I slip into my favorite red undies, then wriggle into a skirt and lightweight sweater. A slide of shiny luminizer eye shadow to brighten my eyes, a few strokes of mascara, a dollop of blush and some lip balm. I take a few deep breaths and study myself in the mirror. I’m ready.
Or am I?
It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve been on a date. Nearly ten years since my body utterly gave out on me as a result of an improperly healed head injury that happened when a tabletop mounted on the wall of a furniture showroom fell on my head. Crushing head pain, vertigo, life-sucking insomnia, memory loss, racing heart, disorientation, plus isolation and profound loneliness – for a great wash of time this had been my life.
Though years of treatment have helped, on damp days (approximately 342 a year in Michigan) I still feel like I’m trying to rise from the bottom of the deep end of the swimming pool, pushing up against the heavy water that gravity is forcing down. And I still feel as if I’m watching my life on a high-definition television screen: vibrant colors, crisp sounds, yet somehow, I remain separate from the world. But so many other symptoms are finally gone: Most nights I sleep deeply and soundly, I’m free of pain, my world no longer spins, my heart is calm, I can find my way home if I go for a walk.
For years now, I’ve been convinced that if only I could be strong and healthy again then my old self would reappear. That is to say, my younger self, with the scrappy fearlessness and curiosity that once carried me around the world, that plunked me in the front row and then backstage of every concert, that moved me at 20 to Manhattan where I didn’t know a soul, and that landed me jobs in fashion and journalism I wasn’t necessarily qualified for. The self that disappeared when my life became centered around my injury.
If only my symptoms were gone, I’ve reasoned, love, work, money, adventure, everything would glide easily into place. And I’d be happy.
Yet here I am, ready to burst through into well-being, and I find myself strangely afraid.
I’ve become accustomed to the “almost” zone I’ve been living in for the last couple of years: Healthier, but not yet healthy. Out and about more, but not yet dating. Finished writing the novel I couldn’t even touch when I was at my lowest, but not yet sold it. Making more money, but not yet solvent. I’ve been waiting to become fully well, and all these key parts of my life have waited with me.
It’s been frustrating, scary, infuriating, expensive, disheartening. But there’s also a sense of safety in it. Nothing good has happened, but nothing bad has, either. Lately I’ve been feeling stronger and more capable than I have in years, but with that progress looms a terrifying doubt: What if I heal but remain single, my novel never sells, and I don’t make enough money? Currently, I have an excuse, albeit a waning one, for all my shortcomings: my health. But what happens if I trade in that excuse for wellness…and I still don’t progress in life?
Despite this fear, I’ve been forging ahead, taking risks. For instance, the man who’s waiting for me right now at the local coffee shop as I assess myself in the mirror. Checking my makeup, but even more so, checking to see if I can do this.
I recently signed up for Match.com. It took me weeks to create the profile – a side effect of a long healing trajectory is that I need to pace myself through new experiences. I was cued to share my favorite sports and exercise, so I started there. What once would have been Thai boxing and yoga was now walking my dog to the park.
Then I was prompted to fill in my favorite travel hot spots. Once a dedicated traveler, often taking off to far-flung places on my own, I barely left my house for eight years after the injury. While I was starting to carefully venture back out, my favorite hot spots felt like distant memories, and I felt the shrunken size of my identity as I struggled to answer the prompt. Moving forward with my life was forcing me to grieve the loss of who I had once been.
But I forged ahead, and eventually managed to fill in who I read, what I ate, how much I drank (gone were the days of bourbon, neat), until, at last, there I was, out in the world.
Almost immediately men began reaching out. This panicked me more than I’d anticipated. There were, of course, creeps, extra-odd oddballs. I deleted those. There were also emails from intelligent, funny, kind men. One sailed the world. Another was passionate about helping children in Detroit. Yet another rescued animals. They asked me what I’d been doing with my life. It reminded me of when I first joined Facebook back when I was still so sick I rarely left the house. The community I found there was much needed at the time, but everyone was doing something fabulous – travelling, marrying, birthing, signing book deals, winning awards, et cetera – while I was celebrating that I’d driven a mile to the store. I didn’t know how to answer, how to explain that the last decade of my life had involved a lot of internal growth, but external stagnation, which didn’t make for light email banter.
Nevertheless, I set up two dates, including the one I’m on my way to now. He is witty and engaging, and we share common interests: love of travel, veneration of dogs, revulsion of Trump. We sip tea, nibble cake, and discuss our lives. The next date is just as good. It’s exhilarating. And terrifying. And also completely normal. I surprise myself with how comfortable and confident I feel, despite the downward dampness pressure and the television haze. I feel my old scrappy energy pulse through me. They both ask to see me again. This is it, I think. I’m back.
But then when I return home, the stress of having to do it again seeps in. What if I can’t? Or what if these are the wrong guys? What if I get healthy and end up committing to the wrong one? Or date and date and date and end up with no guy at all? And what if I can’t keep up with their expectations of me? Surely it’s easier to withdraw back into isolation and retain my excuse: Tell myself I’m not healthy enough to maintain a relationship. So I never reach back out to either.
Since I’m inherently shy, I figure maybe dating isn’t the best first step back to a “normal” life. Maybe I’ll have better luck starting with work, going back to something I’ve been good at – finding my purpose, and with it, my confidence.
For years, I supported myself writing for magazines and ghostwriting books, but it could be arduous with rapid-fire deadlines and editors’ hardnosed comments and rewrites and more deadlines and more hardnosed comments and so on. Yet, I long to see my name in print again. So I interview two authors for literary magazines. Both are friends and the interviews don’t pay, so the stakes are low. But I approach the interviews with the fully-engaged earnestness of days-gone-by. I savor every word of their books – sacrilegiously underlining exciting passages, dog-earring pages, furiously scrawling marginalia. I jot down questions with zest. My mind leaps with joy. One writer prefers an emailed exchange, but with the other we go old-school and speak (though it’s over Skype and the recorder is digital not tape). I love the exchange, the shared humanity, the hope, the figuring things out together. Transcribing, once a tedious task, becomes intoxicating. My fingers remember the start, stop, start of lifting a subject’s voice from the tape to the page.
I’m back, I think once again, as if by hitting the start button on the recorder I’ve restarted my life. Next I’ll pitch to venues that pay!
Months go by. I think about the deadlines. I think about the hard-boiled criticism. I think about the hustle of sending pitches to editors I no longer know. And I decide, I need to slow down. I need to get better still. In part, this is good counsel. I don’t want to push myself too hard. But I can also feel that the work is good for my healing, just as the dating is. The engagement back in the world sends buoyant, blissful energy rushing through my body. It elevates my self-worth and brings me joy. How can that be anything but healing?
So go most things in my life these days: I challenge myself to move forward and do well in that forward step. Then I put tremendous pressure on myself to excel, to accomplish tasks faster, to rise to greater heights. Then I worry I won’t be able to maintain the initial steps I’ve taken, let alone the great heights. Rather than linear, my healing has been up and down with a steadily rising baseline. Every day I can feel the thrum of dormant self-pressure and I temper it with my trusty excuse: my health.
If I’m honest, this pressure preceded the accident; it’s been with me as long as I can remember. A different sort of pressure impelled my parents to emigrate from post-war England. Like many survivors of war, they brought with them a sense of peril and urgency – and from early on it agitated my blood. While supportive of everything I did, they also made it clear I should do more, make more money, be more. That pressure came to live in the tightness of my jaw and turmoil of my stomach. Be more, do more, I commanded myself constantly over the years. It was my mantra.
And then the tabletop fell on my head. Strangely, in the midst of pain and despair I found a reprieve from this voice. “I’m recovering from head and brain injury,” I’d say. Miraculously people’s expectations would lower; in their place would appear empathy.
“I cannot believe all that you’ve lived through,” they would say. “You’re miraculous.” “You’re a warrior.” “You’re so inspiring.” And in those moments, I would see my life differently. Not something to be trudged through, but something of value.
I was no longer a world-travelling, Thai boxing, Manhattan-living, dining-out-nightly, music writer. Without my identifiers, I was simply Jane. And Jane was okay.
I’ve been putting pressure on myself to get healthy enough to return to the wonders of the world more fully, yes, but also, perhaps unwittingly, to return to the self-inflicted pressure to be more than I actually am. Be more, do more may certainly have helped me achieve some extraordinary things, but at what cost? My doctor once noted that I’d likely be healing faster if I hadn’t already pushed my body so hard before the injury even happened. Perhaps the comfort I find in the excuse of my health is actually the protection it provides me from my own mind.
Luckily my days now are no longer pure survival; though they aren’t bursting with ease, either. Since my initial surge forward, I haven’t managed to keep up with the dating, but I have hosted my first two sets of houseguests in ten years. I’ve travelled overseas twice. And I’ve started pitching stories to outlets that pay and landed an essay in a major magazine that paid enough to buy a much-needed mattress and an interview in a prestigious literary journal, plus this piece you’re reading.
Yet within each of these successes is that lurking pressure. Am I ready to take on increased expectations? Am I ready to flourish without dependence on an outdated mantra? One day the answer is a resounding yes; the next I’m not so certain. And so, this is my life: an often-stressful shuffle between triumph and despair.
In January, for my birthday, my friends take me out to dinner. In my pre-injury days, birthdays involved parties. Post-injury, they’ve largely been lonely affairs. There are six of us, which is still a large group for me these days. A half-hour car ride each way. A bustling restaurant. All of this requires tremendous focus. Sharing plates of herb-roasted parsnips while chatting about prison reform and trips to Jamaica, it’s hard to piece together five different inputs on a topic. Plus, the haze of my brain doesn’t mask the template of Life Before Accident, the memory trove that is once again reminding me of how much easier all of this used to be. It’s exhausting. And, if I let myself go there, sad. And yet, I’m having a blast! Not the sort of blast I once had, true. But a blast, nonetheless. And it feels good. And then, afterwards, at home, I withdraw. And that feels good, too.
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.”
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On October 3, 2018, a 56-year-old man went to sleep on a green tarp, under plaid and camouflage blankets, in downtown Eugene, Oregon. A bus camera captured his prostrate form next to a wall on Pearl Street at 8:39 p.m. Five minutes later, police say, another camera captured two teenagers “prowling,” checking car doors in a nearby parking lot.
Within minutes, their paths connected, calamitously. By the time police arrived, five minutes after a 9:26 p.m. emergency call in which the man’s agonal breathing could be heard, the teens were gone, the man unresponsive. Strewn about were his tooth, a blood-soaked ushanka fur hat with ear flaps, a Swiss Army knife, black boots, a watch, Yogi tea packets, matches and a tobacco pouch. It was a tree-shrouded location on a dark night with no witnesses.
Two miles across town, at 9:45 p.m., a sergeant’s call woke Detective Jennifer Curry after an hour’s sleep alongside her beagles Arnold and Lucy. She reached for her notepad. As the lead detective, she wouldn’t sleep again that night. At the crime scene, Sergeant Tim Haywood paused while processing the evidence. “He comes over and he tells me, ‘Hey, there’s a bloody rock in that garbage can,’” Curry recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Sure there is.’”
“He’s like, ‘No, I’m serious.’”
The victim was taken to Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he died at 10:08 p.m.
A clue to his identity was found atop a parking garage near the scene: a cooler bag holding empty food containers and a criminal citation written to “Neal, Ovid — Transient.”
The life and death of Ovid Neal III ranged from Harvard to homelessness to homicide. It’s recreated here based on interviews with 13 friends and family members, police accounts, court documents, five days of court testimony and independent reporting. The tragic tale demonstrates how our society often fails the most vulnerable among us, be they homeless, mentally ill, or neglected and abused young people. It illuminates tough questions about the limits of justice, redemption and forgiveness. Ovid Neal’s sister, Amanda Roth, calls it “an extraordinary tale of tragedy, every which way.”
I. “Dark Pants” and “Light Pants”
At a nearby hotel called the Timbers Inn, Detective Curry first glimpsed and obtained images of the youngsters she nicknamed “Dark Pants” and “Light Pants.” Eventually, she would draw from two dozen cameras to create a timeline of the night’s events.
The pair arrived on the scene at 8:47 p.m., then engaged in “back and forth lookout behavior.” Dark Pants came into view lugging the rock.
