D for Deception

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D for Deception

Dennis Wheatley’s spy novels thrilled wartime Britain. His real-life espionage lured Hitler to defeat.

By Tina Rosenberg

The Atavist Magazine, No. 16


Tina Rosenberg is the author of Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America and The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism,which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She is a former editorial writer for The New York Times and is coauthor of the Fixes column on NYTimes.com. She is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazineand has written for The New YorkerThe AtlanticRolling Stone, and other publications. Her most recent book is Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.

Editor: Alissa Quart

Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran

Illustrations and Research: Camille Rogine

Fact Checker: Spencer Woodman

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

D-Day Footage: Courtesy of the U.S. Army/Department of Defense

Winston Churchill’s “Their Finest Hour” Speech: Courtesy of the Internet Archive

Recording of “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” by William Henry Book: Courtesy of the Hi-Fi Hymn Book  

Special Thanks: The Dennis Wheatley (Virtual) Museum


Published in June 2012. Design updated in 2021.

The airport official stood up and said to Gregory, “I won’t ask your name, but this is Flight Lieutenant Charlton, who is going to fly you to Germany.”“I’m afraid you’ve been left in for a rotten job on my account,” Gregory smiled as he took the pilot’s hand.Charlton shrugged. “Nothing like as dangerous as the sort of thing you’re apparently going to do.”Gregory’s mission had begun in real earnest now. He was a lone wolf without food or refuge and only his wits could save him from being torn to pieces by the ferocious enemy pack now that he was hunting in their territory.

The Scarlet Impostor, 1940

1. Double Deception

At the moment when Dennis Wheatley began to wage World War II from inside Winston Churchill’s bunker, he had already been fighting it for years in the pages of his books. The most popular prewar thriller writer in England, Wheatley wrote a series of novels that featured British secret agent Gregory Sallust. Sallust is daring, handsome, and ruthless. He speaks German like a native. His girlfriend, the anti-Nazi Erika von Epp, is the second most beautiful woman in Germany. He knows his way around a magnum of 1920 Louis Roederer brut. Before there was James Bond, there was Gregory Sallust.

Throughout the books, Sallust is locked in constant battle with SS Gruppenführer Grauber, the chief of the Gestapo’s foreign section. Grauber—diabolical, sadistic, with an eye patch, a makeup-wearing boyfriend, and a Peter Lorre voice—becomes Sallust’s archenemy and an all-purpose villain throughout the series.

Sallust repeatedly poses as a German officer and inserts himself into the key events of the war. It is Sallust who fools Hitler into invading Russia, whose deceit saves Moscow, who steals a key document from the safe of Hermann Goering that keeps Britain from surrender in its darkest days. The spy meets and invariably impresses a variety of historical figures with his dazzling military assessments. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his strategic analysis brilliant. He is a master of deception.

Wheatley put Sallust, von Epp, and Sallust’s confederate, Russian defector Stefan Kuperovitch, through a truly exhausting gauntlet of danger. But their adventures were set against a backdrop of events that were not only real but, because Wheatley wrote so quickly, virtually up-to-the-minute. The Black Baroness, which ends with Winston Churchill’s speech on June 17, 1940, the day of France’s surrender to the Nazis,  was written and published by October, four months later. It was not the first time that a fiction writer inserted his characters into real events, of course, but it was possibly the first time those events threatened to crash through the ceiling into a reader’s living room even as he held the book in his lap.

Rather than sending Sallust into battle, however, what Wheatley really wanted was to be fighting himself.

Dennis Wheatley was, like the character he invented, debonair—a man of high tastes. He had a prominent chin and thick dark hair he wore parted in the middle. He sometimes fancied a smoking jacket. But when Britain entered the war he was 42, too old to be called to combat.  He was the only member of his family not to join the war effort.  His wife, Joan, loved cars and knew how much gasoline different makes used, and she soon became MI5’s petrol queen, allocating scarce gasoline for British intelligence. She also worked as a driver, using her own car.

Wheatley spent his time attacking another kind of enemy: the ration board. It was no contest. Wheatley bought provisions for his household, which included four Wheatleys and three maids, for a month. He bought a stock of cigars from Benson & Hedges: Cigars were the only vice he didn’t have, but he expected guests. He went to Justerini’s in Pall Mall and bought—on credit—the maximum amount of wines and liqueurs they would sell him.

His own entertainment taken care of, he concentrated on the war career of his protagonist Sallust, providing much needed diversion for a tense nation. Keeping Sallust in mortal peril required collecting and synthesizing everything about the war that was available without a security clearance: understanding how the Nazis fought, learning about the neutral countries, assessing the political and military forces on all sides, analyzing strategy, predicting next moves. Wheatley read voraciously, followed the news in minute detail, and lunched frequently with friends whose work put them in a position to know things.

In May 1940, Joan was chauffeuring one Captain Hubert Stringer. He confided in her that the war was going badly and it looked like Hitler might soon invade Britain. He had been asked to come up with countermeasures for resisting a German invasion, but he couldn’t think of much. “Why don’t you try my husband?” Joan said. Stringer agreed.

Wheatley was thrilled to be doing something useful. He worked through the night. Fourteen hours later, he had written a 7,000-word paper called “Resistance to Invasion.” His secretary typed it, and Joan gave it to Stringer. Two evenings later, Stringer came to the Wheatleys’ house for a drink. He told Wheatley the paper was very good—in fact, a lot of its suggestions should be carried out immediately. But, he said, it could be weeks before any of his higher-ups paid attention.

Encouraged, Wheatley asked Stringer if he could send the paper to friends high in the military services. Soon after Wheatley sent it around, Colonel Charles Balfour-Davey, a friend in the War Office, called Wheatley and asked him to come in for a meeting, at midnight. “You have certainly produced a number of ideas that have never occurred to us,” Balfour-Davey said, promising to pass the paper up the line.

Another friend to whom Wheatley had sent his paper asked him to lunch with two other men: an arms manufacturer important to the war effort, and Lawrence Darvall, a wing commander in the Royal Air Force. Some of his ideas were completely impractical, the group told him. But many were not. Most of all, the men were impressed that Wheatley hadn’t suggested building a Maginot line around London or using a thousand tanks that didn’t exist.

“The war is 10 months old, and I am still unemployed in it,” Wheatley said. “Can you suggest any way in which I could make myself useful?” Darvall gave him a new assignment: Imagine himself a member of the Nazi High Command and produce a plan for the invasion of England. He was to send it to Darvall at a curious address: “Mr. Rance’s room at the Office of Works.” Wheatley would later find out that this was the cover name for the Joint Planning Staff’s rooms in the Ministry of Defense.

On the way home from the lunch, Wheatley bought two maps of the British Isles, one geographic and one showing population density. He hung them on his library wall and sat down to think like a Nazi. Over the next 48 hours he wrote 15,000 words, taking only two short breaks. To keep himself going, he smoked over 200 cigarettes and drank three magnums of champagne.

“Britain is the Enemy. France, by comparison is an honourable foe,” began Wheatley’s paper “The Invasion and Conquest of Britain.” He laid out the case for showing Britain no mercy. “British hypocrisy, duplicity and greed” had starved German women and children to death. The World War I peace terms inspired by Britain wished to cripple Germany for all time. His first recommendations: poison gas and bacteriological warfare.

He listed 16 ways German troops could land on British soil and the precise preparations required. His charts showed how many men would be needed for each step in the invasion and how many Germany could expect to lose. He provided a day-by-day invasion schedule. A half-million German casualties were a small price to pay, he announced, as “the conquest of Britain means the conquest of the world.” All in all, it was a remarkably detailed and assured manual of how to bomb, torch, machine-gun, poison, infect, and starve Britain.

The paper was based on how the Nazis had treated the Poles and on his Sallust research. “Gregory and I had been looking pretty closely at the Nazis for quite a while,” he told a journalist later.

Darvall and his colleagues were quite shaken by the paper—“particularly by its sheer swinishness,” wrote Phil Baker, author of the Wheatley biography The Devil Is a Gentleman. Whether Navy, Army, or Air Force, they had all been taught at their Staff colleges to regard war as a matter having definite rules, like cricket. Wheatley’s work pointed up a fact that would soon become obvious: Adolf Hitler was no cricketer. Wheatley later found out that the paper had persuaded the War Office to change its predictions about how Hitler would invade.

After that, Wheatley wrote more papers—20 of them between May 1940 and August 1941, most of them completed in a sleepless frenzy of champagne and cigarettes. Their readers were a small group: the Joint Planning Staff, members of the War Cabinet, Churchill, and the King.

Then, in the fall of 1941, Churchill authorized the creation of a unit to formulate strategic deception plans for the European theater. A novelist who could think like the enemy turned out to be just what was needed. Dennis Wheatley was about to step into the pages of his own fiction.

“Car’s at the door but we’ve got a few minutes still. Always keep a bottle on the ice—or would you prefer something stronger?”

“No thanks. Champagne’s my favourite tipple and God knows when I’ll taste it again.”

When the under-butler had brought the bottle and emptied its contents into two silver tankards, Gregory said: “What about your people having seen me in this kit? I suppose they’re safe?”

“Safe as the grave, my boy. All picked men. Isn’t one of them who hasn’t been tested and proved completely trustworthy. I can’t afford to have servants in this house who might talk.”

“Of course. Silly of me to have asked such a question. Well, here we go!”

Gregory picked up his tankard. Raising his, Sir Pellinore drew himself up to his full six feet four as he proposed: “Success to your enterprise and confusion to our enemies!”

Having drunk the toast they lingered over the wine for a moment or two; then Gregory put on the heavy field-grey greatcoat that had been provided for him, slipped his own automatic into the pistol holder at his belt and followed Sir Pellinore out of the house.

The Scarlet Impostor, 1940

2. Thrillers

Wheatley had always loved to tell stories. At school he entertained his dorm mates with nightly installments of a serial he invented as he went along, like One Thousand and One Nights’ Scheherazade, only Wheatley was staving off not execution but loneliness.

The rest of what marked him—the expensive taste in food, wine, clothing, art, and women—was acquired as an adult.  It was the result of years of studied effort; Dennis Wheatley worked hard to become high-born. The Wheatley he wanted people to see was the version on the back cover of later reprints of his books: a man sitting at a desk in a smoking jacket, pad of paper in front of him, holding a pencil. Next to his right hand is a glass of port and a cigarette.

In reality, Wheatley was raised middle-class. He grew up in the London suburb of Streatham, the son of a wine-store owner. Although he loved to read, Wheatley was not a scholar. After he was expelled from school at age 12, his father sent him first to work on a naval training ship and then, when he was 16, to Germany for a year to apprentice at a winery. In Germany, he developed a taste for large quantities of German wines—the hock and kümmel that Gregory Sallust would later love as well.

Wheatley arrived home in time to enlist for World War I but was kept in England until 1917, his principal contributions to victory being reading and improving the morale of British women. Wheatley was not tall—he was just five foot eight—but he was handsome, with a strong chin.

In Britain, Wheatley fell sick with the bronchitis that would dog him for life. In the hospital, however, he would meet a character who seemed so straight out of fiction that he inspired Wheatley’s own. The model for Gregory Sallust was a tall, thin, well-dressed man whose surname was Tombe. He was only a few years older than Wheatley, had an intelligent, lined face, and walked with a limp. He preached the philosophy of living in the moment, calling himself a “conscious hedonist.” He convinced Wheatley to read widely in history, the classics, world religions, and philosophy. “In mental development I owe more to him than to any other person who has entered my life,” Wheatley wrote later.

Finally, in 1917, Lieutenant Wheatley made it to France. His optimism and sunny conviviality made him popular with his men, but in all it was a boring war for Wheatley; although he was shelled and gassed, he spent a good deal of his time in charge of an ammunition dump. Then, in the spring of 1918, bronchitis brought him home.

When Wheatley returned from the war, he again fell in with Tombe, who was no less charismatic as a civilian. Tombe’s business was white-collar fraud, but he also burned down a building so a friend could collect the insurance money. Wheatley provided alibis and offered a sort of London headquarters for Tombe, taking care of bits of his business while Tombe was away with a girlfriend.

In April 1922, Tombe was murdered by the friend who had collected the insurance money. Wheatley was devastated—he didn’t speak of it for the rest of his life.

Wheatley rejoined the family business, taking it over upon his father’s death. Wheatley and Son was a very successful Mayfair wine store, and Dennis, a born salesman and marketer, made it even more so. He bought a cellar of old brandies and had special bottles made, with fancy seals and Napoleonic crests. He poured in the brandy and hung medals around the bottlenecks, sprinkling dust on top for verisimilitude. The brandy sold out right away and inspired others to copy it with liquor that had seen much less of life than the bottles that held it.

He began to collect rare books. He took to wearing Savile Row suits during the day and white tie, tails, and a monocle at night. His middle-class birth seemed safely behind him.

But when the Depression hit, it was suddenly a very bad idea to be a wine merchant. Wheatley had always spent beyond his means, and now both he and the business were in debt. Three friends saved him from bankruptcy by buying the shop. Wheatley became a junior director with very little to do.

Throughout the 1920s, he was married to Nancy Robinson, a beautiful blond heiress to a boot-polish fortune. They had a son, Anthony. But Wheatley found fatherhood difficult, and he and his first wife had very different interests—hers were dancing and tennis, his books and wine. They both took up with others. Wheatley resumed his womanizing. In 1929, though, he met the woman he would spend the rest of his life with: Joan Younger, the sister of one of his employees. They married in 1931.

Joan had divorced her first husband, was widowed by her second, and had four children. She was handsome rather than beautiful, with large features. She was of aristocratic lineage and had a modest private income. She enjoyed her comforts and her social station, but she was also practical and competent at most everything. Wheatley was honest with her about his financial problems. Joan’s response was resourceful: She suggested he write a book.

In 1933, Wheatley began his professional writing career by publishing The Forbidden Territory, which featured a group of four friends in the style of The Three Musketeers. The Duke de Richleau, the leader, was Athos, and the Wheatley stand-in was D’Artagnan. The novel sent the group deep into the Soviet Union in January 1933. A small press printed 1,500 copies and, when these sold out, produced more—seven printings in seven weeks.

By December 1934, he published his fifth book, The Devil Rides Out. It is still his best-selling novel and the most famous of the kind of work Wheatley is best known for—novels about black magic. In 1938, Wheatley earned £12,467, more than $1 million today. He became, along with Agatha Christie, the best-selling author in Britain.

By 1940, alongside his pulp fiction for the masses, he would be writing something else, gripping papers meant only for a small group of elite readers: politicians, officers, and royalty—the men in charge of the war.

“That’s a deal. If I can prove to you that I’m worth listening to I get a straight bullet, but if you consider that I’ve wasted your time you hand me over to your thugs to do what they like with me.”

“Do you understand what you may be letting yourself in for?”

“I’ve got a pretty shrewd idea.”

Goering sighed to the guards. “You may go. Now, Sallust, I’m ready to let you teach one of the leading statesmen of Europe his business—if you can.”

Gregory relaxed, physically but not mentally. He knew that he was up against it as he had never been in his life before. Helping himself to another of the big Turkish cigarettes, he said, “May I have a map of Europe and another drink?”

Faked Passports, 1940

3. The War Papers

The first paper Wheatley composed for the British government in May of 1940, “Resistance to Invasion,” displayed the knowledge and confidence of a military planner and far more creativity. Wheatley divides the British coastline into zones: water, shore, and up to five miles inland. A typical passage reads:

Zone 2: The sole but all-important function of all obstacles and Forces in Zone 2 is to delay-delay-delay the enemy in his attempt to get a secure foothold on land, so as to give ample time for G.H.Q. [General Headquarters] to get a clear picture of the situation and to find out which, out of perhaps a hundred simultaneous attempts to land at different points, are feints and which are really dangerous threats.

He describes some 40 methods civilians can use to repel Nazi invaders: Lay a barrier of mined fishing nets two miles offshore. Barbwire the coast. Spread flaming oil on the water. Build thousands of beach bonfires to deny the enemy the cover of darkness. Dig shallow trenches in front of gunner positions, fill them with oil, and, when needed, set them on fire to give cover for retreats. Pour water into the gasoline at gas stations. Remove signboards bearing the names of inns and railway stations, all of which would help the enemy know where he was. Park trains outside railway junctions, which are natural targets for bombing. Dump highly flammable material into forests so they can be set on fire in the face of an advancing enemy.

Wheatley’s war papers overlap considerably with the Sallust novels written at the same time: his obsessions with Turkey’s independence and the strategic value of invading Sardinia, of all subjects, feature in both, among other topics. In the papers, Wheatley micromanages village defense. (“The service should open with a cheerful hymn—perhaps ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful.’”) He goes on to discuss how to boost public morale and how to protect Britain from aerial warfare. Then he moves outward, writing about grand strategy on the continent and how to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war.

Many of his ideas were useful. Britain did, in fact, remove signage that could orient an invader; the King did establish a medal for civilian bravery. His strategic thinking was taken seriously by war planners. At one point, the directors of plans wanted to discuss a Wheatley paper but found that they had only one copy. They phoned the palace: would the King send his copy over? He would. He put it in an envelope and wrote “Personal and Urgent” on it.

But some of Wheatley’s ideas were considered utterly daft. He suggested that Britain construct convoys of 100 unsinkable log sailing rafts linked together, to bear grain and other cargo across the Atlantic to Britain on the Gulf Stream. Wheatley thought it a way to ship goods without fear of U-boats: the Admiralty politely told him it was impractical. Wheatley also proposed that a British submarine pose as a U-boat and sink the ship of a neutral country to bring it into the war. He was, of course, referring to America. He did not seem to consider the consequences if the British were caught.

Ingenious or crazy, very few of Wheatley’s ideas would have occurred to the military planners—being an outsider was his great value. He was approached by an air commodore, who had read the Sallust novels, to see if he would work with him to interpret Germany’s military plans. “You can get in the head of the enemy,” he told Wheatley. Wheatley was elated, but the project never got off the ground.

But Wheatley didn’t remain an outsider for much longer. Soon he would be recruited to do his most important work. No longer just a spy novelist, he would now be a real spy.

When Madeleine heard the news she exclaimed: “But why should Hitler have attacked Russia? He really must be crazy.”

Stefan smiled as he took her hands. “You didn’t tumble, then, to what we’ve been up to all these weeks?”

“Surely,” Gregory laughed, “the report of Hitler’s speech at the time he launched the attack, which I’ve just given you, must have provided you with the clue.” 

V for Vengeance, 1942        

4. Telling the Story

The unit that Wheatley would join was created largely at the urging of Dudley Clarke, a lieutenant colonel in Britain’s Middle East command in Cairo with a genius for deception. In his own battles, Clarke had established the value of what came to be known as order-of-battle deception: making the Germans believe that the Allied military forces were far larger than they really were. He invented entire divisions and armies. German intelligence agents—who in reality were double agents, controlled by the British—reported the movements of these fictional forces back to Hitler. The British set up fields of dummy tanks—almost perfectly camouflaged—designed to appear real to reconnaissance planes, which flew at 8,000 feet. They simulated the noise and smell of military units and even sprinkled bleach on fields to make them look trampled.

Clarke’s order-of-battle deception was extremely effective. In the spring of 1944, the Germans believed that the Allies had 14 divisions in Egypt and Libya. In fact there were three, none of them worthy of battle.

Order-of-battle deception forced the Germans to tie up troops to defend against these fictional armies; a successful deception plan could be as valuable as hundreds of thousands of real soldiers. But Clarke’s genius lay with the conclusion that order-of-battle deception was also the foundation for every other ruse—an investment that would pay off for years. If your enemy believes your exaggerations about your military might, then nearly every threat becomes plausible.

Deception, of course, is as old as war, but it had always been tactical—dreamt up and carried out as part of an operation. On a visit home in 1941, Clarke convinced London that it needed something brand-new—a centralized staff that would plan and coordinate deceptions for all its operations in Europe.

When Wheatley signed on with the military’s Joint Planning Staff, he had also, in a way, spent years pondering strategic deception. His character Sallust had carried out a classic piece of it in V for Vengeance, written in 1941. In that book, Sallust and Kuperovitch book, create a trail of documents leading the Germans to “discover” a massive plot by the Soviet Union—at that time in a nonaggression pact with Hitler—to mobilize its sympathizers in Europe to sabotage and revolt against Germany. The false evidence convinces Hitler that Russia is about to stab Germany in the back, and he invades the Soviet Union.

Deception was familiar to Wheatley on a different level as well. Deception involves first choosing a story—story is actually the term of art—that will be your cover plan. Then you break that story into tiny pieces and draw up a schedule for spooning it bit by bit into the maw of the enemy: which morsel fed by what channel on what date. The story can’t be too obvious; the enemy must make the connections himself. A key rule of deception: intelligence easily obtained is intelligence that will not be trusted.

That is how to write a deception plan. It is also how to write a novel. The cliché goes that spies make natural writers: After all, John le Carré, Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, and Ian Fleming were all spies before they started writing spy fiction. But Wheatley was out to prove that writers made natural spies. Deception work, especially, is in its essence the writing of stories. But for the Joint Planning Staff, Wheatley had to write with far more restraint than he did in his novels. The clues had to be so subtle that no one would suspect that they were clues.

Wheatley’s job, then, was to continue to write fiction—this time aimed not at millions of readers but at only one: Adolf Hitler.

Next second there was a blinding flash in the darkness. A bullet whistled over their heads and angry orders were shouted in Norwegian. Several men had sprung out of the other car and were running towards them brandishing revolvers. One man yelled in German as he ran: “We saw you ruddy Nazis signaling to that plane when we were three miles away. Hands up, both of you! Hands up!”

The appearance of the newcomers had been so startlingly swift that neither von Ziegler nor Gregory had had time to draw their guns. As they raised their hands above their heads the horrid thought flashed into Gregory’s mind that the next few moments might see him shot—as a German spy.

The Black Baroness, 1940

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5. Deception Rising

The Joint Planning Staff was a military organization, but the newest recruit to its deception team was a civilian. Not for long: Wheatley was stuffed into a two-week officer training course, and on December 31, 1941, Pilot Officer Wheatley reported for duty. The deception staff was headed by Colonel Oliver Stanley, and it had two members: Fritz Lumby, an army lieutenant colonel and former head of the army intelligence school, and Wheatley, who now held the most junior commissioned post in the Royal Air Force, the most junior service.

Wheatley’s awe at his new surroundings was tempered by the fact that he had nothing to do. Strategic deception depended on the cooperation of military services, but they couldn’t cooperate with something they didn’t know about. Part of the problem was that Wheatley and Lumby were not allowed to explain it: Their work was so secret that they were not even permitted to talk about it with the rest of the Joint Planning Staff. Since none of the women in the typing pool were cleared to know about deception—even though they typed the real plans—Wheatley and Lumby had to do their own typing.

Lumby did a lot of crossword puzzles. Wheatley had long liquid lunches, sometimes chased by a nap.

After a few days, Wheatley decided he might as well spend his time writing more papers. He eventually wrote 14 in all, the most important of which was titled “The Basic Principles of Enemy Deception.” There was no military manual for guidance on how to execute strategic deception, so Wheatley decided to make one. His paper outlined some general, relatively unsophisticated lessons. “Deception plans should be within the scope of the resources that the enemy believes us to possess,” he wrote. “No measure, short of definitively hampering our genuine war activities, should be neglected which would be taken were we actually going to carry out the deception plan.” Then he listed 49 specific tactics for fooling the enemy. The paper—later redrafted by his new chief into approved military form—was sent out to Britain’s deception planners around the world and became the bible of deception.

In mid-January 1942, Stanley finally gave his men their first assignment: persuade the Germans that Britain was planning to invade Norway in the beginning of May.

Wheatley knew this terrain. He had set a novel, The Black Baroness, in Norway during the Nazi invasion. Several times in the book, Sallust saves the King of Norway from kidnap and murder by the Nazis. Throughout the story, Sallust clings to the belief that the British will come in to repel the Nazis, repeatedly arguing that it is well within Britain’s capabilities to invade. Sallust grows more and more bitter as the weeks pass; a token trickle of British forces finally arrive and are quickly routed.

Now Wheatley had a second chance to not invade Norway. The first time, in Sallust’s world, the events were real. In Wheatley’s world, they would be fictional.

Wheatley browsed through the list of available cover names and chose Hardboiled. He and Lumby created a plan for an attack on Stavanger, in southern Norway. Scottish forces would be trained and supplied for an invasion, which at the last minute would be postponed.

Wheatley and Lumby couldn’t train or supply anyone, of course. They had to convince the military commanders in Scotland to do that. They had an easy time with most of the officers, who, lacking the clearances to know about deception, were told the plan was real. Senior officers, however, did know it was a feint, and they didn’t like it. They needed all their men and resources for real military operations. Why should they commit them to fake ones?

In the end, the exercise designed to give credibility to Hardboiled never happened. Hardboiled was postponed several times, and then the only plausible unit—the Royal Marine Division, which was trained in mountain warfare—was sent to seize Madagascar  instead.

But Hardboiled was carried out through other channels. The British printed maps of the Stavanger region, called for Norwegian translators, printed requisition forms in Norwegian, “lost” an important map of Norway (and sent people to look for it), and asked diplomats in neutral countries if they had any Norwegian contacts. Wheatley himself got in on the fun. He borrowed a more senior RAF officer’s uniform and questioned Norwegian refugees in Britain about places an airplane could land, in the hope that they would be indiscreet.

Rumors of impending invasion circled the globe. Hitler, convinced that invasion was imminent, sent 50,000 troops to reinforce the 100,000 already there.

Was this Hardboiled’s doing? It was hard to tell—and therein lay one of the key lessons of the operation: the importance of putting yourself inside your enemy’s head. Deception worked best, Wheatley and his colleagues realized, if the cover story was one the enemy already worried about. It didn’t have to be plausible—what mattered was that the enemy believed it was. Thinking as the enemy thinks meant appreciating his preconceived notions. The enemy will go out of his way to find evidence supporting these notions and, when presented with it, will be more likely to believe it. In other words, with a little help the enemy will deceive itself.

In the case of Germany, the only beliefs that counted belonged to Hitler. Germany did not have a coordinated system of filtering intelligence up to decision makers, and when information did reach the top it was often ignored. Hitler made decisions about German military strategy largely by instinct. He paid the most attention to intelligence that supported the views he already held.

But knowing Hitler’s fears and strategic eccentricities, Britain’s deceivers could choose cover plans that fed them—and Hitler was obsessed with keeping Norway under Nazi command. “The fate of the war will be decided in Norway,” he said in January 1942.

It is likely that Wheatley and Lumby’s mischief meant that 50,000 Nazi troops who didn’t need to be in Norway were now not available elsewhere. Norway was a feint Wheatley would come back to again and again. By the latter part of the war, Germany had tied up 300,000 troops in Norway—three times what would have sufficed to keep the country under German control—until it was too late to use them elsewhere. Hardboiled was the first of many times the deceivers exploited Hitler’s irrationality.

Despite Hardboiled’s outcome, for Wheatley and Lumby it had been frustrating to depend entirely on commanders who had no interest in what they were doing. And afterward the assignments dried up. Wheatley was sometimes still asked to write papers. When he wasn’t, he wrote them anyway. Things got so bad that Stanley, aware of Wheatley’s black-magic novels, asked him for a paper that assumed he had performed some black-magic rite that gave him a supernatural preview of The Times the day the war ended.

Lumby, demoralized by the idleness of their days, obtained a transfer. Stanley took leave to be with his dying wife, and then he, too, got a transfer. Wheatley stayed; even with no work, it was a far more interesting job than he could get anywhere else. But he was now alone. It looked like the idea of coordinated strategic deception was dead.

“Now do you see what I’m driving at?” Gregory said grimly. “This is not only the outline of the German plan to put the whole of Europe in her pocket; and having achieved that, to secure world dominion; it shows how she intends to do it.… That is why this document has got to be placed in the hands of my old friend, Sir Pellinore Gwain-Cust, who will put it before the Cabinet and the Allied War Council.… It must reach them at the earliest possible moment. Therefore, I intend to leave for England tomorrow.”

Faked Passports, 1940

6. In the Bunker

Perhaps Lumby transferred too soon. At the end of May, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel John Bevan became head of the newly dubbed London Controlling Section—the deliberately vague cover name for the deception section—and things started to change radically. Bevan was a wealthy stockbroker—deception, like other espionage, was a gentlemen’s game. He was also smooth, forceful, well connected, and wily. He wrote himself a charter giving London Control sweeping powers to formulate strategic deception policy and specific deception plans, and to coordinate the implementation of those plans.

Strategic deception began its transformation from a “position of near impotence,” as Wheatley grumbled, into a keystone of Allied strategy. The journalist and historian of espionage Anthony Cave Brown later wrote that the London Controlling Section was Churchill’s “greatest single contribution to military theory and practice.”

Bevan and Wheatley moved from aboveground offices into cubicles in Churchill’s bunker, the underground warren where the War Cabinet, including Churchill himself, worked—and, when necessary, ate and slept. The bunker resembled the lower deck of a battleship. It had a four-foot-thick layer of concrete over the ceiling, phone lines to military commands around Britain, and a hotline from which Churchill could speak directly to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was stocked with provisions for three months. If Germany ever occupied London, the bunker could be sealed off and Churchill and his officials could continue to wage war.

Within two months of taking over, Bevan was given an enormous task: keep the Germans away from the planned Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. The plan for Torch was to sail convoys from America to land in three places in Morocco, and from Britain through the Straits of Gibraltar to the Algerian cities of Oran and Algiers. Bevan and Wheatley now had the job of writing and coordinating a deception plan to cover the largest amphibious operation since the Spanish Armada.

They designed eight different plans to deceive the Germans. Four covered the convoys to North Africa. First, the story held that the troops were sailing for the Middle East. Then, once they entered the Mediterranean (it was going to be hard to get through the Straits of Gibraltar unobserved), a new story kicked in: They were heading for Sicily and Malta.

Two other plans were intended to convince the Germans that General Dwight Eisenhower, who was commanding the expedition, was actually in Washington. Away from the Mediterranean, another plan aimed to make Germany think the Allies were planning an invasion of Pas de Calais, in northern France, so the Germans would tie up troops there. And finally, there was an old friend: once again, Britain was not going to invade Norway.

This was rather a lot for three people—there was now also a secretary—and Bevan hired three more. Major Ronald Wingate became Bevan’s deputy. Harold Petavel was responsible for intelligence. A naval officer, James Arbuthnott, joined Wheatley to write the deception plans and coordinate their implementation with the services. Wheatley was also chairman of a committee with members of the intelligence services whose job was to think up creative new channels for deceiving the enemy.

Wheatley drew up a large chart for Torch showing every deception move, every day, until the expedition sailed. The amount of detail to be tracked was staggering. Wheatley had gone from micromanaging village defense to micromanaging massive invasions—at one point he was begging the War Office, unsuccessfully, to supply some Scottish units with mules. The fact that these invasions were fictional didn’t make the job much easier.

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With a shrewd glance at his guest Goering said: “I see you’re a connoisseur,” and turning to the butler he ordered: “have a couple of bottles of my Marcobrunner Cabinet 1900 sent up.”

“1900!” murmured Gregory. “By Jove! I didn’t know that there were any 1900 hocks still in existence.”

Faked Passports, 1940

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7. Wheatley’s Secret Weapon

Wheatley’s celebrity, his conviviality, and his bank account were almost as valuable to the London Controlling Section as his creativity. Now that the military commanders were allowed to know about deception plans, it fell to Wheatley to explain them and to convince the commanders of their value. His weapon was lunch—always an area of strength for Wheatley. “Eating for Victory,” he called it.

He started the practice as a guest of Major Eddie Combe, before the war a wealthy stockbroker, at a restaurant called Rules. Those lunches began with two or three Pimm’s, then an absinthe cocktail. A good bottle of red or white wine accompanied a meal, and port or kümmel followed. They would eat smoked salmon or potted shrimp, then a Dover sole, jugged hare, salmon or game, and a Welsh rarebit to wind up. Wartime rationing was not welcome at their table.

These lunches were invaluable to Wheatley. He could call almost anyone and say, “I met you at lunch with Eddie Combe.”

Combe’s social scene encompassed a large cross-section of the London espionage world. At one party, thrown by an Eddie Combe contact, Wheatley’s wife, Joan, was nearly killed. She had taken a White Lady cocktail off a tray and a few minutes later went green in the face and passed out. They later found out what happened: Joan took the wrong drink. A guest at the party, a Polish officer, was suspected of double-crossing the British. The White Lady had been aimed at the Pole, designed to disorient him before interrogation.

Wheatley put this incident to use: In Come Into My Parlour, Sallust switches brandy-and-soda glasses with Soviet Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, who is commanding Leningrad during the siege. Voroshilov drinks truth serum he meant to give Sallust and ultimately gives Sallust critical information about Soviet military strategy.

After numerous lunches with Combe, Wheatley resumed the role that came naturally to him, that of host. His social strategy was to begin with rigidly correct behavior. On being shown into the room of an admiral, general, or air marshal, he would stand at attention until addressed. This usually resulted in a smile or an invitation to sit down and the offer of a cigarette. After the meeting, as he got up to leave, Wheatley would say: “I wonder, sir, if you have a day free to lunch with me?”

Such an invitation would have been scandalous from any other very junior officer. But many of the generals had read Wheatley’s books. After slight hesitation, they nearly always accepted. And at lunch, Wheatley would then ask them to dinner.

Then he passed his new friends along to Bevan. “I was able to introduce Johnny on the ‘old boy’ level to all these people,” he wrote. “And he took swift advantage of it.”

Wheatley himself held a permanent table at the Hungaria restaurant—an establishment familiar to readers of the Sallust books; Wheatley liked to advertise for his friends. He and Joan gave lavish dinner parties in their flat at Chatsworth Court. On New Year’s Eve 1943, they rented out the restaurant in the basement of their building and treated more than 100 people to champagne, foie gras, and other food and drink that during the war had become a distant memory.

Wheatley kept lists of his important lunch and dinner guests. One of the guests was a Naval Intelligence officer with whom Wheatley occasionally worked named Fleming. Ian Fleming. Fleming was not yet a writer, but he was interested in becoming one. He could well have learned from Wheatley about writing popular spy novels. It is more than possible that Fleming learned from Gregory Sallust.

Wheatley also took advantage of his fame as an author to add to the deception in the Mediterranean. Bevan had sent an intelligence offer to travel to Gibraltar, Malta, and Cairo to brief officials there about the cover plans for Torch. Wheatley had a friend in Cairo, Henry Hopkinson, and he gave Bevan’s envoy an autographed copy of his just published V for Vengeance to take to Hopkinson. He slipped a chatty letter on Cabinet Office stationery into the book, introducing the envoy. In the letter was a casual reference to the possibility of the British coming to the aid of Malta. London Control knew that any British officer staying in a Gibraltar hotel would have his luggage searched and any documents copied by German agents.

It was one of several mini-deceptions perpetrated by Wheatley himself. In the spring of 1943, the Allies were selling the story that they were going to invade France, to draw German troops away from the Mediterranean. Bevan ordered the printing of some banknotes with “British Army of Occupation in France” printed in bold letters. All the deceivers carried a few of them in their wallets. Whenever Wheatley paid a taxi driver or shop clerk, he used one. Then, once the bill had been noticed, he would quickly pull it back and substitute an ordinary pound note.

The uncertainty in Grauber’s eye deepened. “When,” he said slowly, “when did you find out about Einholtz?”

“The very first night I met him,” Gregory replied amiably.

“So!” exclaimed the Gruppenfuhrer. “And you talked to him about Russia?’

“I did. I told him every single thing I knew, and—er—just a little more.”

“Zum Donnerwetter!” Grauber roared, smashing his fist down on the table. For a second he paused, white-faced and trembling, then he swung round to his adjutant. “Kohler! Get me on to the Fuhrer’s Headquarters. At once! Instantly! Use the highest priority! Clear all lines!”

As the adjutant dashed from the room Gregory laughed and said: “So Einholtz did pass on that false information I gave him about the impending counter-offensive from south-east Moscow. And you passed it on to the Werhmacht, eh? I wonder if they acted on it? If they did I’ll have killed a hundred thousand of you filthy swine before Christmas, and saved Moscow! My God! If Erika and I have to die, that will be something worth dying for.”

“Oh darling!” Erika cried, clasping his arm. “Oh darling! What an amazing feat!”

Come Into My Parlour, 1946

8. Special Means

By the end of 1942, strategic deception had acquired a new prestige. The deception plans to protect Operation Torch were a complete success. The Germans removed no troops from Norway and reinforced their defenses in Northern France, thus wasting troops that might otherwise have gone to North Africa. Most important, the enemy was completely deceived about the convoys’ targets. The British convoys arrived in Oran and Algiers without the loss of a single ship or man. They caught the Germans and Italians napping, literally—the Italian chiefs were seized in their hotel, in pajamas. Algiers fell to the Allies the first day and Oran the third.

Strategic deception was now reliably misleading the Germans. “We see the possible Allied plans being discussed round the [German intelligence] council table,” Wingate wrote in his official history of World War II deception against Germany. “The resemblance of these discussions to a morning meeting of the London Controlling Section almost approaches the ludicrous.”

London Control owed its achievements to several factors. One was the nature of the war at the time. Since there was little direct engagement, both Britain and Germany were heavily dependent on non-operational intelligence to find out what the enemy was planning and what it could do. For Germany, even aerial observation was limited; by 1943, the RAF had near total control of the skies over Britain. German knowledge about enemy plans and capabilities had to be deduced from reports of what was going on in enemy ports, arms and airplane factories, and military bases. This made deception both possible and useful. And with the development of wireless communication, manipulation could respond quickly to events. A crucial message sent by a top agent could land on Hitler’s desk within 30 minutes of transmission.

Britain had the huge advantage of being able to understand enemy communication. The Germans thought their Enigma machine ciphers were unbreakable, but British and Polish codebreakers proved them wrong, famously deciphering the Enigma code. Their furious effort began to pay off in 1941. Among their many decisive contributions, these intercepts provided instant feedback on how well British deception strategy was working and constant updates on how to tailor deception. Did the Germans accept the stories London Control was putting out? What did the enemy believe? What did it fear? London didn’t have to guess.

But sheer luck was also a factor. British deception succeeded in part because the Axis’s intelligence services were shockingly poor. The Abwehr—the German military intelligence service—was both badly run and corrupt. Some officers pocketed the money that was supposed to go to their agents, filling the resulting information gap by making things up. The Abwehr also suffered from the typical disease of intelligence services: agent inflation. Officers competed to run the largest number of agents, which means that they had little incentive to doubt anything an agent told them. Gullibility was rewarded.

Perhaps most important was a new channel for deception at London Control’s disposal, known as “special means”: the double agents. Britain knew that it controlled many of the spies Germany had sent to infiltrate the country. But until the spring of 1942, these double agents had performed limited tasks. MI5 used them to assess what the Germans knew, getting clues from the questions their German handlers posed. The agents’ encrypted messages held secrets about German codes.

What they weren’t being used for was strategic deception. They did pass on isolated pieces of tactical misinformation. But with anything bigger, the British worried that real German agents would contradict the fake agents’ lies and blow the whole network.

In June 1942, it dawned on the British that, incredibly, they controlled every German agent in Britain. The British knew of every agent who transmitted radio reports, sent mail to Abwehr addresses, or received pay through the usual channels. Every single one of them had been doubled. That meant they could use the agents to deceive the German High Command without fear of contradiction. The information the agents reported to their German handlers was chosen by the XX Committee—referred to as the Twenty Committee, but XX also meant double-cross. Now their reports would include the stories invented by London Control.

The single most important channel for conveying the deceptions of London Control to the Germans—indeed, the most important spy of World War II—was a man who never spied on a soul. His code name was Garbo, and he was, in essence, a fiction writer himself. If Wheatley was the first link in the chain of deception, Garbo was the last. He took the plots outlined by Wheatley, Arbuthnott, and Neil Gordon Clark, their new colleague in the deception plans department, and spun their tales in his own language and his own florid style. Tomás Harris, his case officer, was his editor.

Garbo—the Germans called him Arabel—was a  short, balding, bespectacled Catalan named Juan Pujol. Pujol had offered his services to the British consulate in Madrid as a spy and had been turned down. Then he volunteered to work for the Germans—in order to go back to the British, now with more interesting wares to peddle. The Germans accepted, supplied him with invisible ink and codes, and thought they were sending him to England. In fact, he moved to Portugal, where he became a one-man freelance deception team.

Garbo had, in fact, never been to Britain. He relied on a Baedeker tourist guide to England, a Bradshaw’s railway timetable, a large map, and a heroic imagination to write a constant stream of lies plausible to the Abwehr. Before long he was making an impact: After he reported that a convoy had sailed from Liverpool to Malta, the Germans sent reconnaissance planes to find the convoy. They failed.

The British discovered Pujol’s existence right after they broke the Abwehr codes. They were mystified. The England this spy was describing was not a country they recognized. The military units he talked about didn’t exist. He even got the weather wrong—embassies did not flee London in the summer because of the heat—and seemed confused by pounds and shillings. Yet he was a writer persuasive enough that he could get the Germans to jump with a single report. In April 1942, the British smuggled him to England, vetted him, and decided he was the real thing. They dubbed him Garbo, the greatest actor in the world. He told his German contact that he had been given political-refugee status and was now freelancing for the BBC and the information ministry. The Abwehr was thrilled.

Wheatley, as a planner, was not cleared to know about secret intelligence activities. He wasn’t supposed to know about this fellow master of fiction, a writer whose baroque style gave life to the bare-bones plots that Wheatley wrote. But he did know—Garbo was too juicy to stay a secret, at least inside the bunker. And he was the bunker’s most prolific conduit to the enemy.

The ideas that Wheatley and the other planners sketched out in a few paragraphs would feed through the XX Committee down through MI5’s case officers to Garbo, who would craft from them long, flowery messages in Spanish to the Abwehr’s Madrid office. By letter—and, later, by Morse code through wireless transmission—Garbo sent thousands of these reports about the goings-on in British ports, factories, and military bases. He claimed to have gathered his information from a network of spies he had assembled of various nationalities, jobs, and locations, including several anti-British Welsh nationalists, a Venezuelan businessman in Glasgow, an Indian poet in Brighton, and the poet’s mistress in the Women’s Royal Navy Service. Some in Garbo’s network, he claimed, were unaware that their information was being used, and at least one thought he was spying for the Soviet Union. Garbo’s sub-agents, he told his German handlers, had sub-agents of their own.

The Germans trusted him enough to take action based on his word alone; when they changed their codes, they sent Garbo the new ones. He was the perfect spy: prolific, each report exhaustive, able to rely on a vast network of agents in strategic locations across Britain. In July 1944, the Germans awarded Garbo the Iron Cross.

In reality, Garbo spent his days with Harris, his Spanish-speaking case officer, in a small office near the headquarters of MI5. His network was entirely imaginary. He was able to endow his characters and their adventures with enough verisimilitude that Germany trusted them completely—remarkable, given that their job was to get every single important thing catastrophically wrong. This required ingenious plotting by London Control and the XX Committee, but it also took Garbo’s literary virtuosity: the telling detail, foreshadowing, and writerly misdirection that every good novel requires.

A popular thriller writer, Wheatley drew on his imagination to produce cover plans for Allied operations. His work included a plan, code named ‘Bodyguard,’ to deceive the Germans about the place and date of the Allied ‘D-Day’ invasion of Europe.

