The Pretender

THE PRETENDER

People in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, thought Lois Riess was a nice wife and grandmother. If she had a vice, it was playing the slots. Then she committed murder.

By John Rosengren

The Atavist Magazine, No. 107


John Rosengren is a journalist based in Minneapolis who has written for more than 100 publications, including The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, and The Washington Post Magazine. He is the author of nine books, including Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Nina Zweig
Illustrator: Jennifer Dionisio

Published in September 2020.

Part One

On the evening of Friday, March 23, 2018, the police department in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, dispatched two officers to check on a man named Dave Riess. They drove up a winding dirt drive to a modest tan rambler. The house was dark. So too was the long, low-slung building, located about 50 paces from the front door, where Dave raised fishing bait at the Prairie Wax Worm Farm.

None of Dave’s employees nor his business partner had seen or talked to him for almost two weeks. He hadn’t picked up or returned their calls. They had received responses to texts, but Dave usually dictated his messages, which made the words run together. These replies used punctuation.

Stranger still, Dave was supposed to have left for a fishing tournament in Illinois on Tuesday, March 20. He would have taken his white Cadillac Escalade, which was what he typically used to pull his 20-foot-long boat. But on Thursday, two worm-farm employees saw Lois, Dave’s wife of 35 years, pull out of the driveway in the Escalade. They hadn’t seen her since.

Concern soon escalated to alarm, and the employees called the police.

Blooming Prairie is a blink of a town in southeastern Minnesota. It’s a stop along the railroad tracks that run parallel to U.S. Highway 218, surrounded by vast fields of corn and soybeans. There’s a two-block Main Street of brick buildings, with storefronts that include B-Z Hardware, Farmers & Merchants State Bank, and J & H Liquors. A neat grid of quiet streets about a mile and a half square contain mostly single-story houses. Blooming Prairie is a town of about 1,900 people who leave their front doors unlocked and know each other by their first names. It’s not a place steeped in intrigue. At least it wasn’t.

The Riesses’ home was in the country—a mile south on 218, past six massive grain bins that sat on the edge of town. The night the police visited was dark and cold, with snow still on the ground. No one answered the door. The two officers walked around the house’s perimeter and noticed light coming from an open bathroom window. One hoisted up the other to peer inside. He spotted what appeared to be a body covered with a blanket.

The cops summoned two deputies from the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, who went inside the house. They found Dave Riess on the floor. He had been shot twice with a .22 handgun—once in the chest, once in the back. A bullet had pierced clean through his forearm, suggesting that he had raised it to protect himself. He’d been dead for ten days, maybe longer. His body had started to marble, bloat, and decompose.

Ask anyone in Blooming Prairie and they’ll tell you that Dave was a jovial guy. Quick with a tip on a fishing spot. Generous with his employees. Loved to tell stories. Made up funny songs. But his laugh left the biggest impression. The rumble in his throat built to an eruption that shook his husky frame. Soon you were laughing, too, maybe without even realizing why. Being around Dave just felt good.

“He was my best buddy,” Jerry Bissell, a Blooming Prairie resident, told me recently. “Every day I go by their house, I wonder what the hell happened up there.” To find out, law enforcement had to answer another question: What the hell happened to Lois Riess?

Blooming Prairie is a town of about 1,900 people who leave their front doors unlocked and know each other by their first names. It’s not a place steeped in intrigue. At least it wasn’t.

South Padre Island is a narrow strip of land in the Gulf of Mexico at the southernmost tip of Texas. It’s a popular vacation spot for families and retirees. On April 9, 2018, a middle-aged woman with long blond hair checked into the island’s Motel 6, a white complex with blue doors. She requested an out-of-the-way room and paid cash in advance for a week’s stay.

Two days later, in the early afternoon on Wednesday, April 11, the woman left Room 227 and walked across the parking lot to the Padre Rita Grill for lunch. The owner, Cathy Laferty, a friendly 61-year-old with blond hair herself, greeted the woman and complimented her cute outfit and matching hat. “What’s your name?” Laferty asked.

“L—,” the woman hesitated, “Donna.”

“Like Madonna?”

“Yeah. That’s why I just go by Donna.”

It became their little joke, and how the woman introduced herself around South Padre, where she decided to stay awhile. Donna returned to the grill daily, often in the evening, when there was live music. “She was happy, laughed a lot. A delightful person,” Laferty said. “I probably would’ve hired her if she’d asked for a job.” Donna liked to sit at the corner of the bar, where she could talk to people on either side of her. She was sociable, striking up conversations with waitstaff and other customers. She mentioned that she’d been in Florida previously but had found it overrun with old people. She said she was recently widowed, had come into money, and was looking to buy a condo. She asked locals like Laferty about property taxes and homeowners association fees.

She always paid in cash from a large wad, and tipped generously. The grill’s staff liked her. “I would’ve invited her to my house,” said Laura Giacchino, who waited on Donna the first time she came in. Donna flirted shamelessly with the Padre Rita bartender, Arnie, who was several years younger than she was. He flirted back, but demurred when she asked him out.

Donna made other friends around town. She met Isabel Barreiro at the Motel 6 pool. Barreiro, who was 52 and lived 75 miles away in Alamo, had come to the island by herself for a short vacation, something she frequently did. Cool, she thought when she met Donna, another woman by herself. Someone to talk to. They hit it off, had a couple of drinks, and sat “chatting and chatting,” Barreiro said later. Donna explained to Barreiro that her husband had died, tearing up as she spoke. Barreiro didn’t ask questions, to avoid being nosy.

Over the next two days they had lunch, went shopping, hung out in each other’s motel rooms, and sat on the beach. Donna posed for photos with her new friend. “She wasn’t shy with the camera,” Barreiro said. “She wanted me to take pictures of her.”

A week later, the national news sent shockwaves through the Padre Rita Grill and across South Padre Island. That’s when locals discovered Donna’s true identity. “We had no idea when she was here that she was a murderer and trying to hide,” Laferty said. “You just never know people you see on the street or who walk into your bar, who they really are.”

Dave Riess
Part Two

Born in Rochester, Minnesota—home of the Mayo Clinic—on April 24, 1963, Dave Riess grew up southeast of the city’s downtown. He was a prankster at Mayo High School, class of 1981. The spring before graduation, he enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in San Diego, where he married Lois Witte on September 17, 1982. He was 19; she was 20.

Lois was also from Rochester, the fourth of five children. Their father was an engineer at IBM. Their mother was a hoarder, which so embarrassed Lois as a teenager that she didn’t invite friends to the house. Lois left Mayo High School after the 11th grade. Following their wedding, she and Dave had three children in four years: boy, girl, boy. “She was caring, always put herself second and us kids first,” Braden, the youngest, told a reporter after his father’s death. When Dave finished serving a Navy stint in Guam, the family moved back to Rochester.

Dave drove a forklift at Crenlo, a manufacturer of metal equipment, and eventually opened the Bait Box, a small shop where he sold live bait and fishing tackle. Lois ran a day care center out of their home, which had an aboveground swimming pool in the backyard. In 2005, they moved to Blooming Prairie, where Dave could pursue his dream of opening a wax worm farm.

Several months after they arrived, on the afternoon of February 16, 2006, a fire destroyed their house. No one was hurt, but the Riesses lost everything, including their cats. The cause may have been some faulty wiring Dave had done, which he felt terrible about. In a show of sympathy, their neighbors took up a collection. “That’s something our community does for people, whether they know them or not,” said Becky Noble, executive director of the Blooming Prairie chamber of commerce.

After they’d moved back into their rebuilt house—three bedrooms, two baths—Lois set up a day care facility there. She often had hot breakfast sandwiches ready for parents dropping off their preschoolers. Once her children had children of their own, Lois lavished her five grandkids with gifts, including cell phones and ATVs they could ride around the property. She joined the women’s bowling league at Bunkies, the four-lane alley on Blooming Prairie’s Main Street. She traveled to tournaments around the state with a group of about three dozen women, Noble among them. “She was fun-loving,” Noble said. “She had the cutest smile.”

That seemed to be the consensus around town: Lois was nice. She kept a clean house. She could be thoughtful, giving some friends who liked horses a set of tumblers frosted with equine figures. When Tess and Rod Koster invited Lois and Dave to their lake house along with another couple, Lois brought steaks for dinner and made breakfast for the group.

She was a good cook. A couple of times a week, she brought lunch over to the four or five guys working at the worm farm. They especially liked her generous servings of lasagna. After she stopped running the day care, around 2014, she helped out at the farm occasionally. It became a lucrative business. The staff made weekly deliveries to Walmart, Kwik Trip, and bait shops throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. They also shipped boxes of wax worms—excellent bait to catch pan fish—all over the country. Winter was the busiest time, with the worms in high demand among ice fishermen. “That place was a moneymaking machine,” Dave’s friend Jerry Bissell said of the farm.

Dave treated his employees well. They were mostly young guys in their late teens or early twenties who came to think of him as a second father. He put gas in their trucks, gave them money when they needed it, took them fishing. “He was kind to people he didn’t even know,” said Denny Clark, another friend of Dave’s.

In fact, that’s how they met, 30 years ago when Dave was still living in Rochester and came over to Denny’s house with a mutual friend to lay some carpet as a favor. They got to talking about fishing and became fast friends. Dave and Denny rented a trailer home on the Mississippi River as a base camp for angling expeditions. They entered competitions and did well enough to win some money and be featured on television. “There was a lot of laughter in that boat,” Denny said of their trips together. “Being out there, it didn’t take a whole lot to get him laughing. He was just a happy guy.”

Lois and Dave often ate dinner at the local Servicemen’s Club. He volunteered on the board there and looked after the books. When Dave discovered someone was embezzling funds, he put a stop to it. He also campaigned for the club to start selling pull tabs, similar to lottery tickets, to raise money. The idea met with some resistance, but Dave managed to push it through.

Dave was a decent bowler, but he preferred shooting pool at the Pizza Cellar or the back room of J & H Liquors. Many days after work, he’d go into town to have a few beers—always Miller Lite—with a half dozen other men and to bullshit around the pool table. They’d often end up back at the worm farm, hanging out in the office, which Dave had equipped with a good stereo. On Sundays, the group gathered in Kelly Njos’s man cave, a shed behind his house, to watch the Vikings on the big-screen TV. Lois usually sent along something she’d made—deviled eggs or a cake.

The last time Dave’s friends saw him was at the J & H on a Thursday evening, March 8, 2018. They drank, shot pool, talked about football—nothing out of the ordinary. Looking back, they figure Dave was killed that Sunday. That’s the last time anyone saw him, when Dave and Lois went to Wisconsin to see their grandson play in a basketball tournament.

That seemed to be the consensus around town: Lois was nice. She kept a clean house. She could be thoughtful, giving some friends who liked horses a set of tumblers frosted with equine figures.

On Monday, March 12, Lois stopped by the worm farm’s office. Instead of greeting the workers warmly and asking about their weekends like she usually did, she kept her head down. “Dave’s not feeling good,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of him.”

They didn’t see her Tuesday or Wednesday. On Thursday, she came down to the office again. Dave? Still sick, she said. She was going to take him to the doctor on Friday. It seemed odd to the employees, Dave being absent and incommunicado, but he did have a history of stomach trouble. They didn’t want to bug him if he really was ill.

Lois sat at a desk in the office staring out the window toward the house. At one point, she put her head in her hands, elbows on her knees.

“You OK?” one of the employees asked.

“Yeah, fine. I didn’t sleep good last night.”

The following week, Lois said that the doctor had cleared Dave to compete in the season opener of the Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit, a fishing competition on the Illinois River. That meant he’d leave on Tuesday morning, pick up Denny Clark, and make the five-hour drive down to the competition site. His employees assumed that’s what Dave did—until they saw Lois drive off the property in the Escalade, two days after her husband should have taken it to the event.

The 56-year-old grandmother turned up the next day at Diamond Jo, a farm-themed casino just across the Iowa border, off I-35, a 45-minute drive from Blooming Prairie. She went there frequently, sometimes with friends. She liked to play the slot machines in the high-rollers room. At 6:30 p.m., she bought a packaged sandwich next door at the Kum & Go. Video surveillance showed her—five-foot-five, about 165 pounds—dressed in white slacks and a black-and-white-striped cardigan, unbuttoned over a purple T-shirt. Her hair was bleached to the point of looking white.

“Say, if you want to start heading south, would you take 35 south, just to keep going on down to the next state? Is that the way to go you think?” she asked a clerk while he was making change for her.

“I think so,” he said.

“OK, well thank you,” she said, her voice girlish.

It was that night when police found Dave’s body. Lois had been in and out of the house for more than a week while he lay dead in the bathroom. By the time investigators from the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation arrived at Diamond Jo the next day—having tracked Lois’s cell phone there—she was gone. Her children were distraught at the news of their father’s death and their mother’s disappearance. They had no idea where Lois was. One of her sons told an investigator that she hadn’t opened the Snapchats he’d sent her.

The Dodge County Sheriff’s Office released a statement identifying Lois as a person of interest sought by law enforcement and “known to frequent casinos.” It warned that she might be armed. (Indeed, several years earlier, her father had given her a collector’s item, his Colt Woodsman .22.) The office assigned the case to general investigator Ben Bohle, who had been with the department since 2009.

Bohle discovered that in the previous week, Lois had deposited two business checks missing from the worm farm—one for $8,684.80, the other for $1,209.60—into her husband’s personal checking account at Citizens State Bank in Glenville (now Produce State Bank), a half-hour drive from Blooming Prairie. She had then cashed three checks drawn on his account—for $2,500, $7,500, and $1,000—the last two on March 23. Bohle soon secured a warrant to arrest Lois for felony theft.

From the beginning, Lois was the only suspect in Dave’s death. “All signs pointed immediately to her,” said Brian Smith, a U.S. marshal who assisted with the investigation. But why would she kill her husband? That’s what everyone in Blooming Prairie was talking about, from impromptu musings in the aisles of Vandal’s grocery store to Mr. Pfiefer’s forensics class across town at Blooming Prairie High School, which discussed the case for several weeks.

Investigators found no evidence of Lois or Dave having an affair, nor of any domestic abuse. The fact that Lois had forged the checks and gone to the casino, along with information law enforcement had gathered about her stealing money in the past, pointed to another motive. “That was a new one on me,” Smith said. “It was hard for me to wrap my mind around someone committing a murder to feed a gambling addiction.”

Why would she kill her husband? That’s what everyone was talking about, from impromptu musings in the aisles of Vandal’s grocery store to Mr. Pfiefer’s forensics class across town at Blooming Prairie High School.

Compulsive gamblers fall into two basic categories: thrill seekers, who are usually men playing skill-based games with high stakes, wanting to win big, and escape artists, who often play slot machines, not to hit a jackpot but to enter a trancelike state. Women with a gambling habit are most likely to fall into the latter category. Electronic slot machines, “like alcohol and drugs, can be used for mood management,” according to a 2005 article about female gambling published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. “Many women with gambling problems are seeking a way to numb emotions, shut out the world and orchestrate a time-out.”

The article continues: “As problem gambling progresses, many women become more and more isolated. This exacerbates the feelings of loneliness, shame and guilt that women with gambling problems experience.” During the course of his investigation, Smith discovered that Lois had withdrawn from family and friends of late. “I don’t know if it was a condition of her addiction, but she’d cut ties with a lot of people, family and friends,” he said. “A lot of people we talked to said, ‘Yeah, I know Lois, but I haven’t talked to her for a while.’”

Dave occasionally went to Diamond Jo with Lois, but gambling wasn’t his thing. It was hers. And it had become a problem in the years leading up to Dave’s murder. Lois had bilked several worm-farm employees, soliciting donations for a golf cart Dave could use to shuttle back and forth from the house—a vehicle that never materialized. One family member suspected that she went to the casino with money designated for the interment of her father’s remains, because his ashes had sat in her house for many months after his death in 2014. Her son Braden told Inside Edition that Lois had gambled away a $500,000 inheritance from her father. “It was all secrecy,” he said. “Gambling’s a terrible thing where it can suck people in and destroy lives.”

The most brazen theft was from Lois’s oldest sister, Kim. In October 2010, Kim’s marriage was failing, and she had a mental breakdown. Lois and Dave let Kim live with them for a while before placing her in adult foster care. In February 2012, claiming that her sister was “unable to perform tasks for daily living” or “make decisions regarding her medical needs,” Lois applied to be Kim’s legal guardian and conservator. According to forms Lois filed with the courts, her sister suffered from bipolar disorder, as well as clinical depression, and had the cognitive capacity of a ten-year-old. In required annual filings, Lois reported that her sister’s emotional, mental, and physical states had deteriorated. She noted that Kim had schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. She also declared that Kim had obsessive compulsive disorder that caused her to go on shopping sprees and spend lavishly.

With access to Kim’s resources, which included a $200,000 inheritance from their father, Lois withdrew thousands of dollars at a time from an ATM at Diamond Jo. A court audit dated September 15, 2015, uncovered Lois’s fiduciary betrayals of her sister. They included payment of $14,070 on an alleged debt to their already-deceased father, supposed gifts to Lois’s three children totaling $15,000, and almost $8,500 in reimbursement for undocumented expenses purportedly paid by Lois. A social worker advocating on Kim’s behalf requested suspension of Lois’s role as guardian and conservator. Lois had explanations, but the court didn’t buy them. On October 8, 2015, her guardianship was suspended, and four months later she was officially discharged. (Kim, who remains under the state’s care, could not be reached for comment.)

The Steele County Attorney’s Office decided not to press criminal charges against Lois after a judge ordered her in December 2016 to repay $100,534 to Kim. Lois’s attorney through most of this time, Kristin Haberman, told me she was confident in her assessment of her client. “Lois is a really pleasant person to be around,” Haberman said. “She’s friendly, caring, warm.”

Dave occasionally went to Diamond Jo with Lois, but gambling wasn’t his thing. It was hers. And it had become a problem in the years leading up to Dave’s murder.

Brian Smith first heard about Dave Riess’s murder while he was fixing dinner one night in March 2018. Smitty, as friends and coworkers call him, was at the time the lead coordinator for the U.S. Marshals’ North Star Fugitive Task Force, based in Minneapolis. He knew Dodge County sheriff Scott Rose, who had helped him on cases in the past, and offered to return the favor by investigating the case. Rose welcomed the assistance.

Smith heard speculation that Lois was siphoning money from the worm farm, and that for Dave, who was well aware of his wife’s gambling habit, the last straw came when she took the couple’s savings, set aside for a new vehicle, and squandered it at the casino. “After that the husband said, ‘I’m done. I’m cutting you off. If you want money, you can work for me in the business, but I’m not giving you any more,’” Smith said.

Most people in Blooming Prairie knew Dave and Lois as a nice, normal couple. Once the press invaded the community after Dave’s murder, those who knew about things like Lois’s theft from her sister invoked the omertà typical of small towns, refusing to comment. The people closest to the Riesses were aware that all was not right and hadn’t been for several years. “Lois was likable, but you always knew she was a click off,” said Scott Carlson, one of Dave’s inner circle of friends. “She did some oddball shit.”

In July 2016, for instance, she disappeared for three days. Dave discovered some new debts she had incurred and was so concerned that he reported her missing to the sheriff’s office. When Lois returned, she said that she’d been visiting a girlfriend in Minneapolis; she acted like it was no big deal.

Friends heard Dave make an ominous comment more than once: “If I ever go missing, you come looking for Lois.”

Part Three

Pam Hutchinson arrived in Fort Myers Beach, the resort hub of Estero Island, in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 3, 2018. She was there to be with her longtime friend Donna Fetrow, whose husband had recently committed suicide. Fetrow planned to spread his ashes on nearby Sanibel Island. While Fetrow stayed with family on Sanibel, Hutchinson checked into condo 404 at the Marina Village at Snug Harbor, a time-share complex. She was staying alone.

Hutchinson, 59, with short blond hair and a wide smile, was outgoing and quick to make friends. She loved to fish for marlin, stay out late, and vacation in Mexico. She had been a successful car saleswoman in Virginia Beach before divorcing her husband about two years earlier and moving to Bradenton, Florida. The week she traveled down to Fort Myers Beach, she’d found a condo in Bradenton that she wanted to buy.

On Tuesday evening, she had dinner with Fetrow on Sanibel and then watched the sun set. On Wednesday, Fetrow made the short drive to Fort Myers Beach, and the friends ate lunch outside at a restaurant off Old San Carlos Boulevard. That evening, Hutchinson passed on Fetrow’s offer to join her for dinner on Sanibel. Instead, she spent time with another middle-aged woman she’d just met. The woman inspired Hutchinson’s sympathy with her story of being recently widowed. After the pair spent about three hours drinking together, a security camera filmed them walking toward Hutchinson’s condo.

Hutchinson had intended to leave on Thursday, April 5, but decided to stay another night. That evening she ate an early dinner with her new friend at the Smokin’ Oyster, a tropical-themed tourist dive. Surveillance footage shows the two of them sitting at the bar, Hutchinson in a pink camo baseball cap and white blouse, the other woman in a blue T-shirt and cream-colored slacks. At one point, the woman removed the sunglasses pushed above her forehead and swished her bleached hair over her shoulder. At 7:37 p.m., Hutchinson paid for a Long Island Iced Tea, a watermelon margarita, a sweet tea, a Bloody Mary, and a Bahama Mama, along with half a pound of peel and eat shrimp, a side of chard, and a small chowder.

That night, Fetrow texted Hutchinson from the beach where her family was spreading her deceased husband’s ashes, but got no reply. She didn’t think much of it at the time. Meanwhile, Hutchinson’s realtor in Bradenton, Judy Keene, sent her the application required by the homeowners association for the condo she was going to purchase. They traded texts, but Keene didn’t hear anything from Hutchinson after about 7 p.m. When her client didn’t reply to texts over the weekend, Keene figured maybe she was having buyer’s remorse.

Fetrow texted Hutchinson from the beach where her family was spreading her husband’s ashes, but got no reply. She didn’t think much of it at the time. 

At 8:30 a.m. on Friday, April 6, Laurie Russell, manager at the Marina Village, received a call at the front desk from condo 404. “Oh, my gosh, I slept until 4 p.m. yesterday, and then I went out and met some great people and I’m gonna go boating today,” the woman on the line said. “Is there any way I could stay for the weekend?” Russell agreed to put an additional three days on one of Hutchinson’s credit cards.

Shortly after 11 a.m., a woman walked up to the counter of the Wells Fargo Bank in Fort Myers Beach wearing a white fedora with a black ribbon around the rim. She withdrew $5,000 from Hutchinson’s account, making small talk with the teller, saying she was staying in a nearby hotel but had bought a house in Bradenton. She left the bank, but rather than go boating, at some point that afternoon she started driving north in Hutchinson’s white Acura TL. She went past Bradenton, about 90 miles upstate. She drove all the way to Ocala, an additional 130 miles, and checked in to a Hilton that evening.

She signed Hutchinson’s name for two room-service deliveries, paid with one of her credit cards, and left the next morning. Shortly after 10:30 a.m., she used Hutchinson’s card to make three withdrawals of $500 each at a Bank of America drive-up ATM in Ocala. Then she continued north, eventually turning west and crossing the state line. She headed for the Coushatta Casino Resort off State Highway 165 in the town of Kinder, which boasts “the most slots in Louisiana!” She won a $1,500 jackpot on a $5 play.

The woman used a driver’s license and Social Security card to collect her winnings at 1:35 p.m. Both belonged to Lois Riess.

The police followed Hutchinson’s credit card trail, which led them to the surveillance videos from the Smokin’ Oyster, Wells Fargo, and Ocala Hilton. The same woman was in all the footage.

On April 9, Laurie Russell was checking units at Marina Village for a possible water leak. When she entered 404 there was a foul smell. She figured it was sewage, the source of the water problem. Still, something about the space seemed strange, so she asked two male guests outside to go back in with her.

In the bathroom, the guests found a dead woman lying on the floor. She had blond hair and was wearing a pink camo baseball cap, a white blouse, blue Levi’s shorts, and Teva flip-flops. A pillow, perforated by a bullet, was on top of her legs. The shot that killed her had sliced through the woman’s lower left lung, her heart’s right atrium and aorta, her esophagus, and her upper right lung. A .22 bullet was lodged in the right cup of her bra.

The woman had collapsed while her stomach and intestines filled with blood. As the odor emanating from the condo indicated, she had been dead several days. Her toothbrush was in the sink, where she must have dropped it when she was shot. Someone—presumably the killer—had covered her with a towel and stuffed more towels against the crack under the bathroom door. Before leaving, they turned the thermostat down to 61.

The group that found the body called 911. Upon learning that Hutchinson had been staying in 404, Lee County sheriff’s deputies called her ex-husband in Virginia Beach. They interviewed guests at the Marina Village as well as Hutchinson’s friends. They followed her credit card trail, which led them to the surveillance videos from the Smokin’ Oyster, Wells Fargo, and Ocala Hilton. The same woman was in all the footage.

She looked like Hutchinson—the right age, similar hair color, comparable complexion and build—but by then the deputies had identified the body in the bathroom. It was Hutchinson. The more surveillance video they watched, the more they saw of the other woman. It even placed her in 404 at the time of the murder. Footage stamped 7:46 p.m. showed Hutchinson and the woman approaching Hutchinson’s condo. At 8:34 p.m., a camera captured the woman walking by herself toward the building’s fourth-floor elevator. She stood in the landing area for 13 minutes, appearing distraught and upset, perhaps crying. Then she returned to Hutchinson’s condo.

Video from the next morning captured the woman in the Marina Village parking lot. She backed up Hutchinson’s Acura next to a Cadillac Escalade, then transferred luggage and other items from the SUV into the sedan.

The evening before Hutchinson was found murdered, a sergeant with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office had come across a white Cadillac Escalade with Minnesota plates at Bowditch Point, on the northern tip of Fort Myers Beach. It had been abandoned. He ran the registration and found that it belonged to Dave Riess. Investigators didn’t know what to make of it until they watched the surveillance video from the Marina Village. Tess Koster of Blooming Prairie connected the final dots.

Someone—presumably the killer—had covered Hutchinson with a towel and stuffed more towels against the crack under the bathroom door. Before leaving, they turned the thermostat down to 61.

A week before Hutchinson’s body was found, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, Tess Koster was cleaning the garage of one of the five rental units she and her husband, Rod, owned on Fort Myers Beach, where they wintered. The rest of the year they lived in Blooming Prairie, where they owned a car dealership. That day their daughter, Breauna, contacted them to say that a woman had called the dealership and identified herself as a friend. She said she was in Fort Myers Beach and wanted to visit the Kosters.

Breauna had given the woman the address where her parents were—880 Third St. She didn’t think twice about it. The Kosters were always inviting people from Blooming Prairie to visit them. Several years earlier, for instance, when they sat next to each other at a wedding, the Kosters had told the Riesses that they should come down to Florida some time.  

About 1:45 p.m. on April 2, from the garage at 880 Third St., Tess saw a woman with a white ponytail at the end of the drive check a notebook in her hand, then look at the house number. Tess took a step toward her, thinking she was there to inquire about one of the rentals.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

The woman looked up. When their eyes met, Tess immediately recognized Lois. She had talked to friends back home, so she knew about the discovery of Dave’s body ten days prior. Lois also seemed to recognize Tess. She ducked her head, muttered “Wrong house,” and walked off quickly. Tess saw her drive away in a white Escalade.

She and Rod called 911. After half an hour, two deputies showed up from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. They knew that Lois was wanted on the felony theft charge and in connection with Dave’s death, but they figured that seeing Tess had spooked her off the island, that she was long gone by then. They provided additional patrols in the Kosters’ neighborhood but didn’t stake out the bridge to the mainland or search Fort Myers Beach for Lois or the Escalade. “The police down there did a horrible job,” Breauna said. “That woman [Hutchinson] could still be alive today.”

After discovering Hutchinson’s body only two blocks from the Kosters’ house on Third Street, Lee County law enforcement eventually called Tess down to the station. They showed her three video clips and two photos of the woman making bank withdrawals in Hutchinson’s name. In all of them, Tess identified Lois Riess.

Pam Hutchinson
Part Four

Authorities in Florida sent out a nationwide BOLO—be on the lookout—alert. In Minnesota, investigator Ben Bohle saw it and contacted the deputies down in Lee County. They compared notes on the homicides of Dave Riess and Pam Hutchinson: Both victims were shot in a bathroom with a .22 handgun and covered with a blanket or towel. Afterward, the suspect took each victim’s vehicle and money.  

If Lois was responsible for killing not only her husband but also a stranger, finding her was more urgent than Minnesota authorities had initially thought. “She looks like anybody’s mother or grandmother, yet she is a cold-blooded killer,” Carmine Marceno, then Lee County’s undersheriff, said on television. “The suspect’s resources will run out and she may become very desperate, and she could strike again.”

U.S. marshals elevated their search for Lois to a “major case.” They set up a national hotline and posted billboards in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada that read “Wanted: Murder,” with Lois’s name and photo. They put up a $5,000 reward. Crime Stoppers of Florida offered an additional $1,000 reward.

Widespread media coverage helped bring in tips, which law enforcement sifted through, but Lois’s trail had gone cold since a remote camera spotted the white Acura along Texas Highway 77 outside Refugio, south of Houston, on April 8 at 11:16 p.m.

Authorities figured she was likely headed to Mexico. They alerted U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican authorities. They checked to see if Lois had an active passport. She didn’t. “She could be trying to get in with somebody that had the ability to get across the border,” U.S. Marshal Brian Smith said. “Find somebody with a passport and assume their identity like she did with the woman in Fort Myers Beach, or somebody with access to a boat.”

Smith logged plenty of overtime, regularly getting up early to make the 75-mile drive from Minneapolis to Blooming Prairie, executing search warrants, and spending “hours and hours and hours” with Bohle going through the Riess house, looking for anything—bills, statements, receipts, electronic devices—that might help them capture Lois before she could kill again or disappear across the border.

For Smith, the work became personal after seeing how the situation had devastated Lois’s two older children, Bill and Bria. The youngest, Braden, didn’t have much to say after his appearance on Inside Edition. Bill and Bria declined to talk to the press entirely and cut short phone calls from me. But they worked closely with investigators to locate their mother and find out what had happened to their father. “They’re really, really nice people,” Smith said. “I was highly motivated to bring this case to closure.”

“She looks like anybody’s mother or grandmother, yet she is a cold-blooded killer,” Carmine Marceno, Lee County’s undersheriff, said on television.

The widespread media attention and police alerts about Lois didn’t seem to penetrate the community in South Padre. Workers at the Padre Rita Grill and elsewhere on the island relied more on local sources for news and information. That helped Lois hide in plain sight, less than 30 miles from the Mexican border, calling herself Donna. Amanda Camacho, the Motel 6 clerk who had checked her in, later said that she transformed from looking “like an elderly lady” when she arrived into someone more provocative, wearing short shorts and tank tops. On her belly, she had what looked like a fresh tattoo, depicting a palm tree and a beachside sunset.  

For more than a week, Lois traipsed around South Padre making friends. On April 17, Ron Mulholland met her at the Padre Rita. The 76-year-old, who owned several condos on the island, stopped in for dinner about 9 p.m. and sat near her at the bar. After chatting for an hour, she accepted his invitation to go to the Coral Reef, a karaoke bar just up Padre Boulevard. When Mulholland dropped her off at her motel later that night, he gave her his business card and suggested they get together again.

More often, the people Lois befriended were like Pam Hutchinson: middle-aged women, single or traveling alone. One evening she approached Bernadette Mathis, a 65-year-old court reporter, who was sitting alone at the bar of Liam’s Steak House and Oyster Bar. They struck up a conversation. After dinner the women exchanged phone numbers. Lois later texted Mathis: “Bragd about my new friend. Be good n safe. I want to hang out soon.” Mathis did not have many friends outside of work and was happy about the prospect of making a new one. The next evening the women met for dinner again at Liam’s. Mathis didn’t make it through her second drink—she could usually handle more—before she appeared to be intoxicated. The bartender wondered if someone might have slipped her something.

Later, Mathis had a fuzzy recollection of how she and Lois ended up back at her house. They sat in the hot tub, and Lois spent the night in the guest bedroom. There were security cameras throughout the residence. The next morning, Mathis took Lois out to breakfast at the Rancho Viejo Country Club. Mathis noticed that Lois took out some pills—she had a few kinds—and took one. After breakfast, Mathis drove her new friend back to the Motel 6. They made plans to meet again for dinner the following Friday, April 20. “She acted like a really nice person, and I trusted her,” Mathis later told law enforcement.

Peggy Houlihan met Lois at the Motel 6 pool one day with Isabel Barreiro. A musician planning to perform that evening at the Padre Rita’s open mic, Houlihan had her guitar with her, and the three women sang some songs together. Barreiro recorded it. Lois seemed happy to be included.

Yet something about the situation made Houlihan uncomfortable. Lois was pressuring Barreiro to stay on the island longer. Houlihan wondered if the women might be lovers, or if that’s what Barreiro’s new friend was hoping they would become. That evening, Lois arrived at the Padre Rita before Barreiro and joined Houlihan at her table. Barreiro had already relented to stay an extra night, but according to Houlihan, Lois seemed agitated, fretting that Barreiro might have departed the island without telling her. When Barreiro finally arrived, Lois took her to a separate table. The two women left without saying goodbye.

“I didn’t know till the next morning that Isabel was OK,” Houlihan later said. (Houlihan, Barreiro, and Mathis didn’t respond to requests for interviews; details of their interactions with Lois are taken from police interviews.) “Isabel came to say goodbye to me,” Houlihan continued. Barreiro left South Padre that day, not knowing how close she’d gotten with a killer.

The people Lois befriended were like Pam Hutchinson: middle-aged women, single or traveling alone. 

On April 19, more than a week after she had arrived on the island, Lois drove Hutchinson’s Acura a few miles down Padre Boulevard to Dirty Al’s, which claimed to serve the “best seafood on South Padre.” She asked to look at a menu. A waiter chatted with her for a few minutes.

Across the room the manager, George Higginbotham, observed the conversation. The woman looked familiar. The long bleached hair—hadn’t he seen her somewhere? When she swished it over her shoulder, it clicked. CBS This Morning.

After she returned the menu and walked out of the restaurant—she wanted to eat at a bar, and Dirty Al’s didn’t have one available for seating—Higginbotham told his staff, “That’s her, the woman who killed the lady in Florida!”

Nah, the other employees said.

“It is,” Higginbotham insisted. He urged them to see what car she got into. It was a white sedan, the kind of vehicle the murder suspect was driving. Higginbotham called the police.

Brian Smith was one of the first people to be notified about the tip in South Texas. He was immediately in contact with the deputy U.S. marshals dispatched to South Padre. When they arrived at Dirty Al’s, Higginbotham told the marshals that Lois was wearing a yellow tank top and white shorts, and that her car had Florida plates. He had surveillance footage but didn’t know how to retrieve it.

The marshals didn’t have to look for Lois very long. She had gone to the Sea Ranch restaurant, right next door to Dirty Al’s. They spotted the white Acura parked outside.

While officers secured the restaurant’s exits, several marshals and local cops entered the Sea Ranch and quickly surrounded Lois. She was sitting at her preferred location: a corner spot at the bar. One of the marshals picked up her purse. “Lois, we’re going to take you out of here and explain what’s going on,” Marshal Shelly Sleep said. “Don’t make a scene.”

Lois complied without comment. Sleep found that strange, since fugitives usually resist arrest or feign innocence. “She didn’t have a single emotion on her face,” Sleep said.

The next day, authorities converged on South Padre Island. Sheriff’s deputies came in from Florida; an officer from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension flew down from Minnesota. They took DNA swabs from Lois and obtained warrants to search the Acura and Room 227 at the Motel 6. They found a map, a brochure from the Lucky Eagle Casino, pill bottles, and piles of clothes, including the white fedora she was seen wearing in surveillance videos when she posed as Pam Hutchinson. They found tissues, soap, and a green and white towel taken from Marina Village. A small stash of LifeStyles Ultra Lube Plus condoms. Hutchinson’s checkbook, four credit cards, and $548 in cash. A black bag with bullets, a holster, duct tape, and rubber gloves inside. Two handguns, the Colt Woodsman .22 her father had given her, and a Smith & Wesson nine millimeter.

They also found “what appeared to be a trophy,” according to investigators: Hutchinson’s sunglasses, wrapped in a hand towel.

Lois Riess
Part Five

The arrest of Lois Riess unnerved the people she’d met on South Padre. Isabel Barreiro, Bernadette Mathis, Cathy Laferty—all the women who’d been taken in by her friendliness—shuddered to think that they could have been her next victim. Mathis, not having heard about Lois’s arrest, showed up at Liam’s for their scheduled dinner on April 20. When she asked around, she learned that the woman she knew as Donna was someone else entirely. “I feel very betrayed, and I feel stupid that I could be so gullible,” she told a reporter. “It’s just scary—very scary to meet a stranger and think that they’re going to be your friend and they turn out to be a killer.”

Tess Koster had been so shaken by Lois’s appearance in her driveway in Fort Myers Beach that she broke out in a rash and threw up the next two mornings. Perhaps Lois had hoped she’d find one of the Kosters’ rental units empty so she could squat there. But Tess, who bears a resemblance to Lois—blond hair, about the same age—fears there was a more sinister reason for her visit. “I was afraid for my life,” she said. “She’s turned me from that small-town trusting person to having a loaded gun by my bed.”

In Blooming Prairie, the six weeks between Dave’s disappearance and Lois’s arrest rocked the community’s sense of itself. Suddenly, the previously anonymous town was in the headlines because of someone the national media dubbed “Losing Streak Lois” and “Killer Granny.” To think that a neighbor—a woman with whom people had shared meals, drinks, and laughs, someone trusted to care for local children—had done what she did was crushing. So too was the absence of any clear reason.

As a violent criminal, Lois Riess is an outlier. It’s rare for women to kill at all, and when they do it’s often an exceptional event, the result of jealous rage or the need to protect themselves from an abuser. “She doesn’t fit a profile because you don’t have enough people to make a profile,” said Tricia Aiken, a forensic psychologist in Minneapolis.

Did gambling make her do it? Despite headlines and popular theories suggesting this was the case, there are only a handful of instances worldwide during the past twenty years of problem gamblers killing other people. The most similar case might be Donna Blanton, who in 2003 shot her husband of six months, a Virginia state trooper, with his own .380 pistol after they argued about her gambling debt. It’s far more likely for problem gamblers to be violent toward themselves. One in five have seriously contemplated or attempted suicide, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. “One reason we think there’s a higher suicide rate is that people with a gambling problem have fewer options, less help and less understanding,” said Keith Whyte, NCPG’s executive director. “We don’t want the image of the gambling addict to be a homicidal maniac. These are folks who face a lot of shame and stigma.”

Gambling addiction is complicated, messy, not the kind of disease that often develops in isolation from other problems. “A number of our patients have co-occurring disorders,” said Mike Schiks, CEO of Project Turnabout Recovery Center, in Granite Falls, Minnesota, which treats gambling addicts. “It’s not a singular-dimension illness.”

Those co-occurring conditions can include depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. They often cluster in families, and that seems to have been the case with Lois’s. Her mother, who struggled with hoarding, was eventually committed to a state hospital for the mentally ill. In addition to Kim, Lois had another older sister, Cindee, who suffered from depression. A year after Lois killed her husband, Cindee acted out violently, too.

In March 2019, at her house about ten miles southeast of Rochester, Cindee argued with her 37-year-old son, who was drunk. He shoved her. Cindee and her husband kicked him out. Shortly after, she found him lying in the driveway and told him to get in the car so she could take him away. He refused. She got in her 2004 Ford Explorer and drove over him. He suffered a badly fractured pelvis and head injuries. When a deputy asked Cindee if she had meant to run over her son, she said, “You bet.”

She was charged with second- and third-degree assault, criminal vehicular operation, and domestic assault. The morning of August 5, 2019, she quarreled with her probation officer. That afternoon she purchased a clothesline from a hardware store in Rochester, drove to Quarry Hill Park, near where she and Lois grew up, walked through the woods to a pedestrian bridge spanning a deep ravine, and hanged herself.

In a court appearance, Lois acknowledged that she had been taking medication for “a mental condition.” When she went missing in 2016, Dave told police that Lois suffered from depression. Could she also have experienced late onset of something like bipolar disorder? According to one study, 10 percent of bipolar cases occur in people over the age of 50. “All of these pieces together give you a lot more confidence there was an acute manic psychotic episode,” said John Fabian, a forensic and clinical neuropsychologist who has examined nearly 700 murder cases.

As people close to the Riesses knew, there had been signs that something was amiss. In December 2015, a few months after Lois’s theft from her sister Kim was exposed, Dave came home from lunch at a Dairy Queen with a coworker. He asked the coworker to drop him at the house instead of the worm farm so he could use the bathroom, and when he walked inside he found Lois unconscious in a chair. She had overdosed on pain pills.

Dave called 911. First responders performed CPR. A helicopter airlifted Lois to Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, part of the Mayo Clinic. After almost two weeks, she recovered. She stayed out of sight in Blooming Prairie for a while, and when she did start going out again, she acted as if nothing had happened. Other people did, too.

That’s how you carry on in a small town. Dave did his part to shield his wife from the cruelty of gossip and conjecture. Not one to talk about emotions, he made only passing comments to his closest friends about her gambling and his concerns about her health. Once, though, he confided in a friend about finding Lois unconscious. “That was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, going up to the house that day,” he’d said.

It’s rare for women to kill at all, and when they do it’s often an exceptional event, the result of jealous rage or the need to protect themselves from an abuser.

Lois Riess appeared in Florida district court on December 17, 2019. To avoid the death penalty, she admitted to shooting Pam Hutchinson with a firearm and pled guilty to first-degree murder. She also pled guilty to grand theft of a motor vehicle and other property and criminal use of personal identification information of a deceased individual. She did not provide a statement but simply answered the court’s questions. “Pursuant to the agreement, ma’am, I will adjudicate you guilty,” the judge said, sentencing her to life in prison without parole and ordering her to pay $38,556 in attorney fees and other expenses.

On August 11, 2020, after delays due to the coronavirus, the pretrial hearing in the case of Dave Riess’s murder took place in the auditorium of a Minnesota high school two miles down the road from the Dodge County courthouse, which can accommodate only seven spectators. Fifty people were there, including some family, several reporters, law enforcement, and plainclothes security guards. Lauri Traub, Lois’s court-appointed public defender, had worked out a deal with Matthew Frank of the Minnesota attorney general’s office. (Frank is also prosecuting Derek Chauvin and three other Minneapolis police officers in the death of George Floyd.) Lois would plead guilty to first-degree murder of her husband and receive a mandatory life sentence without parole. She would be able to serve her time in Minnesota, closer to her family, instead of Florida.

Promptly at 1:30 p.m., the cast of attorneys, bailiff, and court reporter strode onto the stage and took their places at neatly arranged tables. Lois entered stage left, clad in an orange jumpsuit and white sneakers, hands shackled at her waist. Her long hair was brushed smooth. She located her two oldest children and their spouses, seated in the auditorium’s front rows. It was the first time she had seen them in two years and five months; they had only seen her on TV screens. Her face was partially covered by a light gray protective mask, but her eyes seemed to be smiling at them.

Judge Jodi Williamson told Lois that she could remove her mask so the court could hear her responses, then established, through a volley of questions she put to the defendant, that Lois was satisfied with her defense and was thinking clearly, unaffected by medication she took for arthritis and high cholesterol. (There was no mention of antidepressants or any other medication to treat mental illness.) Williamson confirmed that Lois was pleading guilty because she was indeed guilty.

When it was Traub’s turn to ask questions, Lois recounted how she had killed Dave: On Sunday, March 11, after she and Dave had attended their grandson’s basketball game in Wisconsin, Lois wanted to stay with her family, but Dave wanted to leave. They left, and argued on the drive home. They continued to argue in their bedroom. According to Lois, Dave took a loaded handgun out of the dresser, offered it to her, and said, “Why don’t you just kill yourself? Maybe you’ll get it right this time.” Instead, she took the gun, aimed it at her husband’s chest, and fired twice.

“Did you know Dave was dead?” Traub asked.

Lois sighed. “Yes.”

“What did you do then?”

Tears pooled in her eyes. “I laid down with him.”

The judge could not hear her response and asked Lois to repeat it.

“I laid down with him. I closed his eyes.”

Lois lowered her head, obscuring her face with a curtain of hair.

The prosecutor asked, “You made the decision to shoot him?” Lois eyed him squarely. “He was right in front of me,” she said, “and I looked at him in the heart and shot him.”

The family in attendance did not react visibly to this story, but expressed their feelings clearly in the impact statements that followed. A social worker read the first on behalf of Dave’s elderly mother: “When you killed David, you took my heart. David was this family’s ray of sunshine. I will never forgive you.” Lois clenched her mouth. Dave’s sister, Cindy, said her brother died “just so a cold-blooded murderer could satisfy her gambling addiction,” and that “she left him laying dead while she partied and gambled just like before.” Lois dropped her eyes.

When Lois’s firstborn, Bill, approached the podium, Lois turned in her chair to face him. “You stole something from us we’ll never get back,” he said. “I’ll never be able to forgive you.” Lois dabbed at her eyes. Bill collected his breath. “The hurt you caused my kids, your grandkids… God, they loved you so much.”

Lois’s daughter, Bria, was the last to speak, which she did with difficulty. “Losing my dad at the hands of my mom is something I’ll never be able to process,” she said. “If I could go back in time to make sure my mom got the help she needed and never kill[ed] my dad—those are thoughts that constantly haunt me.” Lois grimaced and nodded, crying softly.

The judge issued the mandatory life sentence without possibility of release. She set aside the charge of felony theft and left open the question of restitution to be determined later. Lois put on a pair of brown plastic glasses to read her own statement. “What I did is an unpardonable crime,” she said. “Solitude is forever. I feel I deserve this. I will have no reprieve. My life without David is my sentence, my penance. Our children are loving, caring, strong people.” She paused, sniffled. “It’s because of David’s strengths they are that way. My best accomplishment was having our children.”

She apologized to Dave’s family and friends for “taking him from you,” and swiveled to regard her children. “I feel I need to say this: I didn’t know how much pain I was in until I wasn’t anymore.”

“He was right in front of me,” Lois said, “and I looked at him in the heart and shot him.”

Lois declined several requests for an interview. People who’ve followed her case or been affected by her crimes are left to speculate what she meant by “pain.” A mental illness? An unhappy marriage? The gambling addiction? Something else?

When the hearing ended, Lois stood and crossed the auditorium’s stage in her orange jumpsuit and white sneakers, flanked by Traub and a sheriff’s deputy. She gazed at her children, placed her right hand on her heart, and mouthed, “I love you.” Then she bowed her head and walked off the stage.

Afterward, outside the auditorium, I spotted Traub, who had previously talked to me about her client. The two women are about the same age, and they both have three children they enjoy bragging about. “I know she killed two people and it sounds kind of weird, but I genuinely like her,” Traub had said back then. In an otherwise empty corridor, I asked her if she believed Lois. Traub paused, shrugged her shoulders. “That’s her story,” she said. “That’s the story she’s been telling all along.”

Then she flicked my elbow with the back of her hand, as though we shared a confidence, and added, “Why would she lie to me?”


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The Con Continues

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The Con Continues

A special update on issue number 69, “Not Fuzz.”

By David Mark Simpson

There are some stories that a writer just can’t quit. As any obsessive journalist knows, there is always another source to call, another thread to tug. There are also stories that themselves won’t quit. For me, “Not Fuzz” became both.

If you haven’t read the story—Atavist number 69, published in July 2017—here is a quick summary, with spoilers: Steve Farzam is a luxury-hotel executive in Santa Monica, California. He is also a serial impersonator of law-enforcement and rescue professionals. Since at least the late 1990s, he has reportedly pretended to be a firefighter, a police officer, and even a federal agent. His close friend Christopher Dancel played along until, in 2014, Dancel turned on Farzam and became a federal informant. Eventually, based in part on Dancel’s cooperation, law enforcement raided Farzam’s home, a mansion where he kept police paraphernalia, high-caliber weapons, and an actual fire truck. The State of California brought 77 charges against the hotelier; all but four were felonies. Farzam pleaded no contest to three charges—all felonies—and his penalty was light. In 2015, he was sentenced to 182 days behind bars, of which he’d served 90 while awaiting sentencing, and he was credited with time served. He also got five years probation. The judge told Farzam, “You violate probation, the consequences will be very serious. Do we understand each other?” Farzam said yes. He was released from custody and continued working as the COO of the Shore Hotel.

Fast-forward to early 2020 and Farzam is again facing criminal charges. This time, The Atavist is wrapped up in the case. It appears that, when the magazine stood up to Farzam’s legal threats, it became another target of his deceptions. (Farzam did not respond to a request for comment.)

Reporting “Not Fuzz” was a strange experience to say the least. Because Farzam is a prolific impersonator, the Atavist team used a code phrase for identity-verification purposes when communicating with each other about the story. We weren’t the only ones being careful: A California Department of Justice agent whom I spoke to dozens of times refused to interact via email because he was afraid Farzam might hack my account or create one with which he’d pretend to be me. I learned this after I signed an initial email simply “Dave” and got a call moments later. “Dave who?” the DOJ official demanded in a harsh tone.

Like a paranoid character in a movie, I checked parked cars for people who might be watching me and looked over my shoulder constantly. This continued after the story was published and more details about Farzam shook loose. People who had encountered him over the years reached out to me with their stories—an ex-girlfriend, police officers, alleged victims of his cons. I learned little things that I’d missed. For instance, ChristopherDancel.com, a website that smeared Farzam’s former friend, included downloadable .docx files with properties that identified their author as “Steve Farzam.” The domain expired in February 2020. Eventually, Dancel would file a lawsuit against Farzam alleging that the hotelier created the website. “Most importantly, defendant makes the defamatory statement at the top of the page next to plaintiff’s name, ‘scam artist’, along side the copying of the ‘rip-off’ report, basically alleging that plaintiff had committed a criminal fraud against defendant or someone else, which [w]as not a truthful statement,” the suit states. The case is ongoing. (Dancel, who did not come off well in my article, has said that he never wants to speak to me again.)

Over time my anxiety ebbed. My phone wasn’t hacked. I didn’t receive harassing emails. No one seemed to be following me. One evening a few months after publication, I set off walking from my home in Los Angeles with no particular destination in mind. Six hours later, deep in thought, having covered 14 miles with stops and starts, I came to the Pacific Ocean. It was a little before midnight. I lay in the sand listening to music, then walked up to Ocean Avenue, where my eyes caught the hazy, jewel-toned lights of Farzam’s hotel. I realized I hadn’t thought about him all night.


In early 2018, an attorney representing Farzam sent The Atavist a letter via email. Her name was Isabel Ashorzadeh, and the address of her law practice was a penthouse at the Shore Hotel. Quick internet sleuthing indicated that she was Farzam’s wife. They had been married shortly after “Not Fuzz” was published. (Videos available online appear to show Farzam skydiving into the venue where the wedding was held.)

Ashorzadeh’s letter stated that a private investigator was researching my work, and it demanded that The Atavist take down my article, in part because the reporting relied on documents sealed by the California courts. Because a court opts to seal documents doesn’t mean that a reporter is barred from using or publishing them, but in this case it didn’t matter. I was sure  Ashorzadeh was wrong. I had been over the docket dozens of times and never saw an order sealing any of the documents I used in the story. I checked the docket again. I also spoke with the prosecution. Both confirmed my understanding.

