The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks


The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks

Joseph Gutheinz is on a mission to save the moon.

Written and illustrated by Joe Kloc

The Atavist Magazine, No. 12

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

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

Published in February 2012. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You brought it back?” Cregger asked.

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

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

Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Eight

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

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

18 JUL 1973


23 APR 1974


30 APR 1974


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baghdad Country Club


Baghdad Country Club

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

By Joshuah Bearman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 10

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

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

Published in December 2011. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

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

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

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


Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Island of Secrets

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

The Atavist Magazine, No. 09

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

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

Published in November 2011. Design updated in 2021.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They ate it,” he said.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memoriam
Matthew Power



The robbers had a crew of two dozen specialists, a stolen helicopter, perfectly designed explosives, and inside information on a $150 million cash repository in Stockholm. The inside tale of one of history’s most elaborate heists, and the race to unravel it.

By Evan Ratliff

The Atavist Magazine, No. 02

Evan Ratliff is the editor of The Atavist Magazine. His writing appears in Wired, where he is a contributing editor, The New YorkerNational Geographic, and other publications. He is also the story editor of Pop-Up Magazine, a live event.

Dean C.K. Cox is a Sweden-based editorial photojournalist and documentary photographer primarily covering former communist countries of central and eastern Europe, central Asia, the Caucasus and northern Europe. His work has appeared in The Associated Press, The New York Times, Time, and countless other publications. He is currently completing a longterm documentary project on Belarus

Editor: Katrina Heron
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Translator: Madelene Lind, Eriksen Translations (
Special thanks: Gordon Platt; Surveillance footage and evidence photos are courtesy of the Swedish International Public Prosecution Office.

Published in January 2011. Design updated in 2021.


On the bright afternoon of September 2, 2009, two men sat on a bench in Stockholm. One was medium height with a reddish-blond beard and sunglasses. He wore a gray suit with an open-collar shirt. The other, a squat man with dark hair and an olive complexion, had on a green military-style jacket. The bench was one of a half dozen along a marina on the north end of Skeppsholmen, a small island situated where the fresh waters coursing around the city begin to mingle with the Baltic Sea.

Connected by a single bridge to Stockholm’s mainland, Skeppsholmen offers a picturesque spot to conduct sensitive business. It’s home to Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art, which draws just enough tourists that a group of conspirators can remain unremarkable and undisturbed. Across the water to the southeast, the two men could just make out the upraised arms of passengers careening down a roller coaster.

A third man arrived, parked his car behind the museum, and walked toward the boats. He was at least six foot three—associates referred to him as the Tall One—and wore, as he often did, white slacks and a long-sleeve shirt. He was meticulously groomed and carried himself with the confidence of a well-connected businessman. At the waterfront, he paused and glanced at the scattered afternoon visitors. Then he strode over to the bench and sat down between the two men.

Annika Persson, an undercover officer with the Stockholm police, had followed the tall man down from his car and then strolled along the docks, 25 feet away. She was posing as a local resident out for an afternoon walk, and she’d brought along her small black Schnauzer as a prop. The three men seemed deep in conversation. If they noticed her, they didn’t show it.

Of the trio, the Tall One was the only man Persson could positively identify. His name was Goran Bojovic, and he was a 38-year-old first-generation Swede whose parents had emigrated from Montenegro. He owned a construction firm that was based in Estonia and lived in a quiet part of the city, above a combined café and furniture store owned by his parents. His criminal record consisted of a few traffic tickets. Still, the organized-crime detail at the National Criminal Investigations Department, known by its Swedish initials RKP, had long suspected him of being more than just a businessman.

Recently, those suspicions had turned more urgent, and the RKP had bugged his car and phone. On August 27, the Serbian foreign ministry, through diplomatic channels, alerted Swedish authorities that Bojovic had made contact with a man whose name would prick up the ears of any RKP officer: Milan Sevo, a former Stockholm Mafia figure who’d relocated to Belgrade, where the Serbian police monitored his calls. Serbian authorities had overheard Bojovic enlisting Sevo’s logistical help for what they gleaned was a major robbery to be carried out in Stockholm. The Serbs knew neither the time nor the location of the planned crime, but they did pass along two significant facts: The heist would take place at a large cash repository, and it would involve a helicopter. The Swedish police had placed Bojovic under surveillance in late August.

Persson tugged the dog in the direction of Bojovic and his companions. The men kept their voices low, and she couldn’t make out their conversation. But she did manage to sneak a closer look at their faces. She recognized the man with the “South European complexion,” as she would later describe him, as an acquaintance of Bojovic’s. The man with the beard, however, was unfamiliar.

After five minutes, the three men stood up and shook hands. Bojovic and the man in the military jacket left in Bojovic’s car. The bearded man passed within a few feet of Persson on his way to the parking lot. He climbed into a Peugeot and departed alone.

Persson walked to her own car and started to follow him. Just off the island bridge, worried that her pursuit might be too obvious, she radioed a surveillance vehicle waiting nearby. Her partner tailed the Peugeot across town to a commercial district on the eastern end of Stockholm, where the bearded man walked into an office building. That was as far as the police went with the lead. The Tall One had met with dozens of people during the weeks they’d been tailing him, and the gregarious businessman’s network seemed to include hundreds of people. As one investigator complained about Bojovic, “He has 500 contacts in his phone; if he walks down the street, he’s stopped every five meters to talk.” The police didn’t have the resources to chase after every person with whom Bojovic shared a bench.

The officer added the Peugeot’s license plate to the surveillance report. He noted that the owner lived in Ljusterö, a wealthy coastal area to the north of Stockholm.



Bojovic, meanwhile, drove to the airport and flew to Belgrade. From there he hopped to Montenegro and then Thailand, with the RKP in virtual pursuit. They continued to track his phones, amassing volumes of cryptic, seemingly coded conversations and SMS messages pointing everywhere and nowhere at once. The Tall One was clearly scheming about something; he’d enlisted Sevo to help him hire a Serbian “pilot” for “a project” and given him a $20,000 advance. But not all was well. The pilot seemed to be backing out, and Bojovic wanted the money back to hire someone else.

“But has he said definitely no?” he asked Sevo one afternoon.

“Not totally. But he hasn’t been in touch. Fuck it. He made his point…. We have these other two, one in Switzerland. Now they are looking for the other person, to see if they want the job, straight up.”

“You know what? I called a school here and asked what it costs, you know, to learn,” Bojovic suggested.

“Good title if nothing else,” Sevo said. “You can say, ‘I am a pilot.’”

“Yes, yes.”

“Not, ‘I am the cook,’” Sevo joked.

“Well, I’m the waiter!”

Back in Sweden, Bojovic was in constant communication with a man named Charbel Charro, a first-generation Swede with dual Syrian citizenship. Charro had served time for theft and other crimes and was now working as a PE teacher at a school in southern Stockholm. On the phone, Charro seemed wary of surveillance. “It’s dangerous for you to talk to the guy down south,” he told Bojovic.

Leif Görts, a 52-year-old prosecutor in Sweden’s International Public Prosecution Office, followed the surveillance with a measured eye. Under the country’s legal system, prosecutors collaborate closely with police as they conduct investigations, and Görts had been the one to request the wiretaps on Bojovic at the end of August. A small, wiry man with a shaved head, he’d spent years working on financial cases, and he had built a reputation as someone who could win complicated fraud and money-laundering convictions. The robbery would be his first organized-crime case with the RKP. “This seems legitimate,” the cops had said when they brought him the information about the helicopter plot from the Serbian authorities. And Görts trusted them, even if the helicopter idea sounded a bit far-fetched. When it came to robberies in Stockholm, almost nothing was too spectacular to believe.

In fact, ambitious heists had become a kind of specialty criminal industry over the past decade, turning the country into one of the robbery hotbeds of the world. With a population of a little over 9 million, Sweden accounted for a tenth of the robbery losses in all of Europe; the period between 1998 and 2004 had witnessed 224 large-scale assaults on the country’s cash-distribution systems. In Finland the total for the same period was four. Lately, Sweden’s armed-robbery racket, once run by local gangs with colorful names like Fucked for Life and Brödraskapet, “the Brotherhood,” had been taken over by internationally sourced networks of freelance experts. They included ad hoc collections of drivers, explosives makers, and muscle assembled to execute increasingly intricate and violent plans , often involving inside information and heavy weapons.

The organized-crime division of the RKP had made disrupting those networks a top priority, and now they had a chance to head off a large robbery before it happened. For Görts, however, the surveillance had evolved into a kind of catch-22. These guys aren’t stupid, he thought. They know we’re wiretapping the phones. They know we can bug them. They are planning delicate, complicated crimes. He could bring in the suspects, keep them for a few days, and accuse them of conspiracy. But he wouldn’t be able to make the charges stick. Görts and the police had no option but to wait for the plot to become real.

Leif Gorts, prosecutor


On September 9,  Bojovic finally seemed to set the plan in motion. “This is done,” he told Sevo on the phone. “We don’t need to look anymore.” The RKP concluded that Bojovic had finally found his pilot. Piecing together opaque clues from the transcripts, they thought they knew the date of the robbery, Thursday, September 17, and the location, a cash depot at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport.

In Sweden the transport and storage of hard currency is handled not by banks but by three private companies. Each controls the cash from end to end—operating fleets of armored cars, doling the money out to ATMs, rounding up currency from banks and retail firms, and counting and storing it in cash centers. The largest of the three was G4S, a UK-based firm with operations around the world. Panaxia Security, a homegrown company, operated the cash center at the airport.

The location offered what the authorities assumed would be easy escape routes. And Sweden’s criminals had shown an affinity for airport-related targets. In 2002, three men dressed as maintenance workers and armed with assault rifles walked onto an Arlanda runway in broad daylight and robbed a plane that had just arrived from London. They took $7 million in cash and left behind a fake bomb to delay their pursuers. Four years later, masked men rammed through a gate at Gothenburg’s airport and made off with a million dollars.

This time the RKP would be ready. They mobilized SWAT teams and placed police helicopter crews on high alert. The pilots were prepped to intercept what were expected to be savvy, heavily armed assailants equipped with their own helicopter. The police also quietly informed Panaxia’s security director, on the condition that he not share the information with colleagues at other companies.

Then September 17 arrived and…nothing. And nothing is going to happen, Görts began to conclude. Maybe the too-obvious surveillance had scared Bojovic into hesitating. Maybe by “this is done” he had actually meant that he’d called the robbery off. More likely, the plot was a red herring from the beginning. 


The distance between Myttinge, a forested area dotted with farms and cabins along Sweden’s eastern coast, and downtown Stockholm, to the southwest, is approximately 25 miles. A helicopter can make the trip in 10 minutes, and in 2009 the two Stockholm police helicopters based there routinely did so. The police choppers were kept in Myttinge partly for their protection but also to provide rescue coverage to the sparsely populated archipelagos to the north. The base itself consists of a single metal-roofed hangar. It is easy to spot from the road: Its driveway is flanked by a large cylindrical fuel tank and a circular concrete landing pad painted with a white, 10-foot-wide H.

At 2:30 a.m. on September 23, just under a week after the false alarm at Panaxia’s airport depot in Stockholm, police pilot Anders Johansson and his partner, on duty in Myttinge, returned from their final routine flight of the evening. They refueled the helicopter, rolled it into the hangar next to its blue-and-white mate, and shut the automatic door. After locking up the personnel exit on the side of the building, they set the alarm, and at 20 minutes after 3 a.m. repaired to their bunks in a building a few hundred yards up the road. Neither noticed anything unusual.

Two hours later, however, a bulky man came running up the driveway toward the hangar. He was wearing dark pants, tennis shoes, and a light-colored jacket. His face was covered with a black balaclava, and bundled under each arm was a plastic box with a red blinking light on top. When the man reached the hangar’s personnel entrance, he stuttered to an ungraceful stop and deposited one of the boxes on the ground. Then he sprinted across the tarmac to the other end of the hangar, stopped, and set down the second box. Even free of the boxes his running appeared labored. He returned to the personnel door, pulled out a hatchet, and smashed the numbered entry pad several times before lumbering back the way he came.

At the end of the hangar’s driveway, the runner turned east and continued up the darkened road. Once around a curve, he stepped a few feet off the asphalt into a patch of tall grass behind a bush and picked up a gasoline canister. He pulled off his balaclava and cotton gloves, dumped them on the ground along with the ax and a small flashlight, and poured gas over the pile. Then he dug a small red plastic lighter from his pocket and set the whole thing ablaze. Satisfied, he tossed the lighter and plastic canister toward the fire, stepped back on to the road, and continued on his way.

Around the same time, two police officers patrolling in their car near Västberga, a neighborhood in the southwest of Stockholm, noticed a pair of black-clad men walking next to the E4 freeway. There was no parked car in sight. Suspecting that something was amiss, the police pulled behind them and ordered them to stop.

One of the officers frisked the two men, who had no IDs and were wearing heavily layered clothing, and found two chains and several small padlocks. One of the men confessed that he and his companion had been out chasing a gang who had attacked a friend’s younger brother. They’d parked their car on the other side of the freeway to avoid detection and brought the chains and locks as weapons. When they found their supposed adversaries, he said, they’d realized they were vastly outnumbered. They’d run away and ended up near the E4.

It was an odd and implausible story, and the cops called in the canine squad to search the area. They suspected that the pair might be burglars. But when nothing more nefarious turned up, the officers dropped the men at their car and phoned in a report.

One hundred miles north of Stockholm, a heavy knife sliced through the canvas wall of a small commercial helicopter hangar in Norrtälje. Two men peeled back a four-foot flap, stepped in, and flipped on the lights. In front of them sat a red-and-white Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter atop a small wheeled cart. Developed by the U.S. Army and produced by a Canadian manufacturer, the Bell 206 was a multipurpose bird suitable for everything from traffic reports to medevac. Simple to fly, it was often used for pilot training.

