Linda Calvey is waiting in the pub parking lot, a few paces away, poised to greet me with a hug and kisses. It’s a mid-July day, the hottest of the year in London, and she’s a vision of pink and floral. The pub’s outdoor garden is crowded, so Linda leads me inside. She kisses the owner’s cheeks and they exchange a few quiet words before he offers us a room to ourselves. Drinks are on the house. It’s unclear whether Linda has earned this hospitality because she’s a nice person, because she’s exceptionally charming, or because she recently held her book launch here. That book is a memoir explaining why she spent 18 years in prison for murder.
Linda Calvey — born Linda Welford in 1948 — was brought up in the East London neighborhood of Stepney Green, a close-knit, working-class community populated by London’s jellied-eel-eating, rhyming-slang-talking Cockneys. Her teenage life was relatively unremarkable. She worked as a receptionist at a paint factory, and often babysat for her cousin. That normalcy all changed when her cousin invited her to a party for the notorious bank robber Mickey Calvey, who was on home leave (he was granted permission to visit his family and friends for short periods of time toward the end of his eight-year stint in prison).
Linda promptly fell madly in love with Mickey.
She was under no illusions about his lifestyle. He told her about how he grew up in a turbulent and desperately poor household where he wasn’t shown much love. His father worked on the London docks, but Mickey wanted more from life. Seeing no other route to getting what he wanted, he turned to robbery.
For a while, Mickey lavished Linda with everything stolen money could buy. Their budding romance did nothing to deter him from his life of crime, and he was back behind bars again by the time she had their first child. That didn’t stop Linda from marrying him while he was in prison.
Less than two years after he was released again, Linda and Mickey conceived their second child, and Mickey dove straight back into robbing banks. In 1978, when their children were 4 and 8, Mickey went out on a big job, one that he said could set their family up for life.
Instead, during an armed raid on December 9, 1978, he was shot and killed by the police’s Flying Squad, a branch of London’s Metropolitan Police Service trained to investigate armed robberies. According to the coroner’s report, Mickey was shot in the abdomen by Detective Sergeant Michael Banks, outside of a supermarket while trying to escape and carrying a loaded sawed-off shotgun. The coroner’s report listed Mickey’s occupation as “painter and decorator.”
Linda is adamant that the killing was unjust. She insisted that he’d been shot in the back, not the front. She says Mickey wouldn’t have threatened the police with his gun and refuted the police claim that it was loaded. Linda vowed publicly that the police “won’t get away with this.” She said she had hired one of the world’s leading pathologists, and claimed that they had found damning evidence. She told the press that the postmortem proved that Mickey had been shot through the back, contradicting the official report that he had died from a gunshot wound to the stomach. But this information was never released to the public. Linda continued to wear black for quite some time, leading the police to nickname her “The Black Widow.”
Banks said in court that he’d shot Mickey Calvey “to protect myself and the public and to save my life. I believe if I hadn’t done it I would have been dead.” The jury returned a verdict — before even leaving the courtroom, according to reports at the time — of justifiable homicide, meaning Banks was exonerated.
“Mickey died trying to give us everything,” Linda says. “When he was in his open coffin, I held his toes and said, ‘I’ll avenge you by carrying on what you did.’”
After Mickey’s death, a bereaved Linda was visited by Ron Cook, a gangland member and associate of Mickey’s. Cook gave her money to support herself. Grieving and overwhelmed, Linda soon began a relationship with Cook, who had a wife and children of his own. Linda says that it wasn’t long before Cook became controlling, telling her what to wear, following her when she went out with friends — and even threatening her son’s life.
“He bought me a ring and said I belonged to him,” she says. “I said I didn’t, then he said, ‘Your son’s such a pretty boy,’ and I knew then he was saying he’d do things to my son, and I was stuck.”
Linda had nowhere to turn. “Even Cook’s friends were frightened of him,” she says. “They’ve since told me they all knew what was happening in our relationship, but they were powerless to help because he’d have turned on them.”
Linda escaped from Ron Cook when he was sentenced to 16 years for taking part in an armed robbery, but she didn’t shake her criminal lifestyle. Between visits to see Cook in prison, Linda quickly progressed from her former role as a gangster’s wife to taking the lead.
She went from hosting robbers in her home as they planned their next heists to serving as a getaway driver, then as an armed robber herself, targeting security vans and post offices.
“In the beginning it was revenge, but then [it] became a way of life; it was normal,” she says. “My brain was so affected by Mickey’s death.”
When her gang was caught trying to hold up a post office in Stepney Green, Linda herself was sentenced to seven years in prison.
“I said I’d never commit another crime again,” Linda recalls. “Then 18 months after I was home, the murder happened.”
This is where one version of the story becomes two. But in both accounts, Ron Cook is shot dead in Linda Calvey’s kitchen.
By her account, Linda is a victim twice over. First from years in an emotionally abusive relationship that endangered her young son, and then from police corruption.
While he was behind bars, Cook tasked his friend Brian Thorogood with looking after Linda. The two soon formed a relationship, and when Thorogood himself was sent to prison, he in turn introduced Linda to his friend Danny Reece, who was also in prison for armed robbery. He asked Linda if she could spend time with Reece, who could use the company — his son had been killed in a traffic accident while Reece was behind bars, and he didn’t get many visitors.
Reece and Linda became friends, and their friendship soon developed into a relationship. In December 1990, while he was on day release (a common practice in England; inmates are allowed to go home for the day before returning to prison that evening), Linda picked up Reece from prison and took him back to her house before going on to his place. She told Reece that Cook was coming over on day release the following day.
The next day, she picked up Cook from prison. According to Linda, just after they’d arrived home, Reece snuck in and shot Cook dead while she cowered in the corner.
“He looked at me, and I recognized him. He smiled at me and said, ‘This one’s for Mickey Calvey,’ and shot Cook.”
Linda says she called the police and told them what had happened, but she didn’t name Reece as the murderer at the time. “He later told me I should’ve said it was him,” Linda says, “but I couldn’t.” Linda says Reece did it to avenge Mickey — because Cook had taken part in Mickey’s ill-fated last robbery and had alluded to purposely putting Mickey in harm’s way — and also to protect Linda’s son. “He said that Cook had threatened to kill my son, and [Reece] came to shoot him to save [my son].”
Linda says that the police conducted gunshot residue tests on her hands and face and eliminated her as a suspect, then, a few days later, interviewed her again and arrested her. (The Metropolitan Police declined to comment on any of these details because it is their policy not to comment on closed cases.)
“The police asked me why I didn’t tell them I was the Linda Calvey,” she says. “I asked what difference that makes, and they said it made all the difference in the world, and that I was now a suspect.”
The other version of the story is that Linda Calvey is a dangerous and manipulative woman who paid Reece £10,000 to kill Cook. Reece shot Cook in the elbow, and when he couldn’t go through with it, Linda took the gun and shot him in the head.
Notorious gangster Frankie Fraser wrote in his memoir that Linda killed Cook so that he wouldn’t find out what she’d been up to while he was behind bars. She had “been minding his money and when he come out it wasn’t all going to be there,” wrote Fraser. “She got her new bloke to do him, but he couldn’t bring himself to shoot old Ron so she did it herself.” During Linda’s trial, prosecuting counsel John Bevan said that Linda’s motive was to “simplify the rather dangerous and complex” state of her personal affairs — referring to her romance with Reece.
“Reece hung around on a grass area outside Calvey’s house, wearing black clothes and pretending to be a jogger,” says “Detective Davids,” a former police officer who worked on the case for the Flying Squad at the time of Calvey’s arrest, who agreed to speak in detail about the case on the condition that his real name not be used, in order to protect his privacy. “Calvey had left the door ajar, and he entered the house a few minutes after she went in with Cook.”
“Reece went back to prison and confessed to a private investigator, the only person he trusted at the time,” Detective Davids says. “Reece was a simple man; he wasn’t conniving. He said Calvey took the gun from him and finished the job off.” Reece allegedly told the investigator that Linda ordered Cook to kneel before firing the fatal shot through his head. (Reece later retracted this confession.)
According to Davids, another witness (whose identity is confidential) testified that they heard Linda Calvey shout, “Kneel!” Calvey says that she was calling out for her son, Neil, when she heard Reece kick open the front door to her house.
Reece and Calvey were both convicted of Cook’s murder. The two later got married while they were in prison. Linda says that her mother pleaded with her at the last minute not to, but she decided to go through with it because it was the most exciting thing to happen in her prison unit for a long time.
In 2013, Danny Reece was accused of gagging and sexually assaulting a fellow inmate, which he denied and was acquitted for. The jury in the case also learned that Reece was previously jailed for assaulting a 15-year-old boy and sexually assaulting a woman in her home.
Linda was sentenced to a minimum of seven years before she would be eligible for parole. She served 18 years, and believes she was denied parole for many years because she refused to admit to the crime. After she was finally released from prison in 2008, she divorced Reece and got married for a third time, to George Caesar, a millionaire who’d made his fortune selling bleach and by all indications lived a respectable, crime-free life. The pair met in a restaurant while Linda was on day release from prison, and they were married in a small village church in 2009.
Today, Linda Calvey is 71 and has been out of prison for 11 years. She’s the mother of two adult children in their 40s, a grandmother of seven, and a great-grandmother of five. She lives in a 400-year-old cottage bought for her by her late third husband, who died of cancer in 2015.
Linda spends her days going to lunches with her family and attending meet-and-greet signings of her book in shops across London. She sends signed copies to local celebrities (including former gangsters), goes to boxing matches, and spends time with Freddie Foreman and another former gangster, Billy Blundell. The book launch for her memoir, The Black Widow, was at the Blind Beggar pub — notorious for being the place where Ron Kray shot rival gangster George Cornell in 1966.
“Of course I had to do the launch there,” she says, smiling.
Critics have accused Calvey of glamorizing her criminal lifestyle. She donated one of her bras, along with items she’d collected from several other notorious prisoners, to a controversial museum that was featured on the Netflix show Dark Tourist. She signed each item “The Black Widow.” She’s even sold copies of her book along with a special offer for a free key ring adorned with a knuckle duster — or brass knuckles.
Despite all of this celebration of the underworld that she used to inhabit, Linda is determined to clear her name.
“My family has had to live with the stigma that I’m a murderer. I’m not; I did all the other things, but didn’t do what I got put in prison all those years for,” Linda insists. “My son and daughter said to me, ‘Mum please, everyone writes a load of rubbish about you. Will you tell your story once and for all?’”
Linda says she hopes the publicity around the book will inspire someone involved with her case at the time to publicly support her version of events — someone who was working at the police station at the time, perhaps, even a cleaner who may have overheard something.
“I don’t think Linda will ever give up hope someone will come forward,” says Mel Sambells, communications executive for Mirror Books, the publisher of Calvey’s memoir.
So far, no one has.
Detective Davids is convinced that Calvey wrote her book for the money, but the conditions of Calvey’s parole specify that she could go back to prison if she’s ever seen to profit from her offense. Sambells says that any profits from the book go to Linda’s children, and Linda isn’t paid for media interviews.
Now that publicity around the book has quieted, Calvey plans to take a lie detector test, although they’re not seen as reliable evidence in the English criminal justice system. “I’m doing it so I can show everyone what I say is the truth,” she says.
As for her book itself, it’s revealing, but only in the ways Calvey wants to be revealing. She doesn’t get into the grit of it; she writes the good and the bad, but not the ugly. She admits she wanted a life of luxury, that she knew she had the power to get what she wanted from men. But there are many notable parts of her story that remain unexplained, such as why she married Reece in prison.
Calvey says she was a different person before prison, and now she’s back to being herself: “The person I was then was so alien to me now, people who know me say it wasn’t like me. I’m the kindest, gentlest person they know. They, and I, don’t recognize the person I was.”
Her lawyer, Julian Hardy, says she seemed to be widely liked in prison, even by the prison guards. “She’s clearly bright, and tried to make the best of [the] situation she found herself in. She’s always been respectful, and consistent,” Hardy says.
Sambells agrees. “I really like her. I was pensive about meeting her, but she’s really warm.”
But Detective Davids says she’s dangerous and manipulative, that the kindness is an act.
In her book, Calvey describes moving into the first house she’d ever bought and finding out that the previous owner had killed himself in the bathroom. She writes about how horrified she was, how she couldn’t use the bath without picturing the scene of his death, and how she had to move out immediately.
During the publicity for the book, Calvey explained in a radio interview her adamancy about being falsely accused of Cook’s murder. “I was in my own home; I’d had [the] carpets just done,” she said, before asking, “Why would you want to murder someone in your own home?”
When I heard her comment about the carpets in her radio interview, I realized then that including the bathroom-suicide story in her book was a veiled hint to the reader that she would never murder someone in her own home. It’s a minor detail, but a reminder that she is a master of manipulation.
As we leave the pub, Linda says that she’s booked to talk to an Irish radio station the following week and jokes about whether she’ll be able to understand the host. These interviews seem to have become a full-time job for Linda. The Black Widow is determined to spend the rest of her life proving her innocence or, depending on how you look at it, promoting herself.
He doesn’t love me. He never loved me. And he isn’t looking for me — so I damn well better survive the night on my own. No food, no tent, no map. No one to blame but myself. Too bad burning hot shame isn’t a heat source.
Moonlight traces a craggy ridgeline up around me in a massive arc. The sparse lodgepole pines give way to barren rock, which means 12,000-foot elevation. Thin air breeds spartan creatures — mountain lions, king snakes, bighorn sheep. Not soft-fingered writers.
My body curls into the fetal position inside the soggy sleeping bag as my teeth chatter with percussive violence. No comfort for animals that don’t belong. The hard earth refuses to yield an inch to the curve of my hip.
I lay my spine flat and look up — I haven’t seen a star in nine years. Even through my panicked fog, the glory catches me. The sky glitters and winks like a showgirl. The Perseid Meteor Shower should peak tonight. Hey if I don’t make it, at least I’ll get a good show, right? But nothing falls.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Joan Didion. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
My compulsion started around the time my father surprised everyone by dying. I’d just been dumped by the first person I’d ever kissed (and asked to keep it a secret). Then I’d blown out my knee in a basketball game and torpedoed my collegiate career. I craved control over an uncontrollable world.
So I began to write. When I’m overwhelmed, I imagine I’m inside a movie of my own design. Nothing can hurt the omniscient narrator.
Of course, it’s a trap.
This is a love story. More specifically, it’s a story about how I froze the phantasmagoria into a false map and got terribly lost. Sure, emotionally lost, but also get-me-the-fuck-off-this-mountain lost. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, unless they end up killing us.
I met Mountain Man at a boarding school in Ojai, California — my first job out of college. As an expression of its “ranch values,” the school assigned each kid a horse to ride and shovel shit for. The faculty led mandatory backpacking trips twice per year, often to a camp under Mount Langley in the Sierras.
I was eager to create new memories in the wild after my last experience: a college trip in New Hampshire where we went off course. Administrators spent three days searching the White Mountains to tell me that my father had died. Others might hold a grudge against Nature for this affront, but not me.
My dad, a second-generation Finn, respected Nature’s brutal majesty. I’d seen the photographs of him in pre-suburban life — paddling on wooded lakes and tromping across snowy bluffs. Two summers earlier, I’d completed an Outward Bound leadership training course. I’d spelled out sisu in my head over and over when the trail got tough. He beamed when I told him this. Sisu means “guts” in Finnish.
At 6-foot-4, I’ve inherited my dad’s frame. I’m the tallest woman most people have ever seen. Strangers tell me so on sidewalks, at cash registers, and in public bathrooms. A hipster once asked, “Do you secretly hate yourself?” No. I was just bone-crushingly lonely. I was a 24-year-old Harvard-educated virgin with a signed copy of The Elements of Style. I’d never had a boyfriend. Given Ojai’s microscopic dating pool and my waning confidence in the allure of late bloomers, perhaps I never would.
Mountain Man arrived my second year at the school — the hirsute love child of Ryan Gosling and Bear Grylls. His eyes were the blue of alpine lakes, and although only 5-foot-11 he swaggered like an NBA champ. He took jobs when he felt like it and lived off the grid when he didn’t. Before this gig he’d led scared-straight wilderness treks in Idaho — like the one he’d been sent to as a teenager. He brewed his own kombucha, caught trout with his bare hands, and had once lived in the Sierras for 40 days and nights alone. How Biblical.
I saw him for the first time at an outdoor school assembly. I’d spent the morning asking 12-year-olds, “What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?” and proffering gingersnaps to their anxious mothers. I stepped out of the air-conditioned Admission Office wearing a Laura Ashley knockoff from The Tall Girl Shop. Mountain Man strode in from the Horse Department — sweat-stained in jeans and leather. Blades of grass leaned toward him, hoping for the crush of his boot.
I’d heard about him. News travels fast at small schools in small towns. He’d taken his freshman boy advisees out for pizza that week and a minx had dropped her number on his plate — solidifying his godlike status among the prepubescents faster than you can say arrabbiata.
Mountain Man introduced himself to the student body and began a tutorial on how to light a fire by rubbing sticks together and blowing on them —
[A film producer interrupts from behind her posh desk.]
FILM PRODUCER Without a match? You’re shitting me!
MELISSA This is exactly how it happened.
FILM PRODUCER Love it! Add a kitten rescue in the rewrite. (picks up phone) Gina, is Chris Hemsworth available? … How about Liam? …
I looked across the faces in the crowd — there was a blaze all right. Even the aged school nurse and her hound had heart-eye emojis. My married colleague, heavily pregnant with her second child, leaned over and whispered, “Damn.”
This guy is such a cliché, I thought. Hard eye roll — chased by self-loathing.
I, too, was charmed by Handsome McMuscleface, which made me a worse cliché — Girl Who Didn’t Stand a Chance. I hadn’t successfully dated anyone, let alone Field & Stream’s cover boy. Plus the height difference? My desire was humiliating.
Yet still! My storytelling brain sensed an opportunity of Hughesian proportions. Sexiest guy in school falls for intriguing, overlooked assistant admission officer.
