Follow the Leader

Follow the Leader

In the waning days of the Cold War, Rainer Sonntag helped fuel a neo-Nazi movement that still plagues Germany today. He was also a Communist spy—and worked for Vladimir Putin.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 128


Leigh Baldwin is the editor of SourceMaterial, and previously worked for Global Witness and Bloomberg News. Sean Williams has written for The New YorkerHarper’s, Rolling Stone, GQ, and other publications.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alexander Kloss
Illustrator: Sam Green
Additional Reporting: Marlene Obst

Published in June 2022.


1.

As the sun set on May 31, 1991, the streets of Dresden crackled with energy. All day the city had been abuzz with the rumor that there was going to be a riot in the city’s nascent red-light district. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall some 18 months before, the smog-choked, bomb-scarred city in East Germany had changed. Suddenly, it was filled with new imports from the West, including drugs, gambling, and prostitution. Kiosks that once sold Neues Deutschland, the dour Communist Party propaganda sheet, now carried German editions of Playboy and Hustler. One man had sworn to clean house. His name was Rainer Sonntag, and he was a far-right vigilante—an avowed neo-Nazi.

Sonntag was born and raised in Dresden, but had fled across the Iron Curtain to West Germany five years earlier. By the time the wall fell, Sonntag had become one of the West’s leading neo-Nazis, thanks to a willingness to roll up his sleeves and fight. When he returned home, he recruited a ragtag army of acolytes to rid Dresden of influences he claimed were noxious. Most of his followers came from the grim maze of housing projects in Gorbitz, on Dresden’s western edge. The buildings there were filled with young people who had been stripped of stability and purpose by Communism’s implosion. Sonntag had charisma and an uncanny ability to channel the energy and anger of Gorbitz’s youth. They flocked to him, calling him the Sheriff.

Sonntag’s gang of neo-Nazis had started their supposed purification of the city by targeting the hütchenspieler, three-card swindlers who plied their trade on Dresden’s central Prager Strasse. They handcuffed the men and handed them over to the local police. Then the youth hounded the city’s Vietnamese cigarette sellers. Now they were eyeing brothels. Never mind that not so long ago, Sonntag himself had worked in a red-light district in the West; he timed an assault on a Dresden brothel called the Sex Shopping Center for midnight on the last day of May.

Throughout the evening, far-right youth—some with shaved heads, others with the feathery mullets still fashionable in the Eastern Bloc’s dying days—gathered in nearby bars and outside the boarded-up Faun Palace porn cinema, just down the street from the brothel. From behind the wheel of a parked car, Sonntag waited to give the signal to attack. The Sex Shopping Center was run by a Greek pimp named Nicolas Simeonidis and his business partner, Ronny Matz.

Around 11:45 p.m., as Sonntag’s army assembled beneath the Faun Palace’s faded neon sign, Simeonidis and Matz arrived in a black Mercedes to confront them. Simeonidis, a compact amateur boxer with a 16-1 record, brandished a sawed-off shotgun. “Get out of here!” he yelled at the forty or so young men gathered in the street. Simeonidis waved the shotgun in a wide arc, sending the neo-Nazis scattering for cover behind cars and bushes. “Leave us in peace!” he shouted.

Sonntag opened his car door and emerged. He was of average height and stoutly built, with dark, wavy hair and a round, friendly face that even now seemed on the verge of breaking into an infectious smile. Sonntag had charm to spare and a vicious stubborn streak. He wasn’t likely to back down just because his target had a gun—especially not with his troops watching. “Go on, then! Shoot, you coward!” Sonntag called out, removing his jacket and advancing steadily on Simeonidis.

From their hiding places, the neo-Nazis sensed a shift in the balance of the situation. One by one, they emerged to join their leader. They were willing to follow him anywhere.

But Sonntag’s young disciples didn’t know his darkest secret. While outwardly he was a neo-Nazi, he was also a spy for East Germany’s feared secret police, the Stasi. Not only that, he had ties to the KGB. In fact, right up until the Iron Curtain fell, one of his handlers was a young, ambitious Russian officer stationed in Dresden. The handler’s name was Vladimir Putin.

The story that follows is based on dozens of interviews with neo-Nazis, eyewitnesses, and former spies, and hundreds of pages of Stasi files and court records. It is the story of how, more than thirty years before Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, under the disingenuous banner of “de-Nazifying” the country, he and some of his closest intelligence associates helped nourish a neo-Nazi movement across Germany. Their preferred tool for sowing hate and discord was Rainer Sonntag.

2.

Born Rainer Mersiowsky in 1955, Sonntag never met his biological father and took his stepfather’s name. His mother struggled to keep him on the straight and narrow, and he managed to graduate high school only by repeating his penultimate year. Teachers described him as insouciant, weak-willed, and hot-tempered. He needed constant validation and lacked ambition, they said. He was repeatedly disciplined for disrupting lessons.

When he was a teenager, the Free German Youth assigned Sonntag the role of agit-propagandist; he was also a drill leader in Dresden’s Gymnastics and Sports Federation. He had an apprenticeship as a machine worker and was soon tapped to join a paratrooper regiment in the army. But Sonntag wasn’t interested in being a Communist stooge or enduring a lifetime of drudgery for a meager wage. He began acting out. In 1972, police investigated an incident at a local ice-skating rink, where Sonntag had punched some kids in the face “without provocation.” Worse yet, as far as the authorities were concerned, he showed signs of bucking the ideological yoke. Teachers caught him singing a ribald song about the Soviet Union during a football match—a permanent black mark on his fattening police file.

By 1973, as Sonntag stared down his 18th birthday, his future looked bleak. That February, he had drinks with three friends, including a former schoolmate whom authorities referred to in official documentation as “Hans Peter.” They met at the Gasthof Wölfnitz, an old-fashioned beer hall, to discuss a daring plan: escape to the West. Like many people their age stuck behind the Iron Curtain, they dreamed of a life of freedom and material abundance, glimpsed by most East Germans only when they illegally turned their TV antennas toward the West. Around 150,000 East Germans had fled their country since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. Many more had tried and failed.

One of Sonntag’s friends told the group at the Wölfnitz that his little brother had found a pistol in a nearby park. It was rusty and broken, but together they had cleaned and repainted it. They hoped to have it service ready soon in case they needed it during their escape. Another of Sonntag’s friends was in a mountaineering club and had a skill set that could help them navigate the rugged terrain near the border. The young men plotted their route: first to Czechoslovakia, then to Austria, and finally to West Germany. They set a departure date for later that month, drained their beers, and headed home.

It was summer before they acted on the plan, and only Sonntag and one of his friends decided to go. In July, while Sonntag’s mother, stepfather, and brother were on holiday, he rummaged in the family’s television cabinet, looking for the envelope he knew was stashed there. When he opened it he found 350 East German marks, and a second envelope containing 120 Czechoslovakian koruna. He intended to pay his parents back once he got to West Germany and found a job.

He and his friend boarded a bus to Altenberg, a pretty, medieval town high in the mountains on the East Germany border with Czechoslovakia. To avoid suspicion, the young men decided to tarry for a couple of days rather than cross into the neighboring socialist republic right away. Two days later, they woke early and changed their remaining marks into koruna. At 9:45 a.m., carrying nothing but a couple of sweaters, two knives, and his identity papers, and with money hidden in one of his shoes, Sonntag approached the border.

He and his friend were quickly separated and interrogated: What were their plans in Czechoslovakia? Sonntag told a border guard that they were headed to a parachuting competition in Prague. But his friend said they were planning to stop in Teplice, a spa town. Then the patrol found the money in Sonntag’s shoe.

Even if the friends had kept their stories straight, they never stood a chance. Their entire escape plan was already documented in a Stasi file, labeled “Machinist.” The Stasi had gathered every scrap of information they could from Sonntag’s colleagues and neighbors, the Dresden police, and a secret informant: Sonntag’s friend Hans Peter.

Sonntag and his companion were back in Dresden being interrogated by the Stasi that afternoon. “I knew I was forbidden to go to the capitalist West,” reads Sonntag’s confession, part of more than 230 pages of documentation now at the Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. “Although I knew this, I wanted to leave.” His sentence was 18 months of hard labor.

Authorities bounced Sonntag between several prisons during his sentence, including the notoriously tough Bautzen jail, a crumbling brick building known as the Yellow Misery. No matter where he was, Sonntag rebelled. He mocked the guards with his seeming obedience. “I show them a perfect cell, pretty as a picture,” he once wrote. “Three times they searched me and found nothing.” Prisoners spent much of their free time covering one another in primitive tattoos, and Sonntag, whom Stasi informants had noted possessed a talent for sketching, often came up with the designs.  

In February 1974, he wrote a letter that he intended to smuggle out to his family. “The guards would love to throw me in solitary but they can’t get to me, I’ve been clever,” he wrote. Sonntag’s cockiness proved misplaced. On his way to the visiting room that month, warders frisked him and found the letter tucked in his sleeve. They punished him with three weeks in solitary.

While it is hard to know whether Sonntag began his drift to the far right while in prison, it would have been next to impossible to avoid exposure to National Socialism behind bars. The East German prison system was practically a university for Nazism; lockup was filled with extremists, and war criminals flaunted their radical views and groomed new recruits. According to Ingo Hasselbach, a reformed far-right activist who spent time in prison in the late 1980s, on Adolf Hitler’s birthday Nazi prisoners would paint swastikas on toilet paper and fashion them into armbands. “It may sound pathetic, but it was an incredible provocation,” Hasselbach wrote in his memoir, Führer-Ex. “Those people had a big influence on me, and on others.” Some prisoners viewed Nazism as the purest form of opposition to communism, the ideology whose agents had put them behind bars. Indeed, embracing far-right beliefs was, ironically, a demonstration of anti-authoritarianism. 

For its part, the Communist Party was in denial. “Officially, in East Germany, Nazism didn’t exist,” said Bernd Wagner, a police commissioner who warned of a rising tide of neo-Nazism in 1985, only to see his report to the Politburo hushed up. His bosses’ response was as simple as it was naïve: “In a socialist paradise, Nazism is impossible.”

After Sonntag was released from prison, he again clashed with authorities. They issued him an ultimatum: work as an informant for the Dresden police or go back to prison. His freedom now depended on spying on his friends. He agreed to be an informant, but became more determined than ever to get out of East Germany. Sonntag was soon plotting another break for the West.

It would be tougher this time round, not least because his criminal conviction had resulted in the police confiscating his identity papers. Crossing the border legally would be out of the question. Over beers at the Rudolf-Renner-Eck pub, he formulated a new plan: Sonntag would hide in the trunk of a car while accomplices, including a young woman with a child, distracted guards at the border between East Germany and Poland, hoping to prevent the officers from searching the vehicle. Once in Poland, they would sell the car to buy passage across the Baltic Sea and out of the Eastern Bloc. But the authorities were several steps ahead of him: This time, the young woman’s mother was the one who ratted him out.

By 1975, Sonntag was back in jail, charged with “attempted flight from the Republic.” While he was behind bars, the Dresden police continued to use him as an informant. Snitching on fellow prisoners could bring all sorts of benefits in East Germany, from cigarettes to a comfier cell to a shorter sentence. Still, it was dangerous work. The faintest whiff of suspicion could be fatal. Sonntag took the risk anyway. When he was released after three and a half years, it didn’t take long for him to be arrested once more, again for theft. He got out two years later, in 1981, this time for good.

Sonntag had little to show for himself, and his dream of escaping to West Germany seemed more distant than ever. But things were starting to change in the East. For years the authorities had ransomed prisoners and criminals to the West as a way of raising hard currency. In the early 1980s, they expanded the practice, and thousands of East Germans began applying to leave. In theory, leaders in West Germany were paying for political dissidents of conscience; in practice, they never knew who would be shipped over. “East Germany palms its neo-Nazis off on us,” one West German politician complained to the newspaper Die Zeit in 1989. 

The authorities turned down far more ransom applications than they approved, but Sonntag had little to lose. In 1984, he put in his official request. If he had ties to the far right at the time, which seems likely given his numerous prison sentences, he kept it under wraps. He told his drinking buddies that if he was allowed to leave, he would join the West German army or find work as a private detective.

As ever, the Stasi was listening. In one of the police state’s many paradoxes, “people who asked to leave were, unsurprisingly, suspected of wanting to leave,” writes Anna Funder in Stasiland. In other words, the requests were legal, but the authorities could also choose to view them as a smear against the state. Based on his ransom application, Sonntag was immediately placed under investigation.

Apparatchiks drafted a 16-point operational plan to preempt the escape plan they were sure Sonntag would hatch if his application was rejected. The Stasi’s ubiquitous network of code-named snitches—Peter, Berger, Nitsche, Pilot, Sander, Roland, Eberhard, Brinkmann—monitored Sonntag’s every move. They followed him to his job packing goods, sat across the room at his favorite watering holes, and even hid outside his apartment.

More often than not, they turned up intelligence that was painfully banal. “On October 6 I could confirm Sonntag and his girlfriend were in his flat,” reads a typical report from an informant with the code name Goldbach. “From voices in the corridor, and lights on in the kitchen and living room, I concluded that both people were at home. The extent to which other people were present I was unable to establish. It seemed to me however, that there were several women in the flat. I didn’t get the impression that anybody planned to leave the place in the evening.”

Behind the dull bureaucracy of police surveillance, however, more powerful forces were at work.

3.

Klaus Zuchold never called the short, blond-haired deputy at the KGB’s Dresden headquarters Comrade Putin. He was always Volodya: “Little Vladimir.”

Zuchold was a 28-year-old trainee spy handler when he first met Putin, at an early-morning soccer match organized by the Stasi in September 1985. Putin, 32, was a gifted sportsman who played striker. Like most spies of the era, he had an official cover: He was stationed in Dresden as a diplomatic translator, even though his German was rudimentary. He and Zuchold spoke Russian when they met.

Putin had arrived in Dresden from Leningrad a month before, followed by his wife and baby daughter. In the Soviet Union, he had worked in the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, the division tasked with fighting “ideological subversion” by using informants and agents to flush out anti-regime agitators and pamphleteers. Now Putin lived in a three-room apartment a few minutes by foot from the KGB’s modest Dresden headquarters, a suburban villa on the leafy Angelikastrasse.

The mid-eighties were a tough time in the Soviet Union. New premier Mikhail Gorbachev had just announced his perestroika reforms to counter shortages and long lines for food. But in East Germany, “there was always plenty of everything”—especially beer, Putin told the authors of First Person, a biography published in 2000. He often took intelligence contacts to pubs and breweries. He would later claim that he gained 25 pounds during the posting.

Berlin, the undisputed capital of Cold War espionage, lay 100 miles north. Dresden, by comparison, could seem like a backwater. The KGB had only six agents working out of the Angelikastrasse office, but they were busy. The city was a hub for contraband—diamonds, antiquities, and weapons, sales of which helped sustain sclerotic socialist economies. It was also home to Robotron, East Germany’s largest computer manufacturer, which owed its success to the theft of intellectual property from Western tech giants, including IBM.

The KGB’s biggest task in Dresden was to recruit agents from among the city’s left-leaning students, scientists, and businesspeople, who for one reason or another felt disenchanted with the West. Putin “knew how to be polite, friendly, helpful, and unobtrusive,” wrote a spy who published a book under the alias Vladimir Usoltsev. He shared a desk with Putin in the Angelikastrasse villa’s attic. “He was able to win over anyone,” Usoltsev wrote, “but men old enough to be his father were his forte.” Putin was no ideologue, according to Usoltsev: He could playact a convincing Communist, but in reality he was “a pragmatist, somebody who thinks one thing and says another.” Anything was on the table so long as it meant destroying his enemies.

Putin was soon promoted, becoming the KGB’s direct liaison with the Stasi, whose offices and prison in Dresden occupied a vast former paper mill. He also led a crack team comprising KGB operatives and members of the police force’s feared K1 division, which was responsible for rooting out citizens with a “hostile-negative orientation” and keeping tabs on people suspected of wanting to flee to the West. At any time, K1 had about 15,000 informants on its roster. Combined with the Stasi’s inoffizielle mitarbeiter, or IMs, East German security agencies had more than 200,000 informants—one for every 63 citizens. “Everyone was followed,” Putin says in First Person. “Of course that wasn’t normal. It wasn’t natural.”

The relationship between the KGB, Stasi, and K1 was a complicated one. Technically, K1 was an arm of East Germany’s police force and overseen by the Ministry of Interior. It was the Stasi, however, that called the shots, and not everyone in the Stasi was happy that a KGB officer had control over a K1 team. The Soviets were allies, but they were also occupiers—many East Germans remembered the brutality of the Soviet advance into their country in 1945.

Still, while the KGB and Stasi were far from friendly, they were brother agencies, and now that Putin had ascended the intelligence ranks, he had his own Stasi ID card and could come and go from the bureau’s Bautzner Strasse headquarters as he pleased. He was assigned a right-hand man named Georg Johannes Schneider, a K1 officer and former Dresden policeman with tan skin and close-cropped hair, who enjoyed hunting and restored old furniture for the large apartment he shared with his journalist wife.

It was Schneider who pulled in Klaus Zuchold to help the KGB recruit agents in Dresden. The two men first met at an event for law enforcement officers 17 miles southeast of the city, where Saxon forests fold into spectacular sandstone peaks along the Czech border. Almost everyone had gone to bed when Schneider approached Zuchold, a Stasi officer working under the alias Frank Wollweber, and raised his glass. “Prost Aufklärung,” Schneider toasted, according to a 2015 report by Correctiv, a German nonprofit newsroom. To espionage.

It was an indiscreet opening gambit, to say the least. With those two words Schneider outed himself as a shadow operator for the KGB. But Zuchold didn’t balk. The pair drank and agreed to meet again. Before long Zuchold was working surreptitiously alongside Schneider and Putin. When his Stasi bosses discovered that he’d been meeting with a KGB officer, they reassigned him, hoping to limit his access to information that might interest the Soviet Union.

Even still, Zuchold proved useful. Together he, Putin, and Schneider established a network of around 20 KGB assets, some of whom were paid a monthly stipend of as little as 50 East German marks—$38 today—to provide intelligence. Their recruits were mostly Dresden locals with contacts in the West. Zuchold’s operatives included a female journalist with an array of international connections, and a man he wouldn’t name who he said is now a senior German judge.  

Zuchold was good at his job, but Schneider was better. He was a maverick with little respect for the rules and the kind of energy and charisma that easily won over potential collaborators. One of his biggest coups was the establishment of a pipeline through which German-speaking Latin Americans, recruited as KGB agents, were funneled to West Germany.

Schneider took to wearing safari suits and dark glasses. “He looked like a mafioso,” Zuchold said. He was also good company: “He’d entertain everybody. And the people would all be taken with the man.” But Schneider had a dark side. Though married to a pretty redhead—whom Zuchold was sure Putin was jealous of—Schneider was a predatory womanizer. He slept with agents as well as the wives and girlfriends of his colleagues. He was rumored to have raped the ten-year-old daughter of an informant, though charges were never brought.

Thanks in no small part to Schneider’s recruitment efforts, Putin prospered, winning two more KGB promotions in short order. “All the success that Putin had in Dresden was first and foremost because of Schneider,” Zuchold said. Schneider was the person who came up with the idea of transforming Rainer Sonntag from a low-rung police informant into something else entirely.  

As a Dresden policeman, it was Schneider who recruited Sonntag. (Their relationship was first reported by Correctiv.) Sonntag had since become an ardent right-winger—one IM claimed that he had a side hustle selling Nazi memorabilia on the black market. When Sonntag’s request to be ransomed to the West landed on Schneider’s desk, he saw an opportunity: What if the East Germans—and by extension, thanks to Putin’s role in Dresden, the KGB—planted Sonntag as an active informant on the other side of the Berlin Wall?

At its peak in the late 1970s, the Stasi had more than 200,000 IMs on its books—one for every 63 citizens. “Everyone was followed,” Putin said.

The Stasi had a rich history of exploiting the far right for its own ends. When Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Jerusalem, the Stasi funneled cash to a campaign to defend the captured war criminal and forged letters from “veterans of the Waffen-SS” urging comrades to join the “struggle against Jewish Bolshevism,” all in an effort to humiliate the West German government. With the same goal in mind, in the late fifties and early sixties, Stasi agents smeared swastikas on Jewish graves across the country. Later, in the 1980s, the Stasi recruited Odfried Hepp, one of West Germany’s most wanted neo-Nazi terrorists, to report on far-right activity on his side of the Berlin Wall. When it appeared that Hepp’s arrest was imminent, he fled to East Germany and was smuggled to Syria under a new identity.

Author Regine Igel, who has studied extremism in modern Germany, believes that the East German intelligence apparatus was engaged in “massive and long-term support and direction of German and international terrorism,” exploiting extremists on both right and left to destabilize the West. By Sonntag’s time, however, the authorities’ approach to the far right may have become more pragmatic, concerned with heading off neo-Nazi attacks against border installations and countering the spread of the ideology in East Germany. “Following the logic of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ there was a basis for cooperation,” historian Bernhard Blumenau said. “This was realpolitik at its best.”

Unleashing Sonntag in West Germany was a gamble. He was a loner, with few personal relationships to ground him. There was a good chance that, once free, he would simply vanish. But he was about to surprise his handlers.

When Sonntag applied to go to the West in 1986, Vladimir Putin approved the request.

4.

When Sonntag arrived in West Germany in 1986, his first stop was Giessen, a refugee camp north of Frankfurt. There he boasted that he’d been “bought free,” or ransomed as a prisoner of conscience. Staying at Giessen meant routine questioning by West German intelligence officers, and possibly by their British, American, and French allies. He must have hidden his connection to Schneider and Putin well enough: Authorities quickly cleared him to leave Giessen and build a life in West Germany.

Before long, Sonntag gravitated toward Frankfurt’s underworld. With his prison record and quick fists, he blended in to the scene. He got work as a brothel doorman—a “slut minder,” as he liked to call himself. He even landed in court for weapons possession and assault. (The details of the crime have been lost; court records from the era were routinely destroyed.)

As Sonntag established himself among criminal elements in the West, he reported back to Schneider and Putin. It’s not clear how they kept in touch, according to Zuchold, but Stasi operational practice at the time would have allowed for a number of options. One was to meet in “socialist abroad” countries—states friendly to East Germany, such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Another common method was to rendezvous in Stasi-monitored service stations along the autobahn that connected East Germany to West Berlin. At least initially Sonntag was a low-grade informant, not someone to be trusted with courier duties or equipped with a clandestine radio. Nor was he worth the risk of his handlers crossing into the West to meet him.

That changed in 1988, when Sonntag caught the eye of West Germany’s most powerful neo-Nazi. The self-styled führer of the coming Fourth Reich, his name was Michael Kühnen. While Sonntag was a blue-collar rabble-rouser, Kühnen was a lean former soldier with a military bearing, sculpted cheekbones, and fastidiously pressed uniforms. He looked straight out of a Nazi propoganda movie. Kühnen was also a sophisticated strategist and provocateur. In May 1978, he and his neo-Nazi troops marched through Hamburg’s city center wearing donkey masks and placards around their necks declaring, “I’m a jackass who still believes that Jews were gassed in German concentration camps.”

Like Hitler, Kühnen wanted to gain power through legitimate elections. He and his followers started one political party after another, including the National Assembly, the National List, the National Alternative, the German Alternative, and the Covenant of the New Front. The complex network of entities flummoxed both academics and antifascist activists, but the organizing principle was simple enough: Whenever the government banned one of his political parties, Kühnen formed another one. “We didn’t found one great political organization but a lot of smaller ones, because it’s harder to ban all of them,” said Christian Worch, who served as Kühnen’s chief of staff in the 1980s and remains deep in the neo-Nazi movement today. This presented West German authorities with an endless game of Whac-a-Mole.

Behind the political front groups was a backdrop of terror. The violence had begun in 1970, when a Russian soldier standing guard at the Soviet war memorial in West Berlin’s Tiergarten was shot and wounded—the first in a series of increasingly grisly far-right attacks that, within a few years, escalated into bank robberies and bombings. In 1979, three neo-Nazis were arrested for planning an assault on a West German communist group’s offices. One of the men had stolen a large quantity of sodium cyanide. He had planned to poison the guards at Berlin’s Spandau Prison and free its only prisoner, the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess.

The same year, Kühnen received a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for inciting violence and racial hatred. While he was behind bars, the wave of brutality he helped unleash culminated in one of Germany’s worst peacetime atrocities: On September 26, 1980, a pipe bomb stashed inside a trash can at Munich’s Oktoberfest exploded, killing 13 and injuring more than 200. Three months later, a Jewish community leader and his partner were shot dead at their home. In 1981, security forces hunting the neo-Nazi gangs responsible for these crimes uncovered the biggest weapons cache ever found in postwar Germany: Buried in a forest in Lower Saxony were 88 crates containing 50 Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons, 14 firearms, 258 hand grenades, more than 300 pounds of explosives, and 13,500 rounds of ammunition.

Once freed from prison, Kühnen set up his headquarters in Langen, a town south of Frankfurt with pretty half-timbered houses huddled around a medieval square, like something out of a children’s picture book. A few blocks away, on the Strasse der Deutschen Einheit, was an altogether different building, a modernist complex built in the late-1950s to house East Germans who had fled Communism. It had since become home to refugees from all over the Eastern Bloc who were waiting to secure steady work and permanent housing. As bureaucracy slowed their relocation process and the complex became overcrowded, residents turned their anger toward local immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, many of whom had fled political violence or poverty to build new lives in Germany. “Just look how these asylum seekers live,” said a leader of the Federation of Expellees, a right-wing support group for Germans who had lost Eastern European property in World War II. “They all have the biggest TV sets, a video recorder, a car.”

That animosity helped make Langen the unofficial capital of West Germany’s rapidly swelling neo-Nazi movement. Far-right activists, including Kühnen, enlisted skinhead gangs to distribute racist flyers outside schools and stake out parks and playgrounds, beating up people of color who dared to use them. Their aim was to make Langen ausländerfrei, or “foreigner free,” something that would be far easier to do in a small town like Langen than in one of West Germany’s larger cities. “Twenty men in Langen are worth 200, 300, or 400 in Frankfurt,” Worch said.

By 1988, Kühnen needed people around him he could trust. Two years before, he had come out as gay, writing that “the sexual relations between men that arise from friendship and love and the deepening of devotion to the fellowship can never harm that fellowship.” Kühnen’s sexual identity had long been the stuff of rumors, but he had been forced to play his hand after he was diagnosed with HIV. As other neo-Nazis began to circle, looking to use his status as an excuse to push him from their movement’s ignominious throne, Kühnen made sure his inner circle was tight and full of proven friends.

Among them was Sonntag. It’s not clear when or how the two men met, but once they did, according to Worch, Sonntag quickly became Kühnen’s sergeant at arms. In practice this meant that he was the personal bodyguard and head of security to the most powerful neo-Nazi leader in West Germany. He was an enforcer, tasked with rooting out spies and traitors.

Sonntag also formed and commanded a platoon of hand-picked street fighters who waged running battles with left-wing gangs on the streets of Langen and Frankfurt. When the neo-Nazis attacked, Sonntag led by example. At protests, often under the gaze of the police, he fought with his fists. When he and other men guarded far-right activists distributing racist leaflets, he carried a club. Sonntag also sought opportunities to go on the offensive. Worch recalled driving him around Frankfurt to hunt down anarchists and punks. “Sonntag was always in the front line,” he said.

It was also Sonntag who dealt with the press—a responsibility that gave him control of one of the neo-Nazis’ few sources of income. Newspapers paid 550 marks for interviews ($660 in today’s dollars), while camera crews paid 950 marks ($1,280). A French TV team put up 2,000 francs ($800) for an election exclusive, and when the Nazis drove to an out-of-town rally, a Danish broadcaster bought the gasoline.

As Kühnen’s health declined, Sonntag’s prominence in the neo-Nazi movement rose even further. “Suddenly, he was the chief,” Zuchold said. “Kühnen was sick with AIDS, and Sonntag was next in line.” This made some within the neo-Nazi movement nervous. Sonntag “was not easy to trust,” said Ingo Hasselbach, adding that Sonntag’s work as a pimp was beyond the pale for many of his comrades. “We kept warning Kühnen. We said, ‘Something’s wrong with this guy.’ ”

But Sonntag’s fortune was a stroke of luck for Schneider and Putin. Available documentation doesn’t specify the information Sonntag provided his handlers, but what both the East Germans and KGB wanted most was influence and a direct line to people in power. The Stasi’s most famous coup in this regard had been to recruit Günter Guillame, a personal assistant to West German chancellor Willy Brandt, who resigned in 1974 after the agent was exposed. By the late 1980s, it was clear that neo-Nazis were emerging as a powerful political force. Sonntag, situated tantalizingly near its apex, was an invaluable asset to the prying forces of the East.  

By early 1989, riding the tide of xenophobia in Langen,  the city’s neo-Nazis had easily acquired the number of signatures needed to run their National Assembly party in a local election, with Sonntag as a leading candidate. Victory would have been a major step toward making Langen ausländerfrei. But then the West German authorities stepped in: They banned the party from the elections and raided senior leader Heinz Reisz’s home, seizing his favorite Hitler portrait live on national television.

As ever, the neo-Nazis regrouped. That November the Berlin Wall fell. While much of the world celebrated, and East Germans reveled in the newfound capitalist plenty of supermarkets and shopping malls, Kühnen’s men in Langen sensed an opportunity. What if they staged a far-right revolution in the GDR? People in the East were suddenly unmoored. National Socialism, with its vociferous rejection of the past half-century of Communist rule, could be their new anchor.

In some ways the neo-Nazis had already laid the groundwork. A flurry of groups had been created as cover for the banned National Assembly party. One of them, Deutsche Alternative, would provide the fig leaf needed to kick-start a political uprising in the East. “A party program will be formulated for the DA in Middle Germany in such a way as to allow it to be legally registered,” read the road map for revolution, referred to as Arbeitsplan Ost, or Workplan East. The next step was to win new supporters. Each Monday, up to half a million protesters filled a church square in Leipzig, East Germany’s second-largest city, to protest the lingering Communist regime. As peaceful protest spread across the crumbling GDR, the neo-Nazis wanted to nudge the participants—and thus the entire country—toward political extremism. By planting activists among the crowd, they planned to provoke a shift toward racism and xenophobia. “Our activists will take part in demonstrations and attempt to radicalize them,” the Arbeitsplan Ost document read.

But a neo-Nazi leader named Gerald Hess was worried the plan might fail, due to sabotage. He was convinced that someone within the movement’s leadership was leaking information about Arbeitsplan Ost to government authorities. At first, Hess’s suspicions fell on a filmmaker named Michael Schmidt, who only recently had become close to Kühnen. Hess and Schmidt were friendly. The filmmaker had even attended a home screening of a 1940 Nazi propaganda film depicting Jews as rats ravaging Europe with disease. But Hess was becoming increasingly paranoid.

In the summer of 1990, Hess invited Schmidt to have a beer and confronted him. “You know I like you,” Hess said. “But I don’t trust you anymore. Are you with the filth?” Schmidt talked Hess down, assuring him he wasn’t a traitor, but that only meant Hess’s suspicions needed to fall on someone else.

He turned his attention to Sonntag, who was also relatively new to the neo-Nazis’ ranks in West Germany. But Hess would never get the chance to confront Sonntag: Five days after his meeting with Schmidt, Hess was found dead in his bedroom, his chest blown apart by a shotgun. “Here in Langen, many believe that you shot Gerald,” Kühnen wrote to Sonntag in a letter dated August 24, 1990. “The circumstances are mysterious. Some point to suicide, others to murder.”

Hess’s death may have cast suspicion on Sonntag, but that mattered less than his utility. He soon returned to his birthplace. According to the Langen rumor mill, he brought along a shotgun and 6,000 marks stolen from Hess. With his intimate knowledge of Dresden’s drinking halls, alleys, and slums, he was the perfect man to put Arbeitsplan Ost into action. Soon he was leading the effort to establish an array of Kühnen-linked parties in the former GDR: National Resistance, Schutzstaffel-Ost, and the Band of Saxon Werewolves.

But before that, Sonntag made contact with his East German handler. In fact, it was the first thing he did when he returned home. When he arrived at a border crossing between West German Bavaria and East German Thuringia, he told the guards to summon Georg Johannes Schneider. Sonntag refused to deal with anyone else.

5.

Putin was gone by then. After heaping piles of KGB files into a furnace as an anti-Communist mob bore down on his office in Angelikastrasse, he returned home to the Soviet Union as the East German security apparatus collapsed. The vast majority of K1 and Stasi informants simply stopped being on the payroll overnight. But the lights at the Stasi’s Berlin headquarters, a sprawling forbidden city left blank on city maps, remained on for two days. When citizens stormed the complex, they realized why: Stasi agents had been destroying files around the clock—beginning with those of Westerners they had recruited as spies. In one building alone, there were over a hundred shredding machines.

The collapse of East German intelligence left Schneider where he had started: with the Dresden police. There he headed a department charged with tackling left- and right-wing extremism on Dresden’s increasingly unruly streets. Sonntag, newly returned, proved a great weapon “for stirring up trouble,” Schneider told Zuchold when the two men met for a drink in 1991. Zuchold had been sentenced to three years in prison in 1988, after East German officials discovered his unauthorized shadow work for the KGB. He was released when the wall fell and quickly recruited by German intelligence to spy on Schneider and Putin. (Zuchold alleges that the two men met several times between 1991 and 1993.)

In one encounter, Schneider told Zuchold that he was using Sonntag to play the city’s neo-Nazis off its punks and anarchists. Putin’s former right-hand man explained  that he used neofascists to keep the left in check, and vice versa. He didn’t want either side to control the streets; chaos was his preferred state. This meant that when Sonntag’s gang stalked Dresden, the police often looked the other way—and in some cases actively helped them. On one occasion, a police officer used his private vehicle to give Sonntag a ride to a neo-Nazi operation.

Sonntag’s attention was focused on Gorbitz, where he knew he would find like-minded individuals. On an underpass marking the neighborhood’s boundary was a spray-painted slogan alerting visitors that a “Heil Hitler” salute was the expected greeting. The message was flanked by swastikas. The pale youths who roamed Gorbitz’s monochrome streets were often armed with baseball bats, chains, and knuckle dusters. They were lost, in the words of one police psychologist, amid an “existential economic, psycho-social, and political adjustment.” In East Germany’s industrial heartland, state businesses had collapsed, and reunification was doing nothing to curb soaring unemployment.

As the cold paternal hand of the state withdrew, disillusioned youth drifted through Gorbitz’s gray labyrinth toward its grim focal point, a slab-built pub called the Grüner Heinrich. That’s where Sonntag, now 35, set up shop in 1990. He was always accompanied by his beloved German shepherd.

Kühnen had envisioned Sonntag’s homecoming as a keystone of Arbeitsplan Ost. But Sonntag molded a different reality. Gorbitz’s 35,000 residents had been born into a one-party state. Now they were gleefully ripping up their party cards; they hardly wanted to join a new one, not even Deutsche Alternative. What they did want was an outlet for their pent-up frustrations. Sonntag invited youth to Friday “Comrade Evenings” at the Grüner Heinrich, then marshaled them into bands that harried small-time criminals and foreigners. “I don’t have anything against foreigners,” Sonntag once told a local social worker named Hussein Jinah. “I just don’t want them here.”

The violence mounted as the number of Sonntag’s followers grew. In the early hours of Easter Sunday 1991, a young Mozambican slaughterhouse worker named Jorge Gomondai—one of 90,000 foreign contract workers who lived in special housing set apart from the city’s native population—was thrown from a streetcar by a gang of neo-Nazi youth. “It was a matter of life and death,” said Jinah, whose own immigrant status made him a target. “You heard these horror stories all the time.”

Around 7,000 Dresdeners attended Gomondai’s memorial service, but their concern was not enough to stem the rising tide of far-right activism and violence. In short order, Sonntag’s recruitment and provocations had made the city Germany’s new capital of neo-Nazism, and had earned Sonntag the nickname Sheriff of Dresden. Soon extremists from all over the country were visiting.

The extent of Sonntag’s success was most apparent when a film crew waited at Dresden’s central train station to capture the arrival of the führer himself: Michael Kühnen. Footage captured that day shows Kühnen on the concourse, surrounded by apathetic policemen and flanked by his most loyal lieutenants, including a smirking Sonntag, as the crowd chants, “Deutschland den Deutschen, Ausländer raus!”—“Germany for the Germans, foreigners out!” 

In short order, Sonntag’s recruitment and provocations had made the city Germany’s new capital of neo-Nazism, and had earned Sonntag the nickname Sheriff of Dresden.

As Sonntag amassed power, Schneider worried that his asset was running wild. According to Zuchold, Sonntag “became gradually ill-disciplined and began to be uncontrollable.” In April 1991, Kühnen died from complications of AIDS, leaving Sonntag as one of the most powerful neo-Nazis in Germany. By then he had already set his sights on Dresden’s sex industry, which was sweeping into his hometown from the West. “Dresden must not become Frankfurt,” Sonntag told his street troops, who put local cathouses, including the Sex Shopping Center, under surveillance. “The brothels must be destroyed.”

The reality of the situation may have been somewhat different than the rhetoric. Sonntag had brought his underworld experience to vigilantism: When his gangs attacked the cigarette merchants, for instance, they stole the men’s wares to sell themselves, and rumor had it that the real reason Sonntag targeted the brothel was that the pimps had failed to pay him protection money.

On the night of May 31, Sonntag and his gang prepared to smash up the Sex Shopping Center. When Nicolas Simeonidis pulled out his shotgun, Sonntag didn’t hesitate to advance. Some people later said that he had a knife on him. Armed or not, Sonntag kept coming, arms raised, daring the brothel owner to fire at him. Simeonidis slowly backed away until he was up against his own car. He felt behind him cautiously, without taking his eyes off Sonntag, and lowered himself carefully into the passenger seat.

“Come on, shoot! You don’t have the balls!” Sonntag goaded.

As Simeonidis attempted to pull the car door shut, Sonntag jammed it open with his powerful grip. For a split second they remained locked in their positions. Then Ronny Matz, Simeonidis’s business partner, reached across the car’s interior from the driver’s seat and unloaded pepper spray in Sonntag’s face. From inside the cloud, a single gunshot rang out.

Matz stomped on the accelerator, and the Mercedes streaked away. Sonntag lay on the ground amid a slowly spreading pool of blood, the left side of his head blown away.

6.

When Sonntag died, Schneider told Zuchold it was “best for everyone.” But in truth perhaps the only thing more terrible than Sonntag’s life was his death. He immediately became a martyr to the neo-Nazi movement, and his followers took out their rage on Dresden. First they rampaged through the Sex Shopping Center, making good on their vow to destroy it. Then, in the days, weeks, and months that followed, they unleashed terror on the city at large.

Skinheads ransacked stores and attacked anybody they deemed foreign. Police showed up late to fights and crime scenes, or not at all. “Those of us with different skin color wouldn’t head out on the street after 6 p.m.,” Jinah said. “When the sun went down, we became afraid.” Gangs attacked him twice, Jinah said, and he barely managed to escape.

Nick Greger, who was 15 at the time, was inspired to run away from his home in Bavaria to join the nightly violence in Dresden. “It was very terrible,” said Greger, now a reformed extremist. “Our shoelaces were white, for white power, and I woke up one day and they were red. I thought, ‘Oh no no, I killed somebody.’ ” Another young neo-Nazi, a roofer named Sebastian Räbiger, set up a vigil for Sonntag outside the Sex Shopping Center. He would go on to become a leader of a German hate group called the Viking Youth and inculcate a new generation of neo-Nazis.

Soon the violence had spread to Hoyerswerda, a town 35 miles northeast of Dresden. There, rioting skinheads tossed Molotov cocktails into asylum seekers’ homes in September 1991. The same year, Hoyerswerda became the first German town to be declared ausländerfrei. Where they had failed in the West, the neo-Nazis were succeeding in the East.

Sonntag’s memorial procession, held two weeks after his death, was reportedly the largest gathering of neo-Nazis since the end of World War II. A crowd of more than 2,000 people walked beneath overcast skies, making their way toward the towering neo-Renaissance building that housed Dresden’s courts. They were accompanied by the heavy beat of drums and grew rowdier as they approached the courthouse steps. Many of the mourners were raised in the Communist wastelands of suburban East Germany and had come to pay tribute to a man they saw as a hero who promised a future free from poverty, crime, and disorder—only to be cut down in his prime. “He was no ordinary person,” a man with a megaphone cried. “He wasn’t one of many. He was a comrade to his comrades, a master to his followers, an outstanding campaigner for our shared ideals.”

The crowd raised their right arms, with three fingers outstretched to make the W for widerstand—resistance.  

“Rainer Sonntag is dead,” the man continued, “but Germany lives.”

The mob roared. “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!”

It wasn’t the last time Sonntag’s supporters would rally. In March 1992, Simeonidis and Matz were acquitted of killing the Sheriff of Dresden; a court ruled that they had acted in self-defense. Neo-Nazis rioted in response. The acquittal was overturned on appeal, and both defendants served time.

All told, the dynamics of Sonntag’s death couldn’t have been better-suited to far-right propaganda. “We always had this picture of foreigners as dangerous, killing Germans, and now we have this guy shot by Greeks,” said Ingo Hasselbach, the former neo-Nazi. “It just fit into the picture.”

A few years after the Iron Curtain fell, Schneider was arrested for collusion with Moscow, on the basis of intelligence gathered by Zuchold. He was fired from the Dresden police and worked as a private detective until 1999, when a group of men entered his apartment and beat him with an iron bar. Zuchold suspected some of the criminals Schneider had befriended as an agent turned on him. Schneider spent two days in a coma. After he woke up, he was never the same. “The man was unrecognizable,” Zuchold said. “When I had a conversation with him, sometimes he laughed, then he cried. There was really severe damage.” Schneider spent the next decade drinking at a local Irish bar and died, at the age of 62, in 2010.

Zuchold reinvented himself—first as a hotel receptionist, later as a security consultant. In 2017, he claimed that he was the target of an assassination attempt while on a train from Fulda to Leipzig. “At around 11 a.m. I was jostled from behind by an unknown man,” Zuchold recalled, with an intelligence officer’s regard for detail. “During that contact, he pushed a sharp object into my upper left arm. He said, ‘Excuse me,’ and exited the compartment in the direction of the front of the train.” Fatigue set in almost instantly, and Zuchold’s arm began to swell. A week later he was admitted to the hospital. Doctors operated for hours to address the swelling; after inconclusive lab results, they deemed it a “suspected abscess,” though similar tactics have been used by Russian operatives looking to eliminate enemies of Russia—and more specifically of Vladimir Putin.

If there is a winner in this whole sordid story it is Putin, now one of the most powerful men in the world. Since assuming the Russian presidency for the first time in 2000, he has distilled his nation’s fledgling democracy into an autocracy, murdering rival politicians and journalists and replacing them with oligarchs and a ruthless propaganda machine. Along the way, he has repeatedly instrumentalized the far right to his advantage. “Putin was never a good Communist,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, author of Russia and the Western Far Right. “It was the service to the state that was the most important thing.”

Putin has invigorated the far right at home. He has ridden with the Night Wolves, an ultraconservative biker gang, and created a national movement called Nashi—“Ours”—that enlisted football-gang members allied with Russia’s neo-Nazi underground. He has also built alliances with neofascist leaders across Europe. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing National Rally, borrowed roughly $11 million from Russia to fund her party’s quest for power. Italian Lega leader Matteo Salvini, who posed in a Putin T-shirt in Moscow’s Red Square, has called the Russian leader “the best statesman currently on earth” and has also sought funding from Moscow. As of this writing, populist leaders in Budapest and Belgrade continue to appease Putin as Russian tanks roll across Ukraine.

Putin’s influence can also be felt in present-day Germany, where the Kremlin has forged ties with members of the Alternative für Deutschland, a national political party espousing anti-Semitism and racism so virulent it has been placed under the official watch of domestic intelligence. The AfD’s heartland is in Saxony, the region encompassing Dresden. It has remained a stronghold of the German far right since Sonntag’s day.

In 2014, the city gave birth to the anti-immigrant group Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the Occident). In 2019, city authorities declared a “Nazi emergency.” The following year, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of Dresden’s obliteration by British bombs risked becoming a rally for the far right. Steinmeier was right: In 2022, as dignitaries gathered in a cemetery to commemorate the bombing, some 750 neo-Nazis marched through the city center with loudspeakers blaring Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer.

Germany’s far right shows no sign of waning. “The scene will get bigger, in fine garb, and in the guise of neoconservative political parties,” Zuchold predicted. In a sense, Arbeitsplan Ost continues. This is the ugly legacy of Rainer Sonntag and his handlers.


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The Fugitive Next Door

The Fugitive Next Door

Tim Brown seemed like a typical Florida retiree—he loved doting on his wife, fishing with friends, and flying his plane. But his life was built on a secret. 


By Greg Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 127


Greg Donahue is a writer and investigative journalist whose work has appeared in New York, The Guardian, Vice, and Marie Claire, among other publications. His last Atavist story, “Porambo,” was published as Issue No. 77. Follow him on Twitter @gregjdonahue.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alison Van Houten

Published in May 2022.


On the morning of December 2, 2020, Tim Brown got up early to start a fire. The night before, an unseasonable cold front had descended on Love’s Landing, Florida, where Brown lived with his wife, Duc Hanh Thi Vu. By 8 a.m., the mercury in the thermometer had yet to reach 40 degrees. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac where the couple lived, a thin layer of frost glistened on the long grass runways that extended through the quiet neighborhood: Love’s Landing is a private aviation community, home to pilots, plane engineers, and flying enthusiasts.

As heat from the fireplace warmed the house, Brown headed to the small hangar he’d built right outside. Nearly everyone in Love’s Landing owned a plane, and Brown was no exception. He’d just had the engine of his gleaming Tecnam P2008 replaced, and despite the chill in the air, the morning was shaping up to be calm and clear. Perfect weather to take the plane up.

A carpenter by trade, Brown had spent much of his life enjoying the outdoors. In his younger days, he was an expert scuba diver and deep-sea fisherman. But now, at 66, his age had finally caught up with him. His close-cropped hair had gone gray, and health issues had him in and out of the hospital. During the past year alone, he’d suffered two heart attacks. Flying offered the chance, as Brown put it, “to continue the fun.” He’d fallen in love with aviation years earlier, after taking a charter trip with friends in Alaska. Flying sure beat staring at the trees on either side of the road, he said. This was the kind of enthusiastic attitude that made Brown popular in Love’s Landing. Soon after moving there in 2017, he and Vu became, as a neighbor put it, “one of the best-liked couples in the airpark.”

Brown had just raised the hangar door when an unmarked Dodge Durango roared into the driveway, along with a Marion County police cruiser. As Brown turned toward the commotion, a law enforcement agent in a tactical vest leapt out of the SUV. He was pointing an MK18 short-barreled automatic rifle at Brown’s face. “Step back! Raise your hands!” the agent shouted.

Brown did as he was told. Officers from a half-dozen federal agencies were fanning out across the property. “Are you Tim Brown?” the lead officer demanded as he approached the hangar. Brown nodded. “I’ve got a warrant for your arrest,” the officer said. Agents moved in formation to clear the hangar and headed toward the main house to execute a search warrant.

Brown’s neighbors would later recount their confusion at the fleet of official vehicles facing every which way in the street. No one knew what Brown had done. But whatever they imagined, the truth was almost certainly stranger.

For the previous 35 years, Tim Brown had been living a carefully constructed lie. He wasn’t just an aging retiree with a passion for aviation. In fact, he wasn’t Tim Brown at all. His real name was Howard Farley Jr., and law enforcement alleged that he’d been the leader of one of the largest drug-trafficking rings in Nebraska history.

As he was placed under arrest, a wry grin spread across his face. “I had mentally prepared myself for being caught,” he would later say. “When it happened, with men pointing guns at me, the only thing to do was smile.”

Howard Farley’s 1965 high school yearbook photo.

Part One

Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Howard Farley was what you might call a gearhead: a blue-collar kid with a knack for the mechanical. He was born in 1948, the fourth of five children, and spent much of his youth honing his engineering skills. He built award-winning model cars and a playhouse for his hamsters dubbed the Sugar Shack. Later, he crafted an RV out of an old school bus.

Boyishly handsome, with a wide Leave It to Beaver grin and prominent ears, Farley was popular in school and had a roguish quality that endeared him to most everyone he met. He was also restless. Life at home was complicated. When he was in his early teens, his mother abandoned the family, and Farley’s father was stuck with a house full of kids. Farley was devastated. “It left a profound loss of motherly love and guidance during critical teenage and adult years,” his elder sister Beverly later wrote.

In high school, Farley fell in with a rebellious crowd. “Mine were more the fun-loving guys that rode their motorcycles to school, dated the cheerleaders, and had keg parties on the weekends,” he said. When friends came to visit him at the grocery store where he sometimes worked, he would bag up steak after steak without ringing them up. “He always had a bit of a hustle,” said one friend, intending it as a compliment.

In September 1965, Farley experienced his first brush with the law. Like a lot of Midwestern kids his age he liked cars, and in those days the best place for cruising was Dodge Street in Omaha. A generation of Nebraska youth spent their evenings making the loop between Tiner’s Drive-In on 44th and Todd’s on 77th, showing off their rides and gorging themselves on 65-cent burgers. Sometimes they staged drag races. When police arrived on one such occasion, Farley attempted to flee, driving at nearly 100 miles per hour. His date in the passenger seat begged him to stop. In the ensuing chase, police fired on Farley’s car, and a bullet hit the girl in the jaw. Farley was quickly arrested. His license was suspended, and he was sentenced to a year of probation. The girl survived, and later sued Farley for $25,000 dollars. He was 16 years old.

Farley got his act together enough to capitalize on his mechanical abilities—soon after he graduated high school, he was hired full-time at the sprawling Burlington Northern rail yards. In those days, rail work paid well. Engineers earned an annual salary of about $30,000, or $160,000 today. For Farley, the money must have felt like a dream. He quickly moved up the ladder at work. Before long he was driving trains from Lincoln to Sioux City and Creston, Iowa. The hours were long and tedious, but he was a natural. “He was built for it,” said Tyrone Baskin, a friend from high school who also worked the rails.

Farley fathered a child with Christine Schleis, a high school girlfriend, and married her. Their union was rocky from the beginning. “We were not a good match,” Schleis said. “It was just something that happened. You got pregnant, you got married. There was no question.” Schleis came from a cultured, well-traveled family. It was a world apart from Farley’s upbringing.

The couple named their daughter Amy—three letters in honor of her three-pound birth weight. While Schleis stayed home with the baby, Farley took up skydiving and partied hard. In 1969, he and another man were arrested for burglarizing a local carpeting business. It’s unclear what role Farley played in the crime; the charges were later reduced to accessory after the fact. Eventually, Farley became disillusioned with life in Lincoln. He took a job with a railroad company in Alaska, leaving behind his wife and daughter. By 1970, he and Schleis were ready to file for divorce.

Over the next 15 years, Farley divided his time between Alaska, Washington, and Florida, where he lived when he wasn’t working the rails up north. He married again, got another divorce. Occasionally, family drama drew him back to Nebraska, but he never stayed long. “He was an adrenaline junkie,” said an old friend. “I don’t think that changed.”

Perhaps he saw drug trafficking as an outlet for his restlessness. According to a source who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Farley was introduced to a man who had experience in the drug trade. The man explained to Farley that someone who traveled as frequently as he did could make a fortune—all he had to do was bring drugs along on his trips. “That’s how Howard found out what to do and how to do it,” the source told me.

By the early 1980s, Farley had quit the railroad business and relocated to Lake Worth, Florida, a beach town about 60 miles north of Miami. He told Baskin, his high school friend, that he’d saved $30,000 dollars and was going to “go for it,” investing the money in a shipment of cocaine and flipping it for big bucks. There was no better place than Florida to put his new plan into action. It was the height of the Miami Vice–era drug boom, and Farley had little trouble finding himself a supplier. “I think an opportunity just presented itself, and he jumped on it and made the most out of it,” Baskin said.

Farley started ferrying drugs to contacts in Nebraska and Alaska. In the beginning it was a largely insular affair; he was mostly supplying former coworkers and friends— “single railroaders making a lot of money,” as one of Farley’s Nebraska customers put it. Sometimes, Farley asked friends to mail packages of coke using FedEx and kept his fingers crossed that they’d reach their destination undetected. Other times he brought the drugs with him on a plane—he booked super-saver flights to keep costs down. At least twice, according to Baskin, Farley drove his Saab from Florida to Alaska and back again, stopping in Lincoln along the way north. “He probably left some [drugs] with people to distribute here,” Baskin said. “Then he’d take what was left and transport it on to Alaska.”

Before long, Farley was laying over in Lincoln with larger and larger amounts of blow. It was the tail end of the disco era, and demand was high. But Farley wasn’t dealing grams to strangers in the bar. He sought out distribution partners among friends and family, people he could trust. His sister Mary, who at one time sold lingerie and sex toys, and her husband, Gerry Machado, got involved. According to prosecutors, Farley used their house in Lincoln for storage and sales. High school friends joined in. Among them were Baskin, Robert Frame, and John Kahler, all Vietnam War veterans who had returned from combat with varying degrees of drug addiction. Farley taught them how to cut the high-grade coke he brought from Florida with inositol, a type of sugar, to increase the volume and make more money selling it. His friends gave Farley his cut of sales whenever he was in town “He didn’t take chances,” said Baskin. “He made sure he knew the people he dealt with or they had been friends a long time.”

Farley wasn’t the only person supplying drugs in Lincoln. Coke dealing had become a cottage industry among hard-partying railroaders. Clyde Meyer, a Burlington Northern engineer, ran an operation out of his house on the city’s west side. Like Farley, Meyer had started small. “I think he slowly got into it and then got too deep,” said Colleen Nuss, whose boyfriend once lived in a spare room at Meyer’s house. Nuss was a teenager at the time. “I remember going there one night just to get a little bit of pot and there were drugs and women,” Nuss recalled. Unlike Farley’s supply, Meyer’s coke came from Colorado, but users didn’t care about a product’s origin once it hit the street.

By 1984, Farley’s efforts had paid off in a big way. An acquaintance who asked not to be named remembered going to Farley’s mother’s house and seeing bricks of cocaine piled high in a closet. “He was definitely worth seven figures by that time, easily,” the person said. Another friend remembered Farley stashing wads of cash in safe-deposit boxes across south Florida. Court records have him receiving payments of $80,000 or $100,000 in a single go.

Still in his early thirties, Farley had found a quick way to fund the adventurous life he’d always dreamed of, and he had done it on his own terms. He wasn’t flashy or aggressive. In fact, he appeared to take a generally relaxed approach to the drug trade. “There was no viciousness there,” Nuss said. Farley and his crew “were just super mellow, like hippies.”

In Florida, Farley took up watersports; he turned out to be a talented diver and fisherman. He partied at Harry’s Banana Farm, a legendary dive in Lake Worth. He talked about going legit. He wanted to buy a boat and start a business chartering passengers around Florida and the Caribbean.

But Farley also began planning for a different kind of future. In 1982, he filed an application for a Social Security number in the name of Timothy Terry Brown, a three-month-old child who had died after a short illness in January 1955. Farley found the name while looking through microfilm of old newspapers at the library. The idea of taking a dead child’s identity was less risky than it sounds. People born in the 1950s often waited until they were in their teens or early twenties before applying for a Social Security number. Farley’s fraudulent application was submitted nearly 30 years after Brown’s birth, but that didn’t seem to bother a likely overworked civil servant. After the Social Security card arrived in the mail, Farley acquired a Florida driver’s license, a birth certificate, and a passport in Brown’s name.

It’s unclear whether Farley sensed trouble ahead or was just being prudent. Either way, he was attuned to the risks that his line of work entailed. In a few years, he had become one of Lincoln’s major drug suppliers. It was only a matter of time before law enforcement took notice.

A photo of Farley circulated by the DEA in the 1980s.

Part Two

On August 31, 1983, officers from the Lincoln-Lancaster County narcotics unit raided the house of a railroader named Juan Varga-Manchego and discovered three-quarters of a pound of cocaine. The arrest set off a chain reaction. Varga-Manchego, whom undercover officers had been working for six months, started naming names. Tips from Crime Stoppers calls were folded into the investigation, as was information from the Nebraska State Patrol, which was looking into other dealers in the Lincoln area. Wiretaps were ordered for the homes of Clyde Meyer and the Machados, Farley’s sister and brother-in-law. Before long, law enforcement had fleshed out the framework of what they believed was a sprawling criminal conspiracy.

As far as investigators were concerned, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Money was pouring in to federal prosecutors’ offices as President Ronald Reagan amped up the war on drugs. Arrests helped rationalize the ballooning investment. In the summer of 1984, Nebraska officials tapped into the budgetary flow by working with federal agencies on the new cocaine-trafficking investigation. They dubbed it Operation Southern Line, because a lot of the drugs came from Florida, and because many of the scheme’s main players were current or former railroaders. (Prosecutors would later contend that Farley used trains to transport drugs, which he denied. “The railroad had nothing to do with anything,” he said. “Other than perhaps railroad workers buying grams of coke to party on the weekend.”)

Running the investigation were Duaine Bullock, head of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Narcotics Unit, and Bruce Gillan, a hard-line Lancaster County prosecutor. Gillan and Farley had gone to the same high school but moved in decidedly different social circles. Where Farley rode a motorcycle and dated popular girls, Gillan was president of the chess club and wore a flattop fade, in the style of a new military recruit. He was a by-the-book guy. “The way he saw his duty to the country was to be this aggressive prosecutor,” said Kirk Naylor, a defense attorney who had faced off against Gillan in the courtroom.

Neither Bullock nor Gillan were under the illusion that the alleged network of traffickers amounted to a sophisticated cartel operation. It was a loose-knit, blue-collar affair. But there was still a hierarchy. In meetings with the DEA, Bullock and Gillan created an organizational flowchart with the names of more than two dozen alleged co-conspirators. At the bottom were users and low-level dealers based mostly in Lincoln. The next level up included middlemen in Nebraska, Florida, and Alaska. The Machados were near the top—they had been caught discussing drug deals on the investigators’ wiretaps. Meyer was up there, too.

At the very top of the pyramid was Farley. He was the nexus that connected the web of users, dealers, and suppliers that investigators hoped to untangle. According to prosecutors, he even had a nickname: the Big H.

In 1984, Farley returned to Lincoln from Lake Worth multiple times. With each visit, law enforcement gathered evidence. In July, the DEA noted that Farley had delivered numerous pounds of cocaine to Gerry Machado and others. Investigators requested three more wiretaps on Farley’s associates. In August, they clocked Farley visiting a safe-deposit box at the First National Bank of Lincoln and leaving with what they described as a “bulging vinyl bank bag.” A few months later, he submitted to an intensive inspection at the airport in Miami after returning from a one-day trip to the Cayman Islands without any luggage.

The investigation wasn’t without missteps. On one occasion, Robert Frame’s landline started acting up, so he reached out to the phone company for help. The repairmen beat the police to the utility box and discovered the tap on Frame’s line. When word of the discovery got back to Farley, he switched to pay phones. Another time, Machado caught agents trying to install bugs inside his house, and the operation was aborted. Officials were forced to return and install the devices under the guise of a phony search warrant. At one point, officer ineptitude ground the whole investigation to a halt. Around Thanksgiving Day in 1984, Farley was in Lincoln visiting family when he discovered a tracking device on his car and skipped town.

But eventually investigators got what they needed. By early 1985, Gillan had identified about 80 people he considered indictable. Seven wiretaps had been in use, most of them for months, and bugs were installed in homes across Lincoln. Code words like “chess” had been identified as shorthand for coke, outing many of Farley’s customers. A number of low-level co-conspirators had already been brought in for questioning.

It took another nine months of legal wrangling, grand juries, and undercover work, but in the fall of 1985, authorities unsealed a sprawling series of indictments that named 74 people across five states in a massive drug-trafficking conspiracy. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, Operation Southern Line was the largest drug case in Nebraska history.

At the very top of the pyramid was Farley. He was the nexus that connected the web of users, dealers, and suppliers that investigators hoped to untangle.

The arrests started before dawn. On the morning of October 24, 1985, agents and officers from the Lincoln police, the FBI, the sheriff’s office, the IRS, the DEA, and the Nebraska State Patrol spread out across Lincoln like an occupying force. Tyrone Baskin remembered agents charging through his front door. “It was some obnoxious hour,” he told me grimly. Elsewhere, Colleen Nuss noticed law enforcement assembling outside her back window. “I said to my boyfriend, ‘I think the neighbors are getting arrested,’ ” she said. Instead, the officers pounded on her door.

It was the same story all over town. The Machados. Robert Frame. John Kahler. One by one, Operation Southern Line defendants were rounded up and taken to the federal courthouse, many of them before the sun came up. By the time authorities were finished, more than 50 people had been arrested. As one defense attorney put it, the hammer fell.

News of the bust splashed across the front pages of local papers. Reports claimed that $600,000 worth of drugs and personal property had been confiscated. Bullock told reporters that “many of those arrested were major drug dealers” and that the operation “could have a major impact on drug sources in Lincoln for years to come.” It was the kind of case that made careers. A short time later, Gillan was promoted to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But there was a problem. Among the handful of targets not arrested was the name at the top of the trafficking flowchart: Howard Farley. Somehow authorities in Lincoln had failed to get eyes on him before unsealing his indictment, a major misstep given the document’s content. Farley was the first person in Nebraska history to be charged under what’s known as 848—a federal statute reserved for prosecuting drug traffickers who operate a “continuing criminal enterprise.” It’s sometimes called the kingpin statute, and for good reason: Prosecutors used it to put both Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ross Ulbricht, of Silk Road fame, behind bars for life. “When you bring one of those cases,” a current U.S. attorney told me, “you are essentially establishing by virtue of that indictment that this is one of the most serious drug-dealing traffickers in the country at the time.”

At some point between the indictment being unsealed and the arrests, Farley had vanished. “Officials have no idea where Farley may be,” Gillan told reporters. Bullock conceded that he had probably fled the country. “To my knowledge, no one had ever escaped one of these dragnets,” said Kirk Naylor, the defense attorney. But Farley wasn’t the only one who’d eluded capture: Clyde Meyer had also disappeared, along with his girlfriend, the daughter of a railroad employee. (They were found two years later in Denton, Texas, living under assumed names. Meyer was sentenced to ten years in prison).

Other cracks in the Operation Southern Line case began to widen. DEA agents claimed to have tracked Farley moving multiple pounds of cocaine across state lines, but in the indictment prosecutors had only enough hard evidence to attribute eight ounces to Farley’s alleged network. Moreover, defense attorneys told reporters that the vast majority of defendants weren’t involved in the drug trade at all—they were users buying for themselves or a few close friends. It was all too easy, as Naylor put it, for small-time individuals to be “sucked into the black hole of a conspiracy.” Many of these individuals were charged with multiple felonies and faced years in prison for what amounted to low-level street buys.

Still, the U.S. Attorney’s Office pushed ahead with the case. Naylor remembered receiving calls from desperate clients. “I had to advise them that this was a whole new ball game,” he said. “They were going to go to prison, and they were going to go to prison for a long time unless they informed on their friends. This is really what it came down to.”

For some people the pressure proved too great. One woman needed psychiatric care after she agreed to make statements against her husband. Other defendants were reminded to think of their kids’ futures when they pushed back against prosecutors. “There was so much pressure,” one defendant said later. “I went off the deep end.”

Then there was John Kahler, who had been in prosecutors’ sights for months. In January 1985, his wife, Linda, got a call from an investigator with the Nebraska State Patrol. “We’d like you and John to come down and talk to us,” she remembered him saying. He wouldn’t tell her why over the phone. At the patrol office, the Kahlers were met by a group of men in suits who inquired about the health of John’s father. They had heard on a wiretap that he suffered from Alzheimer’s. The men knew about John’s drug use and that he peddled coke for Farley. They told him he faced 15 years in prison—unless he became an informant. “It’s pretty hard to walk out when you have a two-year-old son,” Linda later said. John agreed to cooperate.

For nearly five months, he met twice a week with a narcotics officer, offering up information about his friends. The duplicity wore him down. He couldn’t sleep and fell into a depression. John was a soft-spoken combat veteran who had built his own house and adopted a son after he and his wife discovered that they couldn’t have children. “I warned the guy from the State Patrol,” Linda said later, “that you better hope he doesn’t get killed.”

