The Desperado

The Desperado

In April 2018, a blind man with one foot robbed a bank in Austin, Texas. This is a heist story—but unlike any you’ve ever read.

By Ciara O’Rourke

The Atavist Magazine, No. 87


Ciara O’Rourke is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in The AtlanticSeattle Met, and Portland Monthly, among other publications. 

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Matt Huynh

Published in January 2020. Design updated in 2021.

One

Edward Averill finished off the last slices of Genoa salami and sopressata from the deli packages in his mini-fridge, rolling them into tubes and eating them with his fingers. Between bites he drank a Modelo Especial. It was his favorite beer, and that night, April 5, 2018, he savored every sip. He didn’t expect to have another one anytime soon.

The 58-year-old computer engineer climbed into bed around 10 p.m. and lay staring at the ceiling for hours before drifting off to sleep. He jerked awake without an alarm at 8:30 the next morning. After turning on his laptop and scrubbing it clean of files and software, he wiped his external hard drive and reformatted it—twice. Satisfied, he powered down the computer and began tidying his room.

There wasn’t much there. He rented it from a woman named Anne Toney, who owned the house it was in. The rest of Toney’s home was cluttered—chairs, gnome figurines, even an old, empty candy machine. Averill liked to joke that people had vanished there amid all the bric-a-brac. But he took pride in his space, which was big enough for a double bed, the magnet-covered fridge, and a media cabinet he used as a pantry. He set drinks on coasters so they wouldn’t leave rings on his computer desk, which is where he ate most of his meals.

Over the previous week, he’d thrown away many of his belongings, including five USB sticks, a Swiffer, and an extra computer monitor. On the morning of April 6, he tossed the magnets and coasters, too. All that was left, aside from the furniture, were some clothes in the closet, a couple of cold beers, and a blue expandable plastic folder where he stored sensitive paperwork like his birth certificate and Social Security card. Old tax forms were in one sleeve; his diploma from Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, was in another.

Averill picked up the folder, stuck a bottle of Tums in his pocket, and grabbed the cane he used to help him walk. His left foot had been amputated—a complication of type 2 diabetes—and the cane kept him steady on his prosthetic foot. It was time for him to go. He left his keys on the laptop, closed the door behind him, and stepped carefully down the short flight of stairs to the living room. Toney was watching Matlock with the drapes drawn. Averill didn’t pause to say goodbye. He opened the front door, headed down the walk, and stopped at a sidewalk trash can to drop his blue folder inside, disposing of every paper record of his history and identity.

He turned right on the sidewalk and walked ten minutes uphill to the bus stop. He waited, squinting in the Austin, Texas, sun as the temperature crept into the high seventies. The 325 bus appeared. Averill boarded and then bumped along until the vehicle groaned to a stop near a Walmart. He got off and waited again. Then he took the 3 to the Austin Diner.

When the server came to his table, Averill asked for grits, eggs, toast, a double order of bacon, and lots of coffee. Paying for his breakfast would require the last of the cash in his wallet. After that, he had only $1.75 left in a Prosperity Bank checking account, which he’d opened roughly eight years earlier. But Averill wasn’t worried about money. The bank was less than a block away, and when he finished eating he was going to rob it.

He’d been researching how to pull off the heist for weeks. Averill had read online that bank tellers were encouraged to remain calm during a robbery—the money was insured, so they shouldn’t risk their lives. The employees at Prosperity seemed well trained, and armed guards weren’t posted by the door, unlike a branch of Wells Fargo that Averill had cased.

Around 12:45, he finished his coffee, took a deep breath, and left the diner. Averill walked to a traffic light and crossed the street, leaning on his cane with each step toward the bank. He hadn’t been nervous when he woke up, but as he approached the building he couldn’t help but worry. What if something bad happens? he thought. What if the teller has a gun and decides to be a hero?

Averill was at the door now. He pulled it open and limped inside. He was a longtime customer, but he didn’t recognize any of the employees, and they didn’t appear to recognize him. That was for the best. Averill felt himself calming down. When he got to the counter, he ignored the teller’s greeting and passed the man a note instead. “This is a robbery,” it read, “hand over all your 50’s and 100’s, thanks.”

He hoped the “thanks” would reassure the teller.

Averill waited as the man opened his drawer and handed over $2,900 in a loose stack of bills about two inches thick. No one else in the bank seemed to realize what was happening.

Money in hand, Averill hobbled back toward the entrance, then stopped halfway across the room. “Hey,” he said, waving the wad of bills in the air to draw attention. “I just robbed you. Please call the police.”


The Austin American-Statesman published a story about the crime the next day. “A man was arrested on Friday after he robbed a North Austin bank and waited outside for police,” the newspaper reported, citing an affidavit. “Edward Austin Averill III, 58, was booked into the Travis County Jail on Friday on a charge of robbery, a second-degree felony punishable [by] up to 20 years in prison.”

In his mug shot, Averill stares to the right of the camera, his clean-shaven chin tilted upward. His white hair is feathered back from his face and reaches his shoulders. On top of his head, where his hairline has receded, several strands curl into the air like cotton candy. He looks placid, even pleased.

I wrote Averill an email through the jail’s website a few days later, asking if he would be willing to tell me more about his unusual crime. I included my email address and phone number, which he called after a correctional officer delivered my message—printed out—and Averill borrowed another inmate’s phone card. His last name is pronounced “aye-vrill,” I learned when he introduced himself. He was surprised that I was interested in him. He was nobody special, he said. Still, he was happy to meet. We scheduled a visit.

I arrived at the jail and waited among the small crowd of people who’d made the same trip to visit boyfriends, husbands, dads, and sons. The guard called out a list of inmates’ names, followed by the booth number that each visitor should use, but she never said Averill. “Not here,” she told me when I asked where he was.

I drove home and checked the jail roster; he was still in custody. I scheduled another visit for later that week and sent him an email to let him know. When I went back to the jail, again he didn’t show. I scheduled a third meeting, went, and waited.

“Ah…,” the correctional officer hesitated as she directed visitors to their booths. “Ah-vrill?

I walked to my assigned spot and sat down. The chair on the other side of the plexiglass was empty. When Averill appeared, he was in a wheelchair pushed by a guard. A white beard had grown shaggy around his jaw since his mug shot was taken. His gaze was unfocused. The guard picked up the phone, punched in a number, and gestured for me to lift the receiver on my end. He handed the phone to Averill and walked away.

We exchanged formalities and talked a little. Averill apologized for missing our other meetings; he’d had an appointment with a doctor that he couldn’t miss. He was all but blind, Averill explained, which had everything to do with why he’d robbed Prosperity Bank.

A recorded voice interrupted our conversation—the line would disconnect in 60 seconds. Our time was up. I asked Averill if I could come back to hear the rest of the story.

“That would be fine,” he said.

I watched as he reached forward, hooking the air with the phone as he tried to locate the cradle. Giving up, he gently set the handset on the counter in front of him. He turned his head and looked in the direction he’d come from. He said something, but I couldn’t hear what. Other visitors filed past me, and a woman looked through the window at Averill. She suggested that I tell an officer that he was stranded. The blind bank robber needed help.

Two

Averill was born in Titusville, Florida, in 1959. It was the first of many places he’d call home as his parents moved around the country and the world. His father, Edward Austin Averill, Jr., was a smart, handsome computer engineer who relocated his young family to such places as Taiwan and the Bahamas, where Tres—that’s what his parents called Averill, “three” in Spanish—learned to snorkel.

When Tres was a toddler, they moved to Texas, where his mother, Sylvia, had been a switchboard operator before she married. They lived in Plano, north of Dallas, but Tres’s father still traveled a lot. “Basically, I was raised by my mom,” Averill told me in one of the many conversations we had after that first jail visit.

Sylvia taught Tres to play the organ and to read. He devoured science-fiction novels and an Edgar Allan Poe anthology she gave him. Sylvia liked to see her son tucked into a book—she wanted him to be well educated. She was less concerned about his social life. “My parents didn’t like most people to come over,” Averill said. His orbit consisted of his mom, his dad, and a few relatives. About once a month, Edward and Sylvia left him with his aunt Shirley so that they could spend the weekend without their son, who, they revealed when he was still a kid, they hadn’t planned on having. “It’s not an uplifting thing to be told,” Averill said. “They tried their best to provide for me. I got a lot of material things. I didn’t get a lot of hugs.”

He had few friends, although when he was in elementary school, a boy in the apartment next door had permission to bring his Legos over to play. They built spaceships and crashed their Hot Wheels cars into them. In junior high, Averill slunk between his classes and his locker, sometimes hiding out in the library to avoid contact with the other students.

During his teenage years, the family moved to Otsego, Michigan, where his father had gone to high school, then to Virginia, where Tres began to notice girls. “I started talking to people a little bit more,” he said. He played linebacker for the practice football team, but it was when he took a computer-science class that he finally found his people. “I joined the geek gang,” Averill said. Soon he was hanging out with theater kids, artists, and musicians, too. During his junior year, he spent two months clearing a neighbor’s land to earn the $200 he needed to buy a Fender Telecaster knockoff. When he brought it home, his mother worried that the guitar would ruin his grades. She discouraged him from playing. “Cut that damn noise out,” she’d say.

Sylvia kept a close eye on her son as he got older. She didn’t approve of his high school girlfriend and tried to impose a nine o’clock curfew and stricter rules. They argued. It felt to Tres like his mom was trying to control his life, which she’d never intended for him to have in the first place.

After he graduated from high school in 1978, he got a job programming computers and drove himself to work in a Mustang that his dad helped him fix up. When his parents announced that they were moving back to Plano, they assumed that Tres, who still lived with them, would come along. But the 19-year-old had work and a girlfriend, who suggested that they get an apartment together. Sylvia was horrified. “You can’t move in with a woman,” she said. She’d become increasingly religious over the years. “You’ll be living in sin!” Sylvia cried.

“I could feel the apron strings around my neck very tightly,” Averill told me.

His dad was supportive, even if Ed Jr. couldn’t say so in front of his wife. “Don’t listen to your mom,” he told his son in private. “Just do what you need to.” He helped Tres pack up his things before he and Sylvia returned to Texas. Over the next several years, Ed Jr. visited his son, but Sylvia never did. She called from time to time, then stopped until the mid-1980s, when Averill and his girlfriend broke up. After that, every Sunday, Averill’s phone would ring at 9 a.m. “Why aren’t you in church?” Sylvia would ask when he answered. “Is there a woman in the house with you?”

Usually, there wasn’t. Averill dated, but he preferred being alone in front of his computer. A coding colleague did her best to lure him away from his screen by inviting him to parties at her house. Averill was reluctant at first, but finally he relented and was surprised at how much he enjoyed himself. The people—scientists and technology professionals—were interesting. Free beer didn’t hurt.

At one party, where Averill arrived carrying meatballs for the snack table, his colleague introduced him to Roan Dantzler. She worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on climatic models and liquid dynamics. He tried to listen carefully, but most of what she said was over his head. Then Dantzler pulled up her shirt and flashed him.

“Why did you do that?” he asked.

“You looked like you were bored,” she told him.

After the party, the pair started spending time together. Averill liked having someone he could share the world with. Dantzler’s personality sparkled—she was exciting. And her eyes didn’t glaze over when he talked about work or video games or music. She was a musician, too, and a redhead. Averill loved redheads. A few months after the party, they moved in together.

When they decided to get married and told Averill’s parents, his mother was furious. A letter arrived a few days later with a one-way ticket to Texas. “We’ll pick you up,” the note said.

Averill upgraded the ticket to round-trip and bought another one for Dantzler. When they arrived together, his mother erupted. Sylvia and her son spent the weeklong trip fighting. When Averill and Dantzler returned to their home in Rockville, Maryland, they called their friends and her relatives, bought rings, and convened at the courthouse to become husband and wife. Two weeks later, they boarded a southbound train to Disney World for their honeymoon.

When Averill called his mother to deliver the news, he warned her that if she gave him trouble, he wouldn’t talk to her again. A few days later, Sylvia called and said he should reconsider the marriage. After they hung up, Averill kept his word. His father visited a few more times, but eventually Averill stopped communicating with him, too. He never spoke to them again. When his parents died in the early 2000s, none of Averill’s extended family knew how to reach him.


For 15 years, Averill and Dantzler lived together companionably. They moved to Sunnyvale, California, and she joined him on hikes in Muir Woods, exploring the redwood groves along the Pacific Coast. They played video games together. But eventually, they started fighting. Sometimes their disagreements were small; they bickered over the grocery list. Other times they screamed at each other. Averill felt like Dantzler was trying to micromanage his life. He would hike without her sometimes, and on one trek he fell and hit his head. The injury caused him to permanently lose vision in his right eye.

He moved out in the early 2000s, living in his car in the parking lot of IBM, where he worked at the time. In 2003, Averill and Dantzler filed for divorce. As the split was being finalized, Averill met Sabine Sklar at a video-game conference in Silicon Valley. She was 38, a little younger than Averill, now well into his forties, and lived in Sunnyvale, though she was originally from Vancouver, British Columbia. She worked in human resources at a video-game company and spoke English, German, and Dutch. Averill thought she was beautiful—she was a redhead—and brilliant. They both played guitar; Averill liked ambient music, and she plucked out folk songs. They had the same sarcastic humor. Sklar made Averill feel good, happy. If he was in a bad mood, she perked him up.

Soon into their friendship, Averill told her he was in love with her. Sklar said she really liked him but added, “I’m just not ready to fall in love yet.”

That was OK with him, as long as he could be around her. He liked to help her. Sklar had type 1 diabetes and problems with her endocrine system. A cold could knock her out for a week. When it did, Averill would pick up chicken noodle soup and take it to her apartment. “It’s what friends do,” Averill said. When the company Sklar worked for closed her office, she took a job as an exotic dancer, and Averill visited her at the strip club. Other times they’d go to Murphy’s, an Irish bar that served great bangers and mash.

One night, in October 2003, Averill was supposed to meet Sklar at a bar called Hiphugger, but she never showed up. He went to her apartment and knocked. Nothing. He knocked again and pressed his ear to the door. It was quiet, but that wasn’t unusual. Sklar often shut herself in her bedroom to sleep when she didn’t feel well. Averill went home and fell asleep, too.

Sklar’s friend Trish called Averill from the strip club early the next morning. “Come down to the club,” she said. “Drop everything. I need to talk to you.” When he got there, Trish and several more of Sklar’s friends were in tears. Averill sat down warily.

“What happened?” he asked. Sklar had gone into a diabetic coma during the night, Trish said. She was dead.

Sklar asked Averill what he’d do when she wasn’t around anymore. “Find the tallest building in San Francisco,” he joked.

Averill imagined Sklar inside her apartment, dying as he knocked on the door. He blamed himself. Why hadn’t he tried harder to reach her?

When she was alive, Sklar would ask Averill what he’d do when she wasn’t around anymore. “Find the tallest building in San Francisco,” he’d joke. Now that she was really gone, Averill was despondent: crying, often drunk, inconsolable. He once took a razor blade into the bathroom, but one of Sklar’s friends, who had a copy of his key, happened to stop by and prevented him from cutting his wrists. She and other friends organized a watch rotation to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. When he went to Sklar’s wake at a British pub, he thought he’d be strong. Instead, he burst into tears as soon as he walked in. After the memorial, he didn’t get out of bed for two days.

Averill never wanted to feel that bad again. He needed to protect himself, he decided. So he vowed  to never again care about someone as much as he’d cared about Sklar.

He declined invitations to go out with friends. “I’m really busy,” he’d say. After a few weeks, his friends stopped trying. Averill had long frequented internet chat rooms and forums, and he knew some of the other users well. “I shoved those guys off,” Averill said, “changed my email address, changed my online persona.”

Step by step, he severed ties with everyone he knew. When a woman wrote him in 2004 and introduced herself as the half sister he didn’t know he had—from his father’s first marriage, which was also news to Averill—even she failed to get any traction. Averill didn’t have the energy to forge a new relationship, not after what had happened with Sklar. Soon, he told me, “there was nobody around anymore.”

Three

Averill relocated to Austin around 2010, and eventually moved in with Anne Toney, whom he’d met in an online forum for hobbyists who like making 3-D models on their computers. Toney had inherited her house from her father and rented out the two spare bedrooms to a string of tenants. Sometimes she even offered up the couch to homeless men and women who slept on nearby streets. Averill paid $400 in rent, plus utilities. Sometimes he helped with the yard work or took out the garbage. He and Toney liked to sit around together and dream up inventions, like a doorbell that opened the refrigerator so a visitor could grab a beer on the way into the house. “He could be funny,” Toney said, laughing at her memories of Averill. “But he didn’t have any friends, not with what I would call real people.”

Averill secured contract work as a software engineer. On payday, Toney said, he went out drinking. He liked to go to the Yellow Rose, a strip club in North Austin. “They’d send him home in a limo,” Toney recalled. The women who worked there were nice to Averill and seemed to like him. He tried to be polite and respectful, and to tip appropriately.

Other than visits to the club, Averill spent nearly all his time in his room on his computer. He composed his ambient music. He self-published a book of poems. In one of his online profiles, on Medium, he described himself as a “software engineer, musician and all-around annoyance dabbling in too many things to even keep track of.” On AuthorsDen.com, he called himself a “poet,” “prose writer,” and “introverted intuitive.” He spent money on computer and music equipment, slowly building a studio in his room. He bought a real Fender—a Modern Player Telecaster Plus. He named it Christine. “Texas blues, here I come!” he wrote on Facebook.

As he turned inward emotionally, it became harder to do things physically. Before Averill moved to Texas, a doctor in California had noticed that his blood sugar was high when he came in with strep throat. She prescribed medication, but Averill never took it—he didn’t really understand what it was for. It wasn’t until he stepped on a piece of broken glass in Texas that a nurse again checked his blood-glucose level in the emergency room. By then, he had type 2 diabetes.

Averill described himself as “an all-around annoyance dabbling in too many things to even keep track of.”

He tried to cut back on carbs but often ate hunkered down in front of his computer, hewing to what he called a “programmer’s diet”—pizza for breakfast, hot dogs and popcorn for lunch and dinner. He weaned himself off soda, but it wasn’t enough. In 2016, he had to have his foot amputated. He struggled to adjust. It disturbed him to look down at the stump at the end of his right leg when he didn’t have his prosthetic attached. The music he made got a little darker.

Soon it became hard to play music at all. He had a tingling sensation in his fingertips. He couldn’t hold a pick or feel the strings on his guitar. After his amputated leg got infected, he slipped deeper into isolation, rebuffing even Toney’s offers of food or conversation. Between work contracts, Averill would drink, polishing off a bottle of vodka and several beers a week. When the anniversary of Sklar’s death rolled around, he’d drink even more heavily. Toney always knew when it was that time of year again, because “Ed was on a spree,” she said.

In November 2017, Averill’s latest contract expired. He wasn’t worried at first; he managed his money carefully, keeping a cushion for the inevitable breaks between engineering and coding gigs. He knew he could always get another job developing video games.

Then, in early December, Averill woke up with what looked like blood clouding the vision in his good eye. He didn’t have insurance anymore—that had ended with the work contract—but he went to a doctor, who ordered an MRI. He had diabetic retinopathy, meaning his retina had detached from the back of his eye, causing capillaries to break and bleed. More worryingly, it looked like he had suffered an unrelated stroke about a month earlier.

The doctor prescribed hypertension medication, and Averill paid for eye surgery. An ophthalmologist used a laser to repair the detachment and put silicone oil in his eye to keep the retina in place while it healed. The oil, though, meant that he could barely see afterward. He needed glasses to decipher words on paper, and reading a computer screen was even more challenging. When Toney walked by his room, she’d sometimes see Averill wearing two pairs of glasses and holding a magnifying glass up to his monitor. Work became impossible.

He was paying for his appointments and prescriptions out of pocket, spending down his savings. He didn’t know what else to do. Help seemed out of reach, even in the era of the Affordable Care Act. If he’d lived in a state with expanded Medicaid eligibility, for people with chronic health conditions and low income or no job, he likely would have qualified for federal insurance. But in 2012, Texas’s then governor Rick Perry had declined to expand the program. It’s uncommon for a single Texan to qualify unless they’re over 65 and receive Social Security income. Averill wasn’t even 60 yet.


When the ankle above Averill’s amputation began to swell, it affected how his prosthetic fit. The device pushed against his skin, rubbing it raw. He needed to have it adjusted at a clinic, but he was running out of money and couldn’t pay for a more permanent fix. Toney noticed that he was eating cold hot dogs wrapped in tortillas. “Every time I tried to help, he’d say, ‘I’m a grown man, and I’ve been taking care of myself for 58 years. I don’t need your help or anyone else’s,’” Toney recalled.

He was her longest-ever tenant, and reliable, but in January 2018, he was late paying rent. Toney told him she couldn’t let him stay if he didn’t pay. She had to cover the mortgage and the utilities. On February 1, he gave her $400 and notice. “I will be gone by the end of March,” he said. But March came and went, and he was still there. He now owed her $800. “I can’t keep this up,” Toney told him. Somebody else was interested in taking the room.

He was trying, Averill told her: “I can only leave so fast.” He’d spent weeks in front of his computer trying to discern the text of search results and figure out what to do about his eye, his foot, his diabetes, his stroke. He looked into the possibility of getting some kind of private insurance. That was a dead end. The companies wanted a lot of money—the premiums he saw quoted were several hundred dollars each month, which he didn’t have. He looked into whether he might qualify for government disability or Social Security benefits but realized that, even if he did, the process could take months.

Well, he thought, I’m screwed.

Then he found a decades-old article about a homeless man who robbed a bank because he had health problems and couldn’t get insurance or a job. In prison, the article said, the man was getting decent care.

What the hell? Averill thought. Then again, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea: commit a crime, get free medical assistance.

If it had worked for the homeless guy, maybe it would work for Averill. He could plead guilty and get shipped off to federal prison. The food would probably suck, he thought, but at least he could see a doctor regularly. It wasn’t like he had anyone counting on him for anything. Who would miss him in prison?

When he told Toney that he was finally moving out, she asked him what he was going to do. “I’m going to rob a bank,” he said. She waved him off.

Four

Averill shook as he sat on the curb outside Prosperity Bank, under the shade of an oak tree. His mind raced as he thought about the ways the robbery could have gone wrong. Somebody could have shot him. He could have tripped on his way out and hurt himself. But the crime had gone exactly as he’d planned.

A bank employee followed Averill and, recording the moment on his cell phone, asked why he did it. Averill explained that he needed to go to prison to get medical care. When the employee asked if he was armed, Averill pulled out a bottle of Tums, shaking it in the air. “Just antacid,” he said.

After a few minutes, a police van pulled into the bank’s drive-through lane. Two officers got out and asked the teller at the window what had happened.

“We just got robbed,” the teller said.

“Where did he go?” one of the officers asked.

The man pointed. The cops looked toward the curb and Averill as if they couldn’t believe what the teller was saying.

The officers eased Averill into the back of their van and turned up the air-conditioning. Then they drove downtown to the headquarters of the Austin Police Department. There, detective Christopher Brewer peered through his glasses as he watched Averill on a video monitor outside the room where the suspect awaited questioning. Averill was perched on the front of his chair, leaning forward, “like he was eager for something,” Brewer said. When the detective and his partner walked into the room, Brewer’s suspicions were confirmed: Averill wanted to talk. “He was genuinely trying to help us with our investigation,” Brewer said. “I was kind of taken aback by it.”

It wasn’t unheard of for people to commit crimes to get health care—a North Carolina man with arthritis and slipped discs robbed a bank of $1 in 2011, and two years later an Oregon man did the same thing for the same amount. Still, Brewer didn’t think anyone had ever done it in Austin. He asked if Averill was having a mental health crisis. “Nope,” Averill said. “I know exactly what I’m doing.” He described the robbery in meticulous detail. He said he wanted to be found guilty and go to prison as soon as possible.

When Brewer walked out of the room, he turned to his partner. “This is not one I’m going to brag about,” he said.

Brewer went to the municipal court to get a magistrate judge’s signature on Averill’s arrest affidavit. Judge Stephen Vigorito stared at Brewer after he read the document. “Are you kidding me?” Vigorito asked. After several minutes, the judge set a bond of $10,000, the lowest Brewer had ever seen for this particular crime—bonds in bank-robbery cases are usually several times that.

As the detective walked down the courthouse hallway to file the paperwork with the county clerk, he heard Vigorito running behind him. “Give it back, give it back,” the judge said, reaching for the affidavit when he caught up to Brewer. Vigorito wrote a new bond amount— $7,500—pressing hard with his pen so the numbers would be legible over the original figure.


After a brief stint in the downtown jail, including a trip to the ER because he hadn’t taken his hypertension pills and his blood pressure was dangerously high, Averill was booked at the Travis County Correctional Complex, a large detention facility just outside Austin. His bunkmates couldn’t believe what he’d done. “Damn, dude!” one of them said when Averill told him about the robbery. None of the other men in his cell—three in all—had committed such a serious crime. One was caught selling pot; another was busted for possession.

Averill felt relief. For the first time in months, he didn’t have to worry about where he was going to live, what he was going to eat, or how he was going to get medication. He was treated well, too. He was too weak to walk far, so guards wheeled him to the cafeteria to eat cream of wheat and fruit, cheese sandwiches, and chicken quesadillas. “I’ve had worse food in nicer places,” he told me on my second visit to see him. He squeezed his eyes shut describing a good meal, savoring the memory of it.

He’d been sitting in the booth when I arrived that day, but he couldn’t work the phone and waited while I found a correctional officer to ask for help. A nurse appeared on Averill’s side of the glass and handed the receiver to him, then left to get a code that would connect our phones. Averill couldn’t quite see me, but he knew I was there. He spun his finger by his ear to signal “crazy” and then shook his fist in feigned exasperation until the nurse returned and dialed the number that allowed us to talk.

By then the county had paid for his second eye surgery, just as Averill had hoped. The bad news, Averill explained, was that during the procedure, the doctor had discovered cataracts. So while the retinal damage was somewhat improved, his vision was still poor. The doctor had told him a third surgery would help.

But what if the justice system gave him a break that he didn’t want? Averill wasn’t a seasoned criminal knocking off banks across Texas. He was a blind bandit without an arrest record. The FBI had no interest in pursuing his case, which meant that he wouldn’t wind up in federal detention or get the health benefits he’d read about online. Cheryl Hindera, the attorney appointed to defend him, suggested that he might not even go to state prison. She was working with the prosecutor on a plea deal.

Averill wasn’t sure how to feel about freedom. He told me that he’d rob a jewelry store if he wound up back where he’d started, with no income or insurance.

While the lawyers worked toward an agreement, Averill was released from custody on his own recognizance, allowing him to go free without putting up any money for bail. In June 2018, nearly three months since Averill’s arrest, a correctional officer returned his few belongings—his clothes, the Tums—and he stepped out the door of the facility. Maybe, Averill thought, he shouldn’t have thrown away his Social Security card and the other documents in the blue folder.

The county sheriff’s office had him dropped off on the corner of East Seventh and Neches Streets, at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. The building had beds where more than 200 homeless men could spend the night and a free clinic where they could receive care. A line of weary, ragged people stood slumped against the building or were curled up on the sidewalk when Averill arrived. Some appeared to be smoking synthetic marijuana. It looked to Averill like there were drug dealers in the mix, too.

Once Averill was inside, a staffer told him he couldn’t see a doctor for at least ten days. Not going to work for me, he thought. This was exactly what he’d feared before robbing the bank, that he would wind up on the streets and die. He’d rather be in jail, so he decided to get arrested again.

Averill walked to a window and whacked it with his cane. “You can’t do that!” the receptionist said. She went to get a police officer, who told Averill, “We’re not throwing you back in jail.”

Averill gestured to another employee. “How about I just assault him?”

Five

I learned all this when Averill called to let me know where he was. I’d been worried about him. I knew he’d been released from custody, because a visit I’d scheduled at the county detention center had been canceled, but I didn’t know where he was. A few weeks had passed by the time he called from the Guy Herman Center for Mental Health Crisis Care. That’s where he’d been taken after he threatened assault—not to jail, but to a place that assists people with mental illness, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities.

Averill’s arrival at the Herman Center had been tough. He was depressed. He was broke. His vision was getting worse. The cataracts made everything blurry, and his damaged retina blacked out the top and bottom of his vision, which made it seem as if he was always looking through blinds. He scheduled an appointment with his doctor, but told me that the staff member at the Herman Center who was supposed to take him overslept. The next available appointment wasn’t for a couple of weeks.

As we talked, Averill described avoiding the other residents; there was no one he wanted to have a conversation with. He sat by himself during meals and was curt with other people when they spoke to him. But then one afternoon, that changed.

A patient named Danielle Morris sat down and persisted through Averill’s short temper. The 41-year-old was petite, with a “sparky personality,” Averill said. She wanted to know about his life. As she probed deeper into Averill’s history, she learned about the bank robbery and how desperate he’d been before he was arrested.

She knew what it was like to feel helpless. Morris told Averill that she’d been waiting for Social Security disability benefits for more than a year. After moving from Illinois to Texas, she struggled to get the services she needed—she’d been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. Eventually, she tried to overdose on Xanax. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “Since then I’ve found that the system is pretty broken.” Waiting lists for low-income housing in Austin were typically two or three years long. If your application paperwork wasn’t perfect, it could gum up the process. Facilities meant to help the needy or mentally ill were overcrowded and case managers overworked.

Averill and Morris bonded over their shared frustrations. “We kind of clicked,” Morris told me. Averill reminded her of Alan Alda with a Santa Claus beard. (Averill was desperate to shave, but it was too hard for him without an electric razor.) His humor was dry, which she liked. They’d started to linger after meals with another resident, Arron Herrera, at a table in the dull gray dining room. They talked about old relationships, their health, the future.

This guy is way interesting, Herrera thought of Averill, who spoke with his face as much as his mouth, scrunching up his nose or rolling his eyes or dropping his jaw when he heard something stunning. Even after what Averill had been through, he struck Herrera as graceful, eloquent, and humble. “He has one of the sweetest souls ever,” Herrera said. “He permeates very positive energy.”

Averill sounded excited and happy during our phone calls, which happened every week or two. “The most terrifying thing is she is a redhead,” he said of Morris during one conversation. “I have apparently some kind of fatal attraction to redheads.” He called Herrera and Morris his little brother and sister, but he considered them friends. “You know,” he said, “I hate to admit it, but I might as well tell the truth. I kind of missed hanging out with people.”

Still, he struggled to understand why they wanted to hang out with him. He worried that he was weighing them down. He was roughly 20 years older. “They don’t need an old man bothering them,” he told me. It sounded like Averill was instinctively looking for ways to push other people away.

A few days after Herrera left the center—generally, patients can stay for only a couple of weeks—he returned with a bag of shirts, pants, and socks, because he knew Averill had only a single outfit: the one he’d worn to rob the bank. Averill was shocked. He gave Herrera a hug. When Herrera visited again the next week, he brought Averill two bacon cheeseburgers and coffee, because Averill had bemoaned the brown liquid they served at the center. As they ate together, Herrera said that when Averill got out, they’d go to Barton Springs and look at women in bikinis.

“Dude, I’m too old,” Averill said.

“Shut up,” Herrera replied.

Morris left the center, too, but she visited Averill nearly every day. She kept coming after he was transferred to another facility. She knew that Averill didn’t have a support network, and she wanted to be that for him—“to try to keep his mind off what’s going on,” she told me, “or talk him through it.” Which of those Averill preferred depended on the day, and his mood.

By August, Averill was living in a respite and recovery center. He shared a room on the second floor. He woke up each morning when sunlight came through the window and slowly made his way downstairs to eat.

Before it got too hot, he tried to make a visit to a blue bench surrounded by palm trees where he fed bread to the grackles, tossing chunks toward the birds’ outlines, which was as much he could see. Inside, people tried to talk to him. Here he could watch shadows flutter in the trees.

Sometimes he was optimistic about the future. He was learning that, even if he didn’t go to prison, there were agencies in Austin to assist people like him, people in crisis. Maybe, he told me, he didn’t need to be a criminal. “You live, you learn,” he said.

The staff had helped him apply for Social Security benefits for people with disabilities and Supplemental Security Income, a government allotment based on financial need. How much disability a person received depended on how much they’d paid into the system, and Averill didn’t know how much he might get. He hoped it would be enough to pay for health insurance and still have some left over to cover living expenses. In the meantime, the center’s staff scheduled doctor appointments for him, and he was able to get his prosthesis fixed. They also wrote my phone number on a piece of paper in large print so he could read it. Usually, though, they dialed my number for him when he wanted to talk.

When we spoke, he almost always sounded cheerful, and he made self-deprecating jokes. Yet he worried that he might never be able to work or make music again. He grew insecure about his new friendships whenever Morris or Herrera didn’t show up for a few days to see him.

Maybe, Averill told me, he didn’t need to be a criminal. “You live, you learn,” he said.

He was unfailingly polite when we met—he almost always had an extra Styrofoam cup of water waiting for me. I took the lead from his friends and started to bring Averill a large drip coffee. “Bless you,” he’d say. Still, Averill sometimes seemed like he was tired of talking. I’d ask him questions about Sklar and other parts of his life that he’d tried to forget, and the next time we spoke he’d grumble about having replayed the conversation in his mind for the rest of the day. Yet he always agreed to another interview. One morning as he shook my hand, standing uncertainly without his prosthetic foot, he said, “You know more about me than anyone.”

At the beginning of another visit, he said, “I have a plan.” We were sitting at a round table in the main room of the center, where the residents ate their meals. The sun streamed in through the windows, and several people in scattered chairs stared up at a TV that was turned up too loud.

“What’s your plan?” I asked. Averill warned me that I wouldn’t like it.

He had an eye appointment coming up, and if he got bad news from the doctor, he was going to either stop eating or drink so much sugary soda that his body went into shock. He gestured toward the vending machine behind me. He couldn’t bear to spend the rest of his life handicapped. Averill was contemplating killing himself.

I froze, not sure how to respond. He told me that he’d listed me as someone the center could disclose his personal information to if he died. He told me I was a priority, that he didn’t want all the hours I’d spent talking to him to go to waste. He still hoped that the story I was writing would help someone else.

Six

I left that day feeling afraid about what Averill would do and wondering what my responsibility was—whether I should talk to a staff member at the recovery center or maybe his lawyer. I was relieved when Averill called a couple of days later with good news: The doctor had told him that the odds of improving his vision were high. He might even be able to take care of himself again.

