Castles in the Sky

Castles in the Sky

While renovating a house in San Francisco, a couple discovered a diary, hidden away for more than a century. It held a love story—and a mystery.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 109


Christina Lalanne lives in San Francisco and works in the travel industry. She holds a master’s degree in historic preservation.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Jacqueline Tam

The typeface Blocus is used courtesy Martin Desinde via the Velvetyne Type Foundry.

Published in November 2020.

One

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to buy a house. We wanted to save a piece of historic San Francisco, making a new home in an old place before it became unrecognizable. Mat and I visited a few grand Victorians, their facades dripping with gingerbread trim. Inside we expected to find the San Francisco that my parents and grandparents knew: formal, dignified, timeless. Instead there was clean, crisp minimalism. Silicon Valley tastes had gotten there first.

What luck, then, that we did find our house. Narrow and wooden, it was in some ways a time capsule of 1910, the year it was completed, with stained-glass windows, parquet floors, and a built-in buffet. Most of its surfaces, however, had been painted white. Realtors had informed the sellers that to attract buyers and a good price, the place needed to be brightened up. So the subtle distinctions among types of wood—oak, mahogany, fir—were erased in favor of aesthetic uniformity and an oppressive glare.

Thankfully, the house’s most unusual features were left exposed, though you had to squint to see them amid the encroaching whiteness. Two murals, dusty and faded—they were unsigned and of no great ability, but what charm they had. Stretching across all four walls of the dining room was a depiction of colonial San Francisco. Catholic priests, swashbucklers, and revelers passed in front of a faded Mission church, opposite a seascape with a Spanish galleon in the foreground and another silhouetted on the horizon. Seagulls hovered above the buffet. A small back room presented a quieter, more reflective mural. It was a landscape of the American West at its most idyllic: a tranquil lake and waterfowl surrounded by a thick forest. Occupying two corners were, respectively, a white stork and a pair of mute swans, distinguished by their orange beaks. A mighty, lone mountain loomed behind them.

Who had created these scenes? My imagination filled in a story. Maybe the builder was a European aristocrat whose father had squandered the last of the family fortune. The son was forced to live modestly, in no grand neighborhood and in a house too small for servants. But he refused to do so without art or elegance, so he adorned the walls himself.

Or perhaps he was a man of noble Spanish descent who with melancholy dreamed of the days before American fortune seekers arrived. Even though he hadn’t lived through that era himself, it was in his blood. He could feel what it was like when California was sparsely populated by Indians, cattle, and Spaniards, when contact with the rest of the world came through only a handful of ships per year.

Maybe he was a former frontiersman who recalled the wonder of the landscapes he had willed himself across. People don’t understand nowadays, he would say, how easy they have it—just hopping on a train to get where you’re going doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as getting there on foot. He recalled leaving home as a boy, the flatness of the East giving way to the ruggedness of the West. He hadn’t just witnessed the change—he’d felt it beneath his boots.

The first week we owned the house, Mat and I learned the true identity of its builder. Such are the wonders of the internet. A quick newspaper-archive search and there he was: Hans Jorgen Hansen, a young Danish immigrant alternately described as a carpenter and a contractor. He built many houses. This one, finished when he was 30 years old, was his home.

He had created something beautiful, but the world it seemed didn’t value his vision of beauty anymore. I was determined to restore the house and to hear what it had to say, to find the story I was sure it held. What I didn’t expect was that the story would come to me in written form, after being secreted away for more than a century.

Two

It is probably easier to ignore the past, to forget what came before and remake the world clean and new. That has never appealed to me. I value the past because I have to. My parents died when I was in grammar school, my mother a year before my father, orphaning me and my three siblings. Now, years later, few traces of them remain. I inherited my dad’s 1969 orange Jeep, by which I mean that Mat and I dragged its remains out of a barn and spent thousands of dollars making it drivable again. The Jeep is old and stiff, the floor rusted through in spots, and there never were doors or a roof. I’m sure I make for a curious sight driving around San Francisco in what most people would relegate to a junkyard. I joke that one day, just like in the cartoons, I’m going to go over a bump and suddenly be holding a detached steering wheel, the rest of the Jeep broken in a heap beneath me.

Renovating a house, then, wasn’t the first time I had taken something old and neglected and broken and tried to make it whole again. Our house is on the western side of San Francisco, in what was once marked on maps as the Great Sand Waste. Drifting dunes were tamped down to create more than 40 avenues of prewar, suburban-style housing, and the neighborhood was optimistically renamed the Sunset District. There is a calm sameness to the swath of single-family homes that seem to march out to meet the ocean. While I will never love the fog that drifts in from the Pacific and the drabness it brings, I chose to live here. And I convinced Mat to do the same, out of a stubborn insistence that I am a San Franciscan. I grew up here. So did my father and grandfather.

I once found a picture of our house from 1914. Sand is piled up on the empty lot on the south side, where an apartment building would eventually be built. A woman and child perch on a horse cart being drawn up the street. Lace curtains hang in the house’s windows. They seem so real that, sitting inside more than 100 years later, my urge is to turn around and part them, letting in whatever sunlight manages to peek through the passing clouds.

Even when there is sun, the dining room gets almost no light. That was intentional: Builders at the turn of the 20th century knew that dining rooms would be used most often in the evening, when candlelight cast a warm, intimate glow. To enhance the effect they were placed in the center of homes, the ceilings set lower than in other rooms, and the walls paneled in polished wood. Mirrors, brass fixtures, and crystal knobs lent sparkle.

When we moved in, these details were covered by the menace of white paint. At first I thought I would just strip the buffet. I geared up—heat gun, dental tools, chemical strippers, protective respirator—and worked for three weeks, six hours a day. When I finally freed it, the oak glowed a beautiful, natural orange. The art-glass windows in the cabinet doors had been a garish yellow, but now that the panel behind them wasn’t white, they were a warm amber. The room’s mural of colonial San Francisco even seemed to mellow. The galleons no longer sat on a chilly black ocean—the water was a lovely midnight blue. I noticed for the first time the use of tangerine paint on every wall, meant to complement the wood in the buffet.

I knew it wouldn’t be right to stop. I had to liberate the wall panels, the window frames, the box-beam ceiling. I stripped the dining room for a year and a half, patiently picking paint out of egg and dart trim and dentil molding. Stripping leaves a lot of time for thinking, and my recurring fantasy was of unloading trash bags full of white paint chips onto the doorstep of whoever had decided that obscuring this house’s interior was a good idea. Perversely, perhaps, I enjoyed the work and continued the transformation when I finished the dining room. I spent six months stripping the small back room with the second mural, three weeks stripping the bedroom mantel. Today the house’s entryway greets me with half-white, half-exposed panels every time I walk through the front door.

Other parts of the house we sent off for restoration. We had the living room mantel and the bookcase next to it ripped out, and we carefully labeled the pieces of wood that piled up on the floor so we knew how to fit them back together. Mat and I knocked 13 doors off their hinges, then removed the hardware too. We hauled everything out for a chemical bath. After being dipped in giant vats, the wood came back renewed.

Our house began to offer the kind of clues I’d hoped for, hints about its story. When we took the bookcase off the wall, a piece of paper slipped out. I unfolded its edges, perforated by a hundred tiny nibbles that made me wonder if resident mice had been trying to make paper snowflakes. The bites formed a perimeter around a faded hand-drawing of the brackets on the house’s exterior. This was part of the builder’s original design.

When we repurposed a bedroom as part of an enlarged kitchen, we carefully removed the charming inlaid squares in the floor’s corners to reuse later. Under each one, someone had placed a piece of card stock advertising a tailor named C.J. Petersen. Who was he, and why had someone put the cards there? I leaned them on a window ledge as a reminder to find out.

I once discovered a paper bag crumpled up in the house’s rafters. I’d hoped it held photographs that previous owners had forgotten. Maybe I would catch a glimpse of lives otherwise lost to time. But when I opened the bag, I immediately threw it down in horror. Inside were two sets of dentures. Surely someone was having fun with me.

I was raised Catholic, and while it’s not very fashionable to believe in God anymore, the alternative is to accept personal extinction. I believe only time separates the living and the dead, and that it’s not an insurmountable barrier. My parents, for instance, still exist somewhere. My youngest sister once went to a psychic who surprised her by announcing that our parents were watching and guiding her. Except they really weren’t too concerned with her—they’d been busy directing their energy toward our sometimes wayward brother. (My sister was annoyed but conceded that he was probably a better use of their resources.) I was sure that whoever left the dentures had a far less noble purpose. I imagined them looking down from the heavens, laughing at a century-delayed joke.

One cold January evening, as the fog hung low to the ground, the cable cut out while we were watching TV. Mat went downstairs to reset the modem. Our basement had been torn apart for several months because we were doing a seismic retrofit. The steps I soon heard Mat walking back up were also in need of an upgrade. The wood that at some point had been used to repair the staircase was cheap, and the sound the steps made underfoot was loudly hollow. That night, however, the thud was arresting. Mat wasn’t walking back to me—he was bounding.

He flung open the door to the room where I was waiting and held out a book, its marbled cover torn and thick with dust. Somehow I knew in that moment that it held the key to the house’s story. By bringing the house back to life, I had earned it.

I opened the cover and saw in elegant handwriting the name Hans Jorgen Hansen and the year 1900. It was a diary belonging to the man who built our house. As I turned the pages, I noticed that someone else had written on them, too, a woman named Anna. How unusual, I thought, for two people to share a diary—even more so because, according to historical records, Hans’s wife was named Christine.

Three

The story of Hans and Anna begins the way stories often have over the centuries: A youth on the verge of manhood sets out from his ancestral village. In this case that village is in Denmark, and the year is 1900. The forces of the world conspire to entice young men like Hans, now 20, out of the fields and into cities. If they have a yearning for adventure and a bit of daring, they continue onward to new lands. They may never return to the villages that shaped them because the world needs them. Its appetite for ambition and cleverness is insatiable. Tradition be damned—here is progress.

On the second day of the first year of the new century, Hans loads his suitcase into a wheelbarrow and sets off down an icy road, pushing his belongings over gentle hills. He arrives at a train station, where he buys a third-class ticket to the industrial city of Odense. By urban standards it’s provincial, but broad boulevards have supplanted medieval lanes, lending Odense a bit of grandness. Hans is here for a train transfer, but with time to see something new, he walks into the bustling town.

He’s looking for a bookstore—an appropriate goal in the city whose most famous son is also Denmark’s greatest storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen. This Hans, the subject of our story, appreciates Danish literature, but right now all he wants to read about is America, because that is where he longs to be. On Vestergade—gade is Danish for “street”—at one of the largest booksellers in Odense, he thumbs through journalist Henrik Cavling’s dispatches in From America. He would like to buy it but should probably save his money. He doesn’t want to leave empty-handed, however, so he purchases a diary instead.

That diary—dagbog in Danish—will accompany Hans around the world. It will feel at times as if it were his only friend, his dear bog. For now he continues by train to the seaside town of Faaborg, where he will work.

Anna and Hans knew better than most that the bonds of blood aren’t always enough to keep people together. Together they would create something stronger.

When he arrives, a letter is waiting for him. It’s from Anna in America. Anna who has already gone into the mouth of the hungry world. From the moment he first saw her, six years earlier in his village, Hans knew it was his destiny to be with her, the beautiful girl with black hair. It wasn’t her fault that she had to leave him. Anna lived with her grandparents, and she was only 14 when her grandfather died. She and her grandmother had no one else to rely on in the village, so they soon left for a place called Michigan, where Anna’s aunt lived.

People said that if her mother had made better choices, Anna’s life would have unfolded differently. Anna was born out of wedlock. Other boys might have looked down on her for this, but not Hans. In Anna he saw a nobleness of spirit.

Besides, his mother had also committed a sin when she conceived him; he and Anna had that in common. Their respective fathers were good enough to acknowledge their progeny, bestowing them with a little dignity and a surname. Anna’s paternal grandparents were the ones who’d raised her. But she and Hans knew better than most that the bonds of blood aren’t always enough to keep people together. Together they would create something stronger.

Four

I didn’t learn these details from the diary. At least, not right away. Its entries were written almost entirely in Danish, which I can’t read and don’t speak.

There were two diaries, in fact, the second of which had relatively little writing, all of it by Hans. There was also a stack of letters. Mat found everything—all this treasure—when he went to reset the modem. The basement ceiling had recently been demolished as part of our renovations. The books and letters had fallen from their hiding place, a cavity where Hans—who else?—had stashed them. I wondered if Mat and I were the first people to read them in a century.

At first all I could learn about Hans and Anna was gleaned from the documents’ few sections written in English:

Dear Anna… Tonight I have been reading over and over again your old letters from the dear old time; but I must not dream the old dreams; but Oh Anna I can’t help it because I do love you in spite of all.

Dear Hans… I am to blame for all you have ever suffered and God forgive me for it…. I am so sorry I was such a good for nothing foolish girl but at the same time I never meant to do any sin.

What drama or scandal was locked in these pages? Handwriting is a funny thing, not least because few people read it much anymore. Anna’s was neat, polite, and comfortably contained by the page. Hans, whose writing made up 90 percent of our find, had a bolder stroke. His flourishes veered maddeningly into indecipherability. In places, the pressure he exerted on his pen had made the ink pool and the letters bleed.

I sent a few diary passages to various Danish friends of friends, but while the language was theirs, none wanted to spend the time required to decipher such baroque penmanship. Frustrated, I made out the letters as best I could and typed the words they seemed to form into Google Translate. At first what came back was gibberish. But the longer I spent with the words, the more of them I got right, and the more the translator divulged actual language. I was also becoming familiar with Hans’s scrawl. His “D” was the longest, most elegant version of that letter I’d ever seen. It marked the beginning of the diary entry in which he lovingly recalled meeting Anna when they were children.

I eventually typed every word from the diaries and letters—some 20,000 in all—into the translator, and a picture of Hans and Anna’s story began to come into focus. Mat and I also did some genealogical research, amassing supporting facts. I found documentation of Anna and her grandmother’s 1897 passage to New York via Ellis Island. I found the household in St. Joseph, Michigan, where Anna was employed. I found evidence of Hans’s departure from Denmark after his stint in Faaborg—a voyage to Sydney, Australia, and onward to Brisbane—as well as his death certificate and a record of his grave just outside San Francisco, which we visited. We reconstructed Hans’s family tree and found a great-grandson on Facebook. We learned that Hans had three children with the woman named Christine, and that their marriage ended in divorce. 

I was sure I knew why: Hans and Anna could only love each other. What then had kept them apart?

Five

Winters in Denmark are long and cold. The wind that sweeps off the North Sea blows through the country’s bays, shallow hills, and beech forests. The nights, too, can seem endless. A man may find himself alone with his thoughts for longer than should be allowed. “There is not much to say,” Hans writes one January evening, “just that time was twice as long as the previous day.” Sheltered by thick, half-timbered walls, illuminated by weak candlelight, Hans and other men stave off boredom with games of cards and letters from faraway places.

Hans often lies awake at night imagining himself in New York, where Anna will travel from Michigan to reunite with him. In his diary he writes that the streets “will be completely different from the cobblestones of Faaborg.” He decides to “learn something useful to be worthy of her” and becomes a carpenter, a job he hopes will allow him to earn his way to America and support Anna. But good-paying work can be hard to come by in Denmark, and Hans will spend portions of the winter and spring of 1900 trying to find it.

In moments of despair, his mind wanders back to happier times. When he was 14, he tended cows in Husby, the farming hamlet where he grew up. Husby overlooks the sea, and the wind carries the smells of agriculture into peoples’ homes. At the heart of the village’s expansive fields sits the parish church. Most churches in rural Denmark have simple whitewashed towers, but not this one. To create a symbol befitting their status, the local aristocracy—among the most powerful landholders in the country—took inspiration from Italian artistry. Husby’s church boasts a copper onion dome atop a Tuscan-yellow tower, a glimmer of grandeur in an otherwise modest landscape.

Hans remembers his younger self leaving the cow fields one day to play with other boys in the village and seeing Anna for the first time. “In my quiet mind,” he reminisces in his diary, “I imagined myself and Anna engaged.” It was as if he didn’t really have a choice, not that he wanted one. Fate brought them together again at age 16, working as farmhands at the home of a widow. Anna was lively and dramatic, a “witty endearing spirit.” After she moved to America, she and Hans began a correspondence. They “became closer and came to rely on each other,” like family of their own choosing.

“I have seen many beautiful girls,” Hans writes in his diary, “but no one has been able to erase the image of my dear black-haired girl with the brave and joyful mind.”

Now, in Faaborg, Hans receives letters from Anna assuring him that she loves him. He is certain their union “will soon become reality,” that they “live only in the world of dreams yet.” In Danish, there’s a word for this kind of reverie: luftkasteller, or “castles in the sky.” Hans is building luftkasteller. The castles are their future, his and Anna’s, strong and impenetrable.

Or so he thinks.

Passage to America can be expensive. Other Danes are instead leaving for Australia, where the government is so desperate for labor that it will subsidize a man’s journey. Hans would likely live someplace hot and dusty. Going there would delay his arrival in America by years. Still, it feels one step closer to Anna.

That is how Hans finds himself in the middle of the Indian Ocean, aboard the steamship Oroya, as the year turns from 1900 to 1901. The journey to Sydney lasts 45 days. Hans and a few Danish friends board another ship to Queensland, then travel 300 miles to the territory’s interior, where dry grass stretches on and on until there is enough moisture to support a forest of red cedar, kauri pine, and other trees. The men help fell those forests, cutting the timber used to fuel the continent’s economic growth.

Hans lives in what the Australians call a humpy: a structure made of two poles stuck into the ground to keep a tin roof aloft, and open in front to the elements. There is only enough room for two makeshift beds. One is for Hans and the other is for his friend, a man named Sorensen. They wash their clothes in a river and cook their food over an open flame. The Australian heat is so fantastic that sometimes Hans can only laugh at it.

He thinks often of Anna, especially at night as the moon rises. “I have seen many beautiful girls,” he writes in his diary, “but no one has been able to erase the image of my dear black-haired girl with the brave and joyful mind.” Yet something has changed. He has not received a letter from her since he left Denmark. “I long to hear a little from little Anna in America,” Hans writes in April 1901. “It is 6 months since I got the last letter from her but I wait every day.”

He doesn’t know it yet, but his luftkasteller are about to break apart, and they will threaten to crush him. By the end of 1901, Anna will be married to another man.

Six

The details of when Anna decided to forsake Hans and how she told him weren’t contained in the diaries or letters that fell from my basement ceiling. Perhaps Anna did finally send him a note in Australia, only to say that she couldn’t wait for him any longer—she needed certainty, a family, a life. Or maybe she had no choice. Anna would later write, vaguely, of getting “in trouble on my own.” Did she, like her mother and Hans’s had before her, become pregnant out of wedlock? Unlike them, did she decide to marry her lover? I could only guess that the missive containing that explanation was gone because Hans couldn’t bear to keep it.

Anna’s marriage might explain why Hans didn’t write in his diary for four years. He suffered grief in silence. Their story wasn’t over, though. I knew that for sure, because Anna didn’t write in the diary until 1905.

I was hooked on the puzzle I was piecing together, to the point that people in my life started asking why. To me the question was the reverse: Why wouldn’t I try to untangle the story of a love affair more than a century old? Who wouldn’t want to learn what became of Hans and Anna? So what if they weren’t my ancestors. So what if they were just ordinary people who lived ordinary lives. Anyone in my position, with a diary full of mysteries that all but fell into her hands, would surely go to the same lengths to find answers.

In truth, I know that my fascination with the past—reawakening it, finding meaning in it—motivates me to ask questions that many people don’t need answered. It compels me to do things that to others seem drastic, even obsessional, but to me feel inevitable. Like scraping paint from the walls of my house for so many hours, over so many months, that long after I’ve removed my respirator for good, I sometimes think I can still see its outlines on my face.

A few years ago, while going through digitized family videos, I found old Super 8 footage of my dad taking a trip to Utah in his—our—orange Jeep. No sound, just moving images of my 20-year-old father, with his own father by his side, maneuvering along four-wheel-drive trails. The Jeep was shinier than I’d ever seen it. There was no one left to ask what route my father and grandfather had taken on that trip, but I knew the canyons of Utah well. I was certain I could find the trails from the video. I isolated images of rock formations and scoured online photos until I found a match: Paul Bunyan’s Potty, a natural arch in Canyonlands National Park. Mat and I loaded the Jeep onto a rented trailer and towed it 1,100 miles to Utah. We brought a drone and a GoPro with us. Mat did all the filming as I drove roads the Jeep had been down some 40 years earlier.

I don’t know what I expected to find in Utah, only that I was sure I had to go. The same was true when I bought a plane ticket for April 2019 and traveled more than 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Denmark. I rented a car and drove alone down country roads on a frigid day, feeling excited and a little embarrassed. When I arrived in Husby on a Sunday, the buildings were so sparse that calling it a town seemed generous. The only business I was able to identify was an auto repair shop, and it was closed.

I wanted to find a road called Norregade—it was there, at the home of the widow of a man named Lars Andersen, that Hans and Anna first spent time together as teenagers. “The wind is crying out and bringing back to my thoughts the winter when we were together,” Anna once wrote. She and Hans said their goodbyes on Norregade before Anna left for America. “I remember our last meeting like it was a shooting star,” Anna wrote. “God knows if we meet again on this rolling earth.”

On my map of Husby, Norregade didn’t exist. I assumed it had been renamed and I just needed to ask someone in town. Driving Husby’s back roads, I spotted a couple out for a chilly afternoon stroll. I slowed the car, rolled down the window, and shouted, “Do you speak English?” They turned to look at me and replied with an almost bewildered “Of course.” Well, I explained, I have a strange question. You see, I come from America, and a Danish man built my house 100 years ago, and I found his diary, and do you know where Norregade is?

The couple said they didn’t, that they were only weekenders. But their neighbors might. They climbed in my car and we drove 30 seconds to the home of a retired couple who were in the midst of baking rye bread. I asked if they knew Norregade. We don’t, they said, but our other neighbor might—she’s 90 years old. The husband went to fetch her. Five minutes later she was beside me, the expert who had lived in Husby her whole life.

She knew Norregade—it was now called Sjobjergvej. (Vej means “way.”) She had known the Andersens, too, the family of the widow Hans and Anna once worked for. She even knew which house had belonged to them, and marked its location on my map. I set out for Sjobjergvej, where I asked my questions all over again and found myself welcomed into the home of another couple. The old farmhouse where Hans and Anna worked had long ago been demolished. Still, I was in the place where their love story began.                                              

People’s eyes lit up when I explained why I was in Husby, just me and my binder full of photocopied diary entries. A woman cheered when I showed her pictures of my house, like Husby’s worth in the world had been secured by what one of its sons achieved elsewhere. And here I was, ratifying his efforts by traveling all the way to Denmark.

I visited other towns that figured in Hans and Anna’s story. I contacted regional archives to locate documentation of their existence. I sat with historians who translated diary entries better than I—which is to say Google—ever could, scribbling as they spoke. I popped into a coffee shop and didn’t leave for five hours, as an impromptu cadre of locals pored over documents and pictures, coming up with their own theories about Hans and Anna. I sparked enough interest that I was later contacted by an amateur genealogist who sifted through Danish church records on my behalf, gathering information about Hans’s and Anna’s families.

I came home from Denmark with a better understanding of who Hans and Anna were and where they came from. If only every trip a person takes could be so warm, so fruitful. Hans once wished the same, only to embark on a hopeful journey that ended in bitter disappointment. 

Seven

Hans’s American dream gnaws at him. Is the country really all that people say it is? He finally is able to find out for himself when he travels to California’s northern timber country, where the giants of the forest sit in a landscape that formed in the Jurassic period. The redwoods are the tallest things alive. The Douglas firs are almost as mighty. Together they seem to dare men to build something—a civilization—as grand as they are.

Hans finds San Francisco to be a marvelous party disguised as a city. He plays cards, bowls, and gambles. He wonders if settling down will ever be for him if it means that he’s not with Anna.

They still write to each other. As friends. Childhood friends. Practically family. In the fall of 1905—more than five years since Hans left Denmark, and eight since he last saw Anna—he travels to see her. He is bound for Chicago, where she can visit him from her home just across the city’s great lake, and he can return the courtesy. He’ll find work and a place to live for a while. And maybe he’ll like it enough to stay. Maybe Anna will ask him to.

Anna is the same kindhearted, buoyant young woman he remembers—still beautiful, with jet-black hair and sharp, full features that give depth to her lingering girlishness. She has lived in the small town of St. Joseph ever since she left Denmark. Her grandmother and her aunt and uncle are close by. She has no children. She has worked as a servant in wealthy households. She has never been truly happy.

But oh, how Anna has loved Hans’s letters. What adventures he’s had, how worldly he’s become.

Anna’s marriage isn’t going well. Her husband, whom Hans meets in Chicago, is a mischievous and sometimes callous man. He was born in Germany. He loves to drink, sometimes with women who are not his wife. His name is Emil, but no one calls him that. Everyone calls him by his last name, Frost—even Anna.

Frost isn’t a fool. He sees what’s going on between Anna and her friend. Once, when drunk, man to man, Frost tells Hans he would sell Anna to him for $500. Then he pretends it was a joke all along. Ha! Frost says he couldn’t live without her anyway. Later, Frost tells his wife that Hans “didn’t care enough…. I won’t let him have you now.”

On one of Anna’s weekend visits to Chicago, she and Hans go out, just the two of them, for dinner at a restaurant on Humboldt Avenue. Neither will write down what transpires that evening, but maybe—surely—it happens like this: Their conversation turns to Frost, because it always does. Anna grew up without parents and told herself that, even if her origins were impure, she would always be pure of heart. She’d made a vow. But if only her husband could be more like Hans. He sits listening to her. It takes everything within him not to move his hand across the table and put it to Anna’s cheek and tell her he loves her more than anything. At the very least he needs her to understand that he thinks she deserves the world. Hans starts to tell her about his diary with the marbled cover. He will give it to her, and she will understand how he feels. The proof is in the writing.

She still has hope, or maybe it’s faith. “It is God’s will that when you and I again get together it will be under different circumstances,” Anna writes.

Anna returns home to St. Joseph in possession of the diary. She reads Hans’s words from 1900 onward and is overcome—she scribbles into one of the diary’s margins that when she grasped his devotion, her heart “almost stood still.” She knows the diary is not hers to keep, but when she gives it back to Hans, she wants him to find comfort in her words, just as she has in his. Anna writes:

Oh how my heart ached for you the day we left Chicago. I sat like a dead woman all the way home. Frost talked and I could not answer. I think that was the saddest day of my life. How I would love to be with you but I can’t until God wills it so…. My beloved brother life would be empty if it were not for you…. We were born to each other I feel it.

The possibilities spin in her head. It’s not an honorable thing to do, leave one’s husband. At least not now. Maybe she will in the future. Even though it would be a sin. But doesn’t God want people to be happy? Doesn’t he want her to be happy?

When it’s time to return the diary, some two months after Hans gave it to her, Anna has made up her mind. “I would be the happiest woman in the world if I could always be with you but there would be one little drop in our cup and that would be that I would always fear that I had done a sin,” she writes in her final entry. To leave her marriage would jeopardize her soul—and Hans’s, too. “In parting us this time,” she writes, “[God] also saved us from the results of what we would have done.” As long as Frost “does his duty,” Anna says, “I shall do mine.” She still has hope, or maybe it’s faith. “It is God’s will that when you and I again get together it will be under different circumstances,” she writes.

It is a sad truth to bear, and Hans decides to return to California. He has shared everything with Anna—what more can he do? She is welcome to visit him. “You are all I have,” he writes in the diary, “and you are as welcome as flowers in May. I am always waiting for you to pay me a visit or to stay forever.”

Hans makes his arrangements to leave Chicago, diary in hand. One day he writes with what feels like finality, pledging to get married to someone else just to show Anna he can live without her—she who says she loves him but who “promised someone else the same.” Hans writes, “You and I little Anna could be happy; but you set me apart for another.… Anyway, I am not angry with you in any way.”

It is now the spring of 1906. What neither of them knows—what no one knows—is that the God whom Anna so fervently believes in will soon punish San Francisco. On April 18, at 5:12 a.m., the ground beneath the city will shake harder than it has ever shaken before. When the earthquake is over, the fires will start; they won’t stop for three days, until most of the city is reduced to ashes.

Once the dust of the disaster settles, the old game of making a fortune will return in full swing. Two hundred thousand people—half the city’s population—will be homeless, which is good business for someone like Hans. Skilled men will be needed to sweep up the ashes and put houses back where they used to be.

Hans returns to San Francisco, or what’s left of it. He will stay forever.

Eight

To tell the story up to this point, I had most of what I needed. The diaries and letters were often rich in detail, certainly full of emotion. I just needed to organize what Hans and Anna wrote into a narrative, supplemented by what I had learned in Denmark and in my genealogical research. But Hans mostly stopped writing in his diary after leaving Chicago. An entry here and there, nothing more. They were short and often melancholy. “The sadness is coming over me again,” he noted on August 10, 1908.

The last time he wrote in the diary, Hans was 30. It was 1910, the year he finished building the house in which I now live. It probably didn’t happen this way—probably wasn’t this dramatic—but I imagine Hans huddled in the dark of his basement, shaking his head in disappointment as his pen meets the pages of his bog for the last time. Before he closes the cover and hides the diary in the ceiling, he writes:

September 19, 1910

Many years have gone since I last wrote in my book, and I have to talk to someone tonight…. My whole life has been destroyed and I have now been away from [Anna] for a long time. And yet her and no other is what my life is all about. Anna, Anna why is everything against me. Everyone tells me I’m crazy, because I am not taking any interest in anyone but you. I shall always keep you in my mind and treasure your memories and keep them for myself. Goodnight, you are my life’s star, without you everything is empty and you never want to write to me. Everything that I have is your letters and the memory of you. Goodnight my beloved friend, you are my everything. Hope disappears. I hope it will rise again.

Three months later, Hans married Christine Petersen, literally the girl next door, on what was surely a miserable wedding day. “I know that I do sin if I marry another,” he’d once written. Hans and Christine’s great-grandson told me that their marriage was not a happy one. Their divorce was contentious, and Hans was not remembered fondly by his descendants. I didn’t pry. I knew from Hans’s diary that he soured over time. A romantic became a cynic. A hopeful youth grew into a bitter man.

Maybe Hans wasn’t wholly deserving of my sympathy, but understanding what ruined him was another matter. I still had so many questions: Did Hans leave the diary and letters untouched for as long as he lived in the house, or did he retrieve them from their hiding place on occasion to read in secret? Christine and her brother C.J. Petersen, the tailor whose name was on the cards Mat and I found in the bedroom floor—one small mystery solved—were awarded the house after Christine’s divorce from Hans was finalized in 1929. Were the hidden documents left behind on purpose, valueless after so many years, or forgotten in the chaos of separation?

More research only led to more questions. In newspaper archives, I found a perplexing detail: Right around the time that Hans returned to San Francisco, in 1906, Anna and Emil Frost were divorced after all. Unfortunately for Hans, Anna’s liberated future didn’t include him. Maybe it was only the idea of Hans—comforting, attentive, a reminder of home—that Anna loved.

I knew that Anna was 25 when she divorced. After that her trail went cold. I couldn’t find evidence of her anywhere. As I had when I first saw the murals in my house, I started filling in the blanks with a story: Anna lived the rest of her life in Michigan, working in other people’s homes. She remarried someone kind and reliable, but it was a relationship absent the passion she had known with Hans. She had children. In old age, perhaps she returned to Denmark. She’d once written to Hans that she couldn’t “wait til we get to our fatherland … where our feet trod when we were children (God bless those days).” Maybe for the sake of nostalgia—something she hadn’t allowed herself to feel while raising her family—she traveled to Husby and visited Norregade, standing on the quiet lane I would visit several decades later. Maybe she hoped that being there could answer her questions about the life she’d chosen not to live.

Nine

I have a vivid memory, early one morning when my father was in the hospital, of my uncle making his way up the carpeted stairs to the bedrooms where my siblings and I slept. I was nine years old. I knew my uncle was bringing bad news. How is that possible, to just know? Maybe his steps were slower or heavier than normal. Or maybe you can feel someone you love slipping away from this world.

Every few years I have a different experience of knowing. I’ll be in a crowd or walking down the street, and I’ll catch a glimpse of my mother or father. Something about the way they move or hold themselves or brush their hair from their face makes me certain. I’m wrong, of course, but the joy is true. If only for a moment, something I want seems real.

A similar thing happened when I finally found Anna. My trip to Denmark had furnished me with the facts that follow a person during their life, no matter where they end up. I knew Anna’s date of birth and the village where she was born and her date of entry into the United States. I knew that her father was Danish, her mother Swedish. I found her application for a passport. I looked at her picture, her dark hair and mournful eyes. She signed her name in the same meticulous way she had in Hans’s diary.

These facts are what made me sure that the Anna I came across on Ancestry.com was unmistakably, irrefutably her. My heart leaped in my chest. Then it fell, because of where I found her and what it might mean.

She wasn’t in Michigan or Chicago or Denmark. Anna had been in San Francisco all along.

She had moved here by at least 1910. What reason could there have been but Hans? Yet two months after Hans wed Christine, Anna married a man named L.B. Carpenter. They never had children. A mining engineer, Carpenter died in 1929 and left Anna with no choice but to return to domestic service as the Great Depression unfolded. Meanwhile, Hans never recovered his financial footing after divorcing Christine, though he continued to build houses. He moved into a residential hotel in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood then full of clerks and teachers, skilled laborers and transient workers, all living conveniently in the city’s downtown.

Did Hans and Anna try a relationship when she first arrived, only to find that it couldn’t live up to what they’d imagined for so long? Hans’s diary gives no indication of this—perhaps when they were finally together, he didn’t feel the need to write. In his final entry, Hans wrote that he’d been “away from [Anna] for a long time.” What if he meant months, not years, as I’d assumed? I found myself hoping so. The notion of Anna coming to San Francisco and not seeing Hans felt impossible.

Hans died in 1966, Anna in 1968, which meant they both lived into their eighties. I was able to find only skeletal traces of their later lives. Addresses in city directories. Census data, but only up to 1940. Newspaper clippings that mentioned city lots Hans was developing. Anna didn’t have any descendants to find and interview. Hans and Christine’s great-grandson told me that St. Joseph, Michigan, sounded familiar, but he wasn’t sure why.

There was one final revelation, and with it a glimmer of hope: In the last decades of her life, Anna moved into an apartment building in the Tenderloin. She lived only three blocks away from Hans. Maybe this was a coincidence, but I remembered the words of their youth. “I know that sometime a time will come when Anna and I are together,” Hans wrote. “A voice whispers in my ear that (Everything comes to those who wait) and I will wait for you to come in 20 years.” Here is Anna: “When you and I get to be 80 years old I shall love you just the same no matter where you are…. Never forget that I am always with you and always will be, [even] if you go to the end of the world.”

I drove to the Tenderloin and walked the distance between their apartment buildings. The historic cityscape, rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, is pleasing, even if the neighborhood became synonymous with inner-city vice. This was already becoming true in the mid-20th century, when Hans and Anna lived here. Perhaps by then the tempestuousness between them had eased and they were a comfort to each other. I imagined Hans ambling to Anna’s apartment, and Anna coming down to greet him, seeing his familiar grin. Maybe they no longer interpret the pull between them as romance, cherishing it instead as an unbreakable kinship.

She takes his arm and, side by side, they walk through the city.

Ten

In the home movie Mat and I re-created in Utah, I am behind the wheel of my father’s Jeep. The drone, piloted by Mat, shows me driving a barren red-dirt trail, steering through a series of technical four-wheel-drive maneuvers, and coming to a patch of earth where the road ends. The drone zooms out to show why: I have come to a bluff—there is a sheer 1,000-foot drop to the Colorado River below. Since the Jeep can go no farther, I get out and walk to the edge.

When we returned home from Utah, I took our footage and combined it with what my father had filmed on Super 8. I spliced scenes together, blurring the line between past and present. The moment when I’m on the precipice cuts to one at the same spot shot decades earlier. My father is there, his legs dangling over the cliff. I reversed the footage at this point so he appears to turn and greet me—the approaching figure—with a knowing nod. He’s like the wise knight in The Last Crusade, waiting all those years for Indiana Jones to arrive.

The movie seems to enter a time warp at this point, flashing rapidly between past and present. Few people who know my family have been able to get through it with a dry eye. At the end, Mat runs into the frame for the first time. The spell is broken. Mat puts his arm around my waist as we wave to the camera. Or are we waving to my father, thanking him for leading us here and for the opportunity to see him again?

I am desperate to communicate with the past, but so much of it is elusive, scattered, unknowable. I’m all too familiar with the frustration of sifting through fragments of truth and possibility for answers to my questions. I understand now that searching and listening and following are vital, but not always enough. I reconstruct what I can and use imagination to bring the rest into being. To set the world as it should be. To set it as I need it to be. What else can I—or anyone—do?

I write all this enveloped by Hans’s study. It’s a beautiful, peculiar little room, the one with the second mural. The sharp California sun streams through the picture window, with its tulip-patterned stained glass, and brightens the Honduran mahogany I spent half a year liberating from white paint. The effort it has taken to get here—I know it, because it was partly mine. The room sprang from Hans’s mind and from materials he could get his hands on, but it is here, still, because of me. So is the love story once concealed in the basement. I found it, heard it, and told it the best way I know how.

Maybe, though, someone else’s version of Hans and Anna’s story was always in plain sight. I stare up at the mural of the American West. For a time, I was confused by the two mute swans and the white stork, painted in corners of the room, because neither species is native to North America. I should have put it together sooner: The mute swan is a symbol of Denmark—the national bird—and features in Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling.” White storks, now rare in the country because of habitat changes, traditionally arrived in Denmark from Africa each spring, signifying new beginnings.