In February 2018, Farzam asked the courts to terminate his probation early. He explained that he was about to graduate from the Taft Law School—an online institution—and that his felony convictions were the only thing preventing him from taking the California bar exam. The state attorney general opposed the request and criticized a claim made by Farzam’s defense that he had what it called a “hero complex addiction.” A court filing from the state AG’s office reads, “A hero would not call a Supervising Deputy District Attorney … pretending to be with the FBI to get a girl he wants to impress out of a DUI. A hero would not import assault weapons into California and then sell them to his friends. Defendant has done all of this and more.” Eventually, Farzam’s bid was withdrawn.

He did get a degree that spring, but it wasn’t quite what he had represented it to be. Christine Baldwin, the registrar for the Taft Law School, told me that Farzam completed a program called juris doctor-executive track in May 2018. That granted him a law-based certification. “This is not a degree that makes you eligible for the state bar exam or to practice law in any state,” Baldwin said. “He cannot practice law with this degree. He cannot become a member or sit for a bar exam.”

A 2019 Buzzfeed News investigation revealed that executive juris doctors, degrees similar to what Farzam obtained, are exploitative. “What if you spent three years in law school, taking classes in contracts, torts, and constitutional law, and paying more than $11,000 a year, but—here’s the twist—at the end of it you weren’t a lawyer?” the article begins. “Many students find that what seems like it could be a leg up amounts to little more than an expensive education in the difference one letter makes.”


Things only got weirder.

Eugene Volokh is a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who writes the  Volokh Conspiracy blog, hosted by the magazine Reason. Around the time The Atavist was fielding correspondence from Ashorzadeh, Volokh was trawling the Lumen Database, which collects all deindexing requests made to internet companies, most of which go to Google. The tech giant has a policy that allows anyone to make the case for removing a website or online article from its search results. Let’s say that a publication runs an article accusing a person of domestic abuse. The person proves in court that the article is libelous, but for whatever reason the publication won’t take it down. The person might submit the libel ruling to Google, which could deindex the article from searches of the person’s name.

Volokh is interested in attempts to exploit this policy. He has written extensively about the issue and uncovered more than 100 fraudulent attempts to deindex content. One of the surest ways to catch a suspicious request is to scour the Lumen archives, double-checking the claims of each and every applicant. That’s how he found a complaint about The Atavist.

The request was for Google to deindex my article. As support, it included a court order that seemed to oblige the clerk to seal the entire case against Farzam from public record. Volokh wanted to understand why such a tight condition existed, so he checked the docket. Like me, he couldn’t find any indication of a sealing order. Volokh reached out to the defense attorney named on the court order provided to Google. The lawyer had never heard of Farzam.

At this point, Volokh contacted both The Atavist and Farzam—through Ashorzadeh—for clarification. He also tried searching online for the exact language on the order sent to Google. That turned up a document in an unrelated case. The specs were largely identical—same defense attorney, same judge—but the defendant and the case number were different. It appeared to Volokh that someone had used that order as a template, replacing a few key details to make the one submitted to Google look legitimate.

Volokh reached out to California state prosecutors to share what he’d found. He also informed The Atavist. By late 2019, the problems with the deindexing request would be a matter of public record.


It was a busy time for Farzam, legally speaking. In May 2019, the California Coastal Commission had fined the Shore Hotel’s developer—Sunshine Enterprises, a company managed by the Farzam family—nearly $15.6 million for building and opening the property without the necessary permits. Near the end of the year, the commission agreed to allow the hotel to remain open under certain conditions: It had to price dozens of rooms at more affordable rates and pay an additional $2.3 million in mitigation fees, among other concessions. As of this writing, the hotel’s website features a pop-up notice announcing “COASTAL AFFORDABLE RATE: With rates at $183, a waived Destination Fee, reduced Parking Rates, take advantage of this offer before it’s gone!”

Around the time that the commission and Sunshine Enterprises reached their agreement, California brought new criminal charges against Farzam. There were four in total. All of them were felonies.

The first three—one for attempting to dissuade a witness and two for identity theft—relate to a woman named Libier Hernandez. She is the former director of housekeeping at the Shore Hotel. According to the November 2019 declaration in support of Farzam’s arrest, written by Detective Kenneth Bryant of the Los Angeles Police Department, Hernandez was scheduled to be deposed in a civil matter against Farzam in March 2017. She and her husband, Ivan, got a harassing phone call that “was spoofed” to appear like it came from her old cell number; the caller disguised his voice. The declaration in support of arrest also describes how a now defunct website, LibbyHernandez.com, was populated with a “fictitious criminal background” and personal information. “Hernandez believed that Farzam assembled the website to dissuade her from providing further testimony,” the declaration states. The declaration doesn’t identify which civil matter Hernandez was supposed to testify in. After she quit her job at the Shore Hotel in 2014, she joined several former employees in suing Farzam. In that suit, Hernandez claimed that Farzam had sent her a picture of his erect penis, called her into his office to display his erections on more than one occasion, and kissed her at least once. The suit ended with the plaintiffs agreeing to a dismissal in early 2018.

The fourth felony charge against Farzam is where The Atavist comes in. The state AG’s office claims that the hotelier “did unlawfully and with intent to defraud, forge and counterfeit a Los Angeles Superior Court seal.” According to the LAPD’s declaration in support of arrest, Eugene Volokh “observed a request to remove online content to both Google and The Atavist online Magazine. Professor Volokh requested a copy of the order”—a reference to the court document provided to Google—“and discovered the order was fraudulent.” The order appeared to come from Department 48 of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Employees told the LAPD that it is “not common practice” for a seal like the one that appeared on the order submitted to Google to be stamped on documents that the department issues. What’s more, Department 48 deals with civil claims, and the case against Farzam detailed in “Not Fuzz”—the one that the court order sent to Google supposedly applied to—was a criminal one.

On January 15, 2020, Farzam entered a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles for his first appearance in the case. He wore a gray suit, and his left arm was in a sling; it wasn’t clear what was wrong with it. For reasons the state AG’s office declined to specify during my reporting, Farzam’s appearance was postponed until March.


The deindexing attempt, thwarted thanks only to Volokh’s vigilant research, speaks to a mystery that I pondered while reporting “Not Fuzz.” A wealthy, prominent businessman was arrested several times over some two decades for flamboyant impersonation offenses. But when you googled him, most of the hits for Steve Farzam were articles about the city of Santa Monica praising his sustainability efforts or giving him awards. How was that possible?

Volokh told me that he hadn’t found any other deindexing requests that might benefit Farzam. Still, it seems that threatening or attempting to negotiate with publications are among Farzam’s habits. In 2015, I wrote an article about his legal problems for a Santa Monica daily newspaper where I was then employed. Over the next several months, Farzam sent the paper letters demanding that it remove the article. (It did not.) In February 2018, at the same time Farzam was threatening to sue the magazine, The Atavist’s then editor in chief, Evan Ratliff, got a phone call and a series of text messages from the hotelier. Farzam seemed to want to propose a deal in advance of his attempt to get his probation shortened. By then, “Not Fuzz” had been online for more than six months, and The Atavist had no intention of taking it down. “Hi Evan,” the first message read. “I had an idea I wanted to bounce of [sic] you. -Steve.” Farzam sent another one two days later that read, “??” Then, more than a week later, another message arrived: “Let’s talk for 2 mins. You have nothing to lose. It would be in both of our best interests since we are business owners. Otherwise this will be my last text message and I will not contact you anymore. Either way hope you have a great weekend.” Ratliff never responded.

It’s hard not to wonder if other publications have acquiesced to Farzam’s proposals or litigiousness. They wouldn’t be the only entities Farzam has set his sights on. When reporting “Not Fuzz,” I found online that he was registered with the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. After I reached out to the organization asking why it would certify a convicted felon who had been repeatedly accused of impersonating public-safety officials, his status was changed to “not registered.”

A few months after my article appeared, Farzam sued the NREMT, alleging negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract, among other things. He claimed that he had fulfilled the necessary requirements of the organization’s certification process and yet the NREMT had “willfully and maliciously” revoked his certification on three separate occasions. The suit was dismissed the following May. Six months later, the NREMT’s board approved an internal policy empowering the organization to reject an applicant for certification based on prior criminal convictions.

As of this writing, the NREMT’s website indicates that Farzam is once again registered. In California, NREMT certification is a prerequisite to the state issuing someone a paramedic’s license. California has twice denied Farzam such a license. As cause, which I reported in “Not Fuzz,” it cited violations of the state’s health and safety code: “the commission of any fraudulent, dishonest, or corrupt act” and “conviction of any crime which is substantially related to the qualifications, functions, and duties of prehospital personnel,” as well as “demonstration of irrational behavior.”

For several months after its publication, the Atavist article was the top hit on Google when you searched for “Steve Farzam.” Now it’s the seventh. The first is his Twitter page. “COO Steve Farzam, JD, NREMT-P,” it reads—highlighting a degree to practice law that he doesn’t really have and a certification that he’s apparently had to fight just to keep on the books.

Deliverance

Deliverance

A telekinetic teenager became a convicted killer. Can a group of strangers prove that Christina Boyer is really a victim of injustice?

Tina Resch on Unsolved Mysteries.
The Atavist Magazine, No. 100


Lauren Markham is a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist. She’s the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life and a contributing editor at Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in Northern California.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Philip Kiefer
Collage Illustrator: Emily Haasch

Published in February 2020.

1.

Devilry of the kind necessary to kill a toddler had to be punished, and swiftly. That’s how Sue Horn remembered the public outcry about the murder that still haunted Carroll County, Georgia, nearly 30 years after it happened.

On a foggy Saturday morning in April 2019, Horn sat in the parlor of the Edwardian house that served as the office of the StarNews, one of two newspapers in a rural county wedged between Atlanta and the Alabama border. Short and trim, with dark eyebrows whose movements punctuated her speech, Horn was the newspaper’s publisher and editor in chief. Proofs of the next day’s edition were on her desk waiting to be read, but Horn was happy to take a break. On this story in particular she had some things to say.

“Nothing like this ever happens in Carroll County,” Horn explained. “This was the biggest story it had ever seen.”

One day in the spring of 1992, a three-year-old girl was brought to the local hospital, blue and bruised and dead. Her name was Amber, and she came from what many people would call a broken home. Her young mother had a checkered past. She was also new in town. Most residents of Carroll County are homegrown, and they often view outsiders with suspicion. Horn herself knew what it meant to fall into that dubious category: Though she’d lived in the county most of her adult life and spoke with a slight southern drawl, she was originally from the Northeast.

It didn’t take long for locals to blame Amber’s mother, 22-year-old Christina Boyer, for the little girl’s death. Carroll County is in the Bible Belt, and people saw Boyer as the embodiment of everything they claimed to despise: unwed, abusive, sexually promiscuous, ungodly. Boyer, who professed her innocence, went to prison for life.

The way Horn viewed it, justice wasn’t served. She had done her job as a journalist, examined the facts of the case. She had identified what she believed was a pattern of disregard, or worse. “Christina Boyer,” Horn said, looking directly into the video camera positioned in front of her, “needs to go free.”

The camera belonged to three college students who had come to Carroll County for a class project. The class, called “Making an Exoneree,” tasked Georgetown University undergraduates with reviewing the circumstances that led to a purportedly innocent person’s imprisonment, producing a short documentary about what they found, and—fingers crossed—helping to set the prisoner free. The young women researching the Boyer case jotted down observations in their notebooks, adjusted the camera, and nodded along with Horn’s insistent monologue. Horn knew just what she wanted to say; she didn’t hesitate once. This wasn’t her first rodeo on the matter of Christina Boyer.

If you zoomed out, the scene took on a kaleidoscopic aspect: I was taking notes on the students, who were taking notes on the reporter, who for years had been taking notes on Boyer. That we’d wound up in the same room together was a testament to the cultural phenomenon of journalists and amateur sleuths exposing cases in which people may have been wrongfully convicted of a crime. For Boyer, it was only the most recent chapter in the saga that followed Amber’s death. Students, reporters, lawyers, artists, a romantic suitor, paranormal enthusiasts—a parade of personalities had made themselves part of her story by offering themselves up as potential saviors. They had done so out of genuine concern for her, but in some instances they had also used Boyer as a screen to project their own desires and ambitions. Among her champions were people content to remain in the wings and others who’d crept into the limelight, where the line between egoism and altruism became thin and trembling.

Boyer, now 50, has spent more than half her life in prison. She is warm and agreeable, with brown eyes and cropped sandy-blond hair. Her voice is honeyed—when she asks how you’re doing, you can sense her sincere desire to know the answer. She also seems impressible, as though anything said to her will leave a mark. Her magnetism, I came to realize, is in part her baldness of hope—her ardent, almost guileless wish to be delivered.

Long before she was accused of killing her daughter, Boyer was susceptible to aspiring emancipators, people swooping in with promises to pluck her from her circumstances. And why not? A person in Boyer’s shoes had to take what she could get.

Sue Horn of the StarNews

2.

Boyer’s first would-be savior was the state of Ohio. She was born in 1969, and her parents couldn’t keep her, so as an infant she was handed over to child services. She was placed in long-term foster care with John and Joan Resch, a couple who had taken in hundreds of children in Columbus. They eventually adopted her. Things were hard for Tina, as Boyer was called back then. The household was hectic, and the rules were severe. According to Tina, her adopted brother began molesting her when she was 12, but she was afraid to tell their parents. “Finally, I did tell them, but they didn’t believe me and slapped my face,” she later wrote in a letter to a friend.

When Tina was 14, the family noticed something peculiar and alarming about her: It seemed she could move physical objects with her mind. A plate. The curtains. Chairs around the kitchen table. Things appeared to shift uncannily when Tina became angry. The Resches were certain that this was the work of a sinister force.

Joan Resch called a local reporter she knew and asked if he could find someone to help. He was skeptical that what Resch said was true. Still, he went to the family’s house and brought a photographer along. The film Poltergeist was a recent hit; Americans were obsessed with the idea of telekinesis and haunted children. After a few hours of nothing happening, a phone receiver suddenly seemed to levitate off a side table and hurtle across the living room. The photographer captured the object’s mysterious arc across a pubescent Tina’s lap. Her mouth hung wide open as if in fearful disbelief.

The wire services picked up the story, and the photograph was reprinted in newspapers across the country. Tina was dubbed the Columbus poltergeist kid. Predictably, Tina’s story also drew of the paranormal. “The Resch house was a circus,” journalist Stassa Edwards wrote years later. “Media, magicians and psychokinetic investigators were keen to test Tina’s powers, to pay witness to the shadowy poltergeist.” Cameras and audio recorders were kept rolling nearly constantly in hopes of capturing the unexplainable.

Eventually, a reporter saw Tina knock over a lamp when she thought no one was looking. It went crashing to the floor while the teenager looked up at the adults in the room for approval. The news crews left; a hoax wasn’t intriguing. Still, Joan Resch insisted that the previous incidents had been real. Tina didn’t know what to think. Kids at school hummed the theme to The Twilight Zone when she walked by. Some of them said they were scared of her. “Did anybody stop and think that maybe I’m scared, too; that maybe I don’t know what’s going on and it’s freaking me [out] also?” Tina told a reporter.

One stranger was still drawn to Tina. His name was Bill Roll, and he believed that she was the real deal. Roll was a parapsychologist, a member of the small field of researchers who study paranormal phenomena; most mainstream academics deem their work pseudoscientific. What Tina presented was rare even by the standards of parapsychology. Roll described it as “the destructive powers of thwarted emotions.”

Roll moved into the Resches’ home so that he could interview Tina extensively. He taped her every move and sound with a camcorder and a dictation device, following her around and waiting for something interesting to happen. He made extensive notes of various “disturbances,” as well as Tina’s physical and emotional state before, during, and after they occurred. He drew up a floor plan of the house and mapped the movement of various objects. He later wrote that Tina presented “one of the most convincing cases of poltergeist activity” he’d ever seen.

By Roll’s account, the Resches were at their wits’ end. Whatever was happening with Tina was wreaking havoc on their household. “I thought I might have a solution that would appeal to everyone,” Roll wrote in his 2004 book, Unleashed. He convinced the Resches to let him take Tina to North Carolina, where he and his colleagues could run tests to determine the full extent of her abilities. Tina was overjoyed. “My adoptive father had stopped speaking to me, and my adoptive mom and I argued all the time,” she told me. “Bill was like someone who was saving me from drowning in my family.” Plus, she’d never been on a plane before.

Roll took Tina into his home and introduced her to other paranormal researchers, as well as to Jeannie Lagle, a psychiatrist with experience in hypnosis. Together, Roll and Lagle took Tina to get brain scans, see therapists, and participate in parapsychology conferences. Lagle was part babysitter and part researcher. She and Tina soon grew close. On the road, they bunked together in hotels. Lagle was tasked with drawing out Tina’s abilities through hypnosis and making sure the teenager didn’t doctor any test results. She claimed to witness remarkable events—a hairbrush that flew out of a purse and across the room from where Tina sat, a tape recorder that leaped from a dresser. “You just couldn’t believe what this little girl was capable of,” Lagle told me. The goal of the research was to figure out the source of Tina’s telekinesis, and to train her to use her power with purpose.

Tina was just glad to be treated like she mattered. She’d been dismissed as strange in school, in the Girl Scouts, at home. “I didn’t really know at that point what the future might hold for me, but I knew I was different and that it wasn’t always seen as a good thing,” she told me. With the researchers, her differences were her gifts. To them she was extraordinary.

Eventually, her family asked that Tina return to Ohio. Roll and his team wanted to continue performing tests—they didn’t know the source of the powers they still firmly believed Tina had. For the time being, though, they would have to be satisfied with analyzing the data they’d already gathered.

With the researchers, her differences were her gifts. To them she was extraordinary.

Not long after she moved back to Ohio, Tina got married. She was only 16. According to letters that Tina later wrote, her husband was abusive. He bound, gagged, and raped her. He beat her unconscious. When he burned her clothes to keep her from leaving him, she jumped from a second-story window and ran through the snow, barefoot and wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. He tracked her down and brought her home. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you leave him?’” she wrote in a letter. “I did, but he stalked me and my parents and threatened us all.”

After she managed to escape, Tina became pregnant. She had the baby and named her Amber. Tina married another man, whose last name she took, becoming Christina Boyer. He promised to be a father to Amber, but he soon became abusive toward them both. A social worker told the new Mrs. Boyer that if she didn’t leave the relationship, the state would take Amber away. After one beating, Boyer managed to have her husband arrested, and she packed her bags for Carroll County, Georgia, where Lagle and Roll had moved to be near a small university. Amber had just turned three. If Boyer started a new life, a better one, maybe her daughter wouldn’t remember the one they’d left behind.

Lagle and Roll were eager to help. They could even resume their studies with Boyer. But there was a problem, a growing rift. For years, Lagle and Roll had been a team, putting in long hours conducting tests, typing up papers, and preparing conference presentations about the young woman who moved objects with her mind. Then Lagle learned that Roll was presenting at parapsychology events without her. He’d started working with another researcher—a person who’d never met Boyer—and Lagle got wind that Roll was also writing a book. “He was a little Sneaky Pete, always,” Lagle said. “I was the one doing the heavy lifting.” (Roll died in 2012 at the age of 86.)

Lagle suggested to Boyer that they write a book together, just the two of them. Boyer agreed. “It had been my hope,” Boyer told me, “to get enough written to offer to an agent who would pay us to finish it. Then I would’ve had some breathing room financially.” A book would also allow her to tell her own story. In the meantime, Lagle offered to help Boyer get on her feet in Georgia: She paid the young woman five dollars an hour to type up research notes for their future project.

Amber playing.

3.

Easter was just around the corner, and Amber was finally old enough to enjoy it. Boyer, who after staying with Lagle for a while had gotten an apartment in the town of Carrollton, wanted to get the three-year-old a pretty Easter basket full of treats. She also wanted to get Amber new shoes and hair ribbons to match a dress that Joan Resch had sent from Ohio. Boyer needed money to pay for the presents, which was why, on April 14, 1992, she was at Lagle’s office, doing her secretarial work.

A few days prior, Amber had hit her head on a curb after scrambling out of her car seat. She was a “really active kid,” Lagle recalled, always running and falling and bumping into things. She was hard to control, headstrong like her mom. When she developed a goose egg after the curb incident, Boyer called her adoptive mother. Just keep an eye on it, Joan Resch said. If Boyer saw any strange behavior—nausea, vomiting, that kind of thing—then she should take Amber to a doctor. A day later she was fine and back to playing in the yard as usual. Nothing to worry about. The goose egg would heal.

Boyer didn’t want to take Amber to work with her; she knew she’d get more done at Lagle’s office without her daughter along. Her boyfriend, a man named David Herrin, offered to look after Amber at his trailer just outside town. Boyer and Herrin had been dating for a few months. He had a daughter Amber’s age. Boyer’s last memory of Amber alive was watching the toddler settle into Herrin’s lap, a book in her tiny hands.

Work was uneventful. Boyer finished the assignments Lagle had given her, said goodbye to her boss, and got in her car to go home. She’d just pulled out of the driveway when, back inside the office, Lagle got a phone call from Herrin.

“I can’t get Amber up,” he said. The little girl was unconscious.

Lagle assumed that Herrin was exaggerating. “Don’t worry, Christina’s on her way home. She’ll be there soon,” Lagle told him.

When Boyer arrived, Amber was unresponsive. Boyer and Herrin loaded the little girl into the car. While Herrin drove, Boyer gave Amber CPR. She’d learned how at a parenting class in Carrollton. As she pressed against her daughter’s chest, she was terrified of breaking her. Amber didn’t wake up.

Boyer worried that the authorities might take her baby away at the hospital—she knew how quickly that could happen. She yelled at Herrin to stop the fucking car at a pay phone. She always called Lagle when she was in a bad way. Boyer was hysterical as she told Lagle what was wrong and asked what she should do and what if she hurt Amber and why wouldn’t David drive faster? Lagle told Boyer to take her daughter to the emergency room and promised to meet her there.

Amber was pronounced dead at the hospital. Boyer told me she began sobbing when she heard the news. The hospital staff noticed that Amber had bruising on her face and body, so they called the police and child services. The police arrested Herrin because he’d been at the trailer with Amber. They also took Boyer in for questioning. In the police car, her mind wouldn’t stop whirling. “I know now that I was crazy, but at the time I kept asking the officer driving if the hospital would put the covers over Amber, because she gets cold at night and the hospital was already cold,” Boyer told me.

Boyer wanted Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” played at Amber’s wake, but she didn’t get a say. By then she was behind bars: Boyer was arrested shortly after police questioned her.

Christina Boyer’s last memory of her daughter alive was watching the toddler settle into David Herrin’s lap, a book in her tiny hands.

It appeared that Amber had died from some sort of blunt physical trauma. Law enforcement reasoned that it may have happened before Boyer went to work. Maybe it was the fall onto the curb or a beating that Boyer wouldn’t admit to; sometimes internal injuries progress slowly. Or maybe Boyer just hadn’t gotten Amber to the hospital fast enough, as a good mother should. One of the marks on the toddler was a long welt across her face. Detectives who searched Boyer’s home found a belt in a closet. They brought it in, and the medical examiner held it up next to . Someone snapped a photo, which would later be submitted into evidence.

It was the kind of detail that Jack Bell, Carroll County’s sheriff at the time, seemed to relish describing to the public. “Her little body was so bruised all over, you couldn’t tell it was the same child,” he said at one point. Bell was up for reelection, and he touted his commitment to getting Boyer convicted as evidence of his dedication to his job. (Bell died in 2004, three years after Carroll County named a detention facility in his honor.)

Boyer was dismayed. She believed that Herrin was to blame for Amber’s death. When they’d first arrived at the hospital, he kept apologizing to her. “Sorry for what?” Boyer shouted at him. Had he been abusive? Had Boyer missed the signs that her daughter was in danger? She felt responsible for that, at least. “I was the catalyst,” Boyer told me. “I brought David into our lives, and had I not done that, Amber would be alive.”

Herrin maintained his innocence. His legal team claimed that Amber’s death must have been the result of abuse by Boyer. For her part, Boyer admitted she wasn’t a perfect mother, but she maintained that she had never done anything to seriously hurt Amber, much less kill her.

Amber was buried in her pink Easter dress. The funeral was paid for with donations from the residents of Carrollton and was open to the public. Crowds of people came to say goodbye to a little girl most of them never knew. The authorities allowed Boyer a closed room at the memorial, out of the public’s view. She wasn’t permitted to go to the grave site.

When I connected with her 27 years later, Boyer had still never seen where Amber was buried. If she ever got out of prison, she told me, she’d go straight to the cemetery. All she wanted to do was put flowers on the grave.

Amber died in 1992.

4.

A grand jury indicted Boyer for murder, aggravated assault, and cruelty to children. She was accused of repeatedly striking Amber in the head and abdomen. Though her loved ones believed Boyer was innocent, much of Carroll County did not. Local residents were deeply shaken by Amber’s death. “My body felt numb as I tried to imagine the horror that this innocent child must have felt as her own mother allegedly participated in her cruel and violent death,” read one letter to the editor. “It offends me greatly to know that part of my tax money is going to defend and house heathens in nice, new, air-conditioned buildings as punishment for [such] heinous crimes as this.”

Many people following the story believed that Boyer had a guilty profile. It wasn’t just that she was a young, poor, unmarried outsider, or that she had been accused of abusing Amber. Police knew that one of Boyer’s neighbors made sex tapes and paid women to participate. Boyer needed money and appeared in one of them dancing topless. In another, she sat next to the neighbor on a couch while they watched porn together. Halfway through the scene, Amber toddled into the room wearing nothing but a diaper. Boyer jumped up and roughly delivered Amber into another room, where she spanked her. In the lead-up to her trial, this information made the local news. On top of all her other perceived failings, Boyer was labeled a slut.

Then there were the phone calls, more than 40 in all. Back in Ohio, before Boyer moved, child services was contacted repeatedly about Amber’s safety. Boyer insisted that her then husband was to blame: He would report her to the authorities to punish and assert his control over her. Nothing seemed to have materialized from the reports. Still, they didn’t look good—they were strikes against Boyer’s character. So was her history with telekinesis. In May 1993, just over a year after Amber’s death, while Boyer’s legal fate was still pending, Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment about her. It featured Roll saying that he was certain of Boyer’s powers.

Unsolved Mysteries attracted the attention of a man named John Riggle. He was an unmarried retiree in Texas living off social security. After learning about Boyer on TV, he took an almost pathological interest in her case. He wrote to Boyer telling her that he believed she was innocent and that he wanted to help free her. She welcomed his optimism and the correspondence.

They began trading letters, talking as much about themselves—how they spent their time, what they believed in, what they wanted for the future—as they did about her pending case. Boyer told Riggle that if she ever got out of prison, she wanted to get a college degree. “I haven’t been here in jail so long that I forgot there’s good people in the world,” she wrote. “It’s just that none of them seem to exist in Georgia.” She told him about how other women tried to beat her up and intimidate her into staying in her bunk. She wrote about how much she liked to sing; about the coconut lotion her cell mate, who had just been released, left behind for her; about how in the winter the heating system broke and all the inmates nearly froze, and in the summer there was no air-conditioning. “Seems like they want to drive me crazy in here,” Boyer said. “The papers are real good at printing lies. Boy, I wish I could write an article which they’d print telling people what this place is really like.”

Riggle packed up his things and drove in a camper van from Texas to Georgia. He parked near the county jail where Boyer was being held and stayed put. He visited her nearly every week. Boyer welcomed his help but found him strange. Riggle looked unkempt and unwell, with disconcertingly long fingernails and oily hair. But his commitment to her was stalwart, and she was lonely and bereft. “In the beginning,” Boyer said, “I really thought he would be a lot of help. He tirelessly went about trying to find all the information he could.”

When he wasn’t at the jail, Riggle began writing a book about Boyer’s case, which he tentatively called Time for the Truth. (One of the chapters was titled “Phony Autopsy Report”—the book has never been published.) Riggle acted as a shadow advocate, pursuing a parallel line of inquiry to Boyer’s attorney. He reviewed hearing transcripts and drew up time lines surrounding Amber’s death. Riggle got his hands on Amber’s autopsy and told Boyer that it said the blood found in the little girl’s brain was “fresh.” To his eye, that suggested the blow that killed her must have happened shortly before she died. “I tell you right now,” Boyer wrote to him once, “the only evidence I am aware of is there are suddenly a lot of people I never met crawling out of the woodwork to say what a terrible mother I was.”

Boyer was aware that Riggle was an amateur. “The problem is he considered himself another Perry Mason,” she told me. Sometimes she got the sense that he might be bending his understanding of the law to suit his interpretation of her case. “Please relate the facts and situation to me as closely as you can,” she wrote to him. “Don’t flower them up because if it turns out things are what they appeared, or don’t work out the way you figured, I don’t want to get my hopes up only to have them crushed.” The content of her letters vacillated from hopefulness to reverie to fatalism and back again. “I guess I’ll end this letter now,” she signed off a missive. “No sense spreading pain like peanut butter.”

Eventually, Riggle asked Boyer to marry him. He said that once she was free, she could live off his social security. Boyer didn’t think of Riggle that way. She certainly didn’t find him attractive. He’d once donned a suit to impress her on a visit, and while she was touched, “he looked like he’d just climbed out of a casket.” Still, Boyer felt so alone, and he’d done so much work on her behalf, that she considered his proposal. “I was desperate and willing to take any help I could get,” she told me.

He became pushier and pushier with the marriage question. “He would tell me if I didn’t marry him he’d take all the information he’d gathered and throw it away,” Boyer said. He tried to convince her that no one else would help her like he had, like he would. Still, she couldn’t go through with a loveless marriage. In a letter, she told him no.

In response, Riggle mailed Boyer the photos of Amber’s autopsy. She had never wanted to see them. The images were unspeakable. She took them to her counselor, who turned them over to the prison warden. Boyer barred Riggle from visiting her or sending her mail. They never spoke again. Within a few months, he was dead. Turned out, he’d been sick all along.

“I haven’t been here in jail so long that I forgot there’s good people in the world,” Boyer wrote. “It’s just that none of them seem to exist in Georgia.”

Boyer’s lawyer was a court-appointed attorney from Marietta named Jimmy Berry. “He was supposed to be this jam-up lawyer, some hot shot who really knew his stuff,” Boyer told me. She remembered him telling her that he would take her case all the way, help her prove her innocence. Boyer was grateful.

According to his invoice, Berry visited Boyer four times over the two and a half years that she awaited trial. He logged 126 hours on the case, only 17 of which were for court preparation—the rest were for time spent before a judge. He invoiced the state for a total of $6,897.30. Records show that, at the time, Berry was also working on a second high-profile death penalty case elsewhere in Georgia: He was defending an attorney accused of hiring a hitman to murder his wife, who was shot in the head in front of her two young sons. (The attorney was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Berry did not respond to my interview requests.)

According to Boyer, Berry was hard to get ahold of. Sometimes she called and wrote him letters and didn’t hear back. She wondered why it was taking so long for her case to go to trial. Herrin, too, was still behind bars, awaiting his day in court.

Finally, her trial was scheduled for October 31, 1994. In the days leading up to it, Berry arranged for Boyer to take a polygraph test. She passed, which she thought boded well. But the next day, Berry came to see her and said that going to trial was a bad idea. As Boyer remembers the conversation, Berry emphasized that, even without clear-cut evidence, the case against her was just too strong: the photo of Amber’s face next to the belt, the prior accusations of abuse, the fact that she hadn’t taken Amber to the hospital when the toddler hit her head, Boyer’s checkered personal history. And if she was found guilty, Berry warned, Boyer would likely be executed.

Berry suggested that she consider taking something called the Alford plea. An oddity of U.S. criminal law based on a 1970 Supreme Court decision, it allows a defendant to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence, often as a means of avoiding capital punishment. The Alford plea would mean life in prison, but it would keep Boyer from being strapped into Georgia’s electric chair.

Boyer was stunned. How could she plead guilty to killing her daughter? But Berry, she recalled, was adamant: If she didn’t want to die, she should follow his advice. “The being dead didn’t scare me,” she told me, “it was dying by the electric chair that did.”

Soon after, Boyer stood before a judge and took the Alford plea. She hadn’t consulted any loved ones; no one who supported her was in the courtroom. She was also taking antipsychotics, antidepressants, and sleep aids to help her cope with her grief. Boyer pled guilty to murder by “maliciously causing … cruel and excessive physical pain” and “failing to seek proper medical attention.” She also pled guilty to aggravated assault. Berry told the judge that while he believed his client was innocent, the plea was the best choice for her.

“When I signed my name to that paper,” Boyer told me, “I was signing away my life.” She had just turned 25.

5.

Boyer was transferred to Pulaski State Prison, a newly opened detention facility for women. She was on more drugs than ever to help her cope. What would have been Amber’s fourth birthday passed, then Christmas. The milestones tore Boyer apart. Lagle wrote and came to visit, as did Roll. Boyer was also in contact with her adoptive mother. But there was little anyone could do for her. Other inmates called her a baby killer. Would this last forever?

Herrin’s trial began in late January 1995. A medical examiner testified that Amber’s cause of death was a head injury that would have produced symptoms almost as soon as it occurred. Herrin, though, testified that Amber was fine until he found her passed out and “pale as a ghost.” He ran to a neighbor’s to use a phone because the trailer didn’t have one that worked. Herrin called Lagle’s office but not 911. “It didn’t even cross my mind,” he said.

Herrin described Boyer as abusive, negligent, and selfish. The defense made a point of bringing up the belt that was photographed next to Amber’s face after her death.

“Where in Christina Boyer’s apartment did you find that?” a lawyer asked.

“It was found hanging from the doorknob of her room door,” a detective on the stand replied.

“And did you look in David Herrin’s trailer as well for a similar belt?”

“We did.”

“And you didn’t find a belt in his trailer that was in any way consistent with the bruises on the child’s face, did you?”

“No.”

Boyer, who still believed that Herrin was responsible for Amber’s death, agreed to testify against him. The defense emphasized to the jury that she had already taken the Alford plea. It also seized the opportunity to bring up her “telekinetic powers.” Boyer testified that she wasn’t sure what she could or couldn’t do with her mind when she was a teenager. “All I know is that my whole life was chaotic and it was very traumatic and I can’t explain anything that happened,” she said.

“Do those things still happen to you?” Herrin’s lawyer asked.

“No, sir,” she replied.

“So you can’t move things anymore?”

“No, things don’t happen around me anymore.”

“OK. So you can’t move the little yellow marker that I’ve put up there?” he said, referring to a highlighter.

“No, sir.”

“Well, during this cross-examination, feel if the spirit moves you, Ms. Boyer.”

It was mockery, not an invitation.

Herrin was acquitted of Amber’s murder. He was convicted on one count of cruelty to children and given 20 years in prison.

Other inmates called her a baby killer. Would this last forever?

Boyer’s adoptive mother and aunt began looking for a new lawyer, someone willing to reopen the case—a daunting prospect, given the Alford plea and the fact that no new evidence had come to light. Eventually, according to Boyer’s letters, they hired someone who seemed good enough. The lawyer familiarized himself with the case and started digging into possible legal strategies. A few months into his work, however, he was arrested and convicted of statutory rape. There went the money Boyer had for legal fees. She was back to square one.

She was denied parole in 1999, and again in 2007. Sometimes she wondered if it would’ve been better to die in the electric chair. Then, not long after her second parole denial, an attorney got in touch with her. His name was Richard Allen, and he believed that Boyer was innocent. He came to visit and told her as much. He was straightforward, which she liked. He seemed honest and committed. Most important, he would take the case —Boyer couldn’t afford his help otherwise. She felt as if God might be opening a window for her.

Allen believed that public opinion had been Boyer’s undoing. What if people could see her differently? A few days before Christmas 2007, Allen walked into Sue Horn’s office at the StarNews. Horn usually ran the paper with her husband, but he’d just taken another job. Shouldering the work alone, Horn was exhausted and looking forward to a planned vacation. Allen came in, careful not to drop the tall stack of documents he held in his arms. Horn’s face fell. What did he want?

Allen quickly went into detail about Boyer’s case—Horn knew of it, of course—recounting all the missteps that had occurred, all the ways justice had not been served. Maybe the paper could write about it, he suggested. Horn couldn’t wait for him to leave. “I’ll take a look,” she said, to placate him.

During her vacation, Horn reviewed the documents. She couldn’t believe what she was reading. Everything that could have seemed to have gone wrong for Boyer. Horn, too, became convinced of Boyer’s innocence. On January 20, 2008, she wrote a lengthy article in her paper under the headline “The Real Story of Christina Resch Boyer: Did a ‘Perfect Storm’ of Events Lead to a Life of Imprisonment?” Horn followed the article up with an op-ed. “Believe me,” she wrote, “I’m no tree hugging, Bambi loving, soft hearted woman who’s searching for a cause to make my life have meaning. I’ve got enough to do.” Horn continued, “Boyer is serving a life sentence plus twenty years for this death of her three year old daughter. Did she do it? Her lawyer told the judge no at her hearing. But, she sits in prison today. Boyer had no family and few friends, no money. But, it’s possible she can have justice. Read the story. Let me know.”

The article barely made a ripple in Carroll County. “I believe public opinion is that Boyer is where she should be, however one slices up the pie’s guilty pieces,” Horn recalled. “Murder or manslaughter? Who cares. Abuse or neglect? Doesn’t matter. Did she do it or the boyfriend? They are uninterested.” Still, Allen was preparing to petition on Boyer’s behalf, and she felt aloft at the idea of being free. Then one snowy day in March 2009, Allen had a heart attack and died. The petition for Boyer died along with him.

Boyer’s depression returned. So much hope followed by so much failure. So many people who promised to help and then, by their own fault or not, let her down.

6.

Four years after Allen’s death, Jan Banning came to Carroll County. He was a photographer from the Netherlands, and he wanted to shoot portraits of inmates in Pulaski Prison. He was documenting criminal-justice systems around the world; his photos were haunting testaments to inequities and the vast apparatuses that human beings create to punish one another. He found that while some countries he’d visited treated prisoners with a degree of dignity, America brutally dehumanized them. The country had one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, and many of the 2.2 million people behind bars had been placed there by draconian, discriminatory policies.

Boyer thought, Why not have my picture taken? She straightened her hair and did her makeup the day of the photo shoot. In the images Banning took, her eyes are soft, her complexion slightly pockmarked. Her lips shimmer, and her hair swoops stylishly across her forehead. She is clad in her khaki prison garb.

A video about the case that Jan Banning posted to YouTube.

Boyer liked Banning. He was warm and inquisitive. There was a spark between them—not romantic, something else. The more Banning learned about Boyer’s case, the more shocked and outraged he became. To his mind, she had suffered one of the worst losses a person can suffer, then been treated as if she were responsible for it. A few years after he took her photo, Banning wrote to Boyer through JPay, an email system used in many U.S. prisons. When she responded, she was forthcoming and vulnerable, as if writing in a diary. Boyer was glad to have someone to talk to, not unlike how she’d been with Riggle all those years ago. “What struck me,” Banning said, “is that she wrote back to me and expressed clear interest in how I was doing.” He’d expected someone who’d been in prison so long to be self-absorbed, and understandably so, but she wasn’t. “That somehow made it personal,” he said. “I became fascinated by her.”

Banning’s interest in Boyer’s case eventually started to take over his life. He acquired court documents and got in touch with Alicia Van Couvering, a film producer in Los Angeles who a few years before had been drawn to Boyer’s story and hoped to make a movie based on Roll’s book. There was also a German woman, Susan Weber, who’d come to Boyer’s cause after hearing about it on a podcast about paranormal activity, and a man named James Conrad, who once ran a telekinesis laboratory and who published a blog about Boyer. Banning connected with them all. He started a Dropbox folder where he organized the elements of her story. Her letters to Riggle had a file, as did the documents pertaining to Richard Allen, the reports from child services, and the autopsy of Amber’s body.

Banning felt like something of an investigator—he was positioning himself to do something about the injustice he documented. After so many years behind a camera lens, he wanted to leave a mark. “Why bother about one person?” he said, then invoked the spiritual notion that whoever saves a life saves the world. “I wish that was true,” Banning continued. “The obvious response, anyway, is: Why not?

He hatched a plan to spend an extended period of time in Georgia to work on the case. Money was an obstacle. He got in touch with Lagle, who was happy to hear that he was interested in the case. She said that she still loved Boyer, even though they weren’t in touch like they’d once been—time had passed, life had happened. Lagle had a spare apartment in the basement of her house, in a quiet, wooded area on the outskirts of Carrollton; she told Banning he was welcome to stay as long as he liked. After connecting with Banning, Lagle felt compelled to reach out to Boyer and make amends for the lapse in their friendship. Boyer was glad to have Lagle back in her life. (By then, both of her adoptive parents had died.)

In 2018, Banning visited Georgia several times. He went through the archives at the county clerk’s office, read old newspaper articles, made lists and charts of the various people involved in Boyer’s case: the sheriff, the cops, the medical examiners, the social workers, the nurses. He met with Horn, who in turn was inspired to write a new article. It was about how a foreign photographer was helping Boyer get the justice she deserved.

Banning found Amber’s grave and posted directions to it on Dropbox, just in case they might one day be of use. He took a photo of the headstone, capturing the light such that the block appeared to be glowing, as if lit from within. He printed the photograph and sent it to Boyer, who wept when she saw it. To her it looked like God himself were illuminating the grave; having become deeply religious in prison, she thought that Banning was heaven-sent.

Banning asked Boyer if he could share her emails with him on his personal website, where he’d already posted his photos of her. “I would be VERY appreciative,” she wrote back. “Although you yourself may not be able to help me, the more people that know about my situation the better.” Banning posted the emails and included Boyer’s address, if people wished to send notes of encouragement. Letters and postcards began to arrive from around the world.

7.

Everyone interested in Boyer’s case has an origin story. In a way, mine begins in childhood. My parents are criminal defense attorneys, and when I was growing up, they had a home office. “Markham and Read,” my brother and I would answer the phone, like tiny secretaries. My brother learned how to accept a call from a federal prison (press five) by the time he was in kindergarten. I was pen pals with one of my parents’ clients, a man named Michael, who had orchestrated the largest shipment of hashish ever seized by federal authorities. In our house, even O.J. Simpson was likely innocent. I was taught to see the best in people and to root for the underdog.

I first learned about Boyer in 2017, when I was asked by a magazine to write the introduction to a photo essay of Banning’s work. In an interview, Banning evangelized about a woman in Georgia who he believed had been wrongfully convicted of killing her daughter. Maybe, he suggested, I could write about her. I told Banning that, at the very least, I was interested in learning more. He quickly followed up with details.

“It was hard to decide what to send,” he wrote in an email, “as I don’t want to inundate you with documentation. I have tons, but let me start ‘quietly.’” He attached a summary of the case that he’d put together himself, and another document containing excerpts from the transcript of Boyer’s sentencing. He included a link to the page on his website about Boyer’s story. “If you’d like to receive more,” he wrote, “I can send it to you immediately.”

I wasn’t the first person Banning had approached. He’d contacted several other journalists, as well as filmmakers, forensic and medical experts, and Georgia lawmakers, asking all of them to look into the case. “I figured that if people can be tried by media, why not try to exonerate her by media?” he said. He’d launched a Facebook group dedicated to gaining Boyer’s freedom. When some people didn’t take to the idea as enthusiastically as he did, Banning was annoyed. He told me that he’d worked in media for years. “I know a good story when I see it,” he insisted.

In December 2017, Boyer was up for parole. Her supporters, including Banning, arranged for dozens of letters of support to be submitted on her behalf. Boyer’s request was denied. Banning promised to continue agitating to get more attention focused on her case. Maybe he could even raise funds to hire her a new lawyer. “When we come to prison,” Boyer once wrote to Banning, “they drill it in our head that our behavior will play a big part in deciding if we are paroled out.” She did Bible study, she took college classes, she worked as an orderly. “I don’t just follow these rules b/c I am choosing the path of least resistance in prison, but b/c I chose to be a decent person in spite of where I am. It’s kind of a kick in the teeth to find out that it doesn’t matter to anyone though.”

Three months after Boyer’s failed parole bid, Banning was back in the Netherlands when he received word from a contact at Pulaski that Boyer had slit her own throat. She was alive and under medical watch in solitary confinement. For the time being, she was prohibited from speaking to anyone on the outside.

To Banning, the incident underlined the urgency of Boyer’s case. The wrongness of it all was like clear-burning fuel. He had big plans, including a book about Boyer’s life—the fourth such text someone had pledged to write about her. (Only Bill Roll’s has been published.) He was also raising funds, hoping they might help Boyer’s legal situation.

Some of the money raised by Boyer’s supporters went to retain Victoria Smith, a longtime parole lawyer in Georgia. She explained that the approach to Boyer’s previous requests for early release—she’d been denied again in 2018—was commendable but perhaps misguided. By Smith’s rough calculation, each parole-board member—five would hear the case—had an average of about three minutes to look through a file before making a decision. A short, compelling summary of Boyer’s case might go further than an onslaught of letters of support. The good news was that the board had agreed to reconsider the case in just one year. Shorter increments between reviews meant that the board could be getting closer to allowing for a prisoner’s release.

In our house, even O.J. Simpson was likely innocent. I was taught to see the best in people and to root for the underdog.

In January 2019, Banning wrote me an excited email with more good news: A group of Georgetown undergraduate students would be taking on Boyer’s case as part of a class. Banning had read about the course online and discovered that it was instrumental in freeing a man who had served 27 years for a murder he didn’t commit. He had contacted the professor immediately. The professor, Marc Morjé Howard, taught the course along with a childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who himself had been wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years. In teams of three or four, Howard and Tankleff’s students would spend their spring semester in “Making an Exoneree” researching a case and shooting a short documentary about it. “Remember that they are undergraduates, not law students,” Howard wrote in a message to Banning, “and this project does not involve direct legal representation.”

A team of three young women—Sarah Jackmauh, Grace Perret, and Lizzie Porterfield—chose Boyer’s case from a pile of 70 options presented to the class. The students were fiery, optimistic, and progressive, and they were interested in the case’s feminist dimensions. Too often poor women—particularly those of color, but many white ones, too—land behind bars because of poverty. They make desperate choices under impossible conditions, or they can’t afford good legal representation. Low-income mothers are frequently cast as villains. As of 2014, some 40 percent of the women in the National Registry of Exonerations had been cleared of crimes involving children. The Georgetown students were eager to expose what they saw as a smear campaign against Boyer. They believed that she had been punished for who she was, not what she’d done.

Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield swiftly took to their research, treating it like a full-time job. They got themselves onto Boyer’s call list and began interviewing her weekly by phone. They divvied up tasks, spending hours poring over documents. They delved more deeply than anyone ever had into the dozens of calls about Amber’s welfare placed to child services in Ohio. Eventually, they would learn that the authorities had followed up on the reports and found nothing of concern. The students were thrilled; their findings seemed like proof that Boyer had been telling the truth about her ex using the calls to intimidate her.

In other instances, the students were disturbed by what they found. The people who looked at Amber’s body—doctors and police—seemed to have overstated any abuse she may have suffered. By the time she arrived at the ER, Amber was already dead. As happens with most corpses, her blood quickly stagnated and pooled inside her, leaving what to the poorly trained eye might look like a troubling network of bruises. Detectives initially accused Herrin of sodomizing Amber based on these natural patterns; they later retracted the claim.

Most puzzling to the Georgetown students was why Boyer’s lawyer had changed tactics so close to her trial date. They tried to reach Jimmy Berry, but he never got back to them. Had he wanted to avoid tarnishing his defense record if Boyer was found guilty and sentenced to death? Did he have other cases in Georgia that he preferred to focus on? Was there a general feeling in Carroll County, shared by people working on both sides of the case, that trying Boyer wasn’t worth the resources—significant for a rural locale—if she agreed to a plea deal instead? It seemed, too, like none of the details indicating that Boyer was a kind and competent mother made an impact on people’s perceptions of her—an audio tape from Christmas 1991, for instance, when Boyer called in to a charity radio show to ask for a doll for Amber, or the money she’d been saving to buy her daughter’s Easter basket.

After two months of research, the students scheduled a trip to Georgia during spring break. They’d be meeting with Boyer, Sue Horn, Jeannie Lagle, and others. Banning wouldn’t be there until the last day. They planned to grab a bite to eat with him at the airport.

I wanted to see Boyer’s many advocates in action, so I asked the young women if I could come report on their trip. “Yes!” they said in unison.

Christina Boyer and Amber

8.

Early on a Friday morning in March 2019, I met Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield at an Avis car-rental desk in the Atlanta airport. They had brought along video and audio equipment, their laptops, and copious notebooks filled with the details they’d amassed. They had several three-ring binders thick with meticulously tabbed and indexed documents. Jackmauh also had a bag stuffed with ski gear—they’d all cut spring vacation short to be here.

The students wanted to make it to Carrollton, an hour’s drive from Atlanta, before the county clerk’s office closed for the day. They had to make a pit stop at one point to talk to Banning and Smith on the phone. All three young women got into the back of their rental SUV, connected a cell phone to the vehicle’s Bluetooth audio system, and set up a video camera to film themselves while they took the call. Their class, I learned, required that they document their quest along with the details of Boyer’s case. They’d be getting B-roll of various sites—the trailer where Amber died, the hospital Boyer and Herrin took her to, Lagle’s house—and interviewing people on camera. Maybe they’d even find David Herrin, who’d been out of prison for several years.

The call from Banning and Smith came in. Smith, speaking to the students for the first time, was kind, professional, and frank. She thanked them for being Boyer’s advocates but emphasized that, as a group, they shouldn’t work at cross-purposes. Insisting that Boyer was innocent, criticizing the law-enforcement apparatus that put her behind bars, calling out lawyers in the case for being careerist at the expense of justice—all that could get back to the parole board. Smith was worried that the exoneration effort might derail Boyer’s chances for an early release. (In an interview, Smith told me more about those odds, noting that she had other clients the parole board was likely to find more sympathetic than Boyer, and with less compelling evidence against them.)

While it is possible to pursue exoneration and parole simultaneously, fighting for early release requires that a person take some degree of responsibility for their crime. Smith had already told Banning, in a message prior to the phone call, that she’d spoken to someone familiar with Boyer’s past parole bids who had “repeatedly emphasized that the sheer number of injuries, of child protective services reports, and of witness statements of firsthand observations of Christina abusing the child will make any attempt by us to assert Christina’s innocence counterproductive. Not only will the board members not buy it, we will lose credibility in our other assertions.” Boyer could not bear to say that she murdered her daughter, but perhaps she could take responsibility in a more nuanced sense—for having limitations as a young mother, say, or for making bad choices that put Amber in harm’s way.

One way or the other, Smith said, she really needed to talk to Boyer about the situation, and that was proving difficult. She still hadn’t been added to Boyer’s call list, and she seemed frustrated that Banning and the Georgetown students had. She asked that Banning prioritize the matter the next time he spoke with Boyer.

Banning had been stunned when Smith first told him about the potential conflict between parole and exoneration. To him it was another confounding aspect of the U.S. legal system. Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield agreed to tread lightly while interviewing people in Carroll County. They wouldn’t say that their goal was to get Boyer exonerated; they would say only that they wanted to shine a light on the case.

To that end, the students asked, could Banning please take down the information about them from his website? They didn’t want their names associated with a class called “Making an Exoneree.” What’s more, they pointed out, he called them law students, which they weren’t.

“You aren’t legal students?” Banning asked, surprised. (In the Netherlands, as in many European countries, students can earn law degrees as undergraduates.) He promised to take their names down right away.

After the call ended, the students sped down the highway toward the Carroll County clerk’s office. They made it before closing time. Inside, Perret announced the number of the file they needed.

“That the Boyer case?” the woman behind the desk asked. She knew just where to find the boxes. She wheeled them out, and the students pulled document after document, photographing any pages they didn’t already have in their binders. When it was time to go, we brought everything back to the desk.