Video at 8:57 p.m. shows them walking southbound, toward the sleeping Neal. “Dark Pants has something in his hands now,” Curry says. “He lifts it up over his head, then swings it down, almost as if practicing.”
The attack occurred seconds later. Neal’s death certificate lists “blunt force head trauma” as cause. He was hit in the head with the rock nine or 10 times, the medical examiner testified.
The killers scored $11 in paper money and change, some marijuana and a brass pipe, fleeing at 9:19 p.m. Then, Curry says, they “went on a beer run,” stealing from a Safeway grocery store, then heading to a park.
Dark Pants was “freaking out” afterward, testified Nicholas Stewart, a friend who met them later that night. “He was scared. He said he might have hurt someone really bad or might have killed them. He seemed like he was going to cry.” Dark Pants gave away his sweatshirt and rubbed blood off his shoe in the grass.
“So, after you leave a man for dead on the sidewalk … you go off and meet up with some friends and go make a beer run, which means you go into a store and you steal alcohol you can then go drink in a park?” Curry asks.
Eugene police discovered that the teenagers had passed near the downtown bus terminal, and they worked with security to collect video of them. The footage was the best they had, yet it showed only the back of the teens’ heads. The investigation caught a break when a Lane Transit District officer recognized one of the suspects from the back, even without seeing her face, and said, “I know who that is — that’s Jessica, and that’s her boyfriend.”
Turned out the pair were known to authorities: “Dark Pants” Jonathan Kirkpatrick, then 16, had grown up amid child welfare systems, and was an assault suspect after a domestic violence incident led his father to call police. “Light Pants” Jessica Simmons, then 15, had a juvenile justice warrant.
During the week after the murder and before their arrest, the star-crossed lovers celebrated their first anniversary in the apartment where they shared a bedroom. They didn’t go back downtown.
II. An “All-Rounder”
A life lived decades ago in half a dozen states and reviewed through the lens of grief can be hard to fathom. But those who knew Ovid Neal recall a man full of verve and adventure. None foresaw the horrors to come.
Named after a Roman poet, Ovid — whom virtually everyone, including Detective Curry, seems to have called by his first name — was born in Inglewood, California, on March 22, 1962. His father, Ovid Neal Jr., was an Army Air Corps officer who “flew the hump,” piloting C-47 troop transports over the Himalayan Mountains during World War II. His mother, Ruth Gordon, now 84, was a businesswoman who says she “supported the family for many years,” including as a sportswear buyer for 168 Zale Corporation stores in 28 states. Ovid’s sister, Amanda Roth, 59, works for a film company in Hollywood, and his brother, Zachary Neal, 56, develops affordable housing in Las Vegas.
Ovid’s friends fondly recall an “all-rounder,” 6 feet 4 inches tall who graduated Hampshire College and Harvard Divinity School, modeled for Harley-Davidson, wrote poetry, deftly played blues harmonica and had a smooth jumper. He fearlessly fished a Texas pond, his friend Javed Akhund recalls, even after venomous water moccasin snakes surfaced. As a teenager growing up between Texas and New York City, he wore a black leather jacket; an early girlfriend, Marissa Radovan, recalls “fantastic make-out sessions” in his hatchback. An old photo shows him tanned and in shape, with a small moustache and full head of curly brown hair. Women at a Dallas bookstore where he worked thought he looked “like a Greek God,” recalls a friend and former co-worker, Scott Senn.
Albeit a bit more ridiculous. “At that time, we all wore Royal Crown pomade in our hair,” Senn laughs. “That’s like Dapper Dan in O Brother, Where Art Thou?”— a glistening, slick look.
Senn and Ovid used to laugh until their sides hurt. “If there’s one thing I remember [about] hanging out with him, it’s hilarity. It was literally the theater of the absurd. Him and I would get face to face and do this old vaudeville dancing thing, where you’re looking at each other, faces like two inches from each other.”
Many friends told tales of Ovid’s mischievous humor. But his childhood brought challenges, including his parents’ divorce, frequent moves, and struggles with addiction. “By the time we were 18, I think we had lived in 18 different places,” his younger brother, Zachary Neal, says.
“We came from kind of a harsh environment, in that a lot of the people we grew up around had problems and issues,” he adds. In the 1970s, he says, a lot of parents were “out to lunch, literally and figuratively.”
Zachary Neal says he relied on his big brother for physical protection, but felt a “visceral need” to protect Ovid emotionally, starting when he was about 10 and Ovid was 12.
“I came home and he was sitting on the ledge on the ninth floor of our apartment [building] and I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘I was thinking about jumping,’” Zachary Neal recalls. “I remember being totally sad. I think he was partly joking, but … that was when I started feeling this need to protect him.”
The family was financially well-off, but they struggled in other ways. The 1970s and early 1980s was a quicksilver period for them. Roth recalls that they moved to New York as a family in 1972, then their dad moved back to Texas and the kids stayed with their mom. Then all three kids moved to Texas, then returned to New York. Eventually, the two boys returned to Texas around 1975 or 1976.
Ovid’s itinerant education ranged from the elite Dwight School in Manhattan to the Griffin Christian Academy in Dallas, where kids would throw dice between classes, Ovid’s friend and fellow student Jerry Harwell recalls. “The only rules were empty your ashtrays and no fighting.”
Ovid overdosed on six horse tranquilizer pills in Dallas at around age 13 or 14. He sobered up, then counseled other teenagers at the Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP). Friends told stories of “dry” parties that were “tons of fun,” riotous conversations at a Denny’s, copious cigarettes, coffee.
Former PDAP director John Cates recalls that Ovid “shined” as a counselor for addicted adolescents and their families. As things turned out, Ovid even counseled his mother. Ruth Gordon recalls that it was Ovid who helped her stop drinking for good.
“On July 9, 1979, he was in Texas and I was in New York, and I shared with [Ovid] that I was just at the end of my rope, if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to end up in an institution or dead,” Gordon says. Ovid spoke to her for a long time, and they prayed together. “And I did what he suggested, and I’ve been sober since July 9, 1979.”
Sober and sharp, Ovid turned heads when he arrived at Hampshire College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, in 1983 in a shiny red Volkswagen Beetle.
“I remember thinking, who’s that jerk who thinks he’s so cool?” says classmate Grainger Marburg. “We somehow met and I was totally disabused of that notion.”
The two lived in Dakin House, where Ovid’s room overlooked an apple orchard.
It was always “spartan,” Marburg remembers. “His bed was always made, almost military. His desk was neat. He had these little rituals, and he loved coffee. I would sit on the chair and he’d sit on the bed and make coffee and want to know how I was doing. I had this desire to feel anchored, like, I need an Ovid fix.”
Ovid went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Bible studies and was a triathlete and basketball player. Even with his looks and charm, Marburg doesn’t recall him dating.
“He would swim like crazy, run like crazy, bike like crazy,” says Winslow Dennis, who met Ovid on a basketball court. Ovid and he discussed the euphoria that comes from exercise. “He would find different highs.”
Ovid’s Hampshire transcript is filled with descriptors like “extraordinary” and “remarkable.” Professors described his senior study of French philosopher Simone Weil as having “tremendous integrity, depth and sensitivity.”
He was the kind of person who old friends periodically searched for online after falling out of touch — one, Shannon Greer, recalls that he “spent many a night trying to find his electronic footprint, to no avail until this tragedy.” After the murder, Marburg’s browser hooked a Eugene news story. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
“I was kind of devastated,” says Chris Curnutt, a friend who knew Ovid from his teenage years in Texas. “Just fucking, what the hell?”
“It’s hard to hold back tears,” says his high school friend Jerry Harwell.
Ovid’s family dropped into a pit of despair. “At first, for months, I was in a state of shock, especially because of the way in which he was killed,” Amanda Roth testified. “Then I was overcome with acute grief.”
“This is a nightmare — it is like being trapped under water,” Zachary Neal says. “Who kills a disabled, frail, kind homeless person?”
III. A Childhood at “War”
If Ovid’s childhood had rough patches, Jonathan Kirkpatrick’s was scarred by the kinds of social risk factors that bring repeated child protective services involvement. (Much less is known about Jessica Simmons, for whom Oregon officials declined to release records.)
Born in Las Vegas in 2001, Kirkpatrick was exposed to methamphetamine in utero but born healthy. He grew up amidst drugs, gangs and brutal violence in Porterville, California, and Anchorage, Alaska. His grandmother, Sandra Brown, testified at his trial that he was “kind of a wild boy … into superheroes [and] going to parks.”
When he was 4, she testified, his mother called to say, “he dug a hole in the fence to get away.” Brown recalled Kirkpatrick’s mother crying, saying, “Jonny … told her that he hated her because she took him away from his dad.”
Kirkpatrick had people who loved and cared for him, court testimony reveals, but his parents struggled with addictions and domestic violence.
A court psychologist testified that “Jonny” — as his friends, family, some officials and his attorney called him — told “war stories” about witnessing shootings and an assault “that ended up with somebody’s internal organs hanging outside of their body.” He claimed he snorted an “eight ball” of cocaine — a potentially lethal dose — and drank a half gallon of hard alcohol a day. Much is unclear about Kirkpatrick’s childhood — the discovery phase of Kirkpatrick’s case alone includes 3,000 pages of evidence, most of which is sealed — but court testimony suggests that Kirkpatrick began drinking and smoking marijuana in California and continued or increased his use in the years leading up to the murder.
In 2006, California CPS workers substantiated a child neglect charge against Jonny’s mom. In 2007, his father was sentenced to a year in jail, where his son visited him. Soon after, the father moved to Oregon.
By 2015, Judge Chanti writes, after foreclosure and eviction, Jonny, his mother and siblings continued to live in a house with no electricity. The kids would go to neighbors’ homes to ask for food. “When CPS intervened, they discovered a home with no electricity, no furniture, no beds … puppies in the house and every room had urine and feces on the flooring.”
Jonathan Kirkpatrick and three sisters were placed in foster care. Social services called their father, Raymond Kirkpatrick, in Eugene. Two days after his 14th birthday, Jonny and his three sisters moved in with his father, who shared a two-bedroom apartment with two other people.
The next phase of Jonny’s childhood, in Eugene, became, if anything, more chaotic.
Raymond Kirkpatrick was making $9 an hour washing semitrailer trucks and received housing assistance from the Oregon Department of Human Services. He was often gone, working or sleeping in a friend’s trailer. Jonny would steal his dad’s weed, and his twin sisters frequently went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Jonny was once awakened by a friend throwing money on him, saying “Hey, I got this by robbing people.”
Once, Raymond Kirkpatrick testified, he got mad at his son “for smoking weed in the house,” inspiring “a heated argument that led to a broken TV and the bruise on my face.” At times, the father testified, his son “would pull his hair, punch himself in the head. He would say stuff like ‘I should just kill myself.’”
At one point, Jonny ended up in a runaway shelter, effectively homeless on the streets of Eugene at the same time as Ovid Neal. Detective Curry says that there’s no evidence the two ever knew each other. At some point, the teen moved back in with his father.
Jonathan Kirkpatrick’s relationship with Jessica Simmons was also violent. Judge Chanti writes that Kirkpatrick “was, by all accounts, emotionally dependent on [Simmons] and when things did not go well between them … he would hit himself in the head and hit his head against objects, sometimes so seriously that he knocked himself out. During one argument he stabbed himself in front of [Simmons].”
A Facebook profile for “Jonny Kirkpatrick” contains images of young white people in baseball caps and hoodies alongside language like “Bitch Go Die,” “Speed Gang,” “Kill Them All” and “Mr. Steal Your Bitch.” It lists Porterville College and a job, fry cook at the Krusty Krab, and, framed in red hearts: “Jessica Crystal Simmons / forever and always.” A linked profile for a “Jessica Crystal Simmons” has Jonny’s name in hearts.
In the hours before the pair killed Neal, they had been drinking Oregon Springs vodka and arguing. A youth worker testified that Kirkpatrick head-butted a glass window before running off. He was “really intoxicated,” Judge Chanti writes — slurring his speech, his friend Stewart testified.