The secret to elevating my dating game lay in the heart of my favorite teen rom-coms: Don’t be yourself. I pictured him with a SoCal Lara Croft — half assassin, half sun-bunny. You know, a cool girl.
Adorkable overachiever was my brand. Cool was not. My mother once punished me in high school by forbidding me to study on a Friday night.
Another time, I accidentally outed my 14-year-old sister, Sarah, for taking the family car on a joyride. I was 16 and hadn’t bothered with the car yet — the library was within walking distance. When Sarah wasn’t in bed after midnight, I’d assumed she’d been kidnapped.
“I’m so sorry,” I told her when she was grounded into oblivion. “I never considered the possibility of something fun.”
Nonetheless, I had minor superpowers. I understood narrative. I knew how to play a part. See: Lady Macbeth, third runner-up, Central New York’s Teen Shakespeare Monologue Competition.
How hard could it be to write myself into this story?
Cool Girl made no effort to meet Mountain Man for weeks. I watched from afar in the cafeteria. He’d clomp over to the soft serve station in his big boots after lunch.
[Re-creation of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.]
Mountain Man (Juliet) swirls up a vanilla ice cream cone and takes a sensuous bite as Cool Girl (Romeo) watches below, unseen.
COOL GIRL (ROMEO) (Elizabethan accent) O, that I were sprinkles upon that cream, That I might touch that lip!
I forced my eyes away as he passed. Let him come to me. Cool Girl 101.
The Spanish teacher at my lunch table said, “I’m a happily married woman — but for a chance with him … ?” She whistled through her teeth. “You should go for it.”
This is me going for it.
“He’s not really my type,” I said, channeling my best James Dean lean.
“That man is everyone’s type,” she hissed. I smiled and shrugged.
Basketball season rolled around in November. As head coach, I mentioned I could use an extra practice player. He offered with a grin. I put on my best game face, but my players, teenage girls fluent in body language, tittered on the sidelines.
As Mountain Man and I drove the team in two passenger vans to an away game one sunny afternoon, my van started to giggle. I turned to look at his, the next lane over on the highway. One of the darlings pressed a handmade sign to the window: Ms. Johnson, he’s too short for you!
Both vans shrieked with laughter. He couldn’t see the sign. I prayed they didn’t tell him what was so funny.
Kill me now. Just end it. I smiled at my girls and shrugged again.
I was assigned to chaperone a holiday school dance. I’d seen Mountain Man’s name on the list too. However, it was midnight and all of the students had left, with no sign of him. He was probably out birthing a foal or eating a volcano. The school webmaster-cum-DJ cranked up ’90s jams and we chaperones took over. Nothing like earnest high school teachers getting stanky to “Big Pimpin’.”
I danced, sweated and didn’t care how I looked. A tap on my shoulder — I turned. It was him. His cerulean eyes locked with mine. “Trust me,” he said, and put his forearm against the small of my back. Cool Girl was ready to rob a bank.
I leapt up and back as he flipped all 76 inches of me, 360 degrees, head over heels. Adrenaline surged through my veins as I stuck the landing. Cheering friends circled around. He flipped me again. I was giddy, dizzy, unable to comprehend the physics of such a move — but when the ground looks like the sky it’s no time for thinking.
The lights came up and the music stopped. I gave him an awkward high-five and bolted for home, like a Cinderella who knew tonight’s ration of magic was up.
I laid awake in bed. After the school year, I’d be moving to New York City to accept a fellowship in public affairs. Time was running out.
The following week, my basketball team, perennial underdogs, won a big game on a heart-stopping buzzer beater. Mountain Man and I celebrated by playing pool in the back room of a local dive bar. It was the first time we’d been alone together. I matched him point for point until his final turn. I swigged my beer like Angelina Jolie — if Angelina Jolie drank Miller High Life.
I perched against the table, blocking his approach and said, “Take your best shot.” He stepped between my legs, took my face in his hands and kissed me hard.
All the fireworks fired. Holy shit I’m a natural!
Some minutes later we were still atop the pool table when a guy opened the door.
“Are you guys still playing or … can I have a round?”
The darkness enveloped my flush. “Sorry man, all yours,” Mountain Man said with a wink. “She’ll do anything to win.”
We drove to my little house where he strummed his guitar and sang a song by U2. His eyes were closed and his voice was deep.
In a little while This hurt will hurt no more I’ll be home, love …
I held myself, fingers digging into flesh — tight, lest I burst into flames.
The sex was great, but what really blew my mind was the story. To be desired by the Most Desirable, I must be fucking exceptional.
As our romance progressed, he confided that he was drawn to a solitary life in nature. “I’m bad at relationships,” he said. Again, with those eyes.
I’ve never been in one. “Me too,” I answered.
He liked independent women with their own passions — but so often they changed, lost themselves. Like one college girlfriend who started showing up to watch his lacrosse practices.
Pathetic, I thought. I wouldn’t do that in a billion years.
I doubled down on Cool Girl. I served up the fun, wild parts of myself and kept the wobbly bits hidden. A nasty blister stained the inside of my boot blood red on one of our treks, but I didn’t let on. I drank whiskey without flinching, hustled darts with my opposite hand, and wore low-cut tops with black bras when we played pool. Oh, if the Teen Shakespearians could see me now!
I listened for cues to up my game. “Don’t ask for what you kind of want,” he said after hearing me on the phone with a customer service representative. “Ask for exactly what you want.”
I didn’t just love him; I wanted to be him.
He suggested we try dating long-distance. I was elated. Coup of the century!
My sister Sarah, now a design student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, moved in with me in the Big Apple. We caught five mice in our decrepit apartment in the first week. Yet as long as Sarah was there, I was home. I wrote her résumés. She framed fashion feedback in a way I could understand: “Your outfit,” she’d say with the forbearance of a monk, “is not telling a consistent story.” She threw herself into the maelstrom of New York dating as I happily abstained.
Mountain Man sent me handwritten missives and pencil sketches of my face. He highlighted words in a pocket Spanish dictionary — amante, beso, toque. In between pages, he pressed columbine and Indian paintbrush. He included a little satchel of rocks — limestone, hornfels, mica — tiny treasures from his rambles in the high places. His letter read, “My longing, in a pocket for you.” New York City was kicking my ass, but my belief in our epic love story buoyed me.
He even came to visit me in Babylon, as he called it, for New Year’s. It was the first time I saw him away from his other woman, the wild. He strained to put on a good face despite obvious irritation with the concrete canyons, $14 gin and tonics, and affected hipsters. I joked about the local wildlife (pigeons, rats in the subway, my asshole mice roommates), but it was plain that he was lost without his true love. I could never compete.
“So great to see you killing it out here,” he said.
This city is crushing my soul. “You know me,” I said.
Cool Girl was wearing me out. I’d pulled off the heist but now had to live with the con.
When it was time for Mountain Man to fly back home, I watched him in the ticket agent line, certain he wouldn’t be let on the plane. He’d lost his license. This was post 9/11 LaGuardia — no chance. Sure, he knew how to survive in the wilderness with nothing but a pen and ball of twine, but I knew how this city worked. He waited, beaming at the agent, wafting manbrosia from 20 feet away.
“Driver’s license?” She called him forward. I shook my head. I’d tried to warn him.
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” he replied, “but I do have a diver’s license.”
He slapped a scuba certification ID onto the desk. In it his hair stuck out in all directions, his expression adorable. She laughed and waved him through. What?! Manic Pixie Dream Boy strikes again. He gave me a winning smile and headed toward the gate, back to his mistress.
I took a taxi home, depleted and confused. Was he even a real person?
Life got harder in New York. My mother, living alone in Syracuse, was hospitalized with a perforated bowel. I had just worked up my courage on a phone call to tell him how scared I was to lose her, when his surf buddy knocked on his door.
I craved his support but wouldn’t break out of my role. Needs? Cool Girl didn’t have needs. Gross.
He called once a week from a landline. He didn’t believe in cell phones. I held my cell all February 14th, certain he’d call any minute. He didn’t. Later he remarked, “Hallmark holidays are such bullshit, right?”
But you’re my first Valentine. “Total bullshit,” Cool Girl agreed.
Sarah saw through my story. “You’re not happy with him,” she said. “Stop being an idiot.”
[Sarah addresses camera.]
SARAH More like, “Stop being a fucking idiot.”
I couldn’t explain how being his girlfriend made me exceptional. It sounded pathetic. There but for the grace of God, go I to the lacrosse practice.
A year into dating, I visited him in Ojai. We returned to the dive bar where we’d had our first kiss. He loaded up “Sweet Melissa” on the jukebox but was out back having a cigarette with strangers when it came on. I felt like a hollowed-out piñata.
A woman at the bar advertised palm readings for five dollars. I didn’t hesitate.
“Let’s see what we can see,” she said.
I placed my clammy, open-faced hand into hers.
“Hmm.” Her brows knit together as she traced a ridgeline.
“Is it bad?”
“You’ve got the Jupiter Mate Selector,” she whispered, like it was a tumor.
“You know, Jupiter, Roman god of the sky. Zeus to the Greeks.”
“You fall for powerful men. You put them up on a pedestal and keep yourself down low.”
“Is it terminal?” I joked.
Stone-faced, she folded my sweaty hand and gave it back to me.
“If you don’t believe that you’re just as powerful as the man you’re with, then you’ll be alone forever.”
My Cool Girl act proved that I didn’t feel like his equal. So I could either get real quick or break up with him. I chose the latter. Maybe I didn’t think he’d like my true neurotic self. Or I valued the preservation of my fairy tale over the actual relationship. Or I was just damn exhausted.
We went on one last backpacking trip in the Sierras. Distance was a perfect excuse. Nobody’s fault. “A good run.” I exited the union the way I’d entered, by suppressing my emotions and calling it strength. He told me how amazing I was, but I knew the truth. I didn’t cry until I was alone. What a fraud.
I consoled myself by expanding the story. I wasn’t another notch on his lipstick case — he was in pain too. No girl had broken up with him before! He’d start calling me The One That Got Away and flirt with me into our 80s. I’d smile and shrug — cool till the end.
He started dating someone a nanosecond later.
“I’m sure she’s great,” I told our mutual math teacher friend through a stiff smile.
Yet, his claim of wanting to stay friends seemed genuine. He set up times to talk on the phone during his brief interludes down from the Sierras that summer. Then he flaked every time. WTF? The dull ache in my chest tightened into something sharp.
Autumn came, still I waited, hating myself for it. I worked insane hours for low wages at an environmental nonprofit run by a sociopath. I hadn’t had sex in four months and all my first dates had flopped.
One afternoon I got a voicemail from him. Finally! But it was a pocket dial. (Now he gets a cell phone?!) A week later I rode the tide of commuters up from the Union Square subway station, buoyed and beaming. He’d left another message, surely a real one this time.
Nope. Another pocket dial. In it I heard Mountain Man coaching his lacrosse team. He sounded so happy and I was so miserable. The final indignity.
The dam that had held back my messy self for so long burst. I’m getting tossed out like yesterday’s trash? Hell no. NOBODY DOES COOL GIRL LIKE THIS!!
I scream-shouted my own voicemail, “Learn to use a fucking phone and delete my number!!” I hung up and put a hand over my mouth to block the sobs. The gray-black river of indistinguishable New Yorkers streamed past me on the sidewalk. I wasn’t exceptional anymore.
Nine years passed in New York. I wrote stories for money. Got rejected. Wrote more. My mom’s health worsened. Then improved. Then worsened again. I dated a police officer, a tech entrepreneur, a newspaper man. Sarah and I upgraded to a “garden-level” apartment. I had pigeons in an air shaft outside my bedroom and Sarah had a dumpster full of mice outside hers. At least the vermin were outside now.
Sometimes, especially in summer, I’d squint my eyes and see Mountain Man on the poster of Mount Langley above my bed, climbing the ridgeline. So small, only I could see him. While I never opened his box of letters and pressed flowers under my bed, I didn’t throw it away either. My longing, in a pocket for you.
I spent my life’s savings to create a film that sold to Showtime. For once I hadn’t sought anyone else’s permission. I’d leaned back, jumped into a flip, and stuck the landing on my own. I decided to move to Los Angeles, though leaving Sarah was like leaving behind a limb.
I hadn’t spoken to Mountain Man in almost a decade. Missing him and missing the mountains felt the same — a tug to abandon acceptable society and get dirty. I considered reaching out to him. I’d done hard things. I was stronger now — his equal, right? Maybe it could work?
I’ll be my 100 percent true self this time.
I believed it, too.
[Orchestral music swells. A narrator speaks.]
NARRATOR (V.O.) The lovers reunite in the wilderness. Older. Wiser. Only now can they truly —
“Aren’t there like, other mountains in California?” Sarah interrupted my reverie, eating peanut butter out of the jar. She’d never bought into Mountain Man’s charms.
Mountain Man answered my email with a warmth that made my entire body blush. He welcomed me for a weekend at the school’s camp in the Sierras. I knew the location under Mount Langley well; I’d led student trips there. We’d rendezvous at the parking lot trailhead in three weeks. I’d join a group of alumni who were vacationing at the school’s camp. Their burro train would be easy to spot with Mountain Man at the helm.
I let Sarah keep all of our furniture, and she helped me pack my books and wardrobe into Goldmember, my secondhand Subaru. “If I catch you wearing Birks,” she warned, “I’m bringing you back.”
I drove alone from New York to Los Angeles in a daze of possibility. I was about to start telling stories for a living in the City of Angels. Who knew what might spark between Mountain Man and me under the stars? I wandered through story castles in my mind as miles of Midwestern corn flew past my window.
I awoke on a bright August morning in Silver Lake. My friend Adam was letting me crash in his converted garage until I found my new home in L.A. Today was the day. Butterflies danced up my thighs but Cool Girl was back and took charge. I pulled on new Patagonia shorts I couldn’t afford, laid down in the garden and rolled around in the dirt.
“Whatcha doing?” Adam asked from the kitchen window, bleary-eyed in boxers, coffee in hand.
“Gotta rough ’em up,” I explained. “Can’t look too new.”
He cocked an eyebrow.
I debated the merits of cowboy hat versus baseball cap in the bathroom mirror for 20 minutes. Then I painstakingly applied no-makeup makeup: professional grade mascara, concealer, tinted SPF and bronzer — camouflage to the untrained male eye. Why, Cool Girl hadn’t aged a day.
I hit the road late. No matter, I could make up the time on the five-hour drive. Goldmember bombed through the scorching Mojave Desert, past Joshua trees, Death Valley, and the dried-up salt of Owen’s Lake — grim tribute to the unnatural thirst of Los Angeles — into the Inyo National Forest. I climbed the precarious switchbacks, well-known to wilderness junkies and location scouts, into the mighty Sierras, youngest mountain range in the United States. Impossibly young, like me.
I shout-sang to the radio until it fuzzed out. My ears popped as I dodged fallen rocks with one hand and called Mountain Man with the other. There were no guardrails and the road narrowed to a blind turn, above a thousand-foot drop-off.
It went to voicemail. “It’s me,” I said, buzzing with adrenaline, “I’m a little late. No need to wait — I’ll walk myself into camp!” Cool Girl knew the way.
I arrived at the sprawling parking area, dotted with dozens of trailheads. Goldmember quickly found the right one. Mountain Man and the alumni had departed. Fresh burro tracks crowded the trail. Fair enough, I was 20 minutes late.
The midafternoon sky was hard and bright as a marble. I reapplied no-makeup mascara and started down the trail, recognizing trees and streams as I passed. Cocky about my sense of direction, I stopped to meditate on a felled trunk, freebasing sunshine and alpine air.
I’ll catch up to them in 30 minutes, tops.
Hours later, I climbed a grueling series of switchbacks as sunlight narrowed to a thin ribbon over the saddle. My mascara had fallen into racoon eyes. I distracted myself from my gnawing hunger by rehearsing my opening line to Mountain Man.
[Cool Girl, dressed in trench coat and fedora, addresses camera.]
Cool Girl (as Humphrey Bogart) Say, what’s a girl gotta do to get a drink around here?
I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. No problem, I’d see Mount Langley from the top of the pass and the camp beneath it. There’d be a full spread waiting.
S-I-S-U, S-I-S-U … I repeated the old mantra on a loop in my head.
Sweat-drenched and huffing, I made it to the saddle and looked out upon the long-shadowed wilderness. No Langley.
The trusty burro tracks were still there. I scurried down the opposite slope into the gloaming. Raindrops pinged my bare arms but there was a lake up ahead that I recognized. Just a little farther.
Night ambushed me. Total blackness. My instinct was to yell, “Not funny, guys!” as if that might bring up the house lights. I balanced my pack on a rock, hands trembling as I fumbled with an ancient headlamp mummified by duct tape. I didn’t notice that the sleeping bag at the bottom of my pack was getting soused in a puddle. Was I shaking because of the cold or my nerves? The rain intensified. Just a little farther.
Tharump-tharump-tharump! A mountain lion pounded down the ridgeline behind me, jumped with jaws wide, ready to rip into my flesh — I whipped around, hiking poles braced. Nothing. It was only the sound of my own heart, trying to beat its way out of my ears.
Nausea washed over me. I knew the hypothermia risk of sleeping out in precipitation. I was at the tree line, 12,000-foot elevation, which meant near freezing temperatures, even in August.
Is this a joke? Donner, party of one? I wandered aimlessly now. Just a little farther.
My story mind grew emboldened. A voice spoke up like my personal HAL 9000, “DON’T PANIC … DON’T PANIC … PANIC … PANIC … ”
“Stop that!” I hissed, sounding like the homeless man who used to wander around my block.
Maybe Mountain Man can hear me from here. I released a high-pitched cry into the wild dark.
“YOOO-UUUU!! … YOOO-UUUU!!”
Up and down the ridgeline I paced, redoubling my ragged cries.
Then I heard it — a faint, deep voice across the lake. I shouted Mountain Man’s name from the deepest place inside me.
