Prince of the Forty Thieves

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Prince of the Forty Thieves

He was a Baptist who became a Muslim, a Marine who became a bank robber, a criminal who became an informant, and a student who became an imam. But was he connected to the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history?

By David Gauvey Herbert

The Atavist Magazine, No. 63


David Gauvey Herbert is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Businessweek, Foreign Policy, Quartz, and other publications.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Footage: Courtesy of the New York City Department of Records Municipal Archives
Images: Courtesy of the United States Postal Inspection Service

Published in December 2016. Design updated in 2021.

In the hours after the attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this June, Steve Korinko followed the news at a friend’s home on the Jersey Shore. The TV was on when CBS News identified the gunman as Omar Mateen, a resident of Port St. Lucie, Florida, around 10 a.m. By lunchtime, networks reported that Mateen had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State when he called 911 from inside the club. At 2 p.m., President Obama addressed the nation and labeled the shooting an act of terror. By 3:30 p.m., the first victims had been publicly identified. At dusk, morgue workers began wheeling bodies out of the nightclub and loading them into white vans bound for the medical examiner’s office.

In the evening, Korinko drove home to Middlesex County, in northern New Jersey, where he lives alone in a large, sparsely furnished house. Before bed, he sat down at the computer in his office and pulled up Fox News. On the home page, he saw a triptych of photographs: the shooter, the ruined Orlando nightclub, and a middle-aged black man with a beard and skullcap. The images were arrayed beneath a banner headline reading: “ORLANDO MASSACRE GUNMAN CONNECTED TO RADICAL IMAM.”

“Holy shit,” he muttered, and picked up the phone.

In the nineties, Korinko had worked as an inspector with the United States Postal Service and had spent five months investigating a string of post office robberies in New York City. The culprits were members of a group known as the Forty Thieves gang, and their leader was Marcus Dwayne Robertson, a Brooklyn native and former Marine. Robertson armed his crew of Black Muslims with assault rifles, bulletproof vests, and C-4 plastic explosive, and together they stole more than $400,000 from post offices and banks in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Now, 25 years later, Robertson was staring back at him from the desktop monitor.

Korinko called me three times and then left a voice mail. “Check out Fox News,” he said.

During the past year, I had spent dozens of hours talking with Korinko and Robertson about their shared history—a cat and mouse chase across early-1990s New York City. I knew Robertson’s complicated story. After converting to Islam as a boy, he served four years in an elite Marine unit in the 1980s before embarking on an epic crime spree. Over the next two decades, Robertson often found himself pulled along as Brooklyn’s Muslim community brushed up against the war on terror. In 1993, he was tangentially connected to the World Trade Center bombing and was nearly called to testify at the masterminds’ trial. After living abroad, he returned to New York just a few days before 9/11; federal prosecutors sought him for questioning in the aftermath of the attacks. Several years later, Robertson says he was recruited to join the U.S. government’s growing army of informants in the Muslim world. After he quit and moved to Florida, the FBI apprehended him as part of an elaborate investigation into his finances.

Suddenly, the man whose bizarre and extraordinary history I’d been chasing for more than a year was at the center of America’s biggest story. In the 48 hours after the shooting, anonymous law-enforcement sources told the Daily Beast and CBS News that Mateen had enrolled in the Fundamental Islamic Knowledge Seminary, an online academy that Robertson founded to teach Koranic memorization and Arabic language classes. According to those unnamed officials, FBI agents “took Robertson in for questioning” before releasing him.

Two days after the attack, Robertson appeared on On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, accompanied by a lawyer. Robertson denied being arrested, said he had never met Mateen, and insisted that he had double-checked and found no record of Mateen’s enrollment.

“We don’t teach paramilitary training,” he said. “We don’t preach violence at all.” It was an assertion that echoed strangely off of Robertson’s own past.

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Eight months earlier, I had flown to Florida unannounced to meet Robertson at the same residence the FBI had now reportedly turned upside down searching for evidence. On a sunny morning, I drove out to southeastern Orlando and navigated through a neighborhood of modest homes. My GPS steered me to a coral and white house.

I rang the bell and Robertson opened the door, wearing a traditional robe called a thobe and a bemused squint on his face. “Can I help you?” he asked, and invited me in. Robertson is 48 years old and has two wives and 15 children, most of whom live in two houses a few minutes apart. The boys were dressed in thobes and the girls wore hijabs. Note cards with Swahili words dotted the walls and furniture to help his children learn the language. A handwritten notice outlined their routine: dinner, do chores, brush teeth, put on pajamas, watch movies. Off to the side was the makeshift studio from which Robertson streams online religion classes.

I spent the next three days shuttling between my Airbnb rental and his home, where we sat for hours on the couch talking about his youth. Robertson was a gracious host; his daughters served me mugs of coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches, buttery brown on the outside, gooey in the middle. He was soft-spoken and articulate, gently touching my knee when he wanted to make a point. He had that rare gift of easy familiarity with strangers: In another life, he could have been a congressman.

I had already spent months buried in his long paper trail—thousands of pages of documents and photographs, military records, police interviews with victims, months of unflinching trial testimony, clippings from local newspapers, and prison letters. Now, as we wound our way back through his history, I had trouble reconciling the warm, welcoming imam in front of me with the violent young man who once committed robberies and murders in the name of a muddled, militant Islam, punishing sinners and pursuing “economic jihad.”

The night after the Orlando shooting, I watched some of Robertson’s online lectures. In them he wears traditional Islamic garb, as do his audiences. To Americans learning about him after the attack, he must have seemed like a visitor from a faraway land. But I knew, from the hours I spent with Steve Korinko, the man who’d brought Robertson to justice, that he was a much more complicated figure than the recent headlines let on. Decades before Robertson found himself on Fox News, accused by anonymous, unconfirmed sources of conspiring in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, he and Korinko had been the main characters in a breathtaking and uniquely American criminal story.

The streets around the mosque were vibrant in a way the grim headlines never seemed to capture.

Marcus Robertson missed his gun. It was his first shift as a security guard at a Brooklyn housing project, and as he walked up and down poorly lit stairwells teeming with drug dealers, he felt exposed. Just a month earlier, he had been a Marine in Okinawa, working on hostage-rescue missions around east Asia. Now, in March 1990, he was on patrol again, this time in a large apartment building where shattered crack vials crunched underfoot.

For his first assignment, SSI Patrol Services, the security firm that hired him, had paired Robertson with an acquaintance from his mosque who had experience in the projects. More Black Muslim guards patrolled other parts of the complex, dressed in black fatigues, military-style field jackets, and bulletproof vests. For Robertson, it seemed like the first step from the Marines to the right side of a fight.

That night, though, something changed. Robertson’s partner had a limp and carried a handgun, and he let Robertson walk ahead. On a landing, they bumped into a cluster of men. A scuffle ensued, and Robertson wrestled a cheap pistol away from one of them and shot him in the leg. Decades later the details of this interaction would remain hazy, but it was Robertson’s first glimpse of the lines he could cross to protect his community’s interests, and his own.

Robertson was born into a middle-class Brooklyn family, the third of four brothers. His mother was a school principal. His father worked in state government. But despite his advantages, Robertson was a troublemaker. He idolized Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and scorned any dogma that commanded him to turn the other cheek. His parents were Baptists, but one Sunday, as his father drove the boys to church, Robertson spotted a racially diverse group boarding a coach bus. He was 11 or 12 years old then.

“Who are those people?” Robertson asked his father.

“Those are Muslims,” his dad said.

Through the open car window, the smell of oils and incense filled Robertson’s nostrils.

“Well, I’m one of them,” he declared.

Soon after, Robertson started hanging around Masjid At-Taqwa, a storefront mosque in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Taqwa had been recently founded by a charismatic young imam named Siraj Wahhaj, another former Baptist, who preached hard work, personal responsibility, and muscular opposition to the violence and drug dealing overtaking the surrounding area. But Robertson remained restless as a high school student and repeatedly tangled with police. Soon after his 17th birthday, he enlisted in the Marines.

After training in counterterrorism and surveillance, Robertson was sent to Japan, where he met an Egyptian military contractor moonlighting as the Islamic chaplain for the base’s handful of Muslims. With his guidance, Robertson took the shahada—the act of formally converting to Islam. Around this time, he met and married Udella Ward, a fellow Marine and a Long Island native. She soon became pregnant, and the couple requested a discharge.

In March 1990, Marcus Robertson returned to Brooklyn. He found his home wracked by a crack epidemic that was spreading through poor, mostly black neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Brownsville. “New York City is staggering,” the New York Times editorial board wrote that year.

The streets around Masjid At-Taqwa, however, were vibrant in a way the grim headlines never seemed to capture. Halal restaurants and stores selling religious paraphernalia flourished. And Black Muslims were fighting back against drug crime. In 1988, while Robertson was still in the Marines, Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of Taqwa, worked with police to remove dealers from a dozen local crack dens. Congregants operated 24-hour drug patrols, armed with walkie-talkies, knives, and pistols. Masjid Muminin, a nearby mosque that was popular with ex-felons who had converted in prison, adopted these tactics, too. The mosques became a recruiting pipeline for New York’s booming private-security industry. Within a few days of returning home, Robertson visited Taqwa, where a member of the congregation recruited him to join SSI Patrol. The job was perfect for an ex-Marine pulsing with testosterone.

Robertson was soon assigned to the overnight shift at Noble Drew Ali Plaza, a 385-unit complex of redbrick buildings named for a founding father of Islam in black America. Noble Drew Ali was one of the most violent, drug-infested projects in the city. Some residents slept in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets. Robertson and other guards walked the stairwells of the high-rises, breaking up drug transactions and getting into gunfights with dealers. The work was so dangerous that a few days after the scuffle in the stairwell, Robertson traded the stolen pistol for an M-16, the standard U.S. military rifle.

Robertson earned around seven dollars an hour, but he quickly learned that his colleagues had figured out how to make the work more profitable. Sober and armed, the other SSI guards were robbing drug dealers. There was plenty of cash: The notorious Supreme Team gang earned $250,000 a week selling crack in and around one housing project. During his first few weeks on the job, Robertson met a 22-year-old Brooklyn College student named Anderson “Hassan” King. (Members of the Black Muslim community typically call each other by adopted Muslim names.) King not only robbed drug dealers, but he also headed a crew that targeted the trains that transported hundreds of millions of dollars in subway fares through the city’s transit system.

Robertson also met Idris Cox, 18, unique among the men in that he had been born Muslim to convert parents. For Cox and the others, crimes against nonbelievers were considered less immoral than those against fellow Muslims. The philosophy appealed to Robertson, particularly after the stairwell incident. Cox introduced Robertson to his brothers-in-law: Darryl “Muslim” Board, a 25-year-old electrician and SSI guard, and Craig “Hussein” Williams, a 22-year-old carpenter and handyman. The men worshiped together at both Taqwa and Muminin; Robertson admired the gutsy belligerence of the ex-felons who frequented the latter’s prayer services.

Robertson had no trouble transitioning from the Marines to targeting drug dealers; the crossover is so unremarkable in his memory that he says he cannot even recall his first robbery. The lawlessness in Brooklyn disillusioned him, and the stairwell shooting empowered him. He felt an impulse, he told me, to hold sinners to account—and take advantage of the bedlam to enrich himself. “There was very little difference,” Robertson told me, between robbing drug dealers and his time in the service.

Once Robertson crossed over, his moral compass quickly spun out of control. In various combinations, Robertson and his new friends committed crimes virtually every day. They were not a physically imposing cast—Cox was a five-foot-six teenager; Board was five-foot-five and weighed just 128 pounds; Williams was a spindly six-foot-two and 150 pounds—but they robbed dozens of dealers, both at work and during off-hours.

Caught up in his new life of violence, Robertson began drifting apart from his wife. He was impatient and overbearing, he told me, and she pushed back. They divorced, and Robertson put his mind to finding a wife who had been born Muslim. Through Bedford-Stuyvesant’s close-knit Muslim community, Robertson soon met Zulaika El-Hadi, a 17-year-old high school student from a prominent Muslim family. Her father, Sulaiman El-Hadi, was a member of the Last Poets, a group of musicians and spoken-word artists—many of them Black Muslims—credited with laying the groundwork for hip-hop. Robertson’s father conferred with hers, and they allowed Marcus and Zulaika to go on chaperoned dates, usually with her elder brother accompanying them as they took long walks. The parents stipulated that they could not marry until she graduated high school.

Robertson’s secret life, however, barreled forward. In November 1990, he and a friend drove to Long Island before sunrise to rob Curtis Grandberry, a 27-year-old Army veteran and small-time drug dealer who lived with his mother. Above the back door was a light, and Robertson unscrewed the bulb to conceal himself and rang the bell. When Grandberry opened the door, Robertson shot him in the face, killing him. A month later, Robertson and Idris Cox visited the Queens stash house of another dealer, whose street name was Panama. They demanded that he stop selling drugs near the projects. When Panama laughed, Robertson shot him in the head. Panama somehow lived. Grandberry’s murder stumped local police, and they quickly gave up: A dead drug dealer was nothing new.

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Shaking down dealers was a springboard to more lucrative criminal endeavors. In March 1991, Robertson hatched a plan to rob an institution on the other side of the law: the Newkirk post office, just a few blocks from his parents’ home in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. In many neighborhoods, the post office was a surrogate bank. Mail carriers delivered disability on the first of the month, social security on the third. Once the checks arrived, post offices sold thousands of money orders. On those days, stations regularly held as much as $100,000 in cash.

Robertson put his Marine reconnaissance training to use. His assessment: Post offices were soft targets. Postal police responded to burglaries, but they did not make patrols. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation required banks to install security cameras to qualify for coverage, but post offices had no such mandate. If post offices had cameras at all, they were usually in the lobby; the loading dock was a blind spot. Clerks had neither silent distress buttons to alert the police nor bandit barriers, the bullet-resistant partitions that protected tellers at banks.

Switching targets was risky. Drug dealers rarely called the police, while robbing a post office was a federal offense with a potential 25-year sentence. When we first spoke last year, Robertson still had trouble explaining why he decided to target post offices. He told me that as he deepened his faith and learned about militant, antigovernment strains of Islam, he came to believe that robbing post offices constituted “economic jihad.” He was 22 years old, and his reasoning, he admitted, was a mess. Over the years, his professed rationale had changed many times: The robberies were an “appropriation of funds” from “nonbelievers.” He wanted “federal money.” And anyway, it was “nobody’s money.”

He enlisted Hassan Ali, a colleague from SSI, but at the appointed hour, his co-conspirator failed to show up. So Robertson entered the Newkirk station alone, through the front door, carrying a handgun. The post office was a small facility with just a few clerks. He emerged several minutes later with more than $20,000 in cash.

A few weeks later, Robertson was riding in a car with a friend when they got pulled over. During the stop, Robertson scuffled with an officer and was arrested for criminal possession of a firearm and assaulting a police officer, photographed, and fingerprinted before making bail.

Soon after Robertson was released, Anderson “Hassan” King, the money-train robber, proposed that they forge a criminal partnership. King would be the leader, and Robertson would be in charge of “wet work”—military slang for violence—and head up the robberies of post offices. Robertson agreed. The group included Darryl “Muslim” Board and Idris Cox. Jerome “Wadoud” Tolden would be the getaway driver; Robertson decided that Tolden’s dreadlocks and large frame would make him too easy for witnesses to identify.

Together they negotiated a code of ethics. First, if a member was arrested, the gang would take care of his family and set aside money for bail. Second, they would pay zakat, or charitable donations to a mosque, one of the five pillars of Islam. Finally, they would never surrender to police; instead, they would go out in a blaze of bullets.

They needed training. Robertson took the gang to a park in Brooklyn and ran them through drills he had learned in the Marines. They practiced “dynamic assaults,” lingo for entering rooms quickly and taking control with force. At a playground, they sat side by side on a swing set to mimic sitting in a car. Robertson began compiling a wardrobe of disguises—wigs, jackets, baseball hats, bandanas, and ski masks. Robertson and King bought a police scanner and two assault rifles.

Meanwhile, Robertson chose an initial target: the Brevoort post office on Atlantic Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, around the corner from Taqwa. To prepare, King went inside to buy a stamp and learn the layout, and Robertson conducted surveillance at various times of day.

On the morning of May 1, around 5:30 a.m., Tolden parked a stolen car around the corner from the post office. It was still dark when Robertson and Board pulled up in a taxicab, paid the fare, and climbed inside Tolden’s car. The three men waited for King. After 20 minutes, the sun started coming up. Just as they decided to go without him, King jumped into the car.

The men pulled on ski masks and stepped into the morning mist. Board entered through the lobby door. Robertson and King went down a back alley to the loading dock, where the swinging doors were open for trucks delivering mail. Robertson was the first one in. He held a finger to his lips and guided a clerk over to the table where employees were sorting letters and packages for the day’s deliveries. King brandished his assault rifle to keep clerks down while Robertson forced Walter Hupp, the station manager, over to the safe. While on his knees, Hupp removed a large manila envelope. Robertson demanded he rip it open. It was full of cash. He then took Hupp’s wallet and looked at the ID.

“You might know who we are,” Robertson said, “but we definitely know who you are.”

The gunmen dragged Hupp to the rear door and told him to lie down. Then they slipped out the door with $25,000 in cash.

The four men drove to a nearby mosque, parked the stolen car, and wiped it down for prints. Then they drove King’s car to Brooklyn College, split up the cash, and parted ways. Robertson and Board ate breakfast together. Tolden hurried to pay back rent with his proceeds. King went to class.

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Beeeeeeeeeep. Armed robbery. Brevoort post office on Atlantic Avenue.

The ominous beeeeeeeeeep had become routine. The tone signaled an all-points bulletin on the radio network used by the U.S. Postal Service. “We have an armed robbery at…” a nasal, outer-borough drawl would announce. The beeeeeeeeeep triggered a Pavlovian response of dread in postal inspectors. Steve Korinko, 37, folded his six-foot-three frame into a government cruiser and sped to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The nineties were frantic years for Korinko. His team was based in Manhattan, but most of the work was in Brooklyn, where they raced from one robbery to another. In 1990, postal crime had begun spiking nationally, with robberies and burglaries jumping from 317 in the first half of that year to 658 in the second half. The NYPD was struggling with the city’s crime wave, too. When overworked police officers saw Korinko at the scene of a robbery, they were happy to file the crime “FOA”—for other agency—and walk away.

At Brevoort, Korinko put up a sign that the post office was closed. Postal police officers cordoned off the scene while Korinko interviewed rattled mail clerks. The robbery was depressingly familiar. Three black men in masks. And yet what witnesses told Korinko stood apart from typical robberies: The assailants carried assault rifles and were in and out of the facility quickly. They wore identical black jackets, which made them difficult to tell apart.

Post offices, unlike banks, did not have security-camera photos, dye packs, or sequential bills. “We were asked to solve these robberies without any fucking evidence,” Korinko told me one summer evening last year as we sat in the backyard of his friend’s house drinking Coors Light.

Korinko had grown up in New Jersey dreaming of playing baseball or joining law enforcement. But soon after he graduated from college, his father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and died. Korinko signed an 89-day contract as a letter carrier, lived at home, and supported his mother and three younger siblings. When the 89 days were up, he renewed the contract again, and then again. He played semipro ball in the sandlot Metropolitan Baseball League and began working full-time as a mailman. He got married.

In the early 1980s, Korinko was getting ready to apply to the FBI when a colleague told him that there was a law-enforcement agency inside the post office: the United States Postal Inspection Service. The agency kept a low profile. As a mail carrier, Korinko thought they were glorified snitches: At the time, a team called internal crimes handled corruption cases among the Postal Service’s 600,000 career and contract employees. Clerk steals Timmy’s birthday money from Grandma; carrier claims disability, then goes waterskiing. But there was another side to the Inspection Service. In its 200-plus-year history, postal inspectors had pursued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, transported gold to Fort Knox, and disrupted the original Ponzi scheme. In the early 1980s, the Inspection Service investigated mail bombs, identity theft, money laundering, and child pornography. Korinko applied in 1984 and was accepted. His first assignment was Providence, Rhode Island, but in 1989, the Inspection Service was desperate to recruit inspectors to New York City. The pay was too low and living expenses were too high, but Korinko was happy to get back to New Jersey.

What he found was a service overwhelmed and outgunned. His arrival coincided with a spike in armed robberies fueled in part by the crack epidemic. The streets were flooded with illegal guns: Armed robbers increasingly carried semiautomatic pistols and assault rifles, while the most powerful weapon in the Inspection Service arsenal was a shotgun. Mail trucks that moved thousands of dollars in postal cash had no protection. Sometimes Korinko’s team got lucky: At one robbery, a panicky gunman accidentally ejected the magazine from his machine pistol, and Korinko was able to lift prints off the unspent rounds inside. But mostly the unit used unreliable eyewitness identifications further compromised by the fact that most postal robbers in New York were young black men wearing masks.

The inspectors’ best tools were bait money orders marked with prerecorded serial numbers. During a robbery, clerks were instructed to include the bait among the money and legitimate money orders. If a customer later showed up to cash a bait order, the clerk discreetly called headquarters and stalled until the postal police or a postal inspector could arrive. Still, money orders were only a lead, since they usually changed hands several times before being cashed.

At Brevoort post office, $25,000 in cash was missing. As Korinko inspected the tills, he saw that his odds of cracking the case had dipped further: The robbers had not taken the bait.

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A few hours after the gang’s debut heist, Robertson and King began prepping for their next one. Later that morning, they met at a mosque just 50 yards from the post office where Korinko was still processing the crime scene. King proposed a post office in Mount Vernon, just north of the Bronx; it sat across the street from the home of their friend Evette “Anisah” Shade. The group drove up to survey the target later that morning. The post office had a grand stone facade with ionic columns, a parking lot, and several docking bays that backed onto a residential block.

This time, King enlisted Roland “Ramadan” Campbell, who had been a member of his train-robbery crew. His rap sheet was longer than the rest of the gang’s. At 15, he was arrested for illegal entry and criminal use of a firearm. Seven years later, he shot and killed a cab driver. Campbell confessed and was sentenced to 30 years. His sentence was overturned on a technicality, and he walked out of prison in 1989 after serving less than four years.

On the night of May 2, the five men drove up to Mount Vernon and parked two getaway cars several blocks from the post office. In Shade’s living room, they organized their gear: black jackets, ski masks, gloves, bulletproof vests, walkie-talkies, three assault rifles, a shotgun, two handguns, a mountain of ammunition, and two pipe bombs rigged with C-4. Campbell suggested that the men take an oath: Be loyal to one other, and take out any cops who come for us. The five men put their fists together in unity.

The fajr, or morning prayer, is typically performed just before sunrise, but the gang wanted to take their positions while it was still dark. Surrounded by firearms and tactical gear, they stood facing Mecca and bowed, touching their foreheads to the carpet. Then they checked each other’s bulletproof vests and walked out the front door.

Tolden was the lookout. The rest of the gang stormed the rear entrance of the post office, pushed a clerk inside at gunpoint, and fanned out over the two-story facility. Upstairs, they forced supervisor Connie Fuller into the registry cage, where the safe was kept. Fuller’s hands shook so badly that she couldn’t work the lock. Downstairs, Ronald Hagar, a 63-year-old truck driver, arrived with the day’s mail. As Hagar entered, Campbell pistol-whipped him, fracturing the back of his skull. Blood poured from his head and pooled on the floor.

After five minutes, Campbell radioed Robertson on the walkie-talkie. “What is taking so long?” he asked. “We’re outta time.”

Robertson and King locked two of the clerks in the cage and marched a third downstairs. By now more employees were arriving for work. As they entered, Campbell and Board shepherded them at gunpoint past the pool of Hagar’s blood and into a closet. The sun was out as the four gunmen exited the post office empty-handed, got into Tolden’s car, and drove to the stashed getaway vehicles. As they prepared to make the switch, they heard tires on pavement and turned around to see a police cruiser rolling toward them. Campbell walked into the nearest driveway and pretended to urinate while removing a handgun from his waistband. Board dropped to a knee behind a tree, shouldered his assault rifle, and took aim. The cruiser slowed down, then accelerated and sped off.

On the way home, Robertson was already troubleshooting the heist. He peppered Campbell and Board with questions. What happened on the first floor? Tolden parked in the wrong spot, Board explained, and he had left the post office to retrieve him, leaving Campbell alone to guard the rear entrance; shorthanded, Campbell pistol-whipped Hagar, the mail driver. The gang needed to tighten up, Robertson knew. Violence was to be a last resort.

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Back in Brooklyn, Robertson brought his men to an informal gun range in the basement of Noble Drew Ali Plaza, the public-housing project he had previously patrolled. He distributed official guidebooks on FBI and SWAT tactics and taught dynamic room assaults, takedown moves, and how to field-strip an assault rifle. If anyone strayed more than an arm’s length from his weapon, Robertson doled out push-ups as punishment.

Despite his insistence on military precision, Robertson’s appetite sometimes outpaced the gang’s abilities. A few days after the Mount Vernon debacle, Robertson heard a rumor in the neighborhood that Thomas Baby, a 53-year-old of a check-cashing store on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, had made comments celebrating violence against Muslims in India. Robertson decided that he needed to be punished.

On May 8, Robertson, Campbell, and King followed Baby from the store to his home in Queens. King parked across the street from Baby’s small, two-story brick house, and then Robertson and Campbell walked to the front door.

“Detectives, open up,” Robertson shouted as he pounded, holding up a fake police shield and a walkie-talkie. Baby opened the door, and Campbell and Robertson entered.

“We got a call of a disturbance,” Robertson said. “Did you call the police?”

Baby replied that he had not.

“Nobody scream,” Campbell said as he pulled out several sets of handcuffs. Robertson pressed the barrel of his gun to Baby’s forehead, and Campbell handcuffed his wife, their 13- and 21-year-old sons, and finally Baby himself. Then King walked in wearing a ski mask and carrying a black bag with an assault rifle and pipe bombs.

Robertson explained the plan to his captives: In the morning, members of the gang would take Thomas Baby to his check-cashing store. When they had emptied his vault, they would radio the remaining gang members at Baby’s house to release the children. In the meantime, they taped a pipe bomb to the hands of Baby’s younger son, Varughese.

As the gang settled in to wait, Baby’s elder son, Thomas Jr., told Robertson that they had relatives living in the basement. The gang went downstairs and handcuffed them, too, but it was too late. One of the relatives had called 911. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Robertson saw an officer on the porch.

“Our parents aren’t home,” he called through the door, imitating the voice of a young boy. The officer continued knocking. Robertson grabbed Baby’s elder son and stuck him out the front door. “Don’t shoot!” he cried. “We’re hostages.”

Robertson pulled him back inside. Then he picked up a pipe bomb and lit the fuse, Campbell opened the door, and Robertson tossed out the bomb. As the C-4 detonated, sending metal shrapnel into a rookie officer’s left thigh, right arm, and right elbow, Robertson, King, and Campbell ran out the back door. Robertson carried Varughese over his shoulder, and King strong-armed Thomas Jr. along while the police began shooting. The gang returned fire.

Robertson let go of Baby’s younger son so they could scramble over a neighbor’s fence, the sound of gunfire echoing behind them. Bedroom windows lit up as neighbors awoke to the commotion. Robertson, Campbell, and King, still dragging Thomas Jr., bounded through backyards. Campbell saw a house that had its lights on, trampolined off the hood of a parked car, and crashed through the kitchen window. The couple who lived there tried to fight him off, but Robertson jumped through the broken window frame and helped subdue them. Campbell battered the man and then forced him to start the family’s Mercury Marquis. The gang piled in, King released the final hostage, and they peeled out, sirens flashing in the rearview mirror as they turned onto the Cross Island Parkway.

Speeding down the highway, Robertson fired at a young woman driving a station wagon in an adjacent lane, hitting her wrist. Her car, with an infant child in the backseat, spun out, bottling up traffic so the gang could speed away.

The next day, the headline in Newsday read, “Cop Hurt in City Attack Is Stable.” That morning, King went back to retrieve his car, which was still parked near Baby’s house. As he pulled out, police sirens sounded. The NYPD followed him east. When he entered Nassau County, more officers were waiting. After a ten-mile pursuit, police arrested King in Roslyn, Long Island. Their prisoner had wounded an officer the night before with a pipe bomb, and they roughed him up; King’s booking photo showed his face bloodied and bruised.

After the arrest, Robertson and Campbell went to see King’s wife and gave her money. Then they searched his house, divvied up his firearms, and destroyed incriminating evidence, including a list of employee names from SSI Patrol.

With King in jail, Robertson took charge of the gang. Two weeks later, Robertson and Campbell robbed a post office in Mariners Harbor, a remote area in northwest Staten Island. They got a few hundred dollars in cash and three money orders worth the same. The pair split the cash and money orders. Robertson gave one of the money orders to a girl he knew in Crown Heights.

In the next two weeks, the gang robbed two more post offices and a bank, netting more than $39,000 in cash and multiple reams of stamps. They joked that they had “all the stamps.” The money allowed Robertson to pay bail for Craig Williams, a colleague from his SSI days who was in jail on a stolen-vehicle charge.

Robertson was eager to donate some of his earnings to the Taqwa mosque, but Siraj Wahhaj, knowing its provenance, refused to accept it. The imam told him to return the money. Robertson refused and went instead to Muminin. Robertson told me that mosque officials there not only accepted the gang’s zakat but asked for more: “They said, ‘We got plumbing problems. How come we got plumbing problems if you guys have so much money?’” He estimated that over the next few months, the gang gave roughly $30,000 to the mosque. (Muminin has since closed, and I was never able to reach former officials to confirm the story.)

Flush with cash, Robertson wanted more guns. At a Brooklyn barbershop, he met an arms dealer named Morris “Leader Zero” Beverly. The two men squeezed into a small bathroom in back and completed the sale: two Glock pistols, still in their original packaging, for $850 apiece. Beverly tossed in some Hydra-Shok hollow-point bullets for free.

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In early June, Korinko was sitting in his office in midtown Manhattan when the long, familiar beeeeeeeeeep sounded on his portable radio. A dispatcher reported that a clerk at a post office in nearby Chelsea had just caught a woman trying to cash a stolen money order. The serial number was linked to a postal robbery in Mariners Harbor, Staten Island. Even with the deluge of robberies, Korinko remembered that crime scene. The post office sat in a desolate industrial area near the Bayonne Bridge. When Korinko had visited two weeks earlier, he thought the robbers had chosen a risky target. They’d gotten away, even though there was only one main road in and out. Still, for once Korinko had caught a break: The robbers had taken the bait money orders.

Korinko raced to Chelsea. By the time he arrived, postal police had already detained a well-dressed, middle-aged woman. Her daughter, she said, had asked her to cash the money order. The check was signed “Bill Greene.” Korinko drove the woman to her home in Crown Heights. The apartment building sat on a leafy stretch of Eastern Parkway, a once grand boulevard that had slumped into disrepair. When they arrived, her daughter, Stephanie Shamblee, 22, told Korinko that the money order came from a friend who wanted to help her out. He called himself Taalib, but she thought his legal name might be Marcus Robertson.

Korinko proposed a trap: The next morning, Shamblee would call Robertson and tell him there was a problem with the money order. Could he swing by and swap it for cash? Korinko would wait outside the building, and Shamblee would call him on his car phone when Robertson was leaving so postal inspectors could intercept him. Shamblee, facing the wrath of her mother, eagerly agreed.

The next morning, Korinko and his partner, Bob Harnois, parked outside Shamblee’s apartment. After a few hours, she called: Robertson was leaving. Korinko looked up and saw a young black man already walking briskly down the block. Korinko and Harnois caught up with him. But just as Korinko extended his arm to grab Robertson’s shoulder, Harnois tripped over a sidewalk planter, startling Robertson, who took off sprinting and turned left on the next street. Korinko ran after him, rounding the corner just in time to see his man make another left.

“Marcus!” Korinko shouted as he gave chase. “We just wanna talk!”

The street passed over a set of subway tracks. Korinko watched Robertson scale a chain-link fence at the overpass. He was climbing down the other side when Korinko caught up.

“What the fuck are you making me run for?” Korinko shouted through the fence. “I just wanna talk to you about a stupid money order.”

“This is not the way people talk,” Robertson replied, still hanging onto the fence.

“We can handle this in five minutes,” Korinko promised.

Robertson began climbing back over, but when he got to the top of the fence, he heard sirens. Police cruisers raced toward them from both directions. An NYPD officer had seen a white guy chasing a black guy and called in a code 10-13: assist police officer. Every available unit in the area came charging to help. Robertson let go and sprinted down onto the tracks, disappearing into the tunnel.

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Marcus Robertson in surveillance footage from a bank robbery. 

After the chase along Eastern Parkway, Craig “Hussein” Williams came home to find Korinko’s business card waiting for him; postal inspectors had found him in Shamblee’s address book. Robertson kicked himself for giving her the money order. He decided to let things in New York cool down. In mid-June, he and Williams took the train to Philadelphia, where they robbed a branch of Provident Bank and made off with $50,554. Williams took the train back to New York, but Robertson remained in Pennsylvania, crashing with a friend in Chester, a town outside Philadelphia. He liked the area and decided to buy a house, putting down $50,000 in cash for a two-story home. It made sense, he thought, to establish a safe house and not “shit where you eat.”

A week later, he returned to New York with presents. He had purchased T-shirts and denim jackets and had them painted with a garish desert motif of camels, palm trees, pyramids, and the name he had chosen for the gang: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

With Korinko sniffing around, Robertson decided that post offices had become too dangerous. Campbell scouted a European American Bank branch in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Robertson dipped into his collection of disguises to dress the men like, in his words, “Hawaiian fags.” On June 27, he entered the bank wearing a beige suit, sunglasses, and a green baseball cap with an attached wig. Campbell and Williams wore a baby blue denim outfit and a beige suit, respectively, plus bandanas.

Banks, of course, carried their own risks. The FDIC mandated cameras, but the devices varied in quality. Continuous-feed cameras that recorded to VHS tapes were becoming more popular, but they often produced grainy images. Older 35mm models yielded crisper photographs, but a teller needed to activate them by pressing a button; if he or she waited too long, the images would show the back of a suspect’s head leaving the bank.

Robertson told the men to assume that cameras were rolling at the Cypress Hills bank and that alarms would be quickly activated, giving them a three-minute window. Robertson had planned to vault over the bulletproof partition—the so-called bandit barrier—but he couldn’t: A few weeks earlier, Williams had accidentally shot him in the thigh while inspecting a handgun. Instead, Robertson hauled himself up on the counter and held the partition for balance. Williams emptied the registers, but the safe wouldn’t open. After three minutes, they climbed into Campbell’s Jeep with $28,677 in cash. An off-duty cop who happened to be in the bank gave chase on foot and drew his handgun. The gang waved goodbye and sped away.

Within the hour, a young FBI agent named Mike Dressler arrived on the scene. Dressler was a Boston-bred attorney who had quit his father’s law practice to join law enforcement and was now assigned to the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force, a collaboration between the FBI and NYPD with roughly 15 agents and five detectives.

The European American Bank had a 35mm still camera and a quick-thinking teller who’d hit the switch as soon as the robbery was apparent, capturing a clean shot of a robber’s face—albeit obscured by sunglasses and a hat. Additional photographs showed the same man standing on the counter, smiling at the camera. Charlie Jardines, a 30-year-old NYPD detective assigned to the bank-robbery squad, found prints on the bandit barrier, lifted the markings with a piece of tape, and affixed it to a note card.

Campbell suggested that the men take an oath: Be loyal to one another, and take out any cops who come for us. 

A few weeks later, Korinko’s major crimes team got a phone call from an agent at the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Agents looking for a Marcus Robertson in the FBI’s criminal database had found Korinko’s name on an arrest warrant issued after the chase on Eastern Parkway. As Korinko and his boss, Ed Cuebas, drove to JTTF headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza, in lower Manhattan, they tried to guess why the anti-terror unit would bother with a stolen money order.

The JTTF had been formed back in 1980, in response to a wave of deadly bombings in New York City in the 1970s. Like the bank-robbery squad, it paired federal agents with police detectives to limit interagency turf wars. But in its early years, the JTTF had little to do. Aside from the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the FBI’s interest in counterterrorism waned. Instead, the JTTF started working to anticipate potential threats. By the late 1980s, the unit had become increasingly curious about Brooklyn mosques. In November 1990, El Sayyid Nosair, a 34-year-old Egyptian-American, assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, at a midtown hotel. The JTTF suspected that Nosair, a city maintenance worker, was part of a larger criminal underground connected to the city’s mosques.

During the U.S.-backed war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, a mosque in Brooklyn called Masjid al-Farooq had become a center for fundraising and recruiting fighters to join the anti-Soviet mujahideen forces in Afghanistan. As recounted in the 2002 book The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, And Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It, by John C. Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Mitchell, a blind Egyptian sheikh named Omar Abdel-Rahman arrived in Brooklyn from Sudan around the same time that Robertson returned from the Marines. Abdel-Rahman had been on a State Department watch list for his connection to the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. But in Islamic circles, Abdel-Rahman became a celebrity, preaching violent struggle against the West at Brooklyn mosques, including Robertson’s mosque, Taqwa.

The JTTF knew that Nosair was connected to Abdel-Rahman and that he spent time at Masjid al-Farooq. They also knew that Nosair trained at a shooting range in Long Island with a man named Richard Smith, who also worshipped at Taqwa. The JTTF surveilled the gun range and photographed the men coming and going. A confidential informant told the JTTF of a connection between Smith and Robertson, whose gang frequented the same gun ranges.

At the JTTF’s offices, Korinko and Cuebas sat down with Neil Herman, a veteran FBI agent who had taken command of the unit the previous year. Herman explained that the JTTF was investigating Brooklyn’s Black Muslim community. For a year, two young JTTF agents, Tommy Corrigan and Tom McNally, had been working to understand how guns were being trafficked. Herman produced a poster board with 15 to 20 mug shots, his unit’s best attempt at an organizational chart of Masjid Muminin, many of whose members they suspected of weapons dealing. As Korinko studied the photographs, he was shocked to see Robertson’s mug shot from his April arrest. As the meeting wound down, Herman asked for a favor: If postal inspectors arrested Robertson, could JTTF agents interview him? Cuebas and Korinko agreed.

After the meeting, Cuebas suggested they visit the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force, two floors down. Postal inspectors often pursued suspects who also hit banks. Downstairs, an agent suggested Korinko introduce himself to Mike Dressler, a relatively new member of the team. Korinko walked over to Dressler’s cubicle, which was littered with piles of eight-by-ten-inch, black-and-white glossies from bank security cameras.

“You’ve got a few surveillance photos,” Korinko said to Dressler. He was jealous—post office cameras were so outdated that Korinko rarely had photographs to work with. He flipped absentmindedly through the stacks and stopped at a photo of an armed man walking among roped-off bank-teller lines. Even with sunglasses and a hat, the face was unmistakable.

“Oh, I see you know Marcus Robertson,” Korinko said.  

“You know this guy?” Dressler exclaimed.

“I just chased after him on Eastern Parkway,” Korinko replied.

“I’ve been trying to ID this guy for days!”

The lack of communication—born of professional rivalry—between the bank-robbery and anti-terror squads astonished Korinko. Robertson was on an org chart on the 28th floor and a face without a name on the 26th. The chase on Eastern Parkway suddenly made sense. Korinko realized that Robertson wasn’t just a jittery money-order middleman. The inspectors now believed that he was the prime suspect in the Mariners Harbor robbery, and perhaps others. Dressler sent the bandit-barrier prints to the FBI for analysis. They matched a set taken at a precinct booking in April for 22-year-old Marcus Dwayne Robertson.


Amid new robberies and high-speed chases, Robertson continued courting Zulaika El-Hadi. They took long walks and went window-shopping, with her elder brother acting as chaperone. In May 1991, she turned 18, and she graduated high school a few weeks later. The couple were now free to marry. Female relatives organized a bridal shower at the Picnic House in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of Taqwa, told me recently that he warned her father, Sulaiman El-Hadi, not to let his daughter marry Robertson. Everyone at Taqwa knew that Robertson was an armed robber who tried to make zakat with stolen funds. But El-Hadi gave his blessing anyway and hosted the walima, or Islamic marriage banquet, at his home.

Campbell got married, too—to Tyesha “Taha” Evans, a 17-year-old runaway whom Robertson and Campbell had met when they raided a crack house. Evans lived with Robertson, and the two men had helped her convert to Islam. Evans was beautiful—she later appeared as a backup dancer in hip-hop videos—and married Campbell in an Islamic ceremony about a month after Robertson’s wedding. The two couples decided to honeymoon together in Stamford, Connecticut.

Campbell drove his young wife up first, checked in to a hotel, and did some sightseeing around town. When Robertson arrived with El-Hadi, Campbell told him about three banks that could be ripe for a job. Robertson settled on a Gateway Bank, because its setup made it difficult for passersby to see inside the lobby from the street.

Early the next morning, King and Board arrived in Stamford in a stolen Lincoln Town Car. The gang robbed the Gateway Bank and made off with $22,424 in cash. Afterward, Robertson and Campbell returned to the hotel, where their brides were still asleep. The honeymoon was over. The gang drove back to New York. A week later, they hit a Bowery Savings Bank branch in Queens, netting $45,552.

Gang members had rolled their eyes at Robertson’s obsessive planning and called him Mother Goose. But as the months went on and successful robberies mounted, they saw that his methods worked. “They were getting better and better,” Korinko told me, noting Robertson’s expanding wardrobe of disguises and the gang’s discipline in keeping their time inside a bank down to three minutes.

In late July, Robertson and the gang checked in to a Holiday Inn near John F. Kennedy Airport for a planning session. The next day they robbed a National Westminster Bank branch in Queens, wearing disguises they bought at a costume store: Hassan Ali wore a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask and Robertson a Richard Nixon mask. After the chase down Eastern Parkway, Robertson was trying to be more serious, but as they retreated with $41,665 in cash, he stopped at the door and shouted “I am not a crook!” while flashing a victory sign. A bank robber wearing a Nixon mask in Point Break, an action movie released two weeks earlier, had pulled the same stunt.


The Forty Thieves gang had now hit six post offices and seven banks in less than three months. Robertson drove to his new house in Pennsylvania to lie low. A few days later, on July 27, he wanted to get an oil change for his car. It was dawn when he stopped at a gas station. A city kid, used to 24-hour service, he looked around for an attendant, cupping his hands to peer through the shop window.

Robertson got back in his car and drove off. But someone had seen a young black man lurking around a closed business and called 911. In his rearview mirror, he noticed a red cruiser with its lights on. It looked like a fire marshal, but when the cruiser continued trailing him, Robertson realized it was the police. He slowed down, opened the door, and rolled out of the moving car. He ran through backyards, a handgun tucked into his pants, as neighbors shouted directions to pursuing officers. One local resident took aim at him with a firearm. The police released a dog, which caught up to Robertson and bit his arm. Officers found him punching the dog and arrested him.

At the Delaware County Jail, Robertson identified himself as Joseph Hashim. He called the gang in New York and asked them to remove anything suspicious from his house in Chester. The next day, El-Hadi, Williams, and Hassan Ali drove down with the bail money, but by the time they arrived local police had determined that he was not Joseph Hashim but Marcus Dwayne Robertson, with an arrest warrant logged in the FBI’s database. Jail officials turned away his friends.

Meanwhile, Korinko got a call from the Delaware County sheriff, who told him that Robertson was in custody. A short while later, the JTTF called. They had heard that Robertson was locked up. Would postal inspectors mind if the JTTF paid him a visit, too? A month earlier, Korinko and his boss had said yes. But after meeting with Mike Dressler, Korinko realized that his suspect was likely responsible for robbing a bank and a post office, at the very least. Letting FBI agents working an unrelated investigation interview Robertson might hamstring his prosecution down the line. He asked the JTTF to hold off.

On the morning of August 1, Korinko and Barney Morrison, a colleague in the postal inspectors’ major crimes unit, drove to Pennsylvania. Corrections officers led Robertson into a small interrogation room. Robertson immediately recognized Korinko from the chase down Eastern Parkway.

“What the hell happened?” Korinko asked. “You were coming over the fence to talk.” Robertson said the sirens had spooked him.

Robertson had a black eye, payback for punching Kennedy, the unit’s prized canine. Korinko told him that he faced state charges in Pennsylvania—illegal possession of a firearm and resisting arrest. Korinko had the power to transfer him to the federal system. If Robertson cooperated, federal prosecutors could be generous. Korinko pressed him to start talking.

“I’ll give you one,” Robertson said after a long pause. The Brevoort post office robbery, he said, had been his crew’s work. Four guys. Assault rifles, bulletproof vests, and ninja masks. They had gone in and out the back. The haul was around $25,000.

Korinko and Morrison exchanged looks. Robertson was part of a crew, perhaps a prolific one, and his confederates were still at large. Korinko could tell Robertson realized he was in a bad spot and was looking to cooperate. He promised to get Robertson back to New York as soon as possible. After the interview ended, Korinko went to a pay phone and called Chuck Gerber, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Robertson was a talker; if they wanted him to cooperate, they should put together a formal deal.

While Korinko drove back to the city, Robertson was taken from his cell and brought again into an interrogation room. His new visitors were Tommy Corrigan and Tom McNally, the two JTTF agents leading the gun-running investigation. Sitting with two more federal agents, Robertson took Korinko’s advice about cooperation to heart. This was an opportunity to increase his value and shop for a better deal. The robberies of post offices and banks were part of a larger conspiracy, he told them, a response to the Persian Gulf War. He told them he was personally responsible for giving approximately $300,000 in cash to mosques; his “appropriation of funds” from infidels. If he was released, he could be in Saudi Arabia the next day. Most of the claims were embellishments or outright lies. But according to Corrigan’s retelling of the interview in The Cell, the 2002 book that analyzed the intelligence failures leading to the 9/11 attacks, the two agents believed him. They saw Robertson as an intelligence gold mine and potential informant. (McNally, through an FBI spokeswoman, declined to speak with me. Corrigan died in 2011.)

Back home that evening, Korinko learned that JTTF agents had met with Robertson in Pennsylvania. He was furious that the agents had, in his mind, betrayed their deal. Chuck Gerber ordered Delaware County to release Robertson into federal custody, and Robertson was transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. There, Korinko and Dressler could work him together and, because they each had real robbery cases and the JTTF had only a theory, keep terrorism agents from further meddling. Now the question was, what would Robertson give up?

Robertson tried to keep tabs on the gang from jail. Over the phone, he warned Williams that the feds might be watching them. Campbell dropped coded clues about upcoming robberies, but there was a limit to what they could discuss on the monitored calls.

On August 19, two of the remaining Forty Thieves robbed a Manufacturers Hanover Trust branch in Brooklyn. Campbell fired several rounds into the bank ceiling before he and Williams fled with the gang’s largest haul to date: $60,347. New York’s major newspapers did not report the robbery; there was bigger news in the city. That same night, the motorcade of a prominent Hasidic rabbi had struck and killed a seven-year-old black boy in Crown Heights. The neighborhood erupted in riots.

A few weeks later, Williams, Board, and Idris Cox entered the Anchor Savings Bank on Liberty Avenue. They ordered the tellers to empty their drawers into a bag and then fled through the back door and a hole they’d cut in a fence. Campbell was waiting in Board’s minivan. The three men hustled into the vehicle and sped away with approximately $28,000 in cash, including 21 two-dollar bills, which one bank teller collected as a hobby.

As they drove off, the manager of a nearby pharmacy called the police. He had noticed the minivan in a parking lot and thought the men inside were acting suspiciously. On guard for shoplifters, he took down the license-plate number. Motor-vehicle records linked the car to two addresses in Brooklyn, including a Fort Greene apartment leased to Darryl Board. A dispatcher radioed the members of the bank-robbery task force. Ed McCabe and Charlie Jardines responded to the call and headed toward Board’s apartment.

McCabe, Jardines, and three other agents were staking out the apartment when, around 1 p.m., a stocky man with a droopy eye—Campbell—emerged from the four-story building and deposited a bag in the trunk of a green Peugeot. A few minutes later, Williams and Cox walked out with another bag, got into a Chevy Blazer, and drove away. Three carloads of agents set off in pursuit.

In one car, McCabe and Jardines followed the Blazer toward the Brooklyn Bridge. At an empty intersection, Jardines overtook the Blazer and stopped in the middle of the street. The Blazer was still moving when Williams opened the driver-side door and jumped out. The truck crashed into the cruiser. Cox surrendered, but Williams took off running. He sprinted through an office park and into a housing project. Jardines followed and soon found himself alone in the projects, running about 20 yards behind the suspect. A group of small schoolchildren crossed his path. Their teacher shouted “White motherfucker!” after him. As Jardines ran across the plaza, bystanders cheered; soon he realized they were shouting encouragements at his fleeing suspect.

Williams ran under a highway overpass and hopped a fence into a large industrial lot. McCabe, a former Marine, caught up and clambered over. Jardines was too winded. He flagged down a passing motorist, tapped on the window with his badge, got into the passenger seat, and shouted at him to drive. They caught up to Williams and pulled over. Jardines hopped out of the car and pointed his gun at Williams. The driver sped away, the passenger door flapping wildly. Jardines was now alone, exposed.

“Get on the ground!” he shouted at Williams. “Get down!”

Williams was doubled over, panting. As Jardines approached from behind, Williams wheeled around, knocked the gun from his hands, and pulled his own Glock .45. The two men grappled for the gun. The barrel quivered toward Jardines’s face.

“Don’t you fucking do it,” he pleaded.

The gun tumbled to the ground, and Williams took off running, pulled another gun from his waistband, and fired over his shoulder. Jardines felt dust kick up into his face. Nine-millimeter bullets entered his abdomen, thigh, and calf. He fell to the ground and clutched his stomach.

Jardines grabbed for Williams’s discarded Glock and took aim. Nothing happened; it was jammed. He dropped the pistol and grabbed his own gun from the pavement. Williams was now 20 yards away. Jardines rolled onto his stomach for balance and fired. Williams stumbled and fell. McCabe came running and arrested Williams with the help of a passing bus driver. The bank teller’s two-dollar-bill collection was stuffed in his pocket.


Back in Fort Greene, Dressler spotted an unidentified man and woman—Darryl Board and Najimah Cox—get into a Dodge minivan with their infant son and pull out. Dressler trailed them as they drove south, and he called for backup. Outside the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Dressler and government cruisers boxed in the minivan and arrested the couple.

That night a local correspondent for CBS News reported from outside Bellevue Hospital, where a priest had administered the last rites to Charlie Jardines as he went into emergency surgery before finally stabilizing. “They say to be a good cop, you have to be dedicated and lucky,” she said. “Detective Jardines appears to be both.”

Meanwhile, Korinko helped the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force comb through Board’s apartment. They discovered assault rifles, handguns, vests, cash, and C-4. Much of the contraband was hidden under a baby crib. In the Chevy Blazer, agents found $7,750 in cash, a handgun, a bulletproof vest, a police scanner, bolt cutters, and a city map with X’s over banks that had been recently robbed. At the apartment that night, Dressler and Korinko rehashed the day. They had collared every suspect but one: Campbell had slipped away.


The arrests tried the Forty Thieves’ loyalty. Each man could turn on the others and buy his freedom. But the neighborhood, where snitching was the ultimate sin, was the only world they knew. For Darryl Board and Idris Cox, cooperating would have meant testifying against their brothers-in-law. Anderson King, imprisoned since the failed Thomas Baby home invasion, felt indebted to the gang for supporting his wife. Craig Williams had nearly killed a cop; he was not getting a deal. Unlike the others, Robertson had a middle-class family and a father who was now working in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office as the director of alternative sentencing. His dad warned him that he faced a long prison sentence.

A few weeks later, on December 3, Campbell was arrested in Maryland when he sold a kilo of cocaine to undercover FBI agents. A judge set his bail at $750,000. But on Christmas Day, Campbell convinced an inmate scheduled for release to switch identities with him—corrections officers facilitated the escape, he told me in a jailhouse letter last year—and walked out of the Baltimore City Detention Center.

On January 23, 1992, Robertson signed a formal cooperation agreement with the government. He would help them build their case and then testify against the gang. Prosecutors, in turn, promised to lobby the judge for a reduced sentence. Over the course of the next year, Dressler and Korinko prepared for the upcoming trial by debriefing Robertson at a series of government facilities around New York City. As part of his deal, Robertson pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering, under which the government lumped every crime he had committed since returning home from the Marines nearly two years earlier.

Korinko and Dressler spent months visiting far-flung precincts and interviewing witnesses to fact-check his confession. After Robertson detailed his rainy-morning execution of small-time drug dealer Curtis Grandberry, Korinko drove out to Long Island to talk to local police. The details all checked out, down to the unscrewed light bulb on the porch. Korinko also visited Mount Vernon and asked local police about Robertson’s story—that as the gang switched cars after the robbery, they leveled their weapons at an approaching squad car, scaring it off. He never found an officer willing to admit fleeing the scene.


When I first visited Robertson’s home in Orlando, I noticed a tattered sheet of paper taped up in his living room. It was a laundry list of life lessons for his kids. Number 14 stuck out: an admonishment not to snitch on their siblings when they misbehaved. I asked Robertson about betraying his friends, and he replied that they had their chance to cut a deal in the three months between their arrests and his formal agreement to cooperate. And anyway, he added, the gang’s code was more of a suggestion than a commandment.  

“The hardcore stance is what you train for,” Robertson told me. “But when it comes down to it, you compromise.”

I pressed him: Bedford-Stuyvesant was the only community the other gang members knew. Robertson was the only one who had the family resources to walk away. He nodded quickly. “Yes, that bothers me,” he admitted. “I liked these guys.”


Over months of debriefings with Korinko, Robertson realized that in many ways he had more in common with the postal inspector than with his criminal colleagues. They were both adrenaline hounds who liked to tell stories. They were both fish out of water, too: Robertson, the middle-class kid who started a gang, and Korinko, the former ballplayer from an obscure agency wrapped up in a wild investigation. And Robertson appreciated Korinko’s candor. “He was always a straight-up, honest cat,” he told me.

On Robertson’s information, Korinko arrested Jerome “Wadoud” Tolden at his Harlem apartment in June 1992. Tolden later bumped into Craig Williams in a prison recreation yard, where his former confederate warned him, “You won’t be a Muslim if you cooperate on the brothers.” But after eight months of soul searching, Tolden signed a deal, too, and began confirming Robertson’s remarkable stories.

As Korinko and Dressler debriefed Robertson, they got request after request from the JTTF to talk to their star witness. The task force had placed an informant named Emad Salem in Brooklyn’s mosques, and he had infiltrated the inner circle of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheikh who preached violence against the West. According to the informant’s intelligence, an attack on American soil was imminent: One plot, Salem reported, involved bombing 12 “Jewish locations” around New York City, including temples and banks.

The JTTF was particularly interested in a man who called himself Abdul Rashid, nicknamed Dr. Rashid for his day job as a medical technician at a Brooklyn hospital. Dr. Rashid served as a bodyguard for Abdel-Rahman after he returned from fighting alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan. In June 1992, Rashid met with Salem and offered to purchase guns and pipe bombs for a potential attack. Agents wanted Dr. Rashid, but they couldn’t track down an address or phone number for him, because Dr. Rashid’s legal name was Clement Rodney Hampton-El.

Robertson told me that he knew Hampton-El well from Bedford-Stuyvesant mosques. Soon after he returned from the Marines, Robertson said he befriended Hampton-El, who was in his early fifties at the time and a sort of elder statesman in the Black Muslim community. Hampton-El taught Robertson about the black struggle—Black Liberation Army, Black Mafia, and Al-Fuqra, a radical group of Black Muslims linked to robberies and more than a dozen bombings and assassinations across the country from the late 1970s to the early 1990s—and regaled him with stories of jihad in Afghanistan. Robertson, in turn, occasionally sold Hampton-El remote detonators for bombs.

Tommy Corrigan, the JTTF agent, later told the authors of The Cell that he believed that Robertson could have unlocked the identity of Dr. Rashid, but the anti-terror unit couldn’t get access to him. The JTTF appealed to Chuck Gerber, the assistant U.S. attorney, but Gerber refused.

At the time, Korinko believed that the JTTF’s interest in Robertson was no more than a conspiracy theory: The idea of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was unfathomable. All the same, he attended an FBI counterterrorism meeting in Atlanta, briefing agents on the Forty Thieves case.

In December 1992, the JTTF finally learned that Dr. Rashid was in fact Hampton-El: That month, Rashid contacted a JTTF informant about obtaining firearms training, and agents used the phone number Rashid left on the informant’s beeper to uncover his true identity.

But it was too late. A plot was already in motion, moving faster than the JTTF could keep up.

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The arrests of the Forty Thieves swept up more than a dozen people, including spouses of some gang members.

Mike Dressler and Chuck Gerber spent the morning of February 26, 1993 showing photo lineups to a witness in the upcoming Forty Thieves trial. They finished around midday and drove back to the U.S. attorney’s office in downtown Brooklyn. A snowstorm was moving in. Through the flurries, they could see smoke rising from Lower Manhattan. A rented Ford Econoline carrying a 1,200-pound bomb had exploded in the parking garage below the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 12:18 p.m. The blast killed six people, including a pregnant woman, and carved a 100-foot-deep crater in the garage.

In the ensuing investigation, JTTF agents determined that Emad Salem, their informant, had been right. Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheikh, had organized the attack along with several members of his circle. What’s more, Salem learned that the same terror cell was planning a new wave of bombings at the United Nations, the George Washington Bridge, and other New York City landmarks. A few months later, Salem met with Rodney Hampton-El, who was looking to buy explosives for the attack. In the recorded conversation, Hampton-El explained that Robertson’s arrest two years earlier had made it tougher for him to acquire detonators.

The Forty Thieves gang had “C-4’s, M-16’s, AK’s—everything,” he said. “Detonators, bulletproof vests. They had everything.” Hampton-El also complained that he had given money to Sulaiman El-Hadi, Robertson’s father-in-law, after Robertson’s arrest in Pennsylvania, only to see his young protégé cooperate with the government.

Neil Herman, retired from the FBI, told me that the agency strongly believed that Robertson, with his clear connection to Hampton-El, could have been helpful. “Marcus was a very interesting player,” he told me.

Tommy Corrigan, the JTTF agent on the gun investigation, argued to the authors of The Cell that Robertson represented a missed opportunity, whether working as an informant and infiltrating terror cells via Brooklyn’s Black Muslim community or merely filling in knowledge gaps, like the true identity of Dr. Rashid.

I asked Korinko if he regretted not giving the JTTF access to Robertson. If he had, might Robertson have helped stop the World Trade Center bombing? “I think it’s ridiculous,” Korinko told me. He was adamant that JTTF agents overestimated their ability to deploy Robertson as an informant. News of his arrest spread fast in Bedford-Stuyvesant. If he had returned and started asking questions, fellow Muslims would have been skeptical. He also believes that Robertson overstated the strength of his connections in the community.  

“Marcus is very good at describing stuff he’s involved in,” Korinko told me, “but I’m not sure if his relationship with other prominent Muslim radicals is as close as he describes it.”

I wasn’t convinced. Given his sharp memory and the diligence with which he detailed his crimes for Korinko and Dressler, it seems likely that JTTF agents would have gained useful insights about the Black Muslim community had the feuding agencies cooperated.


The World Trade Center bombing cast a long shadow over the trial of the Forty Thieves. Soon after Hampton-El was taken into custody, The New York Times reported that he was connected to Al-Fuqra, the radical group of Black Muslims whose members had also committed robberies. Darryl “Muslim” Board’s attorney complained to Dennis Hurley, the presiding judge, that stories about “a group of American black Muslims who have utilized violence in the killing of drug dealers and robbing banks” might prejudice the jury. Other attorneys implored Hurley to delay the trial, arguing that the attack would bias jurors against Muslim defendants.

Hurley declined the request to wait. “Obviously, no one religion has any monopoly on violent acts,” he said. “There’s 1.2 billion Muslims.… [The defendants] obviously bear no linkage to these particular episodes.”

The proceedings began on April 27, 1993 at the federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. Hurley was new to the bench—he had been confirmed just 18 months before—and his lack of seniority meant he had one of the least desirable courtrooms: ground-level and cramped. The government presented its two cooperators, Robertson and Tolden, dozens of eyewitnesses, bank security footage, fingerprints, and seized weapons and stolen cash. Their main challenge was packaging a complicated string of 16 robberies into a digestible narrative for the jury. The defense’s strategy was simpler: destroy the credibility of Robertson and Tolden.

After a sprawling 13-week trial, the jury delivered guilty verdicts for every member of the gang. The sentences ranged from 17 years and seven months for Idris Cox to 160 years and eight months for Craig Hussein Williams, who had shot Charlie Jardines. After the verdict, one of the Cox sisters ran outside and threw stones at the courtroom windows. That night, Korinko, Dressler, and the prosecutors got hammered at a bar.

