The Pretender

THE PRETENDER

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

By John Rosengren

The Atavist Magazine, No. 107


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

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

Published in September 2020.

Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“L—,” the woman hesitated, “Donna.”

“Like Madonna?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Riess
Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You OK?” one of the employees asked.

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

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

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

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

“I think so,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I help you?” she asked.

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

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

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

Pam Hutchinson
Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nah, the other employees said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lois Riess
Part Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lois sighed. “Yes.”

“What did you do then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

The Con Continues

illustration-1501194952-32.jpg

The Con Continues

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

By David Mark Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Things only got weirder.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliverance

Deliverance

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

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


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

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

Published in February 2020.

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sue Horn of the StarNews

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amber playing.

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amber died in 1992.

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We did.”

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

“No.”

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

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

“No, sir,” she replied.

“So you can’t move things anymore?”

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

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

“No, sir.”

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

It was mockery, not an invitation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina Boyer and Amber

8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Perret replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Men,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

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

neworleanse-1574968639-33.jpg

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

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

By Nick Chrastil

Published in partnership with The Lens.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 97


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

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

Published in November 2019. Design updated in 2021.

neworleanse-1574904581-28.jpg
The address where Greggie Jones was killed, 4639 Wilson Ave.

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

—Bernard Bailyn

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

—Kent B. Germany

1. The Crime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574907989-83.jpg
New Orleans Parish Prison, where Erin Hunter was held after his arrest.

2. The Cop

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

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574908526-92.jpg
Jacklean Davis, as featured in Ebony magazine. (Via Google Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574908941-10.jpg
Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse, where Hunter was tried.

3. The Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grand jury ruled to indict.

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574910482-15.jpg
The home where Jones and Vanessa Causey lived has been razed.

4. The Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I bought all my stolen property.”

“You bought it?”

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

“A guy named Willie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know his last name?”

“Willie Harris.”

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

“No, sir. It’s like collateral.”

“When did you buy it?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, Willie Harris,” Hunter replied.

“Where does Willie stay?”

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

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

“No, I don’t know where Willie is.”

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

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

neworleanse-1574910549-1.jpg
Judge Frank Shea once held six felony trials in a single day; he claimed it was a world record.

5. The Judge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574911541-10.jpg
The land where the Louisiana State Penitentiary sits was once a slave plantation called Angola.

6. The Inmate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574916266-73.jpg
Erin Hunter as a young man. (Courtesy: Hunter family)

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574916369-32.jpg
Investigators spoke to people in New Orleans East who suggested that Causey was a confidential informant for the police.

7. The Inquiry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574917366-65.jpg
The main entrance to Angola.

8. The Breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574917487-27.jpg
Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

9. The Counsel

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

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

neworleanse-1574917179-86.jpg
Hunter with Derek Temple. (Courtesy: Derek Temple)

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

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

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

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

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

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

neworleanse-1574917487-27.jpg
Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

10. The Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masterpiece Theater

easelnofra-1566836367-94.png

Masterpiece Theater

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

By Anna Altman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 94


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

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

Special thanks to researchers Maria Hohmann and Stefan Kuiper.

Published in August 2019. Design updated in 2021.

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within 24 hours, however, the optimism had evaporated.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cubitt decided to call the police.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

VI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlaw Country

181018mhpo-1559308293-89.jpg

Outlaw Country

Klamath County, Oregon, is the perfect place to go if you don’t want to be found—and the worst place to be if someone threatens your life.

By Emma Marris

Photographs by Michael Hanson

The Atavist Magazine, No. 91


Emma Marris is a journalist in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She writes about nature and people. Her stories have appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, Outside, High Country News, and Nature, where she was on staff for several years. Her first book, Rambunctious Garden, examines how conservation is changing in the Anthropocene. Listen to her discuss this story on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Laura Breiling

Published in May 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1.

Little Timathy Taylor lived behind the PDQ mini-mart in Roseburg, a small timber town in western Oregon surrounded by mountains. In many respects, Taylor had a typical rough-and-tumble 1980s childhood. He and other neighborhood kids were mostly left to themselves, their parents either working or at home drinking too much and apt to whale on them if they got in the way. Taylor spent his days collecting cans for nickels, riding his bike in empty lots, and playing alone by a creek near his home, watching polliwogs wriggle in the shallow water.

“Timmy loved the woods,” his mother, Becky Wanty, remembered. She described him as timid and softhearted. When he caught fish or frogs in the creek, he threw them back. He liked the idea of hunting because it was outdoorsy and manly, but he didn’t like the killing part. “He had a hard time even trying to shoot a deer,” Wanty said. “He never got one. He would miss them because he couldn’t do it.”

Wanty worked at the mini-mart, cleaned offices, roofed houses, and tended bar to support her six kids. “When I was eight months pregnant with my fifth child, I was out there pumping gas,” she said. Her husband, David, drove a semi and was gone much of the time. He spent most of his wages gambling, and Wanty described him as “a drinker and drug addict” who may have had learning disabilities. When Wanty married him, David wasn’t literate. “I had to read the book to him and read the questions to him down at the Department of Transportation to get his chauffeur’s license,” Wanty said. David had little patience with his kids. “Instead of just giving them a spanking, he would take whatever he could get his hands on—a brush or a hanger or whatever—and beat them with that,” Wanty said. “There was always a reason when I smacked them, but not with him. He would do it just when he was pissed.”

The family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but after years of living a devout life while her husband drank and smoked and gambled without consequences, Wanty decided that she was done with the church. In 1989, when Taylor was 13, his mother intentionally got herself kicked out, then celebrated her freedom with a cigarette. Three years later, the family moved to Wisconsin. She and David split up, and David threatened suicide; the police were called.

Taylor never got much respect in high school, according to Mike Bishop, his closest friend. People thought he was a redneck, but when a car wouldn’t run, he was the one they called. “He’d help anybody,” Bishop said. “He was the guy that people went to when shit broke down.”

Taylor was still drawn to the outdoors like he’d been as a little boy. Bishop remembered Taylor decorating his room with pictures of mountains. “We would go camping and try to live off the land for a week or two and see if we could do it,” Bishop said. “We’d bring minimal food, just enough to keep us alive if we didn’t find anything. He started going out for longer and longer.” The trips were an escape from the social meat grinder of high school, where Bishop said Taylor was more or less an outcast who preferred walking away from fights to proving his mettle.

Taylor dropped out of high school, planning to finish his degree in the Army, but then quit basic training after he injured his knee. Around age 19, he ended a relationship with a woman named Tammy and decided to return to the city of his childhood, hoping for a fresh start. He drove more than 2,000 miles, crossing the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the Cascades to Roseburg. But he couldn’t find work, and his van broke down and was impounded. Taylor sold the van to pay the impounding fees, get back what he’d left inside, and buy a bus ticket back to Wisconsin. By the time he returned, Tammy had given birth to their son, Jesse.

When Taylor was 23, he married a woman named Erin. They had two sons in as many years, Isaiah and Josh. The marriage didn’t last. Erin said that Taylor “was not a mean person” but claimed he could be cruel to a son she had from a previous relationship. (Taylor later said that while he believed in corporal punishment and was “firm” with children, he was never abusive.) Records from Wisconsin indicate that Taylor was charged with battery in 1999 for hitting Erin’s son and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. In 2002, the couple divorced. Of Taylor’s three sons, only Josh maintained a strong connection with his dad.

Taylor found work as a laborer, doing construction and installing home security systems. For a while he lived out of his truck. He seemed always to be teetering on the edge of financial ruin, adrift at society’s fringes. In 2008, Taylor found himself sitting by his father’s hospital bed as the old man slid toward death following years of medical issues: hepatitis C, a liver transplant, lung cancer, and, near the end, pneumonia. Despite the beatings he’d received, Taylor wanted to be with his dad as he died. “It is the type of person Tim is—forgive, forget,” Bishop said. “If you needed him, he was there. You could have shot his dog, and if you really needed help, he was there.”

Not long before his father passed, Taylor had undergone spinal-fusion surgery in an attempt to treat chronic back pain. He tried to transition to less physically demanding work, but he dropped out of computer-programming classes in the wake of his father’s death. He had always struggled in the classroom. “Me learning from a book is like learning Chinese,” he wrote in a Facebook message to his aunt. He ended up depending on food stamps and disability payments: $730 a month after child support.

A couple of years later, he began a new relationship and started making payments on a fixer-upper in Madison, but the house’s owner died before giving Taylor and his girlfriend the deed to the place. Feeling aggrieved and wondering whom to blame, Taylor turned to the internet. Whatever terms he initially plugged into Google or Facebook or YouTube, he was soon frequenting websites promoting far-right conspiracy theories, watching videos predicting imminent social collapse, and reading how-to guides on survival preparedness. Over a few months in late 2012, the content of Taylor’s Facebook posts shifted from topics like trucks and music to videos from the hacktivist group Anonymous and posts about pandemic disease, the threat of GMO foods, the rise of Islam, and the Obama administration’s purported plans to confiscate everyone’s guns. Taylor devoured TV shows like Doomsday Preppers, Survivor Man, Live Free or Die, and Man, Woman, Wild. The notion of living off the land allowed him to imagine ways he might escape the wage economy and finally make something of himself. He spent a sizable portion of his disability checks on items like seeds, water-purification supplies, and ammunition, in case the apocalypse should arrive. At one point, he overdrew his bank account. Not long after, his relationship fell apart—the woman said he had been physically rough with her son and she didn’t like how angry he was. She kicked him out.

By 2014, when Taylor was almost 40, he was single and living in a trailer on a small dairy farm, where he worked as a hand in exchange for room and board. One day he accidentally ran his son Josh over with a manure spreader, nearly killing the 15-year-old. The incident prompted Taylor to contemplate his own mortality. If he died suddenly, he’d have nothing to leave his kids. He decided to do the thing he’d been fantasizing about for years: buy property, build a cabin, and create a legacy for his sons.

Taylor began cruising real estate websites that promised acres of wilderness for as little as a few thousand dollars, which in monthly payments would be doable even on his paltry income. Taylor’s family thought his plans were foolhardy, but his mother understood the pull of returning to Oregon. “I think he was looking for something different,” Wanty said. “I don’t know. Something that would help him go back to the past. To easier times.”

In May 2015, Taylor signed a contract for nearly nine acres of unimproved backcountry in Klamath County, sight unseen. The ad for the lot had included a few photos of flat, grassy land with mountains in the distance.

GENERAL INFORMATION: Huge Parcel in the Oregon Pines Subdivision with over 900 feet of frontage on Nagel Ridge Way.TYPE OF TERRAIN: rockyZONING: residentialPOWER: noPHONE: noWATER: no. must install well or holding tankSEWER: No. Only needed when/if you build.ROADS: dirt

Taylor liked the sound of it. He agreed to a price of $19,200, with 7 percent interest. That worked out to 72 monthly installments of $317.11. He imagined the Oregon of his youth: green, balmy, bathed in golden sunlight, far from Wisconsin’s bitter winters. What he found when he arrived was something else entirely.

181018mhpo-1558972213-34.jpg

2.

Klamath County is in eastern Oregon, nowhere near Roseburg. It’s high desert, on the eastern side of the Cascades, land veined with ice-cold trout streams, dotted with tiny ranching hamlets, and dyed deep red politically. Taylor’s lot was in a particularly out-of-the-way place called Tableland—or sometimes just “the mountain.” Tableland is made up of basalt mesas, ancient lava flows that rise like steps from the Sprague River valley. The few houses that exist there have no addresses. Tableland is mostly composed of rocks and sage and sky and antelope and silence. On hot summer days, the dry air smells like Ponderosa pines and wildfire smoke. In winter, clear nights bite the skin, the moon looks like thin bone, and deep snow cuts locals off from the outside world for weeks at a time.

For thousands of years, Native people used the mesas as hunting grounds and to cultivate an edible root called epos or yampa. After 1864, Tableland became part of the Klamath Indian Reservation. Albert Lawvor, the grandson of Chief Yellowhammer of the Modoc tribe, remembered the area as it was in the mid-20th century. “The land was good,” Lawvor said in an oral history published with his obituary in 2012. “Everybody helped everybody, everybody looked out for everybody. The ranchers would go together and hay together. The elders always had their wood cut for them.”

By 2015, when Taylor arrived, things had changed. The U.S. government had stopped recognizing the Klamath tribes in 1961—a decision it would reverse in 1986—and purchased much of the Native people’s land in southern Oregon. Private buyers swooped in to buy the rest. In the 1960s, speculators subdivided vast swaths of the area—including Tableland—and sold lots to city people who wanted a place to hunt and camp. There was even a how-to manual published by a real estate mogul from Alturas, California, with the title Freeway to Fortune: Profit Through Recreational Land. The business wasn’t an outright scam; buyers got the lots they paid for, in subdivisions with fancy-sounding names like Klamath Forest Estates. But when they showed up to inspect their purchase, they were often astonished to find that there was no power or water available, and that the local government didn’t maintain the roads. Some owners abandoned their purchases and stopped paying taxes on them. By the 1990s, Klamath County was foreclosing on roughly 500 lots per year. Speculators then scooped them up at auction for as little as $1,000 and sold them for a profit. The deals were often owner financed, which meant that the buyer paid the seller in installments rather than getting a mortgage. The seller collected monthly payments, including interest, and handed over the deed once the last check cleared. If the buyer ever stopped paying—and many did—they forfeited the previous payments and the seller kept the lot.

Prices remained so low that the properties looked like a screaming deal to people who wanted solitude, independence, or a place to hide. Over the years, Tableland turned into outlaw country. It is now sparsely populated by marijuana growers, tweakers, loners, and dreamers. Most people live in trailers, often surrounded by a penumbra of trash and outbuildings in various stages of decomposition. They pay for necessities with money they receive through government assistance. Residents by and large are wary of outsiders and often of each other, even as they sometimes need their neighbors in times of crisis—a dead pickup, a lean winter, a snowed-in road. Self-reliance may be the ideal, but reciprocity is the reality.

The closest town, Beatty, is down off the mesas. It has just one small store, the Palomino Deli, which is the unofficial community center for Tableland residents. Its owner, Sara Palomino, a circumspect woman with dark hair and dark lipstick, knows everything that happens in the area. The nearest law enforcement is in Klamath Falls, 50 miles and a good hour-and-a-half drive southwest. The Klamath County Sheriff’s Office is spread extremely thin. From 7 a.m. to 3 a.m., its minimum staffing level is three people on patrol in the entire county, which at 6,136 square miles is considerably larger than Connecticut. After 3 a.m., deputies are simply on-call in case of an emergency.

People who live on and around Tableland are remote from the law but often uncomfortably close to one another. The combination can lead to violence. In 2009, a man named Robert Kincaid was shot in the back of the head with a .410 by a woman named Deanna Brindle, who said he’d raped her. She and a friend used a backhoe to bury him in a shallow grave, and it’s possible no one would ever have gone looking for Kincaid if his horse hadn’t shown up near Beatty riderless and with a bullet wound. Brindle was ruled guilty but also insane and sentenced to 20 years of psychiatric supervision. The day after Christmas in 2016, Troy Kimball was stabbed and shot to death by his brother Travis with a 9mm Beretta. Travis claimed that he was defending their father, whom Troy was attacking. In January 2018, Benito Devila Sanchez was shot by Richard Bryon Johnson with a .45 during an argument; Johnson hid the body in the woods, where it was discovered after Sanchez’s roommate reported him missing. In March of the same year, the body of Beatty resident Jack James Hasbrouck was also found in the woods. When reporters asked Klamath County district attorney Eve Costello if the public should be concerned about a killer, she said, “Mr. Hasbrouck had a lot of friends that maybe weren’t the kind that an average citizen is going to have.” No one was ever charged. “The meaner you seem, the safer you probably are,” Klamath County sheriff Chris Kaber told me of living in the area.

181018mhpo-1558978541-27.jpg
Timathy Taylor with two of his sons.

It was into this world that Tim Taylor drove in August 2015, in a tan-colored diesel truck he called Blondie, pulling a trailer and accompanied by his little dog, Dixie Mae. He wasn’t aware of Tableland’s violent reputation. His more immediate concern when he arrived was that the pictures on the real estate website, the ones that had convinced him to buy the land, weren’t actually of his lot. His property wasn’t flat or grassy; it was a narrow canyon that cut into a rise, the last place on a dirt road before it petered out into rough, nearly impassable track. The landscape was pretty—pine trees sharp against a bright blue sky, aspens rustling in the wind along an ephemeral creek—but the land was extremely steep, the soil rocky and parched. Taylor could barely get his truck and trailer off the road. “Everything reeked of failure,” Taylor later wrote in a letter. “But with so much failure in my life, I had an even harder drive to succeed.”

His plan was to build a log cabin, raise vegetables, and hunt game. He had some success at the survivalist life he’d imagined—bagging a few rabbit and quail and making pine-needle tea when he had a cold—but he didn’t build the cabin, living instead in his trailer, and eating mostly ramen noodles, canned food, and military MREs. Life was a lot harder than it had been on the farm in Wisconsin. Every month he drove to Klamath Falls, cashed his disability check, and spent it on laundry, groceries, gas, propane, and other necessities. Moving had wiped out his savings. Before long he stopped making payments on the land.

Taylor disdained those who lived off the government instead of working. He considered them lazy bums, but he didn’t count himself among them. He had paid into the Social Security Disability Insurance program when he was working and now needed its help in return. He had no choice but to take food stamps, because people on disability weren’t allowed to work.

Without close neighbors or friends, Taylor spent a lot of time on his phone, which barely got a signal. He cruised Facebook and reposted memes that spoke to his ideals of tough, self-reliant manhood. “This is America,” one began. “We drink beer. We eat meat. We pray. We own guns. We speak English. We value freedom. If you don’t like it then G.T.F.O.” Another showed an old black-and-white photo of little boys playing with toy guns. It read, “This is how my friends and I played back in the day. Not one of us grew up and killed anyone.”

One day, on his way to Beatty to get food at the Palomino Deli, Taylor stopped his truck to talk to a bearlike Vietnam veteran with a cane and a felt hat. His name was Gary Powless, and he’d gotten his Tableland plot back in the 1980s, in exchange for a roofing job. Tableland suited him and many other veterans, Powless explained, because they “couldn’t deal with society and people anymore.” When he’d first moved in, his immediate neighbor was “a Hell’s Angel running from the law and living in a tepee.”

In the 1980s, Powless bought a bar in Beatty, a popular hangout that overflowed when the rodeo was in town. Powless recalled dialing the sheriff once because two of his regulars were on the verge of a shootout with deer rifles outside the bar. According to Powless, the law told him that no one was coming. “When they ran out of ammunition, they came inside and got drunk,” he said, chuckling.

Powless married a woman named Wanda, the sister of one of his barmaids. After his bar burned down, they built a house and raised a family. Their kids were grown and gone by the time Taylor came to Tableland, but the Powlesses still had dependents of a sort: People regularly showed up at their door clutching printouts from the internet, needing help finding the land they’d bought. Often the same people came back later to ask for water, food, gas, or propane.

Powless immediately pegged Taylor as “very naive.” But the new arrival had mechanical skills, so the Powlesses gave him odd jobs. They would sometimes pay him in bulk beans and rice. It was helpful but not enough. Wanda Powless told me that to live safely on Tableland, a person needed the funds to install power, a well, and a septic system, plus several months of food in case of heavy snow, and enough gasoline to get to town in an emergency. Taylor had none of those things.

Still, he was determined to make his situation work. In November 2015, he took the train back to Wisconsin to collect a second truck, a blue Ford F-150 he called Handy Smurf, which he drove back to Oregon. Josh, then 16, decided to leave high school and go to Oregon with his dad for a few months. “I wanted to live in the mountains for a little bit,” Josh said. “I am more the outdoorsy kind of person, like my father. That was fun for me. No running water, no power. Just being so far away from a town or civilization.”

The aspen trees on Taylor’s lot had dropped their leaves by then, and through the bare branches Josh could see a seemingly abandoned place just down the road from his dad’s. He heard it belonged to a guy named Roy who was in Minnesota, sick or maybe dead. The property had a trailer on it, with its door hanging open and a window busted out, and also a houseboat, a school bus, a half-built shed, an ancient truck, and a backhoe. Josh walked over one day and looked inside the trailer. “There was a bunch of trash,” he said. “There was raccoon feces everywhere, and it reeked of mold. It looked like no one had been living there for years.” Josh found a .22 handgun inside and took it.

Eventually, after Josh went back to Wisconsin, Taylor visited Roy’s place, too. He’d bought a few small solar panels on Amazon before he moved to Oregon, but they didn’t give his trailer enough juice. Taylor took eight solar panels and several six-volt batteries from the property, figuring that no one would miss them.

Then Roy came home.

3.

His full name was Fay Roy Knight, and he’d bought his lot in the 1990s. He moved there on a more permanent basis in 2009, when a bankruptcy swallowed up a boat, a motorcycle, and a trailer near Boise. Before leaving Idaho, he said goodbye to Vicki Lynn Vosburg, an herbalist with her own shop. Knight had spent hours in the store kidding around and flirting with Vosburg. She grew to care for him but never learned anything about his past, which he kept close to his chest. “He was my big old sweetie,” Vosburg later said, an “old cowboy” with a loud, gruff voice and a towering frame who “didn’t take any shit from anybody.”

When Knight told Vosburg he was moving to a remote part of Oregon, she was worried that it wouldn’t work out, but he couldn’t be convinced to stay. “You get what you get then,” she said. “Don’t come crying to me.”

“Girl, I am going to come crying to you anytime I want to,” Knight replied. Then he kissed her goodbye, though they’d never kissed before.

Knight moved into his Tableland trailer and stored his possessions, including hundreds of books, in the houseboat and in other dilapidated buildings and vehicles that he’d dragged up to his property. He even bought a backhoe to tend to the dirt roads near his place.

He was a man of fixed habits and an abiding interest in staying alive. He ate the majority of his meals at the Palomino Deli. He loved salads, fussed over his health, popped vitamins, lifted weights, and drank a lot of water. He was also known to enjoy a drink or two of harder stuff. He lived on Social Security and a longshoreman’s pension. He told friends that he’d worked as a logger and as a roughneck in oil fields. And he could be mean. Sara Palomino never forgot the time he viciously kicked a dog outside her store that was, she said, “in his way.”

Gary and Wanda Powless described Knight as a bully who used his guns to intimidate people. Everyone on Tableland kept guns, but Knight’s collection was particularly well-known, including the mini revolver he kept in his pocket—a North American Arms .22 that had a barrel less than two inches long. He also bragged about having a “throwaway” gun that couldn’t be traced to him. Knight liked to tell a story about catching a thief at his place when he lived up in Washington. He’d pulled a shotgun on the intruder, then asked him to step a few feet to the left so he could shoot him in the ass without breaking the glass in his front door.

Knight had friends and admirers. Carolyn Decker’s property in Sprague River backs up against Tableland. She described Knight as a good man who helped his neighbors, partook in the produce she grew on her land, and read voraciously. “He had a thirst for knowledge,” she said. “He was always reading about health things.” However, she added, “if you wronged him or were dishonest, he’d let you know.” Decker’s partner, Ian Pymm, said that Knight could be intimidating, because he yelled a lot—but that was only because, in his late seventies, Knight was nearly deaf.

Knight wasn’t home when Taylor first moved in, because he’d traveled to the Midwest to get two knee replacements. He came back in May 2016, mostly healed and still imposing. When Knight saw that some of his belongings had been taken, he was determined to find the culprit. He spotted a wheelbarrow track going uphill from his lot and followed it to Taylor’s trailer. Dixie Mae started barking, and Taylor came outside.

“Who in the hell are you?” Taylor asked.

“I’m Roy.”

“You’re supposed to be dead.”

Taylor thought Knight was scary—large and mad, with a big brass belt buckle that spelled out his name and a finger missing from his left hand. Taylor confessed to taking the solar panels and batteries. Knight was furious and called Taylor a piece of shit. Taylor apologized. Knight demanded to see proof that Taylor owned the land, suggesting that he might just be a squatter. Taylor showed him the contract; Knight implied that it was phony.

Tensions eased when a couple on horseback came down the road from the north, looking for stray cattle. Knight offered to give everybody—even Taylor—a tour of his place. Afterward the couple rode off and Taylor promised to return all the things he’d taken from Knight. The men shook hands, and Taylor thought that maybe there wouldn’t be any bad blood between them.

The next day, Taylor’s opinion changed. Knight drove his truck up the road and appeared at Taylor’s door, angry again. He accused Taylor of stealing a .22 pistol. According to Taylor, Knight told him that the gun had been used in a murder; Taylor wasn’t sure if that was the truth or just a scare tactic. Taylor said he didn’t have the weapon.

Taylor had installed security cameras around his trailer, and in silent footage taken that day, he can be seen loading solar panels into Knight’s truck. Knight then gestured toward Blondie, Taylor’s diesel pickup, demanding that Taylor give him one of the truck’s two batteries, as payback or a peace offering. Taylor handed it over without hesitation, even though doing so would render Blondie inoperable.

181221mhpo-1558978787-73.jpg
Wanda Powless

“Well that’s all shot in the ass,” Taylor wrote Josh on Facebook Messenger soon after the encounter. “He is probably gonna try to make my life hell as long as I am here.” Taylor worried that locals would side with Knight, since he’d lived on the mountain much longer. “They don’t like outsiders,” Taylor wrote. Maybe he should move, he suggested. “And you live there for about a year you aren’t an outsider,” Josh replied, “quit acting like a pussy and stand your ground.”

Without Knight’s solar panels, Taylor’s electricity failed and his security cameras stopped working. The next day, while doing some work on his F-150, Taylor saw Knight approaching on foot. Taylor later said that Knight pulled the mini revolver out of his right back pocket and announced that he was going to kill Taylor. After 15 tense minutes, Knight left. Later that day a woman named Kelli Boone, whom Taylor had met online, arrived for a visit. Taylor had warned her in advance that his neighbor was mad at him, but she came anyway. “My heart says fuck it drama or no drama go see my cowboy,” Boone wrote in a Facebook message.

The next morning, Taylor heard Dixie Mae barking. Leaving Boone in the trailer, he went outside and found himself face-to-face with Knight and a man Taylor didn’t know. The newcomer was tall and tattooed, with a shaved head and a flamboyant mustache. His name was Paul Strong, and he was a ranch manager, trapper, and friend of Knight’s. The men had come in a flatbed truck carrying a 55-gallon drum in back.

“This here is my crazy friend Paul,” Knight said, according to Taylor. “And this barrel—this is for you.” Then he said Taylor had three days to get off the mountain or he’d be shot, hacked up, and stuffed in the drum, which would be buried vertically to leave a small, inconspicuous grave. No one would ever find him. According to Taylor, Strong grabbed him by the throat and squeezed it while clenching his other hand into a fist. Strong told Taylor he was lucky he had a guest or he’d be dead already. Then the two men left. (Strong later admitted that he and Knight had gone to Taylor’s property and that he’d made a fist, but he denied the death threats.)

Taylor wanted to leave Tableland, but it wasn’t as easy as hopping in his F-150. He didn’t want to abandon his belongings—his tools, trucks, and photos of his kids. He needed time to pack, and more important, he needed money. He was broke. The next day—Sunday, May 22—Kelli Boone left and Taylor messaged Josh, “Can you get like $100 so I have the gas to get out of here?” Josh replied, “Yeah, I’m selling my black truck. I can get you 200 maybe.” Taylor sent his son the number of his Walmart card and asked him to put the money on it as soon as possible. 

Taylor then called Wanda Powless and told her he was planning to leave, given Knight’s ultimatum. “Why are you running, Tim?” she asked. “You’ve run your entire life. You are too old to keep doing this.” She suggested that he call 911 instead and turn himself in for the theft of Knight’s property. That might square things with his neighbor, she said. After hanging up with Powless, Taylor punched the numbers into his phone.

The dispatcher was confused. People didn’t often call to confess to a crime. “Has this been reported?” the man asked Taylor. “I guess what I’m asking: Is someone looking for you, or is this something that hasn’t been reported, do you think?”

“It’s been reported, because I’m reporting it,” Taylor said.

After that first conversation, Taylor called dispatch again to get his incident number. In the midst of the exchange, he said that he heard gunshots outside his trailer.

“OK and how—why are you saying this is related to the theft call?” the operator asked.

“Um, because they’ve already threatened my life,” Taylor responded.

181018mhpo-1558972952-10.jpg

4.

Sheriff Kaber said that there’s no official procedure for deciding whether to respond to a 911 call, but his understaffed department can’t follow up on everything that gets reported, which on Tableland as in other remote parts of the county is a hodgepodge of noise complaints, reports of shots fired, accusations of theft, and allegations of physical violence. “Decisions have to be made based on the manpower at the moment,” Kaber said.

In 2016, manpower was in particularly short supply. Kaber wasn’t the sheriff then. A man named Frank Skrah was in charge, and he made it difficult to recruit and keep staff. A veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, Skrah was old school, subordinates would later say. He had a habit of throttling and punching suspects after they were apprehended. He also referred to women in the district attorney’s office as “broad,” “babe,” and “sweetheart,” and he sometimes swatted them with case files. At the time of Taylor’s first 911 call, Skrah was under indictment for harassment, official misconduct, assault, and strangulation. Nevertheless, he remained on the job. (In 2017, Skrah was convicted on five of the nine charges against him; he paid a $3,000 fine and completed 120 hours of community service at a baseball field in Klamath Falls.)

After calling 911, Taylor locked his doors and stayed inside. He messaged his old friend Mike Bishop. “The guy lived up here 20+ yrs,” he said of Knight. “So he has a few friends up here.”

“So he has mountain law on his side,” Bishop replied.

The next day, Monday, May 23, Knight and Strong returned to Taylor’s property. Taylor called 911 again. “They have just come up my driveway, turned around, rode back down, and fired off a couple shots down there at their property, which is a jump, skip, and a hop away from me,” Taylor said, sounding uneasy. The dispatcher seemed unimpressed. “They’re shooting on their own property?” he asked. Taylor mentioned his previous contact with authorities, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Taylor messaged Bishop soon after the 911 call. “Now really nervous. They just fired off a few rounds. Debating on firing off a shot from the 12ga,” referring to his 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.

That afternoon, Taylor fiddled with the few solar panels he still had and was able to restore partial power to his property. His security cameras started recording again. They captured what happened after the deadline Knight had set for Taylor to be gone came and went. Just past noon, Knight arrived in a car with another friend of his, this one sporting a long ZZ Top–style beard. It was Ian Pymm, Carolyn Decker’s partner. Knight grabbed a stick and whacked Taylor’s door, telling him that time was up according to Pymm. The men could hear Taylor inside trying to hush his dog, but he didn’t reply to Knight or come out. “That’s yellow spine,” Pymm later said. “That guy was never going to leave. He was just going to be a pain in the butt up there. I knew it. I knew shit was going to happen. Always does.” Knight took out a handkerchief and, keeping it between his fingers and the handle of Taylor’s trailer door, tried to get inside. When the door wouldn’t open, Knight folded the cloth carefully and walked away.

Inside, Taylor was on the phone with 911 for the fourth time. A sheriff’s deputy returned the call and told him that if he wanted to pursue the matter, he would have to come to Klamath Falls and file a report. Taylor claimed the deputy told him, “We’re not peacekeepers.” He barely had enough gas in his F-150 to get to the closest gas station, 13 miles away. He was still waiting on Josh to transfer money to his Walmart card.

Taylor decided to write Knight a note, which he posted on the porch of his trailer. It warned that there were video cameras uploading footage to the internet and that the sheriff’s office had been notified about Knight coming onto the property. “Roy Knight I have done you wrong and I am owning up to what I have done and this is between you and I only,” the note read. “Any other communication will be done with a 3rd party involved.”

cam-1559176721-38.jpg
Taylor (left) and Knight (right), captured by a security camera. 

On Wednesday, Taylor hunkered down in bed with Dixie Mae and his shotgun. Josh messaged his dad to say that he’d finally managed to scrape together $100, but it would cost $20 to transfer it. “And you have to pick the money up at Walmart,” Josh wrote. “I can’t get it on your card.” The closest Walmart was in Klamath Falls. Taylor posted a photo on his Facebook page of a man in tactical gear holding a military rifle. The caption said, “With guns in the hands of the public, sure there will be tragedies, but without them there will be genocides.” He didn’t sleep that night. All he could hear were the howls of coyotes echoing off the nearby canyon’s walls.

The next day was sunny and warm. Because Wednesday had passed without incident, Taylor thought that maybe law enforcement had talked to Knight. He planned to stay a few more days, until his next disability check arrived at the beginning of June. The money would help him get enough fuel to tow his trailer away from Tableland if that’s what he decided to do. The decision was made for him when he went outside to his truck, shotgun over his shoulder, to charge his dead cell phone with on the battery. It was drained, too, which meant that Taylor now had no working vehicle. He wired a solar panel to the battery, hoping to bring it back to life and at least give his phone some power.

Around 2 p.m., while packing up his belongings, Taylor saw Knight again. He was on foot, and he had Taylor’s phone in his hand; Knight had found it charging at the truck on his way up the hill. One of Taylor’s security cameras captured the ensuing scene. Taylor raised his shotgun to show Knight that he was armed. Knight kept coming. Taylor backed toward his porch. Knight shoved Taylor—or perhaps stumbled against him—until Taylor was pressed up against the trailer door. Knight jabbed a finger into Taylor’s chest, alcohol on his breath. “I’m going to go down there and get my backhoe. I’m going to bury everything up here—and you,” Knight said, according to Taylor.

After berating Taylor for several minutes, Knight started to walk away from the trailer, still in possession of Taylor’s phone. That’s my last link to the outside world, Taylor thought. Taylor stepped down from the porch; Knight turned to face him. The two men were about 20 feet apart. Knight kept shouting. Taylor asked for his phone back. “Screw you, take it,” Knight said, according to Taylor. “You going to do something? Shoot me.”

Knight turned away again, lifting his hand in what looked like a dismissive gesture. Taylor raised his shotgun and fired.

Knight staggered, turning toward Taylor for a moment, then rotating away. He was hit. Two seconds after the first shot, Taylor fired again, this time blowing a three-inch hole in the back of Knight’s left shoulder. One pellet from the blast hit an artery that carried blood to his brain; others damaged major arteries on the left side of his body and entered his lungs and spinal cord. Knight fell to his knees and then collapsed, face-first, onto the dirt.

Taylor walked over to Knight and picked up his phone. He plugged it back into his truck’s battery. Then, for the fifth time in less than a week, he called 911.

“Hi, yeah. This is Tim Taylor up on Nagelridge Way again. He had come up here… Uh—I shot him.”

“Shot who?” a dispatcher asked.

“Roy Knight. He’s already threatened my life.”

“What’s the address?”

“I don’t have an actual physical address.”

“Did you call earlier?”

“Yes,” Taylor said. “I’ve been calling ever since last Friday.”

5.

It took an hour for deputy Brian Bryson, a search and rescue expert with elk antlers tattooed on his forearms, and his partner for the day, Daniel Tague, to find the narrow dirt road that Taylor had described over the phone. As they approached Taylor’s place—a trailer flying both the American flag and the Don’t Tread on Me banner—they saw a large ponytailed man on the ground. He was lying facedown, blood haloing his head and flowing downhill. He had on a green sweatshirt, shredded by shotgun pellets, and faded black Wrangler jeans. He was wearing a hearing aid.

Bryson called for Taylor to come outside. “Show me your hands!” he yelled. Taylor obeyed and emerged from the trailer. He was skinny, wearing a camouflage T-shirt and pants and a pair of brown desert boots. Bryson handcuffed Taylor, then Tague went over to look at Knight, who was dead.

Taylor seemed eager to talk, chattering about how Knight had been threatening him for days, explaining that he’d been calling 911 but nobody ever came. He had security cameras, Taylor said, and he invited the lawmen to watch the videos. Everything was on film. More officers arrived, parking their vehicles nose-to-tail on the road and walking past the small grove of aspens to Knight’s body. They emptied the dead man’s pockets and photographed the contents, including his wallet, which contained a driver’s license from Minnesota, and the .22 pistol, fully loaded.

Taylor was read his rights and driven to Klamath Falls, where detective Patrick Irish of the Oregon State Police was waiting for him. Irish, who would handle the case investigating Knight’s death, had listened to Taylor’s final 911 call. He heard Taylor say that Knight was “reaching around in his back pocket,” where he kept his gun, and that Taylor thought he’d shot Knight somewhere in his chest. Taylor said that he’d acted in self-defense.

Taylor was escorted into an interview room and given a burger, coffee, a glass of water, and a cigarette. “Have you ever had to take a life?” he asked the officers in the room. “I mean, I watched my father pass away, take his last breath, and the emptiness I felt after that—I mean, I’m still not over that.” Taylor described the first shot at Knight as a “warning” and said he hadn’t meant to hit his neighbor. The officers asked why he’d taken the second shot. What did he think was going to happen if he didn’t?

“I was getting buried,” Taylor replied.

“What’d you think he was going to do? How was he going to do it?”

“He’s got a back loader down there. With a backhoe on it. He’s got a big bulldozer.”

181221mhpo-1558979044-89.jpg
Gary Powless 

Up on Tableland, officers cataloged the scene into the early hours of Friday morning. Inside Taylor’s jam-packed trailer they found tools, a marijuana pipe, prescription medicine bottles, and three rifles. They didn’t find Knight’s missing .22. Irish didn’t visit the trailer. Taylor had admitted to the shooting, and thanks to the security cameras, Irish had video of Taylor shooting Knight in the back. He decided that it was enough to charge Taylor with murder.

