A woman, an elephant, and
an uncommon love story spanning
nearly half a century.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 136

Shannon McCaffrey is a political reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Previously, she worked for the Associated Press and Emory University. She is also a journalism instructor at Kennesaw State University. She holds an MFA in narrative nonfiction from the University of Georgia.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Sky Patterson
Photographer: Peyton Fulford

Published in February 2023.


Hurricane Michael crashed through southern Georgia in a fury. Winds whipping at more than 100 miles per hour sheared off rooftops and stripped cotton plants bare. Michael had fed on the tropical water of the Gulf of Mexico, gathering strength. By the time it made landfall, it was one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history.

In its aftermath, Carol Buckley gazed out at the wreckage strewn across her land. It was October 2018. Three years earlier, emotionally broken, she had come to this secluded place just north of the Florida Panhandle in search of a new beginning. Now she feared that she would have to start from scratch once again.

Buckley fired up a Kawasaki Mule and steered the ATV across the rutted fields to get a closer look at the damage. At 64, Buckley had a curtain of straight blond hair, and her eyes were the pale blue of faded denim. Years spent outdoors had etched fine lines into her tanned face. The Mule churned up a spray of reddish mud as she bumped along.

Michael had toppled chunks of the nearly mile-long chain-link fence ringing Buckley’s land. She was relieved to see that the stronger, steel-cable barrier inside the perimeter had held. Felled longleaf pines lay atop portions of it, applying immense pressure, but the cables hadn’t snapped. Installed to corral creatures weighing several tons, the fence stood firm.

Here outside the small town of Attapulgus, near quail-hunting plantations and pecan groves, Buckley had built a refuge for elephants. It was the culmination of a nearly lifelong devotion to the world’s largest land animals. But at the moment, Buckley’s refuge lacked any elephants—and one elephant in particular.

There are many kinds of love stories. This one involves a woman and an elephant, and the bond between them spanning nearly 50 years. It involves devotion and betrayal. It also raises difficult questions about the relationship between humans and animals, about control and freedom, about what it means to own another living thing.

The woman in this story is Buckley. The elephant is named Tarra. They met at a tire store in California, and together followed a serpentine path from spectacle to safety: from circus rings to zoo enclosures to a first-of-its-kind sanctuary. But now their bond was being tested. For complex reasons, Buckley had lost custody of Tarra, and just before Michael struck, a jury had deadlocked on whether the two should be reunited. In a few months, the case would go to trial again. If Buckley won, she would bring Tarra home to Attapulgus. If she lost, it was possible she’d never see the elephant again.

The uncertainty was a nightmare. But the fence Buckley built for Tarra had withstood a monstrous storm. This was, she thought, a good omen.


Anyone who has ever had a beloved pet can tell you that the relationship between an animal and its owner is special. Pets aren’t property in the way a house, a car, or a pair of shoes is. Some people love their animals in ways that defy logic. They don’t think of them as things; they think of them as family.

Even more nuanced are the relationships people have with highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees and dolphins. And elephants. In the past few decades, research has piled up showing that elephants are some of the brightest and most emotionally complex creatures on the planet. Like humans, they are self-aware—they can even recognize themselves in a mirror. They can also experience pleasure, pain, and grief.

Discoveries about elephant intelligence have helped bring about a sea change in the way the animals are treated. Some circuses, under pressure from animal rights groups, have stopped featuring elephant acts. Ringling Bros. retired its elephants in 2016, then shut down altogether the following year. Some U.S. states have banned exotic-animal performances and toughened animal welfare laws.

Activists are pushing for governments to do more: In 2022, the New York Court of Appeals considered whether Happy, an elephant in the Bronx Zoo, had the legal rights of personhood. If the question seems preposterous, consider that courts have held that corporations can be considered people in certain instances. So why not an elephant, which is a living, breathing creature?

Last June, the appeals court rejected the legal argument, which had been presented by an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project, by a 5–2 vote. Still, some animal rights advocates see reason for hope: The case spurred public dialogue about the treatment of captive animals and whether some species should be no one’s property, ever.

Buckley’s views on owning animals have changed over the years. Understanding how and why means starting at the very beginning. Buckley grew up with dogs, and as a young adult she had a German shepherd named Tasha. One day in 1974, Tasha broke Buckley’s concentration when the dog went into a frenzy, barking at something outside the bay window of Buckley’s home in Simi Valley, a Los Angeles suburb. Rattled by the commotion, Buckley looked outside to see what Tasha saw. And there it was: a baby elephant.

A slim man was walking the elephant with a rope. The calf must have weighed as much as a refrigerator. Buckley bolted through the front door. “Who is she? Why is she here? What are you doing with her?” Buckley asked the man.

Buckley was 20 and had just moved to Simi Valley. She grew up south of Los Angeles in a large family. At her all-girls Catholic high school, she had been a mediocre student and so hyperactive that the nuns ordered her to run laps to burn energy. Buckley wasn’t sure precisely what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew it wouldn’t involve sitting still. She was studying exotic animal management at a community college, figuring that would set her on an exciting career path. Seeing an elephant stroll past her door seemed like fate.

“Come over to my tire store,” the man holding the rope told her. “She’s there every day. You can feed her.” Buckley was there waiting when the man and his elephant returned from their walk.

At the time, few rules governed the ownership and treatment of exotic animals. Bob Nance, the tire shop’s proprietor, had a small menagerie—a Siberian tiger, parrots, monkeys—that customers could gawk at while their new Michelins were being mounted. His pets were a selling point. And a baby elephant? Now that was something. Her name was Fluffy, which a kid had suggested in a naming contest Nance sponsored in a local newspaper.

Fluffy wasn’t Nance’s first elephant. Before her there had been Dolly, purchased from Louis Goebel, an exotic-animal impresario who’d created an LA theme park called Jungleland. But things with Dolly didn’t go as hoped. Her keepers pulled up to Nance’s shop, unloaded the nearly full-grown elephant, handed Nance a training hook, and were on their way. Nance, who had no experience with elephants, hacked off the end of a car axle, stuck it in the ground of his parking lot, and chained Dolly to it during work hours. At night he tethered her to an outbuilding. Once, Dolly yanked herself free—sort of. The police called to alert Nance. Bob, they said, your elephant is dragging a building down Los Angeles Avenue. 

Nance feuded with city officials over whether zoning laws allowed him to keep an elephant at his store until one day, reluctantly, he agreed to sell Dolly to a circus operator. Soon after Goebel called him up. Jungleland was about to close its doors, and a newly arrived baby elephant needed a home. Could Nance help? A calf, Nance reasoned, would be easier to handle, at least for a while. “Of course,” he told Goebel.

Fluffy was probably from Burma, where it was common for poachers to kill mother elephants in order to capture their valuable calves. It was an act of unimaginable cruelty, not least because baby elephants are extremely close with their mothers, and suckle for as long as five years. Fluffy was about six months old when she was shipped to the U.S. Most likely, animal merchants in Thailand packed her into a wooden crate, loaded her aboard a cargo plane, and launched her on a stomach-churning flight over the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t unusual for baby elephants to arrive dead. 

Fluffy became the star attraction at Nance’s store. She was good-natured and always hungry. Sometimes Nance stuffed her into the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car and drove her to nearby elementary schools, where wide-eyed students admired her. Nance outfoxed the city officials who’d complained about Dolly by keeping Fluffy in a travel trailer, which allowed him to move her when he needed to.

After meeting Fluffy, Buckley herself became a fixture at the tire store. She showed up many mornings before class. She shoveled the dirty wood shavings out of Fluffy’s trailer and fed the elephant breakfast. Fluffy consumed four quarts of formula from a bottle, along with a pile of fruits and vegetables. Twice a week, Buckley wheeled a buggy through a local produce store and loaded it up with whatever was available: apples, oranges, cucumbers, bananas, onions. Carrots were Fluffy’s favorite.

In those early days, Fluffy tolerated Buckley, but she adored Nance, who always had a pocket full of shiny jellybeans. She chirped excitedly whenever he appeared. Nance wasn’t too concerned about training Fluffy, until one day she nearly crashed through a glass door at the tire store. Nance agreed to let Buckley teach Fluffy a few things about how to behave. 

Buckley had never trained an elephant before, so she started by using the methods she’d used with her dogs growing up. Positive reinforcement was the most important one. Buckley would instruct Fluffy to lift her foot, then demonstrate what she meant by physically pulling the elephant’s leg up off the ground. When Fluffy got the move right on her own, Buckley rewarded her with food. Fluffy was stubborn, but dangle a banana in front of her and she’d do anything you asked. 

Back then, most captive elephants didn’t get rewards for behaving as they were told. In circuses, on film sets, and at animal parks, handlers used what’s known as dominance training. When an elephant didn’t do what they demanded, they whacked it with a bull hook or punished it some other way. Buckley was aware of that approach, but it didn’t feel right. Fluffy was bursting with energy and eager to please. Training her felt like play. “It wasn’t about control,” Buckley said. “It was about trust and building a relationship.”

Years later, Buckley would question the foundation of her work with Fluffy. But for now she was happy. Fluffy seemed to be, too. The elephant learned to follow one command after another. Tricks came next. The future was rich with possibilities: of what Fluffy might do, of who might see her, of where Buckley might take her.

By the time Fluffy was a year old, she and Buckley were inseparable. When Buckley sat on the floor of the elephant’s trailer to do homework, Fluffy watched over her. When Buckley didn’t pay the elephant enough attention, Fluffy nudged her playfully with her trunk. 

According to Buckley, there were nights when she brought Fluffy home with her. She would back the elephant’s trailer up to the bay window of her house so they could see each other. Buckley studied with the light on while Fluffy dozed outside in the dark. Sometimes Fluffy awoke and stretched out her trunk, 40,000 tiny muscles working in unison, probing toward the lit window as if to make sure Buckley was still there.

Buckley and Fluffy at the tire shop in California.
Courtesy of Carol Buckley

Today, graduates of the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College run zoos, sanctuaries, and research facilities. Some manage animal acts for Hollywood studios. Moorpark has become the MIT of animal wrangling, the place where you learn how to get a tiger to open its mouth wide for a veterinary exam without being eaten alive. But back in the mid-1970s, the program was in its infancy.

The two-year associate’s degree was the brainchild of William Brisby, a onetime high school biology teacher who taught himself how to work with dangerous animals. Sporting thick sideburns, a full beard, khaki attire, and aviator sunglasses, Brisby looked like a safari guide. In a way he was. He created a teaching zoo for the Moorpark program, the first resident of which was a gray wolf named Kiska. Students took turns caring for her. Brisby later acquired capuchins, a camel, even a lion, according to author Amy Sutherland’s book about Moorpark, Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched.

Sutherland describes Brisby as both charismatic and problematic. He divorced his first wife, became engaged to one of his students, then broke it off to marry a younger one. A mythology sprang up around him, which gave him swagger. People said he’d trained dolphins with the Navy—not so, according to the founder of the Navy’s marine mammal program.

Brisby could be tough, dictatorial even. “For the next two years in this program you don’t have a life,” he told first-year students. “You belong to me.” But Buckley wasn’t intimidated by Brisby. She was audacious and headstrong. Brisby became her mentor as she figured out what to do about Fluffy.

By the summer of 1975, Buckley was dedicating all her free time to the elephant. She spent a month with Robert “Smokey” Jones, a legendary elephant trainer. She also volunteered to take Fluffy to events—people paid for the elephant to appear at parties or on camera. At a Mother’s Day celebration in Topanga Canyon, Fluffy surprised everyone, including Buckley, by plunging into a pool. When Fluffy was booked on Bob Hope’s Christmas special, she infuriated the star by reaching out with her trunk to touch his crotch.

Occasionally, Buckley recognized how precarious the whole endeavor was. She towed a two-ton elephant in a trailer on Southern California’s busy freeways and winding canyon roads. Once, up north in the foothills of San Jose, she saw a couple of boys at the side of the road harassing a snake. She pulled over and hopped out to scold them as the snake slithered into the woods. Then Buckley turned and saw the trailer; she’d parked at the edge of a steep drop. One wrong move—an emergency brake not set right, Fluffy shifting her weight just so—and the vehicle could have crashed into the ravine. Buckley felt a shiver and knew she needed to be more careful.

The more time Buckley spent with Fluffy, the less she spent on schoolwork. She sought Brisby out for advice. She told him she saw a future with Fluffy, a chance to make the elephant her career, book gigs across California, maybe around the country. Brisby leaned back in his chair as she spoke. When she finished, he reminded her that the Moorpark program was designed to help students break into the exotic-animal management industry. With Fluffy, Buckley had already done that. She didn’t need Moorpark anymore. “Don’t come back for the second year,” Brisby advised.

Buckley left school. She moved into a small trailer next to Fluffy’s on Nance’s property. According to Buckley, Nance started paying her on a weekly basis to care for the elephant. When Buckley asked Nance to build Fluffy a barn, he did. 

But the arrangement didn’t last long. Simi Valley, ringed by hills and thick with citrus groves, had once felt a world away from the busy heart of Los Angeles. By 1976, however, housing tracts were crowding out the farms and ranches. Nance didn’t like what he saw and decided to relocate to Northern California. Buckley seized the opportunity. With a loan cosigned by her father, she bought Fluffy for $25,000. 

Buckley was sure Fluffy would be a star, but decided that the elephant’s name wouldn’t do. She wanted something that would look good in lights. Buckley scribbled letters in a notebook, trying out different combinations. Eventually she wrote down T-A-R-R-A. Yes, that was it. Tarra.

Tarra and Buckley performing on skates.
Courtesy of Carol Buckley

The calls started coming in. Tarra appeared in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, in which a circus passes through to the pioneer town of Walnut Grove. Carol Burnett sat atop Tarra in the movie Annie. Tarra appeared on one of Jerry Lewis’s telethons.

But Buckley soon discovered that there was less demand in show business for a lone elephant than for a herd of three to five that could perform tricks together. Buckley wasn’t about to buy more elephants, so Tarra would need a gimmick to be competitive.

One day a man approached Buckley at a sports expo in Santa Barbara where Tarra was doing tricks to amuse visitors. He introduced himself as an ice skater and gushed about Tarra. 

“She’s so coordinated,” he said. “I could teach her to ice-skate!”

“No, you will not,” Buckley huffed. 

A year or so later, she reconsidered. When Buckley and Tarra weren’t on the road, their home base was Ojai, California, where they lived along the Ventura River. Twice a day, rain or shine, they waded into the river together. Tarra splashed excitedly while Buckley watched. The river was full of large, smooth boulders, and Tarra picked her way across them with astonishing ease. She was eight by then, and the size of an SUV; she ate about 50 pounds of food a day. But she was nimble. Buckley marveled at how Tarra balanced on the boulders, gripping the edges with her toes. 

OK, Buckley thought, let’s give this skating thing a try. In Southern California, she decided, roller skates would be a better fit.

Buckley visited a local welder, who estimated that it would cost $2,500 to construct metal skates big and strong enough for an elephant. Buckley had $3,000 in her bank account. She called her mother. “You know Tarra better than anyone,” her mother told her. “If you think she would like it, then do it.” Buckley emptied her bank account and commissioned the skillet-size skates.

Then she went to a shoemaker to inquire about “boots”—really what she wanted was more like mammoth ankle braces—to give the elephant additional support. “Before you say no, just come and meet her,” Buckley pleaded. The shoemaker did and, charmed by Tarra, agreed to make the boots. 

On a sunny spring morning, Buckley walked Tarra to a stretch of concrete near her home, the foundation for a house that had never been finished. Today it would be the setting for a most unusual lesson. Like she had so many times before, Buckley asked Tarra to raise one of her front legs. When the elephant complied, Buckley guided her foot into a skate—the straps were made of seatbelts, the wheels of industrial casters. Then she repeated the process with the other front foot. The leather boots rose about halfway up Tarra’s stocky legs. Buckley would only be trying out the front skates, to see how the elephant took to them.

Tarra bounded off, trumpeting and chattering, rolling and playing. She seemed almost to bounce with glee. Wobbly at first, she quickly gained confidence and control.

Two weeks later, Buckley took Tarra to an abandoned warehouse, where there would be room for her to experiment for the first time wearing all four skates. Tarra glided across the concrete floor. Her excitement was contagious.

Buckley now had a roller-skating elephant. Tarra didn’t spin or do tricks; the fact that she was on wheels was enough to attract attention. The bookings poured in. Buckley and Tarra promoted Shriner circuses on the West Coast. They appeared at roller rinks and in vast parking lots. Before events, Buckley got on her hands and knees with a level to make sure the venue didn’t slope, making it difficult to stop. Then she adorned Tarra with a shiny headdress and got ready for the show. Buckley skated alongside Tarra, dressed in a leotard cut high at the leg.

On the road, they bunked together in a custom trailer. When it was time to sleep, Buckley climbed into bed in a compartment up front and said good night. She could hear Tarra slump against the wall and slide down to the floor. The trailer shook as the elephant got comfortable. Buckley fell asleep to the rumble of Tarra’s heavy snores.


The sharp wind that comes off Lake Ontario in winter can make even the hardiest soul seek refuge. In 1988, Buckley and Tarra were doing just that, hunkered down near Toronto. But they weren’t sheltering from the elements so much as from uncertainty. They had wrapped up a series of performing jobs when Leslie Schreiber, Buckley’s old Moorpark roommate and the co-owner of the Bowmanville Zoo in the town of Clarington, about 60 miles east of Toronto, hired Buckley to look after the facility’s seven elephants for a few months. Buckley added Tarra to the group and began keeping a journal, scribbling ideas and plans for a future that would look very different from her past.

Buckley was at a crossroads, disenchanted with her nomadic life and unsure whether Tarra should continue to perform. After more than a decade on the road, it was clear the elephant wasn’t enjoying herself. When Tarra was younger, Buckley had been sure to make pit stops during long trips so Tarra could play, swim, and explore wooded areas. Now that she weighed nearly four tons, spontaneous leisure time was harder to manage.

Meanwhile, Buckley had witnessed the unsavory side of the exotic-animal circuit. Many elephants were run through their paces by handlers they barely knew, who used bull hooks and batons to compel obedience. When the animals weren’t performing, they were often chained up.

Not everyone treated elephants that way—certainly Buckley didn’t. But how could she justify being part of a culture that tolerated abuse? She loved Tarra but wondered whether she’d made the right choices. “Do I wish that when I first met her I knew all that I know now?” Buckley said years later. “Of course I do.” Then again, she’d started her career so young, at a time when few people in the U.S. gave a second thought to the welfare of animals. “All that we went through together, that’s how I gained the knowledge and the experience that has helped create another way and a better situation for her,” Buckley said. “I don’t regret it.”

The unease Buckley was grappling with by the time she arrived at Bowmanville reflected a growing ambivalence across North America. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which formed in 1980, had exposed the abuse of animals in research labs and slaughterhouses. PETA was polarizing, its tactics confrontational, but the inhumane practices and conditions it exposed were influencing public opinion about animals held in captivity. These included elephants, which were still mainstays of circuses and smaller outfits like Buckley’s.

In Canada, Buckley initiated a new chapter of Tarra’s life. Elephants had been wowing crowds at American zoos since the first one opened in 1874, in Philadelphia, where curators bought an elephant from a traveling circus and tied it to a tree. Zoos had improved a lot since then, but there would always be downsides to captivity. Elephants are prone to foot problems and other ailments if they don’t have space to roam. They need stimulation that zoos can’t always provide. (Since 1991, more than 30 American zoos have eliminated their elephant exhibits altogether.)

But Tarra was no longer a feisty calf, and at Bowmanville she seemed to enjoy being part of a herd for the first time in her life. Elephants are extremely social, and Tarra formed strong bonds. Buckley wondered if placing her at a zoo where she’d have a permanent community would be preferable to life on the road.

After their stay in Canada, Tarra spent some time at the Racine Zoo in Wisconsin, then returned to Ontario. In 1991, Tarra turned 17, placing her on the precipice of the most fertile stretch of a female Asian elephant’s life. Research suggested that female elephants with offspring were less stressed than those without. Buckley reasoned that having a calf might make a zoo even more comfortable for Tara. As it happened, there was a breeding program in Ontario, a place called the African Lion Safari Park. There, while looking for a mate for Tarra, Buckley met someone just as obsessed with elephants as she was. 

Scott Blais had begun working at the park when he was 13, cutting the grass, directing traffic, and picking up garbage. At 15, he graduated to elephant training. He learned to chain the animals inside barns and either beat them with bull hooks or use the tools to grab them by sensitive areas, such as under the lips or behind the ears, when they didn’t do as they were told. Pain was used to get elephants to stand on their heads and balance on their hind legs; they lived in a near constant state of submission. When Buckley arrived at the park with Tarra in tow, Blais was exposed to a different way of handling elephants. He started to view the techniques he used as barbaric. He asked Buckley to teach him, and they struck up a friendship.

Soon they were a couple. They were 18 years apart in age, but that didn’t seem to matter much. Besides, Buckley looked younger than she was, while Blais, his hair already receding, looked older. Their relationship blossomed, and so did their shared vision for, as Blais put it, “the larger idea of how to change the lives of captive elephants.”    

When Tarra became pregnant by a bull elephant at the park, Buckley considered her options. She needed to find a zoo that wanted an elephant, a calf, and two keepers—Buckley and Blais intended to stay together. The Nashville Zoo made an enticing offer: Excited at the prospect of housing Tarra, and eventually her baby, zoo administrators proposed creating a 30-acre elephant habitat. Buckley accepted the offer. She, Blais, and Tarra set off for Nashville. 

Not everyone treated elephants that way—certainly Buckley didn’t. But how could she justify being part of a culture that tolerated abuse?

Elephants gestate for nearly two years. Unlike in the wild, Tarra had never watched a fellow female give birth or witnessed the tight matriarchal herd that forms around a newborn to help raise it. No one was sure how Tarra would react to a calf. 

The months passed peacefully, until one morning Tarra bolted across the zoo yard, her eyes bulging. She had experienced her first labor contraction, and it startled her so much that she seemed to be trying to run away from the pain. The veterinarian was informed, but then the contractions stopped.

“You’re OK, girl,” Buckley told Tarra. “You’re going to be OK.” 

Three days passed. The wait was agonizing. Finally, Tarra’s contractions began again. The veterinarian wanted to speed up the labor by inserting an IV line of oxytocin. Buckley called a friend, an elephant expert at the London Zoo, who warned that if the calf came too fast, and Tarra wasn’t dilated, the birth could be dangerous.

“Is she squirting milk?” the friend asked. 

Buckley looked at Tarra’s chest. “Yes.” 

“That means she’s dilated,” the friend said. He told Buckley that Tarra should receive a lower dose of oxytocin than the vet had proposed, and not from an IV, but through a shot in a muscle.

The needle pierced Tarra’s grooved skin, and within a few minutes she was in the throes of labor. In captivity, elephants are often chained up during birth for the protection of vets and keepers. Buckley hated the idea. As a compromise, she agreed to put a 40-foot chain on one of Tarra’s back legs; that way the elephant would still be able to move around.

Tarra squatted, and finally there was progress. A head emerged, followed by front legs folded into the body. But soon the calf became stuck. There was no good way for the humans watching the birth to solve the problem. Then a primal instinct took hold of Tarra: When the next contraction came, she lifted her unchained back foot, placed it against the calf’s head, and in a single swift movement pushed the baby out.

Slick and gray, the calf landed on the barn floor. Tarra seemed exhausted but calm. She stepped a few feet away and watched. The baby lay silent and still. It wasn’t breathing. The vet moved in to resuscitate it. He crouched over the calf and pumped its chest rhythmically with his palms. Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty. 

“Keep trying,” Buckley implored. Tarra didn’t interfere; she remained at a distance, as if keeping vigil. Buckley was weeping, her sobs deep and ragged.

After the vet declared the calf dead, Tarra walked back over to it. With her trunk, she sucked at the calf’s mouth, then placed the tip of her trunk against the baby’s so that their nostrils were touching. She breathed out hard, then sucked in even harder. It seemed like a last attempt to remove anything that might be blocking the calf’s airways.

Then, gently, Tarra placed a back foot against the baby’s side. Elephants’ foot pads are sensitive—so sensitive they can detect a heartbeat. After a few moments, Tarra walked away.

Later, a necropsy revealed that the baby had arthrogryposis, a stiffening of the joints often accompanied by limb deformities. Apparently, while pregnant, Tarra had been bitten by a mosquito carrying a virus that caused the condition. It was a freakish tragedy that meant there would be no happy elephant family on display at the Nashville Zoo, at least not one including Tarra. The zoo wanted Tarra and Buckley to stay, but the promised elephant habitat never materialized. Disillusioned, Buckley decided to leave.

Rather than look for another zoo, Buckley wanted to try something new. There was an idea she had been toying with for a while: What if there was a place elephants that had been cast out of zoos and circuses could go? Somewhere that the sick and elderly could spend their last days? A refuge where elephants, and only elephants, could exist in a state as close to the wild as possible? No such place existed in North America. Buckley resolved to build it.

She set out on the back roads of rural Tennessee looking for a piece of land cheap enough to afford and large enough for elephants to roam. She found it on the first day. The property lay at the end of a dirt road in the tiny town of Hohenwald, German for “high forest.” There, along Cane Creek, the hills rolled gently into a large valley. The land surrounding the property was owned by Champion International, a paper company. It was quiet, private, and protected.

After the 112 acres were purchased, Buckley and Blais spent their days in the sweltering Tennessee heat sinking reinforced fence posts. They worked through red tape with skeptical state wildlife authorities to get the necessary permits to establish the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. In March 1995, the day after Tarra’s barn was finished, she moved in. 


The sanctuary became a runaway success. Over its first 15 years, the mom-and-pop operation transformed into a nonprofit with a board of directors, an international reputation, and an annual budget of more than $3 million. It bought more acreage, built more barns, and hired more staff. Most important, it took in 23 elephants, about half of which were “retired” by their owners or guardians to roam the countryside in herds alongside Tarra.

Each elephant had a gut-wrenching story. When Barbara arrived in 1996, she was emaciated, suffering from a wasting disease; she had been kept in isolation for years because her owners didn’t know what else to do with her. Jenny had been chained up in Las Vegas, underweight and barely able to walk because of an untreated leg injury. Shirley’s harrowing journey as a performing elephant had taken her to Cuba, where she was captured briefly by Fidel Castro’s forces, and then aboard a circus ship that caught fire and nearly sank, burning her in the process. An altercation with another performing elephant left her with a broken leg.

Buckley saw each animal’s plight as a glaring symbol of human ignorance. At the sanctuary, the elephants healed. The “residents,” as they were called, took long walks along spring-fed streams. Some of them were interacting with other elephants for the first time in years. Like any community, they worked through minor dramas and personality conflicts. Remarkably, two elephants named Shirley and Jenny had lived together before. When they reunited at the sanctuary, they greeted each other like old friends and became inseparable.

Tarra was the sanctuary’s welcoming committee. She was younger and healthier than the other elephants, and eager to make friends. But her closest companion was a dog on the property, a white mutt named Bella. Buckley would eventually write a children’s book about the pair, and they were featured on national TV. “When it’s time to eat, they both eat together,” Buckley said in a CBS Evening News segment. “They drink together. They sleep together. They play together.”

Life at the sanctuary wasn’t always idyllic, however. There were controversies, including one involving an elephant called Flora. Once the centerpiece of a traveling circus run by a man named David Balding, Flora had landed at the Miami Zoo after Balding became concerned that she was too aggressive to be in front of crowds. When Flora was barred from the zoo after injuring a keeper, Balding thought the Tennessee refuge might be a good option. Balding dropped Flora off in 2004, and she went on a monthslong rampage, tearing up fences and directing her aggression at caregivers and other elephants. Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist and ecologist specializing in animal trauma, diagnosed Flora with PTSD and said that visits from Balding could hamper her recovery. Buckley forbade Balding from seeing Flora. Balding tried to change Buckley’s mind, but Buckley wouldn’t budge. The saga would play out in the documentary One Lucky Elephant, in which Balding comes across as sympathetic, Buckley as unyielding.

The sanctuary also suffered tragedy. In 2006, Winkie, an Asian elephant, trampled and killed staff member Joanna Burke. The death hit the sanctuary’s tight-knit staff hard. Questions swirled about whether Winkie would be euthanized, but Burke’s grieving parents wouldn’t hear of it; their daughter loved elephants, they said, and she wouldn’t want the animal put down. Winkie remained at the sanctuary, and Burke was buried just outside the grounds.

Upsetting incidents punctuated what some employees said was a tense work environment. Buckley labored day and night, and had no use for anyone who didn’t demonstrate the same level of commitment. In her mind, elephants came first; pity the person who disagreed. Even her romantic relationship grew strained. “People were always on edge,” Scott Blais wrote in an email, “always waiting for the next yelling session, never knowing what direction to turn.”

Buckley has denied berating staff. If she yelled, she said, it was to get someone’s attention. “Elephants are potentially lethal. If staff doesn’t listen to instruction in the moment, they may be in danger,” Buckley explained. “If someone says I yell, it was always done out of concern for their safety.”

Buckley knows she’s intense and single-minded, and she was never more so than about the sanctuary. It was her passion. She never hesitated to make her opinion known. When the board decided to build an elephant education center in downtown Hohenwald to give the sanctuary, off-limits to visitors, a public face, Buckley supported the idea, but she balked at the price tag and the board’s decision to pay chairwoman Janice Zeitlen’s husband, an architect, $60,000 to design the space. According to Buckley, when a tuberculosis outbreak hit the refuge, affecting elephants and humans alike, a board member told her not to report it to state regulators.

The sanctuary would later deny this and allege that Buckley failed to implement proper tuberculosis containment protocol. It would make the claim in legal filings, because that’s where Buckley and the institution she cofounded were headed: to court.

Buckley labored day and night, and had no use for anyone who didn’t demonstrate the same level of commitment. In her mind, elephants came first; pity the person who disagreed.

On a cool Saturday morning in November 2009, Buckley sat in her office gazing through a bank of windows at a soft expanse of pasture dotted with stands of maple and yellow poplar. Across the room was another set of windows, this one looking onto the interior of the sanctuary’s main barn, which housed several massive elephant stalls. The days when she watched Fluffy through the bay window at her home in California were a distant memory.

The sanctuary’s board was convening that day. The group had recently discussed the refuge’s rapid growth with a consultant, and Buckley thought that would be the subject of the day’s meeting. Around 10 a.m., board members arrived one by one: an art gallery owner, a bank executive, an infectious-diseases doctor, local community leaders. The only member with a background in animal management was Buckley’s old Moorpark friend Leslie Schreiber. 

As soon as the group had settled around a glass table in Buckley’s office, she sensed that something was wrong. Charlie Trost, a board member and attorney, seemed to be the only person in the room willing to meet her eye. He handed her a letter and told her to read it. The letter said she was being placed on involuntary leave pending review. Buckley wasn’t to speak to sanctuary employees, donors, or the media.

The room went silent as Buckley looked up.

“What’s happening?” she asked. “Why is this happening?”

Trost replied that she should finish reading the document.

Watching from across the room was Blais. He and Buckley were no longer a couple. According to Buckley, Blais had cheated on her with another staff member. (Blais denies this.) After separating, they’d continued working together—or tried to, anyway. By the time of the board meeting, Blais had come to feel that Buckley’s treatment of the staff posed a risk to the elephants. As he later put it in an email, there was “no way with the innate sensitivity of elephants,” especially “those who have experienced their own trauma,” that the sanctuary’s animal residents weren’t “affected by the impact that Carol’s abuse had on the care team.”

Buckley’s vision went blank; time seemed to stop. The next thing she knew, she was kneeling in a closet in her home, which was located on the sanctuary grounds. She was staring at racks of clothes. She wanted to die; she thought she might. Schreiber had followed Buckley home. Now she eased her friend into a chair.

Both Schreiber and the sanctuary’s managing director, Kate Elliott, who had attended the board meeting by telephone, disagreed with Buckley’s suspension. Trost informed them that it didn’t matter. “We have the votes to approve this,” he said. (Trost declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Buckley wanted to fight the board, but that could jeopardize her chances of eventually returning to her job. Over the next few weeks, the days grew shorter and a winter chill set in. Buckley wasn’t allowed in the sanctuary’s barns, so she took long walks among the elephants when they were in the fields. The animals, and Tarra most important among them, knew nothing of the turmoil. They made Buckley feel grounded.

According to Blais, over the course of Buckley’s leave, the full impact of her management style became clear, and he told the board he couldn’t work with her anymore. As a compromise, the board offered Buckley a job running global outreach—she would still be affiliated with the sanctuary, but she wouldn’t interact with staff or be involved in day-to-day operations with the elephants, including Tarra. Buckley said no.

In March 2010, her leave became permanent: She was fired by the board. “They broke me the way you break an elephant,” Buckley said. “I’m tough and I didn’t break easily, but I broke.”

To Buckley, the biggest blow wasn’t losing her job—it was losing Tarra. She had to leave her home at the sanctuary, but the elephant she had rarely been apart from for the past 35 years was better off staying put. The refuge was the only place that made sense for Tarra, and no one knew that better than Buckley; it was why she’d created it in the first place.

When Buckley left Tennessee that spring, heading to Asia for a long-planned trip to work with elephant trainers, she said goodbye to Tarra in a field. “I’ll be back in a few months,” she told the elephant, who stretched her trunk toward Buckley’s nose, as she often did. Buckley walked away with a catch in her throat, but she was sure she’d be reunited with Tarra after her trip. Even if she couldn’t work at the sanctuary, she thought, she could visit Tarra. Maybe not right away, but soon enough.

Instead, four years would pass before Buckley saw Tarra again.

“They broke me the way you break an elephant,” Buckley said. “I’m tough and I didn’t break easily, but I broke.”

Shortly after being fired, Buckley sued the sanctuary for wrongful termination and for the right to visit Tarra. The sanctuary denied any wrongdoing and said that Buckley would not be admitted onto the property. Whether she would ever see Tarra again became a question for a judge. Buckley waited; the court system, as it so often does, moved at a glacial pace.

One day, Buckley saw video footage of Tarra and thought she looked lethargic. Buckley decided to amend her lawsuit. She could live with the circumstances of her dismissal, but she couldn’t live without Tarra. She would fight to prove her ownership of the elephant—that Tarra belonged to her, not to the sanctuary, and that she should be the one making decisions about Tarra’s care.

In December 2014, a judge permitted Buckley to visit Tarra, but set strict guidelines for the encounter. According to a court order, Buckley could make physical contact with Tarra only if the elephant “chooses to get close enough to the bars to allow Ms. Buckley to touch or pet [her] or otherwise show affection.” The visit took place on December 22. In a memo Buckley wrote immediately afterward, she said that Tarra seemed “despondent and looked and acted depressed.” She questioned whether the elephant had been drugged; the sanctuary’s veterinarian assured her that was not the case. When the visit ended, Buckley walked back to her car in tears. “It was devastating,” she said.

Worried that sporadic visits would confuse and upset Tarra, Buckley decided not to see the elephant again until a court ruled in her favor. The next time she came in contact with Tarra, Buckley vowed, it would be to transport her to a new, shared home. Where that home would be was an open question.


As legal filings flew back and forth, Buckley stayed busy, spending months abroad working with elephants in India, Nepal, and Thailand. Over the years, Buckley had become a recognized expert in aspects of elephant health care. In Asia, she taught locals how to prevent and treat injuries and infections on the feet of working elephants. She helped install solar-powered electric fences around the animals’ enclosures so they wouldn’t have to be chained up.

Pictures of Tarra popped up regularly on the Tennessee sanctuary’s Facebook page. A newsletter, Trunklines, documented her wanderings—typically she walked more than a mile per day—and her dunks in the property’s lakes and ponds. If Buckley tuned in at the right moment, she might see Tarra lumbering along, captured by the sanctuary’s live EleCam. But Buckley rarely looked for Tarra online. It was too painful.

Instead, when she was stateside, Buckley focused on finding a place to build another sanctuary, somewhere she could relocate Tarra if she won her legal battle. A realtor sent her listings in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Her old friend Schreiber accompanied her around the Southeast to look at properties. Buckley rejected one spot after another. The soil was too sandy, or the location too close to busy neighborhoods.

One day in 2016, her realtor called, excited. “I think I found it!” he said. He was referring to a plot of more than 850 acres, right along the Georgia state line with Florida, comprising grasslands, clusters of pine trees, a large pond, and even a small house where Buckley could live. Through donations and financing, she got the money she needed to purchase the land. She would have to do the same things she did in Tennessee to get it elephant-ready: clear fields, install fences, build a barn. She recruited volunteers and got to work.

In August 2018, Buckley returned to Tennessee for the custody trial. It ended in a hung jury. Buckley went back to Attapulgus, to her empty elephant refuge. A retrial was scheduled for eight months down the road. Once more Buckley waited. When Hurricane Michael tore through Georgia, she was surprised to find that it gave her hope.

If Buckley tuned in at the right moment, she might see Tarra lumbering along, captured by the sanctuary’s live EleCam. But Buckley rarely looked for Tarra online. It was too painful.

The second trial in the case of Carol Buckley v. the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, Inc. began April 1, 2019, in the Lewis County Courthouse, a rectangular brick building in Hohenwald. Since putting down roots outside the town of some 4,000 people, the sanctuary had become a point of pride for locals. Tarra was its bona fide star. The courtroom was packed. Buckley sat with her lawyers, her nerves jangling like loose keys. She tried not to let it show.

While the case was emotional for everyone involved, Buckley chief among them, legally speaking it turned on a single dispassionate question: Who owned Tarra? In his opening statement, Bob Boston, one of the attorneys for the defense, argued that when the sanctuary became a nonprofit a few months after it was founded, ownership of all its property, including Tarra, transferred to the new entity. He asked the jury not to wrench Tarra away from the place where she’d lived more than half her life, where she’d bonded with other elephants. Among the sanctuary’s “founding principles,” Boston pointed out, “was to remove elephants from lives of isolation.”

Next, Ed Yarbrough, one of Buckley’s attorneys, turned on the country charm like a faucet. In a gentle drawl, he painted a picture of young Buckley in California. “When she saw this elephant, her whole life changed. I mean, it’s literally true,” Yarbrough said. “Here she is today, forty-some-odd years later, trying to get her elephant back.” He recounted adventures Buckley and Tarra had gone on together, “long before any of these people ever thought about a sanctuary.” To illustrate the crux of the case, Yarbrough made a comparison. “When you get married in Tennessee, if you already own your house and your land, and then somehow that marriage doesn’t work out, when you split up that doesn’t go to the other party. That’s separate property. It stays with the original owner,” he said. “Tarra is separate property and needs to stay with her owner.”

Scott Blais had flown in from Brazil, where he’d moved to run another elephant sanctuary. His dark hair was thinner than ever, and he’d gotten married a few years before. He came to testify, as he put it, on behalf of Tarra. He took the stand after lunch on the first day.

“Did you view the sanctuary and its elephants to be yours?” Boston asked him.

“No,” Blais replied. “The whole basis of a nonprofit organization is it’s not a personal possession. It’s not a personal business. It’s a nonprofit that is governed by a board of directors, and with that, there’s no personal possessions that is the result of the activity of the organization. We don’t own the land, we don’t own … the physical property, the barn, the vehicles.” And certainly not the elephants.

In Blais’s view, Buckley had betrayed their once shared vision of how elephants should be cared for—as creatures whose most important relationships were with other elephants. “This is their permanent residence. This is their life, with or without us,” he said. “It’s about their life separate from any individual human. And I think, when I really ponder it now, this is the fundamental principle we really got right.”

When Buckley took the stand, Yarbrough started to ask if at any time she had given Tarra to the sanctuary. Buckley interrupted before he could finish the question. “It’s unthinkable,” Buckley said. “I would never do that voluntarily. I devoted my whole life to this elephant. Why would I give her away?” 

Buckley’s answers to other questions showed that, in her mind, the notion of ownership and what was in Tarra’s best interest were inextricably linked.

“First of all,” Yarbrough asked, “do you love Tarra the elephant?”

“Of course,” Buckley replied.

“Do you want what’s best for her?”

“I’ve always wanted what is only best for Tarra.”

“If you were persuaded that the best thing for Tarra was to remain right where she is, that’s where you would leave her?”

“I would leave her there in a minute.”

“If you were persuaded that what was best for her was to go somewhere else, would you do that?”

 “I’d do that as well.”

“Is that what this case is about?”

“That’s what this case is about. The only way that I can assert my authority over making sure that Tarra is cared for at the highest level, every aspect of Tarra, not just her physical—her psychological, her mental, her emotional—the only way I can assert my authority is to…,” Buckley trailed off, then gathered herself to finish her thought.

“If they won’t acknowledge that I own her,” she said, “I cannot have any say about how she’s cared for.”

“I devoted my whole life to this elephant,” Buckley said. “Why would I give her away?”

The trial lasted three days. Other testimony focused on the sanctuary’s “disposition policy,” which states that an elephant resident can only be transferred out of the facility, including by its owner, if a veterinarian, the board, and the site’s directors deem it to be in the animal’s best interest.* Boston argued that the policy applied to “all elephants” at the sanctuary, including Tarra. Even if the jury found that Buckley owned Tarra, the fact that her transfer hadn’t been recommended meant she should stay where she was. However, Yarbrough argued that the disposition policy was a moot point: It hadn’t existed when Tarra became the sanctuary’s first resident, he said, so it didn’t apply to her.

It was sunny outside, a true spring day, when the judge sent the jury to deliberate. After three hours, they glumly filed back into the courtroom. Like the jurors in the first trial, they were deadlocked. “Go ahead and talk some more and see what you can do,” the judge told them. “We’ll be here. Just let us know what you decide.”

Buckley panicked. She wasn’t sure she could face another mistrial—more money down the drain, more years without Tarra. Her lawyers and friends in the gallery who’d come to show support tried to calm her down. But she needed an answer.

Around 20 minutes later, the jurors came back. One by one, the judge asked the foreperson about the counts in the case.

“Do you unanimously find that the Elephant Sanctuary has proven, by clear and convincing evidence, that Carol Buckley made an irrevocable gift to the Elephant Sanctuary of the right to possess Tarra?” the judge asked.

“The answer is no,” the foreperson said.

“Do you unanimously find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Elephant Sanctuary maintains a policy that permanent residents of the sanctuary are not removable by their owners?”

“The answer to that is yes.”

“Do you unanimously find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Ms. Buckley agreed to transfer Tarra under the same policy referenced in question two above, that Tarra is not removable by Ms. Buckley?”

“The answer to that is no.”

Buckley wasn’t sure what it all meant. It seemed like a legal jigsaw puzzle, and she couldn’t work it out. Wide-eyed, she turned to her counsel.

“Did we win? What happened?” 

“You won, Carol. Tarra’s coming home.” 

Buckley began to cry. 


A fine rain was falling the November day in 2021 when Buckley arrived in Tennessee to retrieve Tarra. The wipers squawked a steady rhythm against the windshield of her Subaru as she pulled onto the property where, more than 25 years before, she’d seen such promise and possibility. But Buckley didn’t dwell on what could have been. Two months prior, her refuge in Georgia had welcomed its first elephant, a former circus performer named Bo. Now Buckley was bringing home its second resident, and the one who’d inspired its creation.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee had appealed the verdict in Buckley’s favor, and for two more years legal papers had shuffled back and forth. An appeals court finally ruled in the summer of 2021 to uphold the verdict and deny the sanctuary its request for a new trial. What followed were months of wrangling over the details of Tarra’s transfer. There was paperwork to fill out, medical testing to conduct. Some details of the transfer were contentious. The sanctuary didn’t want Buckley to be present when Tarra was loaded into the trailer that would carry her to Georgia. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that, in a battle that became as bitter as this one did, the end would be messy.

Barred from the barn where keepers were preparing Tarra for her trip, Buckley and her lawyer sat in front of a closed-circuit television in the sanctuary’s sleek new veterinary building. On screen they watched as a semi pushed Tarra’s trailer through the mud, maneuvering its back entrance until it was nearly flush with the gate of an enclosure next to the barn. Buckley’s breath caught as Tarra walked into view. The footage was grainy, but she could see that the elephant had aged. Her legs seemed stiff. Her grooved gray hide sagged.

Tarra had been off the road for 27 years. Near the trailer, she was visibly uneasy. Caregivers scattered a trail of hay on the ground leading to the ramp she’d have to climb to enter the vehicle. Predictably, the elephant followed the food, scooping it into her mouth with her trunk as she went. But when she reached the ramp, she hesitated. Gingerly, she placed her front legs onto it but would go no further. After a moment she backed up and paced the enclosure. Again sanctuary staff lured her with a trail of hay; again she refused to ascend the ramp. Her ears flared and she swayed back and forth. Tarra was growing stressed.

C’mon girl, Buckley thought.

By the time Tarra was penned inside the trailer, four hours had passed. Buckley watched as several caregivers lingered at the door, presumably saying goodbye. As they departed, one of them collapsed on the ground, sobbing. (The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee declined an interview request for this story. “The sanctuary is honored to have provided care for Tarra for 26 years, and we express gratitude for all the things she has taught us,” it said in a statement. “Tarra is truly missed every day and will always be a part of our family and our herd.”) 

The semi roared to life. The trailer began to move. Buckley climbed back into her Subaru and followed Tarra off the property. A short distance away, the vehicles pulled over. Buckley wanted to make sure Tarra had enough food for the journey to Georgia. She also wanted to see her elephant.

Tarra’s eyes were wide. All 9,700 pounds of her were contained in a steel cage. Buckley was glad to see her, but she also felt afraid of Tarra for the first time in her life. She wondered: Is this the same Tarra I knew? Has she changed? Will she remember me? Is she angry? Scared?

Back on the road, the vehicles turned south. They sliced through the heart of Alabama, passing Birmingham and Montgomery. As the hours ticked by, Buckley kept her eyes on Tarra’s trailer.

They arrived in Attapulgus at 11 p.m. under the glow of a full moon. The semi’s brakes hissed, then went quiet. Buckley got out of her car. To release Tarra from the trailer, she would have to unhook an interior gate. For a few seconds, she would be alone with the elephant without steel between them. Buckley would be vulnerable; if Tarra was upset, she could crush her. That couldn’t be how their story ended, could it? After all the struggle, the heartache? 

Buckley gathered her nerve, and as fast as she could, she slid the gate open and stepped away from the trailer. Tarra didn’t charge. After a few long moments, she appeared in the doorway. She seemed deflated, exhausted. Her head drooped. With slow, heavy steps she eased onto the ramp and took in her surroundings. Standing to the side, Buckley watched apprehensively. 

“How are you doing, honey?” she said softly. “It’s me.”

Tarra turned her heavy head toward Buckley, and her sleepy eyes opened wide. She clambered off the truck and let loose a chorus of chirps and squeaks. It was like she was picking up a conversation with a close friend after years apart. Tarra reached her serpentine trunk toward Buckley, but Buckley shrank away. “Give me some time, honey,” she said. “I’m a little afraid of you right now.” 

Despite all she’d learned about elephant behavior, Buckley couldn’t possibly know what the past ten years had been like for Tarra. Had she grieved? Had she moved on? Tarra slowly explored her new terrain. She used her trunk to touch sage grass and blackberry bushes. But she never strayed far from Buckley. They were both older now, a little slower. The arrogance of youth was tempered.

After a few minutes, Tarra walked toward Buckley again. This time Buckley relaxed, and Tarra closed the last bit of distance between them. She slipped her trunk gently around Buckley’s waist and pulled her close.


Gusts of wind scraped clouds from the sky, leaving it fresh and blue. In a field of browning grass, Tarra ambled, an exotic interloper, incongruous with the region’s surrounding crops and cows. A black and white dog named Mala bounded her way. Tarra gave a low rumble you could feel more than hear. Mala, like Bella before her, had become the elephant’s close companion. But Mala’s arrival also signaled something else: Buckley was coming.

A few minutes later, Buckley heaved into view on her four-wheeler. She cut the engine about 100 yards from Tarra and dismounted. Two rectangles of hay were strapped to the vehicle; a second dog, Samie, perched on the seat.

“Hey, pumpkin,” Buckley called to the elephant.

They walked toward each other, and when they met, Buckley patted Tarra’s shoulder. She inspected one of Tarra’s feet and her tail, talking all the while. “Mama’s here. How are you doing, girl?” she asked. Buckley scattered the hay for Tarra to eat and sat down on the grass to watch, her knees drawn to her chin. Mala and Samie wrestled and scampered, weaving between Tarra’s legs. Tarra was careful when she moved; a misstep would crush her canine friends in an instant.

In three days it would be the one-year anniversary of Tarra’s arrival in Georgia. There had been challenges. Bo, the other elephant at the refuge, who had been in a circus before his owner handed him to Buckley in September 2021, was a six-ton mountain of a creature. With a broad, twin-domed head and sweeping tusks, Bo loomed over Tarra. When they first met, Bo came on strong. He was castrated, so it wasn’t about attraction; he’d once performed with a group of female elephants, and he was excited for companionship. Tarra was wary, and Bo gave her space. Tarra eventually sought him out and lifted her trunk to breathe in his scent. They both relaxed. Now, if Tarra made the first move, the elephants touched trunks and leaned on each other.

For Buckley, the past year had brought some closure. When she won custody of Tarra, the court ordered the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee to pay trial costs worth tens of thousands of dollars. Buckley cut a deal. She agreed to cover the expenses herself in exchange for Tarra’s golden headdress and one of her roller skates, artifacts from the elephant’s performing days. The sanctuary had hung them at its welcome center in a display labeled “CAPTIVE.” A caption read, “[Tarra] worked for two decades in the circus at amusement parks and in the film industry. In 1995, she retired and became the first resident of The Elephant Sanctuary.” Buckley’s name was nowhere to be seen.

After she was forced out of the Tennessee sanctuary, Buckley was derided in some animal rights circles for being “a circus girl.” Tarra’s days on roller skates had not aged well—to many elephant lovers they seemed crass, even abusive. But Buckley isn’t ashamed of her past. “I have no desire to change history,” she said. “Tarra enjoyed skating. The people who don’t think she did are the ones who never saw her skate.”

Recently, Buckley got her hands on the chest she once towed Tarra’s skates around in. “That’s her baby stuff, her baby shoes,” Buckley said. She’s not sure what she’ll do with them yet—maybe set up a small display somewhere in California to memorialize Tarra’s early days.

For all the fondness she feels toward Tarra and their shared story, Buckley firmly believes elephants belong in the wild. She opposes the importation of new elephants and the breeding of the nearly 400 elephants in American zoos. She cringes at the notion of an elephant being construed as someone’s property, but acknowledges that as long as the law sees them that way, already captive elephants should be placed in the best possible hands. Reintroducing them to Africa or Asia won’t work—the change would be too dramatic, too dangerous. Refuges are the only answer.

If she met Tarra today, galumphing down a California street, Buckley would find her a place at a sanctuary. Then again, without Tarra, would Buckley know what such a thing is? Would one even exist in the U.S.? On every step of their journey together, Buckley said, Tarra led the way, guiding her toward a kind of enlightenment.

Buckley would like to expand the refuge beyond Tarra and Bo, but the money isn’t pouring in. Partly that’s because of the drama surrounding her lawsuit against the sanctuary. But there’s also been a proliferation of elephant-related causes, sanctuaries, and charities around the world. A quarter of a century ago, Buckley was blazing a trail. Now she’s part of a crowd.

Buckley is a little rueful about this, thrilled at the attention elephants now receive but skeptical that all the people working with them know what they’re doing, keep up with the latest research, spend money on the right things. Buckley knows, too, that some of the qualities of her personality that make her good with Tarra and other elephants—her stubbornness chief among them—can alienate fellow humans.

In the field with Tarra, Buckley is at peace. There’s a cadence to their relationship they’ve both come to expect and rely on—daily rituals of feeding, roaming, and communicating. When Buckley heads home at the end of the day, she knows she’ll see Tarra again soon. She feels lucky. Maybe Tarra does, too.

“See you, honey,” Buckley says.

The elephant watches her go.

*This story has been updated to elaborate on the terms of the sanctuary’s disposition policy.

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.



When Johna Ramirez’s son joined a wildly popular circle of tween YouTube influencers, it seemed like he was fulfilling his Hollywood dreams. But in the Squad, fame and fortune came at a cost.

By Nile Cappello

The Atavist Magazine, No. 135

Nile Cappello is a journalist, screenwriter, and producer whose writing has appeared in HuffPost, Rolling StoneVice, and other publications. Her previous Atavist story, “The Girl in the Picture,” was published as Issue No. 118.

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

Published in January 2023

Hollywood is the last place you’d expect to meet Johna Kay Ramirez. She doesn’t come across as cutthroat. Thin, with auburn hair and warm eyes, Johna is thoughtful when she speaks and quick to apologize when she goes on a tangent. She’s the kind of person who knows that “bless your heart” is often a veiled insult. Hollywood, with all its glitz, glam, and high drama, became part of Johna’s story because of her children.

Born and raised in the Great Plains, Johna met Nelson Ramirez at a department store in Enid, Oklahoma; she sold shoes, he worked in menswear. They married, and in 1991, when Nelson got a job as a tech recruiter in Texas, the Ramirezes moved to Austin. Johna did video production for a local news station, then worked for a state agency. In 1998, when the Ramirezes had their first child, a daughter they named Liana, Johna became a stay-at-home mom. A son, Jentzen, came along eight years later.

Liana caught the entertainment bug first. What started as recreational dance classes quickly evolved into a passion for the performing arts. Liana loved being under bright stage lights, and Johna was proud to watch her precocious toddler blossom into a talented young girl. Liana appeared in local dance and theater productions, and by the time she was 13, her ambitions had surpassed the scope of what Austin could offer. She dreamed of being on the Disney Channel, of making it big in Hollywood. If Selena Gomez, a half-Latina teenager from Texas just like her, could become a star, Liana was sure she could, too. She had the talent and she had Johna, her chauffeur, line-reading partner, meal deliverer, videographer, and number one fan. “I knew how much my daughter wanted this, how much it meant to her,” Johna said. “So whatever I could do, whatever skills I had, I would use them to help.”

In September 2011, Johna snapped a photo of Liana at an airport gate. Her smile is all teeth, and a black bow holds back a portion of her curly brown hair. Mother and daughter were on their way to Los Angeles for Liana’s first Hollywood audition. The role was in a production of A Snow White Christmas, a stage musical. If cast, Liana would appear with Neil Patrick Harris, then a fan favorite on TV’s How I Met Your Mother, and with Lindsay Pearce of The Glee Project.

The audition was held at the Westfield Culver City mall on a Saturday morning. Kids and their guardians hustled inside and waited near a stage situated between Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. Liana received her audition number and practiced the dance routine she’d be performing. She breezed through the first cut and kept going. In the final round, she danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” At the end of the number, right as the audience began to applaud, Liana looked over at her mom, beaming.

Johna announced the good news on Facebook. “She nailed it and she got a role as a dancer,” Johna wrote. “Can you hear us screaming?” Back in Texas, the Austin AmericanStatesman ran a piece about Liana. “Teen heads to Hollywood to dance in her dramatic debut,” the headline read.