“I guess we aren’t the first to come here looking through these boxes,” Perret said.

“Oh no,” said the clerk. People had been in and out over the years. Perret asked the woman what she thought of the case.

“You really want to know what I think?” the clerk said.

“Of course,” Perret replied.

“I think there’s not a bad enough place in hell for that woman after what she did to that little girl.”

Boyer could not bear to say that she murdered her daughter, but perhaps she could take responsibility in a more nuanced sense—for having limitations as a young mother, say.

The students had done a diligent and discerning job going through the case files, and they were cool and collected when talking to sources. I admired their fighting spirit and sometimes found myself forgetting that I wasn’t part of their team. It was also easy to lose sight of the fact that they were working on a class assignment that would come to an end that May.

Only when they went looking for David Herrin did their relative youth peek out. Their class had access to a private investigator, who had found Herrin’s address. The young women hemmed and hawed over what to do. Should they call first? Or would that spook him? Should they just go over there? But was that safe?

“I feel like if a bunch of young women showed up,” Porterfield said, pausing to look at me, a woman 15 years her senior, before continuing, “or youthful women, he wouldn’t be so intimidated.”

They decided to knock on his door. We pulled up to a sweet little cottage with a well-mowed lawn. Porterfield and I stayed in the car while Perret and Jackmauh walked up to the house. They knocked. Herrin—unmistakably him, based on the photographs and news clips we’d all seen—poked his head out the door. Perret and Jackmauh had called us and put us on speaker so that we could hear what transpired. They introduced themselves and asked if he’d be willing to talk.

“Better not,” Herrin said and closed the door.

The students were all jitters as they drove back down the dirt road that led to the highway. They hadn’t gotten anything, but they’d met him. Can you believe it? He was free, living his life in a house near a lake, while Boyer was still in jail. (My own attempts to contact Herrin later were unsuccessful.)

Jackmauh’s 22nd birthday happened to be during the trip, and we went out to dinner with Lagle at her favorite restaurant in town, a Hawaiian-themed place with an extensive pan-Asian menu and elaborate cocktails with colorful umbrellas. The waiters knew Lagle’s name, her favorite table, and her signature drink.

During the meal, Lagle admitted that she and Banning had had something of a falling out. He saw himself as Boyer’s savior, but Lagle felt that he’d just breezed into town and taken over.

“Men,” she said.

Their argument centered on the fact that Banning had taken Boyer’s personal journals to the Netherlands with him, so that he could photograph them in his studio. Lagle didn’t like that, even though Boyer had given him permission. (“It’s like nothing was ever secret in my life,” Boyer told me. “I feel like I need to be as transparent as possible for the people trying to help me.”) Still, Lagle believed it was a violation of privacy. According to her, after much back and forth, Banning exploded. He was staying at Lagle’s house when it happened, and they were downstairs in his apartment’s kitchen. He slammed a spoon he was holding into the sink. Banning said he was tired of hearing about how long Lagle had known Boyer. Lagle said she was tired of his self-importance.

“Do you know how many thousands of people will see these pictures?” Banning demanded.

Lagle wasn’t impressed by the prospect. Nor was she intimidated by that spoon. In her view, the journals were supposed to be waiting for Boyer when she got out of prison. They would help her finally write her book, the one she and Lagle had long ago planned together. At dinner, Lagle made a point of noting that she hadn’t finished the book herself. “That’s how much I respect her to make her own decisions,” she said.

The argument suggested that sometimes, somehow, helping a person whose life is on the line can become a zero-sum game. I asked her what it felt like to see people come in and out of Boyer’s life. “It’s always been that way,” Lagle said. “I’m the only person on the planet—on the planet!—who has been around all this time.”

The Georgia Department of Corrections wouldn’t grant the Georgetown students, or me, permission to visit Boyer in person, stating that she was “not eligible” to receive visitors. It provided no other details. Still, Boyer called several times a day to learn about the students’ progress, thanking them profusely each time. “Y’all are doing such a good job,” she said.

The students decided to find Amber’s grave and leave flowers on Boyer’s behalf. We loaded up in their SUV and put Boyer on Bluetooth so they could talk to her. She stayed on the line as we made our way across town. “It’s weird, in a way,” she said at one point, “because I have been here for so many years waiting for someone to care. I had friends who cared, don’t get me wrong, but they couldn’t do anything apart from care.” Now, with Banning and the Georgetown students and her parole attorney, “it’s like, things are finally moving. It’s hard to believe that there are really people out there working on my behalf.”

The final morning of the trip, before heading back to the airport, the students arranged a meeting with the former detective on the case, Mike Thomas, at his home. To their surprise, he also invited over his friend and longtime partner Detective Captain Mike Bradley, who had worked the case, too. Perret was carrying a tote that read “Fighting to End Rape Culture.” Before we went into the house, she turned it against her body so the message wouldn’t show. We settled into the living room with the two men, Thomas’s wife, and their teenage daughter.

“You all from the Innocence Project or something like that?” our host asked. No, no, the students assured him—they were just undergrads learning about the criminal-justice system and trying to shed light on Boyer’s case.

The locals talked for more than an hour. They described how they’d never get the image of that little girl’s body out of their minds. Thomas’s wife remembered the funeral, how many people were there. Wasn’t it strange, the students pointed out, that both Boyer and Herrin went to prison when it was never clear who did what—if anything—to Amber? The cause of death was never pinpointed, either. Both Thomas and Bradley said they felt like Herrin got a lesser conviction and a shorter sentence because Boyer had already submitted her Alford plea. Otherwise, they thought he probably would have been found guilty of murder.

“One of them was responsible,” Bradley said, leaning back into his chair. “The way I see it, both of them went to jail, and that’s justice.”

“I looked at her as more guilty,” Thomas said, “because she was her mother. She was the person on earth who was supposed to protect her.”

The Georgetown students on their way to visit Amber’s grave.

9.

Not long after they left Carroll County, the students got a call from Boyer. She was in tears. A parole consultant had come to see her to prep for her hearing. Boyer left the meeting with a misunderstanding: She thought that she would have to admit to hitting Amber on the head before she died. Boyer didn’t want to say that. Through sobs, she begged the students to contact Smith for her. The young women did so promptly. “We basically sat, listened, and tried to calm her down,” they wrote in an email to Smith, “reminding her that she doesn’t need to make an immediate decision right now and that it would be best to speak to you before she makes a concrete decision regarding how she’s going to approach the parole board. She wanted us to tell you that she’d like to speak with you over the phone as soon as possible.”

Smith, who was on Boyer’s call list by then, cleared up the confusion and also forwarded the email to Banning to keep him in the loop. Banning fired off an angry missive to the students. “I have a very high opinion of your activities but there is one thing I absolutely do not understand,” he wrote. “Is it really that hard to just cc me when sending those emails to Victoria? Do you have a reason not to trust me and my involvement? Maybe you can check with your professor Marc how he came to hear of her case in the first place?”

In our exchanges, Banning and I had talked at length about what informed his quest to free Boyer, why it mattered so much to him. We had talked less about what would happen if she ever won her freedom. In one conversation, he admitted that there could be a personal cost. “If she does get out, that will be very complicated for me, in the sense that, of course I will be happy,” Banning told me, “but what will I do? I’ve dedicated so much time to this, it’s become a part of my life.” In a later interview, he elaborated: “I don’t know what I can contribute if she doesn’t get out.” That scenario, Banning said, “is far worse.”

Often, while sitting in my office flipping through Bill Roll’s book about Boyer or her correspondence with John Riggles, perching on Jeannie Lagle’s couch or taking notes in Sue Horn’s parlor, I felt like I was brushing up against a sinister current of energy. True believers say it’s like that when you walk past a ghost. My stomach would go queasy. Maybe it was the grisly details of the case, or the peculiar attention Boyer attracted, or conflicted feelings about my own small role in her story, or something else entirely.

The laws of physics say it’s unlikely Tina Resch ever moved objects with her mind. Yet Christina Boyer does have the ability to draw people into her orbit and keep them there, at least for a while. They are certain they’re the ones, finally, to prove her innocence. And why not? The U.S. justice system—so unblind, so obtuse, so cruel—seems to demand intervention. Projects like Making a Murderer, true-crime podcasts, and internet forums for amateur detectives are all reactions to alarming trends, including the more than 2,500 exonerations documented since 1989, no doubt a small fraction of the total number of wrongful convictions on the books. Who doesn’t want the wheel of history to turn in the direction of what’s right? Who doesn’t want to play a role in breaking the back of a ruthless institution, to achieve a moral victory that carries a particular kind of democratic power?

So strong is this impulse, and so vast is the number of people the law has wronged, that journalists pitching stories about injustice—myself included—routinely hear some version of the same response: But what makes this case special? As a question of justice, all that should matter is whether Boyer is innocent. But if her case is “special,” it’s because so many people have decided that it is.

It’s nice, isn’t it—to believe? That a teenage girl can shatter a plate on the floor by force of sheer will. That a person’s hope can sustain them through endless disappointments. That in the end the truth will prevail. That bystanders with a conscience can set a grieving mother free. That there’s no harm, as Banning said, in trying.

What’s harder to face, and painful to believe, is that doing good can collide with the limitations of human nature, and that sometimes harsh systems just don’t yield.

All that should matter is whether Boyer is innocent. But if her case is “special,” it’s because so many people have decided that it is.

The students dressed up for the screening of their documentary about Boyer. So did Lagle, who flew in for the May 2019 event, held in a packed auditorium on the Georgetown campus. Lagle wore smart white slacks under a bright red trench coat. Banning couldn’t make it from Europe; he sent his regrets.

The plan was to patch Boyer in via one of the student’s cell phones; after the screening, Perret would carry the phone on stage and hold it up to the microphone so she could address the audience. Boyer was nearly breathless at the idea that so many people were there, eager to hear her story. She was also nervous, but Perret encouraged her. “Just speak from your heart,” she said. “Don’t worry, they just want to hear from you, no matter what you say.”

The event ran behind schedule, forcing Boyer to dial in several times. Every 15 minutes, she got disconnected—prison policy limits the time inmates get for a single call. Finally, it was her turn to speak. “This has been an incredibly humbling experience for me,” Boyer said in her remarks. “I can’t believe how many hours they worked. They worked more hours than any one of my attorneys did.” If she felt nervous, she didn’t show it. But when she talked about how much she missed Amber, she broke into tears. “Thank you all for coming tonight and for listening to my story,” she said.

Later that month, the Georgetown students took their final exams. Porterfield and Jackmauh graduated; Perret had another semester left but had already been accepted early into Georgetown Law School. Victoria Smith submitted Boyer’s latest parole application. It was summer, and then it was fall. Boyer’s parole decision was supposed to be announced in September, but the month came and went without news. October passed, then November. “I try to keep busy,” Boyer told me. She also prayed.

Finally, in early January, I heard from the Georgetown students that Boyer had been denied parole. At the time, they didn’t know why. Turns out, the parole board’s explanation was the same as before: “insufficient amount of time served to date given the nature and circumstances of your offenses(s).” Boyer would be eligible again in November 2020, but Smith was no longer on retainer. For the time being, she’d done all she could do.

Banning soldiered on, committing to several gallery exhibitions of his work on Boyer’s story. He was still planning a book, which would include Boyer’s written responses to the photos of her he’d taken. “I see her as a full collaborator,” he told me.

Meanwhile, Banning felt like the students had abandoned the case. They didn’t want him—or anyone—to think that; they talked about maybe finding an attorney to look over the files, someone who could assess Boyer’s options. They didn’t plan to share their documentary widely, not if it might conflict with Boyer’s future parole bid.

What did Boyer think? After I learned the parole news, I wrote her an email. She didn’t respond for several weeks, and I began to worry, remembering the time she’d cut her throat. When she finally replied, Boyer said that she was devastated, of course, but that she was also working hard to stay positive. “I’m trying to keep busy, keep focused on my future life outside of prison walls,” she wrote.

Plus, she’d gotten some surprising good news. “The same time I found out about the denial,” she wrote, “Jan [Banning] located my birth family!” Since then, she’d been in touch with her birth sister via phone and letters. Her mother, an addict, had died of kidney failure years before. “All I have left is a younger sister, her daughter, my niece and grand niece,” Boyer said. She was thrilled, particularly when she learned that she hadn’t been the only one searching. “It turns out my sister had been looking for me for years!” she said.

Once again, Boyer hoped that her life’s next chapter would be better than what came before. At the same time, an old, unknown chapter was opening wide. Members of her birth family joined the Free Tina Boyer Facebook group. “I just want to make a post and thank everybody for the love and support!” wrote her niece, whose name is Ashley. “My mother … has been looking for christina for years now. We are so blessed and lucky to now have her in our lives. I appreciate everything you guys have done to help her during her incarceration! I can see this page is so full of love for my aunt and it warms my heart. Me, my mother, and my daughter are excited to meet her❤❤.”

“That’s the latest twist to this crazy life of mine,” Boyer told me. Getting to know her newfound family helped her pass the time. It gave her something to look forward to. And who knew what kind of deliverance—of spirit or body—they might bring?


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“Your Honor, Can I Tell the Whole Story?”

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“Your Honor, Can I Tell the Whole Story?”

A murder in New Orleans, a trial that lasted less than a day, and the lives they entangled for the next three decades.

By Nick Chrastil

Published in partnership with The Lens.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 97


Nick Chrastil is a writer based in New Orleans. He has written for Slate, Roads & Kingdoms, ThinkProgress, The Lens, and other outlets.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Photographer: Akasha Rabut

Published in November 2019. Design updated in 2021.

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The address where Greggie Jones was killed, 4639 Wilson Ave.

The historian, in his analysis and description, is no longer a partisan. He has no stake in the outcome. He can now embrace the whole of the event, see it from all sides. What impresses him most are the latent limitations within which everyone involved was obliged to act; the inescapable boundaries of action; the blindness of the actor—in a word, the tragedy of the event.

—Bernard Bailyn

It is not a heroic tale. It is about New Orleans.

—Kent B. Germany

1. The Crime

Guns were on everyone’s mind. In January 1987, New Orleans’s Times-Picayune ran a story in its lifestyle section with a picture of a hand gripping a revolver, hovering over a map of the city. The headline posed a question: “Should You Get a Gun?”

A sense of unease overwhelmed New Orleans—journalist Nicholas Lemann, a distressed native, lamented that the city’s “supreme confidence about itself seemed to be truly shaken.” White people had left New Orleans in droves after Ruby Bridges desegregated William Frantz Elementary in 1960. Many of them went to first-ring suburbs like Metairie, where former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke would eventually win a statehouse seat. The oil bust had decimated the economy. Louisiana’s unemployment rate was the highest in the nation—one in eight people were out of work. To save money, New Orleans mayor Sidney Barthelemy laid off 1,100 municipal employees and put the rest on a four-day workweek. The war on drugs had replaced the war on poverty. Mandatory punishment for distribution of heroin was a life sentence. To relieve overcrowding at Orleans Parish Prison, the sheriff set up tents in a nearby park to serve as makeshift cells.¹ Neighbors complained that police radios were interfering with their TV signals.

[1] In 1974, the jail housed an average of 800 prisoners per day. By 1987, the number was up to 3,800.

The Times-Picayune’s gun feature offered readers advice for dealing with their existential anxiety, courtesy of the New Orleans Police Department. “Males, females, young people, the elderly, they’re all talking about guns,” an NOPD officer told the newspaper. “There are a lot of ladies who say they’re in a position they’ve never been in in their life. They’re frightened in their houses, they’re frightened in their cars.” The paper explained where people could attend weapons-training courses. A sidebar with a list of “Things to Consider” encouraged potential gun owners to ask themselves, “Are you committed to using a gun? Can you shoot someone?” If a reader wanted to buy a firearm, the police recommended any name-brand .38 revolver “because it is simplest to load and use, and gets the job done.”

Susan Wolfe, a resident of the affluent Lakeview neighborhood, had a .38 Smith & Wesson blue steel snub-nose five-shot revolver. A medical student at Louisiana State University, Wolfe came home on the afternoon of April 28, 1987, to find her back window open. Someone had climbed inside and thrown her belongings about. In addition to her JVC portable radio, the intruder had taken her gun. The police who came to the scene recovered no physical evidence left by the perpetrator. At Wolfe’s request, a crime-lab unit dusted for fingerprints. None were found.

“Are you committed to using a gun? Can you shoot someone?” 

That night, Wolfe’s stolen .38 was used to shoot a man named Greggie Jones. Police found Jones in the yard of his house at 4639 Wilson Ave. in the neighborhood of New Orleans East. He was wearing a brown checked shirt and a hat. His bicycle was lying nearby. He’d been shot twice and was gasping for breath. One bullet had entered the back side of his right wrist and shattered the tip of the radius bone. A second bullet had entered the right side of his chest. It went through his heart and into his spine. An officer bandaged Jones’s chest wound, then an ambulance drove him two and half miles to Methodist Hospital. There, Jones was pronounced dead.

Back on Wilson Avenue, police took statements from Jones’s neighbors, all potential eyewitnesses. Lester Hill said that he was sitting on his steps across the street when he heard gunshots. Hill saw a gray car, possibly a Ford Pinto, parked in front of Jones’s home, and a black man wearing a beige shirt and dark pants. The man was carrying a gun, which Hill described as “shiny in color.” The suspect walked from the yard and got into the passenger seat of the gray car. Another man was behind the wheel. The pair drove away, turning onto a dirt road that led to the Pecan Grove Apartments on Chef Menteur Highway. Hill did not know either of the men, but he told the police that he would be able to identify the one with the gun.

Jones’s brother Eddie lived next door, and he’d also heard shots. When he looked outside, he saw his brother lying on the ground. Down the street, about a block away, Eddie saw a black man heading toward the highway. Kenneth Walker, who lived at 4648 Wilson Ave., said that he heard shots but didn’t see anyone or anything of note.

The most important witness would prove to be Jones’s live-in girlfriend, Vanessa Causey. She wasn’t home when he was shot. She told police that she’d gone out to look for Jones earlier in the evening and was walking back when she heard gunfire. As she approached the house, Causey saw a black man in a dark shirt and beige hat leaving the yard. She claimed that she recognized the man: His name was Willie, and he’d gotten into an argument with Jones earlier that day. Causey didn’t provide the suspect’s full name.

She described Willie as approximately five foot six and 185 pounds, “walking toward her direction,” according to the police report. “After that, unknown.”

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New Orleans Parish Prison, where Erin Hunter was held after his arrest.

2. The Cop

Donald Hoyt was the homicide detective first assigned to investigate the murder. In his supplemental report, written the day after the crime, he noted that it was obvious “that the victim had been dealing in drugs.” Inside Jones’s house, Hoyt found evidence of crack cocaine use: freebasing pipes and baking powder. Police also removed 16 joints and two syringes from Jones’s clothes when they arrived at the crime lab to be catalogued as evidence. The autopsy report noted that Jones had “old and recent venipunctures of the right arm.” When the toxicology test came back, it showed that Jones had cocaine and angel dust in his system.

A black man who did drugs had been shot, probably by another black man, possibly because of drugs—that was about as far as Hoyt got with his investigation. A month after he was assigned to the case, he retired. He hadn’t been able to locate the witnesses for follow-up interviews. The case was going cold when it was handed off to detective Jacklean Davis.

[2] In 1973, a black officer filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in NOPD’s staffing practices. At the time, NOPD had fewer than 100 black officers on a force totaling some 1,300. After a settlement was reached, white officers filed a reverse-discrimination suit.

Davis was an anomaly: She was the first black female homicide detective in NOPD history.² On her first day in the division, some of her colleagues put dog shit in her desk drawer. They glued her belongings to her desk and hung up pictures of Aunt Jemima. “Everybody from the South knew who Aunt Jemima was,” Davis said in an interview. “She’s considered a house nigger.” Once, when Davis’s daughter called the office looking for her, she was advised, “Nigger, don’t call anymore. That bitch doesn’t work here.”

Davis’s life experiences up to that point may have helped her endure the cruelties of her fellow murder police. A profile in Ebony magazine recounted her difficult biography: When she was three years old, her father died in a car accident. A few years later, Davis, along with her younger brother, went to live with her great-aunt and uncle. The aunt was a sex worker who ran a boarding house for merchant marines on Baronne Street in New Orleans’s Central City, not far from the Mississippi River. The uncle was a sailor who was home only a few weeks out of the year. Starting when Davis was eight years old, he used those respites to molest her. She lived in constant fear when he was around. When she was nine or ten, Davis was also raped by one of her aunt’s boarders. She didn’t tell anyone at the time. “I enclosed all the guilt,” she told Ebony.

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Jacklean Davis, as featured in Ebony magazine. (Via Google Books

When she was 14, her abusive uncle died of cancer. Three years later, her aunt, a consistent source of love and support, passed away. Around the same time, Davis gave birth to her daughter.

Like opposing magnetic forces to the hardships of her life, ambition and persistence propelled Davis forward. She graduated high school and enrolled in college. She got a job as a transit clerk. She took the civil service exam and failed. She took it a second time and failed again. She took it twice more and failed. On her fifth try she passed and went to the police academy. In 1979, she started as a patrol officer. Davis worked her way up to the city’s vice squad, where her childhood observations of the habits and postures of sex workers made her valuable as an undercover operative. She claimed that a magistrate judge once said to her, “With your ass, I’d solicit you.”

From vice, Davis moved over to narcotics and eventually to rape investigations. “Each rape case was like a counseling session to me,” she told Ebony. Davis excelled—she had a 100 percent clearance rate by the time she left the division—but her record didn’t guarantee respect when she transferred to homicide at the age of 30. Once again she had something to prove. “Every case that I got, I was looked at under a microscope,” Davis told a Knight-Ridder reporter. “My biggest accomplishment, I consider, is not cracking under pressure.”

Davis was among the cops who responded to the scene of Greggie Jones’s murder, but there is no record of her speaking with witnesses that night. She officially took over the case on July 1, 1987, a few months into her homicide tenure. She reached out to the key witnesses, including Lester Hill, who’d said the night of the murder that he could identify the man he saw carrying a gun. Davis couldn’t find Hill, and he was never interviewed again. On July 9, however, Vanessa Causey finally answered her phone.

According to Davis, Causey reiterated that she knew the man she’d seen leaving the shooting, the one she’d called Willie. His actual name was Erin Hunter. “Causey stated [that on] the night of the fatal shooting incident, she was very traumatized and couldn’t remember Hunter’s name,” Davis wrote in her case report. Causey reportedly told Davis that she’d run into Hunter several days after the killing. He’d asked her where she was living because his girlfriend wanted to get in touch with her. Causey said that she gave Hunter a fake address and, fearing for her life, fled the city for a couple of months, which was why detective Hoyt hadn’t been able to reach her. According to Davis’s report, Causey had “agonized over the fact of Hunter not being arrested for the murder.” Now she was ready to talk.

Davis wrote in her report that, after her conversation with Causey, she searched for Hunter’s name in the NOPD’s computer system. She discovered that he’d been arrested that very morning for possession of stolen property. Tipped off by a man who claimed to have sold Hunter a stolen television set, cops had shown up at Hunter’s door with a search warrant. When no one answered, they entered through a front window, and the officers found Hunter in the bathroom. (Hunter told me that he willingly let the cops in.) They handcuffed him and recovered the stolen TV, along with several guns. One was a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver. Records showed that it belonged to Susan Wolfe and had been reported stolen in April.

A report from the NOPD ballistics division dated July 15—less than a week after Davis spoke to Causey—states that Wolfe’s gun fired the bullets found in Jones’s body. The next day, Davis met with Causey and showed her a photographic lineup. Causey identified Hunter as the man she’d seen at the crime scene. That evening, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Hunter, who had made bail after being detained for possessing stolen goods. The new charge was murder, and it landed him behind bars indefinitely.

Davis hadn’t interviewed Hunter. She never would. When asked why during the reporting of this article, she said that she didn’t often speak to homicide suspects. “I didn’t have to talk to him,” she said of Hunter. “The crime lab said he was found in possession of a weapon used in a homicide, so it was his obligation to tell his defense attorney how he came to have that gun.”

With an eyewitness and a ballistics match, it seemed likely that Davis would clear the case, continuing her unlikely run as one of New Orleans’s best detectives. The investigation into Jones’s murder also happened to connect to one of Davis’s earlier successes. When she was a rape detective, she helped put a man named Melvin Williams away for 50 years. Williams, for his part, maintained his innocence. The victim in the case was Vanessa Causey.

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Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse, where Hunter was tried.

3. The Witness

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse stands on the corner of Tulane Avenue and S. Broad Avenue, its southeastern facade bearing a quote from John Adams: “This is a government of laws, not of men.” In that building, in 1987, determinations of guilt and innocence were forged in a dark furnace of history as unwieldy as it was punitive. The institutions meant to ensure due process, conferring legitimacy with badges, robes, reports, dockets, legalese, and conspicuous whiteness, were undermined by incompetence, disinterest, and contempt. Truth was replaced with convenience, investigation with expediency. Lives, particularly black ones, were often treated as expendable.

Causey entered the courthouse on September 16. She’d led a hard life. In addition to the alleged rape, she’d struggled with addiction. According to several friends and acquaintances whom investigators later interviewed—some of whom also spoke to me for this story—finding ways to procure drugs was the organizing principle of Causey’s life. She set up people for Jones to rob, including drug dealers. “She was that type of person, when she get high, she don’t give a damn,” a person close to Causey told me on condition of anonymity. “‘Get whatever I gotta get to get high, get mine the best way I can.’ And that was her motto, which was a bad concept.”

When Causey appeared before the grand jury, there were new details in her story, ones she hadn’t told Davis or the cops who’d responded to the scene of Jones’s murder. She testified, for example, that she’d seen a man in a white cap get into a gray Ford Pinto, like the one that Lester Hill, Jones’s neighbor who’d never been re-interviewed, claimed to have seen. Causey told the jury that at first she couldn’t see the man’s face, but when she did, she knew it was Hunter. His mother lived in her neighborhood, and he had previously dated her sister, who Causey claimed once heard Hunter describe himself as a hit man. (There is no record of the police interviewing Causey’s sister.)

Causey also said that Hunter sold cocaine and had once been robbed at a local hotel. That incident, Causey implied, could explain his motive for murdering her boyfriend: Jones knew who was responsible for the robbery but wouldn’t tell Hunter, because Jones didn’t think it was his place to get involved.

Causey said that she’d spoken “casually” with the police on the night of the murder but didn’t identify Hunter. “They asked me did I see who done it, and I told them no, because I didn’t see him shoot him,” she said. “I didn’t want to think he did it.” Why, then, had she given the police the name Willie? Causey said that she’d heard someone call Hunter that before. Causey also claimed that she’d contacted an investigator at the district attorney’s office, a man named Anthony Radosti, with information about the murder, then called detective Davis. Radosti’s name wasn’t in Davis’s case report; in a letter sent several years later to Hunter, Radosti would say that he had no recollection of being involved. Meanwhile, Causey’s testifying that she had called Davis contradicted the detective’s own account of initiating contact on July 9.    

Truth was replaced with convenience, investigation with expediency. Lives, particularly black ones, were often treated as expendable.

“Even though I didn’t see him fire the shots,” Causey told the grand jury, referring to Hunter, “it was in my heart, you know, that he did it, and I got on my knees and I asked God, I said, ‘Well, if he’s not the person who did it, remove these feelings from my heart,’ you know? And those feelings haven’t been removed, and I knew God would have answered my prayers, because I have faith and trust in Him.”

The grand jury ruled to indict.

Hunter was in lockup at Orleans Parish Prison and assigned a lawyer from the woefully underfunded and understaffed Orleans Indigent Defender Program.³ His counsel hadn’t visited him or told Hunter that Causey was the person who’d identified him as a killer. In fact, Hunter didn’t even know that it was Jones he was accused of murdering. “Hell, I don’t know if the guy was black or white, viennesse or cuban,” he wrote in a letter to his attorney four months after his arrest and two after his indictment. “Do I have a right to know what in the hell is going on?”

[3] At the time, New Orleans did not have a dedicated office of the public defender. In 1993, this was deemed to be unconstitutional. Still, an office wasn’t created until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It has struggled with deficits and a backlog of cases ever since. 

In the same letter, Hunter demanded that his lawyer leave the case. A new indigent defender named John Dolan took over. Hunter’s frustration and distrust persisted. He wrote letters begging Dolan to take his case seriously and wondering if the attorney was planning to sell him out to the DA’s office somehow.

Hunter learned the basics of the case against him at a motions hearing held in February 1988. Causey failed to show up. “We have been trying to get in touch with her, we have been unable to,” a prosecutor told the judge. When Hunter heard Causey’s name said aloud, however, he was relieved. He knew Causey through her sister and because he’d sold her cocaine a few times. He’d heard that she could be trouble, sometimes getting thrown out of her mother’s house. Still, if she was the state’s main witness, there must have been a mistake. When Causey saw that he was being charged for Jones’s murder, she would confirm that he hadn’t done it. “I thought for sure she was going to exonerate me,” Hunter told me.

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The home where Jones and Vanessa Causey lived has been razed.

4. The Evidence

After the hearing, Hunter wrote to Dolan demanding to know more about the gun that had been matched to the bullets in Jones’s body. “You can’t tell me what gun was involved in the murder, or is they going to use the gun as evidence,” Hunter wrote. A few weeks later, he wrote again. “You keep telling me the gun isn’t a problem, it’s the eyewitness we have to worry about,” Hunter said. “Mr. Dolan, you don’t have to worry about anything, I’m the one who have to worry.… I told you the last time we talked (Feb. 5, 1988) I wanted to see this gun but you keep throwing in my face this gun don’t mean nothing.”

Hunter’s adamancy came from the fact that stolen property had been part of his livelihood before his arrest. In addition to selling drugs, Hunter worked as a fence—someone who moves stolen goods in exchange for cash and drugs. If he knew which one of the guns taken from his home by police had been used in the killing, maybe he could clear things up. He could say who he got it from and when. If he’d purchased the weapon after Jones’s death, wouldn’t that point to his innocence? In addition, after Hunter bailed himself out of jail following his arrest on the stolen-goods charge, he’d returned to the same house where the police had seized his guns. When the police came looking for him again, he was right where they’d found him before.  “If I would have known any one of those guns was involved with a murder, I would have took off somewhere,” Hunter told me. “Went to Florida, California, somewhere.”

According to Hunter, the state gave him written information regarding the type of gun used to kill Jones about two weeks before his trial, but he couldn’t positively identify the weapon without seeing it. He later wrote in a legal filing that the “court must be mindful that Petitioner was a fencer for two years and has been in contact with well over 100 guns, especial 38s.” Hunter finally saw the gun at his trial, which took place in July 1988, a full year after his arrest. The prosecution introduced the Smith & Wesson into evidence, and Dolan asked Hunter about it on the stand. Hunter was eager to reveal what he knew.

“Could you tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury how you became in possession of said weapon?” Dolan asked him.

When he answered, Hunter turned his attention to the judge. “Your honor,” he said, “can I tell the whole story?”

“Just listen to my question,” Dolan instructed. “How did you get the gun? Did you steal it? Did you buy it?”

“I bought all my stolen property.”

“You bought it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“This particular weapon, do you know who you bought it from?”

“Yes, I bought it from a guy named Willie.”

“A guy named Willie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know his last name?”

“Willie Harris.”

“Did you give Willie a bill of sale for that weapon?”

“No, sir. It’s like collateral.”

“When did you buy it?”

“I bought it sometime in June”—that is, several weeks after the murder.

Hunter denied that anyone had ever called him Willie, as Causey claimed on the stand. She’d shown up for court this time. It was Hunter’s word against hers—none of the other witnesses were asked if Willie was Hunter’s nickname.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Luke Walker returned to the matter of Willie Harris. Hunter’s use of that name in his testimony was the first time, as far as the record showed, that it had been linked to the case. Willie Harris was a real person. He was also dead. He’d been murdered in the Ninth Ward in July 1987. Whether or not Hunter knew this by the time of his trial isn’t clear. (Harris’s killing was never solved.)

“Willie Harris, this fellow you bought this gun from, do you know him?” Walker asked.

“Yeah, Willie Harris,” Hunter replied.

“Where does Willie stay?”

“He stays in the Ninth Ward, I think he stays with his parents on Almonaster Street”— which was indeed where Harris’s family lived.

“You subpoenaed him, you got him in here, don’t you, because Willie is back there, right?” Walker asked, knowing that no Willie Harris was in the courtroom.

“No, I don’t know where Willie is.”

“You didn’t subpoena him to come and testify?” Walker continued. “Even though you know that, if convicted, you will go to jail for the rest of your life, you didn’t bring Willie, the man who can clear you?”

“You never told me what gun it was,” Hunter responded. “This is my first time ever seeing the gun.”

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Judge Frank Shea once held six felony trials in a single day; he claimed it was a world record.

5. The Judge

At times, the trial reached points of near incoherence. Dolan, who waived his opening statement, called the location of the murder Milton Street, not Wilson Avenue, confusing Hunter on the stand. When Causey introduced still more new information—that she’d seen a gun in Hunter’s hand at the murder scene, that her brother was with her at the time—the defense didn’t ask why her story kept changing. (Her brother was not called to testify.) When she said that neither she nor Jones had used drugs, Dolan didn’t bring up the toxicology report showing that, in the deceased’s case at least, this was demonstrably false. He didn’t press her when she said that she’d called Jacklean Davis about the case and not the other way around, as Davis recounted on the stand. Given their previous association during the rape investigation, which was noted in the trial record, could the discrepancy have pointed to something other than an error of memory?  

The defense’s witnesses did little to help Hunter’s case. A man named Earl Phillips was called to testify that Hunter had been at his house watching his band practice at the time of the murder. But when he was asked about a specific date from more than a year prior, Phillips fumbled under oath: He managed to convey only that Hunter was often at his house. Stewart Mitchell, the man police claimed had tipped them off to Hunter’s possession of stolen goods, was supposed to undermine the prosecution by stating that it had offered him a deal on a charge he was facing if he testified against Hunter. On the stand, Mitchell couldn’t recall the name of the person who’d supposedly made the offer. He said he knew nothing about the murder.

The whole trial took place in a single morning. For Judge Frank Shea, the pace was a source of pride—indeed, it was the essential feature of his judicial identity. Shea had been on the bench for 25 years, and his breakneck docket had earned him a statewide reputation. In 1975, he personally presided over almost a third as many trials (113) as the rest of the judges in Louisiana’s 63 parishes combined (377). In 1983, a man named Keith Messiah was given the death penalty after a trial in Shea’s court that lasted one day, including jury selection and sentencing. (After a lengthy appeals process, Messiah’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.) In 1984, Shea set what he insisted was a world record, holding six felony trials in a single day. When asked about the feat by a reporter, Shea responded, “We have a legal phrase, res ipsa loquitur. It means, ‘The thing speaks for itself.’”

[4] Calvin Duncan, George Toca, and Elvis Brooks were among the people sentenced to life without parole in Shea’s court. The Innocence Project New Orleans later brought claims challenging their guilt; the men took plea deals and were released from prison.

Admirers said that Shea’s style was efficient—the state House of Representatives even passed a resolution commending him for “conducting speedy criminal trials.” But detractors, including Shea’s 1972 election opponent Salvatore Panzeca, called it disgraceful. “When a judge boasts that he tries cases in record time, his allegiance is not to justice, but to the clock,” Panzeca told the Times-Picayune. “When the judge pressures the attorneys of poor and uneducated defendants to plead their clients guilty, so as to keep his docket clear and save himself the trouble of having to hear their cases, he assaults the Bill of Rights and profanes our heritage of law.” After polling well behind Shea in the primary, Panzeca dropped out of the race.

The speed at which cases moved through Shea’s courtroom was a product of his impatience and temperament. He chain-smoked cigarettes on the bench; news reports described him as presiding while engulfed in a cloud. He was known to berate lawyers and clerks who didn’t move fast enough. Late in his career, which lasted until 1997, Shea pulled a gun on a shackled defendant in his courtroom. He later told a reporter that there’d been nothing to worry about, because he was a terrible shot and “couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass-fiddle.” (Shea died in 1998.)

[5] Shea was preceded in death by members of his immediate family. In 1981, his 11-year-old son drowned in a canal, and his body washed into Lake Pontchartrain. Six years later, Shea’s house caught fire. He was rescued; his wife and daughter died. The incident report lists the cause of the fire as “careless smoking.”

At Hunter’s trial, Shea was true to form. As a news article noted, Hunter’s testimony on his own behalf lasted “at most ten minutes.” When the prosecution concluded its cross-examination, Hunter had more he wanted to say in his defense. He wished to make clear that police had first come to his home in search of stolen property, not on suspicion of murder.

“Shut up,” Shea said. “You already testified. Now be quiet.” He ordered Hunter removed from the stand.

“Why y’all misleading these people?” were the last words Hunter was able to offer before stepping down.

The jury deliberated over a lunch break. When they came back, they found Hunter guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. An account of the trial, published in the next day’s paper, told the streamlined story that Hunter had endeavored to correct—that Causey had identified Hunter as the killer, which led the police to search Hunter’s home, where they “found his second problem, the gun.”

It wasn’t the last time Hunter would face Shea. Three years later, in September 1991, he sat on the witness stand again, arguing that he’d received ineffective assistance of counsel from Dolan. It was the latest phase of an appeals process that had ricocheted around the Louisiana courts until it landed on Shea’s docket. Shea made it clear he had no interest in retrying the case. “I don’t plan on spending the day with you,” Shea said to Hunter’s new public defender.

Shea wouldn’t allow Hunter to state for the record when he’d learned which gun was used in the murder. “Your honor,” Hunter implored, “instead of cutting me off, let me talk, please. This is my life.” Shea told him that he understood, then threatened to hold Hunter in contempt of court. “You are a defendant,” Shea said. “You don’t tell me what to do.”

Shea ruled that there was no evidence that Hunter had received ineffective counsel. Hunter appealed all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which denied his claim. He remained locked up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola—the name of the slave plantation that once occupied the land where the prison sits.

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The land where the Louisiana State Penitentiary sits was once a slave plantation called Angola.

6. The Inmate

The first time he was ever arrested, Hunter was not yet a teenager. He lived in the Ninth Ward, where his three elder brothers were in charge of minding him while their mother worked. “I guess you could say they did a poor job,” he once wrote in a letter to a lawyer. Hunter got in trouble with his friends, knocking over trash cans, stealing bikes and chickens, and breaking into wharf buildings to drive the lift machines. One day, the kids tipped a machine onto some train tracks. Hunter, still in elementary school, was arrested for criminal trespassing.  

[6] The friend, Barry Williams, was released on parole in 2018, after the Supreme Court declared juvenile life without parole unconstitutional.

A few years later, when Hunter was 13, he and two friends were implicated in a purse snatching gone wrong. When the victim, a 75-year-old woman, wouldn’t give up her belongings, an assailant hit her on the head with a pistol; three weeks later, she died from her injuries. Hunter and his friends said that they were innocent, that they hadn’t even been at the scene of the crime. While awaiting trial, Hunter stayed at a juvenile detention facility known as the Youth Study Center. In court, his teacher testified that he’d been in class at the time of the killing, and produced schoolwork to prove it. The judge dismissed Hunter’s case. His two friends, however, were tried as adults. One pled guilty to manslaughter. Another was tried, convicted, and sent to prison for life without parole at the age of 17. Hunter wouldn’t see him again until he, too, was sent to Angola.

Hunter would later trace his path into serious criminal behavior back to the boys he met at the Youth Study Center, who in his words made him “look like an angel.” After he got out, he and a friend began stealing cars from parking lots downtown by taking keys out of the booth when the parking attendant was seeing to another car. It was easy. The first vehicle they stole, in 1979, was a Ford Maverick. Hunter was 16. The boys took the cars for joyrides. They were broke, so they stole gas, too. Eventually, they traded one of the cars for a gun. It didn’t have any bullets, but they used it for holdups anyway.

Hunter’s career jacking cars and robbing people ended with a high-speed chase and his arrest. Not yet 18, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his youth in a juvenile facility, this one in Monroe, Louisiana. He got his GED and learned how to weld. He also took piano lessons. He was released at 20 and held a few odd jobs, including a stint at a factory making fish tanks. He enrolled in classes at Southern University at New Orleans. Still, he continued to have run-ins with the law. In 1985, he was charged with felony theft for using a stolen credit card to buy clothes; he spent nine months in Orleans Parish Prison.

Not long after he got out, Hunter entered the drug trade. He started out small, a few grams here and there. Then he began dealing more and enlisting other people to help him sell it. Business stopped cold when Hunter, by then in his late twenties, found himself facing the second murder charge of his life—the one that didn’t go away, no matter how hard he tried to make it. “I went on a mission to learn as much law as possible to prove my innocence,” Hunter told me in a letter.

His approach reinforced a certain irony: For people who claim to be wrongfully implicated in a crime, the same set of rules, language, and logic that they believe conspired to put them behind bars is the only thing that can get them out. At Orleans Parish Prison, back when Hunter was first awaiting trial, a fellow prisoner known as Bouncer kept a stack of attorney-filed pretrial motions that he’d collected from other prisoners. Hunter would copy them, substituting information about his own case where necessary, and then file his versions with the court. He also requested case law to read, but he didn’t understand any of it. “The courts’ legal jargon was foreign to me. I read and read and did not understand a damn thing,” he said.

He learned, though. By the time he got to Angola, Hunter had a good handle on criminal law. He even filed his own supplemental appellate brief on direct appeal, pointing out discrepancies between the trial transcript and the original police report, and arguing that he’d received poor counsel. (This brief led to the unsuccessful 1991 hearing before Judge Shea.) At Angola, Hunter took paralegal classes through Northwestern Missouri College. He had to stop when Congress repealed Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994. Undeterred, Hunter kept looking for any angle that might prove he’d been unjustly convicted. He filed public-records requests and wrote letters to anyone who could possibly shed light on his case.

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Erin Hunter as a young man. (Courtesy: Hunter family)

One person Hunter wrote to was a lawyer named Laurie White. White specialized in post-conviction work and had become an outspoken critic of longtime New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick. She voiced support for civil rights lawsuits filed by prisoners against the DA’s office and criticized Connick for his unwillingness to test DNA evidence in old cases. By 1997, she’d secured new trials for six men convicted of murder in cases where prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. White also taught legal classes at Angola. Hunter, though, wrote White a letter in 1999 for a different reason: Before becoming a defense attorney, White had been an assistant district attorney in Connick’s office. She was one of the prosecutors on the team that convicted Hunter.

White wrote back warmly. “I thought someday I would run into persons that I had prosecuted,” she told Hunter. “I am glad to see you are doing well for yourself as an inmate counsel.” White said that she’d been under the impression that Hunter’s conviction had already been reversed due to Dolan’s poor representation. She recalled that Causey had been an unreliable witness. “She disappeared several days before your trial and our investigator located her in the wee morning hours,” White wrote. She offered to help Hunter if he was continuing his legal battle. “I would be happy to assist you with an affidavit that it was my belief that [Causey] had been a drug user, or could be a drug user, as she was an extremely unreliable ‘street person’ type who insisted that her life was in danger,” White wrote. (White declined to be interviewed on the record for this story but responded to some fact-checking queries.)

Hunter’s next move was a federal appeal, during which he enlisted the help of Chris Aberle, the first and only private attorney to take his case. In 2002, a federal court denied Hunter’s petition. The ruling stated that Hunter had failed to show that the state courts were unreasonable in their rejection of his previous claims. When I spoke to Aberle, he said that he barely remembered Hunter’s case—it was more than 15 years in the past. A letter that Aberle wrote in the immediate aftermath of the federal court’s decision suggested that, back then at least, he felt strongly about his client’s situation. “I have fought and am still fighting for a number of persons, who, like you, were tried unfairly,” Aberle told Hunter. “I never know if they are truly guilty or innocent but I do know that the system failed them or outright cheated them. What is particularly distressing in your case, however, is that it is one of the very few where I truly think that not only were you tried unfairly, but that in all probability, you are innocent of the crime.”

Hunter had been in prison for almost 15 years by that point; he was running out of options. Aberle told Hunter that he would refer the case to the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO). He wasn’t the only person to do so.

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Investigators spoke to people in New Orleans East who suggested that Causey was a confidential informant for the police.

7. The Inquiry

“Would you please consider handling the case of Erin Hunter?” So began a March 2002 email from Laurie White to Emily Bolton, then the director of IPNO. White said that she didn’t have any direct evidence of Hunter’s innocence, but she recalled that Causey was of “dubious character” and that Hunter’s attorney was “a walk-over, to say the least.”

“I would be very interested to help free a person that was wrongfully convicted,” White wrote, “especially if I was the convictor!” She also sent a letter to Hunter informing him of her referral. “I will, as I told you before, be as honest and forthright in any testimony that is required in your case,” White said. “I am not interested in you remaining in jail if you are in fact innocent and the prosecution was improper.”

IPNO decided to look into the case, but it was just one of many in a city swimming in dubious legal outcomes. When Tom Lowenstein joined IPNO in the fall of 2008, Hunter’s file was still in the queue of cases the organization had deemed worthy of investigation but didn’t yet have the resources to take on. IPNO volunteers at a local synagogue had begun filing records requests, but there was no legal team working Hunter’s case.

Eventually, Lowenstein was assigned to it, along with another new face at IPNO, attorney Paul Killebrew. They began their investigation by visiting the crime scene with a map that Hoyt, the initial homicide detective, had drawn. The small home on Wilson Avenue that Jones and Causey had once shared was boarded up and in disrepair, the lot where it sat overgrown. (The house has since been razed.) The attorneys paced off distances noted in the police report. “We re-created it as much as we could from the ground up,” Lowenstein said.

Soon, though, it became clear that Hunter’s best innocence claim didn’t hinge on the details of the crime scene—the crux was what might have transpired between Davis and Causey. Aberle had suggested as much in his federal appellate brief. Causey’s late identification of Hunter, on the same day he happened to be arrested on a stolen-goods charge, seemed like too much of a coincidence. Aberle proposed instead that Davis had learned that the murder weapon was discovered at Hunter’s house, then reached out to Causey based on her eyewitness statement and the two women’s prior contact. “Ms. Causey revealed that she knew of Mr. Hunter, as he used to date her sister,” Aberle wrote. “Detective Davis was, at that point, sure that she has solved the murder, notwithstanding Ms. Causey’s previous story about ‘Willie.’” Davis, Aberle continued, “brought pressure to bear on Ms. Causey to claim, if not believe,” that she’d seen Hunter at the crime scene. “Detective Davis reasoned, perhaps, that even if she were wrong about Mr. Hunter, he was a criminal regardless.”  

Aberle’s argument echoed a statement written by prosecutor Jack Peebles during Hunter’s first appeal: In a brief, Peebles argued that, “if there was an iota of evidence in the record before this court that the police had found and identified the murder weapon in this case and then used pressure on Vanessa Causey to identify the defendant as the perpetrator, a new trial should be granted.” Peebles had believed there was no such iota. For Aberle, suggesting that there could be was a legal exercise: He was presenting what he believed to be a plausible theory of the case, one that a competent attorney would have pursued but Dolan had not. “The balance of the evidence, including the police reports, other documentary evidence, and the testimony of uncalled witnesses, was kept from the jury through gross incompetence of appointed trial counsel,” Aberle wrote. (Dolan passed away in 2003.)

“I would be very interested to help free a person that was wrongfully convicted, especially if I was the convictor!”

When he was working the case in the early aughts, Aberle didn’t have concrete evidence of any wrongdoing by Causey or Davis. That was now up to Lowenstein and Killebrew to find. Immediately, there was an obstacle. In the decade after Hunter’s conviction, Causey herself had been charged with a series of crimes, including drug possession, prostitution, kidnapping, and aggravated battery. She landed behind bars, and in 2002, she died from an illness.

Lowenstein and Killebrew pieced together what they could about Causey, talking to her family, friends, and acquaintances. Some believed that Causey was right about Hunter’s guilt. The IPNO investigators talked to Greggie Jones’s brother, who said that Hunter was lying when he said under oath that he’d never met Jones—the pair hung out frequently, he said, and he’d even seen Hunter at his brother’s house. Meanwhile, Causey’s brother claimed that he’d been with her when the shooting happened, as she’d testified at trial but not initially told law enforcement. He’d never been interviewed by police or come forward with information of his own volition. He “waffled a bit,” the IPNO investigators reported, when asked if he’d actually seen Hunter at the shooting. They later concluded in a report that he “may have been at the murder scene, but his recollection has been tainted by what his sister later testified to in court.”

A few sources who spoke to IPNO had a different take, reporting that Causey was a police informant. The exact nature of her purported role was murky. “She sent so many people to jail, it’s pathetic,” one IPNO source, who described Causey as being like a little sister, told me. Another source said that he’d seen Causey get picked up in a car by none other than Jacklean Davis. The women would drive around the neighborhood for a while, then Davis would drop Causey off.

When Dolan had asked Davis at trial about her prior relationship with Causey, the detective had responded that they knew each other during “another investigation.” Dolan didn’t push the matter further. Davis was asked about Causey again during Hunter’s 1991 appeal. The defense asked if she’d had “any dealings” with Causey other than the rape case in which Causey was a victim and the investigation of Jones’s murder. “No, sir,” Davis said.

Davis told IPNO, and later confirmed to me, that Causey was at one point her confidential informant, but she was adamant that their working relationship didn’t develop until after Hunter’s trial. Only during the fact-checking phase of this story did she acknowledge that Causey had been an informant on a case prior to Jones’s murder.

Davis’s star had plummeted in the years between Hunter’s conviction and the IPNO investigation. Once named officer of the year by the New Orleans Black Organization of Police, and profiled in national magazines under headlines like “From Outcast to Supercop” (Reader’s Digest), Davis was accused of perjury in 1994. She allegedly provided conflicting accounts of her surveillance of a fellow officer under the auspices of NOPD’s internal affairs division. Criminal charges were dropped, but Davis was suspended and ultimately kicked out of internal affairs. She spent several years shuttling between police forces in various districts. She often worked night shifts and supplemented her income with a security detail at Walmart.

In 2002, Davis and a fellow officer were convicted of shaking down show promoters while working security at a party affiliated with Essence Fest, a music event held annually in New Orleans. Davis claimed that the allegations were motivated by NOPD politics. At trial, her lawyer didn’t put her on the stand to testify; he didn’t want her to have to address the old perjury charge. Davis was found guilty of extortion and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. At the time, she told a reporter that she was frustrated that law enforcement didn’t seem to want to hear her side of the story. “My secret as an interrogator was this: I listened to people,” she said. “I wanted to hear other people’s versions of what happened.”

As it happened, Laurie White was openly sympathetic to Davis’s situation at NOPD. “She is a prime example of discrimination on the police force,” White told a reporter in 2003, following Davis’s conviction. “But with everything that happened to her, she kept silent and handled herself with a lot of class.” After Davis was released from prison in 2004, White gave her a job as a receptionist in her law office. Davis remained there until White closed her practice to become a judge. “I know a lot of prominent people,” Davis told me. “Just because I went to prison, that don’t mean anything. People know me, my integrity.”

IPNO obtained Davis’s file as a homicide detective, and it was there that Lowenstein and Killebrew found what they believed was a break: a computer printout of Hunter’s arrest record dated July 14, 1987. That was the day the ballistics examiner completed the analysis linking the Smith & Wesson .38 to Jones’s murder. What Lowenstein and Killebrew didn’t find in Davis’s file was evidence of a printout from July 9, the day that she’d always claimed she first called Causey, learned that Causey had seen Hunter at the scene, searched his name in the NOPD database, and come upon the record of his arrest that morning. Also missing from the file was any record of that conversation with Causey. Was it possible that Davis was mistaken or had lied about the timeline of what she knew and how she knew it?

