’s Paradise. Everything collected in the upper canyon from Lees Ferry to Bright Angel. Proof of how remarkable the Grand Canyon’s flora was, how defiant of the harsh conditions. All of it was missing.

Clover was determined to track down the press. Maybe it had fallen off a mule; maybe it had never been picked up in the first place. Whatever happened, it was nowhere to be found. By the time Clover returned to Ann Arbor, she’d given up hope that it ever would be.

The botanists buckled down to write up their scientific discoveries, based on their notes from the journey and the specimens they’d managed to preserve between Bright Angel and Lake Mead, but the lost plants cast a cloud over the work. Had it really been worth it, risking their lives? Could they justify the danger and expense of the journey without the greater portion of their collection? It was a terrible thought that they might be remembered—if they were remembered at all—for being women, not scientists.

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Lorin Bell and Jotter pulling out of one of the Colorado River’s rapids.

9.

Clover made plans to return the following summer and take a mule into Havasupai Canyon to collect more cactus. Jotter, absorbed in her thesis work and with no money to spare, declined the invitation to join her. In early September, a letter arrived from Wyoming. “Dear Lois,” it began, in cramped writing on a torn-out sheet of notebook paper. “Pardon that informal greeting but it’s the only way I know to start a letter.”

Holmstrom was on the river again, traveling from Wyoming to Lake Mead with Burg and another companion. Jotter haunted his journey. He thought of her in Cataract Canyon when he discovered an abandoned tin can labeled “Appls” in a feminine hand. Her name, and Clover’s, shone not far from his own, painted in white on the canyon wall. He postmarked letters to Jotter at every possible stop, warm with admiration. His change of heart was sincere. “I really think you fit into river life just as well as any man I know & a lot better than some,” he told her.

At Marble Canyon Lodge, a letter was waiting for him. Jotter described an outfit she’d worn for a publicity event—brown velveteen and blue silks. Holmstrom scribbled back, “I don’t think I would like you as well that way as all tanned & weatherbeaten & run down at the heels a little in an old pair of slacks.” Then he confessed his own ragged appearance: His shoes had given out, and he hadn’t taken a bath since he left Wyoming. “I’m beginning to think perhaps women could really do some good on a trip like this by keeping everyone cheerful & the general appearance a little better,” he said.

It was autumn, and the cottonwood leaves crisped into paper-thin circles of gold. On October 22, Holmstrom pulled the Julius F ashore at Bright Angel Creek. Burg, who followed in a modern rubber raft, fiddled with the cameras he’d brought to film the adventure. The third man on the trip, Willis Johnson, wandered into the canyon on his own. Fallen leaves crunched underfoot. Not far from Bright Angel, he chanced across a curious artifact: a pile of newspapers stacked neatly on a rock. He went closer and saw tongues of cactus sticking out of seemingly every layer. A forlorn prickly pear had thrust out a five-inch-long pad as if reaching for the light.

He knew right away that it must belong to Clover and Jotter—who else would have cared to collect so many plants? Johnson “felt real proud” to carry the lost press back to camp and place it in Holmstrom’s care. The next day, Holmstrom lugged the awkward bundle 11 miles up the Bright Angel Trail to mail to Michigan. A letter from Jotter was waiting at the top. Holmstrom sent a response back with the plants, saying that he’d reached the trailhead so tired he could barely open the envelope from her. He added, almost as an afterthought, that her plants were in a “bad state of disrepair.”

For Jotter and Clover, retrieving their press meant the most important collections from their trip were finally available for study. They sent some of the plants off to specialists for identification, while the rest went to the University of Michigan Herbarium, as had been promised before the expedition. In 1941, they published a paper on the Grand Canyon’s cactus, followed closely by a comprehensive plant list. It included four new species.

Holmstrom had come to the rescue after all. He wasn’t a likely hero, the man who’d despaired to hear of two women descending the Grand Canyon. But he understood how much the plants meant and the significance of Clover and Jotter’s journey—not to journalists or river rats, but to science. Finding the press helped guarantee that the risks the women had taken would be outweighed by their discoveries.

“She must have been a remarkable woman,” Willis Johnson later said of Jotter. “She probably didn’t know that Buzz was in love with her.” If true, Holmstrom never acted on it. The two kept in touch for some time. Their letters were filled with respect and admiration for each other, and for the wild places each of them loved and understood in different ways. “I was helping a fellow move today,” Holmstrom once wrote to Jotter in a letter. “His wife had a cactus plant which would have fallen off the truck if I hadn’t grabbed it with my bare hands. Right then I [thought] of you.”  

Epilogue

Many of the expedition members felt a pull to the West and its rivers for the rest of their lives. Clover continued to travel and lecture about her adventures; she eventually retired in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, close to the cactus she loved so well. She died in 1980. The publicity of the expedition paid off for Nevills. He operated a successful river-rafting business with his wife, until they died in a plane crash in 1949. All told, Nevills ran the Grand Canyon seven times. He is remembered today for his boat design and for being the first guide to take women and children into the canyon.

In 1939, Holmstrom took a socialite named Edith Clegg across the United States by river: the Columbia, Snake, Yellowstone, Missouri, Mississippi, and Hudson. He served in the Navy during World War II and then worked as a government surveyor. He died on the Grand Ronde River in Oregon in 1946, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Grief poured in from fellow river runners. His mother chose the words on his headstone from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson: “Home is the sailor, home from the sea.

Jotter wrote to her expedition friends with an eager interest in every new river trip they took, and amassed stacks of newspaper clippings about the Grand Canyon. But her life moved in a different direction. She married a Guatemalan botanist named Victor Cutter II in 1942, took his last name, and defended her Ph.D. thesis while six months pregnant with her first child. Her husband died in 1962, when their daughter, Ann, was 18 and their son, Victor, just 11. She went back to work as a botany professor.

She lived in North Carolina, where she filled her home with plants and her dinner table with lively conversation among students and fellow scholars. Like her parents had with her, she taught Ann and Victor to love science and quietly championed women’s equality in the workplace. “I think my mother was ahead of her time,” Victor remembered. “The river trip was just an example of that.” Later in Cutter’s life, she traveled to Mexico and South America, including the Amazon rainforest. She saw new places and new plants on every trip.

Cutter was 80 when she went down the Grand Canyon a second and final time. She was invited on a scientific expedition by three ecologists—Robert Webb, Theodore Melis, and Richard Valdez—who were studying old photographs to learn about the rate of environmental change in the canyon. They struck upon an idea: Why not ask the people who’d seen it way back when? “I am not sure you realize how legendary you are in Grand Canyon history,” Webb wrote to Cutter. Her botanical research from 1938 had grown in importance: She and Clover had compiled the only plant list made in the Grand Canyon before the closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1966. The dam had profoundly altered the river, eliminating the floods that once built sandbars and laid landing pads for cottonwood seeds each spring. It had also galvanized a community of environmentalists who couldn’t accept the idea of damming the Colorado from one end to the other. The admiring public no longer wanted to “conquer” the Grand Canyon: They wanted to restore it. Clover and Cutter’s plant list was now a basis for that work.

The so-called Old Timers’ Trip launched from Lees Ferry on September 8, 1994, and ended at Diamond Creek 12 days later. Cutter was the only representative from the 1938 expedition, but the group included two other women: Joan Staveley and Sandy Reiff, both Nevills’s daughters.

Cutter appreciated the expedition’s focus on science. There was time to talk about what had changed and what remained the same. The river was greener than she remembered, the vegetation thicker along its banks, particularly the pesky, exotic tamarisk trees. Cottonwoods and willows were fewer. Many beaches once used as campsites had eroded away.

An interviewer named Lew Steiger asked Cutter about all these changes as sunlight slanted gold and pink down the canyon walls and the river chattered behind them. She replied, “I recognize that there [are] many individual small differences. But the feeling that you get when you look up and see one high wall lit up, and the rest less so.”

Jotter passed away in 2013 at the age of 99. Until the end, she kept two souvenirs of her river trip: the match case from Holmstrom, and the yellow helmet scribbled with her companions’ signatures. The ink faded over time, and the names became barely legible. Holmstrom’s words, though, stood out boldly still, as if they’d been traced afresh in the intervening years: “To the girl who proved me badly mistaken.”


Outlaw Country

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Outlaw Country

Klamath County, Oregon, is the perfect place to go if you don’t want to be found—and the worst place to be if someone threatens your life.

By Emma Marris

Photographs by Michael Hanson

The Atavist Magazine, No. 91


Emma Marris is a journalist in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She writes about nature and people. Her stories have appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, Outside, High Country News, and Nature, where she was on staff for several years. Her first book, Rambunctious Garden, examines how conservation is changing in the Anthropocene. Listen to her discuss this story on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Laura Breiling

Published in May 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1.

Little Timathy Taylor lived behind the PDQ mini-mart in Roseburg, a small timber town in western Oregon surrounded by mountains. In many respects, Taylor had a typical rough-and-tumble 1980s childhood. He and other neighborhood kids were mostly left to themselves, their parents either working or at home drinking too much and apt to whale on them if they got in the way. Taylor spent his days collecting cans for nickels, riding his bike in empty lots, and playing alone by a creek near his home, watching polliwogs wriggle in the shallow water.

“Timmy loved the woods,” his mother, Becky Wanty, remembered. She described him as timid and softhearted. When he caught fish or frogs in the creek, he threw them back. He liked the idea of hunting because it was outdoorsy and manly, but he didn’t like the killing part. “He had a hard time even trying to shoot a deer,” Wanty said. “He never got one. He would miss them because he couldn’t do it.”

Wanty worked at the mini-mart, cleaned offices, roofed houses, and tended bar to support her six kids. “When I was eight months pregnant with my fifth child, I was out there pumping gas,” she said. Her husband, David, drove a semi and was gone much of the time. He spent most of his wages gambling, and Wanty described him as “a drinker and drug addict” who may have had learning disabilities. When Wanty married him, David wasn’t literate. “I had to read the book to him and read the questions to him down at the Department of Transportation to get his chauffeur’s license,” Wanty said. David had little patience with his kids. “Instead of just giving them a spanking, he would take whatever he could get his hands on—a brush or a hanger or whatever—and beat them with that,” Wanty said. “There was always a reason when I smacked them, but not with him. He would do it just when he was pissed.”

The family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but after years of living a devout life while her husband drank and smoked and gambled without consequences, Wanty decided that she was done with the church. In 1989, when Taylor was 13, his mother intentionally got herself kicked out, then celebrated her freedom with a cigarette. Three years later, the family moved to Wisconsin. She and David split up, and David threatened suicide; the police were called.

Taylor never got much respect in high school, according to Mike Bishop, his closest friend. People thought he was a redneck, but when a car wouldn’t run, he was the one they called. “He’d help anybody,” Bishop said. “He was the guy that people went to when shit broke down.”

Taylor was still drawn to the outdoors like he’d been as a little boy. Bishop remembered Taylor decorating his room with pictures of mountains. “We would go camping and try to live off the land for a week or two and see if we could do it,” Bishop said. “We’d bring minimal food, just enough to keep us alive if we didn’t find anything. He started going out for longer and longer.” The trips were an escape from the social meat grinder of high school, where Bishop said Taylor was more or less an outcast who preferred walking away from fights to proving his mettle.

Taylor dropped out of high school, planning to finish his degree in the Army, but then quit basic training after he injured his knee. Around age 19, he ended a relationship with a woman named Tammy and decided to return to the city of his childhood, hoping for a fresh start. He drove more than 2,000 miles, crossing the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the Cascades to Roseburg. But he couldn’t find work, and his van broke down and was impounded. Taylor sold the van to pay the impounding fees, get back what he’d left inside, and buy a bus ticket back to Wisconsin. By the time he returned, Tammy had given birth to their son, Jesse.

When Taylor was 23, he married a woman named Erin. They had two sons in as many years, Isaiah and Josh. The marriage didn’t last. Erin said that Taylor “was not a mean person” but claimed he could be cruel to a son she had from a previous relationship. (Taylor later said that while he believed in corporal punishment and was “firm” with children, he was never abusive.) Records from Wisconsin indicate that Taylor was charged with battery in 1999 for hitting Erin’s son and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. In 2002, the couple divorced. Of Taylor’s three sons, only Josh maintained a strong connection with his dad.

Taylor found work as a laborer, doing construction and installing home security systems. For a while he lived out of his truck. He seemed always to be teetering on the edge of financial ruin, adrift at society’s fringes. In 2008, Taylor found himself sitting by his father’s hospital bed as the old man slid toward death following years of medical issues: hepatitis C, a liver transplant, lung cancer, and, near the end, pneumonia. Despite the beatings he’d received, Taylor wanted to be with his dad as he died. “It is the type of person Tim is—forgive, forget,” Bishop said. “If you needed him, he was there. You could have shot his dog, and if you really needed help, he was there.”

Not long before his father passed, Taylor had undergone spinal-fusion surgery in an attempt to treat chronic back pain. He tried to transition to less physically demanding work, but he dropped out of computer-programming classes in the wake of his father’s death. He had always struggled in the classroom. “Me learning from a book is like learning Chinese,” he wrote in a Facebook message to his aunt. He ended up depending on food stamps and disability payments: $730 a month after child support.

A couple of years later, he began a new relationship and started making payments on a fixer-upper in Madison, but the house’s owner died before giving Taylor and his girlfriend the deed to the place. Feeling aggrieved and wondering whom to blame, Taylor turned to the internet. Whatever terms he initially plugged into Google or Facebook or YouTube, he was soon frequenting websites promoting far-right conspiracy theories, watching videos predicting imminent social collapse, and reading how-to guides on survival preparedness. Over a few months in late 2012, the content of Taylor’s Facebook posts shifted from topics like trucks and music to videos from the hacktivist group Anonymous and posts about pandemic disease, the threat of GMO foods, the rise of Islam, and the Obama administration’s purported plans to confiscate everyone’s guns. Taylor devoured TV shows like Doomsday Preppers, Survivor Man, Live Free or Die, and Man, Woman, Wild. The notion of living off the land allowed him to imagine ways he might escape the wage economy and finally make something of himself. He spent a sizable portion of his disability checks on items like seeds, water-purification supplies, and ammunition, in case the apocalypse should arrive. At one point, he overdrew his bank account. Not long after, his relationship fell apart—the woman said he had been physically rough with her son and she didn’t like how angry he was. She kicked him out.

By 2014, when Taylor was almost 40, he was single and living in a trailer on a small dairy farm, where he worked as a hand in exchange for room and board. One day he accidentally ran his son Josh over with a manure spreader, nearly killing the 15-year-old. The incident prompted Taylor to contemplate his own mortality. If he died suddenly, he’d have nothing to leave his kids. He decided to do the thing he’d been fantasizing about for years: buy property, build a cabin, and create a legacy for his sons.

Taylor began cruising real estate websites that promised acres of wilderness for as little as a few thousand dollars, which in monthly payments would be doable even on his paltry income. Taylor’s family thought his plans were foolhardy, but his mother understood the pull of returning to Oregon. “I think he was looking for something different,” Wanty said. “I don’t know. Something that would help him go back to the past. To easier times.”

In May 2015, Taylor signed a contract for nearly nine acres of unimproved backcountry in Klamath County, sight unseen. The ad for the lot had included a few photos of flat, grassy land with mountains in the distance.

GENERAL INFORMATION: Huge Parcel in the Oregon Pines Subdivision with over 900 feet of frontage on Nagel Ridge Way.TYPE OF TERRAIN: rockyZONING: residentialPOWER: noPHONE: noWATER: no. must install well or holding tankSEWER: No. Only needed when/if you build.ROADS: dirt

Taylor liked the sound of it. He agreed to a price of $19,200, with 7 percent interest. That worked out to 72 monthly installments of $317.11. He imagined the Oregon of his youth: green, balmy, bathed in golden sunlight, far from Wisconsin’s bitter winters. What he found when he arrived was something else entirely.

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2.

Klamath County is in eastern Oregon, nowhere near Roseburg. It’s high desert, on the eastern side of the Cascades, land veined with ice-cold trout streams, dotted with tiny ranching hamlets, and dyed deep red politically. Taylor’s lot was in a particularly out-of-the-way place called Tableland—or sometimes just “the mountain.” Tableland is made up of basalt mesas, ancient lava flows that rise like steps from the Sprague River valley. The few houses that exist there have no addresses. Tableland is mostly composed of rocks and sage and sky and antelope and silence. On hot summer days, the dry air smells like Ponderosa pines and wildfire smoke. In winter, clear nights bite the skin, the moon looks like thin bone, and deep snow cuts locals off from the outside world for weeks at a time.

For thousands of years, Native people used the mesas as hunting grounds and to cultivate an edible root called epos or yampa. After 1864, Tableland became part of the Klamath Indian Reservation. Albert Lawvor, the grandson of Chief Yellowhammer of the Modoc tribe, remembered the area as it was in the mid-20th century. “The land was good,” Lawvor said in an oral history published with his obituary in 2012. “Everybody helped everybody, everybody looked out for everybody. The ranchers would go together and hay together. The elders always had their wood cut for them.”

By 2015, when Taylor arrived, things had changed. The U.S. government had stopped recognizing the Klamath tribes in 1961—a decision it would reverse in 1986—and purchased much of the Native people’s land in southern Oregon. Private buyers swooped in to buy the rest. In the 1960s, speculators subdivided vast swaths of the area—including Tableland—and sold lots to city people who wanted a place to hunt and camp. There was even a how-to manual published by a real estate mogul from Alturas, California, with the title Freeway to Fortune: Profit Through Recreational Land. The business wasn’t an outright scam; buyers got the lots they paid for, in subdivisions with fancy-sounding names like Klamath Forest Estates. But when they showed up to inspect their purchase, they were often astonished to find that there was no power or water available, and that the local government didn’t maintain the roads. Some owners abandoned their purchases and stopped paying taxes on them. By the 1990s, Klamath County was foreclosing on roughly 500 lots per year. Speculators then scooped them up at auction for as little as $1,000 and sold them for a profit. The deals were often owner financed, which meant that the buyer paid the seller in installments rather than getting a mortgage. The seller collected monthly payments, including interest, and handed over the deed once the last check cleared. If the buyer ever stopped paying—and many did—they forfeited the previous payments and the seller kept the lot.

Prices remained so low that the properties looked like a screaming deal to people who wanted solitude, independence, or a place to hide. Over the years, Tableland turned into outlaw country. It is now sparsely populated by marijuana growers, tweakers, loners, and dreamers. Most people live in trailers, often surrounded by a penumbra of trash and outbuildings in various stages of decomposition. They pay for necessities with money they receive through government assistance. Residents by and large are wary of outsiders and often of each other, even as they sometimes need their neighbors in times of crisis—a dead pickup, a lean winter, a snowed-in road. Self-reliance may be the ideal, but reciprocity is the reality.

The closest town, Beatty, is down off the mesas. It has just one small store, the Palomino Deli, which is the unofficial community center for Tableland residents. Its owner, Sara Palomino, a circumspect woman with dark hair and dark lipstick, knows everything that happens in the area. The nearest law enforcement is in Klamath Falls, 50 miles and a good hour-and-a-half drive southwest. The Klamath County Sheriff’s Office is spread extremely thin. From 7 a.m. to 3 a.m., its minimum staffing level is three people on patrol in the entire county, which at 6,136 square miles is considerably larger than Connecticut. After 3 a.m., deputies are simply on-call in case of an emergency.

People who live on and around Tableland are remote from the law but often uncomfortably close to one another. The combination can lead to violence. In 2009, a man named Robert Kincaid was shot in the back of the head with a .410 by a woman named Deanna Brindle, who said he’d raped her. She and a friend used a backhoe to bury him in a shallow grave, and it’s possible no one would ever have gone looking for Kincaid if his horse hadn’t shown up near Beatty riderless and with a bullet wound. Brindle was ruled guilty but also insane and sentenced to 20 years of psychiatric supervision. The day after Christmas in 2016, Troy Kimball was stabbed and shot to death by his brother Travis with a 9mm Beretta. Travis claimed that he was defending their father, whom Troy was attacking. In January 2018, Benito Devila Sanchez was shot by Richard Bryon Johnson with a .45 during an argument; Johnson hid the body in the woods, where it was discovered after Sanchez’s roommate reported him missing. In March of the same year, the body of Beatty resident Jack James Hasbrouck was also found in the woods. When reporters asked Klamath County district attorney Eve Costello if the public should be concerned about a killer, she said, “Mr. Hasbrouck had a lot of friends that maybe weren’t the kind that an average citizen is going to have.” No one was ever charged. “The meaner you seem, the safer you probably are,” Klamath County sheriff Chris Kaber told me of living in the area.

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Timathy Taylor with two of his sons.

It was into this world that Tim Taylor drove in August 2015, in a tan-colored diesel truck he called Blondie, pulling a trailer and accompanied by his little dog, Dixie Mae. He wasn’t aware of Tableland’s violent reputation. His more immediate concern when he arrived was that the pictures on the real estate website, the ones that had convinced him to buy the land, weren’t actually of his lot. His property wasn’t flat or grassy; it was a narrow canyon that cut into a rise, the last place on a dirt road before it petered out into rough, nearly impassable track. The landscape was pretty—pine trees sharp against a bright blue sky, aspens rustling in the wind along an ephemeral creek—but the land was extremely steep, the soil rocky and parched. Taylor could barely get his truck and trailer off the road. “Everything reeked of failure,” Taylor later wrote in a letter. “But with so much failure in my life, I had an even harder drive to succeed.”

His plan was to build a log cabin, raise vegetables, and hunt game. He had some success at the survivalist life he’d imagined—bagging a few rabbit and quail and making pine-needle tea when he had a cold—but he didn’t build the cabin, living instead in his trailer, and eating mostly ramen noodles, canned food, and military MREs. Life was a lot harder than it had been on the farm in Wisconsin. Every month he drove to Klamath Falls, cashed his disability check, and spent it on laundry, groceries, gas, propane, and other necessities. Moving had wiped out his savings. Before long he stopped making payments on the land.

Taylor disdained those who lived off the government instead of working. He considered them lazy bums, but he didn’t count himself among them. He had paid into the Social Security Disability Insurance program when he was working and now needed its help in return. He had no choice but to take food stamps, because people on disability weren’t allowed to work.

Without close neighbors or friends, Taylor spent a lot of time on his phone, which barely got a signal. He cruised Facebook and reposted memes that spoke to his ideals of tough, self-reliant manhood. “This is America,” one began. “We drink beer. We eat meat. We pray. We own guns. We speak English. We value freedom. If you don’t like it then G.T.F.O.” Another showed an old black-and-white photo of little boys playing with toy guns. It read, “This is how my friends and I played back in the day. Not one of us grew up and killed anyone.”

One day, on his way to Beatty to get food at the Palomino Deli, Taylor stopped his truck to talk to a bearlike Vietnam veteran with a cane and a felt hat. His name was Gary Powless, and he’d gotten his Tableland plot back in the 1980s, in exchange for a roofing job. Tableland suited him and many other veterans, Powless explained, because they “couldn’t deal with society and people anymore.” When he’d first moved in, his immediate neighbor was “a Hell’s Angel running from the law and living in a tepee.”

In the 1980s, Powless bought a bar in Beatty, a popular hangout that overflowed when the rodeo was in town. Powless recalled dialing the sheriff once because two of his regulars were on the verge of a shootout with deer rifles outside the bar. According to Powless, the law told him that no one was coming. “When they ran out of ammunition, they came inside and got drunk,” he said, chuckling.

Powless married a woman named Wanda, the sister of one of his barmaids. After his bar burned down, they built a house and raised a family. Their kids were grown and gone by the time Taylor came to Tableland, but the Powlesses still had dependents of a sort: People regularly showed up at their door clutching printouts from the internet, needing help finding the land they’d bought. Often the same people came back later to ask for water, food, gas, or propane.

Powless immediately pegged Taylor as “very naive.” But the new arrival had mechanical skills, so the Powlesses gave him odd jobs. They would sometimes pay him in bulk beans and rice. It was helpful but not enough. Wanda Powless told me that to live safely on Tableland, a person needed the funds to install power, a well, and a septic system, plus several months of food in case of heavy snow, and enough gasoline to get to town in an emergency. Taylor had none of those things.

Still, he was determined to make his situation work. In November 2015, he took the train back to Wisconsin to collect a second truck, a blue Ford F-150 he called Handy Smurf, which he drove back to Oregon. Josh, then 16, decided to leave high school and go to Oregon with his dad for a few months. “I wanted to live in the mountains for a little bit,” Josh said. “I am more the outdoorsy kind of person, like my father. That was fun for me. No running water, no power. Just being so far away from a town or civilization.”

The aspen trees on Taylor’s lot had dropped their leaves by then, and through the bare branches Josh could see a seemingly abandoned place just down the road from his dad’s. He heard it belonged to a guy named Roy who was in Minnesota, sick or maybe dead. The property had a trailer on it, with its door hanging open and a window busted out, and also a houseboat, a school bus, a half-built shed, an ancient truck, and a backhoe. Josh walked over one day and looked inside the trailer. “There was a bunch of trash,” he said. “There was raccoon feces everywhere, and it reeked of mold. It looked like no one had been living there for years.” Josh found a .22 handgun inside and took it.

Eventually, after Josh went back to Wisconsin, Taylor visited Roy’s place, too. He’d bought a few small solar panels on Amazon before he moved to Oregon, but they didn’t give his trailer enough juice. Taylor took eight solar panels and several six-volt batteries from the property, figuring that no one would miss them.

Then Roy came home.

3.

His full name was Fay Roy Knight, and he’d bought his lot in the 1990s. He moved there on a more permanent basis in 2009, when a bankruptcy swallowed up a boat, a motorcycle, and a trailer near Boise. Before leaving Idaho, he said goodbye to Vicki Lynn Vosburg, an herbalist with her own shop. Knight had spent hours in the store kidding around and flirting with Vosburg. She grew to care for him but never learned anything about his past, which he kept close to his chest. “He was my big old sweetie,” Vosburg later said, an “old cowboy” with a loud, gruff voice and a towering frame who “didn’t take any shit from anybody.”

When Knight told Vosburg he was moving to a remote part of Oregon, she was worried that it wouldn’t work out, but he couldn’t be convinced to stay. “You get what you get then,” she said. “Don’t come crying to me.”

“Girl, I am going to come crying to you anytime I want to,” Knight replied. Then he kissed her goodbye, though they’d never kissed before.

Knight moved into his Tableland trailer and stored his possessions, including hundreds of books, in the houseboat and in other dilapidated buildings and vehicles that he’d dragged up to his property. He even bought a backhoe to tend to the dirt roads near his place.

He was a man of fixed habits and an abiding interest in staying alive. He ate the majority of his meals at the Palomino Deli. He loved salads, fussed over his health, popped vitamins, lifted weights, and drank a lot of water. He was also known to enjoy a drink or two of harder stuff. He lived on Social Security and a longshoreman’s pension. He told friends that he’d worked as a logger and as a roughneck in oil fields. And he could be mean. Sara Palomino never forgot the time he viciously kicked a dog outside her store that was, she said, “in his way.”

Gary and Wanda Powless described Knight as a bully who used his guns to intimidate people. Everyone on Tableland kept guns, but Knight’s collection was particularly well-known, including the mini revolver he kept in his pocket—a North American Arms .22 that had a barrel less than two inches long. He also bragged about having a “throwaway” gun that couldn’t be traced to him. Knight liked to tell a story about catching a thief at his place when he lived up in Washington. He’d pulled a shotgun on the intruder, then asked him to step a few feet to the left so he could shoot him in the ass without breaking the glass in his front door.

Knight had friends and admirers. Carolyn Decker’s property in Sprague River backs up against Tableland. She described Knight as a good man who helped his neighbors, partook in the produce she grew on her land, and read voraciously. “He had a thirst for knowledge,” she said. “He was always reading about health things.” However, she added, “if you wronged him or were dishonest, he’d let you know.” Decker’s partner, Ian Pymm, said that Knight could be intimidating, because he yelled a lot—but that was only because, in his late seventies, Knight was nearly deaf.

Knight wasn’t home when Taylor first moved in, because he’d traveled to the Midwest to get two knee replacements. He came back in May 2016, mostly healed and still imposing. When Knight saw that some of his belongings had been taken, he was determined to find the culprit. He spotted a wheelbarrow track going uphill from his lot and followed it to Taylor’s trailer. Dixie Mae started barking, and Taylor came outside.

“Who in the hell are you?” Taylor asked.

“I’m Roy.”

“You’re supposed to be dead.”

Taylor thought Knight was scary—large and mad, with a big brass belt buckle that spelled out his name and a finger missing from his left hand. Taylor confessed to taking the solar panels and batteries. Knight was furious and called Taylor a piece of shit. Taylor apologized. Knight demanded to see proof that Taylor owned the land, suggesting that he might just be a squatter. Taylor showed him the contract; Knight implied that it was phony.

Tensions eased when a couple on horseback came down the road from the north, looking for stray cattle. Knight offered to give everybody—even Taylor—a tour of his place. Afterward the couple rode off and Taylor promised to return all the things he’d taken from Knight. The men shook hands, and Taylor thought that maybe there wouldn’t be any bad blood between them.

The next day, Taylor’s opinion changed. Knight drove his truck up the road and appeared at Taylor’s door, angry again. He accused Taylor of stealing a .22 pistol. According to Taylor, Knight told him that the gun had been used in a murder; Taylor wasn’t sure if that was the truth or just a scare tactic. Taylor said he didn’t have the weapon.

Taylor had installed security cameras around his trailer, and in silent footage taken that day, he can be seen loading solar panels into Knight’s truck. Knight then gestured toward Blondie, Taylor’s diesel pickup, demanding that Taylor give him one of the truck’s two batteries, as payback or a peace offering. Taylor handed it over without hesitation, even though doing so would render Blondie inoperable.

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Wanda Powless

“Well that’s all shot in the ass,” Taylor wrote Josh on Facebook Messenger soon after the encounter. “He is probably gonna try to make my life hell as long as I am here.” Taylor worried that locals would side with Knight, since he’d lived on the mountain much longer. “They don’t like outsiders,” Taylor wrote. Maybe he should move, he suggested. “And you live there for about a year you aren’t an outsider,” Josh replied, “quit acting like a pussy and stand your ground.”

Without Knight’s solar panels, Taylor’s electricity failed and his security cameras stopped working. The next day, while doing some work on his F-150, Taylor saw Knight approaching on foot. Taylor later said that Knight pulled the mini revolver out of his right back pocket and announced that he was going to kill Taylor. After 15 tense minutes, Knight left. Later that day a woman named Kelli Boone, whom Taylor had met online, arrived for a visit. Taylor had warned her in advance that his neighbor was mad at him, but she came anyway. “My heart says fuck it drama or no drama go see my cowboy,” Boone wrote in a Facebook message.

The next morning, Taylor heard Dixie Mae barking. Leaving Boone in the trailer, he went outside and found himself face-to-face with Knight and a man Taylor didn’t know. The newcomer was tall and tattooed, with a shaved head and a flamboyant mustache. His name was Paul Strong, and he was a ranch manager, trapper, and friend of Knight’s. The men had come in a flatbed truck carrying a 55-gallon drum in back.

“This here is my crazy friend Paul,” Knight said, according to Taylor. “And this barrel—this is for you.” Then he said Taylor had three days to get off the mountain or he’d be shot, hacked up, and stuffed in the drum, which would be buried vertically to leave a small, inconspicuous grave. No one would ever find him. According to Taylor, Strong grabbed him by the throat and squeezed it while clenching his other hand into a fist. Strong told Taylor he was lucky he had a guest or he’d be dead already. Then the two men left. (Strong later admitted that he and Knight had gone to Taylor’s property and that he’d made a fist, but he denied the death threats.)

Taylor wanted to leave Tableland, but it wasn’t as easy as hopping in his F-150. He didn’t want to abandon his belongings—his tools, trucks, and photos of his kids. He needed time to pack, and more important, he needed money. He was broke. The next day—Sunday, May 22—Kelli Boone left and Taylor messaged Josh, “Can you get like $100 so I have the gas to get out of here?” Josh replied, “Yeah, I’m selling my black truck. I can get you 200 maybe.” Taylor sent his son the number of his Walmart card and asked him to put the money on it as soon as possible. 

Taylor then called Wanda Powless and told her he was planning to leave, given Knight’s ultimatum. “Why are you running, Tim?” she asked. “You’ve run your entire life. You are too old to keep doing this.” She suggested that he call 911 instead and turn himself in for the theft of Knight’s property. That might square things with his neighbor, she said. After hanging up with Powless, Taylor punched the numbers into his phone.

The dispatcher was confused. People didn’t often call to confess to a crime. “Has this been reported?” the man asked Taylor. “I guess what I’m asking: Is someone looking for you, or is this something that hasn’t been reported, do you think?”

“It’s been reported, because I’m reporting it,” Taylor said.

After that first conversation, Taylor called dispatch again to get his incident number. In the midst of the exchange, he said that he heard gunshots outside his trailer.

“OK and how—why are you saying this is related to the theft call?” the operator asked.

“Um, because they’ve already threatened my life,” Taylor responded.

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4.

Sheriff Kaber said that there’s no official procedure for deciding whether to respond to a 911 call, but his understaffed department can’t follow up on everything that gets reported, which on Tableland as in other remote parts of the county is a hodgepodge of noise complaints, reports of shots fired, accusations of theft, and allegations of physical violence. “Decisions have to be made based on the manpower at the moment,” Kaber said.

In 2016, manpower was in particularly short supply. Kaber wasn’t the sheriff then. A man named Frank Skrah was in charge, and he made it difficult to recruit and keep staff. A veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, Skrah was old school, subordinates would later say. He had a habit of throttling and punching suspects after they were apprehended. He also referred to women in the district attorney’s office as “broad,” “babe,” and “sweetheart,” and he sometimes swatted them with case files. At the time of Taylor’s first 911 call, Skrah was under indictment for harassment, official misconduct, assault, and strangulation. Nevertheless, he remained on the job. (In 2017, Skrah was convicted on five of the nine charges against him; he paid a $3,000 fine and completed 120 hours of community service at a baseball field in Klamath Falls.)

After calling 911, Taylor locked his doors and stayed inside. He messaged his old friend Mike Bishop. “The guy lived up here 20+ yrs,” he said of Knight. “So he has a few friends up here.”

“So he has mountain law on his side,” Bishop replied.

The next day, Monday, May 23, Knight and Strong returned to Taylor’s property. Taylor called 911 again. “They have just come up my driveway, turned around, rode back down, and fired off a couple shots down there at their property, which is a jump, skip, and a hop away from me,” Taylor said, sounding uneasy. The dispatcher seemed unimpressed. “They’re shooting on their own property?” he asked. Taylor mentioned his previous contact with authorities, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Taylor messaged Bishop soon after the 911 call. “Now really nervous. They just fired off a few rounds. Debating on firing off a shot from the 12ga,” referring to his 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.

That afternoon, Taylor fiddled with the few solar panels he still had and was able to restore partial power to his property. His security cameras started recording again. They captured what happened after the deadline Knight had set for Taylor to be gone came and went. Just past noon, Knight arrived in a car with another friend of his, this one sporting a long ZZ Top–style beard. It was Ian Pymm, Carolyn Decker’s partner. Knight grabbed a stick and whacked Taylor’s door, telling him that time was up according to Pymm. The men could hear Taylor inside trying to hush his dog, but he didn’t reply to Knight or come out. “That’s yellow spine,” Pymm later said. “That guy was never going to leave. He was just going to be a pain in the butt up there. I knew it. I knew shit was going to happen. Always does.” Knight took out a handkerchief and, keeping it between his fingers and the handle of Taylor’s trailer door, tried to get inside. When the door wouldn’t open, Knight folded the cloth carefully and walked away.

Inside, Taylor was on the phone with 911 for the fourth time. A sheriff’s deputy returned the call and told him that if he wanted to pursue the matter, he would have to come to Klamath Falls and file a report. Taylor claimed the deputy told him, “We’re not peacekeepers.” He barely had enough gas in his F-150 to get to the closest gas station, 13 miles away. He was still waiting on Josh to transfer money to his Walmart card.

Taylor decided to write Knight a note, which he posted on the porch of his trailer. It warned that there were video cameras uploading footage to the internet and that the sheriff’s office had been notified about Knight coming onto the property. “Roy Knight I have done you wrong and I am owning up to what I have done and this is between you and I only,” the note read. “Any other communication will be done with a 3rd party involved.”

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Taylor (left) and Knight (right), captured by a security camera. 

On Wednesday, Taylor hunkered down in bed with Dixie Mae and his shotgun. Josh messaged his dad to say that he’d finally managed to scrape together $100, but it would cost $20 to transfer it. “And you have to pick the money up at Walmart,” Josh wrote. “I can’t get it on your card.” The closest Walmart was in Klamath Falls. Taylor posted a photo on his Facebook page of a man in tactical gear holding a military rifle. The caption said, “With guns in the hands of the public, sure there will be tragedies, but without them there will be genocides.” He didn’t sleep that night. All he could hear were the howls of coyotes echoing off the nearby canyon’s walls.

The next day was sunny and warm. Because Wednesday had passed without incident, Taylor thought that maybe law enforcement had talked to Knight. He planned to stay a few more days, until his next disability check arrived at the beginning of June. The money would help him get enough fuel to tow his trailer away from Tableland if that’s what he decided to do. The decision was made for him when he went outside to his truck, shotgun over his shoulder, to charge his dead cell phone with on the battery. It was drained, too, which meant that Taylor now had no working vehicle. He wired a solar panel to the battery, hoping to bring it back to life and at least give his phone some power.

Around 2 p.m., while packing up his belongings, Taylor saw Knight again. He was on foot, and he had Taylor’s phone in his hand; Knight had found it charging at the truck on his way up the hill. One of Taylor’s security cameras captured the ensuing scene. Taylor raised his shotgun to show Knight that he was armed. Knight kept coming. Taylor backed toward his porch. Knight shoved Taylor—or perhaps stumbled against him—until Taylor was pressed up against the trailer door. Knight jabbed a finger into Taylor’s chest, alcohol on his breath. “I’m going to go down there and get my backhoe. I’m going to bury everything up here—and you,” Knight said, according to Taylor.

After berating Taylor for several minutes, Knight started to walk away from the trailer, still in possession of Taylor’s phone. That’s my last link to the outside world, Taylor thought. Taylor stepped down from the porch; Knight turned to face him. The two men were about 20 feet apart. Knight kept shouting. Taylor asked for his phone back. “Screw you, take it,” Knight said, according to Taylor. “You going to do something? Shoot me.”

Knight turned away again, lifting his hand in what looked like a dismissive gesture. Taylor raised his shotgun and fired.

Knight staggered, turning toward Taylor for a moment, then rotating away. He was hit. Two seconds after the first shot, Taylor fired again, this time blowing a three-inch hole in the back of Knight’s left shoulder. One pellet from the blast hit an artery that carried blood to his brain; others damaged major arteries on the left side of his body and entered his lungs and spinal cord. Knight fell to his knees and then collapsed, face-first, onto the dirt.

Taylor walked over to Knight and picked up his phone. He plugged it back into his truck’s battery. Then, for the fifth time in less than a week, he called 911.

“Hi, yeah. This is Tim Taylor up on Nagelridge Way again. He had come up here… Uh—I shot him.”

“Shot who?” a dispatcher asked.

“Roy Knight. He’s already threatened my life.”

“What’s the address?”

“I don’t have an actual physical address.”

“Did you call earlier?”

“Yes,” Taylor said. “I’ve been calling ever since last Friday.”

5.

It took an hour for deputy Brian Bryson, a search and rescue expert with elk antlers tattooed on his forearms, and his partner for the day, Daniel Tague, to find the narrow dirt road that Taylor had described over the phone. As they approached Taylor’s place—a trailer flying both the American flag and the Don’t Tread on Me banner—they saw a large ponytailed man on the ground. He was lying facedown, blood haloing his head and flowing downhill. He had on a green sweatshirt, shredded by shotgun pellets, and faded black Wrangler jeans. He was wearing a hearing aid.

Bryson called for Taylor to come outside. “Show me your hands!” he yelled. Taylor obeyed and emerged from the trailer. He was skinny, wearing a camouflage T-shirt and pants and a pair of brown desert boots. Bryson handcuffed Taylor, then Tague went over to look at Knight, who was dead.

Taylor seemed eager to talk, chattering about how Knight had been threatening him for days, explaining that he’d been calling 911 but nobody ever came. He had security cameras, Taylor said, and he invited the lawmen to watch the videos. Everything was on film. More officers arrived, parking their vehicles nose-to-tail on the road and walking past the small grove of aspens to Knight’s body. They emptied the dead man’s pockets and photographed the contents, including his wallet, which contained a driver’s license from Minnesota, and the .22 pistol, fully loaded.

Taylor was read his rights and driven to Klamath Falls, where detective Patrick Irish of the Oregon State Police was waiting for him. Irish, who would handle the case investigating Knight’s death, had listened to Taylor’s final 911 call. He heard Taylor say that Knight was “reaching around in his back pocket,” where he kept his gun, and that Taylor thought he’d shot Knight somewhere in his chest. Taylor said that he’d acted in self-defense.

Taylor was escorted into an interview room and given a burger, coffee, a glass of water, and a cigarette. “Have you ever had to take a life?” he asked the officers in the room. “I mean, I watched my father pass away, take his last breath, and the emptiness I felt after that—I mean, I’m still not over that.” Taylor described the first shot at Knight as a “warning” and said he hadn’t meant to hit his neighbor. The officers asked why he’d taken the second shot. What did he think was going to happen if he didn’t?

“I was getting buried,” Taylor replied.

“What’d you think he was going to do? How was he going to do it?”

“He’s got a back loader down there. With a backhoe on it. He’s got a big bulldozer.”

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Gary Powless 

Up on Tableland, officers cataloged the scene into the early hours of Friday morning. Inside Taylor’s jam-packed trailer they found tools, a marijuana pipe, prescription medicine bottles, and three rifles. They didn’t find Knight’s missing .22. Irish didn’t visit the trailer. Taylor had admitted to the shooting, and thanks to the security cameras, Irish had video of Taylor shooting Knight in the back. He decided that it was enough to charge Taylor with murder.

Taylor was shocked. He assumed that he’d done the right thing. He’d called the authorities and defended himself when they didn’t show up. He thought that any legal troubles would be quickly sorted out. He never expected to be charged with murder.

Taylor was booked into the Klamath County jail, a small facility on the top of a ridge with a view of Mount Shasta, a snow-topped mountain framed by yellow rabbitbrush and a wide blue sky. He was assigned a public defender, Phil Studenberg, a genial city councilor in his sixties with wavy silver hair and sideburns. Joining him was a young defense attorney named Alycia Kersey, a former prosecutor who’d never defended an accused murderer at trial.

Irish, who handled 166 cases in 2016, conducted a quick investigation of what he believed was a cut-and-dried case. He and other officers interviewed a few witnesses, including Taylor’s ex-wife in Wisconsin and the Powlesses. Irish attended Knight’s autopsy and took photos, but he subsequently misplaced them. Eventually, Knight was cremated. Ian Pymm and Carolyn Decker spread his ashes on a rocky ridge on his property where Knight had liked to sit and read. 

A grand jury met a week from the day Taylor was arrested and determined that there was enough evidence to try him. In Oregon, murder carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, with no possibility of a reduction for good behavior. On June 6, 2016, when Taylor was arraigned, he pleaded not guilty.

In Klamath County, justice is rarely in any hurry. While Taylor sat in jail, according to Kersey, the prosecution refused to turn over evidence. She filed motions to compel it to do so, first in September 2016 and again in March 2017, the same month Taylor was denied bail by a judge who’d watched the video of the shooting. “That is not self-defense,” the judge said, sending Taylor back to jail. Kersey also filed continuances—motions to postpone the trial—multiple times, arguing that the prosecution wasn’t providing what was needed to mount a defense.

In jail, Taylor met a man named Pete Seller who lived just below Tableland, down the road from the Palomino Deli. Like Taylor, Seller lived on his disability checks. Unlike him, Seller was married, his wife had a source of income, and they had water, chickens, and even a few head of cattle. He was behind bars for unlawful use of a weapon and menacing an Iraq war vet and lavender farmer, who Seller claimed was making advances on his teenage daughter. “I don’t trust anyone out here,” Seller said. “But the nights are beautiful.”

Taylor told Seller his story. Seller liked Taylor, describing him as a “quiet guy.” They both felt they were in jail for doing nothing wrong—for defending themselves or their family. When the charges against Seller were dropped, allowing him to go home, he offered to tow Taylor’s trailer to his own property. “Nobody was helping the poor guy,” he said. “I had the gas and the time.”

When Seller arrived at Taylor’s place, nearly two years since anyone had lived there, he found that it had been thoroughly trashed and looted. The trucks, Blondie and Handy Smurf, and Taylor’s tools had vanished. Taylor’s mattress lay in the sun. Empty pill bottles and an artificial Christmas tree mingled with volcanic rock and manzanita bushes. Inside the trailer, Seller found a rotting photo album, filled with pictures of Taylor and his kids.

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6.

Klamath County charged more than a dozen people with homicide between 2014 and early 2019, but only two cases went to trial. The first, in 2017, involved a man who claimed that he’d been acting under “extreme emotional distress” when he shot and killed his boss at a rail yard in Klamath Falls. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The second homicide trial was Taylor’s.

The proceedings began on the morning of October 1, 2018. Taylor had been in jail for two and a half years at that point. He entered the courtroom wearing a high-and-tight haircut, a western-style plaid shirt, and cowboy boots borrowed from Kersey’s husband. He sat stiffly, never leaning against the back of his chair. Whenever the jury left the room, the deputies guarding him let him stand and stretch.

The state’s case was presented by a man named Cole Chase, who’d recently been rehired by the district attorney’s office after completing two years of probation for a 2014 incident in which he’d threatened a man with a handgun outside a Klamath Falls bar. It isn’t easy to retain professionals in a poor, remote county with a stagnant economy. When the DA rehired Cole, she told the local press that he was “the most qualified applicant” and had “dedicated himself to ensure that he upholds our office’s reputation.”

Selecting a jury in Taylor’s case was tricky. There was a raft of potential bias or conflict of interest. One person in the roughly 80-person jury pool went to church with a member of the prosecution’s team; another taught yoga with Kersey; another had been married by Phil Studenberg, the defense attorney. Half a dozen potential jurors had concealed-carry permits, all reportedly for self-protection.

Studenburg asked the pool whether any of them had ever known “a mean drunk.” Dozens of hands went up.

“My ex and our son. My son has never been bad to me, but I hear rumors.”

“My son-in-law is in prison because of alcohol and murder.”

“My ex-husband is not allowed in the state of Oregon, and my first husband passed away because of alcoholism.”

Studenberg asked whether anyone had ever used force in self-defense. Several women recounted stories of fighting back against violent partners. One elderly lady talked about hitting her abusive husband with an iron. One man raised his hand. He had been in Iran in the Air Force when the Shah was overthrown, and he’d had to do what he called “crowd control.”

“Were you armed?” Studenberg asked.

“Yes, sir, I was.”

“Was there a temptation to use the gun?”

“Not a temptation.”

“Did you shoot over their heads?”

“Initially.”

The airman, Richard Farrington, ended up as the jury foreman.

The prosecution opened by playing the surveillance footage of Taylor shooting Knight. “When you shoot someone in the back twice, that is not self-defense,” Chase told the jury. Oregon law states that defensive violence is acceptable only if a threat is “imminent.” In this case it wasn’t, Chase said, because Knight had been walking away. Kersey argued that Taylor had in fact felt that he was in danger, particularly when, after the first shot, Knight spun around and seemed to have a hand near where he kept his revolver. “Tim thinks he’s grabbing that gun out of his right rear pocket, and that’s why Tim takes that second shot,” Kersey said. “Not because he wants to kill him but he wants to live. He thinks he is going to die right there. He thinks they are going to bury his ass up there.”

When Taylor took the stand, Kersey asked him why he hadn’t packed up and left the mountain. He explained why he’d felt stuck—no money, no gas, no place to go. Even if he drove out, he’d have to pass Knight’s property. Kersey asked Taylor why he hadn’t sought refuge with a neighbor, a shy Vietnam vet who lived only a quarter-mile away. Taylor said that he didn’t know whose side the man was on. Kersey asked how Taylor felt watching the video of the shooting. “It’s hard. I haven’t had any therapy,” he replied, his voice breaking. Taylor had already made the same complaint in two lawsuits he’d filed: against Sheriff Skrah, for failing to respond to his 911 calls and to investigate the theft of his property after his arrest, and against the Klamath County Jail for not providing adequate health care. Both suits were dismissed. “I haven’t received any help to deal with any of this,” Taylor said. He began to cry.

“Somebody’s blood was going to be on the road of the Tableland. It was either going to be Tim or it was going to be Roy.”

In his closing argument, Studenberg emphasized that Taylor’s decision to shoot Knight had to be judged in the context of the mountain. “There is no law out there. It is law administered at the point of a gun, for the most part,” he said. “Who knows how many bodies are buried out in the Tableland that no one has ever found?”

“Somebody’s blood was going to be on the road of the Tableland,” Studenberg concluded. “It was either going to be Tim or it was going to be Roy.”

Cole Chase argued the opposite. “The law on the Tableland is no different than the law right here,” the prosecutor said. “You don’t get to shoot someone in the back because they have your phone.” Knight had been all bluster, Chase continued. If he’d been serious, he would have brought a bigger weapon. “This is a .22 that fits in a back pocket and holds five rounds,” Chase said of Knight’s gun. “If you’re going to be assaulting someone’s house, that’s not the gun you take with you. You know what you take with you if you intend to kill someone: You take a big black shotgun.”

The jury was sent to deliberate on October 5. The judge gave them only two options: guilty or not guilty of murder.

“When I first saw the video [of the shooting], I thought, Well, this is going to be quick,” Juror 103 said later. “But as the evidence started unfolding, it was evident that this man was terrorized.” She described Taylor as “simple,” with no idea what he was up against. “What I saw,” said Juror 388, “was someone visibly shaken to the core over what he had done, and grappling with the fact that he had taken someone’s life. There was nothing I saw in person or on tape that seemed to me at all deceptive or disingenuous.” That juror was retired from a forestry job and knew Tableland well. “I’ve been out there,” he said. “It’s a starkly beautiful place. But he [Taylor] just wasn’t mentally or psychologically equipped.”

Farrington, the foreman, believed that Taylor should have had a better exit strategy. If there’s one thing he’d learned in the military, Farrington said, it was to “know your back door. If bad dudes are banging on the front, have a way to get out of Dodge. Take your dog and get out of there. The rest of it ain’t worth your life.” He thought Taylor’s claim that he’d fired the first shot as a warning was “bullshit.” Still, Farrington felt sorry for Taylor. “I kind of get the pioneering spirit, and from what I understand he had a shit life up to then,” Farrington said. He was indignant on Taylor’s behalf that the law didn’t come when he called 911. “I think the sheriff’s department should be sued within an inch of its life,” Farrington said.

After six hours, the jury came back. The judge asked if it had reached a unanimous decision.

“We have not,” Farrington said, his voice mournful.

“You are just hopelessly locked?”

“We are six and six.”

The judge declared a mistrial.

7.

Taylor’s retrial was scheduled for May 2019. The defense wanted the jurors to visit the scene of Knight’s death, to feel its isolation for themselves, and for that to happen—for a vehicle carrying 12 people to make it up the unpaved, rutted length of Nagelridge Way—they had to wait until the snow melted.

In the intervening months, there were several developments in Taylor’s case; some seemed to push it in his favor, others not. Klamath County reconvened a grand jury to add a new charge. Jurors at the retrial would now have the option of convicting Taylor of first-degree manslaughter, which carried a minimum sentence of ten years.

Meanwhile, during a visit to Tableland, photographer Michael Hanson had talked to Daryl Malvern, the husband of Sara Palomino, who said that Taylor had done the right thing, because Knight had been planning to kill him. In January, I convinced Malvern to talk to me, too. Sitting at a table in the back of the Palomino Deli, looking younger than his 50-plus years and dressed in a T-shirt with a marijuana-leaf pattern printed on it, Malvern said that he’d considered Knight a close friend. Not only was Knight capable of killing Taylor, Malvern claimed, but he’d had an active plan to do so. “He talked about killing the guy all the time,” Malvern said. “And he was very serious.”

The original idea was to ask Taylor to return the solar panels to Knight’s trailer, blow him away with a shotgun, and claim he’d been an intruder. Then, Knight and Paul Strong decided to run Taylor off instead. Malvern said that Strong was interested in buying Knight’s property but didn’t want Taylor as a neighbor.  The two men would pop by the deli and update Malvern on the progress of their campaign. (Strong denied Malvern’s allegations and said Malvern just wanted to buy a piece of Knight’s property, which Strong has since purchased.)