One of the men pressed a button to open the hangar door. They rolled the cart out onto the concrete landing pad outside and climbed into the helicopter. The pilot checked the gauges and then held down the starter button on the throttle. Military radar picked up the craft taking off from Norrtälje at 4:43 a.m. It had rained the previous day, but now the clouds had lifted. The lights of Stockholm were visible in the distance.

Police helicopter hangar, Myttinge


It was an hour before dawn on Wednesday morning at the G4S cash depot, a dull, blocky six-story building just off the E4 in Västberga. The September air was crisp and still. A few armored trucks idled at the loading dock, awaiting the cash they would carry out on their morning deliveries. The day would be among the busiest of the month for the depot. The unofficial national payday was coming up on Friday, and the Västberga depot was at its peak level of cash storage: around 1 billion Swedish kronor, roughly $150 million.

Västberga was just one of five large G4S-operated cash centers in Sweden, themselves a tiny speck in the company’s galaxy of international operations, which range from bodyguards to immigration detention centers to alarm systems. After Walmart, G4S is the largest employer in the world, with nearly 600,000 workers in 110 countries. In Sweden, responsibility for safeguarding the company’s cash centers fell to 29-year-old Johan Petersson, director of security for the cash-handling division. Petersson, athletic and blond, had spent eight years in the Swedish army, serving in the Balkans as a military police officer and rising to the rank of captain. Three years ago, he’d moved to the private sector, succeeding in tailored shirts and cuff links as much as he had in fatigues. Defending against the robbers was, in a way, a kind of military operation—only with more action. The company suffered at least one robbery attempt every month. But the Västberga depot, where Petersson was based, had never been targeted.

From a distance, the depot was easily distinguished from the surrounding warehouses, with a 20-foot pyramid skylight jutting up from the lower section of its roof and a round, rotating G4S sign on the higher end. Five stories tall in front, with two belowground floors visible from behind, the building had once been an ambulance-dispatching service. When G4S had taken it over in 2006, they’d been forced, from Petersson’s point of view, into some undesirable design choices. The main vault where money was stored was located on the second floor, belowground from the front of the building. But the cash room where money was counted was on the sixth. The two were connected by a small elevator. In the cash room, staffers retrieved bins sent up from the vault and carried them to counting machines atop long tables. They fed cash from the bins into the machine, recorded the amounts, and packed it into trays to be sent out to ATMs.

At just after 5 a.m., a few of the 11 staffers working the overnight shift in the cash room had returned from a smoke break. Among them was Oskar Lindgren, the group leader for the night. Lindgren, a 35-year-old bachelor, had been a G4S employee since 2002 and lived close enough to the depot that he usually walked to work. Before G4S he’d had a job in a bingo hall. He had started his 12-hour shift at 7 p.m. the previous evening, prepping for his team’s arrival at 10, and been frustrated to find that two of them had called in sick while another had stayed home with an ill child. Otherwise the night seemed quiet. Things were running smoothly enough in the cash room that by early morning, when a woman called up from the vault asking to leave early, Lindgren let her go. He was outside the cash room near the atrium, a wide interior shaft descending to a fourth-floor patio and capped by the pyramid skylight above. Lindgren recorded the employee’s clock-out as 5:15 a.m., although later he would peg the time at no later than 5:10.

As he walked back to the cash room, which required passing through a security airlock between two heavy doors, Lindgren heard the sound of the atrium windows rattling. At first he didn’t react: Delivery trucks, he knew, began hitting the streets at that time of day. But when the noise persisted even into the windowless cash room, he asked his colleagues to shut off the counting machines so that it could be heard better. A few of the staff had a running joke about robbers descending on the cash depot from above. Maybe this was it, one of them deadpanned.

At 5:16 a.m. in the alarm center three floors down, one of the security staffers on duty called the G4S emergency line to report that the walls of the building were vibrating. Then the security cameras on the roof were switched on, just in time for a white helicopter flying in low and fast to be visible on the monitors. It looped around and came by a second time before climbing out of sight above the building.

Seconds later the pilot of the Bell 206 JetRanger skillfully guided the helicopter in at an angle, illuminating the black roof with the chopper’s front light. He set it down gently on the rubber surface, in a tight space between the glass pyramid and the building’s edge; a few feet to the right and his rotor would have slammed into a concrete wall. Three masked men climbed out and calmly assembled their gear. To the stunned guards watching the cameras from the alarm center, “it looked like they do this every day.”

Two of the men unstrapped a pair of ladders that had been attached with zip ties to the helicopter’s skids. The other pulled a sledgehammer out of a long canvas bag and began bashing a corner windowpane in the pyramid. After a half dozen over-the-shoulder shots, the glass gave way. The men lowered the first ladder 20 feet down to the fifth-floor atrium balcony. It had been measured to fit.

The G4S roof


Inside the well-insulated cash room, the counters still couldn’t pin down the source of the noise, and Oskar Lindgren decided to go back out and investigate. He asked a staff member to hold the inner door of the security airlock while he returned to the atrium. Upon opening the door at the far side, Lindgren could see into the interior courtyard. Two ladders were now propped against the opposite side of the atrium, and he saw a man dressed entirely in black, save for a pair of white shoes, standing on the shorter one. Then he noticed another man waiting on the floor below. Both men wore what looked to Lindgren like black motorcycle helmets. What are they doing there? he wondered. No one had told him there would be unauthorized personnel in the building.

The sight of broken glass snapped Lindgren back to reality. He sprinted through the airlock and into the cash room. “It’s for real!” he shouted. “They’re here!” The staff looked back at him, dumbfounded. He ran to the wall and triggered the panic alarm.

Company protocol called for staff members in the cash room to secure the area and remain inside. John Petersson had designed the steel doors for both the airlock and a secondary entrance, and he had them custom-made by a small Swedish blacksmithing company. Each was intended to withstand an assault lasting 15 minutes, which was plenty of time for the police to arrive. Now, as a precaution, Lindgren ordered the staff to send what money they could down in the elevator and to padlock the rest in the room’s metal cages. Then he gathered the employees in a corner of the room, where they would wait for the police to arrive.

Out in the atrium, one black-clad man had climbed down to the fifth floor and then, using the second ladder, back up to the windows of a sixth-floor office adjacent to the cash room. The panes were made of bulletproof panzer glass, and he abandoned the sledgehammer after taking a few futile shots. Instead, he stuck against the glass what looked like an empty wooden picture frame, cut precisely to the window’s dimensions and covered in putty adhesive. The frame was lined with a mixture of ethylene glycol dinitrate and nitroglycerin that was commonly found in Polish-made dynamite. The man ran a wire out from the frame, triggered an electric detonator, and watched the window explode into the room. The three robbers then grabbed their gear and climbed up and into the office. They smashed through its simple bolt lock and found themselves standing in front of the cash room’s side entrance, barred only by Petersson’s steel door.

In the cash room, staff members began to panic. One woman sank to the floor crying while colleagues tried to comfort her. There was no protocol for this, Lindgren realized. Pacing back and forth with his mobile phone held to his ear, he told the guards in the alarm center that the employees were afraid for their lives. Should they stay put and risk getting blown up or executed? Or should they make a break for an exit and risk encountering the robbers? Before he could get an answer, another explosion rippled through the building, and the phone went dead. To the guard on the other end of the line, it felt like time had stopped.


Just before 5:20 a.m. that same morning, a black 2008 Audi station wagon owned by a 34-year-old TV producer named Alexander Eriksson was driving south on Tegeluddsvägen, a street in eastern Stockholm. Eriksson had worked on and off for TV4, one of the four major Swedish networks, and was well-known in the media industry. He ran his own production company and was considered a skilled cameraman. Eriksson also had a helicopter license and his own chopper, both of which came in handy for aerial shots on location. He’d worked on TV hits like Expedition Robinson, the Swedish version of Survivor, and just a few weeks ago he’d returned from Malaysia, where he’d worked on TV4’s Celebrity Jungle, a reality show in which B-list actors and washed-up athletes voted each other off the program.

Eriksson was known to be personable but peripatetic, with a taste for adventure that had occasionally gotten him in trouble. He’d struggled with cocaine and amphetamines before kicking both habits a few years earlier. Recently, however, he’d begun balancing production gigs with a second job, as the marketing manager for a wind-power company funded by his uncle, and the long work hours he typically kept had gotten longer. A colleague had noticed that Eriksson looked worn out when he returned from Malaysia, and that he was fueling himself on Red Bull. Eriksson’s ex-wife, with whom he had two children and had recently reconciled, worried that he’d put himself under so much pressure that he risked a relapse.

Now, speeding down a road damp from the previous day’s rain, Eriksson’s Audi approached the kind of unlit intersection prone to accidents at night. The driver slowed to a careful crawl. A rusty white 1980s Toyota eased out into the intersection from the right. The cars came together lightly, with the Toyota’s front bumper planting the slightest kiss on the Audi’s tail.

The two cars stopped. Two men got out. The Toyota’s front bumper had a scrape barely discernible amid the rust. The Audi’s damage, as an accident expert would later describe it, looked like something that might happen in a parking lot. The driver of the Toyota, a tiling contractor named Marcus Axelsson, calmly took several pictures of the damage with his cell phone. The photos were time-stamped 5:22 a.m., September 23. The two men climbed back into their vehicles and drove off.

Twenty-five miles to the northeast, in Myttinge, the two police helicopter pilots were awakened in their barracks by a call from headquarters. The G4S alarms had alerted the local authorities, who now relayed to pilot Anders Johansson the key details about the robbery in progress: helicopter, cash depot. They needed police choppers as quickly as possible. “Be prepared for armed assailants on the roof,” they warned Johansson. The helicopters would have time to foil the robbery or at least set off in pursuit of the perpetrators. The pilots rushed to the car and gunned it the 500 yards to the hangar.

After Johansson had leapt out, run past a barrier up the driveway, and rounded the corner of the building, he noticed what looked like a shoebox sitting outside the personnel door. A red light flashed on top. He stopped and turned. “There’s a bomb!” he said to his partner. Backing into the driveway, they saw the second box at the far end of the tarmac. For a moment they hesitated. Johansson considered whether they could get the helicopters out without triggering the bombs. Then he glanced at the tank sitting behind them, full of 6,000 gallons of combustible jet fuel. There could be more bombs attached to the hangar doors. He and his partner sprinted back to the car, turned around, and sped out to the main road. Just beyond the curve, they passed a small fire burning in the woods.

Ten minutes down the road, the pilots saw a fire truck driving in the opposite direction. A local resident had seen the fire in the distance and called it in. The pilots turned around and followed the firemen, who quickly extinguished the small, odd grass fire. They found a pair of half-burned gloves, a singed red lighter, and a black balaclava that had avoided the flames entirely. The pilots sat in the car a safe distance down the road from the hangar and waited for the bomb squad to show up.

Atop the G4S cash center


The first explosion had mangled some of the metal around the handle, but the steel door to the cash room remained intact. Now the robbers pulled out a second charge, a 12-ounce Coke can filled with nitrate crystals. A magnet was affixed to the bottom, and the men stuck it to the door just above the handle, where the lock still held fast.

This time the staff members inside felt the shock wave roll over them. Steel shrapnel buried itself in the wall 15 feet down the room from where they sat. Nobody seemed hurt. But Lindgren decided they couldn’t wait on protocol any longer. “We’re leaving now,” he announced. Lindgren led the crew out through the vault’s main exit. A set of stairs took them down to a 10-by-10-foot airlock outside the second-floor vault. An employee inside, fearing that whoever was knocking at the door had already been taken hostage, refused to let them in.

At 5:38 a.m., 30 seconds after the last employee passed through the emergency exit, the side door to the sixth-floor cash room gave way to a third explosive charge. The first of the robbers, wearing a flak jacket and a paintball helmet over a black balaclava,  strode menacingly into the room. He gripped a Kalashnikov in his gloved hands, his right finger on the trigger, and walked deliberately to the end of the room, scanning it from side to side. When he reached the counting machines and found them deserted, he turned back toward the cash cages. Another robber, a handgun holstered on his belt, followed him in.

Down in the security center on the third floor, the two guards had taken shelter under a desk, fearing that the upper floors of the building might collapse. They could no longer reach Lindgren on the phone and assumed the worst. The robbers, they figured, would be assaulting the alarm center soon enough. The guards had no weapons and no idea what to do. So they crouched and watched on the security monitors as the robbers dropped a pile of empty mail sacks on the floor, pulled out a circular saw covered in black lacquer, and got to work. 


Johan Petersson’s ringer had jolted him out of bed at 5:18, just after the helicopter made its first pass by the G4S building. His nighttime security officer was on the phone from the company’s offsite emergency headquarters. When the officer announced that the Västberga depotwas under assault by men in a helicopter, only his tone of voice kept Petersson from assuming it was a joke. Oh shit, he thought. The young security director dressed quickly and grabbed his laptop on the way out the door. He lived only five minutes from the cash center, and he arrived on the scene at 5:35.

The first local Stockholm police, from a station near the depot, had arrived nine minutes into the robbery. But as they approached the building, they encountered chains lined with caltrops—metal crow’s feet designed to puncture car tires—stretched across the roads leading up to the building. They got out of their cars and established a command post 650 yards away, at a gas station. Caltrops themselves could be moved, but they were a sign that whatever was going on inside G4S had been planned by professionals. Officers in heavy tactical gear gathered to plan an approach to the depot on foot. The organization and firepower of the robbers, however, seemed to have left the command post flummoxed. From the ground, the officers could hear explosions going off somewhere in the high floors of the depot. No police helicopters had arrived, and no one gave an order to storm the building. On the Baltic Sea, Swedish fighter jets were put on standby but ordered not to take off.