Another perplexing part of the file was a computer printout of the police report about the burglary at Susan Wolfe’s home. It was dated May 26, 1987, ostensibly the date Davis pulled it from the NOPD’s computer system. What cause might she have had to print the report out a month after Jones’s murder and several weeks before taking over the case? The IPNO investigators also had questions about the case’s ballistics report. How exactly the match between Wolfe’s gun and the bullets in Jones’s body came to be made wasn’t clear. As a matter of course, the NOPD ballistics team would have compared bullets from unsolved homicides with guns seized by officers, but in this instance the turnaround was unusually fast—less than a week. The report states only that “specimen 2 were fired by specimen 1.” It does not indicate whether or not the lab tested the other guns recovered from Hunter’s home, including a second .38, listed as being among his lawful property.

Davis wrote in her case report that the two NOPD detectives who seized the weapons during Hunter’s first arrest requested that all the guns be tested. She later testified that she was the one who made the ask of the ballistics division, and that she specifically requested testing on Wolfe’s .38. “Given what we know now about the tendency of forensic examiners to reach the results desired by the requesting officers or prosecutors, it’s totally plausible that the ballistics ‘match’ in this case is not a match at all,” Killebrew wrote in an email during IPNO’s consideration of Hunter’s case. “One thing we’ve discussed doing early in the litigation of this case is to request to have the gun and bullets re-examined.”

Davis has always maintained that she performed her job to the letter of the law. She repeated this to me: Any timeline discrepancy, she argued, would have been caught by the DA’s office, and if Causey gave false testimony, it would have been exposed in the appeals process. In their report, however, the IPNO investigators claimed that Davis had “withheld … information from prosecutors and lied about the sequence of events in her own police reports and at trial.” All of which, they wrote, “deeply undermines the State’s case.”

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The main entrance to Angola.

8. The Breakdown

In a perverse way, Hunter’s industriousness as a self-educated legal expert may have been his undoing. For more than a decade after his conviction, he’d done everything by himself, exhausting the avenues available at the state level for legal relief. He’d enlisted Aberle only at the end of the road, hoping to have a better shot on federal appeal. The problem, Killebrew told me, was that courts tend to look at new evidence in isolation, often ignoring its implications with regard to previously available evidence. “It was going to be hard to get the court to see the whole picture,” Killebrew said. Moreover, if a person files a habeas petition—a claim of unjust imprisonment—in federal court and it fails, the bar for the government to consider a second petition is much higher. “This is another way in which post-conviction law is, in my mind, very, very cruel,” Killebrew said.  

[7]  It can be difficult for prisoners filing their own petitions to convince the courts to take them seriously. In 2008, a court administrator in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna revealed in a suicide note that he was responsible for unilaterally denying petitions filed by prisoners without attorneys. Writs in lower courts are supposed to be reviewed by a three-judge panel; the appeals court had violated that rule in more than 2,500 cases, each of which added a $300 filing fee to its coffers. 

IPNO takes a deliberate and cautious approach to its work. Resources are limited, and the organization litigates the cases it is most likely to win. With Hunter, there were additional considerations: For instance, were his case to go to court, it would be heard by Judge Julian Parker, whose assessment of innocence appeals was notoriously tough. In 2009, Lowenstein and Killebrew brought what they’d found to the rest of IPNO and a few outside attorneys. “The question was, OK, Tom and I have a fervent belief about what this means,” Killebrew said of their findings. “How does this play to others?”

The answer: Not great. There were a few sticking points. Even if Davis had lied or made errors in reporting the timeline of her investigation, Causey’s eyewitness statement and the gun found in Hunter’s apartment still looked bad. Some of the reviewers they presented evidence to, Killebrew said, saw “a different pathway” to the same outcome. With Causey gone, interrogating her statements and testimony was impossible. Another issue was that, while the July 14 printout proved that Davis had looked up Hunter’s record on that day, it didn’t prove that she hadn’t looked it up previously. Maybe she’d done so on July 9 but misplaced the document or thrown it away. “It was the difficulty of proving a negative,” said Richard Davis, IPNO’s legal director, who oversaw the investigation of Hunter’s case.

It was also difficult to pursue an alternative theory of Jones’s murder. Aberle had suggested that Willie Harris was the real culprit—that he got into a drug-related dispute with Jones, killed him, and then sold the gun to Hunter. With Harris dead, however, that avenue of inquiry was extremely narrow. The IPNO investigators developed another theory, based on interviews with a number of people who were close with Jones. Those sources said that Jones had ripped off some Cuban drug dealers who killed him—or had him killed—as retaliation. A few people even suggested that Causey had set Jones up. There were several variations of this story, however, and no one named a potential shooter.

Investigators decided that the one thing that might give Hunter’s case a real chance was an affidavit from Laurie White. It would need to say that, had she known back in 1988 what IPNO knew now, White would not have prosecuted the case. White, by that time, had gained an even more prominent position in New Orleans’s criminal-justice apparatus: In 2007, she’d been elected as a criminal district-court judge. Lowenstein called an affidavit from someone of that stature the “holy grail of innocence work.”

Killebrew and IPNO’s director went one day to meet with White at the courthouse. Their intention was to gauge White’s response to their findings before asking for her support. They waited in White’s courtroom as she worked through her docket; during a break in the proceedings, she invited them back to her chambers. They presented her with the evidence suggesting that Davis may have pressured a witness in order to clear a case. As Killebrew remembered the encounter, White was unimpressed. (White, for her part, said during fact-checking that she didn’t remember this meeting.) Killebrew said her concerns echoed those already raised at IPNO: There was still an eyewitness, and there was still a murder weapon. “I didn’t view it that way,” Killebrew told me, “but I can’t say that she was being unreasonable.”

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Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

9. The Counsel

Lowenstein and Killebrew broke the news to Hunter that IPNO wouldn’t be filing a post-conviction petition on his behalf. Hunter had always been stoic about his case’s many turns; the same was true with the final one. Hunter took it “heartbreakingly in stride,” Killebrew remembered. Lowenstein wasn’t surprised. “Erin at that point had won three—and I think he ended up winning four—cases in federal court,” he said. “Erin understood the law way better than I did. He was the one who would talk legal theory to me.”

Indeed, by 2009, Hunter’s dealings with the legal system extended well beyond his own case. At Angola, he’d risen from cleaning the prison’s law library to serving as an inmate counsel, responsible for representing other prisoners in disciplinary proceedings and helping them with legal appeals and petitions. The prison’s librarian, who was also the coordinator of the inmate counsel program, was a man named Norris Henderson. He recalled prisoners seeking Hunter out by name and reputation. “Everyone trusted him with their litigation,” Henderson told me. “He had not only the commitment but the expertise to go along with it. I watched his complete metamorphosis from that caterpillar to the butterfly.”

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Hunter with Derek Temple. (Courtesy: Derek Temple)

Lowenstein was right: Hunter had helped secure the release of four men from Angola. One of them was Derek Temple, convicted of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, who because he had a prior record was sentenced to life in prison without parole. An appeal that Hunter helped prepare on Temple’s behalf convinced the Louisiana Supreme Court that the drugs found during the arrest were obtained without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Temple was released in 2003, having served only six years after being told that he would die behind bars. When I met him more than 15 years later, Temple was on a break from working on an offshore oil rig. “He gave me the direction to get my freedom to be sitting here in front of you,” Temple said of Hunter. “It means a lot. It’s hard to explain it to you, you can use a lot of words, but you have to be in my body. It’s a remarkable feeling.”

For his part, Hunter reflected on his legal work as if it were a spiritual calling. “Each milestone I reached it became less about me and more about humanity,” he wrote to me in a letter. “I befriended other inmates who needed help and weren’t as fortunate as I was to learn the law. My plight became much bigger than I had anticipated.”

Hunter, though, never gave up on his own case. There was always a chance something could change—that new evidence would crop up or that a sympathetic district attorney might agree to discuss a post-conviction plea deal. In 2018, after more than 30 years behind bars, Hunter gathered dozens of letters from inmates and guards testifying to his character and advocating his release. The letters spoke to his intelligence, humility, and dedication to helping other inmates. In a place unsuited to easy favor, Hunter had earned people’s admiration.

[8] In 2014, IPNO and the DA’s office announced the Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project, intended to identify unjust trial outcomes and rectify them. IPNO told me that Hunter’s case was referred to the joint project, which ended just one year after its launch. IPNO claimed that the DA’s office didn’t put forward the resources it promised. The DA’s office said the project was axed as part of budget cuts.

“It is my opinion that if any offender deserves another chance to be freed, it is Mr. Hunter,” wrote prison employee Linden Franklin. Antonio Whitaker, supervisor of the cell blocks known as Camp D, said that Hunter “exemplified the best of character—humbleness and trustworthiness.” Fellow inmate Ricky Javis said, “If there was a buddy system, where my chances for parole would be based upon the success of the person I elect to go home on parole, I would pick Erin.” Rickey Valentine, another prisoner, happened to be Greggie Jones’s cousin. “Whatever may or may not have happened, I don’t believe you could have hurt him,” Valentine wrote. “Even when I reveal to you who I was, you never once change from doing whatever you can for me and others. I am writing you to say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Then there was Larry McClinton, who’d been locked up almost as long as Hunter had. “He was always whispered as one of those brothers that did not commit the crime that he was convicted of,” McClinton wrote. “I can remember many times pondering on such men. I committed my crime and it is often arduous at times coping with being away from friends and family. So I can only imagine what the innocent go through. And yet, I’ve never witnessed Hunter (as he is called) upset or angry.” McClinton concluded, in a remarkable sentiment, “He is a man that epitomizes integrity and I would willingly advocate for his freedom before my very own.”

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Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

10. The Balance

Freedom never came for Erin Hunter. On , 2019, as this story was being written, he died at Angola. He was 56 years old. The cause of death, according to friends and family, was a heart attack. An autopsy is pending.

Norris Henderson, who is now out of prison, saw Hunter a few weeks before he died. He recalled that his friend had a new project: identifying prisoners convicted in non-unanimous jury decisions. Until a ballot measure did away with it in 2018, Louisiana was one of the only states in the nation with a constitutional provision that allowed people to be found guilty by a 10-2 jury vote. The repeal did not apply retroactively, but in the fall of 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case that could change that. In anticipation of a favorable decision, Hunter was trying to determine who at Angola might benefit. (As of this writing, the Supreme Court had yet to rule on the case.)

The non-unanimous jury provision has a deeply racist history. Enacted in the late 1800s, it was intended to produce a large number of guilty verdicts in order to bolster the convict-leasing system, which extended the profits of slavery to white landowners well after the Civil War. Hunter’s case was also tied to the racial prejudices that run through Louisiana’s legal foundations. This was true regardless of his guilt or innocence, which given his untimely death seems likely to remain an open question forever.

To read the transcript of Hunter’s trial, which runs all of 81 pages and can be digested in half an hour, is to encounter a disregard for human dignity instrumental in producing the most sprawling system of incarceration in the world. Killebrew called the circumstances of Hunter’s case a “tragedy with many authors.”

“There was a failing public defenders’ system, there was a DA’s office that was not operating according to professional norms, there were state laws that were particularly cruel, there were judges who sentenced everyone to the maximum amount they could,” Killebrew said. “There was just a whole combination of factors that led to, I have no doubt, thousands and thousands of people not being served with justice.” Lowenstein put it more succinctly: “Erin Hunter got caught up in a perfect storm of New Orleans bullshit.”

The repeal of the non-unanimous jury law is part of a broader reckoning over criminal justice in Louisiana. The vast majority of reforms, however, are incomplete, and their lasting power is yet to be determined. They are also primarily forward-looking, doing little to ameliorate harm already caused or to grapple with its moral weight. “What about everyone who experienced the growth of mass incarceration, who were the victims of it?” Killebrew asked. “They deserve justice, too. Policymakers don’t have a lot of stomach for going back and fixing those types of problems.”

To read the transcript of Erin Hunter’s trial is to encounter a disregard for human dignity instrumental in producing the most sprawling system of incarceration in the world.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones who are reticent to look back. For some people, it is too painful or risky to be asked to extend trust to a system that has ignored or actively betrayed them time and again. When IPNO interviewed Greggie Jones’s brother, he said, “Nobody ever want to talk to us back then. Now they want to have an investigation?” When I asked one source why people were hesitant to talk about the case, he told me, “A lot of people figure, man, I stay away from that. Let old wounds just die out, and wither in the wind, and stay in the wind.”

Hunter was still alive when I first interviewed Jacklean Davis. She was living in New Orleans East, the neighborhood where Jones was killed. We sat on her couch for several hours. She smoked Hat’s Off cigars and recalled growing up with Tyler Perry; she claimed that he based his Madea character on her great-aunt. She talked about the racism she encountered at the NOPD, the political forces that conspired to send her to prison, and the incompetence of her defense attorney. Davis stressed her integrity, her commitment to truth and justice, her inability to live with a guilty conscience. She was adamant that she did nothing wrong in Hunter’s case.

Sometimes, though, there was a note of dissonance in her certitude that the system was right about his guilt and wrong about hers. At one point, she said it meant something that 12 individuals had come to the conclusion that Hunter was guilty. Then, after a pause, she added that juries can be wrong, of course. She, too, had a jury trial.

I was the person who informed Davis that Hunter had died at Angola. I did it in a phone call. Soon after we hung up, Davis called back, sobbing. “It really hit home how life is not perfect. We all make mistakes. To atone for these mistakes, most of us live and get the opportunity to do it, some don’t,” she said. “I can have respect for him. That he fought the good fight. He believed—and I cannot disregard his belief—that he was innocent, and he should not have served the time. And he went to his grave doing this.”

Then, before we ended the conversation, she repeated something that she’d told me before. “I am not hostage to my past,” Davis said. “I’m gonna leave that with you.”

The Rescue

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The Rescue

A flimsy raft, more than 100 souls, and three teenage heroes—or are they pirates?

By Zach Campbell

The Atavist Magazine, No. 95


Zach Campbell is a writer based in Barcelona. He has written for The Intercept, Politico Europe, and Harper’s, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @notzachcampbell.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Nicole Rifkin

Published in September 2019. Design updated in 2021.

Every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel, her crew and passengers, to render assistance to everybody, even though an enemy, found at sea in danger of being lost.

—International Salvage Treaty, 1910


With the same hope I had felt in the afternoon as I waited to see airplanes on the horizon, that night I looked for the lights of ships. For hours I scrutinized the sea: a tranquil sea, immense and silent, but I saw no light other than that of the stars.

—Gabriel García Márquez, “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor”


Abdalla Bari was hungry. It was the morning of March 26, 2019, and Bari and more than 100 other people were floating in a 30-foot-long rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere in the expanse of water between North Africa and Italy. Men straddled the boat’s edge, each with one foot dangling above the water and the other inside the dinghy. They formed a tightly packed ring around a huddled mass of women and children. At least one of the women was noticeably pregnant. Another, Souwa Nikavogui, was Bari’s wife.

Bari was on the starboard side, near the bow. He was skinny but muscular, with hair fashioned into short, spiky locks; he had a long scar down his right arm. Nikavogui, slightly shorter, with an intense, distant gaze, braced herself to stay upright as the dinghy rocked in the waves. They were teenagers in love—Bari was 19, Nikavogui 18—and they already had a child of their own. Her name was Fanta, and they’d left her with Bari’s mother, thousands of miles away in Guinea. Fanta was two years old. If help didn’t arrive soon, she would grow up with no memory of her parents.

The cheap inflatable dinghy wouldn’t make it to Europe. Bari and Nikavogui knew that before they climbed aboard in Libya. Their only hope was to be rescued before the boat sank. Bari watched as the bow bent upward, working its way up a wave. A small outboard motor strained to nudge the rest of the vessel over the crest of water.

For Bari and Nikavogui, this was the last leg of a long journey, stretching across four countries and a swath of the Sahara desert. They had spent the past four months in Tripoli, living in what migrants call “the campo,” a massive warehouse that smugglers use as a staging ground before moving people across the Mediterranean. The night before they left, the couple were approached by a man demanding money for their uncertain passage, although they’d already paid once. Bari and Nikavogui did as he asked, and early the next morning they loaded into a truck that rattled them to the water’s edge. Smugglers inflated the dinghy; the migrants climbed aboard. As they pushed out to sea, they knew it might be the last time they saw land.

Still, they were relieved. Libya was hell, and certain death if you stayed there too long. A man on the dinghy—I’ll call him Victor, a pseudonym, for his safety—was making his third attempt to reach Europe. The other two times, his group was intercepted before they could get on a boat. After the most recent try, Victor, who’d fled violence in his home country of Nigeria, was sent to one of Libya’s notorious migrant detention centers. Human rights organizations and the media have exposed the facilities as rife with torture, slavery, extortion, and other horrors. Victor bribed his way out for nearly $1,000. Then it was back to the campo, into the hands of another smuggler, and finally onto the dinghy.

The boat motored north. The harsh sun rose higher in the sky as the migrants searched for any speck on the horizon, a disturbance in the endless blue that might grow larger, take shape, become their salvation.

Finally, someone cried out, “A plane!”

Bari jolted at the sound. Suddenly, people around him were talking. As the plane approached, some said they saw a Spanish flag painted on its tail; others thought it was Italian. Either way it was European. That’s what mattered.

The plane passed overhead, and the people on the boat waved and yelled, as if they could be heard over the roar of the engines. Bari counted in his head as the plane circled the boat: once, twice, three times. The pilot had spotted the dinghy, that much was clear. After the fourth pass, the plane flew toward the horizon and out of sight. Those on the boat were left to wait one last time.

A few miles away, aboard the oil tanker El Hiblu 1, a radio crackled to life.

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Partial transcript of radio communication between an aircraft deployed by the European Union’s Operation Sophia and the El Hiblu 1 on March 26, 2019; obtained via a nearby ship.

EH1: I am going to Tripoli port. My destination is Tripoli port, Libya.

OS: Sir, there are lives at sea, can you assist them?

EH1: OK, no problem. What assistance do you need?

OS: We need you to proceed to the area and help the boat in the water.

EH1: Where is it? Can you give me the latitude and longitude, please?

OS: Position three-three-three-seven north, zero-one-four-two-zero east.

EH1: This is the position?

EH1: OK, I will proceed to this position. OK.

OS: We are flying over the area. If you can see us, we are flying over the boat.

EH1: OK, I will check your—OK.

OS: Thank you, sir.

[Ninety seconds pass.]

OS: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, this is the maritime patrol aircraft. We are coordinating with the Libyan coast guard. Sir, you need to rescue those people, because the Libyan coast guard boat is out of service.

At first all that Bari could tell about the ship coming toward the dinghy was that it was big and painted red. He hoped that it was an NGO boat, maybe the Spanish Open Arms or the German Alan Kurdi. Like others attempting the Mediterranean passage, he’d watched countless YouTube videos of these humanitarian ships rescuing people at sea. He knew what came next: A smiling European crew would climb onto small high-speed boats, zip to the dinghy, and hand out bright orange life vests. They would transfer the migrants to the larger ship, ten at a time, where there would be blankets, medical supplies, and food. Then they would make land in Europe, where it would be safe, where there was work. From there, Bari hoped, he and Nikavogui could provide for Fanta and the rest of their family.

But as the ship came closer, Bari realized that this rescue was going to be different. The El Hiblu 1 wasn’t a humanitarian ship—it was a 170-foot bunkering vessel, used to move oil between larger ships. What Bari couldn’t know was that the plane he’d seen, the same one that had radioed the tanker, was part of Operation Sophia, a European military effort aimed at stemming migration from Libya. It took its name from a baby born to a Somali mother on a German frigate in the Mediterranean in 2015.

That year, European ships, planes, and submarines began patrolling international waters off the coast of Libya, rescuing migrants and destroying their boats. But the smuggling networks found more boats—smaller, cheaper ones that were far less seaworthy. In response, Operation Sophia began training, funding, equipping, and directing a new Libyan coast guard that could do what the Europeans legally could not: take the people intercepted on ships back to where they came from, even if they had already made it out of Libya and into international waters. (Under international law, this is called refoulement, from the French for “turning away.”) Operation Sophia organized the effort despite mounting evidence of atrocities committed against migrants by Libyan smugglers, security forces, and the coast guard itself. In September 2018, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees declared that nowhere in Libya should be considered a place of safety for people rescued at sea. Six months later, the Women’s Refugee Commission released a report detailing widespread sexual violence against migrants in the North African state. “Everyone knows when a man says, ‘I’ve gone through Libya,’ it is a euphemism for rape,” a source told the organization.

That people continued to attempt the journey across the Mediterranean in large numbers prompted yet another shift in strategy: On the same day that Operation Sophia radioed the El Hiblu 1, EU member states decided to stop sending ships out on patrol and focus instead on surveillance flights. The planes would identify migrant boats and direct either the Libyan coast guard or nearby ships, including commercial ones, to stage rescues.

This was the scenario that the El Hiblu 1 found itself in. The tanker was empty, save for six crew members en route from Istanbul to Tripoli. The lack of cargo weight caused the bow to perk upward, as if the ship were popping a wheelie. As the tanker moved toward the dinghy, the driver of the rubber craft shut off the outboard engine. The waves were getting bigger, and the migrants worried that they might be swept under the ship as it approached.

When the two vessels were close enough, a crew member on the El Hiblu 1 threw down ropes and a ladder from the tanker’s deck. People crowded together to climb one by one off the dinghy. Bari and Nikavogui queued up. But six people stayed put. One of them said that he thought the ship was Libyan. What if it took them back?

Those still aboard the dinghy begged the wider group, now amassing on the deck of the El Hiblu 1, to come back down; the dinghy could keep going north, toward Malta. No one descended the ladder. Instead, the people on the tanker implored those on the dinghy to reconsider. It was clear that the dinghy, now nearly empty of people, was deflating. It bobbed limply up and down on the waves.

Don’t go, Bari and others shouted down at the boat. Just come up to the ship. These people are going to help.

Instead the men let go of the ropes that connected the boat to the El Hiblu 1. They started up the dinghy’s motor once again and headed north, eventually disappearing from sight. Malta was still more than 100 miles away.

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Nader El-Hiblu was the tanker’s first mate. He was Libyan, and he shared his name with the ship because his brother, Salah, owned it. Slender and balding, with high cheekbones and a beard, Nader asked if anyone spoke English. “I do,” said a teenager who, like Bari and Nikavogui, was from Guinea. Through the translator, Nader was able to explain that he’d been called by the crew of a military airplane to rescue the people on the dinghy. He was still awaiting instructions about what to do next.

He asked where in Libya the group had embarked: Garabuli, Zawiya, Zuwara, Tripoli? All were well-known departure points for migrant boats in Libya, but Nader said their names with a familiarity that made some of the migrants uneasy. Was he Libyan? They began to whisper among themselves, their many languages quietly colliding.

“Where are you going to take us?” someone yelled in English.

Nader repeated what he’d said about the plane.

“Yes, but are you taking us to Libya?”

Bari, standing with Nikavogui, wondered if the people who’d stayed on the dinghy had been wise. What if he’d come this far only to be turned back, to have nothing to show for his journey?

He and Nikavogui were from Mamou, a small village in the Guinean interior. Bari was the eldest of nine children. His father had been a vegetable farmer, while his mother took care of their seven boys and two girls. In 2017, Bari was in his first year of university, studying sociology, when his father died. He quit school to support his family, going to work in the fields like his father had. Still, there were times when they couldn’t afford food. Before long, Bari had more mouths to feed: Nikavogui’s and Fanta’s. Survival meant leaving Mamou—following “the route,” as many migrants from Africa call the passage across the Mediterranean. Nikavogui decided to go, too.

Bari left first, toward the end of Ramadan in 2018. He traveled by day on an empty stomach from Guinea to Mali to Algeria, where he spent two months waiting for a safe opportunity to cross the border into Libya. By September, he’d arrived in Tripoli and found work pouring concrete on construction sites. Nikavogui joined him soon after, and by the end of the year the couple were staying at the campo, waiting for their chance to leave for Europe. There was little food or privacy at the warehouse; tuberculosis was rampant. Outside, Libya was in the midst of a civil war. The people in the campo heard the same refrain every night: the boom, boom, boom of gunfire in the distance. They were locked inside and told to keep quiet. “We didn’t scream,” one woman who spent time there told me. “We didn’t do anything. Even the children didn’t scream.”

Now, aboard the El Hiblu 1, Nader uttered the words that the migrants didn’t want to hear. He explained the ship’s original course: Istanbul to Tripoli. Word rippled through the crowd, and arguing quickly ensued. Victor, the man from Nigeria, was determined to never go back to a Libyan detention center. He declared that it was better for the tanker to leave them to die at sea.

In the telling of some of the people present that day, Nader tried to calm the group by swearing on the Koran that he would help them get to Europe. He pointed at the sky and talked again about the plane. He said that the Europeans would send a rescue ship and that he was only waiting to learn the rendezvous point. He climbed up to the ship’s bridge and turned the vessel away from Libya. The migrants considered it an act of good faith. “He swore in front of all of us, saying that he had the courage to take us, to help us,” the pregnant woman, whom I’ll call Mariama, later told me.

The tanker went north for a while, then turned west, moving slowly toward the setting sun. Placated, people settled onto the deck. They clustered toward the bow, where a raised section of the ship provided some protection from the elements. There were only a few blankets to share, and no food. Night fell, but Bari and Nikavogui knew they wouldn’t sleep much. She was seasick, and it was cold.

Bari couldn’t hear what Nader was saying in the ship’s cabin. Over the radio, Operation Sophia requested that the El Hiblu 1 pick up a second boatful of migrants, situated a few miles from the tanker’s location. Nader said that he couldn’t.

Partial transcript of communication between Operation Sophia aircraft and the El Hiblu 1 on March 26, 2019.

OS: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, thank you for your cooperation, sir. We ask for the other boat. Can you proceed to the other one?

EH1: I cannot proceed because I have big problem. Let me put—they don’t let me to move from my position, OK? They want to go to Europe, Spain or Italy.

EH1: Airplane, El Hiblu 1.

OS: Sir, we are cooperating with the Libyan coast guard. They tell us to say to you that you can move those people to Tripoli.

EH1: I take the people to Tripoli?

EH1: Airplane, airplane navy, El Hiblu 1.

OS: Sir, we are coordinating—we are under the coordination of the Libyan national coast guard. Don’t go and rescue the other boat. You can proceed to Tripoli.

EH1: OK, send to me their support please, because I cannot move from my position because the people is very crazy here.

OS: Thank you, sir. Thank you for your cooperation. We are calling for assistance.

EH1: It’s no problem for me, but the people is very crazy here. They make me big problem on board now. Big problem on board now.

OS: Thank you, sir. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Please, I’m going to turn [inaudible].

[Four minutes pass.]

OS: [Inaudible] the situation on board.

EH1: Very bad. Very bad.

OS: Can you give us any information about the situation on board?

EH1: I want any assistance from the other ship, please. Because he refuse—anything and made to me too much problem on board here. If you can send me other ship for [inaudible].

OS: Sir, we are doing all we can to [inaudible].

OS: El Hiblu 1, this is maritime patrol aircraft. Libyan authority is now aware of your situation. They come to your position as soon as possible.

EH1: I’m waiting here in my position. I’m waiting here in my position. I need assistance, please.

OS: Thank you, sir. They are on his way.

It was early morning when one of the migrants spotted land. In the weak light of dawn, he climbed a set of stairs to look over the ship’s bow. There was a dark strip in the distance. The man cried out. Bari heard his voice; he sounded happy. Other people ascended the stairs to see for themselves.

Joy quickly gave way to fear. Some of them thought they could see lighthouses—ones they recognized. Then someone got a signal on their cell phone. It was from a Libyan network.

Nader hadn’t held his position at sea. Around 12:30 a.m., he had given up waiting for the Libyan coast guard. He locked the door to the cabin, turned the El Hiblu 1 south, and pushed the throttle. As he headed toward Libya, Nader finally spoke with the coast guard; they told him that soldiers were preparing a boarding party, which would find the ship and detain the migrants.

Those on board didn’t know that the Libyan coast guard might be on its way, but seeing land was enough for them to feel tricked. Some began to cry and yell. “Oh, Libya! Oh, Libya!” one person screamed.

People threatened to throw themselves off the ship. Bari heard voices shouting at Nader to stop, to turn around. A group of people picked up tools and pieces of wood from the deck and began banging on the tanker’s surfaces. They moved toward the bridge to confront Nader.

Bari later said that he was near the bow at that point, with Nikavogui. She was still sick, and they were both exhausted. But Bari decided that he had to do something. Angry people had surrounded the ship’s cabin. If the situation escalated, someone could get hurt or killed, or all of them could wind up arrested and tossed into a Libyan detention center. The previous fall, a group of more than 90 people had barricaded themselves inside a cargo ship that rescued them at sea and returned to the Libyan port of Misrata. Ten days later, Libyan authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to remove them from the ship.

Bari climbed to the bridge, where men held sticks and metal objects in their hands. They chanted, “No Libya! No Libya!” Shielded by the walls, windows, and locked door of the cabin, Nader could see that the tanker was six miles from Tripoli. He changed course, turning the El Hiblu 1’s prow toward the open sea. “I don’t know why the captain turned,” Bari recalled. “But I know that I saw people protest, and it worked.”

In several of the migrants’ recollections, Nader unlocked the cabin and came outside. He told the group that he would take them to Europe. No one believed him—not after what had happened overnight. They kept chanting and banging the items they’d scavenged from the ship. Nader seemed to recognize the teenager who’d translated for him the day before. “You,” Bari remembered Nader saying. “Come in. I’ll show you the direction we’re going.”

The translator, who was 15 years old, went into the cabin. Another young man, only a year older, joined him. So did Bari. He felt like it was the right thing to do. He stayed near the cabin’s door as Nader showed the translator the ship’s controls and navigation system. Satisfied, the teenager returned to talk to the angry group. “Calm down, the captain is right,” he said, poking his head out the cabin’s door. “We’re going to Malta.”

Bari stepped farther inside to look at the ship’s compass. It was true: The ship was heading due north. “Everybody calm down,” Bari shouted.

Bari and two other men decided to stay inside the cabin with Nader. He had misled them before, Bari thought. How could they trust him not to do it again?

“I don’t know why the captain turned. But I know that I saw people protest, and it worked.”

As the tanker’s engine growled and morning slid into afternoon, the migrants’ anxiety subsided. They ambled around the deck; some dozed at the ship’s bow. Bari could hear Nader talking on the radio, trying to explain the situation to Maltese authorities, who told him the ship didn’t have authorization to enter the country’s waters. Still, Nader didn’t seem agitated—none of the crew did—so Bari wasn’t worried. As long as the tanker stayed its course, he thought, things would get better.

On land, however, stress about the El Hiblu 1 was mounting. Word of the tanker’s situation made its way to the media. Before they set foot in Europe, Bari and the two other men in the ship’s cabin were labeled criminals of the worst kind.

“Rescued migrants hijack ship, demand it head towards Europe,” read an Associated Press headline on the afternoon of March 27, as the tanker plowed through Mediterranean waves. Other news stories described migrants “seizing control” of the ship amid a “desperate” situation. The Maltese military told local media that there was “a pirate ship” and that soldiers were “on alert.” Italy’s interior minister at the time, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, took to Twitter. “They aren’t shipwreck survivors; they are pirates,” he wrote. “They should know that they’ll only ever see Italy through binoculars.” The ANSA news agency quoted Salvini saying, “Poor castaways, who hijack a merchant ship that saved them because they want to decide the route of the cruise.” Meanwhile, the AP reported that Salvini “had a message for the pirates: ‘Forget about Italy.’”

Bari and the other migrants weren’t aware of the mounting media firestorm—they knew only that Nader was taking the ship closer and closer to Malta. At 12:51 a.m. on March 28, the El Hiblu 1 was just over 24 nautical miles from the island nation. If it moved any closer, it would enter Maltese jurisdiction on its way to Valletta, the capital and main port. The Maltese coast guard radioed the ship. Bari later said that he was asleep during the exchange.

Transcript of communication between Maltese Armed Forces (AFM) and the El Hiblu 1 on March 28, 2019.

AFM: El Hiblu 1, this is Maltese patrol vessel Papa 21. You are still proceeding towards the Maltese islands at a constant speed. You have already been given instructions to not continue entering Maltese territorial waters. Please stop your vessel.

EH1: OK sir, but the migrants, my vessel not under command now. My vessel not under command.

AFM: Captain, stop your engine now. You are still proceeding at ten knots, at ten knots. You are still proceeding at ten knots.

EH1: OK, roger sir. OK.

EH1 [a different voice]: Good morning, sir. Good morning. I am one of the migrants. Good morning, sir.

AFM: Good morning.

EH1: Please, listen to me carefully. Listen to me carefully. We are not proceeding—the ship to go to Malta. But the situation is very bad, we have children, 12 children. They are not even talking anymore. Three days now, no food or water. Please. We are not allowed to go back. Please. Three days now, we do not have food. We are 19 women, 12 children. Please help us. None of us are well. We are all sick. Please, please, no one get—please, for God’s sake, please help us. Not allowed to go back.

AFM: Copy that, sir. For now your instructions are to stop your vessel immediately and to wait for further instructions. You are not allowed to continue proceeding to go to Malta. Stop your vessel immediately.

EH1 [Nader’s voice again]: We have already stopped, captain. Already stopped. My engine is stopped now.

AFM: Copy that. Stand by. Stand by on this channel for now.

EH1: OK, thank you, sir. Thank you.

AFM: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, Malta patrol vessel P21, do you read?

EH1: Yes. I have now 100 people Africa on board. He change my course to Valletta, to Malta, to Valletta by force, by force. I am not under command. Please, if you can send to me Malta coast guard, I will thank you in advance.

AFM: Are there any crew members injured?

EH1: Yes, now I have—crews injured on board here. Many people fight with me yesterday because I don’t want to come to Malta. My destination was from Tuzla, Istanbul, to Tripoli, Libya—all the people on board fight with me, broken my vessel, by force. That’s why change the course to Malta. I called the Libyan navy many times but no, they didn’t answer. Also, for put me in the situation, military aircraft, when I proceed from Tripoli, I proceed from the Tripoli port, military call me for change my course for some place and rescue people from the port.

AFM: Captain, instructions for now are to hold the course one-four-five. Course one-four-five.

EH1: One-four-five, to where? To where?

AFM: Wait further instructions, so you are in good stability for the ship. For now, hold the course and wait for further instructions. Minimum speed.

EHI: OK, but please, if you can send to me the coast guard I will thank you, because I am not under command.

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Bari was still asleep on the ship’s bridge when he heard one of the crew members yelling. “Hurry up,” the man barked. “Get out. Your friends are out. The soldiers are coming.”

It was 5:30 a.m. and dark out except for a sliver of peach-colored sun to the east. Maltese special forces had arrived by boat to storm the El Hiblu 1, still a few miles away from land. The soldiers, including members of Malta’s counterterrorism unit, wore tactical gear and balaclavas. They carried automatic weapons. They climbed onto the tanker, and a handful hurried to the ship’s control room. In a video of the raid, edited by the Maltese government to include a triumphant instrumental soundtrack, a soldier waves one arm while holding his weapon with the other, urging two men in the cabin to step away from the window. They both appear to comply with the soldier’s command.

Bari had gone to find Nikavogui. He felt relieved: They were finally in European territory. But Nikavogui was terrified. In her experience, armed soldiers had never meant anything good.

Soldiers manned the El Hiblu 1’s bridge as Maltese ships escorted the tanker to a wharf near Valletta, a harbor frequented by luxury cruise liners. As they pulled into port, the migrants could see TV cameras lining the concrete shore. Police were there, too—they supervised as people disembarked and entered Malta via a gangway painted bright yellow.

Bari and Nikavogui stepped off together. As they did, someone told Nikavogui that Bari couldn’t come with her—he would be put in a different vehicle than the one that would take her to a migrant reception center. Only when she saw zip ties being placed around his wrists did she realize that he was being arrested.

Bari and the other two young men who stayed in the cabin with Nader—both minors whose names Maltese authorities have withheld—were soon charged with nine crimes, including seizing a ship, destruction of private property, confining people against their will, forcibly moving people across a border, and issuing threats of violence. Maltese prosecutors added terrorism riders, which carry a life sentence, to two of the charges.

A judge denied the defendants bail, because they had no means to pay it and no established ties in Malta.

Word quickly reached the media that Nader was also under suspicion. The Times of Malta reported that police were “investigating the possibility that the skipper could have ‘misled’ the authorities by claiming he lost control of the vessel.… Investigators are not ruling out that he could have reported such a situation over the radio to be allowed in Maltese waters.” Police, it turned out, had found no damage to the ship or weapons on board.

Was it possible that Nader had wanted to be a good Samaritan but also avoid criminal charges? If so his concern was well founded: According to OpenDemocracy, more than 250 people in 14 European countries have been arrested, charged, or investigated for aiding migrants. Among them are the crews of NGO ships in the Mediterranean. Operation Sophia had introduced a new complication by compelling civilian ships to return people to Libya.

In the Maltese legal system, a magistrate must decide if there is enough evidence to bring a case to trial, based on testimony, forensics, and other materials. In early April, Cedric Mifsud, a defense lawyer, questioned Nader in court. The El Hiblu 1’s first mate demanded to know why he was being treated as a villain.

Cross-examination of Nader El-Hiblu on April 10, 2019, by defense attorney Cedric Mifsud, with magistrate Aaron Bugeja presiding. Recording provided by a source who attended the hearings; Malta has yet to release official transcripts.

AB: Nobody is saying that you are a criminal. You are explaining what happened. You are a witness. I explained to you your rights before you start to testify, not to do harm to yourself. So please, tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. That is what you swore before Allah. And this what I expect from you, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you, Mr. El-Hiblu. Continue.

CM: I am suggesting that not from the beginning that you wanted to take them to Malta. You had never any intention to take them to Malta. What I am suggesting to you, when you were just a few miles away from Tripoli, the port, and they found out that you were very close, and the 20 to 25 were protesting with the hammers and the tools and the whatever, you called in these three and said, “We have a problem,” and you discussed this problem.

Prosecution: Objection!

AB: Change question.

CM: I am going to suggest to you that with the Maltese authorities, you escalated, you increased, you told them that the problem was far more serious than it was, because you wanted them to leave your ship.

NEH: How?

CM: I’m going to tell you how you did that. That you told them various times that you had no control of the ship when you always had control of the ship.

NEH: I don’t have control, I don’t have—

CM: You told them that your crew members were injured, and it never had any injured. I am suggesting to you that you told the Maltese authorities that the problem—I’m not saying you didn’t have a problem—the problem is far larger than it actually was, because you wanted to end your problem. That you shift your problem on the Maltese army.

NEH: No.

CM: So tell me why you told— There’s a transcript, and I think there are CDs where we can actually hear you say you have injured crew members. Who was the injured crew member?

NEH: I don’t say it like that.

CM: You don’t say like that?

NEH: I don’t say like that, “I have injured crew members.”

CM: You did not say to the Maltese authorities that you have an injury?

NEH: I didn’t say that I have injured.

CM: So the Maltese army is lying?

Five days after Nader’s testimony, the court ruled that the case against Bari and the teenagers could go to trial. Nader wasn’t charged with any crimes. “From the statements from the crew and the immigrants themselves, we didn’t have any suspicion or any conclusive motive that the crew was involved,” Omar Zammit, lead prosecutor on the case and head of the Maltese police’s counterterrorism unit, told me. Soon after the announcement, the El Hiblu 1 departed Malta for Tripoli. Nader and his brother, the ship’s owner, both declined to be interviewed for this story. I wasn’t able to ask Nader about discrepancies between his testimony and what he said at sea, or between what the migrants remembered and what he claimed on the radio.

For its part, the defense team told me that context is everything with the El Hiblu 1 incident. “The prosecution is treating this as a terrorism case and are ignoring the migration case,” said Neil Falzon, a member of the team. In demanding that they not be taken back to Libya, Falzon explained, the migrants were acting in the sincere interest of their safety. A similar argument has held up in court before: In 2018, the Vos Thalassa, a commercial vessel, was called on to save 67 people off the coast of Libya. At first the crew intended to deliver the rescued group to the Libyan coast guard, but when the migrants protested the crew turned the Vos Thalassa toward Italy. Two people were charged with hijacking the ship but cleared of all charges by an Italian court. The judge wrote that the takeover constituted a “legitimate defense” against the prospect of returning to Libya.

Bari’s lawyers made that point before the Maltese magistrate. Zammit, the prosecutor, dismissed it as preposterous. “This is like saying that when my child is sick, I go to steal to help my child,” he said in court.

I brought up this quote when I interviewed Zammit at Malta’s police headquarters, where lofty marble hallways led us to a large dining hall paneled with stone and wood. Zammit was bald and stocky, and he wore a pressed white shirt. I asked what he would do if his child was sick and he couldn’t afford medicine—would he steal it? Zammit fidgeted in his chair. “I prefer not answer that question,” he said. (This was a common refrain in our interview: Zammit was hesitant to share details about an active case.) A crime is a crime, he continued, though punishment can “be mitigated—that’s fair enough.”

Later, as we walked through one of the building’s regal halls, Zammit came back to my question. “If my son were sick, I would do anything to protect him,” he said. He stopped walking when he spoke and looked me in the eye. He started moving again before concluding, “Still, if it was against the law, I would face the consequences.”

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When I met with Bari, he’d been in Malta for three months. He was behind bars at Corradino Correctional Facility, an imposing stone building that has housed prisoners for more than 150 years. It sits in the center of a small town across the harbor from Valletta, and it was calm when I arrived. In Bari’s block, two floors of cells flank a common area, where a long table and benches sat beneath an arched ceiling. Most cell doors were flung open, allowing prisoners to move around. Large ceiling fans circulated the summer air. It was close to 100 degrees and humid, the kind of heat that sets life in slow motion.

Bari and I met in a room where inmates typically speak to their lawyers. It was cramped, with chipped paint and an old wooden door. Two beat-up office chairs sat on either side of a small table. A top-of-the-line security camera watched us from the ceiling.

I asked about his treatment in the facility. Bari shrugged. “It’s been fine,” he said. “But it’s still prison.” Since the court green-lighted his case for trial, there had been two evidentiary hearings. Three more hearings were scheduled but canceled. As of this writing, the trial itself had yet to be scheduled. One of Bari’s lawyers told me that the case could take years to resolve. Until then, Bari and the two other accused would remain in prison.

As we spoke, Bari was sometimes indignant and angry. In other moments, when talking about family, he cried. I offered more than once to end the interview if it was too much for him, but he insisted on continuing. When trying to remember a specific detail about the El Hiblu 1—the ship’s layout, when and where each event occurred—he squinted his eyes in concentration.

Bari said that he’d thought he could make things better by intervening when they spotted Libya. A group of people were angry and protesting, and he defused the situation. Still, sitting in prison, he regretted the choice. “If I had known what was going to happen,” he said with a sigh, looking at his hands on the empty table, “I would have stayed with my wife.” He missed Nikavogui; Fanta, too.

When Bari talked about Nader, he stood and waved his hands in the air. “He told the judge that he’s not afraid of the three of us in the cabin—he was afraid of everyone outside,” Bari said. “And we’re the terrorists?” He sat down again and rubbed his head, as if for an instant he wasn’t sure what to say or do.

Bari had been surprised to learn that Nader was allowed to leave Malta. “He used us to get out of trouble,” Bari said. He took a breath, and when he spoke again there were long pauses between his words: “He betrayed us.”

“If my son were sick, I would do anything to protect him. Still, if it was against the law, I would face the consequences.”

Limbo is painful, but Bari has allies. In May 2019, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Malta to drop the terrorism charges against Bari and his codefendants. A press release noted that some of the migrants saved by the El Hiblu 1 “exhibited clear signs of torture and ill-treatment” from their time in Libya or before. Going back wasn’t a humane option.

In all, 105 people from the rubber dinghy went to an immigration reception center in Marsa, a town across from Valletta’s harbor. They were interviewed by police, seen by doctors, and given the chance to apply for asylum, a process that usually takes between six and eighteen months. After a few weeks, the group dispersed to Malta’s open migrant centers, where residents can come and go freely. Some people in the centers hope to stay in Malta; others want to leave and go to the European mainland. If someone doesn’t apply for asylum, or if their application is denied, they won’t necessarily be deported. Many people remain in Malta and find work in the cash economy. It’s a bureaucratic purgatory: They’re in the country illegally but lack the documentation to leave without being detected. They keep their head down and hope never to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I made contact with some of the people rescued by the El Hiblu 1. Many were worried that speaking publicly could jeopardize their legal situation or cause trouble with the police. I met Nikavogui one day at a café near the migrant center where she’s living. She had a strong, matter-of-fact way of speaking but struggled when talking about Bari. When she reached an emotional point in her story, she would trail off and look down, as if searching for her next word somewhere on the floor. A few seconds would pass before she’d raise her head, take a slow breath, and keep talking.

Without Bari, she felt strange, unsafe, and alone. She’d seen him only once since they’d arrived in Malta. Arranging visits in prison, she said, was nearly impossible. She hoped that the court would find him innocent. “I don’t understand what they want,” Nikavogui said. She told me that she still feels panic when she thinks about being at sea. “I thought we were all going to die,” she said.

Victor, the man from Nigeria, said that Malta wasn’t without problems. Just nine days after the El Hiblu 1 docked in the country, a man from Ivory Coast was killed and two others were injured in a drive-by shooting near one of the migrant centers; police arrested two Maltese soldiers in connection with the crime. Still, Victor said, Malta is better than Libya—anything is better than Libya, he added. He was thankful that he didn’t give up on getting to Europe. Two months after we spoke, a migrant detention center near Tripoli, like the one where Victor spent time before finally making it into the dinghy, was hit by an air strike. At least 53 people died; scores more were badly injured.

Mariama, pregnant when the El Hiblu 1 rescued her, gave birth to her second son four days after arriving in Malta. When we met, she wore the infant strapped to her back, swaddled in fabric. Her older son, who was three, sat nearby sipping juice; he’d been saved by the tanker, too.

Mariama told me that she often thinks about Bari and the teenagers in jail. Without them, where would she and her children be? Perhaps in a Libyan detention center. Perhaps on another rubber raft. Perhaps dead. “They aren’t terrorists,” Mariama said of the three men. “They aren’t criminals.”

She doesn’t hold ill will toward the tanker’s crew. “It’s because of them that we are alive,” she said. “Otherwise our boat wouldn’t have lasted another two hours.”

How long did the rubber dinghy survive? According to recordings of marine radio chatter, Operation Sophia tracked the deflating boat and its six passengers late into the evening of March 26. Then the mission’s planes ran low on fuel and were forced to return to their base. An Operation Sophia spokesperson told me that the El Hiblu 1 eventually picked up the remaining migrants—an account contradicted by those actually on board the tanker.

If by some miracle the dinghy made landfall unassisted, the relevant authorities would know. Maltese and Libyan officials told me that the the boat didn’t reach their countries. Frontex, the European border agency, and the Italian coast guard wouldn’t comment on the matter.

It’s as if, when the dinghy blurred to nothing on the Mediterranean horizon one spring afternoon, it vanished forever.

Masterpiece Theater

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Masterpiece Theater

A Dutch gallerist made thousands of forgeries and passed them off as the work of real artists. When he was caught, a new con began.

By Anna Altman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 94


Anna Altman has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and other publications. She has also worked as a German fiction scout and a German-to-English translator.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Harry Haysom

Special thanks to researchers Maria Hohmann and Stefan Kuiper.

Published in August 2019. Design updated in 2021.

I.

At first the letter read to Mira Feticu like a suicide note. “I am tired of being the guard,” it said. “The story is over. It only brings trouble.”

Consisting of a few short sentences typed on cream-colored paper, the letter wasn’t signed. “It was so dark,” Feticu said later. “I thought, What story? Somebody needs something.” The letter described a remote forest in Romania, Feticu’s native country, and included instructions. “Follow the path. After 450 meters you will find an old tree,” it directed. Nearby was another tree, marked with red paint. “Harlequin lies buried under the rock.”

The letter wasn’t a suicide note—it was a treasure map. The harlequin was Pablo Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin (Harlequin Head). Completed in 1971, two years before the artist’s death, it’s a drawing in ink, colored pencil, and pastel on thick brown paper. The work was part of a private collection that hung in Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum, a pavilion designed by Rem Koolhaas, until the early morning hours of October 16, 2012, when thieves broke in through a back door and made off with the Picasso and six other works, by Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Lucian Freud, and Jacob Meyer de Haan. Experts estimated that the missing items were worth as much as $115 million. Four Romanian men were apprehended, tried, and convicted, but the art was never recovered. The mother of one of the men claimed to have burned it in her kitchen to protect her son; she later retracted her statement, but a forensic analysis of the ash in her stove found traces of what appeared to be nails from art frames used before the end of the 19th century. Some experts believe that at least three paintings went up in flames.

The mysterious letter sent to Feticu in November 2018 suggested that the harlequin drawing had survived. “Can you imagine?” she asked me a few months after she received it in the mail. “The chance to find a Picasso.”

Feticu is an author and poet who lives in the Netherlands. She has a round, youthful face and straight dark hair that she sometimes dyes blond. In 2015, she published a novel called Tascha, based on the story of a girlfriend of one of the Rotterdam thieves, who brought his lover to the Dutch city to become a sex worker. Presumably because of the book, Feticu was the recipient of the letter indicating that whoever had the Picasso drawing wanted to give it up. The note was an invitation: Come get it.

Feticu told me that she contacted the Dutch police, speaking briefly with a detective who had investigated the heist in 2012; he said that he would call her back. When he didn’t, Feticu confided in Frank Westerman, a fellow writer and friend. They decided to go to Romania together.

Five days later, Feticu and Westerman were tromping through a snowy forest in eastern Romania, near the village of Carcaliu, where the thieves were originally from. Following the letter’s instructions, the writers walked until they located a stripe of red paint on a tree. After clearing away snow, leaves, and a thin layer of dirt at the foot of the trunk, Feticu and Westerman found a rock. Underneath, wrapped in plastic, was the treasure they’d hoped would be there. The black ink, the pastel shading, the elongated, contorted face with a bulbous nose, close-set eyes, and deep wrinkles that hardly look like laugh lines—it was the missing harlequin.

Feticu burst into tears. “I was more than excited,” she told me. Holding the Picasso in her hands, she considered how the tragedy of the Rotterdam heist, and the humiliation she felt it cast on Romanians, might be transformed into a story of redemption.

Feticu and Westerman returned to their car, photographed the drawing, and sent the images to news programs in the Netherlands. They then drove to the Dutch embassy in Bucharest, where the Picasso was whisked to Romania’s national art museum. Rather than greeting them as redeemers, the police interrogated Feticu and Westerman for several hours, to make sure the writers weren’t complicit in the heist. “I was a little bit scared, because the Romanian police are not so kind,” Feticu said.

The pair were cleared, and news of their discovery headlined the evening news in Romania. The story quickly spread around the world, picked up by outlets like The Guardian, the Associated Press, and Le Figaro. A sensational crime, an anonymous tip, and a prized work of art buried in the earth made for a remarkable tale. Reporters and art lovers alike were hopeful that authentication efforts would prove that a masterpiece had indeed been found.

Within 24 hours, however, the optimism had evaporated.

Peter Van Beveren, a onetime curator of the collection from which the work was stolen, saw a digital image of the drawing and recognized it as a fake. He noted at least six differences between the work that Feticu had found and the original Picasso: the trajectory of lines, the color tones—“deviations,” as Van Beveren called them. Confirming the curator’s suspicion, Westerman and Feticu soon received email messages from men who had seen the news out of Romania. Picasso hadn’t made the drawing, they said. But they knew who had.