The Ramirezes decided that Nelson would stay in Texas, where he had recently started his own business, while Johna took Liana and five-year-old Jentzen to California for the duration of the production. They would be joined by Johna’s mother, Martha, who would help with child care and managing Liana’s obligations. Johna drove her kids and mom to Los Angeles, a more than 20-hour trip mostly through dry, flat rattlesnake country. She’d never taken a leap like this—never lived somewhere like Los Angeles, been around serious entertainment people, or parented without Nelson. Johna was leaving her comfort zone in the rearview mirror.

She was surprised by how much she liked Los Angeles. Within a few days of arriving, she and Martha had their first celebrity encounter, an exchange with Kiefer Sutherland over potatoes at a Whole Foods. The city’s traffic was a pain, but they managed to sightsee, visiting the Hard Rock Cafe and Universal Studios, where Jentzen posed with actors dressed up as Dora the Explorer and the donkey from Shrek. Liana stayed busy with the stage production, and Johna spent long hours at the theater, watching as her daughter rehearsed and had costume fittings. Liana would appear in 32 performances over two months, working straight through the holidays. 

When the show wrapped, the Ramirezes reunited in Austin. Within a year, however, they decided to resume living as a split family. The musical had led to auditions and bookings for Liana, and she needed to be closer to LA to take advantage of them. Johna relocated to California full-time with her kids and tended to their day-to-day needs, while Nelson provided financial support from afar. Liana made appearances on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and the prime-time network shows Criminal Minds and The Goldbergs.

As it turned out, Liana wasn’t the only family member who had star potential. With a smattering of freckles and a megawatt smile, Jentzen drew attention from casting directors, talent, and other industry insiders when Johna brought him on set with his sister. “You’ve got to put him in commercials,” stage moms told Johna, pinching Jentzen’s cheeks and ruffling his shaggy brown hair. He was in the sweet spot for child actors: old enough to memorize lines, but still young enough to be considered cute. Soon Jentzen was building out his own IMDb page, appearing in web series, short films, and the Lifetime movie Babysitter’s Black Book. 

For Johna, Jentzen’s success further validated her decision to move to Los Angeles. Every parent hopes that a child will find their thing. Other families travel to soccer tournaments, move across the country to train with gymnastics coaches, or spend thousands on STEM camps where kids learn to code and build robots. Liana and Jentzen didn’t just like acting—they were good at it. Plus, their budding careers allowed Johna to spend time with them, whether that was backstage at rehearsals, stuck in gridlock on the 101, or putting together audition tapes at home. “It wasn’t just something they did,” Johna said. “It was something we all did together.”

Without auditioning for it, Johna had been cast in a new role: “momager.” She played it well, surprising even herself with how easily she toggled between cooking meals and attending movie premieres. She learned how to advocate for her kids’ needs and when to say no on their behalf.

As Jentzen approached his teenage years, he began kicking around the idea of getting into YouTube. A child actor’s presence on social media was increasingly important to casting agents and directors. Johna, whose experience with social media was limited largely to updating her Facebook account, wasn’t convinced. “I just didn’t know what we’d post,” she said with a shrug.

Then, eight years after arriving in Hollywood, the Ramirezes saw a promising ad, known as a breakdown, on LA Casting, a website that film, TV, and online productions use to enlist talent. A breakdown typically includes a description of the project, the parts to be cast, and the pay rate, along with information about how to audition. The breakdown the Ramirezes saw was for something called the “Piper Rockeele Show,” which was planning to shoot a YouTube video on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Described as taking inspiration from the movie Grease, the shoot would involve a tween character named Chase brushing off Piper, the show’s eponymous star, to look cool in front of his friends. Chase seemed like a good fit for Jentzen; the listing offered $1,500 for eight hours of work, a very good rate.

The Ramirezes weren’t familiar with Piper Rockelle—her name was spelled wrong in the breakdown—but an internet search led to a tween girl with a YouTube channel boasting hundreds of hours of video content, including original songs, makeup tutorials, and staged pranks and challenges like “24 Hours HANDCUFFED to my ‘BOYFRIEND.’ ” Jentzen showed Johna his iPhone screen. “Mom, she’s got a lot of subscribers,” he said—more than two million.

Johna didn’t have a problem with Jentzen participating in another kid’s social media content. It was easier than striking out on his own in the wilds of YouTube. Jentzen replied to the ad and was asked to come in for an audition.

The day of the tryout, the Ramirezes had another appointment across town and were running late. Johna tracked down a number for the person, a voice coach, who’d posted the breakdown on LA Casting. According to Johna, the coach assured her there wouldn’t be a problem. “They really wanted him at the callback,” he said. “They really liked him.”

It is one of many moments that now haunt Johna. “Can you imagine if we would have missed the callback?” she said, shaking her head. “How maybe life would’ve been different?”

More than three years later, Piper Rockelle’s popularity has exploded. She has more than 25 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fan pages dedicated to her. Piper has staged live meet-and-greets and musical performances around the world, and she sells her own line of merchandise. She lives in a pink and purple house worth $2.3 million in Sherman Oaks, previously owned by the actress Bella Thorne.

But all is not well in Piper’s world. Her own momager, Tiffany Smith, is being sued by 11 former members of the Squad, the name given to the circle of child actors who appear in Piper’s videos and ostensibly are her friends. Two of the plaintiffs are cousins of Piper’s. The kids allege that, when they were in the Squad, Smith verbally, physically, and in some cases sexually abused them. They also claim that Smith knowingly produced exploitative content featuring her daughter and other minors. “Smith would often boast to Plaintiffs and others about being the ‘Madam of YouTube’ and a ‘Pimp of YouTube,’ and that she ‘makes kiddie porn,’ ” states the lawsuit, which was filed in January 2022. Smith’s boyfriend, Hunter Hill, and Piper Rockelle Inc. are also defendants in the suit. Hill, who works behind the scenes to produce Piper’s YouTube videos, is accused of conspiring with Smith to “sabotage” the plaintiffs’ careers after they left the Squad.  

Johna knows the plaintiffs and their parents personally. She doesn’t doubt their claims. However, she isn’t part of the lawsuit. For the past few years, Johna has been fighting a legal battle of her own. It began after Jentzen auditioned for Piper’s team, and it has pitted her against Smith as well as her own family. Today, according to Johna, all she wants is to have a relationship with her children again.

This story is based on interviews with Johna and Nelson Ramirez; two of the plaintiffs’ mothers, Steevy Areeco and Angela Sharbino; and the plaintiffs’ attorney, Matthew Sarelson. It draws on hundreds of pages of court documents, personal communications shared by sources, and the trove of social media content produced by Piper and the Squad. Smith and Hill did not respond to requests for comment. They have denied the allegations against them.

Seven years ago, Piper Rockelle hadn’t yet gone viral, or moved to Los Angeles, or started the Squad. Seven years ago, she was just a kid in Georgia with big bows and big dreams. 

Forty miles outside Atlanta, in the lush foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sits Canton, Piper’s hometown. Attracting families looking for a quiet, scenic alternative to the city, Canton has a main drag framed with redbrick sidewalks and sits just a few miles from the bucolic Hickory Log Creek Reservoir. According to videos later posted on Piper’s YouTube channel, Tiffany Smith met Piper’s father when they worked at a local veterinary clinic together. Their relationship fell apart when Tiffany, then in her mid-twenties, learned that she was pregnant and Piper’s father, who has never been identified publicly, pressured her to get an abortion. Tiffany kept the baby and went on to raise Piper as a single mother. It was just the two of them and a collection of rescue cats.

If Liana Ramirez’s aspirations were shaped by Disney and Nickelodeon, Piper’s were the product of Toddlers & Tiaras, the popular TLC reality show documenting the kiddie pageant scene, which ran for nine seasons and gave the world Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson. Tiffany put Piper into pageants at a young age. She got her daughter airbrushed headshots, fake tans, bedazzled dresses, and partial dentures, known as flippers, designed to perfect a child’s smile. Piper sparkled in the spotlight. She was adorable. She was sassy. She twirled and winked at the judges and blew kisses at the audience. Piper collected crowns, sashes, and titles, making a name for herself in regional competitions.

Tiffany was convinced that her daughter was destined for bigger things. In 2016, the year Piper turned nine, Tiffany turned her attention to social media, reviving a dormant Instagram account she’d set up a few years earlier. Using her middle name, Rockelle, in her stage name, Piper became active on, the lip-sync audio app that two years later would be sold to a Chinese company and reemerge as TikTok. She also started creating YouTube content, posting her first clip in November 2016. In it, the third-grader makes slime in her kitchen. The video is simple, with low production values, and relies almost entirely on Piper’s extroverted personality and charisma in front of the camera. It would receive more than 4.5 million views—a figure that to anyone who isn’t a young kid or the parent of one might seem insane.

Gen Z is the first generation to never know life without the internet, and they watch a lot of YouTube. By 2020, according to Pew Research, 89 percent of parents with a child between five and eleven reported that their kids watched videos on the platform; 81 percent with three- and four-year-olds, and 57 percent with a child age two or under, said the same thing. But YouTube’s youngest users aren’t just interested in watching music videos, reruns of Paw Patrol, and old episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. They like content made by creators they can relate to—ones who look and act like them.

YouTube has given Gen Z their own form of reality television: They can watch other kids be silly with their friends, try on clothes, play with toys and games, and get famous in the process. In 2015, the year before Piper joined YouTube, three-year-old Ryan Kaji began posting unboxing videos on his channel Ryan’s World. Kaji opened new toys in front of the camera, inviting young viewers to vicariously experience his excitement. In 2017, Forbes ranked Kaji as the ninth-highest-earning YouTuber, reporting that he made $11 million that year. Two years later, Kaji made $26 million and shot to the number one spot.

Adults might not understand the appeal of watching a video of Kaji tearing into a Lego set or Piper making slime in her kitchen for the same reason young kids are unlikely to grasp the popularity of The Bachelor: The content isn’t made for them. But the viewers it is made for can’t get enough of it.

Building on the success of her first video, Piper made more YouTube content and attracted more followers. With visibility came opportunities. Piper and Tiffany began taking trips to Los Angeles, where they filmed videos with fellow “kidfluencers” and visited the Walk of Fame and other Hollywood landmarks. According to fan pages, Piper became the fastest “Muser,” or app user, to reach 750,000 followers on, where she posted videos of herself dancing and performing comedy skits.

Piper’s social media content paid off in a big way when she was cast in a reality show called Dance Twins. Produced by the creator of Dance Moms, a wildly popular Lifetime program, the show followed twin sisters Nisa and Tria as they ran rival dance studios in Cleveland, Tennessee. Shot in 2017, it lasted only one season and is no longer streamable, but the trailer and various clips remain on social media. In one snippet, Piper, cast as a student of Nisa’s, sits for an interview with her mother. Piper describes Tiffany as the quintessential cool mom. “Every kid wants to hang out with her,” she says as the clip cuts to footage of Tiffany dabbing. Tiffany, in turn, says Piper is her “best friend.” 

Episode nine followed Piper, who was ten at the time, as she prepared to perform at a minor league baseball game with a team of backup dancers in matching jerseys. Among them was ten-year-old Corinne Joy. A competitive dancer who’d already tried out for America’s Got Talent, Corinne hit it off with Piper. They both lived in the Atlanta area, so they exchanged information and planned to meet up back home.

In an interview, Corinne’s mother, Steevy Areeco, said she was happy for her daughter to have a new friend with similar interests, and found Piper to be polite and hardworking. But she described immediate red flags when it came to Tiffany. She had a tendency to overshare, Steevy said. One of the first times Piper and Corinne hung out in Georgia, the moms got to know each other. Tiffany told Steevy unprompted that her boyfriend at the time was a registered sex offender, but dismissed the crime as a consensual encounter with a minor.

According to Steevy, Piper began receiving gifts in the mail from a fan Tiffany called “Meagan” and implied was around the same age as her daughter. Tiffany eventually admitted that Meagan was actually an adult man. When she offered to introduce Steevy to him so that Corinne could start getting gifts as well, Steevy said that she declined.

Tiffany and Piper moved to Los Angeles full-time in late 2017. They rented an apartment in Hollywood and threw themselves into auditions and collaborations set up by Piper’s then manager, Matt Dugan. At the time, Dugan was working with a roster of young social media influencers trying to break into film, television, and the music industry, including Raegan Fingles, aka Raegan Beast, a popular creator on; Kristen Hancher, now a top earner on OnlyFans; and Danielle Cohn, a former pageant girl turned Muser like Piper. (Dugan did not reply to requests for comment.)

According to Steevy, Tiffany eventually invited her and Corinne to Los Angeles for a visit. But the night before they were set to leave, Tiffany explained over the phone that she couldn’t host them. There was someone else living with her and Piper in their one-bedroom apartment. Steevy and Corinne went to LA anyway and stayed in a hotel.

The other resident of the apartment, Steevy learned, was Tiffany’s boyfriend, a content creator named Hunter Hill, known online as H2balla. Originally from Wyoming, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Hill had gained a following on before moving to YouTube and other platforms and becoming one of Dugan’s clients. He was 20, more than ten years younger than Tiffany. Hunter and Piper sometimes made content together, including numerous videos and posts in which they claimed to be brother and sister.

Steevy didn’t know what to make of Hunter, but it was hard to ignore the results Piper was getting in Los Angeles. When Brat, an online network that produced short-form content for kids, launched in the summer of 2017, it was in partnership with Dugan’s talent management company. This ensured that Brat’s shows drew heavily from Dugan’s roster of clients and contacts. Piper was soon cast as a lead in a show called Mani; she portrayed the young sidekick to an eccentric male nanny. The first season, which aired on Brat’s YouTube channel, received between 5 million and 17 million views per episode, propelling Piper toward Gen Z superstardom.

Hoping to jump-start her daughter’s career, Steevy moved with Corinne to Los Angeles in November 2018. They didn’t know a lot of people in California, just a few dance moms and Instagram acquaintances, so they spent time with Piper and Tiffany. By early 2019, Corinne and Piper were filming YouTube videos together, along with a few other preteens with burgeoning online followings. This was the first iteration of what would become known as the Squad. 

A kind of self-styled Mickey Mouse Club, Piper’s group of collaborators included her friend Sophie Fergi, who was also on Mani, and a boy named Sawyer Sharbino. Sawyer’s teenage sisters, Saxon and Brighton, had already made names for themselves in Hollywood, appearing in the remake of Poltergeist and on The Walking Dead, by the time Sawyer started a YouTube channel at age nine. Sawyer was inspired by Saxon’s ex-boyfriend, Jake Paul, a controversial social media star known for pulling outrageous stunts. Paul had appeared on a Disney show but agreed to leave after a news station reported on the chaotic parties, filled with underage fans, that he threw. Undeterred, Paul parlayed his popularity into brand deals, partnerships, sold-out stage shows, and meet-and-greets. He was living proof that social media could do more than help kids launch a career in entertainment—it could be their career.

Piper also started filming with Sawyer Sharbino’s friend Gavin Magnus, a kid with gelled hair and pop-star aspirations. Gavin and Sawyer had met at the 13th birthday party of Hayden Sumerall, a singer and content creator linked with one of the most famous teenagers on the internet, Annie LeBlanc. Annie (who now goes by Jules) got her start on her family’s popular vlogging channel; by mid-2017, she had her own web series and had recorded her first viral cover song, a duet with Hayden. Jules and Hayden were in a “ship,” or relationship, known to their followers as “Hannie.”

For as long as the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic has existed in serialized entertainment, enthusiastic fans have pined for popular characters to fall in love and cheered when they got together—think Ross and Rachel on Friends, or Jim and Pam on The Office. Fueled by Hollywood media, millions of people also become invested in celebrity relationships, some of which acquire their own portmanteaus: Bennifer, Brangelina, Kimye. Among kidfluencers, ships draw on both these trends. User-generated content ushered in a new era of voyeurism and so-called para-social relationships, in which viewers feel a degree of intimacy with the people they see on screen. Lines between what’s real and what’s scripted are blurred. Ships like Hannie are orchestrated by kidfluencers, their parents and managers, and in some cases brand sponsors, but they seem real to young fans—or real enough.

The popularity of ships offer content creators unique business opportunities. Just as sex sells with adult audiences, puppy love hooks pubescent ones. Hannie played out on Annie’s and Hayden’s respective social media feeds. The 12-year-olds made content together and about each other; they held hands, hugged, and laughed. While fans gushed in the comments and on messages boards, Hannie sold merch, went on sponsored trips, and released music videos.

The ship became a case study for parents looking to help their kids blow up on social platforms—parents like Tiffany Smith and Gavin Magnus’s mom, Theresa. When Gavin released his first single, “Crushin’,” Piper was cast in the video. Both kids were 11 at the time. The video, which went live on Valentine’s Day 2019, shows Piper as the object of Gavin’s affection, accepting a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons and posing for selfies with him. The video went on to get 33 million views. Piper and Gavin kept making content together, fans demanded more, and before long “Pavin” was born.

Piper and Gavin went from calling each other crushes to declaring themselves boyfriend and girlfriend. But their content wasn’t always the YouTube equivalent of love notes left in middle school lockers and initials doodled inside hearts on notebook covers. They made videos of pranks staged at each other’s expense. Some were straightforward enough: Gavin ignoring Piper for 24 hours to see how she’d react, Piper pretending she lost her memory and couldn’t remember who Gavin was. Other video concepts required explanations for Pavin’s young fans.

In a June 2019 video titled “CATFISHING my girlfriend to see if she cheats,” Gavin starts off by saying that to accomplish his goal, he’ll need a cat and a fish. After an emoji for each animal pops up on screen, an adult male voice behind the camera says, “I don’t think that’s how catfishing works, Gavin.” Feigning ignorance, Gavin knits his brows above his bright blue eyes and asks, “How does it work then?” He proceeds to offer viewers a lesson in online deception 101, persuading a friend to text Piper “flirty” messages and then accusing Piper of not being “loyal” when she responds.

Pavin’s popularity was still rising when, on July 24, 2019, Gavin shocked fans with a video titled “My Breakup **THE TRUTH…IT’S OVER**.” In the video, Gavin’s friend Connor Cain is told to read aloud a text that Gavin claims to have sent to a group chat with Piper and Sophie. “I’m sorry it’s ending like this. I can’t take the anxiety, stress, and overall complication of this,” Connor reads as a screenshot of the text appears next to his face. “There are going to be times where I will see pictures of all of us and remember when we were having fun. Not being so controlled, not being just ‘investments.’ ” When Connor finishes reading, he scrunches up his face with discomfort.

Gavin then plops down on the sofa where Connor is sitting and addresses viewers directly. “I know this is probably really tough, but Pavin’s over,” Gavin says. “There were a lot of things that went down, a lot of things that were inappropriate.… I was removed from a toxic environment.” Referring to himself and Piper, he says, “Please don’t send any hate to either one of us. There’s already enough going on, on Instagram and on the, like, legal side.”

Gavin doesn’t give specifics. He fiddles with his phone as he talks. He looks relieved when, at the end of the video, he’s able to be his usual on-screen self: He roughhouses with Connor and high-fives him, then encourages viewers to buy his music and merch. The video concludes with a series of bloopers from the shoot.

Gavin’s family would soon have a law firm begin preparing legal action against Tiffany Smith and Hunter Hill. By then, Piper’s team was well on its way to identifying new talent to fill the void left by Gavin. Four days before the breakup video went live, they held auditions for a number of new roles on Piper’s channel. One of the kids they saw was Jentzen Ramirez

The popularity of ships offer content creators unique business opportunities. Just as sex sells with adult audiences, puppy love hooks pubescent ones.

Johna wasn’t in the habit of keeping up with kidfluencer gossip. She didn’t know about Gavin’s video or that Piper and her team were hitting back, using social media posts and direct messages with fans to accuse Gavin of “cheating.” She was just hoping that Jentzen got a job with Piper.

A week after her son’s audition for the Venice Beach shoot, Johna got an email letting her know that Jentzen was invited to be in a different video, for which he would be paid just $125, not $1,500. According to Johna, when she asked for clarification about the project change and the lower rate than what had been advertised on LA Casting, she received a call from Tiffany Smith and Heather Trimmer, the mother of Piper’s sidekick, Sophie. The women wanted Jentzen to be in a video in which a trio of boys would rate outfits worn by their daughters. In Johna’s telling, Tiffany assured her it would be “innocent tween content,” with no inappropriate attire.

A $125 day rate was well below the threshold Johna had set for Jentzen’s work—she wanted to make sure the jobs he accepted were professional and worth his while. But Piper was famous; she could help Jentzen break into social media. Johna decided to make an exception.

The Ramirezes arrived just before call time at an apartment complex in the heart of Hollywood. Johna double-checked the address; she was accustomed to working on studio lots or at public locations, surrounded by box trucks and crew members loitering on the sidewalk between takes. Inside, the Ramirezes were directed to a common area where another tween creator was already sitting. Lev Cameron, a blond dancer born in France, had appeared previously on So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation and Dancing with the Stars: Junior. Lev was 13, the age Jentzen would soon turn. The boys waited together to be called in for the shoot, which was happening upstairs in the apartment where Piper lived with her mom and Hunter.

Johna was surprised by Tiffany when she appeared in the common area. She looked, talked, and acted more casually than the people in charge of other shoots Johna had taken her son to. Johna got the impression that Tiffany expected her to wait downstairs while Jentzen was filming. When Johna moved to accompany her son, Tiffany was resistant. “The kids do better when the parents aren’t around,” Johna recalled Tiffany saying.

Johna wasn’t naive about exploitation of kids in the entertainment business. She’d always taken comfort in the extensive legal protections offered to child actors in California. State law outlines requirements about payment, on-set education, time off from work, and other matters pertaining to kids’ well-being. Johna had seen the effects of these protections firsthand, in the form of meal breaks, tutors, and financial-planning resources for child actors and their families. Before her exchange with Tiffany, she’d found that parents were encouraged to keep eyes on their children at all times during shoots. Minors weren’t supposed to be alone with adult cast or crew members.

Out of habit and also on instinct, Johna insisted that she go upstairs with her son. Once there, however, Johna found herself hanging back, staying inside the apartment while Jentzen filmed with the other kids in the hallway. She didn’t want to be the only helicopter parent and possibly get in the way of her son making friends who could lead to more work. Johna told herself she’d have to adjust to this new slice of the entertainment world.

At the instruction of Tiffany and Hunter, who handled the technical aspects of the shoot, Piper and Sophie put on various outfits, and the boys, equipped with whiteboards, played fashion police. The girls wore ensembles baring their midriffs and catwalked toward the boys for each round of judging. The video, which over time would receive more than seven million views, was posted on Sophie’s personal YouTube channel under the title “My Crush REACTS to my FASHION NOVA Outfits.”

Fashion Nova was the retail company whose clothes the girls were promoting. The video didn’t specify which of the boys was Sophie’s crush. Soon, though, Jentzen would fill that role.

Jentzen had never had a girlfriend, real or scripted. Johna didn’t know much about ships. But when Tiffany approached her not long after the shoot about forming one between Jentzen and Sophie, it seemed like a good opportunity. So “Jophie” was created. Piper soon entered a ship with Lev. Fans seemed excited by both pairings. The video in which Jentzen calls Sophie his crush for the first time has more than six million views and 9,600 comments to date.

Success came fast. Day rates, Johna learned, weren’t how Squad members made money. In fact, the kids weren’t regularly compensated by Piper’s team, a fact later corroborated in legal documents. Instead, they profited by being in Piper’s inner circle: As Squad members, their personal social media channels garnered attention, which could translate into revenue. Jentzen would eventually earn between $30,000 and $40,000 a month from brand deals, sponsored posts, and monetized videos. Putting her experience in production to use, Johna became her son’s videographer and editor, helping keep his suddenly remunerative social accounts flush with content.

According to Johna, she and Jentzen verbally agreed to share his earnings. California law dictates that a child actor’s income is theirs alone, but Johna claims that she and Jentzen decided it was fair that her labor be compensated. Together mother and son set up J&J Ramirez Productions LLC.

A real friendship formed off-screen between Jentzen and Lev. Johna was thrilled. Her son had a new community and steady work. Jentzen seemed happy appearing in Piper’s video for her single “Treat Myself,” where she dances in a short skirt at a party with her friends, and making content with titles like “KISSING My Best Friends BOYFRIEND To See How My CRUSH Reacts.” Piper’s channel scripted and marketed the various milestones of experimentation, awkwardness, and humiliation common in the lives of American kids. Her followers ate it up.

Piper’s fans seemed to especially like it when she used her videos to make Gavin Magnus look bad. Gavin would later allege that Piper’s team, which kept pushing the idea that he’d betrayed Piper somehow, launched an #UnfollowGavin campaign that cost him more than 20,000 followers. The acrimony became a hot topic in kidfluencer gossip forums, also known as shade rooms, and in clips posted by the Paparazzi Gamer, a vlogger known for chasing down young YouTube stars on their way out of LA restaurants or events at the Wish House, a mansion worth tens of millions of dollars where social media stars gathered to make content. Pavin’s fandom became a house divided, and each side had strong opinions about who had wronged whom.

The former pair’s collaborators were split, too, urged by the adults behind Piper’s and Gavin’s content to choose sides. Soon Piper and Gavin weren’t just two halves of a onetime ship, they were the leaders of rival kidfluencer cliques. Piper’s Squad and Gavin’s GOAT Fam competed to film the most videos and get the most views. 

In November 2019, Gavin posted a new video about his breakup with Piper; this time he was ready to go into detail. He admitted that he and Piper had agreed to form a ship to grow their profiles. The situation turned sour, Gavin claimed, when Tiffany became “abusive and obsessive.” Gavin called the nearly seven months he worked with Piper and her mom the most stressful of his life. He said that he wasn’t allowed to hang out with anyone Tiffany didn’t “approve” of, and that Tiffany had “anxiety attacks” during which she did extreme things, including jumping out of cars and screaming at the kids working with her daughter.

“There were texts and DMs of her saying, like, really inappropriate things, almost things that, like, an ex-girlfriend would say to you,” Gavin recalls in the video. “She would yell at me over text and call me names that a 12-year-old shouldn’t be called by a 30-year-old woman.” He also accuses Tiffany of offering him a vape and says he isn’t the only kidfluencer to stop working with Piper because of her mom’s behavior.

As fans responded to the video, debating the validity of Gavin’s claims, Piper’s inner circle received a clear message. According to Johna and other former Squad moms, Tiffany described Gavin and his mother, Theresa, as liars waging a smear campaign against her and hurting Piper. At first Johna believed her. She’d heard stories about Theresa and Tiffany fighting for months before Gavin left the Squad—maybe this was all a matter of revenge on the part of a bitter mom and her son. But as time went on, Johna wondered if Gavin was telling the truth.

As much as Jentzen loved being part of the Squad, the hours he spent filming were long, beyond what’s legally permitted for working minors in California, a fact supported by paperwork that Johna would later file with the courts. Johna, who put Jentzen and Liana in online school while they pursued their careers, noticed that there were no tutors available on set for Squad members. She and other Squad moms have since stated in interviews that they were especially concerned about Piper, who claimed to have dyslexia and didn’t seem to be able to read very well. But it wasn’t clear to Squad members’ parents which workplace standards applied in the Wild West of social media content creation, or who was responsible for enforcing them. Tiffany? YouTube? Some other entity?  

Johna worried too about what she viewed as Tiffany’s eagerness to control the lives of Squad members, to the point that it was difficult for them to do much of anything except film with Piper. According to Johna and other moms interviewed for this story, Tiffany didn’t just discourage kids from going to parties, attending auditions, or being tagged in photos that didn’t involve the Squad—she often viewed it as outright disloyalty. Kids she deemed ungrateful for one reason or another fell off the shooting schedule, the social media equivalent of being benched, until Tiffany changed her mind. According to Angela Sharbino, Sawyer’s mother, after she told Tiffany that she wanted her son to take on more traditional acting roles, Sawyer would show up to Squad shoots only to watch his friends film without him. “Tiffany just wanted to waste his time,” Angela said.

All the while, Piper’s content seemed to grow ever more adult. According to the 2022 lawsuit, Tiffany gave Squad members instructions about what to do in videos: She directed kids to kiss to make ships seem more real, and to “push their butts out,” “make sexy kissing faces,” or “wear something sluttier.” Because parents often weren’t with their children during shoots, they didn’t always know what went on until later. Even then they were wary of complaining, because dissent risked retribution.

Leaving the Squad wasn’t an easy decision, not for kids who wanted to be stars. Former members saw a marked decline in the growth of their brand once they stopped filming with Piper. The accumulation of followers slowed, and revenue streams dried up. In part this was because proximity to Piper was lucrative; distancing oneself all but ensured financial losses. According to the lawsuit, however, there may have been other reasons kidfluencers who left the Squad suffered setbacks. Angela Sharbino alleges that Hunter Hill admitted that he’d “tanked” kids’ channels by “embedding” their videos on porn sites, which could get the content flagged and unlisted by YouTube, and using bots to add and subtract subscribers in quick succession, which affected the recommendation algorithm. According to court documents, Hunter allegedly told Squad members and their parents that he had a contact at YouTube, someone he called “Alex,” who helped him boost Piper’s content while suppressing the work of her rivals.

Johna didn’t want to jeopardize Jentzen’s career by walking away from the Squad. Nor did she want to go to war with Tiffany. She wasn’t the kind of momager willing to air out dirty laundry about her child’s collaborators on a livestream or slide into fans’ DMs with gossip about other kidfluencers’ parents. And she worried about Jentzen losing important personal bonds. Unlike other kids his age, Jentzen didn’t have close friends he’d met in homeroom, at lunch, or on a school sports team—he had the Squad.

In February 2020, Tiffany announced that the Squad would be taking a road trip to Las Vegas in an RV. Jentzen was waiting to hear about a callback at the time. According to Johna, Tiffany told her that she and Jentzen could head back early if he got good news. The problems started as soon as the trip did. The kids were invited to ride in the RV with Tiffany and Hunter, where they would shoot content during the more than four-hour drive north; the parents were expected to follow separately in their cars. Once the group got to their Airbnb, according to Johna, Tiffany announced that she wanted the boys and the girls to spend the night in adjoining rooms unsupervised. As a result of the setup, Piper and Lev fell asleep one night side by side. Their friends snapped photos and teased them when they woke up. (Johna said she insisted that Jentzen not sleep with his friends, but instead stay in a room with her and another mother-son pair.)

When Jentzen got the callback he’d been waiting on, Johna was glad for the excuse to leave. But according to Johna, after she told Tiffany the news, she got a phone call from Piper’s manager, Peggy Iafrate, who had replaced Matt Dugan in 2019. In Johna’s recollection, Peggy made it clear that if Jentzen left the trip early, he would be kicked out of the Squad. Jentzen missed the callback. (Iafrate did not reply to requests for comment.)

When the Squad returned to Los Angeles, they went to a five-bedroom rental home in Hollywood where Tiffany had recently moved Piper’s content operation. Everyone was exhausted, but Tiffany wanted to keep filming. At some point, according to Johna and the lawsuit plaintiffs, Tiffany cornered Jentzen and Walker Bryant, another Squad member, in a bathroom. She berated them, calling them “horny bastards” for allegedly holding hands with two girls who weren’t their assigned crushes. Later, during a car ride, the boys told Johna about the encounter. At the time, they seemed freaked out.

Johna decided that she wasn’t being paranoid, dramatic, or overbearing. She could no longer ignore what her gut was telling her: that Tiffany wasn’t safe. It was time for Jentzen to leave the Squad.

Despite the bathroom incident, she knew that her son would resist. Jentzen had become a bona fide YouTube star, and he credited his success to Piper and her team. Leaving the Squad would mean losing his closest friends. Johna would need to cushion the financial and emotional impact of pulling out.  

Johna called her husband, Nelson, in Texas. Nelson hadn’t had much interaction with Tiffany, Hunter, or anyone else involved with the Squad. While Johna had previously voiced some concerns to him about the working environment, she wanted to believe—and wanted Nelson to think—that she had the situation under control. After all, attending to the kids and their careers was her job. Now Johna unloaded: She told Nelson about issues on the set of Squad shoots, the types of videos Jentzen was making, the control Tiffany had over the group, and the backlash that ex–Squad members seemed to face.

“I need your help,” she said.

According to the lawsuit, Tiffany directed kids to kiss to make ships seem more real, and to “push their butts out,” “make sexy kissing faces,” or “wear something sluttier.”

Nelson agreed that he would assist with what he and Johna referred to as the “exit process.” As it happened, by early 2020 they weren’t the only people looking to cut ties with Piper’s team—so were the parents of Walker Bryant and of a girl named Indi Carey. Johna and Walker’s mother, Jennifer, had talked before about some of the concerns they shared regarding the culture of the Squad; during shoots, they took turns making Starbucks runs to ensure that one of them was close to their sons at all times. Now, along with Indi’s parents, they agreed to announce their kids’ departure from the Squad in tandem. They hoped there would be strength in numbers. “We’d already seen how she was able to manipulate people and turn them against each other,” Johna said, referring to Tiffany. “We didn’t want to let that happen again.”

Meanwhile, another former Squad member began making public accusations against Tiffany. After appearing in a music video for one of Piper’s songs, Clementine Lea Spieser* worked with the Squad for four months before stepping away in March 2020. Weeks later, as fans were swapping theories about her absence, Clementine posted a video clarifying her reasons for leaving.

Wearing a red cap-sleeve shirt and black choker, Clementine recites a prepared statement in front of a bubblegum pink backdrop. She says she “felt pressured” by Piper’s team to do things she was uncomfortable with. “They tried to put me in a love triangle,” Clementine says. “I’m only 13. I don’t think I should fake a relationship this early.” She also alleges that Tiffany “kept shoving confidentiality agreements in our faces, pressuring us to sign them so she could try to silence us like everybody in the Squad, so she could try to control the public story of every single Squad member. And if [the team] felt we didn’t listen, they would punish us by not promoting us, to show their power.”

Two weeks after Clementine posted her video, Tiffany sued Clementine’s mother, Caroline Fratacci, for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit, which was later settled out of court, accused Caroline of spreading false rumors that went well beyond what was described in Clementine’s video. Tiffany claimed that Caroline had told people she was guilty of “heinous crimes”—including the sexual assault of a minor.

To refute the defamation charge, Caroline’s legal team obtained a letter written by content creator Raegan Fingles. Like Piper, Raegan had gained a following on before moving to Los Angeles to work with Matt Dugan. His letter, submitted to the courts, details an incident that he claims occurred at Tiffany’s Hollywood apartment one night in 2017.

A group of influencers and their teams, including Piper, Tiffany, and Raegan, had attended an event sponsored by a company called Rock Your Hair. When the party ended, some of Dugan’s clients went to Tiffany’s apartment to film content. According to Raegan, who was 17 at the time, Tiffany provided alcohol to everyone, including nine-year-old Piper. The group then decided to go live on an app called YouNow. During the stream, an apparently intoxicated Tiffany turned to Raegan, grabbed his face, and started kissing him. Piper, standing behind them, could be seen pulling Tiffany away from Raegan before Tiffany again appeared to force herself on the teenager.

Raegan’s letter alleged that Tiffany’s behavior continued off camera. He claimed she grabbed him by his waist and attempted to drag him into a bedroom. “I was scared Tiffany was going to rape me,” Raegan stated. He claimed that he reported the incident to Dugan, who told him he would make sure Tiffany was held accountable. “Dugan was my mentor at the time,” Raegan wrote. “I trusted him fully to do the right thing.” When Raegan saw the next day that videos of the livestream no longer seemed to be online, he assumed Dugan had reported them or otherwise had them taken down. Raegan didn’t go to the police. (According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, Raegan was contacted by the FBI about his allegations against Tiffany in 2021.)

Raegan’s letter was dated May 30, 2020, and its allegations made the rounds among kidfluencers and their families that summer. So did other accusations found in a demand letter and legal complaint drafted by a law firm on Gavin Magnus’s behalf after his breakup with Piper the previous year. Those documents, leaked to parents whose kids were once in Piper’s orbit, allege intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil harassment, violation of child labor laws, and cyberstalking by both Tiffany and Hunter. They describe a “Svengali-like” relationship between Tiffany and the kids in the Squad, and include screenshots of text messages Tiffany allegedly sent to Gavin, chastising him for tagging a friend outside the group in his content; the texts call Gavin a “hypocrite” and “shout out slut.”

The documents also describe the association between Tiffany and the adult male fan of Piper’s known as Meagan, the one Steevy Areeco had heard about back in Georgia. According to accounts provided by Gavin and his parents, Tiffany referred to this fan as “the Stalker” and “the Pedophile,” but sent him videos of her daughter in exchange for money, food, and gifts. A final, bizarre accusation made by Gavin and his family is that Tiffany sometimes pretended to be a character she called “Lenny the Dead Cat.” Under the guise of Lenny, she would make sexual comments to Squad members and “manipulate and scare the children into silence.”

Gavin’s parents never filed the documents with the courts, and they never would. Instead, over the summer of 2020, Gavin and Piper began making content together again; one segment is titled “Spying On My EX BOYFRIEND for 24 HOURS Challenge.” A YouTuber with the handle Mayhem, who reports and comments on internet culture, shared a screenshot of a greeting card adorned with rainbows that Gavin’s mother told her social media followers she’d given to Tiffany to make amends. “I just wanted to send a quick note of thanks for allowing Gavin to see all of you,” the card reads. “I am so sorry for the past.” (Theresa Magnus did not reply to requests for comment.)

When Johna heard about Raegan’s, Clementine’s, and Gavin’s accusations against Tiffany, she was overwhelmed. What responsible parent would fail to question how an adult like this is still working with children? she remembered wondering.

By then she was thinking this about her own husband.

On April 26, 2020, the Ramirezes, the Bryants, and the Careys had a conference call with Peggy Iafrate to tell her that their kids were leaving the Squad. A few days later, Nelson traveled from Texas to visit his family. Johna was prepared for Tiffany and Hunter to put up a fight and for Jentzen to be upset. She was hopeful that together she and Nelson would weather the fallout. But then, on Mother’s Day, around two weeks after the call with Iafrate, Nelson made an announcement: Jentzen would not be leaving the Squad.

After talking to Jentzen and to Tiffany, Nelson had a different take on the situation. From his perspective, which Nelson emphasized in an interview for this story was informed by his experience in corporate management, if there were problems in the Squad pertaining to scheduling and on-set rules, these were just the growing pains of a new business. “The idea that the kids were working their asses off and it was a slave camp are wrong,” Nelson said. “The kids wanted to be there and had to be dragged away.” He felt that Johna and some of the other Squad moms had exaggerated, misconstrued, or even made up allegations against Tiffany because they resented how much their kids needed her and Piper to be successful. The women were being vindictive, to Nelson’s mind, and he saw no reason to be concerned about Jentzen’s well-being.

Besides, staying in the Squad was what Jentzen wanted. Liana supported the decision, too. She was still trying to make it in Hollywood; she had even filmed some videos with the Squad. (Neither Liana nor Jentzen replied to requests for comment.)

Johna was shocked. Over the years, the geographical distance between her and Nelson had left their marriage feeling more like a business arrangement than a love story. But they’d made it work well enough and always presented a united front for their kids. Now, in what felt like an instant, Johna found herself effectively sidelined from her family.

Meanwhile, the Squad knew that Johna had tried to remove Jentzen from the group. That made her persona non grata in what was effectively her son’s workplace. Nelson took over as the principal decision maker about Jentzen’s career, coordinating things from Texas. Liana chaperoned Jentzen on routine Squad shoots, while Nelson joined him for out-of-town content trips whenever possible. When it came to supervising her son, Johna became the adult of last resort.

Caring for his basic needs, though, was still her responsibility—Jentzen continued to live with Johna. Soon, he was spending more and more time out with friends. When he was home, he often stayed in his room. Text messages between Jentzen and Johna about schoolwork, meals, and laundry became short and tense. In many instances, Jentzen didn’t respond at all.

Johna felt trapped. She couldn’t defy her husband and children if she wanted to keep their family intact. Still, when she spoke with Nelson in Texas, which according to Johna wasn’t often, she hoped to convince him to see her side of things. She didn’t want their son to fail, Johna insisted, she just wanted him to be safe. “I kept trying to tell him that Tiffany is going to tear our family apart,” Johna said.

That September, Sophie Fergi became the latest kid to leave the Squad. Sophie and her mom, Heather, had been living with Piper, Tiffany, and Hunter. When the mother and daughter moved out, Tiffany was furious. Reportedly, there was a fight over ownership of some pet cats.

Soon after, Heather got in touch with Johna. According to Johna, Heather suggested that because Sophie had worked closely with Jentzen in their ship, it would be healthy for the kids to have a goodbye conversation, just the two of them. The mothers knew that Tiffany wouldn’t approve—Sophie was no longer welcome near anyone in the Squad, including Jentzen—so they orchestrated what Johna called a “parent trap.” She and Heather agreed to bring their kids to a location at the same time. Johna didn’t tell Jentzen why.

When Jentzen realized that Sophie was there, he refused to get out of the car and called Tiffany and Hunter to ask what he should do. He then asked Johna if she’d conspired with Heather. Fearing further alienation from her son, Johna said no.

Nearly three weeks after the botched meeting, according to court documents, Tiffany and Nelson learned what had happened and painted it as a betrayal. Squad members were told that Johna could not be trusted—she was possessive, greedy, and trying to ruin her son’s career. Johna went from feeling unwelcome around the Squad to being labeled as a threat.

Jentzen kept living with his mom, but their relationship grew even more strained. Johna felt powerless as her son filmed videos like “I had my first kiss on camera,” shot with Elliana Walmsley, a new Squad member. She couldn’t stop Jentzen from using his earnings to buy expensive clothes and gaming consoles. She agonized as his GPA in online school dropped to a 1.0.

Finally, seeing no other choice, Johna filed for divorce and joint custody of Jentzen on March 11, 2021. A month later, she submitted a legal petition for the appointment of a conservator over Jentzen’s estate. She hoped to make it clear that she wasn’t attempting to take Jentzen’s money but to protect him.

When she spoke with Nelson in Texas, which according to Johna wasn’t often, she hoped to convince him to see her side of things. She didn’t want their son to fail, Johna insisted, she just wanted him to be safe.

The first real glimmer of outside concern about the Squad appeared, fittingly, on social media. In August 2021, the pop star Pink tweeted, “How many kids like Piper Rockelle are being exploited by their parents? And at what point do the rest of us say … ‘this isn’t okay for a 13 yr old to be posing in a bikini whilst her MOTHER takes the photo?!?!’ ” Pink appeared to be referring to a carousel of images on Piper’s Instagram account. Shot in a backyard pool, the pictures show Piper wearing a blue tie-dyed string bikini, running her hands through her brown hair; in some shots she purses her lips, while in other she sticks out her tongue suggestively. To date the images have received more than 300,000 likes.

Pink’s tweet was shared widely and picked up by the media, including TMZ and Business Insider. Critics were dismayed by the high heels, crop tops, and hair extensions that Piper and other female Squad members had taken to wearing in videos.Piper drew comparisons to a young Brooke Shields, while Tiffany was presumed—by people who view the Kardashians as a less than ideal business model—to be taking cues from Kris Jenner.

Johna watched as the drama played out. She hoped it might finally bring about some positive change.

Five days after Pink’s tweet appeared, YouTube removed the thumbnail images of three of Piper’s videos, citing violations of its child safety policy. One image, from a video titled “My boyfriend walked in on me,” showed Piper clutching a towel against her seemingly bare body, with her mouth agape and cheeks red, as Lev shields his eyes. The other two photos showed Piper and her friends in bikinis; one was from a Fashion Nova promotional shoot, while the other was from a video titled “Wearing A Hot Outfit Then Leaving Him!” YouTube left the full videos up.

Piper defended Tiffany, telling TMZ that her mother was supportive of her career and that the bikini photos, along with other controversial content, had been her idea. In a Paparazzi Gamer video picked up by OK magazine, Piper claimed that Pink’s characterization of Tiffany was “not true,” but acknowledged that it wasn’t the first time she’d heard concerns about her online exposure. “People say that about me, like, literally 24/7,” she said with a shrug.

The same month Pink’s tweet appeared, Piper turned 14. To celebrate her birthday, the Squad was going to film content at Disneyland and spend the night in a nearby hotel. Neither Nelson nor Liana could go with Jentzen: Nelson was in a Texas ICU with COVID, and Liana was preparing to care for him once he was sent home. Johna felt like she needed to act. She was still Jentzen’s mother, after all, and she didn’t want him spending the night alone with the Squad, and especially with Tiffany.

Johna couldn’t go on the trip with Jentzen—he didn’t want her there, and Tiffany wouldn’t allow it anyway—so Johna offered her son a compromise: She would pick him up at the end of the first day of shooting and either stay with him at a hotel or take him home and drive him back early the next morning. Jentzen wasn’t happy with the arrangement, and when Johna got to Anaheim that evening and texted him about a place to meet, he didn’t reply. Johna tried Tiffany and another mom of a Squad member—nothing. Around 11 p.m., a text arrived from Jentzen’s phone questioning whether Johna had discussed her plan to pick him up with Nelson. “Your father is incapacitated in another state,” Johna replied. That message, and others Johna sent to Jentzen as midnight approached, turned green on her phone, indicating that they weren’t delivered. Johna suspected that he’d blocked her number. 

Johna didn’t see any other option but to file a missing person report with the Anaheim police and return home to await news of her son. The next morning, the police notified her that they’d confirmed Jentzen’s location at a hotel. She could meet them there. According to Johna, the police assured her that she’d done the right thing by filing a report.

When she arrived at the hotel, Tiffany and Hunter were there, and Jentzen was taking selfies and cracking jokes with a few cops. Johna got the sense that she’d already been painted as the problem—a stage mom unable to cope with the fact that she couldn’t dictate the terms of her son’s career. “He makes a lot of money, you know,” Johna remembered one of the officers saying to her. (Johna said she later found texts from the same cop on Jentzen’s cell phone—apparently they’d exchanged numbers.)

Johna was at a loss. She didn’t want to cause a scene. So she let Jentzen go to the second day of filming at Disneyland.

As it happened, Johna had recently received an alert on her iPhone that she was being tracked via AirTag. She found the device attached to her car. After the trip to Anaheim, Johna took the AirTag to an Apple Store for help determining where it had come from. The store confirmed what she already suspected: The AirTag was registered to Jentzen’s phone number. 

Jentzen hoped to distance himself from Johna as much and as soon as possible. The month after the Disneyland trip, a court appointed an attorney to help him navigate his legal options. His parents’ divorce proceedings weren’t likely to end anytime soon; seeking emancipation could be time-consuming and cumbersome. Enter Liana.

On November 29, 2021, Jentzen’s sister submitted a legal petition for temporary guardianship of him. Liana, 23 at the time, claimed that she was already Jentzen’s primary caregiver and that Johna was “seldom home.” She brought up the meeting Johna and Heather had arranged between their kids as an example of Johna creating situations in which Jentzen was “harassed” and “denigrated.” Liana said that her younger brother’s income made him “capable of being self-supporting,” and that Johna’s main motivation for keeping custody of her son was to access Jentzen’s money.

Johna refuted her daughter’s allegations in her own declaration to the court. She provided photos of grocery hauls, folded laundry, COVID tests, and trips with Jentzen to see a doctor in recent months—evidence of her being an attentive mother. She referenced the mature content Jentzen had been making with Piper’s team and shared messages from his online school about the number of missed days and unfinished assignments on Jentzen’s record.

She also presented corroborating statements about the type of mother she was, including one from Christopher Bender, a former talent manager and stunt coordinator who’d worked with Jentzen in the past. Bender said that Johna, whom he referred to as a “single mother,” had safe and healthy interactions with her son. “It was refreshing to be able to find an active mother who was not trying to make the child’s career their own career,” he wrote, “but simply there to further the child.” Johna’s close friend Michelle Tyer described the sacrifices Johna made by moving to Los Angeles for Liana and Jentzen. “If anything, I think the biggest mistake that has happened is that Johna has loved her children so much and has let them take advantage of her,” Tyer wrote. 

Other testimonials offered context about Tiffany and the Squad. Sophie’s mother, Heather, characterized the Squad as “cult like.” She alleged that Tiffany had tried to drive a wedge into her family too, in an effort to keep Sophie in Piper’s inner circle. “Similar to Johna, my daughter’s father was absent,” Heather wrote. “Tiffany reached out to the father that wasn’t involved and tried to bring him in and wanted him to take custody away from me.” 

On December 9, the parties in the guardianship case met with a judge to hear an initial report by William Spiller Jr., the court-appointed counsel representing Jentzen. Spiller acknowledged that he’d had limited time to review the case, and though he’d spoken with Jentzen, Liana, and Nelson, he hadn’t interviewed Johna. He also indicated that he didn’t find the supporting declarations Johna had provided relevant to the case. Spiller emphasized that the recommendation he was making that day was “temporary.” He hoped it would provide Jentzen with “some level of stability and consistency.”

Spiller told the judge that he supported Liana’s request. He characterized Jentzen as a successful “internet and social media trendsetter and personality” whose career was being hindered by Johna’s efforts to remove him from the Squad. He suggested that Johna’s motive in fighting for custody was financial, pointing to J&J Ramirez Productions, the LLC she and Jentzen established, as evidence that she wanted at least some portion of her son’s money. (Johna said Nelson knew about the LLC from the beginning; Nelson said he had no idea it existed until much later.) Spiller did recommend granting Johna’s original request for a conservator over Jentzen’s estate. However, he supported installing someone Jentzen had approved.

Johna’s lawyer pointed out that he and his client had gathered a “plethora” of evidence for their side of the case. But the judge accepted Spiller’s recommendation, awarding Liana temporary guardianship of Jentzen and placing the boy’s preferred conservator in charge of his money.

The day after the hearing, Jentzen posted a video on his YouTube channel in which he and Elliana announced that they were ending their ship, which fans had come to know as “Jelliana.” Wearing a white hoodie with a graphic of a barbed-wire heart and jeans ripped at the knee, Jentzen sits at the end of a bed and says “some things just, like, weren’t working out.” With Elliana at his side, her blown-out blond hair carefully fanned out over a pink cropped jacket, Jentzen explains that he’s dealing with “a lot of problems just, like, within my own family that I don’t really want to get into right now, but I’m sure you guys will find out at some point in my life, so it’s just been hard for me to, like, juggle.” To date, the video has over 2.6 million views.

A permanent-guardianship hearing was scheduled for December 21. The date came and went. The court pushed back the hearing once, then a second time. Eventually, Jentzen moved out of Johna’s house and into an apartment with Liana that Nelson had rented for them. Johna grew more despondent by the day.

Then, in January 2022, a friend shared some surprising news: A lawsuit had been filed against Tiffany and Hunter—a big one.

Johna refuted her daughter’s allegations in her own declaration to the court. She provided photos of grocery hauls, folded laundry, COVID tests, and trips with Jentzen to see a doctor in recent months—evidence of her being an attentive mother.

Matthew Sarelson is the first to admit that he didn’t know what to make of the case when it landed on his desk. Based in Palm Beach, Florida, Sarelson is an attorney who practices business litigation, specializing in corporate dispute resolution and compensation contracts. He loves CrossFit, fine wine, and beach days with his family. His Instagram feed is filled with photos of grilled steaks and proud-dad videos shot from the sideline at youth soccer games. He’d never heard of Piper Rockelle before 11 former Squad members and their parents contacted his firm, which has an office in California. They were seeking legal representation.

The families had compared notes and identified what they saw as patterns of abuse. That included Hunter and Tiffany’s alleged “interference” with the kids’ content once they left the Squad, which the families claimed had caused “a precipitous loss of income.” Then, too, there were incidents that the parents believed raised serious concerns about the safety and well-being of any kid who was still in the Squad, including Piper.

Several former Squad members said that, during the 2020 trip to Las Vegas, Tiffany had provided them with hemp brownies while they were separated from their parents in the RV. They said that on more than one occasion Tiffany “engaged in the use of recreational drugs” around them and encouraged them to do the same. Corinne, Piper’s old friend from Georgia, who had left the Squad in May 2019, told her mother and later Sarelson that Tiffany once took her to the post office to mail Piper’s worn training bras and panties to a fan. Corinne remembered Tiffany saying, “Old men like to smell this stuff.” Sophie, who had appeared in 186 videos with Piper, described seeing Tiffany grab Piper’s face and kiss her on the mouth to teach her how to make out on camera. Sophie also claimed that Tiffany once called her “flat,” referring to her chest, and wondered aloud to her whether a male member of the Squad had “a bunch of freckles on his dick.”

Several kids described Tiffany talking about sex with them. Reese, the daughter of Tiffany’s sister Ashley, filmed a few videos with Piper in 2020 and 2021. Reese, who was about ten at the time, recalled her aunt asking her if she’d “ever had sex before” and telling her that she “should.” Numerous ex–Squad members described Tiffany touching them inappropriately: slapping their butt, poking at their anus through their clothing, and rubbing their thigh. The kids said Tiffany sometimes assumed alter egos, including one she called “Lenny,” the same name Gavin Magnus mentioned in the unfiled legal documents his family prepared against Tiffany. According to former Squad members, while acting as Lenny, Tiffany would chase kids around her home yelling threatening phrases, including “I’m going to touch you in your sleep.” Reese described being “ambushed” by Tiffany and “tossed” onto a bed, where Tiffany proceeded to rub her right arm “all over Reese’s face” while pretending it was “Lenny’s penis.”

Sarelson was horrified by what he heard. “I found the kids to be very, very credible,” he said. He thought about his own young children, who had begun asking for iPhones and Instagram accounts, and wanted to learn TikTok dances and buy merch from online influencers. Sarelson agreed to take the case.

On January 12, 2022, two days after Piper posted a tearful video telling fans she had COVID for the second time, Sarelson filed a complaint on the 11 plaintiffs’ behalf. It lists ten charges against Tiffany, Hunter, and Piper Rockelle Inc., including unjust enrichment, civil conspiracy, sexual battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In a broad sense the suit suggests that, in the world of online content creation, there may be alarming gaps in compliance with California’s legal protections for child entertainers. “These violations would never happen on the set of a regular movie production,” Sarelson said.

While the case made headlines, the Squad proceeded with business as usual. On January 14, Piper posted a sprawling video in which she informs fans that her pet bird, Pablo, has died, pranks her friends by telling them she still has COVID after testing negative, and listens to Tiffany talk on the phone with a doctor about the likelihood of getting pregnant with a second child. Next up: a video in which Piper sets Jentzen up on a date. The Squad and their parents didn’t comment publicly on the lawsuit.

Still, Tiffany and Hunter didn’t go undefended. When the YouTube channel of the Dad Challenge Podcast, which promotes the hashtag #KidsArentContent, hosted a livestream to read the legal complaint in its entirety, messages from Theresa Magnus’s YouTube account appeared in the chat. “Your not getting the story,” one of them read. The stream’s host replied, “Are you telling me then that Tiffany is innocent?” Theresa’s account said “yes.” Toward the end of the stream, either Piper or someone using her YouTube account entered the chat, too. “You don’t know what you’re even talking about,” the user wrote.

Much like Pink’s tweet a few months prior, the lawsuit was followed by YouTube taking action. On February 10, Piper’s channel was demonetized, meaning that it would no longer include ads. In April, Piper began promoting herself on Brand Army, a subscription-based platform where she didn’t have to rely on advertising to make money. She also launched an app designed to help social media influencers monetize their content. Called Rares, Piper’s app lets other content creators sell exclusive photos and videos; fans are teased with blurred edits of content and charged for full access.