In exchange for his son’s cooperation, Clarence Robertson expected Marcus to receive a sentence of 20 to 25 years, as did his lawyer. In the government’s summation, the prosecution had reassured the jury that Robertson and Tolden would be punished. “This isn’t a trial of Marcus Robertson or Jerome Tolden,” a government lawyer said. “They are sitting in [a cell] facing a long period of time in jail.”

Except they weren’t. The year before, another prolific cooperator, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, had confessed to 19 murders while testifying against Mafia boss John Gotti and the Gambino crime family. A federal judge sentenced Gravano—who happened to cross paths with Robertson while they were housed in the Metropolitan Correctional Center—to five years. Courts liked to follow precedent. Tolden was released into the witness protection program. And Robertson had killed just one person, a drug dealer. On December 2, 1994, Hurley sentenced Robertson to four years in prison, including time served.

While Robertson finished his prison term and prepared to enter witness protection, federal prosecutors were building cases against the planners of the World Trade Center bombing and thwarted attacks on New York City landmarks. According to Korinko, the government considered putting Robertson on the stand to testify that he had sold detonators to Hampton-El. But given Robertson’s confessions—robberies, home invasion, murder—they decided against it.

During the trial, Hampton-El testified that he had invented Robertson and the gang in his conversation with the informant. The prosecution called Mike Dressler to establish the very real relationship between the two men. In October 1995, a jury convicted the ten defendants, including the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, for the attempted bombings.

Around the same time, Robertson was released from prison and entered the federal witness protection program. He moved to Missouri, where he and Zulaika taught at the Islamic School of Greater Kansas City. Mudir Jitmoud, the former principal of the school, told me that the couple worked there as physical-education teachers in the mid-1990s. Jitmoud told me that Robertson adopted the first name Mukhlis at the school. His new name came from the Arabic root word for “sincere.”

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With most of the Forty Thieves behind bars, Steve Korinko was determined to track down Roland “Ramadan” Campbell, who had walked out of a Maryland jail after his drug arrest. In 1995, a memo from America’s Most Wanted circulated around the Inspection Service offices; the television show was looking for interesting fugitives. Korinko submitted a case summary about Campbell, and a producer called him right away.

Producers were eager to interview Robertson on camera. Korinko called Robertson and asked him to participate. “Look at all the things I’ve done for you,” he said. Cooperation agreement. Witness protection. “You gotta do this for me.” Robertson agreed, on the condition that he appear in silhouette and be identified as “Taalib Abdul-Salaam.”

The America’s Most Wanted episode aired in July 1995 and again in December, generating lots of tips but no solid leads. Each time, Korinko answered calls from viewers at the TV studio. On June 15, 1996, Fox broadcast the episode a third time. Korinko was pacing the studio when an operator waved him over. A woman from Queens called to say that she thought her boyfriend matched the description.

Korinko went to the woman’s apartment and showed her a picture of Campbell. After she confirmed that it was the right man, Korinko used the woman’s phone records to track Campbell to a home in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. On July 30, 1996, local police stormed the house. Video footage of the arrest shows Campbell handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser and, later that day, appearing before a local judge. Since his escape from the Baltimore County Jail, Campbell had been splitting his time between New York and Central America, where he dealt drugs. Extradition proceedings took seven months, and in March 1997, Korinko and three U.S. marshals flew down to Costa Rica.

In San José, Korinko and the marshals were about to load Campbell onto a commercial flight to the U.S. when he began wheezing violently, as though he was having an asthma attack. Costa Rican officials wanted to transport him to a hospital. The marshals patted down Campbell and found that under his sweatpants he was wearing jeans, the pockets stuffed with American and Costa Rican currency: He was dressed like a prisoner preparing an escape. A trip to the hospital, the extraction team feared, might be a trap. Campbell went limp, and Korinko and the marshals carried him onto the plane, shouting at the pilots to take off as startled vacationers returning home watched in horror.

A few months later, the American embassy in San José mailed a VHS recording of local television coverage of the extradition to one of the U.S. marshals on the trip. In one segment, a group of agitated young men outside the airport—Campbell’s associates, it seemed—shouted at the news correspondent. Campbell, the men said, never would have made it to the hospital.

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Steve Korinko on America’s Most Wanted.

With Campbell in custody, prosecutors needed Robertson to testify, and Korinko and a team of government attorneys prepared him for trial. U.S. marshals repeatedly extracted Robertson from witness protection and flew him to meet Korinko and prosecutors at neutral sites around the country.

During almost a year of trial preparation, Korinko and Robertson became close, practically friends. They played games, competing to see who had visited more states, marking the weather map in USA Today to keep score. They bickered over the America’s Most Wanted episode: Korinko insisted that he was a faster runner than the actor who portrayed him. Robertson liked to make Korinko sweat. When they ate at a roadside diner in Montgomery, Alabama, Robertson wore an oversize T-shirt that read I Love Islam in block letters, drawing menacing stares.

“Do you realize I know you better now than anyone else I still know?” Robertson asked him one day.

During a tumultuous decade, Korinko was a constant presence. When I first contacted Robertson for this story, the two had not seen each other in 14 years, but he told me through his lawyer that he would only cooperate if he could speak to Korinko first. When I showed up unannounced on his doorstep in Orlando, he dropped that demand, but he continued to praise Korinko, calling him “my main man.” (Korinko, however, declined to call Robertson: He says he did not want their conversation recorded by law enforcement, which he suspects is tapping Robertson’s phone.)

In early 1999, on the eve of Campbell’s trial, the prosecutor called Korinko with bad news: Robertson had been kicked out of witness protection for traveling to an Islamic conference in Texas, in violation of the program’s guidelines. Korinko was beside himself. Robertson was still required to testify at the trial, but he had lost all of the program’s benefits, including housing and his stipend. Now Korinko had little leverage to keep Robertson from simply vanishing. The government bought Robertson a ticket to Newark. At the airport, Korinko waited at the gate for him as the deplaning crowd thinned and dispersed. Korinko thought that his star witness had reneged, and he was about to leave when, suddenly, Robertson poked his head out of the jetway.

“I told you I’d come!” he said and made a ta-da motion with his hands.

Postal inspectors guarded Robertson around the clock at a midtown hotel for the duration of the trial. On March 5, 1999, Campbell was convicted and sentenced to 50 years, the maximum allowed under the terms of his extradition.

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As Korinko prepared Robertson for trial, the two men became close, almost friends.

For the next two years, Korinko didn’t hear from Robertson. After the trial, Robertson bought a one-way ticket to Senegal and then moved to Mauritania to learn Arabic and study the Koran. He loved it. In a lecture he later posted on YouTube, Robertson recalled studying with a local sheikh, feeding camels, and daily naps in the oppressive midday heat. His family soon joined him.  

Then, on September 4, 2001, Korinko got a phone call from Chuck Gerber, the U.S. attorney in the first trial: Robertson had been detained at Kennedy Airport the week before. He had failed to complete his five years of supervised release, and the move abroad had violated those terms. A warrant was waiting for him when he landed, and he had spent a night back in the Metropolitan Correctional Center before being released on bail. On September 5, Gerber and Korinko drove out to Long Island for Robertson’s court appearance before Judge Hurley, who had overseen the gang’s first trial. Robertson explained that he had mistakenly believed his supervisory release was finished. He had returned to the U.S. to take his daughter, who had severe flu-like symptoms, to a hospital.

Judge Hurley extended Robertson’s supervised release by two years, with the provision that he could return to Africa. The next Tuesday, September 11, Korinko’s pager beeped. Prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York were frantically searching for Robertson. “I hope it’s a goddamn coincidence that this guy comes back into the country and then the World Trade Center blows up,” Gerber told Korinko.

It was. He spent the day of the attacks at the hospital with his daughter, he told me, and was never contacted by law enforcement. After she recovered, he sent her home with a friend and stayed in the United States for a few months, mostly in Florida, where he worked at a mall kiosk and “hustled” for money. He told his wife, Zulaika, to move with the children to Egypt, and he followed in January 2002.

Later that year, the Forty Thieves case came to an official end when Roland Campbell lost an appeal. On September 26, 2002, Korinko wrote “Case Closed” in his logbook. But he had a suspicion that Robertson’s story was not finished. To anyone who would listen, Korinko remarked again and again, “That guy is gonna be on CNN one day.”


For a while, though, Robertson’s new life seemed unremarkable. In Egypt, he found a job at a publishing imprint that specialized in religious texts. Sometime in the mid-2000s, he married a second woman, Itisha Wills. In 2006, after the better part of a decade abroad, Robertson and his family returned to the United States. Robertson lived in Los Angeles and worked for a gang-intervention program, then moved back to New York and was homeless for several months before finding clerical work at a financial-services firm. In New York, he started the Fundamental Islamic Knowledge Seminary, teaching Arabic and religion classes in person and online. It seemed he’d finally found his calling.

Just when his life appeared to have slowed, Robertson became embroiled in another bizarre plot. In 2009, Robertson says he received a call from Tony Osias, a Haitian convert to Islam living in Florida. Osias had seen one of his video lectures, and he invited Robertson to move down to Orlando. Robertson was eager to leave New York for a cheaper area, and he and his family moved to Florida in April 2010. Osias arranged for two houses for Robertson’s wives.

In Orlando, Robertson ramped up his online seminary. He uploaded dozens of religious lectures and Arabic lessons to YouTube under his preferred moniker, Abu Taubah, a Koranic reference to the repentance of sins. In the mornings, he trained with a local martial-arts instructor and taught online classes the rest of the day. His wife Itisha handled the books. A friend arranged for him to speak at mosques in Britain and Canada, where he sometimes received honorariums.

Before Robertson left New York, he had met Jonathan Paul Jimenez, a young man who struggled with drug abuse and mental-health issues. Robertson became Jimenez’s mentor and invited him to join the family in Orlando. According to court documents, by the time Jimenez arrived the FBI was investigating Robertson, though when and why that surveillance began is unclear.

Shortly after arriving in Orlando, Jimenez was befriended by an undercover FBI informant. Jimenez suggested to the informant that Robertson was preparing him to travel abroad to wage violent jihad. Around this time, Osias helped Robertson and Jimenez prepare their taxes and filed paperwork that falsely claimed three of Robertson’s daughters as Jimenez’s dependents. In August 2011, the FBI raided Robertson’s home and found a handgun—owned by the security director of the Orlando mosque he attended, but still illegal for him to possess as a felon—and later charged him with tax fraud.

After his arrest, Robertson went public with a startling allegation: From 2004 to 2007, he had worked as a JTTF operative. In a 2012 civil suit he filed from prison, Robertson claimed that when he was living in Egypt, he met an unnamed CIA agent stationed in Jordan, an NYPD detective assigned to the JTTF, and Anthony “Tony” Bivona, an FBI special agent who recruited him to be an informant. Robertson claimed that he had subsequently worked as a covert operative, both abroad for the CIA and domestically for the JTTF, in Virginia, Georgia, and California. In 2007, Robertson said, his handlers approached him about a mission in West Africa that would require “intentionally shooting on American Citizens,” according to his civil suit. Robertson refused to participate and got in a shoving match with his handler. After the fight, he stopped his intelligence work. His present charges, he alleged, were legal retribution for refusing to continue.

I was never able to definitively verify the claim, but Daniel Brodersen, his attorney, conducted his own due diligence. “I’ve come to the conclusion in my own mind that much of what he says is absolutely true,” he told me. An FBI spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment about Bivona. I asked Robertson to show me contracts, receipts, or any other documentation substantiating his claims, but he refused. He told me that he believes law enforcement won’t go after him again if he stays quiet about his covert work. “They’ll leave me alone as long as I don’t talk too much,” he said.


Robertson pleaded guilty to the firearms charge, but the legal wrangling continued for four years before he was finally convicted of tax fraud in December 2013. Prosecutors sought to apply a terrorism enhancement, which would have added up to 20 years to his sentence, and introduced as evidence his computer, which held roughly 20 works by militant Islamic extremists. But in June 2015, Judge Gregory Presnell rejected the government’s argument.

“It is not at all remarkable for an Islamic scholar to study, among many, many others, the writings of Islamic extremists,” he wrote. Presnell sentenced Robertson to time served and ordered him freed by the end of the day. Dozens of Robertson’s supporters jeered and whistled at the FBI agents and prosecutors as they exited the courthouse.

After four years in prison, Robertson returned home. During his time in custody, he was kept in solitary confinement for long stretches and manacled so often that the skin around his ankles peeled off. Back in Orlando, Robertson restarted his online school teaching Arabic and religion classes over Skype. That fall, he hosted a two-day webinar on “improving your spiritual-being.” Life seemed to have calmed down again, until the day Robertson’s face suddenly appeared on Fox News, alleging a connection to the Pulse nightclub attack.

His inbox had filled with death threats and email from reporters.

A few weeks after the shooting at Pulse, I flew down to Orlando again. The city was still dense with pride flags. At the memorial outside the club, flowers wilted, ink ran, and a tray of rainbow-colored cupcakes were turning to mush.

It had been more than a year since Robertson’s release from prison and almost nine months since our last meeting. When Robertson answered the door, he told me that there were too many children at home. We got in my rental car and made our way to a nearby Starbucks. I asked him about the events of the past month. He told me that he was shocked when he heard media reports about a connection between Omar Mateen, the shooter at the club, and his online seminary. His inbox had filled with email from reporters and death threats. The alleged link was “a bunch of bullshit,” Robertson told me over coffee. He insisted that Fox News had invented the source entirely and that other outlets had recycled the false reporting.

This summer I reached out to Malia Zimmerman, the author of the Fox News story. She told me she stood by the article and implied that Robertson was lying. “Mr. Robertson has an extremely colorful history,” she wrote, “and open source reporting would lead most reasonable people to question his veracity.”

I knew that open-source material as well as anyone. I had watched hours of his sermons, and I never heard him promote violence. But YouTube did offer disturbing evidence of the kind of homophobia that might drive such a shooting. “Who knows SpongeBob?” he asked a roomful of listeners, including some children, in a video uploaded in 2008. “SpongeBob is gay,” he declared. “Are you growing Muslims or are you raising faggots?” Applying Occam’s razor to Robertson’s story might, at a cursory glance, lead a reasonable person to assume that Robertson must somehow be connected to Mateen. Orlando, the lectures, Robertson’s violent past—what were the chances?

But finally, in October, yet another wrinkle seemed to put that assumption to rest. A spokeswoman in the FBI’s Tampa division told me that investigators had seen the Fox News story but were “unaware of any substantive connection” between Robertson and Mateen. The simplest explanation, it seemed, didn’t hold.

After the news reports linking him to Mateen, Robertson lost his job teaching at a nearby mosque. The death threats rattled him, he told me during my July visit to Orlando; one was signed “see you real soon.” He had said on TV a few weeks earlier—and repeated to me—that he is a Marine and people need to remember that fact if they “step” to his house, even though he can’t own a gun. “If they’re gonna come, they better come correct,” he said.

I saw Robertson one last time in September. We met at the same Starbucks, and Robertson ordered the same drink—a white chocolate mocha. Life was still a bit tense. His name had recently come up during a congressional hearing entitled Identifying the Enemy: Radical Islamist Terror. The United Kingdom had just blocked him from entering the country because of his “controversial views on women and homosexuals,” according to the letter informing him of the ban. Robertson planned to ask a judge to shorten his probation so that he could move back overseas. Africa was the most likely destination. “I’m a Bedouin, man,” he said. “I can go anywhere.” After three hours, we shook hands and promised to keep in touch. Robertson got into a white Suburban, pulled out of the parking lot, and was gone.

I drove back to the airport in my rental car. Throughout the city, the pride flags raised in solidarity were disappearing. This chapter of Robertson’s life was finished, but there were still more pages to be written. As a young armed robber, he had cast himself in a drama from which there was no escaping. He could change his name. He could denounce violence. He could move abroad. But he was not getting out.

Archival footage courtesy of the Department of Records Municipal Archives.

A Family Matter

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A Family Matter

Each year, California’s child protective services agencies remove thousands of kids from their homes. The story of how some parents decided to fight back.

By Jessica Weisberg

The Atavist Magazine, No. 60


Jessica Weisberg is a supervising producer for Vice News Tonight on HBO and was a producer on the second season of Serial. She has written for The New Yorker, The Guardian, Elle, and other publications.


Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Queen Arsem-O’Malley
Illustrator: Joanna Neborsky

Published in August 2016. Design updated in 2021.

August 29, 2013 was Danyelle Branning’s day off. She worked as a nurse in a hospital intensive-care unit and was reading in bed at her home in Eastvale, California, a small city some 50 miles inland of Los Angeles. Around 3 p.m., she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find a policeman on the front step. He introduced himself as Deputy Taroo Curry from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. He was short, with a boyish face and curly hair, and he had a small microphone pinned to his jacket that recorded his conversations.

“Was there an incident or something that happened or occurred yesterday?” Curry said.

“Well, yes,” said Danyelle, shaking her head. She told Curry that she had caught her 16-year-old stepdaughter, Amber, smoking pot at an older boy’s house. That evening, Danyelle and her husband, Randy, called the sheriff’s non-emergency line for help. Amber was Randy’s daughter from a previous relationship, and she was failing out of school and getting into trouble. “She manipulates, and she lies and lies and lies. I can’t trust anything she says,” Danyelle told Curry. The operator had suggested a boot camp.

At 37, Danyelle resembled a grown-up version of a cheer captain from an eighties movie, with straight, dyed blond hair, bold blue eyes, and a blunt manner that exuded competence. Grounding Amber wasn’t working, so that night Danyelle and Randy had decided to try something harsher. The family had plans to go to Hawaii, but as punishment Amber would have to stay behind with her grandparents.

Over the years, Danyelle and Randy had hired therapists and tutors to help Amber, but nothing seemed to work. Neither of Danyelle’s or Randy’s parents would have been able to afford such things. Randy was raised by his dad, a psychiatric nurse who supported six boys; he was one of two brothers to graduate from high school. Danyelle was mostly raised by her single father. In addition to Amber, the couple had two young kids of their own, a ten-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son; I’ll call them Kelly and Cory. The Brannings had worked hard to give their children a stable life, but Amber’s behavior was pushing them to their limit.

“There was no sense of abuse or grabbing, or any physical abuse or anything back here at the house?” Curry said.

This surprised Danyelle. “No,” she said. “She was yelled at.”

As they stood in the doorway of the Brannings’ two-story stucco home, Curry explained to Danyelle that he had been dispatched to the house because earlier in the day, Amber had told her school counselor that during the argument her father had pushed her against the wall and head-butted her. He said there was some bruising on Amber’s arm. This also surprised Danyelle; she hadn’t noticed it.

A few minutes later, a white van pulled up in front of the house. Two women stepped out and walked toward Danyelle’s house, joining Curry.

Their names were Pamela Thompson-Dunn and Monique Jefferson, and they had been sent by Riverside County’s Department of Public Social Services. Thompson-Dunn said that she was following up on comments that Amber had made to her school guidance counselor about a violent incident the night before. How long had Amber been living with them? Thompson-Dunn wanted to know.

“Well, we didn’t find that she existed until she was five,” Danyelle said. She gave them the short version: In 2001, a short while before they got married, Randy received a notice in the mail asking him to submit to a paternity test. When he was 16, he’d had a one-night stand with a friend of a friend named Cassandra, and it turned out that he had a daughter named Amber in Iowa. In 2004, Cassandra was arrested on drug charges and stripped of custody, and shortly after, the Brannings filed to adopt Amber. The girl was 11 when she moved in.

“Is there any substance abuse between yourselves, with you or your husband?” Thompson-Dunn asked.

“No. I drink in the evening,” Danyelle said. Her days at the ICU were stressful, and she drank tequila to unwind.

“And what about your husband?” Thompson-Dunn said.

“My husband has a medical-marijuana card,” she said.

“What about domestic violence?” Thompson-Dunn said.

Danyelle was stunned. “We’re a team,” she said.

The four of them were still standing in the doorway when Kelly and Cory arrived home from school. Kelly looked young for her age, with plump cheeks and shiny, corn-colored hair; she spoke with the brisk efficiency of an executive hurrying off a phone call. “We met earlier,” she said to Thompson-Dunn, who had pulled her out of class that afternoon to talk about Amber. The conversation had upset Kelly. She didn’t like when her dad got angry, and she didn’t like talking to a stranger about it. Her meeting with Pam was the kind of thing she might have called her mom about if she had a cell phone, but her mom refused to let her have one. Danyelle was certain that cell phones were ruining this generation’s manners, and her kids were certain that this constituted a crime against humanity. Cory, a string bean with messy red hair, was eager to go inside; he had just gotten a PlayStation.

Curry asked if he could speak with Kelly alone. While the two of them headed to the living room, Danyelle texted Randy: “Call me. ASAP.” He worked as a concrete-pump operator and had left the house at 4:30 that morning for a job in San Diego. Randy called a few minutes later.

“CPS and the cops are here,” Danyelle told him.

She sounded nervous. “Tell them exactly what happened,” Randy said. “Relax, babe.”

“I don’t know,” Danyelle said. “There’s something funny.”

They hung up, and Danyelle walked into the living room looking for Thompson-Dunn. About ten minutes after she’d arrived, she told Danyelle that she felt it was too dangerous for the kids to be around Randy, so she was putting them in foster care.

What happened next was a blur. Danyelle asked Thompson-Dunn to wait until Randy got home, so she could hear his side of the story, but recalls that Thompson-Dunn said they needed to get going. Danyelle asked if the kids could stay with her if Randy moved out—after all, he was the only one who’d been accused of abuse. Thompson-Dunn told Danyelle that she was no different than her husband: In California, failing to report an act of child abuse was in itself an act of child abuse. “Battered women often protect their abusers,” Danyelle remembers her saying. Danyelle asked if she could bring the kids to her mother’s one-bedroom condo, 30 minutes away. The kids needed their own rooms, Thompson-Dunn said.

While Danyelle and Thompson-Dunn were talking, Curry asked Kelly to describe what happened the night before. Kelly had always idolized Amber. When Amber said her favorite pattern was zebra and her favorite color was blue, Kelly decided that hers were, too. When Amber decided that she wanted to become a vet, Kelly decided that she did, too.

Kelly told Curry that she had been in her room doing homework. She heard a lot of yelling, Amber crying, and three loud bangs that seemed to come from downstairs.

“My main concern was just, basically, with your sister and you seeing any physical violence between your dad and your sister,” Curry said.

“Never,” Kelly said. “He’s never showed any violence toward any of the kids; not my mom.”

That morning, Amber had told Kelly that their father had shoved her into a wall the night before. Kelly didn’t know what to think. Their dad was scary when he was angry—he got loud, and his face turned red—but she’d never seen him hurt anyone.

As Kelly was talking, Danyelle came into the living room. “I was told to pack you a bag,” she said, her voice low, almost calm. She sounded like she was in a daze. “They’re taking you guys. Just so you know, honey, they are not our friends. They’re not. These are not our friends.”

Kelly shrieked. Her breath became heavy and fast. “No!” she shouted.

Curry walked into the foyer, where Thompson-Dunn and Jefferson sat with Cory, who was crying into a pillow.

“I don’t want to leave,” he said.

“Amber told us that your dad… he’s not a nice person,” Thompson-Dunn said.

“Well, he is,” Cory shouted. He gasped for air between sobs.

“Can he be mean?” Thompson-Dunn said.

“No,” Cory said. “He’s frustrated.”

On the tape, you can hear Kelly in the background yelling, “Amber’s a liar! Amber’s a liar!”

Danyelle called Randy to tell him what was happening, but she was hardly able to form sentences. In the Brannings’ 12 years of marriage, Randy had never seen his wife panic. Danyelle was the calm one. It was Randy who lost his temper sometimes, who’d get upset and curse in front of the kids.

At 34, Randy had an auburn goatee, a sturdy, linebacker’s build, and portraits of his children tattooed on his right forearm in gray ink. He was working at a construction site, but he stopped what he was doing, latched his 800-pound cement mixer to the back of his truck, and drove off, the mixer swinging out behind him.

Traffic was bad, so he drove along the shoulder of the highway with his flashers on, pushing down on the horn. Drivers flipped him off as he passed. He tugged the steering wheel so hard he thought it might bend in half. He made the 100-mile drive in less than an hour, arriving home just after five.

When Randy walked through the front door, he found Danyelle lying on the living room floor in a fetal position. He lay down beside his wife, and they stayed there awhile, holding each other, sobbing. They couldn’t understand how a stranger could take their kids after just ten minutes in their home, no warrant, no formal review, no time to tell their side of the story. Randy hugged his wife close and whispered, “When this is over, we’re going to sue the shit out of these people.”

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The lawyer they needed was Shawn McMillan, a San Diego–based attorney whose practice focuses on cases against California’s child protective services agencies. Ten years ago, McMillan was running a firm specializing in commercial and antitrust law. He liked the fight of a trial. “Bullets are flying. Nothing else in the world like it,” he told me. Then, in April 2005, McMillan’s dad told him about a woman he’d met who was looking for a lawyer. Her name was Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick. In the winter of 1999, her ex-husband was accused of sexually abusing one of their daughters. He lost custody but was granted monitored visits. When their daughters refused to see their dad, a social worker accused Fogarty-Hardwick of being uncooperative, and she also lost custody of the girls, who were placed in foster care. After almost six years, she had been reunited with her children and wanted to sue CPS for damages.

McMillan told me that at first he didn’t trust her. “I thought, These social workers are good people, out there for all the right reasons, doing a really tough job.” He would have turned down the case, but his dad had been moved by the woman’s story and pressured him into taking it. “I do what my dad says,” McMillan said.

McMillan argued the case, showing that the social worker had misrepresented Fogarty-Hardwick and had committed “judicial deception”—legalese for lying. The judge agreed and awarded Fogarty-Hardwick a $9.6 million settlement, the largest judgment against CPS in California history.

When McMillan returned to San Diego after a five-week trial, he sat in his living room and started crying. His son and daughter were six and nine, the same ages Fogarty-Hardwick’s children had been when they were taken. “I just start thinking how would that be? To be away from your kids?” A few months later, he shifted the focus of his practice from commercial law to suing CPS full-time.

Late last year, I went to visit McMillan’s office, which occupies the first floor of his house just outside San Diego. At 49, he has broad shoulders, a square jaw, and a preference for Hawaiian-print shorts when he’s not in court. Dozens of tae kwon do trophies line the windowsills and bookshelves; he still competes. There are three other lawyers who work at his firm, and on late nights McMillan’s wife invites everyone upstairs for dinner.

The firm handles about 15 cases at a time and turns down up to 200 a week. “I don’t reject them because they’re bad cases. I reject them because we can’t handle everything,” he said. “We have to do much better work than our opponents do to develop our case and develop credibility with the court.” After a decade, he’s so steeped in the material that he refers to precedents in the same way that sports fans refer to their favorite players. Troxel. Humphries.

In most parts of the U.S., child welfare is the responsibility of county government, with special agencies that investigate allegations of child abuse and ensure the safety of children. Caseworkers make the hard but often necessary decision to remove a child from a threatening situation before it becomes dangerous. They then place that child with extended family or in foster care and offer parents therapeutic services so that they might regain custody.

When an agency steps in, it challenges parents’ constitutional right to raise their own children. In 2000, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a majority opinion that the parental right to make decisions for a child rested in the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “The interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children,” O’Connor wrote, “is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”

In California, caseworkers are required to obtain a warrant from a juvenile-court judge in order to remove a child from a home. The state allows that when a child is in “imminent danger,” there’s no time for paperwork, and caseworkers can remove children without obtaining a warrant. But without a clear definition of imminent danger, caseworkers often bypass the warrant process even when there’s no obvious physical risk.

Yet, despite the apparent need for guidelines, the federal government has never issued a clear definition of child abuse. “Nowhere in the federal government could we find one official assigned full-time to the prevention, identification, and treatment of child abuse and neglect,” wrote Walter Mondale, a senator from Minnesota, in 1973. The following year, Mondale pushed through the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which offered grants and funding to support state and community programs but did not provide direction as to how those programs should function. The law, which has since gone through many revisions, never defined what constituted an emergency or offered standards for when a child’s living situation should be deemed unsafe.

State lawmakers, too, are reluctant to restrict social workers with narrow definitions or to mandate a specific approach to child-rearing. The California statute defines abuse, in part, as “when the parent or guardian knew or reasonably should have known that the child was in danger of being subjected to an act or acts of cruelty.” Minnesota considers drug use during pregnancy a form of child abuse, but New York does not.

Child abuse is an exceptionally complicated thing to define. Spanking can be outright abusive or perfectly legal. Even less clear is the shift from mean-spirited to emotionally abusive, or the moment when an overworked parent becomes a neglectful one. Likewise, there’s no universal definition of risk—one person’s nightmare is another person’s Tuesday. Are three children, all under the age of eight, left alone in a motel room while their mother goes on a job interview at risk of “serious harm”? Yes, according to a CPS social worker in Orange County, California, who had those children placed in foster care. What if a parent has a criminal record or a drug problem, or dates someone who does, or smokes indoors with the windows closed, or has a mental illness?

In most cases, counties are left to decide when poor parenting becomes maltreatment. CPS workers are empowered to intervene based on their own criteria, quickly assessing a situation with as little as a brief interview. “Social workers are essentially asked to read tea leaves,” said Jennifer Reich, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System. “They have a limited amount of information with which to try and predict which kids are unsafe.”

As a result, social workers are often entitled to enter a home without a warrant, based on nothing but an anonymous tip, and in most states subsequent hearings and records are never released to the public. Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told me that “all over the country, social workers take children entirely on their own authority.” According to a report from Wexler’s organization, caseworkers in most states have “unlimited power and no accountability.”

There’s no universal definition of risk—one person’s nightmare is another person’s Tuesday.

Inevitably, this lack of standards and high degree of autonomy can result in costly errors in judgment. Without guidelines, caseworkers’ field assessments can run afoul of the courts’ interpretations of the statute and result in expensive litigation. Federal courts have consistently found that without hard evidence of imminent risk, a parent and child have a constitutional right to continue living together. In 2001, a federal court ruled that a county social worker had violated the law when she removed a girl from her home without a warrant in response to allegations that the child had been sexually abused by her stepfather. In the court’s view, the social worker did not have reason to believe that the child was in danger of imminent harm. In 2007, the same court ruled, in Rogers v. County of San Joaquin, that a social worker who removed two young children from their home without a warrant after observing their rotted teeth, soiled diapers, and a loaded gun in their parents’ dresser was wrong to asses the situation as an “emergency” and should have obtained a court order. Yes, their health and living situation were worrisome, but there was no indication of imminent danger. The judge determined that taking a child from the home when there was no clear emergency violated the child’s Fourth Amendment rights and constituted an “unreasonable search and seizure.”

McMillan’s cases alone have cost California CPS agencies more than $20 million since 2005. When I went to his office last year, his caseload included a father who’d temporarily lost custody for using an illegal substance, marijuana, around his child even though he had a license for medicinal use, a black family whose kids were taken away after the grandfather called the white social worker a racist, and two teenage boys from San Diego who had been removed from their home after their mother was caught writing a false check. The boys had been placed in a foster home run by a man who then molested them both repeatedly, filmed himself doing so, and posted the videos online. “How much money is enough to settle that?” McMillan said.

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Pamela Thompson-Dunn, the social worker from CPS, drove Kelly and Cory to pick up Amber at her school, then took the kids for burgers at Carl’s Jr. After dinner she drove them to her office at the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, a stout white building with a zigzagging ramp out front. It reminded Kelly of an amusement-park entrance.

Inside, Thompson-Dunn started making calls to find them a place to sleep that night. When children are removed from their home, and there’s no extended family able to care for them, they are placed in a foster home. In 1986, California started outsourcing the recruitment and training of foster families to private agencies and charities, hoping that such groups would better convince community members to open up their homes to local children in need. Now California spends $400 million a year on private foster care; it’s the largest such system in the country. In Los Angeles County alone, 80 percent of children placed in foster homes go to privately run facilities.

By 11 p.m., Thompson-Dunn had found foster-care placements for all three of the children through two private agencies—a bed for Amber in a Fred Jefferson home, and beds for Kelly and Cory through Avant-Garde Foster Agency. Around midnight, they pulled up in front of a compact, two-story house with a row of palm trees in the front yard. Thompson-Dunn told Kelly and Cory to gather their things. They hugged Amber and told her they loved her before climbing out of the car.

They were greeted by a round, soft-spoken woman, whom I’ll call Ellen, with two barking black Labs at her heels. Her husband, whom I’ll call Jake, was shorter than she was and wore a baseball cap with fish on it. Cory thought his hat was funny.

Ellen asked right away if there were any foods they didn’t like and promised not to make them. She pointed out the pool in the backyard and showed them to their beds—Cory’s was in a room with two other boys around his age. Kelly had a private room on the second floor.

Shortly after he settled in for the night, Cory woke up with a start. He felt something squeezing his scrotum, hard. He opened his eyes and saw one of the other foster children hovering over him. He kissed Cory on the lips, then the neck, before Cory yelled and shoved him away. His yelling woke up Ellen, who moved Cory into a private room that shared a wall with her and Jake’s bedroom. The door didn’t lock, so they told Cory to place a chair against it and came up with a secret knock so he could let them know through the wall if anything happened.

The next day, Kelly remembers that Ellen discouraged them from reporting the incident to Thompson-Dunn. I was unable to reach Ellen and Jake for comment; Avant-Garde, which arranged the placement, does not share the personal details of its foster families.

Cory’s experience wasn’t unusual. A 2013 study by the Los Angeles Times found that children placed in homes run by private agencies were about a third more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional, or sexual abuse while living there than children in state-supervised foster-family homes. Roughly two months earlier, the L.A. County Department of Family Services had completed a review of the 60 homes run by the Fred Jefferson agency, which had handled Amber’s placement, and found that children at several of them had not been properly supervised—kids had been injured on the premises or were permitted to drink alcohol—and two of the homes had permanent residents with criminal records.

Ellen said they could skip school that day, since they’d slept so little the night before. That morning, Danyelle called the school to make sure the kids were there and panicked when she found out that they weren’t. It was Labor Day weekend, so they would have Monday off, too. The children spent the weekend swimming, watching TV, and playing with the dogs, trying to keep to themselves.

“The other kids had real problems, like psychological problems,” Kelly said when I spoke with her this past winter. Cory kept getting in trouble all weekend—for making a mess or playing too rough—but he didn’t mind. “I liked time out, because I could stay away from people,” he told me.

Ellen dropped them off at school on Tuesday. It was comforting to see familiar faces, eat familiar foods, walk familiar hallways. But it was impossible to concentrate in class. Kelly couldn’t go ten minutes without crying.

The Brannings were banned from seeing their kids without a government-approved escort, but they were so desperate that on Tuesday, they snuck into the school and waited for them in the cafeteria. When Cory saw his parents, he darted over and plopped into his mom’s lap. Kelly arrived shortly after and threw her arms around her dad’s neck. Kelly decided not to tell her parents about what had happened to Cory—her mom already seemed so upset. Instead, Kelly asked if they knew how Amber was doing. They didn’t. They were still angry and hadn’t tried to see her.


Shawn McMillan is one of eight lawyers in California who focus on civil cases against CPS; four of them work in his office. In 2014, after filing more than 30 cases in California, and settling all but two, he began noticing a trend: CPS workers were removing kids from their homes without a warrant even when there was no indication of an emergency.

McMillan started collecting data from around California about the incidence of warrantless removals. He discovered that since 1996, Orange and Riverside Counties had seized more than 80,000 children without a warrant. When he saw the numbers, he decided he had to bring class-action lawsuits against both counties.

In some ways, Riverside and Orange Counties are odd choices for a class-action suit; these are predominantly middle-class exurbs of Los Angeles, more than 70 percent white, and often associated with beach towns, Land Rovers, and MTV reality shows. Overall, white children represent less than 25 percent of children in California foster homes, and studies consistently show that CPS is more likely to remove children from families of color, especially African Americans. Data on warrantless removals for every county in the state isn’t readily available, but California’s average rate of removal, according to a 2015 study by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, is 3.3 for every 1,000 children. Riverside and Orange actually have lower removal rates than many other parts of the state. The rate is 3.7 in Riverside County and 1.6 in Orange County; in some counties, the rate is as high as 15.8. McMillan told me that eventually he hopes to “bring all 58 counties in the state kicking and screaming into compliance with the law.”

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Amber’s own childhood in Iowa offers the perfect illustration of just how varied CPS caseworkers can be in their response to allegations of abuse. The agency had been a fixture in her life since the year 2000, when Amber was three years old. At the time, she was living with her mom, Cassandra, and her three half-siblings in a mobile home in Allerton, Iowa. An anonymous caller told CPS that the kids weren’t being fed. A CPS worker visited the house, noting in the report, “children are believed to be safe in the mother’s home.”

In 2001, Cassandra moved her family to Missouri, where both she and Randy grew up. She was living on government assistance, and her caseworker sent DNA tests to Amber’s possible fathers—Randy told me that he was among four men who received the test. When the results came back positive, Randy started visiting Amber once or twice a year and calling a few times a month.

By 2002, Cassandra and her children had returned to Iowa, and another anonymous caller reported that Cassandra used meth in the children’s presence. The CPS worker who visited the home wrote in a report that “there is not a preponderance of evidence that Cassandra Davis, the biological mother of these children, possessed or used methamphetamine.”

In the spring of 2004, a few months after Cassandra gave birth to her fifth child, she was charged with methamphetamine possession and fled Iowa. Some weeks later, CPS discovered that Cassandra had left her children with her sister, who had a meth lab in her basement, according to an agency report from the time. Cassandra temporarily lost custody of her children and was only permitted to see them during monitored visits.

Amber was seven at the time, and Randy wanted to formally adopt her. In early 2005, Amber came to California and lived with the Brannings for almost a year. But then, according to Randy, CPS decided that Cassandra, who had just completed a rehab program, deserved another chance to raise her children, and Amber was sent back to Iowa. For Randy, it was awful to part with his daughter after he’d just gotten to know her. “The whole process was hard and heartbreaking,” he told me. Within a year Cassandra had relapsed, and her children were sent to live with her parents in a small town north of Des Moines.

Randy still wanted full custody, but Amber’s caseworker was reluctant to separate her from her siblings. Randy missed his Amber, but he was hopeful about her new living situation with her grandfather, Michael, who was a preacher.

For her ninth birthday, Randy and Danyelle sent Amber two Harry Potter books. When they called Amber to see how she was enjoying them, they found out that her grandfather had burned them. That’s when Randy decided that Amber belonged with him and Danyelle. The process took almost two years, but eventually a judge decided that, as the biological father, Randy’s rights trumped those of Amber’s grandparents. “We felt very confident that Amber should stay with us. We felt that given how much change she’d gone through, moving wasn’t a good thing for her,” Michael recently told me. “I think Randy’s a great guy and that he could be a top-notch father, I just happen to disagree with them on the concept of God and spiritual matters.” Michael also worried about Amber’s transition from homeschooling to a large public school.

On the afternoon Randy came to pick her up, in early 2008, Amber was hysterical: She didn’t want to leave her youngest brother. To help her adjust to life in California, he and Danyelle quickly found Amber a therapist. “We expected there to be some difficulties,” Danyelle told me. But Amber seemed to thrive. She was behind in school—Michael’s homeschool curriculum hadn’t covered much science or math—but she worked hard and caught up, and she completed sixth grade with mostly B’s and A’s. She joined the ice-skating team. She was a talented, fearless skater, with her dad’s short, muscular legs, eager to try flips and aerials. As she twirled, Randy told me, her thick, curly ponytail would lasso through the air.

When Amber started high school, things began to change. She skipped school more often than she went and threw house parties whenever Danyelle and Randy went out, drinking their liquor and then filling the bottles with water. She hid report cards and forged Danyelle’s signature so her stepmother wouldn’t know she was failing most of her classes. She got kicked off the ice-skating team. Randy found a dildo and condoms in her room. She promised that they were a joke, but Randy didn’t believe her. “You’re not a whore, so quit acting like one,” he told her.

Randy and Danyelle grounded her. They “double grounded” her, which meant she was confined to her room. They took away her cell phone. They shouted at her.

Amber missed Iowa, missed her siblings, missed her mother. Cassandra wasn’t supposed to have unmonitored contact with her kids, but Amber would secretly chat with her mom on Facebook. Kelly told me that Amber used to fantasize aloud about how she was going to call CPS, get their dad arrested, and return to Iowa. Kelly never thought Amber would actually go through with it.


CPS fieldwork is complicated and requires sensitivity to varying parenting styles across different ethnic and class backgrounds. In California, caseworkers complete a nine-week course mandated by all CPS agencies across the state; for those without a professional degree in social work, it’s the only formal training they receive. Caseworkers for Riverside County go to the Public Child Welfare Training Academy at the San Diego State University School of Social Work. A representative refused to speak with me and referred me to a website about the California Common Core that outlines the major bullet points of the curriculum.

The curriculum tries to formalize the process of responding to allegations of child abuse. First, social workers are supposed to “engage the parents,” to help them find ways to mitigate their children’s feeling of danger. If the kids are afraid of Dad, then the social worker should encourage Mom to make him leave. If staying at home isn’t an option, the next best thing is to place the children with an extended-family member. If there’s no family nearby, then the social worker should take the children into government custody, but only after a warrant has been obtained.

As I read through these recommendations, I struggled to understand why Cory and Kelly were taken from their home. Danyelle told me that she had offered to ask Randy to leave, but Thompson-Dunn said that wasn’t an option. She had also suggested her mother’s condo, but Thompson-Dunn said that it was too cramped.

Jennifer Reich, the sociologist, told me that the assessment process can’t be routinized and that removing a child from their home is always a gut decision. Some counties have tried checklists, but that approach hasn’t worked. “I’m not sure if there’s a bureaucratic process that gets you out of a subjective decision,” Reich said. Thompson-Dunn felt that the Brannings were dangerous and acted accordingly.

“You have to remind yourself that we deal with 1 percent of the population, and it can skew the way you look at the world.”           —Ruth Supranovich

California state law gives caseworkers qualified immunity from civil rights violations. They cannot go to jail or lose their job for a needless removal, as long as they acted in “good faith.” The same applies if a child they’ve investigated is injured or dies in the care of their biological family. But the latter scenario will put the social worker on the front page of the local paper and may lead to criminal charges. In April, four Los Angeles County social workers were charged with felony child abuse for failing to appropriately respond to numerous allegations of abuse in the case of an eight-year-old boy who was later killed. Given such high stakes, Forrest Mosten, a family-law specialist and a professor at UCLA, told me that social workers would “rather be safe than sorry. If [CPS is] wrong, they figure the family will heal again.”

Ruth Supranovich, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California, worked in San Diego County’s CPS office on and off for 14 years. After about two years as a protective-services worker and near constant exposure to abusive households, she said that she “got burned out to the point that I didn’t trust people.” Supranovich likened being a caseworker to being a police officer. “You have to remind yourself that we deal with 1 percent of the population, and it can skew the way you look at the world,” she said. As a result, the turnover rate is high. In Sacramento County, CPS hired 106 social workers between July 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016; by August of this year, 83 of them had already resigned.

In 2009, when California was facing a $40 billion deficit, administrators made $121 million in cuts to its child-welfare and foster-care services. When agencies are underfunded, caseworkers are forced to rush through cases. Social workers in Riverside County have a starting a salary of $47,860. Their hours are long, and hardly anyone stays long enough to receive a pension.

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Before she left with the Branning kids, Thompson-Dunn gave Danyelle a sheet of flimsy yellow paper—it looked like a diner receipt—with a court date written on it. The Brannings had a hearing at the Riverside County Juvenile Court the following week.

A few days later, Deputy Curry returned to the house. His findings would determine whether the Brannings would face criminal charges. Randy told me that Curry examined the house closely, looking for dents in the walls or other evidence of an altercation. He interviewed Randy and Danyelle; he taped that interview as well. (These tapes, as well as those from August 29, were provided to me by someone close to the case.)

Randy explained to Curry that on the night of the incident, he had told Amber to go to her room. Instead, she plopped down on the stairs and refused to budge. Randy grabbed her by the arm and walked her to her room. He was angry that night, with himself and with Amber—nothing seemed to be working with her. At one point, he was so furious that he punched a wastepaper basket and threw it down the stairs. Those were the thumps Kelly mentioned to Curry.

At the end of the interview, Curry told them, “You guys are good people from what I can see, and you guys are doing what you can for your kids.” Curry’s remarks left them with a sense of relief and the impression that they would avoid criminal charges. But to get their kids back, they still had to go through family court.


The family-court system was established in the early 20th century as one of the country’s first experiments in rehabilitative justice. Instead of imposing a punishment, its goal is to address the underlying problem that led an offender to commit a crime. If a crime was committed under the influence of alcohol, for instance, the sentence would be an addiction program. Parents accused of abuse are often required to complete therapeutic courses—like anger management or Narcotics Anonymous—in order to be reunited with their children. In some cases, the court can provide expensive services that might not otherwise be accessible to families. But other times, parents can feel patronized, compelled to complete unnecessary programs for the sake of complying with their caseworker and getting their children back. “Of course, voluntary participation in therapeutic processes is quite different than coerced participation in services,” writes Reich in her book Fixing Families, where she describes CPS’s social-welfare programs as both “a blessing and a curse.” As she writes, “While it provides much needed support for poor women and their children, it has also been a means for the state to evaluate and police individual families.”

It’s difficult to accurately portray what happens inside family-court hearings, because most proceedings are closed to the public; according to the National Coalition for Child Protection, only 15 states allow public access to court hearings in child-abuse cases. The measure is intended to protect the child’s privacy, but it also means that the press is typically banned from courtrooms. Throughout most of California, case files are accessible only to the family, lawyers, law enforcement, the child’s caseworker, and school representatives. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has called for “lifting the veil of secrecy” that surrounds the system. “Open court proceedings will increase public awareness of the critical problems faced by juvenile and family courts and by child welfare agencies in matters involving child protection, [and] may enhance accountability in the conduct of these proceedings,” a council bulletin argued.

The first hearing in child-abuse cases, often known as the detention hearing, is similar to an arraignment. The judge reviews a social worker’s petition, which explains her reasoning for removing a child, and decides whether to continue the proceedings or send the kid back home. While researching her book, Reich observed more than 200 detention hearings in an unnamed county in Northern California and witnessed a judge dismiss a social worker’s petition only a few times. She said that most of these detention hearings lasted between three and ten minutes. “Because it’s a confidential system, it’s hard to talk about the issues that come with it publicly,” Reich said.

Research shows that parents who are compliant and deferential, who agree to whatever therapeutic program their case worker has assigned them, have better luck getting their kids back.

To prepare for the detention hearing, Randy and Danyelle collected letters of support from friends, employers, and neighbors. They wanted to make a strong first impression on their court-appointed lawyers. But when they met their attorneys at the Riverside Juvenile Court, they got the sense that the only way forward was to agree with the social worker’s assessment and comply with CPS’s recommendations, no matter what. Danyelle’s lawyer had seen the CPS petition that suggested Danyelle was a heavy drinker and recommended that she accept a kind of plea bargain—11 weeks of alcohol-addiction therapy in return for her children. Danyelle felt trapped and angry: She insisted that she didn’t have a drinking problem and hated the idea of going through a treatment program she didn’t need.

Danyelle and Randy asked the judge to pause the proceedings for 24 hours so that they could hire new attorneys. A neighbor introduced them to Art and Michael LaCilento, twin brothers who often worked as a team. The Brannings met them for coffee and liked them immediately. The LaCilento brothers are fast-talking, blocky men, with dark, curly hair. They seemed confident that they could get the kids back, but they didn’t come cheap. They wanted a $7,000 retainer up front. The Brannings emptied their savings, and Danyelle borrowed an additional $2,000 from her mom.

The first order of business, Art said, was a change in venue, because the Riverside County judge they’d been assigned always found the mother at fault, always sided with the county. “Sit out here today,” Danyelle remembers him saying, right before their first court appearance, “and watch every single person come out of here in tears.” When it was their turn, Art asked for the case to be moved to another court. Sure, the judge said, they could go to Indio—80 miles away. That meant the Brannings would have to pay each brother an additional $1,400 for every court appearance. With some haggling, the case got moved to Murrieta, 40 miles south.

The next day, at the Murrieta Juvenile Court, Art seemed much more at ease. The judge there was a friend of his. Danyelle overheard the two of them talking golf in the hallway before the trial began. For the first time since her kids were taken, Danyelle was confident that she’d get them back.

Art and Michael had their clients wait in the hallway during the detention hearing. They worried that Danyelle or Randy might say something that would hurt their chances. Reich’s research shows that parents who are compliant and deferential, who agree to whatever therapeutic program their case worker has assigned them, have better luck getting their kids back. Neither Danyelle nor Randy are naturally compliant or deferential people; they’re direct, foul-mouthed, and defensive.

By this point, Deputy Curry had completed his investigation and determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges. The Brannings, Curry had concluded, were using “stern discipline to correct Amber’s carefree ways before it becoming [sic] a great deal in the future.” For Danyelle, this was promising but confounding news: If the police wasn’t pressing charges, why were they still on trial?

CPS’s petition had arrived at the Brannings’ home by mail a few days before. It stated that, according to Amber, her father had head-butted and shoved her into a wall, prompting her to speak with a guidance counselor. Amber had told Thompson-Dunn that her father regularly called her names like “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore.” Randy and Danyelle told me that Thompson-Dunn never returned to interview them, so the report only reflected her interviews with Amber and their children.

The petition also listed a number of details and anecdotes that did not pertain to the altercation between Amber and her father that Wednesday night. Kelly and Cory had told Thompson-Dunn that their parents had spanked them when they were younger. It stated that Randy smoked marijuana and that Danyelle “drinks alcohol on a daily basis,” and described an incident, based on interviews with the children, when Randy had snatched away Danyelle’s keys and cell phone so she couldn’t leave the house and had thrown her against a glass table. The report also mentioned that Randy’s brother had sought a restraining order against him but failed to mention that the order had been denied.

Reich told me that once a case is brought to a family-court judge, it’s “no longer about the allegation. It’s about everything in that person’s life.” A judge may determine that a case worker was wrong to remove a child, that there weren’t exigent circumstances to justify doing so, but may still decide to keep the child in foster care because something suspicious about the accused parent has come to light—a history of mental illness, for instance, or drug abuse. “It’s the weirdest part of jurisprudence,” said Reich of the family court system. “It’s not like any other system you’ve been through.” Few parents know how to navigate it.

As Danyelle and Randy waited in the hallway, they kept wishing that they were at criminal court instead of family court. Criminal court seemed simpler, more linear. First you committed a crime, then you were charged, then you went to trial, and then, if found guilty, you were punished. Their situation felt backward. The punishment had preceded the trial. The police had found no evidence of wrongdoing and decided not to press charges, yet the children had already been taken away—the worst punishment imaginable.

Art came out of the courtroom. The judge had decided to push on with the Brannings’ case. Randy and Danyelle would need to comply with CPS recommendations if they wanted their kids to come home.

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On September 9, eleven days after the Branning children were first removed from the house, Randy and Danyelle returned to Murrieta for what’s called a team decision-making meeting. The idea behind a team meeting is to create a collaborative environment among the social workers and family. There’s typically no judge and no government lawyers, but CPS is involved in all aspects of a child-abuse case; they remove children from their parents and facilitate their return. It’s roughly the equivalent of a homicide detective also serving as a parole officer.

Danyelle, Randy, and their lawyers sat in a conference room with Thompson-Dunn and several other representatives from CPS. Thompson-Dunn ordered Danyelle to attend a course for victims of domestic violence and Randy to move out of the house and complete a program for domestic-violence abusers. In exchange, the LaCilentos were able to negotiate Cory and Kelly’s immediate return. The Brannings agreed.

Randy told me that Thompson-Dunn warned him that he had to pack up every last personal possession; if CPS discovered any indication—a toothbrush or a wallet—that he was living there, the kids could be removed again. He’d be permitted to have weekly monitored visits. In the meantime, Amber would remain in foster care. Danyelle wasn’t ready to let her come home.

Later that day, Danyelle met Ellen at a Starbucks parking lot to pick up Cory and Kelly. That night, Danyelle made a pot roast, and when they finished eating, they laid in bed and watched A Christmas Story. The house was quiet without Amber, without Randy. When the movie was over, Kelly made Cory tell their mom about what happened during their first night with Ellen, about the boy who touched him and the coded knock. “That’s when I realized that the nightmare wasn’t over,” Danyelle said. Her son was even more traumatized than she’d imagined. She was even more determined to sue the people responsible.

Kelly told me that coming home was even harder than being in foster care. It was hard to watch her mother in pain and hard to live there without her older sister. She felt like she didn’t know who to trust anymore.

Danyelle took an extended leave from the hospital. The week after the kids came home, she was supposed to start her victims-of-violence class, but when she arrived at the first session, she learned that she’d been enrolled in an anger-management course instead. Eventually, she signed up for the right class, but on the first day her instructor told her that she didn’t qualify, and she stopped going. Thompson-Dunn checked in every two weeks or so to see how the family was adjusting. Everyone was still tense and missing Randy and Amber.

Randy moved into a Motel 6 until friends invited him to stay in their guest room. On the first day of his class for domestic-violence abusers, the instructor asked everyone in the class to write down the last time they had abused their domestic partner. Randy wrote, “I’m here because CPS falsely stole my kids.” It was supposed to be a six-week course, but the instructor canceled the remaining sessions after two weeks or so.

In mid-October, Thompson-Dunn called for another team meeting and concluded that Randy should be allowed to come home. When he arrived, Kelly and Cory jumped all over him; Danyelle, too. They ordered a pizza. “We did a lot of hugging on each other,” Randy told me. “It was a good day.” The other outcome of the team meeting was that Thompson-Dunn would continue to visit every two weeks to check up on them. Danyelle told me that Thompson-Dunn called occasionally, but once Randy returned home, she never came to the house again.

Around Thanksgiving, a CPS representative notified Danyelle and Randy that Amber had run away from her foster home. She’d packed her bag and left her foster parents a note, writing that that she had fallen in love and was going to live with her boyfriend. “Thank you for everything,” she wrote. Thompson-Dunn went to Amber’s school, but no one had seen her. CPS hired a private investigator and tried to reach Cassandra, her biological mother, but couldn’t track her down.

Randy panicked and called Amber’s cell phone. “You never have to speak to me again if you don’t want to,” he said in a voice mail. “Just let me know that you’re OK.” He turned to Facebook for clues. Around the New Year, Cassandra posted a message suggesting that she and Amber had reunited: “Am prayin this new yr God allows me to be a great mother to my children cosistantly.”

Randy had no idea how Amber was doing, and what he read on Facebook worried him. “Out of jail,” Cassandra posted on July 24, 2014. “Amber, thank u for all the hard work and dedication you presented to get me out of jail…. I’ll love and cherish you more than you’ll ever know.”

Then, a few weeks later, things between Cassandra and Amber appeared to sour. Cassandra accused Amber of being a liar. “U understand me little girl you need to check yourself and have some respect for yourself and your mother stop being wishy-washy for attention.”

To which Amber replied, “You are nothing but a worthless doper to me.”


A few months after the kids came home, Art LaCilento introduced the Brannings to Shawn McMillan, who had represented several of LaCilento’s former clients. In February 2014, Randy and Danyelle drove to San Diego to meet him. McMillan liked them immediately: They were hardworking and big-hearted, the kind of people, as McMillan said, whom judges meet and “they just go, Oh shit, how did these idiot social workers miss this?”

On July 1, 2014, they filed a suit against Riverside County, Pamela Thompson-Dunn, several other social workers involved in their case, and both the Avant-Garde and Fred Jefferson foster agencies. The suit accuses the defendants of violating the Brannings’ First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, of invading their privacy, and of failing to protect their children. The suit argues that Thompson-Dunn did not have the evidence to remove the children without a warrant, that Cory should have been able to share a room with his sister, and that Amber’s foster parents should have recognized that she was at risk of flight. “The Branning family continues to experience great worry, heartache, and grief over the uncertain state of [Amber’s] whereabouts and condition,” McMillan wrote in the complaint. In a written response, filed on November 19, 2014, CPS’s attorneys refuse to address those accusations, citing a California statute that prohibits discussion of children who have been in protective custody. The Deputy Curry tapes surfaced in April 2015, during the discovery period. McMillan knew that the county wouldn’t want to go to trial with a record of one of the children declaring that she’d never seen her father be violent. Weeks after the tapes were released, the county reached out about a settlement negotiation.

It’s hard to quantify the trauma of losing a child. McMillan calculates a fair settlement by charging the government $2,000 to $10,000 per child for every day they were in government custody. Amber, Cory, and Kelly had together spent a total of 104 days in foster care, but given other aspects of their situation—that Cory had been molested and Amber had run away—McMillan thought $800,000 was the right number. His office takes between 25 and 50 percent of the settlement. Nearly all his cases end in settlements; he has taken only a handful to trial.

The settlement negotiation began at ten in the morning on July 15. McMillan and the Brannings sat in a small, colorless room at the Orange County Mediation Center as a tireless mediator, an older woman in a skirt suit, bounced back and forth between them and CPS’s attorneys, who sat in a nearby room. CPS’s initial offer was $100,000. Danyelle told the mediator that they weren’t going to settle for less than a million. Around lunchtime, McMillan walked over to the CPS attorneys and played portions of the Deputy Curry tapes, the part where Kelly said that she’d never seen her father abuse any member of her family. “That’s when it turned around,” Danyelle said.

By 10:30 p.m., CPS had upped its offer to $750,000. Danyelle didn’t want to settle for less than $800,000, so McMillan decided to give them a $25,000 discount on attorney fees by taking a lower commission. Around midnight they signed the final papers.

The settlement meant that CPS did not have to admit wrongdoing in the case or discipline any employees. When I reached out to Riverside County CPS regarding the matter, a spokesperson responded with a statement: “We want to stress Riverside County’s commitment first and foremost, to protect children, and to carry out our duties and responsibilities with professionalism, compassion and a commitment to complying with all applicable laws, policies, and regulations.” According to her LinkedIn page, Thompson-Dunn left Riverside County CPS in March 2016 and now works at a nonprofit in Los Angeles. She declined to be interviewed for this story. Through the agency, the foster family has denied that Cory was sexually assaulted when in their care.

Once the settlement was reached, McMillan decided to move forward with the class-action lawsuit against Riverside County CPS. The Brannings were the “motivating factor in finally doing it,” McMillan told me. The certification hearing, in which a judge determines if the case meets the standards of a class-action suit, is expected to take place this fall. According to the New York Times, class-action suits have been filed against CPS in 19 states, but if accepted, McMillan’s will be the first in California. The parent of the lead plaintiff of the case was in the hospital, recovering from labor, when a county social worker seized her newborn child. The social worker did not have a warrant.


Spending time with another family is like traveling to a foreign country. Each has its own culture, forged over generations. Unraveling that history is the work of a lifetime—hard to do with our own families, let alone a stranger’s. But over the months that I spent with Danyelle and Randy, I began to understand that their family runs on a mix of candor, kindness, and discipline, fueled by the Brannings’ desire to see their children outdo them. Both are direct with their children, upfront about their feelings, and curious about their kids’ hobbies and interests. One day I rode with Randy as he picked up Kelly from cheerleading practice. Kelly got in the car, and Randy peppered her with questions about every rule and regulation. Danyelle sets hard limits—like the amount of time Cory and Kelly spend online—but she’s also affectionate and genuinely delights in her children. She can’t help but giggle when Cory speaks out of turn at dinner with some random observation, and she helped Kelly dye her hair with purple Kool-Aid.

Randy has sworn to me, stone-faced, that he has never hurt or hit his wife. Danyelle has confirmed this. They admit to spanking their kids when they were little; both Danyelle and Randy had been raised that way and saw no problem with it. They admit that when they fight they can get operatically loud and use configurations of words that aren’t permitted on network television. There had been one particularly vile fight where Danyelle had stormed from the house and Randy had snatched her car keys and hid them.

“I called him an asshole,” Danyelle said. “Is it right? No. Does it happen? Yes.”

“There were a couple times I called her a bitch,” Randy said. “Is that an everyday occurrence? Of course not.”

It’s hard to imagine a government code with the sensitivity and capaciousness to address all the forms that abuse can assume. The CPS system allows individual social workers the flexibility to wade through the endless gray areas of family life instead of following a rigid rulebook. But that means they inevitably apply their own expectations of good and bad parenting when they’re assessing families, even when the family is nothing like their own. Enforcing clearer standards of what constitutes an emergency and requiring warrants when those standards aren’t met would relieve social workers of some responsibility and protect children and parents’ constitutional rights. But new standards would present new risks: There would almost certainly be cases that turned into emergencies before social workers could obtain the necessary paperwork.

Spending time with another family is like traveling to a foreign country. Each has its own culture, forged over generations.