Taylor was shocked. He assumed that he’d done the right thing. He’d called the authorities and defended himself when they didn’t show up. He thought that any legal troubles would be quickly sorted out. He never expected to be charged with murder.

Taylor was booked into the Klamath County jail, a small facility on the top of a ridge with a view of Mount Shasta, a snow-topped mountain framed by yellow rabbitbrush and a wide blue sky. He was assigned a public defender, Phil Studenberg, a genial city councilor in his sixties with wavy silver hair and sideburns. Joining him was a young defense attorney named Alycia Kersey, a former prosecutor who’d never defended an accused murderer at trial.

Irish, who handled 166 cases in 2016, conducted a quick investigation of what he believed was a cut-and-dried case. He and other officers interviewed a few witnesses, including Taylor’s ex-wife in Wisconsin and the Powlesses. Irish attended Knight’s autopsy and took photos, but he subsequently misplaced them. Eventually, Knight was cremated. Ian Pymm and Carolyn Decker spread his ashes on a rocky ridge on his property where Knight had liked to sit and read. 

A grand jury met a week from the day Taylor was arrested and determined that there was enough evidence to try him. In Oregon, murder carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, with no possibility of a reduction for good behavior. On June 6, 2016, when Taylor was arraigned, he pleaded not guilty.

In Klamath County, justice is rarely in any hurry. While Taylor sat in jail, according to Kersey, the prosecution refused to turn over evidence. She filed motions to compel it to do so, first in September 2016 and again in March 2017, the same month Taylor was denied bail by a judge who’d watched the video of the shooting. “That is not self-defense,” the judge said, sending Taylor back to jail. Kersey also filed continuances—motions to postpone the trial—multiple times, arguing that the prosecution wasn’t providing what was needed to mount a defense.

In jail, Taylor met a man named Pete Seller who lived just below Tableland, down the road from the Palomino Deli. Like Taylor, Seller lived on his disability checks. Unlike him, Seller was married, his wife had a source of income, and they had water, chickens, and even a few head of cattle. He was behind bars for unlawful use of a weapon and menacing an Iraq war vet and lavender farmer, who Seller claimed was making advances on his teenage daughter. “I don’t trust anyone out here,” Seller said. “But the nights are beautiful.”

Taylor told Seller his story. Seller liked Taylor, describing him as a “quiet guy.” They both felt they were in jail for doing nothing wrong—for defending themselves or their family. When the charges against Seller were dropped, allowing him to go home, he offered to tow Taylor’s trailer to his own property. “Nobody was helping the poor guy,” he said. “I had the gas and the time.”

When Seller arrived at Taylor’s place, nearly two years since anyone had lived there, he found that it had been thoroughly trashed and looted. The trucks, Blondie and Handy Smurf, and Taylor’s tools had vanished. Taylor’s mattress lay in the sun. Empty pill bottles and an artificial Christmas tree mingled with volcanic rock and manzanita bushes. Inside the trailer, Seller found a rotting photo album, filled with pictures of Taylor and his kids.

181018mhpo-1558973253-96.jpg

6.

Klamath County charged more than a dozen people with homicide between 2014 and early 2019, but only two cases went to trial. The first, in 2017, involved a man who claimed that he’d been acting under “extreme emotional distress” when he shot and killed his boss at a rail yard in Klamath Falls. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The second homicide trial was Taylor’s.

The proceedings began on the morning of October 1, 2018. Taylor had been in jail for two and a half years at that point. He entered the courtroom wearing a high-and-tight haircut, a western-style plaid shirt, and cowboy boots borrowed from Kersey’s husband. He sat stiffly, never leaning against the back of his chair. Whenever the jury left the room, the deputies guarding him let him stand and stretch.

The state’s case was presented by a man named Cole Chase, who’d recently been rehired by the district attorney’s office after completing two years of probation for a 2014 incident in which he’d threatened a man with a handgun outside a Klamath Falls bar. It isn’t easy to retain professionals in a poor, remote county with a stagnant economy. When the DA rehired Cole, she told the local press that he was “the most qualified applicant” and had “dedicated himself to ensure that he upholds our office’s reputation.”

Selecting a jury in Taylor’s case was tricky. There was a raft of potential bias or conflict of interest. One person in the roughly 80-person jury pool went to church with a member of the prosecution’s team; another taught yoga with Kersey; another had been married by Phil Studenberg, the defense attorney. Half a dozen potential jurors had concealed-carry permits, all reportedly for self-protection.

Studenburg asked the pool whether any of them had ever known “a mean drunk.” Dozens of hands went up.

“My ex and our son. My son has never been bad to me, but I hear rumors.”

“My son-in-law is in prison because of alcohol and murder.”

“My ex-husband is not allowed in the state of Oregon, and my first husband passed away because of alcoholism.”

Studenberg asked whether anyone had ever used force in self-defense. Several women recounted stories of fighting back against violent partners. One elderly lady talked about hitting her abusive husband with an iron. One man raised his hand. He had been in Iran in the Air Force when the Shah was overthrown, and he’d had to do what he called “crowd control.”

“Were you armed?” Studenberg asked.

“Yes, sir, I was.”

“Was there a temptation to use the gun?”

“Not a temptation.”

“Did you shoot over their heads?”

“Initially.”

The airman, Richard Farrington, ended up as the jury foreman.

The prosecution opened by playing the surveillance footage of Taylor shooting Knight. “When you shoot someone in the back twice, that is not self-defense,” Chase told the jury. Oregon law states that defensive violence is acceptable only if a threat is “imminent.” In this case it wasn’t, Chase said, because Knight had been walking away. Kersey argued that Taylor had in fact felt that he was in danger, particularly when, after the first shot, Knight spun around and seemed to have a hand near where he kept his revolver. “Tim thinks he’s grabbing that gun out of his right rear pocket, and that’s why Tim takes that second shot,” Kersey said. “Not because he wants to kill him but he wants to live. He thinks he is going to die right there. He thinks they are going to bury his ass up there.”

When Taylor took the stand, Kersey asked him why he hadn’t packed up and left the mountain. He explained why he’d felt stuck—no money, no gas, no place to go. Even if he drove out, he’d have to pass Knight’s property. Kersey asked Taylor why he hadn’t sought refuge with a neighbor, a shy Vietnam vet who lived only a quarter-mile away. Taylor said that he didn’t know whose side the man was on. Kersey asked how Taylor felt watching the video of the shooting. “It’s hard. I haven’t had any therapy,” he replied, his voice breaking. Taylor had already made the same complaint in two lawsuits he’d filed: against Sheriff Skrah, for failing to respond to his 911 calls and to investigate the theft of his property after his arrest, and against the Klamath County Jail for not providing adequate health care. Both suits were dismissed. “I haven’t received any help to deal with any of this,” Taylor said. He began to cry.

“Somebody’s blood was going to be on the road of the Tableland. It was either going to be Tim or it was going to be Roy.”

In his closing argument, Studenberg emphasized that Taylor’s decision to shoot Knight had to be judged in the context of the mountain. “There is no law out there. It is law administered at the point of a gun, for the most part,” he said. “Who knows how many bodies are buried out in the Tableland that no one has ever found?”

“Somebody’s blood was going to be on the road of the Tableland,” Studenberg concluded. “It was either going to be Tim or it was going to be Roy.”

Cole Chase argued the opposite. “The law on the Tableland is no different than the law right here,” the prosecutor said. “You don’t get to shoot someone in the back because they have your phone.” Knight had been all bluster, Chase continued. If he’d been serious, he would have brought a bigger weapon. “This is a .22 that fits in a back pocket and holds five rounds,” Chase said of Knight’s gun. “If you’re going to be assaulting someone’s house, that’s not the gun you take with you. You know what you take with you if you intend to kill someone: You take a big black shotgun.”

The jury was sent to deliberate on October 5. The judge gave them only two options: guilty or not guilty of murder.

“When I first saw the video [of the shooting], I thought, Well, this is going to be quick,” Juror 103 said later. “But as the evidence started unfolding, it was evident that this man was terrorized.” She described Taylor as “simple,” with no idea what he was up against. “What I saw,” said Juror 388, “was someone visibly shaken to the core over what he had done, and grappling with the fact that he had taken someone’s life. There was nothing I saw in person or on tape that seemed to me at all deceptive or disingenuous.” That juror was retired from a forestry job and knew Tableland well. “I’ve been out there,” he said. “It’s a starkly beautiful place. But he [Taylor] just wasn’t mentally or psychologically equipped.”

Farrington, the foreman, believed that Taylor should have had a better exit strategy. If there’s one thing he’d learned in the military, Farrington said, it was to “know your back door. If bad dudes are banging on the front, have a way to get out of Dodge. Take your dog and get out of there. The rest of it ain’t worth your life.” He thought Taylor’s claim that he’d fired the first shot as a warning was “bullshit.” Still, Farrington felt sorry for Taylor. “I kind of get the pioneering spirit, and from what I understand he had a shit life up to then,” Farrington said. He was indignant on Taylor’s behalf that the law didn’t come when he called 911. “I think the sheriff’s department should be sued within an inch of its life,” Farrington said.

After six hours, the jury came back. The judge asked if it had reached a unanimous decision.

“We have not,” Farrington said, his voice mournful.

“You are just hopelessly locked?”

“We are six and six.”

The judge declared a mistrial.

7.

Taylor’s retrial was scheduled for May 2019. The defense wanted the jurors to visit the scene of Knight’s death, to feel its isolation for themselves, and for that to happen—for a vehicle carrying 12 people to make it up the unpaved, rutted length of Nagelridge Way—they had to wait until the snow melted.

In the intervening months, there were several developments in Taylor’s case; some seemed to push it in his favor, others not. Klamath County reconvened a grand jury to add a new charge. Jurors at the retrial would now have the option of convicting Taylor of first-degree manslaughter, which carried a minimum sentence of ten years.

Meanwhile, during a visit to Tableland, photographer Michael Hanson had talked to Daryl Malvern, the husband of Sara Palomino, who said that Taylor had done the right thing, because Knight had been planning to kill him. In January, I convinced Malvern to talk to me, too. Sitting at a table in the back of the Palomino Deli, looking younger than his 50-plus years and dressed in a T-shirt with a marijuana-leaf pattern printed on it, Malvern said that he’d considered Knight a close friend. Not only was Knight capable of killing Taylor, Malvern claimed, but he’d had an active plan to do so. “He talked about killing the guy all the time,” Malvern said. “And he was very serious.”

The original idea was to ask Taylor to return the solar panels to Knight’s trailer, blow him away with a shotgun, and claim he’d been an intruder. Then, Knight and Paul Strong decided to run Taylor off instead. Malvern said that Strong was interested in buying Knight’s property but didn’t want Taylor as a neighbor.  The two men would pop by the deli and update Malvern on the progress of their campaign. (Strong denied Malvern’s allegations and said Malvern just wanted to buy a piece of Knight’s property, which Strong has since purchased.)

“Roy had him scared to death, he really did,” Malvern said. “He had that man trembling. Roy pulled guns on him many, many times. If he didn’t leave, Roy planned on murdering him.”

Malvern said he kept his distance from the feud. “I knew what was coming,” he said. He admitted that shooting Knight in the back wasn’t a good look but believed that Taylor was justified in doing it. “Do I think he had the right to kill Roy? I do,” Malvern said.

With Malvern’s permission, I played a tape of the interview for Detective Irish, the district attorney, and Taylor’s lawyers. Irish went out to Beatty and interviewed Malvern the following month. Kersey promised to call Malvern as a witness at the retrial.

But when May 2019 rolled around, the county decided that the roads were still too dangerous to send a bus full of jurors up the mountain. During a scouting trip, Irish took a photograph of a puddle on the way to Taylor’s property that ran the entire width of the road. The trial was postponed until the fall.

Taylor remained in jail, waiting. When I visited, he showed me pictures of Josh and Josh’s infant son, who looked uncannily like his grandfather. Three years after killing Knight, Taylor was surer than ever that he did the right thing when he pulled the trigger. He could recite the numbers of various Oregon statutes that he felt applied to his case. His lawyers thought his best shot at freedom was to keep emphasizing his naivete and ineptitude at life on the mountain: He hadn’t known what he was getting into when he moved to Tableland; he hadn’t known that his first shot connected with Knight’s body, because he wasn’t that experienced with firearms; he was deathly afraid of Knight. Taylor, however, preferred a narrative that painted him as a competent survivor exercising his constitutional right to protect himself when the law refused to. He’d acted rationally, he insisted.

The social contract is not a buffet—if you opt out because you want absolute freedom, you have to accept that no one will come to save your ass when trouble starts.

When I suggested that perhaps in Knight he saw the drunken menace of his father, Taylor dismissed the idea. He’d loved his dad; he even had a tattoo of a dragon and a Viking warrior’s skull on his shoulder, symbolizing his father’s strength and wisdom. The Klamath County sheriff’s department was the problem in his life.

Taylor also disagreed with what I took to be the moral of his story: The social contract is not a buffet—if you opt out because you want absolute freedom, you have to accept that no one will come to save your ass when trouble starts. Taylor still wished he could live “back in the 1800s and before,” a time of “limited government, people depending on themselves,” when Americans weren’t such “pansies” and hardened criminals were hanged for wrongdoing. If he ever got out of jail, he wanted to try living off the grid again. “You’ve always got to take a risk to have your freedom,” he said. At the same time, he thought that the law should have come when he called 911, that it should have protected his property while he was in jail, that it should have provided him with therapy, antidepressants, and painkillers while he sat in a cell.

“I will be the first person to admit I’m far from perfect,” Taylor wrote me in a letter. “I have made many mistakes throughout my life and will continue to make mistakes. I regret deeply having to take someone else’s life. I have relived that horrid week every night since then and highly doubt I will ever get over what had transpired and will live with it for the rest of my life. And the most difficult part—where do I go from here and how?”

One thing was certain: Taylor wouldn’t be returning to his plot on Tableland. Because he’d stopped paying for the place, it eventually went up for sale again online. As of this writing, it‘s still available. It could be yours for a mere $19,200. There’s a lovely butte on the property. If you scramble to the top, you can see a vast sweep of landscape. Below lies the sprawl of Knight’s compound and the shaggy wreckage of Taylor’s place, its thin soil stained with blood. Far in the distance there’s a dark tree line where the pines begin, and beyond that, blue along the horizon, the mountains.


Update

In the weeks before the retrial, Klamath County offered Taylor a deal: If he agreed to plead “no contest” to criminally negligent homicide, he would be sentenced to 75 months in prison. Taylor took the deal on September 10, 2019, rather than go to trial and risk being convicted of manslaughter, which would carry a heftier sentence. With credit for time served and reductions for good behavior and participation in prison programs, he could be out in a couple of years. Taylor will serve his sentence at a state prison after already spending three years, three months, and 17 days in county jail.

Commonwealth v. Mohamed

atavistfull-1553798115-35.jpg

Commonwealth v. Mohamed

A car crash in Kentucky left a 13-year-old girl dead. A Sudanese refugee was charged with her killing. Could anyone get justice?

Margaret Redmond Whitehead

The Atavist Magazine, No. 89


Margaret Redmond Whitehead is a journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Reason, Narratively, and other publications. She was a Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity Literary Journalism fellow in 2017. Follow her on Twitter @margredwhite.

Editors: Seyward Darby and Jonah Ogles
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Hokyoung Kim

Published in March 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1.

On the morning of May 23, 2015, on a highway in Scott County, Kentucky, two cars kissed and then pitched off the road.

The black Toyota Tacoma pickup was headed west on its way to a youth volleyball game. Emily Sams, 13 years old, with long brown hair and large, soft eyes, was perched in the back seat. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Her father, Jeff, was driving. Her mother, Shella, was riding shotgun.

The other car, also going west, was a blue Toyota Camry. A refugee from Sudan named Mohamed Abdallah was driving. A willowy man with fine features in his early thirties, Abdallah and a friend, Mohammed Tom, were on their way from Baltimore to Louisville, where a community of Masalit—the men’s ethnic group, from the Darfur region of Sudan—had invited them to attend a meeting. It was at least a nine-hour trip, and Abdallah had been driving through the night to make the morning appointment.

At approximately 7:05 a.m., Abdallah’s sedan went into a yaw on I-64 West, moving forward and sideways at the same time. The car slid across the asphalt, leaving its lane and making contact with the Samses’ truck. Metal bit metal, and both drivers lost control of their vehicles.

Abdallah’s Camry spun down the side of the road until it hit a leafy thicket. After the car came to a halt, Tom pulled Abdallah through the driver-side door to safety. Abdallah stumbled toward the wrecked black pickup. Its front right side was caved in. Shella was still in her seat, and one of her legs looked unnaturally crooked. Behind the wheel, Jeff asked for his daughter. With no sign of a third person in the truck, Abdallah searched the debris.

He found Emily, dead, near a tree. Her neck was bent, her body twisted. Flashbacks of war shuddered through Abdallah’s mind: blood and dust, torched grass huts. He crumpled to the ground.

Emily’s grandparents, who were traveling to the volleyball game in a different car, arrived at the scene. A truck driver also saw the smoking Camry and pulled over to help. He found Abdallah collapsed near Emily. Abdallah would later remember the truck driver, a burly white man with a gut, saying “Let’s pray,” followed by a few questions.

The first was, “Where are you from?”

“We’re coming from Baltimore, Maryland,” Abdallah said.

The second: “I didn’t mean where in the U.S. Where are you from?”

“We’re from Africa,” said Abdallah.

And finally: “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes,” Abdallah said.

The truck driver walked away, toward the Samses’ pickup.

2.

I first met Abdallah at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It was October 2012, and I was in my second year as a resettlement caseworker for refugees. I waited near the arrivals gate, clutching a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and making sure my International Rescue Committee badge was visible. Abdallah was one of seven Darfurian men landing that night. I had a tiny row house ready for them in the Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown. Earlier that day, I’d picked up three rotisserie chickens for their first dinner in America.

I’d been working with Darfurian refugees for a few months, but Abdallah and three of the other men who arrived that night were the first Masalit people I’d met. Most historical accounts place the start of the genocide in Darfur in 2003, when the Sudanese government began a vicious campaign to eradicate or evict the region’s western ethnic groups. The Masalit, however, have been under attack since at least the mid-1990s, a peril of living in the borderland between Chad and Sudan.

Abdallah was never a fighter, but he witnessed violence. In 1996, when he was 14, his father was killed resisting members of the Janjaweed, a state-sponsored militia, as they robbed the family of cattle. When he was 16, the Janjaweed massacred 50 people in an adjacent town. When the militia came to Abdallah’s town in 1998 and cut down his uncle, the family fled to Chad. They returned briefly, but the attacks increased. They left Darfur for good in 2003.

A week after the men arrived at the airport, during orientation, I asked if they had any questions. This was a time when clients typically asked me to repeat the details of their transitional benefits, like food stamps. Abdallah, leaning on the table around which the men were sitting, raised a hand.

“How can I be a good neighbor in America?” he asked.

I looked at him, astonished. His brown eyes, ringed in thick, dark lashes, stared back at me. He held a pen in his long fingers, waiting to write down my answer. “Well,” I said, “you can help your neighbor take in the groceries.”

He scratched that down with his pen and asked another question.

“Where can I volunteer?”

“How can I be a good neighbor in America?” Abdallah asked. I looked at him, astonished.

Abdallah quickly became my point person for his house. He would consolidate the queries of all seven occupants and bring them to me. When a cantankerous roommate stirred up drama, I sat in the living room to mediate and Abdallah interpreted for me. Whenever the other men raised their voices, he rocked back and forth, his thin back curved tensely and his arms pressed against his chest. Conflict made him squirm.

Around the resettlement office, other people came to rely on Abdallah, too. He was easygoing, neat, eager, and humble. His English was good and getting better. In 2013, Abdallah joined a trip to hear President Barack Obama speak, and he took his role as an audience member so seriously that he showed up in a suit. He was dismayed when the president’s staff filled the event’s front rows with people wearing T-shirts and jeans. Abdallah, dressed to the nines, had to stand in back.

Once, he hit gravel while riding his bicycle and crashed. I met him at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Sitting in the pharmacy, I pointed to a TV screen where Obama appeared in a news segment. “Look,” I said. “It’s your friend.”

Abdallah glanced up, laughed, and waved his hand dismissively. “I’ve already seen the real one,” he said.  

A few days before Christmas in 2013, Abdallah and one of his roommates caught me on the street in front of the resettlement office. Grinning, they pressed a plastic bag into my arms. It was a Christmas gift. Inside the crinkling white plastic was a pleather jacket from Marshall’s. On a small piece of notebook paper, the men had scrawled a message in blue ink: “Hi Maggie—this is small gift from Jamoa yahia. mohamed Abdallah. and Juma mohamed. Thank you so much your helping, and thank you agania.”

I wasn’t supposed to accept presents from clients. I couldn’t control when a wizened Nepali woman surreptitiously slipped a can of Coca-Cola into my purse, but I’d disappointed dozens of clients with apologetic refusals of thoughtful offerings. Still, I accepted the jacket from Abdallah. My designated time—eight months—as his caseworker was technically up. I’d been waiting for this moment, when I could become his friend.


One weekend in September 2015, after I’d left resettlement work to become a graduate student and writer in New York City, I was supposed to meet Abdallah in Baltimore. He’d agreed to be an interpreter for one of my reporting projects. “I can’t pay a lot right now,” I said when I called him. “Only $15 an hour. But I hope I can pay more later.” The rate didn’t faze Abdallah. “Of course,” he replied. I could tell from his voice that he was smiling.

I never saw Abdallah that weekend. By the time I arrived on Friday, he was in jail. Earlier that day, four officers had shown up at his door with handcuffs and arrested him. His alleged crime was causing the fatal car crash in Kentucky four months prior. He would stay in a Baltimore cell, appear in court, and then be transported to Kentucky to await trial. The news felt like a punch below the ribs.

The Darfurian community in Baltimore was in a frenzy. My host, a refugee named Abbas Yahya, spent the weekend fielding and placing phone calls, then racing out the door to emergency meetings to discuss the situation. For many community members, it wasn’t a question of what had happened—they were aware of the crash and that Abdallah had been coping with its aftermath—but of what came next. What would the American justice system do? How would it assign blame for what seemed to be a tragic accident? The last two Masalit clients of mine who’d gotten in trouble with the law were young men caught sipping beer in a public park. They had no idea why they kept receiving mail from the city government, and their unpaid fines soared to more than $900 each. Abdallah’s legal tangle was far uglier, and it was more confusing than anyone in the community knew how to handle.

Yahya dropped me at the bus station early Monday morning, three hours before I was scheduled to leave for home. He apologized and explained that he wanted to get to Abdallah’s court hearing on time. Yahya knew he could only watch, but he intended to be there anyway. Like several other Darfurians in Baltimore, he considered Abdallah his dearest friend.

Abdallah was charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of assault; according to his indictment, he “wantonly drove his automobile into the [Samses’] automobile.” He was transported to a jail in Kentucky and held on $75,000 bail. From home, I wrote Abdallah a letter. “I was in Baltimore the weekend you were arrested,” it began. It devolved into a patchwork of encouragement and advice.

Two weeks later, I received an envelope with a red stamp on it that read “INMATE MAIL UNSECURED.” Abdallah wrote that he’d always told other people to be safe and not get in trouble, “but today I’m here in jail.” Being behind bars “let people miss a lot of appreci oppertunity.” Still, he wrote, he was trying to stay positive.

Former resettlement colleagues of mine pitched in to help Abdallah. One happened to be living in Kentucky, where she was working on a farm. She visited Abdallah in jail. Another, Amanda Olmstead, then the Darfurians’ main contact in Baltimore, found a private defense lawyer in Kentucky who agreed to represent Abdallah. The lawyer’s name was Dan Carman, and he haggled Abdallah’s bail down to $7,500. Yahya and Olmstead split the cost, and Abdallah was released on house arrest.

He moved in with a Masalit friend in Louisville; he wasn’t allowed to go back to Baltimore. Abdallah’s life in Maryland, including recently procured jobs as a security guard and an interpreter, dropped away like freshly snipped strings.


For two and a half years, Abdallah waited as his case moved through the legal system. The only places he was allowed to go outside of his apartment were the Amazon fulfillment center where he worked and the courthouse. Carman tried to negotiate a plea deal, but the prosecution wouldn’t budge on the charges or drop the penalty lower than five to 15 years in prison. Under federal law, a conviction for a “crime of moral turpitude” or an “aggravated felony,” which includes manslaughter, would place Abdallah at risk of being deported. To stay in America, he would have to stand trial and hope for the best.

Abdallah’s plight stuck in the back of my mind like a deep splinter. I’d let myself forget about them, then I’d see his Facebook posts—a humanitarian plea about Darfur, a cheesy inspirational quote, a Merry Christmas message, a selfie—and feel a sick pang. I’d remember that there had been a collision, that now Abdallah was in Kentucky, that a young girl was dead.

The few times we spoke, Abdallah evaded my questions about his case. Thinking that he was embarrassed, or that maybe he didn’t know the answers because legal matters can be so bewildering, I didn’t press the issue. I saw him once during his house arrest, in October 2016, when research took me to Louisville. Abdallah arranged for me to interview a young Masalit couple at his home, where he could interpret. I felt a surge of relief knowing that I’d see him in person and ensure that he was intact.

Abdallah was living on the third floor of a brick apartment building. When I arrived, we sat in the living room, me on a chair and Abdallah on a sagging couch. He poured me syrupy tangerine-colored juice. Rubber slippers rested in a doorway, available to anyone who needed to walk on the gritty tiles of the kitchen floor or into a nearby bathroom that smelled like pools of cool, stagnant water. The hems of Abdallah’s pants, as always, were let out to compensate for his long legs. Even so, they didn’t cover his ankle monitor. The device cost him $10 a day.

As an interpreter, Abdallah seemed his usual self, focused and professional. But when we spoke between interviews, he was subdued. His English had regressed. His shoulders drooped. When I asked what was happening with his case, he looked askance.

“Some things are not finishing,” Abdallah said.

“Do you know when they’ll be finished?”

He muttered something about his lawyer. I changed the subject.

When I left, Abdallah bid me goodbye from his front walkway, the invisible force of his ankle monitor tethering him to his home.

atavistfull-1553799684-81.jpg

3.

Through the speakerphone, I heard anxious, distant voices. My cell phone sat beside me on a sofa cushion. I clutched a notepad. Everyone on the line that day in January 2018, including my spouse, Sara, sitting across from me, knew Abdallah and felt invested in his situation. Amanda Olmstead had scraped us together for a conference call because she finally had details about Abdallah’s trial. It was scheduled for February 19. Carman, the defense lawyer, had told Olmstead that he needed character witnesses. Specifically, he needed white, American faces—people who could speak to Abdallah’s upstanding nature and “mix in” with the Darfurians who would inevitably show up in the courtroom to support their friend.

Olmstead told us what else she knew. The girl who’d died in the crash was named Emily Sams; her identity entered into my consciousness as a dense weight. Shella Sams, who worked in special education, had been in a wheelchair since the accident. Abdallah would be tried where the incident happened, in Scott County.

Someone asked if Abdallah’s charges were, well, normal. Olmstead explained that, according to Carman, they were not. It was unusual for felonies like second-degree manslaughter and assault to result from a crash involving sober drivers who hadn’t done anything overtly reckless. Authorities in Scott County had also deemed Abdallah a flight risk, despite preexisting limitations on his movement. He was a refugee with a green card; he couldn’t travel abroad without applying for a special permit. Between work and volunteering, he was entrenched in his community.

A knot of confusion settled across the conference call. Why, then, was this happening? We could guess but didn’t know for sure. And if what we suspected was true, we needed to hear it.

Olmstead relayed in more detail what Carman had said about Scott County: It was predominantly white, and it was conservative. It also had a sour history with immigrant drivers. On the same day as Abdallah’s accident, an undocumented Mexican man hit and killed a bicyclist, panicked, and drove a few miles with the dying man’s body in the back of his truck, where it had landed after hitting the windshield. The police eventually stopped him. The driver, who had a history of DUI convictions, was stoned and drunk. He was given 35 years in prison. At his sentencing, the man asked the cyclist’s wife for forgiveness. “You took away my husband,” she responded. “You have no respect for life.” Later, to the press, she said, “Obviously, we would like him to be in jail for life.”

Carman believed that Abdallah likely wouldn’t get much sympathy from a Scott County jury. From my vantage point, it was easy to share his concern. In 2016, Scott County went for Donald Trump by 31 points. The president had since vowed to keep Americans safe by barring people like Abdallah from entering the country. Young male refugees—unencumbered by children and often the first of a population to flee a troubled region—and Muslim immigrants were under intense national scrutiny. When I mentioned Abdallah’s predicament to friends, many furrowed their brows in apprehension. “And his name’s Mohamed?” they asked.

atvstspot1-1553874194-71.jpg

Several people from the conference call blocked off the third week of February in our calendars; some of us planned to carpool to Kentucky. Olmstead reserved an Airbnb in Louisville, one with bunk beds and a pull-out couch. We debated who should take on the role of the white character witness: Who knew Abdallah best? Ultimately, Olmstead and I were cast.

I felt desperate for information, in much the same way that my clients did when I was a resettlement caseworker. Refugees often wanted any useful thing I could tell them, any crumb of knowledge. How strange now to be on the other side. I counted down the days until my first phone call with Carman, which Olmstead also joined.

“I think he’s innocent,” Carman told us. He was a fast talker, with what I assumed was a Kentucky accent. “It was just an accident. Mohamed didn’t do anything wrong.”

To be clear, Carman continued, Abdallah had been speeding. My brain fumbled with this information. The Abdallah I knew followed rules to a fault. The cognitive dissonance ground down the words even as I transcribed them.

The GPS from the Camry, now in evidence with Scott County, showed the car going around 19 miles per hour over the speed limit, which was 70, around the time of the accident. In the preceding hours, Abdallah had topped 100 miles per hour three times. Under Kentucky law, going more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit may accrue several points on someone’s license, but it doesn’t necessarily qualify as reckless driving. In order to prove its case, the prosecution would have to establish that Abdallah had demonstrated flagrant, excessive disregard for highway safety—“wanton” behavior, in legal speak, that showed indifference to the lives of other people on the road.

“There’s a lot going on in the case right now,” Carman continued, including the fact that, on his advice, Abdallah had hired an accident reconstructionist named Henry “Sonny” Cease, a retired major for the Kentucky police. Abdallah had paid Cease $5,000 up front but hadn’t yet received the accident report, which made us nervous. There was no way to tell if what Cease had to say would help or hurt Abdallah’s defense.

It was possible, Carman continued, that a Scott County jury might vote for a partial conviction as a compromise. “These jurors, they’ll see Mr. Sams in the grocery store,” he said. A partial conviction, however, wouldn’t mitigate the risk of Abdallah being deported. “The law is on Mohamed’s side,” Carman explained, “but the equities are not.”

When I spoke to Abdallah the next day on the phone, knees curled to my chest on my sofa, his voice sounded tight and low. For the first time, he talked to me about the accident. Jittery, I wrote down what he said on a half-size yellow steno pad.

He told me about the Sams family. How he thought he remembered their truck bumping his Camry before he went into the yaw. How he staggered to the pickup after the crash. How he looked for the girl and found her. “It was so sad,” he said. “It was so, so sad.” He told me about the truck driver and the questions: Where did he come from? Was he Muslim?

Abdallah and I spent the rest of the call brainstorming people who might be willing to write a character-reference letter for him. When I hung up the phone, I stared at the list of 53 names—people who’d been my colleagues, interns, and volunteers. They’d helped Abdallah during his resettlement, rented to him, hired him, and worked alongside him. He remembered them all.

We had prioritized people we hoped would win over a Kentucky judge. Most had Anglophone names. Only a few were Darfurian men. My striving for this mix would repulse me in retrospect. Right then, though, I didn’t care. I wanted a bluegrass roster.

When I sent out a mass email to the people on the list, I took care to explain that their letters wouldn’t be used during the trial; I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. The letters would come into play if Abdallah were found guilty. The writers’ job would be to convince the judge to minimize the sentence so that Abdallah might be able to stay in America.

I googled “what to wear as a character witness” and scoured my wardrobe for warm, feminine clothing. Nothing black. Nothing too coastal elite.

Days later, on another call with Abdallah and Olmstead, we ran through everything we didn’t know, including why Scott County didn’t have Abdallah’s official statement from after the crash and how Mohammed Tom, who was set to testify, would get to Kentucky from Washington State, where he’d relocated. “It was an accident,” Abdallah kept repeating. “It was an accident.” He said it so many times that I finally snapped and told him that he’d better pull it together and get his head in the game. Get a nice suit. A respectable haircut. Practice American eye contact.

After Abdallah hung up, I told Olmstead that maybe I shouldn’t have been so harsh. She said that it was fine, that it needed to be said.

I took phone calls from Darfurians who couldn’t come to the trial but wanted to submit letters for their friend. I prompted them with questions, transcribed what they said.

“Mohamed is a good man. He is always giving,” said Jamoa Yahia, on a break from driving an 18-wheeler to Texas. “Whatever he has, he gives to people who need it.”

“Everyone loves him,” said Hassen Ismail. He added that Abdallah’s mother, who was still living in a refugee camp in Chad, was heartsick and scared.

I drove to Baltimore one day, shooting down I-95, and for a moment screamed so hard I thought my voice might rake open the flesh of my throat. When I arrived, I sat on Abbas Yahya’s couch, helping him with his own letter. “All the Darfurians in Baltimore have been impacted by the accident because we miss Mohamed,” Yahya dictated. “It feels like all of us had an accident.”

I admitted to Yahya that I’d cried during a recent call with Abdallah. He looked at me aghast—appalled by the breach in my professional veneer. I felt viciously bored with myself. When I got back home, I tore through my closet, packing for Kentucky. I had googled “what to wear as a character witness” and scoured my wardrobe for warm, feminine clothing. Nothing black. Nothing too coastal elite.

Carman called me to go over what he would ask me on the stand. I hammered him with anecdotes I’d been stockpiling: Abdallah’s good-neighbor question, the incident of overdressing to see Obama.

“Those are good,” Carman said, “but I can only ask, like, three questions. How do you know him, can you form an opinion on his character—”

“Yes.”

“—and what that opinion is. And you can basically just say ‘high’ or ‘very high.’”

That was all I’d get: a fragment of a sentence.

I doubted that so brief a testimony could persuade a jury of my faith in Abdallah. At the very least, though, I could bear witness. I’d been at the airport for Abdallah’s beginning in this country. If it came to it, I would be there for the end.

atvstspot2-1553874389-88.jpg

4.

Georgetown, the seat of Scott County, is a picture-perfect small city. The buildings on its main drag are old, made of brick, and so charming they belong in a movie. At the courthouse, security guards smiled and nodded as I passed through the metal detector.

I arrived toward the tail end of jury selection, which had taken up most of a Monday morning. More than a dozen of Abdallah’s friends and supporters were already inside the courtroom. As witnesses, Olmstead, Mohammed Tom, and I were relegated to a hallway, opposite two nearly exhausted candy machines and a lime-crusted water fountain. We wouldn’t be allowed to watch the trial until we’d testified.

In the early afternoon, a young woman emerged from the courtroom and came over to us. She was Kalee Collett, Carman’s assistant. She had wide, clear eyes and straight blond hair. Her serious expression made her look older than her 19 years. She brought good news: Jury selection had been rigorous. For starters, the defense asked potential jurors to identify any biases they held against people of a certain skin color or religion, along with whether or not they knew the Samses personally. The prosecution had unsuccessfully tried to cut a black woman, citing a previous speeding ticket and alleging that her profession—engineering—would make her a difficult juror. A Hispanic man and a white woman who said she was from South Africa had made the final panel.

After Collett left, we took turns standing up to peer through large, rectangular windows into the courtroom. I tried to take notes, balancing my notebook on the ledge. But there wasn’t much to record: I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying.

At 4 p.m., the doors opened and jurors filed out. They looked numb and exhausted. A young man with sandy hair touched his stubble, an absent look in his eyes. The only black juror’s steps were narrow, her shoulders pressed in, as if trying to take up less space. A middle-aged woman with thinning hair and gaunt cheeks looked like she could use a smoke.

In the car on the way to our Airbnb, friends who’d been in the courtroom caught me up on the day’s events. A couple of them worried over the defense’s opening statement. Carman, who with his beard and stocky frame reminded me of a short lumberjack in a nice suit, had sketched out Abdallah’s past for the jury while Collett passed Abdallah a box of tissues. The statement took less than five minutes to deliver. The prosecution, meanwhile, offered meticulous scene setting.

The county’s first witness was Scott Burgett, who had traveled to Kentucky from Overland Park, Kansas, where he worked for the tech company Garmin. Pat Molloy, the lead prosecutor, asked Burgett about the GPS device he’d helped design, which was the model in Abdallah’s car. Then Molloy had Burgett read some of the data pulled from Abdallah’s GPS. Minutes before the accident, the Camry exceeded 90 miles per hour. According to Burgett, the car’s speed at the moment of the collision was 89 miles per hour.