—Caption accompanying a photo of Dennis Wheatley at the Churchill War Rooms Museum

9. The Final Chapter

The fictional Gregory Sallust may have been able to win World War II by himself. Dennis Wheatley could not.  By 1943, the year before the Allied invasion of Europe, the London Controlling Section had grown to seven full-time employees. London Control had designed and coordinated the implementation of dozens of deceptions, all leading up to one final job. Their task: to ensure that when Allied forces landed in France, no Germans would be there to meet them.

The deception plan, code-named Bodyguard—so called because Churchill had told Stalin, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”—would be on an order of complexity with the invasion itself. The group’s initial paper, titled “First Thoughts,” was a grim document—hardly surprising, given that the deception task seemed impossible. When it was presented to the chiefs of staff of the Allied command, the reaction, according to Bevan’s deputy Wingate, was “more despairing than unfavorable.”

Hitler, after all, knew the Allies were preparing to invade Northern France. Doing so would require preparation on a massive scale—the Germans could not possibly fail to notice. And landing in France was just the beginning: Even if Hitler was fooled about the exact location, German forces would be sitting close enough to be able to smash the Allied expedition in a few days.

The task for London Control, then, was to hide something huge that the Germans were already looking for—and that the Germans knew the Allies would do everything possible to hide. After the operation began, moreover, it had to stay hidden. The problem stumped London Control through many drafts. At Christmas in 1943, Bevan’s latest was so qualified by counterarguments that Wheatley implored him to hide all the negatives in an appendix that no one would read—or else the chiefs would sack them all and perhaps abandon the idea of deception entirely.

Finally, in February 1944, the answer came in the elegant form of a double bluff. Preparations for the invasion couldn’t be hidden—but they could be used to hide something else. They would make the Germans believe that the landing in Normandy was itself a feint, designed to draw German troops away from the real invasion, which would take place in Pas de Calais some weeks later.

This story exploited several of Britain’s great deception coups. The Germans had a greatly exaggerated notion of the strength of the forces the Allies could turn on France. A week before D-Day, Hitler thought the Allies could command more than 80 divisions in Britain, when in fact there were only 52. That overestimation added credibility to the idea that the Allies could follow up the Normandy landing with a much larger one in Pas de Calais. So instead of hiding the force buildup and the influx of troops from America and Canada, London Control exaggerated it. A bare-bones United States First Army Group already existed in Britain. Now it was stocked with a million imaginary men and a fearsome commander: George Patton. Patton’s ghost army would become the threat that would keep the Germans pinned down in Pas de Calais.

The other great coup was Britain’s information monopoly. The Germans could listen to radio traffic from inside Britain, and through triangulation they could pinpoint where it was coming from. But they could not see inside, thanks to British control of Germany’s agents and the RAF’s domination of the skies.

Carefully prepared scripts simulating all the normal traffic of an army group—hundreds of messages a day—were drawn up and transmitted. The Admiralty did the same to simulate amphibious assault divisions. It also put out 255 inflatable landing craft, just in case the Germans managed to put some planes in the air to see them. And, most important, the double agents supplied countless reports confirming the Pas de Calais landing. Garbo alone would send and receive more than 500 messages between January 1944 and D-Day.

Bodyguard was actually made up of 36 separate plans, all coordinated by London Control. Even Churchill’s own speeches were run through Bevan and his colleagues.

Meanwhile, through the fall of 1943, Wheatley had been writing a paper he gave the working title “Essorbee,” which stood for “shit or bust.” “Essorbee” outlined the many ways Wheatley developed to draw enemy forces around Europe away from Northern France. A lot of his ideas involved threatening neutral countries, which the Foreign Office didn’t like. But a few were included in Bodyguard, including a plan to use Sweden to convince the Germans that yet another invasion of Norway was in the works. Intelligence decrypts showed that the Germans bought it. It already had 17 divisions in Norway but now reinforced them.

As 1944 rolled on, the hour approached that would put Bodyguard, and the Allies themselves, to the final test. If the invasion of Normandy lacked the advantage of the unexpected, it would fail. If it failed, Britain, having spent its forces, would likely have no choice but to offer Hitler its surrender.

Momentarily Gregory had forgotten that he was in German uniform. With sudden horror he realized that he was in a most ghastly fix. He could not kill the Frenchman who was glaring at him and in the split second that it would have taken to pistol the fellow had he been a German he saw the man’s finger crook itself round the trigger of his rifle.

The Scarlet Impostor, 1940

10. Armageddon

The first wave of aircraft flying into France, and into history, began taking off from the Royal Air Force base at Harwell, headquarters of the Sixth British Airborne Division, at 11:03 p.m. Over the next few minutes, 13 more planes left, precise to the second. It was June 5, 1944, one hour before D-Day.

The planes were carrying paratroopers or pulling gliders behind them. Their mission was to drop men and materials into Normandy, to protect the eastern flank of the marine invasion that would come at dawn. Once on the ground, the men would destroy German artillery and capture or blow up bridges to block German reinforcements from joining the battle.

Among the men smoking and pacing through the night in Harwell was Wheatley. He had come to watch the liberation of Europe begin. He had wanted to go with the pilots into France, to watch his deception play out in action, but he was barred. His superiors decided that he knew too much.

So he watched.

At 2:15 a.m, the first pilots out began arriving back at Harwell. One by one they came to the briefing room to give their report to the base commanders. The first pilot said that all had gone smoothly. They had dropped their paratroopers right on the mark. “No flak, nothing to see, no excitement,” the pilot said. “It might have been just one of the practice night droppings.” The pilot seemed disappointed that no one had bothered to shoot at him: He had spearheaded the invasion of Normandy, and it felt like nothing.

Wheatley was jubilant at the pilot’s report. We have achieved the dream of all commanders, Wheatley thought to himself: complete tactical surprise.

Over the course of D-Day, 160,000 Allied troops landed in France. The German Seventh Army, stationed in Normandy, had not gone on alert. General Erwin Rommel, commander of the German forces on the Channel coast, was on leave to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Hitler’s men believed the news of Normandy landings insufficient to wake the Führer until 10 a.m. on June 6, nearly 10 hours after the airborne infiltration and three and a half hours after the marine assault had begun.

Allied soldiers faced deadly opposition, especially on Omaha Beach, which was defended by the Germans’ best division in northwestern France. But no troops had been sent to reinforce them for a sustained assault. The invasion was a complete surprise.

Hitler held steadfast to his belief that Normandy was a feint. By mid-July, the Allies had brought 30 divisions ashore in Normandy, but there were still 22 German divisions sitting in Pas de Calais, waiting for General Patton and the “real” invasion. Hitler did not begin to release them until July 27.

The British use of strategic deception had no precedent in military history; Wingate, the historian, called it “almost a new weapon.” It won the war. June 6, 1944 was Armageddon. London Control had ensured that only one side showed up.

Coming to a halt, Gregory waved the torch from side to side, then shone it into the impenetrable murk ahead. What they saw filled them with consternation. There was not a ripple on the water but it stretched from one side of the tunnel to the other and as far before them as the beam of light carried. Apparently, unless they were prepared to swim, it barred their further progress completely, and in its absolute stillness there was something vaguely menacing.Gregory flicked the torch out. Instantly the darkness closed in upon them like a pall.

Traitor’s Gate, 1958

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11. The Legacy

Dennis Wheatley’s World War II ended on December 22, 1944. He had spent three years as a deceiver. The war was largely won by then, and the most important deception was emerging from General Eisenhower’s headquarters in France.

Paper, like everything else, had been rationed during the war, so Wheatley’s books were not being reprinted. And as he had never been good at living within his means, particularly the means of an air force wing commander, Wheatley asked to go home and back to his writing.

A spy story would have been the obvious choice when Wheatley returned to his craft. After all, Gregory Sallust’s activities had stopped in 1941, and he had the rest of the war to win. But there was a problem: By now, Wheatley knew too much fact to safely write spy fiction; the Official Secrets Act loomed. Instead, he turned one of the more eccentric schemes of his war papers—a convoy of log rafts sailing the Gulf Stream—into fiction. It was a book about two people whose raft drifts down to Antarctica. He entitled it The Man Who Missed the War. The Sallust series resumed in 1946; in three  more books, Sallust saves the Soviet Union and, later, infiltrates Hitler’s bunker to convince the Führer to commit suicide.

Sallust’s lasting influence can be seen in the career of his true heir, James Bond. In 1953, Ian Fleming, Wheatley’s Naval Intelligence colleague, published Casino Royale, his first novel.

Although Bond lives on, he and Gregory Sallust seem like emissaries from the past. Today, the world of spy fiction—a world defined largely by John le Carré—is one of moral relativism and shades of gray, populated by weary men weighed down by existential doubt. Sallust and Bond, by contrast, are the debonair, ruthless, elegant, steely connoisseurs of luxurious goods and luxurious women. They are called in the most dangerous times; the most pivotal events turn around them. Their world is black and white, good vs. evil.

It is a caricature—but one that also describes the world of Sallust’s creator. Wheatley’s world, too, was black and white, good vs. evil. He was part of a small group of men who had a hand in nearly everything that mattered. Some of the deception coups Wheatley worked on—in a major role for the invasion of North Africa, as part of a larger group for D-Day—were as remarkable as anything he could dream up for Sallust. The espionage of Gregory Sallust did not stand the test of time. Only the espionage of Dennis Wheatley endures. 

The Accidental Terrorist

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The Accidental Terrorist

A California accountant’s coup d’etat.

By Adam Piore

The Atavist Magazine, No. 14


Adam Piore is a former Newsweek general editor. He spent a year and a half in Cambodia in the late 1990s reporting for the Cambodia Daily, the Boston Globe, and the Baltimore Sun. A contributing editor to Discover, he has also written for a wide array of other publications, including Condé Nast Traveler,Mother JonesPlayboy, and Reader’s Digest.

Editor: Alissa Quart
Producers: Olivia Koski and Gray Beltran
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Special Thanks: Yasith Chhun and his family, and journalists Eric Pape, Kevin Doyle, Chris Decherd, Kimseng Men, Sara Diaz, and Nancy Kline

Published in April 2012. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter One

On the evening of February 12, 1999, a man made his way through the potholed streets near Phnom Penh’s sprawling Russian Market, a ramshackle conglomeration of tin-and-plastic-sheeted stalls propped up by flimsy wooden beams and stretching an entire city block. It was the height of the dry season, when the temperature settled just above 80 degrees and stayed there, a nice night to sit in one of the many open-air coffee shops or karaoke bars, order a cold can of Angkor beer for half an American dollar, and croon along with the latest hits from neighboring Thailand. The man approached an establishment popular with Phnom Penh’s Vietnamese population, filled with molded-plastic chairs clustered around cramped tables, and threw a grenade into the café. The explosion that followed sent furniture and people flying through the air.

The next morning, the incident appeared in all the local newspapers—a remarkable fact given that violence in the war-numbed capital was hardly rare and no one had died in the attack. It was not unheard-of for veterans to commit random acts of aggression, especially if they’d consumed excessive amounts of rice whiskey and lost a competition for a favored prostitute.

When two attackers lobbed another grenade into a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh on March 3, this time killing one person and injuring 17, a Ministry of Interior official dismissed it as a revenge attack with no political motive. It seemed a particularly plausible explanation that night because, in a separate incident, a 31-year-old man was shot in the head when he refused to hand over a karaoke microphone to five “would-be singers, suspected to be members of the military.”

Two days after, a rickety wooden shack was attacked in a residential neighborhood. Later that week, a video-game house and another karaoke bar were targeted.

On April 18, after receiving an anonymous tip about another potential attack, Phnom Penh police approached a grassy knoll along the Mekong River, passing wobbly canoe-like boats tied up along the muddy banks.

Five men clad in civilian clothes stood facing an oil storage depot. Large containers of gasoline rested on a riverbank behind locked metal gates. Owned by an ethnic Vietnamese friend and financial supporter of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, they contained potentially millions of gallons of highly flammable fuel. One of the five men held a powerful East German antitank weapon. He had been trying—for more than half an hour—to figure out how to fire it.

The police arrived just in time to thwart the attack and arrested all five men. Back at the police station, the men admitted that they belonged to an obscure revolutionary group. The next day, the name of the group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, was featured prominently in the newspaper. The leader of the group went by the code name the Thumb.

In reality, the Thumb was an affable, bespectacled California accountant, a cousin of one of the men arrested on the Mekong. His name was Yasith Chhun, and although he would later deny any involvement in these specific attacks, his struggle to launch a revolutionary movement in Cambodia would take him to the limits of American law—and possibly his own sanity. His unlikely journey from suburban climber to international dissident would come to embroil the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office, exposing the sometimes thin border between passionate politics and unhinged extremism. Chhun would become a man who ran the typical immigrant journey in reverse, unmaking the American dream he’d struggled to achieve.

Chapter Two

A year earlier, at the height of the tax season, dozens of people queued up in a parking lot in Long Beach, California, behind the CCC Accounting office. It was 8 a.m., and their aim was a visit with a tax preparer who sat inside, a man with puffy hair and a pen stuck in his shirt pocket.

Yasith Chhun liked to think of himself as more than just an accountant, and in a way he was. People told him their problems and brought him their green card applications. They had him translate American bureaucratese into Cambodian. They asked him what to do when their sons joined the local gang. Eventually, though, all of his visitors handed over their financials, looked across the desk at the Cambodian-American with the thick glasses and gold rings on his fingers, and asked if he could get them a refund.

At the end of tax season, Chhun found himself alone, boxed in by lonely rows of file cabinets stuffed with paper-clipped tax returns. His thoughts traveled back, as they often did, to his birthplace, and atrocious images of his homeland flashed through his mind. He’d shake his head and ask why, addressing the God he’d embraced in a refugee-camp baptism 16 years before. Why couldn’t the people back home have democracy, capitalism, and peace, like in his adopted country?

One afternoon at lunch, Chhun sat in his office watching the latest violence unfold in his native Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen had taken power in a bloody coup in July 1997: Tanks had rolled into the streets of Phnom Penh, and gun battles had raged for three days. The prime minister had recently held new elections, but they had been marred by bribes, voter intimidation, and killings. During the protests in the aftermath, four people had died, and scores more had been injured.

Watching the broadcast of these demonstrators being brutalized, Chhun was suddenly transported back in time. Memories of different oppressors, clad in the black pajamas of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge army, filled his mind. He remembered slaving with massive work crews, digging irrigation ditches, eating leaves and grasshoppers to fill his empty stomach. He thought of the skulls and bones he’d seen in a muddy pond where he’d stopped one scorching day for a drink of water. He flashed back to the murder of his father.

These thoughts stayed with him as he locked up his fluorescent-lit office, climbed into his white BMW 745i, and headed home to a two-story house on the other side of town. The images of violence intruded upon him that night as a waitress poured red wine in his glass and cut off bloody slabs of top sirloin at his table at Green Field Churrascaria, the barn-like Brazilian barbecue joint where he took his kids to eat on special occasions. After he returned home, those same thoughts kept him awake.

That night, the 42-year-old accountant made his decision, one he would later explain was inspired in part by Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the skirted William Wallace, face streaked with war paint, sword glinting in defiance as he charged English oppressors in the movie Braveheart. It was a choice that would enrage one of Asia’s longest serving strongmen, cause countless headaches for U.S. diplomats, and culminate in a pitched early-morning street battle on the other side of the globe.

Chhun decided that he would overthrow the Cambodian government.

Chapter Three

In the epic battle between good and evil that followed—at least from Chhun’s perspective—there was little question who played the villain. Prime Minister Hun Sen, then 45, was a former boy soldier and a consummate survivor, a chain-smoker with a glass eye. He was also a shrewd and ruthless leader who played chess in his spare time. His nation had endured some of the most cold-blooded brutality of the 20th century, and his regime was a fitting coda. Hun Sen himself had commanded an entire division under Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge. Several years after the Vietnamese invaded, he had risen, at 33, to become the world’s youngest prime minister.

Four years after Vietnam finally withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, Hun Sen’s political party lost a majority in UN-sponsored parliamentary elections. But he refused to relinquish power, instead reluctantly agreeing to share it with a “co–prime minister” from another faction. Despite the 1997 coup and the brutal elections, after which the government beat protestors, including saffron-clad monks, in the streets, international observers declared the results fair. Hun Sen’s grip on power had been legitimized.

It was a culture in which powerful officials behaved like gangsters: One of Hun Sen’s cronies shot out the tire of an airplane  after the carrier’s handlers had lost his luggage. Hun Sen’s wife was accused of ordering a hit team to gun down the prime minister’s mistress, a beloved karaoke star, in broad daylight while she shopped for a bicycle with her 7-year-old niece. No one was ever arrested.

In the fall of 1998, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a staunch anticommunist who’d worked in the Reagan White House, penned a resolution calling for the prosecution of Hun Sen for “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide” during the Pol Pot regime, even though no firm evidence had ever emerged linking Hun Sen to atrocities. He also accused Hun Sen of executing Cambodians during the post–Pol Pot Vietnamese occupation and of ordering a crackdown on unarmed demonstrators, among other things. It passed unopposed.

Yasith Chhun, meanwhile, was busy preparing to take his own action against Hun Sen’s autocratic violence. While Hun Sen ruled from his military compound in Asia, Chhun mapped out his mutinous scheme, surrounded by stacks of 1040 federal tax forms in his Southern Californian accounting office. The business was located on a busy commercial thoroughfare anchoring a strip mall in a family-oriented neighborhood filled with ambitious Cambodian immigrants. Down the street was Willard Elementary, with its orange jungle gym and swing sets, where Chhun had sent several of his children to be educated.

Chhun had written letters to American politicians complaining about Hun Sen, from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to members of Congress. Nobody wrote back. He’d tried protest, traveling to Cambodia and participating in at least 11 opposition-party demonstrations. The day after he’d left the last one, the prime minister’s goons had heaved grenades into the crowd, killing 16 and wounding more than a hundred.

Given all the bloodshed, Chhun figured that rounding up some revolutionaries wouldn’t be too difficult. He’d get Cambodian exiles to bankroll his revolution. His liberation movement would stage a series of small-scale “popcorn” actions, as he called them, that would touch off an eruption of revolutionary fervor, sweeping Hun Sen from power and ushering in a new era in Cambodian history—democratic and American inspired. This eruption would have a name. He called it Operation Volcano.

Chhun shared his scheme with a local travel agent and a fellow accountant, both Cambodian immigrants. Like Chhun, his allies hated the Hun Sen regime. The trio often lunched together. The travel agent would become the first CFF secretary general; the accountant, its international treasurer.

All three hit the phones to recruit other Cambodian-American exiles. They were fishing in a well-stocked pond. More than 130,000 Cambodians had been resettled in the United States between 1975 and 1985 alone. As the end of the century approached, some reports estimated that the Cambodian community was as large as 500,000. Long Beach was home to the largest Cambodian population outside Asia. Many were haunted by trauma and survivor’s guilt. As a former Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese puppet, and brutal strongman, Hun Sen was an easy man to blame.

By the fall of 1998, when Chhun and his aging assistants flew to Thailand to begin building their army, they had scores of phone numbers of potential recruits, provided by U.S.-based sympathizers with contacts back home. They carried boxes of a CFF book, penned by Chhun, titled Psychological Military Strategies, along with a laminating machine and a still camera to create IDs for recruits. They even brought along an official photographer. They had decided ahead of time that the visit would be historic. Just like Moses, Chhun believed he was answering the call to lead his people to freedom.

Chapter Four

Chhun was born in 1956, in a small city near the Thai-Cambodian border, around the same time the Cold War realists in Washington had begun planting the seeds of the Vietnam War. His family was wealthy by Cambodian standards, with their own tractor  and hundreds of acres of fertile farmland.

By the time Chhun was a teenager, in 1970, the Vietnam War had arrived in once neutral Cambodia. That year, a U.S.-backed general overthrew Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk in a putsch, and the U.S. Army invaded. The toppling of the nation’s beloved monarch outraged many poor Cambodians and dramatically broadened the appeal of radical Maoist Khmer Rouge revolutionaries. Catastrophic U.S. carpet bombing didn’t help matters, either. But Chhun’s father considered the rebels dangerous. Throughout Chhun’s childhood, his father had spoken often about the wonders of democracy and condemned communism. Now he took Chhun to his first pro-government protests. Whenever he learned that revolutionaries had arrived in his native village, the elder Chhun did all he could to keep government soldiers apprised of their dispositions and activities.

On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Overnight, Cambodia became a blank spot on the map, sealed off from the rest of the world. Their leader, Pol Pot, carried out a radical plan to transform the country into a collectivist agrarian utopia.

The executions had already started when Chhun and his family joined the sad exodus of Cambodians driven out of the city by Pol Pot’s army, clogging the roads as they dragged what belongings they could manage. During that long march to the rural farmlands, Chhun caught his first sight of corpses in the distance, left to rot in the fields. Then he spotted bodies in ditches alongside the dusty roads, bloated and covered with a thin sheen of dirt, emitting the smell of decay. Overcome, he vomited.

“Mao Zedong’s genocide has begun in Cambodia,” his father told him in a soft, somber voice. “We will face the same fate. It’s just a matter of time before this happens to us.”

On a hot day in 1977, at the height of the dry season, Chhun was bathing in a river near his house when he heard his mother scream. He ran back to find her unconscious, covered in blood. She was lying atop his father’s lifeless body. Nearby, a group of 12 soldiers stood glaring. His father’s head was almost totally severed, attached to his body by a thin piece of flesh.

“Are you his son?” One of the soldiers demanded.

“No… no… no,” Chhun said. “I am a neighbor.”

“If you are his son, I will cut off your head, too,” the soldier said. “This man is CIA. He is our enemy.”

After the soldiers left, Chhun picked up his mother and shook her until she opened her eyes. When she revived she began wailing, and Chhun felt like “a million needles were penetrating my heart with very poisonous venom.” He wrapped his father’s bloody body in a blanket, dragged him 300 feet from the hut, and buried him under an old mango tree. Chhun’s mother wept day and night for weeks. The rest of his life, Chhun would be haunted by the thought that his father could have avoided execution had he not chosen to return to an area where his sympathy with the U.S. government was well-known. Some of their town’s inhabitants, he was certain, had sold his father out.

Several months later, three soldiers from a nearby Khmer Rouge youth camp came for Chhun and took him away to work. In the months that followed, he slaved under the hot sun for more than 12 hours a day, supplementing the rice gruel provided him twice a day with insects, snakes, rats, mice, and grasshoppers. Sometimes he was so hungry he ate banana roots and leaves to fill his stomach. But, despite his hunger, he could never rest, as soldiers sometimes beat people to death with sticks or set upon fellow workers in full view of others, suffocating them with a plastic bag. Far more often, however, people simply disappeared, never to return.

On Christmas day, 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, and by January 8 it had driven the Khmer Rouge—weakened by internal purges and famine—into the jungle. During the calamitous three-year period of Khmer rule, as many as 2 million of Cambodia’s population of 8 million had died of starvation, disease, or murder. Chhun was one of the lucky survivors. But his nightmare was not over. Khmer Rouge soldiers shackled Chhun’s ankle to the tripod of a giant machine gun and forced him to help carry it through the jungles to the front lines. He was then coerced under enemy fire to drag a cannon across a fallow field into the range of the Vietnamese and fire it at distant soldiers. He was sent to clear minefields and taught to spring ambushes. And slowly he was converted into an anti-Vietnamese guerrilla fighter. To resist meant execution or exile into a jungle filled with mines and starvation.

One day the following spring, Chhun was with a group of soldiers, hiding out in the jungle, when local villagers wandered down a trail. One of them was an agent working for another, noncommunist guerilla group. He told Chhun of a secret camp located 60 miles south, near the mountains. Soon after, Chhun slipped away, to make the perilous journey through occupied territory to the border. When he arrived, Chhun was promoted to captain, and, he says, he “openly declared myself a freedom fighter against communists.” From there he eventually moved on to a United Nations refugee camp, where his path to liberation began.

He arrived in Georgia in 1982, his English still formal and new, with a wife he’d met in a refugee camp and a baby girl in tow. He quickly embraced the American lifestyle. He worked at what he called a salad factory, chopping vegetables, and purchased an old Chevrolet for $500 with his first paycheck. He discovered a passion for American movies—he enjoyed Star Wars and action flicks.

Eventually, he moved to California and started delivering pizzas. Then he traded up to a job in San Dimas, east of Los Angeles, manufacturing police badges. At night he earned his GED and, in time, his accounting license.

Along the way, Chhun divorced his wife and quickly took up with a new woman, whom he met on a neighboring treadmill at the local branch of Bally Total Fitness. She was named Sras Pech, had full lips, and proved willing to put in long hours in his tax business.

By  the late 1990s, Chhun had a total of four unofficial spouses—a practice frowned upon in much of Cambodia but not unheard of in the countryside—and 10 children who relied on him. One night he was spotted dining with his “wives” and many of his children at an In–N-Out Burger, sparking gossip in Long Beach’s sometimes chatty Cambodian community that has yet to die down. As Chhun later explained it, “I am a polygamist, but none of them are married to me legally. I married them with my heart certificate. It’s between me and God.”

Chhun was proud of all he had achieved. He had given his kids a family life that was sunny and American: They played volleyball, jogged on the beach, and played the racing video game Gran Turismo together. But he couldn’t quite shake the past. Despite his pleasant existence in Long Beach, he was haunted by his former life. As a result, he began to develop fantasies of righting the wrongs he had suffered. He started to see himself as Cambodia’s George Washington. 

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Chapter Five

In 1998, Chhun and his compatriots set up their revolutionary headquarters in the border province of Aranyaprathet, Thailand, where a friend’s stepbrother had rented them a two-story house. It was just a mile and a half from Cambodia’s busiest border crossing and not far from neon green rice fields. It was also close to the refugee camp where Chhun had lived before moving to the U.S..

The house became a kind of revolutionary magnet. Veterans of several disparate armies came to meet Chhun there, including Khmer Rouge, the Royalist faction deposed in the 1997 coup, and Hun Sen’s own soldiers. Over the course of the previous year, Hun Sen had cut a deal with the prince he’d overthrown and had lured back many of his troops in subordinate positions; Chhun was certain that many remained disgruntled. (He wondered out loud how Hun Sen’s former troops could not see that the leader intended to “squeeze their necks like sugarcane and throw them away.”)

Most of the would-be revolutionary soldiers arrived by bicycle taxi, traveling over a bridge connecting a Cambodian border town to Chhun’s headquarters in Thailand. When the taxis pulled away from the house, Chhun emerged to greet them as if they were his best tax clients. He’d sit them down in front of four electric fans—one in each corner of the room—and hand them cold glasses of water. Then he made his pitch for a new Cambodia. He always sent the soldiers back loaded down with pamphlets. He welcomed these would-be conscripts all day long. Chhun assigned his recruits code names straight out of a Hollywood thriller. There was Tiger 1, White Snake, Black Cat, and Golden Eagle—animal names were popular, turning the insurgents into a veritable menagerie—as well as 77 and Magic Monk.

For himself, Chhun chose the code name Meday, the Cambodian word for “thumb,” because “the thumb is the most important among all fingers,” he’d put it. “Without a thumb, the other fingers cannot grasp anything firmly.”

In October, after weeks of meet-and-greets, Chhun called his recruits back for a special conference. It was a sweltering day even with the doors and windows open, and Chhun’s shirt was soon soaked through with sweat. He practiced his speech for half an hour as he waited for the soldiers to arrive. Standing at the front of the room, electric fans in each corner, and gripping a microphone, he surveyed a crowd of between 50 and 100 recruits. These commanders formed the backbone of his army, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters.

The revolution would comply with the Geneva Convention, Chhun decreed. It would be supported by a nonprofit corporation formed in the United States, registered legally with the secretary of state of California, where its headquarters were located. Chhun vowed to return to the United States to prepare for the new government, which, he told them, had the support of the U.S. Congress. The house burst into applause.

A few months later, in early 1999, the mysterious grenade attacks ripped through the capital city of Phnom Penh, culminating with the April arrest of those five Cambodian Freedom Fighters caught preparing to blow up fuel tanks. Chhun later denied responsibility for the attacks, but they sent a clear message nevertheless: The revolution had begun.

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Chapter Six

The FBI first paid a visit to Chhun’s East Long Beach offices in September 1999. An agent from the bureau, accompanied by a member of the U.S. Secret Service, arrived to determine whether Chhun had any plans to assassinate Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was set to arrive in New York City and address the United Nations General Assembly.

In the months since he’d returned from Thailand, Chhun’s accounting office had been transformed. He’d tacked up a map of the Thai-Cambodian border and painted a huge  bald eagle, wings spread wide, on the wall above his computer. On the PC tower next to the monitor, Chhun placed a smaller bronze eagle mounted on polished wood. He also hung color photographs of himself in military fatigues holding a weapon and posing with various commanders in the jungle. The centerpiece was the official flag of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters. He’d designed it himself: It contained the American and Cambodian flags, and the crest was in the shape of a police shield.

Chhun talked to the FBI and Secret Service agents about Cambodian politics. He waved his hands and spoke rapidly, with growing energy, about injustice and the need for change. He acknowledged that he and 10 others intended to go to New York City to protest Hun Sen; he said he expected to be joined by as many as 100 more. He told the agent that, yes, he founded CFF to overthrow the government of Hun Sen. It was to be a peaceful overthrow, he claimed.

When the agent asked if Chhun knew of the soldiers reportedly encamped on the border of Thailand, training possible revolutionaries, he denied ever having met any. When she asked about the April rocket attack, Chhun’s excited demeanor suddenly became subdued. He acknowledged that he had read about the failed attack, but he insisted that the German weapons used were very expensive. “We couldn’t afford weapons like that,” he said. Hun Sen was claiming that the CFF was involved with the attacks, Chhun added, but it was a lie.

The FBI agent still found cause for suspicion. As she and her Secret Service colleague were walking out the door, they spotted the photographs of Chhun in civilian clothing standing with fatigue-clad soldiers in the jungle. They asked him whether those were the troops on the border that he had just denied having contact with. He acknowledged that they were. But he still insisted he was nonviolent.

The agents didn’t believe Chhun was telling the whole truth. Back at the local FBI headquarters, they filed a report on their suspicious interview with Chhun. But they had no hard evidence that he was doing anything other than exercising his First Amendment rights.

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Chapter Seven

On and off throughout 1999 and 2000, Chhun went on the road to raise money and line up recruits, hopscotching across the United States like a presidential candidate on the campaign trail. “We have plenty of freedom here,” he would tell potential donors and recruits. “Butterflies should not forget what and where they come from. Wake up, Cambodian-Americans!”

To inspire his supporters, he held weekly meetings where he played clips from American movies—Saving Private Ryan for its portrayal of valor, Braveheart for its heroism, A Few Good Men because the line “you can’t handle the truth” conveyed, he thought, the ruthless nature of doing one’s duty. Chhun sometimes attended these screenings in military fatigues and tunic. He encouraged others to do the same.

Chhun had also received inspiration from the DreamWorks cartoon The Prince of Egypt. When Chhun watched the cruel cartoon Egyptians beating the Jewish slaves, he couldn’t help but see parallels to his own struggle. He was spellbound when cartoon Moses accepted his role as the savior of his people and faced down the ruthless Pharaoh Ramses. By the time God parted the Red Sea and Moses finally led the Jews to liberation, Chhun was weeping. He was certain God was sending him another message: that he was meant to liberate his people.

In May, Chhun summoned CFF delegates from around the nation to the Queen Mary, a luxury liner that had been converted into a hotel and convention center and permanently moored in Long Beach’s harbor. When Chhun heard cheers and enthusiasm from his audience, he started to think of himself not only as Moses but also as John F. Kennedy. (He also claimed he received more than $200,000 from the eager émigrés at the event.)

He met with his “cabinet” to hash out a new Cambodian constitution, with three branches of government—legislative, judicial, and executive, just like the United States—and reform its politicized judiciary, pliant National Assembly, and oppressive prime minister’s office. Chhun and his CFF delegates decreed that if their party came to power, politicians would be required to declare their assets and any stock ownership prior to taking office. They would try to prevent the prostitution and sex trafficking endemic in Cambodia. They would push through anti-infant-mortality initiatives and establish national institutes for language and technologies.

Economic development and smart trade policies would help pay for their plans. But there would be plenty of international aid, too: Almost every year since 1993, the international community had pledged some $500 million in aid, a substantial portion of Cambodia’s gross domestic product. Much of it, Chhun and his cohorts believed, had been plundered by corrupt public officials. Besides, he figured, once he established an American-style democracy, the United States would be eager to contribute.

Chhun kept in regular contact with his military commanders back in Cambodia, keeping apprised of recruitment and training. He knew he had to go back and launch Operation Volcano.

As Chhun’s mother and Sras Pech, one of his wives, prepared to send him on his travels, the mood was somber. No one in his family wanted him to go. But Chhun was resolute.

Chhun’s destination was a three-bedroom French colonial house just across the border from Cambodia in Surin, Thailand. It had a huge four-car garage—perfect for storing equipment. And it was located off the main road, with its own dirt path shielding it from view.

Given the reports he was receiving from his commanders and secret agents in Cambodia, Chhun thought he had nearly enough recruits. Now he prepared to take the final steps toward unleashing Operation Volcano. He installed a computer network to store military data, syncing it with a trusted agent inside Cambodia—a Cambodian-American electronics engineer from Oregon with the code name Magic Monk. It was also synced with his Long Beach accounting office, so he could keep up with his tax work.

He began to distribute the $200,000 from the treasury to pay for radio equipment, cell phones, transportation, food, and computer and office supplies. Much of the money went to the commanders of his army, who, he believed, would use it to pay their soldiers. The more soldiers they recruited, the more money he paid them.

Finally, he set a date—the volcano would erupt in late July.

A June 28 memo to Commander in Chief Chhun from one of his deputies reported a frenzy of activity across the border. Two special agents were working on renting houses in Phnom Penh, to be used in the operation, and reported that they were ready to deliver “50 more” missiles and the materials needed to fire them. They were also stoking popular discontent with small-scale popcorn actions. A team of CFF special agents had detonated a grenade loaded into a plastic container filled with gasoline—the cable assured him he would read about it in the papers—and two more attacks were scheduled.

Chhun kept his cabinet and supporters back home informed about his activities, faxing reports in which he claimed to have met with various Cambodian generals and received more assurances of support. In one, he compared his coming effort in Cambodia to that of General Douglas MacArthur liberating the Philippines in World War II.

Around that time, a Green Beret–trained Cambodian-American named Heng Tek from Alexandria, Virginia, decided to travel to CFF headquarters in Thailand and then proceed across the border into Cambodia to see how the movement was developing. An executive chef by day, Tek had been working as Chhun’s nominal military adviser. When Tek arrived, he saw that things were starting to fall apart. As far as he could tell, nobody in the provinces he visited had even heard of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters. The number of CFF forces the adviser had been able to confirm was far from the 16,000 troops Chhun estimated. Tek couldn’t even find 1,000 people ready to fight. Some commanders, the adviser concluded, were just interested in taking Chhun’s money. Others might participate if things looked like they would go well. They were likely, however, to sit on the sidelines during the crucial early hours, waiting to see what the outcome of a revolt would be.

There were two possible outcomes to Chhun’s plan: overthrow of the government, or the CFF crushed under the heel of the regime. Tek thought he knew which was more likely. Launching Operation Volcano, he warned, would prove calamitous. “You better go back to the United States,” he told Chhun.

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Chapter Eight

Chhun’s face, Tek would later recall, went pale and then reddened. “I came here to do my job,” Chhun told him, rejecting his suggestion. Then he derided the adviser as a “dishwasher”—a grave insult to an executive chef. Tek returned home alone, where he promptly shared his findings with Chhun’s Long Beach board.

Three of Chhun’s most crucial co-revolutionaries promptly resigned, including the travel agent and the accountant buddies who’d been among his first recruits.

Chhun decided to delay the coup for a few months. Then on July 10, he sent a fax to several of his men. “Our ship is ready to hit the bank,” he wrote. “Some weak leaders got more scared and worried since the war is about to explode. Our soldiers here don’t care how U.S. leaders are reacting, since they are the ones that do the fight to liberate our country. We need more tiger style leaders and not chicken ones.”

The next day, two Vietnamese were killed and 15 were injured when someone bombed a Phnom Penh nightclub.

Soon other problems emerged. Golden Eagle, the code name for CFF’s vice president—the man responsible for recruiting the organization’s troops—announced that he needed more than $100 million to carry out the military operation. It was a questionable request, and in any case Chhun didn’t have $100 million. The vice president resigned. Meanwhile the CFF’s treasury had depleted. Chhun says he asked Pech to wire him $100,000.           

At the same time, he drew up a military operations plan that drew on guerrilla tactics. CFF loyalists would pretend to be government troops and raise white flags of surrender. All announcements would be conveyed by screaming or through loudspeakers to confuse enemy troops.

Operation Volcano was rescheduled for November. A week prior to the attack, Chhun summoned some 30 commanders to Thailand to go over final details. They were assigned 291 targets. The commanders were given CFF flags with the signature police-badge crest and bald eagle and told to hoist them over captured buildings.

The plan was that 800 soldiers would wait on the Cambodia side of the border to convey President Chhun to Phnom Penh, where he would remain in a secret location, ready to direct the attacks. He would be accompanied at the headquarters by his trusted aide Magic Monk.

At the appointed hour, four commanders would move their units from their positions to take up the attack, securing targets across the capital city, including the ministries of Interior and Defense, army garrisons, and weapons depots, as well as television and radio facilities, Hun Sen’s personal residence, and many other smaller targets. One commander would later recall leaving the meeting certain that an army of 40,000 stood ready to rise up.

Chhun called Black Eagle, a captain of the weapons arsenal who had agreed to covertly arm the troops.

“It’s almost time to cook,” he said. “Are you ready to give us some ingredients?”

“Yes,” came the reply.

Operation Volcano was a go. 

Chapter Nine

After months of preparation and a frenetic day spent arming troops and testing communications equipment, Magic Monk took up a position on a roof in the center of town. He had received the disappointing news earlier that day that President Chhun wouldn’t be arriving until after the battle. (The reason for his absence was unclear.)

As midnight approached, he anxiously watched the seconds tick down. Then, when the clock struck 12, he waited expectantly for the telltale gunfire or an explosion signaling that the coup had started.

Nothing happened.

In the minutes that followed, he tried to contact his ground commanders. He managed to reach one briefly, but before he could get a situation report he lost the connection. He tried others but got no answer.

Finally, he reached a commander named An Mow, a lean, dark-skinned Khmer in his late twenties code-named Tiger 1. Mow had set up his headquarters near the Ministry of Interior, and he too was perplexed by the lack of action. He had called his subordinate commanders in Phnom Penh and the provinces just before midnight, and they had all assured him they were ready to go. His subcommanders had told him that he had 3,000 soldiers ready to take up arms. What were they doing? The problem, the electronics engineer and Mow decided after much discussion, was that nobody wanted to go first. Mow would have to start the attack himself.

Mow proceeded to a vast encampment of homeless squatters in the rail yards behind Phnom Penh’s Art Deco railway station, the hiding place for a contingent of between 50 and 100 men who had agreed to join the attack. They wore flip-flops and headbands dyed in the orange saffron of Cambodian monks. Some had donned T-shirts emblazoned with an American eagle and the words “Cambodian Freedom Fighters.” They held CFF flags, and they appeared to be drunk on rice wine. All they needed was a little push.

Mow gathered the men together, ordering homeless people who wandered over to leave the area or “go back to sleep.” Then he led his men out of the camp and gave them weapons. Sometime after 1 a.m., heavily armed with semiautomatic rifles and grenades, they broke into the shuttered train station and readied themselves for war.

Key targets—the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Defense, the state television station TV3—lay just a couple of blocks away on Russian Federation Boulevard, a wide, four-lane concourse separated by a grassy median dotted with palm trees. To get there, all Mow had to do was exit the train station, lead his men about a block past a gas station, and then charge down the thoroughfare.

It was raining and dark outside as Mow ordered the first of his men to head into the street. Outside, a Cambodian National Police commander sitting in the cabin of a truck spotted the first man hopping over the fence as his team patrolled near the train station. Five others wearing orange headbands were right behind him. The police commander concluded that the men were probably chasing a thief and ordered his driver to approach and offer a hand.

“Brother,” shouted one of his officers, hopping off the truck, “what is happening?”

“The Vietnamese are coming!” one of the men in the headbands shouted to his fellow CFFers.

A soldier tossed a grenade, and the others fired their weapons. Thirty to forty more men surged over the fence and lit up the truck with gunfire and grenades. The police commander slumped on the dashboard and played dead. Several other police officers were struck with shrapnel and bullets and fell bleeding to the ground.

Around the corner at a gas station, an unarmed security guard was eating a sandwich and reading the newspaper when he spotted men in headbands emerging from another entrance. One of them approached, pointed his gun, and said, “Stay still, I’m going to shoot you.”

“I am a private security guard,” the man responded. “I don’t have a weapon.”

When the gunfire rang out down the street, the soldier shot the security guard in the leg, tossed a grenade, and walked away.

Mow was still in the train station when the air outside convulsed with explosions and the rat-tat-tat of AK-47’s and M-16’s suddenly opening up at once. He charged out the exit and spotted the bullet-riddled police truck and officers bleeding on the ground. Some were screaming for help.

“Stop firing!” he yelled as he approached a police officer cowering behind the truck.

Mow ordered his men to continue on toward the boulevard and had others help him move quickly among the wounded policemen, taking their weapons. One police officer saw the CFF soldiers approach him trying to take his rifle as he lay bleeding on the back of the truck. “I’m Cambodian police,” he said. He attempted to crawl away, but the man threw another grenade at him. It blew off part of his foot.

Mow’s men had turned onto Russian Boulevard and encountered the first government troops. As Mow ran to the front, several of his men were struck by bullets and thrown backward. Lying on the ground, they screamed for help. Mow fired into the dark, aiming for the muzzle flashes down the road. He was having trouble seeing the government soldiers ahead. But from the flashes it was clear that they were up against at least 20 men and perhaps many more. The government soldiers were ready—it was as though they had been waiting for the freedom fighters. One after another, Mow’s men were hit. He ordered them carried back from the firing line. Then he and his men advanced toward the entrance to the Ministry of Defense as continuous volleys of gunfire raged for almost two hours, according to Mow.

Then Mow heard a chilling sound in the distance, the clanking rumble of an approaching armored vehicle. Soon, two Russian-made personnel carriers rolled into the middle of Russian Federation Boulevard, turned their turrets toward Mow’s cowering force, and fired four machine guns capable of unleashing 600 rounds of armor-piercing bullets per minute. The bullets pounded into the Council of Ministers and Ministry of Development buildings, ripping chunks out of the walls, and tore into several CFF soldiers.

Soon after, in what some later dismissed as a bald publicity stunt, Phnom Penh’s governor drove his armor-plated Chevrolet into the middle of the boulevard, headed straight for the cowering attackers, and shouted, “I’m taking back my town!” (According to later reports, he had received word of the impending attack at least three days before.) Mow called his commanders together and quickly ordered a retreat to the railway station. He collected the rifles from the soldiers around them, threw them on a pile, and told them to flee. Then he sat down on the pile and waited to be arrested.