“Roy had him scared to death, he really did,” Malvern said. “He had that man trembling. Roy pulled guns on him many, many times. If he didn’t leave, Roy planned on murdering him.”

Malvern said he kept his distance from the feud. “I knew what was coming,” he said. He admitted that shooting Knight in the back wasn’t a good look but believed that Taylor was justified in doing it. “Do I think he had the right to kill Roy? I do,” Malvern said.

With Malvern’s permission, I played a tape of the interview for Detective Irish, the district attorney, and Taylor’s lawyers. Irish went out to Beatty and interviewed Malvern the following month. Kersey promised to call Malvern as a witness at the retrial.

But when May 2019 rolled around, the county decided that the roads were still too dangerous to send a bus full of jurors up the mountain. During a scouting trip, Irish took a photograph of a puddle on the way to Taylor’s property that ran the entire width of the road. The trial was postponed until the fall.

Taylor remained in jail, waiting. When I visited, he showed me pictures of Josh and Josh’s infant son, who looked uncannily like his grandfather. Three years after killing Knight, Taylor was surer than ever that he did the right thing when he pulled the trigger. He could recite the numbers of various Oregon statutes that he felt applied to his case. His lawyers thought his best shot at freedom was to keep emphasizing his naivete and ineptitude at life on the mountain: He hadn’t known what he was getting into when he moved to Tableland; he hadn’t known that his first shot connected with Knight’s body, because he wasn’t that experienced with firearms; he was deathly afraid of Knight. Taylor, however, preferred a narrative that painted him as a competent survivor exercising his constitutional right to protect himself when the law refused to. He’d acted rationally, he insisted.

The social contract is not a buffet—if you opt out because you want absolute freedom, you have to accept that no one will come to save your ass when trouble starts.

When I suggested that perhaps in Knight he saw the drunken menace of his father, Taylor dismissed the idea. He’d loved his dad; he even had a tattoo of a dragon and a Viking warrior’s skull on his shoulder, symbolizing his father’s strength and wisdom. The Klamath County sheriff’s department was the problem in his life.

Taylor also disagreed with what I took to be the moral of his story: The social contract is not a buffet—if you opt out because you want absolute freedom, you have to accept that no one will come to save your ass when trouble starts. Taylor still wished he could live “back in the 1800s and before,” a time of “limited government, people depending on themselves,” when Americans weren’t such “pansies” and hardened criminals were hanged for wrongdoing. If he ever got out of jail, he wanted to try living off the grid again. “You’ve always got to take a risk to have your freedom,” he said. At the same time, he thought that the law should have come when he called 911, that it should have protected his property while he was in jail, that it should have provided him with therapy, antidepressants, and painkillers while he sat in a cell.

“I will be the first person to admit I’m far from perfect,” Taylor wrote me in a letter. “I have made many mistakes throughout my life and will continue to make mistakes. I regret deeply having to take someone else’s life. I have relived that horrid week every night since then and highly doubt I will ever get over what had transpired and will live with it for the rest of my life. And the most difficult part—where do I go from here and how?”

One thing was certain: Taylor wouldn’t be returning to his plot on Tableland. Because he’d stopped paying for the place, it eventually went up for sale again online. As of this writing, it‘s still available. It could be yours for a mere $19,200. There’s a lovely butte on the property. If you scramble to the top, you can see a vast sweep of landscape. Below lies the sprawl of Knight’s compound and the shaggy wreckage of Taylor’s place, its thin soil stained with blood. Far in the distance there’s a dark tree line where the pines begin, and beyond that, blue along the horizon, the mountains.


Update

In the weeks before the retrial, Klamath County offered Taylor a deal: If he agreed to plead “no contest” to criminally negligent homicide, he would be sentenced to 75 months in prison. Taylor took the deal on September 10, 2019, rather than go to trial and risk being convicted of manslaughter, which would carry a heftier sentence. With credit for time served and reductions for good behavior and participation in prison programs, he could be out in a couple of years. Taylor will serve his sentence at a state prison after already spending three years, three months, and 17 days in county jail.

The Whalers’ Odyssey

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The Whalers’ Odyssey

A courageous tribe, a colossal foe, and a terrifying ocean voyage.

Story and Photos by Doug Bock Clark

The Atavist Magazine, No. 84


Doug Bock Clark’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Wired, Rolling Stone, and The New Republic, among other publications. He won the 2017 Arthur L. Carter Reporting Award and is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Journalism Institute. This story is adapted from Clark’s first book, The Last Whalers (Little, Brown), which is available for order.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in October 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

The Lamalerans are the last of their kind. For five centuries, the Indonesian tribe has survived by hunting whales from a rocky Pacific island so remote that their countrymen call it the land left behind. Several Inuit communities hunt the massive mammals, too, but the Arctic seafarers increasingly derive sustenance from packaged foods and mechanized fishing methods. Not the Lamalerans. The 1,500 tribespeople still get most of their calories by spearing prey with bamboo harpoons. Annually, they take about 20 sperm whales—from a worldwide population in the hundreds of thousands—and use every part of their catch. They jerky the meat to feed themselves through the lean monsoon season, when storms make it difficult to launch boats.

From 2014 through 2017, over several extended visits, I lived with the Lamalerans to document their exceptional but threatened culture. The tribe has long followed the ways of their ancestors, a set of rules handed down through the generations that dictate a camaraderie so intense that anthropologists have ranked the Lamalerans as one of humanity’s most cooperative societies. Today, venerable traditions are being undermined by cell phones, television, government regulations, and other modern influences. One area where the old ways persist, though, is the hunt: Dozens of Lamaleran men still coordinate on ancient wooden boats to kill the largest toothed predator in the world, then share in the bounty.

Whaling is harsh, dangerous work, and not every hunt is successful. Such was the case in 1994, when the Lamalerans undertook a harrowing voyage that became the kind of legend that fathers tell their sons. Not only did they fight for their lives against a seemingly invincible whale, but they confronted a danger new to many of them, one more threatening than any leviathan: the outside world.

Baleo! Baleo!—“The hunt is on!”

The cry resounded through the seaside village of Lamalera, beginning on the beach and sweeping through the ramshackle houses and surrounding jungle as every man, woman, and child who heard it added a voice to the shouted relay, chorusing that sperm whales had been sighted. It was a Thursday in early March 1994, and the squalls of the monsoon season were nearing their end. Many hunters were pile-driving flagstones into their village’s single dirt road, which had all but liquefied during months of rain. They dropped their shovels and sprinted to the shore. Using log rollers and their shoulders, they shoved the téna, their 35-foot wooden whaling ships, across the sand and into the surf. Captains yelled exhortations. Once the water unyoked the weight of a boat from the backs of its crew, the men leaped aboard.

Ignatius Blikololong, 44 years old and one of the most renowned harpooners in the tribe despite his slight frame, had bid a hasty but impassioned farewell to Teresea, his wife, before setting out. Teresea was due to give birth to their next child at any hour. Ignatius did not want to leave her, but he could not shirk his duty; the tribe had almost exhausted its food stores. As he clambered atop his hâmmâlollo, a bamboo platform jutting five feet from the prow of the téna, and sharpened his harpoons, he prayed for a swift and safe return.

Also aboard Ignatius’s téna, which was called the Téti Heri, was Yosef Boko Hariona, Teresea’s close relative. He was entering his sixth decade and his eyesight was faltering, but still he whaled; his son had died, and there was no other man to support his wife, husbandless daughter, and grandchildren. Yosef Boko wielded the ship’s tiller oar as the crew paddled through the breakers. Though he could no longer stroke as forcefully as younger men, he steered with savvy.

Six boats in all cut through the waves, chasing the white whale spouts, which contrasted against the dark sea and stormy sky. As they rowed the men sang:

Kidé ajaka tani-tena (Many widows and orphans cry)

Lié doré angina (Requesting for the wind to join us)

Hari hélu bo kanato. (And for the fish to come to us.)

The Lamalerans sing for every occasion. To celebrate a successful hunt or to lament returning home empty-handed. While axing trees, building boats, pestling rice into flour, weaving sarongs, rocking babies to sleep, and recounting the stories of the ancestors. The songs are more than music—they are prayers. The Lamalerans believe that everything, from whales to the sun, has a spirit they must honor. The music entreats the winds to rise, the waves to fall, and the ghosts of the tribe’s dead, whom they worship according to a unique mixture of Catholicism and animism, to help the living. The Lamalerans believe that the ancestors send sperm whales to sustain the tribe and as a reward for following the old ways.

Ignatius Blikololong calls to the whales.

The group of téna converged on the whales like a wolf pack. Aboard the Téti Heri, Yosef Boko called out a rhythm and ten men with hand-carved wooden oars paddled in unison. When the boats were sufficiently close to the whales, which weighed dozens of tons each, Yosef Boko shouted, “Nuro menaluf!” (hunger spoon). Colloquially, it means, “Row as fast as you’d spoon rice if you were starving!” Or perhaps most accurately, “Row like you want to feed your families!”

On the hâmmâlollo, as his crew paddled furiously to bring him within striking distance, Ignatius readied his 15-foot bamboo harpoon, which was tipped with a foot-long iron spearhead, forged in the village. He got so close to his prey that he could see ellipses of O’s dimpling its gray snout, stamped by the suckers of giant squid the whale had devoured a mile below the ocean’s surface. Ignatius crouched low, his muscles quivering as he held his weapon above his head, then he dove off the hâmmâlollo with kamikaze grace, ramming the harpoon into his prey with the full weight of his body. The harpoon’s shaft shuddered, bent, and then straightened, stuck in the soft flesh two feet below the whale’s dorsal hump. Ignatius rebounded off the animal’s flank and into the sea, then frantically swam back to the Téti Heri.

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A harpooner jumps to spear a whale.

The Lamalerans’ strategy in a hunt is to land as many harpoons as possible. As a second lamafa (harpooner) from another téna added his weapon to the animal’s back, the ropes attached to the harpoons drew taut, and soon the whale was pulling the weight of both ships. Ignatius and the other hunters hoped that the animal would soon exhaust itself, allowing the men to swim alongside it and saw at it with their knives until it bled to death and they could drag it ashore. As the Téti Heri and the other boat harried their prey, the other four téna speared the remaining whales in the school, including a 30-ton female and a toothless, 10-foot infant.

At first the battle was close enough to shore that Teresea and the other hunters’ wives watched, as if Lamalera’s oceanside cliffs were bleachers and the sea a stadium. Whaling was always risky, with injuries and occasionally death resulting from the hunts, but it was also routine enough that any sense of danger was dulled. Before long two téna brought the female and baby whales to the beach, the crews singing gratefully to honor the ancestors. But the Téti Heri, along with three other téna, were dragged by their whales over the horizon. Teresea and the other women returned to weaving or cooking, keeping one eye on the sea.

By late afternoon, instead of the palm-leaf sails of the téna appearing again in the bay, a storm front arose. The ways of the ancestors forbade the use of engines on whaling boats, but the tribe did have two skiffs equipped with outboard motors, which it dispatched to find the hunters. Strafing rain turned the search party around. At dusk the downpour broke briefly, and the tribe lit signal fires on the beach to guide the whalers home. Fresh rain soon extinguished the flames. The weather made Teresea nervous, but hunts sometimes extended overnight. There was no cause for worry yet.

Through the night, Teresea crouched in her bamboo hut and cradled her pregnant belly. Her youngest son, Ben, slept on a mattress stitched out of old rice sacks and stuffed with corn husks; he had tried to maintain a vigil for his father and to comfort his mother, but eventually he had succumbed to exhaustion. Every so often, Teresea would rise and peer out the hut’s door and through the storm toward the thrashing ocean, wondering nervously whether the baby or Ignatius would arrive first.

Ignatius dove with kamikaze grace, ramming the harpoon into his prey.

Two whales had towed the Téti Heri and the other téna east. At first, Ignatius, Yosef Boko, and their fellow hunters had rested for several hours, confident that the combination of blood loss and the drogue of the boats would exhaust their prey. But as Labalekang, the volcano looming behind Lamalera, diminished from a mile-high peak to a thimble of dirt, the whales never faltered. As dusk drew near, the hunters decided that they needed to attack again.

The whale that the Téti Heri and another boat, the Kéna Pukã, had initially harpooned tore through their ropes and escaped. The men’s last chance to return to Lamalera with a catch became the whale lashed to the other two téna—and currently giving them hell. One of those boats, the Kelulus, had just been uppercut so hard by the whale’s tail that its crew was stuffing two cracks zigzagging through the hull with sarongs, trying to keep the sea from bubbling in.

As the Téti Heri attacked the whale to distract it from the listing Kelulus, Ignatius found himself confronting a grotesque beast: Its head and belly were streaked with white, as if it were partially albino, and half its lower jaw had been snapped off, probably during battle with another sea creature. When Ignatius embedded his harpoon, the whale began lobtailing—inverting itself so that its tail stood out of the water and its nose pointed toward the seafloor, then sledgehammering its flukes into the waves. Ignatius ordered his ship to flee, spooling out rope attached to the latest harpoon. To cover the Téti Heri’s retreat, the Kebako Pukã landed another spear, the tenth lodged in the animal; in retaliation, the whale stove in the ship’s bow strake. Half the crew stripped to plug the puncture with their shirts while the rest back-paddled.

Stymied, the fleet let its opponent take several hundred feet of rope, rowed close together, and conferenced. Some of the men said that, when they first attacked the school, they had seen a calf—the one that the other boats had slain and taken back to the village—suckling this whale. They guessed that it was a mother strengthened by a desire for revenge. Ignatius feared that she was not an animal at all but an unholy monster. Though she was only about 45 feet long, she had already done more damage to the boats than a bull whale could.

The sun crisped to an ember, and its last rays were blotted out by thickening clouds. As the whale drew them farther out to sea, Ignatius realized that they had not trapped the animal—it had trapped them. From the hâmmâlollo, he waved a two-foot flensing knife and addressed his fellow hunters.

“The time has come for us to cut our harpoon ropes and go home!” he shouted.

The other whalers responded, “Don’t let it go! We’ll take it tomorrow!”

And so they kept on.

Night soiled the evening. The men hammered sprung boards tight again with whetstones, roped shattered strakes back into place, and stuffed pith caulking into cracks. Lightning flared. Thunder drummed. Rain began to pellet the Lamalerans as waves tackled the téna. The men became so exhausted bailing water with halved coconut shells that they had to work in shifts. Ignatius labored stoically, not resting like the others, and tried to ignore his yearning for his wife, his worry that their child had been born, and his guilt for not being there.

Around midnight the storm subsided. The men bedded down atop wound ropes and furled sails. The fleet had rushed into battle so abruptly that they carried almost no food or drink, so the men wrung rainwater from their hair and clothes into their mouths. Yosef Boko stowed his steering oar but remained awake, tracking the whale’s movements as they were telegraphed through the harpoon ropes. As the tiller man, it was his job to guide the whalers home, and even if he could not steer them to safety right then, he felt a responsibility to keep watch. He trembled with the premonition that this whale would defeat them. When Ignatius had offered to cut the ropes, Yosef Boko had silently urged him on. If he was lost at sea, who would care for his family?

By the time dawn pearled, the broken-jawed whale was hauling the Lamalerans through sea beyond the sight of land. Ignatius called the téna together and announced, “We must have offended the ancestors yesterday for the whale to be so fierce. We must all clean our mouths so that God will entrust this whale to us and the village can eat.” The hunters prayed.

Soon after, it seemed that at last the whale’s strength began to wane. She no longer surged forward, instead paddling tiredly along the water’s surface. Rather than fountaining, she spouted only light mists in quick bursts, as if hyperventilating. Believing her to be weakened, Ignatius did not select a harpoon from the weapons rack for his next move. Instead he tied a rusty boat hook to a bamboo pole and ordered his men to row quietly forward. He slid the hook into the whale’s blowhole and yanked back.

The colossal head turned. An eye judged Ignatius.

The whale geysered, dislodging the hook. Then she head-butted the Téti Heri so hard that caulking popped out from between its boards, and the Savu Sea began trickling in. A terrifying possibility dawned on Ignatius: Perhaps the whale had only been playing weak, trying to draw in the fleet to destroy it. No blood reddened her spouting, which meant that the harpoon strikes had failed to penetrate her vital organs. Her wounds were only skin-deep.

The whale battered the Téti Heri with its tail until the téna retreated. Next it broke off the hâmmâlollo of the Kéna Pukã and rammed open the bow of the already hobbled Kelulus.

In a desperate sortie, the lamafa of all four ships gathered in a phalanx on the prow of the Kebako Pukã, the lone undamaged ship, and attacked together. But no matter how much pink blood poured from her lacerated hide, the whale’s spouting remained pure.

Ignatius was sharpening a lance with a whetstone for the next assault when the Kebako Pukã’s hull leaped beneath his feet, nearly catapulting him into the sea. The whale’s flukes tore open the bow, so that its halves only connected like a clamshell at the keel. The men fled the wreckage, swimming to the Téti Heri. The whale lobtailed, as if challenging the Lamalerans to return to the ring.

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Whaling boats at dusk, with raised palm-leaf sails.

Ignatius, Yosef Boko, and many of the other men were now convinced that their opponent was an evil spirit. The hunters finally agreed to cut the ropes that bound them to the devil whale and return home without a catch. But the harpoon lines were not disposable factory-made ropes: They were the leo, the spirit ropes of the téna. They were woven from jungle cotton and the bark of gebang palms and hibiscus trees, representing weeks of communal work in the village. They could not be carelessly trashed. It was decided that someone would swim to the whale, through the shark fins now razoring the bloody ocean, and cut the lines near the harpoon heads, to save as much of their length as possible.

Fransiskus “Frans” Boli Bediona, a stocky 36-year-old with a wild beard and mane, who served as the backup lamafa on the Kelulus, volunteered for the mission. As one of the tribe’s shamans, he participated in the hunting with a religious fervor, and he had been one of the strongest voices urging the fleet not to give up the day before. Now he was sure that the ancestors were testing the mettle of their descendants, and he meant to meet that challenge.

As Frans pulled himself along a harpoon rope with one hand and clutched a knife in the other, he kicked the hammerhead and tiger sharks that zipped in and nosed him like dogs. The Lamalerans believe that a shark will not hurt a man with a pure heart, and Frans knew himself to be righteous. As he drew closer to the whale, the sharks peeled off to avoid the reach of its tail. He got within a few feet of the whale’s flukes, then hacked through the harpoon lines. The ropes were reeled in, and Frans hitched a ride on the last one.

The whale stroked away, shadowed by dorsal fins. Then she spouted, raised her flukes—either in threat or farewell—and dove. She did not resurface.

The Lamalerans believe that a shark will not hurt a man with a pure heart.

The Lamalerans set about improvising what repairs they could. The crew of the Kéna Pukã winched ropes around its prow, squeezing the boards tight enough to prevent the boat from taking on more water. It was in bad shape, but many men loaded into it, for the Kebako Pukã and the Kelulus could now support only skeleton crews. Then the whalers lashed their fleet into a line, with the Téti Heri in the lead. Abandoning the damaged téna was never discussed, for the Lamalerans believe whaling ships have spirits just as men do. Frans felt that the Kelulus and the Kéna Pukã, both ships he often served on, had mothered him through trials “like a hen protecting her chick.” Now he had to protect them.

With clouds smothering the sun and land hidden by the horizon, the Lamalerans were unable to track north toward home. To save their flagging strength, they decided to play the lottery of the wind. The crew of the Téti Heri stood up a 20-foot bamboo mast and unfurled a sail made of dried palm leaves quilted across a grid of ropes. Once, entire fleets had sailed the Pacific using such sails, but these were probably among the last in the world. The Lamalerans rotated the fabric around the mast until it caught a zephyr, and the téna skidded together over the waves.

By midafternoon, palm-fringed hills edged above the southeastern skyline like a cloud bank. It was Semau Island. The Lamalerans had located themselves, but the discovery was not a happy one: Semau lay more than 100 miles from Lamalera. Rather than try to make landfall, they decided to direct themselves homeward.

As a second evening neared, another storm swaggered toward the boats. The two damaged ones, tugged along by the functional pair, were slowing progress, so the men of the Téti Heri told Ignatius to ask the other crews to let them go ahead alone. Ignatius strained his sandpapered throat to make himself heard over the groaning squall. “May we go?” he asked. “The wind is strong. We will tell the village what has happened and where you are.”

Frans was enraged. It was unthinkable that the crew of the Téti Heri would even consider leaving: That was not the way of the Lamalerans. The most important directive of the ancestors was that the unity of the tribe was paramount. All fathers taught their sons a saying: Talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou—one family, one heart, one action, one goal.

“We live and die together!” the men in the damaged téna answered Ignatius. “You can’t go ahead!”

The waves were sharpening into whitecaps. The crew of the Téti Heri urged Ignatius to try again.

Contradictory feelings roiled his heart: He would never abandon his tribesmen, but would not they all have a better chance of survival if the Téti Heri raced ahead? There was no point in solidarity if it meant his children, including his unborn baby, would lose their father. Ultimately, even if he wanted to remain with the fleet, he could not overrule his crew, yet he wanted the other tribesmen’s blessing to leave.

“May we go first so the village knows we are not all dead and can send help?” Ignatius shouted. Again he was rebuffed.

Only this time, as he was calling to his brethren, his crew untied the rope linking their boat to the others. Unburdened, the Téti Heri shot ahead on the turbulent sea. The other téna shrank to three bobbing figures. Then the lowering heavens curtained them off. Ignatius could not control his tears. He felt as if he had been forced to forsake his tribesmen. And he knew that the ancestors always exacted revenge for such failures—on individuals and on the tribe as a whole.

The Téti Heri could not outrun the latest gale, and before long the storm threatened to use the boat’s sail like a lever and flip the craft over. It took Ignatius and two other men to dismantle the mast, though usually one man could handle it. The tempest seemed to double the darkness of the night, and it whirled the boat and heaved the sea over the outriggers. Men slumped against the thwarts, bailing desultorily, and those too exhausted to work crawled under the sail. Five times Ignatius gathered the crew and led them in prayer, until the accumulating water forced them to resume bailing.

We are all brothers, Ignatius thought. It would have been better if we had died together. Lord, at least bring us to shore, so our families can find our bodies and give us proper funerals, and we can join the ancestors.

We are all brothers, Ignatius thought. It would have been better if we had died together.

That night the eighth child of Ignatius and Teresea came crying into the world. Even though she was a girl, she was named Ignatius Seran Blikololong Jr. Christening her with her father’s name was a way of summoning his lost soul home.

The next morning, a Saturday, dawn flickered behind wet clouds like the flame of a whale-oil lantern sparking to life behind a bamboo lampshade. Maria, Frans’s wife and Ignatius’s sister, had slept on the beach to tend the signal fires, and she woke with sand in her hair. Nearby, Fransiska, Yosef Boko’s wife, refused to eat and ignored her grandson, who cried and pawed at her for attention. The women were joined in their vigil by nearly 50 other wives, and the group watched as the village’s fleet launched to locate their husbands. The 17 boats dispersed toward every point on the compass, carrying fresh coconuts, water, and rice wrapped in banana leaves, to feed the men if they were found.

The Savu Sea is not wide; on a clear morning, it is possible to glimpse the peaks of Timor Island, situated on the other side of the expanse, from Lamalera’s cliffs. Even if the téna had been dragged south into the Indian Ocean, they should have been able to navigate back to where search parties could spot their sails. That two full days had passed without a sighting meant that the likelihood of a safe return was swiftly diminishing. The men might be added to the list of the Lamalerans, more than 39 in all, lost at sea in the previous century. Every year, the village’s priest inaugurated the hunting season by reading each name aloud.

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Faces of Lamalera.

The elders gathered under the banyan tree in the village square to try to ferret out the crime that the ancestors must have been punishing them for in sending so many men to a watery demise. A runner was dispatched to the island’s capital, a 30-mile trek over the mountains, so that government authorities could broadcast a radio message to alert ships in transit to look for the missing téna. Then the tribe gathered on the beach for a religious service.

Shortly thereafter, as if by the grace of God, someone spotted a diamond sail splitting the horizon. A motorboat was dispatched to run supplies to the téna. A man with binoculars announced to the crowd on the shore that the Téti Heri was coming in. A rumor circulated that a corpse was aboard. The whalers had been nearly three days at sea without food and water, after all. Teresea, Maria, and Fransiska wept, knowing that Ignatius and Yosef Boko crewed the Téti Heri.

When the téna made landfall, its crew was so sunburned that skin from the men’s chests and thighs had peeled away. Their lips were puffed and blistered. Bloodshot, their eyes seemed to glow. Even supported by a man on either side, the returned could barely walk.

Tribesmen had to coax Yosef Boko to let go of the tiller oar. He had barely slept the entire journey, believing that as long as he held the oar, he was protecting his crew. When he stepped out of the boat, he embraced Fransiska; though both normally prided themselves on their reserve, they were racked by sobs. At their house, Yosef Boko washed the salt water off his body with a bucket shower, devoured a plate of rice, and fell into a sleep that would last nearly a full day.

While the rest of the men were surrounded by their families, Ignatius walked down the beach toward his hut. Fear unmanned him. Where was his wife? Had something gone wrong with the pregnancy? A female relative, whose husband was aboard one of the boats still at sea, approached and slapped him on the shoulder. She cried, “Where is my husband? Where is my husband?” His throat was so dry Ignatius could not speak; he had been unable to stomach the water and mashed bananas delivered to him by the motorboat. How could he explain to this woman that they had left her husband behind?

Then he spotted his eldest daughter, who pushed her way out of the crowd and hugged him. “You have a daughter!” she said of the new baby. Ignatius croaked an apology for not being there when the baby arrived, but his daughter laughed. “The important thing is that you’re home!” she said.

Once the happy families had returned to their abodes, only the disappointed wives of the men still at sea were left to build a bonfire on the headlands. Maria threw deadwood onto the flames as if making an offering or willing the desperate light to beckon Frans home. She was increasingly sure that her husband was dead and that she was now a widow, a status every Lamaleran woman fears, not only because of the loss but because the tribe’s faith forbids remarriage. If Frans did not return, she and her three children would have to subsist on charity.

Every few minutes, eerie trumpeting echoed from the darkness like distant, mournful music. After the crew of the Téti Heri had admitted to leaving the fleet in hopes of sending help once they got home, the motorboats had been dispatched again, this time with conch shells, which could be heard over a great distance. Between calls made by the motorboats’ crews, Maria and the other yearning wives listened for any answer. Around midnight the motorboats returned alone. The wailing of the women woke the village.

For days afterward, Maria waited on the beach for sails that never came. Eventually, when all hope was lost, the village sent divers to retrieve nautilus shells, their delicate whorls bent into the shape of eternity. The tribe buried the shells in place of bodies.

Maria threw deadwood onto the flames as if making an offering or willing the desperate light to beckon Frans home.

After the Téti Heri had untied itself, Frans had furiously watched Ignatius, his brother-in-law, and the other betrayers go. It felt as if the abandonment took a long time. Each time the fleeing téna sank into a trough between waves, a moment later the tip of its sail would reappear as the ship was lofted by a roller. Frans thought of his three children, especially his infant daughter, only nine months old, with her sweet, bubbling laugh. The ancestors had granted him barely any time to get to know her. He tried not to brood on the hardships his children would endure without a father to protect them. He hoped at least that Ignatius would step in. Almost all his other male relatives—men who could have provided for Frans’s family in his stead—clung to the wrecks of the three téna.

Eventually, the Téti Heri’s sail did not rise again.

The remaining men were in desperate condition. Frans had caulked a breach in the Kelulus with his shirt, and he wore only shorts; already his chest and shoulders blazed and prickled with sunburn. Thirty-four people were crammed onto the Kéna Pukã, which comfortably held no more than 14, and it rode so low that waves spilled over its railings. The other two boats were attended by a single bailer each to keep them from swamping. The whalers could have lightened the load of their sinking ships by discarding equipment, but they believed that the leo had souls and the sails were the ships’ sarongs. Without them the boats would be naked.

Swept east, the men glimpsed the bent tip of Labalekang. The volcano, which towered above their village, provided some small hope. They began to paddle weakly, taking a few strokes and then resting. Black clouds avalanched toward their backs. Soon night hid Labalekang and brought with it a new storm. Despite having to furiously bail, Frans was thankful for relief from the torturous sun and the nourishment of the rainwater.

Dawn emerged bluebird clear, hazeless. Labalekang had vanished. The crew had lost all sense of position in the night. No one possessed the strength to lift a paddle. Some men’s speech began to slur. Frans told himself that he must not cry; he needed the moisture.

Late Saturday afternoon, not long before Ignatius and the crew of the Téti Heri would arrive home, the abandoned whalers spotted a pair of cinder-cone volcanoes to the east. The sight crushed Frans: It was Flores, two islands west of his home. The latest storm had swept them dozens of miles off course and outside any area that a Lamaleran ship would search for them. They tried to maneuver north and east, but the wind was against them, driving them farther from the Savu Sea and into the wilderness of the Indian Ocean. Some men tied themselves to their ships so that if they died, their bodies might one day be found. Frans was not ready to do that, not yet.

That night rain came again—without a storm, for once. The men suckled from their shirts, their beards, and the sail. Once they had rehydrated, some began chewing their clothes. One thin hunter gorged himself on dried tree pith. Except for a few noodles of seaweed plucked from the ocean, they had eaten nothing in three days. With too many men for everyone to lie down in the hulls of the boats, they took turns slumping over the thwarts or sprawling on the hâmmâlollos.

Frans fever-dreamed about God, heaven, hell, and his family. At a vague hour, the cloud cover momentarily parted to reveal the star-encrusted sky. The Southern Cross was staked there. Frans knew this constellation as the Pointer, since from the Savu Sea it always aimed toward Lamalera. For a moment the way home was revealed. If they could just follow that course, Frans might survive and once more balance his daughter atop his head while she screamed with laughter and pulled at his hair. But then the clouds returned and stole the knowledge of the direction where his family lay.

By Sunday morning, the Kebako Pukã was taking on so much water that the other boats could no longer pull it. The craft would have to be abandoned. Its captain, Fransiskus “Sisu” Bataona, volunteered to go down with his ship, but the others told him it was not necessary. Instead, he climbed atop the hâmmâlollo, now jutting just above the waterline. Sisu felt like a leaf at the end of the dry season, withered and about to fall. He addressed the spirit of the téna: “We now have no more strength. It is better that you go before us and wait for us on shore.” He invoked a ceremonial leave-taking sometimes used to say goodbye to the dead.

Frans fever-dreamed about God, heaven, hell, and his family.

The other Lamalerans wept. They knew everyone shared responsibility for abandoning the sacred téna. The disappointed ancestors would surely exact their vengeance.

By the time that Sisu disembarked for another boat, the currents had started to take the Kebako Pukã. The boat swiveled, its hâmmâlollo grazing the harpooning platforms of its two fellows as if in farewell. Waves edged up the prow. Soon the ocean swallowed the ship. A hoarse wail burst from the Lamalerans.

Throughout Sunday afternoon, the Lamalerans hallucinated, imagining they saw signal flares on Lamalera beach and paddling as hard as they could toward them. The extinguishing of the sun ushered in yet another night at sea and demolished the whalers’ fantasies: There was nothing ahead but darkness. The men lay still as corpses in their ships. Frans thought some of them had already died. Still, he did not lash himself to the thwarts. He could endure a little more. If morning dawned hopelessly, he would tie himself to the téna. It would be as God willed it.

A little before midnight, Frans stirred from his fugue to one of his shipmates croaking. The man was pointing a finger. Frans followed the man’s direction and saw a row of halogen-lit windows floating above the Savu Sea, framing fancily dressed men and women with pale skin. A thick beam of light roved across the waves, blinding him when it settled on the téna. Frans suddenly understood why the ancestors had teased the whalers with the phantasm of home: They had been encouraging the crews to cling to life for just a few hours more.

A metal vessel four times as long as a téna, with the words Spice Islander painted across its hull, chugged toward the Lamalerans. Salvation had arrived in the form of a cruise ship.

Hauling a whale ashore.

Frans had glimpsed modern ships while hunting, but he had rarely seen one this close. When a metal arm lowered a speedboat into the water, he thought he was delirious. The speedboat zoomed up to the Lamalerans, and its crew tied on to the téna in order to drag the bewildered whalers to the Spice Islander. Promises of food and water enticed those crew members who had prepared for death to untie themselves and climb aboard.

As the Lamalerans stepped onto metal stairs lowered from the bow, 40 or so foreigners lined the railing, aiming strange metal boxes that emitted white flashes. The hunters leaned against the sailors, infantile with weakness. The white-skinned men and women shook the Lamalerans’ hands and gave them plastic water bottles, which the men struggled to open until someone showed them how to unscrew the caps. The tourists made them pose and held up the metal boxes once more. Frans was too tired and thankful to care.

The captain of the ship, a man named Sebastianus, led them to the mess hall. They were served coffee sugared with condensed milk, along with crumbly slices of white cake, which tasted bitter to Frans and which Sebastianus told them was called bread. The captain was from Larantuka, the largest city in the archipelago where Lamalera is located, and he had met members of the whaling tribe before. His eastern Indonesian accent and familiarity with their culture put the men at ease. Sebastianus explained that the Spice Islander had been cruising from the Komodo Islands, home of the legendary dragons, to Timor, where the tourists would fly home, when he heard a radio bulletin about lost ships. His marine radar soon pinged two unidentified vessels adrift off normal shipping lanes, and he set out to investigate.

At the end of the meal, Sebastianus apologized that the two surviving téna would have to be scuttled. Frans and the other Lamalerans begged him to save the boats, explaining their spiritual value. He agreed to try. Using the onboard crane, his crew winched the Kéna Pukã onto the cruise ship’s deck, where its hull, ravaged by the whale, was bared for all to see. But when the Spice Islander’s crew tried to lift the Kelulus, the damaged vessel began to break apart.

The Lamalerans beseeched Sebastianus to drag the Kelulus to the nearest island, where they hoped to stash the wreck until they could return for it. But he explained that doing so would take them many miles out of their way, and he had to get the foreign passengers to their destination the next day, lest they miss their plane. “The law of the sea is to save people,” Sebastianus said, “not boats.”

Until then, a sole Lamaleran had remained aboard the Kelulus to protect it. Now he was brought onto the cruise ship, carrying the leo. The téna’s sail and harpoons were left for the ancestors, who would row it in the watery underworld. The floodlights of the Spice Islander illuminated the Kelulus as it began to sink. “You go ahead and wait for us on shore,” a Lamaleran cried out. “Soon we will join you!”

The rope between the Kelulus and the Spice Islander was unknotted. A whaler declared, “It’s better that I go with my téna!” and tried to climb over the railing, but other men restrained him. Many Lamalerans wept hysterically. Others covered their eyes, unable to watch the sinking of the second ship they had lost in a single hunt. Frans tried to face the tragedy unblinkingly, but inside he grieved as if he was watching the drowning of a family member.

Every téna had an eye painted on either side of its bow. As the Spice Islander motored away, its wake spun the Kelulus to face the departing Lamalerans. As the two vessels separated, the Kelulus never broke eye contact. Frans was sure that its spirit was bidding him a personal farewell. The tourists photographed the spectacle.

The Lamalerans slept that night on nests of blankets and pillows piled on the viewing deck. Frans was so exhausted he could not help but sleep, but he kept waking abruptly to unquiet thoughts. What would have happened if the Spice Islander had not discovered them? And how would the ancestors judge them for losing the téna?

“The law of the sea is to save people, not boats.”

The next morning, Frans was thrilled and unnerved as he explored the cruise ship. He had never been on a vessel that did not rock in the waves before. The air-conditioning baffled him. He was amazed by the miniature waterfall that poured from a bathroom ceiling to clean him. He was amused that the tourists pooped in a chair; Lamalerans use squat toilets. When he glimpsed the queen-size beds and ceiling lights of one of the tourist’s cabins, he could not help but wistfully compare it with his mattress stuffed with corn husks and his tiny brick house with no electricity.

Sebastianus had radioed ahead, and a crowd of government officials, journalists, and expat Lamalerans thronged the wharf of Kupang Harbor on Timor. Behind them, sunlight glittered on thousands of corrugated tin roofs, TV aerials, and radio antennas. Frans had only ever traveled to the rural islands neighboring Lamalera to fish; he had never seen anything like this. His first instinct was to hide, but he had no choice except to confront this brave new world.

As he and the rest of the whalers waited for a ferry to take them back to Lamalera, Frans wandered Kupang’s dusty lanes. He saw the impending future: multistory concrete buildings, TVs blabbing about Indonesia’s president, radios playing Ace of Base, motorbikes zooming across newly built asphalt roads. Here were more than 100,000 people who had forgotten their ancestors and abandoned the sacred past for a future that, to him, seemed cheap, chaotic, and unfulfilling. That made Frans yearn for home.

Finally, after several days, the Kéna Pukã was loaded into the cavernous metallic hold of a ferry. The tribe had been alerted by then to the survival of the men, and it sent a message directing the ferry to drop them at a neighboring village, where they had to wait several days while the nautilus shells were dug up and a shaman reversed the funerals that had been performed for them. Later, Frans would help lead a separate mystical rite to recall the souls of the sunken téna.

Yet there was no ceremony to remedy the unprecedented betrayal by the Teti Heri’s crew. It had rent the unity prescribed by the ancestors: talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou. The ancient Lamalerans had considered this oneness so fundamental that they did not leave instructions for how to heal a break.

The tribe rebuilt their fleet, and the whale hunts continued. Frans reconciled with the men of the Teti Heri. Still, an existential rupture remained, like a leak in a téna. Over the coming years, Frans would sometimes find himself staring at the western horizon, remembering the alien world beyond it. He wondered with trepidation when it would arrive. He knew it would not be long.

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Fransiskus “Frans” Boli Bediona takes a break from work.

Epilogue

Two decades later, when I met the Lamalerans, they were engaged in a desperate battle to preserve their traditions against the overwhelming pressures of globalization, which had already extinguished many indigenous cultures around the globe. Ignatius was striving to teach his son Ben how to whale, but Ben was making secret plans to run away to the tourist mecca of Bali and become a DJ. Ben was not alone among the new generation yearning for a modern life, casting doubt on the survival of the ways of the ancestors. And yet some of the tribe’s youth still fought to continue the traditions. Even after a whaling accident in 2014 almost killed Jon Hariona, the grandson of Yosef Boko, he kept striving to become a lamafa, like his ancestors before him.

The full story of the Lamalerans’ struggle to forge a place for their way of life in the new millennium is told in my forthcoming book, The Last Whalers.

Barbearians at the Gate

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Barbearians at the Gate

A journey through a quixotic New Hampshire town teeming with libertarians, fake news, guns, and—possibly—furry invaders.

by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

The Atavist Magazine, No. 79


Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling is a Vermont-based investigative journalist. He is a grantee of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting whose work has appeared in Popular Science and Foreign Policy, among other publications, and through the Weather Channel’s longform-journalism project. He is a recipient of the George Polk Award, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a Maine Journalist of the Year.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Lauren Tamaki

Published in May 2018. Design updated in 2021.

In the summer of 2017, the survivalists began to worry—really worry—about the bears.

The problem wasn’t the animals’ nighttime behavior; that was just a nuisance. The survivalists were used to catching sight of the hulking intruders emerging from the darkened woods of rural New Hampshire to damage property, steal food, and deposit huge piles of excrement. Recently, though, the bears had started showing up in broad daylight, and not just at the survivalists’ encampment. Throughout Grafton, the tiny town on the outskirts of which the camp sat, residents told stories of furry forest dwellers pushing through porch windows, chasing house pets, getting drunk on fermented apples, and capering on rooftops. One bear had cleaned out a chicken coop by lying on its belly, reaching inside the structure’s tunneled entrance, and scrabbling around with an extended paw. The bleakest anecdotes told of bears swiping their claws through human skin as if it were tissue paper.

The survivalists agreed that something had to be done to defend their makeshift home. But no one suggested calling law enforcement. This was Tent City, a place people came to avoid government. The messy jumble of cabins, trailers, and tarps, anchored by an old carport that served as a communal lounge, was a crucible of self-reliance. Residents believed in untethering themselves from institutions, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives. When society inevitably collapsed under the weight of bureaucracy and corruption, they would be ready. Their lodestar was freedom.

Tent City, where the population swelled to 30 or more on any given night, was an extreme manifestation of cherished local norms. Reachable by one paved road and policed by one full-time cop, Grafton has no stoplights, zoning laws, or building codes. Personal freedom springs eternal, so much so that don’t-tread-on-me types from across America have moved there in search of a laissez-faire utopia. People live where and how they please: in ramshackle homes, solitary yurts, old cars, or shared camps.

The survivalists sketched out a multifaceted plan to protect themselves from the bears. Adam Franz, a bearded, restless man in his late thirties, managed the land that Tent City sat on. In his younger days, Franz had studied economics, designed computer programs, become an ordained minister, and played professional poker. Now he was the closest thing Tent City had to a mayor—which is to say that when he talked, people listened. This included both cohorts of the unregulated idyll: left and right. When I remarked on a Confederate flag slung across the front of a cabin, Franz directed my attention to a Bernie Sanders sign attached to another. “If you’re an anarchist of any stripe,” said Franz, who tends toward the left end of the spectrum, “this is a good place to be.”

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Franz’s anti-bear arsenal included firecrackers. “I also think we should get bottle rockets,” he said one day, talking loudly to be heard over the constant buzz of a generator. Guns were a given; they were as much a staple in Grafton as picket fences are in the suburbs. Franz had recently traded his .357 Magnum for a Taurus Judge .410. The Magnum was more accurate, the owner of his favorite gun store had told him, but if a bear got too close for comfort, the Judge would do more damage. Though it looked like a six-shooter, its bullets were so big that it held only five.

The residents of Tent City decided they needed a barrier of some sort. One man scrounged several cheap metal posts and scrap rolls of chain-link netting from local suppliers, and a small crew of volunteers got to work. They inched along Tent City’s winding perimeter, methodically erecting sections of a fence. They adorned it with bells, beer cans, and bottles filled with BB-gun pellets. This would be the alarm system.

One day the workers were hammering posts into the rocky earth when they heard a woman who lived in the camp call out. Urgently. Scanning the area around them, they saw why: A black bear was swaggering along a finished portion of the fence, not 30 feet away. It was as if the bear had appointed itself foreman and was inspecting the men’s progress.

What a goddamned insult, thought Franz, who was working on the fence that day. He shouted at the bear like someone trying to get a kid off his lawn: “Go away!”

The creature paused, as if calculating risk versus reward. Then, on heavy paws that doubled as lethal weapons, it lumbered toward the men. Still shouting, Franz held a lighter to a pack of firecrackers he’d stashed in his pocket. Flick, flick, flick—the fuse caught. He hurled the explosives toward the incoming enemy.

Popping and sizzling, the firecrackers hit the ground between the foes. Startled, the bear reversed course and galloped clumsily away from the men. When the clamor ceased, however, the animal stopped short of the forest. “He started watching us,” Franz recalled.

Several tense seconds dragged by. Finally, the creature slunk into the undergrowth and disappeared from sight. The humans took a gulp of air. They’d won the latest skirmish in Grafton’s escalating bear war.


“In my opinion, there is nothing out of the ordinary going on in Grafton.” So said Andrew Timmins, a wildlife biologist employed by the state of New Hampshire. Timmins is tall and muscled, with grizzled hair that he often wears tucked beneath his Fish and Game Department cap. He showed me a spreadsheet that documented the annual intake of “bear complaints,” his department’s name for reports of human encounters with the 6,000 or so black bears that roam New Hampshire. There was Grafton, a community of about 1,000 people in the state’s central region, with 50 complaints over the previous decade. It ranked 29 out of 227 towns, which placed it in the top 13 percent of bear-afflicted places. But was that really so surprising, given its forested location? Timmins insisted it was not.

He diagnosed a kind of xenophobia: People are often frightened of black bears for no good reason. Sure, the creatures are big—they can grow to 500 pounds or more—and they’ve got sharp teeth and claws. But according to Fish and Game’s public-education campaign, “Something’s Bruin in New Hampshire,” which is intended to “enhance public tolerance towards bears,” the animals “do not typically exhibit aggressive behavior.”

That was the opposite of what I’d been told in Grafton. I’d first visited the town for an assignment that had nothing to do with bears. It was bears, though, that kept me coming back. I was lured by tales told over kitchen tables, in gardens, and on front stoops about an unprecedented conflict between man and beast.

People in Grafton said that, year after year, the bears were getting bolder. The same anti-authority ethos that gave rise to Tent City convinced locals that the threat needed to be dealt with, no matter what any government data said. It’s illegal to kill a bear in New Hampshire without a special hunting license, yet I heard whispers that a vigilante posse had embarked on a clandestine hunt. Meanwhile, here was Adam Franz, flinging firecrackers and pledging to use his new Judge on a moment’s notice. “This is my baby,” he said when he let me hold the firearm, placing the weight of his trust in my palm. “I fuckin’ love that thing.”

I visited Grafton several times over two years to determine if, to poach Timmins’s words, “anything out of the ordinary” was happening there. When it came to bears, where did truth end and myth begin? What I found was more revealing than I expected: a parable of liberty, disinformation, and fear. A parable, really, of America.


Grafton’s unruliness and disdain for authority dates back centuries. Fittingly, when the town incorporated in the late 1700s, it took its name from the third Duke of Grafton, who’d served as England’s prime minister and scandalized his constituents by divorcing his wife because she was pregnant with the child of a lover, no doubt taken while her husband engaged in a very public affair with a courtesan. By then colonists in Grafton had long ignored the native Abenaki people’s respect for nature, divvying up and then clear-cutting vast tracts of forest. Eventually the settlers decided that royal laws were also impediments to their freedom and joined the revolutionary fight against colonial oppression. At every stage of this history, they turned their muskets against black bears, a species they’d decided was better off dead. They delivered the carcasses for bounties.

Over the century following the American Revolution, Grafton residents demonstrated mastery of their domain by transforming it into New Hampshire’s most intensively farmed region. They denuded hills and covered them with sweeping grasslands, hordes of sheep, and miles of stone walls. In 1868, they banded together to protect their livestock from a bushy-tailed black wolf described in the local newspaper as four feet tall and seven feet long. People built homes, mills, two churches, 12 schoolhouses, and several mines, including one that, in 1887, produced a 2,900-pound aquamarine crystal, the biggest ever found in the nation at that point. Three years later, about 15 miles from town, a wealthy, eccentric land speculator named Austin Corbin built a game reserve for species imported from out of state, including bighorn sheep, Russian boar, bison, and elk.

Then came a seismic change. As the U.S. economy shifted toward industry, farmers abandoned their livelihoods in droves. Over the course of the 20th century, Grafton lost nearly all its agricultural land. Neatly cultivated fields reverted to impenetrable thickets, stagnant bogs, and tangles of young trees. Clearings shrank until they were tiny islands, adrift in an inexorable sylvan tide.

The new forest had a strange, ominous flavor. In 1938, a hurricane breached the fences of Corbin’s reserve, releasing hundreds of animals into the wild, and Grafton residents described frequent encounters with the creatures’ startling descendants. Packs of coyote-wolf hybrids, once unheard of in the area, trailed people who were out walking their dogs. There were taller tales, too, of a Bigfoot-like creature, dragonflies as big as hawks, and birds with claw prints larger than a human hand.  

For a long time, Ursus americanus didn’t rank on locals’ list of worrisome fauna. Though the black bears’ habitat included some 90 percent of New Hampshire, they gave humans a wide berth. Attacks were exceedingly rare; the most recent was in the mid-20th century, and the last fatal one in 1784. Statistically speaking, and not only in New Hampshire, a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.

All was well until 1999. That’s when the cat massacre happened.


I heard about it when I first visited Grafton, in the fall of 2016. I was there to interview 62-year-old veteran Jessica Soule about her difficulties accessing support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As I drove into town on Route 4, I observed that the town had no medical services or grocery store; one of its two gas stations had shut down.

Soule lived in an area of Grafton known as Bungtown, which received that name after an incident in the mid-1800s when bungs—a type of cork—came loose from barrels while they were in transit, allowing the liquid inside to spill out. Soule’s house had white siding and a creaky metal wheelchair ramp leading to the front entrance. When she answered the door, she wore a button-up shirt under two sweaters. A long, neat braid hanging over one shoulder softened her face.

Inside her house, the smell of cats hung in the stale air, trapped by tightly sealed windows. Several felines jockeyed for Soule’s attention. I sat on a lumpy couch with a quilt spread over it and was startled when one of the mounds beneath me began to move. “He’s hiding,” Soule said.

As we meandered through the usual small talk that precedes an interview, I noticed that Soule used a striking phrase: before the bears came. As in, “I used to let my cats outdoors, but that was before the bears came.” I asked her to explain.

One fine July night in 1999, Soule sat down at the picnic table in her backyard to enjoy the cool air. The moon had already risen. It looked like liquid silver—what the Abenaki called temaskikos, or the grass-cutter moon. Soule’s only companions that night were three cats, all less than a year old, wrestling near her feet.

As Soule relaxed, she heard footfalls behind her, quick and heavy. Before she could react, the bear was within a few feet of the picnic table. But instead of snatching her, it scooped up another feast: two of her kittens, whose mewling Soule could hear as the bear blew past her and disappeared into the woods.

It reemerged just beyond the tree line behind Soule’s house, near a small creek. The animal cut a bulky silhouette in the moonlight. Smaller shadows joined it: hungry bear cubs. All Soule could do was watch, horrified, as the creatures finished off their dinner and sauntered away.

Soule hunted desperately for her third cat, named Amber, in the woods. It wasn’t until morning, when the sun was up, that she found the tiny feline, huddled beneath a carpet of leaves. The cat was terrified but alive.

I asked what happened to Amber after that. “She’s right here,” Soule said, pointing to a cat nestled in the center of her lap like pet royalty. The milky-eyed feline, now 17 years old, was so rough coated that she looked taxidermic, and so decrepit that she could no longer retract her claws. Like her owner she was a veteran, a survivor.

“That,” Soule said, “was the beginning.”

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In Soule’s telling, the bears that ate her kittens developed a keen taste for felines. When other cats in Bungtown went missing, locals knew why. Soule said that a bear approached her front door one day. Perhaps it was the same mama bear, she thought, back for more. By then she’d gotten wise; she kept her cats inside, no longer left food scraps in the backyard for birds, and opened doors and windows only when she absolutely had to.

Andrew Timmins told me that he’d never received a bear complaint involving a cat, from Grafton or anywhere else. Plus, the idea that wild bears could acquire a taste for felines seemed dubious to him. When a Grafton resident told me about a bear that drained his biodiesel supply—a five-gallon container of two-year-old French-fry grease—I was reminded that bears will devour even the most loathsome fare, so long as it adds to their winter stores of fat. They’re after calories, not cuisine. Despite local perception, the cats of Bungtown probably weren’t the bears’ preferred target; they were just there.

Perception, though, matters a great deal when people craft stories about how they overcome obstacles and cope with conflict. Once the seed of the purported bear hazard was planted, stories nourished it. Often the light of reality was refracted such that it transformed an animal into a totemic version of itself: bandit or strongman, noble savage or mythic monster, bumbling idiot or cunning predator.

Alongside the stories, a few key ingredients influenced people’s assessment of the bears in their midst. First was a quantifiable increase in New Hampshire’s ursine population. In 1990, the state had some 3,000 bears. Steady annual growth, which peaked at 10 percent around the time that a bear got clawsy with Soule’s kittens, nearly doubled the population in the next quarter-century. During that same period, New Hampshire got serious about bear monitoring. Based on what wildlife experts deemed prudent preservation goals, the state designated population targets and bear-management strategies: how many annual hunting licenses to grant, how long hunting season should last, and even what hunters could use as bait. Chocolate, for example, was banned, because it could be toxic to bears. If a human wanted to kill a bear, they’d have to shoot it, not feed it a brownie. Fair’s fair.

The edicts and regulations didn’t sit well in Grafton, particularly with the town’s newest colonists, who started showing up in 2004. It sounds like the start of a bad joke: A lawyer, a firearms instructor, and the owner of a mail-order-bride business walk into a fire station. The three men were Tim Condon, Tony Lekas, and Larry Pendarvis, respectively, and they were avowed libertarians with the Free Town Project, a splinter group of a national initiative founded in 2001 to convince some 20,000 liberty-loving Americans to move to a chosen place, where they could concentrate their voting power and rid the political landscape of pesky rules. On the anything-goes frontier that Free Towners envisioned, people would be able to keep as many junk cars on their property as they wished, buy and sell sex without shame, gamble at will, consume drugs of all kinds, and educate their kids however they liked. Hell, they could even debate the merits of incest and cannibalism if they wanted.