The pair of swans—they’re Hans and Anna, aren’t they? Surrounded by the possibilities of a new world, swimming together in calm waters, together forever. It’s what Hans wanted more than anything, this ending to their story, and he made it so.


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The Pretender

THE PRETENDER

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

By John Rosengren

The Atavist Magazine, No. 107


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

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

Published in September 2020.

Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“L—,” the woman hesitated, “Donna.”

“Like Madonna?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Riess
Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You OK?” one of the employees asked.

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

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

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

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

“I think so,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I help you?” she asked.

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

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

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

Pam Hutchinson
Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nah, the other employees said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lois Riess
Part Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lois sighed. “Yes.”

“What did you do then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Ghost Hunter

The Ghost Hunter

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

By Leah Sottile

The Atavist Magazine, No. 99


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

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

Published in January 2020.

Prologue: The End

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

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

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

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

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

It’s almost too much to resist.

Chapter 1: Rich Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She came, of all places, from the desert.

Chapter 2: The Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3: Our Captain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope not,” she replied quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4: The Gyres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were dreamers, like her.

Epilogue: The Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

By Nick Chrastil

Published in partnership with The Lens.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 97


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

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

Published in November 2019. Design updated in 2021.

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

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

—Bernard Bailyn

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

—Kent B. Germany

1. The Crime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Cop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse, where Hunter was tried.

3. The Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grand jury ruled to indict.

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I bought all my stolen property.”

“You bought it?”

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

“A guy named Willie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know his last name?”

“Willie Harris.”

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

“No, sir. It’s like collateral.”

“When did you buy it?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, Willie Harris,” Hunter replied.

“Where does Willie stay?”

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

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

“No, I don’t know where Willie is.”

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

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

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

5. The Judge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The Inmate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. The Inquiry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The main entrance to Angola.

8. The Breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

9. The Counsel

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

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

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Hunter with Derek Temple. (Courtesy: Derek Temple)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

10. The Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masterpiece Theater

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Masterpiece Theater

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

By Anna Altman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 94


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

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

Special thanks to researchers Maria Hohmann and Stefan Kuiper.

Published in August 2019. Design updated in 2021.

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within 24 hours, however, the optimism had evaporated.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cubitt decided to call the police.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

VI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Minnesota Murderess

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The Minnesota Murderess

A new wife, a dead husband, and the arsenic panic that shook the Victorian world.

By Christine Seifert

The Atavist Magazine, No. 88


Christine Seifert is a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. She’s the author of the Young Adult novel The Predicteds, as well as the nonfiction books Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars and The Endless Wait: Virginity in Young Adult Literature. She has written about sex and pop culture for numerous publications.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Joe Gough

Published in February 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1. A Death Most Foul

Stanislaus Bilansky was sick. Throughout the winter he had suffered bouts of indigestion, and now it manifested as a terrible burning in the stomach after eating. Even with light meals of soup and arrowroot, he experienced pain and vomiting. During the first week of March 1859, he was mostly bedridden in his home on Stillwater Road in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

His doctor of nine years, Alfred Berthier, would later testify that he knew Stanislaus to be in good health, even if he was “gloomy” and “hypochondriacal.” Berthier thought his patient might have alcoholism, because excessive drinking could cause a persistent “inflammation upon the gastric regions.” On March 6, Berthier prescribed an absinthe tonic. Stanislaus also took Graffenburg Pills, a commercial remedy touted as a panacea for everything from cholera to hangnail. As with many so-called miracle cures patented in the 19th century, there was virtually no proof to support the claims of its medical efficacy. What it actually cured, if anything, was unclear.

Stanislaus got worse. At about 3:30 on the morning of Friday, March 11, his eldest child, Benjamin, brought him a dram of liquor. Stanislaus’s third wife, Ann, whom he had married the previous September, was resting in another room. Earlier that night, she had told her new husband that she did not wish to sleep next to him while he was feverish. This reportedly caused Stanislaus to become excited and angry. The liquor was likely an attempt to calm him so that he could get some much-needed rest.

An hour and a half after taking the drink, Stanislaus was dead. He was 52.

The burial was planned for the next day. Before the funeral procession to the cemetery, John V. Wren of the Ramsey County coroner’s office arrived at the Bilansky home to conduct a routine inquest. A quickly assembled coroner’s jury took statements from several witnesses, including members of Stanislaus’s family, a maid, and some neighbors. The panel ruled that the death was a result of natural causes—a long illness—and they chastised Stanislaus’s wife for not calling a doctor in the hours before he died. Their sharp admonition of Ann was published in one of the main local newspapers, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat.

Stanislaus was buried on Saturday, March 12, at 5 p.m. He was not in the ground. That evening one of the witnesses who had spoken to the coroner’s jury confessed to her husband that Stanislaus’s death was no accident. At his urging, she went to the police with a scandalous story of foul play. Law enforcement quickly ordered the exhumation of Stanislaus’s body. An autopsy and toxicology tests would follow.

By Sunday afternoon, police had arrested Stanislaus’s wife for homicide. They also detained her nephew John Walker in connection with the crime. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat soon ran an article claiming that Ann and Walker were having an affair and that she had killed Stanislaus, presumably to pursue the torrid romance more freely. Ann’s method of murder, authorities said, was arsenic poisoning.


So began the trials of Ann Bilansky. There were two: the legal one and the one staged in the court of public opinion. Often it was hard to tell which was which. Newspapers across Minnesota and as far away as the East Coast wrote breathless accounts of the purported murder and subsequent courtroom drama. People read those stories, staining their fingers with ink, because they were thirsty for news of the devilish Mrs. Bilansky. Like any good gothic novel or penny dreadful, the story was thrilling—all the more because it was true.

If the tone of the reportage is any indicator, for many spectators, the narrative wasn’t a whodunit. Guilt was all but certain. The mystery was why Ann would kill her husband of less than a year. Was it malice, money, or solely her love for another man? Was she born with a wicked heart, or had it curdled over the years?

In this gripping “whydunit,” each installment that appeared on newsstands was like a drug, ready to be snatched up by eager customers with a few pennies to spare. Would Ann the irredeemable go free to kill again? If not, would she rot in a musty prison cell or become the first woman executed in Minnesota, a newly minted U.S. state? Many people hoped for the latter. In their minds, Ann’s execution would serve as a symbolic cleansing of evil from a God-fearing society.

Like a Greek tragedy—Aeschylus’s Oresteia, perhaps, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon—Ann’s trials spoke to the cultural moment. They were chapters in a bigger story about a macabre anxiety that gripped Victorian Europe, then traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. The story was thick with fear and hysteria, and informed by entrenched social tradition as much as incipient laboratory science. It was rooted in a singular obsession—a question that had long captured fascination and provoked dread: What is a wife capable of if she no longer needs or wants her husband?

2. Scandal in Saint Paul

With a population of about 10,000, Saint Paul was the largest city in Minnesota and the capital of the state, which joined the union in May 1858. A month prior, Mary Ann Evards Wright, who went by Ann, had arrived in town. Little is known about her life before then, except that she said she was a widow from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who had made her way to Pleasant Hill, Illinois, after the death of her husband in a railroad accident. At the request of John Walker, Ann joined him in Minnesota. Walker had been living in Saint Paul for a few years without family, and he had recently fallen ill with typhoid. He hoped his aunt would help him convalesce—or so he and Ann claimed, their critics would later assert.

Ann was in her late thirties, hardly an ingenue. She was tall, with blond hair, gray eyes, and a long nose. She had an overbite, with protruding front teeth, and a low-pitched voice. Ann did not hesitate to speak when she had something to say; The New York Times would later call her “talkable.” She seemed to have completed some education, and she had no children or much family. Ann dressed neatly, and while she was not beautiful, she carried herself with a dignity that must have been attractive.

Walker, 26, worked as a carpenter. Like his aunt, he had light eyes and blond hair, though his was curly. He was a smaller man—between five-foot-five and five-foot-seven—but he walked with good posture. It’s unclear whether aunt and nephew lived together while Walker recovered from typhoid. By some accounts they did; according to others, Ann lived with a Mrs. Harvy Davis and worked as a seamstress to make money while nursing Walker back to health.

Not long after Ann’s arrival, Walker introduced her to Stanislaus Bilansky, a man more than a decade her senior. He was of Polish descent and had left Wisconsin for the Minnesota Territory in 1842. He worked as a tailor and ran a small bar and grocery store out of his home in Lower Landing, an area of Saint Paul where steamboats traveling on the Mississippi River regularly docked. Locals regarded Stanislaus as rich because he had purchased a claim to land. The extent of his wealth is a fact lost to history, but his perceived affluence may have explained his ability to attract multiple wives. Certainly, his appearance, disposition, and habits did little to recommend him.

Stanislaus’s perceived affluence may have explained his ability to attract multiple wives. Certainly, his appearance, disposition, and habits did little to recommend him.

Short and portly, Stanislaus was described by many who knew him as an alcoholic. His second wife, a woman named Ellen, said he was “given to hard drinking” and often fell sick after “sprees” of imbibing. She also described him as jealous, cruel, and deeply superstitious. A premonition, for instance, had convinced him that he would die in the month of March.

Stanislaus had no children with his first wife, about whom little is known. He and Ellen had three: Benjamin, Rinaldo, and Kate. When, after nine or ten years of marriage, an exasperated Ellen left her malcontent husband, the children stayed with their father in his home-cum-business. When he wed again in September 1858, Ann moved in. Walker came too, occupying a two-room shanty situated on Stanislaus’s property.

If Stanislaus had ever been rich, he was not now; he lived only off his modest earnings. Ann took over the housekeeping and cared for Stanislaus’s young children. Because her husband fell ill shortly after they wed, Ann likely looked after his businesses, too.

Ann befriended Lucinda Kilpatrick, a woman who lived across the road. Lucinda, who was in her twenties, visited often through the worst of Stanislaus’s illness. She noted that Ann was stoic in her grief, never crying or appearing upset. At Stanislaus’s bedside, Lucinda heard Ann ask what should be done with his children—a fair enough question, given that she was not their mother, but odd because it seemed to show that, despite Dr. Berthier’s opinion, Ann thought Stanislaus would soon die. Perhaps she was taking cues from her husband, who was sure he “was not going to live,” according to Lucinda. Or maybe something more sinister was afoot.

Lucinda would later claim that she had not known Stanislaus to have the “blues”—indeed, she had always found him cheerful, a sharp contrast to the inebriated, pessimistic figure others saw. When she sat with him one day while he was ill, Stanislaus told Lucinda that he “had nothing to live for.”

In an attempt to console him, Lucinda told Stanislaus a story about a sick man who allowed only his wife to care for him. Then the wife died suddenly and he recovered. “He married a young girl afterwards,” Lucinda concluded triumphantly. The next day, Stanislaus was dead.


When Ann’s murder trial began on May 23, 1859, Lucinda was the prosecution’s first and most vital witness—the person who had changed her testimony shortly after speaking to the coroner’s jury. She took the stand and recounted a shopping trip that she and Ann had taken together on February 28, which in retrospect roused Lucinda’s mistrust of her friend.

According to Lucinda, she and Ann went uptown to the post office to send some letters and retrieve their mail. They then walked to W.H. Wolff’s drugstore on Third and Wabasha Streets. Ann asked for arsenic to kill rats in her home, but the price was too high for her budget. From there the women visited Day & Jenks, a different drugstore, where Ann purchased a jar of arsenic for ten cents. Ann did not dispute that she had purchased the poison, commonly used to kill pests. Stanislaus himself had requested it, she said, because rats were eating vegetables stored in their root cellar. Lucinda told the court that she had never once seen a rat in the Bilanskys’ home.

The information that most interested the jury—and the readers of next day’s papers—was what Lucinda claimed the two women had talked about during the shopping trip. If Stanislaus died, Ann allegedly said, people would be suspicious of her, so she asked Lucinda to buy the arsenic for her. “Mrs. Bilansky,” Lucinda claimed to have replied, “if I wanted arsenic, I would buy it.” Later, after Stanislaus’s death, Lucinda said that Ann came to her in a panic, begging her to say that she was the one who had purchased the poison. “If they don’t find arsenic in the stomach,” Lucinda recalled saying, “they can do nothing with you.”

In court, Lucinda presented as every bit a lady of high moral virtue. She had been shocked by the strange requests from her neighbor. She shared other details, including the conversations she had had with Stanislaus about death. She said that her husband, Andrew Kilpatrick, had offered to sit with Stanislaus on what would be his last night alive but that Ann had insisted there “was no necessity for it.” Nor had Ann been willing to call for a doctor—the very thing the coroner’s jury would later scold her for. (By some accounts, Lucinda did not share this information during the initial inquest because Ann had hidden menacingly behind a nearby curtain as the interview took place, though this claim was never substantiated.)

After Lucinda stepped down, a young woman named Rosa Scharf took the stand. Ann had hired Rosa, a local girl, as a housekeeper on March 2. Rosa told the packed courtroom that she had witnessed “improper actions” between Ann and Walker. After Stanislaus’s funeral, she saw Ann undressing with the door of her room open while Walker was in the house. Furthermore, Rosa described suspicious glances exchanged between Ann and Walker—“something in the expression of their faces and eyes” that did not “look natural.” Rosa said she asked Ann how she could be so careless about undressing in the house, to which Ann allegedly responded that she was just used to having Walker around.

Rosa recalled that she had heard Stanislaus say that he was jealous of Walker. She doubted Ann’s devotion to her husband, because Ann was not “kind and attentive” during his illness, nor did she behave “as a wife should.” Rosa then recounted an exchange with Ann that had occurred while the two women sat together in the Bilansky home prior to Stanislaus’s death. An old man ambled past the window. “I had better set my cap for him, for he has money,” Ann said, according to Rosa. When Rosa protested that a loveless match would be an unfulfilling one, Ann replied, “You could give him something to sleep himself to death.” Ann then mused about the amount of poison it would take to kill a man.

Later, Rosa claimed, Ann warned her to “be careful” when washing dishes, “for there had been food [on] them” meant for Stanislaus. After the funeral, while riding home together in a carriage, Ann purportedly told Rosa that Stanislaus “must have taken poison.” By that time, the coroner’s inquest had been closed; no one was looking for evidence of poisoning. Yet Rosa remembered Ann talking about the means of her husband’s demise as all but fact.

Neither Rosa nor Lucinda offered any tangible evidence that Ann had committed a crime. They had not seen her slip anything into Stanislaus’s food or drink, nor had they heard her confess to wrongdoing. Suspicion, though, was a mighty cudgel. Implicit in the women’s testimony was a phenomenon that everyone following the trial would have known well, a widespread panic about an unholy trinity: a housewife, ill will, and arsenic.

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3. Beware the Arsenic Assassins

Arsenic, As on the periodic table, is a metalloid found in various minerals and in pure crystalline form. The colorless, odorless white powder widely known as a poison is actually arsenic trioxide, a compound of the element. Its fatal application dates back thousands of years. In 82 B.C., responding to a spate of deaths caused by the ingestion of arsenic and other toxins, Roman ruler Lucius Cornelius Sulla made poisoning, or veneficium, a crime.

Over time, arsenic became known as a woman’s weapon when less extreme measures—the law, money, family power—were not on her side. In the 1600s, there was a thriving, female-run business in Rome and the surrounding region that sold a substance called Aqua Tofana to women who wanted to get out of marriages, particularly abusive ones. The poison, made of arsenic mixed with other substances, was a quick way to eliminate a spouse: A wife had only to put it in her husband’s food. Because the effects of poisoning—cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes—mimicked any number of common illnesses, it was easy enough to get away with murder. One proprietress of the Aqua Tofana enterprise may have assisted in the killing of some 600 people before she was discovered and executed.

One of the first documented cases of arsenic poisoning in England, where between 1750 and 1914 there were more than 200 court cases involving the crime, was Mary Blandy of Oxfordshire. In 1752, she admitted to putting something in her father’s gruel and tea, but claimed she did not know it was poison. Mary was in love with a sea captain by the name of William Henry Cranstoun, a clumsy, smallpox-scarred man whom her father, Francis, did not approve of. Francis had good reason: Cranstoun was already married. Upon her arrest, Mary claimed that Cranstoun had told her to put the substance in her father’s breakfast because it was magic and would change her father’s mind. Cranstoun by then had fled. Mary was hanged.

Arsenic became known as a woman’s weapon when less extreme measures—the law, money, family power—were not on her side.

Many cases likely involved false allegations. In 1815, again in England, a 20-year-old maid named Eliza Fanning cooked dumplings for her employers, Robert and Charlotte Turner. She ate from the same pot they did, and following the meal, all three became ill. After recovering, the Turners accused Eliza of trying to kill them. They maintained that she had eaten less from the pot, so that she too would get sick but not die, and accused her of not tending to them properly during their illness. As for motive, Mrs. Turner said she was sure that Eliza was mad at her because she had recently chastised the young woman for being half-dressed in front of an apprentice. Eliza was found guilty and hanged.

To prove that poisoning allegations were true, scientists developed toxicology tests to identify arsenic. Some were more accurate than others. The best was the work of an English chemist named James Marsh. In 1836, he introduced what would become known as the Marsh test. It involved a U-shaped glass tube, open at both ends and longer on one side. Marsh dropped a small rod into the shorter arm, along with a piece of zinc, and corked it. Into the long end, he poured the suspected arsenic sample and some sulfuric acid. If the sample contained no arsenic, the zinc would bubble and vent pure hydrogen through a valve in the tube. If arsenic was present, the zinc produced a different gas, called arsine.

The test was hailed as an extraordinary development, but it was far from perfect. For one thing, arsine was dangerous if inhaled. More worrying, impure zinc often contained arsenic and could lead to false positives. Marsh argued that there was a simple solution—run the test on the zinc alone to establish its purity—but not all chemists were so fastidious. And there was another problem: A sample containing antimony, a naturally occurring substance sometimes found in the body, could produce the same results as one with arsenic.

While forensic science was still in its infancy, arsenic became as easy to buy as flour or sugar—which is exactly what it looked like. By the 1840s in England, any person with two pennies could buy an ounce and a half of the powder while shopping for tea or milk at the grocery store. Unscrupulous shopkeepers sometimes used arsenic to cut sugar, which was more expensive, while others, either careless or illiterate, mixed up the two substances. In 1858, 20 people died and more than 200 became ill after a candymaker in Yorkshire used arsenic in his confections.

There was demand for arsenic because England had a rat problem, and the poison was the perfect antidote to the disease-carrying rodents. People mixed a bit of it with oatmeal or some other food and left the concoction next to a rathole. Others washed their floors with arsenic-infused water. Still others simply set out a saucer of the powder and waited for the rat carcasses to pile up. Arsenic was also in just about anything manufacturers could think to put it in, because chemically, it gave items a rich green hue. It was used in paint, fabric, cosmetics, soap, candles, wallpaper, candy, artificial flowers, even children’s toys. Believed (wrongly) to cure diseases when administered in small doses, arsenic was also found in tinctures and remedies. One of the most famous was Dr. Fowler’s, a tonic that contained about 1 percent potassium arsenite. The manufacturer claimed that the tonic could cure leprosy and gangrene, among other conditions, but the label also contained a warning that Dr. Fowler’s would “produce abortion” if a pregnant woman took it.

Given the numerous avenues of exposure, most people were probably walking around with some level of arsenic in their system without knowing it. This made toxicology tests for willful poisoning unreliable, but that didn’t stop coroners from performing them. If the results came back positive, law enforcement was quick to assume that there had been foul play—of a sort the British public particularly relished.


Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens in which articles appeared without bylines, once called murder by poisoning “a fiendish sophistication”—and nothing was more terrifying or seductive than the idea of family members killing one another at the dinner table. In 1855, according to author Sandra Hempel in her book The Inheritor’s Powder—arsenic’s Victorian-era nickname—one British paper asked its readers, “Your friends and relations all smile kindly upon you; the meal … looks correct but how can you possibly tell there is not arsenic in the curry?” The people who made the curry—who handled most any food preparation, really—were either wives or hired female help. In an era when women were beginning to demand new rights and fair treatment by men, it was only a modest leap in the popular imagination for women to embrace their Eve-like penchant for betrayal.

Fleet Street tabloids, which exploded in number after Parliament reduced the tax on papers from four pennies to one in 1836, could not get enough of black-widow stories like that of Mary Ann Geering of East Sussex, who decided to slip arsenic into her husband’s food. Richard Geering had inherited 20 pounds, and the couple’s relationship was on the rocks. Mary Ann saw an opportunity. After a weeklong illness, Richard died. Within months, two of Mary Ann’s adult sons had also died following a similar illness. A third son became sick but recovered after leaving Mary Ann’s home. The bodies of her husband and other two sons were exhumed, and toxicologists found arsenic in their stomach lining. Mary Ann confessed to poisoning and was hanged. Then there was Mary Ann Cotton, who over some 13 years poisoned three husbands and as many as 15 children. She collected insurance payments each time a family member passed away. Eventually, she was convicted and executed. Rebecca Smith also killed most of her 11 children with arsenic. Saddled with an alcoholic husband, Rebecca assumed poisoning would be preferable to slowly starving to death. She, too, was executed for her crimes.

These women were guilty, but others convicted through scientific evidence likely were not. Arsenic was everywhere and in everything, and the media claimed that any woman could be a murderess in disguise. When men—because all police were men—investigated cases of suspected poisoning, they looked for gendered motives: a woman mistreated by her employers, cheated on by her husband, or involved in a love triangle. Feeding on the arsenic panic, author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a three-volume best-selling novel called Lucretia, or the Children of the Night, about a stealth poisoner named Lucretia Clavering. Her last name was a reference to a village in Essex where a high-profile arsenic poisoning had occurred.

The stories, both real and imagined, so frightened people that, in 1851, Parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Act. The law required druggists to clearly label arsenic and keep records of who bought it. Though unsuccessful, some lawmakers even pressed their colleagues to bar women from purchasing arsenic altogether. Not that doing so would have stopped the panic’s viral spread: By mid-century, fears of women wielding arsenic had hurdled over the pond.


On November 7, 1849, in eastern North Carolina, Alexander C. Simpson sat down to his dinner at around 1 p.m. At the table were his wife, Ann, a boarder named Samuel G. Smith, and a friend, one Mr. Whitfield. After the meal, Ann Simpson brought out two cups of syllabub for herself and her husband, who consumed his with a silver spoon. Both Smith and Whitfield were Sons of Temperance and did not partake of the creamy dessert drink made with wine or sherry. When Alexander finished, he asked for more; Ann gave him the rest of hers. She then got up to serve coffee, placing a cup on the table that Smith believed was for him. “Mr. Smith,” Ann allegedly corrected, “I said that was Mr. Simpson’s coffee.” Her husband, she explained, “required his coffee sweeter.” Smith was given a different cup.

Alexander became ill that evening and vomited throughout the night. W.P. Mallett, his regular doctor, saw him the next morning and prescribed pills made of calomel powder and opium, along with a dose of morphine. By Thursday evening, Alexander was suffering from severe diarrhea. He died sometime between 8 and 10 p.m.

Mallett was suspicious. After the postmortem, he placed Alexander’s stomach in a jar and brought it to Dr. Benjamin Robinson, who had experience testing gastric fluids for arsenic. Robinson performed two tests and became convinced that Alexander had died of poisoning. But was it intentional?

A coroner’s jury ruled that there was enough evidence to indict Ann for murder. The courts issued a bench warrant, but Ann had already fled to South Carolina. From there she reportedly went to Cuba, where she remained in hiding for months. She then returned to North Carolina for her trial in May 1850, undoubtedly hoping to be exonerated.

The prosecution presented a case based on Robinson’s toxicology reports. “I entertain no doubt,” Robinson said on the stand, “that there was arsenic in his stomach.” When questioned about the possible effects of the calomel prescribed by Mallet, Robinson said “it could not have produced the same results.” However, many doctors at the time disagreed. Made of a mercury compound, calomel caused gastrointestinal problems and other side effects, including bleeding gums and facial tremors. It was so suspect that, in 1825, the Richmond Enquirer published a tongue-in-cheek poem about doctors who prescribed the substance:

Since calomel’s become their boast,

How many patients have they lost,

How many thousands they make ill,

Of poison, with their calomel.

In addition to calomel, the defense pointed out, Alexander had been taking iodine during the six months before he died, to treat a scrofulous disorder. He was supposed to take only a teaspoon per day, but what if he had measured poorly? An excess of iodine could cause stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ann’s attorney also suggested that Alexander might have had cholera, and he questioned the toxicology tests for arsenic, describing them as “uncertain, inconclusive, and fallacious.”

The prosecution mustered several witnesses who detailed Ann’s failings as a wife and as a woman. Rachel Arey, an acquaintance, claimed that Ann had said she’d visited a fortune-teller and learned that Alexander would die in a few months, leaving her free to marry “her first love.” A neighbor of the fortune-teller, who had since died, claimed that she had seen Ann visit “once or twice a day.”

The Simpsons’ boarder, Samuel Smith, claimed that Ann had once asked him about the effects of arsenic. A clerk in a local store testified that he had sold an ounce of the poison to Ann a week before Alexander died. Nancy Register, a seamstress who had lived with the Simpsons for a short period, claimed that Ann once read aloud from a letter Alexander had sent her. Despite professing not to remember much of the letter, which Ann allegedly had burned, Register managed to recite a good deal of it: “I once thought you loved me, but now I have reasons to suspect, that you love another better than me. For the sake of your friends, you may stay in my house, but you must find your own clothes as well as you can. Prepare a bed for me up-stairs tonight. You can no longer be my wife.” Register also testified that Ann had never loved Alexander and had only married him for money.

According to the prosecutor, the “vices of the world” had worked upon Ann, leading her to commit “the most horrid and detestable” of wrongs. The judge chimed in to call it “the darkest in the catalogue of crimes.” Even Ann’s attorney said that murdering a husband was “so monstrous, so revolting, so unnatural, that one is tempted to pronounce its impossibility.” Still, he argued, Ann had not done it. He asked the jury to picture his client with “her fair neck bared, and circled by the hempen cord, her delicate frame enveloped in the felon’s shroud, and the scene closes upon the gallows and the grave.” The lawyer then urged, “Gentlemen, you can let her live.”

The trial lasted until 3 a.m. on a Friday morning, at which time the judge sent the jury directly to deliberate, fearing that a period of rest would provide too many opportunities for outside opinions to taint their views. Three hours later, the jury returned. The verdict was shocking: not guilty.

Ann Simpson left the courtroom a free woman, but she would be remembered by many people in North Carolina and beyond as the woman who got away with murder. Nine years later, when Ann Bilansky went on trial in Minnesota, the prosecution was determined to avoid the same humiliating outcome.

4. Not to Soothe but to Destroy

On May 28, 1859, the fifth day of the trial, the defense team cross-examined William H. Morton, one of the prosecution’s medical experts. According to The Daily Pioneer and Democrat, Morton and two other doctors had conducted a postmortem examination of Stanislaus Bilansky’s stomach and found internal inflammation that indicated possible arsenic poisoning. They then performed the Marsh test, along with a number of other procedures, which Morton said revealed a fatal amount of poison. He testified that the cause of death was arsenic in “sufficient quantity” to have killed poor Stanislaus within half an hour.

Ann’s defense set about explaining the problems with the tests. First, the lawyers cast doubt on Morton’s abilities as a toxicologist by asking him to explain the result of each experiment he had run. Morton said there had been five tests in all, and he admitted that two were known to provide inconsistent results, while another pair had produced no evidence of arsenic. Only the fifth had yielded a positive result that might stand up in court. Morton also admitted that he had not performed any arsenic tests prior to Ann’s case and generally had little experience with chemistry. Morton confessed to using nitric acid instead of sulfuric acid in one test, a mistake that might have affected the results. Lastly, he acknowledged that antimony, sometimes found in the stomach, can produce lab results similar to those of arsenic. As The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported, “Antimony is the most common source of fallacy in Marsh’s test,” and illness caused by arsenic and by antinomy “would be very nearly the same.”

The defense introduced a Dr. Vervais, who criticized Morton’s findings. Even the test that had identified arsenic, Vervais said, could have been flawed if, say, the glass laboratory tube had overheated. Questioning scientific evidence was the defense’s best move, given that forensic toxicology was so new to the public and the courts, particularly in a fledgling state like Minnesota. Still, science on its face could be convincing, and the media played loose with facts. The Duluth News-Tribune, the eponymous paper of record in a town some 150 miles north of Saint Paul, published a story indicating that arsenic was definitively present in Stanislaus’s stomach.

District attorney Isaac Heard, the lead prosecutor, knew that the scientific evidence might not be enough to convict Ann. He told the jury that, while they must be convinced of guilt, the reasons “need not amount to absolute demonstration, such as alone can be obtained by mathematical science.” Heard said the jurors should rely on testimony that was rational and probable—testimony like that of Lucinda Kilpatrick and Rosa Scharf. What did their statements reveal about the sort of woman Ann really was? On the one hand, men were supposed to be stronger, smarter, and more capable than their wives. But even the best of them could be felled if they trusted wily, unscrupulous, or deranged women.

The press tackled this angle with vigor. One reporter argued that the Bilansky case was a “tragedy, which has been enacted all the world over, wherever a woman, bad enough to be a harlot and bold enough to be a murderer, has wished to get rid of a husband whom she disliked, for a paramour whom she preferred.” Because Ann never testified in her defense, her voice was all but absent from news stories. In its place, the press projected a caricature. On the second day of the trial, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat described Ann as “composed and self-possessed,” an indication that she did “not show a deep concern in the proceedings.” When Lucinda testified, the paper claimed, Ann displayed “feelings of enmity … frequently smiling behind her handkerchief, as if intent on bringing scandalous information to light.” Ann demonstrated “more concern and anxiety” when Rosa took the stand, suggesting that the forthcoming testimony would reveal something damning—something newspaper readers ought to pay close attention to. Rosa went on to claim that Ann and Walker were lovers.

The case was a “tragedy, which has been enacted all the world over, wherever a woman, bad enough to be a harlot and bold enough to be a murderer, has wished to get rid of a husband whom she disliked, for a paramour whom she preferred.”

The Daily Pioneer and Democrat also described Ann’s defense as “slight.” In fact it was anything but. Multiple witnesses testified that Stanislaus was depressive by nature and at times even suicidal. Orrin Branch, a family friend, testified that once, when Stanislaus did not come to an appointment, Branch assumed that he had killed himself because he was “trouble-prone.” If Stanislaus did die from ingesting arsenic, might he have taken it himself? Stanislaus’s ex-wife Ellen testified to his disagreeable nature. Dr. Berthier spoke of his drinking habit and persistent stomach problems. A neighbor, G. B. Galinksa, said that Stanislaus had talked about financial problems, including $200 in debt on which he was paying 36 percent interest.

One of the Bilansky children, ten-year-old Benjamin, testified that, contrary to what Lucinda had said, the family did have rats in their home. Three other witnesses corroborated his statement. As for Ann’s alleged affair with her nephew, everyone who lived in the house swore they had never seen Ann in Walker’s rooms. If she undressed while Walker was in the main house, the two were well separated by a wall.

The defense tried to pursue a line of argument undercutting Lucinda’s testimony. The lawyers had obtained evidence that Lucinda may have had her own incriminating secrets: romantic letters and gifts that she had sent to Walker. Was she jealous of Ann’s close bond with her nephew? Did Ann’s disapproval stand in the way of Lucinda pursuing an affair with the young man? Had Lucinda sensed an opportunity with Stanislaus’s death to get Ann out of her way? And surely it was odd that Rosa had boarded with Lucinda and her husband during the trial, providing the perfect opportunity for the two women to square their stories.

For unclear reasons, the judge ruled the content of the letters from Lucinda to Walker inadmissible, but Ann’s defense still peppered the witness with questions about her motivations for sending them. In response, Lucinda stonewalled. She refused to talk about her past, including relationships prior to her marriage. She also would not answer questions about a ring and breast pin that she allegedly had given to Walker.

“Did you in the months of December, January, and February send letters or other messages of love and affection to Mr. Walker?” a defense attorney asked.

Lucinda replied, “I decline answering.”

“When did your friendly acquaintance with Mr. Walker commence?”

“I am not prepared to answer this question.”

Frustrated, perhaps, by the lack of forthcoming information, a reporter for The Daily Pioneer and Democrat skipped printing further details about the exchange. He wrote instead, “Very much time was consumed in arguing technicalities and the admissibility and regularity of questions.”

By the time Walker took the stand, he faced no charges in the case; the police had dropped them for lack of evidence. Walker defended his aunt, swearing that he and Ann were not having an affair. He claimed that he did not have a romantic relationship with Lucinda either, but noted that they had fallen out as friends in the recent past. (Lucinda said she “couldn’t tell the time when the coldness commenced.” ) Walker cast doubt on Lucinda’s indictment of Ann for not calling her husband a doctor the night he died, testifying that Stanislaus himself stubbornly refused treatment because he feared being overcharged.

The idea, as an author writing about Ann’s case a century later would put it, that Walker might have “agitated the bosoms of at least two women involved in the trial” certainly made for good newspaper copy. Reporters, however, skimmed over the matter and all but dismissed Walker’s testimony. They presented Lucinda as an obedient, dependable woman, the kind that society needed, in contrast to Ann, who would stop at nothing to have “more unrestrained intercourse.”

The prosecution closed its case by reminding the jury that Ann had committed murder “coolly” and with the “subtle instrument” of arsenic. She had taken advantage of her husband’s trust and doctored his “food and drink by her hands not to soothe and save but to destroy.” Heard, the prosecutor, told the jurors—all of them men, and most of them likely married—that “no more atrocious crime can be committed.”

After five hours of deliberation, the jury returned to the courtroom at around 5:30 p.m. on June 3, 1859. It had reached a verdict: Ann was guilty of first-degree murder.

5. The Bird Had Flown

The Daily Pioneer and Democrat later mused that the jury was unsympathetic because Ann “seemed to be utterly devoid of all natural female modesty, and even of common decency.” That word—decency—shaped what happened next, as Minnesota authorities and Saint Paul society debated what to do with their very own murderess: lock her away for life or let her hang.

Minnesota turned one year old the same month as Ann’s trial, and the state was eager to demonstrate to its East Coast brethren that it was no longer merely a northern outpost of the Wild West. In August 1859, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat ran a front-page article called “What Is Said of Us,” regaling readers with visiting reporters’ impressions of the state. Cosmopolitan correspondents, Minnesotans were told, “uniformly express their admiration of the scenery and great fertility, and astonishment at the rapid progress we have made.” The article relayed the rhapsodies of one New York reporter too overwhelmed to “convey the impression which the magnificent country made” on him.

Executing a woman could tarnish the civilized veneer that Minnesota was so diligently polishing. Death-penalty abolitionists throughout America had long argued that killing a woman was below the dignity of the state; even many proponents of the punishment agreed. In the mid-1800s, The New York Times began editorializing against hanging women because it was not “proper.” In practice, the penalty was rare. During the 19th century, just 49 women were executed in America, most after being convicted of killing their husbands. That figure was less than the number of executions nationwide in most years—63 in 1859, for instance.

The St. Cloud Democrat, a Minnesota newspaper, echoed the decency argument in an editorial opposing a sentence of execution for Ann. State-sanctioned murder was no different than blood vengeance, the paper argued, so if the government decided to put its most famous prisoner to death, “the Haiwain [sic] islands … would be a suitable place”—a racist dig at the Pacific kingdom. Justice Charles E. Flandrau of the Minnesota Supreme Court opposed execution, too. “It rather shocks my private sense of humanity,” Flandrau wrote in a letter to the governor, “inflicting the extreme penalty on a woman.” But plenty of people disagreed. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported on the “eagerness and persistency” of women in Saint Paul who wanted to watch Ann hang. Proponents believed her execution could serve as a lesson to other wives tempted to rid themselves of their husbands.

While the debate unfurled, Ann held out hope, however small, that the state would overturn her conviction, rendering the prison-or-death question moot. Through the summer of 1859, she sat in a Saint Paul jail cell awaiting news of an appeal her lawyers had filed. On the afternoon of July 25, Walker visited Ann to deliver bad news: The state Supreme Court had denied her petition, which meant that she had exhausted her options to prove her innocence. A judge would sentence her before the end of the year.

Walker stayed with Ann for two hours, comforting her. After he left, Ann paced the jail’s halls until about 8 p.m., which was when the guard, a man named Smith, went to fetch the keys to return the prisoner to her cell. Ann seized the moment. She ran down a set of stairs into the basement and pushed herself through a small, only partially barred window. Her feet touched the ground, and Ann ran.


When Smith realized Ann was not in the hall where he had left her, he assumed she had gone to her cell and was waiting for him there. She was not, so Smith searched the rest of the jail. Only after going downstairs to the basement and seeing the window did he conclude, as The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported, “that the bird had flown.”

Smith sounded the alarm, and the police immediately began a search throughout Saint Paul. They placed roadblocks at the edges of town and stopped passing carriages. The sheriff’s office made handbills that proclaimed in bold type, “ESCAPE OF A MURDERESS.” A $500 reward was promised to anyone who captured her.

Smith came under suspicion for being part of the escape plot. He claimed to have left Ann alone for only one or two minutes, but The Daily Pioneer and Democrat argued that “it requires too great of a stretch of credulity to suppose that Mrs. Bilansky escaped through the carelessness of the jailor—unless indeed the jailor was paid for his carelessness.” (Either that or Smith was “an idiot.” ) The New York Evening Post, meanwhile, reported “criminal carelessness, if not still more criminal corruption, on the part of the jailer.” Implied in the reporting was the notion that Ann could not have escaped by her own wits.