A small group of men had also charged a base on the outskirts of town, about four miles from the site of An Mow’s assault on the Ministry of Defense. One reporter who later visited the site recalls being told that the defenders had advance warning and that the attackers had been quickly repelled. According to the reporter, there hadn’t been more than five people firing their weapons.

Chhun was nowhere on the scene. He’d stayed in Thailand through the entire would-be revolution. “Our hopes,” Chhun remembers telling those gathered around him in his Thai headquarters, “have melted away.” He then called whatever commanders he could reach and told them to melt away.

At least seven people were killed and 12 wounded in the attacks that night. Though Chhun’s electronics engineer had briefly made radio contact with one commander, the connection had dropped before he could determine whether he, too, was attacking. The two small-scale insurrections launched by Mow and his men were the only ones carried out that night. It was not Washington’s Potomac. It was, as one journalist wrote, “pathetic.”

Chapter Ten

As news of the bizarre events that night filtered out, journalists, political analysts, and diplomats in Phnom Penh were immediately cynical. Who were the Cambodian Freedom Fighters? Were they even real? Truckloads of CFF soldiers were driven to the Municipal Police headquarters, bound, and blindfolded—they all looked like clueless farmers from the provinces. Some said they had been offered a few dollars to hold a gun. And though the bullet holes were certainly real, by the standards of Phnom Penh’s battle-hardened press, NGO, and diplomatic communities, the attacks of November 24, 2000, were laughable. Even harmless. One diplomat referred to the CFF as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

The diplomatic repercussions, however, were immediate. Within hours, Hun Sen had accused the CFF of orchestrating a terrorist assault on government offices, revealed that his government had had advance knowledge of the plan, and demanded that the U.S. arrest Yasith Chhun.

To the sleep-deprived diplomatic staff at the U.S. Embassy, the news that the attack appeared to have been orchestrated by an accountant from California came as a shock. They had been woken up in the middle of the night and conveyed straight to a secure situation room to monitor the unfolding events, focusing on ensuring the safety of American expatriates.

“Oh, my God. An accountant in L.A.?” one diplomat remembers saying. “No shit? This is amazing!”

Some in the diplomatic corps requested American authorities investigate the matter to determine whether any U.S. laws had been broken. Conspiracy theories circulated. Hun Sen had been under increasing pressure by the international aid community to slash the size of his military budget. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy had been gaining support among the populace. Could the coup have been a staged event intended to serve as a pretext for more military funding and a violent crackdown on nonviolent opposition groups? Or had the group somehow been co-opted by secret agents and manipulated into a fiasco?

The morning after the attack, Chhun received a call from one of his missing commanders in Phnom Penh: He and some of his team had fled through the Cambodian border crossing at Koh Kong to Thailand, the commander said. They needed help. Chhun sent a truck to pick them up.

An hour later the phone rang again. Now it was one of Chhun’s special agents with devastating news. The electronics engineer from Oregon had tried to catch a flight to Thailand out of Cambodia’s Siem Reap Airport and had been arrested. Reports of other arrests soon poured in. As Chhun began to piece together the events of the previous night, he realized that not only had the government been ready and waiting at the locations targeted by An Mow and his troops, they also had the names of those involved in the CFF and were rounding them up one by one. Within 24 hours, the government had arrested at least 58 of his men.

Then, just as Chhun was planning to flee to Bangkok, one of his secret agents called: The government had supposedly placed a $3 million bounty on Chhun’s head. Soon after his cell phone rang. It was a call from a prominent genocide researcher in London, phoning on behalf of Amnesty International, who had obtained Chhun’s cell-phone number from his Long Beach office.

“Your life is at risk,” Chhun recalls the human-rights researcher telling him. “If you fall into Hun Sen’s hands, your life is over.”

He told Chhun to find a safe place to hide.

Others warned Chhun that if he attempted to escape through the Bangkok airport, he would be arrested immediately. He would have to go overland to Malaysia instead and catch a flight back to the United States from there. They advised him to wait until Thailand’s elections, more than a month away, when much of the country would be distracted.

Chhun’s nephew lived in Bangkok, and Chhun hid out at his apartment with ten other CFF delegates, all of them from the United States. They called Chhun’s accounting office in Long Beach daily to keep up with the latest developments. Sras Pech tried to lift Chhun’s spirits, assuring him that she supported him and had their business under control. She continued to wire him money.

Meanwhile, a Cambodian-American jewelry-store owner who lived in suburban Virginia took to the podium at a National Press Club event in Washington and publicly claimed responsibility for the CFF attack.

Around the same time, Chhun rented a taxi and took a six-hour drive to the Thai and Malaysian border. He handed his passport to the customs officer and waited anxiously as the official entered his information into a computer. Chhun tried to read the screen over his shoulder: In his anxiety, he forgot he knew no Thai. Chhun’s tourist visa had expired some 40 days earlier, but he was ready. He handed over a stack of 16,000 baht—about $520—and the agent stamped his passport. Chhun walked about 100 yards before he heard a commotion behind him.

“Chhun Yasith! Chhun Yasith!” someone screamed.

A chill ran down Chhun’s spine, but he sped up and did not look back, willing himself through the Malaysian customs booth and out of reach of Thai agents. Then he caught a taxi to Kuala Lumpur Airport and flew back to L.A.

Chapter Eleven

Chhun was deeply depressed when he arrived home from Thailand. He didn’t eat for two days and kept telling Pech how sad he was. “He tended to believe only what he wanted to hear,” a psychiatrist would later write of Chhun. Chhun realized, in retrospect, that he was getting advice from “two different directions and that he tended to believe the individual who said that he had many thousands of soldiers behind him when he had only a few poorly armed soldiers.” Chhun recognized too late, wrote the psychiatrist, that “he used poor judgment.”

In the days following the attack, more than 200 people were arrested across Cambodia. Many were later released, but 32 were brought to trial the following June, charged with conspiracy, terrorism, and membership in an illegal armed group. Human rights organizations accused the Cambodian government of denying their new captives adequate counsel. Thirty citizens received sentences ranging from three years to life in prison. Three of Chhun’s captured recruits—including the electronics engineer and An Mow—received life sentences. Chhun was sentenced to life in absentia. When the verdicts were read, the wives of some of those sentenced wailed and fainted in the courtroom.

The following November, 25 more men were convicted, and 64 additional suspects were rounded up. Many of these Chhun had never heard of. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy told the L.A. Weekly that Yasith Chhun’s Operation Volcano was “the greatest gift to Hun Sen” because he was able to use it as an excuse to round up and incarcerate political opponents.

Despite these setbacks, Chhun, like many revolutionaries before him, was reenergized by the media attention. He listed his address and phone number in Long Beach on the CFF website and greeted visiting reporters as if they were old friends.

“We’re definitely going to try again,” he told one.

The U.S. government has “never given me a red light,” he said. “That means there’s a green light.”

Not long after, staffers for Thomas Reynolds, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, called and asked Chhun to raise money for them in the Cambodian community. He was appointed to the committee’s business advisory council. He attended a fundraising dinner for George W. Bush.

As the months passed without an arrest and Yasith Chhun continued to speak openly of revolution and prepare tax returns, many speculated that he was being protected from prosecution by powerful allies in Washington.

Two months after the failed coup, however, the FBI returned to Chhun’s office to interview him. The accountant seemed eager to talk and cheerfully welcomed them in. “I’ve been waiting for you guys to come talk with me,” he told Special Agent Donald Shannon, a tall, beefy former infantry officer assigned to the FBI’s joint terrorism task force.

“Well, we’ve been waiting to talk to you, too,” said Shannon.

Chhun appeared relaxed, dressed in a white-colored shirt, the top buttons undone, and casual business slacks. He led the agents to an office in the back, offered them soft drinks, and asked them to sit down. Then Chhun pulled out a stack of photographs. Some depicted Chhun in the jungle meeting with various commanders. One showed his companion Sras Pech wearing makeup and full camouflage, draped with bandoliers and holding a semiautomatic rifle while striking a sultry pose.

Chhun showed the agents the constitution he had drafted. He pulled out the medals he had ordered from his old employers in San Dimas to hand out to Cambodian Freedom Fighters worthy of recognition. He displayed pictures of his fundraisers on the Queen Mary, talked up the CFF website, and offered the agents a business card: “Yasith Chhun, President, Cambodian Freedom Fighters.”

Yes, he had hoped to overthrow the government, but in “a peaceful way to minimize loss of life,” he told them. He had simply told disgruntled commanders in the Cambodian army that America supported them and “would like to see Hun Sen overthrown.” He reminded the agents of Congressman Rohrbacher’s resolution that labeled Hun Sen a war criminal.

Shannon listened carefully, skeptical of Chhun’s account. He noticed the oversize military map of Cambodia on the wall behind Chhun’s big wooden desk, with notations in grease pencil. Planning a military attack from the U.S. against a nation with which the U.S. was at peace was a violation of the Neutrality Act, Shannon thought to himself. Launching an attack overseas with intent to kill and destroy property was also illegal.

Soon, a new garbage man showed up on the Long Beach Sanitation Department truck that arrived once a week to empty Chhun’s dumpster. He was an undercover FBI agent. Once a week, at four in the morning, a groggy team of agents waited at the city dump out by Long Beach Airport, rakes at the ready to comb through Chhun’s garbage. Chhun shared his dumpster with the Indian restaurant next door, which meant the agents had to plug their noses against the smell of rotting food, brush maggots off of the voluminous tax papers coming out of CCC Accounting, and stare down menacing seagulls voraciously eyeing the bounty. Often, after the agents finished the job of combing through the trash, Shannon would try to raise morale by offering to buy breakfast. He never got any takers.

One morning, the agents found a scrap of paper that made it all seem worthwhile. It read: “Volcano 2.” Chhun did, in fact, seem to be planning on trying again. They wondered if an attack was imminent.

On September 11, 2001, at 5:46 a.m.—8:46 Eastern time—Shannon and two other agents sat in a bland government sedan outside CCC Accounting’s office preparing to execute a search warrant. They were listening to the radio. The first plane hit the World Trade Center. A few minutes later the second plane hit, and Shannon knew the world was about to change. He called his boss immediately to ask if he should return to help deal with what was now clearly a terrorist situation.

“You might as well execute the warrant today,” his boss told him. “Who knows when we’ll be able to get back to it.”

Chhun arrived at work a couple of hours later to find his office cordoned off.

“Don, this is a very sad day for the CFF and Americans,” Chhun told Shannon outside. Shannon explained that he was executing a search warrant and told the  accountant to go home for the day.

The warrant turned up what would later prove to be a treasure trove of documents establishing Chhun’s deep involvement in the botched coup. But it would be months before anyone at the FBI would have time to devote their attention to the case again. The U.S. was at war with Al Qaeda. Shannon himself would be transferred to the FBI’s Washington headquarters in 2003.

Before he left, Shannon returned to Chhun’s office one last time, wearing a wire, to see if he could get the loquacious accountant to incriminate himself.

Chapter Twelve

On Shannon’s last visit, there were more pictures. Chhun had just returned from a White House dinner, where he had dined with President George W. Bush and some 7,500 other business supporters. The photos showed him eating filet mignon, seated with a police chief from Texas and a general who served in the Korean War.

Then Chhun answered a series of questions in ways that seemed to directly implicate him in the violation of a number of U.S. antiterrorism laws. He admitted to traveling to Thailand and devising a plan to overthrow the Cambodian government. He talked about his 291 targets, his plans to arrest Cambodian leaders. He acknowledged that his actions might have caused the loss of life. He mentioned George Washington.

When Shannon left for his new post in Washington, D.C., he believed that the assistant U.S. attorney was nearly ready to indict Chhun. But then the assistant U.S. attorney became seriously ill.

Almost a year later, Chhun was still a free man when a reporter from The New York Times arrived to write a story on him. During the visit, Chhun compared Hun Sen to Saddam Hussein, who had recently been removed by U.S. troops after years of vocal activism by Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi. (The reporter had also visited Representative Rohrabacher, who compared Hun Sen to Adolph Hitler. The congressman told the reporter that if armed resistance in Cambodia had any chance to win, “we should be happy” to aid them.)

When the reporter asked Chhun about the FBI investigation, he laughed. The FBI had visited his office three times since 2000, Chhun said. He told them he was planning more violence and showed them his files. They went away.

“Next time,” Chhun boasted, “We will attack the whole country.”

In the winter of 2005, however, Chhun’s file landed on the desk of assistant U.S. attorney Brian Hershman. Hershman looked the part of the successful, conservative American lawyer: Thick brown hair swept back off a high, pale forehead, cut high and tight around the ears. The curling, thin-lipped half-smile of a born skeptic. He’d grown up in St. Louis watching 1980s legal bellwether shows like L.A. Law and the movie The Verdict, graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley, then went on to Yale Law School. He was not the sentimental type, and he had little patience for lawbreakers.

“We want you to look at this,” the deputy chief of the fraud division told him one day as he dropped off Chhun’s file. What were the appropriate charges, and could the case be indicted? the deputy chief asked Hershman. The case was “important,” and the office was committed to providing whatever resources Hershman needed “to make sure it’s done appropriately.”

Hershman had never heard of the Yasith Chhun case before.

As Hershman dug into the files, he found the first allegation against Chhun relatively routine: The accountant and Pech had apparently been claiming earned-income tax credits for a number of unemployed clients on welfare, filling their forms with fictitious jobs. It was certainly an indictable offense and worthy of prosecution. But Hershman had seen antics like this many times before.

The other charges, though, got Hershman’s attention in a hurry: a coup d’état? In his 12-year career, Hershman had seen his share of violent cases, bank robberies, drug transactions, and other smaller crimes. Never anything as glamorous as this.

As Hershman dug into the bizarre case, he realized he would have to move fast. There was no statute of limitations on one of the possible charges: conspiracy to commit murder. But the clock was ticking on some of the others, particularly violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. He would have only a few months to reach his conclusion.

Hershman read the New York Times article “The Strip Mall Revolutionaries,” in which Chhun had all but confessed to the crime and boasted that the FBI supported him—an assertion the agents now assigned to the case had read with no small degree of shock. The article depicted Chhun as a hapless dreamer, not entirely in touch with reality but relatively harmless.

While Chhun’s actions might well have been criminal—that Hershman needed to determine—maybe, the agent thought, he was just misguided, making foolish decisions because he was a true believer in democracy in Cambodia.

A few weeks later, Hershman began to interview witnesses, and his opinion started to change. Early on, he traveled east with a new FBI case agent, Miguel Luna, to visit Chhun’s military adviser, the one who had warned him so vehemently that Operation Volcano would be calamitous. They sat in Heng Tek’s cramped apartment in Alexandria, the pungent smell of fish oil wafting through the air, and listened as the slight, aging former soldier recounted his warnings to Chhun. And that’s when Hershman’s internal outrage meter first began to quiver.

Tek, Hershman recalls, told them he had quickly come to the realization that Chhun’s generals were trying to take his money and that there was no realistic possibility that the coup could succeed. They were recruiting people who really had no resources. And by offering them a little bit of money, they were likely sending those people to their deaths.

It’s one thing to be misguided and believe in a cause, Hershman thought. It’s another to essentially send people to their slaughter knowing that you have no chance of success and no real idea of what you’re doing.

As Hershman began to look more deeply into the case, he decided Chhun was perhaps not so unique after all. He resembled a well-known archetype in the fraud unit of the U.S. attorney’s office, that of the classic narcissist or snake-oil salesman, selling a story that “wasn’t at all tethered to reality,” generally for their own personal benefit.

Earlier in his career, Hershman had been involved in the prosecution of Victor Conte, the man who founded the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), which enlisted high-profile athletes to help peddle nutritional supplements of questionable efficacy while secretly providing them with illegal designer steroids. The scandal ensnared baseball’s home-run king Barry Bonds and track star Marion Jones, and earned Conte international media attention. Hershman had also prosecuted Lynne Meredith, the celebrity tax protestor whose best-selling books and sold-out seminars convinced millions of people that taxes were voluntary.

While Conte had gained prestige due to his close access to famous athletes and Meredith had amassed money and notoriety, Hershman concluded that Chhun’s motives were equally clear: He was trying to escape from his mundane existence in his tax office. “He was not going be a tax accountant anymore,” Hershman says of Chhun’s desires. Instead, he “wanted to run a country.” While Chhun had no ability or knowledge to achieve this, Hershman says, the entire operation was “very much about his personal desire to be more important than he was.” Chhun didn’t listen to his military adviser’s warning to go home because “he had his own agenda and his own narcissistic beliefs,” Hershman says.

Later, Hershman would fly to Cambodia, where he met with people who had been maimed in the attack, as well as relatives of some of those killed. He sat through depositions with Chhun’s lieutenants, who had been sentenced to life in prison. Sitting in a dingy room in Phnom Penh, Hershman and his team provided them with bottled water, and it seemed to him that they were behaving as if he had just given them “a lobster dinner.”

“This water is so clean,” one the men told him. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had water that tastes this good.”

When he heard them extolling the water, Hershman’s personal outrage meter tipped. He had already made his decision: Yasith Chhun deserved to go to prison for a very long time.

As the statute of limitations approached its final days, Hershman entered the office of his division chief and rendered his opinion: They should move to indict Yasith Chhun.

Chapter Thirteen

Chhun was indicted May 31, 2005, charged with conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, conspiracy to damage or destroy property in a foreign country, and engaging in a military expedition against a nation the United States is not at war with. The most serious of these charges have been used repeatedly in recent years in cases against Al Qaeda terrorists tried on U.S. soil. They carry a potential penalty of life in prison without possibility of parole. Both Chhun and his companion Sras Pech were also indicted on 19 counts of federal income-tax fraud.

A federal agent arrived at Chhun’s East 10th Street office with a Long Beach police sergeant Chhun knew, asked him how he was, then signaled an arrest team of between eight and ten agents. The couple were held in separate cells overnight, then sat together in the same room one last time before Pech was released. Even then, neither expected the separation to last.

In the years that followed, Chhun would switch attorneys four times. Prosecutors and attorneys made at least two trips to Phnom Penh to interview witnesses. The trial finally began in 2008, by which point Hershman had already left the U.S. attorney’s office. Before he departed, Hershman says he sat Chhun and his attorney down and told them he was giving them one last chance to make a deal. The stakes were high; Chhun was facing life in prison. “We have overwhelming proof,” Hershman told them. In exchange for pleading guilty, Chhun would be allowed to make a presentation to the judge and request leniency, and the devastating evidence would not be presented.

Hershman had been troubled by the impact the attacks had had on those who were injured. The police officer set upon outside the train station had placed a mangled foot on the table and wept. Hershman heard about a stray bullet that had gone through a wall and had hit the father of a newborn baby. The father died in his wife’s arms.

Once those victims are on the stand, Hershman argued—once the judge and jury saw “what I saw,” as he put it—it would be very difficult to convince the judge that a sentence of life in prison was not appropriate.

Chhun rejected the deal.

On April 16, 2008, after two days of deliberation, a jury found Chhun guilty of three counts of conspiracy and one count of engaging in a military expedition against a nation the United States is not at war with. Two years later, the judge sentenced him to life in prison. In March 2011, he was sentenced to 37 additional months for tax evasion.

Chhun’s current attorney, Richard M. Callahan Jr., filed a 74-page appeal with the Central District of California, seeking to overturn the conviction. The most poignant argument contained in it was that his client had been a victim of shifting political winds, a sacrificial lamb offered up in exchange for Cambodia’s cooperation with the war on terror. Callahan noted that Hun Sen angrily accused the U.S. of hypocrisy for failing to vigorously pursue Chhun after he returned from Cambodia, but the U.S. ambassador Kent Wiedemann had responded that the two countries did not have an extradition treaty and that it was up to the U.S. to determine whether Chhun had broken any U.S. laws. “It’s not the business of the Cambodian government,” he said.

After 9/11, however, the Bush Administration began to consider Southeast Asia a second front in the global war on terrorism, focused especially on the radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah. This, Callahan writes, caused a “pendular shift in U.S.-Cambodian relations. Cambodia was taken off the list of illegal drug producing countries. The following year, Secretary of State Colin Powell signed an agreement with Cambodia  to strengthen counter-terrorism training, exchange financial and immigration data, and work to create joint programs.”

All the while, however, Hun Sen’s government complained that Chhun remained a free man. “At this point, we are wondering that if the U.S. is the master of the fight against international terrorism, why is the U.S. ignoring this terrorist case,” Hun Sen said in 2001. “What is the real value of the U.S. suggestion to Cambodia to offer cooperation against international terrorism?”

When Chhun was finally indicted, Hun Sen told reporters the arrest was “part of the cooperation in the fight against common terrorism that both Cambodia and the United States have an obligation to.” In a memorandum, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Charles Ray, conveyed his “appreciation and congratulations to the L.A. Division, to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and to all those who moved this case forward.” Within months of Chhun’s arrest, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole made a trip to Phnom Penh to announce plans to establish an FBI office in the U.S. Embassy and train Cambodian police in counterterrorism measures. He presented awards to Cambodian officials “in recognition of their important contributions to the prosecution of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters counterterrorism case.”

“The correlation between the opening of the new FBI office in Phnom Penh and the prosecution of Mr. Chhun was unmistakable,” Callahan wrote. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, FBI Director Robert Mueller noted that Cambodia would serve as an important country in the U.S. antiterrorism campaign because of its potential to be used as a transit point or base for terrorism.

“Mueller then noted that following the inauguration of the FBI office in Phnom Penh,” according to Callahan’s appeal, “the United States intended to make Yasith Chhun ‘face justice in the near future. … Before 9/11, Hun Sen was viewed by the United States government as a murderous despot.” After 9/11, he wrote, “the playing field changed; the rules changed, and the priorities changed. Hun Sen didn’t change; the world did.”

The U.S. attorney’s office has not yet completed its response. But those involved in investigating and prosecuting the case deny it was ever politicized.

Special Agent Shannon says he was serious about investigating the case from the start. Far from sealing Chhun’s fate, 9/11 only delayed it, he insists. After the attacks on the twin towers, his attention, like that of many in the bureau, turned to Al Qaeda.

“If it weren’t for Chhun, we would never have had to work on this together and we would never have gotten this colleague-type atmosphere with Cambodia,” Shannon says. “This case opened up doors into working drugs, working fugitives, working human trafficking, child-prostitution rings, and all that stuff, because those doors and those lines of communication were open. The momentum just kept going.”

Chhun is still in prison, outside Scranton, in northeastern Pennsylvania. He resides in cell 217 at the high-security United State Federal Penitentiary-Canaan, a sprawling complex surrounded by rolling green hills. He is allowed to watch television, read books, and email and call his family. He says he is “in hell, but stronger than I was outside.” None of his former CFF comrades have remained in contact: Many are scared that they, too, will be prosecuted. They will not speak about Chhun. Yet Chhun still has hope for the future. Ever the optimist, he believes his case will be overturned on appeal.

He finds solace in God and still draws lessons from American films, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which follows the final hours of the Messiah’s life, ending with the resurrection. “When Christ was arrested and escorted to be crucified, his followers turned their backs on him,” Chhun said recently. “Part of the story is similar to mine.”

The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks

moonrocksl1-1458659067-81.jpg

The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks

Joseph Gutheinz is on a mission to save the moon.

Written and illustrated by Joe Kloc

The Atavist Magazine, No. 12


Joe Kloc is a former contributing editor at Seed magazine and researcher atWired. His writing and illustrations have appeared in Mother Jones, Scientific American, and The Rumpus.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Producer: Olivia Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Spencer Woodman
Research and Production: Gray Beltran

Published in February 2012. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter One

On a May afternoon in 1995, an American named Alan Rosen made the five-hour drive from central Honduras to the mountain district of Olancho. Rosen, a sun-worn, middle-aged Floridian, had for years worked as a procurer of fruits for a juice company, traveling the country in search of its pitted treasures: purple mangosteens, spiky green durians, and hairy red rambutans. And despite Olancho’s unofficial motto, Entre si quiere, salga si puede—“Enter if you want, leave if you can”—he’d been to this violent but fruit-rich region many times. On this particular trip, however, Olancho’s exotic maracujas

were not his concern. Rosen had come instead to meet with a former colonel from the twice-crumbled regime of military dictator Oswaldo Enrique López Arellano. The colonel was prepared to sell Rosen something considerably more exotic: a piece of the moon.

The colonel had claimed, somewhat fantastically, to have been given the rock by President López Arellano himself, in the months following the coup d’état that deposed the dictator from power. Now the colonel was looking to unload it for the right price, and he was waiting for Rosen at the house of an associate, Jose Bayardo. Bayardo lived in Catacamas, a dirt-road city of 44,000 that had grown out of the center of Olancho without so much as a radio station until 1970.

A year earlier, Rosen and Bayardo had met over drinks to discuss the purchase of the moon rock. All Bayardo would say of the supposed ex–military officer was that the man wanted to do business with “some Americans” and claimed to own a $1 million piece of the moon. It sounds more like the Brooklyn Bridge, Rosen thought. He declined the offer.

It wasn’t until later that year, upon returning to the U.S., that Rosen discovered two pieces of information that caused him to consider the possibility that the colonel’s offer wasn’t a con: The first was that, following the U.S.’s final mission to the moon in 1972, the Nixon administration had in fact sent moon rocks to 135 countries. In 1994, NASA’s then lunar curator, a moon rock expert, had told the press, “NASA and the United States gave up title when the gifts were bestowed. Therefore, we don’t pursue them.” The second piece of information was that in December of 1993, Sotheby’s had sold 227 relics from the Soviet space program. Among the items, which also included a lunar rover and the first eating utensils used in space, were three tiny specks of the moon that fetched $442,500.

When Rosen returned to Honduras a few months later, Bayardo contacted him again and told him that the colonel would lower his price. This time Rosen was ready to listen. The colonel, Bayardo explained, was very ill and wanted to do something with the moon rock before he died.

Now, in May of 1995, Rosen arrived at Bayardo’s house to find the colonel waiting inside with a black vinyl suitcase. Rosen had only seen photographs of the piece in question until, moments later, the colonel opened the case. Inside was a grayish pebble-sized stone encased in a Lucite ball and mounted to the top of a 10-by-14-inch wooden plaque. Above a miniature, glass-covered Honduran flag was a metal plate bearing the inscription:

This fragment is a portion of a rock from the Taurus Littrow Valley of the Moon. It is given as a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and carries with it the hope of the American people for a world at peace.

Together, the three men agreed upon a price of $50,000 and drafted a contract: Rosen, with the help of Bayardo, would have 90 days to verify the authenticity of the moon rock and find a buyer in the U.S. If he failed to do so, he was to return it to the dying colonel in Olancho. On his juice-man’s salary, Rosen couldn’t pay the entire $50,000 up front. He agreed to give the colonel $10,000 in cash—a gift from his aunt—and sign over a refrigerated truck from the juice business worth another $10,000. The men parted ways with the understanding that Rosen was to raise the remaining $30,000 back in America. Until that time, the colonel would hold onto the moon rock, the money, and the refrigerated vehicle.

Rosen settled his juice-related affairs in Honduras and returned to the U.S. in February 1996. Over the next few months, he was able to cobble together only $5,000 from family. Still, the sum was enough that, when Bayardo called from Honduras in April, he agreed to hand over the moon rock once Rosen had delivered the money to an associate in Florida. Rosen picked the location for the meet, a Denny’s restaurant situated in an exceptionally Denny’s-rich region surrounding Miami International Airport, which boasted eight such restaurants within a two-mile radius.

In May 1996, a year after his meeting with the colonel in Catacamas, Rosen was drinking a cup of bottomless coffee, waiting for Bayardo’s partner to arrive with the moon rock. Around 2 p.m., the man showed up carrying a flannel pouch. He recognized Rosen, but Rosen couldn’t place him. Perhaps, Rosen thought, he was a relative of Bayardo’s named Luis. Rosen was terrible with names. Their conversation lasted only 15 minutes. Once the man who might well have been called Luis Bayardo had the $5,000 in cash, he handed Rosen the moon rock and left.

A few months later, Rosen made one last payment to the colonel, wiring $5,000 to Bayardo from a bank in Massachusetts. He agreed to pay the balance after he’d sold the rock. But this would prove more difficult than Rosen imagined. The only serious offer he’d received was from a Swiss watchmaker who produced high-end timepieces for Omega; he wanted to buy the rock for $500,000 and a portion of his watch sales. Rosen had heard that the moon rock the U.S. gave to Nicaragua sold for 20 times that amount to a buyer in the Middle East. He declined the Swiss offer, confident he would find a better one.

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Chapter Two

On the morning of June 2, 1998, NASA special agent Joseph Gutheinz was sitting in a courthouse in Houston, waiting to testify against his most recent catch, an astronaut impersonator named Jerry Whittredge. Gutheinz, a stocky, black-bearded senior detective with a Napoleon-sized personality to match his five-foot-seven frame, normally didn’t bother with the small-time gang of astronaut impostors who peddled fake autographs and made-up tales of space travel. His targets were the big fish of the space-crime world: the defrauders and embezzlers who picked NASA’s loosely guarded pockets through major aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Rockwell International. But the 47-year-old Whittredge was in a class all his own. Using only his driver’s license and a doctored résumé—on which he claimed to be a Congressional Medal of Honor and Top Gun Trophy winner, as well as a CIA regent known to the Russians as “Black Death” for his five “confirmed kills” in Central America—Whittredge had talked his way inside the mission control room at Alabama’s Marshall Space Center.

Gutheinz had gotten wise to Whittredge’s con after a public affairs officer at Pensacola Naval Air Station reported to NASA that a man claiming to be an “Astronaut S-1”—a nonexistent classification—was trying to gain entry to the base. Gutheinz and another agent tracked Whittredge to his mobile home in Galveston, Texas, where they found him with a loaded .357 Magnum. In the trailer’s cramped kitchenette, Whittredge explained to Gutheinz that he had been sent by President Bill Clinton to infiltrate NASA’s astronaut program and that George Abbey, then the director of Johnson Space Center, had told him that if he built a model of the International Space Station, he would get to fly on a shuttle. “I’ve done it!” Whittredge then exclaimed, grabbing a glue-gobbed model from a nearby shelf and slamming it down on the table.

As far as Gutheinz was concerned, the only point of contention in this case was how a man of questionable mental health, armed with a résumé of fictional credentials—there is no such thing as a Top Gun Trophy or a CIA “regent”—got through NASA security and sat down at the command console in the agency’s most secure room. Once he had a chance to testify, this would become clear to the court. But after two hours, Whittredge’s attorney still hadn’t shown.

Trapped in his seat behind the prosecutor, Gutheinz opened up his legal pad and began doodling. But soon his mind—and his pen—began to wander from the hapless astronaut impostor sitting in the jail box in front of him to the oldest, most widespread con in NASA’s 40-year history: the trade in fake moon rocks. Ever since the U.S. first landed on the moon in 1969 and began bringing back lunar samples to study, small-time grifters had hawked ash-colored rocks to gullible middle-class Americans all too eager to believe that pieces of the moon had somehow made the journey from Neil Armstrong’s space-suit pocket to their front porch. The first reported sale was to a Miami housewife in 1969. She paid five dollars to a door-to-door salesman—and when her husband got home, “he almost hit the moon himself,” she told a reporter. Over the next three years and five subsequent moon landings, as astronauts continued to explore, golf, and otherwise do their space-race victory dance on Earth’s satellite sister, the demand for fake moon rocks boomed. The bull market lasted until the 1980s, when the Cold War turned from moon missions to mutually assured destruction and interest in the moon vanished.

But in recent years, Gutheinz had noticed lunar confidence men cropping up at auction houses and online, exploiting the low-accountability marketplace that dominated the Wild West days of the early Internet. In the mid-’90s, Gutheinz’s team at the agency’s Office of the Inspector General had caught a man selling bogus rocks around the world from his website—he was still awaiting trial on 24 counts of fraud. Just as moon missions were fading into history, the market for fake moon rocks was growing.

Beneath a doodle of Whittredge waiting for his attorney to arrive, Gutheinz began to sketch out a plan to shut down the bogus moon rock market. The name came to him first: OPERATION LUNAR ECLIPSE, he scribbled. From there the details worked themselves out. He would create a fake estate-sales company and pretend to be the broker for an exceptionally wealthy client in search of a moon rock. Then he would take out an ad seeking moon rocks in a national newspaper. He’d get a dedicated phone line in his office, and when a seller called he’d set up a meet and arrive with an arrest warrant. It would take only a few guys and a minimal amount of money. For NASA’s senior special agent, it was an easy sell to the higher-ups.

As the detective was finishing his outline of Operation Lunar Eclipse, the judge’s impatience with Whittredge’s lawyer boiled over. He demanded to know who the missing attorney was.

Whittredge stood and did an about-face toward the judge. With three words, he rendered superfluous the entirety of Gutheinz’s testimony and underlined his own mental instability: “William J. Clinton.”

The judge adjourned the court and ordered that Whittredge undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Gutheinz stuffed his doodle into his briefcase and headed back to the office.

Chapter Three

Gutheinz worked out of a grass-covered Cold War–era bunker known as Building 265, located on the north side of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston. This sprawling, 100-building, 1,600-acre complex was home base for NASA’s Apollo missions between 1961 and 1972, and it remained the central command for the space program. It sat on the bank of Clear Lake, 30 miles south of downtown Houston, a city pursuing its own alternative future of transportation with a network of tangled 16-lane freeways locals half-affectionately referred to as spaghetti bowls.

Building 265 was divided in half by a steel wall with a safe door. On one side was Gutheinz and his small team at the Office of Inspector General, or OIG. On the other side was a group of Russian researchers. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia had maintained a staff of cosmonauts and scientists at Johnson, though Gutheinz would never figure out what exactly they were doing. To him they were simply and mysteriously “the Russians.” He had interacted with them on only two occasions. Once when he briefed Boris Yeltsin’s economic advisers on a fraud case he had unraveled, in which one of NASA’s major contractors was convicted of embezzlement and money laundering. The other time, while Gutheinz was giving a tour of the bunker to a group of U.S. attorneys, a Russian researcher pushed open the supposedly locked safe door to purchase a soda from the Coca-Cola machine on the OIG side. It was one more example of the impressive lack of security at NASA, against which the detective had long waged a quiet battle of frustration.

Behind his office’s own cipher-locked steel door, Gutheinz began to flesh out Operation Lunar Eclipse. He named his fake company John’s Estate Sales. For himself he took the name Tony Coriasso, a combination of his uncle’s last name and his brother-in-law’s first. To play the role of John Marta, the wealthy buyer, he enlisted the help of a U.S. Postal Service inspector named Bob Cregger.

In September 1998, the two detectives set the operation in motion, taking out a quarter-page ad in USA Today. Above a 1969 photograph of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, they printed MOON ROCKS WANTED. The number accompanying the ad was connected to a bugged telephone sitting on a folding table in what the pair referred to as the Hello Room, an otherwise empty closet attached to Gutheinz’s office.

On the morning of September 30, Gutheinz walked into the Hello Room and checked the phone’s answering machine. There was a message left the night before by a man identifying himself as Alan Rosen. Rosen claimed to have a moon rock for sale. Gutheinz picked up the receiver. Tony Coriasso, Tony Coriasso, Tony Coriasso. John’s Estate Sales, John’s Estate Sales, John’s Estate Sales, he said to himself as he dialed the number. Rosen picked up. He told Gutheinz that all those other calls he was getting were from con men selling bogus moon rocks. But he had the real thing.

Gutheinz had heard this whole good-con-bad-con routine before. He figured he’d just play along. Soon, however, Rosen was exhibiting a command of moon-rock history the detective hadn’t often seen from low-level lunar hucksters. Rosen told Gutheinz that during the Apollo program, NASA had brought back 842 pounds of lunar material. In 1973, months after the conclusion of NASA’s final moon mission, the Nixon administration cut up one particular moon rock, known as Sample 70017, into 1.5-ish-gram moon fragments, called goodwill moon rocks, that it gifted to countries around the world, as well as all 50 U.S. states. Accompanying each rock was a letter that read, “If people of many nations can act together to achieve the dreams of humanity in space, then surely we can act together to accomplish humanity’s dream of peace here on Earth.” Now, Rosen told the detective, he had gotten ahold of a goodwill rock, and he was looking to sell.

Rosen expressed surprise to see an ad in the paper looking for moon rocks—these deals were usually done in dark alleys, he explained. Indeed, besides those that fell to the earth as meteorites, moon rocks were one of three NASA artifacts, along with debris from the Apollo 1 and Challenger explosions, that it was outright illegal to sell. Rosen wanted $5 million for his rock. He cited the rumored sale of Nicaragua’s moon rock, along with a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, to a buyer in the Middle East for as much as $10 million. And he claimed to have a certificate of authenticity: He’d brought his rock to Harvard University, where a reluctant geologist confirmed that it was in fact lunar material.

Gutheinz visited a website on which Rosen had posted photos and information about his alleged moon rock. There it was: a Lucite-ball-encased, ash-colored stone mounted to a plaque with the flag of an indeterminate Central or South American country. Rosen had covered up the seal in the center of the flag, and without that distinction the detective couldn’t distinguish between the flags of Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. Gutheinz leaned back in his chair. If this was a fake, it was a savvy con for a man who answers USA Today ads looking for black-market goods. He began to wonder, Is it possible that, for the first time, we’re investigating a real stolen moon rock?

Two weeks later, Cregger, posing as John Marta, contacted Rosen to purchase the rock. Cregger asked Rosen how he got ahold of a moon rock that had been given to a foreign country. Rosen told Cregger he had purchased the rock from a retired colonel in Central America.

“You brought it back?” Cregger asked.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got it here. And how I got it here and all the rest is unimportant.”

Rosen assured Cregger that he had left no paper trail in bringing the rock into the States. Pretending to be reassured, Cregger agreed to a location for a meet: Tuna’s, a small restaurant and margarita bar off West Dixie highway in North Miami Beach. Cregger and Gutheinz packed a suitcase of windbreakers, vacation shirts, and anything else that might befit two wealthy men in their forties flying to Miami to buy a black-market moon rock for $5 million.

Chapter Four

On October 20, 1998, the two undercover detectives arrived at Tuna’s. Rosen wasn’t scheduled to show for 45 minutes, but Gutheinz needed to make sure they found a table outside. He was wearing a wire beneath his windbreaker and didn’t want anything to interfere with its transmission to the pair of customs agents listening in from a car parked a block away. The detectives had roped customs into the sting after realizing that if Rosen did in fact have an authentic goodwill moon rock, it might actually not be legal for the U.S. to seize it as stolen property. After all, the U.S. had gifted the rock to another country three decades earlier. It wasn’t clear that an American court would have any direct authority to take it back. Their best hope was to get Rosen to admit that the foreign-bought rock hadn’t been declared when it was brought into the country. If this were the case, it would be considered smuggled property, subject to seizure by U.S. Customs.

The two detectives sat down at a table on the palm-tree-flanked patio at Tuna’s and waited in their civilian disguises for the mark to arrive. Gutheinz had his Glock 9mm stuffed inside his pants. Cregger kept his gun in a fanny pack. Gutheinz was used to the sticky tropical heat, having worked on Cape Canaveral at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center before moving to Houston. But this was South Florida in October. He ordered a Diet Coke. And another. And another. Then Rosen and his partner showed up.

Once Rosen settled in, he joked to Gutheinz and Cregger that he half expected a bunch of Central American soldiers in green military fatigues to rush around the corner with AK-47 assault rifles and demand the moon rock. Everyone laughed. A moment later there was a loud crash, and the four men jumped from their seats. Rosen panicked, and Gutheinz moved toward his gun—nearly blowing their cover—before they realized the source of the commotion: a waiter had taken a sharp turn coming around the corner of the restaurant and dropped his tray. Everyone was relieved. The men took their seats to discuss the rock.

The two agents grilled Rosen on whether there was any record of the rock entering the U.S. He insisted there was “no continuity” between when the rock was given to the Latin American country and now. They pressed the issue: What about when it came through customs? Again Rosen assured the buyers that no record existed. He was getting uneasy. What were all these questions about customs? Why would this fanny-pack-wearing space collector care about whether or not the moon rock was mentioned on that little declaration card flight attendants pass out at the end of international flights? Something wasn’t right. Rosen declined to let Gutheinz see the rock. He told the two men he was suspicious that they might be undercover detectives. He showed them photographs of the rock but said he wouldn’t furnish the real thing until he confirmed their identities and saw proof that they had the $5 million.

This latter request was particularly unfortunate. Gutheinz knew that woefully cash-strapped NASA would decline to loan him the money. But he also knew that Rosen was one whiff of double-talk away from backing out of the sale. So the detective assured Rosen he would get the cash. The four men shook hands. Gutheinz paid his check for the Cokes and the parties parted ways. He and Cregger headed back to their hotel.

Short of NASA, the obvious place to turn for the money was Cregger’s agency, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. It was considerably more liquid than NASA and had already agreed to foot the bill for the USA Today ad. But the agency declined, no doubt seeing a $5 million sting operation to recover an allegedly real moon rock as incongruous with its stated mission to “ensure public trust in the mail.”

Then Gutheinz remembered watching a news story with his father decades earlier about how two employees of the Texas-based Electronic Data Systems corporation were detained during the Iranian revolution. EDS specialized in large-scale data processing and management for clients like Rolls-Royce, Kraft, and the U.S. military. In the late 1970s, the company was contracted by Iran to set up the country’s social security system. When the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the EDS employees were taken captive. The CEO of the company had hired a retired U.S. Special Forces officer and personally funded a rescue operation. Gutheinz’s father, a lifetime Marine, called the CEO “the Patriot” for this act and continued to do so for the rest of his life. Gutheinz, now desperate for money for his own rescue operation, decided to approach the Patriot for help. It was the sort of long shot that could only seem reasonable to a man who spent his career hunting fake astronauts and door-to-door moon rock salesmen.

Gutheinz looked up Electronic Data Systems in a telephone directory for Plano, Texas, and asked to speak with the CEO. He navigated the $13 billion company’s phone tree until he reached the Patriot’s personal secretary, who informed him that the Patriot was busy. Gutheinz left a message and hung up.

Half an hour later his telephone rang. It was H. Ross Perot.

Gutheinz described Operation Lunar Eclipse to the EDS CEO, Texas billionaire, and 1992 presidential candidate. If there was any wealthy private citizen who could appreciate not spending government dollars on a moon rock recovery operation, it was Ross Perot, whose campaign ads once argued that “the enemy is not the red flag of communism but the red ink of our national debt.” Gutheinz knew how to sell the importance of his mission to the great chart-wielding champion of explanation.

These rocks, he explained, were not just detritus from outer space. They were relics of a singular time in world history, a temporary calm in the madness of an arms race that in the U.S. alone had produced 70,000 nuclear weapons and consumed $5.8 trillion—enough one-dollar bills to reach the moon and back. The way Gutheinz saw it, to lose moon rocks on the black market was to lose a generation of astronauts and engineers to lesser curiosities. There were, after all, only two kinds of scientists for kids to encounter in their world of comic books and television shows: those who made bombs, and those who made spaceships. The goodwill moon rocks were perhaps the last, best argument for the latter.