The next witness was deputy sheriff Jeb Barnes, the first officer to respond to the crash. A large bald man who seemed affable and honest, Barnes described how the Samses’ truck had rolled and flipped before hitting the edge of a concrete drainage ditch and going fully airborne. Emily’s body was thrown around, a loose item in a violently pitching cabin. Barnes believed that Emily died before the truck hurtled through the treetops, shearing off its roof. She was ejected through the gaping hole that remained.  

Barnes said that, despite asking for one, he’d never received a statement about the accident from Abdallah. Olmstead mentioned that she found this odd: She remembered helping Abdallah write his police statement when he got back to Baltimore, before she knew how serious the situation was.

Barnes introduced into evidence several photos that he’d taken of the accident: skid marks, smoking vehicles, what he called “gouges in the earth.” His testimony had a poetic precision. He was the last witness of the day.

Abdallah’s allies gathered for dinner at his new two-bedroom apartment. The living room had a large central rug ringed with couches and chairs. The space wasn’t as shabby as the one I’d seen a year prior, but Abdallah hesitated when someone complimented him on his home. He said that every time he had friends over, his upstairs neighbors called the police.

Soon after arriving, I found Abdallah alone in the kitchen, free of his suit jacket and dress shoes, next to an oven where he was roasting a huge foil-covered dish of goat meat. I’d never seen him so thin. He was happy to have company. While he cooked, I leaned against the fridge. We joshed about how much sugar he put in his tea. We giggled at each other’s bad jokes. The mood was light and ephemeral, like the soft crackle of carbonation.

Abdallah spread black trash bags across the living room rug and brought out dishes: hummus, pita, bell peppers, store-bought chicken, the chunks of goat. He added bottles of water to the array, placing one in front of each guest. For the span of the meal, we let go of the trial. We stopped rehashing how the Garmin man had listed high speed after high speed. How frustrating it was that Abdallah’s official statement was missing. How Carman seemed fine but we needed Atticus Finch.

Midway through the meal, I disentangled myself from the packed-in knees, the arms reaching for food, to stand on a chair and take a few pictures on my phone. Too often we document only victories, the moments of joy but not of loss. No one takes candids at a funeral. The images I got were muted by the apartment’s low light, like something out of time. They already looked like artifacts I would unearth one day, after the verdict had been read and there were no more choices to be made.

Too often we document only victories, the moments of joy but not of loss. No one takes candids at a funeral. 

On the second morning of the trial, Collett gathered Abdallah’s friends together in the hallway: seven young white women, a white, ponytailed man, and a dozen Sudanese men in sharp suits and pointy-toed shoes. She warned us that it was crucial for us to keep it together today. The Sams family was going to testify. Shella had undergone 25 surgeries since the accident. Both of Emily’s grandmothers would be there. Many people who took the stand would be grieving.

When the Samses were finished, the defense would begin its case. At some point, I would be called to testify. Carman eventually came into the hall to prep me. I had to be careful, he said, because if I went off script—did anything other than answer his exact questions as succinctly as possible—the judge could shut me down.

Carman looked a little rueful over this restriction. Then he raised his eyebrows. “Unless,” he said, “if they ask you a question during cross-examination. If they give you an opening when they talk to you, you can go on for as long as you want. If they do that, go for it.”

He gave a meaningful nod. I nodded back, feeling unequipped for a filibuster.

As the morning passed, a man and a woman stood against a nearby wall. They emanated quiet intensity. The man, who was paunchy, looked stressed. The woman leaned against him, draping her thin limbs out across his chest and belly. They murmured to each other in pleading tones. I thought I heard the words “this country” and “Christian.”

I turned to Olmstead. “I think that’s the truck driver,” I said quietly.

She nodded. She’d been listening, too.

Eventually, the man was called into court—Abdallah’s court—and he disappeared behind heavy double doors. When he emerged 30 minutes later, he and the woman boarded the elevator. We didn’t see them again. Soon after, a raised voice in the courtroom snapped me to attention. It was muffled but hard, and clearly female. The volume ebbed, then spiked again.

“I think it’s the grandmother,” said Aliza Sollins, an old colleague.

“I saw her go in,” Olmstead added.

“Is she shouting?” I asked.

A while later, I peered through the narrow window while Shella Sams testified. Her composure struck me: She bore a gentle dignity in the midst of a storm.

That afternoon, when I was called to testify, the air in the courtroom felt stiff yet mildly electric. A damp light filled the space. I walked the single aisle between the wall and the gallery, past the double row of jurors. A bailiff settled me into the witness area, which held a small, walled-off table with a chair. There was a microphone, but it was too far away for me to reach. I imagined how I must have looked, a poor fit for the witness box and sweating through my carefully selected clothes.

Carman asked me my name. I gave it.

“Just generally and briefly, how did you come to know Mohamed Abdallah?” he asked.

I explained that I had been his caseworker. I knew I was supposed to look at the jury, but my brain couldn’t override how weird that felt.

“And did you have dealings with him for a number of months or even years?”

“Yes, I had dealings with him most intensely for eight months, and then on, for about two years.”

“Have you been able to be around him enough,” Carman asked, “to be able to form an opinion of his character?”

“Yes.”

“And what is that opinion?”

I straightened my back and leaned toward the microphone. “Extremely high,” I said.

A portly prosecutor who was assisting Molloy rose to cross-examine me. “Were you at the scene of the collision that occurred between the defendant’s automobile and the Sams family?” he asked.

“No, I was not,” I said.

“So you don’t have any direct knowledge of that day or that incident. Is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Nothing further.”

I was dismissed. Testimony delivered, I was allowed to take a seat in the gallery.


Carman called for Mohammed Tom. At my urging to trim his goatee and wear dress shoes, Tom had shaved his entire face raw and smashed his feet into a too-small pair of brown Oxfords. He plopped onto the seat and slouched into a casual posture that treaded the fine line between self-assuredness and arrogance. I wished he would sit up straight.

An Arabic interpreter pulled up a chair beside the witness stand. Tom could put on a show of English, but it was mostly a confidence act. Carman questioned Tom for 13 minutes, after which Molloy, an older man with short hair, glasses, and a white beard, stepped in for the cross-examination. I thought Tom seemed confused at times, which he tried to mask with pride, appearing certain of everything he said even when it clearly wasn’t correct. At least once, he answered a question before fully hearing what it was. I thought there might be a hitch with the interpretating, because Tom’s answers didn’t always match Molloy’s questions. Also, the interpreter’s dialect didn’t sound like Sudanese Arabic.

In a Southern drawl, Molloy asked questions about minute details: the placement of chargers inside Abdallah’s car, the location of a cell phone, where the GPS sat on the dashboard, and the speed of the vehicle. At first, Tom insisted that Abdallah never went above 70 miles per hour, didn’t once break the speed limit. He would have known, Tom said, because the steering wheel would have started shaking. He mimed holding a rattling wheel. I gaped at him from my seat.

“The car is four-cylinder,” Tom said. “If you go over 70, it starts shaking.”

“Over 70, it starts shaking,” Molloy repeated.

“Four-cylinder, the car can go as fast as 80,” Tom said. “We didn’t go more than that.”

“So 80 would have been the top speed, is that correct?” Molloy asked.

Tom considered. “I think the fastest we went was 75. I don’t think we reached 80.”

“OK, 75 it is then.”

“I think so, yes.” The way Tom said it sounded like sure, why not.

I dug my fingers into the bench with such force that Aliza Sollins reached over to hold my hand. On the witness stand, Tom grabbed a couple of plastic water cups and started a series of improbable demonstrations reenacting the accident. Tom described the Samses’ truck bumping the Camry twice on its right side, which he indicated had caused Abdallah to veer left then right before hitting the Samses’ pickup. Tom tried to explain how he’d wanted to help the Samses after the accident.

“And that’s what you really came here to say, isn’t it,” Molloy said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” Tom said, without irony.

The questioning lasted another 15 minutes. When it was over, Tom sauntered away from the witness’s chair. By the time he walked past me, three Darfurian men were already tearing into him. I hissed at them to be quiet or go eviscerate Tom out in the hall.

atvstspot3-1554081782-0.jpg

“What?” Tom kept asking, bewildered. “What?”

Abdallah took the stand without an interpreter. I watched him in profile as he leaned forward in the witness chair, placing both elbows on the table and folding his hands. His long legs were bent at the knees and tucked beneath the chair. Carman threw him softballs: Where did he grow up? Where is Chad? Where did he work? Did the United States government give him permission to be in the country? Abdallah spoke carefully, eyes up. At Carman’s subtle reminders, he addressed the jury.

When the questioning turned to the accident, Carman called in an interpreter. He explained to the judge that this was for accuracy, but it was also clear that he’d wanted to show off his client’s articulate English before getting deep into the testimony.

Abdallah admitted he’d driven fast, but said that his speed had gone only into the seventies and eighties. Like Tom, he said that he’d lost control of the car when the Samses’ vehicle nudged his Camry twice. After the crash, he recalled, “We tried to help. I was so scared, so I got the energy to help. We tried to open the door [to the pickup], but the door was locked, was jammed, and it wouldn’t open. And the man was crying and screaming, ‘Where’s my daughter, where’s my daughter?’”

“What are your feelings about all of this?” Carman asked.

Abdallah decided to answer in English.

“First of all, I would like to say is, I really feel very troubled about the family was lost their daughter. And I saw the mom sitting in the wheelchair. I just remember that I lost—I lost my father.” Abdallah wept as he spoke. “I saw the same situation. It is hard for me to describe.”

When Molloy addressed Abdallah on cross-examination, he said “ab-doo-lah,” as in “zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” I wished the pronunciation were correct; names are so vital to who we are. Molloy’s questioning began with a reference to Tom’s testimony, which Abdallah quickly contradicted, saying the car didn’t shake at any speed.

“I was the one who was driving, and I would know if the car is shaking,” he said.

“So when Mr. Tom said that—and he was pretty adamant about it—that’s not true?”

Abdallah agreed but pointed out that Tom had trouble understanding the questions.

“So it’s a language problem,” Molloy said. But hadn’t the court given Tom an interpreter? Abdallah explained that Arabic wasn’t Tom’s first language, Masalit was.

Molloy brought up the 911 call after the accident. According to Abdallah and Tom, they weren’t confident enough in their English to communicate with emergency dispatch, so they gave their cell phone to the truck driver—whose name, I finally learned, was Ed Schreiber. During his testimony, Schreiber had said that Abdallah and Tom were speaking in Arabic on the phone and that he had to snatch the device out of Abdallah’s hand to call for help.

Molloy continued: Hadn’t Abdallah avoided the police after the accident—skipped town and gone back to Baltimore, where he evaded Scott County’s attempts to get his official statement? Abdallah insisted this wasn’t true. Officer Barnes had called him once to get a statement, but when Abdallah asked for an interpreter, Barnes said there wasn’t one available.

“I told him, ‘My language is not enough,’” Abdallah said. “He did not engage with me in any conversation about the accident. I asked him a few questions. I said, ‘If you give me the chance, I can tell you what happened.’”

Abdallah sent a paper statement. When it bounced back in the mail for some reason, he sent it again. The authorities in Scott County apparently never got it.  

Molloy asked whether Abdallah had contacted Shella Sams after the accident. Abdallah said no. Molloy looked unimpressed. “You never called her,” he said. “You never said a word to her, in almost—what—two years or little better, about how bad you felt, until you saw her in this courtroom today.”

“Right after the accident, I was really sad,” Abdallah replied. “And I know she’s a mother, so she was very sad, too. So I couldn’t reach out to her. Then I found out I was a defendant; they accused me of something.” He didn’t think he was supposed to contact the family, even though he wanted to know how they were—“to see what’s going on, what’s happening with them. I wouldn’t leave a situation like this.”

After Abdallah finished testifying, Carman called Olmstead so that she could tell the court about helping Abdallah with his statement. Calm and businesslike, Olmstead described how Abdallah came to her office for guidance. He’d already written a draft of the statement on scrap paper; Olmstead mostly helped as a proofreader, a human spell-check. She remembered Abdallah saying later that the statement had been sent back to him.

On cross-examination, the prosecution asked whether Abdallah had been in further contact with Scott County investigators. Olmstead answered, “He did tell me that he had called the police department a lot because he didn’t know what had happened with his car.”

“So his concern was his car?” the questioning prosecutor asked.

“One of them, yes,” Olmstead replied, her eyebrows rising.


I drove Abdallah and Tom home that night. In the back seat, Tom felt terrible, shaking his lowered head and saying over and over how sorry he was. He’d never be able to save face in the Darfurian community after making Abdallah look like a liar by association.

“Don’t worry about it,” Abdallah told him from the front seat. “It’s OK. It’s OK. I’ll tell them you did OK.”

At Abdallah’s apartment, Tom exiled himself to a bedroom. No one could coax him out.

People again filled the living room. Pizza boxes and plates of leftovers littered the floor. We were exhausted but reviewed the events of the day before I’d been called to the stand, including the testimony of Sonny Cease, the accident-reconstruction expert. A square-headed, heavyset man with sharp eyes, Cease brought toy cars with him to the witness stand; apparently, juries like that kind of thing. Cease contested the Garmin representative’s testimony about Abdallah’s speed, arguing that when the Camry slid sideways out of its lane, the friction with the asphalt would have reduced its speed to closer to 76 miles per hour at the moment of the collision with the Samses’ truck. Yes, Cease said, speed kills—but it didn’t kill this time.

Then there was the testimony of Ed Schreiber. The prosecution lauded him as a good Samaritan. On the stand, Schreiber described pulling over in his truck, comforting Emily’s grandparents, and later attending her funeral. On cross-examination, Carman asked Schreiber about the 911 call.

“You mentioned something about their religion to dispatch, did you not?” “Yes, sir,” Schreiber said. “That’s because when I grabbed the phone out of his hand, there was a name there that was actually a Muslim name, it was Mohamed something.” Carman then shifted gears and asked Schreiber about his Facebook account. Did he publish an anti-Muslim post on October 13, 2015? “I might have,” Schreiber said. What about on November 1, 2015? “I may have.” “Now, it’s just my job,” Carman said, shuffling papers at the podium. “I’ve got to do this.” His head snapped up. “Are you a racist?” “No, sir!” Schreiber replied. His chin rose in defiance. What about images of Confederate flags, Carman asked—did he post those? Carman gave Schreiber more dates. “I think. I mean, I’ve posted a lot of stuff,” Schreiber said. “I mean, I see stuff, and I repost it, and whatever.”

At Abdallah’s apartment, as our group talked, new, unspoken admiration for Carman hung in the air. A warm appreciation for the bailiffs also went around the room. The older Kentucky men had been kind: opening doors, pouring us cups of water on the witness stand. Nothing outside of their jobs, but their consideration seemed genuine.

I wondered about the heart of a place: Does such a thing exist? Who can legitimately claim to best represent a community out of everyone working to protect it, with their inevitable range of worldviews? The following day, the jury would be tasked with delivering a fair verdict on behalf of Scott County. What would that mean to them?

atvstspot4-1554081819-52.jpg

5.

Judge Jeremy Mattox arranged the files in front of him. “Good morning, folks, and welcome to day three of the Commonwealth versus Mohamed Abdallah,” he said. The courtroom was the fullest it had been so far. The Samses and their supporters were there, along with some reporters and public defenders in training. Tom, whom Abdallah had cajoled into showering and dressing, sat with us. A clutch of Darfurian men who were expected to be there hadn’t yet arrived. We tried to spread out, take up space, make our group seem larger than it was.

To still my brain, I wrote down every word I could catch of the lawyers’ closing statements. It felt like cheating, a cop-out from having to watch what happened. I told myself that recording an event was important.

Carman took up a position behind a podium near the jury. He drank from a white paper cup and covered a cough with his fist. He buttoned his suit jacket, crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back. “What I’m going to do with you here this morning,” Carman told the jurors, “is give you a top ten.” He asked that the men and women each take out a notepad and write down the items he listed. I was poised to do the same.

“Number ten.” Carman moved away from the podium, taking his notepad with him. “It was an accident.” He said each word slowly, emphatically. “And there are reasons we do not criminalize accidents.”

Number nine: Speeding didn’t cause the crash. He said it twice, reiterating Cease’s evaluation of the accident.

Carman cocked his head and swung back around the podium for number eight. “Mohamed’s vehicle was probably hit twice,” he said. Abdallah had been consistent on this point from the start of the case, and Tom remembered it, too: the Samses’ truck making contact with the Camry right before the accident. The Samses, however, had testified that their car never touched Abdallah’s until the crash. I wasn’t sure who had physics on their side; as the prosecution had pointed out, I wasn’t there for the collision. Carman scanned the jury. “A graze,” he said, “a small bump.” He gave a who-knows shrug.

The seventh point was that there were no drugs, no alcohol, no drag racing, no devil-may-care attitude involved in the crash. “Number six—this one’s not easy for me to even say. It’s not easy to remember, but it is my solemn duty to have you write down number six,” Carman said. “Emily was not wearing her seatbelt.”

For his fifth point, Carman touched on witness testimony. First, there was Schreiber. “He might have a bias against people of a certain color, people of a certain religion,” Carman said. Of the testimonies from Abdallah and Tom, Carman argued, “Nobody was coached.”

Number four: There were other opportunities for justice. A civil case, money from insurance companies. Lives didn’t have to be ruined further for there to be justice. For number three, Carman read aloud the legal definition of wanton: “aware and consciously disregard[ing] a substantial and unjustifiable risk. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would reserve in such a situation.” Abdallah’s driving, Carman said, simply didn’t meet this definition.

Number two was what kind of a person Abdallah was. “You heard about his reputation in the community,” Carman said, then paused. “Did you notice all his support? If one of us were to go to trial, would ten or fifteen people show up every day of that trial?” The group of late-arriving Darfurian men had just settled into their seats in the back of the room.

“Moved around. Refugee from Sudan,” Carman continued. “Reminds me of Matthew, chapter eight: ‘Foxes have their den, birds have their nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Carman noted how forthright Abdallah was during his testimony. “Did you notice his hands were shaking a little bit?” Carman asked. “I don’t think it’s ’cause he was being untruthful.… You know why he was a little nervous?” Carman leaned toward the jury and lowered his voice to a dark whisper. “Because this is for all the marbles.”

For a moment he was silent, letting the jurors hold that thought.

“Moved around. Refugee from Sudan,” Carman continued. “Reminds me of Matthew, chapter eight: ‘Foxes have their den, birds have their nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Carman was moving fast now. My heart sped up, too. “That brings us to number one.” He flipped to the next page in his notebook. The prosecution hadn’t “even come close,” Carman said, to proving Abdallah’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He held forth on the concept of equal justice under the law, an idea dating back to ancient Greece and found in the Old Testament—in Hebrews, Exodus, Leviticus. Carman seemed to be morphing before the court, achieving a deft grace.

“The evidence shows that if this were Jimmy Smith from Georgetown, not Mohamed Abdallah, who got in an accident with the Samses, we would not be here today,” Carman said, jabbing a finger in the air.

“When the accident happened, who’s the first one on the scene?” he reasoned. “God love him, Ed Schreiber. He’s telling the dispatch, ‘I think these are Muslims.’” As for Mohamed struggling to submit his statement, “He’s dealing with logistical issues. He’s a doggone refugee!”

Carman abruptly stopped moving. He said that he believed America’s justice system was the best in the world. No one should be put on trial for “what color they are, what religion they are, what language they speak.” He banged his fist on the wall of the jury box. “Maybe I can imagine this kind of indictment, this kind of prosecution, this kind of conviction” happening somewhere else, Carman said, “but not in this county, not in this commonwealth, and not in this country. We are better than that.”

For the first time, I felt a flash of hope.

When Molloy rose to address the jury, I again burned anxious. In contrast to Carman’s fevered sermon, Molloy’s voice was low and steady. He choked up when he spoke of the Sams family. He knocked the flaws in Tom’s testimony. Molloy, a longstanding advocate for civil rights, rejected Carman’s argument that the trial had anything to do with racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. “This case is not about Mr. Abdallah’s place of birth. It is not about his religion. It is not about the color of his skin,” Molloy said. It was about what Abdallah did, and what he didn’t do. Abdallah drove too fast and “never showed any remorse, ever,” Molloy argued. “When Mrs. Sams came into the courtroom, he broke down crying. For himself. What a perfect time to say ‘I’m sorry.’”

“This is the day that Mr. Abdallah is to be held accountable,” Molloy concluded. “This is the day that you, the jury, having heard all you have heard, can hold him accountable for what he has done.”


The jury holed up in the deliberation room, and we clustered in the courtroom. Beside me, Abdallah sat with his hands stuffed between his knees. We chatted with Collett and Carman and produced the stack of 30-plus character-reference letters that we’d collected. I read them aloud to Abdallah. I skipped the parts where writers said that he seemed depressed and withdrawn because of his legal troubles, focusing on the bits where they heaped on praise. Every few letters, I reminded him that if the jury found him guilty, these documents were going straight to the judge.

Carman gave us the rundown of the ways the trial’s aftermath could go. Once Abdallah was convicted, he would be taken to jail on the spot. A probation officer would conduct and write up a presentencing investigation, which might take up to a month. The court would then hand down a final sentence. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could opt to deport Abdallah or render him a closely watched nonresident, a man who would move like a ghost through prison and life in America until he left the country or died.

Carman tried a metaphor. It’s like we’re on a path in the woods, he said, and we might have to turn and go down another path. We might get to a clearing. We might turn down a path and, whoa, there might be a bear, and we might have to shoot the bear.

Everyone stared at him.

He mimed releasing an arrow from a bow.

At 4 p.m., five hours after the jury began deliberating, the courtroom stirred. Collett whispered to us that there was a verdict. We drifted to our places. At the defense table, Abdallah looked slight and flimsy. The Sams family returned and sat up front. I looked at the backs of their heads with shame, pain, sorrow, indignation. There was a hard shiver in the back of my ribs that wouldn’t cease.

Seated in a back row of the gallery, between Olmstead and Tom, I watched officers I hadn’t seen before file in. They lined up against a wall and near the exits. Handcuffs glinted at their belts. Unlike the cordial bailiffs, these officers were younger and grim faced.

A peal of laughter sounded from the jury room. I felt nauseous and nostalgic for a half-hour ago and the burden of waiting.

Then the jury returned.

“Will the defendant please rise?” Judge Mattox asked.

Abdallah stood. My throat compressed.

“On count one,” Mattox read, meaning the second-degree manslaughter of Emily Sams, “we the jury find the defendant not guilty.”

Olmstead’s grip on my hand tightened. My other hand jumped to one of Tom’s but missed and hit his thigh.

“On count two,” for assault, “we the jury find the defendant not guilty.” The result was the same for the third charge, the last one.

I traded glances with Olmstead, whose stunned, frozen face mirrored mine. Tom was so busy showing no emotion I couldn’t tell if he’d missed what just happened. In front of us, other members of our party twitched and shifted on their benches.

Affectless, we rose as the jury filed out. One juror winked in our direction as he left. We let the Samses exit the courtroom next. Abdallah stood for their exit like a soldier at attention. Then we walked out in silence.

In the hallway, we shattered. Darfurian men held their heads and wept. They dove at me, at Abdallah, at anyone, with close embraces. They collapsed on my shoulders. At Abdallah’s side, Collett’s cheeks were wet with tears. We stumbled into the elevator, desperate to escape. I caught Carman ducking his way through a snuffle. The back of my hips hit the elevator’s wall. My hands found the railings behind me as my knees gave way.

We scattered to our cars. I was worried we’d leave someone behind, but we went, and in going, I somehow climbed into the back seat of my car. Abdallah got into the passenger seat. He closed the door, then he threw himself between the seats onto an armrest and sobbed.

atavistfull-1553873715-34.jpg

6.

Fawzia, a Darfurian woman who attended the last day of the trial, announced that we were “going to the river.” She knew a restaurant where we could celebrate, but her proclamation also felt baptismal. It was time to be clean of this.

The next morning—after the delirious phone calls, ululations, a glittering night, dinner by the river, more tears—Abdallah, Tom, and another friend came over to the Airbnb for pancakes and jam. We all sat in the sun-drenched living room, on the furniture and on the floor. It felt strange not to be in court in the daytime, stranger still for Abdallah to have shown up at some place he wished to go.

Abdallah kept repeating Mattox’s words: “Mohamed Abdallah, you are a free man.” His eyes shone when he relived how Carman had pounded his fist on the jury box. He echoed the Bible verses Carman had used, slowly committing them to memory.

Later, at a bowling alley where he chose “FREE MAN” as his name on the computer screen, Abdallah kept checking his cell phone. A man who worked for Scott County was supposed to contact him, and Abdallah was anxious that they meet. Eventually they did, in the parking lot of an Ethiopian restaurant where we went for a late lunch. The man swung open the door of a silver sedan and passed Abdallah a large pair of surgical-style scissors. In a series of hurried, stiff clips, Abdallah cut through the plastic band of his ankle monitor. Then he hugged everyone in sight.

Inside the restaurant, Abdallah thanked the crowd of Americans and Darfurians gathered. “I was very, very being patient, to see whatever the result happened,” he said of the trial. “I should be happy with that.” He looked around the room as he spoke. “Finally, yes, I’m a free man,” Abdallah said. “God bless everybody.”


A year after his trial, Abdallah was still in Kentucky. “You must think I’m crazy,” he told me. Driving away from the courthouse the day of the verdict, Abdallah had paged through a book on U.S. national parks, looking for ideas of where to move now that he could. He stayed in Kentucky because he applied for American citizenship through an immigration lawyer in Louisville. Once that was done, maybe he’d leave. Put in for a transfer at Amazon. Go to California. Maybe Utah. Pennsylvania.

Abdallah knew he’d been lucky. Still, it haunted him that, after the trial, Carman advised him not to reach out to the Samses. Just let it lie, the lawyer said.

I called both Carman and Molloy. The men had acute memories of the case, but their perspectives were different. Before the trial, Carman told me, he and Molloy were “pretty friendly,” often joining the same happy hour after work. A little wistfully, Carman said those days were through. Molloy told me that Carman had crossed a line in his closing argument when he suggested that a local defendant would have been treated differently than Abdallah. For Molloy, a man who had dedicated his life to justice, the insult implied in his opponent’s argument was intolerable.

I learned from a lawyer for Abdallah’s car-insurance company that the Sams family had settled for close to $60,000. I doubted that, as Carman had hinted in court, money felt anything like justice. I reached out to the Samses in February 2019. Emily’s father responded to me by email, taking on the task because Shella was still in recovery and exhausted at the end of the day. She had an infection in her femur that would require two additional surgeries.

Much of what Jeff Sams wrote was tough to read. He graciously said that he didn’t blame me for my participation in the trial—“I assume you were simply telling what you knew to be true about someone you knew”—but several of our truths diverged. He rankled at Carman, who he said should either “win an Oscar for that performance or burn in hell.” He also thought that bringing race into the trial had muddied the waters. For him the case was about speed. He saw Abdallah as a person with appalling moral decrepitude who lied to save his own skin. Still, Sams wrote, “Would I be happy if he was in jail, no. Would I be happy if he was deported to whatever hole he crawled out of, no. Would I be happy if he suffered and drew his last breath, no. That may seem odd, but it wouldn’t bring me joy. My joy is buried in a cemetery. My joy can’t surface as I watch my wife struggle to walk, do ordinary tasks, choke down 30 pills a day, or hold her as she cries because she misses our daughter.”

“We had nothing to gain from this,” Sams said of the trial. “Nothing would bring back our dead daughter, nor give my wife the ability to overcome paralysis. It was just a continuation of a nightmare.” They had been “handed down a sentence of pain, suffering, and tears long before it. It was a life sentence to us, no way around that.”

Earlier in the year, he’d attended a ceremony for Emily’s basketball team; the players and coaches had asked him to come. “They miss her just like everyone else. She was a stellar kid who made all A’s and was good at volleyball and basketball. Quick witted. Pretty. A great kid,” Sams wrote. “Not a day will go by we won’t think of her. Think of what she would look like, what college she might have attended, how great a volleyball player she would have been, what career she would choose, what boy she might bring home or marry, how many kids she might have, where she might live, or simply what it would be like to just hear her voice and hug her today.”

He added, “That child alone and missing her could be its own book.”

Justice, a concept ostensibly rooted in clear-cut truths, is in fact fickle. America can inspire grief and faith in the same stroke.

If I’d expected reconciliation, it wasn’t there. I remembered something my wife had said during the trial. “It didn’t feel like justice,” she’d observed after the first day of the proceedings. “It felt like two boys trying to win a game.”

What if the quest for justice brings no healing, only more pain? Abdallah lost nearly three years of his life; the Samses found no reprieve from their immense hurt and grief. If the accident had happened in peacetime Darfur, Abbas Yahya told me once, village leaders likely would have convened and decided upon compensation for the people affected. Here we duked it out until everyone in the vicinity of the case was black and blue.

Much like an angry brawl, the participants had different reasons for coming to the ring. Where the prosecution saw a need for consequences, the defense perceived systemic racism. I reached out to several jurors to better understand their decision in the case, but none responded. I’ve tried to stop guessing what went on in their minds—to surmise what, as individuals, they value and fear.

In our narrative-heavy culture, we are taught to interpret people and places as symbols, to imbue them with meaning. Stories, though, often fail to reflect the world’s complexity and contradictions. Justice, a concept ostensibly rooted in clear-cut truths, is in fact fickle. America can inspire grief and faith in the same stroke. And Abdallah, a man onto whom other people—myself included—have projected their perspectives, is nobody’s best or worst dream of him.

When I talked to Abdallah in the months following the trial, I sensed a sort of transient state. He couldn’t visualize his next step until he got his citizenship, giving him purchase in a country that had both welcomed and thwarted him. Life beyond the verdict still held a question for Abdallah—and, it seemed, for everyone who’d endured the trial. We were waiting to see what this land would hold.


Update, May 2019: Two months after this story ran, Mohamed Abdallah became a U.S. citizen. He took his oath in a government building in Louisville, Kentucky. It rained all day, but Abdallah told the story’s author that he didn’t mind—rain signaled a new beginning.

The Desperado

The Desperado

In April 2018, a blind man with one foot robbed a bank in Austin, Texas. This is a heist story—but unlike any you’ve ever read.

By Ciara O’Rourke

The Atavist Magazine, No. 87


Ciara O’Rourke is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in The AtlanticSeattle Met, and Portland Monthly, among other publications. 

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Matt Huynh

Published in January 2020. Design updated in 2021.

One

Edward Averill finished off the last slices of Genoa salami and sopressata from the deli packages in his mini-fridge, rolling them into tubes and eating them with his fingers. Between bites he drank a Modelo Especial. It was his favorite beer, and that night, April 5, 2018, he savored every sip. He didn’t expect to have another one anytime soon.

The 58-year-old computer engineer climbed into bed around 10 p.m. and lay staring at the ceiling for hours before drifting off to sleep. He jerked awake without an alarm at 8:30 the next morning. After turning on his laptop and scrubbing it clean of files and software, he wiped his external hard drive and reformatted it—twice. Satisfied, he powered down the computer and began tidying his room.

There wasn’t much there. He rented it from a woman named Anne Toney, who owned the house it was in. The rest of Toney’s home was cluttered—chairs, gnome figurines, even an old, empty candy machine. Averill liked to joke that people had vanished there amid all the bric-a-brac. But he took pride in his space, which was big enough for a double bed, the magnet-covered fridge, and a media cabinet he used as a pantry. He set drinks on coasters so they wouldn’t leave rings on his computer desk, which is where he ate most of his meals.

Over the previous week, he’d thrown away many of his belongings, including five USB sticks, a Swiffer, and an extra computer monitor. On the morning of April 6, he tossed the magnets and coasters, too. All that was left, aside from the furniture, were some clothes in the closet, a couple of cold beers, and a blue expandable plastic folder where he stored sensitive paperwork like his birth certificate and Social Security card. Old tax forms were in one sleeve; his diploma from Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, was in another.

Averill picked up the folder, stuck a bottle of Tums in his pocket, and grabbed the cane he used to help him walk. His left foot had been amputated—a complication of type 2 diabetes—and the cane kept him steady on his prosthetic foot. It was time for him to go. He left his keys on the laptop, closed the door behind him, and stepped carefully down the short flight of stairs to the living room. Toney was watching Matlock with the drapes drawn. Averill didn’t pause to say goodbye. He opened the front door, headed down the walk, and stopped at a sidewalk trash can to drop his blue folder inside, disposing of every paper record of his history and identity.

He turned right on the sidewalk and walked ten minutes uphill to the bus stop. He waited, squinting in the Austin, Texas, sun as the temperature crept into the high seventies. The 325 bus appeared. Averill boarded and then bumped along until the vehicle groaned to a stop near a Walmart. He got off and waited again. Then he took the 3 to the Austin Diner.

When the server came to his table, Averill asked for grits, eggs, toast, a double order of bacon, and lots of coffee. Paying for his breakfast would require the last of the cash in his wallet. After that, he had only $1.75 left in a Prosperity Bank checking account, which he’d opened roughly eight years earlier. But Averill wasn’t worried about money. The bank was less than a block away, and when he finished eating he was going to rob it.

He’d been researching how to pull off the heist for weeks. Averill had read online that bank tellers were encouraged to remain calm during a robbery—the money was insured, so they shouldn’t risk their lives. The employees at Prosperity seemed well trained, and armed guards weren’t posted by the door, unlike a branch of Wells Fargo that Averill had cased.

Around 12:45, he finished his coffee, took a deep breath, and left the diner. Averill walked to a traffic light and crossed the street, leaning on his cane with each step toward the bank. He hadn’t been nervous when he woke up, but as he approached the building he couldn’t help but worry. What if something bad happens? he thought. What if the teller has a gun and decides to be a hero?

Averill was at the door now. He pulled it open and limped inside. He was a longtime customer, but he didn’t recognize any of the employees, and they didn’t appear to recognize him. That was for the best. Averill felt himself calming down. When he got to the counter, he ignored the teller’s greeting and passed the man a note instead. “This is a robbery,” it read, “hand over all your 50’s and 100’s, thanks.”

He hoped the “thanks” would reassure the teller.

Averill waited as the man opened his drawer and handed over $2,900 in a loose stack of bills about two inches thick. No one else in the bank seemed to realize what was happening.

Money in hand, Averill hobbled back toward the entrance, then stopped halfway across the room. “Hey,” he said, waving the wad of bills in the air to draw attention. “I just robbed you. Please call the police.”


The Austin American-Statesman published a story about the crime the next day. “A man was arrested on Friday after he robbed a North Austin bank and waited outside for police,” the newspaper reported, citing an affidavit. “Edward Austin Averill III, 58, was booked into the Travis County Jail on Friday on a charge of robbery, a second-degree felony punishable [by] up to 20 years in prison.”

In his mug shot, Averill stares to the right of the camera, his clean-shaven chin tilted upward. His white hair is feathered back from his face and reaches his shoulders. On top of his head, where his hairline has receded, several strands curl into the air like cotton candy. He looks placid, even pleased.

I wrote Averill an email through the jail’s website a few days later, asking if he would be willing to tell me more about his unusual crime. I included my email address and phone number, which he called after a correctional officer delivered my message—printed out—and Averill borrowed another inmate’s phone card. His last name is pronounced “aye-vrill,” I learned when he introduced himself. He was surprised that I was interested in him. He was nobody special, he said. Still, he was happy to meet. We scheduled a visit.

I arrived at the jail and waited among the small crowd of people who’d made the same trip to visit boyfriends, husbands, dads, and sons. The guard called out a list of inmates’ names, followed by the booth number that each visitor should use, but she never said Averill. “Not here,” she told me when I asked where he was.

I drove home and checked the jail roster; he was still in custody. I scheduled another visit for later that week and sent him an email to let him know. When I went back to the jail, again he didn’t show. I scheduled a third meeting, went, and waited.

“Ah…,” the correctional officer hesitated as she directed visitors to their booths. “Ah-vrill?

I walked to my assigned spot and sat down. The chair on the other side of the plexiglass was empty. When Averill appeared, he was in a wheelchair pushed by a guard. A white beard had grown shaggy around his jaw since his mug shot was taken. His gaze was unfocused. The guard picked up the phone, punched in a number, and gestured for me to lift the receiver on my end. He handed the phone to Averill and walked away.

We exchanged formalities and talked a little. Averill apologized for missing our other meetings; he’d had an appointment with a doctor that he couldn’t miss. He was all but blind, Averill explained, which had everything to do with why he’d robbed Prosperity Bank.

A recorded voice interrupted our conversation—the line would disconnect in 60 seconds. Our time was up. I asked Averill if I could come back to hear the rest of the story.

“That would be fine,” he said.

I watched as he reached forward, hooking the air with the phone as he tried to locate the cradle. Giving up, he gently set the handset on the counter in front of him. He turned his head and looked in the direction he’d come from. He said something, but I couldn’t hear what. Other visitors filed past me, and a woman looked through the window at Averill. She suggested that I tell an officer that he was stranded. The blind bank robber needed help.

Two

Averill was born in Titusville, Florida, in 1959. It was the first of many places he’d call home as his parents moved around the country and the world. His father, Edward Austin Averill, Jr., was a smart, handsome computer engineer who relocated his young family to such places as Taiwan and the Bahamas, where Tres—that’s what his parents called Averill, “three” in Spanish—learned to snorkel.

When Tres was a toddler, they moved to Texas, where his mother, Sylvia, had been a switchboard operator before she married. They lived in Plano, north of Dallas, but Tres’s father still traveled a lot. “Basically, I was raised by my mom,” Averill told me in one of the many conversations we had after that first jail visit.