If a human wanted to kill a bear, he’d have to shoot it, not feed it a brownie. Fair’s fair.

Condon, Lekas, and Pendarvis were scouts, tasked with looking for the right spot to pioneer the project. They focused on low-population states, including New Hampshire. An added bonus of the “Live Free or Die” state was that it didn’t impose income and sales taxes. The trio drove from town to town; some places were too far north—excessively cold and isolated—while others had strict zoning laws or a tight real estate market. Finally, the men came to Grafton, situated on a rugged stretch of 42 square miles. They met up with local volunteer firefighter John Babiarz, who had recently run for governor on the Libertarian ticket and won 3 percent of the vote. Now he and his wife, Rosalie, welcomed the three men around a folding table in Grafton’s firehouse, because there were no coffee shops or restaurants in town. They discussed their shared pet peeves, namely busybody bureaucrats and onerous laws.   

Grafton was the mecca the scouts had been looking for. The town had more land than people and virtually no statutes governing property. There were fewer than 800 registered voters, most of whom didn’t bother showing up at the polls, and because Babiarz already had a base of support, he could help tip the political scales in the project’s favor. What’s more, natives loved their guns as much as they despised meddling government. The scouts stopped their search and sent word to their fellow Free Towners, along with the phone number and email address of a local realtor.

How many people answered the call to move to Grafton is hard to say. Libertarians aren’t exactly known for keeping records. According to the federal census, between 2000 and 2010, the town’s population swelled by more than 200 residents. Soon after the project was launched, Free Towners began purchasing hundreds of acres of land, which they made available, at their discretion, to like-minded people who wanted to establish permanent homesteads or temporary encampments. Tent City, then in its early days as a home base for Grafton’s most extreme natives, served as a model of the type of loosely organized community that might work for the newcomers.

Grafton’s newest denizens infused its relaxed culture with impudence. At the annual apple festival, they encouraged children to dip homemade United Nations flags into a bonfire. At town meetings, which were usually sleepy affairs, they emphatically insisted that Grafton withdraw from the regional school district, condemn The Communist Manifesto, and eliminate funding for the local library. None of those proposals gained any traction; for all the ideological DNA they shared with the new arrivals, longtime Grafton residents thought some of the Free Towners’ ideas crossed the line of common sense. Still, the settlers managed to pass measures to slash the town’s budget by 30 percent (later rescinded on a procedural technicality) and to deny funding to the county’s senior-citizens council.  

Babiarz, who went on to become Grafton’s fire chief, gradually distanced himself from the project’s purists, deciding that he preferred a less evangelical brand of liberty. Yet he maintained common ground with Free Towners on plenty of things, including the threat of bears.


The same year the Free Town scouts came to Grafton, a bear stole onto Babiarz’s farm on Slab City Road, where he and Rosalie live in a converted 19th-century schoolhouse, and eviscerated one of his rams. By the time I visited Babiarz in 2017, bears had infiltrated his property numerous times, making off with chickens sleeping in their coop, sheep locked in their paddock, and apples swinging from tree branches. Babiarz, a tall, lean 60-year-old who has now run unsuccessfully for governor four times, became convinced that one bear in particular watched him from somewhere in the forest. It waited for him to run an errand or visit the fire station, and then it struck. This damn bear was a seasoned criminal, Babiarz told me in his small kitchen, where amid potted plants and household clutter an old sign urged me to elect Libertarian Harry Browne president in 1996.

Babiarz and the bear had a fundamental disagreement over how many of the farm’s livestock were there for the taking. His starting position was zero. The bear’s was all of them. “It had no fear,” Babiarz said. “Which is a problem.” He decided that pain-based deterrence was called for. He loaded an electric fence with strips of bacon, hoping to zap any hungry bears in the mouth. On the ground outside his chicken coops, he laid down boards with nails or screws sticking skyward to puncture the soles of bear paws. One board I saw had claw marks on it and a screw was missing. “Yep, it went right through,” Babiarz said, referring to the unlucky bear that had stepped on the board. “There was blood pouring. There was nice red all over.”

Babiarz and the bear had a fundamental disagreement over how many of the farm’s livestock were there for the taking. His starting position was zero. The bear’s was all of them.

One September morning, he came home from town to find a bear—the bear, Babiarz claimed—sitting on its rump and feasting on a chicken. “Like a human at a campfire, munching,” Babiarz recalled with dismay. How had it gotten past every line of defense? Babiarz sprinted into his house and grabbed a Ruger .44 Magnum from his closet, but by the time he got back outside, the bear was galumphing toward the refuge of the forest. Panting, Babiarz took aim and pulled the trigger. The Magnum bucked in his hand, exploding with sound.

“Apparently, I missed him,” Babiarz said. A concerned look crept over his face as he told this part of the story. He gestured toward the woods, adding, “He was a moving target against a black background.”

I realized that Babiarz felt he had to defend his marksmanship. Competition was everywhere, after all. In 2012, New Hampshire had attained America’s highest per capita rate of machine-gun ownership; federal data showed nearly 10,000 of the weapons registered in the state.

“There’s a lot of trees here,” Babiarz continued. “Hitting it would have been a miracle.”

I squinted in the direction the bear had gone. After a pause that felt sufficient for reflecting on a deep knowledge of firearms—which I by no means had—I replied in solidarity.

“That’s a really tough shot.”

Babiarz looked relieved. He went back to talking about the bear. It was out there still, his Moby Dick. He was sure of it.


Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snow bank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.

Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?

I put the question of bear intelligence to Ben Kilham, a wildlife biologist and leading expert in ursine behavior, who happens to live about 20 miles from Grafton. Before he became interested in bears, Kilham designed guns. Now his personal website features a photograph of his head and upper torso protruding from the entrance to a bear’s den. He has adopted and raised dozens of orphan cubs, which he releases into the wild and tracks for thousands of hours apiece. He has been bitten and scratched more times than he can count, but never seriously. State wildlife officials speak of him reverently, and his fame has gone global. In an Imax documentary released in April 2018, he’s featured as a bear whisperer helping China reintroduce pandas into the wild.  

Kilham suggested that if I really wanted to learn the truth, I should read a book he wrote entitled In the Company of Bears. The book paints a picture of bears—worrying or inspiring, depending on your priors—as the Einsteins of the wild. According to Kilham, bears have a highly developed sense of self. They can also count to 12 (higher than chimpanzees), transport and use tools, observe societal bonds that include a rudimentary sense of justice, remember the distant past, calculate the likelihood of future events, and, if necessary, ask other bears to care for their offspring. Kilham also asserts that bears can screen foods for palatability by mouthing them and inhaling their scent. He came to the idea after noticing cubs gently manipulating leaves, mushrooms, and frogs with their snouts. Kilham developed a working theory that bears have a special sensory organ about the size of a jellybean embedded in their palate, which he dubbed the Kilham organ. He finally proved its function when, he told me, he “boiled a half-rotted bear head and found what I was looking for.”

Kilham comes across as the Jane Goodall of bears, uniquely positioned to understand the species. Also like Goodall, his insights aren’t always backed up by hard data or laboratory tests, leaving him vulnerable to academic criticism. In his book, the only evidence he cites that a bear can out-count a chimp is his experience with one bear, named Squirty, who always seemed to know when Kilham had shorted her one or two cookies from a sleeve of Oreos. Yet formal studies measuring bear intelligence generally support Kilham’s conclusions. Bears in captivity have been observed solving problems—moving stumps to use as stepladders in order to access high-hanging fruit, for instance—and distinguishing between different numbers of dots on a screen.

A more enduring critique of animal behaviorists is their tendency to anthropomorphize, or assign human characteristics to the species they study. Here the question is one of intent: why animals do what they do. If a bear lingers in the presence of a screaming survivalist, is it calculating its odds of getting fed or shot, or processing a more basic fight-or-flight reaction? It’s hard to answer these questions definitively, because we can’t read animals’ minds. That doesn’t stop Kilham from trying, however, nor has it stopped Babiarz and other Grafton residents from ascribing human motivations to the bears prowling around town.

Maybe they do so because it’s easier to think you know an enemy than it is to admit that you don’t and never will. Or perhaps, as scholars have suggested, anthropomorphism is an evolved trait, a kind of shorthand that allowed primitive humans to interpret animal behavior and protect themselves accordingly. Millions of years later, we still feel the urge to think of animals as basically like us, even if we live an infinitely safer existence; we don’t hunt to survive, and we’re not hunted. Tested only rarely in high-stakes circumstances, our assessment of creatures as friend or foe can be exaggerated or ill applied—sometimes to comic effect.


One night in the spring of 2009, in a house on a hill overlooking Grafton’s somnolent downtown, a sheep farmer named Dianne Burrington was awoken by frantic bleating. She reacted instinctively, throwing back her covers, leaping from bed, and racing to the kitchen for her rifle. Burrington, then in her fifties, grabbed a pistol from a drawer for good measure before bursting out the front door “half-assed dressed” in her nightgown and a coat.

Burrington wasn’t a shit taker—she was a shit kicker. If you were casting her in a movie, you’d want Kathy Bates: someone solid, assertive, and able to project a down-home friendliness. Whatever was out there, Burrington would deal with it. A coyote? No problem; she’d shot one before. As for bears, she’d installed an electric fence to keep them out. It hadn’t failed her yet.

She sprinted through tufted pasture toward her barn. As she got closer, she realized that most of the braying was coming from Hurricane, her llama. Standing five feet nine inches tall and weighing 400 pounds, Hurricane was the farm’s guard animal. Burrington claimed that he patrolled the fence line and kept an eye on the smallest sheep, ushering stragglers into their pens at the end of the day. He was a noisy animal; when a potential danger stressed him out, he hummed. But the sound he was making that night was more like honking, as if he was sounding an alarm.

Burrington rounded a corner of the barn and saw what had Hurricane upset: a bear, which must have slipped through the electric fence wires like a boxer entering the ring. In the ensuing chaos, as sheep stampeded away in fear, a portion of the fence had been torn from its support on the barn. Now a ewe was tangled in the wreckage, panicking. Juggling her firearms in one hand, Burrington reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a pair of scissors. A few snips and the ewe was free.

By then the bear had fled, with the llama hot on its heels. “Hurricane!” Burrington bellowed. “No!” She took off running, too, a distant third in a race toward the fence line separating pasture from forest.

Burrington feared that if the bear turned around, Hurricane would be done for. As she ran, she cocked her pistol. But the bear, flustered no doubt by the llama and the farmer, seemed not to see the thin, electrified wires he was barreling toward. He ran into them full force; their tension bowed and rebounded. The bear caromed back at an angle, spinning across the ground. When it regained its feet, the bear turned to face Hurricane. Burrington looked on helplessly.

She learned something surprising that night: Despite their cartoonish appearance, llamas can fight like hell. They have six pronounced, razor-sharp “fighting teeth” at the front of their mouths for that purpose. In a whir of gnashing incisors and pummeling hooves, Hurricane assaulted the prone bear until it managed to pull itself away, slip through the fence, and disappear from sight. The llama snorted and stamped the ground and brayed some more—this time, Burrington was sure, with pride.

Of the clashes in Grafton’s bear war, Hurricane’s triumph was an instant classic among dinner-table tales. It elicited gasps of horror and laughs of delight in equal measure. Another attack, though, prompted only frowns and solemn vows of retaliation.

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Tracey Colburn lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the woods. She was used to seeing bears in her yard, up in her trees, and raiding her compost pile, where they chucked aside cabbage in what she could only interpret as disgust. Colburn was in her forties, with long brown hair and a youthful face. She’d had a tough go of it; a breast-cancer diagnosis cut her college career short, and a long string of clerical and municipal jobs were unfulfilling. In 2012, she was in and out of work, but she had enough savings to care for her dog, Kai, a Husky-Labrador mix she’d rescued from a shelter. Kai had developed allergies to wheat and corn, two of the main ingredients in cheap dog food, so she was trying not to give him the stuff.

One muggy weekend, the kind where you leave the windows open to welcome even the slightest breeze, Colburn sliced up a cold pot roast and fed it to Kai. Then she let him out to pee. She was startled to see that her small porch, eight by ten feet, was “just full of bear.” Two of the animals, young ones, were down on all fours sniffing the deck. A bigger, older bear stood right in front of Colburn. Kai rocketed at it, and Colburn screamed. The bear lunged at the sound. “They move like lightning,” she told me.

The bear raked Colburn’s face and torso with its left paw. Its claws dug into one forearm, thrown up in self-defense, and then the other. Colburn, who’d fallen onto her back, tried to push herself inside but realized she’d accidentally closed the door when her head thumped glass. “She was going to frickin’ kill me, I just knew it, because her face was right here,” Tracey said, holding her hand about eight inches in front of her nose. “I was looking right into her eyes.”

Kai must have bitten the bear’s rear legs then, because it jerked away from Colburn. The two animals started snarling and fighting in the yard. Colburn regained her feet and scrambled inside the house, shaking from adrenaline. She looked at her right hand. It didn’t hurt, but it made her stomach turn. The bear had unwrapped the skin from the back of her hand like it was a Christmas present. The gaping hole showed ligaments, muscles, and blood. Colburn looked around her kitchen and picked up a clean dishcloth to wrap the wound.

Kai, only slightly injured, came trotting back toward the house; the bear was nowhere in sight. “Huskies prance. He come prancing out of the shadows, big grin on his face,” Colburn recalled. “Like it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever done.” But she was worried that the bear and its cubs were still out there, waiting for her. It was a terrifying prospect, because she needed to go outside. She didn’t get cell reception in her house, and she couldn’t afford a landline, so there was no way to get in touch with anyone to help her stanch the blood pouring from her injuries.

Carrying a lead pipe to defend herself, Colburn made a desperate run for her white Subaru, only to realize, once she was safely inside, that her mangled right hand couldn’t move the stick shift. Reaching across her body with her left hand, she got the car into gear and puttered down the driveway. She rolled along until she got to the home of a neighbor named Bob. When she rang his doorbell, he stuck his head out an upstairs window.

“I’ve just been attacked by a bear,” Colburn said, breathing heavily.

“Hold on,” Bob replied, and he ducked back inside. A few seconds later, his head popped back out.

“Uh, you’re kidding, right?” he asked.

Colburn conveyed, in painful shouts, that she was most certainly not kidding, and Bob quickly gave her a ride to the fire station. John Babiarz happened to be on duty. “Those goddamn bears!” he kept repeating. He called emergency responders, who whisked Colburn in an ambulance to the nearest hospital, then he phoned the Fish and Game Department. The person on the line was incredulous, like Bob before him. “It’s been a century since we’ve had a bear attack on a person,” the man said, referring to the whole of New Hampshire.

“I’m here!” Babiarz yelled back. “I see the blood!”

Doctors told Colburn that her body would heal. When she was released from the hospital, a warden from Fish and Game showed up at her house to erect a box trap in her yard. After he left, Colburn peeked at the single pink doughnut resting inside. That night she heard a bear banging on the side of the trap, but the next day the doughnut was still there. A few days later, the warden decided that the trap was useless, packed it up, and took it away.

Colburn thought about the bear all the time. She wondered how often it had ventured into her yard, onto her porch, and up to her windows without her knowing. Not like a Peeping Tom. Peeping Toms were people, and bears, she now knew for sure, were nothing like people. “If you look at their eyes,” she told me, “you understand that they are completely alien to us.”


At least one theory of aggressive ursine behavior supports the takeaway that bears are monstrous. Jaroslav Flegr, a biologist at Charles University in the Czech Republic, studies Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that lives inside warm-blooded animals and reproduces inside cats. (T. gondii is the reason pregnant women are told to steer clear of litter boxes.) When the parasite gets into an animal’s brain, the effects can ramify through the central nervous system. Flegr explained that infected people can become less risk averse. Men with T. gondii, for instance, have higher levels of testosterone and less regard for authority than they otherwise would.

Homo sapiens aren’t the only species that T. gondii can cause to act strangely—black bears are at risk, too. A study from the Journal of Wildlife Diseases found that 80 percent of black bears examined in a lab tested positive for the parasite.

It’s compelling to imagine that a horde of bears, zombified by a brain bug that triggers risky behavior, is terrorizing a small American town. But that’s more likely the stuff of science fiction than of good science. A more probable explanation for bold bear behavior is bold human behavior—which, in Grafton, means people embracing individual liberty. And one person’s freedom, it turns out, can be another’s burden.

It’s compelling to imagine that a horde of bears, zombified by a brain bug that triggers risky behavior, is terrorizing a small American town.

Take the case of two women I’ll call Doughnut Lady and Beretta, for reasons that will soon be clear. (Neither wanted to be named in this story.) They both live deep in Grafton’s forest, and Beretta’s house is just down the hill from Doughnut Lady’s. When I met her, Beretta spoke in a sharp, clipped way, and she favored pronouncements like “My handyman is such a leftist” and “Do not write a story glorifying it.” The “it” in this case was her neighbor’s behavior. Beretta suggested that Doughnut Lady was treating a serious threat like it was all “fun and games.”

For some 20 years, dating back to around the time that Jessica Soule’s kittens were gobbled up, Doughnut Lady had been feeding Grafton’s bears. She was now in her seventies and owlish, with glasses and a no-nonsense demeanor. She told me that she started feeding the bears accidentally; they stole grub from her two cows, Princess and Buttercup. Then, several years ago, she felt sorry for the bears and got into the habit of feeding them directly. The ritual was this: Every day at sunrise, and again in the late afternoon, she tottered outside with two buckets of grain. Up to eight bears at a time waited for her at the edge of the forest, where she poured the grain into two piles and topped each one with six sugared doughnuts. The animals ate in an orderly fashion, side by side on the ground, and then the cubs would clamber up nearby trees or Doughnut Lady’s satellite dish.

The number of bears grew, and food costs ballooned. Doughnut Lady didn’t want to admit how much the enterprise cost her—“I’m embarrassed, I really am,” she admitted to me—except to say that it represented a significant portion of her monthly budget. But the bears were darn cute, and they never once bothered her cows. Doughnut Lady showed me a homemade calendar she’d compiled featuring pictures of the bears.  

Hadn’t she been worried that she might fall down in the midst of her unusual chore, leaving her vulnerable to animals the size of sumo wrestlers? In a tone that suggested I was being silly, Doughnut Lady said that the thought hadn’t fazed her. Not because she was sure-footed. Indeed, she told me that she fell frequently in winter, when the ground was slick with ice.

I soon learned that there were four or five other families in Grafton who fed the bears, in defiance of state recommendations. Fish and Game was intolerant of such generosity: If you fed one bear, the department said, more bears will want to be fed, and once a bunch of bears get accustomed to food and its human sources, they’ll keep coming back whether you like it or not. Fish and Game recommended that, in addition to not deliberately offering bears tasty snacks, people should use airtight trash cans, keep meat scraps out of compost piles, and take down bird-feeders in early spring, when bears emerge from their dens.

Late one night in 2017, the long-simmering debate about bear feeding took on added urgency when Beretta heard noises outside her house. She grabbed her gun, the brand of which you can guess, and went to investigate. Paw prints littered the ground, and she was sure she knew which doughnut-fattened creatures had left them. This wasn’t the first time the bears from up the hill—a “sleuth” of them, to use the correct collective nomenclature—had gotten too close for comfort. Once, when she was preparing to leave the house for a shift at a volunteer job, she’d been stymied by several bears prowling in her yard, blocking the route to her car. Beretta had called her boss to say that she’d be late, due to unforeseen bear. On more than one occasion, she’d seriously considered shooting a bear and turning it into a rug, but she never acted on the impulse; fashioning the style she really wanted, with the bear’s head intact, would be too expensive.

After discovering the paw prints, Beretta called Grafton’s police officer to complain about her neighbor’s feeding habits. He said he couldn’t help, so Beretta called Fish and Game, which agreed to look into the matter. That’s how a uniformed warden wound up on Doughnut Lady’s doorstep.

Like many Grafton residents, Doughnut Lady referred to Fish and Game as “F and G,” but she put her own spin on the name, so that it sounded like “effin’ G”—as in, “The effin’ G came to attack me.” The warden showed her a printed copy of the state’s public-nuisance laws and told her that her daily feedings could lead to prosecution.

“You deserve a budget cut,” Doughnut Lady told him before slamming the door.

Angry, she called a lawyer, who said that while a legal case against her wouldn’t be airtight—the state would have to prove that her actions, not some other cause, were clearly the root of a defined problem or danger—she should probably stop feeding the bears. What if they hurt someone? She was sure they wouldn’t, but she wanted to avoid further scrutiny. The next morning, she didn’t go outside for the morning grain dump. She felt terrible. Doughnut Lady couldn’t look out her window for fear of making eye contact with the hungry bears waiting for her.

“So that was it,” she said, her eyes moist.

Then, brightening, Doughnut Lady suggested that she could try a new strategy. She could plant blueberries and other calorie-rich flora that bears enjoy. She hinted, too, that she could stretch the definition of planted. Take sunflower seeds, for instance: Bears loved them, and she could scatter them on her property however she wanted. “I could just put them on the ground,” she mused, “and they’re planted.”


Fish and Game contends that “the majority of human/bear conflicts can be avoided,” to the tune of 86 percent, if people act responsibly with their grub. It was no surprise to learn that, in 2012, the year Tracey Colburn was attacked, New Hampshire suffered a drought that limited the animals’ usual fare of bushes, berries, and bugs. Fish and Game got more than 1,000 bear complaints that year, many of them describing animals anxious to get their paws on human food.

Regardless of the reasons for the attack, some locals saw it as a breaking point, a violation of the line between man and nature that demanded recompense. The day after the incident made local news, Colburn stood on her porch and watched as a pickup truck bumped up the dirt road past her house. Inside the cab were several men. The bed held a large wooden box containing hunting dogs, whose acute sense of smell and loud baying would lead the men to their prey. The men didn’t acknowledge Colburn, and she never saw them again. She was fine with that; if an illegal bear hunt was happening, she didn’t want to know about it.

I very much wanted to know about it, so I asked around. As soon as I did, I got what I learned to be a mainstay of small talk in Grafton: friendly advice. It came in various forms, like “I’m a proud gun owner” slipped with a smile between someone’s descriptions of their pets. Tom Ploszaj, a scruffy guy who lives in a trailer in an encampment where the preferred method of keeping bears away is pouring cayenne pepper all over the garbage, explained the subtext to me. “There’s a lot of places around here where they’ll never put a shovel into the dirt,” Ploszaj said. “You don’t want to find one of those places.” I had no idea what he meant, so he clarified: “If you ask too many questions, you might be in a hole in the woods, and no one’s going to find you.”

“It’s like being a German in Nazi Germany and not wanting to kill the Jews. You hear about it, and you know it’s happening, but you just don’t want to think about it.”

It never came to that, but getting answers was still like pulling teeth. During one of my trips to town, a pair of men standing on the wooden porch of the Grafton Country Store told me that an illegal posse had hunted and killed 13 bears in one day. When I pressed for details, the men clammed up, as if suddenly remembering that they shouldn’t brag to a journalist about breaking the law. Another resident said he knew about the vigilante hunt and opposed it, but would never have put up any resistance. “It’s like being a German in Nazi Germany and not wanting to kill the Jews,” he said. “You hear about it, and you know it’s happening, but you just don’t want to think about it.”

I asked the town’s police officer, Russell Poitras, about the posse, and he said he didn’t know anything about it. Would it have been possible to hear the bear hunt, I asked—all those gunshots fired in the woods? Sure, Poitras said, but gunfire was to Grafton what traffic is to a big city: background noise.

Another local resident, who asked not to be named because she feared repercussions, was more helpful. She told me that one day, in the middle of winter, when hibernating bears were easier targets than they were during legal hunting season, she answered a knock at her door. Standing there was John Dodge. He spoke of “us,” and the woman understood that Dodge was there with a few other men. They were probably behind him on the road, bundled up inside their trucks and away from the freezing air.

Dodge told the woman that the group wanted to kill a bear whose den was inside a hill on her land.

“I got nothing to do with it,” she replied.

“We need to know if we can get on your property,” Dodge explained.

“What I don’t know won’t hurt me,” she told him with a shrug. “I won’t look out my window.”

After that she heard gunfire in fits and starts. She stayed inside and didn’t peek out, as she’d promised. A few days later, Dodge told her that the posse had finished its work, which had included much more than shooting the single bear on her property. “He said they got them, emptied them out,” the woman told me. “He said it was 13.”

Would Dodge or the other men talk to me? I wondered. “They agreed that they’re not going to,” the woman said. Word had gotten around about the questions I was asking, and an omerta was in effect. This surprised me less than the revelation that I’d already spoken to Dodge some months prior. His door was one of many I’d knocked on while first sussing out tales of Grafton’s bears, before I knew about the posse.

“I just moved here,” he’d said. “I haven’t seen any bears.” Then he’d shut the door.

In fact, I learned, Dodge was raised in Grafton and had lived alongside bears his whole life. Armed with this knowledge, I drove to his house, parked across the road, and approached him when he came into his yard. Rangy, with a sun-browned forehead, skullcap of white hair, and mouth that cut a straight line across his skeptical face, Dodge listened while I explained that I wasn’t trying to get him in any trouble—I just wanted to know the story.

“I still ain’t going to talk to anybody. I don’t want nothing to do with it,” he said. “You can explain it, but I don’t want to get involved with it.”

Dodge denied taking part in any posse. He added that he’s part Cherokee, and killing bears was a violation of that heritage. Then he offered me some friendly advice: “If you find out about this bear hunt that you keep mentioning, you’re going to have a problem.” I took him to mean that the members of the posse would wield some brand of street (forest?) justice at me and anyone who snitched. I thanked him for his time and walked toward my car.

“Just leave me out of it,” he called after me. “Because a war’s going to come, and I’m going to be right in the middle of it.” What role he’d play exactly he didn’t say.


It’s easy to see locals like Dodge as foolhardy and eager to use the bear threat, whether real, imagined, or embellished, as an excuse to live out action-movie fantasies. But when I looked under the hood of New Hampshire’s law and order, I found deficiencies—the kind that people might take as evidence that they needed to act on their own.

Budget troubles in recent years have forced Fish and Game to reduce its staff size. Wardens, of which there are 32 statewide, are stretched thin. They handle upwards of 600 bears complaints annually, among thousands of other calls, and Andrew Timmins admitted that it can be hard to do much more than keep track of the number and type of reports. When I asked him if I could review the department’s paperwork on the Colburn attack, he said that none existed. “Given the magnitude of the work, sometimes details slip through the cracks,” Timmins wrote in an email, speculating on why a responding warden didn’t write the incident up. “I can tell you from experience that there are times when I would not have time to do the same.”

To a journalist, it was a frustrating answer. I imagined it might be the same for people who prefer that bears not devour pets, destroy property, or get violent with innocents like Colburn. “If the government won’t do its job, the people will,” Babiarz told me one day.

But what is the government’s job in the eyes of a citizenry that exists on a political spectrum from lightly libertarian to all-out anarchist? Only a well-funded, organized state agency can efficiently safeguard communities from bears, and Grafton is full of people who tend to support the depletion of government coffers. Babiarz, I realized, probably didn’t want a state agent coming to his farm to capture or kill the chicken-eating bear. More likely, he wanted New Hampshire to lift restrictions on his right to shoot the animal or, if he felt like it, to feed it chocolate. That was the state’s job: to protect his freedom.

“I feel, on my property, I have the right to defend and protect,” Babiarz told me. “If I see a problem bear, I will deal with it. We can argue about it in court later on.”  

What is the government’s job in the eyes of a citizenry that exists on a political spectrum from lightly libertarian to all-out anarchist?

Driving around Grafton, I passed dilapidated houses that stood like rotting teeth against a yawning green mouth of New England forest. Other fossils of town history were submerged in the intruding wilderness: platforms that once held church revivals, cemeteries in various states of senescence, foundations of long-abandoned homesteads. This, nature’s relentless fecundity, molded the town’s Great Bear Drama—a mix of luring, feeding, shouting, shooting, and storytelling. History also played a part, as did politics and culture. Vital, too, was the prism of individual experience.

One day I found myself thinking of C.I. Lewis, a New England–based philosopher who wrote a book called Mind and the World Order in 1929. At the time, his college-age daughter was dying of leukemia. Lewis used the term qualia to describe the unique properties that someone senses during a life event. His daughter, for instance, likely felt pain, the weight of her body, and the speed of time in ways that he, at her bedside, could not. What did qualia mean, Lewis wondered, for the concept of shared reality and objective truth?

Perhaps Grafton’s relationship with bears was a huge bundle of qualia, stacked like cords of wood. Every resident’s experience looked awfully like the one next to it, as if cut from the same tree, and they were all bound by the ties of a communal existence. Yet up close, each one was distinct, shaped in various ways by ferality and freedom.

Late in the spring of 2018, I visited Grafton one last time. At the end of the day, in a deepening dusk, I steered my car up a rocky dirt road and around tall, twisting trees toward Tent City. I wanted to talk to the survivalists again, to see whether their bear troubles had faded or intensified in recent months. I got there later than I’d intended and could barely see the camp in the gloom. I made out the finished barrier, more motley than originally conceived: a crude network of chain-link, metal gates, and picket-fence sections, all of it trussed together in a common function.  

I reached the road’s end; I would have to walk from there. Rolling down the window of my car, I squinted at an indistinct shape moving in the woods. Was it a survivalist, foraging for mushrooms or firewood? Or was it a bear, foraging for something else? If I couldn’t tell what it was, would the survivalists know I was human when they saw my figure approaching their camp in the creeping darkness? If not, would firecrackers or worse come flying my way?

I spent a long moment considering unwanted consequences, whether wrought by man or by beast, and the fact that danger, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Then I rolled up my window and drove back the way I came, leaving Tent City to another restless night.

Some Mother’s Boy

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Some Mother’s Boy

In 1921, a teenager died alone in Kentucky and was buried without a name. A century later, a team of sleuths set out to find his identity.

By Alina Simone

The Atavist Magazine, No. 71


Alina Simone is the author of two essay collections and a novel. Her work has been featured in The New York TimesThe Guardian’s Long Read, and the Village Voice, among others.


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Jake Scobey-Thal
Illustrator: Lauren Tamaki

Published in September 2017. Design updated in 2021.

The Case

He was in a hurry when he was killed.

Late at night on April 1, 1921, a teenager dashed across the tracks of a northbound train just steaming into the depot in Georgetown, Kentucky. He was hoping to catch another train—the Royal Palm headed to Jacksonville, Florida—pulling away on the opposite switch. But his timing was off, or maybe he stumbled. The corner of the massive metal engine he’d raced in front of struck him in the head, fracturing his skull and knocking him unconscious.

The station agent was the first to get to the boy, who wasn’t carrying identification. No horrified onlooker claimed him as a son, brother, lover, or friend. At Ford Memorial Hospital, he was admitted as a John Doe. In a matter of hours he died as one, too. “An unidentified youth brought in the hospital here late Friday night,” the Lexington Leader reported, “died this morning without regaining consciousness. He was about 17 years of age.”

At a local funeral home, it fell to Ernest Ashurst, the Scott County coroner, to find the boy’s family. Georgetown, known for its Baptist college and premium tobacco, had only 3,900 residents. The town’s depot, however, sat on the so-called Whiskey Route connecting Kentucky’s eastern distilleries to the state capital and to rail lines serving cities as far away as Buffalo and Miami. Lexington was 13 miles south, Cincinnati 70 miles north. The dead boy could have come from anywhere.

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Ashurst released a physical description—five feet six inches tall, 110 pounds, eyes blue-gray, hair light brown, complexion fair—along with a catalog of the young man’s possessions. “The youth’s clothes, which were of good quality, bore the clothier’s mark ‘H.M. Lindenthal, Chicago,’ and on his shirt was the laundry mark, ‘Jones,’” the Lexington Leader noted. Ashurst also found a tag bearing the code “E IC6” on the boy’s shirt, and a pocket watch engraved with the letters “W.A.” on the outside of its case, “L.H.D.” on the inside. The coroner canvassed nearby towns with telegrams and advertisements, and he took callers at the funeral home—bereft relatives in search of their own lost boys.

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Meanwhile, county attorney H. Church Ford, a witness to the accident, claimed that the victim hadn’t been traveling alone. “The boy, with another young man, was hidden under a box car on the east side of the station,” the Lexington Herald quoted Ford saying. The pair had attempted to cross the tracks together, but only “one succeeded in getting over.” The account made it seem like the travelers might have been hobos, but Ashurst was convinced otherwise. “The dead boy evidently is well-bred and belongs to an excellent family,” he told the Georgetown Times.

The companion was nowhere in sight by the time the station agent reached the scene. According to bystanders, the boy had bought a ticket—a sign that Ashurst was right about the pair not being hobos—on a train bound for Somerset, Kentucky, some 90 miles south. A warrant was issued for his arrest. When the young man was apprehended, he insisted that he didn’t so much as know the dead boy’s name. They’d met in Cincinnati and ridden south together, nothing more. It seemed odd that they’d never exchanged names, odder still that the survivor had blithely bought a ticket while his acquaintance bled from a fatal head wound. The traveler maintained his ignorance, though, and was released from custody. Newspapers didn’t report his name.

Two weeks after the accident, Georgetown’s authorities couldn’t keep the body aboveground any longer. By then the tragedy had aroused the small town’s sympathy. Residents raised money to pay for a casket and funeral. The burial was held at Georgetown’s cemetery on the afternoon of Thursday, April 14. Several townspeople attended. Others sent flowers. Ashurst pledged to not stop looking for the family.

A simple headstone was unveiled, engraved with the date of the boy’s death, that of his burial, and the note “Contributed by Friends.” The stone didn’t bear a name. At least, not a real one.


The first thing I learned about unidentified bodies is that they need nicknames. A moniker can derive from the place where a body is found, like Cheerleader in the Trunk, discovered in Frederick, Maryland, in 1982. It can refer to when a corpse turns up, like Valentine Sally, found on a February 14 in Williams, Arizona. Or it can memorialize a physical characteristic, like Tok, Alaska’s One-Eyed Jack, who was wearing a leather eye patch when he was located in 1979. Nicknames serve as convenient shorthand for cops tracking cases. They can also generate intrigue, empathy, and investigative leads. The best nicknames tell stories that captivate.

That’s the second thing I learned about unidentified bodies: Story is everything. Of the 4,400 unclaimed, unnamed bodies discovered in the United States annually, law enforcement identifies 75 percent within a year. After that the chances of putting a name to a body plunge dramatically. Drumming up public interest with a compelling narrative is often the only way to keep cases from being forgotten.  

The man who taught me the lessons of the anonymous dead is Todd Matthews. By the time cases make it to him, they’ve been deemed all but unsolvable—“hard boiled,” as he puts it. Matthews co-directs the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a little known government operation housed in the Department of Justice. NamUs manages an online database of records pertaining to unidentified bodies, cross-referenced with a catalog of missing persons. The assumption is that there’s overlap—parents searching for a lost child, say, whose body detectives are trying to identify several states away. Anyone can register case information with NamUs: physical descriptions, date LKA (last known alive), dental records, and so on. About 14,500 cases of unidentified remains—and many more cases of missing persons—have been logged since NamUs was developed in 2007.

Matthews is 47, with a boyish face and shaggy brown hair that he often tops with a battered khaki baseball cap. He isn’t a career bureaucrat, cop, or forensic scientist. He doesn’t even have a college degree. His quixotic hunt for the names of unidentified bodies began 30 years ago in rural Tennessee, where he was born and raised, and where he found his calling as a DIY sleuth. When I reached out to him in early 2017, I was looking for a cold case of my own to pursue. The crime fiction of Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, and Boris Akunin filled my family’s bookcases when I was growing up. As an adult, I prefer the Nordic variant of the genre, penned by writers like Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson. I was eager to report a story with a hero and a villain, a wrong in need of righting, a noble quest.

Over the years, science and technology have made Matthews’s work easier. Labs can now identify human remains from little more than DNA-enriched soil and perform digital facial reconstruction for bodies found without heads. Genetic research is routinely practiced at home, with millions of people uploading their profiles into public databases in hopes of finding a Viking ancestor or Native American cousin thrice removed. Some aspects of the job, though, haven’t changed: the obsessive, painstaking ones. It’s not unusual for Matthews to pursue a case for years, sometimes decades. He believes it’s never too late for anyone—even me, even you—to search for a missing person or identify an anonymous body.

Not everyone agrees. Many lingering John and Jane Does were sex workers, homeless people, or criminals before they died, a potential public relations problem for detectives who find themselves in the distasteful position of justifying the hunt for the identities of people whom society cast out. There’s also the matter of money. With tens of thousands of unsolved murders and rapes committed across the United States each year, the amount of government funding available for DNA testing already falls well short of law enforcement’s needs. Why waste scant resources on the antique dead?

NamUs entry #16182, the case of the young man killed by a train in Georgetown, Kentucky, personified both sides of this debate. At 96 years, it was one of the oldest cases in the NamUs database; there was little hope of finding anyone who knew the deceased when he was alive, and the odds of pulling useable DNA from his remains were low. Because his death was an accident, there was no crime to solve. Yet his nickname pulled off the difficult trick of illuminating what makes some people care so much about the unnamed dead, and what made me choose case #16182 as my project.

The nickname came readymade, inscribed on the donated headstone and obscured over the decades by creeping moss: Some Mother’s Boy.

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The Detective

From the moment he was born, Todd Matthews was dogged by death. His father, a Vietnam veteran, was exposed to Agent Orange, which led to birth abnormalities that claimed the lives of an infant brother and sister. His own survival was no sure thing: He was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that required surgery by the time he was eight. “This kid won’t make it past his teens,” a doctor muttered at his bedside.

His mother wouldn’t let him so much as plug in an appliance by himself, much less play football or baseball like other boys his age. In the sports-obsessed culture of Livingston, Tennessee, a small town near the Kentucky border, Matthews needed to carve out a different identity for himself. He became a raconteur and a cut-up with a flair for the macabre, the guy at school who smuggled a Ouija board into band practice. It was his way of spinning the darkness that wreathed his early life into something positive.

In the fall of 1987, his senior year of high school, Matthews spotted a new girl—a willowy brunette named Lori Riddle who was a transplant from Kentucky. One day near Halloween, when the school was decked with orange and black streamers, Matthews held a group of kids in study hall captive with a scary story. He was surprised when Riddle took a seat next to him, more surprised still when she spoke. “I have a sort of ghost story,” she said.

In the spring of 1968, her father, Wilbur Riddle, was walking near a ridge covered with thick scrub in Scott County, Kentucky, when he tripped on a dirty green tarp bound by a tight cord and encasing something bulky. He cut the cord and was horrified to discover the naked body of a young woman wrapped in a canvas tent. Police would later determine that she’d been hit in the head and suffocated to death, but they weren’t able to identify her. Tent Girl was buried in a grave marked “No. 90.”

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Matthews was struck, by Riddle and the story. The pair started dating, and when Riddle took Matthews home to meet her family, her father pulled out an old issue of Master Detective magazine that featured a write-up about Tent Girl. “Kentucky police ask your assistance in the most baffling case in the state’s criminal history,” the cover blared. “Who is the ‘Tent Girl’ and who killed her?” For Matthews, it was an eerie moment of clarity, “almost like you’re remembering the future,” he told me. He made two promises to himself: that he would marry Riddle and solve the Tent Girl case.

Within a year, Matthews and Riddle were hitched. He would spend the next ten years making good on promise number two.

After graduating from high school, Matthews went to work on the assembly line at Hutchinson, a materials manufacturer in Livingston. In his spare time, he took to cold-calling police stations and combing newspaper archives in search of any woman reported missing in 1968 who matched Tent Girl’s description: white, between 16 and 19 years old, five feet one inch tall, 110 to 115 pounds, short reddish-brown hair, no identifying marks or scars. He struggled to explain the allure of the case, to others and to himself. All he could say was that it felt like a portal to a place familiar enough to recognize but different enough to enthrall. Matthews had rarely left the county where he was from—“long-distance travel for us was the Smoky Mountains”—and Tent Girl allowed him to pursue something difficult and tragic that stretched his life’s tether.

Sometimes he drove the 170 miles north to the site where her body was found and to her grave, located in a cemetery in Georgetown, Kentucky. Matthews would always pause at the grave marked Some Mother’s Boy. It had earned a mention, peppered with inaccuracies, at the end of the Master Detective magazine article:

“Near ‘No. 90’ is the grave where another unidentified body rests. In it, about 30 years earlier, was buried the body of a young man found dead outside Georgetown. Townspeople joined to buy a grave marker which reads, Someone’s boy. About 19.

Everyone knows about Tent Girl, Matthews would think, but nobody knows about Some Mother’s Boy. The grave lodged itself in the recesses of his mind.

Matthews came to know the Tent Girl case so well that he could rattle off descriptions of her fingernails (well manicured) and the rocks (construction debris) that had concealed her body from view on U.S. 25. He developed a theory that she wasn’t a girl at all, but a woman. Police had assumed she was a teenager because she was short; according to Wilbur Riddle, though, her breasts were unusually large. Later, police determined that a small white towel found with the body was a cloth diaper. Matthews suspected that she had delivered a baby not long before she was killed.

A turning point in Matthews’s search came with the advent of the internet. In 1997, he created a website that included Tent Girl’s physical description, a police sketch, and his name and phone number for tipsters to use. Given the primitive state of search engines, “I might as well have hung a poster in the woods,” Matthews said. A Kentucky newspaper ran a story about the site, but it wasn’t so much Tent Girl that interested the reporter as it was Matthews: the son-in-law of the man who’d discovered the body, trying to solve the decades-old mystery.

It was hard to be the sole champion of a dead person. Matthews put financial strain on his family, spending money on long-distance phone calls, travel, motel stays, and other expenses. At one point even his wife, his original muse, grew exasperated. She moved out for six months, taking their infant son with her, and consulted a divorce lawyer. “It’s not like I’m selling dope. I’m not doing anything bad. What’s wrong with this?” Matthews asked her. Deep down, though, he knew the answer: His obsession “was taking away, in her mind, from other things I should be doing,” Matthews told me. After they reconciled, he would wait for her to go to bed before scouring the internet for leads.

One night in January 1998, Matthews was trawling a website called Crain and Hibb, “kinda like a Craigslist of the day,” he recalled. “People were looking for lost dogs, cars for sale. I searched for missing mother, sister, daughter.” He came across a listing that read, “Sister, last seen in Lexington, KY, Dec 1967.” Matthews froze. Tent Girl had been found just north of Lexington. He’d always suspected she was from there but could never find a missing-person report with a matching description. He ran into the bedroom, jumped on the bed, and yelled to his wife, who was asleep, “I found her! I found her!”

“People were looking for lost dogs, cars for sale. I searched for missing mother, sister, daughter.”

When Matthews contacted the woman who’d posted the listing, everything fit: her sister’s height, hair, and weight, even her well-manicured nails. The missing woman’s name was Barbara Ann Hackmann Taylor, and she’d been in her twenties with an eight-month-old child at the time of her death. It was her teeth that convinced Emily Craig, Kentucky’s state forensic anthropologist, to authorize an exhumation of Tent Girl for DNA testing. “A lot of these stories can be discounted pretty quickly, but Todd and the Tent Girl just couldn’t,” Craig told me. “He had pictures of Barbara Hackmann Taylor, and I had pictures from the autopsy that showed her teeth.” Both sets of images revealed a top row with a distinctive gap. “It was a visual thing, a gestalt that I put together in my head,” Craig explained. Six weeks after the exhumation, a DNA test proved that Taylor was Tent Girl. Relatives were able to put a name on her grave, which remained in Georgetown.

How did police fail to identify Tent Girl as a resident of Lexington, so close to where she was found? “Nobody at that time really looked at both sides of the equation,” Craig explained. “There were people that were passionate about the deceased. And there were people passionate about the missing. But without an internet-based system or a person as a go-between, they never came together.”

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Like many anonymous dead, Taylor led a troubled life. She grew up in Illinois but left home to follow her future husband, a trucker named Earl, and had three children with him by the time she was 24. Her family tracked Earl down after she disappeared, but he claimed that she’d run off with another man. The family also contacted police, but thinking Taylor was still alive they asked the wrong question: Had a 24-year-old mother of three been reported missing? After Matthews solved the case, Taylor’s family suspected that Earl had murdered her. He was an occasional carnival worker, and the tent used to wrap up the body was similar to those used in traveling fairs. By then, however, Earl had died of cancer.

As the first civilian in America to identify a body using the internet, Matthews was turbo-spun through the media cycle, even appearing on 48 Hours. Profiles in People and Wired followed. The Tent Girl case prompted Kentucky to create a database of unclaimed remains, among the first of its kind nationwide. More broadly, Craig told me, Matthews’s breakthrough “basically launched the internet phenomenon of web sleuthing for the missing and unidentified.” Matthews helped create the Doe Network, a volunteer-run predecessor to NamUs, and Project EDAN (Everyone Deserves a Name), a group of forensic artists who provide pro bono portraits of bodies. He started a blog called Sleuth the Truth and a Yahoo Group entitled Cold Case Comparative Analysis, as well as other online forums that welcomed amateur detectives. By 2006, he’d launched a podcast, Missing Pieces, which would record more than 100 episodes.

Elsewhere in the digital sphere, chat rooms, message boards, and discussion groups united would-be Inspector Poirots working in home offices or at kitchen tables. “It was like a startup that went nuts,” Matthews recalled. Websites with names like Websleuths dissected cases and posted about breaks, some of them achieved by citizen detectives who cited Matthews as an inspiration. Others turned to him as a resource and sounding board.

Among them was a young woman named Ahlashia Thomas from Berea, Kentucky. In 1993, when Thomas was in high school, hikers found a dead man at a local campground. He wore a backpack but had no identification. Pulled over his head was a plastic bag from a Madison, Wisconsin, grocery store, secured around his neck with a belt. His hands were missing. The local media dubbed him Madison Man because of the plastic bag and because Berea was located in Madison County. Thomas couldn’t get the story out of her mind. “I just imagined this poor man lying there with stumps and—oh, it just bothered me!” Thomas told me.

When the investigation cooled and police determined that Madison Man’s death was not a homicide, her unease turned to indignation. She began to suspect a law-enforcement cover-up. “They want to make it look like this is a perfect place to live,” she said. Deemed the “folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky” by the state legislature, Berea is also home to the first integrated college in the South. Thomas decided to do some research, starting with “one of those little microfiche things” at Berea College’s library. She pinpointed the site of Madison Man’s death, visited it to take pictures, and started a case file. She scoured the internet for missing persons who matched the John Doe’s description.

Matthews’s name kept coming up in Thomas’s online searches. One day, after Madison Man had been dead for ten years, she “took a leap of faith” and emailed him. Matthews helped her commission a forensic drawing of the body, make a website for the case, and post on missing-person message boards and genealogy forums. He also contacted a reporter in Wisconsin, urging him to write about the case. The reporter agreed, but still no one claimed the body.

Matthews and Thomas decided that if they couldn’t give Madison Man a name, at least they could give him a funeral. Matthews had an unused gravestone in his family’s barn; it had been intended for a great uncle, a casualty of World War II, for whom the military ended up providing a different stone. Matthews had the slab inscribed with the words “Madison Man” and drove it up to replace the original aluminum marker left on the John Doe’s grave. He improvised a prayer. Thomas left flowers. It was June 2004.

Three weeks later, a local news outlet did a story about the appearance of the tombstone. Lexington’s NBC affiliate, WLEX, also ran a story. From there the news item cartwheeled across the country, eventually catching the eye of a woman in Wisconsin who was searching for her brother-in-law, Doug Prouty, missing since 1993. As far as his family knew, Prouty, a janitor, had never been to Kentucky. A DNA test on a tissue sample retained from Madison Man confirmed Prouty’s identity, and his remains were returned home. The circumstances of his death remained murky, but Thomas was satisfied. “I feel he’s at peace,” she told me.

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Like Thomas, the federal government took notice of Matthews’s successes and came calling. In 2007, the Department of Justice asked him to help develop NamUs. After almost 20 years at Hutchinson, Matthews quit his job and started gathering data to enter into the new system. He called detectives and medical examiners to identify potential entries. He traced missing evidence and fact-checked conflicting information.

The grind paid off. Once the system was live, users began cross-referencing cases, trying to match the missing and the dead. Anguished families could see evidence previously siloed in particular counties or states. Web sleuths made NamUs their new mecca, contacting police with theoretical matches between cases. Matthews was always seeking to improve the available data: Is there a picture of that tattoo? Is there a better picture? Are there any X-rays of that broken arm? Do I spy evidence of a car crash?

In 2011, the director of the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology at the University of North Texas, which provided free genetic testing for unidentified remains, proposed a merger with NamUs. Law enforcement would now have to register cases with NamUs in order to access testing, a move that brought the database’s staff into closer contact with police across the country. Matthews was given a promotion from system administrator to co-director of NamUs, alongside a former police intelligence analyst based at UNT.

But he didn’t move to Fort Worth, where the UNT lab is located. Matthews chose to stay in Livingston. He thought he could make a bigger difference in the South, because he already knew coroners across Tennessee and Kentucky—including Emily Craig, who became NamUs’s critical incident coordinator—and where unidentified remains were buried. He also didn’t want to leave his hometown, where his family had been for more than a century. At the Overton County Heritage Museum, portraits of his ancestors—William Jasper Matthews, who was in the Tennessee senate in the late 1800s, and James Oliver Matthews, who served as a sheriff in the early 20th century—hang near an exhibit of Matthews’s father’s Army uniform from Vietnam. Matthews and his wife still live on the street where he grew up, in sight of the high school where they met, in a house they built next to the homes of his parents and brother. He recently bought a house on an adjacent lot for his grown son’s family. Matthews has nicknamed the block-long compound Hotel California, because, in his words, “You can check out, but you’ll never leave.”

He also holds the deed to his family’s cemetery, where his baby brother and sister are buried. He visits it frequently and knows he’ll be interred there one day. “There is nothing like being there,” he said on a podcast. “That sense of closeness and closure because you have a place to go. I think that is just human nature.”

Matthews once sent me an unprompted email with the subject line “My own funeral—a work in progress.” It contained a letter addressed to his sons that he’d not yet sent them because its contents were “too hard to discuss.” (I could only guess why he shared it with me; obsessing about death forges a strange bond.) “Don’t let them talk you into having a vault for me,” the letter began. “I want as simple a wooden casket as possible. I want to truly return to the earth.” Then came a list of songs Matthews considered appropriate for his funeral service and a specific request to avoid “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” by country singer Vince Gill: “I hate that song. lol.”


To date, 2,970 cases of unidentified remains entered into NamUs have been resolved—a success rate of about 20 percent. Matthews wants to do more. There is no federal law requiring law enforcement to report anonymous bodies to NamUs, a problem Matthews has decided to tackle on a state-by-state basis. In Tennessee, he helped draft the Help Find the Missing Act, which passed while I was reporting this story. To get similar laws enacted across the country, he’s marshaling fellow sleuths to the lobbying cause, mostly via Facebook.

In late 2016, however, NamUs faced a setback: The federal government announced that it was withdrawing funding for UNT’s testing of unidentified remains. The money, a mere $1 million but vital to NamUs’s work, was being redirected to the national backlog of untested rape kits, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.

There are other ways a body can be identified—dental records, fingerprints, X-rays, autopsy photos—but for families of the long-term lost, often “it’s DNA or nothing,” Matthews explained. The more time a body is in the ground, the more degraded its genetic material becomes. Mitochondrial DNA, the most durable form, passed down only through maternal bloodlines, is difficult and costly to analyze. If all that remains of a corpse is a bone fragment, the testing process is much more complicated than your typical drugstore paternity kit or 23andMe swab. According to Forensic magazine, only seven states have laboratories that can match UNT’s testing capacity, and private labs charge thousands of dollars to handle a single sample. If cash-strapped police departments were forced to shelve DNA they couldn’t afford to have analyzed, it would erode the quality of data in the NamUs database.

There are other ways a body can be identified—dental records, fingerprints, X-rays, autopsy photos—but for families of the long-term lost, often “it’s DNA or nothing.”

At the start of 2017, Matthews estimated that there was enough money left from an existing federal grant for the DNA services to last about six months. He formulated a plan: Working closely with law enforcement in Kentucky, the state whose cold cases he knew best, he would pick two unidentified bodies and use the last drip of money to solve them. The ensuing media attention, Matthews hoped, would help bump NamUs back up the government’s list of funding priorities.