Perot agreed to fund the operation, transferring $5 million into a bank account accessible by Gutheinz. But Rosen was still nervous. He phoned Gutheinz in a frenzy in the middle of the night and demanded the phone numbers of five of Tony Coriasso’s clients. Gutheinz gave him the home numbers of agents back at NASA’s OIG in Houston. The agents knew enough about the operation that when Rosen called them, they were able to convince him that they were happy customers of Coriasso. Satisfied that his under-the-table buyers were aboveboard, Rosen agreed to sell the rock, which he said was being stored in the vault of a bank in Miami. His only condition was that Gutheinz not be involved in the transaction. He wanted to deal only with a third party—which Gutheinz was welcome to choose. It was difficult to see what protection this afforded Rosen, but Gutheinz went along with it anyway and enlisted a customs agent to handle the exchange.

On the morning of November 18, Gutheinz’s team obtained a seizure warrant from a Miami judge and headed to the bank. Gutheinz and Cregger, now back in their familiar detective-grade suits and ties, waited in a nearby open-air garage while the undercover customs agent greeted Rosen and led him inside. After a few minutes, the detectives made their way over to the bank’s parking lot and perched on the trunk of Rosen’s car. Meanwhile, inside the bank, Rosen removed the Lucite-encased moon rock from his safe-deposit box and presented it to the customs agent. The wooden plaque, he explained, was waiting in his trunk. With the rock in hand, the agent put an end to the three-month operation. He served Rosen with the warrant and escorted him outside, where Gutheinz and Cregger waited. Gutheinz eyed Rosen and thought, The guy almost looks relieved—like a schoolkid finally receiving the bad report card he’d long been dreading.

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Chapter Five

Ultimately, the rock would appear in Miami, where a judge would decide whether or not Rosen had any legal claim to it. But first Gutheinz needed to determine if he had in fact recovered an actual piece of the moon, or if his fake estate-sales company had nabbed just another fake rock. With the protection afforded by his Glock, Gutheinz flew the rock back to Houston to be examined by NASA.

At the agency, there was one man in charge of confirming the authenticity of moon rocks—Gary Lofgren, the lunar curator. Lofgren was a tall, bespectacled geologist who worked in the Lunar Lab, a few hundred feet from Gutheinz’s bunker. His office was long and narrow, filled with the sort of professorial clutter that made it appear to belong to an academic, not a government worker. He’d studied lunar samples long enough that he could usually tell whether a rock was real just by looking at a reasonably high-quality photograph of it.

To make an official ruling, though, he used several techniques. If the rock in question was thought to be a lunar meteorite—a piece of the moon chipped off by a stray asteroid and sent 240,000 miles to Earth—it would contain oxidized iron. Because there is no gaseous oxygen on the moon, the iron in lunar material does not oxidize. If Lofgren were to find oxidized iron in the center of a rock, then he could conclude with near certainty that it didn’t come from the moon.

In the case of the rock recovered in Operation Lunar Eclipse, however, Lofgren could check its authenticity using a much simpler method. Rocks found on a planet’s surface form from hardened lava flows and are composed of relatively few minerals. Variation in the size and prevalence of each of these minerals determine the characteristics of a given rock. On Earth, the spread of potential rock types is large; but on the moon there is little variability. In other words, to a trained geological eye like Lofgren’s, all moon rocks—particularly  those from the same region of the moon—look alike. Since NASA kept some of the rock from which the goodwill gifts were cut, Sample 70017, Lofgren  had only to compare its mineral composition with Gutheinz’s specimen. He placed it underneath a high-powered microscope, and on December 2, he made his ruling:

It is my considered opinion that the above mentioned “presumed lunar sample” is in fact one of the Apollo samples distributed by President Nixon to Heads of State of several countries between 1973 and 1976. The current commercial value of the item, including the plaque, can be based only on its collector value, and therefore, in my opinion, the asking price of 5 million dollars would be reasonable.

The news that the black-market moon rock was genuine weighed heavily on Gutheinz. He had grown up during the space race, and later, at NASA, he had gotten to know many of the scientists and engineers who worked on the Apollo project, which had helped a dozen men set foot on the moon. These are people who cared, he thought, people who had an imagination bigger than most.

Throughout the 1960s, the Gutheinz family had watched the moon missions unfold on the CBS Evening Newswith Walter Cronkite. Since the day John F. Kennedy had declared his candidacy for president, he’d been a hero in the Gutheinz house. In 1960, Gutheinz’s mother, a five-foot-eleven-inch Irish-Catholic Marine turned bar bouncer, enlisted her son to help her campaign door-to-door in the neighborhood. The 5-year-old happily accepted, captivated by the presidential hopeful’s charm as he preached the importance of bolstering the U.S. space program—once even telling an audience it was embarrassing that the first dogs to make the trip to space and back “were named Strelka and Belka, not Rover or Fido, or even Checkers.”

In 1962, from the living room of their Long Island home, the Gutheinzes watched President Kennedy announce that his administration would triple NASA’s funding, build the Johnson Space Center, and put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, “not because it is easy but because it is hard.” The moon was many things in Kennedy’s 15-minute speech. What Gutheinz’s mother and father no doubt heard coming through their television that September day were the practical realities of a strategic military mission that would cause space expenditures to increase “from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents” in order to make sure that outer space was “a sea of peace” and not “a new terrifying theater of war.” But even at age 7, Gutheinz was a dreamer. He lit up when he heard Kennedy speak of the moon as an “unknown celestial body,” the journey to which would be “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

In truth, Kennedy on more than one occasion privately stated that he was “not that interested in space.” The idea of going to the moon first became a serious consideration in the days following the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Reeling from his loss to the Cubans, Kennedy told Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to find a goal in the space race that the U.S. could most likely achieve before the Russians. Johnson—who years earlier, as the senate majority leader, had told Congress that “the position of total control over Earth lies in outer space”—reported back to Kennedy that putting a man on the moon held the most promise.

Once the U.S. beat the Soviets to the moon, in 1969, the White House’s interest in the Apollo program waned. President Nixon slashed NASA’s budget to free up money to win the increasingly unwinnable Vietnam War. By 1972, when Apollo 17 completed its journey to the moon and back, the U.S. had demonstrated its dominance over the Soviet Union in space. Both militarily and scientifically, the space race was over. Nixon canceled the remaining three Apollo missions. Without the Cold War and the international battle against communism, the U.S. would undoubtedly not have made it to the moon by 1969—if ever. As Nixon wrote in a letter he sent out with the goodwill moon rocks, “In the deepest sense, our exploration of the moon was truly an international effort.”

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Chapter Six

On February 2001, a fleet of customs agents waited on the tarmac at Miami International Airport for the arrival of the Honduran goodwill moon rock. When it arrived from Houston, armed men clad in raid jackets escorted the rock off the plane. It was due to stand trial in the case that was to be officially catalogued by the Southern District of Florida as United States of America v. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material (One Moon Rock) and One Ten Inch by Fourteen Inch Wooden Plaque. Technically speaking, President George W. Bush was suing Honduras’s moon rock.

The crux of the U.S. attorney’s case rested on whether or not Rosen had legally purchased the rock from the colonel back in 1995. Rosen claimed to have received a receipt of sale. Unfortunately, he said, he kept it at a friend’s house on Lake Yojoa, in the Comayagua Valley of eastern Honduras. And in the fall of 1998, the region was hit by the 180-mile-per-hour winds of a Category 5 hurricane, which left thousands dead and thousands more missing. What had survived of the documents—or Bayardo and the colonel—Rosen didn’t know.

On August 15, when Rosen gave his deposition, the U.S. attorney focused instead on whether the colonel had any legal standing to sell the moon rock in the first place.

“What, if anything, did you do to satisfy yourself that he had legal possession of it?” the prosecutor asked Rosen.

“Well, he owned it. … He was given it by the dictator for—I don’t know, for whatever reason.”

The military dictator Oswaldo Enrique López Arellano had ruled Honduras since he forcibly took power in 1963—save for a brief spell in 1971, when he allowed for a popular election to occur, lost, and took back his rule in a violent coup d’état a few months later. In 1973, the U.S. ambassador, regardless of whether López Arellano deserved America’s goodwill, presented him with the goodwill moon rock, which López Arellano stored in the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa. A little over a year later, in 1975, López Arellano was ousted in a bribery scandal connected to the suicide of the president of an American banana-importing company. The incident became known as Bananagate. The colonel had told Rosen that shortly after Bananagate, López Arellano gave him the rock. “He had it in his possession for 20 years,” Rosen told the court. “So that sort of said to me that he owned it.”

The court enlisted a professor of law at the University of Miami to determine whether López Arellano did in fact legally give the moon rock to the colonel. The professor searched for any official documentation of the moon rock in Honduras and reviewed Honduran news reports that he found on “the Net.” Eight months later, he gave his testimony. “I frankly don’t know when the rock disappeared,” he said.

Eventually, the professor determined that, regardless of when the colonel got ahold of the rock, he never possessed it legally. It was public property of the people of Honduras. In order for López Arellano to give it to the colonel without breaking the law, the gift would have had to have been approved by the Honduran government. No record of that approval existed.

That summer, while Rosen waited for his case to go before a judge, he made an appearance on CNN to argue his side. The question at hand was how much the rock was worth. To the court, it didn’t matter what exactly that value was, but it was a happenstance of U.S. law that for the government to seize property, that property must have some value. And so the prosecutor priced the treasure at $5 million. This number was based on Lofgren’s valuation of the rock, which in turn was based on Rosen’s asking price, which he arbitrarily conceived and now disagreed with.

To debate him, CNN brought in a space-memorabilia collector named Robert Pearlman. Pearlman was a stocky, articulate man who spoke with the authority that seems to adhere to the self-appointed caretakers of history’s minor treasures. He worked as the public relations director at a space-tourism company in Virginia, where he lived among his fascinations: an ever growing collection of capsule models, reentry thrusters, space-suit accessories, and other artifacts from NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Columbia missions. Since 1999, Pearlman had catalogued and displayed his artifacts on his website, CollectSpace.com. It’s one of the world’s largest private collections of space memorabilia, and it had made him a de facto authority.

The anchor asked Pearlman how much Rosen’s 1.14-gram chunk of the moon might be worth. “It’s really hard to say,” Pearlman explained, “because an actual moon rock brought back from the Apollo astronauts is not something that sold before on the U.S. market. I would say it’s not a far stretch to say that at a really public auction like Christie’s or Sotheby’s that it could reach upward of $1 million or $2 million.”

“Well,” Rosen responded. “I was offering this rock at $5 million. And in the year after, I was convinced that, because of the publicity and somewhat notoriety of it, that the value could be well up into the tens or $15 million.” His intention, Rosen said, had been “not just to make a profit.” He’d planned to finance “low-interest loans for agriculture and artisans and mini businesses” back in Honduras.

On March 3, 2003, the United States’ suit against Honduras’ moon rock finally went before a judge. It took him three weeks to make his ruling. Ultimately, Rosen was unable to convince him that the colonel had obtained the rock from López Arellano in accordance with Honduran law. And since the colonel had illegally sold property of the Honduran people to Rosen, the U.S. had the right to seize it. No criminal charges were filed against him, but Rosen was stripped of his rock.

At a ceremony the following September, NASA’s administrator and a Mir space-station astronaut gave the rock back to the Hondurans. “Thank you for returning this material that is so valuable to the world,” the president of Honduras commented.

Chapter Seven

Shortly after Operation Lunar Eclipse concluded, the grass-covered Building 265 where Joseph Gutheinz worked began to show signs of age. Mold infested the walls of the structure, and the Russian side began flooding on rainy nights. With the Cold War over for a decade, NASA decided to renovate the building. The OIG team and the Russians were relocated, and the earth was torn off the roof of the bunker. The entire building was gutted. Gutheinz didn’t stick around much longer. He had grown exhausted from the long, strange hours he kept as an OIG detective. He wanted to spend more time with his wife and six kids, two of whom had received their law degrees and returned to Houston after tours of duty in the Army. Within a year of Operation Lunar Eclipse, the detective put in for retirement.

Leaving NASA was hard for the lifelong puzzle solver. “I think he could be a modern-day Sherlock Holmes,” Gutheinz’s sister said. Before joining NASA, he had planned on practicing law and still had a JD to fall back on. So he hung out his shingle, and then, in 2010, opened a law firm with his two attorney sons. They set up shop eight miles west of the space center in Friendswood, a town of flaking East Texas barns and palm-tree-lined boulevards.

Gutheinz covered the walls of his law office with awards from his days at NASA and news clippings from his favorite cases, or at least those he most enjoyed recounting to visitors: the astronaut-impersonator bust, the investigation of the Mir space station—during which he discovered that the Russians were billing NASA for million-dollar homes in Star City, Russia—and, of course, Operation Lunar Eclipse. In the corner, Gutheinz hung a photograph of himself presenting Ross Perot with a plaque for his work as the Patriot. With it was a then rare photo showing Gutheinz without a beard. Having heard that the Patriot didn’t like facial hair, he’d shaved it as a sign of respect. He’d kept his mustache, though—he was not a man without scruples.

Even though he’d left the official world of space investigation, ostensibly ending his pursuit of moon rocks for good, Gutheinz couldn’t seem to let the chase go. The Honduras case had brought to light how many pieces of the moon might have slipped onto the black market. In fact, NASA hadn’t kept any record of the rocks after 1973. For him, what he’d told Perot years before remained true: Those little chunks of moon tucked into bouncy-ball-sized shells weren’t idle treasures from a forgotten time on a distant world, and the hunt for them didn’t end just because he’d left the agency.

So after he finished his legal work for the day, Gutheinz began staying up into the night working on his latest passion: an online class for police-detective hopefuls at the University of Phoenix. The initial goal had been to teach the ins and outs of investigating. But before long the newly minted professor was recruiting his students to hunt moon rocks. Eventually, 5,000-word end-of-semester papers on criminal justice became 2,500-word papers “where we had to track down moon rocks,” as one student explained. “Mr. Gutheinz was crazy about his moon rocks.”

Meanwhile, in April of 2003, Gutheinz reached out to Robert Pearlman, the space collector who ran CollectSpace and debated Rosen on CNN. Two months earlier, the shuttle Columbia had disintegrated while returning to Earth from its 28th mission. In the aftermath of the disaster, reports began to surface that local law-enforcement officers were looting pieces of the wreckage—now the fourth space artifact it was illegal to own. A Texas constable was accused of stealing Columbia debris, and Gutheinz wanted to cover the trial for CollectSpace. Pearlman happily agreed. He knew of Gutheinz from the Honduras case. And since his publicity during that trial, traffic to the site had exploded. For the next couple of weeks, Gutheinz went to the Texas courthouse to watch the trial unfold. In the end, the jury found the constable not guilty. It was “David defeating Goliath,” he wrote. “The government had everything in this case, [including] superb special agents from NASA Office of Inspector General.”

After the trial, Gutheinz and Pearlman stayed in touch. Aside from posting space news on his website, Pearlman maintained a list of all the countries that had received goodwill rocks from the Nixon administration. In addition, he had discovered that after Apollo 11, the first moon landing back in 1969, Nixon had sent out around 200 lunar samples. He began tracking those as well. Soon, museum curators worldwide were reviewing the list and contacting him with the whereabouts of their rocks. Pearlman even received an email from the Vatican with a photo attached of a church official holding its goodwill moon rock. By October of 2004, when Pearlman relocated to Houston to be closer to Johnson Space Center, he and Gutheinz had teamed up to track down the missing lunar samples. Pearlman could feed Gutheinz information from the collector world. In turn, he and his students would do the legwork.

To be sure, the two thought very differently about the goodwill rocks. Pearlman was skeptical that there was much of a black market—if anything it was a gray market—and thought that most of the rocks were just misplaced, not traded by small-time thieves in South America and the Middle East. And he didn’t like that Gutheinz told the press that the rocks were worth $5 million. He thought it only made their job more difficult. The price tag that seemed to validate the detective’s obsession only served to frustrate the collector.

The investigations were simple enough: Gutheinz gave his class Pearlman’s list of unaccounted-for rocks, both in the U.S. and abroad. Each student picked one to track down. The detective always gave the same piece of advice: “Start at the state archives.” The students waded through automated phone lines and filled-to-capacity voicemail boxes of government institutions that never quite had the budget to digitize their records. At the end of the semester, each student had to either publish a newspaper editorial about his rock or write a report on the investigation. Students in classes with names like Organizational Administration and Crime in America soon found themselves calling museums and state offices in search of long-lost pieces of the moon. “It was a surprise. I wasn’t looking to do this assignment at all,” said a former student. “It didn’t have anything to do with the class.” Another said, “I didn’t even know what a moon rock was when I started.”

In 2003, one of Gutheinz’s classes went looking for Canada’s goodwill moon rock. Back in 1973, when the Nixon administration was mailing out pieces of Sample 70017, it had mistakenly sent one to a 13-year-old kid who had lied about his age to become the United Nations’ Apollo 17 Youth Ambassador for Canada. And like any kid worth his elbow scrapes, he kept his quarry. Some months later, Canada got it back. But what happened from there is less clear. When the students inquired about the rock in 2003, the country said it had been stolen in 1978. Thinking he might have another Honduras moon rock on his hands, Gutheinz assigned the investigation to his next class, only to find that, fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—Canada was mistaken in thinking its rock was stolen. It had merely been forgotten for decades, sitting in a storage facility maintained by Canada’s natural-science museum. It seemed that Gutheinz, along with that 13-year-old kid back in 1973, were the only people who cared much for Canada’s piece of the moon. It took the detective another six years to finally get Canada to take its rock out of storage for the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap.

Meanwhile, his students slowly pieced together the fate of Sample 70017. In Romania, after the communist president and his wife were executed by firing squad in 1989, the country’s goodwill rock ended up on the auction block at their estate sale. In Spain, the grandson of the dictator Francisco Franco told a newspaper that his mother had once possessed the country’s “moon stone” but had lost it. Malta’s moon rock was stolen from a museum and never recovered. In Ireland, the land of magic stones, the goodwill moon rock was lost in a museum fire.

These were the rocks Gutheinz dreamed of chasing. But from faraway Friendswood, without the resources of NASA, they might as well have been back in space, crusting the eye of the Man in the Moon. For years he focused mainly on the U.S., tracking moon rocks back to the dusty storage units and retired file cabinets of states that usually just forgot to care. During that time, he wrote articles about space in Earth magazine, with titles like “Settling the Moon: A Home Away From Home” and “Fix the Hubble Telescope: Mankind’s Spyglass on the Universe.” In Canada’s National Post, he wrote an editorial scolding U.S. Customs agents for allowing a man to enter the country despite the fact that he showed up at the border in Maine with a bloody chainsaw and sword, claiming to be a Marine assassin with 700 fresh kills. Gutheinz compared the negligence to that of NASA in the Jerry Whittredge case: “The U.S. government blew it and acknowledges their mistakes. U.S. Customs should make a similar admission.” When he wasn’t writing himself, Gutheinz would talk to any reporter who would listen, especially about moon rocks, hoping to catch a break on his next big case. And in late 2009, his telephone rang.

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Chapter Eight

On the other end of Gutheinz’s line was an Associated Press reporter named Toby Sterling. Earlier in the year, Sterling had reported that a Dutch museum’s Apollo 11 moon rock, which they’d insured for a half-million dollars, was just petrified wood—“It’s a nondescript, pretty much worthless stone,” one geologist commented. The find had prompted Sterling to launch his own investigation of the goodwill rocks, with nine other AP reporters. They phoned embassies and visited archives and museums, checking to see which nations still had their rocks. Sterling had found Gutheinz in one of the many articles in which the detective was quoted about moon rocks and thought he might be interested in what one of his reporters found.

An AP journalist who happened to be on the island nation of Cyprus had recently visited the battle-weary Mediterranean country’s National Museum to inquire about its rock. But the bewildered staff told the reporter that they had never even heard of a Cyprus goodwill moon rock. Presumably, the Nixon administration had sent the country one—even the Soviet Union got a moon rock—so Sterling tracked down the 1973 and 1974 communiqués from the U.S. embassy in Cyprus to see if there was any mention of where the rock had ended up. What he found instead was a peculiar string of telegrams:

18 JUL 1973

PRESENTATION OF MOON ROCK IN CYPRUSPRESENTS SOME UNUSUAL PROBLEMS CONCERNING REPRESENTATION OF TURKISH COMMUNITY AT ANY CEREMONY. … WE HAVE TWICE RAISED TOPIC WITH FOREIGN MINISTER, WHO PROMISES US AN EARLY REPLY.

23 APR 1974

WE DO NOT THINK WE SHOULD CONTINUE TO TRY TO THRUST UPON CYPRIOTS SOMETHING WHICH THEY ARE NOT INTERESTED IN RECEIVING. … IN TORTURED POLITICS OF THIS LITTLE ISLAND, GOVT COULD WELL PREFER NOT TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH FACT THAT IT WAS CYPRIOT FLAG WHICH APOLLO 17 DELIVERED TO THE MOON. FLYING OF CYPRIOT FLAG HERE IS LIMITED ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY TO POLICE STATIONS, AND DISPLAY BY OTHERS IS REGARDED AS SYMBOL OF LACK OF ENTHUSIASM FOR ENOSIS (UNION WITH GREECE).

30 APR 1974

WE WILL HOLD FOR PRESENTATION BY [U.S. AMBASSADOR] DAVIES NEXT SUMMER.

In fact, Gutheinz knew the Cyprus rock well. It had been one of the first he assigned to his students back in 2002. But the investigation had gone nowhere. It had proven to be a case too fraught with history for students to solve by phone from thousands of miles away: In Cyprus, civil unrest was as old as religion. And the county had for centuries been divided between the Christian Greeks in the northern section of the island and the Turkish Muslims in the south. A year after Nixon sent the Apollo rock to the island in 1973, the U.S.-backed Greek junta made a coup attempt that prompted the Turkish army to invade the north. The president of Cyprus, who was supposed to receive the moon rock, was ousted. To make matters worse, violence erupted at the American embassy in Nicosia. In August 1974, the U.S. ambassador was assassinated and the embassy was evacuated. Rioters burned the presidential palace—where Gutheinz and his students suspected the rock would have been displayed—to the ground. There the trail of the Cyprus moon rock had gone cold.

Now Sterling’s embassy telegrams suggested that the ambassador was assassinated before he had a chance to turn the rock over to Cyprus. In late 2009, the detective sent Pearlman an email informing him of Sterling’s discovery. If Cyprus never got its moon rock, Gutheinz asked, then who did? His partner’s reply stunned the detective: Pearlman was surprised the Cyprus rock was still “missing,” he wrote Gutheinz. He had known exactly where it was for years.

In 2003, Pearlman had received an email from a memorabilia dealer claiming that the Cyprus moon rock had surfaced. The dealer told Pearlman that a man, claiming to be the son of a U.S. diplomat who had been stationed in Cyprus in the 1970s, had contacted him looking for a broker to move the rock. The man explained that when the ambassador was assassinated and the embassy was evacuated in 1974, his father took possession of the rock but never returned it to the embassy or presented it to Cyprus. After his father died in 1996, the ambassador’s son found it in a storage locker in Virginia. At first he had assumed it was some sort of award his father had received for being a Foreign Service Officer. But when he’d seen the case of Rosen’s Honduran rock in the news, he’d realized what he had. He also knew—based on Rosen’s widely public reasoning on CNN and elsewhere during the trial—that a price tag on the order of millions was not considered unreasonable. On the now wide spectrum of unimaginable moon rock prices, his was a modest $1 million to $2 million.

Pearlman informed NASA’s OIG about the seller in August 2003, furnishing the name, location, and contact information. From there he assumed they’d pursued it. Preoccupied with the loss of the Columbia shuttle, he let it go. Now, six years later, Gutheinz was telling him that the whereabouts of the rock were still a mystery.

The detective, meanwhile, couldn’t believe what he was hearing: This was a two-week job! They had a witness! They had the email! Had he gotten that kind of tip when he was at NASA, he would have organized another Operation Lunar Eclipse to recover the rock.

Instead, he did what he could from the outside: In early September 2009, the detective requested a congressional investigation into the missing rock. He contacted a newspaper in Cyprus, The Cyprus Mail, and relayed that NASA had known where the rock was for seven years and hadn’t pursued it. On September 18, a Cyprus Mail reporter named Lucy Millett contacted Gutheinz. Millett was in a particularly good position to investigate the story, since her father was the former British ambassador to Cyprus at the time the rock was supposed to have been presented. In the weeks that followed, Millett worked with the detective—a “media blitz,” he called it—to publish five stories demanding that NASA investigate the theft and return the rock to Cyprus, with headlines like “Cyprus a Victim of Lunar Larceny” and “Cyprus Should Claim Rightfully Owned Moon Rock.”

The bad press paid off. A month later, NASA was contacted by a Washington, D.C., attorney representing the Cyprus seller, who apparently had been unable or unwilling to find a buyer for the rock. After five months of negotiation with the U.S. attorney, on April 16, 2010, the seller handed over the rock to NASA in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The rock was turned over to Lofgren, the lunar curator, who confirmed that it was indeed another piece of Sample 70017. The agency issued no press release and held no press conference. Unlike the case of the Honduran moon rock, there was no mention of the Cyprus rock in the American media—only an obligatory note in the 2010 semiannual report from NASA’s OIG:

During this reporting period, OIG investigators recovered a moon rock plaque that had been missing since the 1970s. The plaque had been intended for delivery by a U.S. diplomat to the people of Cyprus as a gift when hostilities broke out in that country. The plaque had remained in the custody of the diplomat until his death and was recovered from his son.

A year after the 2010 report, the rock was still in a vault at NASA, and Gutheinz was fuming that the U.S. government hadn’t returned it to Cyprus. It had given Honduras its moon rock, why not Cyprus? For Gutheinz, the real crime was that the rock never made it back to its rightful home.

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Chapter Nine

Houston was once a company town. Johnson Space Center employed 3,000 people in the city, the fourth largest in the U.S., and Houstonians were proud of the space program, particularly the moon landings. In the lobby of Terminal B at Bush Intercontinental, travelers are greeted by a larger-than-life sculpture of a cow in a space suit planting the Lone Star State’s flag on the moon, with a plaque that reads: “This masterpiece represents the merging of the arts with aeronautics, and depicts Houston’s spirit of mingling creativity with opportunity.”

“Houston was the first word in space!” pointed out the woman at the car-rental desk when I arrived in the fall of 2011. She added that she’d collected the badges from all the different space missions. Astronauts used to come through the airport all the time, she continued, but not so much since the shuttle program ended.

Out in his Friendswood law office, the man I’d come to see still considered himself a “company man.” He was sitting at his polished-hardwood desk, on which he kept four small moon rocks cut from lunar meteorites. “I miss it,” he said of his days at NASA, leaning back in his chair and taking a sip of a Diet Coke. But the time when Russians were “the Russians” had passed, and now, Gutheinz told me, he often found himself at odds with the agency he once knew. Even when it managed to pull off a decent moon rock sting, he tended to find it lacking. The previous spring, NASA had received a tip that a 74-year-old woman in Riverside County, California, was claiming to have a moon rock for sale. It was the same old story: a lunar peddler trying to sell a piece of the moon to someone she was already vaguely suspicious was an undercover cop. And NASA’s investigation began much like it might have in Gutheinz’s day. An agent telephoned the seller to purchase the rock, the two set up a meet, and the second known moon rock exchange to take place at a Denny’s restaurant was under way.

But on the day of the meet, when the four-foot-eleven-inch senior citizen furnished the stone to the undercover agent, a half-dozen bulletproof-vested NASA special agents and Riverside County sheriffs stormed the diner and forcibly removed the elderly woman—bruising her left arm and terrifying her sufficiently to cause her to lose control of her bladder. Gutheinz found himself outraged by law enforcement’s conduct. “I believe you treat people with respect,” he told me. To Gutheinz, this little old lady was hardly a criminal. For one thing, Lofgren confirmed her moon rock was real; but it wasn’t a stolen goodwill rock. According to Gutheinz, NASA workers who were cleaning suits and tools after an Apollo mission likely pocketed it.

Sherlock Holmes had his bees in Sussex to keep him busy when he left Baker Street; Gutheinz had his moon rocks. He had expanded his operation from the University of Phoenix to a local community college, where, since 2004, he had taught criminal justice in classrooms with infrared cameras and armed guards. He didn’t have the money or manpower he’d had at NASA, but finally he had adequate security. In his law office, a table pushed up against the far wall held a stack of homemade books he created to chronicle his lunar investigations. At home he had a hope chest full of these books, containing newspaper clippings and emails from his old NASA cases. “I don’t have a pristine memory,” he said. “It helps me remember things.”

Lately, he’d been wrapped up in what could prove to be one of his strangest cases yet. In 2010, one of Gutheinz’s online students, an autoworker in Michigan, had tried to track down a moon rock given to Alaska after Apollo 11. When she called up the state museum and told the curator what she was looking for, he was interested enough to help. He discovered that, in 1969, the state transportation museum had indeed been charged with taking care of the rock. It placed the stone in a small glass case and put it on display. But four years later there was a fire at the museum, making the state of Alaska the fourth known party to have the building intended to house a moon rock destroyed. No one knew what had happened to the plaque after that.

To make matters worse, the student could find no paper trail beyond a government-run exhibit in early 1971 at the Chugach Gem and Mineral Society, a local potluck-throwing club for “individuals and families interested in mineral collecting and lapidary.” After a semester of fruitless searching, she published her assigned editorial in an Anchorage newspaper, asking for information. “With help from the good citizens of Alaska,” she wrote, “I am confident we will be successful.”

After the article came out, Alaska’s museum curator received a request from a lawyer in Seattle for all of Alaska’s records about the 1973 transportation-museum fire. The curator was suspicious, given the timing of the request and the scant conceivable reasons that a lawyer from Seattle might be interested in a three-decades-old fire at a transportation museum way up in noncontiguous Alaska. “He didn’t say anything about moon rocks … it was kind of strange,” the curator told a local reporter at the time. “We had no idea what they were getting at.”

In December 2010, he got his answer. The lawyer served the state of Alaska with a complaint from his client, a fishing-boat captain who demanded to be recognized as the legal owner of the rock, which he claimed to have rescued from the museum fire in 1973. The moon rock was being kept in an undisclosed location in Asia. The client, a man named Coleman Anderson, also happened to be the captain of the king crab boat Western Viking, featured on the first season of the popular reality-TV show Deadliest Catch.

Anderson stated that a few days after the fire in 1973, as a 17-year-old kid in Anchorage, he was exploring the rubble when he came across the Apollo 11 moon rock plaque, covered in a melted material. At this point, garbage crews were just shoveling away the debris. He thought the moon rock looked “cool”—“a neat souvenir”—so he decided he’d save it from extinction. He took it home, “in full view of the garbage-removal workers,” his lawyer would state, and scrubbed the moon rock clean with toothpaste. Without him and his toothbrush, he claimed, this piece of the moon would have wound up in some snow-covered Alaskan landfill. And anyway, this was 1973: “The plaque was considered not to have any real monetary value because it was assumed moon trips would become a near everyday occurrence.”

If Alaska wouldn’t let him keep the rock, he expected to be compensated for it. He didn’t specify an exact amount. That would be “proven at trial”—a trial where it is almost certain that Anderson will bring up Rosen’s $5 million price tag for the Honduras moon rock, as well as Lofgren’s confirmation of that price and Gutheinz’s ongoing reaffirmation of it in the media.

At the time I met Gutheinz, neither he nor his student were buying Anderson’s story. “It’s fishy,” said the student. After Anderson’s lawyer filed his information request with the museum, the curator had unearthed a file revealing that after the 1973 fire, two employees had seen the rock still in its glass display case. It wasn’t until a few days later that another worker noticed that the case was empty, with a square marking the dust around the spot the plaque had sat.

At the time, the employee assumed the museum’s then curator, a man named Phil Redden, had taken the rock home for safekeeping. But Redden denied it, so the investigation was filed in the museum’s inactive drawer. It might have been understandable that there was no mention of Redden in Anderson’s statement to the court. Redden died in 1998 and a year after the fire had moved to South Dakota to take up a humble life of antiques restoration, square dancing, and card playing. By all accounts, his life had little to do with the moon rock in question—save for the last paragraph of his obituary: “Mr. Redden is survived by his … foster son, Coleman Anderson.”

Gutheinz’s student believed there could be some sort of scheme behind the claim. It was, to her and the detective, an unlikely coincidence that Anderson just happened to be the son of the same museum curator that an employee had once suspected of taking the rock. But, as in the case of Rosen and Honduras, it was now up to the court to decide. Gutheinz told me he was sure the state would get its rock back.

In the meantime, there was other work to do. Things moved more slowly around Friendswood than they had at NASA, but they moved forward nonetheless. A few months earlier, he had published an editorial in the Cyprus Mail titled “Houston, We Have a Problem,” continuing his crusade to force NASA to return that nation’s rock. At the moment, he was helping New Jersey’s attorney general launch an investigation to find the state’s piece of Sample 70017. He hoped to do the same in New York. All told, the Nixon and Ford administrations passed out 377 moon rocks between the Apollo 11 and 17 missions. In the past 14 years, Gutheinz had personally helped track down 77 of them; 160 were still missing. The 56-year-old detective took another sip of his Diet Coke. He was looking exhausted, and it was time for me to go. As I got up, he stopped me with a wave of his hand. “Grab one of those little moon rocks on my desk,” he said. “It’s yours. You can have it.”

Baghdad Country Club

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Baghdad Country Club

Welcome to a place where even beer runs are a matter of life and death.

By Joshuah Bearman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 10


Joshuah Bearman has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Wired, McSweeney’s, and The New York Times Magazine, and is a contributor to This American Life. He is currently working on his first book, St. Croix, a memoir.


Editor: Alissa Quart
Producer: Olivia Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Research and Production: Gray Beltran
Animations, Illustrations, and Cover: Colleen Cox

Published in December 2011. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter 1

Terminal 2 was a mess, as usual. James was booked on the daily charter from Dubai to Baghdad, a notoriously erratic flight. It was September 2005, and this was the main way to fly into Iraq’s capital from the Gulf. Whether that plane was going to take off—or even show up—was an open question. 

Even in good weather, you’d arrive in the morning at Terminal 2, put your bags through, and wait. The place was dreary; the only food came from a basic sandwich shop and a coffee trolley that occasionally rolled around. If you were lucky, you’d seat yourself in one of the few plastic chairs, sip your burnt coffee, and hope to leave that day. If nothing happened by three in the afternoon or so, someone in a uniform would wander in and say, “Sorry everyone. Try again tomorrow.”

James had already spent three days there when a well-dressed Iraqi named Ahmed sat next to him and struck up a conversation. James was the only white guy in sight. Ahmed spoke excellent English, and to James his blue eyes suggested that he was likely Kurdish. They recognized each other from around BIAP, Baghdad International Airport, and got along immediately. James was a British soldier turned contractor, Ahmed a businessman, and at a certain level of Iraqi commerce everyone who was anyone crossed paths. 

James didn’t want to reveal too much about himself at first. As he puts it, these were the bad old days in Baghdad, and if you didn’t know exactly who you were talking to, it was best to stay quiet. But he found himself with plenty of time to discover that Ahmed had lived in Manchester, not far from where James grew up, in Leeds, and that they had some mutual friends. Ahmed, James realized, was an especially well connected businessman, the kind of guy who knew how to get 50 tractors or 10 tons of copper wiring or a meeting with the president. 

“And I also own Iraq’s duty-free rights,” Ahmed announced. 

“You don’t say,” James replied. “Then maybe you can bring in some booze, mate! There’s nothing decent to drink in country.” 

Since the invasion, eighteen months earlier, alcohol had been hard to come by in the Green Zone, the fortified compound at the heart of the city, which now housed both the Iraqi Transitional Government and American diplomats and soldiers. Theater-wide, U.S. military personnel were prohibited from drinking by General Order No. 1, a policy meant as a gesture of cultural understanding, despite the fact that, for the previous forty years, cities like Baghdad had a vibrant nightlife.

GO-1 notwithstanding, there was an entire occupying force in Iraq, and drinking followed. The Green Zone’s rump of a social scene was informally carried out in containers, tents, and trailers inside one fortified encampment or another. 

James had been coming to Iraq since the invasion, and he had done plenty of grimy drinking in various makeshift quarters. He knew recreation was lacking. Like so much about Operation Iraqi Freedom, the war planners had given little thought to the logistics of leisure. Which meant that, like everything else about Operation Iraqi Freedom, even R&R was ripe for enterprise. 

Another reason alcohol was a rare commodity in the Green Zone was the insurgency, which was raging out of control and making all commerce difficult—especially commerce in something like booze, which was haram, forbidden by Islamic law. Before 2005, you could drink in the open all over the city, but a Shia ascendancy and accompanying violence had changed that. 

Ahmed, it seemed, had access to imported alcohol. “Alcohol is not a problem,” he told James. But he couldn’t get it into the Green Zone, the biggest market. Supply was tragically separated from demand. James realized Ahmed was suggesting they go into business together. 

“I can get you many brands,” Ahmed said. “In volume.” 

“Call me when we’re in Baghdad,” said James. 

They exchanged numbers and went their separate ways. James didn’t think much more of it at the time. He told a few people about the guy he’d met in Dubai, but Iraqis have a saying: One coincidence is worth a thousand meetings. James wasn’t expecting it when, three weeks later, Ahmed called. 

“Are we on, James?” Ahmed said. “Reference our discussion.” 

Not long ago, they were two guys chatting in an airport. Now Ahmed was talking about container shipments full of booze already heading south. That’s how easily deals can be made in Baghdad. 

“We’ll split it down the middle,” Ahmed said. “I’ll take some off the top for expenses.”

Chapter 2

A few weeks later, James was cursing himself for getting into the bootlegging business. He had never handled that much of his own money before—$150,000—much less handed it over to someone he barely knew, in cash. His entire life savings was now denominated in liquor, which he had piled into an 18-wheeler and driven through hostile Baghdad. He wound up circling the Green Zone several times, unsuccessfully seeking entry—wrong badges, wrong checkpoints, wrong turns through the often deadly downtown—and was starting to get nervous when he eventually made it through Checkpoint 18.

Within days, James’s alcohol supply was sold through, at quite a margin. He had doubled his money, and that was just from informal sales through a small rented storefront. Now his ambition grew from accidental entrepreneur to impresario. James liked to talk about how the best things in life just happen to you sometimes. The key, he believed, was being ready to embrace them. He’d seen a lot of people talk themselves out of great opportunities. Not him. Not here. The way of Baghdad was to figure out what no one else was doing and make that your game.

And so James became an extreme restaurateur, opening the only authentic bar and restaurant in the Green Zone. It would be the one place where anyone—mercenaries and diplomats, contractors and peacekeepers, aid workers and Iraqis—could walk in, get dinner, open a decent bottle of Bordeaux, and light a cigar from the humidor to go with it. Patrons would check their weapons in a safe, like coats in a coatroom, and leave the war behind as they wandered past a sign that read:

BAGHDAD COUNTRY CLUB
NO GUNS, NO AMMUNITION, NO GRENADES,
NO FLASH BANGS, NO KNIVES—
NO EXCEPTIONS!

Chapter 3

Like all institutions in occupied Iraq, the Baghdad Country Club was organized on the fly. James didn’t plan to open a bar when he first arrived there in 2003, with the British Army contingent of the coalition of the willing. He was an active-duty major from the elite ranks—the tip of the tip of the spear, securing Basra and the cities around it.

When his tour was up six months later and he returned to London, James was about to be promoted to a desk job, but at 30, he says, he “wasn’t yet ready for a slow death.” Two months after quitting the service, he was contacted by a friend who had started a security company.

“We’ve got something going on in Baghdad,” his friend told him. “Are you in?”

London felt lifeless to him. James’s first question was “When do I leave?”

Having fought in the South, James was new to Iraq’s capital, which was still a free-for-all, even inside the Green Zone. The war’s poor planning had plunged Baghdad into chaos, from which the Green Zone was an attempted redoubt, a fortified city within a city: four square miles bordered by the tan flow of the Tigris river on two sides and by walls on the rest. All checkpoints were militarized, providing refuge for the thousands of people who lived and worked at the various military bases and private compounds. The perimeter also housed Iraqi political headquarters and the U.S. Embassy.

At the time, the embassy resided in Saddam’s famous Republican Palace and was operated by KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown and Root), then a subsidiary of Halliburton. It was, after all, the first privatized war, and the Green Zone was full of profit seekers: thousands of civilian contractors looking for action in everything from paving roads to oil services to reforming Iraqi school curricula. It was contractors who built the new military bases, who cooked the soldiers’ food and laundered their uniforms. And it was contractors who formed their own parallel informal army, made up of ex–law enforcement and ex-military soldiers of fortune, flooding the country for lucrative PSDs, or private security details.

James knew people from the big outfits like Blackwater, which was quickly developing a reputation as the Wal-Mart of security: high volume and, many thought, poor quality. It was Blackwater that received enormous no-bid contracts to provide security first to Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and then to the State Department, at incredible cost and with little accountability. Enlisted soldiers were frustrated by the ubiquitous presence of better-paid mercenaries bullying the roads in gleaming armored SUVs and engaging with seeming impunity. Blackwater had been involved in a number of civilian shootings and, like many other contractor groups, would be accused of systematically defrauding the U.S. government. But not all contractors were like that. The companies James worked for were smaller, more focused, and, in his view, more professional. One of James’s first details with Global Risk Strategies, the outfit formed by his friend, was at the U.S. Embassy, securing the inner perimeter with about 500 Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers known for their fearsome fighting. Later, James provided security for the UN-supported elections.

For James, Iraq held a primal appeal: He liked living in a world without rules, where you made things up as you went along. He fit neatly into the country’s trader environment, and spent a lot of time driving around Baghdad with lots of cash, “finding things that were hard to find.” He was director of intelligence for Global, and part of his job was knowing a wide swath of people: Military and mercenary, Western and Iraqi. And unlike the twitchy guys who drove around in battle mode despite the fact that they rarely went outside the Green Zone’s concrete T-walls—camp commandos, as they were called—James was unafraid to go out into the Red Zone, as everyone referred to the rest of Baghdad.

James bought a contraband moped, a Honda 150, and scooted around Green Zone wearing bespoke suits brought from home. Just because you’re in country, he thought, doesn’t mean your standards have to slip. He was a soldier of fortune, but of a gentlemanly sort. Friends thought James so connected, mysterious, and daring that they considered him the closest they’d come to meeting James Bond in person. He told of having snuck into Fallujah in September 2004, at the height of a frenzy of kidnappings and beheadings, undercover and alone, wearing a dishdasha and a grenade strapped to his leg —all an attempt to rescue a British engineer who was being held by Al Qaeda in Iraq. (The engineer, Kenneth Bigley, was ultimately beheaded.) Back in the Green Zone, James did favors, cashed in quid pro quos, and made quite a reputation for himself in the process.

His chance encounter with Ahmed had now propelled him into hospitality. There had been a couple locales for drinkers early on in the occupation: the Ishtar out at the airport; the Al-Rasheed Hotel (of rooftop-reporting fame during the first Gulf War), with its decrepit disco and illuminated dance floor adorned with the Baath Party star; the Green Zone Café, which offered hookahs and live Arabic music. But by 2004, the Al-Rasheed had been hit with rockets—one volley was fired from a donkey—and now housed a U.S. military cafeteria. Similarly, the Green Zone Café closed after it was blasted by a suicide bomber. And the Ishtar didn’t last, probably because Iraq’s transportation minister banned the sale of alcohol at the airport in 2005.