Despite their truancy, legal problems, frequent intoxication and violence, Jonathan Kirkpatrick and Jessica Simmons cohabitated like adults at his father’s apartment, police say. Simmons brought her cat to live there, Chanti writes. When police served a search warrant at the home, two miles from the scene of the murder, they seized a brass pipe that was stolen from Ovid Neal as he lay dying. It contained Kirkpatrick’s DNA.
IV. A Courtroom and a New Law
On February 4, Jonathan Kirkpatrick sat silently next to his bespectacled public defender, Katherine Berger, inside the wood-paneled Lane County Courthouse. Kirkpatrick had turned 18 and moved from a juvenile facility to the adult jail. His close-cropped haircut recalled 1930s gangster John Dillinger. In the audience, Ovid Neal’s sister, Amanda Roth, and her husband, Nick, craned their necks, arms folded, legs crossed in the same direction. A half-dozen people took notes with pen and paper.
Like many states, Oregon passed rules in the 1990s that favored a tougher approach to justice for juvenile offenders: Measure 11 automatically tried teenagers 15 and older as adults for murder, attempted murder, robbery, assault and sex crimes. But in 2019, a new state law, SB 1008, flipped the switch, requiring all youth accused of crimes to be tried in the juvenile justice system, except when prosecutors request a “waiver” to adult court — which they did for Kirkpatrick.
During the trial, three psychological experts shared conclusions drawn from thousands of questions and their knowledge of the field. Kirkpatrick’s actions and words were dissected, analyzed. Dr. Holly Crossen, called by the defense, diagnosed Kirkpatrick with disorder after disorder: attention deficit hyperactivity, neurodevelopmental, major depressive, adjustment, child abuse/neglect, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol use.
The central question was, did he have a sophisticated, “adult-like” understanding of his actions at the time? Or was he yet a child, with a developing brain impacted by his upbringing?
Berger, the recipient of a statewide legal award, had testified before the state legislature in support of SB 1008 before its passage. It’s likely she gave Kirkpatrick a better chance than most public defenders could have. She turned the court’s attention to her client’s upside-down upbringing, relying on the science about adolescent brains that, for supporters of the new law, is the point. She seemed at ease amid tales of trauma, or telling details like Kirkpatrick’s 34 doctor visits for ear infections. (Berger did not respond to several interview requests.)
A licensed clinical psychiatrist she called, Kristen Mackiewicz Seghete, testified that “regulation, judgment and reasoning” are regulated by the prefrontal cortex, which is still developing until age 21 or later. Poverty and “early life adversity” can impact brain development, initiating a process “like the fire alarm of your brain” that pushes youngsters into “fight, flight or freeze” responses,” Mackiewicz Seghete testified. Using alcohol and drugs increases “sensation seeking.”
Berger questioned the father, Raymond Kirkpatrick, about a time his son ran away:
“When he was living on the street, would you run into him sometimes?”
“How would those interactions go?”
“They were really good for me.”
“Were you trying to get him to come back home?”
Arguing for the state, Senior Deputy District Attorney Erik Hasselman stood tall in a dark suit, using his authoritative baritone voice to depict “Mr. Kirkpatrick” as a rational, calculating man-child who knew exactly what he was doing. He pointed to the fact that Kirkpatrick bragged about the killing, saying he “caught a body,” and continued his violent behavior while in custody.
Lt. Steve French, who handles security at the Lane County Jail, testified that Kirkpatrick was the source of three misconduct incidents there in late 2019 and early 2020, including “cheeking” medications — concealing them in his mouth — and “fishing,” attempting to retrieve contraband from another cell. A third violation, French testified, was sending letters to a younger “girlfriend” in juvenile custody. Judge Chanti writes that Kirkpatrick developed a “relationship” with a 13-year-old female in custody, whom he kissed, and that he threatened another youth and an officer.
At stake in the case was not only the question of how juvenile offenders are tried in Oregon. For Kirkpatrick, a waiver into adult court would mean a far longer sentence. Jason Jones of the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) testified in Kirkpatrick’s hearing that youths adjudicated in the past for serious crimes such as murder have stayed in OYA custody for fewer than four years, on average. (Sarah Evans, an OYA spokesperson, says that figure was based on “preliminary data” and is “not correct,” stating that youths charged with murder since 2000 have averaged more than seven years in OYA correctional or transitional facilities, plus parole to a community program.) Either way, it is significantly less than Kirkpatrick would face if tried as an adult.
Jones also testified on a point that Ovid’s family saw as a conflict of interest: Jessica Simmons’ probation officer at the time of the killing was Priscila Hasselman, the prosecutor’s wife. By the time of Simmons’ arraignment, Erik Hasselman says, his wife was off Simmons’ case. He adds that the state would have been at a disadvantage had he recused himself, given his experience prosecuting many local homicides.
After weeks of deliberation, Judge Suzanne Chanti’s ruling kept Kirkpatrick’s case in juvenile court. The state and Simmons had already agreed to a plea deal that kept her case there as well.
V. A Cajun Strawberry Cake
Three decades earlier, in September 1987, Ovid Neal’s love of Simone Weil had led him to Harvard Divinity School. Ovid and his mother, Ruth Gordon, asked his sister, Amanda, to move in with him at 16 Evergreen Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was across the tracks, literally, from Cambridge, with a back view of an old Italian social club. It had one door — to the bathroom. It cost $900 a month for 300 square feet.
“It was little,” Amanda Roth recalls of the flat, “but we were happy!”
Amanda typed up Ovid’s papers and ran the salad bar in the university’s kitchen. Ovid hit the books and busked in Harvard Square, playing music on the streets with harmonica, guitar, amplifier and drums.
“We got a pug, and we named it Gatemouth,” Amanda Roth recalls, after bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. “He loved Gatemouth.”
A contemporary photo shows a lean, intense Ovid with longish hair, holding a cigarette next to an open window, at a small table replete with a book, papers, fruit, flowers and what looks like pill bottles. Roth says that the black-and-white shot “shows Ovid as I remember him — as philosophical, contemplating the big questions and fueled by coffee and cigarettes.”
During this period, his friend Scott Senn recalls Ovid mentioning that he’d gone to dinner at Allen Ginsberg’s house, along with William Burroughs. “He said it was just bizarre,” Senn recalls. “He was studying the philosophy of religion, and he would meet guys who were just world figures.”
The path seemed natural for Ovid. “I always imagined him being a minister or a professor of divinity,” says friend Shannon Greer. Ovid’s mother, Ruth Gordon, remembers that his Harvard dean had mapped out a plan for him that culminated in an Oxford Ph.D.
It was not to be. Ovid told his mom, “I’m not going to be able to do it.” While at Harvard, Ovid’s struggles with mental illness became too much.
“His head was on fire by the time he was in grad school,” his brother, Zachary Neal, says.
Gordon recalls spending Christmas with her son in Manhattan, and he seemed “all right,” but a month later she got a call from Harvard: Ovid was sick. Gordon flew to Boston and her son had lost 30 pounds.
Ovid underwent an “unbelievable battery of tests,” with ambiguous results. “They thought he had a heart condition at first,” Gordon says. Ovid’s diagnoses ran the gamut from brain lesions to temporal lobe epilepsy, depression and finally rapid cycling bipolar disorder.
It was 1988, and Ovid began tapering on and off of various psychiatric drugs, which his brother recalls included “all the psychotropics, SSRIs, antipsychotics, Lamictal, lithium, Zyprexa.” He’d be on them for the next 26 years.
At one point during this period Ovid struggled to sleep, his brother recalls, so he volunteered in a hospital at night with terminally ill children, “just holding them, so their parents could sleep. I remember saying, ‘I don’t know how you can do that.’”
A spokesperson confirmed Ovid’s graduation from Harvard Divinity School on June 10, 1993, with a master’s in theological studies.
In their last phone call, a week before his death, Ovid surprised his sister by thanking her for things she did for him decades earlier, including throwing a party at the Somerville apartment. She would later wonder if Ovid’s gratitude was prescient.
He loved the blues, so she had cooked him a big Cajun dinner and baked a Cajun-style strawberry cake. Thirty people had packed the tiny apartment.
“He still remembered that,” Roth says. In the call, “I was like, why are you talking about this? And now I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’”
VI. Toss the Pills, Hit the Road
Despite his history counseling and healing others, Ovid never pursued work in the ministry. His family and friends say his goal was to understand the nature of God, or to write — he started writing poetry as young as age 7, his mother recalls.
“Ovid studied philosophy, theology and comparative religion,” his brother, Zachary Neal, recalls. “His intent was never to minister or teach. His intent was to understand God. Had he not been afflicted with mental illness, he would have written.”
After Somerville, Ovid ended up in Manhattan, where he worked in Kathleen’s Bake Shop on 84th Street, which Ovid’s childhood friend Jerry Harwell recalls as being frequented by Tom Brokaw, Caroline Kennedy and “a lot of other famous people.” Ovid’s mother, Ruth Ann Gordon, later bought the shop and renamed it Ruth Ann’s Bake Shop.
Ovid also worked at an East Village diner called Around the Clock, while living with Harwell, who also struggled with mental health. Harwell recalls Ovid would work, play music and hang with friends. “He just always had something going on.” Both rejected the stigma that can accompany mental illness, and they sometimes skipped their prescribed pills.
“That’s when I went through my whole phase of, I didn’t want to be labeled as mentally ill, and neither did he,” Harwell recalls.
By the mid-1990s, friends and family say, Ovid had moved to Seattle and married a woman he knew from his teenage years. At a marriage event for multiple couples at Seattle Center, she wore a cool “Southern” dress and he wore a bolo tie “and a funky hat, not quite a cowboy hat,” longtime friend Virginia Curnutt recalls. The pair rode there in a horse-drawn carriage.
There was a sky-blue house with a white picket fence. She worked at Microsoft, he at Half-Price Books. But it wasn’t meant to be, and they eventually divorced. (Ovid’s ex-wife could not be reached for comment for this story.)
After the divorce, his sister, Amanda Roth, recalls, Ovid withdrew from his family, spent time in a group home, and eventually reached out to his brother and mother. He moved in with them in Las Vegas.
Friends and family agree that taking pills “dampened” Ovid’s sharp mind and magnetic personality. Eventually, “it seemed to be taking a toxic toll on him,” his brother, Zachary Neal, recalls. “It got to the point where I could smell the medicines in his sweat.”
In 2014, in Las Vegas, Ovid stopped taking the drugs suddenly. Erratic behavior, and a psychotic episode, resulted: Ovid damaged the house and a car, repeatedly woke the neighbors at night, said “weird stuff about God and crime,” his siblings recall.
It was perhaps the only time in his life when Ovid was violent with others. He “became threatening and pushed” his aging mother, his siblings say, and she called the police. After Ovid “put his hands on” their mother while she was sleeping, his brother says, police were called again.
“Psychosis can be a side effect of quitting cold turkey or coming off too fast,” says Janie Gullickson, director of the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon. “People typically don’t know that they can get support in titrating,” or coming off medication.
Ovid refused to take his pills or go see his psychiatrist. His brother was in Seattle, working, and his mother was vulnerable. Ovid’s family tried, but failed, to convince his psychiatrist to go to the home to treat Ovid. Despite “repeated and anguishing attempts,” Ovid’s sister says, “the doctor would not help.”
The family faced a situation that’s grimly familiar to many whose loved ones struggle with mental illness: Our legal and mental health systems bestow great freedoms — and hence responsibilities — upon individuals. It’s possible that here, Ovid’s strengths became barriers: He presented well, was highly intelligent, and had read the entire Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV. The family saw no way to prove to a judge that Ovid was a threat to himself or others, despite his behaviors.
His mother, Gordon, took out a protective order against Ovid.
Ovid ended up in a residential hotel near downtown Las Vegas, his sister recalls. “On Christmas morning, he left — just hours before he knew I was going to visit him. So that Christmas, Nick and I went from shelter to shelter looking for him … but could not find him.”
Ovid hit the road. He became, in official eyes, “transient.”
“He was just tired, exhausted of living like a zombie,” Gordon says. “He said, well, he just felt [the drugs were] killing him, and what’s the point. So he went off, and he became a vagabond.”
Then 52, Ovid roamed through the South, to places steeped in the blues, living a lyric from a languid blues tune, “The Drifter,” by a beloved musician, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: “There’s a drifter in me / Though I’ve tried it / I’m just not a settler / And nine to five don’t make it with me / Why deny it / It makes me feel better / To come alive / And prove that I’m free.”