I spoke to Amber a couple of months ago by phone. She had recently gotten engaged, and her fiancé has a kid. As a new stepparent, she felt terrible about the way she had treated her father and Danyelle. “I think all my dad was trying to do was protect me, but I’m the kind of person who needs to find out for myself,” she told me. “If I had known they were going to take Kelly and Cory, I never would’ve talked to my counselor.”

She told me that she, too, read the CPS petition and was stunned by how her words had been twisted. “Almost everything she put in there was a lie,” Amber now says. She told me that she never said to Thompson-Dunn that her father head-butted her or smashed her head into a wall; she never saw her dad abuse Danyelle. She does think that her father was too rough with her that night. “He grabbed me so hard he left finger marks on my arm,” she told me. But that was the only instance in which her dad had ever physically disciplined her.

I asked Randy how his relationship with Amber had evolved. He told me that soon after she turned 18, she called him to apologize. “I’m sorry I got you in trouble,” she said. Randy has mostly forgiven Amber. When she called him one night because she didn’t have a place to sleep, he paid for a motel room. They speak regularly by phone and Facebook. They say “I love you” before they hang up.

Most of the settlement money has gone into a college fund for Kelly and Cory. So far the Brannings have received about $150,000 of it, some of which they used to build a swimming pool for the kids. They’re glad to have the money, but it doesn’t change what happened. Kelly’s gone through seven therapists in the past three years. Cory’s teachers report that he’s fidgety and distractible, and when Danyelle sends him to his room he sometimes threatens to call CPS on her. Perhaps worst of all, Danyelle told me, “I’m afraid of my own children now.”


Biased and Phony Media Descend on Cleveland to Cover Very Very Tremendous Convention. Enjoy!

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(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Biased and Phony Media Descend on Cleveland to Cover Very Very Tremendous Convention. Enjoy!

Dispatches from the 2016 Republican National Convention.

By Justin Peters

Hi, I’m Justin Peters. I’m going to Cleveland next week to cover the Republican National Convention for The Atavist Magazine. I’m a journalist, and have been for many years, but I’m not particularly qualified for this assignment: I haven’t been on the campaign trail at all this year, and I haven’t written regularly about politics for a long time. I did, however, appear on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? twice last year, which, in this weird postmodern election cycle, basically makes me cabinet material.

There’s a long-standing journalistic tradition of sending semi-outsiders to report on conventions, to indulge in the spectacle as a means of ferreting out substance. In this political season, more than any other I can remember, the spectacle is the substance. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, is an erratic former reality-television star and an accomplished ogler whose campaign philosophy can be reduced to two phrases: “I’m not here to make friends” and “Look at me!”

So maybe the best way to think about this moment, in our inherently performative political era, is as the penultimate elimination round of the greatest reality show in history. Maybe the answers to our national future lie not in the rules committee but in the spectacle itself. Maybe Donald Trump and I are both the right man for the right time. I’m going to find out.

Trump Supporters: A Taxonomy

Last week’s presidential debate was a surreal 90-minute episode of cognitive dissonance. On one side of the stage was Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, who, though a polarizing figure, is inarguably a serious and competent person who has devoted much of her adult life to public service. On the other side was Donald J. Trump, the erratic insult comedian and real estate developer who is best known for residing in an eponymous tower and firing Dennis Rodman on television before rising from immodest means to capture the Republican nomination. Clinton has ideas and experience. Trump has novelty hats and hand gestures. History will not absolve us.

Which debate moment was the weirdest? Was it when Trump claimed that his best asset was his temperament? When he implied that it was “smart” to avoid paying taxes? Maybe it was when he gratuitously insulted comedian Rosie O’Donnell? Or when he asserted that he had done African-Americans a great service by promoting the lie that President Obama had been born in Kenya? I watched the debate during a cross-country flight from Los Angeles to New York City, as did most of my fellow passengers, and every now and then a Trump statement or reaction that struck me as terribly stupid would be met elsewhere on the plane with vocal approbation. This, for me, was the strangest part of the evening: realizing that I was trapped in an airborne metal tube with people who were watching Trump flail, nodding to themselves, and saying, “This guy gets it.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the course of his madcap presidential campaign, Trump has done and said things that would have ended any other person’s political fortunes. Just in the past couple of months, he has insulted the parents of a decorated, fallen U.S. soldier, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the 2008 Republican candidate for president, and many others. He has urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email and repeatedly expressed his fondness for Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has asserted that President Obama is “literally” the founder of ISIS. And yet recent polling puts Trump inexplicably close to Hillary Clinton with a month to go.

Trump’s success is especially impressive given that he is the least focused major-party presidential candidate in modern American history. One moment he’s channeling Captain Ahab as he talks about his beloved border wall, the next he’s ranting about sex tapes, all with the discipline of a novice stand-up comedian who abandons his prepared routine to heckle the other comics on the bill. Yet these random salvos have resonated with disparate pockets of the Republican electorate, so much so that you have to think that Trump’s scattershot ranting is strategic—an attempt to unite a bloc composed of single-issue voters, some of whom have radically contradictory expectations of him.

Trump seems to speak in code, and when he is not signaling to racists, he is trying to please the other members of his coalition. I encountered this phenomenon firsthand while covering the Republican National Convention this summer. There I met an array of people who all saw Trump as the apotheosis of their very different individual obsessions. They have keyed on one specific aspect of Trump’s message and chosen to ignore the rest. (For our purposes here, let’s exclude folks motivated predominantly by racism, misogyny, homophobia, and sociopathy, whether or not they amount to more or less than half of Trump’s basket.) By standing for almost nothing specific, Trump becomes anything and everything that a voter might want him to be. This ideological plasticity has helped him attract a broad base of supporters; it also makes him look crazy to those who are steeped in traditional methods of politicking.

Over the past two weeks, I have found myself thinking back to my time in Cleveland, where I first started to fully grasp the contours and inconsistencies of the Trump coalition. On the third day of the convention, I spoke to a Trump supporter named James Bates whose comments captured the roots of the candidate’s appeal. “Everyone thought he was a laughingstock. They all said, ‘Oh, my God, this is a joke,’” Bates told me. “For what it’s worth, we’re looking at a new era. The people want a candidate that represents them.” As best I can tell, this is who “them” are.

The Prosperity Nostalgist

The first debate began with a rousing exchange on trade and the economy, and Trump scored early points when he criticized Clinton for her support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. “We have to do a much better job at keeping our jobs. And we have to do a much better job at giving companies incentives to build new companies or to expand, because they’re not doing it. And all you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving, they’re gone,” said Trump, before turning to Clinton with a critique and a promise. “I will bring back jobs,” he vowed. “You can’t bring back jobs.”

With this sort of rhetoric, Trump is attempting to appeal to Prosperity Nostalgists, people yearning for a past when America still made stuff, dammit; when stable middle-class jobs still existed and NAFTA was the show that came on after CHiPs. “We need to increase economic growth so everybody benefits from it, from the top to the bottom and mostly in the middle, where we’re really hurting,” Arizona state representative David Livingston, an apparent Prosperity Nostalgist, told me on the floor of the convention.

Not long after, I was wandering around Freedom Plaza, a GOP-themed souvenir market in the concourse of the baseball stadium abutting the convention hall, when I was greeted by the friendly proprietor of a charm-jewelry stand. “How do I know you?” she asked, and when she realized that she knew me from my multiple stints as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, she became very excited and insisted on taking my picture twice.

Her name was Nancy Basch, and with her company, Lady Jayne Ltd., she creates and sells nickel-free charm jewelry. Her wares on display at Freedom Plaza hewed to appropriate themes of patriotism, conservatism, and hypoallergenicity. She spoke wistfully of a bygone era when Providence, Rhode Island, was the center of the trinket trade, a mecca for charm-jewelry craftsmanship. Today, she said, the industry has relocated to Hong Kong, and all the former artisans in Providence are broke and idle. “I’m a Trumpster,” she told me. “If you don’t vote for Trump, something’s wrong with you.”

But Prosperity Nostalgists can never explain why Trump is the man to restore American prosperity, other than citing his dubious credentials as an ostentatiously prosperous person. And they are not exactly sure what it would take to put the middle class back to work. “Bring back the companies, bring back the jobs back to this country,” Alirio Martinez, an alternate delegate from Germantown, Maryland, told me. “You can’t have prosperity without jobs,” I replied, trying to make sure I understood his point. “Right, so we need that back in here, and we need back truth, established principles, and values in this country, and take the regulation, and, um, low taxes,” he said.

Trump’s own plans for restoring American prosperity are just as confusing as Martinez’s description of them, but Prosperity Nostalgists don’t dwell on the inconsistencies. Instead they place their faith in Trump’s (disputable) personal wealth and reputation as a shrewd dealer, and assume that Trump’s vision for renewed American greatness involves applying the principles of his own (disputable) prosperity to the wider world.

The Effort Fetishist

Donald J. Trump loves to brag about his success in business, almost as much as he loves claiming that his success was wholly self-generated, which is sort of rich, considering the helping hand extended to him by his father, a wealthy real estate developer. At the first debate, Trump reiterated this incomplete meritocratic narrative. “I built an unbelievable company,” he said. “Some of the greatest assets anywhere in the world, real estate assets anywhere in the world, beyond the United States, in Europe, lots of different places. It’s an unbelievable company.”

This story is designed to appeal to the Effort Fetishist, the Trump supporter who believes that all the world’s problems would be fixed if only everyone else worked as hard as he did, and who carries himself as if forever resentful that his pathological self-reliance has not yet been recognized with a Congressional Medal of Honor. He prefers simple, self-valorizing stories—you get out of life what you put into it, the whole Horatio Alger thing—and, by extension, imputes sloth and weakness to those who are unable to bootstrap. Effort Fetishism implies that failure is a moral flaw, since the world is a flat surface free from nepotism, racism, and institutional bias. On the final night of the convention, Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, asserted that “when run correctly, a construction site is a true meritocracy.” Effort Fetishists love the idea of Making America a Meritocracy Again.

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That same night, prowling the halls of Quicken Loans Arena, I met a dapper older man named Fred Jenkins, from Cumberland, Pennsylvania, who was wearing a creamy white suit. “What does prosperity mean to you?” I asked him, because he was clearly an accomplished fellow. “Prosperity is being able to, uh, have what you would like to have, and work for it,” he told me.

Each time I asked—“What does prosperity mean to you?”—I got many similar responses. “Prosperity means to me the ability to earn a living to the extent of my ability,” said Nevada delegate Christine DeCourt. “In order to prosper in this country, you have to work hard,” said New Hampshire state representative Eric Estevez. “I think that, uh, even though it may seem impossible, we still live in a great country, and you can do great things here if you’re willing to work hard.”

Effort Fetishism is a traditional Republican value, but it’s discordant with Trump, who also spends a great deal of time and effort trying to conceal evidence of his own incompetence, often by claiming that mistakes aren’t actually mistakes or deeming them someone else’s fault. In his first debate with Hillary Clinton, accused of stiffing an architect, Trump suggested that the man had done a bad job and, as such, did not deserve payment. “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work,” he said. “Which our country should do, too.”

The Motivated Yeller

My favorite part of the debate was when Trump repeated his line about how well suited he is to the highest office in the land. “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” he told viewers. “I have a winning temperament.” This is sort of like a job seeker telling a potential employer that his strongest asset is his chronic tardiness. This temperament might suit a television host or a carnival barker, but it’s hard to see it playing well at a state dinner or a trade summit.

Still, Trump’s choleric flamboyance holds great appeal to a variety of supporter I’ve come to call the Motivated Yeller. These people treat politics as a performance and admire Trump’s theatricality. Motivated Yellers know that a crowd responds less to the script than to the delivery, that it’s not about what you say so much as the conviction with which you say it. They want a president who projects confidence and decisiveness, and also projects his voice, loudly, all the way to the back of the room. In Trump, they have found a leader who is as much of a ham as they are.

At the RNC, the Motivated Yellers had come in costume. At any given moment in Cleveland, approximately two out of five delegates were dressed as if they wanted to be prepared in case someone abruptly asked them to lead a parade. They came in seersucker suits, smart red blazers, frock coats, American-flag garb in infinite variations. (This has also been true of every convention I’ve ever attended.) At least two men were dressed as if they had just come from the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Well costumed, too, was Milo Yiannopoulos, the Twitter provocateur, who swept through Media Row on Wednesday as if auditioning for a bit part on Entourage, wearing sunglasses indoors, his hair dyed an ostentatious silver. That same week, Yiannopoulos had been banned from Twitter for harassing actress Leslie Jones. Trailed by a camera crew, Yiannopoulos barged into the Twitter kiosk in Media Row and demanded answers from the flummoxed staffers who were manning the booth. It was all for show, as is everything the Motivated Yeller does.

My favorite Motivated Yeller in Cleveland was Michelle Van Etten, who spoke on the third night and who seemed like she might dismiss Sarah Palin as “too brainy.” Van Etten—very tan, very blond, and entirely uninterested in hewing to the text of the speech on the teleprompter—runs a direct-sales supplement company in Florida. She began by telling a long story about her childhood stint as the proprietor of an itinerant underage circus. “I recruited the neighborhood kids to be part of my circus,” she bragged, and continued in this vein for a good four minutes before veering off script to rant about the horrors of Common Core. “The American dream. Is being. [long pause] Denigrated now,” she summarized, passionately, in true Motivated Yelling tradition.

That same night, I ran into the radio host Alex Jones, who is a Trump supporter and an accomplished Yeller himself. The theme of the day was Make America First Again, and I asked Jones to explain what that phrase meant to him. “I think before America can be great again, it must be free again, and be free-market, and have low taxes to allow innovation,” he said. “I think Trump is a lot better than Hillary trying to start a nuclear war with Russia, and so for peace and stability I support Donald Trump.” This answer had little to do with the question I asked, which perhaps was to be expected. Motivated Yellers don’t listen very well. They are too busy waiting for their cue to speak.

The Lovable Lemming

Trump loves to boast about how popular he is. “What she doesn’t say is that tens of thousands of people that are unbelievably happy and that love me,” Trump told moderator Lester Holt midway through the first debate. As further evidence of his popularity and belovedness, he cited his numbers. “I saw the polls come in today,” he said, “and I’m either winning or tied, and I’ve spent practically nothing.” (Shrewd dealer, he!) There are plenty of people out there who support Trump, it’s true, but you shouldn’t necessarily read love and affection into those numbers. There are lots of Trump voters who have only grudgingly decided to give him their support. I call these people Lovable Lemmings.

Trump’s constant poll touting is a way to shore up his coalition and convince skeptical supporters that they have made the right choice—to gild his candidacy with a sheen of inevitability and convince the Lemmings to stick with the herd. The Lovable Lemming is aware of Trump’s flaws as a candidate but has decided to support him anyway. Lovable Lemmings are often reasonable people and can be of any political persuasion. They have resigned themselves to Trump by conceding that, even if Trump is a monster, at least he’s their monster. My party, right or wrong is the gist of their oft dejected argument.

There were lots of Lovable Lemmings at the RNC. Failed presidential candidate and current Trump supporter Ben Carson, who giggled like a schoolgirl when I asked if he thought Trump would be the most luxurious president in American history, is one of them, I think. So, too, is fellow also-ran Mike Huckabee, who seems personable and pleasant despite his moralistic politics. Huckabee has explained his reason for joining the Trump coalition, and it’s a telling one. “When we nominated people over the past several election cycles, some of us had heartburn, but we stepped up and supported the nominee,” he said in May. “You’re either on the team or you’re not on the team.”

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On the final night of the convention, a large man named Mike Lachs moved through the hallways of Quicken Loans Arena wearing a battered hat shaped like an elephant’s head. It was covered in buttons from political conventions past and present. He bought what he described as “this stupid hat” at the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego and had worn it to every convention since, adding new flair at each stop. “I’m just having fun,” he smiled. He was soft-spoken, expressing his anxieties about job security and the country’s financial future. I began to wonder how this thoughtful person had come to support Donald Trump.

Trump had not been his first choice. Lachs began the election cycle supporting John Kasich. “I’m a Republican,” he explained. “I’ve been involved with helping people in primaries—sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And when you lose, and it’s the other guy’s candidate, you know, that’s the way it works. I share more in common with that person than the Democrat.” The Lovable Lemming wants the GOP to win the election, even if victory means following an unstable leader off an entirely avoidable cliff.

The Insecure Isolationist

Midway through the debate, Trump had the chance to harp on one of his favorite topics: the extent to which America is being stiffed and cheated by almost every other country on earth. “Just to go down the list, we defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries,” said Trump. “They do not pay us. But they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service, and we’re losing a fortune.”

With this line of thought, Trump is trying to appeal to a species of supporter I have dubbed the Insecure Isolationist. These people are often deemed racist xenophobes, and perhaps they are, but I think it’s just as much the case that they are suspicious that other nations might be taking advantage of us. These people want America to stay at home and mind its own business, because otherwise it might be tricked by double-dealing foreigners. If they ever traveled overseas, which they probably would not, the Insecure Isolationists would be the ones wearing their money in belts under their shirts, frantically scanning the horizon for signs of pickpockets.

On one night of the convention, I fell into conversation with three Maryland men congregating around a malodorous garbage can in the concourse of Quicken Loans Arena. I asked what Make America First Again meant to them. “Reestablish the fact that we are a sovereign nation, that we understand that America comes first before we start dealing with… when we’re dealing with foreign nations,” said Wendell Beitzel, a delegate from Accident, Maryland. “America becomes first. Not secondary. We’re not running around the world trying to promote things that really are not good for America.”

Trump bolsters the Insecure Isolationist’s fears by constantly talking about how China and other nations are eating America’s lunch when it comes to trade deals, and by maligning the purported freeloader nations of NATO. (There might be some projection in play here since the nonpayment he decries is the exact same behavior he boasts of in his own business dealings.) He also stokes these fears by portraying foreign nationals as slavering malefactors. Trump was unexpectedly gracious at the first debate in that he didn’t spend much time at all gratuitously insulting Mexicans or Muslims, but he has done plenty of that in the past. The rhetoric has resonated with the Insecure Isolationists. “Look at what’s going on with ISIS and with the immigration issue, with, you know, flooding Europe, and look what they’re doing to Europe,” Beitzel told me. “And so that’s why we support Trump so strongly. He wants to put America’s interest first.”

The Team America: World Policeman

Almost immediately after implying during the first debate that he would withdraw America from its international commitments and pursue an “America first” policy, Trump also said that he would lead the world into battle against ISIS. “I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us, in addition to surrounding nations, and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS, and we have to do it fast, when ISIS formed in this vacuum created by Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton,” said Trump.

With this line of rhetoric, Trump is courting a strain of supporter I’ve christened the Team America: World Policeman. In sharp contrast to the Insecure Isolationist, the Team America: World Policeman wants the United States to be the greatest nation on earth and believes that greatness means global omnipresence. “Putting America first means we’re going to take a leadership role in the world. We’re going to take on the bad guys in the world, whether it be communist China or ISIS or radical Islam. We will fight them everywhere,” said Dwight Patel, an alternate delegate from Bethesda, Maryland. Echoed Arizona delegate Janine Kateff, “We’re going to be the country that is the strongest. We’re going to be the country that will be there to help the other countries that are in distress.”

Trump has encouraged the Team America: World Policeman to believe in his internationalist bona fides by constantly boasting of his worldwide real estate holdings and his long experience dealing with foreign leaders and dignitaries. (“He actually advocated for the actions we took in Libya and urged that Gaddhafi be taken out, after actually doing some business with him one time,” Clinton noted during the debate. And, indeed, appearing on Face the Nation in June, Trump bragged that “I made a lot of money with Gaddhafi.”) “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS,” Trump vowed in his convention acceptance speech, and he left no doubt that he would do so unilaterally, if necessary. During the debate, after Clinton praised the virtues of working with America’s allies to maintain global security, Trump said that “we’ve been working with them for many years, and we have the greatest mess anyone’s ever seen.” Team America wants to clean up this mess with broad-shouldered American strength, and they see Trump—his isolationist tendencies notwithstanding—as the man for the job.

The Terrified Pedestrian

The second half of the first presidential debate touched on topics of national security, and Trump had a lot to say. “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell,” he asserted. “You walk down the street, you get shot.” This line of rhetoric was meant to appeal to a type of supporter who spends very little or no time in the “inner city” but believes deeply that America’s streets are as dangerous as a battlefield.

It is folly to confront the Terrified Pedestrian with statistics on how, over the past few decades, America has become safer than ever, on how isolated incidents and a few rising-crime cities do not make a national safety crisis. The Terrified Pedestrian will vote for whichever candidate most vehemently speaks out in favor of good old-fashioned law and order. The Terrified Pedestrian would prefer if the president spoke loudly, carried a large and menacing stick, and used it as a truncheon.

There were plenty of Terrified Pedestrians at the RNC, and indeed, the entire convention apparatus seemed designed to heighten their paranoia. Above the highway leading into Cleveland, huge electronic signs urged motorists to vigilance: see something, say something / call rnc tip line / 1 800 call fbi. The city center was a maze of closed streets, metal barricades, fenced-off paths, and security checkpoints. The routes were guarded by scores of cops and federal agents sweating through their paramilitary attire, geared up to quash invading armies but reduced to dispensing directions to disoriented visitors. You could tell the Terrified Pedestrians by the way they loudly and pointedly thanked the officers for keeping them safe. It was mere days after police officers in Dallas had been targeted by a civilian sniper, but the praise was so lavish that it was almost as if these delegates wanted something to happen, wanted to see one of these officers overpower some rabid Code Pink protester so that they could film and upload the entire thing as evidence of the overwhelming dangers of daily life, as incontrovertible proof that Blue Lives Do Matter.

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On the third night of the Republican National Convention, I ran into a middle-aged man conspicuously carrying a large hand-drawn sign reading cruz delegates for trump. His name was Nick Stepovich, and he was the proprietor of Soapy Smith’s Pioneer Restaurant in Fairbanks, Alaska. I asked Stepovich what the evening’s theme, Make America First Again, meant to him. (Soapy Smith, in case you were wondering, was a 19th-century grifter who was shot to death by vigilantes when he refused to return a bag of stolen gold.) “Well, it means to make us where we can hold our head up and walk safely anywhere in our own country,” he replied. “Right now there’s a safety issue, and you can’t argue with that one, you know?”

For months, Trump has been singing this tune with great success. On the second night of the RNC, in a video that played on the jumbo screen in the arena, a hollow-eyed Trump promised that, during his presidency, “we’re going to restore law and order—we have to restore, and quickly, law and order.” The crowd roared.

The T-Shirt Witticist

Near the end of the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton brought up her opponent’s fondness for cruel insults. “One of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest,” said Clinton. “He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she was Latina.” Rather than apologize, Trump subsequently doubled down on these insults, posting on Twitter that the woman in question was “disgusting” and alleging that she had once made a sex tape. While many voters might find this kind of rhetoric grotesque, it’s sure to win points with a type of Trump supporter I call the T-Shirt Witticist.

The T-Shirt Witticist uses crude humor and simple catchphrases to formulate and communicate his opinions. He thinks primarily in cheeky slogans and finds them clever no matter how shallow or stale. He is a cousin to the sports fan who cares less about poring over team statistics than about painting his face, going to the stadium, drinking 16 beers, and yelling insults until he is arrested. He is into politics for the excitement of it and in Trump he has found the most exciting candidate of them all. The T-Shirt Witticist is often the life of the party, but it is rarely a party that you’d want to attend.

Donald J. Trump isn’t just the T-Shirt Witticists’ candidate, he is a T-Shirt Witticist himself, a master of cloddish epigrammery. His incessant sloganeering has resounded with the T-Shirt Witticists of America because you can imagine everything he says on a shirt or a hat or a bumper sticker. “Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her,” he said, and sure enough, his feud is already inspiring T-shirts.

The T-Shirt Witticist is terrified of encroaching political correctness. “We can’t afford to be so politically correct anymore!” Trump bellowed during his acceptance speech, to huge applause from the T-Shirt Witticists in the crowd. Political correctness encourages people to be sensitive to the effects of the things they might say, and this notion is anathema to the T-Shirt Witticist, who interprets the constitutional right to free speech as a mandate to be as abrasive as possible at every waking moment.

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If the T-Shirt Witticist is capable of complex thoughts, he keeps them to himself. It’s one thing to say “I find Hillary Clinton unprincipled and untrustworthy, and here are the many reasons why.” It is easier to chant “Lock her up! Lock her up!” while wearing a shirt with a drawing of Donald Trump pushing Hillary Clinton from a motorcycle while himself wearing a T-shirt that says, if you can read this, the bitch fell off.

At times, the Trump campaign has seemed like little more than an excuse to make money selling novelty apparel. At the RNC, both inside and outside the convention grounds, you could barely walk ten feet without encountering an attitudinous T-shirt: girls just wanna have guns; god is great, beer is good, and liberals are crazy; i wish hillary had married oj. There were infinite variations on the make america great again slogan: make florida red again; make guns in america great again; make baseball fun again. Most popular were shirts demeaning or denouncing Hillary Clinton. One afternoon on my way into the convention, I ended up walking behind a young man in a T-shirt reading hillary for prison. This was a very popular slogan during the convention week, but T-Shirt Guy was nevertheless greeted as if he had coined the phrase himself. “Hillary for Prison?” one woman whooped. “I love you.”

I wanted to get in on the fun, so on the last night of the convention I arrived wearing a homemade T-shirt reading rich guv in trainig. (It was supposed to say rich guy in training, but I screwed up while making the shirt.) At the end of the night, a passing delegate paused, squinted, and then grabbed my coat and spread the lapels to get a closer look. I could see him parsing the words rich guv in trainig; I could sense him turning them over in his head. He removed his hands from the coat, looked me in the eye, and gave me a double thumbs-up. The T-Shirt Witticist sees what he wants to see in the slogans he encounters and doesn’t think too much about the motives behind them.

The Ambitious Panderer

Donald Trump is world-class name-dropper, and throughout his candidacy he has seemed eager to let the world know that certain renowned Republicans are indeed in his corner. “Mayor Giuliani is here,” he said during the first debate, referring to the former mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, who really ought to know better, and probably does. Giuliani is an Ambitious Panderer: a kissing cousin to the Lovable Lemming, yes, but the Ambitious Panderer is never lovable, insofar as he is clearly acting for his own personal gain. The Ambitious Panderer knows that Trump is unfit for the presidency; in many cases, the Ambitious Panderer has gone on record more than once saying as much. But that was long ago, and now the Ambitious Panderer has swallowed his or her objections and has boarded the Trump train because he sees something in it for himself.

A fantastically Ambitious Panderer is Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who caught my attention in Cleveland when he called the convention to order with a resounding THWOOMP! The noise was odd and alarming and sounded nothing like a gavel ought to sound. A gavel makes a thunk. It does not make a THWOOMP! It turned out that Priebus was striking his gavel on some sort of drum pad connected to the arena’s speaker system. Throughout the week, every time Priebus called the convention to order, he did so with this indecorous sound. With each amplified gavel strike, I was forced to recognize anew that our oldest extant political party is managed by a pandering factotum using a drum pad to call to order 10,000 costumed adults who have gathered to nominate a fearmongering narcissist for president. THWOOMP! is the official sound effect of Donald J. Trump’s loud and cacophonous presidential campaign—and, especially, of the Ambitious Panderers who have decided to get behind it.

In the weeks leading up to the Republican National Convention, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, had become Trump’s chief surrogate on the campaign trail, which makes him the Ambitious Panderer in Chief. Christie was the first of Trump’s primary rivals to endorse him. He had clearly hoped for the vice-presidential nomination. He did not get it, and to add insult to injury, the Trump campaign scheduled his convention speech for Tuesday night—which, in show-business terms, sort of made him the warm-up act for the warm-up act. When he took the stage, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, framed his speech as a mock trial of Hillary Clinton—a true Panderer’s move. Cataloging Clinton’s ostensible crimes and infractions in a call-and-response format, he would ask the audience to proclaim her guilt or innocence, and the crowd would shout “Guilty!” Occasionally, the delegates would break into a spontaneous “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Christie did not discourage this Motivated Yelling. “We’ll get to that,” he said with a grin. THWOOMP!

After Trump’s bizarre performance in the first debate, Priebus released a pandering statement in which he claimed that Trump showed himself to be “the only candidate in this race with the ideas to stimulate our economy, defeat radical Islamic terrorism, and keep our streets safe in every community.… Donald Trump showed tonight that he is the only candidate with the big-picture leadership our country needs.” The Ambitious Panderer’s inherent nihilism makes him the scariest archetype of all, insofar as he believes in nothing but his own advancement. As such, he will shift his beliefs and loyalty at will, as soon as he senses an advantage in doing so. And, Trump, of course, is the most Ambitious Panderer of them all.

Day One

Make America Wait Again

It’s the morning of the first day of the 2016 Republican National Convention, and I am speeding down I-480. The free razor at the Super 8 was very dull, and as a result I gave myself an incomplete shave, with patches of hair remaining here and there, reminders that no matter how hard you try to succeed at something, sometimes you cannot help but fail. I keep this cheery message in mind, frantically and futilely scraping my chin with the razor. I am late for a 10:30 appointment to acquire my press credentials for the week. As I drive, I email my contact apologizing for my tardiness.

I arrive to find a long, lazy line of reporters trailing through the lobby of the Halle Building. “It’s a shit show,” a TV producer with a thick Boston accent announces. “There’s one person.” He gestures, with what seems to me like perverse glee, toward the room where a single RNC staffer is methodically dispensing passes for everyone credentialed through the Special Press Office. I rub my ragged face.

Every political convention I’ve ever attended has started like this: standing in a long line in a lobby or a hallway, watching enviously as the real reporters who work for places with “reputations” and “budgets” breeze in and out of well-appointed media lounges. The Special Press Office supervises those reporters whose employers are the Goonies of the political press corps. The man standing behind me carries a large roll of paper towels, which he uses frequently to blot his sweat. (It is not particularly hot in the lobby.) The man in front of me gives his trouser measurements to someone over the phone. “I’m a 33 waist. A 33 waist,” he reiterates, before pausing. “You might want to go 34.” The reporter in front of him appears to be in high school, and then it turns out that he is a correspondent for a children’s news agency. This information is greeted heartily by a jolly woman who starts to reminisce about her days as a staffer for a defunct outlet called Children’s Express.

The line moves very slowly. I’m not the only one to notice this. “She’s having a ten-minute conversation with everyone,” the sweaty guy behind me says, referring to the personable RNC staffer who does, indeed, seem to be really enjoying her one-on-one time with America’s least reputable reporters. “Just hand out the credentials!” Pants Guy gets off the phone and resumes a conversation with the kid journalist. “Congrats on getting a selfie with Trump!” Pants Guy tells him. “That’s huge.” After about 40 minutes, the RNC staffer emerges with a smile, an apology, and a promise to move faster. The ex–Children’s Express lady pulls her aside. “Question,” she says. “Do you have any comprehensive listing of what’s going on?”

I secure my credentials and parking pass. Next, it’s over to the 14th floor of the Carl B. Stokes Federal Court House Building to pick up another credential, one that has been vetted by the Secret Service. I arrive at 12:15 to find a small, frustrated group of reporters milling about in the lobby. No one is being allowed upstairs. Another tremendously sweaty and loudly unlunched TV producer named Carl, who is here to pick up credentials for a colleague named Jim, cannot decide whether to stay or go. He talks constantly on his cell phone: “Hey, Jim, it’s Carl.” “Hey, Jim, it’s Carl.” “Hey, Jim, it’s Carl.”

After a while, a U.S. marshal appears to inform us that the Secret Service didn’t expect all these reporters to show up today—I am not sure why this is coming as a surprise, but apparently it is—and they’re doing their best. “Bear with us,” the U.S. marshal says. “We’re not the bad guys.”

Finally, we’re allowed to go up to the 14th floor. “No cameras upstairs. All you need is your credentials to get you upstairs,” another U.S. marshal says. “And your belt for your pants.” Cell Phone Carl commiserates. “You’re herding cats. I appreciate your pain,” he says as he goes through security. “Oh! I forgot my belt.” Upstairs the wait continues, with more and more reporters arriving all the time, until there are 30 or 40 people in off-the-rack suits standing there, fidgeting, complaining. Cell Phone Carl sweats so profusely that he is dripping on me. “The NBA Finals were a breeze compared to this,” a local reporter says. “This is nuts.”

“I just did an interview from the bathroom,” announces a reporter from Indian Country News.

“Hey, Jim, it’s Carl.”

“The thing about all the people here is we don’t take no for an answer. We’ve heard it all before.”

We might not take no for an answer, we intrepid members of the political press corps, but we also spend a lot of time just standing and waiting. The best way to neutralize a political reporter is to make him stand in line, and today, at least, my colleagues and I will get no real reporting done. By the time I make it over to Quicken Loans Arena, and then to the Convention Center, it is about 3:45, just in time to witness a failed rebellion by an anti-Trump faction. Boarding the bus back to the arena, a community news reporter from Colorado accosts me. “Got any angles?” he asks, smiling. “I’m trying to find one.”

(Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Day Two

Welcome to Asshole Alley

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East Fourth Street is the main artery leading from Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland to the entrance of Quicken Loans Arena. Inside, the Trump campaign is dealing with the aftermath of Melania’s speech. But outside the street are thronged with delegates, reporters, hawkers, protesters, lunatics, gadflies, and yelling enthusiasts. There are people playing instruments, people in costumes, people who want to share their theories about how the world works or doesn’t work, people who want you to read or purchase their novelty T-shirts. I call it Asshole Alley.

Political conventions are chockablock with folks who are just dying to be interviewed, and Asshole Alley is where the needy come to connect with the needier: reporters and cameramen in search of easy color and sound bites for their segments and stories. When I amble over, it’s about 3:45 in the afternoon, and it feels like it’s 95 degrees outside. I’m wearing a red velour jacket, which seemed like a good idea this morning but now feels like I’m being smothered by bordello curtains. “How in God’s name are you wearing a velour jacket on a day like this?” asks a man in a plaid shirt and khaki shorts. I’m making it work, I tell him. “You sure are!” he says and shakes my hand with great vigor.

We are standing outside the entrance to the secure perimeter, next to a loud and confusing face-off between three aggressively apocalyptic Christians and three liberal activists. The Christians tote long poles with black placards that read: “God Will Bring You to Judgment,” “REPENT (Turn from your Sin to Jesus),” “NOW is the DAY OF SALVATION.” Their leader wears a microphone attached to a bullhorn, through which he belligerently and loudly riffs on Bible verses. The activists try their best to drown him out, getting in his face and shrieking, “L-O-V-E! L-O-V-E!” One of them veers off-script and screams “Put down your Bible, speak from the heart, brother!” A flag-toting guy in a Trump 2016 shirt tries to get into the action, mean-mugging the activists and yelling “Hillary be gone! Hillary be gone!” at them, as if performing an exorcism.

The guy who remarked on my blazer approaches with an offer: “Would you be willing to part with the jacket?” I decline. “I had to ask, I had to ask.”

I head up the street, where a man and a woman hold tombstone-shaped signs above their heads reading “MRI? DO NOT DYE. Gadoliniumtoxicity.com.” Sensing my interest, or at least my attention, the man hands me a card directing me toward the afore-placarded website for more information. “We are sorry you had to seek out information about Gadolinium Toxicity, but we are glad you found us,” the website reads. The feeling is mutual.

About 40 feet from the gadolinium couple stands Zoltan Istvan, 43, the presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party, who along with a colleague holds a large banner bearing a likeness of his face. Istvan is a likable former journalist who has made his way into politics and now agitprop. What is the Transhumanist Party? “It’s like the Science Party, but the word transhumanist is more funky.” The Christian doomsayers come marching down the street, and Istvan steps in front of them to briefly impede their progress. “I had to do it, I had to do it,” he grins. How does it feel to hold up a gigantic banner with his own face on it? “Very weird. When I first started this, I couldn’t do it. It felt pretentious. But I learned.”

Farther down, Pittsburgh man Eric Saferstein stands in a referee-style shirt holding a small sign reading “Roger Goodell Hates my Guts!!! Learn Why.” I ask him to elaborate. “I want the NFL to tell people that they do not evacuate their stadiums via cell-phone messages,” he clarifies, handing me a business card that directs me to the website of the Artificially Generated Stampede Awareness Foundation. He says that he came to the RNC because there are a lot of bigwigs here, many of whom, he claims, are already aware of this issue: “It’s not rocket science.” Was the referee shirt a conscious choice or a coincidence? Saferstein laughs. “My mom gave me this!”

Saferstein isn’t crazy. The denizens of Asshole Alley understand the inherently performative nature of a political convention—and this convention in particular—but lack the status to actually get inside. There’s a street or district like this at every convention, but here in Cleveland the difference between the assholes on the outside and the ones in the arena is very, very slim. After nearly two hours in the scrum, I feel exhausted from a deep cognitive dissonance. The convention is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: the concentration of the media implies that something newsworthy is happening. Without the media there’s no news, as a revolt by the Alaska delegation would demonstrate a few hours later when it threatened to derail the TV broadcast of the speaking schedule. I am part of the problem. I am also hungry.

I join a friend for a meal in the middle of East Fourth Street, where we start talking to Glenn Rose, a retiree from San Diego who came to Cleveland with his wife on vacation. He arrived at 3 p.m., now he’s drinking a Sapporo and enjoying the show. “Trump is a turd,” he announces. “We just came to see all the crazy people.”

(Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Day Three

Exclusives: Rattata at the RNC, Michael Steele Shakes His Booty

Banal interviews are the lifeblood of America’s political conventions. Reporters ask politicians and celebrities to opine on the news of the day and treat those responses like gold nuggets. On Wednesday afternoon, I headed over to Media Row to conduct an experiment: Could I get “newsmakers” to say something “newsworthy”?

Media Row is on the second floor of a parking garage adjacent to Quicken Loans Arena. To call it a “row” isn’t quite accurate. It’s more of a warren of AV setups, card tables, and banners touting the names of various radio and television networks and programs: CNN, PBS’s NewsHour, EWTN News Nightly, The Joe Pass Show (“talk radio doesn’t have to be boring”), Ox in the Afternoon on KNSI (featuring “Ox-clusive campaign coverage”). All day politicians and dignitaries cycle in and out, sitting for interviews, getting free coffee and scones from the Google free-coffee-and-scones kiosk. If you want to talk to someone important about something important—or to someone vaguely famous about something really stupid—this is where you come.

As soon as I arrive I spy Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee, getting up from an interview with some radio station. “Hey, Mr. Steele! Justin Peters from The Atavist Magazine. How do you think G.E. Smith is doing leading the band?”

“Leading the band?” says Steele. “Oh, the music has been kicking it. I love the music. The sound, the presentation of it, just some of the covers they’re doing. Just great, man. I’m loving it.”

We talk a bit about the music. “I think that a lot of delegates on the floor like it,” Steele says. “Someone joked to me: ‘There’s, like, no country music?’ You know, for a Republican convention, that’s a big deal.”

“There’s people who are dancing,” I say. “They were telling them to shake their booty last night, and people were complying.”

“And I want to let you know: I was shaking my booty,” Steele confers. This counts as a scoop.

Soon after Steele, I spy Ben Mankiewicz—best known to me as the guy who isn’t Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies—in glasses, stubble, swept-back longish hair, and rumpled suit. Mankiewicz is here with the talk show The Young Turks, but I don’t bother to ask him about that. Instead, I ask the question that the world wants to know: “What’s Robert Osborne like?”

“First of all, just what you’d think he’s like. Smart, and thoughtful, you know, meticulous. But we don’t see each other much, because we have the same schedule,” he says. “But let me tell you this: Everybody who works there—and they’ve been roughly the same people for twenty years at TCM—they revere him.”

There’s another television star in Media Row, too: Chris Soules, who starred in the 19th season of The Bachelor. Soules is young and tan and muscular and better dressed than almost everyone else here. I feel an immediate kinship with him, since I, too, was on a television program hosted by the dapper Chris Harrison (in addition to hosting The Bachelor, Harrison currently hosts Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, on which I appeared last year), and I, too, am better dressed than anyone else here. Soules is here to talk about ethanol, but instead I ask him something that only we television stars could understand: “What did you do with all the downtime on the show? There’s a lot of waiting in television. What did you guys do when you weren’t on camera?”

“Um, there wasn’t a lot of downtime, from the bachelor perspective,” he says. “But as a contestant you spend a lot of time just hanging out with the other contestants, and, you know, consuming alcoholic beverages and hanging out.” What’s his alcoholic beverage of choice backstage? “Um, you know, I’m a whiskey guy.” Yes, but what sort of whiskey? “I’m bourbon whiskey.” What’s his brand? “Bulleit.” That’s my brand, too! I erupt in cheers. We TV guys think alike.

There are loads of important-looking people around, but they move too fast for me to read their name tags. And most of them don’t even have name tags, which makes it even harder to tell who is and is not important. On the other end of the complex, next to the CNN free-coffee kiosk, I run into Ted Koppel, who doesn’t seem to have all that much to do, so I decide to ask him for some reporting advice. “I don’t know who anybody is,” I tell him. “Can you give me any tips?”

Koppel laughs. “I don’t know. I mean, the people I know, I suspect you would know, but they’re all over the age of 80.”

He laughs again, and I laugh, too, and try again with another question: “I’m not getting into any of the parties here. How do I do that? You’ve been to so many of these.”

“Well, that’s true,” Koppel acknowledges. “And all I can tell you is that after you’ve been to as many as I have… you’ll still be confused.”

I feel better. I devise a strategy for figuring out who people are. When I see someone being interviewed by someone else, I lurk in the background and listen to see if I can catch the interviewee’s name. Then I pounce. That’s how I snagged Sean Reyes, the attorney general of Utah, as he walked from one on-camera interview to another. Reyes is young, clad in a dark blue suit with a red tie. “Have you found any time to hang out with any other attorneys general while you’ve been here?”

“Yes, we actually have a booth with the Republican Attorneys General Association.” What do they talk about when they aren’t talking politics? “Pokémon. We just did a… I was teaching them all a little bit about Pokémon Go.” He pulls out his phone, on which the Pokémon Go app is already open, and points at a tiny avatar on the screen. “So right here, there’s a Rattata.” What is a Rattata? “It’s just a lower-level, annoying… rodent Pokémon. And I’m not doing well here trying to actually capture him.” Reyes is trying to maneuver the obnoxious rodent inside a floating red ball. He succeeds. What’s one thing he’d like the world to know about Pokémon Go? “Uh… fun, but be safe.”

Next, I wait ten minutes to ask former senator and frequent presidential candidate Rick Santorum a hard question: “Senator Santorum! What foodstuff from Pennsylvania doesn’t get enough attention?” I yell from behind him as he strides through the hallway, surrounded by a protective entourage. I get no answer. “Senator, answer the question!” I scream.

Right after that, I spy Kansas governor Sam Brownback finishing an interview with a television station. As the broadcast reporter concludes, I accost Brownback. “I’m with The Atavist Magazine. We’re a longform website,” I tell him. “What’s one perk about being governor that most people don’t know about that you think is sort of neat?” Brownback pauses for five confused seconds. “That’s… I don’t… I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked that question.” he says. “One perk that is…” His train of thought is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a smiling Rick Santorum, who bounds over to shake Brownback’s hand. “Ricky!” Brownback says as Santorum’s body man pushes his way between the governor and me, possibly to stop me from asking Santorum more questions about food. The two men talk for a minute or two, then they both walk away. And now the world will never know what Sam Brownback thinks is neat about being governor.

After three hours of asking the kinds of questions that other correspondents seem unwilling to ask, I finally understand just how hard it is to get anyone here at the RNC to say anything, let alone anything of substance. As I’m running out of steam, I spy Dan Rather, who doesn’t really have time to talk to me, but who is nevertheless gracious when I thrust my microphone in his face: “Dan Rather, I have one question. There’s a lot of kids out there who don’t have much self-esteem. What would you say to kids out there who don’t believe in themselves?”

Rather grabs my arm and responds very earnestly: “Believe. You gotta believe in yourself. I know sometimes it’s hard, and you can fall into a downward spiral of lack of self-esteem.” I think here about Rather’s own downward spiral, precipitated by his erroneous reporting in 2004 about George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, and I realize he knows of what he speaks. “But, you know: Believe. Have confidence. Dream. Put a polar star, a navigational star out, and go for it.”

I decide to take Rather’s advice and ask him the hard-to-verbalize question that is really the only one that matters at this convention. “One more question: How did this happen?”

A long pause. “You mean Trump?”

Yeah. Trump. How did Trump happen?

A shorter pause. “Well, one, it happened because he’s smart, he’s shrewd, he’s cunning, and he understands the power of the new digital era, particularly social media.” A beat. “Take care of yourself.”

(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Day Four

The Most Luxurious President in History

As a novice politician, Donald J. Trump has used the past year of his campaign to distill the essence of his political brand, which currently hovers somewhere around belligerent ignorance and hateful nationalism. His acceptance speech on Thursday night of the Republican National Convention oscillated between dark references to the security threats posed by murderous illegals and blustery assurances that he alone was equipped to fix these problems. But, in business, the Trump brand has always been synonymous with luxury.

Few things are more important to Trump than reminding the world that he is very, very, very rich. “I’m proud of my net worth,” he said when he announced his candidacy for president last June. “I’ve done an amazing job.” His new golf course in Scotland is “the greatest in the world.” His real estate “redefines what is meant by luxury living, built to be the absolute best in the world.” If he could dip himself in gold and live to brag about it, he would.

What would it mean to have a Luxurist-in-Chief in the White House? How would a President Trump class up the joint? Were his surrogates excited to be nominating a man whose main qualification to hold the nation’s highest office is that he already owns a jet? On Thursday afternoon, I headed over to Media Row to find out.  

I immediately spotted the comedian Joe Piscopo, deeply tanned and dressed in a smart dark suit with a stripey red tie. Piscopo, who is currently hosting an eponymous daily radio show, looked like the picture of success. I asked the Johnny Dangerously star, “Do you think Trump will be the most luxurious president in American history?”

“You know, it’s a great question,” Piscopo said with a broad smile. “We’ll see a little bit of the Kennedy-esque kind of fashion, yes.”

“The Kennedy-esque fashion, like Make America…,” I asked.

“Fashionable Again,” Piscopo said.

“For once!”

Piscopo started laughing. “It’s true. Everything will change. The whole tenor will change if and when he gets in.”

Anything else?

“We want everybody to go on the radio, every morning, 6 to 9 East Coast time, AM 970 The Answer and joepiscopo.com. Come see me!”

Rick Scott was doing the radio rounds on Media Row when I intercepted him. The Florida governor, who lives in a mansion that was designed by the same architect who designed Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, was looking sharp with a shaved head and a classic dark suit. “The Trump name is the ultimate luxury brand,” I told the governor, who is himself a man of means (according to his most recent financial filings, Scott is worth over $119 million). “Do you think he can rebuild America back into the ultimate luxury brand?”

There is a serious point at the heart of this deeply stupid question. In Trump’s lexicon, “greatness” seems to mean “overawing suckers with ostentatious displays of wealth and extravagance.” “Great” equals “classy” to Trump, and his evident disinterest in things like policy and details makes it reasonable to wonder whether making America great again just means putting a coat of wax on it.

Rick Scott, unlike the candidate he’s supporting, is disciplined and sticks to his talking points. “I think he’s going to make America great again,” said Scott. “And I think he’s going to get our country back to work. That’s the most important thing we can do. America’s a great country, but this election is about the very survival of the American dream, and he’s going to focus on that dream for every American.” Scott’s non-answer reminded me of Trump’s negotiation style, a steamroller of entitled obliviousness, ignoring and flattening everything it neither recognizes nor understands.

Speaking of obliviousness, I spotted hobbyist-exorcist and former brain surgeon Ben Carson looking serene as his handlers hurried him out of Media Row. “Dr. Carson! Do you think Mr. Trump will be the most luxurious president in American history?” Carson started chuckling. “No more questions. We’re done,” his aide announced as they walked on. “Do you think he’s the most stylish?” I pressed. Carson kept laughing. “Hey! No more questions!” his aide announced as he hustled Carson away.

Katie Couric was taking pictures with fans when I approached her to ask about the style of the campaign.

“Like, who wore it better?” she asked.

“Exactly. Is Donald Trump too tacky to become president?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Couric said. “I think he dresses pretty well.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty basic, isn’t it? Red ties, blue suit.”

“Under President Trump, will the White House become the Gold House?”

“I—I don’t—I don’t think so.”

Unlike Dr. Ben Carson, Matt Bevin, the very charismatic young governor of Kentucky, had time for everyone Thursday afternoon. He was posing for photographs when I grabbed him to ask his thoughts on Trump’s appeal: “Mr. Trump is obviously a man who believes in luxury, and living well. Do you think that’s a message that has resonated with the American people?”

“Look at how he’s raised his children,” said Bevin, who managed his family’s bell-manufacturing company before entering politics. (I can only assume that Bevin bells are used by plutocrats the world over to summon their butlers.) “As his son said the other night, he’s as comfortable driving a Caterpillar tractor as he would be riding in the back of a fine luxury car. I mean, he has raised his family to work—work with their hands and their minds—and frankly is not nearly what people perceive him to be. What they perceive him to be and what he has perpetrated in some measure is sort of a persona. It’s like a brand, used very intentionally and very effectively, to draw attention to his business.”

“Can we at least agree that he’s mildly more stylish than Hillary Clinton?”

“I think that would be a fair, uh, statement to make, yes, I do,” Bevin said, laughing. “I think we could very much agree on that.”

Bevin’s observation that Trump’s public persona is an act seemed inadvertently honest. But was it even possible to separate the image and reality of a man who lives his life in a constant trailing spotlight—the highest-wattage and classiest spotlight that is sold at the spotlight store? What, if anything, remains when that light fades out?

The legendary journalist Carl Bernstein was posing for photographs with young staffers born long after he and Bob Woodward uncovered the Watergate scandal that helped bring down the Nixon administration. If anyone here was equipped to opine on the implications of Bevin’s point, it was he. I stopped him on his way to the coffee line.

“I’ve just got one question,” I said. “If they turn off the cameras and the lights, does Donald Trump cease to exist?”

“No.” Bernstein said, in a slightly annoyed tone. “He’s the nominee of the Republican party.”

That he is, and on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena, the party was his, and the conventioneers got a true and accurate look at the man whom they had nominated: a man who lives by the motto “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

To introduce Trump, the speakers touted his success in business, his famous and classy buildings, his long stint firing people on television. A series of videos, whose theme seemed to be “A Tribute to Trump Tower”—blared into the arena. “Everything my father does is first class,” Donald Jr. said, bragging about how the Trump brand has risen “to global excellence, dominating the world of luxury hotels, dominating the world of golf, and now the world of politics.”

In preceding evenings, the Quicken Loans Arena had not seemed particularly luxurious—the hallways smelled like sweat and old popcorn; the toilet paper was single-ply. But in preparation for his appearance, the Q got a Trumpian face-lift. The stage was refashioned as a giant hotel lobby, with ersatz gold stanchions framing the word TRUMP rendered in 45,000-point font, and a jet-black speakers’ podium that evoked the check-in counter at a high-class Hyatt. The Trump family box, which looked like the sort of place where Tony Soprano would sit if he were elected emperor, was also done up in black with gold accents, with five ostentatious gold stars as if to show that the candidate had been given the Mobil Travel Guide’s highest rating. About an hour before the convention began, half a dozen staffers busied themselves furiously polishing the box’s black-marble-looking railings so that its inhabitants would be able to see themselves in the shine.

After spending a dizzying week in Cleveland watching the Trump phenomenon up close, I came away certain of one thing: When Donald Trump says that he sees America returning to greatness, he is just admiring his own reflection. When others see themselves in his image, they have been fooled by a trick of the light. For the Luxurist-in-Chief, the United States is just another vanity project, a plot of real estate to be razed and rebuilt and marketed to those who can afford it, and lusted after by those who cannot. It is just another set piece in the self-promotional video that plays on infinite loop in the gilded hallways of his mind.

(Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)


Codename: Chilbom

On a fall morning in 1976, a bomb exploded in the middle of Washington. The shock waves were felt for the next 30 years.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 59


Zach Dorfman is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council, where he was previously senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council’s quarterly journal. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles TimesNational Interest, The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe AwlDissent, and American Interest.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Muna Mire

Published in July 2016. Design updated in 2021.

Shortly after 9:30 on the morning of September 21, 1976, a light blue Chevy Chevelle carrying three passengers moved along Washington, D.C.’s Embassy Row, merging into the flow of commuter traffic around Sheridan Circle. The man in the driver’s seat was Orlando Letelier, an economist and fellow at a left-leaning think tank, the Institute of Policy Studies. In the passenger’s seat beside him was 25-year-old Ronni Moffitt, a fundraiser at IPS, and behind her was her husband of four months, Michael Moffitt, also 25, a researcher working with Letelier on issues related to the future of Letelier’s native Chile.

It was a small miracle that Letelier was there in Washington that morning, working at IPS, commuting from the house he shared in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and four sons. Six years earlier, he had been a close confidante to Salvador Allende, the democratic socialist elected president of Chile in September 1970. For two years, Letelier served as Allende’s ambassador to the United States. In May 1973, he became foreign minister, and three months later, as right-wing resistance to Allende was intensifying, he was appointed defense minister, in charge of a military establishment openly hostile to the president.

On September 11, 1973, that hostility erupted into a deadly coup led by military leader General Augusto Pinochet. Allende’s three years in office had been marked by intense social instability, fomented in part by the United States, which since 1962 had been covertly financing newspapers, political parties, and, eventually, neo-fascist paramilitary groups as part of its covert war against leftist political movements in Latin America. That morning tanks surrounded Moneda Palace, the seat of Chile’s presidency. Just before noon, the Chilean air force began strafing the building. A firefight ensued between military forces and pro-Allende snipers positioned around the palace. Rather than be taken prisoner or forced into exile, Allende, holed up in La Moneda, took his own life.

Over the next few months, more than 1,200 people—leftist politicians and government officials, union leaders, activists, and students—were summarily executed. Many were arrested, brought to detention centers, and then murdered, their bodies flung across Santiago thoroughfares and dumped along urban riverbanks. On the morning of the coup, Letelier rushed to the Defense Ministry to try to restore order. In an interview published posthumously in Playboy in 1977, Letelier said that the moment he entered the ministry, he “felt a gun in my back” and was quickly “surrounded by ten or twelve men,” all pointing their weapons at him. He was taken into military custody. That night, from his holding room, Letelier watched nearly two dozen executions in the palace courtyard. At 5 a.m., he heard a commotion outside his room. “Now it’s the turn of the minister,” one soldier said. About 30 minutes later, a group of armed men entered his room, one carrying a blindfold. Letelier knew immediately what was coming. While he was being led to the courtyard, however, an argument ensued between two officers over who was in charge. Letelier remembered one of his captors saying, “You’re lucky. They won’t give it to you, you bastard.”

Instead he was flown with other prominent political prisoners to a detention center on Dawson Island, a frigid, forlorn place in the Strait of Magellan, closer to the tip of Antarctica than to Santiago. Letelier was beaten, threatened with execution, and forced to perform hard labor in subzero conditions. He remembered Dawson as “an inaccessible, frozen hell.”

After three months there, Letelier, malnourished and greatly weakened, weighed only 125 pounds. Another six months went by before he was transferred to a less punitive facility north of Santiago. A year after the coup, he was suddenly released from military custody and sent to Venezuela, where the powerful governor of Caracas had been lobbying for his release. He rejoined his family there and was offered the research position at IPS, which was hostile to the junta and critical of U.S. intervention in Latin America.

When the bomb went off in Sheridan Circle, Orlando Letelier’s Chevelle was lifted entirely off the ground, flames roaring from its windows. An explosive consisting primarily of C-4 had been attached to the car’s I-beam, directly beneath the driver’s seat. The flaming vehicle crashed into a Volkswagen in front of the Romanian embassy.

Michael Moffitt regained consciousness in the back seat, overcome by heat and the stench of burning hair and flesh. His shoes were blown off his feet; at first he had no feeling below the waist. Gasping for air, Moffitt pulled himself through a shattered window and saw his wife standing with her back to him. He moved to the driver’s side to check on Letelier.

Moffitt found Letelier facing backward and wedged between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat. The bottom of the car had been blown out, and Letelier had been rotated 180 degrees, folded over like a piece of origami. When Moffitt tried to lift Letelier out of the car, he saw that his body was completely severed at the torso. Letelier would die within minutes.

Because Ronni’s back was turned to him, Moffitt hadn’t seen that his wife was clutching her throat as she stumbled away from the car. Nor did he realize that her face was badly burned and that a piece of shrapnel the size of a thumbnail had pierced her carotid artery. He looked away from Letelier, who Moffitt realized was hopeless, and watched his wife fall to the ground, blood gushing from her mouth.

Within minutes of the explosion, Sheridan Circle was swarming with hundreds of law enforcement personnel from several agencies—local D.C. police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the FBI; the Secret Service; and the Executive Protection Services (responsible for safeguarding members of the foreign service) were all present. When FBI special agent L. Carter Cornick Jr. had arrived, about ten minutes after the bombing, his first thought upon surveying the crime scene was that it was a “nightmare.” Cornick didn’t know if the FBI had jurisdiction, but he began to work as if it did. He saw the remains of a man being loaded into an ambulance; a woman lying on the side of the road, an emergency worker attempting to revive her, to no avail; and a crazed man, covered in burns, “deafened and incoherent,” screaming about an organization called DINA.

It was still morning rush hour, and cars were backed up for miles. When another official tried to reopen part of the circle to vehicles, Cornick ordered them to cease immediately. “I said, ‘No! I don’t care what you do with traffic,’” he recalled. “‘The crime scene is here once.’” To make matters worse, rain had begun to fall, washing away particulate matter that Cornick knew would be crucial to the investigation. (Human detritus was eventually recovered from the roofs of nearby embassies, some 40 feet off the ground.)

As the FBI’s explosives unit fanned out across the area, Cornick learned that the bureau had been given jurisdiction over the case and that he would be running the show.

I met with Cornick last summer at his home in suburban Virginia. At 75, dressed in khakis and a crisp blue dress shirt, he’s still trim and youthful looking, an easygoing, natural-born raconteur.

A former marine, Cornick worked counterterrorism for the FBI for over twenty years. In the early 1970s, he helped solve armed robbery cases in Puerto Rico, then later investigated the 1983 American embassy bombing in Beirut that killed 63.

“Bombing investigations are inherently difficult to solve,” Cornick said, “because evidence is destroyed as well as people.” For 12 years, until his retirement in 1988, he led the FBI’s investigation into the Letelier bombing.

The only reason the FBI had any claim on the case at all was due to a law called the Protection of Foreign Officials Statute, which had only been written in 1972. And the foreign-ambassadors clause of the law, which gave the bureau the authority to investigate crimes committed against current or former diplomats, was only added at the suggestion of a junior State Department attorney. That Cornick would work the case was dependent on this minute legal detail.

Larger forces were also at play. During Watergate, the FBI—which investigated the break-in and eventually identified members of the Nixon administration and re-election campaign as culpable—was under tremendous political pressure. L. Patrick Gray, the FBI’s acting director, helped the Nixon administration delay the investigation in 1972, and so legitimate concerns about the independence of the bureau led to the creation of the major crimes unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. For the first time, and much to the chagrin of agents in the bureau, U.S. attorneys would work investigations with their colleagues from the FBI instead of merely prosecuting them. Watergate was handled this way, and the Letelier bombing was the second case to fall under the unit’s authority.

Early on the morning after the bombing, the FBI’s special agent in charge, Nick Stames, called Cornick into his office and told him he’d be working the case with the Justice Department.

“No, I’m not,” Cornick recalled saying. “I have no intention of working with the Justice Department. I don’t want some assistant U.S. attorney telling me how to run a case.”

The man who would become his partner was equally unenthusiastic. When assistant U.S. attorney Eugene Propper heard about the Letelier killing, his first thought was that it would become an albatross hanging around some poor prosecutor’s neck. “I remember sitting at lunch with a very good friend of mine, who was also an assistant U.S. attorney, saying, ‘I wonder who’s going to get that case,’” Propper told me when we talked last summer. “‘That’s not going to be any fun.’ And when the U.S. attorney spoke to me about it, he said, ‘Look, we’ve never had a case like this. We may never solve it no matter what you do. Give it your best shot.’”

Propper, who went on to coauthor a book about the killing, Labyrinth, in 1982, was only 29 when he was assigned to the most high-profile investigation in the country. Today he expresses shock at some of his own actions nearly 40 years ago. In his pursuit of the case, he even agreed to be led blindfolded to a meeting with a prominent anti-Castro militant in Miami. “I wonder what sort of insanity caused me to do that,” he said. But then he recalled that the militant told him, “If we wanted you dead, we wouldn’t have to blindfold you.”

Propper and Cornick met for the first time in Propper’s cramped office the morning after the bombing. They were an incongruous duo: Cornick clean-cut and clean-shaven, genteel, and deeply southern; Propper an outspoken, bearded, motorcycle rider from Long Island. For the next three years, the two men would work together on the case the bureau codenamed Chilbom.