“For as long as mankind has coveted objects for their history, their beauty, their proximity to genius, the forger has been there with a mocking smirk ready to satisfy the demand,” writes Frank Wynne in his book I Was Vermeer, a study of Han Van Meegeren, a notorious art forger who swindled, among others, Hermann Göring. A successful forger has the ability to produce art of high quality, certainly, and also an inside knowledge of the workings of the art world, from its business dealings to its social mores. A forger is a storyteller, even a performer—someone who can charm customers, appear trustworthy, and spin a convincing tale about where an artwork came from and how they came to possess it. To forge art takes showmanship and a healthy dose of chutzpah. Frauds must be willing to brazenly claim that a work is genuine; some go so far as to approach experts or artists themselves and request authentication.

This collection of talents, such as they are, isn’t as rare as it might seem. Fakes are everywhere in the art world. Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, estimated in his 1996 book, False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, that 40 percent of the 50,000-odd works he examined during his tenure at the museum were “either phonies or hypocritically restored,” an idiosyncratic way of saying that someone had added signatures or flourishes to a real piece. Other estimates of how much of the art market is fake range from 20 percent to more than 50. As Wynne points out in his book, this is not a recent phenomenon: In 1940, Newsweek quipped that “of the 2,500 authentic works painted by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 7,800 are in American collections alone.” Some experts believe that museums have the greatest number of forged works, in comparison with galleries and auction houses. Once it’s been acquired, art in museums isn’t likely to be subjected to further scrutiny.

Maybe the least common type of forgery is the presentation of a substitute work for an existing one, as was the case with Tête d’Arlequin. Most fakes fall elsewhere on the scale of falsification, from works of unknown origin upgraded in value by a forged signature, to copies of lithographs or other printed works added to a limited series, to canvases painted in the carefully emulated style of a major artist.

There are plenty of ways for forgers to exploit opportunities in the way art is produced and authenticated. Although the public celebrates solitary genius—one individual being singularly responsible for an oeuvre—renowned artists over hundreds of years have signed pieces produced by the people they employ in workshops. Andy Warhol called his studio the Factory for that reason. Determining what is genuine, made by a particular hand, is a tricky business, and the unregulated ecosystem of trained experts, historical documentation, and scientific techniques used (or not used) for authentication lets through plenty of fakes.

It takes a certain psychology to exploit art’s loopholes: a tendency toward self-aggrandizement, a loose relationship with the truth, and a sense of superiority, particularly vis-à-vis art royalty. Many forgers take a perverse pleasure in thumbing their noses at gatekeeping elites. And forgers can be something of a Rorschach test for the public. The art world, with its exclusivity, money, and pretension, elicits strong, sometimes negative reactions. The idea of someone skilled enough with a paintbrush or pen to fool the rich and powerful can be tantalizing. “To art critics, the forger is a mediocre artist seeking revenge; to the media, a conman interested only in money; to the apologist, he is the equal of the masters he forged; to the public he is often a folk hero,” Wynne writes.

The forger whose work appeared on the Romanian news in 2018 is among the most prolific in modern history. He spent some 20 years duping auction houses, art dealers, collectors, and perhaps even the artists he mimicked. He then spent another 20 capitalizing on his notoriety as a criminal. He painted the Picasso that wasn’t (not his best work, admittedly) and conspired to bury it in Romania.

Since the fake Tête d’Harlequin was uncovered, he has continued to tell his story on his terms—in an attempt to reclaim lost glory, perhaps, or because he believes in the self-mythology he perpetuates. He says that in playing with the line between authenticity and perception, what people know to be true and what they want to believe, he’s pointing out our collective hypocrisy when it comes to art, beauty, and talent. In piecing together his past and tracking him down in the present, I navigated boasting, trickery, contradictions, and unlikely invitations—on the part of the master forger and from people fascinated by his life and work.

II.

One day in late September 1993, Sue Cubitt, an art historian, was sitting at her desk at Karl and Faber in downtown Munich. The 70-year-old auction house held art sales twice a year, and the catalog for the fall auction was nearly due at the printer. Cubitt was going over details of the works that would be on offer when a Dutch dealer came in without an appointment. “He was more like a kind of bureaucrat. He was a sort of unobtrusive character who spoke quite softly,” Cubitt recalled. “He raised no suspicion.”

The man introduced himself as Jan Van den Bergen, and he offered a drawing by Karel Appel for sale. Appel, also Dutch, painted expressive, figurative abstractions, often in bright colors, and he drew inspiration from folk and children’s artwork. Associated with the COBRA group—an acronym for a loose association of artists in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam—Appel was prolific and well-known in the European art scene. That day in 1993, Van den Bergen handed over an Appel drawing created with a brush and pen, in India ink and crayon. Dated 1950, it depicted several crudely drawn figures and was titled Deux Enfants et un Poney (Two Children and a Pony).

While many consigners haggle over a minimum price at which to sell their pieces at auction, Van den Bergen said that he wasn’t picky. Cubitt took the drawing and jotted down some notes so that she could draw up a contract. Van den Bergen gave her an Orléans, France, address for his gallery. Back then, throughout the art world, it wasn’t customary to ask for personal identification—this was a gentleman’s business, and no one wanted to be rude. Unbeknownst to Cubitt, Van den Bergen made other stops around the same time to consign works at auction houses in Bonn, Cologne, Hamburg, and Dusseldorf.

Van den Bergen promised to follow up promptly with the Appel drawing’s certificate of authenticity, which he had neglected to bring with him. Some weeks later, the certificate arrived by mail. It had what Cubitt described as “a very flamboyant Appel signature”—quite large, but with the telltale slanting letters that the artist used. With its authenticity attested to, Karl and Faber decided to put the drawing in its upcoming auction.

Two months later, Cubitt received a fax from Jan Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, the proprietor of Nova Spectra, a gallery in The Hague that represented Appel. Karl and Faber’s auction catalog had come to Nieuwenhuizen Segaar’s attention, and he knew immediately that Deux Enfants et un Poney was not an original work. Concerned, Cubitt informed her boss. In her telling, he wasn’t convinced that he should pull the work from the auction—it already had bids, and Cubitt said he “was keen on every single deal that he could make.” She remembered telling him that they had no choice, not with “negative information”  in hand. “I won, and it did not come under the hammer” of the auctioneer, Cubitt told me.

The fact that Van den Bergen had consigned an inauthentic work didn’t immediately raise eyebrows. Mistakes happen; people don’t always know when they’re handling a forgery. A dealer might be asked by a client to sell an inherited work that turns out to be a fake, or one dealer might mistakenly sell a forgery to another. When a work is considered suspect, an auction house calls an expert—the artist, their primary dealer, a conservator—for verification. In most cases, if the work can’t be authenticated, the house simply declines the sale, explains why, and returns the work to the consigner. “You don’t just run to the police and say, ‘I think something’s wrong, can you deal with it?’” Cubitt explained.

The episode with Van den Bergen might have been forgotten, but six months later, on March 30, 1994, he returned to Karl and Faber. Again it was just days before the house’s auction catalog was due at the printer. Van den Bergen had three items he wished to consign: an ink drawing by Marc Chagall, a gouache by Asger Jorn, and a painting by Appel. Cubitt was on holiday, so her secretary received the items and drew up the necessary paperwork. The contract stipulated a total value of 80,000 deutsch marks (about $50,000 at the time). The auction that would include the works was scheduled for early June.

When Cubitt returned to the office, she found the items waiting for her. “I remember looking at the name of the consigner and thinking, Aha, we have to be very careful here,” Cubitt recalled. She leaned the three works against a wall, facing outward so that she could see them each time she walked past. “I’d come back to them and look at them again and again,” she said.

None of the works was anything special or unusual—the Appel was a bit garish, while the Chagall, in Cubitt’s words, was “decorative, a lot of blue, one of these typical floral bouquets.” But the certificate for the Chagall made her suspicious. It didn’t have several of the usual pieces of information. It lacked a number—akin to that included on an invoice—that would indicate its assigned place in the authentication records of the Comité Chagall, a foundation in Paris that verifies the artist’s work. It bore the foundation’s official stamp but neither an address nor a date of review. Instead, there was a typewritten paragraph attesting to the work’s authenticity.

Then Cubitt noticed a typo. The certificate said that the Chagall had been made “environs 1952.” In French, environs means “in the area of”—whereas environ means “circa.” It isn’t a mistake a fluent French speaker is likely to make. “That’s what really set the alarm bells going off,” Cubitt said.

She consulted experts about all three of Van den Bergen’s latest consignments, reaching out to Nieuwenhuizen Segaar at Nova Spectra to review the Appel, an art historian named Otto Van de Loo to look at the Jorn, and the Comité Chagall in Paris. All of them rejected the works as inauthentic. The Comité said that the certificate for the ink bouquet was a fake, but a good one. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar told The Art Newspaper that the certificate on the Appel was also suspect. “Appel rarely issued certificates,” he said. “When he did, he didn’t sign them like this, nor did he go into details about the technique used.”

Cubitt decided to call the police.


She contacted Ernst Schoeller, the superintendent of the art and antiquities division of the State Office of Criminal Investigations in Stuttgart. A trim man with arched black eyebrows, Schoeller specialized in art crimes, including forgery cases. In response to Cubitt’s tip, Schoeller called several auction houses across Germany. He learned that Van den Bergen had recently offered 35 works to five institutions. The items were of comparatively modest value. The highest reserve price—a minimum amount below which an auction house agrees not to sell—of any of the works was around 37,500 deutsch marks ($22,500) for a Chagall. Still, a fraudulent operation on the scale of dozens of consigned works was notable.

Schoeller’s interest was piqued. By chance, due to other investigations, he’d gone to Paris a few months prior, where he’d procured one of the Comité Chagall’s authentication stamps. Schoeller was quickly able to confirm that the stamp used on the Chagalls that Van den Bergen had consigned was fake—it was the wrong size. Suspecting that he had a seasoned fraud on his hands, Schoeller advised German auction houses not to give Van den Bergen notice that he was being investigated, lest he go dark.

Schoeller traveled to France, where along with local police he arrived at the address that Van den Bergen had given to Cubitt as the location of his gallery. It was on the Rue Maltotiers in Orléans. Except there was no gallery: It was just an apartment building. A visit to an address that Van den Bergen had used in Paris led investigators to a plumbing and bathroom-fixture shop. A woman who worked there said she would occasionally forward Van den Bergen’s mail to yet another address in Orléans, so the police returned there. To Schoeller’s consternation, that address was a front, too—it was the site of an abandoned house. But the tip wasn’t for naught: The post box was the same one listed as a return address on some of Van den Bergen’s fakes when they were delivered to auction houses. It was also where Schoeller found a check from a German auction house for 10,000 deutsch marks (around $6,100).

In a matter of days, their pursuit took Schoeller and the French authorities farther south. In the early morning of May 6, 1994, Schoeller and a phalanx of police arrived in Linazay, a town of only about 200 residents situated between the cities of Poitiers and Bordeaux. At the end of a long driveway of flowering chestnut trees was a twin-turreted, 20-room mansion called Château de la Chaux. (Chaux means “lime,” as in whitewash.) Van den Bergen rented the property for about 5,000 francs ($900) per month.

No one was home. A gaggle of geese cackled in the expansive interior courtyard, threatening to give away the plainclothes police officers who planned to hide among the trees and bushes, waiting for Van den Bergen’s return. The person who eventually arrived was a woman named Ellen Van Baren; she was Van den Bergen’s girlfriend. She drove onto the property in a battered Renault and quickly found herself surrounded. Later, in a TV interview, she recounted seeing between eight and ten police cars, and “one German guy [who] was very excited and asked me all kinds of questions. He walked around the house, and the more rooms we entered, the more paintings we saw, the more excited he got.”

Van den Bergen had all the tools required to produce fake certificates of authenticity, including a bag full of stamps and 30 vintage typewriters used to approximate typefaces from various time periods.

Inside the château, Schoeller found hundreds of artworks that he and the French police suspected were fraudulent. They were attributed to masters like Picasso, Matisse, and Joan Miró. They were arranged in neat stacks, apparently ready for sale. Fake Chagall paintings hung above the stove, drying. Several rooms were designated for a particular artist whose style was being faked. Authorities also found half-finished works, sketches for new ones, contracts with auction houses in Belgium, Switzerland, and New York, and false authentication certificates. Moreover, Van den Bergen had all the tools required to produce fake certificates of authenticity, including a bag full of stamps and 30 vintage typewriters used to approximate typefaces from various time periods. In a dustbin were strips of paper cut from forged certificates to eliminate watermarks, which might have given away the documentation’s true age.

“You know you’ve reached the end of your hunt,” Schoeller said years later in a TV interview. “You’re at the source of the whole evil.” He called the feeling of discovering what was inside the château “sublime.” (Schoeller, now retired, initially seemed willing to discuss the case but ultimately declined to be interviewed for this story; he said that he didn’t want to spend his retirement talking about his work.)

The Telegraaf, a Dutch newspaper, called the cache the largest quantity of fakes ever found in a single location. Schoeller’s investigation estimated that the total value, had the works been sold under false pretenses, was likely more than five million deutsch marks ($3.1 million). Given the scale of production on display, it was difficult to estimate just how many fakes had already entered the market, purchased by unsuspecting buyers before the police caught on. Newspapers reported that forgeries produced at the château had turned up in Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Scandinavia, and the United States.

Scale wasn’t the only issue that made tracking sales difficult. “The works are so damn good,” Schoeller told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten, “that the forgeries are hard to recognize.”


Creating a damn good fake isn’t easy. Beyond a superlative ability to paint, a forger needs materials appropriate to the era in which the real artist worked—canvases, frames, and paint pigments. These can be difficult to source or re-create, and many forgers are found out because of mistakes they made in their choice of supplies. For example, the presence of acrylic paints, which became available in the first half of the 20th century, would readily give away a fake rendition of an old master’s work. Then there’s the process of re-creating the natural aging that artworks undergo, especially oil paintings and works on paper. Temperature, humidity, dust, and dirt all take their toll. Forgers must “damage” a counterfeit to the extent commensurate with its purported age. Experts armed with UV lights, X-rays, and other technology might see right through the lie.

That is, if such intense scrutiny is applied at all. The technology and expertise required for authentication are expensive. While major museums and high-end dealers have the funds to put acquisitions under a magnifying glass, more modest outfits often do not. They rely instead on the trained eyes of employees, the reputations of consigners, and historical documentation of ownership and certification, known in the art world as provenance. Some of the biggest art cons in recent decades relied on compelling backstories. Wolfgang Beltracchi, who along with his wife, Helene, was convicted of selling some $45 million in forged artwork in 2011, concocted an elaborate tale in which Helene inherited a significant collection from her grandfather. The works didn’t have certification, she claimed, because many of them had been looted by the Nazis, and the paperwork was lost in the process. The Beltracchis went so far as to concoct vintage photographs of Helene posing as her grandmother in front of some of the forgeries, which they presented to auction houses and dealers as proof.

Strategy, or deciding what kind of art to fake, is also key. Potentially blockbuster works—oil paintings by Michelangelo, say, that might be worth tens of millions of dollars—are likely to be put through the authentication wringer. Less prized items are not. Prints, works on paper, and gouaches (opaque watercolors) usually sell for less than $10,000 and pass through small auction houses and dealers. It’s much easier to elude detection when the stakes, relatively speaking, are low.

That may have been one reason Van den Bergen forged the types of works he did—smaller-scale compositions on paper rather than oil paintings. But he may have had other, more personal motives. Among the paintings recovered from the château were large-format abstract canvases, filled with geometric shapes in shades of lime green and orange. They were originals of the artist, and Schoeller wasn’t impressed. “He’s a perfect craftsman but not an artist,” the investigator told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. “He has no style of his own.” Perhaps that’s why he’d become a forger in the first place—an abundance of artistic ambition without the vision to realize it. 

One way or another, authorities hoped to get answers from him: Van den Bergen was apprehended at a train station, slightly tipsy, a few hours after the raid at the château. He joined Van Baren in the Orléans jail. As Schoeller and other investigators would learn, it wasn’t the first time that the forger had been detained. And his name wasn’t Jan Van den Bergen—it was Geert Jan Jansen.

III.

Jansen was born in 1943 in Waalre, a town in the southern Netherlands. Today it’s a wealthy enclave, but when Jansen was growing up—just after World War II—life was modest, even austere. His father was a lighting designer and engineer, and Jansen later described his parents in his memoir, published in 1998, as “idealists who liked to hike in their free time. Vegetarians and pacifists who required few creature comforts. Not too much time should be spent on eating and drinking. Anything that looked luxurious was regarded with suspicion.” The family was unpretentious but loved the arts. Jansen recalled going to his first exhibition at the age of three, at the Van Abbe Museum in the city of Eindhoven, where his parents lifted him up so he could see the paintings better. In 1956, the Jansens took their son to the Venice Biennale.

Jansen moved to Amsterdam in the 1960s to study art history. He’d enjoyed painting and drawing from a young age, and he later said that he regretted not attending an art academy. As a student, he visited galleries and auction houses and attended his second Venice Biennale in 1964, describing it as “the Olympic Games of fine arts.” He became interested in the Bergen School, a Dutch expressionist style from the early 20th century. It wasn’t popular among art buyers, so Jansen could purchase original pieces on a modest budget. “As a student, you don’t have money to buy everything you like, so I had to sell one painting in order to pay for another I enjoyed still more,” he later said. “That way I started to get into the art business.”

Jansen’s amateur collecting segued into a vocation. After finishing school, he worked in an Amsterdam gallery called Mokum; founded in the early 1960s, it specialized in realist painters. Later, Jansen set up his own spaces—first Gallery Jakob, and then Gallery Raam. He sold contemporary art collected by a prominent Dutch family. Sometimes he wrote art criticism for a weekly newspaper. He got married and had two sons.

Jansen’s galleries weren’t terribly successful, and he struggled to support his family. His first forgery, a gouache he produced in the mid-1970s, was completed during a particularly slow period at work. He joked—alluding to the unflattering depiction—that the painting could have been a self-portrait. He would later describe the act of creating it as happenstance, but signing it as a Karel Appel original certainly was not. Nor was the decision to consign it to a local auction house or to sit in the back row of the sale watching as bids rolled in. It reportedly went for 2,600 guilders ($1,400), and Jansen later claimed to have recognized the buyer: Aldo Van Eyck, an influential architect who knew Appel personally. Jansen also claimed to overhear Van Eyck boasting to an Amsterdam art dealer that he’d seen the gouache in Appel’s studio and it was easily worth three times what he’d paid for it.

It’s all but impossible to prove whether or not these circumstances are true; both Van Eyck and Appel are now deceased, and betrayals and lies seem to come easily to Jansen. “Honestly, I regretted it. I felt guilty,” he wrote of selling his first fake. “But I couldn’t change anything.” Which, of course, wasn’t true—he could have confessed and righted the wrong. Instead, he forged again.

His second fake was another gouache attributed to Appel, depicting a child with a toy. After that he kept mimicking the Dutch artist, whose work was in demand among buyers. In his licit business dealings, Jansen had handled a number of real Appels, so consigning a few extra ones, albeit fakes, wasn’t likely to raise eyebrows. Appel’s work had a crude quality that was easy to copy—so easy, in fact, that he was the target of many forgers. Moreover, the artist wasn’t always scrupulous about authentication. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar confirmed that, on more than one occasion, Appel mistakenly authenticated fake works attributed to him.

Renée Smithuis, a Dutch dealer active at the same time as Jansen, told me, “Everyone knew that Jansen was forging.” Some people worked with him anyway—Smithuis said she did not—because he sold works at relatively low prices. That was “attractive for many shady art dealers,” Smithuis explained. In some instances, Jansen used fake names for consignments: Van Tongeren, Van Drissel, Van Geren. He later bragged that he had “so many names, I can hardly count them.”

Over the years his schemes grew. He began working with a screen printer to replicate hundreds of Appel lithographs. He branched out, forging the styles of more prominent artists. “For me the excitement was in mastering an artist’s style, and I’ve mastered the entire alphabet of 20th-century artists: Appel, Chagall, De Kooning, Matisse, Picasso,” Jansen later told Wynne, the author of the book about forgery. Jansen also claimed that the quality of a fake was less important than a convincing signature. “I discovered there was a real thrill in the ‘magic-wand effect,’” he said. “You scribble the right artist’s signature in the right place and suddenly doors open.”

In 1981, according to A Small History of Dutch Crime, by Pieter Felter, the Dutch police were tipped off to the existence of a forged Bart Van der Leck painting. The trail, Felter wrote, led to Jansen, who claimed that two disgruntled gallerists in his business circle were the informants. The subsequent investigation led police to search Jansen’s home in the town of Edam, where they confiscated business documents and several paintings. They also found stamps used to produce authenticity certificates, including one from the Asger Jorn Foundation in London. According to press reports, a search of one of the city’s famous cheese factories near Jansen’s home turned up 76 fake Appels that he’d somehow stashed there, though how or why he’d chosen the location eluded investigators.

Jansen and his wife, an art restorer, were taken into police custody. He denied wrongdoing, and the couple spent four days behind bars. Ultimately, no charges were filed. Creating and possessing forged work isn’t punishable under the law. Newspapers reported that the police hadn’t amassed enough evidence of actual crimes—namely, the sale of fakes passed off as originals—and that people negatively affected by Jansen’s con hadn’t come forward to file legal complaints.

According to Jansen, business continued as usual after his release. In 1988, Appel lithographs that seemed to originate with Jansen attracted police suspicion again, in part because a gallery in Amsterdam was selling them at such low prices. Although the history of the legal case is murky, with many details lost in the predigital era of Dutch law enforcement, traces suggest that Henk Ernste, an art dealer, knowingly sold Jansen’s forgeries. Ernste was expelled from Switzerland and deported to the Netherlands, where he was arrested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. He was able to avoid criminal proceedings by agreeing to a financial settlement.  

When police looked for Jansen, however, they couldn’t find him. Jansen separated from his wife and took up with another artist named Ellen Van Baren. He was doing a lot of his dealing in Paris; hoping to avoid detection by Interpol, he and Van Baren moved regularly. They settled in the French countryside in January 1989, five years before Schoeller caught up to them. By then, the statute of limitations had expired for any charges that might have been brought against Jansen in the Netherlands.


After the arrests in 1994, Schoeller issued a triumphant press release laying out the international scope of Jansen’s fraud and lauding the French police for helping bring him in. Schoeller also praised the “vigilant auction house” in Munich that tipped him off—a nod, specifically, to Sue Cubitt. “It now has to be determined how many art lovers were impacted,” the investigator concluded, calling on anyone with a complaint against Jansen to come forward. In France, where Jansen faced prosecution, the maximum penalty for art forgery was five years.

The bar for proving that an art crime has been committed is difficult to clear. Once complainants come forward seeking reparations—usually from the buyers of fraudulent work rather than the artists who’ve been copied—authorities must prove that misrepresentation contributed to the decision to purchase, that a financial loss was suffered, and that the seller had been intentionally deceptive. (Dealers who sell fakes almost always play dumb.) Because the burden of proof is heavy, many forgery cases don’t end up in court unless they concern additional crimes, such as mail fraud or breach of contract.

Jansen acknowledged to police that he had made the 1,600 fakes they found in his château, but he denied selling any forgeries. According to the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, authorities turned up receipts for sales made under false names for a total of 60,000 Dutch guilders (nearly $33,000) over four years. It was something—proof that Jansen was lying about not selling fakes—but not enough, perhaps, to mount a prosecution that would end Jansen’s gambit for good. “It is not much at all for so many works,” Jansen’s lawyer said in an interview.

Schoeller’s call to art lovers who’d been defrauded was followed by a similar entreaty in France, disseminated through radio, television, and other media. According to the Sunday Telegraph, the police in Orléans even displayed some of Jansen’s fakes at its headquarters, purportedly to jog the memories of people who might have done business with Jansen in the past. This created a spectacle more than it produced useful information. Indeed, the authorities’ efforts led to very little in the way of complaints against Jansen.

Frustrated, the French public prosecutor threatened to charge buyers of Jansen’s fakes as accessories to a crime if they refused to help. At that point, according to press reports, two complainants came forward. Allegedly, other defrauded purchasers whom authorities had contacted directly responded with a shrug. Journalists covering the case described one individual saying that he loved the painting he’d purchased from Jansen and didn’t care whether it was genuine or not. Another man, an art dealer, allegedly insisted that what he’d bought was authentic.

Frustrated, the French public prosecutor threatened to charge buyers of Jansen’s fakes as accessories to a crime if they refused to help.

While the case languished, Jansen and Van Baren sat in jail for six months. Jansen spent his time writing a memoir and painting. He claimed that fellow prisoners called him Van Gogh and that the director of the prison joked about wanting to commission two Picasso drawings. Eventually, the pair were released—the state couldn’t legally keep them in custody any longer—but they remained in Orléans on probation for 30 months. The French government confiscated Jansen’s passport so he couldn’t travel. “Without an identity card, you can’t rent a house, you can’t open a bank account. Friends, my family wanted to send me money—it was not possible,” Jansen later complained. He also had to check in with the police regularly. In a profile from this period, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant described him showing off his best fake signatures, including those of Picasso and Matisse, on a napkin at a restaurant. An hour later, he signed his own name at a required police visit. “I had almost forgotten how,” Jansen quipped to an officer.

When his probation ended, Jansen moved to Antwerp, Belgium. “Not because he fears problems in the Netherlands,” a sympathetic, perhaps credulous news report said of his decision not to go home, “but because of a scarcity of houses.” Jansen continued to paint, but he had a new scheme: He sold his derivative works—“lookalikes,” he called them—under his own name, hoping to profit from his scandalous public persona. He finished the memoir he’d begun writing in jail. He called it Magenta: Adventures of a Master Forger.

By 2000, the French had pieced together enough evidence to put Jansen on trial, but it was a limp across the finish line. Only one accuser appeared in court—a second failed to show. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Jansen promised to reimburse the claimant. He was convicted and given a year in prison, with four years of probation. His sentence was suspended because of the time he’d already served. Van Baren, for her part, denied collaborating with Jansen. “I transported a few things, but I thought they were real,” she said at the time. She was charged and convicted as an accessory, and her sentence was also suspended for time served. The Algemeen Dagblad headlined its coverage of the trial, “French justice department has to let go of ‘the swindle of the century.’” The paper also referred to the result of the case against Jansen as a “black day for justice in France.” Jansen’s lawyer mocked the court’s inability to pin charges on the couple. “Speaking in artistic terms,” he said, “it wasn’t a masterpiece.”

Causing further embarrassment to the French, Jansen responded with a complaint of his own: He wanted some of his artwork back. The lot was being stored at the Palais de Justice in Paris. Authorities didn’t want forgeries flooding the art market, so a court had ordered them destroyed; the plan was to burn the lot in an incinerator at the Louvre. Other works, including Jansen originals, could be sold off, the court said, “if it could be established that they were indeed genuine.” Jansen, worried that the authorities would make mistakes and that real works would meet a fiery end, demanded that approximately 200 works of true value be returned to him. He described them as small pieces by major artists that he’d bought either because he liked them or as research for his fakes. On a list Jansen submitted to the court of works to be salvaged were paintings, watercolors, and etchings by Rembrandt, Miró, Picasso, Magritte, Matisse, Leo Gestel, and Sal Meijer.

A French judge ruled against Jansen’s request to recover the items. As an article in the Telegraaf explained, determining which works were real would incur sizable costs to the state. Jansen was livid, telling the press, “If the judge doesn’t want to investigate what is real and what is fake, then you shouldn’t burn them. I already accepted the loss of the value of the works a long time ago. But it is just a principle, it is not right.”

Jansen refused to take no for an answer, and he had an unlikely ally in Rudi Fuchs, the director general of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In a written statement, Fuchs argued that the collection shouldn’t be destroyed: It included several works he considered to be genuine. (He stressed that his plea was not a defense of Jansen.) The Dutch secretary of culture, Cees Van Leeuwen, also weighed in, emphasizing that the real works needed to be identified and saved.

In 2005, more than a decade after Jansen’s arrest, a French court agreed to let him recover some of the works from the château. According to Jansen, the returned items were a hodgepodge of genuine and fake art, because the experts whom the French justice system had summoned weren’t up to the task of making correct determinations. “These people were mostly the same ones who authenticated my work as real for the previous ten years,” Jansen later said derisively in a TV interview. He continued to tell the press that the French were going to destroy genuine works. “Among the lots to be burned is a Miró I bought at auction at Drouot in Paris,” he said in one instance. “Nothing is wrong with that one, and I even have the purchase receipt, but it won’t be released.” Jansen added, “That the experts are incapable of authenticating those works doesn’t give them the right to simply destroy them.”

Ultimately, it isn’t clear how many works, if any, were burned. Jansen didn’t go back to France to get what the court allowed him to retrieve; he still feared arrest. Instead, Van Baren drove a truck across the border to pick up the trove. Many of the returned paintings were damaged, Jansen claimed, with canvases coming off their stretchers. Some looked like they’d been stored in standing water.

Jansen described their condition as yet another sign of elite hypocrisy. His own criminality, he insisted, wasn’t so egregious. “I know I did something that is not allowed,” Jansen told De Volkskrant. “But I don’t think anyone is worse off for it.”

IV.

That line became something of a professional philosophy for Jansen, and it permeates Magenta, his memoir. The book is an uncontested account of his life, told exactly as he wishes. It is nonetheless revealing about the psychology of a man obsessed with both deceit and attention. Throughout the text, Jansen jumps around chronologically, revisiting his childhood and art-history studies alongside what he considers to be the greatest, and most audacious, hits of his criminal career. He admits to not being great with dates or figures—a convenient hedge against accusations that he may have gotten details in the book wrong—and he is forthcoming about his flexible approach to truth. “I have the habit, in all circumstances, of being silent or lying,” he writes. But just three pages later, he claims that he doesn’t “enjoy lying.”

Jansen boasts of petty crimes, like sneaking out the back door of a hotel so he wouldn’t have to pay, and other, more serious ones, like stealing money from the Swiss bank vault of a colleague. His version of the events surrounding his 1994 arrest boldly contradicts other people’s accounts, as well as known facts. He writes that Sue Cubitt was freshly hired at Karl and Faber when he consigned an Appel to her; in fact, she’d been working there for more than a decade.

Similarly, he devotes considerable space to his disciplined silence in the face of interrogations about the works recovered at his chateau, though a London Times article from May 1994 told a different story. Describing an “Ali Baba’s cave of art fakes,” the article reported that Jansen “accepted responsibility for the works discovered in the raid.” The report continued, “After his arrest, Mr. Jansen displayed his talent to the investigating judge, reproducing several famous artists’ signatures.”

In Magenta, Jansen gloats about seeing his fakes in galleries from London to New York, in museums, and in the catalogs of reputable auction houses, but he demurs on the details of the works and where he sold them. (People who’ve had dealings with Jansen, including Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, Appel’s gallerist, and Smithuis, the Dutch art dealer, refute the claim that Jansen sold to reputable museums outright.) Jansen also describes visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he says he took the liberty of signing paintings in Warhol’s name in front of the artist himself. Afterward, Jansen says, Warhol asked him to drop his pants so that he could take a Polaroid. Jansen uses the anecdote to brag that he’s well-endowed.

Jansen describes visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he says he took the liberty of signing paintings in Warhol’s name in front of the artist himself. 

The arrogance on display in Magenta is evident in interviews that Jansen has given since the events in France. “Even I find it crazy to think I’ve created genuine Picassos. But every time I look in the catalogue raisonné of his work, there they are,” he told Wynne. The implication is that once the art world accepts a work as genuine, for all intents and purposes it is. But there’s also delusion in his thinking, namely the idea that someone mimicking an artist can meaningfully add to an authentic oeuvre. Jansen goes even further: If fakes are as good as the real thing, aren’t they worth celebrating? “When a musician reproduces a sonata of Bach, one applauds him. Me, I reproduce a sonata of Picasso and I am placed under arrest,” he lamented to the CBC in 2008.

Jansen loves to cast himself as a victim, suggesting that early in his career he was naive to play by the rules of the art world and trust that it wasn’t corrupt. He complains that people would sell work for him and never give him the money he was owed. Eventually, desperation led him to change tack. “I simply couldn’t afford the rent anymore. Gas and electricity were turned off, the bailiffs were at the door. That kind of misery,” he once said. He turned to forgery, which only showed him how venal and greedy the art world was, how full of mercenaries and, at times, how willfully ignorant. “Most art dealers and gallery owners are interested in earning money,” Jansen writes in Magenta. “An art dealer who has invested in a work doesn’t want to look for mistakes in the painting anymore, that doesn’t interest him. A dealer wants to earn and tries to find a customer as soon as possible.”

He spins anecdote after anecdote, all with the same purpose: to illustrate that what he did was well within the bounds of the sketchy behavior the art market routinely tolerates or even encourages. One of his favorite stories—impossible to confirm—is about a fake Picasso that he sold to a London collector. During the sale, the collector wasn’t satisfied with the provenance documentation, so he insisted that he and Jansen approach Picasso together to verify the work. Picasso’s response, according to Jansen, was elliptical: “How much did you pay for that? That much? Well, in that case it’s a real Picasso.”

Jansen has gone so far as to brag about his devil-may-care attitude, which he says reveals the art world’s flaws. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Morgan, he said that he once finished some fake certificates of authentication in the early morning, mere hours before consigning the works. In Magenta, he describes slapdash methods of aging his fakes, from emptying a vacuum bag full of dust onto canvases to leaving works under a doormat for weeks. “The footsteps do wonders,” he says. He writes of one fake getting wet from either cat urine or spilled beer; it didn’t matter which. He sold it anyway. To achieve craquelure, the network of fine cracks that appear over time and indicate a painting’s vintage, Jansen describes leaving works on top of a hot oven or putting watercolors out in the sun. He also claims that once, when a thunderstorm scattered gouaches he was drying on a balcony, he inadvertently stepped on a few in his haste to recover them, leaving footprints. He decided to consign the gouaches anyway, and he recalls the dealer who bought them insisting that the marks were proof of authenticity—only an artist would walk on his own work.

Jansen wants people to see his adversaries as ridiculous, unworthy of sympathy or any claim on the truth. It’s a pompous take, certainly, and his musings on the nature of quality conveniently gloss over the value that comes from knowing whose mind conceived a work and whose labor created it. Jansen has expressed pride that his forgeries were never found out for stylistic reasons—it was documentation, like errors on certificates, that exposed him—but Nieuwenhuizen Segaar disagreed. “Jansen doesn’t want to be betrayed by his work, by gouache or ink, but by text,” the gallerist told me. “He’s always trying to put himself in a better light than he is.”

Nieuwenhuizen Segaar pointed out that, arguably, the beginning of the end of Jansen’s criminal career was his recognition of the fake Appel drawing in the Karl and Faber catalog. If not for that, would Cubitt’s suspicions have been aroused when Jansen returned with another consignment? Would she have scrutinized the Chagall certificate, noticed the typo, and set off a police investigation? “He’s not a big forger. They don’t exist!” Nieuwenhuizen Segaar exclaimed, taking issue with the very idea of expert counterfeiters. “If they are big forgers, they make their own paintings.”


After the trial in France, Jansen did create his own work, in the style that Schoeller once dismissed as pedestrian. Jansen boasted that he had “developed a method” of painting abstract canvases by using a teapot to pour acrylic paint in graphic patterns. Occasionally, he found venues to show his work. Cubitt told me about going to the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht about a decade after Jansen’s conviction. She took a wrong turn and ended up on a deserted industrial street. At the end of it was a huge sign bearing Jansen’s name, advertising an exhibition. “I thought, Am I going in? Will he recognize me? Will he shoot me?” Cubitt recalled.

She did go in, and Jansen didn’t recognize her. “His paintings were, as you’d imagine, a kind of very ugly version of Karel Appel,” Cubitt said. “Really hideous color. There were a lot of them, and they were big.” She added, “It was quite interesting to see that he was back doing something he’d never been successful with.”

Jansen profited more by emphasizing his talents and history as a forger. With his so-called lookalikes, instead of expertly copying signatures and forging authenticity certificates, he presented the paintings as the work of “Geert Jan Jansen in the style of.…” He even copied famous paintings. Van Gogh’s Red Vineyard and Thatched Cottages at Cordeville, Klimt’s The Kiss, Monet’s water lilies—Jansen forged them all. He began advertising his versions of famous works in the Telegraaf and other Dutch newspapers; in at least one case, he offered a free silkscreen print in the style of Picasso, Matisse, or Klimt to anyone who purchased a DVD detailing his career as a forger. “Nowadays, Jansen lives as a well-respected artist,” the ad read. “But how did he once end up on the wrong track? What role did the art market play? What is the secret behind his fabulous technique?”

Jansen was offering supply to meet demand: The public was fascinated by him. In 1999, he appeared on an episode of The Black Sheep, a Dutch TV show that brings controversial figures on stage to confront a panel of their critics. During his appearance, Jansen came face-to-face with several dealers and collectors he’d defrauded and experts he’d tricked. Other people were brought in not for any past interactions they’d had with Jansen but for their representative opinions. Then there was a couple that had purchased one of Jansen’s forgeries; rather than press charges when they learned the truth, they’d opted to open a museum devoted to fake art in a small Dutch town.

Nieuwenhuizen Segaar was there—he was irate—and so was Smithuis, the Dutch art dealer, who rose in partial defense of Jansen. “I like the man, and I also think he is a criminal,” she said. “I don’t justify what he did, but it’s not Mr. Jansen alone who is hypocritical.” Jansen came across as more celebrity than crook. Asked by the host why he agreed to go on the air with his critics, Jansen replied wryly, “Because I am the black sheep, and they are the herd.”

When I contacted her for this story, Smithuis elaborated on the hypocrisy she’d mentioned on the show. She explained, namely, why she thinks people were loath to press charges against Jansen. “Of course they did not complain to him (or the police),” she wrote in an email. “That would affect their ‘good’ name.” We talked, too, about a mystery: Did Jansen’s forging make him rich? It’s hard to say without access to his financial records. According to the Sunday Telegraph, at the time of his arrest in 1994, Jansen had about £100,000 (approximately $150,000) in seven bank accounts. The French police commissioner who worked the case, a man named Jean-Claude Colin, speculated at the time that Jansen had “fat bank accounts” in Europe’s tax havens.

Smithuis is skeptical that Jansen ever had money socked away. If he’d really been wealthy, she pointed out, more people would have tried to sue him. “He was a small painter with a big mouth, an amiable appearance,” she told me, “a man who presented himself much bigger than he was.”

V.

Jansen’s career didn’t repel everyone. His hubris, his outspoken personal philosophy, and his hunger for publicity brought him to the attention of two theater directors several years after the case in France. The resulting creative relationship was the reason Jansen forged a Picasso that wound up under a tree in Romania, duping Mira Feticu. That con, in turn, was the reason I began reporting this story—and why I eventually found myself fuming in a dark auditorium in Germany.

Yves Degryse and Bart Baele run an experimental theater company in Belgium called, improbably, Berlin. They first collaborated with Jansen in a 2014 production called Perhaps All the Dragons, a roundtable of 30 individual monologues detailing real but unusual lives. Jansen’s was one. Sensing there might be more to say, the directors concocted a new production focused wholly on Jansen. Considering the artists whom Jansen liked to emulate, and given the works lost in the high-profile Rotterdam heist, Degryse and Baele came up with a concept that linked the life of the master forger with the fallout of the crime. “The idea was very quickly there,” Degryse told me, “and then the preparation took many months.” Berlin decided to call the piece True Copy. (Jansen also takes credit for the title.)

The convoluted plan went like this: Jansen forged the Picasso drawing stolen from Rotterdam and gave it to the directors, who took it to Romania. They buried the drawing and set up a surveillance camera in a nearby tree. Then they sent out six anonymous letters—three to people in Romania and three to individuals in the Netherlands. Among the recipients were journalists, an art detective, and Feticu. The directors waited to see if anyone showed up in the woods. If someone did, Degryse and Baele hoped that the Picasso would be authenticated and perhaps even restored to its collection.

In the meantime, True Copy debuted in Antwerp in early November 2018, just days before Feticu and Westerman went searching for the forged Picasso. Jansen was billed as the star, taking to the stage to talk candidly about his career as a fraud. In early performances, audiences learned of what was happening in Romania via video screens that showed footage of the harlequin drawing being buried and of the empty forest. If someone came looking for the work, audiences were told, that denouement would be incorporated into the show. Indeed, once Feticu and Westerman arrived, film of them digging up the Picasso became part of the play.

According to Berlin’s directors, what they did in Romania wasn’t a publicity stunt or a joke—it was a test to see how far a forgery could go before the art world realized it was being conned or was willing to admit it. The aim, the directors said in a press release after Feticu’s discovery became international news, was “to find out at which point in the process things would falter, with whom and why.” Would an expert point out discrepancies? Or would the desire for a work to be returned to its rightful place win out? As Baele put it in an interview with a British newspaper, “Isn’t it much more refreshing to go along with a beautifully packaged lie?”

Degryse told me that the project had even higher-minded intentions. What if a forger could use their talents for good? So much art has been lost, stolen, or destroyed in the world—what if Jansen could offer the “gift,” as Degryse put it, of restoration? Berlin imagined a scenario in which a beloved work of art was found, the world rejoiced, and that was the end of it. “Nobody knows it’s a fake,” Degryse said. “That was the ultimate goal.”

It didn’t come to pass. Jansen’s fake was found out, and quickly. The ruse was revealed when the Berlin directors contacted Westerman and Feticu to explain what they’d done.  True Copy continued its run, touring cities in Europe. Berlin publicized the show as putting Jansen “center stage,” so in May 2019 I booked a ticket to see it in Germany. Degryse mentioned that there was a twist in the performance—did I want to know what it was? Assuming it was something best experienced in a theater, I said that I would wait.

Up to that point, I’d had trouble getting ahold of Jansen. Degryse said that it wouldn’t be a problem to interview the star. I boarded a plane wondering which version of Jansen I would finally meet.


When Jansen took the stage, he looked younger and healthier than I’d expected—the directors had told me that the 75-year-old was recovering from a recent bout of pneumonia. He appeared as he did in photos, with large blue eyes, thick lips, and a balding pate trimmed with tufts of gray hair. He wore brown trousers, a blue button-down shirt, and a wide-lapel blazer. He kept a pair of plastic-frame glasses on a lanyard around his neck; sometimes he perched them on his forehead.

The set included a gallery wall, dense with video screens in gilded frames displaying images of some of the most famous paintings in the world, as rendered by Jansen’s hand. A modest wooden table was positioned at the front of the stage, where at times Degryse and Jansen sat talking. The script borrowed heavily from Magenta, and it was almost entirely a monologue. Jansen expounded on his theories of authenticity, quality, and storytelling. He rehashed his favorite anecdotes, like the one about emptying vacuum bags on his work. He went on at length about art dealers who “weren’t exactly guilt-free themselves,” because they often didn’t really care whether works were real or not. “They all skirted the issue. Mentioning it meant incriminating each other,” Jansen said. So what if he exploited people and took a tiny piece of a lucrative pie? He bragged that he’d never had an unsatisfied customer.

Though he explained how he made fakes, Jansen didn’t show the audience his process—at least, not immediately. Creating art was meant for the studio, he said, so Berlin built one for him behind the set, in an unseen space that he sometimes retreated to down a narrow passage, with a camera operator on his heels. What Jansen did in the studio appeared before the audience via video feed on the set’s gallery wall. That way the forger retained the privacy he required to make his art while viewers got the voyeurism they’d been promised.

Everything Jansen said went unopposed; the play wasn’t interested in juxtaposing his distorted positions with arguments against what he’d done. Degryse told me that Berlin had considered bringing other perspectives into True Copy but decided against it, so that audiences would get an unadulterated take on the ideas that sustained Jansen. “It was better to make the extreme choice to let him talk,” Degryse said.

The auction got my blood pumping—this must be the twist, I thought. Even if the painting was a fake, and not a very convincing one, what a great story it would make for whoever bought it. 

At one point in the show, Degryse, clad in black jeans and leather boots, took on the role of an auctioneer. One of Jansen’s paintings—a large portrait similar to those Picasso painted of his lover Dora—was on the block. “It’s perfectly legal,” Degryse reassured the audience. “We just have to agree on one thing: The work we are auctioning was made by Geert Jan Jansen but bears the signature of the original artist. In here it’s a Geert Jan Jansen, but the moment you leave the room, that changes.… If you buy it and hang it up in your house, to the outside world it becomes genuine.” Degryse assured the audience that the auction was real, that bids were binding. They would start at 2,000 euros ($2,200).

The auction got my blood pumping—this must be the twist, I thought. Even if the painting was a fake, and not a very convincing one, what a great story it would make for whoever bought it. In spite of myself, I found myself yearning to bid. Uncertain what to make of Degryse’s insistence that the auction was real, however, and without 2,000 euros at my disposal, I kept my hands in my lap. (Degryse later told me that many winners never claimed their lots. Berlin had sold only six of Jansen’s paintings by the time I saw the show, despite dozens of performances.)

The audience’s mood had been loose since the opening curtain. People laughed loudly, including at Jansen’s quip that “an Appel a day keeps the doctor away.” Were they taking at face value the claim that Jansen did no harm? I asked the man sitting next to me why he found it all so funny. “I guess not knowing what’s true and what’s not,” he replied with a shrug. But the audience’s laughter didn’t sound uneasy. It sounded like they felt they were in on a joke.

The final scenes of the play included footage from Romania: Degryse and Baele mounting their camera and leaving the forest. Feticu and Westerman digging in the ground. A gasp, a shriek, Feticu crying. Romanian police setting up a perimeter of yellow tape. Word ricocheting around the world that the Picasso had been found.

As the video vignette concluded, the play’s background music grew moodier. Then there were two voices: Jansen speaking on stage and another man, unseen, speaking from the art studio. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to keep quiet,” Jansen said, as if irritated. “Why are you interrupting me, Geert Jan?” Suddenly, he was referring to the voice backstage by his own name. “Why can’t the work of a real—a good—master forger be a masterpiece?”

As he spoke, the man on stage fumbled at his neck, loosening his collar. He let his glasses hang on their lanyard and removed his microphone. And then he reached with both hands into the neck of his undershirt and peeled off a full-head mask. Underneath was a balding man, his bare head glistening with sweat from more than an hour under stage lights and latex. Without looking out at the audience, the man walked into the hidden studio, where the audience could see him on video drawing up next to—yes—Jansen. The real one, it seemed. Jansen introduced the man in the mask as Luk Sponselee, an actor. “Tonight, and the coming nights, you are Geert Jan Jansen,” the real Jansen said. “Not really, but it’s not a monstrous lie either. Very authentic.”

The music became a steady drone. In the play’s final moments, the gallery wall rotated, slowly revealing the hidden studio. But inside, where we expected to see Jansen and his double, there was nothing. Just darkness—an abyss—with one narrow, piercing light shining out at the audience.


Degryse and Baele had a talking point they used in interviews: What if you’re looking at a work of art and it moves you, and then someone whispers in your ear that it’s fake? Your emotional experience of the artwork changes, but why? Is the change valid? The directors seemed to be arguing that devaluing art based on its origins is an acquired prejudice, something that benefits the market but not the viewer. Art can be beautiful—and stay beautiful—no matter its origin, and we should question why we value the aesthetic quality of an image less than the aura of the person who made it.

True Copy mimicked the experience that Degryse and Baele described. The audience believed that it was seeing Jansen, and there was a strange frisson, a mise en abyme, in observing someone who’d built a career on lies tell what he claimed was the truth. It was part of the reason I traveled so far to see the show. Would I find him believable? Impressive? Charming? What would I have made of Jansen if he had walked into an auction house where I worked and tried to sell me a drawing?

Instead, viewers of the play were confronted with the familiar distance of theater. We weren’t watching Jansen at all, but an actor, someone taking on a life that he’d never lived. We didn’t learn anything about Jansen’s believability or self-presentation. Instead, the theater directors played with the distance between what we expected—and were told to expect—and reality. I found the conceit cheap, but it played well. The rest of the audience seemed enchanted. During a Q&A after the performance, one person told Degryse that the decision to use an actor instead of Jansen himself was a gift.

VI.

I knew before I went to Germany that Feticu was angry about what had happened in Romania. “It has not been a joke for me. My whole life was turned upside down,” she wrote in an email. Westerman had a different reaction. “I ended up in a work by Eugen Ionescu,” he told one news outlet. Feticu and Westerman had invited the men behind True Copy to speak to them about the whole episode on a Dutch TV program, but they declined. “She accuses us of having misled her on this journey. I do not understand that,” Degryse told a newspaper reporter. “The profession involves certain risks.” (He seemed to mean journalism, though that isn’t Feticu’s primary vocation.)

Feticu, who is publishing a short book about the debacle, called Picasso’s Downside, said that she didn’t think it made much sense for a convicted criminal—a counterfeiter, at that—to be given a platform for spouting lessons about authenticity. Art should be a playground for experimentation and expression, she said, but there should be limits imposed by human decency.

After the play, I was less interested in heady concepts and skillful sleights of hand than in the fact that Jansen was nowhere to be seen. I had come ready for an interview. Was he in the theater somewhere? Was he even involved with the show? Had he painted the Picasso, or were there endless layers—and lies—to the clever deceits True Copy unspooled?

I returned to my hotel room and looked back through my correspondence with Degryse. Yes, he had said that arranging an interview wouldn’t be a problem. I looked at the press release for True Copy, and yes, it was there: “Berlin puts Geert Jan himself on stage.” There was a suggestive quote from Jansen, though. “The only one who never gets any recognition is the forger,” he said. “Unless he is unmasked.” And then I reread reviews of the play. One, on the Arts Desk website, said that Jansen is “present” before musing that “even writing this I’ve become an accessory to Berlin’s fibbing, for not everything written above is fully true.” No one revealed the secret. (For his part, Degryse would have preferred I not reveal it, either.)

When I confronted Degryse, sitting in the grass in a park near the theater the day after the performance, he wasn’t overly apologetic about misleading me—even though I had crossed an ocean and was, as it happened, visibly pregnant. “There are more people who don’t trust me anymore after True Copy,” Degryse said. “Maybe I should have said beforehand, it’s really an important question, this question of how much do you want to know.” I asked again if he could arrange the interview he’d promised, and Degryse called Jansen on his cell phone. It seemed clear that he’d never mentioned me to Jansen before. Degryse set a date for an interview, but I would have to go to the Netherlands, to Jansen’s estate.

That’s how I found myself about an hour outside Utrecht, in a car with Berlin’s communications officer, going up a long driveway toward a 15th-century château on the banks of the meandering Kromme Rijn river. The home’s monumental facade was fronted by symmetrical, curving staircases. This is only one of Jansen’s homes—he also spends part of the year in Italy. He still lives with Ellen Van Baren, who rode her bike past our car on her way to her own painting studio.

Jansen greeted us at the top of the stairs in slate-green slacks, a purple linen shirt, and a cardigan. His glasses were on a lanyard around his neck. The château was impressive and generous, with high ceilings and elaborate stucco. It was shabby, too, with peeling paint and cracked plaster in every room. Modest belongings were scattered around. Jansen’s bed, surrounded by stacks of paintings, had a thin coverlet on it.

Like the La Chaux estate where Schoeller had found Jansen’s stash of fakes, the mansion hosted several studios, each peppered with the detritus of a painter: rolled up tubes of paint, dirty brushes, tilted easels, half-finished canvases. Jansen told me, in occasionally halting English, that he paints every day, sometimes on several canvases, in the styles of various artists. Nearly every room had several canvases hung on the walls. Jansen has boasted that he doesn’t copy works, that he “adds his own” to an existing series (say, for example, Monet’s haystacks), but the paintings at his château told a different story. Here were Vincent Van Gogh’s irises, Edward Hopper’s lonely diner patrons, Vermeer’s streetscapes. (Now that he’s no longer constrained by the need for convincing historical materials, Jansen makes more premodern fakes.) There were white, gessoed canvases covered in nothing but Jansen’s rendition of Picasso’s signature. There was even a Banksy—the only contemporary artist, Jansen said, that he’s interested in copying.