A week after the arrests that October, John returned home from his railroad job and took his own life with a shotgun in the backyard of his rural home. “I’m just real sorry, Ms. Kahler,” Linda remembered Gillan saying. Three weeks later, another defendant in the case, 24-year-old Phillip R. Dallas, also died by suicide.

In the end, only eight defendants arrested in 1985 did any time. The rest were sentenced to probation or their cases were dropped altogether. And while Operation Southern Line may have made careers, it did little to disrupt Lincoln’s drug trade. In 1989, authorities estimated that 55 pounds of cocaine had made its way into the city since 1986.

Farley’s whereabouts remained a mystery. Without cell phones or GPS, law enforcement was forced to rely largely on human intelligence to draw him out. Nearly all of Farley’s co-conspirators were willing to cooperate in exchange for reduced sentences, but according to Ryan Thompson, the deputy U.S. marshal who took on the case in 1986, his gut told him they were telling the truth when they said they hadn’t seen their old friend and boss. Farley’s family was equally stymieing. Thompson tried to put pressure on them, in the hopes that they might try to contact Farley, but none of them did. They were, as Thompson put it, “savvy to the whole thing.”

Over time, Farley took on a kind of mythic quality among the people he’d left behind. Some called him the D. B. Cooper of Nebraska, in honor of the hijacker who, in 1971, parachuted from a plane over the Pacific Northwest with $200,000 in extorted cash and was never heard from again. “There was constant chatter about what happened to Howard Farley,” Kirk Naylor said. “He was the guy who got away.”

Farley (left) after he moved back to Florida under an assumed identity.

Part Three

Any fugitive worth their salt will tell you that disappearing is more of a psychological act than a physical one. It takes no special skill to skip town. What’s harder is cutting ties to one’s past: adopting a new identity and remembering to stick to it; excising people, traditions, and routines once held dear; and cauterizing the resulting emotional wounds. It’s a regimen few people are able to endure.

Farley made it seem easy. He later called the decision to flee his “SHTF” moment—when the shit hit the fan. “When the newspaper reports ‘up to life in prison,’ ” he said, referring to coverage of his indictment, “it gets your full attention.” He knew he would have to break off contact with his family but that he had their support. After reading about the indictment, his mother had called him. “She said the family loved me dearly, but please don’t come home,” Farley said. “It was the only way.”

Soon after the Operation Southern Line busts, Farley reemerged as Tim Brown, a 31-year-old Florida native with a pocket full of legitimate government documents. Bullock was right when he said Farley likely had left the country. A year after the arrests, he was spotted by a DEA informant on the island of Saint Martin, a tropical paradise about 160 miles east of Puerto Rico. In addition to the excellent fishing and diving, the Caribbean was a haven for fugitives. People’s papers were rarely checked; ports of call were essentially lawless. “It was wide open,” said Bill Ware, a sailor who met Farley in the summer of 1986. Farley made good on his dream of buying a boat—a 55-foot catamaran called the Déjà Vu—which allowed him to travel freely. The DEA would later trace the boat to marinas on Saint Thomas, Antigua, and Martinique, though Farley was long gone by the time the U.S. Marshals received that information.

Within a few years, Farley returned to the South Florida coast, despite being a wanted man. “It was in the back of his mind,” Baskin said. “But he wasn’t as concerned about it as you may think he was.” In a photo from that time, Farley mugs for the camera in shorts and aviators as he hoists a three-foot-long sportfish by the gills. In another, he crouches next to a cooler full of fresh lobsters.

Unbeknownst to all but a few close contacts, Farley even risked returning to Lincoln a few times. “He wanted to be with his family when he could,” Baskin said. But these furtive visits tapered off and eventually stopped altogether. Farley got serious about staying on the run, perhaps because he had fallen in love.

Farley met Duc Hanh Thi Vu, then just 21, on Saint Martin while she was vacationing there in 1985. Whip smart and ambitious, Vu was one of the few people Farley would have been likely to meet with a background even more dramatic than his own. Her family had fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The harrowing journey included floating at sea for two days before being rescued by the U.S. Navy. After months in refugee camps, Vu’s family was resettled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she learned English, excelled in school, and graduated from college.

Farley’s charm had always made him something of a ladies’ man; as their romance developed Vu made him an honest one. On June 1, 1993, they were married by a deputy clerk at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. At one point, Farley’s mother and sister Beverly risked a visit to the newlyweds—they were told to call Farley by his alias during their stay—but that was the last time either saw him. Farley admitted to Vu that he had changed his name after getting into some trouble in Nebraska, but not that he was a fugitive. “It may seem strange,” he said later, “but I would not allow myself to even think my real name.”

Theirs was by all accounts a quiet, comfortable life. Early on, they shared a room in a rented house while Vu earned her master’s degree in computer science. Farley worked on carpentry projects and fished for lobster. To keep things simple, he often introduced himself by his nickname—“Harley”—and if his past ever came up, he simply lied by omission. “When asked, I gave my real history, without the Nebraska problem,” he said. Though he sometimes got the urge to “tell the whole story,” he never gave in.

Eventually, Vu was making good money working for Citibank. In the late 1990s, Farley built a five-acre orchard to help supplement his in-laws’ retirement income. A few years later, he and Vu moved to a 40-acre parcel in Homosassa. Farley built their two-floor kit home himself. It had a sun-washed yellow facade and a red-tiled roof that gave it an almost Tuscan feel. Off in the distance, long stands of major oaks marked the border between that end of the property and the third tee of a well-known golf course. In 2017, after he started having health issues, he and Vu downsized to the house in Love’s Landing—by then, Farley had discovered his passion for aviation.

When I talked to Farley’s friends and neighbors in Florida, none had had even the vaguest sense that Farley wasn’t who he’d said he was. Many described him as especially genuine and kindhearted. “He was very respectful of other people and what they had to say,” Pat Farnan, a retired newspaper editor who spent many nights around the firepit at Farley’s Homosassa home, told me. “He would never break into a conversation, never butt in.”

Small gestures of friendship became Farley’s hallmark. Year after year, he collected buckets of stray golf balls that landed on his property to give to Farnan, an avid golfer, when he visited. After a fishing buddy’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, Farley appeared on their doorstep with trays of food and helped their young daughter with her homework. He doted on his mother-in-law after the death of her husband, and regularly picked up trash along the main road near his home. In Love’s Landing, he happily did chores for elderly neighbors, despite the pain that racked his back after surgery. Many people remembered Farley’s enthusiasm for sharing his talents as both a sailor and a builder. “Nothing was expected in exchange other than our enjoyment in each other’s company and love of the sea,” a friend said.

Farley hadn’t been reborn as some sort of suburban Mother Teresa. His good deeds were often modest and understated. But they were also free from artifice. “I do not believe he was putting on an act for anybody,” Farnan said. “The Tim Brown that I knew, he wasn’t engaged in some game with me.” After 30 years, the lie had simply become the truth: Howard Farley was Tim Brown.

“It may seem strange,” Farley said later, “but I would not allow myself to even think my real name.”

The authorities didn’t stop looking for Farley. The case was handed off from one U.S. marshal to another over the years before landing on Zak Thompson’s desk in 2007. Thompson was a newbie—Lincoln was his first duty station as a marshal. “It was kind of, I wouldn’t want to say like a hot potato, but it was kind of a joke,” he said of the Farley case. “No spottings, no sightings, nobody’s heard anything.” As far as law enforcement was concerned, the case was stuck back in 1985. Still, Thompson was undeterred. “Sometimes all you need is a fresh set of eyes,” he said.

Thompson requested an age-progression sketch based on Farley’s old driver’s license and began scouring law enforcement files for overlooked connections. Eventually, he found Richard Hanika, a friend of Farley’s family’s whose brother Roger had worked with Farley in Alaska. During a subsequent interview, Richard mentioned that Roger had moved to St. Augustine, Florida, in the early 1990s and started managing a bar there. Maybe, Thompson thought, Farley had decided to visit his old buddy.

Thompson called the U.S. Marshals office in Jacksonville, just north of St. Augustine, and persuaded one of the agents to go down to the Sandbar Pub—Roger’s bar—to poke around and show people the age-progression sketch. It didn’t take long to get a hit. When the agent showed the rendering to the bar’s current manager—Roger by then had moved on—she knew right away who it was. “That’s Harley,” she told the deputy. “He was always talking about scuba diving.” She hadn’t seen him since the early 2000s, but she thought he had set up a charter operation in either Key West or Puerto Rico.

It was the first significant lead in decades. “I might as well have solved the case,” Thompson said of the reaction back at the office in Lincoln. “We actually had something, you know?” The discovery shaved roughly 15 years off Farley’s last known whereabouts, but there were still several years to account for.

In 2009, the authorities hoped to catch another break. When Bruce Gillan read in the Lincoln newspaper that Farley’s younger brother Ronald had died after a yearlong battle with lung cancer, he rang Thompson and told him about the memorial the family was planning on Ronald’s behalf. Thompson knew from the case file how close Farley and his brother were growing up. If Farley was ever going to resurface in Nebraska, the memorial service was probably it.

Thompson drove to the funeral home and explained the situation to the director. “This may be our best chance to catch the guy,” he said. The director was incredulous. “He’s like, ‘Look, I can’t have some big takedown happening here,’ ” Thompson recalled. The funeral home was located on the grounds of a 130-acre memorial park featuring gardens, a pond, and a family of foxes that roamed among the gravestones and mausoleums. Thompson reassured the funeral director that he would be discreet.

The memorial service was held on October 23, 2009, which was 24 years to the day after Farley was indicted. Thompson arrived early. “I basically posed as an intern,” he said. “I probably set up a hundred chairs that day.” Three or four unmarked police cars were positioned at the exits of the grounds. Several marshals as well as officers from the Lincoln police and the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office waited for Thompson to give the signal that Farley had arrived.

Throughout the service, Thompson did his best to blend in to the background while scanning the faces of Farley’s friends and family. At one point, he caught the eye of Richard Hanika, who recognized him immediately. “I just walked up to him,” Thompson said. “I’m like ‘Is he here?’ ” Hanika said no.

Farley never showed. Thompson didn’t feel like he’d totally struck out—he was still the only agent on file to ever dig up a real lead—but afterward there was a sense among the marshals that the search for Farley had come to its natural conclusion. It wasn’t even clear that, if he was caught, he would be convicted. Conspiracy cases are often built around witness testimony, and a number of the sources had died in the decades since Farley’s disappearance. The hard evidence, too, was compromised. “Cocaine can’t last forever, even in bags,” deputy marshal Will Iverson said.

In fact, for years some marshals had questioned why the warrant for Farley was still open at all. Iverson told me there’s usually a ten-year window before prosecutors consider dismissing charges against a fugitive offender. “I’ve had old cases that were dismissed and two years later I get some info,” he told me. Iverson said he’d once left an ex-fugitive a voicemail saying, “Hey, you’re not wanted anymore, but I found you.”

When it came to Farley, there had been no such reprieve. “I’m going to prosecute the son-of-a-bitch if we ever catch him,” Thompson remembered Gillan saying. Agents in the Lincoln office were aware that Gillan and Farley knew each other growing up, and they wondered whether a personal vendetta was driving Gillan’s pursuit. “Like, he must have really hated him in high school or something,” Thompson said. Gillan would later file an affidavit with the court explaining that as a teenager he knew Farley only by reputation. “I am well aware of my ethical duties as an attorney,” he said. “It would be a violation of those duties to handle the prosecution of a person with whom I had a personal dispute, and I emphatically deny that any such violation occurred.”

It took five more years, but in January 2014 Gillan finally relented; the charges against Farley were dismissed. The evidence was simply too old, and Gillan himself was preparing to retire in a few years. After that happened, even if Farley was caught, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would likely decline to prosecute him.

For the dozen or so marshals who had worked the case since 1985, the decision marked the end of an era. After 29 years on the run, Farley was no longer a fugitive. “I remember when it was dismissed,” Iverson told me. “We were like, Well, I guess he won.”

Farley was an avid fisherman.

Part Four 

In February 2020, special agent Kevin Grant was in his office at the Miami division of the Diplomatic Security Service—the arm of the State Department that handles passport fraud—when Tim Brown’s name popped up on his computer. It had been red-flagged by fraud prevention managers, who had found an obituary for Timothy Terry Brown and confirmed with Florida’s vital statistics department that a death certificate existed. They knew that Brown’s identity had been stolen. Grant’s job was to figure out who the person using it really was.

A nine-year veteran of the DSS, Grant had spent part of his career working at a consulate in Pakistan and an embassy in Denmark. But what he really liked was criminal investigation. “I kinda have the knack,” he said. Brown’s case struck him as peculiar right off the bat. The most common passport fraud perpetrator is a foreigner who steals the identity of a U.S. citizen. That didn’t appear to be the case with Tim Brown, however. Grant suspected that the imposter might be on the run from the law.

Grant put in a call to Michael Felicetta, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida assigned to the case, and explained the situation. “We started to brainstorm,” Felicetta said. “Just based on our own experience, why do we think he’s using this name?” Felicetta wondered if Brown, whoever he was, might have escaped from prison. He and Grant also considered the possibility that Brown was AWOL from the military. “He’s about the age of someone who would’ve served in Vietnam, he married a Vietnamese woman. I mean, that’s possible, right?” Felicetta said. Grant checked the picture on Brown’s passport application against those of pilots who’d gone AWOL during the Vietnam War, but that was a dead end.

Grant kept digging throughout the summer of 2020. He tracked the tail number on Brown’s plane and unsuccessfully fingerprinted a rental car after Brown returned it. He got authorization to intercept Brown’s mail, though not to open it. He even located the real Tim Brown’s burial site in Lake Worth. “I just feel like we should try every effort we can to identify someone before we send law enforcement potentially into harm’s way,” Felicetta said. He wondered whether Brown might be “like a Whitey Bulger type of guy.” He didn’t want to risk losing a big target.

Eventually, Grant and Felicetta agreed that the only way to accurately identify Brown was to get their hands on him. “John Doe or not, let’s do it,” was how Grant described the decision. Two days after getting his warrants, Grant was prepping an arrest team at a gas station ten minutes from Love’s Landing. Nerves were high. What if Brown was armed? “There are a lot of people in Florida who like firearms,” Grant said. The county agreed to put its medical helicopter on standby in case things went south.

Just before 8:30 a.m., Grant’s radio crackled to life. “Hey, there’s smoke coming from the chimney,” reported an agent watching Brown’s house from a distance. “Someone’s home.” A few minutes later, a convoy of law enforcement vehicles rolled quietly through the front gate of Love’s Landing and approached Brown’s house. “He knew the jig was up,” Grant said of the moment he confronted Brown in the hangar. “When you turn around and smile to somebody that’s pointing a fully automatic machine gun at you, the run is over.” A fingerprint expert rolled Brown’s fingers, then headed to a lab to process the results.

Grant joined the agents interviewing Vu inside the house. Initially she had frozen in place at the sight of the task force on her front lawn; the agents had to physically move her from the doorframe before they could search the house. But eventually the shock wore off and she opened up. “She was the one that said Nebraska,” Grant told me. “And that was the first time Nebraska had popped up on the radar.” Other clues revealed themselves. In the house, agents found the names “Howard” and “Ronald” scrawled on the back of an old photo of two young kids. They found birth announcements and worn-out family photos. Little by little, the agents pieced together the backstory of the man handcuffed in the driveway.

Grant was on his way to the courthouse when Brown’s identity was confirmed; his prints matched a set on file from Farley’s 1969 burglary arrest. Grant sent Farley’s biographical details to Felicetta, who googled Farley’s name along with the word “fugitive.” Farley still maintained that his name was Tim Brown. As the search results filtered in, it was easy to see why: He had become a singular figure in the annals of Nebraska law enforcement. A white whale. The uncatchable man.

As it turned out, Felicetta had worked an unrelated drug case with Bruce Gillan years earlier and recognized his name at the top of the 1985 indictment. Felicetta called him with the news. “He was just kind of stunned and chuckled a little bit,” Felicetta said. Then Gillan explained that the case had been dropped several years earlier.

The news struck a heavy blow. “I’ve had fugitives before,” Felicetta told me. “But never one this significant and with a run this long.” He felt that Farley had robbed the government of its day in court. “He got the best thirty years of his life,” Felicetta said. “Those were years that in all likelihood he would’ve been spending in prison, and instead he was out living a very comfortable lifestyle and doing a lot of things that most Americans only wish they could do.”

Farley’s passport photos.

Part Five

Eight days after his arrest, Farley appeared in federal court for the first time, at a hearing to decide whether he’d be released on bond. He could no longer be tried for any of his alleged offenses in Nebraska, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be charged with fraud and identity theft for his use of the name Tim Brown. As he shuffled to the defense table, Farley waved toward the gallery. Vu sat with a dozen of their neighbors, who’d come to show their support.

At first, many people in Love’s Landing had been confused about what was happening in their community. When Marianne Reynolds saw all the unmarked vehicles in the street around Farley’s property, she thought he and Vu were having a party. But soon everyone in the quiet, conservative area knew the truth: that their neighbor had been living a double life. Farley’s neighbors searched their memories for clues to his past. Had he said or done anything that now, in a different light, seemed suspicious? The answer was a resounding no.

If anything, the soul-searching only hardened his neighbors’ resolve to support the man they knew as Tim Brown. In addition to attending the hearing, many of Farley’s neighbors submitted letters to the court. One described him as a man who “exudes generosity, both in deed and, particularly, in spirit.” Another said they “had never met a finer man.”

The judge wasn’t sympathetic. Despite Farley’s strong ties to the community and the fact that law enforcement was now in possession of his only—albeit fraudulent—passport, he was denied bond. “The government and the court cannot ignore the fact that the last time the defendant faced federal charges, he had the sophistication, the will, and the means necessary to flee and remain in hiding,” the judge explained. “That information overwhelmingly weighs against a community who didn’t otherwise know who was living next to them.” Vu cried when she heard the decision.

While he sat in Marion County Jail, Farley’s emotions ping-ponged between fear and something like relief. Until his arrest, he hadn’t been aware that the Nebraska case was closed. “Every year I would think about contacting an attorney to check what my status was,” he said later. “But having such a good life, I kept putting it off.” Still, he was worried about spending his remaining years behind bars. Operation Southern Line was in the past, but the authorities could nail him on other charges.

On December 30, Felicetta returned with a multiple-count indictment including passport fraud, aggravated identity theft, Social Security fraud, and using a fake airman’s certificate. Farley was also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, the result of a conviction related to the 1969 burglary. He faced a maximum of 30 years in prison.

Farley’s lawyers approached the case as if they were going to trial. With his health in decline, anything more than ten years was basically a life sentence. Plus, one of his lawyers, Fritz Scheller, had a reputation for winning federal cases. In 2018, he represented Noor Salman, the wife of the shooter in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando; Salman was acquitted of terrorism charges. “He can squeeze blood from a stone,” a fellow attorney said of Scheller to a reporter. But the evidence against Farley was overwhelming. There was no reasonable way to argue that he hadn’t stolen Brown’s identity.

Adding to the pressure to plead out, Felicetta had decided to pursue charges against Vu. On the morning of Farley’s arrest, she had maintained that his name was Tim Brown despite knowing that he’d changed it decades prior. According to Felicetta, that made her criminally liable. “You had every right to sit there and not say a word,” he said. “But you chose to try and help him by continuing to cover up who he is.” Before then, Vu’s only involvement with the courts had been a single traffic ticket. Now she could go to prison for 18 years. “I think it was leverage,” Scheller said.

If so, the ploy worked. On April 20, 2021, Farley pled guilty to three counts: passport fraud, aggravated identity theft, and fraudulently operating an airman’s license. The maximum sentence was 15 years, but only the identity theft charge had a mandatory minimum: two years. Anything beyond that would be up to the judge.

For the prosecution, the plea presented an opportunity. If the case had gone to trial, Operation Southern Line might have been off limits as a matter of discussion in court. Farley had never been arraigned, let alone convicted of the charges against him. He will “remain innocent of them until the day he dies,” Felicetta said. But at a sentencing hearing, hearsay is permitted. Operation Southern Line was fair game. Farley’s past would have its day in court.

As Scheller put it, “I wish he had stolen bread instead of selling cocaine, but in the end he’s more Jean Valjean than Pablo Escobar.”

On July 15, 2021, Farley arrived to a mostly full courtroom. By then he had been in jail for more than seven months. He was using a cane and suffered from a lingering cough after contracting COVID-19. Many of his neighbors were once again in the gallery, this time alongside members of Farley’s family, including a granddaughter he’d never met.

As the hearing got underway, Farley’s daughter from his first marriage, Amy, stepped to the podium to ask Judge John Antoon II for leniency on her father’s behalf. “I haven’t seen my father in close to forty years,” Amy began. “I would love nothing more than to have a relationship with him outside of this.”

Judge Antoon was moved by Amy’s words. “You understand, of course, that you did nothing to interrupt that relationship,” he consoled her. “It’s not your fault.”

She nodded. “I know that,” she said quietly.

It was an emotional introduction to what would prove to be an unusual sentencing hearing. In identity fraud cases, these hearings are generally straightforward affairs that take less than an hour. Farley’s was spread out over three sessions and interwoven with larger questions about the nature of punishment and rehabilitation.

The initial session lasted nearly an hour and a half, and focused largely on Felicetta’s request for an upward departure—a sentence greater than the recommendation. In Felicetta’s view, Farley had committed identity theft every time he signed a banking statement or renewed his driver’s license. Moreover, his past suspected criminality spoke to the kind of man he was. The prosecutor compared Farley to Sal Magluta, a notorious drug trafficker from South Florida who was arrested in the mid-1990s for falsifying documents and jumping bail. In Magluta’s case, probation officers had recommended a sentence of 15 to 21 months. Prosecutors asked the judge for more than 21 years.

Andrew Searle, one of Farley’s lawyers, argued that he was a far cry from one of the most infamous cocaine cowboys. The original Operation Southern Line indictment documented only a few ounces of cocaine being trafficked. Magluta had trafficked 75 tons. What’s more, Farley’s alleged criminality was far in the past. For nearly half his life, he had committed no crimes aside from the identity-related ones, and he’d built long-lasting relationships in his community. As Scheller put it, “I wish he had stolen bread instead of selling cocaine, but in the end he’s more Jean Valjean than Pablo Escobar.”

Two weeks later, the hearing continued with Scheller at the podium. “What we tried to do is walk the narrow line,” he told me. He couldn’t pretend the Nebraska case didn’t exist—that was the motive for Farley stealing Brown’s identity in the first place—but he didn’t want to litigate it either. “So what do you do in that situation?” he asked. “You undermine it.”

Scheller attempted to show that Farley’s cocaine operation was hardly the sprawling, sophisticated drug ring prosecutors in Nebraska had made it out to be. He outlined the pressure campaign waged against the other Operation Southern Line defendants and dug into John Kahler’s suicide. According to Searle’s math, some 80 percent of those defendants had their charges dismissed or served no jail time. “I have never seen that,” Scheller told Judge Antoon. “And I don’t know if the court has seen that in a federal case.”

As he approached the end of his statement, Scheller’s tone softened. The real question, he argued, was one of moral character. In the literary-infused sentencing memo he had submitted to the court, Scheller referenced Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Kurt Vonnegut, among many others. To him, Farley’s case represented something essential about the human condition. “Redemption is a path,” Scheller told the judge. “And what I would say to this court is Mr. Farley’s life has been defined not only by his criminal conduct but by a series of actions he’s done for others. He’s a radically different man.”

In one sense, Felicetta agreed. “I’d probably like him if I met him at a bar,” he said of Farley during his closing remarks a few minutes later. But Felicetta couldn’t square Farley’s likability with how he’d abandoned his family. “You can’t be a good man to your neighbor and reject your own children,” Felicetta said. “You can’t be a welcoming and caring son-in-law to your wife’s parents while not even acknowledging your own and not being there when they died.”

The statement seemed to send Farley reeling. After Felicetta was done, Farley asked to speak directly to the judge. “I cannot express how much remorse I feel for my family,” he said after apologizing to the court and the government. “I abandoned them and I betrayed them.” He struggled to keep his composure. “I would not have held it against anyone if they would not have chosen to come today,” he continued. “But the fact my family traveled so far to support me and my wife, Hanh, gives me hope for the future.”

The following week, on August 6, 2021, Antoon sentenced Farley to four years in prison. “Defendant cites Victor Hugo,” Antoon wrote in his decision. “But Defendant is no Jean Valjean.” In his final analysis, Scheller called the decision “just.” Felicetta, too, was satisfied. “We work this hard on cases where people get 25 or 40 years,” he said. “We did everything we could have done.”

Farley took it in stride. “I look at this as another life experience never to be repeated,” he wrote in a letter from prison. “I have spent the last 35 years trying to be the best person I can be and have no grudges against anyone.” All he cared about was getting back to his “loving wife, good friends, and great neighbors.”

In December, Vu appeared in court for her own sentencing hearing. It lasted all of 21 minutes. She pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return and was sentenced to two months’ probation. Andrew Searle called it “the lowest sentence he had ever seen in federal court.”

Afterward, I met Vu on the street outside the courthouse and asked to interview her for this story. She demurred, telling me that everything I needed to know about Farley’s life, about their relationship, and about their future together was in the court documents submitted by friends and family on his behalf. “Everything said in those filings, everything in those letters, is a testament to the kind of man he is now,” Vu told me. She reminded me that two months after Farley’s sentencing, she had petitioned the court to have their marriage license amended with his real name and date of birth. “When he comes home again,” she said with a smile, “my life begins again.”

Farley’s neighbors said they were also looking forward to welcoming him back. No one I spoke to thought he belonged in prison. “I think that what matters most in life is being kind and caring toward other people, and not some sort of details of whatever someone did in their past,” said Kathleen Safford, a Love’s Landing resident. She said that she believed Farley’s health problems were the result of a broken heart from living with the guilt of not being able to see his family. “He’s obviously not a career criminal in any way,” said Chuck Tripp, another neighbor. “I’m sure when he gets back, we’ll have some stories to listen to.”

Pat Farnan agreed. After hearing about Farley’s arrest in the news, he recalled an interaction they’d had years earlier during a get-together at Farley’s Homosassa house. Farnan had noticed a framed photo of a massive warsaw grouper in Vu’s office and asked Farley where he had caught it. To Farnan’s surprise, Farley grew emotional. “As he told me the story,” Farnan said, “he began to tear up.”

Farley explained that years earlier, he’d been spearfishing off the coast of Florida and had discovered the monster fish hiding in the hull of a ship that sank offshore. The first time he tried to shoot it, his spear bounced off its body. So he went to the surface, changed up his gear, and returned to the wreckage, carefully waiting for his moment to strike. Eventually, he brought the speared fish to the surface.

It was very sad, Farley told Farnan quietly as he looked down at the photograph. It was just living out its life, without bothering anybody or hurting anything. And he had ended that.


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A Crime Beyond Belief

A CRIME BEYOND BELIEF

A Harvard-trained lawyer was convicted of committing bizarre home invasions. Psychosis may have compelled him to do it. But in a case that became a public sensation, he wasn’t the only one who seemed to lose touch with reality.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 126


Katia Savchuk is a magazine writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A proud generalist, she is drawn to stories about inequality, psychology, wrongdoing, and mysteries of all kinds. Previously, she was a staff reporter at Forbes. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Marie Claire, Elle, Pacific Standard, and The Washington Post, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @katiasav.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Illustrator: Juan Bernabeu

Published in April 2022.


1.

Just after seven in the morning on June 9, 2015, Misty Carausu joined a group of police officers lining up outside a dark green cabin with white trim. The blinds inside were drawn. Jeffrey pines cast thick shadows across the driveway. The air was still but for the scrape of boots on asphalt and the occasional call of a bird.

Carausu, 35, was at least a head shorter than the other officers, and the only woman. She wore iridescent eye shadow and pearl earrings along with a tactical vest. As she gripped her gun, she felt as if she’d stepped into one of the true-crime documentaries she binge-watched at night. It was Carausu’s first day as a detective.

En route to the scene, she’d been filled in on the case. Around 3:30 a.m. the previous Friday, a 52-year-old nurse named Lynn Yen, who lived at the edge of Dublin, the suburb east of San Francisco where Carausu worked, had called 911. Minutes earlier, Lynn and her 60-year-old husband, Chung, woke to a flashlight and a laser shining in their faces. A masked man dressed in black stood at the foot of their bed. “We have your daughter, and she’s safe,” the man said. Kelly, 22, had been in her bedroom across the hall.

Using what Lynn described as a “calm, soft voice,” the intruder told the couple to turn over and put their hands behind their backs. Then he announced that he would tie them up. When Chung felt the man touch him, he took a swing. Lynn grabbed her phone from the nightstand, locked herself in the bathroom, and called for help. She told the dispatcher that she heard fighting, then her husband yell, “Honey, go get the gun,” even though they didn’t own one. A few minutes later, the intruder fled downstairs and out the back door, which opened onto miles of rolling hills and open fields.

When officers arrived at the scene, Chung had bruises on his arms and face and was bleeding from a cut above his ear—he said the intruder had hit him with a metal flashlight. A window near the back door was open, and the screen had been removed. In the couple’s bedroom, police found a black wool glove and three plastic zip ties. On a gravel path behind the house, near a cluster of foxtails, officers recovered another zip tie and a six-inch shred of black duct tape. Kelly, who was unharmed, handed a sergeant something she’d found on a hallway cabinet near her room: a cell phone she didn’t recognize.

Police later traced the phone number to the cabin Carausu and her colleagues were now preparing to enter. It sat on a residential street in South Lake Tahoe, a ski resort town 130 miles from Dublin. As the raid began, Carausu heard the cabin’s front door splinter. Officers barked “Search warrant!” as they shoved through a barricade of chairs. Carausu maneuvered around clutter on the living room floor: a set of crutches, license plates, clothing, electronics, a massage table. Empty boxes were piled against a window; open bottles of wine and cans of spray paint littered the kitchen counters.

Carausu’s job was to process evidence. She snapped photos of a black ski mask, black duct tape, and mismatched black gloves. A stun gun sat on a rocking chair. In a banker’s box she found more duct tape and gloves, along with walkie-talkies, a radar detector, zip ties, rope, and a device for making keys. In a bathroom were makeup brushes and a partly empty bottle of NyQuil. An open tube of golden brunette hair dye lay on the sink, near a disposable glove stained with the dye’s residue. In one bedroom were three more gloves, yellow crime-scene tape, and, on the bed, a spiked dog-training collar; in another was a bottle of Vaseline lotion, used paper towels, and a penis pump. “This is creepy,” Carausu recalled thinking as she stuffed items into paper bags. “Something crazy happened in here.” The police also collected flashlights, cell phones, hard drives, and several computers, including an Asus laptop that had been stashed under a mattress.

Around noon, Carausu and her colleagues drove to a tow yard to search a stolen white Mustang recovered near the cabin. Inside, they found items they thought could be linked to the Dublin break-in: two gloves matching one from the crime scene, both covered in foxtails; receipts for a flashlight, a speaker, and zip ties purchased near Dublin the night of the home invasion; burglary tools; and a metal flashlight. The back seat of the Mustang had been removed. Carausu wondered if someone had made room for a large object, such as a body.

Strangely, other clues didn’t seem connected to the Dublin crime. Among the recent destinations on the car’s GPS was an address in Huntington Beach, 400 miles south of Lake Tahoe. In the trunk, Carausu saw a blood-pressure cuff, a camouflage tarp, and a mesh vest with a wireless speaker in one of the pockets. She also found a BB gun, a dart gun, and a Nerf Super Soaker that had been painted black, with a flashlight and a laser pointer taped to the barrel. Stuffed in a large duffel bag was a blow-up doll in black clothing, rigged with wiring so that it could be made to sit or stand. The bag also contained a military-style pistol belt, its pouches crammed with two pairs of Speedo swim goggles. Carausu pulled one of them out. Black duct tape covered the lenses. Caught in the tape was a long strand of blond hair.

None of the victims in the Dublin home invasion were blond. Neither was the suspect, which Carausu knew because she’d watched officers escort him out of the cabin in handcuffs. He didn’t put up a fight when they burst through the door. He wandered out of a bedroom and obeyed commands to lie on the ground. In his late thirties, tall and fit, the man wore a black athletic shirt and jeans. He resembled Charlie Sheen, with a chiseled jawline and tousled dark hair.

“Do you know why we’re here?” a detective asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

The suspect said nothing else as officers led him to a patrol car. Before they loaded him inside, Carausu told the man to look at her camera. He stared intensely into the lens, his mouth an indecipherable line. Carausu read his name on pill bottles and mail scattered around the stolen Mustang: Matthew Muller.

2.

Muller grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento, where homes flew American flags, wild turkeys roamed the streets, and fathers took their sons fishing for bass in Lake Natoma. His mother, Joyce, was a middle school English teacher, and his father, Monty, was a school administrator and wrestling coach. The family spent summers hiking in the Sierra Nevada, abalone diving in Bodega Bay, or relaxing at a lakeside cabin in Michigan. Each Christmas they hosted a party on their cul de sac, and Monty dressed up as Santa.

Muller was a strong-willed, introverted child. Despite his father’s best efforts, he didn’t take to wrestling or football, preferring to run or ski or walk the dog alone. He played trumpet in the school band and devoured dystopian novels by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Yevgeny Zamyatin. His favorite short story, Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” was about two children who project their fantasies onto the walls of a virtual reality “nursery,” until make-believe lions come to life and eat the siblings’ parents.

Muller had a core group of friends at school, but bullies teased him about being overweight. Being picked on fueled his instinct to stick up for underdogs, an impulse he sometimes took to extremes. When his younger brother, Kent, was slow to talk, he appointed himself spokesperson to a degree that concerned their mom. “He’s never going to have a vocabulary if you keep speaking for him,” Joyce recalled thinking. Later, Muller stuffed gum in a girl’s trumpet after she taunted someone at a music competition.

During his senior year of high school, Muller learned that his father was having an affair. Monty moved in with the woman he was seeing, and he and Joyce divorced. Muller soon decided to enlist in the Marines, telling Joyce that he needed discipline and wanted to get in shape. In truth, he worried that paying for college would strain her finances.

Muller “was a round peg struggling to fit into a square hole” in the Marines, his roommate during boot camp later wrote. In the first 13 weeks, he lost more than 50 pounds. He didn’t join his platoon mates on weekend outings, instead squeezing in extra workouts. For a time he subsisted on Powerade and garlic rice. He earned the nickname Sergeant Mulder, after the FBI agent on The X-Files, because of his deadpan demeanor. Muller bristled at recruits who preyed on perceived weakness: When some bullied his roommate, Muller stood up for him.

Muller spent three years playing trumpet in the Marine Corps band at bases in California and Japan, where he also started a nonprofit to teach locals about the Internet. In 1999, he deployed to train soldiers in the Middle East. He earned several medals and a promotion before being honorably discharged.

Back home in California, Muller attended Pomona College, where he threw himself into volunteer work, which included helping homeless people secure government benefits and running an outdoors program. “More than anyone I had ever met, he strived to be noble, to be kind, to be generous,” his friend Eve Florin later wrote.

In the summer of 2001, Muller traveled to Prague for an academic program. There he met a driven young woman from Kyrgyzstan with a slight figure and long dark hair. They fell in love. (The woman declined to be interviewed. At her request, The Atavist is not using her name.) After Muller graduated from Pomona, they exchanged vows under an arch of white roses on the sun-dappled shores of Donner Lake, about 15 miles north of Lake Tahoe.

In 2003, the couple moved to Boston, where he started at Harvard Law School and she attended Boston College. Muller became involved with Harvard’s Legal Aid Bureau, where he represented low-income tenants and immigrants who were victims of domestic violence. On one occasion, a client’s husband found a business card that the bureau’s receptionist had given her and beat her so severely that her jaw had to be wired shut. Muller blamed himself. “Their crisis felt like it was part of my life too,” he said in an interview.   

After earning his law degree, Muller stayed at Harvard to teach and work in the Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. Dressing in suits for class, he came across as “very formal,” “intense,” and “guarded,” but also “extremely knowledgeable” and “someone who truly cared about the cause and the immigrant community,” a former student of his recalled. Muller earned near perfect ratings as a lecturer and worked with Deborah Anker, a leading scholar of immigration law, authoring papers and Supreme Court briefs. When Anker went on sabbatical, she tapped him to head the clinical program. “He was warm, caring, earnest, smart, enthusiastic, engaging, thoughtful,” Anker recalled. “He was a super good human being.”

Muller was unusually devoted to his clients, buying one a wedding gift and letting another stay at his apartment. Even when he won a case, he couldn’t shake the injustice he perceived in the world. “Part of me would be really sad, because it should not take all this effort just to make something the way it should’ve been,” he said. He likened the feeling to “going into a room and needing to straighten the picture, set it right.”

For the program’s anniversary one year, Muller tracked down dozens of alumni and framed their messages as a gift to Anker. His own note read: “Learning from you has been, and I think always will be, the highlight of my legal career.” This struck Anker as odd. “I thought he was going to be a leading immigration lawyer in America,” she said. “This is not the height of your career—this is the beginning.”

Muller scoured the room for anything out of place, anything that could be a bug. Over and over, he searched for answers among the snaking wires and blinking lights.

It came as a shock to Muller’s parents when, in the summer of 2008, he revealed that he had bipolar disorder. Mental illness ran in Monty’s family, though they didn’t speak of it much. Muller had never mentioned any mental health problems to his parents, beyond sometimes feeling blue during the winter months, and neither had his wife.

In fact, Muller had grappled with disturbing thoughts since his time in the Marines. After receiving a series of anthrax vaccines before his Middle East mission, he struggled to get out of bed for weeks, and his performance on fitness tests plummeted. (He later attributed his symptoms to Gulf War syndrome.) For the first time, bleak thoughts took up residence in his mind: You’re not good enough, you’re the worst person in the world. He’d been considering a long career in the military, but now he decided to request a discharge.

In college, Muller fell into a cycle: Every summer and fall, he was productive and slept little; every winter and spring, he labored to finish assignments and his mood darkened. As the winter chill set in during his second year of law school, negative thoughts cut particularly deep: You’re not doing enough to help, you’re horrible, the world is terrible. For the first time, he contemplated suicide.

Over the years, Muller saw several psychiatrists. One at Harvard diagnosed him with major depression, noting that he also showed signs of mania. Muller tried medication but stopped each time because he didn’t like the side effects. He took pains to hide his condition from his parents, from his colleagues, and, as much as possible, from his wife, who moved away in 2005 to attend law school. “It felt like a weakness, something I shouldn’t be troubling other people with,” Muller said.

He especially didn’t want anyone finding out about the time a delusion took hold of him. It happened while he was working at Harvard, in an office on the fourth floor of Pound Hall, a concrete building at the edge of campus. He began to suspect that the government was tapping his phone and hacking his computer. Officials were after him, he decided, because some of his clients had been accused of having links to terrorists. Nothing specific triggered his paranoia—it began as a feeling and his mind filled in the gaps.

Muller frantically inspected wall conduits that held bundles of telephone wires and followed their trail to a server room in the basement. Through a crack between two doors, he glimpsed a mess of equipment. He scoured the room for anything out of place, anything that could be a bug. Over and over, he searched for answers among the snaking wires and blinking lights.


Muller hoped that escaping New England’s winters and trading asylum law for the tamer world of patent litigation would improve his mood, so in 2009 he and his wife moved to Silicon Valley, where he started a job at a large law firm. But instead of feeling better, he again became suicidal. He agreed to get help, and a psychiatrist prescribed Wellbutrin. The antidepressant quieted Muller’s suicidal thoughts and kept him productive at his new job, but it also prevented him from sleeping.

One night, he was tossing and turning on the couch to avoid waking his wife when he heard a distant, muffled voice. Half asleep, he thought the TV had come on. He heard voices again on subsequent nights, closer and clearer this time. At first he told himself he was dreaming, but eventually he was forced to admit that the voices were there when he was awake. They were androgynous, almost robotic. They didn’t tell him what to do; instead, they kept up a running commentary, mostly about his faults.

Muller didn’t tell his family, concerned they’d think he was “dangerous crazy.” Nor did he inform his psychiatrist, fearing it would end up in his bar application. He had let his new employer assume that he wasn’t yet licensed to practice law because he needed to retake the bar exam; in fact, he had passed the exam but not yet registered with the California bar, agonizing over what to write about his mental health in the required “moral character” section of the paperwork.

In Muller’s telling, to quiet the voices and wear himself out enough to sleep, he went on long walks at night. Often he hiked to the Stanford Dish, a radio telescope along a popular trail near the Stanford University campus. Not long after midnight one Friday in late September 2009, he was returning to his car in College Terrace, a residential neighborhood in Palo Alto, when a police officer stopped him and asked to see his ID. According to Muller, when the officer inquired what he was doing there so late, he said that he was visiting a friend—he was reluctant to admit that he’d trespassed on a trail that was closed after dark. The officer reported that Muller claimed to be a visiting professor at Stanford, which police later determined was false.

Three weeks later, a Palo Alto police detective came to Muller’s apartment and left a business card with his wife. When Muller called the number, he learned that police wanted to question him about an attempted sexual assault in College Terrace. His name had come up in recent reports of suspicious persons in the area. He told the detective that he’d read about the incident in the local paper, and he agreed to meet.

According to Muller, before he could make it to the station, two detectives showed up at his law firm to question him. The encounter set him on edge. He wondered if the detectives had come to install spy equipment in his office. Recalling his recent asylum cases, he decided that they were conspiring with the Chinese government. (The Palo Alto Police Department declined to confirm that Muller was questioned at his office, citing an open investigation.)

Muller already had suspicions about a certain Honda Accord often parked near his apartment. He’d been placing pebbles behind the wheels to check whether it moved and varying his route to work to avoid being followed. Now he memorized exit routes in his office building and worked with the blinds shut. When he became convinced that his pursuers were using a laser microphone to pick up sound vibrations in his office, he decamped to the firm’s library. “It seemed like this was going to rapidly escalate. They were trying to destroy me, because they wanted to make me lose my job, isolate me, make me lose my credibility,” Muller recalled thinking. “At that point, I started getting afraid for my family.”

He felt he had no choice but to flee. Muller traded his car, which he assumed was bugged, for his mother’s SUV and stocked up on food and survival gear. A few days later, he disappeared.

An illustrated portrait of Misty Carausu
Misty Carausu

3.

The day after the South Lake Tahoe raid, Misty Carausu arrived at her new office on the second floor of the Dublin Civic Center. At the time, the police department occupied half the building, which resembles a ring cut in half and the fragments slid apart. Carausu sat down in an empty gray cubicle in a room with drab carpeting. She hadn’t yet tacked up photos of her teenage son, whom she had at 16 and raised on her own.

Carausu didn’t plan on becoming a cop. Pretty and bubbly, with manicured nails and striking hazel eyes, she was in her mid-twenties and working as an assistant manager at a Safeway when a friend’s husband was convicted of sexually assaulting a mutual friend. She joined the force hoping to find justice for rape victims. After a decade as a deputy, Carausu, who fostered bunnies, sometimes compared herself to Judy Hopps, the idealistic rabbit who works as a cop in Disney’s Zootopia

As she labeled evidence from the cabin, Carausu couldn’t get the blond strand of hair she’d found in the Mustang out of her mind. “This wasn’t his first time,” she told her colleagues. “We’re going to solve some crimes.” With her boss’s support, Carausu began to investigate whether they’d stumbled onto something larger than a single home invasion.

In police databases, Matthew Muller’s name yielded a hit for an unsolved 2009 break-in near Stanford. A 32-year-old woman was sleeping in her apartment in College Terrace when a strange man jumped on top of her. He appeared to be in his twenties and was white, tall, and lean. He wore a mask, black gloves, and black spandex-like clothing. The man tied her hands behind her back, bound her ankles with Velcro straps, and covered her eyes with tape. Then he gave her a choice: drink NyQuil, get shocked with a stun gun, or be injected with what he called “A-bomb.” When she opted for the NyQuil, the man confirmed with her that she wasn’t allergic to any of its ingredients before pouring the medicine down her throat.

The intruder gathered personal information and indicated he’d use it to steal her money. At times the victim heard the man whisper to someone, and she would later describe seeing a silhouette in the room, but she never heard a second voice. She reported that the man tried to rape her and she fought back. When she made up a story about having been raped in high school, he stopped, saying he didn’t want to victimize her again. Before leaving, he threatened to harm her family if she called 911, and mentioned that he had “planted evidence” to mislead authorities.

Three weeks before the attack, Carausu learned, a police officer had come across Muller walking late at night in the vicinity of the crime. Police later discovered that the College Terrace victim, a Stanford student, had attended an event that Muller organized at Harvard the previous year. Palo Alto detectives identified him as their primary suspect. But DNA recovered at the crime scene wasn’t a match. Ultimately, law enforcement didn’t find enough evidence to recommend charging Muller.

Carausu discovered that the home invasion had eerie parallels to two other unsolved crimes in Silicon Valley. Less than a month before the College Terrace incident, a 27-year-old woman in Mountain View woke around 5 a.m. to find a man on top of her. He appeared to be white and slim, about six feet tall, and wore tight black clothing and a ski mask. When she started screaming, he put his hand over her mouth and explained that he was part of a group of criminals that planned to steal her identity and wire money abroad. The man bound her hands and ankles, then placed blacked-out swim goggles over her eyes—she felt her hair catch in one of the straps. He made her drink what tasted like cough syrup before collecting personal information. At one point, he used her phone to send a message to her boss saying that she was sick. Periodically, the woman heard him talking to someone, but she never heard or saw anyone else.

Eventually, the man told her, “I have some bad news. I’m going to have to rape you.” According to an account the victim later shared with NBC’s Dateline, she begged him not to and he relented. “I can’t do this,” he muttered. “I’m sorry about this.” Throughout the encounter, the intruder was “polite,” the victim recalled. Before leaving, he advised her to get a dog for protection. The woman told Dateline that when she called the Mountain View police, they initially suggested she might have had a bad dream. Ultimately, authorities concluded that the person behind the attack had also likely committed the one in College Terrace. (In a statement for this story, the Mountain View police said, “We continue to keep this investigation open and have been and are treating it seriously.”)

The final case Carausu learned about happened three years after the other two, in November 2012. A 26-year-old woman who lived just north of the Stanford campus awoke at 2:20 a.m. to see a masked man in gloves and dark clothing at the foot of her bed. He held her down, but she screamed and fought back. Eventually, he fled. The woman later noticed that her computer had been moved and found two “bump keys,” which open any lock from a certain manufacturer, near the front door. In neither that case nor the one in Mountain View was Muller named as a suspect.

Carausu stumbled upon an additional clue when she called the owner of the stolen Mustang police had recovered in South Lake Tahoe. He turned out to be a medical student who lived on the edge of Mare Island, 40 miles northwest of Dublin. In early January 2015, he had returned from a trip to find that someone had taken his car keys from his home and driven his Mustang out of the garage. When Carausu told him that her department had arrested someone for a home invasion near where his car was found, he asked if she’d heard of the “Mare Island creeper,” a Peeping Tom.

Between August 2014 and January 2015, at least four women in the area had reported seeing a man peering through their windows or climbing on their roof. Two had just taken a shower when they spotted him. One saw him taking pictures, while another saw him descending a ladder. Two of the women lived on the same street: Kirkland Avenue.

Some of the women described the voyeur as a white man, 25 to 35, wearing a black jacket. In August 2014, according to a Facebook post later documented in a police report, a Mare Island resident who heard sounds on his roof late one night saw someone fitting a similar description flee with a ladder. The resident encountered a strange man on two other occasions: One night, the man was crouching under the resident’s window; he said he was searching for his puppy, a husky. Another night, the resident found the same man in his backyard, where he claimed to be looking for 531 Kirkland Ave.; the address didn’t exist. The student spotted the man a third time, walking a young husky and a golden retriever. According to a Facebook post, a woman who lived on Klein Avenue, a block from Kirkland, said that her neighbor had a husky and a golden retriever. The owner of the Mustang told Carausu that he’d heard the woman’s neighbor was a former lawyer who had been in the military.

Then, as suddenly as the Peeping Tom incidents started, they stopped. “It was about the same time that the Vallejo kidnapping happened,” the Mustang owner told Carausu. Why does that ring a bell? she thought.

After the Dublin home invasion and Muller’s arrest, a colleague of Carausu’s had put out an alert asking area police departments for information about similar crimes. Vallejo didn’t respond. Online, Carausu found news stories about the kidnapping, which occurred three months earlier. She noted that one of the victims had blond hair. Then she remembered why the case had caught her attention: The Vallejo police had deemed it a hoax.

A blinding light pulsed from the corner of the room, and red dots twitched across the walls—they looked like laser gun sights. “This is a robbery. We are not here to hurt you,” a man said in a businesslike tone.

A mile wide and less than four miles long, Mare Island is a flat, windswept peninsula within the city of Vallejo. According to legend, it was named by a Mexican general in 1835, after his white mare plunged from a capsized ship into the nearby Carquinez Strait, only to reappear onshore days later. For more than a century, the land was home to a naval base where warships and nuclear submarines were built. After the shipyard closed in 1996, Vallejo launched an ambitious redevelopment plan for Mare Island, hiring a private developer to install quaint residential neighborhoods and millions of square feet of commercial space. But the promise of instant suburbia proved illusory. Amid the Great Recession, both the city and the developer declared bankruptcy. Only around 350 of the 1,400 planned homes were built. A shopping center and a waterfront promenade were never completed. No grocery stores, cafés, or libraries opened. Instead, the landscape remained strewn with rusty railroad tracks and abandoned warehouses, concrete bomb shelters and toxic waste sites.

Lined with young ash trees and fluted lampposts, Kirkland Avenue sits at the center of Mare Island, on the edge of a tiny, crescent-shaped subdivision hugging a small park. Construction on the next street over halted so abruptly that it dead-ends after a single block, like a movie set. Most homes on Kirkland border a raised bank that opens onto salt marshes stretching out to San Pablo Bay. At night, pale street lamps strain against the dark, and the air smells of wild fennel.

Around 2 p.m. on March 23, 2015, Vallejo police got a call from a 30-year-old man named Aaron Quinn, who lived on Kirkland Avenue in an eggshell yellow house framed by neat hedges and pink rosebushes. At the scene, and later at the station, he recounted a strange story.

Quinn said that he’d spent the previous evening with 29-year-old Denise Huskins, whom he’d been dating for around eight months. The pair had met at a hospital in Vallejo, where they both worked as physical therapists. They looked like an all-American couple: He was a former high school quarterback; she had blue eyes and long blond hair. Around midnight, Quinn checked that all the windows and doors were locked and they went upstairs to bed. 

Three hours later, Quinn started awake. A blinding light pulsed from the corner of the room, and red dots twitched across the walls—they looked like laser gun sights. “This is a robbery. We are not here to hurt you,” a man said in a businesslike tone. He told the couple to lie facedown, but Quinn was too shocked to move. “Aaron, you’re not turning over,” the man said. The intruder knew his name.

The man placed plastic zip ties on the bed and told Huskins to bind Quinn’s wrists and ankles. As she complied, her hands shaking, the man reassured her, “You are doing a good job.” He had Huskins walk to the large closet across the room, then helped Quinn off the bed so he could hop over to join her. Quinn kept his head down as instructed, and behind him he heard the crackle of a stun gun. He lay down on the carpet beside Huskins, shivering in his underwear.

Through the closet floor, Quinn heard someone downstairs rifling through kitchen cabinets and running a drill; he hoped this was just a twisted robbery. He felt the man put swim goggles with blacked-out lenses over his eyes and headphones over his ears. He heard melodic wind chimes, then a robotic voice. “Stay calm,” it said. “Our motivation is purely financial.” The recording, which at one point addressed Quinn by name, said he would be given a mix of NyQuil and diazepam, a sedative. The man took the couple’s blood pressure and asked if either of them had allergies or were on medications that were “contraindicated.” When they said no, he poured the liquid down their throats. Soon after, Quinn heard the man move Huskins to another room.

A new recording played in his ears. “You will be asked a series of questions,” it said. “If we believe you are not telling the truth, your partner will be punished by electric shock, then cuts to the face.” The intruder removed the headphones from Quinn’s ears and recited the address of Quinn’s childhood home. The man also knew where Quinn banked and asked for passwords to his financial and email accounts, his phone and laptop, and his Wi-Fi network.

After leaving briefly to speak with Huskins, the man asked Quinn if she looked like a woman named Andrea Roberts. “Yes, they both have long blond hair,” Quinn replied. Roberts was Quinn’s ex-fiancée and one of his and Huskins’s coworkers. She had stayed in a separate bedroom at Quinn’s house after they broke up and moved out around the time he and Huskins began dating. “This was intended for Andrea,” the intruder said. “We got the wrong intel.”

The man left the room again for what felt like half an hour. When he came back, he told Quinn that Huskins was being taken, and that Quinn would need to pay a ransom of several thousand dollars. If he complied, Huskins would be returned within 48 hours. The man replaced Quinn’s headphones. A recording explained that the people committing the crime were a “black-market group” who collected “personal and financial debts.” Quinn was to stay in the house, in a marked-off area, and await instructions. If he failed to follow orders or called the police, his partner or family would be hurt. “Waiting will be the hardest part,” the recording said. “You should entertain yourself by reading.”

The man cut the zip ties around Quinn’s feet and guided him downstairs, where he again bound his ankles with duct tape and then laid him across the living room couch. He told Quinn to stay put until sunrise, then call in sick for work and text Huskins’s boss that she was dealing with a family emergency. The man said that he would be taking Quinn’s car; he would let him know where it was in the morning so he could drive to the bank.

“Are you comfortable?” the man asked. Quinn asked for a blanket. “Oh yes,” the man said. “I forget how cold it is, because we’re wearing wetsuits.”

Quinn heard the trunk of his car shut, the engine start, and the garage door open. Using an armrest, he nudged the goggles off. The clock read 5 a.m. Groggy from the sedatives, he felt his eyes grow heavy. For the next six and a half hours, he drifted in and out of sleep. Eventually, he wiggled his wrists out of the zip ties and hopped to the kitchen, where scissors had been left for him to cut his ankles free. A device that looked like a security camera with a motion sensor beeped across the room. Strips of red tape on the floor marked the perimeter Quinn wasn’t supposed to cross. His car, $200 in cash, and his Asus laptop were missing. Huskins was gone.

Soon after, Quinn received an email instructing him to take out $8,500 in cash from two different accounts. “We do not wish to trigger the $10000 reporting limit,” it said. If the bank asked why he needed the money, a second email instructed, he should reply that it was to pay for a ski boat. Quinn told police that he’d agonized over whether to contact them at all, because of the kidnapper’s threats. Eventually, he spoke with his brother, an FBI agent, who advised him to call 911.

At the Vallejo police station, seated on a swivel chair under fluorescent lights, Quinn gave his statement to a pair of detectives. After a couple of hours, a stocky, balding man walked in wearing a blue T-shirt and jeans and chewing gum. He introduced himself as Mathew Mustard, the lead detective on the case. At first Mustard’s tone was collegial, but he soon made it clear he didn’t believe Quinn’s story. “There ain’t no frogmen came into your house,” Mustard said. “Nobody dressed in wetsuits. It didn’t happen.”  

Mustard later stated that he thought many details in Quinn’s account sounded fantastical: swim goggles, relaxing music, prerecorded messages, a perpetrator who supplied his victim with a blanket and reading material. The detective probed Quinn for information about his personal life, and Quinn said that he and Huskins had recently hit a rough patch. She’d found texts he sent to Roberts, his former fiancée, asking to rekindle their relationship. The night of the bizarre events Quinn described, Huskins had come over to talk through everything, and the couple had been drinking.

As far as Mustard knew, officers saw no signs of forced entry at the house. Upstairs they smelled “a strong scented odor” and noted that the carpets looked freshly vacuumed. Quinn’s comforter was gone from his bed, and the sheet had a small bloodstain. Police found Quinn’s car in a parking lot just three minutes from his house. The emails Quinn claimed were from the kidnappers had been sent from his own account, and he was in possession of Huskins’s phone. After his girlfriend disappeared, Quinn didn’t act as Mustard expected a crime victim would: He took a nap, called in sick to work, and texted Huskins’s boss, ultimately waiting more than eight hours to call 911.

At the station, Mustard laid out his own theory. According to Quinn, the detective said he believed something “bad” had happened between the couple. Maybe they were fighting and Quinn pushed Huskins down the stairs, or maybe they were experimenting with drugs or sex and something went wrong. Mustard speculated that Quinn decided to cover up whatever happened with a crazy story. (The Vallejo police referred all questions about the department and individual officers to the City Attorney’s Office. Calls requesting comment were not returned.)  

Quinn admitted that the whole thing sounded “like a movie,” but he insisted he was telling the truth. More than ten hours into the interrogation, he agreed to a lie detector test. A polygrapher from the FBI, which had been called in to assist with the investigation, told him afterward, “There’s no question in my mind that you failed this test, and you failed it miserably.” Aaron gripped his head in his hands. “I don’t know where she is,” he said. Eventually, he asked for a lawyer.

As the police department prepared a press release, Mustard seemed convinced that he knew how the story would end. “I’m looking for dead Denise,” he said at one point. According to Quinn, Mustard told him, “There ain’t going to be but one [suspect]. It’s going to be you.”

‎   ‎   Matthew Muller

4.

Joyce Zarback, Matthew Muller’s mother, had just finished baking a casserole on a Saturday afternoon in November 2009 when she got a call from her daughter-in-law. Usually unflappable, the young woman was sobbing. Muller was gone, and she didn’t know where he was. She was scared something bad had happened.

Zarback was stunned. Muller and his wife had just moved to California, and Muller seemed excited about his new job. After revealing his bipolar diagnosis the previous year, he’d assured his parents he was seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication.

Zarback called a friend to say she wouldn’t make it to their gourmet cooking club. In her sixties, Zarback was fit, with blue eyes and a crisp blond bob. She tended to power through tough times with a Protestant stoicism. Now she asked her second husband, John, to drive her to Muller’s apartment in Menlo Park, where they met Monty, her ex-husband, and Kent, her other son.

Distraught, Muller’s wife relayed what she knew: Around 12:30 the previous afternoon, she’d come out of the shower to find Muller gone, along with his bike and the SUV he’d recently borrowed from his mom. Muller had left a note on a flash drive: “I’m going completely off the grid—no phone, email, credit cards, etc., so please do not try to track me as it will only draw attention.” Later, a scheduled email arrived explaining that he was running from people waging “psychological warfare” against him. “I live in terror most of the time and can’t keep up appearances any longer,” Muller wrote. “This is perhaps the least extreme thing I can do to resolve it that does not also expose everybody to criminal liability.”

Nothing Zarback had read in Bipolar Disorder for Dummies helped her make sense of the situation. Her concern grew when Muller’s father revealed that Muller had borrowed a pistol, supposedly to take his wife shooting. Muller’s dad and brother drove off to search for Muller in Yosemite National Park, one of his favorite hiking spots. His wife, who had already reported him missing, composed herself enough to call anyone who might know something: Muller’s psychiatrist, Deborah Anker, other Harvard colleagues. No one had any idea where he was or why he had fled.

Next, Muller’s wife searched his recent purchases for clues. He had ordered more than 80 items over the previous two weeks. Zarback wrote some of them down: a tarp, a solar shower, water carriers, a survival guide, an axe, a utility knife, mosquito nets. A few purchases had less obvious uses in the wild, such as a laser and a motion sensor. Muller also bought Knife of Dreams, a fantasy novel in which one character has a mental disorder that involves hearing voices and destines him for “descent into terminal madness.” It dawned on Zarback that Muller must have spent days or even weeks stashing gear in the garage, hiding traces of a disordered mind in the recesses of his ordinary life. “This was a carefully planned-out thing,” she said. “Here is this person who’s led this model life who’s now just imploding.”

Two days after Muller disappeared, his wife received a message from him. He wanted to know if Zarback’s SUV was equipped with LoJack, technology that uses GPS data to locate stolen cars. Eventually, he revealed that he was staying just outside Zion National Park in Utah, not far from the city of Hurricane. He agreed to let his wife pick him up.

Not long after the divorce was finalized, according to Muller’s ex, her housemate came to her room one night, visibly shaken. She said that she’d woken to find a man standing over her, watching her sleep.

Muller’s memory of what happened after he left home is patchy, but he recalled taking a circuitous route to Utah, making reservations at three hotels, and possibly taping his cell phone to a long-haul truck to throw off the Chinese government, which he was still convinced was after him. After hiding supplies in two caches in case he was attacked, Muller hiked for more than a day before setting up camp near a creek. He walled off the site with a tarp and surrounded it with motion detectors and trip wires that would set off alarms attached to his wrists.

At first, encountering nothing alive but the occasional rabbit, Muller felt relieved that he’d shaken his pursuers. But before long the landscape itself seemed to grow ominous. Prickly pears became faces contorting in pain. A mesa menaced him by day and haunted his dreams. He eventually returned to the SUV and contacted his wife on a burner phone.

It was decided that Muller should stay with his mom for a while. When his wife dropped him off, Zarback hardly recognized her son. He’d dyed his hair blond and seemed like an actor who’d taken on a new role, that of a scared and sickly child. During their walks on a nearby trail, his eyes darted feverishly, discerning dark omens in the dry grass and danger in the glassy face of Lake Natoma. For the next nine months, Muller sank into a paralyzing depression. He left his job and moved in with his father, only leaving bed for an hour a day to force down food and guess at the combination of the lock on Monty’s gun safe.

Then Muller began to climb out of the hole. He agreed to see his psychiatrist, resumed medication, and moved back in with his wife. He began volunteering with a legal nonprofit, and in March 2011 he got a job with Reeves and Associates, a firm in San Francisco specializing in immigration. Soon after, Muller registered with the state bar: He was finally able to practice law in California. Steven Malm, an associate who joined the firm around the same time, was impressed by Muller’s intelligence and dedication to his clients, but he sensed something was off below the surface. “There was an angst, a certain energy driving him that was stronger than you’d normally see,” Malm recalled. “It was almost like he was in a different world.”

In fact, Muller was once again losing his grip on reality. Struggling to focus, he stayed in the office overnight in hopes of catching up on casework. After he was spotted on a security camera, some of the firm’s partners asked him to stop. According to Muller, he heard his boss, Robert Reeves, say on one occasion, “We don’t need people here who have to take pills to stay right in the head,” and on another, “It would be nice if we could just chip our associates.” Muller believed Reeves had read an email Muller sent to his psychiatrist and had learned of his bipolar diagnosis, and that his boss was now spying on and plotting against him. (Reeves died in 2016; the firm did not respond to requests for comment.)

Less than six months after joining Reeves and Associates, Muller copied thousands of files from the company’s network onto a flash drive, installed a program that wiped his computer, and sent an email announcing his immediate resignation. Through monitoring software, his employer discovered that he’d taken data, and the firm sued him, assuming that he planned to use it to start his own practice. In fact, Muller had a different motive: to find irrefutable evidence that Reeves was tracking him. “I mostly wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t crazy,” he said. Muller found no proof. The firm eventually dropped the suit.

Muller got a job with another immigration firm. A burst of manic energy kept him productive at first, but soon he shifted into what he called a “mission from God” phase. On the side, he formed a nonprofit called Immigrant Ability to advocate for immigrants with mental illness. He became consumed with helping a pro bono client named Blanca Medina, a mother who was about to be deported to El Salvador. In mid-2012, Muller filed a legal motion on Medina’s behalf and launched an online petition that gathered 118,000 signatures. As a result, federal officials agreed to halt her deportation at the last minute and reopen her case.

It was a victory, but Muller couldn’t enjoy it. He began to suspect that federal immigration authorities were tapping his phone and retaliating against his other clients, and that his new boss was in on the plot. He didn’t last much longer in the job. 

In December 2012, Muller’s wife filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. They soon signed a settlement in which she agreed to pay Muller $3,400 a month in alimony. In later court filings, she stated that she accepted the terms only because Muller “continuously pressured and intimidated” her. She claimed that Muller had told her he’d “hacked into my computer and was using surveillance to keep track of my actions,” and that he “threatened to use his immigration expertise/contacts” to get her and her family deported. She also stated that, during one meeting, Muller grabbed her to keep her from leaving while he checked her car and purse for recording devices. Afterward, her mother and brother reported seeing bruises on her arm.