For nearly a week, Ann was on the lam. Her flight was the talk of Saint Paul. Police and citizens looked high and low for her, not because she posed any danger but because her escape surely signaled the guilt her lawyers had so vehemently denied. Ann had to be caught and brought to justice.

On August 1, she was spotted on a road about two miles outside Saint Paul, headed toward the town of St. Anthony. Ann was dressed in men’s clothes—a disguise, presumably—and accompanied by Walker. Upon their arrest, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported that Ann “manifested considerable emotion,” while “Walker was as cool as usual.” The circumstances only solidified public perception that their relationship was unseemly.

During questioning, it emerged that Ann initially had hidden near Como Lake, a 70-acre body of water in greater Saint Paul. She had convinced a boy from a nearby farm to bring her food and send word to Walker about her whereabouts. Walker then provided her with men’s clothing and found a barn—owned by George Lumsden, a man who had been in jail with Ann and befriended her—where she could conceal herself. When they left Saint Paul, Walker and Ann had decided to walk west after discerning that search parties were looking for her to the east.

Walker spent a month in jail but was not indicted for aiding Ann. He was released on September 13. Ann, meanwhile, was kept under close watch by the sheriff. Livid that she had made a fool of his department, he reportedly treated Ann with great cruelty.


On Friday, December 2, 1859, Ann entered the Ramsey County courthouse for her long-awaited sentencing. Accompanying her was a new defense attorney, Willis Gorman, a former governor of the Minnesota Territory. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat wrote that Ann walked with a “firm step” but used a handkerchief to cover her face. The judge asked if she would like to make a statement to the court. Ann rose to speak, one of the only times she had been allowed to defend herself on the record.

“If I die in this case, I die an innocent woman,” she declared. “I don’t think I have had a fair and just trial. You can proceed.”

According to a journalist, the judge told Ann that she would receive “no pardon” and that “it was useless for her to attempt to avert her doom,” which was “as certain as her crime had been heinous.” He sentenced her to one month in solitary confinement and then to be “hung by the neck until you are dead.” Ann began to cry. Unfazed, the judge continued: “May God, in his infinite compassion, have mercy upon your soul.”

6. The Last Days of a Pettifogger

Minnesotans reveled in having a wicked celebrity. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat mused that “probably no jail ever contained a criminal, either male or female, under imprisonment for such a crime, who exhibited such a complete want of decency and propriety.” When meeting with visitors, Ann reportedly discussed the trial in minute detail, but the paper said she could not be trusted to tell the truth, being a “complete pettifogger.” People around Saint Paul began jokingly accusing anyone who told a lie of having “been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, many locals remained uncomfortable with the idea of Ann, or any woman, dying at the hands of the state. A contingent dubbed “the friends of Mrs. Bilansky” by the press implored the governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, a Democrat, to commute her sentence prior to leaving office at the end of 1859. Instead, Sibley passed the decision off to his successor, a Republican named Alexander Ramsey.

Lessening Ann’s sentence ran contrary to the new governor’s interests for three reasons. First, his brother had sat on the jury that convicted her. Second, both of Ann’s defense attorneys were Ramsey’s political enemies. Third, the governor was concerned that there would be an outbreak of violent crime if citizens believed the justice system was weak in the face of a wretched menace. Ann wrote a four-page letter to Ramsey imploring him to reconsider her sentence and “throw around me the bulwark of [the law’s] protection.” She said, “[I have] waited patiently to have an opportunity to satisfy the public mind of innocence of the crime on which I have been imperfectly and unfairly tried.” Ramsey was unmoved. He recorded his exasperation with Ann’s dedicated supporters in his journal, claiming “much annoyance on the part of the persons asking her commutation.”

Ann spent her days in religious study, showing what one reporter described as “an earnest desire to make preparation for the great change that awaited her.” She mingled with other prisoners, speaking frankly about her fate. She reportedly told one inmate that, on the day of execution, “Old Gabriel will blow his trump for me—I wish he would blow it before that time and knock Ramsey County jail higher than a kite.” When she was not angry, Ann could be forgiving. “Mrs. Kilpatrick made a great many false statements,” Ann once said of Lucinda. “I always believed that her husband forced her to do so.”

People around Saint Paul began jokingly accusing someone who told a lie of having “been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

The twists in Ann’s case were not done yet: On January 5, 1860, Rosa Scharf died of a drug overdose. The night prior to her death, Rosa reportedly had visited the Kilpatricks to discuss Ann’s fate. She then returned to the family for whom she had worked as a housekeeper since Ann’s trial. Rosa took a large amount of laudanum and never woke up.

Her death may have been an accident, as laudanum was widely used for medical reasons. If it was suicide, however, that raised a question: Why did Rosa want to die? Could it have been because she felt guilty about giving damning testimony about Ann? Was it possible that she had lied under oath? Lucinda might have had an answer, even if it was as simple as denying that Rosa’s death had anything to do with Ann. To the press, however, she was silent on the matter.

Whatever doubts Rosa’s death sowed, three weeks later, on January 25, Ramsey signed the order of execution. The date of Ann’s hanging was set for March 23, some time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Until then, the forces opposed to it vowed to continue their fight.

On March 5, the Minnesota state legislature passed a bill commuting Ann’s sentence to life in prison. That would serve the dual purpose, lawmakers argued, of punishing her transgressions and showing Minnesota to be as refined as any other state and as paternal as a gentleman toward even the most wayward women. Three days later, in what The Daily Pioneer and Democrat described as a “manly veto,” Ramsey overturned the bill. As a reporter relayed, Ramsey believed the legislation was unconstitutional because it effectively took away his sole power to pardon the convicted. He wanted to show the world that Minnesota had no “contempt for the law.”

Two weeks later, on March 22, the day before the scheduled execution, the man who had prosecuted Ann stepped forward to demand mercy. District attorney Isaac Heard wrote a letter to Ramsey. Whether motivated by his conscience or an allegiance to the letter of the law, Heard said that Ann’s trial had been been marred by at least two problems. First, the jury had been allowed a three-day weekend in the midst of the proceedings, during which they had almost certainly heard talk of the trial, including details about the case printed in the papers but not presented in court. Second, Heard pointed out that Ann’s first defense attorney, a Yale graduate named John Brisbin, had fallen ill during the trial and had not been able to present a robust exculpatory case.

That evening, in her cell, Ann once more awaited news from Ramsey’s office. She was 40 years old. Would she make it to 41? Would Heard’s letter be her deliverance? In the months that she had spent behind bars, Ann had been baptized and confirmed a Catholic. Now she prayed for salvation.


At 3 a.m., Ann fell asleep on her cot. She awoke a few hours later to stillness: There had been no word from the governor. A priest, Father Caillet, eventually came to sit with her, along with some nuns and other devout Saint Paul ladies who could not countenance the barbarity of executing a woman. Outside, people were streaming into the main public square to witness Ann’s death.

Ann calmly ate a small breakfast at 8 a.m. She offered a gift to one of the jailers, a Mr. Hoffman, who had been kind to her during her incarceration. It was a book entitled The Most Important Tenets of the Catholic Church Explained. Inside was tucked a letter in which Ann urged Hoffman to seek God so that he might “prepare an entrance in that blessed abode.” One by one, Ann said goodbye to her fellow prisoners, speaking through her tears. She met with a few visitors to bid farewell. Walker was not among them; he had left Saint Paul for good.

At 10:15 a.m., Ann emerged from her cell dressed in a long black robe and brown veil. She stood arm-in-arm with Caillet on one side and Hoffman on the other. Before they exited the jail, Bilansky leaned into Hoffman and made a request. “Don’t let a crowd see me,” she pleaded. “I am willing to meet my God, but I don’t want to have a crowd see me die.”

There was nothing Hoffman could do to honor her wish. The gallows were in a small enclosure outside the jail. About 100 people had crammed into the space. Among them were a few dozen women, some with babies in their arms, which prompted the The Daily Pioneer and Democrat to write, “What could have induced these women to voluntarily witness a spectacle so harrowing to the feelings of even the ‘sterner men,’ we cannot imagine.” Outside the enclosure, a crowd of 2,000 people also hoped for a glimpse of the murderess. They stood on a large pile of stones in the square, gaining a view of the gallows’ posts. Others climbed onto rooftops, wagons, or carriages.

Members of the Pioneer Guard, a volunteer state militia, dressed in heavy coats and caps stood sentinel with guns at the ready to keep the crowd at bay. But people never grew disorderly, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported. They may have been there to witness theater, but they respected the solemnity of the show. A woman was about to die. It was clear that no answer would come from the governor. Time and hope had run out.

Ann walked to the gallows. She stood atop the platform before the sea of onlookers and delivered a short speech. “I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice,” she said. “I die for the good of my soul and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice—but I will get justice in heaven.”

Ann requested that a traditional black hood be pulled over her face. She asked, too, that the noose be placed carefully so that her neck would break and she would not die by suffocation. Hoffman slung the rope around her like a collar and tightened it. Ann asked aloud for Jesus Christ to save her soul. “She was not defiant or stoical; neither did she shed a tear,” the Cleveland Morning Leader reported.

She stepped off the platform.

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7. The Legend of Ann Bilansky

Ann’s lifeless body dangled in the air, swaying, for 20 minutes. The crowd scarcely made a sound, save murmured prayers. Then, just as quietly, it dispersed. The somber show was over. Minnesota had carried out what is now believed to be its first legal execution as a U.S. state. It was the only one that would ever involve a woman: Minnesota banned the death penalty in 1911.

The public and press were not done with Ann yet, however. A year after her hanging, The New York Times published a brief article suggesting that, in fact, she may have killed more than one man. Recall Ann Simpson, the woman acquitted of poisoning her husband with arsenic in North Carolina in 1850. The paper pointed out that the women had the same first name and that both hailed from Fayetteville, a town of fewer than 5,000 people. No one—at least among the sources the Times spoke to for its article—knew much about what had happened to Ann Simpson after her trial. Likewise, Ann Bilansky’s life before she came to Saint Paul was an empty box. Was this a coincidence? Or had Ann Simpson been found innocent in error, only to make her way north, change her name and backstory, and murder another husband?

Seemingly no attempt was made to contact whatever remaining family Ann Bilansky had in North Carolina. Still, the Times said it “tend[ed] to the belief” that the two women were “the same person.” Other papers agreed. The Milwaukee Sentinel ran an article with the headline “The Murderess of Two Husbands.” In death, Ann Bilansky was becoming even more infamous.

Had Ann Simpson been found innocent in error, only to make her way north, change her name and backstory, and murder another husband?

There is no hard evidence that the women were one in the same. The press in North Carolina described Ann Simpson as petite, with dark eyes and a small nose—a beauty—not tall and gawky like Ann Bilansky. Based on newspaper accounts and trial transcripts, historical researchers believe that Ann Bilansky’s first husband was a Mr. Wright who died in a rail accident, as she had claimed, though neither their marriage license nor his death certificate seems to be available today. As for Ann Simpson, after inheriting her deceased husband’s sizable estate, she married again: On April 17, 1852, in Charleston, South Carolina, she said I do to Charles Young. What happened to her after that is not wholly clear, but according to at least one account, the Youngs lived in the Low Country for some time, and upon her death, Ann was buried in Fayetteville.

The more likely explanation for the media’s conjecture is that they were following a script written over the course of the arsenic panic. Both Anns—in possession of one of the most common names in the English-speaking world—were rumored to be married to men they did not love and to be sexually involved with others. Both of their husbands died after exhibiting symptoms of poisoning. When they combined those narrative elements with the women’s shared connection to Fayetteville, the media had a truly sensational story: A wife worse than any you can imagine. A traveling threat. A serial arsenic assassin.

Other women were charged with arsenic poisoning in America before the heyday of the panic passed. Mary Hartung of Albany, New York, served five years in prison for the crime, though she claimed her lover was the one who had poisoned her husband. Sarah Jane Whiteling of Philadelphia was hanged in 1889, after being convicted of killing her husband and children. Whether they were guilty or innocent, women’s cases were often riddled with ugly misogyny, flawed toxicology, and salacious press coverage—all of it familiar.

In no small part, bias and errors derived from a culture-wide fear of gender deviance. In the 1800s, women were incrementally gaining power and choosing their own destinies. What if they went so far as to kill men who stood in their way? Just as much as the state needed to punish murder, so too did it have to enforce proper womanhood in a rapidly changing social order. Science, journalism, and law, still the dominions of men, were tools for catching bad women and holding them accountable.

Was Ann Bilansky guilty? Most likely not. At the very least, she did not receive a fair trial. She was, however, transgressive in her own way. She did not embody the feminine ideal. She had no children of her own, and she liked to talk, perhaps too much for men’s taste. She traveled alone across America. Her only close relative was a young, single man. That she was not a high-society gentlewoman but a working wife surely did her no favors in the public eye.

In her final days, Ann told reporters that she had suffered enough “for all the wrongs I have ever done in my life.” None of those wrongs, it seems, was greater than being a Victorian woman with a dead husband on her hands.

A Note on Sourcing

A number of historians have written about Ann Bilansky’s case. Matthew Cecil’s essay “Justice in Heaven: The Trial of Ann Bilansky,” published in Minnesota History (Winter 1997–98), was particularly helpful as a starting point. I followed Cecil’s lead to the archive of 1859–60 Daily Pioneer and Democrat articles, all of which were generously loaned to me on microfilm from the Minnesota Historical Society.

A number of books included helpful chapters on Stanislaus and Ann Bilansky. Most notable are Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, by John D. Bessler (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); “The Penalty Is Death”: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions, by Marlin Shipman (University of Missouri Press, 2002); Murder in Minnesota: A Collection of True Cases, by Walter N. Trenerry (Minnesota Historical Society, 1962); Women and Capital Punishment in America, 1840–1899: Death Sentences and Executions in the United States and Canada, by Kerry Segrave (McFarland and Company, 2008); and A History of the City of Saint Paul to 1875, by J. Fletcher Williams (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1983).

John D. Bessler’s article “The ‘Midnight Assassination Law’ and Minnesota’s Anti-Death Penalty Movement, 1849–1911,” published in the William Mitchell Law Review (1996), provided vital information about Minnesota’s history with execution. “Gall, Gallantry, and the Gallows: Capital Punishment and the Social Construction of Gender, 1840–1920,” by Annulla Linders and Alana Van Gundy-Yoder, published in Gender and Society (2008), did the same for details about women and the death penalty.

Arsenic has an insidious and rollicking history. Sandra Hempel’s book The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science (W. W. Norton and Company, 2013) is a treasure trove of fascinating facts and lore, along with ghastly stories about the arsenic panic. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill generously lent me a delicate copy of Ann K. Simpson’s trial transcripts, printed and bound between dusty covers. Author and researcher Karen Cecil Smith provided additional information about Simpson’s life and death.

Lastly, two individuals were invaluable to my research. Roxanne Derda, circulation manager at Westminster College’s Giovale Library, managed an onslaught of interlibrary loan requests, listened to me talk about arsenic for many months, and helped me sort through archived materials. Chris Dasanjh, librarian and head of collections and access at Giovale Library, provided the Minnesota Supreme Court opinions on the Bilansky case.

Blood Cries Out

Blood Cries Out

On a Missouri farm, two families worked the land side by side, until a murder shattered their American dream.

By Sean Patrick Cooper

The Atavist Magazine, No. 85


Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist and essayist. His work has appeared in The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Baffler, Tablet, and other publications. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel Moattar
Illustrator: Dola Sun

Published in November 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Part I


1990

In Chillicothe, Missouri, a farmer knew what kind of year he’d had by early November. The grueling harvest season, when combines ran day and night swallowing up crops and soil turned men’s hands the color of old pennies, was finally over. Farmers tallied their corn, wheat, and soybean yields at the grain elevator. If the numbers were high, children would find stacks of presents under the Christmas tree and farmworkers would pocket bank envelopes fat with cash bonuses. If the numbers were low, the holidays would be spare for many of the town’s 9,000 residents.

After the harvest, whether good or bad, there was always a holiday parade. In mid-November, farmers washed the grime from their tractors and applied fresh coats of wax, preparing the machines to pull holiday floats down Washington Street, Chillicothe’s main drag. Along the ten-block route, people huddled on sidewalks and bundled up in lawn chairs, drinking hot cider that shook in cups as the heavy bass drums of the high school marching band walloped past. The crowd waved gloved hands at homecoming kings and beauty queens beaming from the backseats of pristine antique convertibles. A man dressed as Santa Claus glided by atop a fire truck, while cheerleaders tossed candy to children.

The week of the holiday parade in 1990 started out well for farmers Lyndel Robertson and Claude Woodworth. The harvest had been robust, a relief to the former high school classmates and longtime business partners, who co-owned a few thousand acres. Their families lived in ranch houses built facing each other across Highway 190, a narrow country road snaking west and then north of Chillicothe. Life followed a familiar routine: farmwork, sports practices, piano lessons, home-cooked meals, church on Sundays. At night the inky sky absorbed the glow of lamplight from the families’ living rooms, situated 300 yards apart. The Woodworths’ seven children and the Robertsons’ five had grown up playing together on that stretch of earth, running around the thin trunks of young pine trees.

On the night of Tuesday, November 13, 1990, Lyndel and his 11-year-old son, Scott, lounged in the living room watching John Candy flip giant pancakes with a snow shovel in the movie Uncle Buck. Rhonda, the Robertsons’ 15-year-old daughter, arrived home around 9:30, after eating dinner at her boyfriend’s house. When the film ended, Rhonda and Scott, along with their sisters Renee, 13, and Roxanne, 8, went to bed. Lyndel and his wife, Cathy, stayed up to watch the news. They were in their early forties and had been together for more than two decades, since meeting as teenagers at a picnic. Lyndel was slope shouldered and shorter than Cathy, and he had a pronounced limp from a severe case of childhood polio. Cathy had green eyes that softened around the edges when she laughed. She was a stay-at-home mom who liked to keep her hands busy: She fashioned Easter baskets in spring and cultivated strawberries in the backyard every summer. That night, Cathy had made progress on a 4-H craft project at the dining room table.

When the news ended, the Robertsons went to their room. They made love before falling asleep. They didn’t hear someone stealing through the house just before midnight.

That person left the floor safe in Lyndel’s office, where he kept bricks of cash, and Goldie, the family dog, undisturbed. They approached the door of Cathy and Lyndel’s bedroom and pushed it open. They raised a .22-caliber weapon and fired six shots. Cathy was struck twice, in the skull and in the chest. Lyndel was hit by the other four bullets. One ripped through his cheek and shattered his teeth. Another lodged near his liver.

No one else in the house heard the gun or the shooter fleeing. Scott was roused from sleep by the sound of his father groaning. He walked across the hall to his parents’ room and flicked on the light. The glare revealed Lyndel, naked and struggling to hold himself up against a wall beside his bed. His arms and torso left streaks of blood wherever they touched. Fragments of teeth were scattered on the bed.

With his mangled mouth, Lyndel managed to tell Scott to wake up his mother. The stunned boy did as he was told, walking to where Cathy lay in blood-soaked sheets. Scott repeatedly asked his mother to get up, louder and louder each time, until he was yelling. She didn’t move. Scott’s cries woke Roxanne, who appeared in the hallway outside the open bedroom door. “Go get Rhonda!” Scott said through tears, and Roxanne ran to her sister’s room in the basement. “Something happened to Mom and Dad!” she screamed, banging on the door.

The girls rushed to their parents’ room, where Scott had already helped his father into a pair of underwear. Their younger sisters watched as Rhonda and Scott maneuvered Lyndel down to the floor, resting his head on a pillow so he wouldn’t choke on the blood streaming from his mouth. Rhonda then corralled her siblings into the living room; their bare feet left bloody tracks on the soft carpet. Rhonda picked up the white phone beside the couch and called her boyfriend’s house and 911. When he arrived at the scene, Brian Alexander, her boyfriend, called the Woodworths.

The family across the road was asleep when ringing cut through their dark, still house. The Woodworth kids were spread among various rooms and the basement, where the eldest, 16-year-old Mark, had his own space. Claude’s wife, Jackie, groggily lifted the phone’s handset. She heard Brian Alexander say there was an emergency. “I’ll be right over,” Jackie said, now alert. She told her husband where she was going. Claude later recalled thinking that maybe one of the Robertson kids had appendicitis.

To avoid the late-autumn chill and get to her neighbors’ as quickly as possible, Jackie slid behind the wheel of her family’s red Chevrolet truck. As she was heading up her driveway, she spotted the lights of emergency vehicles flashing on Highway 190. After arriving at the Robertsons’ and learning what had happened, she turned the truck around, sending its headlights flashing across her house’s windows. By the time she parked, Claude was in the doorway.

“Something terrible happened,” Jackie said, tears filling her eyes. “You’ve got to go over there.”

When Claude arrived at the Robertsons’ house around 12:30 a.m., paramedics and police were rushing around the scene. He stepped through the front doorway, across a threshold he’d passed hundreds of times before, and was told about the shooting. The children were waiting for investigators to swab their parents’ blood, drying on the young Robertsons’ skin and nightclothes, for evidence. Lyndel, miraculously, would survive. He would be airlifted to a medical center in nearby Kansas City for surgery to remove bullet fragments from his sinuses and jawbone. He wouldn’t return home for several weeks, which meant that he’d miss the somber event scheduled for the same day as the holiday parade: his wife’s funeral.

Word of Cathy’s killing sent a jolt through the community. Violent crime was uncommon in Chillicothe, but by sheer coincidence the town was already reeling from a series of murders perpetrated by an elderly couple. Not two weeks before the Robertson shooting, Faye Copeland had been convicted in a Chillicothe courtroom of helping her husband, who was awaiting his own trial, kill several itinerant farmworkers. On the morning of November 14, in coffee shops and hair salons along Washington Street, people were incredulous. First a farmer’s wife was party to murder, now another one had been shot dead in her bed. This wasn’t the stuff of a quiet, God-fearing town.

At Terry Klein’s maintenance garage, Claude talked about the crime with other farmers and their hands, perched on a smattering of stools. Among the men was Chris Ruoff, a sturdily built 25-year-old with a black mustache and a touch of baby fat lingering in his face. Ruoff didn’t work on the Woodworth-Robertson farm, but his crew shared a radio frequency broadcast from a small tower near Lyndel’s house; workers used it during harvest season to call for backup on walkie-talkies. Ruoff told the men that he’d driven past the Robertsons’ not long before the shooting, on the way home from dropping off his girlfriend after eating dinner at Golden Corral. From Highway 190, he’d seen a car in the Robertsons’ driveway that looked like a Ford Bronco or a truck with a camper attached. It was near the front door, where visitors usually parked. Given the late hour, Ruoff thought that the car belonged to one of the daughter’s boyfriends, probably Brian Alexander, who had a Bronco. At the garage, however, Ruoff reconsidered his assumption.

“Now that I think about it,” he said, “that couldn’t have been that Alexander boy’s truck, because didn’t he get into a wreck in that Bronco—wasn’t that him last month?” The men agreed, recalling that Rhonda had been in the accident and had worn a neck brace during her recovery. So whose car had been in the driveway?

Later that day, Ruoff walked into the squat Livingston County sheriff’s office in downtown Chillicothe, where he told the deputy on duty about the car. The department informed the Missouri Major Case Squad, which mobilizes law-enforcement agencies in proximity to a serious crime, and it connected the tip to a suspect: teenager Brandon Hagan, whose family had a white Ford truck with a camper. Brandon was the boyfriend of the Robertsons’ eldest daughter, 20-year-old Rochelle.

Read Chris Ruoff’s statement. 
Read Chris Ruoff’s statement. 

Once crowned the prettiest girl at the Livingston County fair, Rochelle had slender hips and long hair, with bangs she liked to tease to a crisp high above her forehead. She often dated boys her mother didn’t approve of. Brandon, Rochelle’s latest beau, was a competitive wrestler four years younger than she was, and he had a violent temper. He’d given her a black eye at least once and threatened her on several other occasions. Rochelle had ignored Cathy’s concerns about Brandon, insisting during screaming matches with her mother that she was in love, often punctuating the point with a slammed bedroom door. Now away at college in St. Joseph, about 75 miles west of Chillicothe, on the Kansas state line, Rochelle lived with a roommate and worked at a clothing store called the Brass Buckle. She came home frequently, however, and she was still seeing Brandon.

Lyndel himself accused Brandon of being the shooter. When he awoke at the hospital, Lyndel told doctors and police that he was “almost 100 percent sure” the 16-year-old had committed the crime because Brandon was a “psycho” whom the Robertsons had wanted Rochelle to stop dating. Brandon, however, had an alibi. His family had recently moved 100 miles southwest of Chillicothe, to Independence, Missouri, closer to a job site where his stepfather operated a crane. When investigators interviewed them, Brandon’s mother and sister said that he was home the night of the shooting. As for the truck, Brandon’s mother claimed that he wasn’t allowed to drive it.

Investigators concluded in a report, “No information has been developed which can put him anywhere but home that night.” Eventually, Lyndel stopped pointing a finger at Brandon. Rhonda, who became the family’s de facto spokesperson, would later explain, “We thought it was Brandon just because that’s who we thought could do it.”

Law enforcement considered a few other individuals—men with personal or professional beefs with Lyndel, for instance—but no evidence stuck. The Robertsons didn’t give up hope that a perpetrator would surface. Nothing in the house had gone missing the night of the shooting, which indicated that robbery wasn’t the intruder’s motive. Most likely whoever it was had simply wanted the Robertsons dead. Lyndel began to wonder if it was someone he and Cathy had trusted intimately, someone who lived close enough to cross Highway 190, fire a weapon six times, and get back home without anyone noticing.

In early 1991, Lyndel told some farmhands that Claude might have been involved. Because they were in business together, the two men had taken out a $100,000 life-insurance policy on each other; maybe, Lyndel speculated, Claude had decided to collect. Claude denied wrongdoing, and he passed a polygraph test. Yet there was no saving the bond between the two men’s families from Lyndel’s chilling suspicion, which to many people in Chillicothe seemed to come out of the blue. The farming partnership, sealed with a handshake 17 years prior, dissolved in the spring of 1991. A lawsuit ensued. Lyndel kept a portion of the land but sold his house and moved his children closer to town.

For the next two years, police made no arrests in Cathy’s murder, leaving Chillicothe in a state of perpetual unease. Eventually, rumors and mistrust engulfed the town, pitting friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. The narrative of the killing and the ensuing investigation challenged the town’s very idea of itself. In the middle of it all, a culprit emerged and paid the price for Cathy’s murder.


2008

The Law Offices of Michael R. Bilbrey, a 15-person firm just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, were generic in every sense of the word. The attorneys took on workplace-injury cases, specializing in claims of asbestos poisoning, while a squad of administrators handled paperwork and court filings. They operated out of a nondescript brick building with frosted glass doors and dark-wood accents in a suburban office park. Every day was a race for billable hours.

When Robert “Bob” Ramsey arrived at Bilbrey’s in 2008, he didn’t quite fit into the culture. He was a defense attorney and a journeyman who’d roamed around St. Louis for two decades, working at firms large and small and even trying his hand at a private practice. The constant movement was a product of Ramsey’s desire for independence and his tendency to abruptly leave a firm as soon as he learned of any unsavory legal behavior. He’d come to Bilbrey’s as something of a favor to a friend, who’d departed the office to accept a seat as a circuit judge. Ramsey took over a slate of complex cases with potentially lucrative payouts.

Yet big-ticket litigation wasn’t Ramsey’s favorite part of his job. He had a soft spot for underdogs and what he sometimes referred to as ten-foot-pole cases: ones that seemed so unwinnable, no other lawyer would touch them. Sixty years old, with dense gray hair and a goatee to match, Ramsey had inherited his conscience from his father, Brooks, a Southern Baptist minister. In the early 1960s, in Albany, Georgia, the elder Ramsey used his pulpit at the First Baptist Church to advocate desegregation, much to the consternation of some of his own congregants, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and one man who nailed a 95-point doctrine on white supremacy to the church’s front door.

In 1962, Brooks Ramsey took his son, then 14, to see Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a stirring sermon on racial tolerance at a black church. The next day, King was supposed to do the same thing before Pastor Ramsey’s white flock. When the civil rights leader arrived at the First Baptist Church, however, he was met by an angry crowd. Ushers prevented him from entering, throwing King and some of his entourage down the front stairs. A riot ensued along bitter racial lines, spreading throughout Albany until the National Guard arrived.

That night, a cross was staked in the Ramseys’ front lawn, hot orange flames engulfing its wooden arms. At school the next day, Bob Ramsey arrived to find “nigger lover” scrawled in big letters on the chalkboard of his homeroom. Soon after, his family left Albany. “It made me question the whole religion,” Ramsey recalled, “how the church always told us that everyone is equal in the eyes of God—and then to treat whites and blacks so differently.”

Ramsey studied English at St. Louis University. When he decided to go to law school, he prepared for the LSAT by reading classic Russian novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Once practicing, he made a name for himself mounting cases to free women imprisoned for killing their abusive husbands. He also took on what he believed to be wrongful convictions. In one instance, he embarked on a freedom march from St. Louis to Kansas City in honor of a woman whose original lawyer had been paid off by her boyfriend and codefendant, forcing her to take the fall for a murder she didn’t commit. Mel Carnahan, the governor of Missouri, had pledged clemency for the woman before he died in a plane crash; Carnahan’s successor made no such offer. Ramsey, who represented the woman, decided to go on a five-day, 175-mile walk to draw media attention to her appeal. Among the people who saw Ramsey’s bold stunt was a state lawmaker who’d taken a particular interest in what he believed was another miscarriage of justice, this one in the town of Chillicothe. He asked Ramsey to take a look at the case. Ramsey did one better: He agreed to represent the defendant.

At Bilbrey’s, word spread through the office grapevine that Ramsey had brought a longshot case to the firm. It involved the murder of a woman named Cathy Robertson and a man convicted twice for the crime who was now serving a quadruple life sentence. Over the nearly eight years he’d been working the case, Ramsey had regularly driven up to Chillicothe and to the small town of Cameron, where the convicted murderer was in a state penitentiary. He’d gathered court records and taken depositions, amassing several brown boxes’ worth of documents that he believed supported his client’s innocence—or, at the very least, the right to a retrial. The odds that he would get the conviction overturned were slim. As far as the state of Missouri was concerned, the case was closed; it had already been subjected to the scrutiny of one appeal.

Still, Ramsey never considered abandoning the Chillicothe case, even when he died, briefly, in 2003. A fit man who regularly practiced the martial art of aikido, Ramsey suffered sudden cardiac arrest while working out at a YMCA. He was revived with a defibrillator, then fell into a coma; the doctors told his wife and two children that he had little chance of recovering. Ramsey underwent surgery, during which his heart stopped a second time. When he woke up and finally seemed to be out of the woods, he told his client’s family in Chillicothe that if they wanted to get a different lawyer he’d understand. But they’d nurtured an almost religious faith in him after struggling for many years to retain good counsel. Ramsey’s client went to the bare-bones prison chapel to pray that his lawyer would live to defend him in court.

Ramsey never considered abandoning the Chillicothe case, even when he died, briefly, in 2003.

When Ramsey’s health returned, he got back to the matter of proving his client’s innocence. Not everyone was pleased. “You’re going on a fishing expedition,” a judge told Ramsey when denying his request to depose a key figure in the case. An occasional fly-fisherman, Ramsey found the statement encouraging: A person only fishes where there’s something to catch.

Ramsey wasn’t the only staffer at Bilbrey’s struggling to acclimate. So was Kelly Williams, recently hired as an administrator. Williams was 35 and a single mom of two kids. In her twenties, she’d worked as a blackjack dealer at the Alton Belle, a riverboat casino on the Mississippi. She stood just over five feet tall, smoked Marlboros, and had a brash, infectious laugh. She was good at her job—organized, quick, intuitive—but she ran afoul of a supervisor with her outspokenness, to the point that her job was on the line.

Ramsey liked Williams. She’d worked with him on a few settlement cases, and he was impressed with how her mind worked, particularly her memory for little details tucked away deep in legal filings, the kind that could make or break a case. When he heard about the trouble with the supervisor, Ramsey took Williams on as his assistant.

He ushered Williams into his office, where stacks of paper, legal pads, and court documents were on every surface, including the floor. Ramsey settled into his desk chair and pointed to the infamous brown boxes full of his work on the Chillicothe case. Williams had heard chatter about how it was a lost cause.

“I need your help,” Ramsey told her.

Williams knew that Ramsey had saved her job, but she didn’t think that was any reason to run a fool’s errand with him and said so. Ramsey’s client had been convicted by two juries. “Anyone in their right mind would believe he was guilty,” Williams said.

When Ramsey began to explain why he believed otherwise, Williams was adamant that she would prove him wrong. “Since I was itty bitty,” she said, “if I’m right, then I’m going to find out one way or another to prove that I’m right.” Williams announced that she would pore over the case files and find what she needed to disabuse Ramsey of his misplaced certainty.

That night she took one of the boxes home. Eventually, she took another, then another. Using a color-coding system, she organized depositions and created timelines based on witness testimony. After feeding her kids dinner, she sat on the couch, documents scattered around her, filling up legal pads with notes. Instead of proof of guilt, Williams kept finding holes in the prosecution’s case. At the casino, she’d caught a few cheats; she believed she had an instinct for when a system was being gamed.

After she was done going through the files, she walked back into Ramsey’s office. “Alright, he’s innocent,” she said, giving her boss no chance to say I told you so. “How do we get him out of prison?”

The client in question was Mark Woodworth, Claude and Jackie’s son. Nineteen when he was arrested, Mark had spent almost his entire adult life behind bars. Ramsey was convinced that the case “stunk like a dead skunk in the road,” and Williams now agreed. Their determination to free Mark would throw Missouri’s legal system into turmoil.

Part II


1990

As a teenager, Mark kept to himself. Shy and awkward, with doleful brown eyes and a narrow chin sprinkled with pimples, he was more comfortable building cabinets in shop class than memorizing formulas in algebra. He wasn’t one to join clubs or sports teams. In his free time, he preferred to work in his dad’s fields and listen to farmhands talk about what rain does to seeds and the nuances of chemical fertilizers. In 1990, Claude set Mark up with a few acres of soybeans to manage, a trial run to determine if the teenager would be a good addition to the family business.

The morning after the shooting, Claude treaded mournfully down the stairs to his basement and jostled Mark, then 16, awake. Mark was characteristically quiet, even in the face of tragedy. “I was shocked,” he later said. “I couldn’t believe that happened, and I didn’t know what to say.”

Initially, Mark flew under law enforcement’s radar. His parents said he’d been home the night of the murder. His gentle temperament and modest intelligence, friends pointed out, didn’t fit the profile of a killer. “I knew that boy ever since he was born,” George Quinn, a farmer, said once. “If I’d asked him to go out and handle a dying animal, Mark sure couldn’t even shoot a cat out of its misery.” Where some people saw innate virtue, however, others started to wonder if there was simmering menace. “He was very much a loner,” Rhonda Robertson said of Mark as a child. “Scott would always ask him to come out and play, but he just wanted to sit alone in his room.”

Soon after the murder, investigators located a box of ammunition in a shed behind the Robertsons’ house. The .22-caliber shells, a few of which were missing from the box, were the same type the shooter had used. They were sitting on a workbench; according to Lyndel, they were usually stored under a stack of cigar boxes. To law enforcement, this suggested that someone might have taken the shells out on the night of the crime. Investigators lifted a thumbprint from the box and tried to find a match in Missouri’s legal databases. No luck. Then, during an interrogation with investigators, Mark gave his prints. One of them was a match.

Asked whether he’d ever visited the Robertsons’ shed, Mark gave inconsistent statements. He first claimed that he’d never been inside. Then he said he’d once helped pour concrete in the structure and maybe entered it a few other times on some weekends. A ballistics expert analyzed a bullet from the crime and decided that it was probably shot from a Ruger revolver found in the Woodworth home, where Claude kept it in his and Jackie’s bedroom. Law enforcement suspected that Mark had taken the weapon, used it, and put it back without his sleeping parents realizing.

By the fall of 1993, the sheriff’s office was ready to arrest Mark. He was a high school dropout living at home, working on his dad’s farm, and attending vocational classes for his GED. Police showed up outside one of those classes on the morning of October 20, put him in handcuffs, and read him his rights.

Mark’s parents were bewildered. As far as they knew, their son didn’t have anything against Cathy, a woman who’d cared for him as a kid when Jackie ran errands. Even as he sat in jail, held without bail, Mark told his father that he wasn’t worried, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I don’t think he realizes what he’s charged with,” Claude told the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune. “It has not really soaked into him.” Jackie had trouble sleeping and struggled to comfort her six other children. Ashley, then in the third grade, would get off the school bus some afternoons in tears because kids had teased her about having a murderer for a brother.

While awaiting trial, Mark failed a polygraph test. In a report dated July 18, 1994, the test’s administrator wrote, “I advised Mr. Woodworth that he had lied to me and was responsible for shooting the Robertsons.… I told him it wasn’t a question of who any longer, but rather a question of why.” Mark nodded, but when asked directly why he’d committed the crime, he answered, “I didn’t.” The administrator pressed him, reminding Mark that “if he was a cold-blooded murderer and found guilty of capital murder, he could be taken and executed for the killing, but if the shooting and death were accidental, that was another situation altogether.”

“Well,” Mark replied, “we all have to die someday.”

People in Chillicothe interpreted the statement in one of two ways. Some thought that Mark was referring matter-of-factly to the prospect of his own death. Others thought he was talking about Cathy’s murder and revealing his dark personality. Rhonda Robertson would later describe the comment as displaying “unbelievable callousness.”

