Birdette Hughey never wanted to be a math teacher.
At age three, she hoped to become a competitive ice skater, following in the footsteps of her older sister. In junior high, she decided she’d be the first female pro football player — either a wide receiver or a tight end because of her speed. Then, in college, she thought it might be better to be the first female president of the United States.
“I was like, ‘Yes, I’m going to be the leader of the free world,’” Hughey says, as if it were a foregone conclusion.
Hughey, now thirty-three, is 5’8” and a quarter, with almond-colored skin and a slender frame that makes her look like she’s still a teenager. She has done none of the things she wanted to do when she was younger — at least not professionally. But her hyper-ambitious persona has translated well to a career in the classroom — so well that she was named Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2011.
In her first year teaching, Hughey raised the scores of her Greenwood High School Algebra I students by a staggering amount — the proportion passing statewide tests jumped from fifty-one percent to eighty-six percent. Since then, she’s met President Obama; helped turn around a school in Baltimore; and is now laying the groundwork for a program that would give young women in Mississippi a place to have difficult conversations about things like sexuality, body image, and their relationships with God.
“There are a lot of expectations on women and young girls in society,” Hughey says. “There are so many times where what has to be done is prescribed for you. You have to get this certain grade level; you have to meet this GPA; you have to carry yourself in this way.
“Instead of having these black-and-white cookie cutter rules,” she continues, “It’s more like, ‘This is what society says. Now what do I believe and how am I going to reconcile what I believe with what’s expected of me?’”
Ironically, Hughey used to see the world in black and white.
She grew up in DeSoto, Texas, a Dallas suburb with a population of about 15,000, and attended the nearby First Baptist Academy, a conservative private school affiliated with a church led by Rev. Robert Jeffress, a pastor who has attracted widespread controversy for his virulent statements against gays and members of other religions.
Her grandmother on her father’s side was a teacher, and both of Hughey’s parents have taught at the college level. As a result, Hughey knew she would attend college — and she knew she needed to excel to live up to her parents’ expectations.
“If you got an A, it was alright,” Hughey’s sister, Ebonie Jackson, says. “If it was a B or a C, you couldn’t go home.”
Hughey chose to attend public middle and high school in DeSoto, which she felt would nurture her intellect more than the religious academy — although she remained extremely committed to her faith. Her family attended a megachurch run by the civil rights leader Rev. Zan Holmes Jr.; Hughey’s parents put so much stock in Holmes that Jackson’s middle name is “Zan.” The church had some liberal tendencies, but young Birdette maintained a resolute sense of right and wrong governed by a literal interpretation of the Bible. She started tithing as a teenager. When she was sixteen, she didn’t even have a job, but would always keep $5 in her glove compartment to donate on Sunday. When she ran track, she volunteered to lead the team in prayer. She vowed not to have sex before marriage.
“A lot of religious stuff is very gray,” Jackson says. “But my sister will find a black and white area.”
Always an overachiever, Hughey was active in multiple organizations while also running track and cross country. When she fractured her leg during her junior year, she ran on it anyway. She convinced herself that chocolate was a painkiller and started eating M&Ms before her races to dull the throbbing.
After the season was over, she finally went to the doctor.
“He told me I ran the risk of stepping over the finish line and having my shin split in half,” Hughey recalls, laughing. “But it didn’t.”
She now recognizes her over-commitment as a problem — in fact, a disorder called “obsessive passion” that was first identified by the psychology professor Robert Vallerand.
“It causes people to overdo activities that they love,” Hughey says. “They do it to a point where they can no longer enjoy it — if they’re no longer competing, they’ll stop a sport completely.”
For Hughey, the path to satisfaction was clear: to compete was to succeed was to be happy. This continued into college, when she headed to Florida A&M University on a full academic scholarship.
As part of her five-year MBA program, Hughey snagged several coveted internships. At eighteen years old, she was making $12.50 an hour at IBM. By the time she was twenty, she’d moved up to $32 an hour at Kimberly Clarke. Her drive to succeed was relentless. She once bought a plane ticket in order to complete a paper. Yet she was noticeably different from her peers in the business program.
“We had to write these business journals,” Hughey recalls. “I talked about how I wanted to be the Michael Jordan of education. I also wanted to do a teen home for pregnant girls whose families may have kicked them out as a result of their pregnancy. I wanted to do a homeless shelter, just all sorts of social service initiatives.”
When she ran for president of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, a debate arose about whether she could handle some aspects of the job. One of the president’s key duties, for instance, involved taking money at the door of parties — but Hughey didn’t go to parties.
“She didn’t believe that things that happened at parties were reflective of her walk with Christ,” Jackson says.
Hughey ended up winning the election, but she didn’t compromise her values. She made sure everything was set up for each party. Then she left, went to sleep, woke up at two a.m., came back, counted the money and wrote up a report for the chapter’s records.
After college Hughey spent a few years in the business world, selling Johnson & Johnson contact lenses. At the same time, she became involved with the Girl Scouts of the USA, recruiting at-risk teenage girls to join the organization. She also began teaching students at a church program, helping them prepare for standardized tests — an experience that kickstarted her own company, Dream Katchers, focused on working with high schoolers to plan for college.
Eventually Hughey made the decision to quit her other jobs and devote herself to Dream Katchers full time. Yet soon after she left the Girl Scouts, a contract she had been counting on fell through. Aside from retirement savings and a condo she’d just closed on, her total assets were no more than a credit card with zero percent APR and a $10,000 limit.
“We’re talking day by day,” Hughey says. “I remember having twenty-five cents left in my checking account. Even though I was a starving artist — or maybe a starving entrepreneur — I had to work on my passion.”
She worked as many jobs as she could, switching between private tutoring, consulting with Essence magazine, campaigning for Barack Obama, and recruiting for The New Teacher Project. Her faith never wavered, but she realized she couldn’t run her company by herself. She needed a change of pace, and her recruiting potential had reached its limit. How could she find the best teachers if she had never been in charge of a classroom?
She applied to Teach for America and was sent to the Mississippi Delta.
The state of Mississippi is vastly different from what many outsiders expect it to be, even while it simultaneously fulfills many of their stereotypes
Mississippi is green, dark green with the needles of pines and the leaves of cottonwoods and the snarls of kudzu, so green that sixty-five percent of its land is covered with trees. Why is it that Mississippi is far better known for its fried food, warm hospitality and a color that’s not green? Two colors, to be precise — ones that often go together but rarely coexist: black and white.
It was here, in the Delta town of Money, that fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered, just eleven miles away from Greenwood, where Hughey taught Algebra I for three years. Leflore County, where Greenwood is located, is about twenty-six percent white and seventy-two percent black, according to American Community Survey estimates. Yet in the 2011 – 2012 school year, less than one percent of the students in Greenwood’s local public high school were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During that same time period, just three percent of the students at Pillow Academy, a private high school a few miles down the road, were black.
The contrasts were stark, and the stigmas of poverty seemed impenetrable. Though Hughey was a Southern girl at heart, she wasn’t prepared for the walls her students had built up to protect themselves.
Chiqueta Daniels, the assistant principal at Greenwood High School when Hughey arrived in the Delta, saw that she wasn’t adjusting well.
“She had really strong attributes,” Daniels says, “but she looked so young that the children couldn’t differentiate the way she looked with what she was trying to do.”
“You have to go strong,” Daniels told Hughey. “You can’t smile until Christmas.”
Hughey developed a tougher skin, but she also decided to use the children’s strengths to her — and their — advantage.
She created separate classes based on learning style, with one class made up of students who liked to talk out problems together, and another made of those who preferred to work quietly and independently.
Her obsessive passion infiltrated her workplace, as she began using her planning periods and lunch times for college preparation. She coached the track team and tutored athletes before practice, sometimes in the football bleachers and on the cross country field. Her data-driven mind inspired her to create spreadsheets about her students, methodically tracking their progress.
Daniels says her favorite memory of Hughey was when the school received the scores from the first statewide tests their students took.
“She was so proud,” Daniels recalls, smiling. “She had worked so hard and she saw the fruits of her labor. She knew, ‘I did it and I did it right.’”
On October 3, 2018, a 56-year-old man went to sleep on a green tarp, under plaid and camouflage blankets, in downtown Eugene, Oregon. A bus camera captured his prostrate form next to a wall on Pearl Street at 8:39 p.m. Five minutes later, police say, another camera captured two teenagers “prowling,” checking car doors in a nearby parking lot.
Within minutes, their paths connected, calamitously. By the time police arrived, five minutes after a 9:26 p.m. emergency call in which the man’s agonal breathing could be heard, the teens were gone, the man unresponsive. Strewn about were his tooth, a blood-soaked ushanka fur hat with ear flaps, a Swiss Army knife, black boots, a watch, Yogi tea packets, matches and a tobacco pouch. It was a tree-shrouded location on a dark night with no witnesses.
Two miles across town, at 9:45 p.m., a sergeant’s call woke Detective Jennifer Curry after an hour’s sleep alongside her beagles Arnold and Lucy. She reached for her notepad. As the lead detective, she wouldn’t sleep again that night. At the crime scene, Sergeant Tim Haywood paused while processing the evidence. “He comes over and he tells me, ‘Hey, there’s a bloody rock in that garbage can,’” Curry recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Sure there is.’”
“He’s like, ‘No, I’m serious.’”
The victim was taken to Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he died at 10:08 p.m.
A clue to his identity was found atop a parking garage near the scene: a cooler bag holding empty food containers and a criminal citation written to “Neal, Ovid — Transient.”
The life and death of Ovid Neal III ranged from Harvard to homelessness to homicide. It’s recreated here based on interviews with 13 friends and family members, police accounts, court documents, five days of court testimony and independent reporting. The tragic tale demonstrates how our society often fails the most vulnerable among us, be they homeless, mentally ill, or neglected and abused young people. It illuminates tough questions about the limits of justice, redemption and forgiveness. Ovid Neal’s sister, Amanda Roth, calls it “an extraordinary tale of tragedy, every which way.”
I. “Dark Pants” and “Light Pants”
At a nearby hotel called the Timbers Inn, Detective Curry first glimpsed and obtained images of the youngsters she nicknamed “Dark Pants” and “Light Pants.” Eventually, she would draw from two dozen cameras to create a timeline of the night’s events.
The pair arrived on the scene at 8:47 p.m., then engaged in “back and forth lookout behavior.” Dark Pants came into view lugging the rock.
Video at 8:57 p.m. shows them walking southbound, toward the sleeping Neal. “Dark Pants has something in his hands now,” Curry says. “He lifts it up over his head, then swings it down, almost as if practicing.”
The attack occurred seconds later. Neal’s death certificate lists “blunt force head trauma” as cause. He was hit in the head with the rock nine or 10 times, the medical examiner testified.
The killers scored $11 in paper money and change, some marijuana and a brass pipe, fleeing at 9:19 p.m. Then, Curry says, they “went on a beer run,” stealing from a Safeway grocery store, then heading to a park.
Dark Pants was “freaking out” afterward, testified Nicholas Stewart, a friend who met them later that night. “He was scared. He said he might have hurt someone really bad or might have killed them. He seemed like he was going to cry.” Dark Pants gave away his sweatshirt and rubbed blood off his shoe in the grass.
“So, after you leave a man for dead on the sidewalk … you go off and meet up with some friends and go make a beer run, which means you go into a store and you steal alcohol you can then go drink in a park?” Curry asks.
Eugene police discovered that the teenagers had passed near the downtown bus terminal, and they worked with security to collect video of them. The footage was the best they had, yet it showed only the back of the teens’ heads. The investigation caught a break when a Lane Transit District officer recognized one of the suspects from the back, even without seeing her face, and said, “I know who that is — that’s Jessica, and that’s her boyfriend.”
Turned out the pair were known to authorities: “Dark Pants” Jonathan Kirkpatrick, then 16, had grown up amid child welfare systems, and was an assault suspect after a domestic violence incident led his father to call police. “Light Pants” Jessica Simmons, then 15, had a juvenile justice warrant.
During the week after the murder and before their arrest, the star-crossed lovers celebrated their first anniversary in the apartment where they shared a bedroom. They didn’t go back downtown.
II. An “All-Rounder”
A life lived decades ago in half a dozen states and reviewed through the lens of grief can be hard to fathom. But those who knew Ovid Neal recall a man full of verve and adventure. None foresaw the horrors to come.
Named after a Roman poet, Ovid — whom virtually everyone, including Detective Curry, seems to have called by his first name — was born in Inglewood, California, on March 22, 1962. His father, Ovid Neal Jr., was an Army Air Corps officer who “flew the hump,” piloting C-47 troop transports over the Himalayan Mountains during World War II. His mother, Ruth Gordon, now 84, was a businesswoman who says she “supported the family for many years,” including as a sportswear buyer for 168 Zale Corporation stores in 28 states. Ovid’s sister, Amanda Roth, 59, works for a film company in Hollywood, and his brother, Zachary Neal, 56, develops affordable housing in Las Vegas.
Ovid’s friends fondly recall an “all-rounder,” 6 feet 4 inches tall who graduated Hampshire College and Harvard Divinity School, modeled for Harley-Davidson, wrote poetry, deftly played blues harmonica and had a smooth jumper. He fearlessly fished a Texas pond, his friend Javed Akhund recalls, even after venomous water moccasin snakes surfaced. As a teenager growing up between Texas and New York City, he wore a black leather jacket; an early girlfriend, Marissa Radovan, recalls “fantastic make-out sessions” in his hatchback. An old photo shows him tanned and in shape, with a small moustache and full head of curly brown hair. Women at a Dallas bookstore where he worked thought he looked “like a Greek God,” recalls a friend and former co-worker, Scott Senn.
Albeit a bit more ridiculous. “At that time, we all wore Royal Crown pomade in our hair,” Senn laughs. “That’s like Dapper Dan in O Brother, Where Art Thou?”— a glistening, slick look.
Senn and Ovid used to laugh until their sides hurt. “If there’s one thing I remember [about] hanging out with him, it’s hilarity. It was literally the theater of the absurd. Him and I would get face to face and do this old vaudeville dancing thing, where you’re looking at each other, faces like two inches from each other.”
Many friends told tales of Ovid’s mischievous humor. But his childhood brought challenges, including his parents’ divorce, frequent moves, and struggles with addiction. “By the time we were 18, I think we had lived in 18 different places,” his younger brother, Zachary Neal, says.
“We came from kind of a harsh environment, in that a lot of the people we grew up around had problems and issues,” he adds. In the 1970s, he says, a lot of parents were “out to lunch, literally and figuratively.”
Zachary Neal says he relied on his big brother for physical protection, but felt a “visceral need” to protect Ovid emotionally, starting when he was about 10 and Ovid was 12.
“I came home and he was sitting on the ledge on the ninth floor of our apartment [building] and I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘I was thinking about jumping,’” Zachary Neal recalls. “I remember being totally sad. I think he was partly joking, but … that was when I started feeling this need to protect him.”
The family was financially well-off, but they struggled in other ways. The 1970s and early 1980s was a quicksilver period for them. Roth recalls that they moved to New York as a family in 1972, then their dad moved back to Texas and the kids stayed with their mom. Then all three kids moved to Texas, then returned to New York. Eventually, the two boys returned to Texas around 1975 or 1976.
Ovid’s itinerant education ranged from the elite Dwight School in Manhattan to the Griffin Christian Academy in Dallas, where kids would throw dice between classes, Ovid’s friend and fellow student Jerry Harwell recalls. “The only rules were empty your ashtrays and no fighting.”
Ovid overdosed on six horse tranquilizer pills in Dallas at around age 13 or 14. He sobered up, then counseled other teenagers at the Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP). Friends told stories of “dry” parties that were “tons of fun,” riotous conversations at a Denny’s, copious cigarettes, coffee.
Former PDAP director John Cates recalls that Ovid “shined” as a counselor for addicted adolescents and their families. As things turned out, Ovid even counseled his mother. Ruth Gordon recalls that it was Ovid who helped her stop drinking for good.
“On July 9, 1979, he was in Texas and I was in New York, and I shared with [Ovid] that I was just at the end of my rope, if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to end up in an institution or dead,” Gordon says. Ovid spoke to her for a long time, and they prayed together. “And I did what he suggested, and I’ve been sober since July 9, 1979.”