In late August, Averill received a letter from the Social Security Administration informing him that he would receive $750 a month. More good news arrived in the mail the next day: He qualified for Medicaid. Then, a few days later, Averill received another letter from Social Security. He’d been approved for retirement, allowing him to collect what he’d invested in the system. In lieu of that $750 disability check, he would receive $2,851 every month.

When he woke up the next morning, he still couldn’t believe it was true. He asked someone at the front desk to read him the letter again, just to be sure. He would have enough money to take care of himself even if he couldn’t get a job. He could afford a new laptop to make music again. A charger for his phone. A cellular plan. He started saying good morning to people passing through reception. “Did they up your meds?” someone asked him.

“It’s really strange,” Averill said when I visited him. We were sitting in the courtyard; he sipped his coffee, and I swatted mosquitoes. He had shaved most of his face, but the hair along his chin, which was hard for him to trim, curled into a long, bushy beard. “There’s an old me and a slightly different, new me,” he continued.

Then he coughed forcefully and hit his stomach. His digestive tract was irritated, Averill said, and the gas made him cough. But he assured me that he’d had a colonoscopy once and the doctors had told him that gas wouldn’t kill him. “I can’t think of a more boring way to die,” he said. “Imagine that on a tombstone: ‘Died of indigestion.’ Honestly, let’s try for something a little different.”

By September, a case manager had scheduled eye surgery. The cataracts were so bad—“the size of an elephant,” Averill said—that a laser wouldn’t work; doctors would have to surgically remove them. He was used to life looking like the film noirs he once watched while eating burgers at a restaurant in downtown Austin, everything in hazy black and white. The doctors told him that the surgery wouldn’t completely repair his eyesight but should improve it. For starters, he’d likely get his color vision back.

It seemed certain now that he wouldn’t have to go to prison to get the care he needed. Once he entered the mental health system, he had access to the appropriate resources. Still, his legal case was pending.  


I woke up on the morning of October 2 to meet Averill at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, where his presentencing hearing was set for 9 a.m. The judge wasn’t there when I arrived, and the prosecutor in Averill’s case, Jeremy Sylestine, had taken a seat in one of the juror’s chairs.

I found Averill sitting in the back corner of the room and bent down to let him know I was there, since he likely couldn’t see me; his eye surgery had been postponed. He said he was doing well but wanted some coffee. His lawyer, Cheryl Hindera, bustled around the bench. She moved so fast at times that her feet wobbled slightly in her black patent-leather heels. She finally sat next to Averill, who rested his hands gently on his cane with a calm expression on his face. “It doesn’t look like any courtroom I’ve ever seen, so that’s kind of depressing,” he said. He’d been expecting a Judge Judy scene, with people yelling and drama.

Before Judge Cliff Brown heard Averill’s case, Hindera needed her client to complete some paperwork. But because Averill couldn’t see, Hindera had to fill it out for him. “Are you currently in a gang?” she asked.

“Hardly,” he said.

Judge Brown called Averill’s case a few minutes before 10 a.m. and explained what pleading guilty would mean: Averill would waive his Miranda rights and wouldn’t be allowed near a Prosperity Bank branch ever again. The state was recommending a sentence of three years deferred adjudication with treatment or counseling.

“How do you plead?” Brown asked.

“Guilty,” Averill said. He was glad to say it.

Formal sentencing was set for November 13. Before that, Brown explained, probation services would conduct an investigation to determine whether it could support the plea agreement. Katie Cullather, a social worker assigned to his case, gave Averill her wrist, and the three of us started a slow march to an office five blocks away. We paused at one point so Averill could hike up his pants—he’d removed his belt before passing through the courthouse’s metal detector and hadn’t tightened it properly afterward. “Do you want to fix it?” Cullather asked.

“Out here?” he said. “Oh, God no, because next thing you know, they’ll say he’s exposing himself, and I’ll be right back in there.”

Cullather guided him down the street, pointing out gravel and dips and cracks in the concrete. By the time we reached the office, she wondered if he’d be able to find his way back without her. Averill told her not to worry. Next time he visited, he said, his friend Danielle Morris would accompany him.

A woman opened the door to a small office and called his name. “Yes, hold on a second,” he replied, gesturing in my and Cullather’s direction. “It takes this many people to keep an eye on me.”

Inside the office, the woman told him that he needed to come back in about three weeks and bring $43 for the assessment fee unless he wanted to add it to his court costs. No problem, Averill said. He’d received his first Social Security payment that morning.

Later that day, we went to a Starbucks so that Averill could have the coffee he’d been craving. He said that after everything—jail, the homeless shelter, the mental health facilities, contemplating suicide—he was grateful for two things: Social Security and friends. “And the friends,” he said, “may be on top.”


Averill felt so good that he started to think about getting into activism, to aid people who felt as desperate as he once had. If only they knew that they weren’t alone, he thought, maybe they’d reach out, find people who could help them access the services they needed. Maybe his story could become a rallying point. “If somebody doesn’t start it,” he said, meaning a movement to help the sick and isolated, “it’s not going to happen.”

Of course, there are many activists and organizations dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable people in America. It’s easy to imagine Averill’s story becoming an anecdote in their literature or in a politician’s stump speech. The man who robbed a bank to get health care! Another example of how our system is broken. Sympathetic voters might nod their heads in favor of health care for all. Then they’d probably forget all about Averill. Perhaps, like he once had, they wouldn’t think too hard about what it means to be alone and needy—unless they actually were. Even then, they might not be willing to ask for help outright.

Averill told me that he wanted to start a Facebook group to advocate for streamlining systems that help connect the sick, poor, and unemployed with services. He recognized that sometimes people need a push, and he was ready to push. “You can’t help people from a position of weakness,” he said. “You have to help people from a position of strength.”

Seven

When I visited Averill in December at his new home, an apartment he shared with Morris, he’d hung a plastic shopping bag on the doorknob so that I’d know which place was his. He showed me the patio where he liked to sit and watch the trees sway in the wind and the bees buzz around the flowering ivy—at least he thought it was flowering ivy. He couldn’t really see it. He had an appointment with an ophthalmologist at the end of January. After that, he hoped, he would finally have surgery.

“This is pretty much a very high-class, very fancy prison cell,” he said of his home. “I can’t go anywhere. I can’t go outside without falling over things. I can’t drive a car and get anything. I cannot rely on the bus, because I can’t tell you which bus I’m going to be getting on, and I couldn’t see to get on the bus anyway.”

I couldn’t tell how happy—or unhappy—Averill was with the arrangement. There was an edge to his voice. Yet he was making plans. His bedroom had only a floor lamp and mattress then, and he wanted to show me where he would put things once he bought them. “Here is going to go my writing station,” he said, pointing to one wall, “either a folding table or a desk. My laptop will go here. I’m going to put a big ol’ monitor behind it. Here on the other side of the table is going to be a Keurig machine or an electric kettle. Then I’m going to have possibly a slow-brew, slow-pour coffee maker—pour by hand—and flowering tea.”

He turned to another wall. “This area here is set aside for musical instruments. Guitar will probably go over there, and then put a bass over here, and maybe a second guitar here, and all my studio gear will go right here in front of this window.”

He showed me the spice carousel in the kitchen, the knife block, the microwave, and the panini press. The dining table was covered in Morris’s crafts—she was going to make ornaments for the artificial Christmas tree in the living room. A new Swiffer leaned in a corner. “She cleans everything up even though I say, ‘You don’t need to clean everything up!’” he said.

Averill covered the rent, and Morris paid for utilities, internet, phone, cable, and half the groceries. She’d helped him pick out a 68-inch television, so that he could see what’s happening on the screen. She did the cooking and had helped Averill sign up for Ambetter, one of the options available in Texas through the federal government’s health care marketplace, after his higher income disqualified him for Medicaid. She drove him on errands and had called a cab to get them to his first meeting with his probation officer. Averill worried that he was burdening Morris. But he cared about her. He liked her company. And, he admitted, it was nice to have someone around in case something happened to him.

I walked to my car feeling glad that Averill had a safe and comfortable place to live. He’d found not only housing but also a community, even if it was a small one.

About a week later, Averill called. It was a Tuesday. On the previous Friday, he said, Morris had vanished. By Saturday morning he was worried, for his friend and for himself. He couldn’t sleep. He was chugging coffee and plowing through hundreds of Tums. “I was stuck here without a caregiver, with no way to get medicine,” he said. Morris had all his health-insurance information, which he wouldn’t be able to read even if he had it. “I was up the proverbial creek,” he said.

Unlike his circumstances just a year earlier, this time he asked for help. He called Katie Cullather, the social worker, and she connected him with an agency that sent a caretaker to his home. That woman renewed his prescriptions, helped him make his first health-insurance payment, bought food, and cleaned up the apartment. Averill arranged to pay for her to continue to help him twice a week. He felt like he’d dodged a bullet. But he was still distraught: Where was Morris?

Averill called me again later that evening and left a voice mail. Morris was back, he said. She’d stayed at the hospital for a few nights and thought that someone had told Averill that she wouldn’t be home. But no one had. Averill sounded angry. “I’m not sure what the hell’s going on,” he said when I called him back the next morning. “She opens the door and walks in like nothing has happened and just says, ‘Hi.’”

What he feared most had transpired: He’d let himself feel vulnerable, and now he was hurt. “I’m not willing to risk myself ever again,” he said. “I’m not going down that path ever again for anybody for any reason.”

What he feared most had transpired: He’d let himself feel vulnerable, and now he was hurt.

I asked if he thought Morris’s disappearance might just be a misunderstanding. Maybe, he said. But it didn’t matter. He’d lost sleep over the ordeal. Was life with friends, people you counted on, really so much better than life without them? “I can create my art, I can work on my music, I can have casual interactions with people online and not tear my soul apart,” he told me.

Then he said what I was worried he would say: “I’m going back into isolation.”

I made the case that Averill shouldn’t give up. Maybe, I said, Herrera and Morris and the counselors he’d talked to at the Herman Center were like a lily pad—“or a life raft!” I said hopefully. Somewhere to land as he emerged from the remote world he’d occupied for so long, before he took another step, and met another person and then another, and finally found his way.

“Possibly,” Averill said.

He wasn’t sure he was ready to find out. He needed time. Then he would reassess. In that moment, he didn’t think that he mattered. Someday soon, I hoped he’d realize that he did.

Blood Cries Out

Blood Cries Out

On a Missouri farm, two families worked the land side by side, until a murder shattered their American dream.

By Sean Patrick Cooper

The Atavist Magazine, No. 85


Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist and essayist. His work has appeared in The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Baffler, Tablet, and other publications. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel Moattar
Illustrator: Dola Sun

Published in November 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Part I


1990

In Chillicothe, Missouri, a farmer knew what kind of year he’d had by early November. The grueling harvest season, when combines ran day and night swallowing up crops and soil turned men’s hands the color of old pennies, was finally over. Farmers tallied their corn, wheat, and soybean yields at the grain elevator. If the numbers were high, children would find stacks of presents under the Christmas tree and farmworkers would pocket bank envelopes fat with cash bonuses. If the numbers were low, the holidays would be spare for many of the town’s 9,000 residents.

After the harvest, whether good or bad, there was always a holiday parade. In mid-November, farmers washed the grime from their tractors and applied fresh coats of wax, preparing the machines to pull holiday floats down Washington Street, Chillicothe’s main drag. Along the ten-block route, people huddled on sidewalks and bundled up in lawn chairs, drinking hot cider that shook in cups as the heavy bass drums of the high school marching band walloped past. The crowd waved gloved hands at homecoming kings and beauty queens beaming from the backseats of pristine antique convertibles. A man dressed as Santa Claus glided by atop a fire truck, while cheerleaders tossed candy to children.

The week of the holiday parade in 1990 started out well for farmers Lyndel Robertson and Claude Woodworth. The harvest had been robust, a relief to the former high school classmates and longtime business partners, who co-owned a few thousand acres. Their families lived in ranch houses built facing each other across Highway 190, a narrow country road snaking west and then north of Chillicothe. Life followed a familiar routine: farmwork, sports practices, piano lessons, home-cooked meals, church on Sundays. At night the inky sky absorbed the glow of lamplight from the families’ living rooms, situated 300 yards apart. The Woodworths’ seven children and the Robertsons’ five had grown up playing together on that stretch of earth, running around the thin trunks of young pine trees.

On the night of Tuesday, November 13, 1990, Lyndel and his 11-year-old son, Scott, lounged in the living room watching John Candy flip giant pancakes with a snow shovel in the movie Uncle Buck. Rhonda, the Robertsons’ 15-year-old daughter, arrived home around 9:30, after eating dinner at her boyfriend’s house. When the film ended, Rhonda and Scott, along with their sisters Renee, 13, and Roxanne, 8, went to bed. Lyndel and his wife, Cathy, stayed up to watch the news. They were in their early forties and had been together for more than two decades, since meeting as teenagers at a picnic. Lyndel was slope shouldered and shorter than Cathy, and he had a pronounced limp from a severe case of childhood polio. Cathy had green eyes that softened around the edges when she laughed. She was a stay-at-home mom who liked to keep her hands busy: She fashioned Easter baskets in spring and cultivated strawberries in the backyard every summer. That night, Cathy had made progress on a 4-H craft project at the dining room table.

When the news ended, the Robertsons went to their room. They made love before falling asleep. They didn’t hear someone stealing through the house just before midnight.

That person left the floor safe in Lyndel’s office, where he kept bricks of cash, and Goldie, the family dog, undisturbed. They approached the door of Cathy and Lyndel’s bedroom and pushed it open. They raised a .22-caliber weapon and fired six shots. Cathy was struck twice, in the skull and in the chest. Lyndel was hit by the other four bullets. One ripped through his cheek and shattered his teeth. Another lodged near his liver.

No one else in the house heard the gun or the shooter fleeing. Scott was roused from sleep by the sound of his father groaning. He walked across the hall to his parents’ room and flicked on the light. The glare revealed Lyndel, naked and struggling to hold himself up against a wall beside his bed. His arms and torso left streaks of blood wherever they touched. Fragments of teeth were scattered on the bed.

With his mangled mouth, Lyndel managed to tell Scott to wake up his mother. The stunned boy did as he was told, walking to where Cathy lay in blood-soaked sheets. Scott repeatedly asked his mother to get up, louder and louder each time, until he was yelling. She didn’t move. Scott’s cries woke Roxanne, who appeared in the hallway outside the open bedroom door. “Go get Rhonda!” Scott said through tears, and Roxanne ran to her sister’s room in the basement. “Something happened to Mom and Dad!” she screamed, banging on the door.

The girls rushed to their parents’ room, where Scott had already helped his father into a pair of underwear. Their younger sisters watched as Rhonda and Scott maneuvered Lyndel down to the floor, resting his head on a pillow so he wouldn’t choke on the blood streaming from his mouth. Rhonda then corralled her siblings into the living room; their bare feet left bloody tracks on the soft carpet. Rhonda picked up the white phone beside the couch and called her boyfriend’s house and 911. When he arrived at the scene, Brian Alexander, her boyfriend, called the Woodworths.

The family across the road was asleep when ringing cut through their dark, still house. The Woodworth kids were spread among various rooms and the basement, where the eldest, 16-year-old Mark, had his own space. Claude’s wife, Jackie, groggily lifted the phone’s handset. She heard Brian Alexander say there was an emergency. “I’ll be right over,” Jackie said, now alert. She told her husband where she was going. Claude later recalled thinking that maybe one of the Robertson kids had appendicitis.

To avoid the late-autumn chill and get to her neighbors’ as quickly as possible, Jackie slid behind the wheel of her family’s red Chevrolet truck. As she was heading up her driveway, she spotted the lights of emergency vehicles flashing on Highway 190. After arriving at the Robertsons’ and learning what had happened, she turned the truck around, sending its headlights flashing across her house’s windows. By the time she parked, Claude was in the doorway.

“Something terrible happened,” Jackie said, tears filling her eyes. “You’ve got to go over there.”

When Claude arrived at the Robertsons’ house around 12:30 a.m., paramedics and police were rushing around the scene. He stepped through the front doorway, across a threshold he’d passed hundreds of times before, and was told about the shooting. The children were waiting for investigators to swab their parents’ blood, drying on the young Robertsons’ skin and nightclothes, for evidence. Lyndel, miraculously, would survive. He would be airlifted to a medical center in nearby Kansas City for surgery to remove bullet fragments from his sinuses and jawbone. He wouldn’t return home for several weeks, which meant that he’d miss the somber event scheduled for the same day as the holiday parade: his wife’s funeral.

Word of Cathy’s killing sent a jolt through the community. Violent crime was uncommon in Chillicothe, but by sheer coincidence the town was already reeling from a series of murders perpetrated by an elderly couple. Not two weeks before the Robertson shooting, Faye Copeland had been convicted in a Chillicothe courtroom of helping her husband, who was awaiting his own trial, kill several itinerant farmworkers. On the morning of November 14, in coffee shops and hair salons along Washington Street, people were incredulous. First a farmer’s wife was party to murder, now another one had been shot dead in her bed. This wasn’t the stuff of a quiet, God-fearing town.

At Terry Klein’s maintenance garage, Claude talked about the crime with other farmers and their hands, perched on a smattering of stools. Among the men was Chris Ruoff, a sturdily built 25-year-old with a black mustache and a touch of baby fat lingering in his face. Ruoff didn’t work on the Woodworth-Robertson farm, but his crew shared a radio frequency broadcast from a small tower near Lyndel’s house; workers used it during harvest season to call for backup on walkie-talkies. Ruoff told the men that he’d driven past the Robertsons’ not long before the shooting, on the way home from dropping off his girlfriend after eating dinner at Golden Corral. From Highway 190, he’d seen a car in the Robertsons’ driveway that looked like a Ford Bronco or a truck with a camper attached. It was near the front door, where visitors usually parked. Given the late hour, Ruoff thought that the car belonged to one of the daughter’s boyfriends, probably Brian Alexander, who had a Bronco. At the garage, however, Ruoff reconsidered his assumption.

“Now that I think about it,” he said, “that couldn’t have been that Alexander boy’s truck, because didn’t he get into a wreck in that Bronco—wasn’t that him last month?” The men agreed, recalling that Rhonda had been in the accident and had worn a neck brace during her recovery. So whose car had been in the driveway?

Later that day, Ruoff walked into the squat Livingston County sheriff’s office in downtown Chillicothe, where he told the deputy on duty about the car. The department informed the Missouri Major Case Squad, which mobilizes law-enforcement agencies in proximity to a serious crime, and it connected the tip to a suspect: teenager Brandon Hagan, whose family had a white Ford truck with a camper. Brandon was the boyfriend of the Robertsons’ eldest daughter, 20-year-old Rochelle.

Read Chris Ruoff’s statement. 
Read Chris Ruoff’s statement. 

Once crowned the prettiest girl at the Livingston County fair, Rochelle had slender hips and long hair, with bangs she liked to tease to a crisp high above her forehead. She often dated boys her mother didn’t approve of. Brandon, Rochelle’s latest beau, was a competitive wrestler four years younger than she was, and he had a violent temper. He’d given her a black eye at least once and threatened her on several other occasions. Rochelle had ignored Cathy’s concerns about Brandon, insisting during screaming matches with her mother that she was in love, often punctuating the point with a slammed bedroom door. Now away at college in St. Joseph, about 75 miles west of Chillicothe, on the Kansas state line, Rochelle lived with a roommate and worked at a clothing store called the Brass Buckle. She came home frequently, however, and she was still seeing Brandon.

Lyndel himself accused Brandon of being the shooter. When he awoke at the hospital, Lyndel told doctors and police that he was “almost 100 percent sure” the 16-year-old had committed the crime because Brandon was a “psycho” whom the Robertsons had wanted Rochelle to stop dating. Brandon, however, had an alibi. His family had recently moved 100 miles southwest of Chillicothe, to Independence, Missouri, closer to a job site where his stepfather operated a crane. When investigators interviewed them, Brandon’s mother and sister said that he was home the night of the shooting. As for the truck, Brandon’s mother claimed that he wasn’t allowed to drive it.

Investigators concluded in a report, “No information has been developed which can put him anywhere but home that night.” Eventually, Lyndel stopped pointing a finger at Brandon. Rhonda, who became the family’s de facto spokesperson, would later explain, “We thought it was Brandon just because that’s who we thought could do it.”

Law enforcement considered a few other individuals—men with personal or professional beefs with Lyndel, for instance—but no evidence stuck. The Robertsons didn’t give up hope that a perpetrator would surface. Nothing in the house had gone missing the night of the shooting, which indicated that robbery wasn’t the intruder’s motive. Most likely whoever it was had simply wanted the Robertsons dead. Lyndel began to wonder if it was someone he and Cathy had trusted intimately, someone who lived close enough to cross Highway 190, fire a weapon six times, and get back home without anyone noticing.

In early 1991, Lyndel told some farmhands that Claude might have been involved. Because they were in business together, the two men had taken out a $100,000 life-insurance policy on each other; maybe, Lyndel speculated, Claude had decided to collect. Claude denied wrongdoing, and he passed a polygraph test. Yet there was no saving the bond between the two men’s families from Lyndel’s chilling suspicion, which to many people in Chillicothe seemed to come out of the blue. The farming partnership, sealed with a handshake 17 years prior, dissolved in the spring of 1991. A lawsuit ensued. Lyndel kept a portion of the land but sold his house and moved his children closer to town.

For the next two years, police made no arrests in Cathy’s murder, leaving Chillicothe in a state of perpetual unease. Eventually, rumors and mistrust engulfed the town, pitting friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. The narrative of the killing and the ensuing investigation challenged the town’s very idea of itself. In the middle of it all, a culprit emerged and paid the price for Cathy’s murder.


2008

The Law Offices of Michael R. Bilbrey, a 15-person firm just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, were generic in every sense of the word. The attorneys took on workplace-injury cases, specializing in claims of asbestos poisoning, while a squad of administrators handled paperwork and court filings. They operated out of a nondescript brick building with frosted glass doors and dark-wood accents in a suburban office park. Every day was a race for billable hours.

When Robert “Bob” Ramsey arrived at Bilbrey’s in 2008, he didn’t quite fit into the culture. He was a defense attorney and a journeyman who’d roamed around St. Louis for two decades, working at firms large and small and even trying his hand at a private practice. The constant movement was a product of Ramsey’s desire for independence and his tendency to abruptly leave a firm as soon as he learned of any unsavory legal behavior. He’d come to Bilbrey’s as something of a favor to a friend, who’d departed the office to accept a seat as a circuit judge. Ramsey took over a slate of complex cases with potentially lucrative payouts.

Yet big-ticket litigation wasn’t Ramsey’s favorite part of his job. He had a soft spot for underdogs and what he sometimes referred to as ten-foot-pole cases: ones that seemed so unwinnable, no other lawyer would touch them. Sixty years old, with dense gray hair and a goatee to match, Ramsey had inherited his conscience from his father, Brooks, a Southern Baptist minister. In the early 1960s, in Albany, Georgia, the elder Ramsey used his pulpit at the First Baptist Church to advocate desegregation, much to the consternation of some of his own congregants, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and one man who nailed a 95-point doctrine on white supremacy to the church’s front door.

In 1962, Brooks Ramsey took his son, then 14, to see Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a stirring sermon on racial tolerance at a black church. The next day, King was supposed to do the same thing before Pastor Ramsey’s white flock. When the civil rights leader arrived at the First Baptist Church, however, he was met by an angry crowd. Ushers prevented him from entering, throwing King and some of his entourage down the front stairs. A riot ensued along bitter racial lines, spreading throughout Albany until the National Guard arrived.

That night, a cross was staked in the Ramseys’ front lawn, hot orange flames engulfing its wooden arms. At school the next day, Bob Ramsey arrived to find “nigger lover” scrawled in big letters on the chalkboard of his homeroom. Soon after, his family left Albany. “It made me question the whole religion,” Ramsey recalled, “how the church always told us that everyone is equal in the eyes of God—and then to treat whites and blacks so differently.”

Ramsey studied English at St. Louis University. When he decided to go to law school, he prepared for the LSAT by reading classic Russian novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Once practicing, he made a name for himself mounting cases to free women imprisoned for killing their abusive husbands. He also took on what he believed to be wrongful convictions. In one instance, he embarked on a freedom march from St. Louis to Kansas City in honor of a woman whose original lawyer had been paid off by her boyfriend and codefendant, forcing her to take the fall for a murder she didn’t commit. Mel Carnahan, the governor of Missouri, had pledged clemency for the woman before he died in a plane crash; Carnahan’s successor made no such offer. Ramsey, who represented the woman, decided to go on a five-day, 175-mile walk to draw media attention to her appeal. Among the people who saw Ramsey’s bold stunt was a state lawmaker who’d taken a particular interest in what he believed was another miscarriage of justice, this one in the town of Chillicothe. He asked Ramsey to take a look at the case. Ramsey did one better: He agreed to represent the defendant.

At Bilbrey’s, word spread through the office grapevine that Ramsey had brought a longshot case to the firm. It involved the murder of a woman named Cathy Robertson and a man convicted twice for the crime who was now serving a quadruple life sentence. Over the nearly eight years he’d been working the case, Ramsey had regularly driven up to Chillicothe and to the small town of Cameron, where the convicted murderer was in a state penitentiary. He’d gathered court records and taken depositions, amassing several brown boxes’ worth of documents that he believed supported his client’s innocence—or, at the very least, the right to a retrial. The odds that he would get the conviction overturned were slim. As far as the state of Missouri was concerned, the case was closed; it had already been subjected to the scrutiny of one appeal.

Still, Ramsey never considered abandoning the Chillicothe case, even when he died, briefly, in 2003. A fit man who regularly practiced the martial art of aikido, Ramsey suffered sudden cardiac arrest while working out at a YMCA. He was revived with a defibrillator, then fell into a coma; the doctors told his wife and two children that he had little chance of recovering. Ramsey underwent surgery, during which his heart stopped a second time. When he woke up and finally seemed to be out of the woods, he told his client’s family in Chillicothe that if they wanted to get a different lawyer he’d understand. But they’d nurtured an almost religious faith in him after struggling for many years to retain good counsel. Ramsey’s client went to the bare-bones prison chapel to pray that his lawyer would live to defend him in court.

Ramsey never considered abandoning the Chillicothe case, even when he died, briefly, in 2003.

When Ramsey’s health returned, he got back to the matter of proving his client’s innocence. Not everyone was pleased. “You’re going on a fishing expedition,” a judge told Ramsey when denying his request to depose a key figure in the case. An occasional fly-fisherman, Ramsey found the statement encouraging: A person only fishes where there’s something to catch.

Ramsey wasn’t the only staffer at Bilbrey’s struggling to acclimate. So was Kelly Williams, recently hired as an administrator. Williams was 35 and a single mom of two kids. In her twenties, she’d worked as a blackjack dealer at the Alton Belle, a riverboat casino on the Mississippi. She stood just over five feet tall, smoked Marlboros, and had a brash, infectious laugh. She was good at her job—organized, quick, intuitive—but she ran afoul of a supervisor with her outspokenness, to the point that her job was on the line.

Ramsey liked Williams. She’d worked with him on a few settlement cases, and he was impressed with how her mind worked, particularly her memory for little details tucked away deep in legal filings, the kind that could make or break a case. When he heard about the trouble with the supervisor, Ramsey took Williams on as his assistant.

He ushered Williams into his office, where stacks of paper, legal pads, and court documents were on every surface, including the floor. Ramsey settled into his desk chair and pointed to the infamous brown boxes full of his work on the Chillicothe case. Williams had heard chatter about how it was a lost cause.

“I need your help,” Ramsey told her.

Williams knew that Ramsey had saved her job, but she didn’t think that was any reason to run a fool’s errand with him and said so. Ramsey’s client had been convicted by two juries. “Anyone in their right mind would believe he was guilty,” Williams said.

When Ramsey began to explain why he believed otherwise, Williams was adamant that she would prove him wrong. “Since I was itty bitty,” she said, “if I’m right, then I’m going to find out one way or another to prove that I’m right.” Williams announced that she would pore over the case files and find what she needed to disabuse Ramsey of his misplaced certainty.

That night she took one of the boxes home. Eventually, she took another, then another. Using a color-coding system, she organized depositions and created timelines based on witness testimony. After feeding her kids dinner, she sat on the couch, documents scattered around her, filling up legal pads with notes. Instead of proof of guilt, Williams kept finding holes in the prosecution’s case. At the casino, she’d caught a few cheats; she believed she had an instinct for when a system was being gamed.

After she was done going through the files, she walked back into Ramsey’s office. “Alright, he’s innocent,” she said, giving her boss no chance to say I told you so. “How do we get him out of prison?”

The client in question was Mark Woodworth, Claude and Jackie’s son. Nineteen when he was arrested, Mark had spent almost his entire adult life behind bars. Ramsey was convinced that the case “stunk like a dead skunk in the road,” and Williams now agreed. Their determination to free Mark would throw Missouri’s legal system into turmoil.

Part II


1990

As a teenager, Mark kept to himself. Shy and awkward, with doleful brown eyes and a narrow chin sprinkled with pimples, he was more comfortable building cabinets in shop class than memorizing formulas in algebra. He wasn’t one to join clubs or sports teams. In his free time, he preferred to work in his dad’s fields and listen to farmhands talk about what rain does to seeds and the nuances of chemical fertilizers. In 1990, Claude set Mark up with a few acres of soybeans to manage, a trial run to determine if the teenager would be a good addition to the family business.

The morning after the shooting, Claude treaded mournfully down the stairs to his basement and jostled Mark, then 16, awake. Mark was characteristically quiet, even in the face of tragedy. “I was shocked,” he later said. “I couldn’t believe that happened, and I didn’t know what to say.”

Initially, Mark flew under law enforcement’s radar. His parents said he’d been home the night of the murder. His gentle temperament and modest intelligence, friends pointed out, didn’t fit the profile of a killer. “I knew that boy ever since he was born,” George Quinn, a farmer, said once. “If I’d asked him to go out and handle a dying animal, Mark sure couldn’t even shoot a cat out of its misery.” Where some people saw innate virtue, however, others started to wonder if there was simmering menace. “He was very much a loner,” Rhonda Robertson said of Mark as a child. “Scott would always ask him to come out and play, but he just wanted to sit alone in his room.”

Soon after the murder, investigators located a box of ammunition in a shed behind the Robertsons’ house. The .22-caliber shells, a few of which were missing from the box, were the same type the shooter had used. They were sitting on a workbench; according to Lyndel, they were usually stored under a stack of cigar boxes. To law enforcement, this suggested that someone might have taken the shells out on the night of the crime. Investigators lifted a thumbprint from the box and tried to find a match in Missouri’s legal databases. No luck. Then, during an interrogation with investigators, Mark gave his prints. One of them was a match.

Asked whether he’d ever visited the Robertsons’ shed, Mark gave inconsistent statements. He first claimed that he’d never been inside. Then he said he’d once helped pour concrete in the structure and maybe entered it a few other times on some weekends. A ballistics expert analyzed a bullet from the crime and decided that it was probably shot from a Ruger revolver found in the Woodworth home, where Claude kept it in his and Jackie’s bedroom. Law enforcement suspected that Mark had taken the weapon, used it, and put it back without his sleeping parents realizing.

By the fall of 1993, the sheriff’s office was ready to arrest Mark. He was a high school dropout living at home, working on his dad’s farm, and attending vocational classes for his GED. Police showed up outside one of those classes on the morning of October 20, put him in handcuffs, and read him his rights.

Mark’s parents were bewildered. As far as they knew, their son didn’t have anything against Cathy, a woman who’d cared for him as a kid when Jackie ran errands. Even as he sat in jail, held without bail, Mark told his father that he wasn’t worried, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I don’t think he realizes what he’s charged with,” Claude told the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune. “It has not really soaked into him.” Jackie had trouble sleeping and struggled to comfort her six other children. Ashley, then in the third grade, would get off the school bus some afternoons in tears because kids had teased her about having a murderer for a brother.

While awaiting trial, Mark failed a polygraph test. In a report dated July 18, 1994, the test’s administrator wrote, “I advised Mr. Woodworth that he had lied to me and was responsible for shooting the Robertsons.… I told him it wasn’t a question of who any longer, but rather a question of why.” Mark nodded, but when asked directly why he’d committed the crime, he answered, “I didn’t.” The administrator pressed him, reminding Mark that “if he was a cold-blooded murderer and found guilty of capital murder, he could be taken and executed for the killing, but if the shooting and death were accidental, that was another situation altogether.”

“Well,” Mark replied, “we all have to die someday.”

People in Chillicothe interpreted the statement in one of two ways. Some thought that Mark was referring matter-of-factly to the prospect of his own death. Others thought he was talking about Cathy’s murder and revealing his dark personality. Rhonda Robertson would later describe the comment as displaying “unbelievable callousness.”

The Robertsons’ relationship with the Woodworths had only grown more toxic since 1990. When their partnership dissolved, Claude hired an accountant to go through their books, which Lyndel had always been responsible for. The accountant discovered records indicating that Lyndel had siphoned cash from grain sales and skimmed extra money from a shared bank account to purchase cars and home appliances. Claude sued Lyndel for $150,000 in damages, but Lyndel claimed that he was innocent. If anything, he said, Claude hadn’t done his fair share in the partnership.

“The breakup broke my heart,” Claude later said. When Mark was arrested for Cathy’s murder, that sense of betrayal cut even deeper. “I was feeling sorry for him, that he just lost his wife, and taking the whole thing pretty hard, too,” Claude said. “Then it was like he stabbed a knife in my back.”

After the indictment in October 1993, a year and a half passed before Mark’s case went to trial in Clinton County, 70 miles from Chillicothe. Lawyers hoped to find there what they couldn’t in Mark’s hometown: an impartial jury. Everyone in Chillicothe had an opinion on the case. Woodworth defenders would clam up when a Robertson supporter came into the local bank to make a deposit. In the aisles of the livestock supply depot, heated debates broke out over whether Mark had pulled the trigger.

The divide was so intense that Lyndel felt compelled to write an op-ed in the Constitution-Tribune answering charges that he’d “swindled” Claude—Lyndel would eventually settle the embezzlement suit for $17,500—and that Mark had been “railroaded.” Lyndel wrote: “I am completely bewildered by this type of reaction. It is not my place, nor is it the responsibility of the people of this community to decide the guilt or innocence of this 19-year-old individual—that decision belongs to a selected jury.” Privately, though, the Robertsons told friends that they were sure Mark was guilty.

In the aisles of the livestock supply depot, heated debates broke out over whether Mark had pulled the trigger.