Near the loading dock, a G4S employee fleeing the building called the company’s security center to describe the scene. “That was a real fucking bang!” he said after one explosion.

“Are the police on site?” the operated asked.

“Police on site… I can only see one patrol.”

“One patrol?”

“One or two wimps with fucking pistols!”

“Yes, OK. Some more will probably arrive.…”

“I sure hope so.”

Petersson located the command post and asked to speak to the commanding officer. When one cop brushed him off, he tried another. “I am the chief of security,” he insisted. “I have a laptop, I can tap into the CCTV.” After finally convincing an officer to let him in, he dictated details of the robbers from the live security cameras, which at present were showing three masked men standing outside cages filled with bricks of cash. The roof was deserted. “They have a Kalashnikov. They are wearing gas masks and vests.” The staff members in the cash room, he now knew, had escaped to the second floor. But they were crowded into the airlock outside the vault. Petersson wanted the SWAT team in there to protect them. On the cameras, he could see that there were no bombs obstructing the entrance.

Up on the sixth floor, one of the robbers was bathed in a cascade of yellow sparks as he carved into the cages’ padlocks with the saw. Five seconds on each one and it fell to the floor. He laid down the saw, and the three men began methodically filling gray canvas postal sacks with bricks of cash from the red plastic bins inside. The saw, still running, buzzed in circles like an angry upturned insect.

Soon the robbers seemed to sweat and stumble. “Even the criminals expected the police were going to do something,” Petersson remarked later. They’d taken 15 minutes to enter the cash room, and after several minutes their money collecting grew more haphazard. They hopped from one cage to another, leaving bins of cash untouched and accidentally kicking piles of bills onto the floor. At 5:41 the man with the holstered pistol made an uncertain move toward an unmolested cage, backtracked, then dropped his empty sack and hustled away. It was time to go.

The helicopter had been hovering above the building, with a view of the roads surrounding the depot and of the spectators taking in the scene. When the men reemerged at the atrium, the pilot guided the chopper back down to the roof. Two of the robbers dragged several sacks out using hand-sewn straps and set about pulling them up the ladder; the third hauled his sacks up using a rope with a carabiner affixed to the end. At the top, the men piled the sacks into the back of the waiting aircraft.

The robbers had been in the building for 24 minutes, and now they were straining to port their take, most of it in heavy packs of 500 kronor bills, down and up two ladders. One slipped and cut himself, and his blood dripped onto the bottom step. Then, almost precisely 30 minutes after they landed, the men retreated, abandoning bags of cash at the base of the ladder as they scaled up to the chopper. They grabbed the last of their haul from the roof and jumped in. The moment the doors clicked shut, the helicopter lifted off.

The police watched helplessly as the Bell 206 withdrew into the breaking dawn, its flight captured by nearby gawkers on their cell-phone cameras. The assault teams continued to hold back. “Are there still explosives in the building?” an officer asked the stunned Petersson. I don’t know what the problem is, Petersson would later remember thinking. This is the elite team of the police. This is your job.

Just before 7 a.m., the first SWAT team entered the front door of the building using Petersson’s access card. Petersson trailed a few feet behind, directing them through the hallways. They found the cash counters hiding safely in the second-floor vault, having finally convinced the staff inside to let them in. A few minutes later, a second tactical team rushed the building with a handheld battering ram, preparing to force their way in through the same door. A news photographer snapped a picture as the officers poised to smash it in; by noon the photo would be splashed across newspapers and Web sites worldwide. Just out of the frame, as the glass shattered, Petersson’s deputy had tried to explain that the door was already unlocked.

Johan Petersson, G4S director of security


Witnesses later recalled seeing the helicopter push off to the southwest, and a few minutes later the pilot set it down in a gravel pit not far from Norsborg, near the city’s rough southern suburbs. One or more of the men climbed out before the helicopter quickly lifted off again and started flying north to Lake Mälaren, an hour outside Stockholm.

Two men out for an early walk on a trail in the lakeside park heard a helicopter either hover above or land atop a large patch of grass near the shoreline at Kanaan Beach. After a few minutes, they heard speedboats roar off into the lake. A year later, locals walking through those woods would still wonder if the G4S money might be hidden nearby. But given Sweden’s interconnected waterways, a boat on Lake Mälaren Lake could access dozens of marinas or even navigate out to the ocean.

From the lakeside, the helicopter flew to a heavily forested park near Täby, a small town north of Stockholm. The pilot descended into a meadow near a track, killed the engine, opened the door, and walked away. On the floor, he left a pile of plastic zip ties and a Garmin handheld GPS unit.

A half hour later, at five minutes to seven, a bearded man in a charcoal suit and open-collar shirt wandered into the Täby McDonald’s. He approached the counter and asked if he could borrow a telephone. When the clerk handed him one, he called a taxi company, told the dispatcher his name was John, and ordered a car to central Stockholm.

At the hangar in Myttinge, the bomb-disposal teams turned a water cannon on the blinking containers, blasting them apart. On closer inspection, they appeared to be cheap plastic toolboxes with red LEDs wired through the lids, powered by standard nine-volt batteries.

Inside the TV4 newsroom in Stockholm, reporters were riveted by the robbery. They’d been covering it almost nonstop since it started. Around lunchtime, a new bit of info came over the wire: The helicopter used in the heist, police had determined, had been stolen from Norrtälje, well north of the city. One staff reporter, Fredrick Malmberg, suddenly remembered that a producer he’d worked with in the past named Alexander Eriksson owned a helicopter up in the same area. If it was Eriksson’s that had been stolen, Malmberg would have a scoop. He called Eriksson on his cell phone and asked if he’d heard the news about the robbery. Eriksson said he hadn’t, that he’d been up late preparing a marketing presentation for the wind-power company. In fact, he was in the car on his way to the meeting, to which he was already late. In any case, he said, his helicopter couldn’t have been the one stolen: It was being repaired.

Kanaan Beach


At 7 a.m., the prosecutor Leif Görts spoke on the phone with an officer in the RKP’s organized-crime squad. “Get dressed, comb your hair, and get down here,” she told him. “And put on the TV while you do it.” A local news crew had captured live pictures of the helicopter as it lifted off from the roof and was replaying it in a near constant loop. They did it, Görts thought. Goddamn it, they did it.

There were two international story lines: the robbers’ guts and the police department’s incompetence. “I’ve never experienced anything like it!” an overexcited Stockholm police spokesman blurted to a Swedish newspaper. It didn’t help matters that an enterprising reporter had added an embarrassing but untrue detail, soon included in every story—that the fake bombs in Myttinge had been labeled bomb on the outside. What to international audiences appeared farcical was to the Swedish media an outrage. “It’s just embarrassing that criminals can knock out the police with tricks from a book for boys,” the columnist Lena Mellin wrote the next morning in Aftonbladet, a national daily.

The thieves were likely disappointed as well. Three assailants, a pilot, at least one explosives expert, a fake-bomb messenger, multiple street teams to delay police—a crew large, sophisticated, and well-funded enough to plan a $150 million robbery—had only gotten away with 39 million kronor, or about $6.5 million.

Those were the same facts that Leif Görts, co-prosecutor Björn Frithiof, and the two heads of the police investigation had to work with when they sat down to begin the pursuit. Instantly, catching the robbers became Swedish law enforcement’s highest priority, and the job was transferred out of the Stockholm police department to the national authorities who’d been tracking it before it happened. Dozens of the RKP’s best officers were assigned full-time to the case. I’ll never be in a position like this again in my life, realized Görts. I have all the resources of the police at my disposal.

The robbers, as fastidious as they’d been in their planning, had left a fair amount of evidence behind. The police found spiked chains on five roads around the depot. Inside, a forensics team recovered blood from the ladder. They’d also found potential DNA traces, on the zip ties used to secure the ladders, and on the sledgehammer and an unused frame of explosives. At the helicopter’s final landing site, the police recovered the GPS device, with the previous night’s destinations programmed into it. Investigators scoured the area and then, based on a tip, commandeered the security tapes from the local McDonald’s. When they interviewed that morning’s clerk about the bearded man who appeared on the video at 6:55 a.m., he told them the man had borrowed a phone and ordered a taxi.

All of those leads would take weeks to chase down. The most important question now was what to do about Bojovic. The RKP had kept up surveillance on the Tall One even after the mid-September false alarm. Now Görts and his colleagues scanned the transcripts and noticed Bojovic chatting with Milan Sevo right up to September 23. Then the conversations stopped—until 8:13 a.m. the morning of the robbery, when the onetime Stockholm Mob boss sent Bojovic a three-character message:



Jonas “Jocke” Hildeby was riding a commuter train the morning of the robbery, listening to the live reports on his handheld radio. A 27-year veteran of the police force and the RKP, he was unsurprised by the event. There’d been rumors of a big robbery in the works. Now things would get busy.

Hildeby has close-cropped gray hair, and his typical uniform consists of jeans, sneakers, and a tracksuit jacket. His particular skill is geographical profiling, and he is often employed in serial murder and rape cases. “If a psychological profiler is telling you who you are looking for,” he liked to say, “my job is to tell them where to look.” Nowadays, geographical profiling often centers on cell-phone analysis. At the RKP, Hildeby held the title of investigation analyst. He was part of a seven-person team, which included two programmers and a former academic, charged with untangling the “where” of complicated crimes.

By the end of the first day, Hildeby had in hand a list of all the calls passing through the cell towers within range of the depot that had been made within several hours of the robbery. Fortunately for Hildeby, the robbers had chosen a time of day when most people were asleep. He and his team built a database of the telephone traffic, which eventually included 18,000 telephone numbers and over 300,000 calls. Then they turned the investigation into an elaborate math problem.

The key to understanding the cell-phone data emerging from any type of criminal conspiracy, Hildeby knew from previous cases, is finding a closed circuit. Even the dumbest perpetrators watch enough movies to know to use untraceable prepaid phones. But any group sophisticated enough to execute a robbery like this one would know something else: to use those prepaids only to call other prepaids. What Hildeby’s team was looking for was a set of phones that stayed within their own miniature network. “If you get one cell-phone number, you can build it out,” he said. “That number is speaking to three numbers, and they are speaking only to certain others.” Eventually, the circuit closes in on itself.

After four days of sifting, the team identified a closed circuit of 14 phones, all of them disposables, and many of them used around the time of the heist. The phones had called only each other in the weeks leading up to the robbery. And after the morning of September 23, none of them had been used again. Hildeby and his team meticulously traced each phone’s call history, then used the cell-tower information to determine where each call was made. Cross-referencing the locations against dozens of call times allowed them to speculate on how each step of the robbery had been coordinated.

2:55 a.m., Myttinge: Phone 1, near the police heliport, calls the organizing phone—phone 5, waiting at a rendezvous point—to report the return of the police chopper from its routine flight.

3:13 a.m., Norrtälje: Phone 2, outside the hangar where the helicopter used in the heist was stolen, checks in with phone 5.

3–4 a.m., Västberga: Phones 8, 11, 12, and 13, on the ground near the G4S depot, coordinate among one another and report back to phone 5 that they are standing by with caltrops and chains.

4:38 a.m., Norrtälje: Just before the stolen helicopter lifts off, phone 2 alerts phone 5 that the hangar has been breached. Five minutes later, phone 2 is airborne, en route to the rendezvous point.

4:43 a.m.,  gravel pit and Kanaan Beach: Phones 3 and 7 call in from the post-robbery landing sites that the locations are clear to receive the chopper and payload.

4:43–5:02 a.m., rendezvous point: Phone 5 joins phone 2 on the helicopter, along with the other men and the equipment for the robbery.

5:13 a.m., Myttinge: Phone 1 confirms to phone 5 that the fake bombs are in position. The stolen helicopter departs the rendezvous point for G4S, a few minutes away.

5:18–5:50 a.m., G4S: While the robbers are inside, phone 4 communicates with ground teams about the situation outside the cash center.

5:40 a.m., Kanaan Beach: Near where witnesses report hearing boats on the water, phone 7 makes one last call to phone 2, aboard the helicopter, before communication within the circuit ceases for good.

Layered on top of one another, the cell traffic created a map of the crime from start to finish. Hildeby’s, however, was a map without faces. None of the phones had been left behind, and the police didn’t know who had used them. 


Finding the pilot seemed the obvious place to start. As of September 2009, 552 people in Sweden held active helicopter licenses. It wasn’t an impossible number to investigate, but it would take significant legwork. Also, the pilot could easily have come from outside the country; Sevo had mentioned a candidate in Switzerland. But the investigators had to start somewhere. They began sifting through the database, cross-referencing it with criminal records.

 Norrtaälje is 42 miles from Stockholm—a significant distance from the robbery’s target. It seemed odd that the robbers would be familiar with it. So the investigators also checked the list for licensed pilots who’d used the same base. One showed an address in Ljusterö, not far from Norrtälje: Alexander Eriksson. In fact, Eriksson’s own helicopter was stored at the same heliport in Norrtälje where the G4S bird was stolen.

The 34-year-old TV producer was an unlikely choice to be the getaway pilot in one of history’s most daring robberies. He lived with his ex-wife and children in an upscale neighborhood among the posh archipelagos along the northern coast. His father ran a successful investment company. The younger Eriksson had been arrested twice in the past decade, on a drug charge and a gun-possession charge, but both were minor offenses carrying no jail time. He seemed to be a harried but well-employed family man who’d been trying to keep himself clean.

Indeed, the investigators might have passed Eriksson over entirely. But one officer, noticing the address on his helicopter registration, happened to remember a detail from the surveillance reports on Goran Bojovic. The meeting on Skeppsholmen, the bearded man, the Peugeot—hadn’t it also been registered to an address in Ljusterö? Görts went back and reran a check on the car. It was registered to Eriksson’s wife.