Sober and sharp, Ovid turned heads when he arrived at Hampshire College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, in 1983 in a shiny red Volkswagen Beetle.
“I remember thinking, who’s that jerk who thinks he’s so cool?” says classmate Grainger Marburg. “We somehow met and I was totally disabused of that notion.”
The two lived in Dakin House, where Ovid’s room overlooked an apple orchard.
It was always “spartan,” Marburg remembers. “His bed was always made, almost military. His desk was neat. He had these little rituals, and he loved coffee. I would sit on the chair and he’d sit on the bed and make coffee and want to know how I was doing. I had this desire to feel anchored, like, I need an Ovid fix.”
Ovid went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Bible studies and was a triathlete and basketball player. Even with his looks and charm, Marburg doesn’t recall him dating.
“He would swim like crazy, run like crazy, bike like crazy,” says Winslow Dennis, who met Ovid on a basketball court. Ovid and he discussed the euphoria that comes from exercise. “He would find different highs.”
Ovid’s Hampshire transcript is filled with descriptors like “extraordinary” and “remarkable.” Professors described his senior study of French philosopher Simone Weil as having “tremendous integrity, depth and sensitivity.”
He was the kind of person who old friends periodically searched for online after falling out of touch — one, Shannon Greer, recalls that he “spent many a night trying to find his electronic footprint, to no avail until this tragedy.” After the murder, Marburg’s browser hooked a Eugene news story. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
“I was kind of devastated,” says Chris Curnutt, a friend who knew Ovid from his teenage years in Texas. “Just fucking, what the hell?”
“It’s hard to hold back tears,” says his high school friend Jerry Harwell.
Ovid’s family dropped into a pit of despair. “At first, for months, I was in a state of shock, especially because of the way in which he was killed,” Amanda Roth testified. “Then I was overcome with acute grief.”
“This is a nightmare — it is like being trapped under water,” Zachary Neal says. “Who kills a disabled, frail, kind homeless person?”
III. A Childhood at “War”
If Ovid’s childhood had rough patches, Jonathan Kirkpatrick’s was scarred by the kinds of social risk factors that bring repeated child protective services involvement. (Much less is known about Jessica Simmons, for whom Oregon officials declined to release records.)
Born in Las Vegas in 2001, Kirkpatrick was exposed to methamphetamine in utero but born healthy. He grew up amidst drugs, gangs and brutal violence in Porterville, California, and Anchorage, Alaska. His grandmother, Sandra Brown, testified at his trial that he was “kind of a wild boy … into superheroes [and] going to parks.”
When he was 4, she testified, his mother called to say, “he dug a hole in the fence to get away.” Brown recalled Kirkpatrick’s mother crying, saying, “Jonny … told her that he hated her because she took him away from his dad.”
Kirkpatrick had people who loved and cared for him, court testimony reveals, but his parents struggled with addictions and domestic violence.
A court psychologist testified that “Jonny” — as his friends, family, some officials and his attorney called him — told “war stories” about witnessing shootings and an assault “that ended up with somebody’s internal organs hanging outside of their body.” He claimed he snorted an “eight ball” of cocaine — a potentially lethal dose — and drank a half gallon of hard alcohol a day. Much is unclear about Kirkpatrick’s childhood — the discovery phase of Kirkpatrick’s case alone includes 3,000 pages of evidence, most of which is sealed — but court testimony suggests that Kirkpatrick began drinking and smoking marijuana in California and continued or increased his use in the years leading up to the murder.
In 2006, California CPS workers substantiated a child neglect charge against Jonny’s mom. In 2007, his father was sentenced to a year in jail, where his son visited him. Soon after, the father moved to Oregon.
By 2015, Judge Chanti writes, after foreclosure and eviction, Jonny, his mother and siblings continued to live in a house with no electricity. The kids would go to neighbors’ homes to ask for food. “When CPS intervened, they discovered a home with no electricity, no furniture, no beds … puppies in the house and every room had urine and feces on the flooring.”
Jonathan Kirkpatrick and three sisters were placed in foster care. Social services called their father, Raymond Kirkpatrick, in Eugene. Two days after his 14th birthday, Jonny and his three sisters moved in with his father, who shared a two-bedroom apartment with two other people.
The next phase of Jonny’s childhood, in Eugene, became, if anything, more chaotic.
Raymond Kirkpatrick was making $9 an hour washing semitrailer trucks and received housing assistance from the Oregon Department of Human Services. He was often gone, working or sleeping in a friend’s trailer. Jonny would steal his dad’s weed, and his twin sisters frequently went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Jonny was once awakened by a friend throwing money on him, saying “Hey, I got this by robbing people.”
Once, Raymond Kirkpatrick testified, he got mad at his son “for smoking weed in the house,” inspiring “a heated argument that led to a broken TV and the bruise on my face.” At times, the father testified, his son “would pull his hair, punch himself in the head. He would say stuff like ‘I should just kill myself.’”
At one point, Jonny ended up in a runaway shelter, effectively homeless on the streets of Eugene at the same time as Ovid Neal. Detective Curry says that there’s no evidence the two ever knew each other. At some point, the teen moved back in with his father.
Jonathan Kirkpatrick’s relationship with Jessica Simmons was also violent. Judge Chanti writes that Kirkpatrick “was, by all accounts, emotionally dependent on [Simmons] and when things did not go well between them … he would hit himself in the head and hit his head against objects, sometimes so seriously that he knocked himself out. During one argument he stabbed himself in front of [Simmons].”
A Facebook profile for “Jonny Kirkpatrick” contains images of young white people in baseball caps and hoodies alongside language like “Bitch Go Die,” “Speed Gang,” “Kill Them All” and “Mr. Steal Your Bitch.” It lists Porterville College and a job, fry cook at the Krusty Krab, and, framed in red hearts: “Jessica Crystal Simmons / forever and always.” A linked profile for a “Jessica Crystal Simmons” has Jonny’s name in hearts.
In the hours before the pair killed Neal, they had been drinking Oregon Springs vodka and arguing. A youth worker testified that Kirkpatrick head-butted a glass window before running off. He was “really intoxicated,” Judge Chanti writes — slurring his speech, his friend Stewart testified.
Despite their truancy, legal problems, frequent intoxication and violence, Jonathan Kirkpatrick and Jessica Simmons cohabitated like adults at his father’s apartment, police say. Simmons brought her cat to live there, Chanti writes. When police served a search warrant at the home, two miles from the scene of the murder, they seized a brass pipe that was stolen from Ovid Neal as he lay dying. It contained Kirkpatrick’s DNA.
IV. A Courtroom and a New Law
On February 4, Jonathan Kirkpatrick sat silently next to his bespectacled public defender, Katherine Berger, inside the wood-paneled Lane County Courthouse. Kirkpatrick had turned 18 and moved from a juvenile facility to the adult jail. His close-cropped haircut recalled 1930s gangster John Dillinger. In the audience, Ovid Neal’s sister, Amanda Roth, and her husband, Nick, craned their necks, arms folded, legs crossed in the same direction. A half-dozen people took notes with pen and paper.
Like many states, Oregon passed rules in the 1990s that favored a tougher approach to justice for juvenile offenders: Measure 11 automatically tried teenagers 15 and older as adults for murder, attempted murder, robbery, assault and sex crimes. But in 2019, a new state law, SB 1008, flipped the switch, requiring all youth accused of crimes to be tried in the juvenile justice system, except when prosecutors request a “waiver” to adult court — which they did for Kirkpatrick.
During the trial, three psychological experts shared conclusions drawn from thousands of questions and their knowledge of the field. Kirkpatrick’s actions and words were dissected, analyzed. Dr. Holly Crossen, called by the defense, diagnosed Kirkpatrick with disorder after disorder: attention deficit hyperactivity, neurodevelopmental, major depressive, adjustment, child abuse/neglect, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol use.
The central question was, did he have a sophisticated, “adult-like” understanding of his actions at the time? Or was he yet a child, with a developing brain impacted by his upbringing?
Berger, the recipient of a statewide legal award, had testified before the state legislature in support of SB 1008 before its passage. It’s likely she gave Kirkpatrick a better chance than most public defenders could have. She turned the court’s attention to her client’s upside-down upbringing, relying on the science about adolescent brains that, for supporters of the new law, is the point. She seemed at ease amid tales of trauma, or telling details like Kirkpatrick’s 34 doctor visits for ear infections. (Berger did not respond to several interview requests.)
A licensed clinical psychiatrist she called, Kristen Mackiewicz Seghete, testified that “regulation, judgment and reasoning” are regulated by the prefrontal cortex, which is still developing until age 21 or later. Poverty and “early life adversity” can impact brain development, initiating a process “like the fire alarm of your brain” that pushes youngsters into “fight, flight or freeze” responses,” Mackiewicz Seghete testified. Using alcohol and drugs increases “sensation seeking.”
Berger questioned the father, Raymond Kirkpatrick, about a time his son ran away:
“When he was living on the street, would you run into him sometimes?”
“How would those interactions go?”
“They were really good for me.”
“Were you trying to get him to come back home?”
Arguing for the state, Senior Deputy District Attorney Erik Hasselman stood tall in a dark suit, using his authoritative baritone voice to depict “Mr. Kirkpatrick” as a rational, calculating man-child who knew exactly what he was doing. He pointed to the fact that Kirkpatrick bragged about the killing, saying he “caught a body,” and continued his violent behavior while in custody.
Lt. Steve French, who handles security at the Lane County Jail, testified that Kirkpatrick was the source of three misconduct incidents there in late 2019 and early 2020, including “cheeking” medications — concealing them in his mouth — and “fishing,” attempting to retrieve contraband from another cell. A third violation, French testified, was sending letters to a younger “girlfriend” in juvenile custody. Judge Chanti writes that Kirkpatrick developed a “relationship” with a 13-year-old female in custody, whom he kissed, and that he threatened another youth and an officer.
At stake in the case was not only the question of how juvenile offenders are tried in Oregon. For Kirkpatrick, a waiver into adult court would mean a far longer sentence. Jason Jones of the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) testified in Kirkpatrick’s hearing that youths adjudicated in the past for serious crimes such as murder have stayed in OYA custody for fewer than four years, on average. (Sarah Evans, an OYA spokesperson, says that figure was based on “preliminary data” and is “not correct,” stating that youths charged with murder since 2000 have averaged more than seven years in OYA correctional or transitional facilities, plus parole to a community program.) Either way, it is significantly less than Kirkpatrick would face if tried as an adult.
Jones also testified on a point that Ovid’s family saw as a conflict of interest: Jessica Simmons’ probation officer at the time of the killing was Priscila Hasselman, the prosecutor’s wife. By the time of Simmons’ arraignment, Erik Hasselman says, his wife was off Simmons’ case. He adds that the state would have been at a disadvantage had he recused himself, given his experience prosecuting many local homicides.
After weeks of deliberation, Judge Suzanne Chanti’s ruling kept Kirkpatrick’s case in juvenile court. The state and Simmons had already agreed to a plea deal that kept her case there as well.
V. A Cajun Strawberry Cake
Three decades earlier, in September 1987, Ovid Neal’s love of Simone Weil had led him to Harvard Divinity School. Ovid and his mother, Ruth Gordon, asked his sister, Amanda, to move in with him at 16 Evergreen Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was across the tracks, literally, from Cambridge, with a back view of an old Italian social club. It had one door — to the bathroom. It cost $900 a month for 300 square feet.
“It was little,” Amanda Roth recalls of the flat, “but we were happy!”
Amanda typed up Ovid’s papers and ran the salad bar in the university’s kitchen. Ovid hit the books and busked in Harvard Square, playing music on the streets with harmonica, guitar, amplifier and drums.
“We got a pug, and we named it Gatemouth,” Amanda Roth recalls, after bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. “He loved Gatemouth.”
A contemporary photo shows a lean, intense Ovid with longish hair, holding a cigarette next to an open window, at a small table replete with a book, papers, fruit, flowers and what looks like pill bottles. Roth says that the black-and-white shot “shows Ovid as I remember him — as philosophical, contemplating the big questions and fueled by coffee and cigarettes.”
During this period, his friend Scott Senn recalls Ovid mentioning that he’d gone to dinner at Allen Ginsberg’s house, along with William Burroughs. “He said it was just bizarre,” Senn recalls. “He was studying the philosophy of religion, and he would meet guys who were just world figures.”
The path seemed natural for Ovid. “I always imagined him being a minister or a professor of divinity,” says friend Shannon Greer. Ovid’s mother, Ruth Gordon, remembers that his Harvard dean had mapped out a plan for him that culminated in an Oxford Ph.D.
It was not to be. Ovid told his mom, “I’m not going to be able to do it.” While at Harvard, Ovid’s struggles with mental illness became too much.
“His head was on fire by the time he was in grad school,” his brother, Zachary Neal, says.
Gordon recalls spending Christmas with her son in Manhattan, and he seemed “all right,” but a month later she got a call from Harvard: Ovid was sick. Gordon flew to Boston and her son had lost 30 pounds.
Ovid underwent an “unbelievable battery of tests,” with ambiguous results. “They thought he had a heart condition at first,” Gordon says. Ovid’s diagnoses ran the gamut from brain lesions to temporal lobe epilepsy, depression and finally rapid cycling bipolar disorder.
It was 1988, and Ovid began tapering on and off of various psychiatric drugs, which his brother recalls included “all the psychotropics, SSRIs, antipsychotics, Lamictal, lithium, Zyprexa.” He’d be on them for the next 26 years.
At one point during this period Ovid struggled to sleep, his brother recalls, so he volunteered in a hospital at night with terminally ill children, “just holding them, so their parents could sleep. I remember saying, ‘I don’t know how you can do that.’”
A spokesperson confirmed Ovid’s graduation from Harvard Divinity School on June 10, 1993, with a master’s in theological studies.
In their last phone call, a week before his death, Ovid surprised his sister by thanking her for things she did for him decades earlier, including throwing a party at the Somerville apartment. She would later wonder if Ovid’s gratitude was prescient.
He loved the blues, so she had cooked him a big Cajun dinner and baked a Cajun-style strawberry cake. Thirty people had packed the tiny apartment.
“He still remembered that,” Roth says. In the call, “I was like, why are you talking about this? And now I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’”
VI. Toss the Pills, Hit the Road
Despite his history counseling and healing others, Ovid never pursued work in the ministry. His family and friends say his goal was to understand the nature of God, or to write — he started writing poetry as young as age 7, his mother recalls.
“Ovid studied philosophy, theology and comparative religion,” his brother, Zachary Neal, recalls. “His intent was never to minister or teach. His intent was to understand God. Had he not been afflicted with mental illness, he would have written.”
After Somerville, Ovid ended up in Manhattan, where he worked in Kathleen’s Bake Shop on 84th Street, which Ovid’s childhood friend Jerry Harwell recalls as being frequented by Tom Brokaw, Caroline Kennedy and “a lot of other famous people.” Ovid’s mother, Ruth Ann Gordon, later bought the shop and renamed it Ruth Ann’s Bake Shop.
Ovid also worked at an East Village diner called Around the Clock, while living with Harwell, who also struggled with mental health. Harwell recalls Ovid would work, play music and hang with friends. “He just always had something going on.” Both rejected the stigma that can accompany mental illness, and they sometimes skipped their prescribed pills.
“That’s when I went through my whole phase of, I didn’t want to be labeled as mentally ill, and neither did he,” Harwell recalls.
By the mid-1990s, friends and family say, Ovid had moved to Seattle and married a woman he knew from his teenage years. At a marriage event for multiple couples at Seattle Center, she wore a cool “Southern” dress and he wore a bolo tie “and a funky hat, not quite a cowboy hat,” longtime friend Virginia Curnutt recalls. The pair rode there in a horse-drawn carriage.
There was a sky-blue house with a white picket fence. She worked at Microsoft, he at Half-Price Books. But it wasn’t meant to be, and they eventually divorced. (Ovid’s ex-wife could not be reached for comment for this story.)