According to the Los Angeles Times, as Piper’s team pivoted her business model, California’s Department of Industrial Relations launched an investigation into the Squad’s working conditions. A spokesperson for the department contacted for this story stated that, for confidentiality reasons, he could not confirm the existence of an investigation.

In July, Tiffany countersued the former Squad members, invoking the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—better known as RICO. She alleged that the kids’ parents had conspired to damage her reputation and Piper’s business with “false allegations of sexual abuse.” She claimed that YouTube demonetization had cost Piper between $300,000 and $500,00 in monthly advertising revenue and between $50,000 and $125,000 in brand deals. The plaintiffs’ parents denied wrongdoing. Tiffany dropped the suit in October.

As of this writing, the ex–Squad members’ case is scheduled to go to a jury trial in April. The following month, Johna hopes to finally resolve the status of her relationship with Jentzen—the legal status, anyway.

The suit suggests that, in the world of online content creation, there may be alarming gaps in compliance with California’s legal protections for child entertainers. “These violations would never happen on the set of a regular movie production,” Sarelson said.

When Johna first read the former Squad members’ complaint, she had mixed feelings. “I was both validated and dismayed,” she said. “On the one hand, there were others now making the same shocking allegations I had long suspected. But I also felt dismayed when I compared it to how LA county is looking at my situation.” Johna sent the complaint to Spiller, who remained on Jentzen’s case as the family awaited a permanent court order. She hoped it would help him see things from her perspective.

In a report filed in March 2022, Spiller argued that the lawsuit wasn’t relevant to Jentzen’s case. “Apparently, Johna believes that the lawsuit supercedes [sic] in importance the Guardianship proceedings,” he asserted. “But [I] cannot make the connection between the two.” Spiller described Johna’s effort to bring the lawsuit to bear on the situation with Jentzen as a “red herring,” emphasizing that in his estimation the Ramirezes’ disagreement is over Jentzen’s finances, not who he works with. “I attempted to explain to her that lawsuits are not only common but contain only allegations until proven,” Spiller wrote.

For his part, Nelson Ramirez believes that the allegations in the lawsuit are baseless. “Tiffany is not an angel, but what they are saying is not true,” he said. Nelson noted that a lot of Squad parents have been “vulgar at times…. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s like, oh, that should not  have been said. But that’s all it is.”

The Ramirezes are due for a court-mandated mediation session in May, two months shy of Jentzen’s 17th birthday. Depending on the outcome, the question of his permanent guardianship may go to trial. According to Johna, Jentzen rarely answers her calls or texts. She doesn’t hear from either of her kids on holidays, and she’s no longer included in family events, like Liana’s engagement last summer. When she was able to sit down with Liana after the celebration, she found her daughter to be “very upset.” According to Johna, Liana said that Nelson told her the family’s legal issues were draining money he’d planned to use for her wedding.

Jentzen now has more than five million followers across YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. His profile on the latter references Philippians 4:13, a Bible verse that reads, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” In mid-January, he posted a prank video he shot with his sister, in which he pretends to set Liana’s wedding dress on fire. He and Elliana Walmsley are once again filming content together, and he went on a tour of the UK and Ireland with the Squad last year. But recently Jentzen hasn’t been shooting with Piper’s crew.

The last time Johna saw Jentzen was on August 30—it was one of only a handful of in-person encounters the mother and son had in 2022. Johna said that Jentzen asked her to drop her objection to Liana’s guardianship petition and her claim to partial earnings from their LLC. “Maybe then we can be friends,” she remembered Jentzen telling her.

Johna has read a lot about parental alienation. She imagines Jentzen turning 18 and never speaking to her again. She wonders what it will take to prevent that. She isn’t sure it’s in her hands anymore. Maybe hitting pause on his work with the Squad, as Jentzen seems to be doing, will help him see his career differently, see her differently. Maybe then Johna will be able to stop fighting.

*The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Clementine Spieser’s name.

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

The Curious Case of Nebraska Man

The Curious Case of Nebraska Man

A fossil tooth, a splashy debate, and a strange chapter in America’s long history of science denialism.

By Madeline Bodin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 134

Madeline Bodin is a science and environmental journalist in Vermont. She has written for publications including Hakai, High Country News, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics.

Editors: Seyward Darby and Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Julia Shipley
Illustrator: Lan Truong

Published in December 2022.


The rancher plucked the tiny tooth out of the sand of a dry creek bed. Around him was a grassy plain studded with low, flat hills. The small, dark object in his hand was worn down by use in life and by the water it had encountered over millennia. The tooth had long since petrified into stone.

Harold J. Cook had uncovered fossils in western Nebraska for much of his life. As a teenager in 1904, he led a paleontologist from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum to a trove of early-mammal bones. The fossils practically tumbled from a hillside on his family’s ranch, known as Agate Springs. Among the bones were remnants of Dinohyus, an animal resembling a pig that stood as high as eight feet at the shoulder, and the still mysterious Moropus, a horse-like creature that dug in the earth with hooves that resembled claws.

The news that the Cooks’ land was bursting with the bones of ancient mammals set off a polite war among the leading natural history museums, which hoped to gain exclusive access to the fossil beds. Harold’s father, however, wanted the institutions to work together to wring all possible scientific knowledge from what would be known as the Agate Fossil Beds. He never profited from the treasure on his land. His family’s contributions to paleontology were celebrated in other ways: One scientist named an extinct rhinoceros in his honor, and an antelope with two of its four horns on its nose after young Harold.

Another scientist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, lured Harold Cook to New York City to work at the American Museum of Natural History and to study with him at Columbia University. Cook returned home after a year to help run the ranch when his mother became ill. That meant he both knew the land and knew fossils, making him a valuable hire for any paleontology expedition in the region.

In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, Cook assisted paleontologists from the Denver Museum and the American Museum in digs at fossil beds along Snake Creek, some 20 miles south of his family’s ranch. Whether he picked up the tooth while scouting for those excavations, during one of them, or sometime after, he never said. Broken bits of fossil, turned blue-black by iron phosphate, were common in the region, and had little scientific value compared with the bones of entire herds of pony-size rhinoceroses or the corkscrew-shaped dens of prehistoric beavers. But Cook believed he had found something truly special. Based on his knowledge of fossils, he suspected that the tooth belonged to a primate, and not a mere monkey—an ape perhaps. An even more tantalizing prospect was that the tooth belonged to an early human.

If Cook was right it would be a heady find, as scientists had yet to identify either variety of fossil in America. Meanwhile, paleontologists around the world were eager for evidence of so-called missing links—transitional fossils that could help prove that humans evolved from apes. Men who claimed to have found missing links often became famous.

Cook was correct about one thing: The tooth was important. But it would become part of history in a way he never imagined.


Four years later, in October 1921, William Jennings Bryan stood behind an ornate wooden pulpit in the auditorium of the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. The room’s delicate stained-glass windows glowed in the fading autumn light. Bryan had strong opinions about fossils and their potential to destroy the worldview that he and others in the room held dear.

The dozens of students and faculty who packed the auditorium, which also served as the seminary’s church, had every reason to expect that Bryan’s lecture would be an experience they would talk about for the rest of their lives. Bryan, then 61, was a national sensation at the age of 36, when as a Nebraska congressman his electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention swept him into position as the party’s candidate for president. He went on to receive two additional Democratic nominations, granting him the dubious honor of being among only a handful of U.S. presidential candidates to receive electoral votes in three elections without prevailing in any of them.

Bryan, a lawyer by training, supported a woman’s right to vote, an eight-hour workday, a progressive income tax, the regulation of banks and the stock market, and the prohibition of alcohol. He despised the way unchecked industrial capitalism ground down working people, sometimes robbing them of their savings in bank failures and stock market swindles. He reserved special disdain for the financier John Pierpont Morgan. That Bryan himself lived a lavish lifestyle didn’t seem to mar his reputation: His plainspoken appeals to the average citizen earned him the nickname the Great Commoner. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan secretary of state, but Bryan’s pacifism led him to resign the post two years later, when Wilson’s response to the sinking of the Lusitania signaled America’s march toward war in Europe.

Once out of office, Bryan didn’t recede from public life. He kept doing what he did best: give speeches. Public lectures were popular middle-class entertainment in the years before radio and movies were commonplace. Prior to his appointment as secretary of state, Bryan sometimes gave two of them per day on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits, sleeping in his train seat between engagements and using his coat for a pillow. Now he traveled from coast to coast to speak.

A devout Christian—among his first aspirations as a boy was to become a Baptist preacher—Bryan also wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column about the Bible and taught Sunday school classes to thousands of people in a public park in Florida, where he and his wife had moved for her health. He became such a popular religious figure that he was asked to give a week of lectures at the Union Theological Seminary, an honor typically reserved for the nation’s leading ministers. Bryan focused his talks on a topic outside his usual purview: science.

Bryan’s words, which still echo across America a century later, were some of the first shots fired in a new battle over evolution, pitting science against faith.

It was not a subject he had any special interest in prior to World War I, but during that conflict, Bryan told his listeners, European had slaughtered European without a thought that they were all children of God. He attributed that blind savagery to what in the end was his own flawed interpretation of Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution, which Darwin had introduced to the world some 50 years earlier. Bryan argued that Darwin’s painting of humans as the descendants of apes was a demotion in ontological priority that provided tacit permission for the deaths of millions. Bryan quoted liberally from The Science of Power, a book by Benjamin Kidd that linked Darwin to the “selfish” and “godless” philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. “Darwin’s doctrine leads logically to war,” Bryan declared.

War wasn’t the only thing Bryan blamed on the theory of evolution. He was also disturbed by reports, mostly from parents, that students were losing their religious faith by studying Darwin’s ideas, as well as geology, in college. “If it is contended that an instructor has a right to teach anything he likes, I reply that the parents who pay the salary have a right to decide what shall be taught,” Bryan said.

Bryan’s words, which still echo across America a century later, were some of the first shots fired in a new battle over evolution, pitting science against faith. Bryan further promoted his cause by printing hundreds of copies of a pamphlet containing one of his Richmond lectures. He sent it to editors and friends and in response to fan letters. A year later, the Union Theological Seminary published Bryan’s speeches in a book titled In His Image.

While Bryan was promoting the book, The New York Times invited him to contribute to its pages. Though he loathed big cities and East Coast elites—basically everything the Times seemed to represent—he accepted the offer. Bryan often drafted his public writings in a large scrawl, using either a soft pencil or a thick-nibbed pen. It was up to his secretary, a Mr. W. E. Thompson, to corral the wild stampede of letters into neat, typewritten lines.

Bryan’s New York Times editorial condemning Darwinism, which cribbed generously from his Richmond lectures, was published in the February 26, 1922, paper, a Sunday edition. Despite there being “millions of species,” Bryan declared, scientists “have not been able to find one single instance in which one species has changed into another, although according to the hypothesis, all species have developed from one or a few germs of life.”

Newspapers across the country reprinted the piece or ran glowing commentaries about it. If Bryan hoped to be God’s PR flack, he earned his full commission with that editorial alone.

However, one sentence from it would soon come to vex Bryan. Not only was Darwin’s theory an insult to God, Bryan had noted wryly, but it was also unpatriotic. Darwin “has us descend from European, rather than American, apes,” he wrote. An eminent scientist would soon seize the opportunity to turn Bryan’s quip into a taunt.


By the gray light of a March day in 1922, Henry Fairfield Osborn took a close look at the fossil that had just arrived from Harold Cook. Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, was perched on the window ledge in his top-floor office. He saw that the fossil was dark in color and small enough to fit in a pillbox. It had a crown and roots—undoubtedly, it was a tooth.

Osborn had taken a liking to Cook from the moment they met in Nebraska many years prior. “Harold Cook is one of the most attractive young men I have ever met,” Osborn wrote in a letter to his wife. “He knows all the fossils … is an ideal young ranchman, a good geologist—refined and charming.” Cook went on to coauthor a scientific paper with William D. Matthew, one of Osborn’s lieutenants at the museum, after finding dozens of fossils belonging to ancient rhinoceroses, rodents, and peccaries in the same fossil beds where Cook found the tooth that Osborn now held in his hand.

Two weeks before the tooth itself arrived in New York, Osborn had received a note from Cook. “I have had here, for some little time, a molar tooth from the Upper, or Hipparion phase of the Snake Creek beds, that very closely approaches the human type,” it read. Cook wanted Osborn to examine the fossil and give his expert opinion. Osborn would do more than that: The tooth was exactly what he needed in his fight against William Jennings Bryan.

While The New York Times was preparing Bryan’s article for publication, it had asked Osborn to write a rebuttal. Osborn had the swagger required to answer a former secretary of state who happened to be one of the most famous men in America. He had been museum president for 14 years and was a distinguished Columbia professor. At the age of 64, his days of digging in the earth were long over. He visited archaeological sites around the world to drum up publicity, not to get his hands dirty; with his well-tailored suits and push-broom mustache, Osborn did not object to having his picture taken.

Osborn had expanded his museum’s collections, facilities, and prominence in city life with his fundraising. His connections to wealth ran deep: He grew up in New York’s high society, with a railroad tycoon for a father and a mother who came from old New England stock. John Pierpont Morgan, a target of Bryan’s blistering political attacks, was his uncle; Theodore Roosevelt was a childhood friend. As a young man, Osborn traveled to Britain to study with the biologist and anthropologist Thomas H. Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his fierce defense of evolutionary theory. Osborn even met the great man himself when Huxley gave an aging Darwin a tour of his lab, where Osborn at the time was dissecting a lobster brain.

Like Bryan, Osborn was a Presbyterian and a pious churchgoer; also like Bryan, he read the Bible regularly. But while Bryan worried that science was eroding faith, Osborn believed the two went hand in hand.

Osborn’s steadfast faith in God, and in what he believed was life’s innate yearning for higher forms, put him at odds with the growing number of scientists who accepted that human origins were messy. He couldn’t abide natural selection and what Darwin called “chance variation” as the mechanisms of evolution. To Osborn, evolution proceeded in a straight line and toward a definite goal.

In his written response to his adversary, Osborn strove to speak the language of a believer. He mentioned St. Augustine. He quoted from the Book of Job: “We find the guiding precept of the naturalist, ‘Speak to the earth and it will teach thee.’ ” He insisted that there was no conflict between science and religion, no clash between morals and empirical facts. “Evolution by no means takes God out of the universe, as Mr. Bryan supposes,” he wrote, “but it greatly increases both the wonder, the mystery, and the marvelous order which we call ‘Natural Law.’ ” Osborn saw evolution as God’s means of creating living things. He wanted Bryan and his followers to see it that way, too.

Osborn delivered his rebuttal to the Times’ offices personally. It was published on March 5, in another Sunday edition. Bryan soon launched an additional volley in this war of words, this time via the New York Herald. “Papers full of evolution of man and religion,” Osborn wrote in his datebook.

He wondered if he should retire to the Hudson Valley mansion left to him by his father to write a book countering Bryan’s campaign. Perhaps a fellow Princeton alum could help him. “Write to Charles Scribner,” Osborn’s datebook reads. He would meet Charles and his brother Arthur for lunch a few days after jotting down this note. The argument with Bryan was one that Osborn wanted to win, presumably one he felt he needed to win—for his own pride, for his museum, and for science.

The timing of the tooth’s arrival was almost providential, as if God himself were responsible. The fossil, which Osborn guessed to be a few million years old, might influence scientists’ ongoing search for humanity’s ancestors. More important for his purposes, it would almost certainly embarrass his rival. Perhaps, contrary to Bryan’s quip in the Times, there was an American ape after all.

“Tooth just arrived safely. Looks very promising. Will report immediately,” Osborn telegraphed Cook on March 14. Later that day, he followed up with a jubilant letter. “The instant your package arrived, I sat down with the tooth, in my window, and I said to myself: ‘It looks one hundred per cent anthropoid,’ ” Osborn wrote. “I then took the tooth into Doctor Matthew’s room and we have been comparing it with all the books, all the casts and all the drawings, with the conclusion that it is the last right upper molar tooth of some higher Primate.”

Osborn was known as a snobbish sophisticate, but in his letter to Cook he gushed with excitement. “We may cool down tomorrow,” he wrote, “but it looks to me as if the first anthropoid ape of America had been found by the one man entitled to find it, namely, Harold J. Cook!”

After dispatching the letter, Osborn set in motion a publicity machine that is hard to imagine working so swiftly in today’s scientific communities, with their safeguards like peer review. It helped that Osborn controlled one of the cogs. On April 25, the museum’s own scientific journal, American Museum Novitates, published a paper by Osborn announcing “the first anthropoid primate found in America.” Osborn named the newly discovered species Hesperopithecus haroldcookii.

The same day, Osborn used his influence to obtain a last-minute speaking slot—just five minutes, he promised—at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. He stood beneath an arched proscenium and addressed the most esteemed men in his field. “A single small water-worn tooth, 10.5 millimeters by 11 millimeters in crown diameter, signalizes the arrival of a member of the family of anthropoid primates in North America,” Osborn began, with the signature mix of exactitude and significance that characterizes so many scientific presentations. Near the end of his talk, around the four-and-a-half-minute mark, Osborn’s tone shifted. “It has been suggested humorously,” he said, “that the animal should be named Bryopithecus, after the most distinguished primate which the state of Nebraska has thus far produced.”

Osborn was of course referring to Bryan, and taking aim at his New York Times article. “It is certainly singular that this discovery is announced within six weeks of the day,” Osborn continued, “that the author advised William Jennings Bryan to consult a certain passage in the Book of Job, ‘Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee,’ and it is a remarkable coincidence that the first earth to speak on this subject is the sandy earth of the Middle Pliocene Snake Creek deposits of western Nebraska.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that, at the event, jokes about Bryan were “bandied about by octogenarian members of humorous proclivities.” Soon the New York Times published a feature, complete with jibes, about the former congressman’s feud with Osborn. Later the paper issued a pointed editorial on the matter. Titled “The Tooth of Time,” the editorial invoked Shakespeare to suggest that the fossil from Nebraska had appeared at the worst possible moment for Bryan. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth it must seem to Mr. Bryan,” the editorial read.

Meanwhile, Osborn had casts of the tooth made and sent them to paleontologists around the world. If he was expecting agreement on the fossil’s significance, however, he didn’t get it. Arthur Smith Woodward, a curator at the British Museum of Natural History, needed just three paragraphs in the prestigious journal Nature to assert, gently, that the tooth was more likely to belong to a species of ancient bear known to exist in North America than to a primate. After all, no ape living or extinct was known to be native to the continent. Grafton Elliot Smith, another paleontologist in Britain, gave the early-20th-century version of a hot take: He declared the tooth to be one of a human ancestor and took the opportunity to restate, for a popular audience, his own racist notions of human evolution, which he saw as culminating in a superior northern European race. Smith’s take received splashy coverage in the Illustrated London News.

Osborn disagreed with both men’s assessments of the tooth, writing that Woodward had “shown too great incredulity” and Smith “too great optimism.” He also took issue with an unrealistic two-page illustration of “the ape-man of the Western world” that accompanied Smith’s article. In the image, drawn by Amédée Forestier, an artist who specialized in historical illustrations, two hunched, ape-like people stand on the bank of a river. Behind them are horses and camels, representing other fossils found near the tooth, and the low buttes of western Nebraska. One of the figures, a man, drags a wooden club. Though based on Forestier’s “fancy,” as Smith put it, rather than actual science, the illustration would inform the public’s conception of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii.

Osborn organized a team of researchers, including his junior colleague William K. Gregory, to study the tooth more closely. They published their findings in January 1923, along with photos, measurements, and a comparison of the tooth with one belonging to Java Man, the moniker given to what at the time was believed to be the earliest hominin fossil ever discovered. (Found in the Dutch East Indies—now Indonesia—in the early 1890s, Java Man would be formally designated a member of the species Homo erectus in 1950.) Osborn’s team concluded that the tooth belonged to a higher primate of some kind “hitherto unknown.”

Osborn was sure that the tooth would be a lasting contribution to science, crowning his illustrious career. He was a recognized expert in the study of ancient horses, elephants, and the rhino-like titanothere, and his prowess in promoting science to the public was unmatched. The tooth would distinguish him further, securing his place in the ranks of great men who studied human origins, a field maturing into what we now know as paleoanthropology.

But Osborn’s aspirations would be overtaken by events. Soon, evolution itself would be on trial.


Bryan never wavered in his quest to squelch evolutionary theory. He was a staunch advocate for laws banning schools from teaching it, but success came in half measures. Oklahoma prohibited evolution from being mentioned in textbooks, but not the teaching of it; Florida declared instruction of the theory “improper and subversive,” but passed no law against it.

Only in March 1925 did Bryan finally secure a victory, when Tennessee outlawed the teaching of “any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Mississippi followed in 1926, as did Arkansas in 1928. In the meantime, the Tennessee law became the subject of a legal case orchestrated to be a public showdown.

The case is one of the most famous in history: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it was seeking teachers willing to challenge the new law in order to bring the question of its constitutionality before the courts. John Thomas Scopes, a 24-year-old teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, volunteered to be the defendant, incriminating himself by stating that he had taught the theory of evolution to high school students. Attorneys for the town agreed to prosecute him for violating state law in the hope of bringing publicity to a community that had seen better days. Scopes was indicted in May 1925.

A clock started ticking for Osborn. If he wanted to maximize sales of his book defending evolution, the one he had proposed to Charles Scribner three years prior, he needed to publish it before the beginning of a trial that was sure to be a national spectacle. He hurriedly finished writing—his 1922 Times article criticizing Bryan made up an entire chapter—and included a foreword that placed the book in the context of the legal dispute. He dedicated the book to Scopes himself, quoting from the Bible: “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Scribner rushed the text into print, with the title The Earth Speaks to Bryan.

As the trial approached and press coverage grew to a roar, reporters and editorials quoted liberally from Osborn’s book, favoring a sentence declaring that Bryan, not Scopes, was the man really on trial in Tennessee. Osborn’s chief asset in his argument against Bryan was the Hesperopithecus haroldcookii tooth, which he described as the “still small voice” of God that spoke to Elijah in the Book of Kings. In response, Bryan, who had secured a position on the team prosecuting Scopes, penned an article criticizing Osborn for believing “that a tooth in his hand is an irresistible weapon.” Bryan continued: “The Professor’s logic leaks at every link, but it is no worse than that of his boon companions who, having rejected the authority of the word of God, are like frightened men in the dark, feeling around for something they can lean upon.”

Osborn was expected to be one of the defense’s expert witnesses in Dayton. Prior to the trial, Scopes had traveled to Manhattan to visit his ACLU sponsors, and Osborn met with him to offer advice. He provided names of people he thought would be good witnesses and told Scopes to beware of support from leftist radicals; Osborn suspected it would hurt the case. But Osborn was too late. Clarence Darrow, a well-known defender of union leaders and anarchists, had already joined Scopes’s legal team.

The day of his encounter with Scopes, Osborn declined to testify at the trial. “Mr. Scopes was a little disappointed with the meeting,” the Chattanooga Times reported. Osborn said his decision was based on the fact that his wife was ill, but there may have been other reasons, including his distaste of Darrow. Still, Osborn agreed to show members of Scopes’s legal team around his museum’s Hall of the Age of Man, which featured reconstructed busts of prehistoric humans, murals depicting how they may have lived, and of course fossils. Osborn wanted the attorneys to see evidence of evolution for themselves before mounting their defense.

The organization of the hall reflected Osborn’s views on human evolution, including the idea that the races were different species, with the white race the most advanced. Like many prominent scientists of his day, Osborn was a eugenicist. He had persuaded Scribner to publish his friend Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, an important rallying point for the eugenics movement, and even wrote the preface. (A few decades later, Adolf Hitler would call the book “my Bible.”) In 1918, Osborn helped found the Galton Society, a group of American scientists who supported selective breeding. In 1921, he hosted the Second Congress of Eugenics, where speakers discussed whether sterilization would protect desirable heredity—or, as Osborn believed, whether segregation would do the job.

How we love the stereotype of the haughty scientist, so sure that his knowledge makes him superior to most, if not all. But Osborn was not that man. It was not his erudition, nor his father’s money or his family’s place in society, that he believed made him better—it was his genetic material.

Osborn might have been content to spend the summer of 1925 promoting his ideas about evolution, inscribing copies of his book, and commenting on the Scopes trial from afar. But in mid-June, he received a dispatch from Nebraska. An Austrian paleontologist named Othenio Abel had discovered another tooth in the Snake Creek beds, and it was in much better condition than the one Harold Cook found. Albert “Bill” Thomson, a fossil collector in western Nebraska who worked for Osborn, was with Abel when he unearthed it. Thomson immediately wrote to Osborn informing him of the discovery.

Osborn wrote back to Thomson, marking the envelope “confidential.” The rancher who owned the land where the tooth was found was requesting $400 for the right to dig further, but Osborn thought it could be had for $150, as long as the rancher didn’t know how important the tooth was. “In the meantime,” Osborn wrote, “guard the tooth as if it were the Koh-I-Noor diamond, because I consider it priceless.”

Osborn sent his best fossil hunter to the scene. The man’s name was Barnum Brown. Some twenty years prior, Brown had scratched from the dry earth of Montana the bones of a large, carnivorous dinosaur that in a scientific paper Osborn had named Tyrannosaurus rex. Now Brown arrived in Nebraska with a chimpanzee skull, which Osborn had sent along so the team could compare the new tooth, and anything else they turned up, with a higher primate’s features.

As it happened, the rancher wouldn’t budge from his offer. With only $250, which Osborn had provided to cover expenses, Brown and Thomson resorted to sneaking around the site. In short order, they found another tooth and a jaw.

As the attorneys presented their opening statements at the Scopes trial in Tennessee, Osborn finalized plans to travel, but not to Dayton. Instead he would visit Nebraska, perhaps to convince himself that the new finds were everything he hoped they were. On the day the Scopes judge ruled against allowing the jury to hear scientific testimony, since in his view the only question at hand was whether Scopes had violated the law—a major blow to the defense’s dreams of making the case for evolution—Osborn boarded a train and headed west.

Osborn relished being back in the field. He enjoyed a camp breakfast surrounded by Nebraska’s low, flat hills. He was glad to see Cook again. In his datebook, he noted where in the timeline of early-mammal fossils his team’s new finds might belong.

But the biggest discovery would happen after Osborn returned to New York. A single day of screening gravel in dry washes at a new digging site revealed a dozen more teeth that could have belonged to primates, along with three bone fragments that everyone on hand interpreted as either human-made tools or evidence of their use. One looked like an awl with a hole in it, another was shaped like a “trowel or paddle,” and a third bore hack marks. “We discovered yesterday evidence of early man,” Bill Thomson wrote to his boss.

Osborn was “tickled to death and thinks this is the greatest find of the season,” Barnum Brown wrote in a letter of his own. Not least this was because Osborn was hopeful that the bones would mean defeat for his nemesis. Bryan could mock one tooth, but how could he deny a growing body of evidence that ancient primates, and possibly human ancestors, had inhabited his home state?

In Dayton, despite a fellow prosecutor’s protest, Bryan had agreed to answer questions on the stand. His testimony set the stage for the trial’s most dramatic day; the judge had to move the proceedings outside because of the number of spectators who showed up. Darrow peppered Bryan with questions about the Bible. Did he believe, as was implied in the story of Joshua, that the sun revolved around the Earth? He did not. Did he believe that Eve was literally made from Adam’s rib? He did. Darrow asked Bryan if he believed that the Earth was only some thousands of years old, where Cain’s wife came from, and if the first rainbow appeared following the flood that had necessitated Noah building his ark.

Finally, Bryan jumped to his feet and accused Darrow of slandering the Bible. “I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes,” Darrow replied.

The next day, the jury spent only a few minutes finding Scopes guilty, after Darrow had asked them to do just that. The trial had always been for show, and since the judge wouldn’t allow scientific testimony, Darrow wanted to hustle ahead to an appeal, seeing it as a second chance to bring evidence of evolution to a national audience by way of press coverage. (The ruling was overturned on a technicality, however, so the defense never got quite the case it wanted. The Tennessee law would remain on the books until 1967.)

Scopes was fined $100, which the ACLU intended to pay. Bryan also offered to cover the amount—a token of appreciation, presumably, for helping to bring the debate that was his life’s work to such prominence.

Osborn never got the chance to find out how Bryan would react to the new fossils from Nebraska. According to his biographer, Lawrence W. Levine, immediately after the trial Bryan seemed happy enough. He spent the next few days writing, traveling, and lecturing. Then, on the afternoon of the Sunday following the verdict, he laid down for a nap after dinner in Dayton and never woke up.

Bryan’s body was sent to Washington, D.C., by train. According to Edward J. Larson in his book about the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods, admirers lined the tracks. Bryan was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. “What really moved him was a lust for revenge,” journalist H. L. Mencken wrote after Bryan’s death. “The men of the cities had destroyed him … now he would lead the yokels against them.”

An enduring effect of the Scopes trial was to help cement cultural stereotypes and deepen divisions like the ones Mencken described. In the years and decades that followed, the battle over evolution would continue to ebb and flow. And while Osborn’s primary foe was dead, his position on the front lines would soon shift.


The intellectual empires of paleoanthropologists rise and fall based on fragments of rock and bone. So do their reputations. Osborn undoubtedly knew this, which might explain why he didn’t carpet the press or the scientific world with announcements about the 1925 finds in Nebraska like he had after Harold Cook’s discovery of the tooth.

Some of his colleagues expressed doubt soon after the new fossils appeared. Back in New York that August, Barnum Brown sent a letter to Bill Thomson. “In looking over the teeth,” he wrote, “I am still very doubtful as to whether they are ‘primate.’ ” Determining the truth would require locating a specimen attached to a larger fossil that could be more easily identified. “I think the question will not be settled until you find a jaw containing one or more of these questionable teeth,” Brown wrote. “So good luck to you.”

No conclusive judgment would be made for a few years. In the meantime, Osborn kept pushing his ideas about evolution. On at least one occasion he referenced the recent discoveries in Nebraska: In April 1927, at the bicentennial conference of the American Philosophical Society, he cited the tool-like bone fragments as “ancient evidence of man.”

The bulk of what he said at the meeting, however, meant that afterward nobody was talking about the tools. “I regard the ape-human theory as totally false and misleading,” Osborn told those assembled. In its account of the lecture, a newspaper in South Carolina wrote, “ ‘Fundamentalists’ may derive cheer, perhaps, from the recent statement from Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, who takes issue with the ‘monkey theory’ of evolution.”

Osborn, of course, wasn’t a creationist, nor did his comments before the American Philosophical Society represent an about-face. Rather, he was laying out a theory he had been working toward for years. Osborn argued that modern apes and humans had evolved independently through distinct lines of ancestors, each having sprung from “neutral stock” millions of years ago. “We should now resolutely set our faces toward the discovery of our actual pro-human ancestors,” he said. Osborn believed those ancestors would be found in Asia.

Three weeks later, Osborn again presented his theory, this time closer to home, at the Medical Society of Kings County, in Brooklyn. Spectators filled every seat and spilled out the door, according to the Brooklyn Times Union. A neurologist joined Osborn to talk about the evolution of the human brain. The third speaker was William K. Gregory, Osborn’s deputy at the museum and one of the coauthors of the 1923 paper on Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. Gregory vehemently disagreed with Osborn’s ideas about human evolution, and it was he who grabbed the Times Union’s headline: “Suffer from Pithecophobia? Many Do, Says Dr. Gregory.” Pithecophobia, the paper explained, is “the dread of apes, or at least the dread of them as our ancestors or relatives.”

Gregory wasn’t done challenging Osborn. In December 1927, he published a retraction in the journal Science distancing himself from the previous findings about Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. The man Osborn once described as having “an eagle eye on Primate teeth” now argued that the tooth plucked from obscurity by Harold Cook did not come from a primate at all—it belonged to a kind of peccary. (Similar to boars, peccaries are native to North and South America; the javelina of the desert Southwest is a species of peccary.) “This much may be said: Nearly every conspicuous character of the type can be matched in one or another of the Prosthennops teeth,” Gregory wrote, referring to an extinct genus. In short, he claimed, Hesperopithecus haroldcookii had never existed.

Ironically, the whole affair was more or less anticipated in 1909, when on a dig in Nebraska, Cook and William D. Matthew wrote that some fossilized peccary teeth showed a “startling resemblance” to those of primates, “and might well be mistaken for them by anyone not familiar.” Cook himself was the person who would misidentify the first Nebraska tooth, setting in motion an unfortunate chain of errors. But in retrospect, he could be forgiven for the lapse, as could the men who subsequently examined the tooth. Scientists John Wolf and James Mellett wrote in a 1985 paper that it had wear patterns more typically seen on primate teeth than on those of peccaries. The most reasonable explanation, they wrote, is that “the tooth … was rotated in the jaw in life, and that its odd position produced the primate-like wear pattern.” It is rare for a tooth to twist in the jaw like that, but not unheard of—similar mammal fossils have been found. (As for the bone fragments, they weren’t tools at all. Wolf and Mellett noted that they had likely been “crushed and split” into their unusual shapes by hyena-like dogs.)

The New York Times covered Gregory’s retraction of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii with a front-page article and an editorial. “On the whole, it was a bad day for science,” the paper said. But science triumphs when mistakes are corrected. As the Times also pointed out, “Osborn and his colleagues can snatch consolation from the extinct jaws of the toothsome wild peccary. For science, as this incident shows, demands proofs even from its most exalted.”

Osborn appeared to take his disappointment like a gentleman, quietly accepting Gregory’s explanation of the tooth’s provenance. It may have helped that, except for the Times’ article and editorial, there was little coverage of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii’s abrupt erasure from the scientific record. In no small part this was because there seemed to be nobody to wield Osborn’s mistake against him—or, more precisely, no one of Bryan’s stature, deemed worthy of front-page headlines.

John Roach Straton, the pastor of Manhattan’s Calvary Baptist Church, which sat a few blocks from Osborn’s museum, tried to take up Bryan’s mantle. “I am writing to President Henry Fairfield Osborn respectfully suggesting … that he put this tooth in a handsome glass case … but change the name … to Hesperopigdonefoolem osborniicuckoo,” Straton wrote in a lengthy telegram to The New York Times, which published it. But even with his church’s radio station, capable of broadcasting his sermons over a 500-mile radius, Straton didn’t have Bryan’s name recognition or popularity. He died in 1929 without making much of a dent in the evolution debate.

Challenges to teaching evolution petered out, too. As Larson writes in Summer for the Gods, “Discussion did not resolve disagreement; each side so deeply believed its position that further information simply increased its vehemence.” But the country also had bigger things to worry about: the Depression, namely, and soon enough World War II.

Over the years, new scientific data would strengthen evolutionary theory—Darwin’s version, not Osborn’s. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that humans likely evolved in Africa because chimpanzees and gorillas, the great apes he believed to be humans’ closest relatives, lived there. But in the early 20th century, Asia had its supporters as the cradle of humanity, with Osborn leading the way. Given fossils such as Java Man, there was a logic to this thinking. Fossils, however, were only part of the reason Osborn placed his hopes on Asia. The other reason was his racism: Like many of his fellow eugenicists—and today’s white supremacists—Osborn believed that a light-haired, blue-eyed Aryan people had risen from central Asia and swept westward, becoming the Nordics, the pinnacle of humanity. However, as more remains of human ancestors were unearthed in Africa, including the first australopithecine fossils, discovered by Raymond Dart in South Africa and Louis and Mary Leakey in Tanzania, it became clear that the Asia-centric view of human evolution was illegitimate.

In 1930, Gregory published another paper challenging Osborn’s work in the study of human origins. Despite their differences, the two men remained coworkers and friends. When Osborn retired, he recommended that Gregory replace him as head of the museum. (The trustees selected someone else.) “It was greatly to Osborn’s credit that he refrained from using his power to silence his former assistant,” Gregory wrote in a biographical article about his longtime boss, “and that he always treated the latter not only with perfect fairness but with unfailing friendship, so that to the day of his death there was never a cloud between them.” Osborn died in 1935.

Most scientists forgot about Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. The tooth pulled from the Nebraska sand wasn’t even terribly useful as a peccary fossil. Still, there were some who would cling to what they insisted on calling Nebraska Man. These people, fueled by anti-science beliefs, would keep the memory of Osborn’s mistake alive for a century—and likely beyond.


The Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum is the second largest of its kind in Montana, but you won’t find it on the state’s official “dinosaur trail.” The reason is hinted at in a sign at the reception desk. “The Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum is proud to present its exhibits in the context of Biblical history,” it reads. As visitors enter the exhibit area, they pass the same Bible quote that Osborn used in his articles against Bryan 100 years ago, displayed in ornate lettering: “Speak to the earth, and it will teach you.”

In a small display on the second floor are illustrations and descriptions of “fraudulent attempts to find the missing link.” There are three examples: Java Man, Peking Man, and Nebraska Man. The first two are still part of the scientific canon as human ancestors, but opponents of science are keen to flaunt doubt, however fleeting, as proof of absolute error. Peking Man, discovered in the 1920s in northern China, was lost during World War II, and at least one influential creationist has asserted that the fossil casts and drawings scientists have worked with ever since were falsified to support evolutionary theory. Eugène Dubois, the Dutch geologist who discovered Java Man in 1891, prevented other scientists from examining the bones for years, raising the question of whether they were fake. Despite being untrue, the hoax claim persists among creationists.

As for Nebraska Man, Robert Canen, the director of the Glendive museum, pointed me to the website of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) for insight. Articles on the site herald William Jennings Bryan as an important figure in the field of “creation science,” such as it is, and nearly everything Bryan said or wrote with regard to evolution after 1922 includes something dismissive about the tooth. “We use [Nebraska Man] to illustrate that many times attempts are made to fill in the evolutionary progression from an ape-like ancestor to humanity,” Canen himself writes. “Even things like a single tooth can be misinterpreted, often because of the researcher’s worldview and attempts to justify that worldview.”

That much is true, but other claims about Nebraska Man made by creationists are patently false. For example, some creationist websites claim the tooth was offered as evidence of human evolution at the Scopes trial. As court transcripts and newspaper accounts from the time show, the jury heard no scientific testimony about the tooth or anything else. Still, many Bible literalists have put Nebraska Man on the witness stand and kept him there.

Nebraska Man has become a tool wielded by the anti-science set to support the very arguments Osborn once hoped it would help refute.

Creationism regained ground as a political cause among fundamentalist Christians in the 1960s, likely because anti-evolution laws such as Tennessee’s were finally being overturned. In 1972, Nebraska Man made an appearance in a popular creationist book titled Evolution? The Fossils Say No! References to it have been widespread in creationist advocacy materials ever since. Nebraska Man is mentioned in books, on websites such as and, and in children’s workshop and museum displays, including one at Kentucky’s Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park that claims to have attracted millions of visitors since opening in 2016. These venues often suggest that Nebraska Man was more than an embarrassing scientific mistake—it was a hoax. “It looks very much like part of a deliberate campaign or even a confidence trick on the part of the leading American paleontologists and cannot be dismissed as a simple error,” a 2009 creationist article states. Amédée Forestier’s illustration of “the ape-man of the Western world,” despite being just a rendering for a newspaper, is presented as artistic “propaganda” for the fraud.  

If Osborn hadn’t been so eager to confront Bryan with evidence of evolution found in Bryan’s own backyard, if Bryan hadn’t let Osborn get under his skin, and if the press hadn’t been so keen to amplify their feud, perhaps an American ape would be just another disproved idea, quietly shoved deep into science’s junk drawer, alongside a geocentric universe and the lost continent of Lemuria. Instead, Nebraska Man has become a tool wielded by the anti-science set to support the very arguments Osborn once hoped it would help refute. If there’s an axiom in this strange tale, perhaps it’s that truth isn’t always enough to skewer lies.

This is never more the case than when lies have power on their side. Today, conservative state legislatures are attempting to ban matters of scientific consensus from being taught in schools: that human sexuality is diverse, that human-caused climate change is real. Meanwhile, conservative Christian leaders are some of the foremost kingmakers of U.S. politics and have the ear of multiple members of the Supreme Court—a potential boon for lawmakers in several states who over the past two decades have supported policies limiting the teaching of evolution. Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization that provides resources for teachers, said that the court’s summer 2022 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton, allowing a public high school football coach to pray midfield after games, may well influence how evolution is treated in classrooms. “While there is a difference between a football coach praying on the 50-yard line and teaching creationism in biology class,” Branch said, “it remains to be seen what the new legal landscape is like.”

In contrast to its status among creationists, Nebraska Man could hardly be more invisible to scientists. Broken into pieces after a nervous X-ray technician dropped it in 1925, then glued back together, the tooth is kept in storage at the American Museum of Natural History, stashed in a clear plastic box surrounded by the casts Osborn made of it 100 years ago. This description comes from the noted geologist Donald R. Prothero of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona: “The crown is completely worn away, so there’s not much that can be said about it.” It is “smaller than your pinky fingernail.” By email via a spokesperson, the museum stated that its collections staff couldn’t provide any details about the tooth.

Seen from a clear vantage, the story of Nebraska Man is one of how science works: Claims are made, developments veer in unexpected directions, our understanding of the natural world lurches forward. But vanity, zeal, and misinformation complicate that view. Osborn wrote in a 1925 article, “Nature is full of lurking surprises.” So too is history, as the fate of Nebraska Man shows.

More from The Atavist Magazine

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

A Matter of Honor

A Matter of Honor

Why were three Afghan women brutally murdered at the edge of Europe? A journey from Mazar-i-Sharif to Istanbul to Athens in search of answers.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 133

Sarah Souli is a journalist based in Athens, Greece. Her writing has appeared in publications including The EconomistViceThe GuardianAllure, and Travel and Leisure. She was previously a staff writer at Colors magazine. Her work has been supported by the International Women’s Media Fund, Fabrica, and the Alfred Toepfer Foundation.

This story was completed with generous support from the Incubator for Media Education and Development, a nonprofit journalistic organization founded in 2018 with an exclusive donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Oriana Fenwick
Researchers: Khwaga Ghani, Aminullah Habiba Mayar

Published in November 2022.

“Just by being there, the border is an invitation.
Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare.”
Kapka Kassabova

Life in a diaspora can have the dull ache of a phantom limb. In the Istanbul neighborhood of Zeytinburnu, in August 2021, the pain was acute. More than 2,000 miles away, the Taliban was starting to take back control of Afghanistan; within days the country would fall to an old regime made new. The events had plunged Zeytinburnu, an enclave of tens of thousands of Afghans displaced from their home country by war, poverty, and other ills, into a state of collective fear and mourning.

The context seemed to render my investigation, now dragging into its third year, futile. What did three dead women matter when a whole nation was having its heart ripped out?

The heat of late summer shimmered off the pavement as I spent long, liquid days moving from one person to another, displaying my phone screen and asking the same question: Do you know these women? I approached customers in call centers that promised good rates back home, patrons in restaurants where the smell of mutton biryani filled the air, elderly men sipping tea on wooden benches, and mothers watching children at a construction site that had been turned into a makeshift playground. I lost count of how many people I asked. Everyone gave the same answer: No.

On what was supposed to be my last afternoon in Zeytinburnu, I stood outside a café window watching a young Afghan man inside churn cardamom shiryakh (ice cream) in a large copper pot. The customers behind him drank fruit juices and devoured frozen treats amid kitsch decor: blue plastic flowers, a glossy relief of the Swiss Alps. The scene felt at odds with the urgent historical moment; in Kabul, as the American military withdrew, the Taliban was shooting people dead in the streets. Still, perhaps my professional defeat, my failure to find answers, would go down easier with sugar.

*Names have been changed for individuals’ safety.

The door to the café jingled as I walked inside with Tabsheer,* an Afghan journalist and translator who was helping me report. We sat at a plastic table, where a waiter placed a dish of ice cream swirled to a perfect point and dusted with pistachio. After we ate, Tabsheer suggested, “Let’s just ask one more person. We’re here. We might as well.”

We settled on a middle-aged man who, in a pressed shirt and slacks, would have looked the consummate professional if not for the comically large banana smoothie he was drinking. We walked over and introduced ourselves using the same tired script. I took out my phone and pulled up a photo of a woman, her glossy red lips pursed in a coquettish expression that over the course of my reporting had come to signify disappointment—at men, at law enforcement, at me, the journalist trying to unearth her story.

The man looked at the image and put down his smoothie. He furrowed his brow and leaned in slightly. His lips parted and he hesitated a moment, which prepared me for familiar disappointment. Then he spoke.

“Yes,” he said. He cocked his head to the side. “Yes, I know this woman.”

“Are you sure?”I asked, incredulous at the turn the day had taken.

I pulled up another photo—a teenager with dark eyes, her straight hair tucked behind one ear. “What about this girl, do you recognize her?” I asked, holding my breath.

The man narrowed his eyes. “Yes,” he repeated.

I brought up another photo, this time of a young man looking over his shoulder, his mouth firmly set. “I often saw them together around here, but this was many years ago,” the man said. He looked at me quizzically. “What do you want with these people?”

I chose my next words carefully. Few things spook people like the mention of murder. “I’m looking for them,” I replied. “Something bad happened to them in Greece.”

The man held my gaze for a moment and took a sip of his smoothie. Whatever he was weighing, when he set his glass down he seemed to have made up his mind. “I know all these people, and I know their story,” he said. “I will tell you everything.”

Three Years Earlier

On the morning of October 10, 2018, a Greek farmer named Nikos Papachatzidis left his house to tend his fields. His land abutting the Evros River had long been a source of pride. This slice of the world, on the very eastern edge of Europe, is fertile, a place where sugarcane, cotton, wheat, and sunflowers grow in abundance.

With his snow-white hair blowing in the breeze, Papachatzidis, then in his early seventies, hopped onto his tractor and began tilling the soil. As he drove, he noticed something on the ground: a human hand, bound with a length of rope. He stopped the tractor and climbed down to find a dead woman, her face more or less intact, with a wide wound on her neck. Papachatzidis called the police.

Papachatzidis is not a man easily ruffled. When the police arrived, they cordoned off the area around the body, and Papachatzidis went back to work on another part of his land. He stayed out until sundown, at which point he returned home, exchanged his muddy boots for house slippers, and told his wife about the dead woman. At first she was angry—why had he waited all day to tell her? Then she grew so scared that a killer might be on the loose that she spent a sleepless night praying.

The next day, the couple received a phone call from the police. The bodies of two other women had been found on Papachatzidis’s land. It was likely that all three were migrants or asylum seekers. They had been murdered.

Bodies turn up along the Evros River with morbid regularity. The thin, shallow waterway divides Greece and Turkey for some 120 miles—the countries’ only shared land border—before dumping into the Aegean Sea. The area around Papachatzidis’s farm is a popular gateway for people desperate to enter Europe in search of freedom, safety, and dignity. But while traversing the river is less treacherous than a boat passage across the Mediterranean, it is by no means safe. Between 2018 and 2022, more than 200 migrants and refugees died trying to cross the Evros. Hypothermia and drowning are the most common causes of death. The strong current is challenging even for capable swimmers, and natural debris such as tree branches can snag on clothing and drag people—often children—to the river’s muddy bed. Across the Evros, other dangers await. Smugglers load people into vans bound for Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, with drivers who are often scared and inexperienced, resulting in horrific car crashes along the highway.

Murder, though, is a different matter. It is all but unheard of in Evros, the Greek region that takes its name from the river. For locals, the crime on Papachatzidis’s land was the most brutal act in recent memory.

Word spread fast, fueling rumors. This was the work of Islamic State operatives, some people said. No, the Turks did it. No, only a Greek soldier could be responsible. Greece, after all, had militarized the border in recent years, in an effort to keep migrants out of the European Union. With support from Brussels, the Evros River was now lined with fences and patrolled by men with guns. Some police officers who intercepted Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, and other migrants after they crossed the river allegedly violated international human rights law by sending them right back to Turkey, a practice known as pushback. (Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Greece denies that it engages in pushback.) Over the coming years, several people would be shot dead trying to enter Evros. In March 2020, as border police and the military fired upon migrants, reportedly killing two, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece for being “a European shield.”

A glaring indignity, among many others, is that Europe is not always aware of who dies on its doorstep. Identifying bodies found in Evros is the job of one man: Pavlos Pavlidis, a doctor and forensic scientist. When a migrant dies, the body is taken to Pavlidis’s morgue at University General Hospital in the seaside city of Alexandroupoli.

Pavlidis is tall and gaunt, with the stooped demeanor of a man used to doling out bad news. His job often feels Sisyphean: endless and hopeless. Unlike the sea, the Evros River has no salt to preserve bodies, and faces quickly disintegrate beyond recognition. Most identifying documents are lost or heavily damaged during crossings. Pavlidis takes DNA from the bodies and notes potentially identifying clues—tattoos and circumcisions, for instance—as well as material possessions. He sometimes works with the International Red Cross and various embassies to try and contact the families of the deceased. In most cases, the bodies he inspects are never identified.

When Pavlidis arrived at Papachatzidis’s farm, a grisly scene awaited him. Two of the women were found on their knees, facedown in the soil. Roughly 330 feet away, the third woman, who looked older than the others, lay sprawled on the ground, as though she had tried to run away and been knocked off her feet. All three had their hands bound, and their throats were cut. Their shoes were laced and their pants were buttoned.

Pavlidis is not an emotional man. In the more than two decades he has spent toiling in a hospital basement, he has learned not to think about what the dead were like when they were alive, or what they experienced in their final moments. A morgue is no place to contemplate the immense cruelty of the world if one wants to stay sane. “You get feelings,” Pavlidis said with a firm shake of his head. “I don’t want that.”

Pavlidis oversaw the transfer of the women’s bodies to Alexandroupoli, where they were placed on metal gurneys. The sharp chemical smell of the hospital masked the musk of decay. Decomposition had already set in; it appeared that several days passed before Papachatzidis discovered the bodies. Pavlidis noted that the women were dressed like “Europeans,” in tight denim and without headscarves. They had no identifying documents. Pavlidis found no internal bruising or other signs of trauma. No drugs or alcohol were in the women’s systems, and there was no evidence of sexual assault. The younger women were still, at least medically speaking, virgins; the older woman was not.

Pavlidis took DNA samples from skin, clothes, and hair. He scraped underneath the women’s fingernails, which were manicured and painted pearly pink. Genetic testing soon illuminated one piece of the story: The women were related. The younger two were sisters, and they had been killed a short distance from their mother.

The cause of death in each case was hemorrhagic shock brought on by severe blood loss. The women’s jugular veins had been cut, likely by someone right-handed. In Pavlidis’s experience, wounds of this nature were often sloppy and jagged; slicing someone’s throat is difficult, especially if they’re screaming or moving around. But the wounds on the women were precise. “It was like a butcher cut,” Pavlidis told me, sitting in his office. A cigarette smoldered in a glass ashtray on his desk, and an old PC hummed behind it. “I’ve said from the beginning, this guy is a professional.”

Two knives were found at the crime scene: one nine and a half inches long, with a serrated edge, and another, slightly shorter, with a black plastic handle. Both had been wiped clean. Police found a few other items near the bodies, including a water bottle, a bag of almonds, a tube of lipstick, and a soda can.

The most important piece of evidence was also one of the luckiest finds: a Samsung mobile phone tucked in the mother’s breast pocket. The local police didn’t have the technology to extract metadata from it, nor the experience to handle what was likely to become an international criminal investigation. The women had been killed in Greece after leaving Turkey, and it was all but certain they’d begun life in a third country. To find out who the women were and who had killed them, someone with resources and connections would have to run the investigation.

In the photos on the phone, the women were suddenly alive. In some images they had their arms thrown around each other. Filters—floating pink hearts, rabbit ears—embellished others.

Zacharoula Tsirigoti is short and compact, with small fingers that seem constantly to be rolling cigarettes with the assistance of a little machine she keeps in her purse and reddish hair that, when we met, was cropped close to her scalp. But while outward appearances indicate a woman built for efficiency, during our first interview Tsirigoti called herself “a romantic.” I watched her tear up twice while talking about her work.

From the age of 13, Tsirigoti wanted to be a police officer. “Not like the riot police that just beat people up,” she clarified, wagging a finger in the air. She wanted to give back to her community; she was attracted to the ethos of service and protection. After graduating from university, Tsirigoti started off as a constable, then spent 22 years working on relations between the Hellenic police and foreign law enforcement. She eventually became head of the Aliens and Border Protection Branch, and in 2016 was promoted to lieutenant general in the Hellenic police in Athens, making her the highest-ranking female officer in Greece.

None of this was without challenges. Greece is the lowest-ranked EU country in terms of gender equality; the Hellenic police is not a bastion of feminism. “The society in Greece is not ready to accept women doing jobs that men used to do,” Tsirigoti said. She sprinkled tobacco onto a rolling paper and looked up at me with a sly smile. “They gave me this branch because they thought I couldn’t manage the situation, but they were wrong,” she said. “A woman is more diplomatic than a man.”

Diplomacy was one characteristic needed to helm the investigation into the triple murder in Evros. Another was patience. Tsirigoti knew it might take months, if not years, to make progress in the case. The required paperwork and bureaucratic maneuvering, already Kafkaesque in Greece, would become even more dizzyingly complex when other nations entered the mix. With her commitment to her work and her Rolodex of international contacts, plus her deep understanding of migration patterns between Greece and Turkey from her time in border protection, Tsirigoti was ideally suited to the job.

One factor working against the investigation was general disinterest in the victims. In November 2018, a month after the murders, Eleni Topaloudi, a 21-year-old Greek woman, was attacked, gang-raped, and killed on the island of Rhodes. The case mobilized the nation, and police quickly arrested the perpetrators. The following year, when Suzanne Eaton, a sixty-year-old American woman, was murdered on Crete, the crime made headlines around the world, and her killer was brought to justice in two weeks. By contrast, the three migrant women killed in Evros barely made the news.

Tsirigoti didn’t just keep law enforcement’s attention on the case—she was the attention. “For me as a woman, it was very sad to see a mother with her two daughters killed like this,” she said. “To cross the border to another country there is a cause. They are human beings, not a number. I wanted to prove to the world, to the EU, that the Greek police investigate and care about everything. It was a matter of honor.”

The first step in the investigation was to contact Interpol, the international organization that facilitates cooperation among law enforcement in 195 countries. Greek police sent a “black notice” to the agency, an official request for information pertaining to unidentified bodies. They shared fingerprints taken from the three bodies—if the women had been registered as asylum seekers in, say, Turkey, there was a chance Interpol would be able to identify them. “We expected to get an answer from them,” Tsirigoti said. But that route turned out to be a dead end.

Tsirigoti hoped that the phone found on the mother would hold clues, so in December 2018 she turned to the Hellenic police’s anti-terrorism unit—not because she suspected that the women had been killed in an act of terrorism, but because the unit is the most technologically advanced in Greek law enforcement. Forensic analysts extracted data from the phone, including 511 contacts, 282 text messages, the dates, times, and numbers associated with 194 calls, and hundreds of photos and videos. Additional messages were found on social media platforms, along with data indicating when and where Wi-Fi was activated.