A licensed helicopter pilot had sat down with Bojovic on September 2, shook hands, and gone on his way. A week later, Bojovic had been wiretapped saying, “We can stop looking.” Two weeks after that, the helicopter was stolen from a commercial depot near where the pilot kept his own chopper. For Görts and his colleagues, it was one coincidence too many. It came as little surprise when interviews revealed that Eriksson had trained on, and occasionally borrowed, the Bell 206 JetRanger used in the robbery.

The investigators weighed the option of leaving both Bojovic and Eriksson on the street for a while, tailing the two men to see if either led them to the money or to other conspirators. But they couldn’t afford another slipup. If one of the suspects somehow escaped the country, they might never get him back. At a meeting on Friday, September 25, the team decided to be aggressive. On Sunday evening, they arrested Bojovic at his apartment. He’d been driving a new BMW around town, and in his closet they found a bag containing 118,000 kronor.

The next morning, the police stopped Eriksson at Stockholm’s international airport, checking in for a flight to the Canary Islands.


“You must be kidding!” Bojovic said when his interrogators told him that he was suspected in the G4S heist. “That’s idiotic.” He knew what this was really about, he said. He’d read in the news that police suspected people from the former Yugoslavia, perhaps the notorious Pink Panther jewel-thief gang. “Sure, I am a Yugoslav. I am from Montenegro,” he told his interrogators. “But hell, not all of us are criminals.” During days of questioning, Bojovic did little but spin stories about his construction business and ask for a lawyer.

Eriksson, on the other hand, seemed to be talking freely. And why wouldn’t he? He’d never heard of any Goran Bojovic. And besides, he had an alibi. He told the interrogators that he had, embarrassingly, had a drug relapse the night of September 23. As a result, he’d gotten into an accident right around the time of the robbery, at the other end of Stockholm. The man he’d swapped information with, Marcus Axelsson, would have the time-stamped photos to prove it. Eriksson didn’t mention visiting the McDonald’s in Täby But when the interrogators revealed that they had evidence he’d been seen there—indeed, the man in the store’s surveillance video was clearly him—he suddenly recalled that, after colliding with Axelsson, he’d ended up at a hazy late-night party near Täby. It ended with him having to order a taxi, having somehow left his car back in downtown Stockholm.

Under the Swedish justice system, accused criminals cannot trade information for lenient sentencing or immunity, nor can prosecutors promise leniency to flip the accused. Görts and his colleague Björn Frithiof had no leverage on Bojovic or Eriksson. But they had enough evidence to keep the pair locked up while they tried to identify the rest of the robbery team.

Charbel Charro, Bojovic’s onetime close associate, had for years been on the list of the hundred or so top criminals in Stockholm. That meant the police could roust him at their pleasure. On the night of September 27, four days after the robbery, two local patrol officers noticed Charro and three friends pulling up in a car outside a club called Café Opera and decided to do just that. They questioned the passengers, found nothing suspicious, and inspected the trunk. Inside, one of the officers noticed a July 2009 receipt from the Phone House in Malmö, in the far southwest of Sweden. It showed the purchase of five Sony Ericsson prepaid phones and five SIM cards with consecutive numbers. The officer pulled out his own cell phone and took a photo of the receipt, then returned it to the trunk. The police let Charro and his friends go. In their routine report of the stop, the officer listed the prepaid-phone and SIM-card numbers.

The next day, an officer working on the case noticed the report on Charro. Hildeby had known Charro for years, dating back to when the investigator worked patrol and Charro was just a troublesome teenager. The list of SIM-card numbers on the receipt caught his eye. Was it remotely possible? He typed the numbers into his team’s database of closed-circuit phones and got a hit. The officer showed the information to Görts. “What number is it?” Görts said, suddenly jumpy. “Goddamn it, it’s phone number 2! Where did you find it?”

“It was in Charbel Charro’s trunk,” the officer said.

“Charbel Charro?” Görts asked.

“Yeah, the guy who has been meeting with Goran Bojovic.”

The database match showed that one of the phones on the list had not only been used during the robbery but had also been used inside the helicopter. Hildeby traced the histories of the other phones. Three had been used in the previous month in a second closed circuit the investigators identified. And Charbel Charro had been using one to call his mother. Several days later, the police picked him up in Norsborg, not far from the gravel pit where the helicopter made its first stop after the robbery.

By early October, forensic results were slowly putting the investigators on to other members of the conspiracy. DNA from the gloves and lighters at the Myttinge fire implicated a 23-year-old named Nemanja Alic, a newsstand vendor with an affinity for American gangster films. DNA traces on a rubber band used to secure the detonator wires matched that of a man named Mikael Södergran, who had a previous explosives conviction in Sweden. Once the police had identified him as a suspect, they discovered that Södergran, a friend of Charbel Charro, had been using one of the phones from the Phone House receipt.

The blood found on the ladder at the G4S depot, meanwhile, identified an even more notorious figure: a 31-year-old Iraqi-born Swede named Safha Kadhum. In 2000, he’d been part of a crew that stormed the Swedish National Museum just across the bridge from Skeppsholmen. Arriving at closing time, the thieves had brandished automatic weapons and made off with two Renoirs and a Rembrandt while elsewhere in the city two cars exploded. They’d used similar spikes and chains to those found around G4S and departed by speedboat with the estimated $30 million worth of art.

The police captured Kadhum and seven other participants after the robbers sought out a ransom for one of the Renoirs; Kadhum served two years in prison and was released in 2006. The other two paintings weren’t recovered until five years later, when the FBI caught Kadhum’s two brothers trying to fence the Rembrandt in a Copenhagen hotel room.

This time, Kadhum had been the trigger man; his DNA was found in five places inside G4S, and an analysis of the surveillance tapes pegged him as the man with the Kalashnikov. And he was on the lam again. In mid-January 2010, after a tip-off from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the RKP finally caught up with him in the Dominican Republic. Ten masked Dominican police rushed Kadhum and a fellow Swede as they went to dinner in a small resort town near the border with Haiti. The next day, Swedish authorities put Kadhum on a private plane back to Stockholm. 


By the summer of 2010, Görts and Frithiof had charged 10 suspects. These included the two men with chains who were stopped near Västberga the morning of September 23 and two more who were arrested for staging the traffic accident that Eriksson used as his alibi. Eriksson, it turned out, had loaned his Audi to a friend the night of the robbery. The friend claimed to have returned it, but there was reason to believe he hadn’t. Phone records showed that both Eriksson’s friend and Marcus Axelsson, the man driving the Toyota, had ties to Bojovic and Charro.

The joint trial began in early August and lasted six weeks. Because the courthouse had a flat roof, which security officials believed invited a helicopter landing, the proceedings were conducted in a makeshift courtroom in the basement of the Stockholm police headquarters. Two Swedish tabloids each sent a reporter to cover every minute of the trial. Some of the G4S staff on duty the morning of the robbery mingled with the accused’s relatives, who disrupted proceedings by shouting the men’s innocence.

The prosecution’s case against Bojovic and Charro relied almost entirely on Hildeby’s phone work. The geographical profiler produced a 300-page report laying out in excruciating detail how the planners had communicated. The transcripts of the wiretaps of their “social phones,” as Hildeby called them, showed little direct connection to the robberies. But the volume of calls on the prepaid cells—the “robbery phones”—showed the extent of their planning. “We were just sitting there, so bored. Phones this, phones that,” Linda Hjerten, the reporter covering the trial for Aftonbladet, said. “And then the light bulb went on and we realized what they were doing, which was very clever.”

At first both men denied owning the robbery phones. But Hildeby’s analysis showed that every time two of the robbery phones had been used, it had been within a few feet of Bojovic and Charro’s own cell phones. When asked on the stand about this extraordinary coincidence, Charro was forced to revert to a joke. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe someone was following me.”

Bojovic, meanwhile, exuded composure as the prosecutors confronted him with surveillance video and transcripts, along with Google searches for Bell helicopters that he’d conducted in the weeks leading up to the robbery. “It’s dangerous to cut and paste,” he told the court. The discussions with Charro and the Serbian, Sevo—a longtime family friend, he said—were about construction projects. They’d been desperately seeking a crane operator for months and had even put up some money for a Serbian guy who didn’t work out. Bojovic recalled that the man looked so much like Tom Cruise in Top Gun that he’d started calling him the Pilot.

The oddest twists in the case, though, involved Eriksson. His father spoke to any outlet that would listen, arguing that the evidence against his son had been manufactured. It was “inconceivable” that Alexander would commit the crime, he told police, given that his son already had a good income and the ability to rely on his wealthy father. “We have never skimped on our kids,” he said.

Representing Eriksson was Sweden’s most famous and flamboyant criminal defense attorney, Leif Silbersky, a kind of Swedish Johnny Cochrane. Silbersky, 71, had written two dozen crime novels in addition to representing a roster of Sweden’s most famous accused—including, recently, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. During Eriksson’s case, the lawyer argued that his client wasn’t trained to fly helicopters in the dark and produced a teenage witness whom the prosecutors had interviewed but left out of their disclosures to the defense. The witness testified that she’d seen the helicopter flying low after the robbery and the pilot had looked nothing like Eriksson. The defendant himself, meanwhile, offered an elaborate account of a night out on a memory-obliterating drug binge, the drugs bought from dealers he refused to identify, based on calls made from a phone he said he’d thrown away. All of which culminated in his mysterious arrival at the McDonald’s in Täby.

The prosecution, however, had plenty of trump cards to play: Eriksson’s DNA was found on the GPS device and the zip ties used to attach the ladders to the helicopter. When Eriksson argued that the samples must date from the last time he’d borrowed the chopper, prosecutors called a witness to describe a log book that showed he hadn’t flown it since June 2008. Another witness testified that she’d been a passenger when Eriksson flew successfully in the dark. But most damning of all was the meeting on Skeppsholmen. Confronted with Annika Persson’s testimony, both Eriksson and Bojovic were forced to admit that they had met—and their memories didn’t appear to line up. Eriksson claimed that he’d been talking to the supposed construction executive about a wind-power project. Bojovic said that Eriksson had wanted to buy cocaine. And then, of course, there was the matter of Eriksson’s multiple, coincidental connections to the stolen helicopter. “Barn i huset,” Görts told the court, employing a Swedish idiom describing someone who is familiar enough with a location to come and go as they please. “He is like a child in the house.”

In early November, the court handed down the verdict. Alexander Eriksson was found guilty of stealing and piloting the helicopter and sentenced to seven years in prison. Safa Kadhum also got seven years for storming the depot with an assault rifle. (Faced with DNA evidence, Kadhum claimed that he had been forced into the crime to pay a debt and he’d thought the depot would be empty of people.) The Tall One, who had already been sentenced to four years in prison for an unrelated arson—a crime the police had connected to him using the wiretaps—got another three for planning the G4S robbery. Charbel Charro, his co-planner, received a five-year sentence, based largely on the phone analysis of Hildeby. Neither of the planners could be definitively placed in the helicopter. The explosives expert, Södergran, also got five years after barely contesting the charges. The two men who staged the traffic accident were sentenced to less than two years apiece.

The men who’d been detained on the morning of the robbery carrying the chains and locks, meanwhile, were acquitted. The police hadn’t seen any caltrops on them, and possessing chains wasn’t proof enough that they’d set others on the street. Nemanja Alic, the gangster-film fan accused of placing the fake bombs, made perhaps the greatest escape. He’d argued away the DNA evidence by saying he’d loaned his gloves to someone else and had handled plenty of lighters in his job at the newsstand. He was freed in part on the basis of a gait expert who testified that an ankle injury would have prevented Alic from running like the man on the Myttinge surveillance tapes.

The outrage surrounding the robbery prompted the Swedish parliament to pass a law designating cash depots protected facilities. A few of Johan Petersson’s guards were now allowed to carry weapons and search cars parked around their buildings. Petersson ordered a new steel door from the blacksmithing company, this one designed and tested to hold up under a 30-minute assault, and had fencing and barbed wire installed on the roofs of all G4S depots. But he wasn’t optimistic about future police responses. “We have our police to protect the citizens,” he said. “I told them, You don’t need to bring your SWAT team and your police cars to our cash center next time if you aren’t going to do anything.”

Lake Mälaren


In mid-November,  Leif Görts sat in his office in jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, paging through the dozen large binders containing nearly 10,000 pages of documents about the case. He’d spent almost every working hour with the G4S robbery over the past year, and now after a couple weeks off he was preparing for hearings on the defendants’ final appeals. That would mean retrying the entire case before a higher court. He’d quit smoking 15 years ago but found himself, in times of high stress, popping nicotine gum like candy.

In the end, he calculated they’d likely caught fewer than half the perpetrators. The investigators still retained hope that the money could be found, but Görts’s experience in money-laundering cases told him it could easily have passed through Russia into Swiss bank accounts or, perhaps more likely, been used on drug shipments. And even if they found part of the money, at this point there would be no way to prove that the unmarked cash had originated at G4S. “It was the best money to steal,” said Görts, and the robbers knew it.

They also knew “what the floors looked like, the windows, the doors, what they had to blow up,” Görts added. “It’s clear that some information was loose and it was given to them.” Interviews with the G4S staff had failed to turn up an inside source, but the RKP was still actively searching, suspecting that perhaps a contractor or temp had sketched out the measurements. One lead investigator suggested that the building’s plans could have been floating around Sweden since 2006, waiting for the right team to utilize them. He admitted a grudging respect for how the criminals had put the heist together. “For this constellation of people, to get them to do the right thing at the right moment, that’s interesting,” he said. “Getting to our police helicopters to put the bomb traps there, stealing the helicopter, having other people coming from Stockholm with ladders and explosives, and creating this car accident for the alibi: Everything is happening at the same time. And that’s what I think is quite good—logistically.”