After the divorce, his sister, Amanda Roth, recalls, Ovid withdrew from his family, spent time in a group home, and eventually reached out to his brother and mother. He moved in with them in Las Vegas.
Friends and family agree that taking pills “dampened” Ovid’s sharp mind and magnetic personality. Eventually, “it seemed to be taking a toxic toll on him,” his brother, Zachary Neal, recalls. “It got to the point where I could smell the medicines in his sweat.”
In 2014, in Las Vegas, Ovid stopped taking the drugs suddenly. Erratic behavior, and a psychotic episode, resulted: Ovid damaged the house and a car, repeatedly woke the neighbors at night, said “weird stuff about God and crime,” his siblings recall.
It was perhaps the only time in his life when Ovid was violent with others. He “became threatening and pushed” his aging mother, his siblings say, and she called the police. After Ovid “put his hands on” their mother while she was sleeping, his brother says, police were called again.
“Psychosis can be a side effect of quitting cold turkey or coming off too fast,” says Janie Gullickson, director of the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon. “People typically don’t know that they can get support in titrating,” or coming off medication.
Ovid refused to take his pills or go see his psychiatrist. His brother was in Seattle, working, and his mother was vulnerable. Ovid’s family tried, but failed, to convince his psychiatrist to go to the home to treat Ovid. Despite “repeated and anguishing attempts,” Ovid’s sister says, “the doctor would not help.”
The family faced a situation that’s grimly familiar to many whose loved ones struggle with mental illness: Our legal and mental health systems bestow great freedoms — and hence responsibilities — upon individuals. It’s possible that here, Ovid’s strengths became barriers: He presented well, was highly intelligent, and had read the entire Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV. The family saw no way to prove to a judge that Ovid was a threat to himself or others, despite his behaviors.
His mother, Gordon, took out a protective order against Ovid.
Ovid ended up in a residential hotel near downtown Las Vegas, his sister recalls. “On Christmas morning, he left — just hours before he knew I was going to visit him. So that Christmas, Nick and I went from shelter to shelter looking for him … but could not find him.”
Ovid hit the road. He became, in official eyes, “transient.”
“He was just tired, exhausted of living like a zombie,” Gordon says. “He said, well, he just felt [the drugs were] killing him, and what’s the point. So he went off, and he became a vagabond.”
Then 52, Ovid roamed through the South, to places steeped in the blues, living a lyric from a languid blues tune, “The Drifter,” by a beloved musician, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: “There’s a drifter in me / Though I’ve tried it / I’m just not a settler / And nine to five don’t make it with me / Why deny it / It makes me feel better / To come alive / And prove that I’m free.”
His family was still there for him, and Ovid was still mischievous.
“I would get phone calls at two in the morning sometimes, from Florida, Alabama — he was in a hospital there,” Zachary Neal recalls. “Colorado, I got a 2 a.m. phone call [from] the front desk of the Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver, saying ‘your brother said you’d pay for a room here.’ I was like holy crap, he had to go to the Grand Hyatt. I think he was toying with me.”
His friend Virginia Curnutt recalls Ovid “loved the idea of just journeying away from the craziness of city life,” escaping the urban jungles he knew in all four corners of the nation. When she saw the movie Into the Wild, she says, “that guy kind of reminded me of Ovid.”
He ended up in Eugene, the leafy home of the University of Oregon and the state’s second-largest city, in 2015. The former triathlete smoked tobacco and marijuana while walking 10 miles a day, Amanda Roth says. “He said the birds and the trees were his church.”
An Oregon DMV photo from September 2018 shows Ovid Neal III as a handsome, unsmiling man with a tan face, chiseled jaw, long gray hair and clear blue eyes.
VII. The Streets of Eugene
For years, Oregon has had the highest prevalence of mental illness, including addiction, in the country. The Eugene/Springfield area, home of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, is no exception. Housing instability is another big problem. The Eugene/Springfield area is ranked first or second by federal housing officials in categories of homelessness including rate of “unsheltered” homelessness and “chronically homeless individuals.” The reasons are complex, according to local experts, including a long-term disinvestment in affordable housing. Alongside the city’s reputation for being one of the nation’s most livable places, it has a cultural history as a destination for hippies, Grateful Dead tours, and seminomadic “travelers.”
The city has supported cutting-edge responses to homelessness such as Square One Villages, a nonprofit that develops cost-effective, proven tiny house “villages” for formerly homeless people. Unfortunately, says Project Director Andrew Heben, who runs a tidy cluster of 22 bright tiny homes named Emerald Village, “you got to kind of win the lottery to get in here.” Many who are without housing are aging or disabled. In homeless populations, mental illness often coexists with drug use. Ovid limited himself to cannabis, the only drug found in his system at the time of death, and perhaps alcohol. Others don’t.
Near Emerald Village on a recent afternoon, people camped on concrete a stone’s throw from a popular local microbrewery, Ninkasi Brewing Company. A man played with a yo-yo; a woman sat crying on a curb. Outside of the White Bird Clinic where Ovid got his mail and services, a group of people sat on the sidewalk. A man said police “overwhelm people with trespassing charges,” even when they’re just “fixing their shoe.” A woman claimed to have camped with Ovid but was fuzzy on details. People appeared intoxicated, or in withdrawal. Some ate push-pop ice cream or hot dogs, drank Red Bull; others appeared in the throes of active addiction.
“Anybody got a point?” one asked another, meaning an intravenous needle.
“I got a dirty.”
“OK. Does it work?”
Advocates critique the city’s heavy ticketing of homeless people. A Lane County Legal Aid study found that 80 percent of trespass and open container citations went to unhoused people.
Ovid received three citations in 2018, for trespassing, jaywalking and an open container. One, signed “Eugene City Prosecutor,” claims “no culpable mental state.”
“In Eugene, police hand out tickets [to homeless people] like they’re candy,” says Steve Kimes, a local pastor. “I can show you a picture of a guy who’s got 70.”
When she looked into Ovid’s background, Detective Curry says, she found “very minimal” legal history. Two officers told her how “nice” Ovid was.
Yet Ovid feared the police. “I need help,” he said in a July 9, 2018, voicemail on his sister’s phone. “The police are trying to kill me.”
If police were to be avoided, so were other unhoused people. “Last night somebody stole my sleeping bag and my food,” Ovid says in a September 17 voicemail. “They got my tarp, my sleeping bag and vitamins.”
“I don’t want to die outside because homeless people’s stealing from me,” he continues. “[But] homeless people are taking my shit. So. Anyway. God is good. Um. Even if I die of hypothermia, it’s OK. But I’m just pissed off right now at homeless people here.”
In 2019, a homeless woman named Annette Montero was run over and killed by a garbage truck outside of First Christian Church Eugene, a place that had helped Ovid out with his tarp, coat and food. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that about 13,000 people die on our streets each year in the United States. A small number, 37 in 2016 and 11 in 2017, were homicide victims.
“I think a lot of people worry that if somebody’s homeless, maybe police might not take it as seriously,” says Detective Curry, who, along with her team, completed 100 reports and amassed terabytes of evidence to make sure Ovid’s killers didn’t walk. “But that’s just not the case at all. And the scene, to me, just looked like somebody who was sleeping on the sidewalk, and incredibly vulnerable. And they were murdered brutally, and just left on the sidewalk to die alone.”
According to Jessica Simmons’ testimony, hours before it became the instrument of Ovid’s death, she and her boyfriend used their football-sized river rock to assault another disabled homeless man Ovid knew, Gerald Fruichantie. In between, they stored it in a grate under a tree.
“What we would learn was that Gerald Fruichantie was kind of the other person who slept there, and that [Ovid] had this connection with,” Curry says. “Sadly, Gerald wasn’t there that night because he had been assaulted the night before and gone to the hospital.”
A man who worked at the recently closed tire shop on whose wall Ovid’s blood was spattered said he didn’t know Ovid, but he did know “Odin” — apparently a nickname for Fruichantie derived from his eye patch. He dismissed him as “blind as a bat, crazy as a coon.”
The parallels between the two assaults raise troubling questions. Was Ovid’s death the nadir in a pattern of attacks on mentally ill homeless people?
Fruichantie, 60, presented at an emergency room at 1:29 a.m. October 3 with a one-inch scalp laceration requiring five stitches. He didn’t report the attack to the police. When the police sought him out during Ovid’s investigation, his description of the attack was limited by vision problems and mental illness.
Judge Chanti writes that Fruichantie’s attack “was part of a pattern of attacks by ‘downtown kids’ who would watch the ATM from the parking garage across the street on ‘benefits day’ (about the 3rd of the month when social security checks were deposited) to identify people to assault and rob.” She calls the evidence “disturbing.”
Ovid’s siblings say he received Social Security benefits, which were garnished for unpaid student debt. Whether Fruichantie received benefits is not known.
Ovid’s family and some friends see both men’s assaults as part of a pattern of bias crimes against disabled homeless people.
“This was clearly more than a robbery that escalated,” Amanda Roth said in court. Ruth Gordon called the murder “a calculated and premeditated bias crime.” The killers “chose my son as their prey precisely because he was disabled, weak and vulnerable.”
Police say they investigated but found no pattern. During the investigation, Curry says, Eugene police found that earlier that year, “people frequenting downtown, many of them juveniles,” assaulted people on several occasions. Sometimes there were thefts, she says; sometimes not.
Her investigation led her to conclude that Ovid’s death was a robbery gone wrong. “I don’t think this was a situation where they said, ‘I hate homeless people, so let’s go beat a homeless person up.’ I think this was a situation of, ‘I want money, I want marijuana, how can I get it?’”
It’s teenagers who most frequently target the homeless. Experts at the National Coalition for the Homeless say “thrill seekers, primarily in their teens, are the most common perpetrators of violence” against homeless people. Ovid’s killing, Roth says, was a “thrill kill.”
Disabilities (including mental illness) comprise only 2 percent of hate crimes, according to FBI data. There is no federal legal protection for homeless victims of bias crimes, says Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. Oregon and Eugene are among 46 states and the vast majority of cities that lack such protections, Tars says.
Tars calls that gap “part of this larger broken approach to criminal justice.” Advocates would like to see greater legal protections for homeless people, but the fight is uphill, Tars says: “Not only is there no enhanced penalty, but there isn’t even a requirement to collect data on” crimes against homeless people.
Prosecutor Hasselman says that proving a crime was biased makes the state’s job more onerous. An alleged perpetrator’s motivations “are less important than what someone volitionally chose to do.”
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is tasked with enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination “on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion.” Homelessness doesn’t make the list. That division’s assistant attorney general, Eric Dreiband, nominated by President Trump, attended Harvard Divinity School at the same time as Ovid. Calls and messages to his spokespeople went unanswered.
The final chapters of Ovid’s case played out via video conferencing in spring 2020, amidst a pandemic. In separate hearings inside the Lane County Juvenile Justice Center, Kirkpatrick and Simmons were “adjudicated responsible,” in juvenile justice language. Kirkpatrick was found responsible for second-degree murder and second-degree assault; Simmons, for second-degree murder. “There was no independent jurisdiction for robbery for either,” prosecutor Erik Hasselman notes; other earlier charges were dismissed or “merged” into these.
Inside the nearly empty courtroom, Zachary Neal and Amanda Roth joined via streaming video from Las Vegas and Hollywood, anger and dismay clouding their faces. Other participants included Kirkpatrick, Berger, Hasselman, other attorneys and juvenile justice staff.
Kirkpatrick’s apology sounded sincere, if a bit childish.
“I want everyone to know that I truly am sorry for what I have done,” said Kirkpatrick, in a gray hoodless sweatshirt, hands folded on a beige table, near cubbies. “What I did is truly wrong in every way, shape or form. … There is not a day that goes by where I do not think about what I have done.”
“I allowed alcohol and drugs to get the best of me. I’m sorry that it was someone who was truly loved by family and friends. I wish it were me instead.”
Three weeks later, Simmons spoke in a similar video-based adjudication from Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, wiping her eyes with a tissue, her hair in a bun, white cotton knit shirt buttoned to the top, voice trembling.
“Before I was offered a plea deal, all I ever wanted to do was talk to the family and talk about how it impacted me,” she said. “It changed the way I looked at things, and I will never forget what happened. I dream about it every night, and I don’t think it will ever go away. All I can hope is someday I can save lives. And I’m sorry.”
Judge Jay McAlpin committed each to closed custody — not prison, but a juvenile justice approach that includes mental health treatment, medical care and sometimes “camps” — that can last until age 25, the end of the juvenile system’s authority. They could be released sooner.
Between November 30 and March 1, 2019, a multimedia work, “Fates,” debuted at the San Diego Museum of Art. It was created by Ovid’s brother-in-law, artist Nick Roth, and partially inspired by Ovid’s killing.
Artist Nick Roth’s piece “Fates,” featured at the San Diego Museum of Art and inspired by Ovid’s death. (Video courtesy of Nick Roth / Music by Kronos Quartet playing Terry’s Riley’s “Sun Rings: Earth Whistlers” from the “Terry Riley: Sun Rings” album.)
In ancient Roman and Greek mythology — including in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses — the Moirai, or Fates, are the three goddesses who control the threads, or destinies, of mortal lives. Did Clotho “the Spinner” weave Ovid’s thread in brilliant, dark colors, Lachesis “the Allotter” measure it from 1962 to 2018, and Atropos “the Unturnable” cut it barbarically?
Questions of volition aren’t much easier. Was the truth brought out, or justice served in Ovid’s case? Were Ovid’s murderers given a slap on the wrist because society fails to protect our unhoused, mentally ill neighbors? Or did two kids whose childhoods became social studies get a much-deserved chance at redemption?
In the last decade, a sea change has reshaped our understanding of adolescent brains, favoring a heavier weighting of adverse childhood experiences, adolescent brain science and trauma. Back in Measure 11’s heyday in Oregon, as Judge Chanti’s decision notes, a 13-year-old who committed a horrific homicide was convicted in adult court. In this case, Kirkpatrick, a month shy of 17, was adjudicated as a child. Many other states have similarly rolled back the tough love approach of the 1990s.
Ovid’s case suggests the change will be controversial. The prosecutor and detective say they’re appalled. “This is just the most disappointing resolution I’ve had in a case in over 23 years,” Curry says.
“This is not justice,” Hasselman said in Kirkpatrick’s final hearing. “Being at the helm of this particular prosecution has haunted me.”
Kirkpatrick’s attorney Berger’s response was a world apart.
“I would like to express my sorrow for people who don’t believe that Jonathan has empathy,” Berger said. “I’ve seen tremendous growth in Jonathan [and] look forward to watching Jonathan reach his potential.”
America’s homeless population was growing even before 40 million people lost their jobs in spring 2020. Tragically, we are facing possible rapid growth in our unhoused and mentally ill populations — and, experts say, growing numbers of attacks on them. Amanda Roth has said this case reveals “extreme cruelty and contempt for human life,” while Zachary Neal called the judgment “sickening and revolting.”
Ovid’s ashes sit in a pewter urn at the Roths’ Hollywood home. The family plans to scatter them at Sequoia National Park, after an Episcopal service. Healing may take longer.
Ovid’s friends, now flung to the heedless winds, grasp at silver linings, irony and humor.
“All things considered, he had a great life,” Chris Curnutt says.
“He’s going to be in heaven and we’re going to be in hell,” Shannon Greer jokes. “I hope he holds a hand out for us,” Winslow Dennis adds, with a chuckle.
On a Facebook remembrance group, one man mentions the irony that Ovid, a former teen addiction counselor, was killed by teens battling addiction. Ovid helped “countless” youths, he writes. If Jonny and Jessica could have just talked with Ovid, they “would have benefited” from it. “I know I did.”
Another friend sees only forgiveness.
“I know that when he was dying,” Jerry Harwell says softly, “and they were beating his brains out with a rock, he was asking God to forgive them.”
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When the rebels stormed Charlie Perrière’s house, he was sure his days were about to come to a swift and bloody end. The night before, 66-year-old Perrière, fearing what was coming, knelt down on the floor of his home in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. He began to pray.“God, I have no weapons, no army, I’m not a fighter. Tomorrow, it seems like the Séléka will enter Bangui,” he whispered, referencing the brutal rebel group that was about to topple the government. “I put all my belongings in your hands … please protect me.”