James was well poised to fill this vacuum. Besides the guarantee of Ahmed’s liquor supply, he knew everyone. He already went to all the parties, and like club owners from New York City to Tokyo, he also knew how to make the party come to him. In Baghdad, success was about relationships. The same was true for the Baghdad Country Club.

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Chapter 4

To get anything done in Iraq, you needed to be like James: to know a guy who knows a guy. Still, to build and run a bar in Baghdad, James needed someone with deeper connections than even he possessed. Local connections. He needed a guy who knew lots of guys. He needed Ajax.

Ajax was an Iraqi, a wiry little chain smoker who was trusted by everyone. He had worked as a translator for the Army and had opened several businesses in the Green Zone—a Smoothie King in Camp Prosperity, the Fubi Internet Café, a Laundromat, and a concrete concern, providing 14-foot T-walls to the U.S. military in bulk. After some time in Iraq, James had come to sense that many Iraqis avoided making decisions, because they grew up in a place where the wrong choice could get you killed. But Ajax was different. He thought like an executive.

James began employing Ajax as a fixer. He had the right clearances and knew the right people. He could source anything, an incredible asset in Baghdad, as Iraqi logistics tends to follow the creed of inshallah—it will happen when it happens, God willing. Ajax never took notes but remembered almost everything. He knew the authorities, and he knew the underground. James didn’t want to hear how he did it half the time, but Ajax could solve any problem. Need a generator? Done. A crane? No problem. A flatbed truck? Ajax would have one parked outside the next day. And if the truck broke down, Ajax could get out, lift the hood, and probably fix that, too.

It was Ajax who helped find the villa that would become the BCC. “What’s the first rule of business?” Ajax says now. “Location! And this place was good.” He knew the owner and set up a meeting. Cash was king in Baghdad, where there were still no ATMs. James loaded $200,000 into a plastic sack, took a deep breath, and handed it over.

He would spend almost that much on renovation. The villa looked like a junkyard. It took the crew Ajax assembled about two months to get it ready. Walls came down and a kitchen was installed, along with six backup refrigerators on the second floor in case of war-related supply-chain interruptions. James, a onetime architecture student, had a grand vision of a gentleman’s club in Arabic style. One of his favorite movies was Casablanca, and he’d always loved the idea of Rick’s Café Américain.

In the end, the bar didn’t quite achieve the charm of the film’s arabesque hideaway, but it was as close as James could get under the circumstances. Ajax scoured the markets for matching wooden chairs and tables, a luxury in the Green Zone, where so much was made out of corrugated metal and plastic. They hung local art on the walls. They imported materials from Dubai, and Ajax built a bar made from Italian marble.

Outside was James’s obsession: a walled courtyard of hard-packed mud he would turn into a lush garden. “He was crazy,” Ajax recalls. “He wanted grass out there so badly.” His colleagues made fun of him for his gardening passion, like a horticultural Ahab demanding more sod, watering, kneeling down in the yard every day to feel the soil and monitor the progress of the young blades. “But he got that grass in the end,” Ajax says. It may not have been Wimbledon, but it was green. The first time James turned on the lighting that he’d installed in the surrounding trees, he knew it was worth the effort. There would be one place in the Green Zone where you could sit outside, a cold beer in hand, and watch one of those blistering 110-degree Baghdad days slide into a surprisingly pleasant evening.

That’s just the type of night it was when the first customers showed up for what was supposed to be “a little preview.” It was a Thursday in August of 2006, the start of the weekend in the Middle East, the day before Friday prayers. James let a few people in to check out the new bar. Somehow word got around, and by seven the place was packed solid.

James guessed there must have been 300 people there. It was impossible to move,  and a few hours later the 50 cases of beer they’d put on ice were gone. As was the Dewar’s, Bacardi, and Jim Beam. Ajax was frantically trying to restock the bar. Jodie and Richie, ex-paratrooper friends of James’s, jumped in as reinforcements behind the bar. “It was crazy,” Ajax remembers. “We had to lock the gates.”

By two in the morning, the Baghdad Country Club was nearly dry but still packed. James and Ajax took a break from the crowd and went up to the BCC’s roof. It looked out over a jigsaw puzzle of armored SUVs in every direction. The local cluster of villas that once housed Saddam’s elite was now home to government offices like the Ministry of Environment and the headquarters of the peshmergas—Kurdish militias—whose generals had already started coming by to supplement their regular doses of Chivas Regal.

In the distance, the turquoise dome of the Republican Palace presided over the empty streets of the Green Zone. The last case of Corona was cooling in a tub, and James pulled out two for himself and Ajax. Down below, mounted on a wall above James’s hard-won lawn was the bar’s light-up shingle, commissioned by James in cursive neon over black, flickering the bar’s name, Miami beachfront style. People were already taking pictures in front of it, beers in hand, commemorating the grand opening of the Baghdad Country Club.

Chapter 5

As the BCC took off, Ajax and James could often be seen together around the Green Zone on bar business. Ajax had a new Mercedes and a penchant for $400 loafers imported from Istanbul. Even James, a dandy of the Green Zone, found the shoes excessive. “Where’d you get those?” he would say. “You look like a pimp!”

Considering their business, James thought it wise to keep a low profile. And besides, he wondered, what was the point of having a fancy vehicle when there were speed bumps everywhere? That didn’t stop Ajax from rolling past Baghdad’s iconic Saddam-era sculpture, the Swords of Qadisiyah, in his black CS500, foot on the gas in his fancy loafers, wads of cash in his pockets. “If you saw me and James together,” Ajax says, “you would think that I was the boss.”

After a long day, Ajax and James often unwound on the BCC’s roof, drinking Red Label on ice. They sat perched on cases of hooch, watching choppers fly overhead. They were close friends from two entirely different worlds, bound by an entrepreneurial spirit. Much of Ajax’s own family had already fled Baghdad, but Ajax saw himself as a businessman, and his business was in the city. Before he’d left, Ajax’s father, a former surgeon for Saddam, had arranged a marriage for his son. Now Ajax’s fiancée, a Sunni, was in Egypt with her family; Ajax had sent her there for safety until things settled down back home.

All of these departures unsettled Ajax’s personal life. Already a regular drinker, he became profligate when problems flared up with his distant bride-to-be. He drank whiskey around Americans; with Iraqis he’d fill a glass with arak, an anise-derived national liquor that goes milky with ice. Danny, the bar’s manager, recalls Ajax getting blitzed and causing problems with the staff on more than one occasion. Even in that state, though, he remained in top form. “His business mind never faltered,” Danny says. “No matter how drunk or lovelorn.”

Ajax’s constant presence around the bar was certainly a rarity, as few Iraqis played prominent roles in Green Zone businesses. The BCC was Ajax’s natural environment, though, a place where he could obtain the kind of status and exposure few other locals had. Suspicion of Iraqis was common in the Green Zone, but if anyone disrespected Ajax they were removed from the premises.

Ajax and James had a unique relationship: they were loyal to one another in a place where allegiance was always questioned. Besides James, Ajax was one of only two other people with the combination to the bar’s safe. The second was Heide, one of the bartenders, and for her there was a note inside the safe that provided a number and instructed, “If you have a problem, call Ajax.”

Heide was Ajax’s opposite. Like her wares, she was imported: a 22-year-old blond escapee from Tampa, Florida. The sister of one of James’s friends, she didn’t know James very well when she agreed to come. It takes a certain type of person to sign up sight unseen for under-the-counter work in war-torn Baghdad, but Heide was sick of Florida, where she worked for a real estate company during the Sunshine State’s housing peak. She was restless, and when she got a phone call from Iraq asking if she could be there in two weeks, she hesitated only briefly before saying yes.

She found the whole experience bizarre, starting with the corkscrew combat landing designed to dodge missiles at the airport (where one clock was frozen at 22:43 p.m., perhaps a relic from 2003 when the country was shocked and awed). She was clearly the youngest person on the flight and the only woman. She caught a lot of glances that said, What are you doing on this plane? After her flight hit the tarmac, James quickly put her in body armor and ushered her into the center car of a caravan of three armored SUVs. “Just a precaution, you know?” he said as they embarked on the treacherous drive into town.

In addition to tending bar alongside several Iraqi Christians, Heide manned the wholesale bottle shop that James and Ajax ran out of a guard shack on the property. The shelves stocked the finest spirits the pair could find, which sometimes meant actual quality, alongside gift-store items—T-shirts, mugs, and hats emblazoned with the BCC logo and motto: “It Takes Real Balls to Play Here.”

Heide was especially popular with the BCC’s male-heavy clientele, although she remained oblivious to their advances. “I am just naturally friendly,” she says now. “Later I realized a lot of people probably thought I was flirting with them.”

Indeed, the Baghdad Country Club developed a reputation as one of the few places that a man might meet a woman. Kevin, a Special Forces soldier on his sixth tour in Iraq, routinely violated GO-1 to hang out there. “After working that long and not having fun or getting laid,” he says, “sometimes you at least wanted to see a woman with a drink in her hand.”

While Heide attracted attention, Danny quietly managed the place: greeting patrons, dealing with staff, and running the kitchen. James wanted the menu to be good, which wasn’t easy. Whereas much of the food in the Green Zone was processed, packaged, shipped, and reconstituted, Ajax got fresh produce and meat for the kitchen. Danny got along well with Iraqis, and he made sure to serve the national dish of masgouf—fish with onion and pickles—alongside Western-style bruschetta, salads, and steaks. He brought in a chef named Dino to come up with recipes and marinades. Good fish was difficult to come by in Baghdad, but James knew a guy who knew a guy who could sometimes get trout flown in on Delta Force choppers. And Ahmed’s regular shipments of spirits kept the bar stocked for proper cocktails.

“We never hoped to get a Michelin star,” Danny says. “But we managed to give people the one thing you don’t have in Baghdad: a choice.”

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Chapter 6

Over time, the BCC became Baghdad’s watering hole, filled nightly from dinner through the small hours. “It reminded me of D.C.,” says Tim, a State Department employee and patron of the BCC. “I’d usually go for the late shift. Everyone would be there. You knew the scene would be going strong at 10  or 11.”

At its best, the place had something in common with Rick’s Café in Casablanca. But at times it also tended toward the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars. It was, after all, a tavern in a war zone. The atmosphere was full of testosterone, and things could take a sudden turn toward trouble. One night, an obstreperous high-ranking officer refused to relinquish his sidearm. On another, “Down Under” came on over the PA and a pack of blotto Australian PSDs went nuts and had to be forcibly removed. (Danny later removed all Men at Work from the bar’s iPod.)

As the charming maître d’, it was Danny’s job to defuse any commotion. And despite his small (and clearly civilian) stature, he was pretty good at it. James thought Danny’s self-deprecating Jewish-guy-with-glasses routine helped him keep people from killing each other or getting out of control. There was, for instance, the time when Tony the Mouse, a notorious Lebanese pimp, showed up in the BCC brandishing his goods. Tony was short, sleazy, and self-confident; Danny noticed him the moment he walked in. Tony tried to dress like the contractors, but his gear was too big. Danny thought he looked like a kid in his dad’s hunting outfit. With him were several Iraqi girls of questionable age, done up in even more questionable makeup, doused in perfume, and wearing what in theory was passable Islamic dress but in material looked more like harem couture. “You smelled the girls before you saw them,” Danny recalls. He intercepted Tony before he even sat down.

“I’m sorry,” Danny said, “but this is not what we’re going for here.”

“Come on, my friend!” Tony whined back. “It’s no problem.”

James had struggled to keep his bar from feeling like a saloon, and surely hookers weren’t going to help. “Listen,” Danny said. “We need to talk about this somewhere else.” He pulled Tony toward the garden. Tony protested, dropping names: I know this person, I know that person, I know James. When Danny was unmoved, Tony whined: “Don’t do this to me!”

“This is not going to be your showroom,” Danny said. “So you need to take these girls out of here.” Politely but firmly, Danny convinced Tony to leave. Danny had tried to be discreet, but in Baghdad you notice when women come and go, and when it was over several people called out, Hey, why did you kick out the ladies? Is this the Baghdad Sausage Club?

Not every incident at the bar ended in laughs. Diplomacy didn’t always work with inebriated mercenaries. One night, a regular named Jann, a six-foot-six Icelandic hulk of a man everyone called Bear, squared off against an American in a checked shirt that clung tightly to his action-figure physique. The two guys were in a dangerously pugilistic state: They were drunk enough to be aggressive but not enough to stagger away from a fight. In seconds, Bear was clutching a knife, serrated for tactical gutting, in his spring-loaded fist.

Danny leaped into the breach, inserting his five-foot-eight-inch frame between 600 pounds of machismo. “Here in Baghdad, we don’t solve problems with violence,” he said.  A little joke to take the edge off, Danny thought to himself. But the American didn’t laugh. Instead, he sent Danny flying. This is what it’s like to get thrown across the room, Danny thought as he landed against the wall. And by just a flick of one arm. What if this guy had punched me?

James was upstairs when he heard the commotion. He sprinted down to find the combatants at the ready, flanked by motivated comrades. He knew this could turn into a full-on brawl, and that would be bad news for everyone. When he was a soldier, James had seen plenty of action, but he had a rule about bar fights: Don’t face two titans brandishing steel. He had to do something, however. “Think this through,” he said, hands open to show he was unarmed. By now, the Iraqi kitchen staff had appeared, industrial cutlery in hand. He waved them off. “You’re gonna get us shut down,” he said to the two men. “I don’t want that. These people don’t, either. And neither do you. Where else would you go on a Friday night?”

The ploy created just enough of a pause for Ali, the senior doorman and a former Iraqi national bodybuilding champion, to separate everyone. James wanted to throw both Bear and the American out, but the fight would only have rekindled in the street, so he and Ali escorted the American and his buddies to the door first.

“I’ll be back!” yelled the American once he realized he was being singled out. He broke loose of Ali’s grip to take a swing at James before the bouncers dragged him away. “I’ll burn this place down!”

James wasn’t worried. After all, what drinker would destroy the only bar in town? The next day, the American did come back, sober, to apologize. “It won’t happen again,” he told James. “I’d like to be able to return for a drink sometime.”

Chapter 7

Such were the hazards of running a club in a war zone, but dicey scenes were surprisingly rare at the BCC. Like Rick Blaine, James tried hard to maintain decorum. He enforced a dress code—no mean feat in Iraq. If James had his way, everyone would have worn bespoke suits, maybe even white tuxedos, but he had to settle for trousers and shirtsleeves. The khaki, cargo-pocketed “5-11” brand of tactical gear worn by most people looked like shit, he thought, but at least he could forbid shorts and frown on T-shirts to keep things a little classy.

While Danny turned out to be something of a diplomat, making a point of knowing everyone who came in and managing awkward scenes, James maintained a distant presence, studiously aloof. There was an aura around him. He knew everyone else’s business, while few knew his.

Rather than fraternize with the barflies, James preferred the company of his own circle. First among them was Bonnie, his girlfriend. She was in Iraq working on sensitive intelligence issues for an agency that, years later, she prefers not to name. Just before the bar opened, James had spotted her at a smoke-filled temporary drinking den in the compound of RTI, a demining contractor. An attractive, professional woman in the Green Zone was hard to miss.

Bonnie, a longtime Middle East specialist, hadn’t planned on an in-country romance. Both she and James knew that emotions ran wild in a war zone, and they saw themselves as exceptions to the rule: coolheaded and rational. So no one was more surprised than they were to be falling for each other, a development made thornier by Bonnie’s security clearance. She and James couldn’t hold hands or really be seen with each other. She was breaking rules just to come by the bar. James, meanwhile, had a wife back home, but they had separated by the time the club opened. They’d married at 27 but had different expectations about life, and hers did not include running a bar in Baghdad.

Around the BCC, Bonnie and James were discreet about their passions. “We would see them there,” Ajax says. “But they always had to hide.” James, no longer in the army and not attached to any contractor, had his own house in the Green Zone, an unusual luxury in a place where most people bunked with 10 other guys and everyone tended to know each other’s business. James’s place had a big wooden door, Arabic furnishings, and art on the walls. It was cool enough that he could store his wine collection there, a nice perk on quiet evenings. “We could disappear,” James says. “And that allowed a fairly normal relationship.” It was that rare place in Baghdad, Bonnie recalls, where they could truly “shut out the world.”


The BCC, itself a retreat, attracted a coterie of regulars to its walled garden. Kevin, the Special Forces soldier, liked the place so much he started volunteering behind the bar. One retired American couple had left their empty nest back home for Baghdad, of all places, and now they repaired to the BCC every day at six to sip whiskey and water. One of James’s friends—who he says lived a lonely and isolated I Am Legend–type existence as the sole inhabitant of the abandoned El Carthage Hotel, deep in the Red Zone, with guns stashed everywhere—used to brave the Baghdad roads alone just to get a chance to sit on James’s grass. 

Reverend Canon Andrew White, whom Danny called the Mad Bishop but everyone else called the Vicar of Baghdad, was the rector of St. George’s, the last Anglican Church in the Iraqi capital, located just outside the the Green Zone. “I loved coming to the BCC,” White recalls. “It was the one place you could relax in that damn city.”

White often brought people to have dinner at the bar. His self-described “ministry of reconciliation and conflict mediation” required that, like James, he remain well connected. He met with coalition forces, local sectarian factions, and insurgents, always trying to play the role of peacemaker. “Some people thought the sun shone out of his ass,” Danny said. “Other people just thought he was an ass.” White’s mission of peace surely seemed quixotic in Baghdad, where it was dangerous for him to appear at his own parish. Still, White had intervened in more than 160 hostage cases, he says, often at personal risk. One mission to save a Brazilian national found White being held in a room with severed fingers and toes lying around the floor. The Mad Bishop got out of that one alive but lost the hostage. (To this day, White wanders around Baghdad in tattersall shirts with a bow tie and glasses, presenting himself as a self-appointed interfaith missionary.)

White’s security people didn’t like him going to the BCC, but then again they didn’t like him going anywhere. As a clergyman, White wouldn’t dance or drink. The dance floor was, in fact, physically off-limits—White had multiple sclerosis, and he walked with a cane. But he loved that it was there, with people mingling from all walks of life. “I went for work, for diversion, and for the food,” he says now. “They knew how to serve up something proper.”

The BCC was filled every night, from dinner through the small hours, with senior diplomats from the EU and the UN sharing the bar with steel workers coming off 16-hour shifts. Mercenaries from Blackwater and Aegis Defence Services sat alongside workers from the Army Corps of Engineers and State Department managers on hardship posts. Contractors would schedule dinners with Iraqi businessmen.

The Green Zone’s many agencies and companies were compartmentalized and competitive, and no one liked to share information, but the BCC functioned like an informal intelligence network. Over a glass of whiskey, patrons might compare notes about contracts or logistics. If you kept your ears open, you knew if there was action in Hilla, a new telecommunications contract up north, trouble on a pipeline. At the very least, James thought, people could take comfort that they were all in the same boat. Baghdad, he imagined, was something like London during the Blitz. There was a siege mentality that brought people together.

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Chapter 8

Iraqis have a word, barra, which means “out there,” and came to mean the rest of Baghdad, the bedlam beyond the T-walls. As the insurgency reached fever pitch, Iraqis and Americans alike were terrified that barra would not stay out there but come in here, that the war would breach the perimeter, that the place would collapse and there would be a mad scramble to evacuate, like Saigon in ’75.

To keep the bar adequately stocked so that everyone could forget about barra, James and Ajax had to venture out there themselves regularly. To cross hostile roads in vehicles laden with liquor, James would trade his suit for overalls and body armor, his Glock tucked into his ops vest, an M-4 in the passenger seat, a bag of cash stashed in the back. Fatalism came easy in a place with so many fatalities—if today’s your day, it’s your day, James thought whenever he eased behind the wheel.

Beer for the BCC was a loss leader: It had to be in the bar, but the extraordinary logistics to obtain it were bad for the bottom line. That’s because beer came from downtown. The volume meant size, and size meant you were a target, winding through Baghdad’s warren of confusing streets in an open truck. Proper security, however, disappeared in the face of overwhelming demand.

James couldn’t go anywhere near the area himself, so Ajax was in charge of that department, even though Ajax was Sunni, which put him at great personal risk in Shiite territory. “But I knew my way around down there,” he says. “I could get what we needed.” He knew all the principals in the local booze business, having worked at Habur Gate, the border checkpoint where deliveries from Turkey arrived. “I had the whole supply chain down, man!”

For the first beer run, Ajax stacked an SUV with 20 cases. It was gone within the hour. James called Ajax as he was driving home.

“Can you head back downtown?” he asked. “We’re empty.”

Ajax knew he needed a bigger car. He took his Jeep Cherokee, tinted the windows, and removed the backseats to double the load capacity. The vehicle still wasn’t big enough. By the time Ajax upgraded to multi-axle trucks, the violence was worsening. This created an additional problem, since larger vehicles couldn’t be armored. Sometimes Ajax stationed a guy with an AK-47 amid the beer, hidden in a makeshift turret assembled from cases of Carlsberg or Sapporo. His job was to light up attackers, but Ajax knew he was usually drunk by the time they got moving.

A month after the bar opened, just before Ramadan, some emissaries from the Shiite Mahdi Army alerted Ajax that it would be an unfriendly time downtown, he recalls. Realizing that they wouldn’t be able to restock for a month, Ajax and James mounted nonstop supply missions, bringing in 6,000 cases of beer. It filled the BCC’s storage rooms and the giant containers outside, then had to be piled on the roof until the structure bowed. Apache pilots rerouted their flights over the bar so they could check out the stash.

It might have been the most hazardous beer procurement process in the world at the time, which is why it drove James nuts when Green Zone guys in clean pressed khakis complained about availability or pricing like they were in a grocery store back in New Jersey. “People could get killed for your fucking Corona Light,” he’d tell people at the bar. One day, a contractor suggested to James that he could get beer cheaper himself. “Oh sure,” James said. “Go ahead and drive to Sadr City. See if you can find the warehouse. Make sure you’re armored and locked and loaded, because if anyone sees you, you’re fucking done, mate.”

James himself often braved the deadly Route Irish to pick up Ahmed’s shipments of spirits. The road was a target for snipers and car bombs, resulting in trigger-happy U.S. military personnel and mercenaries. (As late as 2008, U.S. soldiers shot three Iraqi civilians at a checkpoint along the road.) A typical PSD cost basis for heavily armored airport pickup of one passenger was five grand. James had done many such contracted BIAP trips himself. Now he was routinely making the drive in an unarmored vehicle, often alone.

Ajax was a drinker who liked to stay up all night, a combination that left James in lurch most mornings. In addition to IEDs and insurgents, Route Irish had commuter traffic. James really wanted to beat that traffic. Any idle moments stalled in gridlock on the pitted blacktop made you a mark. So by 0630, he’d have a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, spend 10 minutes making futile calls to Ajax’s voice mail, and then ease one of the jeeps out of the driveway himself. People thought James was reckless, hitting Route Irish solo and soft skinned. But he preferred going low-profile, and he always double-checked the spare magazines and smoke grenades in his plate carrier as he left Checkpoint 12 heading west, toward the airport.

Route Irish was once a grand motorway though a bourgeois neighborhood, lined with palms. Now the road was extremely dangerous: Drivers were targets. James would hammer up it, hoping to make the seven miles in ten minutes. Such speed was possible but rare. Instead, the drive was often several harrowing hours, with military call signs barreling the wrong way through wreckage to dodge firefights against insurgents, who were known to release signal pigeons from nearby rooftops.

James’s little jeep looked like Iraqi traffic, so he also had to worry about being fired upon by American soldiers or contractors. They tended to be quick with warning shots, and non-warning shots soon thereafter, when any vehicle came within 100 yards. Now on the other end of coalition military muzzles and bad attitudes, James understood Iraqis’ resentment. But having been a military contractor himself, he also understood the fear that goes with wearing a bull’s-eye. The whole thing was a mess. And here he was, threading the needle every other day to pick up some Dewar’s.

As he drove, James would blast music to distract himself, usually whatever was on Armed Forces radio. Everyone had lost friends on that road, himself included. He’d felt the pressure sucked out of the air by massive explosions and braced for the blast that followed. Once he’d hit the T-walls of Checkpoint 1, the gateway to the relative security of the airport, he’d let go a sigh of relief, but even that wasn’t quite safe. He’d seen car bombs go off right at the checkpoint, and he’d jumped out to assist, only to find people he knew on the ground, too far gone for a medic.

Once through the entrance, James would show up at Ahmed’s compound, jittery smoke in hand. Then he’d stack up his supply, and head back out through the checkpoint for the return trip.

Chapter 9

The insurgency reached its peak in the spring of 2007. Everything was more difficult, including the day-to-day operation of the BCC. Maintaining the pantry meant constantly running Baghdad’s lethal gauntlet. Just to get bread, Ajax had to send a guy into the Red Zone—assuming there were no explosions that day and no curfew. Meat, fish, and higher-priced provisions were becoming harder to find.

Worse still, the booze itself was under threat. James had been supplementing Ahmed’s liquor shipments with supplies from dealers downtown, and now they were getting squeezed by the increasingly powerful religious forces. When the BCC’s Jack Daniels supplier was attacked, Ajax was forced to find a new guy, but the new guy had a monopoly, so the price spiked. Stocking the bar was increasingly a matter of life and death. People Ajax knew downtown were getting killed, and even his own people were under fire: Haider, one of his drivers, was kidnapped while at the wheel of a truck full of beer. It wasn’t clear if the attack was religiously motivated or commercial extortion—a brisk business itself—but it didn’t matter. According to James, the militiamen shot Haider in the knees and demanded a $10,000 ransom, which he paid in cash through a middleman. James then spirited the driver out of the country and into hiding. Then the kidnappers asked for another $10,000 for the truck and cargo. James and Ajax decided that if they paid, it would make every shipment a target. James politely declined. The militia was silent for a bit. Then they sent him video of his beer being detonated.

The vagaries of the wholesale market, combined with a rather surprising elasticity of demand at the retail end—people still balked at price increases—gave James headaches. But deeper trouble came from inside the Green Zone, from the local police.

As the bar got more popular, it started showing up in security bulletins as off-limits. At first that did wonders for business: newcomers to the Green Zone were conveniently alerted to the BCC’s presence. And people were especially intrigued that the bar was categorized as outré. When you see people ditching their own security details to line up for your place, James figured, that’s when you know you’ve made it, Baghdad style.

But before long, the police started taking notice. At the time, policing the Green Zone had been turned over from the active-duty military to a contingent of National Guard reservists. To maintain law and order in a fairly lawless place, they took an aggressive approach, and Green Zone residents complained about overzealous enforcement. Automobile infractions seemed like a nuisance compared with the real problems of daily life in Iraq. But the police would regularly set up speed traps and pull people over for not wearing seat belts, though there was neither a traffic court nor an impound lot. Some residents laminated their tickets as souvenirs. “The whole thing seemed silly,” recalls Bonnie, a friend of whose was interrogated for making a U-turn. “The big things are wildly out of control, so you try to control the most trivial.”

The cops, though, saw it another way. “We didn’t just give out tickets,” says a Captain Barrow, the operations officer for the Security Directorate inside the Green Zone. “There was a Wild West mentality out there, and it was causing problems. Our job was to regain some control.” It wasn’t easy. The Green Zone was full of soldiers from all over the world, mercenaries who thought they were above the law, rockets falling from the sky, and suicide bombers penetrating checkpoints. “It was,” he says, “an extremely challenging law-enforcement environment.”

Barrow was nicknamed the Sheriff of the Green Zone, or El Jefe by the Peruvian contractors who worked for his unit. He was one of the first responders on the scene of a suicide blast inside the Iraqi Parliament building. He raided various dodgy contractors he suspected of selling arms without permits, confiscating elaborately tricked-out assault rifles that looked like “something you’d see in a sci-fi video game.” Barrow also saw a lot of what looked like fraud against the U.S. government. For the most part he kept his head down and did his job.

The way the BCC staff remembers it, Barrow was friendly when he first came around the bar. Heide would see him at the bottle shop. Like other police, he got what James called the civic discount on gear and other items. To James, he seemed like your typical small-town-cop type, and James just wanted to keep him at a comfortable distance. 

But Barrow was suspicious of the BCC, and before long he started asking questions about badges and permits. James had tried to keep everything at the bar aboveboard, but soon the captain was dinging him for code violations, even staking out the place for unauthorized visitors. Once, Barrow came into the shop when Heide was working and suggested that the club’s flashlights were stolen. She showed him the paperwork and he left. BCC employees noticed other police poking around, sometimes in civilian clothes, like they were part of an undercover investigation.

Eventually, the police started raiding the bar in full battle mode. “They used really unnecessary strong-arm tactics,” recalls Kevin, the Special Forces soldier who worked behind the bar and once fled out the back door when the police showed up. “They had muzzles in peoples faces, yelling, flex-tying people, confiscating badges.”

As the manager, Danny tried to handle the intrusions as best he could, but customers started getting jumpy. “We went from being the darlings of the Green Zone to pariahs,” he says. “And we racked our brains to figure out why.” There were rumors, of course: that the bar was a brothel, that there was a gambling room, that weapons were being sold out of the back.

There may have been no specific reason. In Baghdad, the lack of planning and oversight allowed people to carve out spheres of perfect influence for themselves, and the police were no exception. Laura, a State Department official who spent a lot of time at the BCC and was there during one of the captain’s raids, heard the soldiers joking to each other that they could never do this at home—just run in, bust up a place, and arrest people for no reason. To James, it seemed like there was no one policing the police. When you have ultimate authority, it’s hard not to use it. If the police fell victim to the allure of power, it was a familiar story in the Green Zone. You could have said the same thing about the entire war.

By now, high-level friends from the embassy were calling James, saying the BCC was coming up in daily briefings. Similar chatter filtered in from Ajax’s fixer contacts. James was traveling a lot then, doing non-BCC business in Dubai, Amman, and elsewhere. After many years, Baghdad was finally weighing him down. He knew his roots were in temporary soil.

Danny and Heide, on the other hand, wanted to invest more in the place. When James went on an extended trip, they bought a pizza oven, and they’d started talking about flatscreen TVs. Not too many—they didn’t want to bathe the place in HD like a sports bar—but enough to show the news or a game. They got a margarita machine. Their minds were set on the next phase of the Baghdad Country Club. But it was all wishful thinking. There would never be any Acapulco Nights with the margarita machine. And to everyone’s lasting regret, not a single pizza rolled off that oven.

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Chapter 10

From the beginning, the Green Zone had been a place of in-betweens. Not exactly Iraq, not America, it was an enclave of confused purpose, sanctioned excess, and a hazy hierarchy its inhabitants called the Grey Zone. The Baghdad Country Club began by growing through the cracks of that ambiguity. That was also how it would end.

James was in Amman when the Green Zone police, together with the FBI, descended on the BCC for a final raid. The place was cleared out, and Heide and Danny were faced with the prospect of losing their badges and getting kicked out into the Red Zone.

James, in his British way, thought the whole thing showed poor manners. How would it look, he huffed to himself, if the Americans threw a British national and one of their own citizens to the wolves at a time when that could be deadly? Heide and Danny were given 24 hours to leave the country, and James had to pull strings to get them on a plane.

According to James, Ajax was bullied and then arrested, along with his brother. Over the next few days, the ultimate fixer managed to work his many contacts in the military to get out and get his badges back, but he knew his freewheeling days of business in the Green Zone were over. When he snuck back to the bar again to get the cash box, it looked as though the police had helped themselves to the tequila. Next to the empty bottles, someone had left out the salt shaker.

Back in Amman, James knew he still had $80,000 of inventory at the club. But he had no way to get it. Calling on his old friend Ahmed’s influence at the airports and the assistance of a regional Blackwater honcho, James snuck back into the Green Zone and into the bar under cover of night. He recalls a sad sight: the booze had been confiscated and the place ransacked. Several of James’s connected friends were disturbed on principle, but they advised him that fighting back was pointless. “There’s no clear jurisdiction,” said one BCC regular, who happened to be a State Department lawyer working on Iraq’s legal transition. “Where would you even go?”

All at once, James lost his bar, his garden, and a whole bunch of money. That’s life, he figured—in a way, the BCC had suffered a more appropriate death than if the bar had simply become unfashionable. And besides, the open-ended freedom of the Baghdad he’d known for years was over for everyone. Eventually, the Americans would be leaving the country anyhow. The bar would never survive.

Former patrons are less stoic. Kevin says that it was “just like the powers that be to fuck up the one good thing going.” The Vicar of Baghdad, still at St. George’s  laments the day he heard that the BCC closed: “Now there really was nowhere to run. We were stuck with the war forever.”


But James had other business, in other parts of the world, and there wasn’t time to linger in Iraq and pine over his pub. On his way out of Baghdad, he ran into an old friend at the airport.

“Things are getting hot for us here, too,” he told James. “Time to get out of Dodge.”

The two men stood in the still dilapidated terminal awaiting their hand-written tickets. The friend was meeting his wife somewhere nice, a place with a beach and no mortar attacks. He wasn’t coming back. But James still felt the thrill of life in a conflict zone, where you can make up your history as you go. In a place like Iraq, there was no one to say who you are or aren’t. As thousands of Americans learned, you could go from soldier to businessman overnight. Incompetents had become millionaires. Warmongers had become liberators. Bureaucrats had become nation builders. And a genial former paratrooper had become the doyen of drinking in the Green Zone. Now, on the way out of town, James wasn’t sure when he’d be back. After he and his friend parted ways, he sat down with his bags and wondered what would be next. He figured something would turn up. After all, anything could happen while waiting in an airport.

Epilogue

James did return to Iraq, trading the nightlife business for reconstruction contracts, including fuel supply runs and a job refurbishing a hotel. His and Bonnie’s wartime romance didn’t last. Heide, in the last days of the BCC, did eventually take a shine to a soldier, and when the bar went south she left with her new boyfriend. Danny’s managerial diplomacy landed him a professional job in managerial diplomacy; he now works for an international humanitarian organization. Ahmed runs duty-free operations in Iraq’s major airports, among other things. Ajax left Baghdad for his own safety: Having served as a translator for the American occupation, he hopes to immigrate to the United States. In the meantime, he’s been plying his trade across the Middle East. He was last seen in Beirut. As the last U.S. troops packed up to leave Iraq in late 2011, General Order 1, which prohibited soldiers’ from drinking, remained in force.

Island of Secrets

If John Lane can prove the existence of the elusive tree kangaroo, he just might be able to save one of the last truly wild endangered forests on earth. 

The Atavist Magazine, No. 09


Matthew Power (1974-2014) was a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, and his work appeared in The New York Times, Wired, GQ, Men’s Journal, Outside, Granta, Slate, and elsewhere. He was included in Best American Travel Writing in 2007, 2009, and 2010, and Best American Nonrequired Reading in 2009.

Expedition Photographs: Dylan van Winkel, Sarah Wells, Matthew Power
Photographs of Tree Kangaroo and Fred Hargesheimer: John Lane
Jungle Recordings: Matthew Power
Tok Pisin Recording: Robert Eklund
Producer: Olivia Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Design and Music: Jefferson Rabb
Editor: Alissa Quart

Published in November 2011. Design updated in 2021.

One

“The world is apt to judge of everything by the success; and whoever has ill fortune will hardly be allowed a good name.”

Captain William Dampier, on the wreck of his ship HMS Roebuck after discovering the island of New Britain, 1699

In the summer of 2007, John Lane was driving along a rough dirt track on the western end of New Britain, an immense tropical island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, when he noticed a local man who had set up a large cage by the roadside. Lane, a California geologist and explorer who had traveled to New Britain on a research expedition, stopped to take a closer look. Inside the cage was an animal the size of a large raccoon, with a thick coat of soft gold-and-chestnut fur extending to the tip of its long tail. It moved languorously and looked at Lane with deep brown, heavy-lidded eyes set into a gentle face. In its curved claws it grasped a red jungle flower. From a captive specimen he had seen in the botanical gardens in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Lane recognized the animal as a species of tree kangaroo, one of the rarest and most elusive mammals in the world.

Lane was in his early forties, and his day jobs included running a small environmental consulting firm and working as an adjunct science professor at California State University, Chico. His obsession, however, was cave exploration, and during the previous decade he had mounted ambitious caving expeditions in the far corners of the world, including Borneo and Sumatra. But Lane was not a biologist, and his curiosity about the animal went only so far. The villager wanted 1,000 kina for it, about $500. What am I gonna do with a tree kangaroo? Lane recalls thinking. He snapped a few pictures and drove on.

A photograph circulated online. Lane started getting inquiries about it. A BBC film producer wanted to know where the picture had been taken, and several zoologists wrote asking if he had more photographs. The animal, they told him, wasn’t thought to exist on New Britain. Unlike their Australian cousins, tree kangaroos—genus Dendrolagus, from the Greek for “tree hare”—have, true to their name, evolved to live in trees. They are extraordinarily agile climbers, living high in the forest canopy and descending only to forage. Their long tails provide balance, and their powerful legs are like spring-loaded shocks, allowing them to jump from the upper canopy—as much as 60 feet up—to the ground, unhurt.

Today, most of the known species of tree kangaroo are threatened, several of them critically. They are endangered by overhunting and by massive habitat loss as New Guinea’s rainforests are cleared to create oil palm plantations. There are twelve known species, ten on mainland New Guinea and two more in northern Australia. The last known new tree kangaroo species was discovered in 1995 in a remote mountain range on the New Guinea mainland. In the world of comparative zoology, the discovery and description of new species are the building blocks of a career, but from what Lane could tell no specimen of tree kangaroo taken from New Britain had ever been studied.

Although New Britain lies only 50 miles offshore from New Guinea, deep water has always kept the two geographically isolated, and most evolutionary biologists believe the existence of native tree kangaroos on the island to be highly improbable. Even if the tree kangaroo Lane had seen was from the island, the theory went, it was likely the product of ancestors brought there to be used as pets or food by early human settlers arriving in open canoes as many as 30,000 years ago. The ecological term for an animal that has received this sort of human-assisted migratory boost is ethnotramp. The New Britain tree kangaroo could be a species brought from the mainland, or an altogether unknown variety: since no tree kangaroo like it had ever been studied, its provenance remained a mystery.

Lane sent out inquiries to some biologists in the field and received an enthusiastic email from Ken Aplin, a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert in Australo-Papuan marsupials who had worked extensively in New Britain. Aplin said he’d spent a recent field survey looking for fossil evidence of tree kangaroos on the island, hoping to clarify their origins as native or introduced. Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals, who has discovered 2 percent of the world’s known mammal species, sent Lane a note that read: “The New Britain tree kangaroo identity remains unresolved. Perhaps you will find some trophy skulls or other samples that will help resolve the tree kangaroo question.” That was all the encouragement Lane needed, and he began plotting an expedition in the hope of doing just that.

New Guinea and its surrounding islands are among the world’s great reservoirs of biodiversity. According to a tally by the World Wildlife Fund, more than 1,000 new species were identified there in the past decade. The vast majority of these were plants and invertebrates—important to science but hard to put on a fundraising poster. New species of charismatic megafauna, on the other hand, are extremely rare. If the New Britain tree kangaroo were somehow a species previously unknown to science, it would be huge news, alone worthy of an adventure.

But Lane began to develop a grander vision for his mission: Perhaps the discovery of the tree kangaroo could lead to the preservation of thousands of square miles of rapidly disappearing wilderness on the island. By some estimates, half of New Britain’s primary tropical rainforest had been lost since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975. An application for Unesco World Heritage status for New Britain’s Nakanai Mountains had been submitted by the nonprofit Conservation International in 2006 but had made little progress toward ratification. “If there were a major discovery,” Lane told me, “it’d kind of be a freight train for conservation. Maybe there would be a greater sense of urgency.” He seized upon the idea of the tree kangaroo as a catalyst to action, an animal that could catch the imagination of scientists, the media, and the world.

Lane called up a friend at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is based in Chico and is known for its interest in environmental causes, and coaxed the beer maker into sponsoring his enterprise. During the following several summers, Lane coordinated expeditions into the trackless wilderness of the Nakanai, a largely unexplored range of limestone karst riddled with thousands of caves. Tree kangaroos had been spotted in the region by locals, and the prospect of exploring its vast and uncharted cave network was an additional enticement for Lane. In 2009, he got together a crew of scientists and student assistants from Chico State and hatched a plan to operate the kangaroo search and conduct other biological surveys from a jungle base camp at the edge of a lake that filled an enormous caldera, the cauldron-like center of an extinct volcano. The area is one of the wettest on earth, receiving more than 24 feet of rain annually. In a world that, to Lane at least, seemed to harbor fewer and fewer mysteries, the New Britain tree kangaroo was a concrete example of nature yet to be discovered. He imagined the creature as an avatar of a wildness he wanted both to witness and to conserve.

There were, it should be pointed out, some logistical hitches to Lane’s plan to find a tree kangaroo, not the least of them the fact that he was a geologist, not a biologist, and knew almost nothing about the behavior and habits of genus Dendrolagus. In addition, Papua New Guinea is one of the most remote, difficult, and expensive places in the world to mount an expedition, with few roads and little infrastructure to speak of, and with a population frequently volatile toward foreigners. Terrible weather, impenetrable terrain, malaria, crocodiles, high crime, corrupt public officials: I easily discovered these obstacles after a few minutes of Googling. None of them are likely to be made simpler by having your chief sponsor be a beer company. And yet in the summer of 2011, when I first spoke to John Lane and he invited me to come along on his next expedition, something about the way he described the landscape of the Nakanai silenced my doubts. I booked a $3,500 plane ticket and packed my bags.

Two

The cloud-draped, dark green coast of New Britain rose out of the impossibly blue waters of the Solomon Sea, its march of volcanic cones vanishing into a haze set aflame by an equatorial sunrise. The crescent-shaped island is 14,000 square miles, home to nearly half a million native Papuans and Austronesians who between them speak dozens of distinct languages. In the previous 47 hours, I had traveled more than 12,000 miles on five flights—JFK–LAX–SYD–BNE–POM–HKN. I had crossed both the equator and the international date line to get there.

Scarcely a road or clearing was visible in New Britain’s forested and mountainous interior, where steep valleys carved their way down the flanks of volcanoes. Near the north coast, the mountains eased into plains. The forests morphed from the rugged texture of native canopy into a flat and uniform pattern of green dots. These were oil palm plantations, an economic bonanza and an ecological nightmare. From the air, the landscape seemed like something dreamed up by a computer: nature expressed in binary absolutes. Millions of acres of rainforest in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea have been razed to make way for “green gold.” An acre of mature palm trees can produce nearly three tons of oil in a year, and palms now supply a third of the global edible-oil market. There is an almost limitless appetite for it, in products from soap to chocolate to lipstick to biodiesel.

When we landed at the tiny, oil-palm-surrounded airstrip in the coastal town of Hoskins, a throng of Papuans stood pressed against the airstrip’s fence. I was met by a Papuan driver and piled my gear into a white Toyota Land Cruiser with “Hargy Oil Palms Ltd.” stenciled on the door. Conservation attracts strange bedfellows, and John Lane had taken up with an organization that would otherwise be his natural adversary: one of the largest palm-oil producers in New Britain. One of the very industries that Lane hoped to keep from despoiling the forests of New Britain was also a chief supporter of his expeditions.