With Bojovic and Charro in prison, the investigators could at least be confident that the immediate planners of the robbery had been locked up, if not perhaps the mysterious forces that had backed them. Of course, the prosecution had identified only one of the men who entered G4S itself—or at least, so said the court. Görts pulled out a notebook and flipped to Charro’s mug shot. “As a lawyer, I would say we only know what the hard-core evidence leads us to,” he said, angling his head down to look knowingly over his glasses. Then he flipped to a still from the G4S surveillance footage showing a balaclava-wearing robber in profile. Görts tapped his finger over the man’s ample nose, which bore a striking resemblance to the one in the mug shot. “One can speculate,” he said. The third robber at the depot that night remained at large.

Mostly, Görts remained baffled by Eriksson. The prosecutors had delivered evidence showing that he was struggling financially. He’d sunk deeper into debt than he’d let on to his family. Yet even with the financial incentive, and even though they’d managed to paint Eriksson as a man with a taste for dark thrills, it didn’t really add up. “He’s a smart guy. He has a wife and two kids. He is very much appreciated for his work,” Görts said, popping another piece of nicotine gum. “He had it all, but then he fucks it up. You would need a psychologist to understand it.”

Görts himself is moving on to a position with the European Union, where he will be part of a group working to increase cooperation among prosecutors and investigators across the continent. Recently, Swedish criminals had branched out to cash robberies in Finland and Denmark. “We know from experience there are a group of people in Sweden that are prepared to take part in actions like this,” Görts said. “Some say 200. There’s no science in that number, but they are still around. If they are given an opportunity, they will do it again. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this.” 


On February 16, 2011, an appeals court in Stockholm returned its verdict on the case of the accused plotters and participants in the G4S robbery. Alexander Eriksson and Safa Kadhum were punished for gambling on an acquittal: The court increased both of their prison terms by a year. The rest of the sentences, for Goran Bojovic and others, remained intact. Nemanja Alic, the man accused of planting the bombs at Myttinge, had his own acquittal upheld.

In March, Eriksson, Kadhum, and Bojovic appealed their sentences to the Supreme Court. Eriksson’s lawyer Leif Silbersky suggested that at the final stage—Eriksson’s last chance to avoid his lengthy prison term—his client would be presenting entirely new evidence of his innocence. One local tabloid reported that Eriksson’s family planned to hire private detectives to help track down the real helicopter pilot.

For the authorities, the appeals court decision opened up the possibility that, with little now to lose, one or more of the robbers might choose to tell their version of the events that night. As for Görts, he’d already grown weary of the case that swallowed a year of his life. “This is the end, and that’s nice,” he said. “I’ve been chewing this gum for a long time. There’s no taste left in it.”

The Instigators


The Instigators

Retracing the forces behind the Egyptian revolution.

By David Wolman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 04

Award-winning journalist and author David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired, a former Fulbright journalism fellow and a winner of the 2011 Oregon Arts Commission individual artists fellowship. He is the author of two works of nonfiction. His third book, The End of Money, will be published in February.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Illustrators: Ben Gibson and Jason Oldak
Portrait Photographer: Julia Gillard
Infographics: Erik Steiner, Spatial History Project at Stanford University
Translators: Wiam El-Tamami, Mandi Fahmy, and Sharaf Kamal Al-Hourani
Inline Extras, Additional Reporting, and Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Music: Jefferson Rabb
Special thanks: Sysomos, who provided crucial data for the Visual History infographic.

Published in May 2011. Design updated in 2021.


At around 11 o’clock on the chilly morning of February 10, Ahmed Maher was walking toward Tahrir Square in Cairo. Egypt’s revolution had been raging for more than two weeks, and the 31-year-old civil engineer was at the center of it. Maher, a founder of the activist group April 6 Youth, had joined forces with other opposition parties to urge tens of thousands of everyday Egyptians into the streets. They had flooded the square on January 25, been pushed back by police, and then retaken the ground on January 28, demanding an end to the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Two weeks later, they were still waiting for it.

Maher’s phone rang. It was a fellow activist. “My friend,” the caller said. “You must come and meet me. You must come and meet me now!”

“OK,” Maher replied calmly. “Where?”

The man told Maher to get in a taxi and head east. As the car wove through downtown and out past dense neighborhoods capped by minarets, Maher received further instructions: The destination was an office of the Ministry of Transportation, near Cairo International Airport. He also learned the alleged purpose of the rendezvous, which he relayed to an acquaintance in a text message:

I’m now going to a meeting with ministers, talking with them about how Mubarak will go. But it’s top secret.

Maher’s caller was a man named Wael Ghonim. A Google executive who had played a key role in mobilizing turnout for the protests, Ghonim had been thrust into the center of the revolution a few days earlier. Detained by police on January 27, blindfolded, and denied communication with the outside world, Ghonim was finally released 12 days later. Hours after he was freed, he had given a heartfelt television interview that inspired thousands more Egyptians to pour into the streets for the first time in their lives.

The revolution seemed reinvigorated. As quiet replaced the state-sponsored violence inflicted on demonstrators at the beginning of the protests, many prominent Egyptians called for the activists to vacate Tahrir Square so the economy could get moving again. Even the international media were eager to nudge the narrative, looking for signs of Cairo’s return to normalcy: traffic jams, ATMs dispensing cash, cargo-laden street vendors. Ghonim’s release, and the outpouring in response to his interview, changed that.

Still, Maher needed to be careful. As long as Mubarak hung on, there was no telling what the regime—or even one cold-blooded member of the secret police—might do. Maher had been a target of the state security apparatus for the past three years, forced underground before and after protests organized by April 6 Youth, or A6Y. He’d been arrested and tortured, as had many of his peers. “I need to be able to move fast,” he told his wife, Reham, explaining his regular absences from family life. “If you want me to be safe, you must leave me alone.” He slept at a rotating collection of locations: inside his beige 1986 Fiat, on a couch his parents kept in storage, on the floor of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Now he was alone as he stepped out of the taxi and entered the Ministry of Transportation building. Everyone was waiting for him. On one side of the table sat Ghonim, a coordinator with the National Coalition for Change (the political group led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei), and a friend of Ghonim’s whom Maher didn’t know. On the other side sat three men. He recognized only one: Ahmed Shafik, the former Air Force Commander whom Mubarak had named prime minister on January 29 in an attempt to placate the protestors.

The man beside Shafik extended his hand toward Maher. “Mahmoud Wagdy,” he said flatly. Maher froze, then aborted the handshake. As Cairo’s former head of prisons and criminal investigations, Wagdy had overseen the incarceration of Maher, hundreds of bloggers, opposition political candidates, and activists.

The third person, a burly man dressed in a black suit, didn’t introduce himself but kept his eyes fixed on Maher.

Ghonim’s default bearing is amicably chatty, and this day was no exception. When Maher arrived, Ghonim was already delivering broad-stroke statements about how all citizens must work together to protect Egypt and build a brighter future. Shafik responded with a string of similar sentiments, absent specifics. He mentioned nothing about Mubarak leaving power.

Maher suddenly realized that this was not a meeting to arrange for Mubarak’s departure. A6Y, together with other opposition groups and the protesters in Tahrir Square, had refused to negotiate with the government until Mubarak was gone. Now Maher found himself at the negotiating table. Was it a trap? Even if Wagdy didn’t have henchmen waiting outside for Maher, word that he had met with the government could decimate A6Y’s credibility with protestors—and possibly undercut the revolution itself.

Maher sat silently with his arms crossed, avoiding eye contact with Wagdy. Finally, Shafik addressed him directly.

“Why aren’t you smiling?”

“There is nothing to smile about,” he replied.

Shafik tried to warm him up with small talk, joking about Maher’s shaved head. It was a subject Maher himself often laughed about. During the protests, he wore a ski hat. “My head can be quite shiny,” he had told a friend with a wink. “That doesn’t exactly help when you’re trying to go unnoticed.” But the joke didn’t work here. Maher sat expressionless.

Wagdy also tried to warm him up. “Why are you so quiet? I hear that you are this wild revolutionary!” he said, turning to the man in the black suit. Maher would later learn that this man was the chief scorpion himself: General Hassan Abdel Rahman, director of the State Security Investigative Service, the organization that directed the arbitrary monitoring, detentions, and torture of opposition-group members.

When the meeting concluded, Maher shook hands only with Shafik. “This isn’t what we came here for,” he said to Ghonim before turning for the exit.

Maher jumped in a taxi and headed back downtown. He was frustrated but hopeful. It was clear from the meeting that Shafik was acting independently of Mubarak, a sign that the regime was fracturing. The military, he realized, might already be readying for a formal takeover of the government. This hypothesis gelled with a tip Maher had received just hours prior; a midlevel army official had told him Mubarak was on his way out. That prediction hadn’t come to pass at the meeting, but Maher could tell things were getting close. After the meeting, he sent me this text message:

Mubarak will go now. LOL.



I first met Maher in 2008, when I traveled to Egypt to see firsthand how the country’s young political activists were using Facebook. At the center of that movement were Maher and A6Y, a then newly established opposition group that was using online organizing to gain members and jump-start small protests. I wrote about their efforts for Wired magazine, but not long afterward a kind of opinion backlash began to form in the West. Pundits declared that the success of April 6 Youth would be fleeting and that technologists had inflated the importance of social media in the world of political activism. A6Y’s brand of activism was mere slacktivism, they chided; changing the world is about more than accumulating “friends” and “fans” online. The idea that the tiny buzzing of A6Y on Facebook could loosen Mubarak’s grip on power seemed preposterous.

Back in the States, I followed the tribulations of April 6 Youth through press releases about the latest arrests of bloggers and protesters. But Maher and his colleagues pressed on, gathering supporters and waiting for the conditions that might spur them, and Egyptians in general, into action.

Then, on January 25, 2011, the revolution began.

Through the weeks of protests, violence, and triumph, I, like many people captivated by the Arab Spring, was glued to my television and computer monitor. But I was also following on my phone, through the occasional bulletins from Maher and others on the scene who were pulling strings imperceptible to the rest of the world.

After Mubarak’s ouster, it would become almost hackneyed to call the revolution a leaderless one. “All of Egypt was as one hand,” people on the streets of Cairo would tell me later. “There was no one, two, three, or five individuals. There was everyone.” One investment banker sounded more like a flower-power peacenik: “It was every class, every religion, every age. It was truly incredible.” There were martyrs, of course: More than 800 people were killed during the uprising, primarily by baltagiya, the regime’s hired thugs, with blows from truncheons, sniper fire, or random shots into crowds. But there weren’t leaders. “No one was a hero because everyone was a hero,” Wael Ghonim tweeted just after the revolution.

The Egyptian revolt lacked a figurehead like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The uprising, however, was not nearly as spontaneous as it might have seemed. Resentment against Mubarak had been building for years, even decades, and the country’s well-organized labor movement gained strength, power, and influence as the protests continued. But the revolt was also the culmination of years of plotting and daring and experimentation by activists organizing in the virtual world. Most Egyptians don’t have access to the Internet, and a third of the people in the country can’t even read. Yet the very idea of a leaderless, politically neutral uprising was conceived, nurtured, and brought to fruition by young activists using the new digital tools suddenly at their disposal.

Ahmed Maher was one of the engineers behind the tectonic events in Egypt. In mid-March, I caught a plane back to Cairo to find out what, exactly, he and A6Y had done.

Ahmed Maher, April 2011 (Photo by Julia Gillard)


Maher grew up in a humble apartment in a rundown area of Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. He is the eldest of three children. His father worked for the state-owned El Nasr Automotive Manufacturing Company, and his mother worked at a nearby school.

Young Ahmed rarely played soccer outside in the streets with other kids. His world was books. On trips to Alexandria to visit his mother’s family, he would spend hours in the print shop run by his grandfather, not far from where the new Library of Alexandria now stands. He loved comic books, science fiction, The Adventures of Tintin, and a popular series for preteens called The Five Adventurers, about a group of adolescent detectives who race around Egypt cracking cases the police can’t solve. Maher’s mother recalls a doctor suggesting that she limit her son’s reading, to give his eyes a respite. At night, Maher would read under the covers with a flashlight.

As a young student, when Maher failed to rank first in a subject, he would attempt to hide his report card from his parents, even though his mother worked at the same school. He was a sensitive boy, she says, and although he is quiet and rarely talks about emotions, he is very much that same person today. “When he speaks passionately about something, you can see his eyes well up with tears,” she says.

The family got their first PC in 1998, when Maher was attending a local university, studying engineering. He had wanted to be a doctor, but when his high school exit exams fell just shy of the scores needed to go into medicine, he turned to engineering. “I was disappointed at first because I didn’t really like math, but I reshaped my mindset,” he said. “If I am going to be an engineer, I thought, then I will learn to like it.” Doctors, he concluded, just read information and act on standard practices. Engineers get to read, organize, and innovate.

By now, Maher had begun frequenting cybercafes, playing online games and visiting chat rooms under the alias Ghosty, a nod to his reputation for quiet. He eventually stumbled on the blogs of outspoken political activists like Wael Abbas and Shahinaz Abdel Salam. But there was no eureka moment. His political awakening was more akin to the mixing of ingredients that, due to their chemical makeup, become volatile. His father was openly critical of Mubarak: The regime had closed the plant where he worked, forcing him to take an early retirement. When Ahmed opened his own engineering business, he quickly saw that his prospects were determined not by the marketplace or talent but by connections (which he lacked) and bribes (which he could not and would not pay). He was also disheartened by simple statistics: A quarter of Egypt’s young people were unemployed, in a poor country managed by one of the world’s most corrupt governments. As he thought about engineering, he realized that bridges, buildings, tunnels, and schools—no matter how well designed—don’t get built without a government that invests on behalf of its citizenry. A civil-liberties attorney in Cairo named Gamal Eid told me that Maher was just “a regular guy who became fed up with corruption and gained the courage to act against it.”