The first case Matthews picked was NamUs entry #86, an unsolved homicide from 1989. The man had been found shot through the head, with his hands severed at the wrists, among fragrant tobacco leaves in a barn in the town of Dry Ridge. The missing hands inspired the victim’s nickname, Nubs, and recalled Madison Man.

The second case was Some Mother’s Boy, to whom Matthews felt a lingering sense of responsibility. He’d never forgotten even the smallest details of his career’s genesis, including the anonymous grave that sat near Tent Girl’s. Some Mother’s Boy was now the oldest known cold case in Kentucky. “It might be a historical case, and we don’t have any leads. It’s not a homicide,” Matthews admitted. “But can we give it a shot?”

The Boys

The week after Some Mother’s Boy’s burial in April 1921, Ashurst, the coroner, told a local newspaper, “The body will be preserved for twenty years in a state that will permit identification.” Matthews took this comment to mean that Ashurst was confident enough in the quality of his embalming—far from an exact science a century ago—to believe that the boy would be recognizable should a family request an exhumation in the two decades immediately following his death. However skilled an embalmer Ashurst might have been, by 2017 there was no hope of recognizing Some Mother’s Boy. The real question was whether anything remained of him at all.

Under normal circumstances, an unidentified body is exhumed if a family comes forward with compelling evidence, circumstantial or forensic, that the deceased may be a relative, as was the case with Tent Girl. Police can petition for an exhumation if they have reason to believe technological advances would yield new clues in a homicide investigation. Some Mother’s Boy met neither criterion. But given the pathos and lore surrounding the case—a local paper dubbed it “the biggest mystery in Scott County”—John Goble, the current county coroner, took it on as a personal mission. “Think about this: Up till the day that mama died, she didn’t know where her 17-year-old boy was,” Goble told me.

“Think about this: Up till the day that mama died, she didn’t know where her 17-year-old boy was.”

Before requesting an exhumation, which his office empowered him to do, Goble wanted to double-check some facts. What if a family had claimed the boy after the burial and the headstone had been left behind as a historical curiosity? In that scenario, Ashurst should have filed a death certificate, which was easy enough to check at Kentucky’s Office of Vital Statistics by looking up Some Mother’s Boy’s date of death. Emily Craig volunteered to do the research. (Not only was she working at NamUs, but she was also Goble’s wife.) In early 2017, she confirmed that no death in Georgetown matching the description of Some Mother’s Boy’s demise had been recorded on April 1, 1921.

At Georgetown’s library, she dug up every article she could find about the boy’s death and Ashurst’s frustrated search for kin. Craig also did some sleuthing on H.M. Lindenthal, the company that manufactured the coat the boy was wearing. She discovered advertisements in old newspapers depicting natty gentlemen in suits with names like the Princeton, holding gold-knobbed canes or well-groomed miniature dogs in the crooks of their arms. Lindenthal sold clothing “geared toward the up-and-coming young man,” Craig told me. Based on these findings and Ashurst’s descriptions of Some Mother’s Boy as well-off, Craig developed a theory. “Back then, because people didn’t have telephones, when somebody went missing, they put it in the newspaper, like in the want ads,” she told me. A hobo probably wouldn’t have warranted such attention, but a wealthy young man might have.

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Craig punched some terms into Google: “missing heir,” “1921,” and “W.A.,” the letters engraved on the outside of Some Mother’s Boy’s pocket watch. She found a young man whose family lived three hours north of Georgetown in 1921. An article entitled “Seek Missing Heir to Fortune in L.A.” was placed by a distant relative of one W.A. Shafer, from Parker City, Indiana, in the Los Angeles Herald on March 22, 1921. It stated that Shafer had last been seen in Chicago the previous August, “when he signified his intention of coming to Los Angeles” for reasons the article didn’t describe.

Here was a young man of means with a motive to travel to Georgetown—where he could’ve caught a westbound train—and whose initials matched those on the watch. There were some worrying dimensions to the story. Shafer, for instance, disappeared seven months before Some Mother’s Boy died. But it was a promising lead. Craig called Parker City’s historical society to learn whether the young man had ever reappeared. A representative told Craig that there were a lot of Shafers still living in town and promised to do some research.

All of this was good enough for Goble, who authorized the exhumation. It was set to take place on March 10.

Matthews was thrilled by the decision. In late February, however, he learned that the funding for DNA testing had run out earlier than expected, thanks to a higher-than-average volume of samples requiring analysis in the first two months of the year. The only other entity that might test old DNA for free was the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Virginia, a much more selective operation than UNT’s. On average it receives more than 200 analysis requests each month.

Craig asked for the lab’s assistance in both the Nubs and Some Mother’s Boy cases. It readily agreed to participate in the former, since it was an open homicide investigation. It was skeptical about Some Mother’s Boy, given the age of the case and its noncriminal nature. Still, the request was approved. “We would prefer femur bones if possible,” a forensic examiner wrote to Craig.


On the morning of Some Mother’s Boy’s exhumation, Matthews, who’d driven three hours from Livingston the night before, met Craig for an early breakfast at a Cracker Barrel. They were the first to arrive at the gravesite. By 8 a.m., Goble was there with a handful of his deputies, coroners from nearby counties, the mayor of Georgetown, and a local funeral director who’d donated a baby-size casket for the dead and coffee for the living. Local media came, too, crews from WTVQ in Lexington, WBIR in Knoxville, and WKRC in Cincinnati, as well as newspaper reporters. It was a cool, windy day, the sky a dull gray. Across U.S. 25, which borders the cemetery, neon signs at the Indian Acres Shopping Center were just starting to blink “Open.”

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Goble led the group in a short prayer, then announced, “We’re going to go down three inches at a time, just peeling back the layers of soil.” A cemetery worker climbed into a backhoe and began to dig. At about three feet deep, the soil became a shade darker, a sign of decomposition, and the worker cut the backhoe’s engine.

From there the dig shifted to a more archaeological approach. Using hand trowels and brushes, one of the coroners probed the dirt, handing up small items that he found. By early afternoon it was done: All that remained of Some Mother’s Boy were a handful of teeth, the hinges, cornices, and handles of his casket, a long shard of bone, and one antique button. The items went into the new casket, which was loaded into the SUV of one of Goble’s deputies.

Mayor Tom Prather addressed the media. “I hope that there’s some comfort in this somewhere,” he said, “for both our community and for any family this young man may have.” By evening, news of the exhumation had traveled well beyond Kentucky. The Associated Press, U.S. News and World Report, and even the Daily Mail picked it up. Matthews was satisfied; everything was going according to script.

Not everyone shared his enthusiasm, though. Some public reactions tended toward disbelief, even anger. “Maybe spend that money clearing the backlog of rape kits for people who can still get justice?” read one Facebook comment on WKRC’s article about the dig, the author likely unaware of the reason for NamUs’s funding crisis. “That’s awful. Let him rest in peace,” read another. “At this point 96 years later grandparents, parents, siblings are all gone. I’d roll over in my grave if some one did this to my son.”

Matthews shrugged off the criticism. “We are testing the boundary of forensic science. We’re looking at phenotyping, ancestry DNA,” he told me. “We need to set a bar to show that nearly a hundred years later, it’s not too late.” What he didn’t say was that a dose of controversy never hurts when trying to gin up media interest in a cold case.

That interest generated a lead two days after Some Mother’s Boy was exhumed, when Gaye Holman, a 73-year-old retired sociology professor living in Beechwood Village, a sleepy residential outpost in the Louisville suburbs, opened her Sunday newspaper. Holman had recently caught the genealogy bug, and as she made her way through an article about the exhumation, her heart began to pound.

Some Mother’s Boy could be her mother’s boy, a beloved cousin who’d vanished. According to family rumor, he’d been murdered.


Holman’s mother, Nancy Duncan, was born in 1909 in Pattons Creek, a Kentucky community of farms and orchards that lay northeast of Louisville and a few miles from the eastern bank of the Ohio River. Owen Bennett Wheeler Jr. was Duncan’s cousin. He’d been orphaned as a young boy; his father died of an illness before he was born, and his mother and brother died four years later of the flu. He was passed among relatives and eventually came to live with his grandfather next door to Duncan’s family.

The cousins grew close. Even as a farm boy, Owen had the makings of a gentleman. “When we walked to school together, on bitter cold days,” Duncan recalled in her unpublished memoirs many years later, “Owen walked back to the wind in front of me to protect me from its force.” Duncan would beg Owen’s grandfather to let him quit work in the fields early so they might play together. One such “glorious day,” Nancy wrote, was spent “in the woods, with Owen cutting limbs for concocting a playhouse.”

As he grew older and stronger, other relatives realized that Owen could be an economic asset. When he was around 13, his uncle Jesse Hancock sued for custody and won. Hancock was known as a cruel, violent man. After he took Owen, word spread that he was using the boy for what amounted to slave labor. Hancock rented his farm from a relative who one day stopped by to find his tenant beating Owen bloody. The man jumped off his horse and put a stop to the abuse, then ordered Hancock to get off his land. It was soon after this incident that Owen disappeared—Holman estimates it was around 1920—and Hancock relocated to Louisville.

At first everyone thought Owen had run away with another local boy who’d vanished from the same county around that time. But that boy soon returned home and said he’d never been with Owen. The family began to suspect that Owen had died at Hancock’s hands, perhaps because the boy’s uncle blamed him for the loss of his farm. A rumor circulated that the young man’s body had been dumped in a sinkhole on the property before Hancock vacated it.

When Duncan heard the story, she cried but held out hope that it might not be true—that “he might have gotten away and might some day return,” she later wrote. Owen was never heard from again. In Pattons Creek, local children avoided the sinkhole, said to be haunted by his ghost. Eventually, the land passed out of family hands and was transformed into a nature preserve.

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By the 1980s, Duncan decided to write her memoirs—“to pull the curtain of my mind to spaces that have shrunk, buildings that are decayed, homes that are no more [and] people that are dead.” Genealogy had never held much interest for Holman, but that changed as she learned about her mother’s life, especially the tragic fate of the cousin whom Duncan had “adored like a brother.” Owen had appeared in the 1920 census, but not the one in 1930. Holman could find neither a death certificate nor a gravestone bearing his name. She traced every leg and juncture of his life, starting with his father’s obituary, and interviewed relatives who confirmed the rumors of abuse by his uncle. Holman grew increasingly convinced that his bones lay in the sinkhole.

The news of Some Mother’s Boy’s exhumation turned all her careful research on its head. What if her mother’s girlish notion, that Owen had somehow escaped his uncle, was true after all? Even if his flight earned him little more than a violent end on a train track, he would have died free, master of his own fate. It was a romantic twist that Holman was determined to verify.

The Monday morning after she read about the exhumation of Some Mother’s Boy, she called Goble, who immediately shared the news with Matthews. Owen’s story of poverty and violence didn’t jibe with some of the case’s most tantalizing clues, namely the fancy coat and watch. But the ages were close enough: Holman believed that Owen was around 15 when he died, just two years younger than Ashurst had estimated Some Mother’s Boy to be. Matthews was especially intrigued by the fact that Owen was initially thought to have run off with another local boy. Might he have been the mysterious traveling companion questioned by police in Somerset, covering the shame of leaving the scene of an accident with denial?

Looking at a map of Kentucky, Owen’s peregrinations didn’t seem to make sense. Pattons Creek is about 65 miles west of Georgetown. Why would he have gone north to Cincinnati, where Some Mother’s Boy boarded a southbound train, only to wind up back in a town nearer to the one he’d left? Holman’s theory: He was trying to avoid discovery. Cincinnati was a big city, a great place for a runaway to catch a train to anywhere. It may also have been a matter of convenience. “He could have jumped a boat,” Holman said. Steamers cruised the Ohio River all day long back then. One could have carried Owen from Pattons Creek to Cincinnati in a matter of hours. Holman offered to have her DNA tested, and Goble agreed.  

Then a comment posted to an article about the exhumation, published online by CBS, surfaced yet another name. “The kid has already been identified,” wrote JimWill1963. “They published his name on August 23rd, 1921.”


The comment included a link to Some Mother’s Boy’s page on FindAGrave.com, a database frequented by genealogy, cemetery, and obituary enthusiasts. It’s brimming with crowdsourced information about graves and the people inside them, and it’s a frequent stop on the web-sleuth circuit. Matthews knew it well—so well, in fact, that he’d created Some Mother’s Boy’s page in 2007. He was supposed to receive a notification whenever anyone uploaded information or posted a comment. Prior to the exhumation, the entry had received no hits.

But when he’d made the page, he’d erroneously titled it “Some Mother’s Son.” Matthews had posted a photo of the gravestone, which was so mossed over at the time—he and Goble had since cleaned it—that the last word was hard to make out. In the intervening years, someone else had created a different page for the grave using the correct name. Matthews went to it and discovered an article posted by a user almost nine months prior to the exhumation. It had been published in the Richmond, Kentucky, Daily Register in August 1921: “An unknown young man killed in Georgetown last April at the Southern Depot, has been identified as Frank Haynes, of Bronston, KY.”

Matthews sent an email to Craig—still trying, with no luck, to follow up on W.A. Shafer with the Parker City historical society—containing the relevant comments and links. Her response was beyond words: “*!#^~!!!*” It hadn’t occurred to Craig to search newspaper archives from August 1921, more than four months after Some Mother’s Boy’s death, especially since she’d found no death certificate on file. Now she returned to the Scott County Public Library, where a new lead unspooled on microfiche.

Among the seekers of the lost who visited Coroner Ashurst at the funeral home before Some Mother’s Boy was buried, it turned out, was a man named Frank Haynes, a poor laborer from Bronston, Kentucky, an unincorporated community about 100 miles south of Georgetown. Haynes claimed to recognize the boy as his 19-year-old son, also named Frank, who had disappeared from home on March 30, 1921. But the father left without the body, a peculiar thing for a grieving parent to do.

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Ashurst must not have been convinced by the claim. After all, he put the boy in the ground, unnamed, because he “despaired of his being identified,” according to the Georgetown Times. Craig reasoned that it was possible the elder Frank Haynes had expressed a glimmer of doubt—the boy had been struck in the head, which may have made his face difficult to recognize—that the coroner couldn’t shake.

Yet Ashurst didn’t let the matter go either. He sent Mignona Haynes, the visitor’s wife, a photograph of the body, together with the clothes and watch the boy had been wearing. That August she sent a letter in reply, saying that she recognized the photo and the clothes but had never seen the watch. “It was the first time he had ever been away from home,” she explained. “He was led away by another boy. He was honest, obedient and had never been in any trouble. He was born March 2, 1902 and had always lived here until he left a few days before he was killed.” She said her husband hadn’t brought their son’s body home on account of a “dangerous illness” she’d been suffering from at the time. (She didn’t specify what risk or problem the corpse would have posed alongside her sickness.) Her family couldn’t afford to repay the people of Georgetown for the burial, Mrs. Haynes wrote, but they hoped to do so one day. “As soon as we are able we want to have our boy’s name and age put on the monument at his grave,” the letter concluded.

For Matthews the revelation was vexing. If Scott County had dug up a young man whose identity had been established nearly a century prior, the situation would be “a little embarrassing,” he admitted. But there were troubling inconsistencies in the notion that Some Mother’s Boy was Frank Haynes. Why hadn’t Ashurst ever filed a death certificate? Why hadn’t the Hayneses or their descendants ever put a name on the grave? The laundry mark “Jones” on the boy’s shirt could have been the wearer’s last name or the signature of the laundry where it was cleaned. Yet Jones wasn’t Frank’s surname—nor Owen Wheeler’s or W.A. Shafer’s, for that matter—and Bronston wouldn’t have had a professional laundry at the time. And why would the son of a destitute laborer own a fancy suit or pay for laundering anyway?

Then there was the question of geography. The Hayneses claimed that their son left home on March 30. Some Mother’s Boy died the night of April 1. Within a day and a half, the young man would have left Bronston and traveled north to Cincinnati, only to head right back into Kentucky and disembark in Georgetown—a loop of about 230 miles. Maybe he decided to ride the rails alongside the companion Mrs. Haynes mentioned in her letter as the ne’er-do-well who led her son astray, and maybe that was the traveler questioned in Somerset (which, it should be noted, was the closest train stop to Bronston). But if they weren’t hobos, as Ashurst insisted, why pay good money to yo-yo to Ohio and back?

“There’s just something—I hate to use the term ‘fishy’—unresolved about that identification,” Craig told me. “Both sides of the equation didn’t quite equal zero. If they had, that tombstone would have had a name, and they would have filed a death certificate.”

With all the claims and evidence on the table, Matthews, Goble, and Craig decided that the question of Some Mother’s Boy’s identity was still open. He might be Owen Bennett Wheeler Jr., Frank Haynes, W.A. Shafer, or someone else entirely. DNA would provide the answer.

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The Obsession

In truth, the story that first drew me to Kentucky wasn’t Some Mother’s Boy. It was the other case Matthews hoped to resolve simultaneously—the murder of Nubs. I was hooked by the dual mystery of an unsolved murder of an unidentified man. Plus, the case carried an echo of the current opioid crisis. Nubs was found in a barn near an exit off Interstate 75, along a stretch of the road known today as “heroin highway.” When he died nearly 30 years ago, it was used to run marijuana, Kentucky’s top-earning cash crop throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Remote regions in the state served as high-traffic corridors for powerful cartels with names like the Cornbread Mafia.

When I first spoke to Matthews by phone, in March 2017, he told me that the working theory on Nubs was that the victim had somehow been involved in the drug trade. If enough evidence tied the case to the marijuana black market, I imagined that I could draw a line to Kentucky’s long legacy of illicit industry—to scenes of Appalachian backwoods littered with bootlegging operations, pot plots, and heroin caches.

But every time I talked with Matthews, I could tell that he was more enthusiastic about Some Mother’s Boy. I didn’t get it. Nubs’s killer could still be at large. His family might still be searching for their loved one. Some Mother’s Boy had been dead for nearly a century. “No one’s looking for him,” I told Matthews on the phone. “You don’t know that,” he shot back.

Some Mother’s Boy had been dead for nearly a century. “No one’s looking for him,” I told Matthews on the phone. “You don’t know that,” he shot back.

Matthews offered me a twofer: visit Georgetown for Nubs’s exhumation and also tag along as authorities tracked down the Haynes family’s descendants and collected their DNA. I agreed, still hoping that Nubs would be my story.

Goble was in charge of finding the present-day Hayneses. But as the coroner of Scott County, his more immediate duty was to any recently declared dead in a 285-square-mile area. Every other day, I would call or email to see how the search for descendants was going, only to learn that it hadn’t even begun. One Friday night in early April, about three weeks before Nubs’s exhumation, I grew impatient. If there was no DNA collection to witness, I might have to cut my reporting trip short. I typed Mignona Haynes’s name into FindAGrave.com, which I discovered bills itself as “a free resource for finding the final resting places of famous folks, friends and family.” An entry popped up for Mignona Mayme Pratt Haynes in Bronston’s Newell Cemetery, along with links to the graves of her husband and children. Frank was not listed among them. A couple of Google searches and one obituary later, I had contact information for people who appeared to be the living children of the Hayneses’ youngest son. If Frank really was Some Mother’s Boy, he had a number of nieces and nephews still living near Bronston.

My reporter’s instinct told me to call them immediately. But this was Goble’s investigation, with Matthews serving as an expert guide. I didn’t want to step on any toes. So I waited until first thing Monday morning to phone Matthews and share my findings. By then I was fully adrenalized by the possibility that I might have unearthed an honest-to-God forensic lead.

“Goble still hasn’t found them,” Matthews said preemptively.

“That’s OK. I did,” I said, quickly adding, “or I think I did.”

Within a day, using state databases, Goble verified that the people I’d found were indeed the Hayneses’ blood relatives. When Matthews called to tell me, a psychic switch flipped. Nubs, Madison Man, moonshiners, and heroin traders all faded from my mind. I was suddenly, completely taken by Some Mother’s Boy. I struggled to understand why. Maybe his status as a nobody made him an everyman—a proxy for me, you, and everyone we know. Maybe I was driven by the same morbid curiosity that leads me to Google a deceased celebrity’s name for a half-hour, hoping to discern an unrevealed cause of death. Maybe it was something more primal, a basic urge to seize a dangling opportunity to solve something.   

Matthews said I’d found a new vocation: I’d become what he calls a technicriminologist. “This is a new age where the ordinary man can step up and make a difference,” he once wrote on his blog. A “volunteer spending hours on a computer in their back room, may be the only chance of keeping a case alive.”

Some Mother’s Boy was this volunteer’s first case.


On the afternoon of April 27, 2017, Margaret Haynes Bell’s phone rang. The 60-year-old grandmother’s stomach plunged when Goble introduced himself—it isn’t the coroner who calls when you win the Kentucky Cash Ball. But once he explained that the dead relative in question had been deceased for 96 years, Bell’s dread turned into excitement. Of course she knew about Frank, her father’s brother who’d run off as a teenager only to get himself killed by a train. What she didn’t know, and what Goble told her, was that he might have just been exhumed from a grave 100 miles north of Bronston. Somehow the fact that his parents believed Frank was buried in Scott County hadn’t been enshrined in family lore.

Bell promised Goble that she would gather as many siblings and cousins as she could for a DNA test and agreed to get swabbed herself. They arranged to meet in the parking lot of a Walmart at 1 p.m. on May 2, the day after Nubs was to be dug up.

In the meantime, I reached out to Gaye Holman by phone. She was vexed that she had competition for Some Mother’s Boy. “I think what I’ve got is a really good story,” she told me. “That’s why I was so excited, because I have so much invested emotionally in looking all this up and spending so much time with it.” Goble had told her not to give up hope, pointing out that Mignona Haynes hadn’t recognized the watch found with Some Mother’s Boy. If he “had to guess,” he told Holman, there “was a 50-50 chance it was one or the other”—meaning either Frank or Owen Jr.

Holman admitted that she’d been mulling the evidence and hadn’t been able to come up with an explanation for the watch. “That and the laundry mark have me concerned,” she wrote in an email. The “Jones” mark had me concerned, too, as did the tag reading “E 1C6” found on Some Mother’s Boy’s shirt. No one had thoroughly researched either piece of evidence. Perhaps the young man’s identity could be cracked if I figured out how to connect the two.

The night before traveling to Kentucky, I stayed up late reading “Modern Methods of Identification by Laundry and Cleaners’ Marks,” a 1946 article from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology by Adam Yulch, acting captain of the Laundry Mark Identification Squad—a real law-enforcement entity—in Nassau County, New York. Yulch argued that laundry marks were sometimes better tools than fingerprints when police were working a case. “Not everyone has a fingerprint record on file,” Yulch wrote. “But it is my experience that nearly everyone, knowingly or not, has traceable clues in his or her clothing.” He went on to describe how a brutal murder of a jewelry salesman was solved when “bloodstained towels tied together with [a] sash cord provided the clue.” In the corner of each towel was a distinctive mark, which led police to a laundry less than a half-hour from where the victim was found, and ultimately to a suspect, who was later convicted. The mark was “W-K33,” a four-character alphanumeric sequence just like the one found on Some Mother’s Boy. Until at least the mid-1970s, these codes were like license plates for clothes, tracing back to specific laundry establishments and customers. The “E” on Some Mother’s Boy’s tag could have referred to the last name of the shirt’s owner or to the specific location of a laundry with multiple branches: E as in east. Meanwhile, “1C6” could have referenced a customer or a store number designated by a larger laundry distributor.

Sometime after midnight, I gave up trying to decipher the code and stuffed the articles into a folder—along with copies of vintage Lindenthal advertisements, a history of the Royal Palm from an obscure train-enthusiast website, printouts of all the 1921 articles about Some Mother’s Boy, and a map comparing Owen Jr. and Frank’s probable travel routes. The following day, when I arrived at the airport, I discovered that I didn’t have a ticket. Or rather, I had the wrong one: In my state of utter distraction, I had bought a seat on a flight for the following week. The expressionless woman at the Spirit Airlines counter informed me that the ticket I had was nonrefundable.

In almost ten years as a journalist, I had never made such a daft and expensive mistake. But the thought of delaying or canceling the trip was unthinkable. I had to be there to see Some Mother’s Boy’s grave, to watch the Haynes relatives get swabbed.

I laid my credit card on the counter. Three hours later I was in Kentucky.


Before Nubs’s exhumation on the morning of May 1, I met up with Matthews at a McDonald’s in Dry Ridge, the town where the handless man was found in 1989. Matthews was wearing a black T-shirt, shorts, and his khaki baseball cap, which would not leave his head for the remainder of the week. When I complimented his soul patch he admitted to dying it using his own custom blend: two different shades of Just for Men brown.

The previous day he’d participated in another exhumation, this one relating to a case dating back to 1961. George Hawkins, the constable of Campbell County, Kentucky, had disappeared, and his car had been found abandoned near the Ohio River. In 1980, a skull with a suspicious head wound turned up some 60 miles downstream. There was speculation that it might belong to Hawkins, but to confirm the identity police needed a DNA sample from someone in his matrilineal bloodline. No such living relatives could be found. Decades later, Hawkins’s two daughters had made the decision to exhume their grandmother, Estella, dead since 1949, and use her genetic material.

“I told the ladies, ‘Now, you can’t unsee this once you see it. Are you sure you want to be here?’” Matthews said over an Egg McMuffin. Not only did they insist on being present when their grandmother was dug up, but they also asked if they could take one of her teeth home as a memento. It was a request that in nearly two decades of bringing up bodies Matthews had never encountered, and one he wouldn’t grant. (As it happened, when the coffin was opened, there were no teeth left to distribute.) But he didn’t scorn the impulse. “If one of your uncles fell off the face of the earth and was buried in a pauper’s grave, wouldn’t it matter to you?” he asked me. “I think it would.”

“If one of your uncles fell off the face of the earth and was buried in a pauper’s grave, wouldn’t it matter to you? I think it would.”

I don’t have any uncles, at least not that I know of, but I understood what he was saying about attachment. Half of my closet at home is a shrine to my beloved late grandmother: her old Soviet college diploma, her tomato-shaped pincushion, her silver shoehorn. My grandfather died before her and was buried in a Jewish cemetery in a remote Massachusetts town. Jewish tradition decrees that only rocks may be left atop a headstone, but my grandmother, baptized a Russian Orthodox Christian, would defiantly bring flowers to his grave. When she died, my parents buried her there. The thought of reinterring her in a flower-forgiving graveyard or filling a locket with her ashes had crossed my mind.

It was a cold morning in Dry Ridge. A hard, slanting rain had been pounding the ground since the previous night, and for a couple of hours it looked as though the exhumation might not take place. But by the time county workers at the Hillcrest Cemetery pulled on their rain boots, the sun had cracked the sky. As the lid of the casket containing Nubs was pried open, a hush descended over everyone assembled that could only be described as holy. Even among people who’ve made a career of death, relics retain their power. From the cemetery, a body bag holding Nubs’s remains (soft tissues and soupy bones, or as Matthews put it, “Think of an ice cream on a stick that melted and started to ooze from the wrapper”) went to the medical examiner’s office. They would be dried and cleaned before they were sent to the FBI lab.

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I got in my rental car and drove to Georgetown, a half-hour south, where I stopped at Some Mother’s Boy’s grave to pay my respects. The recently disturbed ground was quilted with a bed of yellow mulch. From there I headed off to meet with Goble, whose office may be the most cheerful looking of its kind in America: a small brick-fronted building just off the town’s main drag, with big letters screaming “CORONER” mounted below the roof. It looked plucked from a Playmobil set. Nearby, on East Main Street, sat businesses with names like Birdsong Quilting Embroidery Crafts and Not Alone Pregnancy Center.

Goble was out on a call when I arrived, so like any good technicriminologist, I spent the wait obsessing over a detail of my case: the watch. The “W.A.” inscribed on the outside, everyone involved in the investigation seemed to agree, were likely initials. But what about the letters “L.H.D.” inside the case? An avid collector and repairer of vintage timepieces had told Matthews that the inscription meant one of two things: Either a jeweler had engraved his own initials when he did a repair, or the letters stood for “left-hand drive”—a reference to the crown’s location on the watch’s left side, which would make it easier for southpaws to wind.

Might there be a third option? I took out my phone and Googled “L.H.D.” and “Latin inscriptions.” Something caught my eye: “litterarum humanarum doctor,” or “doctor of humane letters,” an honorary degree. Could the inscription trace the watch back to, say, a father or grandfather who was an academic or other distinguished professional? It was a stretch, but not impossible.

If only I could see the watch or at least know its brand. Ashurst had sent it to Mignona Haynes in 1921, along with Some Mother’s Boy’s other belongings. I wondered if the descendants still had it. Goble, I was sure, would know the answer.

Back from his call, the coroner sat enthroned in the flickering penumbra of his low-ceilinged office, lit only by a television permanently switched to a channel playing old black-and-white movies. He proved to be a mountain of a man—six feet three inches, towering even when seated—with blue eyes that bore into me like diamond drills. His bookcases were lined with replicas of human skulls and other ephemera. Across from his desk, on a low table, sat a ceramic model of a Victorian house with electric lights twinkling inside. The sign on its tiny door read “mortuary.”

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He was supposed to send the DNA samples from the Haynes family and Gaye Holman to the lab that week, along with Some Mother’s Boy’s teeth. But I pointed out that Holman wasn’t related to Owen Jr. on his mother’s side, a fact the coroner had overlooked. Now Goble had to call her and explain that she needed to seek out other living relatives.

To Goble this was more of a procedural hurdle than anything else. In the weeks since he’d told Holman there was a good chance the body was her mother’s long-lost cousin, he’d grown increasingly sure that Some Mother’s Boy was instead Frank Haynes. “Just too much of the evidence tends to that family,” Goble told me, though what he described was less hard proof than gut feeling. “We talked for, God, 45 minutes,” he said of his call with Margaret Haynes Bell. “She’s convinced it’s him. I’m convinced it’s him.”

“He deserves to go home,” Goble added. “He needs to be buried around his mother and father and sisters and brothers.”

“What if it’s not him?” I ventured.

Goble shot me a pitying look, then began firing off justifications for why the Hayneses didn’t claim the body in 1921: Travel was arduous back then. If the father didn’t have money to bury his son, he might not have been able to buy a train ticket. That would have meant journeying back to Bronston by wagon or stagecoach, a slog along potholed roads with a body in tow. “And you’ve got a wife that’s fatally sick,” Goble said, plus a dozen other children. Only he was juicing up the story: The Haynses eventually had 12 kids, but only six when Frank died—and Mignona Haynes lived another 16 years after her illness.

“What about the nice clothes?” I asked. Unlike Ashurst, Goble seemed to think that Some Mother’s Boy was a hobo, and train hoppers back then “killed each other for shoes,” he said.

“Someone could have took his clothes, and he might have gotten somebody else’s clothes,” came a voice to my right. It was Goble’s deputy, Mark Sutton, who’d been silently occupying a chair in the corner. The Royal Palm, he explained, was “kinda like the Titanic. If you were well dressed, the conductor would say, ‘You belong on the train.’ If you looked like somebody with rag clothes, they’d throw you off.”

The watch was probably stolen, Goble added. “What’s a 17-year-old kid need with a watch?” he muttered, shaking his head. “What does he care about time?”

I jerked upright in my seat. “Does the Haynes family still have the watch?”

“No,” Goble replied. Then he picked up the phone to call Holman and tell her the bad news about her DNA. I slumped back, my hope of sleuthing a case-breaking clue that coroners and cops had failed to see in “L.H.D.” snuffed out.

“Do you want to see him?” I looked up to see Sutton standing over me, beckoning.

In an adjoining room, spread out on a wood-laminate table next to an artificial ficus tree, was all that remained of Some Mother’s Boy. Each tooth had been carefully laid out on a grid of yellow Post-its, numbered one through 25. A small box held the casket hardware, handles, and hinges. Nested among them was a chunk of a metal plate on which the words “At Rest” could still be made out in elegant cursive.

Sutton pointed at the teeth. “One of them has a cavity,” he said. Then, more quietly, “Emily [Craig] thinks that the boy was actually younger, like 12 to 15.” I threw him a sharp look. Frank would have been 19 in 1921, Owen Jr. four years younger. From the other room we could hear Goble talking. “I know I’ve wrecked your day,” he was telling Holman. “See what you can do and let me know.”

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The Test

The Walmart parking lot in Pulaski County, Kentucky, is the same as every one of the superstore’s concrete expanses tessellating across America—an un-landscape that almost defies description. The morning after my encounter with Goble, Matthews and I paced the lot’s periphery in a state of high excitement. We had been told that the Hayneses’ descendants would arrive in a red car. Seeing a woman’s leg emerging from a crimson Fiat, I hurried over.

“Are you Margie Haynes?” I gushed.

“Who?” she snapped, shrinking back into her pleather cave. I shook my head at Matthews.

Five minutes later we spotted them—two older women and a man. Soon we were shaking hands with Margaret Haynes Bell and two cousins, Mamie Hahn and Rick Haynes. They were all well into middle age and dressed casually. Like sugar-addled children, Matthews and I began plying them with questions. Did they still have the Lindenthal coat? I asked. Any idea who the traveling companion might have been? Matthews inquired. The answer to every question was an apologetic “no” or “we don’t know.”

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By 1 p.m., Goble was there with his DNA-harvesting gear, as was a television crew from LEX 18 News led by a woman with a 1980s bouffant. Mamie Hahn said that she’d brought a photo of the Haynes family, which included the only surviving image of young Frank. She dipped into the back seat of her car and emerged with a black-and-white family portrait in a large gold frame. I was taken aback: Even considering that a portrait session was a special occasion in 1904, when the photo was taken, the family was handsomely dressed. Frank, then two years old, was propped on his father’s knee, alongside his mother and three siblings. He wore a collared, polka-dotted children’s gown and what appeared to be real leather shoes. Mignona Haynes, in her high-collared dress with puffed sleeves, and Frank Sr., a 1900s Don Draper in a smart suit, wouldn’t have looked out of place in Vogue. They were hardly the Steinbeckian vision of rural suffering depicted in Mrs. Haynes’s letter to Ashurst. I wondered if I had misjudged their means—or the importance they placed on maintaining a fine appearance in spite of their poverty.

Goble had set up shop on the hood of the LEX 18 crew’s car. Long cotton-tipped swabs fanned out from his blue-gloved fingers, making him look like a Perspex scissorhands. He offered one to each of the Haynes relatives, then stood by awkwardly as the cousins poked around their mouths. Walmart shoppers returning to their cars might’ve mistaken them for a family probing their teeth for poppy seeds or slivers of popcorn. After they handed the swabs over, Goble sealed each sample in a ziplock bag.

“It was in my dad’s Bible. See, right here,” Hahn said, producing a piece of yellow-lined paper titled “deathes” that she’d found tucked in the back of the holy book. It was a list written by her mother, Mary, detailing each sibling’s name and date of death, heartbreaking in its concision. (Mary lived to be 92, the last of the Haynes children to die.) There was Oscar, who fell off a river barge and drowned in July 1935. Eva Mae, who was shot to death by her estranged husband. Otto, who lived only five months, and Fanny, who died at 11. Among them, in looping cursive, were the words “Frank Albert Haynes died April 19, 1921 at Georgetown by train.”

“But why did he run away?” I pressed. Bell and Hahn exchanged a fraught look.

“Apparently he had taken something—” Hahn began.

“—and his dad got upset,” Bell said.

“—and ran him off.”

“—apparently.”

The women seemed troubled by the specter of family scandal, even one a century old. They didn’t claim any sentimental attachment to Frank; they were there for the sake of their beloved parents and grandparents. Bell’s father, Fred, was five years younger than Frank, and the disappearance hit him particularly hard. He kept an old flattop hat of his brother’s for his entire life. “My dad would have been very pleased this is happening,” Bell said.

“But why did he go north from Somerset to Cincinnati if his goal was to go south to Florida?” I asked, referencing the fact that in 1921 authorities believed the dead boy was trying to catch the Royal Palm down to the Sunshine State.

“I think my dad told my brother that he meant to get off in Lexington but went too far,” Bell said. In other words, Cincinnati was an accident, the result of a missed stop. For a boy who’d never traveled far from home, it was a plausible scenario. Yet there was no irrefutable proof here. The Haynes descendants were simply echoing their grandparents’ belief that Some Mother’s Boy was Frank.

“And what if the DNA test comes back negative?” I asked.

Until then, Hahn had addressed me in a soft drawl, maintaining a gracious resolve as a stranger peppered her with personal questions. Now she regarded me with suspicion. “My grandparents recognized the clothing,” she said. A wave of shame coursed through me like a vodka shot.

Bell shook her head. “I just knew it was Georgetown where he got killed,” she murmured. “That’s all I knew.”

Matthews, who had remained mostly quiet, regarded both women and tugged at the bill of his baseball cap. “Well, now we’ve got to prove it,” he said.


Before I left Kentucky to wait out the DNA testing period in what I could only assume would be a state of excruciating suspense, I made one final stop: Gaye Holman’s house, a tidy, one-story affair outside Louisville. Holman is petite, almost swallow-like, with lively blue eyes and white hair she wears in a pixie cut. She waved away my offer to take off my shoes so as not to dirty her wall-to-wall white carpeting.

Holman said she had the distinct feeling that she was being sidelined. “I guess they would like it to be theirs, too,” Holman sighed, referring to the Haynes family. She handed me a short story entitled “Voice from the Sinkhole” that she’d written. It was told from the first-person perspective of Owen Jr.’s dead body. “It is quiet now in the woods,” one passage read. “Small white wildflowers push their heads up through the undergrowth. They are my cemetery’s decorations; the downed trees my grave stone.” I showed her some archival articles I’d brought, and as she scanned one detailing Georgetown residents’ response to Some Mother’s Boy’s death, her eyes filled with tears. “Well, at least they sent flowers,” she said, her voice cracking. “So sad.”

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Together we thumbed through her mother’s old journals. The handwriting was impeccable; Duncan, Holman explained, had been a schoolteacher. On one page, I noticed a capsule description of Owen Jr.: “Owen was near my age. Curly blonde hair, blue eyes.”

“Blond hair?” I asked, looking at Holman. According to all the 1921 accounts, Some Mother’s Boy had brown hair. “Light brown, blond, I don’t know. Some people—” then she broke off her sentence, flustered. “To me that isn’t a nonstarter.”

Holman said that she’d tracked down a maternal relative of Owen Jr.’s at a local nursing home. Two years before, according to the woman’s daughter, her recall had still been strong enough to share family stories. But she’d since slid into senility. Still, the daughter said she’d allow for her mother’s DNA to be tested. Holman told me she’d already sent word to Matthews.

The next time I spoke to Matthews on the phone was a week later. Had Goble started the process of gathering DNA from Owen Jr.’s aged relative? I asked. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “The story she gave me was very weak,” Matthews said of Holman, choosing his words carefully. “If I hadn’t seen those hand-written notes stuffed in that Bible…” He exhaled loudly. Meeting the possible nieces and nephews of Some Mother’s Boy at Walmart seemed to have had a powerful effect. I gathered that neither Matthews nor Goble was in a hurry to get DNA from the woman at the nursing home.

Still, Matthews hadn’t stopped trying to make the Tetris pieces of Owen Jr.’s story fall within those of Some Mother’s Boy. What if he and Frank had been traveling together? What if Owen Jr. was the mysterious companion arrested in Somerset? And what if, after he was released, he took on a new identity to escape his past once and for all?

“Are you serious?” I asked incredulously when he suggested the outlandish idea. “It was an awesome opportunity to just fade out,” Matthews replied, unfazed. “Sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination.”

I didn’t agree with the cliché. In my mind, the destination of any saga was vital. With regard to Some Mother’s Boy, that could only be a DNA match, a definitively solved case.

These were the thoughts running through my head as, back home in New York, I waited for news about the testing. One day I decided to take a walk to get some fresh air. A block away from my apartment, I realized I had neither my wallet nor my cell phone. I paused at an intersection and wondered, jarringly, What would happen if I stepped into the street, got hit by a car, and died?

My husband was away on business. My six-year-old daughter was at school. I’m a freelance journalist without a carousel of colleagues and editors I see each day. I have friends, of course, but I had no standing plans with anyone. Matthews once told me that the key to an unidentified person’s fate is the question: “Does somebody miss you?” When he said it, he pulled out his iPhone and flashed his email account, showing 162,972 unread messages. “You think I will be missed?” he asked with a chuckle. I knew my family would soon note my absence if I died in that intersection, but it might take them hours or days to locate me, dead in a morgue: Jane Doe, five feet two inches, 115 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes, wearing jeans, a blue sweater, and gray sneakers.

The light changed, and I had the right of way to walk. Instead I turned and went back home.

The incident reminded me of something Matthews said on Missing Pieces, his podcast, about the impact his work had on his life. “I think it’s helped me to enjoy my children more,” he said. “I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night before and went into their bedroom and maybe kissed the boys on the forehead and just been so happy they’re there.”

I realized, standing on the sidewalk in Manhattan, that tackling the case of Some Mother’s Boy wasn’t just about correcting an injustice, bringing a family closure, or basking in the glow of success. I still wanted all those things. But the simple, perhaps selfish truth was that the case also made me feel alive—invigorated by a mystery and keenly aware of my own mortality.


Goble had promised the press and the Haynes family DNA results in 30 days. But the Dry Ridge police officer handling the Nubs case was told not to expect them for four to six months—and that was a homicide investigation. (As of this writing, the Nubs results haven’t come in.) Goble implied that his position would help speed up testing for Some Mother’s Boy. As the days, then weeks, ticked by, it became clear that wasn’t the case.

On May 11, Matthews received a terse message from Davey McCann, a forensic specialist at the Kentucky State Police Central Lab, which often helps local law enforcement package and deliver remains to the FBI. “I would estimate 9 to 12 months. Not to mention the potential NO PROFILE [inconclusive] results,” McCann wrote. “Teeth are difficult.” He warned that the FBI would not prioritize testing the remains of a random 96-year-old accident victim over just about anyone or anything else, particularly “recent/active cases that pose potential risk to public health.”

Goble and Matthews suddenly found themselves in an awkward position. “I thought this would show the power of DNA,” Matthews told me, not that NamUs was wasting resources. “Every yin has a yang, I suppose.”

He contacted the Smithsonian Institution to see if it might perform stable-isotope analysis, which provides information about the environment in which a dead person lived based on minerals in their bones, on Some Mother’s Boy’s teeth. The results wouldn’t confirm his ancestry, but they might provide dietary information that could help pinpoint where he was raised. The Smithsonian told Matthews that East Coast diets 100 years ago were too homogeneous to distinguish among neighboring states, much less the 135 miles between where Owen Jr. and Frank grew up. Unless Some Mother’s Boy turned out to be from, say, California or China, the test likely wouldn’t help.

At that point, Goble agreed to pay up to $2,000 for private DNA testing. I began scouring the web for labs, sending contact information for half a dozen that might have the capacity to test human remains as aged and diminished as those of Some Mother’s Boy. Matthews, though, had begun to worry about the repercussions testing might have on a case that had already gone sideways. “People watch CSI and think you can drop some blood in a world-class machine and a driver’s license shoots out the other end. That’s just not what happens,” he said. What if the DNA in the teeth was too degraded to identify, leaving the case permanently in limbo? Worse, Matthews asked, “What if it comes back and says neither one of you are related to this guy? Oh wow.” He sighed, thinking about Holman and the Hayneses. “They’re totally convinced that’s him. How can we tell them it’s potentially wrong?”

That wasn’t how I saw it. Matthews could instead be a courier of good news. If Frank wasn’t Some Mother’s Boy, that meant he might have survived his teens and started a new life elsewhere. If the Haynes family went looking, they might be delighted to learn they had an unknown branch of cousins. Holman, meanwhile, might create a new NamUs entry for Owen Jr., submit his maternal relative’s DNA as data, and cross-check it with thousands of other cases. And if Some Mother’s Boy was someone else—W.A. Shafer, for instance—what about his relatives? Wouldn’t they be thrilled to bring their lost boy home? What about “pushing the boundaries of forensic science”? I asked Matthews, echoing his own words.

“I want to do that,” he said quietly. He promised he’d call the labs I’d found.

A few weeks later, a new funeral for Some Mother’s Boy was held. This time he had a name.

The Reveal

One evening, several months after Matthews had solved the Tent Girl case back in 1998, there was a knock at his front door. He was surprised to find a local patrol officer, Ryan Allred, with whom he’d gone to high school. Allred had seen Matthews on 48 Hours and wanted to know if he would help investigate the death of his half-sister, Vickie Bertram. In 1976, the 16-year-old’s body had been found at the bottom of an abandoned quarry in Livingston called Rock Crusher. The cause of death was declared a fall, which locals took to mean she killed herself. Allred had always believed she was murdered.

Matthews agreed to take the case. For months the two men pored over files at Matthews’s kitchen table. They followed every lead, interviewing physical-trauma specialists and Bertram’s friends and neighbors. Matthews even measured the height of the quarry walls to prove that it would have been impossible for her to have plunged into a limestone basin without sustaining any broken bones, as stated in the autopsy report. Allred and Matthews’s theory was that someone had killed her and moved her body to make it seem like she fell. “I actually threw a pumpkin over that cliff,” Matthews told me. “The thing exploded like it had a stick of dynamite in it.”

Bertram’s family had her body disinterred, hoping to at least lift the stigma of suicide. “They were a Christian family, and that’s pretty damning in the South,” Matthews pointed out. The results of a new autopsy were inconclusive, although they did reveal a broken tailbone. Matthews issued a statement to the press saying that no one could be sure what happened at the quarry back in 1976, but that the assumption of suicide was unwarranted.

“That was enough for the family,” Matthews told me. It wasn’t the paperwork that mattered—it was peace of mind and public opinion.

The Bertram case offered an important lesson of the anonymous dead: Resolution isn’t always arrived at so much as coaxed from a chaotic jumble of facts and conjecture, a sea of maybes. Sometimes it’s a matter of negotiating between living with uncertainty and simply letting go.

Resolution isn’t always arrived at so much as coaxed from a chaotic jumble of facts and conjecture, a sea of maybes. Sometimes it’s a matter of negotiating between living with uncertainty and simply letting go.

One by one the labs Matthews contacted declined to test Some Mother’s Boy’s remains. Either they didn’t have the capacity to pull DNA from 96-year-old teeth, or they argued that nieces and nephews weren’t close enough relatives to provide adequate genetic reference samples, or they said the cost of the whole thing was simply too high. Meanwhile, pressure on Goble and Matthews kept building. Three months had passed since Some Mother’s Boy’s exhumation, more than one since the Haynes family’s DNA had been collected. The media interest that the two men had so deliberately courted was now something to dodge. “We’d stalled long enough. We needed the conclusion,” Matthews said. “It’s not exactly what we hoped for, but we had to tell them something.”

Matthews proposed an unconventional idea: to call the case based on circumstantial evidence. He didn’t come to the decision lightly, having never been involved in an investigation resolved that way. Then again, he’d never plugged into a case as old as Some Mother’s Boy.

Goble told the local media to expect an announcement on the afternoon of June 15, 2017. Before the press conference, he called a meeting. Matthews was there, along with two of Goble’s deputies and representatives of the Scott County sheriff’s office. They went out for lunch. The fate of Kentucky’s oldest anonymous body would be decided over egg rolls and fried rice at Georgetown’s only Chinese restaurant.

Their plates piled high, Goble asked Matthews, who’d brought along printouts of all the archival articles about Some Mother’s Boy, to present the evidence. There was a shared discomfort with the idea that a boy’s remains were now aboveground and in limbo. There was a competing concern about calling the case—any case, really—without DNA testing. “It was like I was on trial,” Matthews recalled. He told the whole story, from the circumstances of the boy’s death, to Ashurst’s thwarted search, to the revelation of Mignona Haynes’s letter. He described meeting the Haynes family and discussed Holman’s claim. “I can’t tell you what to do,” Matthews said, looking around the table, “but I believe this to be Frank Haynes.”

By the time dessert was served—Jell-O, because this was still the South—everyone had agreed. That afternoon the Scott County Coroner’s Office issued a statement: “After 96 years, the search for the identity of ‘Some Mother’s Boy’ has come to an end. Based on circumstances and consistency of associated evidence, there is no reason to refute the supposition that these are remains of Frank Haynes of Bronston.”


In mid-June, Matthews drove a small casket with Some Mother’s Boy’s remains from Georgetown to Southern Oaks Funeral Home in Somerset, where the manager had offered to provide a graveside service for the family at no cost. A relative commissioned a headstone—a piece of flat orange rock—and drafted a simple inscription that included the date of the funeral:

Frank Albert Haynes

March 2, 1902

April 1, 1921

Returned Home

June 26, 2017

There were only a handful of people gathered at Bronston’s Newell Cemetery for the burial, including the Haynes cousins and Matthews. No one said a word as the casket containing the boy legally, if not scientifically, determined to be Frank Haynes was lowered into the ground at an idyllic spot high on a hill overlooking a pasture and a pond. Despite all the ways the case had gone wrong, Matthews still considered Some Mother’s Boy a success. Frank had been declared Mignona Haynes’s boy, and now he was being laid to rest by her side.

After the burial, Matthews approached Mamie Hahn. He’d worn a T-shirt and jeans that day, so as to help dig the tiny grave. “I’m sorry if I intruded in your lives,” he said. “I won’t bother you anymore.” Hahn gave him a hug. “You never bothered me in the first place,” she said.

Before heading home, Matthews sent Goble two words via text: “It’s done.”

“Does New York have what she needs for her story?” Goble replied.

“He calls you New York now,” Matthews explained. “He’s forgot your name.”

Matthews had recently received good news: NamUs’s DNA funding would be restored on September 1. No reason was given for the sudden reinstatement, but it was preceded by an article in Forensic quoting angry police detectives who said the withdrawal of testing was “slowing investigations to a standstill.” That Some Mother’s Boy hadn’t proved the catalyst Matthews hoped it would be didn’t seem to matter. He’d used the funding crisis to make an “urgent and final appeal” about a case he couldn’t shake. “It was like the last call: If we don’t do it now, it may never happen,” he told me.

I felt cheated, especially having come so close to the moment when science would solve a century-old mystery. DNA results have famously roiled investigations that authorities long considered closed. What if my case was no different, but now I’d never know? At the same time, I kept thinking about the concept of Occam’s razor, according to which the simplest explanation is probably true. I knew that Frank being Some Mother’s Boy was the most likely answer to the whole mess. Somewhere in between the two notions, I would have to find balance.

When I called Emily Craig to ask how she felt about the verdict, her official response was “no comment.” Holman told me the outcome was disappointing. But she said that Frank had more living relatives, more people to glean some bit of solace from the decision. To her that meant something. “Nobody but me cared about my poor little guy,” she sighed. I was reminded of the final passage of “Voice from the Sinkhole,” her short story told from Owen Jr.’s perspective: “It is good, though, that someone thinks of me and searches still. I rest, knowing that my name on her papers is the benediction I never received.”

I didn’t want to fan Holman’s hopes, but Matthews had told me that he was holding on to two of Some Mother’s Boy’s teeth, a fact that Rick Haynes, the family’s unofficial press liaison, was fine with. “We know it’s Frank,” Haynes said. “If someone wants to contest it, go ahead.” Matthews had made arrangements with the state medical examiner to store the teeth in her evidence vault, “just in case someone has a valid argument,” Matthews explained. “I’m not gonna lock the lid shut.” The original headstone and plot in Georgetown would also remain. “It’s historic,” Matthews said.

In the meantime, he’d moved on to the next mystery: a woman who was found dead in the Smoky Mountains in 1974. Matthews had decided to take the Smithsonian up on its offer of stable-isotope analysis. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been among the most visited parks in the United States; if the Smithsonian’s process could help determine even which half of the country the woman was from, it could be a major breakthrough in the case.

The woman’s body was discovered near a chalet at the Cove Mountain Resort, a coat and sweater folded neatly beside her. Her working nickname is the Guest That Never Left.

The bluegrass classic “Wandering Boy” includes the lyrics, Out in the cold world and far away from home / Some mother’s boy is wandering all alone.

Theater of War

Theater of War

He traveled to some of the world’s most dangerous places to disarm militias, negotiate with gangs, and defy terrorists. But Bill Brookman was just a clown.

By Jessica Hatcher-Moore

The Atavist Magazine, No. 70


Jessica Hatcher-Moore is an award-winning journalist based in North Wales. Her work has appeared in The Guardian Long Read, Telegraph Magazine, Elle, The New Statesman, National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek. Prior to Wales, she lived in Nairobi. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel Moattar
Photographs: Phil Hatcher-Moore (Mogadishu); courtesy of Bill Brookman (other locations)

Published in August 2017. Design updated in 2021.