His family was still there for him, and Ovid was still mischievous.
“I would get phone calls at two in the morning sometimes, from Florida, Alabama — he was in a hospital there,” Zachary Neal recalls. “Colorado, I got a 2 a.m. phone call [from] the front desk of the Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver, saying ‘your brother said you’d pay for a room here.’ I was like holy crap, he had to go to the Grand Hyatt. I think he was toying with me.”
His friend Virginia Curnutt recalls Ovid “loved the idea of just journeying away from the craziness of city life,” escaping the urban jungles he knew in all four corners of the nation. When she saw the movie Into the Wild, she says, “that guy kind of reminded me of Ovid.”
He ended up in Eugene, the leafy home of the University of Oregon and the state’s second-largest city, in 2015. The former triathlete smoked tobacco and marijuana while walking 10 miles a day, Amanda Roth says. “He said the birds and the trees were his church.”
An Oregon DMV photo from September 2018 shows Ovid Neal III as a handsome, unsmiling man with a tan face, chiseled jaw, long gray hair and clear blue eyes.
VII. The Streets of Eugene
For years, Oregon has had the highest prevalence of mental illness, including addiction, in the country. The Eugene/Springfield area, home of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, is no exception. Housing instability is another big problem. The Eugene/Springfield area is ranked first or second by federal housing officials in categories of homelessness including rate of “unsheltered” homelessness and “chronically homeless individuals.” The reasons are complex, according to local experts, including a long-term disinvestment in affordable housing. Alongside the city’s reputation for being one of the nation’s most livable places, it has a cultural history as a destination for hippies, Grateful Dead tours, and seminomadic “travelers.”
The city has supported cutting-edge responses to homelessness such as Square One Villages, a nonprofit that develops cost-effective, proven tiny house “villages” for formerly homeless people. Unfortunately, says Project Director Andrew Heben, who runs a tidy cluster of 22 bright tiny homes named Emerald Village, “you got to kind of win the lottery to get in here.” Many who are without housing are aging or disabled. In homeless populations, mental illness often coexists with drug use. Ovid limited himself to cannabis, the only drug found in his system at the time of death, and perhaps alcohol. Others don’t.
Near Emerald Village on a recent afternoon, people camped on concrete a stone’s throw from a popular local microbrewery, Ninkasi Brewing Company. A man played with a yo-yo; a woman sat crying on a curb. Outside of the White Bird Clinic where Ovid got his mail and services, a group of people sat on the sidewalk. A man said police “overwhelm people with trespassing charges,” even when they’re just “fixing their shoe.” A woman claimed to have camped with Ovid but was fuzzy on details. People appeared intoxicated, or in withdrawal. Some ate push-pop ice cream or hot dogs, drank Red Bull; others appeared in the throes of active addiction.
“Anybody got a point?” one asked another, meaning an intravenous needle.
“I got a dirty.”
“OK. Does it work?”
Advocates critique the city’s heavy ticketing of homeless people. A Lane County Legal Aid study found that 80 percent of trespass and open container citations went to unhoused people.
Ovid received three citations in 2018, for trespassing, jaywalking and an open container. One, signed “Eugene City Prosecutor,” claims “no culpable mental state.”
“In Eugene, police hand out tickets [to homeless people] like they’re candy,” says Steve Kimes, a local pastor. “I can show you a picture of a guy who’s got 70.”
When she looked into Ovid’s background, Detective Curry says, she found “very minimal” legal history. Two officers told her how “nice” Ovid was.
Yet Ovid feared the police. “I need help,” he said in a July 9, 2018, voicemail on his sister’s phone. “The police are trying to kill me.”
If police were to be avoided, so were other unhoused people. “Last night somebody stole my sleeping bag and my food,” Ovid says in a September 17 voicemail. “They got my tarp, my sleeping bag and vitamins.”
“I don’t want to die outside because homeless people’s stealing from me,” he continues. “[But] homeless people are taking my shit. So. Anyway. God is good. Um. Even if I die of hypothermia, it’s OK. But I’m just pissed off right now at homeless people here.”
In 2019, a homeless woman named Annette Montero was run over and killed by a garbage truck outside of First Christian Church Eugene, a place that had helped Ovid out with his tarp, coat and food. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that about 13,000 people die on our streets each year in the United States. A small number, 37 in 2016 and 11 in 2017, were homicide victims.
“I think a lot of people worry that if somebody’s homeless, maybe police might not take it as seriously,” says Detective Curry, who, along with her team, completed 100 reports and amassed terabytes of evidence to make sure Ovid’s killers didn’t walk. “But that’s just not the case at all. And the scene, to me, just looked like somebody who was sleeping on the sidewalk, and incredibly vulnerable. And they were murdered brutally, and just left on the sidewalk to die alone.”
According to Jessica Simmons’ testimony, hours before it became the instrument of Ovid’s death, she and her boyfriend used their football-sized river rock to assault another disabled homeless man Ovid knew, Gerald Fruichantie. In between, they stored it in a grate under a tree.
“What we would learn was that Gerald Fruichantie was kind of the other person who slept there, and that [Ovid] had this connection with,” Curry says. “Sadly, Gerald wasn’t there that night because he had been assaulted the night before and gone to the hospital.”
A man who worked at the recently closed tire shop on whose wall Ovid’s blood was spattered said he didn’t know Ovid, but he did know “Odin” — apparently a nickname for Fruichantie derived from his eye patch. He dismissed him as “blind as a bat, crazy as a coon.”
The parallels between the two assaults raise troubling questions. Was Ovid’s death the nadir in a pattern of attacks on mentally ill homeless people?
Fruichantie, 60, presented at an emergency room at 1:29 a.m. October 3 with a one-inch scalp laceration requiring five stitches. He didn’t report the attack to the police. When the police sought him out during Ovid’s investigation, his description of the attack was limited by vision problems and mental illness.
Judge Chanti writes that Fruichantie’s attack “was part of a pattern of attacks by ‘downtown kids’ who would watch the ATM from the parking garage across the street on ‘benefits day’ (about the 3rd of the month when social security checks were deposited) to identify people to assault and rob.” She calls the evidence “disturbing.”
Ovid’s siblings say he received Social Security benefits, which were garnished for unpaid student debt. Whether Fruichantie received benefits is not known.
Ovid’s family and some friends see both men’s assaults as part of a pattern of bias crimes against disabled homeless people.
“This was clearly more than a robbery that escalated,” Amanda Roth said in court. Ruth Gordon called the murder “a calculated and premeditated bias crime.” The killers “chose my son as their prey precisely because he was disabled, weak and vulnerable.”
Police say they investigated but found no pattern. During the investigation, Curry says, Eugene police found that earlier that year, “people frequenting downtown, many of them juveniles,” assaulted people on several occasions. Sometimes there were thefts, she says; sometimes not.
Her investigation led her to conclude that Ovid’s death was a robbery gone wrong. “I don’t think this was a situation where they said, ‘I hate homeless people, so let’s go beat a homeless person up.’ I think this was a situation of, ‘I want money, I want marijuana, how can I get it?’”
It’s teenagers who most frequently target the homeless. Experts at the National Coalition for the Homeless say “thrill seekers, primarily in their teens, are the most common perpetrators of violence” against homeless people. Ovid’s killing, Roth says, was a “thrill kill.”
Disabilities (including mental illness) comprise only 2 percent of hate crimes, according to FBI data. There is no federal legal protection for homeless victims of bias crimes, says Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. Oregon and Eugene are among 46 states and the vast majority of cities that lack such protections, Tars says.
Tars calls that gap “part of this larger broken approach to criminal justice.” Advocates would like to see greater legal protections for homeless people, but the fight is uphill, Tars says: “Not only is there no enhanced penalty, but there isn’t even a requirement to collect data on” crimes against homeless people.
Prosecutor Hasselman says that proving a crime was biased makes the state’s job more onerous. An alleged perpetrator’s motivations “are less important than what someone volitionally chose to do.”
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is tasked with enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination “on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion.” Homelessness doesn’t make the list. That division’s assistant attorney general, Eric Dreiband, nominated by President Trump, attended Harvard Divinity School at the same time as Ovid. Calls and messages to his spokespeople went unanswered.
The final chapters of Ovid’s case played out via video conferencing in spring 2020, amidst a pandemic. In separate hearings inside the Lane County Juvenile Justice Center, Kirkpatrick and Simmons were “adjudicated responsible,” in juvenile justice language. Kirkpatrick was found responsible for second-degree murder and second-degree assault; Simmons, for second-degree murder. “There was no independent jurisdiction for robbery for either,” prosecutor Erik Hasselman notes; other earlier charges were dismissed or “merged” into these.
Inside the nearly empty courtroom, Zachary Neal and Amanda Roth joined via streaming video from Las Vegas and Hollywood, anger and dismay clouding their faces. Other participants included Kirkpatrick, Berger, Hasselman, other attorneys and juvenile justice staff.
Kirkpatrick’s apology sounded sincere, if a bit childish.
“I want everyone to know that I truly am sorry for what I have done,” said Kirkpatrick, in a gray hoodless sweatshirt, hands folded on a beige table, near cubbies. “What I did is truly wrong in every way, shape or form. … There is not a day that goes by where I do not think about what I have done.”
“I allowed alcohol and drugs to get the best of me. I’m sorry that it was someone who was truly loved by family and friends. I wish it were me instead.”
Three weeks later, Simmons spoke in a similar video-based adjudication from Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, wiping her eyes with a tissue, her hair in a bun, white cotton knit shirt buttoned to the top, voice trembling.
“Before I was offered a plea deal, all I ever wanted to do was talk to the family and talk about how it impacted me,” she said. “It changed the way I looked at things, and I will never forget what happened. I dream about it every night, and I don’t think it will ever go away. All I can hope is someday I can save lives. And I’m sorry.”
Judge Jay McAlpin committed each to closed custody — not prison, but a juvenile justice approach that includes mental health treatment, medical care and sometimes “camps” — that can last until age 25, the end of the juvenile system’s authority. They could be released sooner.
Between November 30 and March 1, 2019, a multimedia work, “Fates,” debuted at the San Diego Museum of Art. It was created by Ovid’s brother-in-law, artist Nick Roth, and partially inspired by Ovid’s killing.
Artist Nick Roth’s piece “Fates,” featured at the San Diego Museum of Art and inspired by Ovid’s death. (Video courtesy of Nick Roth / Music by Kronos Quartet playing Terry’s Riley’s “Sun Rings: Earth Whistlers” from the “Terry Riley: Sun Rings” album.)
In ancient Roman and Greek mythology — including in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses — the Moirai, or Fates, are the three goddesses who control the threads, or destinies, of mortal lives. Did Clotho “the Spinner” weave Ovid’s thread in brilliant, dark colors, Lachesis “the Allotter” measure it from 1962 to 2018, and Atropos “the Unturnable” cut it barbarically?
Questions of volition aren’t much easier. Was the truth brought out, or justice served in Ovid’s case? Were Ovid’s murderers given a slap on the wrist because society fails to protect our unhoused, mentally ill neighbors? Or did two kids whose childhoods became social studies get a much-deserved chance at redemption?
In the last decade, a sea change has reshaped our understanding of adolescent brains, favoring a heavier weighting of adverse childhood experiences, adolescent brain science and trauma. Back in Measure 11’s heyday in Oregon, as Judge Chanti’s decision notes, a 13-year-old who committed a horrific homicide was convicted in adult court. In this case, Kirkpatrick, a month shy of 17, was adjudicated as a child. Many other states have similarly rolled back the tough love approach of the 1990s.
Ovid’s case suggests the change will be controversial. The prosecutor and detective say they’re appalled. “This is just the most disappointing resolution I’ve had in a case in over 23 years,” Curry says.
“This is not justice,” Hasselman said in Kirkpatrick’s final hearing. “Being at the helm of this particular prosecution has haunted me.”
Kirkpatrick’s attorney Berger’s response was a world apart.
“I would like to express my sorrow for people who don’t believe that Jonathan has empathy,” Berger said. “I’ve seen tremendous growth in Jonathan [and] look forward to watching Jonathan reach his potential.”