Mark’s trial—as an adult, though he’d been a minor at the time of the shooting—began on March 13, 1995. Kenny Hulshof represented the state. A special prosecutor and rising star in the Missouri attorney general’s office, Hulshof was a farmer’s son, tall and blond, with a folksy, winning demeanor. He’d captivated jurors in small towns all over the state while prosecuting murder cases, including the one against Faye Copeland in Chillicothe right before Cathy Robertson’s killing. Fellow lawyers sometimes traveled hours to watch Hulshof’s arguments.

On the other side of the courtroom was Mark’s attorney, a mild-mannered man named James Wyrsch, who tried to undercut the evidence against his client. The thumbprint on the box of .22-caliber shells in Lyndel’s shed? It could have been left there while Mark was target-shooting with some farmhands or when he was moving things around in the shed to find some stored item. Wyrsch briefly homed in on the absence of a clear reason Mark might have wanted Cathy dead. “I will submit to you that a 16-year-old boy with no motive whatsoever, trying to get on in life, did not shoot this individual,” Wyrsch told the jury. When he tried to suggest other suspects, however, the judge rebuffed Wyrsch on the grounds that investigators hadn’t amassed sufficient physical evidence to support another theory of the crime.

Hulshof addressed motive while questioning Lyndel on the stand. Hadn’t the Robertsons been angry at Mark for not paying expenses associated with the soybean crop he’d grown on the patch of land his father had given him to manage? Lyndel said yes. And wasn’t it possible that Mark had decided to shoot his neighbors to keep them quiet about his failure to pull his financial weight? Possibly, Lyndel said. For his part, Mark testified that he didn’t know the Robertsons were upset with him about the soybeans.

Later, in his closing statement, Hulshof played to an emerging cultural fear, stoked by the media, that some American teenagers were just bad seeds—kids like the so-called West Memphis Three, convicted the year prior in Tennessee for allegedly murdering three young boys as part of a Satanic ritual. “We flip on the news and we see these senseless crimes. And that’s exactly what it is—it’s senseless. There is no reason,” Hulshof said. “Folks, yes, [Mark] was 16, but how has our society changed such that we have 16- and 15- and 14- and 13-year-olds that are doing things that we can’t comprehend?”

Hulshof drew attention to Mark’s affect while giving testimony, which had been hushed and stilted. “Put yourself, for a minute, in the shoes of someone who was, according to them, falsely accused of a crime,” Hulshof instructed the jurors. “Are you just going to sit up there and [say], ‘No, never, no, never,’ with this flat tone?… You’re going to see some emotion. You’re going to see some tears. You’re going to see some anger. You’re going to see something other than what you saw.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Hulshof said, “I think you saw a glimpse right then of the cold-blooded nature of Mark Woodworth.”

Dana Williams, a farmhand’s wife who attended the trial, marveled at Hulshof’s oration. “He was just, wow, a standout, like an actor starring in his own movie,” Williams later said.

After close to 11 hours of deliberation, the jury found Mark guilty of murder in the second degree, burglary, assault in the first degree, and two counts of armed criminal action. The judge sentenced him to 31 years in state prison. The trial had lasted four days.


2008

Crossroads Correctional Center sits about 40 miles due west of Chillicothe, atop a gentle, grassy slope. The complex’s tan walls and green roof blend into the surrounding farmland, broken only by country highways and a Walmart. When Kelly Williams accompanied Bob Ramsey to the prison for her first visit with Mark, she felt like she knew their client already. She imagined a man hardened by the legal system, but the prisoner who slid into a chair across from her in the visiting area was far from bitter.

Mark was 34, and his dark cropped hair was tinged with silver. In a soft, steady voice, he asked Ramsey questions about his case. He knew the main players, but he didn’t grasp all the details. The man Hulshof had cast as seething and threatening seemed to Williams guileless and meek. “His demeanor, how simple he was—it broke my heart,” she recalled.

Williams listened to Mark talk about how he passed his days: welding metal cabinets, rehabilitating rescue dogs for adoption, praying in the chapel. She thought about everything he’d missed on the outside—weddings, Christmases, the births of nieces and nephews, finding love. Williams excused herself from the visiting area and went to the bathroom. She stayed there until she stopped crying.

Mark and his family had already had their hopes dashed once. Two years after Mark’s conviction, an appeals court reversed the verdict on the grounds that the judge had improperly excluded evidence about other suspects’ potential motive and opportunity. Mark was released from prison and went home to await retrial, which took place in 1999. Hulshof had recently been elected to Congress, after campaigning on his record of locking up violent criminals, so another prosecutor argued the case before the same judge who’d presided over the first trial. The Woodworths hired a new lawyer, too. According to the family and a paralegal who spoke under oath, the attorney struggled to remember where he’d placed key documents. He often rang up Wyrsch’s office to obtain new copies. At trial he questioned Brandon Hagan, who maintained his alibi, with support from his mother’s and sister’s testimony, and Lyndel, who described his initial accusations of Brandon as purely speculative. “I was real disorientated and didn’t know what was going on,” Lyndel said of waking up after the shooting. The Woodworths were so dissatisfied that they asked if a different lawyer could handle the closing argument. Their request was granted, but Mark was convicted nonetheless. This time the judge gave him the maximum penalty: four life sentences plus 15 years.

Before being taken away from the courthouse, Mark told his mother, “Just don’t forget about me, OK?”

She didn’t. Jackie coordinated weekend visits to Crossroads, staggering various siblings’ and other relatives’ time with Mark. On the two weekends each year when visitors could bring food to prisoners, Jackie made Mark’s favorites: lasagna, corn casserole, and peanut brittle. Every August, the women in her Sunday school class sent Mark birthday cards. At home, Jackie kept Mark’s room the same as he’d left it, with a quilt neatly smoothed over the bed and boxes of toy John Deere tractors stacked under a window.

Before being taken away from the courthouse, Mark told his mother, “Just don’t forget about me, OK?”

When Williams and Ramsey visited the Woodworths in Chillicothe, they sat elbow to elbow with the family around a long farm table for meals, passing platters of homemade noodles, mashed potatoes, and beef. As she had been with Mark, Williams was struck by Jackie and Claude’s apparent lack of anger. The Woodworths had been together since they were teenagers, when Jackie, thin and blond, would watch Claude, heavyset and strong, compete in tractor pulls. Middle-aged now, the couple were resolved about Mark’s situation. They kept living and working in a community where many people believed they’d raised a killer, and they were confident that if anyone could get their son out of prison, it was Ramsey.

Ramsey had several concerns about the way investigators had handled Mark’s case. Why had the prosecution been so comfortable with Lyndel recanting accusations, first against Brandon Hagan, then against Claude? How had suspicion landed on Mark at all, and so many months after the shooting? What happened to witness testimony—Chris Ruoff’s sighting of a car, for example—that suggested someone other than a close neighbor was the killer?

Ramsey shared these thoughts with Williams and the Woodworths. “He was asking the right questions,” Claude said. Answering them, though, would require Missouri’s judiciary to accept a new appeal of Mark’s case. Only then would Ramsey have free rein to collect new evidence as part of pretrial discovery. In late 2008, a court considered an appeal, which Ramsey and Williams built around the charge that Mark’s rights had been violated by incompetent counsel and a secretive grand jury. The motion was summarily denied. Ramsey and Williams went back to square one, scrambling to figure out another way to reopen the case.

One day, Ramsey got a phone call from an Associated Press reporter named Alan Zagier. While working on a profile of Hulshof when he was gearing up to run for Missouri governor—a race he lost—Zagier had something interesting in the state attorney general’s office: documents pertaining to Mark Woodworth that had never been discussed in court. In fact, they didn’t appear anywhere in the case files, suggesting that they’d never been made available to Mark’s lawyers. If so, they represented new, potentially exculpatory evidence.

The documents were letters dating back 15 years, and they were the keys that Ramsey and Williams needed to unlock their investigation. “We sped off,” Ramsey said, “like we’d been let loose on the Autobahn.”

Part III


1993

The correspondence had a convoluted backstory. Several months after the shooting, Lyndel hired a private investigator named Terry Deister, a recent arrival in Chillicothe, to dig up information on Cathy’s murder. The case was going nowhere; maybe a fresh set of eyes would help. A few days after taking the job, Deister met with Gary Calvert, chief deputy of the Livingston County sheriff’s office, whom he’d worked with on an undercover narcotics sting at a previous job as a vice-squad officer. According to Deister’s notes, the men convened to “evaluate the possibilities of a working relationship” on the Robertson case. They agreed to pursue “the remainder of this investigation as a team.” (Calvert and Deister declined to comment for this story.)

Two years later, based on interviews and forensic evidence, Deister, Calvert, and Lyndel hoped that the county prosecutor, a man named Doug Roberts, would bring charges against Mark. Roberts refused, because he didn’t think the case was strong enough. Indicting Mark, then, would require assistance from a more powerful force who wanted to move the case forward—someone like Ken Lewis, a circuit judge in Livingston County.

Lewis’s interest in Mark’s case seemed to have strange roots. In December 1990, about a month after the Robertson shooting, a local newspaper had published an article detailing how Lewis, an avid duck hunter, had been instructed by county commissioners to remove a barrier he’d placed on a public road alongside his property to keep other hunters away. Lewis took umbrage with language in the article, insisting that it jeopardized his authority as a judge. He sued the county commission—a move so rare for a member of the bench that several legal scholars interviewed for this story said they’d never heard of it happening. Lewis lost the case, but he kept his sights trained on the county commission.

Lewis’s personal lawyer at the time was Brent Elliott, who’d been the county prosecutor prior to losing the post to Doug Roberts. Elliott was friendly with Calvert and talked with him and Deister regularly—sometimes several times a week—about their work on the Robertson case. Calvert and Deister expressed to Elliott their frustration that Roberts wouldn’t indict Mark. Deister later recalled Calvert dismissively describing Roberts as being “good at traffic tickets.”

The letters that eventually landed at the AP began on September 24, 1993. Lyndel addressed one—actually written by Deister on his behalf—to Lewis, imploring that Roberts “be released of his duty in my particular case” so that evidence against Mark could come before a court. “Until this time, I do not feel that justice has been served and my life is at a standstill,” the letter read. “I am pleading with you to act upon this, within your power, to have this case presented before a grand jury.”

Ten days later, Roberts wrote his own letter to Lewis. “It has come to my attention that the complaining witness in this matter has requested you disqualify me for ‘lack of enthusiasm.’ Mr. Robertson confuses my desire to make a thorough review of all the reports in this case,” he wrote. “I can understand his frustration, but recall that soon after this crime, Mr. Robertson was adamant that we charge another young man.” Still, Roberts acknowledged that he should step away from the case. “The appropriate disposition of this matter requires that the prosecuting official have the confidence of, as well as confidence in, the complaining witness. This I do not have,” he wrote.

Read the Lewis letters.
Read the Lewis letters.

Two days later, the next of the Lewis letters, as they would come to be known, was sent by the judge to Kenny Hulshof. It referenced “various telephone conversations” the men had had about Hulshof coming to Chillicothe to take over for Roberts on the Woodworth case. Lewis noted that he’d already initiated the convening of a grand jury; he and a county clerk would select the 12 members, including a foreman who was friendly with Lewis and who had worked as an accountant for Lewis’s law firm before he became a judge. In his letter to Hulshof, Lewis included a copy of Lyndel’s pleading missive and noted that the three-year statute of limitations on several of the crimes committed against the Robertsons—“felonious assault, burglary in the first degree, and armed criminal action charges”—would soon run out.

The proceedings against Mark began on October 15, 1993, and they moved swiftly. Hulshof successfully argued for the state to file charges. Over subsequent months, the grand jury considered a laundry list of other issues, including whether the county commission had misused money in the form of modest charitable donations. With Lewis presiding, the grand jury indicted several commissioners. They would eventually be exonerated, but not before spending tens of thousands of dollars defending their support of a food bank and a children’s hospital.

On the evening of the grand jury’s final meeting, in 1994, someone strung a long white banner along the stone base of Chillicothe’s courthouse, which faces Washington Street. A photo of it ran in the next day’s edition of the Constitution-Tribune. Five words hastily painted on the fabric read, “Ding-Dong the Witch Hunt’s Dead.”


2009

When Ramsey read the Lewis letters, he was stunned. Was it possible that at the heart of Mark’s convictions sat a judge who wanted to hunt ducks in solitude and needed a case substantial enough to justify convening a grand jury that could also adjudicate complaints against his political enemies, a state prosecutor eager to strengthen his tough-on-crime persona, and a shooting victim, private eye, and deputy sheriff collaborating against the son of that victim’s former business partner? The whole scenario seemed outlandish in the way only small-town business can.

For the purposes of an appeal, what mattered was that the documents appeared to be new evidence of possible due-process violations against Mark Woodworth. Ramsey was astonished that the letters even existed. “I can’t believe people put this stuff in writing,” he said. “So many rules were being broken.”

All the more peculiar was the fact that various other documents from the grand jury chapter of Mark’s case had gone missing, including the transcript of the proceedings. The first time Ramsey visited Chillicothe, after sipping tea with the Woodworths in their living room and promising to fight for their son’s release, he’d stopped by the courthouse to pick up whatever files from the case were available. The clerk had nothing from the October 1993 hearings. When Ramsey asked why, the sentencing judge in both of Mark’s trials said that the transcriber hadn’t done his job—an odd claim given that he’d diligently recorded other sessions of the same grand jury.

Ramsey and Williams hoped to get to the bottom of that mystery during discovery, but first they had to file an appeal. This time, based on the Lewis letters, the pair made the case that Mark hadn’t received a fair trial because Lewis had abused his power and acted beyond the purview of his role; they also asserted that Lyndel had wielded undue influence over the empaneling of the grand jury. The appeal was denied twice in lower courts, but Ramsey and Williams kept pushing, and in mid-2010 their petition reached the Missouri Supreme Court.

The judges ruled in Mark’s favor, putting his case on their docket. They assigned a special master, Judge Gary Oxenhandler, to preside over hearings where lawyers could present evidence and question witnesses. The hearings wouldn’t lead to a verdict; rather, Oxenhandler would submit a report to the Supreme Court, which would use it to rule on whether Mark’s constitutional rights had been violated.

When Ramsey called to tell the Woodworths, Jackie answered the phone in her kitchen. She yelped with joy, startling her sons, Chad and Colin, who were eating lunch between shifts working in the fields. “It was the first big break we’d gotten,” Jackie remembered. “Everything we tried to do, we’d run right into a wall. But all we needed was one little chip in the wall, and the little chip would keep getting bigger and bigger until we could break the wall down.”

In the fall of 2010, Oxenhandler scheduled an evidentiary hearing for the following May, giving Ramsey and Williams about five months to prepare. They quickly got to work. Williams had grown close to the Woodworths and was indignant about Mark’s situation. “She was pissed,” Ramsey said, “and fearless.” Williams made lists of people to interview, files to access, evidence to track down. She marked boxes and file folders with sticky notes indicating what was inside them. She worked nights at home, sleeping an hour or two before heading into the office each morning.

High on Williams’s list was locating the missing transcript of the grand jury hearing. She drove to Chillicothe and insisted her way into the dusty attic of the county courthouse, where she searched through hundreds of boxes of stenography. Every court reporter has a unique shorthand they use to record what a trial’s speakers say out loud; the reporter then uses those raw notes to generate a complete transcript. In the folder where the stenographs for Mark’s hearing should have been there was nothing. Williams went downstairs and told the clerk, who agreed that it was unusual for the notes to be missing. The clerk began searching for them in cabinet after cabinet, drawer after drawer. If there’d been a mix-up, the stenographs had to be somewhere in the building.

In the meantime, Williams hoped that the court reporter, a man named Bernard Faustenau, might provide some answers. He’d worked in Missouri’s legal system for 31 years before retiring. In early February 2011, Williams and Ramsey called Faustenau to be deposed on March 2. Then, a little over a week before the deposition, Faustenau died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 68.

Dismayed, Williams called Faustenau’s wife of 51 years. Williams offered her condolences, explained the situation as gently as she could, and asked the widow if Faustenau had kept any of his court notes at home. Faustenau’s wife said she wasn’t sure but she’d keep an eye out. She soon called Williams back to report that she’d found three perfectly typed pages of the opening minutes of Mark’s grand jury hearing. The text confirmed Judge Lewis’s animus toward Doug Roberts; Lewis accused the prosecutor of speaking to the local press about the grand jury despite not being present for its proceedings. “I have reprimanded Mr. Roberts … because he is not involved in this matter here today,” Lewis said. Roberts had denied telling journalists that the Robertson shooting was the grand jury’s main focus, which Lewis said “brings to my mind a line from Shakespeare, when he said, ‘The lady doth protest too much.’”

If Faustenau had typed up the first portion of the hearing, it stood to reason that he’d done the same for the rest of it. But the remaining pages were nowhere to be found. Back at the courthouse, the clerk finally turned up some materials, including the grand jury’s attendance sheet and a copy of the gag order preventing members from talking about the hearing outside the court. The documents weren’t what Williams wanted, but the location where the clerk found them gave her pause: They were tucked inside the county’s adoption files, considered among the most sensitive records in any courthouse and thus accessed by very few people. The papers had been either bizarrely misfiled or deliberately hidden. By whom was yet another mystery.

The dead end regarding the transcript was “a big setback for us,” Williams later recalled. She and Ramsey focused their attention elsewhere, hoping it would bear more fruit. Terry Deister was arguably the biggest enigma of the case. The private eye employed by Lyndel had never been called to testify at either of the murder trials, yet his copious case notes showed that he’d played a pivotal role in the investigation.


1992

When Lyndel hired him, Deister was in his early fifties, with a paunch, a wide black mustache, and the low, craggy voice of a heavy smoker. He’d spent 17 years in law enforcement in Platte County, Missouri, and he acted the part of a hard-bitten detective, using gruff language and wearing a beleaguered demeanor proportionate to his sacrificial duty before the high calling of the law. His one-man private-eye business was called DunCourt and Associates, a fictional name he’d chosen because he liked how it sounded.

Lyndel paid Deister $40 an hour for his work, which involved more than just probing the shooting. Lyndel also wanted Deister to look for evidence to counter Claude’s accusations of embezzlement. The dual assignment represented a conflict of interest. Deister seemed to realize that the work was shady: His notes indicate that in at least one instance he and Calvert met in an “undisclosed location” near a cornfield, where they were unlikely to be seen together. He also recorded Calvert, who shared the case files on the Robertson shooting with Deister even though law enforcement isn’t supposed to let private parties access information about active investigations, as urging him to “keep a very low profile.”

For several months after the murder, law-enforcement officials tried to find out all they could about the suspicious car in the Robertsons’ driveway; they were confident it would lead them to the killer. Chris Ruoff said he’d seen an SUV or truck. When examining the scene, police noted what appeared to be tire tracks from an accelerating vehicle. Moreover, Scott Robertson initially told investigators that he’d heard a car engine when he was in his parents’ room helping Lyndel. Ruoff, Scott, and Lyndel saw a hypnotist a few weeks after the shooting, a visit that investigators hoped would draw more specific evidence or even a lead out of the trio. It wasn’t productive.

Then one day in 1991, Deister did something that shifted the entire course of the investigation. According to his records, he suggested in one of his meetings with Calvert, “What if there hadn’t been a vehicle parked at that location? Would this open up a new area of thought?”

“Definitely, yes,” Calvert replied.

If a car “didn’t exist,” Deister continued, “it made Mark Woodworth a prime suspect in the case.”

The leap seemed sudden and huge. Not only was there no evidence at the time implicating Mark, there was also no reason to doubt Ruoff’s story or the tire tracks indicating that a car had left the crime scene.

When Ruoff got a phone call from Calvert in January 1992 asking him to come downtown to recount what he’d seen the night of the murder, Ruoff was glad to do so. In a small witness room, he sat across a table from Calvert, who casually thumbed through the case files. The deputy sheriff introduced Ruoff to Deister, who was puffing on a cigarette. Smoke gathered above the men’s heads as Deister began to talk.

“She ever come on to you?” he asked Ruoff, referring to Cathy Robertson.

Ruoff thought Deister was kidding. He was dating a woman who would soon become his wife. Cathy had been a devoutly Catholic mother two decades his senior. She’d been cordial with farmhands, sure, but there was no unsavory subtext to it. Ruoff laughed; Deister kept looking at him, stone-faced. The farmhand realized that the question wasn’t a joke.

“So who put you up to this?” Deister asked in his hoarse voice, suggesting that Ruoff had lied about seeing a car outside the Robertson residence.

“I was just trying to help Lyndel out,” Ruoff said, “to help them find out who shot Cathy.”

Deister came at Ruoff from several angles, questioning the young man’s eyesight, mental health, and short-term memory. He and Calvert also described driving out on Highway 190 one night when a car was parked in the Robertsons’ driveway. They weren’t able to see it in the dark. Ruoff maintained his certainty until, after two hours of interrogation, he finally gave an inch. “Maybe I didn’t see it,” he said.

At Mark’s first trial, Ruoff would stick to his story, saying that he’d bet a million dollars he saw the car. But the seed of uncertainty served the prosecution’s purposes: If it was possible that a car hadn’t been in the Robertsons’ driveway, then it was possible that the killer had arrived on foot—the most logical way for someone who lived nearby to get to the house without attracting attention. Kenny Hulshof undercut Ruoff by calling him an “overprepped” witness and attacking his recollections of a “mystery vehicle.”

The other evidence of a car mattered little. Police had never tried to match the tire tracks outside the Robertsons’ house with a particular make or model, and Scott had reconsidered his original story. He hadn’t heard an engine, the Robertsons’ only son said at trial. Lyndel testified, “A young kid may not have heard what he thought he heard.”

Connecting Mark to the crime was more difficult. Deister and Calvert staked out the Woodworths’ house on Fourth of July weekend in 1992, waiting for Jackie and Claude to leave for a visit with family in Illinois so that they could approach Mark alone. They asked him to come to the sheriff’s office for questioning. Mark was cooperative; he didn’t request a lawyer, and he agreed to be fingerprinted, which would lead to the match with the print on the box of .22-caliber shells found in the Robertsons’ shed. Mark didn’t express outrage or suspicion when Calvert and Deister dropped the pretense of why they’d brought him in—a vandalism complaint that went nowhere—and accused him of murdering Cathy. He simply denied doing it.

A second interrogation went much the same way. This time, Mark gave the conflicting statements about when he’d been in the Robertsons’ shed. He also agreed to draw a rudimentary layout of his family’s house and indicated that his basement room was near a back door, which Calvert and Deister suggested he could’ve used the night of the murder without his parents and siblings knowing. Mark seemed confused in the interview, as if he didn’t follow all the questions he was being asked.

When his parents, who’d again been away when Mark was picked up the second time, heard that he was at the sheriff’s office, they were furious. They drove downtown and burst into the building. In the ensuing confrontation, captured on video, Claude yelled, “You’re fucking with somebody you don’t have no fucking business with—you’re talking with a kid there. To start with he’s dumber than hell. You know that. You can talk to him and tell that. He ain’t well educated.” To Deister, who was in the room, Claude said, “Who’s paying you for being here now?” Deister replied, “I don’t even know if I’m being paid right now or not but I am—Lyndel has been paying me.”

By then, Calvert and Deister had already turned their attention to the ballistics evidence in the case. Of the six bullets fired by Cathy’s killer, five were recovered at the scene. They were too damaged to be analyzed for legal purposes, but based on X-rays, the bullet stuck near Lyndel’s liver looked to be in decent shape. So the Livingston County sheriff’s office covered the $25,000 expense of surgically removing it. In August 1992, after a three-hour operation, the bullet came out. Shortly after the surgery, Calvert confiscated Claude Woodworth’s Ruger pistol as part of a purported reexamination of potential murder weapons.

According to Calvert’s report, he “sealed the [bullet] in an evidence bag and transported it to Livingston County Sheriff’s Office in the evidence room for safekeeping.” However, there is no record that the bullet was ever signed in to the property room, and Deister’s notes contradict Calvert’s, indicating that the private investigator was the one who took the bullet from the hospital and kept it in his custody:

Lyndel’s surgery at Research Hospital.

10:55 a.m. entered surgery—1:55 p.m. received bullet from [Nurse] Woodson

2:20 p.m. spoke with doctor

At the time, Deister was married to a woman from England, and during visits to his wife’s home country he’d befriended a man named Roger Summers, who was the head of forensics for the police department in Derbyshire. A few weeks after Lyndel’s surgery, and after two separate analyses in Missouri had indicated that the extracted bullet wasn’t fired from Claude’s revolver, Deister called Summers to discuss the case. Ten days later, Deister sent Summers a letter detailing his involvement in the shooting investigation. The letter wouldn’t be introduced into legal evidence until Ramsey subpoenaed Summers’s lab almost two decades later.

“I was hired by Lyndel Robertson (the husband) to investigate the murder of his wife,” Deister wrote, adding that before he came aboard, the “Livingston County Sheriff’s Department had pretty much given up on the investigation.” He continued, “I zeroed in on the business partner’s 16-year-old-son, who lived across the highway,” because he sensed that Mark saw an opportunity to enact vengeance, and to gain his father’s approval, as the farming partnership deteriorated. Then Deister wrote:

As I mentioned during our telephone conversation, our case against this boy is very weak without the ballistic evidence, and even though I’m not a quitter, I really don’t think we will ever have a good case if this firearm can’t be identified as the shooter’s weapon. Therefore, we are willing to take whatever steps necessary, within reason, to identify this weapon.

On October 20, Deister packed the bullet and gun in his luggage and flew to England for a nine-day visit. Calvert sent a FedEx package containing other bullet fragments from the crime scene; instead of signing the mailing slip with his title at the sheriff’s office, Calvert indicated that he was an employee of DunCourt and Associates. An investigator ran tests on the evidence. When Deister returned from his trip, he submitted annotated expenses—airline tickets, lodging, meals, sundries—to Lyndel for reimbursement.

Read Terry Deister’s call log from the fall of 1992.
Read Terry Deister’s call log from the fall of 1992.

A forensic investigator named Steve Nicklin issued three reports based on his analysis, a preliminary one in April 1993 and two finalized versions that June. The first stated that Claude’s gun could have fired the bullet removed from Lyndel but that there was not “enough detail agreement to show a conclusive association between the two items.” Consequently, Nicklin was “unable to rule out the possibility that some other weapon fired the bullet.” A June 7 report stated much the same, though Nicklin said that details of the analysis “in my opinion, strongly suggest” Claude’s gun fired the bullet. The final report, from June 22, went further: While it reiterated that there was no “conclusive association” between the pieces of evidence, it also described a scratch on the ridges inside the gun’s barrel as being “a very unusual feature.” The scratch appeared to line up with a marking on the bullet, leading Nicklin to conclude that “the likelihood of some other weapon being responsible … seems extremely small. I hope this clarifies the position for you.”

He was addressing Deister. According to Nicklin’s subsequent testimony and Deister’s own notes, Deister spoke multiple times with the lab in England when it was completing its reports.

Claude and Jackie insisted there was no way Mark had used the gun. They said they kept their bedroom door locked while sleeping and the gun loaded at all times on top of a dresser near the bed. Deister suggested that the lock was easy to pick and that Mark had reloaded the gun with Lyndel’s ammunition after using the weapon to shoot the Robertsons. Somehow he’d been so quiet as he moved that no one in the Woodworth or Robertson house heard him.

“If a boy was going to slip in a bedroom and snatch a gun off the chest of drawers, go over, and shoot somebody, do you think he’d bring it back empty?” Deister asked.

“Do you think that after you shot somebody you would be really in your right mind to think, yeah, I’ve gotta load this gun?” Jackie replied.

“To be real honest with you, Jackie,” Deister said, “with somebody with emotions as quiet as your son, yes.”


2011

In the lead-up to the Oxenhandler hearing, Ramsey and Williams were running ragged. Long days and late nights kept Ramsey from cooking Sunday dinner for his family and in-laws, a weekly tradition. He slept little and ate rarely, which worried his wife, given his heart problems. Williams saw her children only in brief spurts, which weighed on her maternal conscience. Still, she considered the work she was doing important, and she hoped to be an example to her kids.

Sensing that, like the dealings revealed by the Lewis letters, Deister’s involvement in the case might constitute a violation of Mark’s legal rights, Ramsey and Williams wanted to talk to Deister under oath. Ramsey dispatched a paralegal from Bilbrey’s to meet with Deister, who was then 77 and semiretired, at a Panera Bread in Kansas City. Deister consented to a deposition and, according to the paralegal’s notes, said he “had done nothing wrong” and “never had a doubt that Mark Woodworth was guilty.” Deister continued, “Mark should have just quit after the first trial. He would probably already be out by now.”

The deposition took place on March 1, 2011, at the Chillicothe library, located behind the courthouse. Children read picture books about heroes and villains in a nook by the front windows. Ramsey and Williams met Deister and a representative of the state attorney general’s office in a conference room. Deister’s black mustache had long since turned gray, his belly hung over his belt, and a bald patch had given way to a liver-spotted scalp with wisps of faded hair. Though he looked world-weary, he was combative when he spoke.

“Why were you concerned about how they were going to react?” Ramsey asked, referring to Deister’s decision to keep the full extent of his and Calvert’s work—Deister’s access to the case files, for instance—private from other law enforcement.

“Why not?” Deister retorted.

“I’m asking you, sir,” Ramsey said.

“Because I’d be concerned about anybody having objections to me working the case with the sheriff’s department, with Gary,” Deister said.

“Why would the troopers have an objection to you?” Ramsey asked.

“Why would they?” Deister said, again using a coy restatement of Ramsey’s question. “For no reason other than the fact that there’s a civilian out there doing some of the work.”  

“It had nothing to do with the reason you resigned from the Platte County sheriff’s department?” Ramsey asked, hitting on a sore subject.

“Why don’t you go look up a different street?” Deister said, his tone now tense. “No, it didn’t have anything to do with that.”

Ramsey was referring to an incident from 1981, when Deister was still on the vice squad in Platte County and was leading an investigation of a prostitution ring tied to a business called Utopia Health Studio. Allegedly a massage parlor, Utopia boasted several mirrored rooms with mattresses on raised, carpeted platforms, as well as a rock-cave suite equipped with heavy chains, a padded stockade, and leather whips. The FBI suspected that Deister might have been doing more than probing the business, and Deister faced possible criminal charges for promoting prostitution. He resigned from his job. Soon after, he hung out his shingle as a private eye.

At the conference table, Williams pulled a document out of a plastic box. Ramsey handed it to Deister.

“Page 76,” Ramsey instructed.

“OK.”

“Who is Brent?”

“Who is who?” Deister said.

“It talks about a Brent. I’ve got a telephone number here.” Ramsey directed Deister to an entry on the private eye’s call log from the Woodworth investigation.

“Brent Elliott,” Deister said, referring to the former Livingston County prosecutor who had also served as Judge Lewis’s personal attorney.

Ramsey grilled Deister about his interactions with Elliott, which seemed to incense the investigator. “I have no respect for your kind, believe me,” Deister said to Ramsey. “You’re nothing but a parasite.” Ramsey had anticipated this turn in the exchange. “One of my goals was to knock him off balance, kind of an aikido move,” he later explained. “Getting under his skin, it took about two minutes to do that.”

Ramsey and Williams presented another page of Deister’s notes, on DunCourt and Associates letterhead. “I guess you don’t remember the September 1, 1992 phone call you had with Brent Elliott, do you?” Ramsey asked. The call occurred during a week when Deister spoke multiple times with both Elliott and Roger Summers, his friend at the forensics lab in England.

“Apparently not, no,” Deister said.

In tabbed folders arranged by Williams, Ramsey had the full scope of Lyndel’s payments to Deister, totaling about $35,000 in the form of checks, the title of Cathy’s Suburban, and wheat that Lyndel sold in Deister’s name. Ramsey grilled Deister on the apparent malfeasance of his concurrent involvement in the shooting investigation and the embezzlement case. “I got about as much respect for you as I do a flea on the ground,” Deister said at one point. “You’re not even looking at the real issues on who killed this woman.” Afterward he called Calvert, with whom he was still friendly, to say how mad he was.

“I have no respect for your kind, believe me. You’re nothing but a parasite.” 

Before his own deposition a few weeks later, Calvert agreed to meet Ramsey and Williams at a small hotel in Chillicothe sometimes frequented by fabric enthusiasts because of its proximity to the Missouri Star Quilt Company. Calvert, a thin man with large-frame glasses and a tendency to speak in a mumble, no longer worked at the sheriff’s office. He’d become sheriff of Livingston County in the 1990s and then left public service in 2001, securing lucrative work doing background checks and other investigative assignments in the Middle East on behalf of the U.S. military and various contractors. He’d returned home in 2006 and started working for a security firm from a desk at his home on the outskirts of Chillicothe. Calvert had recently married a woman named Slavica, who had a thick Eastern European accent and accompanied him to the hotel room. She sat stiffly to one side during the conversation, staring at Williams.

Ramsey wanted to talk with Calvert before the deposition in hope that the former lawman’s instinct for self-preservation would kick in once he heard what he’d be asked under oath. Ramsey showed Calvert the Lewis letters; Calvert said that he’d never seen them before. “Yeah, that’s what everyone’s been saying,” Ramsey replied. (Judge Lewis, who by then had retired and was frail from a battle with cancer, was adamant in his own deposition that the letters revealed nothing unethical. He died in 2016 at the age of 79.)

Ramsey also asked Calvert about Lyndel recanting his initial accusation against Brandon Hagan. “Lyndel never changed his story in his testimony,” Calvert insisted. Which was technically true: Lyndel had never said Brandon was the killer under oath. By the time Lyndel gave sworn statements, Brandon had an alibi and the Robertsons were suspicious of Mark.

A few weeks later, at his deposition, Calvert claimed that he was unable to recall many of the details of his work with Deister—the result of a poor memory that Slavica sometimes complained about, he mused. The exchange was largely uneventful. Then, near the end, as Ramsey and Williams were getting ready to pack up their files and equipment, Calvert offered to explain how he’d once obtained Brandon’s fingerprints. “No, that’s OK,” Ramsey said, since it seemed like trivial information at best. Then he changed his mind. “Well, yeah, what happened?”

Calvert said he’d gotten the prints from police in Independence, who took them after Rochelle Robertson filed a complaint against Brandon for ignoring a restraining order that she’d obtained a week after her mother’s death. “He violated that order of protection,” Calvert said.