“HEY!” the voice rang back. Relief, pure and sweet, dropped through me. I was already in that warm cabin, laughing it off—
“SHUT UP!” the voice said. Not. Mountain. Man.
Should I shout again? What if he’s a serial mountain rapist ready to cast me in a gritty reboot of Deliverance?
Weary, I hunkered down with my wet sleeping bag and used my dirty sneaker as a pillow. Dankness soaked into my bones. My knee throbbed. I couldn’t stop shaking. I began sit-ups to generate body heat as hail pummeled my face.
If I die, I’m gonna haunt Serial Mountain Rapist’s ass for eternity.
[A movie trailer voice-over interjects.]
ANNOUNCER (V.O.) (deep, authoritative) She’s a vigilante specter with nothing to lose. He’s the dick across the lake who couldn’t be bothered. GHOST JUSTICE, coming to CBS this fall.
I closed my eyes for short, drowsy intervals, and opened them mechanically, as if triggered by the slow, audible click of a lever behind my ear. The view changed a little bit each time. Hazy, no stars. Then a low, drippy moon. Then faint white pinpricks everywhere.
Click. I opened my eyes again to find a clear-eyed moon bearing down on me like an interrogation lamp. I threw myself upon its mercy.
I confess. I’m here because I took too long putting on my Cool Girl bullshit costume. I was trying to impress an asshole who couldn’t wait 20 fucking minutes after TEN YEARS. I understand the story now. It’s a cautionary tale. Let me survive this and I’ll drop Cool Girl forever. Please.
Click. I opened my eyes wide to take in thousands of stars, a dusting of cosmic sugar that extended beyond my periphery, brilliant and twinkling.
There was something new — bright white lines drawn around constellations, like the poster on my sister’s childhood bedroom door. HAL narrated, “ANDROMEDA, THE BEAR, CASSIOPEIA … ”
I didn’t know that I knew the names of these constellations — sweet!
HAL continued, “PEGASUS, SAGITTARIUS … ” It was a movie screen in the sky.
Wait a second.
Revelation punctured my woozy delight. What I was seeing wasn’t real. I shook myself upright and pinched my arm. Snap out of it, Johnson! But the shapes didn’t go anywhere.
I squeezed my eyes shut and laid back down.
It’s OK — just a little stress hallucination. Deep cleansing breath. I’ll open my eyes and the shapes will be gone.
I reopened one millimeter at a time.
Nope. Still there.
I locked my eyes shut. A frantic sparrow was trapped inside my head, flying room to room, bloodying itself against every window — looking for the way out.
It was a long sleepless wait before I dared to open my eyes again. The stars were gone now, and I watched the sky change from black to indigo to pink, like a bruise healing. I rose, quaking as a colt. Everything hurt. The muscles around my knee spasmed. My lungs worked for every breath in the oxygen-depleted air.
On the far side of the lake I spied campers packing for departure. I shuffle-ran toward them, legs screaming, desperate to make it before they left. They were just below me when I realized this must be Serial Mountain Rapist and friends.
Just be as polite as possible.
“Beg your pardon!” It came out in a British accent. That’s weird. My survival instincts had turned thespian. Six grave, bearded mugs turned to face me in unison. Bloody ’ell.
“I appear to be in a bit of a pickle. Might you have a map?”
They were a group of fathers and sons from San Diego and were horrified to hear that I’d spent the night exposed to the hail and rain. I inhaled three bags of their M&Ms and two Nature Valley bars. They were hiking out today and encouraged me to join them.
Their map showed that I was nine miles and 2,000 feet up in the wrong direction. I’d confused the Cottonwood Pass Trail with the Cottonwood Lakes Trail and recognized landmarks because I’d taken trips of students out on this route. I’d been wrong from the first step.
I toed the back of the line with the eldest father. We settled into a meditative cadence. The others got farther ahead.
“You know that camp I was headed to?”
“Yes?” the father said.
“It’s run by my ex-boyfriend. Haven’t seen him in 10 years.”
“That’s a long time.”
“Yeah.” I paused. “The good part is, bet he hasn’t noticed that I haven’t arrived yet. Or he thinks I’m coming tomorrow, or whatever.” I forced a laugh.
“Maybe,” the father said, “or maybe he’s really worried about you.”
“No,” I said, “not this guy.”
Fathers aren’t big on tears in my experience. I’d never seen my dad cry. Misty-eyed once, when his sister died. But never cry. He’d requested two things for his eulogy, which we both knew I’d be writing. First say, “Not bad for a poor Finnish boy from Quincy, Mass.,” and second, “Don’t go crying and carrying on.” He was the original Jupiter. While Sarah and my older sister, Toby, fell apart next to me at the lectern, and my mom sobbed in her pew, I held steady. My tribute. Don’t show your feelings. Be cool.
I was glad to be ahead of this father, single-file, so he couldn’t see my wet face.
The day was late back at the trailhead parking lot. I slumped in Goldmember’s hatchback, sorting through wet clothes. Hair ratty, makeup frightful, I was downwind from the public toilets and too spent to move. Portrait of The Uncool.
A school van rolled towards me.
“Melissa Johnson,” a serious voice said, “everyone is looking for you.”
Bearded, older, but those unmistakable eyes. Mountain Man.
He sounded pissed — his voice, low and even. I’d never seen him like this. Then I realized — I’d scared him. The unflappable guy, flapped.
“I got lost,” I said in a soft voice. He got out of the van. We embraced.
He had waited for me at the correct trailhead, five minutes away, until nightfall. Then he’d sent out the call. State troopers were looking for me on the highways; park rangers were searching in the mountains; student workers from the camp were scouring the trails — a full-scale search-and-rescue operation. His backpack held an emergency oxygen tank.
He’d used his satellite phone to track down our math teacher friend who had, in turn, called the headmaster on vacation in Wyoming, my friend Adam in Silver Lake, my former boss in Oakland — and Sarah.
We drove to a nearby vista so I could call Sarah. She screamed to the point of squeaking.
“You are an ASSHOLE! I thought you were DEAD!”
My tongue was thick with shame. This was the worst thing I’d ever done, to the person who loved me the most. She’d been on her way to tell Mom that there had been no sign of me for 24 hours. It was worse than the search for me in the White Mountains, because she knew I was alone.
“Enjoy this trip because YOU ARE NEVER GOING CAMPING AGAIN, ASSHOLE!”
To this day when this story comes up, Sarah leaves the room.
Mountain Man and I walked to the camp from the correct trailhead. It took 45 minutes. I looked up at Mount Langley — eternal and unchangeable to a small human.
We sipped tequila that night in his cabin.
“After we broke up, I missed you so bad. Thought we’d be friends. All this hard stuff was happening. I couldn’t understand why you just … dropped me. You were a real shit.”
My body trembled. I’d never been so forthright.
“What?” His face fell. “You told me to delete your number. You didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Why didn’t you tell me?!”
Why didn’t I tell him?
Turns out, I’m the hero of this story and also the villain. In my search for a romantic lead, I’d replaced him with a totem. Mountain Man neither possessed nor could tolerate weakness. But his real name was Gabe. He wasn’t a god out of Roman mythology. He was born in Reno with a clubfoot to parents who got divorced. He’d failed to graduate college and went back years later. He was self-conscious about his hairy back. Clean arcs resist messy details.
“The way you live your life apart, I realized you don’t need people,” I insisted.
“That’s not true. I absolutely need people.”
No, he didn’t need people! It was a pillar of my story. But then he opened up about his own bone-crushing loneliness after his last breakup. It had been drawn out, ugly, emotional — an altogether human affair. I felt the hurt radiating off his body. I couldn’t hide from the deeper, more painful truth —
You didn’t need me.
The words sat heavy in my mouth. I ached to say them, to drop the Cool Girl mask for good. Vulnerability is death. Yet lack of vulnerability is also death. What a rotten trap! I wanted to shout back at the voice in the wilderness that had told me to shut up. I wanted to sob at the lectern. I wanted to be messy and real and loved for it all.
But I choked. I filled my mouth with tequila instead.
“I would have gone up every trail,” he said, “followed the road all the way back to Los Angeles to find you.” My heart split in two and fell to the ground.
All my stories had been wrong.
I’d picked the wrong map, gone down the wrong trail and reassured myself with misinterpreted data points that I was going the right way. I’d been wrong from the first step.
Later that evening, I lay snug in the open meadow under bountiful stars. No white lines tonight, only Gabe’s red laser pointer naming constellations. Middle-aged alums had returned to see the stars they’d known as kids, to feel young again in the seeing.
Andromeda was about to be eaten by a sea monster. Callisto was transformed into The Bear so Zeus could hide her from his wife. Virgo, daughter of Demeter, was stolen by Hades. Ancient poets and wandering minstrels flung these stories about women upon flaming balls of hydrogen and helium — so they could feel less alone in the dark night.
We hope our stories will protect us from sailing off the edge of the earth, or the unpredictability of the harvest, or loving someone who doesn’t love us back. Our toy swords against the dragon.
The rest of the weekend was full of hikes, hammocks, and music around the campfire. I reminded Gabe of that first fire he’d made at the school assembly.
“God, that was so embarrassing,” he confessed, “when I couldn’t get it to light.”
What? I stared at him. Exactly how different had our stories been over the years?
What if neither of us was right? What if both of us were right? What if all the stories were true and untrue? What if we could experience the multitude of competing narratives at once — and enter the Spider-verse like a god, like Jupiter?
[Characters address camera in montage format.]
SCHOOL WEBMASTER/DJ It was like watching two superheroes unite.
SARAH He was a garden-variety dilettante with an REI card. And his beard was gross.
HIS COLLEGE GIRLFRIEND Have you seen him play lacrosse?
SPANISH TEACHER I mean, I’m a happily married woman — but for a chance with her … ? (whistles through teeth)
VANILLA ICE CREAM CONE I never met a mouth I liked more.
PALM READER I predicted the whole thing.
MATH TEACHER I’m the one who insisted that he start the search party.
GABE She came back to see the mountains. She didn’t come back to see me.
When the time came for me to return to L.A., Gabe invited me to join a river rafting trip with him and two ranger buddies deeper into the wild. They were bringing homebrew and a yeti costume.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
Indeed, it was. Manbrosia flooded my senses.
“So?” he shrugged with a devilish smile. All creatures in his gravitational orbit bent toward him. I felt the pull and leaned away.
He is the guy. He’s not the guy. He’ll always be the guy. He never was the guy.
I could hold all of the stories at once, devour them in a mouthful. They swirled together in my magnificent round belly. There was no past and no future here. Nowhere else to be. I felt my life force expanding in a primordial storm. I was the descendant of supernovas.
“What’s it gonna be?” he asked.
I had thought that becoming his equal would mean that we’d be together. I was wrong.
I have a life to go build. “I have a life to go build.”
He didn’t look at her for a long time. He stared at the edge of the table in front of him, holding his hands in his lap as if he was praying, visibly tense as this small woman with dark blonde hair spoke in a confident, cool, posh English accent. It was March 19, 2018, as Gillian Mezey testified before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA, one of Africa’s oldest and cruelest rebel groups. Mezey, a professor of psychiatry in London, was testifying because nothing was more important and more controversial in this trial than the mental state of the accused, a former child soldier.
Ongwen sat between two grim-faced guards. His skin had become lighter after more than three years in prison in Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. He had gained weight, but you could still see his handsome high cheekbones, square face, and a deep frown between the eyes that got deeper and deeper the longer Mezey held forth.
Mezey didn’t believe him. She didn’t believe that he had been severely mentally ill, as his lawyers claimed. Ongwen, she said, had “been in control of himself and the men under his command.” All the evidence, she said, suggested that he was malingering, that he was faking his illness.
Ongwen listened to this psychiatrist, who had never personally met him, talk about his mental state for almost three hours. But he lost his composure shortly after lunch break. He got up. He pressed the button that turned on his microphone, got tangled up in his headphones and ripped them off his head in a quick, fluent motion. In Acholi, his mother tongue, he said: “Your honor, I don’t want to listen to the witness anymore. Thank you, madam witness. You’re the one who does all the talking. But were you in the LRA?”
He raised his voice more and more with every sentence. The guards on his left and right jumped up and grabbed his arms. His lawyers turned around, trying to calm him down. Then the green curtain of the visitor gallery closed. Muffled screams could be heard through the glass. And then the sound of something heavy being thrown to the floor.
Dominic Ongwen spent 27 years of his life with the LRA, before defecting from the rebel group at the end of 2014. When he appeared out of the thick vegetation near Obo, in the Central African Republic, the only thing he had on him was a Bible. He surrendered to a local rebel group. They handed him over to the American Special Forces, not knowing who he was.
The Americans were trying to hunt down Joseph Kony, the despotic, unpredictable leader of the LRA. The U.S. soldiers came and picked Ongwen up by helicopter and revealed who he really was: one of five LRA commanders who were wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity with a warrant from the International Criminal Court. The warrant for his arrest was almost 10 years old. No one had expected him to turn up just like that.
In the months before, his relationship with his boss had collapsed. Joseph Kony had thrown him in prison and threatened him with execution. Ongwen claimed that he had managed to escape with the help of one of Kony’s own bodyguards. He said that he had wandered around in the wilderness alone, for more than a month, surviving, among other things, an attack by a pack of lions. He seemed to believe that a higher power had helped him. A cloud, he said, had guided him on his way. He was obviously happy to be alive at all. His body bore the scars of 11 bullet wounds.
After eight days, the Americans brought him to a Ugandan army camp, where the officers gave him fresh clothes — a blue shirt, light trousers. He watched soccer matches, slept in an officers’ tent, and was told, wrongly, by a translator, that he would be brought home, to northern Uganda. Instead, after 10 days in Obo he was extradited to The Hague.
The French-American author Jonathan Littell happened to be filming a movie in Obo on the day that Ongwen was extradited. Ongwen gave him a rare 30-minute interview before he was put on a plane. “It was too short. I got nowhere with him,” Littell told me. But Ongwen did reveal something in that short conversation. He said: “For me, the thing I knew best in this world was using guns. This was the only thing in this world.”
Ten days later, on a cold January day, he appeared for the first time before a judge in The Hague. The first words he spoke in the courtroom were: “First of all, I would like to thank God for creating Heaven and Earth together with everybody that’s on Earth.” He looked young, slim and handsome. He had nervous eyes. He was wearing a suit for the first time in his life. Someone had helped him put in a checkered tie.
It is hard to imagine how strange, odd and inscrutable the world must have felt to him during those first days in The Hague: his aseptic cell, his fellow inmates and guards, none of whom spoke his language. He understood neither English nor French, only a few words in Swahili, which one other inmate spoke. He was as alone as a person can be.
It was a cool morning, sunny, with a light breeze, when I visited Coorom. A few days later, the heat would return with the dry season. Fields would be scorched, streams would disappear, green would turn to yellow and brown. A small group of huts emerged as we approached in our car, just behind a high field of sorghum only days away from harvest. The compound where Ongwen was born is a quiet place. His uncle and aunt still live there, as does one of his cousins.
His relatives were polite and reserved. The compound had been swept just before I arrived. A tall papaya tree, with big green fruits, stood in the middle. His uncle, Odong Johnson, has the same, somewhat angular face as his nephew. He is missing three teeth in the top row and four in the bottom. At 67, he looked frail, melancholy, his body transformed by a life of hard work, war, displacement and loss.
Johnson told me that, when Ongwen surrendered in 2015, they had just started arranging a funeral for him. They had all thought he was long dead. It had taken them a long time to save enough money for the burial.
As a boy, Ongwen had been the best in his school of more than a hundred children, Johnson said. He had always learned quickly and easily. And he had been eager to please. He never complained about his household chores: fetching water from the river half a mile away, tethering the goats in the evening, lighting the fire for the night.
Ongwen’s father was a catechist, a Catholic lay priest and teacher, a deeply pious man, who was eager to provide his son with a good education. Ongwen often stayed overnight with his grandfather, who lived in a hut surrounded by mango, banana and orange trees a short distance away from the others. In the evenings by the fire, Ongwen told jokes and riddles that his uncle still remembered more than three decades later.
In 1980, about two years after Ongwen’s birth, two factions began fighting for power in Uganda, following the demise of the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. The violence was triggered, among other things, by a rigged election. The ex-president Milton Obote took power. Obote was from the north. The man who emerged as his biggest rival, Yoweri Museveni, came from the south. The new conflict divided the country, plotting the north against the south.
Many of the troops who fought for Obote belonged to Ongwen’s ethnic group, the Acholi. They fought for the losing side. In January 1986, Museveni’s troops conquered the capital, Kampala. Thousands of defeated Acholi soldiers fled north, trying to hide in their home villages. The new government’s troops followed soon afterward. Ongwen was about 8 years old when the war arrived in his district.
Acholi land was enemy territory for the soldiers from the south, and they behaved accordingly. Thousands of ordinary Acholi who had nothing to do with Obote’s army were arrested. Hundreds were summarily executed. As a reaction to the violence from the government troops, several rebel groups emerged. One of them was the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA. Their founder, Joseph Kony, was an ajwaka, a witch doctor.
Spirit worship remains widespread in northern Uganda to this day. Witch doctors get in touch with an invisible, transcendent world, which often serves to explain what cannot be explained: illnesses, deaths, bad harvests. The Acholi also believe that spirits haunt those who have killed. They call this phenomenon, which we might describe as post-traumatic stress disorder, cen.
Kony, however, invented spiritual beliefs and practices that went far beyond Acholi tradition. He claimed to be in contact with powerful new spirits. When Kony communicated with these spirits, he went into a trance. His voice changed. The ghosts, he said, ordered him to overthrow the government. These weren’t the traditional ghosts meant for farmers and herdsmen. They were ghosts for a rebel leader.
Kony left his home village, Odek, in spring 1987, with only a handful of followers. Shortly afterward, he was joined by a group of soldiers from Obote’s old army. The soldiers taught this strange new prophet how to wage a guerrilla war. The LRA became a hybrid between an army and a religious cult.