Muller’s ex also claimed that, during divorce proceedings, she learned that Muller had faked documents while they were married in order to add her as a cosigner on a $50,000 car loan, and that he threatened to “destroy me and my family” if she reported the fraud. She also said that, prior to the alimony settlement, Muller had forced her to lend him more than $22,000. When one alimony check was late, Muller wrote to her, “You are going to be responsible for losing your job, losing your license, and the suffering that will bring your family.” Another time, he sent her an email claiming that, in case of his “disappearance/detention/incapacity,” people with fake names would contact her and an automated “system” would “guarantee you could never take me out without paying a high price.”

In an interview, Muller said, “Unless I was in the middle of some sort of a psychotic episode, I have no memory of anything like that.” He also said that his ex-wife knowingly cosigned for the car loan, and that the $22,000 was an advance on spousal support. Muller denied threatening to get her or her family deported, and said that he didn’t intentionally hurt his ex-wife.

Not long after the divorce was finalized, according to Muller’s ex, her housemate came to her room one night, visibly shaken. She said that she’d woken to find a man standing over her, watching her sleep. The intruder had fled the apartment before she could react. “At the time, I had dismissed it as perhaps a nightmare,” Muller’s ex wrote in a court filing. Her housemate, though, “was absolutely certain and very scared.”

“I did not think it could have been Matthew,” his ex stated. She later changed her mind.


Zarback did what she could to help her son. She gave him money to lease an apartment in downtown Sacramento, where Muller seemed content to spend his days decorating his home, watching movies, and walking Paya, the golden retriever puppy he had adopted. But when Zarback came over, she noticed that one bedroom was “like a garbage can,” so cluttered with boxes, newspapers, and furniture that she couldn’t see the floor. “Everything else would be neat and clean and beautiful, and this one room—it’s kind of like his mind,” she said.

Muller’s traffic citations, overdue bills, and tax notices showed up in Zarback’s mail. She discovered that he’d been pulled over several times for traffic violations and twice arrested for driving with a suspended license. Muller’s bar membership was suspended, initially because he didn’t pay dues, and later based on disciplinary charges stemming from his mishandling of a case in his last job. He would ultimately be disbarred. In March 2014, his landlord sent him an eviction notice, and the following month Muller filed for bankruptcy; the case was dismissed after he failed to submit documents on time.

Zarback drove her son to court, ensured that he renewed his driver’s license, and paid his tickets to keep him out of jail. She made appointments for him with psychiatrists at a veterans hospital but had no way to know whether he was taking his medication. When she or Monty asked questions, Muller assured them he was fine or refused to discuss his illness.

In the summer of 2014, Muller found a job at ThinkTank Learning, an after-school academic program. He also started dating a medical researcher, and they moved into a four-bedroom house with ionic columns on Mare Island, a block over from Kirkland Avenue. In addition to caring for Paya, the couple sometimes dog-sat another golden retriever and a husky. Zarback hoped that her son was rebuilding his life, but when she visited his new home, she noticed that one room was already filling up with boxes.

One day, Muller’s new partner called to tell Zarback that she was concerned about Muller taking long walks around Mare Island at night, dressed in black. Soon after, the couple broke up, and Muller took leave from his job. “After that, something clicked off in him,” Zarback recalled. “He just gave in to whatever illness this was.”

In early 2015, Muller asked his mom if he could stay in the cabin she and her husband owned in South Lake Tahoe. She thought spending time outdoors with Paya would help his mental health, so she said yes. Instead, Muller grew more reclusive, making excuses when Zarback offered to visit and seeming eager to hang up during their weekly calls. When she did see him one day that spring, Muller exploded in anger, because he thought his parents were spying on him.

Zarback felt like there was nowhere to turn as she lost her son to his inner demons. She didn’t think she could force him into treatment, because to her mind, he wasn’t an imminent danger to himself or to others. She once dialed a number the VA had given her to use in a crisis, but the person on the line told her to call 911.

The morning of June 8, 2015, Muller phoned Zarback and asked her to pick him up at a Starbucks in South Lake Tahoe. She asked him why. “Mom,” Muller replied, “can you just come get me?”

After Zarback picked him up, Muller recounted his plans to live like a monk in the middle of the desert. He seemed determined and slightly anxious. Half an hour after they arrived at Zarback’s house, Muller announced that he was borrowing his brother’s car and driving back to the cabin. He wouldn’t explain why. None of it made sense to Zarback. 

“Can’t you stay awhile?” she asked.

“No, Mom,” Muller said. “I need to get back.”

5.

Henry K. Lee was one of the first people to report that Denise Huskins had gone missing from her boyfriend’s home on March 23. Forty-one years old, with a receding hairline and black plastic-framed glasses, Lee was a crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He had an enthusiasm for his beat that hadn’t wavered in more than two decades, since he joined the paper as an intern. It wasn’t unusual for him to report while on vacation with his family or to file six stories a day.

The day after Huskins vanished, Lee drove to Mare Island in his aging Crown Victoria. When he arrived at Aaron Quinn’s house, police cars and news vans crowded Kirkland Avenue, and helicopters hovered overhead. Investigators unfurled yellow crime-scene tape and dusted windows for fingerprints. More than 100 search personnel and several police dogs hunted for traces of Huskins around the peninsula, and divers were set to comb the surrounding waters.

Lee was chatting with a group of reporters when his phone buzzed. He saw an email with the subject line “Denise,” sent from the account of A. J. Quinn—he recognized the name of Huskins’s boyfriend, who had reported her missing. Lee stepped away to read the message. Huskins “will be returned safely tomorrow,” it said. “Any advance on us or our associates will create a dangerous situation.”

The message contained a link to an audio clip. Lee heard a woman’s voice: “My name is Denise Huskins, and I’m kidnapped. Otherwise I’m fine.” To prove that the clip hadn’t been prerecorded, the woman described a plane crash in the Alps that occurred that morning. To confirm her identity, she noted that the first concert she went to featured Blink-182 and Bad Religion.

Lee thought the recording was a joke. “You’re inured to what you see on crime shows—someone calls for help or … is clearly being forced to say the words,” he later said. “In this case, she seemed to just be having a normal conversation.” Lee saw no reason a kidnapper would send a proof-of-life tape to him alone. Maybe someone at the scene was messing with him, or perhaps a reader had sent an unhinged missive. Still, he forwarded the email to Vallejo police, asking them to verify its authenticity—“in the event it is not a prank,” Lee wrote.

The next evening, Lee was scrolling through his phone in bed when he read a police press release stating that Huskins had resurfaced that morning in her hometown of Huntington Beach, more than 400 miles south of Mare Island. After initially being “cooperative,” the release said, Huskins hired a lawyer and stopped communicating with detectives. Then Lee read a line that sounded surreal: “Given the facts that have been presented thus far, this event appears to be an orchestrated event and not a kidnapping.” The police would be giving a press conference that night.

Lee bolted out of bed. Careful not to wake his two young kids, he rushed downstairs and turned the TV on low. His face glowed blue in the dark living room as he watched Vallejo police lieutenant Kenny Park address reporters. “The statement that Mr. Quinn provided was such an incredible story, we initially had a hard time believing it,” Park said. “Upon further investigation, we were not able to substantiate any of the things that he was saying.” Park said that Quinn and Huskins had sent authorities on a “wild goose chase” and “plundered valuable resources.” They “owe this community an apology,” he insisted, and could face criminal charges.

Lee was stunned. A faked kidnapping? He’d never heard of anything like it. Vallejo police hadn’t replied to him about the proof-of-life recording he’d forwarded, but he figured they knew something he didn’t. “If the Vallejo cops said this was a hoax,” he recalled thinking, “it must have been a hoax.”

“What do you say when the police say this was a fabrication?” a reporter asked Rappaport. “A lot of people said the world was flat as well,” he replied.

What the cops knew was this: Just before 10 a.m. on March 25, Huskins’s father, who’d traveled from Southern California to Vallejo after she was reported missing, notified the police that he’d received a voicemail from his daughter. She said that she was on her way to his home in Huntington Beach, where her kidnapper had dropped her off.

When local officers arrived, Huskins was in a neighbor’s apartment. Like Quinn, she described a bizarre home invasion involving lasers, swim goggles, wetsuits, and prerecorded messages. She said her captor took her in the trunk of a car to what seemed like a secluded location several hours from Mare Island. She was held in a room with a queen-size bed and windows blocked with cardboard. At one point he bound her to the headboard with zip ties and a bike lock.

Huskins told police that she was blindfolded and drugged much of the time, but that she believed her kidnapper was a white man with “brownish red” hair. He claimed to be working with three associates—“T, J, and L”—and said that clients hired them to kidnap people for ransom. After 48 hours, Huskins said, the kidnapper for some reason decided to release her. He chose Huntington Beach, her hometown, because authorities weren’t looking for her there. On the drive south, he let her ride in the front seat; he put blacked-out swim goggles over her eyes, then replaced them with tape over her eyelids and a pair of sunglasses. 

Huskins showed officers a pair of tennis shoes and a water bottle that she said the kidnapper had given her. An officer asked what kind of car the man had been driving. She said it sounded like a Mustang. When the officer asked if she’d been sexually assaulted, Huskins said no. All things considered, she added, the kidnapper had treated her well, supplying food and water and letting her shower in private. 

Huskins would later elaborate on her captivity, noting that her kidnapper seemed intelligent and socially awkward, and that he told her he’d been in the military and had served in the Middle East. The man said that he’d entered Quinn’s home five times in recent months, even standing outside the bedroom when Huskins was over. She said that he supplied her with toiletries, served her pizza and wine on a formal place setting, and screened a French film. At one point, he showed her a news story that quoted her father, then held her as she cried. “I wish we would have met under different circumstances,” he told her before letting her go. “You are an incredible person.”

When the Huntington Beach police got Mathew Mustard on the phone, Huskins’s cousin Nick, who had come to be with her and was an attorney, offered to take the call. The Vallejo detective had been wrong about Huskins’s fate—there was no “dead Denise,” as Mustard had told Quinn there would be—but he still wasn’t buying the couple’s account. According to Nick, Mustard said he could offer either Huskins or Quinn immunity if they cooperated with police. He implied that it would be first come, first served. (Mustard has denied making this offer.)

Mustard wasn’t alone in doubting the kidnapping story. That afternoon, according to former Vallejo police chief Andrew Bidou, Mustard met with his supervisors and an FBI agent named David Sesma. Several of the men in the room found it suspicious that Huskins had reappeared near her parents’ homes, wearing sunglasses and carrying luggage. She looked “casual, like somebody just came back from a trip,” not like “somebody that just went through a very traumatic incident,” Bidou, who was in the meeting, later said in a deposition. On her face police observed “darker impression circles … consistent with wearing swim goggles,” but they noted that Huskins “did not appear to have any injuries.” When they searched the alley where Huskins said her kidnapper had dropped her off, police didn’t find the tape she said she’d removed from her eyes. Officers asked a gardener who’d loaned Denise his phone, so she could call her father, whether she was “nervous, excited, or scared.” The man said, “No, she seemed completely normal.”

Some of the officers gathered in Vallejo wondered why Huskins hadn’t accepted an offer to return to the city on a flight the FBI had arranged, and why she was now communicating through a lawyer. What’s more, they doubted the supposed evidence of a home invasion. Items from Quinn’s home that he claimed were left behind after the crime—a portable charger, camera, zip ties, goggles, and red tape—“would have been props to promulgate the story,” Bidou later said.

After less than half an hour, according to Bidou, the conclusion in the room was unanimous: “Everyone believed that it was a purposeful act.” At 9:30 that night, less than 12 hours after Huskins resurfaced, Kenny Park was on TV, accusing her and Quinn of perpetrating a fraud.

At a lunchtime press conference the next day, Quinn’s attorney, Daniel Russo, insisted that the Vallejo police were the ones peddling “blatant lies.” Lanky and mustached, with a Bronx accent, Russo explained that Quinn had given detectives his fingerprints and DNA, and that he’d turned over his clothing and provided the police with access to his electronic devices. Quinn had spent more than 17 hours answering questions and agreed to have his home searched. “I don’t know what else he can do,” Russo said. “I guess they can start pulling his teeth.”

At his own press conference, Huskins’s new lawyer, Douglas Rappaport, told reporters that his client had spent more than five hours talking to authorities that day and was “absolutely, unequivocally, 100 percent, positively a victim, and this is no hoax.”

“What do you say when the police say this was a fabrication?” one reporter asked.

“A lot of people said the world was flat as well,” Rappaport replied.


On the day of the press conferences, Henry Lee was nearing the end of his shift in the newsroom when he got another strange email, this time from huskinskidnapping@hotmail.com. “Ms. Huskins was absolutely kidnapped,” the message said. “We did it.”

The author claimed to speak for a group of “professional thieves” based on Mare Island who had been stealing cars prior to kidnapping Huskins, which was a test run for more lucrative crimes. “Until now, this was a bit like a game or movie adventure,” the email read. “We fancied ourselves a sort of Ocean’s Eleven, gentlemen criminals.” But after spending time with Huskins, the criminals developed “a case of reverse Stockholm syndrome.” Ashamed and “unspeakably sorry,” they were upset that she was being “victimized again” by the police. As proof of authenticity, the author attached a photo of the weapon supposedly used during the crime: a Nerf Super Soaker spray-painted black, with a laser pointer and a flashlight affixed to the barrel with duct tape.

Lee couldn’t fathom that genuine criminals would risk getting caught just to defend their victim. When he noticed that the email was peppered with terms like “indicia” and “held in contempt,” he wondered if Huskins and Quinn had asked a lawyer to draft it. Lee replied to the sender with a request for an interview, then passed the email to police.

Two days later, on Saturday, March 28, Lee was hiking in the redwoods with his family when his phone dinged. A longer screed had arrived, this time from the address none@nowhere.com. The author claimed to speak for “three acquaintances” who started stealing cars as a “contrast to the office doldrums,” a mischievous lark “like something out of A Clockwork Orange, up to that point without the ultra-violence.” One of the cars was a white Mustang that belonged to a local medical student who had a habit of speeding. “We took it, and maybe saved a neighborhood kid or dog,” the message read.

The thieves allegedly entered homes on Mare Island to steal car keys, personal information, and items they could use to fool investigators, like loose hairs. They were careful to avoid houses with children, seniors, or veterans. The author said the thieves once scared a neighborhood Peeping Tom off a roof, then called the police on him “from a burner phone, pretending to be a resident.” The author also said that the criminals set up electronic perimeters, surveilled homes with drones and game cameras, and wore hairnets and wetsuits to avoid shedding DNA. “I will pause to note how fantastical all of this sounds,” the email read. “Because even I can’t help but think that as I write.”

Eventually, the author claimed, the criminals decided to try their hand at kidnapping for ransom. They experimented with a dog-training collar and a “muscle stimulation device” to subdue victims, but settled on a stun gun that could deliver “a brief shock to the male if circumstances called for punishment.” They got into Quinn’s house by drilling holes around a window to release the lock, then they drugged the couple to “make them more compliant and to make the situation less traumatic.” After the ordeal was over, they’d planned to hand the victims “literature on trauma and recovery.”

The message included a link to photos. One was of gear purportedly used in the kidnapping, including two-way radios, burner phones, gloves, flashlights, license plates, portable speakers, a blood-pressure cuff, and zip ties. Another depicted the bedroom where Huskins supposedly had been held, with cardboard taped over a window and the victim’s glasses on a dresser.

Lee couldn’t understand why Quinn and Huskins would keep sending bizarre emails or go to the trouble of staging photos. Unsettled, he called a Vallejo police lieutenant he knew. Off the record, Lee asked the officer whether he and his family might be in danger. The lieutenant told him not to worry—this must be part of the fraud.

“They said something along the lines of ‘Oh shit,’ ” Campos recalled, “but in a more professional way.”

Three months later, when Misty Carausu read Quinn’s and Huskins’s accounts of what had happened to them, she saw no evidence of deception—she saw parallels to the home invasion in Dublin and to the ones in Silicon Valley in 2009 and 2012. She called the Vallejo police department a handful of times over more than a week before speaking with a detective in late June 2015. “You guys said it was a hoax,” she said, “but it may not be.” Carausu found the detective dismissive. He referred her to the FBI, which had taken over the investigation.

Carausu phoned David Sesma, one of the agents who’d been in the room with the Vallejo police department’s top brass when they decided the crime had been faked. “We never said that was a hoax,” she recalled Sesma saying defensively. Carausu described the Dublin break-in and the suspect they had in custody. “We have all this information—it might be of some use to you,” she said. (The FBI declined requests for interviews with individual agents and said in a statement, which it issued in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California, that it could not respond to questions. “All investigations are conducted in a manner that is respectful to victims’ right to privacy and court records detail the efforts of the men and women who investigate our cases,” the agency said.)

The Vallejo case was still making headlines. Some outlets had dubbed Huskins the “real-life Gone Girl,” after the antiheroine in Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller who fakes her own disappearance to frame her husband for murder, then reappears. The film version of the novel came out less than six months before Quinn reported the crime, and Huskins resembled the lead actress, Rosamund Pike. In the movie, a cable news host obviously modeled on Nancy Grace, the television commentator and self-styled victims’ rights advocate, falls for the ruse, suggesting on the air that the husband is a “sociopath” and “wife killer.” In real life, Grace compared Huskins to the Gone Girl character on her program and declared, with air quotes, “Everything about this ‘kidnap’ screams out hoax.”

The media weren’t the only ones comparing the case to Gone Girl. According to Huskins’s mother, when she met with Mustard to review the proof-of-life recording sent to Lee, the detective suggested that her family watch the movie to understand the situation. According to Rappaport, Huskins’s lawyer, Sesma at the FBI said the same thing to him after Huskins turned up in Huntington Beach.

That was before Carausu called him. Two days after talking to her, Sesma and fellow FBI agent Jason Walter met with Dublin police to review evidence seized from the cabin and the Mustang in South Lake Tahoe. When the agents saw pictures of the blond hair tangled in blacked-out swim goggles and a Super Soaker with a laser and a flashlight taped to it, they looked visibly shocked, according to Miguel Campos, the lead detective in the Dublin case. “They said something along the lines of ‘Oh shit,’ ” Campos recalled, “but in a more professional way.”


The next evening, Quinn sat across from Sesma and Walter in a conference room at his lawyer’s office. Sesma, the more seasoned FBI agent, looked polished. Walter, who was two years into the job, was brawny, with visible tattoos—Quinn could easily picture him kicking down doors. The agents had asked Quinn to meet because there’d been a break in the case, but he was worried it was a ruse to arrest him. The authorities seemed intent on proving that he and Huskins were liars.

He was skeptical for another reason: Several years prior, Sesma had had a romantic relationship with Quinn’s ex-fiancée, Andrea Roberts—the woman whom Quinn told police the kidnapper said he was targeting—before she and Quinn started dating. It was another strange circumstance in a case full of them. Rappaport had already sent a letter to the Department of Justice arguing that Sesma had a conflict of interest; in a letter included in court filings, a federal prosecutor would later state that “the appropriate offices have found his conduct unproblematic.” When Sesma nodded hello, Quinn had to stop himself from flashing his middle finger.

The agents said they had images of evidence they wanted to show Quinn. Walter slid a photo of an Asus laptop across the table. “It looks like the computer the kidnappers stole, but I can’t say for certain,” Quinn said, according to his account in Victim F, a book he and Huskins published in 2021, in which they write alternating chapters. Next, Walter showed him a picture of swim goggles with black tape over the lenses. Quinn said they looked like the ones he’d been forced to wear. Finally, Walter revealed a snapshot of a man Quinn didn’t recognize. He looked like an average white guy, someone who would blend in to the scenery if Aaron passed him on the street—yet his stare felt unnervingly familiar. “We found a long blond hair wrapped around goggles at his place,” Walter said of the man in the photo. “Aaron, we think this is the guy.”

After months of trauma and humiliation, it was hard for Quinn to believe that the authorities were no longer treating him and Huskins as suspects. During his initial interrogation, detectives had asked Quinn to strip naked and change into striped prison pants—they told him it was all they had on hand. They questioned him in a room with no clock or windows. He had felt trapped “in some sort of movie … forced into a character I never wanted to play,” he later wrote in Victim F. After investigators spent hours pressuring Quinn to confess, he curled into the fetal position and cried. At one point, he wondered whether he was suffering from a psychotic break.

Huskins had fared no better. When she met with Rappaport the first time, she told her attorney what she’d been too afraid to tell police: The kidnapper had raped her twice and threatened to harm her and her family unless she kept quiet. It wasn’t her first experience with sexual violence. Huskins was molested as a child—a fact that, according to her mother, had prompted Mustard to tell Huskins’s family that people who’d been sexually assaulted at a young age often want to “relive the thrill.” According to Rappaport, when he contacted Vallejo police to request a forensic exam for his client, an officer asked, “Well, how do we know she was raped?” The exam was authorized, but it was conducted 14 hours later. At the hospital, according to Huskins, nurses noticed bruises on her back and elbow. It would be months before the results came back. (Mustard has denied making the comment about sexual-assault survivors, and the Vallejo police have denied second-guessing the request for a rape exam.)

After interviewing Huskins, Sesma told her that it was a crime to lie to a federal agent. Like Quinn, she briefly questioned her own sanity. “Am I schizophrenic?” she recalled wondering. “If all these people are sure about it, is it me who’s wrong?”

While they waited to learn if they would face criminal charges, Quinn and Huskins felt like pariahs. In their telling, the hospital where they both worked launched an investigation of Quinn, and a fellowship Huskins believed she was in line for fell through. (The hospital declined to answer questions for this story. “We have great sympathy for what Ms. Huskins and Mr. Quinn endured and wish only the best for them and their family,” it said in a statement.) Strangers left hateful comments online, calling Huskins names. Some of the couple’s friends and relatives briefly wondered if they were guilty. Even Quinn admitted that he fleetingly considered, while Huskins was missing, whether she might have staged the crime as payback for his attempts to reunite with his ex.

Quinn and Huskins regularly woke at 3 a.m., hearts pounding. Both struggled with PTSD. Huskins, who suffered from panic attacks, became too distraught to return to work and slept with a hammer beside her bed. On days when she came home alone, she checked behind doors and in corners, a knife in her hand.

The couple initially hoped Henry Lee at the San Francisco Chronicle would unearth the truth by following clues in the emails he’d received, like reporters in movies do. Instead, journalists like Lee “were blinded by their own assumptions,” Huskins wrote in Victim F. They seemed to take the police’s account at face value rather than dig deeper. “It’s easier to believe that there’s two crazy people doing stupid stuff than to think the whole police organization and the media have systematic flaws,” Quinn said in an interview. “A lie repeated over and over eventually becomes the truth.” 

Now, suddenly, the FBI agents were more or less telling Quinn that they had solved the crime. His name and Huskins’s would finally be cleared. But Walter gave Quinn a caveat: “You can’t tell anybody about this.” Even though the man suspected of the crime was in custody for another home invasion, the FBI’s arrest affidavit would remain sealed for the time being. For a few more weeks, Quinn and Huskins would have to endure being branded liars.

Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn

6. 

The day after Muller drove off in his brother’s car in June 2015, the police showed up at his mother’s front door. Muller was in custody, they told Zarback, arrested that morning at the cabin in South Lake Tahoe for a home invasion in Dublin. Zarback could hardly believe what she was hearing. Her son’s behavior had been erratic, but nothing prepared her for the idea that he could break into someone’s home and commit violence.

Zarback rushed to visit Muller at the El Dorado County Jail in South Lake Tahoe. He was in tears, head bowed, repeating, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” He didn’t go into details about the crime of which he was accused. Nor did he act surprised about his arrest—to Zarback, he seemed almost relieved. She comforted her son through the bars of his cell. “This is really bad,” she said, “but you just have to go on and take it a day at a time.”

A few weeks later, in late June, Zarback, her brother, and her husband returned from hiking near Lake Tahoe one afternoon to find the cabin surrounded by police and FBI agents. David Sesma approached them and explained that the FBI had a warrant to collect evidence. But this wasn’t about what had happened in Dublin—Muller was being charged with kidnapping a young woman in Vallejo.

The next day, federal investigators searched Muller’s father’s house, where they learned that a wetsuit had gone missing. Agents also combed a storage unit Muller was renting in Vallejo, where they found bedding in a garbage bag, black duct tape, a wireless camera and receiver, and a handful of remote-control drones.

Zarback was horrified by the new revelations. “Nobody had any idea that he was this far gone,” she said of her son. When Zarback visited Muller again in jail, she asked him if he’d carried out the kidnapping alone. According to Zarback, he nodded, then reminded her that the jail recorded conversations.

It would be months before they could speak more freely. By then Zarback saw no point in asking more questions. “What am I going to gain from that?” she said.

“They could’ve been heroes in this, but instead they put blinders on,” Quinn later said of investigators. “There’s this saying: ‘If you hear hooves, think horses not zebras.’ But zebras do exist.”

On a Monday afternoon in July 2015, Quinn and Huskins prepared to face the media. So much had been said and written about them, but this was the first time they would appear before the press. A few hours in advance, they finally saw Muller’s 59-page arrest affidavit, and digested what appeared to them to be grievous lapses in the investigation of their case.

Quinn already knew that, while he was being interrogated at the Vallejo police station, authorities had missed calls from unknown numbers, along with two emails from the kidnapper, because they’d put his phone in airplane mode. Now he read that three calls had come from a burner phone, which law enforcement later traced to within 300 feet of the cabin in South Lake Tahoe. The phone had been purchased at a Target and activated the day of the crime; the store had provided security footage of the customer, a white man with dark hair. The affidavit also revealed that the polygraph Quinn was told he failed had actually yielded “unknown results.”

Quinn and Huskins were equally troubled by what the document didn’t say. It didn’t mention the drill holes Quinn had discovered near a window in his living room, the ripped window screen he found in the garage, or the set of keys he’d told police were missing. There was no indication that Vallejo police had asked other jurisdictions in the area for information about similar crimes, or that law enforcement had looked for surveillance footage or eyewitnesses who might corroborate Huskins’s account of the drive to Huntington Beach. There was no mention of testing results for key pieces of evidence in the investigation, including a stain found on the floor of Quinn’s home and material gathered during Huskins’s rape exam. The stain would later test positive for substances that cause drowsiness; the rape exam would show the presence of DNA from at least one male, based on a sample too incomplete for further testing.

The couple also learned that Lee wasn’t the only person who had received strange emails related to the crime. According to the affidavit, Kenny Park of the Vallejo police received messages stating that the cops had “more than enough corroborative information” to “know by now that the victims were not lying.” Like the emails to Lee, these messages were purportedly from the kidnappers and were sent using anonymous email services based overseas.

Quinn and Huskins wondered if authorities would ever have solved the case if Misty Carausu hadn’t told Vallejo police and FBI about Muller. “They could’ve been heroes in this, but instead they put blinders on,” Quinn later said of investigators. “There’s this saying: ‘If you hear hooves, think horses not zebras.’ But zebras do exist.”

The couple tried to remain stoic as they stood with their lawyers before a scrum of reporters. Quinn, in a blue button-down shirt, had a furrowed brow and haggard eyes. Huskins, in a beige sleeveless blouse, clenched Quinn’s arm as her lips quivered. The couple were “not just not guilty, but innocent,” Rappaport declared. “Today, the Vallejo Police Department owes an apology to Ms. Huskins and Mr. Quinn.” Russo, Quinn’s lawyer, added, “The idea that in a short period of time they decided it was a hoax, that only works in Batman movies.”

For the next several days, Vallejo police refused to retract their claim that the kidnapping was staged. “We don’t know what the final outcome of this case is going to be,” Captain John Whitney told the Vallejo Times-Herald. “It’s important that we don’t jump to conclusions.” A week after the press conference, Bidou, the police chief, sent letters to Quinn and Huskins apologizing for “comments” the department had made during the investigation. “While these comments were based on our findings at the time, they proved to be unnecessarily harsh and offensive,” he wrote. The kidnapping, he admitted, “was not a hoax or orchestrated event.”

He promised to apologize publicly when Muller was indicted a few months later. The Vallejo police department would not issue a public apology to the couple for six years.


In September 2015, more than three months after he was arrested, Muller pled no contest to felony charges of burglary, attempted robbery, and assault with a deadly weapon in the Dublin break-in. A few days later, he was moved to the Sacramento County Main Jail to await a federal trial in the Vallejo case. Muller’s attorney, Tom Johnson, initially told Zarback that he would mount an insanity defense but ultimately recommended that he plead guilty. Muller agreed, and he sent his parents a letter asking them to support his decision. “I have some serious health limitations, and it seemed like I was just unable to accept them and kept pushing myself to dangerous places,” he wrote. “I’m much safer now.… There are still things I can do to help people.” (Johnson declined requests for an interview.)

After spending time on suicide watch and at a psychiatric hospital, Muller at first seemed to improve behind bars. On medication and without pressure to live a “normal adult life,” he was “deeply remorseful” yet “more free of suffering right now than I have been for a long time,” he wrote to his parents. “The worst day of jail is better than the best day of feeling like you’re being watched or followed by people with sinister intentions.” He asked Zarback to send him GED books so he could tutor a fellow prisoner, and to add money to other prisoners’ commissary accounts.

But as was so often the case in Muller’s life, the mental upswing was short-lived. According to Muller, by the time he pled guilty in September 2016 to federal charges in the Vallejo case, he’d become so depressed that he developed bedsores from spending too much time on his bunk. When a small earthquake hit the area, he wished the walls would crush him. “I did not care about my future. I just wanted to do what was best for everybody because I had plans to kill myself eventually anyway,” he later wrote in a court filing.

Prior to Muller’s sentencing in March 2017, prosecutors argued in a memo that he should receive 40 years in prison, the maximum term under the plea deal. “There is no expert evidence to support the conclusion that any mental condition makes Muller any less morally culpable for his crime,” the memo stated, or “to support the conclusion that any kind of mental health treatment could ever make Muller any less dangerous.”

Anker and 16 of Muller’s Harvard colleagues submitted a letter of support, writing that he was “a man of integrity, decency and compassion” who “showed a unique kindness and generosity of spirit.” Muller’s parents also wrote to the judge, highlighting their son’s accomplishments and their struggle to reconcile his Jekyll and Hyde personas. They attributed his actions to a disease “like a metastasized cancer” that “eventually took control of him.”

Still, “Matt’s mental health issues do not excuse or absolve him from his actions,” his parents wrote. “We will accept whatever sentence you believe is appropriate.”

She looked Muller in the eye as she declared: “I am Denise Huskins, the woman behind the blindfold.”

The day of Muller’s sentencing, Quinn walked to a podium in the center of a courtroom in downtown Sacramento. Reporters packed the jury box to his right. To his left, Muller sat at the defense table in an orange jumpsuit and black-rimmed glasses, with his hands and feet shackled and his hair in a bowl cut. It was the first time Quinn and Huskins had looked him in the face.

Quinn had spent the morning sweating and feeling his stomach turn, but an intense focus came over him as he read the victim statement he’d revised more than 20 times. “You like to feel that you are in power, and the rules do not apply to you,” Quinn said to Muller. “That’s what makes you so dangerous. You are smart enough to manipulate situations to get away with crimes but not humble enough to seek help.”

Then it was Huskins’s turn. She looked Muller in the eye as she declared: “I am Denise Huskins, the woman behind the blindfold.” She called Muller “calculated, strategic,” and said that he “kept his true intentions and motivations to himself, knowing how awful they are.” She’d heard his “countless excuses,” including his mental health issues, but her experience made her certain that he had “willingly, thoughtfully participated in this hell we have survived.”

Muller listened impassively. After the couple spoke, he made a brief statement from his seat. “I’m sick with shame that my actions have brought such devastation,” he said. “I hope my imprisonment can bring closure to Aaron and Denise, and I’m prepared for any sentence the court imposes.”

The judge called the crime “heinous, atrocious, horrible” as he issued his sentence: 40 years. Ten of those years would be a concurrent sentence for the Dublin crime. But Quinn and Huskins weren’t done demanding justice. They wanted Muller prosecuted for all his crimes against them, including rape. And they wanted to hold the Vallejo police to account.

But for the time being, they decided to focus on happier matters. Two days after the couple gave their statements in court, at a barbecue with family and friends, Quinn proposed to Huskins. She said yes. 


Muller got married the day after his sentencing. He and Huei Dai briefly dated in 2012, after she found his card in an ATM, and they had remained friends ever since. An energetic woman with a wide smile and shoulder-length black hair, Dai had worked as an office and human resources manager and earned a green card after emigrating from Taiwan. After hearing about Muller’s arrest on the news, she visited him every week.

Their wedding took place in a dreary room at the Sacramento County Main Jail. Zarback didn’t approve of the union, lamenting that Dai was signing up for a difficult life, but she attended, along with a few family members; none of Dai’s friends or relatives came. Guards brought Muller out in a jail uniform and shackles and put him inside an iron cage. Dai, in a pretty dress, stood several feet away—she wasn’t allowed to touch her groom. After reciting brief vows before a judge, Muller was whisked away. The whole ceremony lasted five minutes.

Dai sympathized with Muller’s mental health struggles, and she believed he’d been unfairly portrayed in the courts and in press coverage. She became his unofficial paralegal, eventually quitting her job to type emails and file legal paperwork for Muller and for other people in jail he was advising on their own cases.

Dai also helped create a website, Gonegirlcase.com, that told Muller’s side of the story—namely, how severe his illness was when he committed the Vallejo crime. The site, which is now defunct, attributed his “current legal predicament” to “extended psychosis.” But Muller’s perception of what had happened would soon change.

7.

Henry Lee logged into a video call and waited for Muller to appear. It was just after 10 p.m. on a Thursday in September 2018, and Lee was staring into a laptop on his cluttered desk at KTVU Fox 2, where he was now an on-air crime reporter. Muller had just been transferred from a high-security federal prison in Tucson, Arizona, to a jail in California’s Solano County, where he was facing new charges for the Vallejo crime, this time from the state: kidnapping and two counts of rape, as well as robbery, burglary, and false imprisonment. He had pled not guilty. For the moment, he was representing himself. 

Lee was surprised that Muller had agreed to an interview, and wasn’t sure he would show up. If he did, interviewing him would feel surreal. Reflecting later on how he and other journalists had covered the Vallejo story, Lee said that prior to “the national reckoning over police misconduct,” whenever law enforcement said “something they believe to be true, more or less we treated it … as gospel.” Reporters on the crime beat, he added, often have no choice but to rely on official accounts, at least at first. “The majority of the mainstream media still will say, ‘Police said this, police said that,’ whether or not we know that to be true,” Lee said.

Finally, Muller appeared in a box on Lee’s screen, wearing a gray-and-white-striped jail uniform and gripping a phone receiver. He looked pale, with graying hair and sunken eyes, and greeted Lee with a nod and a flat smile. As Lee began to question him, Muller was cagey. Lee asked why Muller had emailed him to speak up for Huskins. Muller said, “I can’t reply to that without confirming that I’m the person who sent those emails.” (In his own court filings, Muller had once included what he said was an evidence photo of a burner phone Dublin police had seized from his cabin, displaying an email account belonging to huskinskidnapping@hotmail.com, one of the addresses from which Lee had received a message.)

Lee asked Muller about a motion he’d filed a few months earlier challenging his federal conviction. In the document, which Muller drafted on a prison typewriter and ultimately withdrew, he argued that his guilty plea hadn’t been “knowing, intelligent and voluntary,” and that his attorney had provided ineffective counsel. He assured the court that he now had “more accurate insight into his current and past mental states.”

“Are you not guilty, in fact … of the federal kidnapping case?” Lee asked. Muller equivocated: “As a legal matter, yes sir, I think a plea of not guilty in that case would be accurate.” He added that “blameworthiness and dangerousness … are two different things,” and claimed, “I would be the first person who wants me incapacitated to make sure that I could not hurt anybody again if it seems like I’m not going to be able to get ahold of those mental health issues.”

If there was a revelation in the evasive interview, it was that Muller alleged he had been abused in prison. “I just suffered a rape, a beating, and a near suicide,” he told Lee.

A few months earlier, Muller had told his mother that guards placed him in a cell with a violent, schizophrenic man who sexually assaulted him, then with another prisoner who beat him severely. Muller believed this was punishment for his helping a prisoner he believed was innocent. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment.) Muller experienced symptoms of PTSD and became suicidal. Zarback later grew so concerned about her son’s mental health that she drafted a letter to Huskins and Quinn, asking them to instruct the district attorney to drop the state case. She knew she’d never send it.


On a rainy morning in February 2019, officers escorted Muller into a Solano County courtroom. Once again representing himself, he wore a baggy gray suit he’d borrowed from his father and shackles around his ankles. For over an hour, Aaron Quinn detailed how he was tied up, drugged, and extorted. He seemed close to tears when he said, “I took a moment before I called 911, because I was afraid that I was killing Denise.” Quinn confirmed that Muller’s voice was the one he’d heard that night. Muller gazed ahead, occasionally taking notes. When the time came, he declined to cross-examine the witness.

After a recess, Huskins took the stand and described being raped twice while a camera recorded it. She said Muller had insisted that the sex look consensual—supposedly for blackmail, which he claimed his associates had demanded. The prosecutor asked Huskins if she recognized Muller’s voice. “Yes. It was the voice that I woke up to, it was the voice I heard in that 48 hours, it’s the voice that raped me,” she said. The judge asked Muller if he wanted to cross-examine Huskins. “Certainly not, your honor,” he replied.

At the end of the hearing, the judge allowed all charges to proceed.

Muller’s parents had left the courtroom before Huskins’s testimony, but Dai watched from the front row. Afterward, she stopped for a few words in front of the news crews huddled outside the courthouse. “No matter what other people say, I know who he is,” Dai said.

Jason Walter of the FBI was also at the hearing. According to Quinn, while Huskins was on the stand, Walter told him outside the courtroom that he never believed the crime was a hoax. Afterward, when Huskins joined them, he said, “You guys are in my mind all day, every day. I’m so sorry.”

Muller admitted that the conspiracy he believed he was exposing was intricate and well concealed. “The fraud is of such subtlety and sophistication that it deceived even the Movant,” he wrote, referring to himself.

For a time, in a series of motions and court appearances, Muller made a number of cogent-sounding arguments. But in mid-2019, his claims took on a bizarre tone. After receiving discovery in the state’s case, Muller advanced a new theory of elaborate subterfuge.

Four days before arresting him, he argued, Dublin officers snuck into his cabin without a warrant and used his email account to send “what appears to be a ‘to-do list’ … in preparation to destroy evidence and flee arrest.” During their official search on June 9, 2015, he said, the police planted his clothing, mail, and driver’s license in the stolen Mustang for them to be “discovered.” As part of their plot against him, Muller insisted, law enforcement agencies had altered police reports and 911 logs, tampered with forensic records, and forged judicial signatures on search warrants.

In particular, Muller zeroed in on the role of Misty Carausu. In March 2019, as the state’s case proceeded, he questioned her on the stand. Later, in court filings, he accused her of illegally accessing his devices and perjuring herself by denying it under oath. He also claimed that she had tampered with evidence. In an interview, Carausu denied Muller’s claims. Campos, the lead detective in the Dublin case, called the allegations “ridiculous.”

Muller soon turned his attention to what seemed to be a weakness in his theory: How could Dublin police, who didn’t yet know details of the Vallejo kidnapping when they searched the cabin and Mustang, install evidence linking him to that case? In a 2020 court appearance, Muller laid out an updated thesis: The FBI had used Photoshop to make “Hollywood-grade edits” to evidence photos, inserting objects in the frame after the fact. In a filing, Muller included screenshots of supposedly doctored images, pointing out what he claimed were differences in embossing and reflection. The FBI had also staged evidence photos, he argued, including the blond hair stuck to the duct-taped swim goggles, and pretended they were taken by Dublin officers in their initial search.

The reason for the fraud, Muller claimed, was to secure a quick conviction and paper over embarrassing facts about the case. He believed authorities didn’t thoroughly investigate a man who Quinn told police Andrea Roberts had had a relationship with while they were engaged. The man, Stephen Ruiz, was a former police officer. He had been fired from his job shortly before the kidnapping, after a criminal investigation that reportedly pertained to allegations he looked up women from dating websites in law enforcement databases. (The agency that conducted the investigation found “no evidence” that he misused internal databases. Ruiz called the investigation “unfounded.”) The real story of the Vallejo case, Muller argued, was that of “an ex-cop staging a crime to scare his girlfriend away from the ex-fiancé she was reuniting with” through a scheme “that put his girlfriend in no danger, but ensured she would hear about it from her coworker who was ‘mistaken’ for her—also making it impossible to overlook that her ex-fiancé was sleeping with the coworker.” In other words, Muller suggested, Ruiz learned that Roberts and Quinn were back in touch over text in 2015, orchestrated Huskins’s kidnapping, and led Quinn and Huskins to believe that the real target was Roberts, all in an attempt to win Roberts back.

Muller admitted that the conspiracy he claimed he was exposing was intricate and well concealed. “The fraud is of such subtlety and sophistication that it deceived even the Movant,” he wrote, referring to himself. “The government’s case included evidence and allegations the Movant did not understand and could not remember. The Movant had believed this was a matter of mental illness…. However, it was federal authorities and not the Movant’s mind that had altered reality.”

According to a letter included in court filings, a federal prosecutor said Ruiz was a “subject” early in the Vallejo investigation, and authorities obtained his bank records. Ruiz denied any involvement in the kidnapping. He and Roberts are now married.


Zarback didn’t know what to believe. Muller’s claims sounded far-fetched, but she’d seen firsthand how authorities had erred in the kidnapping investigation and, in her view, had targeted her son in prison. “I’m sure there’s some truth to it, but also maybe some paranoia to it too,” she said.

She wasn’t the only person doubting whether law enforcement was telling the whole story. Quinn and Huskins still believed Muller had at least two accomplices in the kidnapping. The couple had observed red lasers coming from multiple angles in Quinn’s bedroom when they woke up, and Huskins recalled seeing two people, from the waist down, as she walked to the closet. Alone on the bed, Quinn heard Muller whisper, “Get the cat out of the room,” and felt someone pick up his pet, Mr. Rogers, who had been sniffing his arm. While Muller was physically near both victims, they heard the sounds and felt the vibrations of kitchen cabinets opening and closing and an electric drill humming downstairs. At one point, Quinn heard two sets of footsteps on his bathroom tile and Muller whisper, “Are we doing contingency one or contingency two?” As Muller carried Huskins downstairs, she heard him whisper “no” and then heard someone climb up past them. Before he shut her in the trunk of Quinn’s car, she heard “noises that one person couldn’t make,” like doors opening while a car was being moved.

The couple also weren’t convinced that Muller wrote the emails to Henry Lee—or, at least, that he was the sole author. They noted small errors in descriptions of the crime. They pointed to a paragraph supposedly written by “the team member handling the subjects,” which had a single space after periods, while the rest of the text used two. In an interview, Huskins also said that, given the “obvious arrogance” of the messages, she found it odd that Muller hadn’t taken credit for pulling off the crime by himself: “Why not at that point, if it is just him, be like, these are all the different ways that I made it seem like there’s more people … and look how crafty and awesome I am?”

In a court filing, federal prosecutors insisted that Muller had “used elaborate artifice to convince his victims that he was just one member of a professional crew.” In addition to the blow-up doll and portable speaker found in the Mustang, authorities had discovered audio recordings on Muller’s computer, including one of several people whispering. Moreover, in a jailhouse interview in July 2015, which the FBI later obtained and was mentioned in Muller’s plea agreement, Muller told a local news reporter that he was the only person involved and there was “no gang.”

But to Quinn and Huskins, authorities weren’t paying sufficient attention to their eyewitness accounts. They had listened to some of the recordings in evidence and felt that they didn’t explain all they’d perceived. “It feels like every step of the way they are trying to gaslight us into changing our recollection of events to fit the narrative they’ve created,” Huskins wrote in Victim F. Perhaps Muller wouldn’t give up his accomplices because he didn’t want to be known as a snitch in prison or because he feared his partners, Quinn suggested in an interview. Maybe he chose “to fall on the sword,” Huskins told me.

The couple lived in constant fear that a sophisticated group of criminals might come after them or target other victims. “I wish it was just him,” Huskins said in March 2022, but “we trust our memory more than we trust the police work.”

8.

Quinn and Huskins publicly praised Carausu, who became a personal friend and is now a sergeant in the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, for doing “the exact opposite of what Vallejo did.” In 2016, the couple sued the city, as well as Mathew Mustard and Kenny Park, for defamation and other claims. They settled the suit in 2018, with the defendants admitting no wrongdoing and agreeing to pay $2.5 million. In June 2021, upon publication of Victim F, the city and the Vallejo police department issued a statement to the press calling what happened to the couple during the kidnapping “horrific and evil” and finally extending an apology “for how they were treated during this ordeal.” Later that year, Quinn wrote an op-ed calling for the department to be disbanded over its culture of “opacity and impunity.”

After the botched 2015 investigation, Mustard was voted his department’s officer of the year and promoted to sergeant in charge of the investigations division. He stepped down as president of Vallejo’s police union in 2019, after nearly a decade in the role. In subsequent years, disturbing reports about Mustard appeared in the press: that he had withheld exculpatory evidence in a criminal trial, tried to pressure a forensic pathologist to rule a death a homicide, and cleared officers involved in shootings of any wrongdoing while heading the police union. (The union did not respond to requests for comment.)

In a legal complaint filed in December 2020, former Vallejo police captain John Whitney, who claimed he’d been wrongfully terminated for reporting misconduct, alleged that Bidou, the police chief at the time, changed the department’s promotion exam in 2017 to benefit Mustard. Whitney also alleged that, prior to the press conference where Kenny Park called Quinn and Huskins’s story false, Bidou told Park to “burn that bitch.” Whitney claimed that, after the couple sued, Bidou took Whitney’s phone and “set it to delete messages,” then directed him to order Park to lie under oath, all in order to conceal the comment. Whitney said he refused. In a deposition, Bidou said he “never heard anybody say” the words in question and denied destroying documents relevant to the case. Bidou retired in 2019. Park worked for the department until the following year. (Neither of them could be reached for comment.)

In 2020, the state’s case against Muller stalled as his mental health deteriorated. Muller believed that his parents and Dai had been replaced by imposters and told the judge that a “complicated device” was planted in his body. He claimed to be surrounded “by a bunch of actors, by a bunch of agents, I don’t know, even sort of demon-possessed people,” and called the judge Lucifer. But even in the midst of such outbursts, Muller once raised a relevant legal point that had escaped both attorneys and the judge. “I was quite astounded that he was at least lucid enough to bring that to everyone’s attention,” Sharon Henry, the prosecutor, said in court, suggesting that Muller was “legally competent.” Tommy Barrett, the public defender the court had appointed to represent Muller, criticized Henry for expecting mental illness to present as “drooling, shouting, maybe smearing feces on oneself.… It’s not always a movie-type portrayal.” 

That November, the judge ruled that Muller was incompetent to stand trial. The following June, he was moved to a state psychiatric hospital, where he received a new diagnosis: schizophrenia. Citing “a downward spiral of increased mental harm,” in September 2021 the judge signed an order allowing Muller to be treated with antipsychotic medication against his will. “As the Buddhists would say, I have seen the light inside you,” the judge told him. “And I think there is a way for you to get back there.”

In March 2022, Muller appeared before the same judge on Zoom. Seated under a ceiling patched up with cardboard, he wore the khaki uniform of Napa State Hospital. Barrett confirmed that his client had agreed to plead no contest to all state charges, except for kidnapping. The judge, who had deemed Muller legally competent a few weeks earlier, asked him, “Do you feel today as we’re sitting here that your head is in a good place to understand what we’re doing?” In a subdued tone, Muller replied, “Yes, your honor, I’m well enough to proceed.”

The judge sentenced him to 31 years in state prison, to be served concurrently with his existing terms. The next day, Huskins posted on social media, “This is not the end result we had originally sought.” She and Quinn—now married, with a young daughter—still wanted Muller locked up for life. But Huskins also said she and her husband hoped “all involved can find some level of peace moving forward.” Later, Huskins wrote to me, “It is tempting to want to have final explanations and answers that are all tightly wound in a bow … but as in most real-life cases, there are going to be a lot of questions we will never get answers to.”

“I made a lot of mistakes,” Zarback said. Then again, she continued, “what is that piece of the chain that might have made a difference? I’m not sure I can name one. I’ve come to think we don’t have the power.”

Among the unanswered questions that continue to haunt people affected by the events in this story is whether Muller was behind the home invasions and attempted assaults in Silicon Valley in 2009 and 2012. “If you want to ask me do I think it was Matthew? Probably,” his mother said. Muller’s ex-wife said in divorce filings that he once confessed “he had indeed broken into a woman’s apartment in 2009 and that he would do the same to me and people who were close to me.” For this reason, and because of Muller’s crimes in Vallejo and Dublin, she came to believe that her ex-husband was the person who, after their divorce, had terrified her housemate one night. “I was lucky to escape the fate of Matthew’s prior and subsequent female victims who were assaulted and raped,” she stated in a court document.

In a legal filing, Muller denied committing the crimes in Silicon Valley. In an interview, he denied breaking into his ex-wife’s home and said he didn’t recall making a confession to her. He chalked up the fact that one of the victims attended an event he organized at Harvard to “mere coincidence” and said of the police, “Once they fix on you, that’s it. They see everything consistent with that and nothing inconsistent.” As of this writing, the cases remain open.

Authorities never determined how Muller chose his victims. Huskins speculated that “from afar he saw me as a pretty blond girl” and Quinn as “some jock.” She wondered if she “reminded him of someone who was hurtful to him.” Or perhaps Muller really did intend to abduct Andrea Roberts, Quinn’s ex-fiancée. The emails to Henry Lee mentioned that the perpetrators had a “link” to Roberts, and while Huskins was being held captive, Muller asked whether she knew why someone would hire criminals to kidnap Quinn’s ex. When Huskins mentioned that Roberts had had an affair, according to her account in Victim F, Muller said, “That sounds right. That must be it.”

Different questions linger for Zarback: What if she hadn’t helped her son get his own apartment? Hadn’t paid his traffic tickets to keep him out of jail? Hadn’t let him stay at the cabin? “I made a lot of mistakes,” she said. Then again, she continued, “what is that piece of the chain that might have made a difference? I’m not sure I can name one. I’ve come to think we don’t have the power.”


When I called Muller recently at Napa State Hospital, he confessed that in the midst of our interviews a few years earlier, he’d come to believe I was a CIA agent. He decided to keep talking to “humor” me. When I asked if he still believed that I worked for the CIA, he said it was “highly unlikely but not impossible.”

Muller was ready to provide answers about his crimes, but only some. He said that, in 2015, he was fixated on the “one percent,” which to him weren’t the world’s wealthiest people, but those “responsible for most of the bad in the world. It was a scienced-up version of demons.” He harbored a “strong feeling” that Quinn, who lived a block away from him on Mare Island, was a member of this sinister cabal. “Obviously he’s not,” Muller added. “It was a product of mental illness.”

Muller’s explanation echoed what he told Sidney Nelson, a forensic psychologist, during an evaluation his parents paid for in 2017. Nelson, who diagnosed Muller with bipolar I disorder “with psychotic features,” noted in his report that in the weeks leading up to the kidnapping, Muller experienced a manic episode, possibly triggered by his antidepressant. Not sleeping much, Muller obsessively watched Batman movies and became entranced by the Dark Knight, who uses his intellect and high-tech gizmos to impose nocturnal vigilante justice. “He began to think of himself as a Batman type of person who was fighting evil, which to Mr. Muller was the 1%’ers,” Nelson wrote. Wearing a wetsuit to resemble the character, Muller said he had plotted a kidnapping for ransom to procure money from those he perceived as “evil wealthy people” in order to give it to the poor, an act he believed was “morally justified.”

Nelson found Muller “extremely remorseful.” His report, which Muller’s attorney at the time did not submit to the court, concluded: “In my opinion, it is extremely unlikely that Mr. Muller would have engaged in such criminal actions if not for the profound impact that his mental illness had on his thinking and behavior.”

Muller told me that he had a different objective in the Dublin crime: to vindicate Huskins. He said that he planned to blindfold, gag, and tie up his captives, then send photographs of them to Nancy Grace, the TV personality who had publicly doubted Huskins’s account of her kidnapping. “It’s your fault that this is happening,” Muller intended to write. “Until you retract what you’re saying about her being the Gone Girl, I might do this again.” (He told me this would have been an empty threat.)

Muller said that he targeted the Yens’ street because, like Kirkland Avenue on Mare Island, it bordered on open space that would make it easy to escape if need be. He settled on the Yens specifically because, still in the midst of a delusion, he decided they were also part of the one percent, so he “wouldn’t feel bad.” Muller said his scheme veered off course when he realized that the Yens’ daughter was home. He placed his cell phone outside her bedroom to play the sound of static, so the noise he made tying up her parents wouldn’t wake her, but he forgot to retrieve it when he fled. That unexpected circumstance ended up being fortuitous, Muller said: “It’s good that I got caught.”

Some mysteries Muller wouldn’t clear up: whether he committed the earlier crimes in Silicon Valley, whether he was the Peeping Tom on Mare Island, whether he wrote the emails to Henry Lee. When I asked whether he had accomplices, Muller said, “I never claimed I had worked with anybody,” but he declined to elaborate, beyond saying this: “Folks who are psychotic I think tend to fit the lone-wolf scenario and would probably have trouble cooperating with others in that sort of state.”

Emerging from his longest psychotic episode yet, Muller told me that he was struggling “to fold reality back” into his worldview. I reminded him of a metaphor he’d used in a previous interview, as he was grappling with paranoia: He’d said it was like he’d started to believe in ghosts after seeing one in a graveyard, only to discover that someone had tricked him as a practical joke. Now, he told me, “I still can’t rule out whether there were real ghosts or not.”  

Muller had come to think that delusion and sanity weren’t distinct planes of existence. “When you snap out of it, it’s not like you look back and know, ‘Here’s what’s true and here’s what’s not,’ ” he told me. “You basically don’t know.”


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The Caregivers

The Caregivers

An imprisoned artist, the couple who saved his life, and the extraordinary gift he gave in return.






By Kelly Loudenberg

The Atavist Magazine, No. 125


Kelly Loudenberg is a filmmaker and artist who has been exploring the American justice system for more than a decade, most recently through Exhibit A and The Confession Tapes, two Netflix series she created and directed. Loudenberg has contributed to The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and National Geographic. Her three-part investigative podcast, The Beige Room, was produced by Pineapple Street Media and released in 2021.


Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Naomi Sharp
Photographer: Jarod Lew

Published in March 2022.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

—1 Corinthians 13:4–8

Danny Valentine sat alone in his threadbare single-wide trailer, staring out a window at green and red holiday lights flashing in the distance. It was 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2016, and the snow blanketing Rock, a rural area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, seemed to swallow every sound. In the heavy silence, Danny tried to fight off the dark thoughts that dogged him relentlessly. This was one of the hardest times of the year for the rangy 55-year-old with blue eyes. He didn’t have a tree to decorate or a family to eat a big turkey dinner with. Fresh off parole after a 23-year stint in prison, he didn’t have shit.

Above: Danny Valentine and Janie Paul.

As Danny pushed cigarette butts around an ashtray on the windowsill, his phone rang. On the other end of the line was a woman. She sounded like she’d been crying.

“I just can’t do it alone anymore,” the woman said. “Can you please come?”

On Christmas morning, Danny got in his black GMC pickup truck and drove 12 hours through a wicked snowstorm to Ann Arbor. It was evening by the time he pulled to a stop in front of a large house, and Danny could see lights reflected in the windows. Even though he’d been invited, Danny was hesitant to approach the house. It glowed with a warmth that had been alien to him his whole life.

When he worked up the courage to go inside, he entered through the neatly organized garage, then walked down a hallway. The woman from the phone was waiting in the dining room. Her name was Janie Paul. She had dark hair, and she was bone-tired. When she saw Danny she smiled.

Sitting on the couch nearby was Janie’s husband. He was lanky, with gray hair. Danny sat down next to him and patted his arm. “Hey, Buzz,” Danny said gently. “How you doing?”

Buzz couldn’t answer, not really—but Danny knew that already. He was there to help Buzz. He’d do whatever his friend needed, and he’d stay for as long as it took.

Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love.

Buzz Alexander wasn’t someone who had often needed help. He got his undergraduate degree in English literature from Harvard, continued on to Cambridge for his master’s, translated poetry in Italy while writing verse of his own, then went back to Harvard for a doctorate focused on the novel as an art form. With his wife, an art history student, he became a house parent in a dormitory, then a parent to two kids of his own. He moved his family to Ann Arbor in the early 1970s, when he accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan. Buzz would remain there for the rest of his career.

Participating in the antiwar movement while U.S. forces were in Vietnam cemented Buzz’s commitment to social justice, and he approached activism through his first love: the arts. He wrote a book, Film on the Left, about radical documentary filmmaking of the 1930s and ’40s. He also traveled to Peru and participated in street theater performances about community empowerment, public health, and self-discovery.

Buzz was in his fifties and divorced by the time he met Janie Paul at an art residency in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1992. She was a painter and educator, with degrees from Hunter College and New York University. “The first day at breakfast,” Janie recalled, “we were sitting in a huge lodge overlooking a lake, and I asked, ‘Does anyone want to go canoeing?’ ” Buzz took her up on the offer. Janie was glad he did. “He looked like Henry Fonda,” she said. About a decade Janie’s senior, Buzz was tall and wiry, with a rugged, expressive face. He walked with a forward slant, as if eager to get where he was going, and carried an extra-large backpack full of books and yellow legal pads scrawled with notes.

As they paddled the canoe under canopies of trees, Janie told Buzz about her experience as a little girl landing on the shore of Lake Atitlán and being greeted by a swarm of people. Janie’s father was a prominent anthropologist, and in her childhood she traveled to Guatemala, where he conducted fieldwork studying the mysterious bonesetters, Mayan healers who treated injuries with powers they believed they derived through dreams. On the trip Janie described to Buzz, which occurred in the early 1950s, she remembered sharing a bag of art supplies with local children, a communal creative experience that would stay with her forever.

Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love.

The following year, Buzz went on sabbatical and moved to Manhattan to be near Janie. They shuttled between his tiny sublet on West 74th Street and her spacious loft, which she shared with other women and their children. Janie confided in Buzz that she had spent time as a young adult in a controversial “therapy” cult, the Sullivanians; the members disavowed the nuclear family and lived—and slept—together in several apartments on the Upper West Side. He didn’t judge her. Janie and Buzz made love, discussed human rights, shared passages from Proust, and went to movies at Film Forum. Buzz was taken by Janie’s curiosity and passion for adventure. She loved that he was a scholar but also down-to-earth. “I could talk to him about a Henry James novel in the same conversation about his experience giving sheep baths in Peru,” Janie said.

After that idyllic year had passed Buzz went home, but he and Janie couldn’t stand being apart, so she looked for a job near Ann Arbor. She soon landed a coveted position teaching color theory in the University of Michigan’s art school. Janie moved into Buzz’s three-story Victorian, adjacent to campus. To colleagues and friends they seemed inseparable, a package deal: Janie and Buzz, Buzz and Janie. It would stay that way for more than twenty years.

Above, from left: Photos of Buzz Alexander and his family; Janie in her art studio.

Before meeting Janie, Buzz had led several poetry and theater workshops in Michigan’s prisons. He was part of a nationwide community of progressive activists, academics, and artists responding to the injustices of the carceral system through arts programming. By the 1990s, U.S. prisons were overflowing with people, many of them men and women of color swept up in the War on Drugs. Since Buzz’s arrival in Michigan, the state’s incarcerated population had leaped from under 10,000 to more than 30,000. He believed the arts would enable people trapped behind bars to express their creativity, tell their stories, and find healing.

Buzz’s workshops revolved around improvisation, including performances inspired by the inmates’ own life experiences. One play, staged inside a women’s prison, was titled Bodies on Slabs. It took place in a morgue where corpses came back to life and told the audience what had happened to them. They soon found that they couldn’t get out of the morgue, couldn’t escape their fate.

With Janie as a partner, Buzz expanded the work he was doing in prisons. They both thought academia was too conservative, a stodgy bubble where people indulged in niche pursuits. They preferred to invest their energy in civic engagement, and especially in making art more accessible. Together they formed the Prison Creative Arts Project, a University of Michigan program dedicated to promoting the arts behind bars.

Before long their lives revolved around PCAP. Janie and Buzz hosted Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, and Jimmy Baca, a formerly incarcerated poet, memoirist, and screenwriter, at their home when they visited for PCAP events. University students came over for potluck dinners and to discuss the injustices of U.S. prisons.

In 1996, Janie and Buzz decided to put on an exhibition of painting, sculpture, and other visual work created by Michigan prisoners. They knew from experience that there were men and women in the state’s incarcerated population who were producing exceptional art that too often went overlooked. The PCAP show would be held at one of the university’s art galleries, where students and colleagues, as well as the family and friends of the participants, could see it. The works would be for sale, with proceeds going to the artists.

To get the project started, Janie and Buzz asked contacts at the prisons where PCAP worked to recommend incarcerated artists. Phil Klintworth, the activities director at a prison in the city of Jackson, suggested a guy who, in his words, “could do anything.” The man had volunteered to clean up after the prison’s clay workshops, even though he didn’t participate in them. Day after day, month after month, he filled a five-gallon bucket with scraps of clay from other prisoners’ work spaces. He used those leftovers to sculpt an array of figures, including mermaids and ballerinas. When he didn’t have clay, he used other items—toilet paper and soap, for instance—in his work. Anything he could get his hands on, Klintworth told Buzz, the man used to make something beautiful.

People at the prison had taken notice. When a guard was renovating his bar at home, he paid the artist a few hundred dollars for hand-sculpted figures, including a pair of dolphins. The inmate also drew family portraits for guards, and for other men doing time, for $100 a head—or, if he liked you, $50. He based them on photographs, and they were strikingly realistic. (The sales were aboveboard, made through official channels inside the prison.)

Buzz was impressed. He knew right away that he wanted the artist to be part of PCAP’s first exhibition. To find out if the man would be interested, Buzz wrote him a letter. He was prisoner number 156689. His name was Daniel Valentine.

When Danny was six his grandmother gave him a coloring book full of dinosaurs and spaceships. He added his own figures and shapes. He didn’t understand why he should color someone else’s drawing.

Danny grew up in a blue-collar family on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, the second of five kids. His mom, Mary, worked in an auto-parts factory and sometimes held other jobs to make ends meet. His dad, a mechanic, was “an abusive but good man,” Danny said. He once whipped Danny with a fan belt from one of the trucks he used for work. Sometimes he’d make Danny pay for the food he ate. Mary was afraid of her husband; he’d once threatened to hit her with a crowbar, she told me. But given the time she spent working, she didn’t witness much of the abuse he inflicted on their children. She did recall one occasion when she caught her husband on the verge of purposefully breaking Danny’s leg.

Amid the violence at home, Danny was able to teach himself to draw. According to Mary, when Danny was six his grandmother gave him a coloring book full of dinosaurs and spaceships. He added his own figures and shapes. He didn’t understand why he should color someone else’s drawing.

Danny ran away when he was 12; in response his dad called the cops. This kicked off Danny’s long career in the carceral system. He spent time in juvenile detention, ran away, and was locked up again for fleeing. It happened over and over. Danny was an escape artist, a regular juvie Houdini. He once faked a leg injury so that he could be sent for X-rays at a hospital; there, he went into a bathroom, climbed into the drop ceiling, and made his way out of the facility. Another time, Danny jumped on the desk in his cell until he loosened the iron fixture that secured it to the wall enough that he could remove it entirely. Danny waited for weeks for a thunderstorm to come; he knew that in bad weather the guards were required to turn off the motion sensors in the yard. Once the rain started, he used the iron fixture to break the window in his cell and pry the bars apart, until he could fit his head through the opening and wiggle his way out. He hid out for months in an empty cabin belonging to his uncle before the authorities found him.

While his home life was dangerous, Danny was no safer in detention centers. He was an attractive boy, with girlish features and curly blond hair. According to Danny, he was sexually assaulted many times. When he was 17, locked up in an adult prison for stealing a motorcycle, security came in the form of a boyfriend. “He was one of these guys who was feared among everybody in the prison,” Danny said. “He was a real gruesome-looking guy.” But with Danny the man was soft, sensitive. “He wouldn’t show this side to nobody else, but he would show it to me, and it was beautiful,” Danny said. The man bought Danny coats from guys on the yard and cookies and ice cream from the commissary.