The Robertsons’ relationship with the Woodworths had only grown more toxic since 1990. When their partnership dissolved, Claude hired an accountant to go through their books, which Lyndel had always been responsible for. The accountant discovered records indicating that Lyndel had siphoned cash from grain sales and skimmed extra money from a shared bank account to purchase cars and home appliances. Claude sued Lyndel for $150,000 in damages, but Lyndel claimed that he was innocent. If anything, he said, Claude hadn’t done his fair share in the partnership.

“The breakup broke my heart,” Claude later said. When Mark was arrested for Cathy’s murder, that sense of betrayal cut even deeper. “I was feeling sorry for him, that he just lost his wife, and taking the whole thing pretty hard, too,” Claude said. “Then it was like he stabbed a knife in my back.”

After the indictment in October 1993, a year and a half passed before Mark’s case went to trial in Clinton County, 70 miles from Chillicothe. Lawyers hoped to find there what they couldn’t in Mark’s hometown: an impartial jury. Everyone in Chillicothe had an opinion on the case. Woodworth defenders would clam up when a Robertson supporter came into the local bank to make a deposit. In the aisles of the livestock supply depot, heated debates broke out over whether Mark had pulled the trigger.

The divide was so intense that Lyndel felt compelled to write an op-ed in the Constitution-Tribune answering charges that he’d “swindled” Claude—Lyndel would eventually settle the embezzlement suit for $17,500—and that Mark had been “railroaded.” Lyndel wrote: “I am completely bewildered by this type of reaction. It is not my place, nor is it the responsibility of the people of this community to decide the guilt or innocence of this 19-year-old individual—that decision belongs to a selected jury.” Privately, though, the Robertsons told friends that they were sure Mark was guilty.

In the aisles of the livestock supply depot, heated debates broke out over whether Mark had pulled the trigger.

Mark’s trial—as an adult, though he’d been a minor at the time of the shooting—began on March 13, 1995. Kenny Hulshof represented the state. A special prosecutor and rising star in the Missouri attorney general’s office, Hulshof was a farmer’s son, tall and blond, with a folksy, winning demeanor. He’d captivated jurors in small towns all over the state while prosecuting murder cases, including the one against Faye Copeland in Chillicothe right before Cathy Robertson’s killing. Fellow lawyers sometimes traveled hours to watch Hulshof’s arguments.

On the other side of the courtroom was Mark’s attorney, a mild-mannered man named James Wyrsch, who tried to undercut the evidence against his client. The thumbprint on the box of .22-caliber shells in Lyndel’s shed? It could have been left there while Mark was target-shooting with some farmhands or when he was moving things around in the shed to find some stored item. Wyrsch briefly homed in on the absence of a clear reason Mark might have wanted Cathy dead. “I will submit to you that a 16-year-old boy with no motive whatsoever, trying to get on in life, did not shoot this individual,” Wyrsch told the jury. When he tried to suggest other suspects, however, the judge rebuffed Wyrsch on the grounds that investigators hadn’t amassed sufficient physical evidence to support another theory of the crime.

Hulshof addressed motive while questioning Lyndel on the stand. Hadn’t the Robertsons been angry at Mark for not paying expenses associated with the soybean crop he’d grown on the patch of land his father had given him to manage? Lyndel said yes. And wasn’t it possible that Mark had decided to shoot his neighbors to keep them quiet about his failure to pull his financial weight? Possibly, Lyndel said. For his part, Mark testified that he didn’t know the Robertsons were upset with him about the soybeans.

Later, in his closing statement, Hulshof played to an emerging cultural fear, stoked by the media, that some American teenagers were just bad seeds—kids like the so-called West Memphis Three, convicted the year prior in Tennessee for allegedly murdering three young boys as part of a Satanic ritual. “We flip on the news and we see these senseless crimes. And that’s exactly what it is—it’s senseless. There is no reason,” Hulshof said. “Folks, yes, [Mark] was 16, but how has our society changed such that we have 16- and 15- and 14- and 13-year-olds that are doing things that we can’t comprehend?”

Hulshof drew attention to Mark’s affect while giving testimony, which had been hushed and stilted. “Put yourself, for a minute, in the shoes of someone who was, according to them, falsely accused of a crime,” Hulshof instructed the jurors. “Are you just going to sit up there and [say], ‘No, never, no, never,’ with this flat tone?… You’re going to see some emotion. You’re going to see some tears. You’re going to see some anger. You’re going to see something other than what you saw.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Hulshof said, “I think you saw a glimpse right then of the cold-blooded nature of Mark Woodworth.”

Dana Williams, a farmhand’s wife who attended the trial, marveled at Hulshof’s oration. “He was just, wow, a standout, like an actor starring in his own movie,” Williams later said.

After close to 11 hours of deliberation, the jury found Mark guilty of murder in the second degree, burglary, assault in the first degree, and two counts of armed criminal action. The judge sentenced him to 31 years in state prison. The trial had lasted four days.


2008

Crossroads Correctional Center sits about 40 miles due west of Chillicothe, atop a gentle, grassy slope. The complex’s tan walls and green roof blend into the surrounding farmland, broken only by country highways and a Walmart. When Kelly Williams accompanied Bob Ramsey to the prison for her first visit with Mark, she felt like she knew their client already. She imagined a man hardened by the legal system, but the prisoner who slid into a chair across from her in the visiting area was far from bitter.

Mark was 34, and his dark cropped hair was tinged with silver. In a soft, steady voice, he asked Ramsey questions about his case. He knew the main players, but he didn’t grasp all the details. The man Hulshof had cast as seething and threatening seemed to Williams guileless and meek. “His demeanor, how simple he was—it broke my heart,” she recalled.

Williams listened to Mark talk about how he passed his days: welding metal cabinets, rehabilitating rescue dogs for adoption, praying in the chapel. She thought about everything he’d missed on the outside—weddings, Christmases, the births of nieces and nephews, finding love. Williams excused herself from the visiting area and went to the bathroom. She stayed there until she stopped crying.

Mark and his family had already had their hopes dashed once. Two years after Mark’s conviction, an appeals court reversed the verdict on the grounds that the judge had improperly excluded evidence about other suspects’ potential motive and opportunity. Mark was released from prison and went home to await retrial, which took place in 1999. Hulshof had recently been elected to Congress, after campaigning on his record of locking up violent criminals, so another prosecutor argued the case before the same judge who’d presided over the first trial. The Woodworths hired a new lawyer, too. According to the family and a paralegal who spoke under oath, the attorney struggled to remember where he’d placed key documents. He often rang up Wyrsch’s office to obtain new copies. At trial he questioned Brandon Hagan, who maintained his alibi, with support from his mother’s and sister’s testimony, and Lyndel, who described his initial accusations of Brandon as purely speculative. “I was real disorientated and didn’t know what was going on,” Lyndel said of waking up after the shooting. The Woodworths were so dissatisfied that they asked if a different lawyer could handle the closing argument. Their request was granted, but Mark was convicted nonetheless. This time the judge gave him the maximum penalty: four life sentences plus 15 years.

Before being taken away from the courthouse, Mark told his mother, “Just don’t forget about me, OK?”

She didn’t. Jackie coordinated weekend visits to Crossroads, staggering various siblings’ and other relatives’ time with Mark. On the two weekends each year when visitors could bring food to prisoners, Jackie made Mark’s favorites: lasagna, corn casserole, and peanut brittle. Every August, the women in her Sunday school class sent Mark birthday cards. At home, Jackie kept Mark’s room the same as he’d left it, with a quilt neatly smoothed over the bed and boxes of toy John Deere tractors stacked under a window.

Before being taken away from the courthouse, Mark told his mother, “Just don’t forget about me, OK?”

When Williams and Ramsey visited the Woodworths in Chillicothe, they sat elbow to elbow with the family around a long farm table for meals, passing platters of homemade noodles, mashed potatoes, and beef. As she had been with Mark, Williams was struck by Jackie and Claude’s apparent lack of anger. The Woodworths had been together since they were teenagers, when Jackie, thin and blond, would watch Claude, heavyset and strong, compete in tractor pulls. Middle-aged now, the couple were resolved about Mark’s situation. They kept living and working in a community where many people believed they’d raised a killer, and they were confident that if anyone could get their son out of prison, it was Ramsey.

Ramsey had several concerns about the way investigators had handled Mark’s case. Why had the prosecution been so comfortable with Lyndel recanting accusations, first against Brandon Hagan, then against Claude? How had suspicion landed on Mark at all, and so many months after the shooting? What happened to witness testimony—Chris Ruoff’s sighting of a car, for example—that suggested someone other than a close neighbor was the killer?

Ramsey shared these thoughts with Williams and the Woodworths. “He was asking the right questions,” Claude said. Answering them, though, would require Missouri’s judiciary to accept a new appeal of Mark’s case. Only then would Ramsey have free rein to collect new evidence as part of pretrial discovery. In late 2008, a court considered an appeal, which Ramsey and Williams built around the charge that Mark’s rights had been violated by incompetent counsel and a secretive grand jury. The motion was summarily denied. Ramsey and Williams went back to square one, scrambling to figure out another way to reopen the case.

One day, Ramsey got a phone call from an Associated Press reporter named Alan Zagier. While working on a profile of Hulshof when he was gearing up to run for Missouri governor—a race he lost—Zagier had something interesting in the state attorney general’s office: documents pertaining to Mark Woodworth that had never been discussed in court. In fact, they didn’t appear anywhere in the case files, suggesting that they’d never been made available to Mark’s lawyers. If so, they represented new, potentially exculpatory evidence.

The documents were letters dating back 15 years, and they were the keys that Ramsey and Williams needed to unlock their investigation. “We sped off,” Ramsey said, “like we’d been let loose on the Autobahn.”

Part III


1993

The correspondence had a convoluted backstory. Several months after the shooting, Lyndel hired a private investigator named Terry Deister, a recent arrival in Chillicothe, to dig up information on Cathy’s murder. The case was going nowhere; maybe a fresh set of eyes would help. A few days after taking the job, Deister met with Gary Calvert, chief deputy of the Livingston County sheriff’s office, whom he’d worked with on an undercover narcotics sting at a previous job as a vice-squad officer. According to Deister’s notes, the men convened to “evaluate the possibilities of a working relationship” on the Robertson case. They agreed to pursue “the remainder of this investigation as a team.” (Calvert and Deister declined to comment for this story.)

Two years later, based on interviews and forensic evidence, Deister, Calvert, and Lyndel hoped that the county prosecutor, a man named Doug Roberts, would bring charges against Mark. Roberts refused, because he didn’t think the case was strong enough. Indicting Mark, then, would require assistance from a more powerful force who wanted to move the case forward—someone like Ken Lewis, a circuit judge in Livingston County.

Lewis’s interest in Mark’s case seemed to have strange roots. In December 1990, about a month after the Robertson shooting, a local newspaper had published an article detailing how Lewis, an avid duck hunter, had been instructed by county commissioners to remove a barrier he’d placed on a public road alongside his property to keep other hunters away. Lewis took umbrage with language in the article, insisting that it jeopardized his authority as a judge. He sued the county commission—a move so rare for a member of the bench that several legal scholars interviewed for this story said they’d never heard of it happening. Lewis lost the case, but he kept his sights trained on the county commission.

Lewis’s personal lawyer at the time was Brent Elliott, who’d been the county prosecutor prior to losing the post to Doug Roberts. Elliott was friendly with Calvert and talked with him and Deister regularly—sometimes several times a week—about their work on the Robertson case. Calvert and Deister expressed to Elliott their frustration that Roberts wouldn’t indict Mark. Deister later recalled Calvert dismissively describing Roberts as being “good at traffic tickets.”

The letters that eventually landed at the AP began on September 24, 1993. Lyndel addressed one—actually written by Deister on his behalf—to Lewis, imploring that Roberts “be released of his duty in my particular case” so that evidence against Mark could come before a court. “Until this time, I do not feel that justice has been served and my life is at a standstill,” the letter read. “I am pleading with you to act upon this, within your power, to have this case presented before a grand jury.”

Ten days later, Roberts wrote his own letter to Lewis. “It has come to my attention that the complaining witness in this matter has requested you disqualify me for ‘lack of enthusiasm.’ Mr. Robertson confuses my desire to make a thorough review of all the reports in this case,” he wrote. “I can understand his frustration, but recall that soon after this crime, Mr. Robertson was adamant that we charge another young man.” Still, Roberts acknowledged that he should step away from the case. “The appropriate disposition of this matter requires that the prosecuting official have the confidence of, as well as confidence in, the complaining witness. This I do not have,” he wrote.

Read the Lewis letters.
Read the Lewis letters.

Two days later, the next of the Lewis letters, as they would come to be known, was sent by the judge to Kenny Hulshof. It referenced “various telephone conversations” the men had had about Hulshof coming to Chillicothe to take over for Roberts on the Woodworth case. Lewis noted that he’d already initiated the convening of a grand jury; he and a county clerk would select the 12 members, including a foreman who was friendly with Lewis and who had worked as an accountant for Lewis’s law firm before he became a judge. In his letter to Hulshof, Lewis included a copy of Lyndel’s pleading missive and noted that the three-year statute of limitations on several of the crimes committed against the Robertsons—“felonious assault, burglary in the first degree, and armed criminal action charges”—would soon run out.

The proceedings against Mark began on October 15, 1993, and they moved swiftly. Hulshof successfully argued for the state to file charges. Over subsequent months, the grand jury considered a laundry list of other issues, including whether the county commission had misused money in the form of modest charitable donations. With Lewis presiding, the grand jury indicted several commissioners. They would eventually be exonerated, but not before spending tens of thousands of dollars defending their support of a food bank and a children’s hospital.

On the evening of the grand jury’s final meeting, in 1994, someone strung a long white banner along the stone base of Chillicothe’s courthouse, which faces Washington Street. A photo of it ran in the next day’s edition of the Constitution-Tribune. Five words hastily painted on the fabric read, “Ding-Dong the Witch Hunt’s Dead.”


2009

When Ramsey read the Lewis letters, he was stunned. Was it possible that at the heart of Mark’s convictions sat a judge who wanted to hunt ducks in solitude and needed a case substantial enough to justify convening a grand jury that could also adjudicate complaints against his political enemies, a state prosecutor eager to strengthen his tough-on-crime persona, and a shooting victim, private eye, and deputy sheriff collaborating against the son of that victim’s former business partner? The whole scenario seemed outlandish in the way only small-town business can.

For the purposes of an appeal, what mattered was that the documents appeared to be new evidence of possible due-process violations against Mark Woodworth. Ramsey was astonished that the letters even existed. “I can’t believe people put this stuff in writing,” he said. “So many rules were being broken.”

All the more peculiar was the fact that various other documents from the grand jury chapter of Mark’s case had gone missing, including the transcript of the proceedings. The first time Ramsey visited Chillicothe, after sipping tea with the Woodworths in their living room and promising to fight for their son’s release, he’d stopped by the courthouse to pick up whatever files from the case were available. The clerk had nothing from the October 1993 hearings. When Ramsey asked why, the sentencing judge in both of Mark’s trials said that the transcriber hadn’t done his job—an odd claim given that he’d diligently recorded other sessions of the same grand jury.

Ramsey and Williams hoped to get to the bottom of that mystery during discovery, but first they had to file an appeal. This time, based on the Lewis letters, the pair made the case that Mark hadn’t received a fair trial because Lewis had abused his power and acted beyond the purview of his role; they also asserted that Lyndel had wielded undue influence over the empaneling of the grand jury. The appeal was denied twice in lower courts, but Ramsey and Williams kept pushing, and in mid-2010 their petition reached the Missouri Supreme Court.

The judges ruled in Mark’s favor, putting his case on their docket. They assigned a special master, Judge Gary Oxenhandler, to preside over hearings where lawyers could present evidence and question witnesses. The hearings wouldn’t lead to a verdict; rather, Oxenhandler would submit a report to the Supreme Court, which would use it to rule on whether Mark’s constitutional rights had been violated.

When Ramsey called to tell the Woodworths, Jackie answered the phone in her kitchen. She yelped with joy, startling her sons, Chad and Colin, who were eating lunch between shifts working in the fields. “It was the first big break we’d gotten,” Jackie remembered. “Everything we tried to do, we’d run right into a wall. But all we needed was one little chip in the wall, and the little chip would keep getting bigger and bigger until we could break the wall down.”

In the fall of 2010, Oxenhandler scheduled an evidentiary hearing for the following May, giving Ramsey and Williams about five months to prepare. They quickly got to work. Williams had grown close to the Woodworths and was indignant about Mark’s situation. “She was pissed,” Ramsey said, “and fearless.” Williams made lists of people to interview, files to access, evidence to track down. She marked boxes and file folders with sticky notes indicating what was inside them. She worked nights at home, sleeping an hour or two before heading into the office each morning.

High on Williams’s list was locating the missing transcript of the grand jury hearing. She drove to Chillicothe and insisted her way into the dusty attic of the county courthouse, where she searched through hundreds of boxes of stenography. Every court reporter has a unique shorthand they use to record what a trial’s speakers say out loud; the reporter then uses those raw notes to generate a complete transcript. In the folder where the stenographs for Mark’s hearing should have been there was nothing. Williams went downstairs and told the clerk, who agreed that it was unusual for the notes to be missing. The clerk began searching for them in cabinet after cabinet, drawer after drawer. If there’d been a mix-up, the stenographs had to be somewhere in the building.

In the meantime, Williams hoped that the court reporter, a man named Bernard Faustenau, might provide some answers. He’d worked in Missouri’s legal system for 31 years before retiring. In early February 2011, Williams and Ramsey called Faustenau to be deposed on March 2. Then, a little over a week before the deposition, Faustenau died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 68.

Dismayed, Williams called Faustenau’s wife of 51 years. Williams offered her condolences, explained the situation as gently as she could, and asked the widow if Faustenau had kept any of his court notes at home. Faustenau’s wife said she wasn’t sure but she’d keep an eye out. She soon called Williams back to report that she’d found three perfectly typed pages of the opening minutes of Mark’s grand jury hearing. The text confirmed Judge Lewis’s animus toward Doug Roberts; Lewis accused the prosecutor of speaking to the local press about the grand jury despite not being present for its proceedings. “I have reprimanded Mr. Roberts … because he is not involved in this matter here today,” Lewis said. Roberts had denied telling journalists that the Robertson shooting was the grand jury’s main focus, which Lewis said “brings to my mind a line from Shakespeare, when he said, ‘The lady doth protest too much.’”

If Faustenau had typed up the first portion of the hearing, it stood to reason that he’d done the same for the rest of it. But the remaining pages were nowhere to be found. Back at the courthouse, the clerk finally turned up some materials, including the grand jury’s attendance sheet and a copy of the gag order preventing members from talking about the hearing outside the court. The documents weren’t what Williams wanted, but the location where the clerk found them gave her pause: They were tucked inside the county’s adoption files, considered among the most sensitive records in any courthouse and thus accessed by very few people. The papers had been either bizarrely misfiled or deliberately hidden. By whom was yet another mystery.

The dead end regarding the transcript was “a big setback for us,” Williams later recalled. She and Ramsey focused their attention elsewhere, hoping it would bear more fruit. Terry Deister was arguably the biggest enigma of the case. The private eye employed by Lyndel had never been called to testify at either of the murder trials, yet his copious case notes showed that he’d played a pivotal role in the investigation.


1992

When Lyndel hired him, Deister was in his early fifties, with a paunch, a wide black mustache, and the low, craggy voice of a heavy smoker. He’d spent 17 years in law enforcement in Platte County, Missouri, and he acted the part of a hard-bitten detective, using gruff language and wearing a beleaguered demeanor proportionate to his sacrificial duty before the high calling of the law. His one-man private-eye business was called DunCourt and Associates, a fictional name he’d chosen because he liked how it sounded.

Lyndel paid Deister $40 an hour for his work, which involved more than just probing the shooting. Lyndel also wanted Deister to look for evidence to counter Claude’s accusations of embezzlement. The dual assignment represented a conflict of interest. Deister seemed to realize that the work was shady: His notes indicate that in at least one instance he and Calvert met in an “undisclosed location” near a cornfield, where they were unlikely to be seen together. He also recorded Calvert, who shared the case files on the Robertson shooting with Deister even though law enforcement isn’t supposed to let private parties access information about active investigations, as urging him to “keep a very low profile.”

For several months after the murder, law-enforcement officials tried to find out all they could about the suspicious car in the Robertsons’ driveway; they were confident it would lead them to the killer. Chris Ruoff said he’d seen an SUV or truck. When examining the scene, police noted what appeared to be tire tracks from an accelerating vehicle. Moreover, Scott Robertson initially told investigators that he’d heard a car engine when he was in his parents’ room helping Lyndel. Ruoff, Scott, and Lyndel saw a hypnotist a few weeks after the shooting, a visit that investigators hoped would draw more specific evidence or even a lead out of the trio. It wasn’t productive.

Then one day in 1991, Deister did something that shifted the entire course of the investigation. According to his records, he suggested in one of his meetings with Calvert, “What if there hadn’t been a vehicle parked at that location? Would this open up a new area of thought?”

“Definitely, yes,” Calvert replied.

If a car “didn’t exist,” Deister continued, “it made Mark Woodworth a prime suspect in the case.”

The leap seemed sudden and huge. Not only was there no evidence at the time implicating Mark, there was also no reason to doubt Ruoff’s story or the tire tracks indicating that a car had left the crime scene.

When Ruoff got a phone call from Calvert in January 1992 asking him to come downtown to recount what he’d seen the night of the murder, Ruoff was glad to do so. In a small witness room, he sat across a table from Calvert, who casually thumbed through the case files. The deputy sheriff introduced Ruoff to Deister, who was puffing on a cigarette. Smoke gathered above the men’s heads as Deister began to talk.

“She ever come on to you?” he asked Ruoff, referring to Cathy Robertson.

Ruoff thought Deister was kidding. He was dating a woman who would soon become his wife. Cathy had been a devoutly Catholic mother two decades his senior. She’d been cordial with farmhands, sure, but there was no unsavory subtext to it. Ruoff laughed; Deister kept looking at him, stone-faced. The farmhand realized that the question wasn’t a joke.

“So who put you up to this?” Deister asked in his hoarse voice, suggesting that Ruoff had lied about seeing a car outside the Robertson residence.

“I was just trying to help Lyndel out,” Ruoff said, “to help them find out who shot Cathy.”

Deister came at Ruoff from several angles, questioning the young man’s eyesight, mental health, and short-term memory. He and Calvert also described driving out on Highway 190 one night when a car was parked in the Robertsons’ driveway. They weren’t able to see it in the dark. Ruoff maintained his certainty until, after two hours of interrogation, he finally gave an inch. “Maybe I didn’t see it,” he said.

At Mark’s first trial, Ruoff would stick to his story, saying that he’d bet a million dollars he saw the car. But the seed of uncertainty served the prosecution’s purposes: If it was possible that a car hadn’t been in the Robertsons’ driveway, then it was possible that the killer had arrived on foot—the most logical way for someone who lived nearby to get to the house without attracting attention. Kenny Hulshof undercut Ruoff by calling him an “overprepped” witness and attacking his recollections of a “mystery vehicle.”

The other evidence of a car mattered little. Police had never tried to match the tire tracks outside the Robertsons’ house with a particular make or model, and Scott had reconsidered his original story. He hadn’t heard an engine, the Robertsons’ only son said at trial. Lyndel testified, “A young kid may not have heard what he thought he heard.”

Connecting Mark to the crime was more difficult. Deister and Calvert staked out the Woodworths’ house on Fourth of July weekend in 1992, waiting for Jackie and Claude to leave for a visit with family in Illinois so that they could approach Mark alone. They asked him to come to the sheriff’s office for questioning. Mark was cooperative; he didn’t request a lawyer, and he agreed to be fingerprinted, which would lead to the match with the print on the box of .22-caliber shells found in the Robertsons’ shed. Mark didn’t express outrage or suspicion when Calvert and Deister dropped the pretense of why they’d brought him in—a vandalism complaint that went nowhere—and accused him of murdering Cathy. He simply denied doing it.

A second interrogation went much the same way. This time, Mark gave the conflicting statements about when he’d been in the Robertsons’ shed. He also agreed to draw a rudimentary layout of his family’s house and indicated that his basement room was near a back door, which Calvert and Deister suggested he could’ve used the night of the murder without his parents and siblings knowing. Mark seemed confused in the interview, as if he didn’t follow all the questions he was being asked.

When his parents, who’d again been away when Mark was picked up the second time, heard that he was at the sheriff’s office, they were furious. They drove downtown and burst into the building. In the ensuing confrontation, captured on video, Claude yelled, “You’re fucking with somebody you don’t have no fucking business with—you’re talking with a kid there. To start with he’s dumber than hell. You know that. You can talk to him and tell that. He ain’t well educated.” To Deister, who was in the room, Claude said, “Who’s paying you for being here now?” Deister replied, “I don’t even know if I’m being paid right now or not but I am—Lyndel has been paying me.”

By then, Calvert and Deister had already turned their attention to the ballistics evidence in the case. Of the six bullets fired by Cathy’s killer, five were recovered at the scene. They were too damaged to be analyzed for legal purposes, but based on X-rays, the bullet stuck near Lyndel’s liver looked to be in decent shape. So the Livingston County sheriff’s office covered the $25,000 expense of surgically removing it. In August 1992, after a three-hour operation, the bullet came out. Shortly after the surgery, Calvert confiscated Claude Woodworth’s Ruger pistol as part of a purported reexamination of potential murder weapons.

According to Calvert’s report, he “sealed the [bullet] in an evidence bag and transported it to Livingston County Sheriff’s Office in the evidence room for safekeeping.” However, there is no record that the bullet was ever signed in to the property room, and Deister’s notes contradict Calvert’s, indicating that the private investigator was the one who took the bullet from the hospital and kept it in his custody:

Lyndel’s surgery at Research Hospital.

10:55 a.m. entered surgery—1:55 p.m. received bullet from [Nurse] Woodson

2:20 p.m. spoke with doctor

At the time, Deister was married to a woman from England, and during visits to his wife’s home country he’d befriended a man named Roger Summers, who was the head of forensics for the police department in Derbyshire. A few weeks after Lyndel’s surgery, and after two separate analyses in Missouri had indicated that the extracted bullet wasn’t fired from Claude’s revolver, Deister called Summers to discuss the case. Ten days later, Deister sent Summers a letter detailing his involvement in the shooting investigation. The letter wouldn’t be introduced into legal evidence until Ramsey subpoenaed Summers’s lab almost two decades later.

“I was hired by Lyndel Robertson (the husband) to investigate the murder of his wife,” Deister wrote, adding that before he came aboard, the “Livingston County Sheriff’s Department had pretty much given up on the investigation.” He continued, “I zeroed in on the business partner’s 16-year-old-son, who lived across the highway,” because he sensed that Mark saw an opportunity to enact vengeance, and to gain his father’s approval, as the farming partnership deteriorated. Then Deister wrote:

As I mentioned during our telephone conversation, our case against this boy is very weak without the ballistic evidence, and even though I’m not a quitter, I really don’t think we will ever have a good case if this firearm can’t be identified as the shooter’s weapon. Therefore, we are willing to take whatever steps necessary, within reason, to identify this weapon.

On October 20, Deister packed the bullet and gun in his luggage and flew to England for a nine-day visit. Calvert sent a FedEx package containing other bullet fragments from the crime scene; instead of signing the mailing slip with his title at the sheriff’s office, Calvert indicated that he was an employee of DunCourt and Associates. An investigator ran tests on the evidence. When Deister returned from his trip, he submitted annotated expenses—airline tickets, lodging, meals, sundries—to Lyndel for reimbursement.

Read Terry Deister’s call log from the fall of 1992.
Read Terry Deister’s call log from the fall of 1992.

A forensic investigator named Steve Nicklin issued three reports based on his analysis, a preliminary one in April 1993 and two finalized versions that June. The first stated that Claude’s gun could have fired the bullet removed from Lyndel but that there was not “enough detail agreement to show a conclusive association between the two items.” Consequently, Nicklin was “unable to rule out the possibility that some other weapon fired the bullet.” A June 7 report stated much the same, though Nicklin said that details of the analysis “in my opinion, strongly suggest” Claude’s gun fired the bullet. The final report, from June 22, went further: While it reiterated that there was no “conclusive association” between the pieces of evidence, it also described a scratch on the ridges inside the gun’s barrel as being “a very unusual feature.” The scratch appeared to line up with a marking on the bullet, leading Nicklin to conclude that “the likelihood of some other weapon being responsible … seems extremely small. I hope this clarifies the position for you.”

He was addressing Deister. According to Nicklin’s subsequent testimony and Deister’s own notes, Deister spoke multiple times with the lab in England when it was completing its reports.

Claude and Jackie insisted there was no way Mark had used the gun. They said they kept their bedroom door locked while sleeping and the gun loaded at all times on top of a dresser near the bed. Deister suggested that the lock was easy to pick and that Mark had reloaded the gun with Lyndel’s ammunition after using the weapon to shoot the Robertsons. Somehow he’d been so quiet as he moved that no one in the Woodworth or Robertson house heard him.

“If a boy was going to slip in a bedroom and snatch a gun off the chest of drawers, go over, and shoot somebody, do you think he’d bring it back empty?” Deister asked.

“Do you think that after you shot somebody you would be really in your right mind to think, yeah, I’ve gotta load this gun?” Jackie replied.

“To be real honest with you, Jackie,” Deister said, “with somebody with emotions as quiet as your son, yes.”


2011

In the lead-up to the Oxenhandler hearing, Ramsey and Williams were running ragged. Long days and late nights kept Ramsey from cooking Sunday dinner for his family and in-laws, a weekly tradition. He slept little and ate rarely, which worried his wife, given his heart problems. Williams saw her children only in brief spurts, which weighed on her maternal conscience. Still, she considered the work she was doing important, and she hoped to be an example to her kids.

Sensing that, like the dealings revealed by the Lewis letters, Deister’s involvement in the case might constitute a violation of Mark’s legal rights, Ramsey and Williams wanted to talk to Deister under oath. Ramsey dispatched a paralegal from Bilbrey’s to meet with Deister, who was then 77 and semiretired, at a Panera Bread in Kansas City. Deister consented to a deposition and, according to the paralegal’s notes, said he “had done nothing wrong” and “never had a doubt that Mark Woodworth was guilty.” Deister continued, “Mark should have just quit after the first trial. He would probably already be out by now.”

The deposition took place on March 1, 2011, at the Chillicothe library, located behind the courthouse. Children read picture books about heroes and villains in a nook by the front windows. Ramsey and Williams met Deister and a representative of the state attorney general’s office in a conference room. Deister’s black mustache had long since turned gray, his belly hung over his belt, and a bald patch had given way to a liver-spotted scalp with wisps of faded hair. Though he looked world-weary, he was combative when he spoke.

“Why were you concerned about how they were going to react?” Ramsey asked, referring to Deister’s decision to keep the full extent of his and Calvert’s work—Deister’s access to the case files, for instance—private from other law enforcement.

“Why not?” Deister retorted.

“I’m asking you, sir,” Ramsey said.

“Because I’d be concerned about anybody having objections to me working the case with the sheriff’s department, with Gary,” Deister said.

“Why would the troopers have an objection to you?” Ramsey asked.

“Why would they?” Deister said, again using a coy restatement of Ramsey’s question. “For no reason other than the fact that there’s a civilian out there doing some of the work.”  

“It had nothing to do with the reason you resigned from the Platte County sheriff’s department?” Ramsey asked, hitting on a sore subject.

“Why don’t you go look up a different street?” Deister said, his tone now tense. “No, it didn’t have anything to do with that.”

Ramsey was referring to an incident from 1981, when Deister was still on the vice squad in Platte County and was leading an investigation of a prostitution ring tied to a business called Utopia Health Studio. Allegedly a massage parlor, Utopia boasted several mirrored rooms with mattresses on raised, carpeted platforms, as well as a rock-cave suite equipped with heavy chains, a padded stockade, and leather whips. The FBI suspected that Deister might have been doing more than probing the business, and Deister faced possible criminal charges for promoting prostitution. He resigned from his job. Soon after, he hung out his shingle as a private eye.

At the conference table, Williams pulled a document out of a plastic box. Ramsey handed it to Deister.

“Page 76,” Ramsey instructed.

“OK.”

“Who is Brent?”

“Who is who?” Deister said.

“It talks about a Brent. I’ve got a telephone number here.” Ramsey directed Deister to an entry on the private eye’s call log from the Woodworth investigation.

“Brent Elliott,” Deister said, referring to the former Livingston County prosecutor who had also served as Judge Lewis’s personal attorney.

Ramsey grilled Deister about his interactions with Elliott, which seemed to incense the investigator. “I have no respect for your kind, believe me,” Deister said to Ramsey. “You’re nothing but a parasite.” Ramsey had anticipated this turn in the exchange. “One of my goals was to knock him off balance, kind of an aikido move,” he later explained. “Getting under his skin, it took about two minutes to do that.”

Ramsey and Williams presented another page of Deister’s notes, on DunCourt and Associates letterhead. “I guess you don’t remember the September 1, 1992 phone call you had with Brent Elliott, do you?” Ramsey asked. The call occurred during a week when Deister spoke multiple times with both Elliott and Roger Summers, his friend at the forensics lab in England.

“Apparently not, no,” Deister said.

In tabbed folders arranged by Williams, Ramsey had the full scope of Lyndel’s payments to Deister, totaling about $35,000 in the form of checks, the title of Cathy’s Suburban, and wheat that Lyndel sold in Deister’s name. Ramsey grilled Deister on the apparent malfeasance of his concurrent involvement in the shooting investigation and the embezzlement case. “I got about as much respect for you as I do a flea on the ground,” Deister said at one point. “You’re not even looking at the real issues on who killed this woman.” Afterward he called Calvert, with whom he was still friendly, to say how mad he was.

“I have no respect for your kind, believe me. You’re nothing but a parasite.” 

Before his own deposition a few weeks later, Calvert agreed to meet Ramsey and Williams at a small hotel in Chillicothe sometimes frequented by fabric enthusiasts because of its proximity to the Missouri Star Quilt Company. Calvert, a thin man with large-frame glasses and a tendency to speak in a mumble, no longer worked at the sheriff’s office. He’d become sheriff of Livingston County in the 1990s and then left public service in 2001, securing lucrative work doing background checks and other investigative assignments in the Middle East on behalf of the U.S. military and various contractors. He’d returned home in 2006 and started working for a security firm from a desk at his home on the outskirts of Chillicothe. Calvert had recently married a woman named Slavica, who had a thick Eastern European accent and accompanied him to the hotel room. She sat stiffly to one side during the conversation, staring at Williams.

Ramsey wanted to talk with Calvert before the deposition in hope that the former lawman’s instinct for self-preservation would kick in once he heard what he’d be asked under oath. Ramsey showed Calvert the Lewis letters; Calvert said that he’d never seen them before. “Yeah, that’s what everyone’s been saying,” Ramsey replied. (Judge Lewis, who by then had retired and was frail from a battle with cancer, was adamant in his own deposition that the letters revealed nothing unethical. He died in 2016 at the age of 79.)

Ramsey also asked Calvert about Lyndel recanting his initial accusation against Brandon Hagan. “Lyndel never changed his story in his testimony,” Calvert insisted. Which was technically true: Lyndel had never said Brandon was the killer under oath. By the time Lyndel gave sworn statements, Brandon had an alibi and the Robertsons were suspicious of Mark.

A few weeks later, at his deposition, Calvert claimed that he was unable to recall many of the details of his work with Deister—the result of a poor memory that Slavica sometimes complained about, he mused. The exchange was largely uneventful. Then, near the end, as Ramsey and Williams were getting ready to pack up their files and equipment, Calvert offered to explain how he’d once obtained Brandon’s fingerprints. “No, that’s OK,” Ramsey said, since it seemed like trivial information at best. Then he changed his mind. “Well, yeah, what happened?”

Calvert said he’d gotten the prints from police in Independence, who took them after Rochelle Robertson filed a complaint against Brandon for ignoring a restraining order that she’d obtained a week after her mother’s death. “He violated that order of protection,” Calvert said.

Ramsey and Williams were confused. They knew about the protective order, but Rochelle had testified under oath years before that Brandon had never violated it. Moreover, in the records Ramsey and Williams had obtained from law enforcement, there was no mention of Brandon breaching the order’s terms. “Would that show up in the court file?” Ramsey asked.

“I’m sure,” Calvert replied. Ramsey and Williams thought that they saw a slight smirk on his face.

Williams made a beeline for the courthouse. As with Faustenau’s transcription, it turned out that documents weren’t where they should have been. There were indeed records of Brandon making harassing phone calls to Rochelle on multiple occasions, but they’d been put in a folder separate from the protective order itself. And for some reason, the second folder had been transferred to a courthouse in another county—where none other than Brent Elliott, who’d been Rochelle’s attorney when she obtained the order, was now a judge. The records had never been produced at Mark’s trials to contradict Rochelle’s testimony about Brandon and call her credibility as a witness into question.

Several mysteries suddenly emerged: Why had Rochelle lied? Was there a good explanation, or was she trying to hide something? Who would go to the trouble of burying evidence of Brandon’s continued, illegal contact with Rochelle—and why?

Ramsey and Williams’s goal in the Oxenhandler hearing would be to show that Mark hadn’t received a fair trial. But they could also argue that the Lewis letters represented an evidentiary gateway to examine information that suggested a compelling new theory of the crime. The violations of the protective order might be that sort of information. It turned out there was more.

Part IV


1990

If she wasn’t quarreling with Brandon, Rochelle was arguing with her mother about Brandon. He was a prototypical bad boy who got into fights after drinking enough beer at high school parties. He twice beat up another guy Rochelle had dated. When he got mad at his girlfriend, he sometimes hit her, too. One time he choked Rochelle on a bed and threatened to break her neck. According to a friend of Rochelle’s who spoke under oath, if Brandon didn’t feel like his girlfriend was respecting him, he’d sometimes drive her through the countryside, accelerating to reckless speeds until she begged him to stop. If ever they broke up, Brandon threatened, he’d commit suicide.