Mogadishu, Somalia, 2013

Sequined head scarves and dangling earrings shimmered as young people twisted and stomped to a hip-hop beat. The euphoric crowd’s dance floor was a decrepit basketball court ringed by painted concrete walls, their once bright tones muted by the relentless equatorial sun. One woman carried a large Somali flag—a sky blue background stamped with a single white star—that she waved in time to music emanating from the stage, or what passed for one: a corrugated metal canopy held up by wooden poles.

Rappers and singers performed sets, some in Somali, others in English. One musician taking his turn on the microphone gestured to a man controlling the venue’s hastily rigged sound system. Turn up the volume, was the mimed directive.

The sound guy demurred; he knew better. This was Mogadishu’s first public music show in 25 years, a milestone event that many people thought might never happen. The concert was already flirting with a blackout because of the Somali capital’s crumbling infrastructure, a consequence of civil war. Cranking the volume would risk overloading the system, which might grant the show’s enemies the cover of darkness.

Until a year and a half prior, Mogadishu had been largely controlled by the Islamist extremist group al-Shabaab, which made playing music punishable by flogging or even death. Al-Shabaab’s retreat had paved the way for the concert now taking place, an eclectic showcase of international and local artists who’d gathered to celebrate peace. But the extremists maintained a network of supporters who carried out suicide bombings and other targeted attacks. Concert organizers had received a barrage of death threats. For protection, they’d publicized the event like a flash mob, announcing the location only hours before the artists were scheduled to take the stage.

Find hundreds of hours’ worth of longform stories like this, read by audiobook narrators, in the Audm app for iPhone.

One of these organizers stood out from the rest—the “old man,” as the fatigues-clad Somali security guards patrolling the venue called him. His name was Bill Brookman, and while reporting on the historic concert, I found myself following him closely because he was a curious, quixotic figure. He wasn’t an aid worker or a diplomat, and he certainly wasn’t a hip-hop artist. Brookman was a professional clown.

He was 57 and white, with a pink face drenched in sweat that plastered locks of curly gray hair to his forehead. Despite how the guards referred to him, he had a childlike demeanor, jocular and spontaneous. When he harangued one Somali guard for watching the concert and not the basketball court’s perimeter, he spoke English in a refined British accent, with the clipped diction and sonorous quality associated with boarding schools, fox hunting, and the Royal Ascot.

Brookman’s attire, however, was anything but proper. He wore black and white striped pants, bright red boots, an orange T-shirt with tasseled sleeves, and a green cravat embellished with silver charms. Black eyeliner had seeped into the creases beneath his eyes. In his hands were a plastic bottle of kerosene, a box of matches, and three Kevlar sticks, which he’d snuck through customs at Mogadishu’s airport—all the materials he would need to breathe fire.

In his hands were a plastic bottle of kerosene, a box of matches, and three Kevlar sticksall the materials he would need to breathe fire.

But where? He looked up at the concrete walls. They stood about ten feet high. If he climbed them, he’d be a sitting duck for a shooter. The show had been airing live on local television for two hours already; any half-decent jihadi, Brookman decided, would have identified the location and be on his way over, if not already lying in wait outside the venue. Brookman couldn’t very well breathe fire from the court, though. It wouldn’t have the same wondrous effect as if he were towering above the crowd. Drawing comfort from the weight of the flak jacket and helmet he wore over his kooky getup, Brookman prepared to climb.

“Bill!” a voice shouted from behind him. It was a local fixer who’d helped coordinate the concert. “No, Bill, you can’t go up in a helmet and jacket.”

“Why?” Brookman asked.

“It looks rude. It shows you don’t trust us.”

Reluctantly, Brookman took off the gear and handed it to the fixer. He took a draught of kerosene and held it in his mouth as he clambered atop the wall.

Mogadishu stretched out before him, its shattered buildings and curling coastline engulfed by the heavy night sky. Brookman lit his fire sticks, then filled his lungs to capacity and raised one of the torches toward the stars. The expulsion of kerosene and air that came from his mouth created a flaming tongue worthy of a dragon. For an instant all eyes were on Brookman, his exposed position illuminated by the fantastic burst of light.


Once upon a time, Brookman shared his talents—which along with breathing fire included pantomiming, accordion playing, juggling, and acrobatics—at local carnivals, weddings, and children’s birthday parties across England. What led him to Mogadishu more than three decades into his career was an idea so far-fetched that it just might be true: There are some things only clowns can do.

Clowning dates back to classical antiquity, when fools and similar characters were mainstays in theatrical comedies. The practice evolved through Italy’s commedia dell’arte, Shakespeare’s plays, the British harlequinade, and the modern circus. Humanitarian clowning, as Brookman’s business is known, puts the timeless, playful art to use in underserved or divided communities. The most famous practitioner is Patch Adams, who since 1971 has run the Gesundheit Institute, which sends volunteer performers to hospitals, schools, and slums around the world.

It would be easy to distill humanitarian clowns’ ethos down to a hackneyed idiom: Laughter is the best medicine. But their mission goes beyond that. They seek to build community bonds and convey civic messages. Often, to achieve those goals, they encourage audience participation.

If it sounds like bunk, there’s evidence that performance does work as a tool of social justice and conflict resolution. Allan Owens, a professor of drama education at the University of Chester, located near the border between England and Wales, told me that art and performance help people “make sense of things in difficult times and the passages that we go through.” Outside forces, including entertainment, also provide relief in tense environments. “Where relations get locked, it’s only by that third dynamic coming in that there can actually be some loosening,” Owens said.

In post-genocide Rwanda, theater became an important mode of commemorating the tragedy and aiding interethnic dialogue. One production staged by a public university presented different views on the genocide and invited audiences to intervene when they disagreed. Similar programs have been tested in fractured countries like Israel, El Salvador, and Bosnia.

Brookman once told me that “cultural baggage accrues around a lot of the art that is already” in a place, depending on who created it, who controls it, and who can access it. By contrast, clowning and its ancillary arts are neutral. “Circus skills are activities that are not tainted by anything—by class, creed, religion, politics, or history,” he said. “They’re completely fresh and open.”

Loughborough, England, 1978

“Do you, by any chance, play the one-man band?”

Brookman had recently graduated from university with a degree in fine arts, and he was interviewing at a theater company in Loughborough, a town in the British Midlands close to where he’d grown up—the son of a homemaker mother and engineer father. The company’s director had posed the question. In England, the tradition of the one-man band conforms roughly to Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert in Mary Poppins: an affable bloke weighed down by an array of brass instruments, a squeezebox, and a drum. Brookman could do many things, but playing the one-man band wasn’t among them.

“I do,” he answered anyway, trying to project confidence from beneath his thick mop of strawberry blond curls.

The director offered him the job. Brookman had two weeks to assemble a one-man band and learn to play it if he wanted to get away with the lie when he reported for work.

He approached an acquaintance, a loss adjuster for an insurance company who liked to make gadgets in his free time, and asked for help. The man spring-loaded a pair of hi-hat cymbals and rigged them to a colander that would serve as a hat. A string quoit worn around one arm attached to a bungee cord that, when pulled, caused the top cymbal to drop onto the lower one. A popular children’s television show at the time required participants to smash custard pies between cymbals, so Brookman made sure that his new headpiece was able to accommodate a pie, should the need to destroy one arise. The ensemble also had a cornet, an accordion, a banjo, a honker, and a wood-framed drum worn like a rucksack.

Once it was ready, Brookman set about learning to play the whole kit. “There’s a deflation of pomposity,” he recalled. “It honks, wheezes, buzzes.” He was good at it, though—so good that his homemade contraption took him well beyond the Loughborough theater company. It became his first ticket around the globe.

Brookman’s early career coincided with a wave of British entertainers who, fed up with the stuffy status quo of established galleries and theaters, turned to public spaces to stage their work. They embraced second-wave feminism, attended Ban the Bomb marches, and listened to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. They performed cabarets and scrawled intricate graffiti on city walls. Brookman’s one-man band may have seemed quaint in comparison, associated more with working-class, postindustrial Great Britain than the punk scene. But he found a niche among the new artistic renegades—and audiences loved it. In the 1980s, he played gigs across his home country and as far away as Thailand, Russia, and the United States.

In 1988, Brookman was invited to perform at a festival in Asia. His departure coincided with the first-ever Red Nose Day, a biennial celebration in the United Kingdom when people are encouraged to wear a plastic clown nose and raise money, often by taking part in daft stunts, for an anti-poverty charity called Comic Relief. Brookman decided to break the world record for the longest distance anyone had ever worn a red nose. (In fact, there was no official record for the feat.) A photograph appeared in the Loughborough Echo, Brookman’s local newspaper, announcing his plan. “Plucky Bill intends to travel all the way to the sub-continent with his Comic Relief red nose on,” one article said. He was quoted as saying, “I give my word as a gentleman that I will not take the nose off during the trip.”

The BBC picked up the story, and a news crew followed Brookman as he clanked and honked in his one-man band onto his plane, a bulbous nose adorning his face. Its edges cut painfully into his nostrils, but he wore it for the duration of his journey to Delhi, where he disembarked for a long layover. Rather than sightsee, he put on an impromptu music show for children at a school for the blind.

When Brookman returned to Loughborough, he found an envelope waiting at the home he shared with his wife, an opera singer with whom he’d started a small theater company, and his two young sons. It was addressed in old-fashioned cursive. Inside was a letter and a check made out in his name from a woman he didn’t know. She’d apparently seen news coverage of his Red Nose Day stunt.

“I’ve heard about what you do. I think it’s wonderful. Have ten pounds,” the letter said.

Brookman opened a bank account and deposited the check. With the meager sum, the charitable Bill Brookman Foundation was born, with the mission to use the arts for social good.


His marriage ended not long after. Brookman’s travels kept him away from home, and his wife suspected infidelity—a charge he denied. On the day they separated, he walked out of the house carrying only a French horn and a plastic bag with jars of pasta sauce inside. The sauce was his wife’s suggestion; Brookman was a terrible cook, and she didn’t want him to starve before he got settled on his own.

Forlorn, Brookman tried to keep working. But when a job playing the one-man band and eating fire at a festival in Germany fell through, he faltered. “I couldn’t take the life of a freelancer,” he recalled. It was too grueling, too uncertain. He stopped performing and trained to become a teacher.

Before taking a permanent job, however, he decided to join a clowning tour to Russia organized by Patch Adams. Many volunteers on Adams’s trips were amateur performers, good-natured types willing to don costumes and makeup for humanitarian causes, so Brookman’s professional skills stood out. One day the group visited a Moscow hospital ward populated by young Chernobyl victims. Dressed like the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist—top hat, red waistcoat and tails, black trousers, and heavy boots—Brookman entered playing discordant notes on an accordion. He pretended to be as surprised by the sounds as the children were, with exaggerated facial expressions and abrupt body movements. Some of the youngsters giggled.

Brookman playing the one-man band. 
Brookman playing the one-man band. 

He approached a shy girl wary of the scene before her. Brookman took a notepad and pencil out of his pocket and, with a flourish, drew a circle on one of the pages. Then he passed the pad and pencil to the girl. With three careful movements, she added two dots and an arc inside the circle—eyes and a smiling mouth. Her own face broke into a grin.

Wonder and surprise of the sort written across the girl’s visage were what Brookman loved about clowning. Predictability, by contrast, was anathema to him. The more he thought about teaching, the more he knew that he wouldn’t be happy doing the same thing year in and year out. He threw himself into performing once more.

Brookman rarely said no to an opportunity for his company, which made money, or his foundation, which put on shows for free. In the 1990s, he taught circus skills to schoolchildren in New York State and clowned in hospitals in France. At home he ran juggling and maypole-dancing clubs and worked as a jack-of-all-trades: actor, puppeteer, musician. In 2002, his foundation took circus performers to Gujarat, India, where a devastating earthquake had killed some 20,000 people the previous year. Brookman packed his accordion and the accoutrements necessary to raise a maypole, which locals in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, would dance around and adorn with luminously colored fabrics.


Brookman didn’t take up humanitarian clowning for purely altruistic reasons. There were more complicated ones, rooted in family history and shaded with equal parts insecurity and hubris. His main inspiration was his maternal grandfather, Alfred Lancelot Wykes, a man he never met. During World War I, Wykes, whose family called him Lance, joined the Royal Flying Corps and flew a Sopwith Camel, a single-seat biplane that proved the most potent fighter craft in the Allies’ arsenal. After the war, Wykes set up a small factory in Thurmaston, Leicestershire, a village just over 100 miles northwest of London, where he produced planes for private use. When World War II began, the British needed a new surveillance aircraft, and Wykes’s model fit the bill. By 1945, his company had produced more than 1,600 planes, known as Austers.

Wykes didn’t live to see the end of the war, however. In 1944, as part of a military show, he flew an aircraft over a Leicestershire park in an aerobatic display. He executed a perfect loop-the-loop, until the point where he was meant to pull up. His wife and son watched as his plane came down like a javelin and burst into flames. His 14-year-old daughter, Brookman’s mother, who was away at boarding school, learned of her father’s death in a newspaper the next day.

Brookman didn’t take up humanitarian clowning for purely altruistic reasons. There were more complicated ones, rooted in family history and shaded with equal parts insecurity and hubris.

Wykes became the stuff of legend. His portrait hung above the staircase in Brookman’s grandmother’s large Victorian house: a short, stocky man with graying hair and kind features, dressed in a three-piece suit and clutching a pipe in one hand. Brookman, who was born in 1955, would climb into the dusty attic to play with Wykes’s medals and uniforms and the propeller of a Sopwith Camel, its wood blades smooth to the touch. In the dining room, a model of the same plane hung inside an inglenook fireplace. His grandmother would take Brookman into her arms and encourage him to blow so that the propeller would turn. The ritual was akin to praying at an altar. “It was symbolic of Lancelot, this man of untouchable honor,” Brookman told me. “That infiltrated my psyche. He was an utter hero to me.”

As a young man, alongside his artistic talents, Brookman nurtured a deep interest in war—one might even say he romanticized it. He devoured military-history books and films in his free time. A line from Lawrence of Arabia stuck with him: He remembered Prince Faisal, based on the real-life king of Greater Syria and Iraq, saying, “Young men make wars.… Then old men make the peace.” The generations of British men immediately preceding Brookman’s had fought in two world wars. He expected to be recruited if a third broke out. But that never happened. His youth passed with no supreme ordeal in which a man, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, could test his mettle and mortality.

So Brookman went looking for one, courting life-and-death scenarios other people were desperate to escape. By the time he started hopping from one international hot zone to another—Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Haiti—he was middle-aged. Making peace, not war, was his mission, and entertainment his favored weapon. All the while, the question of whether he was living up to the legend of Alfred Lancelot Wykes burned in the back of his mind.

Skenderaj, Kosovo, 2003

In 1998 and 1999, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo fought a brutal war against Slobodan Milosevic’s government. Kosovo freed itself from Belgrade’s political grip, but it also emerged from the conflict in a shambles. Much of its population was displaced or mired in poverty, ethnic tensions still roiled, and the government was in disarray. In 2003, Brookman booked a flight to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. He wanted to help, though he didn’t know exactly how.

It was a rash, perhaps egocentric move to show up sight unseen with no real post-conflict experience and expect to do some good. He risked everything from stepping on one of the land mines littering Kosovo to burdening already-taxed aid workers. Brookman, though, didn’t ignore impulses; if he had one, he acted on it, for better or for worse.

Brookman devised a loose idea of what he wanted to achieve, gleaned from a military history of World War II. In his recollection, the book described how the Soviet army marked the war’s end in Leningrad with a dramatic display of unused signal flares. The soldiers were celebrating victory but also honoring the unfathomable loss of some two million civilians and soldiers in the city. Brookman wanted to create something similar in Kosovo—a public spectacle that inspired collective awe and wonder. It has to be big, he thought, to make you look upward, to make you sigh.

He hoped that small-town connections would help him more than 1,200 miles away from home. The UN had a mission in Kosovo, and a man named Robert Charmbury who’d once worked in Nottinghamshire, not far from Loughborough, was the top representative for the international organization in Skenderaj, a poor municipality. Brookman had never spoken to Charmbury; if he sent a note in advance of his arrival—neither man could recall—it was only to say, I’m coming.

Skenderaj had served as a base for prominent members of the Kosovo Liberation Army and sustained enormous damage in the war. Afterward, a senior KLA commander, Sami Lushtaku, became mayor, a position he held even as he came under investigation for war crimes. (He was convicted and sentenced to prison, but later acquitted.) Skenderaj was gray and rainy when Brookman arrived, and he found Charmbury’s office in a shabby municipal building. A UN flag sat on the desk, which Charmbury would sometimes desert to play Ping-Pong with colleagues.

Brookman wanted to create a public spectacle that inspired collective awe and wonder. It has to be big, he thought, to make you look upward, to make you sigh.

Brookman got lucky; Charmbury didn’t find him rude or presumptuous. The UN official perched on his desk and listened to his guest’s idea: a multiethnic, weekend-long music and theater festival celebrating peace. Charmbury’s work brokering with local leaders to tackle grim privation was slowgoing and not always rewarding. Attempts at more lively initiatives hadn’t panned out. A two-day Mr. and Miss Skenderaj competition, for instance, had been canceled on the first night because of a power outage and on the second because of a bomb scare. “Bill offered a chance to do something special and memorable to cheer the local people,” Charmbury recently wrote in an email. Whether inspired, desperate, or some combination of the two, he agreed to the festival.

“I’m going to need a stage,” Brookman replied. Charmbury said the UN could help with that.

“There’s one other thing,” Brookman continued. “I would love to do something with aerialists.” Like in Leningrad, he wanted people gazing skyward. He’d researched the possibility of getting an aerial rig shipped over from Great Britain, but the cost and logistics weren’t looking good. “I don’t suppose you have any ideas?” Brookman asked. Charmbury said that he could probably sanction the use of a UN crane.

Brookman returned home and began putting together a show. He placed an ad in The Guardian calling for volunteers to join a circus trip to Kosovo. A trapeze artist signed on, as did a member of a Loughborough juggling club and one of Brookman’s sons. Back in Kosovo, a NATO-led peacekeeping force provided floodlights, and native Albanian bands agreed to perform.

The festival was scheduled for July 2003. With the appointed weekend days away, performers arrived in Skenderaj from London. They cobbled together stilts from any material they could find, erected a stage, and practiced the aerial show, which the trapeze artist would perform suspended from the UN crane. Brookman promoted the event in radio and newspaper interviews and walking tours through villages and towns. He carried placards and occasionally stopped to eat fire from Kevlar sticks in front of astonished onlookers.

On the first day of the festival, a few hundred curious locals showed up in Skenderaj’s main square. The first performers took the stage before a huge banner emblazoned with the word “United.” As bands, dancers, and other artists cycled through their performances, the audience grew. Brookman queued up and directed the performers, sometimes running on stage to execute a stunt or pantomime. By evening, when the aerial show was scheduled, more than 1,000 people packed the square. Suspended from the crane by a cord attached to his feet, the trapeze artist swung high into the dusky sky. Then he dropped down and scooped up a young boy from where he stood in the square clutching a candle. The move had been rehearsed at length, though the audience didn’t know it. Holding the boy close, the aerialist soared back up, eliciting screams and applause.

The morning after the festival ended, Brookman walked alone past the dismantled stage, then drifted around town. He noticed a house with walls pockmarked by bullet holes. It was the site of a massacre, a passerby said. Brookman fingered the scarred plaster. Then he ordered coffee at a café that offered a view of a field leading to the Klina River. As he looked out at the expanse, a pack of dogs stormed past, as if on a hunt. “Like headless horsemen,” Brookman recalled. Pets abandoned in the war coursed through the city in search of food.

Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2005

Two years after Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war ended, Brookman was sitting at home with his teenage sons watching the news when a segment about the country’s amputees aired. Hacking off appendages, the reporter said, was the signature atrocity of the 11-year conflict, fought between a corrupt, unpopular regime and unscrupulous, foreign-backed rebels. Some 20,000 civilians, many of them children, were missing arms, legs, lips, ears, or other body parts. Harrowing images of mutilated infants and teenagers filled the screen.

Like any normal person, Brookman was shocked. But a much odder notion popped into his brain, too: Surely a kid with no hands could still learn circus skills. Helping young amputees develop physical talents could rebuild the self-confidence lost along with their limbs. Brookman decided to test the idea on his sons and other children whom he coached in performance at a local community center.

All he needed was a diabolo—a free-running yo-yo shaped like an egg timer that can be spun, hurled into the air, and caught again on a string—a stick on which to balance a spinning plate, a pair of stilts, and some rope. With the rope, Brookman bound one boy’s bent arms so they ended at the elbows. To each truncated limb he tied the diabolo’s string. To another boy’s right arm, which was also tied up, he fastened the stick for the spinning plate. Brookman then challenged them to do tricks. After some trial and error, the boys were using the gear with ease.

Next, Brookman asked them to sit on the floor and bend their legs at the knees. He attached stilts to the joints and told them to try walking. They wobbled at first but gradually found their balance. This is going to work, Brookman thought.

Rather than just showing up in Sierra Leone, as he had in Kosovo, Brookman got in touch with the Single Leg Amputee Sports Association in Freetown, the capital. The organization sponsored soccer matches and other sporting events for people disabled in the conflict, and it agreed to meet with Brookman. In January 2005, carrying suitcases full of juggling balls, plates, and diabolos, he flew to Freetown.

Before leaving, Brookman wrote down the hymns he wanted sung at his funeral and gave the list to his assistant, Sally Renshaw, for safekeeping. Sierra Leone was more dangerous than Kosovo had been—armed gangs operated with impunity—and Brookman was preparing for the worst. He chose “When a Knight Won His Spurs” and “To Be a Pilgrim,” classic British songs about gallantry and faith. The latter has been used as a battle hymn by Great Britain’s special forces.

 He who would valiant be           
‘Gainst all disaster,           
Let him in constancy           
Follow the Master.           
There’s no discouragement           
Shall make him once relent           
His first avowed intent           
To be a pilgrim.

At a glance, it might have seemed that Brookman was seizing the tedious mantle of the prototypical white savior headed to Africa to make a difference and, if necessary, become a martyr. But melodrama in the service of others was Brookman’s business—his life’s work. He was prone to hyperbole whenever he spoke and often prefaced statements in our conversations with, “Now, this will sound awful, but.…” He recognized his penchant for self-aggrandizement, even as he barreled right into it. The choice of hymns was no different.

In Sierra Leone, Brookman visited schools and explained his idea of teaching circus skills to children. He was surprised to see only a handful of amputees. He asked if there were others. Without proper medical care, he learned, most had already died. Ultimately, Brookman would teach a young man missing one leg to hold a flaming torch in his hands as an aerial rig hoisted him up. Another man with no lower arms learned to balance a spinning plate on a long stick tied to one of his biceps. To have a bigger impact, Brookman was going to need a different project—and a team of locals to pull it off.

Pantomime of a gun misfiring.

One day he was having lunch at an outdoor café when he noticed that another customer, also a foreigner, was sitting alone. The man’s jeep was parked nearby, branded with a UN logo and the words “Arms for Development.” In typically forward fashion, Brookman approached the customer, a dark-haired French Canadian in his mid-thirties, and took a seat in a plastic chair at his table. Later, Brookman would describe the moment as if it were fated.

The man’s name was Daniel Ladouceur, and he was working on a new disarmament strategy for the United Nations Development Programme. Despite a government campaign to collect everything from anti-aircraft battery to AK-47’s to rocket-propelled grenades, there was still a lot of weaponry floating around Sierra Leone, particularly small arms and ammunition. Ladouceur’s job was to persuade communities to hand over guns in exchange for UN-funded development projects worth up to $20,000 apiece. So far it wasn’t going well. Ladouceur could see that distributing leaflets and posting placards wouldn’t advance the campaign. He was looking for a more creative, radical approach.

“What are you doing?” he asked Brookman.

“I’m doing circus skills,” Brookman replied, explaining his work.

“Have you got any ideas that could help us?” Ladouceur asked. “Anything you could do to get people interested in handing in their arms?”

Brookman took the question seriously. He scanned the ground until he spotted a few stones. He picked up three. “Let’s say I’m juggling hand grenades,” he said, giving Ladouceur a running commentary of the pantomime. “It goes wrong”—he let one stone land on his head—“and ow!” Brookman shrieked. “But let’s say I have a UN helmet on, and the stone lands in the hat. Then it’s safe.” He pretended to take off a helmet, flip it over, and use it to catch the stone. “People must give the grenades to the UN, else they’ll get burned,” Brookman continued.

Then Brookman pulled a honker from his canvas bag. It was an old-fashioned brass car horn with a large rubber bulb attached to one end. “You could go like this,” he said, drawing the horn up to his shoulder as if it were a rifle, arranging his face into a grimace, and squeezing the bulb—honk—as he mimed taking a shot. “And then this,” he said, aiming the honker but squeezing the bulb such that no sound came out. With a puzzled expression, Brookman flipped the honker around and peered into the imaginary barrel. As he did, he produced another honk, imitating a gun misfiring into his face. “Or how about you fashion a gun out of a balloon,” Brookman said, pretending to eye a target from behind a chair, “but you have a pin hidden in your lapel, so that when you take aim, the balloon blows up in your face.” He reeled his body back in mock pain.

“I suppose something like that could work,” he said more quietly, his muscles relaxing as the adrenaline drained away.

Ladouceur was intrigued. He knew of one-off, didactic plays staged to encourage disarmament, but Brookman’s sketches were simple, engaging, and replicable. “I had a feeling that this was a crazy idea,” Ladouceur told me, “but then the crazier the better, I felt.” He asked Brookman if he’d consider working for the UN, and Brookman said yes. It was exactly the sort of opportunity he’d been hoping to find.

slcopyofu-1504042429-8.jpg
In Sierra Leone with a cache of weapons.

To deploy the pantomimes, which Brookman refined and scripted, the two men envisaged a traveling troupe of performers. Brookman’s job was to recruit a local person to lead it. He short-listed six candidates who responded to a newspaper ad, then selected Albert Massaquoi, an actor who spoke three local languages as well as English. After Massaquoi learned to juggle, twist gun-shaped balloons, and lead discussions on disarmament, he and Brookman drove to remote villages to test his new skills.

Brookman documented the trip, during which Massaquoi performed in town squares and forest clearings, in a report that was nothing like the usual UN fare, full of Orwellian doublespeak and impenetrable syntax. Brookman’s account was candid, colorful, and written in the third person to mildly comic effect. “Bill is concerned that some drivers drive insensitively up-country,” he wrote, describing the UN employees who ferried him and Massaquoi. “Pedestrians are covered in dust or splashed and raced past in villages. Some of this is unavoidable. But to see a considerate driver in action shows it can be done.”

After the successful trial, Massaquoi recruited other performers. They took off like a traveling circus, turning up in more than 300 locations nationwide in an old bright yellow Land Cruiser. They collected any weapons communities were willing to give up. According to Ladouceur, they gathered more than 1,000 arms, including semi-automatics, hunting rifles, and chakabulas, crude, locally made guns. Finally, Brookman’s clowning was proving effective in the way he’d always hoped it would.

When Ladouceur was reassigned to Haiti, where the UN was struggling to contain urban guerrilla warfare, he asked Brookman to come. The clown was game.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 200

Brookman’s flight to Haiti was a bubble of serenity that burst as soon as he disembarked in Port-au-Prince, with its thick dust and exhaust fumes, blaring music and car horns. From the window of a taxi, Brookman spotted a dead body. At the Hotel Oloffson, a gingerbread-style Gothic mansion and an inspiration for Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, foreign aid workers spilled onto shaded terraces overlooking lush, tropical gardens. Theirs was a rarefied club. When the guests went to bed, singing from nearby streets continued through the night, haunting four-part harmonies that drifted through Brookman’s open shutters. Occasional bursts of gunfire broke the melodic reverie.

The sounds represented what Brookman had come to do in Port-au-Prince’s bidonvilles, or slums: alleviate violence through music and art. Of particular concern was Cité Soleil, a shantytown of almost 300,000 people. Numerous gangs vied for control of the streets, killing their enemies and terrorizing civilians. Neither Haiti’s government, in chaos after a coup d’état, nor the police were up to the task of flushing them out. A UN peacekeeping force had arrived in 2004, but it wasn’t able to penetrate the compact neighborhood of flimsy buildings leaning together and overlapping like rooms in a house of cards. Whenever soldiers went in, gunfire from the gangs drove them back out. Several peacekeepers had been killed.

Desmond Molloy, an Irishman and former military officer working for the UN, was tasked with figuring out how to disarm the gangs—composed largely of young men, including many children—and help members transition into civilian society. It felt like an “impossible” job, Molloy told me, and it nearly broke him. The gangs had tens of thousands of weapons in their possession. They used women and children as human shields. On average, Molloy noted at the time, five kidnappings were reported in Cité Soleil every day. His team once met with more than 30 children who belonged to gangs, to discuss alternative ways of life. Within three weeks, Molloy heard that gang bosses had executed at least five for conspiring with the UN.

The gangs had tens of thousands of weapons in their possession. They used women and children as human shields.

Distressed, Molloy contacted Ladouceur, whom he’d worked with in Sierra Leone, and begged him to come to Haiti. The two men drafted a plan to adapt traditional disarmament strategies to a place verging on anarchy. But during a presentation of their ideas, flicking through PowerPoint slides, Molloy abruptly told the room full of UN officials, “I have to stop.” Haiti was in conflict, even if a proper war wasn’t raging. There was no peace agreement signaling any side’s willingness to disarm. Conventional UN solutions wouldn’t work.

Certain that he would be sacked from his job, Molloy was surprised when his boss allowed him and Ladouceur to come up with a new strategy—if they could do it in two days. Molloy and Ladouceur devised what they called community violence reduction, which they were soon allowed to implement. The plan prioritized the well-being of populations affected by gangs by helping people exit the organizations and supporting nonviolent culture in places like Cité Soleil. With no clear way of convincing gang leaders to gather at a negotiating table, Molloy and Ladouceur decided to approach them individually, using Haiti’s vibrant arts scene as a channel. Music was a language the gangsters understood; rap kreyòl, as Haitian hip-hop is known, was born of social discontent.

The UN, though, had a legitimacy problem. Nervous peacekeeping soldiers who were supposed to be protecting civilians rarely got out of their tanks. In January 2006, gangs had shot two of them dead—the third fatal incident affecting UN personnel in under a month. For community violence reduction to work, Ladouceur and Molloy needed outside help.

Brookman was the man for the job. Ladouceur asked him to set up an ostensibly independent organization—it was fully funded by the UN—through which local performers would tour parts of bidonvilles that peacekeepers couldn’t reach. Some Haitian officials were skeptical. “What are you doing bringing in foreigners to run carnival for us?” one asked when he heard the news. “You think you need to teach Haitians how to do carnival?” (The country’s weeks-long celebration leading up to Mardi Gras is legendary.)

Heeding the lessons of Sierra Leone, however, Brookman planned to draft Haitian entertainers and collaborate with them. After his first night at the Hotel Oloffson, Brookman got to work. Through newspaper ads and word of mouth, he found young, street-savvy performers who seemed capable of navigating both chords and conflict. Jerôme Jacques, a stocky, gregarious Haitian with an easy laugh and a beautiful singing voice, was chosen as the troupe’s front man. He and the other performers made bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the initiative’s name, Caravane de la Paix (Caravan of Peace). They removed the telltale blue logos from the UN vehicles they’d be using and painted the sides with murals inspired by voodoo art. Brookman taught them circus skills, including how to toss a diabolo that had been set on fire.

The caravan set their sights on Cité Soleil, which the UN was eager to access by any means possible. Each gang controlled a parcel of the slum; to secure a location for a show, the caravan would need approval from the relevant gang boss. Jacques decided to drive in to request a meeting with Amaral Duclona, a powerful leader who held sway over an area of the slum known as Bélécou. Among the most feared men in Port-au-Prince, Duclona was suspected of being connected to the murders of several foreigners. Yet Jacques had heard that he was surprisingly approachable and interested in development that might benefit Cité Soleil.

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Haitian performers pose with caravan vehicles. 

On the road into Bélécou, Jacques and three other caravan members who’d agreed to join him were stopped and questioned several times. Once they arrived, about 30 young men blocked their path. Jacques asked where Duclona was. A cluster went looking for their boss while the rest stayed behind to watch the uninvited guests. Fifteen minutes later, a polished blue Honda convertible arrived and produced Duclona, a tall, heavyset man with a buzz cut and a silver chain around his thick neck. He and several armed men disappeared into a nearby building. Duclona found a room with a desk, where he sat with his guards flanking him, like a lord holding court. Only then was Jacques allowed an audience.

“We are working to promote the culture of peace,” Jacques told Duclona. “The whole community honors you as their leader, a great leader, a leader who exudes extraordinary sensitivity toward the people of the Cité.” But those people, Jacques continued, weren’t happy with the status quo of poverty and violence. He asked Duclona’s permission to bring the caravan into Bélécou to engage residents in music and performance.

The gang leader responded by comparing life in Cité Soleil to being in a prison. “The population lives in fear,” Jacques remembered him saying. Duclona also complained about the unearned reputation that slum residents had throughout Port-au-Prince. “People living in this area cannot move with ease around other parts of the capital,” he said. “Men and women, all are considered killers.”

He agreed to let the caravan come, with one stipulation: Jacques also had to get permission from Duclona’s brother-in-law, Évens Jeune—known as Ti Kouto (Little Knife)—a gang leader who controlled a neighboring area known as Boston. The two bosses had made a pact to prohibit public leisure activities as a method of controlling their communities, so Duclona couldn’t agree to the caravan’s request on his own.

Jacques drove with two of Duclona’s men to Ti Kouto’s house, all brick and glass with modern plumbing, air-conditioning, and a driveway in which new cars and motorbikes were parked. When he heard the pitch, Ti Kouto gave his agreement. Jacques left the slum and reported back to Brookman, anxiously awaiting news of the reconnaissance trip, that the caravan’s work was a go.


Two days later, the team loaded into its vehicles and set off for Place Immaculé, a square in Boston. Brookman trusted and admired his Haitian colleagues. He also felt responsible for them; he knew that they were risking their lives because he’d asked them to. But if something went wrong in the slum, there would be little he could do to protect them or himself.

The ride was rough. Gangs had dug trenches on either side of the road; known as “tank traps,” they made it nearly impossible for armored vehicles to pass. When the troupe finally arrived at Place Immaculé, the members cautiously spilled out wearing their orange shirts. Armed men loyal to Ti Kouto emerged from narrow alleyways. They’d been sent to provide protection.

The caravan split into two groups. One managed the curious crowd that had begun to gather. The other, led by Brookman, set up for the show. Every half-hour, Brookman sent a text message to a UN contact so that the official could monitor the caravan’s progress. He was walking a fine line; if Ti Kouto found out the troupe wasn’t a wholly neutral party, as it had been presented to him when Jacques first visited Boston, the caravan could be run out of the slum, even attacked.

Brookman kicked the show off with his accordion, pulsing the instrument’s keys and pushing and stretching its bellows. Several gunshots rang out close by, presumably a warning to the caravan from gangs hostile to Duclona and Ti Kouto’s. The band looked to Brookman for guidance and saw him play on. So they did, too. Later they learned that Brookman hadn’t heard the shots: The accordion is a strident instrument, and he already had hearing loss from years spent cocking his head toward it, the rasping notes blaring into his ear canal.

Jacques and another vocalist took up two microphones. Their first song, a catchy rock tune, beseeched the crowd to lay down their weapons, which the lyrics called “a great burden.” Women clustered near the troupe, with green and yellow buckets bearing laundry, food, and water balanced on their heads. They laughed and swayed to the music. Eventually men joined in, and as the crowd started to cheer, the band’s confidence grew.

Then the audience parted, making way for a lean, muscular man with tattoos and silver hoop earrings. Brookman’s heart fluttered; he wondered if the man was going to shut the show down—or worse. Instead, the man took one of the microphones and began to rap. When he finished, another man, this one skinny, wearing bleached dreadlocks and a leopard-print shirt, jumped in to replace him. The caravan, Brookman realized, was engaged in an unprecedented musical dialogue with some of the most wanted men in Haiti.

The caravan, Brookman realized, was engaged in an unprecedented musical dialogue with some of the most wanted men in Haiti.

At one point, he set down his accordion, picked up a small camera he’d brought with him, and gingerly took a photograph. Rather than get angry, the man in the leopard-print shirt exaggerated his performance gestures. Over the course of the afternoon, keen to document the caravan’s first success, Brookman took more photos of gang members, most of whom had elaborately tattooed arms.

When the troupe finished performing, members distributed T-shirts to the crowd, Brookman said a few words—translated by a local priest—about music being a common language, and the caravan packed up and left. That evening, Ladouceur asked how the show had gone. Brookman played down the fact that, in a matter of hours, the caravan had been able to get into a place the UN had been trying to access for months. “I met the gangs. I performed with them. Oh, and I got pictures of them all,” Brookman said matter-of-factly. “We were not expecting him to go that strong,” Ladouceur later admitted with a chuckle.

After that, Brookman moved in and out of Port-au-Prince’s most violent areas. Embracing the local rara street-festival tradition, he bought a number of bamboo trumpets, known as vaksen, that the caravan incorporated into its repertoire. Jacques continued to meet with gang leaders, explaining that the troupe could be trusted and asking for their blessing on the performances. Ever conscious of the abduction risk, Brookman and his team sketched a map on a translucent piece of paper that, when aligned with a satellite image of Cité Soleil, detailed the locations of gangsters’ houses and hideouts, the tank traps, and the safest roads. The caravan didn’t take it into the slum. The plan was to use the map as a bargaining chip: If a gang kidnapped one of the troupe members, the rest would threaten to give the map to UN soldiers unless their colleague was freed.

The idea was typical Brookman—madcap, but with a certain degree of logic. It also revealed that he was wrestling with his loyalties. He was dedicated to the UN, which he saw as a force for good in the world. To what extent should he be concerned with fidelity to his target audience, including hardened criminals? In Sierra Leone, the two sides had aligned more naturally, thanks to the civil war being over. In Haiti, they were foes.

With UN troops.

Complicating the dilemma was an August 2006 ultimatum issued to the gangs by then president René Préval: Surrender or die. This put UN negotiators like Molloy and Ladouceur in the difficult position of managing a peaceful disarmament process as the specter of a joint UN-Haiti military action loomed. Their team operated alongside peacekeepers with the common goal of overtaking the slums, but the groups had different mandates and often employed clashing methods. If an offensive were to start, as Molloy put it, “Our game is up.” At best the disarmament team’s work could forestall that moment, but privately its leaders held out little hope that would happen.

Still, they asked Brookman to do more—“because he was able to reach places and talk to people that nobody else was able to,” Ladouceur explained. The caravan began to encourage gang leaders to release its rank-and-file members for demobilization, a formal process wherein the young men would leave the slums and, in a UN facility, receive support and education in order to return to civilian life. Jacques again took the lead in negotiations. It was painstaking work, with little progress. Once, after a three-hour meeting, the leaders of a gang known as Base Egaré (Lost Base) told Jacques that they had no reason to trust that demobilization wasn’t a trick. Over the course of the fall, gang leaders agreed to hand over about 100 men to the UN. At the demobilization facility, Brookman helped them record music in which they articulated their grievances and expressed their desire for a new life.

In a matter of months, however, many of them would be dead.


One Friday in February 2007, Brookman received a phone call from Molloy. “Why don’t you come along and spend the weekend up at my place?” the UN official asked. He lived in a cool, leafy home atop a winding escarpment road some ten miles outside Port-au-Prince. Brookman agreed. “Where is the rest of the group—Cité Soleil?” Molloy asked casually. Brookman said his team was in a different city for a few days. (They had started performing regularly outside the capital.) “Fine,” Molloy replied. “Come and stay. Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow, then we’ll drive up to my place.”

During lunch, while Brookman ate pizza and drank a glass of wine, Molloy’s cell phone rang. Brookman listened to his boss’s side of the call, gleaning from the snippets of conversation that a complex military operation was under way somewhere in Port-au-Prince. Calls kept coming in that afternoon as the pair drove to Molloy’s home and after they’d arrived.

Curiosity morphed into disbelief as Brookman learned where the offensive was happening. “Got an op going down in Cité Soleil. They’re taking them,” Molloy said, referring to the gangs. Some 700 UN troops were going after the groups with which the caravan had spent months building relationships. In fact, the primary target was Ti Kouto, whom the head of the UN mission described to The Washington Post in its coverage of the operation as a “psychopath.” (Ti Kouto would manage to escape and flee south of the capital.) Molloy had known about the incursion in advance; it’s why he’d invited Brookman to his home, to ensure his safety. But the decision to move against the gangs hadn’t been his, he explained.

Some 700 UN troops were going after the groups with which the caravan had spent months building relationships.

Brookman understood. He’d been a UN contractor long enough to grasp the nuances of the unwieldy organization’s component parts, and he didn’t begrudge his boss’s position. Still, he was worried. He wondered if he would be taken for a spy, or if the rest of the caravan would. He was relieved that no hostage situation had ever prompted him to use his map. But he knew that if a gang leader wanted revenge on his enemies, even perceived ones, he would take it. When Brookman learned that more than 20 of the young men he’d worked with at the demobilization facility had died after returning to Cité Soleil, some specifically to fight the UN troops, he felt helpless.

He spent the weekend at Molloy’s, anxious and drinking heavily. When he left to rejoin the caravan, Brookman knew that the troupe would have to start from scratch to rebuild trust in the slum. More than ever, it would need to be careful to hide its UN affiliation.

But Brookman never went to Cité Soleil again. The Haitian government had asked to take over the caravan’s operations, so he spent his last few weeks in Port-au-Prince coordinating the transition. He grew increasingly neurotic, telling drivers to turn off the road if his car came close to a UN vehicle, lest a disgruntled gang member associate him with the men who’d invaded Cité Soleil.

When he boarded a flight out of Haiti, police escorted a handcuffed man onto the plane. Brookman craned his neck to see if he recognized the tattoos on his arms. Unable to make them out, he shrank into his seat. He could never get comfortable.

Loughborough, England, 2007

Brookman’s friends were worried about him. After he returned from Haiti, one of his foundation’s board members saw him hurl a piece of circus equipment in what seemed to be a moment of anger. Renshaw, his assistant, thought he looked drained. Brookman admitted that he sometimes thought he heard gunshots that weren’t actually there. When people suggested that he see a therapist because he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Brookman acquiesced, though he was skeptical. What do you do apart from talk? he thought.

Then again, he had things he wanted to talk about—Haiti, and much more. 

His therapist, a woman in her fifties, worked in a sparsely furnished room in a converted farmhouse. Sitting across from her, Brookman confessed that he had an obsession with death, particularly the untimely demises of great men. Did she know that the composer Henry Purcell had died at 26? Alexander the Great at 36? There was also his grandfather who’d died in front of a crowd. After first mentioning him, Brookman kept talking about Lancelot Wykes. His grandfather’s ghost was always there, almost on his shoulder, Brookman said.

Performing at a festival in Britain.

The therapist told him that he was pursuing an impossible goal. Brookman felt he had to live up to his grandfather’s legacy in order to prove himself to his family, particularly his mother and grandmother. “You’ll never, as a human being alive now, equal a mythical character who’s dead,” the therapist said. As for his unusual knowledge of the age at which men died, she suggested that Brookman was desperate to achieve as much as he could as quickly as possible, in case his own life suddenly ended.

For all the light therapy shed, it did little to temper Brookman’s appetite for risk. “If somebody gives me a project, I just get excited. I get a rush of blood,” he told me. And Renshaw had been Brookman’s assistant long enough—on and off for 11 years—to know that when Ladouceur got in touch, “something international was afoot.”

When Ladouceur phoned one day in 2009, it was about East Africa. He wanted Brookman to visit Somalia, which was languishing without a functioning government. An African Union peacekeeping force was there, but al-Shabaab was on the rise, particularly in the south. In areas the extremists controlled, which would eventually include swaths of Mogadishu, they banned music, cigarettes, sports, gold teeth, bras, movies, the internet, and dancing. Women were forced to wear heavy black robes and were forbidden from working in public. People suspected of spying on behalf of the UN or any other enemy of al-Shabaab were executed, often in public.

Ladouceur wanted Brookman to go to the north, where two autonomous regions—Somaliland and Puntland—were relatively stable, despite rampant piracy and kidnapping. The UN was eager to stem the tide of extremism from rolling in. This wouldn’t be like Haiti; Brookman would be working with people who weren’t armed, encouraging them not to become so, rather than ingratiating himself with fighters against whom the UN might later decide to take a different tack.

He packed his bags.

Over the next four years, Brookman took several trips to Somaliland and Puntland. He rolled around in a tangerine-colored bus with local performers, staging shows that targeted young people, encouraging them to disavow violence. The threat of religious zealots loomed, and there were near misses: bomb attacks on roads the bus took, an accidental detour ten miles into an active minefield before anyone realized and the group had to anxiously backtrack. Many seasoned aid professionals and conflict journalists tone down their tales of closely averted disaster. Getting into trouble often means you’ve messed up and put other people in danger; drawing attention to fiascos as derring-do can be viewed as a mark of inexperience. Brookman, however, never self-censored. He told me stories in full color, with unabashed enthusiasm and, at times, vanity peppered with embellishment. He was first and foremost a performer who saw life and the retelling of it as the ultimate theatrical production.

Brookman was first and foremost a performer who saw life and the retelling of it as the ultimate theatrical production.

When Brookman got home from what was supposed to be his last trip, in late 2012, he sat with Renshaw in the garden of his home. He was spent. “I need to stop now,” he told his assistant. “I need a break.”

Not long after, Ladouceur called. He had another mission to Somalia in mind, this one to Mogadishu, where battles with international forces had cost al-Shabaab key positions; the militants had shifted to a strategy that prioritized car bombs, grenade attacks, and suicide vests over territorial control in the capital. Mogadishu wasn’t safe, but the worst was over. What better way to show it than a public concert to signal that al-Shabaab no longer held sway over the city, its culture, and its inhabitants?

Bloody hell, Brookman thought, I’m going to do another one.

He got off the phone and found Renshaw’s eyebrows furrowed in concern.

“Are you going to say yes?”

Brookman looked apologetic. “I have done so already,” he answered.

Mogadishu, Somalia, 2013

The Reconciliation Music Festival, as the planned event was called, had two enemies. First were the militants, and second was the national government that had formed in the wake of al-Shabaab’s retreat. While they weren’t members of the extremist group, many politicians were still hard-line conservative Muslims. A show featuring singing, dancing, unveiled female artists, and other religiously forbidden activities was frowned upon. “It is not possible to do music in Mogadishu,” an official told Brookman and two other festival organizers when they paid an exploratory visit to the city in January 2013.

On the same trip, the visitors went to Afgoye, a town reclaimed from al-Shabaab less than a year before. The terrorists were making their continued, if fractured, presence felt with regular attacks. As Brookman and his co-organizers were looking around the town, their security guards abruptly bundled them into waiting vehicles and ushered them back to Mogadishu as fast as the bumpy roads would allow. They were told that forces in Afgoye had arrested two or three armed al-Shabaab sympathizers suspected of planning an attack on the visitors.

The concert clearly needed local security support. That’s where the contacts and experience of Shiine Akhyaar Ali came in.

A trailblazing Somali rapper known to his fans only by his first name, Shiine was the festival’s mastermind. In the early nineties, when he was a child, extremists had killed two of his brothers and driven the rest of his family out of Somalia on foot. They traveled across semi-arid desert and eventually settled 700 miles away in Nairobi. Shiine learned to read and write, and he began to compose and perform poetry as a teenager. In 2004, when he was in his early twenties, he and several other Somali exiles formed a creative collective called Waayaha Cusub (New Era). The group recorded hip-hop albums that it performed live across Kenya and in other parts of East Africa; many of the songs promoted nonviolence and tolerance, and some called out the enemy by name. “Who is behind this trail of destruction? Al-Shabaab,” one notable track asserts.

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Playing with fire.

By 2006, Waayaha Cusub had caught the Islamists’ attention. When one of the members, Zakaraia Ciro, traveled to Somalia to visit his dying mother, he was kidnapped and murdered. His dead body surfaced in a river, after which three of his bandmates quit in fear. Even in Nairobi the group wasn’t safe; men loyal to al-Shabaab lived among the Kenyan capital’s large Somali population. A street attack left a female member with a gash down the center of her face. In 2007, armed men broke into Shiine’s apartment one night. He managed to grab and break the light fixture on the ceiling of his bedroom, plunging the space into darkness. The men pinned him down and fired several rounds, only two of which hit home. The attackers left him for dead, blood pumping from an exit wound and a bullet lodged in his stomach. Shiine survived—and kept performing.

Brookman and Shiine met for the first time in 2009, when Brookman was traveling to northern Somalia by way of Nairobi. Shiine, who was garnering a reputation among admirers as a cross between Kanye West and Gandhi, wanted to bring live music back to Somalia and use it to promote peace. He and Brookman talked over coffee at a hotel, where they took an instant liking to each other. Brookman found Shiine, then just 26 and soft-spoken, with a square, boyish face and curly hair, to be confident and mature. Shiine liked Brookman’s humanitarian-cum-artistic work and came to see him as “a friend of the Somali people,” the rapper told me.

Four years later, the idea they’d discussed was finally happening. The UN had signed on as a funder Waayaha Cusub would headline, with an array of global musicians performing sets, including Afghan-American folk singer Ariana Delawari, Filipino reggae artist Jahm-Eye, Kenyan soul band Afro Simba, and Sudanese singer Alsarah with her band the Nubatones. There would be a series of six shows over the course of a week, leading up to one large concert that would be broadcast live on local television. Brookman’s job was to manage UN financing, but he also wanted to stage one of his aerial acrobatic shows and breathe fire during the performances.

To counter government opposition, Shiine went looking for allies. He knew there were no security measures, however large or costly, that could guarantee the event’s safety. “Mogadishu life is knowing that one day you’ll get bombed and you’ll die,” he told me at the time. “People are dying everywhere. The people around them are sitting drinking coffee. That’s the normal.” Yet he placed faith in the hands of two liberals inside Somalia’s intelligence apparatus: Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, the national chief, and Khalif Ahmed Ilig, district chief for Mogadishu. Both men promised to do everything in their power to protect the musicians.


In early March 2013, Brookman landed for the second time that year at Mogadishu’s airport, where the model and caliber of weapons one was traveling with were standard fields on immigration forms. Along with his fire sticks, Brookman smuggled in money, concealed about his person, to pay festival contractors. “I came over with $30,000 stuffed down my knickers. Not all large denominations—wads and wads of it!” he told me. Six armed guards picked him up in a truck, which then transported him at breakneck speed, guns sticking out at odd angles like the quills of an unkempt porcupine, through the streets of Mogadishu. At the City Palace Hotel, a low-lying compound with a quadrangle where guests on plastic chairs drank milky coffee or thick mango juice, Brookman underwent a rigorous security check: body scan, bag scan, extensive pat down. He was introduced to the local police commander in charge of his security detail. A tubby, goofy-looking man with a mouthful of gold teeth, the officer didn’t inspire confidence.

But Brookman had other things to worry about. The stage that the producer had arranged to be shipped in for the concert was missing, probably on a boat somewhere between Mombasa, Kenya, and Mogadishu’s port. The sound and lighting gear they’d ordered were also missing in action, as was a satellite dish rumored to be en route from Dubai. It would’ve been cheaper to import some items over land from Kenya, but it also would’ve required paying bribes to al-Shabaab.

“I came over with $30,000 stuffed down my knickers. Not all large denominations—wads and wads of it!”

Brookman’s idea for an aerial performance, meanwhile, raised eyebrows. “For us that’s very strange. We’ve never seen a lady dancing in the air,” Nur Hassan, a Somali journalist working as a fixer, told me. The security brass saw it as less strange than risky—a person flying through the open air was asking to be a target of terror. They insisted that Brookman not orchestrate the stunt, even though he’d already been training a local aid worker to dangle from a climbing rope and harness, practicing on the veranda of her Mogadishu home.

A few days into the event’s preparation, Brookman and other festival participants decided to check out the concert venue and visit Mogadishu’s fish market. Armed guards went wherever the performers did. Everyone needed a spot in a vehicle. With so many people to organize, departure from the hotel was delayed.

Just as the team was preparing to leave, news came over the radio: A car bomb had exploded less than a mile away, near Mogadishu’s presidential palace. The performers wanted to see the scene, so they drove over. Police and onlookers surrounded the smoldering shell of a public minibus and the charred wreckage of the bomber’s car. The minibus, with civilian passengers aboard, wasn’t hit intentionally, police said. It had been in the way of a car carrying Khalif Ahmed Ilig, one of the festival’s local guarantors. He escaped with minor injuries, as did some 20 other people. At least ten more, however, had died.