As an adult, Danny continued to break the law. He said he never carried a gun or intentionally hurt anyone. He was mostly trying to survive, shoplifting food and once stealing a car, a Chevy Impala with a vinyl top, for shelter. He lived in the car for two months of a brutal Michigan winter.

During stints behind bars, Danny drew. At one point a friend gave him a tablet of paper and a set of Prismacolor pencils. “They were like magic,” Danny said. He liked to draw people doing everyday things. With the right pencils, he could mimic the chrome of a motorcycle or the fuzzy texture of a mother’s bathrobe. Sometimes he coated the tips of his pencils with wax to achieve interesting effects on the page.

During one period, Danny was free for about a year. He picked up odd jobs, pumping gas and working in hotels, before landing a position at an art gallery in downtown Ann Arbor. According to Danny, the gallerist was also an amateur photographer, a poor man’s Hugh Hefner who liked to photograph beautiful, scarcely clothed women, particularly university students. He paid his models ten dollars an hour and sometimes supplied them with booze and cocaine during shoots. An admirer and collector of old pinup drawings, the gallerist asked Danny to render the photographs he took as illustrations to sell.

One day the gallerist hung a few of Danny’s artworks in the gallery. Two of them sold: a colored-pencil drawing of a muscled woman sitting on a motorcycle, and a pen-and-ink drawing of a woman’s half-shadowed face. Danny made about $1,500. “It was a first for me, a big deal,” he said. “I thought I had arrived.”

He promptly went out to celebrate—and burn through the money he’d earned—at a biker bar and strip club called Leggs Lounge. It was the kind of place, Danny said, that had a room designated for blow jobs. He was having a blast, snorting coke while stuffing cash into the countless G-strings, when a pair of sex workers solicited Danny, promising him a night of erotic splendor.

Danny later claimed that he paid one of the women up front, and when she ran off with the money—plus some extra she’d taken from his pocket—he and the other woman agreed that he’d settle up with her when they were done. They went back to his place, where according to Danny the woman refused to do what they’d agreed upon, so he didn’t pay her. His landlord, who also happened to be his employer, the gallerist, later informed him that cops had come by looking for him. After evading the police for a few months, Danny was arrested for rape.

He denied the charge, but a jury found him guilty. Danny was given 20 to 30 years in prison, and he started his sentence at a correctional facility in Jackson. His only lifeline was his art—and in time his wife.

Danny had been dating a woman named Diane for a few months before he was locked up. She loved him, and she was loyal—she’d been there every day of his trial, sitting alone on his side of the courtroom. Danny’s family was nowhere to be found. Now Diane racked up hundreds of dollars a month in phone bills calling him in prison. She sent him clothes and helped him buy art supplies. She spent as much time as she could seated across from him in the prison’s hollow, sunless visiting room.

After Danny had served a year of his sentence, he and Diane decided to get married. Danny asked the prisoner in the cell next to him to be his best man. Diane wore a thrift-store blazer and dress. They kissed through a bulletproof window.

Together the newlyweds came up with a plan to get Danny back on his feet financially once he was out of prison: Danny would mail Diane the art he made in his cell, and she’d sell it in Ann Arbor. They assumed Diane could get more for Danny’s drawings and sculptures on the outside than he could hawking them to guards and other prisoners. But the plan didn’t work. Diane wasn’t an art dealer—she was a nurse supporting an adopted daughter. She wasn’t sure how to sell Danny’s work, or to whom.

The relationship eventually became tense; the couple’s calls and visits routinely ended in anger. Diane moved several hours away for a new job and began seeing a doctor from the practice where she worked. When divorce papers arrived at the prison. Danny signed them.   

Without Diane, Danny had no one. “I had not one person to call,” he said, “and that’s a lonely, desolate, hopeless space to be in.” He figured that he’d be almost sixty by the time he got out, and without money or a family to support him, not much good could happen after that.

Danny spiraled into a deep depression. He saw no way out.

Above: Two of Danny’s drawings.

It was autumn in Jackson, and the leaves outside the prison’s walls were changing: Green was giving way to electric yellows and neon reds, which would soon fade until there was nothing left for the muted leaves to do but fall to the earth. Danny was just shy of 35. He had served four years of his sentence and didn’t think he could last even one more day. He planned to kill himself one evening at chow time, and he had two backup plans in case jumping from the rafters of his cell block’s atrium didn’t work: a noose and a fatal shot of heroin.

The way Danny would later tell it, as he was contemplating the last hours of his life, a guard tossed a letter through the bars of his cell. He told himself he had no interest in what it said—anything that threatened to get between him and his impending oblivion felt meaningless. He tried to ignore the envelope on his bunk, but some force compelled him to open it.

Inside, printed on University of Michigan letterhead, was an invitation. Danny would read it countless times in the coming hours and days and years. Dear Daniel Valentine, he remembers it saying. I am Buzz Alexander, professor of English literature at the University of Michigan. My colleague Janie Paul and I are organizing our first annual show of art by Michigan prisoners next spring. I have heard you are a terrific artist and would like to know if you would be represented in our exhibition.

Danny felt a rush of emotion. Some might call what he experienced hope or even euphoria. In Danny’s words, it felt like “when you are coming off cocaine, and you are trying to feel as good as when you took that first line, and all of a sudden someone shows up with an eight-ball. It just woke me up instantly.”

An ear-piercing bell rang out. It was dinnertime. Danny made a choice: For now, he would keep living.

Above: Danny in Ann Arbor.

When the first annual PCAP exhibition went up in 1996, it boasted works by 50 artists from 16 Michigan prisons. Prices were set by the artists, ranging from $20 to $300. According to Janie, more than 400 people came over two weeks to see the show.

Danny created two works for the exhibition. One was a large Prismacolor drawing that he called Stereotypes, featuring a blue-skinned man and a pink-skinned woman embracing. PCAP set out a guest book where visitors could write notes about the show. “D. Valentine, I didn’t even know colored pencils could do that,” one entry read. “Amazing.”Danny’s second piece was a pen-and-ink reproduction of a work by the Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Maria Mucha. Both pieces sold, and Danny got a cashier’s check for $150. With the money, he could buy snacks from the commissary and, of course, art supplies.

Danny soon realized that his talent afforded him more than money. Among some prisoners it gave him status, and with that came safety. According to Danny, he formed an alliance with the leader of a powerful faction of radical Black Muslims. Their leader asked Danny to help him with a creative project, a book intended to educate Black children about race and racism. Danny painstakingly drew dozens of scenes depicting village life in Africa and a young boy’s rites of passage—learning to hunt, for instance, and paying homage to the king. The book’s author paid Danny, but the greater reward was that he now had Danny’s back.

There were also men jealous of Danny’s success. A few who worked in the craft shop, making sculptures from the kinds of molds anyone can buy at a Joann or a Michaels store, would break Danny’s work in the prison kiln. Danny got permission to use air-dry clay, so his sculptures could set in his cell instead of the studio.

Things took a turn for Danny when the prison converted its cells to hold bunk beds. Spaces originally intended for one man would now house two. The situation was uncomfortable for Danny, not least because he had paruresis, or shy bladder syndrome. The sexual assaults he’d suffered made it hard for him to use the bathroom in front of other people, and his condition worsened as he got older. With a cellmate there was no chance of privacy, and the paruresis went from a nuisance to a health problem.

According to Danny, he devised a hack: If he acted suicidal, the guards were required to take him to what prisoners in one facility called the “bam-bam room”—a segregation cell. The upside was that he got to be alone, which meant he could use the bathroom without anyone watching or, worse, harassing him. The downside was that the room was a bare, concrete, windowless box. It didn’t even have a mattress. “You are stripped naked and put into a nylon drape resembling Fred Flinstone’s,” Danny said. “All you get is a tarp to lay on, not even a square of toilet paper, which you must request.” In a place where he literally had to ask permission to wipe his ass, access to art supplies was out of the question.

Though he sought the solitude of the segregation cell, it wore him down mentally. When Danny wasn’t spinning out, he was bored. He spent a lot of time staring straight ahead at the always shut cell door. One day he noticed some words etched into the metal: “To win the war, you must first win the battle of the mind.” Just as Buzz’s note had arrived right when he was ready to take his own life, Danny felt like a stranger was delivering what he needed at the moment he needed it. The words on the door became Danny’s mantra. He’d chant them over and over to keep himself from collapsing mentally.

By Danny’s estimate, from 2000 until the end of his time in prison, he spent at least half of every year in the segregation cell or mental-health ward of whichever facility he was in. (He was transferred more than once.) When he was in isolation, he lived inside his mind. He’d imagine the drawings and sculptures he’d create one day. He’d also meditate for hours at a stretch. “I decided to build a house brick by brick, in slow motion, like I was watching a movie,” Danny said. “Mixing the mortar, gathering the stuff to do the brickwork, envisioning everything that I needed, the wiring and the tools. I’d see myself going into the hardware store, arguing with the cashier about the price of drywall screws.”

Even though he’d never met them, he imagined Buzz and Janie inside the house. “We’d talk about what artwork they wanted to take for the show,” Danny said. When he was returned to his cell, he made sure to spend enough time in the general population, with access to art supplies, to create new work for PCAP’s annual exhibition. “That’s what I lived for,” he said.

In 2004, eight years after Danny began showing his work through PCAP, he finally met Buzz and Janie when the couple visited the prison where he was being held, to visit with various artists and look at their work. Janie recalled her bond with Danny as instant and profound. “I remember looking into his face and grabbing his hands between my hands. I could feel his presence as I had felt his presence in his drawings,” Janie said. “The intensity of the work comes partly from the content, which is often about loving relationships between mother and child, man and woman, but also from the intensity of the labor that goes into the drawing.” Danny remembered Janie’s physical touch as warm. “I felt the same kindred connection as when I opened that letter from Buzz the first time,” he said. “I felt like I had met the other half.”

In 2009, Danny saw Buzz and Janie again, just as he was coming off a hunger strike protesting double bunking. Danny hobbled into the visiting area with the aid of a cane. He had a scraggly beard and long, unkempt hair. “He was in his late forties, but he looked 65,” Janie recalled. He’d come with art to share. “He pulled out his drawings,” Janie said, “and they were luminous and light filled.” They were in stark contrast to Danny’s lived reality in prison.

Two years later, when Danny was up for parole, Buzz and Janie wrote a letter of support, singing his praises as an artist. The parole board denied Danny’s request, and he swore off going before the panel again. “I was not getting out of bed to go talk to these motherfuckers,” he said. “I made up my mind to max out”—to serve the rest of his sentence—“which was six more years.” But he wouldn’t have to wait that long. In 2013, he was told to pack his belongings. He was being paroled whether he liked it or not.

On October 15, Danny was called to the warden’s office and handed a sack of state-issued clothes: khaki pants, T-shirt, blue coat. His brother Randy, whom he had reconnected with a few years prior, was waiting in the prison lobby. They walked into the cold, damp day—the sun hung low and hazy in a faded blue sky. Then they set off in Randy’s sedan to what would be Danny’s new home: a halfway house just off the interstate outside Ann Arbor. They turned onto a long driveway flanked by lion’s head sculptures, and when they pulled up to the house, one of Danny’s new housemates opened the door. “Welcome to freedom,” the man said.

The problems had seemed small at first. Always a careful listener and conversationalist, Buzz now occasionally fell out of step when talking to people. He didn’t always answer questions—it was as if he hadn’t heard them or couldn’t understand.

Danny had six months to get his life together. He was in his early fifties by then, had never had a bank account, and didn’t know anything about smartphones. Now he needed both, as well as a job and permanent housing, neither of which would be easy to come by for someone on the sex offender registry. Randy had set aside the $10,000 that made up his inheritance from his now dead father. Danny used the money to buy a 2001 silver Dodge Caravan, a car he could live in if need be.

Danny had been out for a month when he looked up Buzz in the phone book. Buzz was ecstatic to hear from him. The next morning, Buzz and Janie had Danny over for blueberry pancakes. They talked about art, which Danny didn’t make much anymore—he’d lost the sight in his left eye. The last drawings he’d made were for a PCAP show; one of them depicted a set of three eyes. Whatever sadness she felt about Danny’s situation, Janie was delighted to see him out of prison garb. “He looked much younger now and freshened up,” she said. When she drove Danny back to the halfway house, they made small talk about cars.

When his parole was up, Danny moved in with Diane, his ex-wife, and the doctor she was still seeing, until she found him a run-down trailer overlooking an alfalfa field in the Upper Peninsula. The landlord said Danny could live there for free until he fixed it up. While looking in vain for a job, Danny survived on ham and cheese rollups. The first winter, without heat in the trailer, he bundled up in every layer he owned. He was no longer in prison, but he felt trapped.

A world away, Janie had a big, beautiful office with a window overlooking the University of Michigan campus. She spent time interviewing prisoners who had participated in PCAP programs. When Danny came in for his interview, before he moved up north, he told her about his upbringing and the abuse he’d suffered. He said he must have been reincarnated, because he was born knowing how to draw and sculpt. He admitted that his lonely life was taking a toll on him: He’d been thinking again about suicide.

Janie watched through the window as Danny got into his van to drive away. Her heart ached. After that she made a habit of checking on Danny, and later he made a point of coming to Ann Arbor to see her and Buzz. Sometimes, if Buzz was busy, Janie and Danny would spend time alone together, eating chili dogs at a local diner or sipping hot tea while they caught up.

Danny didn’t know it yet, but Janie was worried about Buzz. The problems had seemed small at first. Always a careful listener and conversationalist, Buzz now occasionally fell out of step when talking to people. He didn’t always answer questions—it was as if he hadn’t heard them or couldn’t understand—and sometimes his replies were totally off topic. Janie wondered if Buzz might be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, yet his memory seemed fine. It was how he spoke and interacted with the world around him that was becoming muddled.

In mid-2013, Janie and Buzz went to visit a friend who lived in the hills outside an old walled town in Italy. The town had picturesque stone streets, sienna houses, and a piazza where one day Janie and Buzz met a few people for pasta and prosecco. As the group talked, Buzz blurted out a story about his prison theater workshops without any prompting or context. As he rambled on, unaware of how confused his friends were, Janie became convinced that something was seriously wrong.

Not long after the pancake breakfast with Danny, Buzz saw a doctor, who diagnosed mild cognitive impairment. In January 2014, a neurologist ran more tests and changed the diagnosis to Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis changed again a few months later: Buzz, the doctor said, had a type of dementia called frontotemporal degeneration, or FTD. It can cause problems with language, behavior, and eventually motor skills. There is no cure.

Above: Sculptures from PCAP exhibitions.

Buzz’s decline was gradual at first—Danny hadn’t even noticed anything was wrong until Janie mentioned it. She took care of Buzz as best she could. She continued teaching at the university and managed to carve out bits of time for painting, though long hours in the studio were a thing of the past. Janie needed art like she needed air—the feeling of layering oils or stroking charcoal onto paper, images that emerged unplanned but turned out to be meaningful. When Janie painted a series of small, abstract watercolor and gouache pieces for a New York show titled Proximities, Buzz accompanied her to the opening. A friend of Janie’s kept an eye on him so she could relax and bask in the appreciation of her work.

A few years into the illness, Janie could sense it worsening. Buzz, who had never yelled at her, now did so at the drop of a hat. Once, when she was heating up some water to make tea, Buzz towered over Janie screaming “No!” for no apparent reason. His ability to take social cues diminished, and he came off to people as rude. Small tasks like washing dishes and folding laundry soon became overwhelming—Buzz seemed to get lost while attempting them.

Most devastating for Buzz, a stalwart intellectual, he also began to lose his hold on language. Communication through speech—choosing the words he wanted to say—was all but impossible. For a while, though, Buzz could still read aloud, and he would read his own poetry to Janie.

On any given day, Janie didn’t know which tasks Buzz could or couldn’t handle. He prepared his own breakfast every day, until one morning he poured the milk directly onto the counter. After that Janie made him breakfast. She took him shopping at Plum Market, an upscale grocery store in Ann Arbor, and one day Buzz left her side and began yelling as he roamed the aisles, alarming customers and employees. Standing between shelves of pasta and chips, Janie cried, “It’s OK, he has dementia!” When Janie decided Buzz could no longer take care of their big green lawn, she hired a landscaper. But as soon as Buzz saw a stranger mowing outside, he threw a patio chair at the man. In the future, it was decided, Buzz would need to be away from the house when the yard was being tended.

Between medical appointments, keeping her own work on track, and dodging the curveballs Buzz’s dementia threw at her, Janie was overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the effort that wore her down. Seeing her soulmate changing, diminishing, becoming helpless, was draining. “You are constantly trying to figure out what to do,” Janie said. “That tension is exhausting emotionally.”

Janie updated Danny on Buzz’s condition during his visits to Ann Arbor. On one occasion, in the summer of 2016, Janie asked Danny if he wanted to make a few hundred bucks helping organize the garage. It was one of those things she just couldn’t get to on her own that needed to be done. Danny came over to the house, and within a few hours the garage was in order. It happened to be around the time of Danny’s birthday, and banana pudding had been prepared for the occasion. Buzz sat silently during the visit, except when it came time to sing “Happy Birthday.” It saddened Danny to see a man he knew to be full of thoughts and ideas appear so reserved, so distant.

Janie hired a home health aide at one point, but soon decided the person wasn’t a good fit. She wanted someone who loved Buzz to care for him. His children were grown, with kids and careers of their own—they couldn’t drop everything to look after their dad. Janie called on two of her most trusted former students, ones who knew Buzz, to keep an eye on him when she couldn’t. They helped cook and keep Buzz safe. But after several months, they needed to move on with their lives. Janie was at a loss. There was no one left to call.

Right before Christmas 2016, Buzz became confused, walked out of the house, and fell, injuring himself. As Janie sat next to Buzz’s bed in the emergency room, she suddenly found herself thinking about Danny. Danny, who’d credited Buzz with saving his life, who’d spent time with Buzz and understood his condition. Danny, whom Janie had felt bound to from the moment she met him. Danny, who was looking for purpose and direction. Danny, who’d done one hell of a job organizing the garage.

She realized that Danny was who she could call. “I got the feeling that he was a person who took great care and was thorough and patient,” Janie said. “I had the idea that he might be a good caregiver.”

Janie called Danny on Christmas Eve, and the next day he left the Upper Peninsula. Janie asked him to stay for a few months, but it wasn’t long before Danny again made a choice: Buzz would be his reason for living, and this time Janie would be too. “I will stay,” Danny told Janie, “until the end.”

Above: Danny cutting Buzz’s hair. (Courtesy of Janie Paul.)

Danny moved into Buzz’s old home study, where he was surrounded by books he’d never heard of: The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee. “I’d never been in the academic world,” he said. “I was blue-collar all the way.” He was the kind of guy who, rather than get it cut, shaved off his hair or grew it into a ponytail, the kind who kept car parts in the living room to work on them. “The world I grew up in, we fixed our own shit,” Danny said. At Janie and Buzz’s, he had to be careful not to track dirt and grease inside.

At first Danny helped with basic chores around the house. He made Buzz’s bed, did his laundry, loaded and unloaded the dishwasher. If the tasks were mundane, they were also deeply felt: Janie could breathe again. As the weeks went by, she relied on Danny more and more. He shopped for groceries, tied Buzz’s shoes, brushed Buzz’s hair. After Buzz went to sleep, Danny and Janie would sit in her home studio talking about the new things Buzz was doing and the old things he couldn’t do anymore. They had the same goal: to make him feel loved.

People with FTD often develop obsessive-compulsive habits. For Buzz, this manifested as a constant need to make sure the lights in the house were off and opening and closing window blinds incessantly. He also liked collecting things from around the house—clothes, books, paintings—and making piles with them. Janie and Danny would awake to stacks of random objects, and the day’s work would include putting everything back where it belonged without Buzz noticing.

Gillian Eaton, Buzz and Janie’s best friend, described Buzz’s face during this period as a mask of terror. He was conscious that his brain was being destroyed and could do nothing to stop it. He couldn’t express the simplest thoughts. To communicate what he wanted, he screamed or grunted. Sometimes, rather than deal with his situation, Buzz simply refused to engage.

And then there was the excrement. It wasn’t so much that Buzz couldn’t control his bowel movements but that he’d forgotten where he was supposed to have them and what they were even for. Danny once opened the fridge and found a Pyrex bowl full of feces. Buzz would leave poop on the kitchen counter or on furniture, where Danny would quickly scoop it up to stop it from soaking into the fabric.

When Buzz awoke with soiled sweatpants, Danny cleaned him up. This presented another challenge: Buzz didn’t like showers or baths, because his condition made him extremely sensitive to stimuli. Danny’s only option was to sponge-bathe him. Buzz, who was a foot taller than Danny, would stand on a towel in the kitchen as Danny reached into a bucket of soapy water and asked permission to wash each part of Buzz’s body.

“Can I wash your feet?” Danny would ask. “You don’t want gangrene, so I need to get your feet.” Buzz would protest but eventually concede. It became something of a dance, with Danny almost singing his words. “OK, how about your arms?” he would intone. “Now we have to get your back.”

Eaton recalled coming into the house once to find Danny hunched over Buzz’s feet, clipping his toenails. “Raphael couldn’t have painted something more beautiful,” she said.

When Buzz lost dexterity in his hands and could no longer eat with utensils, Danny came up with a menu of finger foods. One of Buzz’s favorite things was watching Danny prepare meals: the delicate smearing of peanut butter onto bread, the slicing of a blueberry muffin into equal halves, the topping of toast with perfect squares of butter. After eating, Buzz seemed hypnotized by how Danny rinsed the dishrag, the way he twisted it into a ball to wring out the water, then unfolded it to full size again.

Danny became an expert at coaxing Buzz to do things Buzz was not inclined to do. “I don’t want you to catch a cold, come in now,” he would say when Buzz refused to get out of the car after returning home from a doctor’s appointment. When Buzz didn’t budge, Danny would say, “OK, you can stay there. Just come in when you’re ready.” That was usually all it took—Buzz would get out of the car and walk into the house.

Danny could sense when Buzz needed to be left alone, when he wanted poetry read to him, when he needed to eat. At certain points, Buzz didn’t want anybody but Danny around; he would get frustrated when Janie cared for him. At first this felt like rejection, but she learned not to take it personally—it was the illness pushing her away, not Buzz.

There were days when Danny took Buzz on long drives. They loved these outings. Their first stop was McDonald’s. “We’d order chocolate milkshakes, and he’d suck his right down and reach over and grab mine,” Danny said. Buzz still had his sense of direction, and he’d point Danny here or there, to a house where he once lived or the place on campus where his office used to be. One time, Danny recalled, “he started crying a little bit. He pointed, he tried to tell me something, and it sounded like speaking in tongues.”

“Yeah, Buzz, I know,” Danny said. “You worked there for 47 years.”

Buzz just shook his head.

Above: Danny and Janie, along with various artworks, in their home studio.

Danny’s presence freed Janie up to spend time in her studio making a new series of drawings, using oil pastels and charcoal. The collection, titled Still Here, included imagery influenced by Buzz’s condition. Sometimes, though, Janie didn’t use her time alone to work—she just sat still, decompressed, and let her mind wander. With Danny in the house, she often felt at peace.

Still, as she spent more time with him, Janie saw that Danny had a dark side. Decades in prison had damaged his psyche and left him with a mountain of trauma. He had mood swings and a temper. Sometimes he reacted to situations based on instinct and fear. Once Janie took him to Zingerman’s Roadhouse, a popular restaurant in Ann Arbor, to thank him for taking care of Buzz. When she asked him if she could compensate him for his time, the wires in Danny’s head got crossed and started to spark. As Janie talked about money, he suddenly feared that she was going to stiff him, cheat him, ruin him. Other people had done it—why not her? In that moment Danny was convinced that if he agreed to something Janie said, she’d betray him.

Janie was stunned by his reaction. For all the time she spent in prisons, she’d never witnessed so intimately the long-term effects of the carceral system’s abuse and isolation, which often compounds prisoners’ earlier traumas. Her mind raced. She wanted to help but didn’t know how.

They left Zingerman’s without resolving things, and it took a day for Danny to realize he’d been wrong. After that, Janie encouraged him to communicate his feelings as a way of managing his anger. She was patient when he went on paranoid tirades, and with time they happened less and less often.

Though they came from different worlds, Janie and Danny always had something to talk about. She listened without judgment to stories about his life. Danny told her how he’d cared for his art supplies in prison, making them last as long as possible. She was taken by his commitment to creating beautiful things in oppressive conditions. At night, sitting together with Buzz, they worked their way through long TV series, including The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Sometimes Danny couldn’t look away from Janie. She was beautiful and sophisticated, kind and approachable.

To cope with her grief about Buzz, Janie tried to live in the present moment as much as she could. “It was unfathomable that he would be dead, and at the same time it was perfectly obvious that he would be dead,” Janie said. “There was no way to reconcile that.” When Buzz suffered an embolism and a doctor said he might not walk again, Janie made the painful decision to put him in a care home. But Buzz did walk again—so well, in fact, that he’d wander around the facility at night trying to escape. Danny went to visit Buzz every day. He couldn’t bear to see his friend so miserable.

After just two weeks, Janie and Danny took down the art on the walls of Buzz’s room, packed up his belongings, and moved him back to where he belonged. Together, at home, they would help Buzz live out his last days.

Danny had spent nearly three years caring for his friend; he knew what to do. He put Buzz’s favorite hat on his head and pulled the sheet up to keep him warm.

Buzz was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich one day when he started choking. It was a moment Janie and Danny had feared was coming: Some people with FTD eventually lose the ability to swallow food. Already Danny was practiced at using a finger to wipe away food stuck to Buzz’s gums and cheeks. Now Danny gave Buzz the Heimlich maneuver. By the time he was breathing normally again, the two men had tears running down their faces.

When Buzz started refusing food and water in September 2019, a hospice nurse gave him four, maybe five days to live. He spent that time in bed. Janie lay down beside him and put her arm around him. He wanted company, but no talking, no stimulation. When Buzz tried one last time to get up and flip the light switch in his room, Danny helped him back to bed.

Buzz’s breathing got noisier. His skin turned purple. “Any day now,” Danny and Janie kept saying to each other. Finally, on the twelfth day without food or water, Buzz stopped breathing.

It was 7 a.m. on a Thursday when it happened. Buzz’s daughter from his first marriage was with him. She woke Janie, who woke Danny. He went to Buzz. Danny had spent nearly three years caring for his friend; he knew what to do. He put Buzz’s favorite hat on his head and pulled the sheet up to keep him warm. He told Buzz that he loved him.

Before employees from the funeral home came to collect Buzz’s body, Janie pulled all the pots and pans from the kitchen cabinets. With the help of an Australian rain stick, a musical instrument, she and Gillian Eaton made a joyful noise while singing to Buzz. “We are with you on your journey,” they sang as he was ferried away.

Above: Danny in his workshop.

“Dannyyyyyyy!” Janie called downstairs. “Can you bring us a glass of water please? Oh, and a piece of that chocolate.”

Janie smiled as I reached to take a photo album from the shelf. We were looking at black-and-white pictures taken by Janie’s parents in 1941 in Guatemala, images of local people making food, textiles, art. There was so much of the past in the house. By the time I visited in late 2021, Buzz had been gone for two years, yet I almost expected him to walk into the room at any moment, because he was everywhere—in the books and the art, in the framed photos of the life he and Janie had lived together.

Still, there was a freshness in the house, too—a sense of life going on. The walls were recently painted. A white linen couch lacked any creases from long-term use. New Turkish rugs were soft underfoot. Janie pointed to a bookcase that Danny had laid on its side, converting it into a long, elegant shelf. “He just knows how to make things look nice,” she said.

Soon after Buzz died, Janie had asked Danny to stay with her. Buzz was her soulmate, but in a different way she loved Danny too. There was no question that he loved her. “She’s like seven Betty Whites,” Danny said. “She’s all that and a bag of chips.” When Danny told her one day that she looked good, something clicked for Janie: This was how it was supposed to be with them.

Theirs wasn’t a classic romance, but in a way it was deeper. “Even now, with Buzz no longer here, Danny and I still feel like there’s this circle of love,” Janie explained. “I want to maintain my connection to Buzz through Danny and me taking care of each other.” Danny described himself and Janie as “bound by memories of Buzz.” He’d taken to wearing a bracelet and a watch of Buzz’s. He often cried when he talked about his friend, about what three years of being by his side as he died had meant. “I wish him back every day,” Danny said.

Danny and Janie, Janie and Danny—now they were a pair, a package deal, born of necessity and intimacy. “They filled each other’s loneliness in a way I don’t think anyone else could,” Eaton said. “They needed each other to look after Buzz, but now they need each other to look after each other.”

During my visit, I watched as Danny brushed tenderly against Janie as they moved around the house. He called her “ladybug.” She bragged about his banana cakes—they were sugar- and gluten-free, she said. For breakfast one day, Danny made eggs and endless pots of strong coffee. When Janie scanned the pantry for peanut butter, Danny’s hand went right to the jar. After he did the dishes, Danny looked out the back window into the yard, where birds were sipping from a bath. “I think I’ll tackle the lawn next,” he mused.

Janie had bought Danny a sketchbook and told him he could use her studio whenever he wanted, to get back to making art. He said he might one day. It wasn’t his sight that made him hesitant, and he hadn’t lost his passion for creating. For the time being, Danny explained, he just preferred to run errands, do chores, and nurture the life he shared with the woman he loved.

“My world is right here, and this is all I care about,” Danny said. “Some people are good at writing, some people are mechanics. I’m good at taking care of people.”


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The Voyagers

THE

VOYAGERS



BY BILL DONAHUE

In 1945, a father and his young son set out across the Bering Strait, fleeing Soviet Russia for a better life in America. Neither knew how perilous their journey would become.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 124


Bill Donahue has written for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Harper’s, among others. He lives in New Hampshire. His last Atavist story, “The Free and the Brave,” was published as Issue No. 106. Follow him on Twitter: @billdonahue13.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: R. Fresson

Published in February 2022.


PART ONE

At 4 a.m. on June 23, 1945, beneath the bright Arctic sun, Valeri Minakov picked his way down to a beach on the cold, treeless coast of Chukotka, near the easternmost point of Russian Siberia. There, near the Cape Chaplino military weather station, Valeri climbed into a motorized kayak that he’d built himself, using walrus hide, a section of bicycle frame, and a small three-horsepower engine. The seawater in which his kayak bobbed was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit that morning, and clotted with blocks of ice the size of school buses. In the kayak’s bow, Valeri had a few five-liter cans of gasoline, some tinned food, a milk jug filled with drinking water, and a single passenger—a little boy.

Valeri’s son, Oleg, was six years old, black haired, and scrawny, with tentative brown eyes. He’d already been through much in his short life. When Oleg was three, his infant sister died of starvation, one of the Soviet Union’s 25 million war-era casualties. Oleg watched as his father placed the baby’s corpse on the metal kitchen table before it was taken away for burial. Soon after, in 1942, Oleg’s mother, Anna Yakovlev Kireyeva, ran off with a Red Army officer. For the next three years, Oleg was raised by his father, a naval mechanic, on a succession of military bases. Eventually, they wound up in the spartan reaches of Chukotka.

It was a lonely existence. Oleg didn’t have friends with whom he could play fox and geese—a game of chase—out in the snow. His father, Oleg later said, was “like a shadow. He was there, and then he wasn’t.” At 35, Valeri was erratic. He’d been traumatized, certainly, and was possibly mentally ill. When he went out at night to drink in bars, he left Oleg alone in the barracks where they lived. Valeri often got into fistfights while drunk. He was a muscular slice of a man—six-foot-one and 164 pounds—and Oleg was in awe of his physical prowess. Once, when a car jack wasn’t working, Valeri lifted the vehicle up by the bumper, slid the jack underneath, and continued his labors. Valeri’s strength, however, was tightly coiled. He was anxious, a chain smoker. He paced. He habitually clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth, and at times he raged at Oleg. When the boy caused a stir in a military dining hall by catapulting a spoonful of borscht into the face of a high-ranking officer, Valeri beat him.

But while Valeri was far from a model father, he and Oleg were a team out on the tundra. Oleg’s favorite moment each week came when his father got paid—Valeri would entrust the boy with a few kopecks and send him out on an errand. In a blacksmith’s forge where Valeri sometimes worked, he had Oleg work the bellows to keep the fire going. If father and son were outside and the wind got strong, Oleg would clench Valeri’s hand and curl in toward his dad’s long sealskin coat, lest he “get blown away to nowhere.”

Now Oleg sat in a 14-foot-long homemade kayak as his father prepared to row it into the Bering Strait, one of the earth’s most dangerous sea passages. The strait’s shallow floor, just 150 feet or so beneath the surface of the Bering Sea, is prone to kicking up monstrous waves. When the strait freezes, usually in October, it becomes a heaving jumble of ice floes that groan in the cold and crash into one another with immense force. The ice begins melting in June, which is why Valeri chose that month for their crossing.

Valeri began oaring away from the beach, hewing to the ice shelves along the cliff-lined shore. He kept the engine off. Valeri headed north, toward a group of islands where naval officers liked to hunt. If it came to it, he could always claim that he was taking his son out to shoot ducks.

Once they were far enough away from their launch point and hidden behind high blocks of ice, Valeri pulled the starter cord on the engine. It didn’t turn over. Valeri panicked. For three minutes he kept pulling. Then Oleg pointed out that the spark plug wasn’t connected. Valeri fixed it. The engine rumbled.

“Where are we going?” Oleg asked.

“America,” Valeri said.

Oleg had never heard of the place, so he said nothing. He sat in the front of the kayak, watching his papa guide the rudder. A cigarette hung loose between Valeri’s lips, and smoke plumed around his stubbled chin. America, Oleg figured, was probably far away. He laid his head on the side of the kayak and gathered a tarp around his torso for warmth. Then he drifted off to sleep.

When the strait freezes, usually in October, it becomes a heaving jumble of ice floes that groan in the cold and crash into one another with immense force.

Oleg was a sweet and susceptible child. When he was four, he became enchanted with a bombastic tune that was played on the radio every morning. It was a paean to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that reveled, “He gave us happiness and freedom, the great wise leader of the people.” Oleg liked to hum along. In time, he decided that he wanted to be a paratrooper in Stalin’s military.

It was a dream he carried through his rough childhood. He was hungry much of the time; at one base where he and Valeri lived, Oleg snuck into a Red Cross tent and stole Velveeta cheese and powdered cocoa. Valeri worked long days, leaving Oleg to fend for himself. One day, Oleg wandered across a frozen lake and broke through the ice up to his shins. He found his way to a stranger’s cabin, several miles from home, and shivered by the fire until somehow his father arrived to retrieve him. There were times, though, when Valeri wasn’t there for Oleg, because he was away on ships or stationed in distant parts of the Soviet Union building diesel power plants. During those periods, Oleg was parked at an orphanage.

At one of those orphanages, Oleg learned that Stalin himself was coming for a visit. The staff spent several days painstakingly sewing Oleg a little wool paratrooper’s uniform, then brought Oleg, dressed in the suit, to Stalin. “I can see Stalin sitting back in a big easy chair, smiling,” Oleg later recalled, “and me climbing up onto his knee, then jumping off like a paratrooper.”

Much of Oleg’s life was less festive. He was surrounded by brutality. Near the base on Cape Chaplino, gulag labor crews were constructing a new city, Provideniya. Once while out walking, Oleg crested a hill and looked down into a valley where scores of Soviet prisoners were moving dirt in buckets as guards armed with pistols watched over them.

Valeri feared becoming one of those prisoners, or worse. He had arrived in Chukotka tortured by history. He was born in 1909, in a small Ukrainian farming village called Orlianske. His father, Tihon, fought in World War I and was captured by the Germans. Tihon escaped, but upon returning home he suffered from shell shock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Tihon and his family faced a new threat. That year, Vladimir Lenin stressed that he viewed Ukraine as a pantry for the entire Soviet Union. In a missive to Bolshevik leaders in Ukraine, he called for “grain, grain, grain,” demanding that it be shipped out daily to less agrarian sectors of his domain.

The policy amounted to an attack on Valeri’s parents. The Minakovs owned about 110 acres, planted with grapes and wheat, and Lenin was intent on seizing their crops—indeed, the crops of all well-off, landowning peasants, or kulaks. Throughout Ukraine’s agrarian steppes, kulaks protested wildly. They got nowhere, though, and the Soviet requisition policy remained in place. It would prove fatal for many people. In 1921 and 1922, when Valeri turned 12, Ukraine suffered a drought and then a famine that devastated the Zaporizhia Oblast, the Vermont-size province where the Minakovs lived. When Norwegian diplomat Vidkun Quisling toured Zaporizhia in February 1922, on behalf of the League of Nations, he wrote, “The situation is terrible. Local official statistics show that of the province’s 1,288,000 inhabitants, 900,000 are without food. Sixty percent of the famished are children.”

As Stalin rose to power, he proved worse than Lenin. He launched a campaign to collectivize all kulak land, promised the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class,” and ultimately killed off 30,000 of them. In the fall of 1929, the Bolsheviks moved to confiscate the Minakovs’ property, and the family was forced to hide in a neighboring village.

In 1932, Valeri was drafted into the Soviet military. He hated Stalin but had no choice except to serve. He became a ship’s mechanic. Aboard one boat, Valeri watched as 50 political prisoners—all fellow kulaks—were pushed off the deck to their deaths, with weights tied around their necks.

When the Nazis occupied Ukraine in 1941, they seized grain even more zealously than Stalin had. By the time they were chased out in 1944, the population of Orlianske had plummeted from 2,000 to 78, according to one report. Valeri’s parents survived to see the Soviets return, but the effects of war and deprivation took their toll: In the summer of 1944, they both died of starvation.

The same year, thousands of miles away in Chukotka, Valeri was caught writing an anti-Stalin inscription in a library book. “I was surrounded by agents and spies,” he would later relate. Paranoia crept into his life. He came to believe that his superiors were plotting to have one of his eyes surgically removed, to use his cornea in a transplant intended to restore a general’s lost vision. Valeri may have imagined the threat, but it wasn’t unfathomable. Stalin was well on his way to killing off as many as 20 million political opponents over the course of his rule. If the Soviets wanted Valeri’s cornea, they would get it.

By 1945, Valeri’s parents were dead. His wife was gone. There was nothing left for him or for Oleg in the Soviet Union. Just past the horizon, America beckoned.

In early May 1945, Valeri began squirreling away wood to build the skeleton of a kayak. He found a bicycle frame that could be used as a bracket for an outboard rudder. He took a broken down single-cylinder, water-cooled engine, once used to generate power at a radio station, and rebuilt it. He bought walrus skins from Chukchi Natives, who used the hides to cover their hunting boats. While a wooden craft might splinter on rocks or ice, “the native skin boat is semi-rigid and warps with the motion of the water,” a Jesuit missionary told The New York Times, after traveling 700 miles along the Alaskan coast in 1938.

Valeri kept his project secret from Oleg, and he was canny about the boat’s construction. He rigged the steering system so it seemed broken—the boat went left when the rudder was pulled right, and vice versa. He lashed inner tubes to either side of the hull. These aided flotation, and also enhanced the boat’s salvage-heap appearance. Valeri wanted it to seem incapable of withstanding the Bering Sea’s heaving waves; he wanted it to look like a death trap. That way, if anyone questioned him about it, he could say it was just for puttering around Cape Chaplino.

When the boat was finished, Valeri took Oleg out for a test run. They went duck hunting. “My job,” Oleg said, “was to sit in the bow and be very quiet until we got right near the ducks. Then I’d yell so the ducks would fly up and he could shoot them. If I made noise too early, my papa got mad.” Oleg frequently flubbed the timing.

At one point Valeri let Oleg steer, and the boy ran the stern of the boat into an ice floe, bending the engine’s propeller. Back home, Valeri fixed the damage. Then he began packing up their belongings. More than 20,000 Soviets would attempt to defect to the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Valeri and Oleg were about to become the first—and only—Soviet defectors to seek freedom in the West by crossing the Bering Strait.

The strait is the only place where Russia and the United States share a border. At its narrowest, the passage is 53 miles across. Once called the “Ice Curtain” by a spokesman for Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the Bering Strait has special political relevance today. As the polar ice cap melts and the northern seas become more navigable, it’s expected that the shipping industry will route ever more cargo carriers through the strait rather than the Panama Canal. Russian president Vladimir Putin is intent on shoring up control of the region. Since 2015, Russia has opened or reopened about 50 military bases in the Arctic as NATO has stepped up military exercises and troop deployments in the Norwegian Arctic.

In the spring of 1945, as the Minakovs set out in their kayak, the Bering Strait was already shot through with a certain political chill. During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were technically allies. Indeed, Washington gave the Soviets $11.3 billion—$180 billion in today’s dollars—and shipped them a total of 14,000 aircraft, usually via the strait. But the alliance was far from friendly. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt called Stalin’s government a “dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.” Later, he likened his liaison with the Soviet leader to holding hands with the devil. For his part, Stalin was already playing hardball on the Bering Strait. When Father Tom Cunningham, a Jesuit missionary in Alaska, had ventured across the frozen strait into Soviet territory to hunt walrus in the late 1930s, soldiers seized him at gunpoint.

Valeri hoped to evade capture by threading the needle of Arctic weather. June was still cold enough that most military planes were grounded at ice-encrusted airports. The melting strait was a tangle of seawater and ice floes that made it all but impossible for the pilots of seaplanes to find a surface to land. The myriad boats moored in Soviet harbors were hemmed in by ice, incapable of getting out to sea quickly. The only craft the military could use to chase Valeri and Oleg were six small whaleboats. Valeri knew about the fleet because of his job in the navy; in the days leading up to his escape, he’d disabled the engine on each boat.

Still, once he and Oleg were out on the water, Valeri kept his guard up. About five miles into their journey, the Minakovs saw two Chukchi out on the ice, hunting seals. The men called to Valeri, and he responded by firing two gunshots, exactly as he would have if he too were hunting. From there Valeri navigated the shallow waters over the Banka Bruks reef and turned due east. Valeri didn’t know much about America, but he knew where he wanted to land. Nome was a bad idea; Russian military personnel abounded there. But to the south of Nome, near the mouth of the Yukon River, he’d heard that there was a community of Russian families who’d immigrated to mainland Alaska from the Aleutian Islands. His hope was that they’d welcome him and his son.

At about 11 a.m. on the Minakovs’ first morning at sea, a Soviet sailing ship, a ketch, suddenly appeared behind the kayak. It was following them, and closing in. The ship wasn’t near enough for Oleg to see the men on deck, but he figured that he and his father might be shot at. Valeri decided that their best hopes lay in deception. He turned off the kayak’s engine and held up his hands, feigning surrender. As the ship neared the Minakovs, Valeri reached for some twine that he’d knotted around a stick of dynamite, which is waterproof. He lit the fuse, dropped the dynamite into the sea, and surreptitiously paid the twine out behind the boat until the explosive was positioned somewhere between the Minakovs and their would-be captors.

The dynamite blew up when the ketch was about 100 yards from the kayak. The explosion was loud, and the Minakovs’ pursuers paused. Maybe, Oleg thought, the men feared that they’d encountered an ocean minefield. Even at six, he knew about underwater bombs.

Valeri cut south, into the wind, hoping that the Soviet sailboat would be incapable of following. Waves crashed against the kayak. Valeri and Oleg could see the ketch’s sails—the Soviets were giving chase. Valeri needed speed, so he opened the engine’s throttle and did what he could to lighten the kayak’s load. He threw overboard a pump for draining seawater. He also tossed the jug of drinking water. It was an outrageous move. Surely he knew that he and Oleg could die out on the ocean without any fresh water. But Valeri’s fear of being caught was greater than his fear of fatal dehydration.

Soon the Minakovs had the advantage: The sea became thick with floating spires of ice, and the nimble kayak was able to navigate the obstacle course far better than the ketch. Then came more luck. The wind subsided and a thick fog rolled in, shrouding the ocean and mercifully affording the Minakovs cover. Still, the fog obliged them to slow down lest they slam into an ice floe. In the middle of the sea, another bent propeller could seal their fate. Oleg crouched in the bow, afraid each time the boat came close to a chunk of ice.

Given the circumstances, Valeri adjusted his plan; instead of aiming for the mouth of the Yukon River, he resolved to land in the middle of the strait, on Saint Lawrence Island. Ninety miles long, the island sits on the Alaskan side of the Ice Curtain. At the time, it was home to about 600 people, nearly all of them Native Yupiks.

Before alighting on Saint Lawrence, Valeri stopped at a small, rocky isle nearby. He took out a green tin teapot and filled it with seagull eggs that he found in the crevices between rocks. He would give them as a gift when he and Oleg reached the Yupik settlement. Across the water on Saint Lawrence, four islanders were watching Valeri and Oleg closely. A pair of pale-skinned strangers washing up onshore was a suspect occurrence. The islanders may have feared that the Minakovs were agents of what the U.S. had increasingly come to view as an evil empire. That spring, in the wake of Germany’s surrender, America’s tenuous pact with the Soviet Union had begun unraveling. In June, The New York Times’ military editor, Hanson W. Baldwin, described Soviet foreign policy as “brusque, hard, aggressive, and ruthless.” The Minakovs had steered toward Saint Lawrence at a moment of heightened border security. The United States was also fearful that the Japanese, who had yet to lay down their arms, would invade Alaska to plunder its abundant deposits of platinum, a metal used to make explosives. In more than 100 communities along mainland and island coastlines, volunteer defense squads, many of them Native, stood at the ready, trained and armed by the U.S. military.

The Territorial Guard on Saint Lawrence was almost entirely Yupik. Their base was in the village of Savoonga, and that’s where the Minakovs landed near midnight, some 20 hours after embarking on their journey. Valeri presented his seagull eggs to the guardsmen and managed to pantomime his hatred for Stalin. He also made it clear that if they tried to send him back to Chukotka, he would shoot Oleg and then kill himself.

A schoolteacher named Frank Daugherty was at home in Saint Lawrence’s biggest village, Gambell, on duty as a dispatcher for the Territorial Guard, when news of the Minakovs’ landing crackled over his shortwave radio. Daugherty quickly sent a boat to escort them to Gambell. The journey to Savoonga was 60 miles, over rough seas, and by the time the boat arrived, Oleg was already winning hearts and minds. “The boy wore boots, a winter hat and a sheepskin-lined coat,” Daugherty later wrote in a story for Alaska magazine. “[He] had adjusted quickly and was leading Savoonga youngsters in play.”

Remembering Valeri’s threat, though, the guardsmen exercised caution, separating father and son for the journey back to Gambell. Valeri navigated his own kayak, and Oleg traveled with Dave Evanson, a 24-year-old National Weather Service forecaster from North Dakota who moved to Alaska in 1940, grew his hair out, and spent his off hours making anthropological films of the area. After a full day at sea, some 12 miles shy of Gambell, Evanson beached at a place known as Lester’s Camp for supplies. As he tried shoving the boat back into the water, a large wave upturned it, and Evanson was thrown into the sea. “I dragged him out of the water and pulled him onto the shore,” Oleg later said.

Evanson was capable enough—as a kid, he’d made balsa-wood planes that he flew out of the hayloft in his family’s barn. Now, though, the boat’s engine was drenched, possibly ruined. It couldn’t make the rest of the trip to Gambell. Oleg and Evanson had no way of telling anyone where they were.

There was a shack on the beach where Evanson tried to persuade Oleg to keep warm beneath the reindeer-skin blankets. Oleg refused. Evanson offered the boy sardines. Oleg refused those too, but eventually ate some crackers. For several days and nights, the pair slept on sacks of flour and subsisted on canned food. “We didn’t communicate very much,” Oleg recalled. “I was pretty much on my own.”

Still, Oleg wasn’t scared. He’d been in difficult situations before. “I knew that my papa would eventually come rescue me,” he said. While he waited, Oleg walked on the beach for hours alone.

Sometimes the hum of a U.S. Navy seaplane reached the shack. “We thought someone was looking for us, but we couldn’t see them,” Oleg said. “Every day it was foggy.” One pilot spotted Evanson’s boat, but he couldn’t land—the seas were too rough.

In Gambell, residents were so worried about the fate of Evanson and Oleg that the local Presbyterian church hosted a prayer circle. Valeri had made it to the village, where he was staying with Frank Daugherty. He didn’t know if his son was alive or dead, and he was stressed about his own fate. When Daugherty offered to help return the Minakovs to Chukotka, Valeri responded by writing an imploring note. In the Soviet Union, he pointed out, Oleg would encounter trials worse than “the black forces of hell.” Valeri pleaded, “We could receive life from your hands. Do not turn us over to the state, but rather let us go all the four directions. You can do this.” Eventually, the ocean calmed enough that several Gambell residents were able to make it to Lester’s Camp in a skin kayak, a larger version of the one the Minakovs had made their escape in. They retrieved Evanson and Oleg, and brought the boy to his father. By then, Valeri’s plea for compassion had swayed Daughtery. He helped the Soviet defector apply to the U.S. State Department for asylum.

“We could receive life from your hands. Do not turn us over to the state, but rather let us go all the four directions.

On July 4, 1945, Oleg watched in awe as brave Yupik children marked Independence Day by jumping into the freezing ocean, swimming in the narrow channels of water churning between towers of ice. He went to a feast, took a bite of whale blubber, and vomited.

Valeri, too, exulted in the joys of living in a free and prosperous country. When he laid eyes upon the Daughertys’ porcelain bathtub, he exclaimed, “A-may-rika! A-may-rika!”

But then, on July 12, a ship appeared on the horizon, approaching Gambell, Daugherty wrote, “from the direction of the Russian naval base at Provideniya Bay.” Daugherty hid Valeri in a closet. Oleg was outside playing. Instinctively, he knew that he needed to hide. He ran behind an abandoned building and found a bin with a wooden lid. It was half full of coal. He climbed in, then piled coal atop his head.

The Soviet soldiers’ search was brief—their ship anchored for only a few minutes—but Oleg remained in the coal bin for hours. Several people lifted the lid, but Oleg stayed utterly quiet. At last, Daugherty burrowed down into the bin and found Oleg. He wrote, “Seeing that youngster’s face, I knew the real meaning of bone-chilling fear.”

Still, another threat faced the Minakovs. A week earlier, a U.S. military plane had landed on Saint Lawrence carrying three Army intelligence officers, a Russian interpreter, and an FBI agent. The team would spend three weeks investigating the Minakovs, with the principal mission of interrogating Valeri. They questioned him backward and forward to determine if he was a spy.

The FBI’s file on the Minakovs, which runs to more than 350 pages and is now declassified, reveals that as Valeri told the story of his Bering Strait crossing, his interlocutors decided he wasn’t being “cooperative.” They doubted that an experienced seaman who worked for the Soviet navy would be so rash as to throw his drinking water overboard. They told Valeri that they didn’t believe him. “He was permitted,” the FBI papers read, “to return to his room where for about an hour he walked the floor continuously and appeared to be worrying about something.”

On July 25, the Army plane carried the Minakovs to Anchorage, where the interrogations continued. From there they were flown to Seattle, and briefly detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Oleg recalled being kept in “a small room split in two by a chain-link fence that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. My papa was taken away each morning for questioning, and I’d climb over the gap in the fence, then across to a window well, and spend hours looking out onto the traffic below.

“I didn’t know why I was in jail,” Oleg continued, “and my papa, he’d just walk back and forth in the room gnashing his teeth and smoking cigarettes. He was in his own world.”

PART TWO

Ultimately, according to the FBI file, the “investigation revealed no indication that Subject is an espionage agent.” Not only had the Minakovs survived a perilous journey, they now had a new home: They were permanent residents of the United States.

From the start, Valeri felt like an outsider, especially as he mingled with Seattle’s sizable Russian community. In an August 16, 1945, letter to Frank Daugherty, Valeri said he hoped, working from a distance, that he could help to sink Stalin and his cronies. “I thought that there was a better chance outside the Russian borders,” Valeri wrote, “to work against this Beast which calls itself the Party.” But he was dismayed to find that other Russians in his midst weren’t as concerned with Stalin’s abuses. “The majority of Russians here have lost their identity,” he told Daugherty, referring to their pre-Soviet heritage. “They represent a very convenient material from the midst of which the Bolsheviks may enlist many agents for their dark deeds.”

There was one Russian in Seattle whom Valeri liked: Michael Danilchik, a middle-aged priest at a Russian Orthodox Church called St. Nicholas. Danilchik had overseen the construction of a magnificent cathedral crowned by five gilded domes, and he was a staunch anti-communist—a “rabid monarchist,” as Valeri put it in his letter to Daugherty. When St. Nicholas opened in 1937, Danilchik designated it, according to the church’s website, a “memorial to the martyred Tsar Nicholas II,” killed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918, and to “his Royal Family and all the Russian soldiers and people who died defending their faith, tsar and country.”

Danilchik believed that Orthodox leaders in Russia had lost their way, consorting with godless Communists, and he was intent on sustaining a proud Orthodox community in Seattle. He helped many Russian newcomers settle in the city, including Valeri. “He is a kindly man,” Valeri wrote to Daugherty. “He took me to his house … and found me a job.” Valeri worked as a mechanic in a garage.

But Valeri was not destined to stay long at the $1.38-an-hour gig. Daugherty had a sister who lived 180 miles southeast of Seattle, in Washington’s dry, sparsely populated wheat country. Mabel Upton ran a Seventh Day Adventist nursing home out of her house in the tiny town of Mabton. She and her husband, William, invited the Minakovs to stay for a while. The seemingly endless fields around the Uptons’ place bore similarities to Valeri’s native Ukraine. So the Minakovs moved out there, and Valeri, who spoke almost no English, landed a succession of low-paying jobs—as a farmhand, for instance, and as a maintenance man pruning trees that obstructed electrical wires.

What Valeri couldn’t account for in deciding to move was how Danilchik, the priest, would react. Secretly, Danilchik was an FBI informant. In 1948, he advised the FBI to keep a close watch on Valeri—his basement apartment at the Uptons’ was close to the Hanford Site, home of the world’s first full-scale plutonium reactor.

The FBI was by now a large and powerful operation. Its roster of secret agents had quintupled between 1940 and 1945, and they were focused on disrupting a robust network of Soviet spies infiltrating the American military-industrial complex, where they could take notes on U.S. war plans, airplane manufacturing, and radar use. But “the number one objective of Soviet espionage,” according to a 1945 report by the FBI, was nuclear-bomb construction.

Was Valeri complicit in this covert effort? He’d moved out to Mabton “without any apparent good reason,” according to FBI records, and he was odd and nervous. Though the agency had no evidence that Valeri was engaged in espionage, paranoia was in the air. It was during the summer of 1948 that Alger Hiss, a government official, found himself sitting in the U.S. Capitol building, facing interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had accused him of being a Soviet spy. 

On July 1, a telephone operator advised the FBI that someone in the Upton home had placed a call to a Russian man named “Civinsky” in Seattle. Adam Tsvinsky would soon become Valeri’s housemate. Quite possibly the two men had discussed how they might split the light bill, but the agency sensed a Bolshevik conspiracy. In mid-August, six federal agents descended on Mabton to track Valeri for four days. From the hayloft of a neighbor’s barn, they recorded his quotidian movements:

8/14/48, 7:05 pm. Subject drove into the yard; got out of car; talked to small boy, possibly his son; both entered house through basement door.

The surveillance log revealed the movements of a lonely man. One night Valeri drove to a movie theater and sat in the back alone, dressed in a dark blue sport coat, a white shirt, brown gabardine slacks, and maroon suede shoes. After the film he went to a bar. “Subject drank one glass of beer,” an agent noted in his report. “Subject was not observed talking to anyone in theater or tavern.”

Amid cresting anti-communist fervor, Valeri’s neighbors seemed more than happy to facilitate the FBI’s furtive sniffing. They offered the agents housing, supplied them with roosts for spying, and shared everything they knew about Valeri’s incoming mail. Even Frank Daugherty handed over to the bureau the heartfelt letters Valeri had written to him on Saint Lawrence.

It’s unlikely Valeri knew of these betrayals, but as the FBI trailed his 1938 Oldsmobile Tudor, he drove as though he was aware of—and perhaps haunted by—his observers. “On one occasion,” the report noted, he “pulled off to the side and parked his car ninety degrees to the highway and appeared to be observing the passing traffic.” He drove “erratically,” making “many unnecessary turns and changing directions for seemingly no cause.”

Valeri surely sensed the distrust swirling about him. He had survived Stalin’s Russia—he was a connoisseur of paranoia, a man who’d come stateside to escape dark suspicion and ominous innuendo. Now it was descending upon him again, and he could only bear so much.

Amid cresting anti-communist fervor, Valeri’s neighbors seemed more than happy to facilitate the FBI’s furtive sniffing.

In 1949, Valeri told a doctor that bearded men were “coming into his room and hypnotizing him,” according to one medical report. “He thought that people were poisoning his food and that there were tappings in his room all the time.” The Uptons reported that “he would often go outdoors and sit half a day just staring into space.” At times he would cry out, “Evil forces are working against me!”

To Oleg, Valeri described his persecutors as “men in black suits.” Whenever he sensed that they were closing in, he’d direct Oleg to sprint away from him and hide until Valeri felt that the threat was gone. Sometimes Oleg found himself crouched in a meadow or ditch for hours.

On other occasions, Valeri and Oleg went for walks in the Horse Heaven Hills outside Mabton. But they didn’t bond. In fact, father and son could scarcely communicate: Soon after Oleg’s arrival in America, he’d all but forgotten how to speak Russian. Oleg would play by himself in the high grass as Valeri sat a good distance away on a rock, smoking.

There were days when Valeri raved about wanting to return to the Soviet Union to kill Stalin, and others when he became convinced that Stalinist agents were in his orbit. On June 30, 1949, he showed up at the FBI’s Seattle office to insist that Michael Danilchik wasn’t the royalist Orthodox priest he claimed to be, but the leader of a vast conspiracy in which Seattle-based Russians obligingly spied for the Bolsheviks. In April 1950, Valeri visited his old housemate Adam Tsvinsky. He was there, ostensibly, to pick up a lamp and a record player, but he arrived, Tsvinsky wrote to a King County prosecuting attorney, “intending to kill me.” In his letter, which he copied to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Tsvinsky explained, “In the moment when Minakov lifted his hand to strike me, I succeeded escaping to a neighbour.”

Two months later, Valeri’s search for employment brought him to far eastern Washington. In the town of Ritzville, his car broke down. He abandoned the vehicle and walked toward the nearest farmhouse, carrying “a pipe and a knife,” according to his FBI file. A farmer suspected Valeri was “prowling,” and when the police arrived Valeri insisted that his car had been stolen, though it was sitting nearby. On account of what the FBI called “peculiar behavior,” the police ushered Valeri to the Ritzville jail. There he tore his metal cot from its concrete mooring and rammed it against the cell door repeatedly. He threatened to kill his jailers, and “it took several attendants to subdue him,” according to a record of the incident. The attendants had to use teargas to do so.

Within hours, Valeri was transferred to the Washington State Mental Hospital at Medical Lake, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He would reside in the institution for the next 17 years.

There were days when Valeri raved about wanting to return to the Soviet Union to kill Stalin, and others when he became convinced Stalinist agents were in his orbit.

Like many other mental hospitals of that era, Medical Lake was founded on the belief in “moral treatment”—the idea that fresh air and graceful architecture could cure the mentally ill. The waters of the facility’s namesake lake were supposed to be salubrious, but there’s a reason Ken Kesey wrote his 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and why so many state hospitals closed soon after it was published: In the mid-20th century, these institutions became nightmarish places where extreme procedures like lobotomy trumped humane treatment, and where patients were usually presumed defective, degenerate, or dangerous.

When Valeri lived at Medical Lake, there were about 2,000 patients packed into a single overcrowded brick building. Concertina wire sat atop the fences separating residents from the outside world. The lake itself was off-limits, and Valeri’s doctors often refused to let him see visitors, fearing that social contact would be too much for his fragile nerves.

When Danilchik traveled to Medical Lake to see Valeri in 1953, the staff turned him away. And when Oleg accompanied Mabel Upton, by now his foster mother, to the hospital, he was obliged to wait in the car while she checked on Valeri. “I felt guilty that I couldn’t help him,” Oleg said. “I cried a lot.” In 1951, when he was 13, Oleg wrote a letter to Valeri’s doctors asking, “When do you think he’ll be better? Sure is bad you know when you just got one papa and no one else.” He also wrote to his father, but Mabel insisted on editing these letters, to ensure that they contained nothing that would upset Valeri. “This caused me to feel helpless,” Oleg said, “to the point that I did not know what to write.”

At school Oleg got called a “dirty commie.” But he considered himself an American now, and he saw the Cold War through an American lens. With his foster brother, Tommy Upton, he perfected the “Stalin salute,” which involved urinating such that the liquid traced a high arc through the air, a sarcastic homage to Stalin’s round belly.

Oleg grew up to be tall and dashing, with an easy grin. He could strip down and rebuild cars with ease, and would often wheel around in a stylish vehicle—like the 1949 Ford sedan he stole from outside a movie theater one evening. He was gentle and well-liked at school. Girls loved him.

Oleg put almost no effort into his studies. He dropped out of the 11th grade and got in several scrapes with the cops for drinking and joyriding. He was hardworking—whenever the Uptons asked him to help with the harvest or fix the hay baler, he did so eagerly—but he lacked direction and drive. It was as though he were still that kid out on the Bering Strait, bobbing along without any control over where he was headed.

At age 18, a local cop threatened Oleg with trouble unless he joined the Navy. He enlisted but routinely slept through his alarm and was late to muster. Oleg would eventually explain his waywardness by saying, “I wanted freedom, just like my papa.” Still, there was a vacant quality to his life. In his early twenties, Oleg worked in Seattle, making copies at an insurance agency, and hosted huge parties attended by the stylish young women earning their credentials at a local hairstyling school. He got stoned and watched Star Trek on eight TVs at once. Sometimes, when he did drugs, he wept as he thought about Valeri. “He missed his dad,” explained Noelle Barton, a former romantic partner of Oleg’s. “He would talk about his dad all the time. That’s why he became a pothead, I think—to numb that interiority.”

While Oleg drifted, Valeri suffered. “He does not talk very often,” one doctor wrote in 1955. “He is odd and mean and suspicious and from time to time irritable.” A 1956 medical report reads, “It is impossible to tell whether he is delusional.” Another, from 1966, states, “It is doubtful if he could ever qualify for release from the hospital.”

Oleg saw Valeri only once in his adult life. It was 1961, and Oleg found his father locked in a large cage at Medical Lake. Valeri’s manner was subdued, but during the brief visit he seethed at his son, the muscles in his jaws rippling. “Why haven’t you helped me?” Valeri asked. “Why have you done nothing to get me out of this place?” Afterward, the superintendent of the hospital, Harris F. Bunnell, joined a social worker in sending Oleg a letter that blamed him for Valeri’s cool contempt. “It is our feeling,” the two men wrote, “that such a reception was the result of the long time in which he had not heard from you.”

PART THREE

It’s October 2021, and I’m in San Rafael, California, where the weather has been dry for weeks. Parched leaves rustle across the pavement, and a warm breeze brushes the hotel patio where I’m sitting in the sun, finishing lunch. I’m waiting for Oleg Minakov.

In 1966, as the hippie era was blossoming, Oleg emigrated to San Francisco in a pink Lincoln convertible, accompanied by his new wife, a Swede. He has been in California ever since. His first job was as a bouncer at the Red Balloon, a nightclub in North Beach. Later, he procured weed for Carlos Santana, then became the equipment manager for the psychedelic rock band the Charlatans, whose members dressed in the dandyish, late-nineteenth-century style of Oscar Wilde. In time, after divorcing the Swede, he moved into a hippie commune called Olompali. The Grateful Dead visited frequently, and the community’s founder and financier, Don McCoy, once decided, while tripping on acid, that he was a Messiah destined to bring “peace, love, and understanding” to the Western world.

Oleg is 83 now, and over the past six months he and I have been talking over the phone about his Bering Strait crossing and the years that followed. It’s been a slow process. Oleg has Parkinson’s disease, which can affect speech and mobility. Sometimes while talking to me, he’ll halt for a second or two mid-sentence as his synapses steady. He’s forthcoming in our conversations, however, and neither self-aggrandizing nor excessively humble, inclined to answer questions both bluntly and thoughtfully.

“What do you know about your dad’s ancestry?” I asked him once.

“Nothing.”