Still, Rochelle loved him, and she hated that her mother told her what to do. Cathy said she’d buy Rochelle a car if she ended things, but Rochelle said no. Her relationship, however fraught, was her business.

Cathy’s sister later told investigators that, when Rochelle lived at home, she was “disruptive” and “self-centered.” Lyndel’s brother reported that Cathy had once “told Rochelle that she should leave and not come back.” In her own interview with police, Rochelle said of her mother, “I loved her and everything, but it’s just that—it seemed like she didn’t like any of my boyfriends and I never did anything right.”

“I could never look her in the eye,” she said in the same interview, “because I always felt that she didn’t like me very much.”

Even when Cathy was hardly speaking to their eldest child, Lyndel would slip Rochelle cash to cover her expenses. The situation with Brandon coincided with a rough patch in Lyndel and Cathy’s marriage. Farmhands sensed it on the walkie-talkies they used while working in the Robertsons’ fields. “Cathy would just rip into Lyndel on the radio,” Chris Ruoff said. On a car trip with their children the summer before the shooting, Lyndel ended an argument he and Cathy were having by slapping his wife across the face. She didn’t speak to him for several days afterward.

At the Hy-Vee grocery store, where she worked at the deli the summer before going to St. Joseph, Rochelle talked to her colleagues about the problems at home. According to her manager, Loronda Corbin, Rochelle said she “hated” her mother, “wished she was dead,” and “wished somebody would shoot her.” (Corbin was not called as a witness at either of Mark’s trials.) Later, at the Brass Buckle in St. Joseph, Rochelle was again candid about her relationship problems. Keri Lehmer, her boss, told investigators that she “knew Rochelle’s parents wanted them apart.”  

A few hours after the shooting, police came to Rochelle’s apartment in St. Joseph. She didn’t answer their knocking, so the officers unbolted her door. She said she’d been sleeping with a fan on and hadn’t heard them. Not long after, Kevin Price, a construction worker sent by a family friend, picked Rochelle up to bring her back to Chillicothe. During the drive, Rochelle said little, and Price didn’t try to draw her out. At one point, Price recalled Rochelle asking if her parents were hurt badly in the accident. Price said he told her about the shooting and her mother’s death. As they got closer to Chillicothe, Price mentioned that Brandon was a suspect. Rochelle insisted that Brandon hadn’t done it. According to Price, she said she’d spoken with her boyfriend on the phone at his home in Independence at 11 p.m., placing Brandon too far away from her parents’ house to have arrived there by the time of the shooting.

Price dropped off Rochelle at the home of Rhonda’s boyfriend, Brian Alexander, where the Robertson children had been taken from the crime scene. Soon after, Brandon arrived, too; Rochelle had called him as soon as the police showed up at her apartment. Brandon would later tell investigators that a friend drove him to Chillicothe, where he borrowed a Jeep that his old wrestling coach sometimes lent to athletes. Amy Baldwin, a friend of Rhonda’s, rode with Brandon from Chillicothe’s high school to the Alexanders’ house. Baldwin remembered Brandon saying, “I can’t believe this happened. I feel sorry for the family.”

The house was bustling with friends, relatives, and investigators, who were interviewing the Robertson kids one by one. Brandon gave Rochelle a hug and stood with her for a while, then walked over to Rhonda. “Do you think I shot them?” Brandon asked. Rhonda turned away and didn’t answer.

Brandon asked again, “Do you really think I did this?”

“I don’t know,” Rhonda said.

At some point, Brandon and Rochelle went upstairs into a room and closed the door behind them. According to Rochelle, they talked about questions that investigators might ask Brandon. The secrecy of the situation didn’t sit well with Marvin Alexander, Brian’s father, who knocked on the door and told them to come out.

Brandon went to the sheriff’s office to be interviewed. He gave his alibi, which his family confirmed: He’d been in his room by 9 p.m., and his sister placed him asleep in bed at 10:40 p.m., when she went in to get a blanket. His mother had been up until 1 a.m., when her husband came home from a swing shift, and she never saw Brandon leave. Brandon also confirmed that Rochelle had called him from St. Joseph before Price picked her up that morning. He described her as “real hysterical, and she was crying and everything, and she told me what happened.”

This seemed to conflict with Price’s version of events, in which he was the first to tell Rochelle that there’d been a shooting, not an accident. However, investigators either didn’t catch the disparity or didn’t think it was important enough to pursue. The same day, about 12 hours after the shooting, Brandon’s hands tested positive for gunshot residue. In Mark’s second trial, a forensic chemist would testify that the analysis fell outside the time frame for obtaining reliable results.  

Read Rochelle Robertson’s restraining order.
Read Rochelle Robertson’s restraining order.

In her own interview, with Calvert and other investigators, Rochelle reiterated that she thought Brandon was innocent. One detail in her story had changed, however: She did not tell police that she’d spoken to Brandon on the phone the night of the shooting. Instead, she said that she’d gone home after work, read part of a Danielle Steel novel, and fallen asleep before midnight. This version of events fit neatly with Brandon’s alibi, even more so than the one in which the pair talked before bed. If his sister said he was asleep before 11 p.m., Brandon couldn’t have been on the phone then.

Law enforcement confirmed that Rochelle had been at work the evening of the murder, and they interviewed her roommate, Baniki Dawson, who described Brandon as “very jealous and possessive.” The report didn’t indicate whether the officers had asked Dawson about Rochelle’s activity the night of the shooting. Similarly, if the investigators had checked the phone records from Brandon’s house, that information wasn’t included in the case files.

The tone of Rochelle’s interview shifted when an investigator suggested that the shooter must have known “right where they were going” and “had the gall to walk by” two of the Robertson children’s bedrooms before killing their mother. “The way I pictured it in my mind,” Rochelle responded, “was somebody went and opened the door, and they just stood right in the doorway, and it was dark. I don’t know how the moon was outside, but this is how I picture it in my mind. The curtains are open, and you can see because of the moonlight, and they shot my mom and then they shot my dad. That’s all that I can think of.”

An investigator asked what Rochelle imagined Lyndel doing when he woke up, before being shot. “I picture it happened so fast, he doesn’t really—I picture bang, bang,” she said. “I picture them shooting her and then him right after, before he even has a chance to sit up.”

“You think it was done with a pistol or a rifle?”

“When I picture it, I think of a pistol. But I don’t know,” Rochelle said. “I pictured myself behind the person, [looking] around their shoulder and looking right at the gun.”

Rochelle’s description of the crime made investigators suspicious. In a second interrogation, they asked about Brandon’s abuse. At first, Rochelle said that he’d never been violent with her. When investigators pressed her, she recanted. “I lied about one thing,” Rochelle admitted.

“You’ve lied about a lot more things than one thing,” an officer replied. “If you think that you’re going to skate on us just because you’re an attractive, nice-looking girl, you’re not going to skate. If you’re dirty, we’re going to prove it.”

“I’m not covering for him,” Rochelle said of Brandon. “I’m telling you everything I can tell you.”

“But what’s your gut tell you?” Calvert asked.

“When I first heard, I didn’t know who could do that. Everybody’s been talking about Brandon, Brandon, Brandon—and I started getting doubt in my mind,” Rochelle said. “In my heart, I don’t think he did that to me.”

Unbeknownst to most people in Chillicothe, at the time, Rochelle was pregnant with Brandon’s child. Nine days before the shooting, on a trip home from St. Joseph, Rochelle had shown her friend Carmen Kinsella the positive results of a pregnancy test from her college clinic. She was about three months along. She also shared the $500 estimate for the abortion she was scheduled to have a few days later in Kansas City. Brandon had offered to pay for the procedure, but he’d also waffled on whether he actually wanted Rochelle to go through with it. They’d talked about keeping the baby. Crying on a sidewalk in downtown Chillicothe, Rochelle told Kinsella that she wasn’t sure what to do.

Ultimately, Rochelle skipped her abortion appointment. Lyndel would later tell investigators that he and Cathy weren’t aware of the pregnancy. But Brandon told Rochelle he suspected that Cathy knew because she had a mother’s intuition.

Whether this was true or not, Cathy tried in earnest to break the couple up in the weeks before the shooting. One day she called Brandon’s mother, Renee Thomure, and demanded that she tell her son to stop seeing Rochelle. Cathy threatened to take out a restraining order if Brandon kept coming around, and she said that he needed professional help to get over Rochelle. Thomure reportedly tried to calm Cathy down. “I’ve never done nothing to you, you don’t know me from nowhere, and I’ve been nice to you,” she said, according to Brandon. “I’d like to expect the same from you.”

The call didn’t work, and Cathy kept her word. She went to the Chillicothe police station and got the paperwork for a restraining order. The night of the shooting, she left it sitting on the kitchen table.  

In the days after the crime, Rochelle’s family told her to terminate the pregnancy as well as her relationship with Brandon. She called Brandon to tell him that she was taking out a protective order against him. The next day, she wrote on the legal form in wide script that he “has struck me in the past, and has made frequent harassing telephone calls.” She added that he “may have murdered my mother and attempted to kill my father.” Soon after, a friend drove Rochelle to get the abortion. (The pregnancy was not mentioned at the first trial and was brought up only briefly at the second.)

Two months after the shooting, Rochelle took a polygraph test. One of the questions was “Did you shoot your parents?” She failed. Polygraphs are controversial; their accuracy in identifying lies is a matter of scientific debate. The examiner largely attributed the outcome of Rochelle’s test to her trying to control her breathing instead of acting and speaking naturally. She agreed to take another one but never did. A few days later, Claude Woodworth heard from friends that Lyndel was telling people his business partner might be involved in the murder.


2011

Rochelle arrived at her deposition with Ramsey and Williams in the Livingston County library wearing a pink T-shirt that said “Fashion Is Not a Luxury.” Metal bracelets clanked on her wrists, and a silver cross hung from a chain around her neck. Her last name was Koehly now, and she and her husband had two sons. She still lived in Chillicothe and was involved in 4-H like her mother had been.

According to Williams, the goal of the exchange was to “get onto the record all of the things that had been swept under the rug at the first two trials, all the inconsistencies” that she and Ramsey had discovered in the case files and in interviews. During the deposition, Rochelle claimed 59 times that she couldn’t recall details of events surrounding her mother’s death and the murder investigation. She attributed this to a bad memory she’d had since she was a child.

“Did you tell anyone after you found out your parents had been shot that Brandon couldn’t have done the shooting,” Ramsey asked, “because you called him at a time when he couldn’t have been in Chillicothe?”

“I don’t remember saying that to anybody,” Rochelle said.

“Did you ever see any reports of any persons, especially from a person named Kevin Price, that indicated that?

“No.”

“Would you have any reason to dispute Kevin Price if that’s what he said?”

“Who is Kevin Price?”

“Do you know Kevin Price?”

“I don’t think so. That name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t think of who that is.”

Ramsey glanced at Williams, who pulled a document from a folder.

“I’m going to show you what’s been marked as Exhibit 13,” Ramsey said, sliding over the portion of Rochelle’s interrogation from shortly after the murder in which she’d conceded that Brandon had been violent with her. Among the instances she’d described to investigators was one in which Brandon punched the dashboard of her car. Rochelle sat silently as she read over her own words.

“How do I answer this? Because I don’t know. I don’t remember,” Rochelle said, glancing over at a representative from the attorney general’s office who was present for the deposition. “I mean, if somebody said it—and I’m not disputing that I had said it to them, but I don’t remember saying it to them. How do I—how do I—what do I do?”

“I’m just asking you if you dispute it,” Ramsey said.

“He never damaged my vehicle.”

“Do you dispute that you then later said, ‘The only thing I lied about was being punched in the eye.’”

“No, I don’t dispute that.”

Later in the deposition, Ramsey asked Rochelle why she’d lied about the abuse. “Because I was embarrassed,” she said, looking down at the table. “But then I came back later and told them.”

Ramsey directed Rochelle to another passage from her 1990 interrogation, in which she asked the officers questioning her whether they thought Brandon could kill somebody. “What do you think?” an investigator replied. “Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to think it,” Rochelle said.

Ramsey asked if Rochelle disputed that the exchange had occurred. She said she did not.

Rochelle asked the officers whether they thought Brandon could kill somebody. “What do you think?” an investigator replied.

Williams took on the task of compiling documentation of Brandon’s criminal history. Ramsey referred to Williams as his right arm, but she preferred the nickname Ramsey’s Google, given to her because she could find any detail in tens of thousands of pages of case files in a matter of minutes. Williams also proved as unflappable as a seasoned investigator when it came to tracking down police reports, cold-calling witnesses, and showing up at people’s doors.

She learned that, in 2006, Brandon was sentenced to six months in jail for drunk driving. Three years later, Sandy O’Connell, the mother of a young woman who was pregnant with Brandon’s child, approached police near the town of Lake Ozark, where Brandon was living. “He has beaten on my daughter,” O’Connell reported. “Brandon Hagan has personally threatened to kill me and has told me that he would kill me and my ‘white trash family.’” In the midst of Williams gathering evidence, police in Jefferson City received another abuse complaint against Brandon, this time from neighbors of his then girlfriend, Amanda Feuerborn. An officer observed in a report that Feuerborn’s “left eye was starting to turn black and blue,” which she said was from Brandon punching her; when she tried to get away, “he slapped her and threw her on the floor.”

Brandon’s persistent violence against women was shocking, but it didn’t implicate him in the Robertson shooting. Then a report from a man stopped Williams in her tracks. She got her hands on the document after law enforcement near Lake Ozark passed it to the sheriff’s office in Chillicothe, where a man named Steve Cox was now in charge. According to the report, an individual named Aaron Duncan had approached law enforcement and said that Brandon had bragged about being a “number-one suspect” in a murder investigation that “had gone on a long time.”

Williams drove from St. Louis to visit Duncan, a 26-year-old mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighter who’d got to know Brandon when the former wrestler was cutting his teeth as a fight promoter, one of a few careers Brandon had tried on for size. Duncan and his wife greeted Williams and sent their children to play so that Duncan could tell his story, which he later repeated in a deposition.

One night in 2008, Duncan had gone over to Brandon’s house. The men were drinking in the garage when Brandon started rifling through some boxes. There were wrestling trophies inside, but Brandon was more interested in newspaper clippings from a time when, he told Duncan, he’d been accused of murdering his girlfriend’s mom. The girlfriend’s parents “had wanted her to stop seeing him,” Duncan recalled. “Brandon said they’d fought all the time, this and that, him and the parents. And they thought he was too aggressive for her.” Brandon also talked about “someone named Mark,” Duncan said. “He was really talking down about this Mark guy, like how stupid he was.”

Duncan said that Brandon had made self-incriminating disclosures in the past, about cooking meth in college, selling ecstasy pills, and beating someone in Chicago with a golf club. Talking about being a murder suspect was, however perversely, in character for the Brandon that Duncan knew. “I didn’t think twice about it,” Duncan said.

Two weeks after the conversation in the garage, Brandon came to Duncan and asked for a $5,000 investment in an MMA venue he was hoping to open. Duncan had young kids at home, and money was tight, so he said he couldn’t help. “He flew off the handle,” Duncan said of Brandon. When Duncan told him to calm down, Brandon threatened to kill his friend’s family.

“I’ve killed before and got away with it,” Duncan recalled Brandon saying. “What makes you think I can’t do it again?’

Williams was dumbfounded. “It was a holy-shit moment,” she said. Then again, the case was full of those, so she was getting used to how they felt. “You realize there are ten more holy shits you’re going to find after that,” Williams said. “For each one, you’re going to go back through everything in the case file to see if that changes the way you see anything you thought you understood already.”

Williams had to wonder why Brandon would boast so cavalierly about murder and risk getting caught. Maybe he had a twisted reason for bragging about a crime he didn’t actually commit. His alibi, after all, had never been contradicted in court. Then Williams and Ramsey, along with Steve Cox at the Livingston County sheriff’s office, started getting calls from people in Chillicothe with other stories about Brandon.


1990

June Cairns was used to her son Matt’s friends coming over to the house. A high school wrestler popular among his peers, Matt often held court in the Cairns living room with guys on his team. Matt wasn’t particularly close with Brandon, whom he found cocky and a little too quick to pick fights over stupid things. Still, Brandon sometimes crashed at Matt’s house after parties or hung out on the family’s couch watching TV. He even kept coming by after he’d moved to Independence. June thought Brandon had worn out his welcome.

One weekend in October 1990, Brandon stopped by the Cairns house to see Matt. He also wanted to use the family’s phone. Standing in the kitchen, he dialed the Robertsons’ number, and Cathy answered. Brandon asked to speak to Rochelle, who was home that day from St. Joseph, and Cathy said no. Brandon began yelling.

“You bitch!” June heard him say. “I’m going to slit your throat!”

June shot up from the dining room chair where she was sitting and went into the kitchen. “You don’t talk that way on my phone,” she told Brandon. She recalled him leaving the house without apologizing.

June saw Brandon again the morning of November 14. Sometime between 6 and 7 a.m., she was having coffee with her daughter and son-in-law when Brandon breezed into the house and went upstairs. Hours later, June heard about the murder of the shooting from the night before and Cathy Robertson’s death. She gave a formal statement to investigators, detailing what she’d heard Brandon say to Cathy on the phone and his arrival at her house the morning after the shooting. The investigators’ report, however, noted only that “Brandon started ‘bitching out’ Cathy Robertson and made threats toward her and Rochelle.” It didn’t include the time frame when June said Brandon had arrived at her home on November 14—which was around when Brandon had told police he’d left Independence.

An additional witness encountered Brandon at Chillicothe’s high school earlier than would have been possible if he were telling the truth. Bob Fairchild, the assistant principal, claimed to have seen Brandon in a hallway between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. Angie Smith, a teenager who lived down the road from the Robertsons, told law enforcement that, later that day, Brandon approached her and asked if she’d seen anything the night before. Smith said she hadn’t. She told investigators that she “thought that Brandon was more concerned with covering himself than his concern over what had happened.”

At least three other people claimed to have seen Brandon in Chillicothe the night of the shooting. Melissa Suchsland, a fellow high schooler, said she spotted him at an Amoco station between 9 and 10 p.m., standing next to what looked like a Bronco. After news of the shooting spread, Suchsland’s mother took her to the sheriff’s office to report what she’d seen; Suchsland would testify at Mark’s second trial, during which the prosecution questioned her memory and suggested that she was just looking for media attention. Mike Thistlethwaite, who’d once played sports with Brandon, told a friend that he’d seen his former teammate at the town’s bowling alley around 11 p.m. The friend approached the sheriff’s office with this information, and Thistlethwaite later testified that law enforcement never contacted him to follow up.

Then there was Linda Zurmiller, who had a daughter about Brandon’s age. According to Zurmiller, around 10:30 p.m. she pulled up to a stoplight near Chillicothe’s Sonic drive-in, and she saw Brandon in the car next to her. When Zurmiller spoke to law enforcement shortly after the shooting, she noted that it was strange to see Brandon on a weeknight, and at such a late hour, because he didn’t live in Chillicothe anymore. After Mark was convicted, Zurmiller approached the chief deputy sheriff to ask why her report hadn’t influenced the case. “Deputy Calvert told me that Brandon Thomure Hagan’s mother had given him an iron-clad alibi and they couldn’t go above what his mother said,” Zurmiller stated in an affidavit. Calvert told her that Brandon’s mom “opened his bedroom door and he was asleep in bed” the night of the shooting.

“And I told him no,” Zurmiller said, “he was not.”


2011

Ramsey and Williams had gathered nearly 200 pieces of evidence that they planned to submit during the hearing. At Bilbrey’s, with just a few weeks to go, they took stock of what the raft of testimony and documents told them about the case. Much of it pointed to faulty police work and an undue focus on convicting Mark. More evidence than they’d anticipated, however, made Brandon look guilty. It was all circumstantial, which wasn’t enough for a prosecutor to build a case on—and that wasn’t their job anyway. Still, the legal team hoped to use the hearing to at least air what they’d learned about Brandon.

They also wanted Brandon himself to testify, which meant tracking him down. Williams volunteered to go to bars he’d been known to frequent in and around Lake Ozark. “I wasn’t afraid of him. I thought he was a bully, and bullies never scared me,” she said. Ramsey, though, wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re not putting you in harm’s way,” he told Williams.

Instead, Williams contacted Brandon on the phone. He bounced around a lot; his various run-ins with the law didn’t help him hold down steady employment, and when child-support payments and tax liens piled up, he sometimes moved back in with his mother in Independence. Recently, though, he’d got an apartment in Jefferson City. When Brandon answered, and Williams explained who she was, he was defensive. “Every time I talk to someone my words get jumped and turned around,” he said. Brandon declared himself innocent. “I don’t know why everyone is focused on me,” he said. “You should talk to Rochelle.”

The statement took Williams by surprise. She’d assumed that Brandon and Rochelle had stopped talking many years earlier. Why would they still be in touch?

“Do you have a number for her?” Williams asked.

“I call my mom if I need to get ahold of her,” Brandon said. “She calls Lyndel and gets Rochelle’s number for me to talk to her.” (In her deposition, Rochelle told Ramsey that she and Brandon hadn’t spoken since 2003 or 2004.)

Williams asked what Brandon’s mom and Lyndel had to talk about. Brandon said “newspaper articles about the case”—a reference to Alan Zagier’s AP reporting from a few years prior. Williams planned to inquire next about what he and Rochelle had to discuss, but Brandon cut things short.

“How would talking to me help anything?” he asked. The call suddenly dropped. When Williams tried Brandon’s number again, it went straight to voice mail. On a later call, Brandon told Williams and Ramsey that he wouldn’t talk without a lawyer. His mother also said she had no interest in talking.

A few weeks later, Williams and Ramsey showed up at Brandon’s apartment. Because of his wrestling and MMA experience, Williams expected him to have a commanding physical presence. The man who opened the door was small and compact. He held a shirt in one hand, and he had shaving cream on his face. Williams explained that he was needed to testify at the hearing about his past statements to police. “They raped me for years,” Brandon said of law enforcement. “I’m not going back to court. I’m the victim here.”

When Williams tried to ask Brandon questions, he said, “I’m not talking to you—you have to talk to my lawyer.” She pointed out that he’d eventually have to speak under oath, and he asked defiantly, “Well, what if I don’t come?”

There, on the doorstep, Brandon was served with a subpoena.

Part V


2011

On Mark Woodworth’s 3,498th day in prison, he woke up at 5 a.m. He put on a gray uniform, and guards placed his wrists in shackles. He walked down a series of sterile corridors until he reached a door. Outside was a car waiting to take him away from Crossroads Correctional. It was a nearly three-hour drive to Boone County, where the evidentiary hearing was scheduled to begin that day—May 31, 2011—in Judge Oxenhandler’s court. From the car’s backseat, Mark looked out the windows as mile after mile of flat farmland zipped by. A leaden dawn eventually gave way to bright sunshine. Mark saw green pastures, roaming cattle, and rows of freshly planted crops fading to a blur on the horizon. Once this had all been familiar; now it was foreign.

At the courthouse, officers escorted Mark to a small room, where he traded the uniform for a dress shirt, slacks, and shiny black shoes. It was the first time he’d worn civilian clothes in more than a decade. His parents, who’d brought the outfit from Chillicothe, were waiting in the courtroom with dozens of friends. Members of the Free Mark Woodworth campaign, which had raised money for his legal fees and designed T-shirts and license-plate holders promoting the cause, had met early that morning in the parking lot of Chillicothe’s Hy-Vee. Loaded down with home-baked cookies and thermoses of coffee, they’d piled into rented vans and caravanned to Boone County.

Among the supporters was Chris Ruoff, who was sure Mark had been bulldozed, and Kathy Smith, whose backyard shared a border with the Robertsons’. After Cathy was murdered, Rhonda, still in high school, would call up Smith to ask how to get a grass stain out of her brother’s baseball pants or what kind of soup goes well with grilled-cheese sandwiches. “I said ‘I would do chicken noodle soup’ and just have tears in my eyes, because that’s not something a 16-year-old girl should be thinking about,” Smith said. But while her heart went out to the Robertsons, she didn’t think Mark was guilty. “I needed to hear myself, firsthand, some of the things that had been rumored about in town,” Smith said of her decision to travel to Boone County.

On the other side of the courtroom were the Robertsons with a smaller group of allies. The siblings were now adults, raising kids of their own. The family had never wavered in their belief that Mark killed Cathy, but they were powerless to keep rival forces at bay in a place as small as Chillicothe. Rhonda and her husband had stopped buying farm supplies from a business that supported the Free Mark Woodworth crusade. Family friends had quit going to their church after the reverend offered up prayers for the Woodworths. Not long before the evidentiary hearing, an elementary school classmate of Rhonda’s son had approached him and said, “I don’t think he’s guilty,” before turning and walking away. The statement was a kind of shorthand, a fragment of knowing language that embodied the town’s intimacy and tapped into the powerful emotional charge that had pulsed through it since November 1990.

Mark, Ramsey, and Williams filed into the courtroom and took their places at the defense table. Ted Bruce and Stephen Hawke, representatives from the state attorney general’s office, sat across the aisle. Oxenhandler, a stern man with a white beard who talked rapidly, as if to convey that he didn’t have time for people to waste, called the court to order for the first of four days.

Ramsey’s plan was to petition Oxenhandler for habeas corpus relief, which would free Mark on the grounds that he hadn’t received a fair trial. To Ramsey’s mind, the case against his client represented a manifest injustice, and he would call some 30 witnesses to prove it. The prosecution, however, argued that the only question at stake was whether there was any new evidence to consider. They planned to show that all the exhibits Ramsey had mustered, including the Lewis letters, had been available to Mark’s previous attorneys. If past counsel made poor strategic decisions with that evidence, the state wasn’t to blame.

One by one, Ramsey called his witnesses. Terry Deister was on the stand for the longest stretch of time; it was the first court testimony he’d ever given about Mark’s case.

“You were working for Mr. Robertson in the capacity of helping him defend against a lawsuit, weren’t you?” Ramsey asked.

“I don’t remember anything about that,” Deister said.

Williams handed Ramsey another exhibit: a note from June 1991 in which the private eye had written, “I expressed my concerns about the profile of Mark Woodworth from what I had determined about the conversations I had with Lyndel Robertson.” What did Lyndel say about his neighbor’s son? Ramsey asked.

“I don’t remember,” Deister said.

Ramsey read directly from the evidence. “‘He seemed to be a prime candidate to fall under the profile of an individual who would do almost anything to get the approval [of] his father,’” Ramsey said. “What facts did you base that on? Was that the information you received from Lyndel Robertson?”

“Possibly, yes,” Deister said.

“You knew at that point that Mr. Robertson, your client, was being sued by Mark Woodworth’s father, alleging fraud, didn’t you?”

“No. I don’t remember,” Deister replied. “I don’t even remember much about the civil suit.”

“Are you telling me that you never discussed with Mr. Robertson that there was a lawsuit filed by Mark Woodworth’s father against him?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t remember.”

After more than an hour of interrogation, Oxenhandler had a few questions of his own. The judge remarked on Deister’s unfettered access to the case files. “You’ve been in law enforcement since the sixties,” Oxenhandler said. “You know that in the course of an investigation, police files are not open to anyone.”

“Yes,” Deister said.

Oxenhandler then asked about conflicts of interest and a seeming failure to challenge Brandon’s alibi before inquiring, as a general matter, “Are you having second thoughts with regards to the investigation?”

Deister said no.

At the end of each day of the hearing, Mark changed into his prison uniform and rode back to Crossroads Correctional. Most Chillicothe residents went home for the night, too, but the Woodworths stayed in a local hotel. So did Ramsey and Williams, who worked around the clock in a war room outfitted with portable printers and a conference table littered with documents and boxes of Chinese takeout. Once, when the legal team ran into the Woodworths in the lobby, the family asked what Oxenhandler had said when he called Ramsey to the bench during Deister’s testimony.

“I think you’ve made your point about this man’s integrity,” the judge had said. “You can’t beat a dead horse. Let’s move on.”

“I think you’ve made your point about this man’s integrity. You can’t beat a dead horse.”

Kenny Hulshof flew in for his testimony. He now worked as a lawyer at the firm Polsinelli, which had offices in Missouri and Washington, D.C. After serving six terms in the House of Representatives and losing the 2008 Missouri gubernatorial race, Hulshof had faced scrutiny for his time as a state prosecutor. Investigations into his record would lead to several murder convictions being overturned or thrown out, including that of Josh Kezer, a teenager at the time of his alleged crime. The judge who reversed the conviction found that Hulshof had withheld evidence from Kezer’s defense and misled the jury. “We now know that none of what Mr. Hulshof said in [his] final summary was true,” the judge wrote.

On the stand in Oxenhandler’s court, Hulshof looked poised in a crisp white shirt, dark navy suit, and Windsor-knotted tie. His straw-blond hair was parted over his tanned face. He assured the room that the Lewis letters had been provided to Mark’s defense team during the first trial.

“Do you recall what your process was for making sure that you complied with your obligations?” prosecutor Ted Bruce asked, referring to the sharing of potentially exculpatory evidence.

“My investigator or I, usually my investigator, would hand-number every single page that we received,” Hulshof said, “and then we would make a copy of those investigative reports and tender them to counsel for the defendant.”

Williams felt a jolt of recognition. She grabbed a pen and scribbled a note as fast as she could on a piece of paper. Then she reached over Mark, seated between the two members of his legal team, and jabbed Ramsey in the arm. Williams gestured for her boss to look down at what she’d written in all caps.

“NO NUMBERS!”

Williams then turned to a filing box next to the defense table and flipped through pages until she found copies of the Lewis letters. She yanked them out and handed them to Ramsey. “There were never any numbers. They never stamped these,” she said under her breath.

Ramsey stood to question the witness. “You said, I believe, earlier that it was your practice to put numbers on all the documents that you produced to the defense. Correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Hulshof said.

Ramsey handed him the copies of the letters that Williams had retrieved. “There’s no numbers on those pages, are there?” Ramsey asked.

Hulshof studied the letters. Ramsey swore he saw the color drain from the former prosecutor’s face. There was a long pause.

“There are no numbers,” Hulshof said finally.

At the defense table, Williams beamed. “I knew it,” she whispered to Mark. She’d just showed the court that there was no proof that the Lewis letters had ever made it into the hands of Mark’s defense attorneys, which meant conclusively that they were new evidence. “I thought he was going to have a bowel movement on the witness stand,” Ramsey said of Hulshof.

Ramsey wasn’t done with the witness. “You also stated that this is the only case that you’ve ever prosecuted in which the victim had hired a private investigator to work with law enforcement,” Ramsey said.

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s pretty unusual, isn’t it?”

“It was.”

“From a prosecutor’s standpoint, can that raise issues as to a conflict of interest of the private investigator?”

“There are a host of issues. Conflict of interest is one of them.”

“Especially where that investigator is representing the client who is the victim on a civil suit in which one of the parties’ father sued him for defrauding him, correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Hulshof said, adding that he “wasn’t very conversant” about the civil case.

“And what did you do to resolve the doubts that you had … about Mr. Deister’s potential divided loyalty?” Ramsey asked.

“As far as putting on our case in the first trial, I tried to not have to use Mr. Deister.”

Hulshof, in other words, seemed to have known that questioning Deister on the stand wouldn’t have been smart. Still, he’d used the private investigator’s evidence to build his case against Mark.

Dana Williams, the Chillicothe resident who’d admired Hulshof’s performance at the first trial, was once again in the courtroom. The former prosecutor, she decided, was outmatched. “Ramsey had the facts down, and he was throwing questions at him like he’d done it for a hundred years,” she said. “Hulshof had tried to cover his tracks, and it didn’t go real well.”

Lyndel took the stand wearing a blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, with an eyeglasses case protruding from the breast pocket. Like other witnesses, he said he couldn’t remember many details from the murder investigation, describing his memory as “a big blur.” He’d once said under oath that he was never aware that Roberts didn’t want to charge Mark. Now, with the Lewis letters in evidence, he acknowledged that he’d probably known that the prosecutor “wasn’t aggressive.” (Roberts testified at the hearing, too, noting, “If you allow the victim or alleged victim of a crime to remove the prosecutor every time the prosecutor disagrees with him, then you’re opening a door up to that happening any time the prosecutor doesn’t think there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a case or [that] a particular person should be prosecuted.”)

Ramsey had questions that went well beyond the Lewis letters—ones he knew were likely to provoke the prosecution. He asked Lyndel about Brandon’s violations of Rochelle’s protective order, and Ted Bruce immediately objected. “I don’t see how it’s relevant for any issue that this court has to decide,” the prosecutor said.

“This goes to the man’s motivation,” Ramsey replied. “It goes to the credibility of not only him but … of his daughter.”

Oxenhandler overruled the objection.

“Yeah, I think I did [know] at the time,” Lyndel said of Rochelle’s reports against Brandon, including that he’d harassed her new boyfriend, who later became her husband. “But it’s kind of foggy now. I don’t remember.”

“Did you talk to your daughter at all about all of that?”

“She didn’t really relay it to me that much.”

“So she went over to the sheriff’s department to complain about being threatened, but she didn’t tell you about it?”

“She probably didn’t want to bother me.”

Ramsey methodically presented other evidence casting suspicion on Brandon: the witnesses’ contradictions of his alibi, his threats against Cathy Robertson, and the confession he’d allegedly made to Aaron Duncan. For some of the people from Chillicothe who’d come to watch the hearing, what Ramsey revealed was news—but it matched their understanding of who Brandon was. “That fit right into Brandon’s personality,” Kathy Smith said.

Finally, Ramsey called Brandon himself to the stand. Brandon honored the subpoena, showing up on the appointed day with a clean-shaven face and gel-spiked hair. He wore a gray suit that looked to be a size too big. His ears were cauliflowered from years on wrestling mats.

Brandon came with his attorney, John Waltz, who approached the bench before his client was called to the stand. “Your honor, I represent Brandon Hagan,” Waltz said. “Because he is being targeted by the current sheriff of Livingston County and in the news media, I’ve instructed him to take the Fifth.” Once he was sworn in, Brandon dutifully followed his lawyer’s advice.

“Were you the boyfriend of Rochelle Robertson at one point?” Ramsey asked.

Brandon declined to answer.

“Did you tell the police when you were interviewed that you left Independence, Missouri, at ten minutes to seven the morning after the murder?” Ramsey asked.

Brandon again pleaded the Fifth.

“I don’t have anything further, your honor,” Ramsey said.

Before Brandon was dismissed, Oxenhandler waved Waltz back up to the bench. The judge turned off his microphone. He had some information that the lawyer and his client hadn’t expected. “As an officer of the court, I want you to be aware that there is a warrant for your client’s arrest out of another county,” Oxenhandler said. “When he leaves the courtroom, he is going to be arrested.”

“I’ll accompany him, of course,” Waltz replied.

Outside the room’s doors, officers detained Brandon for writing a bad check. They read him his rights, patted him down for weapons, and emptied the contents of his pockets. Among the items, according to Ramsey, Williams, and Steve Cox, was an index card on which Waltz had written, “If you forget, shut the fuck up.”

Oxenhandler told Ramsey and Bruce to prepare written briefs of their arguments, after which he’d bring them back into his court in November 2011 for a concluding session. At that hearing, Bruce tried to counter Ramsey’s witnesses, particularly those who’d testified against Brandon. “I have no idea whether or not they are intentionally lying, whether or not they are just completely wrong,” Bruce said. Wasn’t it telling, he continued, that the surviving witness didn’t think Brandon did it? “If Mr. Lyndel Robertson wanted to make this case an easy one, all he had to do is say, ‘I saw who did it,’” Bruce said. “I have been troubled all along at the willingness to assume misconduct on the part of people, and not just the police, not just the prosecutor, not just the judges. The victims as well.” Ramsey’s rebuttal hinged on the existence of the Lewis letters and on Deister and Calvert’s work on the case, which Ramsey said “immediately calls into question the integrity of the investigation.”

It would be several months before Oxenhandler issued his recommendation to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mark remained in prison. The Woodworths, the Robertsons, and their respective supporters fell back into the uncomfortable habits of life as neighbors in Chillicothe. Williams and Ramsey returned to Bilbrey’s, where each time they logged on to the Missouri courts’ website, they hoped for an alert that Oxenhandler’s findings were available.

Finally, in May 2012, Ramsey received an email from the judge’s office. It said that the report would arrive in a few minutes, after which there would be a public release. Oxenhandler was ruling in Mark’s favor.

Ramsey and Williams yelled out, startling other staff in the office. In between tears, hugs, and jumping up and down, they read aloud lines from the report: “Woodworth had the burden to prove that he was entitled to habeas corpus relief, and he proved it, clearly and convincingly.” The Lewis letters and “all of the subsequently uncovered evidence … should have been disclosed years and years before.” Oxenhandler found Deister “not to be credible.” Calvert’s office “inexcusably” let Deister take the reins of the investigation. Lewis displayed “inappropriateness” and “lost sight of his judicial sense of fairness.” Lyndel’s employment of Deister in two conflicting legal matters was “problematic.” Hulshof’s prosecution was “as flawed [as] the investigation.”

Oxenhandler criticized the focus on Mark as a suspect when there was “an open and obvious ‘other’ person who may have committed the crimes”—namely, Brandon. The judge also criticized an “apparent pattern of not following up on witnesses and investigative leads which tended to contradict [Brandon’s] alibi.” Of Rochelle he wrote that she “was not being candid” about Brandon’s threats. “This demonstrated, at the very least, Rochelle’s intention to protect her boyfriend … from prosecution,” Oxenhandler said. “Either Rochelle was dishonest with the investigators or the investigators were not reporting what they really knew.”