Brookman snapped pictures. He felt compelled to bear witness, but he also recognized that he was rubbernecking a disaster. He marveled at the force of the bomb: Only one wheel was still attached to the stunted chassis of the bomber’s car, and the bodywork was blown to bits. Cracks of gunfire—police shooting in the air to disperse the crowd that had gathered—reverberated amid Mogadishu’s crumbling brick and plaster walls. Brookman nervously scanned the street, worried the sounds might be hostile fire.

As the festival drew closer, threats multiplied. Shiine, who arrived from Kenya a few days after the car bombing, and the rest of Waayaha Cusub received menacing calls and text messages. Most promised that death was imminent. One day, Shiine said he received a small amount of prepaid mobile-phone credit shortly before a text that read, “Use this credit to say goodbye to your family.” He worried about the guards hired to protect him. They were undoubtedly poor locals, and al-Shabaab might try to buy them off, giving them more to harm Shiine or festivalgoers than the event’s backers were paying to keep everyone safe. In one incident, Shiine’s guards exchanged fire outside the hotel with men in a moving car. Intelligence officers later determined that it was an attempt to ambush the rapper.

Consulting with Somali policemen ahead of the peace concert.

The day of the event was chaotic. Much of the gear had still not arrived, so the festival team would have to make do with what could be sourced locally. Around the time that organizers announced the concert’s location via phone calls and text messages, I shared a car to the venue with Brookman. He already had on his performing outfit and eyeliner, not yet smudged. He was jittery, speaking as much to himself as to me.

“A three-hour live broadcast!” he screeched. “Who made that call? It might be me.” At another point, he turned in the passenger seat to face me where I sat in the back. “Do you realize what we’re doing?” he asked almost frantically, his eyes blazing with excitement and fear. “It’s going to be a grenade thrown over the wall,” he continued, imagining a simple yet deadly attack al-Shabaab could wage. “It’s not going to be a man with a gun, it’s not going to be a man with a bomb strapped to him.” Then Brookman stopped, struck by an idea. “I hadn’t thought of that—a VBIED!” The possibility that someone might rig up a vehicle-born improvised explosive device and leave it in an inconspicuous car next to the basketball court sent him down a rabbit hole of new fears.

When we arrived at the venue, women in head scarves were sweeping rubbish and dirt from the crude stage. Brookman channeled his energy into telling security personnel what to do. That he had no formal military training didn’t stop him from trying to seem like an expert. There were roughly ten guards standing outside the court’s walls. “If the enemy watches TV, they may bring a VBIED and park it,” Brookman told the men in fatigues, who listened—without comprehension, as they didn’t speak English—to his carefully enunciated words. “They may already have brought one.” (He forgot to order someone to check.) As he walked the court’s perimeter looking for security gaps, Brookman muttered to no one in particular, “I’ve got to show leadership.”

He spotted a young guard with angular shoulders slumped in a plastic chair, his phone clamped to his ear so that he could listen to the radio. Brookman yanked the chair from beneath him and wagged a finger, as if to say, Don’t be caught off guard. Another man standing on a soggy berm was playing a game on his phone. Brookman crept up behind him, snatched the device, and shoved it into a pocket of the man’s fatigues. Brookman mimed a quick lesson on staying alert, stamping one foot next to the other, as if in salute, and holding an imaginary weapon across his body in a ready position. The next guard had been paying attention; he was standing tall with a semi-automatic in his hands when Brookman approached.

The concert was set to start at 3 p.m. and last three hours—I had been told that it was too dangerous for it to continue into the night. By 4 p.m., though, a large screen and the sound system were still being set up. Attendees, mostly young people, sat around the court looking mildly interested. If you’ve waited your whole life to see a concert, what’s a few more hours? I reasoned. By the time the mismatched equipment, multiple cameras, and satellite feed had been set up, and the musicians played their first notes, it was a quarter past six. Clouds the color of pink cotton candy swirled across the sky.

If you’ve waited your whole life to see a concert, what’s a few more hours? I reasoned.

Jahm-Eye, the reggae artist, kicked things off with a song accompanied by acoustic guitar. The crowd swelled as wide-eyed arrivals came seeking the music they’d seen on TV or heard drifting through Mogadishu’s streets. When Waayaha Cusub came on, the crowd went wild. “I’ve never seen this before,” Abdullahi, an out-of-breath 13-year-old, told me. “I never liked music, but when I hear it I like it, because it makes me want to dance.” A woman in a white patterned tunic and fuchsia scarf took me by the hand and we danced.

When I saw Brookman next, he was still fretting—and furiously misquoting ancient Greeks. “Aristotle talked of kings and philosophers,” he said, meaning to refer to Plato and indicating that he didn’t have time to talk about how he felt because he needed to act. Next came an attempt at a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “When the blast of war blows in our ears, then is the time to imitate the action of the tiger.” It was as if he was using his literary heroes to steel his nerve. He concluded with some words of his own—“Al-Shabaab are angels of death with an incredible degree of commitment”—before hurrying off to check on the guards once again.

In the midst of the jubilation, Shiine began receiving a flurry of messages and calls from one of his intelligence contacts. They’d learned that al-Shabaab members were trying to cut the power lines to the venue. Their plan, inevitably, was to use the darkness to cause as much panic and devastation as they could. With only one exit—a flimsy metal gate opening out onto a mess of mud puddles left by a recent storm—the court wouldn’t empty quickly. Even one man with a gun would be able to kill a substantial number of people. Shiine encouraged the artists who’d already played to exit the court and go back to the hotel. Meanwhile, he kept getting updates from the intelligence officers.

Unaware of the unfolding security threat, Brookman stood looking at the concrete walls. Fire-breathing on top of them was without a doubt the craziest thing he would ever attempt to do. I’m going to stand up there as a taunt to al-Shabaab, he thought.

And up he went.

In the literary version of this story, here is where the hero would get cut down, sacrificed on the altar of his noble cause. When I saw Brookman on the wall, that scenario flitted through my head. For his part, Shiine thought it bold for Brookman to make himself a target at the venue’s highest point. By then, however, intelligence officials were assuring the rapper that the security threat was under control; police had arrested two would-be attackers.

Later, Brookman would describe feeling as though he was in a play, an actor inhabiting a character who courts disaster. When he sent flames into the sky, some piece of him even felt a fatalistic desire for al-Shabaab to shoot at him—if not hit him. It would be the most dramatic ending imaginable. But he quickly chastised himself for thinking so and leaned instead into the intense feeling that performing always brought, heightened by the scene before him, the crowd shrieking with delight.

The night was the kind that could melt even the most hardened cynicism. The concert was an unqualified success. As for Brookman, people in the crowd told me that for 25 years the fire of guns and bombs had vanquished Mogadishu’s spirit—and now this strange, reckless man had made fire into a triumph. I scribbled in my notepad, “Artists are brave, they dare to dream.” It was sappy, but also true.

Loughborough, England, 2017

Mogadishu was Brookman’s last heady cocktail of drama and danger. Ladouceur left the UN, and the organization didn’t call on Brookman again. One day, though, a letter arrived from a lawyer, asking if he would be a witness for Shiine. The rapper had applied for asylum. After 20 years of living in Kenya, his residency document had been revoked by officials in Nairobi as part of a controversial strategy to expel Somali refugees.

Scanning the material the lawyer sent him, Brookman’s attention fell on a clause entitled “Bombing of vehicle convoy, Mogadishu; March 2013.” It described the car bomb that had gutted the minibus shortly before the festival, the carbonized remains of which Brookman had seen. The legal statement claimed that Waayaha Cusub, which al-Shabaab may have believed was traveling with the festival team at the time, had been the probable target.

Shiine told me that had Brookman’s group not been late setting off that day from the City Palace Hotel, they might now be dead. “If they’d seen the white man?”—he paused to exhale—“They like that. They’re more interested in a white man than they are a Somali.” In killing one, that is.

When I asked Brookman about the matter, he agreed that it seemed plausible. If true, “then I went and filmed my own funeral,” he said, referring to the photos he took of the bombing’s aftermath. Melodrama aside, he confessed that the chance, however small, that he might bear some responsibility for the deaths of innocent people on the minibus distressed him. “I don’t know whether to take that responsibility to my maker or say, ‘You’re not to blame, Bill,’” he told me.

“I don’t know whether to take that responsibility to my maker or say, ‘You’re not to blame, Bill.’”

Like the UN, Brookman was imperfect and in need of modernizing. When I asked him once how he would respond to criticism of his work—a foreigner parachuting into places he doesn’t know to do theatrical work some people might find trivial—he answered solemnly, “Come along and join us, and see if there’s any animosity from anybody anywhere we go.” He’d always championed local artists and traditions, and he took seriously the possibility that his mere presence in a place could cause people harm. He offered to do whatever he could to support Shiine.

Brookman attended the asylum hearing in a nondescript office off Fleet Street. He felt proud to be British as his country offered Shiine a fair hearing. The court discussed the finer points of the case, ironing out the contradictions and debating the merits. By the end of the proceeding, Shiine’s asylum was granted.

Not long after, age proved a greater enemy to Brookman than any gang member or militant ever had. He suffered a heart attack at 60. He recovered but knew that his days of dangerous travel were likely behind him. He had to focus on taking his pills—and on getting married. In August 2017, Brookman wed for a second time at the church he’d attended for most of his life. His new wife was a woman named Madeleine, whom he’d known since he was a young boy but had reconnected with only a few years prior. After the ceremony, Brookman donned his one-man band and performed for his bride, family, and friends.

Not long before the wedding, I asked Brookman if he had exorcised his grandfather’s ghost. “No” was the firm reply. When he’d recently got word of a potential assignment in Sudan, he admitted, his “heart started to beat again.” Brookman told me that in his darkest moments, he wondered if he’d proved himself a man of valor. Making his dead grandfather proud may have been a “pathology,” but he’d been helpless to stop it from setting the course of his life.

After a brief pause, Brookman began to recite from memory Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a poem about an elderly hero, stalked by death, whose insatiable longing for adventure leads him out to sea on one final—and perhaps fatal—quest: “How dull is it to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! … Come, my friends / ’T is not too late to seek a newer world.”

Then he jumped to the poem’s conclusion, his voice tinged with purpose: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


You can still catch Brookman performing around Great Britain, at big festivals like Glastonbury and smaller ones closer to Loughborough. Or you can pull up on YouTube what he calls the biggest production of his life: his 2016 appearance on Britain’s Got Talent, the popular variety competition show.

Brookman traveled to Liverpool, one-man band and candy-cane-striped stilts in tow, to perform before four judges, dozens of cameras, a studio audience of thousands, and a live TV audience of more than ten million. When he clanked on stage, a bewildered blond judge asked her colleague, “Is that a colander on his head?” The main camera showed a young girl in the crowd exclaiming, “That is amazing!”

As Brookman played, the audience—including his soon-to-be-wife, to whom he blew a kiss—cheered and clapped in time to the music. Two of the judges stood up from their chairs to dance. Ultimately, they would vote him on to the next round but eliminate him soon after. “You are exactly the kind of British eccentric we love,” one said.

“What’s your name, please?” asked judge Simon Cowell, the music producer notorious for his scathing commentary on American Idol and other reality programs.

“Bill Brookman.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m 60.”

“Bill, do you work?” Cowell asked.

Brookman hesitated for a fraction of a second, as if unsure how to answer, of which role to play. Then he found his voice. “I work for the United Nations,” he said.

Not Fuzz

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Not Fuzz

They were partners in fighting crime. The only problem: Neither was a cop. But when one friend turned on the other, things got real.

By David Mark Simpson

The Atavist Magazine, No. 69


David Mark Simpson is a journalist based in Los Angeles. He’s written about immigration, dinosaur bones, sperm donation, and Mexican baseball.


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Jake Scobey-Thal
Illustrator: Jessica Rather

Published in July 2017. Design updated in 2021.

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The phone rang: a call from an unknown number. Through a window near my cubicle, I could see a blood orange sunset falling over the Pacific Ocean. It was a Friday evening in June 2014, and I was working late in the newsroom of the Santa Monica Daily Press. The newspaper’s op-ed page had recently become a virtual war zone for local residents and commercial developers at odds over building projects in the beachfront city. As my desk phone pealed, I decided that I didn’t want to risk getting dragged into yet another debate about the semantic decision to use “city owned land” instead of “resident owned land” in our copy. I didn’t answer. The ringing stopped.

After a brief silence, it started up again. This time I grabbed the receiver, planning to keep whatever conversation transpired as short as possible. A frantic voice was on the other end. The caller, a man, wanted to talk about a developer, but not in the manner I’d feared.

“Steve Farzam was arrested by the FBI,” he told me. “They’re raiding his mansion right now. You could take a picture of it.”

I knew who Farzam was. Everybody in Santa Monica did. He was the chief operating officer of the Shore Hotel, a boutique hot spot situated next to the city’s iconic pier. I’d seen him accept awards for environmental stewardship and social responsibility, wearing a practiced megawatt grin and spouting corporate maxims to groups of local business owners. He was 35, with a doughy face and salt-and-pepper hair. He lived in a multi-million-dollar home and was a natty dresser, sometimes donning a plaid tie or jacket. Now the man on the phone was telling me that this pillar of the community had been hit with some 60 criminal charges, most of them felonies.

In my 11 months at the newspaper, I’d never heard dirt on Farzam. Nothing immediately came up in an internet search. In a previous reporting job in Atlantic City, I’d written about mafia cases with multiple defendants and several years’ worth of investigation; none had ever begun with anything close to five-dozen felony charges. I asked for the caller’s name, but he wouldn’t give it. He had to be insane, I thought. Still, after we hung up, I called the local jail.

When the watch commander answered, I apologized for phoning about such a weird tip. “Hey, we don’t have old Steve Farzam in custody, do we?” I heard him shout to a colleague. A pause followed. “Oh shit, we do?” the watch commander replied incredulously. Then to me he said, “You’re going to have to call the California Department of Justice. It’s their case.”

I had barely put down the receiver when the phone started ringing again: the untraceable number, the excited caller. He was eager to hear what the police had said. “I’ve been working the case for months,” he exclaimed. “They’re going to put him away for a long time.” He still wouldn’t give me his name, but he offered a number with an Orange County area code and told me to call him back after I’d talked with state authorities.

Find hundreds of hours’ worth of longform stories like this, read by audiobook narrators, in the Audm app for iPhone.

I phoned the California DOJ. A spokesperson confirmed that there was a case against Farzam—a big one. It was a joint operation that also involved the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), FBI, and Santa Monica Police Department. The agencies were investigating numerous alleged crimes, including identity theft and illegally importing an assault rifle. And the mysterious caller hadn’t inflated the number of charges—he’d underestimated them. After the raid on Farzam’s mansion, 77 charges would be filed, all but four for felonies.

I dialed the number the anonymous man had given me to tell him what the DOJ had said. He referred to me as “partner” and crowed some more about the case. He said he worked with a federal agency, but he didn’t provide any specifics. In hindsight the wording was deft. I made the jump he likely was hoping I’d make.

Holy shit, I thought. I have a real live FBI mole for a source.


The caller’s name, I eventually learned, was Christopher Dancel. I’ve now spoken to him multiple times and met him once in person, at a Denny’s in the San Fernando Valley. He is 48, tall, and well built, with a wide, heavy face and close-cropped brown hair. His light blue eyes turn down slightly at the corners, making him look perpetually despondent. One of his muscled biceps bears a tattoo in a rigid font that reads, “I have a high art: I hurt with cruelty those who wound me.” It’s a quote from the writings of Archilochus, a Greek poet of the Archaic period.

Dancel is not a federal agent. He never has been. He is many other things: native Angeleno, father, ex-husband of a porn star. For more than a decade, he was also Steve Farzam’s close friend.

The pair met in a peculiar social netherworld. Generously, you could call them police wannabes: guys who long to be associated with or, better yet, mistaken for officers of the law. Dancel and Farzam spent years obsessing over police culture. They became fluent in the lingo, from “copy” in place of “I understand” to the numbered codes cops use when speaking over radios; a favorite is “417,” which means “I’m armed.” They accumulated dozens of certificates in skills like handling firearms, picking locks, using Tasers, and responding to accidents. At the time of the 2014 raid, Farzam’s home was filled with law-enforcement memorabilia, including a fabric display pinned with dozens of badges from the FBI, Los Angeles Police Department, and other agencies. A full-size fire truck was parked in his driveway.

The friends’ methods of pretense, though, were different. Dancel, who worked briefly as a police officer, spent much of his career as a security guard for hire. He conducted a handful of citizen’s arrests and in casual conversation implied that he was a sworn, employed officer, even when he wasn’t. If he deceived, he did so by omission, as he did with me.

Farzam, on the other hand, tried and failed to become a public-safety officer, but he brazenly feigned otherwise. Whether out of a fondness or a fetish for law enforcement, he became a skilled, serial impersonator. He flashed badges, infiltrated government databases, and adopted the identities of real agents. Along the way, he took or threatened legal action against several people he felt had crossed him. Some individuals who know Farzam declined to be interviewed for this story or would do so only anonymously, for fear of retribution. (Over three years of reporting, Farzam did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Even before The Atavist Magazine initiated contact with him as part of its standard fact-checking process, a lawyer for the Shore Hotel sent a letter to the editors alleging that “multiple sources” had said the article might include “defamatory statements”; the letter threatened legal action in case of “improper publication.” Neither Farzam nor the lawyer subsequently replied to requests for verification or comment on the details reported here.)

This is a buddy cop story that careened off the rails of a bizarre, untenable track. It’s thick with ego and delusion, and punctuated by lies and betrayal. Because while Christopher Dancel was not a member of law enforcement, as he intimated when we first spoke, he was working as a government informant.

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Santa Monica’s waterfront exudes privilege. The sidewalks and avenues are wide, the manicured bluffs along the beach dotted with lofty palm trees. The pier’s famous arched sign, standing since 1941, advertises yachts, fishing, and food in neon green and yellow. The elegant spokes of the Pacific Park Ferris wheel tower over the sand and waves of the original Muscle Beach. By day, across the Pacific Coast Highway, sunlight illuminates the glass and metal exterior of the Shore Hotel, which is U-shaped and hugs a swimming pool like a bygone mid-century motel.

One April afternoon in 2014, Farzam and Dancel cruised along the oceanfront drag in the hotelier’s black Hummer. They were heading for Farzam’s home on South Rockingham Avenue, the street in the tony neighborhood of Brentwood that became a household name during the O.J. Simpson trial. They were hankering for a meal, or “code seven” in cop-speak.

“I haven’t seen a Unitrol system since I was in academy,” Dancel said at one point, referring to the sirens Farzam had rigged in his SUV, along with flashing lights. Dancel meant it as a jab; the system was outdated. It was also an excuse for him to allude to his real-world police experience.

“They’re badass, though,” Farzam replied, dismissing the judgment in his high, nasal voice. “The air horns sound so gangster.” When he blew them, their muffled blare was likely felt as much as heard in the Hummer’s cab. “Sounds beefy,” Dancel conceded.

It was a typical day in an unlikely friendship.

Dancel, who is Italian American, was born in 1969 and grew up in Highland Park, a diverse neighborhood south of Pasadena. His parents weren’t in the picture; his aunt and uncle raised him. They divorced when he was six, and Dancel and his cousins bounced between two homes. When he was a teenager in the 1980s, Highland Park was known for violent gangs like the Avenidas and the 18th Streeters. Around the Fourth of July one year, Dancel and some friends were on their way home from a recreation area, dressed in white shirts and jeans to make clear that they weren’t in a gang. Two guys, later determined to be high on drugs, appeared in the street and began shooting at them. Dancel hid behind a parked car, where he watched a bullet rip through a friend’s thigh.

His biological father was a cop, but Dancel met the man only when he was very young. More consistent in his life were the LAPD officers who patrolled Highland Park’s streets. “They used to roll through and get out of their cars and give you baseball cards,” Dancel recalled. They also responded to horrific events, restoring a sense of order. In February 1986, 16-year-old Dancel was standing with friends outside Barney’s, a corner store topped with a block-letter sign reading “LIQUOUR,” when a car pulled up in the street. From one of its open windows someone yelled a gang affiliation before firing shots. Eighteen-year-old Louie Lamborena, a member of a rival gang and a friend of Dancel’s since childhood, was struck in the chest and killed. “I was scared, so freaking scared,” Dancel told me. Then the cops showed up.

“There was a lot of positivity to law enforcement,” Dancel said. “It was different from today’s climate.” As a young man, he enrolled at Pasadena City College to prepare for a career as a cop.

“There was a lot of positivity to law enforcement. It was different from today’s climate.”

Farzam grew up just 20 miles away but a world apart. Born in 1978, he had three brothers and a sister. They spent their childhood in Brentwood. His father, Siroos, an Iranian immigrant, purchased seedy Santa Monica motels when the city was a far cry from the sanitized playground for the ultrarich that it is today. Its homicide rate in 1980 was 19.2 per 1,000 residents, nearly double the national average. The pier was dilapidated, and Ocean Avenue, the strip along the Pacific, was lined with biker bars and empty storefronts.

In 1986, the city filed suit against Siroos Farzam for attempting to forcibly evict a long-term tenant of the Ocean Park Motel. The Evening Outlook, Santa Monica’s paper of record at the time, reported that Farzam was convicted after a short municipal trial. “Our office doesn’t bring many criminal prosecutions against landlords,” a city attorney told the newspaper. “However, Mr. Farzam has acquired considerable enforcement activity.” The same year, according to the Los Angeles Times, Santa Monica sued Farzam for 60 alleged violations of municipal codes, including evading taxes, building without a permit, and knowingly permitting the use of his properties for prostitution.

Many of the records from these cases no longer exist, and the prosecutors involved either don’t remember the details very well or have died. But Siroos Farzam’s indiscretions and any penalties he incurred seemed to fade quickly into obscurity. Commercial development began to improve Santa Monica’s fortunes in the late 1980s, and property values ballooned. As Steve Farzam entered adolescence, his family built a new motel. Eventually, they would expand their Brentwood home to cover some 12,000 square feet.

Farzam attended Palisades High School, where the movie Carrie was filmed. Friends of his whom I tried to interview declined to speak, making it difficult to discern what Farzam was like in his youth. State records, though, indicate that as a teenager he may have begun to test the boundaries of his comfortable upbringing. In 1996, Santa Monica police named him as a suspect in a string of burglaries, extortion attempts, and acts of vandalism. The LAPD separately alleged that he had threatened to vandalize a local business. (The outcomes of these cases aren’t publicly available.)

Nonetheless, Farzam hoped to work in public safety. After high school he moved north to Santa Barbara and joined the city’s police-cadet program. His enrollment still gets an early mention on his LinkedIn page as evidence of his “passion to serve his community.” But he never finished. “It’s not uncommon to [enroll] these cadets and they get a little bit carried away,” said former Santa Barbara police officer Charles McChesney, who was on the force when Farzam was in training. They relish the allure of becoming a cop and the power the job imparts, so much so that they sometimes attempt actions—pulling over a speeding car, arresting a suspect, interrogating people—beyond their competency level. “You get rid of them because they start playing,” McChesney said.

He can’t remember the precise reason why Farzam left the program. A subsequent encounter between the two men, however, left a stark impression.


Near midnight on a shift in the summer of 1999, McChesney sat in his squad car processing a routine traffic stop. A 1996 Ford Crown Victoria appeared on the road. It bore no police decals, but red lights were visible in its rear window. The car sped toward McChesney, made a U-turn, and stopped. “He pulled in behind me like he was going to cover me on this traffic stop,” McChesney recalled. “I recognized him, and he recognized me.”

The driver was Farzam. The Crown Victoria had tax-exempt plates—reserved for vehicles used by government agencies—a spotlight, and a police scanner. Farzam coolly explained that he worked for a business called State of California Metro Private Enforcement; he even handed McChesney a business card. McChesney was wary, but Farzam’s trappings and nonchalance convinced him to let the young man drive off into the night.

Farzam had inserted himself into police work before. In March 1998, he contacted local authorities about a drunk driver and tailed the suspect through Santa Barbara. After the driver caused a collision, Farzam detained him until the cops showed up. He won public plaudits for his efforts, including letters of commendation from local police. In that case, Farzam acted as a civilian, if an unusually audacious one. The interaction with McChesney was different.

Around the same time in 1999, a firefighter told the Santa Barbara police that some kid had shown up at an emergency scene and directed traffic like it was his job. The cops determined that this was Farzam. They spotted him pretending to be a public-safety officer several other times, including on his 21st birthday. (Available records don’t describe the incident in detail.) State of California Metro Private Enforcement, it turned out, was a company registered in Farzam’s name. The police discovered that he’d obtained exempt plates by walking into a DMV branch and announcing himself as a probation officer. Buying or forging the gear necessary to seem legitimate—a badge and handcuffs, for example, both of which Farzam carried—would have been easy enough.

The police issued a warrant for Farzam’s arrest and picked him up in August 1999. Prosecutor Lee Carter told me that Farzam pleaded guilty to several misdemeanors. He was sentenced to three years of probation and community service.

That didn’t stop Farzam from continuing his charade. In January 2000, probation officers conducting a search of his belongings found secret recordings Farzam had made of conversations with a young woman; in them, he told the woman that he was a cop investigating a crime involving her boyfriend, with whom Farzam had a personal quarrel. He was charged again, this time for a probation violation, and admitted to the crime. A judge sentenced him to a short jail stint, driving yet another nail into the coffin of a law-enforcement career.


Dancel wasn’t a cop, either. He’d gotten a DUI in 1990, which wouldn’t be expunged from his record until 2003. He’d also become embroiled in a child-custody dispute with an ex-girlfriend, which sucked up time, energy, and money. Dancel fell into jobs as a conflict-of-interest manager at law firms and worked as a nightclub promoter. Once, standing outside a club with a date, he narrowly missed being shot in a drive-by. A puff of white smoke blinded him for an instant: One of the bullets had struck a plaster wall behind him. “That’s one time where I said to myself, Ah man, I wish I was a cop right now,” he told me wistfully. “I could get in my car and chase them.”

He had friends in law enforcement and was envious when they talked about going on foot chases or helping people who’d been robbed at gunpoint. “I was finally like, Man, I gotta do something,” Dancel said. He started picking up private security gigs. Wannabe cops, he told me, are mainstays of this niche freelance market.

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One of his jobs, sometime around the turn of the millennium, was at a church carnival in eastern Los Angeles County. A friend in the local sheriff’s department had hooked Dancel up with what promised to be a quiet daytime patrol. The most exciting thing Dancel recalled happening was a “647,” or drunk person, who got belligerent in the carnival’s beer garden. Dancel mostly shadowed money drops: Booth operators took in cash, church staff collected it, and he made sure the exchanges went smoothly. “They would walk from the bouncy house to the spinning cups to the whatever, and we would stay back 25 yards,” he told me.

The carnival security brigade included a young man who stalked around with a gun on his hip: Steve Farzam. Dancel found him arrogant. “We chatted a bit, and he was like, ‘Well, what about you? What do you do?’ Trying to compare dicks or something,” Dancel recalled. “I was like, whatever bro.”

As the carnival went on, Farzam toned down the macho act. Dancel left the event still unsure if he liked the guy, but when he bumped into Farzam on other security jobs, he started to come around. Farzam had a wicked sense of humor, and both men shared a deep love of all things law enforcement. “He ended up just being a nice guy,” Dancel said. “He wasn’t such a dick.”

According to Dancel, Farzam told his new friend that he was a former cop.

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Everyone pretends from time to time. We don metaphorical masks to avoid painful truths or to seem more glamorous than we are. Sometimes, paradoxically, we do it to expose what’s beneath the versions of ourselves that the world sees: our base instincts, desires, and beliefs. “Masquerades disclose the reality of souls,” writer Fernando Pessoa once said. “As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life.”

Serial impostors are cut from a more pathological cloth. Police impersonators in particular, according to people who’ve studied them, crave power and authority they otherwise can’t have. Many manipulate their identities in order to commit serious crimes. Serial killer Ted Bundy pretended to be a cop to lure at least one of his female targets. Other impersonators “like to pull over women on the highway for the purpose of trying to sexually assault them,” N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist who has worked with imposters, told me. “What they capitalize on is people’s compliance with law enforcement.”

The problem is common enough that the New York City Police Department has a unit dedicated to tracking it, housed in the Internal Affairs Bureau since 1994. In the book Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops, published in early 2017, former IAB chief Charles Campisi explains that the unit formed because the NYPD “was having a big problem with bogus cops who were hitting bodegas, travel agencies, or other small businesses, primarily in immigrant communities. They’d flash police badges, identify themselves as cops, steal the money from the cash register or the cigar box under the counter, and then warn the victims not to report it.” Campisi describes working in the unit as “the most coveted assignment” in IAB because “cops generally despise criminal police impersonators; they’re like a personal affront, and they make real cops look bad.”

“Cops generally despise criminal police impersonators; they’re like a personal affront, and they make real cops look bad.”

A more enigmatic type of impersonator wants cops to look good—and to look like a good cop. Berrill described this variety, almost always male, as having a severe personality disorder with compulsive behavior. He knows he isn’t a police officer but pretends he is to satisfy some deep emotional need. “These are highly emasculated, highly emotional, highly insecure people who don’t really feel very good about who they are,” Berrill said. “It’s like an escape, like playacting.” He pointed to George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed teenager Trayvon Martin, as an example. Prosecutors argued that Zimmerman had pursued, fanatically and unsuccessfully, a law-enforcement career. As a civilian, he hectored 911 operators and followed people he suspected of being criminals around with a gun.

Impersonators often hoard or manufacture credentials. In October 2016, 33-year-old Kirk Figueroa of Boston was killed in his apartment during a firefight with police after an altercation with a roommate. Figueroa, who was wearing body armor at the time, had told friends that he wanted to “revolutionize policing.” He was a certified constable (a civilian law-enforcement position in Boston), drove a Crown Victoria emblazoned with “ElitePolicing.org,” and regularly boasted of his military and security experience. In reality, he never attended so much as basic training, and he was denied an investigator’s license in Florida. He was arrested once for impersonating a detective in Georgia. (After Figueroa’s death, Boston pledged to review the vetting process for constables.)

McChesney, the former Santa Barbara cop, said that to his layman’s eye, Farzam suffered from a “self-identity crisis”—a need to “create this other persona just because he doesn’t like himself or he needs to feel like he’s somebody.” An investigator who worked a case against Farzam, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me, “He’s like a mosaic. You can’t understand him by looking at any one incident, but over the years, patterns emerge.”


Consider the pieces. Not long after his first arrest, Farzam began amassing certificates. In 2000, he finished three training courses in firearms use, including one hosted by the National Rifle Association; another in tactical baton instruction; and one in “officer survival in low-light conditions,” offered by an entity called the Surefire Institute. Two years later, he completed a course with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department on traffic-collision investigations and another in San Bernardino County on responding to domestic violence.

Some training efforts fell flat. Farzam flunked out of a paramedic internship program with the Coronado Fire Department in San Diego County, according to Mike Blood, the current chief. “A big part of that process is evaluating: Would you want this person working on a member of your family?” Blood told me. “If they’re not up to speed, you can’t pass them.” California would deny Farzam—twice—certification as a paramedic. As cause, it cited violations of the state’s Health and Safety Code: “the commission of any fraudulent, dishonest, or corrupt act” and “conviction of any crime which is substantially related to the qualifications, functions, and duties of prehospital personnel,” as well as “demonstration of irrational behavior.” The DMV would also twice reject Farzam’s applications for an ambulance-driver’s certificate.

In 2002, he enrolled in discounted courses of Krav Maga—a self-defense technique developed by the Israeli military—and other hand-to-hand combat by passing himself off as a cop. On the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, he was spotted posing as a firefighter in Los Angeles. The LAPD arrested him, and he pleaded guilty, resulting in a jail sentence. In 2004, Farzam began teaching EMT courses at East Los Angeles College. A female student who pointed out in class that he contradicted the textbook said Farzam began harassing her, compelling her to obtain a restraining order. In 2006, Farzam failed to disclose his criminal record in an application for an EMT permit and was denied it. He did so again two years later.

Despite arrests and rejections, Farzam sought the spotlight. In the mid-aughts, he was featured on The Tyra Banks Show as a public-safety expert. In a blurry tape of the segment, posted on YouTube by user “Steve Farzam,” he wears a blue paramedic’s uniform with boots, a dark goatee, and an excess of confidence. He tells viewers of the Oprah-style program what to include in emergency-preparedness kits. “You have to have sugar,” Farzam says. “When you don’t, that’s when you get hypoglycemic.” So just keep granular sugar in your kit? Banks asks, mimicking the shaking of a jar. “That will absolutely work,” Farzam replies.

From a pragmatic perspective, it’s easy to impersonate public-safety officers. The market for police equipment is valued at some $7 billion. SWAT vests, handcuffs, batons, badges, radios, helmets, and other gear are available from specialty stores and websites, as well as commercial behemoths like Amazon. Customers often don’t have to show law-enforcement or military credentials to buy items. Police agencies sell used vehicles to private buyers, and people with enough money and know-how can navigate tighter restrictions on things like firearms and uniforms.

Weak penalties also serve as perverse incentives. In many states, impersonation of a cop is a misdemeanor. “Unfortunately, there is not a lot of downside for a criminal,” commissioner Edward Davis of the Boston Police Department told The New York Times in 2011. “The way the law views this crime, it’s as an innocent or silly prank.”

Under Section 8 of California’s penal code, impersonation is punishable by no more than a year in county jail and a maximum fine of $2,000. Farzam, in other words, could break the law at little cost and suffer minimal public scrutiny.


As they grew closer, Farzam and Dancel started calling each other “brother” and “partner.” When they hung out, they compared security gigs worked, certifications earned, and gear purchased. In 2005, Farzam, who volunteered with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles, flew to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as part of the organization’s disaster-response team. “I was the only fucking non-sworn,” he later told Dancel. “They would let me put on a vest and fucking do everything shy of having an exposed gun. They didn’t know I had a gun in my pocket.”

Once, the pair traveled to New Mexico together for a five-day training course, entitled “Prevention Response to Suicide Bombing Incidents,” with the state’s Institute of Mining and Technology. Farzam got them in by applying through Emergency Medical Response, a company he’d founded in 2006. State records indicate that he violated a legal prohibition on the inclusion of the word “emergency” in a business’s name unless it “is staffed and equipped to provide emergency medical services.” An investigator compared Farzam’s registering of companies, which he used to project aptitude and expertise, to people who declare a post office box as their address in order to hide where they live. “It kind of gave him a fig leaf of validity,” the investigator said.

“I was the only fucking non-sworn. They would let me put on a vest and fucking do everything shy of having an exposed gun. They didn’t know I had a gun in my pocket.”

Sometimes the friends acted tough in public. “He never had a slow button,” Dancel said of Farzam. He would tell drunks he was an ex-cop, flash a badge, and threaten to “hook ’em and book ’em.” One day, Farzam accompanied Dancel on a private security shift. As the two friends pulled into the parking lot of a Ralphs, the ubiquitous Southern California supermarket chain, they noticed some teenagers smoking marijuana in a car. According to Dancel,  he approached the vehicle first. “Hey guys, you need to hit the road. Put out the shit,” he told the kids. Then Farzam jumped in. “I need you to step out of the car,” he instructed, as though he was a cop. Dancel laughed when recounting the story, which ended with him telling Farzam to chill out and his friend getting upset and going home. Usually, they were on the same page.

Dancel said he first started to question Farzam’s behavior while they were working a security detail with an off-duty officer. “Keep your distance,” Dancel recalled the cop saying when Farzam was out of earshot. “He’s carrying a gun concealed.” In California, a permit for a concealed weapon, also known as a CCW, is available to law-enforcement officers. Rare exceptions are granted for other people. Farzam didn’t have a CCW. Dancel described the conversation as one big eye-roll: The off-duty officer thought Farzam was embarrassing himself.

Listen: Farzam describes having a fake concealed-carry permit, or CCW.

Eventually, Dancel said, his friend confided in him about getting arrested in Santa Barbara in 1999. However, Farzam offered a different version of the story. He said he was a cop at the time and happened to be off-duty in his personal car, which he’d rigged with flashing lights. When he saw a fire truck headed to an emergency scene, he flipped the lights and cleared an intersection for the racing vehicle.

At first, Dancel felt bad for his friend, believing some uptight firefighter had ratted him out for using a personal vehicle as though it was an official one. “On the other hand, I was like, why are you carrying lights on your car? Nobody does that,” he told me.

If he had qualms, Dancel set them aside. He testified on Farzam’s behalf when his friend was hauled in for an alleged probation violation in May 2007. After Dancel started his own security company, called Officer Off-Duty, he offered Farzam a gig. Farzam agreed but told Dancel that he didn’t need a uniform: He’d already had one made.

In his thirties, Dancel enrolled in a police academy at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California. He graduated but put his ambitions on hold once again. He started a relationship with a British woman working as a porn actress under the name McKenzie Lee. “She looked like Kate Beckinsale,” he told me, adding, “I met Kate Beckinsale when I worked off-duty in Beverly Hills.” They were engaged within three months of meeting; she became pregnant soon after. When money grew tight, they moved for a while to Washington State, where Dancel put his security company on the back burner and got a job at a law firm.

Not long after they decamped, Dancel got a call from Farzam. He wanted to fly up for New Year’s Eve with his then girlfriend. Dancel told Farzam that he and his wife didn’t have anything planned, but his friend told him that was fine. When Farzam arrived, he went to Costco and bought groceries—enough for the group to share and more for after he left.

“Our refrigerator wasn’t empty. He was just doing something to make it easy on us,” Dancel told me. “I would definitely say now that was an important time.”


For the Farzams, real estate proved a family business. As adults, the five siblings got involved one by one in what their father had started. Briefly, though, Steve struck out on his own a few hours south of his home turf. In the summer of 2007, he relocated to a condo in Chula Vista, near San Diego. The condo was yellow and tan with a red roof and a “Beware of Dog” sign out front. Farzam got a job teaching classes on emergency medicine and rescue skills at Southwestern College—until someone in human resources checked his qualifications, including an American Heart Association Healthcare Instructor card, and discovered that they were bogus. Farzam was fired. He sued the human resources employee who’d exposed him, but the defamation case was thrown out.

Farzam kept in touch with Dancel but made new friends, too. One of them was Ben Hogan, a cop Farzam met while walking his Belgian Malinois, a common breed of police dog. Hogan owned a Malinois, too. “His had a little harness that made it look like a working dog,” Hogan told me. “We just struck up a conversation, and I said, ‘Hey, who do you work for?’ He said, ‘Oh, we’re working for Uncle Sam,’ indicating that he’s a canine handler for one of the border agencies.” Mexico is a few miles south of Chula Vista.

When Farzam let slip that he’d had some trouble with the law, Hogan started looking into his background. After learning about the impersonation charges and convictions, he cut ties with Farzam and left it at that. Then one day, when Hogan was at Ace Uniform, a store in downtown San Diego that sells law-enforcement apparel, Farzam breezed past carrying a bundle of shirts. He said hello on his way out the door.

When Hogan realized who it was, he stopped dead in his tracks. He asked the clerk how Farzam had identified himself, and it turned out that Farzam had flashed a badge for the Department of Homeland Security. He’d used it to buy three restricted uniforms.

“He’s extremely convincing. He knows all the jargon. He talks like a cop. He had his vehicle set up like a cop car.”

Hogan reported the incident to law enforcement. According to state documents, DHS agents executed a search warrant for Farzam’s condo—he told officers several times that he didn’t live there before admitting that he did—and turned up three restricted uniforms and two semiautomatic pistols. In his SUV, registered to Emergency Medical Response, they found a Taser, a baton, and a police-issue emergency light.

Ultimately, no charges were filed. I obtained documents from the case after a local TV affiliate in San Diego posted them online. The investigating officers didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Hogan speculated that agents must not have found the “mother lode” of forged credentials that he suspected Farzam had. “There’s something not right in his head,” Hogan told me. “If you were to come to me and say, ‘Hey, his name’s not even Steve,’ I’d believe you 100 percent.”


There’s another incident from his time in San Diego that Farzam likes to tell people about—one that showed he could save lives. Driving on the South Bay Expressway one day in 2008, he saw a vehicle smashed into a pole. It had burst into flames, and an unconscious man was inside. Farzam pulled over. With a fire extinguisher that he kept in his car, he put out the blaze. His efforts saved the driver’s life. In recognition of his bravery, the San Diego–based Burn Institute gave Farzam an award.

But even Farzam’s heroism came with a touch of embroidery. Today, he references his Medal of Valor in his Shore Hotel bio and on his LinkedIn page. It’s the first thing mentioned on his Twitter profile. The website SteveFarzam.net describes him receiving the medal for a rescue conducted while “off duty.” His YouTube profile says, “I have the Medal of Valor for bravery and heroic work.”

The national Medal of Valor is the highest honor a U.S. public-safety officer can receive. It’s a blue, five-pointed star surrounded by gold, and it bears the seal of the White House. California’s Medal of Valor is bestowed by the governor. In 2016, it was given to officers who responded to the mass shooting in San Bernardino.

What Farzam won is called the Spirit of Courage award. At a Burn Institute banquet in 2009, he was handed a wood and metal plaque.  

According to Dancel, Farzam’s family grew tired of him getting into trouble. Siroos Farzam offered to pay for Dancel to go to law school if he would help Steve get a degree, too. Once, Dancel told me, Siroos threw some of his son’s collected tactical gear into a dumpster. “You want any of this shit?” Dancel remembered his friend asking forlornly when they talked on the phone after the incident.

In 2009, Farzam got serious about something other than law enforcement. Freshly back from San Diego, he was named chief operating officer of a new venture—the crown jewel of his family’s real estate holdings. The Farzams planned to demolish a Travelodge and neighboring motel they owned near the Santa Monica pier and erect a chic, eco-friendly property in the same location. “In my 20’s I mainly focused on a career in public service particularly in emergency medicine,” Farzam later told the website VoyageLA. “I worked as a paramedic on a helicopter where I learned the art of delegation in stressful situations and hectic environments…. In 2009, I turned in my flight helmet for a construction helmet, to oversee the building of the Shore Hotel.” I reached out to the company Farzam purportedly worked for, called TriState CareFlight; at the time, a representative was unable to find a record of his employment.

Farzam seemed to take to hospitality management. The four-star Shore Hotel opened its doors in October 2011. It offered 164 guest rooms with orange and teal accents. Some had expansive views of the Pacific Ocean and the pier. The hotel also featured a solar-heated pool, a fitness center, event spaces, and an upscale Mexican restaurant. The hypermodern building was certified gold by the United States Green Building Council, its second-highest ranking for environmental friendliness. Rooms started at more than $300 per night.

The project was a public relations coup for Farzam. There were glowing reviews on travel websites and positive write-ups in newspapers. A picture of him wearing a hard hat and standing before the hotel was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Business Journal. Articles made no mention of his criminal record.

Farzam was suddenly Santa Monica royalty. By 2013, he would be named chair of the committee overseeing the Santa Monica Tourism Marketing District, a branch of the local visitors bureau. He would golf with top brass in the city’s police department and offer them discounted stays at the hotel. He would brag to Dancel about cops dropping by his office just to chat. “They’re going, ‘OK, this guy’s not an asshole. He’s pretty decent if you get to know him a little bit,’” Farzam said in one conversation.

His newly minted profile was a boon in some outlandish ways, too—ones not immediately discernible to outsiders. He was able to bring his law-enforcement obsession to work. He hired a former cop and Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy to work security. Through a private company called Seaside Public Safety—its business address was another Farzam hotel one block away from the Shore—Farzam filled out incident reports on suspicious people he saw on his family’s properties; in at least one instance he conducted a citizen’s arrest. On the back of his black office chair, Farzam had the words “commander-in-chief” embroidered in red. According to a deposition, he kept weapons on-site, including a Beretta handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle.

On the back of his black office chair, Farzam had the words “commander-in-chief” embroidered in red. 

The hotel seemed to reconfigure the power dynamic between Farzam and Dancel. For years Farzam had worked alongside his friend and sometimes for him. Now Farzam offered Dancel jobs patrolling private parties and tailing ex-employees he was worried might try to stain his blossoming reputation. In the same conversation that Farzam boasted about his relationship with the police, he told Dancel that he’d been asked to audition for The Millionaire Matchmaker. The popular reality-TV show, which ran on the Bravo channel from 2008 to 2015, professed to help wealthy men and women find love, with a hefty dose of zany drama.

“You’re gonna bring attention to yourself,” Dancel said skeptically.

“Why don’t you do it?” Farzam replied.

“I’m no millionaire, fool,” Dancel said. “I’m a negative millionaire.”

Dancel had briefly held down a police job at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California, but he’d been fired in 2009. (He claimed that his superiors didn’t like him working private security jobs on the side; station officials declined to discuss personnel matters.) He then picked up a with a Veterans Affairs office. He was fired after two years but alleged in a lawsuit, settled out of court, that his termination was retaliation for blowing the whistle on a supervisor who’d tried to force religion on him. Once a month, Dancel drove six hours east to Maricopa County, Arizona, to participate for a few days in a sheriff’s “posse,” a volunteer group that supported local law enforcement. During those trips, he carried a badge and a gun and wore a uniform. The work was important to him, but he didn’t get paid.

Meanwhile, his marriage was beginning to crumble. It wasn’t his wife’s sleeping with other men as a career that bothered him. Dancel even appeared in one of her movies, produced by a company called Dogfart Network as part of its “Cuckold Sessions,” donning an LAPD uniform and watching as several men had sex with his wife on the roof of a car. Rather, Dancel alleged abuse. He took out a protective order claiming that his wife had punched him. He told me she had an alcohol problem and that he once recorded her screaming and banging on the door of their bedroom after he locked himself inside. (She didn’t reply to interview requests.)

One day, Dancel called Farzam and left a message in a shaky voice when his friend didn’t pick up. “Hey, bro. You’ve been a good friend to me, man, and I want to thank you for everything,” Dancel said. “I’m not under duress. Somebody might say I might be, I don’t know.” He asked Farzam to take care of his dog, Saber. “He’s going to be your responsibility now,” Dancel said. “I’m sorry, bro. But shit happens, you know?” The recording suggested that Dancel was considering killing himself. “Do me a favor, when you talk to my family, make sure I’m not cremated, dude,” he said. “Thanks again, bro. Thanks again, seriously. You always had my back.”

I asked Dancel about the message in a phone interview. He exhaled audibly, then skirted the issue of suicide. He told me that he’d left the recording when he was “done” with his marriage and planning to “move away.” Farzam responded and agreed to take care of the dog. But he wound up not needing to, because Dancel decided to stick around.


While Dancel’s life spiraled, Farzam’s ambitions became grander. If he couldn’t be a cop, maybe he could run an agency that provided a cop-like public service. In May 2013, he contacted a lawyer to ask how he could establish a law-enforcement unit that would provide security for a nonprofit transportation service he wanted to create “predominantly [for] victims of domestic violence in addition to underprivileged members of our community.”

Around the same time, Farzam invited Dancel on a road trip upstate. At first, as they drove north in a BMW 7 Series, Farzam didn’t fully explain where they were going or why. He chattered about plans to remodel his Brentwood home, maybe even put a gun range underneath it, Dancel recalled. “The conversation was all light-hearted,” he told me. Then Farzam got down to business: They were heading toward a small town called Bridgeville, north of San Francisco, because he wanted to buy it.

Farzam got down to business: They were heading toward a small town called Bridgeville, north of San Francisco, because he wanted to buy it.

Bridgeville is little more than a road surrounded by evergreen trees and mountains. A quaint cement bridge crosses the Van Duzen River. The town’s post office is painted pastel pink and green, and the local school looks like a large storage container. Bridgeville made headlines in the early aughts when it was put up for sale on eBay and cycled through several owners, including Los Angeles entertainment manager Daniel La Paille, who bought it in 2006 for $1.3 million and planned to build a hotel there. La Paille committed suicide, however, and the town went back on the market. Farzam wanted to make a bid.

In an email to Humboldt County supervisor Estelle Fennell, Farzam had proposed developing 20 affordable new homes, a camping area, a laundromat, and a small lodge with a western motif. “All of these structures would be built with the strictest eco-friendly guidelines at our forefront,” Farzam wrote. “Essentially, Bridgeville would be ‘The Nations Greenest Town.’ We would build a town police station to include a fire station.”

The latter idea was the one he impressed upon Dancel during their ten-hour drive. “I could make you the chief,” Dancel recalled his friend saying. When the pair stopped for gas, Dancel was dismayed to see that Farzam was visibly carrying a gun and a badge. “I keep my shit hidden,” he told me. “Even as a sworn police officer, if I’m not on duty, you’re not supposed to be showing your gun.” (Dancel was not a working officer when he told me this.)

Once in Bridgeville, the men met with Fennell, a warm woman in her sixties with deep-set blue eyes. She recalled Farzam being well dressed and driving a nice car. He struck her as a dreamer. “It seemed a little, I’m not going to say far-fetched, but it seemed like it was a high bar to reach,” she said of his proposal. The pair also met with Jean-Louis Carmona, who led Bridgeville’s volunteer fire crew. “It mostly sounded like a lot of bullshit,” Carmona told me.

Farzam talked about wanting to start his own police force, and Fennell said that he would have to take it up with the county sheriff. Later, according to Dancel, Farzam said that he wouldn’t buy the town if he couldn’t start a police department. He suggested that if he beat the sheriff in a local election, he could do whatever he wanted. “Dude, that’s a big gamble,” Dancel responded.

After the trip, Farzam contacted the sheriff, who Fennell said was adamant that Bridgeville’s law enforcement would remain as it was. The deal to buy the town never materialized. “This was just one more crazy antic,” Dancel told me. “It was kind of entertaining, because I was like, what is the next thing he’s going to come up with?”


Over the next several months, though, something changed for Dancel. He started to see Farzam in a different light—a less amusing, less quirky one. The reasons for the abrupt shift are murky, so much so that they still baffle people close to this story. “We don’t know why a guy would go to great lengths,” one investigator told me, “to get his friend and employer” in trouble.

But that’s exactly what Dancel did.

In his version of events, there was no beef or falling out between the friends, no jealousy or resentment either. Farzam’s behavior just began to rub him the wrong way. “He likes being that Superman—everybody likes to be that—but he’ll take it so far,” Dancel said. “He thought he could get away with anything.”

That supposedly included moving guns: M4-style assault rifles, to be exact, which are illegal in California unless they were purchased and registered decades ago. According to Dancel, Farzam boasted to his friend that he was clandestinely buying and selling them through a contact at the sheriff’s department.

“He likes being that Superman—everybody likes to be that—but he’ll take it so far. He thought he could get away with anything.”

If true, it would be “a whole other beast” from the ruses Farzam usually pulled, Dancel told me. It would be a felony, for starters, and the backdoored weapons could wind up on the street. “You can make citizen’s arrests if you want to. That’s cool, whatever,” Dancel said of civilians who want to be cops. “But when you start crossing the line to where you’re making it your life and seriously overstepping your area—different story.”

In early spring 2014, Dancel placed a call to the California DOJ in Sacramento. His adrenaline was up, and conflicting thoughts ran through his head. This is gonna be it, he realized. I’m not going to be able to make any more money now on the side, because I’m going to be burned. “I definitely had that moment of, Oh fuck, here we go,” Dancel told me. When someone answered the phone, Dancel shared what he knew.

His tip traveled up the ladder. When authorities got back to him, they gleaned a different impression of Dancel’s motives. “He tried very, very hard to sell this case to any agency that would listen,” one investigator told me. I asked two state employees close to the case in a joint interview if they thought Dancel might have turned on Farzam because he recognized an opportunity to work a big investigation like a legitimate cop. They glanced at each other.

“That’s a very interesting theory,” one said with a smirk.

On April 16, 2014, special agent James Hirt of the California DOJ called Dancel. According to an official summary of their conversation, which Hirt later compiled, Dancel was an encyclopedia of information about Farzam’s purported crimes. If proven, the offenses would vastly expand the hotelier’s rap sheet—and possibly land him in prison.

In addition to buying and selling guns, Dancel claimed, Farzam had figured out a way to access California’s warrants database, which isn’t available to the public, and to request DMV records, which requires special codes distributed only to law enforcement. Dancel said Farzam also carried a counterfeit CCW. “I asked him how he knew,” Hirt’s summary states, “and he told me because Farzam told him so and that Farzam had a program on his computer for manufacturing false documents.”

Their conversation ended when Dancel said he had to get to a meeting with the ATF: He was shopping the case with that agency, too. But his day didn’t end there. In the afternoon, Dancel went to the Shore Hotel. Wearing a microphone, even though the departments he’d met with hadn’t explicitly asked him to, he recorded several hours of conversation with Farzam.