What the LRA lacked, initially, were soldiers. Too few volunteered. The belief system of the LRA was too foreign, too strange, too radical to attract widespread support. So Kony soon reverted to an old strategy, one that had been used in the civil war in Angola, by other military groups that lacked public support: He started kidnapping children.
Children were more malleable than adults. They didn’t ask for wages, and when forcibly recruited, they didn’t run away as often as adults did.
Only one of the two eyewitnesses to Ongwen’s kidnapping is still alive. Joe Kakanyero, one of Ongwen’s cousins, is a delicate man with fine facial features. When I visited his home, the table in his hut had been set with an embroidered white blanket. A Bible lay open on top. The worn pages and frayed seams suggested that it had been read over and over again. Kakanyero had been reading the Gospel of John, the pages about the first appearance of Jesus Christ.
“The soldiers waited for us on our way back from school,” Kakanyero recalled. “They were hiding at the side of the road. They had guns. They ordered us to follow them into the bush.” Kakanyero remembered that on their first day with the soldiers, he and his cousin marched until dark. “We kept changing directions. We moved like blind people, here and there,” he said. Their school uniforms, the white shirt, the dark blue trousers, were torn up by tree branches, bushes and thorns. They wouldn’t take them off for four months.
In the evening, the rebels smeared shea butter, a creamy, light oil, on their chest and back, he recalled. They had been told the paste was sacred. In the LRA, many believed that shea butter, mixed with water, protected them from material and metaphysical threats alike —bullets and evil spirits.
At some point in the first three days, the rebels caught an abductee who had tried to escape. “They tied his hands behind his back,” Kakanyero said. The soldiers had called the children together — “they put him on his stomach” — and forced them to watch. “They hit his head with the blunt side of the axe until his brain was no more.” None of the children started crying. Kakanyero remembered the total silence afterward. “I realized that if I didn’t do what they wanted me to do, they would kill me,” he said. “If I wanted to survive, I had to obey.”
It was a lesson that Ongwen would internalize more than anybody else.
Three and a half months later, the cousins were separated by the LRA. Kakanyero said that he managed to escape from the rebel group after four years. The two cousins would only see each other again more than three decades later, in 2018, in a courtroom in The Hague.
The International Criminal Court was established on July 1, 2002, and its very first warrant of arrest, in 2005, was for five LRA commanders. Of those five, only two are still alive: Kony and Ongwen.
The prosecutors in The Hague knew of Ongwen’s past. They knew that he had been a child soldier, but “it didn’t matter,” former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told me in a phone conservation. “We considered Ongwen responsible for the decisions he made as an adult.”
Once he was in The Hague, the prosecutors charged him with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges included murder, torture, robbery, kidnapping of children and adults to turn them into soldiers, crimes against human dignity, and rape and enslavement of young women and girls. The list of charges is so long that it took the court clerk more than 26 minutes to read them out at the beginning of the trial.
The court would have to decide whether to believe the excuses that Ongwen’s lawyers presented. Bad childhood experiences alone, though, no matter how horrific, would not be enough to spare him. At the beginning of the proceedings, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda made clear that in most courts you meet perpetrators who have been victims at some point in their lives: “Having suffered victimization in the past is not a justification, nor an excuse, to victimize others,” she said. Then she added: “Each human being must be considered to be endowed with moral responsibility for their actions.”
Dominic Ongwen’s case, however, is a unique one. He is the only former child abductee who has ever been tried in the International Criminal Court.
On the day that Ongwen was taken, his mother was killed, according to his uncle and aunt. She had run after the rebels to reclaim her child, they told me. The family tried to hold her back, but she could not be dissuaded. The next morning, the family found her body on the riverbank. She had been beaten to death with bricks.
It’s less clear what happened to Ongwen’s father. There are no direct eyewitnesses to his death, but all family members said that he was shot by government soldiers sometime after Ongwen’s abduction.
Ongwen found out about their deaths, at the very latest, a year after his abduction when one of his cousins, Lily Atong, who was slightly younger than him, was also kidnapped. They met and she told him everything. He may have already suspected it, but at this moment it fully dawned on him that he was an orphan, hardly 10 years old, completely abandoned in a cruel, indifferent world that did not seem to care whether he lived or died.
“He was one of the bravest soldiers I’ve ever had,” said Caesar Achellam, a former major general in the LRA, who met Ongwen for the first time in 1991 when Ongwen was about 13 years old. Achellam walks with a limp, the result of an old bullet wound. He is tall, thin, and straight as a stick. He speaks English with a slight lisp, which makes him seem more innocent than he is. Achellam was for a long time the third in command in the LRA, their chief diplomat and organizer. In 2012 he surrendered to the Ugandan army. He has never been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Instead, he received amnesty from the Ugandan government. In recent years, he has been living in a small village just outside of Gulu, the largest city in northern Uganda.
“When he became my bodyguard, he was very young,” Achellam says of Ongwen. “He had had three other commanders before. They all died. He was loyal, obedient, disciplined. I protected him like my younger brother. He carried my rifle, my chair, my mattress” — the typical duties of a bodyguard in the LRA — “I took him with me when I went into battle. Our strategy was based on surprise attacks, on ambushes. We often sustained heavy casualties. I have seen many men who faltered in these situations. People who were much older than him and who turned out to be cowards. Not him.”
In the early 1990s, the LRA withdrew from Uganda and escaped north across the border into Sudan. The Sudanese government, under the dictator Umar Al-Bashir, permitted Joseph Kony to set up camps near the border and also procured weapons and rations for the Ugandan rebels. Small troops of fighters set off regularly to kidnap more children in Uganda and bring them back to the bases in Sudan. At one point, these camps housed about 5,000 abductees, many of them adolescents. The LRA trained them for an invasion into Uganda to overthrow President Museveni. But that invasion never happened.
Former fighters who went on raids with Ongwen into Uganda in the 1990s remember him as a young man whose fearlessness had an almost suicidal edge. He was shot several times, in the chest and leg; he survived a cholera epidemic in the Sudanese camp that killed hundreds, and a famine that lasted for months. At one point, people started eating soil and grass. Ongwen told his psychiatrists in prison that sometimes he only ate 10 bean seeds a day.
Ongwen was made an officer at the age of about 19, said Achellam. “He was already a very experienced soldier by then.”
Ongwen’s face looked bloated during the last weeks of the trial in early 2020, possibly a result of the drugs he had been taking to treat depression and sleeplessness. He had shaved off his hair. As the trial neared its conclusion, his depression seemed to deepen week by week. His movements got slower and slower, until they looked like a video in slow motion.
He told his doctors that he felt that God hated him. Once, he asked the prison staff to perform Acholi cleansing rituals on him, to lift the curse that had been put upon him.
Ongwen’s lawyer is Krispus Ayena Odongo, a Ugandan opposition politician and former parliamentarian. Ayena told me that Ongwen had tried to take his own life more than once in prison. In one instance, he drank laundry detergent. Another time he bashed his head against a bare wall. He also started a hunger strike, which he broke off after just five days.
On the first day of the main trial, Ongwen declared: “It was the LRA who abducted people in northern Uganda. The LRA killed people in northern Uganda. The LRA committed atrocities in northern Uganda, and I’m one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities. But it’s not me, Dominic Ongwen, personally, who is the LRA.”
Those words are all he has ever said on the question of his guilt, or his responsibility.
Ongwen was a young man, between 24 and 27 years old, when he allegedly committed the crimes for which he is now in prison. During the early 2000s, the war in northern Uganda entered its final, most brutal phase. The LRA had been driven out of Sudan in 2002 by the Ugandan army. Instead of surrendering, thousands of LRA fighters infiltrated Uganda. LRA members started a new wave of kidnappings, far worse than what they had done before that. In 2003, the LRA abducted 6,500 people, most of them between 11 and 17 years old.
It was during this period that Ongwen distinguished himself as an officer. From summer 2002 to autumn 2005, he was responsible for at least 28 attacks, according to the records of the Ugandan intelligence service and the army, who intercepted radio calls by the LRA. He set ambushes, attacked army patrols, overran remote barracks, burned down entire villages, raided Catholic missions to steal their radios, and was an unrelenting kidnapper.
He was always on the move, often marching in a group of 50 fighters, all of whom spread out around him within shouting distance. Wherever he went, former LRA members said, he had bodyguards with him, many of them minors. At night they slept in a circle around his tent. “He was never afraid,” one of his former fighters told me. “His whole mind was set on war,” said another.
The village of Odek, the birthplace of Joseph Kony, is set in a flat, fertile landscape, by a small river. Like most tyrants, Kony loved grand, dramatic gestures. In 2004 he ordered his fighters to attack the refugee camp that had sprung up there, in the place where he grew up. As commander for this mission, he selected Dominic Ongwen.
Three former LRA fighters testified in court that they saw how Dominic Ongwen gave instructions for the attack. According to one of them, at the meeting before the attack, he said that it was time to “go to work.” Another said that Ongwen told them to “exterminate everything that you see.”
The fighters arrived at the edge of the camp just before sunset. It was April 29, 2004. About 3,000 people were living in Odek at that time, most of them refugees who had been forcibly displaced by the Ugandan government during their war with the LRA.
The massacre barely lasted an hour. The court transcripts give the impression that the main purpose was not necessarily to inflict as much harm as possible, or to kill everyone in sight, but that the violence was deliberately chaotic, to spread the kind of fear that would stay with the survivors for the rest of their lives. One LRA soldier led a schoolboy through the camp on a rope. The schoolboy later testified in court that “every time we came to a house, he would open the door and shoot at people, just to demonstrate that if we try to flee, he was going to shoot us.” They also set fire to a number of huts, usually with frightened people still hiding inside. They fired through closed doors. They tore babies out of their mothers’ arms and killed them.
The next day, Ongwen got on the radio and reported back to Joseph Kony. The call was intercepted both by the Ugandan army and intelligence services.
Kony said, “Did you clean up the backside of my mother?”
Ongwen replied: “Kici kici,” meaning “completely.”
Around 60 people died in the attack on Odek. On the morning after, an elderly couple was found lying in a pool of blood in front of their little shop; a newly married man was discovered dead with a bullet wound in his back, executed, like many others, at close range. A young mother had fallen, her face buried in the mud, her baby still alive, tied to her back.
Why didn’t Ongwen defect much earlier, like so many others? There were many times when he was hundreds of miles away from Kony, alone with his troops in the bush. There were times when Kony could not reach him over the radio for weeks on end. At what point did it become his own decision to stay? Did it ever really?
Whatever drove him, Ongwen was steadfast in his loyalty to Kony for many years. He was the last LRA commander to leave Uganda after the group retreated in the face of mounting military pressure from the Ugandan army. He crossed over the Nile into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Later, he moved with a small number of troops through the Central African Republic and Sudan. He committed further, even more violent massacres.
The people that were with him during that time told me that he became desperate and hopeless, that he spoke with increasing frequency and openness about defecting.
But he only left after his relationship with Kony broke down. Kony was notoriously paranoid — always anxious that his commanders might betray him. According to former LRA soldiers, Ongwen openly contradicted Kony on several occasions — something almost unheard of in the strictly hierarchical LRA. He was eventually placed under arrest. It seemed only a matter of time before he would be executed, like so many commanders before him.
After his surrender in the Central African Republic, he agreed to record a message addressing his former fighters. He called on them to defect: “You all know how brave I was. If even I decide to come out of the bush, what are you still doing there?”
It is not easy to reconcile the accounts that different witnesses have provided about Ongwen. They seem incongruent — full of conflicting, contrasting character traits. Ongwen himself provided an explanation that might seem like a solution, but possibly one that is too convenient. He told his two Ugandan psychiatrists, Dickens Akena and Emilio Ovuga, who testified on his behalf in court, that two distinct personalities inside him are constantly fighting for control. He calls them Dominic A and Dominic B. One is good, friendly, helpful. The other one is angry and aggressive.
He claims that when he was still with the LRA, he suffered hour-long blackouts; that he couldn’t remember what happened while his dark alter ego, Dominic B, went into combat.
Ongwen’s account of his two personalities has varied. At times he has claimed he has complete amnesia about the actions of his dark self, that he couldn’t remember anything that he did in those hours. At other times he has described Dominic B as somebody who walked next to him or pushed him forward into battle, preventing him from retreating. Ongwen has even said that he could sometimes see Dominic B, his angry self, alongside him.
Several of the women whom Dominic Ongwen once called his wives live just a few hundred yards apart on the outskirts of Gulu. They have built small thatched huts in a tightly packed settlement. Most of them have no land on which to grow vegetables. There is no running water. Malaria is common. They live here because they have no other place to go.
Acholi women who marry and bear children usually leave their family and move to their husband’s village, and their children belong to the husband’s clan, not the mother’s. But for these women, traditional customs do not apply. Their children were conceived in the LRA, under the constant threat of force. The father of their children is in prison, and many of the women do not see Ongwen as their legitimate husband anyway, but as their tormentor. Others, however, still say that they love him.
Dillish Abang, 26 years old, has seven children with Ongwen. Her youngest son was conceived in The Hague (conjugal visits are permitted in Dutch prisons) and is now 2 years old. He is a healthy boy with a round face, and he sat patiently on his mother’s lap for almost an hour while she talked to me. Abang said that she speaks to Ongwen almost every week. He tells her about his nightmares in prison, his new friends — all fellow inmates also accused of war crimes — and his hobbies: He has learned to play the piano and developed a passion for baking in the prison kitchen. According to Abang, he is a loyal, caring, attentive father, eager to find out how his children are doing in school. She told me that he has always treated her well.
Irene Fatuma Lakica, 30, lives less than a 15-minute walk from Abang. When I met her, she was wearing a green T-shirt with winged horses on it. She cried briefly, two or three tears, which she wiped away quickly, while she talked about Ongwen and how he had raped her, once every few weeks. How he had threatened her with a machete if she refused.
Six women have described similar attacks in court in The Hague. One said that she was about 10 years old when Ongwen told her he wanted to have sex with her. That she was beaten every day for a week by his bodyguards until she could not resist anymore. That she had been so small that she had to be lifted onto his bed because it was so high. That he bragged about it the next day to his bodyguards, telling them that he had “torn a plastic bag.” Not even his own lawyers have denied that he is a rapist. They merely claim that he wasn’t responsible for his actions.
And yet, while the women have agreed on little else about him, their perspectives converge on one issue: None of them think that he was insane.
Emilio Ovuga, professor of psychiatry in Gulu, is a small, gray-haired man. When he testified on November 22, 2019, it was a cold day, and he was wearing a coat over his suit, even in the courtroom. He spoke slowly, with a frail voice and dry wit. Ovuga was the last witness in the trial. He was also, perhaps, the most important.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Benjamin Gumpert, took on the cross-examination. Gumpert is a 57-year-old Brit, educated in Cambridge. He has a scar on his chin, and dark, dense hair that makes him look much more boyish than his age would suggest. Gumpert is a tough, aggressive interrogator, whose only weakness on the stand seems to be that he sometimes enjoys his work a bit too much.
The question that day was a difficult one: How exactly did Ovuga come up with the unusual diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder)? Many psychiatrists say the illness is extremely rare. Some even believe that it doesn’t exist at all, at least not in its most extreme manifestation — as several completely separate personalities.
“Doctor,” said Gumpert, “if you have two distinct personalities, one of which is nice, kind, reasonable, fair; the other of which is vicious, violent and angry; and you are alternating between those personalities, as Mr. Ongwen told you he was as often as three times a week — ordinary people, even lawyers, people who work in other fields, not doctors, are going to notice, aren’t they? It’s only common sense.”
“It is not common sense,” said Ovuga. “And common sense does not apply to everybody. People who do not suffer from severe mental illness cope with their disability, so that those around them will not notice that something is wrong. In most cases they will not notice it.”
“So let’s just try and understand the mechanism,” the prosecutor continued. “Dominic’s with his soldiers and the women he regards as his wives. The other Dominic, the Dominic B, the nasty, vicious, angry, violent one, comes upon him, but Dominic A is able, by coping, to disguise to the outside world Dominic B’s true personality and to pretend still to be Dominic A. Is that what’s happening?”
“Professor, I suggest that that is — ”
Gumpert later had to apologize for that last, discourteous word. But he was not alone in his assessment. After the cross-examination, German professor of psychology Roland Weierstall-Pust wrote a comprehensive, withering assessment of Ovuga’s work, declaring that Ovuga’s psychiatric evaluation of Ongwen was “insufficient, unfounded, contradictory and sloppy in almost every aspect and does not fulfill the criteria of a professional forensic report according to the current state-of-the-art.”
On the last day of closing statements, Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lawyer, arrived unprepared. It was March 12, 2020. Ayena was standing behind his desk, in socks, his feet sticking out from under his black robe. Ongwen’s lawyer has a deep and powerful voice. He is capable of delivering points forcefully. But now, when he tried to speak freely, at this decisive moment, he couldn’t. He could not remember the words. He had to stop, again and again. Several times he went quiet midsentence, not remembering the end.
Ayena had already started to look out of his depth during the last months of trial. He had dozed off multiple times while his colleagues were questioning key witnesses, including some of the psychiatric experts.
In the last half hour of his plea, Ayena finally stopped looking at his notes altogether and went into a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness oration, in which he suggested that the judges should think “out of the box.” He joked that Colin Black, one of the prosecutors, was not black at all, but white. He gave a brief lecture on the Nuremberg trials and explained to the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, a German, that the Wehrmacht during World War II was a regular army “which knew the laws of war,” unlike the LRA.
In the rows behind Ayena, his colleagues on the defense team started collecting their documents and putting them in their bags. Ongwen, meanwhile, just sat there, as he did so often, with his hands folded in his lap, while his lawyer came up with his last, simple plea for mercy: “Give Ongwen a chance to go home after 32 years. Whatever verdict you come up with, the sentence should be so mild. I mean, of course, I know that we have been reading from the same page … and we pray that you acquit him. But in case he’s not acquitted, our prayers remain that you give him a mild sentence.”