Hiding out in his large house in a leafy part of Bangui, not far from high-walled ambassadorial residences, Perrière feared for his life. When the militants stormed the grounds, brandishing guns and demanding the keys to a neighbor’s car parked in his driveway, there was little he could do. He did not have the keys, he told them.
“It was as if I had just poured oil onto the fire,” Perrièretells me when I meet him in the same courtyard three years later. He describes how the group of young men grew furious at his response, even though he had already handed over the keys to his own car. They started shooting in the air and gangingup on the slender man standing alone in his yard.
That was until one member of the group — a scrawny street kid brandishing a rusty machete — peered closer at Perrière and, his eyes growing wider, whispered something to the leader. The man turned around to stare at Perrière with a strange expression on his face.
Perrière held his breath.
“Charlie Perrière, really? Is it really you?” the fighter asked after a few seconds.
Suddenly, he was warmly patting the older man on the back.
“And then he began apologizing, and telling me, ‘My mom is simply fanatical about your music, my brother!’” says Perrière, smiling at me with amused disbelief as he recalls the moment from a chair in his verdant garden.
The leader told the gangsters to give Perrière his car keys back, and told the youths that no one was allowed to return and pillage this particular house.
Most people in the West would struggle to pinpoint the Central African Republic on a map. Its international claim to fame is the dire poverty of its citizens and its terrifying, bloody, seemingly never-ending wars. The 2013 war reached a peak when a mostly Muslim faction, Séléka, swept into Bangui, staging a coup d’état and eventually forcing the president to flee.This provoked a violent backlash from mainly Christian and Animist groups known as“Anti-Balaka” militias. Hundreds of thousands of citizens ran from their homes. Those who did not manage to escape were slaughtered, their bodies thrown in the river or stuffed down water wells. Youths armed with machetes, their eyes glistening in a drugged haze, spiked decapitated heads as trophies on sticks and paraded them around the streets. Aid workers watched helplessly as armed thugs took over the towns and villages, stringing human intestines across the roads as barriers — a gruesome warning to others to proceed no further.
Here in Bangui, one of the ways of finding normalcy amid the chaotic years of cries and gunshots has been through another form of sound — the country’s rich music tradition. Whether the rhythmic drumming of the tam–tam, the strumming of the guitar, or the bubbling sounds of the balafon, a xylophone of wood and animal skins — music is a constant here. And Perrière is one of its undisputed kings. His fame probably saved his life.
Years earlier, he was the leader of the favorite orchestra of one of the most notorious, colorful and strange despots in history, Jean Bédel Bokassa. Today Perrière is still considered a national star — yet, like every story involving the feared Bokassa, Perrière’spath to celebrity was far from a conventional one.
It was the late 1960s,and Perrière, a talented but struggling teenage musician, was tired of surviving on a shoestring. As he made preparations to leave his native country for a new life in the Congo, he had an unexpected meeting that would change his life.
Perrière was a star singer in his church choir,and he had been performing with an orchestra that was invited to play in front of Bokassa. After the concert, when the players were invited to salute the great leader, Perrière was summoned to report directly to the man himself. The prospect was exciting — but also terrifying.
Bokassa is often caricatured as one of Africa’s most tyrannical dictators, a ruler who fed his opponents to crocodiles, adored diamonds and women, and crowned himself as emperor of Central Africa. The anecdotes from his time abound with absurdities, stretching from the beginning to the end of his reign.The night he seized power in a coup d’état on New Year’s Eve in December 1965, he brought his deposed predecessor (who happened to be his distant cousin) to the palace and wrapped him in a tight hug before dispatching him to prison, notes historian Brian Titley in his book Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa.Following Bokassa’s ouster in 1979, the French troops who drained the emperor’s alligator pond at Villa Kolongo discovered bone fragments belonging to some 30 victims, writes historian Martin Meredith in his book The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. Mutilated bodies were also found in the residence’s refrigerator, while locals testified that others were regularly fed to the lions.
While these horror stories are well documented, few of the historical accounts of Bokassa pick up on one of the emperor’s greatest passions — music. A soldier who blitzed through the ranks to become the head of theCentral African army, once he became president, Bokassa realized that military might would only take him so far. As he sought to consolidate and aggrandize his power and influence both at home and abroad, he believed music would be an effective tool.
“Bokassa tried to use radio and musical groups as part of his effort to create a cult of personality to support his rule,” writes Jacqueline Cassandra Woodfork in her book Culture and Customs of the Central African Republic.And he was determined to make Perrière a part of these efforts.
Bokassa had heard Perrière sing, and upon making inquiries he was disappointed to learn of the youngster’s plans to leave the country.
So that night at the presidential palace in central Bangui, the despotic leader addressed the terrified musician in a kindly but firm tone — and one that left little room for doubt.
“He told me: ‘As head of state, I can’t forbid you from going to Congo, but…as a father, I wish that you wouldn’t go,’”recounts Perrière.“After that meeting, my mother had advised me that I had better stay,” adds Perrière, who quickly agreed. “If I had run away to Congo, it would have been like treason.”
So he stayed. But it was a long time before he heard from the great leader again. Months rolled by with no news, and Perrière wondered if Bokassa had forgotten about him.Then, one day, a presidential security vehicle showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Perrière’s mother’s house, sirens blasting. The president — at that point he had not yetappointed himself emperor — was summoning Perrière for another meeting at the palace.
This time Bokassa actually congratulated Perrière for staying put. Perrière recalls that the leader was seated at a long table with ministers around him. “He turned to me and said, ‘My son, do you know why I sent for you?’ I said, ‘No, your Excellency.’ And then he said, ‘It was to thank you, because I gave you a piece of advice and you respected it. That means that you are a nationalist at heart.’”
Perrière continues his story: “He then asked me why I had wanted to go, and I told him, ‘My father is dead, my mother is raising my 10 brothers all on her own, I am the oldest of the family and I need to help my mother. We have no help here, we have no means of developing [our lives].” He told Bokassa that his band played on rented instruments, which swallowed up most of their earnings.
Bokassa turned to his ministers and ordered them to procure instruments for what would become Bokassa’s “Imperial Orchestra.”This marked the start of Perrière’s decades-long career making music as a private bandmaster for one of the world’s most feared and murderous despots.
Despite their radically different statuses, Bokassa may have seen something familiar in the young Perrière. Bokassa himself was an orphan; his father had been killed in a dispute when Bokassa was 6 years old, and his mother killed herself soon after. As a teenager, Bokassa was educated in missionary schools and had initially planned to study for the priesthood, before joining the French Army when World War II erupted. After he helped to establish the newly independent country’s national army, Bokassaformed a music band among the military, dubbing it Commando Jazz, writes Luke Fowlie in The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture.
For Bokassa, music was a power-wielding political tool, so much so that he made his personal orchestra— called “Tropical Fiesta” — into a key tool of his global diplomacy, taking the musicians with him on state visits all over the world.
“He told me once: ‘Listen, Charlie, the young generation don’t understand the importance of music in a country. … It is the artists who enable others to get to know a country,’” recalls Perrière. “This was his goal: to introduce a country through its music.”
“He adored music,” says Aggas Zokoko, the orchestra’s lead singer and the band’s leader in recent decades. “I think the connection Bokassa had with musicians was unlike any other connection he had with others.”
Others have a more cynical take on the emperor’s personal orchestra. “He had what we call lafolie de grandeur,” that is, megalomania, says Alex Ballu, a veteran radio star and cultural journalist in the Central African Republic.“He needed musicians to travel with him, to augment his presence, to sing his praises and so on.”
Such practices were also common in neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), under Mobutu Sese Seko, a bespectacled dictator known for his distinctive leopard skin hat as well as mass violence and corruption.
“Popular groups were required to literally sing the praises of their leader,” writes Fowlie. “Bangui’s chosen orchestras became emissaries for the Bokassa government, touring internationally throughout Central and West Africa as well as Europe.”
Though Bokassa saw music as a diplomatic tool, he also loved it with an all-consuming passion that was obvious to all.
“Once, we were traveling to Vakaga (in north Central African Republic) when the plane was struck by lightning mid-flight and we almost crashed,” recalls Zokoko. Upon landing, some of the musicians were so shaken by the experience that they ran away and hid, refusing to perform that night.
“And Bokassa noticed and said: ‘OK, lower the mic down a bit for me. I will sing with you.’ And he did!”
While Zokoko describes the singing asmerely “not bad,” his eyes light up as he remembers the emperor getting more and more into the spirit, taking up a guitar and beginning to serenade one of his wives from the stage.
“It was a beautiful evening that I will never forget,” says Zokoko wistfully.
Bokassa also constructed the country’s first major recording studio in the grounds of Berengo, his palace near his home village and the place he envisioned as the future capital of the Central African empire. While some historians see the move as a cynical effort to win the love of the people through music, the country’s musicians benefited financially in a way that they have rarely done since.
“The first time I played for him it was in Berengo,” recalls Zokoko, who had been recruited by Perrière. He describes Bokassa sitting in the palace with his family, as the orchestra played purely for the leader’s personal pleasure.
“Sometimes we would just perform for him alone. He’d sit on the sofa. Afterward, he would say, ‘Thank you, my children.’”
Every aspect of each performance was meticulously planned, and the musicians, who had previously struggled to make ends meet, suddenly found themselves catapulted to stardom, traveling around the world, dressed to the nines.
“He would clad us in all the top fashions,” muses Zokoko. “We would play in front of all of these heads of states in beautiful suits.”
“He wanted all the artists to look good, to portray grandeur,” Ballu, the music journalist, says. “The ministers didn’t like the musicians much, as they would often be chatting up their wives,” he adds, laughing. “But Bokassa always defended them, and paid them good money.”
But it was far from all fun and games. “When you worked with the emperor, everything had to be done perfectly,”Perrière says. “By the book, just like in the army. … When the emperor loses his temper, everyone is in trouble,” he adds, recalling a bitter experience when he found this out for himself.
“Once, I sang a song that he didn’t like,” he recalls. “It was a song for his birthday.” Performed and broadcast live over the radio, the musicians hadn’t even had a chance to finish playing before “suddenly the curtains began closing in front of us. We turned around and there were armed security guards standing behind us, gun barrels pointing.” The next thing Perrière knew, he was being marched off to prison.
He spent one month behind bars, an experience which, shaking his head, he describes as “terrible.”
“My wife was traumatized. It was very difficult.”
Upon being let out, Bokassa summoned Perrière and explained to him the particular line in the song that he didn’t like, a lyric he deemed too insulting for Bokassa’s image as a strong man.
“You, the artists, everything you say or do, it’s heard by the whole world,” Bokassa told him. “You can build someone up or break someone easily. So the advice I’ve always given you is: ‘When you compose a song, make it go through a censor in order to avoid any problems.’”
From that point on, all of the songs went through a censor.
Perrière’s month in prison was far from a unique incident. Tropical Fiesta and other bands playing for the government had to comply with the emperor’s every wish. Fowlie writes that another orchestra, Centrafrican Jazz, was dissolved in 1975 at the height of its popularity, allegedly over a spat between Bokassa and his wife, who is said to have favored the group.(Some allege that the group became so popular — even with Bokassa’s mistresses — that the ruler split it up out of jealousy, according to an article by musician Sultan Zembellat.)
As Bokassa’s rule continued, he became more dictatorial and his eccentricities grew. He had maintained a historical admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte since his time as a young trainee in the French military, and during his reign this respect morphed into blind obsession, culminating with Bokassa crowning himself “Emperor of Central Africa” on December 4, 1977, the 173rd anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation.
Bokassa invited Pope Paul VIhimself to crown him. Though the pope, along with a multitude of other state leaders, declined the invitation, preparations for the coronation progressed full steam. To emulate Napoleon, Bokassa dressed himself in a 30-foot-long scarlet mantle, designed by the same atelier that had prepared Napoleon’s. It was decorated with pearls, diamonds and rubies.
“The whole country was mobilized to take part in the coronation,” Perrière remembers. “There were white horses brought especially from France, all the gold-gilded carriages… it was extraordinary.” The total cost was an eye-popping $20 million USD — a bill footed entirely by France — while the population of the Central African Republic was mired in deep poverty.
Just before the coronation, musicians from all over the country were asked to compose songs. Perrière’s entry was chosen as one of the official songs for the ceremony. “I was stuck for one week trying to compose it. I turned it over and over in my head. And afterward, it simply came to me, just like that.”
The song, titled “Révérence à Nos Souverains” (“Reverence to Our Sovereigns”), became a hit, and it is still featured on compilation albums of African music.
Alongside the Imperial Orchestra, other renowned musicians were invited to attend, among them Manu Dibango, a star from neighboring Cameroon. The scenes that greeted him upon arriving at the presidential palace in Bangui surpassed his wildest expectations, Dibango wrote in his autobiography Three Kilos of Coffee.
“Money flowed like water,” Dibango wrote. “The church was sumptuously decorated.”But the night ended somberly. “That evening by moonlight, we were giving our concert when a violent storm suddenly erupted, the carriages were soaked, the projectors broke down, the musicians got drenched. The dignitaries thought only of hiding themselves in their Mercedeses.”
And, just like a sudden tropical storm, two years later, Bokassa’s swift downfall began.
The key event that triggered his dethroning came in 1979, when around 100 schoolchildren were massacred at Bangui’s central prison, following Bokassa’s orders to arrest them. The children had been taken while protesting an order that forced them to buy overpriced school uniforms made in a factory owned by one of Bokassa’s wives.An independent judicial inquiry subsequently concluded that the prison massacre was carried out “almost certainly” with the personal participation of the emperor, writes Meredith in The Fate of Africa.
The incident proved to be the final straw for the French, who had been bankrolling Bokassa and his government.In September 1979, while Bokassa was away on a state visit to Libya, French troops helped restore former president David Dacko (Bokassa’s cousin) to power. Bokassa fled by airplane into exile on the Ivory Coast. The Imperial Orchestra was disbanded, and some of its musicians, Perrière included, moved abroad.
Several years later, in 1986, Bokassa returned to the Central African Republic, hoping to be forgiven and welcomed back.Instead, the deposed emperor was arrested, marched off to jail and then put on trial.
Today, upon landing at Bangui M’Poko InternationalAirport, the first glimpse any visitor catches of the Bokassa era are the small, toylike airplanes from the 1960s and ’70s, in fadedyellow, red and white.For years, people have believed that the planes are haunted by the ghost of the emperor,since it was Bokassa, Titley writes, who established the national airline, and the small airplanes date back to that time. During the 2013 war, the planes gained an unexpected — if ill-fated — second life as shelters for people fleeing marauding gangs.The displaced have since been forced to leave the airport and return to rebuild their destroyed homes. More than 40 years after Bokassa’s lavish and garish coronation, the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by war and strife, the ongoing pillaging of natural wealth, and rampant corruption. The avenues Bokassa built are crumbling, the buildings gutted and reduced to skeletal remains, weeds growing in what used to serve as kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. Life expectancy is just 52 years — the shortest anywhere on the planet, according to the World Bank.
“Bangui la Coquette” (“Bangui the Flirt”) was the city’s nickname back in the Bokassa era. It’s now “Bangui la Roquette” (“Bangui the Rocket”), the locals quip wryly, due to the brutal fighting that has destroyed many parts of the city.
Bokassa’s Berengo palace has been extensively pillaged. When Perrière was being held at gunpoint in his front yard, Berengo was already being used as a base by child soldiers fighting with a motley crew of armed gangs, answering to the highest–paying militia leader of the day. In recent years, Russian soldiers and mercenaries have descended on the former royal palace, setting up training camps for soldiers inside the grounds, according to a 2019 CNN report. In exchange, Russian companies reportedly “won” exploration rights at a number of sites to look for diamonds and gold.
And yet, when I visited Bangui on a reporting trip in January 2018 — my fourth one after meeting Perrière in 2016 — I could still feel Bokassa’s presence in the ruined city. Vintage French magazines like Paris Match with Bokassa on the cover were being sold on the streets, locals pointed out the sprawling boulevards and other structures built by the former ruler, while the music and songs of the Bokassa era rang out around the city.