The Vermeers and Rembrandts didn’t appear believable at all—more like gestures, the kind of knockoff a certain type of collector who loved a particular artist might purchase knowing full well that it wouldn’t fool anybody. The Klimts offered slightly better approximations of the real thing. More striking than the quality of any particular painting, however, was the overwhelming preponderance of work and the sheer variety of output. Upstairs in an attic lit by a massive skylight were piles upon piles of paintings—hundreds of them, uncatalogued, a practice Jansen had always resisted lest a record be used against him in court. There were originals and fakes, some in elaborate gilded frames, others naked. They were all left open to the elements. Dead flies littered one corner of the floor.

After touring the house, Jansen and I sat to talk in the kitchen, which was lined with open cabinets that revealed mismatched dishes. Stroopwafels sat in a box on the counter beside an IKEA lamp; a fake version of Monet’s water lilies hung on the wall.

Upstairs in an attic lit by a massive skylight were piles upon piles of paintings—hundreds of them, uncatalogued, a practice Jansen had always resisted lest a record be used against him in court.

Jansen told me that working on True Copy allowed him to speak—really speak—for himself. “I’ve had a lot of publicity and interviews, but when I see it in the newspaper, it’s a little bit different. They use words I would never use. Even things I detest,” he complained. (Magenta, it seemed, wasn’t enough of a platform for him.) He called the French justice system his biggest promoter. “They told everybody they couldn’t see the difference. They called me the most important art forger of the century,” Jansen said. I recalled, too, the ad hoc exhibition of his work at the Orléans police station. Jansen smiled slyly as he recapitulated some of his elaborate theories, including that his fakes had been a boon to the artists he copied. He’d helped ones with smaller oeuvres, for instance, gain recognition. “I took a lot of work out of their hands,” he said. There was no sense that he had done the artists any wrong.

Jansen was friendly, even solicitous—he was proud to show off his château and the multitudinous works showcased within it. But he also seemed tired, his performance perfunctory, like his heart wasn’t in the rehearsed show he was putting on. I heard once more about Aldo Van Eyck claiming to have seen Jansen’s forgery in Appel’s studio, about Picasso’s response to an expensive fake, about a prison director in France who’d asked Jansen to make him his own faux masterpiece. Jansen had his sound bites, and he intended to stick to them.

Was it all worth it, I asked, the course he’d taken? Did he ever lose sleep over his crimes? Jansen’s response was quick and blasé. “Oh no,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”

Where he seemed less practiced was when we discussed his original works. He wanted to do more of them, he said, but forgery, even when forthright, brought in more money. He didn’t have gallery representation and wanted it. For the time being, he invited people to his castle once a month for what he called an exhibition. On a table by the front door was a sign-up sheet for his mailing list with half a dozen names scrawled on it—real ones, presumably, written by the people authorized to sign them.

The Heart Still Stands

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The Heart Still Stands

Red Fawn Fallis found love and purpose on a Dakota prairie. She thought it would save her life. Instead, she went to prison.

By Elizabeth Flock

The Atavist Magazine, No. 90


Elizabeth Flock is a Peabody and Emmy-nominated journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker who focuses on stories about gender and justice. Her work has appeared on PBS NewsHour and in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications. Her first book, The Heart Is a Shifting Sea, a study of love and marriage in contemporary Mumbai, was published by Harper in 2018.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Matt Giles
Illustrator: James Dawe

Published in April 2019. Design updated in 2021.

A statue of a pioneer family stands in front of the state capitol building in Bismarck, North Dakota. A mother cradles a baby, a son leans against a wagon wheel, and a father peers into the distance. The monument represents the settlers who built lives on the banks of the Missouri River after staking their claim to land occupied for centuries by the Mandan Indian tribe. The descendants of white pioneers now spend their days in Bismarck’s banks and office buildings, pool halls and bingo parlors, Chinese buffets and five-and-dimes. Americana is ubiquitous here. Many trucks and Harley-Davidsons cruising the city’s streets are emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes.

The Burleigh Morton County Detention Center, a concrete complex next to a field of heat-withered grass, flies the flag, too. On a July morning in 2018, I drove there to interview a prisoner whose story is uniquely American, though perhaps not in the way many North Dakotans like to think of the word. Her name is Red Fawn Fallis, and her 2016 arrest was the kind of dramatic incident that splashes across the media and is replaced just as quickly—a story of limited interest to most people, but a crisis for those affected by it. In Indian country, including much of North Dakota, this pattern is all too familiar.

Fallis is a member of the Oglala, one of seven bands of the Lakota Sioux. In photos that I’d seen she was striking, with a steady gaze, a sweep of black hair, and a closed-mouth smile that suggested she knew something others didn’t. A tattoo of a galloping horse covered the left side of her neck. At the jail, a clerk directed me to a back room, where a row of stiff plastic chairs faced what looked like pay phones with video screens. When one of the screens crackled on and Fallis’s face appeared, she looked different. She wore an orange jumpsuit and had tired, swollen eyes; she seemed worn out by the 21 months she’d spent in custody. When she spoke, her voice was soft but certain. She was sure of the story she wanted to tell.

I asked her to take me back to October 2016, to the day she was accused of firing a gun at a police officer. Instead, she began a few months earlier, when she met a man named Heath Harmon. As she said his name—Heath—her tongue stuck between her teeth for an instant, as if encountering a bone. Harmon had stopped Fallis short the moment she met him, with his clean-cut good looks and his offer to help as she and thousands of other protesters fought the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She’d fallen in love—the foolhardy, let’s-not-wait kind, full of promises and gifts. “Flowers, the whole nine yards,” Fallis said. She shifted in her chair and continued. “I’ve always believed in love. I still do.”

There was no way to understand Fallis’s incarceration without first understanding her love for Harmon. And there was no way to understand that without going back even further, to the first love Fallis ever received.

Fallis was born tiny and early in 1979, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a poor, windswept community in South Dakota. Her mother, an alcoholic, gave Fallis to a cousin, hoping the little girl would have a better life. The cousin was Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, a broad-shouldered woman with dark hair and a patch of silver. She had two children already and welcomed Fallis as her own.

Yellow Wood, who lived in Denver, was a force in the American Indian Movement, an activist group founded in 1968 to fight for indigenous rights. In its early days, AIM was dominated by men, but Yellow Wood made herself known. She had an open heart and an open home, a sturdy one-story brick house with extra room. She gave acquaintances money when they needed help getting on their feet and offered AIM activists and single mothers a place to crash. She lived like a single mother herself, in a relationship with a man who drove trucks and only came around every once in a while.

From an early age, Fallis was outgoing and mischievous. She liked playing pranks on her adoptive mother, doing impressions, and imitating scenes from movies. She developed a big heart like Yellow Wood’s. Once, she tried to collect winter coats for people in Ethiopia, until she learned that Ethiopia was a tropical country and people there didn’t often need coats.

Fallis accompanied Yellow Wood to important indigenous ceremonies, including the sweat lodge, or inipi, and the sun dance, a sacred, closely guarded ritual. The U.S. government had outlawed the dance in the late 19th century as part of a widespread effort to erase Native culture. The ritual wasn’t openly practiced until the passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which guaranteed the right of Native people to express their beliefs.

Yellow Wood wanted Fallis to be connected to her ancestors’ traditions, including their spirit of defiance. The Oglala Lakota were the people of Crazy Horse, the legendary leader who helped his people win the Battle of the Little Bighorn—or the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as the Lakota call it—against the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, in 1876. (Crazy Horse was killed the next year, bayoneted in the back by a U.S. soldier.) Yellow Wood took Fallis to AIM events, where people delivered fiery speeches about broken treaties and failed government policies. Fallis grew up hearing about the dramatic 71-day standoff between Native activists and federal agents in 1973 at Wounded Knee. When she was just six, she marched at the front of an AIM rally in Denver attended by thousands of people. Sometimes her political awareness led to problems at school, like the time a teacher told her class that Christopher Columbus had discovered America and Fallis was sent to the principal’s office for insisting otherwise.

By the time Fallis was 14, she’d started seeing a counselor, a kindly, soft-spoken man who knew a lot about the challenges Native children often face—high rates of ADHD and fetal alcohol syndrome, for instance, but mostly trauma, the intergenerational kind that passes through families and communities as if they’re rows of dominoes. Fallis kept a dream journal and shared it with her counselor. Once, she dreamed that she was caught up in a swirling vortex, headed for destruction. She thought it represented the sad fact that all her friends were starting to use hard drugs and get into trouble. She understood why. Home life could be hard. For all her generosity, Yellow Wood was in an abusive relationship with a man who drank. She worked all day, and strangers cycled through her house. When Fallis was nine, she was abused in an incident she still can’t bear to talk about. The counselor believed it left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Other Native kids whom Fallis knew faced similar struggles. “We couldn’t help but be interested by the streets,” she said.

Fallis fell for bad men. Her first boyfriend beat her. People said his spirit was tormented, and she broke it off. He killed his next girlfriend and himself, leaving Fallis to wonder if she could have done something to help or stop him. She began dating another man, wooed by his charisma, and learned that he was a member of a gang. Yellow Wood worried that he might kill Fallis; he’d already left her with bruises. Without a stable father figure or a good model of a romantic relationship, though, Fallis justified staying with him. “It helped me to say, ‘That stuff happens in relationships,’” she said.

One afternoon in 2003, Fallis and her boyfriend were driving to a 7-Eleven, and a car wouldn’t let them pass. According to a police statement, her boyfriend argued with the car’s driver, then pulled out a pistol and fired at him. The man was wounded, and Fallis pled guilty to being an accessory to a crime, a felony. She served 30 months on probation. The relationship ended.

Fallis then met a man with a hard-set jaw and closely shorn hair. They got married when Fallis was in her twenties. She was open with him, even telling him about the trauma she’d faced as a child, which felt like a heavy stone lodged deep inside her. The night after she shared the story, she dreamed that a friend took her away on horseback—they galloped off with stars at their heels. It inspired the tattoo on her neck.

Her husband turned out to be unpredictable, like the rest of the men in her life, and she left him. She wondered why the same thing kept happening to her. She didn’t want to be a woman who cycled through toxic relationships.

Then Fallis learned that Yellow Wood was dying of cancer. She set aside her troubled romantic life and moved in with her adoptive mother. She offered to look after Neiamiah, one of Yellow Wood’s great-grandsons, who was wild and playful like Fallis had been as a child. Yellow Wood stared death in the face and said that she wasn’t afraid.

Not long after Yellow Wood died in June 2016, a friend called Fallis and told her that people were protesting the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota. Fallis knew that if Yellow Wood were alive, she would have gone. Fallis threw some clothes in a bag and left within the hour. Family members would join her later. A double rainbow appeared behind her car as she drove north from Colorado, heading toward the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It seemed like a sign.

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Standing Rock is one of the largest reservations in America, covering roughly a million acres of land and straddling the border between the Dakotas. When Fallis arrived, she found people camped out on the vast prairie in tepees, sleeping bags, and tents. Their only neighbors were a herd of bison, their only view the Missouri River and the open sky. Their goal was to halt construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline, which would carry oil from the Bakken and Three Forks fields of North Dakota to central Illinois, a distance of some 1,200 miles.

To many Native Americans, the Dakota Access Pipeline was a nightmare foretold: An old Lakota prophecy had warned of a black snake that would enter the earth, poison its water, and destroy the world. Protesters feared that the pipeline would contaminate the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux. Because it would traverse unceded land—territory that was never granted to the United States by treaty—it might also desecrate sacred sites, including ancient burial grounds.

Demonstrators were up against a conglomerate led by Energy Transfer Partners, a Dallas-based company worth tens of billions of dollars, as well as law enforcement and private security forces. When they first set up camp, in April 2016, the protesters had no visibility or political clout. What they lacked in might, however, they made up for with willpower. They demanded that the Army Corps of Engineers consult the Sioux before giving the final go-ahead for Energy Transfer Partners to break ground. The tribe filed suit against the Corps, asking for a temporary injunction that would stop the project. (A district court judge denied the motion.) Native youth started an online petition that attracted more than 150,000 signatures. A group of them ran 2,000 miles from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to deliver the document to lawmakers.

Then Standing Rock went viral, evolving from a protest into a movement. Using the hashtag #NoDAPL, demonstrators calling themselves water protectors invited other Native Americans and their allies to North Dakota. Over the summer of 2016, the number of protesters exploded into the hundreds, then thousands; people bedded down in a network of camps that spun off from the original one. Participants streamed demonstrations on Facebook Live and other platforms. Celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Rosario Dawson voiced their support for Standing Rock’s goals.

An old Lakota prophecy had warned of a black snake that would enter the earth, poison its water, and destroy the world.

Spirituality was central to camp life. Native prayers were spoken at every meal. Protesters held pipe ceremonies and other rites to invoke divine protection of the Sioux’s water. Sweat lodges made of canvas and red willow branches popped up on the prairie.

When she first saw Fallis at camp, Phyllis Young, an AIM member and a leader at Standing Rock, was shocked. Young had been one of Yellow Wood’s close friends, and Fallis was her niece. (Among the Lakota, some familial relationships are chosen and considered at least as strong as a blood bond.) Young knew how much Fallis, then 37, had endured in her life. Fallis slipped a necklace of Yellow Wood’s over Young’s head. “She’s not here, so I’m here. I’m here to stand beside you,” Young recalled Fallis saying. The women hugged for a long time.

Young is a no-nonsense Native elder who often inspires deference in younger activists. Fallis, though, was comfortable making demands. She asked Young to help her procure supplies—Band-Aids and washcloths, for instance—for the children at camp. Fallis borrowed an ATV and became a fixture on the red four-wheeler, delivering packages and shuttling people to and from demonstrations. She also worked security, keeping an eye out for guns, alcohol, and drugs, which elders had banned at Standing Rock. “I learned how to rough it. I helped everywhere I could—in the kitchen, with donations, unloading firewood,” Fallis said. “Every night we went to sleep with the sound of prayers on the microphone, and every morning we woke up to them. At camp you carry that beauty within you.”

Life wasn’t trouble-free, particularly as the ranks of protesters swelled. Camp could be noisy, even chaotic. Respites were as hard to come by as showers. More worryingly, in the late summer police sent to monitor Standing Rock began to crack down on demonstrators. They arrested people on charges like criminal trespassing. Fallis used the ATV to transport injured water protectors away from encounters with cops.

One day, Fallis was put in plastic handcuffs and charged with disorderly conduct. She claimed that she was just pouring water onto dirt as part of a protest. When the police released her from custody, she went back to camp, where she felt newly vulnerable. Then Heath Harmon arrived.

The weather on the Great Plains can be extreme. Too hot, too dry, too windy, too wet. It was often that way at camp—too much of something. But Fallis and Harmon met under clear, sunny skies on August 17, 2016.

The previous day, Harmon’s brother, Chad, had married Phyllis Young’s daughter at the Morton County courthouse near Bismarck. To outsiders the match was an odd one, given that Chad was a police officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was frequently at odds with AIM, and Young’s family was prominent in the movement. The ceremony was small and unadorned. Harmon, with the good looks and affability to suggest he didn’t mind being single at 44, served as a witness. Fallis, busy at camp, didn’t attend.

After the ceremony, the two families celebrated together at a restaurant, where Harmon talked with John Reyna, the bride’s brother, about hunting and the outdoors. Eventually, the conversation shifted to the pipeline. Everyone in Bismarck was talking about it. Harmon was taking college classes in preparation for working in the oil industry, and he had questions about the protests. Wouldn’t a pipeline create jobs and bolster the economy? Reyna, a tranquil, sturdily built man, invited Harmon to camp to see it for himself.

As Harmon drove south from Bismarck along Highway 1806, which follows the curves of the Missouri River, the city’s bland buildings and manicured lawns gave way to rolling hills and steep buttes. Eventually, the main resistance camp, Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), came into view: a sea of tepees, tents, cars, and people. Sage and sweetgrass burned. Horses pawed at the ground in makeshift pens. Signs reading “Mni Wiconi” (Water Is Life) were everywhere.

Shortly after his arrival, Harmon met Fallis. She was charmed by the newcomer. Harmon was trim and muscular. He kept his shirt neatly tucked into his khaki pants and wore glasses and a baseball cap, giving him the look of a young suburban dad. He wasn’t wearing a ring.

“Who are you?” Fallis asked, flirting a little.

Harmon told her he was also Native, raised on land that sat above rich oil reserves on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota. He’d since moved to the Bismarck area, where he lived with his mother. Reservation roots, city upbringing—just like Fallis. She watched as Harmon made himself useful unloading firewood from a truck. “It was so nice that someone was willing to be helpful. Not just to me, but everybody,” she said.

That night she and Harmon went together to a concert at camp. Afterward they walked alone on the prairie. Like Fallis, Harmon understood how it felt when life didn’t go as planned: He’d been married and divorced. He’d had a drinking problem and was now sober. Unlike other men Fallis knew, he seemed to have matured from his experiences.

After their first encounter, Harmon began making regular trips from his home to camp. Fallis loved when he cracked up at her jokes and told her he liked her smile as much as her wit. He didn’t participate in the demonstrations against the pipeline, but he listened attentively when Fallis talked about why the fight mattered so much. He offered to bring her to the city to shower and do her laundry.

Fallis felt like she should resist his interest, worrying that it was too much too soon. But every time she backed off, according to several of her friends, Harmon would show up at camp with a gift: a beaded purse, boots, a sweater, a single rose. One friend remembered a day when Harmon played a wooden flute long used in Native courtship. It emitted a haunting sound. “I thought, OK, I have not heard a man play a flute in a really long time,” the friend said. “He was totally setting the bar for everyone.”

Most important to Fallis, Harmon won over her family. One of her aunts said that it was like she’d won the jackpot, because Harmon was so generous and kind. An uncle was overjoyed that she’d found someone who treated her with respect.

Fallis decided to let Harmon in. When he called her “baby,” she said it back. Soon they were sleeping in the same tent. One day, Fallis showed Phyllis Young a diamond ring on her finger. She said that she and Harmon were engaged. In a girlish, exuberant voice, Fallis announced, “Auntie, I’m in love.”

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Not everyone was enamored with Harmon. Karen Antelope, a woman with salt-and-pepper hair and blue-lined eyes, didn’t trust him from the start. She and Fallis had met at camp when Fallis asked her for a cigarette. Fallis introduced herself and her heritage, hollering, “Lelelelele!”—a Lakota cry. “Gee, you’re a feisty Oglala aren’t you?” Antelope replied, laughing. The women became inseparable after that.

Antelope thought Fallis seemed insecure when Harmon was around. Harmon, meanwhile, clung to Fallis like a burr on a shoe. Antelope was suspicious of Harmon’s constant gift giving. After a friend joked that Harmon should give Fallis’s family horses and a saddle if the relationship was serious—an old Sioux custom—he came to camp with a beaver-pelt hat and high-back saddle for one of Fallis’s relatives.

Antelope grew more concerned about Harmon when he issued warnings. In September 2016, he began to tell Fallis that she was in danger. By then camp was swollen with people. A district court judge had recently denied the Sioux’s request to halt the pipeline project, and Energy Transfer Partners was preparing to start its work. Water protectors were taking more desperate measures: setting up road blockades, chaining themselves to construction machinery. Police came to demonstrations dressed in riot gear and made dozens of arrests. North Dakota’s governor activated the National Guard, and protesters could hear a surveillance helicopter buzzing overhead all day. In one dramatic incident, private security firms hired by Energy Transfer Partners deployed guard dogs and pepper spray on demonstrators, leading to several injuries. Security at camp was deteriorating, Harmon allegedly told Fallis. She needed to protect herself.

Fallis saw the change at camp as well as anyone. When she’d first arrived in August, she’d been friendly with the police, offering them tobacco and joking around. In September, she was arrested a second time while protesting. In her recollection, plastic handcuffs were pulled so tightly around her wrists that they went numb. She heard officers shouting at female protesters, telling them they were stupid for bringing children to camp. Fallis felt differently. This is how you teach your children to stand up for what’s right, she thought.

At Harmon’s urging, she agreed to move to a quieter part of camp, where one of her relatives had a trailer. Soon after, according to Fallis, Harmon began offering to help with the resistance. Until then he’d been a bystander, supporting Fallis from the wings. Now he seemed to want to get involved. Fallis found it strange when he suggested risky actions. One day, Harmon offered to drive Fallis and two friends on a reconnaissance trip along the pipeline’s planned path. Mia Sage Stevens, who was in the truck, remembered Harmon suggesting that the women tear up the flags that marked the route—the sort of behavior that might draw backlash from the police or private security. “He said we could do it at nighttime, and we just blew it off,” Stevens said.

Then came the suggestion that Fallis and her friends arm themselves. Karen Antelope remembered Harmon approaching her one day as she was repairing a fence and saying, “We gotta secure our territory here.” He offered to bring metal poles to bolster the fence—along with ammunition.

Harmon brought up the subject again, Antelope claimed, after she mentioned a security guard who’d raced around camp in a vehicle, scaring her. Antelope recalled Harmon suggesting that he provide her and Fallis with weapons. “It made me wonder why he was so gung ho with guns,” Antelope said.

Officers shouted at female protesters, telling them they were stupid for bringing children to camp. Fallis felt differently. This is how you teach your children to stand up for what’s right, she thought.

Harmon’s radical turn worried Fallis, too. What was motivating him? He used to give her flowers and play love songs; now he showed up with items like a gas mask and a bulletproof vest, saying that she needed to protect herself. When Harmon first told her she should have a gun, she was unnerved.

“What are we going to do with guns here?” Fallis asked.

“You can bury them,” she remembered Harmon replying.

“I’m a felon. I can’t have guns around,” she said, referring to her 2003 conviction.

Antelope saw the new version of Harmon as pushy. He and Fallis “fought all the time, argued all the time,” Antelope said, “because she talked to everybody, many of them males, and he didn’t like that at all.” In a way, his behavior didn’t surprise Fallis: Of course their love had been too good to be true. Of course she hadn’t hit the romance jackpot. The progression of their relationship was typical of every bond she’d ever had with men. By October, Fallis was considering breaking things off.

She became more convinced that it might be time to move on as she got to know an activist and musician named Cempoalli Twenny, who’d dropped everything in Los Angeles, where he lived, to come to Standing Rock. Twenny wore a goatee and dreadlocks and made reggae-inflected music. He was a longtime advocate for Native rights and saw connections between the pipeline protests and other social struggles. He often played his guitar at camp, and he shared events from Standing Rock on social media.

Still, when Harmon’s birthday arrived in mid-October, Fallis tried to salvage what they had. She baked a cake and threw a party, but the mood at the gathering was tense. Around the same time, Fallis and Harmon fought at his mother’s home, a suburban split-level. Harmon’s brother, Chad, was there, and he chided Harmon for bringing Fallis to the house.

“Why don’t you tell her the real reason you’re at camp?” he asked.

When Fallis asked Harmon what his brother meant, he brushed her off. He said Chad was just accusing him of being at camp to “chase tail.” Fallis wondered if Harmon was telling the truth. She’d been taught never to lie. Lying was what the government did. It wasn’t something that should happen between lovers.

On October 27, Fallis went for an early dinner at a steakhouse with Harmon and his mother. She didn’t feel like having a good time. Things with Harmon were still rough, and it was Yellow Wood’s birthday, the first since her death. After the meal, Fallis checked her phone and saw worrying messages and posts. “No more excuses get to Standing Rock now,” one read. “The next seven generations are depending on you.”

Twenny, the musician Fallis admired, was live-streaming a demonstration that had just started at camp. “We’re being surrounded,” he said, turning the camera from his face to take in what was happening around him. Some 300 police officers had arrived wearing riot gear and carrying guns and batons. Armored vehicles rolled in behind them. They had instructions to clear out demonstrators along Highway 1806 who were directly in the pipeline’s path, which law enforcement considered a safety issue. “They have loaded guns, they have live ammunition,” Twenny said. “It’s time to rise up.… Pray hard, stand strong, this is ground zero, this is treaty land, this is our land.”

Fallis felt a sharp stab of guilt and panic as she scrolled through the news. The whole point of coming to Standing Rock was to honor her mother. Now, on the most critical day of the fight, she wasn’t there. She told Harmon they had to get to camp right away.

They sped south to Standing Rock and stopped at the trailer where they’d been staying. Fallis grabbed a fire extinguisher and gas mask in case fires broke out or the police used pepper spray. She put on a camouflage baseball cap, shouldered a backpack, and told Harmon she’d ride her ATV over to where the eviction was happening. Harmon agreed to drive a pickup and meet her there. Just before she left, Fallis later alleged, Harmon told her to take a large black and gray jacket. She was wearing a coat already, but he insisted that she needed another one to keep warm while zipping through the autumn chill on her four-wheeler.

As she rode, Fallis noticed that the coat felt lopsided. It was heavier on one side than the other. There was something in one of the pockets.

That something was Harmon’s Ruger LCR, a .38 Special revolver so compact that firearms websites regularly vote it among the best guns for concealed carry. It weighs about a pound when loaded. According to Fallis, she found the gun when she put her hand in the pocket. In a split-second decision, she decided to leave the weapon where it was, rather than dispose of it before encountering police.

By the time Fallis arrived, the battalion of officers had already swept through camp, shouting “Time’s up!” as they ripped tents from the ground and made arrests. A private guard, chased by protestors into a pond, stood in the water brandishing an assault rifle. Fallis could see that a barricade the water protectors had set up to prevent police from gaining ground was in flames. Someone told her that a demonstrator on a horse had been shot; it wasn’t clear if he’d been hit with rubber bullets or real ones. Fallis, who’d found it difficult to show emotion even when Yellow Wood died, began to cry. She looked around for Harmon but couldn’t find him.

What happened next was chaotic, and Fallis’s memory of it is hazy. So are the recollections of other people who were there. Several videos of the incident, shot by bystanders and police, are the best evidence of what occurred. Fallis dismounted her ATV and approached a row of police near the highway, shouting through her gas mask. The officers stood in position to block protesters. Six armored vehicles, some with doors open like wings, were parked nearby. The yellow prairie stretched into the distance. Fallis’s words are mostly inaudible in the videos, but her tone and body language make it clear that she’s angry. She later remembered shouting, “You should be ashamed of protecting the pipeline instead of the water.” She pointed accusingly at the police.

Other protestors sang traditional songs or lambasted the cops. Young, Fallis’s aunt, watched the standoff. Neither she nor Fallis saw Harmon arrive in his truck. He parked away from the scene and walked in a wide arc across the highway.

About three minutes after she began chastising police, Fallis turned away from them. An officer tackled her from behind. She fell to the ground, landing on her back. Heavily armed police tried to flip her over onto her stomach. Other officers moved in to surround the arrest, making it hard for bystanders to see what was going on. “I remember a scuffle,” Fallis told me. “My gas mask was pulled off.” Her mind turned to the revolver in her pocket. “I thought, Crap, I’m a felon, and I’m with a gun,” she recalled.

One video shows a protester asking why the police were using such force on a small woman. Fallis, five feet three inches and 135 pounds, tried to wriggle out from under the men’s weight. Officers pulled on her arms, struggling to get her wrists into plastic handcuffs. Fallis pulled back. She kicked her legs. She contorted her body.

Somewhere near the ground, there were three rapid sounds: pop, pop, pop. They came from Harmon’s revolver.

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Police arrested more than 140 people that day. The charges filed by the state of North Dakota against Fallis were by far the most serious, including preventing arrest, carrying a concealed weapon, criminal conspiracy to endanger by fire, engaging in a riot, and attempted murder. On October 31, four days after the protest, Fallis called Harmon from the Burleigh Morton County Detention Center. It was the first of more than two dozen recorded calls between them.

“Hi,” Fallis greeted him uncertainly. She said that she hadn’t seen the news in lockup and didn’t know what people were saying about her. Quietly, Harmon told Fallis that she’d made headlines on the East Coast.

“Like world news?” Fallis asked, her voice rising in panic. “Like national news?”

“Yeah,” Harmon said. At least one story included her mugshot, an awful photo: face puffy, eyes half closed, hair a mess. Harmon joked that it looked like someone had beaten her up. Fallis let out a wild, uncomfortable laugh. When Harmon began reading the article to her, she sobered.

The story reported that she’d fired three shots at police deputies as they tried to move illegal occupiers off private land. It quoted Fallis telling officers afterward that they were lucky she hadn’t shot them. The man who’d tackled her, Thadius Schmit, a cop from South Dakota, said that he’d arrested Fallis for “being an instigator and acting disorderly.” Although no one was hurt when the gun went off, the state’s criminal complaint against Fallis alleged that she’d been trying to kill an officer.

“Oh, my God, they said that I shot at the cops?” Fallis asked Harmon. She was angry now. In her telling, the gun had gone off by accident in the struggle with officers. She couldn’t remember if her hand had been in her pocket or not. She’d been restrained on the ground when the gun fired—how could she have aimed at anyone? “They are so fucking full of shit,” she said.

Harmon tried to keep reading, but she interrupted him. “I’ve heard enough, I’m disgusted, I don’t care,” she said. “They’re just going to fucking make an example out of me.”

A video shot by a bystander documenting Red Fawn Fallis’s arrest.

Harmon was silent. He said nothing about witnessing her arrest.

“You’re free to walk at any time,” Fallis told him. “I probably would.”

A voice announced over the line that their time was almost up.

“I love you,” Harmon said.

On November 9, Fallis called Harmon again. She was confused. That day she’d learned that she was facing an additional charge—theft of property—because Harmon had reported his revolver stolen the day after her arrest. He’d told police that the weapon had gone missing from his mother’s house sometime in the past few weeks.

“You know that charge I caught today made my shit like ten times worse,” Fallis said.

“I can imagine,” Harmon replied.

“I’m not going to take responsibility for something I didn’t do,” she said. “I don’t know how to feel. I’m, like, over here fucking, like, wanting to fucking die of a broken heart, because I don’t know what the fuck is real or what isn’t anymore.”

Harmon paused before answering. “I’ll make it right,” he said.

The next day, Fallis called Harmon again. She asked why he hadn’t retracted the theft report yet. She was no longer upset; she was furious. Harmon tried to calm her down and said he’d talk to the police soon.

“If you’re not going to fucking tell the truth, then I will, about everything,” Fallis told him.

“Hey, I’m telling you the truth,” Harmon said.

“If you’re not going to tell them the truth about me,” Fallis continued, “and the fact that I didn’t take that from you”—meaning the gun.

Harmon told her that he couldn’t discuss the gun over the phone for legal reasons.

“It’s not OK, because there’s a lot at stake here,” Fallis said through tears. “My life.”

The call cut off.

Over the next few days, Fallis phoned Harmon several more times. In some conversations, he told her that he was sorry and that he loved her. Fallis seemed to believe him. In others, she pressed him. Had he made the report to hurt her? Or to save his own skin when he realized that a gun licensed to him had gone off during the arrest? It didn’t make sense to her. Harmon was taciturn, occasionally reassuring Fallis.

In early December, after Fallis had been in jail for more than a month, Harmon finally met with law enforcement. He didn’t try to exonerate Fallis, however. Harmon said that he’d kept the gun at camp and Fallis had known exactly where it was. He said that she’d loaded up a backpack before driving her ATV to the raid and hadn’t wanted him to look inside. Harmon described Fallis as having an “attitude” the day of the eviction. He said that she’d talked about “going to see [her] mother.”

As for the gun being stolen, Harmon admitted that that was a lie. It wasn’t the only one he’d told in recent months. For most of his relationship with Fallis, Harmon had been working as a paid FBI informant.

Harmon became a confidential source in August 2016. According to documents obtained by Fallis’s lawyers and first reported by The Intercept, Harmon’s task was “to collect information regarding potential violence, weapons, and criminal activity” at Standing Rock. Over the course of two months, he met or spoke with FBI agents at least half a dozen times and reported to his handlers that he’d developed a “sub-source” named Red Fawn, who told him that Native elders were opposed to belligerent actions against the pipeline. On August 22, Harmon estimated that less than 5 percent of the people he’d encountered were “aggressive” and said that he’d seen no firearms, explosives, or fireworks at camp.

The previous week, Morton County sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier had stated publicly that his office had received reports of guns fired at Standing Rock. Water protectors maintained that this wasn’t true. Kirchmeier declined to comment for this story, but Cecily Fong, a spokesperson for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, told me that law enforcement had been concerned about potential violence, including “protesters trespassing, marauding around the countryside, killing livestock.” (Fong has since left the department. The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association has stated that it wasn’t aware of any connections between protesters and attacks on farm animals.)

Still, Harmon’s reports focused heavily on the issue of weapons, as though they might turn up if law enforcement willed them to. He mentioned guns to the FBI at least four separate times, though he never claimed to have actually seen one. He also talked about members of AIM, including Phyllis Young. In late August, Harmon said that he’d observed Young addressing protestors and that he’d learned the type of car she was said to drive. An FBI agent wrote in a report, “The CHS [confidential human source] has a family connection as well as direct access to Phyllis Young and her close family and is well-suited to continue coverage of her activities and involvement with the anti-pipeline movement.”

Three weeks before the police raid and Fallis’s arrest, the FBI took Harmon off the books as an informant. According to an unclassified document, Harmon requested termination. The reporting agent noted that he would recommend Harmon as a source again. The FBI paid him $2,000 for his services. (The bureau declined to comment for this story.)

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Heath Harmon (Courtesy of Fallis’s legal team)

Fallis learned of Harmon’s affiliation while she was in jail. After all the phone calls, all of Harmon’s pledges that he’d make things right, Fallis got the truth from her lawyers.

Her first reaction was denial. She loved Harmon, and he’d been an ally of the water protectors. She’d grown up hearing from Yellow Wood about the surveillance and infiltration tactics the FBI used in the 1960s and ’70s, when it kept close watch over AIM as part of Cointelpro, a project that targeted dissident groups across the country. Fallis also knew that the trauma caused by FBI activity could lead to paranoia. In 1975, an activist named Anna Mae Aquash had been murdered by other AIM members over rumors that she was an informant. (Yellow Wood was one of the last people to see Aquash alive, because Aquash was using her home as a safe house.) Was Fallis misunderstanding or making assumptions about what Harmon had done?

Soon, though, the hurtful, dizzying truth clicked in. A flood of troubling details—maybe signs that she’d missed—washed over Fallis. Harmon’s many evasions. The guns he wanted to bring her. That question from his brother: “Why don’t you tell her the real reason you’re at camp?”

Soon after Fallis learned he’d been an informant, Harmon came to the jail for a visit. He drove with one of Fallis’s aunts, a woman named Theresa Burns. When Burns was ushered in to see Fallis, Harmon was told he couldn’t come. Confused, Burns asked Fallis when they were face-to-face what was going on. Burns remembered Fallis saying she was “freaking out” because she’d just learned that Harmon worked for the FBI. She didn’t want him anywhere near her.

“I have to ride back with him,” Burns said. “I’m scared.”

“Auntie, how do you think I feel?” Fallis asked.

Burns claimed that, after the visit, she confronted Harmon in the car. She asked why he’d set up her niece. According to Burns, Harmon began to cry. “What did you do? Did you plant it on her?” Burns asked, referring to the gun. Harmon said no, and that he’d told the police things about Fallis when their questioning began to scare him. Burns’s head spun. She was a longtime AIM activist, but she’d never heard of anything like this.

She told Harmon that she believed he’d planted the gun. According to Burns, Harmon didn’t reply. She described the remainder of the ride as “chilling.”

Fallis’s other family and friends found out about Harmon soon after that. Karen Antelope was so upset, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the video of Fallis’s arrest. John Reyna felt both betrayed and responsible, because he was the one who’d invited Harmon to camp for the first time. Young, who’d seen men hurt Fallis before, felt only disdain. “He threw her to the wolves,” she said.

Fallis vowed never to see or speak to Harmon again. He was the one who needed help and prayers, she told herself. He’d taken money in exchange for lies and used a woman he claimed to love. She, on the other hand, was Oglala. As she’d once told Harmon in a phone conversation, “I’ll stand proud, like a buffalo. I’ll stand and face the storm.”

In late 2016, the federal government denied Energy Transfer Partners a permit to drill under the Missouri River, effectively stalling the pipeline until President Barack Obama left office. Around the same time, North Dakota dropped its case against Fallis to clear the way for federal charges, including civil disorder, possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon, and discharge of a firearm in relation to a felony crime of violence. The last charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. The maximum penalty was life behind bars.

Fallis put on a good face. News of her predicament was spreading over social media into the wider #NoDAPL movement. Family and friends, with the help of other Standing Rock activists, launched a Free Red Fawn campaign, and some 30,000 people would eventually join its Facebook page. “I’ve been getting messages about a lot of you being concerned and worried,” Fallis wrote on her personal account in January 2017. “I wanted to let you know that I stand strong, I stay in prayer, and I never falter from my beliefs as a protector of all things sacred.”

Supporters held fundraisers in Denver and Los Angeles to help pay her legal fees. Celebrities, including actors Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, spoke out in support of Fallis. A petition on Change.org to drop all charges against her drew more than 20,000 signatures. Some of Fallis’s supporters tried to track down Harmon, without success. He was no longer living at his mother’s house outside Bismarck, and none of his old phone numbers worked. In lieu of confronting him in person, people dug up information: Harmon had once been arrested for criminal mischief. His alcoholism had led to four DUIs in seven years. He’d racked up charges for driving with a suspended license.

Supporters began referring to Fallis as a new Leonard Peltier, referencing the AIM activist sentenced in 1977 to two consecutive life terms for shooting federal agents on the Pine Ridge reservation, where Fallis was born. Many believed Peltier was framed, especially after journalist Peter Matthiessen published his 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which alleged government misconduct in the case. Bruce Ellison, Peltier’s lawyer, came out of semiretirement to defend Fallis. A white Jewish man from New York, Ellison had decades of experience with Native clients, and if there was one thing he’d learned in that time, it was that the government thought it could get away with more in Indian country. “I believe that Red Fawn was set up that day to be arrested as a water protector with a gun,” he told me. “Law enforcement had been screaming about that in court and in the media, that water protectors were armed and had explosives, and yet no one had been arrested with a gun.”

In the pretrial process throughout 2017, Fallis’s legal team argued that law enforcement had had no probable cause to arrest her, because she’d merely been exercising her First Amendment rights. They pointed out that the gun belonged to Harmon, as did the coat Fallis was wearing when she was restrained by police. (According to Harmon, the coat belonged to Fallis, and he didn’t tell her to wear it the day of her arrest.) Her lawyers said that she hadn’t intentionally pulled the revolver’s trigger; how it went off was a mystery.

The prosecution, meanwhile, argued that she had meant to fire the gun and that in doing so she’d endangered lives. Police officers present at her arrest wrote in reports that, after the gun went off, Fallis laughed and said things like “All pigs deserve to die” and “If I wanted to kill you, I would have shot you in the head.” Fallis described these accusations as “totally false.” If it sounded like she was laughing, it was only because she was gasping for air after her gas mask was yanked off.

Officers’ statements sometimes conflicted. One said that after the shots rang out, he took the gun from Fallis’s left hand. Another said he saw the gun seized from her right hand. A third said the gun was loose on the ground. Three videos—one taken by a security drone, one shot by a bystander, and another recorded by cops on the scene—do not show Fallis firing the weapon.

Ellison was concerned that the government wasn’t sharing everything it knew about Harmon. The FBI sometimes gave informants a long leash to lead people to commit crimes. Honeypot schemes weren’t unheard of. Ellison found it suspicious that law enforcement had included Fallis in a chart of #NoDAPL activists of concern, created nearly two months before her arrest and not long after she and Harmon met. Ellison didn’t think Harmon’s description of Fallis’s behavior and comments before the eviction raid could be trusted. Harmon had lied to authorities at least once, about the gun being stolen. What would stop him from doing so again?

Fallis’s family agreed. “Those intelligence agencies knew who Red Fawn was, they knew who her mother was, they knew who her family was, and they knew their connections to the American Indian Movement,” said Glenn Morris, Fallis’s uncle. He believed that law enforcement had tried to identify Standing Rock’s leadership in order to neutralize it.

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Fallis on furlough after her arrest. (YouTube)

As Fallis’s January 2018 trial approached, it was clear that potential jury members might not see the case that way. At least 91 percent of Bismarck’s population is white, and many residents were opposed to the #NoDAPL demonstrations. A survey from the National Jury Project showed that the vast majority of eligible residents had already decided that arrested water protectors were guilty. Non-Native people sometimes referred to the protests as “the event,” their voices dropping low when they said it. An owner of a country-music bar near Standing Rock told me that his white customers no longer went to the reservation’s casino. A neighbor of Harmon’s mother said that law enforcement had held their temper at camp, but she couldn’t say the same for the other side.

Fallis’s lawyers petitioned the court to move the trial out of state. A judge instead allowed a change of location to Fargo, three hours east of Bismarck. Fallis’s lawyers argued that the jury pool would be similar, and as the trial date approached, Fallis grew nervous. Since October 2017, she’d been in a halfway house. It was better than jail; she could see the outside world, at least. But what if a jury put her away for life? Fighting to prove her innocence, she worried, might not be worth that risk.

The prosecution offered her a plea deal in which her most serious charge—firing the gun—would be dropped if she took responsibility for possessing a weapon as a felon and for the civil disorder charge. The government would recommend no more than seven years in prison. On January 18, 2018, a few days before Fallis was due to appear in court to give the prosecution her answer, she signed out of the halfway house to attend an adult-education program. She never showed up in class. When she returned to the house, it was a half hour after she was due to return. Fallis went back to jail.

Her family learned that she’d skipped class to be with Cempoalli Twenny, the musician from Standing Rock. Since Fallis’s arrest, Twenny had been championing her cause, pledging on social media that he wouldn’t stop saying her name until she was free. He’d also begun calling her as often as he could. Unlike Harmon and other men Fallis had dated, Twenny didn’t shower her with compliments, gifts, or promises. He listened quietly when she spoke and reminded her that each day was a new day. If she got upset or angry, he told her to pray. “He’s brought me so much kindness and unconditional love,” Fallis told me.

Fallis had needed to talk about the plea deal with someone she trusted. She’d chosen Twenny. The following Monday, Fallis appeared in court. She’d come to the only decision that made sense to her. The judge asked if she pled guilty. A long silence followed. Finally, Fallis answered, “Yes.”

Fallis’s sentencing was scheduled for June 25, 2018, the anniversary of the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Per the plea agreement, the prosecutors recommended a cap of seven years in prison, but the judge could go higher. Fallis’s team thought she would get at least three to five years.

The day of the hearing, her supporters gathered at a downtown Bismarck hotel. From there they planned to go together to the courthouse. They were fidgety with anticipation. Fallis’s aunts and uncles came, along with her sisters and friends. Neiamiah, Yellow Wood’s great-grandson, wore a “Free Red Fawn” T-shirt that featured a photo of Fallis, her fist raised. Twenny stood in the back of the room wearing a denim vest with “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” stitched onto it. He had a newly inked tattoo on his hand: Red Fawn’s name.

Ellison arrived with bad news. The judge in the case was sick, and sentencing would be delayed. Twenny made a video call to Fallis in jail. He handed the phone to Neiamiah, who said “I love you” in a whisper. “I love you,” Fallis whispered back. Neiamiah flipped the phone’s camera around to show her everyone who was there.

Twenny wore a denim vest with “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” stitched onto it. He had a newly inked tattoo on his hand: Red Fawn’s name.

“I’m kind of all talked out,” Fallis told the crowd, then took a deep breath. “I’m an Oglala Sioux Lakota,” she continued. “So I’m born free, I live free, and I’ll die free.” She ended with the old Lakota cry—lelelele!—and much of the room joined in.

Fallis was sentenced a few weeks later, on July 11, 2018, in Bismarck’s federal courthouse. When she arrived, she was shackled at her wrists and dressed in a traditional ribbon skirt decorated with sunflowers, her mother’s favorite. The defense asked for leniency, pointing out that President Donald Trump had recently pardoned two white cattle ranchers in Oregon who’d set fires that spread to government land. It called four witnesses, a last-ditch attempt to sway the judge to hand down less prison time. A neurophysiologist testified that if Fallis had had her hand on the gun, she might have accidentally discharged it in a reactive grip response to how the officers had pulled on her arms. Fallis’s childhood psychologist, to whom she’d showed her dream journal, spoke of her history of trauma and domestic violence, which left her vulnerable to further abuse and manipulation. Glenn Morris testified that the case wasn’t just about Fallis—it was about her community, too. “It’s often not the big traumas that affect us. It’s the million everyday things,” Morris said. “Being ridiculed for her name because she’s a Native woman, and on Columbus Day. Being told there was a war and she lost and everyone else won and get over it. Well, she’s not going to get over it. She has this history in her heart and in her blood.”

Fallis had the opportunity to speak. “I came to North Dakota in August 2016 with a good heart and a good mind after watching my mom battle cancer and battle life,” she said. “After her death, I wanted to move forward in a positive light. I helped anyone at camp that I could. It started a new chapter. And then the circumstances of Heath Harmon.”

It was the only time his name was mentioned in the hearing. Fallis said that she wouldn’t be sitting in the courtroom that day if it weren’t for him.

Judge Daniel Hovland sighed as he surveyed the room. “I’m not going to go down the path of trying to determine Ms. Fallis’s intent in the midst of the chaos,” he said. He called her supporters’ campaign for her release “much ado about nothing.” Then he announced Fallis’s sentence: 57 months in federal prison, minus time served.

The prosecutors nodded, satisfied with the verdict. Ellison bowed his head, knowing it was the best he could expect.

By the time Fallis was sentenced, oil was already flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline. Mere days after taking office in January 2017, Trump had signed an executive memorandum to move forward with the project. The Sioux asked a district court for a restraining order to block construction, but the request was denied. The Army Corps of Engineers never completed a full environmental review of the project. It was an undeniable defeat for the protestors.

At Standing Rock, many of the water protectors—freezing, angry, and exhausted—packed up and went home. Those who remained eventually burned what was left of camp. They hoped the tall fires, at least, would symbolize their defiance. Stragglers were forcibly removed by law enforcement, and by the summer of 2017, some protesters had reassembled at other pipeline fights in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana.

Harmon moved on, too. For seven months while I reported this story, he was a ghost. Phone numbers were disconnected, an email address was inactive, and he seemed to have no presence on social media. His lawyer didn’t respond to any of my phone calls. Word that he’d left Bismarck and gotten a job in oil fields led to stops across North Dakota at derricks and workers’ camps, but no one seemed to know his name.

A public-records search got a hit in Billings, Montana, where Harmon had reported his address at an apartment complex. When I got to the city in the middle of winter, the snow was thick and deep, blanketing everything in an eerie quiet. Harmon no longer lived at the address I’d found. At the Billings Police Department, I learned that he had a record—not for a crime he’d committed, but for one he’d reported. In July 2018, a few days after Fallis was sentenced in North Dakota, Harmon had called the cops because he’d found a child wandering the streets with no parents around. The address for him listed on the report was different than the one online. It led me to a tan house with wind chimes and a box of dog food on the porch. No one answered the bell, and a neighbor told me that Harmon was long gone.

A few weeks later, out of the blue, Harmon called me. He talked slowly and was tentative at first. He told me he wanted to set the record straight. He was trying to start a new relationship, and the woman didn’t want to date him after reading the negative media coverage of his involvement with Fallis and the FBI. He called while on a long drive from Bismarck to Wyoming, where the woman lived and where he hoped to win her over. We talked for nearly two hours.

He told me about how he’d wanted to be a Navy SEAL but was discharged from the Army due to an injury, cutting his career short. He’d worked a host of jobs: as a carpenter, doing construction, in oil fields. When the pipeline protests started, he was interested in collecting intelligence for law enforcement because he “didn’t want anybody to get hurt.” He explained that he’d believed in the protestors’ cause but was worried about potential violence, so he’d asked his brother for a number to contact the FBI. (When reached by phone, Chad Harmon said he didn’t give his brother a phone number for the bureau and didn’t help him get the informant job.)

Confirming the contents of the FBI documents I’d read, Harmon described his assignment as looking out for firearms, drugs, and criminal behavior at camp. He denied suggesting that Fallis and her friends destroy flags along the pipeline’s path. He said that he and Fallis were attracted to each other but that the relationship was never romantic. He had excuses for each act that might be construed as expressing serious interest in her: The saddle wasn’t a gift symbolizing his commitment to Fallis, it was just something he wanted her grandfather to have. He’d always liked to play the traditional wooden flute. And the ring—the one that Fallis had told Phyllis Young signified her engagement—was just plastic.

Harmon also said that he’d never told Fallis he loved her. I pointed out that in the jail phone recordings, he says “I love you” multiple times. There was a long silence. I could hear rain and the windshield wipers on Harmon’s car. “Love is a broad, broad word,” he finally said. “I was caught up in the moment, and I didn’t really mean it.”

“Love is a broad, broad word,” Harmon said. “I was caught up in the moment, and I didn’t really mean it.”

He claimed that he’d never used his relationship with Fallis to help his work as an informant, but he admitted that he’d talked to the FBI about her, warning agents of her family’s AIM connections. He said that he quit being a confidential source when it made him uneasy; the Standing Rock protesters wouldn’t look kindly on a snitch. As for the gun, Harmon said he’d brought it to camp to protect himself and Fallis.

“How did she get the gun on the day of the raid?” I asked.

Another long pause.

“I don’t know, grabbed it,” he eventually said. “She knew where it was. I didn’t see her take it, but after I heard the shooting I put two and two together.”

As for his shifting story about the gun, he told me he’d lied about the weapon being stolen because he was afraid of being blamed for the shooting. He felt no responsibility for Fallis being in prison—she’d brought that upon herself.

“I think she had that plan to kill a police officer,” he said.

Harmon saw himself as a victim of media coverage that portrayed him as a traitor to Fallis and his culture. He paused and sniffed, as if he were about to cry. “This follows me around,” he said, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Soon after, we hung up.

The next morning, Harmon called me again. His talk with the woman in Wyoming had gone well enough, and he wanted me to forget everything he’d said. He told me that he’d made a mistake in talking. “It’s been like a shit storm all the way around,” Harmon said. “My trust in anyone is zero now.”

After Fallis was sentenced, she was scheduled to move to FMC Carswell, a federal women’s prison in Fort Worth, Texas, that housed nearly two thousand inmates. When I talked to her before the transfer, she seemed upbeat. Fort Worth was far from her family and friends but also from Bismarck, and she was grateful for that. She’d heard that the prison held other indigenous inmates, and she was excited to meet them. She said that she’d maintain her traditions behind bars, the way Yellow Wood would have wanted her to. She was going to become fluent in the Lakota tongue. Maybe she’d try to write a book about the struggles of Native American women—specifically, how men so often treat them like objects. “All I can speak on is my truth,” she said.

She told me about the vivid dreams she’d been having, just like when she was a kid. In one, the first man she ever dated came back to apologize for abusing her. He and Fallis sat across from each other at a table, then Yellow Wood came in and told him it was time to go. “That was a really beautiful dream,” Fallis said. “That relationship shaped a lot of my life with men.”

Once Fallis got to Carswell, I wrote to her several times but didn’t hear back. The only person in regular touch with her was Twenny. He called her in prison almost daily. On his Facebook page, he wrote that each new day was one closer to her release. During a visit in December 2018, they talked through monitors for 45 minutes before Twenny had to leave.