Ongwen remained still, almost motionless, while Schmitt read out the verdict. He wore a dark suit, a blue shirt with a gray tie, and a surgical face mask. Only his eyes were blinking constantly, quickly and nervously. The presiding judge took his time. Schmitt went over each of the attacks, named victims one by one, described events in detail: the murder, the pillaging, the rape, the abductions. And then Schmitt said: “The chamber is aware that he suffered much. However, this case is about crimes committed by Dominic Ongwen as a responsible adult.” Schmitt then went through the 70 counts, one by one:
Guilty of war crimes, guilty of crimes against humanity, guilty of murder, guilty of pillaging, guilty of rape, guilty of torture, guilty of forcing women to marry him, guilty of forcing them to have his children, guilty of conscripting children into an armed group, guilty, guilty, guilty.
In the end, Schmitt had convicted him on 61 of the 70 counts. The only thing left to decide was the prison sentence, which will be announced at a later date, in a separate hearing. The maximum sentence at the International Criminal Court is 30 years.
The judges left quickly. Dominic Ongwen, however, lingered for a moment. Then he limped toward the door, his body looking heavy, burdened. He exited into a brightly lit hallway.
Sandy Gray was fishing in the peat-black waters of Loch Ness when he discovered an unusual animal. It was a sleety Saturday in March 1932, and the animal was a large, elaborately colored bird with a glossy green head, a fan of coppery-red plumes, and a dark-metallic breast. Sandy spent much of his free time on the loch (the Scottish word for “lake”) and knew that this creature was a rare discovery. The bird was badly injured; it appeared to have been shot or trapped. Sandy, a bus driver from the tiny loch-side village of Foyers, attempted to save it. He took it home but could only keep it alive for a few days. After it died, Sandy took it to the nearby town of Inverness to have it identified.
The bird, according to the Inverness librarian, was a mandarin duck. It was native to Asia and entirely alien to Loch Ness, which carves a glaciated furrow through the rugged splendor of the Scottish Highlands. It seemed that the duck had escaped or otherwise been released from captivity into an unfamiliar habitat. Sandy’s remarkable find was reported in newspapers across Scotland. “Beautiful Visitor to Loch Ness,” read one headline.
It was not the last time Sandy Gray would be in the papers for an unusual encounter at Loch Ness.
Alexander “Sandy” Gray was born within sight of the loch on March 28, 1900. He grew up in Foyers, midway along the southeastern shore, in a secluded home known as the Bungalow. His father, Hugh, was a foreman at the British Aluminium Works smelting plant, which was hydroelectric-powered by the dramatic 140-foot cascade of the Falls of Foyers. The stone gable–fronted plant employed several hundred workers, and since opening in 1896 it had transformed Foyers from a tiny sheep-farming community, where many residents spoke the Scots Gaelic language, into an expanding industrial village.
The Bungalow was a large green-painted wood and corrugated-tin structure surrounded by well-kept lawns, rose beds and vegetable patches. Set in trees behind the plant, it had separate dwellings for family and for lodgers, and it became a hostel for plant workers. It also had a large room known as the Bungalow Hall, where Sandy’s mother, Janet, hosted tea parties for the local community and his father hosted temperance meetings. The Bungalow Hall also served as Foyers’ church and schoolhouse before the villagers built dedicated buildings.
Sandy and his younger brother, Hugh Jr., or Hughie, sang in the church choir and attended Sunday school together. Foyers was an idyllic place to grow up, where the local children enjoyed adventures in the forests, by the shore, and on the water. The boys had three young sisters, Bessie, Anne and Mary, though Anne, the middle sister, died in infancy in 1905. There were other tragedies in Foyers. Aluminum smelting was a new and dangerous process, and an explosion killed one young man and seriously injured several others at the works. And inside the rubble-stone plant, amid the volcanic heat of the smelting furnaces, the then-underestimated threat of toxic aluminum dust lingered in the air.
The village’s favorable location provided direct access to the loch, and salmon and trout were bountiful in the murky freshwater. Many of the villagers were keen shore and boat fishermen.
When he was a very young boy, Sandy heard a peculiar story from his uncle. Donald Gray was a fishing tackle maker who ran a bait and tackle store in Inverness and often fished in Loch Ness. According to his story, Donald and several other men were drawing in a salmon net when it suddenly resisted and their hauling ropes were wrenched five or six feet back into the water. The startled men held onto the ropes for a few silent moments. Then a huge force ripped the ropes from their hands and dragged the net off into the loch and under the surface, never to be seen again. Other locals had similar tales, although insularity and superstition meant that they were rarely told outside of their communities. Like many kids from the banks of Loch Ness, Sandy grew up with an ingrained belief that there was something strange in the water.
Sandy fished on the loch from an early age. It was while he was fishing in 1914, as a teenager, that he first saw what he believed to be an extraordinary creature in the loch. He was in a small fishing boat off of Dores, a little way north of Foyers. He recalled seeing a large black object, around six feet wide, protruding above the water. When it sank, it left a swirling vortex on the surface of the loch. Sandy said he was impressed by the object’s apparent bulk, and he estimated its weight to be around 15 tons — more than twice the heft of an average African elephant.
There were porpoises in the loch in 1914. They had entered from the Moray Firth along the River Ness and were a rare spectacle that might have confused those who saw them. But even with hindsight, Sandy was very clear about what he had seen.
In subsequent years, Sandy spent much of his time on the water fishing for salmon that ran from the rivers into the loch. He became an accomplished fisherman, with his notable catches reported in the angling columns of Scottish national newspapers. One paper called him “an expert fisher and boatman.” He knew the loch and its inhabitants as well as anyone.
Sandy’s father died in 1921 following a cerebral hemorrhage, which can be caused by exposure to aluminum dust. Sandy decided not to follow his father into the aluminum plant, and instead became a bus driver, carrying passengers from Fort Augustus, at the southern end of the loch, along the shoreside road to the villages of Inverfarigaig and Dores and up past Lochend to Inverness. As the eldest child, Sandy was now responsible for looking after his mother and siblings by bringing home a wage and catching enough fish on the loch to feed the family.
It was while fishing on the loch, probably in 1930, that Sandy had another inexplicable encounter. He was with two other fishermen when they saw a large salmon leaping through the air toward their boat. It was unusual behavior that the experienced men had not seen in the loch before, and they agreed that the fish must have been being pursued by a large predator. As it approached the boat, the salmon disappeared below the surface. Another fisherman described a “terrible noise” and “a great commotion with spray flying everywhere.” Whatever was beneath the water created a wave about two and a half feet high and caused the boat to violently rock. The predator remained unseen, but the men were convinced it was the loch’s mysterious inhabitant.
Inverness newspaper The Northern Chronicle published a brief report of what seems to be this incident — although Sandy is not named — on August 27, 1930, under the headline “What Was It? A Strange Experience on Loch Ness.” This is the earliest-known newspaper report of an encounter with the mysterious creature in the loch. There was a brief flurry of local interest but the story did not make it outside of the Highlands, and the creature remained a local legend.
In October 1932, Sandy married Catherine Kennedy, the daughter of another Foyers aluminum worker. He moved out of the Bungalow into a recently built stone cottage with a prime view of the loch and its majestic backdrop of Highland fells, near Catherine’s family at a row of houses named Glenlia. Sandy and Catherine settled into a quiet life in their peaceful surroundings. Sandy continued to drive his bus around the loch and fish from his boat on its waters. Then, six months after his wedding, Sandy reported seeing the strange creature in the loch again. This sighting would turn his quiet life upside down and help change Foyers and the loch forever.
It was late May 1933, and Loch Ness was experiencing an early glimmer of summer, with lilac heather blooming across the craggy hillsides, the fresh scent of Scots pine hanging crisp in the air, and the warm sun casting a shimmering glow on the loch. Sandy was driving his bus along the shore road when he saw a large dark shape moving across the water’s surface. He tried to gauge its considerable speed as he jammed on the accelerator to match the object’s course along the loch, but he said he was “unable to overtake it.”
Sandy’s sighting was the first to be reported in newspapers beyond Inverness. TheAberdeen Press and Journal, in its headline on May 23, christened the mysterious creature the “Loch Ness ‘Monster’” — which would become its enduring name. And the newspaper’s report, along with others in the Scottish press, noted something else. Sandy Gray had not only seen the Loch Ness Monster: He was going to attempt to catch it.
Loch Ness is more than 10,000 years old. It was formed by glacial erosion along the Great Glen Fault toward the end of the last Ice Age. Today, it is the largest lake by volume in the United Kingdom, containing more than twice as much water as all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. It is 23 miles long and, at its broadest point, 1.7 miles wide. Its freshwater is inky black and opaque, due to the leaching of tannins from the peat-rich surroundings. In the 1930s, there was no accurate measure of its depth. Modern sonar equipment has since measured the deepest point of the loch at 889 feet, although that measurement is disputed. Even today, it is impossible to know all of its secrets.
The loch’s wild and mysterious grandeur attracted tourists even before anyone outside of the Highlands had heard of the monster. In 1933, it was possible to take a sleeper train from London to Inverness for a weekend at the loch, or to book a four-day motor coach tour from Edinburgh at a cost of £7 (£500 or $620 in 2020). Fishing, boating and swimming were popular at the loch long before monster hunting. Tourists were yet to outnumber locals, but that was soon to change.
Increasing tourist traffic required better infrastructure, and a new highway, the A82, was under construction along the loch’s northwestern shore. Described as “a great boon to holiday-makers from the south,” the road’s construction required the felling of large swathes of trees and the dynamiting of deep walls of rock. Some locals said that they feared the blasting might have awoken something from the depths, something they believed had inhabited the loch for centuries.
The first recorded sighting of a strange creature in the loch appeared in the sixth-century A.D. document Life of St. Columba. The ancient text recalls how Christian missionary Columba saved a man from the jaws of a “water monster” in the “Lake of the River Ness.” In the centuries that followed, superstitions about mythical creatures such as water kelpies and water horses haunted the loch. Regular sightings of something strange in the water convinced many that the superstitions were based on fact. In 1933, after Sandy’s reported sighting, TheScotsman newspaper said that the legend of a monster in Loch Ness was “known to most or all of the inhabitants of the district.”
Sandy made his attempt to catch the monster during the last weekend of May 1933, fueled by his three decades of strange tales and experiences. His usual catch was Atlantic salmon, a species with an average weight of around 10 pounds. Sandy once made TheScotsman’s angling column after landing a salmon weighing 19 pounds. By his own reckoning, the Loch Ness Monster weighed more than 30,000 pounds. “Realizing that such a fish would require something stronger than the conventional fishing outfit, Mr. Gray has had special tackle made,” noted The Aberdeen Press and Journal.
This special tackle, rigged for him in Inverness — likely by his Uncle Donald, whose story had first implanted the legend in his mind as a small boy — consisted of a sealed barrel attached via 50 or so yards of strong wire to heavy-duty treble hooks, which were baited with dogfish and skate. Sandy aimed to “play” the monster “very much as an expert angler plays a salmon.” He hoped that, if the monster took the bait, the barrel would sink to a certain depth, then return to the surface, indicating the presence of its huge catch.
Sandy placed his rig into the water off of Foyers and followed the barrel as it drifted southwest toward Fort Augustus. It was a cloudy and cool day, and the loch was calm and still. After several miles, the barrel changed direction and began to move back up toward Foyers. Sandy’s experience on the loch meant that he was familiar with its changing currents, which moved in opposite directions, often in defiance of the prevailing winds. Eventually, the barrel came ashore. Sandy hauled in the wire and examined the hooks. The bait was untouched.
His attempt to catch the monster had failed, although Sandy said he planned to try again. He doesn’t seem to have done so, perhaps because, a Foyers villager recalled, he was laughed at by some skeptical locals when they read the reports of his initial effort. But the coverage generated considerable interest. News of this strange creature lurking in a mysterious loch spread nationally across Scotland. The Loch Ness Monster, as the newspapers now regularly called it, was no longer a local curiosity. Sandy had lifted the lid off of a legend, and a flurry of new sightings began to spill out.
Inverfarigaig resident Alexander Shaw, who had previously been a nonbeliever, watched a fast-moving dark hump for 10 minutes through a telescope. A group of workmen blasting on a hillside for the new road spotted a “massive creature” that appeared to be following a trawler up the loch. Two young women, Miss Keyes and Miss Smith, saw what they described as a monster with flippers or huge legs “careering round in great circles.” Passengers on a shore road bus — perhaps driven by Sandy — saw an unusual creature with a “big head” frolicking in the water. It was also sighted from Fort Augustus, at the southern end of the loch, and then a little further north, from Inchnacardoch, where Robert Meiklem saw through powerful binoculars a creature “as big as a horse” with a peak-shaped back dotted with “knobbly lumps.”
Then on August 4, 1933, The Inverness Courier published a letter from George Spicer, a director of the prestigious London tailoring firm Todhouse, Reynard & Co. Spicer had been vacationing at Loch Ness when, on July 22, he had an unusual encounter while driving between Foyers and Dores. According to Spicer, he saw a “dragon or prehistoric animal” cross the road some 50 yards in front of him and disappear into the loch. The creature had a long neck, a large body and a high back. It was “very ugly,” and Spicer suggested it should be destroyed. He admitted that he could not give a better description, as it had moved so swiftly. But, he concluded, “There is no doubt that it exists.”
Spicer’s story percolated slowly through the Scottish press and down through England, gaining traction perhaps because Spicer was a well-regarded Savile Row businessman rather than a Highlands bus driver. It would eventually become the most famous early encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, eclipsing Sandy’s sighting and his attempt to catch it, and more or less erasing Sandy from subsequent retellings of the monster story. But Sandy’s involvement with the Loch Ness Monster was not over. He would be dragged back into the hunt for the creature following an extraordinary announcement from his brother: Hughie said that he had also seen the monster — and had a photograph to prove it.
Hughie Gray was a year younger than Sandy. He had been employed at the aluminum works as a fitter since the age of 15, and he now lived at a residence known as the New Hut, right next to the Bungalow, along with several other workers. Every Sunday after church, Hughie took a walk by the loch with his camera. On this particular Sunday, November 12, 1933, he sat on a ridge about 30 feet above the water. “The loch was still as a millpond, and the sun was shining brightly,” he recalled. Suddenly, a large object rose out of the loch, around 200 yards from shore. Hughie only got a brief look and couldn’t identify what it was, but, he said, “I got my camera into position and ‘snapped’ it.”
Hughie took five pictures, but he had such a fleeting view of the object that he doubted the long-exposure box camera could have captured it. And if it had caught something, he feared being mocked — just as his brother had been. “I was afraid of the chaff which the workmen and others would shower upon me if I said I had a photo of the monster,” he said. So the spool of film sat in a drawer at their mother’s house, the Bungalow, for three weeks. Then Hughie told Sandy, and Sandy took the film to a pharmacy in Inverness to be developed.
Four of the five shots were blank exposures. The fifth was not. It appeared to show something — an indistinct, blurry gray object — thrashing about in the water. Both Sandy and Hughie were convinced it was the monster. They gave the photograph to the Daily Record, a Scottish national newspaper based in Glasgow. The negative was examined at the newspaper’s offices by a group of photographic experts, including two representatives of Kodak, who confirmed that there was no trace of tampering.
Hughie provided a sworn statement, detailing how he had taken the photo, in the presence of a Record reporter, a representative of the aluminum works, and a local bailie (or magistrate) named Hugh Mackenzie. “Mr. Gray is highly respected by his employers, his fellow workmen, and the people in the district,” said Mackenzie. “I was very much impressed by the straightforward way in which Mr. Gray told his story.”
The Daily Record and its English sister paper the Daily Sketch both published the photograph on December 6, with a guarantee that it had not been retouched, under the headline “Is This the Loch Ness Monster?” Other newspapers published a retouched version that emphasized shapes resembling a tail, flippers and a mouth. This, some observers claimed, was the first solid evidence of a large unidentified creature in Loch Ness.
The photograph created a sensation. Hughie, labeled by TheAberdeen Press and Journal as “The Man Who Snapped the Monster,” gave a radio interview that was broadcast across Scotland. Newspapers in England splashed the photograph across the front pages. They also reported on a debate in the British House of Commons during which Member of Parliament William Anstruther-Gray called for an investigation, “in the interests of science,” into the existence of a monster in Loch Ness. The Secretary for Scotland, Sir Godfrey Collins, was asked to call in the Royal Air Force to monitor the loch — although he said he preferred to await more evidence. Across the Atlantic, The New York Times reported that police in the “Whisky Region” of Scotland had issued orders not to shoot or trap the monster.
Meanwhile, The Times of London sent retired Royal Navy officer Lieutenant-Commander Rupert T. Gould to Loch Ness to conduct an inquiry. Gould, a skeptic, collected 51 witness accounts and became convinced that there was a large “sea-serpent” in the loch. He wrote a lengthy report for the newspaper, and in the following year he published a book titled The Loch Ness Monster and Others. Gould described Hughie’s photo as “vague” and “indefinite,” but he accepted it as a genuine photo of the creature. Gould also reported George Spicer’s land-based sighting, but later dismissed it, suggesting that the London tailor had seen a huddle of deer crossing the road.
Sandy recounted his experiences to a reporter who had been sent to Foyers by TheScotsman. The newspaper published a theory that the monster may be a plesiosaurus, a large Jurassic-era marine reptile that was thought to have been extinct for 66 million years. Other newspapers preferred more mundane explanations. “Sturgeon, eel, or upturned boat?” asked the Dundee Courier. TheSphere suggested that the monster could be nothing more than a tree trunk, and it published a photograph showing two Foyers villagers, with their trousers rolled up past their knees, retrieving a large trunk with a protruding necklike branch from the loch.