“You survived Stalin. You survived the Bering Strait. How do you make sense of that?”

“If I were going to write a book about it, I’d call it A Flock of Angels. Because I wouldn’t have made it unless there were a flock of angels taking care of me.”

Today, Oleg is running late for our meeting. It’s a complicated weekend for him. Usually, he lives at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, 75 minutes north of where I’m staying. But for the past two days he’s been in Marin County visiting a friend: Anna-lisa Smoker, a 58-year-old singer-songwriter with whom he enjoys a deep connection that is at once platonic and stormy. Smoker is busy tonight, so Oleg has booked a room at my hotel. He will be, in effect, under my watch. It’s a decidedly tenuous arrangement.

Oleg seems destined to an old age steeped in uncertainty. His whole life has been unstable. Before his diagnosis, he spent 35 years scraping by as a handyman, building stone walls and fixing cars. He still believes “peyote can make you one with God,” and in 1992 he got caught selling acid, which led to a six-month stay in prison. Julie Lanzarin, his romantic partner from the 1970s through the early nineties, remembers when DEA agents raided their home. “My eight-year-old son, Tahan, had to watch his dad have a gun put to his head,” she told me.

When Smoker finally arrives with Oleg at the hotel in her vintage red Mustang, he is lean and white haired and somewhat stooped. He’s holding his hands out in front of him, protectively, as those with Parkinson’s often do. He has brought a trash bag stuffed with clothes and a large watermelon. We proceed into the hotel, Oleg shuffling along in a pair of very worn moccasin slippers. When we enter his room—the Captain’s Room, it’s called—he rejoices over the skylight and the clawfoot bathtub. “This place is far out!” he exclaims.

It’s hard to convey how much I like Oleg in this moment. Despite his troubles, he speaks with joie de vivre, in the Haight-Ashbury vernacular circa 1967. His life, which has always been the stuff of novels, still seems governed by absurdity. Why, for instance, is he in possession of a watermelon? Why wouldn’t he be, it seems, is the real question. Oleg and I sit down to carve it.

Oleg tells me how, decades ago, as he battled something akin to dyslexia, he devised what he calls an “earth alphabet,” which integrates both Latin and Greek letters and runs to more than 200 characters. Oleg devised it phonetically, to facilitate easy reading, and around 1970 the alphabet afforded him a sliver of fame. Some member of the Grateful Dead—Oleg can’t remember which one—tacked a scroll with the earth alphabet on it to the wall of his home. In 1985, Oleg wrote in an unpublished memoir that he hoped it would “unify the different languages of the earth,” and thereby meet his father’s wish to “prove that there can be one good Russian … who could do something good to make the world a better place to live in.”

Soon, Oleg is singing the earth alphabet for me. He rolls into it by humming theatrically for a full ten seconds, breaking into a jazz scat, and then finally beginning: “Ay east west and go chest…”

When he’s finished, our conversation circles back to Valeri. Oleg zeroes in on the moment at the orphanage when he sat in Stalin’s lap. “In my subconscious awareness, my papa was in back of me that day, like a shadow, observing everything,” he says. “The shadow has always been there. As I’m talking to you, I can visualize him. He’s there, asking that I be a righteous person.”

Oleg regrets his failure to liberate his father from the state hospital. When he was living at the Olompali commune, he tells me, he wanted to bring Valeri there. It was an impractical idea. Olompali, named after a combination of Miwok terms meaning something like “southern village,” was chaotic and often unsafe. In February 1969, the primitive wiring in the commune’s main building caught fire, and the place burned to the ground. That June two preschool girls, unsupervised and riding tricycles at the edge of a swimming pool, fell in and drowned.

Still, as Oleg and I talk, he seems convinced that it would have worked, if only he’d called Medical Lake sooner. “I blame myself for not getting him out of there,” he tells me. “It still breaks my heart.”

At the end of the night, as I’m about to retire to my room, Oleg instructs me to turn on his TV. “I always sleep with it on,” he says. “When it’s off, I think about how I never got my papa out of prison.” There’s a six-inch step up to the bathroom in Oleg’s room, and all night I’m concerned he’ll trip on it. At around 3 a.m., I shamble downstairs to check on him. He’s sleeping soundly, snoring away. The TV is still on.

I’m not the only one charmed by Oleg. Julie Lanzarin remains in his life some three decades after they separated. On my second day in California, she picks me and Oleg up for a dinner outing.

Lanzarin is 63. She was once a high school basketball star; she scored 59 points in a single game. Now she works as a coach at a private school. She is a jaunty and practical person. It was Lanzarin who found Oleg refuge in the Veterans Home, Lanzarin who helped me secure Valeri’s psychiatric records. Valeri’s green teapot—the one in which he collected seagull eggs near Saint Lawrence in 1945—along with Oleg’s immigration papers, sit in Lanzarin’s storage closet.

Oleg and Lanzarin met when she came to Olompali at age ten. Six years later, in 1974, her parents went AWOL—her mother was lost to a religious group, her father to alcohol and a second family in New Mexico. Oleg, a longtime family friend, invited her to live with him. The ensuing romance wasn’t appropriate by any measure—nor was it legal—but what Lanzarin remembers is Oleg’s tender supportiveness. “He took care of me,” she says, “and when I talked about dropping out of school, he pushed me. I didn’t have anybody else.” They were together for more than 15 years.

When Oleg was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Lanzarin knew that it was her turn to care for him. Now she’s the one who worries. “Look at where he’s ended up,” she says to me one afternoon—meaning, in a nursing home with no family around him.

Lanzarin never met Valeri, of course, but she knows his story, knows that there’s no record of any other little Soviet boy who defected to America via the Bering Strait. “Valeri risked his life to get Oleg to the U.S.,” she says, “and I think he was hoping that his son would become, I don’t know, an engineer. I don’t think that Oleg thinks of himself as that one good Russian.”

The next day, Lanzarin and I drive Oleg back to the Veterans Home in Yountville. Parkinson’s is laying him low. He’s sulky, unresponsive. “I already told you too much,” he says at one point.

As we drive north, Lanzarin is sweet with Oleg, reciting a list of the old cars he’d fixed up for her. “And then there was that Saab that couldn’t go in reverse,” she says.

When we reach Yountville, we make a quick stop so that Lanzarin can help Oleg buy some new moccasins. Oleg is monosyllabic during the process. But there is something charming, I decide, even about his orneriness. It’s skin-deep, and calls to mind a petulant child. Oleg’s ex Noelle Barton summed him up when she told me, “He is a kind, simple person. He’s stubborn, but he has no personal greed, no envy.”

As we drive through downtown Yountville, Oleg keeps brooding, so Lanzarin teases him in tender tones. “Oh Oleg,” she says, “your dad put you in a little kayak and took you to a different country and then disappeared. No wonder you are riddled with problems!”

On the lawn outside the Veterans Home, before Oleg goes inside, Lanzarin gives him a haircut. I watch as his white, wispy locks flutter over the grass in the wind.

When eventually we approach the back entrance to Oleg’s building, he insists on getting himself inside without help. The last time I see him, he is pushing a wheelchair loaded with all his stuff down a long linoleum-floored hallway. He’s weaving a bit, stumbling some in his new moccasins, but still moving forward.

In this manner, the voyage continues.

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The Shadow and The Ghost

The Shadow and The Ghost


A woman who called herself Reverend Mother claimed that she could perform miracles. The price was her followers’ adoration and obedience—and in some cases their lives.


By Christine Grimaldi

The Atavist Magazine, No. 123


Christine Grimaldi lives in Washington, D.C., where she covers reproductive rights and policy and writes essays about history and culture. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Vice, Self, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Dame, The Rumpus, and other publications. She tweets at @chgrimaldi.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Naomi Sharp

Published in January 2022.


1.

Jennie Otranto slept on the same floors that she scrubbed clean. She was the Lord’s humble servant, too intimidated to ask her employer, the woman she called Reverend Mother, for a spare bedroom. Unlike the innkeeper in the story of Christ’s birth, Reverend Mother had ample space, especially compared with her parishioners, who lived in packed row houses and cold-water flats that rattled to the roll of Brooklyn’s elevated trains. Reverend Mother never even offered her maid a blanket. Jennie made do with her own coat and a small rug—if her minister-turned-master’s Scottish terrier and Siamese cat relinquished a favorite sleeping spot.

Come morning, Jennie shook out her coat and any fur that stuck to it. She smoothed the wrinkles left overnight in her clothes. Her scallop-edged top and skirt are crisp in a black-and-white photo old enough to be from her domestic tenure. In one hand, she clutches a box of Super Suds detergent, perhaps to wash dinner remnants off Reverend Mother’s plates or clothes—the brand’s tagline was “floods o’ suds for dishes and duds.” A fistful of Jennie’s hair is coiled around a barrette pinned just above her forehead, while the rest falls to her shoulders. The dark circles under her eyes seem to give the truth away: Jennie is a profile in exhaustion.

The circumstances of her employment amounted to forced labor. According to the 1940 census, 22-year-old Jennie earned $650 a year as a maid, and 54-year-old Reverend Mother made nothing as a pastor—a double-barreled lie meant to protect the person who told it. Jennie reaped no earthly rewards under the arrangement reached about a decade earlier between her mother, Serafina, and Reverend Mother. A friend had told Serafina about a woman who performed miracles out of a Pentecostal storefront church on 69th Street, also called Bay Ridge Avenue. It seemed as if only miracles could soothe Serafina’s arthritic joints, which confined the 40-something mother of six to bed for weeks at a time. So she went to the church, which largely drew from Brooklyn’s Italian immigrant enclave of Bensonhurst. As many as 200 self-proclaimed “full believers” sought cameos in Reverend Mother’s prayers and remedies from her “holy napkins,” pieces of cloth she anointed with oil over which she’d prayed. Reverend Mother preached that no other church in the world understood the Bible like La Cappella dei Miracoli (the Chapel of Miracles) did. And make no mistake: She was the church.

Reverend Mother expected full believers to pay for her grace, one way or another. Like many church leaders, she cited Bible verses to justify collecting a 10 percent tithe from her followers’ poverty-level wages. She went a step further, commissioning “scouts” to find families tending to dying relatives so that she could pray with them—and claim 10 percent on the relatives’ wills. But nothing was ever enough for Reverend Mother, and she levied the first of many egregious tolls on Serafina’s family around 1930. “After a while she had a stronger hold on us,” Jennie later wrote, “and decided that I should go live with her as her maid.” Serafina agreed. She considered her eldest daughter a gift to God.

Jennie’s delivery into involuntary servitude marked the end of her formal education. Eighth grade was as far as she’d go. Reverend Mother squeezed everything she could out of Jennie and her family. She once instructed Jennie to pull her mother aside after a church service to discuss Serafina’s life insurance policy. “Tell her, ‘Mom, God was good to you, why don’t you cash that policy and give the money to Reverend Mother?’ Letting it sound like it came from me,” Jennie recalled. The Great Depression plunged Jennie’s parents into darkness more than once when they couldn’t pay their electricity bill. Still, Serafina gave Reverend Mother the $200 or $250 her insurance policy was worth.

Teenage Jennie cleaned, cooked, and worshiped without complaint, but by the early 1940s, after a period in which she was sent back to her family, only to be enlisted as an unpaid maid again when it suited Reverend Mother, the twentysomething version of Jennie had to be stopped from testing the limits of her employer’s power. “As time wore on living under these conditions my patience was waning. One day, I don’t remember what happened. I might have answered her abruptly,” Jennie wrote. “She happened to have a metal can in her hand and banged it on my head.”

The can sliced into Jennie’s scalp. She pressed a Turkish towel to her head, but its fibers couldn’t absorb the blood flowing through her hair and down her neck. “Reverend Mother saw all this but did not try to help or even care,” Jennie wrote. “I then left her home without saying a word.”

It was nighttime. Where would she sleep? Grown women in Brooklyn often lived with their families until marriage, but Jennie’s parents would offer no refuge. Her father, Frank, was even more devoted to Reverend Mother than Serafina was. Reverend Mother regularly dispatched him to the homes of delinquent parishioners. “I would go and ask them how they felt and why they did not come to church,” he later told authorities. Jennie feared her father would force—or beat—her back into servitude. “Having no place to go, I rode the trains all night,” Jennie wrote.

The next morning, she went to see Serafina. Jennie mentioned only that she and Reverend Mother had had a “misunderstanding.” What happened next sounds a lot like love bombing—the showering of appreciation by abusers, narcissists, and cult leaders to overwhelm a target’s resistance. “When Reverend Mother realized where I was, she called and sweet talked me into going back,” Jennie wrote. “Why wouldn’t she? She missed having a good free maid.”

Jennie returned to work, but only in body. Her soul was her own. Reverend Mother, it seemed, had reached the limit of her power.

Reverend Mother preached that no other church in the world understood the Bible like La Cappella dei Miracoli did. And make no mistake: She was the church.

Nanny picked me up from elementary school every day of my childhood on Staten Island. The moms of my classmates idled outside their cars, gossiping. Nanny was the only grandmother in the crowd. We met each other with hugs and kisses, and our ride home never began until we raced to see whether Nanny’s automatic seat belt, a fixture of some 1990s cars, would cinch into place before I could latch my manual strap in the back seat. I inevitably won, but the thrill of my victory was never tainted by any agony of her defeat on her part. Nanny celebrated my safety.

Among my few after-school obligations were the weekly catechism classes that would rub off like a temporary tattoo once I got older. Nanny waited in her silver Toyota Camry while I was taught Catholicism’s particular brand of shame. She also took me to borrow books from the Great Kills Library, and to buy Archie comics at a store kitty-corner from a Sedutto ice cream shop. Occasionally, on the way home, we stopped by Dazzle Cleaners, where my parents, Nanny’s son and daughter-in-law, sweated as many as 14 hours a day, six days a week. But Mom and Dad preferred I stay away from their business, especially in the summer months, when the boilers spiked the heat index in the store, making it a sauna with none of the health benefits.

Home was in the Honey Bee Condominiums behind the Staten Island Mall. There, Nanny and I settled into our afternoon routines, starting with homework. I recited my vocabulary words, and she paged through a dictionary for the corresponding definitions. I wrote short stories, only remembering to cram in the assigned words at the end, while Nanny wrapped breaded chicken cutlets around cubes of mozzarella (mutzadell in Brooklynese) or formed tiny meatballs for minestrone soup. She could also put together a solid kids’ menu whenever my best friends, Andrea and Jen, came over to cosplay Buffy the Vampire Slayer with fake wooden stakes or Clueless with our teddy-bear backpacks. We loved Nanny’s English muffin pizzas with homemade sauce and her grilled cheese sandwiches made with Kraft Singles.

Depending on their nightly ETA, we ate dinner with one or both of my parents. Mom and Dad worked harder and longer than I ever have, or will, to fuel the last segment of their white flight from Brooklyn to Staten Island to New Jersey, a path worn by many Italian Americans before them. Living with my long-widowed paternal grandmother for six months was supposed to help our little family save for a house in the suburbs. We stayed for seven years.

From the time I was five through the summer after my twelfth birthday, Nanny was a constant in my life. I never missed one of her Saturday morning beauty parlor appointments at the Staten Island Mall. Weekday mornings, she power walked through the mall’s corridors with her septuagenarian friends. I gave Nanny a set of one-pound pink weights that she pumped through the Cinnabon-scented air, and during summer vacations I’d join the group now and then for a bialy in the food court. On many afternoons and evenings, fueled by homemade rugelach or pound cake, I was dealt in to card games with Nanny’s friends at our dining room table. Other nights, just the two of us, Nanny and I played round after round of Rummikub, the tile game that “brings people together.”

Oftentimes we snuggled on the den sofa to watch our shows: General Hospital bleeding into Oprah, and The Golden Girls in perpetual syndication. The sofa contained the folded-up mattress where Nanny slept after insisting that my parents take the only bedroom in her condo. It was there that we wore out The Goonies, Home Alone, and the rest of my VHS collection, supplementing them with Lifetime melodramas and the classics starring Audrey or Katharine Hepburn. On Friday nights, I’d curl into Nanny for an hour of Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters. We were devoted to the golden era of 20/20, and to each other. “You’re my shadow,” Nanny would say.

Our bedtime routine was an exercise in role reversal: I tucked Nanny in with many kisses and traced the sign of the cross on her papery forehead, smoothing the wrinkles up, down, left, right, with my thumb. She smelled of Noxzema and hair spray. After I lay down in my bed in the windowless nook next to the den, I often snuck back into Nanny’s room, drawing close to check that she was still breathing. She was a generation older than my friends’ grandmothers. My copy of Claudia and the Sad Good-bye, the Baby-Sitters Club book about the death of the protagonist’s beloved grandmother, Mimi, was my only guide for navigating the inevitable.

My parents and I moved to New Jersey in 1998, and Nanny took over the sofa bed in our new house about five years later. We both had senioritis: I was 18, and she was 86. I was filling out college applications as her health was declining, due largely to congestive heart failure. Claudia and the Sad Good-bye was still wedged between the more mature literature on my bookshelf the night an ambulance arrived at our house. Something was wrong with Nanny. “Bring the living will!” she yelled at Dad as the medics prepared to take her to the hospital. Mom stayed behind and tried to prepare me for the worst. In a big teenage mood, I sobbed as much to drown her out as from sadness. Nanny was not going to die that night if I had anything to do with it.

I didn’t, of course, but she lived anyway. My teenage hubris validated, I made a deal with Nanny: She just had to make it to my college graduation. In retrospect, it was a cringeworthy framing her chronic illness as a battle to be won or lost. Yet Nanny’s health improved. We had four more years of summer vacations, secrets, and frank discussions about politics and sexuality. Nanny watched me take my first dose of birth control, and she opposed the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion teachings long before I rejected them. She was the most open-minded adult in my culturally conservative young life, which isn’t to say she was perfect. Though she never used the N-word or its Italian-American stand-in, derived from the word for eggplant, she occasionally toggled between color-blind and coded racism, which I in turn absorbed. She believed that in his twenties my father had lost out on a job because of affirmative action, though in truth Dad probably wasn’t qualified for the position, with his two semesters of college and a life that revolved around hanging out in bars and on street corners, where the police never bothered him and his friends.

I wish Nanny and I had discussed the things we were wrong about and why. But there wouldn’t be time. Nanny’s lungs started filling with liquid during the last semester of my senior year of college. I brought my cap and gown home so we could re-create the graduation ceremony she was too weak to attend. She died five months later, on October 14, 2008.

I had dreaded Nanny’s death for so long that when it happened, it didn’t seem real. I never cried. Tears flowed from small disappointments in newsroom jobs and from bigger ones I dated in my early twenties. It was easier to feel gutted over someone I thought was my soul mate than to recognize that my soul mate had come and gone.


I knew that Nanny and her younger siblings shared secrets. I had caught the occasional whisper about abuse: physical, emotional, spiritual. Then, a few years after Nanny died, I learned that these dark memories had been committed to paper.

At my great-uncle Joey’s urging, his three sisters had joined him in writing testimonials about their childhood. Late in life, Joey left Catholicism for an evangelical church and gave the testimonials to a fellow parishioner, who in turn produced a short, spiral-bound book called “Bazaar [sic] but True.” Apparently, Joey believed I could do a better job with the story the book told. He approached my mom about it before I left for college. She told him it was too much for me then, but I’d tell the story eventually. Later, when I started a graduate program in creative nonfiction, my dad’s cousin Patricia gave me copies of the testimonials.

In looping, spindly script, the documents revealed that, while I may have been Nanny’s shadow, she also had a ghost. Nanny, whose real name was Genevieve “Jennie” Grimaldi, née Otranto, was haunted her whole life by the specter of Josephine Carbone, a woman as cruel as she was charismatic. Carbone was better known, to both her followers and her critics, as Reverend Mother.

Nanny and I had talked about everything else—why not this? I summoned a memory, a Turkish towel soaked with blood, an echo from a phone conversation in a nearby room. My childhood instinct had been to file away such things instead of asking Nanny about them. But even if I had asked, I don’t know that she would have had the heart to tell me the truth.

A decade after Nanny died, I quit my latest journalism job, in no small part to investigate what happened to the love of my life. The testimonials were the starting point. With government records and newspaper clippings, the memories of the few churchgoers who are still alive and the descendants of those who aren’t, I pieced together the narrative of Reverend Mother’s rise to power and her eventual downfall. I learned the stories of families who, like the Otrantos, were all but destroyed by La Cappella dei Miracoli. In studying the one chapter of my grandmother’s life she never shared with me, I found a sense of purpose.

Nanny may have been shielding me from her pain, but in doing so she also gave me a final gift. Her secret was my inheritance.

From top: Reverend Mother’s naturalization records; La Cappella dei Miracoli (courtesy Municipal Archives, City of New York); Jennie Otranto.

2.

Screams rose in Lucia Della Contrada’s throat the morning of February 3, 1886, as she labored to deliver a child. She had little to offer another son and even less to a daughter. Her husband, Antonio Stabile—pronounced “stah-bee-lay”—was a peasant farmer in Frasso Telesino, a small comune located some 25 miles and a world away from the greater Campania region’s capital city, Naples. Poor farmers like Antonio, known as contadini, rarely had land of their own—they worked the estates of absentee landlords.

Class resentment was flourishing in the new Kingdom of Italy, established in 1861, at the height of a bloody unification movement, the Risorgimento. Cooked up in the north, the Risorgimento compressed various sovereign entities into a kind of geographical forcemeat approximating the shape of a boot. The kingdom left a bad aftertaste in the hungry mouths of the Italian south, the Mezzogiorno often racialized and eroticized in popular culture. Some Europeans still whisper about their continent ending at Naples—“Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa,” the saying goes. Armed with calipers, the late 19th-century pseudoscientist Cesare Lombroso, who hailed from fair Verona, measured what he believed was an innate potential for delinquency in physical characteristics common to southern Italians. “Born criminal,” he declared.

This was the cold world that Lucia and Antonio’s child entered at nine o’clock that February morning. It was a girl. They named her Maria Giuseppa Stabile.

Vital records offer little more than proof of Maria’s existence. They are the stars in the constellation of a life, the shape of which I can only approximate. One record indicates that Maria grew up an only child. What happened to Vincenzo, born three and a half years before her, and Giovanna, who came along in 1889? A birth certificate can’t reveal whether Lucia scolded or comforted Maria through tummy aches from eating too many sun-warmed grapes, or whether Maria’s grandmothers—Clementina on papa’s side, Giuliana on mamma’s—ever sang her lullabies as lyrical as their names.

Maria was six when southern brigands rebelled against various municipalities and the national government that conspired to tax them into the ground. Perhaps Antonio and Lucia joined their ranks with homemade weapons. Almost certainly they prayed to God to get them through each day. Many contadini practiced a Catholic faith far removed from that of the gilded Vatican. For peasant women especially, spiritualism was an intimate source of agency, a venue for the quiet defiance of patriarchal institutions. Women built home altars that incorporated the Virgin Mary and the saints. Women laid their specific needs—bountiful harvests, rebel victories, healthy births, safe abortions—at the feet of the beatified, imitating their ancestors’ ritual offerings to pagan gods and goddesses. Many paintings and statues rendered the Virgin Mary with olive skin to match her supplicants’ hands. Some southern Italians worshipped La Madonna Nera (the Black Madonna).

The holy trinity of anti-authoritarianism, regionalism, and spiritualism would have influenced Maria as she grew up. She never went to school. In 1905, she wed Alfonso Baccanale, a neighboring farmer’s son, 25 to her 19. A stillbirth and an infant who died at three months followed. In 1909, the couple decided to sail to America. They joined the contadini pouring into Italy’s salt-flecked Mediterranean ports, eager to set out for Brazil, Argentina, and the United States. Poverty wages from laying tracks, digging coal, hemming pants, and hammering soles in the new world, these emigrants hoped, would amount to more than they’d ever reaped from the old.

The Baccanales’ union either didn’t survive the transatlantic journey or ended abruptly after, and what transpired doesn’t seem to have been a mutual parting of ways. When she later petitioned for American citizenship, Maria claimed that, after reaching the port of New York on September 30, 1909, she never lived with Alfonso. “Shortly after their arrival, she was informed by her father that Baccanale had returned to Italy,” her paperwork states. “She commenced to live with one Philip Carbone and in 1910 a child was born.”

Based on baby Caterina’s date of birth, Maria could have conceived her with Alfonso on their voyage from Italy, or immediately thereafter with Philip, who still went by Filippo in those days. Either way, Filippo gave the infant his last name, and he and Maria eventually married in a 1919 civil ceremony in Brooklyn. Maria Giuseppa Baccanale officially became Giuseppina Carbone without divorcing her first husband or disclosing his existence to Brooklyn’s deputy city clerk.

There was a sole witness at the wedding: Mildred Zollo. More than a name on a vital record, Mildred, whose mother was Sister Josephine Zollo, a Brooklyn preacher, stands as the first evidence that the new Mrs. Carbone had crossed another ocean, a spiritual one. She had left the folk Catholicism of southern Italy for Pentecostalism, an American creation she would soon transform into something uniquely her own.

Women laid their specific needs—bountiful harvests, rebel victories, healthy births, safe abortions—at the feet of the beatified, imitating their ancestors’ ritual offerings to pagan gods and goddesses.

How does a false prophet rise to power?

In 1919 Brooklyn, Giuseppina Carbone is another racially suspect “dark white” immigrant with empty pockets and waning faith in the indifferent-to-hostile ’merigan Catholic Church. The staid Irish priests don’t want to hear about mysticism—the nerve of these “guineas” to worship La Madonna Nera when everyone knows the Virgin Mary is as white as fresh Irish cream! Being southern Italian is the original sin that can’t be baptized away, even when Giuseppina and Filippo christen their two-year-old daughter at Our Lady of Loreto, the rare Brooklyn Catholic church built by and for Italian immigrants.

Filippo is a laborer making $1.50 a day. Like many immigrant women, Giuseppina takes on piecework, in her case paid by the buttonhole. At least she works from home rather than in a tinderbox of a factory. Not long ago, on a clear, cold day in March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 garment workers in Manhattan. Giuseppina resembles the mostly Italian and Jewish teenagers and young women who jumped to their deaths to escape the smoke or succumbed inside the factory’s locked doors, a so-called loss-prevention measure. She is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and just five feet tall. Her daughter may soon eclipse her. At almost nine years old, Caterina—“Catherine, Mamma!”—can read and write English, courtesy of P.S. 178.

Giuseppina cannot expect much from life, until she hears Sister Josephine Zollo’s Italian sermons wafting through the air as she walks home one day, or a neighbor eagerly repeats them to her. Giuseppina’s mother tongue cleanses her like a newborn kitten. Salvation, she is told, can be hers.

A Pentecostal awakening has been sweeping across America for a decade. In early April 1906, Brother William Joseph Seymour, the Catholic-reared son of formerly enslaved parents, moved his rapidly expanding prayer meetings into a run-down building on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. By then, he and his followers were speaking in tongues—a sign, they believed, of internal salvation, or “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Seymour’s religious creation would be emulated, imitated, or appropriated, depending on who’s telling the story of its spread. In Chicago, Luigi Francescon and Pietro Ottolini spearheaded the world’s first Italian Pentecostal church, and before long the faith reached Brooklyn. Perhaps the promise of un miracolo drew Josephine Zollo to Brooklyn City Mission, a Pentecostal church in East New York. She had been ill before she first attended a service there in 1912. Whatever happened that day, Josephine’s health soon improved. She decided that the Lord had healed her body and saved her soul.

Unlike Catholics’ solemn sprinkling of water on screeching infants, Pentecostal baptisms are often public statements of faith, made by people old enough to prepare for them. In Sister Zollo’s church, these immersions occur in Jamaica Bay—believers are dipped backward into the estuary like ballroom dance partners.

When Giuseppina becomes an acolyte, Sister Zollo must push for her overdue marriage to Filippo, ten years after they got together. Cohabitation is worse than bigamy, given the circumstances. Judgment Day will surely end worse for Alfonso Baccanale, who had the nerve to strand his bride in a strange country, than for Giuseppina, who had the gumption to make sure someone was providing for her child. So off to the deputy city clerk the couple goes, with Sister Zollo’s daughter in tow.

Giuseppina’s Pentecostal faith is an empowering departure from the imperial rituals of Catholicism. There is no private confession with a priest prescribing three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers as a cure-all for carnal sin, while he does God knows what behind closed doors. Pentecostals emphasize a direct line of communication with the divine. Why pray to Mary or the saints when you can repent to Gesù himself?

No records will survive to indicate when Giuseppina begins preaching. Perhaps she starts small, testifying to the glory of God from her seat in Sister Zollo’s church. Perhaps Sister Zollo, recognizing Giuseppina’s talent, makes room for her at the pulpit, only to realize that she’s elevated a rival.

Giuseppina returns to Frasso Telesino with 13-year-old Catherine in 1923. On paper she attributes their five-month journey to visiting her parents. She would be wise to omit any mention of mission work to bolster the nascent Pentecostal movement in Italy. Sister Zollo brought her faith to several towns in southern Italy, in the lead-up to the persecution of Pentecostals under Italy’s Fascist government. Giuseppina may or may not have dared to spread the word of the Lord in the old country, but upon her return to America, she commits the rest of her life to it.

She abandons her piecework and begins preaching on street corners, including the intersection of Columbia and Woodhull, between Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, two Italian neighborhoods to the west of Sister Zollo’s territory. Catherine takes over her mother’s household duties, dropping out of school. Eventually, Giuseppina works her way up, which is to say indoors, securing a storefront on Hamilton Avenue and another building on Sackett Street where she can hold services.

She adopts a name befitting her new American religion, translating Giuseppina to Josephine, and her mission soon attracts followers. She becomes one of many so-called miracle workers who provide succor in the space between her acolytes’ reality and the myth of their American Dream. It is the heyday of spiritual icons and grifters. Evangelical phenom Aimee Semple McPherson allegedly fakes her own kidnapping. The International Peace Mission’s Father Divine proclaims himself the second coming, a Black Jesus Christ, and splits his time between advocating against segregation and for reparations, and allegedly draining his followers of their assets for his own financial gain.

As Josephine Carbone amasses her flock, reverence isn’t a guarantee. Among her congregants is Antonio DeVincenzo, a 35-year-old street sweeper, who attends services over the objections of his hot-tempered Catholic wife, Rosaria. One day, according to family lore, Rosaria chases Antonio out of the church with a rolling pin snatched from her tenement kitchen. Josephine presses a charge of disorderly conduct against 28-year-old Rosaria, demonstrating the lengths to which she’ll go to quash her critics. The local Standard Union provides perfunctory coverage of a court hearing held on September 21, 1927. “Magistrate Fish told the defendant religious freedom is a foundation stone of the American Government and if her husband wants to attend a mission [she] must not interfere in any way with the workers of the mission,” the paper states.

Four months later, in January 1928, one family’s tragedy will bless Josephine with good fortune. Rosina “the Saint” Licata ministers a version of folk Catholicism out of her Brooklyn tenement until a disgruntled follower shoots her dead on her homemade altar. Rose leaves behind five children, who will be shunted to various orphanages and relatives. Her death also leaves a gap in her neighborhood, Bensonhurst, where her spiritual influence once dominated.

Does Josephine recognize an opportunity after reading about Rosina’s death in the Brooklyn papers? Maybe, maybe not—but like Rosina, Josephine soon adopts an honorific nodding to Catholicism: She becomes Reverend Mother. By 1929, she’s rented another storefront, this one some 200 steps down 69th Street and across New Utrecht Avenue from where Licata had her humble mission. La Cappella dei Miracoli is born, in the same neighborhood where the Otranto family are making their way.


MY GRANDMOTHER WAS BORN IN AMERICA. But, at age 3, her family went to live in Italy. She came back at age 8, on August 25, 1925.

On the Luilio, the children became seasick from the swaying of the ship. My grandmother was one of those children. The cooks made pastina for them, but she couldn’t even eat that!

Once again in America, the Otranto family resided in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. My great-grandfather delivered ice for a living. They moved, but to a different area in Bensonhurst. And, eventually, 12 years ago, my grandmother moved to Staten Island. Now we are back to the present.

In this G-rated cut of her life, which Nanny dictated for my fifth-grade family-history homework, she edited out her personal pain. Here’s the story I wish I could submit to Mrs. Siomos, if she’s accepting extra credit in retirement: Between 1908 and 1926, my paternal great-grandmother, Serafina Acri Otranto, birthed at least eight children and raised the six who survived infancy. Louie, Al, Jennie, Gilda, Helen, and Joey wore their Americanized names like cornicello charms to ward off playground bullies. Serafina’s husband, Francesco, became Frank to the customers on his ice delivery route. Though America had perks, including indoor plumbing, the Otrantos must have longed for the embrace of their extended family and the ease of a familiar life in Rossano, their hometown in Calabria. “When it was time to do laundry, our mom would put a basketful on her head and with her children go to the river to wash her clothes,” my great-aunt Helen, who was born during one of her parents’ long visits to Italy, later wrote in her testimonial. “She would look for a large smooth stone to scrub the clothes on, then spread them on bushes to dry.… We would meet our cousins and it felt like we were on a picnic, even though all we had to eat was homemade bread and cheese.”

Bucolic nature scenes, however, couldn’t counter emerging political threats. A Fascist upstart named Benito Mussolini became Italy’s prime minister in October 1922. Intentional or not, Frank’s departure—his last—for the United States that month made a political statement. He’d filed his initial paperwork for citizenship years earlier, and he naturalized in June 1924, two months after the enactment of a xenophobic U.S. law that restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and effectively cut it off from Asia.

Serafina brought the children over on the Duilio—I misspelled the ship’s name on my homework—on August 25, 1925. America tried its damnedest to break the Otrantos. Icemen like Frank shouldered 100-pound blocks that bit through their coats in the winter and melted down their overalls in the summer. One slip on a damp staircase could end it all. Bensonhurst’s first-generation, scrape-kneed kids lingered near the cab of Frank’s truck, begging for free ice chips between sweaty rounds of kick the can. Their mothers struggled to keep them fed.

Serafina shopped for the day’s meals in between preparing them, morning, noon, and night, for her growing family. Perhaps she wanted a brood of children, or perhaps she hesitated to pay for an illegal abortion or contraceptives with money that was her husband’s. When Serafina wasn’t stationed at the stove or the sink, she and her daughters cleaned the four-family home that the Otrantos shared, presumably with strangers, in exchange for rent. Soon, Serafina’s arthritis and migraines intensified to the point that she needed one of her girls home at all times. “One week Gilda would go two days and I would go three days, and the next week Gilda would go three days and I would go two days,” Jennie wrote of her experience with school. “It was very rough on us.”

When Gilda contracted diphtheria, she somehow managed to quarantine from her siblings, despite the family living like sardines. Helen once saved Joey from drowning in a backyard wine barrel swollen with water—this after Joey nearly died from pneumonia three times before his first birthday. “My uncle started to clear out the front room for the wake, but God saved our little brother,” Gilda recalled of one such episode.

At some point, along came Serafina’s friend, extolling Reverend Mother’s powers. Serafina couldn’t force her teenagers, Louie and Al, to attend nightly services at La Cappella dei Miracoli, but she insisted that her four youngest go. To tenement kids, the church seemed like a playground at first. “It was a novelty, and we enjoyed the music and singing,” Helen wrote. Gilda especially liked the jingle of the tambourine and the peal of the triangle played by congregants during hymns. Services were so loud that neighbors sometimes griped about the racket. “The owner of the apartment house next door to the church complained that he was always losing tenants the way they yell and carry on in the church,” a police officer once reported.

But what seemed like merriment was really zeal, and what looked like participation was submission. The Otranto kids didn’t know it yet, but the music emanating from La Cappella dei Miracoli was a death knell: Once they heard it, their childhoods were over.

From top: A newspaper clipping about the death of Rosina Licata; Helen, Jennie, Gilda, Serafina, Joey, and Frank Otranto.

3.

The full believers of La Cappella dei Miracoli assembled each weeknight in wooden folding chairs, waiting for services to begin at 7:30. They stared at a painting, based on Matthew 14:22–34, when Jesus encourages Peter to walk on water. Peter takes a few promising steps before doubt weighs him down into the sea: “And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ ”

When Reverend Mother appeared before her flock, she wore white—only ever white. She read verses and delivered sermons from an elevated platform behind an altar rail. Her appearance and position left no doubt about her power: Here was a pure, fierce force fending off the storm of human folly that afflicted anyone who doubted her authority.

Sometimes she let her longtime chauffeur, a man named Sallustio Del Re, take the pulpit to preach. Other congregants testified to the miracles God had performed for them since they started attending La Cappella dei Miracoli. Maria “Christina” Tripi spoke again and again of how the Lord had cured her cancer. She was so grateful that she would raise three children, Phil, Charlie, and Sarah, in the church, while her sister Annie would become one of Reverend Mother’s most loyal associates. Throughout the 1930s until at least 1940, Annie once reported, she did “volunteer work, without pay, because the Lord did so many nice things for my family through the Reverend Mother’s prayers.” She added, “I sleep there all the time,” referring to Reverend Mother’s house.

Helen Sebastiani gave exuberant praise to Reverend Mother, who had sprung the young mother from Kings County Psychopathic Hospital in December 1930. She “did so much for me that I have been all right ever since,” Helen later swore to authorities. “I have never been sick a day.” Helen and her husband, Louis, brought their two young sons, Gaetano and Eugene, to services, and they gave $800 to Reverend Mother in 1932. Other acolytes included Salvatore and Mamie Molinari, whose son Salvatore Jr. was Gaetano Sebastiani’s close friend.

Anna Grasso and her younger sisters, Mary, Josephine, and Rose, attended the church over the objections of their elder brothers, Santo and Peter, who owned a bakery on Fort Hamilton Parkway. The Grasso brothers were rumored to keep their sisters off the bakery payroll, lest their wages support the church. In lieu of giving tithes, Anna volunteered her services as the church’s secretary and even lived with Reverend Mother for a year after her own mother died, returning home only when her widowed father fell ill.

At services, after expressing their gratitude, the church’s congregation would sing. “Il Signore con Noi Dimore” (The Lord Dwells with Us) was Reverend Mother’s favorite song. Gilda and Jennie Otranto took turns at the piano. There was a youth choir and band, with Helen Otranto initially on the double bass and later on the cello, and the Tripi children on the trombone, drums, and clarinet. Eventually, music gave way to silent prayer. By the time it was all over, three hours had passed. It was time to go home and prepare to do it all again the next evening. Frank and Serafina could hardly wait for the next worship. They usually lingered at church well after services ended. Joey would fall asleep in his mother’s lap.

Church consumed entire weekends. Members of the children’s band practiced at 10 a.m. before they attended Sunday school at 1 p.m., followed by a 3 p.m. service that bled into the night. Special occasions demanded even more time from Reverend Mother’s congregation. Christmas brought the production of The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ: A Play in 12 Parts, “written, composed, copyrighted in 1934 by Rev. Josephine Carbone, ruling elder,” now archived at the Library of Congress. What hubris it took to copyright a story lifted straight out of the Bible. In another era, with her confidence, Reverend Mother might have been a televangelist or religious Instagram influencer. Or maybe she had the foresight to recognize that history would not remember her the way it would a national figure like Aimee Semple McPherson; she committed her name to the page so that there would always be evidence of who she was and the power she wielded.

The play’s first act depicts the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive the son of God. But the miracolo of Christ’s birth dims in the final act, with King Herod ordering the murder of all children under the age of two. “The weeping of the mothers and the massacre of the innocents,” reads the final line of the script—a stage direction perhaps intended to prompt wails from the audience at La Cappella dei Miracoli. Reverend Mother never failed to extract reverence from pain and fear.

What hubris it took to copyright a story lifted straight out of the Bible. In another era, with her confidence, Reverend Mother might have been a televangelist or religious Instagram influencer.

The younger Otranto kids had a small collection of toys, given to them by their brother Louie, who’d played Santa Claus one Christmas. They particularly loved the tiny electric stove, manufactured decades before the Easy-Bake Oven topped kids’ holiday wish lists. “We would cut up an apple, put some sugar on it, and bake it, it was really fun for us,” Gilda wrote in her testimonial. But Reverend Mother expected even her youngest followers to make sacrifices—giving up everything that made them happy was a matter of salvation. “I don’t think we had those toys for a whole year because when we started to go to church, we couldn’t play with them anymore,” Gilda wrote. “One day my aunt from Newark came to visit us with her children, they were a little younger than us, my mother gave them all our toys, we were heartbroken but we didn’t say a thing.”

Deprivation went hand in hand with isolation. “Once we entered, we could not leave,” Jennie wrote of La Capella dei Miracoli. “We were also told to disassociate ourselves from our friends and relatives who were not members of our church.” Gilda later dictated a family tree to her niece Patricia. “Church kept these cousins apart,” Pat scrawled under one branch. La Cappella dei Miracoli also created an ugly rift in the nuclear Otranto family. Louie and Al refused to attend services. “One night we came home from church and found my two older brothers playing cards with some of their friends,” Gilda wrote. “Well! My father took the cards and threw them away and told their friends to leave. From then on, we weren’t a family anymore, my two older brothers didn’t want any part of this religion. In my father’s eyes they were sinners, and they were only in their teens.”

By the mid-1930s, Louie and Al had moved into a furnished room, which would become a refuge for their younger siblings. Each had their own sad story. Joey watched other children playing schoolyard games and sometimes got up the nerve to join them, even though he couldn’t follow their conversations about the secular radio programs and movies that were now forbidden in his life. At least once, a church member spotted Joey playing and reported him to Reverend Mother. “After the service she would call me up to her and I would get beaten by her,” Joey wrote. “One time she had asked my father to make a good sturdy strap for her. My father cut a broomstick and cut leather straps about ½-inch wide nailed to the broomstick. I got hit once with it and never touched a ball again.”

Some nights, as Frank drove the family to services, Joey whined for his parents to turn the car around. He would pretend that he’d forgotten to eat—surely he couldn’t attend church on an empty stomach. The excuse never worked, particularly after he started the second grade and “promised God to fast” each Tuesday and Thursday, on Reverend Mother’s orders. “I remember coming home at lunch time begging my mother to give me something to eat,” he wrote. His hunger distracted him from his spelling tests and multiplication tables, but Reverend Mother expected him to give thanks for the ordeal. After school, Joey would kneel on his family’s newspaper-covered floor to say his prayers and “spit to cleanse his soul.”

Joey instigated little rebellions that Reverend Mother always managed to put down. Frustrated after a nightly service, he kicked the tires of her parallel-parked car on Sackett Street. Someone informed her of the transgression. “She came out in a rage, took my hand, and brought me back in the church and slapped my face in front of my parents,” Joey wrote. Sometimes Reverend Mother invented more creative punishments for the little boy. “She would ask her chauffeur to go down in the basement and get the dogs loose,” Joey recalled. “She would take me by the hand and pretend to throw me down the stairs to the dogs. It was the chauffeur who did the howling.”

By contrast, Joey’s sisters obeyed orders at any cost. Reverend Mother put her congregation’s young girls on guard duty after vandals broke into the church and ransacked it. Helen and Gilda got the most shifts. They slept on the floor until Gilda felt the claws of a rat dig into her blanket. The girls pushed chairs together to form makeshift beds and, they hoped, a barrier against vermin. “[We] were told to keep a stick or a bat near us for protection,” Helen wrote. “Can you imagine if someone had broken in? I don’t think we would be in one piece today.”

Helen watched her classmates eat lunch in the school cafeteria on the days that she, like Joey, had to fast. “How I would have relished having a cup of soup,” she wrote. Reverend Mother objected to Helen getting new shoes and clothes for school ceremonies: “She became very angry and asked, ‘Without my permission?’ ” When Helen reached the tenth grade at New Utrecht High School, Reverend Mother insisted that she quit and go to work in a sweatshop. A truant officer overrode Reverend Mother’s command, and Helen returned to school in accordance with the law. “Can you imagine how I felt when I walked into the classroom after having missed a few months?” Helen wrote. “All eyes were upon me, especially when the teacher made a speech about kids who leave school.” After Helen’s next birthday, she was ordered to go back to work: “Of course the little that I earned had to be turned over to Reverend Mother.”

Gilda only made it to the ninth grade. After that she babysat for a fellow parishioner who did Reverend Mother’s bidding and looked after her own mother. Serafina’s arthritis had flared up again after several years of relief. “Her knees were swollen and she couldn’t wear shoes, she was laid up in bed for a long time,” Gilda wrote. “Naturally she was told she must have sinned for God to punish her so!” Gilda had to stop caring for her mother when, one day, the church’s heater broke. Reverend Mother claimed that she needed money more than ever. “She told everyone to go to work, and give her their salaries so she could pay for the new furnace,” Gilda wrote. That’s what Gilda did, joining other young women in sewing dresses. Even Joey handed over to Reverend Mother the dollar or so per day he earned selling bananas out of his homemade cart, a converted baby carriage, during summer breaks from school.

Of course, not everyone had to make money for the church. There were congregants who served Reverend Mother in other ways. One of them was Jennie.

“My mother told the Reverend that she gave one daughter to God”—that’s how Gilda described her sister’s indenture, which began around 1930, a year or two after the Otrantos joined the church. What was Jennie worth, I wonder now: Un miracolo a month, or a year? What did Serafina think when her joints continued to swell despite her daughter’s servitude? Reverend Mother’s only documented ability was her power of persuasion, confirmed by the account of the girl who would grow up to be my grandmother.


Jennie cleaned the single-family home where Reverend Mother lived. Filippo, Reverend Mother’s husband, had ceased to matter in her life, financially or otherwise. He rarely attended La Cappella dei Miracoli. By 1940, he split his time between his wife’s finished attic and the tenement where their daughter, Catherine, lived. When Filippo died of heart failure the following year, Reverend Mother threw him in a charity grave with six strangers.

Sallustio Del Re, Reverend Mother’s live-in chauffeur, was 13 years her junior and may have moonlighted as her lover. “She and her chauffeur would be out all day and with the little money that she left I would manage to prepare a decent meal for them,” Jennie wrote. “They would sit down to eat and never asked me to join them. I would just stand there and watch. When they were through, she would tell me to eat the little, if any, that was left over.” Jennie then watched Sallustio and Reverend Mother ascend the stairs to go to bed.

His intimacy with Reverend Mother, coupled with his sex, meant that Sallustio had power over Jennie. She could neither consent to nor deny him. Once, Jennie wrote, he “came over to me and touched my breast over my clothes.” She didn’t specify her age when the incident happened. I imagine her body stiffening in the dining room chair where she sat, typing up documents for Reverend Mother. Eventually Sallustio left the room without a word. My grandmother confessed to Reverend Mother what had happened, as if it were somehow her fault. “Because of the way we were conditioned, I thought it would be better to tell her,” Jennie wrote.

Reporting Sallustio’s assault made Reverend Mother “very angry with him,” and she “wouldn’t let it go.” But whatever Reverend Mother said or did to Sallustio only led him to retaliate against Jennie. Helen Sebastiani, forever grateful to Reverend Mother for orchestrating her release from Kings County Psychopathic Hospital, happened to be helping with chores the day Sallustio stormed in to the house in search of Jennie. He ran up the stairs to the second floor, shouting, “Where is she? I am going to kill her.” Helen rushed Jennie out of the house. “Run for your life!” Helen said.

I imagine Jennie taking off “like a bat out of hell,” one of Nanny’s favorite expressions from my childhood. She reached the opposite side of the street just as Reverend Mother emerged from a strange car, driven by someone who wasn’t her chauffeur. Jennie guessed that Sallustio and Reverend Mother had argued, and that he’d left her “God knows where” to make her own way home. Once she arrived, Jennie wrote, “she then rushed up the stairs in a huff.”

It was 4 p.m. With nowhere to go, Jennie wandered the streets of South Brooklyn until La Cappella dei Miracoli’s evening service. When she turned up there, Reverend Mother fired her on the spot. “That night I was dismissed from her home and also from playing the [church] piano,” Jennie wrote. “I felt like an outcast, especially when members of the church, not knowing the truth, sort of shunned me. My mother was concerned and asked Reverend Mother what had happened. She told her I had made a terrible mistake on a check. Of course that was a lie.”

The lie, at least, let Jennie go home, but only for a while. Like Reverend Mother’s miracoli, her freedom was an illusion.

Clockwise from top left: Jennie Otranto; signed incorporation papers for La Cappella dei Miracoli; the Molinari family, with Salvatore Jr. seated far left (courtesy Marie Brown Bradley).

4.

I once chased down Barbara Walters for Nanny.

It was 2006, and I was a junior in college, interning three days a week as a congressional reporter. That November, I attended the annual awards dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists, hosted in New York City. Belying the unglamorous reality of shoe-leather reporting, I borrowed a plunging black dress from a friend and rimmed my eyes in liner. The well-heeled audience included Walters, resplendent in red. The veteran newscaster had by then inflicted the blight of The View on the media discourse. Still, I wanted to meet her for old time’s sake, for all those nights Nanny and I cuddled in the sofa bed while I imagined myself as the one asking the questions and churning out scoops on 20/20.

I caught Walters on her way out of the dinner and asked to take a photo together.

“Quick,” was all she said.

“Quick,” Nanny repeated to her sisters on the phone. Her face wrinkled even further with laughter while mimicking Walters’s indifference toward me. Nanny would only live two more years. She devoted a not insignificant portion of the time she had left to dining out on that story.

When I showed up at Aunt Gilda’s retirement community with my recorder, on July 14, 2013, Nanny had been gone for almost five years, Helen and Joey for six. Only 94-year-old Gilda lived long enough for me to ask her the questions I wish I’d been able to ask Nanny.

Macular degeneration had reduced my great-aunt’s sight by the time I visited. Before my arrival, she’d relied on muscle memory to fold strips of dough around preserves and nuts. Her rugelach tasted just like Nanny’s, because the Otranto sisters shared recipes and secrets.

“I never talked so much,” Gilda told me at one point.

“You’re going to talk enough today to last you the whole week, Aunt Gilda,” I replied.

Gilda’s memories remained sharp on my second visit, even if she struggled to put them into words as coherently as she had a year earlier. She described how in the early years of the church Reverend Mother broke off the engagement between Annie Tripi, who would become Gilda’s aunt by marriage, and Sallustio Del Re. “If you’re going to be my chauffeur,” Reverend Mother asked Sallustio, “how are you going to get married?” He never did. Neither did Annie.

I forgot this particular act of selfishness until well after Gilda died in 2015. That’s how it goes with this story. I’ve amassed hundreds of pages of research on Reverend Mother and La Cappella dei Miracoli: interview transcripts, marriage licenses, death certificates, immigration files, newspaper articles, court records, and deeds. Each time I revisit them a new cruelty jumps out, like a firefly suddenly lighting up before my eyes.

Quick, I tell myself—write it down. Don’t let it get away.


With her church thriving, in 1932 Reverend Mother renewed her lease in Bensonhurst for five years. Her landlord let her remodel the storefront into a proper chapel, complete with a new pitched brick roof. In a photo taken in 1940, a cross pierces the clouds in the sky over South Brooklyn, and gesù salva glares across the horizontal beam in what looks to be neon—a promise of salvation in place of Christ’s dead weight.

A handful of church members gathered in the retrofitted space on June 12, 1934. They voted to incorporate La Cappella dei Miracoli Pentecosta in accordance with New York State law. Reverend Mother became the “ruling elder,” the presiding officer, and one of three initial trustees, alongside Sallustio and Anna Grasso, the secretary, who presumably typed up the church’s constitution and bylaws—ten pages in all.

Behind the church’s new facade and legal status, coercion and abuse continued unabated. “From what my mother told me—and she hated to talk about it, because the memories made her very sad—her stepfather joined this ‘crazy’ church and the woman in charge made them do all sorts of weird things,” Linda Santo, a retired librarian, wrote to me in an email, after I’d traced her family tree from the 1930s to the present. Linda’s grandmother, Luisa, suffered from a variety of kidney and heart ailments, but her second husband, Joseph Mortale, refused any help outside of Reverend Mother’s purported healing abilities. “Luisa got very sick, and someone at the church told Joseph that he could not take her to the doctor,” Linda said. By the time Luisa checked into Kings County Hospital, it was too late. She died on November 2, 1934, at the age of 39.

Joseph’s loss did not shake his faith in Reverend Mother. Indeed, his loyalty would be rewarded within the next couple of years, when Reverend Mother made him a trustee of the church. But Joseph and Luisa’s son, Vinny, continued to suffer. “Because of the church, Joseph beat Vincent quite often and made his life miserable,” Linda Santo said.

For the celebration of her 50th birthday in 1936, Reverend Mother insisted that her church’s youth choir indulge in secular song lyrics usually forbidden to her parishioners. The words and melody would eventually make their way to Bing Crosby’s lips: “I love you truly, truly dear.” But the object of the choir’s affection wasn’t clear enough for Reverend Mother, my great-uncle Joey would later recall: “She interrupted in a rage and told the director to change the title to ‘We Love You Mother, Mother Dear.’” The following year, Reverend Mother bought herself a belated 50th birthday present: the building that housed her church. She put down $2,000 in cash.

Reverend Mother always got what she wanted, even if it required conning members of her flock. My great-grandfather Frank once needed money so badly for his family that he asked an uncle to sell a piece of property for him in Italy. Despite his situation, he gave a “big chunk” of the profit to Reverend Mother, according to Jennie. But Reverend Mother wanted more—she always wanted more. “Being greedy and never satisfied,” my grandmother wrote, “she told me to ask my father for some money for myself so that I could hand it over to her.”

At some point Reverend Mother began appearing on the radio: To listeners of Brooklyn’s WVFW and WCNW stations, where she broadcast sermons and music every weekend, Reverend Mother was La Maria Maddalena dell’Aria (the Mary Magdalene of the Air). At least once, she staged a tent revival. It took place at the corner of 26th and Harway Avenues, near Coney Island. “We attended services every night without bathroom facilities. Whenever anyone had to relieve themselves, they would go to the back of the tent, in the field,” Joey wrote. His memory placed the revival in 1937, but it must have been the summer of ’38, during a historic storm that walloped southern New England and Long Island. Brooklyn suffered, too. “One evening at the start of the service,” Joey wrote, “a hurricane developed with high winds, [and] the entire congregation was told to grab part of the tent and hold it down.”

Reverend Mother may have fancied herself the church, but without her full believers she would have nothing. The persona and institution she’d built would collapse like a tent in a storm.

Reverend Mother always got what she wanted, even if it required conning members of her flock.

How does a false prophet fall from grace?

It’s early fall 1938. The lingering summer humidity isn’t quite as sticky as the dough that Angelo Nicosia kneads with his bare hands. Angelo’s bakery sells semolina twists and brick-oven baguettes to Bensonhurst’s first-generation Italian mothers. Reverend Mother shares his customers’ tastes, so every night Angelo delivers a fresh loaf to La Cappella dei Miracoli. The church is three avenues over from his bakery, which is on the ground floor of a building that Angelo owns. To Reverend Mother, he must smell like money and yeast. That’s how the trouble between them begins.

Angelo turned to the church after his wife, Michelina, died in April. Michelina once attended services there, and her death recommitted Angelo, the kind of gentle soul who collects and cares for stray animals, to a place where he believes miracoli can happen. One night at church, Jennie Otranto watches a conversation between Reverend Mother and Angelo turn to the subject of his life insurance policy. Jennie predicts the money will soon end up in Reverend Mother’s hands.

In Angelo’s telling, Reverend Mother warns him that he must remarry—otherwise the 59-year-old widower will die as his wife did, “from the bad spirits.” Reverend Mother says she’s already picked out a prospective bride for him: Helen Sebastiani, Jennie’s one-time savior from a vengeful Sallustio Del Re. Helen is now a 37-year-old widow. Her husband, Louis, died a year ago in a Queens psychiatric facility. Helen’s 12-year-old son, Eugene, has been upstate in Letchworth Village—a home for “the segregation of [the] epileptic and feeble-minded”—since he was 10. Thirteen-year-old Gaetano remains at home with Helen, in their flat two blocks over from the church.

Angelo needs to put down a deposit for his bride-to-be, proving to Reverend Mother that he’s in a position to be married again. Besides his home and business, all Angelo has to his name is that life insurance policy, worth $2,000. Reverend Mother instructs her secretary, Anna Grasso, to pretend to be Angelo’s daughter on a visit to the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company. Together, Anna and Angelo work with the underwriters to cash out half the policy, at a reduced sum of $294.72. They bring the money to Reverend Mother. Go back and get more, she tells them. So they do, and by the end of October, they’ve presented Reverend Mother with a total of $557.01.

It’s too little, too late. Reverend Mother tells Angelo that the “bad spirits” have already taken hold of him. He’s not ready to marry Helen, she says. And she won’t return his money.

Angelo only appears to be an easy mark. The Otranto siblings will later say that Angelo’s grown children, who do not belong to La Cappella dei Miracoli, insist that their father press charges against Reverend Mother. Eventually, he heads down to the 62nd Precinct and meets with detective John Aloysius Cassidy, born into a bustling Irish-American family living a dozen or so doors down from La Cappella dei Miracoli. Cassidy’s mother, Margaret, a founding member of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a local Catholic church, may have shooed her children away from the neighborhood curiosity.

“I wanted to marry Helen because the Reverend Mother told me [to],” Angelo swears to authorities. “I finally got wise.” An indictment follows, alleging that “by trick and device and by aid of false pretenses and misrepresentations,” Reverend Mother stole Angelo’s money.

Reverend Mother tries to talk her way out of the situation, claiming that Angelo volunteered the cash for the church’s mortgage. “He came to tell me [he] had it in his heart to donate $400 for a payment on the church. He continued to say that he had an insurance policy and he was going to take that money,” Reverend Mother tells authorities. “I told him to do what he pleased to make the Lord bless him.” She adds, “I never promised to get him a wife.”

Detective Cassidy arrests Reverend Mother for grand larceny in May 1939. Dressed in her trademark white when it happens, she must seem like a fallen angel. She posts her $1,500 bail, either from her coffer of tithes or from an emergency collection.

For her part, Helen Sebastiani tells investigators she’s never spoken to Reverend Mother‚ much less Angelo, about marriage. Helen also affirms her devotion to the defendant. “I never received any pay from Mother for my work; I did it for pleasure for what I had received from the Lord,” Helen says. “As soon as she comes out I will go back to her again.” Helen’s loyalty is a hallmark of Reverend Mother’s congregation, which investigators refer to as a “cult” in their report on the case. “The members … believe that many miracles of ‘cure’ have been performed by the Lord through the prayers of the Reverend Mother Carbone,” the report states. “It is apparent that they are, for the most part, simple minded Italians, and, in some instances, their abnormal psychological trends have been sublimated into religious fanaticism until now they are completely under the domination of the Reverend Mother.”

The jury convicts her on January 30, 1940. Newspapers across the country pick up a United Press wire story and truncate it for their audiences. Readers in Austin, Texas, wake up the next morning to the headline “Miracle Fails Reverend Mother.” In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it’s simply “Miracle Fails.” Reverend Mother awaits sentencing in the New York Women’s House of Detention. She considers herself a martyr, the Joan of Arc of the House of D. At her behest, her followers travel from Brooklyn into Manhattan. They gather across the street from the prison and wait for her to wave a handkerchief, according to Joey Otranto. Hours pass. Without access to a bathroom, some parishioners resort to urinating on the steps of a neighboring apartment building.

The day of her sentencing, March 6, Reverend Mother protects her assets. She sells her eight-room house for $100 to Harry Brody, one of the two attorneys on her defense team, in the presence of Anna Grasso. It turns out to be an unnecessary step, because Judge Edwin L. Garvin implements the jury’s recommendation for leniency. In one breath, he lays out a prison term of three to ten years in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. In the next, he suspends Reverend Mother’s sentence—“on condition that she behave herself in the future and that she make restitution of the stolen money,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle—and places her on probation.

Reverend Mother’s brief cycle through the criminal justice system neither reforms her nor protects her victims, including 22-year-old Jennie Otranto. “When she came out of the court,” Jennie will later write, “she asked me to go home with her to resume my former duties.”

Jennie has never been able to say no to her abuser, so her unpaid servitude begins anew. She gets in Reverend Mother’s car, with Sallustio at the wheel. They drive to South Brooklyn, and Reverend Mother asks Sallustio to pull over about a block from her house. She worries Angelo’s children may be waiting for her. Go and investigate inside and out, she tells Jennie.

Jennie does as she’s told. Inside the house, incense stings her nostrils like a backhand to the face. Room by room she navigates a hodgepodge of secondhand furniture, looking for hidden threats. It takes time—the home is large, according to Reverend Mother’s probation file:

The first floor consists of reception and living rooms; the second floor is the suite of the Reverend Mother, consisting of bedroom, sitting room, retiring room where “Mother” goes alone to pray, office, and bath. Mr. Carbone and Mr. Del Re occupy two finished rooms in the attic, and the maids are relegated to rooms in the basement. A modern kitchen, beautifully equipped with all the latest electrical devices, completes the ensemble. A large brick garage is in the rear and the grounds are landscaped and exceptionally well cared for.

Reverend Mother and Sallustio remain safely in the car, entering the house only after Jennie gives them the all clear: There are no intruders to fear.

That night, Jennie assumes a familiar position: She curls up to sleep in her clothes, using her coat as a blanket. “She saw me lying on the floor,” Jennie will later say of Reverend Mother, “and said nothing.”

Clockwise from top left: An ad for Reverend Mother’s radio program; Luisa Mortale (courtesy Linda Santo); Angelo Nicosia (courtesy Marie Abbate Schmelz).

5.

The larceny conviction didn’t end Reverend Mother’s career, but in retrospect it was the first step in her church’s demise. The downfall happened in fits and starts, over many years, with the loss of one follower, then another, to defection or death. Nanny and her siblings wrote down their stories, in their own words. Most parishioners did not. Some were never able to.

Among them was Gaetano, Helen Sebastiani’s older son. His stomach pains began on April 7, 1941. “Since the minister did not believe in doctors,” my great-aunt Helen wrote in her testimonial, “no one was called.” Two days later, Gaetano was rushed to the hospital. The toxins leaching from his burst appendix into his blood would take another two days to kill him. The condition should not have been a death sentence, even back then, but the attending physician nevertheless concluded that Gaetano’s death did not occur “in any suspicious or unusual manner.”

Gaetano died when he was 16, but he must have been small for his age: In a rare oversight, Aunt Helen wrote in her testimonial that he was just 12 or 13. With no direct descendants, for 79 years he remained little more than a name on a death certificate. But in life he was so much more.

“Gaetano was my friend,” 89-year-old Salvatore Molinari Jr. said into the phone, his voice cracking on the last word like a tooth on an olive pit. “We were best friends.” Junior called me at the height of a record-breaking pandemic-summer heat wave that stretched some 1,400 miles between our homes in Texas and Washington, D.C. He was responding to a letter I’d sent him after finding his father’s signature as a witness on the 1934 paperwork incorporating La Cappella de Miracoli. Salvatore Sr. couldn’t read or write in English back then; he and his wife, Mamie, would only learn the language once Junior, who was three when the church was incorporated, and their other kids brought it home from school like leftover snacks. “I don’t know if he was coerced into doing that or what,” Junior said of his father’s signature. Whatever the case, Salvatore must have felt some spiritual pull toward the church: He soon became a trustee.

In our conversation, I expected to hear more stories about Junior’s family, but instead he spoke at length about Gaetano.

The Molinaris and the Sebastianis lived in the same building on 67th Street, right near the church. Despite a more than six-year age gap, Junior and Gaetano played together every day. Perhaps Gaetano viewed Junior as a surrogate sibling while his younger brother languished at Letchworth Village. “Kick the can was his favorite,” Junior said of the games they used to play. When it was his turn, Gaetano would stand next to the can—an empty pail, perhaps, rescued from the trash—and count with his eyes closed while the other kids scattered. When he finished counting, he left his post to “go seek,” either tagging his friends or racing them as they attempted to kick the can.

“And then one day,” Junior said, “somebody, I forget who it was, came over and told me that he had passed away. And I could never understand that. I couldn’t figure out why.”

“What did he look like?” I asked.

“He needed a haircut,” Junior said with a laugh. “Just a good-looking kid. That’s all.”

