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.

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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.

© 2022 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.

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.”

This story has been updated to better describe the magnitude of the 1994 earthquake.

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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. 

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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, were funneled to West Germany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fugitive Next Door

The Fugitive Next Door

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

By Greg Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 127

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

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

Published in May 2022.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howard Farley’s 1965 high school yearbook photo.

Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farley was an avid fisherman.

Part Four 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farley’s passport photos.

Part Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Crime Beyond Belief


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

The Atavist Magazine, No. 126

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

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

Published in April 2022.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he replied.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An illustrated portrait of Misty Carausu
Misty Carausu


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‎   ‎   Matthew Muller


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can’t you stay awhile?” she asked.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two days later, on Saturday, March 28, Lee was hiking in the redwoods with his family when his phone dinged. A longer screed had arrived, this time from the address The author claimed to speak for “three acquaintances” who started stealing cars as a “contrast to the office doldrums,” a mischievous lark “like something out of A Clockwork Orange, up to that point without the ultra-violence.” One of the cars was a white Mustang that belonged to a local medical student who had a habit of speeding. “We took it, and maybe saved a neighborhood kid or dog,” the message read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Caregivers

The Caregivers

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

By Kelly Loudenberg

The Atavist Magazine, No. 125

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

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

Published in March 2022.

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

—1 Corinthians 13:4–8

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

Above: Danny Valentine and Janie Paul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Two of Danny’s drawings.

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Danny in Ann Arbor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Sculptures from PCAP exhibitions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buzz just shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Danny in his workshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Voyagers




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

The Atavist Magazine, No. 124

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

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

Published in February 2022.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going?” Oleg asked.

“America,” Valeri said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this manner, the voyage continues.

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The Shadow and The Ghost

The Shadow and The Ghost

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

By Christine Grimaldi

The Atavist Magazine, No. 123

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

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

Published in January 2022.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does a false prophet rise to power?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I once chased down Barbara Walters for Nanny.

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

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

“Quick,” was all she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I forgot this particular act of selfishness until well after Gilda died in 2015. That’s how it goes with this story. I’ve amassed hundreds of pages of research on Reverend Mother and La Cappella dei Miracoli: interview transcripts, marriage licenses, death certificates, immigration files, newspaper articles, court records, and deeds. Each time I revisit them a new cruelty jumps out, like a firefly suddenly lighting up before my eyes.

Quick, I tell myself—write it down. Don’t let it get away.

With her church thriving, in 1932 Reverend Mother renewed her lease in Bensonhurst for five years. Her landlord let her remodel the storefront into a proper chapel, complete with a new pitched brick roof. In a photo taken in 1940, a cross pierces the clouds in the sky over South Brooklyn, and gesù salva glares across the horizontal beam in what looks to be neon—a promise of salvation in place of Christ’s dead weight.

A handful of church members gathered in the retrofitted space on June 12, 1934. They voted to incorporate La Cappella dei Miracoli Pentecosta in accordance with New York State law. Reverend Mother became the “ruling elder,” the presiding officer, and one of three initial trustees, alongside Sallustio and Anna Grasso, the secretary, who presumably typed up the church’s constitution and bylaws—ten pages in all.

Behind the church’s new facade and legal status, coercion and abuse continued unabated. “From what my mother told me—and she hated to talk about it, because the memories made her very sad—her stepfather joined this ‘crazy’ church and the woman in charge made them do all sorts of weird things,” Linda Santo, a retired librarian, wrote to me in an email, after I’d traced her family tree from the 1930s to the present. Linda’s grandmother, Luisa, suffered from a variety of kidney and heart ailments, but her second husband, Joseph Mortale, refused any help outside of Reverend Mother’s purported healing abilities. “Luisa got very sick, and someone at the church told Joseph that he could not take her to the doctor,” Linda said. By the time Luisa checked into Kings County Hospital, it was too late. She died on November 2, 1934, at the age of 39.

Joseph’s loss did not shake his faith in Reverend Mother. Indeed, his loyalty would be rewarded within the next couple of years, when Reverend Mother made him a trustee of the church. But Joseph and Luisa’s son, Vinny, continued to suffer. “Because of the church, Joseph beat Vincent quite often and made his life miserable,” Linda Santo said.

For the celebration of her 50th birthday in 1936, Reverend Mother insisted that her church’s youth choir indulge in secular song lyrics usually forbidden to her parishioners. The words and melody would eventually make their way to Bing Crosby’s lips: “I love you truly, truly dear.” But the object of the choir’s affection wasn’t clear enough for Reverend Mother, my great-uncle Joey would later recall: “She interrupted in a rage and told the director to change the title to ‘We Love You Mother, Mother Dear.’” The following year, Reverend Mother bought herself a belated 50th birthday present: the building that housed her church. She put down $2,000 in cash.

Reverend Mother always got what she wanted, even if it required conning members of her flock. My great-grandfather Frank once needed money so badly for his family that he asked an uncle to sell a piece of property for him in Italy. Despite his situation, he gave a “big chunk” of the profit to Reverend Mother, according to Jennie. But Reverend Mother wanted more—she always wanted more. “Being greedy and never satisfied,” my grandmother wrote, “she told me to ask my father for some money for myself so that I could hand it over to her.”

At some point Reverend Mother began appearing on the radio: To listeners of Brooklyn’s WVFW and WCNW stations, where she broadcast sermons and music every weekend, Reverend Mother was La Maria Maddalena dell’Aria (the Mary Magdalene of the Air). At least once, she staged a tent revival. It took place at the corner of 26th and Harway Avenues, near Coney Island. “We attended services every night without bathroom facilities. Whenever anyone had to relieve themselves, they would go to the back of the tent, in the field,” Joey wrote. His memory placed the revival in 1937, but it must have been the summer of ’38, during a historic storm that walloped southern New England and Long Island. Brooklyn suffered, too. “One eve