At the beginning of the encounter, Dancel asked if he should shut the door to Farzam’s office. After it clicked, Dancel noisily opened a box containing an assault rifle. He whispered the serial number: LE190249.

“Dude, this is sick!” Dancel exclaimed. “This is tits right here.”

“Don’t hurt yourself on that thing,” Farzam instructed. “Badass, huh?”

Farzam said he’d bought it on a trip to Ohio—not from a sheriff’s department connection after all—along with two other rifles. He’d already sold that pair to some law-enforcement contacts. One had gone for $2,000.

The men talked for a while about Farzam’s quest to get a real CCW. He hoped that obtaining a private-investigator’s license would force the state’s hand, because without a permit to conceal, he’d have to carry a visible firearm when he was on a job.

Then Farzam started bragging about his access to databases. He called the DMV on a burner cell phone; a woman answered. Farzam was winning, calling her ma’am and asking how her day was going. He provided her with an access code, claiming to work for the FBI. Farzam asked the woman to run the license plate “ROKSTUD,” attached to a Chevrolet Corvette. He wanted to see if the car’s driver—the boyfriend of a disgruntled former Shore Hotel employee—had committed any legal infractions.

Listen: Farzam refers to himself as “Andrew Clark.”
Listen: Dancel asks who Andrew Clark is.

Farzam gave his name as Andrew Clark, and he provided a driver’s license number as proof of his identity. “Who the fuck is Clark?” Dancel asked after Farzam hung up.

“He’s my boy, dude,” was the reply.

Authorities would later determine that Clark wasn’t Farzam’s friend. Ten years prior, in 2004, Farzam had been walking his dog on the grounds of Kenter Canyon Elementary School in Brentwood when the real Clark, a local resident, asked him to leave the property. An altercation ensued, after which Farzam filed a police report alleging that Clark had assaulted him with a deadly weapon. The case was thrown out, and authorities charged Farzam with reporting a false emergency. Somehow, in the years that followed, Farzam got ahold of Clark’s driver’s license number and used it to craft an alias as an FBI agent. How he got his hands on a legitimate DMV requester code remains unknown, but records indicate that someone with the name Andrew Clark used it to make 20 separate requests for DMV records between 2010 and 2014.

When I called Clark, he sounded terrified to hear Farzam’s name and wouldn’t speak to me. An investigator described Farzam’s behavior as “vindictive,” adding, “He’s the guy who I expect to steal my identity and open credit cards.”

After talking to the DMV, Farzam dialed the number for the warrants section of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He claimed to be an officer with the Miami-Dade Police Department, and he didn’t use a code. Instead, he asked the representative to confirm that two individuals—the former employee’s boyfriend, along with Dancel’s estranged wife—were wanted by law enforcement in California. “I recognized his approach as social engineering,” Hirt wrote in a subsequent report. “Instead of asking the operator to run the two individuals he asked her to confirm that the two people he had detained had warrants. He then gave the operator the names he wanted run…. By her telling him they were not wanted, she provided him with the information he was seeking, but in the opposite manner from the way a warrant check is normally conducted.”


The day after he made the recording, Dancel called Hirt, like an officer debriefing his commander. Hirt brought him in for a face-to-face meeting, which officers from the ATF and DMV joined, too. In a blue-walled conference room in Glendale, just a few miles from where Dancel grew up, he played his recording. He didn’t get the reaction he’d hoped for, however. The officers were keen on the evidence, not on Dancel. They were skeptical of his intentions, which made him feel like they thought he was, in his words, “some freakin’ scum bucket.”

At one point, Dancel recalled, Hirt asked him, “Does [Farzam] have something on you, and that’s why you’re going after him? It’s just kind odd that you would put your neck on the line for this.” The two men began yelling at each other, as Dancel took offense at the question and failed to provide an answer that satisfied the agents. The group decided to take a break, and the officers left Dancel in the conference room by himself. “It felt like a situation where I’m some fucking dirty cop sitting in a room while they go talk,” he told me.

When the meeting resumed, Dancel offered to get Farzam on video breaking the law. “He kind of thought he should be calling the shots in the case,” an agent later said. But there were procedures to follow—evidence to gather, risk to assess, judicial review to undergo, operations to plan. When the agents said as much, Dancel was insulted. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” he told them. But his work with the Arizona posse, which he touted as his experience, didn’t impress them. “I’ve got into fights. I’ve made arrests. I said, ‘Dude, I do nothing different from what you do except I’m on the street!’” he told me, his voice growing heated at the memory.

An agent I spoke to compared Dancel’s approach to Law and Order. “If you were doing this as a 40-minute television episode, it’s about as complicated as someone saying, ‘Pull the guy’s LUDs,’” the agent said, referring to local usage details, a record of a phone’s incoming and outgoing calls. “There’s no magic guy out there that’s just a LUD puller. We have to write search warrants for all this stuff.”

“I’ve got into fights. I’ve made arrests. I said, ‘Dude, I do nothing different from what you do except I’m on the street!’”

Dancel thought about backing out of the case, until Steve Goerke, an ATF agent, talked him down. “We can’t do this without you,” Dancel recalled Goerke saying. “You are the only one who can do this.” (Goerke didn’t respond to multiple interview requests.)

That the officers couldn’t afford to lose Dancel was true enough. The case was expanding rapidly to involve six agencies and an astonishing number of potential charges. With automatic weapons purportedly changing hands and Farzam’s long history of impersonation, investigators wanted to build the best case possible to nail their target. Dancel’s information and proximity to Farzam were vital. “The expression that we sometimes use is that the Pope is busy and Mother Teresa is dead,” one agent quipped. “You take what you can get as far as informants go.”

As the weeks passed, Dancel prodded investigators. They reiterated that it was their case, not his, despite a fear that he might flip and tell Farzam everything. In early May, agents were finally ready to act. They decided to use Dancel as bait. Wearing a wire—a government-issued camera—he would purchase the assault rifle that he’d handled in Farzam’s office.

To initiate the sale, Goerke suggested that Dancel tell his friend that a posse leader in Maricopa County wanted the gun. In exchange, Dancel would promise to get Farzam into the group, which the hotelier’s criminal history made difficult. A position, even a volunteer one, with a sheriff’s department might also pave the way for Farzam to get a legitimate CCW. “He would definitely go for that in a second,” Dancel replied.


Around 3:30 p.m. on May 7, 2014, a cluster of California law-enforcement officers met in a parking lot next to several tennis courts. Wearing plain clothes, they stood in a loose horseshoe around Goerke, who had on blocky sunglasses and a navy blue windbreaker. He held a map in his left hand, a pen in his right, as he explained how the buy would go down: Dancel would get the rifle from the Shore Hotel and drive to his friend’s mansion. “He’s gonna take the gun in, they’re gonna fuck with it a little bit,” Goerke said. “He’s actually gonna videotape it for us.”

Goerke turned and faced Dancel, pointing at him for a second. Dancel already had the hidden camera attached to his torso and turned on. It caught an image of the agents looking at him. The scene was “pretty cool,” he told me. “I’d never worked any undercover cases.”

When the briefing ended, Dancel went to the hotel. Once he’d secured the gun, he rolled up to Farzam’s house in his red sedan. While the tactical team watched him from a van—“That’s when I was like, Holy shit, this is like a movie,” Dancel said—he waited silently for the mansion’s electronic gate to slide open. He parked in the driveway next to Farzam’s fire engine, partially covered with a tarp, and hauled the rifle out of his trunk.

As Dancel approached the mansion carrying the gun in its cumbersome cardboard box, a dog began barking at the front door. “Dude, I’m gonna shoot Tracer if she bites me again,” Dancel said.

Watch: Farzam pretends to be FBI agent Rafael Garcia.

Farzam appeared in the camera’s view. Tall and husky, he wore athletic shorts, bedroom slippers, and a dark blue T-shirt with “DEA” emblazoned in yellow across the back. Before Dancel arrived, he’d been getting ready to eat with a young blond woman. “You hungry?” Farzam asked, taking a seat at a long wooden table with curly fries and a blood-red beet salad in front of him. He wasn’t in a hurry to make the sale, so Dancel would have to hang around for a while.

The camera captured the home’s unusual decor: a firefighter’s helmet mounted on the wall, a replica of a rescue helicopter suspended from a ceiling, a red and blue light bar mounted on top of a vintage arcade game, an American flag adjacent to photographs of George H.W. and Barbara Bush, a gumball machine. At one point, the camera caught a glimpse of Dancel in a mirror. He wore a blue uniform, which he explained by saying that he was heading to a security gig that evening. “I’m working,” he told the young woman, Farzam’s girlfriend at the time.

After 20 minutes in which the friends mostly discussed K9 training and shouted commands at Tracer, they finally turned to the gun. Farzam lifted it from the box and raised it to shoulder level. He moved through the dining area, across the living room, and finally into his office, aiming the gun’s barrel around his home like a SWAT officer checking for armed criminals. “Easy, entry guy,” Dancel said.

Seated at a desk, Farzam delayed the sale again by placing a call on a flip phone. “Hi, how you doing? It’s Rafi,” Farzam said. Holding the phone away from his mouth, Farzam whispered to Dancel, with a grin, “The DA of L.A. County! Number two!” He was putting on a show.

For a few weeks, Farzam had been telling Dancel about a Santa Monica police officer he thought was cute. He found out that she’d been charged with a DUI, so he decided to call Ellen Sarmiento, the city attorney he now had on the line, for help. He identified himself as Rafael Garcia, an actual high-ranking FBI agent Farzam had found on the agency’s website. Farzam told Sarmiento that the Santa Monica officer was an informant in the bureau’s case against Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. “He has a lot of scary money and does a lot of bad things, and his tentacles are pretty long,” Farzam said. He asked Sarmiento to dismiss the DUI case so that the informant could keep working.

Mid-call, he impassively counted the thick stack of bills that Dancel had brought as payment for the rifle.

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When Farzam hung up, the friends went to the house’s garage, where Farzam picked up and put back various weapons like a carpenter might when looking for a tool at his workbench. He announced that he wanted to shoot the assault rifle, to say goodbye to it. “In the backyard?” Dancel replied, dumbfounded. “I shoot back there all the time,” Farzam said. His house overlooked an elementary school; it was a Wednesday.

As the pair moved through the garage and into the yard, Dancel was never more than arm’s length away from Farzam. He could have reached out and hugged him. He considered that if Farzam had guessed what was really going on, he might be taking him outside to kill him. “If he raised it [the gun] towards me or anything, I wanted to be in close quarters with him so I could actually reach it, as opposed to being far away where he could take a round off,” Dancel told me. “I was concerned that he knew who I was.”

But Dancel was being paranoid. Farzam trusted his friend. In the backyard, the hotelier loaded a single round into the rifle’s chamber. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he aimed the gun downward. He pulled the trigger and pumped a bullet into the ground.


Dancel left that day with the rifle. Law enforcement, though, didn’t arrest Farzam. They decided to first confirm various details captured by Dancel’s camera.

On May 14, Hirt called Ellen Sarmiento. “She was shocked when I told her he was not an FBI [agent],” Hirt later wrote in a report. “She said she had queried the FBI’s web site for LA and found him listed there. She described him as very personable and [said that he] talked as if he knew what he was doing. Ms. Sarmiento said she truly believed the caller.” In the days that followed, Farzam contacted Sarmiento several more times pretending to be Rafael Garcia. According to Hirt’s report, he “was pretty insistent about getting the DUI case dismissed. He also told her he was worried about his request becoming public.”

Hirt and Goerke then called the real Garcia, who had moved to Washington, D.C., from Los Angeles about three months prior. He said he’d never spoken to Sarmiento. He also described an odd incident that had occurred just before he relocated. “He received a call from one of the local sheriff’s departments,” Hirt wrote. “The caller asked him if he had gone to the county jail to interview an inmate. He said he had not. He felt the call was strange, but he thought they must have mistaken him for another FBI Agent Garcia.” (Neither Sarmiento nor Garcia responded to interview requests.)

Goerke, meanwhile, ascertained the assault rifle’s provenance. A woman named Marcia Masters had purchased it at a firearms store in Ohio in March 2013. It was then sent to California via FedEx in Farzam’s name. The shipment’s contents were reported as violins.

Masters was a police officer in the small town of Oakwood, Ohio. In 2005, when she was still attending a police academy and working nights at a steakhouse in Cleveland, Esquire magazine named her hostess of the year. The accompanying photo showed her with long auburn hair, wearing a tight, strapless black dress and holding a menu. “She’ll probably make an even hotter cop,” the website Cleveland Scene suggested in a write-up. Hirt discovered that in January 2011, Masters and Farzam had tried to sneak into the Golden Globe Awards as security. I asked Dancel how Farzam and Masters knew each other. He said he wasn’t sure but recalled encountering her several years prior, and her being introduced as Farzam’s friend.

There were more strange revelations. According to Santa Monica police, Farzam had allegedly assaulted a homeless man with pepper spray outside the Shore Hotel at the beginning of May 2014. That March, he’d encountered a public attorney named Mitch Fox at a Costco in Culver City. Fox, who’d prosecuted Farzam in the false-emergency case involving Andrew Clark back in 2004, told Hirt that Farzam approached him, pulled a CCW card from his wallet, and said he’d “straightened out [his] life.” According to Hirt’s report, “Fox said he saw a bulge on Farzam’s right hip which was consistent with a firearm worn under the shirt.”

Listen: Farzam describes his support for Paul Tanaka.

While the police gathered information for an arrest warrant, Dancel kept recording conversations with Farzam. In one taped on May 10, Farzam talked about supporting Paul Tanaka, who was then running for sheriff of Los Angeles County; state records from that month indicate that Farzam personally donated $1,500 to the campaign and the same amount under the auspices of Emergency Medical Response. Farzam said he knew Tanaka’s “right-hand fucking dude,” who’d promised to help him get a law-enforcement gig if Tanaka won. Dancel pointed out that Tanaka wasn’t doing well in the polls. “The only thing that’s fucking him up is that he worked with Baca,” Farzam replied, referring to Lee Baca, a former sheriff. “Baca got in trouble and borderline indicted for, like, beating the niggers down in fucking men’s central jail.” (Tanaka lost the election and two years later was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for attempting to stymie an investigation of police abuse in county jails.)

On another phone call, Farzam told Dancel that he was going to send him copies of his various certifications—“It’s a shit ton,” Farzam said, “probably 50 different certs”—so that Dancel could share them with the posse leaders in Maricopa County. “Some people trip out,” Farzam said, warning Dancel that he might be overwhelmed by all the documents. “They always say this shit—‘You’re overqualified. Why do you have all this and why aren’t you working now as a cop?’”

Listen: Farzam discusses his training certifications.

“And what do you tell them?” Dancel asked.

“That I’m a convicted child molester, that’s what,” Farzam deadpanned.

On May 14, Farzam got more personal. “Saw my shrink,” he told Dancel on the phone. “She thinks I’m codependent.” The therapist had told him to stop calling an ex-girlfriend whom he worried about. “If I still have an urge to call her, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to call you instead, is that cool?” he asked Dancel.

“Of course,” Dancel said. “I’ll just say, ‘Hey, dumbass, you need some hobbies.’”

Farzam recapped his therapist’s analysis. “Your fucking problem is that paramedic part of your brain wants to always save and help people out,” Farzam said. “You can’t be coming to the fucking rescue of some fucking chick. You need to take care of yourself and respect yourself.”

Listen: Farzam talks about wanting to join the Maricopa County posse.

Then the friends started talking about Farzam’s ambitions. “If they extend the privilege of allowing me into that tight-knit group,” Farzam said, referring to the Arizona posse, “I would love it. I wouldn’t let anybody down, especially myself.” In fact, it would be a relief to be the “low guy on the totem pole.”

“I want something, dude, where I can go somewhere and be the best at what I can be for just a couple days a month,” Farzam said. “Fucking yes sir, no sir, thank you sir, and just fucking lemme do my thing, dude. Tell me what you want me to do. Do you want me to wash windows? Fuck it, I’ll do it.”


Agents watched Farzam leave his mansion’s driveway in a white Chevy Tahoe on the morning of June 27, 2014. They wanted to arrest him away from his home, which they knew was stocked with security cameras and guns. After a few minutes, weapons drawn, they pulled him over on San Vicente Boulevard. They handcuffed him, confiscated a loaded handgun, and put him in the back of a Santa Monica police unit. Then they drove him back to his house, where they served a search warrant for the residence as well as the Shore Hotel.

They recovered three assault rifles, a forged vehicle registration, counterfeit Los Angeles County Superior Court seals, and a fake CCW. In the Tahoe, they found a siren and warning lights. They also discovered two radios and a light bar that had been reported stolen from the sheriff’s department. Farzam had told Dancel that he’d acquired the gear from an inside contact. (The sheriff’s department declined to comment for this story, citing the state DOJ’s jurisdiction over the case.)

Agents reported that Farzam was cooperative at first, even waiving his Miranda rights. He got emotional when Los Angeles Animal Services came to take custody of his dogs. “That made him cry,” one agent said. “He said it was allergies, but I know the difference.”

It soon became clear that Farzam, Miranda rights or no, wasn’t going to give up any information, and he grew testy as he tried to determine how much the officers already knew. So they drove him to the Santa Monica jail. He was fingerprinted, photographed, and booked on the 77 charges, ranging from identity theft to forgery to illegal use of a weapon to assault someone (the homeless man at the hotel). His bail was set at $805,000. He was out in a matter of hours.

A few miles away, my desk phone rang. Dancel—though I didn’t yet know his name—was giddy as he divulged information about the case. Even if he didn’t get public credit for his undercover stint, one reporter covering the story would know that an unheralded law-enforcement officer had made the high-profile arrest possible. That seemed to be his hope, at least. But things didn’t go according to plan.

That evening I sat in the Santa Monica Daily Press newsroom, stunned by the odd story that had landed in my lap and wondering who the man on the phone was. I hacked out some quick copy about the news and posted it online. I waited for larger media in Los Angeles to pick it up and do their own reporting. But Saturday and Sunday passed with virtually nothing. The story seemed to be a victim of the always slow weekend news cycle.

Several weeks later, I got an email from the anonymous man, using an address with the handle “LEOKneeDragger.” (“Knee dragger” is slang for someone who drives a motorcycle.) The message was brief—just one sentence—and pointed me to an attachment: the official charging document in Farzam’s case. I confirmed with local authorities that the file was legitimate and wrote another story. Still, no larger media picked it up.

Looking back, given what I now know about police impersonation, perhaps the crimes Farzam was accused of seemed ridiculous—certainly less important than other illicit activities afflicting Los Angeles, including drug sales, human trafficking, and gang violence. There was also the fact that Santa Monica feels like a small town in a big city. On the one hand, that can nurture gossip and social blacklisting. On the other, people can be quick to avoid discussing anything that might disrupt or embarrass the moneyed community.

As a free daily, the newspaper didn’t have the resources to cover a complex legal case alongside its traditional fare: A City Council election was heating up, as was controversy over proposals for three skyscraping hotels along Ocean Avenue. I was told that Siroos Farzam approached the business side of the paper and made a soft plea for it to stop running articles about his son. No one ever instructed me not to write a story. Still, given all the hindering factors, I realized that untangling the Farzam case would have to become a side project.

The anonymous man kept emailing me; he didn’t want the story to go quietly. He sent footage of Farzam acting like a cop and forwarded emails in which Farzam discussed everything from his relationship with the Santa Monica police to troubles he was having with an ex. Once, while sitting in gridlock traffic, I called the man on the Orange County number he’d given me when we first spoke. He unloaded several stories: Farzam’s quest to buy Bridgeville, for instance, and his arrests stretching back more than a decade. Based on what the man told me, I began requesting public documents.

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Farzam, meanwhile, was fighting the charges against him. Six months after his arrest, he was scheduled to appear in court. I planned to attend. But the night before, when I checked the DOJ’s website, I discovered that the appearance had been canceled. A deal had been struck in which Farzam pleaded guilty to just three of the 77 charges: unauthorized computer access, impersonation of an FBI agent, and possession of an assault rifle. There wouldn’t be a trial or testimony from any witnesses or experts. All that was left was sentencing, which wouldn’t happen until the spring. At most, based on the remaining charges, Farzam would get two years in county jail.

“Both shocked and frustrated is an eloquent description,” an investigator on the case told me when I asked about law enforcement’s reaction to the news. “We quite frankly expected state prison time, especially based on this guy’s prior record.”

Agents told me that Farzam’s legal team proffered ameliorating arguments. One was that Farzam was harmless: Nothing he’d done had caused pain or suffering. (Except to the homeless man he’d pepper-sprayed—an act Farzam admitted to in one of Dancel’s recordings—but the assault charge had been dropped.) A second argument was that Farzam simply admired cops and wanted to be friends with them. “There couldn’t be anything further from the truth,” one agent told me. “He kind of wants to be his own show.”

Listen: Farzam describes pepper-spraying a homeless man.

In the months leading up to Farzam’s sentencing, I nagged the DOJ until it sent me the arrest declaration that Hirt had written. It was impressively comprehensive about the investigation’s twists and turns and the evidence gathered along the way. The declaration also revealed the name of the state’s key witness—or, as I knew him, the man on the phone: Christopher Dancel. According to the document, Dancel had known Farzam for many years.

Why would a law-enforcement officer be friendly with an impersonator? I wondered. I called several investigators to clarify. Only one called me back. Speaking anonymously, the agent explained that Dancel didn’t work for the FBI. He was just a buddy of Farzam’s. I asked why Dancel had become an informant and got a version of the same response I’d hear for the rest of my time reporting this story: We never were able to get a clear answer on that.

“The person wasn’t the issue,” the same agent later told me. “It could have been anybody. If you remove Dancel and Farzam from the equation, if some guy had called and spoken to our headquarters in Sacramento and said, ‘I’m aware of somebody who is breaching the state’s classified computer networks,’ which is where this case started, we would have taken the case. The fact that it happened to be these two clowns just adds the icing to the cake.”


In March 2015, I took the subway into downtown Los Angeles to attend Farzam’s presentencing hearing. The county courthouse’s halls were cold and beige. While I waited in line to pass through the metal detector, I saw Farzam arrive. He looked sharp, with a fresh haircut and shave, carefully pressed suit, and phalanx of powerful-looking men around him. He chatted amiably with the sheriff’s deputy manning the metal detector.

In the courtroom, I took a seat in a back corner. Farzam’s attorney, former county prosecutor Decio Rangel, flitted around, joking with court employees, Farzam’s parents, and DOJ agents. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Rangel worked for an L.A. Law producer before getting his degree. As a county attorney, he’d specialized in prosecuting public officials, including lawyers and cops. In private practice, an agent close to the Farzam case told me, Rangel was a smooth operator. He’d appeared on TV as a legal commentator, discussing high-profile stories like Michael Jackson’s death and Lindsay Lohan’s run-ins with the law. With a full head of graying hair, a fit build, and an animated face, he commanded the courtroom. (Rangel didn’t reply to a request for comment.)

When the hearing began, two years behind bars was already off the table as a potential sentence. Discussion centered instead on a 90-day jail term. Farzam politely answered every question the judge asked him. He also offered to enter custody voluntarily before the official sentence came down at a later date. Court was dismissed, and Farzam exited the room a prisoner.

“Of all the guys I’ve arrested over 30 some years, he’s the one guy who kind of gives me the willies.”

I met with Natasha Howard, a deputy attorney general and the prosecutor in the case, at the California DOJ’s labyrinthine office in Los Angeles. Howard, who has long dark hair and speaks slowly and deliberately to reporters, wouldn’t discuss the backstory of the plea deal. But she said that she’d pushed for a two-year jail sentence. The evidence supported it, after all. “At the end of the day, I have a video I can play to the jury,” she told me. “You can think whatever you think about Mr. Dancel, but this is the video depicting exactly what happened, as it happened.”

Still, she defended the case’s outcome. For the first time in his life, Farzam was a convicted felon, Howard pointed out. He could no longer carry firearms, even if he claimed he needed one for a private security detail.

It was something, certainly. But it wasn’t what investigators had hoped for. “Of all the guys I’ve arrested over 30 some years,” one told me, “he’s the one guy who kind of gives me the willies. He’s very obsequious to you in public, but then you know he’s scheming and plotting.”


The next time Farzam appeared before a judge was in June 2015—a year after his arrest and the same month that Marcia Masters was sentenced to two years in prison in Ohio. Farzam wore an orange jumpsuit and had grown a beard. He looked tired but smiled often.

“Mr. Farzam, your attorney gave a very vigorous defense to you,” the judge said at one point. “You got a break in this case. I am telling you, come back and you violate probation, the consequences will be very serious. Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, your honor,” Farzam replied.

When the judge sentenced him to 90 days already served and five years of probation, Farzam left the courthouse a free man—and still COO of the Shore Hotel. A campaign to restore his public reputation was already under way. That winter, before going to jail, Farzam had announced a $1,000 donation to a local food bank. In April, while he was still incarcerated, he’d released a statement publicizing that he would be volunteering personally at the food bank that summer. The statement didn’t mention that the schedule lined up with when Farzam would get out of jail.

“The fact that Steve Farzam would take time out from his incredibly busy career in hotel management and the hospitality industry will not surprise anyone who knows him,” the release read. “For years, he has been an active and generous member of the Santa Monica community who is willing and able to give back and help others.”

Quietly, another campaign had commenced, too—this one to smear the state’s informant.


Dancel said he never saw or spoke to Farzam again after his arrest. He heard from a cop that Farzam was telling people Dancel had been in trouble with the law and turned on his friend as part of a plea deal. (This wasn’t the case; in addition to his DUI, law-enforcement records in Los Angeles indicate that Dancel violated a court order in the 1990s and was the subject of a domestic-violence charge in 2003, which was either dismissed or not prosecuted.) He grew anxious that Farzam might come after him while the case was pending. One day, before Farzam went to jail, Dancel found his garage door broken and worried that his ex-friend might use the opportunity to enter the house and hurt him. A witness getting attacked or snuffed out—it’s the stuff of pulpy crime novels.

According to Dancel, when he arrived at his home, he would exit his car with his gun drawn and tell his two young daughters to remain in their seats until he made sure everything was safe. “I am getting out in total darkness on our cul-de-sac and would have to push this garage door open,” Dancel said. “Our house backed up right against a giant greenbelt, like a big park, so [an intruder] could easily come through that back area.” He hung bulletproof vests on the railings designed to keep his daughters from rolling out of their beds. “If Daddy tells you to put on the vest, put on the vest and get in the corner of the room and wait until I come in,” he told them. The girls even practiced. “I made them put it over their heads and then sit in a little ball in the corner of the room,” Dancel said to me.

His home remained secure, but Dancel did lose something valuable. In August 2014, he contacted Natasha Howard to claim that Farzam, posing as a reporter, was calling the Maricopa County posse leadership and accusing Dancel of being under investigation for posing as a cop and illegally selling assault rifles. Howard sent an email to Goerke, the ATF agent, asking him to intervene on Dancel’s behalf. “It looks like Farzam is trying to dirty up [Dancel’s] image since he is a key witness in our case,” Howard wrote.

Dancel hung bulletproof vests on the railings designed to keep his daughters from rolling out of their beds. “If Daddy tells you to put on the vest, put on the vest.”

Dancel was terminated from the posse that fall. Distraught, he phoned Goerke—and recorded the call—to demand his help. Goerke explained that, because Dancel was a civilian, the ATF wasn’t under any obligation to contact or cooperate with the Maricopa County authorities.

“This has cost me my job now with the department. There is no other reason. I’ve never been in trouble there,” Dancel said. “This is out of control now, when I stepped up and helped out.”

Goerke said he would see what he could do. When Dancel kept pressing, Goerke grew irritated. “You’re a civilian! You’re not law enforcement!” he exclaimed at one point.

Dancel never got his posse position back.

A few months later, attacks against Dancel began appearing online. In March 2015, around the time Farzam went to jail, user “Christopher Dancel” put a short video on YouTube—the only one ever posted by that account—accompanied by whimsical instrumental music. The video shows a photograph of Dancel and warns viewers to “BEWARE!!!” of this “scam artist.”

Then came ChristopherDancel.com, an amateur website dedicated to revealing intimate, embarrassing details about its namesake’s life. It still exists and is registered to Domains by Proxy LLC, a company through which people can purchase URLs and shield their ownership information from public view. The site contains copies of documents pertaining to Dancel’s financial troubles and legal disputes over the years, and a close-up photo of him with bandages wrapped around his scalp, chin, and nose, as if he had been in a fight or had plastic surgery. There’s also information about Dancel’s marriage, which by early 2015 had ended, and a link to a GoFundMe page that Dancel set up to raise money for legal fees incurred trying to get custody of his two daughters.

Most shocking, though, is the recording of Dancel’s seemingly suicidal phone message, left on Farzam’s phone a few years prior. It automatically plays when the site loads.

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In October 2015, Dancel emailed me. He’d been out of touch for several months, presumably because I wasn’t writing stories about the case anymore. Farzam “is now harassing me and I am looking for an attorney,” he wrote. “This case ruined my life and he got off with a slap.”

I’d been able to amass numerous documents pertaining to the case and to track down plenty of sources, but the DOJ hadn’t given me the recordings from the investigation’s sting phase. I asked Dancel if he had copies of them. He said that he did but wanted cash for them. He asked me to contribute to his GoFundMe page. When I declined, he went silent again for a few months.

Then, in January 2016, he sent another email out of the blue. “Did you ever get the story off?” he asked. “This fucker is harassing me and created some fake website with all my info.”

By this time, I’d found a regional magazine interested in publishing a story about Farzam, and its editors offered to pay Dancel $100 for the recordings. (The publication later declined to run the piece in the lead-up to an ownership change.) He told me to meet him one day in early February at a Starbucks in Calabasas. It would be the first time we’d ever spoken in person.

We wound up meeting instead at a salon where his girlfriend had an appointment. Dancel wore blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt with an apparel logo scrawled across it in dramatic Gothic script. “Hey, partner. How’s it going, man?” he said, shaking my hand. He made a comment about how awfully long it takes women to get their hair done.

We got into Dancel’s car and went looking for a restaurant where we could talk. Eying my recorder, which I hadn’t switched on yet, Dancel claimed that under California law, in his capacity as a law-enforcement officer, he was allowed to tape someone without consent. In fact, California penal code requires two-party consent for the recording of private conversations. Exceptions are made for an employed public officer acting “within the scope of his or her authority.” Search warrants are often required.

Soon after we arrived at a Denny’s, the battery on Dancel’s laptop died. He approached a waitress and introduced himself as “a former police officer” meeting with a newspaper reporter, by way of explaining that he needed to charge his computer in order to give me his files. When we began talking about Farzam, he insisted that the hotelier wasn’t a close friend. “I wouldn’t count on him if I was in a car accident,” Dancel said, an ironic statement given that Farzam once saved someone from a burning vehicle. “But we definitely had a good rapport.”

“I wouldn’t count on him if I was in a car accident,” Dancel said, an ironic statement given that Farzam once saved someone from a burning vehicle. 

Dancel ordered a house salad with ranch dressing; I had french fries. While we ate, we traded information and rumors. He said his decision to help the FBI and ATF get Farzam was a matter of “integrity.” He used “we” when talking about law enforcement. He suggested people I could talk to but seemed astonished by the details about Farzam’s history I’d already been able to turn up. “You’re better than a private detective,” Dancel said, as though rendering a professional opinion.

He was thrilled that someone else wanted to talk about the case. His voice projected authority mixed with regret. “I had no clue that my agency was going to turn their back on me,” he said at one point, referring to the Maricopa County posse. “If I wouldn’t have worked this case, I wouldn’t have had any problems.”

When his files were done uploading, he wanted to keep talking. He got looser and angrier, inadvertently revealing that he knew Farzam better than he’d claimed earlier in the conversation. “His parents have always coddled him,” Dancel said at one point. He talked about knowing Farzam’s siblings, including which ones liked their brother and which ones thought he was a screwup. (One of Farzam’s brothers, on top of working in real estate, is Kanye West’s personal physician.) He described Farzam as a “weirdo” who he’d always assumed would “get caught sooner or later.”

We left the Denny’s and he drove me back to my car at the salon. When I thanked him for his time and the files, Dancel said he was glad to keep helping out.


That meeting was nearly a year and a half ago. In the time since, as I’ve pieced together this story, Farzam hasn’t landed in legal trouble for impersonation. He still leads the Shore Hotel, where rooms now go for upwards of $700 per night. He’s been interviewed for websites and podcasts about leadership in the hospitality business—even as his hotel has come under scrutiny from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a range of allegations, including sexual harassment, illegal termination of employees, unlawful interrogation and coercion of staff, and surveillance of employees participating in union activity. (Per the NLRB’s website, the parties in those cases reached settlements in 2017.) I’ve reached out to multiple people in the Santa Monica business community, and those who’ve agreed to talk have had little to say. Former mayor and longtime city council member Kevin McKeown told me that a different Farzam brother “has represented the Shore Hotel in all matters in which I’ve participated.”

In February 2017, Steve Farzam told VoyageLA, “In my personal life, I always strive to improve. As an example, I’m in my last year of law school with the intention of using my Juris doctorate degree to better suit the hotel operations needs as we continue to grow.” Describing his hands-on management style, he said, “I personally stay at the hotel on occasion and fill in some of the management positions to see what the organization is like firsthand from the guest experience all the way down to the hourly employee vantage point. These ingredients have lead for [sic] a recipe for continued success, mindfulness, and humility.”

A month later, Farzam posted a photo on Instagram of what appears to be a certification document and badge from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. “Yes! It’s official!” he wrote in the caption. “I’m certified again! #paramedic.” I checked the NREMT website and saw that Farzam was registered with the organization. I sent a query about him, to which the NREMT never replied. As of this story’s publication date, Farzam’s status online had been changed to “not registered.”

Dancel and I have remained in touch. Recently, he decided to study to become a nurse. He told me that he had to leave California and now uses a different name because of the anonymous efforts to discredit him. Like in the old days, when he was an unnamed informant on the other end of a phone line, he hasn’t revealed what he calls himself. In our most recent conversations, he’s asked me to help him determine if Orange County authorities are taking seriously allegations he’s made against a local investigator. Dancel claims that the man is dating his ex-wife and investigating him unlawfully.

When he isn’t ranting about this new “case,” he still claims that the Farzam investigation wrecked his life. But when I asked him if it was the highlight of his law-enforcement career, he didn’t hesitate to answer. “I would definitely say that,” Dancel replied. “For sure.”


That professional zenith, such as it was, marked the end of an eccentric but intimate camaraderie. Dancel captured one of its waning days in an audio recording, made on the afternoon in April 2014 when he and Farzam cruised through Santa Monica in the Hummer.

“Lock up fucking Tracer,” Dancel exclaimed as Farzam texted his then girlfriend to say that he was heading home with a friend in tow. “You’re lucky I’m not 417.”

“Why didn’t you bring a gun, fool?” Farzam asked. Dancel listed a few of the weapons he owned—a .40 pistol and a Glock 27 among them—and explained that they wouldn’t fit in the storage compartment of his motorcycle, which he’d ridden to the Shore Hotel that day. The men laughed.

As the vehicle rumbled along, their conversation was easy, shifting from the merits of tinted windows to “crying-heart liberals,” in Farzam’s words, who gave him “ugly looks” for driving a “gas guzzler.” Dancel noted, “They don’t even know it’s diesel.”

At one point, they slipped into silence—the sort that’s only comfortable between close friends. Dancel yawned. Then he spotted what he thought was a familiar location. “Isn’t that the place we came for lunch?” he said. “We ate hot dogs or something in there.”

“Oh yeah,” Farzam acknowledged. “It was across the street.”

“Dude, that was so many years ago. That had to be like 12 years ago.”

“Time flies, huh?”

“Yup.”

The Wreck

The Wreck

A nightmare at sea turned into one of the greatest rescues in maritime history. When a rookie treasure hunter went looking for the lost ship, he found a different kind of ruin.

By David Wolman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 65


A longtime contributor to Wired, David Wolman has also written for The New York Times, Outside, Nature, BusinessWeek, and many other publications. He is the author of three works of nonfiction, and his first Atavist story, “The Instigators,” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2011.


Editor: Katia Bachko and Seyward Darby
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: David Johnson
Video and Map: Courtesy of Taylor Zajonc and Endurance Exploration Group
Special thanks: Erin Kinchen, Joyce Miller, Mary Lou Eichhorn, Jonathan Frochtzwajg, Donna Blinn, Aimee Brigham, Timothy Cerniglia, the Zajonc family, and especially Phyllis Edwards

If you are a descendant of someone connected with the Connaught story, or think you might be, we would love to hear from you. The passenger list for the ship can be found here. Email David or send a note on Twitter to @davidwolman using the hashtag #thewreck.

Published in February 2017. Design updated in 2021.

Of the nearly 600 souls on board the crippled steamship, five were priests. Over the noise of ripping wind and sailors shouting, the holy men offered spiritual counsel to any passenger who would listen. They assured anxious women and children that God held them in His righteous hands. To the men they spoke more plainly: Barring a miracle on this Sunday, the Lord’s Day, October 7, 1860, everyone on the ship would drown in the turbid waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Just shy of 400 feet long, the craft carrying the priests and their makeshift flock was a colossus by the engineering standards of the day. The Connaught, christened in honor of the western Irish province where it docked, was close to completing its second transatlantic voyage. But with the destination, Boston Harbor, about 150 miles west, disaster struck.

Caught in a storm, the Connaught began flooding on its starboard side, tilting into the ocean at a steep angle. The engines died. Then came a fire belowdecks. The luxury ocean liner had transformed into a death trap.

Stranded on deck alongside the ship’s crew were poor Irish immigrants and card-carrying members of America’s upper crust, including Hugh Whittell, a wealthy California entrepreneur, and William Hurry, a prominent New York architect, developer, and abolitionist. Overhead, tied to the ship’s masts and snapping in the wind, were flags signaling distress.

Toward midday, the 42-year-old captain, Robert Leitch, ordered his crew to secure every hatch and to cover broken skylights and other openings with wet blankets and jackets. If he couldn’t stop the Connaught from becoming an inferno, he could at least slow the destruction, gaining perhaps another hour or two before the ocean consumed his ship and the lives on board. All the while, the five priests urged passengers to resist fear, remain steadfast in their faith, and die with dignity.

Then, in the distance, as if sent from heaven: a boat.

One hundred and fifty years later, Taylor Zajonc sat in his tiny home office poring over the details of the Connaught’s sinking. On the second floor of a prewar brick townhouse in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Georgetown University, the office still had its original single-pane windows, which meant that it was sweltering in summer and frigid in winter. The wood floors were so uneven that Taylor’s wheeled chair rolled away from his desk if left unattended. It couldn’t go far, though. “I stuffed that office with so many maritime history books,” Taylor recently told me, “that I was genuinely concerned the floor might give out and send me tumbling into the living room below.” Most days, his border collie–chow mix, Potter, slept at his feet.

Taylor’s job was to evaluate information about shipwrecks for potential survey, salvage, and recovery—what most people call treasure hunting. Tall, with wide eyes, thinning blond hair, and a calm disposition, the 28-year-old researcher wasn’t a maritime thrill seeker like those who, armed with scuba gear and a daydream, dive for gold in their free time in places like Key West. For Taylor, treasure hunting was a family business—his father taught him the ropes—and an intellectual pursuit. He spent more time scouring books than he did out on the water, piecing together historical data about lost ships: the cargo never recovered, the estimated location and depth of wrecks, insurance claims, passenger manifests, and more. He read so much about disasters that he sometimes experienced them in his dreams.

Recently, Taylor had started working for a wealthy Floridian who was getting a new search-and-salvage enterprise off the ground. The boss wanted Taylor to come up with a short list of wrecks they could hunt, based on location and potential profit; from that they would pick one to pursue. The Connaught was no secret to maritime historians. It was listed in numerous books about shipwrecks, with accounts indicating that it sank with £10,000 in gold bullion on board. Thanks to gold’s price jump in the mid-aughts, the lost haul would now be worth as much as $15 million.

Money, though, wasn’t the only reason Taylor focused his attention on the 1860 disaster. Treasure hunting is almost by definition about optimism. You need to believe that fortune awaits beneath the waves—all you have to do is go get it. Taylor, however, saw magical thinking as a problem, enticing adventurers to take fanciful, costly trips that often turned up nothing. He wanted to prove that a successful treasure hunter ignores the role of luck in a search and maximizes those of science and skepticism, an approach that tends to erase a good deal of the romance.

Where it endures is in the stories. Taylor’s dad had taught him that while treasure may capture the imagination, what sticks in our memories are the tales of the people who survived or perished in shipwrecks. In gathering evidence on the Connaught for his employer, Taylor would uncover a story so captivating, it was as if he had dreamed it. The plot began with an engineering marvel, a catastrophe, and a stunning feat of courage. It ended with piracy, treason, and a hero disgraced.

In April 1860, tens of thousands of people gathered at the docks just outside Newcastle, England, to witness the launch of the Connaught. Shipping executives schmoozed with local scions of industry and politics. As the giant ship slid stern-first along oiled rails into the water where the River Tyne meets the North Sea, the crowd cheered. A militia band played the folk song “Off She Goes.” The Connaught had been constructed in neighboring Jarrow by the shipbuilding firm of Palmer Brothers & Co., but it was being delivered to Galway, Ireland, where it would be the crown jewel of the city’s port and of the Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company.

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An illustration of the Connaught’s launch in Newcastle. (London Illustrated News)

During the first half of the 19th century, advances in boiler designs, paddles, and metalwork had ushered in the age of steamships capable of traveling along the rivers of Europe, down the length of the Mississippi, and, soon enough, across oceans. In 1838, Irish scholar and popular science writer Dionysius Lardner wrote that it was “as chimerical to talk of going to the moon as running a steamer service to New York from the British Isles.” By 1860, an ocean crossing took just one or two weeks. Whoever owned the ships, governed their ports of call, and secured contracts for cargo stood to profit immensely. The Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company was incorporated in 1858 for just that purpose.

The Galway Line, as it was informally known, was supposed to transform its quiet namesake into a port city to rival existing powers. That was the vision, anyway, preached by area businessmen. Ships carrying passengers and international mail would have a shorter journey to America than those departing from ports to the east, such as Liverpool and Dublin. A busier Galway would also require new rail links to handle increased traffic and freight, a pleasing prospect to entrepreneurs eager to lay tracks across Ireland. Announcements in the local press advertised a “New Line of Steamship to America” and offered fares to emigrants looking to set off westward.

The Connaught was the Galway Line’s most impressive ship. It was equipped with three 800-horsepower oscillating engines, and at its center stood two massive paddlewheels three stories tall. Whereas most vessels at the time had rounded bows, the Connaught was one of the first to incorporate a “wave line,” characterized by a concave hull that came to an unusually narrow point, almost like a blade. Engineers had calculated that the shape would make vessels cut more smoothly through water, speeding travel.

Matching the Connaught’s sleek figure was an all-white paint job that earned it a moniker: the White Boat. The bow was adorned on its right side with a favorite emblem of Ireland, Erin and her harp (from the Gaelic Éirinn go Brách, meaning “Ireland Forever”) and on its left with an image of Lady Liberty. The stern was ornate, with figurines and inset carvings of the ship’s name and port. On the main deck, framed skylights and companionways featured carved, polished teak accented with stained glass.

The real glamour, however, was inside. The saloon and first-class cabins had walnut and maple paneling with paintings depicting scenes of the Irish countryside. A lounge was furnished with the finest upholstery and capped by a marble ceiling. Throughout the ship was the same spare-nothing adornment: diamond-cut glass doorknobs, velvet couches, and burnished gold molding. Reporters for the Galway Vindicator who toured the ship took note of two bookshelves in the main cabin. Their contents: four volumes of the Book of Common Prayer, three miscellaneous titles, and 19 copies of the Bible.

The same members of the press were forbidden from joining the Connaught’s trial cruises around Galway Bay before the ship’s first ocean crossing. Reporters took this as a sign that the Galway Line’s top brass were hiding something, and they raised concerns about the vessel’s seaworthiness. They were drowned out, however, by the public fanfare surrounding the ship and by the blessing of local Board of Trade inspectors. Under a bright sky in the summer of 1860, the Connaught embarked on its inaugural voyage to America.

One afternoon in 1987, when Taylor Zajonc was five years old, his father paid an unannounced visit to his son’s kindergarten in Spokane, Washington, carrying a handful of tarnished coins and a six-inch metal spike. Tall and thin, Guy Zajonc wore a three-piece suit with a gold chain connected to a pocket watch. “This is real treasure,” he told the children. “It’s from a shipwreck nearly 300 years old.” Taylor, who was developing an early and keen interest in history—ancient Egypt, Vikings, and Captain James Cook were his favorite topics—was dazzled.

Guy was a respected attorney in town. He had a top-floor office, a good income, and a happy family. On weekends he volunteered as a high school track coach. Yet as his career wore on, he was finding real estate transactions and contract law less than thrilling, especially compared with the tales of adventure that he and Taylor were reading at home.

Before coming to his son’s school that day, Guy had met with a man who was hoping to raise money for a treasure hunt: salvaging a lost Manila galleon off the western coast of North America. The man brought along the coins and spike, artifacts from another wreck, as proof that the venture would be worthwhile. Guy had asked to borrow the items to impress his young son.

Treasure hunts are notorious for financing problems, personality clashes, and legal challenges.

Guy offered free of charge to help the man obtain a legal permit to recover the galleon—not always an easy task, given the ownership, insurance, and sovereignty disputes that treasure hunts can provoke. They are also notorious for financing problems, personality clashes, and legal challenges. The galleon project proved no exception and was scrapped in short order. Guy heard that an investor from Texas had lost $300,000 and had no clue where the money went.  

Still, Guy was hooked on treasure hunting. The world of underwater explorers is tightly knit, and he was suddenly an insider. All it had taken were some phone calls and a few trips to meet (and drink) with adventurers and investors. It helped that most of the players he encountered lacked legal training, which made Guy an instant asset. He got along with these dreamers, especially the eccentric millionaires who bankrolled the ventures—“likeable rogues,” he called them.

In 1998, Guy organized a mission to Japan’s “golden submarine,” the I-52, which had been discovered three years prior. Bombed by the Allies in World War II, the sub sank near the dead middle of the Atlantic, taking with it more than two tons of gold. Guy arranged for the shooting of a National Geographic documentary about the effort to salvage the wealth and established himself as a man who got things done.

Over the next few years, he tackled several more projects. Whenever he visited a shipwreck site, Guy tried to bring his sons. (Taylor has a brother, Austen, who is younger by three years.) In September 2000, a team of Russian explorers was taking wealthy tourists to visit the final resting place of the Titanic. Guy was part of that expedition, and he managed to talk the Russians into letting his sons tag along. The following year, Taylor joined the same crew on a cruise to the Bermuda Triangle to investigate the wreck of a trading vessel that sank in 1810, carrying millions of dollars in silver coins. He participated in a submarine dive to more than three miles below the ocean’s surface, a depth that for a teenager—so far as Taylor knows—remains a record. Only as an adult would he realize how exceptional these experiences were. “Almost everybody thinks the way they grew up was totally normal,” Taylor told me.

In 2003, Guy became general counsel for a new Florida-based company called Odyssey Marine Exploration. With Odyssey’s launch, and that of another large firm in London, treasure hunting arrived on Wall Street, complete with stock issuances and ticker symbols. (Odyssey’s is OMEX.) With big-league financing and sturdy corporate structuring, the new ventures would be far removed from the world of weekend divers and quixotic explorers. Odyssey had slick offices in Tampa, a 230-foot research vessel, a $1.5 million tethered robot for filming and retrieving debris from the seafloor, and about 100 employees. In Guy’s first year, the company recovered an estimated $75 million in gold from the SS Republic, found off the coast of Georgia.

When a $100-a-day position opened up for an archaeologist’s assistant—really a glorified gopher—Guy called Taylor to see if he wanted it. The younger Zajonc was a semester away from finishing his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Western Washington University.

“Take a night to think about it,” Guy said.

“OK,” Taylor replied. “But it’s going to be yes.”

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The Connaught’s maiden voyage from Galway to Boston, with a stop in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was anything but auspicious. One of the ship’s pistons fractured, causing a two-day delay. After undergoing repairs stateside, it began the journey home, but another piston failed. The ship eventually limped back into Galway almost a week behind schedule.

Optimists would call this sort of thing typical: “Baby disorders and untoward misfortunes,” The New York Times reported, “the usual forerunners of gigantic success.” Besides, it could have been far worse. Steamships were prone to boiler explosions and spontaneously combusting piles of coal. Dozens of vessels were lost due to accidents throughout the 19th century.

The Connaught’s second crossing began on September 25, 1860. A few days in, it passed another ship bound for Europe that had lost its masts in a storm. Captain Leitch offered assistance, but the damaged vessel was faring just well enough that its crew declined. The Connaught steamed on, straight into the same storm. Within a day, heavy seas were blasting the ship, sending waves over the sides and into the bulwarks, shattering windows on the deck. A number of paddlewheel blades were lost or damaged.

Before sunrise on Wednesday, October 3, the Connaught docked in St. John’s. Two passengers were so shaken by the storm that they decided to stay put, not traveling on to Boston. The Boston Pilot later reported that even some seasoned mariners “felt there was great danger” on board. Just a few more hours in rough seas and the Connaught “might have broken her back.”

One of the passengers who declined to continue was Reverend Peter Conway from Headford, near Galway, who had listened to confessions and administered penance during the worst of the storm. Conway was so unimpressed by how the grand ship had performed that, in an undated letter published in the Newfoundlander newspaper, he called the Connaught “the worst ship ever built.” He opined that the builders should have been prosecuted for putting so many lives in danger.

Most of the passengers, however, were sufficiently reassured when Leitch and the local representative of the Galway Line hurried to recruit mechanics to repair the ship. While that work was under way, coal and provisions were replenished, and a dozen new travelers boarded, including W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul to St. John’s. In addition, £10,000 worth of gold was loaded onto the Connaught for transfer to Boston. Who the money belonged to and what its ultimate destination was have never been confirmed; one theory is that the British government was making payments for expenses incurred during a recent visit to North America by the teenage prince who would go on to become King Edward VII.

The Connaught left St. John’s on the same day it had docked. For the first time since the storm, the mood on board was sanguine. The crew sang traditional Irish chanteys, such as “Haul Away, Joe” and “The Lever Line.” As they steered toward Boston, they faced only a moderate headwind from the southwest.

In January 2004, Taylor Zajonc moved to Tampa to start working at Odyssey. He was a quick study and impressed the company’s research experts. They agreed to let him become a “stack rat,” delving into library special collections, newspaper microfiche, and obscure corners of the Internet looking for information about shipwrecks. Taylor read his way through the books and binders in Odyssey’s research archive, which was scattered across office shelves, filing boxes, and storage units, then reorganized the materials into a searchable filing system. “It was a mess like you wouldn’t believe,” he told me, “years’ worth of stuff that had just piled up.”

An ad for the Connaught’s first voyage. (Boston Daily Advertiser)
An ad for the Connaughts first voyage. (Boston Daily Advertiser)

Next he began honing Odyssey’s research methods with an almost compulsive commitment to empiricism. From field experiences with his dad, he had seen how assumptions and bias threatened the chances of a successful discovery or salvage mission. A classic example was the I-52. After the initial find, the project leader saw black-and-white video footage of the wreckage that revealed a cluster of rectangular shapes. They had to be gold bullion, he decided, based on their size and lack of corrosion. (Part of what makes gold so bewitching is its resilience to deterioration.) So his team went to retrieve them. The objects, though, turned out to be tin ingots—there is so little chemistry in the deep ocean that most metals barely deteriorate. The misstep cost the mission precious time and resources.

At Odyssey, Taylor was learning that emotions and marketing optics seemed to factor into discussions about projects as much as probabilities and evidence did. He decided to draft a white paper on “actionable shipwreck intelligence.” A wreck, he wrote, should be rated according to four criteria: confidence that it can be found, value of the presumed cargo, likelihood of recovery, and the path to legal salvage. Imagine, for instance, a shallow-water wreck with verifiable cargo worth hundreds of millions of dollars. A promising target—except that it’s just a few miles from a North Korean naval base. For a wreck to warrant the company’s attention and resources, it would need to score well on all the criteria.

Taylor’s method soon became the standard format for the research department’s reports. Yet around the same time, the Zajoncs began noticing subtle discrepancies between what Odyssey’s research staff reported to upper management and what the company was telling investors. The father and son—along with other employees—raised concerns about the company’s headline-grabbing claim that it had found the HMS Sussex, which sank in 1694 near Gibraltar with ten tons of gold. They believed Odyssey executives should have been more forthright about the possibility that what they had found was another wreck in the same area.