Sylvia taught Tres to play the organ and to read. He devoured science-fiction novels and an Edgar Allan Poe anthology she gave him. Sylvia liked to see her son tucked into a book—she wanted him to be well educated. She was less concerned about his social life. “My parents didn’t like most people to come over,” Averill said. His orbit consisted of his mom, his dad, and a few relatives. About once a month, Edward and Sylvia left him with his aunt Shirley so that they could spend the weekend without their son, who, they revealed when he was still a kid, they hadn’t planned on having. “It’s not an uplifting thing to be told,” Averill said. “They tried their best to provide for me. I got a lot of material things. I didn’t get a lot of hugs.”

He had few friends, although when he was in elementary school, a boy in the apartment next door had permission to bring his Legos over to play. They built spaceships and crashed their Hot Wheels cars into them. In junior high, Averill slunk between his classes and his locker, sometimes hiding out in the library to avoid contact with the other students.

During his teenage years, the family moved to Otsego, Michigan, where his father had gone to high school, then to Virginia, where Tres began to notice girls. “I started talking to people a little bit more,” he said. He played linebacker for the practice football team, but it was when he took a computer-science class that he finally found his people. “I joined the geek gang,” Averill said. Soon he was hanging out with theater kids, artists, and musicians, too. During his junior year, he spent two months clearing a neighbor’s land to earn the $200 he needed to buy a Fender Telecaster knockoff. When he brought it home, his mother worried that the guitar would ruin his grades. She discouraged him from playing. “Cut that damn noise out,” she’d say.

Sylvia kept a close eye on her son as he got older. She didn’t approve of his high school girlfriend and tried to impose a nine o’clock curfew and stricter rules. They argued. It felt to Tres like his mom was trying to control his life, which she’d never intended for him to have in the first place.

After he graduated from high school in 1978, he got a job programming computers and drove himself to work in a Mustang that his dad helped him fix up. When his parents announced that they were moving back to Plano, they assumed that Tres, who still lived with them, would come along. But the 19-year-old had work and a girlfriend, who suggested that they get an apartment together. Sylvia was horrified. “You can’t move in with a woman,” she said. She’d become increasingly religious over the years. “You’ll be living in sin!” Sylvia cried.

“I could feel the apron strings around my neck very tightly,” Averill told me.

His dad was supportive, even if Ed Jr. couldn’t say so in front of his wife. “Don’t listen to your mom,” he told his son in private. “Just do what you need to.” He helped Tres pack up his things before he and Sylvia returned to Texas. Over the next several years, Ed Jr. visited his son, but Sylvia never did. She called from time to time, then stopped until the mid-1980s, when Averill and his girlfriend broke up. After that, every Sunday, Averill’s phone would ring at 9 a.m. “Why aren’t you in church?” Sylvia would ask when he answered. “Is there a woman in the house with you?”

Usually, there wasn’t. Averill dated, but he preferred being alone in front of his computer. A coding colleague did her best to lure him away from his screen by inviting him to parties at her house. Averill was reluctant at first, but finally he relented and was surprised at how much he enjoyed himself. The people—scientists and technology professionals—were interesting. Free beer didn’t hurt.

At one party, where Averill arrived carrying meatballs for the snack table, his colleague introduced him to Roan Dantzler. She worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on climatic models and liquid dynamics. He tried to listen carefully, but most of what she said was over his head. Then Dantzler pulled up her shirt and flashed him.

“Why did you do that?” he asked.

“You looked like you were bored,” she told him.

After the party, the pair started spending time together. Averill liked having someone he could share the world with. Dantzler’s personality sparkled—she was exciting. And her eyes didn’t glaze over when he talked about work or video games or music. She was a musician, too, and a redhead. Averill loved redheads. A few months after the party, they moved in together.

When they decided to get married and told Averill’s parents, his mother was furious. A letter arrived a few days later with a one-way ticket to Texas. “We’ll pick you up,” the note said.

Averill upgraded the ticket to round-trip and bought another one for Dantzler. When they arrived together, his mother erupted. Sylvia and her son spent the weeklong trip fighting. When Averill and Dantzler returned to their home in Rockville, Maryland, they called their friends and her relatives, bought rings, and convened at the courthouse to become husband and wife. Two weeks later, they boarded a southbound train to Disney World for their honeymoon.

When Averill called his mother to deliver the news, he warned her that if she gave him trouble, he wouldn’t talk to her again. A few days later, Sylvia called and said he should reconsider the marriage. After they hung up, Averill kept his word. His father visited a few more times, but eventually Averill stopped communicating with him, too. He never spoke to them again. When his parents died in the early 2000s, none of Averill’s extended family knew how to reach him.


For 15 years, Averill and Dantzler lived together companionably. They moved to Sunnyvale, California, and she joined him on hikes in Muir Woods, exploring the redwood groves along the Pacific Coast. They played video games together. But eventually, they started fighting. Sometimes their disagreements were small; they bickered over the grocery list. Other times they screamed at each other. Averill felt like Dantzler was trying to micromanage his life. He would hike without her sometimes, and on one trek he fell and hit his head. The injury caused him to permanently lose vision in his right eye.

He moved out in the early 2000s, living in his car in the parking lot of IBM, where he worked at the time. In 2003, Averill and Dantzler filed for divorce. As the split was being finalized, Averill met Sabine Sklar at a video-game conference in Silicon Valley. She was 38, a little younger than Averill, now well into his forties, and lived in Sunnyvale, though she was originally from Vancouver, British Columbia. She worked in human resources at a video-game company and spoke English, German, and Dutch. Averill thought she was beautiful—she was a redhead—and brilliant. They both played guitar; Averill liked ambient music, and she plucked out folk songs. They had the same sarcastic humor. Sklar made Averill feel good, happy. If he was in a bad mood, she perked him up.

Soon into their friendship, Averill told her he was in love with her. Sklar said she really liked him but added, “I’m just not ready to fall in love yet.”

That was OK with him, as long as he could be around her. He liked to help her. Sklar had type 1 diabetes and problems with her endocrine system. A cold could knock her out for a week. When it did, Averill would pick up chicken noodle soup and take it to her apartment. “It’s what friends do,” Averill said. When the company Sklar worked for closed her office, she took a job as an exotic dancer, and Averill visited her at the strip club. Other times they’d go to Murphy’s, an Irish bar that served great bangers and mash.

One night, in October 2003, Averill was supposed to meet Sklar at a bar called Hiphugger, but she never showed up. He went to her apartment and knocked. Nothing. He knocked again and pressed his ear to the door. It was quiet, but that wasn’t unusual. Sklar often shut herself in her bedroom to sleep when she didn’t feel well. Averill went home and fell asleep, too.

Sklar’s friend Trish called Averill from the strip club early the next morning. “Come down to the club,” she said. “Drop everything. I need to talk to you.” When he got there, Trish and several more of Sklar’s friends were in tears. Averill sat down warily.

“What happened?” he asked. Sklar had gone into a diabetic coma during the night, Trish said. She was dead.

Sklar asked Averill what he’d do when she wasn’t around anymore. “Find the tallest building in San Francisco,” he joked.

Averill imagined Sklar inside her apartment, dying as he knocked on the door. He blamed himself. Why hadn’t he tried harder to reach her?

When she was alive, Sklar would ask Averill what he’d do when she wasn’t around anymore. “Find the tallest building in San Francisco,” he’d joke. Now that she was really gone, Averill was despondent: crying, often drunk, inconsolable. He once took a razor blade into the bathroom, but one of Sklar’s friends, who had a copy of his key, happened to stop by and prevented him from cutting his wrists. She and other friends organized a watch rotation to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. When he went to Sklar’s wake at a British pub, he thought he’d be strong. Instead, he burst into tears as soon as he walked in. After the memorial, he didn’t get out of bed for two days.

Averill never wanted to feel that bad again. He needed to protect himself, he decided. So he vowed  to never again care about someone as much as he’d cared about Sklar.

He declined invitations to go out with friends. “I’m really busy,” he’d say. After a few weeks, his friends stopped trying. Averill had long frequented internet chat rooms and forums, and he knew some of the other users well. “I shoved those guys off,” Averill said, “changed my email address, changed my online persona.”

Step by step, he severed ties with everyone he knew. When a woman wrote him in 2004 and introduced herself as the half sister he didn’t know he had—from his father’s first marriage, which was also news to Averill—even she failed to get any traction. Averill didn’t have the energy to forge a new relationship, not after what had happened with Sklar. Soon, he told me, “there was nobody around anymore.”

Three

Averill relocated to Austin around 2010, and eventually moved in with Anne Toney, whom he’d met in an online forum for hobbyists who like making 3-D models on their computers. Toney had inherited her house from her father and rented out the two spare bedrooms to a string of tenants. Sometimes she even offered up the couch to homeless men and women who slept on nearby streets. Averill paid $400 in rent, plus utilities. Sometimes he helped with the yard work or took out the garbage. He and Toney liked to sit around together and dream up inventions, like a doorbell that opened the refrigerator so a visitor could grab a beer on the way into the house. “He could be funny,” Toney said, laughing at her memories of Averill. “But he didn’t have any friends, not with what I would call real people.”

Averill secured contract work as a software engineer. On payday, Toney said, he went out drinking. He liked to go to the Yellow Rose, a strip club in North Austin. “They’d send him home in a limo,” Toney recalled. The women who worked there were nice to Averill and seemed to like him. He tried to be polite and respectful, and to tip appropriately.

Other than visits to the club, Averill spent nearly all his time in his room on his computer. He composed his ambient music. He self-published a book of poems. In one of his online profiles, on Medium, he described himself as a “software engineer, musician and all-around annoyance dabbling in too many things to even keep track of.” On AuthorsDen.com, he called himself a “poet,” “prose writer,” and “introverted intuitive.” He spent money on computer and music equipment, slowly building a studio in his room. He bought a real Fender—a Modern Player Telecaster Plus. He named it Christine. “Texas blues, here I come!” he wrote on Facebook.

As he turned inward emotionally, it became harder to do things physically. Before Averill moved to Texas, a doctor in California had noticed that his blood sugar was high when he came in with strep throat. She prescribed medication, but Averill never took it—he didn’t really understand what it was for. It wasn’t until he stepped on a piece of broken glass in Texas that a nurse again checked his blood-glucose level in the emergency room. By then, he had type 2 diabetes.

Averill described himself as “an all-around annoyance dabbling in too many things to even keep track of.”

He tried to cut back on carbs but often ate hunkered down in front of his computer, hewing to what he called a “programmer’s diet”—pizza for breakfast, hot dogs and popcorn for lunch and dinner. He weaned himself off soda, but it wasn’t enough. In 2016, he had to have his foot amputated. He struggled to adjust. It disturbed him to look down at the stump at the end of his right leg when he didn’t have his prosthetic attached. The music he made got a little darker.

Soon it became hard to play music at all. He had a tingling sensation in his fingertips. He couldn’t hold a pick or feel the strings on his guitar. After his amputated leg got infected, he slipped deeper into isolation, rebuffing even Toney’s offers of food or conversation. Between work contracts, Averill would drink, polishing off a bottle of vodka and several beers a week. When the anniversary of Sklar’s death rolled around, he’d drink even more heavily. Toney always knew when it was that time of year again, because “Ed was on a spree,” she said.

In November 2017, Averill’s latest contract expired. He wasn’t worried at first; he managed his money carefully, keeping a cushion for the inevitable breaks between engineering and coding gigs. He knew he could always get another job developing video games.

Then, in early December, Averill woke up with what looked like blood clouding the vision in his good eye. He didn’t have insurance anymore—that had ended with the work contract—but he went to a doctor, who ordered an MRI. He had diabetic retinopathy, meaning his retina had detached from the back of his eye, causing capillaries to break and bleed. More worryingly, it looked like he had suffered an unrelated stroke about a month earlier.

The doctor prescribed hypertension medication, and Averill paid for eye surgery. An ophthalmologist used a laser to repair the detachment and put silicone oil in his eye to keep the retina in place while it healed. The oil, though, meant that he could barely see afterward. He needed glasses to decipher words on paper, and reading a computer screen was even more challenging. When Toney walked by his room, she’d sometimes see Averill wearing two pairs of glasses and holding a magnifying glass up to his monitor. Work became impossible.

He was paying for his appointments and prescriptions out of pocket, spending down his savings. He didn’t know what else to do. Help seemed out of reach, even in the era of the Affordable Care Act. If he’d lived in a state with expanded Medicaid eligibility, for people with chronic health conditions and low income or no job, he likely would have qualified for federal insurance. But in 2012, Texas’s then governor Rick Perry had declined to expand the program. It’s uncommon for a single Texan to qualify unless they’re over 65 and receive Social Security income. Averill wasn’t even 60 yet.


When the ankle above Averill’s amputation began to swell, it affected how his prosthetic fit. The device pushed against his skin, rubbing it raw. He needed to have it adjusted at a clinic, but he was running out of money and couldn’t pay for a more permanent fix. Toney noticed that he was eating cold hot dogs wrapped in tortillas. “Every time I tried to help, he’d say, ‘I’m a grown man, and I’ve been taking care of myself for 58 years. I don’t need your help or anyone else’s,’” Toney recalled.

He was her longest-ever tenant, and reliable, but in January 2018, he was late paying rent. Toney told him she couldn’t let him stay if he didn’t pay. She had to cover the mortgage and the utilities. On February 1, he gave her $400 and notice. “I will be gone by the end of March,” he said. But March came and went, and he was still there. He now owed her $800. “I can’t keep this up,” Toney told him. Somebody else was interested in taking the room.

He was trying, Averill told her: “I can only leave so fast.” He’d spent weeks in front of his computer trying to discern the text of search results and figure out what to do about his eye, his foot, his diabetes, his stroke. He looked into the possibility of getting some kind of private insurance. That was a dead end. The companies wanted a lot of money—the premiums he saw quoted were several hundred dollars each month, which he didn’t have. He looked into whether he might qualify for government disability or Social Security benefits but realized that, even if he did, the process could take months.

Well, he thought, I’m screwed.

Then he found a decades-old article about a homeless man who robbed a bank because he had health problems and couldn’t get insurance or a job. In prison, the article said, the man was getting decent care.

What the hell? Averill thought. Then again, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea: commit a crime, get free medical assistance.

If it had worked for the homeless guy, maybe it would work for Averill. He could plead guilty and get shipped off to federal prison. The food would probably suck, he thought, but at least he could see a doctor regularly. It wasn’t like he had anyone counting on him for anything. Who would miss him in prison?

When he told Toney that he was finally moving out, she asked him what he was going to do. “I’m going to rob a bank,” he said. She waved him off.

Four

Averill shook as he sat on the curb outside Prosperity Bank, under the shade of an oak tree. His mind raced as he thought about the ways the robbery could have gone wrong. Somebody could have shot him. He could have tripped on his way out and hurt himself. But the crime had gone exactly as he’d planned.

A bank employee followed Averill and, recording the moment on his cell phone, asked why he did it. Averill explained that he needed to go to prison to get medical care. When the employee asked if he was armed, Averill pulled out a bottle of Tums, shaking it in the air. “Just antacid,” he said.

After a few minutes, a police van pulled into the bank’s drive-through lane. Two officers got out and asked the teller at the window what had happened.

“We just got robbed,” the teller said.

“Where did he go?” one of the officers asked.

The man pointed. The cops looked toward the curb and Averill as if they couldn’t believe what the teller was saying.

The officers eased Averill into the back of their van and turned up the air-conditioning. Then they drove downtown to the headquarters of the Austin Police Department. There, detective Christopher Brewer peered through his glasses as he watched Averill on a video monitor outside the room where the suspect awaited questioning. Averill was perched on the front of his chair, leaning forward, “like he was eager for something,” Brewer said. When the detective and his partner walked into the room, Brewer’s suspicions were confirmed: Averill wanted to talk. “He was genuinely trying to help us with our investigation,” Brewer said. “I was kind of taken aback by it.”

It wasn’t unheard of for people to commit crimes to get health care—a North Carolina man with arthritis and slipped discs robbed a bank of $1 in 2011, and two years later an Oregon man did the same thing for the same amount. Still, Brewer didn’t think anyone had ever done it in Austin. He asked if Averill was having a mental health crisis. “Nope,” Averill said. “I know exactly what I’m doing.” He described the robbery in meticulous detail. He said he wanted to be found guilty and go to prison as soon as possible.

When Brewer walked out of the room, he turned to his partner. “This is not one I’m going to brag about,” he said.

Brewer went to the municipal court to get a magistrate judge’s signature on Averill’s arrest affidavit. Judge Stephen Vigorito stared at Brewer after he read the document. “Are you kidding me?” Vigorito asked. After several minutes, the judge set a bond of $10,000, the lowest Brewer had ever seen for this particular crime—bonds in bank-robbery cases are usually several times that.

As the detective walked down the courthouse hallway to file the paperwork with the county clerk, he heard Vigorito running behind him. “Give it back, give it back,” the judge said, reaching for the affidavit when he caught up to Brewer. Vigorito wrote a new bond amount— $7,500—pressing hard with his pen so the numbers would be legible over the original figure.


After a brief stint in the downtown jail, including a trip to the ER because he hadn’t taken his hypertension pills and his blood pressure was dangerously high, Averill was booked at the Travis County Correctional Complex, a large detention facility just outside Austin. His bunkmates couldn’t believe what he’d done. “Damn, dude!” one of them said when Averill told him about the robbery. None of the other men in his cell—three in all—had committed such a serious crime. One was caught selling pot; another was busted for possession.

Averill felt relief. For the first time in months, he didn’t have to worry about where he was going to live, what he was going to eat, or how he was going to get medication. He was treated well, too. He was too weak to walk far, so guards wheeled him to the cafeteria to eat cream of wheat and fruit, cheese sandwiches, and chicken quesadillas. “I’ve had worse food in nicer places,” he told me on my second visit to see him. He squeezed his eyes shut describing a good meal, savoring the memory of it.

He’d been sitting in the booth when I arrived that day, but he couldn’t work the phone and waited while I found a correctional officer to ask for help. A nurse appeared on Averill’s side of the glass and handed the receiver to him, then left to get a code that would connect our phones. Averill couldn’t quite see me, but he knew I was there. He spun his finger by his ear to signal “crazy” and then shook his fist in feigned exasperation until the nurse returned and dialed the number that allowed us to talk.

By then the county had paid for his second eye surgery, just as Averill had hoped. The bad news, Averill explained, was that during the procedure, the doctor had discovered cataracts. So while the retinal damage was somewhat improved, his vision was still poor. The doctor had told him a third surgery would help.

But what if the justice system gave him a break that he didn’t want? Averill wasn’t a seasoned criminal knocking off banks across Texas. He was a blind bandit without an arrest record. The FBI had no interest in pursuing his case, which meant that he wouldn’t wind up in federal detention or get the health benefits he’d read about online. Cheryl Hindera, the attorney appointed to defend him, suggested that he might not even go to state prison. She was working with the prosecutor on a plea deal.

Averill wasn’t sure how to feel about freedom. He told me that he’d rob a jewelry store if he wound up back where he’d started, with no income or insurance.

While the lawyers worked toward an agreement, Averill was released from custody on his own recognizance, allowing him to go free without putting up any money for bail. In June 2018, nearly three months since Averill’s arrest, a correctional officer returned his few belongings—his clothes, the Tums—and he stepped out the door of the facility. Maybe, Averill thought, he shouldn’t have thrown away his Social Security card and the other documents in the blue folder.

The county sheriff’s office had him dropped off on the corner of East Seventh and Neches Streets, at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. The building had beds where more than 200 homeless men could spend the night and a free clinic where they could receive care. A line of weary, ragged people stood slumped against the building or were curled up on the sidewalk when Averill arrived. Some appeared to be smoking synthetic marijuana. It looked to Averill like there were drug dealers in the mix, too.

Once Averill was inside, a staffer told him he couldn’t see a doctor for at least ten days. Not going to work for me, he thought. This was exactly what he’d feared before robbing the bank, that he would wind up on the streets and die. He’d rather be in jail, so he decided to get arrested again.

Averill walked to a window and whacked it with his cane. “You can’t do that!” the receptionist said. She went to get a police officer, who told Averill, “We’re not throwing you back in jail.”

Averill gestured to another employee. “How about I just assault him?”

Five

I learned all this when Averill called to let me know where he was. I’d been worried about him. I knew he’d been released from custody, because a visit I’d scheduled at the county detention center had been canceled, but I didn’t know where he was. A few weeks had passed by the time he called from the Guy Herman Center for Mental Health Crisis Care. That’s where he’d been taken after he threatened assault—not to jail, but to a place that assists people with mental illness, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities.

Averill’s arrival at the Herman Center had been tough. He was depressed. He was broke. His vision was getting worse. The cataracts made everything blurry, and his damaged retina blacked out the top and bottom of his vision, which made it seem as if he was always looking through blinds. He scheduled an appointment with his doctor, but told me that the staff member at the Herman Center who was supposed to take him overslept. The next available appointment wasn’t for a couple of weeks.

As we talked, Averill described avoiding the other residents; there was no one he wanted to have a conversation with. He sat by himself during meals and was curt with other people when they spoke to him. But then one afternoon, that changed.

A patient named Danielle Morris sat down and persisted through Averill’s short temper. The 41-year-old was petite, with a “sparky personality,” Averill said. She wanted to know about his life. As she probed deeper into Averill’s history, she learned about the bank robbery and how desperate he’d been before he was arrested.

She knew what it was like to feel helpless. Morris told Averill that she’d been waiting for Social Security disability benefits for more than a year. After moving from Illinois to Texas, she struggled to get the services she needed—she’d been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. Eventually, she tried to overdose on Xanax. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “Since then I’ve found that the system is pretty broken.” Waiting lists for low-income housing in Austin were typically two or three years long. If your application paperwork wasn’t perfect, it could gum up the process. Facilities meant to help the needy or mentally ill were overcrowded and case managers overworked.

Averill and Morris bonded over their shared frustrations. “We kind of clicked,” Morris told me. Averill reminded her of Alan Alda with a Santa Claus beard. (Averill was desperate to shave, but it was too hard for him without an electric razor.) His humor was dry, which she liked. They’d started to linger after meals with another resident, Arron Herrera, at a table in the dull gray dining room. They talked about old relationships, their health, the future.

This guy is way interesting, Herrera thought of Averill, who spoke with his face as much as his mouth, scrunching up his nose or rolling his eyes or dropping his jaw when he heard something stunning. Even after what Averill had been through, he struck Herrera as graceful, eloquent, and humble. “He has one of the sweetest souls ever,” Herrera said. “He permeates very positive energy.”

Averill sounded excited and happy during our phone calls, which happened every week or two. “The most terrifying thing is she is a redhead,” he said of Morris during one conversation. “I have apparently some kind of fatal attraction to redheads.” He called Herrera and Morris his little brother and sister, but he considered them friends. “You know,” he said, “I hate to admit it, but I might as well tell the truth. I kind of missed hanging out with people.”

Still, he struggled to understand why they wanted to hang out with him. He worried that he was weighing them down. He was roughly 20 years older. “They don’t need an old man bothering them,” he told me. It sounded like Averill was instinctively looking for ways to push other people away.

A few days after Herrera left the center—generally, patients can stay for only a couple of weeks—he returned with a bag of shirts, pants, and socks, because he knew Averill had only a single outfit: the one he’d worn to rob the bank. Averill was shocked. He gave Herrera a hug. When Herrera visited again the next week, he brought Averill two bacon cheeseburgers and coffee, because Averill had bemoaned the brown liquid they served at the center. As they ate together, Herrera said that when Averill got out, they’d go to Barton Springs and look at women in bikinis.

“Dude, I’m too old,” Averill said.

“Shut up,” Herrera replied.

Morris left the center, too, but she visited Averill nearly every day. She kept coming after he was transferred to another facility. She knew that Averill didn’t have a support network, and she wanted to be that for him—“to try to keep his mind off what’s going on,” she told me, “or talk him through it.” Which of those Averill preferred depended on the day, and his mood.

By August, Averill was living in a respite and recovery center. He shared a room on the second floor. He woke up each morning when sunlight came through the window and slowly made his way downstairs to eat.

Before it got too hot, he tried to make a visit to a blue bench surrounded by palm trees where he fed bread to the grackles, tossing chunks toward the birds’ outlines, which was as much he could see. Inside, people tried to talk to him. Here he could watch shadows flutter in the trees.

Sometimes he was optimistic about the future. He was learning that, even if he didn’t go to prison, there were agencies in Austin to assist people like him, people in crisis. Maybe, he told me, he didn’t need to be a criminal. “You live, you learn,” he said.

The staff had helped him apply for Social Security benefits for people with disabilities and Supplemental Security Income, a government allotment based on financial need. How much disability a person received depended on how much they’d paid into the system, and Averill didn’t know how much he might get. He hoped it would be enough to pay for health insurance and still have some left over to cover living expenses. In the meantime, the center’s staff scheduled doctor appointments for him, and he was able to get his prosthesis fixed. They also wrote my phone number on a piece of paper in large print so he could read it. Usually, though, they dialed my number for him when he wanted to talk.

When we spoke, he almost always sounded cheerful, and he made self-deprecating jokes. Yet he worried that he might never be able to work or make music again. He grew insecure about his new friendships whenever Morris or Herrera didn’t show up for a few days to see him.

Maybe, Averill told me, he didn’t need to be a criminal. “You live, you learn,” he said.

He was unfailingly polite when we met—he almost always had an extra Styrofoam cup of water waiting for me. I took the lead from his friends and started to bring Averill a large drip coffee. “Bless you,” he’d say. Still, Averill sometimes seemed like he was tired of talking. I’d ask him questions about Sklar and other parts of his life that he’d tried to forget, and the next time we spoke he’d grumble about having replayed the conversation in his mind for the rest of the day. Yet he always agreed to another interview. One morning as he shook my hand, standing uncertainly without his prosthetic foot, he said, “You know more about me than anyone.”

At the beginning of another visit, he said, “I have a plan.” We were sitting at a round table in the main room of the center, where the residents ate their meals. The sun streamed in through the windows, and several people in scattered chairs stared up at a TV that was turned up too loud.

“What’s your plan?” I asked. Averill warned me that I wouldn’t like it.

He had an eye appointment coming up, and if he got bad news from the doctor, he was going to either stop eating or drink so much sugary soda that his body went into shock. He gestured toward the vending machine behind me. He couldn’t bear to spend the rest of his life handicapped. Averill was contemplating killing himself.

I froze, not sure how to respond. He told me that he’d listed me as someone the center could disclose his personal information to if he died. He told me I was a priority, that he didn’t want all the hours I’d spent talking to him to go to waste. He still hoped that the story I was writing would help someone else.

Six

I left that day feeling afraid about what Averill would do and wondering what my responsibility was—whether I should talk to a staff member at the recovery center or maybe his lawyer. I was relieved when Averill called a couple of days later with good news: The doctor had told him that the odds of improving his vision were high. He might even be able to take care of himself again.

In late August, Averill received a letter from the Social Security Administration informing him that he would receive $750 a month. More good news arrived in the mail the next day: He qualified for Medicaid. Then, a few days later, Averill received another letter from Social Security. He’d been approved for retirement, allowing him to collect what he’d invested in the system. In lieu of that $750 disability check, he would receive $2,851 every month.

When he woke up the next morning, he still couldn’t believe it was true. He asked someone at the front desk to read him the letter again, just to be sure. He would have enough money to take care of himself even if he couldn’t get a job. He could afford a new laptop to make music again. A charger for his phone. A cellular plan. He started saying good morning to people passing through reception. “Did they up your meds?” someone asked him.

“It’s really strange,” Averill said when I visited him. We were sitting in the courtyard; he sipped his coffee, and I swatted mosquitoes. He had shaved most of his face, but the hair along his chin, which was hard for him to trim, curled into a long, bushy beard. “There’s an old me and a slightly different, new me,” he continued.

Then he coughed forcefully and hit his stomach. His digestive tract was irritated, Averill said, and the gas made him cough. But he assured me that he’d had a colonoscopy once and the doctors had told him that gas wouldn’t kill him. “I can’t think of a more boring way to die,” he said. “Imagine that on a tombstone: ‘Died of indigestion.’ Honestly, let’s try for something a little different.”

By September, a case manager had scheduled eye surgery. The cataracts were so bad—“the size of an elephant,” Averill said—that a laser wouldn’t work; doctors would have to surgically remove them. He was used to life looking like the film noirs he once watched while eating burgers at a restaurant in downtown Austin, everything in hazy black and white. The doctors told him that the surgery wouldn’t completely repair his eyesight but should improve it. For starters, he’d likely get his color vision back.

It seemed certain now that he wouldn’t have to go to prison to get the care he needed. Once he entered the mental health system, he had access to the appropriate resources. Still, his legal case was pending.  


I woke up on the morning of October 2 to meet Averill at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, where his presentencing hearing was set for 9 a.m. The judge wasn’t there when I arrived, and the prosecutor in Averill’s case, Jeremy Sylestine, had taken a seat in one of the juror’s chairs.

I found Averill sitting in the back corner of the room and bent down to let him know I was there, since he likely couldn’t see me; his eye surgery had been postponed. He said he was doing well but wanted some coffee. His lawyer, Cheryl Hindera, bustled around the bench. She moved so fast at times that her feet wobbled slightly in her black patent-leather heels. She finally sat next to Averill, who rested his hands gently on his cane with a calm expression on his face. “It doesn’t look like any courtroom I’ve ever seen, so that’s kind of depressing,” he said. He’d been expecting a Judge Judy scene, with people yelling and drama.

Before Judge Cliff Brown heard Averill’s case, Hindera needed her client to complete some paperwork. But because Averill couldn’t see, Hindera had to fill it out for him. “Are you currently in a gang?” she asked.

“Hardly,” he said.

Judge Brown called Averill’s case a few minutes before 10 a.m. and explained what pleading guilty would mean: Averill would waive his Miranda rights and wouldn’t be allowed near a Prosperity Bank branch ever again. The state was recommending a sentence of three years deferred adjudication with treatment or counseling.

“How do you plead?” Brown asked.

“Guilty,” Averill said. He was glad to say it.

Formal sentencing was set for November 13. Before that, Brown explained, probation services would conduct an investigation to determine whether it could support the plea agreement. Katie Cullather, a social worker assigned to his case, gave Averill her wrist, and the three of us started a slow march to an office five blocks away. We paused at one point so Averill could hike up his pants—he’d removed his belt before passing through the courthouse’s metal detector and hadn’t tightened it properly afterward. “Do you want to fix it?” Cullather asked.

“Out here?” he said. “Oh, God no, because next thing you know, they’ll say he’s exposing himself, and I’ll be right back in there.”

Cullather guided him down the street, pointing out gravel and dips and cracks in the concrete. By the time we reached the office, she wondered if he’d be able to find his way back without her. Averill told her not to worry. Next time he visited, he said, his friend Danielle Morris would accompany him.

A woman opened the door to a small office and called his name. “Yes, hold on a second,” he replied, gesturing in my and Cullather’s direction. “It takes this many people to keep an eye on me.”

Inside the office, the woman told him that he needed to come back in about three weeks and bring $43 for the assessment fee unless he wanted to add it to his court costs. No problem, Averill said. He’d received his first Social Security payment that morning.

Later that day, we went to a Starbucks so that Averill could have the coffee he’d been craving. He said that after everything—jail, the homeless shelter, the mental health facilities, contemplating suicide—he was grateful for two things: Social Security and friends. “And the friends,” he said, “may be on top.”


Averill felt so good that he started to think about getting into activism, to aid people who felt as desperate as he once had. If only they knew that they weren’t alone, he thought, maybe they’d reach out, find people who could help them access the services they needed. Maybe his story could become a rallying point. “If somebody doesn’t start it,” he said, meaning a movement to help the sick and isolated, “it’s not going to happen.”

Of course, there are many activists and organizations dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable people in America. It’s easy to imagine Averill’s story becoming an anecdote in their literature or in a politician’s stump speech. The man who robbed a bank to get health care! Another example of how our system is broken. Sympathetic voters might nod their heads in favor of health care for all. Then they’d probably forget all about Averill. Perhaps, like he once had, they wouldn’t think too hard about what it means to be alone and needy—unless they actually were. Even then, they might not be willing to ask for help outright.

Averill told me that he wanted to start a Facebook group to advocate for streamlining systems that help connect the sick, poor, and unemployed with services. He recognized that sometimes people need a push, and he was ready to push. “You can’t help people from a position of weakness,” he said. “You have to help people from a position of strength.”

Seven

When I visited Averill in December at his new home, an apartment he shared with Morris, he’d hung a plastic shopping bag on the doorknob so that I’d know which place was his. He showed me the patio where he liked to sit and watch the trees sway in the wind and the bees buzz around the flowering ivy—at least he thought it was flowering ivy. He couldn’t really see it. He had an appointment with an ophthalmologist at the end of January. After that, he hoped, he would finally have surgery.

“This is pretty much a very high-class, very fancy prison cell,” he said of his home. “I can’t go anywhere. I can’t go outside without falling over things. I can’t drive a car and get anything. I cannot rely on the bus, because I can’t tell you which bus I’m going to be getting on, and I couldn’t see to get on the bus anyway.”

I couldn’t tell how happy—or unhappy—Averill was with the arrangement. There was an edge to his voice. Yet he was making plans. His bedroom had only a floor lamp and mattress then, and he wanted to show me where he would put things once he bought them. “Here is going to go my writing station,” he said, pointing to one wall, “either a folding table or a desk. My laptop will go here. I’m going to put a big ol’ monitor behind it. Here on the other side of the table is going to be a Keurig machine or an electric kettle. Then I’m going to have possibly a slow-brew, slow-pour coffee maker—pour by hand—and flowering tea.”

He turned to another wall. “This area here is set aside for musical instruments. Guitar will probably go over there, and then put a bass over here, and maybe a second guitar here, and all my studio gear will go right here in front of this window.”

He showed me the spice carousel in the kitchen, the knife block, the microwave, and the panini press. The dining table was covered in Morris’s crafts—she was going to make ornaments for the artificial Christmas tree in the living room. A new Swiffer leaned in a corner. “She cleans everything up even though I say, ‘You don’t need to clean everything up!’” he said.

Averill covered the rent, and Morris paid for utilities, internet, phone, cable, and half the groceries. She’d helped him pick out a 68-inch television, so that he could see what’s happening on the screen. She did the cooking and had helped Averill sign up for Ambetter, one of the options available in Texas through the federal government’s health care marketplace, after his higher income disqualified him for Medicaid. She drove him on errands and had called a cab to get them to his first meeting with his probation officer. Averill worried that he was burdening Morris. But he cared about her. He liked her company. And, he admitted, it was nice to have someone around in case something happened to him.

I walked to my car feeling glad that Averill had a safe and comfortable place to live. He’d found not only housing but also a community, even if it was a small one.

About a week later, Averill called. It was a Tuesday. On the previous Friday, he said, Morris had vanished. By Saturday morning he was worried, for his friend and for himself. He couldn’t sleep. He was chugging coffee and plowing through hundreds of Tums. “I was stuck here without a caregiver, with no way to get medicine,” he said. Morris had all his health-insurance information, which he wouldn’t be able to read even if he had it. “I was up the proverbial creek,” he said.

Unlike his circumstances just a year earlier, this time he asked for help. He called Katie Cullather, the social worker, and she connected him with an agency that sent a caretaker to his home. That woman renewed his prescriptions, helped him make his first health-insurance payment, bought food, and cleaned up the apartment. Averill arranged to pay for her to continue to help him twice a week. He felt like he’d dodged a bullet. But he was still distraught: Where was Morris?

Averill called me again later that evening and left a voice mail. Morris was back, he said. She’d stayed at the hospital for a few nights and thought that someone had told Averill that she wouldn’t be home. But no one had. Averill sounded angry. “I’m not sure what the hell’s going on,” he said when I called him back the next morning. “She opens the door and walks in like nothing has happened and just says, ‘Hi.’”

What he feared most had transpired: He’d let himself feel vulnerable, and now he was hurt. “I’m not willing to risk myself ever again,” he said. “I’m not going down that path ever again for anybody for any reason.”

What he feared most had transpired: He’d let himself feel vulnerable, and now he was hurt.

I asked if he thought Morris’s disappearance might just be a misunderstanding. Maybe, he said. But it didn’t matter. He’d lost sleep over the ordeal. Was life with friends, people you counted on, really so much better than life without them? “I can create my art, I can work on my music, I can have casual interactions with people online and not tear my soul apart,” he told me.

Then he said what I was worried he would say: “I’m going back into isolation.”

I made the case that Averill shouldn’t give up. Maybe, I said, Herrera and Morris and the counselors he’d talked to at the Herman Center were like a lily pad—“or a life raft!” I said hopefully. Somewhere to land as he emerged from the remote world he’d occupied for so long, before he took another step, and met another person and then another, and finally found his way.

“Possibly,” Averill said.

He wasn’t sure he was ready to find out. He needed time. Then he would reassess. In that moment, he didn’t think that he mattered. Someday soon, I hoped he’d realize that he did.