Sifting through the information, Tsirigoti was able to begin piecing together the women’s identities. They were from Afghanistan, and their first names were Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana. Fahima, the mother, was in her mid-to-late thirties. Rabiya was 17, and Farzana couldn’t have been older than 14. In the photos on the phone, they were suddenly alive. In some images they had their arms thrown around each other. Filters—floating pink hearts, rabbit ears—embellished others.

Now that Tsirigoti knew the women’s nationality, her next move was to reach out to the Afghan ambassador in Greece, Mirwais Samadi. In March 2019, she shared the black notice and other details about the case with him. A much needed stroke of luck: Samadi was close with the chief of police in Kabul. He called in a favor to accelerate the process of formally identifying the women.

Two months later, in May, Tsirigoti received a document from the Interpol office in Kabul. It stated that Fahima was married with five children: Rabiya, Farzana, and three younger ones, two boys and a girl. The whole family had left their home in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan, in early 2018. They had passed through Iran before settling in Istanbul for a few months, where they sought passage to Europe. When the Mazar-i-Sharif branch of Interpol received photos of the deceased women, one of Fahima’s sisters and an uncle identified them; law enforcement was able to corroborate their identities with a brother-in-law of Fahima’s living in Europe.

Tsirigoti then turned her attention to Turkey, visiting the country five times as part of the investigation. She worked with the Turkish authorities, trying to track down men who may have come in contact with Fahima and her daughters. Since the women were migrants, they almost certainly had paid smugglers to get them across the Evros River. Those men could be murder suspects or the last people to see the women alive.

But that summer, Tsirigoti’s investigation came to a sudden halt. Political allegiances run deep in Greece, and Tsirigoti had been appointed to her post under the leftist Syriza government, which in the July 2019 elections lost power to the center-right New Democracy party. The new government made sweeping changes to police leadership, and on July 23 Tsirigoti, only 54 at the time, was forced to retire. “I didn’t finish the investigation,” she said, “and I feel very sad about it. But the police is a man’s world.” She shrugged.

Before vacating her office, Tsirigoti spoke with the officer who would take over the case. She made him swear to God he’d solve it. He promised he would, then handed it off to a small team of young male officers. It soon stagnated as police cooperation along the Greek-Turkish border all but ceased under the new government.

Conflict between Greece and Turkey stretches back centuries. After nearly 400 years of occupation by the Ottomans, Greece declared independence in 1821. Four wars followed. In 1923, a forced population exchange of 1.2 million Orthodox Greeks living in Turkey for 400,000 Muslim Turks living in Greece drastically altered the demographic makeup of each country. Refugees came to constitute one-fifth of Greece’s population—among them was Tsirigoti’s grandmother.

Another influx of refugees, this time in the 21st century, became a new source of acrimony between Greece and Turkey; both countries are keen to stir the pot of nationalist ideology and point fingers at each other when it suits them. Greece insists that Turkey isn’t doing enough to stop displaced people from crossing into European territory, while Turkey, host to the world’s largest refugee population, accuses Greece of pushback measures. Caught in the middle are migrants and refugees, human beings treated as pawns.

With her professional experience and fervent commitment to justice, Tsirigoti had managed to bulldoze through political hostilities to investigate the murders of Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana. Without her there was a risk that the crime might never be solved. When we first met, in January 2020, Tsirigoti was still keeping an eye on the case, albeit from afar. She also had a theory about what had happened to the women. She leaned in close to tell me. Behind her, cars zipped down a busy Athens street. “It is my belief that this was an honor killing,” Tsirigoti said.

It seemed reductionist to assume that foreign women had been killed for foreign reasons, as opposed to a smuggling gone wrong, a mangled burglary, or something else related to the perilous journey they’d made to Europe. A form of gendered violence seen primarily in extremely conservative communities, honor killings usually occur when a woman or girl is believed to have tarnished a man’s reputation. These are not crimes of opportunity—they necessarily involve a perpetrator motivated by a desire to protect what he perceives as his dignity. Who might have had that motive, and why? Tsirigoti didn’t have an answer, but she thought she knew who might.

Found on the phone in Fahima’s pocket were photos of a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties, with deep-set eyes and black hair that swooped across his broad forehead. There were images of him with Fahima’s daughters in a park, and one of him sitting on a sofa. In some of these, he had his arms around Fahima; in one, she kissed his cheek. What was his relationship to the women? Could it have been a reason for violence, committed by him or by someone else?

Data from the phone indicated that the young man may have been the last person to see Fahima and her daughters alive. Law enforcement had no idea where he was. I told Tsirigoti that I’d try to find him. Then, in a rush of bravado, I went further: I said that I would find out what happened to the three women.

“OK,” Tsirigoti said with a chuckle. “Good luck.”

Zacharoula Tsirigoti and Pavlos Pavlidis

The starting point was easy to see. Authorities had cleared Fahima’s husband of suspicion, but I wanted to speak to him myself. Even if he had nothing to do with the crime, his memories of his wife and daughters could prove invaluable.

After a series of phone calls, I met Abdul* in February 2020, in Victoria Square, a part of Athens’s Kypseli neighborhood that had become a hub for refugees, many of whom would soon be forced into the streets as shelters became overcrowded or shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Abdul was a thin, tiny man. He moved nervously, as if he were afraid of taking up space or drawing attention to himself. He seemed suspicious and scared—of me.

Abdul and his three surviving children traveled from Turkey to Greece by boat in 2019. They spent a harrowing few weeks at a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos before they were granted temporary asylum and transferred to Athens. Not long after our meeting, the family would be given permanent asylum in another European country.

As we spoke, Abdul’s children sat nearby drinking orange juice and coloring in spiral notebooks with abandon. Abdul confessed that he hadn’t explained to them that their mother and elder sisters were dead. He sat with his back to them, to shield them from his tears.

“What do you tell them?” I asked.

“That they are waiting for us in Germany,” he replied.

The first thing Abdul wanted me to know was that he loved Fahima fiercely. He could not even utter his daughters’ names—doing so seemed painful beyond comprehension—so he concentrated on his wife. “We were like Romeo and Juliet,” he told me. Fahima was bigger than him, physically and otherwise, and he was fine to let her take the wheel of their life together. She managed their money, and it was her idea to leave Afghanistan. No one in their extended family supported the decision. Abdul had a mostly steady job and earned enough for the family to rent a small house and enjoy tiny luxuries from time to time. The children were in school. Why risk going to Europe?

Fahima wanted her children to grow up free. There was an individualistic component to this—for them to dress as they wished, to have access to technology, to connect with the wider world—but even more important was the chance for her children to live without the looming threat of war. She wanted to ensure that her daughters weren’t forced into marriage or motherhood, or killed at a young age. Fahima was not content with the incrementally better life her family had in Afghanistan.

The family left Afghanistan in January 2018. They packed up a few belongings and took a bus from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul, then caught another bus to Herat, a popular crossing point into Iran. They spent a few freezing cold days in Tehran before walking across a mountainous border into Turkey with a group of migrants and refugees, led by smugglers. Eventually they made it to Istanbul, settled in Zeytinburnu, and tried to cross into Greece several times without success. That summer, Abdul left Istanbul to find work in another Turkish city.

His telling of what happened next was frustratingly vague. Was he aware that his wife and eldest daughters were planning on leaving without the rest of the family? He was not. Why had Fahima taken Rabiya and Farzana alone to Greece? He didn’t know. Wasn’t he concerned when he didn’t hear from them for months? He assumed everything was fine. Did he try to locate Fahima? He trusted that she would eventually reach out to him. When he learned that his wife and daughters were dead—first through the Zeytinburnu grapevine, then officially from the Greek police—did he have any idea who might have wanted to hurt them? No, he said. He had no clue.

I spoke with Abdul again after that day, and while his answers became no clearer, what did crystallize was an additional reason for his opacity. Abdul wasn’t just grieving and frightened—he was also embarrassed because his wife had left him for another man. I wondered about the young man in the photos on Fahima’s phone. When I had showed one of the images to Abdul, he paused before telling me that the man was a neighbor in Istanbul, someone he had seen once or twice.

After several sad, complicated interviews, it was clear I wasn’t going to get anything more out of Abdul. I turned next to the people who seemed most likely to know Fahima’s secrets, the things she would never tell her husband, no matter how in love he believed they once were. The Greek police had never formally interviewed Fahima’s family. But in Afghanistan, as in many places, women tend to confide in other women. I wanted to talk to Fahima’s sisters.

Hadila thought that Fahima and her daughters had drowned while trying to reach Europe. As I delivered the news of their murders, Hadila began to cry, rocking back and forth.

Mazar-i-Sharif is Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city; the wider region where it sits, known as Balkh Province, shares a watery border with Uzbekistan. The city is famous for its blue mosque, which Sunni Muslims believe houses the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin. The mosque, with its sea of cerulean tiles that glimmer in the sun, has remained miraculously intact through several military incursions.

In the 1980s, Mazar-i-Sharif was a strategic position for the Soviet army, which transformed the city’s airport into a launch point for missiles targeting the mujahideen. For a brief, sweet period in the 1990s, the city was a generally stable proto-state, before the Taliban took over and massacred some 8,000 people. When it entered the city in November 2001, the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance easily captured Mazar-i-Sharif and killed more than 3,000 Taliban fighters, burying them in unmarked graves. For the next two decades, periods of relative peace were punctuated by horrific violence. Still, Mazar-i-Sharif held on to its reputation as one of the more liberal cities in Afghanistan, so much so that when the Taliban seized it in August 2021, its leaders promptly fled to Uzbekistan rather than face imprisonment, or worse.

Fahima and Abdul were married during the Taliban era. Their wedding was a simple religious affair, without music or even a wedding dress, and it was marred by tragedy. One of Fahima’s brothers-in-law was in a car accident on the way to the ceremony, and the blame was thrown onto the bride. She’s bad luck, her in-laws said. At the time, Fahima was still a teenager—not much older than Farzana, her middle daughter, would be when she was murdered.

Fahima was one of seven siblings, three of whom had passed away by the time she and her family left Afghanistan: One died from a childhood illness, another during wartime, and a third in a gas explosion at home. After Fahima’s death, only three siblings remained—all women—and they lived in or around Mazar-i-Sharif. Rahila was the one who identified Fahima’s body in photographs. Farida had ultraconservative in-laws who wouldn’t permit her talk to her family anymore, let alone a journalist. Then there was Hadila, the eldest sister and the one closest to Fahima. We connected on a video call through WhatsApp in November 2020; the pandemic prevented me from going to Afghanistan.

Hadila was 40 at the time, with eight children of her own. A few of them snuggled around her as we spoke, their heads poking out from under a large pile of colorful blankets. It was freezing in northern Afghanistan, and heat was prohibitively expensive, so they had to make do. Hadila was eager to talk. She said that no one ever contacted her about what had happened to her sisters and nieces—not the police, not Abdul, not even Rahila, who after identifying Fahima’s body fell into a deep depression. Hadila thought that Fahima and her daughters drowned while trying to reach Europe. As I delivered the news of their murders, Hadila began to cry, rocking back and forth. She wiped her tears away with the corner of her scarf.

When Fahima was a little girl, she would follow Hadila around the house, sucking her thumb and tugging at her elder sister’s skirts, dutifully trotting behind as Hadila milked cows or baked bread. They were close and remained so as they grew up, married, and started families of their own. Fahima was something of a black sheep in the community, Hadila explained—full of life and eager to dress up, wear makeup, and dance. “She was always different,” Hadila said, a touch of pride in her voice. Fahima was a good mother, she added, and close with her children, especially her two eldest girls.

Hadila spoke with Fahima on four occasions after she left Afghanistan, and the last two conversations left Hadila feeling whiplash. In the first of those, out of the blue, Fahima announced that she had engaged Rabiya to an older man, an Afghan from Kunduz Province who was well established in Zeytinburnu. This man had connections and promised to provide Fahima and her daughters with documentation to stay in Turkey. The fiancé housed them too. Fahima texted a photo of the suitor to a phone shared by Hadila’s family. Someone later dropped the phone into a toilet, and the photo was lost; police didn’t find it on the Samsung recovered at the crime scene in Greece. The only thing Hadila could remember about the fiancé was his age. He was at least 40, and Rabiya wasn’t yet 18.

Fahima had said she left Afghanistan in order to give her daughters a better life, but it was difficult for Hadila to see how marriage to a much older man would help Rabiya, whom she described as quiet and shy. The detrimental consequences of child marriage, including reduced economic and educational opportunities, and exposure to physical and emotional abuse, are well documented. “I was upset with her,” Hadila said, referring to Fahima, “because Rabiya didn’t want to get married.”

Political borders are no match for gossip, and in Mazar-i-Sharif, Fahima’s family began to glean more information about the mysterious fiancé. “I would hear all these things about this guy,” Nawid, Hadila’s eldest son, told me. “He was an old man, he had two other wives, and he had more children. I heard that it was something done by force and Rabiya was not happy.”

Then, in August 2018, Hadila spoke with Fahima for the last time. Fahima said that she wanted to break off the engagement between Rabiya and the fiancé because Rabiya was unhappy with the match. Fahima didn’t elaborate further. Hadila was relieved for Rabiya, but she also felt a pinch of fear. What if the fiancé retaliated?

In a matter of weeks, Hadila’s sister and nieces would be dead.

Fahima, and a scene from Zeytinburnu

Despite their close bond, there were things that Fahima didn’t tell her eldest sister. Hadila had heard rumors that Fahima was separated from her husband, but Fahima never mentioned it. Until I spoke to her, Hadila didn’t know that Fahima was in a relationship with someone new; the photo of the young man drew a blank stare when I showed it to her. Police in Afghanistan, I soon learned, had identified the man in the picture as Mirajuddin Osman. He was also from Mazar-i-Sharif.

For several months leading up to my conversations with Hadila and other sources in Afghanistan, the Greek police hadn’t responded to my requests for an interview. When they finally did, in early 2021, they said they would speak only on the condition that I share my findings about the murders with them—a sign, it seemed, of how little progress they’d made since Zacharoula Tsirigoti’s ouster from the force 18 months prior. Later I would be asked to testify under oath.

During the interview, I asked if the police had heard anything about Rabiya being engaged. The officers said no. Then they summarized SMS messages retrieved from the phone found on Fahima’s body. There were exchanges between Rabiya and a friend that lamented a situation involving a man called Saïd. None of my sources had mentioned that name. Perhaps Saïd was the spurned fiancé?

The police did confirm what I suspected about Osman—that he was Fahima’s boyfriend. They said they were still looking for him.

Certainly, Fahima leaving her husband for a much younger man—and taking two of their children with her—could have given Abdul motive to hurt her. In Afghanistan, divorce at the behest of a woman is extremely difficult to achieve. A woman leaving home without permission from male family members can be criminalized under Article 130 of the country’s constitution, making it a risky prospect. In even the most sympathetic circumstances, a woman ending a marriage is a cultural taboo. Though Fahima and Abdul were in Turkey by the time they split, they were living in a heavily Afghan neighborhood, where cultural norms, while loosened, were still observed.

I thought back on my interviews with Abdul. He had seemed devastated by the murders, and so beaten down by life that he didn’t have the heart to reprimand his kids as they clambered, shrieking loudly, over the patio furniture of the café where we talked. I could not imagine him killing or enlisting someone else to kill his wife, let alone the daughters whose names he now found it too painful to speak.

The police were equally sure he wasn’t the killer. In fact, they had long suspected that whoever murdered Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana crossed back into Turkey after committing the crime. Any new leads—about suspects or witnesses, about Osman or the mysterious Saïd—would likely emerge only in Zeytinburnu.

In Turkey all Afghans are treated the same, equally denied health care, employment rights, and formal education. The Turkish government doesn’t recognize them as legal refugees.


hen I arrived in Istanbul in early August 2021, wildfires had broken out across Turkey, and the heat in the city was stifling. I had only one lead to start my reporting: the contact information of a man I’d met on a private Telegram group used by Afghan migrants. The man, who asked that I not use his name, knew Fahima and her daughters in the months leading up to their murders. For a time, he and his wife had lived in the same small, dirty apartment as Fahima, Abdul, and their five children, in a building in Zeytinburnu.

A historically working-class neighborhood, Zeytinburnu sits on the European side of Istanbul. Traditionally, it was the leatherworking area of the sprawling city. In 1983 the Turkish government, in an act of political goodwill to assist people of “Turkish origin and culture,” invited a few hundred Turkmen and Uzbek refugees from Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union to settle in the neighborhood. Since then, Zeytinburnu has become home to tens of thousands of Afghans, representing the entire range of the country’s many ethnic groups. Over the course of my reporting I met Pashtuns, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Hazara, and Turkmen. Pashtuns make up about 40 percent of the Afghan population, and back home they occupy most of the high-ranking positions in government. But in Turkey all Afghans are treated the same, equally denied health care, employment rights, and formal education. The Turkish government doesn’t recognize them as legal refugees.

According to the man I’d found online, for at least a month in the spring of 2018, Fahima and her family lived in a basement room in a blue building where some local smugglers housed their clients. The steps leading to the basement were awkward, requiring a sideways shuffle to descend safely. A naked lightbulb hung from the low ceiling, casting a feeble glow on the grime-covered walls. There was a small landing and three doors, one of which was cobbled together from scraps of plywood and padlocked. A peculiar smell wafted in the air, something unsanitary. I knocked on all three doors, and a young Turkish woman answered one of them, her face half visible through a narrow crack. She had moved in only in the previous year, she told me politely. She didn’t know about any Afghans.

The transitory nature of Zeytinburnu creates a distinct problem for someone trying to piece the shattered mirror of recent history back together. It had been nearly three years since Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana lived there. The majority of people I talked to on the neighborhood’s streets, along the nearby waterfront, and inside its shops and businesses had arrived in Istanbul within the past year. They could not have known the women whose photos I showed them. Memory loss is a common side effect of trauma, and some of the people I interviewed had trouble recalling events, both recent and long past. One woman I spoke to had been living in Zeytinburnu for four years, but the Taliban had murdered her husband in front of her eyes, and since then she’d had trouble remembering things. “I’ll forget your face as soon as you leave,” she told me, her voice flat.

I had the names and photos of several smugglers who, based on information gleaned from the man I’d found online, I knew had encountered Fahima and her daughters in Zeytinburnu. The women had tried to cross the border into Greece at least four times, racking up debts to their traffickers. I managed to track down some of the smugglers, including one who lived in the same blue building Fahima and her daughters spent time in, but none of them would admit to their line of work, let alone to knowing Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana.

Turkish law enforcement is omnipresent in Zeytinburnu, and well aware of its smuggling networks. “The police know everything that goes on here,” an Afghan man inside a money-transfer shop told me. He wasn’t the only person to acknowledge the symbiotic relationship that governs the neighborhood: Smugglers pay off law enforcement to turn a blind eye to their business ventures, while also exploiting people’s fear of the who patrol Zeytinburnu threatening imprisonment or deportation. Major disruptions to the order of things are not tolerated. In 2018, the same year Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana were killed, another Afghan woman, Elhan Atifi, was murdered in Istanbul. The violent husband she’d left behind in Kabul traveled nearly 3,000 miles to strangle her to death. Turkish police quickly investigated and prosecuted him.

I wondered: Had Fahima and her daughters been murdered a few yards into Greece by someone who knew not to kill them in Istanbul? Someone who understood that to protect his interests, he needed to avoid making the crime Turkish law enforcement’s responsibility?

It was a logical enough theory for which I didn’t have a shred of proof. Then, on the verge of giving up hope, Tabsheer and I walked into the ice cream shop.

Mirajuddin Osman

“Zeytinburnu is a place where you can’t hide.” That’s what Mohammed*, the man we approached in the shop, told me after confirming that he recognized Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana. We had moved to an area upstairs in the café where we could be alone. Mohammed spread his tanned hands on the plastic table between us and sighed before telling us what he knew.

Back in 2018, he said, he’d seen the women together with Mirajuddin Osman. There was speculation in the local Afghan community that Fahima had left her husband and was dating Osman. “Only God knows what was between them,” Mohammed said with a shrug. He had seen Fahima’s husband once or twice in Zeytinburnu, but always alone.

Mohammed cleared his throat and motioned for me to turn off my recorder before continuing. Here is what I wrote in my notes: Fahima planned to marry Rabiya off to a man whom Mohammed called Hajji Saïd. Hajji is an Islamic prefix of respect, reserved for someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. And Saïd was the name the Greek police had asked me about, the man mentioned in Rabiya’s text messages.

Mohammed said that Saïd already had two wives—one in Afghanistan and another in Pakistan. When he decided to marry Rabiya, in early 2018, he also agreed to pay for her: He gave Fahima several thousand euros for his new teenage bride. Around Ramadan, which that year began in May, they were officially engaged, and later they married. Fahima and her daughters then moved into Saïd’s apartment.

Saïd was a man used to getting what he wanted. He had been living in Zeytinburnu for twenty years, and he was a pillar in the community, an important Pashtun smuggler who employed a network of people. In fact, Osman’s brother worked for him at one point. Saïd also owned a hawala shop, overseeing money transfers and electronics sales.

And how did Mohammed know all this?

Because, he told me, he and Saïd were related.

The two men had a falling out, Mohammed explained, and weren’t talking by the time Saïd became engaged to Rabiya. In the summer of 2018, Mohammed traveled to Afghanistan. When he came back to Istanbul, Rabiya, Fahima, and Farzana were gone. He still wasn’t on good terms with Saïd, and could only guess that the women had left for a European country, somewhere cold and far away, like Belgium or Germany. That remained his assumption.

I told him about the murders, about the women’s bodies found prone with their throats cut near the Evros River. Mohammed closed his eyes.

“Whoever did this to these girls, God will punish them,” he said.

“Do you think—well, sorry to ask, but do you think that maybe your…,” I stammered.

“You want to know if he killed them,” Mohammed interjected. “I don’t know that. But I believe this is an honor killing.”

Before we ended our conversation, Mohammed gave me an address. If I wanted to talk to Saïd, my best chance was to go there, to his place of business.

Saïd looked at me hard and said I could come back tomorrow to talk to him. We both knew that if I returned to the store, he wouldn’t be there.

The hawala was on a side street near Zeytinburnu’s main drag. It was evening when Tabsheer and I arrived, and the shop glowed in the darkness. Through the window, I could see five-kilo bags of Afghan rice stacked against one wall; across from these was a display of cell phones and accessories covered in a thin layer of dust. A middle-aged man sat behind the counter scrolling on his phone; a younger man was next to him doing the same thing.

I took a deep breath, pushed the door open, and walked in. Saïd was heavyset, with a rounded jaw and drooping features. There was a large birthmark on his right cheekbone, like a smudged thumbprint. He looked up as I walked toward him, extending my phone. Rabiya’s face was displayed on the screen.

“I want to talk to you about Rabiya,” I said, forgoing all formalities, my voice louder than I’d intended.

Saïd jumped up from his seat and rushed out from behind the counter, flapping his hands. At first he denied knowing the women, whose photos I showed one by one. Then he admitted having seen them in the area. He recognized Fahima—but so what? “People come through here all the time, this is Turkey,” he protested.

He swore that he hadn’t been in a relationship with Rabiya. His breathing became ragged, and his hands started to shake—it seemed like he might have a panic attack. As I held up Rabiya’s photo again, he averted his gaze, shaking his head as tears filled his eyes and threatened to tumble down his cheeks. The young man, who had remained behind the counter, interjected. “He doesn’t know these people,” he insisted.

I would later find out that this was Saïd’s nephew. In the moment, I was frustrated that Saïd had an emotional accomplice. I needed to speak to him alone. “Why don’t we go somewhere quieter to talk?” I suggested.

Saïd changed out of his sandals into dress shoes before we stepped into the hot night. He indicated a café nearby, but no sooner had we reached the street than he stopped and asked us to come to his home. It was an odd turn, and one that momentarily made me panic. Tabsheer and I declined the invitation. Saïd then tried to double back to the store—to retrieve his wallet, he said, since he insisted on paying for the tea we would have while talking. But Tabsheer and I encouraged him to continue on with us. We didn’t want to lose any momentum.

As we walked, Saïd stayed a few steps ahead. He called people on his phone—one of his employees, a friend. His voice was muffled, and it was difficult to make out what he was saying. Every now and then he would turn around and implore us to think of his wives, his children. I kept up a steady stream of questions in English, which Tabsheer translated. Soon Tabsheer realized that Saïd had begun muttering under his breath, in Pashto, “Fuck Rabiya, fuck Rabiya.”

We reached a small, well-lit square with an empty café off to one side—we could talk there, I said. But the mood had darkened. Saïd raised his voice and pleaded loudly with Tabsheer in Pashto, ignoring me. I pulled my phone out and began recording him, and Saïd smacked my hand, less out of a desire to hurt me, it seemed, and more from uncontrollable desperation.

“My mind is exploding,” Saïd cried. People on the street stopped to stare at us. “I’m going to collapse and die right here!” He clutched the sides of his head.

I could feel my heart beating in my chest. Saïd looked at me hard and said I could come back tomorrow to talk to him. We both knew that if I returned to the store, he wouldn’t be there. As he crossed the street to get away from me, he called out to Tabsheer, who approached him one last time.

“Please, you’re an Afghan,” Saïd begged. He touched Tabsheer’s chin—a deferential gesture in Afghan culture. “Get me out of this situation. Do something about this.”

Then he was gone.

The people Tabsheer and I talked to would speak only on the condition of anonymity, and they all said a version of the same thing: Saïd was powerful and dangerous.

The following morning, I returned to Saïd’s hawala. As expected he wasn’t there, but the shop was open and there was a steady stream of customers. The nephew was working the counter. He stared at me with narrow, glassy eyes and kept repeating the same thing: It was sad what happened to these women, but his uncle was a good man, respected in the neighborhood, with two wives and many children back home. Saïd wasn’t the type of man who would hurt anyone. He was religious.

Tabsheer and I stayed for about an hour, leaning against the scratchy, lumpy bags of rice. At one point Tabsheer called Saïd on the phone—we’d gotten his number from Mohammed. “I don’t need to say anything to that woman,” Saïd said. “She’s a journalist, not the police.” He was right. The trip to Istanbul had cast the limitations of my field into sharp relief. I didn’t have the authority to compel Saïd to talk; only law enforcement did.

When Tabsheer and I left the shop, we crisscrossed Zeytinburnu to find people to speak with. It was a mirror image of the beginning of my trip, but instead of showing strangers pictures of Fahima and her daughters, I showed them a Facebook photo I’d found of Saïd dressed in a white shalwar kameez and standing in front of the casbah in Mecca. This time we got the same answer again and again: Yes. Nearly everyone we met knew who Saïd was. Mohammed had been right about his stature in the community.

The people Tabsheer and I talked to would speak only on the condition of anonymity, and they all said a version of the same thing: Saïd was powerful and dangerous. He employed a number of men to run his smuggling operation, which passed people through Evros. No one would confirm his relationship with Fahima and her daughters.

Back in Athens, I was asked to give another deposition to the police; it would be submitted to the judge in Evros who would oversee the murder case, whatever shape it eventually took. I told the police what I’d learned about Saïd. It felt like a moral imperative. Ostensibly, the police could share my information with their Turkish counterparts, who could investigate him. There was also a sense of urgency: By September 2021, the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, and cooperation with many foreign governments had ground to a halt. If Saïd fled to his home country, he would be all but impossible to find.

That’s exactly what happened. Before the Turkish police could get involved, Mohammed, whom I was still in contact with, told me that Saïd had left Istanbul. With Saïd in the wind, the murder investigation once again ran aground.

Then one day in March 2022, I received a phone call. Mirajuddin Osman had been apprehended and was being held at a prison in northeastern Greece. He wasn’t the last puzzle piece in the case—I was coming to accept that I might never find them all—but he was a crucial one. I sent a request for an interview.

Abdul at the graves of his wife and daughters.

The police investigating the murders should have found Osman earlier—or, more accurately, they should have realized when they first had him in custody. Osman left Turkey in December 2020. A smuggler had promised to take him to Bulgaria, but something went wrong and he entered Europe the same way Fahima, Farzana, and Rabiya did two years prior: over the Evros River. Osman made it to Thessaloniki.

It’s routine in Greece for police to stop foreign-looking people and ask to see identity papers and asylum cards. Those who can’t produce them—and occasionally even those who can—are arrested and may be sent to Turkey. Whether a person gets into trouble with the authorities is a matter of that most cruel mistress, luck. Some people have it, others don’t.

For a while, Osman had it. Then one day he didn’t. He was held in a jail in northern Greece, where his fingerprints and mugshot were taken. It could have been a huge break in the murder case, but due to disorganization among the branches of Hellenic law enforcement, the police in Athens had no idea that their person of interest was languishing in a cell a few hours north. After five days, Osman was released. By the time the Athens police learned that he’d been arrested, he was long gone, absorbed into the underworld that so many migrants pass through. It would be another year before investigators managed to track him down, in Germany. When they did, they extradited him to Greece.

When I met him in March 2022, Osman was incarcerated at a squat yellow prison in Komotini, a small town about an hour from the Turkish border. Komotini has a sizable Muslim population, a demographic relic of the Ottoman Empire. Today it holds the dubious distinction of being one of the poorest and most marginalized places in Greece.

I was shocked by how little Osman resembled the man in the photos I had been looking at for three years. The only thing remaining of his youth was his hairline, still defiantly thick and straight across his forehead. The ordeals of a hard life had been etched into his face and had hardened his gaze. Though he was in his early twenties, he could have passed for forty.

I pressed the plastic phone receiver to my ear and listened to Osman, separated from me by a smudged sheet of glass, tell his side of the story. When he’d first met Fahima, he was barely out of his teens. It happened shortly after she arrived in Istanbul, and the circumstances were surprisingly wholesome: Osman’s mother, who also lived in the city, was very distantly connected to Fahima’s family back in Mazar-i-Sharif. The first time Osman saw Fahima, she was sitting on his mother’s couch, surrounded by all five of her children and her husband. None of those dependents registered as obstacles for Osman. In his eyes, Fahima must have burned as brightly as the Madonna.

Osman became a devout believer, worshipping daily at the altar of his beloved. “It was my first time falling in love,” he said with a thin smile. “Whatever Fahima said, I did without question.” Soon he was spending every free moment he had with Fahima and her two daughters, dedicating the little money he earned working seven days a week on a construction site to small presents and social outings. He felt drawn to Fahima: She was beautiful, sure, but he was particularly attracted to her fierce personality. She was proud, and she knew what she wanted. It was seductive.

By his account, Fahima kept him at arm’s length when it came to decisions in her life. Like Mohammed, Osman told me that Rabiya and Saïd had married, but that he only learned of their engagement on the day of the wedding—Fahima had kept him in the dark until then. The wedding was a proper, quiet celebration, with a mullah reciting words from the Qur’an. Afterward Rabiya, along with her mother and sister, moved into Saïd’s apartment in Zeytinburnu.

Osman claimed that Fahima never told him that she wanted to end the couple’s marriage. He didn’t recall discord of any kind—the couple, he told me, were “fine.” When Saïd was away visiting his other wives, Osman would stay over at the house. “He was always good to me,” Osman said of Saïd.

Near the end of a workday in October 2018, Osman received a call from Fahima. “We’re leaving for Europe. Tonight,” she told him. She meant that he would be coming, too. Ever pliant to her wishes, Osman went to the supermarket, where he picked up a few things to sustain them on the journey: a roast chicken, some hard cheese, a loaf of bread. Like most migrants, they would leave the bulk of their possessions behind.

In Zeytinburnu, he met up with Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana, and they bundled into a car along with Saïd and three of his associates, including the nephew I had met in Istanbul. The mood was light, Osman recalled. Saïd and his men spoke Pashto, a language Osman was not fluent in, so he focused his attention on the women. The three of them were giddy. After several attempts to cross into Europe, they were finally doing it—they were sure the trip would be a success.

Saïd wouldn’t be coming with them; he would take them only as far as the border. Why would a powerful man smuggle his teenage bride into Europe rather than keep her close by? Did this ring as odd to anyone in the group? If so, Osman didn’t indicate it as he told me his story.

Saïd’s years as a trafficker proved useful: The group wasn’t stopped by the police driving out of Istanbul, and three hours later they managed to evade detection by Turkish border control. Saïd parked the car in a well-hidden spot, and everyone climbed out. It was dark and cold, with only the thin moonlight to guide them. After walking some distance, they reached the Evros River, where a small inflatable boat was waiting for them. Saïd and the smugglers sat on one side, the women and Osman on the other. The lighthearted atmosphere from the car gave way to solemnity.

Once across the river they exited the boat, their feet sinking into the muddy bank. Fahima, Farzana, and Rabiya walked in front of Osman, Saïd, and the rest of the men. They continued for twenty minutes, in an area dotted with watchtowers and crawling with police and patrol cars. The danger of what they were doing must have weighed heavily with each sodden step.

Saïd knew how to remain undetected; he directed everyone through the forest, and the group never met with trouble. Eventually, they reached Nikos Papachatzidis’s fields. Osman claimed that only then did the situation shift—only then did he and the women realize that the real danger came from the smugglers.

The men stopped and opened a backpack that one of them was carrying. Inside were two black-handled knives and rope. The smugglers pulled out the weapons and first used them as a menacing tool to keep the women and Osman in line. According to Osman, the men bound Rabiya’s and Fahima’s hands behind their backs, while he was tied up with Farzana. If the smugglers explained what was happening and why, Osman didn’t recall it. “I don’t know what happened with Saïd that would have made him do this,” he told me.

Saïd pulled Fahima away first, Osman said, dragging her several yards before cutting her throat. He then reached into her jacket and pulled out 2,400 euros, money Fahima had diligently saved to start a new life. Osman said he saw the flash of a knife as it sliced first across Rabiya’s olive neck, then Farzana’s. The women screamed, desperate animal cries that reverberated through the forest, until they couldn’t any longer. No one heard them: The solitariness that had been a source of relief just moments before was now sinister, devastating.

“I was saying my last words,” Osman told me, “because I thought I was going to die.”

But he didn’t.

“Why didn’t Saïd kill you, too?” I asked.

Osman contemplated the question before answering. Saïd spared his life because the exhaustion of killing the three women was too much, he said finally.

It was far-fetched, like so much of Osman’s story seemed to be, especially since three of Said’s henchmen were there. Surely, he could have ordered one of them to kill a witness to his crimes. Osman rubbed his forehead, thinking. Saïd’s nephew wanted to kill him, he eventually said, but Saïd overruled him.

In Osman’s telling, he walked back to the boat with the other men. Saïd told him to keep his mouth shut or he would meet the same fate as Fahima and her daughters. The intimidation continued once they were back in Istanbul, Osman claimed, which is what prompted him to flee to Europe.

Osman insisted that he had nothing to do with the crime—“I’m innocent,” he said more than once in our conversation. Still, he said that he felt responsible for Fahima’s death. “Nobody spoke against Saïd,” Osman told me. “He was too powerful, and if I had said anything he would have killed me. But I blame myself for not going to the police.”

A guard rapped on the door and shouted brusquely in Greek. My allotted interview time—a little over an hour—was over. I was ushered out of the prison. As I blinked against the strong afternoon sun, I considered everything Osman had told me, and everything he hadn’t. His story was riddled with holes, but it was unclear what was pouring out of them: guilt, cowardice, or something more ominous?

Whether Osman played a role in the killings or was only a bystander as he claimed, the motive for the crime remained unclear. Assuming that Saïd was the perpetrator, I ran through possible scenarios. Rabiya’s autopsy indicated that she probably hadn’t had sex—had she refused to consummate the marriage, angering Saïd? Maybe Rabiya begged her mother to free her from a marriage she didn’t want, and Fahima relented: They would go to Europe and never look back. Still, they’d need Saïd’s help to get across the border. Maybe they assured him that, once in Europe, Rabiya would remain faithful, and that he could visit her like he did his other wives. Saïd, being no fool, would have suspected the truth: that Rabiya had no plans to see him again. Maybe he’d read the texts on the women’s shared phone in which Rabiya told a friend that she didn’t want to be with him, or overheard Fahima talking to Hadila about ending the relationship.

Whatever the case, it’s possible that Rabiya’s desire for a new life in Europe allowed Saïd to devise a plan to enact revenge in a place where he knew he’d get away with it—in a foreign country where migrants’ bodies turn up all the time, where he could slip back across the border with ease. It was an elaborate murder plot, but not an implausible one.

Or maybe the killings were more spontaneous. Perhaps the women said or did something after crossing the Evros River that their smugglers deemed a murderable offense. There were plenty of other scenarios that might fit into the blurry outlines of the truth I’d managed to piece together. Clarity was just out of reach, and the only people who could provide it were either unwilling, on the run, or dead.

The odds of solving the murders of three migrant women committed along one of the world’s most fraught borders were impossibly long. Tsirigoti went looking for a needle in a geopolitical haystack. So did I.

As of this writing, Osman is being held in pretrial detention on suspicion of being involved in the murders. According to Greek law, an investigating judge (who declined to provide information for this story) is preparing the case against him. It’s likely to go to trial next year. But even if Osman is convicted, justice will feel at best like a half measure.

According to a police source, a Greek arrest warrant has been issued for Saïd; an international arrest warrant through Interpol is pending. Mohammed told me that since I encountered Saïd in August 2021, he had returned to Turkey on at least two occasions. If only the Greek and Turkish police would cooperate. If only someone would find Saïd and question him, or do the same with the nephew I met at the hawala, the one Osman claimed was present during the murders. If only a key thread in the women’s story hadn’t been left frayed and dangling.

It’s a reporter’s job, of course, to manage such threads, and when necessary to learn to live with them. This is never more true than when telling stories about the murk and the ripple effects of conflict. As Zacharoula Tsirigoti knew when she embarked on her investigation, the odds of solving the murders of three migrant women committed along one of the world’s most fraught borders were impossibly long. She went looking for a needle in a geopolitical haystack. So did I. Perhaps disappointment, to one degree or another, was always where this story was going to end.

But there are threads—many, in fact—that have been woven into place in the more than four years since the women’s deaths. Together they reveal three lives shaped in part by circumstances beyond any one person’s control. Three lives that, in spite of everything, were lived with love, hope, and resilience. Lives cut short on the edge of Europe, like more than 25,000 others in the past decade. Lives that, unlike so many of the fellow dead, can be known, remembered, and honored.

Usually migrants found at the bottom of the Evros River, in crushed cars on the highway to Thessaloniki, or frozen in farmers’ fields are interred under mounds of dirt topped with simple tombstones, each engraved with a unique serial number. But outside Komotini*, there’s a small Muslim cemetery recently reopened for the identified bodies of believers who made it to Europe only to die. In the middle of the plot are three graves with the names of the dead carved clearly into stone.

Fahima. Rabiya. Farzana.

*This story has been corrected to clarify the location and nature of the cemetery.

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

True Grit

True Grit

When a storm surge swept dozens of wild horses and cattle from the coast of North Carolina, no one expected there to be survivors. Then hoofprints appeared in the sand.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 132

J.B. MacKinnon is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The Atlantic, as well as the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies. He is the author or coauthor of five books of nonfiction, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches feature writing.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Sky Patterson
Illustrator: Luis Mazón

Published in October 2022.

The wild horses all have names. Ronald, for example, and Becky and Clyde. The names sound mundane, even for horses, but each is something like a badge of honor. For years now, the people of Cedar Island, North Carolina, have named each foal born to the local herd of mustangs after the oldest living resident who hasn’t already had a horse named for them. Every island family of long standing has this connection to the herd.

Cedar Island, located in a pocket of North Carolina known as Down East, is what passes for remote in the continental United States these days. Though it’s only 40 miles as the gull flies from the Cape Hatteras area, with its tourists and mortgage brokers, its restaurants with names like Dirty Dick’s Crab House, Cedar Island remains a place with only a scattering of people and businesses, where you can’t be certain of finding a restaurant meal—not so much as a plate of hush puppies—on a Sunday evening. Upon arrival you might not notice that Cedar Island is an island at all. Crossing the soaring Monroe Gaskill Memorial Bridge, which connects it to the mainland, what you pass over is easily mistaken for another of the region’s sleepy, curlicue rivers. In fact, this is the Thorofare, a skinny saltwater channel connecting the Pamlico Sound to the north and the Core Sound to the south. The Pamlico is one of the largest embayments on the U.S. coastline, while the Core is narrow and compact. Cedar Island stands between them, and all three are hemmed in by the Outer Banks.

I’ve just written that Cedar Island separates two sounds, and on maps this is true. Reality is less decisive. Swaths of the small island are sometimes underwater, depending on wind, tide, and season—in particular, hurricane season.

The shifting, amphibious nature of Cedar Island was never more apparent than on the morning of September 6, 2019. Under the whirling violence of Hurricane Dorian, maps lost all meaning. The Pamlico and Core Sounds joined to become a single, angry body of water, shrinking Cedar Island to a fraction of its acreage. It was no longer separated from the mainland by the thin blue line of the Thorofare, but by nearly six miles of ocean.

Most of the 250 or so people living on the island were safe, their homes built on a strip of not-very-high high ground precisely to weather the wrath of hurricanes. The wild horses—49 in all—were in much deeper trouble.

There were also some cows. The cows did not have names.

Few cows in America live longer than six years; many are slaughtered much younger. A Cedar Island cow, on the other hand, stands a good chance of living into its teens, and might even see its 30th birthday.

There is no such thing as a truly wild cow. While Cedar Island’s cattle range more or less freely, the technical term for them is feral—they are the descendants of escapees from domestication. The island’s mustangs are feral, too, but while visitors often come to Cedar Island solely in hopes of seeing the Banker horses, as the area’s herds are known, next to no one makes a special trip to photograph the “sea cows.”

The cows are striking to look at, though. While they vary in color, many have a bleached-blonde coat, blending in with the pale sand and the glare of the sun on Cedar Island’s hammerhead northern cape, where both cattle and horses roam. Tourists are happy to see the cows, just not as happy as they are to see the horses. Here and across America, a mustang—mane flowing, hooves pounding the earth—is an embodiment of beauty and freedom. Cows are not.

For Cedar Islanders, the cows are part of what makes their home distinctive, a fond and familiar part of the community and its history. In fact, the cattle have been on the island far longer than the mustangs, who were transferred from the more famous Shackleford Banks herd three decades ago. But the relationship people on the island have with horses is different than the one they have with cows, in much the same way it is for people nearly everywhere.

“This used to be horse country,” said Priscilla Styron, who has lived on or near Cedar Island for 30 years and works at its ferry terminal. “Everybody rode, they had pony pennings, they had all kinds of stuff. Everybody was always riding horses.” As for the cows, there was a time not so long ago when an islander might round one up from the beach, take it home to graze and fatten up, then butcher it for meat.

As Hurricane Dorian approached Cedar Island, no one troubled themselves about either kind of animal. One islander, who called himself a “simple country boy” and asked not to be named, scoffed at the idea that wild creatures would brook being corralled and taken off-island to wait out the storm. Not that anyone thought that was needed, according to Styron. “They usually protect themselves. You don’t have to worry about them,” she said. “They can sense more than we can.” Cedar Island had never lost more than one or two members of its wild herds to a storm—and Down East sees more than its fair share of those.

In 2019, there were perhaps a couple dozen cattle on the island—no one knew for sure, because no one was keeping count, not even residents who were fond of their bovine neighbors. For at least some of the cows, Dorian was nothing new. Few cows in America live longer than six years; many are slaughtered much younger. A Cedar Island cow, on the other hand, stands a good chance of living into its teens, and might even see its 30th birthday. A cow that was 20 years old in 2019 would have had close encounters with at least ten hurricanes: Dennis, Floyd, Isabel, Alex, Ophelia, Arthur, Matthew, Florence, and two named Irene. The herd could look to its elders for guidance.

Biologists only recently recognized that cows have complex social behaviors, involving depths of comprehension that we might not expect of animals stereotyped as grungy, placid, and dull-witted. A feral herd, for example, will organize nurseries by dividing calves into age groups, each usually overseen by one adult cow while the rest go out to graze. For this to work, the sitters need to understand that their role is to look after calves that are not their own, even if it means settling for low-grade fodder while others enjoy greener pastures. The calves have to grasp that they are under vigilance despite their mothers being out of sight.

No one documented how the cows responded as Dorian approached, but Mónica Padilla de la Torre, an evolutionary biologist, can give us a good idea. “They usually are not afraid of storms. They like storms,” Padilla said. “They like to be cool. They like shade. They appreciate when the rain comes.”

Even before the hurricane loomed on the southern horizon, the herd likely began to move—with that usual cattle slowness, that walking-on-the-moon gait—toward shelter. In the era before hurricanes were tracked by satellites and weather radar, cows were a useful predictor that one was coming. The migration, Padilla said, would have been initiated by the herd’s leaders. Cattle violently clash to establish a pecking order, and once that’s settled a benign dictatorship ensues. Leaders are granted the best places to eat and the best shade to lie in, and they make important decisions—like when to retreat to high ground in the face of a storm.

For Cedar Island’s cattle, high ground was a berm of brush-covered dunes between beach and marshland. There the cows grazed, chewed cud, and literally ruminated, passing rough forage through a digestive organ, the rumen, that humans lack. Far from appearing panicked, the herd was probably a bucolic sight, from the Greek word boukolos, meaning “cowherd.”

A close observer, Padilla said, might have noticed subtle differences among the animals: mothers that were watchful or unworried, calves that were playful or lazy, obvious loners or pairs licking or grooming each other. Padilla once spent several months studying cow communication—I found the urge to describe this as “cow-moo-nication” surprisingly strong—by memorizing the free-ranging animals she observed via nicknames like Dark Face and Black Udder. (She didn’t realize at the time that the latter was a perfect punning reference to the classic British TV comedy Blackadder. What is it about cows and puns?) On Cedar Island, Padilla said, there wasn’t simply a herd that was facing a storm. There was a group of individuals, each with its own relationships, including what Padilla doesn’t hesitate to call friendships.

Dorian arrived in the purest darkness of the first hours of September 6. Three days prior, it had ravaged the Bahamas with 185-mile-per-hour winds, tying the all-time landfall wind-speed record for an Atlantic cyclone. Some observers suggested giving it a rating of Category 6 on the five-point scale of hurricane strength. It had weakened by the time it reached North Carolina, but it was still a hurricane. Thick clouds blacked out the moon and stars; Cedar Island’s scattered lights hardly pierced the rain. Passing just offshore on its way to making true landfall at Cape Hatteras, the hurricane lashed the Pamlico and Core Sounds into froth and spray and sent sheets of sand screaming up the dunes. The scrubby canopy under which the cows likely took shelter, already permanently bowed by landward breezes, bent and shook in the teeth of the storm. A 110-mile-per hour gust on Cedar Island was the strongest measured anywhere in the state during Dorian’s passage.

When the eerie calm of Hurricane Dorian’s eye passed over the island, dropping wind speeds to only a strong breeze, there seemed to be little more to fear. There was still the back half of the storm to come, but Cedar Island residents, both human and not, had seen worse. Even in the off season, the North Carolina shore has hurricanes on its mind. If you see footage of a beach house collapsing in pounding surf, chances are it was shot on the Outer Banks. Drive around Down East and you’ll see many houses raised onto 12-foot stilts; in some homes, you reach the first floor by elevator. Maps show that much of the Outer Banks, including most of Cedar Island and huge swaths of mainland, will be underwater with a sea-level rise of just over a foot. Residents aren’t rushing to leave, though. A hardened sense of rolling with the punches prevails.

Yet with Dorian, something unusual happened as the center of the storm moved northward. At around 5:30 a.m., Sherman Goodwin, owner of Island’s Choice, the lone general store and gas station on Cedar Island, got a call from a friend who lived near the store. A storm surge was rising in the area, the friend said. Fifteen minutes later, as Goodwin drove through the dim first light of morning, the water was deep enough to splash over the hood of his Chevy truck, which was elevated by off-road suspension and mud-terrain tires. “It came in just like a tidal wave,” Goodwin said. “It came in fast.”

By the time Sherman and Velvet, his wife—“My mother really liked that movie National Velvet,” she told me—reached their shop, they had to shelter in the building. Velvet saw a frog blow past a window in the gale. A turtle washed up to the top of the entryway stairs. “It came to within one step of getting in the store,” Sherman said, referring to the water. A photograph shows the gas pumps flooded up to the price tickers.

To understand what happened on Cedar Island that morning, imagine blowing across the surface of hot soup, how the liquid ripples and then sloshes against the far side of the bowl. Dorian did the same thing to the Pamlico Sound, but with a steady, powerful wind that lasted hours.

The hurricane pushed water toward the mainland coast, which in the words of Chris Sherwood, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), is “absolutely perfect” for taking in wind-driven water. The Bay, Neuse, Pamlico, and Pungo Rivers all flow into the Pamlico Sound through wide mouths that inhale water as readily as they exhale it. Much of the rest of the shoreline is an enormous sponge of marshes. What accumulated in this series of reservoirs was, in effect, a pile of water held in place by the wind.

People who know North Carolina’s sounds are aware of the tricks fierce wind can play. Coastal historian David Stick once noted that, during a hurricane, half a mile of seafloor in the lee of the Outer Banks can be left exposed as sound water is pushed westward. When that happens, a bizarre phenomenon can occur: A storm surge can come from the landward side, striking offshore islands in what’s sometimes called sound-side flooding. Scientists know it as a seiche (pronounced saysh).

When Dorian’s eye passed the Pamlico Sound, the seiche the storm had created began to collapse. Then winds from the southern half of the hurricane, which blow in the opposite direction from the storm’s leading edge, drove the water back the way it came. In a sense, the seiche was also running downhill; the ocean tide was falling in the predawn hours, while the hurricane, still pressing down on the Atlantic, forced water eastward, leaving behind a depression. These forces combined to send the seiche pouring out of the Pamlico Sound east toward the Atlantic, nine feet above the water level in the ocean.

The avalanche of seawater was truly vast, equal to about one-third of the average flow of the Amazon River, by far the highest-volume river on earth. The Amazon, however, meets the sea through a gaping river mouth. Dorian’s sound-side surge was trying to reach the open Atlantic past what amounted to a levee of Outer Banks islands with just a handful of bottleneck channels between them. At the southern end of the Pamlico Sound, there was an added obstacle: Cedar Island.

The water didn’t go around the island. It washed right over it.

The surge left nearly as quickly as it arrived, carrying on to the Outer Banks, where it hit the island of Ocracoke with a wall of water higher than anyone there had ever seen before. Once Dorian passed, floodwaters began receding. On Cedar Island they left thick, greasy muck in buildings and debris on the roads, but no serious injuries were reported. More than a third of the buildings on Ocracoke were damaged, but there were no known deaths.

The first news of losses from Cedar Island’s herds of horses and cattle came as soon as the ocean had calmed enough for islanders to go back to sea in their boats. “That’s when they saw a lot of them,” Styron said. “You know—floating.” That Cedar Islanders do not wear their hearts on their sleeves about such things is strongly conveyed by an anonymous source’s reaction when I asked how people felt about the dead animals. After an uncomfortable pause, he said, “You can pretty much guess that.” Then he added, “Mother Nature allowed them to be here, and I guess Mother Nature can also take them away.”

If anyone witnessed what transpired with Cedar Island’s feral herds, they haven’t said so publicly. Most likely, though, no one saw it, since the surge came without warning in the darkness, and the horses and cows often roamed far from people’s homes. The animals would not have been sound asleep in the predawn—feral creatures, like wild ones, are more vigilant through the night than human beings tucked tight in their homes. Still, they may have dropped their guard, sensing that they’d survived another hurricane.

Then suddenly, the sea moved onto the land. Nine feet of water covered the beaches. It drowned the marshes where the cattle fed on sea oats and seagrass, and flowed over the lower dunes. We know from Padilla’s research what the scene must have sounded like: high-pitched, staccato mooing—cows’ alarm calls—ringing out in the humid air, the bawling of calves competing with the howl of wind and surf. In waters rising at startling speed, mother cattle would have raced to find their young, as bovine friends struggled not to be separated.

Twenty-eight horses were swept away. No one knows exactly how many cows were carried off—four of them managed to remain on land, and locals would later estimate that between 15 and 20 were taken by the flood. The water likely lifted the animals off their hooves one by one, first the foals and calves, then the adults. They disappeared into the tempest.

The islands known collectively as the Core Banks, located southeast of Cedar Island, are nearly 40 miles long and rarely a mile wide. On maps they look like a skeletal finger pointing ruefully toward the North Atlantic. Like most barrier islands they’re low—about eight feet above sea level on average, with the highest dunes cresting 25 feet—and the whole of them are protected as the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Hurricanes always roughhouse barrier islands, but on the morning of September 7, 2019, the day after Hurricane Dorian hit, it was clear that this storm had been a beast of a different order.

Ahead of the cyclone, North and South Core Banks was broken by a single passage, Ophelia Inlet. After the storm, there were 99 additional channels through the islands—the banks had been sliced into 101 pieces. It didn’t seem right to call these cut-throughs inlets. They formed as outlets: The seiche that poured over Cedar Island then collided with the barrier islands, and when it did, it bored right through them. “We had never in the collective memory of the park seen a sound-side event like we saw after Hurricane Dorian,” said Jeff West, superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore. “I did take quite a ribbing about the fact that I lost 20 percent of the park.”

West was on the first maintenance boat to sail from Cedar Island for the Outer Banks. Docking at a Park Service site a few miles up North Core Banks, he began driving an ATV along the beach. Fifty feet later he reached the first cut-through and, wading into it up to his neck, found an animal carcass. He didn’t take the time to determine whether it was horse or cow. “Sometimes large fish find them tasty,” he told me.

Cape Lookout staff would eventually locate the bodies of nearly two dozen dead horses and cattle, along with deer and seabirds. Most were arrayed along the open-ocean side of South Core Banks, likely having passed through Ophelia Inlet before washing up on the beach. The most far-flung horse and cattle carcasses were found near Cape Lookout Lighthouse, about 30 miles from where the animals first washed into the sea.

Cape Lookout workers buried the bodies that the tides didn’t take away.

Most of the media coverage of Dorian’s aftermath focused on the damage on Ocracoke Island. The first report about Cedar Island’s lost herds mentioned only that horses had drowned; the cows had to wait for follow-up articles. It was a blip in the news cycle, soon forgotten as Democrats in Congress sought to impeach Donald Trump.

A pressing question: Can cows swim? Yes, they can. Think of the Wild West, where cowboys guided their herds across deep rivers to fresh pasture or to market. The Cedar Island cattle had been seen swimming, too. One regular visitor described “little bitty calves” lining up to make a crossing to Hog Island, just southeast of Cedar Island in the Core Sound. “I’m like, ‘Don’t go. You’re not gonna make it. It’s a quarter-mile swim,’ ” he said. The calves made the trip with ease.

But it’s one thing to cross a narrow channel in calm seas, and quite another to swim through a hurricane. Only the sunniest optimist could have hoped for survivors from Cedar Island’s herds. “I’m thinking the way the wind was blowing, it was extremely hard to keep your head above water, swimming when you have waves crashing over,” said Pam Flynn, a retired kindergarten teacher and a Down Easter since 1972, who went looking for surviving animals. “I feel like their last few moments were torture and pain and fear. It was heartbreaking.”