At odds with the company’s leadership, Guy quit just before Christmas in 2005. He went back to lawyering in Spokane and, as always, kept an eye out for new adventures. Guy told me that it felt to him as if Odyssey, which became entangled in seemingly endless court battles, had “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

For Taylor, who quit soon after his father did, the situation was crushing. Straight out of college, he’d hit upon a dream job. Now it was gone. To make ends meet, he took a position developing architecture and engineering courses for an online-education firm. Recalling his disappointment, Taylor told me, “I thought I would never be able to do something quite so interesting again.”

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The Connaught’s luck began to run out soon after the ship departed St. John’s. On Friday, October 5, 1860, increased winds began beating the ship’s bow. Waves intensified, too, pummeling the steamer overnight and into Saturday. By that evening, the Connaught was facing another full-on tempest.

Around 8 p.m., a leak was discovered in the engine room. Leitch ordered that pumps be brought down from the deck and set his crew to bailing. Some passengers, noticing the commotion, convivially stepped up to lend a hand. Despite their efforts, water began filling the engine room and seeping into the forward bunkers.

Passengers felt the ship pitch hard to the right and stay that way—a result of it taking on so much water. Stepping out onto the deck, Hugh Whittell, the California entrepreneur, was met by a deafening rush of wind. Crewmen were scrambling about for pumps and buckets, muttering to one another. They told Whittell that everything was under control. If the wind cooperated, the Connaught would reach Boston that night.

In fact, the situation was worsening. By early Sunday morning, the encroaching waters belowdecks threatened to kill the fires that powered the forward boilers. Around 4 a.m., the flooding in the engine room extinguished the fire used to fuel the ship’s steam pump, rendering useless an essential tool for combating the leak. Four hours later, water finally overwhelmed the ship’s furnaces, and the engines sputtered to a stop. An eerie quiet followed.

Hundreds of the Connaught’s passengers gathered on deck. Some asked Leitch what they could do to help, and he requested that men continue to bail seawater. Lingering hope soon gave way to dread, however, when anxious whispers spread word of a new danger: fire.

Smoke had begun rising through the stoke hole toward the rear of the ship. Leitch dispatched an officer to find the source of the fire, but the man met only an impenetrable cloud. The blaze, which seemed to be coming from somewhere between the boilers and the stern, must have been building while all hands were dealing with the leak.

The exhausted crew responded with buckets of seawater and wet blankets, but they were fighting blind. Unable to get close to the fire’s source due to the flooding and smoke, they could only aim their dousing in the general vicinity of where the flames emanated from deep within the ship’s belly. The Connaught was still taking on water and slumping further into the sea. Waves sizzled as they met the metal hull, which was burning from the inside out.

At least one passenger made preparations to leap into the ocean. Finding a rope maybe 15 or 20 feet in length, he tied himself to a metal railing on the ship’s low side. Should the heat of the fire become unbearable, he would jump into the water and pay out the rope to get away from the flames. There he planned to remain until someone saved him or the great ship pulled him under.

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W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul who boarded in St. John’s.(Library of Congress)

Leitch was no stranger to disaster. As captain of the steamship City of Philadelphia a few years earlier, he had been caught in a severe fog and had run the ship aground near Cape Race, east of Newfoundland. With calm waters and the Newfoundland shore less than a mile away, the evacuation into lifeboats proceeded smoothly. All the passengers were transported to safety with luggage, food, and sails, which they used to craft makeshift tents as they awaited help.

The Connaught didn’t have the same advantages; it was in rough waters and far from land. With no way to get the upper hand on the fire or the leak, the captain must have known that salvation would require another ship. Leitch told a crew member to scramble up the mainmast and scan for distant sails. “Nothing to sight, sir,” the man shouted back.

The passengers on deck anxiously watched the sailor. Minutes later he yelled, “Sail on the lee bow!”—but the vessel was too far away to notice the Connaught’s distress flags and soon slipped from sight. Other ships followed the same agonizing pattern.  

Then, a little before noon, another vessel appeared.

“Can you make out if she is coming toward us?” Leitch asked.

“I think she is, sir,” the sailor answered, followed soon after by, “She sees us!”

W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul, had been moving hand over hand along the railing of the sloping deck to keep from falling. He later wrote that before spotting the brig, everyone on board was “humanly speaking, without hope.” When Newman heard the crewman’s shout from the mainmast, he looked out on the horizon and could see the ship heading toward the Connaught “with bursting canvas, dead before the gale.” The crew fired a cannon, an emergency signal, to beckon the vessel to their aid.

Passengers rejoiced. The priests announced that deliverance was imminent. When the two ships were roughly 200 yards apart, Leitch called for the other captain to make himself known. “The brig Minnie Schiffer, Captain Wilson,” came the reply.

Captain John Wilson of New Orleans, to be precise, in command of a cargo ship, laden with fruit and wine and not even a quarter of the Connaught’s size.

Micah Eldred was itching to do something exciting with a multimillion-dollar fortune earned in the financial industry. A native Floridian who loved the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Eldred had watched closely as search-and-salvage ventures came and went, sometimes burning huge amounts of capital with little to show for it. Believing he could do it differently—and that there was money to be made—he connected with Guy Zajonc through a mutual contact in 2009 and said he wanted to start a business.

After his experience at Odyssey, Guy had come to believe that a viable treasure-hunting enterprise was likely a chimera. “You’re too smart for that,” he told Eldred. When the 41-year-old entrepreneur insisted that he would put up $600,000 of his own money, the elder Zajonc relented. To start, Eldred didn’t need to buy a fancy vessel or equipment, Guy advised. He needed research. “This may sound self-serving,” Guy said, “but it’s the truth: You should hire my son.”

A few weeks later, Eldred did. Taylor was about to get married and move to Arlington where his wife, Andrea, had secured a government job. He was hired part-time to develop a list of wrecks from which Eldred’s new business, dubbed Endurance Exploration Group, would pick its first target.

Working from home, with excursions to the library at Georgetown, Taylor focused his energies on steamships. Records are more plentiful for steamers than they are for earlier ships, and hulking masses of metal on the seafloor are more easily detectable than decaying wooden wrecks are. The Connaught made Taylor’s list early, and it scored well on the criteria he’d carried over from his Odyssey white paper. The wreck, believed to be about 600 feet underwater, was too deep for scuba divers but well within the range that remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) could handle. It was close enough to U.S. shores that the legal route to salvage would likely be straightforward. And, of course, there was the missing gold.

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A rough map of the Connaught’s location when it sank.

To identify the shipwreck’s probable location, Taylor combed through newspaper clippings, government communiqués, and weather reports. Sometimes he imagined himself as one of the two captains—Leitch and Wilson—making decisions in real time.

In October 2010, several months into his research, Taylor got a break when he came across an account of the burning and sinking of an unnamed ship, written by a mariner who had been off the coast of New England in 1860. The article included a bare-bones map and rough coordinates of where the mariner believed he had spotted the vessel. (Eldred and Taylor requested that I not share the specifics of where the account was located. “It’s clearly a findable document,” Taylor wrote in an email, “but we’d sleep better at night knowing that someone still needs to spend the money and time to dig if they ever want to look for the Connaught themselves.”)

Taylor contacted Eldred about the latest piece of evidence. They decided it was time to move their operation out of the library and into the sea.

Fifty years old and standing about five-foot-eight, with brown hair, gray eyes, and a small scar on his forehead, John Wilson was a longtime seafarer. Born in Baltimore, he later moved to New Orleans, his wife’s hometown, and built a career as a ship captain and co-owner of a few different vessels. He spent much of his time transporting cargo in and around the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1840s, working for an import-export business called Schiffer & Brothers, he delivered goods to Tampico, Mexico, during the Mexican-American War. In 1856, commanding the Minnie Schiffer, which was named after the daughter of one of the company’s owners, he transported soldiers of fortune to Nicaragua, where they participated in a short-lived attempt by William Walker, an American civilian, to conquer the country.

On October 7, 1860, Wilson was nearing the end of his latest journey, bringing the Minnie Schiffer home to America with cargo from Europe. When he spotted a ship, a cloud of smoke, and distress flags in the distance, he told his crew of six men—four of whom spoke no English—to bear down on the vessel. As he got closer, he could see that the boat was pitched on its side. After hearing cannon fire, Wilson ordered a crewman to raise a flag in reply.

He piloted close enough to the Connaught to communicate with Captain Leitch. “Make ready to take us all on board without delay,” Leitch yelled. “The ship is all on fire below.” Wilson responded, “Yes, I am ready to take you.”

The fire inside the Connaught was so intense that passengers still stranded on deck could feel the heat through their shoes. More than once, flames leapt out of the ship’s skylights.

Some passengers on the Connaught quietly worried that the Minnie Schiffer was too small for the task at hand. The tops of its masts were almost even with the larger ship’s bulwarks. If Wilson decided to take only some of the passengers, or even if a rumor broke out that he would, pandemonium would follow. When Leitch asked if his counterpart could accommodate everyone, however, Wilson responded that he “would stand by as long as there was one on board.”

The rescue would depend on the Connaught’s lifeboats ferrying passengers to the Minnie Schiffer. There were fewer skiffs than needed for everyone on board—commonly the case for ships of that era—necessitating dangerous trips back and forth. Leitch ordered the men on his deck to form two parallel lines facing each other, creating a tunnel of sorts to usher women and children to the sides of the Connaught. Because the seas were rough, the lifeboats would be lowered first, and passengers would descend ladders or be let down by ropes once the vessels were on the water.

As the first skiff neared the ocean’s surface, a violent wave threw it against the Connaught’s iron hull, smashing the lifeboat to pieces. The rest of the boats made it to the water intact, but they were moving targets for the passengers trying to board—smacking against the ship one moment, separating from it by several feet the next, rising up to a ladder’s final rung with one wave, dropping far below with the next.

A man named Patrick O’Flaherty slipped as he tried to load into one of the boats. Leitch himself climbed down a line, swung out over the water, and pulled O’Flaherty to safety. William Hurry, the wealthy Manhattan developer, fell out of a lifeboat and was overwhelmed by the waves. Thomas H. Connauton, the first mate, threw him a wooden pulley that was buoyant enough to buy Hurry a few minutes above water. The crew tossed him a line and dragged him back to the lifeboat.

When the first load of survivors finally set foot on the Minnie Schiffer, Wilson spotted some of the Connaught’s sailors trying to hide among the throng of travelers to avoid going back to assist. He yelled at them to do their duty, and they reluctantly returned to the lifeboats.

By that point, the fire inside the Connaught was so intense that passengers still stranded on deck could feel the heat through their shoes. More than once, flames leapt out of the ship’s skylights. By sunset, only about 200 people had been carried to the Minnie Schiffer, leaving some 400 yet to be rescued. Darkness would bring more hazards, and crew members from both ships begged Wilson not to send them back to the blazing steamer. A few again tried to hide, this time belowdecks on the cargo brig.

“Every soul must be saved!” Wilson shouted.

He gave the order to maneuver his ship close enough to the Connaught to throw over a line. Tying off was a huge gamble: An explosion on the Connaught, or even a wayward ember, could have jeopardized the Minnie Schiffer and all on board. Yet narrowing the gap between the ships would also speed the transfer of the remaining passengers.

The risk paid off. By 9:30 p.m., all the passengers were safely away. Fire soon shot up the ropes, masts, and mainsail of the Connaught. When the last of his crew had escaped, Leitch, weaving his way through the smoke and flames, made one last sweep of the ship before climbing down into a waiting lifeboat. By 10:45, he was aboard the Minnie Schiffer, his face and hands singed. Rescued travelers were crammed so tightly in the bulwarks and on deck that some were forced to perch in the ship’s rigging. The brig also towed the Connaught’s lifeboats, filled with additional passengers.

Wilson turned the Minnie Schiffer toward Boston. He ordered his crew to offer caskets of wine and raisins to the survivors. He then made his way around the deck, distributing cups of water and asking people if they were injured.

Hours later, behind the overloaded brig, a giant fireball drifted on the horizon, illuminating the night sky.

In the summer of 2013, Micah Eldred chartered a commercial fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. With rented sonar gear and a small crew, he began surveying nearly 800 square miles of ocean floor in search of the Connaught. It was painstaking work, moving over a measured grid for days at a time as if endlessly mowing a lawn. Sonar emits sound waves and picks up responding signals. Depending on the depth and distance of a wave’s bounce and whether it ricochets off sand, metal, wood, or another material, a different signal comes back. The technology then creates images out of the sound waves, known as sonographs.

Taylor took a vacation with his wife at the same time the survey was happening. Sonar missions, he explained, “aren’t that interesting. You’re just one more mouth to feed.” Back home in Arlington, he received the sonographs and got to work cataloging everything he saw. He tabbed through image after image on his computer, zooming in to squint at shadows, bumps, ripples, and shapes that might have represented something man-made.

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An ROV scanning the ocean floor for the wreck.

Near the middle of the search area sat an obvious shipwreck. It had a pronounced, narrow shape with a tapered bow. Taylor knew that the survey area was full of World War II wrecks. He also knew that sonographs can behave like a Rorschach test: People see what they wish to see. Skeptical that this was the Connaught, he still showed the image to Eldred, who pointed out a bulge on one side that he thought looked an awful lot like the shadow of a steamship’s paddlewheel. Eldred sent the images to some sonar specialists, who replied that the measurements didn’t match up: This wreck wasn’t the same length as the Connaught.

Guy Zajonc, who also took a look at the data, was more optimistic. He noted that a boxy section in the middle of the wreck indicated heavy machinery of the sort steamers once carried. He also eyed two similarly sized black holes where masts may have stood. In a phone call with Eldred, Guy said, “That’s your boat.”

Weighing the conflicting opinions, Taylor toggled between lithographs of the Connaught and the sonar images. What was he missing, he wondered? He touched base with his father, who suggested that the length issue might be a red herring. Guy zeroed in on a rough line, or “knife cut,” running across one image. He thought it indicated a hiccup in the software that had translated the sound waves into pictures. If he was right, the glitch could explain the size discrepancy that the sonar experts had identified.

The hunch was enough for Eldred to green-light a follow-up expedition. It was time, finally, to go down to the wreck.

Two days after rescuing the Connaught’s passengers, the Minnie Schiffer arrived in Boston Harbor. As it approached India Wharf, hundreds of people who had gathered on the docks began cheering and waving hats. Spouses, siblings, cousins, and friends had gotten word of a disaster and rescue at sea. Now they crowded the shore, screaming the names of relatives they hoped to find alive.

Some of the Connaught’s passengers, elated or delirious, tried to jump from the ship as soon as the wharf was within reach. Others wore the stunned look of civilians in a war zone. Some didn’t have shoes. A number of passengers sat down on the wharf, seemingly unsure of what to do next. One girl clung to a prayer book that she had held throughout the catastrophe.

Over the course of the following week, more-detailed accounts of the rescue began to emerge. Passengers furnished newspapers with personal stories, all of them praising Leitch, whose “intrepid coolness,” wrote the Boston Evening Transcript, was crucial to the survival of the passengers. Then there was Wilson, the “brave and unselfish commander,” as the Baltimore Sun described him. “Judging from his well-known humanity,” wrote The New York Times, “nothing could have afforded him so much gratification as the opportunity of being instrumental in saving so many human lives.” The paper touted that “in his social relations, no less than among his sea-faring acquaintances, he is distinguished for his urbanity and great kindliness of character. With his employers he has always stood very high for his integrity, his only fault being, they say, that he is so unselfish and liberal that he saves nothing for himself. Having no children of his own, he has adopted and brought up several orphans.”

Neither captain gave interviews, but each provided the authorities and the press with an official statement. Leitch’s was an exacting, if not exhaustive, technical account, all but devoid of emotion. Wilson’s was a few short paragraphs that applauded the conduct and courage of the Connaught’s officers and passengers while chastising the sailors who had tried to hide instead of manning the lifeboats.

News of the astounding incident soon went global: In terms of the number of lives saved, it was one of the most successful rescues in maritime history. Survivors, dignitaries, and fellow mariners arranged for gifts and financial compensation for Wilson, including a gold pocket chronometer presented to him by the British consul in Boston. During their time aboard the Minnie Schiffer, rescued passengers had also decided to reward Wilson and his crew. Led by William Hurry, the impromptu committee raised $500 in pledges on the spot, with some people managing to donate only a few pennies. A follow-up meeting was held two nights after disembarking in Boston, at the grand Tremont House hotel. This time the discussion was about recognition and compensation for the crews of both ships—men who were, in W.H. Newman’s words, “instruments in the hands of God.”

A few days later, in New York City, Hurry met with Galway Line representatives and agents from various life-insurance companies. At Hurry’s urging, more than $3,300 was pledged in recognition of the “generous and humane spirit of the noble-hearted Captain of the Minnie Schiffer.” By mid-November, the fund for Wilson stood at more than $5,000—about $150,000 today—and growing. Donors included individuals, small businesses, law firms, Wells Fargo Bank, shipping companies, and the Panama Railroad Co.

Leitch soon went back to work; he would captain passenger ships for another quarter-century before retiring in England. Wilson, meanwhile, returned to Louisiana, where the sensation of the rescue made him a local celebrity. There were profiles in newspapers and gifts delivered to his door, including a silver plate and pitcher. Hurry’s fund was set to arrive, too.  

According to one press account, the captain took a job as a harbor master in the city. It’s possible that this was a position earned as a result of his heroism. Just as likely, though, he accepted it to take a break from grueling long-distance journeys. To Wilson’s admirers around the globe, he was surely deserving of rest.

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On a glassy September morning in 2014, the crew of a rented research vessel called the Manisee lowered a tethered ROV into the Atlantic. The ROV pilot used a joystick to drive the boxy, yellow-and-black machine toward the seafloor. Eldred stood in the cramped cabin next to the pilot and watched the ROV’s grainy video feed on a monitor.

First a school of fish, then some broken bottles and dead coral came into view, followed by giant shards of a ship’s iron hull. A few minutes later, the Connaught’s massive and unmistakable paddlewheel appeared. It was the first time anyone had laid eyes on the ship since the early-morning hours of October 8, 1860.

Eldred cracked a smile and picked up his satellite phone. He called Guy Zajonc in Spokane, even though it was before 5 a.m. there. “We have video!” he announced. Guy gave a groggy congratulations. Then Eldred called Taylor in Arlington. The younger Zajonc should have been thrilled, and he did indulge in a quiet, slow-motion fist pump. Mostly, though, the bookish treasure hunter felt relief. “Finding the Connaught meant my methodology worked,” he told me. “Failure would have meant that it was flawed.”

The Manisee crew’s next move was to rig a magnet and a small grabbing device on the ROV and send the machine back down to the wreck. The idea was to recover metal fragments, which could be used to validate the ship’s identity. The ROV did better than that, though, scooping up a number of artifacts, including dishware adorned with the turquoise seal of the Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company. To search for the lost gold, the team would eventually have to return with advanced excavation technology—specialized gear that can cut through tangles of fishing nets and push aside heavy piles of debris.

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Footage from the initial discovery of the shipwreck.

Eldred marvels at what took place on the water back in 1860. “Think about that time period,” he told me recently. “It was common for people to not even know how to swim. Transporting all 600 of them from that huge vessel to a 100-foot-long sailing ship, and no one getting hurt or killed in the process—it’s just amazing.”

Endurance Exploration Group pushed out an announcement of its discovery, but initial media attention was scant. Perhaps this was because there was no money shot of gold hitting the deck. Or maybe it was because no one died in the sinking. The Connaught was an almost-tragedy, and a long forgotten one at that. It lacked the heartbreak of the Lusitania or Titanic. The only real victim was the Galway Line, which never recovered from the disaster and subsequent accidents involving other ships in its fleet, forcing the company to fold in 1864.

Yet there is a legacy of personal ruin here. Just not the one Eldred or Taylor expected to find.

By the end of 1860, the American republic was fraying. Within six months of the Connaught disaster, the Civil War began. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, issued a proclamation “inviting all those who may desire, by service in private armed vessels on the high seas, to aid this Government in resisting so wanton and wicked an aggression, to make application for commissions or letters of marque and reprisal to be issued under the seal of the Confederate States.”

In shorter terms, Davis authorized southerners to become pirates to make up for the Confederacy’s naval inferiority. Among the first ships to enter into service was a 500-ton steamship called the Calhoun that berthed in New Orleans. Within a few months, its 85-man crew had overtaken six neutral vessels and confiscated cargo including whale meat, oil, and $24,000 worth of limestone.

The Calhoun’s captain was none other than John Wilson.

Word seeped out of the South that the famed captain had “identified himself with the interests of the Southern States,” as the London circular Bond of Brotherhood put it. In June 1861, the Galway Vindicator noted that Wilson had “recently gone into the privateering business,” and the following winter a New York Times headline read, “The Defection of Capt. Wilson, of the ‘Minna Schiffer.’”

Why, asked a reporter with the Boston Journal in January 1862, would a person “held in the highest esteem as a brave man by the people of the North,” who had gained worldwide fame under the flag of the United States, turn and “renounce his allegiance to the Government which had protected him in every sea, and cast his lot with the conspirators”? It was a rhetorical question: The writer professed to have learned the captain’s motivations. He had spoken with someone close to Wilson who relayed that the captain felt he was “no longer a citizen of the United States”—for reasons dating back to well before he was extolled as a hero.

During the Mexican-American War, Wilson had owned a ship called the Star. Carrying commercial goods to the port of Matamoras, on Mexico’s eastern coast, the Star was captured by U.S. officials occupying the city. Although it was a U.S.-flagged vessel, the boat’s cargo was owned by a foreign merchant, which may have been what prompted customs officers to pounce. The goods were confiscated, and the ship was sent to Galveston, Texas, where it was later sold. The merchant brought a claim against the Treasury Department for illegal seizure and was compensated. Wilson did the same, and a judge ruled in his favor. Yet he never saw a cent. The failure of “authorities at Washington to make reparations,” wrote the Boston Journal reporter, “naturally excited Capt. Wilson to enmity against the Government, and when the rebellion broke out, actuated by a spirit of revenge, he embraced the earliest opportunity to obtain redress.”

Once proclaimed a “gallant commander,” by 1862 Wilson was dubbed “the recreant captain.” This was the turnabout of a public caricature, however—an incomplete picture of a man who wasn’t so simple to begin with. Historical records indicate that, as The New York Times reported, Wilson may have adopted at least one child. However, accounts also show that he owned slaves. In addition to lugging food and wine on the Minnie Schiffer, Wilson co-owned or captained ships at various times that transported human cargo within the United States. All before he took up arms against the government and targeted fellow mariners.

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The Minnie Schiffer rescuing the Connaught’s passengers. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

In the winter of 1862, shortly before Union forces set out to seize New Orleans, the Calhoun was captured smuggling gunpowder, coffee, and chemicals from Havana to Louisiana. By that point, Wilson had already moved on to command other ships. In scattered accounts, he is listed as an owner or captain of a number of pirate and blockade-running ships, including the J.O. Nixon, Florida, and Cuba. There is a brief mention in a Philadelphia newspaper indicating that he may have been detained in Key West in March 1862. An 1863 roll of prisoners of war includes a John Wilson who violated a blockade on the Potomac River. There is also a John Wilson listed on the passenger manifest of a ship traveling from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans in June 1865. This was just after the war ended, and there were a number of former prisoners on board the ship. Otherwise, clues as to Wilson’s whereabouts at this time are scant.

After the war, the government offered amnesty to most secessionist sympathizers, but not to anyone who had disrupted “commerce of the United States on the high seas”—that is, not to pirates. The exception was reversed two years later, yet Wilson lived out his days in obscurity and poverty.

Toward the end of the 1870s, local newspapers ran a few short items urging the public to lend support to the old captain and to his wife, who had suffered a stroke. They lived in a small house on Franklin Street, on what is now the edge of the French Quarter. In 1875, the New Orleans Republican ran a one-paragraph classified ad with the title “A Silver Souvenir.” It reveals the depths of Wilson’s destitution:

Several prosperous merchants in New York city held a meeting for the purpose of paying a tribute to a gentleman who had proved himself a humanitarian and a hero. A neat sum of money was contributed, which purchased a splendid silver pitcher and salver. Both pieces bore appropriate inscriptions to the honor of Captain John Wilson of the big Minnie Shipper. This honor was conferred on the captain as a slight token for his noble conduct in having rescued half dead passengers from the wrecked steamship Connaught, about 150 miles from Boston. The event was duly chronicled in all the leading newspapers of the day, and Captain Wilson suddenly became renowned. He was prosperous then, possessing all manly faculties, but his condition is different now. The hand of hard fate has pursued him, and chance has landed him in our city at the bottom of the ladder. Through thick and thin he has clung to his silver present, but at last he has nothing else left which can procure bread and meat. The pitcher and salver may be seen in the Phoenix saloon, St. Charles street, and as a last resort will be disposed of, simply to satisfy a foolish habit of eating. Who will be the purchaser?

A local British consul saw the ad and wrote an editorial pleading for donations on behalf of the captain, who was now nearly blind. The letter was reprinted in other newspapers, and from as far away as New York and Ohio, people wrote back and sent money. One Connaught passenger sent a note to the Republican, passing a message on to Wilson and anyone else who’d been involved in the rescue.

“By the by,” it read, “tell them I have a daughter we call ‘Minnie Schiffer.’”

Micah Eldred wants to return to the Connaught, possibly as soon as this summer. He’s sure the gold is there—all he has to do is go get it. True to his pragmatic nature, Taylor Zajonc said of the pending salvage mission, “I’d be the last person to guess what might happen next.”

With his research for Eldred complete, Taylor now channels his love of treasure hunting into fiction. His first novel, The Wrecking Crew, is a swashbuckling maritime adventure about a down-on-his-luck salvage expert named Jonah Blackwell who demonstrates almost preternatural competence under pressure. The second installment in the Jonah Blackwell series, Red Sun Rogue, comes out in March. Taylor has only moved on from the Connaught in the literal sense. It’s “one of the great stories,” he told me—the kind that sticks.

One piece of the tale, though, is lost forever. Almost no one is buried in the ground in New Orleans, because the high water table would spit bodies back out during heavy rains. Captain John Wilson, who died on September 20, 1877, was entombed at the Girod Street Cemetery. His crypt’s inscription read, “Commander of American brig ‘Minnie Schiffer’ who rescued 601 lives from British steamer ‘Connaught’ which burned at sea Oct 7, 1860.”

That tomb is long gone. In 1957, bodies from the Girod Street Cemetery were exhumed to make way for downtown development. Some remains were interred elsewhere, but most were not. Wilson’s bones were most likely crammed into an old oil drum and thrown away.

Sunk

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Sunk

How a Chinese billionaire’s dream of making an underwater fantasy blockbuster turned into a legendary movie fiasco.

By Mitch Moxley

The Atavist Magazine, No. 58


Mitch Moxley has written for publications including GQThe Atlantic, and Playboy, and he is an editor at the online magazine Roads & Kingdoms. He’s the author of Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, about the six years he lived in Beijing.

Editor:Katia Bachko
Designers: Thomas Rhiel and Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Animation: Nadia Popovich

Published in May 2016. Design updated in 2021.

FADE IN:

EXT. A ROCKY STRETCH OF BEACH, QINYU, FUJIAN PROVINCE, CHINA – DAY

Under a foreboding gray sky, a RAGTAG GROUP OF MOVIE EXTRAS dressed in ill-fitting rubber costumes sprint across the sand. They play an army of bipedal GIANT FISH TROOPS armed with swords and spears running for their lives from an invading battalion of DEMON SOLDIERS.

JONATHAN LAWRENCE, the director, mid-forties, wearing a leather jacket and fedora, like Indiana Jones, surveys the scene. He doesn’t like what he sees…

One

The script called for an epic battle. In the movie’s third act, the forces of the Eight Faery Kingdoms defend their aquatic empires from annihilation by the evil Demon Mage and his spectral legions. Five hundred extras would play the opposing armies.

But in January 2010, when Jonathan Lawrence, the director of Empires of the Deep, showed up for the shoot, in Qinyu, a resort town in coastal China, he saw only about 20 extras, mostly ornery Russians complaining that they hadn’t been paid in weeks. How would he turn 20 people into 500? On top of that, their costumes—swamp green rubber suits decorated with scales, octopus suckers, and shells—looked like poorly made Halloween getups. Some of them had fins glued to their heads.

Lawrence was in most ways a strange choice to be running a massive film set in China. A 40-something director from Los Angeles with just one feature-film credit, he made his living directing shorts, commercials, and music videos. But then again, ever since he saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as a teenager in 1981, he had waited for this chance.

The offer to direct a fantastical adventure movie was a dream come true. Empires of the Deep would be China’s Avatar—a reportedly $100 million production featuring mermaid sirens, Greek warriors, pirates, and sea monsters, complete with cutting-edge special effects and an international cast. The film’s producers hoped that it would break through the cultural barrier that had frustrated producers on both sides of the Pacific for years: a Hollywood-style blockbuster made in China that would captivate audiences around the world.

But the offer came with strings attached. Massive strings. The film’s producer was Jon Jiang, a billionaire real estate mogul and film fanatic who had written Empires and put up much of the funding himself. On set he gave actors preposterous and contradictory directions. But mostly he deployed his assistants to watch Lawrence’s every move and report back to him.

The beach location, which would stand in for Mermaid Island, home of an ancient race of mer-folk, had much of what Lawrence required—a long stretch of coast, endless ocean beyond it—but a few weeks earlier, when he inspected the location, he couldn’t help but notice the row of luxury resort buildings at the edge of the sand. A bit modern for Mermaid Island, he thought.

Lawrence joked to the assistant director that they’d have to build a wall to hide the resort from view.

CUT TO:

CLOSE UP: LAWRENCE’s face, wearing an expression of utter disbelief as he looks up and sees a GIANT WALL. It is 15 feet high and stretches the entire football-field length of the beach.

LAWRENCE sighs. 

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A resort interfered with a beach shot, so the crew built a wall to hide it from view. (Photo: Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Lawrence had already seen a lot of bizarre things on set. But the crew building a 15-foot wall based on an offhand joke was perhaps the strangest. The whole point of filming at the beach was to make the fight look realistic; now they’d have to supply the background with special effects. It would have been easier and cheaper to dump a bunch of sand in a studio parking lot and surround it with green screens.

It was Lawrence’s third month in China, and nothing about shooting Empires had been easy. But Jiang called the shots, and his message to Lawrence was simple: Make it work.


In 2007, as China’s economy was on the ascent, I moved to Beijing to cover the new era. When I first read about Empires of the Deep, it seemed like a project that captured China perfectly—the money and ambition, the chaos and audacity—with its Chinese billionaire, mermaids, and hope for global domination.

China had become the Promised Land for American filmmakers, who were increasingly looking to overseas markets to help bolster flatlining profits at home. In China, ticket sales had ballooned to nearly a billion dollars a year and grew by more than 30 percent every year. Due to strict censorship, homegrown Chinese films tended to be bland historical and patriotic epics. The government imposed an import quota, and only around 20 foreign films, mostly Hollywood superhero movies, were allowed to screen in Chinese cinemas each year.

A growing number of American studios and producers came to believe that the solution was coproductions. Filmmakers on both sides of the Pacific would combine forces and use Hollywood and Chinese talent to make movies in China that would capitalize on the mainland’s booming box office while circumventing the quota. But cultural differences plagued the sets, and filmmakers struggled to find a formula that appealed to both audiences while also appeasing the censors. There was Shanghai, with John Cusack; a remake of The Karate Kid starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan; and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, with Hugh Jackman. Coproductions tended to have wooden scripts, flat plots, and shoehorned celebrations of Chinese culture. Few achieved commercial or critical success.

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Jonathan Lawrence fell in love with movies as a teenager; Steven Spielberg was his idol. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Lawrence)

Empires of the Deep was supposed to be different. And yet, as of 2016—after nearly a decade and a reported $140 million—it still hadn’t seen the light of day. I wanted to find out why. Last fall, I met Jonathan Lawrence at a Starbucks in Burbank, California, and he offered to introduce me to some of the movie’s stars in L.A.

On a patio over coffee, Lawrence showed me photos from the shoot on his laptop, his signature fedora casting a shadow onto his stubble. Lawrence has deep-set, stone gray eyes, animated hands, and a kindly demeanor. “Everything I’d done in my career I felt was leading to this,” he told me. He still seemed forlorn about Empires after all this time, adding, “We wanted to make a great movie.”

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

INT. CHINESE RESTAURANT, HOLLYWOOD – DAY

Three men gather at a noisy restaurant. LAWRENCE sits across from JON JIANG, about 40 years old. JIANG is thin and rangy like a high school basketball player. He is dressed in a tracksuit with an ascot around his neck. PETER HU, a friendly man in his thirties, is JIANG’s assistant and translator. The table is piled with food, but the atmosphere is tense.

Two

In November 2007, Jonathan Lawrence’s longtime friend Mark Byers told him about a potential project in China. Byers, who was working as Empires’ “Hollywood guy,” wrangling American talent, had arranged a meeting between Lawrence and the movie’s producer at a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood during the annual American Film Market, a major industry gathering.

Byers gave Lawrence a brief summary of the project and its sponsor. Jiang Hongyu, a.k.a. Jon Jiang, had made a fortune in real estate when he was in his thirties by creating suburban developments for China’s new middle class.

Jiang loved the movies: He admired George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, and believed it was his life’s mission to make big-budget Hollywood blockbusters in China. He wrote television and film scripts just for fun—sci-fi and fantasy, mostly—and he claimed to have watched some 4,000 movies. Now, after several years of writing, he had completed the script for his first feature, which he originally called Mermaid Island. He envisioned a trilogy, with video games and theme parks in short order.

Lawrence might have thought he’d found a kindred spirit. Spielberg was the reason he fell in love with movies; he even attended California State University at Long Beach, Spielberg’s alma mater. But after two decades in Hollywood, his only feature film, an independent sci-fi thriller called Dream Parlor, had never found an audience. His most recent gig was unpaid—three months in Europe filming an Indiana Jones fan film, which he’d accepted out of love for the franchise. Back in L.A., he was looking forward to spending more time with his daughter. When Byers called about Empires, Lawrence was intrigued.

But at dinner, Jiang was distant; he wouldn’t make eye contact with Lawrence and spoke in short bursts of Chinese, which Hu translated into patchy English. Jiang’s tone and body language conveyed a very specific message, Lawrence thought: You’re here for me. I’m not here for you.

Through Hu, Jiang described a fantastical undersea epic with world-class special effects and a poignant love story at the core. The plot would revolve around a Greek hero’s quest to rescue his father, who is abducted by soldiers from a mysterious mer-kingdom, imperiled by the rise of a demon warlord. A tale of good and evil, Empires would be a mix of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lord of the Rings, and Transformers—which had come out earlier that year and was enormously popular in China—with a dash of Shakespeare. Lawrence was skeptical but allowed himself a flicker of hope: This could be big.

Jiang, for his part, was unconvinced of Lawrence’s bona fides. “Why would I want you if you haven’t done anything of note?” Lawrence remembers Jiang telling him. “If you can go out and make a scene that’s as big as Transformers, I’ll consider you.”

Lawrence left the meeting thinking it was a wash; he had no intention of making a Transformers-like teaser on his own dime. But out of respect for Byers, he agreed to take a look at the script. He made it through the first act but found it bizarre and messy. Lawrence handed it off to his assistant to make a few notes, and they sent the feedback to Jiang.

CUT TO:

Two years later, LAWRENCE boards a plane to BEIJING.

Lawrence never heard back from Jiang. The job had gone to someone else. Then, in September 2009, Byers called: Empires of the Deep needed a new director. Lawrence signed a five-month contract.

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During the flight, Lawrence began revising the script. As Jiang imagined it, Empires of the Deep would tell the story of Atlas, the son of the sea god Poseidon. Atlas is depicted as a pure-hearted young man who is restless and unsure of his own destiny. He has an alter ego, the swashbuckling Silver Eye (think Batman vis à vis Bruce Wayne), who appears during moments of peril. During a celebration in Atlas’s village in ancient Greece, an invading army of mermen knights riding on the backs of giant crabs captures Atlas’s adoptive father, General Damos. A 90-foot-tall lobster absconds with a holy temple—the Temple of Poseidon—in its claws.

Atlas and his drunken, lusty sidekick, Trajin, then embark on a quest across the sea to find Damos and retrieve the temple. On the way they stumble onto Crab Island, where in a mysterious palace they encounter bewitching women, including the beautiful princess Aka, who lure men into bed and kill them after making love. From the script:

Atlas kicks open a door. One of his men lay in bed – cold and dead in a woman’s arms. Blood flows from the punctured neck.

AKA (O.C.) (CONT’D)

…let it be known that your quest is in vain, for the temple is not yours to possess…

Atlas kicks open another door – and another. Inside each room, there is a similar scene… a beauty over blood and death.

AKA

And we are not women, as you suppose, but rather faeries from the sea…

Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet crumbles and the palace fills with water. As they thrash about, they see for first time that the palace is actually built atop a 450-foot-long fish. Just then mermen haul Atlas and Trajin into a “spiral-shelled vehicle” with windows made of transparent jellyfish skin. The vessel is pulled by harnessed sea monsters. The women turn into mermaids.

The duo arrive on Mermaid Island, where the Eight Faery Kingdoms have gathered in preparation for an epic battle against the Demon Mage, who has risen after 1,000 years of banishment, spelling death and destruction for the mer-folk. The stolen temple, it turns out, holds magic powers that are needed to combat the “dark evil” that is about to emerge. The script describes Atlas and Trajin arriving at the kingdom:

MERMAID ISLAND – a strange and otherworldly place… the city continues above and below the water. It is an “archipelago” of rocky outcropping….

TRAJIN

What is this place?

ATLAS

A myth, my friend. The legends of the ages are true – an entire kingdom of mer-people.

TRAJIN

Hell of a place to die.

In the movie’s bloody third act, as the Faery Kingdoms fight for survival against the demon army, it is revealed that—gasp!—the Demon Mage has actually been Atlas, the hero, all along.

After reading the script multiple times, I still don’t understand how one character simultaneously travels across the ocean to Mermaid Island as Atlas, fights gallantly as Silver Eye, and ushers in the apocalypse as the Demon Mage. But despite its many flaws, Lawrence told me that he was taken in by its childlike delight in its own fantasy world. Just maybe, he thought, Empires of the Deep could capture some of the magic that had excited him so much as a teenager watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lawrence could tell that the script had gone through a number of revisions. In fact, Empires of the Deep already had a long and tangled backstory that Lawrence was only partially aware of.


CUT TO:

RANDALL FRAKES, mid-fifties, with shoulder-length hair and a thick brown beard, looks out a penthouse office window. The sun is low on the horizon, and there is a spectacular view of Beijing’s smog-shrouded skyline. Beijing is a city bursting at the seams; on nearly every block, a skyscraper is going up.

It all started with the Wolf Witch. In the spring of 2007, the actress Cassandra Gava, who is best known for playing the Wolf Witch in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, made inquires in Hollywood on behalf of a Chinese producer: Screenwriter wanted. Must like mermaids.

Randall Frakes heard about the project from Gava and threw his hat in the ring. A longtime friend of James Cameron’s, Frakes had been a story consultant on Terminator and had penned a number of B movies, including the 1988 sci-fi comedy Hell Comes to Frogtown.

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Randall Frakes had written a number of B movies when he heard about Empires of the Deep. (Photo: Courtesy of Randall Frakes)

Jiang offered him $25,000 to develop the story and rewrite the script. Frakes envisioned a campy adventure film like 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. “It sounded kind of Disney, but I wanted to get my foot in China,” Frakes told me when I reached him by phone at his home in Los Angeles. “I thought, This could be fun.”

In 2007, Frakes flew to Beijing to meet Jiang. The tycoon invited him to his office in the central business district. Seated behind a desk in his large suite, Jiang asked Frakes what he thought about the story. Frakes was honest: It needed a lot of work. “It was a theft, a bad quilting version of scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, from some of the Star Wars films, from all the major films that had been successful in the eighties,” Frakes told me. “I recognized them immediately, and he admitted it.” In one part, Jiang described a chase through a mine with the characters riding mine carts. Frakes pointed out that the scene was cribbed directly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jiang insisted that it stay in. “He was arguing with me adamantly, like the thing he had written was Holy Scripture,” Frakes recalls. “I said, ‘Your story doesn’t make any sense. People will see it’s a grab bag of all these movies.’”

Jiang didn’t debate; instead, Frakes says, he took Frakes down to the parking garage to show off his Lamborghini.

Frakes spent three weeks in Beijing. At night he and Jiang met in Jiang’s office. Jiang told him that he planned to cast foreign actors in the lead roles and wanted to tailor the movie for international distribution.

By the time Frakes got involved, Jiang had already been courting a director: Irvin Kershner, who was best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back and the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. Kershner was in his eighties, and his star had faded; Jiang’s movie offered him the opportunity to get back in the game.

Back in Los Angeles, Frakes met with Kershner at Kershner’s plush mansion in Laurel Canyon. They agreed that the story didn’t work and instead cooked up a modern-day version about a group of characters looking for an alternative energy source who accidentally discover a lost underwater kingdom. “This is the movie I want to direct,” Frakes remembers Kershner telling him.

Frakes sent the treatment to Jiang and argued that the modern setting would play better with Western audiences—namely, sci-fi obsessed teenage boys—and that the story would more naturally lead to video games, serialization, and theme parks. “What is at stake is not something that happened a long time ago, but like the first ‘Terminator’ movie, it is happening NOW, to people like ourselves,” Frakes wrote in the treatment.

Frakes explained that Kershner offered Jiang the best chance for getting the movie made. And Kershner wanted to make the modern version of the movie. But Jiang refused, and both Kershner and Frakes jumped ship. (Kershner died in 2010. Frakes is still listed as the film’s cowriter, though when we spoke he was adamant that none of his ideas were ever used.)

Next, Jiang courted Jean-Christophe Comar, a French director and visual-effects expert, who calls himself Pitof and directed the 2004 Halle Berry vehicle Catwoman. Jiang’s people sent Pitof the screenplay. “The script was just about impossible to read. It was basically a direct translation from Chinese into English,” Pitof told me. “I thought it was quite surreal.” But Jiang offered to pay Pitof $400,000 up front for a year’s work, and the French director agreed.

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Pitof had directed Halle Berry in Catwoman before he took over Empires. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Christophe Comar)

Pitof believed that the original script was so bad that he would need to start from scratch. He hired Michael Ryan, who had worked on a number of television cartoon series, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers: Animated, to help him draft a new script. Pitof says the finished product was like an improved version of 2010’s Clash of the Titans, with strong visuals and dashes of humor.

Jiang hated it and accused Ryan of being a “bad writer,” as Pitof recalls. After 12 months in Beijing, Pitof decided the project “was bullshit,” he says, and flew back to L.A.


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Maxx Maulion was new to Hollywood when he got cast in Empires. (Photo courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Jiang had cycled through two screenwriters and two directors, all of whom had tried and failed to steer him to some semblance of a coherent story. So now he turned back to Lawrence, the director he’d rejected as not Transformers enough.

By the time Lawrence signed on, Jiang had appointed himself casting director and hired an agency in Los Angeles to find candidates for the leads. Lawrence attended the casting sessions and sent his picks to Jiang, who made the final decisions, sometimes based solely on their photographs or brief audition videos. The part of Aka, the mermaid princess, would be played by a young actress named Shi Yanfei, who had little acting experience and hardly spoke English but happened to be Jiang’s girlfriend.

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Irena Violette had appeared in 13 Going on 30 before she was cast as the mermaid Dada. (Photo courtesy of Irena Violette)

Irena Violette, a Romanian-born former model who’d had small roles opposite Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 and Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon in Four Christmases, was cast as the mermaid Dada, Aka’s loyal bodyguard. Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci were reportedly courted for the role of the Mermaid Queen. That role would later go to Olga Kurylenko, a Ukrainian-born actress and model who had starred with Daniel Craig in 2008’s Quantum of Solace and who was the movie’s only bona fide celebrity. She was reportedly paid $1 million.

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Steve Polites had just finished theater school when Jiang cast him in Empires. (Photo courtesy of Steve Polites)

The role of Atlas went to Steve Polites, a handsome 29-year-old fresh out of theater school in Baltimore who had starred in a 2006 straight-to-DVD horror film called The Murder Game. He was signed on for the trilogy. Trajin, Atlas’s sidekick and the movie’s comic relief, described in the script as a “stocky, fun fellow,” would be played by a 27-year-old actor named Maxx Maulion, a cherubic redhead who had appeared in a few indie shorts and TV movies. Jonathan Kos-Read was cast as the menacing Ha Li King, an ally of the mermaid kingdom. Famous in China after a decade working in the country, Kos-Read was a rare Western actor who spoke fluent Chinese.

Once the film was cast, Lawrence flew to Beijing. On the plane, he tried to reconcile the attempts of the previous writers. Somewhere in the blurry distance he began to see the outlines of a story. He needed to clean up the plot, flesh out the main characters, and bolster the comic elements. The 13-hour flight was too short.

INT. BUSTLING OFFICE, BEIJING – DAY

The place is a hub of activity: Dozens of YOUNG CHINESE SPECIAL-EFFECTS ARTISTS are at work, surrounded by mermaid paraphernalia: mermaid murals on glass, oil paintings of mermaids. There’s a large screening room, JON JIANG’s office in the back, and, off to the side, a chilly, dimly lit room where some 60 designers are working on special effects and graphics.

Three

Around 2007, Jiang launched a special-effects company called Fontelysee Pictures to handle the production of Empires. (“Fontelysee” is a garbled transliteration of Champs-Élysées, the boulevard in Paris.) When Lawrence arrived in Beijing, he went straight to Fontelysee’s offices: All around he saw designers working on illustrations depicting finned and fanged sea monsters, phosphorescent mermen soldiers, and vast underwater kingdoms. Many of the drawings were reminiscent of H. R. Giger, the late Swiss surrealist who designed creatures for the Alien series. Artists drafted detailed maps of the kingdoms of Jiang’s imagination and produced CGI trailers to present to financiers, whose money would add to Jiang’s own considerable investment. Chen Peng, who worked in the Fontelysee art department and hired local staff for Empires, remembers the early days as exciting. Everybody bought into Jiang’s vision, Chen told me, which he described as “mysterious” and “unprecedented.” “It’s different from Chinese classical creations,” he said.

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On his first day, Lawrence met with Jiang in his office, with its view of downtown and specially designated nap room in the back. Lawrence hadn’t spoken to Jiang since their awkward first encounter in L.A. The real estate tycoon was friendlier and, through a translator, welcomed Lawrence to Beijing. That night, Jiang treated Lawrence and a few members of the crew to an extravagant meal, and Lawrence presented everyone with American-made gifts. Lawrence remembered how Jiang wouldn’t look him in the eye back in Los Angeles; this time he did.

Over the next few days, Lawrence got to know the team. The movie’s assistant director was a stoic man in his early thirties named Hai Tao, and the coproducer, Harrison Liang, had lived in Los Angeles and spent the bulk of his days chain-smoking in the office between Lawrence’s and Jiang’s. Hai Tao and Liang both spoke fluent English and served as the director’s liaisons with the billionaire, struggling to translate directions so confusing that language often failed them entirely.

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The script called for massive crabs. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

INT. MOVIE SOUNDSTAGE – DAY

LAWRENCE walks through a set depicting a Greek city square with temples resembling the Parthenon. One temple stands apart from the rest: It looks like something from ATLANTIS – the roof is decorated with a fish-scale motif: THE TEMPLE OF POSEIDON. Statues of nude Greeks with ten-foot spears guard the temple.

Soon after he arrived, Lawrence toured a prop warehouse filled wall-to-wall with swords, suits of armor made with actual metal, and the Mermaid Queen’s lavish throne. These were the rejects; Jiang had already ordered all new props to be made.

Outside Beijing was a complex of soundstages where sets for Act I were under construction. Lawrence went to see the set of an ancient prison. Walking down the hallway leading to the dank, dark cells, he noticed that it “looked like a hallway at a YMCA gymnasium”—clean, sterile, and freshly painted. He told the set crew that the hallway had to match the rest of the prison: dirty, decrepit, with roots coming out of the ground. “I need this to look like it was built a thousand years ago!” he commanded. The crew tore it down and started again.

Lawrence also worked on casting extras. Jiang wanted to hire foreigners who lived in China: Those chosen would be paid 8,000 yuan (about $1,200) per month for four months of work. Men had to be at least six feet tall, women five-foot-seven. “European/North American origins are preferable,” one ad read. Some days the office was flooded with actors auditioning for bit parts. Many were Russians or foreign models living in Beijing who barely spoke English. “There wasn’t a large well of talent,” Lawrence told me.

Once Lawrence had oriented himself at Fontelysee’s offices, he holed up in his hotel room, surrounded by storyboards, and turned his attention to the script. He wanted to put some soul into the characters and improve the pace of the plot, removing cumbersome dialogue and exposition. His inspiration was his favorite movie, Raiders. He envisioned Empires as an action comedy, epic and fun. In L.A., Lawrence’s assistant researched the mythology of Poseidon and old Germanic runes, which appear on Atlas/Silver Eye’s skin:

Releasing immense ANGER and dark HATRED, Atlas/Silver Eye mercilessly cuts down all the Mermen Soldiers and in the mix slaughters the Demon Soldiers in savage bloodlust.

He LAUGHS wildly. The RUNES appear all over his body. He releases his true bestiality slashing the monstrous Demon Soldiers… killing one… killing a second… killing a third…

Lawrence worried that audiences wouldn’t root for Atlas, the protagonist whose quest to retrieve his abducted father and the stolen temple propels the narrative forward. He created a romantic storyline involving Atlas and a village woman, as well as a subplot with a child from an orphanage with whom Atlas would develop a father-daughter relationship. Lawrence needed to make the universe of the movie consistent with itself and the plot sensible from beat to beat. But there were a lot of holes. In one scene, Atlas’s father figure, Damos, dies after a major battle in which thousands of mer-people are slaughtered by demon warriors. As the surviving characters mourn, one of the mermaids reveals a magic pill that brings Damos back to life.

Lawrence laughed when he read it. If the mer-folk possessed magic pills that could restore life, why wouldn’t they revive all the others who had been killed? Lawrence rewrote it so that the mermaids revived Damos using a dangerous ancient spell, one that could have grave consequences to the mermaids: They risked their lives to save his. This solution, Lawrence thought, added a sense of jeopardy to the scene.

After spending hours each night working on the script, Lawrence would meet with Jiang to talk about the revisions. Harrison Liang translated the meetings as the two men launched into heated but amicable debates over the script. Then one day, as Lawrence and Jiang were arguing over the magic-pill scene, Lawrence said to Liang: “Tell him ‘Your script is one of the worst pieces of fucking shit I’ve ever read.’”

Liang refused to translate, but Lawrence insisted. Liang passed on some version of the message, although Lawrence doubted it was the literal translation.

Jiang remained calm. “What makes you think you’re a writer?” he asked Lawrence. “You have no credits on IMDb as a writer.”

“Neither do you,” Lawrence said.           


INT. FONTELYSEE OFFICE – DAY

The atmosphere is like the first day of school. The STARS have arrived. STEVE POLITES and MAXX MAULION get their first taste of fame when Fontelysee’s female employees mob them in the office.

In November 2009, Lawrence greeted Steve Polites and Maxx Maulion at the Beijing airport. Lawrence warned them that the movie wouldn’t be like anything they’d ever experienced before. “Nothing is like it is in America,” he told them. “Everything changes here from moment to moment. What is true today will not be true tomorrow.”

The actors drove straight to the Fontelysee offices. To prepare to play Atlas, the hero and the son of Poseidon, Polites had grown out his hair to match the concept art he’d been shown. But at the office, the hair stylists were alarmed by the state of Atlas’s mane. Polites tried to explain that he had hat head, but the term was lost in translation. “This is not how my hair looks normally,” he said. “Let me wash my hair.”

The women spoke in rapid-fire Chinese. They pulled out a wig that looked like “a knock-off Lord of the Rings hobbit wig,” Polites recalls. He was then escorted across the street to a hair salon where stylists permed his hair and bleached it.

Over the course of the next week, his hair changed from orange to green to black and finally to blond, styled in tight curls. He pleaded with Lawrence to step in, but it was too late. Polites looked like he’d had a bowl of instant noodles dropped over his head.

Then he was handed over to the wardrobe department, which had fashioned his costume ahead of his arrival. At the fitting, he drowned in the immense armor that covered his torso, while his pteruges, a skirt worn by Greco-Roman warriors, seemed to reveal a daring amount of thigh; it fell six inches above his knee.

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