Palm oil has a serious public-image problem. Environmental groups have faulted the industry for the massive deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra that is pushing the orangutan toward extinction in the wild. In 2004, some companies and nonprofits got together and created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with the goal of creating sustainably produced palm oil. The RSPO now includes enormous multinational corporations like Cargill, Unilever, and Nestlé and environmental nonprofits like Conservation International. By meeting a strict set of environmental guidelines, producers could become certified sustainable. What sustainable really means, and whether environmental groups are participating in a greenwash of the industry or an exercise in realpolitik, is a source of much debate and hand-wringing in environmental circles.

Hargy Oil Palms, as part of its effort to meet its RSPO goals—or at least appearing to—was lending its support to Lane’s expedition. When I asked Lane about this, and whether it represented an attempt to make palm oil seem eco-friendly, he was acutely aware of the irony but unapologetic. “They have a very serious mandate to achieve sustainability,” he told me, “and sponsoring us is part of that. They know that I’ve been critical of their industry in published papers, but working with them is really the best way to have input in what they do.”

We tore off in high gear, the diesel 4×4 roaring and jouncing over potholes as the Papuan driver shouted stories to a pair of industry auditors who had arrived on the same flight. He spoke in Tok Pisin, the creole of Papua New Guinea and the lingua franca of the country’s 860 language groups. I stared out at mile upon mile of perfectly straight rows of oil palms, their fronds spliced into gothic arches, our movement opening up ever shifting lines of perspective far into their shady depths. Dark-skinned, shirtless Papuan men with polesaws harvested great bunches of the bright red palm fruit and stacked them in piles by the roadside.

We drove for several hours, over dozens of bridges that wash out with every rainy season, past sulfuric-smelling volcanic springs boiling up from the ground. There are still dozens of active volcanoes on the island; its former capital, Rabaul, was crushed beneath three feet of volcanic ash in 1994. The town can still be reached only by airplane or boat. We finally arrived at the Hargy Plantation, and a uniformed guard opened a barricade as we drove past neatly cropped expanses of lawn and bushes filled with hibiscus blossoms. John Lane was sitting on the porch of the guesthouse when we pulled up, looking out over a wide sweep of coast far beneath him.

Lane kept his thinning hair cropped close, framing a sun-creased face, ruddy cheeks, and a wide gap-toothed grin. His patter was Northern California laid-back, a sort of stoner deadpan. Knowing New Britain mosquitoes carry deadly falciparum malaria, I asked him what kind of malaria pills he was using. “They’re actually anti-malaria pills,” he replied. “I think you might have the wrong ones.”

As we talked, he stooped to pick up a stick from the ground, balancing it on his forearm. Closer inspection revealed it to be a spike-covered, cigar-sized New Guinea spiny stick insect. The enormous bug tried ineffectually to escape, marching slowly back and forth along Lane’s arm. “We make some of our best insect collections on the lawn right here,” he told me. An iridescent green bird-wing butterfly the size of a paperback drifted by on the breeze.

This was the first time in weeks Lane had emerged from his base camp in the caldera. There, a crew of several researchers and a few students from Chico State conducted surveys and collected insect and animal species. We may live in a world that seems bereft of geographical blank spots, but even through the unblinking gaze of Google Earth, the caldera’s low-resolution satellite imagery was obscured by clouds. “There are less and less of these places in the world,” he told me as we studied an old topographical map of the caldera. It was as close to terra incognita as one could wish for, an irresistible attraction for Lane.

Of course, being off the map is not always best for a nation’s economic survival. Papua New Guinea won full independence from Australia in 1975, and 97 percent of its land is still in the hands of its native tribes. It is astonishingly rich in natural resources—copper, natural gas, timber, palm oil—and yet remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of less than $1,500. In the past generation, there has been a massive boom in resource extraction across the country, including a $15 billion Exxon Mobil pipeline project, though little of the new wealth has trickled down to the natives. Official corruption is rife, and the nation’s capital, Port Moresby, is a crime-ridden pit where boomtown contractors stay in $500-a-night hotels and gangs of “raskols”—disaffected youth from the highlands—wreak havoc outside compound walls.

Graham King, the Australian general manager of the Hargy palm-oil plantation, sat drinking tea on the porch with Lane and defended the oil palm industry as an economic necessity for New Britain. “No other cash crop survives here,” said King. “Oil palm is a beautiful fit in this rainfall and soil.” He pointed out that in 2010, the plantation paid out $20 million to 3,500 small oil palm growers in the area, on top of wages to plantation workers of $15 million. “In a developing country, people’s livelihoods are important,” said King. “Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth don’t seem to realize that.” Nevertheless, it is one of Papua’s many paradoxes that the palm-oil industry has become critical to its citizens’ survival even as it has destroyed the environment they inhabit.

All of King’s product is shipped to Europe, and the largest buyers of palm oil—multinational manufacturing giants like Nestlé and Unilever­—claim they will convert to 100 percent RSPO-certified palm oil by 2015. Even the Girl Scouts have pledged to make their Thin Mints and Samoas contain oil derived from sustainable palm-oil plantations. Less than 10 percent of the 50 million tons of palm oil produced annually meet the RSPO sustainability standard, but King wants to be on the right side of history, or at least the market. One of the key RSPO standards, which has made Lane much more comfortable working with King, is that primary forest cannot be touched. This doesn’t at all mean that the forests of New Britain are protected; it just means that Hargy Oil Palms won’t be clear-cutting the forests. They are nevertheless being rapidly destroyed by logging, expanding agriculture, and oil palm operations not following the RSPO guidelines. King swept his hand over the topographical map of the area where Lane’s base camp is set up. “It would take two years and it would be all gone,” he said. A 2008 report in the journal Biological Conservation showed satellite evidence that a fifth of New Britain’s lowland rainforest had vanished between 1989 and 2000. Since independence, perhaps half of the island’s forest cover has disappeared.

Enter John Lane and the mysterious tree kangaroo. Lane is not a policy wonk or a development expert, and he has little interest in being part of the NGO world with its endless meetings and half-measures. His dream role in conservation is the spectacular turnaround, the heroic diving catch, employing mainly a sense of adventure and force of will. If the tree kangaroo were out there, and if he could demonstrate its value to the world, it might be the tipping point to save this place. There was, of course, the small matter of finding the thing. This was Lane’s third venture into the forest of the Nakanai to look for it, and he planned to push himself farther into the unknown landscape than he had ever gone. His take on it seemed to echo the doomed mountaineer George Mallory’s famous words on climbing Everest. “We’re going out there,” Lane told me, “to see what’s there.”

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Dendrolagus inustus, the grizzled tree kangaroo (Illustration from Mammals of Australia by John Gould) and Dendrolagus bennettianus, the Bennett’s tree kangaroo. (Lithograph by J. Smit, late 19th century)

Three

The Hargy Plantation covers 25,000 acres, and we followed a dirt road to the plantation’s outermost edge, where the endless lines of oil palms ended and the rainforest began, to begin our search. At the trailhead, a half-dozen “bois” waited for us in the shade, wrestling and goofing around with each other in their native Nakanai. (“Boi” is the Tok Pisin term for a guy; the girls are called “meris.”) They were from the Nakanai tribe and lived in a village of thatched huts near the plantation, where many of their fathers and older brothers worked. They were all barefoot, and chewed buai, a mixture of betel nut, mustard, and lime that turned their teeth bright red. Lane had hired them, for seven dollars a day, to ferry loads of fuel and food along the muddy five-mile trail to base camp. One had carried in a 30-pound car battery for the radio, another a huge propane tank for the stove.

The bois were like teenagers anywhere on earth, loud and anarchic when in a group, and basically indifferent to me. The language barrier was nearly insurmountable, with Lane knowing only a few phrases in Tok Pisin and none at all in Nakanai. One of the better English speakers was a good-natured twentysomething named Daure—pronounced “dowry”—who had become a village hero after being chosen for the national cricket team. Daure taught me one of Tok Pisin’s most useful words, bagarap: damaged, broken, destroyed. It derives from the British colloquialism buggered up and can be used to describe anything from flat tires to geopolitics.

Employing the bois was part of the bargain for being allowed to set up base camp in the forest, Lane told me. The Nakanai tribe communally owned all the forestland that lay before us. The problem Lane faced was getting the tribe to recognize the lasting value of conserving the place. Everyone in the tribe was aware that their forest represented millions of dollars in quick and easy wealth, and the material temptations of modernity are pervasive and ubiquitous. Money, materialism, capitalism: Lane knew he couldn’t shield the Nakanai from the corrosive influences of the developed world. “In the past five years, I’ve seen the rapid Westernization of the landowners,” said Lane. As if to illustrate this, one of the bois walked by, a pair of bootleg “Calvin Klain” underwear showing above his waistband.

We descended along a steep trail, the bois leaving barefoot prints in the black mud. Hornbills flapped overhead, their wings carving a deep whoosh whoosh whoosh through the air. Epiphytes—plants that grow upon other plants to reach sunlight and nutrients—dangled from overhead branches like chandeliers. Understory plants grew head-high where an old-growth tree had recently fallen and opened up a gash in the canopy. The perfectly smooth and multihued trunks of rainbow eucalyptus shot straight through, eight feet across and topping out 250 feet above the forest floor. Those trees are a favorite of pulp companies, Lane explained, and are said to make excellent paper. This was the third time Lane had set up base camp in this spot in the caldera, and each year the jungle swallowed all signs of their presence, the trail erased by crowding plants. There were dozens of water crossings on the walk in, and we scrambled down steeply carved banks and forded knee-deep streams.

On an earlier expedition, Lane had handed out copies of his tree kangaroo photograph and asked several locals to keep an eye out and send him any reports. He had received an email from Angelus Palik, a plantation employee:
 

For your information tree kangaroos do exist on the island of New Britain. We sighted one adult (female) about 3 km inland from Area 12 next to the Lake Hargy. The adult female escaped and we caught its baby and took it home. We gave the tree kangaroo some sugar cane and banana. Unfortunately it died.
 

I asked Lane what became of the body of the tree kangaroo joey, which would seem to be a key piece of evidence in the mystery.

“They ate it,” he said.

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John Lane looking up at a limestone drainage in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Four

As I clambered over fallen logs, I scanned the canopy for tree kangaroos and checked the trunks of trees for their telltale claw marks. Lane told me to keep my eyes on the trail. If I wandered off the route, I could easily fall down tree holes, where hot lava cooling around ancient trees had left deep cylindrical shafts dropping as much as 10 feet straight down. I stared anxiously at the jungle floor, and as we walked Lane told me about himself and his previous adventures. He grew up in the middle of a pack of eight siblings, his father a nuclear engineer who traveled the world with his huge family. They lived in Tokyo when Lane was a child, and by age 7 he would wander for hours around the city, searching its strange alleys and corners totally alone. It was a kind of freedom children are rarely afforded today. He thrived on it.

His childhood gave him a taste for exploration, and he got into caving in his twenties. There was something about caves that captured Lane, perhaps the mystery of going someplace no human being had ever gone. Caving was also what first lured him to New Britain, its limestone karst riven with hundreds of miles of tunnels. Lane had heard of whole rivers vanishing into the island’s fissured earth or shooting out of mountainsides like fire hoses. There were vast caverns home to colonies of bats with five-foot wingspans. Throughout the 1990s, in his quest for places as untouched by man as possible, he had traveled the world on a series of caving expeditions. In Borneo, he descended miles into the Sarawak Chamber, the largest cavern ever discovered. “A quarter-mile wide, half a mile long, and 400 feet high,” Lane told me. “They say you could put four 747s end to end and spin them around.”

He soon led another expedition, to the Gunung Buda (White Mountain) cave system in Borneo, for National Geographic. The massive caves were filled with endemic species and spectacular rock formations. Lane was so inspired by what he saw that he arranged to meet with the Malaysian minister of the environment to preserve the extraordinary site. Eventually, thanks in part to his efforts, the Gunung Buda became a national park.

Through that experience, Lane saw how a big discovery could lead a government to act in the name of conservation. If it could happen there, why not in New Britain with the tree kangaroo? He recognized the differences in the two situations. “Getting things done here is a lot harder than any other place I’ve been,” Lane told me. “I keep thinking I’m getting closer to some solidification of conservation of the area, and then I don’t know. Would it just be a paper park?” But having had a taste of what adventure and exploration could achieve, he’d decided to make a life of it.

This sort of life had its victories, but there were great risks. Things could easily go too far and spin out of control toward the irrevocable. And so they did in 2001, when Lane and a good friend and expedition partner, a 34-year-old archaeologist named Adam Bodine, went “tubineering” with a group of 18 people, riding inner tubes in extreme Class V whitewater down the middle fork of the Feather River in California. Running through a particularly difficult section of rapids, Bodine was tossed from his tube and drawn into a strainer, a barricade of boulders and logs that allows current to flow through but can quickly trap a person. He vanished. “Nothing came out the other side but a shoe and a helmet,” said Lane. He and a few of his companions searched frantically, but after 10 minutes had passed they knew their friend was dead, his body lost beneath the rushing water. Lane was devastated, sobbing as he broke the news to the rest of the group.

Bodine’s death had a tremendous effect on Lane, reinforcing the enormity of the risks that he undertook. It was all an abstraction, he felt, “until shit goes down.” But that abstraction had been made manifest in the worst possible way. Lane returned two months later and spotted his friend’s skull at the bottom of a pool downstream. “He always lived his life at the limit,” Lane told me. “I think he accepted that outcome as a possibility.” It was a matter-of-fact assessment, perhaps a defense that Lane had constructed knowing that such a fate might befall himself as well. Lane had a daughter by then, a fact which underscored the consequences of the risks he took. But he couldn’t entirely withdraw from a life of adventure and found himself soon drawn again to the ragged edges of experience.

In more than a decade of globe-spanning cave expeditions, Lane had had a wide array of close calls: A tiger had paced around his tent in Sumatra; an angry tribesman had brandished a spear at him in Papua New Guinea; he’d stepped on a king cobra in Borneo. There were encounters with crocodiles, bears, pit vipers, kraits, sea snakes, and rattlers. But none were so close as one day in August 2006 when he descended into the Bigfoot cave system deep within the Marble Mountains of Northern California. Bigfoot was an adventure much closer to home, one of the deepest alpine caves in North America. The year-round temperature in the cavern is 38 degrees, and he and his group of fellow explorers made a 300-foot rappel from Bigfoot’s entrance down a series of steep pitches. As he lowered himself to the floor of the grotto, a 400-pound chunk of rock came loose from the wall in the darkness, smashing into his chest and knocking him to the ground. At the same instant, a massive boulder broke away from the rock face and became wedged against the wall directly over his head.

Lane was smeared with dirt and blood and badly bruised, and when his companions pulled him up, they discovered he had fractured his calf bone, the break nearly coming through the skin. The group’s first-aid supplies consisted of two Advil and an elastic bandage. Lane didn’t go into shock, but that only made the pain more acute. Worse, with just one usable leg, Lane knew he could never climb back out the way he had come in, even with his companions’ help. But there was, according to their charts, an alternate route, a quarter-mile belly-crawl through a narrow crevice with the Lovecraftian name Lurking Fear.

Dragging his leg behind him, Lane hauled himself forward through the blackness alone, trying to keep his face clear of the 36-degree stream that half-filled the passage. After a soaked and freezing crawl that seemed to take hours, Lane had to climb a steep rock face, his useless leg dangling as he ascended in his harness. The slightest jostling of his leg caused him agony. “The only relief was knowing that each step was one closer to home,” Lane later recalled. He finally scrambled out to sunlight and reached the group’s base camp. After drinking an entire box of wine to blunt the pain, he fashioned a crutch from a branch and limped five miles back to his car.

The incident frightened Lane and his wife, Anna. Of course, it wasn’t the first time: Lane’s frequent absences from his family had never been easy, but with two kids they had become far more of a burden. Anna had been with him since she was 20 and he was 25. She had fallen in love with his spontaneity and curiosity, his willingness to drop everything and go on an adventure. Despite Lane’s broken leg and the thousand other near misses, Anna somehow remained calm about the physical risks he undertook. She knew that worrying would just consume her but accepted those risks were an inextricable part of who he was. Lane had curbed his expeditions after their first child was born, in 2000, but once their daughter was a little older he had persuaded Anna to let him go off again. Now the agreement was that he would not leave home for more than four weeks at a stretch. Lane loves his family but he’s still drawn to the edges of things. Besides, he told me, after he nearly blew up the entire family with a home fireworks display the previous summer, “Anna was glad I wasn’t home on the Fourth of July this year.” When I asked her what she thought motivated Lane, Anna conceded to me that he remained something of a cipher to her. What made him do what he did?  “I know him really well, and I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said.

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Bioluminescent fungi in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Five

At 6 p.m. on the dot, thousands of cicadas buzzed in the forest. You could set your watch by them: a pulsing hybrid of subway brakes and jet engines. The sun dropped below the horizon, and the forest gloom deepened. As we stumbled the last mile by headlamp, I spotted a strange light along the ground. On a rotted log there grew a colony of bioluminescent mushrooms, each tiny gill clearly drawn in glowing green. Not long after, we arrived at the base camp, a wide clearing hacked out of the forest, with an enormous tarp strung across poles and tied down with vines. A large banner for Sierra Nevada Brewery hung across the entrance. This would be the staging ground from which we’d stalk the tree kangaroo.

A shout of greeting went up from a group of bois in ragged shorts and T-shirts sitting around a smoky fire of half-green wood hacked from the forest and split by machete. One picked up a burning ember and lit a Spear cigarette, a leaf of local tobacco rolled in newspaper. They all chewed betel nut, spitting the juice in theatrical blood red arcs onto the ground. A noisy card game was played by several bois splayed across a stick bed, and a radio broadcast some kind of screechy, saccharine Papuan tween-pop that made me long for the cicadas. A propane stove held a pot with our communal dinner, a glutinous mass of ramen and canned tuna mixed with gume, a spinach-like forest fern. There were about 10 bois and meris in the camp at any given time, and they were beginning to wear on Lane. They would stay up shouting over card games until 2 a.m. each night, and by sunrise at 5:30 were back at their game, seeming never to sleep.

The bois and the meris weren’t the only people besides Lane at the camp, however. As I strung up my hammock between a pair of trees, a bright light shone directly in my eyes. It came from a headlamp belonging to Dylan van Winkel, a herpetologist from South Africa by way of New Zealand. He was chasing a frog that had hopped along the leaflitter past his laboratory, a tarp strung above a table made of sticks lashed together with vines.

Dylan had joined the expedition with his girlfriend, Sarah Wells, a 30-year-old Brit working toward a Ph.D. in ornithology. They were committed zoology freaks. There was nothing more fun than spending weeks euthanizing skinks or scanning for nesting grebes (diving birds) waist-deep in a marsh. They lived together in Auckland, and Dylan had spent months reaching out to every field-research expedition he could find, hoping they’d be able to join one. Their dream was to get on board with one of Conservation International’s legendary Rapid Assessment Programs, well-funded blitzkrieg species surveys in some of the most remote and biologically rich locales on earth. In Papua New Guinea in 2009, 200 new species were found by CI field surveys, including a species of fruit bat that made headlines around the world for its uncanny resemblance to Yoda.

If Papua New Guinea is the World Series of zoology, in comparison with CI’s rapid assessments Lane’s expedition was the Chicago Cubs of field surveys, underfunded and a bit haphazard. But Lane was Dylan’s most enthusiastic supporter, so that is where the pair had cast their lot. They didn’t know much about New Britain, but there was always that lingering dream that something extraordinary and new would manifest. They certainly believed that they were looking in a good place. They had both taken thousands of photographs, gorgeous color-saturated portraits of the strange, tiny, fluttering, slithering things that populated the forest. “The biodiversity is just huge,” said Dylan. “We’ve been seeing all sorts of crazy-ass insects.”

Dylan was a 25-year-old with a surfer’s build, curly black hair, and a three-week scruff of beard. He told me his ringtone alternated between the themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. He showed off his collection of “herps” by the light of his headlamp. That’s herpetofauna—amphibians and reptiles—most of which in New Britain are poorly documented. He had collected dozens and went out frequently at night to spotlight them on the wet leaflitter of the forest. Each one he caught would be euthanized with a shot of pentobarbital, the same drug recently approved for administering the death penalty in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Florida. With tweezers, Dylan would extract a tiny sample of liver for genetic analysis and preserve the rest of the specimen in alcohol. His “lab” was a stick table covered by a tarp, with stacked Tupperware containers filled with coiled snakes, board-stiff frogs, and vials containing scorpions. He was hoping that some of what he had collected would be new to science.

Sarah had already observed and cataloged dozens of bird species around the base camp, but some of their other collection attempts had been less successful. The wire-mesh lizard traps they’d had Lane climb to place high in the tree canopy had been turning up empty. Dylan gestured to a large bundled net on his worktable. “That’s a mist net,” he said. “It’s for catching birds—or mist.” Sarah sounded discouraged. “I think we need to rethink our strategy,” she said. The one mammal they had managed to trap, a large native rat that Dylan believed was a species new to science, bit him on the finger and scampered off into the underbrush.

Three Chico State undergrads had joined the expedition as well: Heidi Rogers, Alan Rhoades, and Emily Ramsey. Bringing them along was part of Lane’s bridge-building with the university, and they had all been working on their own research projects, collecting spiders, documenting and measuring trees, and enduring the discomforts of camping out in an equatorial quagmire. It had not been an easy transition from civilian life. Heidi had maintained an upbeat demeanor despite being covered head-to-toe with a remarkable assortment of suppurating welts, sores, rashes, and bites. Alan and Emily, both 22, had been together since early high school and were now giving their relationship the ultimate stress test. Emily was a soft-spoken blond ingenue whose panoply of food allergies and intolerances to pretty much anything but white rice had kept her on a near starvation diet for weeks. She had been so sick upon arrival that she’d spent the first three days in camp without leaving her tent. Lane suggested in jest that she was also allergic to dirt, as she was the sole member of the expedition who managed to appear sparkling clean at all times. Her hapless, floppy-haired boyfriend seemed wracked between his innate desire to have a fun jungle adventure and the guilty feeling that he should be a full partner in her misery.

Lane felt that the expedition would build character in the students—that it would add meaning to their existences for them to suffer a little. “They’re going to look back on this all someday and realize it was the greatest experience of their lives,” he pronounced.

Of course, expedition life had its deprivations. For weeks, meals had consisted of the limited possibilities afforded by ramen, rice, canned tuna, corned beef, and the occasional side of sautéed jungle ferns. We also consumed packets of Hiway Hardman biscuits, illustrated with a cartoon of a shirtless truck driver and the pidgin phrase “Strongpela tru!” which managed to be at once igneous and homoerotic. The tuna had a garish maroon cast to it, and the corned beef—the same “bully beef” eaten in the trenches of World War I—slid out of its tin in a coagulated cube of compressed trimmings. The joke around camp was that there were basically two options: cat food or dog food.

There were occasional variations in the meal plan. One afternoon, Mesak Mesori, a shirtless, bearded 55-year-old Nakanai hunter with six-pack abs and betel-red stumps for teeth, marched proudly into camp. He carried a long spear with a tip made of sharpened rebar and was followed by a parade of bois shouldering a pole to which a large wild pig had been bound with vines. The pig had been caught in a leg snare—the wire had cut down to the bone by the time Mesak found it—and he had speared it in the lungs to dispatch it. The camp filled with the smell of burning hair as the bois held the carcass over the fire and then proceeded to butcher it with a machete. Mesak stood over them, gesturing and speaking in Nakanai, and the bois listened to him with respect and took the task seriously. Nothing was wasted, save the dark green gall bladder, which a boy plucked from the liver and tossed far into the forest. One of the bois told me that each part would be given to members of the village according to tribal tradition: the heart and liver to the elders, the eyeballs a delicacy reserved for women. Mesak had told Lane that this was why he had come out to help in his hunt for the tree kangaroo—he wanted the forest to be here for his grandchildren, and he wanted them to know its ways.

I observed to Lane that a bunch of Californian college kids in the middle of a jungle sounded like the archetypical setup of a 1970s exploitation movie. And it did seem as though an F/X crew was on the premises. One morning, Lane woke to find a 10-foot web stitched between the same pair of trees as his hammock, an orb weaver spider the breadth of my palm splayed at its center. There were at least three species of scorpion in camp, and the native amethystine pythons were known to grow to 25 feet. Tiger leeches waited in ambush on the undersides of leaves, squirmed through the eyelets in hiking boots, and crawled to out-of-the-way sites to feed undisturbed. A few days earlier, Lane thought he felt a loose piece of skin on the inside of his cheek and discovered a leech feeding in his mouth. Alan discovered the same while brushing his teeth. One morning, Sarah had felt what she thought was a bit of dirt in her eye. She asked Heidi to take a look and was informed that a leech had attached itself to her eyeball, where it was happily engorged. As the camp gathered around to observe, Sarah maintained clinical detachment while Heidi attempted to pluck it off with tweezers. 

The students, despite their physical afflictions, were lucky to have made it to New Britain at all. Their presence had apparently raised some red flags with the Chico State administration, which was not pleased at the idea of students heading off with an adjunct professor to crocodile-infested volcano territory. Perhaps they had read the State Department’s extensive travel warnings. In any event, the morning of his departure flight, Lane was called in to meet with Chico State president Paul Zingg and the university’s risk manager, who threatened to block the students from participating in the expedition. Chico State is an institution perhaps best known for being ranked America’s number one party school by Playboy in 1987, a title it held for 15 years. When the Office of Risk Management calls something into question, watch out. Lane informed them that Alan and Emily had purchased their tickets on their own and were already en route, laid over in Fiji, and the president ordered Lane to fly to Port Moresby, rendezvous with the students, and escort them directly back to Northern California.

After planning dozens of expeditions full of ego clashes and unpleasant surprises, Lane had developed various coping strategies. This, in part, explained his deadpan affect and seeming inability to get worked up over almost anything. He received the Chico State president’s direct order not to bring the students along with stubborn unflappability. “If you let that stuff get to you, you end up with a nine-to-five as a pencil pusher, stuck in traffic,” Lane told me. There was something in his tone that implied such a fate was the one defeat he really feared. So Lane had simply ignored Zingg’s request and met up with the students in Port Moresby to begin the expedition. And now here they were, deep in the New Britain jungle, far beyond the reach of any administrative consequence, ready to fan out in search of Lane’s elusive quarry.

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John Lane, Emily Ramsey, and Nakanai locals at base camp near the Hargy Plantation in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Six

On my third morning in camp, we all walked out to a small machete-cut clearing on the shore of Lake Hargy. The volcanic caldera’s lake had filled with millions of years’ worth of rainwater, and the sun burned mist off its glassy surface. From the rough dock of vine-lashed logs the bois had fashioned, I could see 10 feet down through the astonishingly clear water. The lake reaches three miles across, and a ring of forest-covered mountains rose above the far shore. The jagged mountains formed the edge of the Nakanai range, hundreds of square miles of unpopulated, untrammelled country divided by steep gorges and knife-edge ridges, and full of thousands of limestone caves. Lane told me the Nakanai never travel to the far side of the lake. The Nakanai are afraid of the thick mists at higher elevation, which they call “snow,” swirling with malevolent spirits.

Lane’s mission in the region was to search for the tree kangaroo and whatever else he might find. If he came across one of the creatures and by some extraordinary circumstance managed to grab hold of it, Lane and Dylan agreed there was only one option: a massive dose of the barbiturate sodium pentobarbital. To prove the creature’s existence, he would have to kill it. The mystery of the New Britain tree kangaroo seemed to be as much a problem of ontology as zoology. But Lane was not vexed by philosophical questions. He had always been drawn to the unfilled spaces on the map, and he wished them to stay that way. These lost places were a screen upon which he could project his desires. And by that same promise of mysteries to be revealed, most of us had been drawn here by Lane’s mercurial vision.

Lane, Dylan, and I gathered our gear by the lakeshore. Given the limited rations and certain difficulties of our plans, only the three of us would travel into the Nakanai, while the rest of the group continued their research in the forests around the base camp. We carried a machete, climbing harnesses, several hundred feet of rope, a small cookstove, Dylan’s collecting equipment, and a camera trap for identifying animals moving along game trails at night. Lane carried a GPS unit, but it would be of limited use. The only topographical maps that exist for the region were created by the Australians in 1978, and the gradient on Lane’s copy was so coarse that a 200-foot cliff wouldn’t even merit a line. I’d brought a dozen freeze-dried camping meals. Lane and I had jungle hammocks, with rain flies and mosquito netting attached. Dylan would have to improvise, building stick beds with the machete. Considering our remoteness and the extreme topography, I asked Lane why he hadn’t brought a satellite phone. “Sat phones take the fun out of it,” he replied dismissively. “Our lives are soft enough as it is.”

I was beginning to understand the ways Lane elevated improvisation to a life philosophy. On our expedition, there was always some crucial supply missing, some unexpected obstacle to overcome. For example, Lane had planned for us to have a small aluminum rowboat to transport our heavy gear across the caldera’s lake. The boat had been acquired, but it needed to be helicoptered in from the plantation. Despite Lane’s persistent pleading for more than a year, the helicopter pilot had never gotten around to doing it. So we would make do, and that would be half the fun, according to Lane. He showed me the vessel that instead would ferry us the three miles across: a pair of inner tubes to which the bois had lashed a latticework of sticks with vines. The platform was scarcely bigger than a front door, and there were three hand-carved paddles. This didn’t seem terribly safe. Hargy is a lake where crocodiles—which can grow to 20 feet—had migrated inland and now basked along the shore. “I really don’t think they’re likely to come out to the middle,” said Lane.

In Lane’s world, the abstract concept of risk was divided into two subcategories, perceived and actual. The idea of a comfort zone and an individual’s position relative to it is perhaps a peculiarly postmodern preoccupation: whole industries have been developed to remove customers safely from it, after all. Think of bungee jumping, roller coasters, zip lines. Innertubing across a volcanic lake home to crocodiles did the trick for me. But having come so far, I allowed no thought of turning back, and I resigned myself to Lane’s plan. We piled our packs at the center of the raft and clambered precariously aboard. Lane knelt in front, and Dylan and I sat crushed side by side at the rear, each forced to dangle a foot in the water. I stared down at the stick platform, a couple of inches above the deep blue water of the lake. “How many kangaroos do you want us to bring back?” shouted Lane to the crew of students and bois we were leaving behind. The equatorial sun blazed as we pushed off and paddled toward the jungle-covered mountains rising on the far shore of Lake Hargy.

As we paddled, our raft seemed a little society adrift in a wilderness outside of time. Lane recited his litany of corny and mildly dirty jokes to offset the spookiness of our isolation. (“What’s the difference between Mick Jagger and a Scotsman? Mick Jagger says, ‘Hey you, get off of my cloud.’ A Scotsman says, ‘Hey MacLeod, get off of my ewe.’”) After three hours, we reached the far side of the lake, where we dragged the raft through thigh-deep mud to the shoreline and stashed it in the 10-foot grass. There was no trail to be found. Great sails of buttress roots propped up forest giants, and the high canopy cast a cathedral gloom over the forest floor. A strangler fig the size of a house grew from a hillside, its mossy roots a dendritic maze. Lane studied the map and decided to make for what appeared to be a ridgeline rising from the lake edge toward the cloudy heights. We shouldered our heavy packs, and Dylan struck out first, machete in hand, hacking at vines. I gradually picked up on his personal lexicon of Kiwi-influenced slang, generally used to denote varying levels of approval: If he was excited for something, he was “frothing”; if deeply disappointed, “gutted.”

Dylan told me tree kangaroos give off a strong, musky odor, so I inhaled deeply, hoping for a whiff. Instead, I smelled rotting vegetable matter and my own sweat. As ever, I searched overhead for a glint of chestnut fur among the mossy branches. Almost immediately it began to rain, pounding down so hard that it was like being held beneath an open hydrant, the roar so loud we could barely hear one another. We didn’t even bother with raincoats, which would only drench us from the inside with the humidity. The jungle was filled with mutant versions of flora more familiar as houseplants and garden flowers, 10-foot ferns, head-high begonias, and fluorescent-pink impatiens erupting from the rotting crevices of trees. Rattan, that Pier 1 standby, was here a flesh-tearing horror, with stems covered in three-inch spikes and cat-claw thorns lining the undersides of its fronds. My clothes were soon shredded and my forearms bloody with deep scratches.

Dylan stopped frequently to roll over rotten logs, each one like a lottery scratch-off whose jackpot was yet unnamed species of spiders, beetles, and frogs. At one point, he squatted and poked at something on the ground with the machete, a slimy heap of half-digested seedpods. “Cassowary shit,” he said. We all took pictures. Five feet tall and weighing perhaps 60 pounds, the Bennett’s Cassowary is one of the more dangerous creatures in the forest. It resembles a flightless steroidal turkey, with a royal blue neck streaked with red, a mound of shaggy black feathers, and dagger-like spurs on thick legs. The birds can be territorial and will attack humans, leaping and punching with their spurs or head-butting with an ax-like crest of bone atop their skulls. “He can jump up to a meter in the air, and he’ll go for your throat, your stomach, or your groin,” Lane casually observed. He had been charged by one, of course.

The terrain suddenly steepened. We scrambled up the muddy hillside, wedging against roots and grasping at saplings to pull ourselves upward. We seemed to have missed the manageable ridgeline we had spotted on the map and were forcing our way up a drastic incline. As I climbed, I knocked loose a chunk of limestone the size of a basketball, and it smashed 100 feet down the hillside, echoing against the trees. The forest grew claustrophobic, offering nowhere to gain a view outward. With the thick canopy overhead, it became difficult to get the GPS unit to even register a waypoint. Finally, smeared with mud, we arrived at a slightly flat spot and hacked a camp for the night from the vine-tangled undergrowth.

We were at nearly 3,000 feet now, and the air turned chilly and damp as soon as the sun had set. I had decided not to bring a sleeping bag, assuming the tropics would be hot enough at night to make one unnecessary. Within a half-hour, I’d put on all the dry clothes I had, including my otherwise pointless raincoat, and still shook uncontrollably with cold. Lane dug into his pack and tossed me a small packet containing a Mylar space blanket. There was a picture on the package of a smiling woman wrapped in one—presumably not in the euphoric end stages of hypothermia. I found myself constantly glancing upward at the silhouetted branches, looking for some sign in the dripping expanse of foliage: a long dangling tail, a moving shadow, anything.        

From a scientific perspective, of course, stomping through inaccessible rainforest and looking around at random trees is hardly a methodologically sound way of finding a tree kangaroo. Some of the best research on tree kangaroos in the wild has been done by Lisa Dabek, director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She used native hunters with tracking dogs to locate the animals, then sent climbers up into the branches after them, until, to escape, the tree kangaroos leaped to the ground, where they were promptly tackled, radio-collared, and released. There are few other ways to make long-term observations. But Dabek’s research and dedication have achieved real results; she persuaded local landowners to create a 180,000-acre conservation area around the heart of the tree kangaroo’s habitat on the mainland’s Huon peninsula. It took Dabek 10 years, and extraordinary cooperation by the native communities, to establish the protections.

That is exactly what Lane would have to do—a long process of diplomacy and trust-building with the local tribes—but it was unclear whether he had the patience for that. Lane was aware of this, of course, but rigorous methodology and slow diplomacy were not his preferred M.O. My own feelings wavered between resentment at having come halfway around the world on a half-assed goose chase and a sense of wonder that we were searching for something rich and strange at the far end of the earth. But there I was, and there was nothing much to do but follow Lane deeper into the jungle. He was out there trying for the big win, the Hail Mary that would save New Britain with one grand and miraculous discovery.

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Lake Hargy in New Britain (Photos by Dylan van Winkel)

Seven

There is a phrase in Tok Pisin, longpela taim, which means “a long time ago.” And from a long time ago until the present, outsiders have rummaged through this corner of the world for supporting evidence of their dreams. It has filled the popular imagination as a place where desires could be imprinted onto an unknown, “primitive” landscape. This has led to resource booms in copper, timber, gold, natural gas, and palm oil. But it has also spurred far more esoteric and less financially rewarding quests. The blank spaces on its map have beckoned a long parade of entrepreneurs and eccentrics in pursuit of their fantasies, and Lane is hardly the most unusual.

Papua New Guinea’s history with foreigners is filled with both seekers and the lost. Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, traveled there in 1961 to collect tribal art and vanished. There were rumors for decades: He had drowned or had been eaten by sharks or crocodiles or natives, or was living out a Colonel Kurtz–like exile deep in the jungle. A cult of searchers arose, but after 50 years they’ve failed to unearth any solid evidence. Similarly, a retired Australian aircraft engineer named David Billings has spent 17 years, and $100,000 of his own money, searching fruitlessly in the jungles of New Britain for the Lockheed Electra piloted by Amelia Earhart, which took off from the mainland. But these, at least, are quests for something that actually exists.

The Creation Research Society (CRS) stands out even among the many oddball Western groups obsessed with Papua. The CRS bills itself as a “professional organization of trained scientists and interested laypersons” devoted to a version of creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis. The society publishes a quarterly “peer-reviewed journal” that seeks to build an evidentiary basis for young-earth creationism, the Bible-based belief that the planet was created around 6,000 years ago. In March 2006, CRS Quarterly published an article titled “The Fiery Flying Serpent,” by David Woetzel, a New Hampshire business executive and avid cryptozoologist. Woetzel described a 23-day expedition to Papua New Guinea in search of a living, possibly bioluminescent flying dinosaur natives call the ropen.

Woetzel recorded interviews with several natives of Umboi, a volcanic island 40 miles off the coast of New Britain, who claimed to have seen the flying creature. One night, while alone in his camp, he witnessed a “spine-tingling sight”: “a glowing object passing low on the horizon. … The whole sighting lasted for only a few seconds, too brief to photograph it. … [We] spent five nights looking for the Ropen. Our vigils were to no avail, despite the excellent view and our even employing a dead wallaby as bait.”

Lunatic as the CRSers’ quest seems, there was something in Lane’s mission that accorded with the ropen hunters, the Amelia obsessives, the Rockefeller-heads, and all the other seekers after lost things who pilgrimage to this part of the world. But the outsider adventurer who inspired Lane to come here was none of the above. Instead, he was an American World War II reconnaissance pilot, a Minnesotan named Fred “Hargy” Hargesheimer. In June 1943, Hargesheimer had been shot down over the Nakanai range, and an Australian cartographic unit during the war named the newly discovered lake in the caldera in his honor.

By mid-1943, the war in the Pacific was beginning to turn. Guadalcanal had fallen, and the Japanese had been driven from the New Guinea mainland. Their largest outpost in the region was the massive airbase at Rabaul, on the eastern end of New Britain, where more than 100,000 troops were stationed. As a photo reconnaissance pilot, Hargesheimer flew unarmed over Japanese-held territory, his machine guns replaced by a trio of cameras. He recorded the landscape for mapmaking in anticipation of an Allied land invasion and kept a constant lookout for signs of Japanese movement across the island: newly built airstrips, hidden supply barges, troop encampments. Then as now, much of the interior of New Britain was a mountainous wilderness; the only signs of human habitation were found along the coasts.

On the morning of June 5, 1943, Hargesheimer flew his twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, named the Eager Beaver, out over the Dampier Strait. He traced along the north coast of New Britain, searching for Japanese movement. He spotted what he thought was a new air strip in the jungle and prepared for a low-altitude pass to photograph it. His plane quivered, and he watched as his left engine burst into flame. He went into a defensive dive and felt bullets ricochet off the armor plate behind his cockpit. When his second engine died, Hargesheimer knew he had no choice but to bail out. He pulled the canopy release and was sucked out into open sky. Drifting slowly down beneath his parachute, Hargesheimer watched the Japanese fighter swing back around, certain it was coming in for the kill. But the pilot veered away. Hargy came back to earth, crashing down through a grove of eucalyptus trees.

He was banged up, with a deep gash on his head, but alive. He bandaged his wound with parachute cloth and took an inventory of his supplies. He had a small inflatable raft, a machete, a compass, a pistol, a packet of matches, a fishing line and hooks, penicillin, two chocolate bars, and a booklet, Friendly Fruits and Vegetables: Advice to Air Crew Members Forced Down in the Jungle. He was in the middle of a wilderness, 75 miles behind Japanese lines, in a region where tribal loyalties were uncertain and rumors of cannibalism still abounded. And although it was ostensibly the dry season, it rained torrentially every day. Hargesheimer decided to make for the coast, hoping to encounter some friendly natives who would shelter him until he could arrange a rescue.

He walked for 10 days, sucking on his chocolate to make it last, sleeping under a tent of parachute cloth, and struggling through a landscape of steep ravines and difficult vegetation. Finally, he came across a grass-roofed native shelter by a small river and set up a base for himself. He managed to start a fire with his final match, and he lived on roasted freshwater snails and a single fish he managed to shoot with his pistol. He was soon near starvation and crushingly lonesome. What if he had survived the crash only to die a slow death in the jungle?

Finally, after a month alone, he heard voices approaching. Before he knew it, a few tribesmen stood before him. He wished he had run and hid: He didn’t know if they were friendly, and he spoke only a few words of Tok Pisin. Then one of them handed him a letter. It was a greeting written by an Australian coastwatcher, a member of one of the small radio teams that hid behind enemy lines and provided early warnings on the Japanese.

Deciding they were on his side, Hargesheimer followed the natives to their village on the coast. There, they made him a feast of bananas and smoked fish. When he contracted malaria and couldn’t eat for 10 days, a nursing mother fed him every day from a teacup filled with her breast milk. In a few months, he became fluent in Tok Pisin and came to care greatly for the people who helped him. They risked their lives by hiding him. When Japanese soldiers approached the village, the natives hustled him into the jungle. He once had to climb high up in a eucalyptus tree to avoid detection. “At the top I found a mossy nest that had evidently been the sleeping place of some animal,” he later wrote. “It was a perfect hideout.”

Finally, nine months after he was shot down, the coastwatchers made contact with an American submarine, and Hargesheimer and several other stranded airmen were rescued. He sent a telegram home: “Safe and well, regret circumstances prevented answering your letters.” In two weeks, he was back in Minnesota.

After the war, Hargy thought often of New Britain. In 1960, he returned to the town, now called Nantabu. The villagers all remembered him and were delighted that “Masta Predi” had come all the way around the world to see them again. He wept with joy. Later, the villagers performed an elaborate “singsing” for him. Hargesheimer had brought gifts, but he wanted to do more for the people who had saved his life. He ended up building a school nearby, providing a free education to generations of native children. He even moved to New Britain with his wife and taught there with her for several years.

Ultimately, Hargesheimer retired to a vineyard in Grass Valley, California, and self-published a memoir. At 89, he got a call from a caver who lived in nearby Chico. John Lane was planning his first caving expedition to New Britain, and a friend had recommended he contact Hargesheimer for advice. They soon became good friends. Lane promised Hargesheimer he would go to New Britain and try to find the Eager Beaver.

That first expedition didn’t go quite as planned. After losing all their gear connecting through Tokyo, Lane and his companions had trekked with burlap bags to a village near where they thought the crash site might be. They went to an enormous bat-and-spider-filled cave several hours’ hike above the village, but there was no sign of Hargesheimer’s plane.

Lane left a disposable camera with a villager. The manager of the Hargy Plantation offered a reward to anyone who could find the wreckage. Then, three months later, Lane got an email with pictures of the Eager Beaver. In July 2006, Hargy and Lane traveled back to New Britain. Lane hiked in to the site to cut a helipad, and a group of native Kol tribesmen showed up and demanded $70,000 for outsiders to enter their territory. The Kol are nomadic hunter-gatherers, among the least assimilated tribes in New Britain, but luckily Lane and Hargy had a local missionary with them, one of the few white people in the world who speak Kol. They negotiated the price down to 15 cans of tuna, a tarp, and the plastic chair they’d brought to carry Hargy to the crash site.