A month passed. Wind and waves quickly filled in the channels created by the storm, but what was formerly the southern end of North Core Banks lingered on as a separate island: Middle Core Banks, which would stand alone for two years. One day in early October, members of a Cape Lookout resource-management team hopped on their all-terrain vehicles for a routine sweep up Middle Core Banks—almost daily, they’d search for sea turtle and bird nests in need of protection from the fond American pastime of driving on beaches. This time they spotted something else: the tracks of some large animal or other. They were too big to belong to a deer, and, with two toes instead of a hoof, could not have been made by a horse. They had to be the prints of a cow. A Cedar Island cow.

“Initially,” West said of being informed about the prints, “I did not believe it.”

Then the resource team sent him photos of the tracks, and West knew he had to see this survivor cow with his own eyes.

“It just renewed my faith that there are good things in life, something at the end of the rainbow,” Flynn said. “You know, a little sign that we’ll be OK, we’ll get through this and go on.”

West grew up on a ranch near Temple, Texas, and had experience tracking cattle. It seemed like he might need it. In the days after the prints were discovered, the cow that left them proved elusive; to West’s knowledge, no one from the National Park Service had yet seen it. Cedar Island cattle are often active at night, moving swiftly like pale apparitions, and although Middle and North Core Banks are so narrow in spots that you can walk from the sound side to the open Atlantic in three minutes, much of the land is a labyrinth of ponds, marshes, and fly-infested thickets. Additionally, resource crews had spotted hoofprints on small adjacent islands—despite the recent seagoing drama, it appeared that the cow was now making short water crossings too. “No fear of swimming, none at all,” West said, with admiration in his voice.

In the end, he found the animal by accident. West had taken a boat out to Long Point on North Core Banks, home to a cluster of rustic wooden cabins that, in more ordinary times, the Park Service rented to visitors. Dorian’s storm surge had razed two heavily fortified structures that provided electricity and treated water to the wind-battered huts. And there it stood, chewing grass—a dune-colored cow among the dunes, with a coat like gold sand blown onto white sand. It was well muscled, a little heavy, basically an ordinary cow.

“ ‘I’ll be damned. There is a cow here,’ ” West recalled saying aloud. “Nothing like your own eyes seeing it.”

At the sight of West, the cow’s eyes got big. Then it ran away.

West knew that he would need to relocate the cow, both for its own sake and to preserve the wild habitat of the park. For the moment, though, the Cape Lookout staff were too busy assessing and repairing Dorian’s damage to deal with a wayward bovine. Meanwhile, rumors of the survivor began to trickle out as visitors returned to the Core Banks and saw tracks. Pam Flynn and her friend Mike Carroll were among them. “We kept going back and back,” said Flynn, until they lucked into a sighting. “We were so excited to see those cows.”

Not one cow, then, but cows: three in all. There was the classic bleached-blonde that West had seen; another one with large, light-brown spots, like a map of the ancient continents; and a pale young adult, possibly the spotted cow’s calf. Somehow they had survived, found each other, and formed a compact herd. “It just renewed my faith that there are good things in life, something at the end of the rainbow,” Flynn said. “You know, a little sign that we’ll be OK, we’ll get through this and go on.”

On November 12, the Charlotte Observer broke the story of the survivor cows, and a media circus ensued on Cedar Island. One unfortunate local figure, wrongly described in the press as the cattle’s owner or caretaker (they have neither), had reporters knocking on his doors and chasing him up his driveway. On television especially, the tale of survival was presented as a quirky good-news story. The Virginian-Pilot would go on to call the cows “the cattle that enraptured a nation.” 

The hook of the story was its element of surprise: We see cows as stupid, physically awkward, mildly comical brutes, not heroic fighters. The media made heavy use of puns, of course, giving the life-and-death story a chuckling, children’s-book quality. Hurricane Dorian had come ashore “like a cattle rustler in the night” and “corralled” the animals. The cows’ survival was an “udder miracle.” An awestruck Raleigh News and Observer tweeted, “Four miles on the moooooove? Who knew cows could swim that well?”

To estimate how far the cows had paddled during their ordeal, journalists seemed to have measured the shortest distance between Cedar Island and the Core Banks using digital tools like Google Maps. Most put the swim at four miles; NBC preferred the precision of 3.39 miles. But when Alfredo Aretxabaleta, an oceanographer working with the USGS, saw one of these straight-line measures, he spied a problem. “During a storm, I just don’t think that’s the path they would take,” Aretxabaleta said. He suspected their journey was longer—much longer.

Aretxabaleta studies the trajectories of objects adrift, using computer models of wind, tides, and currents. He sometimes throws trackable equipment into the sea to float where it will; the science has been jokingly called driftology, but it has repercussions for our understanding of how climate change could affect coastal erosion, where oil spills and other contaminants might flow, and where to carry out maritime search and rescue work. “In a way,” Aretxabaleta said, “the case of the cows is a kind of search and rescue.”

Coincidentally, Aretxabaleta grew up in Spain’s Basque Country, on a farm where the cattle took dips in an irrigation pond. (His assessment: “They are not good swimmers.”) After Hurricane Dorian, Aretxabaleta in his spare time began to model the probable trajectory of the Cedar Island survivor cows once they were swept out to sea. What emerged was far different from the image of cows taking the shortest route across the Core Sound.

In the context of Aretxabaleta’s model, the sea, in the gray pall of first light as the cows are carried away, is a chaos of riptides, breakers, and blowing spray. With the cows’ eyes only inches above water, land is quickly lost from sight among swells as high as ten feet; from the perspective of a single cow, it’s nearly impossible to keep eyes on the rest of the bobbing herd. Each is fighting not so much to swim as to remain afloat. The currents and tides, made stronger by the force of the storm, are in charge.

The animals are first pushed rapidly southeast along the coast of Cedar Island, then into the center of the Core Sound, where they’re gradually drawn close to the powerful outflow at Ophelia Inlet. But as the tide changes from ebb to flood, Ophelia no longer sucks the animals toward it, but pushes them away. With the ocean now flowing into the sound, the herd are swept back to the north. At last the tide switches again, and Core Sound has many dozen new channels through which to send water back to the Atlantic. Like in a tub with many holes, though, it’s the large ones that have the most pull. Any animals still alive are drawn again toward Ophelia Inlet.

The prospect of passing through any channel would be a fearful one. Surfers sometimes dig cut-throughs between the sea and fresh water that has pooled behind dunes; the flow generated in such canals can resemble a river rapid, with waves large enough to surf. The Core Sound is not much calmer. After the cattle are washed off Cedar Island, the wind doesn’t drop below gale-force for seven hours, and white-capped waves linger much longer. Though the Core Sound has shallow areas such as sandbars, Aretxabaleta accounted for them in his simulations and says it’s unlikely that any cow found footing for long, if at all, during its journey.

His model explains how the cows and horses that were found dead on South Core Banks ended up where they did, flushed through Ophelia Inlet and then strewn to the south by the open Atlantic. By his estimation, none of the survivor cows swam four miles on a straight-line path. In fact, Aretxabaleta said, the probable routes taken by the cows, whether living or dead, range from 28.5 to nearly 40 miles. At the low end, that’s considerably greater than the distance across the English Channel. It’s more than ten times what swimmers complete in an Ironman triathlon. By Aretxabaleta’s measure, the absolute shortest period a cow would have been in the water is 7.5 hours; the longest is 25 hours.

“If it had been humans, it would have been incredible—I mean, like Robinson Crusoe,” he said. “The fact that those three cows survived is something close to a miracle.”

Suppose we didn’t settle for miracles, much less the “udderly miraculous.” Suppose we refused to consign the three cows’ survival to fate and chance. There are other factors we might consider, each of which drifts toward reckonings with how humans interact with bovines.

The first possibility is that the Cedar Island cows were able to endure their ordeal because they were a breed apart, not metaphorically but literally. Blood type and DNA tests suggest the feral horses that live on Cedar Island are likely descendants of Spanish colonial horses, which first came ashore in the United States with Juan Ponce de León in 1521. The cows may have Spanish colonial blood too; no one knows, though, because their genetic makeup has yet to be studied. What’s certain is that cattle have been abandoned or shipwrecked along North Carolina’s coastline since at least 1584. The Cedar Island cattle could have more than four centuries of heritage.

Spanish colonial cattle are different from the commercial breeds that predominate today. “They’re long-lived, they’re good mothers, they’ll eat things other cattle won’t,” said Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager at the Livestock Conservancy in Pittsboro, North Carolina. “And they’re smart. The locals will tell you, ‘Be careful. They’ll eat your lunch!’ ”

They are also notoriously tough. In the days before the Civil War, Spanish-descended Pineywoods cattle, for example, were known for heat tolerance, disease resistance, and a capacity to live in landscapes too harsh for commercial breeds. The rugged nature of the Pineywoods cows resulted in a markedly different relationship between them and their owners than we see in today’s industrial agriculture. Some ranchers had so much respect for their cattle that they would not tolerate the use of dogs to harass the animals during roundup. Others felt it unfair and demeaning to confine the cows with fences.  It was only in the 1950s, with commercial feed and motorized equipment used to clear and mow pastures, that the Pineywoods herds began to fade, though a small number of farmers in the Deep South breed them to this day.

Phillip Sponenberg, a veterinary scientist who has spent 50 years searching for the purest-blood remnants of Spanish livestock in the United States, sees signs that the Cedar Island cows share at least a trace of that ancestry. “Some of them are basically white, but they have dark ears, eyes, noses, and feet. That’s a fairly unique color pattern and, in North America, often of Spanish origin,” he said. Some of the Cedar Island cattle also have horns that twist like a Spanish colonial cow’s.

Several experts I spoke to suggested that the fact that any cows at all survived the Dorian surge is clear evidence that they aren’t ordinary cattle. Most agreed that no modern breed would have made it through such a disaster. In this there is recognition of how we’ve degraded cattle as animals, turning them weak and needy. It also feels too convenient. It allows us to duck a more uncomfortable possibility, which is that these animals that most of us readily eat may have made it through the storm by drawing on the same internal resources that humans do in extreme circumstances. Not just a hard-wired survival instinct, that is, but a fierce desire to live—one strong enough to sustain hour upon hour of mortal struggle.

Pain and stress, and especially their severity, may be more challenging to recognize in cows, since as prey animals they evolved to avoid outward signs of weakness, which can attract predators. Cows are stoics; they tough it out.

I should pause here to say that I eat beef. I put cows’ milk on my cereal. I have leather shoes and belts in my wardrobe. Still, like many other people, I recognize that rearing and slaughtering cattle raises issues that are ethically complicated, contradictory, and sometimes deeply weird. None of this, however, is what led me into the terrain of cow psychology. Instead, I simply wanted to know why one cow might survive swimming through a hurricane while another might not.

Remarkably for an animal domesticated thousands of years before the dawn of civilization, the scientific study of cows distinct from their roles as livestock is mostly a recent pursuit. When Mónica Padilla de la Torre reviewed existing research on cow communication more than a decade ago, she was surprised to discover that almost nothing had been done on the subject—which is why she started from scratch, watching cattle through field binoculars like a Dian Fossey of the rangelands. “I think we have a moral responsibility to know these animals that we have lived with for so long,” she said.

For a 2017 paper, Lori Marino, a biopsychologist, reviewed every study she could find on cow psychology. Again, the trove was not impressive. There’s a lot to learn about these animals,” said Marino. “There is resistance to coming to terms with who they actually are, their cognitive and social and emotional complexities.”

The problem, of course, is that those complexities could upend our relationship with the species. Marino describes the prevailing way we think about cows as an ideology, one that frames them as dull creatures that are fine with their lot in life, even if that life includes crowding, untreated lameness, being burned with a red-hot iron, and having their calves taken away—practices common in modern industrial farming.

In Marino’s review of the available research, however, she found that cows are “very sensitive to touch,” and that they respond to injury or the threat of it in ways similar to dogs, cats, and humans: by avoiding causes of pain, by limping, groaning, and grinding their teeth, and by evidencing higher levels of stress hormones in their blood. On the other hand, pain and stress, and especially their severity, may be more challenging to recognize in cows, since they evolved to avoid showing signs of weakness, which can attract predators. Cows are stoics; they tough it out.

Though data on cow psychology is limited, I still found it surprising. It was somehow troubling to learn that cows readily recognize one another and are able to distinguish cattle of any breed from other sorts of animals. Cattle are able to navigate and memorize physical mazes with flying colors, outperforming hens, rats, and even cats, and leading researchers to conclude in the study that “the problems were too simple.” When cows were tested in more complex mazes, one in five succeeded at the toughest challenges, and could recall how to navigate the maze when retested six weeks later.

Here we enter territory more meaningful to the question of how those three cows might have survived swimming through a hurricane, since mastering mazes involves not just intelligence but also motivation. It’s true that only one in five cows solved the difficult mazes, but that may be because they dislike being alone and are fearful of places with many potential hiding places for predators, such as a maze. Throughout the tests, some of the cattle, despite a food reward for completion, appeared to resist, give up, or become fearful. Others were bolder and more curious. “This may,” the researchers reported, “suggest the possibility of the involvement of personality.”

With cows, some of the clearest expressions of apparent personal motivation are found in near-death escapes from slaughterhouses. In one of the most famous examples, a 1,050-pound cow broke loose from a Cincinnati facility in 2002. After jumping a six-foot fence, the cream-colored bovine was seen on a nearby side street, was subsequently spotted on a major parkway, then finally escaped into a wooded city park. Over the next 11 days, it evaded the SPCA, traps, tranquilizer darts, even thermal imaging from a police helicopter, before finally being captured.

The animals we eat are nameless, yet escaped cattle that make the news are often rewarded with names. Once that happens, they are unlikely to be returned to industrial production. In this instance, the cow was dubbed Cincinnati Freedom, and lived out her days at a rescue shelter where she was standoffish with people but bonded with three other slaughterhouse escapees. When “Cinci” was dying in 2008, her cohorts attacked the car of an attending veterinarian.

The prevailing ideology, to borrow Marino’s term, has been to explain away cattle’s responses to the world around them as exclusively innate or instinctive. By this standard, when the herd of cows was swept off Cedar Island into a violent ocean, survival would have been determined by luck and physical strength.

If individual cows have personalities, perhaps not as complex as our own, but no less singular, then that assessment may need to change. Once the storm had washed the herd into the ocean, some of the cattle, stricken by panic, would have quickly succumbed to water inhalation or exhaustion. Others, dragged farther and farther from land by the powerful currents of the seiche, might gradually have lost the spirit to fight on. But is it conceivable that three would keep going, drawing on exceptional mental toughness to push their bodies far beyond anything they’d endured before, in order to survive?

“I would use ‘willpower,’ ” Marino said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to use that term.”

No one will ever be certain exactly what the cows went through. Did the two that were later seen ashore together also make the swim that way? We don’t know. But we can hypothesize that the cows in the water would have tried to stay together. Studies show that even being able to see another cow reduces their stress. Together, they may have faced calamity with less fear. Perhaps that alone made the difference.

We can picture the three cows desperately blinking their eyes against the waves and the wind-driven spray, enduring the creeping cold in their bodies, the gradual ache and depletion in their muscles, the thirst and hunger after what may have been hours at sea, the maddening whine of the wind. Then finally seeing, or perhaps first smelling, land once again. Hearing the roar of the fearsome inlets and fighting to avoid being sucked into one.

Their hooves making contact with the sand.

Scrabbling to gain footing.

Surging onto the land as the water rushed between their legs, then dragged back toward the violent ocean.

Finally walking free, with a feeling like profound relief to be alive.

The question of what happened next can perhaps be told through another tale of animal survival. When Hurricane Fran struck in 1996, the storm surge that hit New Bern, North Carolina, flooded the offices of an auto salvage business to a depth of 16 inches. Inside was a junkyard dog named Petey, who stood ten inches tall. After the flood retreated, Petey’s owner found his dog alive but exhausted. When he saw that Petey was soaked with muddy, oily water up to its neck, he surmised that his pet had dog-paddled inside the building for as long as eight hours to survive. Here’s what animals do after such an ordeal: Petey slept for two days straight.

Though little used this way today, we do have a word for bovines that roam free like mustangs. They are mavericks. The term has roots in one Samuel A. Maverick of Texas, whose unbranded cattle got loose into the landscape around 1850. In one version of the story, the force that scattered his cows was a hurricane.

It’s fitting, then, that on November 21, 2019, it was the duty of six cowhands—complete with lassos, chaps, and spurs—to track down the three mavericks on North Core Banks. One of the men carried a rifle loaded with tranquilizer darts and Jeff West drove a Park Service ATV next to the cowhands astride their horses. The plan had always been to get the cows home, said West. That fact had not prevented fierce debate from breaking out online.

“Some people thought we should just kill them, be done with it,” West said. “Some people complained, ‘Why are we spending taxpayer dollars on this?’ Heard that more than once. Some people said we ought to just leave them alone, let them exist out there on the banks.”

Many assumed that the cows had survived only to be sent back to owners who would fatten them for slaughter. On the Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Facebook page, a theme emerged that the cows deserved to live; through baptism by flood, they had transcended their place in the scheme of things. “If they have to be removed then take them to a sanctuary. They deserve life. Do not turn those babies into meat after what they’ve survived!” wrote Misty Romano. Don Riggs of Asbury, New Jersey, wrote, “Really? Why not just bypass the farm and go straight to the slaughterhouse?” Judy Cook of Oak Island, North Carolina, simply declared the cows “as cool as the horses.”

Modern views about cows are messy. Many of us, if not most, seem capable of holding somewhere in our heads the idea that cows are sentient beings that we should have compassion for, but also of suppressing that idea enough that we allow them to suffer cruel conditions along the way to being killed for our benefit. Jessica Due, senior director of rescue and animal care for Farm Sanctuary, an organization devoted to ending the agricultural exploitation of livestock, tells a story that exemplifies the ways this can play out. The sanctuary has been called more than once by the same man to come and rescue an animal from a slaughterhouse. The man is the owner of the slaughterhouse. He calls on those rare occasions when a cow gives birth while being processed. This is where he draws the line; he strongly prefers not to kill these mother cows. Otherwise, he oversees the deaths of cattle on an almost daily basis. 

Curiously, just as research is emerging in support of the idea that cows are something more than most of us thought they were, they are also under scrutiny as environmental polluters. Cattle are blamed for producing 9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, including their famously methane-heavy belching and flatulence. Cows swimming in a hurricane: It could be a Hokusai print for our times. As a result, progressives and vegans look forward to a future with far fewer cows—to save the planet, to protect the animals from our cruelty, or both at once. Many in the industrial beef industry, meanwhile, remain reluctant even to concede that cows are meaningfully sentient. In the 10,000 years of human-cow relations, it’s possible that cattle have never had as few supporters as they have today.

Stephen Broadwell, the leader of the cowhands trotting down North Core Banks nearly three months after Hurricane Dorian, is one of those supporters. Broadwell is russet tanned and often wears a cowboy hat, but that is where the stereotypes end. He was raised in corn, tobacco, and soybean country, where North Carolina’s Piedmont Plateau meets the Coastal Plain. Yet he dreamed of being a rancher. “It’s one of those things—I guess it’s born into you,” he said. At the age of 13, he took a summer job on an 80,000-acre ranch in southern Colorado, and that was that. He was a cowboy.

After graduating early from high school, he earned a veterinary assistant’s degree and soon hired on at 3R Ranch Outfitters in the foothills of the Wet Mountains southwest of Pueblo. It was his immersion in an approach to ranching that attempts to mimic natural systems. “Our neighbors were thinking that we had this magical paradise for a ranch around them, and it was just the management practices they’d put in place years ago,” Broadwell told me. “That really got my motor going.”

The company he runs today, Ranch Solutions, might best be described as a holistic ranching consultancy. Broadwell will come to your property and do pretty much anything you need, including building a house from scratch and putting your first cows out to pasture. He has one rule, however: He will not help you raise more cattle than your land can sustain. He has photos of his team riding through the lush, knee-high grass of a client’s property. It’s a field that had already been grazed, but with the cattle moved off before it was eaten to the ground. The pasture was fertilized by manure and supplemented by cover crops that rebuilt nitrogen in the soil during winter, leading to grassland that sequestered more carbon. A cattle ranch, as Broadwell would have it, is an ecosystem.

The claim that holistic management can achieve this state is hotly contested, but research has lately suggested that yes, cattle can live and die without contributing to climate change. (And let it be noted that there is a strong pot-calling-out-the-kettle factor here, given that the average American human’s carbon footprint is twice that of the average American cow’s.) But we need to raise fewer of them, graze them in ways that mimic natural systems, and keep them off land better suited to food crops.

The future of cattle farming, in other words, may look a lot like the Cedar Island herd. Here are cows that can survive heat that would wither modern breeds, in a landscape where nothing we farm will grow. Here are cows adapted to eat what almost nothing else can. “It’s what a billy goat would not want to eat,” Broadwell said. Here are cows that are disease resistant, drink brackish water, defend themselves from predators, and generally require very little in the way of carbon-intensive coochie-cooing. They are the kind of cows that in the past demanded our respect, and one day might again.

“I grew up with stories from my older relatives about working cows in the river breaks”—steep cliff and canyon country—“and how they were more like deer than cows,” said Jeff West, remembering his youth in Texas. “We ran some cows out in North Fort Hood military reservation, and we only messed with them one time of year, during the roundup. Some of those cows were pretty feisty. But not like these Cedar Island cows. I’ve never run across any cows like these cows.”

When Ranch Solutions and West arrived on North Core Banks for the roundup, they had a plan to haze the survivor cows out of the marsh grass, which grows in muck that’s sometimes deep enough to swallow a horse to its belly. Then there was the chaparral. “Thick is a poor word to describe it,” West said. “It is intolerable of somebody passing through.” It took a long time to locate the cows, and then to work them out into the open so that each could be shot with a dart. Sedated, two of the three became pliant enough to be led back to a trailer that had been ferried to the island.

The final cow, the first to be found after the hurricane—alone—did not become pliant. She fled north, managing to hole up in especially dense and convoluted terrain. The team could just see where she was hiding, and managed to hit her with another dart. Then they waited, sure she would gradually go to sleep. She did not. At last the cowhands tried approaching her.

“And she took off,” West said.

Just up the coast was the Long Point camp where West had first spotted the cow a few weeks after the storm. The buildings still stood empty. Wind sucked and blew between weathered wooden walls. Screen doors creaked on rusty hinges. Hooves squeaked in the sand. It was in every way like the setting for a Spaghetti Western shootout. When one of the riders saw a clean line of fire, the crack from his gun echoed among the shacks, then faded into the roar of the tumbling surf.

With three darts’ worth of sedation flooding her system and blood trickling down her pale coat, the cow somehow ran again. She ran out of the camp. She ran up the beach. After half a mile, she couldn’t run anymore. Then she walked. “It was O.J. Simpson all over again. It was the slow-speed chase,” West said. “It was me and all the cowboys at a walking pace, going along until that cow stopped.”

When she finally did, she stared them down. “Like, ‘Try me,’ ” West said. The cowhands closed in, and one last time she managed to run. Then they got ropes on her and brought her down.

From there the job got easier. With the sun on the horizon, they worked a tarp under her prone body and sledded her down the beach. She came to while walled in by the trailer, her fellow survivor cows beside her. Given hay and fresh water, all three refused it.

The next morning, Ranch Solutions ferried the cows back across the Core Sound, drove to Cedar Island’s northern cape, and backed onto the beach. It was Broadwell who did the honors of swinging open the trailer’s gate. The cows stared at the sudden possibility of escape. They made cautious steps toward the opening. Then they burst from their confines. They ran—galloped—down the sand. Heads up, ears forward, they seemed instantly to sense that they were home and free.

On Cedar Island, the return of the cattle brought a sense of normalcy. When I asked one shopkeeper how islanders felt about the cattle now, she responded instantly. “Fiercely protective,” she said. No one I spoke to on Cedar Island knew of anyone who’d witnessed the three cows’ reunion with the remaining herd—the four animals that hadn’t been swept away by the storm in the first place. But according to Padilla, it likely involved muzzling, low and gentle moos, and gamboling. It might also, finally, have involved grief.

People who’ve looked closely at this issue, such as Barbara J. King, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and the author of How Animals Grieve, think the blow would have struck hardest when the survivors came home to find the herd decimated. They might have searched the range for missing herd mates and bellowed in an effort to make contact. King, choosing her words carefully, said, “The potential is incredibly strong for the awareness of loss and feeling of distress that would meet my criteria for grief.”

Yet home also brought a different kind of surprise. The cow that had fought so hard to avoid capture by the cowhands turned out to be pregnant. Could that have played a role in her survival? If a cow has a will to fight for its life, might it also fight for the life of its unborn calf? “Biologically, it wouldn’t be strange to assume that,” Padilla said. “She wants the calf to survive.”

Two months after being returned to Cedar Island, the pregnant cow gave birth to a healthy calf, as blond as the dunes. It was born, as if to mark what it went through in utero, with one brown eye and one blue. The calf was not given a name, but the mother was: Dori. The name is not an allusion to the character in Finding Nemo who sings of how, in hard times, we must keep swimming, swimming, swimming. No: She is named after Hurricane Dorian.

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

Alone at the Edge of the World

Alone at the Edge of the World

Susie Goodall wanted to circumnavigate the globe in her sailboat without stopping. She didn’t bargain for what everyone else wanted.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 131

Cassidy Randall’s work has appeared in Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Forbes, and The New York Times, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @cassidyjrandall.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alison Van Houten
Graphics: Kate Francis/Brownbird Design
Photographs: Courtesy of Susie Goodall

Published in September 2022.

In the heaving seas of the Southern Ocean, a small, red-hulled sailboat tossed and rolled, at the mercy of the tail end of a tempest. The boat’s mast was sheared away, its yellow sails sunk deep in the sea. Amid the wreckage of the cabin, Susie Goodall sloshed through water seeping in from the deck, which had cracked when a great wave somersaulted the boat end over end. She was freezing, having been lashed by ocean, rain, and wind. Her hands were raw and bloody. Except for the boat, her companion and home for the 15,000 miles she’d sailed over the past five months, Goodall was alone.

The 29-year-old British woman had spent three years readying for this voyage. It demanded more from her than she could have imagined. She loved the planning of it, rigging her boat for a journey that might mean not stepping on land for nearly a year. But she was unprepared for the attention it drew—for the fact that everyone wanted a piece of her story.  

The thing was, her story was a fantastic one. Goodall was the youngest of the 18 skippers resurrecting the Golden Globe Race, a so-called “voyage for madmen,” and the only woman. Last run 50 years prior, the race entailed sailing solo and nonstop around the world in a small boat without modern technology. The media were hungry for it, and people were drawn to Goodall in particular: Here was a blue-eyed, blond, petite woman among the romantic mariners and weathered adventurers. All of them were chasing the limits of what humans are capable of physically and mentally, but much of the coverage singled out Goodall, who wanted no part of the sensationalism. She had been a painfully shy child and was a private and introverted adult. The fervor surrounding her participation in the Golden Globe made her feel like a caricature, an unwilling icon. All she wanted was to sail, to search out the connection sailors had with the sea before satellite phones and GPS. 

When the race began, she was almost able to leave the attention behind. There were quiet days gliding south in the calm Atlantic; ecstatic mornings surfing swell in the Southern Ocean; the sudden appearance of a magnificent sunset through persistent clouds. But the spotlight tailed Goodall like a subsurface current. Now, after two days of brutal storm, she knew the world was watching to see whether she would survive.


In 1966, an English bookstore owner named Francis Chichester riveted the world when he set out alone in a boat to circumnavigate the globe. He wasn’t the first to do so; Canadian-American Joshua Slocum completed the first known solo circumnavigation in 1898, and the feat may have been achieved long before but gone unrecorded. Yet the 65-year-old Chichester chose a dangerous route—one that no one, according to sailing lore, had ever attempted alone: From England he would sail south in the Atlantic, along the coast of Africa to the bottom of the world. There he would pass under the Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s southern coast, and South America’s treacherous Cape Horn before sailing north across the Atlantic again. The remote lower reaches of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic where Chichester would spend much of his voyage are known collectively as the Southern Ocean. The region is a vast field of sea unobstructed by land in any direction, with enormous waves, riotous gales, and dramatic skies. Stories abound about ships meeting their end in the Southern Ocean and heroes enduring impossible circumstances. 

Chichester stopped only once on his journey, at the halfway mark in Australia, to perform major repairs to his 53-foot boat, which had been battered by three and a half months on the open sea. When he stepped ashore in England nine months after he’d left, he was greeted like a rock star. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him nearly on the spot. Meanwhile, fellow seafarers understood that, after Chichester’s feat, one great ocean challenge remained: sailing solo around the world without stopping. No one knew if a boat could stand up to 30,000 uninterrupted miles at sea, or what might happen to a human mind so long without company. Nine different men decided to find out. 

They ranged from a former British submarine commander to storied French and Italian sailors to thrill seekers with little seagoing experience. GPS hadn’t been invented, satellite communications and solar panels were scarcely commonplace, and computing had yet to transform weather forecasting. So the men would sail with the accessible technology of the era: a radio, a windup chronometer, and a barometer. They would catch rain for fresh water and navigate with a sextant and the stars.

The Sunday Times decided to brand the men’s individual attempts a formal race, announcing the Golden Globe in March 1968. The event had virtually no requirements or regulations, as the competitors were already planning their voyages, each with its own launch date. But in offering a trophy for the first man to complete the challenge—to incentivize urgency—and a cash prize for the fastest time—to incentivize competition—The Times instantly created one of the greatest adventure stories in history. 

Only one man finished the race. Twenty-nine-year-old Brit Robin Knox-Johnston’s heavy, 32-foot boat Suhaili had been considered a long shot. During the voyage, Suhaili’s water tanks polluted, her sails tore, and the self-steering—a primitive autopilot system consisting of a wind vane that attached to the boat’s rudder—fell apart. The radio malfunctioned two and a half months in; Knox-Johnston had no way of calling for help should trouble have arisen. He jumped overboard multiple times to perform underwater repairs, once shooting a circling shark before diving in. While rigging near impossible fixes to his equipment, he splashed battery acid in his eye and stitched his mustache to a sail while repairing it. When against all odds he reappeared in the harbor of Falmouth on April 22, 1969, after nearly a year at sea, Knox-Johnston sailed into legend. 

The other eight competitors sank, abandoned the journey, or worse. Alex Carozzo bowed out in Portugal, vomiting blood from a peptic ulcer. John Ridgway surrendered to intense loneliness and a poorly constructed boat, exiting the race near Brazil. Nigel Tetley barely survived 80-foot waves in the Southern Ocean, only to have his boat sink a thousand miles from the finish. A storm destroyed Bill King’s mast, and he ended his journey in Cape Town. Favored winner Bernard Moitessier, a sea mystic who practiced yoga naked on deck, was well in the lead after passing Cape Horn. But, imagining the glare of the international spotlight that surely awaited him, he used a slingshot to hurl a message onto the deck of a passing ship, informing the world that he was abandoning the race “to save my soul,” and continuing on to the tropics. 

And then there was Donald Crowhurst. He sailed slow circles around the Atlantic in his rushed build of a leaky boat, transmitting fake radio reports of progress in hopes of fooling the world into believing he was winning. His log told the story of a man slowly going insane under the pressures of deception and monstrous debt to his sponsor, until his transmissions went silent. His trimaran was later found floating on the waves, its skipper having slipped into the ocean in an apparent suicide. 

It would be half a century before anyone attempted the Golden Globe again.

Susie Goodall’s father was obsessed with the sea first. Stephen Goodall learned to sail as a teenager and taught his Danish wife, Birgitte Howells, to sail too. “Sailing is one of those things where people either have a yearning to get back on the water, or they have no particular desire to,” he told me. 

Susie and her older brother, Tim, began sailing and racing small boats on a lake near where they grew up outside Birmingham. In 2004, when Goodall was 15, English sailor Ellen MacArthur set out to break the record for fastest nonstop solo circumnavigation; Susie and Tim followed her journey. After that, Susie read countless books about single-handed sailing and the noble explorers, salty adventurers, and sages who entered into a relationship with the sea as if it were a living thing. Maybe one day she, too, would sail around the world. 

When Susie was 17, she told her parents she wanted to attend university, and they took her to visit several campuses. One day she announced, “I’m not going to go to university. I’m going to the Isle of Wight to become a sailing instructor.” Yes, her father thought. That’s what she should be doing.

Susie got her instruction certificates and taught sailing courses. She also worked on superyachts, delivering boats to port for their wealthy owners or crewing them while the owners were on board. She loved long ocean passages and taking night watches to memorize the patterns of the stars. But the yachts were so mechanized that her work felt like operating a computer. She marveled at stories of sailors once keenly in tune with the ocean and the boats they helmed: Ancient Polynesians, for instance, found their way by swell direction and the flight patterns of certain birds. She taught her students celestial navigation, but there was always backup—a GPS or their smartphone could be turned on at any time. 

Susie voyaged to Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard, and the Baltic, and rose through the ranks of instructors and crew to become a skipper, the small-boat equivalent of a ship captain, in an overwhelmingly male industry. Still, she doubted her abilities. She rarely felt pressured by her crewmates to prove her worth, but that hardly mattered; with few female role models to look to, her internal critic was more than happy to pick up the slack. Susie found herself wondering: Am I smart enough or strong enough? Am I good enough to do this job?

It didn’t help when, in her early twenties, she voiced her dream of sailing around the world to her boyfriend. “Well, that’s just ridiculous,” he replied. “You can’t sail around the world by yourself.”

Susie read countless books about single-handed sailing and the noble explorers, salty adventurers, and sages who entered into a relationship with the sea as if it were a living thing.

In July 2015, Goodall, then 25, was teaching in Iceland when one of her crewmates mentioned that a rerun of the Golden Globe was in the works. When her boat came ashore, she used a computer in her tiny hotel to look up the details. And there it was: The race was set to launch in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the original voyage. Don McIntyre, a decorated Australian adventurer who’d grown up idolizing Robin Knox-Johnston, was masterminding the event. On the edge of 60, McIntyre knew that if he didn’t re-create his hero’s journey now, he never would. And if he wanted to do it, he figured a few others might, too. 

Boats would be limited to the same class as the intrepid Suhaili, between 32 and 36 feet. Sailors would have to navigate with paper charts and sextant, catch rain for water, handwrite their logs, and communicate by radio. No outside assistance would be allowed: no physical contact with anyone else, no help with repairs, no supply deliveries. The specifications couldn’t have been more different than those of the only other solo, nonstop, round-the-world race on offer, the Vendée Globe. That event, which took place every four years, was high-tech, high-speed, and high-cost; the boats alone were worth $300,000 to $5 million. But the new Golden Globe seemed more about the journey than the competition. Goodall downloaded the application and sent in the $3,000 entry deposit.

Telling her parents wasn’t easy. She called her mother—her parents were by now divorced—first. Howells knew something was up just by the sound of her daughter’s breath. 

“What’s the matter?” Howells asked in her light Danish accent before Goodall could speak.

“Nothing, nothing, all is good,” said Goodall. 

Howells waited.

“There’s this race,” Goodall said. “Round the world. Robin Knox-Johnston has done it before. I’ve applied to join it.” She didn’t mention that the race would be nonstop, and run solo without modern technology. She hoped to drip-feed the more worrying details to her family. What Goodall didn’t know was that Howells, on her first sailing trip with Goodall’s father, had read The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. The book recounted the original Golden Globe and Crowhurst’s haunting end. Goodall’s mother knew exactly what her daughter would face. And she also knew from her own experience that the sea offered a connection to something greater and deeper, something perhaps beyond words. 

“I’ve been waiting for you to do something like this,” Howells said. 

In the ensuing months, Goodall didn’t tell many people that she planned to sail the Golden Globe. When it did come up, she dreaded a particular question: What made her think she was capable of sailing around the world alone? She had no response to this. It was true that the farthest she’d sailed single-handed was four miles across the Solent, a strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland Britain. Still, she knew she was a strong sailor and could cope with being alone. 

In truth, that she didn’t know whether she’d make it was part of the reason she wanted to try. She wasn’t content to merely read about the size of the Southern Ocean’s waves, the ferocity of its wind. She wanted to feel those forces, face them on her own. Only then would she know what she was capable of. 

Sailors would have to navigate with paper charts and sextant, catch rain for water, handwrite their logs, and communicate by radio. No outside assistance would be allowed.

Interest in the new Golden Globe came fast and heavy. Dozens of people wanted to run it. McIntyre eventually sacrificed his own entry to devote himself to overseeing such a large event and securing the necessary funding. 

The first meeting of participants was held in London in December 2015. There Goodall was introduced to Barry Pickthall, a former yachting correspondent for The Times who had written dozens of books on sailing. McIntyre had enlisted Pickthall to publicize the race in hopes of gaining a major sponsor. Pickthall was a teenager when Knox-Johnston went around the world, and remembered following the voyage. Of the rerun, he said, “In the end we had 18 starters, with 18 different reasons for going, and very few had aspirations to win it. That wasn’t what they were doing it for at all. They wanted to prove something to themselves, to other people, or just do something they’d always dreamed about.”

In Goodall, Pickthall saw a golden opportunity. Indeed, Goodall remembered him telling her as much the first time they met. He said that having a woman in the race made it more glamorous and he wanted to get The Sunday Times to feature her. “We’re going to dangle you like a puppet for the media so we can attract a sponsor for the race,” Goodall recalled him saying. She was immediately put off. During my conversations with him, Pickthall disputed Goodall’s characterization of their meeting, but conceded that he knew she had media appeal. “It was the sex side of things! Pretty girl sailing around the world,” he said. “And I made the most of it.” 

In A Voyage for Madmen, a book about the 1968 race, author Peter Nichols writes about the “Ulysses factor” in human mythology, “the lone hero figure in society, the rare character who by his or her exploits stimulates powerful mass excitement.” The archetype encompasses a set of characteristics—imagination, endurance, selfishness, discipline, courage, and social instability. Francis Chichester was such a figure, Nichols writes, as were many of the other original Golden Globe sailors. Goodall didn’t fit the Ulysses mold in many ways. It would be difficult to call her selfish, and although she’s an introvert, she’s socially adept, with valued connections to friends and family. But she was a woman at an unprecedented time of women’s empowerment, when the public was hungry for stories of lone heroines who’d found success in male-dominated arenas.

When Goodall told her mother about what Pickthall had said, Howells was surprised. Back in 1989, when she’d just had her daughter, Howells followed Tracy Edwards’s history-making circumnavigation during the Whitbread Round the World Race. Edwards had worked as a cook in the 1985 edition of the race, and she was treated like a servant or worse. One crew member wrote “For sale: one case of beer” on the back of her thermal underwear. After that, Edwards refinanced her house to buy a yacht she named Maiden, and she assembled an all-female crew for the 1989 Whitbread. The media skewered her. Journalist Bob Fisher called the crew a “tin full of tarts” in The Guardian. While other crews were interviewed about experience and strategy, Edwards was asked about packing waterproof mascara and how such a “gorgeous slip of a young girl” expected to raise the millions of dollars needed to participate in such an extravagant race. 

Among the journalists lambasting the Maiden crew was Barry Pickthall. In his telling, it was essentially the women’s fault for the things that were written about them. “They hadn’t done very well in their preparations. We saw all sorts of catfights,” Pickthall told me. “We said, ‘How are these girls going to get round the world?’ ”
When the women came in third and then first in the first two legs of the race, Pickthall said, “We were absolutely astounded. Bob had to change his view to a ‘tin full of smart, fast tarts.’ ”

Howells saw how the media had treated Edwards, but that was nearly three decades before her own daughter planned to embark on a similar endeavor. This is a whole new century, she thought. Surely we’ve moved on.

In April 2016, Goodall combined her savings with a bank loan and bought a Rustler 36 sailboat named Ariadne. Rustlers are sleek and British-built, which meant she could view them close to home—Goodall didn’t have much of a travel budget. Once she’d purchased Ariadne, Goodall packed her bags and moved aboard; she had no money left for rent. The media were already watching her. One story written four months prior had pointed out that Goodall faced “minor issues such as not having a boat or much experience of solo sailing.” She’d addressed the first concern. A solo Atlantic crossing would address the second. 

Ariadne was mostly in good enough condition for the crossing, but to make it around the world, it would need a refit to the tune of $50,000 or more. For that Goodall would require a sponsor. She set a timeline for herself: If by the end of 2016 she hadn’t secured financial support, she would go back to working on superyachts to pay back the money she’d borrowed to buy Ariadne. She would have to abandon her Golden Globe dream, but she’d at least have a boat. She lived on Ariadne on a mooring near Southampton. She woke at 4 a.m. each day to put together packets describing the race and then ship them off to everyone she could think of who might consider supporting her.  

In late fall, Goodall got an email from Tim Stevenson, an investment banker who had a Rustler of his own. He popped over for a cup of tea. They chatted about the race, and Goodall told him about her refitting ideas. Not long after that, Stevenson was at a meeting with Ken Allen, an executive at global shipping enterprise DHL. “I’ve been thinking of sponsoring some women’s sports,” Allen told Stevenson. “Maybe equestrian.” Stevenson replied, “What about sailing?”

Just before Christmas, with mere days remaining before Goodall’s self-imposed deadline, she signed a sponsorship contract with Allen’s billion-dollar company. She thought she’d be over the moon; she was excited. Relieved too. She had what she needed to race. But she felt something else—that it was real now. A massive company with thousands of employees was supporting her. She couldn’t let them down.

Once she’d purchased Ariadne, Goodall packed her bags and moved aboard; she had no money left for rent.

In a small harbor on Antigua, Goodall was facing one of her sailing fears. She dashed from cockpit to bow on Ariadne, trying to get into position to drop anchor. Other boats dotted the surface on all sides, like obstacles in a pinball machine, and cliffs loomed ahead. If she ran into them, it could damage or destroy her boat. But dodging them would be difficult—Goodall’s engine, which sailors used for precision movement when coming into a harbor and anchoring, had cut out more than a week before in the middle of the Atlantic. Goodall knew how to service it and was annoyed she hadn’t been able to fix the problem. Now the wind in the harbor was blowing at nearly 30 knots, pushing Ariadne with it. Finally, Goodall got into position and dropped anchor. She stood on the bow watching, waiting. Please hold, she thought, please hold. 

The anchor stuck. She exhaled. 

In that moment, Goodall completed the first half of her Atlantic loop, which she’d planned as a crash course in getting to know how Ariadne handled, and how she herself would handle on a long solo sail. When Goodall left the Canary Islands three weeks prior, isolation had weighed heavily. She focused her attention on what she wanted to improve on the boat for the Golden Globe, logging ideas in a notebook: where to stow the life raft, how to arrange her sleeping space, where to solder more steel rings around the deck so she could clip a harness to Ariadne in rough seas. She soon got into a rhythm that eased the loneliness, but trade-wind sailing was too straightforward for much excitement. Even with a broken engine, the journey to Antigua was fairly boring. 

That’s why she’d planned a different return route. One thing that worried her about sailing alone around the world was hitting a big storm. Sailors can practice for most things, but it’s not as if a colossal tempest can be conjured up on command to test themselves and their boat. Her return leg, at least, would pit her against prevailing winds and send her into spring squalls. 

She spent a month in Antigua fixing the engine, but it broke again on her homeward leg. She sailed through moderate gales and another length of solitude. Having to be alert to changes in the weather meant her mind was far less likely to wander. This was more like what the Golden Globe would be like, Goodall knew. She loved it.

But as she neared the Azores, a chain of islands 1,000 miles west of Portugal, a scattering of anchored boats and a maze of docks lay ahead, an arrangement far more constricted than what she’d encountered in Antigua. The prospect of coming into harbor with no engine, no room for error, and certain consequences if she hit someone’s boat had been weighing on her mind for days. Heavy weather was close on her heels. She hoped desperately to outrun it, and that some harbormaster might pick her up on the radio and agree to tow her in.

“Please,” she said out loud. She wasn’t sure who or what she was talking to. Maybe the ocean itself. “Show me a sign. I just need to know that everything’s going to be OK.”   

Suddenly, Ariadne was surrounded by dolphins. 

It reminded her of something Moitessier had written in The Long Way, about passing Stewart Island off the southern tip of New Zealand on a misty day. He heard whistling and hurried on deck to find nearly a hundred dolphins in the water around him. As he watched, 25 of them swam from stern to bow and then veered off at a right angle. They repeated the move over and over. He looked down at his compass. He was headed straight for the fog-shrouded rocks of Stewart Island. He changed tack to the right, and one of the dolphins celebrated with a somersault. 

Goodall had crossed most of the Atlantic without seeing much wildlife at all. Now she’d gone from an empty sea to surrounded by dolphins in minutes. It was as if they were telling her everything would be all right. 

Moments later her radio crackled to life. It was the harbormaster. She got a tow before the storm hit.

The prospect of coming into harbor with no engine, no room for error, and certain consequences if she hit someone’s boat had been weighing on her mind for days.

In the two weeks leading up to the Golden Globe launch on July 1, 2018, the skippers brought their boats to Les Sables-d’Olonne, on the Atlantic coast of France. The race contract required that they reserve two full days for interviews with journalists, but few outlets wanted to speak with the other participants, who in turn were freed up to make last-minute preparations. Goodall, by contrast, was swamped.

Some asked her about the work she’d done on Ariadne, and she was happy to show them around the refitted boat. Since purchasing the vessel, she had transformed it almost from top to bottom into what was effectively a tiny floating home. She reinforced the windows of the cabin to stand up against the Southern Ocean’s powerful waves and installed a submarine-style entrance to keep out water in case of knockdowns—when a boat is flung sideways—or capsizes. There were two backup systems at the ready if her mast broke. She stowed an emergency rudder and extra sail-repair kits. In addition, she created a two-week menu of canned and dehydrated food and had enough provisions to repeat it for ten months. She spent hours staring at the world map pinned to the cabin wall, breaking her journey into wayposts in her mind and deciding on dates to celebrate. She laid in cakes and small bottles of wine for special occasions: crossing the equator, reaching the Southern Ocean, her birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s. She learned a visualization exercise that involved hovering above a situation to gain a fuller perspective of it, in case loneliness or tough conditions tempted her to quit.

But other journalists didn’t bother to ask Goodall how she’d prepared her boat, or herself, to cross the world alone. They were far more interested in asking some version of the same question: “So, Susie, you’re the only woman?”

“Well, that doesn’t really matter in rigging my boat—” Goodall began one of her replies in Les Sables-d’Olonne.

“Please just say it for the camera: ‘I’m the only woman.’ ”

Sitting through interviews, she came to feel like a clumsy ballet dancer trying to pivot away from this one thing that everyone wanted her to say. She usually managed it, however gracelessly. But as the race loomed, all the talking wore her down. “Yes, I’m the only woman,” she said.

Goodall had become the unwitting face of the race—singled out, it seemed, because she was the only woman in it. “As the youngest and only female competitor, there is international focus on Goodall’s participation and pragmatic zeal,” wrote Forbes. Yachting Monthly framed the story like so: “At face-value Susie Goodall appears to be a ‘normal’ looking, petite, elegant young lady.” 

Goodall of course understood the arguments for why women and girls needed to see role models in male-dominated sports, jobs, and so on. But the emphasis on her being the sole female seemed to create a whole separate playing field, and she was alone on it. Whether she wanted to or not—and she did not—Goodall felt like some journalists were holding her up as representative of all women in sailing: their navigational skills, endurance, and capacity for handling fear and danger.

The effect was isolating for Goodall, who was already exhausted from preparing for the race. Even McIntyre knew it. “She was just too popular,” he said. “It was getting crazy. At the same time, so much is involved with preparing your boat.” 

Goodall hoped the frenzy would die down once the race began—that, like Knox-Johnston fifty years prior, she would sail off the grid in search of an elemental connection with the ocean. But the race stipulated that participants remain linked to the world during their journey. Golden Globe sailors were required to make weekly satellite phone calls to race headquarters that would be recorded and shared with media, and to send daily texts that would be automatically posted online. Race organizers also asked that they shoot footage of themselves using an old-school film camera, and stop at a series of gates—Lanzarote in the Canaries, Hobart in Tasmania, and the Falkland Islands—to drop it off. The race website would track each boat’s progress in real time. 

In a mandatory self-recorded prerace clip I watched while reporting this story, Goodall held a set of questions from the race team, speaking each one aloud before answering. “How many cassette tapes do you plan on bringing, and what type of music? What books? And how many toilet paper rolls?” Goodall read. She replied that she was bringing a pile of eighties music cassettes and several sailing books, and that she would be keeping the number of toilet paper rolls aboard to herself, thank you very much. 

“What is the most likely thing that would keep you from finishing the race, and how are you trying to solve that?” she read. 

Goodall paused. She’d prepared the boat for every eventuality she could think of. If it was as fail-safe as she hoped, then her will to finish was the only question mark. She had no intention of letting that break, either—not with the whole world watching. But she wasn’t about to say that into the camera.

“I think from a boat perspective, the most likely thing would be something going wrong, like with the mast or hitting something,” she said. “But I’ve done everything I can to minimize that.” Goodall moved on to the next question.

Soon there was nothing left to do but say goodbye to her family. They’d rented a house by the harbor to help her get ready. Goodall wouldn’t be able to speak directly with them for up to nine months—the expected duration of the race, assuming all went well.

Howells had also been busy. She couldn’t imagine being alone for nine months, and she aimed to do everything she could to support her daughter in her isolation. Howells had bought a teddy bear dressed in a raincoat and, over an entire year, photographed various friends and family hugging the stuffed animal. She laminated the photos and collected them in an envelope: an imprint of love to carry her daughter through. Howells gave the package—and the bear—to Goodall the night before the race. Goodall’s father, Stephen, for his part, had spent three years perfecting a recipe: fruitcake that would keep in baking paper and tinfoil. He made 24 of them and presented them to his daughter. 

“So, where should I meet you?” he asked her as they packed the cakes aboard. “At the end of the race, where will you sail to?” 

Goodall knew he was joking, as if she’d do like Moitessier and avoid the fuss at the finish line. She played along. “Iceland. I’ve always like Iceland.”

“OK,” he said. “I’ll see you there.”


On July 1, 2018, vessels jockeyed for position in the Les Sables-d’Olonne harbor. Goodall sat in the cockpit of Ariadne, which had been rechristened DHL Starlight by her sponsor. She was too busy to feel the gravity of actually, finally going. She needed to stay focused on navigating among the boats full of journalists, race crew, and family and friends, and of course the other Golden Globe skippers.  

Only some of the race’s competitors had any designs on winning it: Jean Luc Van Den Heede, a septuagenarian French sailor who’d circumnavigated many times and podiumed in the Vendée Globe; Norwegian Are Wiig, who’d finished second in class in a single-handed transatlantic race; and Dutchman Mark Slats, another veteran circumnavigator. The other skippers had different motivations. Simply finishing would fulfill Estonian Uku Randmaa’s dream. Indian Abhilash Tomy hoped to find a kind of nirvana that wiped the mind clean. Young Irishman Gregor McGuckin had crossed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and wanted to see if he could make it all the way around the world. 

As Goodall left the harbor, the sea calmed. Normally, when sailing alone, Goodall would connect the wind vane for self-steering, but she didn’t want to move from the tiller. If she focused on steering, she wouldn’t have to think about saying goodbye to her family or the enormity of the distance ahead. It was dark before she finally rose from the helm. And quiet—so quiet.

Down in the cabin that evening, Goodall got a radio call from Ertan Beskardes, another skipper in the race. They chatted about what they had for dinner. They didn’t speak about what they were feeling, but there was comfort in knowing someone else was probably dealing with similar emotions.

Five days later, Beskardes retired from the race. He wasn’t prepared for the challenge, he said. Not being able to speak to his family had robbed sailing of its joy. Goodall was shocked, but then she wondered if Beskardes’s decision wasn’t admirable in its own way. In the year leading up to the race, she deliberately ensured there’d be no boyfriend to leave behind. She had no children. Skippers like Beskardes who sailed away from their families, Goodall thought, were far braver than her.

If she focused on steering, she wouldn’t have to think about saying goodbye to her family or the enormity of the distance ahead.

Sailing across the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain was the first celestial navigating Goodall had ever done without GPS backup; even on her Atlantic loop, she’d kept a system stowed away just in case. In the bay’s busy shipping lanes she slept in short bursts, setting an egg timer to wake her every 15 minutes to check for vessels in her path.

On July 9, during her second weekly check-in by satellite phone, McIntyre asked how her navigation was going. It had been frustratingly cloudy, she told him, and she couldn’t get as many sun and star sights as she would have liked. “Hopefully, you’ll find the Canaries,” he said. “We won’t talk about penalties until later, but it’s a mandatory mark of the course.”

Goodall laughed nervously. If she missed the Canaries, the first compulsory gate—skippers had to remain there for 30 minutes—she’d be the female navigator who couldn’t navigate, the woman who was bad with directions. But a week and a half after she started the race, Goodall made it to Lanzarote. Sailing toward the island before the sun rose, she could smell it—the rich dryness, the salty rocks and docks. She was pleased with herself, and surprised to discover that she was near the front of the pack, arriving fifth. To the annoyance of the race organizers, she didn’t drop any film.

A few days later, Goodall was cruising at a rapid clip when she saw one of her two spinnaker poles flick off from the mast, where she’d been storing it. She dove from the cockpit to grab it, but it fell over the side of the boat before she could reach it and was gone. 

She stared into the ocean. That was a critical piece of backup. If she lost her mast in violent seas, the plan was to use the two spinnaker poles, which support the sails rigged to the front of the boat, to fashion a substitute that would hold sail long enough to get to land. At least she had one remaining, along with a boom, the heavy horizontal pole that attaches to the bottom of the mast and allows the sail to harness wind. If she also lost the boom she’d be in trouble. She didn’t want to imagine that scenario. 

Two weeks later, July 27, was Goodall’s birthday. By then, Australian Kevin Farebrother had dropped out of the race, saying he wasn’t fit for solo sailing, the lack of sleep, as had Palestinian-American Nabil Amra, who’d struggled with a faulty self-steering system. “Sailing is better with friends,” Amra texted from a satellite device. 

Other than losing the spinnaker pole, things were going well for Goodall. She’d been holding down a position in the top five, surprising herself, even with light winds making for slow progress through the sweltering tropics. In her daily texts, which she kept as brief as possible, she described the bright starry skies and the magic of marine life.

For people who haven’t experienced blue-water sailing—an ocean crossing with no land in sight—it’s easy to imagine endless lovely sunrises and frolicking whales. It is not that. The middle of the ocean can seem a great nothingness, at least to those who don’t know to look for the elusive green flash as the sun sets on a clear horizon or the endless shades of blue and silver that flicker across swells. On calmer evenings, Goodall brought up her beanbag chair—one of the few frivolous comforts she’d allowed herself—to recline in the cockpit. She passed hours waiting to take a sun sight, a measurement of the sun’s angle to determine the boat’s position for navigational purposes. She learned to identify land too distant to see by the way clouds formed over it. She thought often of the Southern Ocean. How different would it look compared with this? 

Goodall had never spent her birthday alone. She located the mini bottle of wine packed for the occasion and set it out to have with dinner. Then she pulled out the birthday cards friends and family had sent along with her. She’d prepared to be emotional reading through them, but she was fine—until she got to the one from her mother. 