Just before Fallis’s 40th birthday the following February, she was put in administrative segregation. Twenny told me that the move was due to a prison scuffle. I asked him if he was worried, and he gave a small laugh. “Well, she won,” he said.

He told me Fallis was a beautiful soul and that he was confident they’d be together when she was released, which was then 774 days away. He told me how much he loved her.

Outlaw Country

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Outlaw Country

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

By Emma Marris

Photographs by Michael Hanson

The Atavist Magazine, No. 91


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

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

Published in May 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Timathy Taylor with two of his sons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Roy came home.

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Roy.”

“You’re supposed to be dead.”

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

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

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

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

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Wanda Powless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shot who?” a dispatcher asked.

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

“What’s the address?”

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

“Did you call earlier?”

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

5.

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

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

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

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

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

“I was getting buried,” Taylor replied.

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

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

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Gary Powless 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you armed?” Studenberg asked.

“Yes, sir, I was.”

“Was there a temptation to use the gun?”

“Not a temptation.”

“Did you shoot over their heads?”

“Initially.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are just hopelessly locked?”

“We are six and six.”

The judge declared a mistrial.

7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update

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

Commonwealth v. Mohamed

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Commonwealth v. Mohamed

A car crash in Kentucky left a 13-year-old girl dead. A Sudanese refugee was charged with her killing. Could anyone get justice?

Margaret Redmond Whitehead

The Atavist Magazine, No. 89


Margaret Redmond Whitehead is a journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Reason, Narratively, and other publications. She was a Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity Literary Journalism fellow in 2017. Follow her on Twitter @margredwhite.

Editors: Seyward Darby and Jonah Ogles
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Hokyoung Kim

Published in March 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1.

On the morning of May 23, 2015, on a highway in Scott County, Kentucky, two cars kissed and then pitched off the road.

The black Toyota Tacoma pickup was headed west on its way to a youth volleyball game. Emily Sams, 13 years old, with long brown hair and large, soft eyes, was perched in the back seat. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Her father, Jeff, was driving. Her mother, Shella, was riding shotgun.

The other car, also going west, was a blue Toyota Camry. A refugee from Sudan named Mohamed Abdallah was driving. A willowy man with fine features in his early thirties, Abdallah and a friend, Mohammed Tom, were on their way from Baltimore to Louisville, where a community of Masalit—the men’s ethnic group, from the Darfur region of Sudan—had invited them to attend a meeting. It was at least a nine-hour trip, and Abdallah had been driving through the night to make the morning appointment.

At approximately 7:05 a.m., Abdallah’s sedan went into a yaw on I-64 West, moving forward and sideways at the same time. The car slid across the asphalt, leaving its lane and making contact with the Samses’ truck. Metal bit metal, and both drivers lost control of their vehicles.

Abdallah’s Camry spun down the side of the road until it hit a leafy thicket. After the car came to a halt, Tom pulled Abdallah through the driver-side door to safety. Abdallah stumbled toward the wrecked black pickup. Its front right side was caved in. Shella was still in her seat, and one of her legs looked unnaturally crooked. Behind the wheel, Jeff asked for his daughter. With no sign of a third person in the truck, Abdallah searched the debris.

He found Emily, dead, near a tree. Her neck was bent, her body twisted. Flashbacks of war shuddered through Abdallah’s mind: blood and dust, torched grass huts. He crumpled to the ground.

Emily’s grandparents, who were traveling to the volleyball game in a different car, arrived at the scene. A truck driver also saw the smoking Camry and pulled over to help. He found Abdallah collapsed near Emily. Abdallah would later remember the truck driver, a burly white man with a gut, saying “Let’s pray,” followed by a few questions.

The first was, “Where are you from?”

“We’re coming from Baltimore, Maryland,” Abdallah said.

The second: “I didn’t mean where in the U.S. Where are you from?”

“We’re from Africa,” said Abdallah.

And finally: “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes,” Abdallah said.

The truck driver walked away, toward the Samses’ pickup.

2.

I first met Abdallah at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It was October 2012, and I was in my second year as a resettlement caseworker for refugees. I waited near the arrivals gate, clutching a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and making sure my International Rescue Committee badge was visible. Abdallah was one of seven Darfurian men landing that night. I had a tiny row house ready for them in the Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown. Earlier that day, I’d picked up three rotisserie chickens for their first dinner in America.

I’d been working with Darfurian refugees for a few months, but Abdallah and three of the other men who arrived that night were the first Masalit people I’d met. Most historical accounts place the start of the genocide in Darfur in 2003, when the Sudanese government began a vicious campaign to eradicate or evict the region’s western ethnic groups. The Masalit, however, have been under attack since at least the mid-1990s, a peril of living in the borderland between Chad and Sudan.

Abdallah was never a fighter, but he witnessed violence. In 1996, when he was 14, his father was killed resisting members of the Janjaweed, a state-sponsored militia, as they robbed the family of cattle. When he was 16, the Janjaweed massacred 50 people in an adjacent town. When the militia came to Abdallah’s town in 1998 and cut down his uncle, the family fled to Chad. They returned briefly, but the attacks increased. They left Darfur for good in 2003.

A week after the men arrived at the airport, during orientation, I asked if they had any questions. This was a time when clients typically asked me to repeat the details of their transitional benefits, like food stamps. Abdallah, leaning on the table around which the men were sitting, raised a hand.

“How can I be a good neighbor in America?” he asked.

I looked at him, astonished. His brown eyes, ringed in thick, dark lashes, stared back at me. He held a pen in his long fingers, waiting to write down my answer. “Well,” I said, “you can help your neighbor take in the groceries.”

He scratched that down with his pen and asked another question.

“Where can I volunteer?”

“How can I be a good neighbor in America?” Abdallah asked. I looked at him, astonished.

Abdallah quickly became my point person for his house. He would consolidate the queries of all seven occupants and bring them to me. When a cantankerous roommate stirred up drama, I sat in the living room to mediate and Abdallah interpreted for me. Whenever the other men raised their voices, he rocked back and forth, his thin back curved tensely and his arms pressed against his chest. Conflict made him squirm.

Around the resettlement office, other people came to rely on Abdallah, too. He was easygoing, neat, eager, and humble. His English was good and getting better. In 2013, Abdallah joined a trip to hear President Barack Obama speak, and he took his role as an audience member so seriously that he showed up in a suit. He was dismayed when the president’s staff filled the event’s front rows with people wearing T-shirts and jeans. Abdallah, dressed to the nines, had to stand in back.

Once, he hit gravel while riding his bicycle and crashed. I met him at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Sitting in the pharmacy, I pointed to a TV screen where Obama appeared in a news segment. “Look,” I said. “It’s your friend.”

Abdallah glanced up, laughed, and waved his hand dismissively. “I’ve already seen the real one,” he said.  

A few days before Christmas in 2013, Abdallah and one of his roommates caught me on the street in front of the resettlement office. Grinning, they pressed a plastic bag into my arms. It was a Christmas gift. Inside the crinkling white plastic was a pleather jacket from Marshall’s. On a small piece of notebook paper, the men had scrawled a message in blue ink: “Hi Maggie—this is small gift from Jamoa yahia. mohamed Abdallah. and Juma mohamed. Thank you so much your helping, and thank you agania.”

I wasn’t supposed to accept presents from clients. I couldn’t control when a wizened Nepali woman surreptitiously slipped a can of Coca-Cola into my purse, but I’d disappointed dozens of clients with apologetic refusals of thoughtful offerings. Still, I accepted the jacket from Abdallah. My designated time—eight months—as his caseworker was technically up. I’d been waiting for this moment, when I could become his friend.


One weekend in September 2015, after I’d left resettlement work to become a graduate student and writer in New York City, I was supposed to meet Abdallah in Baltimore. He’d agreed to be an interpreter for one of my reporting projects. “I can’t pay a lot right now,” I said when I called him. “Only $15 an hour. But I hope I can pay more later.” The rate didn’t faze Abdallah. “Of course,” he replied. I could tell from his voice that he was smiling.

I never saw Abdallah that weekend. By the time I arrived on Friday, he was in jail. Earlier that day, four officers had shown up at his door with handcuffs and arrested him. His alleged crime was causing the fatal car crash in Kentucky four months prior. He would stay in a Baltimore cell, appear in court, and then be transported to Kentucky to await trial. The news felt like a punch below the ribs.

The Darfurian community in Baltimore was in a frenzy. My host, a refugee named Abbas Yahya, spent the weekend fielding and placing phone calls, then racing out the door to emergency meetings to discuss the situation. For many community members, it wasn’t a question of what had happened—they were aware of the crash and that Abdallah had been coping with its aftermath—but of what came next. What would the American justice system do? How would it assign blame for what seemed to be a tragic accident? The last two Masalit clients of mine who’d gotten in trouble with the law were young men caught sipping beer in a public park. They had no idea why they kept receiving mail from the city government, and their unpaid fines soared to more than $900 each. Abdallah’s legal tangle was far uglier, and it was more confusing than anyone in the community knew how to handle.

Yahya dropped me at the bus station early Monday morning, three hours before I was scheduled to leave for home. He apologized and explained that he wanted to get to Abdallah’s court hearing on time. Yahya knew he could only watch, but he intended to be there anyway. Like several other Darfurians in Baltimore, he considered Abdallah his dearest friend.

Abdallah was charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of assault; according to his indictment, he “wantonly drove his automobile into the [Samses’] automobile.” He was transported to a jail in Kentucky and held on $75,000 bail. From home, I wrote Abdallah a letter. “I was in Baltimore the weekend you were arrested,” it began. It devolved into a patchwork of encouragement and advice.

Two weeks later, I received an envelope with a red stamp on it that read “INMATE MAIL UNSECURED.” Abdallah wrote that he’d always told other people to be safe and not get in trouble, “but today I’m here in jail.” Being behind bars “let people miss a lot of appreci oppertunity.” Still, he wrote, he was trying to stay positive.

Former resettlement colleagues of mine pitched in to help Abdallah. One happened to be living in Kentucky, where she was working on a farm. She visited Abdallah in jail. Another, Amanda Olmstead, then the Darfurians’ main contact in Baltimore, found a private defense lawyer in Kentucky who agreed to represent Abdallah. The lawyer’s name was Dan Carman, and he haggled Abdallah’s bail down to $7,500. Yahya and Olmstead split the cost, and Abdallah was released on house arrest.

He moved in with a Masalit friend in Louisville; he wasn’t allowed to go back to Baltimore. Abdallah’s life in Maryland, including recently procured jobs as a security guard and an interpreter, dropped away like freshly snipped strings.


For two and a half years, Abdallah waited as his case moved through the legal system. The only places he was allowed to go outside of his apartment were the Amazon fulfillment center where he worked and the courthouse. Carman tried to negotiate a plea deal, but the prosecution wouldn’t budge on the charges or drop the penalty lower than five to 15 years in prison. Under federal law, a conviction for a “crime of moral turpitude” or an “aggravated felony,” which includes manslaughter, would place Abdallah at risk of being deported. To stay in America, he would have to stand trial and hope for the best.

Abdallah’s plight stuck in the back of my mind like a deep splinter. I’d let myself forget about them, then I’d see his Facebook posts—a humanitarian plea about Darfur, a cheesy inspirational quote, a Merry Christmas message, a selfie—and feel a sick pang. I’d remember that there had been a collision, that now Abdallah was in Kentucky, that a young girl was dead.

The few times we spoke, Abdallah evaded my questions about his case. Thinking that he was embarrassed, or that maybe he didn’t know the answers because legal matters can be so bewildering, I didn’t press the issue. I saw him once during his house arrest, in October 2016, when research took me to Louisville. Abdallah arranged for me to interview a young Masalit couple at his home, where he could interpret. I felt a surge of relief knowing that I’d see him in person and ensure that he was intact.

Abdallah was living on the third floor of a brick apartment building. When I arrived, we sat in the living room, me on a chair and Abdallah on a sagging couch. He poured me syrupy tangerine-colored juice. Rubber slippers rested in a doorway, available to anyone who needed to walk on the gritty tiles of the kitchen floor or into a nearby bathroom that smelled like pools of cool, stagnant water. The hems of Abdallah’s pants, as always, were let out to compensate for his long legs. Even so, they didn’t cover his ankle monitor. The device cost him $10 a day.

As an interpreter, Abdallah seemed his usual self, focused and professional. But when we spoke between interviews, he was subdued. His English had regressed. His shoulders drooped. When I asked what was happening with his case, he looked askance.

“Some things are not finishing,” Abdallah said.

“Do you know when they’ll be finished?”

He muttered something about his lawyer. I changed the subject.

When I left, Abdallah bid me goodbye from his front walkway, the invisible force of his ankle monitor tethering him to his home.

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3.

Through the speakerphone, I heard anxious, distant voices. My cell phone sat beside me on a sofa cushion. I clutched a notepad. Everyone on the line that day in January 2018, including my spouse, Sara, sitting across from me, knew Abdallah and felt invested in his situation. Amanda Olmstead had scraped us together for a conference call because she finally had details about Abdallah’s trial. It was scheduled for February 19. Carman, the defense lawyer, had told Olmstead that he needed character witnesses. Specifically, he needed white, American faces—people who could speak to Abdallah’s upstanding nature and “mix in” with the Darfurians who would inevitably show up in the courtroom to support their friend.

Olmstead told us what else she knew. The girl who’d died in the crash was named Emily Sams; her identity entered into my consciousness as a dense weight. Shella Sams, who worked in special education, had been in a wheelchair since the accident. Abdallah would be tried where the incident happened, in Scott County.

Someone asked if Abdallah’s charges were, well, normal. Olmstead explained that, according to Carman, they were not. It was unusual for felonies like second-degree manslaughter and assault to result from a crash involving sober drivers who hadn’t done anything overtly reckless. Authorities in Scott County had also deemed Abdallah a flight risk, despite preexisting limitations on his movement. He was a refugee with a green card; he couldn’t travel abroad without applying for a special permit. Between work and volunteering, he was entrenched in his community.

A knot of confusion settled across the conference call. Why, then, was this happening? We could guess but didn’t know for sure. And if what we suspected was true, we needed to hear it.

Olmstead relayed in more detail what Carman had said about Scott County: It was predominantly white, and it was conservative. It also had a sour history with immigrant drivers. On the same day as Abdallah’s accident, an undocumented Mexican man hit and killed a bicyclist, panicked, and drove a few miles with the dying man’s body in the back of his truck, where it had landed after hitting the windshield. The police eventually stopped him. The driver, who had a history of DUI convictions, was stoned and drunk. He was given 35 years in prison. At his sentencing, the man asked the cyclist’s wife for forgiveness. “You took away my husband,” she responded. “You have no respect for life.” Later, to the press, she said, “Obviously, we would like him to be in jail for life.”

Carman believed that Abdallah likely wouldn’t get much sympathy from a Scott County jury. From my vantage point, it was easy to share his concern. In 2016, Scott County went for Donald Trump by 31 points. The president had since vowed to keep Americans safe by barring people like Abdallah from entering the country. Young male refugees—unencumbered by children and often the first of a population to flee a troubled region—and Muslim immigrants were under intense national scrutiny. When I mentioned Abdallah’s predicament to friends, many furrowed their brows in apprehension. “And his name’s Mohamed?” they asked.

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Several people from the conference call blocked off the third week of February in our calendars; some of us planned to carpool to Kentucky. Olmstead reserved an Airbnb in Louisville, one with bunk beds and a pull-out couch. We debated who should take on the role of the white character witness: Who knew Abdallah best? Ultimately, Olmstead and I were cast.

I felt desperate for information, in much the same way that my clients did when I was a resettlement caseworker. Refugees often wanted any useful thing I could tell them, any crumb of knowledge. How strange now to be on the other side. I counted down the days until my first phone call with Carman, which Olmstead also joined.

“I think he’s innocent,” Carman told us. He was a fast talker, with what I assumed was a Kentucky accent. “It was just an accident. Mohamed didn’t do anything wrong.”

To be clear, Carman continued, Abdallah had been speeding. My brain fumbled with this information. The Abdallah I knew followed rules to a fault. The cognitive dissonance ground down the words even as I transcribed them.

The GPS from the Camry, now in evidence with Scott County, showed the car going around 19 miles per hour over the speed limit, which was 70, around the time of the accident. In the preceding hours, Abdallah had topped 100 miles per hour three times. Under Kentucky law, going more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit may accrue several points on someone’s license, but it doesn’t necessarily qualify as reckless driving. In order to prove its case, the prosecution would have to establish that Abdallah had demonstrated flagrant, excessive disregard for highway safety—“wanton” behavior, in legal speak, that showed indifference to the lives of other people on the road.

“There’s a lot going on in the case right now,” Carman continued, including the fact that, on his advice, Abdallah had hired an accident reconstructionist named Henry “Sonny” Cease, a retired major for the Kentucky police. Abdallah had paid Cease $5,000 up front but hadn’t yet received the accident report, which made us nervous. There was no way to tell if what Cease had to say would help or hurt Abdallah’s defense.

It was possible, Carman continued, that a Scott County jury might vote for a partial conviction as a compromise. “These jurors, they’ll see Mr. Sams in the grocery store,” he said. A partial conviction, however, wouldn’t mitigate the risk of Abdallah being deported. “The law is on Mohamed’s side,” Carman explained, “but the equities are not.”

When I spoke to Abdallah the next day on the phone, knees curled to my chest on my sofa, his voice sounded tight and low. For the first time, he talked to me about the accident. Jittery, I wrote down what he said on a half-size yellow steno pad.

He told me about the Sams family. How he thought he remembered their truck bumping his Camry before he went into the yaw. How he staggered to the pickup after the crash. How he looked for the girl and found her. “It was so sad,” he said. “It was so, so sad.” He told me about the truck driver and the questions: Where did he come from? Was he Muslim?

Abdallah and I spent the rest of the call brainstorming people who might be willing to write a character-reference letter for him. When I hung up the phone, I stared at the list of 53 names—people who’d been my colleagues, interns, and volunteers. They’d helped Abdallah during his resettlement, rented to him, hired him, and worked alongside him. He remembered them all.

We had prioritized people we hoped would win over a Kentucky judge. Most had Anglophone names. Only a few were Darfurian men. My striving for this mix would repulse me in retrospect. Right then, though, I didn’t care. I wanted a bluegrass roster.

When I sent out a mass email to the people on the list, I took care to explain that their letters wouldn’t be used during the trial; I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. The letters would come into play if Abdallah were found guilty. The writers’ job would be to convince the judge to minimize the sentence so that Abdallah might be able to stay in America.

I googled “what to wear as a character witness” and scoured my wardrobe for warm, feminine clothing. Nothing black. Nothing too coastal elite.

Days later, on another call with Abdallah and Olmstead, we ran through everything we didn’t know, including why Scott County didn’t have Abdallah’s official statement from after the crash and how Mohammed Tom, who was set to testify, would get to Kentucky from Washington State, where he’d relocated. “It was an accident,” Abdallah kept repeating. “It was an accident.” He said it so many times that I finally snapped and told him that he’d better pull it together and get his head in the game. Get a nice suit. A respectable haircut. Practice American eye contact.

After Abdallah hung up, I told Olmstead that maybe I shouldn’t have been so harsh. She said that it was fine, that it needed to be said.

I took phone calls from Darfurians who couldn’t come to the trial but wanted to submit letters for their friend. I prompted them with questions, transcribed what they said.

“Mohamed is a good man. He is always giving,” said Jamoa Yahia, on a break from driving an 18-wheeler to Texas. “Whatever he has, he gives to people who need it.”

“Everyone loves him,” said Hassen Ismail. He added that Abdallah’s mother, who was still living in a refugee camp in Chad, was heartsick and scared.

I drove to Baltimore one day, shooting down I-95, and for a moment screamed so hard I thought my voice might rake open the flesh of my throat. When I arrived, I sat on Abbas Yahya’s couch, helping him with his own letter. “All the Darfurians in Baltimore have been impacted by the accident because we miss Mohamed,” Yahya dictated. “It feels like all of us had an accident.”

I admitted to Yahya that I’d cried during a recent call with Abdallah. He looked at me aghast—appalled by the breach in my professional veneer. I felt viciously bored with myself. When I got back home, I tore through my closet, packing for Kentucky. I had googled “what to wear as a character witness” and scoured my wardrobe for warm, feminine clothing. Nothing black. Nothing too coastal elite.

Carman called me to go over what he would ask me on the stand. I hammered him with anecdotes I’d been stockpiling: Abdallah’s good-neighbor question, the incident of overdressing to see Obama.

“Those are good,” Carman said, “but I can only ask, like, three questions. How do you know him, can you form an opinion on his character—”

“Yes.”

“—and what that opinion is. And you can basically just say ‘high’ or ‘very high.’”

That was all I’d get: a fragment of a sentence.

I doubted that so brief a testimony could persuade a jury of my faith in Abdallah. At the very least, though, I could bear witness. I’d been at the airport for Abdallah’s beginning in this country. If it came to it, I would be there for the end.

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4.

Georgetown, the seat of Scott County, is a picture-perfect small city. The buildings on its main drag are old, made of brick, and so charming they belong in a movie. At the courthouse, security guards smiled and nodded as I passed through the metal detector.

I arrived toward the tail end of jury selection, which had taken up most of a Monday morning. More than a dozen of Abdallah’s friends and supporters were already inside the courtroom. As witnesses, Olmstead, Mohammed Tom, and I were relegated to a hallway, opposite two nearly exhausted candy machines and a lime-crusted water fountain. We wouldn’t be allowed to watch the trial until we’d testified.

In the early afternoon, a young woman emerged from the courtroom and came over to us. She was Kalee Collett, Carman’s assistant. She had wide, clear eyes and straight blond hair. Her serious expression made her look older than her 19 years. She brought good news: Jury selection had been rigorous. For starters, the defense asked potential jurors to identify any biases they held against people of a certain skin color or religion, along with whether or not they knew the Samses personally. The prosecution had unsuccessfully tried to cut a black woman, citing a previous speeding ticket and alleging that her profession—engineering—would make her a difficult juror. A Hispanic man and a white woman who said she was from South Africa had made the final panel.

After Collett left, we took turns standing up to peer through large, rectangular windows into the courtroom. I tried to take notes, balancing my notebook on the ledge. But there wasn’t much to record: I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying.

At 4 p.m., the doors opened and jurors filed out. They looked numb and exhausted. A young man with sandy hair touched his stubble, an absent look in his eyes. The only black juror’s steps were narrow, her shoulders pressed in, as if trying to take up less space. A middle-aged woman with thinning hair and gaunt cheeks looked like she could use a smoke.

In the car on the way to our Airbnb, friends who’d been in the courtroom caught me up on the day’s events. A couple of them worried over the defense’s opening statement. Carman, who with his beard and stocky frame reminded me of a short lumberjack in a nice suit, had sketched out Abdallah’s past for the jury while Collett passed Abdallah a box of tissues. The statement took less than five minutes to deliver. The prosecution, meanwhile, offered meticulous scene setting.

The county’s first witness was Scott Burgett, who had traveled to Kentucky from Overland Park, Kansas, where he worked for the tech company Garmin. Pat Molloy, the lead prosecutor, asked Burgett about the GPS device he’d helped design, which was the model in Abdallah’s car. Then Molloy had Burgett read some of the data pulled from Abdallah’s GPS. Minutes before the accident, the Camry exceeded 90 miles per hour. According to Burgett, the car’s speed at the moment of the collision was 89 miles per hour.

The next witness was deputy sheriff Jeb Barnes, the first officer to respond to the crash. A large bald man who seemed affable and honest, Barnes described how the Samses’ truck had rolled and flipped before hitting the edge of a concrete drainage ditch and going fully airborne. Emily’s body was thrown around, a loose item in a violently pitching cabin. Barnes believed that Emily died before the truck hurtled through the treetops, shearing off its roof. She was ejected through the gaping hole that remained.  

Barnes said that, despite asking for one, he’d never received a statement about the accident from Abdallah. Olmstead mentioned that she found this odd: She remembered helping Abdallah write his police statement when he got back to Baltimore, before she knew how serious the situation was.

Barnes introduced into evidence several photos that he’d taken of the accident: skid marks, smoking vehicles, what he called “gouges in the earth.” His testimony had a poetic precision. He was the last witness of the day.

Abdallah’s allies gathered for dinner at his new two-bedroom apartment. The living room had a large central rug ringed with couches and chairs. The space wasn’t as shabby as the one I’d seen a year prior, but Abdallah hesitated when someone complimented him on his home. He said that every time he had friends over, his upstairs neighbors called the police.

Soon after arriving, I found Abdallah alone in the kitchen, free of his suit jacket and dress shoes, next to an oven where he was roasting a huge foil-covered dish of goat meat. I’d never seen him so thin. He was happy to have company. While he cooked, I leaned against the fridge. We joshed about how much sugar he put in his tea. We giggled at each other’s bad jokes. The mood was light and ephemeral, like the soft crackle of carbonation.

Abdallah spread black trash bags across the living room rug and brought out dishes: hummus, pita, bell peppers, store-bought chicken, the chunks of goat. He added bottles of water to the array, placing one in front of each guest. For the span of the meal, we let go of the trial. We stopped rehashing how the Garmin man had listed high speed after high speed. How frustrating it was that Abdallah’s official statement was missing. How Carman seemed fine but we needed Atticus Finch.

Midway through the meal, I disentangled myself from the packed-in knees, the arms reaching for food, to stand on a chair and take a few pictures on my phone. Too often we document only victories, the moments of joy but not of loss. No one takes candids at a funeral. The images I got were muted by the apartment’s low light, like something out of time. They already looked like artifacts I would unearth one day, after the verdict had been read and there were no more choices to be made.

Too often we document only victories, the moments of joy but not of loss. No one takes candids at a funeral. 

On the second morning of the trial, Collett gathered Abdallah’s friends together in the hallway: seven young white women, a white, ponytailed man, and a dozen Sudanese men in sharp suits and pointy-toed shoes. She warned us that it was crucial for us to keep it together today. The Sams family was going to testify. Shella had undergone 25 surgeries since the accident. Both of Emily’s grandmothers would be there. Many people who took the stand would be grieving.

When the Samses were finished, the defense would begin its case. At some point, I would be called to testify. Carman eventually came into the hall to prep me. I had to be careful, he said, because if I went off script—did anything other than answer his exact questions as succinctly as possible—the judge could shut me down.

Carman looked a little rueful over this restriction. Then he raised his eyebrows. “Unless,” he said, “if they ask you a question during cross-examination. If they give you an opening when they talk to you, you can go on for as long as you want. If they do that, go for it.”

He gave a meaningful nod. I nodded back, feeling unequipped for a filibuster.

As the morning passed, a man and a woman stood against a nearby wall. They emanated quiet intensity. The man, who was paunchy, looked stressed. The woman leaned against him, draping her thin limbs out across his chest and belly. They murmured to each other in pleading tones. I thought I heard the words “this country” and “Christian.”

I turned to Olmstead. “I think that’s the truck driver,” I said quietly.

She nodded. She’d been listening, too.

Eventually, the man was called into court—Abdallah’s court—and he disappeared behind heavy double doors. When he emerged 30 minutes later, he and the woman boarded the elevator. We didn’t see them again. Soon after, a raised voice in the courtroom snapped me to attention. It was muffled but hard, and clearly female. The volume ebbed, then spiked again.

“I think it’s the grandmother,” said Aliza Sollins, an old colleague.

“I saw her go in,” Olmstead added.

“Is she shouting?” I asked.

A while later, I peered through the narrow window while Shella Sams testified. Her composure struck me: She bore a gentle dignity in the midst of a storm.

That afternoon, when I was called to testify, the air in the courtroom felt stiff yet mildly electric. A damp light filled the space. I walked the single aisle between the wall and the gallery, past the double row of jurors. A bailiff settled me into the witness area, which held a small, walled-off table with a chair. There was a microphone, but it was too far away for me to reach. I imagined how I must have looked, a poor fit for the witness box and sweating through my carefully selected clothes.

Carman asked me my name. I gave it.

“Just generally and briefly, how did you come to know Mohamed Abdallah?” he asked.

I explained that I had been his caseworker. I knew I was supposed to look at the jury, but my brain couldn’t override how weird that felt.

“And did you have dealings with him for a number of months or even years?”

“Yes, I had dealings with him most intensely for eight months, and then on, for about two years.”

“Have you been able to be around him enough,” Carman asked, “to be able to form an opinion of his character?”

“Yes.”

“And what is that opinion?”

I straightened my back and leaned toward the microphone. “Extremely high,” I said.

A portly prosecutor who was assisting Molloy rose to cross-examine me. “Were you at the scene of the collision that occurred between the defendant’s automobile and the Sams family?” he asked.

“No, I was not,” I said.

“So you don’t have any direct knowledge of that day or that incident. Is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Nothing further.”

I was dismissed. Testimony delivered, I was allowed to take a seat in the gallery.


Carman called for Mohammed Tom. At my urging to trim his goatee and wear dress shoes, Tom had shaved his entire face raw and smashed his feet into a too-small pair of brown Oxfords. He plopped onto the seat and slouched into a casual posture that treaded the fine line between self-assuredness and arrogance. I wished he would sit up straight.

An Arabic interpreter pulled up a chair beside the witness stand. Tom could put on a show of English, but it was mostly a confidence act. Carman questioned Tom for 13 minutes, after which Molloy, an older man with short hair, glasses, and a white beard, stepped in for the cross-examination. I thought Tom seemed confused at times, which he tried to mask with pride, appearing certain of everything he said even when it clearly wasn’t correct. At least once, he answered a question before fully hearing what it was. I thought there might be a hitch with the interpretating, because Tom’s answers didn’t always match Molloy’s questions. Also, the interpreter’s dialect didn’t sound like Sudanese Arabic.

In a Southern drawl, Molloy asked questions about minute details: the placement of chargers inside Abdallah’s car, the location of a cell phone, where the GPS sat on the dashboard, and the speed of the vehicle. At first, Tom insisted that Abdallah never went above 70 miles per hour, didn’t once break the speed limit. He would have known, Tom said, because the steering wheel would have started shaking. He mimed holding a rattling wheel. I gaped at him from my seat.

“The car is four-cylinder,” Tom said. “If you go over 70, it starts shaking.”

“Over 70, it starts shaking,” Molloy repeated.

“Four-cylinder, the car can go as fast as 80,” Tom said. “We didn’t go more than that.”

“So 80 would have been the top speed, is that correct?” Molloy asked.

Tom considered. “I think the fastest we went was 75. I don’t think we reached 80.”

“OK, 75 it is then.”

“I think so, yes.” The way Tom said it sounded like sure, why not.

I dug my fingers into the bench with such force that Aliza Sollins reached over to hold my hand. On the witness stand, Tom grabbed a couple of plastic water cups and started a series of improbable demonstrations reenacting the accident. Tom described the Samses’ truck bumping the Camry twice on its right side, which he indicated had caused Abdallah to veer left then right before hitting the Samses’ pickup. Tom tried to explain how he’d wanted to help the Samses after the accident.

“And that’s what you really came here to say, isn’t it,” Molloy said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” Tom said, without irony.

The questioning lasted another 15 minutes. When it was over, Tom sauntered away from the witness’s chair. By the time he walked past me, three Darfurian men were already tearing into him. I hissed at them to be quiet or go eviscerate Tom out in the hall.

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“What?” Tom kept asking, bewildered. “What?”

Abdallah took the stand without an interpreter. I watched him in profile as he leaned forward in the witness chair, placing both elbows on the table and folding his hands. His long legs were bent at the knees and tucked beneath the chair. Carman threw him softballs: Where did he grow up? Where is Chad? Where did he work? Did the United States government give him permission to be in the country? Abdallah spoke carefully, eyes up. At Carman’s subtle reminders, he addressed the jury.

When the questioning turned to the accident, Carman called in an interpreter. He explained to the judge that this was for accuracy, but it was also clear that he’d wanted to show off his client’s articulate English before getting deep into the testimony.

Abdallah admitted he’d driven fast, but said that his speed had gone only into the seventies and eighties. Like Tom, he said that he’d lost control of the car when the Samses’ vehicle nudged his Camry twice. After the crash, he recalled, “We tried to help. I was so scared, so I got the energy to help. We tried to open the door [to the pickup], but the door was locked, was jammed, and it wouldn’t open. And the man was crying and screaming, ‘Where’s my daughter, where’s my daughter?’”

“What are your feelings about all of this?” Carman asked.

Abdallah decided to answer in English.

“First of all, I would like to say is, I really feel very troubled about the family was lost their daughter. And I saw the mom sitting in the wheelchair. I just remember that I lost—I lost my father.” Abdallah wept as he spoke. “I saw the same situation. It is hard for me to describe.”

When Molloy addressed Abdallah on cross-examination, he said “ab-doo-lah,” as in “zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” I wished the pronunciation were correct; names are so vital to who we are. Molloy’s questioning began with a reference to Tom’s testimony, which Abdallah quickly contradicted, saying the car didn’t shake at any speed.

“I was the one who was driving, and I would know if the car is shaking,” he said.

“So when Mr. Tom said that—and he was pretty adamant about it—that’s not true?”

Abdallah agreed but pointed out that Tom had trouble understanding the questions.

“So it’s a language problem,” Molloy said. But hadn’t the court given Tom an interpreter? Abdallah explained that Arabic wasn’t Tom’s first language, Masalit was.

Molloy brought up the 911 call after the accident. According to Abdallah and Tom, they weren’t confident enough in their English to communicate with emergency dispatch, so they gave their cell phone to the truck driver—whose name, I finally learned, was Ed Schreiber. During his testimony, Schreiber had said that Abdallah and Tom were speaking in Arabic on the phone and that he had to snatch the device out of Abdallah’s hand to call for help.

Molloy continued: Hadn’t Abdallah avoided the police after the accident—skipped town and gone back to Baltimore, where he evaded Scott County’s attempts to get his official statement? Abdallah insisted this wasn’t true. Officer Barnes had called him once to get a statement, but when Abdallah asked for an interpreter, Barnes said there wasn’t one available.

“I told him, ‘My language is not enough,’” Abdallah said. “He did not engage with me in any conversation about the accident. I asked him a few questions. I said, ‘If you give me the chance, I can tell you what happened.’”

Abdallah sent a paper statement. When it bounced back in the mail for some reason, he sent it again. The authorities in Scott County apparently never got it.  

Molloy asked whether Abdallah had contacted Shella Sams after the accident. Abdallah said no. Molloy looked unimpressed. “You never called her,” he said. “You never said a word to her, in almost—what—two years or little better, about how bad you felt, until you saw her in this courtroom today.”

“Right after the accident, I was really sad,” Abdallah replied. “And I know she’s a mother, so she was very sad, too. So I couldn’t reach out to her. Then I found out I was a defendant; they accused me of something.” He didn’t think he was supposed to contact the family, even though he wanted to know how they were—“to see what’s going on, what’s happening with them. I wouldn’t leave a situation like this.”

After Abdallah finished testifying, Carman called Olmstead so that she could tell the court about helping Abdallah with his statement. Calm and businesslike, Olmstead described how Abdallah came to her office for guidance. He’d already written a draft of the statement on scrap paper; Olmstead mostly helped as a proofreader, a human spell-check. She remembered Abdallah saying later that the statement had been sent back to him.

On cross-examination, the prosecution asked whether Abdallah had been in further contact with Scott County investigators. Olmstead answered, “He did tell me that he had called the police department a lot because he didn’t know what had happened with his car.”

“So his concern was his car?” the questioning prosecutor asked.

“One of them, yes,” Olmstead replied, her eyebrows rising.


I drove Abdallah and Tom home that night. In the back seat, Tom felt terrible, shaking his lowered head and saying over and over how sorry he was. He’d never be able to save face in the Darfurian community after making Abdallah look like a liar by association.

“Don’t worry about it,” Abdallah told him from the front seat. “It’s OK. It’s OK. I’ll tell them you did OK.”

At Abdallah’s apartment, Tom exiled himself to a bedroom. No one could coax him out.

People again filled the living room. Pizza boxes and plates of leftovers littered the floor. We were exhausted but reviewed the events of the day before I’d been called to the stand, including the testimony of Sonny Cease, the accident-reconstruction expert. A square-headed, heavyset man with sharp eyes, Cease brought toy cars with him to the witness stand; apparently, juries like that kind of thing. Cease contested the Garmin representative’s testimony about Abdallah’s speed, arguing that when the Camry slid sideways out of its lane, the friction with the asphalt would have reduced its speed to closer to 76 miles per hour at the moment of the collision with the Samses’ truck. Yes, Cease said, speed kills—but it didn’t kill this time.

Then there was the testimony of Ed Schreiber. The prosecution lauded him as a good Samaritan. On the stand, Schreiber described pulling over in his truck, comforting Emily’s grandparents, and later attending her funeral. On cross-examination, Carman asked Schreiber about the 911 call.

“You mentioned something about their religion to dispatch, did you not?” “Yes, sir,” Schreiber said. “That’s because when I grabbed the phone out of his hand, there was a name there that was actually a Muslim name, it was Mohamed something.” Carman then shifted gears and asked Schreiber about his Facebook account. Did he publish an anti-Muslim post on October 13, 2015? “I might have,” Schreiber said. What about on November 1, 2015? “I may have.” “Now, it’s just my job,” Carman said, shuffling papers at the podium. “I’ve got to do this.” His head snapped up. “Are you a racist?” “No, sir!” Schreiber replied. His chin rose in defiance. What about images of Confederate flags, Carman asked—did he post those? Carman gave Schreiber more dates. “I think. I mean, I’ve posted a lot of stuff,” Schreiber said. “I mean, I see stuff, and I repost it, and whatever.”

At Abdallah’s apartment, as our group talked, new, unspoken admiration for Carman hung in the air. A warm appreciation for the bailiffs also went around the room. The older Kentucky men had been kind: opening doors, pouring us cups of water on the witness stand. Nothing outside of their jobs, but their consideration seemed genuine.

I wondered about the heart of a place: Does such a thing exist? Who can legitimately claim to best represent a community out of everyone working to protect it, with their inevitable range of worldviews? The following day, the jury would be tasked with delivering a fair verdict on behalf of Scott County. What would that mean to them?

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5.

Judge Jeremy Mattox arranged the files in front of him. “Good morning, folks, and welcome to day three of the Commonwealth versus Mohamed Abdallah,” he said. The courtroom was the fullest it had been so far. The Samses and their supporters were there, along with some reporters and public defenders in training. Tom, whom Abdallah had cajoled into showering and dressing, sat with us. A clutch of Darfurian men who were expected to be there hadn’t yet arrived. We tried to spread out, take up space, make our group seem larger than it was.

To still my brain, I wrote down every word I could catch of the lawyers’ closing statements. It felt like cheating, a cop-out from having to watch what happened. I told myself that recording an event was important.

Carman took up a position behind a podium near the jury. He drank from a white paper cup and covered a cough with his fist. He buttoned his suit jacket, crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back. “What I’m going to do with you here this morning,” Carman told the jurors, “is give you a top ten.” He asked that the men and women each take out a notepad and write down the items he listed. I was poised to do the same.

“Number ten.” Carman moved away from the podium, taking his notepad with him. “It was an accident.” He said each word slowly, emphatically. “And there are reasons we do not criminalize accidents.”

Number nine: Speeding didn’t cause the crash. He said it twice, reiterating Cease’s evaluation of the accident.

Carman cocked his head and swung back around the podium for number eight. “Mohamed’s vehicle was probably hit twice,” he said. Abdallah had been consistent on this point from the start of the case, and Tom remembered it, too: the Samses’ truck making contact with the Camry right before the accident. The Samses, however, had testified that their car never touched Abdallah’s until the crash. I wasn’t sure who had physics on their side; as the prosecution had pointed out, I wasn’t there for the collision. Carman scanned the jury. “A graze,” he said, “a small bump.” He gave a who-knows shrug.

The seventh point was that there were no drugs, no alcohol, no drag racing, no devil-may-care attitude involved in the crash. “Number six—this one’s not easy for me to even say. It’s not easy to remember, but it is my solemn duty to have you write down number six,” Carman said. “Emily was not wearing her seatbelt.”

For his fifth point, Carman touched on witness testimony. First, there was Schreiber. “He might have a bias against people of a certain color, people of a certain religion,” Carman said. Of the testimonies from Abdallah and Tom, Carman argued, “Nobody was coached.”

Number four: There were other opportunities for justice. A civil case, money from insurance companies. Lives didn’t have to be ruined further for there to be justice. For number three, Carman read aloud the legal definition of wanton: “aware and consciously disregard[ing] a substantial and unjustifiable risk. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would reserve in such a situation.” Abdallah’s driving, Carman said, simply didn’t meet this definition.

Number two was what kind of a person Abdallah was. “You heard about his reputation in the community,” Carman said, then paused. “Did you notice all his support? If one of us were to go to trial, would ten or fifteen people show up every day of that trial?” The group of late-arriving Darfurian men had just settled into their seats in the back of the room.

“Moved around. Refugee from Sudan,” Carman continued. “Reminds me of Matthew, chapter eight: ‘Foxes have their den, birds have their nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Carman noted how forthright Abdallah was during his testimony. “Did you notice his hands were shaking a little bit?” Carman asked. “I don’t think it’s ’cause he was being untruthful.… You know why he was a little nervous?” Carman leaned toward the jury and lowered his voice to a dark whisper. “Because this is for all the marbles.”

For a moment he was silent, letting the jurors hold that thought.

“Moved around. Refugee from Sudan,” Carman continued. “Reminds me of Matthew, chapter eight: ‘Foxes have their den, birds have their nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Carman was moving fast now. My heart sped up, too. “That brings us to number one.” He flipped to the next page in his notebook. The prosecution hadn’t “even come close,” Carman said, to proving Abdallah’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He held forth on the concept of equal justice under the law, an idea dating back to ancient Greece and found in the Old Testament—in Hebrews, Exodus, Leviticus. Carman seemed to be morphing before the court, achieving a deft grace.

“The evidence shows that if this were Jimmy Smith from Georgetown, not Mohamed Abdallah, who got in an accident with the Samses, we would not be here today,” Carman said, jabbing a finger in the air.

“When the accident happened, who’s the first one on the scene?” he reasoned. “God love him, Ed Schreiber. He’s telling the dispatch, ‘I think these are Muslims.’” As for Mohamed struggling to submit his statement, “He’s dealing with logistical issues. He’s a doggone refugee!”

Carman abruptly stopped moving. He said that he believed America’s justice system was the best in the world. No one should be put on trial for “what color they are, what religion they are, what language they speak.” He banged his fist on the wall of the jury box. “Maybe I can imagine this kind of indictment, this kind of prosecution, this kind of conviction” happening somewhere else, Carman said, “but not in this county, not in this commonwealth, and not in this country. We are better than that.”

For the first time, I felt a flash of hope.

When Molloy rose to address the jury, I again burned anxious. In contrast to Carman’s fevered sermon, Molloy’s voice was low and steady. He choked up when he spoke of the Sams family. He knocked the flaws in Tom’s testimony. Molloy, a longstanding advocate for civil rights, rejected Carman’s argument that the trial had anything to do with racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. “This case is not about Mr. Abdallah’s place of birth. It is not about his religion. It is not about the color of his skin,” Molloy said. It was about what Abdallah did, and what he didn’t do. Abdallah drove too fast and “never showed any remorse, ever,” Molloy argued. “When Mrs. Sams came into the courtroom, he broke down crying. For himself. What a perfect time to say ‘I’m sorry.’”

“This is the day that Mr. Abdallah is to be held accountable,” Molloy concluded. “This is the day that you, the jury, having heard all you have heard, can hold him accountable for what he has done.”


The jury holed up in the deliberation room, and we clustered in the courtroom. Beside me, Abdallah sat with his hands stuffed between his knees. We chatted with Collett and Carman and produced the stack of 30-plus character-reference letters that we’d collected. I read them aloud to Abdallah. I skipped the parts where writers said that he seemed depressed and withdrawn because of his legal troubles, focusing on the bits where they heaped on praise. Every few letters, I reminded him that if the jury found him guilty, these documents were going straight to the judge.

Carman gave us the rundown of the ways the trial’s aftermath could go. Once Abdallah was convicted, he would be taken to jail on the spot. A probation officer would conduct and write up a presentencing investigation, which might take up to a month. The court would then hand down a final sentence. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could opt to deport Abdallah or render him a closely watched nonresident, a man who would move like a ghost through prison and life in America until he left the country or died.

Carman tried a metaphor. It’s like we’re on a path in the woods, he said, and we might have to turn and go down another path. We might get to a clearing. We might turn down a path and, whoa, there might be a bear, and we might have to shoot the bear.

Everyone stared at him.

He mimed releasing an arrow from a bow.

At 4 p.m., five hours after the jury began deliberating, the courtroom stirred. Collett whispered to us that there was a verdict. We drifted to our places. At the defense table, Abdallah looked slight and flimsy. The Sams family returned and sat up front. I looked at the backs of their heads with shame, pain, sorrow, indignation. There was a hard shiver in the back of my ribs that wouldn’t cease.

Seated in a back row of the gallery, between Olmstead and Tom, I watched officers I hadn’t seen before file in. They lined up against a wall and near the exits. Handcuffs glinted at their belts. Unlike the cordial bailiffs, these officers were younger and grim faced.

A peal of laughter sounded from the jury room. I felt nauseous and nostalgic for a half-hour ago and the burden of waiting.

Then the jury returned.

“Will the defendant please rise?” Judge Mattox asked.

Abdallah stood. My throat compressed.

“On count one,” Mattox read, meaning the second-degree manslaughter of Emily Sams, “we the jury find the defendant not guilty.”

Olmstead’s grip on my hand tightened. My other hand jumped to one of Tom’s but missed and hit his thigh.

“On count two,” for assault, “we the jury find the defendant not guilty.” The result was the same for the third charge, the last one.

I traded glances with Olmstead, whose stunned, frozen face mirrored mine. Tom was so busy showing no emotion I couldn’t tell if he’d missed what just happened. In front of us, other members of our party twitched and shifted on their benches.

Affectless, we rose as the jury filed out. One juror winked in our direction as he left. We let the Samses exit the courtroom next. Abdallah stood for their exit like a soldier at attention. Then we walked out in silence.

In the hallway, we shattered. Darfurian men held their heads and wept. They dove at me, at Abdallah, at anyone, with close embraces. They collapsed on my shoulders. At Abdallah’s side, Collett’s cheeks were wet with tears. We stumbled into the elevator, desperate to escape. I caught Carman ducking his way through a snuffle. The back of my hips hit the elevator’s wall. My hands found the railings behind me as my knees gave way.

We scattered to our cars. I was worried we’d leave someone behind, but we went, and in going, I somehow climbed into the back seat of my car. Abdallah got into the passenger seat. He closed the door, then he threw himself between the seats onto an armrest and sobbed.

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6.

Fawzia, a Darfurian woman who attended the last day of the trial, announced that we were “going to the river.” She knew a restaurant where we could celebrate, but her proclamation also felt baptismal. It was time to be clean of this.

The next morning—after the delirious phone calls, ululations, a glittering night, dinner by the river, more tears—Abdallah, Tom, and another friend came over to the Airbnb for pancakes and jam. We all sat in the sun-drenched living room, on the furniture and on the floor. It felt strange not to be in court in the daytime, stranger still for Abdallah to have shown up at some place he wished to go.

Abdallah kept repeating Mattox’s words: “Mohamed Abdallah, you are a free man.” His eyes shone when he relived how Carman had pounded his fist on the jury box. He echoed the Bible verses Carman had used, slowly committing them to memory.

Later, at a bowling alley where he chose “FREE MAN” as his name on the computer screen, Abdallah kept checking his cell phone. A man who worked for Scott County was supposed to contact him, and Abdallah was anxious that they meet. Eventually they did, in the parking lot of an Ethiopian restaurant where we went for a late lunch. The man swung open the door of a silver sedan and passed Abdallah a large pair of surgical-style scissors. In a series of hurried, stiff clips, Abdallah cut through the plastic band of his ankle monitor. Then he hugged everyone in sight.

Inside the restaurant, Abdallah thanked the crowd of Americans and Darfurians gathered. “I was very, very being patient, to see whatever the result happened,” he said of the trial. “I should be happy with that.” He looked around the room as he spoke. “Finally, yes, I’m a free man,” Abdallah said. “God bless everybody.”


A year after his trial, Abdallah was still in Kentucky. “You must think I’m crazy,” he told me. Driving away from the courthouse the day of the verdict, Abdallah had paged through a book on U.S. national parks, looking for ideas of where to move now that he could. He stayed in Kentucky because he applied for American citizenship through an immigration lawyer in Louisville. Once that was done, maybe he’d leave. Put in for a transfer at Amazon. Go to California. Maybe Utah. Pennsylvania.

Abdallah knew he’d been lucky. Still, it haunted him that, after the trial, Carman advised him not to reach out to the Samses. Just let it lie, the lawyer said.

I called both Carman and Molloy. The men had acute memories of the case, but their perspectives were different. Before the trial, Carman told me, he and Molloy were “pretty friendly,” often joining the same happy hour after work. A little wistfully, Carman said those days were through. Molloy told me that Carman had crossed a line in his closing argument when he suggested that a local defendant would have been treated differently than Abdallah. For Molloy, a man who had dedicated his life to justice, the insult implied in his opponent’s argument was intolerable.

I learned from a lawyer for Abdallah’s car-insurance company that the Sams family had settled for close to $60,000. I doubted that, as Carman had hinted in court, money felt anything like justice. I reached out to the Samses in February 2019. Emily’s father responded to me by email, taking on the task because Shella was still in recovery and exhausted at the end of the day. She had an infection in her femur that would require two additional surgeries.

Much of what Jeff Sams wrote was tough to read. He graciously said that he didn’t blame me for my participation in the trial—“I assume you were simply telling what you knew to be true about someone you knew”—but several of our truths diverged. He rankled at Carman, who he said should either “win an Oscar for that performance or burn in hell.” He also thought that bringing race into the trial had muddied the waters. For him the case was about speed. He saw Abdallah as a person with appalling moral decrepitude who lied to save his own skin. Still, Sams wrote, “Would I be happy if he was in jail, no. Would I be happy if he was deported to whatever hole he crawled out of, no. Would I be happy if he suffered and drew his last breath, no. That may seem odd, but it wouldn’t bring me joy. My joy is buried in a cemetery. My joy can’t surface as I watch my wife struggle to walk, do ordinary tasks, choke down 30 pills a day, or hold her as she cries because she misses our daughter.”

“We had nothing to gain from this,” Sams said of the trial. “Nothing would bring back our dead daughter, nor give my wife the ability to overcome paralysis. It was just a continuation of a nightmare.” They had been “handed down a sentence of pain, suffering, and tears long before it. It was a life sentence to us, no way around that.”

Earlier in the year, he’d attended a ceremony for Emily’s basketball team; the players and coaches had asked him to come. “They miss her just like everyone else. She was a stellar kid who made all A’s and was good at volleyball and basketball. Quick witted. Pretty. A great kid,” Sams wrote. “Not a day will go by we won’t think of her. Think of what she would look like, what college she might have attended, how great a volleyball player she would have been, what career she would choose, what boy she might bring home or marry, how many kids she might have, where she might live, or simply what it would be like to just hear her voice and hug her today.”

He added, “That child alone and missing her could be its own book.”

Justice, a concept ostensibly rooted in clear-cut truths, is in fact fickle. America can inspire grief and faith in the same stroke.

If I’d expected reconciliation, it wasn’t there. I remembered something my wife had said during the trial. “It didn’t feel like justice,” she’d observed after the first day of the proceedings. “It felt like two boys trying to win a game.”