And Tropical Fiesta is playing once again. One night, I went to a show. The venue was in a garden next to a ditch, off the main road in Bangui. Lit up sparsely by a few functioning street lamps, it was guarded by a half-broken gate.
A balafon player began striking a few notes. A drumbeat, a clash of cymbals, and then guitarists, singers, and dancers emerged onstage, clapping, smiling, and dancing to the complex beat of a Central African rumba.
As the music got started, more and more people began to arrive, many middle-aged, but also several youngsters, as well as children weaving inbetween the adults’ legs.
Clutching large bottles of beer, the older men looked up at the stage with a faraway gleam in their eyes. The women, wearing figure-hugging dresses made out of colorful cloth, shook their hips languidly.
Before long it became a party — families, friends sitting around plastic tables, chatting and waving away mosquitoes, while others invited friends and lovers to dance.
Zokoko, who now heads Tropical Fiesta, was there, getting ready to sing, surrounded by friends and fans. The violence in and around Bangui had died down, and the usual rhythm of life had slowly begun to resume. Just a few years earlier, during the fighting that swept through Bangui in 2013, live music had virtually stopped, Zokoko explains to me during a pause in his performance. It resumed slowly at first, with people dancing only until 8 or 9 p.m. and then going home because of the fear of attacks. “And we don’t make as much money as before,” he adds bitterly.
Yet the songs played on, people sang along, their eyes half-closed, smiling as if trying to spirit themselves back to a different era, before the country was riven by war and armed gangs.
Alongside the music, a certain nostalgia for the era of Bokassa had emerged. Several years ago, youth activists dug out the emperor’s throne, long stripped of its diamonds and rubies, from a dump behind the city’s main stadium. Painting it a bright yellow to represent the gold that once encrusted it, the youths decided to set the throne on a display on one of the capital’s busiest avenues.
“We were furious to find this object abandoned for decades” Heritier Doneng, a youth leader of Patriotes Centrafricains, a group that describes its aim as defending the country’s cultural values, tells meon my reporting trip in 2016.
“Yes, people speak of Bokassa because they’ve had enough of this suffering, of the misery without end that we are experiencing here in CAR,” he adds. “Bokassa serves as an example, a model of the economic revolution. In his time, we were the best in Central Africa, now we are the worst.”
Bokassa hasearned a reputation as a “builder,” responsible for commissioning Bangui’s spacious boulevards, stadiums and many other buildings. “During the reign of His Majesty, the town of Bangui was more beautiful than Brazzaville, more beautiful than Libreville, than Yaoundé, Malabo and N’Djamena,” says Zokoko, naming neighboring capitals.“Today we are back to zero.”
“It seems that people have forgiven him a lot,” Perrière muses about his former boss.“Because all the regimes who came after couldn’t do what he did. Those rulers who came after brought a lot more suffering since.”
After a moment’s pause, Perrière adds quietly: “Bokassa was a dictator, he took decisions himself. Now it’s a democracy, things are moving slowly, and people are beginning to miss Bokassa.”
Rehabilitation of the reputation of a nation’s former authoritarian and brutal strongman is a familiar trend, seen everywhere from the enduring veneration of Stalin in Russia to the nostalgia for Brazil’s violent military dictatorship of the 1970s.
“Bokassa had his brutal side, particularly toward the end, but he was also the only of CAR’s presidents who had a vision for the country and built things,” says Yale University professor Louisa Lombard, who has published three books on the Central African Republic.
Lombard describes Bokassa’s reign as “a time of calm and hope in the country, in a region that had not yet turned to full-on civil war, and at a time when France was still providing a lot of support.” It is not surprising then, Lombard adds, that most people look back on the time with nostalgia, pinning the credit on Bokassa. “The country feels utterly humiliated. …There is an enormous desire for national solutions to the country’s problems.”
“Bokassa always used to say, ‘You can’t feed people with politics.’ But today, everything has become political,” Zokoko says. In the 2016 presidential election, there were 30 candidates, inspiring Zokoko to compose a song titled “My Beautiful Country, Where Everyone Wants to be President.”
Since Bokassa’s demise, numerous politicians have sought out Zokoko and other members of the former Imperial Orchestra, asking to have songs written for them. Sometimes those requests are impossible to turn down.
The same year that the Séléka descended upon Perrière’s front yard, they tried to storm a venue where Zokoko’s band was playing. “Someone from the Séléka came with 16 armed thugs and wanted to get inside. And I said, ‘No, no, it’s Mother’s Day celebrations there, you can’t go in.’ And so, they realized who I was, and asked me to compose a song for them!” Zokokoadds, explaining that even though he was only paid 5,000 XFA ($8.50) for it, he was relieved to get the armed group off his back.
“Some politicians still haven’t paid me,” he notes.
Today, the violence has subsided, and the atmosphere is more free, though the concert scene has not yet fully returned, and violence pops up sporadically, such as in November 2017, when a concert for peace by a local band playing was derailed by a grenade attack that killed four people and injured 20 others.
Today, the music of Bokassa’s band is heard everywhere: at weddings, birthdays, funerals and more, serving as a kind of social glue, a way to start repairing the splintered communities throughout the country.
“We sing about togetherness,” says Zokoko. “We sing the songs of yesterday, in Sango” — the primary language here — “and in French. We are not politicians, we are musicians, but we want to give this ambience of social cohesion, so that it comes back to us.”
Sipping a beer and laughing at the 2018 concert, Pascal, a beefy former director general of a security company with the look of a nightclub bouncer, says he comes to hear the band play whenever he can.
“Musicians are like philosophers,” he says wistfully. “They have the power to reunite everyone with their songs.” He describes the impact of the band’s diverse membership, which includes people from various religious groups, as well as some who are typically marginalized by society here, such as a musician with a disability.“Christians, Muslims, disabled — all united. We are brothers and sisters, it’s the politicians who wanted to divide us. God knows, the solidarity between us will return. Look around:Everyone is here,” he says, gesturing at the bustling compound.
Perrière, however, is not at the party. After Bokassa was deposed, Perrière emigrated to France in order to get treatment for his son who was sick. There, he worked a succession of different jobs, including in a coffee house, before later deciding to return home and resume his musical career. But he did not rejoin Tropical Fiesta; instead he returned to his religious music roots.He became a born-again evangelical Christian and turned to composing mostly religious songs — as well as to moonlighting as an occasional wedding singer, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye as he hands me a CD of songs he recently recorded for a local bride and groom. The studio in his house is named SDJ — “Studio of Jesus,” he tells me. Today, he divides his life between Paris and Bangui, living off of profits from his music career,as well as the money earned by a Bangui restaurant that he runs, which caters to the country’s elites.
As for Bokassa, despite being sentenced to death twice, first in absentia while he was abroad, and then in a courtroom in 1987, his sentence was gradually eroded in the ensuing years. In 1993, as part of a general amnesty, he was set free, having served just six years in prison. Perrière was among those waiting at the jail entrance for the former emperor, who had newly reestablished his own strong belief in God. Bokassa emerged from behind bars clad head to toe in a white robe and declaring, “I am the thirteenth apostle.”
Bokassa died in November 1996 of a heart attack at age 75, and he is survived by as many as 60 children, according to theNew York Times’ obituary.In 2010, then-president François Bozizé officially rehabilitated Bokassa, and even went as far as to posthumously award him the state’s medal of honor, declaring that Bokassa has “given a great deal for humanity.”
For Perrière, his former boss remains somewhat of a mystery. He found Bokassa both paternal and petrifying.
“Everyone was scared of him. Everyone. It was standard,” says Perrière, while at the same time going on to describe how in his more tender moods the emperor would call him “my son,” and how in turn he and others would call Bokassa “Papa.”
Perrière speaks of his time with Bokassa with a sense of wonder, replaying scene by scene in his mind and then pausing to remember more.
As for Tropical Fiesta, Perrière is glad some of his songs continue to be sung and danced to throughout Bangui and beyond, and he stays in touch with his former bandmates. “I help them, I give them advice,” Perrière says, smiling. “They play old songs, but they also have a new repertoire.”The fact that the musicians of Tropical Fiesta did not put down their instruments, that they have continued this long and even play new songs, offers a glimmer of hope for the country.
“Many groups sing for reconciliation,” he adds quietly, after a moment’s reflection.“Whether it’s effective or not, everyone needs to make their contribution for peace.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported some of Inna’s reporting from the Central African Republic as part of its Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
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The Deke Duncan show on Radio 77 had it all — the latest hits, bouncy jingles, and a DJ who was born to be on the airwaves. In the 1970s it ran around the clock, several days a week, playing to the smallest audience in the world: Deke’s only listener was his wife. Radio 77 was based in a shed in Duncan’s backyard in a small English town, and everything on the show was a figment of his imagination. “My ultimate ambition would be to broadcast my radio station to the rest of Stevenage,” he told the BBC’s Nationwide TVshow, when they visited his shed in 1974.
In a new podcast episode from Snap Judgement andNarratively, Duncan, now 75, reveals how he made up the news, the weather, and even the commercials — and kept Radio 77 alive for over forty years. It was Britain’s ‘pirate’ radio stations that inspired him, he said, recalling the rock’n’roll ships that broadcast illegally from international waters in the 1960s. But the young DJ’s dreams had been dashed when the BBC turned down his job application.
“They said, ‘I suggest you go away and get yourself a real job,’” Duncan recalled. (Check out an original Radio 77 show, recorded in 1974.)
Instead, he carried on “broadcasting” Radio 77 in his back yard. He was joined by friends Richard St. John and Clive Christie, and the trio took turns in the “air chair.” They ran Radio 77 like a professional station, filling space between the pop hits with fake ads for the Radio 77 record store, which of course didn’t exist. “It was just so much fun,” Duncan recalled. “I just wanted to do it forever.”
Duncan’s radio aspirations quickly took over his life: He traveled to the United States to try out as a radio jock, but failed. His friends moved on, and his wife left him. The only constant in his life was his make-believe radio show, where he could slip on his headphones and enjoy his imaginary world. Somehow, he kept the station running, on and off, for forty years.
Then, in 2018, something amazing happened that would make Deke Duncan’s wildest dreams come true.
Listen below to the “Radio 77” episode of Snap Judgement by Jeff Maysh, co-produced by Narratively. (Our story starts around the 3-minute-30-second mark of this episode.)
It’s March 14, 2020, and my dad hurries to my brother’s house to warn him that “the government is going to be seizing things.”
Rarely has my dad ever gone to my brother’s house, especially unannounced.
“I’m worried about you,” my brother tells him. “And I wish the reason you came over was to say hi like a normal person.”
“Here we go again,” my dad says. He tells my brother to take what he’s saying “with a grain of salt,” then leaves in hurry.
It is then that my brother and I realize my dad is lost in an abyss of conspiracy theories.
A slender green toy alien sits inside a water-filled pickle jar in my dad’s garage, perched on a wooden ledge in front of old Christmas and birthday cards pinned to the wall. Photos of my brother, sister and I when we were younger are there too, along with drawings we made in kindergarten. Beneath this green plastic being, mechanic tools litter the ledge. Dust covers everything: nuts, bolts, wrenches, ratchets, sockets and the pickle jar.
This toy alien in the pickle jar has been in my dad’s garage for as long as I can remember. Its black oval eyes peer out at its surroundings, while its small black hole of a mouth makes it look like it’s gasping for breath. As the years have gone by, its green color has blended into the water, giving the alien a murky appearance. The alien is isolated from the rest of the world by thin glass. Viewers can peer in and see its suffering. Someone could easily untighten the lid, pour out the water, and the alien would finally be free, but no one ever has. Much like the alien trapped in the pickle jar, my dad has become trapped, not behind glass, but in his own mind.
My dad is a conspiracy theorist. Among other things, he firmly believes that aliens exist and that the government is keeping that fact from the public. This interest has grown to consume his thoughts, and his idea of reality has become distorted. Isolation, a lack of close friends and family, the internet, and poor influences have caused him to doubt the reality of the world. In the past year, it’s become difficult to even have a normal conversation with him.
Also in the past year, he’s found a network that affirms his beliefs. This network is destroying his life and relationships with those around him. It is known as QAnon.
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theorist group with enough influence and reach that the FBI has called it a domestic terrorism threat. Its members were the driving force behind Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that posited that Bill and Hillary Clinton were running a child sex-trafficking ring in the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. That theory led a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch to travel to the nation’s capital and point a rifle at an employee of the pizzeria.
Since then, the child sex-trafficking ring conspiracy has grown to become an all-encompassing theory of global power, supposedly involving the Obamas, the Bushes, the Vatican, Disney, Hollywood, the CIA and many others — including the FBI, following the release of their document identifying QAnon as a terrorism threat. All of these groups are allegedly involved in a “deep state” plot to control the world.
The QAnon story itself began on October 28, 2017, when an anonymous user named “Q,” whose name references Q-level clearance at the Department of Energy, made a post on 4chan, an online imageboard popular among conspiracy theorists, in a thread called “The Calm Before the Storm.” The thread’s name alludes to remarks made by President Trump during a White House dinner with military leaders on October 7, 2017. After the dinner, Trump elusively told reporters that “this is the calm before the storm.” When asked what he meant, he said, “You’ll see.” The 4chan post, released shortly after the president’s remarks, claimed that Hillary Clinton was in the process of being extradited for her supposed sex-trafficking crimes. The storm had begun.
“I remember seeing Q on CNN and Fox, and initially I didn’t believe in it,” my dad tells me. (During a 2018 Trump rally in Tampa, Florida, which was broadcast on all of the major news networks, QAnon followers stood behind Trump holding up a giant letter Q and signs in the shape of a Q imprinted with the American flag.) My dad also recalls when QAnon began to pop up on 4chan and YouTube, where he spent hours on weekends and late at night looking into various conspiracy theories, from well-trod theories like whether the moon landing was faked and 9/11 was an inside job, to the more outlandish, like a theory that the U.S. government is controlled by a shapeshifting race of aliens.
“Q? What is that?” he’d ask himself whenever he’d see posts from the anonymous user. Eventually, he no longer saw Q posts on 4chan and wondered what happened to them. After doing some investigating, he found Q on the imageboard 8chan, an even more unruly version of 4chan where anti-Semites, homophobes, white supremacists and other hostile groups thrived. But then 8chan disappeared from the web altogether.
The real reason 8chan was removed from the web, in August 2019, was because its network provider, Cloudflare, cut service after a mass shooter in El Paso, Texas, posted a racist manifesto on the site days before his deadly rampage — not the first mass shooting connected to 8chan. My dad wasn’t aware of that, and to him, the major news networks’ dismissal of QAnon, 4chan’s mysterious removal of the thread, and 8chan’s disappearance could only mean one thing: “They’re trying to cover something up.”
Hillary Clinton never was extradited and the storm never began. But the anonymous user named Q quickly caught the attention of more and more members of the 4chan community, who began dissecting Q’s cryptic posts to understand what was actually being said. Q followers refer to the posts as bread crumbs.
The bread crumbs usually feature abbreviations and acronyms, which make them difficult for followers to decipher, while some information, Q followers say, is intentionally false. None of that has stopped “Anons,” as the followers of Q call themselves, from drawing conclusions and speculations, which they share across various social media sites. In one post, Q wrote the word “mockingbird,” with no context, and also included, “HRC detained, not arrested (yet).” Followers assumed Q was referring to Operation Mockingbird, an early 1950s CIA program that attempted to manipulate major news networks for propaganda purposes. Now, the thinking goes, major news networks were being manipulated to cover up the fact that Hillary Clinton was in detainment.
Dustin Nemos, a former real estate agent from Delaware, now an Anon, tells me that he was “there from the very beginning, and started to look at the claims as evidence.” It didn’t take long for him to become convinced of the legitimacy of Q’s claims, because “there were so many coincidences.” These “coincidences” often involved Trump himself promoting QAnon theories, either directly or indirectly, by retweeting posts by Anons.
Nemos relates the Q posts to a game. “They play this credibility game and show they’re legitimate without anyone pointing out any national security violations,” he says. Because the posts are cryptic, and deliberately contain false information, Nemos believes QAnon is able to avoid government officials going after them. “It’s almost like an intelligence operation at work.”