It is Danish custom to raise a flag at birthdays. Howells always did that for her children, no matter where they were. In the hot Atlantic, Goodall read her mother’s handwriting: “We’ll raise a flag for you. But this year there will be no phone call.” There was more, but Goodall couldn’t bring herself to read it. She folded the note back up to read tomorrow, or maybe the day after. 

She looked forward to her nightly radio check-in, when many of the skippers spoke to one another, provided they were in range. One evening, some of them exchanged inventories of leaks. Her boat, she reported, was bone dry. She was quite proud of that, and told her so—DHL Starlight, that is. Even boats with male names like Moitessier’s Joshua go by “she.” It’s not clear how the tradition started. In some ancient cultures, ships were named after protective goddesses. Others named boats for mothers. This rarely resulted in confusion, since sailors were almost always men. In Goodall’s mind, she and her boat had long ago become “we”—each other’s companion in the great expanse. Goodall spoke to DHL Starlight often, and the boat spoke to her, telling Goodall what she needed and even waking Goodall from sleep when a familiar motion shifted or ceased entirely. 

Goodall also learned to feel when she and the boat weren’t alone: a rising of the small hairs on her arms, a prick at the back of her neck. The first time, she looked behind her to see a ship on the horizon. Another time, a whale surfaced next to the boat. Once, she’d been below deck when the feeling hit; she went above to find an enormous freighter headed toward her. Goodall altered course, and the ship chuffed by.

Goodall wiped sweat from her brow in the late August sun. She’d just spent an hour hand-pumping a liter of ocean water through her desalinator. It turned out that the yellow paint on DHL Starlight’s sails—essential components of her rainwater catchment system—had contaminated Goodall’s fresh water supplies. The paint was DHL yellow. Now it meant she had to spend hours each day at the pump just to get a few liters of potable water from the sea. She only had so much canned food before she’d have to turn to her dehydrated stores, which required water to prepare. She took seawater baths. She thought often about how nice it would be to shower after nine months at sea.

There was no wind to cool her skin; there hadn’t been for days. Her progress was slow, and Goodall was more frustrated than she’d ever been. There was a general race route but endless options for changing course to leverage winds or currents. Recently, Goodall had chosen to go east instead of south in hopes of saving some time. She ended up in a long, windless high-pressure system. It cost her a few places in the race lineup, but she cared less about that now than the boredom and feeling of helplessness hounding her.

Two more participants had pulled out of the race. French sailor Antoine Cousot retired after admitting to the pressure of the undertaking. And Philippe Péché, who’d violated the rules by contacting his partner by satellite phone, limped into Cape Town with a broken tiller. Sitting in the still sea, Goodall empathized with their decisions. Finishing the race, she now understood, would require resisting the urge to give up. It would also require wind. Where the hell was the wind?

She took a drink of water and went for a swim; it wasn’t as if the boat was going anywhere. She treaded water, amazed at the red reflection the hull cast on the surface of the ocean. What a nice change, she thought. She’d had the same point of view—deck, sails, horizon—for nearly two months. It was enough to drive a person crazy.

After more than a week, a hesitant wind gathered momentum, ending Goodall’s purgatory of motionlessness. A text from McIntyre beeped on her sat phone. Fifty-eight-year-old Norwegian sailor Are Wiig had been hit by a storm 400 miles southwest of Cape Town. He was below deck when the boat flipped descending a wave. He hit his head against the hatch and was underwater a few moments, wondering if he might drown. The boat righted, but the capsize broke the mast, smashed a window, and split the cabin roof. Wiig was headed back to Cape Town under jury rig, using backup poles to construct a makeshift mast. The race was over for him. 

The news shook Goodall. Wiig, an engineer and yacht surveyor who’d run transatlantic races, had five decades of sailing experience. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone, she thought. She recalled Wiig radioing her about sailing down the coast of Norway in 70-knot winds. The most she’d taken DHL Starlight through was 45 knots. Seventy knots, she thought. What does that even feel like?

Finishing the race, she now understood, would require resisting the urge to give up.

In mid-October in the Southern Ocean, almost halfway around the world, Goodall received a text from McIntyre: “A storm is forming in your path.” She felt a flutter of nerves. Another text beeped; the storm was gaining strength. “Turn around and sail west,” McIntyre said. 

That’s ridiculous, Goodall thought. I just came from there. After weeks of frustrating calm, she wasn’t about to give up miles. DHL Starlight was gaining on Uku Randmaa, the Estonian, who was in third place and with whom she had a good-natured rivalry. She called McIntyre on the sat phone for clarity.

“It’s bad. It’s really bad,” he said. “You won’t be able to get away from it entirely. But you can get away from the worst of it.” 

Goodall changed course. That afternoon, she got on the radio with Randmaa and Mark Slats, the Dutchman, who were well east of any weather. She told them she’d turned around.

“It must be a bad storm,” Randmaa replied.

Goodall thought of two other skippers, Tomy and McGuckin, who’d been forced out of the race a month before. As they were racing to catch Slats and Van Den Heede, a vicious cyclone screamed over them in the Indian Ocean, more than a thousand miles from land. Seventy-knot winds and 46-foot waves rolled McGuckin’s boat twice, ripping away the short mast at the back of the boat and then destroying the main mast. His boat crippled and the storm still raging, he saw a distress text from Tomy, who’d been rolled and dismasted as well: Severe back injury. Cannot get up. There followed hours of silence. McGuckin jury-rigged a mast and headed through violent seas toward his rival. In the ensuing days, both men were rescued by a French vessel, leaving their broken, beloved sailboats adrift.    

The storm in Goodall’s path seemed just as ferocious. She told Randmaa and Slats that she didn’t want to risk destroying her boat and being forced to leave the race. Better to head west for a while and get back on course when the skies cleared. “I want to actually make it round the world,” she said.

Hundreds of miles off the coast of Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, DHL Starlight bobbed gently in the ocean. The red hull reflected brightly on a narrow strip of water that otherwise appeared dull under a cloudy sky. The wind had disappeared hours before. In the cockpit, Goodall sat in the silence. She wouldn’t have to face the storm’s full force, but she would have to skirt the edge of it. 

What could be tied down or put away was lashed and stowed. Lines were tidied, the yellow sails trimmed and ready for winds that were now predicted to be 60-plus knots. “We’re ready, aren’t we,” she said softly to the boat. “We’ll get through this.” 

Goodall stared out at the horizon. The eerie calm went on and on, inviting her fear to expand. Some of the skippers in the race, when they came on the radio after a fierce storm, would say they hadn’t been scared. But Goodall could hear the tremble in their voices. Any sailor feels fear when the water turns on them. But what was in her now was different: the nerves before a storm, when it only exists in the imagination. 

Goodall had never seen a sky so dramatic. In the distance was an advancing curtain, dark and heavy as lead. Dusk was falling, but what approached looked like midnight. A low rumble traveled across the sea. Surely I can’t hear the storm, Goodall thought. 

The rumble grew. The darkness hulked forward. In her hair, against her skin, through the rigging of the boat, the wind began to rise. 

By morning, 25-foot swells pitched the sailboat. Wind howled at 50 knots. It was nothing Goodall couldn’t handle. Below deck, she threw on her lightest rain gear; her intention was to raise a storm jib, a small sail that is the bare minimum needed for maneuverability in heavy weather. She climbed out of the cabin and tethered herself to one of the rings she’d soldered to the deck. 

And then she looked up.

A great wave towered, ready to break over DHL Starlight. Goodall crouched in the open cockpit as it fell, the force like a sledgehammer on her back. When it passed, she raised her head and found that only the mast jutted from the foam left behind by the wave. As the water slowly drained off—the boat was made for this, after all—Goodall looked to the stern. The self-steering flapped uselessly, broken. 

She lunged for the helm and wrestled it under control. As she worked the tiller, she examined the self-steering system. The tube on the wind vane was broken. Without the self-steering, she would have to hand-steer every minute of the storm, eliminating the possibility of eating, resting, or making repairs. But fixing it meant leaning out over the stern to insert a new tube, sliding a bolt through the tube, and threading it into a nut on the other side. Another wave broke on top of the boat; there was no way she could repair the wind vane in this. All she could do was brace herself at the helm. If she didn’t keep the stern perpendicular to the swells, the boat would slide sideways down a breaking wave and capsize. 

The waves kept coming, growing in size until they were higher than the boat’s 45-foot mast. They were steeper and faster than anything Goodall had ever seen. The wind topped 70 knots. With each passing swell, the boat rose and then rocketed downward. At the bottom of a trough, Goodall looked behind her and watched as the next wave pulled the boat up its face, far faster than DHL Starlight was designed to travel, the whole boat shuddering, until it was atop a rushing, breaking peak, the bow hanging in thin air. Then the boat slid down the back side as the wave rumbled past. A breath of relief. A glance over her shoulder, and another on its way. 

And another. And again. Over and over for 11 hours. 

Waves broke against Goodall’s back, beating the air from her lungs and swamping the cockpit. They knocked the boat on its side, half-submerging Goodall as she gripped the tiller. She prayed for the boat to right itself. “You did so well,” she shouted when it did, the gale ripping her voice away. 

If she was exhausted, if she was hungry, if she was soaked through and cold to the bone, there was no time to feel it. The intensity of certain situations, when the world brings nearer the thin line between life and death, demands presence. Goodall knew she was afraid, but she couldn’t think of anything but the waves. She couldn’t rest. She and the boat were crowding up against the absolute limit. 

Finally, the sky darkened again—not with clouds, but with twilight. The wind backed off its mad tear, and Goodall realized she hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. She was freezing and so tired. But she had to fix the self-steering; she couldn’t hand-steer at night, when she couldn’t see what was coming. As the boat continued to be tossed by 30-foot swells, she leaned over the stern with numb hands, replaced the wind vane’s tube, inserted the bolt, and screwed on the nut. That she managed to pull off the repair—that the waves didn’t swallow the boat and spit it back out in pieces—suggested someone or something was helping them through the storm. 

Finally, she went below to warm up and make an enormous pot of rice pudding. She spoke to her boat the entire time: “You are amazing. You handled it so beautifully.” And then she fell into her bunk. 

She closed her eyes, but the waves barrelled down in her imagination. The only way to make them stop was to open her eyes again, keeping her from sleep. If she’d ever wanted to pick up the phone and speak to her family, it was now—to tell someone who loved her what had happened, what she’d survived.

Goodall knew she was afraid, but she couldn’t think of anything but the waves. She couldn’t rest. She and the boat were crowding up against the absolute limit. 

Two weeks later, Goodall had made it nearly halfway around the world and was approaching the second compulsory gate, in Tasmania. She would stop near Hobart and, without leaving her boat, do whatever interviews had been lined up, including one with McIntyre, from a boat that pulled alongside DHL Starlight

She hadn’t seen another soul in four months. She’d been through a calm hell and a tempestuous one, had some of the best sailing days of her life, felt lonely and not alone at all, and seen what the Southern Ocean was capable of. What would it be like now to suddenly find herself with people? To show up for the cameras again? Maybe I can just turn off my tracker and head for Iceland, she thought.

Nearing Tasmania, the scent of land nearly knocked her breathless. Soon the flat horizon broke into a rise of mountains, the blues and grays split by a shock of green and brown. She began to feel some excitement at the thought of seeing faces again.

Goodall arrived at midnight. The following morning, McIntyre stood on a boat alongside DHL Starlight to record an interview. He started by asking about the most challenging aspect so far, to which she replied succinctly, “Being becalmed.” Then he asked, “What challenges do you face as a female sailor that’s different to men?” 

Goodall raised her eyebrows and laughed. “Come on,” McIntyre prodded, “what’s different?”

She tried to laugh it off. “Uh, I don’t have a very quick answer for that. Um, I don’t know. I guess I’m maybe not as strong as—”

“Oh, yes you are,” he interjected. “OK, we’ll pass on that one.”

Several rapid-fire questions later, each of which Goodall answered gamely, McIntyre circled back. “Does being the sole woman push you or not? You know what I mean—feel as if you’ve got a drive because you’re the sole woman?”

“Um, well. Yes and no. I feel like a woman’s got to finish it.”

She’d been able to transcend the pressure, escape the “sole woman” box, for the past few months. In Hobart, the weight was back on her shoulders.

The following day, Goodall anchored in the sheltered bay of Port Arthur; a storm roiled the Tasman Sea, and she’d decided to wait it out. She found that she couldn’t sleep with the boat moored. The three days she spent in the bay were the worst of the race. Across from where she dropped anchor was a lovely beach. “I just want to give up,” she said aloud at one point. 

But the simple act of saying it defanged the idea. She could quit right then, but she wouldn’t.


“There’s a storm front coming,” Billy Joel wailed over the boat’s tinny speakers. It was December 4, Goodall’s 157th day at sea, and a good one on the Southern Ocean, in the expanse between New Zealand and South America’s Cape Horn. Nearly two-thirds of the way through the Golden Globe, a 15-foot swell and 30-knot winds were at Goodall’s back, pushing DHL Starlight forward. She was still in fourth place and had nearly caught up with Randmaa.  

During her weekly check-in with McIntyre the day before, Goodall reported that she was running low on fresh water. While most of the yellow paint had run off the sails, little rain had fallen lately. “I’ve got about 20 liters in the tank. I’ve barely been drinking anything,” she said on the call, sounding cheerful nonetheless. 

“Well, you’ve got a bit of rubbish coming in the next couple of days,” McIntyre told her. “It’s not a big deal, but it’s a messy low-pressure system that’s a bit all over the place. Not a huge storm, but you could get some big squalls.”

“Ah, OK. OK. How big?”

“Could be gusting around 55, 60,” McIntyre said—less intense than the Cape Leeuwin storm. “Nothing to worry about, you’re more than capable of handling it.”

Still, McIntyre updated the race’s Facebook page with news of the coming storm—some drama for its 41,000 followers. 

Goodall was also getting radio updates from a forecaster in New Zealand. He didn’t see what McIntyre was predicting, and thought she’d only get winds around 45 knots. But then, below deck, the barometer dropped significantly, and kept dropping. Fast. Even before the Cape Leeuwin storm, the barometer hadn’t been in free fall like this. We’re not in for just an average blow, Goodall thought. 

She spent the rest of the day preparing the boat. She strapped and stowed. She readied her drogue—a series of funnel-shaped parachutes used to steady a boat when sailing in stormy conditions. She put on her heavy-duty weather gear. 

By afternoon the wind had picked up to 30 or 35 knots. The boat sped along. Squalls came and went. The sea was confused and chaotic, with swells in three directions—the largest was around 15 feet, and the other two milled around it messily. The rumbling of the storm shook Goodall; she could hear it coming, going, all around her. 

Everything felt wrong. 

She made an enormous pot of curry and put some in a thermos for an easy meal. She pulled in the sails. She was becoming chilled. As the dark of the approaching night thickened, a wave hit the boat and snapped the safety tube on the wind vane—again. She couldn’t hand-steer through this storm in the dark, not without seeing the waves. She sat in the cockpit and debated putting out the drogue, which drags like a series of parachutes through the water to turn the stern into the wind and waves, the safest positioning. If later she decided it wasn’t the right decision for these helter-skelter seas, she wouldn’t be able to pull the drogue back in, and she’d lose the ability to steer the boat with any agility, allowing the storm to overtake her. But if there were steep waves like in the Cape Leeuwin storm, the drogue should stop the boat from surfing and pitchpoling—somersaulting end over end—down a breaking wave. She decided to release it. As she watched the drogue pull away from the stern, the boat felt instantly steadier. 

It was dark now. She went below and crawled into the bunk to get warm. Every half-hour, she’d pop her head out of the hatch with a headlamp to check the drogue. 

Soon a thought nagged. Had she tied down the storm jib tightly enough to protect it from the wind, which had gone from whistling to howling to a high-pitched scream? She worried that the flapping jib would be ripped to pieces.  

Goodall debated going up. She was just starting to get warm, and it was so cold out there. Then again, she couldn’t sleep—although she desperately wanted to. It was too loud, and she always felt herself holding her breath in high winds and big seas. DHL Starlight would roll, and in her bunk she’d lean the opposite way, as if helping to steady the boat. 

She poked her head out of the hatch every 15 minutes. The jumbled swells were now more than 30 feet, and she could see the pale foam of the breaking waves. She could no longer make out which direction was dominant. She’d never seen seas like this. 

Ten p.m. neared, the time when Slats and Randmaa and the New Zealand forecaster would get on the radio after a day of sailing. Goodall made herself a deal: She’d get up to chat, and after that she’d deal with the jib. She turned on the deck light to get a glimpse of the small sail through the hatch. It was well lashed. It didn’t even flutter in the riotous gale. She wondered why it was bothering her so much. Slats came on the radio, talking with the forecaster as Goodall put on her clammy rain gear and fastened a harness over it. She picked up the handset, waiting for a break in the conversation to speak into the radio. 

At that moment, the screaming wind ceased. The world went silent.

The storm’s stopped, she thought. She chided herself: That’s ridiculous, storms don’t suddenly stop. Then she realized—this must be a wave. 

She felt the stern rise. Sound returned in a deafening roar. Clinging to the post by the radio, she was suddenly looking down at the rest of the cabin. She went airborne as a leviathan of water she couldn’t see but only feel somersaulted the boat. Her mind blacked out before her head slammed into something, before the beanbag chair tumbled in front of her body right before she hit the wall, before the boat crashed down on its side in a tremendous violent blow.

When Goodall came to, the boat had rolled upright and she was in a heap. Her head throbbed with a horrible grinding noise. When her mind cleared, the sound was still there. She rushed to the deck to assess the damage and find the source of the noise. Immediately she saw it: The mast had been dashed into three pieces, and they were scraping against the hull. They were still attached to the deck by ropes and steel wires and cables, and the weight was pulling the boat underwater. 

Goodall hurried below to retrieve a hacksaw, sloshing through knee-deep water; the mast, she thought, had ruptured the hull and caused a leak. She switched on the emergency bilge pumps to drain the water from the cabin, but then remembered that she’d plugged the outlets. The pumps had two outlets, or holes to the outside. Soon after starting the race, Goodall discovered that a swell following the boat could send water into the bilges—the part of the boat designed to collect excess water at the bottom of the hull—forcing her to run the pumps and drain the battery. So, after the Canaries, she’d filled the outlets with wooden plugs and used a hand pump when necessary. 

She ran back to the deck. The outlets were in the stern, and she’d have to pull the plugs downward to remove them. She leaned over the dark, pitching sea. Every time the stern slammed down, it plunged her head and shoulders into the freezing ocean. But she grasped at each plug until she got them out. She tried to pull herself back up, only to find that she was tangled in the steering lines and her hair had caught on something. She reached for the knife she always kept on her and cut the lines free, along with a chunk of hair. 

Back below, she turned on the bilge pumps and let them run while she searched for the hacksaw and bolt cutters—she had to cut loose the broken mast before it sank the boat. The cabin’s lockers on the port side had all burst open. Nothing was where it should be. 

She found the tools and returned to the seething storm. It was nowhere close to wearing itself out. Goodall reached for the first of the stays—wires that hold the mast in place—barely able to see what she was doing. The bolt cutters didn’t even leave a mark. So she started in with the hacksaw. The boat was parallel to the swell, with the mast trailing off the side, which meant that every wave smashed the hull into the ruined pieces of mast, threatening more damage.

After an hour, Goodall had severed only two of the boat’s 11 stays. Her arms were jelly. Her hands were bloody from where the hacksaw slipped and hit skin. She left a red trail wherever she moved. Then she had a thought: She could pull out the pins. Yes. She could remove the metal pins that fastened the stays to the deck. She ran below to grab her Leatherman from near the chart table. The water was still above her boots, though the pumps had been running nonstop.

She looked at the emergency beacon, also strapped up by the chart table. When activated, it would send a distress call via satellite to the Falmouth Coastguard in England, which would notify race headquarters. There was so much water in the boat, she thought there must be a hole in the hull. If that was true, the boat could sink then and there. But what if she was wrong? She could always cancel the call when she got the situation under control, released the mast into the ocean and located the leak. 

She grabbed the beacon and pressed the emergency button.

Every time the stern slammed down, it plunged her head and shoulders into the freezing ocean.

On the afternoon of December 5, a Wednesday, Birgitte Howells’s phone rang as she drove down a motorway. It was McIntyre.

“We’ve received a call,” he told her. Goodall’s distress beacon had been activated. He didn’t know what had happened, and he couldn’t tell Goodall’s mother anything else. He’d call back as soon as he knew more.

Howells hung up. She pulled off the road. She knew McIntyre would post about the distress call on social media immediately. And indeed, after calling Howells, McIntyre updated the Golden Globe’s Facebook page. Based on Goodall’s proximity to South America, he said, Chile’s marine search and rescue was now in charge of responding to the call. Race organizers had also sent a text message. “It was received,” McIntyre wrote, “but not acknowledged at this time by Susie. No further news is available for now.”

Howells didn’t want the people who loved her daughter hearing about it online. She needed to get in touch with family before word spread. She called Stephen, Goodall’s father, first. They both knew that anything could have happened since Goodall activated the beacon. She could have sunk straightaway. They also knew a global audience would be watching to learn if their daughter lived or died. While Howells continued to make calls, Stephen began the longest wait of his life.

Goodall’s hands were numb, making it almost impossible to work the Leatherman’s pliers. But she needed to get the pins out of the deck, so she kept at it. 

She implored her hands to work. Her head spun. She was about to throw up. She swore at herself for being useless.

Finally, the mast slid away. Then came a tug. She looked down. There were ropes around her legs, ropes attached to the sinking mast. She wasn’t wearing her harness; she’d taken it off so she could work faster. 

She grabbed a handrail, but the boom was what saved her: Still attached to the mast, it became wedged against the boat’s stanchions, the slender metal rods slung with safety cable to keep people on deck from falling into the sea. Ironic. Goodall untangled her legs, then slumped in the cockpit and put her harness back on. 

She was so utterly exhausted. Dizzy. Her hands were done. For a moment she just sat there, listening to the hull bash against the mast, which refused to come free in a storm that refused to ebb. Then she pulled herself up. 

She needed the boom to help make a substitute mast. But as she tried to cut the heavy pole free from the tangled rigging, it came loose and slid underwater with such force that it snapped the stanchions off the deck. She rushed to cut the remaining mast lines so nothing would get caught, and the boom, mast, and sails fell into the sea. 

Something didn’t feel right. The cockpit was full of water, and the stern was slowly sinking. Then Goodall realized: She had forgotten to cut the backstay, the wire running from the stern to the top of the mast. The rig was dragging the boat under. 

Goodall lunged across the deck and cut the backstay loose. Doing that sent the stern surging upward. That was when she noticed the drogue, or what was left of it: a frayed rope that ended after a few feet. 

She sagged down once more and lay in the water filling the cockpit. She’d stopped shivering, which she knew was a bad sign. She needed to warm up. But she just lay there.

Then she remembered the emergency beacon. That got her moving. 

The water level had dropped in the cabin. She turned off the pumps to identify the source of the leak, but the storm was too loud for her to hear if water was rushing in through a crack in the hull. She turned the pumps on again and took in the wrecked cabin. Food and broken glass were everywhere. Storage containers were smashed to bits. The toolbox had slammed into the bunk right where her head was moments before the wave hit. The satellite phone, thankfully, was where she kept it near the chart table. She called McIntyre. 

When he picked up and she spoke, all that came out was gibberish. Her lips were frozen. McIntyre hit record. “The… the boat is destroyed. The boat inside and out is destroyed. I can’t make a jury rig, I can make no form of jury rig. The wind vane is ripped to pieces. The boat is, uh, the only thing that’s left is the hull.”

Despite how she sounded, Goodall felt in control of the situation. She didn’t think that the boat was taking on more water than she could pump out, and she’d dealt with the mast, which had been the immediate crisis. She was hypothermic and exhausted, but she told McIntyre that she didn’t need to be rescued—she could save herself, whatever that looked like. She just needed time to figure it out. 

McIntyre told her to call every hour to keep him updated. Before he signed off, he told Goodall that he’d called her mother to let her know what was happening.

Goodall’s heart sank. She couldn’t imagine how worried Howells must be. Race rules prohibited Goodall from contacting anyone, but it hardly seemed to matter at this point—the dismasting meant her race was done. It was about saving herself and the boat now. She picked up the sat phone and called her mother.

She turned off the pumps to identify the source of the leak, but the storm was too loud for her to hear if water was rushing in through a crack in the hull.

Howells was back on the motorway when she realized she had a voicemail, and that it was from her daughter. Goodall’s voice was shaking with cold. “Hey Mom, it’s me. Don’t worry, everything’s OK. I’m just calling to say hello. I’m OK.”

Howells pulled over again, sat, and waited. A few minutes later, Goodall called back. It was a short conversation. Goodall said she’d pitchpoled and broken the mast, but that Howells didn’t need to worry. Goodall would sort it out.  

It was the first time Howells had spoken to her daughter in five months. She’d followed the weekly updates, listening in her daughter’s voice for clues to her emotional state. Just now Goodall sounded distraught, but also confident that she was physically sound and had the situation in hand. Now all Howells could do was keep the phone close. She knew Goodall was a good sailor, at home in the sea. She could only hope that it wouldn’t swallow her daughter whole.

It was morning. Goodall didn’t move. Her body was stone. She’d wedged herself into her bunk to weather the swells, which were still more than 25 feet high. She was nauseous and needed fluids, but she couldn’t get herself to the sink. She looked up at the curry-splattered ceiling. She finally had a moment to think, despite the unceasing pain in her head, about the almost impossible series of events that had led to her being here, alive.

If she hadn’t waited to speak on the radio, if she’d gone above just a few seconds before the wave hit, there would have been a moment when she wasn’t tethered to the deck, when she might have been flung into the sea. Or, possibly worse, she’d have been tethered when the boat somersaulted and the mast was smashed to pieces, possibly on top of her. If she hadn’t left her bunk to take care of the storm jib, she could have taken a hammer to the head. If the beanbag hadn’t landed in just that spot at just that second to break her fall. If the mast had snapped in a way that it ripped up the deck and left her in an open boat, exposed to the storm. 

Eventually, she managed to rise and turn off the bilge pumps. The battery was low. She moved to plug in the wire attached to the solar panels meant to charge the battery, but the wire sparked and went dead. 

She called McIntyre to check in. He told her that American entrant Istvan Kopar was about six days behind her and had offered to give her a spinnaker pole so she could fashion some sort of mast. 

She spent the night planning how to save herself. The realization had sunk in that the Golden Globe was over for her. Without a mast, she couldn’t make it back to England. But with a spinnaker pole, she might be able to devise a way to get to Chile. If she could fix the solar-panel wire, the bilge pumps might be enough to keep the boat afloat. With the wind vane on the self-steering totally destroyed, she’d have to hand-steer the whole time, but she thought she could manage it. 

The only other option was to let herself be rescued and abandon the boat. She would do whatever she could to avoid that. For nearly three years, the boat had been home. It was Goodall’s partner in this journey; they were a team. Besides, Goodall wasn’t ready to be back on land. Even jammed into the bunk of the broken vessel, dehydrated, injured, and exhausted, she was prepared to stay at sea. 

The following morning, Goodall set the sea anchor, a big parachute with a hundred-meter line, to help stabilize the boat. But without a mast, DHL Starlight rolled horribly. Goodall couldn’t keep anything down—food, water. Seasickness wasn’t to blame. Maybe it was the concussion she knew she probably had. But she didn’t think so. 

She was ill, Goodall figured, because she knew she would not make it around the world.

She finally had a moment to think, despite the unceasing pain in her head, about the almost impossible series of events that had led to her being here, alive.

 “There’s already a rescue underway,” McIntyre told Goodall the next time she checked in. A cargo ship bound for South America had changed course to come for her. It was two days away. “If we cancel it, and you get halfway to Chile on your own and your boat sinks, then another one has to be coordinated,” McIntyre said.

True, Goodall thought, but at least then I’d know the boat was sinking. If she left the boat now, she’d never know if she could have saved it. 

“If I just have a spinnaker pole, I can rig something.” 

“But where’s the water coming from into the boat?” 

“I don’t know. I can’t get in this sea to inspect the hull.” 

McIntyre asked about food and water. If she were sparing, she might have enough to make it to land. She still had the desalinator, four months’ worth of dehydrated food, and half a dozen of her father’s fruitcakes. McIntyre pointed out that an hour of hard pumping would yield less than a liter of water. Was that sustainable? 

Goodall knew in her heart that she was stretching. If another storm hit in the six days it would take Kopar to reach her—difficult to consider, since the current storm was still tossing the boat as if it were in a washing machine—she wouldn’t be able to run from it or maneuver through it. The boat would likely sink. 

Leaving DHL Starlight would be like leaving a piece of herself at sea. But she knew there was no other choice.

That afternoon, Goodall looked around the ruined cabin, still being pitched by the storm. She had to decide what she could take with her in one load. If she focused on the task, perhaps she could keep her emotions from boiling over. Hands cold and bloody, trying to maintain her footing on the heaving floor, she fished out the bag of dry clothes she’d stowed five months before. She grabbed the letters from her family. Her camera and SD cards. Satellite phone and tracker. Passport. The photos her mother had given her of loved ones hugging the teddy bear. The bear itself was too big. It would have to stay with the boat.

That night she lay in her bunk and stared at the dented ceiling as the boat rolled sickeningly. She went over and over what she could have done differently. She’d put everything into this boat, this voyage. It had become her identity. Soon it would be gone.

On the evening of December 6, Howells and her husband, Goodall’s stepfather, sat down to watch the news. They knew that a cargo ship was coming for Goodall, and in her gut Howells never doubted that Goodall would return alive. But now they, too, were navigating a storm: a salivating media eager to get a peek at a family’s emotional crisis. 

Outside the gated fence, a journalist and a photographer had been parked all day. Messages from other reporters piled up on her phone. “How does it feel that your daughter is stuck in the middle of the most ferocious ocean on earth?” one asked. Another inquired, “What’s the first thing you’ll say to her when you see her?” Howells didn’t reply. “It felt,” she later said, “like the sensationalism of somebody’s misfortune just to get more views and followers, without any thought to what it may do to those of us who care about her.”

Now, as Howells and her husband were watching BBC News, a segment about Goodall came on, and it included audio from her first call to McIntyre. Howells hit the roof. 

Earlier that day, race organizers sent that recording to the family, who had asked that it not be released to the media. They thought it was in poor taste to do so while Goodall was still in danger. (McIntyre noted that Goodall had signed an agreement granting the race organizers permission to release audio from satellite phone calls. McGuckin’s call after his dismasting wasn’t released until after he was safe, because, reported The Times, “he feared it would distress his mother and girlfriend if they knew the danger he was facing.”)

Headlines immediately appeared around the globe. When outlets had covered Tomy’s and McGuckin’s rescues a month and a half before, the coverage tended to focus on their bravery. “Irish Sailor Makes Heroic Efforts to Reach & Help Injured Rival Abhilash Tomy!” read a headline in The Better India. Those about Goodall took a different tone, shaped in part by Goodall’s fame as the only woman and in part by the fact that the race had released only the portion of the call in which Goodall sounded shaken and distraught. The media never heard Goodall say that she was prepared to save herself. “British yachtswoman ‘clinging on’ as she waits for rescue,” heralded the Daily Mail. The BBC quoted McIntyre saying, “She was in shock and during a dramatic phone call didn’t want to abandon the boat. But we had to make her realize it was more serious than she thought.” Just like that, it seemed like race organizers were trying to shift the narrative around her journey from lone heroine to feckless damsel in distress.

Just before dawn on December 7, three days after she pitchpoled, Goodall came on deck to see the lights of Tian Fu, a 620-foot-long cargo ship in the distance, a floating city heading her way. 

It was the third day of the storm. Though the swells had fallen to 15 feet, getting aboard the Tian Fu wouldn’t be easy. A 42,000-ton ship can’t just pull alongside a far smaller one—a damaged one, no less—and toss down a rope ladder. This was the plan: The Tian Fu had to maintain a steady two knots to have steering capability, so Goodall would motor alongside to keep pace and avoid being crushed between the ship and the waves. Once both vessels were in position, the Tian Fu would deploy a crane to pluck Goodall off her boat. 

As first light sparked the horizon and the ship approached, Goodall started her engine, which had worked during a test run the day before. Now, though, it smoked like it might explode, emanated an acrid smell, and went dead. Her stomach dropped. She would have to do without. 

She grabbed her bag of belongings and looked around the ruin of her home. Before she left the cabin for the last time, she turned the bilge pumps back on. The boat had done so much for her. Goodall would do everything she could in return, even if it meant DHL Starlight would stay afloat only a few more hours. 

The bow of the massive freighter loomed, a wall of steel blocking the sky. As it passed, crewmen threw down a line; Goodall had a split second to admire the incredible maneuvering by the ship’s captain. She caught the line and attached her bag, which was hauled up first. Goodall winced each time her boat made impact with the ship’s massive hull. 

Now it was her turn. The Tian Fu positioned its crane, which was at the ship’s stern, above her. The crew lowered a hook, and she clipped it to her harness. With the boat and the ship both rolling in the waves, she struggled to get it attached properly, nearly falling into the ocean in the process. Then she got it on, and it yanked her into the air. 

As the crane swung her skyward, Goodall looked down at the husk of her little sailboat. It didn’t feel right, to be lifted from her boat like this, to be leaving it alone. Once Goodall reached the deck and unclipped herself, the cargo ship chugged forward, leaving DHL Starlight bobbing in the empty Southern Ocean. 

Goodall knew she would never forgive herself.


Goodall spent a week aboard the Tian Fu. She couldn’t communicate much with the crew, so she spent most of her time in her cabin. She was thankful to be left alone. She went up to the bridge and used gestures to request a pen and paper from the captain. Then she wrote. She wrote down everything about the past three days, willing herself to remember it. When she’d emptied the pen, she got another from the captain. She emptied that one too. 

Goodall spoke with her family occasionally by sat phone. On one of the calls, they told her that McIntyre had played them the recording of the first call she’d made during the storm—she had no idea he’d recorded her. She imagined what her family must have gone through as they waited for her to be rescued. She’d known she was OK, and she’d told her mother as much, but still, they’d had to listen to that call and worry. 

As the cargo ship neared land and the experience she’d weathered settled into her being, the emotions piled on. She’d prepared for every eventuality except failure, a fact that left her feeling pinned, gasping. The sense that she’d put her family through hell only made it worse. 

On December 14, the hump of Chile’s Cape Horn appeared on the horizon. Goodall went to the back deck and stood facing away from South America, toward the open sea, trying to relieve some of her dread. She was still processing a near-death experience, and far from ready to be back on land. She hoped it would be just her family there when she stepped ashore. She didn’t want to speak to anyone else. But the media had been a presence, hounding her, for so long. There was no reason to think it would treat her arrival any differently. Her dread intensified.

Then, down below, dozens of dolphins surfaced suddenly from the sea. 

OK, she thought. I can do this.

When the ship anchored outside Punta Arenas, Goodall glimpsed the small boat that had been sent to fetch her. It was packed with cameras. Her heart dropped into her stomach. She held on to the dolphins in her mind. 

Once she boarded the small boat, she was directed to a certain side of the deck so that cameras on shore had a better view of her. “No comment,” she said again and again. At the dock, someone told her to stay on the boat while journalists set up photo ops. When she was finally allowed to step off the deck, they directed her further: “There’s your mom, go hug your mom.”

Of course Goodall wanted to hug her mother. She’d had no human contact for months. But to have this private moment stage-directed felt cheap. “When she got off the boat,” Howells told me, “she seemed, apart from being bruised from the pitchpoling and the cuts all over her hands, deflated. Totally deflated. It was like hugging a shell. It was all her dreams, aspirations, years of hard work, at the bottom of the ocean. And here’s everyone just wanting a bit of a person grieving.”

Goodall didn’t speak to any journalists that day. Her mother and brother took her to a hospital to have her wounds checked—nothing major, they would heal on their own—and then back to their hotel. Later that day, Goodall gave a statement. She thanked her family, sponsors, and everyone involved in the rescue. On the question of whether she would undertake such a voyage again, she said, “I would say yes in a heartbeat. You may ask why. Some people just live for adventure. It’s human nature. And for me, the sea is where my adventure lies. That fire in my belly is far from out.” 

She took no questions.

When the ship anchored outside Punta Arenas, Goodall glimpsed the small boat that had been sent to fetch her. It was packed with cameras.

Back in the UK, Goodall spent Christmas at her mother’s house. The mini bottle of wine she’d packed for the occasion was deep in the Southern Ocean by now. “So many people said to me, ‘Thank God she’s home. You can have a good family Christmas,’ ” Howells said. “I’d reply that I’d rather she weren’t here for Christmas. She doesn’t want to be here. She wants to be at sea.”

Goodall was withdrawn and listless. Even after coming home, she used “we” often, unconsciously, to refer to herself—as if she was still aboard her boat and not adrift on land. She found herself wondering what the point of the past four years had been. So many people had offered support and money, and she had disappointed them. Meanwhile, the media didn’t let up. Reporters bothered her family every day. Online, her comment that she would undertake the journey again “in a heartbeat” was seized on. “And capsize again at a cost to life and limb best stay in the kitchen luv,” someone wrote on Twitter. Another asked, “What about the poor people who have to rescue the silly mare again?” For her part, Goodall only said on social media that she needed time to process things before she told her story. Then she went quiet.

Perhaps she’d been naïve when she signed up for the Golden Globe, Goodall thought. She assumed that she could be one of the sailors circumnavigating the world. But it would never be that simple, by dint of her being a woman and the world being what it is. Now she wrestled with the creeping realization that the narrative she despised had gotten to her; one can’t be the object of relentless attention without being shaped by it, one way or another. Goodall sometimes felt awful that she, the lone woman, hadn’t finished. In other moments she wished she’d never thought about going around the world.

In January, Goodall received a set of questions from a PR firm arranging a series of interviews in cooperation with DHL. She didn’t want to do it; she was still trying to process what had happened to her out there. But she also felt that she’d somehow wronged her sponsor by not finishing the race, and by losing the boat they’d paid to refit, and owed it to them to participate. So she steeled herself and agreed. Then she got the questions: What happened when the wave hit? What do you think went wrong? How did you feel about leaving your boat? 

She choked on a sob. Everyone wanted the story of how her journey ended, but Goodall had spent 160 days alone with her boat and the ocean. She’d navigated not one monstrous storm but two, and at just 29 years old had held her own amid a fleet of experienced circumnavigators. She couldn’t do this to herself. She couldn’t relive her failure, let alone put it up for exhibit. She couldn’t be the rescued damsel. 

Two days before the interviews were set to begin, Goodall backed out. She felt guilty; she knew DHL would be disappointed, maybe even angry. She knew that all the people who’d followed her journey expected to hear her speak. She suspected the race organizers might portray her as uncooperative. But she canceled anyway. 

Over the next few months, she turned down thousands of dollars for an exclusive first interview. She rejected book deals and documentary offers. Saying no became her way of protecting herself and her story. She would speak if and when she wanted to.

Three and a half years after returning home from the Southern Ocean, Goodall spoke to me from the flat where she lives now in Edinburgh with her fiancé, a professional ship’s pilot. A bright painting of a boat with sails full of wind hung on one wall; shelves loaded with books lined another. After the Golden Globe, Goodall worked in a boatyard to avoid thinking too much and then returned to sea as an instructor. When we spoke, her hands were full with something else: Her newborn was asleep in her arms. 

A cup of tea went cold as she talked. This was the first time she’d told the whole story: the preparation, the voyage, the wave, the aftermath. 

She agreed to speak with me on the condition that I wouldn’t try to paint her as a hero or a feminist icon. Those portrayals still bother her, as does the black cloud the media pressure cast over her. It’s only recently that she’s been able to grasp the value of the journey she undertook. 

Goodall wasn’t able to remember much about the wave and the hours after it hit, not until she reread what she’d written on the Tian Fu. The rest of the race, though, she remembered like yesterday. As she recounted falling in love with Ariadne, Goodall was animated, lighting up like the sun burning through marine fog. 

These days she still wants to circumnavigate the globe, but she has no desire to make the voyage alone, without stopping. She wants to show the world to her son, to sail with her fiancé on their own time and whim. Sometimes though, she told me, she dreams that she made it to the finish. Or that she sailed DHL Starlight to Chile. That she never left her alone out there. 

It was her brother, months after she got home, who urged her to check her social media account; there were some incredible messages on there, he said. She also went through the piles of unopened letters she’d received. Many were from young girls who’d followed the Golden Globe. “A lot of the time,” she said, “it was their dads who would follow it, and because there was a woman in it, they would introduce their young daughters to the race.” 

She went to the bookshelf and pulled down a box. A piece of pink construction paper fell out; it featured a crayon drawing of a boat on a blue ripple of water, and a stick-figure woman with yellow hair waving from it. Goodall read the card that arrived with the drawing aloud:

Dear Susie, please find enclosed the picture of you drawn by my two daughters, Lily three, and Penny eighteen months. I wanted you to see this so that in your disappointment about the GGR, you remember what you have achieved. While not tangible like a medal, inspiring young girls to be great is, at least in my mind, a far greater feat. 

It wasn’t that Goodall never wanted girls to look up to her. She wanted the fact that a woman tried to circle the world to be an admirable thing, but also a normal one. Now she takes heart in the fact that so many messages sent to her don’t mention how the race ended for her. All that mattered was that she’d set off in the first place, that she’d risen to a great challenge.

Goodall told me that her father recently said it was her destiny to survive. She’d never thought of it that way. But the thing about destiny, he suggested, is that you can’t see it until it’s unfolded.

When I first spoke to Stephen Goodall about his daughter’s experience, he told me a story. There’s an uninhabited rock, barely an island, off the coast of Scotland, he said, with a cave full of hexagonal basalt formations that served some ancient, mysterious purpose. A ritual was performed there in which an individual was set adrift to face a storm in a coracle, a round boat of animal hide and wood the size of a bathtub. When the storm passed, the others waited to learn whether the seeker had survived, and in doing so touched the thin place between earthly life and the spirit realm.

I scoured the internet for details of this ritual; I reached out to scholars and museums. But I came up short of any reference to coracle boats and spirit-testing ocean journeys. I asked Stephen how he’d encountered the story in the first place. He said that someone had told it to him. Perhaps it was just a myth.

We tell and share stories to explain things. Myths are no different. But when we feel the urge to birth new myths for new eras, it can be difficult to deviate from the paths our heroes were sent down before, to move beyond archetypes. We go with what is already known, what is easy. 

Before Stephen told me about the cave, I’d been wrestling with the arc of Goodall’s story. What I came to understand is that it isn’t about the trappings of adventure or the silver linings of failure; it certainly isn’t about anything measurable, like Goodall’s impact on sailing or young women. It was about how a journey shaped a person, in ways knowable and not. 

Some stories are ours to consume. But some, perhaps, are best left to the seeker and the thin place where they touched grace.

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

Fault Lines

A pioneering humanities program shaped a generation of students and brought acclaim to a public high school in Los Angeles.

But beneath the excellence lurked a culture of abuse.

By Seyward Darby

The Atavist Magazine, No. 130

Seyward Darby is editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine. She is the author of the book Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Guardian, The New Republic, and other publications, and she was a cohost of the Atavist podcast No Place Like Home.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Hellovon
Researchers: Hailey Konnath and David Mark Simpson

Published in August 2022.

Editor’s Note: In the wake of this story’s publication, a fifth lawsuit was filed by a Cleveland graduate against Bill Paden, a former Core teacher, and the Los Angeles Unified School District; the alleged abuse occurred between 2005 and 2007. According to the plaintiff, shortly after her graduation, another teacher, Richard Coleman, who is already a defendant in one of the lawsuits detailed in this story, initiated a sexual relationship with her. Dozens more Core alumni, whose graduation dates range from the late 1980s to as recently as a few years ago, have contacted the storys author and the plaintiffs attorneys to describe systemic grooming and suspected abuse in the magnet program.

The earthquake hit at 4:31 a.m. For the next 20 seconds the ground shook, rippled, and roared. Cracks tore up the sides of buildings, and higher floors pancaked onto lower ones. Steel-reinforced concrete beams buckled as sections of elevated roadway collapsed. Transformers exploded, and burst water mains flooded residential streets.

People were jolted awake by what felt like a freight train barreling through their homes. When it stopped, before the aftershocks began rolling in, survivors saw stars. “They were so close to me and very bright,” one man remembered. The earthquake had killed electrical power in the San Fernando Valley, plunging it into darkness. For the first time many Valley residents could remember, they saw the night sky in luminous detail.

The earthquake of January 17, 1994, with a magnitude of 6.7, left 72 people dead, thousands injured, and tens of thousands homeless across the greater Los Angeles area. Damage was estimated in the billions of dollars. The event was dubbed the Northridge earthquake, named for a hard-hit part of the Valley, but the epicenter was actually farther south in Reseda, a diverse working-class neighborhood.

Some 11 miles beneath Reseda lay a blind thrust fault, so called because it can’t be seen on the earth’s surface. Unlike visible fissures such as the San Andreas Fault, blind thrust faults are difficult to detect and map. But where there’s one, there are likely to be many: By the early 1990s, according to the urban theorist Mike Davis in his book Ecology of Fear, scientists believed there was a “dense thicket” of hidden faults underneath Los Angeles, threatening to convulse the city.

Grover Cleveland High School sat a few blocks from the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake. The school’s low-slung buildings suffered so much damage that students couldn’t attend classes for several weeks afterward. When they returned, they couldn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria because the facility had been condemned. Instead they ate in whatever nooks and crannies they could find—in hallway corners, on concrete quads, or in classrooms, sometimes with their teachers.

In E Hall, part of the northernmost section of campus, eating lunch in a teacher’s room was a badge of honor. The faculty of E Hall were celebrity educators, rock stars of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). They ran Cleveland’s renowned humanities magnet, an interdisciplinary program combining instruction in history, literature, art, and philosophy. “We were like a little Sarah Lawrence in the middle of a Title I school,” an alum told me, referring to the federal program that provides financial assistance for schools with a large population of low-income students. Since its founding in 1981, the magnet had been the subject of glowing news stories, and schools across Los Angeles had replicated its curriculum. The program, which called itself Core, produced so many graduates bound for top-notch colleges that some alumni referred to the University of California at Berkeley as “Core north.”

Core teachers prided themselves on being radicals. They encouraged students to eschew taboos, expand their horizons, and question conventional wisdom. They lectured on systemic racism and postmodernism, and they treated the teenagers they were tasked with educating as “young men and women,” a phrase the program’s founder, Neil Anstead, was fond of using. In turn, the students worshipped them.

Chris Miller was an object of particularly intense adoration. Miller, who taught American history and social studies to juniors, had been with Core since its founding. His students read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. They discussed the imperative of dismantling white supremacy and the patriarchy. A white man approaching fifty, Miller wore Birkenstocks and jewelry, and had a long ponytail that he adorned with a threaded hair wrap, the kind popular among aging hippies and teenage girls. He hugged students and urged them to talk about their feelings; crying wasn’t unusual in his classes.

The fall semester after the Northridge earthquake, Jackie* began eating lunch in Miller’s room. Jackie was petite, with dark hair and a wide, winning smile. But, entering the 11th grade, she felt insecure. “I basically advertised within those first few weeks that I was an incredibly vulnerable 16-year-old girl,” Jackie told me. She assumed that her friends were smarter than she was, and her parents’ rocky marriage was taking an emotional toll. Meanwhile, she struggled to navigate the sexual attention that men and boys had begun showing her.

Miller made Jackie feel comfortable in his class right away. “He was teaching us things other people were afraid to teach us,” she said. “He was brave, he was a pioneer.” When they talked one on one, she felt that he treated her like an adult, asking her about her life and listening when she spoke. He gave her The Celestine Prophecy, a popular novel about a man’s spiritual awakening, to read and discuss with him. Barely a month into school, Jackie wrote in her diary that Miller was “so fucking cool”—and also a “big flirt” and “very sexual.”

One day, Miller asked Jackie if he was right in sensing an attraction between them. Jackie felt like she had to say yes or he would be disappointed. Besides, maybe she did like him, or should. When Miller asked if she’d ever had sex, Jackie told him she had, which was true. In response, Miller drove her to get an HIV test. Jackie felt like he was taking care of her.

They started seeing each other off campus—teachers and students in Core often interacted outside school, so Jackie didn’t think twice about it. But then, according to Jackie, Miller began sexually abusing her. Once, while giving her a ride to a friend’s house, he pulled over and lunged across the console between them. As Miller kissed Jackie, he placed her hand on his erection. On another occasion, he took her to the beach with two of her friends, both male Core students. The group sat on the sand, with Jackie leaning against Miller’s legs, his arms wrapped around her, and his hands on her breasts. That night, as Miller drove Jackie home, he told her that she could “use” him to work through the problems in her life. He suggested that they write letters to each other and leave them in a filing cabinet in his classroom. He told her to call him “Journey” in the correspondence.

Miller said he loved her. Jackie wanted to believe him. It would be more than two decades before she learned that she wasn’t the only student Miller pursued—and that Miller wasn’t the only Core teacher who allegedly targeted students for abuse.

“They put the magnet program’s reputation over a student’s well-being,” Kate said. “That hurts, you know?”

In 2021, Jackie and three other Jane Does filed lawsuits claiming they were groomed and sexually abused while they were students in Core. Four former teachers, including Miller, are named in the suits as perpetrators. The alleged abuse happened between 1994 and 2009; during that same time frame, according to public records, two additional Core teachers were convicted of crimes involving students, including statutory rape, and a third Cleveland teacher whose classes were popular with magnet students was convicted of possession of child pornography.

An estimated 10 percent of U.S. students suffer sexual misconduct at the hands of a school employee before they leave high school. Over the past decade, LAUSD has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in response to abuse and harassment claims. What makes Core unique is the number of teachers accused of misconduct over a prolonged period, and the apparent use of the magnet’s curriculum itself to groom students. There is also evidence that some of the teachers’ colleagues and school officials were aware of what was happening but did little or nothing to stop it. “They put the magnet program’s reputation over a student’s well-being. That hurts, you know?” said Kate*, a classmate of Jackie’s and another plaintiff in the lawsuits. “At the end of the day, it was almost like they didn’t care.”

Like the blind thrust faults beneath Los Angeles, the network of suspected wrongdoing at Core is dense, and its capacity for devastation is enormous. This story is based on extensive interviews with the four Jane Does, dozens of other Core alumni, and multiple educators with knowledge of the program. It draws from hundreds of pages of depositions and other legal documents, as well as personal correspondence, yearbooks, journals, and social media postings shared by Core graduates. Two of the accused teachers, including Miller, are deceased; the others either declined to comment for this story or did not respond to interview requests. A spokesperson for LAUSD, which is named as a defendant in the lawsuits, said in a statement that the district “does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.”

In 2021, Core celebrated its 40th anniversary. The program remains a crown jewel of LA’s public education system. The women who have come forward understand why: Core taught them to disrupt the status quo, expose injustice, and demand accountability for harm. Now they are doing just that.

Magnet programs were created to right wrongs. In the late 1960s, U.S. cities responded to persistent racial segregation by launching specialized courses of study—science and math, for instance, or language immersion—in public schools. Students throughout a district were invited to apply; acceptance was contingent on factors such as racial background and socioeconomic status. The programs were called magnets because they were intended to attract students from all walks of life.

In 1981, Cleveland’s principal asked Neil Anstead to develop a magnet program inside the high school. A Renaissance man, Anstead had been teaching social studies, economics, and art history at Cleveland for more than twenty years; he loved opera so much, he eventually offered a class in that, too. Anstead designed a program predicated on the idea that the humanities were for everyone—not just, in his words, “upper- and middle-class students,” or those of “higher ability.” Magnet students were bused in from across the Valley and other parts of Los Angeles.

The magnet’s curriculum was organized thematically: 9th grade focused on world cultures, 10th on Western civilization, 11th on American studies, and 12th on philosophy and modern thought. “Core” became shorthand for the program because magnet pupils took a nucleus of humanities courses together and attended classes in other subjects alongside the rest of the Cleveland student body. Magnet courses focused on writing—lots of essays, few tests—and were rooted in discussions of what Anstead described as questions “important to living more meaningful lives.” Among them: Is there free will? What is art? Should people be guided more by reason or by emotion? “In the hands of flexible and sensitive teachers,” Anstead wrote in a paper for the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, these questions “keep students hooked from bell to bell.”

Technically, Core was subject to the authority of Cleveland’s main office. In practice, however, it was a school within a school. Anstead served as the de facto administrator, making hiring decisions, managing budgets, and overseeing curriculum development. But magnet faculty enjoyed a great deal of autonomy—Anstead, who developed a reputation among Core students for being gentle and brilliant, if a bit absentminded, gave teachers free rein over their classes. Each grade had a faculty team led by a coordinator; the team co-taught some class sessions and graded students’ essays together. “Teachers must be workaholics,” Anstead once told the Los Angeles Times. “They must be prepared to spend evenings, weekends, and part of their summers together.” Magnet faculty tended to be charismatic: Some teachers were personable in class, forging friendships with students, while others engaged in argumentative dialogue or maintained the cool detachment of an august college professor.

The program was an instant hit. One early alum wrote in a testimonial for the magnet that graduate school “began where … Core classes left off.” Another alum told me that when she got to UCLA, her essays were of such high quality that her professors thought she was plagiarizing. Core became so beloved that before long there was a robust pipeline of alumni who, after finishing college, came back to teach in the program.

In 1986, the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit organization, decided to build on Core’s success by installing similar programs at public schools throughout the city. LAEP called the initiative Humanitas, and participating teachers shadowed Core faculty to learn how to craft and implement a humanities curriculum. Within five years, Humanitas had chapters in 29 schools, involving some 3,500 students and 180 teachers. “In most high schools, you just pass from class to class. If you’re lucky, you might have a teacher who understands you and tries to help you with stuff. But that was not the case here,” Judith Johnson, a former LAEP administrator, told me. “By bringing people into teams, the teachers had a community, and the kids had a community.”

“Stay away from Miller,” an older female student told Kappes at lunch one day. “He tries to sleep with students.”

When Kasia Kappes entered Core as a freshman in 1991, she was nervous. Bright and artistic, Kappes had attended a Catholic middle school, where she wore a uniform and the teachers ran a tight ship. Public school seemed chaotic by comparison. But in E Hall, in the bubble of Core, Kappes felt at home. The teachers were engaging, the classes were inspiring, and the students were enthusiastic. “I just thought sending me there was the best thing my parents ever did for me,” Kappes told me.

Like any high school, however, Cleveland had a rumor mill, and teachers were often the subject of gossip. There were stories about Core instructors who smoked with students. Two longtime faculty members were said to be having an affair. Students talked about an art teacher who was “creepy” with male students. Girls whispered about a math instructor who looked up their skirts in class.

One rumor gave Kappes pause, because it was accompanied by a warning. “Stay away from Miller,” an older female student told her at lunch one day. “He tries to sleep with students.”

Kappes decided to do what the student said, just in case she was right. That worked well enough until 11th grade, when she was in Miller’s class. One day he pulled Kappes aside and asked why she wouldn’t talk to him. “I wasn’t going to accuse a teacher of sleeping with a student,” Kappes said. “So I made something up.” He was friendly, and Kappes felt like he was being genuine. She decided to give him a chance.