Ramsey and Williams were confused. They knew about the protective order, but Rochelle had testified under oath years before that Brandon had never violated it. Moreover, in the records Ramsey and Williams had obtained from law enforcement, there was no mention of Brandon breaching the order’s terms. “Would that show up in the court file?” Ramsey asked.

“I’m sure,” Calvert replied. Ramsey and Williams thought that they saw a slight smirk on his face.

Williams made a beeline for the courthouse. As with Faustenau’s transcription, it turned out that documents weren’t where they should have been. There were indeed records of Brandon making harassing phone calls to Rochelle on multiple occasions, but they’d been put in a folder separate from the protective order itself. And for some reason, the second folder had been transferred to a courthouse in another county—where none other than Brent Elliott, who’d been Rochelle’s attorney when she obtained the order, was now a judge. The records had never been produced at Mark’s trials to contradict Rochelle’s testimony about Brandon and call her credibility as a witness into question.

Several mysteries suddenly emerged: Why had Rochelle lied? Was there a good explanation, or was she trying to hide something? Who would go to the trouble of burying evidence of Brandon’s continued, illegal contact with Rochelle—and why?

Ramsey and Williams’s goal in the Oxenhandler hearing would be to show that Mark hadn’t received a fair trial. But they could also argue that the Lewis letters represented an evidentiary gateway to examine information that suggested a compelling new theory of the crime. The violations of the protective order might be that sort of information. It turned out there was more.

Part IV


1990

If she wasn’t quarreling with Brandon, Rochelle was arguing with her mother about Brandon. He was a prototypical bad boy who got into fights after drinking enough beer at high school parties. He twice beat up another guy Rochelle had dated. When he got mad at his girlfriend, he sometimes hit her, too. One time he choked Rochelle on a bed and threatened to break her neck. According to a friend of Rochelle’s who spoke under oath, if Brandon didn’t feel like his girlfriend was respecting him, he’d sometimes drive her through the countryside, accelerating to reckless speeds until she begged him to stop. If ever they broke up, Brandon threatened, he’d commit suicide.

Still, Rochelle loved him, and she hated that her mother told her what to do. Cathy said she’d buy Rochelle a car if she ended things, but Rochelle said no. Her relationship, however fraught, was her business.

Cathy’s sister later told investigators that, when Rochelle lived at home, she was “disruptive” and “self-centered.” Lyndel’s brother reported that Cathy had once “told Rochelle that she should leave and not come back.” In her own interview with police, Rochelle said of her mother, “I loved her and everything, but it’s just that—it seemed like she didn’t like any of my boyfriends and I never did anything right.”

“I could never look her in the eye,” she said in the same interview, “because I always felt that she didn’t like me very much.”

Even when Cathy was hardly speaking to their eldest child, Lyndel would slip Rochelle cash to cover her expenses. The situation with Brandon coincided with a rough patch in Lyndel and Cathy’s marriage. Farmhands sensed it on the walkie-talkies they used while working in the Robertsons’ fields. “Cathy would just rip into Lyndel on the radio,” Chris Ruoff said. On a car trip with their children the summer before the shooting, Lyndel ended an argument he and Cathy were having by slapping his wife across the face. She didn’t speak to him for several days afterward.

At the Hy-Vee grocery store, where she worked at the deli the summer before going to St. Joseph, Rochelle talked to her colleagues about the problems at home. According to her manager, Loronda Corbin, Rochelle said she “hated” her mother, “wished she was dead,” and “wished somebody would shoot her.” (Corbin was not called as a witness at either of Mark’s trials.) Later, at the Brass Buckle in St. Joseph, Rochelle was again candid about her relationship problems. Keri Lehmer, her boss, told investigators that she “knew Rochelle’s parents wanted them apart.”  

A few hours after the shooting, police came to Rochelle’s apartment in St. Joseph. She didn’t answer their knocking, so the officers unbolted her door. She said she’d been sleeping with a fan on and hadn’t heard them. Not long after, Kevin Price, a construction worker sent by a family friend, picked Rochelle up to bring her back to Chillicothe. During the drive, Rochelle said little, and Price didn’t try to draw her out. At one point, Price recalled Rochelle asking if her parents were hurt badly in the accident. Price said he told her about the shooting and her mother’s death. As they got closer to Chillicothe, Price mentioned that Brandon was a suspect. Rochelle insisted that Brandon hadn’t done it. According to Price, she said she’d spoken with her boyfriend on the phone at his home in Independence at 11 p.m., placing Brandon too far away from her parents’ house to have arrived there by the time of the shooting.

Price dropped off Rochelle at the home of Rhonda’s boyfriend, Brian Alexander, where the Robertson children had been taken from the crime scene. Soon after, Brandon arrived, too; Rochelle had called him as soon as the police showed up at her apartment. Brandon would later tell investigators that a friend drove him to Chillicothe, where he borrowed a Jeep that his old wrestling coach sometimes lent to athletes. Amy Baldwin, a friend of Rhonda’s, rode with Brandon from Chillicothe’s high school to the Alexanders’ house. Baldwin remembered Brandon saying, “I can’t believe this happened. I feel sorry for the family.”

The house was bustling with friends, relatives, and investigators, who were interviewing the Robertson kids one by one. Brandon gave Rochelle a hug and stood with her for a while, then walked over to Rhonda. “Do you think I shot them?” Brandon asked. Rhonda turned away and didn’t answer.

Brandon asked again, “Do you really think I did this?”

“I don’t know,” Rhonda said.

At some point, Brandon and Rochelle went upstairs into a room and closed the door behind them. According to Rochelle, they talked about questions that investigators might ask Brandon. The secrecy of the situation didn’t sit well with Marvin Alexander, Brian’s father, who knocked on the door and told them to come out.

Brandon went to the sheriff’s office to be interviewed. He gave his alibi, which his family confirmed: He’d been in his room by 9 p.m., and his sister placed him asleep in bed at 10:40 p.m., when she went in to get a blanket. His mother had been up until 1 a.m., when her husband came home from a swing shift, and she never saw Brandon leave. Brandon also confirmed that Rochelle had called him from St. Joseph before Price picked her up that morning. He described her as “real hysterical, and she was crying and everything, and she told me what happened.”

This seemed to conflict with Price’s version of events, in which he was the first to tell Rochelle that there’d been a shooting, not an accident. However, investigators either didn’t catch the disparity or didn’t think it was important enough to pursue. The same day, about 12 hours after the shooting, Brandon’s hands tested positive for gunshot residue. In Mark’s second trial, a forensic chemist would testify that the analysis fell outside the time frame for obtaining reliable results.  

Read Rochelle Robertson’s restraining order.
Read Rochelle Robertson’s restraining order.

In her own interview, with Calvert and other investigators, Rochelle reiterated that she thought Brandon was innocent. One detail in her story had changed, however: She did not tell police that she’d spoken to Brandon on the phone the night of the shooting. Instead, she said that she’d gone home after work, read part of a Danielle Steel novel, and fallen asleep before midnight. This version of events fit neatly with Brandon’s alibi, even more so than the one in which the pair talked before bed. If his sister said he was asleep before 11 p.m., Brandon couldn’t have been on the phone then.

Law enforcement confirmed that Rochelle had been at work the evening of the murder, and they interviewed her roommate, Baniki Dawson, who described Brandon as “very jealous and possessive.” The report didn’t indicate whether the officers had asked Dawson about Rochelle’s activity the night of the shooting. Similarly, if the investigators had checked the phone records from Brandon’s house, that information wasn’t included in the case files.

The tone of Rochelle’s interview shifted when an investigator suggested that the shooter must have known “right where they were going” and “had the gall to walk by” two of the Robertson children’s bedrooms before killing their mother. “The way I pictured it in my mind,” Rochelle responded, “was somebody went and opened the door, and they just stood right in the doorway, and it was dark. I don’t know how the moon was outside, but this is how I picture it in my mind. The curtains are open, and you can see because of the moonlight, and they shot my mom and then they shot my dad. That’s all that I can think of.”

An investigator asked what Rochelle imagined Lyndel doing when he woke up, before being shot. “I picture it happened so fast, he doesn’t really—I picture bang, bang,” she said. “I picture them shooting her and then him right after, before he even has a chance to sit up.”

“You think it was done with a pistol or a rifle?”

“When I picture it, I think of a pistol. But I don’t know,” Rochelle said. “I pictured myself behind the person, [looking] around their shoulder and looking right at the gun.”

Rochelle’s description of the crime made investigators suspicious. In a second interrogation, they asked about Brandon’s abuse. At first, Rochelle said that he’d never been violent with her. When investigators pressed her, she recanted. “I lied about one thing,” Rochelle admitted.

“You’ve lied about a lot more things than one thing,” an officer replied. “If you think that you’re going to skate on us just because you’re an attractive, nice-looking girl, you’re not going to skate. If you’re dirty, we’re going to prove it.”

“I’m not covering for him,” Rochelle said of Brandon. “I’m telling you everything I can tell you.”

“But what’s your gut tell you?” Calvert asked.

“When I first heard, I didn’t know who could do that. Everybody’s been talking about Brandon, Brandon, Brandon—and I started getting doubt in my mind,” Rochelle said. “In my heart, I don’t think he did that to me.”

Unbeknownst to most people in Chillicothe, at the time, Rochelle was pregnant with Brandon’s child. Nine days before the shooting, on a trip home from St. Joseph, Rochelle had shown her friend Carmen Kinsella the positive results of a pregnancy test from her college clinic. She was about three months along. She also shared the $500 estimate for the abortion she was scheduled to have a few days later in Kansas City. Brandon had offered to pay for the procedure, but he’d also waffled on whether he actually wanted Rochelle to go through with it. They’d talked about keeping the baby. Crying on a sidewalk in downtown Chillicothe, Rochelle told Kinsella that she wasn’t sure what to do.

Ultimately, Rochelle skipped her abortion appointment. Lyndel would later tell investigators that he and Cathy weren’t aware of the pregnancy. But Brandon told Rochelle he suspected that Cathy knew because she had a mother’s intuition.

Whether this was true or not, Cathy tried in earnest to break the couple up in the weeks before the shooting. One day she called Brandon’s mother, Renee Thomure, and demanded that she tell her son to stop seeing Rochelle. Cathy threatened to take out a restraining order if Brandon kept coming around, and she said that he needed professional help to get over Rochelle. Thomure reportedly tried to calm Cathy down. “I’ve never done nothing to you, you don’t know me from nowhere, and I’ve been nice to you,” she said, according to Brandon. “I’d like to expect the same from you.”

The call didn’t work, and Cathy kept her word. She went to the Chillicothe police station and got the paperwork for a restraining order. The night of the shooting, she left it sitting on the kitchen table.  

In the days after the crime, Rochelle’s family told her to terminate the pregnancy as well as her relationship with Brandon. She called Brandon to tell him that she was taking out a protective order against him. The next day, she wrote on the legal form in wide script that he “has struck me in the past, and has made frequent harassing telephone calls.” She added that he “may have murdered my mother and attempted to kill my father.” Soon after, a friend drove Rochelle to get the abortion. (The pregnancy was not mentioned at the first trial and was brought up only briefly at the second.)

Two months after the shooting, Rochelle took a polygraph test. One of the questions was “Did you shoot your parents?” She failed. Polygraphs are controversial; their accuracy in identifying lies is a matter of scientific debate. The examiner largely attributed the outcome of Rochelle’s test to her trying to control her breathing instead of acting and speaking naturally. She agreed to take another one but never did. A few days later, Claude Woodworth heard from friends that Lyndel was telling people his business partner might be involved in the murder.


2011

Rochelle arrived at her deposition with Ramsey and Williams in the Livingston County library wearing a pink T-shirt that said “Fashion Is Not a Luxury.” Metal bracelets clanked on her wrists, and a silver cross hung from a chain around her neck. Her last name was Koehly now, and she and her husband had two sons. She still lived in Chillicothe and was involved in 4-H like her mother had been.

According to Williams, the goal of the exchange was to “get onto the record all of the things that had been swept under the rug at the first two trials, all the inconsistencies” that she and Ramsey had discovered in the case files and in interviews. During the deposition, Rochelle claimed 59 times that she couldn’t recall details of events surrounding her mother’s death and the murder investigation. She attributed this to a bad memory she’d had since she was a child.

“Did you tell anyone after you found out your parents had been shot that Brandon couldn’t have done the shooting,” Ramsey asked, “because you called him at a time when he couldn’t have been in Chillicothe?”

“I don’t remember saying that to anybody,” Rochelle said.

“Did you ever see any reports of any persons, especially from a person named Kevin Price, that indicated that?

“No.”

“Would you have any reason to dispute Kevin Price if that’s what he said?”

“Who is Kevin Price?”

“Do you know Kevin Price?”

“I don’t think so. That name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t think of who that is.”

Ramsey glanced at Williams, who pulled a document from a folder.

“I’m going to show you what’s been marked as Exhibit 13,” Ramsey said, sliding over the portion of Rochelle’s interrogation from shortly after the murder in which she’d conceded that Brandon had been violent with her. Among the instances she’d described to investigators was one in which Brandon punched the dashboard of her car. Rochelle sat silently as she read over her own words.

“How do I answer this? Because I don’t know. I don’t remember,” Rochelle said, glancing over at a representative from the attorney general’s office who was present for the deposition. “I mean, if somebody said it—and I’m not disputing that I had said it to them, but I don’t remember saying it to them. How do I—how do I—what do I do?”

“I’m just asking you if you dispute it,” Ramsey said.

“He never damaged my vehicle.”

“Do you dispute that you then later said, ‘The only thing I lied about was being punched in the eye.’”

“No, I don’t dispute that.”

Later in the deposition, Ramsey asked Rochelle why she’d lied about the abuse. “Because I was embarrassed,” she said, looking down at the table. “But then I came back later and told them.”

Ramsey directed Rochelle to another passage from her 1990 interrogation, in which she asked the officers questioning her whether they thought Brandon could kill somebody. “What do you think?” an investigator replied. “Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to think it,” Rochelle said.

Ramsey asked if Rochelle disputed that the exchange had occurred. She said she did not.

Rochelle asked the officers whether they thought Brandon could kill somebody. “What do you think?” an investigator replied.

Williams took on the task of compiling documentation of Brandon’s criminal history. Ramsey referred to Williams as his right arm, but she preferred the nickname Ramsey’s Google, given to her because she could find any detail in tens of thousands of pages of case files in a matter of minutes. Williams also proved as unflappable as a seasoned investigator when it came to tracking down police reports, cold-calling witnesses, and showing up at people’s doors.

She learned that, in 2006, Brandon was sentenced to six months in jail for drunk driving. Three years later, Sandy O’Connell, the mother of a young woman who was pregnant with Brandon’s child, approached police near the town of Lake Ozark, where Brandon was living. “He has beaten on my daughter,” O’Connell reported. “Brandon Hagan has personally threatened to kill me and has told me that he would kill me and my ‘white trash family.’” In the midst of Williams gathering evidence, police in Jefferson City received another abuse complaint against Brandon, this time from neighbors of his then girlfriend, Amanda Feuerborn. An officer observed in a report that Feuerborn’s “left eye was starting to turn black and blue,” which she said was from Brandon punching her; when she tried to get away, “he slapped her and threw her on the floor.”

Brandon’s persistent violence against women was shocking, but it didn’t implicate him in the Robertson shooting. Then a report from a man stopped Williams in her tracks. She got her hands on the document after law enforcement near Lake Ozark passed it to the sheriff’s office in Chillicothe, where a man named Steve Cox was now in charge. According to the report, an individual named Aaron Duncan had approached law enforcement and said that Brandon had bragged about being a “number-one suspect” in a murder investigation that “had gone on a long time.”

Williams drove from St. Louis to visit Duncan, a 26-year-old mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighter who’d got to know Brandon when the former wrestler was cutting his teeth as a fight promoter, one of a few careers Brandon had tried on for size. Duncan and his wife greeted Williams and sent their children to play so that Duncan could tell his story, which he later repeated in a deposition.

One night in 2008, Duncan had gone over to Brandon’s house. The men were drinking in the garage when Brandon started rifling through some boxes. There were wrestling trophies inside, but Brandon was more interested in newspaper clippings from a time when, he told Duncan, he’d been accused of murdering his girlfriend’s mom. The girlfriend’s parents “had wanted her to stop seeing him,” Duncan recalled. “Brandon said they’d fought all the time, this and that, him and the parents. And they thought he was too aggressive for her.” Brandon also talked about “someone named Mark,” Duncan said. “He was really talking down about this Mark guy, like how stupid he was.”

Duncan said that Brandon had made self-incriminating disclosures in the past, about cooking meth in college, selling ecstasy pills, and beating someone in Chicago with a golf club. Talking about being a murder suspect was, however perversely, in character for the Brandon that Duncan knew. “I didn’t think twice about it,” Duncan said.

Two weeks after the conversation in the garage, Brandon came to Duncan and asked for a $5,000 investment in an MMA venue he was hoping to open. Duncan had young kids at home, and money was tight, so he said he couldn’t help. “He flew off the handle,” Duncan said of Brandon. When Duncan told him to calm down, Brandon threatened to kill his friend’s family.

“I’ve killed before and got away with it,” Duncan recalled Brandon saying. “What makes you think I can’t do it again?’

Williams was dumbfounded. “It was a holy-shit moment,” she said. Then again, the case was full of those, so she was getting used to how they felt. “You realize there are ten more holy shits you’re going to find after that,” Williams said. “For each one, you’re going to go back through everything in the case file to see if that changes the way you see anything you thought you understood already.”

Williams had to wonder why Brandon would boast so cavalierly about murder and risk getting caught. Maybe he had a twisted reason for bragging about a crime he didn’t actually commit. His alibi, after all, had never been contradicted in court. Then Williams and Ramsey, along with Steve Cox at the Livingston County sheriff’s office, started getting calls from people in Chillicothe with other stories about Brandon.


1990

June Cairns was used to her son Matt’s friends coming over to the house. A high school wrestler popular among his peers, Matt often held court in the Cairns living room with guys on his team. Matt wasn’t particularly close with Brandon, whom he found cocky and a little too quick to pick fights over stupid things. Still, Brandon sometimes crashed at Matt’s house after parties or hung out on the family’s couch watching TV. He even kept coming by after he’d moved to Independence. June thought Brandon had worn out his welcome.

One weekend in October 1990, Brandon stopped by the Cairns house to see Matt. He also wanted to use the family’s phone. Standing in the kitchen, he dialed the Robertsons’ number, and Cathy answered. Brandon asked to speak to Rochelle, who was home that day from St. Joseph, and Cathy said no. Brandon began yelling.

“You bitch!” June heard him say. “I’m going to slit your throat!”

June shot up from the dining room chair where she was sitting and went into the kitchen. “You don’t talk that way on my phone,” she told Brandon. She recalled him leaving the house without apologizing.

June saw Brandon again the morning of November 14. Sometime between 6 and 7 a.m., she was having coffee with her daughter and son-in-law when Brandon breezed into the house and went upstairs. Hours later, June heard about the murder of the shooting from the night before and Cathy Robertson’s death. She gave a formal statement to investigators, detailing what she’d heard Brandon say to Cathy on the phone and his arrival at her house the morning after the shooting. The investigators’ report, however, noted only that “Brandon started ‘bitching out’ Cathy Robertson and made threats toward her and Rochelle.” It didn’t include the time frame when June said Brandon had arrived at her home on November 14—which was around when Brandon had told police he’d left Independence.

An additional witness encountered Brandon at Chillicothe’s high school earlier than would have been possible if he were telling the truth. Bob Fairchild, the assistant principal, claimed to have seen Brandon in a hallway between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. Angie Smith, a teenager who lived down the road from the Robertsons, told law enforcement that, later that day, Brandon approached her and asked if she’d seen anything the night before. Smith said she hadn’t. She told investigators that she “thought that Brandon was more concerned with covering himself than his concern over what had happened.”

At least three other people claimed to have seen Brandon in Chillicothe the night of the shooting. Melissa Suchsland, a fellow high schooler, said she spotted him at an Amoco station between 9 and 10 p.m., standing next to what looked like a Bronco. After news of the shooting spread, Suchsland’s mother took her to the sheriff’s office to report what she’d seen; Suchsland would testify at Mark’s second trial, during which the prosecution questioned her memory and suggested that she was just looking for media attention. Mike Thistlethwaite, who’d once played sports with Brandon, told a friend that he’d seen his former teammate at the town’s bowling alley around 11 p.m. The friend approached the sheriff’s office with this information, and Thistlethwaite later testified that law enforcement never contacted him to follow up.

Then there was Linda Zurmiller, who had a daughter about Brandon’s age. According to Zurmiller, around 10:30 p.m. she pulled up to a stoplight near Chillicothe’s Sonic drive-in, and she saw Brandon in the car next to her. When Zurmiller spoke to law enforcement shortly after the shooting, she noted that it was strange to see Brandon on a weeknight, and at such a late hour, because he didn’t live in Chillicothe anymore. After Mark was convicted, Zurmiller approached the chief deputy sheriff to ask why her report hadn’t influenced the case. “Deputy Calvert told me that Brandon Thomure Hagan’s mother had given him an iron-clad alibi and they couldn’t go above what his mother said,” Zurmiller stated in an affidavit. Calvert told her that Brandon’s mom “opened his bedroom door and he was asleep in bed” the night of the shooting.

“And I told him no,” Zurmiller said, “he was not.”


2011

Ramsey and Williams had gathered nearly 200 pieces of evidence that they planned to submit during the hearing. At Bilbrey’s, with just a few weeks to go, they took stock of what the raft of testimony and documents told them about the case. Much of it pointed to faulty police work and an undue focus on convicting Mark. More evidence than they’d anticipated, however, made Brandon look guilty. It was all circumstantial, which wasn’t enough for a prosecutor to build a case on—and that wasn’t their job anyway. Still, the legal team hoped to use the hearing to at least air what they’d learned about Brandon.

They also wanted Brandon himself to testify, which meant tracking him down. Williams volunteered to go to bars he’d been known to frequent in and around Lake Ozark. “I wasn’t afraid of him. I thought he was a bully, and bullies never scared me,” she said. Ramsey, though, wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re not putting you in harm’s way,” he told Williams.

Instead, Williams contacted Brandon on the phone. He bounced around a lot; his various run-ins with the law didn’t help him hold down steady employment, and when child-support payments and tax liens piled up, he sometimes moved back in with his mother in Independence. Recently, though, he’d got an apartment in Jefferson City. When Brandon answered, and Williams explained who she was, he was defensive. “Every time I talk to someone my words get jumped and turned around,” he said. Brandon declared himself innocent. “I don’t know why everyone is focused on me,” he said. “You should talk to Rochelle.”

The statement took Williams by surprise. She’d assumed that Brandon and Rochelle had stopped talking many years earlier. Why would they still be in touch?

“Do you have a number for her?” Williams asked.

“I call my mom if I need to get ahold of her,” Brandon said. “She calls Lyndel and gets Rochelle’s number for me to talk to her.” (In her deposition, Rochelle told Ramsey that she and Brandon hadn’t spoken since 2003 or 2004.)

Williams asked what Brandon’s mom and Lyndel had to talk about. Brandon said “newspaper articles about the case”—a reference to Alan Zagier’s AP reporting from a few years prior. Williams planned to inquire next about what he and Rochelle had to discuss, but Brandon cut things short.

“How would talking to me help anything?” he asked. The call suddenly dropped. When Williams tried Brandon’s number again, it went straight to voice mail. On a later call, Brandon told Williams and Ramsey that he wouldn’t talk without a lawyer. His mother also said she had no interest in talking.

A few weeks later, Williams and Ramsey showed up at Brandon’s apartment. Because of his wrestling and MMA experience, Williams expected him to have a commanding physical presence. The man who opened the door was small and compact. He held a shirt in one hand, and he had shaving cream on his face. Williams explained that he was needed to testify at the hearing about his past statements to police. “They raped me for years,” Brandon said of law enforcement. “I’m not going back to court. I’m the victim here.”

When Williams tried to ask Brandon questions, he said, “I’m not talking to you—you have to talk to my lawyer.” She pointed out that he’d eventually have to speak under oath, and he asked defiantly, “Well, what if I don’t come?”

There, on the doorstep, Brandon was served with a subpoena.

Part V


2011

On Mark Woodworth’s 3,498th day in prison, he woke up at 5 a.m. He put on a gray uniform, and guards placed his wrists in shackles. He walked down a series of sterile corridors until he reached a door. Outside was a car waiting to take him away from Crossroads Correctional. It was a nearly three-hour drive to Boone County, where the evidentiary hearing was scheduled to begin that day—May 31, 2011—in Judge Oxenhandler’s court. From the car’s backseat, Mark looked out the windows as mile after mile of flat farmland zipped by. A leaden dawn eventually gave way to bright sunshine. Mark saw green pastures, roaming cattle, and rows of freshly planted crops fading to a blur on the horizon. Once this had all been familiar; now it was foreign.

At the courthouse, officers escorted Mark to a small room, where he traded the uniform for a dress shirt, slacks, and shiny black shoes. It was the first time he’d worn civilian clothes in more than a decade. His parents, who’d brought the outfit from Chillicothe, were waiting in the courtroom with dozens of friends. Members of the Free Mark Woodworth campaign, which had raised money for his legal fees and designed T-shirts and license-plate holders promoting the cause, had met early that morning in the parking lot of Chillicothe’s Hy-Vee. Loaded down with home-baked cookies and thermoses of coffee, they’d piled into rented vans and caravanned to Boone County.

Among the supporters was Chris Ruoff, who was sure Mark had been bulldozed, and Kathy Smith, whose backyard shared a border with the Robertsons’. After Cathy was murdered, Rhonda, still in high school, would call up Smith to ask how to get a grass stain out of her brother’s baseball pants or what kind of soup goes well with grilled-cheese sandwiches. “I said ‘I would do chicken noodle soup’ and just have tears in my eyes, because that’s not something a 16-year-old girl should be thinking about,” Smith said. But while her heart went out to the Robertsons, she didn’t think Mark was guilty. “I needed to hear myself, firsthand, some of the things that had been rumored about in town,” Smith said of her decision to travel to Boone County.

On the other side of the courtroom were the Robertsons with a smaller group of allies. The siblings were now adults, raising kids of their own. The family had never wavered in their belief that Mark killed Cathy, but they were powerless to keep rival forces at bay in a place as small as Chillicothe. Rhonda and her husband had stopped buying farm supplies from a business that supported the Free Mark Woodworth crusade. Family friends had quit going to their church after the reverend offered up prayers for the Woodworths. Not long before the evidentiary hearing, an elementary school classmate of Rhonda’s son had approached him and said, “I don’t think he’s guilty,” before turning and walking away. The statement was a kind of shorthand, a fragment of knowing language that embodied the town’s intimacy and tapped into the powerful emotional charge that had pulsed through it since November 1990.

Mark, Ramsey, and Williams filed into the courtroom and took their places at the defense table. Ted Bruce and Stephen Hawke, representatives from the state attorney general’s office, sat across the aisle. Oxenhandler, a stern man with a white beard who talked rapidly, as if to convey that he didn’t have time for people to waste, called the court to order for the first of four days.

Ramsey’s plan was to petition Oxenhandler for habeas corpus relief, which would free Mark on the grounds that he hadn’t received a fair trial. To Ramsey’s mind, the case against his client represented a manifest injustice, and he would call some 30 witnesses to prove it. The prosecution, however, argued that the only question at stake was whether there was any new evidence to consider. They planned to show that all the exhibits Ramsey had mustered, including the Lewis letters, had been available to Mark’s previous attorneys. If past counsel made poor strategic decisions with that evidence, the state wasn’t to blame.

One by one, Ramsey called his witnesses. Terry Deister was on the stand for the longest stretch of time; it was the first court testimony he’d ever given about Mark’s case.

“You were working for Mr. Robertson in the capacity of helping him defend against a lawsuit, weren’t you?” Ramsey asked.

“I don’t remember anything about that,” Deister said.

Williams handed Ramsey another exhibit: a note from June 1991 in which the private eye had written, “I expressed my concerns about the profile of Mark Woodworth from what I had determined about the conversations I had with Lyndel Robertson.” What did Lyndel say about his neighbor’s son? Ramsey asked.

“I don’t remember,” Deister said.

Ramsey read directly from the evidence. “‘He seemed to be a prime candidate to fall under the profile of an individual who would do almost anything to get the approval [of] his father,’” Ramsey said. “What facts did you base that on? Was that the information you received from Lyndel Robertson?”

“Possibly, yes,” Deister said.

“You knew at that point that Mr. Robertson, your client, was being sued by Mark Woodworth’s father, alleging fraud, didn’t you?”

“No. I don’t remember,” Deister replied. “I don’t even remember much about the civil suit.”

“Are you telling me that you never discussed with Mr. Robertson that there was a lawsuit filed by Mark Woodworth’s father against him?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t remember.”

After more than an hour of interrogation, Oxenhandler had a few questions of his own. The judge remarked on Deister’s unfettered access to the case files. “You’ve been in law enforcement since the sixties,” Oxenhandler said. “You know that in the course of an investigation, police files are not open to anyone.”

“Yes,” Deister said.

Oxenhandler then asked about conflicts of interest and a seeming failure to challenge Brandon’s alibi before inquiring, as a general matter, “Are you having second thoughts with regards to the investigation?”

Deister said no.

At the end of each day of the hearing, Mark changed into his prison uniform and rode back to Crossroads Correctional. Most Chillicothe residents went home for the night, too, but the Woodworths stayed in a local hotel. So did Ramsey and Williams, who worked around the clock in a war room outfitted with portable printers and a conference table littered with documents and boxes of Chinese takeout. Once, when the legal team ran into the Woodworths in the lobby, the family asked what Oxenhandler had said when he called Ramsey to the bench during Deister’s testimony.

“I think you’ve made your point about this man’s integrity,” the judge had said. “You can’t beat a dead horse. Let’s move on.”

“I think you’ve made your point about this man’s integrity. You can’t beat a dead horse.”

Kenny Hulshof flew in for his testimony. He now worked as a lawyer at the firm Polsinelli, which had offices in Missouri and Washington, D.C. After serving six terms in the House of Representatives and losing the 2008 Missouri gubernatorial race, Hulshof had faced scrutiny for his time as a state prosecutor. Investigations into his record would lead to several murder convictions being overturned or thrown out, including that of Josh Kezer, a teenager at the time of his alleged crime. The judge who reversed the conviction found that Hulshof had withheld evidence from Kezer’s defense and misled the jury. “We now know that none of what Mr. Hulshof said in [his] final summary was true,” the judge wrote.

On the stand in Oxenhandler’s court, Hulshof looked poised in a crisp white shirt, dark navy suit, and Windsor-knotted tie. His straw-blond hair was parted over his tanned face. He assured the room that the Lewis letters had been provided to Mark’s defense team during the first trial.

“Do you recall what your process was for making sure that you complied with your obligations?” prosecutor Ted Bruce asked, referring to the sharing of potentially exculpatory evidence.

“My investigator or I, usually my investigator, would hand-number every single page that we received,” Hulshof said, “and then we would make a copy of those investigative reports and tender them to counsel for the defendant.”

Williams felt a jolt of recognition. She grabbed a pen and scribbled a note as fast as she could on a piece of paper. Then she reached over Mark, seated between the two members of his legal team, and jabbed Ramsey in the arm. Williams gestured for her boss to look down at what she’d written in all caps.

“NO NUMBERS!”

Williams then turned to a filing box next to the defense table and flipped through pages until she found copies of the Lewis letters. She yanked them out and handed them to Ramsey. “There were never any numbers. They never stamped these,” she said under her breath.

Ramsey stood to question the witness. “You said, I believe, earlier that it was your practice to put numbers on all the documents that you produced to the defense. Correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Hulshof said.

Ramsey handed him the copies of the letters that Williams had retrieved. “There’s no numbers on those pages, are there?” Ramsey asked.

Hulshof studied the letters. Ramsey swore he saw the color drain from the former prosecutor’s face. There was a long pause.

“There are no numbers,” Hulshof said finally.

At the defense table, Williams beamed. “I knew it,” she whispered to Mark. She’d just showed the court that there was no proof that the Lewis letters had ever made it into the hands of Mark’s defense attorneys, which meant conclusively that they were new evidence. “I thought he was going to have a bowel movement on the witness stand,” Ramsey said of Hulshof.

Ramsey wasn’t done with the witness. “You also stated that this is the only case that you’ve ever prosecuted in which the victim had hired a private investigator to work with law enforcement,” Ramsey said.

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s pretty unusual, isn’t it?”

“It was.”

“From a prosecutor’s standpoint, can that raise issues as to a conflict of interest of the private investigator?”

“There are a host of issues. Conflict of interest is one of them.”

“Especially where that investigator is representing the client who is the victim on a civil suit in which one of the parties’ father sued him for defrauding him, correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Hulshof said, adding that he “wasn’t very conversant” about the civil case.

“And what did you do to resolve the doubts that you had … about Mr. Deister’s potential divided loyalty?” Ramsey asked.

“As far as putting on our case in the first trial, I tried to not have to use Mr. Deister.”

Hulshof, in other words, seemed to have known that questioning Deister on the stand wouldn’t have been smart. Still, he’d used the private investigator’s evidence to build his case against Mark.

Dana Williams, the Chillicothe resident who’d admired Hulshof’s performance at the first trial, was once again in the courtroom. The former prosecutor, she decided, was outmatched. “Ramsey had the facts down, and he was throwing questions at him like he’d done it for a hundred years,” she said. “Hulshof had tried to cover his tracks, and it didn’t go real well.”

Lyndel took the stand wearing a blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, with an eyeglasses case protruding from the breast pocket. Like other witnesses, he said he couldn’t remember many details from the murder investigation, describing his memory as “a big blur.” He’d once said under oath that he was never aware that Roberts didn’t want to charge Mark. Now, with the Lewis letters in evidence, he acknowledged that he’d probably known that the prosecutor “wasn’t aggressive.” (Roberts testified at the hearing, too, noting, “If you allow the victim or alleged victim of a crime to remove the prosecutor every time the prosecutor disagrees with him, then you’re opening a door up to that happening any time the prosecutor doesn’t think there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a case or [that] a particular person should be prosecuted.”)

Ramsey had questions that went well beyond the Lewis letters—ones he knew were likely to provoke the prosecution. He asked Lyndel about Brandon’s violations of Rochelle’s protective order, and Ted Bruce immediately objected. “I don’t see how it’s relevant for any issue that this court has to decide,” the prosecutor said.

“This goes to the man’s motivation,” Ramsey replied. “It goes to the credibility of not only him but … of his daughter.”