As far as Junior could recall, unlike my great-grandparents, Salvatore and Mamie Molinari never pulled him or their other children out of school, never put them to work to fund the church’s new furnace or its minister’s lifestyle. Salvatore’s construction wages hovered near the poverty line when he wasn’t out of a job, so Mamie took on piecework; Junior and his siblings helped her sew straps onto brassieres. Still, they wanted for nothing. The Molinari kids were allowed to keep their Christmas toys. “As a matter of fact, the first Christmas present I remember getting—I think I was about seven or eight years old—was a tin airplane,” Junior told me. “That’s all I remember.”

Junior repeatedly underestimated how much he had to say before telling me another story.

“Well,” he said, “I do remember the church.” Salvatore and Mamie usually arrived early enough for Junior to mingle with other children before services. His parents called Reverend Mother “Mamma.” Worship dragged on, and Junior didn’t understand much of it. “But other than that, I don’t know what I have to offer you,” he told me.

His parents left the church when Junior was between ten and twelve years old. My great-aunt Gilda remembered it as an abrupt exit: “All of a sudden, I guess they got disgusted. They didn’t tell anybody. They just moved away.” It happened around the time Gaetano died. Maybe what Reverend Mother did to hasten the boy’s death served as a reality check for the Molinaris. “They made sure that when they moved, nobody knew their new address. I know that,” Junior said.

“Was that because they were afraid of Reverend Mother finding them or—”

“Yes. Yes,” Junior said. “My father probably didn’t know what he was getting into in that church. And how he got from the Catholic religion to that church, I don’t know, but I know that once they got tired of it all, they got away from it.” After that, he said, they were “really happy.”

I assumed that, like the Molinaris, Helen Sebastiani left the church after she buried Gaetano in April 1941—how could she not? But Reverend Mother’s probation file, which provides five years’ worth of information about her post-conviction whereabouts and activities, mentions her “maid” Helen working into 1944. The same year, 18-year-old Eugene Sebastiani, once again living with his mother, registered for the draft. When asked to list a “person who will always know your address,” Eugene wrote “Mrs. Josephine Carbone (grandmother),” though they did not share blood. Whatever power Reverend Mother held over Eugene appeared to have loosened by 1950, when a Roman Catholic priest officiated the young man’s wedding.

Helen died six years later. Did she ever leave the church? Did she find peace? She’s buried with her husband and Gaetano; decades later, Eugene’s remains would be interred on Hart Island, New York’s infamous potter’s field. Helen’s great-niece by marriage Cindy McDonald, née Sebastian, the Americanized version of the family name, told me she knows very little about that branch of her kin. “Helen and the others who were harmed by ‘Reverend Mother,’”  Cindy wrote in an email, “deserve to have their story told.

With no direct descendants, for 79 years Gaetano remained little more than a name on a death certificate. But in life he was so much more.

As the Otranto kids grew up, they made their way out of the church one by one. The girls, paradoxically, found freedom in a traditionally patriarchal institution: marriage.

Gilda and another congregant, Charlie Tripi, always “sorta liked each other,” my great-aunt told me. But Reverend Mother policed their budding bond. One night, Sallustio Del Re told his employer that he’d seen Gilda and Charlie talking outside the church. They were in a group of friends, but that didn’t make any difference. “She called me in and gave me such a slap in the face, in front of everybody,” Gilda recalled.

Charlie stopped regularly attending services around age 16 and “sowed his wild oats,” as Gilda put it. “He had sex,” she added, to remove any doubt about her meaning. Then Charlie joined the army and went to basic training in Maryland. “He used to come home every weekend, and one weekend he came to church and he saw me,” Gilda said. “I had cut my hair, I had a permanent. I looked a little different. So he wrote me a letter to say that I looked beautiful, that someday we [were] going to get together.” When Reverend Mother heard about the letter—because she heard about everything—she demanded that Gilda give it to her. “She took it from me. She took the letter,” Gilda said, tapping her fingers one, two, three, four, five times on her kitchen table. “But you know what I did before I gave it to her? I rewrote it.” She gave Reverend Mother the original and kept the copy.

Charlie asked Gilda to marry him on her 24th birthday in January 1943. Gilda said yes, and Reverend Mother didn’t stand in the couple’s way. In fact, the engagement came with a gift, if you can call it that.

“That’s when she told me, ‘Keep your money,’ ” Gilda said.

“Who said that?” I asked.

“The big cheese!”

Before that, Gilda explained, she’d given Reverend Mother “every penny” she earned.

With Reverend Mother’s knowledge, the couple married right away at City Hall so Gilda could start collecting a $50 monthly government stipend given to the wives of World War II servicemen. They had a second wedding at La Cappella dei Miracoli the following June, followed by a small reception at Charlie’s mother’s house and a honeymoon in Niagara Falls.

When Charlie deployed to fight in World War II, Gilda initially turned to La Cappella dei Miracoli to get her through the nights spent at home alone, worrying. But she didn’t last long. One day Joey asked her to go with him to give a girl he liked a wristwatch. The girl’s name was Tessie, and she and her two younger sisters went to the church, too. Neither Joey nor Gilda told Reverend Mother about this overture, but Tessie must have reported it. “She called me up and she bawled me out,” Gilda said, stretching her vowels for effect. “I let her talk and let her talk. And I said to myself, This is it. I never went back to church.”

My great-aunt Helen decided she’d had enough that same year, when she was 21. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” she wrote in her testimonial. “We were told that if we left the church, we would go straight to hell.… At this point, I didn’t care.” But her parents, Frank and Serafina, were still entrenched. When Helen decided not to attend services one night, they demanded to know why. “When my father questioned me after realizing I wasn’t getting ready to go to church, I told him I didn’t want to go anymore. He immediately raised his hands to give me a beating,” Helen wrote. “The second time it happened, my youngest brother, Joe, was prepared and held his hands back which enabled me to run out of the house.”

Helen forgot to take her winter coat. She would have trembled from nerves and the November cold en route to her elder brothers’ apartment. Al and Louie weren’t there, so she turned around. There was Joey, pedaling down the street in search of his sister, carrying her coat in case he found her. “He encouraged me to go back to the house and told me the coast was clear,” Helen wrote. “My father was then advised to leave me alone. For a short while things were sort of peaceful.”

Enter Annie Tripi, Charlie’s aunt, who remained devoted to La Cappella dei Miracoli despite Reverend Mother forbidding her engagement to Sallustio. By the early 1940s, Annie was working in a dress factory, and she called to offer Aunt Helen some clothing. “I asked her to come to my home with the dresses, but she insisted I go to hers,” Helen wrote. Annie lived with her parents, including her father, who at one time was a church trustee, directly opposite from La Cappella dei Miracoli. “I can’t believe how naive I was to believe her,” Helen wrote. “Of course she was setting a trap.”

As soon as Helen arrived, Reverend Mother walked into the room. She asked why Helen wasn’t attending church, to which Helen replied that it was too strict. “She took a scarf from the dresser and stuck it into my mouth, so as to muff[le] the cries and/or the screams,” Helen wrote. “She proceeded to slap me back and forth very hard on my face. She then told me to go across the street to church. The next day my face was very badly bruised with two black eyes. I was not able to go to work for a few days.”

It was the last time Reverend Mother hit her, because Helen was done with the church. She married Phil, Charlie Tripi’s mild-mannered younger brother, in 1944, holding the ceremony at La Cappella dei Miracoli only to appease her parents. Serafina and Frank attended the nuptials, which Reverend Mother officiated, but skipped the secular reception.

As for Joey, his older brothers stepped in. “This one evening in 1941 my brothers asked me if I had any intentions of leaving the church. I said it was impossible,” Joey wrote in his testimonial. Still, Louie and Al convinced him to skip that night’s service, and afterward they sat down with a confused Frank and Serafina. “My brothers told my parents that I would never go back to the church,” Joey said. “The meeting lasted a few hours, finally they agreed I should go a few nights a week. I agreed to their demands, [but] I felt that I had one foot out the door.”

Joey didn’t elaborate on his final break from the church. He enlisted in the military in fall 1944, shortly after his 18th birthday, and survived the German front. He returned home to work with Louie and Al. They got Joey involved in their burgeoning silver business, which they’d started in their father’s basement despite the family’s spiritual schism; Frank even became a partner.

Frank and Serafina wouldn’t attend Joey’s 1950 wedding in St. Bernadette’s, a Catholic church. The estrangement from his mother was hard for Joey, his wife, my great-aunt Lillian, told me once. Occasionally, Joey and Lillian would venture to his parents’ house for dinner. “His mother would be near the sink doing dishes, and he would pull her back by the apron strings and take over,” Lillian said. Serafina would wrap her arms around Joey and say, “Chesto figlio mij”—in dialect, this son of mine—“he’s worth a million.”

“We were told that if we left the church, we would go straight to hell,” Helen wrote. “At this point, I didn’t care.”

Her probation’s “plan of treatment” prescribed in part that Reverend Mother “pay her employees a fair wage instead of accepting their services gratis.” For Jennie Otranto, at least, that never happened. Her second stint of forced labor lasted from 1940, when Reverend Mother was released from prison, through at least March 1943, the last time she’s named as a domestic employee in Reverend Mother’s probation file. What she later wrote about her departure makes it sound like she was leaving a bad job rather than an abusive situation—it was during this phase of her indenture that Reverend Mother cracked her head open with a can. “I still was not appreciated. Finally, I had had enough and left for good,” Jennie wrote. “Come what may! Believe me, it wasn’t easy. Of course, that also meant I was leaving the church. Now I had to contend with my father, who gave me a hard time, but by this time, I was 25 years old and my mind was thoroughly made up.”

From what Gilda described, over the next three years Jennie and her parents lived separate lives in the same house. Jennie got out whenever she could. A neighborhood woman named Maria used to have the Otranto sisters over for coffee and cake. She told them all about her handsome stepson, George Grimaldi, who was stationed overseas. The only single Otranto girl was Jennie. “When he came home, he met her, they got together, and they got married,” Gilda told me.

Still, Reverend Mother cast a pall over my grandmother’s new life. “I was planning my wedding,” Nanny wrote. “Since I was getting married in a Catholic church”—Our Lady of Guadalupe—“I knew my parents would not attend.” She hoped they would at least take pictures with her before she left the house for the ceremony. She even bought Serafina a corsage. Serafina initially said yes, but she then took the matter, as she did all matters, to Reverend Mother, who forbade it. “The day of the wedding, after taking my shower, I came out of the bathroom and to my surprise discovered my parents had left the house,” Nanny recalled. “I was heartbroken.”

Nanny’s wedding pictures reveal only the joy she felt on July 27, 1946, shortly before her 28th birthday. There is Helen, pretending to comb Nanny’s hair. There is Gilda, pretending to adjust Nanny’s beaded headpiece. Each faces the mirror, their smiles reflected back toward the photographer. Click. There is Louie walking her down the aisle to her betrothed, my grandfather, and there is my face: I’m all Grimaldi, from my angular nose to the dimple in my chin.

Whatever Frank and Serafina felt that day was between them and their God. “Sometime after that, my mother had a stroke,” Nanny wrote. “Reverend Mother told her that God punished her, because although her body left the house the day of the wedding, her heart was left behind with me.”

Nanny’s brothers loaned my grandparents the money they needed to buy their first house. Gone were the years of scrubbing floors and sleeping in her maid’s uniform, along with the years of living in a stalemate with her parents. But there would be more pain. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, so during her second, the doctor gave Nanny medication that was supposed to “hold the baby”—another one of those whispered phrases from my childhood. My dad’s beautiful, stylish, funny older sister entered the world with a bilateral cleft lip and cleft palate that would lead to childhood mockery, surgeries, and speech therapy. A message from Reverend Mother made its way to Jennie: “I was told God punished me for leaving the church.”

This quote is where Nanny chose to conclude her testimonial. It’s easy enough to understand why. After that cruel admonishment, what more was there to say? Gilda would fill in the rest when we met up, a lifetime later. Convinced that she’d sinned, Nanny took the baby to Reverend Mother one day. “I guess to pray for her,” Gilda said. “You see, it’s instilled in us that she could perform a miracle.”

Clockwise from left: Reverend Mother’s fingerprints from her probation file; the author and her grandmother; Jennie Otranto in 1943, around the time she left the church.

6.

Bensonhurst is still home to what remains of La Cappella dei Miracoli: an inglorious box of brick, a roof shorn of its steeple and cross. The building is a storefront again. Most of the neighbors are a generation or two removed from the church’s heyday. Many Italian Americans financed their suburban backyards and snowbird lifestyles from the sale of their Brooklyn properties to Chinese immigrants, but can’t stop lamenting that the old neighborhood has “changed.” No longer a focus of discrimination, they’re all too often the perpetrators.

Reverend Mother kept the church going for at least twenty years after the Otranto siblings’ self-imposed exile. She also experimented with other ventures. Within months of being sentenced to probation, she tried to persuade authorities at nearly every biweekly home visit to reduce her five-year term so she could travel to Miami. “Probationer feels that opening a church in Florida is the voice of ‘Providence’ asking her to come to the rescue of the ‘Sinners,’ ” her case officer wrote on September 15, 1940. The request was denied, but my uncle Joey recalled Sallustio Del Re driving Reverend Mother to Tampa in the spring of 1941. Sure enough, the probation records show that her case officer took a monthlong break that would have allowed Reverend Mother to sneak off to the Sunshine State. She bought no property in Florida that I could find in a local title search, but she did visit more than once. A 1949 Tampa Tribune advertisement for “Rev. Josephine M. Carbone, missionary” describes a weeklong event at which Reverend Mother showed audiences the 1927 biblical film The King of Kings in a lot that now sits steps from a present-day Church of Scientology.

Several of the Otranto siblings, including Nanny, lived in or around Bensonhurst for decades. Reverend Mother hovered in the background of their daily lives. She organized my great-grandmother’s wake when Serafina died in 1954. At the cemetery, Reverend Mother ordered the undertaker to open the casket so the Otranto kids could kiss their mother goodbye. “Nobody moved,” Gilda told me, indignation in her voice. “I couldn’t see my mother when she was alive,” she continued, because of the church’s prohibitions on interacting with outsiders. “I’m not going to go and kiss her in the casket.”

In his old age, my great-grandfather Frank intended to leave his share of the family silver business to Reverend Mother, but Al and Louie tricked him into signing it over to them instead. Frank discovered that he was no longer a partner from Reverend Mother, who’d figured it out through city authorities—“she was a smart cookie,” Lillian, Joey’s widow, told me. Enraged, Frank chased Louie with a hammer.

The real shock came when I found Frank’s will. He reportedly died at 1558 Bay Ridge Ave., the address of La Cappella dei Miracoli. He left his entire meager estate—a rundown house and $100 worth of “miscellaneous articles of clothing”—to his “good friend and spiritual advisor” instead of his children, “all of whom have their own lives and who have, little by little, become alien to me and who see so little of me.” But for some reason Reverend Mother, never one to turn down an offering, no matter how small, renounced any and all claim to this “legacy,” according to a handwritten note shoved into the probate file. Perhaps my great-uncles paid her a visit with a hammer.

Reverend Mother’s power waned while she was on probation, a period that coincided with World War II. With time her chairs emptied of full believers. On several occasions before the pandemic, I knocked on doors around where the church used to be. Just one man, who looked like he could have been an extra in Saturday Night Fever, which was filmed in and around the neighborhood, recalled strange noises coming from the church in the sixties. Camille Paglinco, the granddaughter of Angelo the baker, told me by phone that in the 1950s, rumors abounded about self-flagellation performed at the church. That would have explained all the “moaning and yelling” that escaped through the building’s brick walls.

Anna Grasso and her sisters left the church without being subjected to Reverend Mother’s histrionics, perhaps because they weren’t bringing in any money from their brothers’ bakery, Aunt Gilda recalled. Still, Anna Grasso remained a lifelong friend to the minister. Her roles as church secretary and “spokesman” to Reverend Mother’s probation officers seemed to morph into unofficial ones after Anna married her husband before a Staten Island judge in 1942; she remarried him in a Catholic ceremony in 1949. Early in my research, I spoke to Anna’s son. He was born in 1950, and recalled attending the occasional weekday, Bible-themed movie nights at La Cappella dei Miracoli. As a little boy, he believed Reverend Mother’s “holy napkins” could heal his boo-boos. But his mother baptized her children Catholic and raised them Lutheran. Perhaps she was protecting them.

Reverend Mother’s church building was sold in 1971. In December 1972, Anna’s son accompanied her to the morgue, where an undertaker drew back a curtain to reveal Sallustio Del Re’s body. A postal truck had struck and killed the 73-year-old chauffeur. Reverend Mother, 86, was hospitalized at the time, after suffering a stroke. It wasn’t her first, but it would be her last. She died on January 9, 1973.

Reverend Mother left her entire estate, minus $500 for her daughter, Catherine, to her “beloved friends,” Anna Grasso and Annie Tripi. After Catherine contested the will, the three women ultimately agreed to a more even division of assets. Anna’s son told me she took in the smaller of Reverend Mother’s two poodles—fiercely loyal to the deceased, the dog bit Anna so many times that a veterinarian removed its teeth—and a caged mynah bird that mimicked its former owner. “Praise the Lord!” the bird would croak in an Italian accent.

It also fell to Anna to bury Reverend Mother. She put her in the same grave as Sallustio, on Staten Island. I have to wonder if Anna played nice for as long as she did to get what she believed was her due for any suffering Reverend Mother caused her. One thing I know for sure: Anna didn’t use her inheritance to pay for a headstone. She left Reverend Mother’s grave unmarked.

Anna died in 2003. She was someone’s grandmother, too. Like Nanny, she may have taken secrets to her grave—a final act of love for her family.

Anna took in the smaller of Reverend Mother’s two poodles and a caged mynah bird that mimicked its former owner. “Praise the Lord!” the bird would croak in an Italian accent.

Deborah understands the power of an exceptional grandparent’s love. Perhaps that’s why she listened to my difficult story about Nanny and Reverend Mother instead of turning me away from the Bronxville hospital waiting room where we first met. Deborah’s mother, who went by Kaye, was recovering from a stroke down the hall. (I’m not using Deborah’s last name, to honor her request for privacy.)

Just 15 when Deborah was born, Kaye wasn’t able to match the overwhelming love she felt for her newborn daughter with the overwhelming care that an infant requires. As Deborah grew, her grandfather, Primitivo Aruz, took over parental duties. Primo, as he was known, was a retired merchant marine who had fathered Kaye with Catherine Carbone—Reverend Mother’s only child.

Primo and Catherine’s relationship, which began at least as early as 1940, rocked La Cappella dei Miracoli. They were both married at the time: Primo to a woman with whom he had several children, Catherine to a man with whom she’d had just one child, a son who died in infancy. Catherine was pregnant with Kaye, whose full name was Catherine Jr., when her husband filed for divorce—the child wasn’t his, it was Primo’s. More scandalous, perhaps, than the infidelity was the fact that Primo, who left his wife to be with Catherine, was Afro-Latino. “Dark white” Italians like Catherine’s family were still white, after all.

Kaye was born two weeks after the final judgment in her mother’s divorce case. Catherine and Primo raised Kaye and her younger brother, Joey, between separate apartments in a Brooklyn divided along racial lines that even their love couldn’t cross. During stints in Bensonhurst, Reverend Mother would sometimes powder Kaye’s face white. By the time Deborah came along, little had changed—about Brooklyn or about Reverend Mother.

Deborah met Reverend Mother just once, when she was around ten years old. She must have tagged along with Catherine, who called her own mother by her religious honorific. Reverend Mother’s house was more extravagant than the apartments Deborah knew. “She had all of this stuff,” Deborah said. “She was the superior one, and we were the peasants.” Deborah was instructed to sit and eat a plate of ravioli that was put in front of her. More than 50 years later, she still remembered Reverend Mother’s stare. “She looked at me with disdain,” Deborah said.

Catherine wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type, either. Primo was the one to wrap his fingers, strong from working on vessels and nimble from playing the trumpet, around Deborah’s small palm when she needed comfort or direction. A devout Pentecostal, Primo took Deborah with him to Spanish-speaking churches in Williamsburg. She was 12 when he moved her and her younger sister, Gina, to Puerto Rico, hoping to provide them with stability. But Gina missed their mother and ran away. Deborah followed. So did tragedy: Back in New York, Gina died at age 15.

Deborah always felt gratitude toward Primo, and regret for leaving him, but she couldn’t find the words to say what she felt until her mid-thirties. One day, in the middle of chants with her girlfriend at a Buddhist temple, the urge to call him right now gripped Deborah. She dialed Primo’s number in Puerto Rico, where Catherine had joined him, and he answered. “I want to thank you for what you did for me and Gina when we were little girls,” she told him. The call marked what Deborah hoped would be a new beginning—she and Primo, picking up where they’d left off. “But then two weeks later, my grandfather died.”

That was thirty years ago. Deborah went on to get her associate’s degree. She worked for the New York City Board of Education for 32 years, until her retirement. I found her in 2019, caring for Kaye, who would die a year later.

It’s too late for justice, but it’s still possible to achieve some measure of accountability by telling the unvarnished truth. I can share Nanny’s story, and honor what she and her siblings wrote in their testimonials. I can reveal that a boy named Gaetano never lived to have granddaughters of his own, women like me and Deborah, who could recall him in painstaking detail and make sure he wasn’t forgotten. And I can show Reverend Mother as she really was: not a cartoon villain, but a woman soured by circumstance who again and again chose power over compassion.

I planned at my first in-person meeting with Deborah to tell her everything—I felt bound by the ethics of my profession, and by my conscience. She seemed eager to learn more about her own family’s history. I brought copies of her ancestors’ birth and marriage certificates for her to keep. My research packet also contained newspaper articles about her great-grandmother’s grand larceny trial. There, too, were the 1940 census entries for Reverend Mother as the head of her household, and of Jennie Otranto as the woman who cleaned it.

“ ‘Gave one daughter?’ What does that mean?” Deborah asked when I repeated Aunt Gilda’s words about Nanny’s servitude.

I answered. Deborah is spiritual, a devout believer in God. She especially resented how Reverend Mother wielded faith against the families who attended La Cappella dei Miracoli, and against her own relatives. She said that what I told her broke her heart. Mine broke, too.

At the same time, we seemed to be building something: a better understanding of our intertwined past, and a better foundation for our future. The real miracolo, perhaps, is that we became dear friends. To signify the beginning of our bond, Deborah and I left the hospital and went to a pizzeria. We ordered—what else?—grandma slices, a red-sauce-heavy Italian specialty. I pulled up some photos on my phone to give Deborah a glimpse into my life, including one of me and Nanny in my parents’ house. It’s from my restaged college graduation. I tower over Nanny in my cap and gown, and she fits into the crook of my body like I did into hers as a little kid.

Deborah took my phone. “ ‘Nana’—can I talk to her?—‘Nana, I’m so sorry for what Reverend Mother did,’ ” she said. “ ‘If you were here, I would hug you and kiss you and let you know that you are just a free spirit and you should be loved.’ ”

“It means a lot,” I said. “You mean a lot.”


There is no more powerful sorcery than sense memory. Hairspray transports me to the 1990s in one aerosol burst. My grandmother’s hair smelled like burnt cotton candy and was sticky to the touch. How often did I sit at her vanity? I browsed her array of aging lipsticks and plunged my finger into her Noxzema. I thought that our life together would carry on like the aimless swirls I made in her cold cream. I was always a dreamer.

Nanny’s dreams were more like nightmares. She may not have believed in bad spirits, but she lived with a simmering level of dread. Thunderstorms were her trigger. She often waited them out in a closet. Over the course of her adult life, Nanny also developed chronic hypertension and the kind of migraines that felt like her head was cracking open from within. She buried her trauma within her body, which wouldn’t let her forget it.

But that trauma didn’t define her. She was the kind of woman who slipped into fur-trimmed kitten heels to vacuum, who loved to show off her legs, to bake, to entertain. Five years after my grandfather died of leukemia in 1980, she moved to Staten Island to be closer to my parents. I was born a year later, and our life together—our love story—began.

For the next 22 years, The Golden Girls were as important as Polly Pocket, and songs by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra bled into pop rock from Third Eye Blind. I never found Nanny’s liberation in Catholicism. I left my church, too. Still, when I can’t sleep at night, I pray to La Madonna like Nanny and I once did in our adjoining rooms, her head resting delicately on her pillow to preserve her weekly wash-and-sets, mine burrowing into my New Kids on the Block comforter.

I cannot imagine my childhood without Nanny. I wish she’d had one of her own. If I could go and find young Jennie, sleeping on Reverend Mother’s floor, I would tell her that the best was yet to come. I would hug her the way Nanny hugged me any time I fell off my bike or got teased at school. “You did nothing wrong,” I would say, kissing her forehead. “Let’s get you out of here.”


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‘We Wish to Be Able to Sing’

For more than half a century, the people of Easter Island lived under an oppressive colonial regime. Then a schoolteacher sparked an unlikely revolution.  

‘We Wish to Be Able to Sing’

By Mike Damiano

The Atavist Magazine, No. 122


Mike Damiano is a contributing editor at Boston magazine and the author of Porque la vida no basta (Because Life Is Not Enough), a biography of Spanish painter Miquel Barceló. Listen to him discuss this story on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tanya Sandler
Illustrator: Sally Deng

Published in December 2021.

SECRET

TO: VALPARAISO

FROM: EASTER

… THE SUBVERSIVE MOVEMENT IS MUCH MORE SERIOUS AND GRAVE THAN BELIEVED ON THE CONTINENT … THE SCHOOLTEACHER IS PREPARED TO GIVE HIS LIFE TO WIN FREEDOM … TO AVOID FATAL CONSEQUENCES URGENTLY SEND A SHIP TO RESTORE ORDER

Chapter One

No one in the Rapu household could sleep. It was early March 1955, and in the family’s three-room home in the hills above the village of Hanga Roa, Reina Haoa busied herself sewing clothes. Her husband, Elías, paced. The couple’s four eldest boys—Alfonso, Carlos, Sergio, and Rafael—huddled together in the living room watching their parents worry. There was not much to say. In the morning, 12-year-old Alfonso would leave Easter Island on a cargo ship called the Pinto. He would travel to the port city of Valparaíso, Chile. His parents could not tell him when he’d return home or when he might see them again, because they did not know. They also could not tell him much about where he was going. Neither of them had seen land beyond Easter Island’s shores.

The Pinto came once a year to deliver basic supplies: soap, flour, sugar, fabric. For the Rapanui, the annual arrival was bittersweet. Though other ships occasionally visited the island, they brought few if any of the necessities needed to sustain life. By the time the Pinto came in late summer, the pantries of Rapanui families were bare. Construction projects had stalled for lack of materials. The Pinto, the Rapanui’s only regular physical contact with the outside world, brought relief.

But for many, the ship’s arrival also provoked a simmering sense of dread. Along with supplies, the Pinto brought disease. Each year, in the weeks after the ship unloaded, kokongo—a catchall term for whatever germs the Chilean sailors were carrying—swept through Hanga Roa. It was common for kokongo to infect as much as half the population. By the time it abated, it usually had left several families grieving.

There was no one to complain to about these epidemics, at least no one who would listen. For several decades, the authorities on Easter Island had been foreigners who represented their own interests by keeping the Rapanui under their thumb. In 1898, a decade after Chile annexed the island, the Rapanui were rounded up and resettled on a few square miles of the western coast, centered on Hanga Roa. A network of fences known as the Wall, built by Rapanui men for menial wages, kept them there. Passage beyond the Wall—to visit ancestral lands, to explore or cultivate the countryside, or to leave the island entirely—was only possible with written permission from the island’s governor.

Over the decades, some Rapanui managed to leave the island, usually by taking jobs on the mainland with the Chilean military. Others resorted to more desperate measures. Some built rafts and set off over the horizon for Tahiti. A few of them made it, navigating the thousands of miles of ocean between Easter Island and French Polynesia by the stars. But the great majority—dozens of men—vanished in the vast Pacific.

Reina and Elías were born within the Wall, like their parents before them and their children after. There had been no way for them to leave. Their family grew almost every year, until Alfonso was the eldest of 11. He played soccer with friends and attended school most days. Like other young Rapanui children, he also spent long hours on his family’s plot of land, cultivating taro and sweet potatoes. Since there was no running water in Hanga Roa—and no ponds, streams, or lakes—the Rapu family collected rainwater in a cistern. It sometimes fell to Alfonso to skim the dead bugs and mold off the water’s surface.

There were other things—more brutal ones—that Alfonso accepted as normal at the time but would haunt him later. At the schoolhouse, nuns who delivered lessons in Spanish, a language their students barely understood, punished children with canes. At home, Elías was a menace. He chased Reina through the house and hit her. The children usually cowered; when they tried to intervene, Elías struck them. Domestic violence was endemic in Hanga Roa. A peaceful home was the outlier.

There were other horrors, including the constant threat of leprosy. When telltale sores appeared, breaking out on a temple, a forearm, or a bald scalp, the afflicted person was removed from the village and quarantined permanently at the island’s leper colony, at the base of the Terevaka volcano. When Alfonso was a child, his uncle worked at the colony, and sometimes brought him along to help. He got to know the place and the people condemned to live there. One man, Gabriel Hereveri, who had lost both hands and an eyelid to the disease, befriended Alfonso and told him stories of life on the island before the Wall went up, when the Rapanui were still free.

Alfonso had never seriously contemplated a life beyond the island. To the extent that he thought about his future at all, he imagined it taking place within the Wall. But Reina hoped for more. When she learned of a new program for educating Rapanui children in Chile—a humanitarian effort organized by the government—she lobbied her brother, who worked for the Navy, to ask his supervisors for a favor. Could they get her eldest son onto the list?

The supervisors said yes. Reina only found out the night before Alfonso was scheduled to depart on the Pinto.

The next morning, Alfonso and his parents went to Hanga Piko cove, where local fishermen launched their boats. The three gathered by the water’s edge, alongside 11 other children and their parents. Like Alfonso, these children, ranging in age from 12 to 15, were set to depart for Chile. They would be placed in boarding schools or with host families and enter the Chilean education system. They were the second cohort to participate in the program, and their families considered it a privilege.

Alfonso hugged his mother, who was weeping. When he turned to his father, he found that Elías was crying as well, which unsettled him.

Alfonso knew in a technical sense that he would board a ship, that the ship would sail over the horizon, and that he would disembark in a new land. But he had no ability to picture Valparaíso, a modern city of 400,000 people. He could not conceive of a journey of 2,300 miles, the distance to Chile, when the greatest expanse he had ever reckoned with was 14 miles on Easter Island—from the Poike Peninsula in the east to Rano Kau, a volcano, in the west.

Aboard the Pinto, he stood on the aft deck. As the ship shuddered and began motoring east, he kept his eyes fixed on Easter Island. For a couple of hours it receded. Then it disappeared over the horizon. All he could see was water. He broke down and sobbed.

In 1898, a decade after Chile annexed the island, the Rapanui were rounded up and resettled on a few square miles of the western coast.

Valparaíso came into view on the seventh day of the journey. As the Pinto approached, the city seemed to rise up over the ship. One of the busiest and richest ports in the Western hemisphere, Valparaíso buzzed with the activity of industrial cranes, thousands of car and truck engines, and the constant interchange of sailing ships, tankers, and tug boats. Ten-story towers and hulking neocolonial government buildings stood on the flat land at the water’s edge. The rest of the city—wealthy neighborhoods of Victorian houses and poor slums of multi-colored shanties—clung to the coastline’s steep hills, which residents ascended via funiculars.

Alfonso Rapu took in the staggering sight from the Pinto’s deck. He was about to set foot in a new world.

After a train ride over the foothills of the Andes, he arrived at a boarding school in downtown Santiago de Chile, a dense urban hub that was home to the president’s sprawling mansion and the headquarters of Chile’s banks and copper-mining corporations. The next several months were lonely and difficult. Rapu lived in a dormitory full of bunk beds, which during the week were occupied by children but sat empty on weekends; most students returned home to their families then, leaving Rapu alone. Yet even on weekdays he was isolated. He barely spoke Spanish. When teachers called on him in class, his speech was halting and accented. His classmates snickered and called him indio—Indian—a pejorative for anyone with non-European blood.

A 26-year-old social worker, Guacolda Zamorano, noticed Rapu at the school and worried over him. On weekdays, she checked on him during her breaks. On Friday afternoons, she left him with enough home-cooked meals to feed him through the weekend. Still, Zamorano felt she wasn’t doing enough. In the evenings, at her house in a suburban neighborhood, she talked to her husband, Manuel Nova, about Rapu. The boy needed more help, she said. He needed a home.

Early in the winter of 1955, Zamorano instructed Rapu to pack his things. She told her husband that the boy would be living with them for a while. He stayed for nearly nine years.

Rapu was given his own bedroom, a new wardrobe of chinos, button-downs, and loafers, and a makeshift family. Zamorano became, in every meaningful sense, Rapu’s second mother. She was warmer than Reina, who had always been protective of her children but came from a culture that tended not to shower them with affection. Children were liabilities and laborers; they were expected to fend for themselves and contribute what they could. Rapu had sometimes felt like a piece of property, particularly when his parents loaned him to the neighbors in exchange for an ox. The neighbors used Rapu for a day of labor in their field, while Reina and Elías used the beast to plow theirs. No one thought anything of the arrangement; it seemed like a square deal. But now that Rapu had seen something else—another life, another way to be a child—the memory rankled.

Zamorano tutored him in Spanish, and he made steady progress. Within a few years, he spoke the language fluently. He strove to catch up in other subjects, too. Every morning as he walked to the bus, he added up the numbers on his neighbors’ mailboxes to practice arithmetic. At school he started sitting in the first row of desks, focusing his attention on the teacher to help him ignore his classmates’ taunts, until finally, gratifyingly, they stopped.

As Rapu grew, his station among his classmates changed. By the age of 16, he had transformed; the scrawny child had become tall, muscular, and handsome. He was a capable soccer player and charming, with a winning smile and a quiet sense of humor. He had girlfriends. One summer he befriended the daughters of senator Salvador Allende. He spent afternoons with the Allendes by their pool. Once he even wore the future president’s swimming trunks.

For the first time in his life, Rapu had options, opportunities, and frivolous diversions—he had developed a weakness for orange Fanta. But in the midst of bourgeois bliss, something gnawed at him. He had not forgotten where he came from, and in a cruel way, the more comfortable he became in Santiago, the more distressed he felt whenever he thought of his family back on Easter Island.

One summer day in 1958, Rapu boarded the Pinto again in Valparaíso. He was headed home for his first visit since leaving the island three years earlier. After a weeklong journey, Rapu looked out over Hanga Roa bay as the ship’s crew dropped anchor. In the water below, he saw Rapanui men in white button-front shirts paddling fishing boats out to greet the Pinto’s sailors. This was a Rapanui custom that dated back centuries. When Dutch explorers first happened upon the island, men in canoes greeted them.

Rapu had watched this ritual from shore in his childhood. He knew these men; he had called some of them koro, a term of endearment that means “grandfather” in Rapanui. But now, as they approached the ship, he was startled by their appearance. He remembered them as strong and vital; these men looked hollowed out.

On shore, his parents and siblings greeted him. Reina and Elías looked unchanged, but his brothers and sisters were all new versions of themselves, some taller, some wider, some thinner. He had a week to spend with his family, the time it would take the Pinto to unpack its supplies and load up the annual production of wool from the sheep ranch that foreigners managed in the island’s interior. He spent most of his days with his brothers Carlos, Rafael, and Sergio. They had been his closest allies during his childhood, and he had missed them fiercely. But now that they were reunited, Rapu felt a distance between them that was difficult to bridge. When they asked him what life was like in Santiago, he didn’t know what to say. How could he explain attending soccer matches at Santiago’s 40,000-seat stadium? What could he tell his brothers, who were confined by the Wall, about weekends spent at his host family’s country cottage? What bothered him most, though, was that his brothers thought they were fine, that life on the island didn’t need to change. He had thought the same thing before he left.

Back in Santiago, Rapu spent long nights awake, staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, worrying about his brothers. As he neared adulthood, he also contemplated his future: which profession to pursue, where to live, what to make of his life. He decided to become a teacher.

As he neared university graduation in the early 1960s, Rapu considered various teaching positions—in Santiago, in the Lakes Region of southern Chile, and even one, offered through a U.S. State Department program, that would provide educational opportunities in the United States. But he could not push from his mind the circumstances of his brothers and the rest of the Rapanui. He had begun to wonder if there was something he could do to help.

He was still considering his options when he returned to Easter Island a second time, in 1962, and made a terrible discovery. The Rapanui community had suffered yet another trauma, and this one struck close to home.

In 1888, a Chilean delegation landed at Hanga Roa bay. They had come to lay claim to the island, one of the last uncolonized territories in Polynesia. There was a reason European powers had passed it over. It was distant from everything: 4,400 miles from New Zealand, 2,600 miles from Tahiti, 4,500 miles from Hawaii, and more than 2,000 miles from the South American ports of Valparaíso and Callao, in Peru. The island also seemed to hold little economic potential. The land was dry and hard to cultivate. There were no natural resources to speak of. And the population was too small—the number of Rapanui had dwindled to fewer than 200 by the time the Chilean delegation came—to be exploited as a labor force.

To Chile, though, the island had special value. Since the country had won its independence from Spain, it had strived to establish itself as a modern Western power. Chile’s elite—Spaniards and Italians with few familial ties to indigenous Americans—were expansionists and industrialists. They had turned the country into a mining behemoth and pushed its national boundaries south to the tip of the continent, taking land from the Mapuche people as they went, and north into territory seized from Bolivia and Peru. Now they were looking west. They wanted an offshore colony, a hallmark of the European powers they emulated. Easter Island was the best—really the only—option.

The leader of the 1888 delegation was a Navy captain named Policarpo Toro Hurtado, who was intent on colonizing the island. He had taken his case directly to the president, leaning on a combination of hyperbole and fantasy. In a report, he wrote that the island’s “fertile shores” would become Chile’s “Oasis in the Ocean,” even though the soil was volcanic and nearly barren. He claimed that the island lay in transpacific shipping lanes, which would make it a valuable stopover; in fact, Easter Island was hundreds of miles out of the way. The president had no way to verify what Toro said and didn’t care to. Now Toro had arrived to seize Easter Island for his people.

Chile’s first act of treachery on Easter Island was its first act of any kind there. Toro had brought with him two documents—one in Spanish, the other in a hybrid of Rapanui and Tahitian, the latter of which was commonly used in legal documents in the Pacific. The papers were intended to lay out an agreement between the Chilean government and native leaders. But the two texts didn’t match. The Rapanui and Tahitian words described a congenial alliance: Chile would become Easter Island’s protector and “friend of the land.” But the Spanish text said something altogether different. It stated that the Rapanui would cede the “full and entire sovereignty” of Easter Island to Chile, “forever and without reservation.” In front of Hanga Roa’s Catholic church, beneath a flagpole flying both the Chilean and Rapanui flags, the island’s king, Atamu Tekena, and a dozen other local leaders signed the Rapanui-Tahitian document with crosses drawn in black ink.

When Toro sailed off, he left behind three Chilean families. They were to be the first Chilean settlers on Easter Island, the foundation for the new colony that Toro envisioned. But things did not go as planned. The settlers’ crops failed, and they discovered that the only reservoir of fresh water on the island was inside the crater of Rano Kau, a four-mile climb up from Hanga Roa. They refused to ask for help from the Rapanui. After a disastrous year, two of the families abandoned the island, fleeing on a Chilean battleship. The third stayed behind but soon died. And just like that, Chile’s dream of a thriving colony in the Pacific collapsed.

Chile soon developed a case of buyer’s remorse and sought to offload its new territory. The Easter Island Exploitation Company, a joint British-Chilean venture, was glad to oblige. Under the terms of its long-term lease, the Company, as the Rapanui came to call it, could do as it pleased with the island and its people. Within a decade, the Company had confined the Rapanui, and leprosy, which had arrived with the Chileans, was spreading within the community.

In the summer of 1898, the Rapanui’s new king, Riro, marched to the Company’s island headquarters, a one-floor house with a wraparound balcony on a bluff outside Hanga Roa. Riro carried with him a list of grievances. He met with the Company’s manager, a Chilean named Alberto Sánchez Manterola, and demanded better pay and working conditions for the Rapanui men employed at the Company’s sheep ranch. When Sánchez refused, Riro asked for passage to Valparaíso. He wanted to appeal to higher authorities. Fine, Sánchez said—if he wished, Riro could even meet with the president of Chile.

A few weeks later, Riro departed for Valparaíso aboard the annual supply ship. He never returned. Nor did he ever meet with the president in Santiago. Upon Riro’s arrival, a Chilean employee of the Company took him drinking in Valparaíso’s taverns. The next day, the king died in a Navy hospital. The official cause of death was alcohol poisoning. The Rapanui, when they learned his fate, concluded that it had been poisoning of another kind. But no one would ever know for sure: Chilean Navy personnel dumped Riro’s body in an unmarked grave.

Riro’s death ended the first effort by the Rapanui to make their grievances heard in Chile. In the following decades, the government largely ignored Easter Island. Every ten years or so, a report about goings-on there, written by a passing explorer or a shipwrecked sailor, would make its way into the Chilean press. The dispatches described bleak conditions: crushing poverty, harsh discipline, disease. Next came a flurry of concern, often from Chile’s more humanitarian-minded Catholics: newspaper editorials, vows by politicians to aid the pascuenses (the Spanish term for the Rapanui), and recriminations against the Company. In 1947, a group of Chileans formed the Society of Friends of Easter Island to advocate for better conditions for the Rapanui. Members of the society lobbied the government to evict the Company from the island. In 1952, Chile did just that.

In the Company’s place, Chile installed the Navy. Now, instead of a corporate manager ruling the island and overseeing the sheep ranch, there was a naval governor. Usually a young captain looking for adventure, the governor served a term of one or two years, and he lived at Mataveri, the bluff outside Hanga Roa, in the same house the Company manager had occupied. During his tenure, the governor had total control over the island: He was ranch manager, police chief, mayor, judge, and jury.

How the Rapanui fared from one year to the next depended almost entirely on the current governor’s temperament. Some governors—the better ones—focused on ranch operations and mostly left the Rapanui to themselves. Others were cruel. In 1961, a particularly brutal governor arrived. A tall, fair-haired Chilean of British descent, John Martin viewed the Rapanui as disobedient charges who needed to be kept under control. Like the worst of his predecessors, he ordered his men to shave women’s heads as a form of discipline and locked men in the House of Stone, a small, square jailhouse that looked like a medieval castle in miniature. Martin let it be known that he would not hesitate to use violence as punishment for insubordination.

By the time Martin took command of Easter Island, Alfonso Rapu had been in Santiago for a few years. His brothers were now young men. Carlos, in particular, had undergone a dramatic change. At 15, he was the island’s star athlete. Fast and muscular, he was formidable on the soccer pitch. He was also a fitness buff. When he wasn’t playing soccer, he ran sprints. The Navy’s dentist on the island, a lieutenant named Julio Flores, took notice. Flores also passed his time working out—what else was there to do on Easter Island? Soon, Flores and Carlos were training together.

Reina and Elías were pleased. It was always good to have Chilean friends, who had access to better food and coveted goods, such as fabric and lumber. Once, Flores gifted the Rapus a radio, so they could listen to music on the island’s lone station. A relationship with a Chilean could also offer protection; the authorities were less likely to mete out capricious punishments to a Navy man’s friend.

Flores was charming, kind, and solicitous. His only quirk was that he disapproved of Carlos’s relationships with girls. When Carlos started dating a classmate, Flores complained to Reina that her son was spending too much time away from home, with his girlfriend. Reina figured Flores was just a traditional type who disapproved of frivolous romance.

But then strange things started happening. Once, Flores invited Carlos to go with him to Anakena, a beach beyond the Wall. Carlos jumped at the opportunity. But when he returned and Reina asked him about the excursion, he withdrew to his room and changed clothes. When she asked what was going on, he wouldn’t give an explanation. Another time, at a party, Flores hugged Carlos in a way that made the teenager uncomfortable and Carlos snapped at him. Later, Carlos told Hanga Roa’s mayor that Flores was a homosexual.

When John Martin heard of the accusation, the governor ordered his men to lock Carlos in the House of Stone. Here was an indio smearing the reputation of a Navy man; the governor wouldn’t stand for it. Carlos’s crime was lying. The next day, Martin’s men dragged Carlos out and beat him with a baton, just a few hundred feet from the Hanga Roa market, in full view of passersby.


Rapu’s visit to the island, shortly thereafter, would prove to be even more impactful than the first. His family told him what had happened to his brother, and Carlos showed him the wounds from the beating.

Back in Santiago, Rapu was haunted by the image of his brother’s scarred back and by the question of what he should do. He looked for answers in the university library, reading newspaper clippings about revolutions and civil rights movements around the world. He borrowed a biography of Mahatma Gandhi, whose model of anti-colonialism—nonviolence combined with an inclusive form of nationalism—especially appealed to him. There were people elsewhere who had been oppressed and then freed, or who had freed themselves. Why not the Rapanui?

In 1963, after Rapu had completed his studies, the Ministry of Education appointed him to serve as Hanga Roa’s schoolteacher. He would be the first Rapanui to fill the role, if he accepted the post. Rapu decided he would. He did not want to make a life for himself in Chile or the United States; he wanted to return home. A few months later, in January 1964, he boarded the cargo ship bound for Easter Island. This time, his passage was one-way.

Chapter Two

Rapu moved into his parents’ house and started making a new life for himself. Every morning, he walked out of the hills to the schoolhouse in the village center, where he gave lessons in Spanish and math. His students included both Rapanui and Chileans—the children of Navy officers and government functionaries. The students loved him. He taught bilingually so the Rapanui students wouldn’t fall behind. He connected with the Chileans by sharing stories from his life in Santiago. He was different from his predecessors in never striking his students. He considered himself a pacifist.

Rapu ate lunch with the nuns who ran the schoolhouse. They were not the nuns of his youth. These were young women in their twenties and thirties, and they became some of Rapu’s closest friends on the island. After almost a decade in Santiago, he felt that he had more in common with them than with his fellow Rapanui. The nuns could speak about politics and world events. Rapu was grateful for the camaraderie, but it pained him that he couldn’t find the same bond with the men and women he had grown up with, however hard he tried. When he tried to strike up conversations about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the fractious politics of mainland Chile, his Rapanui friends steered the conversation back toward familiar ground: fishing, the harvest, village gossip.

Rapu came to realize that he no longer fully belonged anywhere. He had been a foreigner in Santiago, and now he was an outsider on Easter Island.

He decided that the best thing he could do was educate people, and he wasn’t only thinking about children. If circumstances were going to improve for the Rapanui, he believed, they had to be literate in Spanish. Colonizers had deployed written language against the Rapanui from the beginning, when Policarpo Toro Hurtado used it to deceive the king. It was the secret code that had enabled generations of Company managers, in their frequent reports and telegrams, to represent themselves to the Chilean government as benevolent and responsible caretakers. Even visitors who had meant well—explorers and scientists, mostly—had described island life in their own terms, leaving the Rapanui voiceless before the wider world.

So in the evening, after the children went home, Rapu opened the schoolhouse to adults for literacy classes. These were well-attended, rowdy affairs. Fishermen, farmers, and homemakers packed the rows of desks. Rapu wrote Spanish words on the chalkboard and called on people to read them. When someone made a mistake, the class heckled them, but the mood was collegial. The adult students, Rapu saw, were like family to one another.

After class he trudged over the hills, exhausted, and collapsed into bed. During his first few months back home, this was all he did: fish, teach, and sleep. Was it what he had come back to do? Perhaps. But was it enough?


While Rapu settled into his routine, another young man, Jorge Portilla, was establishing his own domain at Mataveri. Portilla was the island’s new naval governor, replacing John Martin. He had arrived just two months before Rapu, in November 1963, accompanied by his wife and three young children.

There was no special reason that Portilla was chosen for the role. A third-generation Navy man, Portilla had joined the service as soon as he was able. Now 34, he had risen to the rank of captain. When he heard that the Navy was looking for applicants to serve as governor of Easter Island, he thought he would give it a go. He had always found the distant colony intriguing. Here was his chance to see it, and to have one last adventure before settling into midlife.

During their first months on the island, Portilla and his wife held court at Mataveri, hosting barbecues primarily for Chilean officials, though sometimes they invited Rapanui. Portilla joined the Navy soccer team—he played goalie—which consisted of officers and their Rapanui employees. On weekends, they faced off against Rapanui teams.

Portilla was a less fearsome leader than Martin had been. Under his administration there were no Navy-sanctioned beatings or head shavings. But he wasn’t a reformer. He was a paternalistic authoritarian. No Rapanui could go beyond the Wall or leave the island without his written permission. In Portilla’s view, this was how things should be.

Every Monday morning, dozens of Rapanui men amassed outside the front door of Portilla’s office in downtown Hanga Roa. They wore work clothes and milled about, waiting. To an outsider they might have looked like day laborers hoping to secure an honest wage. But here the men knew they would not be paid. They were partaking in a ritual known as State Mondays, the polite term used to describe weekly forced labor sessions.

Eventually, Portilla walked out his front door, stood on the building’s single step, and assessed the crowd. Then he broke them into several groups and gave orders for the day. Some Rapanui would do road repair work. Others would mend fences or storm damage to Navy buildings. The tasks varied according to the needs and whims of Portilla and his men.

Occasionally, the Rapanui grumbled about the work. Though technically any resistance was grounds for imprisonment, Portilla instead offered the men a brief pep talk. The labor was for the good of their own community, he said; the Rapanui were improving the island for themselves. His comments never addressed how exactly spending a Monday afternoon gardening in a Navy official’s yard for no money would help any Rapanui.

Rapu was exempt from State Mondays, as were all Rapanui men who had jobs at Navy headquarters or on the sheep ranch. But the sight of his friends, uncles, and cousins trudging to Portilla’s office every Monday distressed him. It wasn’t dignified, he thought, to be forced to work under threat of imprisonment. Rapu was reminded of how he had felt on his first visit home from Santiago, that something here was not right. His people, he now believed, had been beaten down, and they had lost sight of who they are.

So Rapu embarked on a new mission at the schoolhouse. He wanted the Rapanui to remember where they had come from, that they were the descendants of a great civilization, one that had learned to survive on this inhospitable island and built its famous moai statues. By 1964, most of the moai lay toppled and covered in lichen, surrounded by grazing sheep. Rapanui farmers plucked rocks from the ahu—the platforms the moai once stood upon—to build walls around their fields.

Rapu wanted to remind his people that the statues weren’t just ruins that littered the coastline. They were relics of a proud history, sacred monuments to the Rapanui’s ancestors.

He wanted the Rapanui to remember where they had come from, that they were the descendants of a great civilization.

Around a thousand years ago, a double-hulled sailing vessel ran onto the beach at Anakena Cove, on Easter Island’s northeastern coast. White sand formed a crescent around the bay. Beyond the beach stood a dense grove of towering palm trees.

The people who stepped off the vessel were the first to set foot on Easter Island. They were Polynesian scouts sent on a mission of exploration by their king. Finding the island was a stroke of luck. It was uninhabited and big enough to support a settlement. The scouts returned home to report their discovery. Sometime later, according to oral tradition, a small fleet landed in the same spot at Anakena, this time carrying not just young men but also women, children, and older male leaders, as well as seeds, plants, pigs, and chickens. This was the Rapanui’s ark.

Over the subsequent centuries, people fanned out across the island. They organized themselves into a network of cooperating clans, each controlling one slice of the island and the natural resources it contained. One clan had the best fishing cove, another the best pasture. Yet another looked after Rano Raraku, the volcano—also known as the quarry. This was where workers carved the moai.

In the Rapanui cosmos there is no heaven or hell; souls do not relocate after death. They inhabit grasses, mingle among their living relatives, or—in the case of exalted ancient leaders—take up residence in the moai. The moai thus had power, mana, over earthly events, which may explain why over time the people of Easter Island made them bigger, taller, and more ornate. At the peak of moai production, the statues were towering monuments. The biggest stood 30 feet tall, with a highly stylized face: a sharp jawline and an overlong, flared nose.

Sculptors carved a moai out of porous volcanic rock, right where it had hardened to the earth. When a statue was complete, they pried it from the ground and, with a system of ropes, stood it upright. Then they jostled it forward, a few feet at a time; men tilted it left while others tugged it forward on the right, and back and forth. With this technique, they transported statues weighing as much as a commercial airplane across the island. When they reached the coast, they used levers and ropes to hoist the statues onto the ahu.

The moai always faced inland, watching over the population. There was no reason for them to look seaward. For centuries no ships came over the horizon. Easter Island was like a lone planet floating through space.

Then, in 1722, three ships appeared. They were sent by the Dutch West India Company, and they marked the beginning of a new era. Over the next century and a half, until Chile’s annexation of the island, commercial ships, explorers, and settlers periodically landed on the Rapanui’s shores. Sometimes they engaged in trade, but more often they delivered calamity. The first three ships set the precedent: After sighting the island on Easter Sunday—hence the name they gave it—the crews landed, and the captains took a tour, guided by Rapanui leaders. When they returned to where they had left their men, the captains found carnage. Sailors had opened fire on a crowd of Rapanui men, killing nearly a dozen and wounding many more.

Later ships brought smallpox, and Peruvian slavers abducted men and transported them to South America. In 1868, a French pirate named Jean Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier set about transforming the island into his own personal fiefdom. He won some Rapanui allies, armed them, and terrorized a band of Jesuit missionaries who had settled in Hanga Roa, driving them and their followers from the island. Dutrou-Bornier ruled with impunity until one day, in 1876, three Rapanui men bludgeoned him to death.

Twenty-five years later, after the Company had taken over, the Rapanui attempted to topple a manager named Percival Edmunds. Led by a Rapanui woman named Angata, who claimed to be a prophet, a band of men slaughtered the Company’s cattle and marched on Company headquarters. As Edmunds bunkered at Mataveri, fearing for his life, a Chilean Navy ship landed. The sailors arrested two of the revolt’s male leaders and carried them back to Chile, breaking the spirit of the movement.

The assassination of Dutrou-Bornier was the first Rapanui uprising against a foreign authority. Angata’s revolt against the Company was the second. Alfonso Rapu, the quiet schoolteacher, would soon lead the third.

Chapter Three

Rapu started looking for ways to expand programming at the school, with an eye toward teaching Easter Island’s history. He partnered with Luis Paté, a popular fisherman, known to everyone as Papa Kiko, who had made it his life’s work to keep alive traditional songs and dances from the precolonial era. Papa Kiko and Rapu founded a dance troupe of children and teenagers. On weekends they met at the schoolhouse to craft traditional clothes—grass skirts, headdresses made of dried reeds—and to rehearse Papa Kiko’s music and dance steps.

To naval authorities the activity seemed innocuous, a way for the Rapanui to keep themselves busy. For Rapu it was a way of reintroducing himself to islanders, regaining their trust after so many years away, and reasserting his Rapanui identity. He was also creating a sense of community. In short, he was organizing.

Another center of influence had emerged at a campsite on the edge of Hanga Roa. In February 1964, a 40-foot schooner dropped anchor near the village. It belonged to a French adventurer, Francis Mazière, and his Tahitian wife, Tila. They had come to Easter Island, they said, to carry out a major archaeological research project. Without asking many questions, the Chilean government granted them permission to do their work, and Portilla and his wife gave them a dignified reception. But the Mazières did not socialize with the Chileans much after that. They were put off by the way Portilla stressed Chile’s European origins, as if to distance himself and his country from the indigenous people his country had displaced and dominated, including the Rapanui.

The Mazières were more interested in spending their time with locals. They set up camp and hired Rapanui men and women to help them with their fieldwork. Soon they were hosting campfire soirées, where they dropped hints that they might have a solution for the Rapanui’s problems: Leaders of several French Polynesian islands, including Tahiti, were working to form a new nation, the Polynesian Federation. Perhaps, the couple suggested, Easter Island could break away from Chile and join.

Rapu, who rarely attended the Mazières’ campfires, didn’t share the prevailing sentiment at the gatherings: He was not hostile to Chile, where he had spent so much of his life. His hope was not for Easter Island and Chile to separate, but for them to draw closer—for all Rapanui people to experience the privileges and freedoms he had enjoyed in Santiago. He wanted civil rights, not secession.

What’s more, he believed that the Navy had a role to play in bringing about change. In his view, John Martin, the governor who had ordered his brother beaten, was a bad actor, but that didn’t mean that the Navy itself was rotten. Rapu hoped Portilla might become his ally. Rapu taught the governor’s eldest daughter at the schoolhouse—she was an excellent pupil—and he found Portilla to be a responsible and engaged father. On the soccer pitch, their competitions were friendly. But Portilla soon disappointed Rapu by stymieing an initiative at the schoolhouse.

From his own experience, Rapu knew that young Rapanui children were often left alone while their parents worked. So he told the school’s head nun, Sister Petronila, that he wanted to create a kindergarten. It would give parents a place to deposit their kids during the day, and it would give Rapu and the nuns the opportunity to start educating children early. All Rapu needed was a field: Since the temperature on Easter Island hardly ever dropped below 60 degrees, and the schoolhouse was occupied, the kindergarten would be outside.

Sister Petronila explained the proposal to Portilla and asked for a plot of land. Portilla agreed, but the land he offered was a scrap of dirt, covered in low brush, at the edge of the village. It was too far from the school, and not nearly big enough to give kids room to play. When Rapu complained, Portilla didn’t budge.

Rapu next asked Portilla for better personal accommodations. He had learned from the nuns that there was a house in Hanga Roa, a few hundred feet from the school, that was officially designated for the island’s teacher. By rights, the Navy should have handed it over to Rapu. Instead, a Navy officer had made it his own.

Sister Petronila sent another petition to Portilla, who, sitting alone in his office, viewed it as reasonable. But he was nothing if not deferential to the chain of command, and he was unwilling to evict a fellow officer from the house without consulting his superiors in Valparaíso. In late August, he sent a telegram asking for guidance, and in response Valparaíso rejected Rapu’s request. Because he wasn’t married, authorities determined, he could remain with his parents. Portilla, ever the loyal Navy man, presented the decision as if he fully endorsed it.

Rapu was incensed and began reassessing his view of Portilla. The governor was mild mannered, yes. But in his official acts he was imperious, just like his predecessors. Rapu concluded that the governor didn’t regard the Rapanui as fellow citizens; he saw them as serfs.


On October 31, 1964, Guido Andrade, the Navy’s doctor on the island, threw a party. He had invited practically everyone in Hanga Roa to his small house, which he shared with his wife and daughters. The crowd overflowed from the living room onto the front stoop and into the street.

Andrade was perhaps the only person who comfortably straddled the divide between the Chileans and the Rapanui. If he received an invitation for a social engagement—a Navy dinner party or a backyard curanto, a communal cookout where pigs and yams were roasted in underground ovens covered by banana leaves—the answer was invariably yes. He could always be counted on to stay late and bring booze. And if he had once had a dalliance with a Rapanui teenager, well, most people chose to look past it. Life on the island could be monotonous, but Andrade never was.

No one else could have assembled the group that showed up that night. Portilla was there alongside island elders. Chilean sailors and young Rapanui men jostled for a spot near the bar.

At the end of the evening, Andrade quieted the crowd to give a speech. The intended audience, it seemed clear, was Andrade’s Rapanui friends, not the Chileans, much less Portilla. “Mi querido pueblo pascuense,” he began—my dear Easter Islanders. He had good news to share, he said. A new president had been elected in Chile. Eduardo Frei Montalva of the center-left Christian Democratic Party had promised in his campaign to be a reformer, and had even referenced the antiquated system of governance on Easter Island. The Rapanui should hope for a brighter future, Andrade said. Soon they might get relief from the “deficits of liberty” they had long endured.

Portilla, listening among the crowd, was furious. The next day, he summoned Andrade to his office.

“What are these deficits of liberty?” Portilla asked.

“There are many,” Andrade replied.

Portilla felt that Andrade’s speech was an act of insubordination. To Rapu it was an opening. It was the first time he had seen someone so brazenly defy naval authority. The episode made Rapu wonder what other kinds of resistance might be possible.

Germán Hotus, another guest at the party, had the same thought. Hotus had been a regular at the Mazières’ campfires, where he spoke openly of the Rapanui’s oppression and the need for reform. Throughout 1964, Hotus had spent many evenings visiting Rapanui families in their homes, listening to them talk about their hardships and telling them that life on the island needed to change. In the weeks after Andrade’s party, Rapu and Hotus met regularly at the schoolhouse or at Hotus’s home. They didn’t agree on all matters: Hotus was sympathetic to the Mazières’ separatism; Rapu still felt himself to be Chilean. But they shared the conviction that the Rapanui deserved a better life.

They also complemented each other. While Rapu could relate to the Chileans—and speak to them in Spanish—Hotus was a married father of nine who was employed at the village supply store. He was a man of the people. Rapu and Hotus became a team and started laying plans. They did not support violence, and neither aspired to be governor or king. Still, they believed that the Navy could be resisted, and that the regime on Easter Island could be prodded to change. They wanted to show the Rapanui how.

The Rapanui should hope for a brighter future, Andrade said. Soon they might get relief from the “deficits of liberty” they had long endured.

One day Rapu and Hotus learned that a Canadian naval ship had departed from Nova Scotia and was en route to Easter Island. Traveling on the Cape Scott was a team of scientists and physicians. They had received permission from Chile to land at Easter Island and study the Rapanui.

The whole idea bothered Rapu. What right did the Chilean government have to grant foreigners permission to inspect the Rapanui? But he and Hotus also sensed an opportunity. There was little that Chilean authorities and especially the Navy feared more than embarrassment on an international stage. With foreign observers on the island, Rapu and Hotus believed, the Navy would have to act with restraint, giving the two men more room to operate and to stage acts of defiance.

Rapu and Hotus began collaborating on a letter they intended to send to Chile’s new president. It would become a long document, incorporating the ideas of the men’s Rapanui allies: Rapu’s students from his night classes and Hotus’s contacts from his consciousness-raising tours of the community. It referenced Hotus’s interest in Easter Island seceding from Chile and joining the nascent Polynesian Federation, but it didn’t go so far as to endorse the idea. Longer passages were informed by Rapu’s Chilean patriotism, asserting a sense of common national identity and demanding full civil rights for islanders.

The men laid out the Rapanui’s grievances. “Mr. President,” they wrote, “what we want to say cannot be said here on the island.… We live under threat because if we speak freely the Governor says he will fire us from our jobs or send us to jail or that he’ll never let us travel to the Continent. This makes us live under a constant tyranny.” Their basic rights, they said, were infringed. They were not allowed to assemble without permission. Their Navy-controlled elections were not free and fair. They had been dehumanized by brutal punishments. They were confined to Hanga Roa. Their mother tongue was banned in radio communications.

In the face of these injustices, the letter’s demands were modest. They amounted, more or less, to a desire to be left alone. The Rapanui people, the letter said, were self-sufficient—“here, by our own initiative, we do everything.” All they wanted was a little bit of money to modernize. The funding should come from the proceeds of the sheep ranch, the letter said. The Rapanui would use it to buy machinery for a basic textile factory to avoid the cost of importing fabrics, for a woodworking shop to manufacture furniture, and for a cobbling facility to make and repair shoes. The Rapanui would also buy modern fishing and farming equipment. They would happily accept help from “civil, NOT MILITARY, technicians” to establish these new industries. Above all, they wanted the Navy to leave.

The letter was a cry for freedom. “We wish to be able to sing,” it concluded, “without being so ordered.” The plan was to smuggle several copies of the letter off the island and somehow, perhaps through the Chilean press, convey it to President Frei.

Rapu prepared the letter on a typewriter at the schoolhouse. Beneath the final paragraph, he typed the names of 45 influential Rapanui men; after each name he left a blank line. Then he sent two allies, Alberto Tepihi and Antonio Tepano, to collect signatures. He wanted the letter endorsed by the community’s prominent male citizens, which he hoped would make it more difficult to dismiss.

It was a risky gambit, because many of the men he listed opposed his vision for the future. Rapanui society was divided between those who wanted reform and those who didn’t. Some members of the Rapanui old guard, a contingent of men who held a variety of political sinecures doled out by the Navy, bristled at the notion of change. These men and their followers were a minority, but a sizable one, and they had access to more political power than Rapu’s supporters. Their leader was Hotus’s uncle Lázaro, the Navy-backed mayor of Hanga Roa.

Nonetheless, Rapu placed Lázaro’s name first on the list of signatories. He wagered it was worth a try to get the mayor and his allies to sign. Maybe asking them to sign a letter to the president would appeal to their egos. They might not even bother to read the letter—or they might not be able to. It was not lost on Rapu that, like the Chileans, he was exploiting his fellow Rapanui’s illiteracy, the very thing he was seeking to remedy in his evening classes. But in his mind, the ends justified the means.