There was little suggestion in 1933 that the monster could be a hoax, which would inevitably have implicated the Gray brothers. They had perhaps received some payment for Hughie’s photo from the Daily Record, although they had turned down “offers involving large sums of money” from other newspapers, and they had also been laughed at and feared being mocked by their neighbors and workmates. Both men claimed to have had previous encounters on the loch that they had not reported or sought publicity for. Whatever Hughie’s photo showed, it did not appear to be a tree trunk. “Liars and leg-pullers exist singly in this world in plentiful numbers,” noted The Scotsman, “but to suggest that scores of them have banded themselves together round Loch Ness would be absurd.”
Large crowds of sightseers descended on Loch Ness, “in the hope of getting a photograph or glimpse of the monster.” Many of them traveled to Foyers, perhaps in Sandy’s bus, to see the spot where Hughie took his photo. Suddenly, the little village was a tourist attraction, and those tourists who did not manage to photograph or spot the monster might instead have snapped the magnificent falls or gazed across from the shallow banks of the loch toward the heather-strewn hills. For many, the loch itself was a previously unseen wonder, but others remained determined to see — or capture — the monster.
Bertram Wagstaff Mills, “Britain’s Circus King,” offered a reward of £20,000 (almost $2 million today) to anyone who could capture the creature and deliver it, alive, to the Olympia exhibition center in London. A large steel cage was constructed for the purpose. But the cash would only be awarded if the creature proved to be at least 20 feet in length and more than 1,000 pounds and was confirmed by a body of scientific experts to be a “prehistoric monster” that was “hitherto believed to be extinct.” Mills took out an insurance policy with Lloyds of London to cover his costs in the event that the reward was claimed.
Mills’ plan to capture and exhibit the creature echoed the plot of the movie King Kong, which was released in 1933 and shown at Inverness’s La Scala theater in early November — around the time that Hughie took his photo. The movie features stop-motion scenes of a long-necked dinosaur rising out of a lake, and it was blamed for planting the image of a plesiosaurus-type creature into the minds of Loch Ness witnesses. But neither Sandy’s description nor Hughie’s photograph bore any resemblance to the King Kong dinosaur, and it seems unlikely that the Gray brothers were influenced by the movie. However, Mills almost certainly was. The movie had been a huge hit in London for months, and he perhaps saw a little of himself in its protagonist, the exotic wildlife filmmaker Carl Denham.
Denham had a closer real-life contemporary in big-game hunter and filmmaker Marmaduke Wetherell, who oversaw a two-week search at the loch involving boats and two airplanes. “Duke” lived in a motor launch on Loch Ness, and he engaged local volunteers to stand watch at numerous points around the loch. Each had a flare, which they were instructed to light as soon as they spotted the creature. Wetherell did not catch the monster, but he did produce a plaster cast of what he claimed to be a nine-inch-wide footprint, found on the shore near Foyers. He said he could confidently state that there was an “unusually timorous” creature in Loch Ness, but he was unable to provide photographic evidence. “I cannot conceive a more difficult task than trying to photograph the ‘monster,’” he said.
For several months, the Gray brothers’ photo was unique. Then, in April 1934, the Daily Mail published a photograph taken by a gynecological surgeon from London named Robert Kenneth Wilson, showing what appeared to be a dark, swan-like neck protruding from the water. Sixty years later, in 1994, an elderly artist named Christian Spurling confessed that the object in the “surgeon’s photo” was a toy submarine fitted with a putty monster head. Spurling had sculpted the model at the request of his father-in-law, Duke Wetherell, who — embarrassed by his failure to find the real thing — had announced, “We’ll give them their monster.” The fake photo was passed to surgeon Wilson, a friend and keen practical joker, who acted as a respectable front man for the hoax.
Nevertheless, long before it was exposed as a hoax, the “surgeon’s photo” became the definitive image of the Loch Ness Monster. And following its publication, the Gray brothers’ photo was largely forgotten. But Sandy Gray was not finished with the monster, nor was the monster finished with him.
Sandy’s final reported sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was his best, and it remains one of the most dramatic and convincing sightings on record. It occurred on Wednesday, June 19, 1935. Sandy was fishing at Foyers, despite forecasts of rain. He was a little way out on the loch when he saw a “big black object” rise out of the water about a hundred yards away. “It was the back of the monster,” he told TheScotsman.
“Shortly after, the head and neck appeared, rising from eighteen inches to two feet out of the water. Behind, I saw quite plainly a series of what appeared to be small ridges, seven in number, apparently belonging to the tail of the creature, which now and again caused much commotion in the water. The head was like a horse’s, but not as large as that of a horse. It was rather small in relation to the huge body, which was of a slatey black color. From the way the creature moved in the water, I have not the slightest doubt that it was extremely heavy. In moving, it gave a sort of lurch forward, which seemed to carry it about four yards at a time. As I watched it, the monster started to go across the loch.”
Sandy got out of the water as quickly as he could in his heavy waders and hurried along to the post office, where he called for the postmistress Mrs. Cameron, a gardener named Mr. Batchen, and another friend to come with him to the shore. “We all saw the monster further out in the loch, but its head and tail were no longer visible,” he said. “The monster, which had gone out to near the middle of the loch, then turned and came towards the shore again. It came within two hundred yards of where we were standing before it set off in the direction of Invermoriston, where it passed out of sight.”
This was the fifth time Sandy had seen the monster, he said, but he had never had such a clear and prolonged view. He watched it moving about the loch for more than 25 minutes. Two days later, 16 people reported seeing a creature with a black body, dark neck and small head moving through the loch between Foyers and Invermoriston, just as Sandy had described.
But Sandy’s sighting was barely reported. By 1935, the monster-spotters had left and the media had moved on. “The Nessie craze of 1933 and ’34 was over,” says Loch Ness Monster researcher and author Roland Watson. According to Watson, it wasn’t until 1957 and the publication of Constance Whyte’s influential book More Than a Legend: The Story of the Loch Ness Monster that the modern obsession with the legend began. “By then, Sandy’s experience had been buried by later sightings and enough new stuff had come in to muscle it out of that book, although I personally think it is a good sighting,” Watson says.
As for Hughie’s photo, Watson considers it to be a genuine piece of evidence, but he understands why the blurry and overexposed picture has been overlooked in favor of the much clearer “surgeon’s photo.” According to Watson: “The clean-lined surgeon’s photo was always going to be a winner compared to the Gray picture with its motion blur, overexposed portions and splashing. People didn’t know what to make of it — wreckage, otter or whale? At least one publication printed it upside down. By the time the surgeon’s photo was exposed [as a hoax], both were ancient history.”
Sandy set off on his last fishing trip on Loch Ness on February 22, 1949. He was now 48 years old and worked as a taxi driver and chauffeur rather than a bus driver. He had moved to Inverness with Catherine, but he regularly returned to Foyers, where his mother and brother still lived, to fish from his one-man outboard motor boat. It was a fresh and showery Tuesday morning. By the afternoon, a storm had settled over the loch, and the winds had reached gale force, which would have whipped the dark, placid surface into an angry churn of white-capped peaks and troughs. When he failed to return from the loch in the evening, his friends began to fear for his safety. Foyers villagers formed search parties to scour the shores, but when darkness fell, they had to put the search on hold until first light.
In the morning, just after 9 a.m., searchers found Sandy’s boat, upturned and badly damaged, on the beach near his mother’s house. A little later, they found his body on rocks at Foyers. It was thought that Sandy had drowned, although his cause of death was uncertified. The most likely explanation was that his boat had capsized in the stormy weather, although it seemed surprising that such an experienced fisherman and boatman would be caught by the conditions in such a manner. The fact that his body was found on rocks suggested that his boat had overturned in shallow water, perhaps as he was heading back to shore. The exact circumstances of his death remain unknown.
In 1955, when Constance Whyte was researching her book on the Loch Ness Monster, she went to Foyers and visited Hughie Gray. He was still working as a fitter at the aluminum works and living in his hut next to the Bungalow. Hughie told Whyte that he still had “very vivid memories” of the circumstances surrounding his photograph, taken more than two decades earlier. The negative was lost, but Hughie and Whyte examined a copy of the photo together, and Hughie said that it contained as much detail as he could remember seeing at the time. “This is one of the very few photographs of the monster in existence,” remarked Whyte, “and examined in conjunction with … eye-witness accounts, it is revealing and suggestive.”
Sandy is not mentioned in Whyte’s book. Today he is mostly forgotten outside of the Gray family, who have moved away from Foyers. The Bungalow is no longer there. Sandy and Hughie’s great-nephew, Alexander Hugh Gray — also known as Sandy — visited the Bungalow as a child and remembers Hughie living next door, although his photo was never discussed. Alexander also recalls his grandparents and father speaking about his late great-uncle, a keen fisherman whom they called “San.” After Hughie died in 1967, he was buried with Sandy and their sister and parents at Drumtemple Cemetery. On a later visit, Alexander found that the family headstone had fallen over. He had it restored and reset.
Nessie spotters are still drawn to Foyers due to its connection with the monster. Like many Loch Ness communities, the village has become a tourist destination, with hotels and cafes, and shops selling Nessie plush toys. The villagers have learned to embrace the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. Some locals are aware of Hughie’s photograph, but few remember his brother. Roland Watson tells me that there is an elderly fisherman named Ala MacGruer who knew Hughie Gray. If you can find Ala in Foyers, he will tell you about his own strange sighting on the loch, and about how, before he goes fishing, he pours a dram of whisky into the water for good luck. He will also tell you that Hughie had a brother called Sandy who once tried to catch the Loch Ness Monster, and later died in mysterious circumstances. He’ll tell you how Sandy went out on the loch and never came back, and became an almost-forgotten part of the legend he’d helped to create.
Donald Weber was startled to be suddenly confronted by two men from El Paso at his girlfriend’s apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is a large city in the northwestern part of the country, an energetic mix of markets, shops and packed thoroughfares, a place where people can easily disappear into the anonymity of bustling urbanity.
It was early January 1991, and Weber, at the time 30, had been in the country for about four months. With a thin frame and a long face that made him look a bit like Kevin Bacon, he’d made every effort to stay unnoticed among the mass of people going about their lives. Weber had stayed at hostels, where he slipped the proprietors some cash to not record his real name, and he was now living with his girlfriend, a Thai college student named Tsom, and her little dog Lychee. His name wasn’t on the lease or even the mailbox, and it was alarming that these men had tracked him down all the way from Texas.
Earlier that day, he’d come home from giving an English lesson to find Tsom in an interesting mood. She seemed to be waiting for something, and she perked up when she heard a knock at the door.
Tsom was indeed waiting for something, as she’d already spoken to the men earlier in the day. They told her that they were old friends of Weber’s and had traveled more than 8,000 miles to surprise him for his birthday. It had taken a bit of convincing for her to warm up to them, especially since one of the men had two shiny silver hooks in place of his hands, but they were friendly and she told them her boyfriend was expected back in a little while. Tsom waited in the background for shouts of “Surprise!” after Weber opened the door, but there was only intense silence.
Weber assessed his visitors. One man, in his late 50s, was shorter than average, with sparkling eyes. He was wearing a somewhat out-of-fashion leisure suit, but Weber could tell his clothes were quite expensive. At the end of each sleeve was a curved, articulated hook, capable of opening and closing like a pincer. Weber’s eyes snapped back up and met the man’s gaze.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“We need to talk,” the man said. “We need to talk about Lynda.”
Weber glanced back at his perplexed girlfriend and stepped out into the hallway, lightly closing the door behind him. The men deliberately crowded his space. “Well, go ahead and talk,” he said.
Weber looked at the other man. He was taller, in his early 20s, and regarded Weber with a piercing look.
“I don’t know where she is,” Weber said.
The older man reached into his pocket and produced a card with his hook. It read:
Jay J. Armes
He was a private detective and chief of the firm, he said, then introduced the younger man as his son, Jay III. Weber didn’t stop to appreciate the irony that the last name of the man with hooks for hands was Armes.
Weber also didn’t appreciate that Armes had been in the business for more than 30 years at this point and was said to be one of the best private eyes in the world. He had pursued suspects all over the globe, and he looked at Weber with the kind of practiced calm that can only come with such experience.
Armes noticed that the door had been cracked open and Tsom was surreptitiously trying to listen. Conscious of the tension, he suggested that the trio go elsewhere to talk, somewhere where she wouldn’t hear what they had to say. Armes suggested the Orchid Hotel, where he and his son were saying.
Drums of self-preservation pounded in Weber’s brain. It would probably be best to flee, but at the same time he was desperate to know what their appearance truly meant. He said he’d go with them to the hotel if they promised to bring him right back. They agreed and walked out of the building and over to Armes’s waiting car. A tough-looking Thai man grunted at them from behind the wheel and drove them to the hotel.
Unbeknownst to Weber, as they drove away two more Thai men working for Armes made their way back up to Tsom’s door. There was another knock, and when she answered, the men apologized for the disturbance.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” one of them said. “Those Americans weren’t Donald’s friends. Your boyfriend was involved with another girl and she disappeared. Nobody knows where she is.” He showed her a picture of a young Thai woman named Lynda Singshinsuk. Like Tsom herself, she was pretty, with an open and trusting expression.
The men strongly suggested that Tsom not let Donald back into the apartment when he returned. In their experience, they said, there was no telling what a cornered man might do.
Tsom stood in the doorway holding The Investigators’ card. Lychee looked up at her quizzically, but Tsom didn’t know what to make of this either.
The car weaved through the sardine-dense street packed with cars, buses, motorcycles, and a seemingly unending amount of tuk-tuks, finally approaching the regal hotel where The Investigators were staying. Armes opened the door for Weber and followed him inside. They grabbed a table in the restaurant, where they sat surrounded by tourists and locals alike. Weber sat down and looked at the detectives impassively. They asked if he wanted anything to eat, to which he tentatively said yes.
Weber, who a few years earlier had graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in New Jersey, knew what it must have taken to locate him, and he acknowledged that he was impressed they’d tracked him down. After they’d ordered, he asked the obvious question: How had they found him?
“I’m good at what I do,” said Armes simply. He was softer-spoken than one might expect a private investigator to be, speaking in measured sentences in a voice on the higher end of the register. Still, his straightforward demeanor gave off authority.
“I have a case to solve and you’re the key,” Armes told him. “I had to locate you so that you could fill us in on the details that we need to solve it.”
Jay III picked up from there. He emphasized that they weren’t with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency or the U.S. Marshals, and they weren’t connected to the Thai government. They were private eyes from El Paso who simply needed to know where Weber’s ex-girlfriend Lynda Singshinsuk was.
They’d been hired by Lynda’s parents to find her, a few months after she’d gone missing. Weber had left the U.S. while the search was underway, making him a pretty obvious person of interest. But they didn’t care about his guilt, Jay III said. They hadn’t tracked him down to prosecute him; they just wanted to find Lynda’s body so that her parents could move forward with a wrongful death lawsuit against the university in Chicago from which she’d disappeared.
Weber looked at them. It was an improbable story, and Armes certainly didn’t look like any private investigator he’d ever heard of. But one thing was for sure: He couldn’t take his eyes off the gleaming silver hooks on the table in front of him.
Armes had blown his hands off playing with explosives when he was a kid, and his prostheses could apply pressure three times that of the human hand. He was adept at everything from answering phones to firing weapons with them, and these tools even gave him seemingly superhuman crime-fighting abilities, like punching through windows and reaching into flames unharmed, adding to the lore surrounding him.
During his six decades in the business, Armes had investigated kidnappings, murders and extortion schemes, and traveled all over the world in pursuit of his quarry, a modern iteration of the unorthodox lawmen dating back to El Paso’s early days as a rough-and-tumble frontier town. (Early “Hell Paso” was said to be so awash with cowboy violence that Wyatt Earp, the hero of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, quit his post after a few days because the city was too dangerous.)
One of The Investigators’ most famous cases was the recovery of Marlon Brando’s son Christian from a rural encampment in Mexico where he’d been taken by friends of his mother in 1972. Armes had also tracked down missing show dogs and recovered invaluable jewels in Italy by wooing the young socialite who’d stolen them. At the height of The Investigators’ success, Armes said they’d employed a network of spies and on-call agents around the world that helped the firm with their work.
Armes readily plays up his standing in this crime-fighting tradition; his flair for self-promotion earned him minor celebrity as a larger-than-life crime fighter in the 1970s. He appeared on TV shows and in countless articles, and his autobiography was published by MacMillan in 1976. There was a Jay J. Armes action figure complete with hook hands that could be exchanged for other crime-fighting gadgets. Armes is an irascible hard worker and very confident in his own judgment, but he has also been accused of getting lost in his own celebrity and inflating the magnitude and danger of his work. But he has always maintained that he is the real deal, and if you don’t like his methods, you are free to kiss his 100 percent guaranteed results goodbye.
“My dad marches to the beat of his own drum, and that gets under a lot of people’s skin. But that’s what makes him unique,” Jay III says. “He is tenacious and controversial. He’s like a force of nature. It’s tough to stop him once he gets started on anything.”
Weber didn’t know this history, but sitting there across from the two detectives, he could pick up on the intensity of their life experience.
He swallowed. “I don’t know anything about where Lynda went. I’m not quite sure what more I can tell you.”
Armes and his son nodded. They adjusted themselves in their chairs and settled in for a long conversation. It was the beginning of a showdown, a desperate yet measured gambit on behalf of a woman who had tragically gone missing more than eight months before, on the other side of the world. Armes was convinced Weber knew exactly what had happened. Bringing forth the truth was simply a matter of navigating a complex game of cat and mouse in a country where they had no jurisdiction, no authority and few allies. But that was his forte, and Jay J. Armes was proud to be on the case.
April 16, 1990. Rapeeparn Singshinsuk felt something was amiss when she hadn’t heard from her daughter, Lynda, for over a day. Lynda, 24 at the time, was in medical school at Northwestern University in Chicago, and was generally great about staying in touch. Her mother’s concerns deepened the next day when Lynda’s friends reported that she hadn’t shown up for class and wasn’t answering her door or any phone calls.