America’s homeless population was growing even before 40 million people lost their jobs in spring 2020. Tragically, we are facing possible rapid growth in our unhoused and mentally ill populations — and, experts say, growing numbers of attacks on them. Amanda Roth has said this case reveals “extreme cruelty and contempt for human life,” while Zachary Neal called the judgment “sickening and revolting.”
Ovid’s ashes sit in a pewter urn at the Roths’ Hollywood home. The family plans to scatter them at Sequoia National Park, after an Episcopal service. Healing may take longer.
Ovid’s friends, now flung to the heedless winds, grasp at silver linings, irony and humor.
“All things considered, he had a great life,” Chris Curnutt says.
“He’s going to be in heaven and we’re going to be in hell,” Shannon Greer jokes. “I hope he holds a hand out for us,” Winslow Dennis adds, with a chuckle.
On a Facebook remembrance group, one man mentions the irony that Ovid, a former teen addiction counselor, was killed by teens battling addiction. Ovid helped “countless” youths, he writes. If Jonny and Jessica could have just talked with Ovid, they “would have benefited” from it. “I know I did.”
Another friend sees only forgiveness.
“I know that when he was dying,” Jerry Harwell says softly, “and they were beating his brains out with a rock, he was asking God to forgive them.”
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When the rebels stormed Charlie Perrière’s house, he was sure his days were about to come to a swift and bloody end. The night before, 66-year-old Perrière, fearing what was coming, knelt down on the floor of his home in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. He began to pray.“God, I have no weapons, no army, I’m not a fighter. Tomorrow, it seems like the Séléka will enter Bangui,” he whispered, referencing the brutal rebel group that was about to topple the government. “I put all my belongings in your hands … please protect me.”
Hiding out in his large house in a leafy part of Bangui, not far from high-walled ambassadorial residences, Perrière feared for his life. When the militants stormed the grounds, brandishing guns and demanding the keys to a neighbor’s car parked in his driveway, there was little he could do. He did not have the keys, he told them.
“It was as if I had just poured oil onto the fire,” Perrièretells me when I meet him in the same courtyard three years later. He describes how the group of young men grew furious at his response, even though he had already handed over the keys to his own car. They started shooting in the air and gangingup on the slender man standing alone in his yard.
That was until one member of the group — a scrawny street kid brandishing a rusty machete — peered closer at Perrière and, his eyes growing wider, whispered something to the leader. The man turned around to stare at Perrière with a strange expression on his face.
Perrière held his breath.
“Charlie Perrière, really? Is it really you?” the fighter asked after a few seconds.
Suddenly, he was warmly patting the older man on the back.
“And then he began apologizing, and telling me, ‘My mom is simply fanatical about your music, my brother!’” says Perrière, smiling at me with amused disbelief as he recalls the moment from a chair in his verdant garden.
The leader told the gangsters to give Perrière his car keys back, and told the youths that no one was allowed to return and pillage this particular house.
Most people in the West would struggle to pinpoint the Central African Republic on a map. Its international claim to fame is the dire poverty of its citizens and its terrifying, bloody, seemingly never-ending wars. The 2013 war reached a peak when a mostly Muslim faction, Séléka, swept into Bangui, staging a coup d’état and eventually forcing the president to flee.This provoked a violent backlash from mainly Christian and Animist groups known as“Anti-Balaka” militias. Hundreds of thousands of citizens ran from their homes. Those who did not manage to escape were slaughtered, their bodies thrown in the river or stuffed down water wells. Youths armed with machetes, their eyes glistening in a drugged haze, spiked decapitated heads as trophies on sticks and paraded them around the streets. Aid workers watched helplessly as armed thugs took over the towns and villages, stringing human intestines across the roads as barriers — a gruesome warning to others to proceed no further.
Here in Bangui, one of the ways of finding normalcy amid the chaotic years of cries and gunshots has been through another form of sound — the country’s rich music tradition. Whether the rhythmic drumming of the tam–tam, the strumming of the guitar, or the bubbling sounds of the balafon, a xylophone of wood and animal skins — music is a constant here. And Perrière is one of its undisputed kings. His fame probably saved his life.
Years earlier, he was the leader of the favorite orchestra of one of the most notorious, colorful and strange despots in history, Jean Bédel Bokassa. Today Perrière is still considered a national star — yet, like every story involving the feared Bokassa, Perrière’spath to celebrity was far from a conventional one.
It was the late 1960s,and Perrière, a talented but struggling teenage musician, was tired of surviving on a shoestring. As he made preparations to leave his native country for a new life in the Congo, he had an unexpected meeting that would change his life.
Perrière was a star singer in his church choir,and he had been performing with an orchestra that was invited to play in front of Bokassa. After the concert, when the players were invited to salute the great leader, Perrière was summoned to report directly to the man himself. The prospect was exciting — but also terrifying.
Bokassa is often caricatured as one of Africa’s most tyrannical dictators, a ruler who fed his opponents to crocodiles, adored diamonds and women, and crowned himself as emperor of Central Africa. The anecdotes from his time abound with absurdities, stretching from the beginning to the end of his reign.The night he seized power in a coup d’état on New Year’s Eve in December 1965, he brought his deposed predecessor (who happened to be his distant cousin) to the palace and wrapped him in a tight hug before dispatching him to prison, notes historian Brian Titley in his book Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa.Following Bokassa’s ouster in 1979, the French troops who drained the emperor’s alligator pond at Villa Kolongo discovered bone fragments belonging to some 30 victims, writes historian Martin Meredith in his book The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. Mutilated bodies were also found in the residence’s refrigerator, while locals testified that others were regularly fed to the lions.
While these horror stories are well documented, few of the historical accounts of Bokassa pick up on one of the emperor’s greatest passions — music. A soldier who blitzed through the ranks to become the head of theCentral African army, once he became president, Bokassa realized that military might would only take him so far. As he sought to consolidate and aggrandize his power and influence both at home and abroad, he believed music would be an effective tool.
“Bokassa tried to use radio and musical groups as part of his effort to create a cult of personality to support his rule,” writes Jacqueline Cassandra Woodfork in her book Culture and Customs of the Central African Republic.And he was determined to make Perrière a part of these efforts.
Bokassa had heard Perrière sing, and upon making inquiries he was disappointed to learn of the youngster’s plans to leave the country.
So that night at the presidential palace in central Bangui, the despotic leader addressed the terrified musician in a kindly but firm tone — and one that left little room for doubt.
“He told me: ‘As head of state, I can’t forbid you from going to Congo, but…as a father, I wish that you wouldn’t go,’”recounts Perrière.“After that meeting, my mother had advised me that I had better stay,” adds Perrière, who quickly agreed. “If I had run away to Congo, it would have been like treason.”
So he stayed. But it was a long time before he heard from the great leader again. Months rolled by with no news, and Perrière wondered if Bokassa had forgotten about him.Then, one day, a presidential security vehicle showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Perrière’s mother’s house, sirens blasting. The president — at that point he had not yetappointed himself emperor — was summoning Perrière for another meeting at the palace.
This time Bokassa actually congratulated Perrière for staying put. Perrière recalls that the leader was seated at a long table with ministers around him. “He turned to me and said, ‘My son, do you know why I sent for you?’ I said, ‘No, your Excellency.’ And then he said, ‘It was to thank you, because I gave you a piece of advice and you respected it. That means that you are a nationalist at heart.’”
Perrière continues his story: “He then asked me why I had wanted to go, and I told him, ‘My father is dead, my mother is raising my 10 brothers all on her own, I am the oldest of the family and I need to help my mother. We have no help here, we have no means of developing [our lives].” He told Bokassa that his band played on rented instruments, which swallowed up most of their earnings.
Bokassa turned to his ministers and ordered them to procure instruments for what would become Bokassa’s “Imperial Orchestra.”This marked the start of Perrière’s decades-long career making music as a private bandmaster for one of the world’s most feared and murderous despots.
Despite their radically different statuses, Bokassa may have seen something familiar in the young Perrière. Bokassa himself was an orphan; his father had been killed in a dispute when Bokassa was 6 years old, and his mother killed herself soon after. As a teenager, Bokassa was educated in missionary schools and had initially planned to study for the priesthood, before joining the French Army when World War II erupted. After he helped to establish the newly independent country’s national army, Bokassaformed a music band among the military, dubbing it Commando Jazz, writes Luke Fowlie in The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture.
For Bokassa, music was a power-wielding political tool, so much so that he made his personal orchestra— called “Tropical Fiesta” — into a key tool of his global diplomacy, taking the musicians with him on state visits all over the world.
“He told me once: ‘Listen, Charlie, the young generation don’t understand the importance of music in a country. … It is the artists who enable others to get to know a country,’” recalls Perrière. “This was his goal: to introduce a country through its music.”
“He adored music,” says Aggas Zokoko, the orchestra’s lead singer and the band’s leader in recent decades. “I think the connection Bokassa had with musicians was unlike any other connection he had with others.”
Others have a more cynical take on the emperor’s personal orchestra. “He had what we call lafolie de grandeur,” that is, megalomania, says Alex Ballu, a veteran radio star and cultural journalist in the Central African Republic.“He needed musicians to travel with him, to augment his presence, to sing his praises and so on.”
Such practices were also common in neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), under Mobutu Sese Seko, a bespectacled dictator known for his distinctive leopard skin hat as well as mass violence and corruption.
“Popular groups were required to literally sing the praises of their leader,” writes Fowlie. “Bangui’s chosen orchestras became emissaries for the Bokassa government, touring internationally throughout Central and West Africa as well as Europe.”
Though Bokassa saw music as a diplomatic tool, he also loved it with an all-consuming passion that was obvious to all.
“Once, we were traveling to Vakaga (in north Central African Republic) when the plane was struck by lightning mid-flight and we almost crashed,” recalls Zokoko. Upon landing, some of the musicians were so shaken by the experience that they ran away and hid, refusing to perform that night.
“And Bokassa noticed and said: ‘OK, lower the mic down a bit for me. I will sing with you.’ And he did!”
While Zokoko describes the singing asmerely “not bad,” his eyes light up as he remembers the emperor getting more and more into the spirit, taking up a guitar and beginning to serenade one of his wives from the stage.
“It was a beautiful evening that I will never forget,” says Zokoko wistfully.
Bokassa also constructed the country’s first major recording studio in the grounds of Berengo, his palace near his home village and the place he envisioned as the future capital of the Central African empire. While some historians see the move as a cynical effort to win the love of the people through music, the country’s musicians benefited financially in a way that they have rarely done since.
“The first time I played for him it was in Berengo,” recalls Zokoko, who had been recruited by Perrière. He describes Bokassa sitting in the palace with his family, as the orchestra played purely for the leader’s personal pleasure.
“Sometimes we would just perform for him alone. He’d sit on the sofa. Afterward, he would say, ‘Thank you, my children.’”
Every aspect of each performance was meticulously planned, and the musicians, who had previously struggled to make ends meet, suddenly found themselves catapulted to stardom, traveling around the world, dressed to the nines.
“He would clad us in all the top fashions,” muses Zokoko. “We would play in front of all of these heads of states in beautiful suits.”
“He wanted all the artists to look good, to portray grandeur,” Ballu, the music journalist, says. “The ministers didn’t like the musicians much, as they would often be chatting up their wives,” he adds, laughing. “But Bokassa always defended them, and paid them good money.”
But it was far from all fun and games. “When you worked with the emperor, everything had to be done perfectly,”Perrière says. “By the book, just like in the army. … When the emperor loses his temper, everyone is in trouble,” he adds, recalling a bitter experience when he found this out for himself.
“Once, I sang a song that he didn’t like,” he recalls. “It was a song for his birthday.” Performed and broadcast live over the radio, the musicians hadn’t even had a chance to finish playing before “suddenly the curtains began closing in front of us. We turned around and there were armed security guards standing behind us, gun barrels pointing.” The next thing Perrière knew, he was being marched off to prison.
He spent one month behind bars, an experience which, shaking his head, he describes as “terrible.”
“My wife was traumatized. It was very difficult.”
Upon being let out, Bokassa summoned Perrière and explained to him the particular line in the song that he didn’t like, a lyric he deemed too insulting for Bokassa’s image as a strong man.