Tepihi and Tepano spent a day crisscrossing Hanga Roa seeking out signatories. They added their own spin to Rapu’s plan: They told each man what they thought he wanted to hear. They told some that the letter was a New Year’s greeting for President Frei. They told others that it was a request for more resources for road construction. Around half the members of the old guard signed. When some, including Lázaro, refused, Tepihi and Tepano forged their signatures. When they returned to the schoolhouse, every signature line was filled out.

The next day, December 6, Hotus and Rapu convened a community meeting at the schoolhouse. They billed the event as an opportunity to discuss the upcoming election, scheduled for early January, for the positions of mayor and village councilors. All of Hanga Roa’s influential men showed up, including elders who supported Hotus and Rapu, and Lázaro’s cadre of loyalists. Lázaro opened the meeting. He listed the candidates—his political allies—who would be up for reelection, and who had been preapproved by Portilla. Then Rapu took the floor.

They should hold elections now, Rapu told the packed schoolhouse, and they should vote for whomever they wanted. When he asked the room who was in favor, almost everyone raised their hands. Lázaro tried to intervene, saying they couldn’t vote without the governor’s approval. Then Hotus cut in. The election, he said, was a matter for the Rapanui people and the Rapanui people alone. Never mind Portilla.

This was the second phase of Rapu and Hotus’s plan: to preempt the official election and hold a truly democratic vote. Hotus pulled out a page of handwritten notes and read the names of a new slate of candidates. They were fishermen and farmers, people who had attended Rapu’s literacy classes and the Mazières’ parties. Lázaro objected, saying that the new candidates were not suitable—they hadn’t been approved by the governor. Rapu backed up Hotus. The military, he said, should have nothing to do with the elections. Against Lázaro’s protest, the gathered men agreed to reconvene two days later for an election.

Lázaro marched to Portilla’s office and delivered a detailed report of the meeting at the schoolhouse. Portilla was alarmed by the Rapanui’s subversion of his authority, but he didn’t intervene. On December 8, Hanga Roa’s men returned to the schoolhouse to cast ballots. They elected the new slate of candidates and chose Rapu as mayor. Just as Rapu and Hotus had predicted, Portilla still took no action to punish them.

The Canadian ship was only days away. Nothing mattered more to Portilla than protecting the Navy’s reputation. He couldn’t lock up Hotus, much less Rapu. What would a team of Western scientists think if they discovered the island’s charismatic schoolteacher and newly elected mayor was a political prisoner?

On December 13, the Cape Scott dropped anchor in Hanga Roa bay. Portilla, accompanied by two military officials, greeted the foreign visitors. The expedition’s leader, Stanley Skoryna, would later write of how impressed he was by the young governor’s hospitality.

The next day, Rapu met Skoryna at the island’s naval hospital. As part of their research, the visitors wanted to conduct medical exams on every member of the Rapanui community. Rapu told Skoryna that he could help secure the cooperation of the village, as long as Skoryna agreed to some conditions: Women could only be examined by female doctors. All results would be shared with the subjects and their families. The Rapanui reserved the right to suspend the exams at any time. Finally, Rapu said, if the researchers wished to donate any supplies to the island as an act of goodwill, they should deal with Rapu directly, not the Navy.

A few days later, another opportunity to defy naval authority emerged. A cable from Chile’s Ministry of Public Works reached Portilla’s desk, requesting that the lone bulldozer on Easter Island be shipped to the mainland. The bulldozer had been brought in a few years earlier to dislodge a U.S. Air Force plane that had become stuck on the island’s dirt runway. Ever since, Chilean government functionaries on the island, alongside Rapanui laborers, had used the machine to build roads and boat ramps. The community had come to regard the bulldozer with a sense of pride: It was a symbol of modernity. No one in the Rapanui community would be pleased to see it go. Sure enough, as soon as Portilla instructed Navy officials to load the bulldozer onto the Cape Scott—the ship’s captain had agreed to transport it to Valparaíso—outrage spread through the village.

Within hours of Portilla’s order, Rapu told Humberto Paté, a Rapanui mechanic, to render the machine inoperable. The mission, Rapu told him, had to remain secret. That night, as Rapu taught his literacy class, Paté appeared at the schoolhouse door. The classroom went quiet. Paté held up a burlap bag.

“Teacher,” he said, “I’ve got the—”

Rapu cut him off. “Thank you, put it in the back,” he said. Turning to the class, Rapu said, “Humberto brought me some fuel.” In fact, the bag contained the bulldozer’s driveshaft.

The next day, when Portilla’s men tried to start up the bulldozer, they discovered that it was dead. Portilla was enraged. He had restrained himself up to that point, but he couldn’t tolerate sabotage. A few hours later, Sergio Piñeiro, the captain of the Chilean Air Force contingent on the island, approached Rapu outside the schoolhouse. “Teacher,” he said, “we’re going to Portilla’s.” Rapu got in the captain’s Jeep.

When he walked into Portilla’s office, Rapu found the room full. Portilla, two Navy officials, Lázaro, and two other members of the Rapanui old guard were seated around Portilla’s desk. Hotus was also there. Rapu sat down.

Portilla launched into a diatribe, accusing Rapu of inciting a “subversive movement.” Rapu argued that Portilla shouldn’t have authority in the first place. The leader of Easter Island should be a “native,” he said. Portilla was indignant. “I’m the governor,” he said. But now Rapu was picking up steam. The Navy had no business managing the ranch, he said; it should belong to the Rapanui. The Navy also shouldn’t occupy homes in Hanga Roa, including the teacher’s house; these structures belonged to the island’s people. The Rapanui must be free to move about, to visit the lands of their ancestors, to fish where they pleased.

Lázaro pointed out that people were already free to fish where they liked, as long as they got permission first. Portilla asked Rapu to consider how much the Navy gave the Rapanui, and how much worse things would be without Chile overseeing the island. “It is the bare minimum!” Rapu shot back. “The Navy is exploiting the ranch and keeping the profits!”

Portilla, flustered, tried to change tack. He brought up the bulldozer and its missing driveshaft. Rapu denied being involved and, seeking a way to escape the office, agreed to get to the bottom of the matter and help recover the part. Portilla extracted a promise from him: Rapu would deliver the driveshaft the next morning or there would be trouble.

The following day Portilla waited, but Rapu never came. It was the final straw. Portilla decided that, to restore order on the island before the situation escalated any further, he would have to call for help. He sat down at his desk and tapped out a telegram to Valparaíso. For the first time, he told his superiors that there was trouble on the island.

“We have discovered a subversive movement carried out by the islanders against the Navy,” he wrote. “The movement is led by the schoolteacher Alfonso Rapu (a native). … We suggest transport for the schoolteacher.”

The next day, Portilla got an answer. The message read: “The Commander in Chief of the Navy has approved the return of Alfonso Rapu to the continent aboard the Canadian transport Cape Scott.

Rapu argued that Portilla shouldn’t have authority in the first place. The leader of Easter Island should be a “native,” he said.

On an evening in mid-December, shortly before the Cape Scott departed the island, there was a farewell party—a traditional Rapanui sau sau, with singing, dancing, an open fire, and a roast. The researchers who had come on the ship would be staying for a while, so the islanders were sending off the Cape Scott’s foreign crew, as well as Dr. Andrade and his family. People thought Andrade was leaving of his own volition; he and his family had long said they planned to move back to Chile when the annual supply ship came—the Cape Scott just let them do so a bit earlier.

In fact, Portilla had ordered Andrade to leave. He suspected the doctor of being a collaborator with Rapu, and he had already sent accusations of subversion to his superiors. Andrade knew he was in trouble, but he didn’t let on at the party. He drank and danced, wearing white slacks and a white linen shirt. He didn’t want to spoil his last night on the island with any bad news.

Rapu was in attendance. He didn’t know about Andrade’s situation, or that Portilla was working to have him shipped to Chile, too. But as he chatted with friends, he overheard snippets of other conversations nearby.

“…the people who believe they’re educated and superior…”

“…disappear from the island…”

“…going to scare them off like rats.”

He wasn’t sure what the comments meant, if anything, but he found them strange.

That night around 11:30, on his walk home in the hills, Rapu saw a man coming toward him. In the dark, Rapu couldn’t make out who it was. When the man spoke, it was in a Chilean accent. “You need to hide,” the man said as he passed by and disappeared into the dark. Rapu was spooked. Instead of continuing home, he followed dirt trails winding through farm fields until he reached his grandmother’s house, where he had lived as a young child. He lay down on the floor with a blanket and went to sleep.

The next morning, Portilla ordered his men to find Rapu and Hotus, whom the governor also wanted to send to Chile, and bring them to the Cape Scott. Under normal circumstances, finding anyone in Hanga Roa was a simple matter. There were fewer than 2,000 people on Easter Island, and everyone knew everyone else. But as Portilla and his men canvassed locals, they found that no one knew where Rapu and Hotus were.

Juan Edmunds, a Rapanui man from the old guard, told Portilla that Rapu was hiding at his uncle’s house. Portilla drove across town in his Jeep, but Rapu wasn’t there. Another Chilean officer heard that Rapu was at the home of a government functionary, Nicolai Escalante, who was viewed as sympathetic to the Rapanui cause. Escalante, bewildered, pleaded ignorance. Meanwhile, Lázaro knocked on the door of his nephew’s home and demanded that Hotus’s wife turn him over. She answered, honestly, that she had no idea where he was.

Still bunkering at his grandmother’s house, Rapu sent his brother Carlos, who had joined him, down to the village to find out what was going on. As Carlos approached their parents’ house, he spotted Portilla, accompanied by several military men, at the front door. Hidden in the brush, Carlos watched Portilla talking to his mother. Then he raced back to warn his brother. The Navy was after him, Carlos said.

Rapu had been in a kind of denial—he had believed that if his intentions were pure, and people understood them, the outcomes of his actions would be just. Now he understood that the Navy meant to ship him off the island like the disappeared lieutenants of Angata, the supposed prophet, half a century before. He told Carlos to descend to the village again, carefully, to gather supplies and a few trusted friends. Then they would venture beyond the Wall, into the island’s interior.


The Cape Scott departed on schedule, without Rapu or Hotus on board. Portilla had failed. The governor watched the ship leave, then returned to his office and notified Valparaíso. “It was not possible to embark the schoolteacher Alfonso Rapu,” he wrote in a telegram. “He is hiding, presumably on the island, protected by islanders. … The bulldozer was not sent to the continent [either] because it was impossible to move. … The situation is serious.”

Portilla wondered if the Rapanui who denied knowing where the men were had done so not out of ignorance but to deceive him. What if the whole village was behind Rapu and Hotus? Portilla’s fear only deepened when Lázaro came to see him and reported a rumor: Lázaro claimed that Rapu’s true objective was for Easter Island to secede from Chile. The schoolhouse election, the sabotage of the bulldozer, Rapu’s flight to the interior—these, Lázaro said, were the opening salvos in a revolution.

The accusation was false—Rapu had never sympathized with the secessionist agenda of the Mazières, who had departed the island in November—but the truth was not what mattered, at least for now. Portilla believed Lázaro’s claim, and it frightened him. It seemed clear to the governor that Rapu was the main instigator of the brewing rebellion. Now Portilla tried to mount a haphazard counterinsurgency campaign. He held conciliatory meetings with members of the Rapanui community at the schoolhouse and in his office. He hoped to show that he did care about the people, their well-being, their future.

But on December 23, after two days of these meetings, Portilla saw how futile his outreach had been. That afternoon a new rumor—another false one—spread through the village: Rapu had been detained, and the Navy was holding him as a political prisoner. By the evening, virtually every resident of Hanga Roa had heard this report, and Rapu’s supporters took to the streets. Wielding clubs and farm implements, they marched down the village’s roads. They descended on a government building where they believed Rapu was being held. In the dark, they shouted in Rapanui and Spanish, demanding the teacher’s release, until the crowd, realizing that Rapu was not there, dispersed.

The next morning, Portilla sent yet another telegram to Valparaíso. This time he asked for reinforcements. “The community supports the subversive movement,” he wrote. “The goal is to secede from Chile.” It was “necessary,” he went on, “to send a ship as soon as possible.”

Portilla did not know that another message was on its way to Chile. Sister Esperanza, a nun who was friendly with Rapu, had secured passage from Easter Island on the Cape Scott. She was carrying precious cargo: Sealed in an envelope and tucked in her bag was the letter addressed to President Frei, signed by Rapanui leaders, demanding liberty for their people.

Chapter Four

On December 26, in Valparaíso, second lieutenant Germán Goddard Dufeu of the Chilean Navy received word that there was trouble on Easter Island. The news was confusing—and alarming. There was talk of insubordination, foreign influence, and mutiny by a Chilean naval official (meaning Andrade). Dufeu and his crewmates soon received orders to prepare their ship, the Yelcho, and a contingent of marines to depart for Easter Island. At the Valparaíso barracks, men assembled supplies and armaments for the mission. Based on the little information available, they assumed they would ship out soon to quell a violent rebellion.

That same day, the news leaked to Chilean papers that there was trouble in the country’s island colony. Reporters in Santiago peppered government officials with questions. “Everything is normal on the island,” a Navy spokesperson said, insisting that the military was not in any way cruel to the Rapanui. The denials had little effect, and the news of turmoil on Easter Island soon appeared in international papers, including The New York Times.

On December 28, Frei met with his top cabinet ministers at his official residence. His administration was already under pressure from some domestic critics and a handful of international allies to reform the regime on Easter Island. The last thing Frei needed was a charismatic freedom fighter capturing news interest and intensifying these demands.

Another threat loomed—or at least the administration believed it did. Portilla had accepted as fact that Rapu wanted Easter Island to secede from Chile, and he had conveyed as much to the government. Now, in the December 28 meeting, defense minister Juan de Dios Carmona told Frei that a French warship was sailing across the Pacific toward Easter Island. It was a coincidence that the French vessel was in the ocean at the time, but that’s not how the government ministers understood it: They saw a provocation—a first move, perhaps. After all, Francis Mazière, one of the people who had encouraged the Rapanui to secede from Chile, was French. Maybe the ship was on its way to help the cause of independence.

Dios Carmona told the president the ship could not be allowed to reach the island. Frei ordered the Yelcho mission to proceed; he wanted troops in Hanga Roa as soon as possible.

The day after the cabinet meeting, the Cape Scott dropped its ramp onto a pier in Valparaíso. Reporters, Rapanui expats, and curious Chileans crowded the dock. As the press clamored for answers, Sister Esperanza emerged from the ship in her black habit. She ignored the questions shouted at her and advanced through the crowd, Rapu’s letter to the president still safe in her bag.


Rapu didn’t know that he had sent his letter to a government that now viewed him as a secessionist, a traitor. Five days earlier, as the Cape Scott departed Easter Island, he had ridden into the island’s interior on horseback. He traveled with two of his brothers, Rafael and Carlos, and a friend, Sorobabel Fati, who had become a trusted lieutenant. With military Jeeps roving Hanga Roa’s dirt roads searching for him, Rapu decided that his best option was to disappear into the countryside. The Chilean Navy had never bothered to master the terrain. With the Rapanui confined within the Wall, and only a few government functionaries managing the sheep ranch, why would it?

Although confined for generations, the Rapanui still had knowledge of the landscape, passed down through oral tradition and preserved by whatever trips to the interior had been possible over the years. Rapu headed for the island’s caves. With the entrances hidden from view by tall grass, the caves were subterranean pockets in the island’s volcanic foundation. For centuries the Rapanui took shelter in them at moments of crisis: during the battles against the pirate Dutrou-Bornier, and during the Chilean crackdown following Angata’s revolt. Now Rapu needed them. He spent his first night as a fugitive in a cave just beyond the hills over Hanga Roa. (Hotus was hiding elsewhere, lest the two men be caught together.)

Down in the village, Portilla, Piñeiro, and their subordinates continued searching. Most of Rapu’s supporters didn’t know where he was—he’d kept his journey to the interior strictly need-to-know—but dozens of them decided to show their solidarity by setting up camp in his parents’ front yard. They held curantos, sang traditional songs, and debated the island’s political future. It was a kind of vigil, and also an act of resistance against the Navy.

Rapu moved to a new hiding spot every 24 hours. He spent one day at the base of the Terevaka volcano. The next night he trekked across the island and camped on the Poike peninsula. Friends shuttled food and supplies to him. During the first week, they also brought information, tidbits they’d gleaned from sympathetic Chileans who knew what was happening on the mainland. Andrade arrested in Valparaíso. Armed marines on the way.

In Hanga Roa, Rapu’s supporters sensed that a fight was coming. One evening, a Canadian doctor was walking with a Rapanui friend, a woman, when Portilla sped by them in his Jeep. The Rapanui woman gestured toward Portilla, as if holding a rifle. “There will be blood,” she said.

With military Jeeps roving Hanga Roa’s dirt roads searching for him, Rapu decided that his best option was to disappear into the countryside.

On January 5, 1965, the Yelcho anchored in Hanga Roa bay. The men on board were prepared for battle and its aftermath. Commander Guillermo Rojas would lead the contingent of marines onto the island. A Navy prosecutor, Aldo Montagna, was on hand to initiate criminal proceedings against any captured rebels. And John Martin, the brutal former governor who had ordered Rapu’s brother beaten in the street, was there as a purported expert on the island and a liaison to its people.

As the three men approached land, they heard singing. Drawing closer, they saw women on the coastline dancing in grass skirts. When they stepped onto shore, the women approached and hung flower garlands around their necks.

The Chileans were stunned, which was exactly what Rapu had hoped for. While in hiding, he had engineered the welcome party with the goal of psychologically disarming the marines. The plan seemed to work. Rojas took the welcome party as a sign that the Rapanui viewed him as their savior. “Extraordinarily affectionate reception for the Delegate,” he wrote in a report to his superiors, referring to himself. “Frightened community anxiously awaited [my] arrival.” (Rojas also concluded that Martin was “very loved” by the people.)

As the marines set up camp, Rojas marched into town. He had gotten wind of a meeting at the schoolhouse. When he arrived, he found the building full. Rapanui women and men—all supporters of Rapu—had gathered to draft a list of demands. When Rojas strode in, the room went quiet. He began explaining how he would solve the island’s problems. He would restore order and Navy rule. He spoke slowly, deliberately, as if to children. The Rapanui, he later wrote, lacked “sufficient mental agility to relate or comprehend multiple consecutive ideas.”

Rapu’s supporters responded politely and moved toward the exits. Rojas was pleased. “Very good disposition toward the Delegate,” he wrote in his report. “[The] meeting dissolved within five minutes once I explained how I am going to solve the situation.” Rojas concluded: “It appears the inhabitants do not desire laws that would deprive them of the Navy.”

Like his response to the welcome party, Rojas’s gullible reaction to the schoolhouse meeting seemed to lessen the risk of bloodshed. The next day, Rapu felt safe enough to come out of hiding for an interview with Rojas and Montagna, the prosecutor. Rapu still clung to the hope that if only he could explain what he wanted—integration with Chile, basic rights for his people—the authorities just might grant it. Perhaps, Rapu thought, Rojas’s mind had been opened by what he’d seen on Easter Island so far.

The men met at the courthouse. Rapu sat down across from Rojas and Montagna, and a Navy officer asked him to identify himself.

“Alfonso Rapu.”

“Twenty-two.”

“Single.”

“Literate.”

“Native of Easter Island.”

As the interview proceeded, Rapu presented himself as a leader of his people, but also as a good citizen not trying to cause trouble. “Throughout 1964, I carried out my work as the island’s teacher and met the obligations of my job in the normal manner,” he said. He emphasized that his loyalties lay with Chile. He had disliked the Mazières’ pro-Polynesian “propaganda,” because he viewed it as “anti-patriotic,” he said. Portilla, he claimed, was the true source of conflict, a volatile and paranoid leader who had brought Hanga Roa to the brink of violence. Rapu laid out some of the demands that Portilla had refused to accede to—demands, Rapu said, that came from discussions with his fellow Rapanui. Chief among them were that natives be allowed to move freely about the island, and that the results of their democratic elections be respected by Chile.

The interview ended, and Rojas dismissed Rapu. At the very least, Rapu felt that he had achieved a kind of détente, and he returned to his parents’ house to decide on his next move. Hotus was also interviewed by the Chileans and released.

These conversations convinced Rojas that Rapu was the leader with ideas and influence. Rojas wasn’t alone: Events on the mainland were raising Rapu’s profile—and changing the state of play on Easter Island once again.

On January 6, the Santiago newspaper Última Hora published the Rapanui’s letter to the president. “Exclusive! Pascuenses send a letter to Frei,” the headline read. “They describe abuses committed against them.” Along with the letter, the paper ran a glowing profile of Rapu. “Alfonso Rapu, a 22-year-old teacher, is the leader of Easter Island,” it declared.

The letter caused a sensation. In the following days, other newspapers in Valparaíso and Santiago covered it or ran excerpts. Inside the government, the letter heightened the sense of emergency. The schoolteacher seemed to have outwitted Frei’s administration, influenced media coverage, and shaped public opinion from 2,000 miles away. Among the letter’s accusations of head shavings, whippings, and other abuses, one line stood out to Chile’s leaders: “We have heard from people from other islands who share our Polynesian blood that our conditions would be better if we joined the Union of the Islands of Polynesia.” Rapu had tried to hedge, writing in the next sentence, “We don’t want to consider these propositions.” But it was the implied threat of secession—not the disclaimer—that attracted notice.

The Chilean congress passed emergency legislation that changed Easter Island from a territory into a “sub-commune” of the Region of Valparaíso. The new status was intended to more firmly attach the island to the country, making secession a complicated prospect. On the morning of January 8, word of the letter and the legislation reached Rojas on Easter Island via telegram. The message highlighted the risk of Easter Island joining the Polynesian Federation. It listed the name of every man whose signature appeared on the Rapanui’s letter. And it requested that Rojas and his men “investigate veracity of … the accusations” of abuse made against the Navy.

Rojas was blindsided. He had thought the situation on the island was under control. What the telegram reported was an outrage and a humiliation. The Rapanui were publicly questioning the integrity of Chilean officers, including John Martin, now serving by Rojas’s side.

When Rojas finished reading the telegram, he ordered his men to search Hanga Roa. They were to round up every Rapanui man who had signed the letter.

Within hours, officers were interrogating the men one by one. When Papa Kiko, the leader of the children’s song and dance troupe, was asked if he had signed the letter, he said that he had. Asked if the letter was accurate, he said that it was. Martin flew into a rage, his face turning red. He had known the Rapanui, and Papa Kiko in particular, to be docile, compliant. He was frustrated—offended even—that the old man had joined Rapu’s rebellion. “Now I’m hearing you’re with them, too,” Martin said. Papa Kiko refused to budge; he stood by the letter. The marines led him from the office and locked him in the House of Stone.

Other Rapanui men who affirmed their support of the letter were thrown in jail. Some disavowed it under pressure. And those whose signatures had been forged said as much—they blamed Rapu and Hotus.

Following the interrogations, Rojas sent a missive to Valparaíso. Rapu and Hotus were the authors of the letter, he reported, the contents of which were false. The signatures, he added, had been obtained “fraudulently.” Both Rapu and Hotus would be arrested.

Since his interview, Rapu had been at his parents’ house. On the afternoon of January 8, as Rojas and Martin questioned and jailed his supporters, Rapu received updates from friends. He saw that his options were narrowing. Judging from the reports he was receiving, the Chilean soldiers who had arrived on the Yelcho were becoming increasingly agitated. Even if he fled into the hills again, he could not hide forever. When the headlights of a Navy Jeep strafed his parents’ windows that evening, Rapu decided to turn himself in.

He walked out the front door to find Martin and a marine, both armed, waiting for him. Martin told Rapu that he was under arrest. The former governor also instructed him to summon his brother Rafael, who was only 17, but known to be one of Rapu’s most active and loyal helpers. The Navy wanted to speak with him, too. The two brothers walked down the steps from their parents’ patio and clambered into the Jeep’s back seat. As the vehicle rattled down the dirt road toward Hanga Roa, Rafael looked down at his elder brother’s legs. They were trembling.

When Rojas finished reading the telegram, he ordered his men to search Hanga Roa. They were to round up every Rapanui man who had signed the letter.

The Jeep rolled to a stop outside the courthouse. Martin escorted Rapu inside, to the same room where he had been interviewed before. Rojas and Montagna were there, and so was a Navy officer sitting behind a typewriter. (Portilla, whom Rojas had decided was an ineffective leader, had been sidelined.) Martin instructed Rapu to sit down, then Rojas placed a piece of paper on the table in front of him. It was the telegram Rojas had received that morning, describing the letter sent to Frei.

“Did you write the letter?” Rojas asked.

Rapu said that he had.

As the questioning continued, Rapu feared that it was little more than pretext, and that the marines would soon carry him to the Yelcho. He was certain that if he boarded the ship, he would never make it off alive. He imagined being thrown overboard, and the marines explaining themselves when they reached Valparaíso. They would say he leapt into the ocean like other Rapanui men before him, those who a century before had chosen death after being captured by slavers. Rapu would become a martyr to the Rapanui, but he would always be a fool to the Chileans, like Riro, the poisoned king.

After an hour, Rojas stood up. In the name of the government and the Navy of Chile, he said, “Lo declaro reo”—you are a prisoner.

Outside, unbeknownst to Rapu or his interrogators, a rescue operation was under way. After Rapu was arrested, his supporters had mobilized. Their plan was slapdash: The road to the government building where Rapu was being questioned was separated from the rest of Hanga Roa by a ditch dug into the street, with metal slats laid across it to allow vehicles to pass. Martin’s Jeep had trundled over them to deliver Rapu to Rojas. Now several of Rapu’s supporters pulled up the slats and threw them aside, leaving the road unpassable by vehicles. If the marines wanted to take Rapu to the Yelcho, they would have to do it on foot—and get past the Rapanui.

A mob of women, including Reina, Rapu’s mother, amassed behind the stone wall outside the courthouse. Their men stayed behind them; Rapu’s supporters had decided that women should form the front line, because the marines would be less likely to shoot them. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the women watched the building’s door, waiting for Rapu and his captors to emerge.

Inside, Rojas ordered two of his men to take Rapu to the marines’ encampment, to prepare for his removal from the island. As he was escorted toward the door, Rapu heard a murmur of voices outside. As soon as he walked out, the Rapanui women climbed over the wall and rushed toward Rapu and the marines, yelling. As the mob closed in, one woman, Herencia Teao, grabbed Rapu’s arm and pulled him toward her.

The marines tried to wrestle Rapu back into their custody, but the women struck them. One marine fired a pistol into the air—a warning shot—but the women did not relent. Keeping the marines at bay, and Rapu protected in their midst, the women moved as a group toward the coastline, until they reached the edge of the camp where the foreign researchers who had arrived on the Cape Scott were staying. This, the Rapanui believed, was the only safe harbor on their occupied island. As they pushed their way into the camp, chests heaving, several women told the bewildered researchers to start filming—the Rapanui were sure that the only thing that could protect them from foreign guns was foreign eyes.

Seconds later, a handful of armed marines came into the camp. One, brandishing a pistol, rushed toward Rapu. But Rojas, who entered the compound next, ordered the marines to stand down. Rapu, who had been hunched over catching his breath, stood up to face his adversary.

Rojas had two options. Outnumbered by the Rapanui, and in full view of Europeans and North Americans, he could try to take Rapu by force. Or he could deescalate. Rojas told his men to wait outside the camp and asked the foreign researchers to attend to any injured women. For the next two hours, Rojas and Rapu did a strange dance. Rojas walked through the camp speaking with groups of Rapanui, asking them to go home and assuring them that Rapu would not be harmed. Rapu, for his part, kept his distance. He did not want any Chileans to come near him. Eventually, Rojas sent Rafael Haoa—Rapu’s uncle, a Navy translator—to speak with him.

Were the rumors true, his uncle asked—did he want to secede from Chile? Rapu insisted once again that he wanted nothing of the sort. He wanted Easter Island and the Rapanui to be more Chilean, not less. The uncle returned to Rojas, conferred with him, and then delivered another message to Rapu. He was free to go, on one condition: He had to meet with Rojas peacefully the next morning. Rapu agreed.

Outside the camp’s rear gate, Rapu’s brother Rafael and another supporter were waiting for him with a horse. Rapu mounted it and rode out of the village alone, to spend one more night hiding in the interior. The next day, he had insisted, he would not go to the courthouse again. This time Rojas would have to come to him.


Rojas arrived at Rapu’s parents’ house by Jeep, accompanied by Martin. Rapu told the men that Martin wasn’t allowed inside, so Rojas agreed to meet with him alone. The naval commander had come to make a deal.

The balance of power on Easter Island had shifted. The Chileans had guns, radios, Jeeps, and the only ship for thousands of miles, but Rapu’s little revolution had managed to render all these resources moot. It was clear he wouldn’t be taken without a fight, which was likely to create a political nightmare for Chile. The Rapanui wouldn’t stand for it, and the foreign researchers would bear witness to whatever happened. Plus, since the publication of the Rapanui’s letter, public opinion on the mainland had swung in the islanders’ favor.

Rojas told Rapu that he needed his help. Together, they had to turn down the temperature on the island, lest the circumstances become explosive. Rojas asked Rapu to reassure his followers that Rojas could be trusted. In return, Rojas would give Rapu something no Chilean had ever offered to the Rapanui before. “We’ll hold an election,” Rojas said, for local officials. If Rapu really represented the people’s interests, as he claimed, they could elect him mayor. Or they could vote for the old guard and choose the status quo. “We’ll let the people decide,” Rojas said.

The next morning, a Sunday, Rojas and Martin gathered the Rapanui community in the plaza in front of Hanga Roa’s Catholic church to make an announcement. Martin addressed the crowd in Spanish. New elections for mayor and three councilors would be held on Tuesday, he said. Any Rapanui could be nominated—no approval from the Navy was required. Then he described the qualifications for voting, including one important change: For the first time, Rapanui women would be allowed to cast ballots.

At eight o’clock sharp on the morning of January 12, voters lined up outside the schoolhouse. They wore their Sunday best: men in blue and tan suits, hair parted and gelled; women in dresses cinched at the waist. Each voter identified themselves, and then approached a chalkboard where a list of candidates was written. Alfonso Rapu was up there, as were Germán Hotus and Jorge Tepano, another of Rapu’s lieutenants. Representing the old guard were some of Rapu’s adversaries, including Felipe Pakarati and Miguel Teao. Each voter called out their choice, and a Rapanui official repeated it. A stick of chalk was used to add a mark beneath the candidate’s name on the board.

By four in the afternoon, there were 286 marks. Only four candidates had received more than ten votes. Pakarati and Hotus each had 56 votes, while Tepano had 65. Rapu, with 99 votes, had won decisively. He would be mayor, and the runners-up would be the village’s three councilors.

The next morning at the governor’s office, before a crowd of supporters, Rojas swore in Rapu as Hanga Roa’s first democratically elected mayor, recognized by the Chilean state. Navy officials hoisted a Chilean flag, and Rojas led a rendition of the national anthem. “Beloved homeland, may you be either a tomb of the free or a refuge from oppression,” the Rapanui and Chilean marines sang in unison.

When the anthem ended, Rapu’s supporters surged forward. Singing now in Rapanui, they embraced Rapu and threw flower petals in the air. Then they formed rows and, behind their new leader, paraded through Hanga Roa, singing songs passed down from their ancestors.

Chapter Five

The transition from military to civilian rule was not immediate. The Navy maintained some authority for another year, and there were setbacks even as the institution relinquished control over the island. In early 1966, a new naval governor, appointed by the Chilean government to replace Portilla, overturned the results of the mayoral election, the one Rapu had won, and installed Miguel Teao in his place. But the Rapanui wrote a new letter to President Frei, complaining of the usurpation, and Rapu won back his position in the next election.

No one accepted responsibility for the excesses of the regime. The only Navy men penalized for their conduct on Easter Island were Portilla and Andrade: Portilla for failing to control the Rapanui, and Andrade for supporting Rapu and his allies. (Andrade was convicted of mutiny and jailed; his son says that he was tortured in prison, and he later went into exile.)

In February 1966, Frei signed an act that came to be known as the Ley Pascua, the Easter Island Law. It granted the Rapanui the full benefits of Chilean citizenship and the same civil rights as those living on the mainland. The law’s passage marked the final triumph of Rapu’s movement: His people could no longer be abused with impunity. They could no longer be detained on their own land. They were no longer serfs.

One of Rapu’s first acts as mayor had been to install a freshwater well. He turned his attention to electricity next. Water, light, food—he started with the basics, eliminating the material deprivation that his people had long endured. After the Ley Pascua was enacted, modernization accelerated. The Wall, now an unpatrolled artifact of the old regime, was dismantled bit by bit and repurposed as fencing around Rapanui farmers’ fields. By the end of the 1960s, supply ships were arriving twice a year. The following decade, it was every three months. In 1984, the president of Chile appointed Sergio, Rapu’s brother, as the island’s governor—the first Rapanui to serve in the role.

By then, Rapu himself had long been out of power. After his two-year term as mayor, he had declined to run again, even though some of his supporters urged him to. He withdrew from politics and became a farmer.


There is little trace of the revolution in present-day Hanga Roa. There is no Alfonso Rapu Avenue, no memorial honoring the women who rescued him in January 1965. It may be because Rapu himself simply got on with his life. His supporters did the same, or left the island for good. Germán Hotus was one of the first to go. After Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, Hotus fled to Tahiti, where he lived the rest of his life in exile. Rapu’s brother Sergio eventually made a life for himself abroad, studying archaeology in the United States, before returning to the island and making major discoveries about its ancient history.

Some surviving members of the old guard eventually had a change of heart and decided that Rapu’s revolution was for the greater good. Others told me that Rapu “did things the wrong way,” and a few still insisted he was a separatist, despite all evidence to the contrary. Lázaro, Rapu’s onetime nemesis, was suffering from dementia when I met him in 2012. A niece tried to help us talk, translating between Spanish and Rapanui, but Lázaro grew frustrated: It seemed that he remembered the events I was asking about, but couldn’t form the sentences to describe them. Finally, he gave up and told me, haltingly, “You should go talk to Alfonso. He’ll tell you everything. But don’t tell anyone I sent you.”

When I arrived at Rapu’s address, I passed through a gate in a wall made of maroon volcanic stone. Inside was a courtyard bordered by banana trees. Rapu’s modest one-story home sat on one side; on another was a row of motel rooms. At the time, Rapu and his wife, Carmen Cardinali, rented the rooms to tourists who came to Easter Island, mostly to see the moai. Rapu, who at 69 was tall and tan, with a lightly weathered face and a slight stoop, emerged from a sliding door and welcomed me inside.

We took a seat at the kitchen table, and he poured me a glass of ice water with a pale-yellow tinge. He had used a pineapple shell to imbue the liquid with flavor, he said. He didn’t like to waste any part of the fruit that was his livelihood; Rapu now spent his days growing and harvesting pineapples.

Over the next several weeks, we met for hours at a time to talk. Rapu told me about the movement of 1964, but eventually he tired of sit-down interviews and said that if I wanted to hear more, I should join him on his farm. He could use another set of hands anyway. We would drive out to his fields after lunchtime. The route took us over the hills that border Hanga Roa and past his grandmother’s house, where he spent much of his childhood and first took refuge when the Navy tried to capture him. We rattled over dirt roads—Rapu drove a rusted pickup truck with barely functioning suspension—until we reached the low, rolling hills of the island’s interior. They were covered in high grasses; when the wind blew, they looked like waves. Before Rapu’s rebellion, this space was off-limits to any Rapanui not employed by the sheep ranch. (The ranch ceased operations in the 1970s.)

I asked Rapu if he harbored any resentment toward the people who had stood in his way. For instance, Lázaro could have gotten him killed—his whisperings to Portilla were a key factor in escalating the conflict between Rapu and the Navy. As we pulled up the weeds threatening to choke his pineapple plants, Rapu insisted that Lázaro and his ilk hadn’t meant any harm. “They were ignorant,” he said.

If his words sounded dismissive, he didn’t mean them that way. He was sympathetic to the Rapanui who had been trapped inside the Wall for generations with no way out, their only option survival by any means. They hadn’t benefitted, as he had, from leaving the island and seeing what was possible. “They didn’t understand what we were doing,” Rapu said.

We reached the low, rolling hills of the island’s interior. They were covered in high grasses; when the wind blew, they looked like waves.

One of the people who did understand was Cardinali, Rapu’s wife. They married in 1966. Like him, she had studied in Santiago, and returned to Easter Island to be a teacher. They had encountered many of the same difficulties: being an outsider on the mainland for years, only to feel alienation among their own people. During an interview in 2020, Cardinali lit up as she talked about their months of courtship, of falling in love. They married at Rapu’s parents’ house.

According to a relative, Cardinali’s mother did not attend. She found him rude, and brusque with guests, contrary to Rapanui custom. I always found Rapu to be deliberate but gentle—exceedingly so. Once I helped him lug a bucket of slop to a pen that contained a pig that must have weighed 400 pounds. “It was a gift,” Rapu said of the animal. He was supposed to have slaughtered it years before, for meat. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “He’s my friend now,” Rapu said. This was a man frugal enough to reuse pineapple shells, and so compassionate that he would commit to feeding a quarter-ton pig for life.

But he was also just that: a man. For all the ways that he had shifted the Rapanui’s political fortunes, he hadn’t escaped his people’s oppression, poverty, and trauma unscathed. According to three of Cardinali’s siblings, Rapu had hit his wife throughout their marriage, like his father before him. When I interviewed Cardinali, she was not living with Rapu anymore. After nearly 50 years together, she had left him.  

Rapu told me that he never struck Cardinali. In fact, he said, they had only one major argument in their marriage. When I asked Cardinali if Rapu ever hit her, she said that some things are private. “There are things that are mine that I don’t talk about,” she said, adding: “Nevertheless, I respect him.” Then she changed the subject—or so it seemed.

“A lot of people come to the island and ask for stories from before,” she said. “They ask about the society, the history, which is all fine and good. But they don’t ask about survival. Do you understand?”

I wasn’t sure I did.

“There is a sad story of water and survival here. I’m going to tell it to you. We had droughts. The earth became so dry that it cracked. The people had to go in search of water. I lived that, and it was a hardship.”

“We looked for water in the caves,” Cardinali continued, “where we knew there had been water before. But sometimes you had to search further, in other caverns, or in the crater of the volcano. Descend into the crater on horseback. Carry clothes to wash. Take water and carry it up again to the crater’s rim. It was a hard life. A mother would hand you a jar of water and say bathe yourself with this. You had to bathe yourself with that water. The scarcity of water—it was the most basic necessity.”

It seemed as though, for a little while, Cardinali hadn’t been talking to me exactly. But now she fixed her eyes on mine. “You realize,” she said, “this is true anywhere. If there’s no water, there’s nothing.”


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Un banquete para las almas perdidas

Un banquete
para las
almas perdidas

EN SINALOA, MÉXICO, LAS MUJERES RECUPERAN LOS CUERPOS DE SUS SERES QUERIDOS DESAPARECIDOS Y COCINAN PARA MANTENER VIVOS LOS RECUERDOS DE LOS MUERTOS. 

Blanca Soto primero escuchó de Las Rastreadoras antes de que Camilo desapareció. “Yo sentí admiración por ellas, y a veces tristeza,” dijo ella. Pero una vez que su esposo desapareció, ella tenia miedo de unirse a las mujeres. Ella tenia la paranoia que su propia vida podría estar en peligro, y ella estaba preocupada de llamar la atención con activismo público. Aunque La Rastreadoras no buscan descartar al asesino o ponerlos detrás de las rejas – ellas solo quieren encontrar y enterrar los muertos – hay miembros del grupo quienes han recibido amenazas de muerte. Fue hasta abril del 2017, cinco meses después que a Camilo se lo llevaron, que un primo y una amiga en Las Rastreadoras convencieron a Blanca a que se uniera en una búsqueda.

Dos veces a la semana, los miércoles y los domingos, el grupo rastrea El Fuerte por restos humanos. Las mujeres que todavía no han encontrado a sus seres queridos llevan camisetas impresas que dicen te buscaré hasta encontrarte.  Las mujeres que han encontrado a sus personas desaparecidas llevan sus camisetas que dicen promesa cumplida.

Mirna Medina es la fundadora de Las Rastreadoras. Una maestra jubilada que habla rápido y llama la atención, Mirna posee una memoria excepcional para las fechas; sus amigas dicen que ella recuerda el día y el año de cada desaparición de alguien del grupo está sufriendo. La fecha de Mirna es el 10 de julio, la última vez que vio vivo a su hijo Roberto. Ella encontró sus restos tres años después—en la fecha exacta: cuatro vertebra y un fragmento del hueso del brazo, los cuales fueron identificados con los análisis del ADN. Roberto fue el cuerpo #93 recuperado por Las Rastreadoras. Él ahora está enterrado en un cementerio donde Mirna lo visita. Ella le prende velas, le pone flores y pasa sus dedos por la foto de su hijo en su lápida. 

Las Rastreadoras regularmente reciben pistas sobre dónde los cuerpos pueden ser localizados. A veces la información se comparte de manera anónima o por la policía. A veces los residentes locales encuentran algo sospechoso, como un pedazo de tierra movida. Las mujeres se van a estas puntas, acompañadas muchas veces por una seguridad armada. Ellas perturban la tierra con sus herramientas, y entonces penetran una barra hueca de metal que se usa en la construcción y huelen lo que sale de la misma. Ellas tienen la esperanza de oler algo podrido que seria la señal de la descomposición humana. 

María Cleofas Lugo, a quien todo en el grupo le llama Manqui, ha buscado por su hijo Juan Francisco desde el 19 de junio del 2015. Una foto de su cara cuelga en un cuadro plateado en una cadena alrededor de su cuello. Manqui es la mujer mas vieja del grupo, y ella es famosa por su sentido de olfato. Con la ayuda de una barra, Manqui puede detectar la historia que el olor de la tierra le dice. Un olor a almizcle limpio significa que no hay nada hay. A veces, sin embargo, hay un olor fuerte a carne podrida y a aguas residuales que le cubre los orificios nasales y la garganta. Cuando la barra sale con ese olor, es el olor de la muerte. Las Rastreadoras excavan.

A través de los años, Manqui ha aprendido la diferencia entre el olor de un cuerpo humano y el de un cadáver de animal. “El olor del ser humano es mas penetrante,” ella dijo. Muchas mujeres no pueden aguantar ese olor. Manqui les recuerda a ellas. “Sí, eso huele feo, pero puede ser nuestros hijos.”

Cuando ellos destapan un tesoro, ya sea este un diente o un torso, Las Rastreadoras pausan sobre el sitio. Ellas dicen una oración, un Padre Nuestro o un Ave María. Entonces ellas alertan al equipo forense del gobierno local, el cual puede hacer la prueba del ADN de los restos. Las mujeres esperan una correspondencia: que el tesoro que ellas encontraron pertenezca a alguien en su lista. Actualmente, Las Rastreadoras están buscando por mas de 1.500 personas desaparecidas; muchas de ellos son familiares o amigos de miembros del grupo, pero otros son extraños que los nombres se los suministraron personas que viven en El Fuerte.

En la primera excavación, Blanca no estaba segura de que hacer. Ella no sabia como utilizar las herramientas o velar a sus alrededores por las serpientes o prepararse ella misma contra el olor de la muerte. “Me fui ansiosamente, pero débil,” dijo ella. “Yo era una persona que no salió mucho.” En casa, Blanca se ponía vestidos y se soltaba el pelo. Ella estaba orgullosa de sus pies delicados y bien proporcionados, las cuales Camilo siempre había admirado. En esa primera búsqueda con Las Rastreadoras, las otras mujeres las provocaban porque ella apareció con guantes y llevándose una sombrilla, esperando evitar el sol ardiente de Sinaloa. Cuando Mirna le pasó una pala, Blanca apuñaló la pala en la tierra con tanta fuerza que le rebotó hasta el pecho, sacándole las lágrimas.

Su primera búsqueda fue negativa, la cual es la forma en que las mujeres describen las excavaciones que no encuentran ningún resto. La segunda búsqueda de Blanca fue positiva. El grupo se destapó un cuerpo en la posición fetal, todavía intacto en su mayoría. “La impresión fue algo horrible,” dijo Blanca. Cuando ella vio el cadáver, el aire se le salió de los pulmones y ella se cayó de espaldas. Otras mujeres, las rastreadoras con más experiencia, estaban allí para recogerla. Una de ella le dio un inhalador. Ellas estuvieron a su lado hasta que se pudo parar de nuevo.

Semana tras semana, Blanca continuaba a buscar con Las Rastreadoras. “Poquito a poco, seguí aprendiendo,” dijo ella. Pero ella se estaba afilando más que sus habilidades con una pala. Al igual que las otras rastreadoras, ella también estaba aprendiendo como, en lugar de un cuerpo y el final que se provee, a aprender a vivir con la perdida.

Cuando ella vio el cadáver, el aire se le salió de los pulmones y ella se cayó de espaldas. Otras mujeres, las rastreadoras con más experiencia, estaban allí para recogerla.

Durante el desayuno una mañana en Los Mochis, Juana Escalante Barreras me contó sobre su hijo, Adrián, quien desapareció el 24 de agosto de 2018. En las palabras de Juana, Adrián era un Robín Hood. El rescataba a los perros callejeros. El era flaco y siempre tenía frío, pero se quitaría a su suéter a cualquiera que le hubiera pedido.

La última vez que Juana vio a Adrián, él estaba saliendo de su casa en bicicleta para ir a entregarle cigarrillos a alguien. No mucho después de que él se había ido, Juana escuchó unos disparos. Ella sintió que su corazón se contraía. Ella corrió a la calle, gritando el nombre de Adrián, y vio a su hijo corriendo hacia ella. A él le estaban persiguiendo un hombre con una pistola. Cuando Adrián dobló la esquina, Juana perdió la vista de los dos. Sonaron dos disparos más. Juana salió hacía el sonido. Doblando la esquina, ella vio dos camionetas que salieron disparadas, dejando en el aire ese un olor de goma quemada en el aire. Un vecino estaba gritando, “¡Ellos lo mataron! ¡Ellos lo mataron!

En el lugar donde las camionetas habían estado, la sangre se acumuló en charcos entre las piedras de la calle. El vecino de dijo a Juana que Adrián había negado a subir en uno de los camiones. El estaba peleando en su propia defensa y trató de correr; entonces, el hombre le disparó a él y se fue manejando con su cuerpo.

“¿Con quien pude hablar?” me preguntó Juana. “¿Quién?

Aquí ella tomó una pausa, como si hubiera tenido una respuesta. Entonces ella continuó: “No podía hablar con la policía. La policía no va a hacer nada. Hay miles de personas que les están pasando lo mismo.”

Mientras que Juana hablaba, ella partió los panqueques en cuatro con el borde de un tenedor y apuñalaba a sus chilaquiles. “He tenido una manía desde entonces. Esto es lo que me consuela: la comida,” dijo ella. Le hace sentiré más cerca a su hijo. Adrián le amaba comer: tacos adobados de un restaurante en Los Mochis, y tortas de atún ahogadas en salsa de chipotle, la cual él siempre le pedía a Juana que le hiciera.

El apodo de Juana en Las Rastreadoras es Machete, por la manera tan afilada que ella habla, la cual corta toda la mierda. En un momento dado, ella me fijo con una mirada sobre el borde de su taza de café. Sus ojos eran una piscina negra sobre sus cachetes redondos. Yo le había dicho que estaba embarazada, un punto que acortó la distancia entre nosotras, a penas un poquito.

“Tú no has conocido a tu hijo,” me dijo. “Yo conocí a mi hijo por 27 años. Ne puedes imaginar mi dolor.”

“Tienes razón,” le dije. “No puedo.”

Ni tampoco puedo imaginar el dolor de Manqui. Ella conoció a su hijo, Juan Francisco, por 33 años. Era confiado. Le gustaba bromear. Aún cuando las cosas se viraron feos en su barrio, él hablaba livianamente sobre los sicarios: era seguro que su violencia no le afectaría.

A Juan Francisco le secuestraron mientas que él estaba instalando unas luces en un sitio de trabajo. Una camioneta roja sin placa se acercó y los trabajadores se dispersaron, sabiendo que las desapariciones forzadas estaban creciendo en el área. Juan Francisco trató de correr, pero una rodilla dañada lo retardó. Manqui mas tarde supo que algunos hombres lo habían subido a la camioneta, que ellos trataron de reclutarlo a él para que “hiciera un trabajo,” y que cuando él rehusó, ellos lo torturaron y lo mataron.

Manqui fue a la oficina del fiscal para llenar un reporte. A ella le dijeron que tenia que esperar 72 horas. Los oficiales le prometieron llamar a los otros hombres del sitio de trabajo para tomar sus testimonios de testigo, pero nunca lo hicieron. Manqui regresaba a la oficina cada semana hasta que un abogado le dijo que regresara más hasta que no tuviera algo que agregar al expediente de Juan Francisco. Ella se dio cuenta que nadie buscaría a su hijo excepto ella. 

En la casa de Manqui, las paredes están desnudas, excepto por dos retratos de boda y un afiche sobre-tamaño que se encuentra colgado sobre la mesa de la cocina. Allí se ve una foto de la cara de Juan Francisco, con sus ojos sombreados cubriendo sus ojos. te esperamos… ¡tu familia te ama! dice el afiche.

Con la foto de Juan Francisco sobre ella, Manqui desliza triángulos gruesos de flan sobre los platos de cerámica.

Su hijo era un goloso para los dulces, y por eso ella estaba acostumbrada a hacerle ese plato. Ahora, siempre y cuando lo prepara, ella se siente como si ella le va a dar la bienvenida a la casa. Como si en cualquier minuto, Juan Francisco podría entrar por la puerta. “Yo lo voy a buscar,” dijo ella, “hasta que muera.”

México es un país que le da de comer a sus muertos. Cada año, botellas de Fanta y platos de pan dulce y pollo con mole adornan a los altares en el Día de los Muertos. La comida es una forma de recordar y honrar a aquellos quienes han fallecido. Para Las Rastreadoras, se ha convertido en algo más.

La idea de compilar un recetario surgió unos años después de que se formó el grupo. La fotógrafa Zahara Gómez Lucini había pasado tiempo documentando a Las Rastreadoras y conjuntamente llegaron a la conclusión tan cruel como inevitable: El problema con un tema de décadas como lo de los desaparecidos es que el público se cansa de eso, de oír los nombres de los desparecidos, de comprender los números siempre creciendo de ellos, de ver las fotos de los cadáveres y mirando a sus madres llorar. ¿Cómo Las Rastreadoras, entonces, podrían responder al borrado de sus seres queridos? ¿Cómo podrían resistir el olvido?

La comida fue la respuesta. Todas las mujeres tuvieron memorias de sus seres queridos que eran atadas con cocinar y comer. Ellas decidieron recopilar las recetas de los platos que más les gustaban a sus seres queridos. Ellas invitarían a sus lectores a que probaran sus perdidas. Las recetas serían recordatorios de los lazos que compartían los muertos y sus familias y amistades, de las mesas donde se sentaron y el placer que sintieron en comer. Los platos serían la muestra de vida y portales a la empatía. Y lo que era más, las mujeres crearían el libro juntas; ellas crearían algo duradero desde sus memorias colectivas. Ellas podrían transformar el acto mundano del cortar cebollas, cernir harina o caramelizar el azúcar en un sacramento.

Juana contribuyó con su receta de la torta de atún con chipotle. Manqui compartió su técnica para hacer el flan. Mirna, la fundadora del grupo, describió como hacer pizzadillas: tortillas envueltas con carne asada, pico de gallo y queso. Al final del día, eran 27 mujeres quienes compartieron platos para el proyecto.

Recetario para la Memoria fue publicado en el 2019. Además de las recetas, ésta contiene las imágenes de Zara de los miembros de Las Rastreadoras preparando sus platos: de mujeres creando los medios de su sobrevivencia física y emocional. Muchas de ellas fueron fotografiadas cocinando sus platos preferidos por la primera vez después que sus seres queridos habían desparecidos. 

Célebres chefs mexicanos, incluyendo Enrique Olvera y Eduardo García, ambos dueños de destinaciones de alta cocina en la Ciudad de México, endosaron el proyecto. Personas tan lejos como Noruega, Sudáfrica y Chile les enviaron mensajes de apoyo y fotos de los platos que ellos habían preparados de las recetas del libro en sus propias cocinas. Las ganancias generadas por las ventas del libro ayudaron a Las Rastreadoras pagar la renta para una oficina en Los Mochis y pagar las necesidades para su trabajo, cosas tales como herramientas y gasolina.

Además, el proyecto tenía beneficios más íntimos, a los cuales yo fui testigo. Cuando se habla de las desapariciones y la muerte, las mujeres de Las Rastreadoras eran estoicas; ellas podían describir la sangre en la calle o los huellos en la tierra sin pestañar. Pero las emociones les ahogaban a sus voces cuando ellas hablaban de la comida de los desaparecidos. Retornar a los sabores familiares que ellos una vez compartieron con un hijo o un esposo le permitió al dolor salir y tomar forma, como el agua del mar llenando un hueco en la arena. Cocinar era una manera de darle voz a lo indecible. Reconoció la ausencia eterna de las bocas que las mujeres añoraban darles de comer, de las vidas cortadas prematuramente por la violencia sin sentido.

Blanca contribuyó al libro de cocina su receta de pozole de cerdo. Ella ya se había convertido en una miembro veterana de Las Rastreadoras, alguien que iba a excavar dos veces por semana tan frecuente como pudiera, y quien contaba a los miembros del grupo como sus amigos. Sigue siendo así. Durante un fin de semana en 2021, Blanca reunió con varias rastreadoras en un restaurante cerca de una playa al sur de Los Mochis. Sobre pescado a la parilla, ceviche y aguachile, las mujeres provocaban y discutían y bromeaban. Entre menciones de asuntos forenses y las visitas a la oficina de la fiscalía, hubo el sonido de las aperturas de unas latas de cerveza Tecate.

“El banquetear se permite olvidar el terror y la soledad de la existencia, por lo menos por un momento,” escribió la antropóloga Gina Rae La Cerva.” “Tal placer nos trae dentro de ese amor crudo, loco y profundo por la vida.” El banquetear puede ser también una manera de compartir y aliviar el dolor.

Algunas de las mujeres en la mesa no conocían la historia de Blanca. Eso no era por falta de empatía. Era porque Blanca había sido parte de Las Rastreadoras por mas de cuatro años, y el grupo había crecido mucho más desde que ella se unió por la primera vez. Había muchas caras nuevas, muchos desaparecidos para poder seguirle el rastro, muchos restos sacados de la tierra.

“¿Cómo tú encontraste a Camilo?” unas de las mujeres le preguntaron mientras ella pasaba las tortillas en la mesa. “Dinos—o no nos diga, si no quieres.”

A Blanca no le importaba. Mientras sus amigas seguían comiendo, ella comenzó a hablar

Cocinar era una manera de darle voz a lo indecible. Reconoció la ausencia eterna de las bocas que las mujeres añoraban darles de comer, de las vidas cortadas prematuramente por la violencia sin sentido.

En una noche de septiembre, Blanca estaba acostada en la cama, rezando. Uno de sus hijos la había convencido a ella empezar atender una iglesia pentecostal después de que Camilo desapareció, y ella se había convertido en una creyente devota. “Señor, yo siento que estoy lista,” dijo Blanca. “Mañana nosotros vamos a buscar. Ayúdame si tú piensas que yo estoy lista para encontrarlo a él.”  

Cuando ella se levantó en la mañana siguiente, ella repitió el rezo. Ella se vistió y se paró afuera de su casa, esperando que la recogieran. Las otras mujeres arribaron en una camioneta, y Blanca se trepó arriba. Solo unas pocas de Las Rastreadoras se juntaron para excavar la tierra ese día. Ellas no tenían un punto exacto por donde buscar. Seleccionaron un área en general y empezaron a peinar el área juntas, hasta que ellas notaron un poco de tierra removida o amontonada. Entonces ellas trajeron las barras y las palas. 

Mirna fue la primera que vio la tela; estaba enterrada unas cuantas pulgadas bajo tierra y ramas. Mas excavaciones revelaron que eran pantalones de hombre. Mirna les dio los detalles a las otras mujeres: marca Oggi, negro, talla 34.

Blanca sintió que las manos volaron a su boca. Ese es él, ella pensó. Ella repitió las palabras en voz alta.

Ella tomó una pala y empezó a liberar el cuerpo de la tierra que lo aguantaba. Las otras mujeres se unieron a ella.  Rápidamente ellas pudieron ver las medias y un par de calzoncillos. Un torso y los hombros. Después, nada: al cuerpo le faltaba su cabeza.

Pero Blanca vio todo lo que tenía que ver para estar segura. Camilo había reutilizado un cinturón de seguridad de su camioneta para ajustarse los pantalones, el mismo cinturón donde Blanca había desramado encima una pintura de uñas del color fucsia. El cinturón que le daba la vuelta alrededor de los pantalones Oggi en la tumba poco profunda estaba manchada de color rosa. 

Esto fue en septiembre del 2017. Nueve meses después de que el desapareció, Blanca encontró a su esposo. 

Ella enterró a Camilo una semana más tarde. Mirna y otras mujeres de Las Rastreadoras estuvieron a su lado. Mientras que ellas caminaban hacia el cementerio, Blanca revivió el día de la desaparición de Camilo en su mente. ¿Estaría él vivo si se hubiera quedado con él en la camioneta? ¿O ella estaría muerta también, dejando a sus hijos sin padres? Estas fueron las preguntas con que ella tendría que vivir para siempre.

En el cementerio, el ataúd de Camilo descansaba en el fondo de una fosa abierta. Después de buscar por su esposo por tantos meses, Blanca sintió que debería ser ella la que lo debía enterrar a él. Ella se acercó a uno de los trabajadores del cementerio y le pidió que le prestara su pala. A lo primero él rehusó, pero Blanca era persistente, y el hombre se la dio. Mientras ella le echaba la tierra dentro de la tumba, una de sus amigas empezó a cantar.   

Cuando Blanca comenzó a llorar demasiada violentamente para poder sostener la pala, una mujer que se llama Rosa se la quitó de las manos y le echó mas tierra encima del ataúd. Entonces otra mujer se torneó, y después otra, hasta que todos los miembros de Las Rastreadoras allí reunidos ayudaron a enterrar al tesoro de Blanca.

Una hilera de fotos enmarcadas y diplomas alinea una pared en la casa de Blanca. Esta se puede leer como la totalidad de la vida de Camilo. Hay fotos de él con su gorro de graduación, en el sofá con uno de sus hijos y parado a la orilla del mar. Un certificado del Club Rotario con la fecha de octubre 2012 reconoce su “coraje y dedicación excesiva, inclusive a cambio de su vida, para lograr la seguridad pública.”

El mas grande de los marcos en la pared tiene las fotos de Camilo en el día cuando fue encontrado. Una de Las Rastreadoras había traído una cámara a la excavación y capturó una foto de Blanca en el momento que ella entendió que estaba en la tierra. Al lado de la foto del reconocimiento de Blanca está un retrato de Camilo en una camisa de botones al frente, mostrando una expresión inescrutable, con ojeras oscuras de medialuna debajo de sus ojos. La foto tiene un texto superpuesto que dice misión cumplida.

En el otro lado de la pared, Blanca cocinó el pozole de cerdo en la cocina. Ella lloraba a través del todo el proceso cuando hizo ese plato por la primera vez como parte del proyecto del recetario. Esta vez, ella no lloraba. Cantaba. Sobre la mesa de la cocina estaba una libreta de notas con Minnie Mouse en su portada y páginas llenas de letras de himnos de la iglesia, escrito por su propia mano. Blanca ya se había memorizada las melodías. “A veces cuando yo cocino, yo empiezo a cantar,” me dijo. “No tengo las palabras para describir cuan agradecida estoy de Dios.” 

Blanca narró el primer paso de la receta—hervir a fuego lento el maíz pozolero para 45 minutos—y entonces empezó a cantar.

Yo estoy maravillada por lo que mi Dios ha hecho.

En el medio de mi angustia,

En el medio de mi dolor,

En el medio de mi tristeza,

Tú me has dado alegría.

“A pesar de mi altura, mi tamaño y mis habilidades,” dijo ella, “yo he hecho tantas cosas que, si mi esposo estuviera aquí, yo quizás no lo hubiera hecho.” El dolor, me explicó, le había hecho fuerte.

Ella puso las costillas de cerdo en la cazuela con el maíz pozolero y revolvió la mezcla con un cucharón plateado largo. Ella cortó a la mitad una cebolla blanca, tan redonda como una pelota de tenis, y le agregó la misma con cubitos de sabor. Ella separó unos dientes de ajo de pozuelo y le dio vuelta entre sus manos para separar la piel antes de agarrar orégano de una jarra con sus dedos. Ambos terminaron en la olla.

Hierva a fuego lento hasta que la carne esté blanda.

Mis ojos me ardían por la cebolla y el orégano. Mientras tanto, Blanca estaba pensando en otro olor. Ella me dijo que a veces ella sentía ese olor de Camilo en la casa, de la colonia 1 Million que siempre usaba.

Saque las costillas y las semillas de dos tipos de chiles.

El guajillo era de un rojo profundo, el pasilla tan oscuro como la arcilla. Blanca se podría imaginar a Camilo diciéndole ¡más picante, más! Ella destripó los chiles, los lavó debajo del grifo, y los agregó en la segunda olla, ésta llena de agua hirviendo. Otra cebolla, cortada en cuartos esta vez, entraron al agua, y también la sal.

Cuando los chiles están blandos, mézclalos con las especies. Agregue la mezcla al cerdo con el guiso de maíz pozolero.

Blanca recortó un ramo de cilantro y algunos rábanos como guarnición. Luego lo terminaba el pozole con el repollo picadito, porque así le gustaba Camilo. Ella continuaba cantando con una voz suave. Debajo del sonido navegaba un mar de memorias: de caminatas en el río con su esposo, de los baños juntos y de la primera vez que bailaron.

Ella echó el pozole en los tazones, llenando las vasijas con dolor y con amor. “Acuérdate,” dijo Blanca, mientras que puso una porción humeante ante de mi, “que cuando tú estás cocinando para la persona que amas, la comida sabe mejor cuando cocinas con tu corazón tanto como con tus manos.”


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A Feast for Lost Souls

A Feast
For
Lost Souls

In Sinaloa, Mexico, women recover the bodies of missing loved ones—and cook to keep their memories of the dead alive.

Blanca Soto first heard about Las Rastreadoras before Camilo was disappeared. “I felt admiration for them, and at times sadness,” she said. But once her husband was gone, she was scared to join the women. She was paranoid that her own life might already be in danger, and she was wary of drawing attention to herself through public advocacy. Though Las Rastreadoras don’t seek to expose killers or put them behind bars—they only want to find and inter the dead—members of the group have received death threats. It wasn’t until April 2017, five months after Camilo was taken, that a cousin and a friend in Las Rastreadoras convinced Blanca to join a search. 

Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, the group scours El Fuerte for human remains. Women who have yet to find their loved ones wear T-shirts printed with the slogan te buscaré hasta encontrarte (“I will search for you until I find you”). Women who have found their missing wear shirts that read promesa cumplida (“Promise fulfilled”).

Mirna Medina is the founder of Las Rastreadoras. A retired schoolteacher who talks fast and commands attention, Mirna has an uncanny memory for dates; her friends say that she remembers the day and year of every disappearance someone in her group is grieving. Mirna’s own date is July 10—the last time she saw her son Roberto alive. Three years to the day after he vanished, she found his remains: four vertebrae and a shard from an arm bone, identified by DNA analysis. Roberto’s was the 93rd body recovered by Las Rastreadoras. He’s now buried in a cemetery, where Mirna visits him. She lights candles, arranges flowers, and presses her fingertips to the photo on her son’s headstone.

Las Rastreadoras regularly receive tips about where bodies might be located. Sometimes the information is shared anonymously or by the police. In other cases a local resident spots something suspicious, such as a patch of turned soil. The women head out to these puntas (points), often accompanied by armed security. They trouble the earth with their tools, then plunge metal construction rods into the ground. When they pull the rods up, the tips are caked with soil. The women sniff the lingering dirt, hoping for a rotting odor—a tell-tale sign of human decomposition.