Oxenhandler overruled the objection.

“Yeah, I think I did [know] at the time,” Lyndel said of Rochelle’s reports against Brandon, including that he’d harassed her new boyfriend, who later became her husband. “But it’s kind of foggy now. I don’t remember.”

“Did you talk to your daughter at all about all of that?”

“She didn’t really relay it to me that much.”

“So she went over to the sheriff’s department to complain about being threatened, but she didn’t tell you about it?”

“She probably didn’t want to bother me.”

Ramsey methodically presented other evidence casting suspicion on Brandon: the witnesses’ contradictions of his alibi, his threats against Cathy Robertson, and the confession he’d allegedly made to Aaron Duncan. For some of the people from Chillicothe who’d come to watch the hearing, what Ramsey revealed was news—but it matched their understanding of who Brandon was. “That fit right into Brandon’s personality,” Kathy Smith said.

Finally, Ramsey called Brandon himself to the stand. Brandon honored the subpoena, showing up on the appointed day with a clean-shaven face and gel-spiked hair. He wore a gray suit that looked to be a size too big. His ears were cauliflowered from years on wrestling mats.

Brandon came with his attorney, John Waltz, who approached the bench before his client was called to the stand. “Your honor, I represent Brandon Hagan,” Waltz said. “Because he is being targeted by the current sheriff of Livingston County and in the news media, I’ve instructed him to take the Fifth.” Once he was sworn in, Brandon dutifully followed his lawyer’s advice.

“Were you the boyfriend of Rochelle Robertson at one point?” Ramsey asked.

Brandon declined to answer.

“Did you tell the police when you were interviewed that you left Independence, Missouri, at ten minutes to seven the morning after the murder?” Ramsey asked.

Brandon again pleaded the Fifth.

“I don’t have anything further, your honor,” Ramsey said.

Before Brandon was dismissed, Oxenhandler waved Waltz back up to the bench. The judge turned off his microphone. He had some information that the lawyer and his client hadn’t expected. “As an officer of the court, I want you to be aware that there is a warrant for your client’s arrest out of another county,” Oxenhandler said. “When he leaves the courtroom, he is going to be arrested.”

“I’ll accompany him, of course,” Waltz replied.

Outside the room’s doors, officers detained Brandon for writing a bad check. They read him his rights, patted him down for weapons, and emptied the contents of his pockets. Among the items, according to Ramsey, Williams, and Steve Cox, was an index card on which Waltz had written, “If you forget, shut the fuck up.”

Oxenhandler told Ramsey and Bruce to prepare written briefs of their arguments, after which he’d bring them back into his court in November 2011 for a concluding session. At that hearing, Bruce tried to counter Ramsey’s witnesses, particularly those who’d testified against Brandon. “I have no idea whether or not they are intentionally lying, whether or not they are just completely wrong,” Bruce said. Wasn’t it telling, he continued, that the surviving witness didn’t think Brandon did it? “If Mr. Lyndel Robertson wanted to make this case an easy one, all he had to do is say, ‘I saw who did it,’” Bruce said. “I have been troubled all along at the willingness to assume misconduct on the part of people, and not just the police, not just the prosecutor, not just the judges. The victims as well.” Ramsey’s rebuttal hinged on the existence of the Lewis letters and on Deister and Calvert’s work on the case, which Ramsey said “immediately calls into question the integrity of the investigation.”

It would be several months before Oxenhandler issued his recommendation to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mark remained in prison. The Woodworths, the Robertsons, and their respective supporters fell back into the uncomfortable habits of life as neighbors in Chillicothe. Williams and Ramsey returned to Bilbrey’s, where each time they logged on to the Missouri courts’ website, they hoped for an alert that Oxenhandler’s findings were available.

Finally, in May 2012, Ramsey received an email from the judge’s office. It said that the report would arrive in a few minutes, after which there would be a public release. Oxenhandler was ruling in Mark’s favor.

Ramsey and Williams yelled out, startling other staff in the office. In between tears, hugs, and jumping up and down, they read aloud lines from the report: “Woodworth had the burden to prove that he was entitled to habeas corpus relief, and he proved it, clearly and convincingly.” The Lewis letters and “all of the subsequently uncovered evidence … should have been disclosed years and years before.” Oxenhandler found Deister “not to be credible.” Calvert’s office “inexcusably” let Deister take the reins of the investigation. Lewis displayed “inappropriateness” and “lost sight of his judicial sense of fairness.” Lyndel’s employment of Deister in two conflicting legal matters was “problematic.” Hulshof’s prosecution was “as flawed [as] the investigation.”

Oxenhandler criticized the focus on Mark as a suspect when there was “an open and obvious ‘other’ person who may have committed the crimes”—namely, Brandon. The judge also criticized an “apparent pattern of not following up on witnesses and investigative leads which tended to contradict [Brandon’s] alibi.” Of Rochelle he wrote that she “was not being candid” about Brandon’s threats. “This demonstrated, at the very least, Rochelle’s intention to protect her boyfriend … from prosecution,” Oxenhandler said. “Either Rochelle was dishonest with the investigators or the investigators were not reporting what they really knew.”

In a fervent section, the judge said that he was “hard-pressed to come up with a word or phrase in the English language that fairly describes the conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth’s judicial process: They could be the lyrics to a country and western song.”

Ramsey and Williams dialed the number for Crossroads Correctional to tell Mark the news. True to form, he thanked them calmly and politely. Williams, though, sensed a spark of excitement.

The Missouri Supreme Court still had to decide whether or not to take Oxenhandler’s recommendation. At a hearing in June 2012, the seven black-robed justices sat in a room paneled with dark oak and heard Ramsey and Bruce speak one last time. They also asked questions. Of particular interest to the court were the ballistics and their chain of custody.

“The evidence at the hearing was that [Deister] was given physical possession, without supervision, of the bullet?” a judge asked.

“That’s correct,” Ramsey said.

“The conflicts that existed with regard to Woodworth’s judicial process … could be the lyrics to a country and western song.”

The Supreme Court released its decision six months later. The language was unequivocal: The court supported Oxenhandler’s findings and ordered the vacating of Mark’s conviction. He would be released on bond pending a new trial, which the attorney general’s office vowed to mount with the Robertsons’ support. “If seeking justice for the murder of Cathy Robertson takes a third trial and 100 years,” the family said in a statement after the decision came down, “we will do what it takes to hold Mark Woodworth accountable for his actions.”

On February 15, 2013, Mark was transferred from Crossroads Correctional to the Livingston County sheriff’s office. His family was waiting for him, along with Williams and Ramsey. Mark changed into a blue shirt and slacks, and he shook hands with various deputies who wished him congratulations. Mark hesitated when he got to the office’s glass doors. There were hundreds of people in the streets, some holding posters with messages welcoming him home. Media cameras lined the sidewalks. Mark looked around, expecting someone to lead him out. Instead he heard voices urge, “Go on.” Out he walked into the cheering crowd.

Elsewhere supporters of the Robertson family were furious. “I’m ashamed of this town that celebrates a murderer’s homecoming like he is a hero,” one woman wrote on the Facebook page Peace and Justice for Cathy Robertson. “How a two-time convicted murderer can be let free and a welcome-home parade given in his honor is just plain sick,” another wrote. “[That] this ‘person,’ and I use the term very lightly … has the gall to stay in this town and walk free is a little gutsy, don’t you think?”

After a barrage of hugs and questions, Mark was ready to go home, but he didn’t know how. What kinds of cars did his family drive now? Where had they parked? His sister led him to his brother’s truck, with the crowd trailing behind. Once they loaded inside, the siblings began the short trip to Claude and Jackie’s house. The last time Mark had taken the route was in the late 1990s. Back then he could practically drive it with his eyes closed. Now it felt like everything had changed. The roads were wider, and there was a new hospital in town. Outside his parents’ house, Mark couldn’t believe how tall the pine trees had grown.

The next day, Mark’s mom, grandmother, and aunt took him shopping. They went to Orscheln Farm and Home for jeans and to the Bootery for shoes. At an electronics store, his aunt got him an iPhone. “What do you want me to do with this?” he asked. The last time he’d been free, cell phones were only just starting to become everyday items. At the Hy-Vee, he ogled the self-checkout machine. He was surprised to learn at a gas station that he didn’t have to go inside to pay. “Now you use your credit card,” he said. “That was an experience.”

Other things were just as Mark had left them. He moved back into his childhood bedroom and started working with Claude in the fields. “My dream was to farm,” Mark said that fall. “By now I should have my own land, my own equipment, and I don’t have any of it.” If he had to make up for lost time, so be it.

The anticipation of a third trial, however, made it difficult to get started.    

Part VI


2014

A few months after the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling, a judge threw out the key ballistics evidence that allegedly implicated Mark in the shooting, citing “egregious, flagrant, cavalier disregard for evidentiary procedures and process.” The following year, he removed the attorney general’s office from the prosecution of the Robertson shooting and sent the matter back to Livingston County. “From the inception of the ‘secret investigation’ in 1991 through two trials,” the judge wrote, “the concept of ‘due process of law’ for defendant Woodworth took flight and did not reappear until approximately 2009.” The Robertson family questioned the impartiality of the sitting county prosecutor, so the judge appointed a special prosecutor. Finally, in July 2014, the state dismissed all charges against Mark. “The wrong person was charged in the first place,” the special prosecutor told the press. There would be no third trial.

The call came from Ramsey when Mark was in his father’s workshop. “It’s over,” Ramsey said. “You’re not going to have to worry about this anymore.” Mark went into the house to tell his mother, who began to weep. “I felt like my life had been on hold, waiting for the third trial,” Mark said. “I didn’t want to jump out there until it was over.” Now he was ready to live.

The next month, Ramsey filed a civil lawsuit on Mark’s behalf against numerous defendants, including Deister, Calvert, Lewis, Hulshof, Lyndel and Rochelle Robertson, Brandon Hagan, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department, the Chillicothe police, and other municipal authorities. The suit alleged:

Officials of the criminal justice system … conspired with civilians, who were acting under color of state law, to cruelly and cold-bloodedly frame Mark Woodworth for crimes he was innocent of. The conspirators accomplished their goals by conducting a sham investigation, fabricating false evidence, suppressing exculpatory evidence, and concealing their conspiratorial acts.

To Mark’s supporters in Chillicothe, it seemed obvious that he should get restitution for his time in prison. Other residents, however, saw the lawsuit as a fresh injustice. A professional spokesperson for the Robertson family, hired during the collapse of the case against Mark, said that the narrative of the shooting had tipped into lies and exaggeration. The people who believed the lawsuit’s accusations, she insisted, were like “children taking drugs from a dealer.”

Lyndel and other members of the Robertson family declined to speak for this story. But Rochelle, Rhonda, and Roxanne, the youngest sibling, agreed to meet in the dining room of Chillicothe’s Comfort Inn. When hotel staff fluttered near the table where the brown-haired sisters sat with water bottles, the women would pause their conversation, hoping to ward off any eavesdropping.

“When you go into town, it feels like you’re going into the mob,” Roxanne said.

“We vent to each other a lot,” Rhonda chimed in.

The sisters were frustrated that the town seemed to be forgetting what haunted them the most. “My mother is dead,” said Rhonda, herself a parent of three kids. “Mark has gained so much support. It seems like he has the whole town’s support. People get so wrapped up in this as a big story, and then they can close the book, throw away the newspaper, and turn off the TV. But my mom is still gone, and it’s something we have to live with every day.”

“They didn’t have to bury Mark,” Roxanne added.

“In the beginning here, it was us and the Woodworths,” Rhonda said. “They were our family. We thought of Jackie as a second mother, as much as we were with them.” Now if she saw one of the Woodworths at the Hy-Vee or at Walmart, she felt the urge to leave her cart half-filled and walk out of the store. Lyndel still owned the farmland adjacent to Claude’s, and he drove there every day for work, but he hadn’t spoken to his old business partner in many years. At a local preschool, Mark’s sisters avoided Rochelle, who worked as an aide in a classroom with some of their daughters.

“I would love to move,” Rhonda said, “but we’re anchored here with our farms. And, you know, part of me is like, ‘By God, we’re not going to let them run us off.’”

That finding justice for Cathy first required letting Mark go was an untenable notion for the Robertson sisters. They didn’t believe that someone could concurrently support Mark’s freedom and vindication for their mother’s death. It was an irreconcilable position.

Rochelle talked less than her sisters. Now and then, she cracked her knuckles under the table. “I just really want people to know that my mom was so much more than November 13, 1990,” she said. “She was the epitome of the perfect mom, in my mind anyway.” Rochelle talked about some of her earliest memories, when her siblings hadn’t yet been born and her mom took her on walks. “We’d go out in the creeks and collect these big ugly rocks, and then my dad would open them with a sledgehammer, and there’d be crystals,” she said. “They were the prettiest things inside. I always thought the crystals were diamonds.”

“I just really want people to know that my mom was so much more than November 13, 1990. She was the epitome of the perfect mom.”

The sisters denied that there had been serious tensions between Rochelle and their mother. “It wasn’t this tumultuous thing,” Rhonda said. “Sure, there were a couple of fights, but they got along—they just disagreed about Brandon.” The sisters said the notion that Rochelle might have been involved in the shooting, which Mark’s lawsuit explicitly suggested, was baseless.

“If I found out that she had something to do with this, it’d be no problem for me to tell the world that,” Rhonda said. “Because that’s someone’s life that was taken, and that’s way more important to me than saving my sister.”

At another point, Rhonda said wearily, “I wish the shooter had been Brandon. My life would be a hell of a lot easier. I wouldn’t be going through this agony.”

“I’m sure Dad wishes it was Brandon,” Roxanne added.

Sheriff Cox, who took over the reopened investigation into the Robertson shooting, believed Brandon was likely responsible for Cathy’s murder. “If we were in Las Vegas and the line was you put your money down on who you think did it, all my money would go on Brandon,” Cox said in a deposition. The sheriff grew even more confident after the Oxenhandler hearing, when additional circumstantial evidence came to light.

In 2011, Caleb Carter saw coverage of the hearing and reached out to Ramsey’s office. Caleb’s sister, Casey, had dated Brandon around the time of Mark’s second trial. She’d since passed away, but Caleb remembered a disturbing encounter he’d had with his sister’s boyfriend, before Brandon became so physically abusive toward Casey that her father told him to stop seeing her.

In 1998, Caleb went with Casey, Brandon, and some friends to spend a few nights at a condominium near a lake. One afternoon the group went to Old Time Photos, a portrait studio that sold sepia-toned pictures of patrons dressed in period costumes. Brandon dressed up as a gangster in a saloon. He wore a vest and a hat, an unlit cigar dangled from his mouth, and he gripped a fake pistol. A few hours after the photo was taken, the friends were drinking heavily at the condo when, according to Caleb in a deposition, Brandon “got angry about something and said, ‘I don’t mind shooting somebody or doing what I have to do.’” Caleb said that Brandon then “went into detail about how he had shot a couple of people in Chillicothe because they didn’t want him to date their daughter,” who was pregnant at the time. Caleb remembered Brandon’s saying that “he went to the house and went inside and shot the mom and dad and then he left. They were trying to take the baby away or make her not have a baby.”

Caleb pointed out that, back in 1998, it wasn’t as if someone at the condo could look up Brandon or the Chillicothe shooting on the internet as easily as they could in 2011. “I just thought he was full of it,” Caleb said. “The last thing I remember was him mentioning that he never got caught for it.”

When Cox heard Caleb’s story, he was angry. How many confessions does this guy have to make? the sheriff wondered. The number, however, wasn’t the issue—and it still isn’t.


2018

More than a quarter-century, two trials, and tens of thousands of pages of legal documents after Cathy’s murder, with the Robertsons still sure that Mark committed the crime, it’s likely that only a signed confession or murder weapon will lead to charges against anyone. And because virtually no one involved in the case has ever admitted wrongdoing and the mandate in Mark’s appeal was to prove his innocence, not convict someone else, the answers to several critical questions remain just out of reach.

If, as Ramsey has argued, Calvert, Deister, Lyndel, and others framed Mark, what was their motive? A frank if misguided desire to finish the case and bring closure to the Robertsons? A financial agreement benefiting certain individuals at Mark’s existential expense, and that of his family, too? Something more sinister, like a cover-up to protect the real killer?

If Brandon was the shooter, why has there never been any physical evidence found to implicate him? How likely is it, really, that a 16-year-old, no matter how volatile, could get away with murder, particularly after being the first suspect named by the surviving victim? Through legal representation, Brandon declined to comment for this story. “The claim that he was the true killer” and that he’d conspired with other people is “a bunch of bullshit,” attorney Ken McClain said.

Finally, what if someone else was responsible for Cathy’s murder, a suspect whom investigators missed completely? In a case so riddled with error, it’s not out of the question.

In Chillicothe, the shooting remains a tense, emotional issue. Cathy’s murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, Mark’s conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land. A complete reckoning of the wrongs done seems impossible so long as Cathy’s killer isn’t brought to justice. Until then, as surely as farmers plant and harvest their crops each year, so too will the memory of a violent death and the pain it wrought be perennial.

Cathy’s murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, Mark’s conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land.

On an unseasonably warm winter day, Mark walked across a quiet piece of land stretching toward a stand of poplar trees. The sun was starting to set. Here, a few miles outside Chillicothe, was the construction site of his new house. Once it was completed, he would share it with his wife, Katy, whom he’d met when his sisters orchestrated a lunch to introduce them. They have a son, Miles, who is two.

The house, situated on a 365-acre farm, was funded by a confidential insurance settlement from Mark’s civil suit. The number of defendants had been whittled down as the courts weighed who was responsible for his pain and suffering. The Robertsons and Brandon Hagan were dismissed, for instance, but Calvert, Livingston County, and Chillicothe law enforcement were found liable for tens of millions of dollars in damages. When that legal action ended, another cropped up in its wake: From an eighth-floor office overlooking the Mississippi, where he now has a small firm with his daughter, Ramsey is fighting a lawsuit brought by Brandon against him and Mark. Brandon alleges that being named as a coconspirator in Mark’s civil suit degraded his ability to obtain gainful employment. “He’s been fired from jobs because they found out about the case,” his mother, Renee Thomure, said. The first hearing is scheduled for July 2019.

Brandon, Ramsey, accusations, and court hearings didn’t seem to be on Mark’s mind as he walked through his home’s unfinished rooms. He described the colors he and Katy wanted to paint each wall: a soft green, a warm brown. The place felt as humble as it did idyllic.

Kelly Williams walked beside Mark, looking on the work in progress with satisfaction. She’d gotten married recently, to an insurance adjustor. After finishing Mark’s case, she’d worked at a courthouse for a while and eventually landed an administration job with more manageable hours at the University of Missouri. She stayed in close touch with the Woodworths, coming to Chillicothe as often as she could.

“I told Mark that he’s got to deal with me for the rest of his life,” she said.

“I’m stuck with her,” Mark echoed.

From her purse, Williams took out a photo laminated with clear tape. It shows the moment Mark walked out of the sheriff’s office in Chillicothe, in February 2013, and encountered a throng of supporters. In the middle of the swarm, Williams is behind Mark, smiling proudly as he melts into the crowd’s embrace.

Katy and Miles arrived at the construction site. The redheaded toddler dashed up to Williams to give her a hug. Mark bent down to adjust the Velcro straps on his son’s shoes. The group walked out of the house, to the area where Mark and Katy planned to build a back porch. “We wanted plenty of room,” Mark said of the acreage before him. There wasn’t a neighbor in sight.

Mark meandered back inside, to a room with tall windows facing east and south. This was where Katy would grow plants. “Succulents, those kinds of things,” Mark explained. “The sun comes in and warms the room.”

The moment echoed one from a few months after Mark first got out on bond in 2013, when he still didn’t know if he’d face another trial. One summer day, he drove in a truck—his truck—over a bumpy road on his father’s property, past a vast field of chest-high soybean stalks. He parked on a ridge and got out, then made his way down the slope to examine some of the plants. Harvest was nearing; he wondered how the crops were doing.

Soybeans are tough. In dry air, their leaves curl inward and toward the ground. “It’s how they survive against the summer sun while they wait for more rain,” Mark explained. “That’s their mechanism to defend themselves. That’s them doing what they can to fight.”

If you have any information regarding the murder of Cathy Robertson, please contact the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department at 660-646-0515 or via email at this link.

Coronado High

Coronado High

How a group of high school kids from a sleepy beach town in California became criminal masterminds.

By Joshua Bearman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 27


Joshuah Bearman has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Wired, McSweeney’s, Playboy, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, and he is a contributor to This American Life. He is currently working on his first book, St. Croix, a memoir.


Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Animation: Colleen Cox
Web Design: Alex Fringes
Music: “Life’s a Gas,” written by Marc Bolan, copyright 1971 TRO/Essex Music International, Inc., performed by Islands
Animation Soundtrack: Jefferson Rabb
Research and Production: Vonecia Carswell, Lila Selim, Chris Osborn, and Nadia Wilson
Cover Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd
Audiobook Narrator: Brett Gelman
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton

Published in July 2013. Design updated 2021.

The Lost Coast

1976

There, on the horizon: a ship.

Dave Strather* could see it through binoculars, the sails ghostly against the water. He was sitting on an exposed cliff overlooking the Pacific. It was dark, and the beach was deserted for fifty miles in both directions. This was the Lost Coast, a vast swath of rugged, uninhabited, magnificently forested Northern California, the kind of place that made you understand why people have always been drawn to the Golden State. Dave chose the spot for landfall precisely because it was so empty. He and his team needed secrecy.

The sailboat was laden with contraband: 4,000 pounds of Thai stick pot, the latest in marijuana commerce, a product as potent as it was valuable, which Dave and his crew—a team of smugglers called the Coronado Company—would unload and sell for millions of dollars. Once Dave made visual contact, his team got on the radios: “Offshore vessel, please identify.”

“This is Red Robin.”

Finally. Smuggling always involves waiting, but Red Robin—the code name for a ship called the Pai Nui—was months overdue, and Dave’s nerves were frayed. The Company, as its members called it, was already a successful and sophisticated operation, importing Mexican pot by the ton, hugging the coast in fishing boats from as far south as Sinaloa. But this was a new type of gig, crossing the Pacific in a double-masted ketch. There were more variables, more opportunities for error. The Pai Nui had run out of gas before it even reached the International Date Line. Then, under sail, she was becalmed in the Doldrums. And then she disappeared.

“Red Robin, come in,” Dave had said into his radio a thousand times, in a daily attempt to reach the boat. He set up a radio watch, 500 feet above the ocean, for a better line of sight. The beauty of single sideband radio was that you could communicate halfway around the world, coordinating, as the Company liked to do, with your fleet at designated hours on Zulu time. The problem with single sideband—besides that it wasn’t secure, and anyone could listen—was that there wasn’t much bandwidth. Dave and the others would eavesdrop on conversations in dozens of languages, hoping to hear the captain of the Pai Nui. Back in September, it was pleasant to be perched on a palisade covered in redwoods, taking in the panoramic view, drinking a beer, tweaking the dial, watching the ocean go from silver to teal to green to blue in the late afternoon. By late December, however, everyone was cold and jumpy. But now, just before Christmas, their ship had finally come in.

Dave and his team snapped into action. Everyone was practiced and drilled—that was the Company’s style. They were a tight, coordinated unit, most of them friends who grew up together in Coronado, a secluded little beach town on a peninsula off the coast of San Diego. A decade earlier, they had been classmates at Coronado High. Some of them were surfers and would bring small bales of pot across the border after surfing trips to Mexico. A half-decade later, the Coronado Company was the largest smuggling outfit on the West Coast, on its way to becoming a $100 million empire, one the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would later call the most sophisticated operation of its kind. “These kids were the best in the business,” James Conklin, a retired DEA special agent, says about the group he tracked for years. “They were ahead of their time. They operated almost like a military unit.”

The crux of the business was the off-load; the battle was won—or lost—on the beach. Everyone had their role. Dave ran field strategy. Harlan Fincher, who had a knack for equipment, was the logistics manager. Al Sweeney, a hobbyist photographer and silk-screener in high school, was the crack forger. Grease monkey Don Kidd was the chief mechanic. Allan Logie, a onetime motorcycle racer, was the flamboyant wheelman. Ed Otero, a great swimmer and athlete, provided muscle. Bob Lahodny, a handsome charmer whose 22-karat Baht chain signaled some mystical time spent in Thailand, had made the Company’s Asian supply connection. Lance Weber, who started the whole thing, was a fearless nut whom everyone called the Wizard on account of his thaumaturgical ways with engineering, especially the boat motors he rigged to run at smuggler speeds.

At the center of it all was Lou Villar. A former Spanish teacher, Lou had taught some of the guys back at Coronado High. Lance originally brought Lou along for his language abilities; it helped that he was a smooth talker. But when he got a look at all that money, Lou discovered an instinct for business. He organized the Company into a visionary outfit, with himself as the kingpin.

It was Lance’s idea to buy the DUKW, a 31-foot, six-wheeled, World War II–era amphibious landing craft that served as the audacious centerpiece of the operation, allowing the Company to drive right into the water and dock at sea with the sailboat. Lou had thought this was crazy—Oh sure, why not use zeppelins?—but after some research, Dave convinced Lou to approve the purchase of the 7.5-ton vehicle, which the crew had stashed in a barn near the tiny delta of Juan Creek.

Dave directed the boat south of the creek, where the beach, as expected, was deserted. (On the occasions when civilians wandered too close, they were intercepted by Dave, dressed as a park ranger, who told them that the area was the site of a wilderness-reclamation project and off-limits to civilians.) Lance went down the coast to Fort Bragg, 20 miles to the south, to get eyes on the local Coast Guard station. Company lookouts—code-named Nova for north and Saturn for south—took position out on the Pacific Coast Highway. At midnight everyone radioed in with a round of affirmatives. The coast, as they say, was clear. “Let’s get the Duck rolling,” Dave said over the comm.

With Ed and Don in the cockpit, the Duck pulled out of the barn, drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, and nosed into the water. They’d welded an additional wave shield to the bow so the Duck could break through the heavy California surf. Their compass turned out to be useless. But Ed, undaunted, plowed through the murky night—“nine feet up a black cat’s ass,” as Don put it—to meet the waiting ketch. They tied up, quickly transferred the load, and found their way back by aligning two lights Dave had set up onshore marking a safe passage. “Heading back,” he radioed Dave, who looked at his watch: So far, so good.

It was a funny thing to see the Duck rise from the darkness, shedding seawater like a real-life Nautilus—until it stopped rising. By now the tide had gone out, and the Duck, weighted down with Thai product, sank in the soft sand. The tide wouldn’t lift the vehicle for another six hours. By that time it would be broad daylight, and the Duck would be as conspicuous as a relic on Omaha Beach.

“Fuck,” Dave said over the radio. “We’re stuck.”

Ed hit the throttle and spun the wheels, sinking the Duck deeper into the sand. “Kill the engine!” someone yelled. Don got out, looked at the tires, and stood back. “Don’t panic,” he said. “I know exactly what to do.”

Don told Allan, who was on the beach, to get a couple of pickup trucks and a lot of rope. Like everyone else, he called the hirsute Allan “Fuzzy.” The two men were close, both a little wild, a couple of pranksters who got under Dave’s skin. But by God, they knew how machines worked. Now they assembled an elaborate pulley system connecting the pickups to the Duck’s winch. “Are you sure this is gonna work?” Dave asked.

Don didn’t flinch when the motors fired, and sure enough his ad hoc Archimedean apparatus enabled the Duck to lift itself out of the sand and back up to the road. It was a goddamn glorious sight. Cheers went up on the beach. Safely back in the barn, the Company hands unloaded the Duck’s fragrant cargo. It was a sweet reward to sample the supply; Don thought the faintly purple buds were thick and beautiful, the finest he’d ever smoked.

The cache was processed at the old general store next to the barn. It was the Company’s biggest haul to date: $8 million (about $33 million today). The Company had stepped up its game, bringing in better product with more sophisticated technique. The distributors would be pleased. By now they had been waiting a long time, too. Back in his cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel—as the ringleader, he rarely set foot near the beach himself—Lou had had a hell of a time keeping them calm. He was worried that the Company’s reputation would be ruined if the supply didn’t show. It was a relief to call the dealers and announce, “The Eagle has landed.”

The exchange with the dealers always happened fast. Like in the movies, the money would come in Halliburton briefcases. Unlike in the movies, the Company usually waited to count it. And count it. And count it. And count it. It took so long to count that much cash, they got bored. When all was said and done, the partners each made half a million off the operation. For his rescue of the Duck, Don got the MVP award, a new Company institution, which came with a $25,000 bonus. Everyone else got their wad and scattered to the winds—the sweet scent of their trade wafting from their clothes.

It was exhilarating, the money and the camaraderie. Company members saw themselves as hippie outlaws. There was no violence—they didn’t even carry guns—just the threat of the law, which bound them together. They were criminals, but they were also a family.

Afterward, Lou and Dave sat in Lou’s cabana, going through receipts, looking at ledgers, accounting for a very good year. Later, they burned the receipts and went out to a Beverly Hills restaurant to celebrate. “Here’s to everyone’s efforts,” Lou said as they hoisted champagne flutes. “Let’s do it again soon.”

*Not his real name.

From The Beachcomber, the Coronado High School yearbook, 1972.

The Teacher

1964

Lou knew he wouldn’t stop until he reached the Pacific. He had left New York in his convertible on that modern-day westward migration, a midcentury Manifest Destiny, with the top down and the red metal-flake lacquer on his Corvette flashing in the sun. On the radio were Dick Dale and the Beach Boys, songs about girls, woodies, surfing. That’s where he was headed. He was 25 and looking to change his life.

Lou was born in Havana, Cuba, to a family of small-business owners. His mother brought him to New York City as a teenager, in 1954, and he liked it: the hustle, the gritty determination required to get ahead. Lou was smart-mouthed and got into more fights than he should have for a guy his size. Despite being small, however, he was a great athlete, and he held his own in the rough-and-tumble of Flatbush, Brooklyn.

After college, Lou studied law at Syracuse, but it was the early 1960s, and the California lifestyle was just dawning on America. Syracuse was awfully far from the beach, and when he heard about a job teaching Spanish at a high school in Coronado, he packed his bags.

Coronado was all Lou had hoped for, an easygoing beach town of 18,000 people, known for its handsome Victorian hotel, Navy base, and isolation. It was a funny mix, a sort of military Mayberry. Coronado was connected to the mainland by an isthmus, but it took so long to drive around that it might as well have been an island out in San Diego Bay. Lou loved the nonchalance that came with the geography. Everyone called it the Rock, or, playfully, Idiot Island: a place where people did their own thing.

At Coronado High, Lou quickly developed a strong rapport with the students. He was handsome and charming and cultivated a cool image. In addition to teaching Spanish, he coached swimming, water polo, and basketball. Lou liked to shoot hoops with his students after school; he was the kind of coach kids confided in. A lot of his students were Navy brats, raised in strict military families just as Vietnam was escalating. Lou had an ear for what the kids wanted to talk about. He was not much older than them, and he understood.

Lou’s father died when he was three, and his own high school basketball coach had helped fill the role; he knew everything that a coach could be. My boys, he called his players. But when the whistle blew, they knew it was time to work. Lou was a demanding coach, and his players loved him for it.

Among Lou’s Spanish students was Bob Lahodny, a popular kid with an easy smile, president of the class of ’68 two years in a row. Bob, a swim-team star, was a close friend of Ed Otero’s, class of ’72, another strong swimmer on the team. Ed’s nickname was Eddie the Otter, or sometimes just Otter. He was short and stocky, powerfully built, but he didn’t like practice and was difficult to control. Lou liked Ed and thought he could have been a great competitive swimmer, but he had no discipline.

Discipline was something you needed if you swam or played ball for Lou. He could be unforgiving even with his favorite players, like Harlan Fincher*, the star center of the basketball team. Harlan was tall and friendly—he’d been named Best Personality and Best Sense of Humor in his senior year—and he liked Lou’s coaching. Lou thought the same of Harlan’s playing, until the day Harlan snuck off with some friends and a bottle of Chivas after school and showed up dead drunk for the last game of the season. Furious, Lou took Harlan off the floor. “When you play for me,” Lou told him, “you give me everything.” He didn’t speak to Harlan again for the rest of his time at Coronado High.


The social scene in Coronado in those days was typical of its time: greasers, lettermen, and—by the time Gidget was on television—surfers. The greasers wore black Converse, the lettermen wore white tennis shoes, and the surfers tended toward blue Top-Siders. Over time there were more and more Top-Siders as surfing took hold. Not far behind Gidget was the rest of the ’60s: hair, rock and roll, and drugs. Coronado was fertile ground for the changing times, full of military kids eager to rebel.

Alarmed by the influx of drugs, the city government set up a pilot project at the high school to keep students on the straight and narrow. It was called the “no-bust policy,” and one of its counselors was Lou Villar. His approach was simpatico; he’d spent plenty of evenings in his kids’ homes, watching disciplinarian fathers fume and military wives crawl on the floor after three martinis, and he sensed the hypocrisy. He knew the kids were just looking for an outlet and suggested alternatives. “Why smoke a joint,” he’d ask, “when there are so many other ways to have fun in life?” It was persuasion over punishment, and Lou was nothing if not persuasive—until he stopped believing the message.

Lou had always been the bohemian teacher, the one who pulled into the faculty lot in a red Corvette and shades. When the school banned sunglasses, he wore his prescription Ray-Bans in class anyhow. For the students of Coronado High, this was a sign of solidarity: Lou was going through the same changes they were, reflecting a culture that was advancing at a frantic pace. Imagine starting high school in 1964, how fast it was all moving between freshman and senior year: from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Tet Offensive, from the Voting Rights Act to the Watts Riots, from Help! to “The White Album.”

Like his students, Lou started growing his hair and learned to surf. It was humbling at first, eating saltwater a thousand times before he managed to get up on the board. But once Lou could feel the ocean lift him up and bring him to shore, he was hooked; there was energy in that ride. He started inviting “his boys,” and some girls, over for dinner. Together they all smoked their first joints. Everyone was scared, convinced they’d go crazy. Instead, smiles gradually spread around the room. They talked waves while the hi-fi played the Doors, whose front man, Jim Morrison, had lived in Coronado.