“You, the artists, everything you say or do, it’s heard by the whole world,” Bokassa told him. “You can build someone up or break someone easily. So the advice I’ve always given you is: ‘When you compose a song, make it go through a censor in order to avoid any problems.’”
From that point on, all of the songs went through a censor.
Perrière’s month in prison was far from a unique incident. Tropical Fiesta and other bands playing for the government had to comply with the emperor’s every wish. Fowlie writes that another orchestra, Centrafrican Jazz, was dissolved in 1975 at the height of its popularity, allegedly over a spat between Bokassa and his wife, who is said to have favored the group.(Some allege that the group became so popular — even with Bokassa’s mistresses — that the ruler split it up out of jealousy, according to an article by musician Sultan Zembellat.)
As Bokassa’s rule continued, he became more dictatorial and his eccentricities grew. He had maintained a historical admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte since his time as a young trainee in the French military, and during his reign this respect morphed into blind obsession, culminating with Bokassa crowning himself “Emperor of Central Africa” on December 4, 1977, the 173rd anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation.
Bokassa invited Pope Paul VIhimself to crown him. Though the pope, along with a multitude of other state leaders, declined the invitation, preparations for the coronation progressed full steam. To emulate Napoleon, Bokassa dressed himself in a 30-foot-long scarlet mantle, designed by the same atelier that had prepared Napoleon’s. It was decorated with pearls, diamonds and rubies.
“The whole country was mobilized to take part in the coronation,” Perrière remembers. “There were white horses brought especially from France, all the gold-gilded carriages… it was extraordinary.” The total cost was an eye-popping $20 million USD — a bill footed entirely by France — while the population of the Central African Republic was mired in deep poverty.
Just before the coronation, musicians from all over the country were asked to compose songs. Perrière’s entry was chosen as one of the official songs for the ceremony. “I was stuck for one week trying to compose it. I turned it over and over in my head. And afterward, it simply came to me, just like that.”
The song, titled “Révérence à Nos Souverains” (“Reverence to Our Sovereigns”), became a hit, and it is still featured on compilation albums of African music.
Alongside the Imperial Orchestra, other renowned musicians were invited to attend, among them Manu Dibango, a star from neighboring Cameroon. The scenes that greeted him upon arriving at the presidential palace in Bangui surpassed his wildest expectations, Dibango wrote in his autobiography Three Kilos of Coffee.
“Money flowed like water,” Dibango wrote. “The church was sumptuously decorated.”But the night ended somberly. “That evening by moonlight, we were giving our concert when a violent storm suddenly erupted, the carriages were soaked, the projectors broke down, the musicians got drenched. The dignitaries thought only of hiding themselves in their Mercedeses.”
And, just like a sudden tropical storm, two years later, Bokassa’s swift downfall began.
The key event that triggered his dethroning came in 1979, when around 100 schoolchildren were massacred at Bangui’s central prison, following Bokassa’s orders to arrest them. The children had been taken while protesting an order that forced them to buy overpriced school uniforms made in a factory owned by one of Bokassa’s wives.An independent judicial inquiry subsequently concluded that the prison massacre was carried out “almost certainly” with the personal participation of the emperor, writes Meredith in The Fate of Africa.
The incident proved to be the final straw for the French, who had been bankrolling Bokassa and his government.In September 1979, while Bokassa was away on a state visit to Libya, French troops helped restore former president David Dacko (Bokassa’s cousin) to power. Bokassa fled by airplane into exile on the Ivory Coast. The Imperial Orchestra was disbanded, and some of its musicians, Perrière included, moved abroad.
Several years later, in 1986, Bokassa returned to the Central African Republic, hoping to be forgiven and welcomed back.Instead, the deposed emperor was arrested, marched off to jail and then put on trial.
Today, upon landing at Bangui M’Poko InternationalAirport, the first glimpse any visitor catches of the Bokassa era are the small, toylike airplanes from the 1960s and ’70s, in fadedyellow, red and white.For years, people have believed that the planes are haunted by the ghost of the emperor,since it was Bokassa, Titley writes, who established the national airline, and the small airplanes date back to that time. During the 2013 war, the planes gained an unexpected — if ill-fated — second life as shelters for people fleeing marauding gangs.The displaced have since been forced to leave the airport and return to rebuild their destroyed homes. More than 40 years after Bokassa’s lavish and garish coronation, the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by war and strife, the ongoing pillaging of natural wealth, and rampant corruption. The avenues Bokassa built are crumbling, the buildings gutted and reduced to skeletal remains, weeds growing in what used to serve as kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. Life expectancy is just 52 years — the shortest anywhere on the planet, according to the World Bank.
“Bangui la Coquette” (“Bangui the Flirt”) was the city’s nickname back in the Bokassa era. It’s now “Bangui la Roquette” (“Bangui the Rocket”), the locals quip wryly, due to the brutal fighting that has destroyed many parts of the city.
Bokassa’s Berengo palace has been extensively pillaged. When Perrière was being held at gunpoint in his front yard, Berengo was already being used as a base by child soldiers fighting with a motley crew of armed gangs, answering to the highest–paying militia leader of the day. In recent years, Russian soldiers and mercenaries have descended on the former royal palace, setting up training camps for soldiers inside the grounds, according to a 2019 CNN report. In exchange, Russian companies reportedly “won” exploration rights at a number of sites to look for diamonds and gold.
And yet, when I visited Bangui on a reporting trip in January 2018 — my fourth one after meeting Perrière in 2016 — I could still feel Bokassa’s presence in the ruined city. Vintage French magazines like Paris Match with Bokassa on the cover were being sold on the streets, locals pointed out the sprawling boulevards and other structures built by the former ruler, while the music and songs of the Bokassa era rang out around the city.
And Tropical Fiesta is playing once again. One night, I went to a show. The venue was in a garden next to a ditch, off the main road in Bangui. Lit up sparsely by a few functioning street lamps, it was guarded by a half-broken gate.
A balafon player began striking a few notes. A drumbeat, a clash of cymbals, and then guitarists, singers, and dancers emerged onstage, clapping, smiling, and dancing to the complex beat of a Central African rumba.
As the music got started, more and more people began to arrive, many middle-aged, but also several youngsters, as well as children weaving inbetween the adults’ legs.
Clutching large bottles of beer, the older men looked up at the stage with a faraway gleam in their eyes. The women, wearing figure-hugging dresses made out of colorful cloth, shook their hips languidly.
Before long it became a party — families, friends sitting around plastic tables, chatting and waving away mosquitoes, while others invited friends and lovers to dance.
Zokoko, who now heads Tropical Fiesta, was there, getting ready to sing, surrounded by friends and fans. The violence in and around Bangui had died down, and the usual rhythm of life had slowly begun to resume. Just a few years earlier, during the fighting that swept through Bangui in 2013, live music had virtually stopped, Zokoko explains to me during a pause in his performance. It resumed slowly at first, with people dancing only until 8 or 9 p.m. and then going home because of the fear of attacks. “And we don’t make as much money as before,” he adds bitterly.
Yet the songs played on, people sang along, their eyes half-closed, smiling as if trying to spirit themselves back to a different era, before the country was riven by war and armed gangs.
Alongside the music, a certain nostalgia for the era of Bokassa had emerged. Several years ago, youth activists dug out the emperor’s throne, long stripped of its diamonds and rubies, from a dump behind the city’s main stadium. Painting it a bright yellow to represent the gold that once encrusted it, the youths decided to set the throne on a display on one of the capital’s busiest avenues.
“We were furious to find this object abandoned for decades” Heritier Doneng, a youth leader of Patriotes Centrafricains, a group that describes its aim as defending the country’s cultural values, tells meon my reporting trip in 2016.
“Yes, people speak of Bokassa because they’ve had enough of this suffering, of the misery without end that we are experiencing here in CAR,” he adds. “Bokassa serves as an example, a model of the economic revolution. In his time, we were the best in Central Africa, now we are the worst.”
Bokassa hasearned a reputation as a “builder,” responsible for commissioning Bangui’s spacious boulevards, stadiums and many other buildings. “During the reign of His Majesty, the town of Bangui was more beautiful than Brazzaville, more beautiful than Libreville, than Yaoundé, Malabo and N’Djamena,” says Zokoko, naming neighboring capitals.“Today we are back to zero.”
“It seems that people have forgiven him a lot,” Perrière muses about his former boss.“Because all the regimes who came after couldn’t do what he did. Those rulers who came after brought a lot more suffering since.”
After a moment’s pause, Perrière adds quietly: “Bokassa was a dictator, he took decisions himself. Now it’s a democracy, things are moving slowly, and people are beginning to miss Bokassa.”
Rehabilitation of the reputation of a nation’s former authoritarian and brutal strongman is a familiar trend, seen everywhere from the enduring veneration of Stalin in Russia to the nostalgia for Brazil’s violent military dictatorship of the 1970s.
“Bokassa had his brutal side, particularly toward the end, but he was also the only of CAR’s presidents who had a vision for the country and built things,” says Yale University professor Louisa Lombard, who has published three books on the Central African Republic.
Lombard describes Bokassa’s reign as “a time of calm and hope in the country, in a region that had not yet turned to full-on civil war, and at a time when France was still providing a lot of support.” It is not surprising then, Lombard adds, that most people look back on the time with nostalgia, pinning the credit on Bokassa. “The country feels utterly humiliated. …There is an enormous desire for national solutions to the country’s problems.”
“Bokassa always used to say, ‘You can’t feed people with politics.’ But today, everything has become political,” Zokoko says. In the 2016 presidential election, there were 30 candidates, inspiring Zokoko to compose a song titled “My Beautiful Country, Where Everyone Wants to be President.”
Since Bokassa’s demise, numerous politicians have sought out Zokoko and other members of the former Imperial Orchestra, asking to have songs written for them. Sometimes those requests are impossible to turn down.
The same year that the Séléka descended upon Perrière’s front yard, they tried to storm a venue where Zokoko’s band was playing. “Someone from the Séléka came with 16 armed thugs and wanted to get inside. And I said, ‘No, no, it’s Mother’s Day celebrations there, you can’t go in.’ And so, they realized who I was, and asked me to compose a song for them!” Zokokoadds, explaining that even though he was only paid 5,000 XFA ($8.50) for it, he was relieved to get the armed group off his back.
“Some politicians still haven’t paid me,” he notes.
Today, the violence has subsided, and the atmosphere is more free, though the concert scene has not yet fully returned, and violence pops up sporadically, such as in November 2017, when a concert for peace by a local band playing was derailed by a grenade attack that killed four people and injured 20 others.
Today, the music of Bokassa’s band is heard everywhere: at weddings, birthdays, funerals and more, serving as a kind of social glue, a way to start repairing the splintered communities throughout the country.
“We sing about togetherness,” says Zokoko. “We sing the songs of yesterday, in Sango” — the primary language here — “and in French. We are not politicians, we are musicians, but we want to give this ambience of social cohesion, so that it comes back to us.”
Sipping a beer and laughing at the 2018 concert, Pascal, a beefy former director general of a security company with the look of a nightclub bouncer, says he comes to hear the band play whenever he can.
“Musicians are like philosophers,” he says wistfully. “They have the power to reunite everyone with their songs.” He describes the impact of the band’s diverse membership, which includes people from various religious groups, as well as some who are typically marginalized by society here, such as a musician with a disability.“Christians, Muslims, disabled — all united. We are brothers and sisters, it’s the politicians who wanted to divide us. God knows, the solidarity between us will return. Look around:Everyone is here,” he says, gesturing at the bustling compound.
Perrière, however, is not at the party. After Bokassa was deposed, Perrière emigrated to France in order to get treatment for his son who was sick. There, he worked a succession of different jobs, including in a coffee house, before later deciding to return home and resume his musical career. But he did not rejoin Tropical Fiesta; instead he returned to his religious music roots.He became a born-again evangelical Christian and turned to composing mostly religious songs — as well as to moonlighting as an occasional wedding singer, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye as he hands me a CD of songs he recently recorded for a local bride and groom. The studio in his house is named SDJ — “Studio of Jesus,” he tells me. Today, he divides his life between Paris and Bangui, living off of profits from his music career,as well as the money earned by a Bangui restaurant that he runs, which caters to the country’s elites.