María Cleofas Lugo, whom everyone in the group calls Manqui, has searched for her son Juan Francisco since June 19, 2015. A photo of his face dangles in a silver frame from a chain around her neck. Manqui is the oldest woman in the group, and she is famed for her sense of smell. With the help of a rod, Manqui can discern what the earth beneath her holds. A clean musk means nothing is there. Sometimes a heavy funk of spoiled meat and sewage coats her nostrils and throat. When Manqui detects this, the smell of death, Las Rastreadoras dig.

Over the years, Manqui has learned the difference between the scent of a body and that of an animal carcass. “The smell of a human being is more penetrating,” she said. Many women can’t handle the odor. Manqui reminds them, “Yes, it smells bad, but it could be our children.”

When they uncover treasure, whether it’s a tooth or a torso, Las Rastreadoras pause over the site. They say a prayer, an Our Father or a Hail Mary. Then they alert the local government forensics team, which can test the DNA of the remains. The women hope for a match—that the treasure they’ve found belongs to someone on their list. Currently, Las Rastreadoras are looking for more than 1,500 missing persons; many are relatives or friends of the group’s members, but others are strangers whose names were supplied by people living in El Fuerte.

On her first dig, Blanca wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t know how to use the tools or watch out for snakes or steel herself against the odor of death. “I went in eagerly but weak,” she said. “I was not a person who went out a lot.” At home, Blanca wore dresses and kept her long hair loose. She was proud of her delicate, shapely feet, which Camilo had always admired. On the search with Las Rastreadoras, the other women teased her because she showed up wearing gloves and carrying an umbrella, hoping to avoid the scorching Sinaloa sun. When Mirna handed her a shovel, Blanca stabbed it into the dirt with so much force that it rebounded into her chest, bringing tears to her eyes.

Blanca’s first search was a negative, which is how the women describe digs that don’t turn up remains. Her second was a positive. The group uncovered a body lying in the fetal position, still mostly intact. “The impression was something horrible,” Blanca said. When she saw the corpse, the air left her lungs and she fell backward. Other women, more seasoned trackers, were there to catch her. One gave Blanca an inhaler. They stayed by her side until she could stand again.

Week in and week out, Blanca continued to search with Las Rastreadoras. “Little by little, I kept on learning,” she said. But she was honing more than her skills with a shovel. Like the other trackers, she was also learning how, in lieu of a body and the closure it provides, to live with loss. 

When she saw the corpse, the air left her lungs and she fell backward. Other women, more seasoned trackers, were there to catch her.

Over breakfast one morning in Los Mochis, Juana Escalante Barreras told me about her son, Adrián, who disappeared on August 24, 2018. In Juana’s words, Adrián was a Robin Hood. He rescued street dogs. He was skinny and always cold, but he’d give his sweater to anyone who asked.

The last time Juana saw Adrián, he was riding away from their house on his bike to deliver cigarettes to someone. Not long after he left, Juana heard gunshots. She felt her lungs constrict. She ran into the street shouting Adrián’s name, and she saw her son running toward her. He was being chased by a man with a gun. When Adrián turned a corner, Juana lost sight of them both. Two more gunshots rang out. Juana took off toward the sound. Rounding the corner, she saw two trucks peeling out, leaving the scent of burning rubber in the air. A neighbor was shouting, “They killed him, they killed him!”

There was blood at the place in the street where the trucks had been. The neighbor told Juana that Adrián had refused to get in one of the vehicles. He fought and tried to run, so the men in the trucks shot him and drove off with his body.

“Who could I talk to?” Juana asked me. “Who?”

Here she paused, as if I might have an answer. Then she continued: “I couldn’t talk to the police—the police aren’t going to do anything. There are thousands of people this is happening to.”

As Juana spoke, she quartered pancakes with the side of a fork and stabbed at her chilaquiles. “I’ve had a mania ever since. This is what consoles me—food,” she said. It makes her feel closer to her son. Adrián loved to eat: adobada tacos from a restaurant in Los Mochis, and tuna sandwiches soaked in chipotle sauce, which he was always asking Juana to make.

Juana’s nickname in Las Rastreadoras is Machete, for her blunt way of speaking, which cuts through bullshit. At one point, she fixed me with a stare over the rim of her coffee cup. Her eyes were dark pools above her full cheeks. I had told her that I was pregnant, a fact that narrowed the distance between us only slightly.

“You haven’t met your child,” she said. “I knew my son for 27 years. You can’t imagine my pain.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I can’t.”

Nor can I imagine Manqui’s pain. She knew her son, Juan Francisco, for 33 years. He was confident and a jokester. Even when things turned ugly in their neighborhood, he spoke flippantly about the sicarios, or cartel hit men; he was sure their violence wouldn’t affect him.

Juan Francisco was taken while he was installing lights at a job site. A red truck without plates pulled up, and the workers scattered, knowing that enforced disappearances were on the rise in the area. Juan Francisco tried to run, but an injured knee slowed him down. Manqui later heard that some men pulled her son into the truck, that they tried to recruit him to “take care of a job,” and that when he refused, they tortured and killed him.

Manqui went to the prosecutor’s office to file a report. She was told to wait 72 hours. Officials promised to call the other men from the job site for witness statements, but they never did. Manqui returned to the office every week, until a lawyer told her not to come back unless she’d found something worth adding to Juan Francisco’s file. She realized then that no one would search for her son except her.

In Manqui’s home, the walls are bare save for two wedding portraits and an oversize poster that hangs above the kitchen table. A photo of Juan Francisco’s face is plastered on it, a baseball cap shading his hooded eyes. te esperamos… ¡tu familia te ama!, the poster reads—“We’re waiting for you… Your family loves you!”

With Juan Francisco’s photo above her, Manqui slid thick triangles of flan onto ceramic plates. Her son had a sweet tooth, so she used to make the custard for him. Now whenever she prepares it, she feels like she’s about to welcome him home. As if any minute, Juan Francisco might walk through the door. “I’m going to search for him,” Manqui said, “until I die.”

Mexico is a country that feeds its dead. Every year, bottles of Fanta and plates of pan dulce and pollo con mole adorn altars on Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Food is a way of remembering and honoring those who’ve passed away. For Las Rastreadoras, it has become something more.

The idea to compile a cookbook arose a few years after the group formed. Photographer Zahara Gómez Lucini had spent time documenting Las Rastreadoras, and together she and the women came to a realization as cruel as it was inevitable: The problem with a decades-long issue like los desaparecidos is that the public grows weary of it—of hearing the names of the missing, of fathoming their ever growing numbers, of seeing photos of bodies and watching mothers weep. How, then, could Las Rastreadoras push back against the erasure of their loved ones? How could the women resist oblivion?

Food was the answer. All the women had memories of their missing that were tied to cooking and eating. They decided to gather recipes for the dishes their loved ones had enjoyed most. They would invite cookbook readers to taste their loss. The recipes would be reminders of the bonds the dead shared with family and friends, of the tables they sat around, of the pleasure they took in eating. The dishes would be proof of lives lived and lost, and portals to empathy.

What’s more, the women would create the book together. They would create something lasting from their collective sorrow. They would transform the mundane act of chopping onions, sifting flour, or caramelizing sugar into a sacrament.

Juana contributed her chipotle tuna sandwich recipe. Manqui shared her technique for making flan. Mirna, the group’s founder, described how to make pizzadillas: tortillas folded over roasted beef, pico de gallo, and cheese. All told, 27 women shared dishes for the project.

Recetario para la Memoria (“The Memory Recipe Book”) was published in 2019. In addition to the recipes, it features Zahara’s images of Las Rastreadoras preparing meals—of women creating the means of their physical and emotional survival. Many of them were photographed cooking their chosen dishes for the first time since their loved ones were disappeared.

Celebrated Mexican chefs, including Enrique Olvera and Eduardo García, both owners of haute cuisine destinations in Mexico City, have since endorsed the project. People as far away as Norway, South Africa, and Chile have sent messages of support and photos of the book’s dishes that they prepared in their own kitchens. The revenue from book sales have helped Las Rastreadoras cover the rent for an office in Los Mochis and pay for the necessities of their work, such as tools and gasoline.

The project has had more intimate benefits, too, which I witnessed firsthand. When talking about disappearances and death, the women of Las Rastreadoras were stoic; they could describe blood on a street or bones in the earth without flinching. But emotion clogged their voices when they talked about the food of the disappeared. Returning to familiar flavors they’d once shared with a child or a husband allowed grief to rush in and take shape, like seawater filling a hole dug in the sand. Cooking was a way to give voice to the unspeakable. It acknowledged the eternal absence of mouths the women longed to feed, of lives cut short by senseless violence.

Blanca contributed her pork pozole recipe to the cookbook. By then she was a veteran member of Las Rastreadoras—someone who went to the twice-weekly digs as often as she could, and who counted the group’s members as friends. She still does. On a weekend afternoon in 2021, Blanca met with several trackers at a restaurant near a beach south of Los Mochis. Over grilled fish, ceviche, and aguachile, the women teased and argued and bantered. Mentions of forensics and visits to the prosecutor’s office were punctuated by the snap of Tecate beer cans opening.

“Feasting allows the loneliness and terror of existence to be forgotten, at least momentarily,” anthropologist Gina Rae La Cerva has written. “Such pleasure brings us into that raw, mad, deep love of life.” Feasting can also be a venue for the sharing and salving of pain.

Some of the women at the table didn’t know Blanca’s story. It wasn’t for lack of caring. It was just that Blanca had been part of Las Rastreadoras for more than four years, and the group had grown much larger since she first joined. There were so many new faces, so many disappearances to keep track of, so many remains pulled from the ground. 

“How did you find Camilo?” one woman asked as she passed tortillas down the table. “Tell us—or don’t, if you don’t feel like it.”

Blanca didn’t mind. As her friends ate, she began to speak.

Cooking was a way to give voice to the unspeakable. It acknowledged the eternal absence of mouths the women longed to feed, of lives cut short by senseless violence.

On a September night, Blanca lay awake in bed, praying. One of her sons had convinced her to start attending a Pentecostal church after Camilo disappeared, and she was becoming a devout believer. “Lord, I feel that I am ready,” Blanca said. “Tomorrow we’re going on a search. If you think I’m ready to find him, help me.”

When she woke the next morning, she repeated the prayer. She got dressed and stood outside her house, waiting to be picked up. The other women arrived in a truck, and Blanca climbed in. Only a few of Las Rastreadoras joined the dig that day. They didn’t have an exact point they were planning to search. Instead, they picked a general area and combed it together, until they saw loose or piled earth. Then they brought out their rods and shovels.

Mirna was the one who spotted fabric first, buried a few inches beneath soil and foliage. More digging revealed that it was a pair of men’s pants. Mirna called out the details to the other women: Oggi brand, black, size 34.

Blanca felt her hands jump to her mouth. It’s him, she thought. She repeated the words out loud.

She grabbed a shovel and worked to free the body from the earth’s hold. The other women joined her. Soon they could see socks and a pair of boxers. A torso and shoulders. Then nothing: The body was missing its head.

But Blanca saw all she needed to be sure. Camilo had repurposed a seatbelt from his truck to hold up his pants, the same seatbelt Blanca had once spilled fuchsia nail polish on. The belt that looped around the Oggi pants in the shallow grave was stained pink.

Nine months after he disappeared, Blanca had found her husband.

She buried Camilo a week later. Mirna and other women from Las Rastreadoras were by her side. As they walked into the cemetery, Blanca revisited the day of Camilo’s disappearance in her mind. Would he be alive if she’d stayed with him in the truck? Or would she be dead, too, leaving her sons parentless? These were questions she would live with forever.

At the cemetery, Camilo’s casket sat at the bottom of an open grave. After searching for her husband for so many months, Blanca felt that she should be the one to inter him. She approached one of the cemetery workers and asked to borrow his shovel. At first he refused, but Blanca was persistent, and the man gave in. As she turned soil into the grave, one of her friends began to sing.

When Blanca began crying too violently to wield the shovel any longer, a woman named Rosario took it from her hands and added earth on top of the casket. Then another woman took a turn, then another, until all the gathered members of Las Rastreadoras had helped to bury Blanca’s treasure.

A row of framed photos and diplomas line a wall in Blanca’s home. It reads as a summary of Camilo’s life. There are photos of him in a graduation cap, on the couch with one of his sons, standing at the edge of the ocean. A Rotary Club certificate dated October 2012 recognizes his “courage and above and beyond dedication, even at the cost of his life, to achieve public safety.”

The largest frame on the wall holds photos of the day Camilo’s body was found. One of Las Rastreadoras had brought a camera to the dig and captured Blanca the moment she understood what was in the earth. Next to the picture of Blanca’s recognition is a portrait of Camilo in a button-front shirt; he wears an inscrutable expression, with dark half-moons beneath his eyes. The photo is overlaid with the text misión cumplida (“Mission accomplished”).

On the other side of the wall, Blanca cooked pork pozole in the kitchen. When she first made the dish as part of the cookbook project, she wept through the process. This time she didn’t cry—she sang. On the kitchen table was a notebook with Minnie Mouse on the cover and pages filled with the handwritten lyrics of church hymns. Blanca had already memorized the melodies. “Sometimes when I’m cooking, I just start singing,” she told me. “I don’t have the words to describe how grateful I am to God.” 

Blanca narrated the first step of the recipe—simmer the hominy for 45 minutes—then switched to a song:

I am marveling at what my God has done.

In the midst of my anguish,

In the midst of my pain,

In the midst of my sadness,

You have given me joy.

“Despite my height, my size, my abilities,” she said, “I have done so many things that, if my husband were here, I might not have done.” Pain, she explained, had made her strong.

She dropped pork ribs into the pot with the hominy and stirred the mixture with a long silver ladle. She halved a white onion, round as a tennis ball, and added it along with bouillon cubes. She plucked garlic cloves from a bowl and rolled them in her palms to strip the skin, then fished oregano from a plastic jar with her fingers. Both went into the pot.

Simmer until the meat is tender.

My eyes pricked from the tang of onion and oregano. Meanwhile, Blanca was thinking about another smell. She told me she sometimes got a whiff of Camilo around the house, of the 1 Million cologne he always wore.

Remove the ribs and seeds from two types of chiles. 

The guajillo was deep red, the pasilla dark as loam. Blanca could imagine Camilo telling her, More spice, more! She gutted the chiles, rinsed them under the tap, and added them to a second pot, this one filled with boiling water. Another onion, quartered this time, went into the water, along with salt.

When the chiles are soft, blend them with spices. Add the mixture to the pork and hominy stew.

Blanca trimmed a bouquet of cilantro and some radishes for garnish. Then she topped the pozole with shredded cabbage, because that’s how Camilo liked it. She continued singing in a soft voice. Beneath the sound drifted a sea of memories: of walking down to the river with her husband, of bathing together, of the first time they danced.

She poured the stew into bowls, filling the vessels with grief and love. “Remember,” Blanca said, placing a steaming portion before me, “when you’re cooking for the person you love, when you cook with your heart as well as your hands, the food tastes better.”


To learn more about The Memory Recipe Book, click here.


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The Butcher of Havana

The Butcher
of Havana

How a drifter from Milwaukee became the chief executioner of the Cuban Revolution—and a test case for U.S. civil rights.

By Tony Perrottet

The Atavist Magazine, No. 120


Tony Perrottet is a historian and journalist. A regular contributor to Smithsonian, he is also the author of six books, including Cuba Libre!, Pagan Holiday, Napoleon’s Privates, and The Sinner’s Grand Tour. Listen to Perrottet on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Kyla Jones and Naomi Sharp
Illustrator: Patrick Leger

Published in October 2021.


Part One

On the balmy night of April 9, 1959, a little over three months after Fidel Castro and Che Guevara seized power in Cuba, a group of famous international writers gathered in El Floridita, a popular restaurant in Old Havana. They were an urbane set—Tennessee Williams, George Plimpton, Elaine Dundy, and her husband, Kenneth Tynan—and they were expecting to carouse with Cuba’s most beloved yanqui, Ernest Hemingway. Instead, they encountered another Midwestern expatriate, wearing a wide military belt and a hulking .45 service revolver.

Burly and tattooed, the man had rough-hewn good looks. He was in his late thirties—more than two decades younger than Hemingway—and stood five-foot-ten, with thick brown hair and, in the words of his draft card, a “ruddy” complexion. An English journalist later described him as “tall, straight and meanly friendly,” with striking blue eyes that, “yellowing after only a few beers, suggested company dangerous to keep when drunk.” The American’s words tumbled out in the distinctively nasal accent of someone from blue-collar Milwaukee. He pronounced “that” as “dat” and dropped his g’s. He was the uneducated son of Polish immigrants, the type of man one of Williams’s own fictional snobs might have called a redneck.

But if his origins were humble, at El Floridita the man needed no introduction. His image had appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. In fact, after Hemingway, he was probably the most notorious American in the Caribbean. His name was Herman Marks, and he had risen through the ranks of Castro’s rebel army to command the revolution’s firing squads. Around Havana, there were rumors that he had a sadistic streak; his version of a coup de grâce, it was said, was to empty his pistol into a condemned man’s face, so relatives could not recognize the corpse. Marks’s brutal work had earned him a nickname: He was El Carnicero—the Butcher.

The literati peppered him with questions, and Marks responded with pride. He boasted of being second-in-command to Che himself at La Cabaña prison, and declared that he was so busy, he conducted nightly executions until 2 a.m., and sometimes until dawn. He called the proceedings “festivities” and showed off his cuff links made from spent bullet shells.

Marks knew what the gathered writers were really after. It was an open secret in Havana that he invited select visitors to the executions, which were conducted in the empty stone moat around La Cabaña, beneath a giant floodlit statue of Christ with outstretched arms. American politicians, journalists, starlets, and socialites had all made discreet inquiries about watching a firing squad do its work. Williams, whose grandfather had been a minister, forlornly felt that he might comfort a condemned man by offering “a small encouraging smile” before he was shot.

On this particular night, Marks told the group at El Floridita, he had a busy schedule. The prisoners awaiting execution included a German mercenary. “He made the invitation as easily as he might have offered a round of cocktails at his home,” Plimpton later recalled. Marks counted the visitors out: “Let’s see… five of you… quite easy… we’ll drive over by car… tight squeeze…”

Unnoticed by the others, Tynan had been listening to Marks with growing horror, and now the Englishman leapt to his feet and began shouting. According to Plimpton, the red-faced theater critic squinted his eyes and flapped his arms like an enormous bird while denouncing Marks. He didn’t want to be in the same room as an executioner, Tynan gasped, let alone witness his handiwork. He would attend the execution only to run in front of the firing squad to protect the condemned. Tynan then stormed out of the bar, followed by Dundy.

“What the hell was that?” asked Marks. He told the remaining writers to meet him in the lobby of a nearby hotel at 8 p.m.

With a Colt .45 revolver, $400 in cash, and “about ten words in Spanish,” as he later put it, Marks took a boat to Cuba. His plan was as audacious as it was simple: He would join the revolution.

Almost nothing about Herman Marks’s early life suggested that he would someday play a pivotal role in a Latin American revolution. He was born in Milwaukee in 1921, and raised in a neighborhood of shoddy brick houses and bare streets. His father, Frederick, was an unemployed alcoholic who beat him; his mother, Martha Yelich, barely kept the family afloat by working as a short-order cook in a diner. He does not appear to have been close with his elder sister, Elsie, or his younger one, Dorothy; but he remained devoted to his mother throughout his life, in his own eccentric fashion.

The Markses’ volatile marriage crumbled during the Great Depression, when Herman was 12. After his mother remarried, Herman began getting into trouble. He skipped classes and was expelled from every school he attended; at 14, he was sent to a reformatory, where he ran away on three occasions and was once caught stealing a car. Over the next two decades, he was arrested 32 times in ten states, from Hawaii to Maine, mostly for drunkenness, petty theft, and disorderly conduct.

He never stayed more than three months in any one place, working odd jobs in factories, on docks, and at horse ranches. In April 1939, he joined the merchant marine, and he served in the Pacific during World War II. (He later claimed in court that he “had been in jails all over” the region, including while on shore leave in Australia.) After the war, Marks floated aimlessly around the United States, Mexico, and Canada, adding to his rap sheet: vagrancy in Texas, public drunkenness in Ohio and North Dakota, attempted grand larceny in New York City, and “prowling” in Las Vegas, a crime for which he was given 30 days in jail and then told to leave town. In Los Angeles in 1949, he robbed an elderly woman, drunkenly grabbing her by the throat. According to the police report, he only made away with naphthalene mothballs “to the value of 29 cents.” He got six months for assault but escaped from jail with two friends. While fleeing, all three seriously hurt their ankles after jumping from a dangerous height; Marks and one of the other men limped on for weeks, until they were caught in Galveston, Texas, and sent back to California to finish their sentences.

Back home in Milwaukee, at age 27, Marks brawled with his mother’s third husband and physically threw him out of the house. (Yelich took her son’s side; he was fined five dollars by local authorities for his actions.) Later that same year, he was arrested and convicted of carnal knowledge with a 16-year-old girl. According to the police report, Marks was working as a stable hand and met the girl at a bar, where, the police conceded, she had shown the bartender a birth certificate that said she was an adult. The pair then attended a riotous celebration in a barn where, an investigator noted, “drinking and sex parties went on almost nightly.” Marks was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

His niece, Penlo Hobbs, remembered her relatives being frightened of Uncle Herman well before he entered the state penitentiary in Waupun. “He was the bogeyman,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to have anything to do with him.” Even Marks’s mother had reservations about her son. “I don’t know what happened to him,” she once told the Milwaukee Sentinel. “Whatever he did was not my fault. I sent him to parochial school and raised him good.”

She said Marks was generous when he wasn’t broke, lavishing her with bouquets of flowers, but mainly he spent his money on girls and booze. And he had an explosive temper. “He was always drinking and fighting,” his mother said. “As soon as somebody said anything wrong, he was up and mad.” Marks’s erratic personality was symbolized by his tattoos. His left arm bore a double heart inscribed with the words “Love, Nellie.” (There is no record of who Nellie was.) On his right arm was a skull pierced with a dagger, alongside the military motto “Death Before Dishonor.”

His mother took Marks in after he was released from Waupun penitentiary in 1955. A few months later he left home again. “He kissed me one day and said he was going,” his mother recalled. Somebody took a photo of him looking bronzed and fit, which Yelich carried in her purse until the day she died. “I don’t think he knew where he was going,” she said. “He was looking for something.”

He found it on a shrimp boat in Florida. While hauling nets in late 1957, he ran into some men he knew from his days in the merchant marine. They were from Cuba, an island Marks had visited several times in the service, and once as a tourist. It was now embroiled in a civil war between leftist revolutionary guerrillas, led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro, and the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. That Christmas, Marks learned that one of his Cuban friends had been murdered in Havana by military police; they purportedly broke into the man’s house one night and shot him dead at his kitchen table. Soon after hearing the news, Marks went to an army surplus store in Key West and bought olive drab fatigues and paratrooper boots. With a Colt .45 revolver, $400 in cash, and “about ten words in Spanish,” as he later put it, Marks took a boat to Cuba. His plan was as audacious as it was simple: He would join the revolution.

Havana was under military curfew, with Batista’s menacing, blue-uniformed intelligence officers patrolling the streets. Loitering in the city’s bars, Marks failed to find any agents of M-26-7, Castro’s underground 26th of July Movement, named for the date of the group’s first armed uprising. So Marks took a bus east to the sleepy town of Manzanillo, in the tropical foothills of the Sierra Maestra, where he met two young Cubans also hoping to join the guerrillas. The trio hiked for three nights before reaching a jungle outpost of some 40 rebels under the command of Captain Paco Cabrera. An English-speaking officer interrogated Marks. Like many of the roughly two dozen yanquis who ultimately joined Cuba’s rebellion, Marks rewrote his personal history. According to one guerrilla, he claimed that he was a Korean War veteran; to others, he explained that his facility with weapons was born of a childhood enthusiasm for guns. He was accepted into the group with a meal of beef and celebratory rum.

Marks’s profile among the guerrillas rose when he saw three teenagers fumbling with a U.S. Army .30-caliber machine gun and stepped in to show them how to disassemble and clean it. By the time he was finished, a crowd had gathered around him, with men holding up rusted and broken weapons, wordlessly appealing for help. He was soon tasked with fixing the array of firearms used by rebel forces, everything from sport rifles to shotguns to carbines dating back to Cuba’s colonial days.

Marks was assigned to the unit led by Che Guevara, which suffered the highest casualties in the rebel army—one of its cohorts was dubbed the suicide squad. Marks quickly rose through the ranks to become a captain. In the spring of 1958, Che transferred him to Minas del Frío, a rebel stronghold, where Marks helped establish a military school and train recruits to repel the impending Operation Finish Fidel, a mass invasion of the Sierra Maestra by Batista’s army, which outnumbered the guerrillas 100 to 1. By May, Marks was on the front lines of combat. In one skirmish, he broke three teeth on a rock when he tripped leading a charge; in another, he led a group of 18 rebels who disabled a 250-man convoy in an ambush.

By August, Batista’s generals had to admit that they could not dislodge the guerrillas, and the army withdrew from the Sierra Maestra. The following month, Marks volunteered to join Che on a harrowing 350-mile mission across the mosquito-filled swamps of the eastern lowlands. The rebels hoped to establish a new base in the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba and use it to seize enough ground to effectively cut the island in half. In a biography of Castro, journalist Tad Szulc observed that the expedition, where the men would abandon the known terrain of the Sierra to trudge across exposed, unknown, and hostile territory, “must have seemed like a demented plan.” Che warned volunteers that conditions would be miserable, food short, and casualties likely close to 50 percent. Marks signed up anyway.

Although most of the mission’s men survived the trek, it was universally agreed to be the most grueling campaign of the entire war. Che’s column walked mostly at night to avoid army patrols and strafing airplanes. They forded rivers naked and once traversed a shallow lagoon filled with razor-sharp plants. They suffered from dire hunger and endured hurricane-fueled rain. “I’ve been through enough mud and water to last me the rest of my life,” Che wrote to Castro. “Hunger, thirst, weariness, the feeling of impotence against the enemy forces that were increasingly closing in on us, and above all, the terrible foot disease that the peasants called mazamorra—which turned each step our soldiers took into an intolerable torment—had made us an army of shadows.”

During a skirmish, Marks was wounded in the knee and ankle. Infection set in. “Pus and blood was continuously running, and I couldn’t get a shoe on my foot,” he later said. He had trudged with Che for over a month to get to the Escambray Mountains, but the possibility of fatal gangrene now threatened. Che decided to get the yanqui to safety. In early November, supporters of M-26-7 smuggled Marks from a farm into the city of Santa Clara, where he was dispatched by plane to Key West for medical care.

Although he had gone to great lengths to make sure Marks did not succumb to his injury, privately Che was not unhappy to see him go, writing in his war journal that the American “fundamentally … didn’t fit into the troop.” One of Che’s close aides, Enrique Acevedo, told biographer Jon Lee Anderson that Marks was “brave and crazy in combat, tyrannical and arbitrary in the peace of camp.” According to Acevedo, the American’s ruthless nature had disturbed the Cuban recruits—particularly his readiness to volunteer for execution duty, which he did with “an enthusiasm that was unseemly.”

The Cubans’ reaction to Marks echoed that of a reform-school psychiatrist who’d encountered him when he was 16. The psychiatrist reported that Marks was oddly detached—“a very stolid emotionless person when not excited” who “shows almost a lack of adequate feeling in respect to situations he finds himself in.” Later, when Marks was in Waupun prison, the facility’s psychiatrist found that he was “amoral rather than immoral,” and was “narcissistic in his makeup.”

These assessments would resonate throughout Marks’s peculiar career in Cuba.

Part Two

On New Year’s Day in 1959, Marks was resting in his hospital bed in Key West, listening to the radio, when a news update came over the airwaves: Batista had escaped from Havana in the hours before dawn that day, abandoning his country. In that moment, Castro’s rebel army had been handed effective control of Cuba. Days later, Marks hobbled to the docks and took the first ferry to Havana, which was still operating daily. He wanted to savor the victory, rejoin his compañeros, and, not incidentally, claim his promised share of property following the revolution’s land reform, which had always been at the top of Castro’s agenda.

Marks arrived in Havana on January 3 to find the city in a tense state of limbo, awaiting Castro’s arrival in a triumphant procession from the east. When news of Batista’s flight had filtered out on New Year’s Day, jubilant Habaneros sacked several casinos and smashed parking meters with baseball bats; Marks walked from the dock to the presidential palace along empty streets strewn with debris and shattered slot machines. Most of the city was under lockdown, with gun-toting cadres loyal to the M-26-7 maintaining a fragile order. Batista’s disgraced police and rank-and-file soldiers were all lying low; Boy Scouts had taken over as traffic cops, directing the few cars still on the roads.

At the presidential palace, armed student activists told Marks that his old comandante, Che, and an advance guard of 200 rebels had taken over La Cabaña. The golden-hued Spanish fortress was built in the age of conquistadors to guard galleons filled with Aztec and Incan gold from pirates; under Batista it had been a military base and a prison. It housed some 3,000 troops, but the demoralized officers had surrendered to the rebels without firing a shot. Marks made his way there to report for duty. 

He spent his first night in Che’s billet, carousing, and after breakfast the next morning, Che took him to the quartermaster to find fatigues and a beret. Whatever concerns Che had had about the American during the rebels’ trek eastward the previous year weren’t enough to dissuade him from appointing Marks head of security at La Cabaña.

On January 8, Havana’s silence broke when Castro arrived, riding atop a tank and surrounded by guerrillas. He proceeded along the Malecón waterfront, thronged by adoring crowds. Eventually, Castro took the penthouse apartment atop the Havana Hilton as his temporary office, while guerrillas slept on the floor of the hotel foyer. For weeks the streets of Havana were filled with music and dancing to celebrate the demise of the ancien régime. Guerillas were offered free bus rides, meals, and alcohol wherever they went.

At La Cabaña, to focus his officers’ restless energies, Che offered literacy classes and crash courses on international politics, explaining the importance of Vladimir Lenin and the Soviet Union. Still, a festive air permeated everything. Che’s office was besieged by female admirers who lined up for hours hoping to see him; when he barred the door, they climbed through the windows. The fortress’s former officers club was thrown open to the barbudos—“bearded ones,” as the shaggy young guerrillas were nicknamed. The English writer Norman Lewis visited La Cabaña and found rebels in freshly pressed uniforms, “sipping delicately from small coffee cups, and smilingly discussing the past achievements and future promise of the new order.”

Lewis was among the small army of foreign artists, writers, and celebrities who descended on Havana to enjoy the intoxicating “honeymoon of the revolution,” as the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre called it. Another was veteran Milwaukee Journal reporter William J. Normyle. He visited Havana in mid-February, and was surprised to learn that Castro’s guerrillas included one of Wisconsin’s native sons. He wrote a glowing profile of Marks, dwelling on his idealism and derring-do as a freedom fighter. Marks revealed that he had no plans to leave Cuba anytime soon. “I’m staying here,” he told Normyle. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Marks, it seems, conveniently left his criminal history out of his interviews, telling Normyle that he had attended vocational school in Milwaukee before joining the merchant marine. What’s more, Normyle’s article didn’t mention that at least part of Marks’s work in Cuba was shooting prisoners to death.

Three judges heard attorneys and witnesses, and parsed the evidence to decide who was mistakenly charged, who deserved long prison sentences, and who should be sent al paredón—“to the wall.”

For many foreigners, the first dark chord in Havana’s celebratory mood was struck by the start of trials for “war criminals” from the Batista regime. Nobody knows the exact death toll of the seven years of Batista’s military rule. The figure 20,000 was offered by the director of Havana’s morgue in 1959, and accepted by the revolutionary government. Although the true number may be less, nobody disputes that the carnage was horrific. Nearly every Cuban had a family member who was illegally detained, tortured, murdered, or disappeared by the regime. Castro urged Cubans not to take revenge against Batista’s henchmen who remained on the island after the dictator’s escape. He promised proper trials based on laws he had signed in the Sierra Maestra in February 1958. Yes, his brother Raúl had ordered that more than 70 Batista loyalists be machine-gunned before open graves in the city of Santiago, but henceforth, Castro insisted, the proceedings would be civilized—there would be none of the bloody mob violence associated around the world with uprisings and revolutions past.

The first trials, the so-called Cleansing Commission, were set up in Havana in January 1959 under the supervision of a young lawyer named Miguel Ángel Duque de Estrada. Che presided as the “supreme prosecutor.” Targeting the most detested members of the Batista regime, the trials were held at La Cabaña, where 800 prisoners were squeezed into stone cells made to hold only 300. Three judges heard attorneys and witnesses, then parsed the evidence to decide who was mistakenly charged, who deserved a long prison sentence, and who should be sent al paredón—“to the wall.” By the end of January, some 100 Batista loyalists had been executed.

Marks was in many ways the perfect soldier to run the firing squads. He was ambitious and had shown in the Sierra that he was not averse to undesirable and even grisly tasks. He believed that the executions of Batista’s most loathsome minions was part and parcel of the revolution, and he saw Che’s decision to put him in charge of carrying out such a difficult job on behalf of the Cuban people as an honor.

Marks achieved a burst of notoriety when the new government initiated Operation Truth. It chose three of the most brutal Batista partisans to prosecute at a public trial, and Castro invited international journalists as observers. He even offered to pay their expenses. All told, 385 journalists from U.S. and Latin American media converged on Havana. It turned out to be a PR misstep; what happened next was a show trial, held at the aptly named Coliseum, the national sports stadium. The accused men were paraded before 18,000 jeering and furious Cuban spectators. For the benefit of those who could not attend, the event was televised live.

The first accused man to take the stand was Major Jesús Sosa Blanco, a garrison officer from the provincial town of Holguín, who was charged with 108 murders, many preceded by savage torture. He was also believed to have ordered the massacre of unarmed campesinos. Over 12 hours, some 40 tearful witnesses, including widows and a 12-year-old boy, took the stage to testify about the murders of their loved ones. The audience screamed and wailed. When the handcuffed defendant morosely repeated that he had only done his duty, his words were drowned out by the crowd chanting, “Al paredón! Al paredón!

Sosa Blanco was convicted and sentenced to death. On February 18, his appeal was adjudicated without a public audience, and his sentence was upheld. Some 200 barbudos came to watch him die. The condemned man was transported in a small bus to La Cabaña’s dry, floodlit moat, where Marks unlocked his handcuffs and led him to the spot where he would be executed. According to Marks, Sosa Blanco asked if he could address the crowd with some final words and then give the orders to the firing squad himself. Marks agreed. “Although I am marked as a criminal,” Sosa Blanco said, “I have served my government to the best of my ability as an officer.” He wished good luck to all those gathered, and then cried out: “Pelotón, atención! Prepare! Apunte! Fuego!

All this left the international community outraged. U.S. journalists in particular denounced the executions as well as the trials at the Coliseum, some of which were televised, with language that veered into ugly bias. Time led the charge, decrying the “popcorn-munching atmosphere” and insisting that it revealed a congenital Cuban longing for “blood purges.” U.S. senators held press conferences to warn that the Cuban uprising was spinning out of control, just as the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions had before it.

Many Cubans saw American objections to the executions as rank hypocrisy. For seven agonizing years, the U.S. government had not breathed a word of protest against Batista’s regime, which had killed so many Cuban citizens. After Batista’s flight, mass graves were opened all over the island, full of corpses with broken limbs or missing eyes; many victims had been burned, strangled, disemboweled, or buried alive. Police stations were found to contain torture implements, including handmade tools designed for pulling nails and teeth, electrical wires that could be inserted into ears, and “fire seats”—perforated metal thrones under which flames mutilated genitalia. When Castro asked Cubans for a show of support for Operation Truth, a million demonstrators gathered in Havana to demand more executions and to express outrage at the Americans’ double standards.

Soon, though, with a diplomatic tour to the United States pending, Castro bowed to international pressure and moved the trials back behind the closed doors of La Cabaña. They were now held at night within the bowels of the prison, “in a large hall that might have served as a church,” according to Norman Lewis. Benches held dozens of prisoners’ relatives, many of them women and children. “The place was surprisingly quiet,” Lewis noted, “and despite the provision of microphones I had to listen intently to follow the details of what was going on, especially when prisoners under examination replied to questions, as they usually did, in a low-voiced, hesitant fashion. Two small birds fluttered continuously under the roof.”

Although the accused men Lewis saw tried were “criminal small-fry,” he flinched at the barbarity revealed in their testimony. A boyish 18-year-old named José Cano was accused of stabbing one victim in the eyes before murdering him. Another, Gregorio Gonzalez, aged 22, said he had executed a 73-year-old grandmother with two shots to the head for harboring a pair of rebel agents in her house. A death sentence was handed down for both men. Only a woman’s gasp broke the silence in the room.

A photograph taken around the time, published in The New York Times Magazine, shows Marks in smart guerrilla khakis, standing at attention as he hears a verdict. It was his job to escort men like Cano and Gonzalez to their deaths, one after the other.

Visiting reporters, politicians, and movie stars lined up for their turn to witness an execution, including the Hollywood matinee idol Errol Flynn, who was so shaken by the experience that he retched on a guard’s shoes.

By the end of March 1959, the nightly firing squads at La Cabaña had become something of a production line. According to wire reports, Marks had already carried out 200 executions, though he claimed the figure was closer to 80; on one busy night, he told an Associated Press reporter, 11 men were put to death. To the many foreign journalists who attended, Marks insisted that he was acting as a humanitarian. It was he who had suggested that the executions take place in the moat beneath the looming white statue of Christ, because the figure would be an uplifting last sight for the condemned. He said he also wanted to ensure that the process was clean and efficient, compared with messy executions that had been conducted in the provinces.

Some observers found the proceedings a little too efficient. “It was a mechanical, cold-blooded, business-like procedure for Marks,” New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews wrote, “like a butcher killing cattle in an abattoir.” Still, glitches happened. When the floodlights failed, sentences were carried out by the headlamps of military Jeeps, as if they were gangland murders in Hollywood B movies. There were scenes of panic and despair. Some condemned men tried to buy their freedom with money or gifts. A more serious problem was that the young soldiers in the firing squads, who were generally between 16 and 20, often lost their nerve at the decisive moment. The Cubans did not follow the European tradition of giving one of the riflemen a blank round to salve the squad’s consciences, so the soldiers often aimed for a leg, a shoulder, or the wall. This left Marks to fire the fatal shot into a man now writhing in agony. On one occasion, when a man waved a Santeria hex at the riflemen and cursed them, their children, and their grandchildren, all six deliberately missed. Marks shot the man himself and had the squad court-martialed.

Marks’s local infamy rose another notch when the English-language Times of Havana, beloved by American tourists and expats, ran a profile of him on April 2. It was largely sympathetic, apart from describing him as “humorless” and noting that he “discusses his duties unsmilingly and unemotionally.” Marks hit on many of the themes he would return to in interviews over the coming months. “Running firing squads is not a pleasant job, but it’s one that must be done,” he said. “When a soldier gets his orders, he carries them out whether he likes it or not.” Marks also expressed his love for his new home. “Cuba is a beautiful country,” he said. “The people are wonderful. I like everybody here and most everybody likes me. I’ve got a good position in a happy, contented place.”

A long waiting list formed for Marks’s macabre tourist attraction. Visiting reporters, politicians, and movie stars were eager for their turn, including the Hollywood matinee idol Errol Flynn, who was so shaken by the experience that he retched on a guard’s shoes. Still, Flynn was fascinated enough to invite Marks to dine with him and his 16-year-old paramour, Beverly Aadland, in his hotel suite, where Flynn argued that condemned men should have a say in the method of their own executions. Marks disagreed, pointing out that they had never given their victims a choice. “Somebody was pretty smart in the government by putting an American in charge of blowing out Cuban brains,” Flynn wrote in a letter at the time. (Flynn also reported the rumor of Marks’s sadist coup de grâce—that he deliberately disfigured some condemned prisoners by emptying his pistol into their heads—but admitted that he had not seen it himself, despite attending several executions. The story, Flynn wrote, was “hearsay.”)

Ernest Hemingway encouraged George Plimpton to witness an execution, because “it was important that a writer get around to see just about anything, especially the excesses of human behavior.” But Plimpton didn’t attend on the night he first met Marks at El Floridita. When he, Tennessee Williams, and the other foreigners whom Marks had invited convened at the appointed time in the hotel lobby, Marks turned up only to inform them that the evening’s executions had been called off. Plimpton speculated that Marks had been set on edge by Kenneth Tynan’s rant about the proceedings at La Cabaña, and that he sensed others in the group might have concerns. “He had doubtless concluded that we were an odd lot: our own doubts so obviously seethed; we didn’t seem grateful; we kept staring at him with our mouths ajar,” Plimpton wrote.

It is also possible that Marks had no idea how famous Williams was when he extended the invitation, and had been subsequently warned off by a superior. Only the afternoon before, Tynan and Williams had visited the presidential palace to meet Castro. They waited for two and a half hours until, Tynan later wrote, “with a shrug and a cry, someone identified Mr. Williams as the famous Yankee playwright, and we were promptly whisked into Castro’s sanctum, where, unknown to us, a crucial cabinet meeting had been in session.” Castro halted the proceedings to pay tribute to Williams, explaining in faltering English “how much he admired his plays, especially the one about the cat that was upon the burning roof.”

But things didn’t end in the hotel lobby. In a final twist, as Plimpton revealed many years later to James Scott Linville and another colleague at The Paris Review, Hemingway himself decided to take his friend on an evening jaunt to see Marks at work. He prepared shakers of cocktails for himself and Plimpton to take with them. According to Linville, “Arriving at their destination, they got out, set up chairs, brought out the drinks, and arranged themselves as if they were going to watch the sunset. Soon enough, a truck came. … The truck stopped and some men with guns got out of it. In back were a couple of dozen others who were tied up. Prisoners. The men with guns hustled the others out of the back of the truck and lined them up. And then they shot them. They put the bodies back in the truck and drove off.”

Jean Secon

By then, Marks’s reputation as a killer was international news. An AP reporter named Theodore A. Ediger broke the story in late March, and his work was syndicated, appearing in newspapers across America, including the Milwaukee Journal. Ediger’s profile detailed Marks’s work as an executioner, but the author was nonetheless a little starstruck. He described Marks as a “slender, sun-bronzed officer” who was fondly referred to as “El Capitán Herman” by his Cuban comrades. When asked about his youth in America, Marks claimed to have worked as a coal miner in Butte, Montana, and as a “hospital surgeon attendant.” Ediger concluded the piece, “He says he likes Cuba so much that he is not homesick.”

This time the publicity in Milwaukee, where Marks’s photo ran on the front page, drew the attention of John C. Burke, the warden at Waupun penitentiary, where Marks had done time. Burke contacted the Journal, and Normyle, the reporter who had met Marks in Havana back in February, did some digging and discovered Marks’s 32 criminal convictions. “Marks Left Crime Trail,” another front-page headline soon read. In the accompanying article, Burke described Marks as “a real stinker” and a “rascal” who caused constant trouble in the prison by refusing to work. The exposé was picked up by other papers and various magazines, including Time and Newsweek. It also heralded Marks’s debut in The New York Times, under the headline “Executioner Is Ex-Convict.” Marks’s criminal past was linked to rumors of his cruelty in Cuba, and to his nickname, El Carnicero.

If anything, the coverage enhanced Marks’s mystique in Havana’s expat circles, where oddballs and outsiders abounded. Marks was given the best tables in the swank restaurants that were still operating in the city’s Art Deco hotels. He became a familiar figure at El Floridita and Sloppy Joe’s, another popular drinking establishment. He made regular cameos at an office in downtown Havana, which was shared by New York Times correspondent Ruby Hart Phillips—a prim, matronly figure whose uniform was “grey sweater, carmine blouse and blue slacks,” according to Time—and Ted Scott, the brothel-hopping Times of Havana editor. In his office, Scott had set up a makeshift shooting gallery, with cards that moved on a wire; in his downtime he used an air pistol for target practice. One day, Phillips had to restrain Marks from trying to hit the cards with his .45 revolver.

Jean Secon, a striking American photojournalist in her twenties, had moved to Havana in 1958 and established herself as a stringer. She was arrested by Batista’s regime for attempting to meet Castro in the Sierra and flown back to Havana. After the revolution succeeded, she became a fixture in the city, hobnobbing with barbudos in restaurants and bars. In early 1959, she met Marks while attending an execution. The two hit it off and became romantically involved.

The couple shared a talent for Gatsby-like reinvention. Like Marks, Secon had buried her past in America. She’d fled her life in upstate New York, divorced her husband, and worked as a model in Manhattan before lighting out for Cuba. Now her life was full of adventure. Her future in the tropics, and with Marks, looked bright.

Part Three

In May 1959, following a successful diplomatic tour of the United States—where he was feted by crowds in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and on the campuses of Harvard and Princeton—Castro put an end to the execution of “war criminals.” According to the most reliable figures, some 500 of Batista’s cronies had been sent to the wall, most of them on Marks’s watch. On June 2, Che was married at La Cabaña to his sweetheart Aleida March, a guerrillera who had been his personal assistant during the war. After a rum-fueled reception in his bodyguard’s quarters, Che was sent by Castro on an international tour, which took him to India, China, and Africa.

Marks and the other men under Che’s command regarded his new diplomatic role as a demotion from his work at La Cabaña. They were also upset to learn that they would all be transferred to the sleepy province of Las Villas to do odd jobs, such as enforce the desegregation of beaches. “It was like the house falling down,” one of Che’s young officers recalled.

Over the summer of 1959, the happy atmosphere for American expats in Cuba eroded. Castro’s government followed through on its promise to break up sugar estates larger than 3,300 acres, including Castro’s own family farm near Birán and vast tracts owned by American companies. Instead of providing compensation in cash, the government offered dubious bonds. Tit-for-tat retaliation between Washington and Havana ensued. Moscow, sensing an opportunity, stepped up its support for Castro’s government. Historians continue to debate whether Castro jumped or was pushed into the arms of the Soviet Union. What’s certain is that his government gradually filled with Communist activists.

Marks would later tell U.S. authorities—perhaps playing to their sentiments—that he opposed the creep of Communism into the ranks of Cuba’s freedom fighters. He claimed that when he discovered that the literacy teachers at La Cabaña were using Communist pamphlets for their classes, he made a bonfire out of the reading material—a move that surely would have annoyed the pro-Soviet Che, had he heard about it, but which was not yet a punishable offense. After the move to Las Villas, Marks blamed his political outspokenness for a series of further transfers deeper into the countryside, a sort of Cuban Siberia. For a while he was in a “no-man’s-land,” as he put it, training “misfits” from the rebel army who had gone AWOL or fallen asleep on duty. Eventually, he ended up in the city of Santa Clara, with his captain’s rank intact but no duties to perform.

While he was posted in the provinces, Marks observed from a distance a bizarre episode of Cold War espionage in which a fellow American guerrilla fighter—William Morgan, known as the Yankee Comandante—helped foil a military coup against Castro backed by the right-wing dictator of the Dominican Republic. In the crackdown on critics of the revolution that followed, Secon made her first appearance in The New York Times, not as a reporter but as a news item. When she and another journalist tried to interview Morgan in his Havana home, the pair had the honor of being the first U.S. correspondents arrested by the Castro regime. The nature of the charges was never clear, a sign of the government’s increasingly authoritarian bent and Castro’s suspicion of a free press. Secon and the other journalist were detained for a week, then released.

In September, Che returned from his triumphant world tour—he was the toast of the international left—and revisited his old regiment in the provinces, informing them that he was moving into Cuba’s civil sector. He would run the Industrialization Department, to develop the national economy, and take over as head of the National Bank. Marks, though, remained in his rural limbo; Che, always a calculating figure, had evidently decided that the American was no longer of any special use. Then, in a lucky break, Marks ran into another of his former guerrilla commanders, the prodigiously bearded Camilo Cienfuegos, who pulled a few strings and got him transferred back to Havana to command an infantry battalion at Campo Libertad (Fort Freedom). Marks was put in charge of the various security details assigned to officials’ homes and to Havana’s railways and bridges. He was given a large house with a swimming pool, along with a Packard sedan.

That October, one of Castro’s most beloved Sierra compañeros, Huber Matos, resigned from the rebel army to protest the growing influence of Communists in the government. He was immediately arrested as a counter-revolutionary and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Matos’s imprisonment was a turning point in U.S.-Cuban relations: The Eisenhower administration issued increasingly bellicose statements, and Cubans began to feel a sense of siege. Bombs planted by anti-Castro agents exploded in Havana stores, and light planes from Florida dropped incendiary devices to set fire to sugarcane fields. Anti-Castro guerrillas began operating in the countryside, funded by right-wing exile communities in Miami. By the end of 1959, the CIA was thinking about assassinating Castro, a consideration supposedly justified by the increasing presence of Soviet officials in Cuba. The American public was also souring on the revolution. It wasn’t long before the New York press, which previously had compared Castro to George Washington, began referring to the Cuban leader contemptuously as El Beardo.

As rumors of an impending U.S. invasion grew, Castro began arming Cuban citizens with vintage Soviet weapons, and he revived the tribunals—this time with the power to impose a death sentence for offenses against the revolution. In January 1960, Marks was made chief security officer at El Princípe prison, another colonial relic in Havana. Its cells were crammed with 3,000 inmates, mostly opponents of Castro from militant dissident groups. The Butcher was told to get back to business.

“I am proud to have fought with such men as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, proud to be part of the revolution,” Marks concluded, “but I am also proud of being an American citizen, and I do not intend to stop being one!”

In February 1960, a U.S. embassy staff officer named Wayne Gilchrist steered his lumbering Chevrolet into the cobbled courtyard of El Princípe and handed Marks an envelope. Inside was a Certificate of Loss of Nationality. The United States had stripped Marks of his citizenship.

It was another indicator, if any more were needed, that the romance between the United States and revolutionary Cuba was well and truly over. One by one, Marks and other yanqui expats who had remained in Castro’s forces after Batista’s exit were stripped of citizenship. Their crime? Serving in a foreign military.

Marks did not take the news lying down. A few days after Gilchrist’s visit, he held a press conference. Secon covered the thinly attended event—Marks later conceded that it had lured only “three or four” journalists—for the Times of Havana and the wire service United Press International. The Times ran her story on the front page, with a photo of Marks wearing a beret and a “well-trimmed beard,” as she described it, which he “thoughtfully fingered” as he pondered his legal situation. Marks claimed that Americans in Cuba were being targeted for political reasons. “A person’s citizenship is his right of birth,” he declared, noting that Americans had fought in the Spanish Civil War and as part of the British and French armies in the two World Wars without losing their nationality. “I am proud to have fought with such men as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, proud to be part of the revolution,” he concluded, “but I am also proud of being an American citizen, and I do not intend to stop being one.”

Secon editorialized her own outrage. “If the reputation Herman Marks won in the Sierra Maestra still holds,” she wrote, “the U.S. State Department will have one hell of a battle denying what the man calls his birthright.”

By the time of the press conference, Marks was well into his stint at El Princípe. His time there produced a string of lurid stories, although their veracity is difficult to establish; most were retroactively spread by Miami Cubans when anti-Castro propaganda became virulent in their city. In the Cuban poet Armando Valladares’s error-filled 1986 memoir, Against All Hope, Marks is depicted as a savage drunkard who referred to the prison as his “private hunting preserve” and would order the guards to attack inmates with chains and truncheons before stealing their possessions. Valladares describes Marks’s executions as gory ordeals, with the American often bringing his pet dog with him to lap up the blood of the condemned. John Martino—an American casino worker with mob connections who was arrested for smuggling Batista henchmen out of the country—wrote a tome in 1963 called I Was Castro’s Prisoner, which includes a chapter entitled “Sadists and Perverts of El Princípe.” After one inmate begged to be spared, Martino claimed, Marks fired all the rounds in his pistol into the man’s face, turning it into “a shapeless piece of meat,” and supposedly giving his mother a fatal heart attack when she opened his coffin at the funeral.

The story later circulated that Marks was stripped of his position at El Princípe due to his brutality and alleged theft of prison funds; Marks denied the charges when they surfaced. Whatever the truth, he was transferred from the prison in March 1960 to downtown Havana, where he trained police officers in firearm safety after a series of clumsy shooting accidents injured bystanders. It was a demotion, perhaps, but hardly a disgrace.

Despite months of relative luxury thanks to his job perks, Marks was painfully aware that life for Americans in Cuba was becoming more dangerous by the day. The escalating drama was excellent copy for Secon, but it risked spinning out of control and trapping the couple, or worse. The most alarming sign was an enormous May Day rally in the Plaza de la Revolución, where cadres of Cubans armed with their Soviet weapons marched past Castro’s podium in a tropical echo of Moscow’s military parades. Castro orated about the threat of a U.S. invasion, which Cubans, he said, would face like the Spartans at Thermopylae. A chant began: “Cuba sí, yanqui no!”

Marks became convinced that he was being followed by Cuban intelligence agents. His paranoia increased when, in early May, several officers close to him were arrested. Secon was just as jittery. As Marks later recounted, “A lot of people were coming to the same conclusion: Get out while there was still a chance.”

Part Four

At 2 a.m. on May 10, Secon was frantically packing her bags and burning papers in the kitchen sink of her apartment when she was startled by a knock at the door. Her first thought was that Castro’s intelligence agents had come to arrest her. She had been working on a story about Communist activity in Cuba, and was determined to get her files out of the country and publish the piece. But she had also been tipped off by friends in the government that she would be detained at the airport if she tried to leave; she was convinced that she would be tried as an American spy and sentenced to 20 years.

When she opened the door, though, it was only Marks. Secon “nearly collapsed with relief,” she later wrote. Marks, too, was ready to flee. He told her that he had been engaged in counter-revolutionary activity and had been warned by old friends in the security forces that he was about to be arrested. Their only hope of escaping the island, the pair agreed, was to hijack a boat.

Secon later recounted their daredevil flight in two magazine stories (one penned under a pseudonym) and assorted newspaper articles. The facts are hard to confirm, at least for the period when the pair were still in Cuba, but Secon’s description of the escape generally fits in with the findings of subsequent investigations and court records. At her apartment, Marks told Secon that he refused to be taken alive and she should be ready for a gunfight. He then drove off to find a revolver and army fatigues for Secon, so she could blend in with the revolutionaries. Eventually, in the predawn darkness, the pair climbed into Marks’s Packard, made sure they weren’t being tailed, and drove west along the empty coastal highway.

In the fishing village of Los Arroyos, Cuba’s westernmost point, they hired a boat for the following morning. But their choice of egress was too obvious; other desperate Cubans had shanghaied vessels there in recent weeks. When Marks and Secon turned up for their charter at 4 a.m., they were joined by three armed soldiers. “Nothing personal,” one told Secon. “Too many people have been leaving Cuba by boat lately.” The couple were forced to spend a long, anxious day fishing. Afterward, Marks and Secon put their catch in the trunk of the Packard, and the soldiers said that they would be wiring Havana to report that two norteamericanos had been on a boat.

Driving away from the harbor, Marks was recognized at a road block by a former compañero. In later court testimony, Marks described an edgy standoff: Secon picked up a rifle in the car and flicked off the safety, and a guard snarled, “Well, we’re not going to get you here, but we’ll get you further on in another place.” Marks and Secon spent the next two nights, Secon later wrote, driving “back roads and cow trails” to avoid detection, and creeping around yacht clubs looking for unguarded boats, before deciding that they should try their luck at a tourist resort.

They boarded a car ferry to the Isle of Pines, a remote island off Cuba’s south coast, and checked into the swanky El Colony, which was still popular with U.S. vacationers and had a busy marina. The pair chartered a ramshackle 33-foot launch called the Coral del Mar for a day of fishing with a middle-aged captain named Julio Perle and his brother. When they arrived at dawn the next morning, they learned that Perle’s skinny teenage son would also be coming along. An hour later, as the trio of Cubans were preparing the fishing lines over a reef about six miles from port, Marks and Secon pulled out their weapons and ordered the crew to motor due west to Mexico.

Perle and his brother were adamantly pro-Castro and refused to cooperate, so Secon kept a gun trained on them while Marks skippered the launch, navigating without charts and zigzagging to avoid navy patrol vessels. That night they were hit by a Caribbean squall so violent it made the Cubans, now locked belowdecks, seasick. The flat-bottomed craft, which Perle’s family had built themselves, slapped against the open waves and made sluggish progress. At dusk the next day, the lights of Mexico’s Yucatán coast became visible just as the boat’s fuel ran out. “The engine gave one short cough and died,” Secon wrote. The five people aboard could only pray for help from a passing boat as currents carried them away from shore into the vast Gulf of Campeche.

On land, the hijacking had become international news. Although details were hazy, the escape of El Carnicero and a crusading female reporter from Cuba was covered by the AP and The New York Times. Meanwhile, according to Secon’s later accounts, the situation aboard the Coral del Mar was growing desperate. The three Cubans were dragooned back on deck to fish before nightfall, in order to extend the boat’s meager rations. After dark they were locked up again, and Secon and Marks took turns guarding them. The next day, lack of sleep, combined with what Secon described as “relentless sun, maddening thirst, and tension,” began to take their toll. When Marks nodded off for a short nap, Secon had a confrontation with Perle, who threatened to move on her and seize her weapon; he only relented when she took off the safety and convinced him she would fire.

On the fourth day at sea, they encountered two passing vessels. One, a freighter, did not respond to gunfire, frantic waving, or SOS flashes with a mirror. The other turned out to be a Cuban fishing boat, with a crew of ten who stood on the gunwales and stared at the Coral del Mar silently. “Why they did not jump us I do not know,” Secon wrote. She wondered whether Cuban radio had warned listeners that she and Marks were “armed and dangerous.”

At last, on the seventh day, they spotted a shrimp vessel from Florida. “Fortune again smiled on our sun-black skinny faces,” Marks later said. The captain, “a kind and generous man,” gave them a full tank of fuel and ten gallons of water. According to Secon, the Coral del Mar headed back to Cuba, with Perle, his brother, and his son on board, while the rescue boat carried her and Marks west. Secon claimed that Marks eventually swam ashore to the Yucatán with his pistol, promising to meet up with her later in Mexico City, while she stayed on the boat, which was headed for Texas.

The pair did eventually connect in the Mexican capital, but the truth about their rescue came out some time later, when Normyle, the reporter for the Milwaukee Journal who had kept close tabs on Marks, traveled to the Isle of Pines and interviewed Julio Perle. The captain of the Coral del Mar told Normyle that, contrary to Secon’s story about heading west, she and Marks had immediately made for Florida aboard the American shrimp boat, which Perle said was named the St. George. Normyle tracked the vessel down in Tampa. The captain, James E. Cartwright, said he had no idea about the pair’s dramatic past. They had told him they were on a fishing trip and were afraid to return to Cuba because of “the troubles there,” so he let them sleep for two days and nights on mattresses on his boat’s deck as he sailed it back to Tampa. Cartwright had intended to alert immigration officers of his castaways when they docked on May 25, but the couple were so amiable and thankful that he didn’t bother. (Cartwright would regret his candor; after Normyle’s story was published, immigration services in Miami fined him $4,020 for failing to declare his passengers.)

From Tampa, Secon and Marks made a beeline for Mexico City. There, as Secon polished her stories about their escape for publication, Marks applied for asylum.

Secon wrote a vivid “interview” with Marks for the popular men’s magazine Cavalier. It became the December cover story, with the sensational title “Castro’s No. 1 Killer Talks.

Mexico City in 1960 was famous for welcoming political exiles of every stripe. People fleeing the Soviet Union, Latin American dictatorships, and McCarthyism congregated in the capital, following in the footsteps of Leon Trotsky and Luis Buñuel. The city also had a Wild West air. Marks was sure he and Secon were being tracked by agents of both the CIA and Cuban intelligence whenever they left the UPI news agency’s offices. He decided it was safer for them to slip back into the United States and lie low.

Secon appears to have made the trip first, traveling north to New York, where she had an apartment. Before he could join her, Marks was jumped by men in Ciudad Juárez. They tried to force him into a car, but he escaped with little worse than a torn shirt. Marks crossed the border at El Paso on July 22, even though his only identification was an expired Wisconsin driver’s license. He later claimed that immigration agents didn’t even ask to see it. He traveled by Greyhound bus to Manhattan, where he headed straight for Secon’s apartment, a walk-up on East 78th Street, then an unglamorous periphery of the Upper East Side. The pair were so broke, the only furniture they owned was a mattress they kept on the floor.

For the next six months, Marks lived happily under the radar, using the alias Fred Keller and picking up odd jobs, including work as a housepainter. He used the same name in September, when he went to a New York hospital for surgery on his right arm, which probably had been injured in Mexico. “I did not want to be a sitting pigeon for any Cuban communists or Fidelistas,” he later said of his subterfuge.

In fact, Marks knew he was a target for any number of enemies. He was hated by the exiled supporters of Batista, whose cronies he had executed; he was hated by moderate Cuban exiles, who saw him as a stooge of the Castro regime; and he was hated by pro-Castro agents, who felt that he had deserted the revolution. For good measure, he was also wanted by the FBI as a potential subversive, and could be arrested at any moment by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as an illegal alien—he’d lost his citizenship, after all.

Despite all this, Marks thought he could be useful to the CIA for his inside knowledge of Cuba. In October 1960, Secon made contact with the agency and arranged a meeting in Washington, but it was postponed. On November 2, Marks turned up unannounced in Milwaukee at the house of Martha Yelich, his mother, and stayed for four days. Yelich recalled that he crept like a burglar up the stairs to her apartment. “Somebody knocked and then I heard his voice. … He looked good and was in fine health,” she said. Martha was unaware of her son’s pariah status. He cooked dinner for her each night he was there, and she persuaded him to shave his beard. “I told him to clear off his face and he listened to his mother,” Yelich said. She noticed that he avoided going out in public, but she didn’t ask why.

When Marks returned to New York, he and Secon decided on a plan of action that turned out to be ill-advised. Using the nom de plume Allen Forbes, Secon wrote a vivid “interview” with Marks for the popular men’s magazine Cavalier. It became the December issue’s cover story, with the sensational title “Castro’s No. 1 Killer Talks” screaming above a cartoonish illustration of blindfolded men before a firing squad. The 11-page feature included photographs Secon had taken on the boat from Cuba, along with so much detail about Marks’s adventures that the story would later be entered as evidence in court.

If Marks and Secon thought they’d gain sympathy for his cause, they were mistaken. The article’s main effect was to alert the INS that the Butcher was not hiding out in Mexico, but was back in the United States, where he no longer had any legal right to be.

There must have been a sense of déjà vu. At eight o’clock on the bleak, snowy evening of January 25, 1961, Secon and Marks heard a banging at the door of the apartment. Standing in the hall were two INS agents. Prompted by the Cavalier story, Oscar Colton and Robert McLaughlin had tracked Marks to his rundown Manhattan love nest. “And I asked them, I says—couldn’t we wait until tomorrow? I’ll come tomorrow,” Marks said in a later INS interview. “They says—if you could come down now, we could finish it off in a short time, and you’ll go home and it will be all over.” Secon accompanied them and protested that Marks should have an attorney present, but the agents insisted they simply wanted his cooperation in tracking down illegal Cuban refugees.

They questioned Marks for more than four hours while reassuring him that he was not under arrest. Around 2 a.m., agent Colton drew up a statement and encouraged Marks to sign it. “By that time I was exhausted,” Marks recalled. “They told me I should sign it and I’d be able to go home soon. I just glanced through it.” When Marks noted some discrepancies, Colton stressed that they were not important—the statement was just a formality. But when Marks signed and put down the pen, the agents placed him under arrest. He was taken to a holding cell and told that, as a non-U.S. citizen, he’d be deported back to Cuba.

Marks was placed in handcuffs around 4 a.m., then transferred by eight officers in three police cars—sirens blaring through silent streets encrusted with grimy snow—to the maximum-security Federal Detention Center on West Street, near the Hudson River. A clerk presented Marks with a ten-point “bill” listing the particulars of the government’s case against him. The next day, two other INS agents turned up to interview him. This time—finally—he demanded an attorney.

As Marks well knew, being sent back to Havana would be a death sentence. To survive, he had to stay in America. And to do that, he had to fight.

Part Five

Marks’s arrest made the front page of The New York Times—indeed, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy announced the triumph himself, congratulating the INS agents and promising Ma