In a fervent section, the judge said that he was “hard-pressed to come up with a word or phrase in the English language that fairly describes the conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth’s judicial process: They could be the lyrics to a country and western song.”

Ramsey and Williams dialed the number for Crossroads Correctional to tell Mark the news. True to form, he thanked them calmly and politely. Williams, though, sensed a spark of excitement.

The Missouri Supreme Court still had to decide whether or not to take Oxenhandler’s recommendation. At a hearing in June 2012, the seven black-robed justices sat in a room paneled with dark oak and heard Ramsey and Bruce speak one last time. They also asked questions. Of particular interest to the court were the ballistics and their chain of custody.

“The evidence at the hearing was that [Deister] was given physical possession, without supervision, of the bullet?” a judge asked.

“That’s correct,” Ramsey said.

“The conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth’s judicial process … could be the lyrics to a country and western song.”

The Supreme Court released its decision six months later. The language was unequivocal: The court supported Oxenhandler’s findings and ordered the vacating of Mark’s conviction. He would be released on bond pending a new trial, which the attorney general’s office vowed to mount with the Robertsons’ support. “If seeking justice for the murder of Cathy Robertson takes a third trial and 100 years,” the family said in a statement after the decision came down, “we will do what it takes to hold Mark Woodworth accountable for his actions.”

On February 15, 2013, Mark was transferred from Crossroads Correctional to the Livingston County sheriff’s office. His family was waiting for him, along with Williams and Ramsey. Mark changed into a blue shirt and slacks, and he shook hands with various deputies who wished him congratulations. Mark hesitated when he got to the office’s glass doors. There were hundreds of people in the streets, some holding posters with messages welcoming him home. Media cameras lined the sidewalks. Mark looked around, expecting someone to lead him out. Instead he heard voices urge, “Go on.” Out he walked into the cheering crowd.

Elsewhere supporters of the Robertson family were furious. “I’m ashamed of this town that celebrates a murderer’s homecoming like he is a hero,” one woman wrote on the Facebook page Peace and Justice for Cathy Robertson. “How a two-time convicted murderer can be let free and a welcome-home parade given in his honor is just plain sick,” another wrote. “[That] this ‘person,’ and I use the term very lightly … has the gall to stay in this town and walk free is a little gutsy, don’t you think?”

After a barrage of hugs and questions, Mark was ready to go home, but he didn’t know how. What kinds of cars did his family drive now? Where had they parked? His sister led him to his brother’s truck, with the crowd trailing behind. Once they loaded inside, the siblings began the short trip to Claude and Jackie’s house. The last time Mark had taken the route was in the late 1990s. Back then he could practically drive it with his eyes closed. Now it felt like everything had changed. The roads were wider, and there was a new hospital in town. Outside his parents’ house, Mark couldn’t believe how tall the pine trees had grown.

The next day, Mark’s mom, grandmother, and aunt took him shopping. They went to Orscheln Farm and Home for jeans and to the Bootery for shoes. At an electronics store, his aunt got him an iPhone. “What do you want me to do with this?” he asked. The last time he’d been free, cell phones were only just starting to become everyday items. At the Hy-Vee, he ogled the self-checkout machine. He was surprised to learn at a gas station that he didn’t have to go inside to pay. “Now you use your credit card,” he said. “That was an experience.”

Other things were just as Mark had left them. He moved back into his childhood bedroom and started working with Claude in the fields. “My dream was to farm,” Mark said that fall. “By now I should have my own land, my own equipment, and I don’t have any of it.” If he had to make up for lost time, so be it.

The anticipation of a third trial, however, made it difficult to get started.    

Part VI


2014

A few months after the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling, a judge threw out the key ballistics evidence that allegedly implicated Mark in the shooting, citing “egregious, flagrant, cavalier disregard for evidentiary procedures and process.” The following year, he removed the attorney general’s office from the prosecution of the Robertson shooting and sent the matter back to Livingston County. “From the inception of the ‘secret investigation’ in 1991 through two trials,” the judge wrote, “the concept of ‘due process of law’ for defendant Woodworth took flight and did not reappear until approximately 2009.” The Robertson family questioned the impartiality of the sitting county prosecutor, so the judge appointed a special prosecutor. Finally, in July 2014, the state dismissed all charges against Mark. “The wrong person was charged in the first place,” the special prosecutor told the press. There would be no third trial.

The call came from Ramsey when Mark was in his father’s workshop. “It’s over,” Ramsey said. “You’re not going to have to worry about this anymore.” Mark went into the house to tell his mother, who began to weep. “I felt like my life had been on hold, waiting for the third trial,” Mark said. “I didn’t want to jump out there until it was over.” Now he was ready to live.

The next month, Ramsey filed a civil lawsuit on Mark’s behalf against numerous defendants, including Deister, Calvert, Lewis, Hulshof, Lyndel and Rochelle Robertson, Brandon Hagan, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department, the Chillicothe police, and other municipal authorities. The suit alleged:

Officials of the criminal justice system … conspired with civilians, who were acting under color of state law, to cruelly and cold-bloodedly frame Mark Woodworth for crimes he was innocent of. The conspirators accomplished their goals by conducting a sham investigation, fabricating false evidence, suppressing exculpatory evidence, and concealing their conspiratorial acts.

To Mark’s supporters in Chillicothe, it seemed obvious that he should get restitution for his time in prison. Other residents, however, saw the lawsuit as a fresh injustice. A professional spokesperson for the Robertson family, hired during the collapse of the case against Mark, said that the narrative of the shooting had tipped into lies and exaggeration. The people who believed the lawsuit’s accusations, she insisted, were like “children taking drugs from a dealer.”

Lyndel and other members of the Robertson family declined to speak for this story. But Rochelle, Rhonda, and Roxanne, the youngest sibling, agreed to meet in the dining room of Chillicothe’s Comfort Inn. When hotel staff fluttered near the table where the brown-haired sisters sat with water bottles, the women would pause their conversation, hoping to ward off any eavesdropping.

“When you go into town, it feels like you’re going into the mob,” Roxanne said.

“We vent to each other a lot,” Rhonda chimed in.

The sisters were frustrated that the town seemed to be forgetting what haunted them the most. “My mother is dead,” said Rhonda, herself a parent of three kids. “Mark has gained so much support. It seems like he has the whole town’s support. People get so wrapped up in this as a big story, and then they can close the book, throw away the newspaper, and turn off the TV. But my mom is still gone, and it’s something we have to live with every day.”

“They didn’t have to bury Mark,” Roxanne added.

“In the beginning here, it was us and the Woodworths,” Rhonda said. “They were our family. We thought of Jackie as a second mother, as much as we were with them.” Now if she saw one of the Woodworths at the Hy-Vee or at Walmart, she felt the urge to leave her cart half-filled and walk out of the store. Lyndel still owned the farmland adjacent to Claude’s, and he drove there every day for work, but he hadn’t spoken to his old business partner in many years. At a local preschool, Mark’s sisters avoided Rochelle, who worked as an aide in a classroom with some of their daughters.

“I would love to move,” Rhonda said, “but we’re anchored here with our farms. And, you know, part of me is like, ‘By God, we’re not going to let them run us off.’”

That finding justice for Cathy first required letting Mark go was an untenable notion for the Robertson sisters. They didn’t believe that someone could concurrently support Mark’s freedom and vindication for their mother’s death. It was an irreconcilable position.

Rochelle talked less than her sisters. Now and then, she cracked her knuckles under the table. “I just really want people to know that my mom was so much more than November 13, 1990,” she said. “She was the epitome of the perfect mom, in my mind anyway.” Rochelle talked about some of her earliest memories, when her siblings hadn’t yet been born and her mom took her on walks. “We’d go out in the creeks and collect these big ugly rocks, and then my dad would open them with a sledgehammer, and there’d be crystals,” she said. “They were the prettiest things inside. I always thought the crystals were diamonds.”

“I just really want people to know that my mom was so much more than November 13, 1990. She was the epitome of the perfect mom.”

The sisters denied that there had been serious tensions between Rochelle and their mother. “It wasn’t this tumultuous thing,” Rhonda said. “Sure, there were a couple of fights, but they got along—they just disagreed about Brandon.” The sisters said the notion that Rochelle might have been involved in the shooting, which Mark’s lawsuit explicitly suggested, was baseless.

“If I found out that she had something to do with this, it’d be no problem for me to tell the world that,” Rhonda said. “Because that’s someone’s life that was taken, and that’s way more important to me than saving my sister.”

At another point, Rhonda said wearily, “I wish the shooter had been Brandon. My life would be a hell of a lot easier. I wouldn’t be going through this agony.”

“I’m sure Dad wishes it was Brandon,” Roxanne added.

Sheriff Cox, who took over the reopened investigation into the Robertson shooting, believed Brandon was likely responsible for Cathy’s murder. “If we were in Las Vegas and the line was you put your money down on who you think did it, all my money would go on Brandon,” Cox said in a deposition. The sheriff grew even more confident after the Oxenhandler hearing, when additional circumstantial evidence came to light.

In 2011, Caleb Carter saw coverage of the hearing and reached out to Ramsey’s office. Caleb’s sister, Casey, had dated Brandon around the time of Mark’s second trial. She’d since passed away, but Caleb remembered a disturbing encounter he’d had with his sister’s boyfriend, before Brandon became so physically abusive toward Casey that her father told him to stop seeing her.

In 1998, Caleb went with Casey, Brandon, and some friends to spend a few nights at a condominium near a lake. One afternoon the group went to Old Time Photos, a portrait studio that sold sepia-toned pictures of patrons dressed in period costumes. Brandon dressed up as a gangster in a saloon. He wore a vest and a hat, an unlit cigar dangled from his mouth, and he gripped a fake pistol. A few hours after the photo was taken, the friends were drinking heavily at the condo when, according to Caleb in a deposition, Brandon “got angry about something and said, ‘I don’t mind shooting somebody or doing what I have to do.’” Caleb said that Brandon then “went into detail about how he had shot a couple of people in Chillicothe because they didn’t want him to date their daughter,” who was pregnant at the time. Caleb remembered Brandon’s saying that “he went to the house and went inside and shot the mom and dad and then he left. They were trying to take the baby away or make her not have a baby.”

Caleb pointed out that, back in 1998, it wasn’t as if someone at the condo could look up Brandon or the Chillicothe shooting on the internet as easily as they could in 2011. “I just thought he was full of it,” Caleb said. “The last thing I remember was him mentioning that he never got caught for it.”

When Cox heard Caleb’s story, he was angry. How many confessions does this guy have to make? the sheriff wondered. The number, however, wasn’t the issue—and it still isn’t.


2018

More than a quarter-century, two trials, and tens of thousands of pages of legal documents after Cathy’s murder, with the Robertsons still sure that Mark committed the crime, it’s likely that only a signed confession or murder weapon will lead to charges against anyone. And because virtually no one involved in the case has ever admitted wrongdoing and the mandate in Mark’s appeal was to prove his innocence, not convict someone else, the answers to several critical questions remain just out of reach.

If, as Ramsey has argued, Calvert, Deister, Lyndel, and others framed Mark, what was their motive? A frank if misguided desire to finish the case and bring closure to the Robertsons? A financial agreement benefiting certain individuals at Mark’s existential expense, and that of his family, too? Something more sinister, like a cover-up to protect the real killer?

If Brandon was the shooter, why has there never been any physical evidence found to implicate him? How likely is it, really, that a 16-year-old, no matter how volatile, could get away with murder, particularly after being the first suspect named by the surviving victim? Through legal representation, Brandon declined to comment for this story. “The claim that he was the true killer” and that he’d conspired with other people is “a bunch of bullshit,” attorney Ken McClain said.

Finally, what if someone else was responsible for Cathy’s murder, a suspect whom investigators missed completely? In a case so riddled with error, it’s not out of the question.

In Chillicothe, the shooting remains a tense, emotional issue. Cathy’s murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, Mark’s conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land. A complete reckoning of the wrongs done seems impossible so long as Cathy’s killer isn’t brought to justice. Until then, as surely as farmers plant and harvest their crops each year, so too will the memory of a violent death and the pain it wrought be perennial.

Cathy’s murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, Mark’s conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land.

On an unseasonably warm winter day, Mark walked across a quiet piece of land stretching toward a stand of poplar trees. The sun was starting to set. Here, a few miles outside Chillicothe, was the construction site of his new house. Once it was completed, he would share it with his wife, Katy, whom he’d met when his sisters orchestrated a lunch to introduce them. They have a son, Miles, who is two.

The house, situated on a 365-acre farm, was funded by a confidential insurance settlement from Mark’s civil suit. The number of defendants had been whittled down as the courts weighed who was responsible for his pain and suffering. The Robertsons and Brandon Hagan were dismissed, for instance, but Calvert, Livingston County, and Chillicothe law enforcement were found liable for tens of millions of dollars in damages. When that legal action ended, another cropped up in its wake: From an eighth-floor office overlooking the Mississippi, where he now has a small firm with his daughter, Ramsey is fighting a lawsuit brought by Brandon against him and Mark. Brandon alleges that being named as a coconspirator in Mark’s civil suit degraded his ability to obtain gainful employment. “He’s been fired from jobs because they found out about the case,” his mother, Renee Thomure, said. The first hearing is scheduled for July 2019.

Brandon, Ramsey, accusations, and court hearings didn’t seem to be on Mark’s mind as he walked through his home’s unfinished rooms. He described the colors he and Katy wanted to paint each wall: a soft green, a warm brown. The place felt as humble as it did idyllic.

Kelly Williams walked beside Mark, looking on the work in progress with satisfaction. She’d gotten married recently, to an insurance adjustor. After finishing Mark’s case, she’d worked at a courthouse for a while and eventually landed an administration job with more manageable hours at the University of Missouri. She stayed in close touch with the Woodworths, coming to Chillicothe as often as she could.

“I told Mark that he’s got to deal with me for the rest of his life,” she said.

“I’m stuck with her,” Mark echoed.

From her purse, Williams took out a photo laminated with clear tape. It shows the moment Mark walked out of the sheriff’s office in Chillicothe, in February 2013, and encountered a throng of supporters. In the middle of the swarm, Williams is behind Mark, smiling proudly as he melts into the crowd’s embrace.

Katy and Miles arrived at the construction site. The redheaded toddler dashed up to Williams to give her a hug. Mark bent down to adjust the Velcro straps on his son’s shoes. The group walked out of the house, to the area where Mark and Katy planned to build a back porch. “We wanted plenty of room,” Mark said of the acreage before him. There wasn’t a neighbor in sight.

Mark meandered back inside, to a room with tall windows facing east and south. This was where Katy would grow plants. “Succulents, those kinds of things,” Mark explained. “The sun comes in and warms the room.”

The moment echoed one from a few months after Mark first got out on bond in 2013, when he still didn’t know if he’d face another trial. One summer day, he drove in a truck—his truck—over a bumpy road on his father’s property, past a vast field of chest-high soybean stalks. He parked on a ridge and got out, then made his way down the slope to examine some of the plants. Harvest was nearing; he wondered how the crops were doing.

Soybeans are tough. In dry air, their leaves curl inward and toward the ground. “It’s how they survive against the summer sun while they wait for more rain,” Mark explained. “That’s their mechanism to defend themselves. That’s them doing what they can to fight.”

If you have any information regarding the murder of Cathy Robertson, please contact the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department at 660-646-0515 or via email at this link.

The Old and the Restless

The Old and the Restless

An indecent proposal, a crime of passion, and legends of murder in an enclave of bohemian retirees.

By Chris Walker

The Atavist Magazine, No. 75


Chris Walker is a former staff writer at Denver alt-weekly Westword. Prior to living in Colorado, he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for NPR, ForbesThe Atlantic, and Vice. His website is chrisallanwalker.com


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Bijou Karman

Published in January 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Act I

Ajijic. Such a strange word, Jackie Hodges thought as she rode in a Porsche convertible through a stretch of lush, rolling mountains in central Mexico. The 45-year-old American knew virtually nothing about the small town where she was headed, including how to pronounce its name. “Ah-hee-heek,” locals would patiently repeat again and again after she arrived. In Mexico’s indigenous Nahuatl tongue, the word means “place where the water is born.”

It was the fall of 1969, and Hodges needed a distraction. Her second marriage was coming apart at the seams. Eager to get away from her home in Pasadena, California, she’d seized upon an invitation to visit Lona Mae Isoard, a friend who lived in Ajijic. Hodges had always puzzled over Isoard’s decision to move there. A talented painter who liked to wear her gray hair in a French twist, Isoard was a seasoned traveler who’d lived in Paris and Rome. Why settle down in a Mexican pueblo of barely 5,000 people just south of Guadalajara?

The environs were pretty, at least. Hodges spotted Ajijic as the Porsche, in which Isoard had picked her up at Guadalajara’s airport, crested a mountain pass. She took in the expanse of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It stretched some 11 miles south and 50 miles east to west. Dotting its northern edge were picturesque fishing communities, one of which was the women’s destination.

They wended their way down the highway until the convertible’s tires met cobblestone. The Porsche rattled into the heart of Ajijic, where blue tin placards proclaimed the narrow streets’ names, children ran around shoeless, and bare-chested men hawked fish pulled from the lake. Hodges spied a pig strung up outside a home, rivulets of blood running from a gash in its neck down its snout to the ground. Nearby a group of caballeros with spurs on their boots rode sidestepping horses. The women drove past the Posada, a lodge and watering hole that had served as the de facto center of Ajijic’s expatriate scene since it opened in 1938. Eventually, they came to a row of brightly painted brick-and-mortar homes, one of which was Isoard’s.

Find hundreds of hours’ worth of longform stories read by audiobook narrators in the Audm app for iPhone.

“Rest up,” the painter told Hodges after they’d gotten settled. She would need energy.

The following evening, Isoard threw nothing short of a bacchanal. Some 60 people came, martinis flowed, and conversations slurred. “Have you met Jackie?” Isoard said to guest after guest, nudging the newcomer into the night’s starring role. The air was thick with smoke from Cuban cigars; a group of businessmen had just returned from Havana. At one point, they launched into a spirited argument with a couple of former diplomats over America’s embargo of the island nation. Rolling her eyes, Isoard directed a five-piece band she’d hired for the night to stand close to the men. Then she gathered up several women and displaced the debate with a dance floor.

Before the party was over, Hodges had a good if drunken understanding of Ajijic’s expats. Most of them were retired or nearly being so, but they refused to act like they were aging. Among them were many artists, writers, and actors—both has-beens and still-wannabes—who made the town feel like a Shangri-la for sun-setting bohemians. The wild party scene was fabled among those who’d experienced it, and some impressive names had made cameos. D.H. Lawrence wrote the first draft of his novel The Plumed Serpent while residing in the area in 1923. During the 1950s, Beat writers swallowed a drink or five at the Posada. Then came the hippies, who earned Ajijic a shout-out in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Acid Kool Aid Test as a stopover during a drug-fueled escapade by the LSD evangelists known as the Merry Pranksters.

The discomfiting contrast between their privileged existence and the substantially poorer one of the Mexicans they lived among didn’t seem to bother many expats. Ajijic’s low cost of living was a draw, along with its bucolic setting and temperate weather. To foreigners, whatever the town lacked—paved roads, telephones, TVs—it made up for with characters who embodied a popular saying: Once a private crossed the border into Mexico, he could be a general. People’s pasts became whatever they said they were. Take Zara Alexeyewa, known as La Rusa, who’d lived in Ajijic since the 1920s and claimed to be a ballerina from Russia. Over time local journalists and historians would uncover some 18 aliases she’d used and pinpoint her birthplace as New York. Alexeyewa fancied herself queen of the expats. Her attitude was imperious, and she was never seen walking anywhere. She rode around on a black horse, sitting sidesaddle in a long dress and wide-brimmed hat.

Hodges, a free spirit who’d always lamented that she missed visiting the Paris of Gertrude Stein by a generation, was enamored. After her visit with Isoard, she returned to Ajijic for longer stretches over the next three summers. By 1972, she was looking to buy a casita. By 1976, she was divorced and living in Ajijic year-round. She began dating a housing contractor, got married again, and never looked back.

I know this because she’s my grandmother. Now 93, Hodges has lived in Ajijic all my life. The place has changed since she first arrived. Development has altered the landscape, and Mexico’s drug war has taken a toll. My grandmother, though, is a time capsule. A flamboyant raconteur, she embellishes stories of parties that evolved into orgies and acquaintances who turned out to be CIA spooks with dialogue she couldn’t possibly have been privy to. I take everything she says about Ajijic with a grain or two of salt.

In 2015, she told me a story I couldn’t shake, about a person she couldn’t shake. Around Thanksgiving, we were in her living room discussing the litany of outrageous people and situations she’d encountered. Short and rail thin, with a dyed platinum-blond bob, she gesticulated as she spoke. Suddenly, with dramatic flair, she declared, “I’ve only met one person in my lifetime that I thought was truly evil.” The way she emphasized the last word jolted me. She meant it.

That person was Donna McCready, a charismatic, controversial figure in Ajijic in the 1970s and 1980s. So incredible were the instances of seduction, betrayal, and violence in which McCready is said to have played a part that they are now the crown jewels of local lore. Many of the old-timers who got entangled in McCready’s web are long gone, as is the woman herself, but some are still alive. I sought them out to hear their accounts, which added layers both macabre and poignant to the story my grandmother told me.

It boils down to this: In Ajijic, Donna McCready’s name is synonymous with murder.

Act II

One balmy afternoon in late 1976, Judy Eager was sitting near the entrance of the Posada when she saw two women roar into view astride motorcycles. They were newcomers, sporting black leather jackets and stony expressions that seemed to say fuck you. Expats rolled into Ajijic all the time, usually in less dramatic fashion. Eager and her husband had arrived only two years earlier, on the recommendation of a cab driver in Guadalajara, where they’d been vacationing. Soon after, they moved to town and took over stewardship of the Posada. Slinging drinks at the bar, they got to know everyone.

In the pair of leather-clad women, Eager sensed trouble. They pulled up to the Posada and came in for drinks. Their names were Donna McCready and Lois Schaefer, they were from Sausalito, California, and they were on a road trip through Mexico. They were also dating. Ajijic hosted a sizable gay population, but its members tended to be discreet about their relationships. The women were anything but: At the Posada, they were all over each other. The “dykes on bikes,” as Eager described them, took a liking to Ajijic and decided to stay.

Schaefer was middle-aged and boisterous, while McCready was in her thirties—young for an Ajijic expat—and resembled a school-age tomboy, with a short, shaggy haircut and thick glasses. On first impression she was quiet, but she relished making a scene and telling shocking stories. According to one Ajijic resident, McCready and Schaefer once decided to get a drink at Azteca, a dark cave of a saloon on the town’s main plaza. It catered to blue-collar Mexicans and featured a trough under the bar where patrons could relieve themselves. When an inebriated man insulted Schaefer, McCready came at him swinging. The women were hauled off to jail on assault charges—which McCready later claimed were dropped because she gave the station chief a blow job.

Schaefer and McCready didn’t stay together long. Mundane arguments over things like doing the dishes could turn violent. After they split, Schaefer struck up a new romance with a blonde named Susie Emery. One night during a squabble, Emery pulled out a gun and shot Schaefer through the breast; the bullet entered one side and came out the other. Judy Eager recounted the aftermath in her diary, which she recently showed me. “They both ended up in jail, had to pay a large fine to get out, and were both on probation for three months,” Eager wrote. “They became lovers again. Lois had Susie’s name tattooed above the bullet hole.” In Ajijic, it was a characteristically crazy incident.

McCready, meanwhile, got around romantically, according to Jan Dunlap. The two women bonded over a mutual predilection for mischief. Dunlap had moved to Ajijic with her five kids in 1967, after federal agents raided her home in New Mexico as part of a crackdown on a marijuana-trafficking ring involving her husband. She later opened Big Mama’s, a bar located across the street from the Posada that quickly earned an unholy reputation as a site for drug transactions. (Dunlap swore she wasn’t involved.) In comparison with the Posada, where caballeros only occasionally engaged in pistol shootouts—Eager called them “misunderstandings”—Big Mama’s was a dive. Patrons stumbled between the two establishments every night, until someone drunkenly announced whose house everyone could migrate to for a party.

McCready came by Big Mama’s alone around 11 a.m. most days to have a nip of tequila and chat with Dunlap before checking her mail at the post office. The women traded gossip, and McCready talked about her recent flirtations and sexual conquests. No one was off limits. McCready even propositioned Dunlap one day. “I already tried that once and didn’t like it,” she replied with a hearty laugh.

McCready wasn’t beautiful, in Dunlap’s opinion, but she could switch seamlessly from controlling an interaction with her charm to listening with apparent sympathy. Dunlap suspected that McCready’s savvy was why some people were drawn to her. Others thought it signaled a proclivity for manipulation. “If you studied her closely, her cold gray eyes gave away the secrets of a hard diabolical mind and a mean spirit,” reads the treatment for an unpublished screenplay about McCready, written in the 1990s by a former actor and Ajijic resident named Bob Jones. “The time left to her would be littered with victims.”

Around 1979, McCready began working as a home nurse for Steve and Pat Harrington, an older couple who owned a large estate on a hill above town. The home had a private drive, up which expats climbed to attend lavish parties—the sort that made other locals, who thrived on a culture of one-upmanship when it came to entertaining, green with envy. Steve had developed a serious heart problem that required constant care. McCready landed the job by claiming to have nursing experience. (No one I spoke to could remember whether she really did.)

As the weeks passed, McCready spent increasing amounts of time at the Harringtons’ tending to her sick charge. She also spent a lot of time wooing and then sleeping with Steve’s wife.

When Dunlap heard about the affair, she thought it fitting for McCready and her scorn for social mores. Dunlap would later recount it when crafting her own screenplay about McCready, called With Money Dances the Dogs:

PAT

Kiss me, DONNA. I need your arms around me.

DONNA caresses PAT. She has her hands inside PAT’S clothing, fondling her breast. One hand moves further down. PAT is in ecstasy, forgetting everything. DONNA is being very methodical, she knows what she’s doing.

Steve’s health declined quickly, and before long he died. According to Mexican law, a body must be buried or cremated within 48 hours of death. Unless there’s suspicion of foul play, autopsies are not routine. Steve was interred, and that was that.

McCready and Pat soon went public with their romance. For some residents, especially those who’d been friends with the Harringtons for many years, the affair was terribly gauche. When Judy Eager heard the news, she was angry. How could Pat move on from Steve just like that? Was she lonely or confused? My grandmother visited Pat, whom she considered a friend, and noticed that she’d undergone a makeover intended to take years off her appearance. She wore a pink dress and had curled her hair. “She was flitting about like a little kid,” my grandmother recalled.

Gossip began to swirl, including the conjecture that Steve may have succumbed to a most unnatural death at the hands of his wife’s lover. It was the sort of gross speculation that expats relished, especially while sipping cocktails. “If you live in Ajijic,” Dunlap told me, “you know it thrives on scandal.”


The first time I spoke to Dunlap, she told me that, not long after Steve died, McCready arrived at Big Mama’s for one of her visits. The place was empty. McCready marched over to the bar and announced, apropos of nothing, that she’d killed Steve.

Dunlap stood waiting for the punch line, but it never came. Instead, McCready doubled down on her claim. “She said she smothered him with a pillow,” Dunlap recalled, “and that Pat was watching from inside the coat closet.” Later, McCready told Dunlap that she and Pat had plotted the murder in order to collect Steve’s inheritance, only to discover that he’d changed his will to give some relatives the Ajijic estate and most of his money. Perhaps he’d sensed something nefarious afoot.

In another interview, Dunlap remembered McCready jesting publicly about murdering Steve. “She used to brag about it at cocktail parties,” Dunlap told me. “She’d say jokingly, ‘Sure, I killed him.’ Everyone would just listen to her and laugh.”

Dunlap wasn’t sure what to think, much less say. Why would her friend admit to a crime and risk getting caught? Was she trying to deflect suspicion through morbid humor? On the other hand, if she was lying, it was a bizarre yarn to spin, even for someone with a devilish streak and a fondness for shock value.

In the absence of proof, Dunlap uneasily let the matter lie. Years later, in her fictionalized take on the story, she tweaked the narrative to depict McCready poisoning her elderly employer:

STEVE is in bed, reading a book. DONNA enters the open doorway and knocks.

DONNA

Stevie Poo, I’ve brought you a pot of hot tea, made English style. See, I’ve even added milk, just the way you like it. My mother used to serve it to me like this, she always said it made me relax and sleep better. Here’s hoping it does the same for you.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the stuff of cinematic melodrama, a scenario Dunlap dreamed up for her screenplay. (The script was never produced, but there is periodic chatter around town of Meryl Streep or Sharon Stone being attached to it—wishful thinking in a community of lifelong dreamers.) No one else I spoke to remembered McCready boasting openly of killing her lover’s husband.

Dunlap, however, wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

In 1982, at a New Year’s Eve dinner party at the Posada, a distraught-looking Pat pulled my grandmother aside. “I’m losing her, Jackie,” she whispered miserably. “Donna is in love with someone else.” She was right: McCready broke up with Pat, prompting the spurned widow to leave Ajijic for good. McCready then moved on to occupy one corner of another love triangle.

Dunlap wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

Like the Harringtons, the Taylors were a wealthy retired couple. Albert had been a producer of Broadway shows, and Hildegard was a former model. They maintained an aura of elegance—Albert often wore a monocle—and fawned over one another. When he developed dementia, however, Albert’s personality changed. Pamela Duran, who knew the Taylors well, described how Hildegard would take him to social gatherings, where he sat silently among friends as if in a stupor. In other instances, he grew abusive, yelling at his wife for reasons he couldn’t articulate.

Hildegard sought someone with nursing experience to care for her ailing husband, and McCready got the job. Given how sick he was, no one was surprised when Albert died. But Duran was stunned when, one afternoon, McCready sidled up to her on the Posada’s patio, where she liked to watch the sun set over the lake. McCready sat down at Duran’s table and admitted out of the blue to killing Albert.

According to Duran, McCready leaned forward so that other happy-hour drinkers couldn’t hear her. “I killed Albert by smothering him with a pillow,” she whispered. Duran could only stare at her blankly. “He just didn’t have any quality of life,” McCready continued. “He couldn’t finish a sentence. He peed on himself all the time. And he was mean to Hildegard, so I went in and put a pillow on his face, and I killed the old bastard.”

“You… you did?” Duran finally stammered.

“Yeah, I did.”

Duran told me that she didn’t reveal McCready’s confession to anyone. “I knew that if I did, she’d say, ‘Oh, I was just bragging. I didn’t do that,’” Duran said. “I knew she was telling the truth.” Jan Dunlap also said McCready told her about killing Albert, but by dropping a radio into a tub where he was bathing—and with Hildegard’s knowledge. No one else I spoke to had heard anything about Albert being electrocuted.

The verifiable outcome of his death was that Hildegard and McCready announced their relationship as if it were an engagement. “Everyone, I want to tell you something,” Hildegard said at a dinner party, after clinking her glass with a fork to get the room’s attention. “I am in love with Donna!” Once again, though, McCready’s relationship with a new widow didn’t last long. This time the reason was tragic. Hildegard developed a nasty cough, and when she and McCready traveled to a hospital in Houston to have it checked out, they learned that the cause was terminal throat cancer. Hildegard’s demise was fast and ugly. She had a tracheotomy, and McCready would indulge her requests at parties, which Hildegard still attended, to pour gin down the tube in her throat.

Hildegard died in March 1984. For a brief time, McCready’s spark for trouble seemed to dim. She wasn’t seen at many social gatherings, though she did host a prime-rib dinner in Hildegard’s memory. Some residents felt sorry for her. But when McCready received a sizable inheritance, including at least one property the Taylors had owned in Los Angeles, the cloud of suspicion around her darkened once more. She really is just a gold-digger, people whispered, some with genuine disdain, others with morbid glee.

By all accounts, McCready moved on, setting her romantic sights elsewhere; my grandmother claims that McCready once made a pass at her, right after her third husband died. McCready’s most fateful entanglement, however, was yet to come. It involved a couple with an outwardly idyllic marriage who kept painful secrets, and an indecent proposal gone horribly wrong. No one disputes that the affair ended in a brutal crime.

Act III

When Joe and Barbara Kovach decided to retire in 1980, they had no idea where they’d wind up. They just knew that they wanted to explore the world outside the Chicago suburbs where they’d spent most of their marriage and raised their daughters. Joe, 61, and Barbara, 50, had been movers and shakers in Bolingbrook, a small town Joe had helped to incorporate in 1965.

Joe spent his days behind a typewriter as editor in chief of Beacon, a local newspaper. Barbara ran the paper’s sales department and was active on the board of Bolingbrook’s library and park district. When they decided to leave, the Kovaches wrote a farewell column:

We have lived here for 17 years and have been publishing Beacon for 16 years. Without qualifications, this has been the richest and most rewarding time of our lives, and it has been our friends, associates and readers who have made it so. We will be going to warmer climes and will be facing new challenges and experiences, but leaving will not be easy…. The only way to say good bye is to say it. Good bye. We love you. JJK and BAK.

Then the Kovaches made that classic American move: They bought an RV, which they christened the Pinta, and decided to drive until they felt like staying somewhere. Over several months they headed east, then south, sending their adult daughters postcards from a hit parade of monuments and museums. They crossed the border into Mexico and, like my grandmother more than a decade prior, eventually came upon a panoramic view of Lake Chapala. “Barb, I don’t know about you,” Joe said as they looked at the water, “but I’m never leaving.” It was December 1980. They settled in Ajijic, sold the RV, and rented a house.

The couple came with extra baggage—the emotional kind. Joe wasn’t faithful. He was always flirting with other women and had even made public gestures that landed him in hot water with Barbara. He’d had trouble explaining why, when he’d met a woman in Bolingbrook who owned a cherry tree that wasn’t producing fruit, he’d bought two pounds of cherries and individually tied them to the tree’s branches. Then there was the period when he spent weekends in Indianapolis, supposedly to get better acquainted with a son from a previous marriage whom Barbara had never met. When the son called the Kovaches’ house one day and announced that he was trying to establish contact with his absent father for the first time, it became evident that the tall, slender man with whom Joe had taken pictures in Indianapolis wasn’t really his son. Presumably, the photo was part of a scheme to cover up the fact that he was visiting another woman.

Barbara nearly left Joe a couple of times. Once, she packed her bags and bought a plane ticket to Miami to stay with her sister-in-law. Joe convinced her to let him drive her to the airport and, before they even reached the terminal, to cancel her ticket. It wasn’t wholly surprising; she’d always been susceptible to his persuasions. The Kovaches had met in 1950 in Boston, where Barbara grew up and was studying at the Massachusetts School of Physiotherapy. Joe, born in Hungary, had come to the United States as a child and wound up in Boston after his first marriage ended. He was six foot two, strapping, and a real charmer. When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Joe’s charisma, however, was a facade that shielded troubling behavior from public view. To his four daughters, Kitt, Karen, Kim, and Kandi, in order of age, he could be a tyrant. He was obsessed with instilling an appreciation for the arts, literature, and history. Most family dinners took place at 6 p.m. sharp and began with a quiz. Joe asked trivia questions, and if one of his daughters gave the wrong answer, he replied with cutting commentary like, “You need to worry about getting married, because you’re clearly not going to make it in school.” As the girls grew up, small infractions of house rules could trigger disproportionate responses. Once, Joe woke Kandi up around midnight and made her hand-wash every dish in the kitchen because she’d put one back in the cupboard with a trace of food on it. Another time, Joe had her spend an entire Sunday walking back and forth across the street in front of the house because he’d caught a glimpse of her forgetting to look both ways.

When tragedy struck, Joe was similarly controlling, and Barbara went along with him. Kitt developed leukemia when she was a young teenager. Her parents decided not to tell her that she was dying; in fact, they told no one except Kim and Karen—their youngest was spared from the news—and a few close friends. They claimed that they didn’t want Kitt to fear dying and acted as if her nosebleeds and waning energy were nothing to worry about. One day in 1968, when she was 15, Kitt went to the hospital for a particularly severe nosebleed. She never came home. After her death, the Kovaches grieved and continued to celebrate her birthday privately, but Joe and Barbara also insisted on keeping a stiff upper lip. “It was as though, if you didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen,” Karen later told me.

Setting out in the RV a dozen years later was a chance for the Kovaches to put the past behind them. Barbara saw it as an opportunity to move past Joe’s affairs and reset their marriage. But things didn’t exactly work out that way.


Ajijic had always had painful colonial undertones: foreigners staking their claims to various pieces of property and hiring locals as their gardeners, drivers, and maids. The extent to which the two worlds—white and not—meshed depended on what sort of life an extranjero (foreigner) envisioned on the shores of Lake Chapala. Each of the Kovaches had different priorities.

Barbara committed to learning Spanish and hoped to model herself on longtime expat philanthropists like Neill James, who after arriving in the 1940s supported aspiring Mexican painters and donated to the Lake Chapala Society, which provided funds and school supplies to area children. Barbara’s good works took the form of cooking and delivering meals to residents, both foreign and Mexican, when they were sick. To bring in additional income, she worked as a cashier at a clothing boutique that catered to wealthy tourists and Mexican vacationers.

Joe, by contrast, didn’t bother to learn much Spanish. He started running bridge games and organizing luñadas, guided nighttime horseback rides that promised a dude-ranch-like experience with meals cooked over a campfire. The moonlit trips quickly became popular among extranjeros, who put a wild spin on them. One night, after swigging vodka atop their horses, two women charged into the streets of Ajijic like cavalry, announcing themselves as “the rowdy bunch.”

Where the Kovaches had a shared interest was parties. They cultivated a reputation in the town’s Rolodex of social hosts and wrote letters to their daughters back in the States saying that retirement was the most fun they’d ever had. They had so many friends, they held a small “practice party” the night before throwing a big shindig, inviting B-level acquaintances who wouldn’t fit in their house for the main event.