As for Bokassa, despite being sentenced to death twice, first in absentia while he was abroad, and then in a courtroom in 1987, his sentence was gradually eroded in the ensuing years. In 1993, as part of a general amnesty, he was set free, having served just six years in prison. Perrière was among those waiting at the jail entrance for the former emperor, who had newly reestablished his own strong belief in God. Bokassa emerged from behind bars clad head to toe in a white robe and declaring, “I am the thirteenth apostle.”
Bokassa died in November 1996 of a heart attack at age 75, and he is survived by as many as 60 children, according to theNew York Times’ obituary.In 2010, then-president François Bozizé officially rehabilitated Bokassa, and even went as far as to posthumously award him the state’s medal of honor, declaring that Bokassa has “given a great deal for humanity.”
For Perrière, his former boss remains somewhat of a mystery. He found Bokassa both paternal and petrifying.
“Everyone was scared of him. Everyone. It was standard,” says Perrière, while at the same time going on to describe how in his more tender moods the emperor would call him “my son,” and how in turn he and others would call Bokassa “Papa.”
Perrière speaks of his time with Bokassa with a sense of wonder, replaying scene by scene in his mind and then pausing to remember more.
As for Tropical Fiesta, Perrière is glad some of his songs continue to be sung and danced to throughout Bangui and beyond, and he stays in touch with his former bandmates. “I help them, I give them advice,” Perrière says, smiling. “They play old songs, but they also have a new repertoire.”The fact that the musicians of Tropical Fiesta did not put down their instruments, that they have continued this long and even play new songs, offers a glimmer of hope for the country.
“Many groups sing for reconciliation,” he adds quietly, after a moment’s reflection.“Whether it’s effective or not, everyone needs to make their contribution for peace.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported some of Inna’s reporting from the Central African Republic as part of its Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
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The Deke Duncan show on Radio 77 had it all — the latest hits, bouncy jingles, and a DJ who was born to be on the airwaves. In the 1970s it ran around the clock, several days a week, playing to the smallest audience in the world: Deke’s only listener was his wife. Radio 77 was based in a shed in Duncan’s backyard in a small English town, and everything on the show was a figment of his imagination. “My ultimate ambition would be to broadcast my radio station to the rest of Stevenage,” he told the BBC’s Nationwide TVshow, when they visited his shed in 1974.
In a new podcast episode from Snap Judgement andNarratively, Duncan, now 75, reveals how he made up the news, the weather, and even the commercials — and kept Radio 77 alive for over forty years. It was Britain’s ‘pirate’ radio stations that inspired him, he said, recalling the rock’n’roll ships that broadcast illegally from international waters in the 1960s. But the young DJ’s dreams had been dashed when the BBC turned down his job application.
“They said, ‘I suggest you go away and get yourself a real job,’” Duncan recalled. (Check out an original Radio 77 show, recorded in 1974.)
Instead, he carried on “broadcasting” Radio 77 in his back yard. He was joined by friends Richard St. John and Clive Christie, and the trio took turns in the “air chair.” They ran Radio 77 like a professional station, filling space between the pop hits with fake ads for the Radio 77 record store, which of course didn’t exist. “It was just so much fun,” Duncan recalled. “I just wanted to do it forever.”
Duncan’s radio aspirations quickly took over his life: He traveled to the United States to try out as a radio jock, but failed. His friends moved on, and his wife left him. The only constant in his life was his make-believe radio show, where he could slip on his headphones and enjoy his imaginary world. Somehow, he kept the station running, on and off, for forty years.
Then, in 2018, something amazing happened that would make Deke Duncan’s wildest dreams come true.
Listen below to the “Radio 77” episode of Snap Judgement by Jeff Maysh, co-produced by Narratively. (Our story starts around the 3-minute-30-second mark of this episode.)
It’s March 14, 2020, and my dad hurries to my brother’s house to warn him that “the government is going to be seizing things.”
Rarely has my dad ever gone to my brother’s house, especially unannounced.
“I’m worried about you,” my brother tells him. “And I wish the reason you came over was to say hi like a normal person.”
“Here we go again,” my dad says. He tells my brother to take what he’s saying “with a grain of salt,” then leaves in hurry.
It is then that my brother and I realize my dad is lost in an abyss of conspiracy theories.
A slender green toy alien sits inside a water-filled pickle jar in my dad’s garage, perched on a wooden ledge in front of old Christmas and birthday cards pinned to the wall. Photos of my brother, sister and I when we were younger are there too, along with drawings we made in kindergarten. Beneath this green plastic being, mechanic tools litter the ledge. Dust covers everything: nuts, bolts, wrenches, ratchets, sockets and the pickle jar.
This toy alien in the pickle jar has been in my dad’s garage for as long as I can remember. Its black oval eyes peer out at its surroundings, while its small black hole of a mouth makes it look like it’s gasping for breath. As the years have gone by, its green color has blended into the water, giving the alien a murky appearance. The alien is isolated from the rest of the world by thin glass. Viewers can peer in and see its suffering. Someone could easily untighten the lid, pour out the water, and the alien would finally be free, but no one ever has. Much like the alien trapped in the pickle jar, my dad has become trapped, not behind glass, but in his own mind.
My dad is a conspiracy theorist. Among other things, he firmly believes that aliens exist and that the government is keeping that fact from the public. This interest has grown to consume his thoughts, and his idea of reality has become distorted. Isolation, a lack of close friends and family, the internet, and poor influences have caused him to doubt the reality of the world. In the past year, it’s become difficult to even have a normal conversation with him.
Also in the past year, he’s found a network that affirms his beliefs. This network is destroying his life and relationships with those around him. It is known as QAnon.
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theorist group with enough influence and reach that the FBI has called it a domestic terrorism threat. Its members were the driving force behind Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that posited that Bill and Hillary Clinton were running a child sex-trafficking ring in the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. That theory led a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch to travel to the nation’s capital and point a rifle at an employee of the pizzeria.
Since then, the child sex-trafficking ring conspiracy has grown to become an all-encompassing theory of global power, supposedly involving the Obamas, the Bushes, the Vatican, Disney, Hollywood, the CIA and many others — including the FBI, following the release of their document identifying QAnon as a terrorism threat. All of these groups are allegedly involved in a “deep state” plot to control the world.
The QAnon story itself began on October 28, 2017, when an anonymous user named “Q,” whose name references Q-level clearance at the Department of Energy, made a post on 4chan, an online imageboard popular among conspiracy theorists, in a thread called “The Calm Before the Storm.” The thread’s name alludes to remarks made by President Trump during a White House dinner with military leaders on October 7, 2017. After the dinner, Trump elusively told reporters that “this is the calm before the storm.” When asked what he meant, he said, “You’ll see.” The 4chan post, released shortly after the president’s remarks, claimed that Hillary Clinton was in the process of being extradited for her supposed sex-trafficking crimes. The storm had begun.
“I remember seeing Q on CNN and Fox, and initially I didn’t believe in it,” my dad tells me. (During a 2018 Trump rally in Tampa, Florida, which was broadcast on all of the major news networks, QAnon followers stood behind Trump holding up a giant letter Q and signs in the shape of a Q imprinted with the American flag.) My dad also recalls when QAnon began to pop up on 4chan and YouTube, where he spent hours on weekends and late at night looking into various conspiracy theories, from well-trod theories like whether the moon landing was faked and 9/11 was an inside job, to the more outlandish, like a theory that the U.S. government is controlled by a shapeshifting race of aliens.
“Q? What is that?” he’d ask himself whenever he’d see posts from the anonymous user. Eventually, he no longer saw Q posts on 4chan and wondered what happened to them. After doing some investigating, he found Q on the imageboard 8chan, an even more unruly version of 4chan where anti-Semites, homophobes, white supremacists and other hostile groups thrived. But then 8chan disappeared from the web altogether.
The real reason 8chan was removed from the web, in August 2019, was because its network provider, Cloudflare, cut service after a mass shooter in El Paso, Texas, posted a racist manifesto on the site days before his deadly rampage — not the first mass shooting connected to 8chan. My dad wasn’t aware of that, and to him, the major news networks’ dismissal of QAnon, 4chan’s mysterious removal of the thread, and 8chan’s disappearance could only mean one thing: “They’re trying to cover something up.”
Hillary Clinton never was extradited and the storm never began. But the anonymous user named Q quickly caught the attention of more and more members of the 4chan community, who began dissecting Q’s cryptic posts to understand what was actually being said. Q followers refer to the posts as bread crumbs.
The bread crumbs usually feature abbreviations and acronyms, which make them difficult for followers to decipher, while some information, Q followers say, is intentionally false. None of that has stopped “Anons,” as the followers of Q call themselves, from drawing conclusions and speculations, which they share across various social media sites. In one post, Q wrote the word “mockingbird,” with no context, and also included, “HRC detained, not arrested (yet).” Followers assumed Q was referring to Operation Mockingbird, an early 1950s CIA program that attempted to manipulate major news networks for propaganda purposes. Now, the thinking goes, major news networks were being manipulated to cover up the fact that Hillary Clinton was in detainment.
Dustin Nemos, a former real estate agent from Delaware, now an Anon, tells me that he was “there from the very beginning, and started to look at the claims as evidence.” It didn’t take long for him to become convinced of the legitimacy of Q’s claims, because “there were so many coincidences.” These “coincidences” often involved Trump himself promoting QAnon theories, either directly or indirectly, by retweeting posts by Anons.
Nemos relates the Q posts to a game. “They play this credibility game and show they’re legitimate without anyone pointing out any national security violations,” he says. Because the posts are cryptic, and deliberately contain false information, Nemos believes QAnon is able to avoid government officials going after them. “It’s almost like an intelligence operation at work.”
In December of 2017, Nemos created a YouTube channel where he would interpret bread crumbs by Q. The channel was a success, gaining 50,000 subscribers, but by February of 2018 it had been banned from YouTube. “I started seeing a sort of organized resistance from the fake news,” he says. “They were attacking it.”
The primary belief of QAnon followers is that the deep state is working against President Trump. Major media corporations are controlled by the deep state, and any criticism of Trump is made because these fake news networks are trying to protect themselves from the upcoming “storm,” which will bring about mass arrests. “The Q movement was designed for President Trump to go around the corrupt Department of Justice the same way he goes around fake news by using Twitter,” Nemos says.
Nemos reestablished his presence on YouTube in March of 2018 and has since amassed nearly 100,000 subscribers. And he’s only one of many. He believes that if all of the QAnon YouTubers combined their viewership, they’d have numbers that “match fake news websites like CNN.” There’s also a network of what Nemos considers “independent journalists” reporting on their findings about Q.
Sarah Westall, a former business owner from Minnesota, is among these “journalists.” She doesn’t consider herself an avid follower of Q, but she is interested in “trying to figure out what it really is.” Her writing wraps itself around narratives constructed by Q followers. “They really want what’s best for the country,” she tells me. “They’re tired of letting the deep state control everything.”
Westall’s distrust of the U.S. government began rising during the 2008 recession, when she lost her business and then set out to understand the cause by investigating the financial system. “I learned how corrupt our banking system was and everything else,” Westall tells me. She expanded her investigations to include other aspects of society and couldn’t believe the information she uncovered. “There’s this thing called truth trauma,” she says, “and I’ve got it.”
Westall’s investigations eventually led her to Jimmy Rothstein, a retired New York City Police Department officer. Rothstein told her that while he was a police officer, he worked on child sex-trafficking cases, which led him to unearth that America’s elites were involved.
In 2019, Westall learned that a group of Anons were planning on publishing a book of their findings. She offered her interview with Rothstein, and it was accepted. QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening was released on February 26, 2019, and went on to become among the top 15 books sold on Amazon.
Nemos, who also contributed to the book, was not surprised by its success. “The demand for the truth was out there,” he says.
My dad has always had an interest in aliens — a fascination with their possible existence. I remember watching science fiction movies with him late at night when I was very young, which often gave me nightmares. When I was about 8, we watched one that involved a young man in the military being abducted by aliens. The young man couldn’t recall everything that had happened to him, but he would have flashbacks that played out on screen. During one, a group of gray aliens stood at a control deck, taking notes, while the man was chained naked and a drill closed in on his urethra. He let out a chilling cry. My dad watched our old box TV with intrigue as the cheap sci-fi flick played. My heart raced, and I covered my eyes.