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Rescue crews and investigators at the site of the bombing, September 21, 1976. (Photo: Associated Press) 

Within two days of the bombing, an informant named Ricardo Morales told the FBI that he knew who was responsible for the killings. It was two Cuban brothers, he said—Guillermo and Ignacio Novo—living in Union City, New Jersey. Both were well-known anti-Castro militants, and both believed themselves to be—and were anxious to be considered—part of a much larger fight against communism that extended through all of Latin America and, indeed, in their minds, across the globe. When asked where his information came from, Morales, a high-ranking member of Venezuela’s intelligence services, said that he learned about the Novos from Dr. Orlando Bosch, an infamous anti-Castro terrorist, federal fugitive, and trained pediatrician also living in Venezuela. Morales, himself a committed anti-Castro militant, was a profoundly shrewd operator, at various times informing for the CIA, FBI, DEA, and Miami Police Department, all the while working for the Venezuelan intelligence agency, known as DISIP.

This arrangement was less unusual than it may seem. By the late 1960s, DISIP was populated by a number of high-profile anti-Castro Cubans. To this day there are lingering questions as to why the Venezuelan intelligence service would absorb so many foreigners into its ranks, given the obvious sensitivities of the job. It may have something to do with what American officials referred to in the early 1960s as the “disposal problem”—that is, what to do with Cuban militants who’d been trained by America to take on Castro and, now living in exile in America, were waging that fight on U.S. soil, in operations the U.S. government didn’t sanction and couldn’t control. As far back as the Kennedy administration, officials knew they had created something of a monster: thousands of highly committed anti-Castro foot soldiers willing to wage war across the hemisphere in the effort to defeat communism.

Such men were useful to the CIA, if they could be managed. But they often proved unwilling to abide by agency strictures. When I started discussing Morales’s and Bosch’s roles in the case with Cornick, he gave me a quizzical look, then asked, “Do you know how the Cubans got to Venezuela?” When I said no, he erupted, “The agency put them down there!” Cornick claims that the CIA placed Cubans “recruited by the agency to fight the good war against Castro” into Venezuelan intelligence. (I later asked retired CIA agent Jack Devine, who helped run covert operations in Latin America for over two decades and was stationed in Chile from 1971 to 1974, about Cornick’s claim. “He’s full of shit,” Devine responded. “Go show me. Prove it.” This was the only instance during our interview where Devine, who was otherwise guarded and deft in his responses, flashed a hint of pique.)

Given the thick web of relationships, some of which were still operational in 1976, between the Cubans in DISIP and the CIA (not to mention the vested interest the agency has to this day in not disclosing these ties), it’s hard not to consider Cornick’s assertion credible.

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Guillermo Novo, November 1975. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

These Cubans in Venezuela were linked to the Novo brothers—the men who Ricardo Morales told the FBI were responsible for the killings—through an umbrella group called the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations. Cuban militants were notoriously splintered, and CORU—formed at a meeting in the Dominican Republic in June 1976, three months before the Letelier bombing—was an attempt to bring together the major exile groups and to coordinate future targets, there to put aside their differences and focus on shared enemies and goals.

There were a number of anti-Castro groups in attendance, among them the radical Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM), represented at the meeting by Guillermo Novo and another of the group’s leaders, Jose Suarez, whose reputation for ruthlessness (his nickname was Charco de Sangre—“Puddle of Blood”) was widely known. Orlando Bosch, the source whose information regarding the Novo brothers had been passed on to the FBI, was also there. According to a declassified FBI telegram from late September 1976, Bosch had an agreement with the Venezuelan government: As long as he refrained from planning and committing terrorist attacks inside Venezuela, he would be allowed to raise money for anti-Castro activities (an agreement he violated four months after the meeting, in October 1976, when he and another Cuban in Venezuela, Luis Posada, conspired to bomb a Cubana Airlines plane, killing 73, including Cuba’s national fencing team).

At the time of the CORU meeting, Guillermo and Ignacio Novo were famous, or infamous, among the exile groups for their botched attack on the United Nations headquarters in December 1964. Using a bazooka, they launched a rocket across the East River, hoping to strike the General Assembly during a speech being given by Che Guevara. The Novos misfired, the missile fell into the river, and nearly two weeks later they were apprehended for the attack—only to be released in June 1965 because they were never properly processed by the NYPD. Farcical as the operation might have been, it foreshadowed a stunning wave of violence, all in the name of anti-Castro militancy, that would be carried out within the borders of the country most committed to stopping the spread of communism.

Between 1974 and 1976, there were over 200 bombings in the Miami area alone, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the local FBI office, the Dade County Police Department, and the airport. Five Cuban exiles were assassinated during this time.

For his part, after the botched UN attack, Guillermo Novo orchestrated a scheme to blow up a Cuban ship anchored in Montreal and to attack the Cuba booth at the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967. A trained chemist, Novo worked as a lab supervisor in a chemical company in New Jersey. In 1968, when he was expelled from the American Chemists Association after being convicted of possession of explosives, he turned to selling cars, at least during the day.

Jose Suarez, the Novos’ partner in the Cuban National Movement, also led a double life selling cars in New Jersey. Suarez was a colonel in Castro’s army before defecting to the United States in October 1960 and receiving training by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to an FBI informant at the CORU meeting, it was Suarez who told attendees that the CNM needed to “perform one more contract” for the Chilean government before they could cease operations in the U.S.

When Carter Cornick arrived at the bomb scene in Sheridan Square and heard Michael Moffitt screaming about DINA, the name meant nothing to him. But it meant a lot to Letelier’s family and colleagues at IPS, whom Cornick visited the evening of the bombing. They told Cornick they were convinced that the government of Chile, all the way up to President Augusto Pinochet, was complicit in the crime. And they all believed that DINA, short for the Directorate of National Intelligence, was the prime culprit.

DINA was Chile’s combined foreign intelligence agency and domestic secret police. In the years after the coup, DINA agents were responsible for hundreds of summary executions and nocturnal disappearances (in which, after the disappeared were murdered, their bodies were often loaded onto airplanes, their stomachs slit open to prevent floatation, and dumped into the sea). From late 1973 to 1977, DINA was led by Pinochet’s right-hand man, Manuel Contreras, who also served as a CIA informant during those years against leftist sympathizers in Chile. The CIA’s friendliness toward the Pinochet regime, and DINA in particular, manifested itself in other ways. A State Department official named Bob Steven, who was based in Santiago in the mid-seventies, said in an interview in 2001 that the CIA possessed what “amounted to a veto” over the State Department’s reporting on the country’s human rights abuses, making it nearly impossible for State Department officials in Santiago to transmit information back to D.C. about the regime’s use of torture or extrajudicial murder.

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Orlando Letelier, Washington, D.C., 1976. (Photo: Museum of Memory and Human Rights)

As a former high-ranking member of the Allende government, Orlando Letelier still had important connections in Washington, through which he lobbied forcefully against the Pinochet regime. He was particularly close to prominent Senate liberals Ted Kennedy and George McGovern and congressmen Tom Harkin and George Miller. He spoke at the UN about mass torture being perpetrated by the regime and helped convince the Dutch government to cancel a $63 million investment in Chile’s mining industry. As Letelier’s stature rose, Pinochet and Contreras feared that he was becoming the unofficial leader of the opposition and that he would begin to form a government in exile.

That a military government with a history of murdering its enemies would seek to obliterate one of its most prominent critics should not have been shocking. But the Letelier killing was followed by a surprising suspension of disbelief in Washington. Many refused to consider that a foreign government would be so brazen as to commit a spectacular assassination a mere 100 yards from the Chilean ambassador’s residence. It is hard to imagine a less covert way of eliminating one’s adversaries.

The CIA quickly made clear that it was disinclined to view Chile as a suspect. Jack Devine, the retired CIA agent who was based in Chile from ’71 to ‘74, described the Letelier killing to me as one of those situations “where conventional wisdom and rationality sometimes gets in the way of intelligence.” The assassination was seen as so “outlandish,” he said, that the idea that the Chileans—our allies, after all—could have committed it was “almost incomprehensible.” Devine said that his view was shared by almost everyone he worked with in intelligence at the time. A declassified National Security Council memorandum, written the day of the killing, speculated that, “in view of Letelier’s role in the Allende government, right wing Chileans are the obvious candidates. But they seem to be too obvious, and we think that they would think twice about creating a martyr for the Chilean Left.”

The germ of an unlikely idea began to grow, nurtured by the ascendant conservative politics of the time: that Letelier was murdered by one of his own in an effort to discredit the Chilean regime. The day after the killing, the New York Times editorial board floated this possibility. Prominent right-wing intellectuals and politicians such as William F. Buckley, Jesse Helms, and Ronald Reagan, who hosted his own radio show at the time, all ran with the idea. Some even suggested that Letelier was a secret Soviet or Cuban agent.

In such a charged environment, federal investigators felt the political ramifications of the case acutely. They were attacked by liberals for not assuming the culpability of the Chilean government; they were attacked by conservatives for trying to demonize a steadfast ally in America’s war on communism.

“When we looked at the Chileans,” Propper told me, “we looked at the Pinochet government, which really came into effect because the CIA helped get rid of Allende. I met with people at the CIA who said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You can’t be pulling that shit up again.’”

The State Department was also not enthused about the investigation. The prevailing stance at Foggy Bottom was one of passive, even hostile, noncooperation. According to Bob Steven, who returned to D.C. in 1977 to oversee the Chile desk, “The basic attitude was that we had approved the coup, that our interests were best served by a military regime, and that it was not in the U.S. interest to see the situation become inflamed or otherwise rattle the cage.” Nonetheless, Steven began to pursue the case vigorously and was censured by the assistant secretary through an intermediary. “He called me in and said, ‘Bob, we really think that we should let Justice take the lead in this.’ The signal was very, very clear: Lay off.”

“The CIA helped get rid of Allende. I met with people at the CIA who said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You can’t be pulling that shit up again.’”

Under this intense glare, Cornick and Propper turned their attention to anyone other than the Chilean government who might have a motive for the killing. “Everyone kept telling us, ‘DINA did it, DINA did it, DINA did it.’ Well,” said Cornick, “that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee in a courtroom.” Letelier had a reputation as a lothario, for instance (it was widely known that he was having a relationship with a well-connected Venezuelan woman); maybe he was killed by a jealous spouse. Another theory had it that perhaps he was involved with Ronni Moffitt, and so Michael had arranged for the murder. As Propper recalled, “The FBI felt quite strongly that they’d look like idiots if they investigated all this other stuff”—meaning leads that went back to the Chilean government—“and it turned out to be that his wife wanted him dead because he had an affair.”

These theories quickly proved baseless, while the chatter about the role of the Cuban Nationalist Movement was unceasing. Cuban diplomats at the United Nations, whom Propper met with in late 1977, claimed that Cuban intelligence had identified the CNM as the authors of the bombing. There was the talk from Orlando Bosch in Venezuela about the role of the Novo brothers. There was evidence that Bosch, Guillermo Novo, and Suarez had traveled together to Venezuela in December 1974, on their way to Chile to establish a relationship with the Pinochet government. There were also tantalizing reports from FBI agents working informants in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, as well as in Union City, of Guillermo Novo meeting with a mysterious tall, blond Chilean, a colonel in the Chilean intelligence services, just prior to the bombing.

In mid-October 1976, Propper brought Guillermo and Ignacio Novo before a grand jury. The Novo brothers denied knowledge of the killing. But Propper and Cornick became increasingly suspicious that if the Novos hadn’t killed Letelier themselves, they knew who ordered the assassination. So Propper tried to arrange a trip to Venezuela, in order to get Bosch’s official testimony about the Novos’ involvement and to procure hard evidence that Guillermo had traveled through the country. To Propper’s increasing frustration, though, Venezuelan officials, who now had Bosch in custody, stonewalled him for months, refusing to permit him to meet with Bosch.

Finally, in March 1977, after exhausting legal negotiations with the Venezuelans, Propper was granted permission to travel secretly to Caracas, but he was still denied a meeting with Bosch. He spoke with a DISIP official who said he had personally met Novo and Suarez, who were with Bosch in Caracas in 1974. Back in the U.S., Propper, now surer than ever that Novo and Suarez were key to the case, now called Suarez to testify at the grand jury. Suarez refused to cooperate and was jailed for contempt. He would remain in prison for nearly a year, until late March 1978—the longest possible jail time for the violation.

Propper and Cornick also began to close in on Guillermo Novo. Armed with proof that Novo left the U.S. illegally—his parole agreement from the attempted bombing in Montreal in 1967 forbade him from traveling outside the country—Propper arranged for a hearing on Novo’s parole violation in late June 1977. When the day came, Novo failed to appear, becoming a fugitive. It was a disastrous development for Propper, who’d finally caught Novo in a bind and planned to use Novo’s precarious legal situation to pressure him into talking. Now the man had disappeared entirely.

But other members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement did start talking—even bragging—to their associates about their exploits. Ricardo Canete was a small-time criminal in Union City with ties to the CNM. In the spring of 1977, Canete was caught counterfeiting U.S. currency and admitted that he had also provided false IDs to CNM members after the Letelier bombing. Canete, pressured into informing for the FBI, relayed conversations he’d had with two CNM members—a man named Alvin Ross, who told Canete he’d helped build the bomb that killed Letelier, and another named Virgilio Paz, who admitted that he’d taken part in the killing.

Canete feared for his safety. By sharing their exploits with him, Ross and Paz had purposefully brought him into the conspiracy. He could no longer claim that he merely provided these men with false documents; he was now an accessory after the fact to a double murder. One evening in March 1978, concerned that Canete would testify to a grand jury, Paz and Ross blindfolded him and drove to a windowless safe house. They took him to a room whose walls were lined with machine guns and threatened him and his family.

Of all the CNM members involved in the killing, Ross was the oldest. Paz, who was only 24 when the assassination took place, was almost two decades younger. But the two men had much in common. Paz, who was 15 when he fled Cuba in 1966, blamed Castro for the death of his father, a former officer in the Cuban military expelled after the revolution. Paz traveled with his family to Mexico City, en route to defecting to the United States. While in transit, Paz’s father contracted pneumonia and died. Settling in Union City—home to the second-largest Cuban population in the United States—Paz became involved with the CNM at a very young age. He was selected as the leader of its youth section, and was the director of its newsletter, El Joven Nationalista (The Young Nationalist).

Ross was a veteran and victim of America’s secret war against the Castro regime. Born to a British father and a Cuban mother, he fled the country soon after Castro’s final victory on New Year’s Day 1959. Like Jose Suarez and Luis Posada, he was recruited by the CIA to fight in the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. Indeed, like Posada, he was brought to Guatemala by the CIA and trained as an infantry captain in anticipation of the invasion. (He claimed to the FBI that in Guatemala someone from the U.S. embassy gave him a phosphorus weapon disguised as a pack of cigarettes.) Ross was taken captive during the botched invasion of April 1961, and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

Paz and Ross detested Letelier for his socialist political leanings, but their eagerness to take part in the assassination went beyond their desire to rid the world of one more leftist.

According to Cornick, the CNM “wanted recognition by the Chilean government. That was the important thing in becoming a legitimate force in exile. That’s what they wanted. And the Chileans agreed to provide training. So there was a quid pro quo in there.” The hope was that cooperation with the Pinochet government, which was seen as a beacon of anticommunism and a regional leader, would catapult the CNM to preeminence among the Cuban exile community.

For Cornick and Propper, though, proving that the CNM was working directly with the Chilean government—connecting the dots between the men in Union City and DINA—was an ongoing exercise in frustration.

They did have one possible if puzzling lead, concerning two DINA agents entering the country in late August 1976, about a month before the Letelier assassination. Despite its general reluctance to get involved in the investigation, the State Department handed over to Propper and Cornick photographs and background information on the DINA agents—Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral—who’d entered the U.S. through Miami with official Chilean passports.

The memo from the State Department recounted a bizarre diplomatic incident in Paraguay a month earlier: At the request of DINA head Manuel Contreras, two Chilean men using those same names—Williams and Romeral—had also applied for visas to the United States. As part of their cover, “Williams” and “Romeral” were going to travel to the U.S. as Paraguayan nationals. When a Paraguayan official informed the American ambassador, George Landau, about Contreras’s request, Landau grew suspicious. Why would intelligence agents from Chile, a friendly government, need to travel to the U.S. with false Paraguayan passports? It was well known that spies from friendly regimes used false names when they traveled, but not under the aegis of another government. Notifying the CIA and State Department, the ambassador rescinded the visas for Romeral and Williams, but not before copying the photographs of both men from their passports.

Then, prior to Williams and Romeral entering the U.S. with Chilean passports in August, the Chilean government informed U.S. officials, including the CIA, that the two men were planning to visit the country. This was not exactly an advisable strategy to carry out an assassination, thought Cornick. If DINA was planning on using these men to kill Letelier, why would they alert the U.S. government to their presence on American soil after they’d already botched an attempt to shroud their trip in secrecy?

Cornick checked immigration records and found no mention of Romeral or Williams passing through customs. For months it remained a dead end, until July 1977, when FBI agents showed the passport pictures to Ricardo Canete, the counterfeiter turned informant, and a jailed Cuban militant named Rolando Otero. In front of Cornick, Otero identified Williams as a Chilean colonel he met in February 1976. Separately, Canete identified Williams as the blond Chilean colonel he had seen meeting with Guillermo Novo shortly before the assassination.

Propper and Cornick now knew that Williams had been in the country. They knew that he was a colonel in the Chilean intelligence services. And they had a witness placing him with Guillermo Novo right before Letelier was killed.

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Wanted poster for Virgilio Paz, 1978.

What they still didn’t have, though, was hard evidence that either man had entered the United States. So Cornick revisited the INS office in December 1977, this time with a team of FBI agents, scouring the facilities until they found documents showing that Romeral and Williams had indeed entered the country in August 1976. The problem now was that the documents also showed that both men exited the country on September 2, 1976, long before the assassination. If Williams left the U.S. then, how could he have met with Novo around the time of the killing?

Whatever the truth was about who these men were, and whether they were the same men in the strange Paraguay incident, Propper wanted to question “Williams” and “Romeral.” There was, however, the small matter of inducing the Chilean government to produce two primary suspects—covert operatives in that country’s intelligence agency—in a high-profile assassination. In February 1978, Propper sent a formal request to the Chilean government, imploring Chilean authorities to bring Romeral and Williams in for questioning regarding the Letelier bombing.

A month after Propper’s official request, the photos that he provided of Romeral and Williams were leaked by someone at the FBI to the Washington Star, a widely read daily newspaper at the time, and were subsequently published on the cover of the conservative Chilean daily El Mercurio. El Mercurio identified Williams—the “blond Chilean” who was not a Chilean at all. His real name was Michael Townley. Townley was the son of a Ford executive formerly based in Chile. He was born in Waterloo, Iowa. He was an American.

The release of the photos unleashed a torrent of information. An employee of the Organization of American States identified “Romeral” as Armando Fernandez, a captain in the Chilean army and DINA operative. Fernandez had a sister in New York. When agents questioned her, she confirmed that her brother had visited the U.S. in early September 1976.

As for Townley, FBI agents fanned out up and down the East Coast to question his friends, family, and business associates. They spoke to his father, Vernon, who now worked as a bank executive in South Florida. They visited an AAMCO auto-body shop in Miami, where Townley was employed as a mechanic in the early seventies, before the coup. And they stopped at a shady private-security equipment retailer, where, under the alias Kenneth Enyart, Townley appeared to have made a number of purchases of surveillance electronics on behalf of the Chilean government.

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July 1979 issue of El Nacionalista, publication of the Cuban Nationalist Movement. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

But it was in Tarrytown, New York, a picturesque commuter village on the Hudson River, where the pieces all came together. Townley had a sister living there. When agents showed her the picture of the man identified as “Williams” and asked if he was her brother, she said yes and that he had stopped in for a brief visit—the first in some time—in September 1976. When agents asked to look at her phone records, she obliged. There they found a series of phone calls from the house in Tarrytown to Union City on September 19, 1976—two days before the assassination. The number in Union City was the home phone of Guillermo Novo.

On March 19, 1978, six days after FBI agents questioned Townley’s sister, Propper and Cornick arrived in Chile looking to make a deal with the Chilean government to let them take Townley back to the United States. They believed he was still in the country, likely being hidden by allies in DINA.

After weeks of stalling on the part of the Chileans, and intense legal wrangling between the two governments, the Chileans finally gave up Townley, and Cornick escorted him back to the U.S.

Townley was 33 when he orchestrated the murder of Ronni Moffitt and Orlando Letelier. He had lived in Chile since he was 14, eventually marrying a Chilean woman, Mariana Callejas—who would also become a DINA agent—and settling in Santiago. He was harshly anticommunist, participating in numerous acts of sabotage and helping to set up a bomb-making factory for a neo-fascist group, Patria y Libertad (which had received funding from the CIA) in 1972. In the spring of 1973, Townley, pursued by the Allende government, was forced to flee the country.

After the coup in September 1973, though, Townley returned, and within six months he’d become an official agent of DINA. The agency sent him on several missions abroad—to Argentina in September 1974, where he helped arrange the fatal car bombing of the dissident Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife; to Mexico in the spring of 1975, to try to assassinate a group of leftist Chilean politicians; to Rome in October 1975, where he masterminded a failed assassination attempt on Bernardo Leighton, an exiled Chilean politician and his wife (the would-be assassin succeeded in maiming both); and then to Washington, D.C., in September 1976, to kill the man who may have been the Pinochet regime’s most vocal critic. In just a few years, he had gone from being an agitator and provocateur to a state-sponsored assassin.

When Propper and Cornick brought Townley back to the United States, investigators had an important decision to make. They could prosecute him for the murder of Letelier and Moffitt, or they could pressure him into revealing details of the larger conspiracy. “We had good circumstantial evidence.” Cornick told me. “We did not have, in my opinion, a prosecutable case. So what we did was we made a deal with the worst possible guy. The government never does that. But without it, we had no case.”

In exchange for pleading guilty to the crime of conspiring to murder a former official—with a maximum sentence of just ten years, and with the first opportunity for parole after three years and four months—Townley agreed to divulge all the details of the killing. His deal stipulated that he was only required to provide information regarding violations of U.S. law or crimes committed in U.S. jurisdictions; that he could not be charged by American officials for crimes he committed abroad while working for DINA; and that, finally, once his prison sentence was completed, he would be permanently resettled in the United States under the witness-protection program. The agreement was signed on April 18, 1978.

In a conference room at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, Propper, Cornick, and other investigators sat rapt as Townley chain-smoked and paced the room, unfurling the details of the conspiracy. On behalf of DINA, Townley said, he and his wife, Mariana Callejas, traveled undercover to New Jersey in February 1975. There he met with Guillermo Novo, Jose Suarez, and another CNM member at a restaurant in Union City. Townley said that if the CNM would assist in several planned assassinations, Chile could provide material support and training to the group. Novo, noncommittal, arranged a meeting in Townley’s hotel room the next morning.

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Cuban Nationalist Movement logo. (Illustration: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

Before the agreed-upon meeting time, the three CNM members burst into Townley’s room. Suarez pointed a gun at him and his wife. The other men rifled through his belongings, accusing him of working for the CIA and searching for clues about his true identity and affiliations. Eventually, following a period of interrogation, the men relented, and a tenuous alliance, characterized from that moment on by mutual mistrust and paranoia, was formed. Soon after the meeting in Union City, Townley and Callejas traveled to Florida to meet another CNM member, Virgilio Paz, who would then join Townley on his missions to assassinate Chilean socialists in Mexico and to kill Bernardo Leighton in Rome.

In June 1976, Townley met his DINA supervisor on the outskirts of Santiago, where he was assigned the mission to assassinate Letelier. “Try to make it seem innocuous,” Townley recounted his boss saying. “But the important point is to get it done.”

Townley flew into JFK on September 9, 1976, ready to oversee the assassination. He would later reveal in letters from prison that he carried with him liquid sarin, a deadly nerve gas, secreted in a Chanel No. 5 bottle, hoping that he might get close enough to Letelier to use it. In the airport, Townley met a DINA agent (Armando Fernandez, the “Romeral” to Townley’s “Williams”) who had been conducting surveillance on Letelier. According to Townley, Fernandez handed him a document containing “a sketch of Letelier’s residence and employment,” as well as his license plate number and information about the kind of car he drove and the route he followed on his daily commute.

Townley rented a car and headed straight for Union City, where he met Novo and Suarez and requested their assistance in assassinating Letelier. A few days later CNM leadership agreed.

Using the sarin properly would be difficult, so they settled on a car bomb. According to Townley, on the evening of September 14, Guillermo Novo and Suarez gave him and Paz C-4 compound, TNT, and a detonating cord. Later that night, Townley and Paz drove from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. They spent two days trailing Letelier. On September 17, they went to Sears to purchase more parts for the explosive. Suarez arrived the next day, and the three men assembled the bomb that night and decided to immediately place it beneath Letelier’s car.

On the way to Letelier’s home, Townley recalled, he “was informed by Paz and Suarez that they expected me to place the device on the car.” They wanted to ensure that DINA—and Townley himself—were “directly tied” to the plot. After some difficulty, he attached the bomb to the car’s undercarriage.

Townley flew back to New York early the next morning and traveled to Tarrytown to visit his sister, where he made the calls—the vital evidence that the FBI would later discover—to Novo’s home in Union City. On September 19, he met with Novo one final time, then flew to Miami, where two days later he would learn on the radio that not only had Letelier been killed, but so had an American woman in the car with him. In Miami, he met Ignacio Novo for a celebratory drink and then boarded a plane back to Chile.

By April 1978, Guillermo Novo had been a fugitive for ten months, since the day he failed to appear in court on suspicion of violating his parole. The FBI hadn’t stopped pursuing him, though, and neither had police in Miami and New Jersey. So when an officer in a Miami restaurant spotted a man wearing a shaggy brown wig who nevertheless strongly resembled Novo, he was immediately suspicious. The suspicion intensified when he realized that sitting with the man he believed to be Novo was another man he was almost certain was Alvin Ross. A third, unknown man was with them. The police tailed the three men to a hotel near the airport, informing the FBI about their discovery. They were told to hold off on making an arrest—a warrant was being drawn up for Alvin Ross, whose house in Union City had recently been searched, yielding a number of explosives and bomb-making materials.

Ross’s warrant came in late the next morning, April 14. Under surveillance by the FBI and the Miami Police Department, the three men were seen loading large bags into two cars, a gray Lincoln Continental and a brown Chevy Nova. Ross got into the Lincoln and drove in one direction; Novo and the third man took the Chevy in another. A police car soon pulled right behind the Lincoln, forcing Ross to turn into an Exxon station. Ross got out of the car, identified himself, and was placed under arrest.

Agents searched the car and found a pound of cocaine, as well as a scale, a .38-caliber Derringer, a stainless-steel .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with five rounds of ammunition, a loaded .45-caliber Detonics automatic with a clip containing six rounds, a loaded .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with extra hollow-point rounds, a Gucci bag, a fedora, and birth certificates for a number of men. With a straight face, Ross said that he “did not know anything about the weapons and cocaine,” according to FBI reports. (Ignacio Novo’s wife later said it was powdered milk, part of a setup aimed at “discrediting the patriotic work being performed by the CNM.”) There was also a brown address book inside the trunk with the name Andreas Wilson in it, an alias of Michael Townley’s. Next to the name was Townley’s phone number in Chile.

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Mug shot of Alvin Ross, 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

The agents also found two blank checks and a New York State driver’s license for a man named Manuel Menendez, the third man they had seen with Guillermo Novo the previous night and earlier that morning. Menendez was a known member of a drug-smuggling ring that, according to a Miami Police Department intelligence report, brought 120 kilos of Mexican brown heroin into Newark a month, “a central figure in a drug organization that was so huge that DEA could not effectively penetrate it.” A single recent bust of this organization had netted 45 pounds of heroin and $400,000 in cash.

FBI agents and Miami police officers tailed Menendez and Novo until they stopped at a restaurant at the Holiday Inn Airport Lakes. They sat for about ten minutes. Then they got up and walked into the hotel lobby. Menendez exited the building, heading for a car in the parking lot, where FBI agents immediately intercepted him. Seeing the agents enter the hotel lobby, Novo turned around and walked to an elevator. An agent hurried to the elevator and rode with him, and when Novo pushed the button for the eighth floor, the agent—in what must have been the longest elevator ride of Novo’s life—waited for him to get out. As soon as he did, the agent asked for his ID. He took out a Florida driver’s license in the name of Victor Triquero. This was not persuasive, and although Novo attempted to continue denying his true identity, he eventually gave in.

After Novo was taken to the local FBI office in Miami, agents went through the contents of the brown Chevrolet and found a locked black Skyway suitcase in the trunk. Menendez denied that it was his. Then they asked Novo about it and whether he knew the combination. “Try 207,” he said. When they opened it, they found a dozen clippings of recent newspaper articles from the Miami Herald and elsewhere about Michael Townley’s transfer from Chile to the United States and his plans to testify about the assassination of Orlando Letelier.

The grand jury indictment was handed down on August 1, 1978, more than 22 months after the investigation began. It charged seven men—Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez in Chile, and Guillermo Novo, Alvin Ross, Jose Suarez, and Virgilio Paz in the United States—with the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. (Ignacio Novo was charged concurrently with perjury and failing to report a felony.) But only three of the seven were in custody: Guillermo Novo and Ross, and Ignacio Novo, who was arrested by authorities at his sister’s home in north Jersey. Virgilio Paz had disappeared, as had Jose Suarez, who had been in prison until the end of March 1978 for his refusal to testify in front of the grand jury. Released just a few short weeks before his indictment, he, too, had vanished.

The three Chilean DINA officials—Contreras, Espinoza, and Fernandez—were thousands of miles removed from American jurisdiction and would need to be extradited to stand trial, a remote possibility. The Chilean judicial system was thoroughly subordinated to the military regime itself, and judges were cowed. Following a formal request by U.S. officials for the three men in late September, Contreras, Espinoza, and Fernandez were brought before a Chilean judge in October 1978, where all three lied about their knowledge about the crime. A wave of bombings, widely seen as a warning against pursuing the case too far, shook Chile. The home of the chief justice of the Chilean Supreme Court was bombed. Then the home of the judge investigating that bombing was bombed. The Chilean Supreme Court formally denied the extradition request.

On January 9, 1979, the trial commenced in Washington, D.C., under judge Barrington Parker. The level of security was extremely tight: Judge Parker, Assistant U.S. Attorney Propper, and at least one FBI agent had been threatened. A man had stalked an agent’s fiancée, warning her to dissuade him from pursuing the case. Once, when the judge temporarily retreated to his chambers, the Novo brothers and Ross began to viciously harangue Michael Townley, who was then in the courtroom, in Spanish, calling him a “traitor,” a “faggot,” and a “son of a whore.” Supporters of the defendants were bused down from New Jersey, lending an air of menace to the proceedings. “Someone should cut out your tongue!” yelled a Cuban woman in the gallery to Townley.

Michael Townley, now the government’s star witness, patiently recounted the whole plot on the stand. The prosecution’s case depended on making him believable. But FBI agents and prosecutors knew that his testimony alone might be insufficient, since the defense would attempt to paint Townley as unreliable—he was, by his own admission, an assassin and spy in the employ of a foreign government. So they had to provide corroborating evidence.

“An idea began to creep into my mind,” Cornick told me. He approached some of his colleagues with an audacious plan: “I said, ‘Suppose we built another bomb, just exactly like the first one. And suppose we got another car and blew that thing up. Would we get the same results?” If the two cars looked similar, argued Cornick, it would prove that Townley was the maker of the original bomb and therefore establish his reliability as a witness. Cornick’s bosses were incredulous about the idea—he had to convince them of the wisdom of allowing a confessed murderer, who also happened to be an explosives expert, to build a bomb on the government’s dollar. They had to take the request for approval, which they eventually received, all the way up to the deputy director.

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Aftermath of controlled FBI bombing, 1979. (Photo: Courtesy of Carter Cornick)

Cornick then called an FBI agent in Detroit and asked him to get in touch with General Motors and see if they could buy a car to blow up. It turned out GM had exactly the model and color Cornick was looking for. They took Townley out of prison, chaperoned by U.S. marshals, and visited every place he patronized while making the bomb—one of which was a Radio Shack right behind FBI headquarters. Townley then built a replica of the first bomb, and they attached it to the car and detonated it in an FBI training center in Quantico. As the smoke cleared, Cornick looked at Townley. He had turned “white as a lampshade,” Cornick said. Propper was also watching him. “I’ll never forget the look on his face,” recalled Propper. “Like, ‘Oh, my God, I did that.’ He looked sick, like he realized what that could have done to somebody.”

When I visited him at his home, Cornick brought out a framed set of pictures to show me. On the left side of the frame were photos of Letelier’s car. On the right were photos from the exact same angles, but of the test car. They looked identical: crumpled, burned, rent in the same places. “When I saw the car,” said Cornick, “I was just dumbstruck. We were all dumbstruck, those of us who had been at the crime scene.”

The trial lasted five weeks. The evidence was overwhelming. In prison, Guillermo Novo and Ross had been engaging in loose talk about their role in the Letelier killing, and the CNM’s activities more broadly, and admitted their involvement to fellow inmates, who became witnesses for the government.

But it was Townley’s testimony that made the case. When the jury went into deliberations, they asked for two items: the telephone receipts indicating when Townley had called Novo from his sister’s home in Tarrytown, and the pictures of the two destroyed cars. They found the defendants guilty on all counts. Guillermo Novo and Ross were each sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Ignacio Novo was sentenced to eight years in prison, with the potential for parole after 32 months.

Finally victorious after a multiyear odyssey, FBI agents and prosecutors began saying their goodbyes. They ran into the lawyers for the defense, who, according to Cornick, were “as good as it got.” Exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands, the Cubans’ lead attorney turned to Cornick and smiled. “You got it all right,” he said, “except for one thing.”

“What he meant was who pushed the button,” Cornick said to me. “I though it was Suarez. It was Paz.”

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Protesting the jailing of Guillermo Novo, New York City, 1979. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

Virgilio Paz woke up the morning of April 14, 1978, ready for a normal day at the car dealership where he worked. Leaving his apartment, he realized that he was low on cigarettes, so he decided to stop at a convenience store located at the corner of 48th Street and Bergenline Avenue in Union City. He double-parked his car and walked into the store, making small talk with the shop’s owner.

On the front page of the newspaper, kept on a small bench by the shop’s window, The New York Times was reporting that Michael Townley had been deported to the United States. Paz bought the paper, rushed home, and handed it to his wife. He knew immediately that Townley would talk. He gathered clothing, papers, money. He phoned a CNM sympathizer and asked him to call his workplace and tell his bosses that he was ill. He told his friend that he would need a ride out of town. That he would fill him in on the way. And then he was gone.

The Chileans and Cubans who perpetrated the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt believed that they were carrying on a proud legacy of resistance to tyranny; that the revolution that shook Russia in 1917 only presaged further horrors elsewhere; and that the paramount lesson of the 20th century was not found at Auschwitz in 1945 but in Spain in 1936. Augusto Pinochet even viewed himself as a latter-day Francisco Franco.

Through DINA, the Chileans formed alliances with like-minded organizations abroad: French and Italian neo-fascists, Corsican criminal syndicates, even German crypto-Nazis now living in Chile. (Colonia Dignidad, a German commune in rural Chile founded by the serial child molester and ex-Nazi Paul Schafer, was used by DINA as a detention and torture center. Schafer connected DINA agents to ex-Nazis working in West German intelligence in order to hunt down Chilean dissidents in Europe.)

This sense of existential threat was shared by many in the Cuban exile community in the United States. It was also largely ignored by U.S. law enforcement officials, considered a matter of “local interest” reflecting narrowly provincial Cuban concerns.

The misunderstanding on the part of the Americans approached a type of willful myopia. An article from the April 4, 1978, edition of the Miami Herald (“Home Held Bomb Gear, FBI Says”) describes the electronic circuit boards found in Alvin Ross’s home in Union City. Accompanying the article is not a picture of Ross but of Guillermo Novo, walking out of a courthouse in a light-colored suit and open-necked shirt. Facing the camera, his right hand is raised. His pointer and middle finger are forming a V. Below the picture is the caption: “Guillermo Novo Flashes Peace Sign.” This was an egregious misreading of the situation.

Victory, not peace, was the organizing principle of the Cuban Nationalist Movement and its fellow travelers, and victory could only be achieved through a war waged “throughout the roads of the world.” La lucha—the struggle, the fight—could know no bounds. The question was, who was prosecuting that fight, and how, and with whose support?

It’s well documented, of course, that the U.S. government, largely through the CIA, long supported anti-communist activities throughout Latin America. But the Americans’ relationship to the individuals and terrorist groups and repressive regimes that carried out those activities—as well as the relationships of all those entities to each other—were often opaque, at best, and thick with suggestion.

Take those between the 2506 Brigade (composed of veterans of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion), the Cuban Nationalist Movement, and the Chilean government. In April 1975, the 2506 Brigade bestowed its first annual Freedom Award to General Augusto Pinochet. In December of that year, exiled Cuban leaders in Union City held a meeting attended by over 2,000 people in support of the Chilean junta.

In late April 1978, the lawyer for Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross said that he was no longer representing them and that the 2506 Brigade would be covering their legal fees. A 2506 Brigade manual detailing surveillance methods, as well as bomb-making techniques, was recovered from Ross’s apartment (he, too, was a Bay of Pigs veteran trained by the CIA in Guatemala) after his arrest. These instructions included guidance on the proper use of TNT, C-4, and plastic detonating caps, all of which were used in the bomb that eventually killed Letelier and Moffitt.  

Leading up to the trial, the president of the 2506 Brigade wrote to major New York newspapers, declaring that the charges against the Novos and Ross were totally false and that their indictment was a bald attempt to persecute “Cuban Freedom Fighters.” A local merchant association sponsored a rally in Union City to protest the Novos’ and Ross’s jailing, and there were subsequent rallies held in Manhattan. On the day the trial began in January 1979, members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement walked up and down Berganline Avenue in Union City, intimidating shopkeepers into closing their stores to show solidarity with the jailed men.

These self-declared freedom fighters also unleashed a wave of terror within the U.S., the country that had given them refuge. Over a 48-hour period in December 1975, the city of Miami was shaken by thirteen separate bombings. In September 1978, the Cuban National Movement, under the nom de guerre Omega 7, bombed the Cuban Mission in New York City. The following month, it bombed a store across from Madison Square Garden and the offices of a Spanish-language newspaper in Manhattan. On March 25, 1979, bombs went off at John F. Kennedy Airport, at a pharmacy in Union City, and at a social service agency for Cuban refugees in Weehawken, New Jersey. These were followed by the bombings of the Cuban Mission in Washington, D.C., a cigar factory in Miami, and a travel agency in Puerto Rico in July. Between 1975 and 1983, Omega 7 carried out over 45 bombings in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and at least four assassinations, including a Cuban diplomat who was gunned down in his car in Queens on September 11, 1980. This is an American reality nearly impossible to fathom today.

On the morning of October 3, 1979, Hernan Cubillos, the Chilean foreign minister, entered the ultra-exclusive River Club in Midtown Manhattan and sat down for breakfast with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Under Nixon, Kissinger had overseen the campaign to destabilize Allende’s Chile and bring the military to power in September 1973.

By late ’79, though, relations between the United States and Chile had grown much more strained. Two days before this breakfast, the Chilean Supreme Court had rejected the U.S.’s extradition request for Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez, and had ordered them freed from the military hospital they were being held in. The State Department howled in protest. Many on the left in America demanded that the Carter administration sever all diplomatic ties with the Pinochet government and institute punitive sanctions against the regime.

The contents of the conversation between Kissinger and Cubillos, which I discovered in Cubillos’s personal papers, have never before been made public. According to Cubillos, who sent a classified telegram to the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs summarizing his meeting, Kissinger had “harsh” words for Carter’s policy of encouraging democratization in Latin America. “What do we gain,” Cubillos reported Kissinger saying, “in replacing the military if it’s going to be left in the hands of the communists?” He added that the current administration’s treatment of the Pinochet regime was a “disgrace.”

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A never before publicized account of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and the Chilean foreign minister Hernan Cubillos. “When I mentioned the Letelier case and indicated our puzzlement at the fact that the United States did not respect Latin America’s legal institutions, he admitted we were right: that the Chilean legal decision was correct, but that this was not a legal problem so much as a political one. “It needs to be managed,” he said, “with political judgment.” Apologizing for his frankness, he said this was a bad case for us, and had been badly managed politically. He added that his only advice was that we treat the current United States administration with “brutality.” He suggested “this is the only language they understand.” He repeated this same idea several times during the conversation. He later said we should make our positions public, and move forward decisively.”

Kissinger also disparaged a number of high-level State Department employees—undersecretary Patt Derian was “stupid”; assistant secretary Viron Vaky was a “fanatic,” a “very dangerous element”—and gave advice on how Chile’s military regime could improve its image in Washington. He promised to speak on behalf of Cubillos with Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. (“If he worked with me he would be a good element, but I don’t trust him by himself,” Kissinger said.) He advised Cubillos to try lobbying senator Howard Baker and to not spend much time on senator Jesse Helms. (Helms was too far to the right for his opinions to be useful in swaying public and political opinion.) He gave Cubillos the names of figures at prominent think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institute for Strategic Studies, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Cubillos asked about how the Chilean government should handle the ongoing Letelier case. It was a difficult question to answer, Kissinger said, because “the Carter administration is making enemies of its friends, and making friends with all its enemies.” He told Cubillos that the decision by the Chilean Supreme Court to deny the extradition request was correct. The Letelier case was “not a judicial problem, but a political one.” And “‘it needs to be managed,’ Kissinger said, ‘with political judgment.’”

The next administration will very likely be a Republican one, Kissinger said. According to Cubillos, he then used the idiomatic Spanish to say, “Until then, you will have to amarrar los pantalones”—resort to tough measures. “His only advice,” noted Cubillos, was to treat the Carter administration “with brutality.”

“This is the only language that they understand,” said Kissinger.

According to Cubillos, Kissinger returned to this idea “numerous times” over the course of their breakfast, which took place two days after Chile had denied the U.S. government’s extradition request for three men charged with murdering a former diplomat, and an American citizen, in the heart of Washington.

On September 15, 1980, the D.C. appellate court reversed the verdict against Guillermo and Ignacio Novo and Alvin Ross. There would have to be a retrial because some of the government’s evidence had now been deemed inadmissible. The defendants had talked loosely while in prison about their role in the bombing, including to government informants. But when those admissions of guilt were used in the trial, the appeals court ruled them “deliberately elicited.”

Propper calls the appeals court’s ruling a “horrible decision.” The anger rises in his voice even now as he speaks of it. “The case would never be reversed today,” he told me. “It was a very liberal court that came up with a theory [about the use of informants] that I think is completely bogus.” He worked on the case for years, solved it, and brought at least some of the perpetrators to justice—only to be defeated on technicalities. Still, the prosecution had an avenue for legal recourse: the appellate court’s decision could be brought before the Supreme Court on appeal. Propper, who was now in private practice, lobbied the solicitor general’s office to take the case.

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Celebrating the acquittal in Union City, New Jersey, May 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

But the politics of the case had changed, as had the country’s priorities. Carter, who had made human rights a cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy, had given way to Reagan—whose election caused the Chilean military to “dance in the streets,” according to the U.S. ambassador there. And the new administration, pursuing a policy of aggressive anticommunism, treated the Chilean military dictatorship with forbearance, even admiration.

Bob Steven, the State Department official who’d been based in Santiago, was now working at the department’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs in Washington. Steven recalled a closed-door conversation he had with his then superior, Elliott Abrams, in which he brought up Letelier. “I just mentioned Orlando Letelier and the case and how it had affected and complicated the relationships we were having with Chile,” Steven recalled. Abrams looked at him, he said, and simply commented, “‘Wasn’t he some kind of a communist?’ In the context of the conversation we were having, I interpreted it, and I think correctly, as saying, ‘What difference did it make if he got assassinated? He probably had it coming.’”  

Elsewhere, the center was not holding: In Iran, where a revolutionary Islamic regime had overthrown the shah and upended America’s entire strategic calculus in the region; in Afghanistan, where a group of mujahideen had launched a holy war (with CIA backing) against the Soviet empire; and in El Salvador, where a ruthless oligarchy (supported by the U.S.) had suppressed a left-leaning opposition demanding land reforms, sparking a civil war that went on to kill 70,000. Looking out on a world loosed by anarchy, U.S. officials saw countries like Chile as potential stabilizers, perhaps a little impertinent at times, but an integral part of the anticommunist firmament nonetheless.

The solicitor general’s office declined to appeal. For Propper, this was much worse than the original reversal—“I was appalled,” he told me—because it meant that the Justice Department was letting the case die. Pleading with officials in the department, he reminded them that the Letelier case had involved a spectacular act of terrorism perpetrated on the streets of Washington, D.C., and that it led to a multiyear criminal investigation with many international ramifications. “I said, ‘Guys, this was the biggest criminal case in the country at the time.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but we have a lot of issues to look at up there and this particular issue is not a big one.’” To this day, Propper is convinced that if the Supreme Court had taken the case, it would have reversed the appellate court’s ruling.

And so, in early May 1981, the second federal trial of Alvin Ross and Guillermo and Ignacio Novo began. By the end of that month, they were acquitted on all counts related to the murders.

In one final strange turn of events, in May 1983, Michael Townley was paroled from prison, after serving a mere 62 months. Eugene Propper told me something that had never been reported before, that “some prison official or trustee or someone” had mistakenly revealed Townley’s identity as a material witness for the government, thus putting his life in danger, so Townley had to be whisked away early into witness protection.

By the mid-1980s, then, not a single man named in the original indictment for the murders of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, one of the most high profile acts of terrorism ever perpetrated in America, was in prison. Jose Suarez and Virgilio Paz were still at large. The Novo brothers and Alvin Ross had been released on appeal and acquitted. Michael Townley was living a new life under U.S. government protection. Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez were in Chile, protected by the Pinochet government.

These dynamics all changed with a single phone call. In early January 1986, U.S. attorney Larry Barcella received an urgent message from Alfredo Etcheberry, a prominent Chilean lawyer employed by the U.S. government to handle extradition requests and other legal matters regarding the Letelier case. Etcheberry was calling about Armando Fernandez, the DINA agent who had tailed Letelier in the weeks leading up to the assassination. Through an intermediary—Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary—Fernandez had reached out to Etcheberry. Fernandez said he wanted to change his relationship with the United States; he was tired of living under a cloud of suspicion and wanted to be able to travel freely throughout North America and Europe. He said what he wanted, most of all, was to “clear his name,” which had been besmirched by his association with the Letelier case. He wanted to defect. In exchange, he was willing to provide testimony about Contreras’s and Espinoza’s—and perhaps even Pinochet’s—foreknowledge of the killings, and about the subsequent cover-up.

For Barcella, Fernandez’s account of the assassination was “light years beyond anything” any Chilean had previously admitted. Though as deputy chief of mission George Jones, who was stationed in Santiago at the time, recalled: “We had no way of knowing if this was a setup or what it was … there were all kinds of problems.” Jones said there was intense skepticism about whether anything could ultimately be done. “How on earth is this guy going to be gotten out of Chile?” he said. “Being an army officer, is he going to walk up to the airport and fly to the United States? That is not at all likely.” (Active-duty military officers required special permission from their commanders to leave Chile. According to Fernandez, a plane was once forced to return to Chile in mid-flight because there was suspicion that he was on it.) There was also the question of what guarantees Fernandez would demand from the U.S. government.

Still, U.S. officials were enthusiastic about pursuing Fernandez. It was now Reagan’s second term, and human rights had become a more explicit part of the administration’s foreign policy. The U.S. had begun to distance itself somewhat from the Pinochet regime. In fact, the CIA had recently launched a formal inquiry to determine whether Pinochet was himself responsible for the killings. (The 1987 CIA report, the existence of which was kept secret until October 2015, strongly concluded that Pinochet was culpable. The report itself remains classified, but a memo to Reagan from secretary of state George Schulz, who read the report, states that the CIA has “convincing evidence that President Pinochet personally ordered [Contreras] to carry out the murders.” Schulz’s memo also concludes that “Pinochet decided to stonewall on the U.S. investigation to hide his involvement” and continues to do so, including through the possible “elimination of [Contreras,] his former intelligence chief.”)

In order to communicate without drawing attention to their negotiations, U.S. officials and Fernandez’s handlers in Chile developed an ingenious solution. Fernandez had a sister who lived in New York, and she would serve, along with an American lawyer, Axel Kleiboemer, as his emissary to U.S. officials. But first they needed to be completely apprised of what Fernandez knew about the murders and what kind of deal he was willing to take.

In March 1986, Fernandez wrote his sister a letter, which was passed discreetly out of the country in a classified diplomatic pouch. The letter instructed Fernandez’s sister to call him and announce that she was thinking of taking a trip to Chile to visit family. In Chile, Fernandez would relay all the pertinent information about the case to his sister, along with his conditions. She would then meet with U.S. officials in New York. She made the trip in mid-April, and soon thereafter the settled on the general contours of the deal.

State Department officials realized, though, that they couldn’t rely on intermediaries to conduct the complex negotiations still to come. In Santiago, Deputy Chief of Mission Jones decided to arrange a secret face-to-face meeting with Fernandez. As Jones recalled, “The ambassador … didn’t want anybody else at the embassy, except for the station chief, to know anything about this. … We were so concerned that if somehow word got out, Fernandez would disappear into a cell and never be seen again until you heard the noise of the firing squad.”

Jones arranged for the meeting to take place at the apartment of an embassy secretary, whose flat was unlikely to be bugged. On the afternoon of the rendezvous, he abruptly dismissed his driver and bodyguard. “I said, ‘That’s all for today. Nothing else on the schedule.’ They thought it was very peculiar that I was home at that hour of the afternoon and peculiar that I wasn’t going anywhere else.” As soon as the men were out of sight, Jones grabbed a bottle of Scotch and hailed a taxi to meet Fernandez, where they began to work out the logistics of a further meeting to take place outside Chile, in Buenos Aires.

“We were so concerned that if somehow word got out, Fernandez would disappear into a cell and never be seen again until you heard the noise of the firing squad.”

Jones informed Fernandez that his contact there was going to be CIA. The agent at the rendezvous point would have a rolled-up magazine next to him. Jones also gave Fernandez a “contact phrase” so Fernandez could be sure of the agent’s identity. As the meeting date neared, though, Fernandez balked, worried that it was too dangerous to leave the country unless it was for the last time.

On January 14, 1987, after more than a year of planning, Fernandez finally met with a group of senior representatives of the State Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and FBI at an empty apartment leased by the embassy commissary. (Because of fears that Cornick would be recognized in Santiago, he joined a secondary team operating out of Buenos Aires.) U.S. officials arrived in Santiago with a cover story about needing to interview a State Department employee. Fernandez’s American lawyer, Axel Kleiboemer, flew in for a Chilean “vacation.” It was agreed at that meeting that Fernandez would flee Chile for Brazil before making his way to the States. “The CIA station had checked and found out that his name wasn’t in the Chilean lookout book,” recalls Jones, meaning he wasn’t on any kind of airport watch list. “They had someone who had access to the airport computers and established that as near as they could tell, if Fernandez tried to leave, his name wasn’t going to come up on any kind of screen. So he decided he was prepared to risk it.”

Over the next few days, U.S. officials, along with Fernandez and his representatives, moved from safe house to safe house, negotiating the final details (among them that a female agent meet Fernandez at the airport in Rio to make it seem as if he had a Brazilian love interest). Finally, during a 2 a.m. car ride through Santiago—they had run out of safe houses—Kleiboemer told the Americans that they had a deal, conveying a message from Fernandez: “I will be in Rio Thursday. Or I’ll be dead.”

On January 22, Fernandez boarded a Santiago-to-Rio flight undetected. He was met in Rio by a team of FBI agents and State and Justice Department officials. Kleiboemer warned Fernandez that the lead U.S. attorney there, David Geneson, “hated” Fernandez. “He wants to put you in jail for the rest of your life,” Kleiboemer said. “If he catches you lying, that’s where you’ll be. So tell the truth. Anything you say will be tested by polygraph.” The Americans interrogated Fernandez for three days and subjected him to repeated polygraph tests that lasted up to ten hours at a time. Reporting back to Washington, the Rio team bragged that interrogators had “done a splendid job of breaking down Fernandez’s defenses.”

Fernandez admitted to conducting surveillance on Letelier in September 1976. He said that Contreras and Espinoza had overseen the operation, and that Pinochet himself had advance knowledge of the killing. He also said that he had been ordered by his military superiors to lie to U.S. investigators. He would not, however, admit to knowing in advance of the mission’s ultimate objective—the assassination of Orlando Letelier. (Fernandez claimed that he was told his mission was simply to surveil Letelier, since Letelier was suspected of attempting to set up a government-in-exile. It was only later, he said, two or three years after the killing, that Contreras told him that Pinochet had ordered the killing.) For Larry Barcella, who knew the case better than anyone still working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this was, “of course, a lie.” Barcella’s skepticism was borne out by the polygraphs, which agents said found “consistent signs of deception in Fernandez’s disclaimers.”

But the political value of Fernandez’s testimony—it allowed U.S. officials to pressure Chile for the extradition of Contreras and Espinoza, to formally request civil damages on behalf of the Letelier and Moffitt families, and to demonstrate American resolve against terrorism—outweighed the legal or moral ambiguities. Fernandez continued to deny advance knowledge, and he provided just enough cover (he was never made aware of the plans, he claimed, but he “supposed” that’s what the mission could be all about) for officials to maintain the fiction. On Wednesday, February 4, Fernandez arrived in the United States. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of accessory after the fact, with a maximum sentence of seven years.

He served seven months. He was a free man in America, living under witness protection, by the end of the year.

The story fed to the press upon Fernandez’s arrival was that he felt dishonored and mistreated by the Chilean regime, that he had a guilty conscience, that he wanted to do something to make his dead father proud. It was not that Fernandez was already wanted by Argentinean authorities in connection with the 1974 assassination of a dissident Chilean general; or that by 1987 he had publicly admitted his prior membership in a military squad known as the Caravan of Death, which was accused of a series of prisoner massacres in northern Chile in 1973; or that it was clear by then that Chile was slowly transitioning away from military dictatorship.

No one discussed that Fernandez had received intelligence training at Fort Gulick, a U.S. military facility in the Panama Canal Zone, which meant that the very skills he had employed in the plot to assassinate Letelier may have been taught to him by the American government. The story was that he had fled under duress, not that he had been aided by Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary, who happened to be an antagonist of Manuel Contreras. The story was definitely not that, as early as May 1979, Willoughby had traveled secretly to Washington with a message: in exchange for prosecutors dropping the charges against Fernandez and Espinoza, Pinochet would be willing to hand over Contreras. And it was most certainly not that, by 1979, Pinochet believed conflict with Contreras, who was openly provoking and challenging him, was inevitable. The story was justice, penance, and progress, not calculation, interest, and survival.

On April 12, 1990, almost exactly a month after Chile returned to civilian rule, FBI agents and police in St. Petersburg, Florida, surrounded a modest home on a quiet residential street. Then they telephoned the house and told Jose Suarez to come out.

Suarez, who had been a fugitive for 12 years, was living an anonymous life with his young wife and infant child. FBI officials said they had received the information that led to his arrest in early April. His wife claimed that they had lived in Florida for seven years.

Less than a week later, Suarez’s lawyers entered a not-guilty plea before a U.S. magistrate in Washington, D.C. A trial date was set for September 10, 1990. Over a decade had passed between the original indictment and Suarez’s capture.

A Jose Dionisio Suarez Legal Defense Fund quickly materialized in Miami, Tampa, West Palm Beach, New Jersey, and California. Four Miami radio stations held a marathon fundraiser on behalf of the defendant. Guillermo Novo appeared as a special on-air guest, soliciting aid for his erstwhile comrade in the Cuban Nationalist Movement.

Prosecutors brought Michael Townley, who was still living under witness protection, in for questioning. The case against Suarez was utterly dependent on Townley’s testimony. But Townley’s relationship with the U.S. marshals responsible for his protection was “strained,” remembers Eric Dubelier, one of the U.S. attorneys overseeing the case, and he was making increasingly unreasonable demands in exchange for his testimony.

According to a number of declassified documents, Townley said he was unwilling to testify at all unless the U.S. government promised to shield him from potential extradition to Chile, Argentina, and Italy. He had good reason to fear for his freedom. In fact, on the very day Townley was paroled in the U.S. in 1983, Argentina formally requested his extradition in connection with his role in the 1974 car bombing of the dissident Chilean general Carols Prats, which killed Prats and his wife. At the time, a U.S. attorney found that Townley’s prior plea deal, which guaranteed protection against further prosecution within the U.S., implied protection from such requests. Now Townley was scared that what he revealed on the stand could subject him to further legal action.

Townley’s conditions riled officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The Department of Justice had never in its history agreed to protect the recipient of a plea deal from extradition to a country where the United States had a mutual extradition treaty in force. It could put the U.S. in violation of its international legal commitments and encourage other countries to deny American extradition requests. Nevertheless, senior officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department were willing to concede to Townley’s demands, given the import of the case and his centrality as a witness.

Officials in the State Department were not as pliant. They were upset by the original 1978 agreement with Townley (which had been drawn up without their input) and infuriated that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had not consulted with them now before assenting to Townley’s conditions. The matter traveled up the bureaucratic chain until, on August 28, 1990—less than two weeks before the trial date—deputy secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger wrote an extraordinary letter to attorney general Richard Thornburgh, registering “in the strongest possible terms” his “personal objection to the unilateral action taken by the U. S. Attorney.” In an earlier draft of the letter, he had said that he was “prepared to go on the record rejecting the assurance provided to Mr. Townley unless I receive a full explanation as to the basis for the actions in the case.”

Dubelier told me that he never expected there would be a plea. But on September 9, 1990, one day before the trial date, prosecutors announced that Jose Suarez had agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to murder a former official. As part of the deal, his wife would be protected from charges related to her harboring a fugitive. Suarez would serve no more than 12 years in federal prison.

With Suarez’s conviction, four of the five Cubans connected to the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt had seen their day in court. There was only one remaining fugitive, Virgilio Paz.

Paz heard the news while sitting in a liquor store parking lot in West Palm Beach. It was late February or early March 1991. His phone rang—a former member of the CNM, who knew Paz’s true identity, calling to say that America’s Most Wanted was going to air an episode devoted to Paz on April 19. His story would be broadcast into millions of homes. “What are you going to do?” asked the man from the CNM. “Why don’t you get the fuck out of there?”

Paz called his ex-wife and told her the news. On April 19, he took her and their children to a safe house nearby. They watched the program together there. It showed a picture of the two of them on their wedding day.

His family stayed in the safe house for a few days after the show aired. Paz slept at home, alone. But he went out in public all over West Palm Beach. He wanted to be arrested in public, he later wrote, “to avoid losing control of the situation,” fearing that if he did, “someone’s finger would slip on the trigger of an automatic weapon.”

On Monday, April 22, Paz prepared for work, assuming that he would be arrested that day. As the owner and operator of Greenheart Landscape Maintenance, he had several teams of workers on the job on a given day. He decided to supervise one of them in the field—something he rarely did—in Boca Raton, just to remain in public view. There was no sign that his identity had been revealed. Nothing. He retrieved his family from the safe house and brought them home.

The next morning, he surveyed the surrounding area for signs of police or the FBI. He took his son to school and headed to work. The offices of Greenheart Landscape Maintenance were located on Industrial Avenue in Boynton Beach. Paz knew that it was the worst possible location from which to escape—lined with storage facilities and ending in a cul-de-sac that abutted a canal. But he didn’t plan on running, in any case.

His instincts were right; this was where he would finally be apprehended. Before long he was surrounded by parked cars. Agents poured out of them, pointing their guns at him. A helicopter circled overhead, an armed FBI agent leaning out over one of its skis.

Paz, sitting behind the steering wheel, slowly reached his hands upward to the roof of the car. An agent walked up to Paz’s car, opened the door, and pointed a gun at his left ear. He pressed the gun firmly against Paz’s head and told him to hold the steering wheel tightly with his right hand, then to slowly reach around with his left to unbuckle his seatbelt. Paz complied, and the moment the belt came unsnapped, the agent pulled Paz out of the car and handcuffed him.

Paz’s time in South Florida had been remarkable for its unremarkableness. He was the picture of a solid citizen: a member of the Inter-American Business Association, and the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Palm Beach County, and the Cuban-American Club of West Palm Beach. He employed more than two dozen people at Greenheart Landscape Maintenance, which he’d owned since April 1986. Since 1980, he lived under the name Frank Baez, although he’d tried out other aliases, including, for a time, Ronaldo McDonaldo.