In the fall of 2004, Maher began logging onto Yahoo Groups and other forums to read about the anti-Mubarak group Kefaya, Arabic for “enough.” He started attending weekly demonstrations and was soon volunteering for the secular, liberal El Ghad party, led by Ayman Nour. Nour won about 7 percent of the vote in the 2005 presidential “election,” whereupon Mubarak had him imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

In April of 2006, Maher was arrested during a sit-in supporting a group of judges who were calling for a more independent judiciary. He was imprisoned for two months. “If you’ve never been arrested, the fear of arrest persists,” he later recalled. Once it had finally happened, though, the fear vanished. His mother, however, burst into tears when she learned of her son’s incarceration while watching television, and she urged her husband to convince Ahmed to tone down his activism. Maher’s father listened attentively but did nothing of the sort. Soon, when his mother realized there was no sense in trying to change her son’s mind, both parents quietly lent him whatever support and financial assistance they could.

During his two-month incarceration, Maher sometimes slept 20 hours a day, waking only to eat, use the restroom, and read Mickey Mouse comic books. He says he can fall asleep almost instantly, even if he’s sitting in a chair or curled up sideways on floor tiles in a dilapidated office. The joke among fellow detainees at Cairo’s Torah Prison was that Maher landed himself in jail so that he could catch up on his sleep.

The following winter, Egypt’s national soccer team reached the finals of the continental championships, and a Facebook fan page for the team grew to 45,000 people. Maher and his fellow activist Egyptians suddenly saw the social network’s potential as a tool for mobilization. He was captivated by the idea that a Facebook group is inclusive and egalitarian. It gives participants the power to reach out to all other members at any moment, from anywhere.

But then what? Could a virtual gathering on Facebook influence real-world events? Or would it only lead to talking in circles? Maher decided to find out.

In March of 2008, Maher and a woman named Israa Abdel-Fattah created a Facebook page called April 6 Youth to support an upcoming workers’ strike in the Nile River delta city of El-Mahalla el-Kubra. They sent out emails inviting people to join, urged participants to change their profile pictures to the A6Y logo, and inundated Facebook news feeds with protest-related information. In virtual space, they conjured a new reality: The strike was not a one-time expression of grievance; it was a movement. Within three weeks, the Facebook group had grown to more than 70,000 people. When the day of the strike finally came, the A6Y mobilization helped build turnout in both Mahalla and Cairo. What was destined to be an unnoticed workers’ strike—in a town no one outside Egypt had ever heard of—became an explosive street riot that attracted international media attention and embarrassed the regime.

Soon after, government officials announced that Mubarak was considering blocking Facebook. At the time, damming access to a popular website looked like the typical paranoia of an authoritarian state; none of the activists imagined that a government would (or even could) completely sever Internet access and silence cellular networks. Eventually, the regime backed off its threat.

Buoyed by the success of the strike, Maher and his fellow organizers tried to hold a follow-up rally in May in downtown Cairo. This time the security police were ready. The street where the activists planned to gather was cordoned off, and the tiny trickle of protesters were picked up one by one. Agents of the regime had also taken extra steps to cripple the demonstration in advance. Telecoms were told not to connect calls between anonymous subscribers, essentially eliminating communication between activists who made a habit of switching their SIM cards. The government also temporarily raised wages, hoping to neutralize one of the primary grievances that had fueled the riots in Mahalla. Meanwhile, security officers had been prowling online, joining the Facebook group under fake names and creating bogus pages to slander Maher.

Three days later, Maher was driving to work in his blocky Fiat, which he had nicknamed Zazua. As he neared his office, a crew of police officers ambushed him and surrounded the car. Maher tried to gun the accelerator, sending one of the men jumping back and wincing, but Zazua was pinned between too many vehicles. The officers pulled him out, blindfolded and handcuffed him, and threw him into the back of a van. At the New Cairo police station, one of the officers began punching him, yelling “This is for what you did to my arm, you fucking bastard!” Maher figured he must have been the one he’d hit with the car. Way to go Zazua, he thought.

Maher was then transferred to a state security facility at Lazoghly. The torture lasted about a day and a half. The agents stripped him and covered him with oil—a method for dulling the visible impact of blows—punched and slapped him, dragged him across the floor, and threatened him with electrocution and rape.

When he was released, Maher went to his parents’ apartment. They didn’t know that he had been arrested, and he would have preferred to return to his own apartment to sleep. But his mother had been sick with cancer, and it was her birthday. After climbing the stairs to the eighth-floor apartment, he sat stiffly in the corner on an orange couch, head cocked to the side, wearing a turtleneck sweater to hide the bruises on his neck.

“Are you OK?” his mother asked.

“Yes. I just slept funny.”


Since A6Y had formed in 2008, Egypt’s security police had been monitoring the activists’ Facebook pages, trying to glean intelligence or even sabotage dissidents’ anytime-anywhere assembly. Maher took to calling Facebook the “underground headquarters of the resistance.” The government’s infiltration efforts occasionally created confusion, but in most cases they were laughably transparent. The giveaway was that the saboteurs’ Facebook profiles were nearly blank: few friends, no photos, no wall posts. They had created ciphers, not people. Activists also put plans to a vote within Facebook, which served as a filter on the fake activist’ contributions to the discussion. The ideas voiced by saboteurs would quickly become outliers, forgotten along with other, more pedestrian bad ideas.

Maher and other core members of A6Y’s inner circle called themselves El Matbakh, the Kitchen. They would sometimes take their communications outside the visible Facebook discussion areas and wall postings into cloistered online chat spaces or smaller Facebook groups. Offline, a small inner circle, referred to as “the coordinators,” began meeting monthly at clandestine locations or on the Cairo Metro. In June of 2008, I read a news item about the group and began corresponding with Maher. A few weeks later, I was making plans to meet up with him in Cairo and shadow the group during a protest attempt on the beach in Alexandria.

They chose July 23, the public holiday marking the nation’s 1952 revolution and an end, of sorts, to monarchical rule. Crammed into one of two minivans with the protesters, I watched Maher hurriedly type and send text messages to scouts on the beach who were looking for a location that wasn’t already crawling with police. We eventually unloaded, and the rabble-rousers, many wearing matching A6Y T-shirts, began assembling a kite decorated to look like the Egyptian flag.

But the seaside demonstration was over as quickly as it started. Plainclothes security officers quickly descended on the small gathering and, speaking calmly at first, worked to disperse it. Before long, they were shouting and shoving. One of Maher’s closest confidants, an animated English-speaking banker named Waleed Rashed, turned to me. “Those trucks,” Rashed said, pointing to two army green vehicles speeding past us on the road. “They are coming for us. It is a U-turn there,” he said, pointing to the north. “You must go now.” When I saw the trucks slow to make the looping left turn and head back down to our spot on the beach, I walked away.

That night I learned that some members of the group were later tackled in the street, the police yelling, “Where is Ahmed Maher?” A handful of A6Y members were detained, including Maher’s younger brother, Mostafa. The next day, they grabbed Ahmed as well.

The Mahers’ mother, coincidentally, was already in Alexandria. Her younger sister had recently died; now she learned that her sons had been arrested. (She had not even known they were in Alexandria. No one had. The morning Ahmed left Cairo, he had told his wife he was going to work as usual.)

Maher’s mother went to the police station, wearing all black as if in mourning.

“My sons are here in Alexandria for my sister’s funeral, and you have arrested them!” she shouted at the officer, demanding that they be released.

“Who are your sons, ma’am?”

“Ahmed and Mostafa Maher.”

“Ahmed Maher? He is the leader! The leader of a bunch of criminals! We have all kinds of files on him!”

The officer refused to let her see or contact her sons. She finally managed to find a sympathetic prosecutor, who told her he would do his best to ensure they were treated well. Quietly, he also told her that Ahmed and Mostafa were heroes. “Egypt needs more like them,” he said.

The Maher boys were released within days. Neither had been tortured. I returned to the U.S. to write about the quashed protest. I admired their courage, but the whole thing felt like a prank. At that point, it was hard to imagine Maher and A6Y toppling much of anything.


After the crushed Alexandria protest, Maher and his cohorts regrouped. By the fall of 2008, A6Y was becoming fairly well known in Egypt, at least among the young. Much of that success traced to Maher’s quiet leadership and organizational acumen, combined with the magnetic force of some of A6Y’s more vocal personalities, like Waleed Rashed and a tech-savvy 19-year-old blogger named Mohamed Adel. But it was Maher’s vision that propelled them forward. “He made the bridge from online to offline organizing,” says Sherif Mansour, a senior program officer with Freedom House, a human-rights group in Washington, D.C.

In person, Maher displays a soft-spokenness that can be mistaken for shyness, until you notice how closely he’s concentrating on a conversation. To spend an afternoon, or even a few days, with Maher is to watch him listening. “Everyone says I am so calm, but it’s not that way to me. It’s not calm inside my head,” he told me. “But I make things happen suddenly, so many people are surprised by what I do—that this quiet person did these things.” The Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas told me that Maher “is a velvet fist in a velvet glove. He always avoids clashes with people.” His aura of decency, coupled with his regular-guy street cred, only increased after he was tortured, drawing more young people into A6Y.

Yet while the group’s eagerness for regime change crystallized in online conversations, it was clear to everyone in the Kitchen that they needed to learn more about effective street organizing. So A6Y’s leaders turned again to the Internet, this time for a crash course in the history of nonviolent opposition. The April 6 crew read about the U.S. civil rights movement, studied the writings of Gandhi, and, most critically, connected with the organizers of Serbia’s Otpor student movement.

In 2000, Otpor had helped overthrow the government of Slobodan Miloševic with adroit application of nonviolent protest strategies. The campaign had worked so well that Otpor organizers launched a training program for toppling, or at least upsetting, incumbent governments. It is called Canvas, for Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies. Foreign Policy magazine dubbed it “Revolution U.” In the summer of 2009, A6Y’s Mohamed Adel flew to Belgrade for a Canvas session. Slightly pudgy and disheveled but quick-witted, Adel had been blogging about politics and government corruption since he was 16. “I had to tell people about what I saw in my village,” he told me. In Belgrade, Adel met activists from all over the globe, building relationships with like-minded organizers in Tunisia, Algeria, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Back in Cairo,  shared what he had learned: Design demonstrations that put the authorities on notice in unexpected ways. Use art and humor, and stay focused on issues that resonate with the masses. Plan events on public holidays. When you do take to the streets, bring water so you don’t pass out; carry a flower to symbolize peace and the lid of a pot or garbage bin to protect against batons; wear comfortable shoes for standing and running, a scarf to shield against tear gas, and leather gloves to protect hands from tear-gas canisters. Wash tear gas from your eyes with soda. Most important of all, don’t treat the police like enemies, because they are not enemies. If any of your fellow protesters look like they might be losing their cool, or if they commit acts of violence, surround and isolate them.

Just as A6Y was establishing itself as a political force and expanding its demonstration tactics, however, the organization faced internal chaos. Maher kept getting fired from jobs: employers would get a visit from state security soon after hiring him and decide that the risks weren’t worth it. At one firm, agents seized Maher’s desktop computer. At home, Maher faced pressure from Reham, who did not like the fact that whenever her husband wasn’t working, he was off at meetings, hiding, or in jail.

That summer a few of the group’s newer members began showing up at A6Y meetings, commandeering the conversation with moronic arguments about how using technologies like Google and Facebook was wrong because they were built by American companies. (Despite the billions of dollars in aid from Washington, Egyptians—like many people in the Arab world—have reactions ranging from skeptical to resentful toward U.S. involvement in their affairs.)

Maher, Adel, and others quickly identified the newcomers as state security plants. “They were just foolish kids,” says Maher. But before the organizers could weed them out, these foolish kids managed to hack into many Kitchen members’ email accounts, which they then made public. They even dug deep enough into Maher’s inbox to find my correspondences. In one tabloid article that Maher remembers, he was accused of collaborating with a Mossad agent identified as David Wolman.

The Kitchen responded with a counter-hack. Adel put together a dummy Facebook page that appeared to contain scandalous information about Maher and A6Y. In fact it was a data trap: To view the information, users had to input their email addresses and passwords. Adel collected their logins and showed them to A6Y’s followers. Maher realized that this kind of online threat was arguably more dangerous than the security forces breaking up street protests or throwing people in jail. Foiled protests could serve to reinforce peoples’ anti-regime convictions, whereas sowing doubt on the Internet about A6Y’s authenticity could undercut support from its base. Much of the battle between state security and activists had moved online.

In the fall of 2009, Maher and his crew began sketching plans for a demonstration against police brutality to take place on January 25, a holiday that honors Egypt’s police. Opposition groups and young activists considered the holiday something of a sick joke, as if Mubarak was making it mandatory that they celebrate state-sponsored torture, intimidation, and graft. But January 25 also offered an optimal occasion for protest: Instead of enjoying a day off, the cops would have to deal with demonstrators. This meant the activists could force the police into what the people at Revolution U called a “dilemma action.” If the regime aggressively thwarted the protest, it would underscore the message of the protesters. If it gave the activists a generous berth, they’d be free to transmit their message.

The activists gathered at a meeting place announced online: the Journalists’ Syndicate. They would do the same a year later, meeting at the General Prosecutor’s building. Both times the result was the same: the January 25 protest fizzled, broken up by police at the gathering point before it could gain momentum. They drew barely a flicker of coverage from domestic and international media. Nevertheless, the A6Y activists decided to make Police Day protests an annual event. Maybe next year, Maher thought, they could attract more people. “You need the perfect conditions,” he had once told me, “a time when people are receptive to being active.”