A group of villagers carried Hargesheimer up to the Eager Beaver. The wreckage was spread over a quarter-mile area down a steep streambed. They found a section of the tail riddled with bullet holes and one of the enormous propellers stuck into the ground like a javelin. Even the cameras that had been mounted to the P-38 were there.

Hargy died almost a year ago, but the school he built in New Britain still exists, and Lane sits on the board of its nonprofit foundation. He was a different sort of person than Lane, but one who had clearly inspired him deeply. Hargy had led a life that was at once a humble service and an extraordinary adventure. Perhaps there was a way for Lane’s own life to encompass both of those things. “When I met Fred, caving sort of went on the back burner, and this became more of a conservation project,” Lane told me. Everything he had struggled with, everything he had hoped to achieve here, had grown from that strange, serendipitous friendship, and with Hargy in mind he would push on no matter how absurdly long the odds appeared.

Eight

Day after day, we pushed onward into the depths of the Nakanai. Things were starting to unravel. The landscape itself was our biggest adversary, steep and vicious, the air heavy with decayed vegetation. Dylan hacked a route through a wilderness of bamboo and neck-deep tanglefoot ferns. The ferns were so woody and interwoven, it sometimes took 20 minutes to go as many yards. Stinging caterpillars dropped down on our exposed necks. My waterlogged leather boots were nearly sliced through by vines; they smelled like a damp catacomb. I had an angry rash across my chest, and Dylan diagnosed himself with the early stages of trench foot. We were also running low on provisions, with little remaining but corned beef and Hiway Hardman biscuits, but Lane cheerfully assured us we would be fine with no food for a few days. We hadn’t seen so much as a tree kangaroo claw mark or scat pile.

Carrying our heavy packs also slowed us down. On a high forested ridge, we decided to make a base camp. Hoping to capture a still shot of a tree kangaroo, Lane set up his motion-sensing camera trap every evening, but he only wound up taking inadvertent portraits of himself. One morning I heard a loud rustling outside my hammock and prayed that it was a tree kangaroo rifling through my pack. I sat up and watched as an enormous wild boar crashed its way down the ridge. The forest seemed spooky and echoing, and Lane speculated that this was the domain of the Nakanai’s dreaded one-armed, one-legged Pomeo people of local legend. There was no sign that anyone else had ever been to this place, too far for even the most ambitious native hunters to roam. Lane judged from the map that we were above a series of steep ravines that cut into the heart of the Nakanai wilderness.

Fallen logs held their shape but collapsed into compost at a touch. I could see the jungle’s soil being created before my eyes. On one steep section, I clung to a root, then slipped and fell into a rotten log. Thousands of furious inch-long red and black ants swarmed out, and some stung me, white-hot and electric. I was surprised by the sound of my own screaming, raspy and high-pitched, echoing through the forest as I tried to brush them off in panic. Lane looked up from below me, unconcerned. When I made it down to him, ant bites swelling across my stomach, he gave me a look that seemed to say, Suck it upkid, this is part of the deal.

We stumbled down into a dry creek bed, and I suggested to Dylan that he mark a notch in a fallen log so that we would know where to turn back up the ridge. As he swung, the blade of the machete glanced off the wood and sank into his knee, blood flowing down over his shin in rivulets. Dylan sat down, and we looked at the cut, a wide red smile just below the patella, going nearly to the bone. “Uh-oh,” said Lane, in a kindergarten-teacher voice. “Machete owie.” Dylan seemed unfazed. Part of the grand project with our tree kangaroo hunt, it seemed, was trying to make living itself hard work again. Dylan refused to turn back and wrapped a dirty bandanna around the wound to stanch the bleeding: a machete wound would proffer significant bragging rights back home.

We picked our way carefully over the mossy boulders of the streambed. After several hundred yards scrambling along the ravine, we came to an abrupt stop. The dry streambed dropped over a smooth saddle of rock and plunged straight down for 100 feet into an even deeper canyon. Lane told us we would need to return the following day with our ropes. We turned and began the long climb to our base camp, hundreds of vertical feet above us through the jungle.

Back in camp, the afternoon rains pounded down. Dylan tossed me a little envelope dug from the depths of his pack. It was a suture kit. Illuminating the wound with my headlamp, I used a syringe to wash it with rainwater, trying at least to get the mud out. I grasped the curved needle with tweezers and pushed it through the edge of the wound, then drew the suture through. I repeated this process through the top edge of the incision. Dylan directed me as I went, and I tied the thread into a sloppy but passable stitch, the wound closing like a Ziploc bag. With the next suture I hit a vein, and blood gushed down his shin. I tied it off again, and finally it was closed. “That’s a mean cut,” said Dylan, with a hint of pride. “Wicked!”

We returned to the waterfall in the morning, 200 feet of climbing rope looped over Dylan’s shoulder. Lane tied a secure anchor around several boulders. Despite his often laissez-faire approach to safety, Lane took preparations for the descent seriously. He clipped our line into the anchor and tossed it over the lip of the dry waterfall. One at a time, we rappelled into the abyss, kicking away from the mossy rock face and sliding down the line.

Limestone cliffs rose sheer above us and formed a slot canyon, as vertical gardens of ferns and orchids dripped down. It was like looking up from the bottom of a well. The sky was barely visible as we scrambled down the narrow canyon, and it seemed certain that no human had ever before been in this exact place. I was so lost in my ruminations about the wilderness that I almost ignored Lane’s warning to stop. I looked up and saw that we had come to the top of a second waterfall, probably twice as high as the first, and we were out of rope. It would be impossible to go any further. “I guess that’s the end of the line,” said Lane, looking out at the dark jungle valley below the falls. His voice didn’t sound frustrated or relieved, merely matter-of-fact that his endless search would now turn elsewhere, like Ahab with ADD. I wondered if, for him, it was not as much about finding things as looking for them. Not finding them just meant he had a reason to come back and try again.

An immense tangled tree jutted from the cliffs beyond the waterfall. I tried to will a silhouetted tree kangaroo to climb out along its branches and gaze down from its secret world, indifferent to our presence. Ethnotramp or not. Real or imaginary. I knew that wishing for it to appear was just another form of magical thinking. I knew that just proving the tree kangaroo’s existence was not likely to be the most effective way of saving this wilderness. And yet the forest beyond still seemed to glow with mystery and possibility. I did not want a world bereft of such secrets. I thought of Peter Matthiessen’s Zen-like acceptance when he failed to reach his eponymous goal in The Snow Leopard. “I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way. I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed.” Looking out from the edge, I did not feel ashamed at our failure.

Having literally reached the end of our rope, we turned back up the canyon and scrambled to the base of the first waterfall, where our lifeline of rope hung down. Without it, we would be completely trapped. I attached a set of ascending devices to my harness and clipped into the line, inch-worming my way up the 100-foot rock face. Halfway up it started to rain, a driving vertical torrent, and water began to run down the slick, mossy wall. By the time I pulled myself over the top, the rain was blinding, pouring off broad leaves and filling the dry pools of the streambed. I perched on a log that had braced itself across the ravine.

Fifteen minutes later, Dylan pulled himself up, and by then the stream’s pools had filled and begun to join together, running in a steady flow over the edge. New streams burst in along the sides of the ravine, adding to the fast-rising torrent. The anchor for the climbing line was soon underwater, and the stream below cranked up to a muddy brown roar, cascading over the edge to where Lane was trying to climb up to us. Dylan scrambled up to my log, and we stared at each other, wordless at the chaos that had erupted below. I could not see Lane and feared he had been trapped by the flooding water, maybe swept downstream or pinned against the rock face by the flow. We were both powerless to help him, and we both knew that if he was hurt or trapped, it would take days for us to bring help. I thought of his friend Adam Bodine, drowned years ago. Lane’s adventure-promoting decision not to bring a satellite phone now seemed the height of hubris. A dull panic stirred in my stomach. The water pounded down from above and roared over the falls, the thin lifeline of rope stretched taut.

And then a hand splashed up, followed by another, followed by a waterlogged Sierra Nevada Brewery baseball cap. Lane dragged himself over the edge, stood in the knee-deep flow, and gasped for breath, the water running off him. He whooped, shouting for the first time since I’d met him: “That was epic! Super hairy.” I wondered if this moment of danger and then a last-minute reprieve was what he had been looking for all along.

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A Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo in captivity near Kimbe Bay in New Britain. (Photo by Matthew Power)

Nine

We were out of rope, out of time, and almost out of food. So the next day we made the long, treacherous descent back to the lake’s edge, where the raft waited. We paddled across the lake through driving rain, the mountains of the Nakanai receding in the distance.

When we returned to the camp, we were happy to find that the place hadn’t devolved into Lord of the Flies in our absence: There had been no nasty breakups or petty acts of violence, and no sticks had been sharpened at both ends. Even so, the Chico State students were more than ready to go home. The bois began breaking down the camp. Dylan and Sarah dismantled their lab and packed the specimens, hoping that something new to science was floating in one of the little jars or stacked in Tupperware. (Lane warned Dylan to be careful bringing specimens back through Australian customs. Last time, a giant cockroach had scuttled out from his baggage and customs had confiscated his penis gourd.)

We all stumbled over the shoulder of the volcano, back to the edge of the known world, the oil palms marching across the landscape in formation. In a few months, there would be little sign that anyone had ever been at the camp in the caldera, save a few collapsed stick beds decaying back into the earth. We were just visitors here, the ultimate introduced species.

I got a ride down from the plantation to the coast, into the little town of Kimbe Bay. Hundreds of Papuans bustled among the stalls of a market. A man tried to sell me a baby crocodile, its jaws bound shut with string. There was a small resort in town that catered to tourists, mostly foreign scuba divers who had come to explore the sunken World War II wrecks and coral reefs. A guard let me in the gate, and I walked down a path lined with bougainvillea and jasmine perfuming the humid air. Far to the back of the grounds, in the shade of a spreading tree, I saw it at last. It was perched on curved ebony claws, crouching upon a branch mounted to the inside of a 10-foot steel cage. Its long and impossibly soft brown-golden tail hung straight down, like the pendulum of a stopped clock. The creature turned slowly to watch me as I approached, its face placid, limpid. Its soft brown eyes looked out at the human world through a grid-pattern of bars. Wherever it was from and however it had arrived on this island, this tree kangaroo was a captive now to the dreams of men. It blinked sleepily, slowly turning and curling up on its branch.

Months later, I emailed Lane at home in California. He was back to the routines of ordinary life—his day job, hanging out with his kids—perhaps feeling as much a captive of the modern world as the creature I’d seen in the cage. He was trying to persuade the university and Sierra Nevada to get on board for another expedition next summer. Lane planned to return to New Britain regardless, despite—or because of—the fact that we had found nothing. The Eager Beaver, the tree kangaroo, the grand and noble plan of turning the Nakanai wilderness into a national park: All his obsessions derived from one prime motive. What Lane really wanted was to strike out in search of lost things in our networked, globalized, utterly found world.

Looking back he still felt, given his crippling budgetary limitations and the elusive nature of his quarry, that the expedition had been a success. He recognized all the things we could have done differently in our search for the tree kangaroo: Hired local hunters with dogs, gone from village to village with photographs, or offered a bounty for its capture. But Lane felt that he had made some progress toward the larger goal, building relationships with the native landowners and the plantation. And perhaps some of what Dylan had collected would be new species to science. “The unknowns, the unexpected, or just bad luck can be debilitating,” Lane told me. “At times I wonder how bad can it continue to get, and sometimes I think about throwing in the towel, but overcoming those situations is extremely empowering.”

Lane’s dream now was to persuade the native landowners to build an ecotourism resort where the base camp stood. He envisioned kayaking, canyoneering, cave exploration, and bird-watching. Tourists would come from around the world to see the Hargy caldera. Of course, the logistics would be formidable. Where would he find the money to construct permanent structures? How would they build at such a remote site, miles from the nearest road? How would they train the Nakanai villagers to run it, given Western expectations of creature comforts? And then there were the crocodiles and scorpions and giant spiders. Lane understood all those things, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded. “It takes time, money, patience, and fortitude,” he said, “but most of all, I have to keep moving forward and trying.”

Next year, he told me, he was going to build a zip line.

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In Memoriam
Matthew Power
(1974-2014)

The Defender

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The Defender

Manute Bol’s journey from Sudan to the NBA and back again.

By Jordan Conn

The Atavist Magazine, No. 06


Jordan Conn (www.jordanconn.com) is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York TimesSports Illustrated, the San Francisco Chronicle, and on SI.com. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Photographs: Brady Dillsworth (cover), Courtesy of Sports Illustrated
Music: “Block the Ball,” written and performed by Mark Tabron (www.marktabron.com), “The Ballad of Manute Bol,” written and performed by Kenn Kweder (www.kennkweder.com)
Film: Matthew Kohn is working on a documentary about Manute Bol and reconciliation in Sudan. Please contact him directly for inquiries (firewalkfilm@earthlink.net)
Additional Reporting and Sound/Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Special Thanks: Terry McDonell, Sudan Sunrise, Mayom Majok, Chris Ballard, and Beth Ritter-Conn

Published in July 2011. Design updated in 2021.

They always bring up the lion. No matter who’s talking about Manute Bol—teammate, relative, fan, or friend—whenever they tell stories, they inevitably end up at the time he killed the lion. Depending on where it’s told, the story takes different forms. Sitting under a tree one afternoon near the Bol family’s home in Turalei, Sudan, his uncle Bol Chol Bol tells it to me like this: Manute, a towering teenager charged with caring for his village’s cattle, saw a lion running across the pasture, hungry and desperate for blood. The lion leaped, and Bol launched a spear, goring the predator in midair. Bol Chol Bol tells the story with no hint of hyperbole, no knowing smile. This is the Manute his village knew: benevolent, fearless, almost superhuman. 

The version commonly told in his adopted home, the United States—repeated in newspaper articles and by close friends—has Bol catching the lion while it was sleeping. Aware that the animal, which had bedded down close to the cattle, might attack if it awoke, he thrust in his spear when he had the chance. Some fans take the legend even further, claiming he used only his bare hands. That’s the way singer Kenn Kweder tells it as he tours East Coast bars playing “The Ballad of Manute Bol,” a paean to one of the NBA’s most lovable stars. Kweder may have taken some artistic liberties when he wrote the lyrics in the ’80s, but when he starts playing, and drunk college kids start screaming, there is only one truth: Bol wielded his hands as weapons, his strength and savagery and indomitable will rendering nature’s fiercest predator lifeless in his grasp.

When Manute Bol came to the United States from Sudan in 1983, the lion story arrived with him. When he became the NBA’s first African-born player, it served as the perfect anecdote to help Americans understand one of the strangest men they’d ever seen, a man who came from a country lodged only faintly in their consciousness. Bol was tall—seven feet seven inches, so tall he needed to duck his head beneath doorframes and barely had to strain to dunk the ball through the net. So tall he towered over the seven-footers who dominated the NBA. And Bol was skinny—185 pounds when he arrived stateside, so skinny his skeleton looked unprotected by flesh, covered only by skin and spindly muscle, each limb a twig with just enough support to keep the body functioning. Skinny enough that Woody Allen once joked, “Manute Bol is so skinny they save money on road trips; they just fax him from city to city.” Bol was also black, so black to American journalists’ eyes that they devised new ways to say “black”—“a moonless midnight,” “darker than dark,” phrases intended to signal that Bol’s skin color was that of a warrior, a tribesman, from a land unseen and a people unknown. Bol’s was the black of a man who killed a lion.

In the canon of Manute Bol mythology, the tale of the lion is but one volume. The others spring from storytellers scattered across two continents, each emphasizing a different aspect of Bol’s complex and multifarious life. “He had this swagger,” a former NBA player begins, “this incredible stature about him.” Others focus less on Bol’s personality and more on his actions. According to his daughter, “He would do anything for his people.” “I would never say a bad word about Manute,” remarks his agent, “but I’ve got to tell you, he abandoned his family.” His uncle introduces listeners to Bol by speaking about how strong he was as a baby. An American friend starts off by saying how weak he was in his final days. In Turalei, a young generation of boys grew up learning about Bol’s triumphs in a distant land. “He was rich,” a nephew remembers hearing as a child. “He was famous.” To many at home, however, success abroad mattered little. “Manute,” says a fellow countryman, “is Sudan.”

Bol lived a life befitting a man of such an outsized body. At any given moment, you could find him on a basketball court or a television screen, in a congressional meeting or a war zone, in a hut or a mansion. He sometimes gambled. He often boozed. No matter the backdrop, he always worked to ensure that those around him were happy. In time his bonds with teammates on the court, winning games and entertaining fans, would be replaced by one with a young man from his war-torn village, fighting to educate their people and free their homeland. But every moment, he was meticulously crafting the legend of Manute Bol.

Teammates laughed and waited for Bol’s response, but he neither confirmed nor denied the accusation. In the locker room, he wasn’t a cattle tender; he wasn’t an African; he was a basketball player. “Fuck you, Charles Barkley,” he said.

Bol, at the time a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, during a 1990 game (Photo by John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated)

1. Feet on the Ground

Even Bol’s birth remains shrouded in myth. It happened in 1962—at least that’s what Western records say, though the man himself was never sure—and for his mother, Okwok, it followed the delivery of two sets of stillborn twins. Before Bol was born, the family consulted a local mystic, who delivered a blessing and predicted the birth of a healthy boy. When the boy was born, they called him Manute, which means “special blessing” and is a common name for babies born in the shadow of lost siblings. On the day of his birth, Bol’s uncle likes to claim, the baby’s body was so long that when he breast-fed his feet touched the ground. His height wasn’t surprising. His father stood six foot eight, his mother six foot ten. His great-grandfather, Bol would later say, was seven foot ten. When British colonizers explored Sudan, some devised a name for the tall and dark Dinka tribespeople who populated the southern regions: “ghostly giants.”

While few villagers remember Bol’s childhood athleticism, his willpower and persistence remain the stuff of local lore. Many Dinka boys in Turalei, which lies in Sudan’s predominantly Christian and animist south, endure tribal rituals in which their bodies are disfigured to signify their transition to manhood. Around age 8, their lower teeth are removed. Later, their foreheads are sliced open and lines are cut across their skulls to mark them as Dinka men. But when Bol’s turn came to endure each of the rituals, he fled, walking for days in search of a new home. First he went to Abyei, a region that straddles the border with Sudan’s predominantly Arab and Muslim north. The second time, he went to Babanusa, even deeper within northern Sudan, where he first experienced life as a racial minority. Both times he eventually gave up and returned home, realizing he could no longer avoid the ceremony. The mystic excised Bol’s teeth and then carved his forehead.

Bol’s countrymen, meanwhile, were embracing a rare era of peace. A civil war had raged in Sudan from 1955 to 1972, killing an estimated 500,000 to 1.3 million people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. In his later years, when Bol talked about his childhood, he spoke little of the diseases, militias, and famines that swept through the region, wiping out entire villages. Because he reached adolescence during peacetime, he’d had the luxury of avoiding the life of a soldier. Instead, Bol had other ambitions. As a child, he boasted that he would one day become executive chief, the richest and most powerful man in Turalei, perhaps all of Twic, the surrounding county. He was, in fact, a member of the local royal family, a grandson of the great chief Chol Bol. Manute’s father, however, had been Chol Bol’s second son, so unless Bol proved himself far worthier than any of his cousins, he would have to line up behind more direct heirs to the chiefdom. To Bol, however, these details mattered little. Someday, he told the village boys, he would rule them all.

Before he could be chief, though, he first had to tend cattle. Cows are held in higher regard than are most other creatures in Dinka culture, both as symbols of wealth and as sustenance for life. Along with the other teenage boys, Bol left the village to work in a cattle camp.

It was while honing his animal-husbandry skills that Bol hit his growth spurt. By his late teens, he towered over his tribesmen. One day a photojournalist from a newspaper in Khartoum, Sudan’s northern capital, visited Turalei and snapped a picture of Bol. The photo caught the eye of Bol’s cousin Nicola Bol, who had moved to the capital and had emerged as one of Sudan’s top basketball players. “I hadn’t seen him since he was a little kid,” says Nicola of his cousin. “I never realized how tall he was, but when I saw the picture I thought, Wow, he needs to start playing basketball.” Soon Bol was recruited to play for a police-sponsored team in Wau, a city in the same region as Turalei, near the border between southern Sudan and Darfur.

Bol moved to Wau and started attending practices, struggling to learn the game. One day he rose the short distance required to dunk for the first time, and as he returned to the earth the net caught on his front teeth, yanking them from his gums. A ceremony had made Bol an official Dinka man. Now he was officially a basketball player.

2. Changing the Game

At seven foot seven, Bol didn’t need long to hone his skills enough to be useful on the court, and he soon moved from the team in Wau to a bigger one in Khartoum. In Sudan’s capital, Bol got his second taste of life as a minority—as a tall and dark-skinned Christian in an Arab city where racial and religious tensions ran high. Yet Bol rarely turned the other cheek when people stopped their cars to gawk or called him abd—Arabic for “slave.” As his Arabic improved he tried to integrate, but when confronted Bol usually responded with fists, not words. “I did fight a lot in Khartoum,” Bol later told the Washington Post. “I was bad. I don’t take anything. Sometimes I can say we Dinkas are crazy. That’s what I can say. We don’t give up.”

Basketball would become his escape from all the animosity that surrounded him in Khartoum. In June of 1982, when Bol was 20, Don Feeley, a coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, arrived in Khartoum to help coach the Sudanese national team. From the moment Feeley saw the slender giant, he was transfixed. Bol, he knew, could change a basketball game. With that height, perhaps, Bol could alter the course of a whole college program. Feeley pulled some strings and was able to secure promises of scholarships at Cleveland State University for Bol and his friend Deng Deng Nhial. There was only one problem: Bol had never attended a single day of school. Feeley called Jim Lynam, the coach of the then–San Diego Clippers, and urged him to select Bol in the 1983 NBA draft, sight unseen. Typically, a player who’d never performed in front of scouts would have no chance of being chosen by a professional team. But “seven foot seven” was all Lynam needed to hear. He chose Bol in the fifth round, only to have the pick voided because Bol hadn’t officially declared his intention to enter the draft.

Bol and Deng instead moved to Connecticut to enroll at Bridgeport University, an NCAA Division II school with lower admission standards than Cleveland State. Bol arrived on campus several weeks before classes started, and word of his presence soon spread. “I’d been hearing about this guy for a couple weeks,” says John O’Reilly, who played alongside Bol on the Purple Knights. “Then I finally got to campus and saw him, and I just couldn’t believe it. Just this massive body, so much bigger than anyone you’d ever seen.” Another teammate, John Mullin, was scrimmaging in the Bridgeport gym when he first spotted Bol. “He was sitting in the lobby, and when he stood up it was like his body was just unfolding,” Mullin says. “He walks through the door and he has to duck, and then he stands up straight and I couldn’t believe it. He’s just joking and laughing the whole time, completely comfortable in that environment.”

Bol spent a year at Bridgeport, his shot-blocking prowess turning the school into a Division II power. The victories piled up, and Bol became a sensation on small-college campuses around the northeast. Every game—home or away—was packed. Opposing players found their fans cheering against their own school, rooting instead for the giant who loped and laughed down the court, treating jump shots like mosquitoes. When Bridgeport walked out of the locker room, “you could hear the air come out of everybody’s lungs,” O’Reilly says.

Bol used his time at Bridgeport to acclimate to American life. Given access to medical care, he replaced his missing teeth. Given access to pizza and beer, he indulged most every night. He developed a reputation across campus for his dominant play, his effervescent personality, and, over time, his stubbornness. Before his first season began, Bol set his sights on the number 10 jersey, which O’Reilly had previously worn. He begged O’Reilly for it, telling him he’d do anything to get it, but his teammate stayed firm. On the day the players were introduced to the media, Bol threatened to leave the team: “I can’t stay here if I don’t wear number 10,” he told O’Reilly. Eventually, O’Reilly relented. (Years later, when Bol was playing for the Golden State Warriors, a rookie teammate, Tim Hardaway, approached him wanting to wear the number 10. Bol initially refused but then told Hardaway he’d let him have it—for $500,000, his entire first-year salary. Hardaway declined.)

After one year at Bridgeport, Bol decided he was ready for the pros. Some friends and advisers told him to stay in college, to polish his game and improve his draft stock. But Bol’s mind was made up. He needed money, both for himself and for his increasingly desperate family back in Sudan. And there was no money to be made as a college athlete. Because his skills were so raw and his Division II competition so weak, Bol’s advisers were unsure how high he’d be selected in the NBA draft. So his agent, Frank Catapano, arranged for Bol to play with the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League, a fledgling minor league that would offer better competition and a chance to perform in front of NBA scouts.

Bol dominated. In only eight games, he proved he could compete with top talent, and the Washington Bullets selected him in the second round of the NBA draft, as the 31st overall pick and the tallest player in league history. (In the first round, two years later, they drafted the shortest: five-foot-three Wake Forest University guard Muggsy Bogues.) “A lot of people thought it was just a publicity stunt,” says Bob Ferry, then the general manager of the Bullets, of Bol’s selection. “But I was dead serious. I thought he could play.”

3. The Pro

Once he arrived in Washington, Bol played the game unlike anyone before or since, making the impossible look easy and the easy seem impossible. Most players could never hope to block a jump shot from more than a couple of feet away—reaching their hands into the sky to meet the ball at its apex—but Bol did it all the time. “No one could shoot over him,” says Hardaway. “We used to funnel guys toward Manute because we knew he would block their shot. You just couldn’t understand how long he was until you got up close.”

And yet Bol tended to be an embarrassment on offense. He struggled with the most routine plays, missing layups, bricking free throws, dropping the ball or allowing it to roll away between his legs. Several fingers on his right, shooting hand were disfigured, the result of a birth defect. “It looked like a claw,” Ferry says. “He couldn’t straighten his fingers, and that really hurt him.”

Still, his coaches were so enamored of his shot-blocking ability that he played regularly as a rookie during the 1985–86 season, setting an NBA single-season rookie record with 397 blocks—the second-highest total, for any player, in league history. He achieved that mark despite averaging barely two quarters per game, in an era when the rules prohibited guarding a zone of the court rather than an opponent, which tended to discourage large players from staying close to the basket. “If he played today,” Hardaway says, “he would be one of the most dominant players in the game.”

Off the court Bol was a sensation, landing endorsements typically reserved for far more established players. Over the course of his career, he signed contracts with Toyota, Nike, Kodak, and Church’s Chicken—Bol, the ads went, “blocks out his hunger with the Manute Bol Meal, featuring one leg and one thigh of Church’s Fried Chicken.” Sportswriters loved him because he always spoke his mind (“I don’t say no words to him,” Bol once told reporters, excusing himself after an on-court scuffle with Bulls center Jawann Oldham. “If I look for a fight, I go to Lebanon or maybe Libya and be a marine.”) Teammates loved him because his blocks covered for their mistakes. He even worked his way into his general manager’s family, eating Thanksgiving dinners at the Ferrys’ home.

Before long Bol had the means to bring his own family to America, inviting his cousin Nicola, who played for the Sudanese national basketball team, and Nicola’s wife, Achuei, to move into his home in Maryland. Bol also became engaged to a Dinka woman, Atong, and he moved her to the States to become his wife. Before meeting Atong, he’d had trouble with courtship. Back in Sudan, Bol had once “eloped”—a term Dinkas use to describe a union that occurs before a dowry is set—but the marriage dissolved when the families squabbled over the number of cows. “People thought that if you married Manute, your life would not be OK,” says Achuei, the cousin-in-law, who became one of Bol’s closest friends. “They thought that because of his height, he would not live long. So he had problems with women. He wanted to marry, but the women’s families always told them no.” Bol was thrilled to marry Atong, a woman unwilling to listen to those who claimed his body was destined for a breakdown. After meeting Atong through Achuei, Bol paid an 80-cow dowry for her hand.

Soon the Bol household was filled with babies, as Atong and Achuei had both become pregnant around the same time. Atong gave birth to a girl, Abuk, the first of her and Bol’s four children. Doctors told Achuei she would also have a girl. Bol, however, thought otherwise. He insisted that he would have a “nephew”—southern Sudanese often use familial labels interchangeably—and the nephew would be called Manute. On this, however, Bol would have to fight to get his way. First, there was the matter of biology. The ultrasound had made it clear: Nicola and Achuei’s baby would be a girl. Second, there was the matter of tradition. Manute was a name given only to children whose siblings had died. Dinkas would disapprove if the couple named their firstborn Manute.

Days before the baby’s due date, Manute delivered his most emphatic pitch. He’d found a way around their concerns, he said, an excuse to give their firstborn the name reserved for a family who’d experienced great loss. “It will be OK to name him after me,” he said, “because I’m going to die young.”

When the labor began, the doctors grew worried. Nothing major was wrong, but a cesarean section would be needed. From the hospital, Nicola called Manute. “Don’t do anything,” Bol said. “Wait for me to get there.” A professed Catholic, he arrived with water, which he’d use to perform a blessing. He sprinkled the water on Achuei, declaring that no C-section would be needed; little Manute was going to come out just fine. The labor progressed without complications. Achuei gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.

Bol lifted the baby into the air, smiling while Achuei sat speechless and Nicola looked on, and then he kissed the boy on the forehead. Nicola looked at Achuei and settled it: “This baby is Manute.”

He’d found happiness in his family, but as Bol’s basketball career continued, his stature with the Bullets decreased. His problems on offense persisted, and he soon became branded as a role player, a guy who could come in for a few minutes and block a few shots but never be a consistent starter. Bol’s playing time dwindled in his second and third seasons, and in 1988 Washington traded him to the Warriors. That summer he found trouble off the court, too. In July he was arrested and charged with DUI in Maryland, and he resisted as police tried to restrain him with handcuffs. When the officers informed him that a court-appointed lawyer would be provided if he could not afford his own, Bol revealed himself to be a quick study when it came to American politics. “You keep your Ronald Reagan lawyer,” he told them, according to the Washington Post. “I’m going to keep my Jesse Jackson lawyer.” He was arrested again for DUI that August. This time he refused the sobriety test by telling the police that God gave him two legs to stand on and he shouldn’t have to stand on one. “Manute’s problem is he doesn’t yet understand the working of this society,” Ferry told the Boston Globe about the arrests. “He doesn’t understand our rules. Remember, he comes from a society where it’s an achievement just to live through another day. Things that are important to us aren’t a very big deal to him.”

4. Mr. Alibi

Bol arrived in Northern California in the fall of 1988 to begin training camp with Golden State. He settled into a modest home in Alameda, just outside of Oakland on the San Francisco Bay. The Warriors’ coach, Don Nelson, had long coveted Bol’s services. Nelson believed he could unlock the potential that a man of such size must inherently possess. One day shortly after being traded, Bol entered the gym with his teammates for a round of two-a-day practices. Some players were still working their way into playing shape, but Bol approached Nelson with a special request. “Coach,” he said, “we have to end practice early today.” When Nelson asked why, Bol informed him that an urgent matter had arisen: He had to get home because the cable guy was coming. Nelson laughed, considered the matter, and addressed his team: “Guys, we’re not going to practice for long today. Nutie has to get cable at his house.”

“There’s no way anyone else in the league would ask something like that,” says Winston Garland, who played for the Warriors at the time. “And there’s no way a coach would let anyone else get away with it.” But Nelson loved Bol. He let him shoot three-pointers, giving Bol the green light if he was open during the Warriors’ secondary fast break. Every time Bol fired a shot from long range, he broke a cardinal rule taught to big men on basketball courts around the world: Tall guys should stay close to the basket. Instead, the tallest of them all fired away, his arms jerking back and flinging forward, the ball launched as if from a catapult. The Warriors often ended practice by running a drill that finished with Bol shooting threes. Sometimes they would run the same drill at the beginning of practice. If Bol made his three-pointer, practice ended right then—no further work necessary. In games, most of Bol’s threes missed, but a few splashed through the net, inevitably followed by riotous applause. “Just a raggedy-ass jump shot,” Rick Mahorn, who played for the Detroit Pistons at the time, describes it. “He’d make it, and you’d just have to look at him like, Ain’t that a bitch?”

Though Bol came to love his jump shot—“He started talking all kinds of shit when he made jumpers, like he was a real ballplayer or something,” Mahorn says—Bol still made his money blocking shots. He turned would-be dunkers away and yelled at them not to try scoring on him again, adopting every shot blocker’s favorite phrase: “Get that out of here!” Occasionally, however, opponents got the best of Bol. They would rise to dunk and he would rise with them, and by some act of skill, athleticism, or sheer luck, the opponent would finish with a dunk over or around Bol’s outstretched arms. “He hated to get embarrassed,” says Garland, “so he was always coming up with excuses.” Maybe another defender had missed his assignment, or maybe someone had blocked Bol’s path to the rim, but always there was something or someone Bol could blame. Soon teammates took to calling him Mr. Alibi: the man with an explanation for everything.

One day in November ’88, the Warriors were playing the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan caught the ball on the perimeter, then drove around his defender and skied for the rim. Bol and seven-foot-four teammate Ralph Sampson rose with him, the fiercest shot-blocking pair in the league taking on the best player in the history of the game. But Jordan kept climbing and then flushed the ball through the basket, sending Bol in a daze toward the bench, where teammates were laughing, eager to hear his excuse. “What happened?” they asked. In response, Bol uttered two words that Warriors players had never heard paired, joined together in a phrase that soon would become ubiquitous on blacktops across America. Eventually, legend would hold that Bol created this saying, though some linguists dispute that claim. Either way, when Bol delivered it in his rumbling, Dinka-inflected baritone, the Warriors players erupted as if they’d just heard the best joke of their lives.

“My bad,” he said. “My bad.”

For the rest of the season, Warriors players said it whenever they made a mistake, always low and guttural in their best impression of Bol. When players were traded the phrase spread, and before long everyone across the league was saying “My bad.”

Bol kept blocking shots and firing threes, and as fall turned to winter a pattern emerged at Warriors home games. Bol caught the ball outside the arc; the crowd screamed, “Shoot!” so he fired away; they gasped as it sailed through the air and then groaned if it missed or erupted if it swished, then went back to waiting for Bol to shoot again. He was still not a great player, nor even a particularly good one. But the crowd noise told you what the stat sheet could not: In the late 1980s, Bol was a star.

Because he was a star, Bol’s phone rang often, bringing praise or requests, introducing him to people eager to be helped by his fame. And because he was a star, Bol was often unfit to answer the phone in the mornings—another night out, another few rounds of Heineken or Beck’s. Bol hated mornings. If a fan approached him at night or even in the afternoon, he would offer a smile, even grinning through jokes about his height if he was in the right mood. His natural friendliness was a source of pride, and he’d worked hard to become a cult figure and fan favorite, shaking hands and signing autographs. Mornings, however, were different. “At that time we flew commercial, so we always had to get up the morning after a game and go to the airport,” says Hersey Hawkins, a former teammate. “People would always come up and want to talk to him, saying things like ‘How does it feel to be so tall?’ and he’d just say, ‘Go away’ and grumble something like ‘Stupid Americans.’ We always laughed when people walked up to him, because we knew what was coming.”

But early one morning late in 1988, Bol’s phone rang persistently enough that he was forced to get up and answer it. He was grumpy, but he listened to the voice on the other end. The man on the phone spoke Dinka. Bol spoke his native tongue at home and with the other southern Sudanese who were scattered around the States, but most of them knew not to call so early. In those days, calls from Sudan were rare. The charges were too expensive, the chances to use a phone too scarce.

Bol hung up, furious. Several weeks later, the man—a representative of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the southern Sudanese rebels—visited the Bay Area while traveling through the U.S. to gain support for his cause. When the caller arrived, Nicola warned the man not to mention the phone conversation. When they met in person, Bol started coming around. He liked this guy—liked his passion, his ideas. It took a little convincing, but eventually the SPLM rep prevailed. It was time, Bol decided, to join the fight.

Once opponents, Bol and hall-of-famer Charles Barkley later became teammates and friends in Philadelphia. “If everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it’s a world I’d want to live in,” Barkley once said (Photo by Damian Strohmeyer / Sports Illustrated)

5. A Cursed Land

“When Allah created Sudan, he laughed,” an old Arab proverb goes. Some interpret the saying to mean God was delighted with his creation, while others think it indicates that the Almighty is a sadist. Nineteenth-century British journalist G. W. Steevens seemed to adopt the latter view when he wrote, “The Sudan is a God-accursed wilderness, an empty limbo of torment for ever and ever.”

The country now known as Sudan has roughly three major regions: the Arab and Muslim north, the black and Muslim west (known as Darfur), and the black and Christian and animist south. (Bol’s village, Turalei, lies near the intersection of all three, technically in southern Sudan but not far from Darfur or Arab country.) From antiquity to the 20th century, southern Sudan was regularly pillaged by its northern neighbors, providing Egypt and northern Sudan with ivory, ebony, gold, and slaves. The British arrived in the late 1800s and ruled the territory from 1899 to 1956, first jointly with Egypt and later on their own. The name Sudan derives from the Arabic bilad al-sudan, which means “land of the blacks,” but when the British relinquished control they grouped the blacks of the south and west with the Arabs of the north, granting statehood to a fractious, mismatched, and artificially created region.

On the first day it came into existence as a sovereign nation, Sudan was already locked in the grips of civil war. After a mutiny of southern army officers, pro-government militias composed largely of northerners and Darfuris ravaged the south. The war lasted from 1955 until the two sides signed a treaty in 1972. Peace lasted little more than a decade, and the year Bol left Sudan for America the fighting began anew, with the sparsely armed villages across the south proving to be powerless against the Kalashnikov- and machete-wielding militias from the north. Not long after Bol had arrived in America, he heard that his father had died. He returned to Sudan to grieve with his family, but access to the country’s Dinka-dominated region was barred. Over the course of the war, Bol would later say, he’d lose 250 family members, some dying at the hands of the militants, others sold into slavery or killed by war-induced famine.

Throughout his time in the NBA, Bol had given money to any family member who asked for it. It didn’t matter who it was—always Bol gave. “There is a problem in the Dinka culture,” Nicola says. “Every family member is to be treated the same as your closest brother. Manute never figured out how to have a balance between the American way and the Dinka way.” Despite making contributions to family members in need, Bol hesitated to involve himself in politics, fearful that the government in Khartoum would harm his family or restrict his visits. So for most of the 1980s, the most famous Dinka man in the world stood on the sidelines while his people were slaughtered.

Soon after Bol received that early morning phone call in 1988, he changed his mind. After meeting with the SPLM representative, Bol helped promote a fundraising effort called Operation Lifeline Sudan, which provided aid to refugees across the south. That was all it took for his fears to be confirmed. On his next visit to Khartoum he was arrested, and authorities accused him of funding the rebellion. Bol was released after several hours, but the incident seemed to fuel his eagerness to contribute. Months later, back in Washington, he met with John Garang, the leader of the SPLM rebels.

An electrifying speaker and indomitable warrior, Garang had galvanized the southerners and unified the rebel army. When he spoke in front of crowds, Garang preached Marxism. In his private and professional relationships, he operated as an opportunistic utilitarian. “Garang was an expert in survival—someone who knew how to bend with the wind yet maintain his political objectives, someone who knew how to seem all things to all men,” filmmaker and Sudan expert Peter Moszynski once told the BBC.

Bol was smitten with Garang, who described for him the desolation in their homeland. The SPLM had struggled in its attempts to gain support from the United States, partly due to its leaders’ communist sympathies. While some East African countries lent support to the SPLM, the movement had trouble raising sufficient funds. They needed the richest Dinka to come to his people’s aid, Garang told Bol.

During the next several years, Bol would contribute $3.5 million to Garang’s SPLM. From time to time, Garang would come to Washington and hold clandestine meetings in Bol’s home. They would station guards outside, keeping an eye out for terrorists or spies as they retreated to the basement, where a group of wealthy Sudanese—both Arab and black—discussed politics and war. Bol briefed Garang on popular opinion among Americans, letting him know what to expect in meetings with U.S. officials. “In Washington, Manute was John Garang’s guy,” Bol’s cousin Ed Bona says. “Garang needed Manute.” Bol made secret trips to the war zone, hiding in the bush with Garang and his men, involving himself in the strategy and politics of war.

In addition to his visits to the bush, Bol traveled to refugee camps in Pinyudo, Ethiopia, and in rebel-controlled regions of Sudan. He paid for extra food to be given to refugees, who mostly subsisted on one meal a day of grain and beans provided by aid organizations. As he walked around the camps, Bol saw familiar faces. People he’d grown up with in Turalei were now scattered around—many of the men fighting in the war, many of the women trying to survive in the camps. Turalei itself no longer existed. It had been destroyed, they told him, like many villages across southern Sudan. The stretch of land they once called home was no longer a place suitable for life.

On an early ’90s trip to the rebel-controlled town of Pochala, Bol stopped as he often did among the masses to shake hands. By this point he’d become a legend among the refugees, both for his international success and for his efforts to help Sudan. Children approached, wide-eyed, gawking at the man they’d been taught to revere. Bol reached down and touched a boy, one who’d known Bol’s name for years, who’d heard all about the tall and funny man who had left the boy’s now-empty hometown of Turalei for America. The boy had a shrunken frame and sunken eyes, his teeth grown in different directions, running away from each other as if every incisor and canine had a mind of its own. His name was Victor, he was about 12 years old, and he was often hungry and scared. The boy stood and stared upward. Years later he would still remember the tears in Bol’s eyes, despondent over the boy whose tragic situation he could do little to change. Victor couldn’t possibly imagine that someday the two would meet again, and that it would be he who would change Bol’s life.

6. On the Run

The moment the militia arrived, 8-year-old Victor Anyar was standing in a pasture, caring for his family’s cows. It was sometime in the late 1980s—the years and the attacks all run together—nearly a decade before he would meet Manute Bol in the Pochala camp. In Turalei they had known for days that the murahaleen—the militia men from the north—were coming. The soldiers arrived near dusk, on horseback. 

Victor recalls his father assembling his family into a group, telling them to stay put, stay organized, wait for the killers to pass. He remembers that his father stood still for several moments, until there was an explosion and his father was falling, shot by the soldiers, crumbling to the ground, dead. Victor ran. Away from the village, away from the bullets, away from the father who was dead, from the mother and the siblings who were screaming, whom he would probably never see again. The murahaleen would kill many boys. They would make slaves of several girls. But they wouldn’t catch Victor because Victor was fast, faster than he’d ever been, sprinting away from the horror and deep into the wild, going far from the roads until he could hear gunshots and screams no longer, until the only sounds were the sounds of wilderness, the buzzing and howling and screeching soundtrack of a Sudanese night.

The next evening, lions came. There were three of them, he remembers, a mother, a father, and a cub. The cub approached Victor and began scratching and sniffing his skin. Victor shouted, “Go away!” desperate to drive it on but scared to draw its mother’s ire. Finally he kicked and shouted, and when the lion’s attention lapsed he was gone, running again. He ran until he felt he wasn’t running at all, until his legs seemed to have stopped moving and his arms seemed to have stopped pumping and he was floating, pushed or carried or willed by a force outside his body, until finally he stumbled on other humans, Dinka refugees with whom, at least for the moment, he was safe.