In December of 2017, Nemos created a YouTube channel where he would interpret bread crumbs by Q. The channel was a success, gaining 50,000 subscribers, but by February of 2018 it had been banned from YouTube. “I started seeing a sort of organized resistance from the fake news,” he says. “They were attacking it.”
The primary belief of QAnon followers is that the deep state is working against President Trump. Major media corporations are controlled by the deep state, and any criticism of Trump is made because these fake news networks are trying to protect themselves from the upcoming “storm,” which will bring about mass arrests. “The Q movement was designed for President Trump to go around the corrupt Department of Justice the same way he goes around fake news by using Twitter,” Nemos says.
Nemos reestablished his presence on YouTube in March of 2018 and has since amassed nearly 100,000 subscribers. And he’s only one of many. He believes that if all of the QAnon YouTubers combined their viewership, they’d have numbers that “match fake news websites like CNN.” There’s also a network of what Nemos considers “independent journalists” reporting on their findings about Q.
Sarah Westall, a former business owner from Minnesota, is among these “journalists.” She doesn’t consider herself an avid follower of Q, but she is interested in “trying to figure out what it really is.” Her writing wraps itself around narratives constructed by Q followers. “They really want what’s best for the country,” she tells me. “They’re tired of letting the deep state control everything.”
Westall’s distrust of the U.S. government began rising during the 2008 recession, when she lost her business and then set out to understand the cause by investigating the financial system. “I learned how corrupt our banking system was and everything else,” Westall tells me. She expanded her investigations to include other aspects of society and couldn’t believe the information she uncovered. “There’s this thing called truth trauma,” she says, “and I’ve got it.”
Westall’s investigations eventually led her to Jimmy Rothstein, a retired New York City Police Department officer. Rothstein told her that while he was a police officer, he worked on child sex-trafficking cases, which led him to unearth that America’s elites were involved.
In 2019, Westall learned that a group of Anons were planning on publishing a book of their findings. She offered her interview with Rothstein, and it was accepted. QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening was released on February 26, 2019, and went on to become among the top 15 books sold on Amazon.
Nemos, who also contributed to the book, was not surprised by its success. “The demand for the truth was out there,” he says.
My dad has always had an interest in aliens — a fascination with their possible existence. I remember watching science fiction movies with him late at night when I was very young, which often gave me nightmares. When I was about 8, we watched one that involved a young man in the military being abducted by aliens. The young man couldn’t recall everything that had happened to him, but he would have flashbacks that played out on screen. During one, a group of gray aliens stood at a control deck, taking notes, while the man was chained naked and a drill closed in on his urethra. He let out a chilling cry. My dad watched our old box TV with intrigue as the cheap sci-fi flick played. My heart raced, and I covered my eyes.
This fascination with aliens increased after the debut of the History network’s show Ancient Aliens. My parents divorced when I was 9, and whenever I’d visit my father’s house, he’d have hours of the show recorded. I’d watch episodes with him sometimes, and we’d talk about the possibility that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids, or whether there were giants buried in the Serpent Mound of Adams County, Ohio, or if Hindu texts contained references to an intergalactic battle held in Earth’s sky. At this point though, it was a casual interest for him. He still also watched NASCAR and the local news, and worked on his car or in the yard.
Not long after my parents divorced, my dad’s life came to a virtual standstill. My mom gained full custody of my twin sister and me, as well as our older brother, and my dad wasn’t able to see any of us very often. He kept the same box TV, phone and poor internet service for years. He developed paranoia about social media and the possibilities of tracking. He gradually isolated himself from the outside world. Lately, I’ve only known him to leave Orange County, California, every couple of years to go watch races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Research suggests that conspiracy theorists tend to be isolated from their peers and turn to conspiratorial beliefs for a sense of community. This feeling of belonging, the psychological trait of wanting to be a part of something larger than the individual, is believed to be due to a lack of self-certainty.
This research rings true when it comes to my dad. I’m ashamed to say that there has always been a certain distance between us. Rarely have we said “I love you” to each other or taken an interest in each other’s personal lives. It is a passive relationship, and it’s one of my greatest regrets. Clearly, my dad was lonely during the years after the divorce, and that’s when he turned to conspiracy theories.
After 10 years of not living with my dad, my sister and I moved back into his house in 2016. My mom had decided to move to San Diego, and my sister and I, who had established our lives in Orange County, didn’t want to leave. (My older brother had already moved out on his own.)
It quickly became clear to us that our father’s interest in conspiracy theories had developed into an obsession. After we moved back in, he decided to purchase a new TV. Shortly afterward, the internet, which at the time was so slow it hardly existed, was upgraded to high speed. The fast internet and new features of the upgraded TV made the outside world much more available to him. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The ability to search through endless amounts of information has not opened his eyes to different possibilities. It has closed them.
Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, tells me that he became concerned about the conspiracy group after Charlie Kirk, founder and president of the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, retweeted a Twitter post from QAnon on July 7, 2018. “I started to realize that QAnon was creeping into the mainstream,” View says. The tweet falsely claimed that the Department of Justice had released a chart showing that the number of human-trafficking arrests under Trump had been far greater than under Obama. (Kirk deleted the retweet the next day, after receiving criticism from other prominent Twitter users like David Frum of The Atlantic.)
“They often told me very similar stories,” View says, recounting his interviews with QAnon members at the January 2020 Red Pill Roadshow in Tampa, Florida. All my life I’ve known something is off — that the global narrative is an illusion and there’s something beneath the surface, they would tell him. “A lot of QAnon people were conspiratorial before it came around, but this gave them a framework,” says View. “If you believe anything off the beaten path then you’re welcome to the family.”
QAnon members believe that “the Cabal,” or the deep state, is operated by people in the upper echelons of society who kidnap children and perform sacrificial rituals on them. They believe that members of the Cabal record each other raping or eating children and use it as potential blackmail against each other. The only way that someone can enter the Cabal is if they’re willing to participate in these blackmail recordings, to ensure that they will never betray the group.
QAnon members tend to see every major event through this same lens. Everything leads back to the Cabal. Shortly after Harvey Weinstein (who Anons believe is part of the Cabal) was convicted of rape, Bob Iger stepped down as CEO of Disney. When Q posted about the Iger resignation on 8kun (a rebranded version of 8chan), with the message “the silent war continues,” Anons speculated that Iger was a member of the Cabal and Weinstein was going to expose him.
Although the alleged workings of the Cabal sound bizarre, Dustin Nemos and Sarah Westall firmly believe it’s the truth. “We have our alien people, we have our conspiracy people, but most people [who are] part of the Q movement just want to see justice in a lawful way and see the country made great again,” Nemos says.
Many who follow Q attach their own conspiratorial ideas to the theory, which has led to some divisions in the ranks. The most notable division is about whether John F. Kennedy Jr. is Q.
On April 8, 2018, Q wrote a post in which he linked JFK Jr. to President Trump, then referenced JFK Jr.’s death in a plane crash in 1999 and Hillary Clinton’s election to the Senate in 2000. The post prompted QAnon members to speculate that Clinton was responsible for JFK Jr.’s death, while others posited that JFK Jr. had never died at all. Instead, these Anons now believe that Q is JFK Jr., evidenced by the fact that the shape of his gravesite resembles the letter Q. Furthermore, they believe JFK Jr.’s ultimate purpose for talking through Q is to let QAnon followers know that he’ll be Trump’s running mate in 2020. Some say that Vincent Fuska, a QAnon member with a large following, is actually JFK Jr.
Nemos doesn’t believe in that conspiracy theory within the conspiracy theory, and he even says he has debunked it. While visiting a Trump hotel, he spotted Vincent Fuska and sized him up. “JFK Jr. was 6 foot 3 inches. I’m around 5 foot 10 inches. I took a picture with Vincent and confirmed he couldn’t possibly be JFK Jr.,” he tells me. Yet the JFK Jr. theory has persisted among QAnon followers, including my dad.
In this day and age, it’s surprisingly easy to advance such a theory. In the past, a conspiracy theorist would have to “go to the library, do some research about [their] theories, print out some pamphlets and get someone else to join,” View says. “That isn’t the case anymore. Now you can make a tweet that JFK Jr. isn’t dead and get thousands of retweets.”
During the two-year period that I lived with my dad, he’d always want to talk about conspiracy theories with me. I’d usually dismiss his theories or let them go in one ear and out the other. But sometimes, I’d listen.
While I was taking an astronomy course at my local community college, we learned about the moon. After class I went home and talked to my dad about it, about how the moon looks like it’s constantly in the same position from our perspective because of the rate at which it rotates; how it’s lit up because the sun is shining on it; and how it has different phases because of its rotation around the earth. My dad interjected: “That’s what you are told to believe.” To him, the moon is a hollow object that was either created by the government or was put there by an alien force.
In 2018 I moved out to attend the University of California, Irvine. I don’t live far from my dad now; it’s only a 30-minute drive. I occasionally visit to talk about school and see how he’s doing. Each visit though, he seems to be falling deeper into the conspiratorial abyss. One day, I told him about a story I did for my school’s radio station about China’s efforts to grow life on the dark side of the moon. “You think that’s all they got up there?” my dad responded. He proceeded to show me pictures of a military base that has supposedly been established on the moon. The pictures were grainy, and to my eyes they were clearly of rock formations that merely looked like buildings, but he genuinely believed them to be proof. Again, I didn’t know what to say. The encounters were frustrating, because he’d go on for hours connecting each theory and explaining that the government was trying to keep people from knowing this information.
Something happened though, and at the time I didn’t realize that it was because he’d become heavily invested in the overarching QAnon conspiracy theory. He had stopped watching major news networks entirely and was now consumed by information about numerous intersecting conspiracies. He began talking about the Vatican, top government officials being involved in a pedophile ring, the significance of JFK Jr., satanic rituals, and of course, Hillary Clinton.
By now my dad’s beliefs were driving him further away from his family. My sister continued living with him after I went away to school. Periodically, she’d send me text messages saying that he was scaring her and she didn’t know what to do. Whenever he’d get off work, he’d watch conspiracy theory videos on YouTube that purported to explain how various world events were connected. He persisted in trying to show them to her, and whenever she’d turn him down, he’d become frustrated and yell at her, insisting, “This is what’s wrong with your generation! None of you want to know the truth about how the world works!”
Then my older brother came to visit our dad, along with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was born late last year. It was shortly after the news had broken that Jeffrey Epstein had committed suicide. The event plagued my dad’s mind because of his belief that Epstein was a member of the deep state. Rather than speak with his son and grandchildren, he went on a rant about the government’s involvement with Epstein and other conspiracies. Frustrated, my brother told him to stop. Which he did. Then he asked if he could show them something.
He played a YouTube video that showed images of violence and destruction, along with an ominous message: The government is trying to kill everybody.
“Dad, can you turn that off, please, nobody wants to hear that,” my brother told him.
I also went to visit my dad shortly after Epstein’s death. At the time, my sister was planning a trip to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through the northern part of the country. She’d spent months planning the trip, but hadn’t told my dad. She was nervous that he’d tell her not to go, and she feared he’d be jealous that she was going on the journey with my mom’s new husband. While I was visiting, she finally built up the gumption to tell him, a week before she was supposed to leave.
He was taken aback and seemed in disbelief. When he asked her why, she responded, “Because I feel like I haven’t done anything with my life.” With tears welling up, she added, “I feel like I’m stuck.”
My dad became rageful and yelled at her, “You’re stuck! Your life is stuck? I’ve been stuck for over 20 years!”
He hounded her, trying to look her in the face, as she stared at the cement floor, tears falling. He stuck out his index finger, while clutching the others, and pointed it directly at his temple. “Every single day I want to put a bullet in my head!”
My sister went to her room, crying, and I stayed with my dad in the garage. He was audibly annoyed, but still expressed worry about his daughter. After some time, he pulled out his laptop and showed me another conspiracy theory.
This made me consider that, perhaps, conspiracy theories were a way for him to escape his surrounding world, allowing him to avoid the reality of his life.
My dad had had a lonely childhood. His own father had left the family when my dad was young, and his mother was emotionally detached. From what I’ve been able to piece together, he seemed to rely on the guidance of others to mold his worldview, often taking whatever information was handed to him. He’s told me that while growing up he encountered many Vietnam veterans who told him “crazy shit,” and he’s talked often about his first boss, who seems to have left quite an impression on him.
He was a skilled mechanic even when he was still in high school. He often reminisces about the time an auto shop owner came to his 10th-grade class and asked, “Who’s the best mechanic in this school?”
My dad instantly stood up: “I am. There’s not a single person here who knows a car as well as I do.”
Satisfied by the answer, the shop owner offered him an apprenticeship.
This shop owner, an older man with red hair and a Scottish drawl my dad still likes to poke fun at, became a source of guidance for him. He gave my dad the opportunity to practice his future profession, and also offered musings on life (and provided alcohol). I imagine my dad standing in the garage of the auto shop, sipping a beer, with this Scottish man standing before him. Drills blare and hydraulic jacks move cars up and down. “Listen kid, there’s a lot you don’t understand about the world,” he tells him.
I imagine my dad in that pivotal moment. I picture him feeling hesitant, then thinking to himself, Maybe he’s right?
Anons refer to believing in the Cabal as being “red-pilled.” The idea comes from the science fiction film The Matrix, in which Morpheus, a futuristic rebel, gives a regular cubicle worker named Thomas Anderson (the soon-to-be Neo) the option to take either a red pill or a blue pill. The blue pill will keep him ignorant, returning him to the world as he has always known it, while the red pill will strip away the facade and awaken him to the shocking truth about reality. The parallel of political party colors is obvious as well, as followers of Q tend to be Republican.
The idea of waking up from a dreamlike state and confronting reality isn’t anything new. It stems back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks, notably to Plato’s allegory of the cave, which tells the story of a group of prisoners forced to interpret the world based on the shadows they see projected on the wall of a cave. One prisoner decides that he wants to see the outside, breaks free, and goes on an intellectual journey to understand the true meaning of the world. He eventually returns to urge the other prisoners to leave, but they dismiss him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free. The allegory is essentially about humans being willfully blind, for fear of learning the true nature of the world.
In 21st-century America, the shadows on the cave wall are mass media networks, which the general public, who are the prisoners, are forced to watch because of the Cabal. The Anons view themselves as those who have escaped the cave. It’s ironic because the cryptic posts that Q provides his followers act as shadows. The modern world has become insular, and people are able to dictate what information they feed themselves. Anons choose Q. The problem with QAnon, according to Travis View, is that “they’re saying to reject everything. Don’t trust any outside sources — except what we provide for you.”
They believe that once the “oncoming storm” that Trump elusively mentioned in 2017 is complete, it will bring about a “Great Awakening,” a period when mass arrests will occur and “people wake up to the way things really are,” as Nemos puts it.
I try to imagine: What would it be like to believe in this alternative narrative? Would it be terrifying?
As COVID-19 has taken hold of the world, major news networks have tirelessly reported on its unfolding. But Anons and “independent journalists” who look to Q for guidance have reported on the pandemic in a different way. Although Q has been silent about the virus, Anons have decided to construct their own narrative about what the outbreak implies. They believe that the virus is the storm they’ve been expecting. While some Anons believe lockdown restrictions have been put in place for the deep state to exercise their authority, and have taken to the streets to protest, others say COVID-19 was introduced to the public as a military operation to weed out members of the Cabal. The only people who can be affected by the virus are those who have drunk the blood of children. People like Tom Hanks aren’t actually being quarantined when they contract the virus, but arrested.
Some followers have gone a step further and said that the stay-at-home orders are in place so that the military can rescue children who are being held captive underground by the Cabal. Vincent Fuska, the man some Anons believe is JFK Jr., supports the theory. “35,000 and many more to come,” he tweeted recently, supposedly a reference to the number of children rescued, along with a link to an article written by an “independent journalist.”
On one Q-focused website my dad visits, the creator made a meme of Pepe frogs wearing MAGA hats, sitting in a theater while President Trump hands out popcorn and tells them to enjoy the show. The meme alludes to the spread of COVID-19, and the post that followed showed executive orders that President Kennedy signed authorizing seizures of public property in the event of an emergency. These posts are what prompted my dad to hurry off to my brother’s house with his dire warning about the government this March.