Blood Cries Out

Blood Cries Out

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

By Sean Patrick Cooper

The Atavist Magazine, No. 85


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

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

Published in November 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Part I


1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2008

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

When Robert “Bob” Ramsey arrived at Bilbrey’s in 2008, he didn’t quite fit into the culture. He was a defense attorney and a journeyman who’d roamed around St. Louis for two decades, working at firms large and small and even trying his hand at a private practice. The constant movement was a product of Ramsey’s desire for independence and his tendency to abruptly leave a firm as soon as he learned of any unsavory legal behavior. He’d come to Bilbrey’s as something of a favor to a friend, who’d departed the office to accept a seat as a circuit judge. Ramsey took over a slate of complex cases with potentially lucrative payouts.

Yet big-ticket litigation wasn’t Ramsey’s favorite part of his job. He had a soft spot for underdogs and what he sometimes referred to as ten-foot-pole cases: ones that seemed so unwinnable, no other lawyer would touch them. Sixty years old, with dense gray hair and a goatee to match, Ramsey had inherited his conscience from his father, Brooks, a Southern Baptist minister. In the early 1960s, in Albany, Georgia, the elder Ramsey used his pulpit at the First Baptist Church to advocate desegregation, much to the consternation of some of his own congregants, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and one man who nailed a 95-point doctrine on white supremacy to the church’s front door.

In 1962, Brooks Ramsey took his son, then 14, to see Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a stirring sermon on racial tolerance at a black church. The next day, King was supposed to do the same thing before Pastor Ramsey’s white flock. When the civil rights leader arrived at the First Baptist Church, however, he was met by an angry crowd. Ushers prevented him from entering, throwing King and some of his entourage down the front stairs. A riot ensued along bitter racial lines, spreading throughout Albany until the National Guard arrived.

That night, a cross was staked in the Ramseys’ front lawn, hot orange flames engulfing its wooden arms. At school the next day, Bob Ramsey arrived to find “nigger lover” scrawled in big letters on the chalkboard of his homeroom. Soon after, his family left Albany. “It made me question the whole religion,” Ramsey recalled, “how the church always told us that everyone is equal in the eyes of God—and then to treat whites and blacks so differently.”

Ramsey studied English at St. Louis University. When he decided to go to law school, he prepared for the LSAT by reading classic Russian novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Once practicing, he made a name for himself mounting cases to free women imprisoned for killing their abusive husbands. He also took on what he believed to be wrongful convictions. In one instance, he embarked on a freedom march from St. Louis to Kansas City in honor of a woman whose original lawyer had been paid off by her boyfriend and codefendant, forcing her to take the fall for a murder she didn’t commit. Mel Carnahan, the governor of Missouri, had pledged clemency for the woman before he died in a plane crash; Carnahan’s successor made no such offer. Ramsey, who represented the woman, decided to go on a five-day, 175-mile walk to draw media attention to her appeal. Among the people who saw Ramsey’s bold stunt was a state lawmaker who’d taken a particular interest in what he believed was another miscarriage of justice, this one in the town of Chillicothe. He asked Ramsey to take a look at the case. Ramsey did one better: He agreed to represent the defendant.

At Bilbrey’s, word spread through the office grapevine that Ramsey had brought a longshot case to the firm. It involved the murder of a woman named Cathy Robertson and a man convicted twice for the crime who was now serving a quadruple life sentence. Over the nearly eight years he’d been working the case, Ramsey had regularly driven up to Chillicothe and to the small town of Cameron, where the convicted murderer was in a state penitentiary. He’d gathered court records and taken depositions, amassing several brown boxes’ worth of documents that he believed supported his client’s innocence—or, at the very least, the right to a retrial. The odds that he would get the conviction overturned were slim. As far as the state of Missouri was concerned, the case was closed; it had already been subjected to the scrutiny of one appeal.

Still, Ramsey never considered abandoning the Chillicothe case, even when he died, briefly, in 2003. A fit man who regularly practiced the martial art of aikido, Ramsey suffered sudden cardiac arrest while working out at a YMCA. He was revived with a defibrillator, then fell into a coma; the doctors told his wife and two children that he had little chance of recovering. Ramsey underwent surgery, during which his heart stopped a second time. When he woke up and finally seemed to be out of the woods, he told his client’s family in Chillicothe that if they wanted to get a different lawyer he’d understand. But they’d nurtured an almost religious faith in him after struggling for many years to retain good counsel. Ramsey’s client went to the bare-bones prison chapel to pray that his lawyer would live to defend him in court.

Ramsey never considered abandoning the Chillicothe case, even when he died, briefly, in 2003.

When Ramsey’s health returned, he got back to the matter of proving his client’s innocence. Not everyone was pleased. “You’re going on a fishing expedition,” a judge told Ramsey when denying his request to depose a key figure in the case. An occasional fly-fisherman, Ramsey found the statement encouraging: A person only fishes where there’s something to catch.

Ramsey wasn’t the only staffer at Bilbrey’s struggling to acclimate. So was Kelly Williams, recently hired as an administrator. Williams was 35 and a single mom of two kids. In her twenties, she’d worked as a blackjack dealer at the Alton Belle, a riverboat casino on the Mississippi. She stood just over five feet tall, smoked Marlboros, and had a brash, infectious laugh. She was good at her job—organized, quick, intuitive—but she ran afoul of a supervisor with her outspokenness, to the point that her job was on the line.

Ramsey liked Williams. She’d worked with him on a few settlement cases, and he was impressed with how her mind worked, particularly her memory for little details tucked away deep in legal filings, the kind that could make or break a case. When he heard about the trouble with the supervisor, Ramsey took Williams on as his assistant.

He ushered Williams into his office, where stacks of paper, legal pads, and court documents were on every surface, including the floor. Ramsey settled into his desk chair and pointed to the infamous brown boxes full of his work on the Chillicothe case. Williams had heard chatter about how it was a lost cause.

“I need your help,” Ramsey told her.

Williams knew that Ramsey had saved her job, but she didn’t think that was any reason to run a fool’s errand with him and said so. Ramsey’s client had been convicted by two juries. “Anyone in their right mind would believe he was guilty,” Williams said.

When Ramsey began to explain why he believed otherwise, Williams was adamant that she would prove him wrong. “Since I was itty bitty,” she said, “if I’m right, then I’m going to find out one way or another to prove that I’m right.” Williams announced that she would pore over the case files and find what she needed to disabuse Ramsey of his misplaced certainty.

That night she took one of the boxes home. Eventually, she took another, then another. Using a color-coding system, she organized depositions and created timelines based on witness testimony. After feeding her kids dinner, she sat on the couch, documents scattered around her, filling up legal pads with notes. Instead of proof of guilt, Williams kept finding holes in the prosecution’s case. At the casino, she’d caught a few cheats; she believed she had an instinct for when a system was being gamed.

After she was done going through the files, she walked back into Ramsey’s office. “Alright, he’s innocent,” she said, giving her boss no chance to say I told you so. “How do we get him out of prison?”

The client in question was Mark Woodworth, Claude and Jackie’s son. Nineteen when he was arrested, Mark had spent almost his entire adult life behind bars. Ramsey was convinced that the case “stunk like a dead skunk in the road,” and Williams now agreed. Their determination to free Mark would throw Missouri’s legal system into turmoil.

Part II


1990

As a teenager, Mark kept to himself. Shy and awkward, with doleful brown eyes and a narrow chin sprinkled with pimples, he was more comfortable building cabinets in shop class than memorizing formulas in algebra. He wasn’t one to join clubs or sports teams. In his free time, he preferred to work in his dad’s fields and listen to farmhands talk about what rain does to seeds and the nuances of chemical fertilizers. In 1990, Claude set Mark up with a few acres of soybeans to manage, a trial run to determine if the teenager would be a good addition to the family business.

The morning after the shooting, Claude treaded mournfully down the stairs to his basement and jostled Mark, then 16, awake. Mark was characteristically quiet, even in the face of tragedy. “I was shocked,” he later said. “I couldn’t believe that happened, and I didn’t know what to say.”

Initially, Mark flew under law enforcement’s radar. His parents said he’d been home the night of the murder. His gentle temperament and modest intelligence, friends pointed out, didn’t fit the profile of a killer. “I knew that boy ever since he was born,” George Quinn, a farmer, said once. “If I’d asked him to go out and handle a dying animal, Mark sure couldn’t even shoot a cat out of its misery.” Where some people saw innate virtue, however, others started to wonder if there was simmering menace. “He was very much a loner,” Rhonda Robertson said of Mark as a child. “Scott would always ask him to come out and play, but he just wanted to sit alone in his room.”

Soon after the murder, investigators located a box of ammunition in a shed behind the Robertsons’ house. The .22-caliber shells, a few of which were missing from the box, were the same type the shooter had used. They were sitting on a workbench; according to Lyndel, they were usually stored under a stack of cigar boxes. To law enforcement, this suggested that someone might have taken the shells out on the night of the crime. Investigators lifted a thumbprint from the box and tried to find a match in Missouri’s legal databases. No luck. Then, during an interrogation with investigators, Mark gave his prints. One of them was a match.

Asked whether he’d ever visited the Robertsons’ shed, Mark gave inconsistent statements. He first claimed that he’d never been inside. Then he said he’d once helped pour concrete in the structure and maybe entered it a few other times on some weekends. A ballistics expert analyzed a bullet from the crime and decided that it was probably shot from a Ruger revolver found in the Woodworth home, where Claude kept it in his and Jackie’s bedroom. Law enforcement suspected that Mark had taken the weapon, used it, and put it back without his sleeping parents realizing.

By the fall of 1993, the sheriff’s office was ready to arrest Mark. He was a high school dropout living at home, working on his dad’s farm, and attending vocational classes for his GED. Police showed up outside one of those classes on the morning of October 20, put him in handcuffs, and read him his rights.

Mark’s parents were bewildered. As far as they knew, their son didn’t have anything against Cathy, a woman who’d cared for him as a kid when Jackie ran errands. Even as he sat in jail, held without bail, Mark told his father that he wasn’t worried, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I don’t think he realizes what he’s charged with,” Claude told the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune. “It has not really soaked into him.” Jackie had trouble sleeping and struggled to comfort her six other children. Ashley, then in the third grade, would get off the school bus some afternoons in tears because kids had teased her about having a murderer for a brother.

While awaiting trial, Mark failed a polygraph test. In a report dated July 18, 1994, the test’s administrator wrote, “I advised Mr. Woodworth that he had lied to me and was responsible for shooting the Robertsons.… I told him it wasn’t a question of who any longer, but rather a question of why.” Mark nodded, but when asked directly why he’d committed the crime, he answered, “I didn’t.” The administrator pressed him, reminding Mark that “if he was a cold-blooded murderer and found guilty of capital murder, he could be taken and executed for the killing, but if the shooting and death were accidental, that was another situation altogether.”

“Well,” Mark replied, “we all have to die someday.”

People in Chillicothe interpreted the statement in one of two ways. Some thought that Mark was referring matter-of-factly to the prospect of his own death. Others thought he was talking about Cathy’s murder and revealing his dark personality. Rhonda Robertson would later describe the comment as displaying “unbelievable callousness.”

The Robertsons’ relationship with the Woodworths had only grown more toxic since 1990. When their partnership dissolved, Claude hired an accountant to go through their books, which Lyndel had always been responsible for. The accountant discovered records indicating that Lyndel had siphoned cash from grain sales and skimmed extra money from a shared bank account to purchase cars and home appliances. Claude sued Lyndel for $150,000 in damages, but Lyndel claimed that he was innocent. If anything, he said, Claude hadn’t done his fair share in the partnership.

“The breakup broke my heart,” Claude later said. When Mark was arrested for Cathy’s murder, that sense of betrayal cut even deeper. “I was feeling sorry for him, that he just lost his wife, and taking the whole thing pretty hard, too,” Claude said. “Then it was like he stabbed a knife in my back.”

After the indictment in October 1993, a year and a half passed before Mark’s case went to trial in Clinton County, 70 miles from Chillicothe. Lawyers hoped to find there what they couldn’t in Mark’s hometown: an impartial jury. Everyone in Chillicothe had an opinion on the case. Woodworth defenders would clam up when a Robertson supporter came into the local bank to make a deposit. In the aisles of the livestock supply depot, heated debates broke out over whether Mark had pulled the trigger.

The divide was so intense that Lyndel felt compelled to write an op-ed in the Constitution-Tribune answering charges that he’d “swindled” Claude—Lyndel would eventually settle the embezzlement suit for $17,500—and that Mark had been “railroaded.” Lyndel wrote: “I am completely bewildered by this type of reaction. It is not my place, nor is it the responsibility of the people of this community to decide the guilt or innocence of this 19-year-old individual—that decision belongs to a selected jury.” Privately, though, the Robertsons told friends that they were sure Mark was guilty.

In the aisles of the livestock supply depot, heated debates broke out over whether Mark had pulled the trigger.

Mark’s trial—as an adult, though he’d been a minor at the time of the shooting—began on March 13, 1995. Kenny Hulshof represented the state. A special prosecutor and rising star in the Missouri attorney general’s office, Hulshof was a farmer’s son, tall and blond, with a folksy, winning demeanor. He’d captivated jurors in small towns all over the state while prosecuting murder cases, including the one against Faye Copeland in Chillicothe right before Cathy Robertson’s killing. Fellow lawyers sometimes traveled hours to watch Hulshof’s arguments.

On the other side of the courtroom was Mark’s attorney, a mild-mannered man named James Wyrsch, who tried to undercut the evidence against his client. The thumbprint on the box of .22-caliber shells in Lyndel’s shed? It could have been left there while Mark was target-shooting with some farmhands or when he was moving things around in the shed to find some stored item. Wyrsch briefly homed in on the absence of a clear reason Mark might have wanted Cathy dead. “I will submit to you that a 16-year-old boy with no motive whatsoever, trying to get on in life, did not shoot this individual,” Wyrsch told the jury. When he tried to suggest other suspects, however, the judge rebuffed Wyrsch on the grounds that investigators hadn’t amassed sufficient physical evidence to support another theory of the crime.

Hulshof addressed motive while questioning Lyndel on the stand. Hadn’t the Robertsons been angry at Mark for not paying expenses associated with the soybean crop he’d grown on the patch of land his father had given him to manage? Lyndel said yes. And wasn’t it possible that Mark had decided to shoot his neighbors to keep them quiet about his failure to pull his financial weight? Possibly, Lyndel said. For his part, Mark testified that he didn’t know the Robertsons were upset with him about the soybeans.

Later, in his closing statement, Hulshof played to an emerging cultural fear, stoked by the media, that some American teenagers were just bad seeds—kids like the so-called West Memphis Three, convicted the year prior in Tennessee for allegedly murdering three young boys as part of a Satanic ritual. “We flip on the news and we see these senseless crimes. And that’s exactly what it is—it’s senseless. There is no reason,” Hulshof said. “Folks, yes, [Mark] was 16, but how has our society changed such that we have 16- and 15- and 14- and 13-year-olds that are doing things that we can’t comprehend?”

Hulshof drew attention to Mark’s affect while giving testimony, which had been hushed and stilted. “Put yourself, for a minute, in the shoes of someone who was, according to them, falsely accused of a crime,” Hulshof instructed the jurors. “Are you just going to sit up there and [say], ‘No, never, no, never,’ with this flat tone?… You’re going to see some emotion. You’re going to see some tears. You’re going to see some anger. You’re going to see something other than what you saw.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Hulshof said, “I think you saw a glimpse right then of the cold-blooded nature of Mark Woodworth.”

Dana Williams, a farmhand’s wife who attended the trial, marveled at Hulshof’s oration. “He was just, wow, a standout, like an actor starring in his own movie,” Williams later said.

After close to 11 hours of deliberation, the jury found Mark guilty of murder in the second degree, burglary, assault in the first degree, and two counts of armed criminal action. The judge sentenced him to 31 years in state prison. The trial had lasted four days.


2008

Crossroads Correctional Center sits about 40 miles due west of Chillicothe, atop a gentle, grassy slope. The complex’s tan walls and green roof blend into the surrounding farmland, broken only by country highways and a Walmart. When Kelly Williams accompanied Bob Ramsey to the prison for her first visit with Mark, she felt like she knew their client already. She imagined a man hardened by the legal system, but the prisoner who slid into a chair across from her in the visiting area was far from bitter.

Mark was 34, and his dark cropped hair was tinged with silver. In a soft, steady voice, he asked Ramsey questions about his case. He knew the main players, but he didn’t grasp all the details. The man Hulshof had cast as seething and threatening seemed to Williams guileless and meek. “His demeanor, how simple he was—it broke my heart,” she recalled.

Williams listened to Mark talk about how he passed his days: welding metal cabinets, rehabilitating rescue dogs for adoption, praying in the chapel. She thought about everything he’d missed on the outside—weddings, Christmases, the births of nieces and nephews, finding love. Williams excused herself from the visiting area and went to the bathroom. She stayed there until she stopped crying.

Mark and his family had already had their hopes dashed once. Two years after Mark’s conviction, an appeals court reversed the verdict on the grounds that the judge had improperly excluded evidence about other suspects’ potential motive and opportunity. Mark was released from prison and went home to await retrial, which took place in 1999. Hulshof had recently been elected to Congress, after campaigning on his record of locking up violent criminals, so another prosecutor argued the case before the same judge who’d presided over the first trial. The Woodworths hired a new lawyer, too. According to the family and a paralegal who spoke under oath, the attorney struggled to remember where he’d placed key documents. He often rang up Wyrsch’s office to obtain new copies. At trial he questioned Brandon Hagan, who maintained his alibi, with support from his mother’s and sister’s testimony, and Lyndel, who described his initial accusations of Brandon as purely speculative. “I was real disorientated and didn’t know what was going on,” Lyndel said of waking up after the shooting. The Woodworths were so dissatisfied that they asked if a different lawyer could handle the closing argument. Their request was granted, but Mark was convicted nonetheless. This time the judge gave him the maximum penalty: four life sentences plus 15 years.

Before being taken away from the courthouse, Mark told his mother, “Just don’t forget about me, OK?”

She didn’t. Jackie coordinated weekend visits to Crossroads, staggering various siblings’ and other relatives’ time with Mark. On the two weekends each year when visitors could bring food to prisoners, Jackie made Mark’s favorites: lasagna, corn casserole, and peanut brittle. Every August, the women in her Sunday school class sent Mark birthday cards. At home, Jackie kept Mark’s room the same as he’d left it, with a quilt neatly smoothed over the bed and boxes of toy John Deere tractors stacked under a window.

Before being taken away from the courthouse, Mark told his mother, “Just don’t forget about me, OK?”

When Williams and Ramsey visited the Woodworths in Chillicothe, they sat elbow to elbow with the family around a long farm table for meals, passing platters of homemade noodles, mashed potatoes, and beef. As she had been with Mark, Williams was struck by Jackie and Claude’s apparent lack of anger. The Woodworths had been together since they were teenagers, when Jackie, thin and blond, would watch Claude, heavyset and strong, compete in tractor pulls. Middle-aged now, the couple were resolved about Mark’s situation. They kept living and working in a community where many people believed they’d raised a killer, and they were confident that if anyone could get their son out of prison, it was Ramsey.

Ramsey had several concerns about the way investigators had handled Mark’s case. Why had the prosecution been so comfortable with Lyndel recanting accusations, first against Brandon Hagan, then against Claude? How had suspicion landed on Mark at all, and so many months after the shooting? What happened to witness testimony—Chris Ruoff’s sighting of a car, for example—that suggested someone other than a close neighbor was the killer?

Ramsey shared these thoughts with Williams and the Woodworths. “He was asking the right questions,” Claude said. Answering them, though, would require Missouri’s judiciary to accept a new appeal of Mark’s case. Only then would Ramsey have free rein to collect new evidence as part of pretrial discovery. In late 2008, a court considered an appeal, which Ramsey and Williams built around the charge that Mark’s rights had been violated by incompetent counsel and a secretive grand jury. The motion was summarily denied. Ramsey and Williams went back to square one, scrambling to figure out another way to reopen the case.

One day, Ramsey got a phone call from an Associated Press reporter named Alan Zagier. While working on a profile of Hulshof when he was gearing up to run for Missouri governor—a race he lost—Zagier had something interesting in the state attorney general’s office: documents pertaining to Mark Woodworth that had never been discussed in court. In fact, they didn’t appear anywhere in the case files, suggesting that they’d never been made available to Mark’s lawyers. If so, they represented new, potentially exculpatory evidence.

The documents were letters dating back 15 years, and they were the keys that Ramsey and Williams needed to unlock their investigation. “We sped off,” Ramsey said, “like we’d been let loose on the Autobahn.”

Part III


1993

The correspondence had a convoluted backstory. Several months after the shooting, Lyndel hired a private investigator named Terry Deister, a recent arrival in Chillicothe, to dig up information on Cathy’s murder. The case was going nowhere; maybe a fresh set of eyes would help. A few days after taking the job, Deister met with Gary Calvert, chief deputy of the Livingston County sheriff’s office, whom he’d worked with on an undercover narcotics sting at a previous job as a vice-squad officer. According to Deister’s notes, the men convened to “evaluate the possibilities of a working relationship” on the Robertson case. They agreed to pursue “the remainder of this investigation as a team.” (Calvert and Deister declined to comment for this story.)

Two years later, based on interviews and forensic evidence, Deister, Calvert, and Lyndel hoped that the county prosecutor, a man named Doug Roberts, would bring charges against Mark. Roberts refused, because he didn’t think the case was strong enough. Indicting Mark, then, would require assistance from a more powerful force who wanted to move the case forward—someone like Ken Lewis, a circuit judge in Livingston County.

Lewis’s interest in Mark’s case seemed to have strange roots. In December 1990, about a month after the Robertson shooting, a local newspaper had published an article detailing how Lewis, an avid duck hunter, had been instructed by county commissioners to remove a barrier he’d placed on a public road alongside his property to keep other hunters away. Lewis took umbrage with language in the article, insisting that it jeopardized his authority as a judge. He sued the county commission—a move so rare for a member of the bench that several legal scholars interviewed for this story said they’d never heard of it happening. Lewis lost the case, but he kept his sights trained on the county commission.

Lewis’s personal lawyer at the time was Brent Elliott, who’d been the county prosecutor prior to losing the post to Doug Roberts. Elliott was friendly with Calvert and talked with him and Deister regularly—sometimes several times a week—about their work on the Robertson case. Calvert and Deister expressed to Elliott their frustration that Roberts wouldn’t indict Mark. Deister later recalled Calvert dismissively describing Roberts as being “good at traffic tickets.”

The letters that eventually landed at the AP began on September 24, 1993. Lyndel addressed one—actually written by Deister on his behalf—to Lewis, imploring that Roberts “be released of his duty in my particular case” so that evidence against Mark could come before a court. “Until this time, I do not feel that justice has been served and my life is at a standstill,” the letter read. “I am pleading with you to act upon this, within your power, to have this case presented before a grand jury.”

Ten days later, Roberts wrote his own letter to Lewis. “It has come to my attention that the complaining witness in this matter has requested you disqualify me for ‘lack of enthusiasm.’ Mr. Robertson confuses my desire to make a thorough review of all the reports in this case,” he wrote. “I can understand his frustration, but recall that soon after this crime, Mr. Robertson was adamant that we charge another young man.” Still, Roberts acknowledged that he should step away from the case. “The appropriate disposition of this matter requires that the prosecuting official have the confidence of, as well as confidence in, the complaining witness. This I do not have,” he wrote.

Read the Lewis letters.
Read the Lewis letters.

Two days later, the next of the Lewis letters, as they would come to be known, was sent by the judge to Kenny Hulshof. It referenced “various telephone conversations” the men had had about Hulshof coming to Chillicothe to take over for Roberts on the Woodworth case. Lewis noted that he’d already initiated the convening of a grand jury; he and a county clerk would select the 12 members, including a foreman who was friendly with Lewis and who had worked as an accountant for Lewis’s law firm before he became a judge. In his letter to Hulshof, Lewis included a copy of Lyndel’s pleading missive and noted that the three-year statute of limitations on several of the crimes committed against the Robertsons—“felonious assault, burglary in the first degree, and armed criminal action charges”—would soon run out.

The proceedings against Mark began on October 15, 1993, and they moved swiftly. Hulshof successfully argued for the state to file charges. Over subsequent months, the grand jury considered a laundry list of other issues, including whether the county commission had misused money in the form of modest charitable donations. With Lewis presiding, the grand jury indicted several commissioners. They would eventually be exonerated, but not before spending tens of thousands of dollars defending their support of a food bank and a children’s hospital.

On the evening of the grand jury’s final meeting, in 1994, someone strung a long white banner along the stone base of Chillicothe’s courthouse, which faces Washington Street. A photo of it ran in the next day’s edition of the Constitution-Tribune. Five words hastily painted on the fabric read, “Ding-Dong the Witch Hunt’s Dead.”


2009

When Ramsey read the Lewis letters, he was stunned. Was it possible that at the heart of Mark’s convictions sat a judge who wanted to hunt ducks in solitude and needed a case substantial enough to justify convening a grand jury that could also adjudicate complaints against his political enemies, a state prosecutor eager to strengthen his tough-on-crime persona, and a shooting victim, private eye, and deputy sheriff collaborating against the son of that victim’s former business partner? The whole scenario seemed outlandish in the way only small-town business can.

For the purposes of an appeal, what mattered was that the documents appeared to be new evidence of possible due-process violations against Mark Woodworth. Ramsey was astonished that the letters even existed. “I can’t believe people put this stuff in writing,” he said. “So many rules were being broken.”

All the more peculiar was the fact that various other documents from the grand jury chapter of Mark’s case had gone missing, including the transcript of the proceedings. The first time Ramsey visited Chillicothe, after sipping tea with the Woodworths in their living room and promising to fight for their son’s release, he’d stopped by the courthouse to pick up whatever files from the case were available. The clerk had nothing from the October 1993 hearings. When Ramsey asked why, the sentencing judge in both of Mark’s trials said that the transcriber hadn’t done his job—an odd claim given that he’d diligently recorded other sessions of the same grand jury.

Ramsey and Williams hoped to get to the bottom of that mystery during discovery, but first they had to file an appeal. This time, based on the Lewis letters, the pair made the case that Mark hadn’t received a fair trial because Lewis had abused his power and acted beyond the purview of his role; they also asserted that Lyndel had wielded undue influence over the empaneling of the grand jury. The appeal was denied twice in lower courts, but Ramsey and Williams kept pushing, and in mid-2010 their petition reached the Missouri Supreme Court.

The judges ruled in Mark’s favor, putting his case on their docket. They assigned a special master, Judge Gary Oxenhandler, to preside over hearings where lawyers could present evidence and question witnesses. The hearings wouldn’t lead to a verdict; rather, Oxenhandler would submit a report to the Supreme Court, which would use it to rule on whether Mark’s constitutional rights had been violated.

When Ramsey called to tell the Woodworths, Jackie answered the phone in her kitchen. She yelped with joy, startling her sons, Chad and Colin, who were eating lunch between shifts working in the fields. “It was the first big break we’d gotten,” Jackie remembered. “Everything we tried to do, we’d run right into a wall. But all we needed was one little chip in the wall, and the little chip would keep getting bigger and bigger until we could break the wall down.”

In the fall of 2010, Oxenhandler scheduled an evidentiary hearing for the following May, giving Ramsey and Williams about five months to prepare. They quickly got to work. Williams had grown close to the Woodworths and was indignant about Mark’s situation. “She was pissed,” Ramsey said, “and fearless.” Williams made lists of people to interview, files to access, evidence to track down. She marked boxes and file folders with sticky notes indicating what was inside them. She worked nights at home, sleeping an hour or two before heading into the office each morning.

High on Williams’s list was locating the missing transcript of the grand jury hearing. She drove to Chillicothe and insisted her way into the dusty attic of the county courthouse, where she searched through hundreds of boxes of stenography. Every court reporter has a unique shorthand they use to record what a trial’s speakers say out loud; the reporter then uses those raw notes to generate a complete transcript. In the folder where the stenographs for Mark’s hearing should have been there was nothing. Williams went downstairs and told the clerk, who agreed that it was unusual for the notes to be missing. The clerk began searching for them in cabinet after cabinet, drawer after drawer. If there’d been a mix-up, the stenographs had to be somewhere in the building.

In the meantime, Williams hoped that the court reporter, a man named Bernard Faustenau, might provide some answers. He’d worked in Missouri’s legal system for 31 years before retiring. In early February 2011, Williams and Ramsey called Faustenau to be deposed on March 2. Then, a little over a week before the deposition, Faustenau died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 68.

Dismayed, Williams called Faustenau’s wife of 51 years. Williams offered her condolences, explained the situation as gently as she could, and asked the widow if Faustenau had kept any of his court notes at home. Faustenau’s wife said she wasn’t sure but she’d keep an eye out. She soon called Williams back to report that she’d found three perfectly typed pages of the opening minutes of Mark’s grand jury hearing. The text confirmed Judge Lewis’s animus toward Doug Roberts; Lewis accused the prosecutor of speaking to the local press about the grand jury despite not being present for its proceedings. “I have reprimanded Mr. Roberts … because he is not involved in this matter here today,” Lewis said. Roberts had denied telling journalists that the Robertson shooting was the grand jury’s main focus, which Lewis said “brings to my mind a line from Shakespeare, when he said, ‘The lady doth protest too much.’”

If Faustenau had typed up the first portion of the hearing, it stood to reason that he’d done the same for the rest of it. But the remaining pages were nowhere to be found. Back at the courthouse, the clerk finally turned up some materials, including the grand jury’s attendance sheet and a copy of the gag order preventing members from talking about the hearing outside the court. The documents weren’t what Williams wanted, but the location where the clerk found them gave her pause: They were tucked inside the county’s adoption files, considered among the most sensitive records in any courthouse and thus accessed by very few people. The papers had been either bizarrely misfiled or deliberately hidden. By whom was yet another mystery.

The dead end regarding the transcript was “a big setback for us,” Williams later recalled. She and Ramsey focused their attention elsewhere, hoping it would bear more fruit. Terry Deister was arguably the biggest enigma of the case. The private eye employed by Lyndel had never been called to testify at either of the murder trials, yet his copious case notes showed that he’d played a pivotal role in the investigation.


1992

When Lyndel hired him, Deister was in his early fifties, with a paunch, a wide black mustache, and the low, craggy voice of a heavy smoker. He’d spent 17 years in law enforcement in Platte County, Missouri, and he acted the part of a hard-bitten detective, using gruff language and wearing a beleaguered demeanor proportionate to his sacrificial duty before the high calling of the law. His one-man private-eye business was called DunCourt and Associates, a fictional name he’d chosen because he liked how it sounded.

Lyndel paid Deister $40 an hour for his work, which involved more than just probing the shooting. Lyndel also wanted Deister to look for evidence to counter Claude’s accusations of embezzlement. The dual assignment represented a conflict of interest. Deister seemed to realize that the work was shady: His notes indicate that in at least one instance he and Calvert met in an “undisclosed location” near a cornfield, where they were unlikely to be seen together. He also recorded Calvert, who shared the case files on the Robertson shooting with Deister even though law enforcement isn’t supposed to let private parties access information about active investigations, as urging him to “keep a very low profile.”

For several months after the murder, law-enforcement officials tried to find out all they could about the suspicious car in the Robertsons’ driveway; they were confident it would lead them to the killer. Chris Ruoff said he’d seen an SUV or truck. When examining the scene, police noted what appeared to be tire tracks from an accelerating vehicle. Moreover, Scott Robertson initially told investigators that he’d heard a car engine when he was in his parents’ room helping Lyndel. Ruoff, Scott, and Lyndel saw a hypnotist a few weeks after the shooting, a visit that investigators hoped would draw more specific evidence or even a lead out of the trio. It wasn’t productive.

Then one day in 1991, Deister did something that shifted the entire course of the investigation. According to his records, he suggested in one of his meetings with Calvert, “What if there hadn’t been a vehicle parked at that location? Would this open up a new area of thought?”

“Definitely, yes,” Calvert replied.

If a car “didn’t exist,” Deister continued, “it made Mark Woodworth a prime suspect in the case.”

The leap seemed sudden and huge. Not only was there no evidence at the time implicating Mark, there was also no reason to doubt Ruoff’s story or the tire tracks indicating that a car had left the crime scene.

When Ruoff got a phone call from Calvert in January 1992 asking him to come downtown to recount what he’d seen the night of the murder, Ruoff was glad to do so. In a small witness room, he sat across a table from Calvert, who casually thumbed through the case files. The deputy sheriff introduced Ruoff to Deister, who was puffing on a cigarette. Smoke gathered above the men’s heads as Deister began to talk.

“She ever come on to you?” he asked Ruoff, referring to Cathy Robertson.

Ruoff thought Deister was kidding. He was dating a woman who would soon become his wife. Cathy had been a devoutly Catholic mother two decades his senior. She’d been cordial with farmhands, sure, but there was no unsavory subtext to it. Ruoff laughed; Deister kept looking at him, stone-faced. The farmhand realized that the question wasn’t a joke.

“So who put you up to this?” Deister asked in his hoarse voice, suggesting that Ruoff had lied about seeing a car outside the Robertson residence.

“I was just trying to help Lyndel out,” Ruoff said, “to help them find out who shot Cathy.”

Deister came at Ruoff from several angles, questioning the young man’s eyesight, mental health, and short-term memory. He and Calvert also described driving out on Highway 190 one night when a car was parked in the Robertsons’ driveway. They weren’t able to see it in the dark. Ruoff maintained his certainty until, after two hours of interrogation, he finally gave an inch. “Maybe I didn’t see it,” he said.

At Mark’s first trial, Ruoff would stick to his story, saying that he’d bet a million dollars he saw the car. But the seed of uncertainty served the prosecution’s purposes: If it was possible that a car hadn’t been in the Robertsons’ driveway, then it was possible that the killer had arrived on foot—the most logical way for someone who lived nearby to get to the house without attracting attention. Kenny Hulshof undercut Ruoff by calling him an “overprepped” witness and attacking his recollections of a “mystery vehicle.”

The other evidence of a car mattered little. Police had never tried to match the tire tracks outside the Robertsons’ house with a particular make or model, and Scott had reconsidered his original story. He hadn’t heard an engine, the Robertsons’ only son said at trial. Lyndel testified, “A young kid may not have heard what he thought he heard.”

Connecting Mark to the crime was more difficult. Deister and Calvert staked out the Woodworths’ house on Fourth of July weekend in 1992, waiting for Jackie and Claude to leave for a visit with family in Illinois so that they could approach Mark alone. They asked him to come to the sheriff’s office for questioning. Mark was cooperative; he didn’t request a lawyer, and he agreed to be fingerprinted, which would lead to the match with the print on the box of .22-caliber shells found in the Robertsons’ shed. Mark didn’t express outrage or suspicion when Calvert and Deister dropped the pretense of why they’d brought him in—a vandalism complaint that went nowhere—and accused him of murdering Cathy. He simply denied doing it.

A second interrogation went much the same way. This time, Mark gave the conflicting statements about when he’d been in the Robertsons’ shed. He also agreed to draw a rudimentary layout of his family’s house and indicated that his basement room was near a back door, which Calvert and Deister suggested he could’ve used the night of the murder without his parents and siblings knowing. Mark seemed confused in the interview, as if he didn’t follow all the questions he was being asked.

When his parents, who’d again been away when Mark was picked up the second time, heard that he was at the sheriff’s office, they were furious. They drove downtown and burst into the building. In the ensuing confrontation, captured on video, Claude yelled, “You’re fucking with somebody you don’t have no fucking business with—you’re talking with a kid there. To start with he’s dumber than hell. You know that. You can talk to him and tell that. He ain’t well educated.” To Deister, who was in the room, Claude said, “Who’s paying you for being here now?” Deister replied, “I don’t even know if I’m being paid right now or not but I am—Lyndel has been paying me.”

By then, Calvert and Deister had already turned their attention to the ballistics evidence in the case. Of the six bullets fired by Cathy’s killer, five were recovered at the scene. They were too damaged to be analyzed for legal purposes, but based on X-rays, the bullet stuck near Lyndel’s liver looked to be in decent shape. So the Livingston County sheriff’s office covered the $25,000 expense of surgically removing it. In August 1992, after a three-hour operation, the bullet came out. Shortly after the surgery, Calvert confiscated Claude Woodworth’s Ruger pistol as part of a purported reexamination of potential murder weapons.

According to Calvert’s report, he “sealed the [bullet] in an evidence bag and transported it to Livingston County Sheriff’s Office in the evidence room for safekeeping.” However, there is no record that the bullet was ever signed in to the property room, and Deister’s notes contradict Calvert’s, indicating that the private investigator was the one who took the bullet from the hospital and kept it in his custody:

Lyndel’s surgery at Research Hospital.

10:55 a.m. entered surgery—1:55 p.m. received bullet from [Nurse] Woodson

2:20 p.m. spoke with doctor

At the time, Deister was married to a woman from England, and during visits to his wife’s home country he’d befriended a man named Roger Summers, who was the head of forensics for the police department in Derbyshire. A few weeks after Lyndel’s surgery, and after two separate analyses in Missouri had indicated that the extracted bullet wasn’t fired from Claude’s revolver, Deister called Summers to discuss the case. Ten days later, Deister sent Summers a letter detailing his involvement in the shooting investigation. The letter wouldn’t be introduced into legal evidence until Ramsey subpoenaed Summers’s lab almost two decades later.