Lynda was from Robinson, Illinois, a town of 7,000 people about 250 miles south of Chicago, where her father, Sompong, was a radiologist. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Thailand when Lynda was a little girl, and Lynda had wanted to be a doctor for as long as anyone could remember. Somewhat quiet, she came out of her shell in medical school and was known to be a dedicated student who thrived in the company of her intelligent fellow students.
It was completely unlike Lynda to fall off the radar. She was responsible and courteous and simply liked talking with her family. The last time anyone had verifiably seen her was the night before, when a friend recalled her eating a salad in the dorm cafeteria. Lynda’s friends and family soon alerted the police that she was nowhere to be found.
The police initially suggested that Lynda had taken off voluntarily, as there was little evidence that she had been abducted from her room in Abbott Hall.
The days turned into weeks and months, and neither the local police nor the FBI were able to unearth any information about her whereabouts. Some small spots of blood had been found on the floor of her dorm room, but there was no way to determine whether the blood was from something sinister or from the routine nosebleeds Lynda was known to have. In fact, there was no way to tell if the blood was even hers, as the sample was so small that the blood type couldn’t be matched conclusively. Suicide was a possibility, but the divers who had been searching the frigid waters of Lake Michigan near the university were skeptical that she’d drowned, since her body never resurfaced.
The situation looked bad, but none of the family’s fears could be confirmed. The disappearance was all the more agonizing because one man stood out as a likely suspect, but there wasn’t any evidence to connect him to the crime: Lynda’s ex-boyfriend Donald Weber, a trim, polite young man who had recently worked for an accounting firm in New York but was now living with his parents again in Robinson.
Lynda and Donald had begun dating in 1984 when they were both undergrads at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They were both from Robinson — Weber’s mother ran the travel agency that the Singshinsuks used to fly back to Thailand, and his father owned the real estate where the family built their home. Both families were fairly well-off and expected a lot of their children — one of Weber’s brothers was a neurosurgeon, another was a fighter pilot. Lynda and Donald continued their relationship long-distance when he went to New York to attend law school at Fordham University. Things seemed to be going well, and in 1987 Weber flew to Thailand with Lynda and her mother to meet their extended family.
In 1988, Weber returned to New York to take a job with a prestigious accounting firm. The rigors of a long-distance relationship were difficult on the couple, and it was sometimes hard to maintain their enthusiasm for each other. Weber ultimately got fired from his job at the firm and moved back to the Chicago area. In the interim, Lynda had begun a friendship with a classmate that eventually led to mutual feelings of attraction. Caught between the familiar comforts of a man she’d known for years and the allure of someone new, Lynda wasn’t quite sure what to do. But Weber became obsessed with winning Lynda back. He bombarded her with letters and phone calls, and at one point he poured his cologne all over Lynda’s bed so that his scent would be present if she and her new boyfriend slept in the bed.
The height of his vindictive ignominy came in February 1990 when he attempted to extort her family by promising to release the boudoir photos Lynda had given to him years earlier. He asked the family for $20,000, which he claimed was equivalent to the amount of money he’d spent on her throughout the course of their relationship. They refused to pay, and Weber mailed Lynda’s family and dormmates copies of the private pictures.
Two months later, Lynda disappeared.
In their effort to find out where she’d gone, her parents swallowed their extreme distaste and paid Weber a visit at his parents’ home. He swore he hadn’t seen her. He’d been out at a restaurant with his parents the night she’d gone missing, he explained, and had been with them all evening. He promised he would keep them apprised of anything he heard.
Before long, however, Weber left for Thailand, a country that didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. The family’s suspicion deepened immensely, but as there was no body, there was officially no murder, and there wasn’t anything that tied him to the disappearance.
On Christmas Day 1990, a little over eight months after Lynda had disappeared, the Singshinsuks got a difficult phone call. It was Donald Weber, and he claimed to know where Lynda’s body was. He didn’t say he was responsible for her disappearance, but he did say that he would reveal her whereabouts for $50,000. Lynda’s parents took in the grim message, bile rising in their hearts. He said he was calling from Thailand, and it was unclear what he was implying — did he find out something in Thailand, or was he saying that he knew where she was in the U.S.?
Even with Weber’s unsettling phone call, there was little that could be done by U.S. authorities, and the Chicago police were still suggesting that Lynda might have run away voluntarily. Frustrated with the lack of progress, the Singshinsuks reached out to The Investigators, the private eyes from El Paso, whom a friend had read about in a magazine. The Investigators were said to be one of the best firms in the world, and founder and lead detective Jay J. Armes gave a unique promise when taking on any case: He 100 percent guaranteed results. Soon thereafter, The Investigators flew to Illinois to meet Lynda’s family and learn everything they could about the case.
The Investigators’ headquarters is still in the same place it has been since Armes founded the business in 1960, on Montana Avenue not far from downtown El Paso. The mission-style building is surrounded by homes, restaurants and offices, and though it stands out as a bright-white cross between an adobe home and fortress, it is the enormous billboard out front that belies the service inside. One side has a photo of Jay J. Armes peering through some blinds, a .38 revolver held aloft in one of his hooks and a grimace on his face, and the other side features him and his son engaging in spy activities.
Going through the front gate and into the office, the first impression is that of a dentist’s office. A waiting room with magazines and couches sits across from the reception area, with the radio playing at a background volume from speakers in the ceiling. Looking closer, however, the scope of the detective’s legend becomes more apparent. A large photo of Armes with Dick Cheney and George W. Bush is in the waiting room, while a collage entitled “Superheroes since the 1970s” hangs behind the receptionist, featuring Armes alongside heroes such as Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker. A room down the corridor has tables and shelves filled with gadgets and tools, a workspace that would make M from the James Bond films proud, while at the end is a locked door that leads to Armes’s lair-like office upstairs.
To get to his office, visitors can ascend 12 feet in an elevator or go up a spiral staircase; either way, the path leads through a collection of stuffed exotic animals that used to live on the family property in El Paso’s Lower Valley. The elevator opens to a room with dark wood paneling and long, low couches. A mannequin of Armes sits on the couch facing the elevator, providing a momentary diversion for intruders if Armes needs it. To the left is Armes’s desk, a massive piece of furniture in front of a huge map of the United States and surrounded by monitors with the feed from his security cameras as well as clocks showing the times in all different parts of the world. Christian tchotchkes adorn his desk and blown-up autopsy photos sit on an easel in front of him. All in all, the effect is like walking onto the set of a spy movie from the 1960s.
On a recent afternoon, Armes, now 88, sat behind his desk speaking on the phone with clients in English and Spanish, clad in a pastel jumpsuit embroidered with the Jay J. Armes logo, two J’s forming a pistol. Armes hangs up the phone, expertly positions a pen in an open hook and takes notes on a sheet of paper atop a file folder bulging with documents. Once he’s finished with his business, he stands up and extends a hook to shake unselfconsciously.
Another call comes in. Armes yells into the phone at a client who is at a bank trying to withdraw the funds to pay off a kidnapping ransom. Armes suspects that the kidnapping is related to cartel activity across the border in Ciudad Juárez. He and his son go to El Paso’s sister city on assignment somewhat regularly, investigating other kidnappings and extortion attempts. He speaks with the person on the other end gruffly, counseling them that everything will be totally fine if they simply do as he says.
Armes estimates that his firm has investigated around 5,000 cases over the past 60 years. The work can become fairly routine — indeed, the bread and butter for any private eye is keeping tabs on unfaithful spouses, Jay III says — but his work has taken him to far-flung locales and each case gives him the chance to learn something new. They have undertaken investigations in England, Thailand, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Myanmar (when it was still known as Burma), Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Germany, Haiti, Belarus, Russia and all over Mexico.
Some countries allow outside investigators to do their work, but in some cases they have to straight-up lie about their reasons for visiting the country. “My dad borrowed Bibles and hymnals from the church to disguise himself as a missionary to get into Chad because they weren’t letting Westerners in for any other reasons,” Jay III says. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the country or world, you can hire us and we’ll work for you.”
Armes initially wanted to be an actor and moved to Hollywood to do so, but he didn’t like the way of life, with the excessive drinking, pot-smoking and relentless smog. He considered going into law but felt he’d be more effective being directly involved in tracking down bad guys, so he obtained the licensure necessary to become a Texas private eye.
Armes proudly boasts that his life revolves around being a detective. He doesn’t have many friends, he isn’t social, and he admits that he wasn’t the most attentive dad. He doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, is indifferent toward food, sleeps little, and claims he can go long stretches without water. “That’s how you train your body,” he says.
Jay III, now 53, is the assistant chief investigator and managing partner of the firm and also runs Brandon Enterprises, a company based out of the same office that sells spy gear, body armor and firearms. Jay III (there is no “Jay Jr.” — it’s complicated, they said) is more straitlaced than his dad, more like a no-nonsense investigator who would fit in well on the set of Law & Order. The elder Armes says he wanted his son to be an attorney or a doctor, but Jay III had been helping him with investigations since he was in middle school and had his sights set on being a private eye.
“Literally, some of my earliest memories are going on surveillance with my dad, 4, 5, 6 years old in the back of the car,” Jay III says.
“He said, ‘I want to be an investigator, and I want to be better than you,’” Armes recalls. “I said, ‘Son, if you think you can do better, I’ll let you stay on.’”
Jay III went on his first big mission when he was 13, donning the tailor-made uniform of a Greek boarding school so that he could sneak in to rescue the son of a prominent magnate there, against the son’s will. In high school, Jay III was the official crime scene photographer for his father’s outfit, which entailed him getting up close and personal with deceased victims and creepy crime scenes, taking shots of the wounds and any lint or blood or whatever clue might help in solving the case.
By the time he was in college, Jay III was a seasoned private eye who had seen more than his fair share of strange crimes and seedy locations. He was home on a break when his dad was contacted by the Singshinsuks, and he flew with him to meet the beleaguered family.
Like most things in life, good detective work doesn’t come cheap, and The Investigators have a reputation for being a high-end operation. The family agreed to pay around $30,000 to the detectives to find Lynda, and not long after that they began their search for Donald Weber in Thailand, pounding the pavement in a country where they didn’t speak the language and had no official jurisdiction whatsoever.
Back in the restaurant at the Orchid Hotel, Armes agreed to tell Weber how they’d tracked him down, in order to get the conversation started.
The Investigators had learned that Weber was in Chiang Mai after accessing immigration records and tracing collect calls he’d made to his family and Lynda’s, who by this point had started recording the calls. They’d found a local bank account registered to Weber with $126 in it, but nobody at the bank had seen Weber in weeks.
Weber couldn’t be found in any of the nicer hotels either, so the investigators began looking at cheaper guesthouses. They had their first big break when they learned that Weber had happened to leave some suitcases behind at the Rasha Guest House. The proprietor accepted a few dollars in exchange for letting them look inside, and they’d found photos of Lynda but no evidence of where she’d gone. The innkeeper suggested they try a local market, where they eventually spoke with a young woman selling animals and pet supplies who recognized the American. She told them that Weber had recently bought a dog and that she had recommended a veterinarian to him and his girlfriend, Tsom. The Investigators went to the vet and managed to extract Tsom’s address, where they went to surprise Weber for his birthday.
Weber’s expression changed slightly as they told him all this; he was obviously impressed with their work. But he was still skeptical. It just didn’t add up. He wasn’t convinced that they weren’t feds or part of some other government branch that could spirit him back to Chicago — especially when they admitted that they’d found Weber’s notes for his plan to extort money from Lynda’s family, which were in the suitcase. In those pre-internet days, it wasn’t like he could just look Armes up. The trio circled around the question for the entire day, with Armes and his son insisting that they were working strictly in the interest of the wrongful death lawsuit against Northwestern University.
As they were talking, a tape recorder hidden on the table under a folded newspaper loudly clicked as it reached the end of its cassette. Weber’s eyes widened. His hand shot out, but Jay III slapped it away. “Thai people don’t like guns,” Armes said, and Weber withdrew his hand.
The hint of a gun signaled the end of the conversation. Weber was visibly exhausted and excused himself to go back to his apartment, saying they could continue the conversation tomorrow. Armes wasn’t at all surprised when Weber returned to the hotel a little while later and began yelling at them for wrecking his relationship — Tsom, scared by the earlier visit, wouldn’t let him back in. Don’t worry, The Investigators said, they’d gotten him a hotel room, and they suggested that he go upstairs and relax.
As it happened, Armes had a copy of his 1976 autobiography, Jay J. Armes, Investigator, with him. “Read it,” Armes said. Once Weber was assured that they were who they said they were, they could work on a way forward that would benefit everybody. With that, the trio disbanded and Weber went upstairs. He got to work reading the book, while an associate of The Investigators kept an eye on the room, making sure Weber didn’t try to make a break for it.
Armes and his son have been detained in other countries numerous times over the years. They told Thai customs officials they were tourists and got in with no problem, but a willingness to butt heads with authorities reflects the grit that has characterized Jay J. Armes since he was a boy.
Armes was born Julian Jay Armas on August 12, 1932, and grew up in Ysleta, a working-class neighborhood in El Paso’s Lower Valley. He was one of eight children (five of which survived) born to Beatriz and Pedro Armas, a butcher in a local supermarket. Julian was an athletic, hard-working boy, and it was innocent boyhood mischief that led to his accident. On May 11, 1946, Julian and a friend were out exploring and came across a box of railroad torpedoes, small signaling devices effectively similar to dynamite. His friend dared him to pick some up and rub them together. Julian was blown backward by a sudden explosion, and when he came to, he saw raw stumps where his hands had once been. He was rushed to the hospital, and the remains of his hands were amputated just above the wrist.
“He didn’t cry or say anything much about the pain. He took it like a soldier,” Pedro Armas told the El Paso Times shortly after the accident. “In the hospital, he just looked at me and said, ‘I can almost feel my fingers and hands, Dad. It doesn’t seem like they have been cut off.’”
The doctors told young Julian he would need six months to heal before he could start using the apparatuses that would take the place of his hands. He said that was unacceptable and that he wanted to start right away. The hooks operate like bike brakes, with tension applied to open and close them via a cable anchored to muscles in his arm. Getting used to the hooks caused horrendous pain and he sometimes felt dismayed at the extreme clumsiness that came with his new appendages. One day in school, he looked down as he was writing on the blackboard and saw that he’d dripped a pool of blood onto the floor.
Slowly but surely he mastered the use of the hooks and became adept at writing, dialing phones, and doing other day-to-day activities. He lettered in numerous sports in high school, trained in martial arts, and, when he decided to become a private eye, learned to fire many different kinds of guns, which were adapted for use with his hooks. He opened The Investigators in 1960 and quickly worked to make a name for himself as Jay Julian Armes. (He legally changed his name in 1977.) He had two daughters with his first wife and then two sons and a daughter with his second wife, Linda Chew, whom he married in 1966 and is still married to.
As the prestige of The Investigators grew, Armes became known for his ostentatious displays of celebrity, cruising around low-key El Paso in his chauffeured, bulletproof limousine and keeping a menagerie of exotic animals on his substantial estate. He was a staple in the local press, where he bragged about the many capers he’d solved and the movies and TV series in development based on his life. Having been born to a poor family and suffering a terrible injury as a child, it made sense that Armes would play up the success of his larger-than-life persona, and others were eager to help craft his legend.
In December 1975, a bomb exploded at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Police had no leads in the case, and an anonymous individual contracted Armes to investigate the bombing. It eventually came to light that a lawyer for Ideal Toy Corp., the company that produced the Jay J. Armes action figure, had hired him to solve the real-life bombing in a way that would conveniently coincide with the release of the toy.
Being a private eye has given Armes a flair for deception, a tool he can use to his advantage, since his investigations are not constrained by the boundaries theoretically informing normal police work. Armes is a religious man who at one point tithed 10 percent of his income to the El Paso church he attended, and he has said that any deception he undertakes has an ethical justification — in this case, bringing to justice a murderer and giving peace to the Singshinsuk family. But over the years, Armes has blurred the lines between fact and fiction so significantly that, in addition to bending the truth in pursuit of criminals, it has become difficult to distinguish between the myths and realities of his own life.
In the 1970s, at the height of Armes’s celebrity, there were a handful of articles that seemingly went out of their way to deflate the investigator’s legend. The articles alleged that, among other bent truths, Armes didn’t pay well, that the venerated waterfall on his property was merely a trough, that he didn’t have a pilot’s license, that he wasn’t an Interpol agent, and, alarmingly, that his armored limousine wasn’t actually bulletproof. “It scared me because all this time I’d been driving down the street, sticking my tongue out at people saying, ‘Yeah, shoot me. I’m Jay Armes’ bodyguard and you can’t get me. You could drop a bomb on this car and it wouldn’t hurt it,’” Armes’s former bodyguard Joe Breedlove told the San Diego Reader in 1978.
An especially incisive article titled “Is Jay J. Armes for real?” was published in Texas Monthly in January 1976, in which author Gary Cartwright essentially portrays Armes as a fraud and outlines with evident relish the numerous holes in the Armes story, including additional fairly major untruths like Armes not having a criminology degree from New York University. Armes was so upset by the direction of Cartwright’s reporting that the magazine’s then-publisher Mike Levy hid indoors until the issue was printed in order to avoid process servers.
Once the issue hit the newsstands, Armes arranged an interview with a reporter from the El Paso Post-Herald to refute the charges in the article. He presented people who were quoted in the article but who said that Cartwright had taken their words out of context or made things up entirely. Armes practically spits when he talks about the experience, claiming it was a hatchet job orchestrated by the opposition to undermine his run for sheriff. Despite what Armes says is consistent interest in profiling him, he refuses to have anything to do with Texas Monthly to the present day. (For the magazine’s part, Cartwright was a celebrated writer with an award-winning career as a journalist. “We stand by our story,” Levy told TheWashington Post in 1981.)