Soon she was spending a lot of time in Miller’s classroom, a standalone building on a corner of campus facing an adjoining street. Miller was known to let students ditch school by climbing out his window. The room had Malcolm X and Bob Marley posters. When teenagers hung out there between classes, at lunch, or after school, Miller asked about their friendships and their crushes.

In class, Miller did more than ask questions: He encouraged students to talk about their personal lives in relation to the Core curriculum. Miller was the 11th-grade coordinator, overseeing units on classism, racism, and gender and sexuality, and when it came to sharing about those topics, nothing seemed off limits. Kids described trauma, anxiety, and problems at home. Students of color talked about encountering bias, a topic that was the subject of an annual class exercise called the power pyramid. Core juniors were corralled into a room and instructed to organize themselves according to race: Black and Latino students were on the floor, Asian students were on chairs, and white students stood over everyone. This, the kids were told, was how society saw them.

Miller also showed students provocative movies, including Oleanna, a David Mamet film based on his play of the same name, which depicts a female college student who accuses a male professor of sexual harassment. According to Kappes, Miller wanted to know what the class thought of the plot: “Was there inappropriateness going on between the two? Where do you draw the line on that kind of stuff?”

Kappes trusted Miller and confided in him. Once, after she got in a fight with her parents, he picked her up at home and drove her to a friend’s place. It wasn’t unusual for Core teachers to go above and beyond for a student. Kappes said that one teacher, Rene Shufelt, helped pay for her art school applications. Kappes also considered Richard Coleman, Core’s 10th-grade coordinator, a “legit friend.” She took care of his cats when he was out of town, and Coleman joined Kappes and her friends at movies, concerts, and Disneyland. Over Thanksgiving break in 1994, Kappes’s senior year, she and a few other girls went on a camping trip to Arizona led by Coleman, an avid hiker. According to depositions from Kappes and other students on the trip, the only other chaperone was Coleman’s friend David DeMetz, a paramedic in his mid-twenties.

Kappes and her friends weren’t sneaking around. “We’d come back to school and be like, ‘Oh yeah, we went hiking with Coleman.’ No one batted an eyelash at any of this,” Kappes said. “As weird as things seemed at times, it was also just kind of normal.”

Normal is a word many Core alumni use to talk about things that were anything but. A better word, perhaps, is pervasive. The blurring of lines between students and teachers was everywhere. So was speculation about lines being crossed outright. But a rumor is just a rumor, until the moment it isn’t.

One day when Kappes was a senior, Miller took her out to dinner with Jackie. Kappes was a year older than Jackie, and the two girls had become friends thanks to Miller; he seemed to have a knack for bringing students together, nurturing connections. Kappes knew that Miller and Jackie were spending a lot of time together, but she didn’t think it was inappropriate—she herself had grown so close with Miller that “he was like my dad,” Kappes said.

As they ate, Miller initiated a discussion about whether he and Jackie should have sex. Kappes was horrified but kept her feelings to herself as Miller began to rationalize the subject. “We were having intellectual—and I say that in quotes—conversations to justify these things,” Kappes told me. “It kind of felt like an extension of class.” Miller took the position that sleeping with Jackie wouldn’t be wrong, because if people have feelings for each other, they should act on them. “He was trying to get us to tell him it was OK,” Kappes said. She remembered Miller looking to her especially for support, and being confused as to why. A conversation that took place after the meal was clarifying. “He goes, ‘Well, you understand how this is because of you and Coleman,’ ” Kappes said. “It dawned on me later that he thought I was in a relationship with Coleman.”

At a sleepover after the dinner, Jackie asked Kappes what she should do. Kappes didn’t know what to tell her, and the girls never talked about the discussion with Miller again. Neither did they tell anyone else about it. Jackie buried the encounter so deep in her mind that, as an adult, she would have trouble remembering it at all.

What she could never forget were the moments Miller got her alone. He urged Jackie to join a community group that provided peer education about HIV/AIDS. Meetings were held once a week, and Miller offered to drive her. He held hands with Jackie in the car. Sometimes he did more. Jackie remembered sitting in his car in a parking lot, aware of the smell of his head, his shampoo—Miller was embracing her, crying as he told her that he loved her.

One day, as Miller dropped Jackie off at home after a meeting, he said, “Write to me.” As he drove away, Jackie realized that her mom was in the garage and had heard him. Her mom, who until then had thought Miller was simply a supportive teacher taking an interest in Jackie’s future, demanded to know what he meant. Jackie didn’t want to talk about the notes she and Miller were leaving for each other in his filing cabinet, so she said he was just telling her to do her homework.

Not long after that, Jackie’s mom was putting laundry away when she spotted a stack of letters tucked inside Jackie’s dresser. She picked one up and saw that it was full of compliments about her daughter, including how beautiful she was. The letter was signed “Chris.” Jackie’s mom put two and two together and bolted for her car. “I drove to Cleveland like a mad woman,” she told me.

Jackie’s mom went to Miller’s classroom, pounded on the door, and demanded that he come out. “I just remember going crazy,” she said. “I had a letter in my hand. I said, ‘What is this? What are you doing?’ And his face went completely white and just blank.” Students in nearby classrooms could hear Jackie’s mom yelling. “She ripped him a new one,” Kappes said, “telling him to stay away from her daughter, that she was going to get a restraining order.”

According to Jackie’s mom, Miller cried and told her that he was having a hard time in his personal life, that his wife was sick and he couldn’t afford to lose his job. In a faculty meeting shortly after the incident, Miller told a different story. “He stated that he told her that if she truly believed” he was abusing Jackie, “she was welcome to join him as he went to the principal’s office to resign,” Denis Komen, a Core teacher at the time, said in a deposition. “It was very disturbing to me that a parent would come in and make such a statement, and I was surprised at his response.” (Komen stopped working at Cleveland soon after this incident.)

Jackie’s mom told me that she did go to the school administration. When she left Miller at his classroom door, she reported him to assistant principal Carole Spence. In an email, Spence stated that “no abuse was ever reported to me by anyone,” involving Miller or any other teacher. She added that “assuming this event occurred with some other person”—another administrator, perhaps—Cleveland’s principal should have been informed immediately. At that point, the school’s legal responsibilities would have kicked into gear.

In California as in all U.S. states, teachers and school officials are required by law to report known or suspected child abuse to law enforcement. When someone makes an abuse allegation or reports possible misconduct, it isn’t up to a “mandated reporter” to determine whether the claim is true—they are obligated to file a suspected child abuse report, or SCAR. But according to Jackie’s lawsuit, after her mom went to Cleveland’s main office, “no action was taken.” Records obtained as part of discovery in the suit contain no mention of a SCAR being filed against Miller at any time during his tenure at Cleveland. An additional request submitted to LAUSD “for information regarding any complaints involving, investigations involving, or disciplinary records” for Miller turned up “no responsive records.”

Apart from Denis Komen, the various teachers and school officials deposed thus far in Jackie’s lawsuit said they didn’t remember a parent confronting or reporting Miller. Most of them also said they didn’t recall ever hearing rumors that Miller was inappropriate with a student. But according to a former employee of Humanitas, the LAUSD-wide program modeled on Core, knowledge of possible misconduct went all the way to the top of the magnet.

The former employee, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, described a one-on-one meeting with Neil Anstead, Core’s founder and longtime coordinator, during which Anstead brought up Miller’s alleged behavior. Anstead indicated that he wasn’t going to pursue the matter. “He said, ‘You can’t fault someone for who they fall in love with,’ or something,” the former Humanitas employee recalled. “It was a very romanticized version of something that sounded scary to me.” (Anstead died in 2020.)

According to Jackie, after her mom found the letters in her bedroom, Miller knew he couldn’t be seen alone with her, so he came up with new ways for them to spend time together. He told Jackie that they should meet for lunch in Vivian Atkin’s classroom. Atkin had joined Core in 1994. She taught freshman English and was on the 11th-grade faculty team. Miller assured Jackie that they could confide in Atkin, who had helped him burn the letters Jackie had written him. “They were destroying evidence, but it was presented to me that it was ceremonious, like a cleansing,” Jackie said. (Atkin didn’t respond to interview requests.)

In a deposition, Jackie stated that Atkin was present for discussions about Miller’s romantic interest in her. “The conversations would basically be about how people don’t understand, you know, our relationship,” Jackie said. “Ms. Atkin understood.” Jackie didn’t know that Atkin and Miller were sexually involved. Atkin, who like Miller was married to someone else, said in a deposition that the affair was brief—a claim disputed by alumni interviewed for this story and by witnesses in the current lawsuits.

Miller also encouraged Jackie to start spending time with Claudia*, another junior. Sometimes he joined them. In May 1995, he went with the girls to a reggae concert, where they smoked pot together. According to Claudia, Miller made advances toward her, but she could sense that she wasn’t his primary target. “He was very focused on [Jackie],” Claudia said in a deposition. “He encouraged my relationship to her … to get her away from the pack, in a new pack.”

It worked: Jackie pulled away from her closest friends to spend time with Claudia and Miller. People who cared for her didn’t know where to turn. “I certainly never felt like there was somebody at the program or the school that I could go talk to about my suspicions,” a childhood friend and fellow Core student said in a deposition. “It didn’t feel like they would be on my side.”

Kasia Kappes put it more succinctly. “It doesn’t matter if your mom knows,” she told me. “Nothing is going to happen.”

Coleman asked how old she would be when she graduated. Kate said she would be 18. “We should go on a date then,” he replied.

One day in the summer of 1995, a few months after Jackie’s mom came to campus, Kappes got a phone call from Richard Coleman. That in itself wasn’t unusual. Kappes, who graduated from Cleveland that June, had talked with Coleman on the phone frequently when she was a student. But on this particular call Coleman seemed anxious. “I messed up,” Kappes remembered him telling her. “I kissed Kate*.”

For the second time that year, Kappes was stunned by something a teacher was telling her. Like Jackie, Kate was a rising senior. She and Kappes were close, and together they hung out with Coleman. The three of them bantered; they had inside jokes. Coleman once described them in a letter he wrote to Kappes as an “awesome (if not somewhat kinky) trio.”

On the phone, Kappes told Coleman he was an idiot. He knew Kate had a crush on him; Kappes had told him so. Why would he lead her on?

Kate had admired Coleman since sophomore year, when she’d been in his class. On the first day he told students that his essay tests were so demanding, most of them would never finish. Kate studied all weekend before the first one. In class she wrote dozens of pages, capping them off with the triumphant words “I FINISHED.” When she got the essay back, Coleman had replied, “YES YOU DID.”

The following year, when Jackie started spending her lunch period in Miller’s room, Kate did the same in Coleman’s. Other girls were often there too. Coleman, who was in his mid-thirties, was aloof in an appealing way, and many female students found him attractive. He had long brown hair and a beard, prompting comparisons to Jesus. Kate found Coleman intelligent and charming. They talked about art and music; they had the same taste. Soon she was writing about him in her journal.

One day, according to Kate, she and Coleman were alone in his classroom when he asked how old she would be when she graduated. Kate said she would be 18. “We should go on a date then,” Coleman replied. He wrote his phone number down. Soon they were talking on the phone after school. Coleman told her that he had feelings for her.

In a deposition, Kate recalled Coleman saying that he wanted to plan a weekend away, just the two of them, in Joshua Tree. But then he called one day to say they should do a shorter hike in Los Angeles instead. According to Kate, Coleman explained that he had talked to a friend of his who’d told him it was a bad idea to be alone with her for a weekend. The friend was a former Core teacher who, according to multiple sources interviewed for this story, and one who testified under oath, was rumored to have pursued a sexual relationship with a student and subsequently to have left the magnet to be with her.

During their hike, according to Kate, Coleman asked, “What are we? Are we friends?” She sensed he wanted them to be something more, and she thought she felt the same way. But the first time Coleman tried to be physical with her, Kate pushed him away. Eventually, she didn’t say no to Coleman’s advances, although her discomfort remained. One day he kissed her in a parking lot. According to Kate’s deposition, the abuse later intensified, becoming more sexual. It continued into the spring of her senior year. (Coleman declined an interview request, noting, “I cannot comment while this matter is under litigation.”)

In her deposition, Kappes said that when Coleman called to tell her that he’d “messed up” by kissing Kate, he was also “very angry” Kate had written about the incident in her journal. What if someone read it? No one did; keeping secrets was torture, but Kate did it anyway. She kept her journal to herself, and stayed quiet about the emails Coleman sent her describing himself as an “oral sex fanatic” and signing off “miss you and your flesh.” About a smiling Miller asking her one day if she was “keeping Coleman happy.” About how Miller wasn’t the only teacher who seemed to know or suspect the truth.

In a journal entry, Kate recounted a conversation that Coleman told her he’d had with Ray Linn, a philosophy teacher and Core’s 12th-grade coordinator. Linn had spotted Coleman driving Kate away from school in his Jeep, and suggested it was a bad look for teachers to be seen giving rides to students. (In a deposition, Linn said he didn’t remember this conversation, and never heard or suspected that Coleman was inappropriate with students.) According to Kate, Marty Kravchak, another Core teacher, approached her more than once to ask if anything was “going on” between her and Coleman. “I don’t know if I actually said no, but I didn’t say yes,” Kate told me. “That’s what I did with a lot of people.” In her deposition, Kate recalled Kravchak referring to Coleman as a “dirty old man.”

Kravchak, who didn’t reply to interview requests, stated under oath that she didn’t recall talking to Kate. “I must have really blocked that out,” she said. Kravchak did remember female students who had a crush on Coleman—“drooling in his presence comes to mind.” She said that she told him to keep his classroom door open, “because those girls are going to be a problem.”

At least one teacher could recall being concerned for Kate. Lori Howe, a Core graduate who joined the magnet faculty in the mid-1990s, overheard students joking one day about how Coleman would be taking Kate to the prom, since they seemed to be dating. In a deposition, Howe said she “immediately” went to Anstead. “He said that just because students say things … does not make them true and that he would look into it and take care of it,” Howe said. A request to LAUSD for documentation of complaints against or investigations of Coleman turned up “no responsive records.”

At the time, Jackie and Kate didn’t have a word for what they were experiencing. Today, as adults, they know it as grooming. According to both women, Miller and Coleman were isolating them, complimenting them, encouraging them to be vulnerable, earning their trust, and normalizing inappropriate behavior. The men were also gaslighting them, exploiting their friendships, and stoking adolescent jealousy to draw them closer. In response, the girls experienced a flurry of contradictory emotions: They felt flattered and uneasy, empowered and beholden, attracted and revolted. Unsure how to manage these feelings, they took cues from the very adults who were abusing them. After all, they’d always been taught to trust their teachers.

High school provides a convenient framework for cycles of abuse. Students are around for only a handful of years, and the pool of potential targets is constantly replenished. According to Kate’s deposition, as her time in Core drew to a close, she watched Coleman turn his attention to a younger female student. At first she was heartbroken. But by the time she graduated in 1996, Kate had convinced herself she was ready to move on. Years later she reached out to tell Coleman about studying abroad and her career plans. “It might have been a little more like, ‘Look at how well I’m doing in spite of you,’ ” she said.

Jackie’s dynamic with Miller started shifting the summer before her senior year. He encouraged her to attend Brotherhood-Sisterhood Camp, a program started by the Los Angeles chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews that facilitated interracial, interfaith dialogue among high schoolers. Jackie found the experience transformative, but when she mentioned to a female counselor at the camp that Miller was helping her deal with challenges in her life, she sensed something was off. Without specifying why, the counselor told Jackie that Miller wasn’t a good person for her to lean on.

As the fall semester began, Jackie distanced herself from Miller. He didn’t object. In fact, he soon alerted Jackie and Claudia that the three of them shouldn’t spend time together anymore. The impetus seemed to be a family member of Claudia’s reading her journal, including details about Miller’s behavior; according to Claudia’s deposition, this prompted a conversation with school administrators. After that, Miller brought the girls into Vivian Atkin’s classroom one day. He played a Simon and Garfunkel song and gave them gifts: a poster for Jackie, an anklet for Claudia. It was as if he were saying goodbye. But he assured them that if they needed anything, they could always reach out to him through Atkin.

Claudia left Cleveland soon after that—she couldn’t take the stress of Miller’s manipulations, which had become the subject of school gossip. “Everyone knew,” Claudia stated in a deposition. She also attributed her leaving Cleveland to “a blind eye turned by the school…. You were supposed to continue walking through school like everything was OK, and it was not OK.”

Jackie made it to graduation. For her, college was the struggle. She didn’t trust male professors. If they complimented her work, she assumed they were trying to coax her into a physical relationship. Eventually, she quit school and started waiting tables and bartending.

Over the years—and with therapy—Jackie unpacked the baggage of Miller’s abuse. She would never be rid of it, but at least she could see it for what it was, assess it, call it wrong. She also began to reconsider the way Miller and other Core faculty approached teaching. As a teenager she’d found it stimulating, even revolutionary, but what if there was another side to it?

A particular class exercise stood out to her. As part of the 11th-grade unit focused on gender and sexuality, Miller had instructed male students to line up all the girls in his classroom in order of attractiveness. The lesson was supposed to be about how beauty is subjective, but all Jackie could remember was the fear churning in her stomach over where she’d be placed in line. “It was like this weird psychological torture,” she told me.

Jackie wasn’t the only Core student to feel that way.

A familiar name came up more than once in interviews with Core alumni: Jane Elliott. An elementary school teacher in Riceville, Iowa, Elliott rose to prominence soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when she divided her all-white third-grade class into two groups: children with blue eyes, and children with brown eyes. She told the children with blue eyes that they were genetically inferior, denied them access to playground equipment, and prohibited them from drinking water from school fountains. The next day, she reversed the children’s roles. The point was to demonstrate how racism functions.

While the “blue eyes, brown eyes” experiment made Elliott a local pariah—her own children faced harassment, and the family dog was poisoned—it also made her a national sensation. She appeared on TV and became a sought-after voice on racism, running workshops that expanded upon her famous experiment. She was invited to schools, corporate retreats, even a White House conference. Today she remains a highly regarded diversity educator.

But Elliott isn’t without her detractors. When Stephen G. Bloom, a journalism professor, began writing a book about Elliott several years ago, he found that the majority of interview subjects were critical of her legacy, including people who had participated in her work. These sources described Elliott using targeted insults and blunt manipulation, and refusing to listen to feedback. “The experiment was a sadistic exhibition of power and authority—levers controlled by Elliott,” Bloom concluded. “Stripping away the veneer of the experiment, what was left had nothing to do with race. It was about cruelty and shaming.”

Several Core alumni told me that Chris Miller admired Elliott and modeled some of his teaching methods on her work. Tallie Ben Daniel, who graduated from the magnet in 2001, shared a YouTube video in which Elliott singles out students in a classroom for criticism and asks how it makes them feel. According to Ben Daniel, this was “beat for beat what class was like” for Core juniors.

At the beginning of the 11th grade, magnet students were given an IQ test and lined up according to their scores. There were protests and tears. Before the bell rang, students were told that the test was fake and that IQ was a useless measurement. “There was just always this gotcha,” Ben Daniel told me.

The power pyramid was also fraught. In a deposition, Brandi Craig, a Black alum who attended the magnet in the aughts, said the exercise—like “a lot” of activities in Core—seemed to exploit the trauma of students of color, perhaps for no other reason than to ensure that white students had “an interesting experience to talk about on their college essays.” (At the time, about 40 percent of Core students in a typical cohort were white, while Asian and Latino students each constituted about a quarter. Black students made up the remaining 10 percent.) Other alumni found the exercise one-dimensional in its assumptions of who holds social power and why. One year a white student burst into tears and said he didn’t belong at the top of the pyramid because he lived in a car with his mom. When Ben Daniel suggested that being queer might modulate her advantages in life, Miller “laid into” her. “Look at the people of color sitting on the floor,” she recalled him saying. “How dare you deny the reality that’s in front of you, that you have privilege and they don’t!” Ben Daniel said she “took it,” and felt rewarded as a result.

At the time, there were three other people on the 11th-grade teaching team: Vivian Atkin, as well as Donna Hill and Bill Paden, both of whom were Black. Paden liked to debate Core kids and push them to defend their intellectual positions. Adam Titcher, a 2000 alum, said that even after graduating, he and Paden had heated discussions on the phone about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In interviews and depositions, many alumni also described Paden as flirtatious. Rachel Becker, who graduated in 1998, recalled him joking about her breasts in front of other students. “He said, ‘When Rachel Becker does jumping jacks, she gets a black eye,’ ” she stated in a deposition. “It was the most humiliating experience of my teenage years.” (Paden did not respond to interview requests.)

During the 11th-grade unit on gender and sexuality, Core teachers encouraged girls to share their experiences with sexual violence. Sometimes female faculty told stories of their own. Alanna Bailey, a 2003 graduate, described “the floodgates” opening one day. “Almost every single female in the class was saying things like ‘I was raped by my father,’ ” Bailey said, “or ‘so-and-so molested me,’ or ‘I’ve been raped three times at parties.’ ”

No alumni interviewed for this story recalled mental health resources being made available to them while they attended the magnet. “Core just ripped stuff out of us,” Bailey told me. “We had nowhere to put it.” Several graduates said the program drilled into them the message that if a situation in class made them uncomfortable, they should ignore their gut—their apprehension was just an expression of the social expectations Core was helping them to slough off. Many alumni also said the faculty instilled a belief that talking about Core with anyone who wasn’t in the program wasn’t worth their time; only people on the inside, who shared their experiences, could appreciate what the magnet was doing. Permission slips for class experiences that focused on mature content were often opt-out: Parents only had to sign if they didn’t want their kids to participate, which meant students could shove a slip in a backpack and forget about it. “From day one, you’re trusting the teachers,” Ben Daniel said, “because they’re doing this for your own good.”

“This” included more than just the encouragement of soul-baring in class. In sophomore English, while reading the play Equus, students were sometimes urged to act out a scene in which a character reaches sexual climax. Juniors watched The Accused, the Academy Award–winning film about a brutal gang rape. In the 12th grade, according to multiple sources’ interviews and depositions, Ray Linn openly mocked students in his class—several alumni remembered him calling them “idiots.” Students got the sense that if they didn’t understand that Linn was being ironic, it was their problem. Judith Johnson, who sometimes sat in on Linn’s classes as part of her work with LAEP, told me she “would cringe when he would critique a student in front of all the other students.” She said she expressed concerns about Linn’s “degrading” methods to Anstead, who assured her that “the kids responded to Ray.” (Linn did not reply to interview requests.)

One former Core student told me, “It felt like you had no choice but to conform to what your teachers were telling you, and not only about the curriculum. You were obligated to buy into their view of you.” Impressionable teenagers did just that. As adults, some remain fervent advocates of the program. “You stand behind your journalistic integrity, yes?” one alum asked in a Facebook message, in response to an interview request. “Because CORE is a solid program, and shining a disingenuous spotlight on it would do more harm than good.”

Shapiro didn’t remember Atkin saying anything, but her presence seemed to serve a purpose. “I remember having this thought, like, well, there’s a woman in the room with me right now, and if she’s in here, this must be OK,” Shapiro said.

Michael Leviton was a rarity in Core, a student who thought that much of the pedagogy was flawed and self-indulgent. The 1998 graduate said so to anyone who would listen, and often to people who didn’t want to. Extreme candor was the defining feature of his life: Leviton’s parents insisted that he should never lie, and should speak his mind no matter what, because not being honest was a personal failing.

Leviton, who is a friend of mine and the person who informed me about the Core lawsuits, would be the first to say that his view of the magnet was influenced by coming of age in a “little honesty cult.” Still, his upbringing gave him a finely tuned bullshit detector—and no one set it off quite like Chris Miller. As Leviton saw it, Miller “got off on the power of manipulating teenagers.” But whenever Leviton objected to how Miller taught, he was shot down by fellow students or other teachers.

During senior year, right before graduation, a friend confided in Leviton about an encounter she’d had with Miller. The friend and another senior, Rachel Shapiro, were Miller’s favorite female students at the time—he always seemed to have a few. One day he took them out to eat off campus and told them that he liked them. “He says to my friend, ‘I want to date you,’ and to me he says, ‘You make me feel warm and fuzzy inside,’ ” Shapiro recalled. After the meal, the girls climbed into their car and laughed uncontrollably.

Several days later, Miller pulled Shapiro into his classroom during lunch. In a deposition, Shapiro said that Vivian Atkin was there, too. Miller told Shapiro that he’d noticed she and her friend had distanced themselves from him since the meal. “He basically laid it out and was like, ‘It’s your choice, but there’s nothing wrong with this, and these feelings are real,’ ” Shapiro told me. Miller indicated that he’d had relationships with female students before.

Shapiro didn’t remember Atkin saying anything, but her presence seemed to serve a purpose. “I remember having this thought, like, well, there’s a woman in the room with me right now, and if she’s in here, this must be OK,” Shapiro said. “Because if somebody else knows about it and it’s not a secret, then what’s wrong with this?” Still, Shapiro rebuffed Miller.

When Leviton learned what had happened, he was more confident than ever that something was terribly wrong in Core. Armed with the truth—and in the habit of telling it—he went to his mom, Linda, who called the school. According to Linda, she spoke with principal Eileen Banta and they scheduled a meeting with Miller. In Linda’s recollection, which she shared under oath and in an interview, Miller came into the room and said that he had no idea what she was talking about and that he didn’t have time to be there.

Afterward, Miller continued teaching. Shapiro said that she and her friend never spoke to the school administration. In a deposition, Banta said that she didn’t remember meeting with Linda and Miller or otherwise hearing about the allegations against Miller. “I wouldn’t forget something like that,” Banta said.

But Linda still has her personal calendar from when the meeting took place. “About Miller” is scribbled under August 4, 1998—four years after Miller reportedly began grooming Jackie, and one year before he allegedly set his sights on yet another student.

Like many kids, Zoe* had a hard time in middle school. Core, which she entered in 1997, felt like a fresh, exciting start for a creative and opinionated teenager like her. “Students were seen and treated as the intellectual equals of our teachers,” Zoe said. “There was this feeling of, you’re here, you’re special, this is a special place, these teachers are super special, don’t fuck it up.”

Over Zoe’s four years in Core, students branched off into cliques centered on particular teachers. Black students and athletes—cheerleaders in particular—tended to be devotees of Bill Paden. Budding journalists hung around Marty Kravchak, who advised the student newspaper. Girls who were into art or drama gravitated toward Coleman, who, in addition to coordinating the 10th grade, taught AP Art History.

Zoe bonded with Atkin during freshman English. Atkin sang a few bars of music every time she saw Zoe and told her they were kindred spirits. When Atkin said Zoe and Miller would get along, Zoe believed her. In 11th grade, Zoe became a devout Miller disciple. She threw herself into class discussions and exercises, and also spent time alone with Miller and Atkin. The Matrix had come out that year, and Miller showed the film to students. It became the framework for talking about the 11th-grade curriculum: The Matrix represented society’s strictures, and Core was what extricated students, or “unplugged” them. Miller sometimes called himself Neo, the name of Keanu Reeves’s character in the movie. Privately, he referred to Zoe as Trinity, after the leather-clad heroine played by Carrie-Anne Moss. Other times he called her Rapture, and referred to himself as Journey—the same nickname he’d told Jackie to use for him in the letters she once wrote him.

According to Zoe, Miller and Atkin became involved in her relationships with her classmates. “They would insert themselves into the drama or conflicts that we were having with one another,” she told me. Miller also made sexually provocative statements in front of students—for instance, that anyone with a penis was a potential rapist, save for a few enlightened men like himself. He once asked Zoe how she felt about the taboo of being attracted to one’s own sibling; later she wondered whether he was gauging her response to the notion of forbidden desire. After that encounter, during a field trip, Miller sat next to Zoe on the bus, where he held her hand and touched her legs.

One day, Miller and Atkin took Zoe to the school library to tell her something important. “They wanted me to know that they were in love with each other. They said they had a positive, liberated relationship,” Zoe said. She was honored that they trusted her. At the end of the conversation, they all hugged. (In a deposition, Atkin said, “I’m sure we must have told her about the involvement, but I can’t remember when and I can’t remember doing it…. I had become so much of a friend that I told her things I shouldn’t have told her.”)

After that conversation, according to Zoe, the three of them kept in closer touch than ever, including over the summer after her junior year. They talked on the phone and sometimes met up at a California Pizza Kitchen. At a certain point, Miller began physically abusing her. He called what was happening love. On at least one occasion, Zoe said under oath, Atkin participated in the abuse. In her deposition, Atkin denied this allegation. She admitted to letting Zoe paint her bare chest as part of a “healing” ceremony after she had a mastectomy. Miller was present when this happened. “It was not erotic at all,” Atkin said. But according to Zoe, after the ceremony, her teachers touched her and one another sexually.

Zoe told me that Miller, who by then was in his mid-fifties, used the word “bifurcate” to explain how she should navigate her relationship with him and Atkin. After spending time together, “they have to go back to their spouses and I have to go back to my parents’ house. We have to put it aside, compartmentalize it,” Zoe said. “They were teaching me how to dissociate.” She told no one what was happening, not even her closest friends, and tried to convince herself that she was guarding a precious secret.

Deep down, though, Zoe felt conflicted. She attempted more than once to end sexual contact with Miller, but he punished her by cutting off communication. “It never lasted longer than maybe a day or two days, because it was fucking torture for me to lose this person that I had come to completely depend upon,” Zoe said. She told me that she sought advice from Atkin, who said her discomfort with Miller was just internalized ageism.

Other students knew Zoe had a close bond with Atkin and Miller. Some of them thought they should be so lucky. But not everyone was comfortable with what they witnessed. In a deposition, a 1995 Core alum who came back briefly as a teacher described seeing Zoe crying at school one day and being aware that it was “connected to Chris Miller.” She said that she went to Anstead, who “said he would follow up.” She never heard anything else about it.

After Zoe graduated in 2001, she enrolled at UCLA, and Miller told her he was leaving his wife, so he could see her whenever he wanted. (Miller’s wife did not respond to interview requests.) But when Zoe visited Miller’s new apartment, she knew she didn’t want to spend time there. “What was I going to tell all my peers when they wondered what this old man was doing, picking me up from school, from my dorm, and taking me somewhere?” she said. Zoe began to pull away from Miller and everyone she knew from Core. “I just didn’t want to have contact,” she said.

One day, Miller, Atkin, and some of Zoe’s former classmates came to UCLA to stage an “intervention.” They sat in a sculpture garden next to the theater department, and one by one the group told Zoe how she’d hurt them by disappearing from their lives. When it was Miller’s turn, he cried and yelled. He ripped grass out of the ground and threw it at Zoe. “I hung my head down. I couldn’t look at any of them,” she told me. “I was consumed by guilt.” (In her deposition, Atkin confirmed the visit to UCLA, but said she didn’t remember it being described as an intervention or Miller becoming upset with Zoe.)

Zoe’s contact with Miller and Atkin ebbed and flowed after that. So did her trauma. In November 2007, she met with her former teachers at a restaurant in Northridge to confront them about their “inappropriate relationship”—she wasn’t yet ready to call it sexual abuse. “I started off by saying, ‘I have a lot of things I want to share with you, and I don’t want you to speak until I’m done,’ ” Zoe recalled. (In her deposition, Atkin stated that Zoe told them “she felt she had been spoiled for any other relationships because this relationship was so powerful,” but that “sex was never once mentioned.”)

According to Zoe, Miller, who had since returned to his marriage, apologized for not being “the adult you needed me to be.” He said that if she ever had any “angry feelings,” she should reach out to him. But Zoe didn’t. After she left Northridge that day, she never saw Miller again.

For a long time, it seemed as if the culture of Core would never change—not the curriculum, the emotional expectations, or the way teachers treated students. Some young faculty attempted to speak up, but nothing came of their complaints. When Lori Howe, the teacher who said she reported a rumor about Coleman and Kate to Neil Anstead, heard in the late 1990s about Miller instructing male students to line up their female classmates according to attractiveness—and to include Atkin in the exercise—Howe was “outraged.” She told Miller as much. “He basically blew off my concerns,” Howe said in a deposition. Soon after, she stopped teaching and became a counselor in Cleveland’s main office.

By the early 2000s, other Core alumni who’d become teachers found the magnet’s environment to be toxic, for both faculty and students. Ariane White, who’d graduated at the top of her class in the mid-1990s, became disillusioned with the men who’d once taught her, chief among them Ray Linn. Known for his wild mane of white hair and his colorful shirts, Linn had a teaching style that some alumni called Socratic but others, including White, described as bullying. In a deposition, White referred to class handouts Linn created consisting of sentences pulled from students’ essays. “It would say things like ‘Whoever wrote this should kill themselves,’ ” White said. When she shared her concerns, she felt belittled by Linn and dismissed by other teachers. She soon left Core for good.

There were other departures, the kind bound to happen when an academic program has existed for an appreciable amount of time. After working at Cleveland for nearly half a century, Anstead retired in 2004; the same year, he received a plaque on the Walk of Hearts, an installation in the Valley honoring exemplary teachers from the area. Miller and Atkin retired in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Around the same time, Coleman left Core and took a teaching position at a nearby community college.

These exits occurred on the heels of departures of a very different nature. Chris Biron, an art teacher in Core, was arrested in 2003. According to the LAPD, Biron had asked a male student to pose for him after school wearing “only his underwear.” Biron offered the boy $20 an hour. A criminal investigation ensued, and “based on the evidence seized,” police issued an arrest warrant. “It is believed that there may be additional victims,” the LAPD stated in a press release. Biron pled no contest to two charges: contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and possession of child pornography. (Biron did not respond to interview requests.)

Two years later, Michael Helwig, a former Cleveland math teacher, was making headlines: He was swept up in a law enforcement operation investigating child sex offenses, and was convicted of three counts pertaining to the possession and duplication of child pornography. Helwig, who by the time of his arrest had moved to another high school, hadn’t been part of the Core faculty, but magnet students had filled his accelerated program of honors and AP classes. According to multiple female alumni, Helwig called them pet names and commented on their appearances. In a deposition, a student recalled him asking if she went to nude beaches. Another said he once offered to give her an A if she got him a date with her elder sister, a senior at the time. (Helwig told me that if he made those comments, they were meant in jest, and that it surprised him any Core student thought otherwise. With regard to his criminal activity, Helwig said, “The arrest was the result of a mistake I made and I have moved on from it. I am proud of the person I have become and the life I have created.”)

No arrest was more seismic than the one that came next. Biron and Helwig weren’t among the giants of Core—the teachers who had the greatest clout and were the most widely admired among magnet students. But Bill Paden was.

In fact, Paden was an inspiration in every corner of Cleveland. In 2003, along with two other Black teachers, he’d called an assembly of Cleveland’s Black students to discuss their low test scores relative to their peers. Paden and his colleagues wanted to understand how to help the students reach their full potential. After the assembly, the teachers formed Village Nation, a program offering Black students tutoring and mentoring. (The name came from the much quoted phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.”) Black students’ test scores leapt, and national media took notice. In 2007, Village Nation was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “The more you engage young people and give them an opportunity to actually critically analyze and think,” Paden told Oprah, “you’ll see a tremendous change in culture and how they think about themselves.”

By then, Paden had another feather in his cap: He was the new coordinator of Core’s 11th grade. The curriculum was much the same as it had been under Miller. The power pyramid was still an annual exercise, with some modifications, and students were still encouraged to share intimate details of their lives, to the point where it seemed like their class performance depended on it. “We were just crying at the feet of these teachers,” a student at the time told me. “There was always a sense of wanting to be the most broken.”

One day in the spring of 2008, a student asked if she could speak to a Cleveland counselor privately. She said it was about Paden. The student revealed that a recent female graduate had told her that, when she was a student at Cleveland, Paden had had sex with her. The counselor reported Paden to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Soon after, Paden was escorted off campus and never came back.

At first his students didn’t know what had happened. “He was just gone,” said Brandi Craig, a Core junior at the time. The faculty didn’t formally address the matter with students or parents. Tara Jacobs, a Core alum who had returned to teach, stated in a deposition that the faculty “spent a lot of time talking about how did this happen,” but were outwardly focused “on making sure our students did not feel like their lives were turned upside down.” Eventually, students and other people with ties to Core learned that Paden had been convicted in a jury trial of misdemeanor statutory rape.

“It was an abusive organization,” Tallie Ben Daniel said. “The individual didn’t matter. It was the system that mattered.”

The news of Paden’s misconduct prompted Zoe, who had confronted Miller and Atkin in Northridge only a few months prior, to finally confide in her friends from high school about what had happened to her in Core. “I wish someone had reported Miller,” Zoe told them. Tallie Ben Daniel described Paden’s arrest as “the thing that broke the spell” for a lot of alumni. If students had missed warning signs about so prominent a teacher, what else had they misinterpreted—or been manipulated into ignoring—as kids?

In hindsight there were red flags everywhere. The lack of boundaries between teenagers and adults. The way faculty compelled students to expose their secrets. The feeling that what happened in Core stayed in Core. Rachel Shapiro told me “everybody was being groomed” to accept impropriety. Ben Daniel likened Core to a cult. “It was an abusive organization,” she said. “The individual didn’t matter. It was the system that mattered.”

But even as some alumni began to reevaluate Core’s culture, current students were in the thick of it. Brandi Craig, who graduated in 2009, said they idolized students who were teachers’ pets—the kids who did everything they could to impress their teachers, who projected vulnerability as a virtue, who dedicated themselves unwaveringly to Core’s ethos. “I can look back and see how the grooming was leeching through them,” Craig said.

Emma*, a classmate of Craig’s, admired Core faculty so much that she was once voted most likely to return as a teacher, a yearbook superlative. She was the kind of student who would laminate her notes before an exam so she could study them in the shower. Heading into senior year, she was the president of two clubs and the editor of the school newspaper. She was eyeing journalism programs at East Coast colleges. “I really felt like I could’ve done anything,” she said.

Emma met the newest magnet teacher shortly after the 2008 fall semester began. Brett Shufelt’s connections to Core ran deep: He’d graduated from the program in 2001, and his mom, Rene, was the teacher who’d once helped pay for Kasia Kappes’s art school applications. The summer before he began teaching, other faculty had told Shufelt to conduct his relationships with female students with the utmost care—they didn’t want even a hint of another Paden situation. “[We] had specific conversations with him about proper behavior and protocol and things like that,” Tara Jacobs said in a deposition.

Emma took an early bus to school every day, traveling some 14 miles from her home in a heavily Mexican-American corner of the Valley. One fall morning she asked Shufelt, who also got to campus early, if she could sit in his classroom to do homework before first period. Soon she was going to his room first thing most days. When she asked him to look at the outline of an essay she was writing, he told her it was “really smart.”

They started messaging on Facebook, and Emma began staying late after school to talk to Shufelt about classwork, college applications, and politics. He told her about being a Core student: how the curriculum had taught him to think deeply, how the yearbook had dedicated a page to his ever changing hairstyles. Ben Daniel, a close friend of Shufelt’s in high school, described him as smart and artistic, with an affinity for mosh pits. Shufelt told Emma that coming back as a Core teacher had always been his dream.

When Emma visited Emerson College in Boston, where she was offered a full scholarship, Shufelt was “really sour about it,” she recalled. He asked why she would want to go so far away from home. That question planted a seed of doubt she couldn’t shake. She ended up applying early to Mills College, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Over Thanksgiving break, Emma had tickets to see a production of the musical Spring Awakening. None of her friends could go, so she asked Shufelt if he wanted to join her—after all, Emma told me, “people went out with teachers all the time.” They watched the show, the plot of which centers on teenagers experiencing the first stirrings of sexual desire, in the theater’s front row. Afterward Shufelt asked if Emma wanted to get dinner. Emma ordered rice and beans, and Shufelt teased her for her “banal” order—the first time she’d ever heard that word. He paid for the meal, and they walked to an art exhibit before finishing off the evening with ice cream. “If he’d been 16, it would have been a great date,” Emma told me. “But he was 25.”

After Thanksgiving, Shufelt asked Emma to help him grade exams one day. They started at a Denny’s in the Valley, then moved to his house around the corner, where he said he’d forgotten a stack of students’ work. “His house was what I always thought that my adult house would be like—full of books, full of papers, art everywhere,” Emma said. When they finished grading, Emma moved to leave through the front door. Shufelt reached over her head to shut it. He kissed her, then drove her back to Denny’s so her mom could pick her up.

Sex followed a few nights later, again at his house. Shufelt said they needed to keep a low profile until Emma turned 18, which wouldn’t be until after graduation. Emma confided in a friend on Facebook, “He told me he loved me and wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.”

According to Emma, before winter break Tara Jacobs learned of the outing to see Spring Awakening, and she pulled Emma out of class to speak with her and Shufelt about it. Jacobs urged Shufelt to tell Emma what the two teachers apparently had discussed before the meeting. “He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t have feelings for you, I don’t want to see you again, it shouldn’t have happened,’ ” Emma recalled. Later, in private, Shufelt told her he didn’t mean it. (In a deposition, Jacobs said she didn’t remember whether she met with Emma and Shufelt.)

Soon after, Emma’s mother read some Facebook messages Emma had exchanged with a friend, including one in which she said Shufelt had kissed her. Emma’s parents confronted her, and she alerted Shufelt. According to Emma, Shufelt told her that, at a Core faculty meeting held over winter break, he would announce that he was in love with a student and would be resigning.

After the faculty meeting, Gabriel Lemmon, the coordinator of the magnet since Anstead had stepped down, filed a SCAR. The document, dated January 8, 2009, states that “Brett Shufelt … met with a student at a restaurant,” and that “according to Shufelt, [the] student kissed him at conclusion of meeting—and he reports that he did not stop her.” When the spring semester began, Emma’s parents went to the principal’s office to talk about getting law enforcement involved in the situation. According to Emma, an administrator asked if her parents really wanted to put her through an investigation when she was so close to graduating—after all, she and Shufelt had only kissed.

Emma, who was present for the conversation, was too humiliated to tell the administrator that she and Shufelt had done far more than that. Her parents decided not to pursue an investigation. Emma went to class.

Emma overheard peers say she was “not hot enough for you to risk your career over.” On Facebook, a classmate said he wanted to “bash her brains in.”

Like Paden had less than a year prior, Shufelt vanished from Cleveland without explanation. Core teachers didn’t address the situation with students, except to announce that faculty and students could not be Facebook friends. Emma felt like she was left to fend for herself. “I would advise you to ask the teachers if they may have any information, because I have none to provide,” Emma wrote on Facebook in response to another student asking if Shufelt was coming back to Core.

Before long, the tone of gossip congealed around a single idea: It was Emma’s fault that Shufelt—a young, well-liked teacher—had left. She overheard peers say she was “not hot enough for you to risk your career over.” On Facebook, a classmate said he wanted to “bash her brains in.” A rumor circulated that Emma was pregnant.

In a deposition, Emma said she asked teachers for help, and recalled Jacobs telling her that the situation would blow over. (Jacobs said she didn’t remember whether Emma came to her.) Emma said she also talked with a female counselor at school, who in turn spoke to Lemmon, the magnet’s coordinator. Lemmon was teaching a class at the time, and his students overheard pieces of the conversation. “After that, I just didn’t feel comfortable telling her anything,” Emma said, referring to the counselor.

Emma was in Ray Linn’s class that semester. She liked Linn, and didn’t find him as abrasive as some other students did. According to Emma, one day as she was packing up to leave his classroom, Linn asked her, “How’s he doing?” It was clear to Emma that he was referring to Shufelt.

Emma was still seeing Shufelt in secret. She would ditch school early so they could spend a few hours together before she had to catch a bus home. When she cried about what was going on, he told her it wasn’t her fault. He called her “kiddo” and his “little center of attention.” When it came time for prom, he decorated his house and bought Emma a corsage so they could celebrate; she snuck out of the actual event to spend the night with him. Shufelt also set up Facebook accounts with fake names so they could communicate on the platform again. He once wrote, “I’m going to be good to you for the rest of our lives.” It was “exactly what I wanted to hear,” Emma said, “especially as a teenager.”

Emma graduated and went to Mills, where Shufelt visited her, hung out with her dorm mates, and bought them alcohol. When Emma turned 18, she and Shufelt went public with their relationship. Some people couldn’t shake their discomfort. Emma’s best friend recalled her mom seeing a picture of Emma and Shufelt together on Facebook and asking, “Who is that pedophile?” When Ben Daniel learned that Shufelt was dating a former student, she confronted him. “We got in a huge fight,” she said. The two friends never spoke again.

One day Shufelt told Emma that he’d bumped into his old teacher Chris Miller in the Valley. Emma knew Miller, who had retired just before she reached 11th grade, by reputation only—he was a mythic figure in the pantheon of Core faculty. Shufelt told Emma that Miller had said he was happy things were working out between them. “He was giving Brett his blessing,” Emma said, “for the way that everything happened.”

Emma felt grateful and reassured. In time, that would change.

Amy* had a routine. Once a week, starting around 2018, she typed the same search terms into Google: “Cleveland High School Reseda sexual abuse.” When she didn’t get the result she was looking for, she wasn’t discouraged. It would come. It had to.

Amy graduated from Core in 2001. According to her deposition, as a student she was close with Atkin, who told Amy that the first time she saw her, as a freshman, she knew she loved her and “needed to find out why.” Amy confided in Atkin about her insecurities and about clashes with her parents. Atkin “played the role of caretaker,” Amy said.

When Amy returned to Cleveland as a substitute teacher shortly after college, she started spending a lot of time with Atkin and Miller. In her deposition, Amy recalled Miller telling her that he and Atkin considered themselves “sexual mentors” for young people. “He would leave me phone messages, just giving advice on sex,” Amy said, “telling me the kinds of sex acts to do and how, what to say while I was doing these things.” According to Amy, Miller and Atkin also asked her to take photographs of them having sex. (In a deposition, Atkin denied this.)

When Miller indicated that he wanted to sleep with Amy, she told him she wasn’t attracted to older people—by then Miller was in his sixties. “He said I was ageist and … too looks-oriented,” Amy stated in her deposition. “He said I should try blindfolding myself when I had sex so that the person’s appearance wouldn’t matter so much.” According to Amy, her relationship with Miller never became physical.  

Brett Shufelt had been a classmate of Amy’s. When his resignation from Core became public knowledge in 2009, Amy recalled Miller saying it was “ridiculous that he had to leave Cleveland, because even the parents of the female student are supportive of their relationship. He twisted it into a thing where everyone was happy.” Miller also complained to Amy about former female students who suggested that he’d been inappropriate with them in high school. It seemed that one of the women was Zoe, who had graduated from Core the same year as Amy. Amy remembered hearing a rumor in high school that Miller was in love with Zoe. Back then she’d thought that, if it were true, “it just seemed to fit in with everything they were teaching us”—about removing barriers in their lives, about “free love.”

According to Amy, Miller and Atkin told her about Zoe confronting them in 2007, shortly after it occurred; she said they emphasized that nothing physical had happened with Zoe until she turned 18. In a deposition, Amy said Miller told her that he once let Zoe explore his naked body. “Vivian framed it as this wonderful, beautiful experience,” Amy told me. (In a deposition, Atkin said she told Amy “multiple times that there was no sex involved” in her and Miller’s relationship with Zoe.)

When Miller and Atkin said Zoe had a therapist who was putting “bad ideas” in her head, Amy was reassured. Then, in 2015, she reconnected with Zoe—the two women happened to be living in the same city when Miller died suddenly of natural causes a month before his 70th birthday. They spoke on the phone about his passing and later met for brunch, where Amy heard Zoe’s accusations firsthand. She was horrified. Some of the details sounded familiar, except that what Amy experienced as a young adult happened to Zoe when she was a minor, and had reportedly progressed to sexual abuse. The allegations were also in sharp contrast to the fond memories that, in the wake of Miller’s death, some former students were sharing on Facebook. “I remember him as someone who in teaching us about the world, helped us to discover ourselves,” one alum wrote.

Amy felt guilty for ever trusting Miller and Atkin. She also felt betrayed. “I know who they are now completely,” she told me. “They gravitated toward young females … who would be susceptible to the allure of the special attention and mentorship they offered.”

Amy’s weekly googling started a few years after she met with Zoe. The #MeToo movement was in full swing by then, and the cultural conversation about sexual abuse was more robust than ever. It seemed as though new women came forward every day to demand that powerful men be held responsible for their crimes or transgressions. Many survivors described abuse that happened years or even decades prior, which time, distance, and maturity had helped them finally reckon with.

In California, the law seemed to be catching up to the moment: On January 1, 2020, the state implemented a new statute of limitations on claims of childhood sexual abuse. Previously, survivors had been required to file suit by the age of 26 or within three years of realizing they’d been abused. Now survivors must do so by the time they turn 40 or within five years of the recognition of abuse. California also created a three-year window in which survivors previously barred from suing their abusers can file claims.

Amy was sure someone from Core would come forward, and on February 5, 2021, she finally got the search result she’d been waiting for. “Woman sues LAUSD, claiming 2 Cleveland High teachers groomed, manipulated and sexually abused her,” a Los Angeles Daily News headline read. The woman was a Jane Doe, but Amy was sure it was Zoe.

Zoe was on a plane when a friend sent her a link to an article about the changes to California’s statute of limitations. She began to cry—it felt like a door was finally opening. In the five years since Miller’s death, she’d been wrestling with how to process what happened during high school. In true Core fashion, she’d considered going the route of transformative justice: requesting that her friends and Atkin meet in a communal space to discuss the harm done and what accountability might entail. But the more she thought about it, the more inadequate that approach seemed. “I can’t do transformative justice with LAUSD, because they don’t care about my healing,” Zoe told me. “So I started to consider which route to take for more widespread recognition, for more possibility of larger systemic change.”

Zoe contacted Taylor & Ring, an LA law firm that specializes in sexual abuse cases. She told them her story, and that she was certain she wasn’t the only victim. “I can’t talk about my abuse without talking about all the abuse,” she explained. “It’s this massive onion, layer after layer after layer.” It was an apt metaphor: Onions can rot from the inside out. On February 3, 2021, Zoe sued Atkin and LAUSD.

Like Amy, Emma learned about Zoe’s case in the Daily News. Reading the details felt like discovering a trove of puzzle pieces that, when she fit them together with ones from her own life, revealed a disturbing picture. Emma had no idea who the plaintiff was—several years separated their time in Core. But she knew the woman had been classmates with Shufelt, because they were both 37.

Emma and Shufelt had remained together for a few years while she attended Mills. When she decided to study abroad, Shufelt had paid for her visa and flight. They agreed to be nonexclusive while she was away, but she never thought he’d start seeing someone else seriously. She was shocked when he began dating a woman closer to his age.

In 2019, Emma started having nightmares about Shufelt and the anxiety she’d felt after he quit Core. “I was slowly coming to the realization that the relationship was wrong, and the way that I was treated was wrong, and those adults should have done something,” she told me, referring to the magnet faculty and the Cleveland administration. Two years later, reading about Zoe’s lawsuit was eye-opening. “This Cleveland stuff is way more than I thought,” Emma texted a friend.

She realized that her experience might be part of a pattern. She and Shufelt were both “products of the program,” Emma said, “and this is how it ended”—with him hurting her the way two Core teachers had allegedly hurt his own classmate, and with Emma believing it wasn’t abuse because she’d been taught that she was different, exceptional, impervious. Emma remembered Miller congratulating Shufelt on their relationship. In retrospect she found it disgusting.

Emma called Taylor & Ring and left a message on the office’s answering machine. “I said I one hundred percent believe that this happened exactly the way she was describing it, because I had a very similar experience,” Emma said. On February 10, 2021, Emma filed her own lawsuit, against Shufelt and LAUSD. At the time, Shufelt was teaching in the Valley, working with teenagers and young adults pursuing their high school diplomas through alternative programming. California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing contains no record of disciplinary action taken against him after what occurred at Cleveland. (Shufelt took his own life in October 2021, a month after being arrested for soliciting a female undercover police officer posing as a sex worker.)

For Jackie, the news about Core came out of the blue: A high school friend sent her a link to the Daily News article about Zoe’s case, with no message attached. “I had never really talked to her about what happened,” Jackie said of her friend, “but she knew enough.” When Jackie read the article she cried. “In some ways it was this comforting thing, knowing I’m not alone,” she told me. “On the other hand, I wasn’t special.” At 42, Jackie still had the residue of what Miller had made her believe about herself lodged in her psyche. “Even though it’s gross, that stuff runs really deep,” she said.

Jackie knew right away that she wanted to help Zoe. “I was in awe of this person coming forward,” she said. “I had to let her know she wasn’t alone.” She started furiously typing an email to Zoe’s attorneys, then told herself to take a breath, to sit with her feelings for 24 hours. But they didn’t change. She was ready to talk. On March 12, 2021, Jackie filed a lawsuit against LAUSD.

Kate was returning from a beach vacation with her family when she, too, got a text from a high school friend about the lawsuits. “Wasn’t Mr. Coleman inappropriate toward you?” Kate’s friend asked. Kate had remained intensely private about her experiences in Core. Over the years, fueled by glasses of wine, friends had sometimes tried to cajole information out of her, to confirm if the rumors they’d heard about her and Coleman were true. “I never appreciated that,” Kate told me. Now she needed time to process what the text said, to let the news sink in. “It was a crazy school with what seemed like little administrative oversight,” she eventually wrote back. “Really horrible.”

In her own time, Kate contacted Taylor & Ring. Initially, it was just to share information; she didn’t know if she wanted to pursue a case. In her mind, even though he’d hurt her, Coleman wasn’t a monster. As survivors of grooming often do, she felt to some degree protective of her alleged abuser. “It took me some time to realize how inappropriate it was, and how it was abuse, and what I thought was all good or almost all good really wasn’t,” Kate said.

The facts of the other cases helped sway her. Zoe’s alleged abuse began three years after Kate graduated from Core; Emma’s occurred more than a decade later. In all that time it didn’t seem like the magnet, the Cleveland administration, or LAUSD had taken any meaningful steps to protect students. “Broadly, I want to hold them all accountable,” Kate said.

On March 15, 2021, she filed suit, naming Coleman and LAUSD as defendants. She became the fourth and, for now, final plaintiff. “We’re convinced that there are absolutely more victims,” said John Taylor, one of the attorneys representing the Jane Does.

In depositions and interviews, there have been many more revelations about the behavior of Core teachers that, while not necessarily illegal, was distressing to the alumni who experienced it. A classmate of Emma’s recalled a conversation she had with a female teacher in 2009, soon after Shufelt resigned, in which the teacher said it disturbed her that Shufelt got involved with Emma, who had “a little girl’s body.” In a deposition, Emma’s classmate described the female teacher saying, “Out of all the girls that he could have picked, and I’m not saying that he should have picked any of you, but some of you … are, like, very well developed for your age.”

The same classmate said that Shufelt had flirted with her once when she was a student. They were alone in his classroom when he put his arms on either side of the desk where she was sitting and called her a “special girl.” Later, after Shufelt quit, he told Emma, “If it wasn’t you, it would have been her,” referring to her classmate.