“I was hired by Lyndel Robertson (the husband) to investigate the murder of his wife,” Deister wrote, adding that before he came aboard, the “Livingston County Sheriff’s Department had pretty much given up on the investigation.” He continued, “I zeroed in on the business partner’s 16-year-old-son, who lived across the highway,” because he sensed that Mark saw an opportunity to enact vengeance, and to gain his father’s approval, as the farming partnership deteriorated. Then Deister wrote:

As I mentioned during our telephone conversation, our case against this boy is very weak without the ballistic evidence, and even though I’m not a quitter, I really don’t think we will ever have a good case if this firearm can’t be identified as the shooter’s weapon. Therefore, we are willing to take whatever steps necessary, within reason, to identify this weapon.

On October 20, Deister packed the bullet and gun in his luggage and flew to England for a nine-day visit. Calvert sent a FedEx package containing other bullet fragments from the crime scene; instead of signing the mailing slip with his title at the sheriff’s office, Calvert indicated that he was an employee of DunCourt and Associates. An investigator ran tests on the evidence. When Deister returned from his trip, he submitted annotated expenses—airline tickets, lodging, meals, sundries—to Lyndel for reimbursement.

Read Terry Deister’s call log from the fall of 1992.
Read Terry Deister’s call log from the fall of 1992.

A forensic investigator named Steve Nicklin issued three reports based on his analysis, a preliminary one in April 1993 and two finalized versions that June. The first stated that Claude’s gun could have fired the bullet removed from Lyndel but that there was not “enough detail agreement to show a conclusive association between the two items.” Consequently, Nicklin was “unable to rule out the possibility that some other weapon fired the bullet.” A June 7 report stated much the same, though Nicklin said that details of the analysis “in my opinion, strongly suggest” Claude’s gun fired the bullet. The final report, from June 22, went further: While it reiterated that there was no “conclusive association” between the pieces of evidence, it also described a scratch on the ridges inside the gun’s barrel as being “a very unusual feature.” The scratch appeared to line up with a marking on the bullet, leading Nicklin to conclude that “the likelihood of some other weapon being responsible … seems extremely small. I hope this clarifies the position for you.”

He was addressing Deister. According to Nicklin’s subsequent testimony and Deister’s own notes, Deister spoke multiple times with the lab in England when it was completing its reports.

Claude and Jackie insisted there was no way Mark had used the gun. They said they kept their bedroom door locked while sleeping and the gun loaded at all times on top of a dresser near the bed. Deister suggested that the lock was easy to pick and that Mark had reloaded the gun with Lyndel’s ammunition after using the weapon to shoot the Robertsons. Somehow he’d been so quiet as he moved that no one in the Woodworth or Robertson house heard him.

“If a boy was going to slip in a bedroom and snatch a gun off the chest of drawers, go over, and shoot somebody, do you think he’d bring it back empty?” Deister asked.

“Do you think that after you shot somebody you would be really in your right mind to think, yeah, I’ve gotta load this gun?” Jackie replied.

“To be real honest with you, Jackie,” Deister said, “with somebody with emotions as quiet as your son, yes.”


2011

In the lead-up to the Oxenhandler hearing, Ramsey and Williams were running ragged. Long days and late nights kept Ramsey from cooking Sunday dinner for his family and in-laws, a weekly tradition. He slept little and ate rarely, which worried his wife, given his heart problems. Williams saw her children only in brief spurts, which weighed on her maternal conscience. Still, she considered the work she was doing important, and she hoped to be an example to her kids.

Sensing that, like the dealings revealed by the Lewis letters, Deister’s involvement in the case might constitute a violation of Mark’s legal rights, Ramsey and Williams wanted to talk to Deister under oath. Ramsey dispatched a paralegal from Bilbrey’s to meet with Deister, who was then 77 and semiretired, at a Panera Bread in Kansas City. Deister consented to a deposition and, according to the paralegal’s notes, said he “had done nothing wrong” and “never had a doubt that Mark Woodworth was guilty.” Deister continued, “Mark should have just quit after the first trial. He would probably already be out by now.”

The deposition took place on March 1, 2011, at the Chillicothe library, located behind the courthouse. Children read picture books about heroes and villains in a nook by the front windows. Ramsey and Williams met Deister and a representative of the state attorney general’s office in a conference room. Deister’s black mustache had long since turned gray, his belly hung over his belt, and a bald patch had given way to a liver-spotted scalp with wisps of faded hair. Though he looked world-weary, he was combative when he spoke.

“Why were you concerned about how they were going to react?” Ramsey asked, referring to Deister’s decision to keep the full extent of his and Calvert’s work—Deister’s access to the case files, for instance—private from other law enforcement.

“Why not?” Deister retorted.

“I’m asking you, sir,” Ramsey said.

“Because I’d be concerned about anybody having objections to me working the case with the sheriff’s department, with Gary,” Deister said.

“Why would the troopers have an objection to you?” Ramsey asked.

“Why would they?” Deister said, again using a coy restatement of Ramsey’s question. “For no reason other than the fact that there’s a civilian out there doing some of the work.”  

“It had nothing to do with the reason you resigned from the Platte County sheriff’s department?” Ramsey asked, hitting on a sore subject.

“Why don’t you go look up a different street?” Deister said, his tone now tense. “No, it didn’t have anything to do with that.”

Ramsey was referring to an incident from 1981, when Deister was still on the vice squad in Platte County and was leading an investigation of a prostitution ring tied to a business called Utopia Health Studio. Allegedly a massage parlor, Utopia boasted several mirrored rooms with mattresses on raised, carpeted platforms, as well as a rock-cave suite equipped with heavy chains, a padded stockade, and leather whips. The FBI suspected that Deister might have been doing more than probing the business, and Deister faced possible criminal charges for promoting prostitution. He resigned from his job. Soon after, he hung out his shingle as a private eye.

At the conference table, Williams pulled a document out of a plastic box. Ramsey handed it to Deister.

“Page 76,” Ramsey instructed.

“OK.”

“Who is Brent?”

“Who is who?” Deister said.

“It talks about a Brent. I’ve got a telephone number here.” Ramsey directed Deister to an entry on the private eye’s call log from the Woodworth investigation.

“Brent Elliott,” Deister said, referring to the former Livingston County prosecutor who had also served as Judge Lewis’s personal attorney.

Ramsey grilled Deister about his interactions with Elliott, which seemed to incense the investigator. “I have no respect for your kind, believe me,” Deister said to Ramsey. “You’re nothing but a parasite.” Ramsey had anticipated this turn in the exchange. “One of my goals was to knock him off balance, kind of an aikido move,” he later explained. “Getting under his skin, it took about two minutes to do that.”

Ramsey and Williams presented another page of Deister’s notes, on DunCourt and Associates letterhead. “I guess you don’t remember the September 1, 1992 phone call you had with Brent Elliott, do you?” Ramsey asked. The call occurred during a week when Deister spoke multiple times with both Elliott and Roger Summers, his friend at the forensics lab in England.

“Apparently not, no,” Deister said.

In tabbed folders arranged by Williams, Ramsey had the full scope of Lyndel’s payments to Deister, totaling about $35,000 in the form of checks, the title of Cathy’s Suburban, and wheat that Lyndel sold in Deister’s name. Ramsey grilled Deister on the apparent malfeasance of his concurrent involvement in the shooting investigation and the embezzlement case. “I got about as much respect for you as I do a flea on the ground,” Deister said at one point. “You’re not even looking at the real issues on who killed this woman.” Afterward he called Calvert, with whom he was still friendly, to say how mad he was.

“I have no respect for your kind, believe me. You’re nothing but a parasite.” 

Before his own deposition a few weeks later, Calvert agreed to meet Ramsey and Williams at a small hotel in Chillicothe sometimes frequented by fabric enthusiasts because of its proximity to the Missouri Star Quilt Company. Calvert, a thin man with large-frame glasses and a tendency to speak in a mumble, no longer worked at the sheriff’s office. He’d become sheriff of Livingston County in the 1990s and then left public service in 2001, securing lucrative work doing background checks and other investigative assignments in the Middle East on behalf of the U.S. military and various contractors. He’d returned home in 2006 and started working for a security firm from a desk at his home on the outskirts of Chillicothe. Calvert had recently married a woman named Slavica, who had a thick Eastern European accent and accompanied him to the hotel room. She sat stiffly to one side during the conversation, staring at Williams.

Ramsey wanted to talk with Calvert before the deposition in hope that the former lawman’s instinct for self-preservation would kick in once he heard what he’d be asked under oath. Ramsey showed Calvert the Lewis letters; Calvert said that he’d never seen them before. “Yeah, that’s what everyone’s been saying,” Ramsey replied. (Judge Lewis, who by then had retired and was frail from a battle with cancer, was adamant in his own deposition that the letters revealed nothing unethical. He died in 2016 at the age of 79.)

Ramsey also asked Calvert about Lyndel recanting his initial accusation against Brandon Hagan. “Lyndel never changed his story in his testimony,” Calvert insisted. Which was technically true: Lyndel had never said Brandon was the killer under oath. By the time Lyndel gave sworn statements, Brandon had an alibi and the Robertsons were suspicious of Mark.

A few weeks later, at his deposition, Calvert claimed that he was unable to recall many of the details of his work with Deister—the result of a poor memory that Slavica sometimes complained about, he mused. The exchange was largely uneventful. Then, near the end, as Ramsey and Williams were getting ready to pack up their files and equipment, Calvert offered to explain how he’d once obtained Brandon’s fingerprints. “No, that’s OK,” Ramsey said, since it seemed like trivial information at best. Then he changed his mind. “Well, yeah, what happened?”

Calvert said he’d gotten the prints from police in Independence, who took them after Rochelle Robertson filed a complaint against Brandon for ignoring a restraining order that she’d obtained a week after her mother’s death. “He violated that order of protection,” Calvert said.

Ramsey and Williams were confused. They knew about the protective order, but Rochelle had testified under oath years before that Brandon had never violated it. Moreover, in the records Ramsey and Williams had obtained from law enforcement, there was no mention of Brandon breaching the order’s terms. “Would that show up in the court file?” Ramsey asked.

“I’m sure,” Calvert replied. Ramsey and Williams thought that they saw a slight smirk on his face.

Williams made a beeline for the courthouse. As with Faustenau’s transcription, it turned out that documents weren’t where they should have been. There were indeed records of Brandon making harassing phone calls to Rochelle on multiple occasions, but they’d been put in a folder separate from the protective order itself. And for some reason, the second folder had been transferred to a courthouse in another county—where none other than Brent Elliott, who’d been Rochelle’s attorney when she obtained the order, was now a judge. The records had never been produced at Mark’s trials to contradict Rochelle’s testimony about Brandon and call her credibility as a witness into question.

Several mysteries suddenly emerged: Why had Rochelle lied? Was there a good explanation, or was she trying to hide something? Who would go to the trouble of burying evidence of Brandon’s continued, illegal contact with Rochelle—and why?

Ramsey and Williams’s goal in the Oxenhandler hearing would be to show that Mark hadn’t received a fair trial. But they could also argue that the Lewis letters represented an evidentiary gateway to examine information that suggested a compelling new theory of the crime. The violations of the protective order might be that sort of information. It turned out there was more.

Part IV


1990

If she wasn’t quarreling with Brandon, Rochelle was arguing with her mother about Brandon. He was a prototypical bad boy who got into fights after drinking enough beer at high school parties. He twice beat up another guy Rochelle had dated. When he got mad at his girlfriend, he sometimes hit her, too. One time he choked Rochelle on a bed and threatened to break her neck. According to a friend of Rochelle’s who spoke under oath, if Brandon didn’t feel like his girlfriend was respecting him, he’d sometimes drive her through the countryside, accelerating to reckless speeds until she begged him to stop. If ever they broke up, Brandon threatened, he’d commit suicide.

Still, Rochelle loved him, and she hated that her mother told her what to do. Cathy said she’d buy Rochelle a car if she ended things, but Rochelle said no. Her relationship, however fraught, was her business.

Cathy’s sister later told investigators that, when Rochelle lived at home, she was “disruptive” and “self-centered.” Lyndel’s brother reported that Cathy had once “told Rochelle that she should leave and not come back.” In her own interview with police, Rochelle said of her mother, “I loved her and everything, but it’s just that—it seemed like she didn’t like any of my boyfriends and I never did anything right.”

“I could never look her in the eye,” she said in the same interview, “because I always felt that she didn’t like me very much.”

Even when Cathy was hardly speaking to their eldest child, Lyndel would slip Rochelle cash to cover her expenses. The situation with Brandon coincided with a rough patch in Lyndel and Cathy’s marriage. Farmhands sensed it on the walkie-talkies they used while working in the Robertsons’ fields. “Cathy would just rip into Lyndel on the radio,” Chris Ruoff said. On a car trip with their children the summer before the shooting, Lyndel ended an argument he and Cathy were having by slapping his wife across the face. She didn’t speak to him for several days afterward.

At the Hy-Vee grocery store, where she worked at the deli the summer before going to St. Joseph, Rochelle talked to her colleagues about the problems at home. According to her manager, Loronda Corbin, Rochelle said she “hated” her mother, “wished she was dead,” and “wished somebody would shoot her.” (Corbin was not called as a witness at either of Mark’s trials.) Later, at the Brass Buckle in St. Joseph, Rochelle was again candid about her relationship problems. Keri Lehmer, her boss, told investigators that she “knew Rochelle’s parents wanted them apart.”  

A few hours after the shooting, police came to Rochelle’s apartment in St. Joseph. She didn’t answer their knocking, so the officers unbolted her door. She said she’d been sleeping with a fan on and hadn’t heard them. Not long after, Kevin Price, a construction worker sent by a family friend, picked Rochelle up to bring her back to Chillicothe. During the drive, Rochelle said little, and Price didn’t try to draw her out. At one point, Price recalled Rochelle asking if her parents were hurt badly in the accident. Price said he told her about the shooting and her mother’s death. As they got closer to Chillicothe, Price mentioned that Brandon was a suspect. Rochelle insisted that Brandon hadn’t done it. According to Price, she said she’d spoken with her boyfriend on the phone at his home in Independence at 11 p.m., placing Brandon too far away from her parents’ house to have arrived there by the time of the shooting.

Price dropped off Rochelle at the home of Rhonda’s boyfriend, Brian Alexander, where the Robertson children had been taken from the crime scene. Soon after, Brandon arrived, too; Rochelle had called him as soon as the police showed up at her apartment. Brandon would later tell investigators that a friend drove him to Chillicothe, where he borrowed a Jeep that his old wrestling coach sometimes lent to athletes. Amy Baldwin, a friend of Rhonda’s, rode with Brandon from Chillicothe’s high school to the Alexanders’ house. Baldwin remembered Brandon saying, “I can’t believe this happened. I feel sorry for the family.”

The house was bustling with friends, relatives, and investigators, who were interviewing the Robertson kids one by one. Brandon gave Rochelle a hug and stood with her for a while, then walked over to Rhonda. “Do you think I shot them?” Brandon asked. Rhonda turned away and didn’t answer.

Brandon asked again, “Do you really think I did this?”

“I don’t know,” Rhonda said.

At some point, Brandon and Rochelle went upstairs into a room and closed the door behind them. According to Rochelle, they talked about questions that investigators might ask Brandon. The secrecy of the situation didn’t sit well with Marvin Alexander, Brian’s father, who knocked on the door and told them to come out.

Brandon went to the sheriff’s office to be interviewed. He gave his alibi, which his family confirmed: He’d been in his room by 9 p.m., and his sister placed him asleep in bed at 10:40 p.m., when she went in to get a blanket. His mother had been up until 1 a.m., when her husband came home from a swing shift, and she never saw Brandon leave. Brandon also confirmed that Rochelle had called him from St. Joseph before Price picked her up that morning. He described her as “real hysterical, and she was crying and everything, and she told me what happened.”

This seemed to conflict with Price’s version of events, in which he was the first to tell Rochelle that there’d been a shooting, not an accident. However, investigators either didn’t catch the disparity or didn’t think it was important enough to pursue. The same day, about 12 hours after the shooting, Brandon’s hands tested positive for gunshot residue. In Mark’s second trial, a forensic chemist would testify that the analysis fell outside the time frame for obtaining reliable results.  

Read Rochelle Robertson’s restraining order.
Read Rochelle Robertson’s restraining order.

In her own interview, with Calvert and other investigators, Rochelle reiterated that she thought Brandon was innocent. One detail in her story had changed, however: She did not tell police that she’d spoken to Brandon on the phone the night of the shooting. Instead, she said that she’d gone home after work, read part of a Danielle Steel novel, and fallen asleep before midnight. This version of events fit neatly with Brandon’s alibi, even more so than the one in which the pair talked before bed. If his sister said he was asleep before 11 p.m., Brandon couldn’t have been on the phone then.

Law enforcement confirmed that Rochelle had been at work the evening of the murder, and they interviewed her roommate, Baniki Dawson, who described Brandon as “very jealous and possessive.” The report didn’t indicate whether the officers had asked Dawson about Rochelle’s activity the night of the shooting. Similarly, if the investigators had checked the phone records from Brandon’s house, that information wasn’t included in the case files.

The tone of Rochelle’s interview shifted when an investigator suggested that the shooter must have known “right where they were going” and “had the gall to walk by” two of the Robertson children’s bedrooms before killing their mother. “The way I pictured it in my mind,” Rochelle responded, “was somebody went and opened the door, and they just stood right in the doorway, and it was dark. I don’t know how the moon was outside, but this is how I picture it in my mind. The curtains are open, and you can see because of the moonlight, and they shot my mom and then they shot my dad. That’s all that I can think of.”

An investigator asked what Rochelle imagined Lyndel doing when he woke up, before being shot. “I picture it happened so fast, he doesn’t really—I picture bang, bang,” she said. “I picture them shooting her and then him right after, before he even has a chance to sit up.”

“You think it was done with a pistol or a rifle?”

“When I picture it, I think of a pistol. But I don’t know,” Rochelle said. “I pictured myself behind the person, [looking] around their shoulder and looking right at the gun.”

Rochelle’s description of the crime made investigators suspicious. In a second interrogation, they asked about Brandon’s abuse. At first, Rochelle said that he’d never been violent with her. When investigators pressed her, she recanted. “I lied about one thing,” Rochelle admitted.

“You’ve lied about a lot more things than one thing,” an officer replied. “If you think that you’re going to skate on us just because you’re an attractive, nice-looking girl, you’re not going to skate. If you’re dirty, we’re going to prove it.”

“I’m not covering for him,” Rochelle said of Brandon. “I’m telling you everything I can tell you.”

“But what’s your gut tell you?” Calvert asked.

“When I first heard, I didn’t know who could do that. Everybody’s been talking about Brandon, Brandon, Brandon—and I started getting doubt in my mind,” Rochelle said. “In my heart, I don’t think he did that to me.”

Unbeknownst to most people in Chillicothe, at the time, Rochelle was pregnant with Brandon’s child. Nine days before the shooting, on a trip home from St. Joseph, Rochelle had shown her friend Carmen Kinsella the positive results of a pregnancy test from her college clinic. She was about three months along. She also shared the $500 estimate for the abortion she was scheduled to have a few days later in Kansas City. Brandon had offered to pay for the procedure, but he’d also waffled on whether he actually wanted Rochelle to go through with it. They’d talked about keeping the baby. Crying on a sidewalk in downtown Chillicothe, Rochelle told Kinsella that she wasn’t sure what to do.

Ultimately, Rochelle skipped her abortion appointment. Lyndel would later tell investigators that he and Cathy weren’t aware of the pregnancy. But Brandon told Rochelle he suspected that Cathy knew because she had a mother’s intuition.

Whether this was true or not, Cathy tried in earnest to break the couple up in the weeks before the shooting. One day she called Brandon’s mother, Renee Thomure, and demanded that she tell her son to stop seeing Rochelle. Cathy threatened to take out a restraining order if Brandon kept coming around, and she said that he needed professional help to get over Rochelle. Thomure reportedly tried to calm Cathy down. “I’ve never done nothing to you, you don’t know me from nowhere, and I’ve been nice to you,” she said, according to Brandon. “I’d like to expect the same from you.”

The call didn’t work, and Cathy kept her word. She went to the Chillicothe police station and got the paperwork for a restraining order. The night of the shooting, she left it sitting on the kitchen table.  

In the days after the crime, Rochelle’s family told her to terminate the pregnancy as well as her relationship with Brandon. She called Brandon to tell him that she was taking out a protective order against him. The next day, she wrote on the legal form in wide script that he “has struck me in the past, and has made frequent harassing telephone calls.” She added that he “may have murdered my mother and attempted to kill my father.” Soon after, a friend drove Rochelle to get the abortion. (The pregnancy was not mentioned at the first trial and was brought up only briefly at the second.)

Two months after the shooting, Rochelle took a polygraph test. One of the questions was “Did you shoot your parents?” She failed. Polygraphs are controversial; their accuracy in identifying lies is a matter of scientific debate. The examiner largely attributed the outcome of Rochelle’s test to her trying to control her breathing instead of acting and speaking naturally. She agreed to take another one but never did. A few days later, Claude Woodworth heard from friends that Lyndel was telling people his business partner might be involved in the murder.


2011

Rochelle arrived at her deposition with Ramsey and Williams in the Livingston County library wearing a pink T-shirt that said “Fashion Is Not a Luxury.” Metal bracelets clanked on her wrists, and a silver cross hung from a chain around her neck. Her last name was Koehly now, and she and her husband had two sons. She still lived in Chillicothe and was involved in 4-H like her mother had been.

According to Williams, the goal of the exchange was to “get onto the record all of the things that had been swept under the rug at the first two trials, all the inconsistencies” that she and Ramsey had discovered in the case files and in interviews. During the deposition, Rochelle claimed 59 times that she couldn’t recall details of events surrounding her mother’s death and the murder investigation. She attributed this to a bad memory she’d had since she was a child.

“Did you tell anyone after you found out your parents had been shot that Brandon couldn’t have done the shooting,” Ramsey asked, “because you called him at a time when he couldn’t have been in Chillicothe?”

“I don’t remember saying that to anybody,” Rochelle said.

“Did you ever see any reports of any persons, especially from a person named Kevin Price, that indicated that?

“No.”

“Would you have any reason to dispute Kevin Price if that’s what he said?”

“Who is Kevin Price?”

“Do you know Kevin Price?”

“I don’t think so. That name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t think of who that is.”

Ramsey glanced at Williams, who pulled a document from a folder.

“I’m going to show you what’s been marked as Exhibit 13,” Ramsey said, sliding over the portion of Rochelle’s interrogation from shortly after the murder in which she’d conceded that Brandon had been violent with her. Among the instances she’d described to investigators was one in which Brandon punched the dashboard of her car. Rochelle sat silently as she read over her own words.

“How do I answer this? Because I don’t know. I don’t remember,” Rochelle said, glancing over at a representative from the attorney general’s office who was present for the deposition. “I mean, if somebody said it—and I’m not disputing that I had said it to them, but I don’t remember saying it to them. How do I—how do I—what do I do?”

“I’m just asking you if you dispute it,” Ramsey said.

“He never damaged my vehicle.”

“Do you dispute that you then later said, ‘The only thing I lied about was being punched in the eye.’”

“No, I don’t dispute that.”

Later in the deposition, Ramsey asked Rochelle why she’d lied about the abuse. “Because I was embarrassed,” she said, looking down at the table. “But then I came back later and told them.”

Ramsey directed Rochelle to another passage from her 1990 interrogation, in which she asked the officers questioning her whether they thought Brandon could kill somebody. “What do you think?” an investigator replied. “Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to think it,” Rochelle said.

Ramsey asked if Rochelle disputed that the exchange had occurred. She said she did not.

Rochelle asked the officers whether they thought Brandon could kill somebody. “What do you think?” an investigator replied.

Williams took on the task of compiling documentation of Brandon’s criminal history. Ramsey referred to Williams as his right arm, but she preferred the nickname Ramsey’s Google, given to her because she could find any detail in tens of thousands of pages of case files in a matter of minutes. Williams also proved as unflappable as a seasoned investigator when it came to tracking down police reports, cold-calling witnesses, and showing up at people’s doors.

She learned that, in 2006, Brandon was sentenced to six months in jail for drunk driving. Three years later, Sandy O’Connell, the mother of a young woman who was pregnant with Brandon’s child, approached police near the town of Lake Ozark, where Brandon was living. “He has beaten on my daughter,” O’Connell reported. “Brandon Hagan has personally threatened to kill me and has told me that he would kill me and my ‘white trash family.’” In the midst of Williams gathering evidence, police in Jefferson City received another abuse complaint against Brandon, this time from neighbors of his then girlfriend, Amanda Feuerborn. An officer observed in a report that Feuerborn’s “left eye was starting to turn black and blue,” which she said was from Brandon punching her; when she tried to get away, “he slapped her and threw her on the floor.”

Brandon’s persistent violence against women was shocking, but it didn’t implicate him in the Robertson shooting. Then a report from a man stopped Williams in her tracks. She got her hands on the document after law enforcement near Lake Ozark passed it to the sheriff’s office in Chillicothe, where a man named Steve Cox was now in charge. According to the report, an individual named Aaron Duncan had approached law enforcement and said that Brandon had bragged about being a “number-one suspect” in a murder investigation that “had gone on a long time.”

Williams drove from St. Louis to visit Duncan, a 26-year-old mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighter who’d got to know Brandon when the former wrestler was cutting his teeth as a fight promoter, one of a few careers Brandon had tried on for size. Duncan and his wife greeted Williams and sent their children to play so that Duncan could tell his story, which he later repeated in a deposition.

One night in 2008, Duncan had gone over to Brandon’s house. The men were drinking in the garage when Brandon started rifling through some boxes. There were wrestling trophies inside, but Brandon was more interested in newspaper clippings from a time when, he told Duncan, he’d been accused of murdering his girlfriend’s mom. The girlfriend’s parents “had wanted her to stop seeing him,” Duncan recalled. “Brandon said they’d fought all the time, this and that, him and the parents. And they thought he was too aggressive for her.” Brandon also talked about “someone named Mark,” Duncan said. “He was really talking down about this Mark guy, like how stupid he was.”

Duncan said that Brandon had made self-incriminating disclosures in the past, about cooking meth in college, selling ecstasy pills, and beating someone in Chicago with a golf club. Talking about being a murder suspect was, however perversely, in character for the Brandon that Duncan knew. “I didn’t think twice about it,” Duncan said.

Two weeks after the conversation in the garage, Brandon came to Duncan and asked for a $5,000 investment in an MMA venue he was hoping to open. Duncan had young kids at home, and money was tight, so he said he couldn’t help. “He flew off the handle,” Duncan said of Brandon. When Duncan told him to calm down, Brandon threatened to kill his friend’s family.

“I’ve killed before and got away with it,” Duncan recalled Brandon saying. “What makes you think I can’t do it again?’

Williams was dumbfounded. “It was a holy-shit moment,” she said. Then again, the case was full of those, so she was getting used to how they felt. “You realize there are ten more holy shits you’re going to find after that,” Williams said. “For each one, you’re going to go back through everything in the case file to see if that changes the way you see anything you thought you understood already.”

Williams had to wonder why Brandon would boast so cavalierly about murder and risk getting caught. Maybe he had a twisted reason for bragging about a crime he didn’t actually commit. His alibi, after all, had never been contradicted in court. Then Williams and Ramsey, along with Steve Cox at the Livingston County sheriff’s office, started getting calls from people in Chillicothe with other stories about Brandon.


1990

June Cairns was used to her son Matt’s friends coming over to the house. A high school wrestler popular among his peers, Matt often held court in the Cairns living room with guys on his team. Matt wasn’t particularly close with Brandon, whom he found cocky and a little too quick to pick fights over stupid things. Still, Brandon sometimes crashed at Matt’s house after parties or hung out on the family’s couch watching TV. He even kept coming by after he’d moved to Independence. June thought Brandon had worn out his welcome.

One weekend in October 1990, Brandon stopped by the Cairns house to see Matt. He also wanted to use the family’s phone. Standing in the kitchen, he dialed the Robertsons’ number, and Cathy answered. Brandon asked to speak to Rochelle, who was home that day from St. Joseph, and Cathy said no. Brandon began yelling.

“You bitch!” June heard him say. “I’m going to slit your throat!”

June shot up from the dining room chair where she was sitting and went into the kitchen. “You don’t talk that way on my phone,” she told Brandon. She recalled him leaving the house without apologizing.

June saw Brandon again the morning of November 14. Sometime between 6 and 7 a.m., she was having coffee with her daughter and son-in-law when Brandon breezed into the house and went upstairs. Hours later, June heard about the murder of the shooting from the night before and Cathy Robertson’s death. She gave a formal statement to investigators, detailing what she’d heard Brandon say to Cathy on the phone and his arrival at her house the morning after the shooting. The investigators’ report, however, noted only that “Brandon started ‘bitching out’ Cathy Robertson and made threats toward her and Rochelle.” It didn’t include the time frame when June said Brandon had arrived at her home on November 14—which was around when Brandon had told police he’d left Independence.

An additional witness encountered Brandon at Chillicothe’s high school earlier than would have been possible if he were telling the truth. Bob Fairchild, the assistant principal, claimed to have seen Brandon in a hallway between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. Angie Smith, a teenager who lived down the road from the Robertsons, told law enforcement that, later that day, Brandon approached her and asked if she’d seen anything the night before. Smith said she hadn’t. She told investigators that she “thought that Brandon was more concerned with covering himself than his concern over what had happened.”

At least three other people claimed to have seen Brandon in Chillicothe the night of the shooting. Melissa Suchsland, a fellow high schooler, said she spotted him at an Amoco station between 9 and 10 p.m., standing next to what looked like a Bronco. After news of the shooting spread, Suchsland’s mother took her to the sheriff’s office to report what she’d seen; Suchsland would testify at Mark’s second trial, during which the prosecution questioned her memory and suggested that she was just looking for media attention. Mike Thistlethwaite, who’d once played sports with Brandon, told a friend that he’d seen his former teammate at the town’s bowling alley around 11 p.m. The friend approached the sheriff’s office with this information, and Thistlethwaite later testified that law enforcement never contacted him to follow up.

Then there was Linda Zurmiller, who had a daughter about Brandon’s age. According to Zurmiller, around 10:30 p.m. she pulled up to a stoplight near Chillicothe’s Sonic drive-in, and she saw Brandon in the car next to her. When Zurmiller spoke to law enforcement shortly after the shooting, she noted that it was strange to see Brandon on a weeknight, and at such a late hour, because he didn’t live in Chillicothe anymore. After Mark was convicted, Zurmiller approached the chief deputy sheriff to ask why her report hadn’t influenced the case. “Deputy Calvert told me that Brandon Thomure Hagan’s mother had given him an iron-clad alibi and they couldn’t go above what his mother said,” Zurmiller stated in an affidavit. Calvert told her that Brandon’s mom “opened his bedroom door and he was asleep in bed” the night of the shooting.

“And I told him no,” Zurmiller said, “he was not.”


2011

Ramsey and Williams had gathered nearly 200 pieces of evidence that they planned to submit during the hearing. At Bilbrey’s, with just a few weeks to go, they took stock of what the raft of testimony and documents told them about the case. Much of it pointed to faulty police work and an undue focus on convicting Mark. More evidence than they’d anticipated, however, made Brandon look guilty. It was all circumstantial, which wasn’t enough for a prosecutor to build a case on—and that wasn’t their job anyway. Still, the legal team hoped to use the hearing to at least air what they’d learned about Brandon.

They also wanted Brandon himself to testify, which meant tracking him down. Williams volunteered to go to bars he’d been known to frequent in and around Lake Ozark. “I wasn’t afraid of him. I thought he was a bully, and bullies never scared me,” she said. Ramsey, though, wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re not putting you in harm’s way,” he told Williams.

Instead, Williams contacted Brandon on the phone. He bounced around a lot; his various run-ins with the law didn’t help him hold down steady employment, and when child-support payments and tax liens piled up, he sometimes moved back in with his mother in Independence. Recently, though, he’d got an apartment in Jefferson City. When Brandon answered, and Williams explained who she was, he was defensive. “Every time I talk to someone my words get jumped and turned around,” he said. Brandon declared himself innocent. “I don’t know why everyone is focused on me,” he said. “You should talk to Rochelle.”

The statement took Williams by surprise. She’d assumed that Brandon and Rochelle had stopped talking many years earlier. Why would they still be in touch?

“Do you have a number for her?” Williams asked.

“I call my mom if I need to get ahold of her,” Brandon said. “She calls Lyndel and gets Rochelle’s number for me to talk to her.” (In her deposition, Rochelle told Ramsey that she and Brandon hadn’t spoken since 2003 or 2004.)

Williams asked what Brandon’s mom and Lyndel had to talk about. Brandon said “newspaper articles about the case”—a reference to Alan Zagier’s AP reporting from a few years prior. Williams planned to inquire next about what he and Rochelle had to discuss, but Brandon cut things short.

“How would talking to me help anything?” he asked. The call suddenly dropped. When Williams tried Brandon’s number again, it went straight to voice mail. On a later call, Brandon told Williams and Ramsey that he wouldn’t talk without a lawyer. His mother also said she had no interest in talking.

A few weeks later, Williams and Ramsey showed up at Brandon’s apartment. Because of his wrestling and MMA experience, Williams expected him to have a commanding physical presence. The man who opened the door was small and compact. He held a shirt in one hand, and he had shaving cream on his face. Williams explained that he was needed to testify at the hearing about his past statements to police. “They raped me for years,” Brandon said of law enforcement. “I’m not going back to court. I’m the victim here.”

When Williams tried to ask Brandon questions, he said, “I’m not talking to you—you have to talk to my lawyer.” She pointed out that he’d eventually have to speak under oath, and he asked defiantly, “Well, what if I don’t come?”

There, on the doorstep, Brandon was served with a subpoena.

Part V


2011

On Mark Woodworth’s 3,498th day in prison, he woke up at 5 a.m. He put on a gray uniform, and guards placed his wrists in shackles. He walked down a series of sterile corridors until he reached a door. Outside was a car waiting to take him away from Crossroads Correctional. It was a nearly three-hour drive to Boone County, where the evidentiary hearing was scheduled to begin that day—May 31, 2011—in Judge Oxenhandler’s court. From the car’s backseat, Mark looked out the windows as mile after mile of flat farmland zipped by. A leaden dawn eventually gave way to bright sunshine. Mark saw green pastures, roaming cattle, and rows of freshly planted crops fading to a blur on the horizon. Once this had all been familiar; now it was foreign.

At the courthouse, officers escorted Mark to a small room, where he traded the uniform for a dress shirt, slacks, and shiny black shoes. It was the first time he’d worn civilian clothes in more than a decade. His parents, who’d brought the outfit from Chillicothe, were waiting in the courtroom with dozens of friends. Members of the Free Mark Woodworth campaign, which had raised money for his legal fees and designed T-shirts and license-plate holders promoting the cause, had met early that morning in the parking lot of Chillicothe’s Hy-Vee. Loaded down with home-baked cookies and thermoses of coffee, they’d piled into rented vans and caravanned to Boone County.

Among the supporters was Chris Ruoff, who was sure Mark had been bulldozed, and Kathy Smith, whose backyard shared a border with the Robertsons’. After Cathy was murdered, Rhonda, still in high school, would call up Smith to ask how to get a grass stain out of her brother’s baseball pants or what kind of soup goes well with grilled-cheese sandwiches. “I said ‘I would do chicken noodle soup’ and just have tears in my eyes, because that’s not something a 16-year-old girl should be thinking about,” Smith said. But while her heart went out to the Robertsons, she didn’t think Mark was guilty. “I needed to hear myself, firsthand, some of the things that had been rumored about in town,” Smith said of her decision to travel to Boone County.

On the other side of the courtroom were the Robertsons with a smaller group of allies. The siblings were now adults, raising kids of their own. The family had never wavered in their belief that Mark killed Cathy, but they were powerless to keep rival forces at bay in a place as small as Chillicothe. Rhonda and her husband had stopped buying farm supplies from a business that supported the Free Mark Woodworth crusade. Family friends had quit going to their church after the reverend offered up prayers for the Woodworths. Not long before the evidentiary hearing, an elementary school classmate of Rhonda’s son had approached him and said, “I don’t think he’s guilty,” before turning and walking away. The statement was a kind of shorthand, a fragment of knowing language that embodied the town’s intimacy and tapped into the powerful emotional charge that had pulsed through it since November 1990.

Mark, Ramsey, and Williams filed into the courtroom and took their places at the defense table. Ted Bruce and Stephen Hawke, representatives from the state attorney general’s office, sat across the aisle. Oxenhandler, a stern man with a white beard who talked rapidly, as if to convey that he didn’t have time for people to waste, called the court to order for the first of four days.

Ramsey’s plan was to petition Oxenhandler for habeas corpus relief, which would free Mark on the grounds that he hadn’t received a fair trial. To Ramsey’s mind, the case against his client represented a manifest injustice, and he would call some 30 witnesses to prove it. The prosecution, however, argued that the only question at stake was whether there was any new evidence to consider. They planned to show that all the exhibits Ramsey had mustered, including the Lewis letters, had been available to Mark’s previous attorneys. If past counsel made poor strategic decisions with that evidence, the state wasn’t to blame.

One by one, Ramsey called his witnesses. Terry Deister was on the stand for the longest stretch of time; it was the first court testimony he’d ever given about Mark’s case.

“You were working for Mr. Robertson in the capacity of helping him defend against a lawsuit, weren’t you?” Ramsey asked.

“I don’t remember anything about that,” Deister said.