How could a man with such a high profile remain completely clandestine to his friends and neighbors, and to the community of expatriates and exiles of which he was a part? How many people knew about his past and countenanced the lie?

On September 12, 1991, Paz was given the same plea deal as Jose Suarez—a maximum sentence of 12 years for the crime of conspiracy to murder a foreign official. He called the murders a “horror” that changed his life forever. But during his arraignment he smiled and waved to the crowd of Cuban expats who’d gathered to support him at the court house in West Palm Beach. “Viva Cuba!” they cried.

Paz served a little less than seven years and was released in May 1998. Suarez was also freed around this time.

But neither was quite free yet. In 1996, the Republican Congress passed a law, signed by Bill Clinton, that subjected noncitizens, including legal permanent residents, convicted of violent crimes to be automatically deported. The day Paz and Suarez left prison, they both were taken into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Like all Cubans in INS custody, their situation was unique. The United States and Cuba had no working extradition agreement. There was no way to process Cuban detainees and certainly no guarantee that the Castro regime would wish to repatriate them. The law required deportation, but there was nowhere to actually deport men like Paz and Suarez.

They found aid from the Cuban American National Foundation, the country’s most influential Cuban lobbying group. Under the tutelage of its founder, Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF became a bastion for anti-Castro hardliners. Mas himself fought in the Bay of Pigs and had an accommodating attitude toward the men on the extralegal fringes of the exile community.

CANF’s lawyers argued that Paz’s deportation—even if possible, which it was not—would violate the UN Convention Against Torture, since Paz would almost certainly be brutalized by the Castro regime.

In June 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the INS could not indefinitely hold detainees from countries with whom the United States lacked an extradition agreement. There were roughly 3,400 people eligible to be immediately freed by this decision, but attorney general John Ashcroft seemed determined to take advantage of a loophole stating that those detainees who were considered “dangerous criminal aliens” or “terrorists” were exempt from the ruling—that such men could, in fact, be held indefinitely. Those definitions proved broad enough that the vast majority of detainees remained in custody, though their connection to terrorist acts were questionable at best. By August 2001, only 300 detainees had in fact been released. One of the very first was Virgilio Paz.

CANF was deeply connected to local politicians, including two Cuban-American Republican members of Congress from South Florida, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. They, in turn, had important connections of their own, including Jeb Bush, then the state’s governor, who had a nuanced understanding of the truculent politics and fierce loyalties among South Florida’s anti-Castro Cuban community. In 1990, he successfully petitioned his father to free Orlando Bosch, widely considered responsible for the 1976 Cubana Airlines bombing that killed 73, among many other terrorist acts. (George H.W. Bush was intimately acquainted with the details of the Cubana bombing: it, like the Letelier killing, occurred when he was head of the CIA.)

According to the journalist Ann Louise Bardach, in 2001 Jeb Bush also successfully lobbied his brother to secure the release of Virgilio Paz and Jose Suarez. On August 14, 2001, Suarez walked out of an INS facility in Bradenton, Florida. “This is a fantastic day,” he said, “because I’m going to embrace my family and my children.” Less than a month later, the politics of terror in this country would shift seismically, but not before a few “men of action” in South Florida found themselves treated, yet again, to an especially soft landing.

For Michael Moffitt, the years following the assassination were unbearable. He was obsessed with the details of the bombing and became an insomniac and an alcoholic. He eventually put his life back together, remarried, and started a family. But over a decade after the bombing, he said that the smallest event—“a scene in a movie, a car, noise, a smell, dreams, or even a random image”—brought memories of the day rushing back. He obsessively checked his vehicle for hidden explosives, afraid to get in the car with his own family.

No one prosecuted for the Letelier and Moffitt murders served more than 12 years for the crime. Michael Townley and Armando Fernandez both presumably still reside in the United States under the witness protection program. Guillermo Novo, Jose Suarez, and Virgilio Paz all live freely today in South Florida. Alvin Ross lives in New Jersey. Ignacio Novo died in 2004. Guillermo Novo was arrested, along with Luis Posada, the Bay of Pigs veteran and co-mastermind, with Orlando Bosch, of the Air Cubana bombing, in Panama in 2000 for attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro. Posada and Novo were released under murky circumstances in 2004.

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 From left: Alvin Ross, Guillermo Novo, and Virgilio Paz in 2012. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

These men still associate with one another. A 2012 photo, posted on an obscure website devoted to Cuban exile politics, shows Novo, Ross, and Paz together at a restaurant. Pictures from another such site show Suarez and Posada at an April 2015 meeting of militants in South Florida. Even more recent Facebook pictures show Paz and Suarez together.

Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza, the two DINA masterminds behind the killings, have faced harder times. When Chile began its fragile transition back to democracy in 1990, civilian officials proved surprisingly dogged in their pursuit of justice. In 1991, both Contreras and Espinoza were sentenced to prison for crimes connected to the Letelier assassination. They were released in 2001. In 2005, they were incarcerated yet again, this time for much lengthier convictions. Contreras was sentenced to roughly 500 years in prison and died there in August 2015. Out of all the alleged perpetrators named in the 1978 indictment, it is the two men who stayed in Chile, who were never tried in America, who faced the most time in prison.

None of this is to minimize the effects of the FBI investigation. Manuel Contreras was removed from DINA—indeed, DINA was dissolved and entirely reorganized—because of American pressure. The day after Paz pleaded guilty in a D.C. court, a Supreme Court justice in Chile’s newly democratic government reopened the Letelier investigation. Nor were the effects limited to Chile.

“What the U.S. did in investigating this case has had enormous, enormous impact in Latin America,” John Dinges, an expert on Pinochet-era Chile, and the coauthor of Assassination on Embassy Row, a 1980 book about the Letelier killing, told me. “The beginning of the uncovering of all these human rights crimes—of Operation Condor, of the internal workings of the security services, all of that began with the FBI investigation. It was the first penetration of the interior workings of these intelligence forces. There’s a direct line between the FBI investigation and the enormous amount of information that we have now.”

The Letelier case also helped transform the way the FBI handles terrorism cases. It is hard to imagine this in the post-9/11 era, but terrorism was simply not a bureau priority in 1976, at least not like it is today. Much has changed since then. “You can call the Letelier case terrorism,” Propper remarked to me, “but it’s not terrorism like terrorism exists today. It was a foreign government deciding to get rid of one of its own citizens, and they were stupid enough to do it in the United States. There was a logic to what they did, even if it was a stupid logic. They weren’t planning to kill Ronni Moffitt. That was the Cubans, who didn’t care.”

The men who pushed the button almost certainly knew that the Moffitts were in the car. When Paz was released, he held his press conference at the CANF offices. He called the murders a “grave human error.” Sitting with his attorneys in August 2001, Suarez also said he regretted the bombing, “especially” the murder of Ronni Moffitt. Empathetic gestures of this sort can leave one legally vulnerable, however, and so they have to be carefully qualified. “He’s sorry in a humanitarian way,” Dario Diaz, one of Suarez’s attorneys, immediately stated to the Tampa Tribune. “The same way we’re sorry for Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandi.”

These expressions of remorse were feints, acts of performative contrition. The truth was, is, much more unyielding: “Now,” wrote Virgilio Paz on his Facebook page in April 2015, “looking back retrospectively after all those years, it’s worth asking ourselves: was it worth pursuing what we thought was our duty? Was it worth the risk and everything that we left behind? Was it worth giving up or losing our youth, families, and bringing suffering to our loved ones? Was it worth giving up the economic future that we could have achieved? Was it worth it? Yes, for me it was, because I think that we did what we thought was our duty as CUBANS.”

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Cartoon from La Nacionalista. From left: Ignacio Novo, Alvin Ross, and Guillermo Novo. (Illustration: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

On this point, at least one old “comrade” from the Cuban Nationalist Movement, Alvin Ross, agreed. “Si, Virgilio,” Ross replied to the Facebook post. “It was worth it, and it will be worth it till your last breath.”

Here it all was, alive as ever—Castro’s New Year’s Day revolution of 1959, CIA training camps in the jungles of Guatemala, blood of the patria soaking into the beach at the Bay of Pigs, jets thundering over the boulevards of Santiago, a car erupting in flames in Sheridan Circle, the bombs going off in American cities, month after month, for years, all in the name of la lucha, the struggle.

“Si, Virgilio,” Ross continued. “Tu lucha was worth it.”


A Note on Sources

In 2000, President Clinton ordered the release of thousands of Chile-related documents as part of what became known as the Chile Declassification Project. This includes “documents produced by the CIA, DOD, NARA, NSC, FBI, DOJ, and the Department of State.” In October 2015, President Obama supplemented this release with hundreds of new documents. Much of what appears in this article is the result of sifting through this trove.

I also interviewed a number of individuals associated with the case, though former government officials, as well as law enforcement agents, refused interview requests, often multiple times. Repeated requests for interviews with former members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement were similarly denied.

I am indebted to two books published in the 1980s, Assassination on Embassy Row, by John Dinges and Saul Landau, and Labyrinth, by Taylor Branch and Eugene Propper. Both books are key pieces of the historical record. I am also indebted to Without Fidel and Cuba Confidential, both by Ann Louise Bardach; The Pinochet File, by Peter Kornbluh; The Condor Years, by John Dinges; Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner; and Miami, by Joan Didion.

Through the Library of Congress, I found the invaluable Oral History Interviews, conducted through the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. I also read many hundreds of pages of court documents, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, from 1973 to 2015, including from the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, New York Daily News, Hudson Dispatch, and Associated Press, as well as New York Magazine, among other sources. The nonprofit National Security Archive has done path-breaking work on Pinochet-era Chile, and many other countries and I benefitted greatly from their work.

I also conducted research at the Hoover Institute Library and Archives at Stanford University, where I found the George W. Landau Papers and Hernan Cubillos Salato Papers, which provided new and illuminating details about the case.


We welcome feedback at letters@atavist.com.

Sunk

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Sunk

How a Chinese billionaire’s dream of making an underwater fantasy blockbuster turned into a legendary movie fiasco.

By Mitch Moxley

The Atavist Magazine, No. 58


Mitch Moxley has written for publications including GQThe Atlantic, and Playboy, and he is an editor at the online magazine Roads & Kingdoms. He’s the author of Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, about the six years he lived in Beijing.

Editor:Katia Bachko
Designers: Thomas Rhiel and Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Animation: Nadia Popovich

Published in May 2016. Design updated in 2021.

FADE IN:

EXT. A ROCKY STRETCH OF BEACH, QINYU, FUJIAN PROVINCE, CHINA – DAY

Under a foreboding gray sky, a RAGTAG GROUP OF MOVIE EXTRAS dressed in ill-fitting rubber costumes sprint across the sand. They play an army of bipedal GIANT FISH TROOPS armed with swords and spears running for their lives from an invading battalion of DEMON SOLDIERS.

JONATHAN LAWRENCE, the director, mid-forties, wearing a leather jacket and fedora, like Indiana Jones, surveys the scene. He doesn’t like what he sees…

One

The script called for an epic battle. In the movie’s third act, the forces of the Eight Faery Kingdoms defend their aquatic empires from annihilation by the evil Demon Mage and his spectral legions. Five hundred extras would play the opposing armies.

But in January 2010, when Jonathan Lawrence, the director of Empires of the Deep, showed up for the shoot, in Qinyu, a resort town in coastal China, he saw only about 20 extras, mostly ornery Russians complaining that they hadn’t been paid in weeks. How would he turn 20 people into 500? On top of that, their costumes—swamp green rubber suits decorated with scales, octopus suckers, and shells—looked like poorly made Halloween getups. Some of them had fins glued to their heads.

Lawrence was in most ways a strange choice to be running a massive film set in China. A 40-something director from Los Angeles with just one feature-film credit, he made his living directing shorts, commercials, and music videos. But then again, ever since he saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as a teenager in 1981, he had waited for this chance.

The offer to direct a fantastical adventure movie was a dream come true. Empires of the Deep would be China’s Avatar—a reportedly $100 million production featuring mermaid sirens, Greek warriors, pirates, and sea monsters, complete with cutting-edge special effects and an international cast. The film’s producers hoped that it would break through the cultural barrier that had frustrated producers on both sides of the Pacific for years: a Hollywood-style blockbuster made in China that would captivate audiences around the world.

But the offer came with strings attached. Massive strings. The film’s producer was Jon Jiang, a billionaire real estate mogul and film fanatic who had written Empires and put up much of the funding himself. On set he gave actors preposterous and contradictory directions. But mostly he deployed his assistants to watch Lawrence’s every move and report back to him.

The beach location, which would stand in for Mermaid Island, home of an ancient race of mer-folk, had much of what Lawrence required—a long stretch of coast, endless ocean beyond it—but a few weeks earlier, when he inspected the location, he couldn’t help but notice the row of luxury resort buildings at the edge of the sand. A bit modern for Mermaid Island, he thought.

Lawrence joked to the assistant director that they’d have to build a wall to hide the resort from view.

CUT TO:

CLOSE UP: LAWRENCE’s face, wearing an expression of utter disbelief as he looks up and sees a GIANT WALL. It is 15 feet high and stretches the entire football-field length of the beach.

LAWRENCE sighs. 

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A resort interfered with a beach shot, so the crew built a wall to hide it from view. (Photo: Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Lawrence had already seen a lot of bizarre things on set. But the crew building a 15-foot wall based on an offhand joke was perhaps the strangest. The whole point of filming at the beach was to make the fight look realistic; now they’d have to supply the background with special effects. It would have been easier and cheaper to dump a bunch of sand in a studio parking lot and surround it with green screens.

It was Lawrence’s third month in China, and nothing about shooting Empires had been easy. But Jiang called the shots, and his message to Lawrence was simple: Make it work.


In 2007, as China’s economy was on the ascent, I moved to Beijing to cover the new era. When I first read about Empires of the Deep, it seemed like a project that captured China perfectly—the money and ambition, the chaos and audacity—with its Chinese billionaire, mermaids, and hope for global domination.

China had become the Promised Land for American filmmakers, who were increasingly looking to overseas markets to help bolster flatlining profits at home. In China, ticket sales had ballooned to nearly a billion dollars a year and grew by more than 30 percent every year. Due to strict censorship, homegrown Chinese films tended to be bland historical and patriotic epics. The government imposed an import quota, and only around 20 foreign films, mostly Hollywood superhero movies, were allowed to screen in Chinese cinemas each year.

A growing number of American studios and producers came to believe that the solution was coproductions. Filmmakers on both sides of the Pacific would combine forces and use Hollywood and Chinese talent to make movies in China that would capitalize on the mainland’s booming box office while circumventing the quota. But cultural differences plagued the sets, and filmmakers struggled to find a formula that appealed to both audiences while also appeasing the censors. There was Shanghai, with John Cusack; a remake of The Karate Kid starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan; and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, with Hugh Jackman. Coproductions tended to have wooden scripts, flat plots, and shoehorned celebrations of Chinese culture. Few achieved commercial or critical success.

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Jonathan Lawrence fell in love with movies as a teenager; Steven Spielberg was his idol. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Lawrence)

Empires of the Deep was supposed to be different. And yet, as of 2016—after nearly a decade and a reported $140 million—it still hadn’t seen the light of day. I wanted to find out why. Last fall, I met Jonathan Lawrence at a Starbucks in Burbank, California, and he offered to introduce me to some of the movie’s stars in L.A.

On a patio over coffee, Lawrence showed me photos from the shoot on his laptop, his signature fedora casting a shadow onto his stubble. Lawrence has deep-set, stone gray eyes, animated hands, and a kindly demeanor. “Everything I’d done in my career I felt was leading to this,” he told me. He still seemed forlorn about Empires after all this time, adding, “We wanted to make a great movie.”

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

INT. CHINESE RESTAURANT, HOLLYWOOD – DAY

Three men gather at a noisy restaurant. LAWRENCE sits across from JON JIANG, about 40 years old. JIANG is thin and rangy like a high school basketball player. He is dressed in a tracksuit with an ascot around his neck. PETER HU, a friendly man in his thirties, is JIANG’s assistant and translator. The table is piled with food, but the atmosphere is tense.

Two

In November 2007, Jonathan Lawrence’s longtime friend Mark Byers told him about a potential project in China. Byers, who was working as Empires’ “Hollywood guy,” wrangling American talent, had arranged a meeting between Lawrence and the movie’s producer at a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood during the annual American Film Market, a major industry gathering.

Byers gave Lawrence a brief summary of the project and its sponsor. Jiang Hongyu, a.k.a. Jon Jiang, had made a fortune in real estate when he was in his thirties by creating suburban developments for China’s new middle class.

Jiang loved the movies: He admired George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, and believed it was his life’s mission to make big-budget Hollywood blockbusters in China. He wrote television and film scripts just for fun—sci-fi and fantasy, mostly—and he claimed to have watched some 4,000 movies. Now, after several years of writing, he had completed the script for his first feature, which he originally called Mermaid Island. He envisioned a trilogy, with video games and theme parks in short order.

Lawrence might have thought he’d found a kindred spirit. Spielberg was the reason he fell in love with movies; he even attended California State University at Long Beach, Spielberg’s alma mater. But after two decades in Hollywood, his only feature film, an independent sci-fi thriller called Dream Parlor, had never found an audience. His most recent gig was unpaid—three months in Europe filming an Indiana Jones fan film, which he’d accepted out of love for the franchise. Back in L.A., he was looking forward to spending more time with his daughter. When Byers called about Empires, Lawrence was intrigued.

But at dinner, Jiang was distant; he wouldn’t make eye contact with Lawrence and spoke in short bursts of Chinese, which Hu translated into patchy English. Jiang’s tone and body language conveyed a very specific message, Lawrence thought: You’re here for me. I’m not here for you.

Through Hu, Jiang described a fantastical undersea epic with world-class special effects and a poignant love story at the core. The plot would revolve around a Greek hero’s quest to rescue his father, who is abducted by soldiers from a mysterious mer-kingdom, imperiled by the rise of a demon warlord. A tale of good and evil, Empires would be a mix of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lord of the Rings, and Transformers—which had come out earlier that year and was enormously popular in China—with a dash of Shakespeare. Lawrence was skeptical but allowed himself a flicker of hope: This could be big.

Jiang, for his part, was unconvinced of Lawrence’s bona fides. “Why would I want you if you haven’t done anything of note?” Lawrence remembers Jiang telling him. “If you can go out and make a scene that’s as big as Transformers, I’ll consider you.”

Lawrence left the meeting thinking it was a wash; he had no intention of making a Transformers-like teaser on his own dime. But out of respect for Byers, he agreed to take a look at the script. He made it through the first act but found it bizarre and messy. Lawrence handed it off to his assistant to make a few notes, and they sent the feedback to Jiang.

CUT TO:

Two years later, LAWRENCE boards a plane to BEIJING.

Lawrence never heard back from Jiang. The job had gone to someone else. Then, in September 2009, Byers called: Empires of the Deep needed a new director. Lawrence signed a five-month contract.

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During the flight, Lawrence began revising the script. As Jiang imagined it, Empires of the Deep would tell the story of Atlas, the son of the sea god Poseidon. Atlas is depicted as a pure-hearted young man who is restless and unsure of his own destiny. He has an alter ego, the swashbuckling Silver Eye (think Batman vis à vis Bruce Wayne), who appears during moments of peril. During a celebration in Atlas’s village in ancient Greece, an invading army of mermen knights riding on the backs of giant crabs captures Atlas’s adoptive father, General Damos. A 90-foot-tall lobster absconds with a holy temple—the Temple of Poseidon—in its claws.

Atlas and his drunken, lusty sidekick, Trajin, then embark on a quest across the sea to find Damos and retrieve the temple. On the way they stumble onto Crab Island, where in a mysterious palace they encounter bewitching women, including the beautiful princess Aka, who lure men into bed and kill them after making love. From the script:

Atlas kicks open a door. One of his men lay in bed – cold and dead in a woman’s arms. Blood flows from the punctured neck.

AKA (O.C.) (CONT’D)

…let it be known that your quest is in vain, for the temple is not yours to possess…

Atlas kicks open another door – and another. Inside each room, there is a similar scene… a beauty over blood and death.

AKA

And we are not women, as you suppose, but rather faeries from the sea…

Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet crumbles and the palace fills with water. As they thrash about, they see for first time that the palace is actually built atop a 450-foot-long fish. Just then mermen haul Atlas and Trajin into a “spiral-shelled vehicle” with windows made of transparent jellyfish skin. The vessel is pulled by harnessed sea monsters. The women turn into mermaids.

The duo arrive on Mermaid Island, where the Eight Faery Kingdoms have gathered in preparation for an epic battle against the Demon Mage, who has risen after 1,000 years of banishment, spelling death and destruction for the mer-folk. The stolen temple, it turns out, holds magic powers that are needed to combat the “dark evil” that is about to emerge. The script describes Atlas and Trajin arriving at the kingdom:

MERMAID ISLAND – a strange and otherworldly place… the city continues above and below the water. It is an “archipelago” of rocky outcropping….

TRAJIN

What is this place?

ATLAS

A myth, my friend. The legends of the ages are true – an entire kingdom of mer-people.

TRAJIN

Hell of a place to die.

In the movie’s bloody third act, as the Faery Kingdoms fight for survival against the demon army, it is revealed that—gasp!—the Demon Mage has actually been Atlas, the hero, all along.

After reading the script multiple times, I still don’t understand how one character simultaneously travels across the ocean to Mermaid Island as Atlas, fights gallantly as Silver Eye, and ushers in the apocalypse as the Demon Mage. But despite its many flaws, Lawrence told me that he was taken in by its childlike delight in its own fantasy world. Just maybe, he thought, Empires of the Deep could capture some of the magic that had excited him so much as a teenager watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lawrence could tell that the script had gone through a number of revisions. In fact, Empires of the Deep already had a long and tangled backstory that Lawrence was only partially aware of.


CUT TO:

RANDALL FRAKES, mid-fifties, with shoulder-length hair and a thick brown beard, looks out a penthouse office window. The sun is low on the horizon, and there is a spectacular view of Beijing’s smog-shrouded skyline. Beijing is a city bursting at the seams; on nearly every block, a skyscraper is going up.

It all started with the Wolf Witch. In the spring of 2007, the actress Cassandra Gava, who is best known for playing the Wolf Witch in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, made inquires in Hollywood on behalf of a Chinese producer: Screenwriter wanted. Must like mermaids.

Randall Frakes heard about the project from Gava and threw his hat in the ring. A longtime friend of James Cameron’s, Frakes had been a story consultant on Terminator and had penned a number of B movies, including the 1988 sci-fi comedy Hell Comes to Frogtown.

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Randall Frakes had written a number of B movies when he heard about Empires of the Deep. (Photo: Courtesy of Randall Frakes)

Jiang offered him $25,000 to develop the story and rewrite the script. Frakes envisioned a campy adventure film like 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. “It sounded kind of Disney, but I wanted to get my foot in China,” Frakes told me when I reached him by phone at his home in Los Angeles. “I thought, This could be fun.”

In 2007, Frakes flew to Beijing to meet Jiang. The tycoon invited him to his office in the central business district. Seated behind a desk in his large suite, Jiang asked Frakes what he thought about the story. Frakes was honest: It needed a lot of work. “It was a theft, a bad quilting version of scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, from some of the Star Wars films, from all the major films that had been successful in the eighties,” Frakes told me. “I recognized them immediately, and he admitted it.” In one part, Jiang described a chase through a mine with the characters riding mine carts. Frakes pointed out that the scene was cribbed directly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jiang insisted that it stay in. “He was arguing with me adamantly, like the thing he had written was Holy Scripture,” Frakes recalls. “I said, ‘Your story doesn’t make any sense. People will see it’s a grab bag of all these movies.’”

Jiang didn’t debate; instead, Frakes says, he took Frakes down to the parking garage to show off his Lamborghini.

Frakes spent three weeks in Beijing. At night he and Jiang met in Jiang’s office. Jiang told him that he planned to cast foreign actors in the lead roles and wanted to tailor the movie for international distribution.

By the time Frakes got involved, Jiang had already been courting a director: Irvin Kershner, who was best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back and the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. Kershner was in his eighties, and his star had faded; Jiang’s movie offered him the opportunity to get back in the game.

Back in Los Angeles, Frakes met with Kershner at Kershner’s plush mansion in Laurel Canyon. They agreed that the story didn’t work and instead cooked up a modern-day version about a group of characters looking for an alternative energy source who accidentally discover a lost underwater kingdom. “This is the movie I want to direct,” Frakes remembers Kershner telling him.

Frakes sent the treatment to Jiang and argued that the modern setting would play better with Western audiences—namely, sci-fi obsessed teenage boys—and that the story would more naturally lead to video games, serialization, and theme parks. “What is at stake is not something that happened a long time ago, but like the first ‘Terminator’ movie, it is happening NOW, to people like ourselves,” Frakes wrote in the treatment.

Frakes explained that Kershner offered Jiang the best chance for getting the movie made. And Kershner wanted to make the modern version of the movie. But Jiang refused, and both Kershner and Frakes jumped ship. (Kershner died in 2010. Frakes is still listed as the film’s cowriter, though when we spoke he was adamant that none of his ideas were ever used.)

Next, Jiang courted Jean-Christophe Comar, a French director and visual-effects expert, who calls himself Pitof and directed the 2004 Halle Berry vehicle Catwoman. Jiang’s people sent Pitof the screenplay. “The script was just about impossible to read. It was basically a direct translation from Chinese into English,” Pitof told me. “I thought it was quite surreal.” But Jiang offered to pay Pitof $400,000 up front for a year’s work, and the French director agreed.

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Pitof had directed Halle Berry in Catwoman before he took over Empires. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Christophe Comar)

Pitof believed that the original script was so bad that he would need to start from scratch. He hired Michael Ryan, who had worked on a number of television cartoon series, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers: Animated, to help him draft a new script. Pitof says the finished product was like an improved version of 2010’s Clash of the Titans, with strong visuals and dashes of humor.

Jiang hated it and accused Ryan of being a “bad writer,” as Pitof recalls. After 12 months in Beijing, Pitof decided the project “was bullshit,” he says, and flew back to L.A.


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Maxx Maulion was new to Hollywood when he got cast in Empires. (Photo courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Jiang had cycled through two screenwriters and two directors, all of whom had tried and failed to steer him to some semblance of a coherent story. So now he turned back to Lawrence, the director he’d rejected as not Transformers enough.

By the time Lawrence signed on, Jiang had appointed himself casting director and hired an agency in Los Angeles to find candidates for the leads. Lawrence attended the casting sessions and sent his picks to Jiang, who made the final decisions, sometimes based solely on their photographs or brief audition videos. The part of Aka, the mermaid princess, would be played by a young actress named Shi Yanfei, who had little acting experience and hardly spoke English but happened to be Jiang’s girlfriend.

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Irena Violette had appeared in 13 Going on 30 before she was cast as the mermaid Dada. (Photo courtesy of Irena Violette)

Irena Violette, a Romanian-born former model who’d had small roles opposite Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 and Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon in Four Christmases, was cast as the mermaid Dada, Aka’s loyal bodyguard. Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci were reportedly courted for the role of the Mermaid Queen. That role would later go to Olga Kurylenko, a Ukrainian-born actress and model who had starred with Daniel Craig in 2008’s Quantum of Solace and who was the movie’s only bona fide celebrity. She was reportedly paid $1 million.

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Steve Polites had just finished theater school when Jiang cast him in Empires. (Photo courtesy of Steve Polites)

The role of Atlas went to Steve Polites, a handsome 29-year-old fresh out of theater school in Baltimore who had starred in a 2006 straight-to-DVD horror film called The Murder Game. He was signed on for the trilogy. Trajin, Atlas’s sidekick and the movie’s comic relief, described in the script as a “stocky, fun fellow,” would be played by a 27-year-old actor named Maxx Maulion, a cherubic redhead who had appeared in a few indie shorts and TV movies. Jonathan Kos-Read was cast as the menacing Ha Li King, an ally of the mermaid kingdom. Famous in China after a decade working in the country, Kos-Read was a rare Western actor who spoke fluent Chinese.

Once the film was cast, Lawrence flew to Beijing. On the plane, he tried to reconcile the attempts of the previous writers. Somewhere in the blurry distance he began to see the outlines of a story. He needed to clean up the plot, flesh out the main characters, and bolster the comic elements. The 13-hour flight was too short.

INT. BUSTLING OFFICE, BEIJING – DAY

The place is a hub of activity: Dozens of YOUNG CHINESE SPECIAL-EFFECTS ARTISTS are at work, surrounded by mermaid paraphernalia: mermaid murals on glass, oil paintings of mermaids. There’s a large screening room, JON JIANG’s office in the back, and, off to the side, a chilly, dimly lit room where some 60 designers are working on special effects and graphics.

Three

Around 2007, Jiang launched a special-effects company called Fontelysee Pictures to handle the production of Empires. (“Fontelysee” is a garbled transliteration of Champs-Élysées, the boulevard in Paris.) When Lawrence arrived in Beijing, he went straight to Fontelysee’s offices: All around he saw designers working on illustrations depicting finned and fanged sea monsters, phosphorescent mermen soldiers, and vast underwater kingdoms. Many of the drawings were reminiscent of H. R. Giger, the late Swiss surrealist who designed creatures for the Alien series. Artists drafted detailed maps of the kingdoms of Jiang’s imagination and produced CGI trailers to present to financiers, whose money would add to Jiang’s own considerable investment. Chen Peng, who worked in the Fontelysee art department and hired local staff for Empires, remembers the early days as exciting. Everybody bought into Jiang’s vision, Chen told me, which he described as “mysterious” and “unprecedented.” “It’s different from Chinese classical creations,” he said.

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On his first day, Lawrence met with Jiang in his office, with its view of downtown and specially designated nap room in the back. Lawrence hadn’t spoken to Jiang since their awkward first encounter in L.A. The real estate tycoon was friendlier and, through a translator, welcomed Lawrence to Beijing. That night, Jiang treated Lawrence and a few members of the crew to an extravagant meal, and Lawrence presented everyone with American-made gifts. Lawrence remembered how Jiang wouldn’t look him in the eye back in Los Angeles; this time he did.

Over the next few days, Lawrence got to know the team. The movie’s assistant director was a stoic man in his early thirties named Hai Tao, and the coproducer, Harrison Liang, had lived in Los Angeles and spent the bulk of his days chain-smoking in the office between Lawrence’s and Jiang’s. Hai Tao and Liang both spoke fluent English and served as the director’s liaisons with the billionaire, struggling to translate directions so confusing that language often failed them entirely.

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The script called for massive crabs. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

INT. MOVIE SOUNDSTAGE – DAY

LAWRENCE walks through a set depicting a Greek city square with temples resembling the Parthenon. One temple stands apart from the rest: It looks like something from ATLANTIS – the roof is decorated with a fish-scale motif: THE TEMPLE OF POSEIDON. Statues of nude Greeks with ten-foot spears guard the temple.

Soon after he arrived, Lawrence toured a prop warehouse filled wall-to-wall with swords, suits of armor made with actual metal, and the Mermaid Queen’s lavish throne. These were the rejects; Jiang had already ordered all new props to be made.

Outside Beijing was a complex of soundstages where sets for Act I were under construction. Lawrence went to see the set of an ancient prison. Walking down the hallway leading to the dank, dark cells, he noticed that it “looked like a hallway at a YMCA gymnasium”—clean, sterile, and freshly painted. He told the set crew that the hallway had to match the rest of the prison: dirty, decrepit, with roots coming out of the ground. “I need this to look like it was built a thousand years ago!” he commanded. The crew tore it down and started again.

Lawrence also worked on casting extras. Jiang wanted to hire foreigners who lived in China: Those chosen would be paid 8,000 yuan (about $1,200) per month for four months of work. Men had to be at least six feet tall, women five-foot-seven. “European/North American origins are preferable,” one ad read. Some days the office was flooded with actors auditioning for bit parts. Many were Russians or foreign models living in Beijing who barely spoke English. “There wasn’t a large well of talent,” Lawrence told me.

Once Lawrence had oriented himself at Fontelysee’s offices, he holed up in his hotel room, surrounded by storyboards, and turned his attention to the script. He wanted to put some soul into the characters and improve the pace of the plot, removing cumbersome dialogue and exposition. His inspiration was his favorite movie, Raiders. He envisioned Empires as an action comedy, epic and fun. In L.A., Lawrence’s assistant researched the mythology of Poseidon and old Germanic runes, which appear on Atlas/Silver Eye’s skin:

Releasing immense ANGER and dark HATRED, Atlas/Silver Eye mercilessly cuts down all the Mermen Soldiers and in the mix slaughters the Demon Soldiers in savage bloodlust.

He LAUGHS wildly. The RUNES appear all over his body. He releases his true bestiality slashing the monstrous Demon Soldiers… killing one… killing a second… killing a third…

Lawrence worried that audiences wouldn’t root for Atlas, the protagonist whose quest to retrieve his abducted father and the stolen temple propels the narrative forward. He created a romantic storyline involving Atlas and a village woman, as well as a subplot with a child from an orphanage with whom Atlas would develop a father-daughter relationship. Lawrence needed to make the universe of the movie consistent with itself and the plot sensible from beat to beat. But there were a lot of holes. In one scene, Atlas’s father figure, Damos, dies after a major battle in which thousands of mer-people are slaughtered by demon warriors. As the surviving characters mourn, one of the mermaids reveals a magic pill that brings Damos back to life.

Lawrence laughed when he read it. If the mer-folk possessed magic pills that could restore life, why wouldn’t they revive all the others who had been killed? Lawrence rewrote it so that the mermaids revived Damos using a dangerous ancient spell, one that could have grave consequences to the mermaids: They risked their lives to save his. This solution, Lawrence thought, added a sense of jeopardy to the scene.

After spending hours each night working on the script, Lawrence would meet with Jiang to talk about the revisions. Harrison Liang translated the meetings as the two men launched into heated but amicable debates over the script. Then one day, as Lawrence and Jiang were arguing over the magic-pill scene, Lawrence said to Liang: “Tell him ‘Your script is one of the worst pieces of fucking shit I’ve ever read.’”

Liang refused to translate, but Lawrence insisted. Liang passed on some version of the message, although Lawrence doubted it was the literal translation.

Jiang remained calm. “What makes you think you’re a writer?” he asked Lawrence. “You have no credits on IMDb as a writer.”

“Neither do you,” Lawrence said.           


INT. FONTELYSEE OFFICE – DAY

The atmosphere is like the first day of school. The STARS have arrived. STEVE POLITES and MAXX MAULION get their first taste of fame when Fontelysee’s female employees mob them in the office.

In November 2009, Lawrence greeted Steve Polites and Maxx Maulion at the Beijing airport. Lawrence warned them that the movie wouldn’t be like anything they’d ever experienced before. “Nothing is like it is in America,” he told them. “Everything changes here from moment to moment. What is true today will not be true tomorrow.”

The actors drove straight to the Fontelysee offices. To prepare to play Atlas, the hero and the son of Poseidon, Polites had grown out his hair to match the concept art he’d been shown. But at the office, the hair stylists were alarmed by the state of Atlas’s mane. Polites tried to explain that he had hat head, but the term was lost in translation. “This is not how my hair looks normally,” he said. “Let me wash my hair.”

The women spoke in rapid-fire Chinese. They pulled out a wig that looked like “a knock-off Lord of the Rings hobbit wig,” Polites recalls. He was then escorted across the street to a hair salon where stylists permed his hair and bleached it.

Over the course of the next week, his hair changed from orange to green to black and finally to blond, styled in tight curls. He pleaded with Lawrence to step in, but it was too late. Polites looked like he’d had a bowl of instant noodles dropped over his head.

Then he was handed over to the wardrobe department, which had fashioned his costume ahead of his arrival. At the fitting, he drowned in the immense armor that covered his torso, while his pteruges, a skirt worn by Greco-Roman warriors, seemed to reveal a daring amount of thigh; it fell six inches above his knee.

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Polites and Maulion in costume between takes. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

Other characters’ costumes weren’t much better. Maxx Maulion’s Trajin outfit was a burlap toga. The merman costumes were full-body rubber outfits with nubs meant to look like coral. The actors’ faces would be painted green, with fins affixed to their heads. The suits were too loose and needed to be glued to the actors’ skin. (With actual glue. In a blog post, one merman extra recalled that his skin became irritated; when he checked the adhesive bottle, he noticed a warning label that read “AVOID CONTACT WITH SKIN” in large print.)

For the mermaids, the hair department opted for purple skullcaps with what looked like cornrows on top and dreadlocks dangling from the back. The wardrobe team had envisioned the mermaids with plastic seashells covering their breasts, their bodies painted in shimmering blues and greens. But the tails presented a problem: Lawrence wanted to use pliable fins that would delicately wrap around the actors’ legs like a skirt, so they could get around the sets. Instead the costume department devised rigid appendages that would attach to the actors’ thighs. Walking would be a problem.

Looking at the costumes and props, Maxx Maulion—Trajin—kept thinking, Oh man, this is going to be crazy. The Americans began mockingly referring to Empires as “the fish movie.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence was still hard at work on the script, and he asked the actors to meet with him periodically to discuss how to enrich their characters. Polites and Maulion rehearsed their lines in their hotel rooms. The movie seemed only theoretical until the day the cast was invited into a screening room. The special-effects department had made a trailer featuring some of the movie’s early animation and CGI. The graphics looked low budget, but at least there was plenty of room for improvement.

While the preproduction teams got ready to start shooting, Polites and Maulion became fast friends, wandering between the looming skyscrapers of their downtown neighborhood and watching DVDs in their hotel rooms. The pair were on a high; when locals discovered that they were actors from Hollywood, they would ask for autographs. Polites was new to the industry; he had moved to L.A. just a year before he was cast. He worked at a restaurant while he auditioned for acting roles, and Empires was by far his biggest booking. Maulion had had a few small roles in film and TV and only recently obtained his Screen Actors Guild card. Suddenly, he was cast in a leading role—with a paycheck of $70,000, more than he’d ever made.

When I met Polites and Maulion over breakfast on a sunny Hollywood morning in November, they spoke of the optimism of those early days. True, there were things that seemed off—the uncertain schedule, the unfinished script, the weird costumes—but like Lawrence, they believed Empires could be their break. “This was a big deal for me,” Maulion explained. “To book something of this nature was like winning the lottery.”

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Jon Jiang on the set. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Four

In December, Jiang ordered the production to begin shooting. Lawrence was frustrated. There hadn’t been time to rehearse or even to have the full cast do a read-through, but Jiang insisted.

Plus, Lawrence was only about a third of the way through rewriting the script. He shared what he had so far with the cast, the draft peppered with emotional notes. After one scene, in which the characters are transported through an ocean portal to the South China Sea, where they encounter a group of Chinese characters—a scene included to accommodate government censors—Lawrence wrote: “Jiang – I don’t know what to do with this section – it does not fit or serve the story.”

Finally, on page 45:

(DIRECTOR’S NOTE TO ACTORS: THE ENTIRE SCRIPT FROM THIS POINT ON IS BEING RE-WORKED TO FILL IN ALL THE LOGIC HOLES – YOU WILL RECEIVE AN UPDATED SCRIPT LATER)

The production moved to a small town outside Beijing and into a hotel with a karaoke bar and a restaurant that served shark fin soup. The soundstage lot—with sets for Atlas’s home village, a prison that housed captured pirates, and the city square, where the merman/crab invasion takes place—was located nearby.

Before the first take, there was a ceremony at the city-square soundstage to bless the expensive Panavision cameras that had been rented for the picture. Red blankets were placed over them, and incense sticks were lit. A crew member made a brief speech in Chinese.

EXT. ANCIENT GREEK VILLAGE FILM SET – DAY

POLITES and MAULION, in character, walk through a Greek village. They pass caged chickens, merchants’ tents, residents’ homes, and the general’s residence. The cameras roll.

The first scene Lawrence shot depicts Atlas and Trajin. Atlas picks up an apple and tosses it to Trajin. A horse crosses their path. It was a thrilling moment. “Here I am, a nobody in the scheme of things, an independent filmmaker, here on the set of this big movie,” Lawrence says. “We had a lot of hope at that point, because it was everything we’d ever wanted to do. Massive sets. Huge crew. Film cameras.”

But something would go wrong during each take: the horse wouldn’t cross, an extra would fall down, Maulion would drop the apple. After a handful of tries, they wrapped the scene. Neither Polites nor Maulion thought they actually got the shot they needed, but they shrugged it off. Polites was still trying to make peace with his hair, and his skirt felt obscenely short, but he was living his dream.

This is great, he thought. We’re doing it.


Lawrence learned quickly how the style of filmmaking in China differed from the West. Whereas Hollywood sets are extremely hierarchical collaborative dictatorships, Chinese sets are decidedly unsystematic, improvised operations where problems are dealt with as they arise. Just like in Chinese society as a whole, the concept of guanxi—relations or connections—is enormously important. One’s loyalty depends on who it is one has the strongest relationship with. That might be the director or a cinematographer or a producer—but it’s rarely the audience or the movie’s bottom line, which are generally the two highest priorities for American movies.

Empires’ original cinematographer left before shooting began, replaced with Rao Xiaobing, a veteran director of photography who split time between China and the U.S. Rao, Lawrence discovered early in the shoot, was talented and a respected professional who wielded a lot of influence with the crew, to whom he was fiercely loyal.

At first the plan was to shoot the movie with two cutting-edge digital cameras, but Rao lobbied to shoot on film, an old-fashioned and more expensive option. Lawrence supported the choice—after all, his hero, Spielberg, once said he’d shoot on film until the last processing lab shut down.

Because of the expense, Rao would shoot quickly and move on. The actors often had to complete a scene in three or four takes, whereas on a Hollywood set a director might film dozens. It became clear to Lawrence and others that Jiang had decided to get Empires on film fast. Despite all the money that had been invested in preproduction, the frantic shooting schedule and constant cutting of corners led to the first of many rumors that the budget for the movie was far smaller than the reported $100 million.

Polites, the star, quickly lost the optimism of the early days. He felt the shoot was being rushed; they were rarely given the chance to rehearse a scene. Most of the actors’ time was spent sitting around in costume while shots were set up. As they waited, he and Maulion talked about their next career moves and chatted up the female translators.

The actors had been brought to China on generous contracts that promised cushy amenities, most of which failed to materialize. American actors are used to well-appointed trailers where they can hang out between takes. None were provided. Polites had asked for a gym so he could bulk up, as the role demanded, but his request was ignored.

The Americans had expected a selection of food provided by on-set craft services, but the Chinese productions ate more simply. The cast and crew were given the same thing every day: bone-in chicken, a cup of broccoli, and rice. Maulion, whose character was supposed to be chubby, immediately began dropping pounds. Before bed he would eat peanut butter out of the jar and an entire sleeve of Oreo cookies to keep his weight up. He asked his mom to send him cans of tuna from the States.

On set, tension between Lawrence and Rao began to simmer. Lawrence was a hands-on director when it came to lighting and lenses, and he asked the crew for complicated setups to get the shots he wanted. He had a grand vision for Empires. Rao, however, was more of a realist—this wasn’t a Hollywood movie, and he knew it. The communication problems meant that setting up a shot that would take 45 minutes on a Hollywood set would sometimes take four or five hours, with Rao shouting instructions to the Chinese crew. And then, after all that prep time, the actors would be rushed through the shot.

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Shots took hours to set up, leaving actors with nothing to do but sit and wait. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Jiang did not attend the filming, but he called Harrison Liang frequently, asking for updates and sending instructions for Lawrence and the rest of the crew. Indeed, Lawrence rarely had a chance to talk face-to-face with the billionaire. When Jiang did show up, he would make unreasonable demands, like insisting that a smoke machine make more smoke—a time-consuming process—when the actors were ready to shoot.

But there were moments of camaraderie. Once, Jiang approached Polites, placed his hand on his shoulder, and said, “I want to make you into a big star.” And Jiang was respectful of his director, even if he ignored most of his suggestions. “Mr. Jiang likes you,” Lawrence remembers Liang telling him one day. “He’s never given anybody as much respect as he’s given you.”

EXT. BEACHSIDE, QINYU, FUJIAN PROVINCE – DAWN

In a canvas tent, TIRED ACTRESSES playing MERMAIDS sit in chairs as the makeup team applies full-body paint. Raindrops pelt the roof of the tent.

Five

In January, after a few weeks of shooting outside Beijing, the crew moved to coastal Fujian province, in southeast China. The weather was miserable, with day after day of rain.

Fujian sits on a spectacular stretch of coast, with mountains, rivers, caves, and valleys nearby. The script included many scenes in such locations, but the sites were remote and in some cases dangerous. Lawrence began to grow seriously concerned about the state of the shoot. The script was ever changing and the schedule in disarray, and the challenges of the terrain exacerbated the strained relationships on set.

Irena Violette, the mermaid Dada, joined the production in Fujian. Her boyfriend, Jerred Berg, an actor between jobs, came with her. Violette arrived ready to work and with a sense of humor. Oh well, this is China, she shrugged whenever problems arose. But soon her good humor wore thin, and she began describing herself as “the black sheep” on set because of her disagreements with the crew.

The makeup to complete her costume required hours of preparation every day. But the shooting schedule was so haphazard that sometimes she would spend several hours getting ready and then never shoot a frame of film. Frustrated, she would voice her concerns to the crew. She was furious that the actors had to wake up so early and sit around for hours in makeup when it was obvious that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate.

In particular, Violette and Rao didn’t get along. When Violette finally got in front of the camera, she wanted more takes. Rao refused, claiming that they didn’t have enough film.  

Other tensions arose. At one point, Lawrence saw a crew member being kicked in the head by a camera operator. He rushed to step in, but Hai Tao, the assistant director, held him back and told him not to get involved. The stunt team operated independently of Lawrence, and he wasn’t on hand for most of the stunt shoots. Lawrence had no power over the team, but he heard reports that the stuntmen’s safety was being compromised. There were regular accidents, and one stuntman, after hours of being pulled around on ropes, quit in tears because of the pain.

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Maulion and Polites on the beach (Photo: Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

And still, Lawrence had been looking forward to shooting on the beach. The script described a  thrilling raid led by the Ha Li King, played by Jonathan Kos-Read wearing a tentacled crown on his head, who tries and fails to defend the Faery Kingdoms from the Demon Mage. When Lawrence discovered that the beach was flanked by a resort, and that the crew had subsequently built a giant wall to disguise it, it was too late to find another location. In the script, the Ha Li King’s forces are overwhelmed by the Demon Mage and he surrenders. Lawrence surrendered to the chaos and shot on the beach.

Then a scene took the crew to a cave set, where the script called for Silver Eye, Atlas’s alter ego, to free Greek merchants captured by “Thracian Marauders”—pirates. The crew had prepared a massive, unruly horse for Polites:

FROM A LEDGE ABOVE THE PIT

The mighty, black horse leaps into the air – its WHINNY NAY is haunting. Silver Eye holds tightly to the reins. The horse and rider seem to fly overhead.

PIRATE CAPTAIN (sounding alarm)

Silver Eye…!

The cave was dark and cold. The crew wore hard hats; the actors did not. The horse was difficult. The script called for the animal to jump over a feasting table, but instead it reared around excitedly, frightening the extras, some of whom were chained to the cave’s wall. Then suddenly a chunk of rock the size of a manhole cover came crashing from the roof and crushed a spotlight.

Meanwhile, based on Jiang’s frustrated missives, which Liang and Hai Tao transmitted to Lawrence, the billionaire seemed to be growing increasingly irked by the foreign cast and crew’s difficulties adapting to the Chinese way of doing things. Jiang believed the Americans were being soft.

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To reach a location shot on a remote riverbed, the cast and crew were forced to crawl on hands and knees over slippery boulders. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

EXT. ROCKY RIVER VALLEY – DAY

A river snakes through a rocky ravine. The day is overcast, drizzly. The camera pans down to a GROUP gingerly making their way through the challenging terrain. PEOPLE slip and stumble, yelling “shit!” and “fuck!

A few days after the cave scene, Lawrence, Polites, Maulion, Violette, and Berg, along with some of the Chinese crew members and translators, hiked out to scout a shooting location situated on a rocky riverbed. It had been raining for days, and the rocks were covered with wet, slimy moss.

As a safety measure, the crew had laid carpet over the rocks and hired carpenters to build a handrail along a particularly difficult section. Still, there were spots so precarious that the group needed to get down on all fours and crawl.

The hike took an hour, and once they arrived the Americans debated with their translators and a few Chinese crew members about whether it was possible to shoot there at all: The costume and makeup tents had to be set up at a distance from the shooting location, and Irena Violette and the mermaid actors would need to walk over slippery rocks with fins attached to their legs.

Violette was particularly concerned that she might get hurt. Nobody even knew how long it would take to get to the closest hospital.

“If I slip and fall, is there a helicopter?” Violette said.

Lawrence asked one of the translators if the movie had medical insurance. The translator said that it did but that there was no evacuation plan.

“If somebody falls and breaks their neck or their skull, what’s the backup?” Lawrence asked.

“They say they will take the fastest measure,” the translator said.

Back at the hotel, Lawrence fought to scrap the location, and Rao agreed that it was unshootable. But Jiang, who was not on set, was unwavering; the rumor was that his girlfriend, Shi Yanfei, insisted on the spot.

Lawrence appealed to Hai Tao, the assistant director. Could he explain to Jiang that Lawrence didn’t want to shoot under such dangerous conditions? Jiang asked Hai Tao to tell Lawrence that if he didn’t do his job, he’d be fired. He took back his threat, but Lawrence reluctantly went ahead with the shoot anyway.

In the coming days, Chinese workers hauled the gear to the location, carrying it atop bamboo poles. Then the crew set up a tent where the actors could dress and get into makeup.

On the day of the shoot, Violette hiked out at dawn. It was yet another cold and drizzly day. Inside the tent was dark, but there was a heater, so at least it was warm. The artists began applying makeup and affixing fins to her legs.

A few hours later, Rao rushed over. “Come on,” he said, according to Violette, “let’s shoot.” The makeup artists explained that there wasn’t enough light in the tent. They asked Violette to move outside so they could finish more quickly. Violette objected: It was wet and cold, and she was half naked. She asked for someone to bring in another light and finish inside the tent. (When I reached out to Rao to discuss his experiences on Empires, he declined to participate in this article, writing in an email, “I have moved on.”)

A translator told Rao that Violette would not cooperate, and Rao relayed the message to Jiang. Violette insists that wasn’t the case; she simply didn’t want to stand in the cold and risk getting sick.

Violette began to cry. “This is bullshit,” she said, “I’m done.”

She left the tent and walked across the rocks to tell Rao she was quitting. On the way, she ran into Lawrence, who told her that he’d heard that Jiang planned to fire her. “Good,” she said, “because I’m quitting anyway.” Lawrence told her to let Jiang fire her so she could keep her wages.

Violette hiked back to the hotel to pack her bags. She called Harrison Liang; her contract stipulated that production owed her a ticket home, and she wanted one now.

Two days later, no ticket had arrived. Liang told her that the production would not pay for her ticket and demanded that she repay all of the salary she’d earned so far. He threatened to sue her in a Chinese court. (Liang didn’t reply to requests for an interview.)

Violette and Berg’s passports were at the production office, so Violette called an American consulate for help. The official on the phone advised them to make their way to the nearest U.S. consulate, either in Guangzhou or Shanghai.

The couple met with Lawrence to plan an escape. They decided that in the evening Lawrence would call an all-hands production meeting in the hotel lobby. While the crew was distracted, Violette and Berg would slip out a window.

That night, with the entire production gathered around the director, the couple scurried down a hallway unnoticed. They dumped their luggage out the window and crawled after it. Then they walked down to a riverbank beyond the hotel grounds and hiked along the river until they found a spot narrow enough to cross. They waded through the water, carrying their luggage above their heads, and then climbed up the steep embankment on the other side.

CUT TO:

Under the cover of darkness, VIOLETTE and BERG plop down on the riverbank, their feet and pant legs soaked. The night is cold. They change their socks and shoes and begin the long hike down the mountain, hiding in bushes whenever a car approaches.

The next morning, the couple reached a police station in a town called Fuding. The police gave them travel papers and drove them to a train station, where they caught the 11 a.m. to Shanghai. “Once we were on the train and the train moved, I felt I could exhale,” Violette says.

That night they checked into the Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai. The American consulate provided them with temporary passports and obtained Chinese exit visas. A few days later, they were on a plane to Los Angeles.

At the mountaintop hotel, Lawrence kept up a ruse that the couple were refusing to come out of their room. During mealtimes, he would take a tray of food into their room and dump it out the window.

Eventually, the crew demanded that Violette return to the movie. Lawrence knocked on the door one last time.

“Hey guys, it’s me,” he said. He went into the room and emerged moments later to face the Chinese crew with the truth. “They’re gone.”


The casting director soon recruited Kerry Brogan, an American actress living in China, to replace Violette, and Lawrence resumed shooting the movie. But a few weeks later, he realized that he wanted out, too. His contract would end soon, and the movie wasn’t at all what he’d signed up for. Plus, he had another project offer, not to mention a young daughter waiting for him back in Los Angeles. Worse yet, the cast and crew, and Lawrence himself, had not been paid in weeks.

He told Jiang that he would finish the picture—for a million dollars. Jiang accused him of extortion. Lawrence was off the movie. He went to Jiang’s Beijing office to arrange for his payment, refusing to leave until the money had been sent. The director and the billionaire said a cordial goodbye. They shook hands, and Lawrence bowed slightly.

The experience on Empires was tough on Lawrence. He took a yearlong sabbatical, but the frustration lingered. “It knocked the wind out of me,” he told me when we met in Los Angeles. “I questioned what I’m doing in this industry.” He describes his time on the set of Empires as “a dark comedy.”

Although Lawrence’s journey had ended, Jon Jiang still believed Empires was poised for global box-office domination. The cast and crew remained in China. Before Lawrence left Beijing, Jiang asked him, “Do you know any other Hollywood directors?”

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Chinese film sets are decidedly unsystematic, improvised operations where problems are dealt with as they arise. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Six

Last December, I met the director Michael French for coffee in Vancouver to find out what happened on the set of Empires after Lawrence left. French, a laid-back Canadian director of comedies, wore a half smile when we spoke about Empires that suggested I had no idea how much of a circus it was.

A few years before Empires, French had become good friends with Rao Xiaobing on Heart of a Dragon, a biopic he had directed in China. The film chronicles the life of Rick Hansen, a Canadian paraplegic who circled the globe in his wheelchair, focusing on the days Hansen spent in China climbing a section of the Great Wall. The shoot was grueling, but French left with a valuable understanding about how Chinese movie sets operate.

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Michael French had directed a number of comedies and decided to direct Empires as one. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael French)

After Lawrence left, Rao reached out to French about the Empires job, and French agreed to take over the project in February 2009. He had one condition, however: He had a work commitment and had to be back in Canada at the end of April. Jiang agreed to the terms.

French flew to Beijing and then onward to Fujian. The next day he went down to a beach where he found “a big wall, and mermaids, and people killing each other in the water,” he told me. Jiang’s team forbade French from speaking with Lawrence, so he wasn’t sure exactly how to envision the movie. But he found the script campy, so he decided to direct it as a comedy.

French’s laid-back approach and good relationship with Rao improved the mood on set considerably. Filming was about a third completed when French arrived. He had roughly 100 days to shoot, and he planned to finish the script during that time. To speed things up, French cut big swaths of dialogue from the script; he figured his job was “to fix the leak in the pipe. All I cared about was making my days,” he told me.

Olga Kurylenko, the Mermaid Queen, arrived in Beijing in April to film her scenes. She was well-liked on set, playing her character as a powerful leader preparing her kingdom for battle against the Demon Mage:

INT. THRONE ROOM – PALACE – MERMAID ISLAND – CONT’D

The Queen sits on a throne with an empty seat beside her. NOBILITY from the other SEVEN FAERY KINGDOMS stand before her.

QUEEN

My lords and ladies, it has been a thousand years since the nobility of the Eight Faery Kingdoms have all been assembled in one place. I only wish we were here now under more auspicious circumstances.

The faces in the room are grave.

QUEEN

Our darkest hour is upon us. Our only hope lies in the fulfillment of the prophecy. (she rises) We have recovered the sacred temple. But only the Royal Blood will ignite its power. Will you shed your blood for your subjects – for your future?

Like his predecessors, French had to contend with a meddlesome billionaire. One day, Jiang interrupted filming to berate Jonathan Kos-Read, who was playing the Ha Li King. The character marries Princess Aka to secure a royal alliance between the mermaid and Ha Li kingdoms, combing forces to fight the Demon Mage. But Aka loves another. “My heart is weary and my spirit drifts like seaweed uprooted in a storm,” she laments.

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Shi Yanfei as Aka on set. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Kos-Read saw the king as a ghoulish and conniving figure and played it with a hunched posture. “You are like the boundless sea, my Queen—all who encounter you, high or low, lose themselves in your beauty and grace,” he rasped in a growly British accent. He had already filmed for ten days when Jiang scolded him for his acting.

“Do it liked a prince in Shakespeare!” Jiang demanded.

“OK,” Kos-Read replied, “but there won’t be much continuity.”

Jiang didn’t care, and so Kos-Read tried the scene with an upright posture and a poncy British accent.

“Yes! That’s the character,” Jiang said.

French stood by watching. When Jiang left the set, French offered a solution: They would film each scene with both versions of the character—and forget about Jiang’s vision in the editing room.

INT. AUDITORIUM, DOWNTOWN BEIJING – DAY

A press conference is taking place. On a stage made to look like an ancient temple, MERMAIDS wearing what appear to be swimming caps with dangling dreadlocks dance to heavy drumbeats and flashing lights.

In April 2010, a little more than two months after French took over Empires of the Deep, the cast and director were asked to appear at a press conference in Beijing. Journalists were given 3-D glasses to watch a trailer that featured Kurylenko as the Mermaid Queen. Her words echoed over the auditorium: “The Demon Mage, so long imprisoned by our ancestors, can no longer be restrained!” The trailer looked half finished, the special effects as if they were from a nineties video game.

Shi Yanfei, who plays the mermaid Aka, and Polites took the stage. Kos-Read, the event’s host, announced Kurylenko, who walked down a red carpet leading from backstage in a slim black dress. “Ni hao,” she said in stilted Chinese, “wo ai dajia”—I love everyone. Applause broke out across the theater.

A few weeks later, Michael French’s contract expired. Most of the script had been put on film, but Jiang began adding extra scenes and demanded that French stay through the end, or else he wouldn’t be paid for the last of his work. French was exasperated. “The train was off-track. They couldn’t pay the crew. They couldn’t pay for the cameras. But they could add extra scenes?” he told me. He believed the producers had failed the movie. “There was nothing they could offer that would beat the prospect of going home.”

He told his friend Rao that he was leaving and booked a plane ticket to Canada. On April 30, his birthday, Empires’ third director flew home.


Throughout that spring, Jiang invited journalists to visit the set. “This is a Hollywood film made by Chinese,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ll use our resources to market it so it will succeed. It has to.” To a reporter from The New York Times, he compared himself to George Lucas, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson. “Empires,” he said, was “a very serious love tragedy” that “is a combination of something mystical, something that satisfies your bloodlust, and something sensual.” Jiang boasted that the script went through 40 drafts with the help of ten Hollywood screenwriters, and he envisioned distributing his movie to 160 countries. In Jiang’s office, according to the Times, was a dry-erase board that read “Days until Monica Bellucci shows up on set,” “Days until the Cannes Film Festival,” and “Days until the grand premiere,” all left blank.

The Times reporter also noted a problem that Lawrence had encountered during the earliest days of the film: People weren’t getting paid. At the beginning of the shoot, checks were a day or two late. But as the production stretched on and the budget ballooned by a reported $50 million, pay arrived weeks and even months behind, and in some cases not at all.

Jiang admitted to the Times that some people were getting paid late because of “liquidity problems.” Once, according to French, a group of foreign extras who hadn’t been paid in weeks threatened to walk. Instead of paying them, the production team called the local police to come to the hotel and check their visas—a scare tactic. One day, China Film Group, the behemoth state-owned studio, locked the door to a soundstage because it hadn’t been paid for use of its gear.

No one knows how much of his own money Jiang invested in the project. Some of the people I interviewed think he nearly bankrupted himself, but Peter Hu, a former Fontelysee executive, told me that he believes Jiang relied almost entirely on outside financing and that when it dried up, the payments to cast and crew stopped. By the time the movie was finished, the investors were furious. “It’s not a happy ending,” Hu says. “They lost a lot of money.”

After Michael French left, Jonathan Lawrence heard from someone in Jiang’s office. Would he come back to the movie?

No.

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American actors were promised plush trailers where they could relax between takes. None materialized. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

INT. A SOUNDSTAGE, BEIJING – DAY

Empires’ fourth director, SCOTT MILLER, rushes around the set. CHINESE SET BUILDERS are constructing a palace for a banquet scene atop a GIANT FISH, 20 feet high and surrounded by green screens. ACTORS wait for the set to be completed.