Soon, Lou was counseling his kids against following in their parents’ footsteps. “That’s not a career,” he would say, pointing at the ships moored off the Navy Yard. “That’s a war machine.” Lou thought it was pretty cool that one of his favorite Spanish students, Dave Strather, a talented musician, wanted to become a rock and roller. Lou started dating Kathy, a beautiful former cheerleader—voted Most Popular the same year she was in the homecoming court—who had graduated from Coronado High a couple of years earlier. She was seven years younger than Lou, but Lou himself was not yet 30. We’re just kids, he thought, and the kids are finally in charge.

It was just a matter of time before he quit teaching. Nobody wanted to be in the establishment anymore. In the summer of 1969, the summer of Woodstock, he traded his Corvette for a VW bus. During his last week in class, Lou brought in his turntable, wore his shades, and listened to Jethro Tull with his students. 

The bridge was going up that summer. You could see the caissons rising out of the bay, spelling the end of the Rock as a de facto island. In August it opened to traffic. The two-mile feat of box-girder engineering arced gracefully across the bay, connecting Coronado to the rest of the world. The locals gathered on the Coronado side, waiting to watch those first cars roll across, knowing things would never be the same. 

Lance Weber (Photo: Courtesy of Rex Gammon)
Lance Weber (Photo: Courtesy of Rex Gammon)

The Boys

1969

Lance Weber was never cut out for the Navy. He had joined after graduating from Coronado High mostly so he wouldn’t get shot at in Vietnam. His father, a Navy captain, wanted him to be an officer, but when Lance’s service was up, his parents had to accept that he was just another washed-out swabbie loafing around back on the Rock.

One thing the Navy did do for Lance, however, was teach him how to turn a wrench. After his stint as an engineer on a submarine, he could make anything work. Back in Coronado, he tricked out a VW microbus with a Porsche engine and built the island’s first low-rider bicycle by hand. “Here comes the Wizard,” people would say, watching Lance cruise the beach on his tuned-up rig, barefoot, shirtless, his long blond hair flowing behind him and a stoned smile on his face. Easy Rider had just come out, and leaning back on two wheels was maybe the coolest thing you could do. When people said Lance was a space cadet, that meant they thought he was a rad fucking guy.

That summer marked the first great marijuana supply shock in the United States, the consequence of booming stateside demand and a drought in Mexico. Prices spiked, encouraging creativity. There were mules caravanning the desert, planes flying low over the Arizona mountains, tires stuffed with green at the border. It was the dream of every pot smoker to get a “block,” or a kilo, keeping some and selling the rest. And for the stoned surfers on the beach in Coronado, there was an enormous arbitrage opportunity just a few miles south. The trick was figuring out how to get the stuff home.

It was Lance who came up with the idea of taking to the water. At the Long Bar in Tijuana, he got his hands on 25 pounds of pot and swam it north from the beach by the bullring of the Plaza Monumental de Tijuana. He washed up on the U.S. side, on a beach with no name, no facilities, not even a parking lot—a perfect terminus for illegal night swims. He did it again, and again. It was dangerous, being in the water at night with only the blinking radio-tower lights for guidance, but it was worth it: Each delivery netted five grand.

Soon, Lance had a little team of marijuana marines working with him, swimming as many bundles as they could get their hands on. They were misfits, guys who couldn’t get girlfriends in high school before Lance put pot and money in their hands, and now they looked to Lance as their eccentric leader. He got busted in 1971, but the few months he served in Lompoc made him Coronado’s first hippie outlaw hero, a local legend.

When Lance got back, Paul Acree, one of Lance’s misfits, introduced him to a new connection, and they strapped on their fins again. A few bales later, however, they came up with a better idea: a Zodiac, similar to the inflatable rubber crafts used by Navy SEALs. One run in the Zodiac was good for 100 pounds of grass. It was easy money.

Looking to expand the little operation, Paul brought in Ed Otero. Ed was the archetypal California boy: blond, square face, cleft chin, like a letterman who had traded his varsity jacket for the waves. He was a former lifeguard, strong on land—he was known around town for tearing phone books in half—and in the surf. They would call him the Otter for his facility in the water, his ability to break through nasty surf with bales in hand.

A division of labor emerged: Paul arranged supply, Lance piloted the Zodiac, and Otter swam. The only thing holding them back was the connection, their guy in Tijuana. They called him Joe the Mexican, and since none of them had taken Lou’s class, they couldn’t understand a word Joe said.


Lou was in dungarees, standing on a ladder with paintbrush in hand, when Lance rolled up on his low-rider bike.

“You speak Spanish, right?”

“Sí,” Lou said. “Naturalmente.” It was a rhetorical question.

“Then come down here,” Lance said. “I got an idea.”

“I don’t have time,” Lou said. “I have to finish painting this house.”

“I’ll make it worth your time,” Lance said. He would pay Lou fifty bucks, he explained, to go with him to Tijuana for dinner.

Fifty bucks sounded good to Lou. He was painting houses for money, living in a little cottage. Since quitting Coronado High, he had become a bona fide beachside Buddhist, surfing, reading Carlos Castaneda, pondering the evils of materialism, making candles, and meditating with a local guru named Bula. He’d run into his old student, Bob Lahodny, among Bula’s disciples. He had also reconnected with Dave Strather,  who had recently returned to Coronado after spending a few years as a studio musician in San Francisco.

Life was simple, and Lou and Kathy were having a great time—until free love got the best of them. After four years together they had split up, driven apart by jealousy. There was nothing wrong with their relationship other than timing; 1971 was a bad time to be young, good-looking, stoned, and married. Now Lou spent his days painting houses and his free time at the beach. That was where he met Lance, out on a jetty where people went to watch the sunset.

Lance had gone to Coronado High but graduated before Lou’s time. They started hanging out around the Rock and roasted some pigs together. (Luaus were the thing then.) Lou loved that life. But he didn’t love being so broke. Traveling down to Tijuana and translating for Lance was the easiest fifty bucks he ever made—until Lance offered him a hundred the next week to do it again.

During the second meeting, Lou sensed an opportunity for his friends and negotiated a larger load for a better price from Joe the Mexican. Impressed, Lance offered Lou a cut of the next shipment.

When it was time for the pickup, Lou helped Lance, Paul, and Ed inflate the Zodiac and load it offshore by the little salt-eaten Rosarito beach shack where Joe the Mexican delivered the goods. Once they got it across the border, Lou’s share was $10,000. It was more money than he had earned in the past several years. He gave away his painting equipment and never looked back. Like everyone else, Lou had been smoking pot for giggles, but then came a moment of clarity, when he took that joint from behind his ear, sparked it up, and saw the future. 

The Gig

1972

Gigs, they called them. Or scams. Or barbecues, since they would plan them while throwing steaks on the grill at sundown. Everyone would get the call—“Do you want to go to a barbecue?”—when it was time to mobilize. The missions were simple at first, with just the 12-foot Zodiac running a couple hundred pounds at a time from Rosarito to the Silver Strand beach on Coronado’s tiny isthmus. But the loads were getting bigger, and even Eddie the Otter had trouble hauling 50-pound bags through head-high waves. And everyone knew it was unwise seafaring, to say the least, to negotiate the coast in that little raft with no lights and no navigation.

Still, Lance was an adventurer; he would have made a great swashbuckler, Lou always thought, or a test pilot. When Lance reached the Silver Strand, he’d signal with a flashlight and run the Zodiac right up onto the sand—Burn up the motor, he’d say, well buy a new one. They would off-load the bags, deflate the boat, and pack it all into the van. It would be over in five minutes, the most exciting five minutes they’d ever experienced: everyone holding their breath until the van was on the road, knowing as they drove away that they each had just made twice their parents’ annual salary.

At first there was one gig a month. Then it was one a week. Within a year, the crew was scaling up from the Zodiacs to a clandestine armada of speedboats, fishing boats, even a 40-foot cabin cruiser. Some of the money they made went back into the business. Lance bought a Chris-Craft called the Lee Max II and rebuilt the engine so he could carry serious weight at top speeds. They hired beach crews to expedite the off-load.

It was risky, bringing more people into the operation, but it was Coronado, and everyone knew each other. “If we take care of them,” Lance said, “they’ll take care of us.” And the partners could afford to be generous. Still in their twenties, they were walking around with $50,000 in their pockets, then $100,000, then a quarter of a million dollars. “Don’t you love it,” Lance once remarked, “when life goes from black and white to Technicolor?”

Lou walked into a bank, asked for the balance of his mother’s house, and paid it off in cash. Once, when he was buying first-class tickets to Hawaii for himself and his girlfriend, it dawned on him that he had enough money to hang out there and surf for the rest of his life. And he might have, had Ed and Lance not flown over personally to retrieve their partner. “Come on, Señor Villar!” Ed said. “There’s more money to be made!”

It got to be like clockwork, enough so that sometimes Lance’s and Lou’s girlfriends would tag along on the supply runs to Tijuana. It was about this time that Lance started calling Lou “Pops,” a nickname that caught on. “What do you think, Pops?” Lance asked one evening, drinking Coronas on the beach in Baja.

“I think we got a good thing going here,” Lou said. “Let’s not fuck it up.” 

Lance Weber, top right, and friends from Coronado pose with the Coronado Company’s DUKW amphibious landing craft. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)

The Agency

1973

When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration opened its office in the San Diego suburb of National City in 1973, it had just six field agents. The DEA was a brand-new agency, assembled from various other departments, including the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), a tautologically titled bureaucratic relic that was poorly equipped to fight the war on drugs that President Richard Nixon had declared in 1971.

The impetus for the drug war was a congressional report issued the same year stating that as much as 15 percent of U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam—a conflict that put hundreds of thousands of Americans in close proximity to the Golden Triangle—had come back hooked on heroin. The same report said that half of the service smoked pot. Alongside other law-enforcement agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI, the DEA was tasked with fighting what Nixon called “the new menace.”

Bobby Dunne was one of the first agents working out of the new office. He’d started his law-enforcement career in National City a dozen years earlier, as an animal-control officer. After working his way up through the ranks of the local police department, he’d become a federal narcotics agent in 1968 and spent several years working in Guadalajara, Mexico. Dunne was excited to be abroad but quickly realized that corruption in Mexico made his job nearly impossible. When he came back to the States, he asked to join the DEA’s San Diego office, because “the action,” as they called it, was at the border.

The new agency needed all the local savvy it could get. San Diego was a world apart from drug interdiction on the East Coast, where well-understood organized-crime syndicates brought heroin in through the ports. California was a new front, the Wild West. Newly arrived agents couldn’t believe it: In one 12-hour shift at San Ysidro, you’d get three or four hauls of 100 kilos. Dunne was the first officer to pull a full ton of pot out of a truck heading north.

Dunne was a field agent, and in San Diego the work lived up to the title. In other DEA offices, you went to work in a suit and tie and spent a lot of time at your desk. In San Diego, the agents were veterans of border details and dressed like vaqueros: boots, jeans, guayaberas, cowboy hats. They spoke Spanish, wore beards and mustaches, and spent the nights in Tijuana bars with informants and local cops. To get anywhere, you had to roll up your sleeves and go drinking down in Revolución, getting to know the people on both sides of the border trade.

None of that shoe-leather work, however, clued the DEA into the new homegrown smuggling organization right under their noses, on the other side of San Diego Bay. The DEA’s first tip about the Company came from a Coronado police officer who had heard through the grapevine about some local guys and a former teacher running bales of pot up the coast. The beach runs weren’t in Coronado proper and were beyond police jurisdiction, so the officer called the feds.

Dunne was intrigued. He was assigned to a special unit that worked closely with local police and other law enforcement, and he debriefed the Coronado officer. He arranged for the Coast Guard to run some exercises with Zodiacs and realized that the small crafts could cruise the coast without showing up on radar. Very clever, he thought. Then the DEA got wind of a boat called the Lee Max II, owned by a local kid named Lance Weber who had done time in Lompoc a couple years before for smuggling. There were reports of the Lee Max II on the water at 3 a.m., and Dunne doubted they were out fishing.

Once, following a late-night sighting of Lance’s boat, the DEA posted agents at regular intervals along the coast, hoping to catch the smugglers in action. They saw the boat motoring away from a lonely stretch of beach in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. Dunne and the other agents rushed to the scene and scoured the beach, but it was too late. All they found were footprints going up the dunes to a house overlooking the ocean. 

Professionals

1974

Lately, Lou had been spending more time in North County. There was money up there, in Carlsbad, where he rented a house, and new hot spots like Del Mar and La Costa. One night, Lou met the owner of the Albatross, a nice seafood restaurant housed in an old church in Del Mar. He thought the place was groovy: good food, drinks, and music, and well attended by rich dopers. The owner of the restaurant was a big-time distributor himself.

Lou had come to recognize that smuggling was as much about personality as it was about know-how. To climb the ladder, you had to play it cool. Which is what he and the restaurant owner did, warily revealing their mutual interest, pulling their cards away from their vests to talk about how they might fit into each other’s business models.

“How much can you handle?” Lou asked.

“How much can you bring?” the owner replied.

The Albatross crowd offered Lou entrée to a new class of distributors, the kind of dealers who dressed well and belonged to racquet clubs. Lou began joining them for dinner, talking books, travel, and wine. They turned Lou on to a wine importer up in San Francisco, and he started ordering Bordeaux and white Burgundies. Refinement suited him. By now he had cut his hair and traded his hippie beads for silk shirts. When Lou suggested bringing in a ton, and the dealers said they’d pay cash on the barrelhead, he saw the horizon expanding before his eyes.


 Lance delighted in the prospect of expanding their little navy. But carrying more weight meant more people on the beach—five, ten guys running bags up and down the sand—and they needed to tighten the screws on the organization. Lou started strategizing. He turned to his good friend and former student Dave Strather.

Dave’s band was still playing around town, and he had recently married a tall, good-looking hippie girl named Linda. But Lou knew he was struggling financially. “Are you interested in some profitable moonlighting?” Lou asked him one day.

Dave, a solid bodysurfer, handled himself well in the waves and started as a loader. But he was a gifted planner, and it wasn’t long before Lou gave him more managerial duties. Lou wanted a right-hand man, and Dave was a natural. He was a drummer, after all, used to keeping time, being the backbone. Even in his hippie days he was fastidious, shampooing his long hair every day (and belying his nickname, Dirty Dave). That hair was gone once Dave started running around with a clipboard and checklists, buying and storing equipment, running smuggling gigs like a stevedore superintendent.

That put Dave at odds with Ed, whose run-and-gun style had been central to the early days of the operation but was fast becoming obsolete. Ed was a beloved figure around Coronado, a fun guy, the life of every party. But he was impulsive. When Ed was a lifeguard, he liked to drive his truck down the sand at full speed—and that’s how he’d flipped it right into the water. Dave bristled when he would show up at a gig at the last minute and start bossing people around, imperiling Dave’s meticulous plans. Dave would appeal to Lou, who tried to promote Ed out of Dave’s hair. “You don’t want to be a grunt on the beach,” he told him. “You’re in management. Let Dave roll up his sleeves.”

That mostly worked, at least at the smuggling sites. Off the beach was another matter. Ed was young, wild, and flush—a dangerous combination in a small town. Here he was, no known job, celebrating one of the organization’s first big paydays at the Chart House down on the Embarcadero, cozying up to some girl with his hands full of cash. “Look what I got, baby,” Ed told her, laying out ten grand in bills. Lou would’ve jumped on the table to cover it up, but the whole place had seen it already. We need to cut these shenanigans, Lou told his colleagues. We’re gonna bring heat on ourselves.

What he didn’t know was that they already had. The DEA was onto Lance, watching him run the Lee Max II like a daredevil, at full speed on autopilot, ripping through the swells like a lunatic. And Lance was as flamboyant on land as he was cavalier in the cockpit. He knew he was known to the authorities, and he loved pushing his luck. “I like making the cops look bad,” he’d say. “It’s fun.”

Not to Lou, it wasn’t. One night after a gig in Carlsbad, they’d planned to meet at a coffee shop near Oceanside Harbor after the beach crew unloaded the shipment. Lou was sitting in his booth with a fork in a slice of cherry pie when he looked up and saw Lance drive past in his truck, pulling the Lee Max II on its trailer, two squad cars in tow. The cops tore the boat apart, right in front of the coffee shop, but found nothing. Lance relished his little victory—and then walked in to meet Lou. “Don’t even talk to me,” Lou said, jumping up to leave. “Just keep walking.”

It was the same night Special Agent Dunne  found footsteps on the beach near Lou’s house. The DEA agents had followed Lance in his boat to the marina, but when the boat came out clean, the district attorney refused the DEA a search warrant for the house.

It was a close call. Lou didn’t realize how close when he moved to Solana Beach and relocated the entire smuggling outfit out of Coronado. It was the first time some of its members had lived anywhere besides the Rock. By then, everyone on the island knew what they were up to. They even had a name for their hometown smugglers: the Coronado Company.

The name stuck; Lou had misgivings about it, but it suited the group’s professional aspirations. By now they were evolving quickly. Lou turned out to be not just a natural leader, but also an organizational genius. The one-time anti-materialist candlemaker became a business visionary, laying out plans for the Company to dominate its market niche. As he had when he was a coach, Lou knew how to motivate people, establish mutual trust, and make the members of his squad believe in their abilities. Pops was now a father figure to a new kind of team. It was fun in those early days, he told his boys in the Company, but amateur hour is over.


The new organization left little room for Paul Acree. Paul was always his own worst enemy. He was cold and had a nasty gift of gab. He could be funny, but always at the expense of others. Paul had found the crew’s original line of supply in Tijuana, but Lou knew he wasn’t the right guy to make the bigger connections the operation needed to grow. You couldn’t look like a hood at the next level. His idea of business—give me the money, you get the pot—was oafish. Where was the salesmanship in that? Where was the finesse?

And lately, Paul had started sniffling and rubbing his nose. Nobody knew when exactly he had become an addict. Maybe it was when everyone got rich and he could suddenly get as much heroin and coke as he wanted. Once driven, he was coasting now, showing up at meetings with watery eyes. He looked terrible. He was Lance’s friend, but even Lance knew that you couldn’t trust a junkie. When the Company convened to vote Paul out, it was unanimous.

One of the Company’s Mexican contacts, known as Pepe de Mexicali, had told Lou about the time he had to get rid of an associate who had been caught with his fingers in the jar by taking him on a “one-way plane ride.” The Coronado Company’s style was more genteel than that; if you got fired, they just stopped calling you. With Paul, the partners decided, they would simply move away. They left him with $10,000. It wasn’t much in the way of hush money, especially for a guy who was speedballing, but that was the offer.

With Paul gone, Lou took on an even larger role within the Company, and he started to act the part. He conducted business from his new house in Solana Beach, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, with his malamute, Prince, at his feet. There he’d preside with his girlfriend, Kerrie Kavanaugh, a waitress he’d met at another tony spot in nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Lou had left her a $100 tip one night, followed the next day by 20-dozen roses, along with a card bearing a poem he wrote. Kerrie thought the roses were a bit tacky—a nice little bouquet of handpicked wildflowers would have better suited a girl like her—but the poem was nice. She showed up at Lou’s house, where she found him sunbathing on the deck.

Lou had spent a few years floating between girls, but he saw immediately that Kerrie had a spark. She was smart, with a bright smile and an eager outlook on the world. Lou was older, wealthier, and more worldly than the boys who hit on her on the beach. He doted on her, gave her gifts and several cars, paid for her dance classes. Soon she moved from her beach trailer into Lou’s place. They would entertain the rest of the Company guys and their girlfriends there, drinking greyhounds until dinner and then smoking and doing lines while dancing to the Average White Band until three in the morning. The next day, they’d wake up and start all over again.

Lou initially told Kerrie he was an interior decorator, but she didn’t believe it for long; his place was well decorated, but she never saw a single catalog or bolt of fabric around. It wasn’t a surprise when Lou finally confessed that he was a drug kingpin, nor did it change how she felt about him. Kerrie was the kind of girl who watched the Watergate hearings from beginning to end. With her anti-establishment sympathies, Lou’s profession had a renegade appeal.

For his part, Lou saw himself as a new kind of CEO. He just wanted to excel at what he did. He was already a multimillionaire, as were his partners. They thought that was all the money in the world. They were wrong. 

Kerrie Kavanaugh and Lou Villar shortly after they first met, in the mid-’70s.
Kerrie Kavanaugh and Lou Villar shortly after they first met, in the mid-’70s.

The Don

1975

Lou and  Dave were south of the border, in a Tijuana flophouse near the racetrack, surrounded by a dozen men with machine guns. They were drug-lord foot soldiers; you could tell from the chrome-plated pistols in their belts. No one moved. Dave and Lou waited. The seconds felt like hours.

They had gotten themselves into this situation on purpose, after deciding that the Company should do some supply-chain outreach. Dave had run across a guy they called Rick Pick who said he knew Roberto Beltrán. The Don. The head of the Sinaloa-based trafficking syndicate, one of the biggest drug dealers in the world. Lou and Rick met and sized each other up. Once they decided that they trusted each other, Lou said, “Introduce me to the Don.”

Thus began a series of false starts and frustrations. Late at night, Lou and Dave would get a call and rush to the appointed meeting place under the San Diego side of the Coronado Bridge, only to find nobody there. Finally, when the real call came to meet in Tijuana, Lou arrived two hours late on purpose. That’s the Mexican style of business, he thought. Mañana! Keeping them waiting, Lou reasoned, would show that they were equals.

But now, trapped deep inside the syndicate’s flophouse, they knew they were not equals. And Beltrán’s guys didn’t look happy. Dave was terrified. But Lou kept his game face. He was still wondering if the meeting was for real. “Are we going to see the Don?” he asked. Finally, the Don’s bodyguard, who went by the name El Guapo, led them into a small room. There, reclining on a king-size bed, was Beltrán.

Dave and Lou were surprised to see that the Don looked like a maharishi, or maybe a bum: scraggly hair, jeans, unshaven. When they walked in, he didn’t get up. It was a weird scene, standing at the foot of the bed, unsure of what to do. Dave thought they were dead. Especially when Lou decided to take a pillow and lay down on the bed, right next to Beltrán. Dave silently said a prayer.

One of the things Dave liked about Lou was his finesse. Dave’s own father was the executive officer of the Navy base on Coronado, a tyrant whose explosive temper kept him from ever becoming an admiral. He had trouble forming real relationships with anyone, including his son. Dave hated his father, and he admired Lou for being the opposite in every way. Dave thought he had an aristocratic bearing, an elegance that could charm people in any situation. But this situation was different. This was Roberto Beltrán. And he wasn’t smiling.

Lou and the Don were chatting softly, faces inches apart. Within a few minutes, Beltrán was grinning, then laughing. Lou’s instinct was right; the Don respected the wildly daring initiative of showing up like this, offering a new service to the syndicate. No one from the States had ever approached him. “What do you have to lose?” Lou told him.

Lou knew the Mexicans were sending half-tons north every way they could think of and losing a lot of it at the border. It was a model that made money—the supply that got through paid for the rest—but still, there was a lot of smuggler’s shrinkage. This is what Lou told Beltrán, in so many words: The Coronado Company can reduce your shrinkage. “Let’s do business,” the Don said.


The days of cabin cruisers were over.  Lance hired a commercial fishing vessel and a sailor of fortune who went by the name Charlie Tuna. The boat arrived for pickup at an isolated beach on the Sea of Cortez. Beltrán’s bodyguard drove Dave and Lou; they were rumbling along the barely paved highway in the shadow of the Sierra Madre Occidental when they saw roadblocks flanked by soldiers on the road. The jig is up, Dave thought, but their caravan was waved right through. The men were from the Don’s security team, part of his service package as a supplier. Federales on the Don’s payroll guarded the beach operation.

Out on the water, Charlie Tuna maneuvered his boat through the beach mud, getting as close to shore as possible. The boat was loaded with hundreds of bales, passed from sand to canoe to Zodiac to deck, along with some cases of beer for the crew’s return trip. “See you in Malibu,” Charlie said over the radio.

Onshore, Lou shook hands with the Don. The whole deal was on credit. And now the Company owed the Sinaloa suppliers $3 million. It had never occurred to Lou what might happen if something went wrong. “Good luck!” Beltrán told Lou. “You’ve got some real cojones, you know?”


Fifteen tons, Dave thought, right on the goddamned beach? The Mexican job was an enormously challenging off-load, an order of magnitude bigger than their usual runs. Dave bought more sophisticated equipment and procured several houses to use as staging sites and covert entrepôts, including a rental right off the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

That was where the team assembled. The company had added some new recruits, including Allan “Fuzzy” Logie, a surfer turned motorcycle racer. Fuzzy was amazed at the scale of the Company’s operation and quickly took a liking to Don Kidd, another trafficking tenderfoot recruited by Lance. Don hailed from Coronado—Lou had taught his brother Spanish—and he would have been class of ’69 if he had graduated instead of going to Vietnam. The Company had brought Don on as a gofer, but he quickly distinguished himself as a talented mechanic whose expertise would eventually elevate him to chief engineer.

The midnight chaos reminded Don of Vietnam, exciting but perilous. They were in plain view of the neighbors, whose lights were on. And they were out there on the water for hours, buzzing around in the Zodiacs, carrying everything by hand.

Luckily, it was overcast, and the reflected glow of the city gave them extra light. They got the job done, but it took forever. Fuzzy ran for eight hours straight. In the end, they managed to fit all 15 tons in three rented Ryder trucks. The next stop was the processing site. As the convoy pulled away from the beach, they drove right past a highway patrol cruiser on the shoulder with lights flashing. Fuzzy smiled as they passed; the officer was writing some poor bastard a speeding ticket while a truck packed with thousands of pounds of pot sailed by at 60 miles an hour.

At the warehouse, where Dave had organized an assembly-line-style repackaging system—every brick was weighed to the gram, bagged, marked with a sticker, and recorded—Lou showed up to inspect the wares. It was a job well done. When everyone got their cut, Fuzzy asked if he could get paid in weed. He had to settle for cash instead. “Well,” he told the others, “I hope I get invited to another barbecue.”

Lou, intent on impressing the Don, decided to deliver his money immediately, in person, without being asked. When Lou and Dave flew to Culiacán, Sinaloa, and, once again surrounded by machine guns, handed over duffel bags containing $3 million in cash—they had carried them on the plane and snuck through customs with swiped inspection tags—the Don smiled. “We owe you a party,” he said. That night, he feted them at a restaurant in Culiacán, where he and Lou arranged the next consignment: another 20 tons.

When they got the shipment into the safety of a warehouse in Santa Cruz, the load was ten feet high.  Ed pulled out some blocks and arranged them into a chair, and they all took turns sitting on the throne of hard-packed kilos. The Coronado Company were now the biggest pot smugglers on the West Coast. What they had done, at their age—Lou, the oldest among them, was just 34, and most of the rest were in their mid-twenties—was without precedent. They were a bunch of young hippies sitting atop an empire. 

Company members pose on top of a shipment of marijuana. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)
Company members pose on top of a shipment of marijuana. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)

The Insider

1976

People around Coronado told different stories about how exactly it was that Paul wound up talking to the DEA. Some said he just wanted to get back at the Company. Others said he was arrested trying to steal some navigation gear and, jonesing in jail, made a deal. Whichever it was, the moment Paul started talking was the moment that Dunne and the other agents discovered just what they were up against.

They were shocked at the Company’s scale. As far as they knew, smuggling on the West Coast was a haphazard business. And here was Paul telling them how the Company was landing thousands of kilos on a beach with SEAL-like precision not three miles from their office. They were operating at a level far beyond the DEA itself; the agency’s National City office, only a few years old, barely had the budget and personnel to cover San Diego County, much less go toe-to-toe with an organization like the Company.

Paul, meanwhile, had nothing to lose. His money was gone, but his drug habit wasn’t. All he had left was information. Paul might have been excommunicated from the Company, but he was still connected to Lance. Although Lance had moved away from Coronado with the rest of the partners, his girlfriend, Celeste, still lived on the Rock. When he was in town, he hung around with the old crowd, even Paul. Sensing opportunity, Dunne let Paul go, sending him out to gather more information.

Coronado was a natural rumor mill, and word got around quickly that Paul was snitching. But Lance was a chatterbox, and he couldn’t help himself from filling in Paul on the Company’s latest exploits anyway. Back in the DEA office, a picture began to come together. The agents heard about the organization’s humble beginnings, the deal with Roberto Beltrán that pushed the Company into the big time, and, the following year, a trip to Morocco.

That gig started with a meeting at a Black Angus Steakhouse in La Mesa and took them to the Canary Islands, Casablanca, and Tangiers. The idea had come from the younger brother of Lou’s ex-wife, Kathy. He had done some frontier surfing on the edge of the Sahara, the scene of some legendary perfect right breaks, and came back talking about hashish, the potent black tar of the Berbers. The Company found a new captain—Charlie Tuna’s friend, who (no joke) went by the name Danny Tuna—and a new ship, a 70-footer rigged for albacore fishing called the Finback. There were bumps along the way, like Danny running out of money and trying to sell his equipment to confused dockside Canary Islanders. Lance and Ed flew to Tenerife, where they found Danny, drunk, lost, and carousing with British girls on holiday. They got the Finback to Algeciras, at the Strait of Gibraltar, resupplied, and then steamed back in rough weather across the Atlantic and Caribbean.

It turned out that the Finback’s cargo wasn’t actually hash but rather kief, a less valuable precursor product. But the DEA agents understood the operational significance of the mission. These guys had crossed oceans and solved major logistical problems on the fly. No one in the office had ever seen anything like it.

It had been years since Lou had seen Bob Lahodny. Since the two crossed paths as earnest disciples of the meditation guru Bula on the beach in Coronado, the onetime class president and swim champ had gone abroad. He’d bought the Pai Nui, a handsome, teak-decked sailboat, and sailed around the South Pacific. He was in Bali when he fell in with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Like-minded expatriates from Southern California, the Laguna Beach–based group was known for proselytizing about the benefits of LSD—they were close associates of Timothy Leary and had once worked with the Weather Underground to help him flee the United States. They also ran a vast drug-smuggling network, manufacturing and distributing acid in the United States and running hashish from Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Brotherhood had connections in Thailand, too, and Bob brought them back to Coronado. “You guys can make the same money from two tons of Thai stick as 20 tons of Mexican pot,” Bob told his old pal Ed when he reappeared in the States.

Thai stick had enjoyed an aura of mystique ever since U.S. soldiers started coming back from Vietnam tours with batches of the extremely powerful varietal knotted around bamboo skewers. It had developed a reputation as the new marijuana gold standard; One Hit Shit, they called it. The DEA at the time believed it to be among the most profitable commodities in existence: a ton bought in Bangkok for $100,000 went for $3.5 million stateside. The hard part was getting it there. Unlike drugs flowing north from Latin America, Thai stick had to come in by boat. And boats happened to be the Company’s specialty.


Bob came on as a partner, bringing in his connections but steering clear of the operation. He was, in Lou’s words, a “good-time Charlie rather than a brass-tacks guy.” Still, the first shipment he brought back aboard that Pai Nui was a multimillion-dollar proof of concept of how Thai stick would revolutionize the Company. When Dave did the math, his eyes widened. The Company could earn more—far more—while being more discreet. It was a smuggler’s dream.

By now, the Company had earned a begrudging respect from its pursuers; the DEA agents in National City regarded Lou and his crew as smart businessmen and tactical geniuses. But Dunne had an idea about how to tighten the screws on their investigation. A veteran agent, he was one of the few people in his office who knew how to write up a conspiracy case. The tactic was mostly unknown in the DEA at the time, but it was a legal tool that would allow for deeper investigative powers and bigger indictments.

Once Dunne and the other agents learned the full magnitude of the Company’s activities, they started laying the groundwork for the case. Using the information that Paul had fed them, the agents began piecing together the facts of a conspiracy. By the spring of 1976, as the Company was contemplating its leap into the Thai trade, Dunne had enough to convince the U.S. attorney in San Diego to convene a grand jury.

Now the DEA’s investigation had a name. Operation CorCo was in full swing.

Freeway All the Way

1977

“You nearly clipped Bambi!”

 Fuzzy pulled up alongside Dave in fourth gear. They were straddling a pair of enduros, off-road motorcycles they’d brought up to the redwoods, where Fuzzy was teaching Dave how to ride. Dave was getting the hang of it, opening up the throttle on the open forest roads, taking in the hum and rattle and the prismatic sun filtering through the canopy. He hadn’t noticed a spotted fawn grazing on the shoulder. Fuzzy saw Dave’s tire brush its bushy white tail. “You’re lucky to be alive!” he said, grinning.

The two had been up there for weeks, cruising the backcountry of the Lost Coast, looking for even more remote loading sites after the success of the Pai Nui. Finding the right spot was an art. Dave constantly studied maps, scoping out prospective landing sites as far north as Alaska. But the empty beaches of the Lost Coast, many of them accessible only by old unpaved logging trails, had the advantage of being conveniently close to San Francisco.

The nimble, long-range enduros, their reach extended by gas cans stashed in the woods, were the best way to negotiate the difficult terrain of one of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. The whole territory was a refuge of dropouts and outlaws: Hells Angels, ex-cons, hippie communes. But the forest was vast enough to swallow all of them, and Dave and Fuzzy would be alone with the trees for hours.

One day, they bumped their way down a road that followed the coastal bluffs of the Sinkyone Wilderness to a small cove. They stopped their bikes, scanning the terrain from above. The cove faced south and kept the roiling Pacific at bay. There was a nice break, but Fuzzy knew there’d be no time for surfing. Dave looked at the map. The cove was marked as Bear Harbor. In the late 19th century it had been used for loading lumber onto ships, but the wharf was long gone. “This is just what we’re looking for,” Dave said.


Sometimes Lou’s story was that he was a trust-funder. Sometimes he was the son of a Texas wildcatter. Once he was mistaken for a member of Kiss, and he let that story linger. Whoever he was, Lou owned it. “I’m in oil,” he’d say. “And if you ask any more questions, I’ll ask you to leave.”

If you wore money well, Lou thought, you could be whoever you wanted. You could live for months at a time at the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Waldorf Astoria in New York, paying $1,500 a night in cash. Maybe you were a movie producer or a chief surgeon somewhere. No one asked questions; the money made you invisible.

Lou made the drug business look like any other business. He would rendezvous with his distributors on tennis courts in Palm Springs, meet in the open, change from a coat and tie into tennis whites, let the other guy win the set, shake hands, and make the deal. There were no rough edges. Nobody in the Company wanted to be a gangster. They wanted to fit in, to live the good life.