By the mid-1980s, McCready had also jumped into the hosting game. Her signature was a lobster feast. She would travel to Mexico’s Pacific coast and come back with at least a dozen crustaceans, which she then served to impressed dinner guests. Also impressive to inebriated crowds was the pet duck she kept in the swimming pool in her front yard. “Donna was now the hostess with the mostess,” reads Bob Jones’s script treatment. “She developed her own fan club, of which Joe and Barbara were her key members.”

McCready and the Kovaches also got to know each other through the Lakeside Little Theatre. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1965, organized productions of classic English-language plays, as well as scripts written by expats. Joe was an actor, while Barbara worked behind the scenes fundraising to secure the company a permanent venue so that it could stop staging shows at the Posada. McCready was the theater’s treasurer and also directed plays. In December 1985, she helmed Send Me No Flowers, a comedy about a man who thinks he’s dying and tries to find his wife a new husband; the movie version starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Joe had a small part in the show as a salesman of burial plots.

At cast parties, according to one Ajijic resident, McCready displayed a “cruising mentality” as she eyed potential love interests. Joe gave her a run for her reputation. Retirement hadn’t cured his wayward eye as Barbara had hoped it would, and he garnered a social profile as an arrogant, irredeemable flirt. At one of Joe’s luñadas, my grandmother recalled, a woman fell off her horse and broke her arm, after which he showed up at her door with flowers and profuse apologies. The woman found the gesture kind, but when he kept coming back day after day, she told him to stop or she’d have to call the police.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. In late 1986, after deciding he was attracted to McCready, Joe asked her to have an affair. If she had sex with him, he claimed, she’d never want to sleep with a woman again. Amused and not entirely opposed to the idea, McCready made a counterproposal: First she’d whisk Barbara away on a trip. If she couldn’t seduce Joe’s wife, then she’d sleep with him.

Joe agreed to the wager, and the women went on the trip. What exactly transpired, no one who’s still alive knows. But McCready won the bet—and more. After the women returned to Ajijic, Barbara had news for Joe: She was leaving him, for good this time, to be with McCready.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. 

At first the Kovaches didn’t tell their family about the separation. Letters they wrote in late 1986 make no mention of McCready. One such missive was the couple’s Christmas letter:

This month marked our sixth anniversary in Mexico. How time does fly. We have been living in our present home in Ajijic over two years and plan to stay here indefinitely. The place suits us to a T and there is just enough work and gardening to do to make it interesting and not tedious…. Perhaps in the near future you will head down our way. It is still the best bargain vacation spot.… Just give us a little notice to make sure the casita is available. Again, a merry Christmas and a happy new year. As ever, Barbara and Joe Kovach.

Privately, however, losing Barbara drove Joe nuts. He was feeling particularly vulnerable because he’d just learned that he had prostate cancer and would need surgery to remove the tumor. He’d started taking medication to relieve his pain and counter erectile dysfunction—an insult to his bruised sexual ego. In desperation, Joe faked a suicide attempt to get Barbara’s attention. He called her at McCready’s house and begged her hysterically to come home, claiming that he’d taken a bunch of pills. The ploy didn’t work.

Joe, Barbara, and McCready kept their strife under wraps. The wider expat community was unaware of the disintegration of the Kovaches’ marriage and McCready’s role in it. Not even the troupe at the Lakeside Little Theatre knew. Only very close friends were told what was happening. In retrospect, this may have been because Barbara and McCready hoped to slip out of Ajijic without much of anyone knowing.

In early January 1987, they told Joe that they were moving to California to start a life together. McCready would sell property in Los Angeles that she’d inherited from Hildegard and use the money to buy a house in Palm Springs. The women elected not to cut off contact with Joe, operating on the shaky understanding that they could all stay friends. In an undated letter to the two women, which I obtained from the Kovach family, Joe kept a cordial tone as he addressed their pending departure:

It is evident that you will have to stay at Donna’s house for some time to take care of some practical matters which concern all of us, mostly Barb and I. Following are a list of these matters, though I doubt if they are all inclusive.

Notifying our kids and your parents and other relatives. I will offer no objection on how or what you tell them but for the sake of consistency I should get a copy of these letters. Perhaps the same should hold true for mutual friends in the states. You will also be giving explanations to your co-workers and our mutual friends in this area.

I still think it is very important that you and Donna make some arrangement for your benefit if things do not work out for you. You know you can always come back to me but feeling the way you do about me I do not think you would. Rest assured however, that if you want to come back and I am living with someone else at the time, that person will know that you have first priority because it is you that I love.

In any case, I believe we should all get together at our house after work tomorrow, sober and calm, and discuss all this. You will want to pack your bags in any case.

The women agreed to meet with Joe but flipped the invitation, asking him to McCready’s house for dinner on the evening of January 9. Two days later, they planned to drive away for good.


The gathering began smoothly enough. Joe arrived at McCready’s house at 7 p.m. He and Barbara poured aperitifs as McCready readied the meal. The trio made it through at least a couple of drinks and accompanying niceties before the conversation went south.

Joe had come prepared with a Hail Mary appeal, as he had when he’d dissuaded Barbara from leaving him on the way to the airport many years prior. Couldn’t the women delay their departure, at least until he had his prostate surgery in Guadalajara? McCready said no. But how could they just abandon him like this? They’d be kicking a man who was already down. McCready again flatly refused. She and Barbara were leaving, she told Joe, on January 11.

That’s when Joe lost it. He yanked out a hunting knife that he kept tucked inside one of his boots, common knowledge to anyone who’d seen him use it during the luñadas. According to what Barbara later told friends, he lunged toward McCready, who yelped and dived underneath her dining room table.

Barbara threw herself in front of Joe. She could feel McCready’s arms wrap around her legs as she faced down her husband.

“Go ahead and kill me!” she screamed.

“I would never kill you, Barbara!” Joe yelled back.

Barbara kept her gaze locked on her husband and his hunting knife. Then the thought occurred to her, Why isn’t Donna helping me?

She felt her lover’s grip weakening on her legs and heard a gurgling sound. She looked down and saw that McCready’s neck had been sliced open. Joe had managed to do it when he’d first come at her with the knife. McCready was bleeding out on the Turkish rug beneath the table.

She gasped for air a few times through her punctured trachea, then stopped. She was gone.

“You see what you’ve done?” Barbara cried.

“Yes, I’ve killed her!” Joe responded. “And they’re going to hang me for it.”

Joe didn’t chase Barbara as she burst out of McCready’s house and ran a block to the home of her friend Kathy Curtis. “Joe just killed Donna,” she blurted out when Curtis opened the door. Curtis brought Barbara inside and called the police. When they arrived, they took Barbara to the station to be interviewed. Then officers walked with Curtis over to McCready’s house, where a crime-scene investigation was already under way.

By the next morning, the news had spread. As expats ran into each other in Ajijic’s main plaza and tight lanes, there were hushed conversations, and some not so hushed ones. The rumor mill went into overdrive. One version of the story involved Joe beheading McCready. A neighbor claimed to have heard Joe sharpening a knife before he left for the dinner. Could the murder have been premeditated? When my grandmother heard the news, she was shocked by the barbarity of the crime.

Barbara didn’t want to talk to anyone. After leaving the police station, she holed up in McCready’s house, which hadn’t been scrubbed of her lover’s blood. Joe was nowhere to be found. Clothes, cash, and his yellow Volkswagen bug were gone from his house. He’d fled in the middle of the night.

The buzz continued at a long-planned bake sale to benefit the Lakeside Little Theatre. Every gringo in town seemed to be there. Cookies, bread, and pastries exchanged hands as people shared information and opinions about the murder. There was shock, along with speculation that Barbara might have helped Joe escape. They were still married, after all, and he was the father of her children.

The gossip also contained a heavy dose of she had it coming, which calcified as the days and weeks passed. Xill Fessenden, an artist who moved to Ajijic in 1985, remembered people talking about how McCready had stolen three wives and probably killed two old men. “So many people came to the defense of Joe,” she told me. “People kept saying that Donna deserved it.”

“I mean, she may not have been the nicest person in the world,” Fessenden added, “but who deserves to be murdered?”

Act IV

Interest in that question evaporated quickly. After McCready’s death, there were new scandals for expats to fixate on, like the revelation that a couple of their own were CIA operatives associated with the Iran-Contra affair. “The thing that people always said about the stories that came out of Ajijic was that, once all those stories were collected, no one would believe them,” Ron Wallen, a former resident, told me. “Because that’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

No one heard from Joe again. Barbara organized McCready’s cremation and remembrance, to which none of the deceased’s family came. Then she found herself marooned. Joe had taken the checkbooks, the Social Security payments they received were in his name, and she didn’t qualify for any of her lover’s estate. A stipulation in McCready’s will assigned her assets to her most recent “live-in” spouse, and when lawyers asked Barbara for mail sent in her name to McCready’s address, she couldn’t provide any.

Some townsfolk who felt sorry for her offered distinctly Ajijician gestures. One artist invited Barbara over to unveil a large painting that depicted the murder. In the work, Joe loomed over McCready’s crumpled body, clutching a bloody knife in one hand. The artist thought that seeing it might be cathartic for Barbara. Instead, she started crying and asked to leave.

By 1989, Barbara had saved up enough money selling textiles and working as a caterer to move away. She headed to Barbados, where she worked at a bed and breakfast, then to Maine to care for her elderly parents. She remained in contact with a few people in Ajijic but never set foot there again.

“That’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

Over the years, the absence of key players in the crime, combined with many locals’ aging memories, distaste for McCready, and fervor for juicy lore, allowed falsehoods to become accepted fact. Joe cutting off McCready’s head, for example, hardened into the plot. Paradoxically, the effect of countless retellings was reductive. Characters were essentialized—the wily predator, the long-suffering wife, the jealous husband—to support the tale’s operatic scaffolding. The internet and the ability to scout for information about the event and the people involved didn’t become part of the cultural mainstream until well after 1987, making it easier for the story to remain cocooned.

Separating myth from truth meant diving into a murky quagmire of loose ends that most Ajijic residents had never been concerned with. Why did Barbara enter into a romance with a woman who’d used her as a sexual bargaining chip? How did Joe evade justice? Did the Kovaches ever meet again? And, above all, did anyone know the truth about Donna McCready?


First I traced the Kovaches’ trajectories to find out where they’d wound up. In December 2016, I tracked down their daughters, all of whom live near Phoenix. At Karen’s house, we sat in a ring around the dining room table. The women all possessed the same almond-shaped eyes and easygoing smile, which looked a lot like Barbara’s, based on pictures of her that I’d seen. I explained how I’d first heard about Joe’s crime and produced a copy of Jan Dunlap’s screenplay, which they didn’t know existed. They eagerly paged through it. Kim read some of the dialogue aloud:

BARBARA

I’ll go home and talk to JOE. It may take a while, so don’t get all bent out of shape if I don’t come back until tomorrow.

“Oh, Mom would never say that!” Kim declared with a laugh. Her sisters agreed.

Collectively, the women then shared what they knew about the events that transpired after McCready’s murder. Some of it their parents had told them; other details were divulged in family letters.

After leaving McCready’s body on the dining room floor, Joe decided that he had to get across the U.S. border as quickly as possible. His yellow Volkswagen was a fugitive’s nightmare, but he got behind the wheel anyway and headed for the safest place he could think of: his sister Ann Garey’s house in Berkeley, California, some 1,800 miles north. During a pit stop in Puerto Vallarta, he called Garey. He refused to explain what had happened but said that he would be at her door in a few days. He continued driving north, then ditched his conspicuous coupe before leaving Mexico. He worried that border security might have been told to look out for it. Joe walked into America.

Whether he took a bus or hitchhiked north, no one can remember. By the time he arrived at Garey’s home, he was a wreck: paranoid, haggard, and lacking a plan for what to do next. He told his sister, who’s now deceased, that he’d killed a woman in Ajijic. She was horrified, but Joe swore that he’d acted in a moment of madness. McCready drove him to do it, he said, by mocking him.

In a letter to the Kovach daughters dated February 6, 1987, Garey wrote that Joe was heading to a local hospital for his prostate surgery:

Emotionally, of course, he is still in sad condition, but physically he at least looks much, much better than when he arrived. We all know that this is not the kind of thing Joe would do if he were rational—no matter what she [McCready] said. Something inside him must have snapped and who can say what it was. It’s such a terrible thing to have happened—to everyone concerned. Unfortunately there is no way to undo it—so it seems we all have to go on doing what we are doing—each in their own way—and that is coping and trying to make the situation as bearable as possible.

By then, Kim and Kandi had traveled to Ajijic to be with their mother. They were stunned by everything they learned. They’d known very little about McCready before her murder, and they had no idea Barbara was interested in women. They were told about the bet that had initiated the affair; Barbara had been angry about it, but not enough to ignore her attraction to McCready. As for Joe, he was a philanderer and a cruel father, but he’d never been physically abusive. That he could murder someone seemed unthinkable to his daughters. By his own confession, though, he’d done it.

In Berkeley, Garey found Joe a therapist and a lawyer. Harold Rosenthal was the attorney; he’s retired now. When I spoke with him, he said that he received at least half a dozen calls from the FBI regarding Joe in the winter of 1987. There was no formal charge against his client, but the agency wanted him to “answer some questions.” Rosenthal advised Joe, whom he found to be a “very, very nice man,” not to agree to it. Meanwhile, Rosenthal focused on readying a defense, operating on the assumption that the FBI would eventually obtain a warrant and arrest Joe.

That never happened. Months passed, and the FBI stopped calling. Rosenthal finally decided that there must not have been enough political will or interest to mount a transnational legal case. (Though the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara reportedly cooperated with local authorities immediately after McCready’s death, no one I talked to at the State Department, including representatives of its historical archives, could find any documentation to that effect.) Joe could live his life having gotten away with murder.

Joe’s therapist was named Richard Delman. He’s still in practice near San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. Delman described Joe as “regretful and remorseful about the death of Donna.” He also said that Joe “desperately wanted to be rescued” from the situation he’d dug himself into but refused to pay for intensive psychotherapy. Joe was shocked by the cost of treatment and talked about how everything was cheaper in Mexico, where he’d grown accustomed to the peso. The best Delman could do was recommend that Joe establish regular routines for himself rather than worry about whether he’d find himself in handcuffs on any given day. “He suggests I try to get back into the same kinds of things I’ve been doing: bridge, theater, etc.,” Joe wrote to Kim on February 23, 1987. “This is exactly what I would like to do after getting settled down and getting a job.”

More than anything, Joe wanted Barbara. “That is still the most difficult part for me, not hearing from Barb,” he wrote to Kim. “I’m 67 and feeling old for the first time. I just hope there is enough time left for her to forgive me before it is too late. Thirty-four years and four children is a lot to throw away because of one moment of insanity.”

According to their daughters, Barbara and Joe never saw each other again. When they signed divorce papers in 1989, they did so separately. It was Barbara’s decision. She ignored Joe’s pleas for forgiveness, which he expressed in letters as he moved from California to Arizona, then to Illinois, and finally to Budapest, his birthplace. In a missive dated December 1, Joe wrote:

Dear Barb,

Another year older. Two years ago, I did not think I’d last this long. Even a year ago I had doubts. Strangely enough, I feel quite well, mentally and physically. Have not had a depressed period for over a month or more. Have put on a few pounds. Nightmares are much less frequent and I often sleep through the night. My guilt feelings have not abated, and I suppose they never will, but I am learning to live with them. Why this discourse? Well, Hon, I still entertain the thought that you still retain enough feeling for me to be glad to know that I’m feeling and doing better. Perhaps you do not care at all, which is probably closer to the truth. I find it so very difficult to cling to the hope that you are concerned. I love you so very much.

She didn’t respond, and Joe eventually gave up writing to her. But he frequently asked his daughters how Barbara was doing, including when they hosted him in their homes. He wore out his welcome in every instance, proving the same overbearing presence he’d been in the women’s childhood. “He’d blame my kids for everything,” Kandi told me. Karen wondered where a man who’d murdered someone and destroyed his marriage found the audacity to return letters she wrote to him with grammatical corrections appended.

Kandi and Karen severed contact with their father in the final years of his life, as he lived off $900 a month in Social Security checks and whatever he made occasionally writing for Hungarian newspapers. Only Kim stayed in touch with him until he died in November 2011. She was the one who broke the news to her family, including Barbara. Her mother hardly reacted. “She was emotionally and physically divorced from him,” Kim recalled.

Joe’s body was donated to science. No funeral was held.

By then, Barbara was living in Phoenix to be close to her daughters and grandchildren. She avoided talking about what had happened in Ajijic. Kandi brought up McCready with Barbara just one time.

“Mom, do you think you’re a lesbian?” she asked tentatively. “Do you want help finding a partner?”

“I think I was just lonely,” Barbara responded, then changed the subject. She never spoke of McCready again before dying of pancreatic cancer in December 2013.

For three decades, the woman their mother loved and father killed had been a lingering mystery to the Kovach sisters. They listened with rapt interest as I described my grandmother’s proclamation that McCready was evil. They’d never heard the rumors about her murdering Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor. In fact, they’d talked to very few Ajijic residents who knew McCready or their parents.

It wasn’t entirely a surprise, then, when Kim offered to join me in Ajijic as I looked for evidence of McCready’s life. She wanted to find it, too, and share it with her sisters. We agreed to meet in Mexico in August 2017.


Ajijic no longer feels like a secret. Cheap flights arrive regularly in Guadalajara, and snowbirds—people who travel south to escape the winter in second homes along the lake—are more common than ever. The breathtaking natural views that lured my grandmother and many others have been irreparably altered. Development has been swift and aggressive. There are power lines, radio towers, and rambling McMansions in the foothills above the water. Along the lakeshore are crowded bars, convenience stores, and a Domino’s Pizza. In 2008, Walmart set up shop on the highway leading to Guadalajara.

Juxtapositions define Ajijic. On my first day there, I went on a stroll and passed a parade of horses and a brass band—a funeral procession. Then I turned a corner and saw a Google Street View car, bumping along the cobblestones with its roof-mounted camera.

Longtime expats bemoan this state of affairs. A friend of my grandmother’s blamed NAFTA. “We began to get satellite TVs, telephones, imported items, and all sorts of creature comforts that you wouldn’t have here before,” she told me. “Plus, there were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

“There were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

Like many foreigners in the community, she was quick to gloss over expats’ complicity in the disparities between the lives of foreigners and natives. It’s true, however, that the days when residents ran into each other on a daily basis in a handful of haunts have all but vanished. Big Mama’s is gone; Jan Dunlap, the onetime proprietor, now lives in California. The Posada moved in the 1990s, and the new version just isn’t the same.

When I pressed locals for their memories of McCready, I found their recollections similarly diminished, save those pertaining to her love affairs and death. People who talked with authority about her as a local legend knew remarkably little about her life, particularly before she came to Ajijic. It was as if she had only ever existed in a paradisiacal version of the town and become fossilized as a social upstart with an untamable libido.

Even residents who kept notes about life in Ajijic had little to share. When I met Judy Eager for coffee at the new Posada, which she now runs with her son, she produced a large bound diary. The only entry Eager could find about McCready from the years leading up to her death described her arrival with Lois Schaefer in 1976. It said that the women had lived together “for eight years” in California before relocating.

Schaefer died in 1988, but her son, Ed, lives in the Bay Area. We spoke on the phone, and he remembered McCready, whom his mother met in 1965 or 1966, shortly after she split with Ed’s dad in an acrimonious divorce. Ed spent summers with the two women at their home in Sausalito, and he said McCready, whose background was a mystery to him, “wanted nothing to do” with a kid. She and Schaefer drank heavily, hosted large parties, and sometimes got into scary arguments. Once, they came home “drunker than skunks,” and when McCready noticed that Ed hadn’t done the dishes, she threatened him with a butcher knife. Ed stayed outside wearing only his underwear until his mother had calmed McCready down enough that it was safe for him to go back into the house. Another time, he came home and noticed three fresh bullet holes in the side of the house.

“To me it was no big deal,” Ed said. “It was like water off a duck’s back, because it was always crazy,” meaning life with his mom. Before we hung up, Ed confirmed the story about Schaefer being shot through the breast by a lover in Ajijic.

One afternoon, I paid a Mexican driver named Chevy, who patiently ferries elderly expat women around town, to take me to McCready’s house. We talked in Spanish, and I told him I was working on a story about un asesinato (a murder). This didn’t faze him. Today there are a number of sensational murders associated with Ajijic. In 2000, an American couple, Norris and Nancy Price, were shot to death in their home. Police suspect that it was a contract killing, ordered over a land dispute. In 2005, authorities arrested Perry March, who was living with his young children and father in Ajijic, for murdering his wife in Tennessee a decade prior. He was convicted the next year. In 2012, hit men from a drug cartel killed, decapitated, and disposed of 18 Mexicans just outside town.

McCready’s home on Avenida las Robles was painted bright blue and orange and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. The pool where her pet duck once swam was still in the front yard. When we pulled up, Chevy instantly knew whose murder I was interested in. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Señora Donna!”

It turned out that when he was a teenager, McCready had hired him to wash her car every weekend and deliver copies of the local newspaper to her doorstep. Chevy said she was always very nice to him.

My conversation with Chevy led me to Carlos Hernandez Del Toro, a local attorney who also knew McCready. He was wary of talking to a reporter but said that McCready came into his life when she and Pat Harrington organized a drive to collect supplies for his high school. McCready took a liking to Del Toro and eventually supported him through law school in Guadalajara. He went on to represent her interests and said she was like a godmother to him. As with Chevy’s recollections, the generosity Del Toro described was absent from most expats’ depictions of McCready. But anything he knew about her personal life Del Toro wasn’t willing to discuss. As soon as I mentioned Hildegard Taylor and the property she’d left to McCready, he blurted out, “I have no interest to talk to strange people I do not know!”

I then turned to public records in search of McCready. The only news item I could locate was the dramatic 1987 article about her murder in a Mexican newspaper, accompanied by her obituary. It said that McCready was 45 when she died, that she kept “manikins in her home she used for target practice,” and that she was originally from North Carolina, where she attended “the state university.” I called the registrars at both of North Carolina’s main higher-education systems and found no record of her attendance. Through searches of government databases, I found a Donna L. McCready, which seemed promising, given that the newspaper article about her death had said that McCready’s middle name was Leason. But the birth year (1936) and location (Los Angeles) of the person I’d found conflicted with McCready’s obituary. I emailed a surviving brother of Donna L. McCready and one of his sons, who replied, “Donna never lived in Mexico, hope that helps you.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if McCready had used her real name when she was in Ajijic and before, in Sausalito. Maybe she was someone else entirely. Given her affinity for stirring up intrigue, it didn’t seem out of the question.


The most revealing insights about McCready came from a small cluster of people who considered themselves her friends. They don’t run in the same Ajijic circles as my grandmother, and their take on what happened 30 years ago is different from prevailing opinion.

Helen DesJardins and Joan Gamma have lived in Ajijic on and off since 1983. When I met them at their home, a short walk from Lake Chapala, they told me that the rumors about McCready murdering the husbands of her lovers were ludicrous. “Donna wasn’t like a lot of people thought she was. She was very loyal,” Gamma told me. She would know: Gamma was with McCready at the hospital in Houston when Hildegard Taylor succumbed to throat cancer. Gamma described her friend as devastated by the loss.

She also dismissed the idea that McCready tried to seduce women for financial gain. “If she was all out for money, then why did she end up with Barbara?” Gamma asked. “Barbara had no money.” She and DesJardins hadn’t known about the bet with Joe Kovach when it happened, but they were certain that no matter how it was formed, the bond between McCready and Barbara was genuine.

“Donna was a somewhat tragic figure,” Gamma continued. “She had a rough childhood. She had a terrible stepfather, and her mother was dead.” I asked for more details, but that was all she knew.

It wasn’t the only reference I heard to McCready having a traumatic history. Jan Dunlap said that McCready once described an uncle sexually assaulting her when she was just eight or nine. But Dunlap’s knowledge ran no deeper than Gamma’s. McCready, it seemed, hadn’t liked to talk much about her early life, and no one pushed her to reveal more than she wanted to. In Ajijic, after all, a person’s past was whatever they said it was.

Gamma suggested a connection between McCready’s younger years and her liaisons with married couples. “What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both,” Gamma explained. “She wanted to be accepted by them.” If true, it would mean that Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor dying in succession, with McCready in their employ and sleeping with their wives, was mere coincidence. In which case people’s assumptions about McCready’s ulterior motives might have derived from astonishment that Pat and Hildegard would take a female lover.

“What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both.”

Toward the end of my trip, Kim Kovach arrived in town. Together we met with Estela Hidalgo, an artist and sculptor who was a friend of Barbara’s. The encounter started out awkwardly, as Hidalgo didn’t mince words about Joe. “I’m sorry,” she said to Kim, “but I didn’t like your father from the first moment I met him.” Hidalgo described Joe as “rude” and said she knew people who wouldn’t invite him to parties because his womanizing made guests uncomfortable. “I know,” Kim replied.

Then Hidalgo pivoted to talking about Barbara and how deeply affecting the events of January 9, 1987 must have been for her. “She loved Joe and Donna, so she lost two people in one second,” Hidalgo said. As for McCready, Hidalgo said, she “looked for trouble. There were dinners when she tried to seduce two or three women in a single evening.” When she fell for Barbara, though, she changed.

“When she was with Barbara,” Hidalgo said, “it was only Barbara.”


What I came to realize was that when McCready was alive, prejudice ran deeper in Ajijic than its carefree expats were willing to admit. It carved lines around crowds and cliques on the basis of class and identity. These borders were largely invisible to the people they divided; everyone mingled at the same parties and bars and dinners, because that was life on the shores of Lake Chapala. Still, social and cultural rifts defined the local appetite for gossip—in particular, what sorts of behavior were considered beyond the pale and who was cast in the recurring role of the town villain. When I regaled my grandmother with Gamma’s and Hidalgo’s theories about McCready, she balked. “I don’t buy it,” she said. Never mind that, as she eventually admitted, Hildegard once wrote her a letter rejecting outright that McCready had killed Albert. (My grandmother said she later lost the letter.)

When Ajijic’s old-timers pass away, the legend of Donna McCready will slip quietly into oblivion. It’s vexing not to have an answer to every question about the enigmatic woman. Yet it also feels fitting for someone who enjoyed inspiring a mix of ire, suspicion, and yearning. Even in death, McCready wreaked havoc.

The morning before we left town, Kim Kovach met with Gamma and DesJardins to pour a vial of Barbara’s ashes, which she’d brought from Phoenix, into the lake. They did it at the end of a pier next to Ajijic’s esplanade. “It was lovely,” Kim later told me. Gamma and DesJardins mentioned to Kim that, over the years, they’d scattered several friends’ ashes on the lake. “You should write a book about all of them,” Kim told the women, “and you should call it Our Friends in the Lake.

Among those friends was McCready. Her memorial wasn’t lovely, I learned, but it was perfect.

On a January day in 1987, Barbara and a few friends gathered on the same pier where Kim later stood. After a wine toast, the executor of McCready’s will, a retired lawyer from California, inverted a plastic bag containing her ashes in order to dump them in the water. Just then there was a gust of wind. The executor lost his grip on the bag, dropping it into the lake, and a portion of the ashes blew over the small crowd.

“She was all over everybody,” one of the attendees told me. “Donna got the last word and the last laugh.”


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The Obsidian Serpent

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The Obsidian Serpent

A homeless father, a Marine’s death, and the making of a serial killer.

By León Krauze

The Atavist Magazine, No. 73


León Krauze is an author and journalist based in Los Angeles. He has written for The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. He holds the Wallis Annenberg Chair for Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is also a news anchor for Univision.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Images: Associated Press

Acknowledgements: This story was produced with support from the Ford Foundation as part of a project on migrants and migration policy run by the journalism program and international-studies division at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. Project coordination was provided by Carlos Bravo Regidor, research assistance by Lauren Eades and Irving Huerta.

Published in November 2017. Design updated in 2021.

1.

Around 9 p.m. on the chilly night of December 20, 2011, outside a strip mall in Placentia, California, James McGillivray lay down to go to sleep. Fifty-three years old, with a furrowed face, a graying beard, and disheveled, thinning hair, McGillivray was a familiar presence in the homeless community that lived along the Santa Ana River south of Los Angeles. That evening he’d been seen wandering around a liquor store. Now he settled onto a blanket spread out on a patch of sidewalk behind one of the mall’s exterior pillars, beneath the glimmer of fluorescent lamps. It was the last light McGillivray would ever see.

A wiry figure dressed in a dark hooded sweatshirt and gloves stood in the shadows of a nearby alleyway, watching and waiting. When McGillivray dozed off, the figure pounced. He pinned the homeless man down with a knee to the chest and unleashed a shocking barrage of violence. In the span of two minutes, he stabbed McGillivray 52 times in the upper torso and head. The assailant started out using one hand, then expertly passed the blade, a heavy-gauge Ka-Bar knife capable of piercing bone, to the other. Finally, he grasped the weapon with both hands and pounded away at his victim. After desperately flailing his arms and legs, McGillivray died within the first 40 seconds of the attack. The brutal murder was captured on grainy video by one of the shopping center’s surveillance cameras.

A week later it happened again, this time underneath an overpass in Anaheim, about five miles southwest of Placentia. The victim was Lloyd Middaugh, 42, a registered sex offender. Unable to find a job or a home, he lived in local shelters. On the evening of December 27, he called his mother, upset, she would later say, that he couldn’t secure a bed anywhere for the night. Then Middaugh, who was six-foot-four and weighed more than 300 pounds, roosted under the 91 freeway and read a book until he fell asleep.

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When the killer approached, he paced around Middaugh, assessing the man’s enormous size. At the sound of footsteps, Middaugh awoke and stood up. The killer attacked from behind, stabbing his victim’s neck as Middaugh frantically tried to protect himself and pleaded for his life. When the confrontation ended, a full five minutes later, Middaugh was dead. He’d been stabbed 60 times, several of his ribs were broken, his neck and head were battered, and he had a gash on his right hand. An autopsy would show that the killer’s blade had sliced Middaugh’s thyroid gland and fractured his right temporal bone before penetrating his brain.

In hindsight it became obvious that the murders were linked. At the time, though, the idea was a hard sell among law-enforcement officials. Homeless people were frequent targets of random violence. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2010 there had been nearly 1,200 attacks nationwide, with California seeing the largest share (225) of any state. Still, Anaheim detective Daron Wyatt, a serious man with a thick mustache who spoke in a confident staccato, had a hunch that the back-to-back killings weren’t coincidental. The same kind of knife had been used in both murders, which were uncommonly vicious. What if McGillivray and Middaugh had died at the hands of one man at the start of a spree?

Wyatt approached his department’s top brass and laid out the case for why he thought the deaths were calculated—and why there might be more. His boss “kind of laughed at me,” Wyatt recalled, “because we hadn’t had a serial killer in Orange County in over 25 years.”

2.

A few miles from the crime scenes, in the city of Fullerton, Refugio Ocampo lived in the cab of a broken-down truck with smashed headlights. A tall, slender man with the dignified air of the history teacher he’d once been, Refugio was homeless but refused to look unkempt. He wore clean white shirts that peeked out from beneath a blue all-weather jacket and kept his gaunt face impeccably shaved beneath a bowl of dark hair. He heard about the murders through the transient community’s grapevine: a network of people who sought shelter in the same nooks, under the same overhangs, in the same makeshift encampments. Refugio assumed that the over-the-top story of a madman with a knife had been made up, or at least exaggerated. It wasn’t until his eldest son showed him press clippings about the murders that he believed the sensational rumors.

Refugio was no stranger to violence. Where he came from, he often said, it didn’t take much for people to kill each other. He was born on July 4, 1962, in Zacapoxtepec, a town of a few hundred people in the state of Guerrero, historically one of Mexico’s most violent regions. Refugio’s first childhood memory was of a funeral procession. When he was six, his mother brought him to a window of their home to watch men walking in the street bearing a large box. Refugio asked what it all meant. A whole family had been murdered, she told him, and a grandfather and his young grandson were inside the box, about to be buried together.

Refugio wanted a better life, and a safer one. In 1987, he married a woman named Lilia. They lived in greater Mexico City, where he taught history in a public school. “I had eight brothers, so my mother raised me as if I were a boy,” Lilia said in a recent conversation. “Refugio showed me how to cook, how to clean. He taught me everything.” In March 1988, the couple welcomed their first child, Itzcoatl. Refugio chose the name, an homage to the Aztec war hero and tlatoani (“great ruler”) who launched an imperial expansion by allying with two other indigenous nations in the early 15th century. Four months after Itzcoatl’s birth, Refugio immigrated illegally to California, seeking what so many people do in coming to America: opportunity and stability. He caught up with a cousin who was already in Orange County and found work as a dishwasher. He never resented his dramatic occupational shift. On the contrary, he felt liberated. He wanted to earn his pay through labor.

Lilia joined him two months later. She crossed the border with a group of men in the early hours of a cold, dark morning. Lilia carried Itzcoatl in her arms, handing him off to another traveler when she had to jump a fence to reach the United States. “That’s the only moment I let them take my boy away from me,” she remembered.

Refugio found a new job in a plastics factory. He practiced English and read up on American history in his free time. Lilia faced a steeper learning curve. She relied on friends and family to care for Itzcoatl while she studied English, but she never mastered it. Six years later, Lilia gave birth to a second son, Mixcoatl, named after the Aztec god of the hunt. Half a decade on, a daughter named Citlaly (“star” in Nahuatl, one of Mexico’s indigenous languages) completed the family. On her right shoulder, Lilia got a tattoo of a triangle with her children’s names sketched in cursive, one on each side.

The Ocampos encouraged cultural assimilation. Itzcoatl was known as Izzy to his friends, Mixcoatl as Mix. (Citlaly had to settle for the less colloquial Citla.) Refugio purchased a letter attesting that he had worked in the fields of Southern California, which afforded him permanent residency under a federal stipulation offering certain types of workers a path to legalization. He bought a small house and, after earning a job promotion, upgraded to a larger one. Itzcoatl, a funny, independent boy, eventually became a citizen.

The Ocampos’ lives coasted along until the recession in the late aughts, when Refugio was fired and couldn’t get back on his feet. According to family members he fell prey to drugs, developing an addiction to methamphetamines that made him volatile and untrustworthy. “He stopped taking adequate care of himself and his kids,” Lilia said. Refugio couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage on his family’s house and was evicted. While he lived on the streets, his wife, Mixcoatl, and Citlaly moved in with Lilia’s brothers, one of whom wanted nothing to do with Refugio. Still, Lilia stood by her struggling husband, bringing him food and clothes at homeless camps and, later, at the abandoned rig.

Itzcoatl was in Iraq when his family began to splinter. He’d joined the Marines straight out of high school in 2006, one of 4,889 Hispanics who enlisted that year. By the winter of 2011, he was back living with his mother. He worried about Refugio and visited him often at the rig, where they talked about life before war, addiction, and other hardships. When Itzcoatl showed Refugio articles about the recent murders of homeless men, he implored his father to keep his guard up.

Itzcoatl was shy and bespectacled. Adjusting to civilian life had proved difficult. He passed the time drinking with old friends. Among them was Eder Herrera, who would later wind up behind bars, accused of killing his own mother and brother in a fit of domestic violence. Itzcoatl struggled to hold down a job. Yet with the holiday season in full swing, he donated what cash, toys, and food he could to the needy. Sometimes he drove as far as Van Nuys or Santa Monica, about 45 miles north, to drop off supplies with organizations.

Refugio thought his son generous. But he also noticed that the 23-year-old had a drinking problem—the sort of thing that if he wasn’t careful could land him on the streets, vulnerable like his father, the people for whom he collected donations, and the two men who’d been knifed to death.

3.

Quick to laugh, with a gap-toothed smile, long wavy hair, and an overgrown goatee, Paulus Cornelius Smit had battled drug addiction and drifted in and out of homelessness for several years. Through much of 2011, the 57-year-old shared a dilapidated home with his girlfriend, but when authorities red-tagged the house, indicating that it was uninhabitable, Smit suddenly had no place to live. There were brief reprieves: He spent Christmas, for instance, with Julia Smit-Lozano, the eldest of three daughters from a previous relationship, who had recently escaped homelessness herself.

Smit traveled on a bicycle, perhaps his most prized possession, and he often passed his days at Yorba Linda’s quiet public library, a faded pink building at a busy intersection off Orange County’s Imperial Highway. On the afternoon of December 30, while at the library, he realized that his bike had been stolen. Instead of venturing away on foot, Smit phoned his youngest daughter to ask for a ride. “She was unable to pick him up,” Julia Smit-Lozano recalled, “and by the time I was off work and ready to pick him up, it was too late.” The missing bicycle was a ploy. Someone had taken it to prevent Smit from going anywhere—someone who’d been watching him for hours, maybe days, and seeking the perfect moment to strike.

Smit walked out of the library, went around back, and sat down in an obscured spot near the bottom of a stairwell to wait for his daughter. That’s where the killer attacked, armed with the thick Ka-Bar. He stabbed Smit 56 times in the back, head, and neck, fracturing his ribcage, slashing his heart, and severing his jugular vein. The man whom his daughters called “Papa” died before 5 p.m., while the library was open. If Smit screamed, no one heard him.

After the third murder, detective Wyatt’s hunch was verifiable fact: Orange County had a serial killer, targeting a population that was difficult to protect from harm under even the best of circumstances. And the criminal was growing more brazen.

After the third murder, detective Wyatt’s hunch was verifiable fact: Orange County had a serial killer targeting a population that was difficult to protect from harm under even the best of circumstances. 