The interior is too dark to film; the WORKERS saw off the top of the palace they have just finished building.

MILLER

I guess that’s one way to get light.

Seven

In early 2016, I tracked down Empires’ fourth and final director, the man who saw the movie to wrap. Scott Miller is a Los Angeles–based filmmaker and the son of Warren Miller, the famed producer and director of over 750 sports documentaries. Miller got along well with Jiang, and unlike many of those involved, he has fond memories of the three months he worked on Empires. “It was a blast,” he told me when we spoke over the phone. “I enjoyed it immensely.”

Miller had worked with Harrison Liang in the past and accepted the Empires job with enthusiasm. He saw Empires of the Deep as a love story between Atlas and Aka. It was epic and fun, yes, but what it was missing was emotion, and he added material to build up the romance.

When he arrived in China, morale on set was abysmal. He tried to improve it by allocating more money for better food for the cast and crew. He slowed down the pace of shooting and worked closely with Steve Polites and Shi Yanfei to deepen their portrayals. He watched the footage of the previous few directors and lobbied to reshoot the whole thing to realize his vision. (Miller’s request was denied. The directors and actors disagree about how much each director shot. Most agree that the shoot was almost evenly divided between Lawrence, French, and Miller. But Miller says that he shot a full two-thirds of the movie.

Maxx Maulion couldn’t imagine reshooting the film. By May 2010, he had been in China for six months and saw no end in sight. With three different directors, he had three different takes on his character. Was he a joker? A drunk? A sad sack? He hadn’t been paid in three months—he was owed more than $30,000. He noticed that the production was rushing his scenes and believed that they were trying to film him out of the movie to avoid paying him what he was owed.

Maulion’s agent told him to walk off the set and come back to Los Angeles. He told his friend and costar Polites that he was leaving. He felt guilty, but Polites understood. While he was in the cab to the airport, his phone buzzed with texts: He was due on set in an hour. He didn’t respond.

Polites wanted to stick it out: He was the star, and he was fighting sea monsters. Empires was what he’d always dreamed of doing. A few months later, Polites shot his final scene: a brief encounter in the mermaid palace that required him to get sopping wet. He was ready to go home. Before he departed, he asked the wardrobe department if he could take Atlas’s sword with him as a souvenir. They said no, so he settled for his cape.


Back in L.A., still stinging from his experiences in China, Maulion wondered if Empires would ever be released—and whether his character would still be in the film. The movie was scheduled for a 2011 premiere. But the date came and went. In October 2012, two years after principal photography wrapped, a 3-D trailer appeared online. The website Den of Geek wrote that it looked “hurriedly put together for the Syfy Channel.… Clearly, this was not a film that would make James Cameron fear for his position as the king of the glossy blockbuster.”

After Empires, Maulion wrote and starred in an indie comedy called Tony Tango. In 2012, he promoted the movie at the American Film Market at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. As he walked into the lobby, he noticed a banner for Empires of the Deep.

He searched for the Empires booth and found it downstairs in the international section, where, in a dark, largely empty corner, he encountered Jon Jiang. Maulion greeted him, and the exchange was amiable. Maulion asked if he was still in the movie, and Jiang said through a translator that he was; they’d hired a chubby European man to shoot from behind for the remainder of Trajin’s scenes. There were no visitors to the booth, and Jiang appeared disheartened. Maulion figured he wasn’t having any luck finding a distributor.

“No hard feelings?” Maulion said, shaking hands with Jiang. He still hadn’t been paid for his last three month’s work.


In 2013, one of Jiang’s assistants called Steve Polites and invited him to the Cannes Film Festival to promote the movie. The producers bought Polites a ticket to France and rented him a tux. On the way to the airport, he got a call with news that the trip was canceled. “After that I was kind of like, OK, I’m washing my hands of this,” Polites says.

But Empires wasn’t done with him. The next year he was invited to a screening of the movie at the Sony Pictures lot in Los Angeles. Jiang had reportedly hired Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s longtime editor, to cut the film, and it looked as if it was finally being geared up for release. Polites went to the theater with some trepidation; he was still trying to come to terms with his hair, among other things. He brought along his wife for emotional support.

Although he was amazed to see himself on the big screen fighting sea monsters and demons, much of the film was outright ridiculous. The story was a mess, the plotline didn’t work, and the CGI looked cheap and unfinished. The best the movie could hope for, Polites figured, was to find a cult following. “It’s so kind of wonderfully weird in its own way. It’s so bad it’s good.”

Two weeks later, in April 2014, almost four years after filming ended, he flew back to China for reshoots. Neither Scott Miller nor Rao Xiaobing was there; in fact, Polites didn’t recognize anyone from the original crew. He spent a week in China and did only one full day of shooting. By then Polites’s hair was short, so the wardrobe team picked up a wig for him to wear. He describes it as “Marilyn Monroe–esque.”

INT. THE LOBBY OF THE CHINA WORLD HOTEL, BEIJING – LATE AFTERNOON

Three men and a woman sit around a table in the luxury hotel’s café. JON JIANG wears sweatpants, white sneakers, what looks to be an expensive black lambskin coat, and an ascot tied around his neck. CHEN PENG, his friend and former employee, sits across from him. A jet-lagged JOURNALIST and his FIXER question the billionaire about his missing blockbuster.

Eight

In late November 2015, I traveled to Beijing to find out what had happened with Empires of the Deep. After some prodding, Jiang reluctantly agreed to an interview. As we sat over drinks in the hotel lobby, he was friendly, with a nervous bounce in his knee. Drinking Coke with lemon from a glass, he displayed an earnest excitement, especially when he mentioned a new movie he was writing called Parallel Universes, based on the theories of quantum mechanics.

I asked him about the revolving door of directors on Empires. Pitof, he said, was good at special effects and played a positive role in the early stages of the movie. But he kept changing the script, of which he had little understanding. “I thought it would be better to hire a director from Hollywood,” Jiang told me. “It’s very hard to communicate with the French.”

“We wanted it to look as good as Star Wars,” Jiang continued. He said he hired 3-D experts from Avatar and added more than 1,300 special effects—more than Transformers. Postproduction was expensive, and it took years to complete. Jiang said the production was waiting for more investment money. The budget for the movie kept growing, and they struggled to pay for it all.

When I asked Jiang if I could watch the latest cut of Empires, he told me I’d have to wait for the theatrical release. It wouldn’t do the movie justice to watch it on DVD.


On January 21, 2016, a new and improved trailer befitting a slick video game appeared on a Chinese crowdfunding website. The special effects were better than earlier versions, but the teaser didn’t reveal much in the way of plot, focusing instead on sea monsters, mermaids, and epic battle sequences. “The war between good and evil has just begun,” the text overlay read.

The producers were seeking to raise 1 million yuan ($150,000) by March 23 for an undisclosed purpose and were advertising a dubious April 2016 release date. For less than $25, an individual donor’s name would appear in the credits, and for $7,600 a company’s logo could be printed on movie posters and advertisements. The promotional material on the site included a picture of Steve Polites with another actor’s name written underneath it, listed Irvin Kershner as one of the directors alongside Scott Miller and Michael French, and credited Randall Frakes as a screenwriter. It made no mention of Pitof, Jonathan Lawrence, or Maxx Maulion.

Four months later, just 2 percent of the fundraising goal had been reached.

EXT. UPSCALE RESIDENTIAL COMPLEX, BEIJING – DAY

On a frigid winter morning, a JOURNALIST searches for an opening into a padlocked three-story rental office decorated with Greco-Roman columns. He finds a door that’s not quite closed and yanks it open.

Before I left Beijing, I traveled to one of the properties that made Jon Jiang a rich man. It’s called Fengdanli She, which translates to “red maple leaf beautiful house.” Situated on the dusty outskirts of Beijing, six miles north of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the gated community has a faux-European design meant to convey luxury. Although it’s only a decade old, up close the brick homes look cheap and worn, like so many properties hastily erected during China’s boom.

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 In a dusty abandoned office outside Beijing, the remains of an empire. (Photo: Mitch Moxley)

Well-to-do young families bundled in parkas and wool hats strolled past neatly trimmed hedges. Guards in military-style winter hats and oversize yellow uniforms manned the front gates with clipboards. Next to the front entrance was the complex’s former rental office, a three-story white building. The doors and windows were padlocked, but eventually I found a door that was ajar and crawled inside.

The air was cold and still; the building appeared not to have been entered by another human being in years. Used mattresses, discarded office chairs, and filing cabinets collected dust. But among the detritus were other, more peculiar artifacts. In one room there were dozens of swamp green rubber merman costumes hanging on racks. In another, fake pieces of coral littered the ground. There was a chest plate for a Greek warrior, a five-foot-wide starfish, and a helmet with a plaster fin on top. There was what looked like a castle turret made of styrofoam, statues of seahorses, and dozens of spears and axes stacked against a wall.

Jiang told me that he is determined for the film to be more than a collection of dusty props in a warehouse. Ten years after he first shopped Mermaid Island around Hollywood, six years after filming wrapped, and four years after the first trailer appeared online, Jon Jiang’s dream remains very much alive. When we met in the China World Hotel, the man behind the mermaids insisted that Empires would soon be released. It just needed to be approved by Chinese censors, and then he would begin looking for an international distributor. Empires of the Deep was still poised for global success, as it has been all along.

“The world,” he said, “has never seen anything like this before.”

FADE OUT.

THE END


Satchel Paige and the Championship for the Reelection of the General

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How the best baseball pitcher in the American Negro leagues came to play for the cruelest dictator in the Caribbean.

By Jonathan Blitzer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 57


Jonathan Blitzer has written for the Oxford AmericanThe New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others.


Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Thiel
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Juanita Ceballos and Jika Gonzalez
Illustrator: Kelsey Dake
Photographer: Tatiana Fernández Geara

Published in February 2016. Design updated in 2021.

One

On a warm April day in 1937, Satchel Paige sat in his room at a boarding house in New Orleans, listening to voices drift up from the lobby. Word around the establishment was that some guys with foreign accents and Panama hats were looking to talk to him. Paige had asked around, but no one knew who they were. He was used to being pursued. He was the most famous black baseball player in the country and the ace pitcher for one of the best teams in the Negro leagues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

The season opener was scheduled for April 25, and Paige had arrived alone, in his Green Packard convertible, without his teammates or his coaches knowing whether he was going to show up at all. He liked making people wait. He did it to batters, who suffered through his famed hesitation delivery; to his wife, Janet, who finally issued an ultimatum after three years of dilatory courtship; and to his fellow Crawfords, who struggled to stay loose midgame while he sauntered out to the stands to smoke and spar with the fans. They all put up with his antics because he was the best there was, and he knew it.

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Satchel Paige

By the spring of 1937, he had earned hundreds of wins and multiple no-hitters. He dominated the black circuit during the spring and summer, lending out his services to white semipro teams for pocket money along the way. In the off-season, he barnstormed across the country and played winter ball in California, where he pitched against big leaguers like Jimmie Foxx and Dizzy Dean, who came away saying he was the toughest pitcher they’d ever seen. He was every bit the showman that he was the ballplayer. As a youngster in his home state of Alabama, he’d once called in his outfielders to sit in a half-circle around the mound, with runners on base and two away. He wanted to get the final out of the inning on the strength of his arm alone. When he struck out the batter on three straight pitches, his gambit instantly took on the cast of legend. “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging,” Paige used to say—he even bragged about bragging.

Paige rented a room at a battered boarding house with a pointy, shingled roof on Dryades Street, in downtown New Orleans. It was one of only a handful of places in the city that accepted black lodgers. Paige had been ducking in and out since he got there, rushing to the team’s practices and exhibition games in preparation for opening day against the Crawfords’ crosstown rivals back in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays. It would be the start of a season-long “diamond war,” as one newspaper wrote, and New Orleans was chosen as neutral turf for the showdown.

Unlike the white Major Leagues, with top-dollar salaries and the media’s undivided attention, the Negro leagues consisted of one improvisation after another; operations were underfunded and undersubscribed. Getting fans to turn out depended more on spectacle than on the quality of the play itself. Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Crawfords, profited from a healthy rivalry between the two teams. In addition to Paige, he was peddling a novelty act: a right-handed catcher who reclined in a multicolored rocking chair behind home plate. Greenlee was sure that his team’s new catcher would “start throwing and rocking his way to fame,” he said, adding, “He’s liable to be as big an attraction as Satchel before the season’s gone.”

Soon after Paige got to town, his teammates told him about the men who had been lurking by the fields and asking about him. Paige began to notice them in the bleachers, flitting forms in the distance that would mass when he took the field and then scatter when he walked off. Wherever he drove, he felt that he was being followed. Paige figured he knew what it was all about: another offer, possibly to play somewhere south of the border like Puerto Rico or Cuba. “The pay was always good down there,” he would later recall in his memoir. “Down there, nobody was locking their doors to Ol’ Satch.” Whoever these guys were, though, he would have to avoid them. He didn’t want to be tempted away by their offers. Janet was pressuring him to stay put after he had traveled to Puerto Rico without her, canceling their vacation so he could pick up an extra paycheck, and she was still upset with him.

Now, from up in his room, Paige could make out the sounds of Rs rolling and vowels flattening out, like he remembered from the Caribbean. He thought he heard his name and bolted upright. Dressed in his usual attire, a flashy suit and fedora, Paige grabbed his car keys and scrambled down the stairs to the alley where his car was parked. The rooming house shared a driveway with a shoe-shine parlor called Globe Trotters. Sun glinted off its sign and into Paige’s eyes as he wheeled out. He’d almost made it to the street when, suddenly, there was a screeching of tires and a black limousine slammed into view, blocking his way. A door opened and out stepped a short man, with brown eyes and black hair oiled back to accentuate a mild widow’s peak; he was fair skinned and wore a cream-colored linen suit.

“I’m Dr. José Enrique Aybar,” he said as Paige cautiously got out of his car. “I direct the baseball team in Ciudad Trujillo.” The men in Panama hats, it turned out, were from the Dominican Republic.

“I’d heard of sick clubs and ballplayers that looked pretty sick,” Paige later remembered, “but I never knew there was one so sick it needed a doctor to manage it.” He fixed his gaze on Aybar. “What can I do for you, Doc?”

“President Trujillo has instructed me to obtain the best pitcher possible for his team, and our scouts recommend you,” Aybar said.

“I’m glad your scouts like me, but I figure I’ll just stay with Gus Greenlee.”

“We are very interested in winning,” Aybar said. “We will give you thirty thousand American dollars for you and eight teammates, and you may take what you feel is your share and divide the rest.”

Paige was stunned. “Do I get to see the money?”


In the pantheon of American baseball, Satchel Paige has always occupied a special place. He was one of the game’s all-time greats and also one of its most shameless and storied self-promoters. A whole mythology surrounds him and his exploits; he talked almost as fast as he pitched. In photos his mischievous smile made him seem invincible. A few years ago I learned, by chance, that he had played for one of the most infamous Latin American dictators who ever lived. It struck me as the kind of story only Paige himself could concoct, a tale so gaudy as to seem camouflaged in the annals of sports. I decided to investigate what happened when these two outsize individuals collided.

I began with Paige’s famously self-aggrandizing memoir, Maybe Ill Pitch Forever, in which he breezily recounts his first meeting with Aybar. There’s an insouciance to the anecdote that is vintage Paige. But while he portrayed his Dominican suitor as straight-laced and blandly solicitous, Aybar was the emissary of one of the most violent and dangerous men of his day. Paige didn’t know that at first. (In his defense, neither did the U.S. government.) Some accounts of their meeting have Aybar wielding a pistol to drive home his offer, although Paige was apparently unimpressed. Perhaps so far from the Dominican capital, where he held tremendous power, Aybar did not seem threatening.

In his later years, Paige talked openly about his anxious impressions of General Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, but by then the story had already been buffed to a high sheen. I always wondered if it wasn’t meant to be blinding. Paige liked to tell tales—zany and quippy and heaped high with bravado. But a plaintiveness shone through. I was lured to the legend of Paige’s greatness by his own storytelling, only to find a fissure in the monument he’d built to himself.

Paige was all but synonymous with black baseball, and yet it often seemed that his towering celebrity in the Negro leagues hardly registered in the vehemently segregated world beyond. The feeling dogged him from his early days but seemed to gain force in the 1930s, when he was maturing as a player. One day, while playing winter ball in California, he was contacted by scouts from the Yankees, who wanted to test a young prospect named Joe DiMaggio by trying him out against Paige’s pitching. DiMaggio joined a team of pro players culled from some of the best Major League rosters, while Paige’s teammates consisted entirely of high schoolers and amateurs. Paige struck out 14 batters on the day and knocked in his team’s only run, single-handedly carrying the squad into the tenth inning, but the game was remembered for a fluky infield hit he surrendered to DiMaggio with two outs and a runner on third. The scouts cabled back to New York to relay DiMaggio’s definitive new credential—“Hit Satch One for Four”—launching his pro career. “I got more notice for losing that game than I did winning most of my other games,” Paige said afterward.

While the Yankees were signing DiMaggio, Paige slunk off to continue barnstorming, which brought its own problems. Being black meant something different every place he went. In Bismarck, North Dakota, he played alongside white teammates—something that would have been unfathomable in the South. He was the toast of the town for his dominance on the mound in the Midwest, and yet he and his wife had to live in a semi-furnished railway car on the outskirts of town. “Having to live like that ate at me,” he said after he got back to Pittsburgh. “The blood gets angry.” By the mid-1930s, white baseball stars were starting to publicly question the league’s policy on segregation, but nothing came of it: Pro owners either wouldn’t take the risk of being the first to sign a black player or simply couldn’t fathom eliminating the racial barrier.

When Paige accepted Aybar’s offer, a young journalist named Ollie Stewart, writing for the Baltimore Afro-American, saw Paige’s defection as more than a mere dollar proposition. “While some newspapers and sports writers were hammering away (verbally) to open the gates of white baseball leagues to colored players, Satchel Paige and a few other guys got tired of waiting for the miracle to happen and quietly shipped off to Santo Domingo to cash in on their talent,” he wrote at the time. South of the border, Stewart said, “the color of your bills seems all that counts.”

If you’d asked Paige why he did it, he probably would have winked and told you about the money-filled briefcase Aybar brought back, as promised, after their chat in the alleyway. But there was something else he was questing after, something harder to pin down. He was willing to trade a city he knew for one he didn’t, to give up his bankable celebrity in the States for a chance at a different life, and to cash in on his reputation by cozying up to the strangest allies he could find. In the process, he very nearly brought an end to the Negro leagues for good. What’s stunning even now is Paige’s willingness to risk so much. At 30, married and in his sporting prime, he decided to leave behind the world that made him.

Two

The precariousness of black baseball gave rise to a paradox: The league was made and run by strongmen and swashbucklers who projected power in spite of their unequal status. Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. Like Paige, he was over six feet tall and commanding, but where Paige was wiry, with a winsome nonchalance, Greenlee was thickset and imposing, 200 pounds and fleshy faced. He had come up hard, from the South, and clawed his way north toward prominence. Greenlee dropped out of college, abandoning his family to come to Pittsburgh, where he began driving a cab and selling bootlegged whiskey, earning the nickname Gasoline Gus.

By the time Paige met him, Greenlee was a power broker of black Pittsburgh. The Caliph of Little Harlem, they called him. He was a veteran of the First World War, an impresario, and a business owner, all self-made. He owned the Workingmen’s Pool Hall, the Sunset Café, and Crawford’s Grill, which took up nearly a whole city block and played host to the city’s black elite. But running numbers was his lifeblood. He pulled in $25,000 on a good day, which allowed him to finance the one thing that gave him his special sense of purpose: his ball club. He bought the team in 1930, then recruited top-flight talent to build the premier outfit in the game: Satchel Paige; a clean-up-hitting catcher by the name of Josh Gibson; and a center fielder, James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was said to be so fast that he could switch off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark. The league’s scattershot quality made Greenlee an instant titan. He wasn’t just a club owner; he was the president of the league, having revived it after a string of bankruptcies.

Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. 

But by the spring of 1937, Gus Greenlee was in a bind. One of his employees was snitching. The cops kept busting up his numbers rackets, and it was bleeding him dry. Much to their annoyance, he’d already told Paige and his teammates that they’d have to go to New Orleans on their own dime. He’d pay them for their opening games, but they were in charge of their own accommodations and travel until then. Greenlee’s troubled finances exacerbated a long-standing worry that Paige would spring from his grasp and even take some of his teammates with him.

In March, Greenlee traveled to New York for a weekend meeting with other club owners and league officials. They packed into a small office at the Tammany Democratic Club on Seventh Avenue to hash out details of the coming season. One thing they could agree on was a need for stronger contracts, since all of them were concerned about losing their top players. Team owners were always cutting deals to lure players away with better salaries or bonuses; it was known as contract jumping. Greenlee was the worst offender, but even he was growing battle weary. All the teams were hurting as the Depression dragged on. Ticket sales had slumped by the end of the previous season, and practically every club was in the red.

The meeting was civil. No more breaking contracts, the owners decided. What was true for the players had to be true for the owners, too. “No infringement of territory rights,” Greenlee declared. The league commissioner, Ferdinand Q. Morton, nodded vigorously. “That’s right, no nosing in,” added Cum Posey, the debonair owner of the Homestead Grays. He glared at Greenlee as he said it. Greenlee had been pilfering some of Posey’s best guys, then trading them back at a profit. The latest was Josh Gibson, whom Greenlee sold back to Posey for $2,500 while they were all still seated around the table.

As opening day approached, Greenlee was cautiously optimistic that the new contract agreements meant he could stop worrying about Paige. By 1937, Greenlee had already banned Paige from the Negro leagues once before for breaking his contract and accepting more money from other teams, but, desperate for Paige’s star power, he’d taken him back.

Three

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Dr. José Enrique Aybar

Aybar was an unctuous negotiator. He trotted out a parade of luxuries to ensure that Paige appreciated the significance of being summoned by a head of state. “I never seen a man with such power,” Paige remembered. He was describing Aybar but thinking of Trujillo. “He flies us down to Ciudad Trujillo on a big plane, and we ain’t put out no place to let other passengers on. No, sir. We got right of way. And what’s more, we don’t even have passports.” Janet Paige would follow several days later—Aybar was paying for her trip, too. Paige’s personal catcher, a bruiser named Bill Perkins, was also along for the ride. All they knew was that they were playing for Trujillo.

Each year, the Dominican Republic celebrated a baseball tournament that divided the country into four regional rivals. Clustered around Santiago, in the north, were supporters of the Eagles of the Cibão region; in the east, fanning out around the port city of San Pedro de Macoris, were those faithful to the Estrellas de Oriente, whose mascot was a giant elephant; Santo Domingo, the capital city, which had been recently renamed Ciudad Trujillo, was cleaved in two by those loyal to the Escogido Lions and the Licey Tigers. Stars from across Latin America flocked to the Dominican Republic to play, and the nation happily succumbed to baseball fever.

In February 1937, a council of businessmen convened in the capital to plan the year’s tournament, and the proceedings took on an air of solemnity and anticipation. Trujillo had recently announced presidential elections for the following year; he enjoyed the formality of the vote, all the better for his personal pageantry. The tournament, as one of the signal events on the national calendar, would need to reflect his supremacy. The council decided on a fitting title: “The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo.”

Soon after, the owners of the Tigers and the Lions—long-standing cross-town rivals just like Greenlee’s Crawfords and Posey’s Grays—combined forces to represent the city. If Santiago and San Pedro de Macoris could summon fearsome and gigantic beasts to represent their clubs, Ciudad Trujillo’s image was bigger still: The club was called the Dragons, and Aybar himself signed on as its vice president. Winning the tournament was an obsession for Aybar—a gift he wanted, and felt he needed, to deliver Trujillo himself.

Aybar was a rabidly loyal supporter of Trujillo precisely because he’d once been a traitor to the cause. He was a dentist by training but also something of a kingmaker—a member of the reigning political party and a frequent speaker at its meetings. When Trujillo first came to power, after a coup he’d orchestrated in February 1930, Aybar had been one of his most vocal naysayers. The son of a poor postal clerk who had a reputation for cattle rustling, Trujillo was an uneducated tough; as a teenager he enrolled in the country’s national guard, which had been set up and run by U.S. marines in the early 1920s, when the Americans occupied the country. Quietly but tenaciously, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming head of police. Trujillo wasted no time in consolidating his power, and he gave the national police a new name: the Dominican Army. But even as Trujillo grew in stature, Aybar doubted his staying power. Trujillo called for an election in May 1930 to shore up his legitimacy. A month before the vote, Aybar gave a speech in which he said that Trujillo was like “the product of an abortion; he had no viability at all.”

If uttering those words had felt, for a moment, like an act of grandiloquent heroism, it had promptly become a liability. Rumors that Trujillo was systematically eliminating his rivals spread in the run-up to the vote. The military stormed meetings of political opponents, jailing and killing critics. Politicians outside Trujillo’s orbit fled the country, while judges tasked with overseeing the vote abandoned their posts and sought asylum at the American embassy. Gangs loyal to Trujillo rode the streets of the city in dark, unmarked cars, wreaking havoc.

By August, with the city shaken and smoldering, Trujillo had won the election with more votes than there were eligible voters. From that moment on, Aybar labored hard to make his loyalties clear. Before long, the local press started calling him the Dominican Doctor Goebbels. He hounded Trujillo’s critics and devised elaborate schemes to eliminate anyone who could damage the dictator’s popularity. By 1937, he was a member of Trujillo’s inner circle, even creating a special security detail for the leader, drawn from students at the university where he was dean of the dental school.


The streets were full of soldiers, armed and draped in military fatigues, when Paige arrived, on April 18. He touched down 50 miles east of the capital in a Pan-American hydroplane with a twin tail and four propellers mounted on each wing. As it skipped across the Higuamo River, people ran to the bank to wave it in. A group of men from Aybar’s club greeted Paige as he climbed out, enthusiastically shaking his hand before piling together into a car.

I can only imagine what Paige must have been thinking on that drive. The trip was more than an hour long, so there would have been plenty of time for him to reflect on his situation. But Aybar mostly kept him in the dark. Paige must have known a little Spanish from stints playing in Latin America, but not enough to ask his hosts hard questions. “If that man don’t like you, you wake up and you’re movin’,” he later wrote of Trujillo. “And from what I seen it don’t take much for him not to like you.” Trujillo’s sway was unmistakable, even in the jumble and fog of his arrival. It was waiting for Paige like an announcement on the facade of the hotel where he was staying: Hotel Presidente, a three-story structure with a rooftop garden overlooking a park in the center of town.

Last summer I visited the National Archives, in Santo Domingo, to root through old newspapers and steal a glance into Paige’s life in the capital. There were two main dailies back then, El Listín Diario, which came out in the morning, and La Opinión, which was sold around lunchtime. There may not have been an explicit policy of censorship at the time, but the papers were visibly constrained just the same, the style cramped and canny. Both trafficked in the mainstream news of the day: headlines about the Spanish Civil War raging in Europe, obligatory panegyrics to Trujillo, and society pages with wedding announcements and photos of tiara-wearing doyennes. Tucked in the middle of each broadsheet was the sports section. The columns teeter and veer, the tiny type packed densely around scant photos. The sports pages of La Opinión were looser and more playful, and they brimmed with commentary and humor pieces. Journalists were savoring the drama well before Paige arrived in the capital.

When the council overseeing the tournament first met, its members made a fateful decision: No limits would be placed on the number of players each team could import from abroad. This immediately set off an arms race. In each city, influential businessmen and political figures rushed to recruit the best talent. Dominican players alone weren’t enough to assure victory; the teams looked mainly to Cuba, Latin America’s baseball capital, to secure the most competitive rosters. “We would have imported white American league players,” Aybar told the press, but “the salaries paid them by the big league magnates made it impossible for us to do better.” Not so for black American players.

From the start of the tournament in March, the competition was stiff. The Estrellas de Oriente, the champions from the 1936 tournament, already boasted the country’s greatest star, the fleet-footed center fielder Tetelo Vargas, who was joined by an array of decorated Cuban moundsmen. Santiago was reportedly paying the highest sum in the history of Latin baseball—about $1,000 a month—for the Cuban legend Martín Dihigo, a player so complete and dominant he was known as El Hombre Team, because he played every position on the diamond, and often hit third in the batting order, the spot reserved for the deadliest hitter in the lineup. The Dragons, meanwhile, had assembled a squad that consisted of a smattering of Dominicans and Cubans, a costly lot whose combined star wattage was dim. 

There was a certain irony to these recruiting sprees, given Trujillo’s fanatical patriotism. His rhetorical platform had trumpeted the dignity of the nation above all else. Yet, in the baseball tournament meant to serve as the principal advertisement of his reelection, there were a surfeit of Cubans. One sports reporter groused, “It’s simply a drag-out fight among the regions in which each one tries to spend more money buying ballplayers from abroad.” The stakes were too high to spare any expense but too expensive not to imperil nationalist dogma.

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An artifact of the 1937 championship. (Courtesy of Orlando Inoa)

The schedule, which consisted of about forty games, was straightforward: three matchups each weekend in two separate ballparks. There’d be a double-header in one—a game in the morning at 9:30, a break for lunch, and an afternoon game at three; then, later that evening, the players would pack into a caravan of automobiles, complete with team-supplied chauffeurs, and travel to one of the other two cities represented in the tournament for the Sunday game.

The Dragons were having trouble just staying out of last place by the time Paige arrived. Fans were disgruntled, and the sports pages of the Ciudad Trujillo newspapers were riddled with invective against the hometown losers. There was a sinking feeling in the capital that the Trujillo club had thrown its money after a bunch of lackluster prima donnas.

Paige’s debut with the Dragons came on April 25, the same day that he was supposed to be facing the Homestead Grays in New Orleans. It was the first game of a double-header against the Estrellas de Oriente. The papers described Paige as being “at least 6 feet 7 inches tall,” a good four inches of exaggeration; with him, they claimed, the Dragons were easily “the best baseball club ever assembled in all time in the capital.” A few days before Paige flew in, another American star, Herman Andrews, had arrived on a steamer and had been clobbering the ball in the Dragons’ weekday warm-ups. Two thousand fans showed up to watch him take batting practice, and he rewarded them by hitting seven home runs out of the park and straight into the sea behind the stadium. The team’s president announced that he would employ divers and install inflatable docks to catch all the balls.

The promise of a big offense, in the form of Andrews, coupled with legendary hurling from Paige, worked the capital into a frenzy. The Café Hollywood, a downtown bar with a carefully curated aristocratic feel, was selling tickets for the weekend’s games and had already raised prices for Paige’s big day. The local newspaper sold five-cent baseball cards of the players in anticipation.

Paige and Perkins wore their Trujillo pinstripes on the street. There wasn’t a clubhouse at the stadium, so they changed at the hotel, slinging their spikes over their shoulders and walking south, in flip-flops, down Calle Pina toward the sea. Swarms of fans buzzed around them, calling out to Paige and asking for autographs.

Trujillo had rebuilt the stadium four years earlier, after a hurricane razed the capital, killing thousands and reducing the city to rubble. When Trujillo was through, every cornice of the city seemed to bear his fingerprints. The baseball stadium rose like a shrine, with three tiers of seats spread along the first- and third-base lines which came together in a V that touched behind home plate; the outfield was spectacularly framed by the sea. In right field, just beyond the fence, was the partially submerged hull of an American battleship with four gigantic stacks, called the USS Memphis, which had crashed on the rocks in a storm in 1916 and had never been hauled away. It was a fixture of the landscape, and a target in deep right field for batters, as was a sign nearby, erected behind the center-field wall, that read: National Championship for the Reelection of President Trujillo, 1938-1942. Long Live the Benefactor of the Fatherland. Anyone who hit it received a $25 reward. In Paige’s view, there was something menacing about the layout. “The diamond was in a place that looked something like a bull ring, only there’s no bull fights down there,” he told an American journalist years later.

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The battleship USS Memphis loomed beyond right field. (Courtesy of Cuqui Córdova)

Seven thousand fans packed the seats for Paige’s first game, filling the stands with the steady rumble of cheers and stomping feet. The grass on the field looked thick, and there were mounds of dirt around each of the infield bags.

Paige strolled out to the mound to take his warm-ups, kicking his foot high in the air and rearing back with a twist of his torso before uncoiling toward the plate. He was lanky, and his uniform sagged around his slender frame. But there was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions. It was Paige against the Cuban ace Ramón Bragaña—a battle between the King and Prince of the plate, the papers said.

Paige took the mound first. He circled the hill, flipping the rosin bag in his hand before tossing it aside and dragging his cleats down across the rubber. His eyes burned as he zeroed in on Perkins’s mitt. Paige rocked back with his left foot and raised his arms straight above his head, then let them slump down to his chest as he readied himself for a kick of his leg. Time stood still through these preliminaries, and Paige liked to make the batter flinch, blowing the ball in just as he was getting antsy. Paige and Perkins were the perfect match of bravado. Paige had written FASTBALL on the sole of his left cleat, so that it was the last thing the hitter would see as Paige’s enormous foot came tumbling toward him off the mound. Perkins, for his part, had written THOU SHALL NOT STEAL across his chest protector.

There was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions.

Tetelo Vargas led off, and Paige walked him, then forced the next three batters to ground out to the infield. He eased into his rhythm, striking out the Estrellas’ captain in the second inning, then its shortstop in the third. As he walked off the field, Dragons fans threw money onto the diamond in rowdy appreciation.

The game was scoreless through three innings, but the Estrellas put a run on the board in the fourth. The Dragons answered with three of their own in the bottom of the inning; by the sixth they were up six to one, and Bragaña had been taken out.

Then Paige began to falter. It started when Tetelo walloped a double to center, followed by a home run by the Estrellas’ shortstop in the top of the seventh inning. “He hit it to the Memphis,” fans shouted while the runners rounded the bases and Paige kicked at the dirt. A message had been sent: Paige, and the Dragons, were not invincible. In the eighth, Paige gave up another run after allowing two more hits and put runners on first and second. It was clear that the time had come to pull him from the game.

By now the Dragons’ lead had narrowed to two. Paige’s replacement, a surgical Cuban right-hander named Rodolfo Fernández, walked the bases loaded and let up a double, which scored three. The Dragons were now down one, and the score held going into the bottom of the ninth, when Silvio García, the Dragons’ third baseman, ignited a two-out rally to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

The teams battled into the bottom of the 11th, the score even, as the Dragons loaded the bases. The Estrellas brought out a hard-throwing left-hander named Manuel “Cocaina” García to face Herman Andrews, who’d already struck out three times. The Dragons manager, in turn, replaced Andrews with a right-hander for a better hitting matchup.

Cocaina worked from the windup, blazing the ball in with a windmill delivery. His first pitch was a ball—then his second and third. With a 3-0 count and the winning run on third, he delivered his next pitch, which drifted out of the strike zone. He walked the batter, forcing in the winning run.

The Dragons streamed onto the field in celebration, and the fans climbed down from the bleachers. A chorus of “Hero” reverberated around Silvio García, feted for his game-tying double. From the dugout, Rodolfo Fernández noticed that the runner who had just been walked had not made it to first base in the crush of festivities, and the umpire had still not officially called the game. Fernández shouted and pointed, and for a second the celebrating stopped as people looked quizzically at the wildly gesticulating pitcher; the runner, hearing him, spun around, ran to first, and touched the bag, and with that the Dragons won 8–7.

Paige’s debut had ended in a no-decision—technically he neither won nor lost, because the score changed so many times after he exited the game—but his reception afterward was cold. The pro-Dragons press in Ciudad Trujillo lambasted his “poor” outing in barbed headlines, and there was half-serious speculation that the team would have to lower ticket prices back to pre-Paige levels. The next game was a week away, and Paige would have to prove himself anew.

Four

For months I’d been on a quest to find the scorecards from the 1937 tournament. I first heard about them from a Dominican memorabilia seller living in Miami, whom I’d met on the recommendation of a chiropractor out of Dallas with a Negro league obsession that he nursed in his spare time. These were the kinds of people I was meeting, the sort you could cold-call one afternoon with a wildly random question about 1937 only to find an unflappable voice on the other end of the line who’d cut you off—politely—to recite the batting orders of the teams in question. I eventually learned that the scorecards did exist but had been sold to an auction house in Pennsylvania, then, in 2014, acquired by an unnamed buyer for $6,658.33. After that the trail went cold, and I flew to Santo Domingo to see what I could turn up.

It was there that I met Cuqui Córdova, an 87-year-old amateur historian who has amassed, in his cozy family apartment, the largest collection of Dominican baseball memorabilia in the world. In three manila file folders, tucked away in a desk-side drawer, were his records of the tournament. And there, wedged between photographs of Paige, Aybar, and the USS Memphis, were ratty photocopies of the scorecards. In neat, sometimes florid longhand, designated spectators noted with letters and symbols the schematic developments of the games. “R-SS” meant that the batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop (in Dominican parlance, the R stood for “rolling”), “2B” that he hit a double. English words were written into the cramped little boxes reserved for each batter, often with phonetic miscues like “aut” instead of “out” (spelled like it sounds to a Spanish speaker).  Each scorer had his own style, telltale penmanship, or preference for how to space out the markings on the page. With the scorecards, it was like a light suddenly went on. The plays of every game were illuminated, but there was also an unexpected effect—doubt over Paige’s reconstruction of some of the action. Now I could see past his serial embellishments and, with the additional aid of the newspapers, right onto the field itself.

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A scorecard from the 1937 championship, part of Cuqui Córdova’s collection.

A week later, in Ciudad Trujillo, the Dragons had hosted the Estrellas and lost badly. “We played like we never seen a baseball before,” Paige said. The next day, he was back on the mound in Santiago against Martín Dihigo and the Eagles. The matchup, which featured three new black Americans making their debuts for the Santiago squad, brought thousands to Enriquillo Park. “It ain’t no cakewalk,” Paige later described it. “We got a flock of colored Americans on our team, but they got as many on theirs. How them babies could hit that ball!”

The game was scoreless when Dihigo came to the plate in the bottom of the third, tapping his cleats with a reddish bat and wiggling into the box. The fans rose to their feet. Paige may have been the famed ace, but Dihigo was the pride of Latin baseball. Theirs was shaping up to be the matchup of the tournament—Paige all brash and flashy, an American through and through, and Dihigo a paragon of quiet grace and command.

Paige was sweating on the mound. He looked at the ball in his mitt, focusing in on the stitching, with the word Wilson written between its seams. He had to paint the corners against Dihigo; a single mistake could be costly.

Paige reared back and delivered, his long limbs popping and whirling toward the plate, ropy and cyclonic. He fired one strike, then another. He clocked in a curveball off the plate to see if he could tempt Dihigo to fish (no luck); he tried to sneak in another and missed. The count was two balls and two strikes. He paced around the mound and glared at the runner on first, then remounted the rubber in the stretch, his shoulders facing third and his arms dangling down at his sides as he looked in for a target. Perkins didn’t give Paige any signs. When they first met, back in Birmingham, Paige had told him, “I’m the easiest guy in the world to catch. All you have to do is show me a glove and hold it still.”

Perkins got set, his mitt upturned and steady behind the plate. Paige whistled it in, and just as the ball crossed the plate Dihigo strode effortlessly forward with his left foot, extending his arms out to meet the pitch. With a smooth, compact swing Dihigo connected, and the ball soared into the outfield. Antonio Castaños, the Dragons’ right fielder, camped under it, bounding back farther and farther toward the wall, but the ball kept going, clear of the right-field fence for a two-run homer.

By the seventh inning, Paige had been yanked. The Santiago fans were dancing in the bleachers, clapping and moving their hips to a merengue called “Leña,” the Spanish word for kindling, in a tribute to the team’s hot bats. Aybar had warned Paige about the stakes, and Paige had only half believed him. Now he could see that the teams were evenly matched.

Back in the capital later that night, Paige sent a cable to Cool Papa Bell in Pittsburgh requesting reinforcements. Paige had conferred with Aybar, who gave him special dispensation to offer money—$800 a head—to Bell and three others to join the team: an outfielder named Harry Williams, the pitcher Leroy Matlock, and shortstop Sam Bankhead. A few days later, Bell cabled back. “Satchel, they treatin’ us so bad here we’ll come down. But make it a thousand, and we’ll stay eight weeks.”


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Gus Greenlee

In Pittsburgh, Gus Greenlee’s team was dwindling before his eyes. By late May, eight of his top players had left for the Dominican Republic. He knew more would follow. Scouts were sneaking into games to scope out recruits and approaching them on the sly to lure them to Ciudad Trujillo with more money than Greenlee could ever offer them. “Haiti pirates,” he called them. At Crawfords games he prowled the stands, searching the crowds for interlopers. He also deputized his public relations man to make his own rounds badmouthing Paige as one of the ringleaders of the exodus.

The departures fueled a debate in the black press. Paige sympathizers saw him as a businessman angling for a good deal. All through the 1920s, baseball fans had gotten used to reading about marathon contract negotiations for white players, like Babe Ruth, whose astronomical salaries were national news and beyond reproach. There was no reason why Paige, who was black baseball’s equivalent hero, shouldn’t enjoy the same privileges, argued Ollie Stewart, the sportswriter for the Afro-American.

The opposing side was made up of supporters of Greenlee and the club owners, who claimed that Paige and the others were ingrates for abandoning the leagues that had made them. Most of the local papers had long been loyal to the club owners anyway, and the tone of their screeds was personal and cutting. The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in. “Satchel Paige has gotten more out of Negro baseball than anyone ever connected to Negro baseball,” Cum Posey wrote in his regular column in the Courier. It was a rare moment of agreement between him and Gus Greenlee, two rivals united against a common scourge. “Negro baseball does not owe him anything. He owes negro baseball plenty.” Like the other club owners, Posey was losing players to the Dominican Republic, but it was the broader pattern that concerned him. It wasn’t just the 1937 season but the risk that black baseball could go out of business.

The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in.

Meanwhile, the Dominican race for American talent was gaining speed. On May 4, two days after Dihigo hit his deep home run off of Paige in Santiago, the Estrellas’ owner, a businessman named Federico Nina, arrived in New York. “Pleasure” is all he proffered to the agents who processed his papers, before proceeding to the Hotel Hargrave on 72nd Street to meet up with Luis Mendez, the Dominican consul. Both men were short, with dark hair and brown eyes, and had a preference for light-colored suits and wide-brimmed hats. Together they left for Pittsburgh, where the Crawfords and Grays were playing a series at Greenlee Field. Nina had his eyes on a trim right-hander named Ernest Carter, one of Greenlee’s guys, but he was also in the market for infielders, and Pittsburgh was a fount of talent.

The following Saturday, they took their seats in the stadium’s bleachers. Greenlee had men scanning the stands; he’d gotten a tip that two foreigners had been driving around Pittsburgh asking for directions. But in a stadium full of black spectators, the Dominicans blended right in. When Nina arrived in New York, the agents at customs had recorded his race as “negro.” Greenlee’s henchmen would have to keep their ears open for any stray Spanish overheard in the stands.

It didn’t take long for the two to be found. Greenlee called a local alderman, telling him that a “raid” was in progress and that foreign agents were lurking around the city with the aim of breaking legally binding contracts—a crime, he claimed, that was tantamount to conspiracy. The alderman called the cops, while Nina and Mendez, none the wiser, followed Carter to the Crawfords Grill for the post-game celebration. Before long the three were repairing to Carter’s hotel off Wylie Avenue to talk about an offer. Carter’s manager, the barrel-chested Oscar Charleston, a wily outfielder and veteran of the leagues, watched as they left the restaurant and followed them to the hotel.

Nina and Carter had just shaken on the deal—$775 for eight weeks of play—when Charleston burst into the room, shouting insults. He towered over Nina, wagging his finger in the diminutive Dominican’s face. “I came here to whip you,” he shouted. “But since you’re so little, I won’t do it. Why don’t you go into the white leagues and get your players?”

The police arrived and cuffed Nina and Mendez, who were stunned by the turn of events. The charges against them were bloated and dramatic, bearing evidence of Greenlee’s handiwork: The two had “unlawfully, falsely, knowingly and maliciously conspired, combined, and confederated and agreed to induce, entice, and take from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Inc., and Homestead Grays Inc., certain baseball players and employees of the said corporations under written and binding contract.” Their acts were “dishonest” and “dishonorable,” and redounded to the “prejudice of … the National Association of Negro Baseball Clubs.” Included among the charges was the list of players Nina had been courting: four from the Crawfords and two from the Grays. The players, in the language of the allegations, were “the property” of these two teams; luring them away was on par with theft.

Nina and Mendez spent two nights in jail before posting $1,000 bond; by the time they were released, the jailing had become a major diplomatic incident. Mendez had contacted the Dominican consul general, who spoke with the U.S. State Department. Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, personally wrote him back to say he was looking into the situation. Calls were made, cables sent. The Allegheny County district attorney spoke with the alderman, and finally a judge dismissed the charges. The two Dominicans were free to go home, which they did—taking Carter and several other ballplayers with them.

As Greenlee and the other club owners saw it, there was only one viable option for stemming the tide of departures: They had to convince the U.S. government to intervene. The next week, team owners held an emergency meeting in Philadelphia, where they voted unanimously to circulate a resolution among sympathetic national congressmen. Their message was clear, if desperate: “Be it resolved that these actions on the part of the Dominican baseball promoters and permitted by the officials of the Dominican Republic BE AND ARE HEREBY CONDEMNED. Be it further resolved that steps be taken to have these practices STOPPED.” In their view, the ideal outcome was for the State Department to order Trujillo to fly Paige and the other players back. They bombarded their representatives, arguing that the congressmen risked insulting their black constituents unless they took action to save black baseball. The Dominican affair, Greenlee’s lawyers told two Pennsylvania Democrats, “involves a matter of great importance not only to us as club owners, but also to the American Negroes generally.” Meanwhile the league’s commissioner, Ferdinand Morton, beseeched New York senator Robert F. Wagner, an outspoken fan of black baseball, to intervene on the owners’ behalf. “All the work which we have done to secure for the colored ball player a decent wage will go for naught,” he wrote.

For all their fervor, they hit a wall. According to the American attaché in Santo Domingo, Nina and Aybar were acting out of private interest, so there wasn’t much room for diplomatic intervention abroad. But there was enough political will to find some sort of solution. In late June, Hull’s deputies met with the owners in Washington.

The meeting’s minutes and internal memos, catalogued at the National Archives, reveal that the government officials were eager to help Greenlee and his counterparts in good faith. But their cooperation highlights a major contradiction at the heart of the American government’s attitudes toward black baseball and its black citizens. If the government’s openness to the interests of the Negro leagues indicated a conciliatory approach to the black community, it also emphasized just how limited that benevolence truly was. The government had never taken serious interest in integrating professional baseball, and it would be 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to legal segregation. Yet there was the secretary of state, hosting black club owners in the country’s capital.

Five

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Rafael Trujillo

For the players in Ciudad Trujillo, the week between games was long and full of temptations. They went to nightclubs and cabarets, to brothels and swanky bars with names like the Rialto and the Encanto. They danced to five-piece bands that played merengues, which Trujillo had recently declared the national music, and in honor of the Americans, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington tunes were sometimes interspersed in the lineup for a dose of straight-ahead Yankee swing.

Race translated differently in the Dominican Republic. The black Americans were absorbed right into the teeming, multiracial scene. Sometimes, as a kind of Caribbean grace note, they were even called gringos. Still, there were ugly moments. The pitcher Bert Hunter, who was playing for Santiago, struggled with his control early in the tournament and became an immediate target for testy fans. He was heckled and called King Kong. When he finally settled into his groove after a few games and won the fans over with a commanding victory, he lumbered past the first-base line, swinging his arms up and down in mock imitation of a gorilla, and yelled back at them, in broken Spanish: “¿Ah, sí? ¿Ya no King Kong? ¡Ahora gran pitcher Hunter! ¡Mucho bueno!(“Oh, yeah? No longer King Kong? Now the great pitcher Hunter! Very good!”)

His rage confused the Santiago faithful, who understood racial innuendo by a different standard: To them, as to Trujillo, being “black” meant being Haitian. There was a long strain of racial antipathy toward the country’s neighbors to the west, and Trujillo, whose family was partly Haitian, took pains to emphasize his own affinity with Europe. He enacted harsh anti-immigration laws to keep out Haitian fieldworkers and even took in leftist refugees from the Spanish Civil War, an anathema to a right-wing strongman, simply to “whiten” the complexion of the population. His obsession with merengue was a more benign example. He much preferred it to Afro-Cuban dance music like the rhumba because it reminded him of an old-world, European-style waltz. Satchel and Janet Paige danced it, delightedly, without knowing the fetishism it stood for.

The high-society allure of the capital exercised a particular tug on the players. The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality. The journalist Ollie Stewart, who’d traveled to Santo Domingo to cover the tournament for the Afro-American, saw life there as practically utopian. “If there is a future for colored Americans (and I am convinced more than ever now there is a bright one) it is in this part of the world—in these islands now being developed, now coming into their own.” In his view, there was one person to thank for that: Rafael Trujillo. “President Trujillo rebuilt the city, made it sanitary, built streets, roads, put in electric lights, good water, drained off mosquito-infested swamps and brought peace to the republic,” Stewart wrote, echoing, ironically if only unconsciously, the kind of contemporary tropes being used overseas to prop up dictators like Mussolini. Behind closed doors, Trujillo was summoning his aides for advice on how to dispose of the Haitians crowding his borders. But on the streets, all Ollie Stewart could see were storefronts decorated with photos of the American ballplayers.

The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality.

The players themselves were lulled as well. Not only did they have their hefty monthly salaries; they also walked around with their pockets flush with cash from a raft of tournament-wide incentives—$10 bonuses for won games, $10 more for home-runs, $40 for the winning pitcher. Bill Perkins traveled with an entourage to keep the fans off. “He was such a heavy lover, this precaution was taken to keep the women away from him,” Stewart observed. When Paige walked the streets with Janet he was mobbed, with boys perpetually trailing him and women shouting insults at his wife. “You’re not beautiful, we’re beautiful!” they yelled, as if trying to peel Paige away.

The festive mood had grown somber by May. The Dragons were losing, stuck in last place in spite of the tens of thousands of dollars spent on their success. While Federico Nina was trawling for talent in Pittsburgh, his Estrellas blew out the Dragons in back-to-back matchups in San Pedro de Macoris, outscoring them fourteen to three. After another string of losses, this time to Santiago, the Dragons’ management adopted special “disciplinary measures” to “submit the players to solid training and to wean them from all the whiskey and beers.” The newspapers called out Paige, Andrews, and Perkins by name as repeat offenders. Excessive drinking now led to fines, which the papers catalogued as though the whole of the capital was acting as the team’s chaperone. The week after the Dragons eked out a lone victory against Santiago, Andrews and Perkins each had to pay $6.25 for a night of debauchery that had led to a missed practice.

The Dragons’ manager resigned, “in light of the fact that the club needs someone who can dedicate more time to the discipline and organization of the operation,” as he put it. Two other businessmen, who vowed to redouble their supervision of the team, took over in his stead. Their first move was to institute a curfew. “It was almost like we was in jail,” Paige complained in his memoir. “We was kept at a hotel and had to be in bed early. No matter what we done—like if we went in swimming—there was soldiers around and nobody could speak to us.”

I was stunned when I came across this account in Paige’s memoir. Paige’s complaint about the soldiers chimes with what is easily his most infamous, if also most beguiling, anecdote from the time. In the midst of one tight game, while he was on the mound, Paige says, Trujillo ordered troops to surround the field. The dramatic subtext is clear: If Paige hadn’t come through with a win, he wouldn’t have survived to tell the tale.

The other players remembered swimming and fishing, even horsing around on the beach, but none of them mentioned these stifling armed watchmen, nor, for that matter, the same sense of imminent disaster. What likely fueled these discrepancies was Paige’s sourness about anyone telling him how to live at all. There’s no question that the Dragons’ owners were bothered by Paige’s lifestyle; he had been an exceptionally expensive acquisition, and the team’s management, understandably, felt he was overindulging. Paige was used to getting what he wanted from Greenlee, and that wasn’t how the Dominicans operated.

But it’s also true that Paige was feeling the pressure more than most, since Aybar had been portentous with him from the outset. He was earning big money—$1,200 a month for three months, plus several hundred more as a bonus—to bring the capital its championship. “We was President Trujillo’s ball club and we got to win that championship, because if we won’t win maybe the people won’t reelect him again,” Paige said. “It’s that important.” Mostly, this was Aybar talking. Like any proper courtier of his era, he could be more Trujillista than Trujillo—more of a booster for the regime, and more of a menace.

Paige looked and acted unflappable, but to judge from his memoir he truly was getting nervous. The troops he saw on the street may very well have merged in his mind with the curfew and the new battery of restrictions from the team’s management. Aybar had convinced him that Trujillo was lurking behind every out of every inning and that the consequences would be grim if Paige couldn’t turn things around for the Dragons.

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An advertisement for a game between the Dragons and the Eagles.

Paige wasn’t the only one to feel the pressure. The tournament had been charged from the start, with fans sometimes storming the field in protest when a call was made against their club. But by May, players, coaches, and managers were all getting tense as play tightened.

The Dragons responded by cleaning house. On May 19, management announced a “new Unified Front,” headed by Aybar, to strengthen team discipline. The phrase was meant to have a political ring to it, and Aybar decided to run the club like it was an extension of the government. When a fresh batch of American recruits arrived in San Pedro de Macoris to play for the Estrellas, soldiers escorted them to the capital, where they suited up for the Dragons. Nina made more than one trip back to the States to plug the gaps in his roster, and when he returned he was arrested and thrown in jail for a week before he could go home.

Two days after the Dragons’ new initiative was announced, Cool Papa Bell, Leroy Matlock, Sam Bankhead, and Harry Williams arrived on two private planes chartered by Aybar. It was the biggest single importation of new recruits to date. An entourage waited for them at the landing strip, complete with the team’s captain, the new director of discipline for the club, a member of the executive committee, and a lucky Ciudad Trujillo fan brought along to pose for the press. The team officials immediately presented the four players with tournament registration papers to sign, and they set out for the Hotel Presidente. “Forty-five days ago, none of this seemed possible,” one news article declared; the capital had become a kind of magnet for the premier black American talent of the day. The arrival of four more players was touted as an immediate achievement of the new Unified Front.

The Dragons’ next home game, against the Estrellas, was a triumph. Paige gave up just two hits that made it to the outfield, and Cool Papa Bell smacked a single and stole a base, the fans gawking at his speed. His trademark was a chop-like swing of the bat that grounded the ball straight into the dirt so it would careen up high into the infield. In the time it took for the ball to drop into a fielder’s mitt, he’d already be standing on first. Everyone cheered as he scampered to the bag. When Bell reached base, it was like his team had a run in the bank; he was so fast, he could score from first on a bloop single to even the shallowest part of the outfield.

The Dragons notched one victory, then another. The Eagles were holding firm, but the once champion Estrellas were beginning to buckle. In June, Ramón Bragaña, the team’s star pitcher and best hitter, was suspended for ten games for getting into a fistfight with an umpire. A week later, the Estrellas lost 20–5 to the Eagles in a game held in honor of the birthday of Trujillo’s son, Ramfis. Nina was savaged in the press for seeming to have thrown the game to save his best players for their next matchup, later that day, against the Dragons. It was an unfair charge that stemmed from an indisputable reality: Against the expanded ranks of the Dragons and the Eagles, the Estrellas were outgunned and overmatched.

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The Santiago Eagles. 

In a few short weeks, the momentum had shifted: the black American players were dominating the competition, and by the middle of the summer the newspapers had taken to calling the tournament the World Series of Black Baseball, championship billing that Gus Greenlee and the other club owners had for years tried in vain to drum up in the States. By the end of May, even more players had arrived to shore up the ranks of the Eagles—the pitcher Chet Brewer, the second baseman Pat Patterson, and outfielder Roy Parnell.

The Dragons, meanwhile, were on an upswing of their own. After the arrival of Bell, Williams, Bankhead, and Matlock, the reliever Robert Griffin joined the team on June 1, and there were rumors that Josh Gibson would be coming later that same week. The Estrellas managed to scrounge up a few black players—the hard-hitting second baseman George Scales and, later, Ernest Carter—but they didn’t have the firepower to match their rivals. Between May 22 and June 12, the Estrellas lost five of seven games and sank into last place. The Dragons passed them on their way up into second place and were now within striking distance of the Eagles.

By now, Paige’s and Aybar’s fortunes were entwined. Each victory the Dragons notched brought Paige one step closer to making it out of the Dominican Republic safe and triumphant. At the same time, it meant ever better publicity for Trujillo. Paige labored on the field, while Aybar conspired off it. And all the while the team in Trujillo’s name became like another medal on the general’s decorated lapels. His hold on the country tightened as he consolidated monopolies in the salt, tobacco, and lumber industries; the list of his assets grew larger by the day. His wife, meanwhile, was put in charge of a business that forced state employees to pay her a 2 percent service charge to cash their paychecks. Together, Trujillo and his family gained control of 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and his reign was only just beginning.   

As Paige’s luck on the diamond took a favorable turn, he began to question whether he even wanted to return to the States. “I would be willing to go to South America and live in the jungles rather than go back to the league and play ball like I did for ten years,” he wrote in an op-ed that ran in the Afro-American later that summer. “The opportunities of a colored baseball player on these islands are the same or almost the same as those enjoyed by the white major league players in the States. That’s something to think about it.”

Practically all his old teammates were in Ciudad Trujillo with him anyway. Josh Gibson arrived on June 11, and fans turned out by the thousands to watch his debut the next day. The Dragons were facing the Estrellas at home, and Cocaina García kept Gibson hitless, but barely. In the sixth inning, Gibson crushed a line drive straight back up the middle and right at the pitcher. The ball sought García out like it was personal, and he flailed his glove to knock it away from his face. Gibson had arrived ready, his swing unkinked and fluid. The next day, he hit a double against the Eagles, and the game after that he pounded a double and a triple.

The Dragons and Eagles were pulling away. By June 21, the Dragons were 13-11 and the Eagles 11-10. The Estrellas had sunk three games under .500. The baseball council decided to narrow the tournament’s final three weeks to a competition between the two leading teams; it declared the Estrellas’ chances mathematically impossible, given their current record, and took the team out of contention, thanking Nina and his guys for their service. Tetelo Vargas and Cocaina García left for Venezuela, Ramón Bragaña for New York. For the Dragons, this cordial exit didn’t mean that there was a graceful way that they, too, could lose the tournament—in fact, just the opposite. Now the Dragons and Eagles would have to square off on center stage.

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The Dragons with Dr. José Enrique Aybar (second row center; Satchel Paige is seated to his left).

Aybar sent away for new uniforms from Havana, one last frill for his team in the final stretch. The Dragons didn’t need any fresh motivation, though. The team was finally gaining momentum. The players were on a tear, besting the Eagles in a string of matchups. And with three games left, in the final week of June, they needed only two more to clinch victory.

The Eagles fought back. In the first game of a double-header on July 4, in Santiago, they kicked off the bottom of the first inning with a six-run rally against the usually untouchable Robert Griffin. Martín Dihigo pitched for the Eagles. The Dragons didn’t get on the board until the sixth inning; then they exploded for three more runs in the seventh and came back to within one run in the top of the ninth before the American Clarence Palm, in to relieve Dihigo, closed them down. The final score was 8–7, and the Eagles had managed to withstand the Dragons at their offensive best. Josh Gibson had hit for the cycle—a single, double, triple, and home run—but it wasn’t enough.

In the afternoon game, Paige was back on the mound, strong as ever, but his counterpart, the ex-Crawfords pitcher Chet Brewer, was better. He threw a one-hitter, in which the Dragons eked out two paltry runs on three Eagles fielding errors. The Eagles survived elimination yet again.

In the customary week off before the next game, Brewer, who’d been stationed in Santiago throughout the tournament, came to the capital to relax for a few days. He and Paige were likely to face off again in the coming weekend, the latest in a career-long rivalry between the two players. They were reluctant friends, close after all their years together. “None of us got any publicity when Satchel was there,” he once said. Brewer was soft-spoken and even-keeled, but he felt some resentment toward Paige. “I pitched against Satchel a lot of times. We just about broke even on wins,” he said. Yet “they always starred Satchel. He had all the billing.”

One evening, Brewer walked over to the Hotel Presidente to see if Paige and some of the other guys wanted to have a drink, but they weren’t there. In broken Spanish, he asked a boy in the street about the ballplayers; by this point, everyone knew them in the capital. “They’re in jail,” the boy replied.

Paige had complained before about feeling, at certain moments, like the Dominican Republic was one big prison cell, but that had been an exaggeration. This time it was literal. It wasn’t even the first time he’d been locked up for baseball—he’d once found himself in jail in Pittsburgh while Greenlee and another owner fought over who had claim to the pitcher. (Keen on some extra money, Paige had signed contracts with both of them.) This time, though, it had to have been terrifying. For all Paige knew, he’d been put on lockdown by order of the dictator himself. On top of that was an even scarier association: a black man, in 1937, stuck in a jail cell.