On June 6, 2010, a 28-year-old businessman named Khalid Mohamed Said was seated in a cybercafe in his hometown of Alexandria. According to witness accounts, two local detectives entered the second-floor establishment and began beating him. They slammed his head on a table before the owner told them to take the fighting outside. They pulled Said out to a building entryway where they kicked him and smashed his head against an iron gate until his body went limp.

Official reports of the incident alleged that Said was a drug dealer wanted by police for weapons possession. He died, the authorities claimed, after resisting arrest and trying to swallow a bag of marijuana. But activists were quickly convinced that Said was killed for posting a video showing local police divvying up marijuana they had recently seized. It wasn’t just activists, though. People all over the country, many of whom had no interest in politics, were appalled with official explanations they believed to be lies.

After Said’s family was called to the morgue to identify his body, a photograph of his horrifically mangled face was posted online. The image was too shocking for young Egyptians not to share. Mohammad Al-Anwar, a 22-year-old medical student from the city of Zagazig, later told me that Said’s murder was somehow different from other episodes of torture or murder at the hands of the regime. “Maybe it was because he was a well-known and educated guy with many friends. And the picture. I mean, he was so completely disfigured. I don’t know what it was exactly, but it spread like fire.” A 24-year-old woman I spoke with in Cairo welled up as she recounted what happened to this man she’d never met. “He was this good-looking guy who by all accounts was liked by everyone.” It was painful, another woman told me, to think that Egyptians had let their country devolve into the kind of place where this could happen.

It wasn’t the photo alone that was spreading but also a Facebook page erected in Said’s honor. A number of online memorials were posted, including one created by members of A6Y, but one in particular became a meeting place for tens of thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, of Egyptians. A month after the murder, the page had 180,000 fans. They convened to vent, connect, pay tribute, and, although they may not have realized it at the time, unite. The page was called We Are All Khalid Said, and the title alone spoke to the sense among Egypt’s educated (but often unemployed) youth that the corrupt state of the State was now everyone’s business.

The person who created We Are All Khalid Said chose to go by the moniker El Shaheed, the Martyr. The page’s content was welcoming and interactive, with emotionally forthright conversations and a seemingly limitless string of thought-provoking comments and links. It encouraged visitors to share news, videos, and photographs about injustices suffered at the hands of Mubarak’s security forces. And its creator took pains to keep the page as casual and unpolitical as possible, using, for example, the Egyptian Arabic of the streets rather than the classical Arabic usually reserved for writing. The posts were drenched in earnestness:

We will triumph because we have no agendas, because we don’t understand politics and negotiations and the dirty games of give-and-take. We will triumph because our tears are heartfelt, because our love is instinctive, because our dreams are legitimate … and because hope has now possessed every one of us. We will triumph because Egypt is above all.

A few weeks after the murder, people organized vigils to honor Said. Dressed in black, they gathered by the corniche in Alexandria, facing the Mediterranean, and on the banks of the Nile in Cairo, to observe an hour-long “silent stand.” Under a Mubarak-era law, any unsanctioned gathering of more than five people could lead to police custody or jail time. By standing at least 10 feet apart and staring out at the sea, the participants were not, technically, assembling.

Just after midnight on July 8, the mysterious man behind We Are All Khalid Said sent an email to Ahmed Maher using the alias Khalid Said. He began by praising the work of the A6Y:

You and Kefaya were the first people in Egypt to wake up and hopefully, God willing, this awakening will continue and we can do something to change this country because we all have the same goal.

He then complained about a newspaper report crediting A6Y with organizing the silent stands. His objection, he said, arose from the fact that he’d worked hard to use We Are All Khalid Said to “attract many non-political people who do not want to feel that I am a political person, or that this community is part of a political organization.” But then he offered the hint of a pledge:

If you would like to, consider me someone who is preparing a generation of young people to join you or anyone else afterwards… I want us to be one hand and to continue each other’s work, so that we don’t get into conflicts and our positive efforts to change Egypt end up turning negative.

 Maher responded immediately, praising “Said” for his mobilization efforts and apologizing for the misinformation in the papers, adding that the error was not the fault of anyone within A6Y. (Egypt’s media, at the time, tended to tie any activities conducted by young people to the A6Y.) But Maher also pointed out that A6Y’s involvement had helped magnify the demonstrations. And because members of the group had been studying up on strategies for nonviolent protest, they were able to help direct the crowds to minimize conflict with the police. Then he added:

This leads us to an important point: maybe we can have a declaration between us, agreeing to consult, collaborate, and coordinate together, so that young people will not be so scattered and afraid anymore during these protests.

Without coordination, Maher explained, people brave enough to head into the streets often have to return home just as fast, having achieved nothing “because one dumb officer shooed them away like flies.”

At 3:13 a.m., “Said” sent a reply. “I can’t begin to describe how happy I was when I read your e-mail,” he wrote. He appreciated that Maher was sensitive to the tone he was striking with the Facebook page. Police brutality, human dignity, freedom—these are universal issues, not political issues. “Said” did not want the agendaless brand of We Are All Khalid Said to be contaminated by an open connection to a political group. Still, Said pointed out,

You have probably noticed how [on the Facebook page] I am gradually moving them away from this fear [of politics] and subtly inserting some political subjects.

The two activists would trade a few more brief emails; Maher then suggested they continue the dialogue via either Gmail or Yahoo chat. “Said” closed out the exchange:

Anyway, I think we can really help each other and benefit from one another. Our goal is one.

I’ll try to be online around midnight.

But I only have Gmail.

While Maher and the pseudonymous organizer continued chatting for months in the online world, offline Maher had found an employer willing to serve as a kind a benefactor. Mamdouh Hamza was a well-known liberal activist in Cairo and the owner of Hamza Associates, a major architecture and engineering firm behind famous projects like the new Library of Alexandria. A friend had told Hamza about Maher’s job troubles. “I hired him without an interview,” Hamza told me later. “I was determined to protect this young man.”

The steady paycheck meant Maher could focus on plotting. On December 30, 2010, “Said” wrote Maher in a chat session, suggesting that they “collaborate on a crazy idea”:

Maher: Oh really? Crazy people are the ones that create change.

Said: January 25th is “Police Day.” We want to celebrate it.

Maher: Cool.

Said: [Showcasing] positive examples and negative examples of police behavior.

Maher: We celebrated it last year.

Said: Really? Send me any links so I can see what you did.

They conferred about what kind of demonstration to conduct, and Maher reiterated the idea that the police were especially “pissed off” to have to work on Police Day. Said wrote back, “I can energize people to participate.” But he needed Maher’s expertise with information dissemination, publicity, and details about how to evade the police. It was soon settled: We Are All Khalid Said would endorse and advertise a January 25 event, while A6Y would coordinate the logistics.

In the first weeks of 2011, emotions in Egypt were smoldering. On January 1, a bombing of a church in Alexandria killed 21 people and injured almost 100 more. Many Egyptians believed the attack was launched by the regime to incite anger between Muslims and Christians. (An investigation is still under way.) Regime change was also fresh in people’s minds because of speculation that Nobel laureate, and local hero, Mohamed ElBaradei might run for office. Next was Tunisia, where protesters had successfully ended the 23-year reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ahead of the January 25 event, A6Y set up a control room in an apartment owned by Maher’s boss, Hamza, in an old building downtown. As news of the revolution in Tunisia spread, a public discussion emerged on We Are All Khalid Said about giving a Tunisian-style gift to the Egyptian regime.

By January 14, Egypt’s Twittersphere began to fill with chatter about the uprising. One microblogger wrote, “Dear people watching Arabs Got Talent. There’s a better show going on called Tunisia’s Got Freedom. Watch that.” Two days later, another popular microblogger, 24-year-old Gigi Ibrahim, posted this: “The black and white days are coming, there is no grey.” Others kept directing and redirecting followers, friends, and digital passersby to “a Facebook event page for a revolution in Egypt: Don’t forget to RSVP…” On the 17th, Ibrahim again: “A MAN IN #EGYPT SET HIMSELF ON FIRE CHANTING AGAINST STATE SECURITY IN FRONT OF PARLIAMENT AT 9:00 AM TODAY #Sidbouzid #Revolution attempt?”

That same day, Maher sent “Said” a note after a meeting with other opposition groups:

There have been some suggestions for a protest at the Journalists’ Syndicate, but I’m not convinced. But in today’s meetings to coordinate for January 25, the idea of marches was widely accepted. They will begin in local areas, culminating with a central event in Cairo.

The problem is how to gather when they [state security] can strike any place that we announce. If the organizers started gathering by surprise—and that’s easy enough to do—how do we gather people and continue marching?

There is also a disagreement on the gathering point: Tahrir Square or the Ministry of Interior. Tahrir is easy for the police to lock down, and would be hard to storm if we had less than 5,000 people with us.

Maher detailed how protests in Tahrir over the past few years had been stifled by police who were able to “scatter” people before they could get there.

Two days later, Maher wrote “Said” with another update. “Imagine this,” he wrote. On January 25, various groups of protesters would gather in local areas and then converge on Tahrir. Different opposition groups—ElBaradei supporters, Ayman Nour’s El Ghad party, etc.—would be responsible for the different parts of the city. They would invite people from the neighborhoods to march with them; they would maintain contact with the command center; that would hand out fliers; they would make masks with Said’s face on them; and they would not carry banners associated with political parties—only the Egyptian flag. Their demands: better wages, resignation of the Interior Minister, and an end to the emergency law that gave police free rein to terrorize without consequence. They would also flood Facebook with simple explanations of the protesters’ demands and guides to nonviolent protest tactics—a how-to straight out of the Canvas playbook.

A week before Police Day, a 21-year-old Cairo University student named Alya El Hosseiny was at home, sitting on her bed with her notebook computer, reading about Tunisia’s toppled dictator. She happened upon the Facebook event page for the January 25 demonstrations and decided to post on Twitter about it. “I looked around and couldn’t find an existing hashtag,” she told me later via email, referring to the handles that allow Twitter users to follow every post about a topic. “So I just made up something short and sweet. I thought it was temporary, until I found out everyone was using it”:



On the morning of January 25, 2011, Maher was driving around the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandessin. He had been in hiding for days. When he left his apartment a few days prior, Reham asked where he would be heading for the protests. Maher shrugged and said they were still sorting out details.

Maher was wearing a thick pullover sweatshirt with gray patches, a raincoat, a scarf, and a ski hat. Zazua, Maher’s car, has black trim, a thick coating of dust, and a broken triangular window by the driver-side mirror. The car is decorated with two small black fists, the emblem of A6Y and of just about every other solidarity group of the past 100 years: one on the rear windshield, the other on the fuel-tank door. At around 11 a.m., Maher headed toward the square in front of Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque, which sits almost in the middle of one of the area’s widest and busiest thoroughfares, Gameat Al Dowal Al Arabia, or Arab League Street. An array of smaller streets shoot off from it like spokes.

The coalition of anti-Mubarak groups had chosen Mostafa Mahmoud as one of four major landmarks in the city that would serve as initial gathering places. From each, the respective groups would march to Tahrir Square. “It was just like in the movie V for Vendetta,” Maher recalled, referring to the moment in the film when thousands of Londoners march on Parliament.

It was a little after 11:30 when Maher drove past the front of the mosque. Peering out the window of his car, he could see that it was crawling with plainclothes security officers, as well as a lineup of black-clad riot police.

Good, they’re here, he thought, before driving away.

A few days prior, A6Y operatives had announced on Facebook and in newspaper advertisements that a rally would take place outside the mosque after midday prayer, at around 2 p.m., on January 25. Located in a well-to-do neighborhood, Mostafa Mahmoud was exactly the kind of place the police would expect middle-class kids playing around on Facebook to congregate for a demonstration.

The mosque was indeed the protest location, but for the A6Y protestors and the crowds they hoped to rally, it was merely the end point of a larger plan. Shortly after noon, eight groups of about 20 A6Y veterans were dispatched into the back alleys of the shaabi, or working-class neighborhoods, not far from the mosque. From there they would lead, and grow, a series of disparate marches that would converge and arrive en masse at Mostafa Mahmoud. This time it would be impossible for the authorities to pick protesters off individually as they turned out for the main event.

To execute the plan, each unit would linger in the area of Mohandessin until the unit leader received a call with instructions about a precise starting point. The fewer people who knew the exact geography, the less chance state security agents had to intercept or disrupt them. Only Maher and the march coordinator overseeing the eight units knew the starting places. The A6Y team had examined Google Earth images of the city in advance and sketched out routes. Eventually, the narrower streams through the back alleys would meet up and make their way down Arab League Street before arriving at Mustafa Mahmoud.

At 12:30, Maher made three calls. The first was to the operation coordinator, who then dispatched the eight units to their starting points in the shaabi neighborhoods. Then Maher called the protest coordinators in Alexandria and Port Said.

“How’s it going over there? Are you ready? OK. Let’s go.”

As they moved through the narrow alleys, the protestors chanted slogans—“Long Live Egypt! Long Live Egypt!” and “Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity!”—and cheerfully urged people standing in shops and doorways and looking down from balconies to join in.

Just after one o’clock, Maher drove back to the mosque to find hundreds of people gathered. They appeared to be everyday Egyptians from off the streets, responding to the newspaper announcements or word-of-mouth invitations from friends and neighbors. Within an hour, their numbers had swelled to a few thousand. It was fast turning into one of the biggest rallies in Cairo’s recent history, and it hadn’t technically started yet. The scene was electrifying but chaotic. None of the people gathered had been versed in the tactics of nonviolent protest. The crowd was eager to take action, or at least to go somewhere.

Maher jumped up on the railing of a fence and began shouting.