Lou had long since traded his VW bus for a Ferrari. In the trunk, he carried a valise full of “fun tickets,” $100 bills to satisfy any whim. He and Ed and Bob bought palatial homes, acquired a taste for antiques. Bob and Ed, who had climbed Machu Picchu together, added Mesoamerican touches to their Asian aesthetic. Lou’s tastes ran toward the eclectic; among other things, he had bought a carved opium bed from China. He would jet to Paris on the Concorde and spend the weekend buying $5,000 worth of shoes. He spent $15,000 on a fake passport under the name Peter Grant, bought a Mercedes as James Benson, shopped at Wilkes Bashford as Richard Malone. This was the name Lou was known by in La Costa and in Lake Tahoe, where the Company liked to vacation. One day, Lou surprised Kerrie with tickets to Jamaica, where they lived for a month on a remote lagoon, disconnected from everything, just snorkeling and reading. It was there, at Dragon Bay, that Kerrie discovered that she was falling in love with him.

In 1976, Lou had bought a place in Tahoe for himself and Kerrie. Dave and Linda moved there as well, to a condo nearby. Dave felt like he was coming into his own in the Company. Lou trusted Dave’s judgment without question, and Dave respected the vision that had gotten them this far. He treated Lou like an adoptive father, and Lou, who had no kids of his own, treated Dave like a favored son. Dave still wasn’t a partner, but he had moved beyond beach master to something like a general manager, with final word on operational decisions.

Tahoe became a refuge for the Company, a place where the couples hung out together and received a steady stream of guests. Lou bought a beautiful vintage Chris-Craft boat called the Rich and Dirty for waterskiing, and he’d spend all day blasting Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on the eight-track while Kerrie carved a slalom wake behind him. At night, Kerrie would fish for deepwater mackinaw trout and stuff it whole for dinner. Kerrie had grown close to Bob and loved how Ed lived big and laughed all the time. The same style that had caused problems on the beach made Ed the life of the party, the kind of guy who’d walk into a room bellowing, clapping along as Dave and Bob played stoned duets on the piano.

Sometimes they’d invite their investors to the lake, guys Lou brought in to spread the risk. Lou was good at intuiting potential partners. Some of them were already trade insiders, but others were straight: bond brokers and lawyers and other pedigreed people who couldn’t resist the 2- or sometimes 3-to-1 return Lou was offering. The Company had its own accountant, buying properties on its behalf, creating shell companies with names like Mo Ching Trading Co., Tow Tow Ltd., and Ku Won Investment Co., Ltd.

Another frequent guest in Lake Tahoe was Phil DeMassa, a San Diego area criminal defense attorney. Lou had met DeMassa a few years earlier, at one of the birthday bashes Ed liked to throw for himself. DeMassa was known in the drug trade as a high-priced but effective attorney. He was a litigator who liked the fight, worked long hours, and was successful at keeping the government at bay. Lou wanted that kind of firepower and gave DeMassa $300,000 in cash to come aboard. Just don’t deal in anything white, DeMassa advised Lou, and he’d take care of the rest.

There, above the electric blue lake, a thought dawned on Lou: Money is energy. A frictionless medium for amplifying your will. Once, Lou asked Kerrie to come and stand with him in front of $2 million that he had arranged in $10,000 stacks. “Can’t you feel it?” he said, looking at the bundles. With the cash it had on hand, the Company could do whatever its principals dreamt up—“buy the road,” as Ed liked to put it.

On a practical level, that was Ed’s job. His rough style turned out to be good for the dirty work required to run a multinational criminal enterprise: paying off local officials, buying boats in seedy foreign ports, vetting sellers abroad. Others thought those assignments were dangerous, but Ed saw them as adventures. His passport—under the name Kenneth Eugene Cook, Jr.—filled with stamps from India, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Senegal, the Seychelles, and the Panama Canal Zone.

Expansion plans were under way closer to home, too. Word from buyers was that the East Coast was dying for smoke. Switching geography, the Company figured, would help throw off the heat, too. Dave had studied his maps and praised the gods of fractal geometry for giving distant Maine as many miles of coast as California. He purchased a beach house on Dennison Point in Cutler, overlooking Little Machias Bay; an equipment house outside the small town of Freedom; and a communication house near Skowhegan. Across the globe, Ed attended to the maritime details: cargo-ship certifications, port clearances, tonnage certificates. Soon the shipment, seven tons of Thai stick, was on the move.

By now the Company had perfected a cell structure, flexible but tightly organized, bonded by friendship and mutual trust. Company guys lived around the country, under assumed names, and communicated by 800 numbers with answering services, where they’d leave coded messages with callback numbers to pay phones. Everyone always had a bag of quarters. Dave was an early adopter of beepers and used techniques from a class at the Bornstein School of Memory Training to encrypt key numbers onto a chart that crew members could stick to the backs of their watches. You’d get a message—“Burma Christmas”—and know who to call back. With this system the Company could disappear for months at a time and then reemerge at the ready.

Heading up the Maine operation with Dave was Harlan Fincher, the Coronado High basketball team’s former center. Harlan had gone off to school on an athletic scholarship and then returned to Coronado to work as a printer. Since his drunken appearance at the last game of his varsity career, Harlan hadn’t heard from Lou—until, one day at work, he received a call out of the blue. “Hi, Harlan,” a familiar voice said, “long time.”

It was Harlan’s job to transform into reality the elaborate schemes that Dave had dreamed up for the Maine operation. The project had many technical hurdles. The house on Dennison Point sat near the edge of a cliff, looking out over the waters where the first naval battle of the American Revolution was fought. The beach below the cliff was a serious bone patch—rocks everywhere, some the size of VWs—and the tides were huge and fast-changing. This wasn’t like back home in Coronado, with 300 yards of flat sand.

It was Don who came up with the solution: installing a yarder, a five-ton piece of industrial logging equipment, in the house’s garage. The yarder would lower trucks by cable straight down the face of the cliff so they could negotiate the rocks out to the dock the Company had built at the water’s edge. The trucks would be loaded and driven back to the palisade, then winched back up the cliff face and into the garage. It was outrageous but clever, an improvised mechanical marvel.

The rest of the gear was stored in a 19th-century barn, beneath a giant sleigh of similar vintage hanging in the rafters. For months the team worked there, tending to mission preparations. Fuzzy tested the outboards and doused the spark-plug cylinders in starting fluid. (You didn’t want to be out there in the dark pulling cords.) He altered the gravity feeds Dave had bought to move the bales, using his arc welder to make them adjustable.

Elsewhere in the barn were the new Maravias, 35-foot-long Kevlar barges they had bought for towing the pot back from the mothership. Dave had them custom-made; he told the Maravia sales agent that they would be used to transport cattle across the Rhine. Where Dave came up with that, he didn’t know. It was the kind of cover story that just rolled off his tongue by now, the instinctive cloak-and-dagger of a life built on anonymous P.O. boxes and money orders and answering services and forged identities.

The fake IDs were Al Sweeney’s department. Dave brought him in because he remembered from high school that Al could point a camera and print well. Al was the science-club type: quiet, smart, focused. He’d meet with Company guys at the San Francisco Hyatt, carrying a turquoise garment bag that doubled as the backdrop for the California ID photo, which he could reproduce within 48 hours. Even after the DMV instituted a new band of invisible ink, a supposedly unbreakable security measure, Al figured out how to duplicate it.

In addition to being the Company’s master forger, Al had been a ham-radio hobbyist in high school, and with Company money he created a totally secure communications system, installing military-grade crystals in their radios so they could transmit on protected channels. In Maine, he was stationed at the communication house, 110 miles from Machias in Skowhegan, to operate the 60-foot antenna they’d installed to stay in touch with the ship. A lot of juice ran to that 5,000-watt tower; when you turned it on, the lights would dim, the room would hum, and you’d get warm standing next to it, waiting for word to come that the mother ship, code-named Cowboy, was nearing Little Machias Bay.

Cowboy finally arrived in October, negotiating Maine’s difficult inlets at night, guided by the two main towers of the Navy’s submarine communications center, just across Little Machias Bay. The crew motored the Zodiacs out to meet the ship in smuggler’s blackout, beneath a moonless sky.

They dropped chem lights in milk bottles as buoys to mark the way back. The man in the bow of each Zodiac held up a piece of aluminum so the mother ship could pick them up on radar. The crews wore thick black wetsuits; the Zodiac pilots had hockey helmets rigged with radio headsets. They looked ridiculous with six-inch antennae sticking up from their heads, but that’s what Harlan improvised so they could work hands-free. From the beach, Dave monitored their progress with a Starlight night-vision scope he’d seen in the pages of Soldier of Fortune.

The operation went off without a hitch: After traveling 10,000 miles, the Thai stick breezed through the final stretch, from the boat to the beach and up the cliff. It was another flawless operation. And it felt great. While the load was being sorted in the equipment house, Ed brought the investors in for inspection. The equipment was packed and stored, and the stash was loaded into a Dodge van. A Company detachment, all of them dressed in deliverymen’s Dickies, drove down the Eastern Seaboard, the van and a chase car a mile apart, dropping off boxes marked “Generators” in the wee hours. It was $20 million worth of product in all. It seemed just right when Steve Miller came on the van’s radio one night, singing “Take the Money and Run.”

In a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, the partners divided the spoils. One of the investors, Bruce Tanaka, had a lead on some Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9s, which were semi-street-legal and had to be imported from Europe via an underground dealer. Tanaka was taking orders. As a reward for a job well done, Lou and Ed each bought one of the luxury sedans, in complementary colors.

The victory celebration, as usual, was epic. In an age of excess—the idealism of the ’60s had long since given way to the indulgence of the ’70s—the Company could afford to be more excessive than most. “Why settle for a glass of champagne,” Lou would say, “when you can have a magnum?” It was vivid living, surrounded by friends, seeing your champagne flute filled as soon as it was empty, unless you followed Pops’s lead, draining your glass and throwing it into the fireplace. Toasting big, stumbling out to the limos at dawn with a girl on your arm—it felt like you were going to live forever. It’s what Ed meant when he and Al stood looking out at the ocean one day, toward ports east, and he said, “You know what? It’s just freeway all the way.”

Heat

1978

Lou was on the slopes in Vail, Colorado, when he learned about the indictment: eight counts in San Diego’s district court, naming him, Ed, Lance, Bob, and 22 others. The DEA’s Operation CorCo had convinced the grand jury. The indictment hadn’t been unsealed yet, but Phil DeMassa’s office had gotten wind of it early. “The bloom is off the rose,” DeMassa said, after a call came in from his office. Lou frowned, planted his poles, and kept skiing.

Lou figured that if the authorities knew where they were, they’d have been arrested already. He was right—the DEA had no leads on Company members’ whereabouts, and the agents in San Diego lacked the resources to go after fugitives, especially if those fugitives had deep pockets. The agency could gin up indictments, but it lacked what agents called “habeas grabus,” the capacity to make big arrests.

Lou and Dave arranged to meet DeMassa at the Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco. As DeMassa walked down Sutter Street, they watched from the eighth floor through binoculars to make sure he wasn’t being followed, then led him through a back entrance into the hotel. “As your attorney, I advise you to turn yourself in,” DeMassa said once they were safely in the room. Then he grinned. “Now, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.”

Using carefully worded hypotheticals, DeMassa briefed the Company on how to survive as fugitives. He told them to protect their cash and documents in sealed envelopes addressed to him, so they would be shielded by attorney-client privilege and could be opened only with a warrant. He parsed the charges, the felonies and misdemeanors. The three of them agreed that the principals should stay on the run and that some others might surrender and strategically cooperate so as to get light sentences but not give up the goods.

This was a new idea, doing time for the Company. But things were different now, more complicated. Lou would have to turn on the coach charm and tell his team that sacrifice was necessary. The rest of the indictees would show up in court, en masse, on the day the indictment was unsealed. “We can get slaps on the wrist for the underlings,” DeMassa promised. Then he told Lou that he’d spent his latest $300,000 payment already. Lou sent him on his way with another fifty grand in cash.


Hiding in plain sight, the Company’s principals went further upscale, relocating to Santa Barbara. Bob, who was already hanging out with his Brotherhood of Eternal Love friends up there, moved into a huge Spanish-style hacienda. Out back was a tennis court, where he and Lou would have fierce five-hour matches. Ed bought a house near Bob, and both of them took up polo, stabling 20 ponies apiece at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. Ed wasn’t great at the game—still the bull in the china shop—but Bob had real finesse. Lou thought he looked beautiful in the saddle.

Bob’s friends called him “Light Show” Lahodny on account of his love of the glamorous life, and he was living up to his nickname in Santa Barbara. People took notice of his good looks and smile; he was Kennedy-esque, they thought, like a ’70s-style, feel-good Bobby. Maybe that was what the members of the local Chamber of Commerce were thinking when they asked him to run for a newly opened state Assembly seat. He politely declined—a wise decision for a drug smuggler living under a false name.

On his visits to Santa Barbara, DeMassa protested half-heartedly about all the public revelry. But the truth was that he was fond of Bob and Ed and liked going to those parties, too. All of them did. Still, it was a dangerous game, being that high profile. Ed was probably the most conspicuous. He couldn’t reinvent himself as a patrician the way Bob and Lou had. The more money he had, the more he looked like a criminal. It was a matter of style: The Company guys all called Ed “the Kid,” because he called everyone else “kid,” as in, “Hey, kid, how about some more wine over here?”—the kind of demeanor that got plenty of second looks at the Polo Club. In many ways, Ed was in fact a big kid, always looking for fun and excitement, and when Lou gave him a Ferrari one Christmas, surprising Ed by leading him, eyes closed, to a baby blue convertible with a big red bow on it, Ed smiled and said: “Damn, kid! You shouldn’t have.” Now Lou agreed that he probably shouldn’t have, watching Ed clock 100 miles per hour down Shoreline Drive or pull drunk donuts in the parking lot of Santa Barbara’s ritziest joint, appropriately called Talk of the Town.

But Ed earned his keep. He ran point on the Thai supply chain, which Lou considered a lion’s den. It was Ed who traveled overseas, connecting with growers, cutting out the middlemen and increasing the Company’s profits—the kind of profits that made it possible to throw money at DeMassa, hold the feds at bay, and keep the Company machine running smoothly, moving product, while the partners played with their ponies. The bigger problem for the Company partners was not in Santa Barbara at all.


Lance claimed that it was his decision to leave the Company. The other partners were under the impression that they’d fired him. He had become too much of a liability, they thought; his showboating had gotten out of control. He may have cut his hair short, but he was still the same old Lance, standing out rather than blending in, opening suitcases full of money wherever he went. Lance’s other nickname was Ensign Hero: the Navy washout who thought he was invincible. In Tahoe, after the indictment came down and they were all on the lam, Lance would be out on the lake, testing the high-powered cigarette boats he’d built, getting yelled at over a police helicopter loudspeaker for speeding.

The real trouble with Lance was his leaking. “We know you’re talking to Paul Acree,” Ed told Lance one day. Lou remembered the day Lance showed up on his bike, like some kind of stoned angel, asking him to get off the ladder and go to Mexico. There would be no Company if not for Lance, he knew. But now he and Bob and Ed had no choice but to buy him out.

They eventually settled on an “exit package” of $400,000. In the spring of 1978, DeMassa met Lance in the parking structure of the Orange County Courthouse, where they chatted briefly. “Stay out of trouble,” DeMassa told him. As he was leaving, he pointed to a briefcase he’d set between them. “Oh,” he said, “I think this is yours.” When he opened the briefcase, Lance felt jilted. It contained $180,000: half the agreed amount, less DeMassa’s “transaction fee.”

Part of the reason everyone moved to Santa Barbara was to ditch Lance. But Lance wouldn’t go away that easily. He had more to lose than Paul. He was named in the indictment along with everyone else. He was a fugitive like them, but he was on his own. Out in the cold, his only value to anyone was what he knew.

Lost At Sea

1978

Success,  Dave knew, was a fragile thing. So many parts of a smuggling operation could go wrong, it was necessary to have not just a Plan B but also a Plan C and a Plan D. Still, even the best risk manager could never make the risk go away entirely.

The first sign of trouble with the latest gig occurred right at the beginning, when Danny Tuna, after being contracted by the Company to bring five tons of hash back from Pakistan, vanished. Danny was a drinker, and he’d gone on a bender and disappeared. Enter Plan B:  Ed flew to Singapore, bought a 130-foot boat called the Tusker, under the auspices of a shell company called Ocean Survey and Studies, Limited (based, naturally, in Beverly Hills), and hired a new captain, Jerry Samsel. The Company had never worked with Samsel before. None of the members of his crew were regulars. And not long after the Tusker left Pakistan bound for Maine, they stopped hearing from him.

Back in Maine,  Al Sweeney listened for the Tusker during their radio appointments but heard nothing but static. Dave was confused. He had supplied the Tusker’s crew with the usual coded Mylar charts to give encrypted positions and provided them with several radio systems: single sideband, VHF, UHF, and CB. What Dave didn’t know was that Samsel had turned paranoid and ordered a total radio blackout. This was in September. The Tusker wasn’t due for 10 weeks. All the Company could do was wait.

Tensions were high.  Fuzzy and Harlan were at each other’s throats. Dave was so frantic one night that Fuzzy slipped opium into his joint to calm him down. And quiet, shy Al was coming undone, getting edgier each day and claiming that he could hear messages from the missing ship coming through the static. Then, one day in October, the feds appeared.

Dave saw them first. Andy, a new hired hand, had picked him up at the airport in Bangor, Maine, and they were driving to the house atop the cliff in Machias when a man sitting in a car by the side of the road did a double take, flipped a U-turn, and started following them. One of the neighbors, it turned out, was a retired cop, and he had grown suspicious about the house’s occupants. He reported the address to the police, who suspected smuggling and contacted the DEA. A title check revealed a mysterious buyer whose only listed address was a P.O. box in Boston. The DEA didn’t know they had stumbled on the Coronado Company fugitives from California. But local agents had been mobilized, and now they were behind Dave and Andy. Dave took a deep breath and stepped on the gas.

The truck Dave was driving happened to be one that Fuzzy had enhanced with lift kits for ground clearance and a “down and dirty” switch that turned off the brake lights and head- and taillights—a feature that came in handy for evasive driving in the backwoods of Maine. At one hairpin turn, Dave slowed, told Andy to take the wheel, jumped out of the truck, and rolled into the woods. The agents sped past. Dave hiked for nine miles to a pay phone, where he called for Fuzzy to pick him up.

Andy was arrested, the Company’s first casualty in action. Dave made it back to the equipment house near Freedom, which remained safe. But the Tusker’s silence had now become a much more serious problem. The Company house was made—and the boat, oblivious and somewhere out on the ocean, was headed right for it.

“Listen, listen,” Al kept saying, handing Dave the radio headset. “They’re talking to us.” Dave heard only squelching, but Al was writing down positions. Fuzzy thought he was going batty. Yet Al was so convinced that sometimes Dave thought he could hear voices, too, off in the distance. Someone was saying something, but you couldn’t understand what. It was spooky, watching Al every night, listening intently, eyes closed, recording the advance of a ghost ship.

Al’s wireless séances didn’t convince Ed, who decided on a daring Plan C: He would go find the Tusker himself, from the sky. He traveled to South Africa, chartered a plane, and began flying a grid pattern over the Atlantic to intercept the Tusker before she steamed into a trap. He spent hours over the ocean, passing back and forth and scanning the surface, ready with a series of messages he’d drop to the ship if he spotted her. It was a desperate measure, but if he could direct the Tusker to an alternate site, disaster would be averted.

The plane never spotted the Tusker, because the boat was already north of Ed’s search area. The miscalculation was not Ed’s fault. Dave had told the ship’s captain he should under no circumstances arrive before Christmas, but Samsel had ignored him and was, in fact, making great time. The Tusker appeared in Little Machias Bay two weeks early, anchored in the private cove by the house, and sent a party ashore. Samsel had left his antenna up in the weather and it had frozen off; now that he wanted to break radio silence, he couldn’t. Two crew members knocked on the Company house door and were confused when no one answered.

The feds were on alert when Dave mobilized Harlan and another hired hand, nicknamed Rabbit, for Plan D: an amphibious intercept. Harlan and Rabbit fired up a Zodiac and approached the cove from the sea. There was the Tusker: a sitting duck, just 50 yards offshore. Harlan radioed an emergency call to Dave, boarded the Tusker, and told the captain to make a break for it. As he and Rabbit sped away in the Zodiac, Harlan could see the blue lights of the Coast Guard boats behind them.

Harlan beached the Zodiac, and he and Rabbit scrambled ashore. They grabbed their emergency kits, which were issued to every Company employee: backpacks stocked with a compass, rations, matches, gloves, some Pemmican beef jerky, and other supplies. What they needed now were the burlap leggings. They had been furnished at the suggestion of a wilderness expert and tracker who worked for the Company out west. If there’s a manhunt, he’d said, the police will have dogs, and burlap on your legs will hide the scent. Harlan sat down on the beach, pulled on two burlap sacks, and ran into the forest.

When Dave stopped hearing from Harlan, he radioed the equipment house, where Fuzzy answered. Dave then sent Fuzzy and another scout to the house—a classic tactical mistake in the fog of war. On their second visit to the house, Fuzzy was pulled over. As the police approached the car, he tore up his fake ID and slipped the pieces into the driver’s-side door panel.

The Tusker didn’t get far before it was boarded by the Coast Guard. At first glance, the guardsmen found nothing. The hash was in a cargo hold only accessible from the exterior of the ship; it was December in the North Atlantic, and the Tusker was so thickly iced over that they missed the hatch cover. The guardsmen instructed the Tusker to follow them into port, then pulled away in their own vessel. En route, the Tusker’s crew axed off the ice, opened the hatch, and started throwing the cargo of sealed cylindrical containers overboard. Arriving at port ahead of the Tusker, the guardsmen were confronted by irate DEA agents and, realizing their mistake, raced back to the Tusker in time to see the crew on the deck pitching the hash into the sea.

The entire crew was taken into custody, as were Rabbit and Harlan, whose burlap leggings did not save them. They all called DeMassa, who called Lou, who authorized $50,000 in defense and hush money for everyone: five grand apiece. Dave avoided capture, left Maine, and reconvened with Lou. Together they worked damage control. It was a heavy blow to the Company, but not a fatal one. The DEA had only arrested the help. They didn’t realize Harlan had a supervisory role, but even if they had, Harlan would never have talked. Five arrests and no one had a thing on them but some sextants, a matchbook from the Ambassador Hotel in Singapore, and Dave’s mysterious little Bornstein School charts. But the fishermen of Little Machias Bay were pulling high-quality hash from their nets for days.

DEA special agent James Conklin, left. (Photo: Courtesy of James Conklin)
DEA special agent James Conklin, left. (Photo: Courtesy of James Conklin)

Fugitives

1978

The code of silence stuck. Fuzzy and Harlan took the fall, pleading guilty to small counts in the indictment. Still, the Company was less than happy. Several million dollars’ worth of product had been tossed from the Tusker. While no one had rolled over on the Company, the seams of the operation had been exposed. And for the first time in its decade of operation, the Company found itself with a management-labor divide.

It hadn’t gone unnoticed that since the indictment had come down, the Company partners had been riding polo ponies and sauntering around Santa Barbara in white V-neck sweaters while their employees went underground. When the Tusker operation fell apart, the partners were a thousand miles away. Lou was safely ensconced at the house he’d bought in Hilton Head, South Carolina, at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. Now that it was all over, even Dave was having doubts. For God’s sake, he thought, I jumped from a car at 20 miles per hour. I watched my friends get arrested.

“Listen, Lou,” Dave said one night over dinner. “It might be time for me to quit. I can’t do this anymore.” The desperado life was starting to wear on him, he said. They’d been fugitives for more than a year. It was enough to make Dave paranoid, always looking in rearview mirrors and store-window reflections. He was gone more than he was home and often couldn’t call his wife, Linda, for weeks at a time. After the indictment came down, the couple had moved to Denver—a city they’d chosen at random—and now Linda was lonesome. She couldn’t see her family. To call his own mother, Dave had to use codes and pay phones. Relations with his sister were even more difficult: She was an assistant district attorney in San Diego, and Dave had to hide his whole life from her.

“I hear you, Dave,” Lou said. “I feel it myself.” Kerrie, too, had become frustrated with their lives, he said, especially once she and Lou moved to Hilton Head. But “the Company needs you,” Lou went on. “I need you. Without you, the Company is nothing.”

So Dave stayed. The money was too good, the work still thrilled, and Dave still wanted to make Pops proud. He liked excelling at something. In spite of everything, he still thought of himself as a Company man.


Intercepting the Tusker had been a lucky break for the DEA. The agency didn’t even realize that they’d stumbled across the same smugglers named in an existing indictment on the West Coast. It was hard for the agency to coordinate nationally, and the CorCo case had lost its office champion when Bobby Dune transferred from San Diego to Boise, Idaho.

Then a special agent named James Conklin picked up the case. Like Lou, Conklin had come west for his own piece of the good life under the sun. The Detroit-raised son of an FBI agent, Conklin had earned a philosophy degree from St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York and then gone to Vietnam, where he served two tours as a Marine Corps captain. The America he came home to in 1969 wasn’t the same one he’d left four years earlier. He worked a couple of regular jobs, but after being in a war zone, the deskbound life felt limp. He sat there thinking: Is this as good as it gets?

As Nixon’s war on drugs escalated it grew less metaphorical, and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was actively recruiting military officers fresh from Vietnam. In 1973, when the agency was absorbed into the new DEA, there was a need for staff in San Diego, the new epicenter of border trafficking. Conklin, recently married, was tired of living in New York—the weather, the cost, the chaos. The following year, he and his wife loaded their things into a U-Haul.

By the time Conklin came across the Operation CorCo file in 1978, the case was cold. Despite Dunne’s work and the resulting indictment, the DEA brass had taken little interest in the Coronado Company. They wanted heroin busts. Or maybe coke, which was just starting to make a beachhead. Pot was small potatoes: “Kiddie dope,” they called it. Hell, Conklin figured, half the prosecutors smoked it themselves.

Reviewing the dormant CorCo file, Conklin realized that the sheer scale of the Coronado Company put it in the top tier of smuggling operations. He told his bosses about the tonnage, the tens of millions the smugglers had made. That got the pencil pushers interested, and the San Diego office authorized Conklin to go after the Company partners.

Conklin knew what he was up against. The Company’s leaders were smart, the DEA had run out of leads, and the agency was still poorly funded, working out of derelict federal buildings and borrowing boats from the Coast Guard for naval busts. When Conklin started, his unit had just four cars: two American Motors Javelins, a seized purple Plymouth convertible, and a seized Riviera with bullet holes in it. New agents got guns but no holsters; they wrapped their .38 Specials in rubber bands so they wouldn’t slip out of their waistbands. As late as 1979, when the Company was landing $7 million shipments of Thai stick, there wasn’t a single DEA interdiction agent north of Los Angeles on the West Coast.

But the DEA crew was finding its legs, slowly but surely. The agents were dedicated—married to the job, their ex-wives would say—and they were used to being in the trenches. And the government, Conklin knew, had time on its side. A trafficker, after all, was really just another kind of addict. They couldn’t stop. They loved the rush. The great smugglers could change the odds for a time, but like a blackjack player in a casino, their long-term prospects were dim. The only way to beat the house was by taking your winnings out the door—but smugglers left their chips on the felt. And even the best operation had a lowest common denominator. Somewhere, someone was eventually bound to do something stupid.


 Lance tried to go legit. After parting ways with the Company, he hung around Lake Tahoe, working on developing the ultrafast cigarette boats he hoped to sell. He claimed to have serious interest from the military and potential clients in the Persian Gulf. But his boats—long, thin hydroplanes tricked out with such powerful engines, you could see daylight beneath the hull at top speed—were too fast to be good for anything: fishing, waterskiing, even smuggling. The only buyer for Lance’s boat would have been James Bond, and even Bond wouldn’t want a 30-foot rooster tail flying out the back. He told Fuzzy, with whom he was living at the time, that he was thinking about going to Switzerland. He could hide his money there, hit the autobahn, chase blondes.

Lance felt himself inching further and further out on a limb. Though he remembered Lou’s story, the one from Pepe de Mexicali about pushing troublesome associates out of a plane, he knew that the Company wasn’t his real problem—prison was. He had a bad time in Lompoc after his 1969 bust, being a small, pretty blond and all. He vowed he was never going back there.

The Gamble

1980

 Dave was at 5,000 feet, riding shotgun in a Cessna four-seater, looking down at the vast green wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula, near Seattle. At the controls sat Hugo Butz, a Vietnam chopper pilot turned bush flier who was game for smuggling sorties and aerial surveillance. He had connected Dave with two pals, a pilot and a mechanic with the Air National Guard at nearby Fort Lewis for the Company’s most audacious plan yet: off-loading 10 tons of Thai stick in one of the U.S. military’s own helicopters.

The John L. Winter was another fishing boat the Company contracted for a trans-Pacific smuggling run. The guardsmen were going to “borrow” one of Fort Lewis’s double-rotor Chinooks to lift the load off the deck of the ship in one swift action. There’d be no beach exposure at all. The whole operation would take only a few minutes. Then the ship would be gone, the stash would be deposited in the woods at a secluded clearing, and the Chinook would return to base.

That’s what they were reconnoitering in Butz’s plane now, a nice spot where the Chinook could set down its cargo not far from protected waters. They were all the way at the tip of the peninsula, over the Makah Indian reservation, a nearly unpopulated landscape of forest and salmon streams. From the air, they picked out a cove near Neah Bay: totally isolated, the last stop on the peninsula, and a mile from a flat patch of land clear-cut by loggers. They had found their landing zone.


Lou and Kerrie were spending most of their time in Hilton Head, tanning and playing tennis on the custom clay court at Lou’s beachfront estate. But the game was getting old for her, as was the isolated luxury of Hilton Head. She didn’t want to live like a rich retiree on the lam. It got to you after a while, serving guests with a smile while calling yourself by a fake name. After years living double lives, their only real friends were other people in the Company. In Tahoe or Santa Barbara, at least everyone was together and you could be yourself.

But Lou thought the Company social scene was dangerous. He was in Hilton Head to lay low, away from the conspicuous frolicking in Santa Barbara. He wasn’t exactly out of sight, either, ensconced in a mansion and all, but at least he was keeping quiet. Kerrie had gotten heavy into coke. Ed and Bob were partying hard, too. They were bored with their polo ponies; powder was the only thing that approximated the rush of smuggling.

Lou would indulge a few lines socially, or stick a hot knife into a ball of opium he kept around, inhaling the smoke off the blade to mellow out after a bad day. But he wasn’t the addictive type, and he thought the danger with drugs was getting caught up in the lifestyle. You wound up hanging out with weirdos. And that was how you brought attention to yourself.

For Kerrie, the luster of living with Lou was gone. She felt the years going by; nearing 30, she was thinking about children, a family, a career. In Hilton Head, it hit her hard: This would never be a normal life. Lou was more anxious now, more absorbed in the business. He kept more secrets, and Kerrie started catching him in lies. Maybe they were small ones, but they told a larger story: Once you leave the truth behind, it’s hard to find it again.

When the end came, they didn’t talk much about it. One day, she just packed her things and told him she was going back to La Costa to work as an aerobics instructor.

It was a surprise and yet not surprising. Lou was, in fact, making plans to get out of the business altogether, hiding away money and planning a move to the Bahamas. The islands were beautiful and ran on a dollar economy—a safe haven for illicit cash. They could live like they had in Jamaica. But that feeling had faded, he knew. Five years together and the two of them had never bickered or argued or said an unkind thing to one another. When she left, Kerrie looked back at that beautiful palmetto-ringed house, the only one on that stretch of beach, and knew she’d never see it again.


Lou was too busy to be heartbroken—or at least that was what he told himself. Between the Company’s ongoing legal mess, managing personnel, and planning for the next operation, there was plenty to do. It was getting expensive, keeping the Company together. DeMassa kept asking for more and more money—fifty grand here, forty-five there. It was some consolation that at least Dave could still be counted on.

“Helicopters?” Lou asked, going through the plans for the Neah Bay gig.

“It’s a great idea,” Dave replied. “If it works.”

But Dave was more paranoid than ever. He was having trouble keeping track of the double, triple, quadruple life he was living. Sometimes when he was asked for his name at a sales counter, he would forget who he was supposed to be. Lou tried to talk Dave through it, but he, too, had close calls. On one trip to San Francisco, he left his clutch full of fake IDs in a hotel lobby. When he was summoned by security, he pretended to be a businessman on a gay tryst to explain it.

On top of it all, Dave now had a family to look after; it was a hassle to arrange for his daughter to share his real name instead of his fugitive alias. Dave was torn between his loyalty to the Company and to his family. He felt like the little Dutch boy, plugging holes in the dike. How do you hold back the sea, he wondered, when you run out of fingers? 

Back in Hilton Head, Lou worried, too. He drank his Bordeaux, looking out at the ocean that, every so often, rose up in a storm and took everything with it. Lou recalled how it was when they started back in Coronado. We were all just normal people, he thought. Friends on the Rock, their lives unwritten. He could remember that feeling of promise, when they were young and there wasn’t yet time for tragedy.

Lou Villar’s house at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort in Hilton Head, South Carolina. (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)
Lou Villar’s house at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort in Hilton Head, South Carolina. (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)

Lucky Break

1980

When  Conklin’s DEA task force busted the low-level street dealer, they quickly realized they had a guy who didn’t want to go to prison. While in custody, the dealer happened to mention crossing paths with “a big-timer up in Santa Barbara.” That big-timer was Ed Otero.

The dealer was reluctant to talk, and Conklin worked him gently. Conklin was as straight as they come—he had never even tried marijuana—but he didn’t judge people. Plenty of his friends smoked pot, and when he went to parties they’d joke with him, call him “the narc.” He had no interest in locking up every street dealer. It made him an outlier in the take-no-prisoners milieu of the DEA, but it also made him good at cultivating informants. “This is a way out for you,” Conklin told the dealer. “You can go back to a regular life and never worry about seeing me again.”

In exchange for leniency, the dealer provided an address. It was the first concrete lead the DEA had gotten on the Company members’ whereabouts. When Conklin’s team checked out the place, it was empty, but a visit to the local post office showed that the mail was forwarded to someone named Bambi Merryweather—Bob’s girlfriend and Lou’s secretary, although Conklin didn’t know it. Conklin ran her name through the DEA’s database and got a hit out of an agency office in Virginia. The local office, Conklin discovered, was already working some information on a suspected drug dealer in Hilton Head, and Bambi Merryweather was mentioned in the file as well. Two building contractors in Hilton Head, Mike and Jerry Agnor, had reported that a man whose mansion they were renovating was a drug smuggler. They didn’t know his real name, but they called him Mr. Thai Pot and mentioned that he had a secretary named Bambi. The name was too unusual to be a coincidence.