What if the quest for justice brings no healing, only more pain? Abdallah lost nearly three years of his life; the Samses found no reprieve from their immense hurt and grief. If the accident had happened in peacetime Darfur, Abbas Yahya told me once, village leaders likely would have convened and decided upon compensation for the people affected. Here we duked it out until everyone in the vicinity of the case was black and blue.

Much like an angry brawl, the participants had different reasons for coming to the ring. Where the prosecution saw a need for consequences, the defense perceived systemic racism. I reached out to several jurors to better understand their decision in the case, but none responded. I’ve tried to stop guessing what went on in their minds—to surmise what, as individuals, they value and fear.

In our narrative-heavy culture, we are taught to interpret people and places as symbols, to imbue them with meaning. Stories, though, often fail to reflect the world’s complexity and contradictions. Justice, a concept ostensibly rooted in clear-cut truths, is in fact fickle. America can inspire grief and faith in the same stroke. And Abdallah, a man onto whom other people—myself included—have projected their perspectives, is nobody’s best or worst dream of him.

When I talked to Abdallah in the months following the trial, I sensed a sort of transient state. He couldn’t visualize his next step until he got his citizenship, giving him purchase in a country that had both welcomed and thwarted him. Life beyond the verdict still held a question for Abdallah—and, it seemed, for everyone who’d endured the trial. We were waiting to see what this land would hold.


Update, May 2019: Two months after this story ran, Mohamed Abdallah became a U.S. citizen. He took his oath in a government building in Louisville, Kentucky. It rained all day, but Abdallah told the story’s author that he didn’t mind—rain signaled a new beginning.

The Minnesota Murderess

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The Minnesota Murderess

A new wife, a dead husband, and the arsenic panic that shook the Victorian world.

By Christine Seifert

The Atavist Magazine, No. 88


Christine Seifert is a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. She’s the author of the Young Adult novel The Predicteds, as well as the nonfiction books Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars and The Endless Wait: Virginity in Young Adult Literature. She has written about sex and pop culture for numerous publications.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Joe Gough

Published in February 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1. A Death Most Foul

Stanislaus Bilansky was sick. Throughout the winter he had suffered bouts of indigestion, and now it manifested as a terrible burning in the stomach after eating. Even with light meals of soup and arrowroot, he experienced pain and vomiting. During the first week of March 1859, he was mostly bedridden in his home on Stillwater Road in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

His doctor of nine years, Alfred Berthier, would later testify that he knew Stanislaus to be in good health, even if he was “gloomy” and “hypochondriacal.” Berthier thought his patient might have alcoholism, because excessive drinking could cause a persistent “inflammation upon the gastric regions.” On March 6, Berthier prescribed an absinthe tonic. Stanislaus also took Graffenburg Pills, a commercial remedy touted as a panacea for everything from cholera to hangnail. As with many so-called miracle cures patented in the 19th century, there was virtually no proof to support the claims of its medical efficacy. What it actually cured, if anything, was unclear.

Stanislaus got worse. At about 3:30 on the morning of Friday, March 11, his eldest child, Benjamin, brought him a dram of liquor. Stanislaus’s third wife, Ann, whom he had married the previous September, was resting in another room. Earlier that night, she had told her new husband that she did not wish to sleep next to him while he was feverish. This reportedly caused Stanislaus to become excited and angry. The liquor was likely an attempt to calm him so that he could get some much-needed rest.

An hour and a half after taking the drink, Stanislaus was dead. He was 52.

The burial was planned for the next day. Before the funeral procession to the cemetery, John V. Wren of the Ramsey County coroner’s office arrived at the Bilansky home to conduct a routine inquest. A quickly assembled coroner’s jury took statements from several witnesses, including members of Stanislaus’s family, a maid, and some neighbors. The panel ruled that the death was a result of natural causes—a long illness—and they chastised Stanislaus’s wife for not calling a doctor in the hours before he died. Their sharp admonition of Ann was published in one of the main local newspapers, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat.

Stanislaus was buried on Saturday, March 12, at 5 p.m. He was not in the ground. That evening one of the witnesses who had spoken to the coroner’s jury confessed to her husband that Stanislaus’s death was no accident. At his urging, she went to the police with a scandalous story of foul play. Law enforcement quickly ordered the exhumation of Stanislaus’s body. An autopsy and toxicology tests would follow.

By Sunday afternoon, police had arrested Stanislaus’s wife for homicide. They also detained her nephew John Walker in connection with the crime. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat soon ran an article claiming that Ann and Walker were having an affair and that she had killed Stanislaus, presumably to pursue the torrid romance more freely. Ann’s method of murder, authorities said, was arsenic poisoning.


So began the trials of Ann Bilansky. There were two: the legal one and the one staged in the court of public opinion. Often it was hard to tell which was which. Newspapers across Minnesota and as far away as the East Coast wrote breathless accounts of the purported murder and subsequent courtroom drama. People read those stories, staining their fingers with ink, because they were thirsty for news of the devilish Mrs. Bilansky. Like any good gothic novel or penny dreadful, the story was thrilling—all the more because it was true.

If the tone of the reportage is any indicator, for many spectators, the narrative wasn’t a whodunit. Guilt was all but certain. The mystery was why Ann would kill her husband of less than a year. Was it malice, money, or solely her love for another man? Was she born with a wicked heart, or had it curdled over the years?

In this gripping “whydunit,” each installment that appeared on newsstands was like a drug, ready to be snatched up by eager customers with a few pennies to spare. Would Ann the irredeemable go free to kill again? If not, would she rot in a musty prison cell or become the first woman executed in Minnesota, a newly minted U.S. state? Many people hoped for the latter. In their minds, Ann’s execution would serve as a symbolic cleansing of evil from a God-fearing society.

Like a Greek tragedy—Aeschylus’s Oresteia, perhaps, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon—Ann’s trials spoke to the cultural moment. They were chapters in a bigger story about a macabre anxiety that gripped Victorian Europe, then traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. The story was thick with fear and hysteria, and informed by entrenched social tradition as much as incipient laboratory science. It was rooted in a singular obsession—a question that had long captured fascination and provoked dread: What is a wife capable of if she no longer needs or wants her husband?

2. Scandal in Saint Paul

With a population of about 10,000, Saint Paul was the largest city in Minnesota and the capital of the state, which joined the union in May 1858. A month prior, Mary Ann Evards Wright, who went by Ann, had arrived in town. Little is known about her life before then, except that she said she was a widow from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who had made her way to Pleasant Hill, Illinois, after the death of her husband in a railroad accident. At the request of John Walker, Ann joined him in Minnesota. Walker had been living in Saint Paul for a few years without family, and he had recently fallen ill with typhoid. He hoped his aunt would help him convalesce—or so he and Ann claimed, their critics would later assert.

Ann was in her late thirties, hardly an ingenue. She was tall, with blond hair, gray eyes, and a long nose. She had an overbite, with protruding front teeth, and a low-pitched voice. Ann did not hesitate to speak when she had something to say; The New York Times would later call her “talkable.” She seemed to have completed some education, and she had no children or much family. Ann dressed neatly, and while she was not beautiful, she carried herself with a dignity that must have been attractive.

Walker, 26, worked as a carpenter. Like his aunt, he had light eyes and blond hair, though his was curly. He was a smaller man—between five-foot-five and five-foot-seven—but he walked with good posture. It’s unclear whether aunt and nephew lived together while Walker recovered from typhoid. By some accounts they did; according to others, Ann lived with a Mrs. Harvy Davis and worked as a seamstress to make money while nursing Walker back to health.

Not long after Ann’s arrival, Walker introduced her to Stanislaus Bilansky, a man more than a decade her senior. He was of Polish descent and had left Wisconsin for the Minnesota Territory in 1842. He worked as a tailor and ran a small bar and grocery store out of his home in Lower Landing, an area of Saint Paul where steamboats traveling on the Mississippi River regularly docked. Locals regarded Stanislaus as rich because he had purchased a claim to land. The extent of his wealth is a fact lost to history, but his perceived affluence may have explained his ability to attract multiple wives. Certainly, his appearance, disposition, and habits did little to recommend him.

Stanislaus’s perceived affluence may have explained his ability to attract multiple wives. Certainly, his appearance, disposition, and habits did little to recommend him.

Short and portly, Stanislaus was described by many who knew him as an alcoholic. His second wife, a woman named Ellen, said he was “given to hard drinking” and often fell sick after “sprees” of imbibing. She also described him as jealous, cruel, and deeply superstitious. A premonition, for instance, had convinced him that he would die in the month of March.

Stanislaus had no children with his first wife, about whom little is known. He and Ellen had three: Benjamin, Rinaldo, and Kate. When, after nine or ten years of marriage, an exasperated Ellen left her malcontent husband, the children stayed with their father in his home-cum-business. When he wed again in September 1858, Ann moved in. Walker came too, occupying a two-room shanty situated on Stanislaus’s property.

If Stanislaus had ever been rich, he was not now; he lived only off his modest earnings. Ann took over the housekeeping and cared for Stanislaus’s young children. Because her husband fell ill shortly after they wed, Ann likely looked after his businesses, too.

Ann befriended Lucinda Kilpatrick, a woman who lived across the road. Lucinda, who was in her twenties, visited often through the worst of Stanislaus’s illness. She noted that Ann was stoic in her grief, never crying or appearing upset. At Stanislaus’s bedside, Lucinda heard Ann ask what should be done with his children—a fair enough question, given that she was not their mother, but odd because it seemed to show that, despite Dr. Berthier’s opinion, Ann thought Stanislaus would soon die. Perhaps she was taking cues from her husband, who was sure he “was not going to live,” according to Lucinda. Or maybe something more sinister was afoot.

Lucinda would later claim that she had not known Stanislaus to have the “blues”—indeed, she had always found him cheerful, a sharp contrast to the inebriated, pessimistic figure others saw. When she sat with him one day while he was ill, Stanislaus told Lucinda that he “had nothing to live for.”

In an attempt to console him, Lucinda told Stanislaus a story about a sick man who allowed only his wife to care for him. Then the wife died suddenly and he recovered. “He married a young girl afterwards,” Lucinda concluded triumphantly. The next day, Stanislaus was dead.


When Ann’s murder trial began on May 23, 1859, Lucinda was the prosecution’s first and most vital witness—the person who had changed her testimony shortly after speaking to the coroner’s jury. She took the stand and recounted a shopping trip that she and Ann had taken together on February 28, which in retrospect roused Lucinda’s mistrust of her friend.

According to Lucinda, she and Ann went uptown to the post office to send some letters and retrieve their mail. They then walked to W.H. Wolff’s drugstore on Third and Wabasha Streets. Ann asked for arsenic to kill rats in her home, but the price was too high for her budget. From there the women visited Day & Jenks, a different drugstore, where Ann purchased a jar of arsenic for ten cents. Ann did not dispute that she had purchased the poison, commonly used to kill pests. Stanislaus himself had requested it, she said, because rats were eating vegetables stored in their root cellar. Lucinda told the court that she had never once seen a rat in the Bilanskys’ home.

The information that most interested the jury—and the readers of next day’s papers—was what Lucinda claimed the two women had talked about during the shopping trip. If Stanislaus died, Ann allegedly said, people would be suspicious of her, so she asked Lucinda to buy the arsenic for her. “Mrs. Bilansky,” Lucinda claimed to have replied, “if I wanted arsenic, I would buy it.” Later, after Stanislaus’s death, Lucinda said that Ann came to her in a panic, begging her to say that she was the one who had purchased the poison. “If they don’t find arsenic in the stomach,” Lucinda recalled saying, “they can do nothing with you.”

In court, Lucinda presented as every bit a lady of high moral virtue. She had been shocked by the strange requests from her neighbor. She shared other details, including the conversations she had had with Stanislaus about death. She said that her husband, Andrew Kilpatrick, had offered to sit with Stanislaus on what would be his last night alive but that Ann had insisted there “was no necessity for it.” Nor had Ann been willing to call for a doctor—the very thing the coroner’s jury would later scold her for. (By some accounts, Lucinda did not share this information during the initial inquest because Ann had hidden menacingly behind a nearby curtain as the interview took place, though this claim was never substantiated.)

After Lucinda stepped down, a young woman named Rosa Scharf took the stand. Ann had hired Rosa, a local girl, as a housekeeper on March 2. Rosa told the packed courtroom that she had witnessed “improper actions” between Ann and Walker. After Stanislaus’s funeral, she saw Ann undressing with the door of her room open while Walker was in the house. Furthermore, Rosa described suspicious glances exchanged between Ann and Walker—“something in the expression of their faces and eyes” that did not “look natural.” Rosa said she asked Ann how she could be so careless about undressing in the house, to which Ann allegedly responded that she was just used to having Walker around.

Rosa recalled that she had heard Stanislaus say that he was jealous of Walker. She doubted Ann’s devotion to her husband, because Ann was not “kind and attentive” during his illness, nor did she behave “as a wife should.” Rosa then recounted an exchange with Ann that had occurred while the two women sat together in the Bilansky home prior to Stanislaus’s death. An old man ambled past the window. “I had better set my cap for him, for he has money,” Ann said, according to Rosa. When Rosa protested that a loveless match would be an unfulfilling one, Ann replied, “You could give him something to sleep himself to death.” Ann then mused about the amount of poison it would take to kill a man.

Later, Rosa claimed, Ann warned her to “be careful” when washing dishes, “for there had been food [on] them” meant for Stanislaus. After the funeral, while riding home together in a carriage, Ann purportedly told Rosa that Stanislaus “must have taken poison.” By that time, the coroner’s inquest had been closed; no one was looking for evidence of poisoning. Yet Rosa remembered Ann talking about the means of her husband’s demise as all but fact.

Neither Rosa nor Lucinda offered any tangible evidence that Ann had committed a crime. They had not seen her slip anything into Stanislaus’s food or drink, nor had they heard her confess to wrongdoing. Suspicion, though, was a mighty cudgel. Implicit in the women’s testimony was a phenomenon that everyone following the trial would have known well, a widespread panic about an unholy trinity: a housewife, ill will, and arsenic.

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3. Beware the Arsenic Assassins

Arsenic, As on the periodic table, is a metalloid found in various minerals and in pure crystalline form. The colorless, odorless white powder widely known as a poison is actually arsenic trioxide, a compound of the element. Its fatal application dates back thousands of years. In 82 B.C., responding to a spate of deaths caused by the ingestion of arsenic and other toxins, Roman ruler Lucius Cornelius Sulla made poisoning, or veneficium, a crime.

Over time, arsenic became known as a woman’s weapon when less extreme measures—the law, money, family power—were not on her side. In the 1600s, there was a thriving, female-run business in Rome and the surrounding region that sold a substance called Aqua Tofana to women who wanted to get out of marriages, particularly abusive ones. The poison, made of arsenic mixed with other substances, was a quick way to eliminate a spouse: A wife had only to put it in her husband’s food. Because the effects of poisoning—cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes—mimicked any number of common illnesses, it was easy enough to get away with murder. One proprietress of the Aqua Tofana enterprise may have assisted in the killing of some 600 people before she was discovered and executed.

One of the first documented cases of arsenic poisoning in England, where between 1750 and 1914 there were more than 200 court cases involving the crime, was Mary Blandy of Oxfordshire. In 1752, she admitted to putting something in her father’s gruel and tea, but claimed she did not know it was poison. Mary was in love with a sea captain by the name of William Henry Cranstoun, a clumsy, smallpox-scarred man whom her father, Francis, did not approve of. Francis had good reason: Cranstoun was already married. Upon her arrest, Mary claimed that Cranstoun had told her to put the substance in her father’s breakfast because it was magic and would change her father’s mind. Cranstoun by then had fled. Mary was hanged.

Arsenic became known as a woman’s weapon when less extreme measures—the law, money, family power—were not on her side.

Many cases likely involved false allegations. In 1815, again in England, a 20-year-old maid named Eliza Fanning cooked dumplings for her employers, Robert and Charlotte Turner. She ate from the same pot they did, and following the meal, all three became ill. After recovering, the Turners accused Eliza of trying to kill them. They maintained that she had eaten less from the pot, so that she too would get sick but not die, and accused her of not tending to them properly during their illness. As for motive, Mrs. Turner said she was sure that Eliza was mad at her because she had recently chastised the young woman for being half-dressed in front of an apprentice. Eliza was found guilty and hanged.

To prove that poisoning allegations were true, scientists developed toxicology tests to identify arsenic. Some were more accurate than others. The best was the work of an English chemist named James Marsh. In 1836, he introduced what would become known as the Marsh test. It involved a U-shaped glass tube, open at both ends and longer on one side. Marsh dropped a small rod into the shorter arm, along with a piece of zinc, and corked it. Into the long end, he poured the suspected arsenic sample and some sulfuric acid. If the sample contained no arsenic, the zinc would bubble and vent pure hydrogen through a valve in the tube. If arsenic was present, the zinc produced a different gas, called arsine.

The test was hailed as an extraordinary development, but it was far from perfect. For one thing, arsine was dangerous if inhaled. More worrying, impure zinc often contained arsenic and could lead to false positives. Marsh argued that there was a simple solution—run the test on the zinc alone to establish its purity—but not all chemists were so fastidious. And there was another problem: A sample containing antimony, a naturally occurring substance sometimes found in the body, could produce the same results as one with arsenic.

While forensic science was still in its infancy, arsenic became as easy to buy as flour or sugar—which is exactly what it looked like. By the 1840s in England, any person with two pennies could buy an ounce and a half of the powder while shopping for tea or milk at the grocery store. Unscrupulous shopkeepers sometimes used arsenic to cut sugar, which was more expensive, while others, either careless or illiterate, mixed up the two substances. In 1858, 20 people died and more than 200 became ill after a candymaker in Yorkshire used arsenic in his confections.

There was demand for arsenic because England had a rat problem, and the poison was the perfect antidote to the disease-carrying rodents. People mixed a bit of it with oatmeal or some other food and left the concoction next to a rathole. Others washed their floors with arsenic-infused water. Still others simply set out a saucer of the powder and waited for the rat carcasses to pile up. Arsenic was also in just about anything manufacturers could think to put it in, because chemically, it gave items a rich green hue. It was used in paint, fabric, cosmetics, soap, candles, wallpaper, candy, artificial flowers, even children’s toys. Believed (wrongly) to cure diseases when administered in small doses, arsenic was also found in tinctures and remedies. One of the most famous was Dr. Fowler’s, a tonic that contained about 1 percent potassium arsenite. The manufacturer claimed that the tonic could cure leprosy and gangrene, among other conditions, but the label also contained a warning that Dr. Fowler’s would “produce abortion” if a pregnant woman took it.

Given the numerous avenues of exposure, most people were probably walking around with some level of arsenic in their system without knowing it. This made toxicology tests for willful poisoning unreliable, but that didn’t stop coroners from performing them. If the results came back positive, law enforcement was quick to assume that there had been foul play—of a sort the British public particularly relished.


Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens in which articles appeared without bylines, once called murder by poisoning “a fiendish sophistication”—and nothing was more terrifying or seductive than the idea of family members killing one another at the dinner table. In 1855, according to author Sandra Hempel in her book The Inheritor’s Powder—arsenic’s Victorian-era nickname—one British paper asked its readers, “Your friends and relations all smile kindly upon you; the meal … looks correct but how can you possibly tell there is not arsenic in the curry?” The people who made the curry—who handled most any food preparation, really—were either wives or hired female help. In an era when women were beginning to demand new rights and fair treatment by men, it was only a modest leap in the popular imagination for women to embrace their Eve-like penchant for betrayal.

Fleet Street tabloids, which exploded in number after Parliament reduced the tax on papers from four pennies to one in 1836, could not get enough of black-widow stories like that of Mary Ann Geering of East Sussex, who decided to slip arsenic into her husband’s food. Richard Geering had inherited 20 pounds, and the couple’s relationship was on the rocks. Mary Ann saw an opportunity. After a weeklong illness, Richard died. Within months, two of Mary Ann’s adult sons had also died following a similar illness. A third son became sick but recovered after leaving Mary Ann’s home. The bodies of her husband and other two sons were exhumed, and toxicologists found arsenic in their stomach lining. Mary Ann confessed to poisoning and was hanged. Then there was Mary Ann Cotton, who over some 13 years poisoned three husbands and as many as 15 children. She collected insurance payments each time a family member passed away. Eventually, she was convicted and executed. Rebecca Smith also killed most of her 11 children with arsenic. Saddled with an alcoholic husband, Rebecca assumed poisoning would be preferable to slowly starving to death. She, too, was executed for her crimes.

These women were guilty, but others convicted through scientific evidence likely were not. Arsenic was everywhere and in everything, and the media claimed that any woman could be a murderess in disguise. When men—because all police were men—investigated cases of suspected poisoning, they looked for gendered motives: a woman mistreated by her employers, cheated on by her husband, or involved in a love triangle. Feeding on the arsenic panic, author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a three-volume best-selling novel called Lucretia, or the Children of the Night, about a stealth poisoner named Lucretia Clavering. Her last name was a reference to a village in Essex where a high-profile arsenic poisoning had occurred.

The stories, both real and imagined, so frightened people that, in 1851, Parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Act. The law required druggists to clearly label arsenic and keep records of who bought it. Though unsuccessful, some lawmakers even pressed their colleagues to bar women from purchasing arsenic altogether. Not that doing so would have stopped the panic’s viral spread: By mid-century, fears of women wielding arsenic had hurdled over the pond.


On November 7, 1849, in eastern North Carolina, Alexander C. Simpson sat down to his dinner at around 1 p.m. At the table were his wife, Ann, a boarder named Samuel G. Smith, and a friend, one Mr. Whitfield. After the meal, Ann Simpson brought out two cups of syllabub for herself and her husband, who consumed his with a silver spoon. Both Smith and Whitfield were Sons of Temperance and did not partake of the creamy dessert drink made with wine or sherry. When Alexander finished, he asked for more; Ann gave him the rest of hers. She then got up to serve coffee, placing a cup on the table that Smith believed was for him. “Mr. Smith,” Ann allegedly corrected, “I said that was Mr. Simpson’s coffee.” Her husband, she explained, “required his coffee sweeter.” Smith was given a different cup.

Alexander became ill that evening and vomited throughout the night. W.P. Mallett, his regular doctor, saw him the next morning and prescribed pills made of calomel powder and opium, along with a dose of morphine. By Thursday evening, Alexander was suffering from severe diarrhea. He died sometime between 8 and 10 p.m.

Mallett was suspicious. After the postmortem, he placed Alexander’s stomach in a jar and brought it to Dr. Benjamin Robinson, who had experience testing gastric fluids for arsenic. Robinson performed two tests and became convinced that Alexander had died of poisoning. But was it intentional?

A coroner’s jury ruled that there was enough evidence to indict Ann for murder. The courts issued a bench warrant, but Ann had already fled to South Carolina. From there she reportedly went to Cuba, where she remained in hiding for months. She then returned to North Carolina for her trial in May 1850, undoubtedly hoping to be exonerated.

The prosecution presented a case based on Robinson’s toxicology reports. “I entertain no doubt,” Robinson said on the stand, “that there was arsenic in his stomach.” When questioned about the possible effects of the calomel prescribed by Mallet, Robinson said “it could not have produced the same results.” However, many doctors at the time disagreed. Made of a mercury compound, calomel caused gastrointestinal problems and other side effects, including bleeding gums and facial tremors. It was so suspect that, in 1825, the Richmond Enquirer published a tongue-in-cheek poem about doctors who prescribed the substance:

Since calomel’s become their boast,

How many patients have they lost,

How many thousands they make ill,

Of poison, with their calomel.

In addition to calomel, the defense pointed out, Alexander had been taking iodine during the six months before he died, to treat a scrofulous disorder. He was supposed to take only a teaspoon per day, but what if he had measured poorly? An excess of iodine could cause stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ann’s attorney also suggested that Alexander might have had cholera, and he questioned the toxicology tests for arsenic, describing them as “uncertain, inconclusive, and fallacious.”

The prosecution mustered several witnesses who detailed Ann’s failings as a wife and as a woman. Rachel Arey, an acquaintance, claimed that Ann had said she’d visited a fortune-teller and learned that Alexander would die in a few months, leaving her free to marry “her first love.” A neighbor of the fortune-teller, who had since died, claimed that she had seen Ann visit “once or twice a day.”

The Simpsons’ boarder, Samuel Smith, claimed that Ann had once asked him about the effects of arsenic. A clerk in a local store testified that he had sold an ounce of the poison to Ann a week before Alexander died. Nancy Register, a seamstress who had lived with the Simpsons for a short period, claimed that Ann once read aloud from a letter Alexander had sent her. Despite professing not to remember much of the letter, which Ann allegedly had burned, Register managed to recite a good deal of it: “I once thought you loved me, but now I have reasons to suspect, that you love another better than me. For the sake of your friends, you may stay in my house, but you must find your own clothes as well as you can. Prepare a bed for me up-stairs tonight. You can no longer be my wife.” Register also testified that Ann had never loved Alexander and had only married him for money.

According to the prosecutor, the “vices of the world” had worked upon Ann, leading her to commit “the most horrid and detestable” of wrongs. The judge chimed in to call it “the darkest in the catalogue of crimes.” Even Ann’s attorney said that murdering a husband was “so monstrous, so revolting, so unnatural, that one is tempted to pronounce its impossibility.” Still, he argued, Ann had not done it. He asked the jury to picture his client with “her fair neck bared, and circled by the hempen cord, her delicate frame enveloped in the felon’s shroud, and the scene closes upon the gallows and the grave.” The lawyer then urged, “Gentlemen, you can let her live.”

The trial lasted until 3 a.m. on a Friday morning, at which time the judge sent the jury directly to deliberate, fearing that a period of rest would provide too many opportunities for outside opinions to taint their views. Three hours later, the jury returned. The verdict was shocking: not guilty.

Ann Simpson left the courtroom a free woman, but she would be remembered by many people in North Carolina and beyond as the woman who got away with murder. Nine years later, when Ann Bilansky went on trial in Minnesota, the prosecution was determined to avoid the same humiliating outcome.

4. Not to Soothe but to Destroy

On May 28, 1859, the fifth day of the trial, the defense team cross-examined William H. Morton, one of the prosecution’s medical experts. According to The Daily Pioneer and Democrat, Morton and two other doctors had conducted a postmortem examination of Stanislaus Bilansky’s stomach and found internal inflammation that indicated possible arsenic poisoning. They then performed the Marsh test, along with a number of other procedures, which Morton said revealed a fatal amount of poison. He testified that the cause of death was arsenic in “sufficient quantity” to have killed poor Stanislaus within half an hour.

Ann’s defense set about explaining the problems with the tests. First, the lawyers cast doubt on Morton’s abilities as a toxicologist by asking him to explain the result of each experiment he had run. Morton said there had been five tests in all, and he admitted that two were known to provide inconsistent results, while another pair had produced no evidence of arsenic. Only the fifth had yielded a positive result that might stand up in court. Morton also admitted that he had not performed any arsenic tests prior to Ann’s case and generally had little experience with chemistry. Morton confessed to using nitric acid instead of sulfuric acid in one test, a mistake that might have affected the results. Lastly, he acknowledged that antimony, sometimes found in the stomach, can produce lab results similar to those of arsenic. As The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported, “Antimony is the most common source of fallacy in Marsh’s test,” and illness caused by arsenic and by antinomy “would be very nearly the same.”

The defense introduced a Dr. Vervais, who criticized Morton’s findings. Even the test that had identified arsenic, Vervais said, could have been flawed if, say, the glass laboratory tube had overheated. Questioning scientific evidence was the defense’s best move, given that forensic toxicology was so new to the public and the courts, particularly in a fledgling state like Minnesota. Still, science on its face could be convincing, and the media played loose with facts. The Duluth News-Tribune, the eponymous paper of record in a town some 150 miles north of Saint Paul, published a story indicating that arsenic was definitively present in Stanislaus’s stomach.

District attorney Isaac Heard, the lead prosecutor, knew that the scientific evidence might not be enough to convict Ann. He told the jury that, while they must be convinced of guilt, the reasons “need not amount to absolute demonstration, such as alone can be obtained by mathematical science.” Heard said the jurors should rely on testimony that was rational and probable—testimony like that of Lucinda Kilpatrick and Rosa Scharf. What did their statements reveal about the sort of woman Ann really was? On the one hand, men were supposed to be stronger, smarter, and more capable than their wives. But even the best of them could be felled if they trusted wily, unscrupulous, or deranged women.

The press tackled this angle with vigor. One reporter argued that the Bilansky case was a “tragedy, which has been enacted all the world over, wherever a woman, bad enough to be a harlot and bold enough to be a murderer, has wished to get rid of a husband whom she disliked, for a paramour whom she preferred.” Because Ann never testified in her defense, her voice was all but absent from news stories. In its place, the press projected a caricature. On the second day of the trial, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat described Ann as “composed and self-possessed,” an indication that she did “not show a deep concern in the proceedings.” When Lucinda testified, the paper claimed, Ann displayed “feelings of enmity … frequently smiling behind her handkerchief, as if intent on bringing scandalous information to light.” Ann demonstrated “more concern and anxiety” when Rosa took the stand, suggesting that the forthcoming testimony would reveal something damning—something newspaper readers ought to pay close attention to. Rosa went on to claim that Ann and Walker were lovers.

The case was a “tragedy, which has been enacted all the world over, wherever a woman, bad enough to be a harlot and bold enough to be a murderer, has wished to get rid of a husband whom she disliked, for a paramour whom she preferred.”

The Daily Pioneer and Democrat also described Ann’s defense as “slight.” In fact it was anything but. Multiple witnesses testified that Stanislaus was depressive by nature and at times even suicidal. Orrin Branch, a family friend, testified that once, when Stanislaus did not come to an appointment, Branch assumed that he had killed himself because he was “trouble-prone.” If Stanislaus did die from ingesting arsenic, might he have taken it himself? Stanislaus’s ex-wife Ellen testified to his disagreeable nature. Dr. Berthier spoke of his drinking habit and persistent stomach problems. A neighbor, G. B. Galinksa, said that Stanislaus had talked about financial problems, including $200 in debt on which he was paying 36 percent interest.

One of the Bilansky children, ten-year-old Benjamin, testified that, contrary to what Lucinda had said, the family did have rats in their home. Three other witnesses corroborated his statement. As for Ann’s alleged affair with her nephew, everyone who lived in the house swore they had never seen Ann in Walker’s rooms. If she undressed while Walker was in the main house, the two were well separated by a wall.

The defense tried to pursue a line of argument undercutting Lucinda’s testimony. The lawyers had obtained evidence that Lucinda may have had her own incriminating secrets: romantic letters and gifts that she had sent to Walker. Was she jealous of Ann’s close bond with her nephew? Did Ann’s disapproval stand in the way of Lucinda pursuing an affair with the young man? Had Lucinda sensed an opportunity with Stanislaus’s death to get Ann out of her way? And surely it was odd that Rosa had boarded with Lucinda and her husband during the trial, providing the perfect opportunity for the two women to square their stories.

For unclear reasons, the judge ruled the content of the letters from Lucinda to Walker inadmissible, but Ann’s defense still peppered the witness with questions about her motivations for sending them. In response, Lucinda stonewalled. She refused to talk about her past, including relationships prior to her marriage. She also would not answer questions about a ring and breast pin that she allegedly had given to Walker.

“Did you in the months of December, January, and February send letters or other messages of love and affection to Mr. Walker?” a defense attorney asked.

Lucinda replied, “I decline answering.”

“When did your friendly acquaintance with Mr. Walker commence?”

“I am not prepared to answer this question.”

Frustrated, perhaps, by the lack of forthcoming information, a reporter for The Daily Pioneer and Democrat skipped printing further details about the exchange. He wrote instead, “Very much time was consumed in arguing technicalities and the admissibility and regularity of questions.”

By the time Walker took the stand, he faced no charges in the case; the police had dropped them for lack of evidence. Walker defended his aunt, swearing that he and Ann were not having an affair. He claimed that he did not have a romantic relationship with Lucinda either, but noted that they had fallen out as friends in the recent past. (Lucinda said she “couldn’t tell the time when the coldness commenced.” ) Walker cast doubt on Lucinda’s indictment of Ann for not calling her husband a doctor the night he died, testifying that Stanislaus himself stubbornly refused treatment because he feared being overcharged.

The idea, as an author writing about Ann’s case a century later would put it, that Walker might have “agitated the bosoms of at least two women involved in the trial” certainly made for good newspaper copy. Reporters, however, skimmed over the matter and all but dismissed Walker’s testimony. They presented Lucinda as an obedient, dependable woman, the kind that society needed, in contrast to Ann, who would stop at nothing to have “more unrestrained intercourse.”

The prosecution closed its case by reminding the jury that Ann had committed murder “coolly” and with the “subtle instrument” of arsenic. She had taken advantage of her husband’s trust and doctored his “food and drink by her hands not to soothe and save but to destroy.” Heard, the prosecutor, told the jurors—all of them men, and most of them likely married—that “no more atrocious crime can be committed.”

After five hours of deliberation, the jury returned to the courtroom at around 5:30 p.m. on June 3, 1859. It had reached a verdict: Ann was guilty of first-degree murder.

5. The Bird Had Flown

The Daily Pioneer and Democrat later mused that the jury was unsympathetic because Ann “seemed to be utterly devoid of all natural female modesty, and even of common decency.” That word—decency—shaped what happened next, as Minnesota authorities and Saint Paul society debated what to do with their very own murderess: lock her away for life or let her hang.

Minnesota turned one year old the same month as Ann’s trial, and the state was eager to demonstrate to its East Coast brethren that it was no longer merely a northern outpost of the Wild West. In August 1859, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat ran a front-page article called “What Is Said of Us,” regaling readers with visiting reporters’ impressions of the state. Cosmopolitan correspondents, Minnesotans were told, “uniformly express their admiration of the scenery and great fertility, and astonishment at the rapid progress we have made.” The article relayed the rhapsodies of one New York reporter too overwhelmed to “convey the impression which the magnificent country made” on him.

Executing a woman could tarnish the civilized veneer that Minnesota was so diligently polishing. Death-penalty abolitionists throughout America had long argued that killing a woman was below the dignity of the state; even many proponents of the punishment agreed. In the mid-1800s, The New York Times began editorializing against hanging women because it was not “proper.” In practice, the penalty was rare. During the 19th century, just 49 women were executed in America, most after being convicted of killing their husbands. That figure was less than the number of executions nationwide in most years—63 in 1859, for instance.

The St. Cloud Democrat, a Minnesota newspaper, echoed the decency argument in an editorial opposing a sentence of execution for Ann. State-sanctioned murder was no different than blood vengeance, the paper argued, so if the government decided to put its most famous prisoner to death, “the Haiwain [sic] islands … would be a suitable place”—a racist dig at the Pacific kingdom. Justice Charles E. Flandrau of the Minnesota Supreme Court opposed execution, too. “It rather shocks my private sense of humanity,” Flandrau wrote in a letter to the governor, “inflicting the extreme penalty on a woman.” But plenty of people disagreed. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported on the “eagerness and persistency” of women in Saint Paul who wanted to watch Ann hang. Proponents believed her execution could serve as a lesson to other wives tempted to rid themselves of their husbands.

While the debate unfurled, Ann held out hope, however small, that the state would overturn her conviction, rendering the prison-or-death question moot. Through the summer of 1859, she sat in a Saint Paul jail cell awaiting news of an appeal her lawyers had filed. On the afternoon of July 25, Walker visited Ann to deliver bad news: The state Supreme Court had denied her petition, which meant that she had exhausted her options to prove her innocence. A judge would sentence her before the end of the year.

Walker stayed with Ann for two hours, comforting her. After he left, Ann paced the jail’s halls until about 8 p.m., which was when the guard, a man named Smith, went to fetch the keys to return the prisoner to her cell. Ann seized the moment. She ran down a set of stairs into the basement and pushed herself through a small, only partially barred window. Her feet touched the ground, and Ann ran.


When Smith realized Ann was not in the hall where he had left her, he assumed she had gone to her cell and was waiting for him there. She was not, so Smith searched the rest of the jail. Only after going downstairs to the basement and seeing the window did he conclude, as The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported, “that the bird had flown.”

Smith sounded the alarm, and the police immediately began a search throughout Saint Paul. They placed roadblocks at the edges of town and stopped passing carriages. The sheriff’s office made handbills that proclaimed in bold type, “ESCAPE OF A MURDERESS.” A $500 reward was promised to anyone who captured her.

Smith came under suspicion for being part of the escape plot. He claimed to have left Ann alone for only one or two minutes, but The Daily Pioneer and Democrat argued that “it requires too great of a stretch of credulity to suppose that Mrs. Bilansky escaped through the carelessness of the jailor—unless indeed the jailor was paid for his carelessness.” (Either that or Smith was “an idiot.” ) The New York Evening Post, meanwhile, reported “criminal carelessness, if not still more criminal corruption, on the part of the jailer.” Implied in the reporting was the notion that Ann could not have escaped by her own wits.

For nearly a week, Ann was on the lam. Her flight was the talk of Saint Paul. Police and citizens looked high and low for her, not because she posed any danger but because her escape surely signaled the guilt her lawyers had so vehemently denied. Ann had to be caught and brought to justice.

On August 1, she was spotted on a road about two miles outside Saint Paul, headed toward the town of St. Anthony. Ann was dressed in men’s clothes—a disguise, presumably—and accompanied by Walker. Upon their arrest, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported that Ann “manifested considerable emotion,” while “Walker was as cool as usual.” The circumstances only solidified public perception that their relationship was unseemly.

During questioning, it emerged that Ann initially had hidden near Como Lake, a 70-acre body of water in greater Saint Paul. She had convinced a boy from a nearby farm to bring her food and send word to Walker about her whereabouts. Walker then provided her with men’s clothing and found a barn—owned by George Lumsden, a man who had been in jail with Ann and befriended her—where she could conceal herself. When they left Saint Paul, Walker and Ann had decided to walk west after discerning that search parties were looking for her to the east.

Walker spent a month in jail but was not indicted for aiding Ann. He was released on September 13. Ann, meanwhile, was kept under close watch by the sheriff. Livid that she had made a fool of his department, he reportedly treated Ann with great cruelty.


On Friday, December 2, 1859, Ann entered the Ramsey County courthouse for her long-awaited sentencing. Accompanying her was a new defense attorney, Willis Gorman, a former governor of the Minnesota Territory. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat wrote that Ann walked with a “firm step” but used a handkerchief to cover her face. The judge asked if she would like to make a statement to the court. Ann rose to speak, one of the only times she had been allowed to defend herself on the record.

“If I die in this case, I die an innocent woman,” she declared. “I don’t think I have had a fair and just trial. You can proceed.”

According to a journalist, the judge told Ann that she would receive “no pardon” and that “it was useless for her to attempt to avert her doom,” which was “as certain as her crime had been heinous.” He sentenced her to one month in solitary confinement and then to be “hung by the neck until you are dead.” Ann began to cry. Unfazed, the judge continued: “May God, in his infinite compassion, have mercy upon your soul.”

6. The Last Days of a Pettifogger

Minnesotans reveled in having a wicked celebrity. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat mused that “probably no jail ever contained a criminal, either male or female, under imprisonment for such a crime, who exhibited such a complete want of decency and propriety.” When meeting with visitors, Ann reportedly discussed the trial in minute detail, but the paper said she could not be trusted to tell the truth, being a “complete pettifogger.” People around Saint Paul began jokingly accusing anyone who told a lie of having “been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, many locals remained uncomfortable with the idea of Ann, or any woman, dying at the hands of the state. A contingent dubbed “the friends of Mrs. Bilansky” by the press implored the governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, a Democrat, to commute her sentence prior to leaving office at the end of 1859. Instead, Sibley passed the decision off to his successor, a Republican named Alexander Ramsey.

Lessening Ann’s sentence ran contrary to the new governor’s interests for three reasons. First, his brother had sat on the jury that convicted her. Second, both of Ann’s defense attorneys were Ramsey’s political enemies. Third, the governor was concerned that there would be an outbreak of violent crime if citizens believed the justice system was weak in the face of a wretched menace. Ann wrote a four-page letter to Ramsey imploring him to reconsider her sentence and “throw around me the bulwark of [the law’s] protection.” She said, “[I have] waited patiently to have an opportunity to satisfy the public mind of innocence of the crime on which I have been imperfectly and unfairly tried.” Ramsey was unmoved. He recorded his exasperation with Ann’s dedicated supporters in his journal, claiming “much annoyance on the part of the persons asking her commutation.”

Ann spent her days in religious study, showing what one reporter described as “an earnest desire to make preparation for the great change that awaited her.” She mingled with other prisoners, speaking frankly about her fate. She reportedly told one inmate that, on the day of execution, “Old Gabriel will blow his trump for me—I wish he would blow it before that time and knock Ramsey County jail higher than a kite.” When she was not angry, Ann could be forgiving. “Mrs. Kilpatrick made a great many false statements,” Ann once said of Lucinda. “I always believed that her husband forced her to do so.”

People around Saint Paul began jokingly accusing someone who told a lie of having “been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

The twists in Ann’s case were not done yet: On January 5, 1860, Rosa Scharf died of a drug overdose. The night prior to her death, Rosa reportedly had visited the Kilpatricks to discuss Ann’s fate. She then returned to the family for whom she had worked as a housekeeper since Ann’s trial. Rosa took a large amount of laudanum and never woke up.

Her death may have been an accident, as laudanum was widely used for medical reasons. If it was suicide, however, that raised a question: Why did Rosa want to die? Could it have been because she felt guilty about giving damning testimony about Ann? Was it possible that she had lied under oath? Lucinda might have had an answer, even if it was as simple as denying that Rosa’s death had anything to do with Ann. To the press, however, she was silent on the matter.

Whatever doubts Rosa’s death sowed, three weeks later, on January 25, Ramsey signed the order of execution. The date of Ann’s hanging was set for March 23, some time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Until then, the forces opposed to it vowed to continue their fight.

On March 5, the Minnesota state legislature passed a bill commuting Ann’s sentence to life in prison. That would serve the dual purpose, lawmakers argued, of punishing her transgressions and showing Minnesota to be as refined as any other state and as paternal as a gentleman toward even the most wayward women. Three days later, in what The Daily Pioneer and Democrat described as a “manly veto,” Ramsey overturned the bill. As a reporter relayed, Ramsey believed the legislation was unconstitutional because it effectively took away his sole power to pardon the convicted. He wanted to show the world that Minnesota had no “contempt for the law.”

Two weeks later, on March 22, the day before the scheduled execution, the man who had prosecuted Ann stepped forward to demand mercy. District attorney Isaac Heard wrote a letter to Ramsey. Whether motivated by his conscience or an allegiance to the letter of the law, Heard said that Ann’s trial had been been marred by at least two problems. First, the jury had been allowed a three-day weekend in the midst of the proceedings, during which they had almost certainly heard talk of the trial, including details about the case printed in the papers but not presented in court. Second, Heard pointed out that Ann’s first defense attorney, a Yale graduate named John Brisbin, had fallen ill during the trial and had not been able to present a robust exculpatory case.

That evening, in her cell, Ann once more awaited news from Ramsey’s office. She was 40 years old. Would she make it to 41? Would Heard’s letter be her deliverance? In the months that she had spent behind bars, Ann had been baptized and confirmed a Catholic. Now she prayed for salvation.


At 3 a.m., Ann fell asleep on her cot. She awoke a few hours later to stillness: There had been no word from the governor. A priest, Father Caillet, eventually came to sit with her, along with some nuns and other devout Saint Paul ladies who could not countenance the barbarity of executing a woman. Outside, people were streaming into the main public square to witness Ann’s death.

Ann calmly ate a small breakfast at 8 a.m. She offered a gift to one of the jailers, a Mr. Hoffman, who had been kind to her during her incarceration. It was a book entitled The Most Important Tenets of the Catholic Church Explained. Inside was tucked a letter in which Ann urged Hoffman to seek God so that he might “prepare an entrance in that blessed abode.” One by one, Ann said goodbye to her fellow prisoners, speaking through her tears. She met with a few visitors to bid farewell. Walker was not among them; he had left Saint Paul for good.

At 10:15 a.m., Ann emerged from her cell dressed in a long black robe and brown veil. She stood arm-in-arm with Caillet on one side and Hoffman on the other. Before they exited the jail, Bilansky leaned into Hoffman and made a request. “Don’t let a crowd see me,” she pleaded. “I am willing to meet my God, but I don’t want to have a crowd see me die.”

There was nothing Hoffman could do to honor her wish. The gallows were in a small enclosure outside the jail. About 100 people had crammed into the space. Among them were a few dozen women, some with babies in their arms, which prompted the The Daily Pioneer and Democrat to write, “What could have induced these women to voluntarily witness a spectacle so harrowing to the feelings of even the ‘sterner men,’ we cannot imagine.” Outside the enclosure, a crowd of 2,000 people also hoped for a glimpse of the murderess. They stood on a large pile of stones in the square, gaining a view of the gallows’ posts. Others climbed onto rooftops, wagons, or carriages.

Members of the Pioneer Guard, a volunteer state militia, dressed in heavy coats and caps stood sentinel with guns at the ready to keep the crowd at bay. But people never grew disorderly, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported. They may have been there to witness theater, but they respected the solemnity of the show. A woman was about to die. It was clear that no answer would come from the governor. Time and hope had run out.

Ann walked to the gallows. She stood atop the platform before the sea of onlookers and delivered a short speech. “I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice,” she said. “I die for the good of my soul and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice—but I will get justice in heaven.”

Ann requested that a traditional black hood be pulled over her face. She asked, too, that the noose be placed carefully so that her neck would break and she would not die by suffocation. Hoffman slung the rope around her like a collar and tightened it. Ann asked aloud for Jesus Christ to save her soul. “She was not defiant or stoical; neither did she shed a tear,” the Cleveland Morning Leader reported.

She stepped off the platform.

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7. The Legend of Ann Bilansky

Ann’s lifeless body dangled in the air, swaying, for 20 minutes. The crowd scarcely made a sound, save murmured prayers. Then, just as quietly, it dispersed. The somber show was over. Minnesota had carried out what is now believed to be its first legal execution as a U.S. state. It was the only one that would ever involve a woman: Minnesota banned the death penalty in 1911.

The public and press were not done with Ann yet, however. A year after her hanging, The New York Times published a brief article suggesting that, in fact, she may have killed more than one man. Recall Ann Simpson, the woman acquitted of poisoning her husband with arsenic in North Carolina in 1850. The paper pointed out that the women had the same first name and that both hailed from Fayetteville, a town of fewer than 5,000 people. No one—at least among the sources the Times spoke to for its article—knew much about what had happened to Ann Simpson after her trial. Likewise, Ann Bilansky’s life before she came to Saint Paul was an empty box. Was this a coincidence? Or had Ann Simpson been found innocent in error, only to make her way north, change her name and backstory, and murder another husband?

Seemingly no attempt was made to contact whatever remaining family Ann Bilansky had in North Carolina. Still, the Times said it “tend[ed] to the belief” that the two women were “the same person.” Other papers agreed. The Milwaukee Sentinel ran an article with the headline “The Murderess of Two Husbands.” In death, Ann Bilansky was becoming even more infamous.

Had Ann Simpson been found innocent in error, only to make her way north, change her name and backstory, and murder another husband?

There is no hard evidence that the women were one in the same. The press in North Carolina described Ann Simpson as petite, with dark eyes and a small nose—a beauty—not tall and gawky like Ann Bilansky. Based on newspaper accounts and trial transcripts, historical researchers believe that Ann Bilansky’s first husband was a Mr. Wright who died in a rail accident, as she had claimed, though neither their marriage license nor his death certificate seems to be available today. As for Ann Simpson, after inheriting her deceased husband’s sizable estate, she married again: On April 17, 1852, in Charleston, South Carolina, she said I do to Charles Young. What happened to her after that is not wholly clear, but according to at least one account, the Youngs lived in the Low Country for some time, and upon her death, Ann was buried in Fayetteville.

The more likely explanation for the media’s conjecture is that they were following a script written over the course of the arsenic panic. Both Anns—in possession of one of the most common names in the English-speaking world—were rumored to be married to men they did not love and to be sexually involved with others. Both of their husbands died after exhibiting symptoms of poisoning. When they combined those narrative elements with the women’s shared connection to Fayetteville, the media had a truly sensational story: A wife worse than any you can imagine. A traveling threat. A serial arsenic assassin.

Other women were charged with arsenic poisoning in America before the heyday of the panic passed. Mary Hartung of Albany, New York, served five years in prison for the crime, though she claimed her lover was the one who had poisoned her husband. Sarah Jane Whiteling of Philadelphia was hanged in 1889, after being convicted of killing her husband and children. Whether they were guilty or innocent, women’s cases were often riddled with ugly misogyny, flawed toxicology, and salacious press coverage—all of it familiar.

In no small part, bias and errors derived from a culture-wide fear of gender deviance. In the 1800s, women were incrementally gaining power and choosing their own destinies. What if they went so far as to kill men who stood in their way? Just as much as the state needed to punish murder, so too did it have to enforce proper womanhood in a rapidly changing social order. Science, journalism, and law, still the dominions of men, were tools for catching bad women and holding them accountable.

Was Ann Bilansky guilty? Most likely not. At the very least, she did not receive a fair trial. She was, however, transgressive in her own way. She did not embody the feminine ideal. She had no children of her own, and she liked to talk, perhaps too much for men’s taste. She traveled alone across America. Her only close relative was a young, single man. That she was not a high-society gentlewoman but a working wife surely did her no favors in the public eye.

In her final days, Ann told reporters that she had suffered enough “for all the wrongs I have ever done in my life.” None of those wrongs, it seems, was greater than being a Victorian woman with a dead husband on her hands.

A Note on Sourcing

A number of historians have written about Ann Bilansky’s case. Matthew Cecil’s essay “Justice in Heaven: The Trial of Ann Bilansky,” published in Minnesota History (Winter 1997–98), was particularly helpful as a starting point. I followed Cecil’s lead to the archive of 1859–60 Daily Pioneer and Democrat articles, all of which were generously loaned to me on microfilm from the Minnesota Historical Society.

A number of books included helpful chapters on Stanislaus and Ann Bilansky. Most notable are Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, by John D. Bessler (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); “The Penalty Is Death”: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions, by Marlin Shipman (University of Missouri Press, 2002); Murder in Minnesota: A Collection of True Cases, by Walter N. Trenerry (Minnesota Historical Society, 1962); Women and Capital Punishment in America, 1840–1899: Death Sentences and Executions in the United States and Canada, by Kerry Segrave (McFarland and Company, 2008); and A History of the City of Saint Paul to 1875, by J. Fletcher Williams (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1983).

John D. Bessler’s article “The ‘Midnight Assassination Law’ and Minnesota’s Anti-Death Penalty Movement, 1849–1911,” published in the William Mitchell Law Review (1996), provided vital information about Minnesota’s history with execution. “Gall, Gallantry, and the Gallows: Capital Punishment and the Social Construction of Gender, 1840–1920,” by Annulla Linders and Alana Van Gundy-Yoder, published in Gender and Society (2008), did the same for details about women and the death penalty.

Arsenic has an insidious and rollicking history. Sandra Hempel’s book The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science (W. W. Norton and Company, 2013) is a treasure trove of fascinating facts and lore, along with ghastly stories about the arsenic panic. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill generously lent me a delicate copy of Ann K. Simpson’s trial transcripts, printed and bound between dusty covers. Author and researcher Karen Cecil Smith provided additional information about Simpson’s life and death.

Lastly, two individuals were invaluable to my research. Roxanne Derda, circulation manager at Westminster College’s Giovale Library, managed an onslaught of interlibrary loan requests, listened to me talk about arsenic for many months, and helped me sort through archived materials. Chris Dasanjh, librarian and head of collections and access at Giovale Library, provided the Minnesota Supreme Court opinions on the Bilansky case.