At the time, Emma awkwardly laughed off the idea that she and another student could be interchangeable to a man who said he loved her. Emma also dismissed an uncomfortable experience she had with Coleman, who had taught her in the 10th grade, just before he left Core. They reconnected after Emma graduated, becoming Facebook friends and chatting online. “We would email these long emails and he would say, ‘I really miss you,’ ” Emma recalled. In one message, Coleman said he wanted to kiss her.

Emma is one of numerous women who have described Coleman flirting with or pursuing them after they graduated. One alum read me Coleman’s inscription in her senior yearbook, describing a memory he had of her as “erotic.” Rachel Becker said under oath that Coleman sent her a love poem when she was in college. Another Core alum said in a deposition that Coleman asked her out in 1999, when she was 22, and that they dated for several months until she realized he had “a pattern of behavior” in which he became “sexually and romantically involved with women who were far, far younger than him.” To her mind, there was “really only one source where he would be meeting these women.” In a written message obtained as part of discovery in the 2021 lawsuits, Coleman himself told a Core alum that he “date[d] an ex-student and we were together for seven years.”

After she graduated from Core, Kasia Kappes exchanged letters with Coleman for a while. He wrote, “if you were older i’d marry you,” and said she was his “favorite.” Kappes attended college in Los Angeles, and during her freshman year—at the same time he was allegedly abusing Kate—Coleman said he had feelings for Kappes and invited her over to his house for a lobster dinner. When she backed out at the last minute, Coleman “was so mad,” Kappes recalled. “He yelled at me, called me immature.”

One of the things Coleman riffed on in his letters to Kappes was the 1994 camping trip he’d taken female students on to Arizona. Ariane White, the alum who later gave up teaching at Cleveland because of conflict with veteran teachers, was on that trip—she was a senior at the time. In a deposition, White said that the other adult chaperone, David DeMetz, kissed her when they were alone in a tent. White recalled DeMetz telling her, “Richard said as long as I don’t have sex with you, it’s fine.” In an interview, White told me that the comment had made her feel “safe,” because “I’m here with my teacher and he said … nothing bad will happen.” (DeMetz stated in a deposition that he didn’t remember the kiss or Coleman telling him not to have sex with the students.)

Another female student on the camping trip, who briefly taught in Core after college, was one of two former faculty members who in depositions said that Miller encouraged his colleagues to read the book Teaching to Transgress, by bell hooks. In one chapter, hooks, a longtime college professor, describes being sexually attracted to a former student. To the Core alum turned teacher, Miller’s implication was clear: “It’s OK to date students,” she said under oath, “because … love is love, and love transcends power dynamics.”

Dani Bedau, who graduated in 1985, with one of the first cohorts of Core students, told me that Miller tested personal boundaries right from the start of the program. He invited Bedau to meals off campus and told her she was exceptional. On Miller’s recommendation, Bedau participated in Brotherhood-Sisterhood Camp—the program Jackie would attend a decade later, where a counselor warned her away from Miller. After college, Bedau went to work for the camp’s parent organization, which was how she learned that Miller, formerly a volunteer camp counselor, was no longer welcome in the program. Bedau didn’t know the specifics of what Miller had done, but she remembered a rumor from her time at camp about him getting into a hot tub with a teenage girl.

Lori Nelson, Bedau’s boss and another former camper, had heard about the incident firsthand: At a sleepover with Brotherhood-Sisterhood attendees in the early 1980s, a girl arrived late and described being caught in a hot tub with Miller by his wife. Nelson said that, after she took over administration of the camp in 1988, “Chris Miller stepped not one foot in it.” She described him as adept at “psychological seduction” and criticized some of the teaching methods he introduced to Core. Nelson said the power pyramid was once a Brotherhood-Sisterhood activity, but that staff stopped using it in the mid-1980s because they felt it gave adults too much agency at teenagers’ expense. “Guys like Chris, they like the big drama where they are in the position of power,” Nelson said.

A Cleveland alumni Facebook group exploded with activity when Daily News articles about the 2021 lawsuits were posted there. Some graduates expressed dismay at the accusations. Some said they weren’t surprised—to them, teachers sleeping with students had practically been an open secret. Other alumni expressed a kind of grief. “Looking back I see so much boundary pushing that should never have taken place, but at the time seemed normal,” one woman wrote. Referring to Miller specifically, she added, “It’s hard to grapple with the truth that the same qualities that made him a favourite were the same ones that allowed him to successfully groom and abuse students.”

Marty Kravchak participated in the Facebook conversation, writing that, as a fellow teacher, she “never had any hint” about Miller’s behavior. “I wish someone had trusted me enough to confide in me,” she commented. When an alum wrote that she was aware of “three male teachers who had relations with girls in 88 and 89,” Kravchak, who retired from Core in 2007, asked if the former student ever told her parents. “Nobody said anything because we were not in positions of power,” the alum replied. “We had everything to lose.”

The majority of Core alumni interviewed for this story are educators, activists, artists, or caregivers. They are the kind of people who, in early 2022, applauded the unionization of Amazon workers on Staten Island, and later raged over the Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. They oppose banning books in school libraries and believe that America’s history of systemic racism should be taught in public classrooms. All of them, including the Jane Does, praised Core for pushing them to dive deep into subjects that most high schoolers never so much as skim.

Many of the alumni I spoke to know their stories might be used in service of a right-wing agenda to destroy programs like Core, but they won’t be cowed from telling the truth. They have aimed their grievances at the people once in charge of the magnet, the pedagogy the faculty used, and LAUSD’s apparent resistance to corrective action over many years. “I don’t care how many people get into college because of this great humanities program,” said Amy, who is now a teacher. “If the safety of children is not a priority, you cannot claim to have any dedication to social justice.”

Today, Core is thriving. From its perch at Cleveland, which is now a public charter school, it has been designated a School of Distinction by the Magnet Schools of America. There is a waiting list for admission: In 2020, some 450 students applied for the roughly 250 spots available to incoming freshmen. Monica Ramallo-Young, a parent of twins who graduated in 2022, said that what impressed her most about the magnet was students’ passion for the curriculum. “Kids in Core say they’re studying the most fascinating stuff and learning so much,” Ramallo-Young told me. “They develop a love of learning.”

The curriculum remains much the same as it has been for the past several decades, with some updated materials. Juniors, for instance, now watch 13th, Ava DuVernay’s award-winning documentary about mass incarceration. “If a program like this were implemented across the country, it would solve a lot of our country’s current problems,” Ramallo-Young said. “It does a good job teaching compassion and humanity, and helping you grow as a person.”

Ray Linn, the last of the old-guard faculty, retired in 2018. More than one-quarter of the current magnet teachers are alumni of the program—former “Corebabies,” as magnet students call themselves. The program’s coordinator, Jennifer Macon, has been on the faculty for more than twenty years. Her own daughter is a Core student.

In a deposition, Macon described the allegations made by alumni—some of whom were once her students—as a “gut punch.” Yet she said she isn’t concerned about any of her colleagues crossing the line with students. “My radar is very heightened,” she said. “But we haven’t had substantive conversations about what all of this means for us as a program in terms of relationships with students, because I don’t see it as a problem.” If there was abuse in Core, Macon emphasized, it is firmly in the past.

“Having a 15-year-old daughter is incredibly helpful for me having compassion for myself, Jackie said.

For the Jane Does, the past is the point. Illuminating and grappling with it can offer vital lessons about what it takes to open young minds while protecting them, at Cleveland and beyond. It can also help a person heal.

On their lawyers’ instruction, the plaintiffs have not spoken or otherwise interacted with each other. Some of them don’t even know the other women’s identities. They all expressed to me a profound desire to meet one day, when the time is right. But for now, in her own way, on her own terms, each woman is navigating the emotional aftershocks that come with reporting abuse.

Zoe asked to be interviewed on a beach in Malibu—she felt at peace there, she said. She invited a friend to be with her. Zoe referred to the Core alumni supporting her through the lawsuit as “my team.” They take care of each other now in ways they never knew how to as teenagers. On the beach, Zoe’s friend encouraged her to take breaks and sip water while telling her story. Zoe is a visual artist, and she’s creating a series of pieces that represent her high school experience. She hopes to stage a show one day, and to bill it as a Core reunion.

Kate asked me detailed questions and offered research ideas—in another life, she might have been an investigative reporter. Her high school journal, the one Coleman was nervous someone would read, now stands as a testament to the truth. The Jane Does have asked for jury trials, and as of this writing, Kate’s is scheduled for May 2023. If it goes forward, she will face Coleman in court and have a chance to describe how his alleged abuse shaped her. The grooming, Kate said, is what had the most powerful impact—Coleman muddled her sense of self, and of what is safe and not, triggering internal conflicts that she still sometimes struggles to resolve.

Emma’s apartment in Los Angeles is plastered with labor rights posters. She increasingly dabbles in her two passions—writing and progressive politics—despite being anxious about public-facing work. In some ways, Shufelt’s alleged abuse isn’t what wounded her the most: The way people reacted to it was. She sometimes worries about bullies coming for her like they did when she was 17.

Jackie met me at a bustling restaurant where songs by No Doubt and Sublime, pop hits from the end of her high school days, pulsed through mounted speakers. She confessed that she once harbored a “grain-of-rice-size feeling” that she could have stopped Miller’s abuse, but her own child becoming a teenager has softened her propensity for self-blame. “Having a 15-year-old daughter is incredibly helpful for me having compassion for myself,” Jackie said. “I look at her and think, If you came to me and told me this happened, there is not any size feeling I would have that you had put yourself in that position.”

When she filed her lawsuit, Jackie told her daughter what Miller had done, and she offered advice she wishes someone had given her: Trust your intuition, and walk away if you feel even the tiniest bit unsafe or unsure. “If you’re not comfortable telling me, let’s talk about the people that you are comfortable talking to,” Jackie told her daughter. “You have to tell somebody, because when you don’t, it happens again and again. If we have the opportunity to stop someone from getting hurt, we should do that.”

Jackie’s interview took place over her spring break—she went back to school full-time a few years ago. Once, in a speech class, she had to deliver a eulogy for someone. She chose Miller. “I mostly talked about the things he taught me, and all the pieces of him that stayed with me,” she said. “My wrap-up was about how people aren’t always what they seem.”

Jackie is now a semester away from earning her college degree. She plans to become a social worker and help adolescents. She relishes learning, something that for so long she felt had been denied to her by the actions of a teacher. Being a student is like reclaiming a piece of herself that Miller stole. “I love it,” Jackie said. “I feel like I want to be in school forever.”

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

King of the Hill

King of the Hill

Andres Beckett dreamed of competing in a punishing rodeo event known as the Suicide Race. But more difficult than charging down its dangerously steep track was earning a spot at the starting line.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 129

Jana Meisenholder is a journalist, writer, and investigative researcher whose work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and Nylon. In 2021, she launched the publication Unearthed. She lives in Los Angeles.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alex López
Photographer: Tailyr Irvine

Published in July 2022.

1. The Acceleration

On a Thursday night in August 2021, hundreds of people gathered along the banks of the Okanogan River in the small town of Omak, Washington. The air was thick with smoke from recent wildfires and shot through with tension. The crowd craned their necks to see the top of a nearby hill, which on one side plunged straight into the river. At the hill’s crest, illuminated by floodlights, more than a dozen men sat on horseback wearing helmets and life preservers. An ambulance was stationed below. Some spectators began to pray.

In Omak, the second week of August is synonymous with Stampede, an annual four-day rodeo featuring saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, and Native American drumming and dancing. Stampedes like the one in Omak are common across the American West, but the big draw here—the grand finale of each day’s festivities—is unlike anything else in the country. Riders like the ones atop the hill spur their horses to top speed, fly over the crest, and charge down a precipitously steep dirt track. After crashing into the Okanogan, they cross to the opposite bank and—if they make it that far without serious injury—dash 500 feet to the Stampede’s main arena. The thrilling, grueling spectacle is known as the Suicide Race.

The jockey with the best showing over four days earns the coveted title King of the Hill. There are men who have won once, twice, or several times, making them local celebrities. Omak sits on the edge of the Colville Indian Reservation, and the vast majority of riders are Native. Competing in the Suicide Race is a matter of pride: Many riders’ forefathers “went off the hill,” as locals say, and the event echoes Native traditions dating back centuries.

In 2021, most of the riders were repeat contenders or past winners, but one man was both an outsider and an underdog. Around Omak, which has a population of fewer than 5,000 people, Andres Beckett was known as “the rookie.” Twenty-nine years old and Mexican-American, Andres mostly worked construction. His forebears didn’t go off the hill, and he had to fight for years to get to the race’s starting line—a streak of white paint hastily sprayed onto the ground. Jockeys in the Suicide Race need skill and grit, but even more important is mentorship. The tight-knit community of legacy riders know the course in detail—how to train for it, survive it, master it—and they don’t share that expertise with just anyone. Wannabe racers have to prove themselves, earn the privilege of learning from the best.

Andres had done that, enduring setbacks and humiliations before securing the guidance required to compete. Now he waited impatiently for the starting gun to go off. Between his legs was the muscled mass of JD, his horse. Andres’s boots were taped into the stirrups of his saddle—falling off was not an option. He knew JD could sense his nerves; whenever he gripped the reins, the horse’s ears twitched. “Let’s have some fun, JD,” Andres said. “Let’s get it.” In his head he heard music, the eerie melody of a song by a Russian electronic band he’d listened to while preparing for the race. It made him feel close to death.


Fuck it, Andres thought.

He hollered at JD, and together they galloped for the edge.

Suicide Hill. Watch a bystander’s video from the 2021 race here.

Andres’s origin story is fraught, which is to say it’s quintessentially American. His maternal grandfather, Crecencio “Chencho” Ovalle, left his wife and children in Mexico in the 1980s to find better economic opportunities in the United States. Ovalle was caught trying to cross the border several times and sent back. When he finally made it through, he continued as far north as he could get, finding work picking fruit in the apple, berry, peach, and plum orchards around Omak, which is less than 50 miles from the Canadian border. Ovalle was one of only a few Mexican immigrants in the area. Soon he sent for his wife, and together they saved enough money to pay a coyote to smuggle their two daughters and the girls’ aunt into America.

One of those girls was Andres’s mother, Adela. She was 18 at the time. She gave birth to Andres almost exactly nine months after she arrived in Omak. Right from the start, he was different from the rest of the family. “My hair was blond, my eyes were blue,” Andres said. In the early 2000s, during a family trip to Denver, Andres threw food across the dinner table at his cousin and ignored the adults who told him to stop. His uncle George looked at the rambunctious ten-year-old and said, “You’re going to be crazy, just like your dad.”

Andres was confused. The man he believed was his father, José Muñiz, was reserved and disciplined. Muñiz had crossed from Mexico into the United States with his best friend, only to watch the friend be crushed to death as the two of them hid under train cars to evade Border Patrol agents. “I’m talking about your real dad,” George explained, “your white dad.”

Here was the truth: In the spring of 1991, a 23-year-old named Tony Beckett, who had spent a few years in the Navy, got on a Greyhound bus in Nashville that was bound for Seattle, where his mother lived. Adela, recently arrived in America, boarded the same bus—she was headed to Omak to reunite with her parents. Tony, who was athletic and had blond hair and blue eyes, asked if he could sit next to her. Adela didn’t speak English, and Tony didn’t speak Spanish, so they communicated through hand signals and smiles. In the several days it took to drive across the country, their romance blossomed. When they arrived in Seattle, Tony wrote his phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to Adela.

But she didn’t call him, not even when she learned she was pregnant. In fact, she told no one about the baby, wearing loose dresses and covering her stomach with pillows, fearful that her family would reject her if they knew. Only when her water broke did Adela finally share her secret. She asked José Muñiz’s sister-in-law, María, to drive her to the hospital. Andres would later credit this decision with the closeness he felt with his aunt María his whole life. “She watched me be born,” he said.

Adela’s family was baffled: Where had this baby come from? Who was the father? She finally contacted Tony when Andres was two months old, but made it clear she was in a relationship with Muñiz, who would raise Andres as his own. Still, Tony insisted on meeting his son. Uncle George, who later would let the truth slip to Andres, picked Tony up at the bus stop in Omak. 

During his visit, Tony made a deal with Adela: She could raise Andres until he was ten, then the boy would live with his father until he was ready for college. Adela, an undocumented immigrant at the time, felt like she had to agree. Back at the bus stop, Aunt María assured Tony, “I’ll look after Andres and make sure he grows up good.”

After Tony left, Adela panicked. She didn’t want to give up Andres—not ever. A relative suggested a place where she could raise her son and remain hidden if Tony ever came to take him: a secluded 35,000-acre property in the mountains owned by a man named Ben Whitley, who was looking to hire a ranch hand in exchange for lodgings. Muñiz became that ranch hand, and Whitley, who was in his fifties at the time, was like a grandfather to Andres. “He could tell that I was the outcast of the family, so he took me under his wing,” Andres said. “Every day I hung out with Ben.” It was Whitley who taught Andres how to drive a tractor and ride a four-wheeler, Whitley who showed him how to prepare steers for auction at the county fair.

Andres was a curious, active kid, with a fondness for unorthodox pets: a rattlesnake, scorpions, a nest of baby mice. “I either connected with the animal or I didn’t,” he said by way of explanation. Muñiz taught him how to shoot a gun when he was just a toddler. As he got older, Andres helped with tasks around the ranch, bucking hay bales, changing sprinklers, and assisting with the birthing of calves. Every year he and his family went to the Omak Stampede. He was mesmerized by the Suicide Race and the hero’s welcome the jockeys received from spectators. When the Stampede wasn’t happening, Andres and his friends took turns tumbling down the Suicide Race’s legendary track. But his first love was bull riding: men holding on for dear life to massive, undulating beasts, and somehow making it look elegant. He wanted to be just like them.

One day at a local coffee shop, Whitley asked his friend Larry Peasley, a Colville tribal elder known for his work at rodeos, to teach Andres how to ride. They used a mechanical bull and started out slow, going over the fundamentals, working on body positions. “He was a quick learner,” Peasley said. Andres’s best friend, Jerid Peterson, came over to Peasley’s ranch to practice with him. “Sometimes we pretended to be world champions,” Andres recalled.

Peasley saw natural ability in Andres. “He was doing well,” Peasley said, “and then I don’t know…” He trailed off.

“One of the opportunities I pissed away,” Andres chimed in. There was a tinge of guilt in his voice.

Andres with Indra Renteria and his horse, JD.

2. The Drop

When Andres learned about his biological father, it brought on an identity crisis. Sometimes he wondered if he was the progeny of a bad man from a bad family. In other moments he considered what life would have been like had he grown up with his dad. Destitution is a reality for many people in Omak, where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Andres’s mother and stepfather struggled to make ends meet; sometimes all they had to eat was deer that Muñiz had shot himself. “That was our grocery store right there,” Andres said. When he thought about a childhood in Seattle with Tony’s family, he imagined wanting for nothing. “What if they’re just really good people, and I could have a good, normal, white-people life?” he said.

Andres got angry when he learned that his mother was throwing away child support checks Tony sent to Omak. Why was the family eking out an existence when there was money right there to be deposited? “I don’t need anything from him to raise you,” Adela said. Tony had never demanded that Adela make good on the deal they’d struck when Andres was a baby. Still, she worried he might.

In 2009, Andres’s sophomore year of high school, his mother and stepfather announced that the family—which by then included Andres’s three younger siblings—would be moving to Wenatchee, a town two hours from Omak and about six times the size. Right before they left, Andres was hanging out with his friends, saying goodbye, when he spotted a dark-haired girl in volleyball gear getting out of a car. Her name was Indra Renteria. He approached her and they exchanged numbers. She was also the child of first-generation Mexican immigrants. Andres was smitten.

He left with his family, but he didn’t last long in Wenatchee. A year later, he moved back to Omak by himself, to be closer to his friends and to the girl he now loved. (Renteria wasn’t allowed to date in high school, so she had to sneak out of the house to see Andres.) His mother and stepfather were so furious they cut off contact for a while. At 17, Andres was responsible for paying his own bills, plus monthly rent to the extended family he was staying with in a dilapidated mobile home. Despite their circumstances, Andres noticed that his hosts never seemed to worry about finances the way his parents did. “Money wasn’t an issue,” Andres said. “They would eat really good. I knew something was up. They wouldn’t tell me what it was until later on, when they saw they could trust me.”

Their secret source of income was drugs, namely cocaine and methamphetamine. One day they tasked Andres with driving up north to meet a guy who they said would give him a bag. Andres was instructed to bring it back, and was paid in cash for his efforts. After several of these trips, his relatives began teaching him more of the business: how to weigh out the drugs in twenties, grams, eight balls, halves, and by the ounce. Before long he was dealing.

His popularity at Omak High School skyrocketed, especially among the juniors and seniors who, as enrolled members of Native tribes, had each received a lump-sum payment on their eighteenth birthday. (Known as “18 money,” these payouts from trust accounts are common in Native communities.) Andres started wearing Nike Air Force shoes and other expensive clothing. “I was constantly rolling up with a fresh hat and shit people would trade me for drugs sometimes. I had a chain and a little ring,” he said.

In the fall of 2010, there was a drug bust in a nearby town, and local suppliers got spooked. Andres was instructed by a family member to hide duffel bags filled with pistols, assault rifles, and shotguns. Then they rushed together to the storage units where the family kept their drug supply. They grabbed everything they could, along with a few bottles of bleach and a knife. Back home, Andres cut open the pink and white bricks and flushed their contents down the toilet. He didn’t want to get caught, didn’t want to go to prison.

Before 7 a.m. the next day, the authorities turned up and banged loudly on the door. They arrested one of the relatives Andres was working for, cuffing and detaining him on the front lawn just as a school bus full of kids pulled up to the house. The police didn’t have anything on Andres, so they let him board the bus like it was any other day.

After the raid, word got around that Andres was no longer dealing, and his life came crashing down. His popularity evaporated. He wasn’t making money. “I didn’t even have enough to invest in an ounce of weed I could turn around and flip. I was so broke,” Andres said. “This is when I found out who my friends really were.” Renteria stuck by him, as did his childhood buddy Jerid Peterson. Still, he fell into a deep depression.

When he found someone willing to front him an ounce of cocaine, he jumped at the chance. But the remaining family members he was living with were trying to rebuild their lives after the bust, and they kicked him out. His aunt María, the one who was in the delivery room when he was born, and her husband, Ramón, agreed to take Andres in. They lived in a small, run-down house in Eastside, a neighborhood a mile south of Omak’s Stampede grounds. Andres rented a storage shed from them, where he slept and dealt drugs—without his aunt and uncle knowing. Andres described María and Ramón as “really good, innocent, humble people that the whole town knew and liked.” He didn’t want to hurt them.

Gang violence had increased in recent years on the Colville Reservation, which poverty, limited law enforcement, and jurisdictional challenges made an easy target for criminal enterprises. “By far the highest incidence of known gang activity occurs in the Omak district,” Brian Nissen, a member of the Colville Tribal Council, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2009. Some of the gangs were Native; others were Hispanic. “Much of the violence associated with gang activity on the Colville Reservation appears to be focused on recruitment of new members and the gangs’ defense of their prospective territory,” Nissen said. “These territories are important to the gangs in part due to drug distribution.”

Andres saw firsthand what gangs were like—not because he was affiliated with one, but because he sold them drugs. His operation had middlemen and regular customers in the Native Gangster Bloods (NGB). In retrospect he described the group as “a bunch of sketchy motherfuckers,” and said he believed that one of them, whose father also happened to be a cop on the reservation, broke into his shed. “Stole my coke, stole all my cash, stole all my jewelry, anything that I had that was worth anything he stole,” Andres said.

After that he was back to zero, and he still owed money for the ounce he’d been fronted. He started looking for legitimate work and approached Dan Yaksic, the co-owner of a local glass repair business. With his first paycheck, Andres paid off his debt. With his second and third, he invested in more drugs. Once word spread about Andres’s new workplace, he began dealing out of the shop behind Yaksic’s back.

Members of the NGB broke into Andres’s shed again, this time with guns and pit bulls. They also followed his aunt María around. In response Andres bought an AR-15 rifle. He also begged Yaksic to front him cash, but instead his employer sat him down for a talk. “I know what you are. I can tell what kind of shit you do,” Yaksic said. He warned Andres to avoid doing anything drastic, because it would end one of two ways: He’d either die or go to prison. “Let all that go,” Yaksic said, referring to Andres’s life as a dealer.

Andres didn’t listen to Yaksic’s advice, at least not right away. He was offered an opportunity to move $25,000 of cocaine into Canada, a windfall. He planned on trekking over the border on a mountain trail, wearing a camouflage outfit and carrying the brick of coke in a backpack. But Andres couldn’t shake what he called a “bad feeling.” Ultimately, he let someone else take the job. He later heard that the person who’d replaced him was murdered. After that, Andres decided to leave drug dealing behind for good.

But that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Around the same time, he met his biological father for the first time and learned that Tony had schizophrenia. Because the condition tends to run in families, Andres began to worry he might develop it, too. Then, in 2014, Aunt María fell into a coma after developing an infection while recovering from open-heart surgery. Andres slept on the couch in her hospital room every night. One day he noticed his aunt’s feet were changing colors. María had gangrene, which required a double amputation. Eventually she died from post-surgery complications.

Andres considered filing a malpractice lawsuit with the help of a local attorney whose lawn he had mowed for pocket money as a kid. But Andres didn’t follow through. Instead he daydreamed of confronting the doctor who had operated on his beloved aunt, following him home from the hospital and gunning him down. Andres went as far as to wait outside the doctor’s office one day, pulling on a bottle of Maker’s Mark behind the wheel of Aunt María’s old car. But when the doctor drove off after work, Andres didn’t move. “I broke down crying like a fucking kid,” he said. “I realized I couldn’t do that.”

What followed was “a dark, dark stage,” Andres said—“a year or two where I didn’t care about anybody, I didn’t care about nothing.” It was bookended by yet another tragedy. In August 2016, right around Stampede time, Jerid Peterson was killed in an accident while apprenticing as an electrical lineman. He had just turned 23. Renteria attended Peterson’s funeral with Andres, and afterward she noticed a change in her boyfriend. “He just wants to do everything and anything, and that definitely picked up,” she said. “I think Andres feels like he has to live his life like it’s going to end tomorrow.”

With his best friend gone, an idle dream Andres sometimes indulged in as a kid started to coalesce into a plan. Peterson had shared the same fantasy. “We always promised each other that we’d do the Suicide Race together,” Andres said. Maybe now he could run it for them both.

Andres wears his favorite belt buckle, equipped with a bottle opener.

Before the arrival of European colonizers, the Columbia Plateau, which forms swaths of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, was home to several Native tribes, including the Nez Perce, Wenatchi, Palus, and Colville. Foreigners brought with them disease and destruction. They also brought horses. “It was probably the best gift the white man ever gave us,” the late Stampede organizer and horse trainer Eddie Timentwa told author Carol Austin, who wrote a book about the Suicide Race in 1993,

By the 1700s, horsemanship had become an integral part of Native culture. The animals assisted in transportation and territorial expansion. “Mounted war parties could strike enemies at greater distances and with greater force than ever before,” writes anthropologist Deward Walker. Horses also led to larger traditional gatherings, allowing more people from a wider geographical range to come together. During salmon-spawning season, plateau tribes would meet at the confluence of the Sanpoil and Columbia Rivers to harvest and dry the coming winter’s supply of fish. Horses served as entertainment and objects of sporting competition. Riders paraded horses adorned with tribal regalia and beaded stirrups and bridles before running perilous mountain races.

After the plateau tribes were forced onto the Colville Reservation, the tradition of horse racing continued, and people wagered on riders. Stories of these events were most often passed down through oral tradition, but in 1879, Erskine Wood, a U.S. military officer, wrote of one horse race, “It did not take long for the excitement to grow and soon the bets were showering down and the pile swelling visibly with such great rapidity that it was marvelous how account could be kept. Blankets, furs, saddles, knives, traps, tobacco, beads, whips, and a hundred other things were staked.” (Wood wrote positively of many of his encounters with Native tribes, but also participated in the violent removal of the Nez Perce from their ancestral land.)

In the 1920s, Hugh McShane, a white man married to a Colville woman, introduced a mountain race at the rodeo in Keller, Washington. The race, described by Austin as “a half mile, pell-mell down a nearly vertical, boulder-strewn chasm in the face of a mountain,” quickly became a crowd favorite. But it wouldn’t last: The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s flooded Keller, forcing residents to relocate. In Omak, about 60 miles northwest, Claire Pentz, a furniture salesman in charge of publicity for the town’s rodeo, heard about McShane’s event and decided to stage one of his own. Locals brainstormed what to call the starting location, a precipitous incline on the Okanogan’s southern bank. Murder Hill was floated, but organizers settled on Suicide Hill. “The suicide race draws only the most nervy riders,” The Omak Chronicle declared.

In 1942, a jockey named Bev Conners drowned in the river during the race. Since then, according to various sources, no other jockeys have died. But injuries are common, including grievous ones. Larry Peasley, who taught Andres how to ride a mechanical bull, has two adult children who were nearly killed in the race. In 2002, his daughter Naomie—one of only a few women to ever run the race—suffered a skull fracture and flatlined on the way to the hospital. Doctors were able to revive her. A few years later, Peasley’s son Tyler went somersaulting off his horse and was trampled by oncoming riders. He fractured his ribs and suffered a broken pelvis and hip.

It’s not hard to see what makes the race so dangerous. There’s the hill itself, more than 200 feet of earth pitched at a harrowing angle—according to one race organizer’s measurement, it’s steeper than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Riders charge down the slope at full gallop, reaching speeds up to 30 miles per hour by the time they hit the river. Then there’s the lack of any hard-and-fast rules about how the race should be run. Horses aren’t lined up in an orderly fashion at the starting line. What happens on Suicide Hill is a free-for-all, with mounted jockeys jostling each other, fighting for a competitive spot. The aggression only escalates during the race. Riders violently whipping other jockeys in the face with their crops, attempting to throw them off balance or slow them down, is a common tactic, and often a successful one.

The best Suicide Race jockeys are adrenaline junkies, as athletic as they are knowledgeable of the event’s 1,260-foot-long course. They’ve meticulously mapped out the quarter-mile and know what to do when: Lean back before this point, lock your knees here, sit forward just after that section, pull back the reins there. Riders have incredible core and leg strength to help them stay in the saddle, and they know how far their bodies can tilt sideways if need be, to avoid injury or inflict it on a competitor.

In 2002, the race’s all-time reigning champ, Alex Dick, passed away at the age of 83. He had 16 King of the Hill titles to his name; his obituary in a local newspaper noted that Dick, who was Native, “set a record that will probably never be broken.” So far it hasn’t been. Yet if there’s a first family of the Suicide Race today, it’s the Marchands. Three brothers—Loren, Francis, and Edward—have followed in the footsteps of their grandfather, Jim, an endurance racer who died after a horse fell on him in 1990, and an uncle, George, who holds three Suicide Race titles. Loren, now 34, has been crowned King of the Hill seven times, most recently in 2015. Francis and Edward have never won the overall title, but they’ve come close.

As the dominant force in the Suicide Race, the Marchand brothers have a wealth of tips and tricks, and they know all the best places around Omak to practice. But the race is a tradition most often shared among kin, and the Marchands are notoriously wary of letting people who aren’t blood, or at least Native, into their inner circle. They also reject weekend warriors and wannabe jockeys who are in it purely for the exhilaration. “The Marchands don’t fuck with anybody,” said Conner Picking, a Suicide Race jockey and a great-grandson of one of the founders of the Omak Stampede.

That didn’t stop Andres from trying to get their attention.

 Andres and JD prepare for a training session.

3. The Scramble

By the summer of 2018, Andres, now 26, had cleaned up his life and was working construction and picking up jobs as a handyman. He was also holding fast to his desire to learn from Suicide Race royalty, looking for a way in to their good graces. One day he accompanied a welder to a small ranch in Eastside owned by Preston Boyd, a Colville elder renowned for breeding and training thoroughbreds for flat-track racing. Boyd needed the men to fix his broken horse walker, a motorized machine that leads horses in a circle. While Andres worked, Boyd took a good look at him. He noticed Andres’s height—just five feet six inches. He probed the young man about his weight.

Boyd was searching for a new rider to exercise his racehorses, because his usual guys were getting too busy. Among them was his great-nephew, Francis Marchand. Francis was helping Boyd break some new horses that summer, but his schedule was increasingly packed with rodeos—a formidable horseman, Francis regularly competed in saddle bronc and bareback riding. Andres’s specs were promising for the kind of rider Boyd needed. Sure, he couldn’t gallop a horse yet, but he could learn. Boyd told Andres he might fit the bill.

Andres knew he was being given a rare opportunity—a chance to get to know Boyd and one of the Marchands, and to show that he had what it took to run the Suicide Race. But months went by and nothing happened. Boyd never followed up with Andres about exercising his horses.

Omak is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, and sometimes Andres bumped into Francis at social gatherings. He would bring up Boyd’s suggestion that he was rider material as casually as he could, to see if Francis knew anything about his great-uncle’s plans. Andres also asked about going off the hill—what it felt like, what it took to win. Francis recognized Andres’s ambition, and in early 2019 he told him to stop dithering and get to the point: If he wanted to become a rider, he should go to Boyd and say so. “You want to do this? Look him in the eyes,” Francis said. “In any culture, you grab a guy, shake his hand, and tell him you want this.”

Andres took the advice to heart, but he didn’t want to seem desperate. He waited until he ran into Boyd at a gas station one day, then asked if he could help exercise his horses. Boyd said sure, and Andres showed up at 7:30 the next morning to start learning.

Unlike bull riding, which Andres took to easily as a boy, riding racehorses was challenging. Though short, he was stocky and muscular; working construction had made him strong, but he wasn’t nimble or quick to respond to a horse’s stride. Montana Pakootas, a seasoned jockey who helped out on the ranch, had to constantly remind Andres not to yank the reins, but to pull them gently, if he wanted to slow a horse down. “Use your wrist, not your whole arm,” Pakootas said. Otherwise, when a horse was going full speed, Andres risked throwing it off balance.

Andres’s riding improved, and by the summer of 2019 he was exercising Boyd’s newest racehorses for several hours most days of the week. Boyd expected his riders to stick to a routine, for the horses’ sake. “I take Wednesdays and Sundays off to let their muscles, if they get sore, to give them a little rest,” he said. On training days, it was Andres’s job to guide horses to a trot around a local track for a quarter of a mile, getting their blood pumping and helping them build stamina. Eventually he would get them up to a gallop. As a horse became more aerobic, Andres learned to increase its speed against its pulse, maintaining a low heart rate even while the horse worked hard over varying distances. After weeks or months of training, when a horse was comfortable running at top speed around the track in Omak, Andres took the horse to Emerald Downs, a race facility in Seattle, not to compete but to get acquainted with crowds and the whirring sound the starting gates make when they open.

Andres exercised Boyd’s horses for free, and he and Renteria, who was selling Amway products at the time, sometimes struggled to cover the bills. Andres picked up odd jobs where he could, but not anything that took away from his time with Boyd’s horses. The Suicide Race was never far from his mind. He watched videos of past races over and over, studying them. “He’d always say, ‘I hope I go down the hill one day,’ but I never thought he would actually be in it,” Renteria said. Sometimes Andres was surprised he still had a girlfriend at all. “He told me that he thought I’d break up with him since all he did was ride,” Renteria said, smiling.

One day, when Andres had been working with Montana Pakootas for a while, he decided to tell him about his ultimate goal. Pakootas, who had run many Suicide Races and was crowned King of the Hill in 2004, was hosing down a horse at the time. In response to what Andres said, he turned and sprayed him in the face. That’s how the hazing began. Another time Pakootas dumped a boot full of water on Andres’s head. “You scared of getting wet? Because that water fucking feels like it just whips you in the face,” he said, referring to the dive into the Okanogan River. Andres was humiliated, but he kept showing up, kept taking shit.

When Boyd asked him to come along to Emerald Downs for an official racing event, Andres jumped at the chance. At the Downs, Andres awoke every morning at 4:45 to feed the racehorses, then got them ready for the day’s competitions. Francis Marchand and his brother Edward were there, helping care for Boyd’s horses, and they picked up Andres’s hazing where Pakootas had left off. “Edward wasn’t easy on me, that’s for sure,” Andres said. The eldest Marchand brother, known for his success in the extreme sport of Indian relay racing, in which a rider changes his mount mid-competition, seemed to notice every mistake Andres made while warming up the horses. “It’s almost like he waited for me to fuck up,” Andres said, “just so he could go off on me and drive me away.”

Andres persevered, and over margaritas at an Applebee’s one day, he felt bold enough to say it to Edward straight—what he wanted, what he was sure he was capable of. What did he need to do to go off the hill? Edward, who had placed second overall in the 2018 Suicide Race, shook his head in response.

“You don’t have what it takes,” he said.

“What’s it take?” Andres asked.

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t got it.”

Andres has a generally calm disposition, and he looks younger than his years, almost childlike. He is always clean-shaven. Most days he wears a purple trucker hat and a belt with a bottle opener on the buckle. He almost always has a piece of green or blue chewing gum in his mouth. But his comportment and appearance belie a rash streak, a tendency toward recklessness.

Like the time he yanked on the wheel of his car and did a U-turn in traffic to come alongside a disheveled man he saw walking at the side of the road, with a small, scruffy dog trailing behind him. Andres pulled up to the man, jumped out of the car, and got in the stranger’s face, reprimanding him for letting the dog wander so close to traffic without a leash. It turned out the dog didn’t belong to the man, so Andres grabbed it. “Fuck, man. That heated me up,” he said. “The fact that he was just gonna let it get hit.”

Andres drove to Renteria’s sister’s house and left the dog there—never mind that she wasn’t home at the time. He took a shot of apple-pie-flavored moonshine, got back in the car, and ignored Renteria’s sister’s phone calls until the next day. When they connected, he explained what had happened; eventually the dog was reunited with its owner.

The thing about Andres’s impulses is that they’re almost always in service of what in his mind is the right thing to do. “He does have some trauma, obviously, but he has the kindest heart,” Renteria explained. “He really does.” Maybe that’s why Andres didn’t lash out at Pakootas whenever he was hazed, or at the Marchand brothers when they rejected him. But just as important as Andres’s hard-won goodness and maturity are the adults in his life—parental figures who have helped ground him. When asked why people seem so keen to nurture him, Andres replied, “Because I do right things while doing wrong things.”

Preston Boyd is high on the list of people Andres credits with giving him a leg up, and more. Though approaching 70, Boyd can toss a hay bale over a fence and carry a bag of horse feed slung over his shoulder with the ease of a younger man. When he isn’t working on the ranch, he’s watching the news, college basketball games, or televised flat-track races, always with a pen and a notebook in hand. He wears glasses he peers over when talking, and he smokes Marlboro Reds. The fourth of 12 siblings, Boyd never had kids of his own, but armed with master’s degrees in education and social work, he worked for many years as the program manager of Children and Family Services on the Colville Reservation, helping place kids in foster care. After the Marchand brothers’ mom died unexpectedly when they were young, Boyd took in Edward, who was then a wayward 16-year-old. Nearly two decades later, the two men still have dinner together every night. Edward’s four children with his partner, Carmella, are Boyd’s surrogate grandkids.

Once Andres was exercising his horses, Boyd took him under his wing, too. They started meeting for breakfast regularly at a restaurant called Appaloosa, where Boyd knew Andres loved the homemade raspberry jam. Andres took to affectionately calling Boyd “P-Word.” Sometimes when Andres shot a deer, he brought the tenderest, most coveted cuts of meat to Boyd’s home and left them in the freezer.

Renteria could see what the blossoming relationship meant to her boyfriend. “I like Preston because he has a lot to teach—to be a hard worker, be on time,” she said. “I feel like he sees something in Andres, or he just feels something for Andres.” Boyd encouraged Andres to become a better horseman and find his way into the Suicide Race, even when hurdles appeared in his path, ones that went well beyond the struggle to secure a mentor. Andres had hoped to finally persuade someone to train him for the event in 2020, but then it was canceled, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, for just the third time in its history. That November, Andres’s uncle Ramón succumbed to the virus. Faced with yet another devastating personal loss, Andres mourned, but he also continued riding. He kept his eyes trained on the hill.

The following May, almost two years after Andres’s conversation with Edward Marchand at Applebee’s, a racehorse named Tiz that Andres had bought and trained himself won a flat-track race at Emerald Downs. With that accomplishment under his belt, Andres decided it was as good a time as any to make another play for the Suicide Race, which organizers had recently announced would return that August. This time he managed to do it with all three Marchand brothers present, including Loren, the ultimate King of the Hill. He wanted to know if one of them would train him.

Loren laughed and asked if Andres had ever been on a horse. Then he leaned in, bringing his face close to Andres’s. “I’m talking about a real horse,” Loren growled, “not just a fucking tame racehorse.”

Loren instructed Andres and his brothers to jump into his truck. He drove them all to Boyd’s ranch, where Loren was stabling his own Suicide Race mount, Augustus, a beefy animal. The horse had only a halter around his head—no reins, no saddle—but Andres jumped on the horse’s back without a second thought. Augustus immediately began spinning. When Andres started to slide off one side, Loren reached over and grabbed his other foot, twisting and stretching his ankle until it hurt like hell. “Let go! Let go!” Andres begged him. Loren did, and Andres dropped to the ground.

“Fuck, let me on him again!” Andres yelled.

He mounted Augustus once more, and the horse panicked tenfold. He started running, then tried to turn, but his hooves slid and he fell forward onto the ground. Andres didn’t let go, absorbing the tremendous shock of the landing through the animal’s neck and chest. The Marchand brothers sprinted over and caught the horse before he—or Andres—got seriously hurt. Once they’d calmed Augustus down, everyone took a moment to catch their breath.

“Fuck, that felt good,” Andres said. He told the Marchands he could feel Augustus’s heartbeat between his thighs.

“That was the first time anybody rode him bareback,” Loren said.

A few weeks later Francis finally agreed to train Andres for the Suicide Race. Most riders prepare for at least a year before the event. Andres would have only the summer. What he was attempting would be difficult, Francis warned. “You can’t just show up and ride, you know?” he said.

Andres knew. He also knew he needed to find the right horse—his own horse.

Andres rides JD.

4. The Stretch

Some Suicide Race horses are caught in the wild on the Colville Reservation. Others are rescued from slaughter. Still others are purchased from reputable breeders. What riders look for is a rare combination of traits: responsiveness, sure-footedness, strength, and bravery. After all, the horse has to be willing to charge off a cliff again and again. “A suicide horse is a study in diversity,” Carol Austin writes in her book. “It walks calmly through bustling crowds of onlookers and weaves through vehicles like a police horse. It gallops into the rodeo arena before thousands of screaming fans, a seasoned performer. It waits patiently for more than an hour on top of Suicide Hill while loudspeakers blare.… It possesses the speed of a racehorse, the courage of a charging cavalry mount, and the savvy of a wild mustang.”

Horses can sustain injury or, worse, die as a result of the Suicide Race, a fact that draws scrutiny from animal rights organizations, some of which have attempted to shut the event down for good. According to the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, a Washington nonprofit, “Since 1983, at least 22 horse deaths have been documented. In 2004, three horses were killed in the first heat alone.” PAWS lists “heart attacks from overexertion, broken bones from shocking collisions and tumbles, and even horrifying death by drowning” as a few of the race’s many offenses. The event has been the target of protests, angry editorials, and even bomb threats. “If you go on any video on YouTube and you start reading the comments, it’s nothing but hate,” Andres said.

Race supporters maintain that riders love their horses, bond with them, and become so attuned to their movements that man and animal practically move as one. To ride in, or better still win, the Suicide Race is to hearken back to a time when horses carried Native Americans to other kinds of triumph. Eddie Timentwa, the late race organizer, once described the event as “symbolic of the warrior that rides first into battle and receives recognition from the tribe and the elders.”

Once a horse can no longer run the race, often after several years of competition, it receives a dignified retirement. It’s released into the nearby mountains to run free, resold as a working ranch horse, or allowed to live a life of leisure in a pasture. A horse’s premature death is always a tragedy. After Coors Boy, a veteran rider’s horse, was killed during the Suicide Race, a public memorial service was held, and people from all around Omak paid their respects. Some riders bury their horses in their own backyards.

Andres didn’t have much time before the 2021 race to find his horse. Nor did he have much money to pay it. (Typically, a jockey either owns their horse or runs one owned by a trainer in the area.) But the Marchands had an idea: A few years prior, Loren had been given a chestnut-colored quarter horse, so called because the breed is fast over short distances. Francis had noticed the horse’s spunky personality and had plans to use him in ranch work. “He ain’t going to get tired on me,” Francis said. The horse wasn’t broken to ride, and he didn’t have a name. One night, after hours of drinking and chasing wild horses on the reservation—tribal authorities offer a bounty per horse caught—Loren proposed a bet: If Francis could ride the horse bareback, he could have him. Francis did it, and the brothers named the horse Drunk Deal, soon shortened to JD. (The letter j, they agreed, sounded like the d in “drunk.”)

Francis sold JD to Andres for cheap. When he first met the horse, Andres was shocked by how skittish he was. “He was wild as shit and would kick at us,” Andres said. Every day, he would approach JD inch by inch, letting the animal know he wasn’t a threat. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. “He was so crazy, we couldn’t even get shoes on him,” Francis said. Eventually JD got used to Andres, who would grab the horse by the head and baby-talk to him, assuring the animal that everything was OK. Before long Andres was riding JD. “It was green on green,” Boyd said. “The horse and him were both going through a new experience.”

There are four distinct stages of the Suicide Race, starting with the acceleration at the top of the hill, across a 150-foot flat. That’s followed by the drop—a moment of weightlessness after which horse and rider descend the steep dirt track to the river. Then comes the scramble, the effort to get across the river—a sandy-bottomed incline littered with rocks—and onto the opposite bank. Finally there’s the stretch, during which a horse must sustain a full gallop beyond the length of a football field. Each stage requires a different training method.

Francis had Andres start by running JD on the rugged land behind his house seven days a week. They practiced galloping at full speed on flat land and on slopes, both during the day and at night—the first three runs of the Suicide Race take place after the sun has set, which means both horse and rider need to be accustomed to running in the dark. Sometimes Francis glimpsed Andres atop JD on his property after midnight, silhouetted against the mountain range in the distance. Francis sent video of the training sessions to Loren, who offered feedback about how Andres was holding his reins, sitting in the saddle, or wielding his crop.

Once JD was comfortable on land, Andres introduced the horse to water. First he sprayed JD in the face with a hose, just like Montana Pakootas had once done to him. Then he took the horse to Omak Lake with the Marchands to practice. The first time Andres and JD hit the water together at full speed, the horse reared his entire body back and his head smacked Andres in the face so hard he got a black eye. But in time JD got used to the water, and the sensation of running through it.

One day as August approached, Andres had breakfast with Boyd and Larry Peasley. Andres took the opportunity to apologize for taking Peasley’s training and guidance when he was a boy for granted: “I let you down because I fucking gave it up.” Peasley told him not to worry about it. “We all do that at one point or another,” he said. When Andres said he was planning to go off the hill, Peasley started showing up to practice sessions to give advice.

Andres took to putting his chest against JD’s every day when they were alone in the stable. “We’re going to fucking do this,” Andres said. He felt JD’s muscles tense in response. By early August, they were ready to go through the steps of qualifying for the race. Elimination runs are held on Suicide Hill and usually draw a small crowd of onlookers. If a horse accelerates toward the drop and balks, it’s immediately disqualified. There is also a veterinary check, to determine if the horse is in good condition, and a swimming test in the river. Andres and JD met all the criteria.

When the race lineup was announced, Andres was hanging out with Edward Marchand at the horse barn on Boyd’s property. Edward hugged Andres and told him he was proud. “Let me hear your war whoop,” he said. Andres, feeling shy, let out a small cry.

Edward slapped his back. “Come on, really fucking do it!” Andres tried again, louder.

“Fuck that—this is how you do it,” Edward said. The man who once told Andres that he didn’t have what it took threw his head back and let out a long, deafening wail. To Andres it sounded like acceptance.

Andres, Francis, and Gizmo the dog corral JD to put new horseshoes on him.

The Omak Stampede is cacophonous. There are screaming teenagers strapped into carnival rides and deep fryers sizzling with french fries and corn dogs. Enthusiastic voice-over announcements compete with Top 40 country played at full volume. The cheering at rodeo events is a dense, steady roar, while at the Native encampment the pounding of drums provides a rhythmic pulse for traditional dancers.

The Marchands took Andres away from all the noise the morning before the first run of the Suicide Race. They drove deep into the Colville Reservation, to a sweat lodge in the mountainous Desautel Pass. There the brothers let Andres join their private prerace tradition, a smudging ceremony in which they burn sage. The rite is intended to purify the spirit and proffer good luck.

Back in Omak, Jerid Peterson’s uncle handed Andres a necklace strung with a single AK-47 bullet casing holding some of Jerid’s ashes. “I felt safer knowing Jerid was with me,” Andres said. He also wore his uncle Ramón’s pants, his aunt María’s wedding ring, his favorite hat, and black cowboy boots Renteria had bought for him. Edward immediately cut holes in the boots with a knife so they wouldn’t fill up with water.

During race betting, which happens four hours before the starting gun, at least one person put money on Andres after they found out that the Marchands were in his corner. Just after sunset, all 22 Suicide Race jockeys entered the main Stampede arena on their horses and jogged around in a circle as an announcer called out their names one by one. An AC/DC song pumped through giant speakers, and the crowd screamed and stomped their feet. Andres could tell JD was nervous. “He was flaring his nostrils. I could start to feel it myself,” Andres said.

At the trailers where riders dress for the race, Andres scrambled to put on all his gear. Life jacket, gloves, helmet. Wait—his whip. Where was his whip? Then he remembered that JD’s legs hadn’t been wrapped, which is important to protect a horse from injury. Andres grabbed a pair of scissors. But where was the tape? Edward ran over to help him. “He had my back big time,” Andres said.

When Andres joined the other riders to prepare to go up Suicide Hill, he didn’t talk to anyone. Instead, he watched carefully to make sure no one messed with JD—some jockeys were known to loosen competitors’ saddles or commit other forms of sabotage. Andres also attended to his feet. Loren had told him to use thick rubber bands to keep them in the stirrups, but Andres decided on Gorilla Tape. He wrapped three layers around his boots. “When I go down that hill, I’m ready to die with JD,” he said.

The jockeys were escorted to the hill by police. As they approached the starting line, they all went silent. “I looked around and could see the looks on some of the cowboys’ faces,” Andres said. “You could tell they were scared.” He had heard that the first night’s run was always the worst.

Andres’s family was in the crowd to support him—even his mom and stepfather, who had moved to Nashville several years prior, had come out to see him race. Larry Peasley was filling his usual duties as one of the race’s outriders, which meant that he would be waiting at the bottom of the hill to help if anything went wrong during the most dramatic part of the event. On top of Suicide Hill, Andres lined up next to Montana Pakootas, who wore an eagle feather in his helmet for protection. Loren Marchand was at the other end of the starting line. Andres was glad some of his mentors were there, even as his competition.

In the distance, Andres heard the drum circle at the Stampede’s Native encampment—the sound would go all night. “Before the race,” Carol Austin writes in her book, “the riders share a feeling that they are related, and in fact many are brothers, cousins, nephews, fathers, and sons. But as soon as that pistol pops it will be every man for himself.” Andres remembered what Francis taught him: Think what your horse thinks. “We got this,” he whispered to JD.

The gun went off. Jockeys immediately started whipping each other. Andres yelled as loud as he could, an exhalation of fear as much as a command to his horse. It was just him and JD now, against the world. They galloped across the flat—it was pitch-black ahead. “It was like dark, dark, dark, then drop,” Andres later said.

Andres and JD flew over the edge, and for an instant they hung in the air. Andres felt his guts go up into his chest, as if he were on a rollercoaster. His lungs froze. “I couldn’t breathe for a second,” he recalled.

When they landed on the slope, JD kept his balance. Dust clouds exploded around them as one by one the riders made the treacherous descent. Andres saw a horse’s hooves in the air and a rider wreck in front of him. But there wasn’t time to assess what was happening, who was up and who was down. He and JD just kept hurtling down the hill.

GoPro video of Andres and JD’s trip down the hill.

The river hit violently, as Pakootas told Andres it would. Sharp rocks under the water’s black surface sliced open one of JD’s front legs. Andres held on to the reins. “Head up, JD! Head up!” he screamed. But instead he felt the horse going down, and himself going down, too, pulled by the tape keeping him in the stirrups.

Thousands of pounds piled on top of Andres and JD as jockeys who’d been behind them on the hill crashed into the river. Water was in Andres’s mouth, then his lungs. I’m going to die right here, he thought. Instinctively, he protected the back of his neck with his hand.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. Other riders and horses swam by and made it onto the far shore. Andres and JD had survived, but they couldn’t race—both were injured. They finished the race, straggling across the finish line, but there would be no more runs that year.

“I never wanted something so bad before,” Andres said. “We trained all fucking summer. We did all this to just fucking have it end tonight.”

Andres with Francis’s horse Frank Cartel.

5. The Reprisal

On the Colville Reservation, there is a formation known as the Omak Rock—a huge boulder, estimated to weigh some 40 tons, that appears to balance precariously atop a much smaller rock. It has stayed in this position through numerous natural disasters, including the 1872 North Cascades earthquake. The boulder is the thing people talk about, what tourists come to see, but without the smaller rock the formation would be just another chunk of granite.

Andres knows that both he and his ambitions would be nothing special without the people who hold him up: the Marchands, Pakootas, Peasley, Boyd, Renteria. After he washed out of the Suicide Race, his circle of support gathered to dissect what went wrong, and to think ahead to next year. Andres would heal; JD would, too. There would be another Suicide Race to run.

In early 2022, with several feet of snow on the ground, the Marchands invited Andres to bring JD and go horse chasing with them on the reservation. It would be good training, they told him, since it would help improve JD’s stamina and confidence in the wild. Plus, being part of a pack would hone his competitiveness. But JD lost his footing in the powder and ended up reopening his leg wound. Andres feared this meant he couldn’t go off the hill again come August, that he’d have to wait another year for a second shot at making a name for himself.

Francis had a solution. He said he would help Andres train and ride Frank Cartel, an eight-year-old dark-brown horse that Francis had recently bought from Boyd’s cousin. Andres met the horse but didn’t feel a connection. Frank Cartel had only run flat-track races and wasn’t used to the terrain of the Suicide Race. Plus, he didn’t have JD’s untamed nature, something Andres identified with. “I just trust JD more,” he said. “I’ve got a better bond with him. He’s crazier.”

During the first half of that year, Andres continued to exercise Boyd’s horses between construction jobs in Oregon. He started a honeybee farm, hoping to sell honey, candles, and lip balm at the local farmers market. He also bought and renovated a mobile home with plans of renting it out. But these were just things he did while he waited. The Suicide Race was the organizing principle of his life, the thing everything else revolved around. The hill had never abandoned him, and he wouldn’t abandon it.

After six months of healing, JD was ready to be checked out by the Suicide Race’s official veterinarian. In early summer, she gave the all clear for the horse to run. Andres was ready—he had everything he needed. Together, he and JD could charge toward the precipice once more. 

More from The Atavist Magazine

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

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.


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.


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.


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