Conklin flew the Agnor brothers to San Diego. He had been assembling a book of the entire Thai smuggling scene, from suppliers to traffickers to distributors, and filling it with pictures of the insular, elusive network. He asked the Agnors to flip through it. They immediately picked out Lou Villar.


At Neah Bay, the receiving crew was in place, stashing 500-gallon tanks of aviation fuel at the LZ for the helo, setting up Dave’s custom cargo cage, and bringing in a semi-trailer truck to move the pot. By now more of the regulars were gone. Don had left by mutual agreement; he had managed to save up some money from the gigs to invest in his VW shop in Oregon. The crew was full of new faces: locals, friends of friends. It made Dave nervous, what with all the heat on the Company.

After losing Al Sweeney, Dave hired a guy Harlan knew who worked for a contractor that made surveillance equipment for the CIA. Dave’s paranoia had led to all kinds of purchases, like a voice stress analyzer and audio scramblers, the latter of which became standard issue for Company partners. But now he requested something new: a bug.

One of the new guys on the crew was disappearing alone, every night, at the same time. One night Dave followed him; he was going to a pay phone. Dave planted the bug in the booth’s mouthpiece and began listening in. The mysterious transmissions, he discovered, were just sweet nothings to the guy’s girlfriend.

Dave was relieved, but the bug was still a nifty toy, and he thought he’d have a little fun with it. He planted it under the kitchen table at the Company’s equipment house. Over several days, he listened to the crew chatting, and then casually surprised people in conversation by mentioning bits of what he’d heard. One night Dave came into the kitchen where everyone was assembled, wearing headphones and a big grin. “Gotcha!” Dave said, reaching under the table and pulling out the bug. “Cute, right?”

Harlan didn’t think so. The Company was built on trust, and the very idea of eavesdropping was a slippery slope. He didn’t see Dave’s stunt as a practical joke. What he saw was a bad omen.


No one likes digging through the trash, but you’d be surprised what people throw away. In addition to naming Lou, the Agnor brothers had helped Conklin connect the Company to a San Diego accountant named Andy Willis. Conklin got a search warrant and began accompanying the local garbage crew to Willis’s office, getting up early, riding the side of the truck, and dabbling in waste management.

Willis, it turned out, would’ve benefited from a paper shredder. In his garbage, Conklin found an epistolary trail connecting Willis to Lou, mostly operating under aliases. Soon Conklin had uncovered a whole network of pseudonymous assets, like Bob’s partnership in an oil well in Arcadia Parish, Louisiana, and the bank accounts of the Mo Ching Trading Co., which happened to own coastal properties in sparsely populated areas. “We got gold,” Conklin told his partner Larry McKinney.

As the CorCo case grew more complicated, more agents were brought in to help follow the money, including an expert on loan from the Internal Revenue Service. Thus was formed the financial-asset removal team—acronym: FART—which Conklin hoped would pick up the income trail and fill in the blanks. They began to piece together the Company’s financials, assembling the asset case by showing unclaimed income through expenditure on houses, cars, and other luxury line items. The last time Lou filed a tax return, he was a teacher in Coronado making $7,000 a year. Bob was still filing, as a drywall installer with a $10,000 annual income. He had spent nearly three times that much on tack for his polo ponies in one year alone.

But Conklin couldn’t just start arresting people. Even when he presented his superiors with documentation supporting his estimate that Lou, based on the value of his houses alone, was worth $6 million, it wasn’t enough. The Justice Department wanted more evidence. Conklin was miffed but patient. He and his team had been on Operation CorCo for years now, and, truth be told, they were having a blast. Conklin liked matching wits with the Company. They were worthy adversaries, guys who’d be good at anything, he thought. It just so happened they were really good crooks. 

Code Red

1980

The Company had timed its Neah Bay gig for late summer, when the Pacific Northwest’s legendary gloom usually breaks. But when the John L. Winter arrived on August 23, the coast of the Olympic Peninsula was still shrouded in dense fog. Helicopters couldn’t fly in those conditions at night, and waiting for the fog to lift was a problem. The ship’s captain came onshore; he and his crew didn’t want to wait around out there to get plucked by the Coast Guard. The pilot pointed out that joyriding a military helicopter was tough to reschedule. Dave was pissed—at them, at himself, at the weather. His supremely elegant plan had been spoiled by an unseasonable dew point.

So for the first time in years, Lou showed up on-site. He met the chopper crew at the Tumwater Inn south of Olympia, turned on the charm, and managed to convince the pilot to attempt an even riskier daytime operation. It helped that Lou sweetened the deal, and noted that the pilots were already implicated. If one of them went down, they all went down.

On the day the weather finally turned perfect, however, the Chinook was a no-show. Another helicopter at Fort Lewis had been damaged on takeoff that morning, and the rest were grounded. Or at least that was what the pilot said; Dave suspected he just chickened out. He cursed the smuggling gods and went back to the drawing board.

The Company fetched its classic beach equipment—the Zodiacs, barges, gravity feeds, 4×4 pickups—and hired some locals from the Makah reservation to assist with their fishing boats. By now tempers were short. Offshore, the John L. Winter’s crew was jittery. As the days passed at Neah Bay, there was plenty of time for anxious speculation. Bringing in the Indians at the last minute was a risky move. They were charging $150,000, an exorbitant fee—the kind of deal you strike only in an emergency—and were wild at the wheel, unable or unwilling to get their ships into proper position. On the night the off-load finally commenced, Fuzzy could hear everyone arguing on the radio, blabbering back and forth for hours. It was the opposite of the streamlined command structure the Company was known for.

It was a bad start, hours late, already past midnight. Earlier on the beach, Fuzzy watched tiny waves lap at his feet, but his surfer’s instinct told him—from the mist, the sense of the atmosphere—that these waters would rise. By the time they started work, eight-footers were crashing on the rocks. Fuzzy fought his way out with a Zodiac and one of the Maravia barges, and docked at sea with the John L. Winter. The Indians met him there in their boats. It was raining, and the swells made work difficult, but together they managed to transfer six tons of Thai stick off the ship and onto the barge. Luckily, the high tide allowed a small vessel to shoot the mouth of the tiny Soo River, which emptied into the ocean near Neah Bay, so the Indians started ferrying the stash, 500 pounds at a time, into the shelter of the river.

Dave was positioned on a hill, watching through his night scope as a collection of green figures ran back and forth on the beach, battling the sea. It was a battle the Company was losing. The tide was going out. The boats were scraping the shallows. The hastily hired help was not following orders. When Turk Markishtum, one of the fishermen from the reservation, knocked his hull on a rock, he refused to continue. “I’m worried about my boat,” he said.

“How much does your boat cost?” Dave asked over the radio.

“$125,000,” Markishtum said.

“We’ll buy you two goddamn boats if you keep going,” Dave said. “Just bring the shit in!”

But now the tide was almost all the way out. No boat with a keel could get into the mouth of the river, and there was $10 million worth of Thai stick still sitting out there on the barge. The local fishermen took off. On the horizon, the black of night was giving way to the first pale hint of tomorrow.

“I’m getting that barge!” Fuzzy yelled into the radio. With the scope, Dave watched him break a Zodiac through the pounding surf and race out to sea. He tied the barge to the Zodiac. The Maravia was 35 feet long but flat-bottomed, and even with the bales stacked several feet high on its deck, Fuzzy figured he could tow it into the Soo.

“Go for it, man!” Dave yelled through the radio, watching Fuzzy make for shore with daylight emerging behind him. “Gun it!” Fuzzy couldn’t hear Dave over the whine of the outboard, and could barely see through the ocean spray, but he got the barge close. And then, just as he entered the mouth of the river, Fuzzy felt himself rising.

Dave watched as the monster wave curled up and lifted Fuzzy, his Zodiac, the barge, and the Thai stick 10 feet above the beach. Fuzzy managed to surf the tethered inflatables on the wave momentarily, until the crest toppled. He felt the weight of the barge land on top of the Zodiac, pinning him to the rubber floor—a potentially lethal position, trapped under several tons of cargo, with a million pounds of water behind it. A fatalist, Fuzzy was stoic. The party was over when it was over. And how ironic, he thought, to be killed by my own stash.

The wave started to swamp the Zodiac, and Fuzzy realized that his hand was still on the throttle. He instinctively gave the little motor all the gas, and when the wave shifted, the Zodiac broke free and shot down its face. Seconds later the towline broke and the barge swamped, dumping some of its load into the water. After tumbling through the foam, it came to rest on the beach. The beach crew unloaded what remained on deck and collected the rest of the bales from the river. Dave had come down from the hill and welcomed Fuzzy back onto the beach. “You barely got out of there with your life!” Dave said.

“It’s like I always say,” Fuzzy responded. “When in doubt—punch it!”

Dave and the beach crew scrambled to get the load into a U-Haul truck. First light was upon them. There was only one way in and out of the heavily forested area, the stash house was 10 miles away, and time was running out.

The road out of the forest was slick and canted, and the truck didn’t get very far before it slid off the asphalt. Dave’s nightmare was coming to pass: Everything was going wrong at once. “Leave the truck,” Dave said, now officially panicking. “Transfer the stash to the pickups.” That’s when Fuzzy discovered that the U-Haul’s rear door was jammed. The truck’s whole frame box was warped and wouldn’t open. “Get an axe!” Dave yelled. But there were no axes.

Dave looked around. The crew was losing faith. Birds were singing, announcing the morning. The scale of the disaster was dawning on everyone. “All right, everybody,” Dave said wearily over the radio. “This is a code red.” He had never said those words before. He couldn’t believe he had to give the order to abort. The Tusker was a lot of bad luck, but this was defeat. They had failed.

They had 60 bales in the pickups—a small fraction of the load. The rest they left on the beach, along with the boats and motors, the conveyor belts and generators. Dave instructed everyone to get their emergency kits, which contained oiled rags for clearing fingerprints. “Wipe it all down, boys,” he said. Fleeing the scene in the bed of one of the Company’s pickup trucks, Dave wondered what he would say to Lou.

The recovered bales went to pay back the investors. The rest was a loss. And the Company was already feeling the pinch. Smuggling is speculative and expensive: It had cost a lot to stage this fiasco, a million bucks spent to lose twenty. Dave, ever faithful and feeling guilty, bought Lou a gold Patek Philippe as an apology, even though everyone knew it wasn’t really his fault. At least no one was arrested on his watch, Dave thought. Hours later, Walter Cronkite was reporting on the CBS Evening News about the mysterious drug-trafficking incident on the Olympic Peninsula. The police discovered the entire smuggling operation in situ—the bales in the water, the truck, and all the gear—but they didn’t find a single fingerprint. 

One Last Score

1981

Lou moved back to Santa Barbara, against his better judgment. Spooked by Neah Bay, the Company partners had decided to mount a final mission and then disband. Lou saw his psychic, a common form of business guidance in California at the time—who warned him, “I see bad things on the horizon.” Lou took note but didn’t listen. He and the rest of the Company partners wanted to retire big. The proverbial temptation of the last big score was too great.

Lou took up with a local artist and, somehow, her sister at the same time; they lived together in a house situated on a 100-acre orchid farm. There, the Company organized its final gig: four tons of Thai stick delivered to Bear Harbor, the kind of operation they’d pulled off without incident many times.  Danny Tuna was back in the employ of the Company after promising to clean up his act. He had a new boat, the Robert Wayne, and promoted his first mate, John Engle, to captain it back from Thailand. The idea was to keep it small, easy, and lucrative.

Things seemed to be going fine until, a few months later, a ham-radio operator in the Philippines picked up a distress call from the western Pacific. It was the Robert Wayne; the vessel had been hit by a rogue wave, Engle said. It smashed the windows and swamped the gear, including the radio. Engle had managed to get out an SOS by splicing the CB to a high-gain antenna.

A few days later, the Robert Wayne’s propeller shaft broke. The ship was drifting now, a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan. As the hold was full of drugs, Engle couldn’t exactly call the Coast Guard. Fortuitously for the boat’s crew, it turned out that Danny’s sister was an escort at a Tokyo bar called Maggie’s Revenge, where she was popular with some yakuza men. (Danny’s sister was an exotic girl for a Japanese gangster to have on his arm—six feet tall, blonde, congenitally blind, and, according to Conklin, who later interviewed her, “a total knockout.”) Danny managed to arrange an intervention from the yakuza, who agreed to tow the boat to Yokohama and oversee repairs.

The yakuza wanted $300,000 for their services, on top of $250,000 for the Robert Wayne’s repairs. Ed negotiated a loan from a Company investor and brought the down payment to Chichi-Jima, a tiny island in the Pacific, in a suitcase. As insurance, the yakuza kept Danny Tuna with them “as a guest” until the mission was complete and the rest of the money was delivered.

Incredibly, the Company’s crisis management came through. The Robert Wayne made it to California and the off-load went smoothly. Some of the cargo was converted to cash, and the rest was transported back to Santa Barbara, to be sold in a few days. Lou agreed to store some of the pot and cash at his house—a breach in his usual security protocol, but he figured they’d get it to distributors in a few days. In the meantime, the Company threw a classic victory party at Bob’s place. This score would put everyone over the top, they thought, a couple million each for the partners. It felt good to be together again, everyone smiling, laughing, raising a toast to a clean getaway.


Conklin looked at his watch. It was 11 a.m. on November 5, 1981. He and his team were in position around Santa Barbara, waiting. Then another agent called in an approaching silver four-door Mercedes, license plate 1ATM158. The car turned west on Alston Road and then south on Cima Linda Lane, where other surveillance units made the driver: Ed Morgan, a.k.a. Kenneth Eugene Cook, Jr., a.k.a. Edward Otero.

It was early November, and the DEA had been sitting on the houses of Ed, Bob, and Lou for months now. Lou had no idea his Hilton Head contractors had led the heat to his doorstep on the opposite coast. The Agnors had told the feds that they’d been burned by Lou, stiffed $50,000 for services rendered. (Lou would claim that the money discrepancy was actually their lost investment in Company commerce.) Now Conklin had teams in place. “Let’s do it,” he said.

Ed saw the tail and tried to run, but he didn’t get far. The DEA boxed him in at the wheel of the car he loved so much, less than a mile from his house. Shortly thereafter, DEA agents saw Lou driving his matching Mercedes 6.9 and started following him.

Lou was by himself, heading for Bob’s house. It was a beautiful day, and Lou had just had lunch with the girls at home. He was feeling good, thinking about the pot in his basement and how much it was worth. When he saw that he was being tailed, he turned down the radio. He changed course, but the car followed. After a half-dozen turns, Lou found himself in a cul-de-sac. The cops didn’t even need to flash the lights.

“Keep your hands on the wheel,” Lou heard. Before the feds got a chance to yank him from the leather-lined interior, Lou recalls, one of the agents had pulled his .45 and stuck it in Lou’s mouth. The agent’s hand was shaking, as if he was overwhelmed by finally seeing the man he and his colleagues had been chasing for years. “You will never forget this day,” the agent said. “And your life will never be the same.” Lou knew he was right.

The DEA had caught up with Bob and Dave, too. They happened to be riding in Ed’s car when he was caught. For all his investigative efforts, Conklin didn’t realize who Dave was or the important role he played in the organization. But in Ed’s car, along with $20,000 in cash, the agents found Dave’s valise, which contained two fake IDs, an airline ticket, and several notebooks—all detailed accounting ledgers. It was a phenomenal bit of luck; the DEA had caught the Company principals en route to an accounting meeting.

By the end of the day they were arrested, and Bob’s house was surrounded with yellow tape, its contents tagged as evidence: three safe-deposit keys, photos of landing sites, and records showing payments to ship captains. At Lou’s house, Conklin found $557,829 and 892 pounds of product from the latest shipment, worth about $3 million. In Lou’s enormous safe were envelopes, each containing $25,000 and labeled “Johnny,” “Terry,” and “Fred”—pay for the crew. Lou had never before accepted delivery of pot on the premises. Now, handcuffed in his own living room, he could hear the agents in the basement taking down the secret panels that hid the stash. “Holy fuck,” one of them shouted. “We hit the fucking jackpot!”

It was quite a haul—for Conklin, too. He’d worked for years, with inferior equipment and funding, to put cuffs on these guys. His resources were so thin, in fact, that his agents had nearly run out of gas on the way to Santa Barbara; they were over their fuel budget and had to refill out of pocket to catch their targets. But now the Company’s leadership was all in a cell together, and the DEA had confiscated $12 million in cash, contraband, vehicles, and property from the organization. (To Conklin’s chagrin, he never did find the Duck.) When the news broke, McKinney told reporters that the Company had grossed $96 million over the past decade. At a minimum, Lou thought in his cell.

Private detectives Sanda Sutherland and Jack Palladino, 1979. (Photo: Corbis Images)
Private detectives Sanda Sutherland and Jack Palladino, 1979. (Photo: Corbis Images)

Cat and Mouse

1981

 Fuzzy heard about the arrests on the news. Drug lords busted in upscale Santa Barbara. Sounds familiar, he thought. Then the phone rang. “Hey, Fuzzy, it’s been a while.” Fuzzy would’ve recognized that goofy nasal voice anywhere. “I’m sure you know why I’m calling,” Lance went on. “I got you into this. And now I’m going to get you out.”

Lance had already arranged for Fuzzy to sit down with the DEA. Fuzzy was conflicted, but as he considered the cards he had been dealt, he realized that he had only one to play. “It’s every man for himself,” Lance said.

The DEA loved Lance and Fuzzy from the moment they walked in the door. “You guys were the A-team,”  Conklin said when Fuzzy and Lance sat down in the San Diego DEA offices, a tape recorder in between them. “Light years ahead of everyone else. We want to know how you did it.”

Fuzzy recognized one of the agents who had been on hand when he was arrested in Maine. Another agent, Fuzzy noticed, had pulled into the parking lot in one of Ed’s Corvettes. Fuzzy looked at the DEA team assembled around him, everyone with their notepads and Hawaii 5-0 suits. He rationalized that he would just confirm what they already knew. Besides, he had taken a fall once, and become a convicted felon, in the service of the Company. This time the feds were threatening 30 years. That was a long time away from his motorcycle. So Fuzzy gave them a tape he’d already recorded, describing the information he knew that would be valuable to the DEA. “Hi,” the tape began. “My name is Fuzzy, and I’m going to tell you a story about the Coronado Company.”


At the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, where the Company members were housed, the higher-ups were still sticking together. Lou was running damage control, even managing collections from jail. At their individual arraignments, the partners gave DeMassa instructions to collect money from distributors, through their attorneys, whom they’d fronted. Some of it DeMassa used to pay the beach crew from the last operation, some he kept, and some he gave to the partners’ girlfriends.

“I need information,” DeMassa told Jack Palladino one night over lobster bisque at the Stanford Court Hotel. Palladino was DeMassa’s trusted private detective, one-half of the husband-and-wife detective agency Palladino & Sutherland; together they’d worked with DeMassa on other major criminal-defense efforts, defending the Hells Angels against the government’s RICO investigation. Jack and Sandra’s job was to gather as much information as possible about the DEA’s case against the Company and how the agents had gotten their evidence; maybe it was coerced or otherwise tainted. Find out what people know, DeMassa told Jack, and how they know it.

But the DEA already had a strong case. With the testimony of Fuzzy and Lance—now known as Confidential Informants SR2820012 and SR2820013, respectively—Conklin was able to issue a second round of indictments with wider scope and more detail, the kind that comes from inside information. DeMassa wanted Jack and Sandra to figure out who’d flipped.

There was no shortage of suspects. Coronado was full of people the Company left behind who had nursed resentments for years. “They burned a lot of bridges,” one early beach-team member told Jack. Any number of disgruntled ex-employees could have dropped a dime. During grand jury testimony, Jack sat in a white van with painted-over windows in front of the courthouse where the jury convened, taking pictures of everyone who walked in, but found no familiar faces.

Having mostly worked in criminal defense, Jack and Sandra had a philosophical opposition to informants. In her office, Sandra kept an original World War II–vintage poster that warned: “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” Their odds-on favorite, of course, was Lance, but nobody had any proof. Meanwhile, Lance was playing his own game. More than once as Sandra traveled around the country talking to Company associates, she found that Lance had gotten to them first, fishing for intel he could use as a bargaining chip with the DEA.

The private detectives met with Lance over a few dinners and meetings, each side hoping the other would slip up. At first everyone involved played coy, pretending they were on the same team. “Who do you think is talking?” Sandra would ask.

“Who do you think is talking?” Lance would reply.

The encounters settled into a routine of I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know-what-you-don’t-know gamesmanship. Jack and Sandra saw these meetings as opportunities to allow Lance, who always talked too much, to impugn his own credibility. They wore wires, hoping he’d put his foot in it. Extortion, for instance, would count him out as a government witness, and Lance had intimated that money might make him “go away.” 

Lance knew they were taping him, and he tried to get around it. At one meeting, at a hotel in Reno, Jack bugged the room. Lance switched rooms at the last minute. He figured (correctly) that Jack was miked anyhow, and to be safe, he walked in with a note announcing that the entire meeting would be conducted on Magic Slates, the children’s writing pads where you pulled up the cellophane flap to make the words disappear. There they were, two private detectives and a drug smuggler, sitting in silence, negotiating on a kid’s toy. Nothing was said or written, and there was no record of their meeting, which Jack thought was very clever.

Lance didn’t like turning on his friends, but all’s fair in love and war, he thought. He felt bad threatening Ed, Bob, Dave, and Lou—they all still had affection for one another—but the Company had screwed him over. Now it was their turn to get screwed.


For months, Lou sat in the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center, still waving his scepter against Company foes. With money there was yet power. According to DeMassa, Lou wanted to bribe his way out. Judge, jury members, maybe a congressman if he had to. Ed, Bob, and Dave were all on different floors of the jail. They never talked directly, coordinating instead through DeMassa. Harlan and Dave both started teaching themselves law, to get into the statutes themselves.

Dave faced an “848,” the federal government’s continuing criminal enterprise statute—it was the trafficking equivalent of RICO, dubbed the drug kingpin law, carrying the prospect of decades in prison. Dave wasn’t a kingpin, but a heavy charge was how the government put on the squeeze, looking for cracks in the foundation. The Company felt abused by the inflated charges, but from the DEA’s perspective, it was the sole means of pressing an advantage. When a crew was as successful and as tight as the Company was, the DEA had to find leverage where it could. So the feds wheeled out the 848s, investigated friends and families, and, for good measure, indicted all the Company girlfriends.

Jack and Sandra tried to trace the DEA’s footsteps, looking for evidence that the agents overstepped their bounds. Sandra went around reminding everyone not to talk without a lawyer present and offering protection to people like Ed’s father, a Navy janitor, whose pension the DEA had threatened. At one point, Jack discovered that he was under surveillance himself. A well-known rock photographer let the DEA use his apartment, across the street from the Palladino & Sutherland offices, to spy on them.

There was more than enough resentment to go around. The DEA hated DeMassa; he was, according to Conklin, a “shyster attorney” who used “crooked detectives” to get criminals off. Jack and Sandra thought the DEA took it personally that anyone would dare stand up to the agency. “It wasn’t common to do that,” Jack recalled later. “And we were good at it.”

But the DEA was chipping away at the Company. DeMassa was on the defensive; he knew that the agency was gunning for him as well. Bob eventually chose to go to trial, but DeMassa encouraged Ed and everyone else to plead out. Lou arranged a plea bargain before he could be charged with an 848. The kingpin never faced the kingpin law, but he got 10 years anyway. So did Ed, who struck the same deal. During Lou’s sentencing, he looked up at the judge and told himself that he would never again lose his freedom. When he got out, he vowed, he would change his life, again. Freedom wasn’t worth all that money. But what was it worth?


In 1982, Lou was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island, just off Los Angeles Harbor, to “do his dime,” as it was called in the yard. He looked around and thought: I can’t spend 10 years here. In the MCC library, he had met a prisoner who traded homespun legal advice to his fellow inmates for cookies. “Want my advice?” he told Lou. “Get yourself out of here. That’s what all these other motherfuckers are trying to do. And they’re actually supposed to be in here.”

The jailhouse lawyer knew a former U.S. attorney named Kevin McInerny, who talked Lou through becoming an informant. Conklin was shocked when he got the call from McInerny: “Lou Villar wants to talk.” 

The Deal

1982

It was controversial within the DEA whether or not to let Lou turn. He was too high up in the Company, some said—what was the point of rolling up the organization if you were going to let the kingpin walk? But Lou could provide detail on financing, suppliers, and dealers—the entire Thai network that Conklin had in his sights. Conklin had been able to indict a lot of those people based on Lance’s and Fizzy’s testimony, but for convictions he needed someone to take the stand. He also had his eye on a target closer to home. He wanted to go after DeMassa.

Lou already felt cheated by DeMassa. The Company had paid him half a million in fees, and in Lou’s mind all he did with it was negotiate some rather unfavorable plea bargains. Lou asked McInerny to reach out to Dave. Lou knew Dave could get out if he wanted to. So far he’d held firm, even though DEA agents had visited him in prison, stalked his wife, and harassed his sister, the prosecutor. Dave’s family had pleaded with him to turn on the Company. Finally, Conklin came to him and told him he had one last chance. He showed Dave the 848 paperwork with his name on it. “There’s a train leaving the station,” the agent told him. “Do you want to be on it or under it?”

Conklin felt like he was doing Dave and the others a service. In a way, he thought, the Company guys were lucky to get caught now: The days of fun-loving hippie smugglers were giving way to the violence and gangsterism of cocaine culture. Arrest was a way out, informing a path to redemption. “You have a chance to be a regular guy again,” Conklin told Dave. Dave waited until he thought everyone who had worked for him had been dispositioned, so his testimony wouldn’t affect his employees. And then he switched sides.


In his cell at the MCC,  Harlan was still fighting the prosecutors, poring over court documents. He’d been imagining that Pops and the Company might still mount a cavalry charge. Instead, his boss and friends would testify against him.

It was understandable that Lance would turn state’s evidence; he’d been shafted. Maybe Fuzzy, too; he was an outsider, never one of the Coronado boys. But Lou? Lou had been at the center of everything. It was as if the Godfather broke omertà. And that broke Harlan’s heart.

He remembered when he did his first piece in jail, how Lou took him aside and coached him on doing his time. Now it was Lou’s turn, and Lou was skipping out. We were a fucking championship lineup, Harlan thought. And Lou was the coach. Harlan sometimes still felt an echo of remorse from 14 years earlier, when he disappointed Lou on the basketball court. He never imagined then that Lou would disappoint him in return. “We loved him,” Harlan would later tell the journalist Mike Wallace. “And he rolled right over on us.”

On one of Harlan’s trips to the courtroom, he was being led into the elevator when he ran into Lou, accompanied by prosecutors, on his way to testify. Harlan was dressed in corrections orange. Lou was in his civilian clothes, looking sharp as always, with a big smile on his face. “How are you doing?” Lou said. He looked Harlan in the eye and shook his hand. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said, just like in his coaching and Company days. “Hang in there.”

They got off on different floors. Harlan spent six more months on the ninth floor of the MCC and was then transferred to Terminal Island for the rest of his sentence. Lou walked out of the building and into the California sunshine.


The fallout from Lou and the other informants’ testimony was widespread. Many Company members and their associates did time. The Fort Lewis helicopter pilots were court-martialed. The Indians from Neah Bay were arrested. A third indictment came down in 1984, naming more suppliers and distributors; Conklin was disabling the Thai network, just as he had hoped. Eventually, more than one hundred people were indicted. Lou gave up many of them himself, even Kerrie’s brother Kent, who had worked with the Company on the beach. Some people, like Kent, spent just a few months in prison, others years.

The DEA raided DeMassa’s office, taking all his files, and eventually arrested him, charging him with harboring Bob Lahodny as a fugitive and 16 counts as a co-conspirator in the Company case. He went to trial in 1985. Facing 20 years, DeMassa pled guilty to three felonies and served six months in a halfway house.

Bob Lahodny went to trial in 1985. After 10 days—during which Lou, Dave, and Fuzzy all testified—Bob changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to five years. He got out in 1989 but was arrested again that year, along with Ed Otero, after the two attempted another smuggling gig in Northern California.

Ed was serving his second sentence when he saved the life of a prison guard who was being held hostage by two armed prisoners, and was released early. Seven years in prison was enough to straighten him out. He moved to Palm Springs, started a legitimate—and successful—air-conditioning business, and bought himself a boat with his own hard-earned money.

Dave was released in 1983. He was relieved that he could see his family, but he knew he couldn’t go back to Coronado. He moved away and got into real estate. The first time Dave saw Lou after being arrested was on a plane to Maine, where they had both been subpoenaed to testify in a case related to the Little Machias Bay bust. Dave was still angry at Lou for informing on him before he turned state’s evidence himself. By the end of the flight, however, the two men were cracking tiny bottles of booze and rekindling their friendship. Other relationships, however, couldn’t be recovered. Lou never again saw Bob, Ed, Lance—or Kerrie. “What really hurt,” Kerrie says, “is that Lou never apologized.”

2013

The man who walked into the pizza place was barely recognizable as the tanned playboy I’d seen in pictures and newspaper articles. At age 76, he looked like a retiree, with white hair and a warm smile. “No one else besides the people who lived it has ever heard this story,” Lou Villar said.

Arranging the first meeting had been complicated, requiring the kind of cloak-and-dagger planning that Lou knew from the days of the Coronado Company. I showed up at the restaurant, waited, and was finally approached by Lou after I “checked out.” He was spry, fit, and still sharp as he jumped into a story that hadn’t been told in thirty years.

As I spent time with Lou, I could see the charming and charismatic man who had drawn so many people into his orbit at the Company. But I also saw the tragedy of his story. By the time we met, I had spoken with many who still felt the sting of his betrayal.

Lou himself served nearly two years in prison. After he was released, he was resentenced to a year of unsupervised probation. He managed to hold on to a bit of money, some of his furnishings from Hilton Head, and his wine collection.

Did Lou have regrets? He did. He’d testified against people he cared about. It was an agonizing decision, one he couldn’t rationalize away: “I told my story in exchange for freedom, and I’ll always have to live with that.” He hadn’t spoken to a reporter since 1985, shortly after he got out of prison. At the time, he said he regretted his Company days; they’d affected his family and destroyed most of his friendships. But things looked different to him now, with nearly three decades of perspective. “Those were lessons that had to be learned,” he told me.

He understood why his friends were angry. Still, he told himself, some of them could have taken a deal like he had. They had chosen to stick with honor among thieves, but Lou thought that was just a hollow criminal piety. Maybe that, in turn, was a hollow informant’s piety. But Lou now says that for him, time behind bars was an opportunity to accept defeat and learn how to live a legitimate life again. In his forties, he changed his name and started over. He was successful in his new career, he told me, but it wasn’t the same as the Coronado Company. “Then again,” he says, “what could be?”

When Lou and Dave spend time together now, their wives have forbidden them from talking about the halcyon days of the Company, because it can go on for hours. No matter how nostalgic he gets, Dave says he wouldn’t do it again. Lou says he would. The highs, the lows, the hard lessons—“those are the things,” he says, “that made my life.”

Lou Villar (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)
Lou Villar (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)

Epilogue

2013

 Ed Otero died in January 2013 of a heart attack while fishing for tuna off the coast of Mexico. “Ed rode the wave of life through the ’70s and early ’80s,” his obituary noted, “which included many adventures.”

 Dave Strather divorced, remarried, and raised his daughter. He still has one of the Company’s voice scramblers and can reproduce the Bornstein chart from memory.

 Bob Lahodny moved back to the San Diego area after his second prison term, got married, became a stockbroker, and lived, according to friends, “a festive and happy life” with his wife until they divorced. After that, Bob struggled to find his footing again. He died in 2010, from complications from hepatitis C, which he contracted while traveling in Asia.

 Lance Weber never got his performance-speedboat business off the ground. He moved back to Coronado and met a new girl, Deanna, whom he married a few years later. He invited Jim Conklin and other DEA agents to his wedding, where Conklin presented him with a pair of handcuffs in a shadowbox with an engraved plate reading, “Congratulations on Your Life Sentence!” Lance and Deanna had two children. He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2000.

 Allan “Fuzzy” Logie made it through 10 years of probation without incident. He still rides motorcycles but had to stop surfing after he crashed his bike and injured his back. He remembers every mechanical upgrade he ever made to a vehicle.

 Al Sweeney received five years of probation and moved back to Coronado. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1985.

 Don Kidd still runs his garage in Oregon, where he still specializes in the impossible. “It gets annoying,” he says. “People always bring me the shit they can’t fix.” He and Harlan Fincher have stayed friends, visiting each other every few years.

Harlan Fincher served four years in prison. When he returned to civilian life, he owed the government tens of thousands of dollars he didn’t have, on account of the IRS asset case against him, which made it hard for him to recover financially. Between that and his felony record, he had difficulty finding work that made use of his many talents. He married in 2006 and manages a ranch.

 Paul Acree disappeared before the initial Coronado Company arrests in 1981. None of the other Company veterans know where he is or if he is still alive.

 Phil DeMassa returned to law after his conviction; the California Bar Association did not pull his license, on the grounds that his crimes did not “involve moral turpitude.” Still, his practice never quite recovered. He died in a scuba-diving accident in 2012.

 James Conklin spent 26 years with the DEA and still admires the ingenuity of the Company. After finishing the CorCo case, he was given a plum assignment in Thailand, where he was tasked with taking on the Company’s supply at the source. He spent four years there, essentially eradicating the entire Thai stick trade. He retired in 2004 and moved to Las Vegas, where he started a private-investigation firm with his son.

 Jack Palladino and Sandra Sutherland are still private investigators and have worked on behalf of many high-profile clients since the Coronado affair, including John DeLorean, the auto executive charged with smuggling cocaine in 1982, Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign, and Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco-industry whistle-blower portrayed in the film The Insider. They now live and work in San Francisco’s Upper Haight neighborhood and are aided in their investigative efforts by their cat, Tipsy, who likes to sit on the files.

 Kerrie Kavanaugh took a few years to move beyond what she now calls “the follies of the early ’80s” and eventually went back to school to pursue her culinary interests. She worked as a chef on private yachts, where she met her husband, a ship’s captain. They moved to the Pacific Northwest and had a daughter.

Lou Villar hasn’t talked to Kerrie in 35 years, but he kept a copy of the poem he wrote her.