It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly how Paige wound up there, but it seems safe to assume that Aybar ordered it. Brewer figured that someone in the upper echelons of the team’s management had decided to lock up Paige before his big start to make sure a night of carousing wouldn’t dull his performance. The pressure put an added strain on Paige as he suited up the next morning. “You’d have thought war was declared. We were guarded like we had the secret combination to Fort Knox,” he said. Paige was no stranger to the spotlight, but he was starting to wonder about his safety. Say the Dragons didn’t win, he recalled thinking—we’re here without passports!


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From left: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Bill Perkins.

There was another game the following week, and the Dragons, behind Leroy Matlock, would have a chance to secure the championship. Before the Dragons walked onto the field, Aybar took the team aside and got everyone quiet. Then, in a soft but firm voice, he gave them a laconic piece of advice: “You better win.” Paige, his voice a little shaky, piped up. “What’a you mean, we better win?” he asked. Aybar’s response was sterner still. “I mean just that. Take my advice and win.”

The Dragons took their warm-ups, and Paige glanced around at the stands. “Some of them guys the president had watching us sent shivers up and down your spine. They was that tough looking. They packed guns and long knives, and I know they could use ’em. We didn’t want to give them a chance,” he said. He had plenty of time to take stock. Leroy Matlock got the start and Paige watched from the bench. Matlock was in fine form in the early innings; from the looks of it, Paige’s services might not be needed at all.

Brewer was back on the diamond for the Eagles, even though he’d gone the distance the previous game. This was another advantage for the Dragons—their bullpen allowed each of their starters a comfortable amount of rest. If it wasn’t Paige on the hill, it would be Matlock; if not Matlock, Griffin; and if not Griffin, then Rodolfo Fernández. The Eagles had a slightly tighter rotation, especially since the Cuban southpaw Lefty Tiant had gone back home a few weeks before. Their signal ace was Brewer, who, for his part, showed no signs of fatigue. He gave up first-inning hits to Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, but that was to be expected; each of the next two innings Brewer retired the Dragons in order.

The din in the stadium grew steady, with shouts and cheers blanketing the ballpark; in its evenness, the noise almost seemed to fall away, and a kind of silence reigned over the diamond itself. The teams went back and forth through the second, third, and fourth innings. One squad stole a few hits, then stranded its runners on base when the opposing pitcher hunkered down.

In the bottom of the fifth, Brewer had fallen into a rut—he’d walked the lead batter and then surrendered the game’s first run. With one out, he gave up three consecutive hits to load the bases. Martín Dihigo had seen enough. The player-manager trotted in from center field, where he’d started the game, and relieved Brewer himself. By now Dragons fans were in hysterics. Dihigo took his warm-ups with an easy, rolling motion and barely even a kick of his leg. Sam Bankhead, who was due up, stood a few feet off the plate and took practice swings in sync with the pitches as they came in. Dihigo signaled he was ready, and the umpire waved Bankhead over to the plate.

Dihigo wound up and delivered, and Bankhead unleashed a mammoth swing. The ball shot off his bat, rising steadily over the infield, then the outfield; it easily cleared the fence for a grand slam. Money, hats, and flowers rained onto the field. The Dragons scored three more runs by the end of the inning and were up eight to zero going into the sixth.

Paige came into the game in the top of the ninth inning with the Dragons leading by five. There was one out, and runners stood on first and second. A cushy lead like this could be dangerous for Paige, who was best when pitching with a sense of urgency.

Feeling that victory was within reach, the local fans called out to Paige to put the Eagles away. “The more the fans yelled, the harder I threw,” Paige said. “I bet I never did have a better fastball only I never see any better hitters than them guys.” The first three batters he faced all got hits—and just like that the Eagles had three more runs on the board and had pulled to within two, the score at 8–6. “Boy, my mouth was dry that day,” he later wrote. “‘Satchel, old boy,’ I say to myself, ‘If you ever pitched, it’s now.’”

The fearsome Roy Parnell grounded to second for out number two, and up came Dihigo. He scorched a single to right field, and again the bases were full. The leading run was on first base. Paige disliked pitching at the stadium in Ciudad Trujillo because it was so small—short fences in left and right field and a cropped outfield. He felt his back was against the wall.

Clarence Palm, the Eagles’ imposing catcher, strode to the plate. He took a hefty cut at the ball, and it skipped into the gap between short and third. Bankhead ranged to his right and dug the ball out with a sure-handed grab, then planted his right foot and gunned the ball across the diamond. One of the runners crossed home and another, the tying run, was rounding third. Everyone watched as the ball sailed across the infield toward first base. Paige stiffened. The throw was on line; the first baseman stretched out from the bag to snag it. The umpire pumped his fist—Palm was out at first. Dragons win.

The team celebrated by the mound, circling around a grinning Satchel Paige. He’d gotten himself out of another jam. A photographer steadied the revelers and had them pose for a picture, then took one of Paige alone, his hat off and a dazed smile on his face. He was missing a button on his jersey, so that the word Trujillo, which was emblazoned across his chest, didn’t quite line up; it was a final act of unwitting irreverence.

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From Cuqui Córdova’s collection, a photograph taken at the end of the 1937 championship, after the Dragons had clinched the victory.

Six

If Paige thought victory would ingratiate him with Trujillo, he was sorely mistaken. Aybar organized a celebratory picnic at one of the dictator’s residences, but Trujillo never showed. There was one crucial fact about Trujillo that Paige did not know: The dictator didn’t even like baseball. Not only that, he hadn’t gone to any of the tournament games. The championship held in his honor hardly seemed to register with Trujillo at all. His daily memos, typed up and brought to him each morning as a primer on what was going on in the country, mentioned agrarian reform, bureaucratic appointments, diplomatic engagements—all manner of small-bore politics and administration, but not a word about how the tournament was developing.

For months, Trujillo had been receiving updates about the growing presence of Haitians at the border, which he increasingly viewed as a threat to Dominican sovereignty. On August 4, 1937, a few weeks after the tournament ended, he took a trip to the border himself. The situation, as he saw it, was becoming ungovernable. Dominican farmers complained that Haitian immigrants were pillaging and robbing their plots, and Haitian currency was circulating on the Dominican side, which Trujillo took as an added affront. He fired his agriculture secretary and ordered the construction of a Catholic church in the border town of Dajabón, vowing to return and police the area personally.

On October 2, after coming back for another survey, Trujillo gave orders to his officers: Any Haitian on Dominican soil illegally was to be killed on the spot. The military fanned out along the border, spreading terror. For a full week, soldiers hacked men, women, and children to death with machetes. Around 15,000 people were killed before the campaign let up.

The rampage made international news. Though Trujillo remained in power, his rule growing ever more brazen and bloody, outcry over the massacre forced him to withdraw from the 1938 elections. The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo, and all the other blandishments gracing the social calendar during the previous year, had brought too much attention to a dictator who, finally, needed to lay low. He named a puppet in his place to quiet some of the international uproar. The years wore on. Critics at home and abroad mysteriously disappeared. Rival presidents in neighboring countries uncovered plots to assassinate them that seemed to emanate from the Dominican capital. Thirty years into his reign, Trujillo, his family, and their cronies controlled 80 percent of the nation’s economy and employed 45 percent of the country’s workforce.

One night in May 1961, on a dark stretch of coastal highway, Trujillo was assassinated en route to visit his mistress. With the collapse of the old order, Aybar, who had enjoyed a long career under the dictator, lost the protections that came with that privilege. In 1965, American troops invaded the Dominican Republic to support a coup and police the streets through the ensuing chaos. One night a mob rampaging through the upscale neighborhood of Santo Domingo where Aybar lived tried to rob his house; he ran outside to frighten them off, waving a revolver. American soldiers, who arrived on the scene but didn’t know exactly what was happening, took aim and shot him dead.


Shortly after the tournament ended, Satchel Paige and his fellow Americans returned to the States, where they played on the semipro circuit for a few months while waiting for a rapprochement with team owners from the Negro leagues. They banded together under the name the Trujillo All-Stars and, dressed in their old Dominican pinstripes, entered a prestigious semipro competition in Colorado called the Denver Post Tournament, which they won. When the papers didn’t name-check Trujillo, they referred to the team as “Satchel Paige’s Outlaws,” an appellation he welcomed. “If you ask me what was the biggest event for colored baseball in 1937, I’d say the winning of the pennant of the Dominican Republic by the best players in the league,” Paige said, proud and unrepentant. That fall the international press began reporting on Trujillo’s atrocities, and while it seems unlikely that Paige kept up with the developments, it also seems inevitable that he took note of the criticism directed at Trujillo.

In between Trujillo’s and Aybar’s deaths, Paige published his memoir. By then he was trying to define his legacy. Professional baseball was integrated in 1947, and its protagonist wasn’t Paige—or, for that matter, any of black baseball’s legendary stars—but a 28-year-old second baseman who’d played all of five months in the Negro leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson, and as Paige immediately grasped, he was instantly immortal. “I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time,” Paige said in his memoir, with more than a touch of resentment. “I’d been the one who everybody’d said should be in the majors.”

The main reason he was left off the integrated rosters was his age: He was 41 at the time. By then, Cool Papa Bell was on the path to retirement and Josh Gibson was already dead, of a brain tumor. If together they’d been trailblazers—the game’s first true black stars—they were also the first to be sacrificed in the push to integration. Pioneers but throwbacks, they were too weathered to lead the way to the sport’s next frontier. Paige watched as Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League and then as a center fielder named Larry Doby followed suit, 11 weeks later, in the American League.

Paige wasn’t ready to resign himself to the bleachers. The day after Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians, Paige sent a telegram to the team’s owner: “Is it time for me to come?” The response was chilly: “All things in due time.” Paige, dejected, kept barnstorming. Now that professional baseball was integrating, the Negro leagues teetered on the brink of irrelevance—and, in short order, bankruptcy, too. Greenlee, for one, was a husk of his former self. His stadium had been demolished in 1938, and soon after he was forced to resign as league president. Once he was shut out, he never managed to work his way back into black baseball; he’d created too many enemies. In 1946, at the age of 50, he suffered a heart attack, and he died six years later.

One day in early July 1948, while Paige was traveling with a semipro club in Iowa, he got a call from the Indians. The team was ready to give him a tryout. They were in a tight pennant race that summer and short on pitchers. “I wasn’t as fast as I used to be, but I was a better pitcher. If I couldn’t overpower them, I’d outcute them,” he said of the prospect of facing big-league batters. The world’s first glimpse of Paige in the bigs wouldn’t be of the dazzling fireballer he’d been all his life but of a grizzled veteran. It was both a tragedy and a triumph. On July 7, he was signed. Two days later, at the age of 42, he took the mound for Cleveland in his Major League debut. He had prevailed against all odds—even, it seemed, the passage of time. As always he had a saying handy to motivate himself: “Don’t look back, someone might be gaining on you.” He remains the oldest rookie in the history of the game.

Hidden Damages

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Hidden Damages

After his daughter died in a terrorist attack, Stephen Flatow won a historic judgment against her killers. But to collect the funds, he first had to battle his own government.

By M.R. O’Connor

The Atavist Magazine, No. 56


M. R. O’Connor is the author of Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction, and the Precarious Future of Wild Things. She blogs at unnaturalselection.info and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Rhiel
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones

Published in January 2016. Design updated in 2021.

One

On the morning of April 9, 1995, three friends, American students studying in Israel, boarded a bus at the central station in Jerusalem. It was a few days before Passover, and they were headed to Gush Katif, a popular beach resort in Gaza, to swim and tan. The bus traveled southwest to Ashkelon, a small city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, just eight miles north of the Gaza Strip. There they transferred to the number 36, a bright red bus, with 60 or so passengers. Many of them were young Israeli soldiers headed to beach resorts or to their jobs on military bases.

Alisa Flatow, one of the young Americans, had long, wavy brown hair and wore a denim skirt, a white shirt, and sneakers. She sat behind the bus driver, next to the window, beside her friend Kesari Ruza. The third girl, Chavi Levine, sat behind them. The red bus left Ashkelon and headed south on Highway 4 toward the Gaza Strip. Shortly after the bus crossed the unmarked border, two Israeli military armored vehicles pulled alongside to escort it through the Palestinian territory. The girls dozed as the bus passed plowed fields and greenhouses. They neared an Israeli settlement called Kfar Darom. Located between two military posts, it had a fence around it, like a compound.

Years later, Kesari would recall the moments that followed as a stream of blurry footage with a few sharp scenes. A loud and dull explosion. The window beside her broken. Was it rocks? Alisa falling toward her, eyes open, hands strangely curled. The bus kept rolling, and Chavi stood up in her seat and asked what was going on. Kesari told her to get down, and they both dropped to the floor.

When the bus came to a stop a few seconds later, they saw passengers bleeding, wounded, and groaning. Someone told them to get off. Alisa lay near the door. She wasn’t moving, but she didn’t look hurt: Her face was clean; there was no blood. Outside, the military escorts told them to move away, and then Kesari saw Alisa on the ground and EMTs arriving, cutting away her clothing, looking for injuries while someone held an IV bag over her body. Helicopters landed in a field nearby, and Alisa was put on a stretcher and carried to one of the choppers. Where is she going? they asked. No one could say for sure. Kesari’s hair was matted with blood, and when they found their luggage among the wreckage, the bags were dotted with pieces of flesh. Eventually, they located an ambulance headed to a hospital, and they rode next to an injured Israeli soldier.

At the hospital, Kesari and Chavi described Alisa to a social worker. Yes, there was a young woman who might match that description—she was coming out of surgery, they were told. The social worker took them to a ward. They saw a young woman on a bed. Chavi and Kesari couldn’t tell if it was Alisa. The young woman’s hair had been shaved off, and her face was badly swollen. They asked to see her clothes and recognized the skirt and sneakers. Yes, this is Alisa, they told the doctors.


On the morning of the bombing, Stephen Flatow was headed to temple near his home in West Orange, New Jersey. He was driving his eldest daughter’s car while she was studying abroad. Before he got to the end of his driveway, he heard a news report on the radio. A suicide bomber had blown up a bus in the Gaza Strip. Flatow knew instantly that his daughter was involved. He couldn’t explain how he was so sure that she had been on that bus. He felt it to be true.

Flatow, a 46-year-old lawyer who worked for a small insurance company, continued driving to Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David. He didn’t want to alarm his wife, Rosalyn, and their four other children.

In the middle of the service, a phone rang. Flatow knew it was for him. On the line was Rosalyn, who had heard from the father of one of Alisa’s friends in Israel that Alisa had been on a bus that had been attacked. Flatow shared the little he knew with his friends at synagogue and ran out. Back home he started making calls, first to the Israeli consulate and then to the State Department in Washington. His friends began reaching out to their own contacts in Israel and soon confirmed that Alisa was at a hospital called Soroka Medical Center in the town of B’er Sheva, some 50 miles east of Gaza. Alisa’s boyfriend, Alan Mitrani, a fellow student at Brandeis, spoke to a nurse at the hospital ward, who explained that Alisa hadn’t lost a lot of blood and her pulse was fine, but she was going into surgery.

Upstairs, Alisa’s brother and sisters were waking to the chaos. Gail, Alisa’s younger sister by two years, awoke to the sound of her mother and sister whispering. “What haven’t I heard yet?” she asked. Gail had returned from Israel a couple of weeks earlier. When she found out what happened, she felt like her emotions were being sucked down a drain, leaving her empty and exhausted.

The Flatows had raised their five children in the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community of West Orange. Stephen and Rosalyn met before he started law school in Brooklyn. He was a big guy and gregarious; she was a stately brunette, already working as a health care actuary. They married and, after he graduated, moved to New Jersey, where he began a career in real estate law. The couple had come to religious observance later in life, after Alisa was born in 1974. “We were normal American Jews—we celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” said Flatow. But as a four-year-old, Alisa begged her parents to send her to a Jewish school, and soon they were observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher. Under her influence, the Flatows became a passionately observant family, with Alisa as the moral center. “We made a 180-degree change,” said Flatow.

Alisa had deep dimples and a warm smile. She visited Israel at age 11 and fell in love. When she started at Brandeis, she was already planning her sixth visit for her junior year. On the morning of her trip to Gush Katif, Alisa called home, where it was still Saturday night and her parents were going to bed. The sun was rising in Jerusalem, and she was about to leave for the bus station. Instead of panicking about her traveling to Gaza—the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Flatow asked her about the resort they’d chosen. She told him that the hotel she was staying at had separate times for men and women to swim, in accordance with a strict Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

By this time, Alisa knew the ropes of traveling in Israel: how you had to bring your own toilet paper and plenty of cash because it wasn’t easy to use a credit card. And she had an agreement with her dad for venturing outside Jerusalem. Always go by public transportation, with a friend, to a well-known destination.

Now the Flatows waited for information on Alisa’s condition. A nurse called and translated a physician’s words into broken English. Post-surgery, Alisa was breathing and had a steady heartbeat, but she was unconscious. Another doctor called, one who spoke better English. Alisa’s condition was critical. A CAT scan showed hemorrhaging in her brain from a laceration made by a sliver of shrapnel that had pierced her skull. It had caused her brain to swell, and the doctors had removed part of her skull to allow the tissue to expand. Following the surgery, Alisa was unconscious, and the doctors didn’t know if they could stop the bleeding. “We suggest you come right away,” the doctor said.

The next day, Flatow flew to Tel Aviv. As his plane landed, he was ushered to the front to be the first passenger to disembark. American embassy workers and Israeli Foreign Ministry personnel waited on the tarmac. Two hours later, Flatow was standing next to his daughter’s hospital bed.

Only decades later would it become apparent that Flatow’s trip to Israel was the first part of a journey to hold accountable those who attacked Alisa’s bus. In her name, Flatow would walk the corridors of power in Washington, winning allies among senators and congressmen, and creating an unexpected adversary in President Bill Clinton. His determination to wring some meaning from his daughter’s ordeal would force American lawmakers to develop new tools for pursuing state sponsors of terror. His extraordinary quest, aided by two brilliant Washington lawyers, has provided families whose loved ones died at the hands of ISIS in Paris and in Syria a chance at recourse. And because of Flatow’s unyielding obsession with justice, the governments of Sudan, Iraq, Jordan, and Libya have been successfully sued in American courts, with judges awarding almost $20 billion in damages, each verdict a testament to a father’s devotion to his child. But before all that, he was just a father rushing to his daughter’s side.

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Stephen Flatow with Alisa at her high school graduation in 1992. (Photo: Courtesy of Flatow family.) 

Two

Somewhere in Flatow’s consciousness lingered scenes from movies in which a father holds his child’s hand, whispering in her ear. At Alisa’s bedside, he took her hand and whispered, “Daddy’s here.” She didn’t say anything. “If you can hear me, squeeze my hand,” he said. When he let go, her arm fell limp.

In a side room, he huddled with Alisa’s doctors. Her brain had continued bleeding, and the damage was irreparable. She could no longer breathe on her own. There was no hope that she might eventually recover.

The room was quiet except for a fan pushing around hot air. Someone handed Flatow a cup of orange soda. He noticed that the doctors exchange looks. “I have a question for you,” Haim Reuvini, one of the physicians, said.

“You want her organs, don’t you?” said Flatow. A few weeks earlier, he had read in a newspaper that Israel was experiencing a severe shortage of organ donors because Jewish law requires bodies to be buried intact.

“We can save as many as six lives,” explained Reuvini. A line from the Talmud echoed in his mind:  “Whoever saves one soul from Israel, it is as if he or she saved a universe.” He also knew that Alisa’s attachment to the Israeli people was immense; he couldn’t say no.

He called Rosalyn to discuss the decision. Their consent caught the doctors by surprise; they had no documents prepared. One doctor grabbed Alisa’s chart and wrote out a consent form on a blank page. Then Flatow went back to Alisa’s room and sat for several hours, holding her hand, talking to her, and crying. That afternoon, Alisa was taken off life support. Soon after, the doctors removed her heart, pancreas, liver, lungs, and kidneys.

That evening, Flatow left B’er Sheva for Tel Aviv to meet with American officials about the logistics of bringing Alisa’s body home. Back at his hotel, he received a phone call from President Clinton. The president expressed his condolences and told him about a conversation he’d had with his wife, Hillary, at breakfast. They had wondered whether they would have the same strength if their own daughter had been injured in an attack. Before hanging up, the president said he would help find those responsible for the bombing.

The next morning, the Jerusalem Post reported that just hours after the attack, a group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) had claimed that a 22-year-old member named Khaled al-Khatib had driven a truck into a bus on the highway in the Gaza Strip. Only half the bomber’s ordnance had detonated, but the shrapnel, metal, nails, and ball bearings embedded in the explosives killed eight passengers, including Alisa.

That evening, Flatow accompanied Alisa’s body to Ben Gurion Airport. He was ushered to the VIP lounge, crowded with reporters; the news of Alisa’s organ donation had been reported in the Israeli papers as well as The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press. “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” he said to an Israeli Army chaplain next to him. “You have no idea what you’ve done for us,” a reporter interjected. “You did something we don’t do for ourselves. You haven’t blamed us for what happened to your daughter. Instead, you gave us the gift of life.”

Flatow cried as he recited the Jewish prayer for the dead over her casket. “The Merciful One will protect her soul forever and will merge her soul with eternal life,” he said in Hebrew and boarded the plane.  

The next morning, Flatow landed at Kennedy Airport, where officers from the New York City, West Orange, and Port Authority police waited, along with personnel from the State Department. A motorcade escorted him to his house, now under siege by the media. His rabbi, Alvin Marcus, put his hand up in front of the gathered reporters and told them, “Alisa died al kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the name of God. That’s all you need to know.” Two hours later, the Flatows drove to their temple for the funeral. School buses and chartered coaches from as far as Boston were parked along the road. A bomb squad had searched the synagogue before anyone was allowed to enter. Two thousand people were present. Eight pallbearers carried the pine coffin draped in the Israeli flag. By now, Flatow had been awake for several days, and Rosalyn, who had kept everyone updated throughout her husband’s journey to Israel, could barely speak.

After the funeral, the Jewish tradition of shiva—seven days of mourning for the dead—began at the Flatows’ house. It was the week of Easter and Passover, and in his weekly radio address, President Clinton extended the condolences of all Americans to the Flatows. “The dark forces of terror test the faith of thousands of Jews and Arabs struggling to do the right thing,” said the president. “To these righteous people, I say: Carry on. America is with you.”

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Flatow photographed at his office in Fairfield, New Jersey.

Three

The day after the Flatows’ shiva ended, a 26-year-old American by the name of Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The bombing brought home the threat of terror, spurring lawmakers to introduce sweeping counterterrorism legislation to stem the violence. Six weeks later, the Senate passed a bill that increased the compensation and assistance available to American victims of terrorism, allowed the government to deport immigrants suspected of such acts, and banned fundraising for terrorist organization in the U.S. It included $1 billion to fight domestic terrorism.

A year later, the bill passed in the House of Representatives, and on April 24, 1996, the South Lawn of the White House was crowded with families whose loved ones had died at the hands of terrorists. Pan Am Flight 103, 259 dead. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, six dead and over 1,000 injured.

“Your endurance and your courage is a lesson to us all,” President Clinton said at the signing. “Your vigilance has sharpened our vigilance.”

Flatow had declined his invitation to attend the ceremony. He was still trying to cobble his life back together. It had been 380 days since Alisa was killed. As a family, the Flatows had taken a defiant position to their devastating loss: Life went on. Francine, who was 15, recalled asking her mother whether she would have to go to school after Passover ended. “Of course you do,” said Rosalyn. “Daddy’s going to work, you’re going to school.” Gail returned to Israel within a couple of weeks, and Francine followed that summer.

Still, the specter of grief affected Alisa’s parents in dramatic ways. Rosalyn internalized the pain of losing her eldest child. She could barely hear Alisa’s name, let alone speak it aloud. For a long time, Stephen lost the ability to dream at night. “You just black out,” he said, “that’s how emotionally exhausted you are.” On Friday nights, when he would say the evening prayer, he couldn’t make it through without crying. “My father is an open book,” said Francine. “If he felt like crying, he cried. If he felt like laughing, he laughed. And there were times when it happened at the same time. It let us know as kids that we’re all hurting, there’s no need to hide it or deny it.”

Flatow’s pain also seemed to animate him, transforming him into a sensitive, passionate, and driven person. Matrani, Alisa’s boyfriend, later described this change as though Alisa’s character had transferred to her father. He began speaking at synagogues and schools about his daughter’s life, several times a month. Later he understood that this impulse was a kind of therapy for the trauma of losing his child. “I had to speak and make people cry for Alisa,” he explained. “There’s a lesson to be learned: You don’t let the bastards get you down.”

After a speech at a synagogue in Queens, a rabbi approached Flatow and asked why he wasn’t using the new counterterrorism legislation to get justice for Alisa’s death.

The rabbi offered to put Flatow in touch with a lawyer in Washington, D.C., named Steven Perles who might be able to help.

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Steven Perles at his office in Washington, D.C.

Four

Tall and thin, with spectacles, a strong jawline, and a receding hairline, Perles had an unpretentious appearance that belied tremendous intellectual energy and ambition. The son of Boston academics, Perles had worked for years as the chief legislative assistant and staff attorney for Alaskan senator Ted Stevens. In the early 1980s, he founded his own firm in D.C., and some of his first cases included complex suits involving foreign governments such as Japan and Nigeria. One of his first highly publicized cases was Hugo Princz v. Federal Republic of Germany.

Hugo Princz was a 72-year-old American who had been held in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Princz had sought reparations for decades, but the German government claimed that he was ineligible because he was an American citizen.

In taking on Princz’s case, Perles challenged centuries of international legal standards that gave sovereign states exemption from the jurisdiction of foreign courts. In the United States, Congress had upheld this legal immunity as recently as 1976, when it passed the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). It gave judges the power to review cases and determine whether foreign countries could be sued under certain exceptions, which were invoked regularly in commercial cases. But by 1995, no judge had ever decided in favor of an individual plaintiff.

Perles believed Princz’s case was an opportunity to create a new legal precedent. Here was an example of an atrocious injustice against an American citizen, yet the culprits were protected by the laws of Princz’s own country.

Perles ultimately lost the case, but he received a lot of media attention, particularly in New Jersey, where he lived in Highland Park, not far from West Orange. Flatow had followed the case in the newspapers.

When Perles received Flatow’s phone call, he’d already heard about Alisa. “I want something to come from my daughter’s death,” Flatow told him.

Flatow’s case came at the right time. The new counterterrorism legislation passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing included a little-publicized amendment that lifted immunity for governments guilty of injury or “death that was caused by an act of torture, extra judicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act.” The amendment created an unprecedented opportunity for families of victims to go after state sponsors of terrorism.

Flatow found an ally in Perles, who possessed an unshakable moral compass and a formidable work ethic. “You detonate a bomb on a bus that has a U.S. passport holder on it, I don’t care whether they are Arab-American, Jewish-American, Irish-American, Baptist-American,” he said. “I am going to chase you to the end of the earth. I mean it. I chase these people to the end of the earth.”

Perles believed he could help Flatow get justice by targeting those who had given the PIJ the money to carry out the attack. They would sue the Islamic Republic of Iran.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had created unlikely bedfellows in the Middle East. The alliance between Iran and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was surprising because, while the PIJ’s leaders were Sunni Muslims, the government of Iran was Shia. The organization had been founded in the 1970s by three Palestinian students inspired by the Islamic revolutions in Iran and had since split into factions. The PIJ didn’t build schools or mosques or provide social services to civilians; their purpose was to eliminate the State of Israel.

The PIJ had proven itself to be a deadly operation. In 1987, they assassinated an Israeli military-police captain. In January 1995, they blew up a military bus and killed 19 soldiers. Israeli authorities believed that the attack had provided the model for the one that killed Alisa. The PIJ’s leader, Fathi Shaqaqi, had publicly praised Iran, appearing in photographs with Iranian ministries and saying in 1988 that he prayed to “Allah to protect Imam Khomeini so that he will enter Palestine and we shall hand over the keys of Nazareth and Jerusalem to him.” In 1994, Shaqaqi told a journalist that the PIJ had received $3 million from Iran. Intelligence agencies believed Iran provided all of the PIJ’s funding.

For Flatow, the formidable challenges of bringing a lawsuit against an isolated government such as Iran were overshadowed by what might be accomplished in the process. Here was an opportunity to bring the world’s biggest sponsor of international terrorism into a courtroom. “We expected this to be a ten-year slog, which we were actually welcoming,” said Flatow. “Through litigation we could demonstrate to the world what kind of nation Iran was and how it sponsored terrorism.”

There were several immediate obstacles. One was the fact that Perles himself was Jewish. I can’t have this case be the Jews versus the Palestinians in our federal court system, he recalled thinking.

He needed another lawyer, a scholar of personal-injury law who was charismatic in trial. And in D.C., the personal-injury bar was split between two groups, Jews and the Irish. Who is the least Jewish trial lawyer I know? he wondered.

Then he remembered Thomas Fortune Fay, whose office was in the same building as Perles’s. They’d even had lunch a few times. Husky and broad shouldered like a pit bull, with slicked hair carefully parted, Fay struck Perles as a fighter. He arranged a meeting and told Fay point-blank, “I need to hire a brawling Irish litigator.”

“That’s me!” said Fay.  

Before they could proceed, they had to resolve some questions posed by the recently passed antiterrorism legislation: In which courts could such lawsuits be filed? What punitive damages could plaintiffs receive? The legislation didn’t specify. Fay set to work formulating a new amendment to the FSIA, while Flatow and Perles began walking the halls of Congress to lobby for support.

Perles had many relationships in Congress from his time as a staffer for Senator Stevens. But during meetings on the Hill, he often stepped aside so Flatow could lead. “It’s always been my observation that an articulate client is better than an articulate lawyer—and he is very articulate,” said Perles. Flatow would tell Alisa’s story and explain how Iran had sponsored the attack. “Iran was acting through proxies,” said Flatow. “Why should they get a pass on it?”

In the Senate, they searched for someone who would move the bill through the legislative process. They knocked on doors and cornered whomever would listen. “It was a lot of work: hot, muggy, stinky, sweaty,” said Flatow. “We would run from one side of the Capitol building to the other, from the Senate building to the House building, trying to button people.” They found their first ally in senator Frank Lautenberg, who represented New Jersey. Lautenberg was in Israel on the day Alisa was killed, and he had been personally moved by the event. They gained the support of senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Lieberman. On the House side, they convinced representative Jim Saxton of New Jersey to sponsor the legislation.

Their months of lobbying paid off on September 30, 1996, when Congress enacted the Civil Liability for Acts of State Sponsored Terrorism amendment. Known as the Flatow Amendment, it created a legal cause of action—a set of facts that justify the right to sue—and allowed private citizens to recover punitive damages from foreign countries.

The amendment was everything that Flatow and his legal team needed to move forward with their lawsuit. But it also set the stage for a conflict within Washington’s corridors of power. By giving the judiciary control of these terrorism cases, Congress shifted foreign-policy influence away from the presidency and into the hands of citizens and judges. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that such a move would arouse the ire of the White House and the State Department. “That’s a no-no, apparently,” chuckled Flatow. None of them could foresee the fight ahead.

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Thomas Fortune Fay at his office in Washington, D.C.

Five

On February 26, 1997, Perles and Fay filed Flatow’s complaint against the Islamic Republic of Iran. A few hours later, Flatow held a press conference on Capitol Hill. He stood next to a large photograph of Alisa, with congressman Jim Saxton and senator Frank Lautenberg looking on.

“Iranian officials need to be held accountable for the agents they pay to carry out terrorist activities,” said Lautenberg. “I wish the Flatow family well in their quest for justice that will benefit us all.”

The lawsuit had a litany of defendants, including the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei, and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. “I’m not a sovereign nation,” said Flatow, explaining why he was suing Iran. “I cannot wage war.”

Perles and Fay had presented an unusual legal argument for compensatory damages called solatium, from the medieval Latin word for solace. Courts began awarding compensation for wrongful death in the middle of the 19th century, calculating the amount based on how much income an individual represented. But eventually, they recognized that the death of spouses, parents, and children was more than an economic loss; it extracted an emotional cost from families. During the Vietnam War, the American government had adopted the concept of solatium when it gave cash payments to Vietnamese families whose loved ones were accidentally killed, a practice carried forward to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’m not a sovereign nation. I cannot wage war.”

Now Perles and Fay argued that the tragedy of Alisa’s death had been amplified by the malice behind the attack, which transcended even premeditated murder. The emotional anguish merited that the court factor in solatium as well as economic losses. On this matter, the lawsuit included an eloquent passage on the nature of grief that echoed Flatow’s experience in the nearly two years since he had lost his daughter.

“Individuals can react very differently even under similar circumstances; while some sink into clinical depression and bitterness, others attempt to salvage something constructive from their personal tragedy. Such constructive behavior should not be considered as mitigating solatium, but rather as an equally compensable reaction, one in which courage to face their own mental anguish prevails in order to survive, and in some circumstances, to benefit another.” 

They asked for $150 million in damages.


When an American citizen is killed in a terrorist attack abroad, the customary practice is for an FBI team to investigate. But following the bombing that killed Alisa, Palestinian president Yasir Arafat refused to let the FBI into Gaza. In order to present their case for damages, Perles needed witnesses, first responders, and doctors who could testify about the bombing and Alisa’s suffering. In September 1997, Perles flew to Jerusalem, accompanied by his 11-year-old son, to ask the Israeli attorney general for help.

Perles found the city on edge, with heavily armed security guards and military personnel dressed in body armor patrolling the streets. A week before he arrived, three Hamas suicide bombers had blown themselves up on Ben Yehuda Street, a ten-minute walk from his hotel. As he made his way to the Justice Ministry, in the Arabic section of Jerusalem, Perles saw how the threat of terror had become a part of daily life.

When he arrived at the meeting, Perles asked for permission to send Fay to investigate. “I know Arafat turned these people away, but I don’t care,” he said. “I’m not subject to diplomatic niceties.” The official agreed and promised to provide a military escort.

Flatow had coordinated a vacation in Jerusalem to coincide with Perles’s trip, and one afternoon they met in the lobby of the Sheraton in the center of the city. An older man sat nearby with a bag of groceries. He finished his drink and walked out. That’s when Flatow saw that the man had left behind the bag. He threw Perles’s son to the floor and—though no small man—pancaked him to protect him from the bomb he was sure was about to explode. It was a false alarm.

With the support of the Israeli government, Fay began planning a trip to gather witness testimony. He enlisted Victor Holmes, a friend and videographer, to film the depositions. The two shared a blustery sense of humor. Just before their departure, Holmes turned up at Perles’s office and showed him a T-shirt he had bought for the trip: it was Day-Glo orange and said Don’t shoot, I’m a Lutheran in Arabic.

“Do you know what one Arab sniper said to another?” said Perles.

“What?” said Holmes.

“What’s a Lutheran?”

Holmes threw the shirt in the trash.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, Fay sought out government officials’ help in identifying witnesses, and a source gave him a list of the people on the scene of the Kfar Darom bombing. Among the first people Fay contacted was Orit Taft, a military radar technician who was riding the bus back to her post. She had refused to be treated for her injuries until every other person had been evacuated. The Israeli government later awarded her a medal.

After she finished her deposition, Taft offered to go with Fay and Holmes to Kfar Darom to view the scene of the bombing and help them locate other witnesses. They arrived in Gaza a day after Kfar Darom had been strafed by Palestinian snipers. First they sought out David Shaenbaum, an American man living in the village, listed as a witness at the scene of the bombing, “I know your voice,” Shaenbaum said to Taft after meeting her. “You’re the military officer that told me if I didn’t put down my camcorder, you’d shoot me yourself.”

Fay and Holmes went on alert: Camcorder? Shaenbaum, it turned out, had been tinkering with his new video camera when he heard the bomb blast. He didn’t know if it recorded anything, but he offered to find the tape. A few minutes later he returned with the cassette, and Fay and Holmes watched as the recording started and the image of smoke and flames appeared. Then they saw sky and dirt; Shaenbaum had dropped the camera on the ground.

But the vantage point changed as someone picked up the recorder and continued shooting. Now Shaenbaum was in the frame holding a plasma bottle next to Taft, and on the ground below them was Alisa. The camera panned to show Israeli Defense Force vehicles speeding across a field and helicopters touching down. Several people picked up a stretcher with Alisa on it and delivered it to one of the choppers. Altogether there was 20 minutes of footage that they could present in court to show the horror of the bombing.

“No one even knew that video existed,” said Fay. “It was invaluable to us.”

Next, Fay and Holmes deposed the doctors who had worked to save Alisa’s life and the individuals who had received her organs. Perhaps most crucially, they also found Reuven Paz, who had served with Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service at the time of the bombing. In the aftermath of the attack, Paz had intercepted a radio message from Iran congratulating the PIJ on the mission.

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Patrick Clawson photographed at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Six

In 1984, the State Department labeled Iran a state supporter of terrorism. But if Perles and Fay were going to bring Iran to court and win, they needed to establish that there was a financial link between the Iranian government and the PIJ. To do this, they called on an economist named Patrick Clawson, who had worked at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Fluent in French, Hebrew, and Farsi, Clawson had extensive knowledge of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics and economics. For years he had studied Tehran’s stock exchange and understood the web of relationships between the Iranian government and various companies. On paper these corporations were private entities, but in truth most were controlled by government ministries and officials. To Clawson, the stock exchange became a tool for understanding the country’s cloaked financial activities and ambitions.

Clawson had also closely followed Iran’s support for Islamic extremist organizations, scouring records and parliamentary transcripts to track where money was being funneled. In 1995, Fathi Shaqaqi, the leader of the PIJ, had been assassinated in Malta, and the organization’s new head, Ramadan Abdullah al-Shallah, was not well known and needed money to build a reputation for himself. Clawson saw evidence that Iran had increased funding to the PIJ to help him do so, through attacks including a March 1996 bombing of a shopping mall in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, a German trial gave Clawson another piece of the puzzle. Several Iranian and Lebanese nationals stood accused of assassinating three Iranian-Kurdish dissidents and their translator at the Mykonos Greek restaurant in Berlin in 1992. The Mykonos case had a central witness, a former top Iranian intelligence official who testified that all decisions about terrorist activities were made by a special committee that included the president of the country and Ayatollah Khamenei himself.

Clawson had studied Iran’s 1992–93 foreign-exchange budget, which included a line item for support of the Palestinian revolution. Based on this, Clawson’s conservative estimate was that Iran was spending around $75 million a year to fund the PIJ and other terrorist organizations. Further, he believed Iranian government leaders to be rational calculators who would change tactics if a particular approach proved too costly. After the capture of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, during the Islamic Revolution, for instance, the American government had seized billions of dollars of Iranian assets and imposed extreme sanctions on the country. The funds had provided powerful leverage for American officials to gain the release of the embassy hostages; when the 52 Americans were released, Iran got billions in return.

Perles wanted to know: What sum would get Iran’s attention now? Clawson believed a judgment of anywhere from $150 million to $300 million in damages would help Flatow attain his goal of getting the Iranians out of the business of attacking Americans.

That summer, five months after filing the complaint, Flatow attended a fundraiser at the Plaza Hotel in New York, knowing that President Clinton would be present. He handed Clinton a letter urging him to hold “Mr. Arafat’s feet to the fire of accountability” in connection with the release of a prisoner who was a member of PIJ. He reminded the president of their previous conversation: “Just because my daughter is not here with us on earth does not mean that I stop doing things for her.”

Clinton was in a difficult position. The Middle East and its multitude of conflicts had been a focus since the early days of his administration. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, recalled that she and the president were “intrigued by the possibility of better relations with Iran, whose strategic location, cultural influence, and size made it a pivotal state in one of the world’s most combustible regions.” In her memoir Madam Secretary, she wrote that before she was nominated, Clinton spoke to her of his desire to create breakthroughs in relations with Iran, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.

In August 1997, a new president had been elected in Iran. Mohammad Khatami was a reformist, brought to office by an unexpected 70 percent of Iranian voters. He told CNN at the beginning of his term that he wanted to create a crack in the “wall of mistrust” between Iran and the American people.

Now Albright and Clinton saw an opening. In October 1997, soon after Fay and Holmes returned from their trip to Israel, Clinton sent a message through the Swiss embassy in Tehran inviting Iran to meet with U.S. officials, without preconditions. It never happened, but he continued his overtures; in January 1998, at the end of Ramadan, he videotaped a message addressed to Iranians that said he regretted “the estrangement of our two nations.”

The team had a skeptical view of a possible rapprochement with Iran, given its conservative history. “Our view was there were two kinds of leaders,” said Perles, “extremists and even more extremists.”

Flatow, meanwhile, wrestled with his grief. That summer the first animal clone was born in Scotland. After Flatow read about the sheep they called Dolly, he began composing a short story in his head: He took a lock of his daughter’s hair and cloned another Alisa.

Seven

On March 2, 1998, the first hearing for Flatow’s lawsuit began at the imposing U.S. District Court building on Constitution Avenue, half a mile northwest of the Capitol. The suit would be presided over by federal district judge Royce Lamberth, a native Texan who had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan and was known for tough and sometimes unpredictable legal decisions.

Perles and Fay arrived looking like a study in contrasts, the skinny Perles and the hefty Fay, wondering whether the lawyers representing Iran would even appear. As required by law, Perles had mailed a copy of the complaint, translated into Farsi, to the foreign minister in Tehran. Four months later it was returned to Perles: The envelope had clearly been opened, and the words DO NOT USA were written across the back. When Flatow, accompanied by Rosalyn, daughters Gail, Ilana, and Francine, and son Etan, entered the courtroom, it became clear that they would not be meeting face-to-face with their opponents. Judge Lamberth described Iran’s glaring absence and return of documents as “contumacious conduct,” meaning stubbornly disobedient to authority.

At 10:05 a.m., Fay delivered his opening statement, outlining the historic nature of the lawsuit. “The Congress, in the amendments to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows us to proceed today, has seen fit to give each individual American citizen, each individual the right to proceed against that foreign government,” he said. “As Your Honor knows, this is truly an epochal case in that we have proceeded, not under the cover of government, but as an individual.”

Altogether, Perles and Fay had 18 witnesses, beginning with the recorded deposition of Orit Taft. Before the videotape started, Fay attempted to lighten the mood. “With Your Honor’s permission, I’ll simply stand, and hopefully, this will have a beneficial weight-loss result.”

“We could all use that, couldn’t we?” said Judge Lamberth. “Except Mr. Perles, of course.”

When it came time to show the videotape of the bombing site, Perles suggested that Flatow might want to leave. “I’d rather stay, Your Honor,” replied Flatow. For the first time, he watched the footage of Alisa being carried off the bus and laid onto the ground, her body limp. Fay then showed David Shaenbaum’s videotaped testimony. Kesari Ruza, who was now a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, appeared in person to describe her experience during the bombing. After the lunch recess, it was Flatow’s turn to take the stand.

“You were the father of Alisa Flatow?” began Fay.

“I’m still the father,” said Flatow.

Flatow described Alisa, starting with her voracious reading at an early age, her straight A’s, her interest in music and religion, her strong moral instincts. She had found time to volunteer at senior-citizen centers and taught Soviet immigrant children how to play baseball, her favorite sport. He described how the family had traveled to Israel in January 1995 for a ten-day visit with Alisa and Gail. It was the last time the family was together. He told of his experience returning to Israel after the bombing and the decision to donate her organs.

“Can you describe the effect on your wife, Rosalyn?” asked Fay.

 “I think it’s destroyed her.”

One of Alisa’s best friends at Brandeis, Lauren Sloane, painted a portrait of a funny and empathetic young woman. Her humor was witty, even intimidating. Alisa could come up with a funny line about almost anything before “you could blink,” said Sloane. She had a diverse group of friends, religious and nonreligious; she made nothing of sitting in the bathroom at night to comfort someone who’d drank too much.

In a letter to Sloane, Alisa had once written: “Do what you’re happy doing, and if something isn’t the way you want it, fix it.”

By 4:30 p.m., the first day of testimony was over. Everyone, it seemed, had shed tears, including Judge Lamberth. Perles had asked a rabbi to be present during the trial. At one point, Perles could hear Rosalyn breaking down and turned to ask the rabbi to comfort her, only to see him crying as well.

The next day, the plaintiffs called four expert witnesses: Patrick Clawson; Harry Brandon, a former counterterrorism FBI agent, who testified about the structure of the PIJ; Jerome Paige, an economic analyst who had conducted a life-earnings estimate for Alisa, based on her expressed desire to become an occupational therapist; and Reuven Paz, the former Shin Bet member who had intercepted the radio message between Iran and the PIJ.

Judge Lamberth adjourned the proceedings by 2:45. A week later, the Flatows returned to the courtroom, and Judge Lamberth began reading his decision. “The Court has examined the evidence and is satisfied that the plaintiff has established, by evidence satisfactory to the Court, that the death of the decedent was caused by the actions of the Islamic Republic of Iran in sponsoring this terrorist attack of this suicide bombing in Israel that resulted in the death of Alisa Michelle Flatow.”

As Lamberth continued, Perles could hear Flatow exhale, releasing years of stress. The judge awarded $1 million for the pain and suffering Alisa experienced before her death. He gave $20 million in solatium to Alisa’s family. And then he delivered his judgment for punitive damages. “The court is determined to award $225 million in punitive damages against the Republic of Iran and the other defendants in an effort and desire by the Court to deter other terrorist acts against Americans who happen to be in Israel or elsewhere.”

The judge turned to Flatow. “Mr. Flatow had done exactly what Congress has empowered him to do, and this Court has followed its duty. I hope that the rule of law can contribute ultimately to the solution of the problems presented in this case, where an innocent girl was needlessly killed,” he said. “It doesn’t contribute to the Mideast peace process or to the Mideast anything else to kill an innocent girl like this, and the Court cannot be stronger in condemning this kind of action.”

Outside the courthouse, Flatow, clean-shaven and in a beige raincoat, spoke to the assembled reporters with a stoic Rosalyn beside him. “These people are not heroes. They are not martyrs. They are traitors to the human race,” he told them. “I think Alisa is smiling on us today.”

The celebratory mood was short-lived, however: The morning after Lamberth delivered his verdict, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about its implications should the U.S. and Iran be moving toward rapprochement. “Our policy doesn’t get affected by court judgments,” Jamie Rubin, a State Department spokesman told the paper. “We believe the best way to resolve the differences we have with the Iranian government … is through direct dialogue.” To Flatow and Perles it was an unexpected declaration that the Clinton administration was no longer on their side.


Perles and Fay launched an inventory of Iranian assets in the United States that they could draw on to cover the damages owed to the Flatows. Following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the taking of hostages from the U.S. embassy, President Jimmy Carter froze Iranian assets in America. Iran had lost billions, not only in property and cash, but also in funds deposited in American banks abroad.

When the two countries agreed to the Algiers Accords in 1981, it stipulated the release of the embassy hostages and the establishment of a claims tribunal at The Hague where future commercial disputes could be settled between the countries. Additionally, American hostages were prevented from suing the Iranian government, and some $4–5 billion of Iran’s money was returned. Estimates of the amount still held in the United States varied from millions to many billions, including the former Shah’s private holdings. In order to collect the judgment, Perles and Fay needed to know precisely how much money was left and where it was located.

On June 5, 1998, the lawyers served a subpoena to the Treasury Department, and a week later to the State Department, requesting a list of assets in which Iran had an interest. The denial came swiftly: The Department of Justice responded that the subpoenas would be overly burdensome in their scope and, in a letter to the court, argued that they would require the production of documents protected by “state secrets, law enforcement, and deliberative process privileges.”

The U.S. government also maintained that it didn’t have any Iranian assets. In a letter to Lautenberg on June 10, 1998, State Department assistant secretary of legislative affairs Barbara Larkin argued that the government regularly received requests from Congress and American citizens seeking to satisfy claims using frozen assets. But since the hostages were freed in 1981, she wrote, the government held no Iranian assets, save for a “small amount” that was under arbitration.

Perles and Fay had other ideas. They knew that within a few miles of their own offices were three pieces of real estate that no one could deny were Iranian: the Embassy Chancery of Iran, the residence of the minister of cultural affairs of the embassy of Iran, and the residency of the military attaché of the embassy of Iran. All three had been seized by the State Department on April 7, 1980. Embassy properties are under the protection of the Vienna Convention and are expressly immune from being used to settle claims. Yet, Perles had a hypothesis. The U.S. government had put them on the commercial real estate market, renting them out for money; maybe the government had inadvertently changed the status of the property from diplomatic to commercial. “It was the only thing we could chase,” said Perles.

Flatow’s legal team filed a writ of attachment—a court order to seize an asset—for the properties on July 8, 1998. The next day, at a hearing in Judge Lamberth’s courtroom, they were astounded to see over a dozen government lawyers. The government wanted Lamberth to deny the writ. “It wasn’t ours to give away,” explained Philip Bartz, then a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department who worked on the Flatow case. “We were obligated to make sure it was not attached and sold to satisfy a judgment. If we start allowing people to seize assets to pay judgments, then all our embassies are at risk.”

Perles watched as Flatow’s head sank. He had brought the Iranians to court with the belief that he had the powerful will of President Clinton behind him. Instead it seemed he had now gained a formidable foe, one who was prepared to fight him with all the resources available to his administration.

The government’s lawyers emphasized that the United States was not filing its argument on behalf of Iran, but to Flatow and his allies the U.S. government seemed to be defending the property of a state sponsor of terrorism.


In Congress, condemnation of the administration’s actions was swift. A week after the Department of Justice lawyers appeared in Lamberth’s courtroom, the House was debating an appropriations bill, and late on the evening of July 16, New Jersey congressman Saxton sought to attach an amendment to it that would allow diplomatic properties to be used by plaintiffs seeking their judgments. New York representative Eliot Engel spoke in support of the measure and criticized the president for protecting Iranian property. “They always say it somehow undermines the ability to have the president do this or that,” he said. “We are the United States Congress, and we make policy. We decide what is right.”

Saxton also spoke. “Terrorists operate around this world, and there is seldom a price to pay,” he said. “This is a tool for us to use as a civilized society.” The amendment stalled, and a few months later Lautenberg sponsored a similar one, attached to the 1999 Appropriations Act. When it passed, President Clinton used an executive waiver to strike it, in the “interest of national security.”

Flatow saw Clinton’s decision as an act of hypocrisy. He told the Associated Press, “Protecting Iranian assets of any type is equivalent to the FBI director saying he’s tough on gangsters but needs to be sensitive to the Mob.”

The battle lines between Flatow and his legal team, largely backed by Congress, and an army of administration lawyers had been drawn. At subsequent hearings, Perles and Fay argued that the government was using an abstract interpretation of its obligations under international law. The government’s lawyers responded that seizing diplomatic properties would adversely affect the foreign-policy interests of the United States. Should another hostage situation take place, for instance, the United States would need all the frozen assets it could access. If the Flatows had hypothetically been able to settle their judgment before 1979, deputy treasury secretary Stuart Eizenstat argued, the government might not have had the money and leverage to get the hostages out during the Tehran crisis. This was not an abstract argument for Eizenstat: He had been President Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser during the Iran hostage crisis.

“Protecting Iranian assets of any type is equivalent to the FBI director saying he’s tough on gangsters but needs to be sensitive to the Mob.”

Perles’s own wife was an employee of the State Department, and he understood the government’s interest in retaining as many bargaining chips as it could—including frozen assets—in its dealings with Iran. But he still didn’t agree with the strategy. “I never liked the idea of saying we’ll give you this money for our diplomats,” Perles said.

Flatow was becoming a thorn in the Clinton administration’s side. “They hated him,” said Patrick Clawson, the Iran expert who testified on Flatow’s behalf. “The U.S. government did its best to discourage and thwart the collection efforts—they didn’t care about judgments, but the collection efforts they hated.”

President Clinton was increasingly under attack in the press for his actions. On October 4, 60 Minutes aired a 13-minute segment detailing Flatow’s efforts that included searing video footage from the Kfar Darom bomb site and of an injured Alisa being carried off the bus. Lesley Stahl asked State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin whether the U.S. government was protecting Iranian assets because it wanted a thaw in relations with the country. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Rubin. “This has nothing to do with our Iran policy and everything to do with the fact that diplomatic property is sacrosanct.”

But this argument looked technical and heartless in light of a father’s emotional pleas. The segment elicited an outpouring of sympathy for Flatow, and the administration was publicly pummeled. Conservative columnist Tony Snow wrote, “Families and victims soldier on, determined to get their due—even if it means taking on a U.S. government that sits on the side of the courtroom, making cause with Fidel Castro, Moammar Khadafy and Saddam Hussein.”

One day, Perles came home to his wife, who joked: “The Ayatollah and Madeleine Albright are getting together to draw straws to see who will get rid of you first.”

Eight

After eight months of exchanging motions and briefs, the Clinton administration extended Flatow an olive branch. On November 2, 1998, Perles, Flatow, and Fay attended a meeting at the Department of State building hosted by deputy secretary of the treasury Stuart Eizenstat. The room was crowded with Eizenstat’s staff, as well as emissaries of Frank Lautenberg, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and the Office of Foreign Missions.

Eizenstat handed over more than 5,000 pages of documents and suggested that if they wanted to locate assets beyond the custodial control of the federal government, they should look no further than 650 Fifth Ave. in New York City. The 34-story building was owned by the Alavi Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Persian culture and scholarship. In fact, Eizenstat told them, the organization was controlled by the Iranian government.

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The headquarters of the Alavi Foundation at 650 Fifth Ave. in New York City. (Photo: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

As startling as this claim appeared, the Alavi Foundation’s dubious facade as a nonprofit was an open secret. The Shah created the organization under the name the Pahlavi Foundation in 1973 and built the skyscraper at Fifth Avenue in 1978, the year before he was overthrown in the revolution. In 1995, The American Spectator published an exposé by reporter Kenneth Timmerman that detailed how Ayatollah Khomeini had forced the board of directors (including former secretary of state William Rogers) to resign, replacing them with sympathizers to the new Islamic Republic.

According to Timmerman’s investigation, the foundation began building Islamic centers in Maryland and New York with scholarship programs and adult-education courses that had a pro-Khomeini agenda. He unearthed tax records that showed that the Alavi Foundation had paid more than $1.4 million to a mosque in Brooklyn where the bombing of the 1993 World Trade Center had been planned and discovered that several of Alavi’s employees had been caught trying to buy or export to Iran IBM computers, lie-detector machines, and biological agents.

The Internal Revenue Service had also been looking at the Alavi Foundation ever since it tried to deduct from its taxes a loan it received from a bank affiliated with the Iranian government. In 1997, however, the IRS deemed the organization to be legitimate and gave it a refund, even though Bank Sepah, one of the Iranian banks blacklisted by the Treasury Department, still operated out of 650 Fifth Ave.

Perles and Fay decided to go after three of the Alavi’s properties in Maryland, all Islamic schools in Montgomery County. Just a few days after their meeting with Eizenstat, a sheriff delivered a levy to the properties, and on May 10, 1999, the two sides met in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

In their opening argument, the Alavi’s lawyers called the case a witch hunt and compared their client to the Rockefeller Foundation. If the IRS really believed Alavi was a fraudulent organization, as described in the suit, argued attorney John Winter, it wouldn’t have been granted a substantial IRS refund.

Fay argued that there were FBI videotapes showing the Imam of the Islamic Educational Center in Maryland meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini and the heads of Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as the PIJ’s Fathi Shaqaqi before he was murdered in Malta.

But at the end of oral arguments, Judge Alexander Williams Jr. turned to Perles.

“Why is our government recognizing it as a legitimate business or entity?” asked Williams. “Why don’t they forfeit it and seize the assets?”

Perles responded that the FBI was investigating a “circle of conspirators” that included the leadership of the Alavi Foundation.

“That’s speculative,” said Judge Williams. “Any of us can be investigated.”

Perles left the courtroom aggravated. “I followed that path because they gave me a box of documents about the Alavi Foundation,” he said

Shortly after, Perles and Fay sent a request to the Justice Department: Would the government support their arguments about Alavi in court? They never got a response.

Flatow saw the silence as a double-cross: They had been led to the Alavi Foundation by the government, who then refused to go the next step and give them proof that would win the case. The proceedings revealed how cautiously the administration was protecting its relations with Iran.

Indeed, there were serious concerns inside the National Security Council. The suit could force the State Department into the awkward position of stating whether or not it considered Alavi an instrumentality, or front, for Iranian financial and political activity in the U.S. “There are a number of difficult issues to address,” said an NSC internal memo. “Anticipating further inquiries and possibly a formal request, NSC will convene interagency counsel to explore the matter.”

It came as little surprise when, on September 7, 1999, the judge released the Alavi Foundation’s Maryland schools from the levy and granted a motion to keep Perles and Fay from trying to go after any of its other properties.


As frustrating as the defeat in Maryland was, Perles and Fay were beginning to realize that losing in court wasn’t such a bad thing. Every day, they spoke on the phone several times, urging each other on in the face of setbacks. “Sometimes the way to win, to move a case forward, is to lose,” Perles told me. “If you lose often enough, you can sometimes make things happen. I kept attacking Iranian assets and losing and complaining to Congress every time the Clinton administration intervened. The more we lost, the better we kept doing politically.”

Indeed, the political pressure and public scrutiny was needling the Clinton administration as Perles and Fay continued to file motion after motion in Judge Lamberth’s court. “It’s a very difficult policy issue,” said Stuart Eizenstat. “We understood—a family experiences a grievous loss, and they needed to take what steps they could. But we had to put it into a broader policy perspective. We couldn’t look only at the suffering of this one family.”

On July 30, 1999, Perles, Fay, Lautenberg’s staff, Eizenstat, and seven other administration officials met again. Eizenstat repeated his offer to help identify unblocked assets, saying he wanted to avoid confrontation and work together constructively.

Frustrated by their experience going after Alavi, Perles and Fay asked for an “interim measure of closure” for Flatow, suggesting that the rental proceeds, some $5–6 million from Iranian diplomatic properties, would be a good start. “We, too, want to avoid confrontation—but we need results,” Fay argued. “We want the discussion to go beyond unblocked property.”

The elephant in the room was another proposed congressional amendment: Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona, Connie Mack of Florida, and Lautenberg had put together the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which would provide access to blocked assets. Administration officials were hoping the amendment would be dropped or at least postponed to prevent the president from exercising a veto.

Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, Perles finally lost his patience. “I have heard nothing from you today that is real. The only reason you are meeting with us today is because there’s a crisis for you,” he told them. “You’re here because you can count votes. I can count votes, too.… Think long and hard about the rental proceeds.”

With no indication that the administration was going to release the rental proceeds to Flatow, in the fall of 1999, Kyl, Mack, and Lautenberg went forward with the amendment. “Initially, the Clinton administration’s response to this was more from a legalistic, international-relations perspective,” Mack told me. “Eventually, as this thing heated up, the political instincts started to move, and they had to figure how to do it in a way that did the least damage to their position.”

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As Flatow’s lawyers filed motion after motion, the Clinton administration appeared increasingly heartless. (Photo: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

According to internal memos, that September the Clinton administration began considering the possibility that they needed to make what they called an “advance payment” to Flatow to deter the new amendment—some 5 percent of the compensatory damages awarded by Judge Lamberth.

But by October, the two sides were still at a standstill, and Flatow appeared before the Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary to endorse the amendment. “If the administration will not help us, then at least let it get out of our way,” he pleaded. “Stop sending lawyers to court at taxpayer expense to defend the interests of terrorists.”

Eizenstat had also testified, arguing that the United States was at risk of losing its leverage against foreign states. And, he added, even if Flatow was legally allowed to claim blocked assets to satisfy his judgment, “the value of the judgment won by the Flatow family … exceeds the total known value of the blocked assets of the government of Iran in the United States. ”

An hour after Eizenstat testified, the phone rang at Thomas Fay’s office. The caller identified himself as a retired employee of the Department of Defense but didn’t give his name. His job at the department had involved something called the Foreign Military Sales Program. FMS was a program that allowed the U.S. to sell weapons to foreign governments; it was an oft-used tool of American foreign policy. At the time of the Shah’s fall in 1979, he told Fay, Iran’s FMS account with the U.S. government had hundreds of millions in its coffers, which had been seized.

Fay hung up the phone and started calling contacts on Capitol Hill to find out if what he heard was true. Within hours he had confirmed it.

Of all the countries with FMS accounts in the U.S., Iran had one of the largest; it had spent some $20 billion on American-made weapons systems over the decades. But the existence of any money left in the account since the revolution had never been disclosed to Flatow by the administration. In fact, it contained some $400 million.