Williams handed Ramsey another exhibit: a note from June 1991 in which the private eye had written, “I expressed my concerns about the profile of Mark Woodworth from what I had determined about the conversations I had with Lyndel Robertson.” What did Lyndel say about his neighbor’s son? Ramsey asked.

“I don’t remember,” Deister said.

Ramsey read directly from the evidence. “‘He seemed to be a prime candidate to fall under the profile of an individual who would do almost anything to get the approval [of] his father,’” Ramsey said. “What facts did you base that on? Was that the information you received from Lyndel Robertson?”

“Possibly, yes,” Deister said.

“You knew at that point that Mr. Robertson, your client, was being sued by Mark Woodworth’s father, alleging fraud, didn’t you?”

“No. I don’t remember,” Deister replied. “I don’t even remember much about the civil suit.”

“Are you telling me that you never discussed with Mr. Robertson that there was a lawsuit filed by Mark Woodworth’s father against him?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t remember.”

After more than an hour of interrogation, Oxenhandler had a few questions of his own. The judge remarked on Deister’s unfettered access to the case files. “You’ve been in law enforcement since the sixties,” Oxenhandler said. “You know that in the course of an investigation, police files are not open to anyone.”

“Yes,” Deister said.

Oxenhandler then asked about conflicts of interest and a seeming failure to challenge Brandon’s alibi before inquiring, as a general matter, “Are you having second thoughts with regards to the investigation?”

Deister said no.

At the end of each day of the hearing, Mark changed into his prison uniform and rode back to Crossroads Correctional. Most Chillicothe residents went home for the night, too, but the Woodworths stayed in a local hotel. So did Ramsey and Williams, who worked around the clock in a war room outfitted with portable printers and a conference table littered with documents and boxes of Chinese takeout. Once, when the legal team ran into the Woodworths in the lobby, the family asked what Oxenhandler had said when he called Ramsey to the bench during Deister’s testimony.

“I think you’ve made your point about this man’s integrity,” the judge had said. “You can’t beat a dead horse. Let’s move on.”

“I think you’ve made your point about this man’s integrity. You can’t beat a dead horse.”

Kenny Hulshof flew in for his testimony. He now worked as a lawyer at the firm Polsinelli, which had offices in Missouri and Washington, D.C. After serving six terms in the House of Representatives and losing the 2008 Missouri gubernatorial race, Hulshof had faced scrutiny for his time as a state prosecutor. Investigations into his record would lead to several murder convictions being overturned or thrown out, including that of Josh Kezer, a teenager at the time of his alleged crime. The judge who reversed the conviction found that Hulshof had withheld evidence from Kezer’s defense and misled the jury. “We now know that none of what Mr. Hulshof said in [his] final summary was true,” the judge wrote.

On the stand in Oxenhandler’s court, Hulshof looked poised in a crisp white shirt, dark navy suit, and Windsor-knotted tie. His straw-blond hair was parted over his tanned face. He assured the room that the Lewis letters had been provided to Mark’s defense team during the first trial.

“Do you recall what your process was for making sure that you complied with your obligations?” prosecutor Ted Bruce asked, referring to the sharing of potentially exculpatory evidence.

“My investigator or I, usually my investigator, would hand-number every single page that we received,” Hulshof said, “and then we would make a copy of those investigative reports and tender them to counsel for the defendant.”

Williams felt a jolt of recognition. She grabbed a pen and scribbled a note as fast as she could on a piece of paper. Then she reached over Mark, seated between the two members of his legal team, and jabbed Ramsey in the arm. Williams gestured for her boss to look down at what she’d written in all caps.

“NO NUMBERS!”

Williams then turned to a filing box next to the defense table and flipped through pages until she found copies of the Lewis letters. She yanked them out and handed them to Ramsey. “There were never any numbers. They never stamped these,” she said under her breath.

Ramsey stood to question the witness. “You said, I believe, earlier that it was your practice to put numbers on all the documents that you produced to the defense. Correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Hulshof said.

Ramsey handed him the copies of the letters that Williams had retrieved. “There’s no numbers on those pages, are there?” Ramsey asked.

Hulshof studied the letters. Ramsey swore he saw the color drain from the former prosecutor’s face. There was a long pause.

“There are no numbers,” Hulshof said finally.

At the defense table, Williams beamed. “I knew it,” she whispered to Mark. She’d just showed the court that there was no proof that the Lewis letters had ever made it into the hands of Mark’s defense attorneys, which meant conclusively that they were new evidence. “I thought he was going to have a bowel movement on the witness stand,” Ramsey said of Hulshof.

Ramsey wasn’t done with the witness. “You also stated that this is the only case that you’ve ever prosecuted in which the victim had hired a private investigator to work with law enforcement,” Ramsey said.

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s pretty unusual, isn’t it?”

“It was.”

“From a prosecutor’s standpoint, can that raise issues as to a conflict of interest of the private investigator?”

“There are a host of issues. Conflict of interest is one of them.”

“Especially where that investigator is representing the client who is the victim on a civil suit in which one of the parties’ father sued him for defrauding him, correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Hulshof said, adding that he “wasn’t very conversant” about the civil case.

“And what did you do to resolve the doubts that you had … about Mr. Deister’s potential divided loyalty?” Ramsey asked.

“As far as putting on our case in the first trial, I tried to not have to use Mr. Deister.”

Hulshof, in other words, seemed to have known that questioning Deister on the stand wouldn’t have been smart. Still, he’d used the private investigator’s evidence to build his case against Mark.

Dana Williams, the Chillicothe resident who’d admired Hulshof’s performance at the first trial, was once again in the courtroom. The former prosecutor, she decided, was outmatched. “Ramsey had the facts down, and he was throwing questions at him like he’d done it for a hundred years,” she said. “Hulshof had tried to cover his tracks, and it didn’t go real well.”

Lyndel took the stand wearing a blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, with an eyeglasses case protruding from the breast pocket. Like other witnesses, he said he couldn’t remember many details from the murder investigation, describing his memory as “a big blur.” He’d once said under oath that he was never aware that Roberts didn’t want to charge Mark. Now, with the Lewis letters in evidence, he acknowledged that he’d probably known that the prosecutor “wasn’t aggressive.” (Roberts testified at the hearing, too, noting, “If you allow the victim or alleged victim of a crime to remove the prosecutor every time the prosecutor disagrees with him, then you’re opening a door up to that happening any time the prosecutor doesn’t think there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a case or [that] a particular person should be prosecuted.”)

Ramsey had questions that went well beyond the Lewis letters—ones he knew were likely to provoke the prosecution. He asked Lyndel about Brandon’s violations of Rochelle’s protective order, and Ted Bruce immediately objected. “I don’t see how it’s relevant for any issue that this court has to decide,” the prosecutor said.

“This goes to the man’s motivation,” Ramsey replied. “It goes to the credibility of not only him but … of his daughter.”

Oxenhandler overruled the objection.

“Yeah, I think I did [know] at the time,” Lyndel said of Rochelle’s reports against Brandon, including that he’d harassed her new boyfriend, who later became her husband. “But it’s kind of foggy now. I don’t remember.”

“Did you talk to your daughter at all about all of that?”

“She didn’t really relay it to me that much.”

“So she went over to the sheriff’s department to complain about being threatened, but she didn’t tell you about it?”

“She probably didn’t want to bother me.”

Ramsey methodically presented other evidence casting suspicion on Brandon: the witnesses’ contradictions of his alibi, his threats against Cathy Robertson, and the confession he’d allegedly made to Aaron Duncan. For some of the people from Chillicothe who’d come to watch the hearing, what Ramsey revealed was news—but it matched their understanding of who Brandon was. “That fit right into Brandon’s personality,” Kathy Smith said.

Finally, Ramsey called Brandon himself to the stand. Brandon honored the subpoena, showing up on the appointed day with a clean-shaven face and gel-spiked hair. He wore a gray suit that looked to be a size too big. His ears were cauliflowered from years on wrestling mats.

Brandon came with his attorney, John Waltz, who approached the bench before his client was called to the stand. “Your honor, I represent Brandon Hagan,” Waltz said. “Because he is being targeted by the current sheriff of Livingston County and in the news media, I’ve instructed him to take the Fifth.” Once he was sworn in, Brandon dutifully followed his lawyer’s advice.

“Were you the boyfriend of Rochelle Robertson at one point?” Ramsey asked.

Brandon declined to answer.

“Did you tell the police when you were interviewed that you left Independence, Missouri, at ten minutes to seven the morning after the murder?” Ramsey asked.

Brandon again pleaded the Fifth.

“I don’t have anything further, your honor,” Ramsey said.

Before Brandon was dismissed, Oxenhandler waved Waltz back up to the bench. The judge turned off his microphone. He had some information that the lawyer and his client hadn’t expected. “As an officer of the court, I want you to be aware that there is a warrant for your client’s arrest out of another county,” Oxenhandler said. “When he leaves the courtroom, he is going to be arrested.”

“I’ll accompany him, of course,” Waltz replied.

Outside the room’s doors, officers detained Brandon for writing a bad check. They read him his rights, patted him down for weapons, and emptied the contents of his pockets. Among the items, according to Ramsey, Williams, and Steve Cox, was an index card on which Waltz had written, “If you forget, shut the fuck up.”

Oxenhandler told Ramsey and Bruce to prepare written briefs of their arguments, after which he’d bring them back into his court in November 2011 for a concluding session. At that hearing, Bruce tried to counter Ramsey’s witnesses, particularly those who’d testified against Brandon. “I have no idea whether or not they are intentionally lying, whether or not they are just completely wrong,” Bruce said. Wasn’t it telling, he continued, that the surviving witness didn’t think Brandon did it? “If Mr. Lyndel Robertson wanted to make this case an easy one, all he had to do is say, ‘I saw who did it,’” Bruce said. “I have been troubled all along at the willingness to assume misconduct on the part of people, and not just the police, not just the prosecutor, not just the judges. The victims as well.” Ramsey’s rebuttal hinged on the existence of the Lewis letters and on Deister and Calvert’s work on the case, which Ramsey said “immediately calls into question the integrity of the investigation.”

It would be several months before Oxenhandler issued his recommendation to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mark remained in prison. The Woodworths, the Robertsons, and their respective supporters fell back into the uncomfortable habits of life as neighbors in Chillicothe. Williams and Ramsey returned to Bilbrey’s, where each time they logged on to the Missouri courts’ website, they hoped for an alert that Oxenhandler’s findings were available.

Finally, in May 2012, Ramsey received an email from the judge’s office. It said that the report would arrive in a few minutes, after which there would be a public release. Oxenhandler was ruling in Mark’s favor.

Ramsey and Williams yelled out, startling other staff in the office. In between tears, hugs, and jumping up and down, they read aloud lines from the report: “Woodworth had the burden to prove that he was entitled to habeas corpus relief, and he proved it, clearly and convincingly.” The Lewis letters and “all of the subsequently uncovered evidence … should have been disclosed years and years before.” Oxenhandler found Deister “not to be credible.” Calvert’s office “inexcusably” let Deister take the reins of the investigation. Lewis displayed “inappropriateness” and “lost sight of his judicial sense of fairness.” Lyndel’s employment of Deister in two conflicting legal matters was “problematic.” Hulshof’s prosecution was “as flawed [as] the investigation.”

Oxenhandler criticized the focus on Mark as a suspect when there was “an open and obvious ‘other’ person who may have committed the crimes”—namely, Brandon. The judge also criticized an “apparent pattern of not following up on witnesses and investigative leads which tended to contradict [Brandon’s] alibi.” Of Rochelle he wrote that she “was not being candid” about Brandon’s threats. “This demonstrated, at the very least, Rochelle’s intention to protect her boyfriend … from prosecution,” Oxenhandler said. “Either Rochelle was dishonest with the investigators or the investigators were not reporting what they really knew.”

In a fervent section, the judge said that he was “hard-pressed to come up with a word or phrase in the English language that fairly describes the conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth’s judicial process: They could be the lyrics to a country and western song.”

Ramsey and Williams dialed the number for Crossroads Correctional to tell Mark the news. True to form, he thanked them calmly and politely. Williams, though, sensed a spark of excitement.

The Missouri Supreme Court still had to decide whether or not to take Oxenhandler’s recommendation. At a hearing in June 2012, the seven black-robed justices sat in a room paneled with dark oak and heard Ramsey and Bruce speak one last time. They also asked questions. Of particular interest to the court were the ballistics and their chain of custody.

“The evidence at the hearing was that [Deister] was given physical possession, without supervision, of the bullet?” a judge asked.

“That’s correct,” Ramsey said.

“The conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth’s judicial process … could be the lyrics to a country and western song.”

The Supreme Court released its decision six months later. The language was unequivocal: The court supported Oxenhandler’s findings and ordered the vacating of Mark’s conviction. He would be released on bond pending a new trial, which the attorney general’s office vowed to mount with the Robertsons’ support. “If seeking justice for the murder of Cathy Robertson takes a third trial and 100 years,” the family said in a statement after the decision came down, “we will do what it takes to hold Mark Woodworth accountable for his actions.”

On February 15, 2013, Mark was transferred from Crossroads Correctional to the Livingston County sheriff’s office. His family was waiting for him, along with Williams and Ramsey. Mark changed into a blue shirt and slacks, and he shook hands with various deputies who wished him congratulations. Mark hesitated when he got to the office’s glass doors. There were hundreds of people in the streets, some holding posters with messages welcoming him home. Media cameras lined the sidewalks. Mark looked around, expecting someone to lead him out. Instead he heard voices urge, “Go on.” Out he walked into the cheering crowd.

Elsewhere supporters of the Robertson family were furious. “I’m ashamed of this town that celebrates a murderer’s homecoming like he is a hero,” one woman wrote on the Facebook page Peace and Justice for Cathy Robertson. “How a two-time convicted murderer can be let free and a welcome-home parade given in his honor is just plain sick,” another wrote. “[That] this ‘person,’ and I use the term very lightly … has the gall to stay in this town and walk free is a little gutsy, don’t you think?”

After a barrage of hugs and questions, Mark was ready to go home, but he didn’t know how. What kinds of cars did his family drive now? Where had they parked? His sister led him to his brother’s truck, with the crowd trailing behind. Once they loaded inside, the siblings began the short trip to Claude and Jackie’s house. The last time Mark had taken the route was in the late 1990s. Back then he could practically drive it with his eyes closed. Now it felt like everything had changed. The roads were wider, and there was a new hospital in town. Outside his parents’ house, Mark couldn’t believe how tall the pine trees had grown.

The next day, Mark’s mom, grandmother, and aunt took him shopping. They went to Orscheln Farm and Home for jeans and to the Bootery for shoes. At an electronics store, his aunt got him an iPhone. “What do you want me to do with this?” he asked. The last time he’d been free, cell phones were only just starting to become everyday items. At the Hy-Vee, he ogled the self-checkout machine. He was surprised to learn at a gas station that he didn’t have to go inside to pay. “Now you use your credit card,” he said. “That was an experience.”

Other things were just as Mark had left them. He moved back into his childhood bedroom and started working with Claude in the fields. “My dream was to farm,” Mark said that fall. “By now I should have my own land, my own equipment, and I don’t have any of it.” If he had to make up for lost time, so be it.

The anticipation of a third trial, however, made it difficult to get started.    

Part VI


2014

A few months after the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling, a judge threw out the key ballistics evidence that allegedly implicated Mark in the shooting, citing “egregious, flagrant, cavalier disregard for evidentiary procedures and process.” The following year, he removed the attorney general’s office from the prosecution of the Robertson shooting and sent the matter back to Livingston County. “From the inception of the ‘secret investigation’ in 1991 through two trials,” the judge wrote, “the concept of ‘due process of law’ for defendant Woodworth took flight and did not reappear until approximately 2009.” The Robertson family questioned the impartiality of the sitting county prosecutor, so the judge appointed a special prosecutor. Finally, in July 2014, the state dismissed all charges against Mark. “The wrong person was charged in the first place,” the special prosecutor told the press. There would be no third trial.

The call came from Ramsey when Mark was in his father’s workshop. “It’s over,” Ramsey said. “You’re not going to have to worry about this anymore.” Mark went into the house to tell his mother, who began to weep. “I felt like my life had been on hold, waiting for the third trial,” Mark said. “I didn’t want to jump out there until it was over.” Now he was ready to live.

The next month, Ramsey filed a civil lawsuit on Mark’s behalf against numerous defendants, including Deister, Calvert, Lewis, Hulshof, Lyndel and Rochelle Robertson, Brandon Hagan, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department, the Chillicothe police, and other municipal authorities. The suit alleged:

Officials of the criminal justice system … conspired with civilians, who were acting under color of state law, to cruelly and cold-bloodedly frame Mark Woodworth for crimes he was innocent of. The conspirators accomplished their goals by conducting a sham investigation, fabricating false evidence, suppressing exculpatory evidence, and concealing their conspiratorial acts.

To Mark’s supporters in Chillicothe, it seemed obvious that he should get restitution for his time in prison. Other residents, however, saw the lawsuit as a fresh injustice. A professional spokesperson for the Robertson family, hired during the collapse of the case against Mark, said that the narrative of the shooting had tipped into lies and exaggeration. The people who believed the lawsuit’s accusations, she insisted, were like “children taking drugs from a dealer.”

Lyndel and other members of the Robertson family declined to speak for this story. But Rochelle, Rhonda, and Roxanne, the youngest sibling, agreed to meet in the dining room of Chillicothe’s Comfort Inn. When hotel staff fluttered near the table where the brown-haired sisters sat with water bottles, the women would pause their conversation, hoping to ward off any eavesdropping.

“When you go into town, it feels like you’re going into the mob,” Roxanne said.

“We vent to each other a lot,” Rhonda chimed in.

The sisters were frustrated that the town seemed to be forgetting what haunted them the most. “My mother is dead,” said Rhonda, herself a parent of three kids. “Mark has gained so much support. It seems like he has the whole town’s support. People get so wrapped up in this as a big story, and then they can close the book, throw away the newspaper, and turn off the TV. But my mom is still gone, and it’s something we have to live with every day.”

“They didn’t have to bury Mark,” Roxanne added.

“In the beginning here, it was us and the Woodworths,” Rhonda said. “They were our family. We thought of Jackie as a second mother, as much as we were with them.” Now if she saw one of the Woodworths at the Hy-Vee or at Walmart, she felt the urge to leave her cart half-filled and walk out of the store. Lyndel still owned the farmland adjacent to Claude’s, and he drove there every day for work, but he hadn’t spoken to his old business partner in many years. At a local preschool, Mark’s sisters avoided Rochelle, who worked as an aide in a classroom with some of their daughters.

“I would love to move,” Rhonda said, “but we’re anchored here with our farms. And, you know, part of me is like, ‘By God, we’re not going to let them run us off.’”

That finding justice for Cathy first required letting Mark go was an untenable notion for the Robertson sisters. They didn’t believe that someone could concurrently support Mark’s freedom and vindication for their mother’s death. It was an irreconcilable position.

Rochelle talked less than her sisters. Now and then, she cracked her knuckles under the table. “I just really want people to know that my mom was so much more than November 13, 1990,” she said. “She was the epitome of the perfect mom, in my mind anyway.” Rochelle talked about some of her earliest memories, when her siblings hadn’t yet been born and her mom took her on walks. “We’d go out in the creeks and collect these big ugly rocks, and then my dad would open them with a sledgehammer, and there’d be crystals,” she said. “They were the prettiest things inside. I always thought the crystals were diamonds.”

“I just really want people to know that my mom was so much more than November 13, 1990. She was the epitome of the perfect mom.”

The sisters denied that there had been serious tensions between Rochelle and their mother. “It wasn’t this tumultuous thing,” Rhonda said. “Sure, there were a couple of fights, but they got along—they just disagreed about Brandon.” The sisters said the notion that Rochelle might have been involved in the shooting, which Mark’s lawsuit explicitly suggested, was baseless.

“If I found out that she had something to do with this, it’d be no problem for me to tell the world that,” Rhonda said. “Because that’s someone’s life that was taken, and that’s way more important to me than saving my sister.”

At another point, Rhonda said wearily, “I wish the shooter had been Brandon. My life would be a hell of a lot easier. I wouldn’t be going through this agony.”

“I’m sure Dad wishes it was Brandon,” Roxanne added.

Sheriff Cox, who took over the reopened investigation into the Robertson shooting, believed Brandon was likely responsible for Cathy’s murder. “If we were in Las Vegas and the line was you put your money down on who you think did it, all my money would go on Brandon,” Cox said in a deposition. The sheriff grew even more confident after the Oxenhandler hearing, when additional circumstantial evidence came to light.

In 2011, Caleb Carter saw coverage of the hearing and reached out to Ramsey’s office. Caleb’s sister, Casey, had dated Brandon around the time of Mark’s second trial. She’d since passed away, but Caleb remembered a disturbing encounter he’d had with his sister’s boyfriend, before Brandon became so physically abusive toward Casey that her father told him to stop seeing her.

In 1998, Caleb went with Casey, Brandon, and some friends to spend a few nights at a condominium near a lake. One afternoon the group went to Old Time Photos, a portrait studio that sold sepia-toned pictures of patrons dressed in period costumes. Brandon dressed up as a gangster in a saloon. He wore a vest and a hat, an unlit cigar dangled from his mouth, and he gripped a fake pistol. A few hours after the photo was taken, the friends were drinking heavily at the condo when, according to Caleb in a deposition, Brandon “got angry about something and said, ‘I don’t mind shooting somebody or doing what I have to do.’” Caleb said that Brandon then “went into detail about how he had shot a couple of people in Chillicothe because they didn’t want him to date their daughter,” who was pregnant at the time. Caleb remembered Brandon’s saying that “he went to the house and went inside and shot the mom and dad and then he left. They were trying to take the baby away or make her not have a baby.”

Caleb pointed out that, back in 1998, it wasn’t as if someone at the condo could look up Brandon or the Chillicothe shooting on the internet as easily as they could in 2011. “I just thought he was full of it,” Caleb said. “The last thing I remember was him mentioning that he never got caught for it.”

When Cox heard Caleb’s story, he was angry. How many confessions does this guy have to make? the sheriff wondered. The number, however, wasn’t the issue—and it still isn’t.


2018

More than a quarter-century, two trials, and tens of thousands of pages of legal documents after Cathy’s murder, with the Robertsons still sure that Mark committed the crime, it’s likely that only a signed confession or murder weapon will lead to charges against anyone. And because virtually no one involved in the case has ever admitted wrongdoing and the mandate in Mark’s appeal was to prove his innocence, not convict someone else, the answers to several critical questions remain just out of reach.

If, as Ramsey has argued, Calvert, Deister, Lyndel, and others framed Mark, what was their motive? A frank if misguided desire to finish the case and bring closure to the Robertsons? A financial agreement benefiting certain individuals at Mark’s existential expense, and that of his family, too? Something more sinister, like a cover-up to protect the real killer?

If Brandon was the shooter, why has there never been any physical evidence found to implicate him? How likely is it, really, that a 16-year-old, no matter how volatile, could get away with murder, particularly after being the first suspect named by the surviving victim? Through legal representation, Brandon declined to comment for this story. “The claim that he was the true killer” and that he’d conspired with other people is “a bunch of bullshit,” attorney Ken McClain said.

Finally, what if someone else was responsible for Cathy’s murder, a suspect whom investigators missed completely? In a case so riddled with error, it’s not out of the question.

In Chillicothe, the shooting remains a tense, emotional issue. Cathy’s murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, Mark’s conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land. A complete reckoning of the wrongs done seems impossible so long as Cathy’s killer isn’t brought to justice. Until then, as surely as farmers plant and harvest their crops each year, so too will the memory of a violent death and the pain it wrought be perennial.

Cathy’s murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, Mark’s conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land.

On an unseasonably warm winter day, Mark walked across a quiet piece of land stretching toward a stand of poplar trees. The sun was starting to set. Here, a few miles outside Chillicothe, was the construction site of his new house. Once it was completed, he would share it with his wife, Katy, whom he’d met when his sisters orchestrated a lunch to introduce them. They have a son, Miles, who is two.

The house, situated on a 365-acre farm, was funded by a confidential insurance settlement from Mark’s civil suit. The number of defendants had been whittled down as the courts weighed who was responsible for his pain and suffering. The Robertsons and Brandon Hagan were dismissed, for instance, but Calvert, Livingston County, and Chillicothe law enforcement were found liable for tens of millions of dollars in damages. When that legal action ended, another cropped up in its wake: From an eighth-floor office overlooking the Mississippi, where he now has a small firm with his daughter, Ramsey is fighting a lawsuit brought by Brandon against him and Mark. Brandon alleges that being named as a coconspirator in Mark’s civil suit degraded his ability to obtain gainful employment. “He’s been fired from jobs because they found out about the case,” his mother, Renee Thomure, said. The first hearing is scheduled for July 2019.

Brandon, Ramsey, accusations, and court hearings didn’t seem to be on Mark’s mind as he walked through his home’s unfinished rooms. He described the colors he and Katy wanted to paint each wall: a soft green, a warm brown. The place felt as humble as it did idyllic.

Kelly Williams walked beside Mark, looking on the work in progress with satisfaction. She’d gotten married recently, to an insurance adjustor. After finishing Mark’s case, she’d worked at a courthouse for a while and eventually landed an administration job with more manageable hours at the University of Missouri. She stayed in close touch with the Woodworths, coming to Chillicothe as often as she could.

“I told Mark that he’s got to deal with me for the rest of his life,” she said.

“I’m stuck with her,” Mark echoed.

From her purse, Williams took out a photo laminated with clear tape. It shows the moment Mark walked out of the sheriff’s office in Chillicothe, in February 2013, and encountered a throng of supporters. In the middle of the swarm, Williams is behind Mark, smiling proudly as he melts into the crowd’s embrace.

Katy and Miles arrived at the construction site. The redheaded toddler dashed up to Williams to give her a hug. Mark bent down to adjust the Velcro straps on his son’s shoes. The group walked out of the house, to the area where Mark and Katy planned to build a back porch. “We wanted plenty of room,” Mark said of the acreage before him. There wasn’t a neighbor in sight.

Mark meandered back inside, to a room with tall windows facing east and south. This was where Katy would grow plants. “Succulents, those kinds of things,” Mark explained. “The sun comes in and warms the room.”

The moment echoed one from a few months after Mark first got out on bond in 2013, when he still didn’t know if he’d face another trial. One summer day, he drove in a truck—his truck—over a bumpy road on his father’s property, past a vast field of chest-high soybean stalks. He parked on a ridge and got out, then made his way down the slope to examine some of the plants. Harvest was nearing; he wondered how the crops were doing.

Soybeans are tough. In dry air, their leaves curl inward and toward the ground. “It’s how they survive against the summer sun while they wait for more rain,” Mark explained. “That’s their mechanism to defend themselves. That’s them doing what they can to fight.”

If you have any information regarding the murder of Cathy Robertson, please contact the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department at 660-646-0515 or via email at this link.

The Obsidian Serpent

ap120206113-1510674478-91.jpg

The Obsidian Serpent

A homeless father, a Marine’s death, and the making of a serial killer.

By León Krauze

The Atavist Magazine, No. 73


León Krauze is an author and journalist based in Los Angeles. He has written for The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. He holds the Wallis Annenberg Chair for Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is also a news anchor for Univision.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Images: Associated Press

Acknowledgements: This story was produced with support from the Ford Foundation as part of a project on migrants and migration policy run by the journalism program and international-studies division at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. Project coordination was provided by Carlos Bravo Regidor, research assistance by Lauren Eades and Irving Huerta.

Published in November 2017. Design updated in 2021.

1.

Around 9 p.m. on the chilly night of December 20, 2011, outside a strip mall in Placentia, California, James McGillivray lay down to go to sleep. Fifty-three years old, with a furrowed face, a graying beard, and disheveled, thinning hair, McGillivray was a familiar presence in the homeless community that lived along the Santa Ana River south of Los Angeles. That evening he’d been seen wandering around a liquor store. Now he settled onto a blanket spread out on a patch of sidewalk behind one of the mall’s exterior pillars, beneath the glimmer of fluorescent lamps. It was the last light McGillivray would ever see.

A wiry figure dressed in a dark hooded sweatshirt and gloves stood in the shadows of a nearby alleyway, watching and waiting. When McGillivray dozed off, the figure pounced. He pinned the homeless man down with a knee to the chest and unleashed a shocking barrage of violence. In the span of two minutes, he stabbed McGillivray 52 times in the upper torso and head. The assailant started out using one hand, then expertly passed the blade, a heavy-gauge Ka-Bar knife capable of piercing bone, to the other. Finally, he grasped the weapon with both hands and pounded away at his victim. After desperately flailing his arms and legs, McGillivray died within the first 40 seconds of the attack. The brutal murder was captured on grainy video by one of the shopping center’s surveillance cameras.

A week later it happened again, this time underneath an overpass in Anaheim, about five miles southwest of Placentia. The victim was Lloyd Middaugh, 42, a registered sex offender. Unable to find a job or a home, he lived in local shelters. On the evening of December 27, he called his mother, upset, she would later say, that he couldn’t secure a bed anywhere for the night. Then Middaugh, who was six-foot-four and weighed more than 300 pounds, roosted under the 91 freeway and read a book until he fell asleep.

Find hundreds of hours’ worth of longform stories like this, read by audiobook narrators, in the Audm app for iPhone.

When the killer approached, he paced around Middaugh, assessing the man’s enormous size. At the sound of footsteps, Middaugh awoke and stood up. The killer attacked from behind, stabbing his victim’s neck as Middaugh frantically tried to protect himself and pleaded for his life. When the confrontation ended, a full five minutes later, Middaugh was dead. He’d been stabbed 60 times, several of his ribs were broken, his neck and head were battered, and he had a gash on his right hand. An autopsy would show that the killer’s blade had sliced Middaugh’s thyroid gland and fractured his right temporal bone before penetrating his brain.

In hindsight it became obvious that the murders were linked. At the time, though, the idea was a hard sell among law-enforcement officials. Homeless people were frequent targets of random violence. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2010 there had been nearly 1,200 attacks nationwide, with California seeing the largest share (225) of any state. Still, Anaheim detective Daron Wyatt, a serious man with a thick mustache who spoke in a confident staccato, had a hunch that the back-to-back killings weren’t coincidental. The same kind of knife had been used in both murders, which were uncommonly vicious. What if McGillivray and Middaugh had died at the hands of one man at the start of a spree?

Wyatt approached his department’s top brass and laid out the case for why he thought the deaths were calculated—and why there might be more. His boss “kind of laughed at me,” Wyatt recalled, “because we hadn’t had a serial killer in Orange County in over 25 years.”

2.

A few miles from the crime scenes, in the city of Fullerton, Refugio Ocampo lived in the cab of a broken-down truck with smashed headlights. A tall, slender man with the dignified air of the history teacher he’d once been, Refugio was homeless but refused to look unkempt. He wore clean white shirts that peeked out from beneath a blue all-weather jacket and kept his gaunt face impeccably shaved beneath a bowl of dark hair. He heard about the murders through the transient community’s grapevine: a network of people who sought shelter in the same nooks, under the same overhangs, in the same makeshift encampments. Refugio assumed that the over-the-top story of a madman with a knife had been made up, or at least exaggerated. It wasn’t until his eldest son showed him press clippings about the murders that he believed the sensational rumors.

Refugio was no stranger to violence. Where he came from, he often said, it didn’t take much for people to kill each other. He was born on July 4, 1962, in Zacapoxtepec, a town of a few hundred people in the state of Guerrero, historically one of Mexico’s most violent regions. Refugio’s first childhood memory was of a funeral procession. When he was six, his mother brought him to a window of their home to watch men walking in the street bearing a large box. Refugio asked what it all meant. A whole family had been murdered, she told him, and a grandfather and his young grandson were inside the box, about to be buried together.

Refugio wanted a better life, and a safer one. In 1987, he married a woman named Lilia. They lived in greater Mexico City, where he taught history in a public school. “I had eight brothers, so my mother raised me as if I were a boy,” Lilia said in a recent conversation. “Refugio showed me how to cook, how to clean. He taught me everything.” In March 1988, the couple welcomed their first child, Itzcoatl. Refugio chose the name, an homage to the Aztec war hero and tlatoani (“great ruler”) who launched an imperial expansion by allying with two other indigenous nations in the early 15th century. Four months after Itzcoatl’s birth, Refugio immigrated illegally to California, seeking what so many people do in coming to America: opportunity and stability. He caught up with a cousin who was already in Orange County and found work as a dishwasher. He never resented his dramatic occupational shift. On the contrary, he felt liberated. He wanted to earn his pay through labor.

Lilia joined him two months later. She crossed the border with a group of men in the early hours of a cold, dark morning. Lilia carried Itzcoatl in her arms, handing him off to another traveler when she had to jump a fence to reach the United States. “That’s the only moment I let them take my boy away from me,” she remembered.

Refugio found a new job in a plastics factory. He practiced English and read up on American history in his free time. Lilia faced a steeper learning curve. She relied on friends and family to care for Itzcoatl while she studied English, but she never mastered it. Six years later, Lilia gave birth to a second son, Mixcoatl, named after the Aztec god of the hunt. Half a decade on, a daughter named Citlaly (“star” in Nahuatl, one of Mexico’s indigenous languages) completed the family. On her right shoulder, Lilia got a tattoo of a triangle with her children’s names sketched in cursive, one on each side.

The Ocampos encouraged cultural assimilation. Itzcoatl was known as Izzy to his friends, Mixcoatl as Mix. (Citlaly had to settle for the less colloquial Citla.) Refugio purchased a letter attesting that he had worked in the fields of Southern California, which afforded him permanent residency under a federal stipulation offering certain types of workers a path to legalization. He bought a small house and, after earning a job promotion, upgraded to a larger one. Itzcoatl, a funny, independent boy, eventually became a citizen.

The Ocampos’ lives coasted along until the recession in the late aughts, when Refugio was fired and couldn’t get back on his feet. According to family members he fell prey to drugs, developing an addiction to methamphetamines that made him volatile and untrustworthy. “He stopped taking adequate care of himself and his kids,” Lilia said. Refugio couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage on his family’s house and was evicted. While he lived on the streets, his wife, Mixcoatl, and Citlaly moved in with Lilia’s brothers, one of whom wanted nothing to do with Refugio. Still, Lilia stood by her struggling husband, bringing him food and clothes at homeless camps and, later, at the abandoned rig.

Itzcoatl was in Iraq when his family began to splinter. He’d joined the Marines straight out of high school in 2006, one of 4,889 Hispanics who enlisted that year. By the winter of 2011, he was back living with his mother. He worried about Refugio and visited him often at the rig, where they talked about life before war, addiction, and other hardships. When Itzcoatl showed Refugio articles about the recent murders of homeless men, he implored his father to keep his guard up.

Itzcoatl was shy and bespectacled. Adjusting to civilian life had proved difficult. He passed the time drinking with old friends. Among them was Eder Herrera, who would later wind up behind bars, accused of killing his own mother and brother in a fit of domestic violence. Itzcoatl struggled to hold down a job. Yet with the holiday season in full swing, he donated what cash, toys, and food he could to the needy. Sometimes he drove as far as Van Nuys or Santa Monica, about 45 miles north, to drop off supplies with organizations.

Refugio thought his son generous. But he also noticed that the 23-year-old had a drinking problem—the sort of thing that if he wasn’t careful could land him on the streets, vulnerable like his father, the people for whom he collected donations, and the two men who’d been knifed to death.

3.

Quick to laugh, with a gap-toothed smile, long wavy hair, and an overgrown goatee, Paulus Cornelius Smit had battled drug addiction and drifted in and out of homelessness for several years. Through much of 2011, the 57-year-old shared a dilapidated home with his girlfriend, but when authorities red-tagged the house, indicating that it was uninhabitable, Smit suddenly had no place to live. There were brief reprieves: He spent Christmas, for instance, with Julia Smit-Lozano, the eldest of three daughters from a previous relationship, who had recently escaped homelessness herself.

Smit traveled on a bicycle, perhaps his most prized possession, and he often passed his days at Yorba Linda’s quiet public library, a faded pink building at a busy intersection off Orange County’s Imperial Highway. On the afternoon of December 30, while at the library, he realized that his bike had been stolen. Instead of venturing away on foot, Smit phoned his youngest daughter to ask for a ride. “She was unable to pick him up,” Julia Smit-Lozano recalled, “and by the time I was off work and ready to pick him up, it was too late.” The missing bicycle was a ploy. Someone had taken it to prevent Smit from going anywhere—someone who’d been watching him for hours, maybe days, and seeking the perfect moment to strike.

Smit walked out of the library, went around back, and sat down in an obscured spot near the bottom of a stairwell to wait for his daughter. That’s where the killer attacked, armed with the thick Ka-Bar. He stabbed Smit 56 times in the back, head, and neck, fracturing his ribcage, slashing his heart, and severing his jugular vein. The man whom his daughters called “Papa” died before 5 p.m., while the library was open. If Smit screamed, no one heard him.

After the third murder, detective Wyatt’s hunch was verifiable fact: Orange County had a serial killer, targeting a population that was difficult to protect from harm under even the best of circumstances. And the criminal was growing more brazen.

After the third murder, detective Wyatt’s hunch was verifiable fact: Orange County had a serial killer targeting a population that was difficult to protect from harm under even the best of circumstances. 