“Our democracy is predicated on being suspicious about power,” Timothy Melley, a professor of English at Miami University and author of several books exploring the history of conspiracy theories, tells me. “Whether it’s Obama or Trump, we’re supposed to say, ‘Wait a minute, I want to know for myself.’” The problem, though, he explains, is that President Trump is “willing to personally articulate at his rallies that there are government deep-state elements that are deliberately trying to take him down and undermine him.”
What happens when a nation’s leader is conspiratorial? People who are susceptible to conspiracy theories become manipulated and go into overdrive, because a person in power finally represents them. People, like my dad, lose themselves
Dad, if you’re reading this, please know that I love you and I’m concerned for your well-being. I’m sorry for not always being there for you, emotionally as your son, and taking you for granted. The world right now is a terrifying, confusing place, and the weight of it all can be crushing and demoralizing. But I can’t stand by and watch you give yourself to this groupthink filled with false hopes, while also knowing there are so many others like you.
For readers who also have family members who’ve dabbled or are lost in conspiratorial thinking, please consider them as a human being. Think about: why have they shunned themselves into a world of lies? And what can we do to help them?
In February, I texted my dad to ask if I could interview him about conspiracy theories. He messaged me back, saying, “You mean conspiracy facts!” and “Are you sure you want to be red-pilled?” I told him yes. I am ready for it.
I meet with him on February 27, 2020, and he is eager to talk. Our conversation begins in his garage, with his mechanic tools and NASCAR memorabilia on the walls. The pickled alien looks over it all.
We both light cigarettes, and I sit near an engine block he’s been working on for years. Before he delves into our talk about conspiracy theories, he tells me to look up a song. It’s David Gilmour’s “There’s No Way Out of Here.”
“OK, I want you to listen to the lyrics in this song,” he tells me.
The song opens with a guitar strum and a lonely harmonica that pulses with low tones. There’s no way out of here, when you come in, you’re in for good, Gilmour sings in an apathetic voice.
“OK, who wrote this song?” he asks.
“Gilmour?” I respond.
“That’s what everybody believes, but a guy named Ken Baker did. Who was Ken Baker?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Ah,” he lets out. “Why is it that nobody knows who Ken Baker is? If you look online, you can’t find a single thing about this guy. Keep listening to the lyrics.”
There are no answers here, when you look out, you don’t see in, Gilmour sings. My dad gestures at himself and tells me that there’s an energy being held captive in the body, and that this energy moves from body to body during various life spans.
“Like reincarnation?” I ask him.
“Some people call it that, but who’s keeping that energy in there?”
I shrug again.
“There’s people out there who are trying to keep this information from the world. Now, what happened to Ken Baker?” my dad asks me again, but he quickly answers his own question: “They took him out because he was trying to expose the truth.”
My dad looks me in the eyes. His face is tired with age. He looks confused.
“This shit’s heavy, Reed, you don’t realize how deep it goes. You want to talk about conspiracies, we’ll talk.”
Yes, it is heavy, and it hurts, I want to tell him, butI love you, and I’m sorry that I won’t take the red pill. I hope you can find your way back home.
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The night of December 18, 2004, began as an ordinary evening for Blair Cobbs’s father, Eugene. At 33, the elder Cobbs was already a seasoned veteran of the drug trafficking trade. He was flying solo to his hometown of Philadelphia, having taken off from Compton Airport near Los Angeles. After a quick fuel-up in Missouri, it was somewhere over West Virginia that things began to go bad for the self-taught pilot. He was flying above a snowy, wooded landscape when mechanical problems compelled him to scramble for the nearest landing strip. He was forced to attempt an emergency touchdown at the Wheeling Ohio County Airport. It was going to be a tricky landing, as the tower was closed and lighting was limited.
Eugene descended late, missed the runway, and skidded on the ramp, before regaining altitude and hurtling into a ravine in the woods surrounding the airport. Miraculously, he exited the aircraft basically uninjured, save a minor head wound. But he had little time to linger. It’s unknown whether he turned to consider the plane’s $24 million haul of cocaine, but what he did do was flee through the woods, leaving it all behind.
When he came to a road near the airport entrance, he flagged down the first driver he saw. He waved a wad of $100 bills and asked for a ride. The driver said that Eugene, who asked where exactly he was, had a gash on his head.
Airport officials would not discover the wreckage until early the next morning, when a worker on a routine field check noticed that a section of the eight-foot perimeter fence near runway 21 was damaged. The plane was then spotted, and proper authorities and responders were dispatched. Airport manager Thomas Tominack’s initial reaction was that the pilot was lucky to have survived, as portions of the aircraft, including a detached wing, were strewn throughout the vicinity. “The survival rate at that particular crash scene would have been very, very, low,” Tominack says. “It was a bad crash.” He notes that the plane didn’t even land at the airport, but rather bounced off the ramp before hitting the top of the fence and landing in a ravine amid a patch of what locals call “tanglefoot.”
The second thought responders had was that there sure was a hell of a lot of cocaine on board. “I know one thing,” Sheriff Bernie Kazienko told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it was the most dope I’d ever seen.” Indeed, it was the largest drug seizure ever in West Virginia at the time, with 525 pounds inside the airplane. According to the Northern District of West Virginia’s District Attorney’s Office, investigators “uncovered numerous packages of cocaine wrapped in various forms, including duct tape, saran wrap, vacuum sealed bags, and even as Christmas presents.” Photographs were taken of the tall stacks of cocaine. Longtime West Virginia lawman Richard Ferguson recounts that “it was like after somebody killed a large bear or something,” with everyone wanting their turn to pose with the evidence.
Eugene’s first order of business after the crash was to get the hell out of West Virginia. He checked in to a Holiday Inn Express outside of Weirton under the name of Marquis Munroe. He stayed for one night before making his way out of town.
Meanwhile, investigators began piecing things together at the crash site. With no pilot present, they moved on to the plane itself. Records showed that the Aerostar had been purchased in Alabama for $290,000 in cash. The invoice was signed without a personal signature, only the name of a company, Pacific Designers Inc., out of Beverly Hills. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had been keeping tabs on the plane, and by the time of the crash they were familiar with the identity of the pilot, according to United States Marshal Terry Moore.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had also been keeping an eye on Eugene, who was described as a notoriously bad pilot known to frequent small, quiet airports where he could fuel up and depart quickly. According to the Post-Gazette, the FAA had put his plane on a watch list, having cited him on four occasions since 2001, offenses including reckless flying, disregarding air traffic control signals, and lying about his medical status. The FAA had ordered him to retake his flying exam. Eugene had refused, and his pilot’s license had been revoked. He continued to fly, however, using his plane to deliver drugs all over the country. Prior to the crash, federal agents in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago had all been looking into his cocaine distribution business.
“On December 20, 2004, the DEA was able to obtain a warrant for Mr. Cobbs’s arrest,” says Moore. Subsequently, “There were many attempts to locate him throughout the U.S. He had ties to Philadelphia and California, so pretty much the span of the United States. And nobody was able to find him at the time … Mr. Cobbs was a fugitive from justice.”
Eugene Cobbs went on the lam. Back in California, his son, Blair, was about to have his world changed forever.
At the time of the crash, Blair Cobbs was 15. He remembers vividly the day he learned that something was wrong. He had been living easy with his father and stepmother, along with a younger sister, in a grand, white Victorian mansion in the Hollywood Hills. (Documents would later reveal that Eugene Cobbs had a cover business under the name of Builders Plus Management, Inc. Blair’s stepmother owned a beauty salon.) Blair attended the Beverly Hills school that served as the inspiration for the high school in one of his favorite movies at the time, Clueless.
“I was pretty well off,” Blair tells me over coffee at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. “You know, when you’re doing good it just sort of seems normal, especially when you’re a kid. It’s like, ‘You don’t have an airplane? I have an airplane. We all got a Bentley. No? Well you’re going to get one, surely.’”
Blair’s life hadn’t always been so luxurious. His mother died when he was 11, and his grandmother, whom he was close with, died the same year. He and his stepmother never really bonded. She had a son Blair’s age from a previous relationship, and Blair never felt accepted. As a young teenager, Cobbs, who is mixed race, was picked on relentlessly. In middle school, he was perceived as the white kid in a predominately black school, with red hair to boot. “Even though I’m mixed, I don’t really have a race as far as my features,” he says. “I was called cracker. … Those were a really bad few years.”
But by 2004, after a change of schools, those days were behind him. “Everything was cool sailing for like a year in Beverly Hills.”
Then one day he came home to a DEA raid. His stepmother was crying, and all he knew was that something really bad had happened. She didn’t have a lot of details. Maybe his dad was alive, maybe not. Cobbs couldn’t get a straight answer. “That’s when it really hit me,” he says. “You can feel it before it happens, that you lost it all.”
In the ensuing months, Cobbs struggled in his father’s absence. He didn’t know about the crash, but he began to piece things together. “It kinda crept up on me that it must have been something illegal when I started noticing [unusual] things,” such as his phone being “obviously” tapped, full of echoes and strange noises every time he picked it up, and an unmarked white van parked in front of his house, around the clock, with men wearing headphones seated inside. The strange feeling of being under surveillance actually stirred some hope inside the young teen. “Maybe my dad’s not dead.”
Six months after the crash, it was summer in Beverly Hills, and his dad was still gone. Then Blair experienced another day in which everything changed. His stepmother instructed him to pack everything he could fit into one duffel bag. His sister did the same. They were given a couple of “horrible fake IDs” and ushered into a car. His stepmom drove south toward Mexico. When they got to the border, the children were dropped off by their stepmom, given minimal instructions, just a list of checkpoints about where to go — and with that, the kids walked into a foreign country alone. First a taxi, then a bus, deep into Mexico. That’s when Cobbs bottomed out: fear, dread and utter uncertainty. Would they live or die? Only the task of taking care of his younger sister drove him. “Just as long as my sister’s OK, that was propelling me to keep moving forward, because she was there with me.”
Somewhere near Tepatitlán de Morelos, in the state of Jalisco, a full 1,623 miles into their journey, they finally saw their father. They could breath easier, but only a little bit.
From Tepatitlán, the Cobbs family moved on to Guadalajara. There, using a fake name, Blair enrolled in a high school with an intense Spanish program, to try to get him up to speed on a language he did not speak.
They lived with their father and his girlfriend, and though Eugene wasn’t around much, Blair’s sister was now safe, and with that knowledge Blair struck out on his own, wandering the city, getting to know the streets. “The whole city was all about circles; one highway circles the whole city, called Periférico. You can get almost anywhere through the Periférico.” He felt like a drifter. And though he was getting to know the city, he felt like he didn’t know himself. The fact that they were all using aliases triggered a deep sense of loss in Blair, a loss of self. “You start forgetting yourself completely,” he says.
No identity, no roots. Blair felt as if he didn’t belong to any group, that he had no culture to claim. “I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not Mexican.” He was out of place yet again. The Americano in Mexico. Sticking out like a sore thumb.
Eugene Cobbs had shaken U.S. law enforcement, but his problems had not eased. Looking back, Blair says he understands why his father tried to shield them from the reality of the situation, but, still, the kids knew it wasn’t good. “Things always happened,” Blair remembers. “It was a very hazardous place. … You’d get held up at gunpoint, or people would break into your crib with AKs,” he says with the nonchalance others might use to describe a noisy neighbor. If it wasn’t a gang, it was the cops, he says, and if not them then simply citizens, random people looking to get a piece: “Because you look like you have some money, because you look like you don’t belong there.” Each day he lived with a prevailing fear that the bad guys were closing in. It felt like they were just waiting “until someone knocks us off.”
Blair doubted he would ever get out of Mexico.
Then he met a friend. On a lonely Mexican basketball court, he ran into 15-year-old Rodney Pinz, who was from the States and spoke English. The two started hanging out, but the fugitive’s son remained guarded. “Even if I couldn’t tell him who I really was, it was cool to have at least one friend,” Cobbs says. “That friend probably saved my life.”
Pinz remembers a presence of fear engulfing Cobbs’s home. “He definitely seemed down,” Pinz says. “So I invited him into my world. I had him meet friends, meet girls, good stuff, teenage stuff. He would come to my house. My family made him food.”
A shared affinity for boxing led the pair across town, “to the ghetto,” Pinz says. “Like the ghetto ghetto” — where they found a gym known as El Lobo (the Wolf).
Blair Cobbs had long revered the sport of boxing. But while he was eager to learn, he was short on skill. He had no idea how to block or defend. He took a shitload of punches. He remembers his first sessions at El Lobo: “I beat the first guy I ever sparred, and then I got beat up real bad by the next guy. I didn’t know the rounds lasted more than 30 seconds. I got tired.”
Black eyes were a constant companion as a result of his new hobby. It mattered not.
“I never stopped coming.”
One Saturday, after about a week at the gym, Cobbs had an opportunity to box a real bout. “You think I should fight?” Pinz remembers him asking. “I was like, ‘Man we just got here.’ But he fought and he won!”
An old trainer at the gym started tutoring him, working to bend him into fighting shape. Cobbs began working out at the gym from sunrise to sundown, sparring and learning combinations. The trainer put him through 10- to 12-round full-body sparring sessions. Cobbs was still just a kid, but he was already fighting professionals.
At nightfall, he would grab an agua fresca or something to eat at a taco stand and then return. Besides sparring, he’d swim and run. “I never stopped working,” he says. In reality, he simply had nowhere else to go, and nothing else he cared about. “So I would just train until I couldn’t train anymore. And then I’d show up again.”
Since he’d left California, Cobbs’s hair had grown into a high, red-tinted Afro. When they asked him his name at the gym, “I used my middle name, Romero,” he says. “And a very conventional last name. At the time I really liked Roy Jones, so I just called myself Romero Jones.”
Each weekend, the local gym held “smokers” — unregulated amateur boxing exhibitions. Fighters showed up looking to make an impression. Cobbs was an outsider, and the spectators were usually not on his side. But he learned how to work the crowd. How to win their favor.
Blair kept boxing throughout his teenage years, while the darkness within him grew. He enjoyed the sport but hated life on the run. Outside of the gym, he struggled. But inside the ring, this mentality made him dangerous. He didn’t care what happened to him. “You can knock me down, knock me out,” he says. It didn’t matter: “You’ll have to kill me in that ring.”
When he was 18, Cobbs had grown to around 130 or 140 pounds. He was tough to beat at that weight. So for one fight he was matched up against a guy in a heavier class, a Mexican fighter who weighed about 180 pounds. After winning nearly every recent match, now Blair was about to get his ass kicked, and to make matters worse, his dad was in the crowd to see it, one of the few times he attended. In the first round, Cobbs got hit hard, the punches too heavy to block. It was a small ring, and there was nowhere to run. He was getting destroyed. The bell rang for the second round. Things were just about to turn from bad to worse, and then Cobbs remembers thinking, “What would Mayweather do?”
At the time, Cobbs was watching all of the professional fights he could, and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the brash superstar with the flashy trunks and the nickname “Pretty Boy,” stood out. It was the effortlessness in Mayweather’s movements that really impressed the young boxer, the way he beat his opponent, the way he broke him down. “Pop, boop, pop, pop, boop. This motherfucker is making this shit look so easy,” Cobbs remembers.
During the second round of his big fight, Cobbs recalled how Mayweather liked to use a shoulder roll to pick off shots and then get close, get inside and land short shots. By midway through the second round, he was doing it himself — shoulder roll, block, defend — and the tide was turning. That’s when his opponent reared back for a big right hand, a right hand “that had death written all over it.” If it landed it would have meant the end for Cobbs. But he saw it coming and pulled back and delivered his counterpunch, striking his opponent’s exposed chin, and boom, his adversary hit the canvas. The crowd started chanting, “Romero! Romero!”
“I think that was the pivotal point where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and I just never stopped,” Cobbs says. “That moment lasted forever. I never stopped no matter how bad it got in my life.”
Indeed, things would get worse for young Blair before they got better.