By the beginning of 2012, three municipal police departments—in Anaheim, Placentia, and Brea—along with the Orange County sheriff’s office and the FBI, had organized the 15-member Homeless Homicide Investigative Task Force. Wyatt took the lead. The group set up checkpoints on county roads, stopping hundreds of cars each night to question drivers about any suspicious individuals or circumstances they’d come across. Authorities and volunteers distributed whistles and flashlights to the homeless and advised them to remain in groups if they couldn’t find beds in shelters, which reported a 40 percent surge in demand. The story of the serial killer leaped from the pages of the Orange County Register to national outlets. “People are very, very anxious about the situation,” Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, told The New York Times. “This is just so evil that somebody would go after the least, the last, and the lost of our community.”

Itzcoatl Ocampo visited his father again not long after the third murder. This time, instead of press clippings, he carried an FBI flier emblazoned with photographs of the victims. Leaning against the light blue door of Refugio’s truck, Itzcoatl showed the flier to his father and pleaded once more for him to stay clean and be vigilant. Refugio tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m a survivor. Nothing will happen to me.”

4.

Not everyone heeded the authorities’ warnings. Among them was John Berry, a Vietnam veteran who sported a bushy white beard. An amateur astronomer and bird watcher, Berry loved being outside, where he could look at the sky day or night. On the morning of January 5, 2012, he was in a public rest area overlooking the Santa Ana River when Anaheim Police sergeant Mike Lynch approached him. Los Angeles Times photographer Allen Schaben, who had tagged along to cover law enforcement’s outreach effort in the homeless community, captured the moment. It was an eloquent image: Berry sitting comfortably on a tarp with his legs outstretched and a rumpled khaki fishing hat perched on his head. A yellow bicycle was parked such that it afforded him some shade from the winter sun while he listened to Lynch explain the threat. Berry said that he would be just fine as he was, even with a serial killer on the prowl. “We couldn’t force him to get off the streets,” Wyatt later told me.

Schaben’s picture of Berry looking carefree and defiant was printed in an article about the slayings. The killer must have seen it, because Berry, 64, quickly sensed that something was wrong. In the following days, he called the police to say that he felt like he was being watched as he moved among his favorite haunts in Anaheim and Yorba Linda. Police again advised Berry to seek shelter, and again he did not.

For a week, Orange County held its breath. No homeless men were murdered. Then, around 8:15 p.m. on Friday, January 13, Berry was pushing his bike toward a trash enclosure behind a Carl’s Jr. fast-food joint, located in the middle of a shopping center’s parking lot, when a hooded figure rushed toward him on foot. The assailant knocked Berry to the ground, pulled out a knife, and stabbed him to death, continuing his frenzy for a few harrowing minutes after the victim’s heart had stopped beating.

This time, though, the attacker was sloppy in choosing where to kill. Customers milled around the complex, and one of them witnessed the murder in progress. The man ran into a nearby pharmacy yelling, “The bum killer is outside!”

Donny Hopkins, a forklift driver who was shopping in the pharmacy, darted out to the parking lot and saw the assailant on top of Berry. He screamed at the attacker, who immediately stood up and ran toward a mobile-home park adjacent to the shopping center. Unarmed, Hopkins gave chase, running at full tilt. As he went, he misdialed 911 twice on his cell phone before managing to get through and share his location with the dispatcher. He provided a quick description of the suspect, who had shed his dark sweatshirt to reveal a red short-sleeved T-shirt. Based on Hopkins’s information, police surrounded the area and found the killer as he walked nonchalantly down a street—hoping, perhaps, that without his hood and by seeming composed he would avoid suspicion.

Youthfully handsome, with a long, angular face, deep-set dark eyes, and brown hair buzzed down to the scalp, the suspect had blood on his arms and hands.

He didn’t put up a fight when the cops grabbed him. In fact he was docile, “very collected and cooperative,” Wyatt told me. Youthfully handsome, with a long, angular face, deep-set dark eyes, and brown hair buzzed down to the scalp, the suspect had blood on his arms and hands. Nearby, police found a backpack, gloves, and a belt with a sheath that contained the Ka-Bar knife. The killer had tossed them as he fled.

The suspect was taken to the Anaheim police department, where Wyatt began his interrogation, hoping to develop a profile of a man capable of astonishing rage. It wasn’t hard. Dressed in light blue detention garb, the Orange County serial killer spoke for five hours straight, well into the morning of January 14, after waiving his right to remain silent. He wore old-fashioned, oversize prescription glasses and addressed Wyatt as “sir.” One by one, he candidly walked the detective through the killings.

Toward the end of the interview, Wyatt asked the suspect if he knew right from wrong.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied, nodding vehemently.

“Do you think what you’ve done is right or wrong?” Wyatt asked.

The killer took a beat to think, then looked at the detective. “Wrong,” he answered, “but it had to be done.”

“Why? To satisfy your needs?”

“No,” he said quickly. “They were making the place look bad.”

“Really, what you were doing, you were helping clean up the county?”

“In a way, sir, yes.”

In the more than 12 hours he would spend with the suspect in the coming days, Wyatt’s opinion of him solidified. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” the detective told me. This was a cold-blooded killer in full control of his emotions and mental capacity. He chose victims who “were available and vulnerable,” Wyatt explained. It was as simple as that.

As for understanding his desire to purify Orange Country by way of murder, that would require digging into the man’s past. To do that, Wyatt needed a name. The suspect willingly gave it in their first meeting: Itzcoatl Ocampo.

“Itzcoatl,” Refugio would later whisper to me, recalling his son’s arrest. “It means ‘obsidian serpent.’”

5.

Driving home late that Friday evening, Raúl González, Lilia Ocampo’s brother, heard the unmistakable buzz of news helicopters hovering near Imperial Highway. González steered clear of the commotion and any police roadblocks that might accompany it. When he finally arrived at his house, he saw several white cars parked around the property. Police approached him and demanded that he let them inside.

Citlaly and Mixcoatl were home. González asked his niece where Lilia was. “She’s with my father,” Citlaly, barely a teenager, replied. Annoyed, González called his sister’s cell phone. “Did you know police are here while you’re over there with that asshole?” he asked her. Lilia came home quickly. When she arrived and saw two of her children sitting on the couch, terrified, she thought of the one that wasn’t there. Itzcoatl had gone out walking alone a few hours before. He did that a lot lately. Lilia thought some tragedy had befallen him.

Then, as the police began asking her questions, someone turned on the television. An evening news report sputtered to life and showed Itzcoatl sitting on a curb, surrounded by cops. He was the suspect in the string of murders that had spurred a countywide manhunt.

Lilia was stunned. She’d been sharing a bedroom with all three of her children; Itzcoatl slept on the floor without complaint. She had seen a Ka-Bar in his possession, but he’d told her that it was just combat equipment. Lilia knew that her son had been troubled since returning from the military, but she’d never thought him violent. Surely, as his mother, she would have known if he was capable of murder. For Refugio, who soon learned of his son’s arrest, the thought that Itzcoatl could kill innocent people was inconceivable. “I always knew who my children were,” he told me. Besides, why would Itzcoatl warn his father about the killer if he was the killer?

Lilia knew that her son had been troubled since returning from the military, but she’d never thought him violent. Surely, as his mother, she would have known if he was capable of murder.

According to Wyatt, a search of the house turned up boots with DNA from two of the murder victims, a knife sharpener for the Ka-Bar—on which forensic experts would later find genetic material from all but one of the deceased—and documents about notorious killers from whom it seemed Itzcoatl had sought inspiration. In grand jury testimony the following month, Wyatt would describe how Itzcoatl had intended to emulate Charles Whitman, a former Marine sharpshooter, known as the Texas Tower Sniper, who in 1966 had killed 13 people at the University of Texas. When Wyatt asked Itzcoatl why he’d used a knife, he made a reference to the Joker, as played by actor Heath Ledger in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. “‘A knife is more personal.’ He actually said that in his interview,” Wyatt told me. “He quoted The Dark Knight.” (The exact line from the film is “Do you want to know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can’t savor all the little emotions. In, you see, in their last moments, people show you who they really are.”)

After Itzcoatl’s arrest, the media hounded the Ocampos. Refugio in particular became a recurring tragic figure on local newscasts: the homeless father of the serial killer who targeted homeless men. On the morning of January 16, Orange County Register videographer Eugene Garcia found Refugio standing outside his rig in Fullerton. He explained that Itzcoatl was “a role model” for his family.

“Do you believe he’s innocent?” Garcia inquired.

“I don’t know,” Refugio answered. “He was worried for me.”

The only possible explanation for his son’s behavior, he continued, lay with the Marines. Something must have happened to his son in the service, because he committed the murders after he was discharged. “They killed the person he was,” Refugio declared.

When Wyatt appeared before the grand jury, he would say that the “primary reason” for the carnage was that Itzcoatl had a taste for blood that his time in Iraq didn’t sate, so he’d fashioned himself into the assassin he’d always wanted to be. He even researched “human anatomy on the computer,” Wyatt added, so that he would know “where the heart was” in his victims. The detective pointed to an exchange from Itzcoatl’s confession: “What made you want to kill somebody? Was it the fact that you’re a Marine?” Wyatt asked, to which Itzcoatl replied, “Probably, sir. Yes, sir. I didn’t get to kill when I was in… I look at other Marines and want to be like them.”

The truth of the matter, though, wasn’t so pat. The effort to untangle Itzcoatl’s hostility, grief, trauma, fear, and dejection would require looking further back than to his stint in the Marines—it would mean returning to his youth, particularly to his relationship with his best friend.

6.

As a child, Itzcoatl had a close-knit circle of friends whose center of gravity was Claudio Patiño IV. Born to a family with a history of armed service, Claudio grew up yearning to enlist. His father, a Mexican immigrant, had been a cadet at a military academy; he kept the gala uniform he wore as a teenager in immaculate shape, along with a stack of sepia photographs of himself performing acrobatic feats during military parades in Guadalajara. Claudio came up with elaborate warlike scenarios that he and his friends acted out in his family’s dusty backyard in Yorba Linda. He also started a clandestine brawling club, organizing bare-knuckle rounds among neighborhood boys. At age 12, Claudio refused orthodontic treatment to fix severely crooked teeth because he was afraid that the procedure might go wrong and leave him deformed or unable to use his jaw properly, disqualifying him from enlisting in the Marines one day.

Itzcoatl idolized Claudio. González, Itzcoatl’s uncle, described the pair as “inseparable” in childhood. “They got along like brothers. It was an enviable friendship,” he told me. Evelyn Patiño, Claudio’s mother, remembered Itzcoatl as a “respectful and quiet” child who often slept over, playing video games late into the night. In middle school, one of Claudio’s sisters invited Itzcoatl to her quinceañera, a traditional 15th-birthday and coming-of-age party for Latin American girls. He went with Refugio, who delivered an impromptu speech in celebration of the families’ bond.

Claudio and Itzcoatl shared a keen sense of bicultural belonging. Itzcoatl kept in touch with family in Mexico, whom he visited in the summers. Along with posters of U.S. helicopters and Marines, Claudio decorated his bedroom with pictures of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and a ceramic carving of a clash between a Spanish conquistador and an Aztec warrior. Next to his bed, he placed an ornate replica of a sacrificial knife that he’d bought on a family trip to the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Later in his youth, Claudio would get an American eagle tattooed on one of his arms and a Mexican eagle on the other.

Yet the boys were an odd couple. Built like an athlete, lean and muscular, with a square jaw and handsome face despite his warped teeth, Claudio cut an appealing figure. Itzcoatl, by contrast, was slight and soft-spoken. Brian Doyle, a school friend, would later describe him to the Associated Press as a “tall, geeky kid, really fun-loving.” Itzcoatl dreamed of going to college, even if it meant parting ways with Claudio.

Although Itzcoatl was barely 13 at the time, the scene of the World Trade Center towers falling “really shook him,” Lilia said. Like many young Americans, he interpreted the attack as a call to arms.

That changed after 9/11. Although Itzcoatl was barely 13 at the time, the scene of the World Trade Center towers falling “really shook him,” Lilia told me. Like many young Americans, Itzcoatl interpreted the attack as a call to arms. Lilia and Refugio disapproved. “I never saw him as a soldier,” his mother said. “He was calm and noble.” But Itzcoatl ignored his parents. At 18, he enlisted in the Marines alongside Claudio.

The friends dreamed of a brotherly, patriotic adventure. After completing their training, however, their paths diverged. Claudio quickly won acclaim and respect. He became a scout sniper, adept at reconnaissance and marksmanship. Nate Coffey, who met Claudio before they deployed to Afghanistan and who later became his team leader, described him as a natural soldier. “He was a fighter before he was a Marine,” Coffey wrote in an email. “Joining the military and becoming a Scout Sniper merely lent him additional tools with which to fight. He was one of our best shooters (and that’s saying something in a sniper platoon), and he was the one I picked to coach the team in hand-to-hand training. In short, he was good at killing, whether it was up close or far away.” Coffey added, “He was more aggressive than a wolverine drinking a Red Bull.”

Itzcoatl’s experience was diametrically different. He deployed to Iraq in March 2008 as part of the First Medical Battalion, serving as a motor-vehicle operator—that is, a driver. He didn’t take well to the unpredictability and hypermasculinity of military life. Although he hid it from his family, he was unhappy that he and Claudio weren’t serving side by side and that he was limited to transporting supplies and personnel. González told me of a conversation he had with his nephew in which “he said it was deeply depressing.” Itzcoatl “used to say that they had to dig holes in the ground to build shelters in the desert, and they slept inside to avoid sandstorms. They were suddenly awakened by bombing. He seemed scared.”

Barely a month after deploying, Itzcoatl learned that his father had lost his job. On a phone call, he listened to his mother’s unsettling account of the situation: Refugio had fallen into financial trouble, and he was still doing drugs. (Before leaving for Iraq, Itzcoatl had found a crack pipe in his father’s car.) He wasn’t always sleeping at home. Lilia told me that Itzcoatl took the news of his father’s unraveling with characteristic stoicism. He kept any deeper feelings to himself. But not for long.

Two months later, at Camp Al Taqqadum, an abandoned Iraqi base 70 miles west of Baghdad repurposed by U.S. forces for logistical support, Itzcoatl loaded and then pointed an M16 rifle at another Marine. He claimed he was just clowning around. His superiors didn’t care. What he’d done was a punishable offense. Itzcoatl’s misconduct earned him a loss of rank—from lance corporal to private first class, with a pay reduction—in late May 2008 through nonjudicial punishment, an administrative disciplinary procedure. He took responsibility for his actions in a signed confession and connected the incident to his family’s troubles:

I know that this was very unprofessional, dangerous, irresponsible, and idiotic of me.… I went to Condition 1 [loading the rifle] because I took a joke way too serious. I was angry because in the back of my mind I was just thinking of my problems back home; for example, my father lost his job and my family is having financial problems. I did not know my fellow Marines could help me out with my problems, but they can and have. I am taking anger management, stress management and other classes to help me manage and cope with these issues. This way something like this will never happen again.

He concluded, “It is not me or in my nature to behave like this.”

Itzcoatl didn’t tell his family about the situation. That June, he recorded a Father’s Day video for Refugio. “Thank you for everything you have done, Dad,” he said in hesitant Spanish, sitting in a poorly lit room in front of an American flag. “I love you very much. I’m doing well here, I’m OK. Just three months left and then I’ll be back.” He then read Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham for his sister, who was almost nine at the time. “Don’t worry about me,” he repeated several times, like a mantra. “I’m OK.”

7.

At the end of his six-month tour, Itzcoatl returned to California, where he remained enlisted at Camp Pendleton, south of where his family lived. Corporal Bonnie Tisdale, who supervised him on the base, said she watched him decline emotionally. “His demeanor just kind of changed,” Tisdale told me. At first he was a disciplined, quiet young man who could also be funny and who would “offer you the shirt off his back or his last dollar.” Then, according to Tisdale, he grew bitter and depressed. He got in trouble for odd, minor infractions, like lying about where he’d parked his car when it was due for inspection.

When he was released from active duty in July 2010, right on schedule, the military designated him fully qualified to reenlist, should he choose to. There were no red flags on his record. Still, Tisdale worried about his transition to civilian life, which is difficult for any soldier. “If you don’t have a degree, you’re struggling to find a job. Your friends that you knew before the Marines, they don’t really understand you, so it’s hard. You feel alone,” she told me. “Ocampo was an awkward guy to begin with. I can’t imagine what it was like for him to get out.”

There was another reason to worry: A month prior to Itzcoatl’s discharge, Claudio had been killed in action. On the morning of June 22, he was with his platoon near Musah Qala, a village in Helmand Province, feeling restless. “If the team was sitting around not shooting bad guys, he would take half of them and find a new place to attack,” Coffey, his team leader, told me. Around noon, Claudio set his sights on a nearby hill crest and led three members of the group to scope it out. “I remember him getting to that hilltop and collapsing, and I heard the automatic gunfire a half-second later,” Coffey recalled. It was a Taliban ambush. According to the military news outlet Stars and Stripes, “a bullet first grazed Patiño’s arm, but the second ripped a path through his upper torso.” Lance corporal Nat Small, who was with Claudio at the time, told the publication, “He basically fatally exposed himself before the rest of us could. He definitely laid down his life for the team.” In September 2010, Claudio was posthumously honored with a Bronze Star.

When Itzcoatl learned of his friend’s death, he was devastated. “He called me and said, ‘Mom, you won’t believe this, but they killed Claudio,’” Lilia remembered. “He was crying, and so was I. He kept asking why it had been Claudio and not him.” Refugio told me that Claudio’s death was the beginning of the end for his son. “That’s what lit the wick,” he said.

Itzcoatl began telling his parents he felt useless and unworthy. Money ran out quickly. “I had to drag him to the unemployment office and Veterans Affairs,” Refugio said. “I had to help him fill out applications, and he kept telling me, ‘Dad, they’re not going to give me a job.’” Rather than looking for work, he often spent afternoons in Yorba Linda’s public library—outside which he’d later murder Smit, his third victim—reading with his little sister. According to Mixcoatl, his brother was withdrawn and drinking too much, but he “never saw any evil in him, anything bad.”

“His greatest sorrow came from the fact that he hadn’t been there for Claudio when he died. He wanted to be there to help him get back on his feet, help him stand up.”

Some days, Itzcoatl took Lilia to her job at a hardware company and then drove the 35 miles from Yorba Linda to Riverside National Cemetery, where Claudio was buried. He would stand at his friend’s grave alone, thinking. He also went to see Claudio’s parents. Evelyn Patiño recalled how during one visit, Itzcoatl told her that “his greatest sorrow came from the fact that he hadn’t been there for Claudio when he died. He wanted to be there to help him get back on his feet, help him stand up. It pained him so much.”

At home his family began to notice bizarre behavior, signals that he was traumatized, depressed, or both. “He had horrible nightmares, truly ugly dreams. He never told me what they were exactly, but he did say they were horrible: bloody people all over,” Lilia recalled. Itzcoatl said he had splitting headaches and kept pointing to a recurring twitch above his right eye. “One day,” Lilia remembered, “he called me to say that he was looking for bombs in the house.” During the day, he sometimes talked to himself. But he never hinted at a desire to hurt anyone.  

If only his family had been able to read his journal, a brief but harrowing private account of what was running through Itzcoatl’s mind leading up to the murders. He turned to it often, putting down in jittery handwriting his muddled delusions and feelings of resentment and self-loathing. He also wrote about his urge to kill.

8.

I first met Refugio and Lilia on a Saturday morning last winter, behind a car-repair shop in Placentia where Refugio had been living for the better part of a year. The owner was a friend who’d offered him a place to stay, an old RV, in exchange for guarding the lot. Refugio acknowledged that there wasn’t much to guard. Littered with rusted fenders and gas pumps, the place looked like a scrapyard.

For my visit, he’d arranged a couple of chairs, a stool, and a wooden table covered with a tan piece of plastic that flapped in the wind. It was cold, so he’d lit a fire inside a makeshift pit: two logs thrown into a circular metal planter. Refugio wore a gray pinstriped suit coat over black pants, both a couple of sizes too big, with an untucked white shirt and a pair of worn brown loafers, their dry leather tassels curled up. Lilia, who was living in a nearby apartment, wore heavy makeup and sat with her arms hugging her body. In her hands was an envelope holding crumpled pages of writing: the journal. It was the first time the Ocampos had shown it to a reporter since Lilia found it in the wake of her son’s arrest, wedged behind a seat in her truck, and given it to his legal team.

“We didn’t know he had written any of this,” Refugio said. Lilia nodded. “He shares everything he went through,” she explained, handing me the envelope. “It’s also a sort of confession,” Refugio acknowledged as I began to read. The first entry began, “Based on a true story.” The pages weren’t dated, but Lilia said that she assumed Itzcoatl had written them in late 2011.

Itzcoatl identified as a “POG,” or “people other than grunts,” a derogatory term used in the Marines to describe support personnel who rarely engage in combat. “Joined to be a fucking killer…but then ended up somewhere where I would be saving lives rather than taking ‘em,” he lamented. “Ended up ass-fucking POG. Dealing with motherfuckers who speak poor English yet somehow managed to be high-ups.” When he wrote about losing rank after the nonjudicial punishment process, he displayed an acute sense of injustice that morphed into an elaborate paranoid conspiracy. “I was all alone with the enemy who turned out to be my own co-workers, my own roommate and my own friends,” he wrote. “It took me a while to figure out that my whole life was a set up.”

Later, Itzcoatl reflected, “I came out [of the military] all fucked-up, normal before and now just fucked-up.” He described his state of mind as “most of the time, depressed.” Sometimes he speculated about why he felt so terrible: “Possibly a tumor in my head because I have headaches almost every damn day,” and “Is there some device inside me that gives my location, takes my pulse or gives me funny feelings?” He also worried that he would wind up like his father. “Now the next in line to be a bum,” he wrote.

“Could you imagine how the world would be if you were still here and not me? Utopia. Every day I think about you and blame myself.”

Often he talked about Claudio and survivor’s guilt. “Even before the Corps you were or still is a fucking hero,” he wrote, addressing his dead friend directly. “Look at the cheers you got at your graduation. Either way it wasn’t your time to go. I just happened to fuck things up.” Why he felt responsible for Claudio’s death wasn’t clear. In a particularly melancholy entry, Itzcoatl said he wished he were dead instead. “Every time I see your house I tell myself how much bullshit it is that I’m here and your [gone]. How fucked up it is that they picked you and not me. Could you imagine how the world would be if you were still here and not me? Utopia. Every day I think about you and blame myself,” he wrote. “I’ll only get over you and all of this shit is when I’m gone.”

In other entries, Itzcoatl showed latent jealousy that Claudio was a native-born American. “Since you were born here I’m guessing you didn’t have to deal w/ the fucking racism,” he wrote before speculating about his own fate. “I’m either going back to Mexico walking or by bus where from there I’ll die of either starvation or someone will just shoot me or stab me. I really am pathetic.”

The last pages of the journal revealed an impulse to do something that would address his anger and pain. “I always ask myself why you guys never shot me when you had the chance,” Itzcoatl wrote, as if addressing his fellow Marines. “If you’re me, it’s better off that you’re dead,” he continued. “There is only 3 ways of dying: by police, some random person or by yourself. Death won’t come so I might as well give it a call. Why? My head is fucked up.”

But while those words seemed to indicate that he was planning to kill or harm himself, he hadn’t followed through. Instead he’d turned his rage outward, perhaps hoping to stifle it by committing violence against the very people he feared becoming: homeless men, rootless and forgotten. Near the end of the journal, he seemed to obliquely describe his plans for a murder spree by way of a popular ad slogan. “I hate to say it’s time to make this town a scary place,” he wrote. “Gots to kill a few Pepsis, so hopefully it’ll refresh my world.” (“Pepsi” is street slang for a drug addict.)

By then, however, Itzcoatl had likely already killed for the first time. During the lengthy interrogations after his arrest, he surprised law enforcement by confessing to two gruesome murders that predated his attack on Jim McGillivray. The victims weren’t homeless men. They were his friends.

9.

It turned out that Itzcoatl, fresh out of Camp Pendleton, had worked briefly with his friend Eder Herrera and often visited the house that Herrera shared with his elder brother Juan and their mother, Raquel. “They realized Ocampo was just getting paranoid and weird,” John Burton, Herrera’s lawyer, told me. Itzcoatl would point at cars parked across the street and claim he was being watched. So Herrera, Juan, and Raquel decided to ask him not to come around. According to a detective who worked the case, Itzcoatl felt “disrespected” but acquiesced. A few months passed, during which he wasn’t in contact with the family.

Then, on the night of October 25, 2011, Itzcoatl went to Herrera’s home in Yorba Linda. He was planning to kill his former friends, he later told police, because they “seemed to have an attitude.” Herrera wasn’t home, so Itzcoatl waited outside. Then he grew impatient. “He went in and killed the other two,” Burton told me. “Ocampo started stabbing the mom, and then the brother came in and he started stabbing him.” When Juan tried to escape, Itzcoatl chased him and pulled him back inside. Autopsies would later find close to 100 stab wounds between the two victims.

Itzcoatl was planning to kill his former friends, he later told police, because they “seemed to have an attitude.”

Herrera was quickly arrested for the murders of his mother and brother and locked away. A 911 caller who said he was a neighbor, but who used a pay phone about a mile away, had reported loud noises coming from the residence. (According to Burton, the caller was Itzcoatl, who the lawyer also believes planted a kitchen knife at the scene to make the cops think they already had the murder weapon.) An eyewitness across the street claimed to have seen Herrera dragging something large—Juan’s body—into the house, accompanied by cries of “help.” When police picked him up, Herrera said that he’d spent the night at a friend’s place. But he raised suspicions when he admitted that he’d tried to go home some time after midnight. When he saw cop cars everywhere, he feared that he would be arrested because he was undocumented. Herrera said he drove away from the scene rather than figure out what had happened in his home.

Herrera swore that he had nothing to do with the killings. He didn’t know who the perpetrator might be. While he sat in jail, the idea that Itzcoatl could have murdered his family never crossed Herrera’s mind. “Eder didn’t want to hang out with Ocampo anymore and thought he was weird,” Burton told me, but his client considered “nothing even remotely approaching the fact that Ocampo could do something like that.”

Had it not been for the witness who saw John Berry die behind the Carl’s Jr., Itzcoatl might have gotten away with the double murder. Herrera might have rotted in prison. Instead, after Itzcoatl confessed, police found DNA from Herrera’s mother and brother on the Ka-Bar. Herrera went on to win a public settlement of $700,000 for unjust imprisonment, though the authorities never admitted any negligence in the case. “They were so sure from the outset they had the right guy, they didn’t entertain the evidence that led away from him,” Burton told the press. “If they’d gotten the right guy, [Ocampo] wouldn’t have killed four other people.”

10.

In January 2012, Itzcoatl was charged with murder, special allegations in multiple murders, lying in wait, and personal use of a deadly weapon. The Orange County district attorney decided to seek the death penalty. According to Wyatt, it was what Itzcoatl wanted. The young man had told his interrogator that he “deserved the death penalty” by “lethal injection, or whatever is quickest.”

In court, however, Itzcoatl pleaded not guilty. His lawyer told reporters that he was considering mounting an insanity defense. It’s possible that Itzcoatl was experiencing the onset of mental illness at the time of the murders. He was 23, and conditions like schizophrenia usually don’t manifest until late adolescence or early adulthood. But family and friends saw another culprit: post-traumatic stress disorder.

People close to him claimed that Itzcoatl had shown no signs of mental illness before he joined the Marines. His official medical examination upon enlistment revealed no personality deviation. In fact, the only notes from the physical were that he wore glasses and admitted to smoking marijuana. Like many veterans, though, he came home different. In a recent study, the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families at the University of Southern California screened the mental health of Orange County veterans, more than one-third of whom were Hispanic. Forty-five percent suffered from PTSD, the same portion from depression. Nearly one-fifth had considered suicide. During his arrest booking, Itzcoatl told a nurse that he’d tried to suffocate himself to death in 2010.

When I asked Wyatt about the possibility that Itzcoatl had PTSD, the detective dismissed it. He said the prosecution carefully considered the suspect’s experience in Iraq and found no incident that could explain his violent turn. Itzcoatl “was not involved in transporting dead bodies, either soldiers or other people. He did not work in a morgue. He basically drove a water truck,” Wyatt argued. “He wasn’t involved in the types of combat situations that normally you would expect to see with PTSD.”

“Many of our service members, when they leave the military, they are like immigrants in their own country, because nobody really knows them.”

Not everyone shared Wyatt’s opinion, though. Carl Castro, a professor of social work and a retired Army colonel, leads the USC center that commissioned the recent study of Orange County veterans. (I also teach at USC, where I am the chair of journalism at the Annenberg School.) When I met him at his office in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke at length about a pervasive sense of alienation among veterans. “Many of our service members, when they leave the military, they are like immigrants in their own country, because nobody really knows them,” Castro explained. He cautioned that while many former service members are “very, very angry,” not all of them have PTSD. But when he reviewed the details of Itzcoatl’s case, he immediately recognized signs of the affliction.

There were the recurring, disturbing nightmares, for one, “the crying-out-in-your-sleep kind,” he said. Castro also saw symptoms in Itzcoatl’s tendency to be hypervigilant (“We call it ‘startle reflex’ in PTSD jargon”) and in the fantasy Lilia remembered her son having about a bomb being hidden in their home. “A lot of people think of nightmares as rightfully happening at night, but you can also have them while you’re sitting here,” Castro told me. “Combat affects your thinking, it affects your behavior, it lowers your tolerance to people who are aggressive towards you. It disrupts the ability to calm down.”

Itzcoatl never saw combat, I pointed out. “We have some really good data showing that truck drivers are one of the most stressed groups, because they’re really a very passive target,” Castro countered. “In some sense, the way they described it was, ‘I’m a sitting duck here!’” It would be wrong to dismiss a motor-vehicle operator’s potential distress, he added, because “everyone was at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.” According to Itzcoatl’s military file, he was “properly notified of his requirement to be screened for PTSD/TBI,” or traumatic brain injury. He never scheduled any appointments.

Castro said that a crucial aspect of veterans’ reintegration into civilian life is the ability to seek and maintain meaningful relationships. When I asked about the effect Claudio Patiño’s death might have had on Itzcoatl, Castro said that for a man in an already fragile state of mind, the consequences of such a loss could be “catastrophic” and “the last nail in the coffin.” Particularly if it was the deepest friendship Itzcoatl ever had.

Castro understood why law enforcement might have seen an insanity defense as a cop-out. “But it’s not about getting off,” he said. “It’s trying to understand the contributions that these very traumatic, life-changing experiences can have on someone.” Similarly, Bonnie Tisdale, Itzcoatl’s supervisor at Camp Pendleton, recalled the shock she felt when she saw the young Marine’s mug shot on the news. “It wasn’t the Ocampo I remembered. He looked dead inside,” she told me. “I’m not saying what he did was right. It was absolutely wrong. But I think he just needed help. I really do.”

11.

In the end, Itzcoatl didn’t get help. He wasn’t convicted either. While awaiting trial, he spent nearly two years in jail. He was prescribed Paxil and Zoloft, which he sometimes refused to take. He once banged his head so hard against a wall that he was put on suicide watch, and he shared morbid thoughts about killing himself with other inmates. Lilia and Refugio saw their son as often as possible, but they never spoke about the murders. Itzcoatl remained discreet with his parents. Lilia worried that he was getting thin.

In 2013, the Marines permanently removed Itzcoatl from the Corps, serving him with an “other than honorable” discharge. A review board held a hearing, which Itzcoatl didn’t attend, to examine the facts of the case. It found him liable for “a serious offense, to wit: murder.” Under the terms of the Marine Corps Separation and Retirement Manual, neither a military nor a civilian conviction was required for the board’s decision, which Itzcoatl was informed of that fall.

Itzcoatl began hoarding small amounts of a powder similar to Ajax, which inmates were allowed to use to clean their cells. He stored it in small milk cartons under his bed.

Soon after, he began hoarding small amounts of a powder similar to Ajax, which inmates were allowed to use to clean their cells. He stored it in small milk cartons under his bed. On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 27, he swallowed it all with water. At around 6:15 p.m., authorities found him vomiting and shaking in his cell, with a towel inexplicably tied around his head as a blindfold. He declined assistance. Within a half-hour, he was foaming at the mouth and unresponsive. An emergency medical team was summoned.

The next day was Thanksgiving. Itzcoatl had told Lilia that he was looking forward to getting more and better food on the holiday. Early that morning she got a phone call. Itzcoatl had been transported to Western Medical Center Santa Ana, she learned, and his condition was dire. When she and Refugio arrived at the hospital, they were told that their son was brain dead. Around 7:15 that evening, they decided to pull the plug on his ventilator.

His parents initially received conflicting reports about what had killed Itzcoatl. “They told us he drank too much water,” Lilia recalled through tears. But to hydrate oneself to death is incredibly difficult. When she was told that he’d poisoned himself, Lilia didn’t believe that either. She’d planned a family visit with Itzcoatl for the day after Thanksgiving. Why would he agree to meet with her if he knew he’d be dead?

Itzcoatl’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, faulted prison authorities for negligence with regard to a mentally ill patient. “This was a guy who should have garnered the highest level of scrutiny,” Molfetta told journalists at the time, “and it wasn’t done.” But an inquiry into Itzcoatl’s death concluded otherwise. A final report published more than a year after his death cleared law enforcement of any “criminal culpability” in his suicide.

Itzcoatl was buried in Santa Ana. A handful of family members and friends attended, including Claudio Patiño’s parents. “They were our friends, and we had seen the boy grow up,” Claudio’s father told me of his decision to go. His own son had been lain to rest with full honors after a touching procession through local streets lined with people waving American flags. The only evidence of Itzcoatl’s ties to the military was on his tombstone. The Ocampos chose to engrave it with the Marines Corps motto, Semper Fidelis, above a quote that Itzcoatl had listed as his favorite in his high school yearbook: “Walk the streets I walked alone, then sit and judge me.”

12.

Judging the murders that Itzcoatl committed as unequivocal moral wrongs is easy. Determining what drove him to violent ends is much harder. His story is about many things: the immigrant experience, the desire to assimilate, military service, psychological distress, family and friendship, extraordinary violence. It begs for an organizing principle, a way to seamlessly fit its themes together in order to reveal a kernel of truth about what makes a person good and what can turn him bad. But that principle doesn’t exist—at least a satisfying one doesn’t. The story’s defining rule is the ultimate unknowability of Itzcoatl’s mind, an enigma that weighs heavily on the family he left behind.    

A few days after I met Itzcoatl’s parents last winter, Lilia traveled to Germany. It was the first long flight of her life; 17-year-old Citlaly, who declined to be interviewed for this story, went with her. Lilia told me that she was nervous to go, but also eager. She would be spending a few weeks with her first grandchild, Mixcoatl’s infant son, Ezra. “He’s always smiling. He seems very attentive,” Lilia said, cheerful for the first time in our interactions.

Mixcoatl was living in Germany with a woman named Sandra, Ezra’s mother. They were both in the Army, serving at a base in the Bavarian town of Vilseck. Mixcoatl had enlisted after Itzcoatl’s arrest. His parents told me that he’d always planned to join the armed services. Mixcoatl, who looks strikingly like his brother—same build, same buzz cut, same sharply angled face—told me he had another motivation. “I felt like everyone knew me,” he said of life in Orange County after the murders.

Itzcoatl’s dark notoriety was hard on his brother. People gossiped, and Mixcoatl was tired of the whispers about how he was related to a serial killer. The Army afforded him “a weird escape from reality,” he told me. He was in Afghanistan when he learned that his brother had killed himself. A friend sent him a message after seeing the news. “Your brother’s dead, man,” it read. Mixcoatl asked that his family wait to bury Itzcoatl until his deployment was over, a few months later, and they obliged. “My brother would have wanted me to complete my mission,” Mixcoatl told me. He also wanted to see Itzcoatl’s body one last time.

Initially, Mixcoatl hoped to be a paratrooper, but he has since changed his mind. “I like my body,” he said. “I don’t want to injure it.” Besides, he and Sandra are already expecting their second child, a daughter. Mixcoatl thinks they might move to Texas one day. It would be cheaper to live there than in Orange County, and fewer people would know about his brother.

While Lilia and Citlaly were away, I reached out to Refugio. He was still living behind the repair shop, clad in the too big jacket I’d seen him wear before. He’d recently started cleaning backyard pools for money, but he hadn’t made much. With his immediate family either dead or half a world away, he seemed glad for my company.

“I don’t regret coming to the United States in any way. It was the right decision. If we had stayed in Mexico, things would have been much worse.”

It was early January, almost five years to the day since Itzcoatl had been arrested. It would soon be 30 years since Refugio had left Mexico. So much had happened since then, and he seemed puzzled by it all: how he’d wound up penniless, chronically underemployed, with a son who confessed to murder before dying his own grisly death. I asked if he wished that he’d made a different decision when he was younger and stayed in his home country. “I don’t regret coming to the United States in any way,” Refugio said. “It was the right decision. If we had stayed in Mexico, things would have been much worse.”

Then he turned the conversation to the country he’d chosen and made wholeheartedly his own. He still believed in U.S. institutions, he said, even as he wrestled with questions about his son’s crimes and bitter end—questions for which he might never find answers. “He was a kind and honorable man,” Refugio said of Itzcoatl. “That is why I know my son didn’t do what they say he did. Or if he did do it, it wasn’t my son anymore. It was not Itzcoatl anymore.”

Some Mother’s Boy

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Some Mother’s Boy

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

By Alina Simone

The Atavist Magazine, No. 71


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


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

Published in September 2017. Design updated in 2021.

The Case

He was in a hurry when he was killed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Detective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if it’s not him?” I ventured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Test

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

“Are you Margie Haynes?” I gushed.

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

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

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

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