By the beginning of 2012, three municipal police departments—in Anaheim, Placentia, and Brea—along with the Orange County sheriff’s office and the FBI, had organized the 15-member Homeless Homicide Investigative Task Force. Wyatt took the lead. The group set up checkpoints on county roads, stopping hundreds of cars each night to question drivers about any suspicious individuals or circumstances they’d come across. Authorities and volunteers distributed whistles and flashlights to the homeless and advised them to remain in groups if they couldn’t find beds in shelters, which reported a 40 percent surge in demand. The story of the serial killer leaped from the pages of the Orange County Register to national outlets. “People are very, very anxious about the situation,” Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, told The New York Times. “This is just so evil that somebody would go after the least, the last, and the lost of our community.”

Itzcoatl Ocampo visited his father again not long after the third murder. This time, instead of press clippings, he carried an FBI flier emblazoned with photographs of the victims. Leaning against the light blue door of Refugio’s truck, Itzcoatl showed the flier to his father and pleaded once more for him to stay clean and be vigilant. Refugio tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m a survivor. Nothing will happen to me.”

4.

Not everyone heeded the authorities’ warnings. Among them was John Berry, a Vietnam veteran who sported a bushy white beard. An amateur astronomer and bird watcher, Berry loved being outside, where he could look at the sky day or night. On the morning of January 5, 2012, he was in a public rest area overlooking the Santa Ana River when Anaheim Police sergeant Mike Lynch approached him. Los Angeles Times photographer Allen Schaben, who had tagged along to cover law enforcement’s outreach effort in the homeless community, captured the moment. It was an eloquent image: Berry sitting comfortably on a tarp with his legs outstretched and a rumpled khaki fishing hat perched on his head. A yellow bicycle was parked such that it afforded him some shade from the winter sun while he listened to Lynch explain the threat. Berry said that he would be just fine as he was, even with a serial killer on the prowl. “We couldn’t force him to get off the streets,” Wyatt later told me.

Schaben’s picture of Berry looking carefree and defiant was printed in an article about the slayings. The killer must have seen it, because Berry, 64, quickly sensed that something was wrong. In the following days, he called the police to say that he felt like he was being watched as he moved among his favorite haunts in Anaheim and Yorba Linda. Police again advised Berry to seek shelter, and again he did not.

For a week, Orange County held its breath. No homeless men were murdered. Then, around 8:15 p.m. on Friday, January 13, Berry was pushing his bike toward a trash enclosure behind a Carl’s Jr. fast-food joint, located in the middle of a shopping center’s parking lot, when a hooded figure rushed toward him on foot. The assailant knocked Berry to the ground, pulled out a knife, and stabbed him to death, continuing his frenzy for a few harrowing minutes after the victim’s heart had stopped beating.

This time, though, the attacker was sloppy in choosing where to kill. Customers milled around the complex, and one of them witnessed the murder in progress. The man ran into a nearby pharmacy yelling, “The bum killer is outside!”

Donny Hopkins, a forklift driver who was shopping in the pharmacy, darted out to the parking lot and saw the assailant on top of Berry. He screamed at the attacker, who immediately stood up and ran toward a mobile-home park adjacent to the shopping center. Unarmed, Hopkins gave chase, running at full tilt. As he went, he misdialed 911 twice on his cell phone before managing to get through and share his location with the dispatcher. He provided a quick description of the suspect, who had shed his dark sweatshirt to reveal a red short-sleeved T-shirt. Based on Hopkins’s information, police surrounded the area and found the killer as he walked nonchalantly down a street—hoping, perhaps, that without his hood and by seeming composed he would avoid suspicion.

Youthfully handsome, with a long, angular face, deep-set dark eyes, and brown hair buzzed down to the scalp, the suspect had blood on his arms and hands.

He didn’t put up a fight when the cops grabbed him. In fact he was docile, “very collected and cooperative,” Wyatt told me. Youthfully handsome, with a long, angular face, deep-set dark eyes, and brown hair buzzed down to the scalp, the suspect had blood on his arms and hands. Nearby, police found a backpack, gloves, and a belt with a sheath that contained the Ka-Bar knife. The killer had tossed them as he fled.

The suspect was taken to the Anaheim police department, where Wyatt began his interrogation, hoping to develop a profile of a man capable of astonishing rage. It wasn’t hard. Dressed in light blue detention garb, the Orange County serial killer spoke for five hours straight, well into the morning of January 14, after waiving his right to remain silent. He wore old-fashioned, oversize prescription glasses and addressed Wyatt as “sir.” One by one, he candidly walked the detective through the killings.

Toward the end of the interview, Wyatt asked the suspect if he knew right from wrong.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied, nodding vehemently.

“Do you think what you’ve done is right or wrong?” Wyatt asked.

The killer took a beat to think, then looked at the detective. “Wrong,” he answered, “but it had to be done.”

“Why? To satisfy your needs?”

“No,” he said quickly. “They were making the place look bad.”

“Really, what you were doing, you were helping clean up the county?”

“In a way, sir, yes.”

In the more than 12 hours he would spend with the suspect in the coming days, Wyatt’s opinion of him solidified. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” the detective told me. This was a cold-blooded killer in full control of his emotions and mental capacity. He chose victims who “were available and vulnerable,” Wyatt explained. It was as simple as that.

As for understanding his desire to purify Orange Country by way of murder, that would require digging into the man’s past. To do that, Wyatt needed a name. The suspect willingly gave it in their first meeting: Itzcoatl Ocampo.

“Itzcoatl,” Refugio would later whisper to me, recalling his son’s arrest. “It means ‘obsidian serpent.’”

5.

Driving home late that Friday evening, Raúl González, Lilia Ocampo’s brother, heard the unmistakable buzz of news helicopters hovering near Imperial Highway. González steered clear of the commotion and any police roadblocks that might accompany it. When he finally arrived at his house, he saw several white cars parked around the property. Police approached him and demanded that he let them inside.

Citlaly and Mixcoatl were home. González asked his niece where Lilia was. “She’s with my father,” Citlaly, barely a teenager, replied. Annoyed, González called his sister’s cell phone. “Did you know police are here while you’re over there with that asshole?” he asked her. Lilia came home quickly. When she arrived and saw two of her children sitting on the couch, terrified, she thought of the one that wasn’t there. Itzcoatl had gone out walking alone a few hours before. He did that a lot lately. Lilia thought some tragedy had befallen him.

Then, as the police began asking her questions, someone turned on the television. An evening news report sputtered to life and showed Itzcoatl sitting on a curb, surrounded by cops. He was the suspect in the string of murders that had spurred a countywide manhunt.

Lilia was stunned. She’d been sharing a bedroom with all three of her children; Itzcoatl slept on the floor without complaint. She had seen a Ka-Bar in his possession, but he’d told her that it was just combat equipment. Lilia knew that her son had been troubled since returning from the military, but she’d never thought him violent. Surely, as his mother, she would have known if he was capable of murder. For Refugio, who soon learned of his son’s arrest, the thought that Itzcoatl could kill innocent people was inconceivable. “I always knew who my children were,” he told me. Besides, why would Itzcoatl warn his father about the killer if he was the killer?

Lilia knew that her son had been troubled since returning from the military, but she’d never thought him violent. Surely, as his mother, she would have known if he was capable of murder.

According to Wyatt, a search of the house turned up boots with DNA from two of the murder victims, a knife sharpener for the Ka-Bar—on which forensic experts would later find genetic material from all but one of the deceased—and documents about notorious killers from whom it seemed Itzcoatl had sought inspiration. In grand jury testimony the following month, Wyatt would describe how Itzcoatl had intended to emulate Charles Whitman, a former Marine sharpshooter, known as the Texas Tower Sniper, who in 1966 had killed 13 people at the University of Texas. When Wyatt asked Itzcoatl why he’d used a knife, he made a reference to the Joker, as played by actor Heath Ledger in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. “‘A knife is more personal.’ He actually said that in his interview,” Wyatt told me. “He quoted The Dark Knight.” (The exact line from the film is “Do you want to know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can’t savor all the little emotions. In, you see, in their last moments, people show you who they really are.”)

After Itzcoatl’s arrest, the media hounded the Ocampos. Refugio in particular became a recurring tragic figure on local newscasts: the homeless father of the serial killer who targeted homeless men. On the morning of January 16, Orange County Register videographer Eugene Garcia found Refugio standing outside his rig in Fullerton. He explained that Itzcoatl was “a role model” for his family.

“Do you believe he’s innocent?” Garcia inquired.

“I don’t know,” Refugio answered. “He was worried for me.”

The only possible explanation for his son’s behavior, he continued, lay with the Marines. Something must have happened to his son in the service, because he committed the murders after he was discharged. “They killed the person he was,” Refugio declared.

When Wyatt appeared before the grand jury, he would say that the “primary reason” for the carnage was that Itzcoatl had a taste for blood that his time in Iraq didn’t sate, so he’d fashioned himself into the assassin he’d always wanted to be. He even researched “human anatomy on the computer,” Wyatt added, so that he would know “where the heart was” in his victims. The detective pointed to an exchange from Itzcoatl’s confession: “What made you want to kill somebody? Was it the fact that you’re a Marine?” Wyatt asked, to which Itzcoatl replied, “Probably, sir. Yes, sir. I didn’t get to kill when I was in… I look at other Marines and want to be like them.”

The truth of the matter, though, wasn’t so pat. The effort to untangle Itzcoatl’s hostility, grief, trauma, fear, and dejection would require looking further back than to his stint in the Marines—it would mean returning to his youth, particularly to his relationship with his best friend.

6.

As a child, Itzcoatl had a close-knit circle of friends whose center of gravity was Claudio Patiño IV. Born to a family with a history of armed service, Claudio grew up yearning to enlist. His father, a Mexican immigrant, had been a cadet at a military academy; he kept the gala uniform he wore as a teenager in immaculate shape, along with a stack of sepia photographs of himself performing acrobatic feats during military parades in Guadalajara. Claudio came up with elaborate warlike scenarios that he and his friends acted out in his family’s dusty backyard in Yorba Linda. He also started a clandestine brawling club, organizing bare-knuckle rounds among neighborhood boys. At age 12, Claudio refused orthodontic treatment to fix severely crooked teeth because he was afraid that the procedure might go wrong and leave him deformed or unable to use his jaw properly, disqualifying him from enlisting in the Marines one day.

Itzcoatl idolized Claudio. González, Itzcoatl’s uncle, described the pair as “inseparable” in childhood. “They got along like brothers. It was an enviable friendship,” he told me. Evelyn Patiño, Claudio’s mother, remembered Itzcoatl as a “respectful and quiet” child who often slept over, playing video games late into the night. In middle school, one of Claudio’s sisters invited Itzcoatl to her quinceañera, a traditional 15th-birthday and coming-of-age party for Latin American girls. He went with Refugio, who delivered an impromptu speech in celebration of the families’ bond.

Claudio and Itzcoatl shared a keen sense of bicultural belonging. Itzcoatl kept in touch with family in Mexico, whom he visited in the summers. Along with posters of U.S. helicopters and Marines, Claudio decorated his bedroom with pictures of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and a ceramic carving of a clash between a Spanish conquistador and an Aztec warrior. Next to his bed, he placed an ornate replica of a sacrificial knife that he’d bought on a family trip to the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Later in his youth, Claudio would get an American eagle tattooed on one of his arms and a Mexican eagle on the other.

Yet the boys were an odd couple. Built like an athlete, lean and muscular, with a square jaw and handsome face despite his warped teeth, Claudio cut an appealing figure. Itzcoatl, by contrast, was slight and soft-spoken. Brian Doyle, a school friend, would later describe him to the Associated Press as a “tall, geeky kid, really fun-loving.” Itzcoatl dreamed of going to college, even if it meant parting ways with Claudio.

Although Itzcoatl was barely 13 at the time, the scene of the World Trade Center towers falling “really shook him,” Lilia said. Like many young Americans, he interpreted the attack as a call to arms.

That changed after 9/11. Although Itzcoatl was barely 13 at the time, the scene of the World Trade Center towers falling “really shook him,” Lilia told me. Like many young Americans, Itzcoatl interpreted the attack as a call to arms. Lilia and Refugio disapproved. “I never saw him as a soldier,” his mother said. “He was calm and noble.” But Itzcoatl ignored his parents. At 18, he enlisted in the Marines alongside Claudio.

The friends dreamed of a brotherly, patriotic adventure. After completing their training, however, their paths diverged. Claudio quickly won acclaim and respect. He became a scout sniper, adept at reconnaissance and marksmanship. Nate Coffey, who met Claudio before they deployed to Afghanistan and who later became his team leader, described him as a natural soldier. “He was a fighter before he was a Marine,” Coffey wrote in an email. “Joining the military and becoming a Scout Sniper merely lent him additional tools with which to fight. He was one of our best shooters (and that’s saying something in a sniper platoon), and he was the one I picked to coach the team in hand-to-hand training. In short, he was good at killing, whether it was up close or far away.” Coffey added, “He was more aggressive than a wolverine drinking a Red Bull.”

Itzcoatl’s experience was diametrically different. He deployed to Iraq in March 2008 as part of the First Medical Battalion, serving as a motor-vehicle operator—that is, a driver. He didn’t take well to the unpredictability and hypermasculinity of military life. Although he hid it from his family, he was unhappy that he and Claudio weren’t serving side by side and that he was limited to transporting supplies and personnel. González told me of a conversation he had with his nephew in which “he said it was deeply depressing.” Itzcoatl “used to say that they had to dig holes in the ground to build shelters in the desert, and they slept inside to avoid sandstorms. They were suddenly awakened by bombing. He seemed scared.”

Barely a month after deploying, Itzcoatl learned that his father had lost his job. On a phone call, he listened to his mother’s unsettling account of the situation: Refugio had fallen into financial trouble, and he was still doing drugs. (Before leaving for Iraq, Itzcoatl had found a crack pipe in his father’s car.) He wasn’t always sleeping at home. Lilia told me that Itzcoatl took the news of his father’s unraveling with characteristic stoicism. He kept any deeper feelings to himself. But not for long.

Two months later, at Camp Al Taqqadum, an abandoned Iraqi base 70 miles west of Baghdad repurposed by U.S. forces for logistical support, Itzcoatl loaded and then pointed an M16 rifle at another Marine. He claimed he was just clowning around. His superiors didn’t care. What he’d done was a punishable offense. Itzcoatl’s misconduct earned him a loss of rank—from lance corporal to private first class, with a pay reduction—in late May 2008 through nonjudicial punishment, an administrative disciplinary procedure. He took responsibility for his actions in a signed confession and connected the incident to his family’s troubles:

I know that this was very unprofessional, dangerous, irresponsible, and idiotic of me.… I went to Condition 1 [loading the rifle] because I took a joke way too serious. I was angry because in the back of my mind I was just thinking of my problems back home; for example, my father lost his job and my family is having financial problems. I did not know my fellow Marines could help me out with my problems, but they can and have. I am taking anger management, stress management and other classes to help me manage and cope with these issues. This way something like this will never happen again.

He concluded, “It is not me or in my nature to behave like this.”

Itzcoatl didn’t tell his family about the situation. That June, he recorded a Father’s Day video for Refugio. “Thank you for everything you have done, Dad,” he said in hesitant Spanish, sitting in a poorly lit room in front of an American flag. “I love you very much. I’m doing well here, I’m OK. Just three months left and then I’ll be back.” He then read Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham for his sister, who was almost nine at the time. “Don’t worry about me,” he repeated several times, like a mantra. “I’m OK.”

7.

At the end of his six-month tour, Itzcoatl returned to California, where he remained enlisted at Camp Pendleton, south of where his family lived. Corporal Bonnie Tisdale, who supervised him on the base, said she watched him decline emotionally. “His demeanor just kind of changed,” Tisdale told me. At first he was a disciplined, quiet young man who could also be funny and who would “offer you the shirt off his back or his last dollar.” Then, according to Tisdale, he grew bitter and depressed. He got in trouble for odd, minor infractions, like lying about where he’d parked his car when it was due for inspection.

When he was released from active duty in July 2010, right on schedule, the military designated him fully qualified to reenlist, should he choose to. There were no red flags on his record. Still, Tisdale worried about his transition to civilian life, which is difficult for any soldier. “If you don’t have a degree, you’re struggling to find a job. Your friends that you knew before the Marines, they don’t really understand you, so it’s hard. You feel alone,” she told me. “Ocampo was an awkward guy to begin with. I can’t imagine what it was like for him to get out.”

There was another reason to worry: A month prior to Itzcoatl’s discharge, Claudio had been killed in action. On the morning of June 22, he was with his platoon near Musah Qala, a village in Helmand Province, feeling restless. “If the team was sitting around not shooting bad guys, he would take half of them and find a new place to attack,” Coffey, his team leader, told me. Around noon, Claudio set his sights on a nearby hill crest and led three members of the group to scope it out. “I remember him getting to that hilltop and collapsing, and I heard the automatic gunfire a half-second later,” Coffey recalled. It was a Taliban ambush. According to the military news outlet Stars and Stripes, “a bullet first grazed Patiño’s arm, but the second ripped a path through his upper torso.” Lance corporal Nat Small, who was with Claudio at the time, told the publication, “He basically fatally exposed himself before the rest of us could. He definitely laid down his life for the team.” In September 2010, Claudio was posthumously honored with a Bronze Star.

When Itzcoatl learned of his friend’s death, he was devastated. “He called me and said, ‘Mom, you won’t believe this, but they killed Claudio,’” Lilia remembered. “He was crying, and so was I. He kept asking why it had been Claudio and not him.” Refugio told me that Claudio’s death was the beginning of the end for his son. “That’s what lit the wick,” he said.

Itzcoatl began telling his parents he felt useless and unworthy. Money ran out quickly. “I had to drag him to the unemployment office and Veterans Affairs,” Refugio said. “I had to help him fill out applications, and he kept telling me, ‘Dad, they’re not going to give me a job.’” Rather than looking for work, he often spent afternoons in Yorba Linda’s public library—outside which he’d later murder Smit, his third victim—reading with his little sister. According to Mixcoatl, his brother was withdrawn and drinking too much, but he “never saw any evil in him, anything bad.”

“His greatest sorrow came from the fact that he hadn’t been there for Claudio when he died. He wanted to be there to help him get back on his feet, help him stand up.”

Some days, Itzcoatl took Lilia to her job at a hardware company and then drove the 35 miles from Yorba Linda to Riverside National Cemetery, where Claudio was buried. He would stand at his friend’s grave alone, thinking. He also went to see Claudio’s parents. Evelyn Patiño recalled how during one visit, Itzcoatl told her that “his greatest sorrow came from the fact that he hadn’t been there for Claudio when he died. He wanted to be there to help him get back on his feet, help him stand up. It pained him so much.”

At home his family began to notice bizarre behavior, signals that he was traumatized, depressed, or both. “He had horrible nightmares, truly ugly dreams. He never told me what they were exactly, but he did say they were horrible: bloody people all over,” Lilia recalled. Itzcoatl said he had splitting headaches and kept pointing to a recurring twitch above his right eye. “One day,” Lilia remembered, “he called me to say that he was looking for bombs in the house.” During the day, he sometimes talked to himself. But he never hinted at a desire to hurt anyone.  

If only his family had been able to read his journal, a brief but harrowing private account of what was running through Itzcoatl’s mind leading up to the murders. He turned to it often, putting down in jittery handwriting his muddled delusions and feelings of resentment and self-loathing. He also wrote about his urge to kill.

8.

I first met Refugio and Lilia on a Saturday morning last winter, behind a car-repair shop in Placentia where Refugio had been living for the better part of a year. The owner was a friend who’d offered him a place to stay, an old RV, in exchange for guarding the lot. Refugio acknowledged that there wasn’t much to guard. Littered with rusted fenders and gas pumps, the place looked like a scrapyard.

For my visit, he’d arranged a couple of chairs, a stool, and a wooden table covered with a tan piece of plastic that flapped in the wind. It was cold, so he’d lit a fire inside a makeshift pit: two logs thrown into a circular metal planter. Refugio wore a gray pinstriped suit coat over black pants, both a couple of sizes too big, with an untucked white shirt and a pair of worn brown loafers, their dry leather tassels curled up. Lilia, who was living in a nearby apartment, wore heavy makeup and sat with her arms hugging her body. In her hands was an envelope holding crumpled pages of writing: the journal. It was the first time the Ocampos had shown it to a reporter since Lilia found it in the wake of her son’s arrest, wedged behind a seat in her truck, and given it to his legal team.

“We didn’t know he had written any of this,” Refugio said. Lilia nodded. “He shares everything he went through,” she explained, handing me the envelope. “It’s also a sort of confession,” Refugio acknowledged as I began to read. The first entry began, “Based on a true story.” The pages weren’t dated, but Lilia said that she assumed Itzcoatl had written them in late 2011.

Itzcoatl identified as a “POG,” or “people other than grunts,” a derogatory term used in the Marines to describe support personnel who rarely engage in combat. “Joined to be a fucking killer…but then ended up somewhere where I would be saving lives rather than taking ‘em,” he lamented. “Ended up ass-fucking POG. Dealing with motherfuckers who speak poor English yet somehow managed to be high-ups.” When he wrote about losing rank after the nonjudicial punishment process, he displayed an acute sense of injustice that morphed into an elaborate paranoid conspiracy. “I was all alone with the enemy who turned out to be my own co-workers, my own roommate and my own friends,” he wrote. “It took me a while to figure out that my whole life was a set up.”

Later, Itzcoatl reflected, “I came out [of the military] all fucked-up, normal before and now just fucked-up.” He described his state of mind as “most of the time, depressed.” Sometimes he speculated about why he felt so terrible: “Possibly a tumor in my head because I have headaches almost every damn day,” and “Is there some device inside me that gives my location, takes my pulse or gives me funny feelings?” He also worried that he would wind up like his father. “Now the next in line to be a bum,” he wrote.

“Could you imagine how the world would be if you were still here and not me? Utopia. Every day I think about you and blame myself.”

Often he talked about Claudio and survivor’s guilt. “Even before the Corps you were or still is a fucking hero,” he wrote, addressing his dead friend directly. “Look at the cheers you got at your graduation. Either way it wasn’t your time to go. I just happened to fuck things up.” Why he felt responsible for Claudio’s death wasn’t clear. In a particularly melancholy entry, Itzcoatl said he wished he were dead instead. “Every time I see your house I tell myself how much bullshit it is that I’m here and your [gone]. How fucked up it is that they picked you and not me. Could you imagine how the world would be if you were still here and not me? Utopia. Every day I think about you and blame myself,” he wrote. “I’ll only get over you and all of this shit is when I’m gone.”

In other entries, Itzcoatl showed latent jealousy that Claudio was a native-born American. “Since you were born here I’m guessing you didn’t have to deal w/ the fucking racism,” he wrote before speculating about his own fate. “I’m either going back to Mexico walking or by bus where from there I’ll die of either starvation or someone will just shoot me or stab me. I really am pathetic.”

The last pages of the journal revealed an impulse to do something that would address his anger and pain. “I always ask myself why you guys never shot me when you had the chance,” Itzcoatl wrote, as if addressing his fellow Marines. “If you’re me, it’s better off that you’re dead,” he continued. “There is only 3 ways of dying: by police, some random person or by yourself. Death won’t come so I might as well give it a call. Why? My head is fucked up.”

But while those words seemed to indicate that he was planning to kill or harm himself, he hadn’t followed through. Instead he’d turned his rage outward, perhaps hoping to stifle it by committing violence against the very people he feared becoming: homeless men, rootless and forgotten. Near the end of the journal, he seemed to obliquely describe his plans for a murder spree by way of a popular ad slogan. “I hate to say it’s time to make this town a scary place,” he wrote. “Gots to kill a few Pepsis, so hopefully it’ll refresh my world.” (“Pepsi” is street slang for a drug addict.)

By then, however, Itzcoatl had likely already killed for the first time. During the lengthy interrogations after his arrest, he surprised law enforcement by confessing to two gruesome murders that predated his attack on Jim McGillivray. The victims weren’t homeless men. They were his friends.

9.

It turned out that Itzcoatl, fresh out of Camp Pendleton, had worked briefly with his friend Eder Herrera and often visited the house that Herrera shared with his elder brother Juan and their mother, Raquel. “They realized Ocampo was just getting paranoid and weird,” John Burton, Herrera’s lawyer, told me. Itzcoatl would point at cars parked across the street and claim he was being watched. So Herrera, Juan, and Raquel decided to ask him not to come around. According to a detective who worked the case, Itzcoatl felt “disrespected” but acquiesced. A few months passed, during which he wasn’t in contact with the family.

Then, on the night of October 25, 2011, Itzcoatl went to Herrera’s home in Yorba Linda. He was planning to kill his former friends, he later told police, because they “seemed to have an attitude.” Herrera wasn’t home, so Itzcoatl waited outside. Then he grew impatient. “He went in and killed the other two,” Burton told me. “Ocampo started stabbing the mom, and then the brother came in and he started stabbing him.” When Juan tried to escape, Itzcoatl chased him and pulled him back inside. Autopsies would later find close to 100 stab wounds between the two victims.

Itzcoatl was planning to kill his former friends, he later told police, because they “seemed to have an attitude.”

Herrera was quickly arrested for the murders of his mother and brother and locked away. A 911 caller who said he was a neighbor, but who used a pay phone about a mile away, had reported loud noises coming from the residence. (According to Burton, the caller was Itzcoatl, who the lawyer also believes planted a kitchen knife at the scene to make the cops think they already had the murder weapon.) An eyewitness across the street claimed to have seen Herrera dragging something large—Juan’s body—into the house, accompanied by cries of “help.” When police picked him up, Herrera said that he’d spent the night at a friend’s place. But he raised suspicions when he admitted that he’d tried to go home some time after midnight. When he saw cop cars everywhere, he feared that he would be arrested because he was undocumented. Herrera said he drove away from the scene rather than figure out what had happened in his home.

Herrera swore that he had nothing to do with the killings. He didn’t know who the perpetrator might be. While he sat in jail, the idea that Itzcoatl could have murdered his family never crossed Herrera’s mind. “Eder didn’t want to hang out with Ocampo anymore and thought he was weird,” Burton told me, but his client considered “nothing even remotely approaching the fact that Ocampo could do something like that.”

Had it not been for the witness who saw John Berry die behind the Carl’s Jr., Itzcoatl might have gotten away with the double murder. Herrera might have rotted in prison. Instead, after Itzcoatl confessed, police found DNA from Herrera’s mother and brother on the Ka-Bar. Herrera went on to win a public settlement of $700,000 for unjust imprisonment, though the authorities never admitted any negligence in the case. “They were so sure from the outset they had the right guy, they didn’t entertain the evidence that led away from him,” Burton told the press. “If they’d gotten the right guy, [Ocampo] wouldn’t have killed four other people.”

10.

In January 2012, Itzcoatl was charged with murder, special allegations in multiple murders, lying in wait, and personal use of a deadly weapon. The Orange County district attorney decided to seek the death penalty. According to Wyatt, it was what Itzcoatl wanted. The young man had told his interrogator that he “deserved the death penalty” by “lethal injection, or whatever is quickest.”

In court, however, Itzcoatl pleaded not guilty. His lawyer told reporters that he was considering mounting an insanity defense. It’s possible that Itzcoatl was experiencing the onset of mental illness at the time of the murders. He was 23, and conditions like schizophrenia usually don’t manifest until late adolescence or early adulthood. But family and friends saw another culprit: post-traumatic stress disorder.

People close to him claimed that Itzcoatl had shown no signs of mental illness before he joined the Marines. His official medical examination upon enlistment revealed no personality deviation. In fact, the only notes from the physical were that he wore glasses and admitted to smoking marijuana. Like many veterans, though, he came home different. In a recent study, the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families at the University of Southern California screened the mental health of Orange County veterans, more than one-third of whom were Hispanic. Forty-five percent suffered from PTSD, the same portion from depression. Nearly one-fifth had considered suicide. During his arrest booking, Itzcoatl told a nurse that he’d tried to suffocate himself to death in 2010.

When I asked Wyatt about the possibility that Itzcoatl had PTSD, the detective dismissed it. He said the prosecution carefully considered the suspect’s experience in Iraq and found no incident that could explain his violent turn. Itzcoatl “was not involved in transporting dead bodies, either soldiers or other people. He did not work in a morgue. He basically drove a water truck,” Wyatt argued. “He wasn’t involved in the types of combat situations that normally you would expect to see with PTSD.”

“Many of our service members, when they leave the military, they are like immigrants in their own country, because nobody really knows them.”

Not everyone shared Wyatt’s opinion, though. Carl Castro, a professor of social work and a retired Army colonel, leads the USC center that commissioned the recent study of Orange County veterans. (I also teach at USC, where I am the chair of journalism at the Annenberg School.) When I met him at his office in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke at length about a pervasive sense of alienation among veterans. “Many of our service members, when they leave the military, they are like immigrants in their own country, because nobody really knows them,” Castro explained. He cautioned that while many former service members are “very, very angry,” not all of them have PTSD. But when he reviewed the details of Itzcoatl’s case, he immediately recognized signs of the affliction.

There were the recurring, disturbing nightmares, for one, “the crying-out-in-your-sleep kind,” he said. Castro also saw symptoms in Itzcoatl’s tendency to be hypervigilant (“We call it ‘startle reflex’ in PTSD jargon”) and in the fantasy Lilia remembered her son having about a bomb being hidden in their home. “A lot of people think of nightmares as rightfully happening at night, but you can also have them while you’re sitting here,” Castro told me. “Combat affects your thinking, it affects your behavior, it lowers your tolerance to people who are aggressive towards you. It disrupts the ability to calm down.”

Itzcoatl never saw combat, I pointed out. “We have some really good data showing that truck drivers are one of the most stressed groups, because they’re really a very passive target,” Castro countered. “In some sense, the way they described it was, ‘I’m a sitting duck here!’” It would be wrong to dismiss a motor-vehicle operator’s potential distress, he added, because “everyone was at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.” According to Itzcoatl’s military file, he was “properly notified of his requirement to be screened for PTSD/TBI,” or traumatic brain injury. He never scheduled any appointments.

Castro said that a crucial aspect of veterans’ reintegration into civilian life is the ability to seek and maintain meaningful relationships. When I asked about the effect Claudio Patiño’s death might have had on Itzcoatl, Castro said that for a man in an already fragile state of mind, the consequences of such a loss could be “catastrophic” and “the last nail in the coffin.” Particularly if it was the deepest friendship Itzcoatl ever had.

Castro understood why law enforcement might have seen an insanity defense as a cop-out. “But it’s not about getting off,” he said. “It’s trying to understand the contributions that these very traumatic, life-changing experiences can have on someone.” Similarly, Bonnie Tisdale, Itzcoatl’s supervisor at Camp Pendleton, recalled the shock she felt when she saw the young Marine’s mug shot on the news. “It wasn’t the Ocampo I remembered. He looked dead inside,” she told me. “I’m not saying what he did was right. It was absolutely wrong. But I think he just needed help. I really do.”

11.

In the end, Itzcoatl didn’t get help. He wasn’t convicted either. While awaiting trial, he spent nearly two years in jail. He was prescribed Paxil and Zoloft, which he sometimes refused to take. He once banged his head so hard against a wall that he was put on suicide watch, and he shared morbid thoughts about killing himself with other inmates. Lilia and Refugio saw their son as often as possible, but they never spoke about the murders. Itzcoatl remained discreet with his parents. Lilia worried that he was getting thin.

In 2013, the Marines permanently removed Itzcoatl from the Corps, serving him with an “other than honorable” discharge. A review board held a hearing, which Itzcoatl didn’t attend, to examine the facts of the case. It found him liable for “a serious offense, to wit: murder.” Under the terms of the Marine Corps Separation and Retirement Manual, neither a military nor a civilian conviction was required for the board’s decision, which Itzcoatl was informed of that fall.

Itzcoatl began hoarding small amounts of a powder similar to Ajax, which inmates were allowed to use to clean their cells. He stored it in small milk cartons under his bed.

Soon after, he began hoarding small amounts of a powder similar to Ajax, which inmates were allowed to use to clean their cells. He stored it in small milk cartons under his bed. On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 27, he swallowed it all with water. At around 6:15 p.m., authorities found him vomiting and shaking in his cell, with a towel inexplicably tied around his head as a blindfold. He declined assistance. Within a half-hour, he was foaming at the mouth and unresponsive. An emergency medical team was summoned.

The next day was Thanksgiving. Itzcoatl had told Lilia that he was looking forward to getting more and better food on the holiday. Early that morning she got a phone call. Itzcoatl had been transported to Western Medical Center Santa Ana, she learned, and his condition was dire. When she and Refugio arrived at the hospital, they were told that their son was brain dead. Around 7:15 that evening, they decided to pull the plug on his ventilator.

His parents initially received conflicting reports about what had killed Itzcoatl. “They told us he drank too much water,” Lilia recalled through tears. But to hydrate oneself to death is incredibly difficult. When she was told that he’d poisoned himself, Lilia didn’t believe that either. She’d planned a family visit with Itzcoatl for the day after Thanksgiving. Why would he agree to meet with her if he knew he’d be dead?

Itzcoatl’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, faulted prison authorities for negligence with regard to a mentally ill patient. “This was a guy who should have garnered the highest level of scrutiny,” Molfetta told journalists at the time, “and it wasn’t done.” But an inquiry into Itzcoatl’s death concluded otherwise. A final report published more than a year after his death cleared law enforcement of any “criminal culpability” in his suicide.

Itzcoatl was buried in Santa Ana. A handful of family members and friends attended, including Claudio Patiño’s parents. “They were our friends, and we had seen the boy grow up,” Claudio’s father told me of his decision to go. His own son had been lain to rest with full honors after a touching procession through local streets lined with people waving American flags. The only evidence of Itzcoatl’s ties to the military was on his tombstone. The Ocampos chose to engrave it with the Marines Corps motto, Semper Fidelis, above a quote that Itzcoatl had listed as his favorite in his high school yearbook: “Walk the streets I walked alone, then sit and judge me.”

12.

Judging the murders that Itzcoatl committed as unequivocal moral wrongs is easy. Determining what drove him to violent ends is much harder. His story is about many things: the immigrant experience, the desire to assimilate, military service, psychological distress, family and friendship, extraordinary violence. It begs for an organizing principle, a way to seamlessly fit its themes together in order to reveal a kernel of truth about what makes a person good and what can turn him bad. But that principle doesn’t exist—at least a satisfying one doesn’t. The story’s defining rule is the ultimate unknowability of Itzcoatl’s mind, an enigma that weighs heavily on the family he left behind.    

A few days after I met Itzcoatl’s parents last winter, Lilia traveled to Germany. It was the first long flight of her life; 17-year-old Citlaly, who declined to be interviewed for this story, went with her. Lilia told me that she was nervous to go, but also eager. She would be spending a few weeks with her first grandchild, Mixcoatl’s infant son, Ezra. “He’s always smiling. He seems very attentive,” Lilia said, cheerful for the first time in our interactions.

Mixcoatl was living in Germany with a woman named Sandra, Ezra’s mother. They were both in the Army, serving at a base in the Bavarian town of Vilseck. Mixcoatl had enlisted after Itzcoatl’s arrest. His parents told me that he’d always planned to join the armed services. Mixcoatl, who looks strikingly like his brother—same build, same buzz cut, same sharply angled face—told me he had another motivation. “I felt like everyone knew me,” he said of life in Orange County after the murders.

Itzcoatl’s dark notoriety was hard on his brother. People gossiped, and Mixcoatl was tired of the whispers about how he was related to a serial killer. The Army afforded him “a weird escape from reality,” he told me. He was in Afghanistan when he learned that his brother had killed himself. A friend sent him a message after seeing the news. “Your brother’s dead, man,” it read. Mixcoatl asked that his family wait to bury Itzcoatl until his deployment was over, a few months later, and they obliged. “My brother would have wanted me to complete my mission,” Mixcoatl told me. He also wanted to see Itzcoatl’s body one last time.

Initially, Mixcoatl hoped to be a paratrooper, but he has since changed his mind. “I like my body,” he said. “I don’t want to injure it.” Besides, he and Sandra are already expecting their second child, a daughter. Mixcoatl thinks they might move to Texas one day. It would be cheaper to live there than in Orange County, and fewer people would know about his brother.

While Lilia and Citlaly were away, I reached out to Refugio. He was still living behind the repair shop, clad in the too big jacket I’d seen him wear before. He’d recently started cleaning backyard pools for money, but he hadn’t made much. With his immediate family either dead or half a world away, he seemed glad for my company.

“I don’t regret coming to the United States in any way. It was the right decision. If we had stayed in Mexico, things would have been much worse.”

It was early January, almost five years to the day since Itzcoatl had been arrested. It would soon be 30 years since Refugio had left Mexico. So much had happened since then, and he seemed puzzled by it all: how he’d wound up penniless, chronically underemployed, with a son who confessed to murder before dying his own grisly death. I asked if he wished that he’d made a different decision when he was younger and stayed in his home country. “I don’t regret coming to the United States in any way,” Refugio said. “It was the right decision. If we had stayed in Mexico, things would have been much worse.”

Then he turned the conversation to the country he’d chosen and made wholeheartedly his own. He still believed in U.S. institutions, he said, even as he wrestled with questions about his son’s crimes and bitter end—questions for which he might never find answers. “He was a kind and honorable man,” Refugio said of Itzcoatl. “That is why I know my son didn’t do what they say he did. Or if he did do it, it wasn’t my son anymore. It was not Itzcoatl anymore.”