Blair and his sister returned to the States the same way they entered: on the sly. After spending roughly three years on the run, their father sent them to Edgewater, New Jersey, back to living with their stepmom. After an arduous bureaucratic process, they also regained their actual identities.
The kids got out of Mexico just in time. Their father was kidnapped for ransom in late 2008. When the price was met and Eugene was released by his captors, he was almost immediately arrested.
Blair Cobbs tells the story of his boxing exploits in a fever, but when it comes time to discuss his father, his cadence slows, and the discomfort he feels about those experiences is clear.
Eugene Cobbs was taken into police custody at Valle Real, “a gated, exclusive community outside of Guadalajara,” according to Federal Marshal Terry Moore. After four years on the lam, Eugene was extradited to Houston and then transferred to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he pled guilty and was sentenced to more than 12 years — 151 months — for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and operating as an airman without a license. After his arrest, he was discovered to have at least five aliases, with matching IDs.
Blair tried to push the news from his mind. He tried to keep boxing. From his stepmother’s house in New Jersey, he bounced around to different gyms in New York City.
But it wasn’t long before the redheaded stepchild felt like he’d worn out his welcome in New Jersey. So he returned to the place of his birth, Philadelphia. While his sister stayed behind with their stepmom, Blair moved into the half-abandoned house on a corner lot that his grandmother had once lived in.
When asked about what he did for work in Philly, he answers, “Oh my God,” before contemplating and reeling off a résumé of dead-end jobs, the first one at Abercrombie & Fitch, which at $7.25 for a few hours a week turned out to be little more than enough to pay for the TransPass he needed to get there.
Despite his vast life experience, none of what he had learned would help him deal with being alone in Philadelphia. He didn’t have much, but he was constantly getting robbed. “They would rob me going to work, or going to get a job. Because at that particular time getting a job was almost a full-time job, you know, going out applying at this place or that, I would be out all day if I needed to, for possibly one opportunity.”
His house didn’t contain much to begin with, but it was soon looted of nearly all of its possessions. Then the electricity was turned off. Followed by the heat and gas. Wintertime. Putting on every piece of clothing he owned just to survive the night. “I’ve been in plenty of those situations,” he pauses, thinking. “I was in one situation, where I was broke … I ran through everything I could find [of value]. I was panicking. Because I was really hungry. A couple days went by, and I hadn’t eaten. You know, I’m working and everything, but I haven’t eaten. I don’t have any food money. When I find a little gold ring. Possibly my grandfather’s engagement ring or something. It saved my life.”
He took the little gold ring to a Cash For Gold joint at a nearby shopping center. He only secured around $30. “But it was the most important 30 bucks in my life. It kept me alive,” he shakes his head, the memory sparking a wry smile. “And, uh, yeah, so that was pretty tough.”
He worked at Chili’s as, he says, “probably the worst waiter in the history of waiters.” And then there was Sky Chefs, preparing flight meals near the airport. “I ended up getting put in the frozen food section. I was in the refrigerator,” he says incredulously. “Freezing my ass off. And they would be pushing you, making you work hard as fuck. And you had to get there at 6 o’clock. I didn’t have a car. I would get up at like 2:30 in the morning to try and catch the first bus I could possibly get.” But in the end it never mattered, because after a series of connections, buses and trains to get there, he still arrived late nearly every day. He made it three weeks and one paycheck, and he was out. After that, he finally found the one job that would hold him until he turned pro, at a coffee shop. There, a bit of stability allowed him to get back to training.
He trained at James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym, the former stomping grounds of Bernard Hopkins and “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon, in West Philadelphia. On June 28, 2013, at age 24, he made his professional debut, flooring Martique Holland in the first round in Ruffin, North Carolina.
He quickly got off to a 4-0 record. But then the fights stopped coming. He got a lesson in the politics of boxing. The most important thing to know about the fight game is that “you can’t do it by yourself,” he says. “The biggest problem with boxing in America is that you need funding to get to the elite level. You can be very good and it almost doesn’t matter because you need funding. You need support. A lot of backing.” He could best all of the killers in Philly and it wouldn’t be enough if he didn’t have the right team behind him and a promoter to get him on the right cards and the right fights.
Around the time of his first professional fight, his father was also making a change. On April 10, 2013, Eugene Cobbs decided that prison life no longer suited him. He’d been serving time at Fort Dix in New Jersey before being transferred to a minimum-security facility, FCI Morgantown, in West Virginia, after earning marks for good behavior.
It was the morning hours, before 10 a.m., and Eugene Cobbs had been assigned cleaning duty in the parking lot. But at 4 p.m., when the prison guards did their count, they discovered that prisoner Cobbs was unaccounted for.
“He walked away from FCI Morgantown,” Marshal Moore says.“Due to the security of the facility, it’s fairly easy to walk away from. It’s not an over-the-wall escape or anything like that; there was no hidden tunnel. He was cleaning a parking lot and just walked away.” A fence surrounded the facility, but it was only three feet high. Eugene’s prison garb was discovered nearby. Moore was tasked with tracking him down.
By the time of Eugene’s second manhunt, Moore, who had entered the Marshal Service immediately following graduation from Fairmont State University in West Virginia, had expeditiously ascended the ladder to supervisory deputy. He was 29 years old, and despite a right arm marked in ink, he looked every bit of 16, with short blond hair and a baby face. He openly shares a penchant for vacations to Disney World. His ambition and enthusiasm for the job are evident, and they extended to the pursuit of Eugene Cobbs.
Moore says that at the time he’d seen his share of escapes. Nine out of 10 times, the guy would scramble, nervously, maybe call a girlfriend to rendezvous at the nearest hotel, or meet up with his drug dealer. “We get them relatively quickly,” and they usually don’t make it far, he says. But when Moore answered the phone this time and heard the name Eugene Cobbs, he stood on alert. He remembered the first chase. “I knew it would be a good hunt,” Moore says. “I was like, this is going to be something.” Not easy for sure, Moore knew, recounting that Eugene had previously eluded justice for four years.
Moore explains that after escaping, Eugene walked to a nearby garage, Dinsmore Tire & Auto, where he called a cab. The driver took him to a Kroger grocery store in nearby Sabraton, West Virginia, where he waited while the escapee went inside and received a Western Union money order. The cabbie then drove Eugene an hour and a half to Pittsburgh and dropped him at a Greyhound station.
“We had aired Mr. Cobbs’s picture on the news to see if anybody had seen him. And I got a call from a local cab company who advised that they had picked up Mr. Cobbs on April 10,” Moore recounts. “We immediately obtained warrants for Mr. Cobbs.”
A second international manhunt was now taking place for Blair’s father: “The Coke-Plane Fugitive,” as one newspaper dubbed him. Moore says Eugene Cobbs was a clever and experienced criminal, who “knew how to avoid detection.” Moore believed that he would follow a similar game plan as he had the last time. “After he made it onto that bus,” Moore says he knew: “He’s making his move. He’s going to Mexico.”
Moore started interviewing family members and acquaintances, and nobody knew a thing. “So we’re kind of stale on his trail at that time, and that’s when I really start to dig into the escape investigation.” Moore went to the tire shop, watched a surveillance video of the fugitive getting into the cab, then another of him entering the Western Union. Through subpoena requests, the investigative team got information from Western Union that indicated that Blair’s stepmother was the one who had wired Eugene the money. She was eventually arrested for assisting in the escape.
But the account of how Moore eventually got his man is much less cinematic. The marshal was seated at his desk, the phone rang, and he was given an anonymous tip. Simple as that. “In this case,” Moore says, “the tip was the golden ticket” that allowed him and coordinating authorities to ascertain Eugene’s exact location. On June 23, 2014, Mexican law enforcement arrested Eugene Cobbs in Tepatitlán. He did not put up a fight, although he did present false identification documents. But Moore saw the photos from the arrest scene and was given a description of the suspect’s tattoos. “I knew at that point, 100 percent, it was Cobbs,” he says. “It was a good grab.”
Eugene was extradited from Mexico that very day and escorted to Los Angeles, where he was taken into custody by deputy marshals, then transported, once more, to West Virginia.
Moore describes Eugene as a “gentle” guy, who never showed a penchant for violence; each time he was arrested, he surrendered peacefully. “He never tried to be that hardened criminal that gives you problems.” (Eugene Cobbs declined requests to be interviewed for this article.)
Back in Philadelphia, by the time Blair found out his dad had escaped, Eugene was soon back in custody. “It was very short-lived,” Blair says.
On August 11, 2014, Eugene Cobbs pled guilty to the escape and was sentenced to 14 months, to be served consecutive to his prior sentence.
Meanwhile, Blair’s boxing career was stuck in neutral, and he remained at his 4-0 mark, with no fights on the horizon. He wasn’t going anywhere if a promoter didn’t sign him. It stung even worse that nearly all of his rivals and competitors were getting inked to deals, while he had to “bleed for everything,” he says. Here he was, in his peak fighting years, 23 years old, and he couldn’t even get a fight.
It was at that point that he decided to take a gamble on a flight to Las Vegas to try to get noticed, to try to get backing. It was a risky proposition. He had a steady job and a girlfriend, Melissa. And to top it off, he and Melissa had recently welcomed a son of their own into the world. He made the trip anyway.
Once in Vegas he was able to get a few sparring sessions in front of some prominent eyes. But in the end, his manager at the time made a mess of things, Cobbs says.
The trip was an abject failure.
To make matters worse, when he got back to Philly, he’d lost his job at the coffee shop. He soon lost his apartment. “Now I’m homeless,” he says. “And I don’t even care, not about boxing, like I’m finished with life.”
His girlfriend and son stayed with one of her acquaintances, but Blair, unable to support himself, let alone a family, bounced around.
Sometimes he slept in his car.
Other times it was abandoned buildings.
Things in Philly remained bleak. So futile that Blair remembers jokingly thinking, “I wish I could sell drugs,” he laughs, “but I couldn’t sell drugs. I didn’t have any fucking friends.”
It took him nearly a year to get back on his feet, both mentally and spiritually. To get up and take another shot.
“I’m in this continuous state of being reborn. Constantly moving from one place to the next. But dying too. Going through the worst experience I could possibly go through and surviving that to move on, to another level. But did I really survive or did a piece of me just die in order to live on?” he ponders. “That’s a question I ask myself. There was a lot going on from a mental perspective.”
Finally, Cobbs caught a break. He hooked up with Kenny Mason, a trainer who had worked with recent middleweight world champion Julian Williams. Cobbs began to find a rhythm with Mason. Mason also gave him a place to crash. Sort of. “I was living in Kenny’s closet,” he says. (It was literally a walk-in closet.) But it was in that closet that Cobbs found God. “I went through an experience of growth,” he says. “Learning how to think, how to manifest my dreams into reality.” He prayed and meditated. He put up a vision board. It wasn’t a great situation, but he says it’s what he needed. And it wasn’t all bad, if not for the dog he shared the closet with. “The dog wanted to evict me.”
He found a church, Casa de Gloria. And he got back to the gym. It was there, at Joe Hand’s Gym, that he met Bernard Hopkins, a boxing legend and one of the most successful fighters in history. Hopkins offered him some desperately needed encouragement, and Cobbs picked up his training even more. He started training other boxers as well, to earn some dough.
He decided to give Vegas another shot. He couldn’t stay in Philly any longer. “Let’s just go,” he told his girlfriend. Through it all, he says Melissa stuck with him. “I think it’s just that we didn’t have anybody else,” he marvels. “We didn’t have anything else but each other.”
“We took those couple bucks I had from training and just took off,” Cobbs remembers. “We only stopped for gas, too afraid [the car would break down] — we gassed it while the car was still running, because I’ll be damned if we didn’t make it.”
There was no alternative. Cobbs saw only two options if he remained in the city: Death or jail.
“As we left Philadelphia you could feel the weight being lifted. As the miles started passing, the freer we started to feel. We were as happy as hell. It didn’t matter what happened in Vegas. It was better than being there.”
The car was packed: father, mother, son. Everything they had.
“Straight to Vegas. Two days.”
Once in Vegas, Cobbs and his family were still homeless. They lived out of their car north of Vegas at a pit stop frequented by truckers. Sometimes they pitched a pop-up tent. It didn’t matter. He calls it one of the most peaceful times of his life. “We were happy there,” he says. “No responsibilities or obligations. It was just us living, day to day. And being appreciative of each moment that passed. Because each moment was a better moment.”
After all that he’d been through, somehow Cobbs now looked at the world with optimism. In Mexico he had felt low and therefore he was low. He’d hit rock bottom in Philadelphia. Now his new attitude led him out of the hole. He could feel the universe conspiring for his success.
He hooked up with a distant relative who put him and his family up for a few weeks. He and Melissa got jobs, his at the Cromwell Hotel. Soon enough, they had a place of their own. And after his cousin put in a word with an ex-boxer, the former super-bantamweight titlist Bones Adams, Cobbs had himself a trainer. Adams had a gym behind his house in Las Vegas, right down the street from Cobbs’s new place. Just like the rhythm in the ring — pop, pop, pop — all of the things he needed in his life started to click into place. Next, he hooked up with a manager, Greg Hannley. Hannley staked him, with around two grand a month, so that Cobbs could train full time.
Adams says that right from the start he saw the potential. “Phenomenal skills, strong, fast, and athletic as can be. He does things most people can’t.” Adams does admit, however, that at the time, “He was very wild … out of control, crazy [in the ring].”
His first fight in three years was on May 18, 2017, in Tijuana, where he scored a second-round technical knockout. He was finally 5-0. Pop, pop, pop. By year’s end, he’d be 7-0. In 2018 he was named the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame prospect of the year.
In 2019 he was signed by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and won the North American Boxing Federation welterweight title (an achievement, but not the heralded World Boxing Council or World Boxing Association titles he and other boxers are mainly chasing). Golden Boy Promotions touts his three 2019 fights as “the most prominent fights of the year in boxing.” Ringtv.com (“The Bible of Boxing”) said of his November 2019 win over Carlos Ortiz: “The Blair Cobbs show continues to be a thrill a minute,” while noting that his lively post-fight interview “was just as entertaining as his fight.”
In the summer of 2019, Blair’s father was released early from Fort Dix. Eugene is now living with Blair and his family in Vegas, and just like his son, the father is looking for a fresh start.
Blair, the rich kid from Beverly Hills, the American in Mexico, the poor kid in Philly, they’re all part of him now. But he has evolved. He’s even earned himself a new moniker: He’s now Blair “The Flair” Cobbs, a nickname given to him by an onlooker during one of his sparring sessions. But Blair has taken the handle and run with it.
What does “The Flair” mean? “It encapsulates everything that everyone would ever want to be,” Cobbs says. “People want to be a rock star. People want to have charisma. They want to be great, greater than they are. They want to believe, to have the passion and drive that they can do anything. … Someone who’s genuinely one of a kind. That’s what ‘The Flair’ is.”
Fight insiders still describe Blair Cobbs, a southpaw, as a wild man in the ring, and spectators love the passion he brings. He’s brash and has a swagger — and to top it off, when he enters the ring he even lets out a “Woo!” in the style of legendary pro wrestling star Ric Flair.
But he’s also quick to point out: “[It’s] ‘The Flair’ who has that confidence. Blair Cobbs doesn’t.”
“That’s a real person within me,” he says. “Living through all kinds of crazy shit, I kept dying and reinventing myself. I kind of just developed these multiple character personalities and [The Flair] just comes out whenever the cameras are on me.”
Some people will say that, at 30, he’s too old to be a prospect. But Cobbs will tell you the time off just means he’s fresh. That he hasn’t taken the punches, and that his boxing age is young.
He still likes to put on a show, but Adams, who recently stepped aside as Cobbs’s head trainer, says he’s done a good job of cleaning up the recklessness in the ring. And his biggest asset is the most important: “He doesn’t want to lose,” Adams says. “He has the will to win.”
On Valentine’s Day, 2020, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, “The Flair” scored a split decision victory over Samuel Kotey, who had sported an impressive 23-2 record going into the bout. He hopes it’s the stepping-stone he needs for a title shot later this year.
Blair Cobbs remains undefeated. And he believes that his best chapter is yet to be written.
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