They walked, setting off across southern Sudan a region roughly the size of Texas—toward a refugee camp in Ethiopia, which borders the eastern side of the country. The group included about 20 boys and one adult leader, following marks that had been left in the trees to point the way. Sometimes they encountered soldiers from the SPLA, the SPLM’s military wing, who brought food. “We ate then,” says Victor. “That helped us not to die.”

After three months of walking, they arrived in Ethiopia, beginning their lives as refugees in the Pinyudo camp. There was no school. Victor lived there three years, until one day violence found him again. Ethiopia had long been embroiled in its own civil war, and the fighting spread and threatened the refugees, whose camp shared land with the Anuak people, a minority tribe that had been oppressed by the government and resented the foreigners. One day the Anuak attacked the camp, and suddenly the refugees were running again, tens of thousands of them at once, desperate to break away. As Victor ran, bodies dropped all around him, most with bullets in their backs. The attack on Victor’s village had been chaotic, with everyone fleeing in separate directions, each person looking for different ways to escape. This time it felt more ordered, systematic. Nearly everyone went the same direction: back to Sudan. Soon they reached the border, marked by the crocodile-infested Gilo River.

As the running hordes descended on the river, the crocodiles basked in the sun. The refugees had a choice: Stay behind and wait to be shot, or jump in and risk being eaten. Victor faced a particular problem—he had never learned to swim. He looked on as boys rushed into the water, some bodies going limp in the crocodiles’ jaws. He watched as others asked, “Who knows how to swim?” When a boy mentioned that he could, several who could not jumped on top of him as he entered the water, begging to be carried. But their weight only forced the swimmer underwater, dooming all of them.

Along with several other boys, Victor ran to a less crowded part of the river. A man swam to the other side and tied a rope to a tree, spanning the river with it. Victor grabbed the rope and moved his hands one after the other, inching his way across.

Bol reaches out to block a shot by Dan Majerle of the Phoenix Suns (Photo by John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated)

7. Big Spender

By the early 1990s, Bol had cashed in. After the 1989–90 season, the Golden State Warriors traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers, and there Bol became a millionaire: His annual salary topped $1.25 million in each of his three years with the team. Much of his newfound wealth went to funding the southern Sudanese rebellion, but Bol allowed himself a few indulgences.

Mostly, he bought drinks—for himself, for his teammates, for friends new and old, for whomever happened to be within his orbit at the bar. “He loved to go to clubs,” says Nicola. “He loved the attention, loved making sure everyone had a good time.” Even when out with teammates far richer than him, Bol insisted on paying the bill. “Sometimes we had to tell him, ‘Manute, we’ve got money, too. It’s OK for us to pay,’” says Hersey Hawkins, a teammate with the 76ers.

On the court, Bol continued blocking shots, launching threes, missing layups. Even if he never became one of the league’s best players, he remained among its most popular. “When you get to the NBA, sometimes you stop looking at basketball as a game and you start looking at it as a business,” says Hawkins. “Playing with Manute, he had a way of taking you back to the times when you just loved to play. Manute made you feel like you would play the game for free.”

“He didn’t have a single adversarial relationship in the league,” says Winston Garland, who’d played with Bol on the Warriors. “When the horn sounded, everybody loved Manute. Before the game, after the game, everybody wanted to be around him.” Everyone except, occasionally, frightened children. While playing for Philadelphia, Bol saw Hawkins’ family in the tunnel after a game, and he reached out his arms to greet the kids. The children cried as he tried to embrace them, afraid of the giant, alien creature they’d encountered. Bol laughed, then grumbled, “Baby Hawks are soft—just like their daddy.”

In Philadelphia, Bol took advantage of his proximity to Atlantic City, escaping for gambling getaways whenever his schedule allowed. Atong once won $465,000 playing the slots at the Trump Taj Mahal. Mostly, though, Bol lost. “Even when he would win,” says Bol’s friend Abdel Gabar Adam, “he would just go ahead and spend the money right there.” Says his agent, Frank Catapano: “He loved to gamble, and he didn’t want to listen to anyone who told him what to do with his money. He did what he wanted.”

Bol, however, saw his vices as tools for good. He used happy hours and gambling trips as diplomatic forums. While living in Philadelphia, Bol made Darfuri and Arab friends, many of whom maintained political clout back in Sudan. Though some Dinkas disapproved, Bol “believed we could all live in peace if we just got to know one another,” says Adam, a Darfuri.

Bol also grew into his role as an activist, emerging as the face southern Sudan showed America. “If I were in the Sudan right now, I would be starving with the rest of my people,” he once told an Oxfam banquet, a scene recounted in Leigh Montville’s 1993 book Manute: The Center of Two Worlds. “I eat good food here in America and I go to sleep at night and then when I wake up in the morning I see something on TV and feel really terrible. There’s nothing I can do. I have about 70 of my people right now homeless in the capital of Sudan. They have no place to go.”

Bol signed with the Miami Heat in October 1993, and he promptly skipped two preseason games to attend meetings about Sudan in Washington. The team fined him $25,000, but donated it to a Sudanese charity. He spoke before Congress, pleading for help and warning of a man who lived in Sudan and plotted death to Americans: Osama bin Laden. How he knew of the then-obscure Al Qaeda leader, at the time just a tiny blip on America’s radar, family members could only speculate. “Manute was like a politician, so he knew all of the secrets,” his cousin-in-law Achuei says. “He knew that Bin Laden was killing people in the south. The government wouldn’t say that Bin Laden was in Sudan, but Manute knew.”

As his activism grew, Bol’s basketball career sputtered. Miami released him in January of 1994. The Warriors awarded him another contract just before the 1994–95 season, but less than a month after the season started Bol crumbled to the ground during a game in Charlotte with torn cartilage in his knee. Eight days later, he underwent arthroscopic surgery.

While trying to rehab his knee, Bol attempted a new profession. He opened a restaurant and nightclub in Washington called Manute Bol’s Spotlight, serving cocktails like Manute’s Slam Dunk and Bol’s Blocked Shot. The restaurant was a joint venture with Deng Deng Nhial, the friend who had moved with Bol to the United States more than a decade before, played for Bridgeport, and stayed in the country. “They didn’t know what they were doing,” says Bona, Bol’s cousin, about the restaurant. “Manute never knew how to manage his money.”

After rehab, Bol spent several months playing for the Florida Beach Dogs in the CBA, a minor league where castoffs and has-beens played for low-five-figure salaries and a chance to keep their NBA dreams alive. He rode buses, flew coach, and never complained when the owner trotted him out to sign autographs. Once, Bol broke curfew the night before a game, drinking until 6 a.m., but the team’s management couldn’t find it within themselves to punish him. He shot all the three-pointers he wanted. “Some players have a long leash,” says Eric Musselman, his coach at the time. “Manute had no leash. We let him do whatever he wanted.” He sat on barstools in Yakima, Washington, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, regaling teammates and onlookers with stories from worlds they’d never know: the village, the bush, the NBA.

Within months, Bol gave up on the CBA. The restaurant went under. He tried playing in Italy and Qatar, but neither country’s league offered an acceptable contract. After 10 seasons in the NBA, Bol had saved between $50,000 and $100,000, Bona estimates. With that in the bank, he drifted back to Khartoum.

8. Stuck

Bol returned to Khartoum for complex reasons, none of them good. His money was largely spent. He’d sold his house in California, and his Maryland home was on its way to being repossessed, so Bol moved in with family who’d been staying at a house he kept in the Sudanese capital.

After years of growing strife, his marriage to Atong had finally disintegrated for good, and she remained in the States with their four kids. Bol’s stepmother had died in a car accident, so he assumed care for his half-sister, who lived in Khartoum. And then there was politics—of both reconciliation and revenge.

As Bol’s NBA career had faded, the Sudanese civil war seemed to do the same. A rift had emerged among rebels of the SPLM, and a coalition of southern leaders split from Garang and negotiated the Khartoum Peace Agreement. The treaty, which excluded Garang and the SPLM, led to increased cooperation between the southern rebels and the National Islamic Front, the northern Islamist movement led by President Omar al-Bashir in the capital. Peace, at least nominally, seemed on its way to Sudan, and Garang, long the south’s unquestioned leader, had been excluded.

So, too, it seemed, had Bol. While he’d once been hailed as a hero, a key player in the future of the new Sudan, he was now ignored. He had no more money to offer, so the attention he’d received waned. “John Garang was a great warrior, a brilliant man, but he used people,” Bona says. “When Manute couldn’t give the SPLM all that money anymore, Garang had no use for him.” The northern government in Khartoum, however, thought they could use him just fine. So Bol went to the capital, where he was given a cabinet post as the country’s minister of youth and sport, treated as royalty by the Arabs who’d once called him slave. “It shocked all of us,” Acuil Malith Banggol, a former SPLA fighter, later told the Independent of London. “He is not a seasoned politician, so he must have fallen prey to nice words and promises. Unfortunately, he did not talk to us about it.” Bol believed the treaty represented a major step forward for Sudan, he later told friends, and he jumped at the opportunity to join a unified government.

One event in the summer of 1998, however, changed all that. On the night of August 20, Manute sat on his rooftop in Khartoum watching bombs drop from the sky. The U.S., he’d soon find out, was attacking Khartoum, lobbing cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical plant American officials believed was involved in producing chemical weapons for Bin Laden. The Clinton administration had finally decided to act against the man Bol, among others, had long warned about. They missed Bin Laden in an attack launched the same day against a training camp in Afghanistan, and later reports would challenge whether the Khartoum factory was up to anything nefarious at all. But for Bol it wouldn’t matter: That night, he would later say, was when the Sudanese government started to suspect he was a spy.

The peace treaty, it turned out, was a farce. Down in the south the killing continued. And with Bol under suspicion and sharia, Islamic law, ruling Khartoum, the government gave Bol a choice: Convert to Islam, or lose the job. Like many from Turalei, Bol had long been a Christian, mixing Catholicism with tribal practices and beliefs. He grew up learning to hate and fear Muslims. Over the years, he’d befriended many of them. Now he’d been willing to work with them. He was not, however, willing to become one of them.

Bol refused the job. There would be no paycheck, no free car, as he’d also been promised. As his savings eroded, Bol sold the house in Khartoum. Still suspecting he was a spy, government officials told Bol he’d be watched and that they would never let him leave the city. His marriage with Atong over, he remarried—twice. In 1998 he married Ajok, a woman from another region of southern Sudan. Later that year he married Ayak, from Turalei. Bol moved into a rental home on the outskirts of the city, paying $200 a month and sharing the space with 14 relatives. He borrowed money from Catapano, his agent, though Catapano now says he never expected to be repaid. Just a few years before, Bol had been a millionaire, fielding calls for help from his countrymen. Now he was the voice on the other end of the line. Rheumatism took hold of his joints. Lacking money for treatment, he lay still, enduring the pain.

Back in the States, Ed Bona awoke one morning to a desperate-sounding mass email, originated among Bol’s friends and forwarded to all those who loved him. It said he was sick—that if he didn’t get help, he would die. Bona called Bol. He wasn’t dying, Bol said; he was stuck, and he needed help to escape from Khartoum. Bona and several friends in Connecticut began a media campaign to draw attention to Bol’s plight. NBC went to Khartoum for a story. A reporter, Declan Walsh, wrote pieces for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Independent. Bona tried to arrange a plane ticket but couldn’t find a travel agency that would allow him to purchase one in America for Bol to pick up in Khartoum. So Bona called a cousin in London, who found an agency that would cooperate and give him a ticket to Egypt. Bol bribed local officials to give him a passport and validate his travel plans. He showed up at the airport just before departure so as not to give the government time to realize he was on his way out of the country.

Someone, however, apparently did realize what was happening, and Bol was removed from his flight soon after boarding it. He didn’t have a ticket, officials said, though their computers confirmed that he did. Bol told the officials that if they didn’t let him on the plane, he would march directly to the Khartoum bureau of the BBC and tell his story. Eventually, the officials relented. Bol, they decided, caused more trouble than he was worth. He got a seat on a later plane, and on July 12, 2001, more than three years after he returned to Sudan, he left.

In Cairo, Bol worked with the American embassy to get visas for himself and his family to travel to the U.S. He succeeded in obtaining his papers and his wife Ajok’s (Ayak would stay in Sudan), but problems arose when Bol tried to obtain a visa for his half-sister Achuil. Though he’d been caring for her since her mother died, Bol lacked documentation to prove he was Achuil’s guardian. In order to reenter the country without it, he had to apply for refugee status.

Bol waited for months to meet with American officials about the request. Sitting idle in Cairo on September 11, 2001, he watched the news and saw the twin towers in flames. When he heard Bin Laden had been responsible—the same Bin Laden he’d spoken to members of Congress about years before—he was crestfallen. Thereafter he would maintain, to anyone who would listen, that it all could have been prevented if the U.S. government had heeded his warnings when he’d first given them.

A few months later, his immigration request was granted. Three years after he’d arrived in Sudan as a dignitary, he returned to America, a refugee.

9. Whatever It Takes

On the day he became a laughingstock, Bol wore red trunks, black gloves, and the hardened stare of a man who cared too little or too much. He’d returned to the States on March 7, 2002, and now, less than three months after his return, Bol had landed another gig competing on national television. This time it was boxing. Once again his size helped him get the job, but now skill mattered little. It wasn’t a sport. It was a freak show.

As the American public would soon come to suspect, Bol was a little desperate. He was living in a spare apartment in West Hartford, Connecticut, paid for by Catholic Charities. Shortly after arriving back in the U.S., he’d met with Bona and several friends to discuss his future. He’d have opportunities, the thinking went, to make money off his name, finding speaking engagements and autograph sessions and taking small-time endorsements to pay bills. With enough money, Bol could not only support his family but also help Bona with the Ring True Foundation, which he’d formed to help Sudanese refugees. They brainstormed ways to get Bol in front of a national audience, letting marketers know he was back.

In March, Fox had aired a special called Celebrity Boxing, putting D-listers and has-beens in a ring to exchange blows. Time magazine called it “the already-legendary newest low point in reality TV.” Naturally, it was a hit. And when Bol was floated the idea of participating in a Celebrity Boxing 2, hejumped on board immediately. “From the beginning, he knew what he was getting into,” Bona says. “Everybody knew what the reaction was going to be. He didn’t care. He thought it would be fun, competing for the fans. He didn’t worry about all that.” Instead, he worried about finding an opponent. Bol suggested Dennis Rodman, the NBA’s hair-dyeing, cross-dressing, flamboyant and foul-mouthed bad boy, who had competed as a pro wrestler after retiring from the league. One of Bol’s friends called Fox, and the network jumped at the chance to have him fight. Fox paid most contestants $25,000, but according to IRS forms the network paid the Ring True Foundation $26,510, and Bona says Bol received an additional $25,000. With Bol aboard, Fox called to ask Rodman to compete. He declined. The network offered an alternative: William “Refrigerator” Perry. Known simply as the Fridge, Perry had been an NFL defensive end, an overweight bowling ball of a man who became a sensation when the Chicago Bears began inserting him at running back. Like Bol, he’d been an oddity as an athlete, talented but unconventional and known for his personality as well as his play.

Upon returning to the U.S., Bol received treatment for his rheumatism, and now he began running, working out to shape up before the fight. He’d long been a boxing fan, going to fights between gambling sessions in Atlantic City. He also loved pro wrestling, with its savagery and theater and comedy all rolled into one. He didn’t just want to win; he wanted everyone who watched to say that Bol and Perry had been the headliners, the fighters who made it all worth the price of admission. Bol, it seemed, was the only person in America who didn’t see Celebrity Boxing as a joke.

The fight lasted three rounds, Bol dominating from the opening to the closing bell. Perry, who’d ballooned to about 375 pounds, threw the occasional punch but spent most of his time shrinking away from Bol’s spindly arms. Bol looked languid, but his reach was too long as he delivered crosses, jabs, and the occasional uppercut. Eventually Perry just cowered in his corner. In the end, Bol won unanimously, and as the fight announcer raised his arm into the air, Bol said he only wished he’d fought harder.

Several weeks later, Bol and Bona went to a Celtics-Nets playoff game in Boston. “We walk in the arena, and Manute almost causes a riot,” Bona says. “They were shouting, ‘You did it! You beat the Fridge!’” Bol laughed and waved and signed autographs, smiling as they chanted his name. Bona called a friend: “If there was ever any doubt over whether or not this was a good idea,” he said, “it’s over now.” Once again, Bol was a star.

From there, the offers picked up. He signed a contract with a minor-league hockey team, the Indianapolis Ice, but when Bol suited up his feet began swelling in the skates, and he changed out of his uniform before the first game ended. He signed a deal to become a jockey at Indiana’s Hoosier Park. He was fitted for silks and weighed in with the other participants, but he never actually sat on a horse. As the public heard more about his money-raising hijinks, he was either called a saint or pitied as a charity case. “I thought it was sad, him turning himself into a spectacle,” says Catapano. He called Bol, saying, “I want to help you out, but I don’t want to make a circus out of you.”

While replenishing his bank account, Bol reconnected with the southern Sudanese diaspora. Suddenly, they were everywhere—from Omaha to Syracuse, Atlanta to San Jose—newly established Americans, brought to the States as refugees. Mostly young and male, popularly called the Lost Boys of Sudan, they would soon be writing books and starring in documentaries. To the Lost Boys, Bol was a god, the man they’d pretended to be while fighting over a basketball in Pinyudo. He traveled around the country speaking to newly arrived groups of them, encouraging them to earn Americans’ respect. (Even if he’d become a professional sideshow, friends say, Bol still followed his own advice, putting maximal effort into mundane tasks and always showing up on time). In the ’80s, Bol had been one the few southern Sudanese living in America. Now, when meetings were held for all of the American residents from the Twic region, thousands of people showed up. Bol met nephews he never knew he had and treated them as if they’d been close for years, traveling across the country for birthdays and graduations. One, Mayom Majok, had lost his father in the war, and when he was ready to marry, Bol made the traditional arrangements.

But the income slowed when the trouble started. One day in 2003, Ajok stormed out of the house during a heated argument. Bol followed, still arguing, until soon they’d both arrived at a nearby police station. The couple were arrested for breach of peace. Then, in February of 2004, after another argument, Bol was charged with third-degree assault. Citing anonymous sources, the New York Daily News reported that Bol had slammed a door that hit his daughter Abuk’s head and then called the police himself. “Things here and things in Sudan are very different,” Abuk now says when asked about Manute’s violence, though she declined to discuss details. “Things that are acceptable in Sudan aren’t acceptable in the U.S.” Cultural differences aside, the incidents cast a pall over Bol’s image.

Bona chided Bol. “I was saying to him, ‘You can’t do this kind of stuff,’” Bona says. “I told him, ‘If you have an argument with your wife, get out of the house, go into West Hartford and have a drink.’”

After the arrests, companies and organizations were reluctant to hire Bol. The income he’d been earning slowed, and then it stopped.

10. Broken

Bol didn’t know the driver was drunk. Maybe he was naive; maybe he was distracted. His attorney insists that Bol himself wasn’t drunk, but on evenings such as this he rarely refused at least a glass or two. It was a summer night in 2004 at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Bol had just spent the evening gambling and attending a WNBA game. He was alone and unable to drive, arthritis crippling his knees, so he hailed a cab.

“The car is a problem in my family,” Bol once told a friend. “It kills people.” If the war was the greatest threat to the Bol family, perhaps the motor vehicle was the second-greatest. By his count, cars had killed 19 of his relatives. On this night, not only was the driver of the cab drunk, but he was also using a suspended license, speeding down the highway with Bol in the backseat. “Slow down,” Bol pleaded, “or let me out.” The cabbie screamed down Route 2 until he lost control, careened into a guardrail, spun across two lanes, and slammed into a ledge. Bol and the driver flew from their seats then out of the car. Bol lay unconscious. The cab driver went into cardiac arrest; within hours he was dead.

The paramedics’ bodyboards were too short to hold Bol, so they fastened two together, then airlifted him to a hospital, where he was put on life support. He had two broken vertebrae and a dislocated knee. To improve circulation, doctors temporarily fused his left wrist and hand to his abdomen. His face was mangled and his neck was punctured; the flesh from one leg seemed to have all been ripped away.

Bol survived, but he would never be the same. He would walk with a cane and struggle to stand. Once the greatest athlete his country had ever seen, Bol would be turned into just another elder at age 41. He spent months in the hospital, using his wit and perspective to charm reporters who came to hear about the horror he’d experienced. “All the meat in my left hand was gone,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think the road took it.”

But for the first time in his life, words of desperation had crept into Bol’s vocabulary. “I was wondering, What did I do wrong to God?” he told the Boston Globe. “I’ve gone to war zones before and never got shot. Why is this happening to me now?” His medical bills rose. He had no insurance.

Some of his college teammates organized an alumni game at Bridgeport to raise money for his bills, bringing together ex-players from the area. A friend made replicas of Bol’s number 10 Bridgeport jersey. Bol showed up, and again the crowd swarmed to see him, just like the old days. “Bol was talking his usual bag of junk to everybody,” says John O’Reilly, a teammate, but the energy and infectiousness that once had made him king of Bridgeport’s campus had waned. “You could tell he was in so much pain,” says John Mullin, a college teammate. “He was hunched over. He went from being a guy who was very outgoing and friendly, and it took a little off of him.”

Many of his friends helped, but Bol felt miffed over one person who never even called: John Garang. Even though their relationship had gone cold, Bol had expected well wishes from the leader of his homeland. Back in Sudan, peace talks were again under way, and this time Garang—rather than leaders of rebel splinter groups—was deeply involved. A series of negotiations and diplomatic baby steps led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005, officially ending the war. Pockets of violence would continue to emerge throughout the south among rebel militias, but the violence that had ravaged Sudan for 22 years was over.

Finally, Bol could go home.

He arrived in his former village to a new Turalei, rebuilt by returning refugees, and there he found the boy. The boy he’d met in Pochala, Victor—the one with the gnarled and quarrelsome teeth who’d run from Turalei into the bush and away from the lions only to sit in squalor for more than a decade, who’d emerged from the camp’s sea of misery just to meet and touch Bol—was back. Only he was a man now, and he stood surrounded by children, all of them crowded underneath the shade of a tree. The tree, it seemed, was a school. The boy now had a title: headmaster.

11. Humble in Heart

After Bol’s visit to Pochala in the early ’90s, Victor Anyar had remained in refugee camps for another decade. His daily struggle for survival persisted, and his moments of comfort were rare. Pochala erupted in violence a year after Anyar arrived, so he moved to a camp in northwestern Kenya called Kakuma, Swahili for “nowhere.” In Kakuma they received rations about every two weeks. Usually, it was enough for one meal a day, but often the members of the local indigenous tribe, the Turkana, came to the camp asking for food. If you shared your rations, they treated you well. If you refused, they shot you. Anyar always shared.

At the camp there was a school, but Anyar says he learned little. He made friends, though they were bound mostly by shared misery. He maintained hope that he would someday leave, but the reports from Sudan seemed bleak; as bad as life in Kakuma was, it was paradise compared with Anyar’s home. “Life was strange,” he says.

But one day, the camp hummed with rumors of a new plan to take some of the boys from Kakuma and send them to America, the richest place in the world, a place where they would all live like chiefs—and the place where Manute Bol had made his fortune. Anyar couldn’t wait to get there. Soon the boys were leaving, heading off to parts unknown. They would send letters back to the camp, where Anyar and his friends learned more: You could only marry one wife in America, and in the winters the cold made Kakuma seem like a furnace. As group after group set off to their new home, Anyar kept waiting for his opportunity. Finally, in 2001, he was summoned for interviews. He told his story, explained that in Kakuma he had no family, that he needed the promise of America to build his life anew. There were forms to fill out, then more meetings to attend, and then finally he received word: He would be going to America. After more than a decade in refugee camps, he would have a bed, a full stomach, a home.

Until one day everything changed. There had been an attack, refugees and workers told Anyar, not in Kakuma or Sudan or even Ethiopia but in the one place where there were supposed to be no attacks, where everyone was rich and peace was a given. A plane had flown into a tall building, then another plane into another building. The buildings fell. The world stopped.

U.S. immigration policies tightened, and no more Lost Boys would be admitted—not for now, anyway. In Kakuma, Anyar sat in his hut, defeated. He would never get to see the country he’d dreamt of, never reunite with the friends who’d gone on to better lives. Former refugees were now college students, factory workers, security guards, and fast-food servers—making a life for themselves, enjoying a freedom they’d never known. One would run the 1,500-meter race for the United States in the Olympics. Anyar kept eating grain and beans. He kept pushing through each 15-day cycle, trying to make his rations last.

Anyar finally left Kakuma for Nairobi, hoping to find work there or continue to another refugee camp on the other side of the country. There he met a missionary named Bob Bentley who lived nearby with his wife and two kids, and worked at a local Church of Christ. When Bentley got to know Anyar, he was struck not by his harrowing story—when dealing with refugees, you hear a lot of harrowing stories—but by his potential to become a pastor. “In Matthew 11, Jesus says, ‘I am gentle and humble in heart,’” says Bentley. “That to me described Victor. He wasn’t an academic giant or anything, but he had the heart of a leader, the heart of a servant. And Jesus chose people who were a ragtag bunch.”

Bentley paid for Anyar to have his own apartment and for English classes at the local Christian school. Anyar became a part of the Bentley family and soon was thriving. His English improved faster than it ever had in Kakuma. He no longer had to worry about saving his rations. He was happy, at peace.

But with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, there was suddenly hope for his homeland, and Anyar decided that perhaps it was time to return. Though he’d seen his father shot, he thought maybe other family members were still alive, waiting for him. He asked Bentley to send him back to Turalei.

Anyar arrived and reunited with friends he hadn’t seen since the day the murahaleen came. He found his mother and brother living not far from Turalei, in another village in Twic. But now that he was home, Anyar had to figure out what to do with his new life. A childhood spent bouncing from refugee camp to refugee camp leaves a man with few skills. Where once children had grown up learning to care for goats and cattle, now a whole generation arrived back at their homes unsure of how to do anything. No one in Anyar’s family spoke English, so he began teaching his nephews, the three sons of the brother with whom he’d just reconnected. Every day they sat under a tree and Anyar conducted lessons.

Word began to spread that there was a teacher under the tree. More children came, their parents deciding to give them opportunities most of them had never had. Anyar went to the market to advertise, making sure everyone knew that, in the rebuilt Turalei, education would be available to all. Eventually, Anyar brought in other teachers, who found more trees. Anyar approached the local government and received funding. For perhaps the first time ever, Turalei had an officially recognized school.

That’s when Bol showed up. Bol told Anyar he remembered him from the camps, and Anyar told Bol he needed money. Bol instantly decided to adopt Anyar’s cause. The man who never attended a day of school in his life until appearing in Bridgeport would fund the education of his village’s next generation.


While southern Sudanese in places like Turalei had been rebuilding their homes, the horseback-riding and machete-wielding militias had gone elsewhere, leaving their trail of corpses littered across fresh swaths of land. By 2003, hell had moved to Darfur.

The horrifying news reports caught the attention of Americans, including a pastor in the Kansas City suburbs, Tom Prichard, who in 2004 became the executive director of Sudan Sunrise, an organization dedicated to education and peace in Sudan. Like almost any American who took a serious interest in Sudan, it took little time for Prichard to meet Bol.

It started with $20,000. When Bol approached Prichard with a proposal in 2008, that was all he wanted. Just $20,000 to help Anyar build his school, to give Turalei’s children blackboards, backpacks, a roof over their heads. Prichard jumped on board. He and Bol began making trips to Turalei together, and Sudan Sunrise sent builders to oversee construction and educators to train the local teachers. They would work by day and talk and sip whiskey into the night. Bol’s friends and family from all over Twic would come to sit at his feet, where they would discuss politics and trade stories.

Bol never became executive chief, as he’d once predicted as a boy. But, Prichard says, “everyone treated him like a chief. The other chiefs would all gather around just to listen to him talk.” At night Bol slept like the other villagers, just as he had years ago, in a tukul hut, with cockroaches sometimes falling from the roof and into the beds. For decades politics and war had kept him away from his home. Now he was back, drinking and laughing and building a school, bathing in the sweat that clung to his body in the triple-digit heat, welcoming the critters that invaded his hut. Let the cockroaches fall. Let the wild dogs howl and the mosquitoes buzz. Bol was home, and he was happy.

Mornings, however, remained an issue. On one occasion, Anyar decided to surprise Bol by bringing the schoolchildren to sing a song at his home. Groggy, Bol emerged from his hut to find dozens of singing and smiling kids, there to thank and celebrate the man charged with funding their education. They learned the same lesson the SPLM representative had learned on the phone in 1988. You don’t wake Bol, no matter how important your cause. “Can’t you see I’m sleeping?” he said. “Get out of here.” He waved them away and retired to his hut, only to reemerge hours later eager to play with the kids. Though Bol’s short fuse was legendary, so was his ability to forget an argument. In his playing days, he sometimes indulged in an on-court scuffle, then would be cracking jokes two or three minutes later, leaving his opponent seething. “I never once saw him angry and felt like he actually meant it,” says Matthew Kohn, a documentary filmmaker who traveled to Sudan with Prichard and Bol several times.

Bol was focused on the school, coordinating logistics and serving as a bridge between the village and the volunteers. At some point, he began thinking beyond this one school, thinking beyond Turalei to all of Twic, even all of Sudan. One day he just started saying it: “I’m going to build 41 schools.” He wanted them all over the south and even a few in Darfur and the north. Though he represented a fractured nation, Bol preached reconciliation among religions, races, and tribes. “Manute wanted to do something for every marginalized person in Sudan,” says Abdel Gabar Adam. “That’s very unusual.” At the school in Turalei, Bol insisted, all children would be welcome.

After construction ended on the first building, a sign went up: “Manute Bol Turalei Primary School.” Bol hadn’t cared about giving the school his name—in fact, he even argued against it, albeit tepidly. Prichard wanted to call it that, both because of Bol’s commitment and because it wouldn’t hurt fundraising to attach a famous name to their efforts. Some of Bol’s friends, however, were concerned. “In Dinka culture, you don’t put up any monuments or name anything after someone who is still alive,” says Bob Justin, a close family friend from Turalei. “To name something after yourself while you’re still alive, it’s almost like a sign,” he says. “It’s like saying you’re going to die.”

12. Choice

During his time in the NBA, Bol almost always drank Heineken. Teammates laughed at that. “Heineken, Heineken, Heineken,” Rick Mahorn says. When traveling in Africa, Bol scoffed at the Kenyan and Ugandan beers, deeming them unacceptable to his taste buds. During his stint in the CBA, he’d grown more sophisticated, schooling the youngsters about fine liquor, particularly Grand Marnier.

When drinking with the man who would become the first president of the Republic of South Sudan, however, Bol changed it up. In Salva Kiir Mayardit’s home, they sipped a South African red wine. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January of 2005, the south had gained autonomy and was ruled largely by its own government. A plan was installed to take independence a step further: In 2011, the southerners would vote on a referendum to decide whether to secede from Sudan entirely.

In 2005, former SPLM leader John Garang had been installed as the first vice president of Sudan and, essentially, president of southern Sudan. When Garang died in a plane crash later that year, Kiir stepped into the role. Though Bol’s friendship with Garang had soured, he remained close to Kiir, and the two made a point to meet whenever Bol traveled through Juba, the de facto capital of southern Sudan. While Garang had seen Bol as a pawn, friends and relatives say, Kiir saw him as both an ally and a companion. They would sit in Kiir’s office sipping wine, talking politics and war until 2 or 3 a.m. Kiir belonged to the SPLM, which now competed with several other southern Sudanese political parties, and as the 2010 election approached Bol pledged unyielding support. He believed the SPLM should be given the chance to govern, particularly since they had been the ones who fought and negotiated for peace.

At the end of a trip to Sudan in the spring of 2010, Bol visited Kiir the night before Bol was to fly back to the U.S. The president was exhausted, unable to talk for long, but he made time to discuss politics with his friend. Election season was approaching, and the SPLM was campaigning to maintain control of southern Sudan. Kiir emphasized the importance of the upcoming elections. The southerners needed to elect politicians who would push for the independence referendum. Although popular sentiment leaned heavily toward secession, pockets of southerners believed it was best to remain unified in a new, peaceful Sudan. Bol and the president grew animated as they discussed the challenges that lay ahead for the SPLM. And on the larger points they agreed: It was essential that the party maintain control and push the referendum to passage.

Though he befriended people from across the political and ethnic spectrum, Bol was not one to keep a cool head while talking politics. He knew he was right, and if you were against him you were wrong, and he let you know it, often loudly, leaving some of his friends to swear off political discussions with him altogether. Likewise, if he agreed with you he became energized by your shared beliefs, turning talk into plans and plans into action before the conversation had even ended. So as he sat with the president on this night, scheduled to depart for the U.S. the next day, it took all of 20 minutes for Bol to decide to stay in Sudan and campaign for the SPLM. By helping the SPLM, Bol believed, he would be helping the southerners move toward independence.

In the ensuing months, when friends and family spoke of this meeting, they would say that the president had asked Bol to stay. But Bob Justin, a third person in the room that night, insists Bol made the decision on his own. Either way, the president was happy to have his country’s greatest icon campaigning for his side. He told Bol he would organize and pay for his transport, coordinating logistics for Bol on the campaign trail.

Bol skipped his return flight and hit the road, riding in a truck from village to village, his body jolting each time the truck hopped over craters in the dirt roads. His arthritis worsened as his political efforts intensified. Over the next few weeks, more U.S. flights were booked, and he skipped them all. “I overslept,” he told Prichard after missing a plane. “I stayed up late to watch a game.”

Soon, Bol’s body began to break down. He’d used a cane for years, but as he traveled around the country days passed when he couldn’t walk at all, when the largest man most people had ever seen had to be carried from place to place, a rag doll in the arms of his tribesmen. Still, people flocked to see the feeble and unmoving leftovers of a once powerful man—to hear him talk, to see him smile, to have the opportunity to tell others about that one time they met Manute Bol. Despite his limitations, Bol delivered his message. Handlers would carry him from the car and place him in a chair under a tree, where he would sit and wait for the villagers to arrive. Then he’d offer a charge, urging the onlookers to push their country forward, to vote for the party that had brought southern Sudan to this, her highest point in modern history. Reports circulated of other parties attempting bribery, offering villagers food and money for their votes. “Take their money,” Bol would later recall saying, “but don’t give them your votes.”

Word spread that his arthritis had worsened, so the president insisted Bol return from the campaign trail and seek medical help. The president flew Bol back to Juba and then on to Nairobi, where he could receive adequate care. Bol’s condition improved, and soon he insisted on returning to Sudan. He flew to Juba and then back to Turalei, resuming his political work. His favored candidates were far ahead in the polls. In April, 2010, the SPLM dominated the election, paving the way for the south’s eventual secession. Bol’s state, Warrap, elected the country’s first female governor, a woman Bol had championed. Southern Sudan was on its way to freedom, he believed.

But as the country continued to heal, Bol lay still, wallowing in agony. The pain had once laid deep in his joints; now it rose up to his skin. Rashes stretched across his body, the itching so bad it rendered him once more immobile. Bol returned to Juba, where he refused help from friends and lay in a hotel room, waiting for a flight back to the States to receive treatment in Kansas City. His plane arrived in Washington late, after the last flight had left for Kansas City. Bol checked into a nearby hotel, his body exhausted and drained by the travel and unrelenting pain.

In the morning, Prichard called Bol to wake him. Another morning, another unwelcome interruption of Bol’s sleep. Only this time was different. Bol didn’t yell—he lacked the energy for that. He didn’t bark. Instead he cried. “I can’t go to the airport,” he told Prichard. “I just can’t do it.” Prichard called the hotel manager, who called an ambulance to rush Bol to an emergency room.

Bol lay in the hospital, fielding phone calls and greeting visitors, insisting he was fine. His body told a different story. “He was so incredibly weak,” says Prichard. “He was really struggling.” Bol’s kidneys failed, and he was placed on dialysis. He bled internally, but doctors had trouble figuring out which organ was the source.

One day at the hospital, Prichard sat next to Bol, who rested on his bed, unaware that soon he would die. Talk turned to politics, with Bol gloating over his candidates’ success in the recent elections. They talked about the school, the upcoming referendum, the hope that had emerged after the killing finally stopped. Weak and frail and on the verge of death, Bol offered a feeble smile. “I did it,” he said. “I did it.”

13. At Rest

Wails and songs and prayers erupted early one June morning in Turalei, the village chaotic and disconsolate, shaken by the words they’d just heard. There was a time when it had taken months to deliver a message to their greatest hero, when a woman had to tell a man who had to tell another man who had to send a letter, carried by car then plane then car again, all the way to a suburban home in the United States. Now the news of his death traveled the same distance in an instant. In Washington the doctor told Bol’s cousin. That cousin called Nicola in Juba. Nicola called Bob Justin in Turalei. Justin told the chiefs. The chiefs told the village.

President Salva Kiir arranged to have Bol’s body returned home. Roughly 10,000 people descended on Turalei, arriving from America, from Europe, from all over Twic and the whole of Sudan, to say their good-byes. His uncle Bol Chol Bol examined the body. He poked it. Sure enough it was Bol.

Memorials were held in Washington, at the National Cathedral, and in Kansas City, where members of Bol’s disparate worlds all came to pay their respects. Basketball players told stories from the court. Diplomats told stories from meeting rooms.

Seven months later, in January 2011, the southern Sudanese flocked to the polls to vote on the referendum to secede from Sudan. In London the night before the vote, Achuei says, she had a dream. She was in Turalei, standing under Bol’s favorite tree, and there he was, sitting in his chair surrounded by loved ones, passing the day with laughter and conversation. She awoke the next morning, printed out a southern Sudanese flag, grabbed a picture of Bol, and went to a polling station set up for the Sudanese diaspora. “Manute,” she said as she put her card in the ballot box. “That’s for you. That’s not for me.” With Achuei as his surrogate, Bol had cast the same vote as 98.5 percent of the people who showed up at the polls. He voted yes. Yes to forming the Republic of South Sudan. Yes to the notion that his people should be free.

They would be free, yes, but for the most part they would still be poor, still be uneducated, still be vulnerable to disease and spasms of violence. On the Peoples Under Threat rankings compiled by Minority Rights International, Sudan ranks as the second most dangerous country in the world, just behind Somalia and just ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the spring of 2011, pockets of fighting erupted throughout the border regions as the northern forces fought to take control of disputed areas before the south was scheduled to declare independence, on July 9. In Abyei, the region Bol visited when he fled from home as a boy, 80,000 people were displaced. About 15,000 of them descended on Turalei. In late June, a renegade militia attacked Turalei on foot, and 11 people were killed. Of the dead, two were Manute’s cousins. Though the south stood on the brink of independence, many across the region were fearful of another war. Only this time, it would no longer be a civil war, just a war between two states. “I hope the international community can stop the war before it starts,” says Rudwan Dawod, a Darfuri activist and former friend of Bol’s. “It’s going to be a war between country and country.”

Looking for a place to stay, many refugees set up camp not far from Bol’s school. The school stands as the village’s crown jewel, the top public school in the region, a beacon of hope for the future of Turalei, of Twic, of the Republic of South Sudan. Here is what that beacon looks like: It stuffs more than 100 students into a cramped and broiling classroom and is staffed by teachers long on patience and determination but short on education and pay—most of whom never graduated high school, none of whom earn more than $3 a day. The headmaster, Anyar, forgets his spelling and pronunciation sometimes, and he knows he needs more education but lacks the means to acquire it. After returning to Turalei, he fathered two sons. In the past year, they both died. He smiles here and there, mostly when talking about his wife, Veronica. “A lot of days,” he says, “I feel sad.”

The school goes months without providing food, until Prichard flies over from America to persuade bureaucrats from the World Food Program to provide daily meals. It goes months without clean water, until a South African engineer flies in from Khartoum to fix the pump in the school’s well. When the rains arrive the campus floods, and the kids slosh their way to class each morning, slapping and dodging disease-ridden mosquitoes. As of July 2011, there were two buildings and plans for a kitchen and five more classrooms, but still many classes take place under a tree.

Bol wanted 41 of these schools. A year after his death, they’re still working on number one.


One morning in April, a few dozen khawajas—the term Dinkas most commonly use for foreigners—came to town. The children poured out of their huts and followed the crowd to the village square, where everyone had convened to gawk at the foreigners and remember Bol. It was a moment for celebration—of Bol’s life, of southern Sudan’s impending independence, of a basketball court that had just been built by USAID. A cavalcade of speakers proceeded to the podium, alternating between khawajas and Dinkas. They extolled the virtues of Bol and preached the importance of sports, saying athletics can keep kids off the street and give them healthier ways to spend their time—the same clichés spouted at youth centers in inner-city neighborhoods across America. A black man shouted Bol’s name in celebration. A white man listed all the ways America had helped southern Sudan. Afterward, the locals began dancing, and soon the khawajas joined them, beating drums and flailing about and moving with all the flair expected of middle-aged white people attempting tribal dance. Representatives from all of the realms in which Bol once operated—the realms of government and nonprofit aid, of sports and education, of Dinkas and khawajas—all of them were here, smiling and shaking hands. The inevitable benign friction that occurs when worlds collide was amplified by the absence of the man who linked them all.

The dancing subsided and the basketball began as the celebration moved from the square to the court and everyone gathered for the inaugural game. Players started dunking—in the land of the Dinkas, someone can always dunk—each slam battering one of the brand-new rims until it sagged from the backboard. And soon after the rim broke, the khawajas were gone, back on their plane, en route to Juba. The villagers scattered, then resumed their daily business, the children playing drums on the khawajas’ leftover Coke bottles, the adults returning to their shops or their homes, a few teenagers shooting around on the limp rim they’d just been given. If you walked toward the edge of the village, away from the market and past a long row of tukul huts, you could see a solitary mound of dirt, the earth piled on top of itself a thousand times over. You’d find scattered flowers and shimmering wreaths, a fence to deter the hyenas and wild dogs. At the head of the dirt pile you would find two twigs fastened together in the shape of a cross.

If you asked around, you’d hear of plans to place a tomb there. But in the moment after the visitors departed, you would find only dirt. Dirt and rocks and the ground, with hawks circling overhead, the sun waging war on all that lies below. There would be no headstone, no sign, nothing to tell whose body rests there. Nothing to say “Here lies Manute Bol.”


They always brought up the lion. Wherever Bol went, even late in his life, they wanted to hear about the time he killed the bloodthirsty predator. Old friends asked him to tell the story again. New friends begged to hear it for the first time. Bol hated it. After all these years in America, all the time he’d spent energizing arenas across the country, all the effort he’d put into securing a future for the people of southern Sudan, people still kept asking Bol about that one damned lion.

One day, late in his life, Bol sat with a group of friends, and this time it was Tom Prichard’s turn. Prichard had grown close to Bol, helping to fuel his passions, so it seemed reasonable enough that he should get to hear about the lion. Bol kept saying that he didn’t want to tell it, that he’d told it so many times he got tired of doing so, that it wasn’t a big deal and didn’t need to be discussed. Prichard kept pushing until Bol responded with a shrug and left Prichard unsure if he was serious or joking.

Prichard never asked again.

Manute Bol’s legacy: The next generation takes to a new basketball court in Turalei in May 2011 (Photo by Jordan Conn)