Armes has been sued numerous times, and in 1987 he was put on five-year probation by the Texas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies on account of complaints made against him by clients (including a complaint that Armes chased a subject at such high speeds that her car’s engine exploded). But Armes maintains that due to the sensitive and dangerous nature of his profession, it is understandable that emotions are heightened when things don’t work out exactly as his clients had hoped. “Even General Motors [gets complaints]. In 25 years, when people are not satisfied with the way things come out, they want their money back, and when you know you have done something, why should you?” Armes told the Chicago Tribune during the Singshinsuk investigation. Even Cartwright conceded that Armes did have the chops of a real private eye and that his work on cases typically obtained successful results.
Armes and The Investigators soldiered on through the criticism and were able to continue their detective work relatively unabated. Armes’s ambitions eventually extended to the realm of politics, and he decided to run for El Paso County sheriff in 1976 and again in 1984 as a write-in candidate. Armes ran as an outsider and promised to whip into shape a department that he characterized as lazy and ineffective. He promised to end police corruption and implement physical fitness requirements for officers. One campaign flier had a picture of Armes alongside John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., with the slogan “They had a dream … so do I.”
Armes didn’t win the sheriff seat, but by the time he took the Singshinsuk case, he was more than a year into his first term as an El Paso city councilor. He again relied on his outsider status and his go-get-’em attitude, which appealed to many people in the elderly Hispanic demographic of the district where he’d grown up, who felt that their concerns weren’t adequately represented in City Hall.
Armes would be reelected for another term, and his four years as a councilman were, to borrow the word frequently used in newspaper reports, “colorful.” Among other misadventures, Armes called a fellow council member a cockroach, spent the entire year’s postal budget on one mailing to his constituents, and at one point was accidentally responsible for the evacuation of City Hall, when an alarm clock that looked like a cartoon bomb freaked out the janitor cleaning his office. His fellow city councilors were said to “scream in frustration” when dealing with him.
“I’m not a politician,” Armes told the El Paso Times in 1993. “I have to embarrass [other council members] into voting the right way. That may not be the right way to do it, but let me tell you, I’ve gotten results.”
Indeed, despite the indelicacies of his tenure, Armes did have a reputation for getting things done.
“With Mr. Armes, I feel much more protected,” said one constituent after voicing a problem with a noisy neighbor. “He’s better than the police. He’s like a man of steel. Just look at his hooks.”
All the while, of course, Armes was continuing his work as a private eye and actively getting to the bottom of cases all around the world.
The breadth of Armes’s life and career was a lot to take in, but Donald Weber was a fast reader and got the full account of the Armes story overnight. Back in the restaurant the next morning, the standoff continued. Jay III reiterated what they’d been saying all along — it was strictly about the lawsuit.
The book had convinced Weber that they were private eyes, but this also meant they had no legal authority so far from home. Indeed, Weber wasn’t even a wanted man, as there were no charges pending against him back in the U.S.
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” he said.
Armes suddenly pounded his hooks on the table. “All right, dammit, that’s it.” They told Weber they knew he had no money and that his passport was about to expire. Plus, with his girlfriend having kicked him out, he was now basically homeless. Thailand may not have had an extradition treaty with the U.S., but it likely didn’t want to be supporting any freeloaders, he said. On cue, Jay III said he was going to call the local police and got up and walked down a hallway to use the phone in the lobby.
“This is your last chance,” Armes said. “I’m a pretty good judge of character, and I thought you were smarter than this. Just remember, you brought this on yourself.”
Jay III didn’t go to use the phone and didn’t have any intention of calling the police. Instead, he stood out of view and watched Weber squirm. He returned to the table 10 minutes later and said that the police would be there soon.
Weber looked like he might make a run for it, but instead said he needed to go to the bathroom and quickly walked away. Jay III stood outside the stall as Weber audibly had diarrhea, a common response to extreme stress. This development was reported to Armes, who was elated — they had literally scared him shitless. “I know how crude this sounds,” Armes later wrote in his report of the case, “but there’s just no other way to describe it.”
Ultimately, Weber realized that he had to hedge his bets and accept that The Investigators were who they said they were — bounty hunters who only needed the body for lawsuit purposes. He broached a hypothetical trade: information about Lynda’s whereabouts in exchange for getting him out of his current jam.
Armes took it a step further: If he told them about Lynda, they would help him renew his passport, advance him some of the expected proceeds from the wrongful death lawsuit, and leave him be in Thailand. Weber nodded and sighed.
“Great,” Armes said.
Weber then asked for a piece of paper and began drawing a map of where Lynda’s body was buried.
The father and son resisted the urge to look at each other in amazement. They’d been confident that they could eventually get him to crack, but they were not expecting so brazen an admission. Armes asked his son to call the police back and tell them they were no longer needed.
Weber said his path to homicidal action began when he strained his back doing manual labor. His mother had given him some painkillers, which he said had knocked him out. He slept fitfully and thought obsessively about Lynda. He’d heard she was going to take a trip to Thailand with her new boyfriend, and this had put him into a melancholy daze. When he woke up, he was convinced that he needed to kill her.
He got up and went out to eat with his parents, who were completely unaware what was brewing in his brain. When his parents turned in for the evening, he took his mother’s car and drove to Lynda’s dorm in downtown Chicago. He was dressed in black and carried with him a backpack containing rope, tape and a pistol.
Recalling an article he’d read in Field & Stream, along the way Weber stopped at a convenience store and bought two cans of soda, which he drained and filled with fiberglass he’d brought with him to make a silencer. He parked in the quiet lot in front of the dorm, feeling the heft of the gun. Then he put the gun in the bag, walked into the building, and took the elevator nine floors up to her room.
Lynda was clad in pajamas and was surprised to see him. She tentatively invited him inside, thinking it was best to appease him and then get him to leave. Weber stared at her. She stared back uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, but I can’t live with what you’ve done,” Weber said. He pulled out the pistol and shot her six times.
The homemade silencer did little to quiet the shots, and the deafening gunfire was followed by an equally thunderous silence. Weber strained his ears, expecting to hear the arrival of curious dormmates or the wail of a police siren, but an hour went by and nobody seemed to have noticed that anything had happened. He had fully expected to be arrested after the deed and was considering killing himself as the police closed in, but now he had to rethink his plans.
Weber found a sleeping bag in Lynda’s room. He stuffed Lynda’s body inside and then put her in a clothes hamper. He carried the hamper down a flight of stairs and got into the elevator with another student, who remarked on the late-night laundry duties. Weber contemplated killing her too, but the conversation ended without any suspicion toward the bundle, and Weber dragged the hamper out to his car. A security officer drove by but apparently didn’t notice that the basket was unusually heavy.
From there, Weber drove back to Robinson and buried the hamper under some car parts in a local landfill. He had taken a ring and some other personal effects from Lynda’s room, and he stopped at a cemetery to burn some of them. Then he went home, parked the car, and went to sleep. He woke up and had breakfast with his family, and Lynda was reported missing the next day.
Weber said that he got worried that the body could be easily discovered and decided to move it a little while later. He dug up the bundle and put it in his car and drove across the country to Las Vegas, where he pawned some of Lynda’s jewelry. Next, he drove to the Coconino National Forest in northern Arizona, a place he’d gone camping with his parents when he was younger. He followed a winding access road as far as he could take it and stopped at a remote clearing. There, he dug a hole and deposited Lynda’s remains. The wind rustled the trees and the sun shone down on him, and he didn’t sense that any prying eyes had seen what he’d done. Not long after that, he flew to Thailand, where he once again expected to commit suicide out of guilt and because of how badly he’d fucked up his life.
“I didn’t believe I had done it,” Weber later said. “The world had ended as far as I was concerned.”
Saying aloud for the first time everything that had transpired that grim April night, Weber looked deflated and sat back in his chair. Looking at the map, they saw he’d drawn an overhead view of the site that included trees, obscure paths and topography. He noted the convoluted route to get there and handed the map over to Armes. They should be able to find Lynda’s remains with a metal detector because she was wearing a metal belt buckle when he buried her, he said. She’d also be wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
The meeting drew to a close. The Investigators gave Weber some money for a place to stay and went back to the United States. True to their word, they left Weber in Thailand and didn’t alert the Thai police. Once they’d found Lynda, they told him, they would help him renew his passport, just as they’d promised.
“We’ll be in touch,” Armes said.
Soon after they got back to the United States, The Investigators went to the location deep in the Arizona forest that Weber had indicated and were surprised at how accurate the map was. Random bits of topography corresponded to what he’d drawn, lessening the chance they’d been sent on a wild goose chase.
However, the task that awaited them revealed the unglamorous side of being a private investigator. It’s not all walking down shadowy streets and taking nips from a flask — in reality, there’s a lot of uncomfortable grunt work. In this case, searching for Lynda’s remains entailed walking around in the freezing weather with a metal detector and digging extensively wherever the detector indicated a hit. As it turned out, a railroad had once gone through the area and digging hole after hole yielded only a large pile of railroad spikes. It would be very difficult to find a metal belt buckle among all the scraps of iron.
They realized that they had to reenlist Weber’s help. They got back in touch with him in Chiang Mai and explained that they hadn’t been able to find Lynda due to the presence of the railroad spikes — they needed him to come to Arizona and show them precisely where she’d been buried.
They got to talking and negotiated the parameters of the updated trade: Weber would provide information about Lynda’s whereabouts in exchange for safe and quick passage in and out of the U.S. to renew his passport. Armes said that they would not only buy him a ticket back to the U.S. but also would fly him to and from the crime scene in their own private plane, with the authorities none the wiser. In fact, Armes reiterated, he didn’t trust the feds or the regular authorities — local police were often Keystone Cops and the FBI was an old boys’ club that followed its own agenda.
Of course, this was complete nonsense, as they had no intention of letting Weber go free after they found where Lynda was buried. “We never had any intentions of giving in to any of his demands,” Armes says. “Bargaining with a killer is like dealing with the Devil. I just won’t do it.”
Ultimately, Weber was sufficiently convinced by the apparent genuineness of their offer (but also appreciative of Armes’s warning that he would “be on Weber’s ass closer than his underwear” for the rest of his life if he tried to hide again), and he agreed to fly back and facilitate the recovery of Lynda’s body, contingent of course on the assured anonymity of his arrival. They would all get what they wanted, and nobody would have to know.
“We made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Armes has often said about the case.
On January 26, 1991, The Investigators drove down a barely navigable path through the Coconino National Forest with Weber in the back seat. He looked out the window nervously, trying to spot anyone who might be hidden among the trees. It was a surreal experience, like stepping firsthand into an old memory. The route had been circuitous and prolonged — more of Weber’s precautions to make sure they weren’t being followed.
Getting to this point had come together exactly as planned. Weber had flown from Thailand to Los Angeles, then with The Investigators on to El Paso. From there, the group took the private jet to Flagstaff and drove to the national forest. Alongside Armes and Weber were some men documenting the dig with video cameras, ostensibly for insurance purposes. Weber was initially angry about the cameras, but by the time they’d started driving he’d stopped paying them much mind and just wanted to get the recovery over with and take off back to Asia. Eventually, the vehicle came to the spot in the clearing where Weber said Lynda was buried. Weber got out of the car and was mildly relieved to see that the snow was undisturbed, a good indication that nobody was there waiting for them. Still, Weber was more on edge than ever, and he looked around nervously as he walked them to the grim location.
The group began to dig.
Even to seasoned private eyes who had seen a lot, it was still gasp-inducing to see a foot protruding from the dirt. They gingerly uncovered more of the body, and saw that she was wearing shorts with a metal belt buckle, just as Weber had said. Armes couldn’t believe it. Weber had been under no obligation to reveal anything because they truly didn’t have any hard evidence to demonstrate he was guilty. Armes looked over at Weber, who seemed to know what he was thinking: He couldn’t believe he’d put himself in such a compromising situation. Even the spaces between the trees seemed to be watching him. What the fuck was he doing there?
The group got back in the car and retraced their route away from the burial site. Weber watched the clearing recede and sat low in his seat. About 800 yards down the road, the trees around the car came alive. Agents from the FBI and the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office surrounded the vehicle and pointed their rifles at those inside. A few agents ran up to the passenger side, pulled one of the cameramen out through the window, and threw him on the ground. When they realized they had the wrong person, they went back to the car and yanked Weber out, then handcuffed him as he lay facedown in the dirt and snow.
As it turned out, Armes had alerted the FBI and local law enforcement that he would be bringing Weber to that area after Weber’s flight had been arranged. Armes had initially received a noncommittal response about putting some agents on the ground, but the FBI eventually confirmed that they would be watching for his private plane when it arrived in the area. When word came that Armes had Weber in tow and would actually be bringing him to the burial site, the agents moved out and got into position. They hadn’t left any tracks in the clearing because they had climbed the opposite side of the mountain.
Lynda’s identity was confirmed through dental records, and the Singshinsuk family was finally able to bury their daughter. A funeral ceremony was held for Lynda at a Buddhist temple in Chicago in early February 1991, and a scholarship was established in her name at Northwestern University. “The chances she was alive were one in a million, but we still hoped,” Sompong Singshinsuk told the Chicago Tribune not long after Lynda was found. “I said it was foul play in the beginning. I knew that.” Weber was officially charged with murder, robbery and concealing a homicide.
It was hard for Weber’s friends to believe that he was responsible for Lynda’s death. He hadn’t ever even been in a fistfight. “Don was a gentleman’s gentleman,” one college friend said at the time. “He was the kind of guy most ladies fall for. He wasn’t crude or crass, and he was always sensitive to the feelings of other people. But he was someone who wanted to set the agenda.”
A year later in Chicago, wearing a blue jumpsuit with epaulettes, Armes testified at Weber’s pretrial hearing. He recounted the circumstances of Weber’s capture, referring to Weber as “Charles Manson,” owing to the thick beard he’d grown in an effort to prove he wasn’t in his right mind, a quip that elicited laughs from the gathered officials. Weber shook his head once in response to something Armes said but otherwise stayed quiet.
Weber’s lawyer, a public defender, argued that Weber had become temporarily deranged when Lynda wanted to move on from him. He was full of despair at what he’d done, and according to an account in the Chicago Tribune, Weber had told a police officer that he was glad he’d gotten captured, as it put an end to the agonizing uncertainty of life on the run. But Weber also argued that he was coerced into confessing by The Investigators and a group of four hired Thai agents who loomed nearby during their conversation, and that someone in the group had had a gun trained on him for much of the interrogation.
Given the abundance of evidence against Weber — including his confession and hand-drawn map — prosecutors would almost certainly be seeking the death penalty. In fact, Weber was so distraught about what he’d done that at one point he offered to plead guilty in exchange for the death penalty, although official procedures made that trade impossible. The Singshinsuk family ultimately decided to accept a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence in order to avoid a lengthy trial. Armes claimed some credit for convincing the family that this way Weber actually had it worse.
“If we put him to death, he’ll just go to sleep like a little baby,” Armes says. “But if we let him live and give him 60 years, we’ll have him suffer more.”
Weber was ultimately sentenced to 75 years in prison — 70 years for the murder and five more for concealing a homicidal death. Weber, who declined to share his side of the story for this article, is currently incarcerated at the Graham Correctional Center in south-central Illinois and will be eligible for parole in 2027 when he is 66.
On November 18, 2017, a U.S. Border Patrol agent named Rogelio Martinez radioed that he was going to investigate an unknown disturbance near a culvert in the rural expanse of Culberson County, 120 miles east of El Paso. The next morning, Martinez was found at that the bottom of the culvert, gravely injured, alongside another agent who’d suffered some broken bones. Martinez eventually died of his injuries, and although the FBI conducted dozens of interviews and an extensive investigation, the agency concluded that the cause of death could not be determined. Some people close to the agent were unimpressed with this conclusion and suspected that foul play was involved, and they hired Armes to see what he could find out about that night.
Armes contends that the fall wasn’t far enough to kill anyone and that the injuries Martinez suffered aren’t consistent with those of a fall victim. He suspects foul play and is currently investigating this possibility, one more of the hundreds of cases The Investigators have taken on since the Singshinsuk investigation, including the (possibly faked) kidnapping of a Mexican finance minister, the mysterious death of a Levi’s executive in Hong Kong, and a caper in which Armes and Jay III were detained in Juárez for threatening a Mexican national whom they said was secretly filming the coupon production facility where they’d been hired to provide security.
As he nears his 10th decade of life, Armes often asks his wife why the Lord still has him here. Every time he expects that the resolution of a case will satisfy the itch to investigate, he finds he is still compelled to take on more cases. “The Lord gives everybody a gift. The Lord has given me a gift to go after a case and solve it,” Armes says. “You can come into my office and hire me for the most intricate case in the world. A case that the FBI cannot solve, the police department can’t solve, the sheriff’s department can’t solve. I like to solve those cases.”
Armes has also run for office a few times since his tenure as a city councilor in the early 1990s. His bid for a city council seat in 1999 ended with a lawsuit and countersuit between him, the winning candidate and a judge over alleged intimidation at a polling place. Two years later, a fight broke out among supporters of Armes and another candidate during yet another council bid. After that, Armes put his political ambitions behind him and focused only on the thing he loves most: private investigating.
The Singshinsuk case “was an affirmation on how well we work together,” Jay III says of his partnership with his dad. “The satisfaction that I got out of that case personally was huge. It’s one of those things that … you don’t realize what you’re doing until after the fact and have a chance to sit back and actually look at everything that happened … and you think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty crazy.’”
The elder Armes is at the same time boastful and modest when reflecting on the Weber caper. Still, he feels that the Singshinsuk case, for all its intrigue and psychological back-and-forth, was not particularly unique or difficult to solve, considering all that he’s seen in his career. But there was satisfaction in providing the forlorn family with a definitive answer — and an affirmation of the legend he has built for himself and The Investigators.
After more than six decades in the business, Armes maintains a single-minded dedication to his work.
“I’m not trying to break records or prove anything,” Armes says. “I’m just trying to get everything out of life that it can possibly produce. The more I draw on myself, the more I find I have left.”
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.
The detective sees callousness, not contrition.
“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.”