Unbeknownst to Flatow and his lawyers, the administration had worried that Iran’s FMS account might come up in the litigation. In the summer of 1999, the president’s National Security Council adviser, Sandy Berger, sent the president a memo—now public in the Clinton Presidential Library archives—warning that yet another amendment was being proposed in Congress that would give plaintiffs access to blocked assets. If it passed, Clinton might be forced to use his veto power or risk giving Flatow the ability to tap “the $400 million of Iranian funds that we are holding in the FMS Trust Fund” and jeopardize “one of the primary policy tools at our disposal.”

At the bottom of Berger’s memo was a handwritten note: “We need to make a deal and get some $ to the Flatows—the trick is to give reasonable reimbursement w/out letting these claims eviscerate foreign policy. We’ve been so stuck on the ‘camel’s nose in the tent’ problem that we haven’t done enough to resolve the hot cases.” It was initialed “BC,” a sign that the president’s priorities were beginning to shift.

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Clinton’s handwritten note in response to Sandy Berger’s memo. 

By the end of 1999, there were other compelling reasons that the Clinton administration wanted Flatow’s crusade to end: First Lady Hillary Clinton was beginning her campaign for senator of New York, and she needed allies on the Hill and the support of the Jewish vote.

The First Lady was already facing tough criticism from Jewish organizations stemming from her visit to Ramallah in the fall of 1999. In November, she had appeared at a public event with Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian leader, where Mrs. Arafat accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian children with toxic gas. Clinton looked uncomfortable but didn’t dispute the accusation, and as she left the event, Clinton gave Mrs. Arafat a kiss. She later said that the translation she heard of Mrs. Arafat’s words were less severe and that a kiss in the Middle East is like a handshake. But her problems with Jewish voters—who generally make up 12 percent of the vote in New York State—were serious.

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Hillary Clinton kisses Suha Arafat during a visit to the West Bank. (Photo: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty)

The First Lady began visiting Jewish centers around the state. On December 14, 1999, she spoke at the Orthodox Union in lower Manhattan. The event was closed to the press and attended by 100 Orthodox leaders and community members. Clinton was asked to explain a range of policy positions, including the status of Jerusalem and foreign aid to Palestine.

Flatow was in the audience, invited by the Union’s chairman to ask his own question.

“Do you support the administration’s handling of terrorist victims’ claims against the Islamic Republic of Iran?” said Flatow.

“No, I do not,” said Clinton.

The room went silent. It was a clear repudiation of her husband’s position. “Very simply, that became an entre to the White House to sit down and talk settlement. Not just with us but with other terror victims,” he said.

The White House’s ambitions for a breakthrough in Iran relations were largely dashed by the last year of Clinton’s presidency. It no longer seemed possible that he would be able to establish direct dialogue with Khatami, who was hemmed in by Iran’s internal politics and the Ayatollah’s refusal to engage with America.

Furthermore, he was no longer faced with just the Flatow case. In the year following the Flatow v. The Islamic Republic of Iran decision, courts had awarded a tsunami of judgments for terror victims. In March, Lebanon hostage Terry Anderson was awarded $324 million. In July, the families of two young Americans killed in a bus bombing in February 1996 were awarded $327 million. The family of a marine killed by Hezbollah was awarded $355 million. The families of the Brothers to the Rescue incident—unarmed planes shot down by the Cuban government in 1996—were still trying to collect the $187 million awarded to them.

After the meeting at Orthodox Union, one of the First Lady’s close advisers, Jack Lew, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, was put in charge of negotiations with Flatow and other families, as well as senators Lautenberg and Mack. Lew, also an Orthodox Jew and a Queens native, presented Flatow with a compromise. Would Flatow accept a payment of the compensatory damages from the United States judgment fund, typically used to settle lawsuits against the United States? Flatow declined. He didn’t want to accept taxpayer money—he wanted Iran’s money.

“I think that really got Hillary’s attention. Here’s this guy, he’s principled,” said Perles. After that, Lew called Flatow and told him he was going to get the problem solved.

Garry Shiffman, national security adviser to Senator Mack, helped oversee the negotiations between the administration, victims’ families, and senators over the ensuing months. The goal was to create legislation that authorized the secretary of the treasury to use some frozen assets to pay compensatory damages to the families.

The final agreement gave the plaintiffs two options. In the first, they could obtain 110 percent of compensatory damages plus interest but relinquish the right to try and collect any other damages, whether in U.S. or foreign courts. In the second, they could receive 100 percent of compensatory damages plus interest and only relinquish their rights to pursue damages in U.S. courts. They could also decline any payments from the government and continue trying to satisfy their judgments through the courts. Flatow chose the second option, retaining his right to go after Iranian assets abroad.

On May 9, 2000, the agreement passed in the House as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The Senate passed the act in July. Shiffman remembers convening a meeting with the Flatows and other families in the Senate offices during the vote. “There was this tremendous sense of inevitability that we were going to get this done,” he said.

On October 28, 2000, President Clinton signed it into law, thereby ensuring that some $213 million plus interest would be given over to eight families, including the Flatows. Clinton issued a statement saying that he was “pleased that the Congress and the executive branch have been able to reach agreement on legislation that reflects our shared goals, providing compensation for the victims of international terrorism and protecting the President’s ability to act on behalf of the Nation on important foreign policy and national security issues.”

It had been 962 days since Flatow had won his case against the Republic of Iran. As the political scientist Ofira Seliktar has written, the passage of the bill was viewed by Iran as confirmation that the U.S.’s attempts at detente had been a trick all along. “To the insular regime in Tehran, already convinced of Jewish dominance … the so-called Flatow bill was one more indication of Jewish power.”

Nine

In the years that followed, the Flatows’ lawsuit would ripple out in unexpected ways—including, over a decade later, unraveling a bank’s Iranian money-laundering scheme. In 2006, Eitan Arusy, an intelligence analyst at the district attorney’s office in Manhattan, who specialized in illegal Middle Eastern financing, began looking into the 1999 Alavi case that Perles and Fay had lost. Arusy’s interest was more than professional. He was a former Israeli soldier, and in his early twenties he had been one of the first responders to the bus bombing in Kfar Darom that killed Alisa.

As a result of Arusy’s digging, the prosecutor’s office investigated the Alavi Foundation further. An informant suggested that they focus on the financial records of the organization, which would show that the nonprofit had received millions of dollars from the Iranian-owned Bank Melli. When they began looking for Bank Melli, they discovered a surprise: money transfers with Credit Suisse and Lloyds, which, it turned out, had removed their names to avoid detection.

The Manhattan prosecutors began collaborating with the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Treasury Department, New York State’s financial regulator, and the Federal Reserve. Together, they argued, international financial companies including ING, Standard Chartered, HSBC, and BNP Paribas had laundered money on Iran’s behalf, as well as Sudan’s and Cuba’s. When Flatow found out that his case had helped lead to some $12 billion in settlements between the banks and the U.S. government, including $8.9 billion from BNP Paribas alone, it “knocked my socks off,” he said.

It was the latest chapter in a story that Flatow and his legal team had tried to tell years before: that the Alavi Foundation was a front for the Iranian government. On April 17, 2014, Preet Bharara, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, announced that the skyscraper at 650 Fifth Ave., in addition to properties in California, Virginia, Texas, and Maryland, would be sold with the intention of benefiting terrorism victims, among others. Some $2.8 billion of the BNP Paribas fine will aid 9/11 victims. The Alavi Foundation and the Iranian government continue to dispute that they are connected, calling the seizure “unwise and politically tainted.”

In December 2015, Congress finally passed a spending bill that included provisions for the hostages taken at the U.S. embassy in 1979 to receive millions in restitution, ending a 30-year legal battle. The money will come from the penalty paid by BNP Paribas.

Flatow’s agreement with the government prevents him from filing a claim to any of this money. But Perles continues to track down Iranian money in other countries. A few years ago, in Italy, his firm reached a settlement with Iran mediated by an Arab diplomat: Iran would pay a lump sum by wire transfer, and his clients, including Flatow, would drop all further suits. When the time came, Iran’s representatives never showed up, and the transfers weren’t made.

Most recently, Perles argued before Italy’s Supreme Court to adopt Judge Lamberth’s decision in the Flatow case, so he could begin going after Iranian assets there. (Italy is one of Iran’s biggest trading partners.) The court declined.

Perles’s practice is dominated by cases of victims seeking damages from foreign governments and corporations that materially support terrorists. He is representing the family of Steven Sotloff, the American journalist murdered by ISIS in 2014. In total, his clients have been awarded more than $17 billion in damages in connection with attacks against Americans.

Last January, negotiators reached a historic deal with Iran. The agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, created a pathway to end decades of sanctions in exchange for Tehran dismantling its military nuclear program. Several months later, a bill in Congress sought to block the JCPOA until Iran satisfies judgments won by terrorism victims. The president threatened to veto the measure. “Obstructing implementation of the JCPOA would greatly undermine our national security interests,” said a White House statement, in language that echoed Clinton’s and Albright’s in the 1990s.

And just last week, on January 13, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Bank Markazi v. Peterson, a case that bears a striking resemblance to Flatow’s. A group of some 1,300 families are seeking to recover damages on behalf of loved ones killed in terror attacks sponsored by Iran, including the bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks in 1983. In 2013, Congress required a federal court to allow frozen assets of the Iranian bank to be used to compensate victims’ families. Now the court has to decide whether Congress acted unconstitutionally and challenged the separation of powers at the heart of American governance.

Remarkably, analysts believe that Flatow’s effort may have actually succeeded in its goal of making killing Americans so expensive that Iran would avoid doing so.

“What we’ve seen from this quixotic effort that Flatow had so many years ago is a very substantial penalty that the Iranian government has had to pay,” said Patrick Clawson. “There has been real change in behavior.” He points out the fact that Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups once commonly seized American citizens as hostages, a practice that dramatically declined after the Flatow case.

This isn’t to say that Iran hasn’t found other ways to pursue its interests, supporting everything from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It hardly needs to be said that terrorism itself has not gone away but merely emerged in more places with old and new actors and a seemingly always-fresh stream of money as the Middle East is engulfed in the fight against ISIS and sectarian conflict. In 2015, the State Department reported that global terror attacks grew by 35 percent between 2013 and 2014, and deaths increased 80 percent. Last week, the JCPOA was implemented, giving Iran access to $100 billion in previously frozen assets; Perles predicts that some of this money will be directed toward financing terrorist attacks by Iran’s proxies.

For Gary Shiffman, now a professor at Georgetown University in economics and security policy, the next stage for these cases is the international legal system. “If there’s a way for American citizens to go to international court and obtain a judgment for an act of terrorism, they should be able to do that,” he said. “If the price goes up, the demand goes down.”


The Flatows settled with the government for over $26 million, paid out of appropriated funds from the U.S. Treasury. According to the agreement, however, the funds will be deducted from Iran’s frozen FMS account in the future. (Perles’s and Fay’s fee was about a third of the amount.)

The Flatows created a scholarship fund in Alisa’s name to send college students to study in Israel each year. The fund is just one aspect of Alisa’s ongoing legacy, going back to the moment she was taken off life support and her organs were given to Israeli patients. Although three recipients died following surgery, three others survived, including a man who had waited for a new heart for more than a year.         

Today, the Flatow family includes 16 grandchildren, with four granddaughters bearing the name Alisa.

Flatow hasn’t stopped talking; he travels to high schools and synagogues, gives interviews to the media, and writes letters to editors. “It’s good therapy for me,” he said.

He and Rosalyn are considering a move this spring, and as a result Flatow recently sorted through old boxes, including some of Alisa’s belongings. As he sifted through college textbooks from Brandeis, toys, and birthday cards, he marveled at the passage of time. “Twenty years ago, I would have fallen apart,” said Flatow. “Now I just look and shake my head in wonderment.”


We welcome feedback at letters@atavist.com.

The Divorce Colony

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The Divorce Colony

The strange tale of the socialites who shaped modern marriage on the American frontier.

By April White

The Atavist Magazine, No. 55


April White is an editor for the Harvard Business School Bulletin. She is a historical researcher and the author or coauthor of numerous books on food, cooking, and travel.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Rhiel
Producer:Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrations: Jonathan McNaught


Published in November 2015. Design updated in 2021.

One

The morning of Monday, February 8, 1892, dawned clear and cold in the frontier town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The previous night’s snow had made the roadways treacherous for horse-drawn carriages, but the Baroness Margaret Laura De Stuers was undeterred. Just before nine o’clock, she approached the Minnehaha County courthouse. In the morning light, the imposing quartzite edifice shimmered purple against the white snow. Its tower—the clock faces still missing from the as yet unfinished building—rose 165 feet into the clear Dakota sky, a beacon visible from anywhere in the small town. It would soon become a landmark known nationwide by the nickname the Temple of Freedom. The baroness was here, 1,200 miles from her hometown of New York City, for a divorce, one that her husband, the law, and society had conspired to deny her.

Margaret—Maggie to her friends, of which, at this point in her life, there were few—climbed the staircase to the second-floor courtroom and walked with her lawyers to the plaintiff’s table. Even in these spare surroundings, the 39-year-old baroness exuded an aristocratic elegance, though her sloping shoulders lent her an air of perpetual sadness. Accompanying her were her chaperone, William Elliott, and her maid, Maria. William seated himself in the first row of opera chairs reserved for the public, and Maggie glanced at the defense table with relief. Despite the rumors, the defendant was not in attendance. Maggie’s husband, the Baron Alphonse Lambert Eugene Ridder De Stuers, had declined to travel from Europe to confront his wife of almost 17 years. But even in his absence he caused a sensation.

The rest of the two-story courtroom was largely empty, with the exception of a clutch of newspaper correspondents who had reported on every scrap of news about Maggie, a niece of the late John Jacob Astor III and the first of that leading New York family to seek a divorce. Her life, the New York World wrote, had “furnished a series of very romantic chapters during the past two or three years, and society has been prepared for an additional chapter more romantic and fascinating than any of its predecessors—very possibly, in case she obtains a divorce, her marriage to the devoted lover of her girlhood days.”

Just after 9:15, Judge Frank Aikens gaveled the court to order, and Maggie’s lawyer, Captain William H. Stoddard, called her to the witness stand. Captain Stoddard came primed for a fight, but he questioned his client gently. There was much ground to cover, from her New York society wedding in 1875 to her desperate flight from her Dutch husband and their home in Paris in 1890. To secure a divorce, Maggie had to convince Judge Aikens that her husband had treated her cruelly. But first, Captain Stoddard asked Maggie for her name, for the record, and then posed one of the most important questions of the trial: How long have you been a resident of Sioux Falls?


The decision to end a marriage was most often the domain of the wealthy man, who had the money and influence to shape, circumvent, or simply ignore the law.

In 1892, the young state of South Dakota was a refuge for divorce seekers. It had among the laxest divorce laws in the country, offering numerous grounds and, more importantly, requiring only 90 days residency to fall under the court’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Maggie’s home state of New York had some of the strictest laws, granting absolute divorce only for adultery; some would resort to hiring actresses to play the part of the mistress. In other states, one could sue for a divorce of room and board, which allowed for physical and economic, not marital, separation. South Carolina was stricter still, forbidding it entirely. This hodgepodge of laws created the legally debatable phenomenon of the “foreign divorce,” in which one spouse traveled to a jurisdiction with more favorable laws.

Divorce was anathema in the United States in the late 19th century. Yet demand was on the rise, especially among women, for whom the hurdles of escaping an unhappy marriage were high. Historically, the decision to end a marriage was most often the domain of the wealthy man, who had the money and influence to shape, circumvent, or simply ignore the law. Many men could walk away from their wives, secure in their fortunes, their place in society, and the legitimacy of their children. Women, who for centuries lacked economic independence and social standing outside marriage, were often hesitant to divorce. But as Maggie traveled to Sioux Falls, that dynamic was shifting.

Throughout the United States’ history, the most permissive divorce laws had existed at the edges of the settled country, before the land and the laws had been tamed. In earlier years, Maggie might have traveled to Pennsylvania, Indiana, or Illinois; each of those states was briefly a destination for divorce seekers before residency requirements were lengthened. South Dakota’s laws were not written to encourage divorce—the short residency requirement was a holdover from the peripatetic nature of pioneer life—but divorce seekers did not concern themselves with the intention of the law, only the opportunities it afforded.

Sioux Falls, at the eastern edge of the state and the nexus of six railroad lines, was the most convenient South Dakota destination for foreign divorce seekers from the East, and the Cataract House hotel, at the corner of 9th and Phillips, was their comfortable if expensive way station: steam heat, elevator, and electric bells to summon the help, all for three dollars a day. After 90 days, they would be recognized as residents of South Dakota. Across the street, the Edmison-Jameson building housed nearly a quarter of the town’s outsize legal community: 38 law firms and counting. In Sioux Falls, Maggie found a community of divorce seekers from New York, Boston, Chicago, even England—the pioneers of the “Divorce Colony,” as newspapermen christened it.

“Now that a niece of William Astor has joined the divorce colony in Sioux Falls,” the Philadelphia Record had written following her arrival on June 1, 1891, “the South Dakota style of severing matrimonial bonds may become more popular than heretofore. The amazing elasticity of the complaisant South Dakota divorce laws has up to this time escaped the attention of all but a few wandering actors and actresses.” 

By the time of Maggie’s trial eight months later, the Cataract House ledger read like the courthouse docket. Maggie, along with her maid and her dog, Tweedle, had a suite of four rooms on the top floor of the four-story building, remodeled to Maggie’s taste with new furniture, a large bathtub, and a piano. Her parlors filled a prime corner of the hotel. At the other end of the hallway, the curious William Elliott, whom Maggie introduced as her second cousin, occupied two rooms. Among the other divorce colonists in residence were 25-year-old Boston Herald scion Charles Andrews, who was seeking a divorce from his wife, Kate; Edward Pollock, sent from New York by his well-to-do family to end his marriage to the household maid; Alice Crane, in Sioux Falls for a divorce from her English cousin, who tricked her into marrying him in hopes of stealing away her fortune (which was not quite as large as he had thought); and Ida Tyson, in exile at the Cataract House with her seven-year-old son, awaiting freedom from a husband who had committed adultery. Rumor had it that her husband was elsewhere in South Dakota, accompanying his married mistress in her own quest for a divorce.

Rivaling Maggie for the title of most notorious divorce colonist was 25-year-old Mary Nevins Blaine, the young wife of Jamie Blaine, the wayward son of secretary of state James G. Blaine. Mary came to Sioux Falls in late April 1891, and her efforts to secure a divorce were daily newspaper fodder, printed alongside hopeful speculation that her father-in-law, who narrowly lost the 1884 presidential election, would again seek the Republican nomination. Many feared that the secretary of state’s failing health would prevent him from running; others wondered if his youngest son’s very public divorce would end his presidential ambitions.

To read the front pages of the country’s newspapers or sit in its church pews in 1892 was to know that the United States was facing a divorce epidemic. By one estimate, more divorces were granted in the United States than in all the rest of the Christian world combined. Even more concerning to many was the rapidly rising divorce rate—an increase of some 157 percent between 1867 and 1886—and the brazen attitudes of the divorce seekers. For as long as there had been marriage, there had been a debate over its dissolution: Who had the right to end the relationship? When? Why? How? And, often, for how much money? The answers varied from country to country and decade to decade, but one overarching theme emerged: Marriage was too integral to society to leave the decision up to the spouses alone. Through laws, religious dictates, and social pressure, society would govern divorce.

But in the late 19th century, the United States was undergoing rapid societal and economic transformation: industrialization, urbanization, growing middle and working classes, increasing class consciousness, and evolving roles for women. Among progressives and liberals the changes were celebrated. Among conservatives they were feared. Divorce and the Divorce Colony became a scapegoat for those fears: “Utah, Connecticut and Illinois have in the past shared the distinction of being the banner divorce communities, but South Dakota bids fair to outrival them all,” The Salt Lake Herald observed with some alarm in August 1891. “In other states and territories where the divorce industry has been worked so industriously, those interested have thought proper to preserve some degree of secrecy. Here it is altogether different.”

The women and men of the Divorce Colony were unwitting participants in a now forgotten chapter of American social history. The South Dakota town was a “grand phantasmagoria,” the New York World reported. “No one can begin to appreciate the situation unless he is here on the spot. December wed to May, old men’s disappointed darlings and young men’s slaves, young men with elderly affinities, yet unrequited love and budding hope and dead passions, all figuring in one fantastic show.”

Only a generation after married women had gained the right to own property, and still a generation before women gained the vote, the actions of these Sioux Falls colonists had forced the issue of divorce into the nation’s churches, courthouses, and legislatures. The battle was not a quiet one. The colonists were challenged not just by contrary spouses but by a growing anti-divorce movement of clergymen, conservative politicians and judges, and others who saw divorce as an attack on the family and proposed stricter laws across the country. The nearly daily news of arrivals, filings, depositions, and decrees in the Divorce Colony—a “Mecca for the mismated,” according to the Pittsburgh Daily Post—spurred their efforts. Each of the colonists was there for his or her own reasons, but their collective presence would make Sioux Falls the crucible of the country’s growing divorce crisis and, ultimately, change marriage and divorce in American society.

Two

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Maggie had waited in Sioux Falls for 252 days: first the three months required to establish residency, then another five months for her lawyers to prepare depositions and legal filings. Now, for her long-anticipated day in court, Maggie was dressed elegantly in a dark brown, three-quarter-length Persian lamb cloak. A brown soft felt hat with a broad feather hid much of her dark golden hair. Her fair skin was paler than usual, but she spoke in a clear and musical voice as she answered her lawyer’s questions.

“I was married in New York City, April 20, 1875,” she explained, showing little emotion in the retelling. “My husband was the chargé d’affaires for his country at Washington. Soon after, we went to Europe traveling.“

The wedding had been the social event of the 1875 season. It had also been something of a shock. No one had expected the impetuous young Miss Carey—daughter of John Carey and Mary Alida Astor—to be swept off her feet by the Dutch diplomat, a formal and polished man 12 years her senior, and the promise of a fashionable European title. They had expected her instead to marry the handsome Elliott Zborowski, a tall and charming millionaire about Maggie’s age and one of the most daring horsemen in New York. She had met him during a Newport summer.

Among the most exclusive of New York society, Maggie had a reputation for her “exceedingly eccentric and interesting” personality. 

Maggie and the baron were married at Maggie’s family home, an imposing New York brownstone at 34th and Madison. In a drawing room overflowing with flowers, an Episcopal minister, representing Maggie’s faith, and a Catholic priest, representing her betrothed’s, had presided over the union. The wealthy Astor family, among New York’s most important, was well represented; Maggie’s uncles John Jacob Astor III and William Astor, along with his wife, were both in attendance. The bridesmaids were a who’s who of the country’s most influential clans: Maggie’s cousin, Emily Astor; Daisy Rutherford; Minnie Rhinelander; and Sallie Delano. Sallie, in a gauzy frock of bright red tulle, had declared Maggie’s handsome new husband to be “the nicest foreigner I have ever met.” The couple departed New York for Europe and a life of beautiful homes and beautiful dresses on Maggie’s annual $80,000 income from her family. Maggie bore the baron four children—twins Mary Alida and John, Bertie, and Margaret—as the couple moved from London to Paris to Madrid and back to Paris. There the baron served in the prestigious role of minister plenipotentiary for the Netherlands, and Maggie had been spotted waltzing to Strauss on the banks of the Seine.

But in court, Maggie told a different story.

“What was your husband’s treatment of you in London?” Captain Stoddard asked her.

“He was very unkind to me,” Maggie said simply. “He would scold me before people. He said I was ‘a savage American’ and a ‘baby,’ and that I didn’t know how to behave myself.”

“What was his conduct in Paris?”

“It was about the same. He was rude to my friends, especially my American friends, and humiliated me in their presence,” Maggie told the court.

“Was he cruel to you at Madrid?”

Maggie recounted an episode from March 13, 1881, the day that Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The baron had demanded that Maggie cancel a small party she had planned in their Madrid home. Such a festive gathering was inappropriate on a day of mourning. Maggie refused, and when her guests arrived the baron accused her of behaving indecently and ignoring her duties as a diplomat’s wife. What did those duties include? Maggie regaled the courtroom with another scandalous tale. The baron had been negotiating a commercial treaty in Madrid and needed the cooperation of the minister of commerce. He tried to enlist her help. “Make him fall in love with you,” the baron demanded. “You know how.” “I told him I was not doing such work,” Maggie recalled. “I refused flatly to thus place my womanhood at the services of the state.”

Maggie continued her stories, the gallery of the courtroom slowly filling as word spread of the drama unfolding in the courthouse. She needed little prompting from her attorney. She recalled how her husband had accused her of adultery. When she denied the charge, he demanded she go to a church and swear to her faithfulness. She did, but he still refused to believe her. She told of his controlling nature: “My husband objected to my reading anything but history. One day I was reading a harmless English novel when he entered the room, snatched the book from me, and went out, slamming the door.” And she told of threats of physical violence. One morning, as Maggie prepared to venture out from their Paris home, her husband demanded to know why she was taking a cab instead of their carriage. “He came up close to me, screamed in my face, grabbed my parasol from me, and swung it ten or twelve times over my head,” Maggie said. Her husband had later explained to her that he did it to frighten her. “I told him, ‘You might frighten your Dutch women that way, but you can’t thus scare an American.’”

Those in the growing audience may have been surprised by Maggie’s defiance in the face of the cruelty she detailed. But among the most exclusive of New York society, Maggie had a reputation for her “exceedingly eccentric and interesting” personality. She never cared for what others—her family included—thought of her. Her learned disregard for their judgment served her well now as she revealed the most humiliating moments of her marriage for the court and the press: “One day at dinner we had present some eight or ten guests. I made some remark which he didn’t like. He jumped right up from the table, screamed at me, spit in my face, and said, ‘I wish to God I had not married you.’”


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The exploits of the Divorce Colony did not escape the notice of South Dakota Senator James Kyle, a Congregational minister who had been elected in March 1891, shortly before Maggie came to South Dakota. In the middle of a rainy spring, the young Populist had arrived in Sioux Falls to visit his sister. He planned to spend the summer touring the state to discover what legislation would best serve his constituents. Though he hadn’t stayed long in Sioux Falls, he found his answer there: What South Dakota needed was national divorce reform.

In January 1892, a month before Maggie’s trial, Senator Kyle boarded a train in Sioux Falls bound for Washington, D.C. In his pocket he carried a piece of paper designed to end the Divorce Colony: a proposed 16th amendment to the United States Constitution. If adopted, it would be the first change to the Constitution in two decades.

Article XVI.

The Congress shall have exclusive power to regulate marriage and divorce in the several States, Territories and the District of Columbia.

In the House, a Republican from New York and a Democrat from Pennsylvania both filed similar resolutions the same month. “The necessity for some such enactment is too apparent to be questioned,” wrote the Chicago Mail.

Kyle waited three and a half weeks for his amendment to come to the floor of the U.S. Senate. In that time, Elizabeth DeBaum was awarded a divorce in Sioux Falls on grounds of imprisonment. Her husband had gone to jail as part of a bank forgery scheme. Caroline Buell, on grounds of desertion, though in truth it was Caroline who deserted her husband when he tried to gain control of her family inheritance. William Thomas, on grounds of his wife’s cruelty. According to the Argus Leader, he pleaded “too much mother-in-law.” Joseph Hunt, on grounds of desertion and cruelty. Hunt’s wife, the “belle of the village,” the newspapers explained, had become “too much enamored of … Hunt’s hired man.” Judge Aikens also heard testimony in Pierce v. Pierce, filed by Reverend George Pierce of Massachusetts.

On February 3, 1892, Kyle warned the Senate chamber that the nation’s disparate divorce laws placed “in jeopardy our whole social fabric.… A national law would secure to us the stability of the marriage relation, preserve the family and the home, and thus lay a broad foundation for the perpetuity of the nation.” Kyle, square shouldered with a prominent mustache, was a noted speaker, known in South Dakota for his candor and plain talk. In the Senate chamber he made a legal argument for federal powers, but the minister’s intention was clear: The divorce law must be both uniform and strict. Such a law would end the phenomena of the foreign divorce and the Sioux Falls Divorce Colony.

If Kyle succeeded in his efforts, there would be no loophole left for divorce seekers like Maggie. She had contemplated ending her marriage many times before, but her legal options had always been few. In England, a wife could seek a costly divorce from the civil courts, but only with clear evidence of her husband’s “aggravated adultery”—infidelity with an additional charge of cruelty, rape, or incest. Adultery was one of the few accusations Maggie did not level against the baron. In Madrid, she had no recourse at all; Spain did not allow divorce. Maggie’s choices were further complicated by the baron’s diplomatic status. In the eyes of the Dutch government, the laws of his homeland might have superseded those of his posting. The Netherlands provided four grounds for divorce—adultery, desertion, imprisonment, and serious physical cruelty. These laws were strictly applied and permitted few divorces. Dutch couples had another option, extremely progressive by United States standards: divorce by mutual consent. But Maggie knew the baron would not consent.

Only during Maggie’s time in France had she seen wives with a true right to divorce. A new law had cleared a legal path for a woman claiming cruelty, and in Paris there was an air of permissiveness and even sophistication around the idea of divorce. In the French capital, Maggie began to research the widely varied divorce statutes of the United States, obtaining a book on divorce law. In its pages she learned of the 90-day residency rules of the Dakota Territory. Her uncle John Jacob Astor, who passed away in 1890, had also told her of Sioux Falls. “He said it was a thriving and interesting place, and showed me photographs,” Maggie recalled in court. “This gave me the first idea of coming here.”

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Three

Maggie was often plagued by what her doctors called a nervous condition, but throughout the morning on the witness stand her composure prevailed. After all, this was not the first time the details of her marriage had been laid bare before the public. In December 1889, the New York World reported the scandalous news: Maggie, who had come to Newport for the summer season, would remain and seek a divorce in Rhode Island. The newspaper was optimistic about her chances—money, of which Maggie had plenty, would settle it—but unable to shed any light on the cause. “In the absence of other reasons,” the newspaper concluded, “Mme. De Stuers’ present action is attributed to the eccentricity always characteristic of some members of the Astor family, the development of which in various ways and in various individuals has furnished endless scope for comment among society people.”

Maggie’s Rhode Island divorce suit might have succeeded, but her aunt, Mrs. William Astor—the Mrs. Astor, self-appointed matriarch of the family—would have none of it. Divorce was social suicide, and Mrs. Astor, a fierce defender of marriage even in the face of her husband’s infidelities, certainly could not have accepted a divorced woman into her parlors. In March 1890, Mrs. William Astor traveled to Paris with a single mission: to reconcile her niece with the baron, sparing New York’s leading family the embarrassment of its first divorce. Her trip was a successful one. Shortly thereafter, Maggie sailed for France to reunite with her husband. The reunion lasted less than a month.

Now Captain Stoddard asked Maggie to recount the events of June 13, 1890, in Paris, the last time she saw her husband. Maggie had told this story before, but rarely in such detail. She hesitated and dropped her voice to a whisper as tears filled her brown eyes.

“That day was a beautiful spring one,” Maggie began. “I was just getting ready for my walk when the baron came to my room in a more than usually amiable frame of mind and remarked, ‘It would be a favor if you would put the walk aside for this morning, as the sculptor is coming.’”

Maggie had obliged, remaining in her room as she awaited the artist commissioned to create a bust of her. That was when Maria, who sat in the courtroom as Maggie relived the day, came rushing to her room: “The house is locked, the windows barred, your room guarded, and the doctors are coming up the stairs!”

The baron’s pleasant demeanor had been a ruse to detain Maggie for the arrival of two doctors from Hospice de la Salpêtrière, the infamous female insane asylum. Maggie knew the doctors who entered her boudoir. The baron had called on Dr. Eugene Cheurlot previously to treat her fainting spells and her nervous and irritable tempers. Maggie had been especially troubled with this condition since the death of her eldest daughter, Mary Alida, in 1884 at the age of nine; she still mourned the loss. The first time, Maggie had promptly dismissed Cheurlot, accusing him of gross ignorance and incompetence. Now he was accompanied by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, who was not dispatched so easily. Charcot was the chief physician of Salpêtrière and the world’s foremost expert on hysteria. If he diagnosed Maggie with hysteria, she would undergo the treatment he had developed for the disease: institutionalization and hypnosis.

Charcot had pronounced Maggie mentally deranged but not hysterical. Maggie explained the grounds for the diagnosis to the courtroom: “He said any woman who treated so kind a husband, one so indulgent and considerate, who never harmed anything, in the manner I did must be insane.” The doctors had produced a certificate declaring that Maggie was suffering from neurosis. Charcot did not find it necessary to commit Maggie to Salpêtrière, but he declared her unfit to care for her children.

“Suddenly, my husband came into the room,” Maggie said. “I asked him to explain. He said he would eat his lunch and then tell me. I waited. Three hours of agony, of torture, passed—” Maggie burst into tears on the witness stand, and the court waited until she haltingly continued the story. She rose from her bed in search of her husband, only to see from her window that he was in a carriage with their children, driving away from the house. Maggie threw open the window and shouted for the coachman to stop. He did, but the baron, in his deep voice, instructed the coachman, “Drive on.”

That night at midnight, Maggie, accompanied by Maria, fled from Paris. She took with her only her jewels, leaving behind a closet of some 200 dresses and tens of thousands of dollars in other possessions. She traveled to the German spa town of Wiesbaden, under the ruse of a troublesome shoulder, and then Hamburg, a favorite summer destination of New York socialites on the Continent. Then she disappeared. Maggie’s whereabouts were unknown until she arrived in Sioux Falls almost a year later.

The memory of the final day of her marriage was still a painful one for Maggie. “That was the last glimpse I had of my children,” she told the court in a tremulous voice. “I have not seen them since. ”

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The courtroom was now crowded, but Maggie told her story for one man: Judge Frank Aikens, the final arbiter of every divorce suit filed in Sioux Falls. The 36-year-old lawyer and politician was once a darling of those who opposed divorce. He had signed some 200 decrees in 1890, but he was rumored to harbor a discomfort with the growing Divorce Colony and the abuse of South Dakota laws by mere visitors to the state. In late July 1891, as Maggie waited out her 90 days, the curly-haired judge had put the Sioux Falls bar on notice: Divorce seekers would need to abide by both the letter and the spirit of the state’s law. The court would require affidavits from divorce applicants declaring that they had not come to the state with the intention of seeking a divorce and that they planned to remain in the state after the divorce proceedings concluded. Shortly thereafter, Judge Aikens refused a divorce to Benjamin Mann of Philadelphia, who had arrived in Sioux Falls more than 150 days earlier.

The newspapers reported that the judge had taken a stand against foreign divorces. By strictly construing the law, he could single-handedly shutter the Divorce Colony. The anti-divorce movement was gleeful. Judge Aikens was hailed as a “righteous” judge, and he was mentioned as a worthy congressional candidate. Newspaper columnists advised the unhappily married to give up on the idea of a Dakota divorce and speculated that Maggie and the other divorce colonists would be unsuccessful in their efforts. One Sioux Falls lawyer claimed to be dropping out of the divorce mill. “Most of the trouble at present arising out of the divorce law is not due to the law itself,” he said, “but to the bad intent of the people who come out here to make use of it.”

Two days later, the Argus-Leader set the record straight: Residency was not at issue in the Mann case. Judge Aikens had instead found that the depositions in the case were incomplete and that proper efforts had not been made to locate the absent defendant. Divorce seekers would need only to swear to their South Dakota residency; the judge would not ask for more evidence. “This will protect the spirit as well as the letter of the law,” he explained. Those who opposed “easy” divorce would have to find another way to banish it. Soon the ministers and others who cheered the righteous judge turned against him, accusing him of drunkenness in the face of the state’s temperance laws and licentious behavior with the divorce colonists at the Cataract House.

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The elegant Cataract House dining room, with its lushly patterned wallpapers and white tablecloths, had become the central gathering spot of the Divorce Colony—and those who would gossip about its colonists. The townspeople dined alongside the divorce colonists, but most were unwilling to associate with the visitors. “There does not seem to be an affinity between those who have happy homes and those who are getting rid of unhappy ones,” a newspaperman observed.

Excluded from good Sioux Falls society, the divorce colonists formed their own. They strolled along Phillips Avenue—the most fashionable of the women dressed in long Louis coats with high-puffed sleeves, standing collars, and cinched waists—and traveled to Milwaukee, Chicago, and San Francisco, where they were less known, if not more accepted.

Maggie, a decade older than many of the women in the Divorce Colony, mostly kept to herself, with William at her side. But who exactly was this man who was so attentive to Maggie? “I haven’t any connection with this divorce case. I don’t want to mix up in it, either,” the six-foot, well-tailored William told a Chicago Daily Tribune reporter. “No, my dear fellow, I won’t say whether I am a relative of the madam or not,” William said when questioned further. “But I can say this: If I ever mix up in the case it will be with a revolver.”

Unconcerned with the rumor mill, William, on his new horse, a white umbrella attached to the saddle, often led the divorce colonists on excursions into the countryside. In the summer, he and the other sporting men among them hunted; in the winter, when they weren’t in the billiards parlor below the Cataract House, they raced sleds down 6th Street. Mary Nevins Blaine entertained the women with her beautiful singing voice.


Such frivolity appalled many of the town’s residents, especially Bishop William Hobart Hare. When Judge Aikens refused to shut down the Divorce Colony, the townspeople looked to Hare for guidance. The 53-year-old bishop, the son of an East Coast clergyman, had been a respected pillar of the region since the 1870s. He had originally come to the area for the air, searching for a better climate for his young wife, whose health was rapidly failing. After her early death, he had returned to minister to the Sioux Indians and built a small but prominent parish.

The bishop had long been outspoken on the subject of divorce. As early as 1885, he had warned against its scourge: “It is by no means safe therefore to say, ‘What the law allows must be right.’ In the matter of marriage and divorce the law allows much that is not right.” Throughout the summer of 1891, the bishop had been on a mission trip in Japan. He returned to find the Divorce Colony. He later wrote to his daughter-in-law of his dismay: “The scandalous divorce mill which is running at Sioux Falls, with revelations of the silliness and wickedness of men and women … made my return home a very gloomy one. I despise people who trifle with marriage relations so intensely that the moral nausea produces nausea of the stomach. I have a continual bad taste in my mouth.”

The bishop’s disdain reflected the strict doctrine of the Episcopal Church, which allowed divorce only for adultery and restricted remarriage, and his belief that divorce was an evil toward women, whom divorce cast into society without a husband to provide for them. But he also took the Divorce Colony as a personal affront. The bishop had a long and close relationship with the Astor family. Maggie’s uncle, the late John Jacob Astor, had donated more than $25,000 to the bishop to build a cathedral in Sioux Falls in honor of his late wife, Charlotte Augusta.

Now, as the bishop again preached from the altar of St. Augusta Cathedral, he saw Maggie and other divorce seekers filling the pews. The church had been a safe haven for Maggie throughout her stay in Sioux Falls. In gratitude she donated three elaborate stained-glass windows to replace the simple ones that illuminated the altar. Her generosity only enraged Bishop Hare. “I won’t have them,” the bishop declared when the windows arrived. “I’d as lief paste up the flaming placards of a low circus.” The windows were hidden away in the basement.

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Four

Maggie had been on the stand almost four hours when the baron’s attorneys began the cross-examination.

Her husband was represented by Alpha Fremont Orr and his partner, Joseph Lawrence Glover. The two men were hoping the case would propel their fledgling careers in the lucrative divorce business. Orr began with deceptively simple questions: “When did you come to Sioux Falls? Who came with you? For what purpose?”

“To establish myself and to get as far away from my husband as possible,” Maggie said in answer to this last question.

“Did you come here to get a divorce?”

“I did not. I came here to think the matter over.”

The court adjourned just 20 minutes into Maggie’s cross-examination, to reconvene at two o’clock. When Judge Aikens gaveled the court to order in the afternoon, the gallery was standing room only.

The baron was not in attendance, nor were any of the witnesses on his behalf. Instead the defense attorneys had numerous depositions on hand. The baron’s own testimony ran to 75 pages. It painted a very different picture of the woman before the court, describing a depressive and abusive wife and neglectful mother. His wife did not even want children, the baron claimed, and she did not take proper care of the household or support him in his career. She drank and smoked and behaved erratically. In his deposition, the baron told of a marriage as difficult as the one Maggie detailed, but in his telling, Maggie was the one with a temper, and she was said to suffer from a disease that made her “complain of everything and nothing.” He did not want a divorce.

The baron’s deposition had arrived from Paris two weeks before the start of the trial, along with a new response to Maggie’s suit. Initially, the baron had denied Maggie’s claims of cruelty and maintained that the suit was legally suspect because Maggie was not a bona fide resident of Sioux Falls, having traveled to the city for the sole purpose of getting a divorce. She had offered him money for a divorce, the baron charged, which was against the law. He had “absolutely and peremptorily refused to listen.” In the latest filing, he charged his wife with adultery—with one Elliott Zborowski, alias William Elliott, the very same man who had wooed Maggie before her marriage and who sat in the front row of the courtroom.

The accusations were “something like a thunderbolt dropped from a clear sky,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. The baron’s amended complaint told the court a story of an illicit romance that started in the fall of 1888. He filled in the missing year of Maggie’s life, claiming that his wife had left their home in Paris in 1890 to join William in London, where they lived on the same street before departing together on a steamer bound for the Indian Ocean. The New York Sun spun tales from an anonymous traveler on a steamer from India to Italy. He told of a couple who claimed to be a duke and duchess, registered as Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, and purchased piles of silver and many horses in Bombay. The man, the anonymous traveler later discovered, was the very same man Sioux Falls knew as William Elliott. The woman was a tall, handsome blonde who “had the air of a woman accustomed to continental life. She smoked cigarettes on deck.”

In a hearing a week before the trial began, Maggie’s lawyer had argued forcefully that the new charges were nothing more than a stalling tactic in a case that had already been delayed for months. Judge Aikens had agreed, ruling that the baron’s charges of adultery would not be considered by the court. But when Glover rose to continue the cross-examination his partner had begun before the court recessed, he tried again. He asked Maggie to testify to her whereabouts between her June 1890 trip to Germany and her July 1891 arrival in Sioux Falls, when, the baron had charged in his failed motion, she had been living and traveling with William.

Maggie’s attorneys objected. Judge Aikens agreed, rebuking the baron’s attorneys: “This case closes on June 13, 1890.” But Glover decided to raise the charge of adultery a final time: “Isn’t it true that in case you get a divorce, you intend to marry Mr. Elliott?”

The case was in Judge Aiken’s hands alone. If he found that she had proven the baron’s cruelty, Maggie would be granted a divorce.

An unexpected sound echoed through the courtroom: Maggie, on the witness stand, and William, in the audience, laughed. Captain Stoddard objected to the question, and Judge Aikens again ruled in Maggie’s favor. The baron’s lawyer’s efforts to embarrass and ensnare Maggie had failed.

The plaintiff’s only other witness was Maggie’s maid, Maria. On the witness stand, the French woman was nervous and her English hard to understand. The newspaper reporters translated her allegiance quite clearly for their readers: “I have known Mrs. De Stuers for the past fourteen years. I have known the defendant for the same length of time. The baron’s conduct was often wild and foolish—screaming loud.”

At 4:30, the attorneys began to read the defense depositions into the court record; there were more than a dozen, from doctors, diplomats, and servants on two continents. Some were still en route from the East Coast. Among them was a deposition from Arthur Astor Carey, Maggie’s younger brother. In it he testified on behalf of the baron against his sister: “As to the baron’s treatment of my sister, I should say that he never treated his wife in a cruel or inhuman way. He was intentionally kind and considerate.” Judge Aikens agreed to enter the late testimony into the record but interrupted the lawyer’s monologue; the court would forgo further public reading of the documents.

The hearing had ended. Those in attendance believed that Maggie had acquitted herself well. “The Baroness De Stuers has won all the hearts here,” opined the New York Herald. The New York World imagined a vote of the audience: “Is Mme. De Stuers crazy? Spectators in the court-room attending the madame’s divorce trial would answer at once ‘no.’ Is she mentally unbalanced? Again ‘no.’ Is she erratic in her temperament? Decidedly ‘yes.’” But the case was in Judge Aiken’s hands alone. If he found that she had proven the baron’s cruelty, Maggie would be granted a divorce. If he found that she had not, the baron and the baroness would remain married.


Almost a month after the trial, late on a Saturday afternoon, Judge Aikens signed the final paperwork in the case of De Stuers v. De Stuers. After the courthouse closed for the day a clerk was sent for, and shortly before six o’clock, thwarting both the newspapermen who would report on the verdict and the lawyers who would appeal it, the clerk filed the judge’s decision: an absolute divorce. A few weeks shy of her 17th wedding anniversary, and nine months after her arrival in Sioux Falls, Maggie was free.

In the decree, the judge found the baron guilty of “acts of extreme cruelty” toward his wife, “which have inflicted grievous mental suffering upon her.” Judge Aikens concluded that the baron had schemed to institutionalize Maggie and abscond with her children. Doctor Charcot’s “pretend examination” of Maggie was dismissed as insufficient to form an opinion on her well-being. The judge awarded Maggie custody of her youngest daughter, believed to be hidden away in a French convent. She did not seek custody of her sons.

Maggie had been ill for weeks, in a nervous and weak condition that had confined her to her rooms at the Cataract. But on the following Monday morning, at 11 o’clock, Maggie, accompanied as always by William, returned to the Minnehaha County courthouse. She had one more piece of business here. In the presence of the clerk of courts, Maggie swore that she was, finally, “both single and unmarried,” that she was “of sound mind, not deprived of civil rights, and could lawfully contract and be joined in marriage.” Maggie signed the marriage certificate, using the name De Stuers one final time. And for the first time since they arrived in Sioux Falls, William signed his full name, with an exuberant Z: William Elliott Morris Zborowski, groom.

The wedding was performed quietly in Maggie’s parlor at the Cataract House a half-hour later, witnessed only by the couple’s New York attorney and another friend. A small private banquet marked the occasion. Maggie’s health prevented her from leaving Sioux Falls immediately after the wedding. She waited two weeks before departing for Chicago. William generously tipped the Cataract House staff, and the couple announced their plans to return in a month.

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Maggie and William—again known as Elliott, the given name he had answered to for most of his life—stayed for a brief time in Chicago. Although no less an authority than Ward McAllister, gatekeeper to New York’s most exclusive circle, assured that Maggie and William would be welcomed in society, the Astors continued to shun them. Maggie’s dear childhood friend and bridesmaid Sallie Delano—now Roosevelt—visited Chicago, but Sallie’s husband asked his wife not to see her divorced friend. “It is not easy to make up my mind!” Sallie wrote in her diary, but she did not see Maggie.

At first the newly wedded Zborowoskis worried about going to Europe, where William had family and property. The baron still claimed Maggie as his wife. In the Minnehaha County courthouse, his lawyers had appealed Judge Aikens’s decree, and the Dutch courts did not recognize it. But finding themselves unwelcome among their American acquaintances, the couple sailed for Europe despite the risk. It was said that if William met the baron, there would be a duel. After their arrival on the Continent, the baron shifted tactics, seeking his own divorce decree in the Netherlands. He received it—and custody of Maggie’s daughter, whom he continued to keep from her. She was never reconciled with her children.

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Five

On New Year’s Day 1893, Bishop Hare took to the pulpit at St. Augusta Cathedral with a mission. Maggie and William had not returned to Sioux Falls, but as he faced his congregation their offense was still on Hare’s mind. Though he had already made it clear to members of the Divorce Colony that they were not welcome in his church, at least 14 of them sat in the pews as the bishop began his sermon. “Some say that it is a good thing for South Dakota to have divorces and divorce suits,” he said, nodding to the city’s lawyers. “I say that it is alarming, and our lax divorce laws have become a national scandal.” He continued in his clear, ringing voice, “It is not so much the securing of a divorce which is so shocking, it is the consecutive polygamy which is practiced in marrying again so soon to a man or woman who has been courted while the suit for divorce to the former husband or wife was pending.”

Hare’s sermon echoed through the cathedral: “Do we wish to be famous? This makes us infamous. Do we want credit? This is discredit.… A shadow is being cast on the city’s prosperity!” Hare was reaching the end of his sermon, but his intensity continued to increase: “What then are we to do with the divorce industry? Dread it! Dread it! It is the disruption and destruction of the family.” The bishop pledged to protect the family. He went to Pierre to lobby the South Dakota legislature to end the Divorce Colony.

At the bishop’s urging, South Dakota strengthened its divorce laws, like each frontier state before it. On March 1, 1893, the legislature lengthened the state’s residency requirement from 90 days to six months. But the stricter laws did little to reduce the number of divorces in the country. The desire for freedom that led Maggie and the other colonists to South Dakota overwhelmed legislative correction. The divorce rate continued to rise, evidence not of an increase in bad marriages but of the increasing determination and ingenuity that unhappy wives and husbands applied to finding a legal escape from them.

For a brief period, divorce seekers traveled instead to Fargo, North Dakota, where the 90-day residency rule of the Dakota Territory was still on the books. But when North Dakota extended its residency requirement to one year in 1899, South Dakota’s six-month requirement was again among the most welcoming, and the Sioux Falls Divorce Colony was reborn. It took Bishop Hare eight years to rally the anti-divorce movement in the state to lengthen the residency requirement to one year, effectively closing the Divorce Colony a second time.

By the time Hare succeeded in 1908, national divorce-reform efforts such as Senator Kyle’s Constitutional amendment had faded away. Even at the height of the debate, those who opposed divorce were loathe to give the federal government control over an institution governed by the states, and the political will to challenge the increasing numbers of divorce seekers was fading. When the anti-divorce senator died in 1901, South Dakota elected Alfred B. Kittredge, one of Sioux Falls’ most prominent divorce attorneys. Within another five years, the anti-divorce movement admitted defeat, and Nevada—home to Reno, the country’s next fashionable divorce destination—continued to reduce its residency requirement from six months to three months to just six weeks by 1931. 

The divorced, once pariahs, were no longer ostracized in polite society. To much surprise, Maggie’s aunt, the famously scandal-averse Mrs. William Astor, who had convinced Maggie to return to her husband in 1890, was one of the first to welcome divorced women—though not her disgraced niece—into New York society. In 1896, Mrs. Astor’s own daughter Charlotte Drayton divorced her husband, who had charged her publicly with adultery. The following year, in Newport, Mrs. Astor threw a party in her daughter’s honor and welcomed guests alongside the divorced woman. Though Bishop Hare’s own position toward marriage never softened, today the windows Maggie donated in 1891 hang in St. Augusta’s Cathedral, now known as Calvary Cathedral. One, installed before the bishop’s death in 1909, has a new memorial pane affixed, erasing Maggie’s efforts to honor her parents. The memorial panes on the other two, installed after his death, were laboriously scratched out, but a name remains faintly visible: Mary Alida, the daughter Maggie mourned.

The laws and attitudes that governed marriage and divorce changed incrementally and inconsistently in the years since the Divorce Colony—no-fault divorce, first introduced in 1970, would not be adopted in all 50 states until 2010—but a course had been set in Sioux Falls. It would be the people, not the church, the courts, or state or federal governments, who defined their most intimate relationships. The divorce colonists, through their individual actions, had forced the nation and its institutions to grapple with the need for accessible divorce and the shifting power dynamics of marriage. And despite all the warnings, these changes did not lead inexorably to the destruction of the family or the country.

The evolution of the nation’s marriage laws in the past century—changes that have extended the institution to ever greater numbers, including interracial and same-sex couples—are widely heralded as civil rights victories. The right to divorce that emerged from the Divorce Colony is rarely celebrated in the same way, but the two are inextricable. To be free to choose who to love is to be free both to marry and to divorce.

But none of these changes were Maggie’s intention when she came to Sioux Falls. Her divorce was not a test case but a personal triumph. As she told a Chicago newspaper in a rare interview: “I made up my mind to leave my husband to save myself.”


We welcome feedback at letters@atavist.com.

Holiday at the Dictator’s Guesthouse

Holiday at the Dictator’s Guesthouse

What possessed a family man from Ohio to smuggle a Bible into North Korea?

By Joshua Hunt

The Atavist Magazine, No. 54


Joshua Hunt has contributed to Harper’sThe New Yorker, The New York Times, Pacific Standard, and Playboy, among other publications. His first book, about Nike and its influence on higher education in America, will be published by Melville House. He lives in Tokyo.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Design: Thomas Rhiel, Gray Beltran
Producer: Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Muna Mire, Aviva Stahl
Photos: Maddie McGarvey
Other images: Nadja Drost, Getty Images, and courtesy of the Colombian National Police
Video: Courtesy of Jeffrey Fowle

Published in October 2015. Design updated in 2021.

One

On the morning of August 1, 2014, Jeffrey Fowle woke before seven in his room at a guesthouse in Pyongyang, North Korea. Soon a young woman arrived with his breakfast of rice, broth, and kimchi. She smiled as she set the tray down on the large desk at the foot of the bed, then walked out of the room and locked the door behind her. It was Fowle’s 87th day in custody.

He sat at the desk, watching a shadow play across his window. An opaque vinyl film had been applied to the glass, so Fowle could see only silhouettes walking past. That April, when Fowle had traveled to Pyongyang, he’d felt that God wanted him to help North Korea’s oppressed Christian underground. His attempt took the form of a Korean-English Bible, left behind in a bar bathroom; he was taken into custody as he tried to leave the country. Fowle poured the broth over his rice and began to eat.

An hour later, Mr. Jo, Fowle’s interpreter and minder, appeared at the door: His slacks were ironed, and he’d traded his usual polo shirt for a crisp dress shirt. “Today is the day,” Mr. Jo said. “Be ready.”

A few weeks earlier, Mr. Jo had told Fowle that he might be allowed to speak with international media. It would be his first chance to tell the world about his situation, and to remind the U.S. government that he needed help. At noon, Mr. Jo led Fowle to a conference room on the other side of the guesthouse, reminding him of his talking points along the way.

“Emphasize your desperation for wanting to get home and that your family needs you back,” Mr. Jo said. “Put some emotion into it.” He suggested that it might be good if Fowle cried. In the conference room, Fowle was seated at a long table with a couple of North Korean journalists from the Associated Press Television News. Instead of press badges, each reporter wore a pin with the smiling face of Kim Il-sung.


Some hours later, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when a report about three Americans detained in North Korea appeared on the television mounted to the wall. The first was Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who had been held there since November 2012, when he was arrested for “hostile acts” against North Korea’s government and its young new leader, Kim Jong-un. Bae had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and appeared on the screen dressed in a gray jumpsuit with his prisoner number, 103, drawn across the left breast. He spoke stoically in Korean about his failing health.

The next prisoner was Matthew Miller, who looked shaken. He’d traveled to North Korea hoping “to speak to an ordinary North Korean person about normal things” and decided that getting arrested might afford him the opportunity. He packed notebooks filled with scrawls meant to suggest he knew U.S. state secrets and that he was a hacker with ties to WikiLeaks. At the airport in Pyongyang, he requested asylum in North Korea and was taken into custody. Speaking to APTN reporters, Miller wore a black turtleneck and the look of a guilty child. “I’m now requesting help from the American government, the citizens of America, and the world, to release me from this situation,” he told the APTN reporters, with a quiver in his voice.

Jeffrey Fowle appeared last, his demeanor a strange contrast with the two men who preceded him. He appeared relaxed, spoke calmly, and even smiled. His oversize metal glasses frames seemed to magnify the twinkle in his eye; he seemed too youthful to be 56 years old. “I’ve been treated well,” he said. Foreign missionaries working inside North Korea have faced detainment, imprisonment, and execution, yet Fowle apologized for his actions with a smirk hiding in the corner of his mouth. He looked like a man interviewing for a job, not pleading for his freedom. I didn’t know what to make of his easy manner. Confidence, naivety, and insanity all seemed like possibilities.

North Korea’s persecution of Christians dates back to 1945, when the Communist north broke away from the south. Its founding leader, Kim Il-sung, whose own father was a prominent Christian activist, leveled churches, outlawed the Bible, and killed known Christians. So ferocious was this campaign that in the six years after World War II ended, hundreds of thousands of Christians fled south. The division of the two Koreas was formalized in 1948. In 1950, Kim Il-sung’s Stalin-backed regime invaded South Korea and started the Korean War, which touched off the north’s slide into isolation. Now ruled by Kim Il-sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains openly hostile to the U.S., its preferred enemy, and to free speech and religion, which imperil the regime’s autocratic rule and the cult of personality that has helped keep the Kim dynasty in power.

Fowle seemed to have acted alone, without the support of an international missionary organization. His crime implied no grand scheme, no strategy. If he harbored pretensions to courage, they were well hidden. And yet he’d gambled his freedom for an act of protest that offered limited rewards and great personal risk. I wanted to know who he was and why he did it.

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 Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. (Photo: Corbis)

Two

On a Saturday morning in the winter of 2014, Jeffrey Fowle woke in the dark, before sunlight stirred the dog and the dog stirred the children. He was home in Miamisburg, Ohio, in a house that sits across the street from an invisible boundary with Moraine, the city where he had worked for the public service department since 1988. In the winter, he cleared snow. In the summer, he fixed curbs and sidewalks. On Saturdays, his wife, Tatyana, worked part-time as a hair stylist. On Sundays, they took their three kids—Stephanie, 9, and his sons Alex, 13, and Chris, 11—to church.

On that winter morning, his wife left for work and the kids retreated to the yard, leaving Fowle alone in the house. A child of the Cold War, Fowle had been fascinated by America’s Communist enemies for as long as he could remember. He read obsessively about the Soviet empire and took Russian classes in college. In the 1990s, he became fascinated by North Korea, the so-called hermit kingdom, after accounts of a terrible famine appeared in the news. Recent reports about the detention of missionary Kenneth Bae, and Dennis Rodman’s visit with Kim Jong-un, sparked Fowle’s interest once more.

In the glow of his iMac, he spent hours clicking between human-rights reports that criticized North Korea and tour packages offered by travel agencies promising a journey to its heart. He turned to Amazon to browse books, selecting Escape from Camp 14 and Long Road Home, which recounted the experiences of North Korean refugees, and Only Beautiful, Please, written by a former British ambassador to the country. Then Fowle added to his basket a book called Korean for Beginners. At the bottom of the page, he noticed a selection of recommended books based on his search history. One of the titles immediately caught his attention: a turquoise Korean-English study Bible. Its gaudy color reminded him of something he’d read earlier: that North Korean schoolteachers sometimes enlist children to find underground Christians. “Go home and look for a shiny black book with strange writing on the cover,” they tell their students. “Bring it to school tomorrow.”


In the 14 years they’d been married, Tatyana Fowle had learned that she was no match for her husband’s wanderlust. In 2013, Fowle was in Russia when he ignored her pleas not to go to Mongolia alone. “The guards caught him trying to cross the border on foot at two o’clock in the morning,” she said. “They told him he could die doing that, so he found a bus full of Italian tourists and rode across with them.”

So when her husband told her he’d booked a trip to North Korea, Tatyana thought little of it. The U.S. State Department warns against travel to North Korea, but it’s not illegal to visit. The government of North Korea allows foreigners, including Americans, to enter with authorized groups. According to estimates by tour operators, as many as 8,000 Westerners visited in 2014.

Fowle chose a ten-day trip organized by Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company, which cost about $4,000. The group would meet in Beijing and travel together to Pyongyang, where the itinerary included the “famous, ornate Pyongyang Metro” and its stations “decorated with socialist-realist mosaics and reliefs.” Then the group would enjoy a train journey that would “reveal parts of the country never before seen by foreign eyes.”

A few days before Fowle’s departure, Tatyana watched her husband pack. Among the clothes and guides to North Korea, she spotted a turquoise book.

“Please don’t bring that Bible,” she said. “If you need to bring it with you for the flight, at least leave it in Beijing.”

Fowle didn’t look up. He needed to find a spot in his luggage for a deflated basketball covered in autographs. He’d bought the ball in December, at a Harlem Globetrotter’s exhibition game in Dayton. As players signed it, he told them it might be going to North Korea. At his most optimistic, he imagined presenting it to basketball-obsessed Kim Jong-un.

“It was like he didn’t even hear me,” Tatyana told me. “He seemed so distracted. So focused, like he was packing for some important mission.”

She didn’t know that her husband had been making plans for the Bible since it arrived. He tucked a photo of the family inside the cover and wrote out his name and Tatyana’s, along with their address and telephone number. She didn’t know that he was planning to take the book to North Korea and leave it somewhere in the northern territories. Far from Pyongyang and its powerful elites, he was sure someone in the Christian underground would find it. There the Bible might serve an entire community—a community of people who would know the name, face, and family of the man who had brought them this gift.

If the authorities found it, he’d say it was his study Bible and he’d forgotten it by accident. The language workbook would be his alibi: He would claim both were materials for studying Korean. For three decades, Fowle had lived with the feeling that God had a plan for him. It was too much to consider that it might all go wrong; he was in God’s hands now.

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Basketball signed by the Harlem Globetrotters. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)