“Just wait! My friends are coming! More people are coming!”

A few people in the crowd recognized him and began repeating the message. To his relief, Rashed, the ebullient spokesman of A6Y, was also there. Maher and Rashed managed to convince everyone to sit down. At one point, Maher guessed that there were as many as 7,000 people surrounding the mosque and spilling out onto Arab League Street. Then he got a call from one of the A6Y leaders guiding the streams of marchers through the shaabi. The eight units had converged and were nearing the overpass that would deliver them to Arab League Street and the mosque.

“Maher!” he heard shouted into his phone. “We have 10,000 people!”

Maher couldn’t believe it. A few minutes later, he got another call from another of the group leaders. Maher covered one ear to block the noise of the crowd.

“We must be 15,000 people! We are nearing the bridge!”

It was 2:20 before the marchers began arriving at the square in front of the mosque. From his perch on the fence, Maher looked out at an almost incomprehensible scene: A ribbon of humanity stretching down Arab League Street as far as he could see.

People began shouting, “Akheeran! Akheeran!” At last! At last! Maher wandered among them, slapping hands and hugging friends. But triumph was usurped by concern: The crowd could splinter at any moment. Maher, Rashed, and other members of A6Y knew that the protest would have the greatest impact if the massive gathering stuck to the plan and headed to the heart of the city, combining forces with the other protest battalions. They locked arms to make a perimeter around the marchers, trying to keep people on course. Periodically, they broke off and sprinted to the front of the pack. Their goal was to keep everyone pointed toward what would soon affectionately become known as the Republic of Tahrir.


By evening there were tens of thousands of people in the square. The police eventually blocked bridges across the Nile, preventing additional protesters from the west from entering Tahrir. But critical mass had already been achieved. By that time, says Rashed, it was “like a war zone.” Members of A6Y and other activists groups that had helped choreograph the march were running through the side streets of downtown, trying to escape the rubber bullets, police batons, and tear gas. On Twitter, there were strobelike reports of pandemonium: “Tear gas!!” “Eyes burning fuck.” “Police is throwing rocks at us.” “Someone badly injured in his leg.”

By nightfall, after protesters had taken up positions in Tahrir for what would become a kind of siege in reverse, Maher and other members of the Kitchen were back in the control room. Their careful planning had paid off. No one had predicted such enormous turnout, but they knew their next steps. January 25 was a Tuesday, and by the next morning they were hurriedly making plans for an even bigger demonstration on Friday, using social media to spread the message but also getting taxi drivers to talk about it, jotting down details on banknotes, and telling anyone who would listen that this giant event was about to take place. They even branded it: the Day of Rage.

Much as they had for the Police Day “celebration,” they advertised the January 28 protest by using event pages on Facebook. Maher and “Said” also put together a document titled “Everything You Need to Know about the Day of Rage.” They wrote it in Google Docs so that once it was up it could be edited by the masses, much like a Wikipedia entry. “Who We Are,” the document begins. “We are Egypt’s young people on the Internet.” It then runs through the basics: why they were protesting, their demands, demonstration places and times, and, perhaps most critical, demonstration instructions emphasizing calm, unity, and level-headedness. “If you’ve never been in a protest before, don’t stand in the front,” the document instructed. “Leave the front lines for those who are more experienced in leading protests and marches so there is no confusion in decision-making.” The guide was appended to the Facebook event page for January 28, which, of course, was administered by We Are All Khalid Said.

By the 28th, the campaign of violence orchestrated by the regime was coming to a head. The young blogger Mohamed Adel was grabbed on the street and beaten up. Maher, meanwhile, was racing around the neighborhood of Imbaba, a poor area in Giza, again trying to keep thousands of marchers on course. Microblogger Mahmoud Salem tweeted that afternoon: “I am ok. I got out. I was ambushed & beaten by the police, my phone confiscated, my car ripped apar& [sic] supplies taken #jan25.”

And then, just before 6 p.m., Egyptians were cut off from the world and from each other. The country’s major Internet service providers were ordered to shut off their networks, rendering websites hosted in-country inaccessible and preventing Egyptians from using email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking services. Mobile-phone networks also went dark, except for anonymous, pro-Mubarak messages sent by the regime.

For many Egyptians, blocking Internet and cellular communications was the last straw. If they had been reluctant to step out into the streets, now they were compelled to—it was the only way to be in contact with one another. For the protest architects, though, the outage meant hurried contingency plans and workarounds. Someone from the Kitchen ventured out to purchase a satellite television for the control room so the group could receive news from beyond. A few locations had also escaped the blackout because of obscure ISPs or international dial-up numbers. Local blogger Sarah Carr found herself with an intact connection, and her apartment quickly filled with friends, and friends of friends, eager to get word out to friends and family.

The Internet blackout was matched by more intimidation, detentions, and beatings. On February 3, after representatives from various opposition groups dispersed following a meeting at Mohamed ElBaradei’s villa, all of the A6Y members who attended the meeting were picked up by police. That same night, security police came the closest they would come to grabbing Maher. Two minibuses pulled onto El Tawfikia Street and stopped in front of building No. 1, which houses the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, one of the bases of operations for opposition organizers outside of Tahrir. Hamza, Maher’s boss, was in the crowd standing across the street when it happened.

Plainclothes officers entered the building and climbed the stairs. They apprehended about 10 people, including the Center’s director, and ushered them downstairs and into the minibuses. According to Hamza, the authorities were also shouting rumors that the people being arrested were from Hamas “and that they have come to burn Cairo. They were kicking [the activists] and hitting them.” A6Y had been using an office just one floor down from the Law Center. Al Jazeera reporter Elizabeth Jones, who had embedded with the A6Y organizers for a documentary, was also briefly detained and then released. Later, her television footage would provide a window into how the group had managed to continue coordinating their part of the revolution from the control room amidst the chaos.   

Maher had just returned from his one respite from the revolution: a small party to celebrate his daughter’s third birthday. As he walked around the corner onto El Tawfikia, he saw soldiers standing post at the entrance to the Law Center and a few people walking out of the building, their hands bound. “Some young people standing downstairs signaled to me to leave quickly, but I didn’t understand. Suddenly, the soldiers noticed me and started running to try and arrest me,” he said. “I ran from them through the side streets. I went home to Tahrir Square to spend the night there because it was the safest place in Egypt.”


Meanwhile, Wael Ghonim was missing. Based in Dubai, Ghonim had arrived in Cairo before January 25 to participate in the protests. He wasn’t just any Egyptian citizen returning home to join his people, however. He was also the mastermind of We Are All Khalid Said. On January 28, he disappeared. The regime may have been after him because he had been openly running the fan page for Mohamed ElBaradei or because the secret police had uncovered his other identity. Ghonim had a contingency plan in place so that if he were detained, one of the few people who knew he was the administrator of the Facebook page would go public with his secret. It was by way of this plan that Maher learned the identity of his co-conspirator. He thought back to a conference about blogging that he and Ghonim had attended in Qatar. During the sessions, Maher had been trading live chat messages with the man he knew only as “Said,” not knowing that he was seated just a few feet away. At one point during a break, Ghonim had casually asked Maher what A6Y had in store for Police Day.

Now Amnesty International, opposition leaders in Egypt, and executives at one of the richest companies in the galaxy were negotiating for Ghonim’s release. When he was finally freed on February 7, he agreed to a television interview on the popular Dream TV program 10 O’clock. When the host asked him to respond to accusations that it was the protesters, not iron-fisted government ministers, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of activists throughout Egypt, Ghonim broke down. “I want to say to every mother and father who lost their son: I am so sorry, but it’s not our fault,” he said, fighting back sobs. “I swear to God it is not our fault. It’s the fault of everybody who was holding on to power and refusing to let it go.”

Maher was happy to see his collaborator released but worried about the consequences of a misstep from the newly famous Ghonim. The revolution had been in a precarious lull: By now, Mubarak had made nontrivial concessions, the public was getting tired of revolution-induced economic paralysis, and high-profile people like billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris were saying that the protesters had underestimated their achievements. “They should declare victory,” Sawiris told The New York Times, and go home.

Ghonim’s release reinvigorated the protesters and the general public alike, but his stardom, not to mention the shock of his time in captivity, made the situation fragile: What if he lost his head? If Ghonim had been coerced or somehow convinced to renounce the protests, or if he even made a comment significantly out of sync with the coalition’s public statements, the movement could be fatally crippled. Maher had to reach him.

Through a professor whom both men knew, Maher conveyed a simple plea to Ghonim, the man who had been his invisible collaborator for months: Stay on message. Mubarak had to go, and the protestors wouldn’t leave Tahrir until he did. Ghonim agreed.

The next day, a Tuesday, Ghonim spoke to the crowds at Tahrir. The media had its new narrative thrust, and demonstrators nationwide were galvanized. Maher, meanwhile, was tapping away on his smartphone and his white notebook computer in the control room. A6Y’s leaders were churning out press releases, taking interviews with journalists, and coordinating with activists in Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, and elsewhere. That day, Maher sent me another text message:

We will organize a great demonstration on Friday in all of Egypt.

They called it the Friday of Departure. That Thursday, Maher got the call from Ghonim to join the secret meeting at the Ministry of Transportation, where he had to face down some of the very men who had hunted him.

The next day, Maher parked Zazua downtown and started walking toward Tahrir. As he passed an electronics shop, he looked in and saw Vice President Omar Suleiman giving a live address. Maher popped into the store just in time to catch the crux of the message: Mubarak was gone.


Saturday, March 19. Maher and Reham walk hand in hand past the elementary school in Maadi where earlier in the day they had cast their ballots. Maher wears a black T-shirt and Reham a pink headscarf. She is eight and a half months pregnant. (Her doctor gave her a due date of April 6.) Today’s referendum is a vote for amending the constitution or scrapping it entirely. The lines extending out of the polling station are long, but the atmosphere is festive. Young people snap photographs with their cell phones, and voters exiting the school building inspect the ink on their fingers. A few people recognize Maher but not many. “More women than men,” he says, a fact that Reham affirms with a teasing nod.

Since the revolution, Maher has been busy. Yesterday he smoked cigars with the Cuban ambassador and tried to sit still for a photographer from The Washington Post. He has also had meetings recently with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the head of the British Parliament, officials from the European Union, and ambassadors from more than half a dozen countries. He had to turn down an invitation to the U.S. embassy because of exhaustion. Recently, when he showed up at the swanky Cairo Marriott for a meeting wearing his typical long-sleeve T-shirt, sneakers, and cargo pants still stained with mud from Tahrir Square, a hotel staffer looked him over and asked what he was doing there. Maher took some satisfaction in saying that he had a meeting with Ahmed Zewail, the revered Egyptian scientist and Nobel laureate. Soon Maher will fly to Spain, where he will speak about his experiences, and, after that, to Qatar, New York, and the salons of Paris. “Do you tweet?” one Western journalist recently asked him. “Do you blog?” “Are you Moses?” (Answers: Yes. Yes. No.) For other members of A6Y, the situation is similar: a whirlwind of travel, queries from publishers, speaking gigs, and discussions with academics and activists from Athens to Boston, all eager to put together a postmortem of events that to most of the world appear to have sprung from nowhere.

The night before the referendum, Maher and a handful of people from the Kitchen gathered at an outdoor café near Cairo’s stock exchange. Maher sat with his briefcase resting on his lap, doing more listening than talking. Someone had a laptop that was passed from person to person every few minutes. Rashed, the boisterous A6Y spokesman, started teasing Maher. A woman had told Rashed that she wanted to marry a man like Maher. Standing up for theatrical effect, Rashed asked, “What do the rest of us have to do? Is it the bald head? Is that the secret?” he said, prompting laughter from the group.

At one point, I asked Rashed if he ever thought they would be here, celebrating the end of the regime. When we had met in 2008, during the brief protest on the beach that day in Alexandria, things hadn’t exactly gone so well.

“That was a great day. The greatest day,” Rashed said.

I asked him what he meant, but he was simultaneously looking at the A6Y Facebook page on the laptop, smoking shisha, and chiming in to two other conversations. So I asked again. How exactly does a demonstration that attracts almost no curious passersby, ends within minutes, and results in beatings and arrests for a handful of participants qualify as a great day?

“Because of this day, we know we are an important group. They came for us right away. Why? Because we are a real problem for them. Thanks to that day, people all over Egypt and outside of Egypt—they know us. They know of this group that is against the government and that we are dangerous to the regime.” That fierce crackdown, said Rashed, provided invaluable advertising and showed the activists that they were powerful. He paused for a moment before repeating his conclusion. “It was a great day.”

Maher agreed. It wasn’t merely that the regime had revealed how worried it was about A6Y and about activities as innocuous as flying a kite-flag. That day in Alexandria, Maher told me, showed that A6Y was “a political force to be reckoned with, just like any party or political organization in Egypt.” Before, he said, A6Y was seen as just a bunch of kids playing around online. What had looked to the outside world like a failed protest was in fact a crystallizing moment that transformed A6Y from small-time protesters into full-fledged insurrectionaries.

A little before midnight, the Kitchen dispersed; there was still a curfew on in Cairo between 12 and 6 a.m. Even today the political situation in Egypt remains unstable. Protests continued well into April, often relating to wages or objections to figures from the old regime who’d retained power or had not been charged with any crimes. A standoff at Cairo University between students and administrators appointed by the former ruling party has yet to be resolved, and on April 9, the military used force to break up a protest in Tahrir, killing two people and injuring dozens. “We have much work to do,” said Maher.

The day after the referendum, Maher’s plan was to go to work and try to be a civil engineer for at least part of the day before leaving for a series of meetings in the evening. After that he had to take Zazua to the mechanic. The car needed a new muffler and replacement glass for the broken window. This was no time to run into car trouble.  The baby was due any day.