This fascination with aliens increased after the debut of the History network’s show Ancient Aliens. My parents divorced when I was 9, and whenever I’d visit my father’s house, he’d have hours of the show recorded. I’d watch episodes with him sometimes, and we’d talk about the possibility that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids, or whether there were giants buried in the Serpent Mound of Adams County, Ohio, or if Hindu texts contained references to an intergalactic battle held in Earth’s sky. At this point though, it was a casual interest for him. He still also watched NASCAR and the local news, and worked on his car or in the yard.
Not long after my parents divorced, my dad’s life came to a virtual standstill. My mom gained full custody of my twin sister and me, as well as our older brother, and my dad wasn’t able to see any of us very often. He kept the same box TV, phone and poor internet service for years. He developed paranoia about social media and the possibilities of tracking. He gradually isolated himself from the outside world. Lately, I’ve only known him to leave Orange County, California, every couple of years to go watch races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Research suggests that conspiracy theorists tend to be isolated from their peers and turn to conspiratorial beliefs for a sense of community. This feeling of belonging, the psychological trait of wanting to be a part of something larger than the individual, is believed to be due to a lack of self-certainty.
This research rings true when it comes to my dad. I’m ashamed to say that there has always been a certain distance between us. Rarely have we said “I love you” to each other or taken an interest in each other’s personal lives. It is a passive relationship, and it’s one of my greatest regrets. Clearly, my dad was lonely during the years after the divorce, and that’s when he turned to conspiracy theories.
After 10 years of not living with my dad, my sister and I moved back into his house in 2016. My mom had decided to move to San Diego, and my sister and I, who had established our lives in Orange County, didn’t want to leave. (My older brother had already moved out on his own.)
It quickly became clear to us that our father’s interest in conspiracy theories had developed into an obsession. After we moved back in, he decided to purchase a new TV. Shortly afterward, the internet, which at the time was so slow it hardly existed, was upgraded to high speed. The fast internet and new features of the upgraded TV made the outside world much more available to him. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The ability to search through endless amounts of information has not opened his eyes to different possibilities. It has closed them.
Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, tells me that he became concerned about the conspiracy group after Charlie Kirk, founder and president of the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, retweeted a Twitter post from QAnon on July 7, 2018. “I started to realize that QAnon was creeping into the mainstream,” View says. The tweet falsely claimed that the Department of Justice had released a chart showing that the number of human-trafficking arrests under Trump had been far greater than under Obama. (Kirk deleted the retweet the next day, after receiving criticism from other prominent Twitter users like David Frum of The Atlantic.)
“They often told me very similar stories,” View says, recounting his interviews with QAnon members at the January 2020 Red Pill Roadshow in Tampa, Florida. All my life I’ve known something is off — that the global narrative is an illusion and there’s something beneath the surface, they would tell him. “A lot of QAnon people were conspiratorial before it came around, but this gave them a framework,” says View. “If you believe anything off the beaten path then you’re welcome to the family.”
QAnon members believe that “the Cabal,” or the deep state, is operated by people in the upper echelons of society who kidnap children and perform sacrificial rituals on them. They believe that members of the Cabal record each other raping or eating children and use it as potential blackmail against each other. The only way that someone can enter the Cabal is if they’re willing to participate in these blackmail recordings, to ensure that they will never betray the group.
QAnon members tend to see every major event through this same lens. Everything leads back to the Cabal. Shortly after Harvey Weinstein (who Anons believe is part of the Cabal) was convicted of rape, Bob Iger stepped down as CEO of Disney. When Q posted about the Iger resignation on 8kun (a rebranded version of 8chan), with the message “the silent war continues,” Anons speculated that Iger was a member of the Cabal and Weinstein was going to expose him.
Although the alleged workings of the Cabal sound bizarre, Dustin Nemos and Sarah Westall firmly believe it’s the truth. “We have our alien people, we have our conspiracy people, but most people [who are] part of the Q movement just want to see justice in a lawful way and see the country made great again,” Nemos says.
Many who follow Q attach their own conspiratorial ideas to the theory, which has led to some divisions in the ranks. The most notable division is about whether John F. Kennedy Jr. is Q.
On April 8, 2018, Q wrote a post in which he linked JFK Jr. to President Trump, then referenced JFK Jr.’s death in a plane crash in 1999 and Hillary Clinton’s election to the Senate in 2000. The post prompted QAnon members to speculate that Clinton was responsible for JFK Jr.’s death, while others posited that JFK Jr. had never died at all. Instead, these Anons now believe that Q is JFK Jr., evidenced by the fact that the shape of his gravesite resembles the letter Q. Furthermore, they believe JFK Jr.’s ultimate purpose for talking through Q is to let QAnon followers know that he’ll be Trump’s running mate in 2020. Some say that Vincent Fuska, a QAnon member with a large following, is actually JFK Jr.
Nemos doesn’t believe in that conspiracy theory within the conspiracy theory, and he even says he has debunked it. While visiting a Trump hotel, he spotted Vincent Fuska and sized him up. “JFK Jr. was 6 foot 3 inches. I’m around 5 foot 10 inches. I took a picture with Vincent and confirmed he couldn’t possibly be JFK Jr.,” he tells me. Yet the JFK Jr. theory has persisted among QAnon followers, including my dad.
In this day and age, it’s surprisingly easy to advance such a theory. In the past, a conspiracy theorist would have to “go to the library, do some research about [their] theories, print out some pamphlets and get someone else to join,” View says. “That isn’t the case anymore. Now you can make a tweet that JFK Jr. isn’t dead and get thousands of retweets.”
During the two-year period that I lived with my dad, he’d always want to talk about conspiracy theories with me. I’d usually dismiss his theories or let them go in one ear and out the other. But sometimes, I’d listen.
While I was taking an astronomy course at my local community college, we learned about the moon. After class I went home and talked to my dad about it, about how the moon looks like it’s constantly in the same position from our perspective because of the rate at which it rotates; how it’s lit up because the sun is shining on it; and how it has different phases because of its rotation around the earth. My dad interjected: “That’s what you are told to believe.” To him, the moon is a hollow object that was either created by the government or was put there by an alien force.
In 2018 I moved out to attend the University of California, Irvine. I don’t live far from my dad now; it’s only a 30-minute drive. I occasionally visit to talk about school and see how he’s doing. Each visit though, he seems to be falling deeper into the conspiratorial abyss. One day, I told him about a story I did for my school’s radio station about China’s efforts to grow life on the dark side of the moon. “You think that’s all they got up there?” my dad responded. He proceeded to show me pictures of a military base that has supposedly been established on the moon. The pictures were grainy, and to my eyes they were clearly of rock formations that merely looked like buildings, but he genuinely believed them to be proof. Again, I didn’t know what to say. The encounters were frustrating, because he’d go on for hours connecting each theory and explaining that the government was trying to keep people from knowing this information.
Something happened though, and at the time I didn’t realize that it was because he’d become heavily invested in the overarching QAnon conspiracy theory. He had stopped watching major news networks entirely and was now consumed by information about numerous intersecting conspiracies. He began talking about the Vatican, top government officials being involved in a pedophile ring, the significance of JFK Jr., satanic rituals, and of course, Hillary Clinton.
By now my dad’s beliefs were driving him further away from his family. My sister continued living with him after I went away to school. Periodically, she’d send me text messages saying that he was scaring her and she didn’t know what to do. Whenever he’d get off work, he’d watch conspiracy theory videos on YouTube that purported to explain how various world events were connected. He persisted in trying to show them to her, and whenever she’d turn him down, he’d become frustrated and yell at her, insisting, “This is what’s wrong with your generation! None of you want to know the truth about how the world works!”
Then my older brother came to visit our dad, along with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was born late last year. It was shortly after the news had broken that Jeffrey Epstein had committed suicide. The event plagued my dad’s mind because of his belief that Epstein was a member of the deep state. Rather than speak with his son and grandchildren, he went on a rant about the government’s involvement with Epstein and other conspiracies. Frustrated, my brother told him to stop. Which he did. Then he asked if he could show them something.
He played a YouTube video that showed images of violence and destruction, along with an ominous message: The government is trying to kill everybody.
“Dad, can you turn that off, please, nobody wants to hear that,” my brother told him.
I also went to visit my dad shortly after Epstein’s death. At the time, my sister was planning a trip to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through the northern part of the country. She’d spent months planning the trip, but hadn’t told my dad. She was nervous that he’d tell her not to go, and she feared he’d be jealous that she was going on the journey with my mom’s new husband. While I was visiting, she finally built up the gumption to tell him, a week before she was supposed to leave.
He was taken aback and seemed in disbelief. When he asked her why, she responded, “Because I feel like I haven’t done anything with my life.” With tears welling up, she added, “I feel like I’m stuck.”
My dad became rageful and yelled at her, “You’re stuck! Your life is stuck? I’ve been stuck for over 20 years!”
He hounded her, trying to look her in the face, as she stared at the cement floor, tears falling. He stuck out his index finger, while clutching the others, and pointed it directly at his temple. “Every single day I want to put a bullet in my head!”
My sister went to her room, crying, and I stayed with my dad in the garage. He was audibly annoyed, but still expressed worry about his daughter. After some time, he pulled out his laptop and showed me another conspiracy theory.
This made me consider that, perhaps, conspiracy theories were a way for him to escape his surrounding world, allowing him to avoid the reality of his life.
My dad had had a lonely childhood. His own father had left the family when my dad was young, and his mother was emotionally detached. From what I’ve been able to piece together, he seemed to rely on the guidance of others to mold his worldview, often taking whatever information was handed to him. He’s told me that while growing up he encountered many Vietnam veterans who told him “crazy shit,” and he’s talked often about his first boss, who seems to have left quite an impression on him.
He was a skilled mechanic even when he was still in high school. He often reminisces about the time an auto shop owner came to his 10th-grade class and asked, “Who’s the best mechanic in this school?”
My dad instantly stood up: “I am. There’s not a single person here who knows a car as well as I do.”
Satisfied by the answer, the shop owner offered him an apprenticeship.
This shop owner, an older man with red hair and a Scottish drawl my dad still likes to poke fun at, became a source of guidance for him. He gave my dad the opportunity to practice his future profession, and also offered musings on life (and provided alcohol). I imagine my dad standing in the garage of the auto shop, sipping a beer, with this Scottish man standing before him. Drills blare and hydraulic jacks move cars up and down. “Listen kid, there’s a lot you don’t understand about the world,” he tells him.
I imagine my dad in that pivotal moment. I picture him feeling hesitant, then thinking to himself, Maybe he’s right?
Anons refer to believing in the Cabal as being “red-pilled.” The idea comes from the science fiction film The Matrix, in which Morpheus, a futuristic rebel, gives a regular cubicle worker named Thomas Anderson (the soon-to-be Neo) the option to take either a red pill or a blue pill. The blue pill will keep him ignorant, returning him to the world as he has always known it, while the red pill will strip away the facade and awaken him to the shocking truth about reality. The parallel of political party colors is obvious as well, as followers of Q tend to be Republican.
The idea of waking up from a dreamlike state and confronting reality isn’t anything new. It stems back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks, notably to Plato’s allegory of the cave, which tells the story of a group of prisoners forced to interpret the world based on the shadows they see projected on the wall of a cave. One prisoner decides that he wants to see the outside, breaks free, and goes on an intellectual journey to understand the true meaning of the world. He eventually returns to urge the other prisoners to leave, but they dismiss him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free. The allegory is essentially about humans being willfully blind, for fear of learning the true nature of the world.
In 21st-century America, the shadows on the cave wall are mass media networks, which the general public, who are the prisoners, are forced to watch because of the Cabal. The Anons view themselves as those who have escaped the cave. It’s ironic because the cryptic posts that Q provides his followers act as shadows. The modern world has become insular, and people are able to dictate what information they feed themselves. Anons choose Q. The problem with QAnon, according to Travis View, is that “they’re saying to reject everything. Don’t trust any outside sources — except what we provide for you.”
They believe that once the “oncoming storm” that Trump elusively mentioned in 2017 is complete, it will bring about a “Great Awakening,” a period when mass arrests will occur and “people wake up to the way things really are,” as Nemos puts it.
I try to imagine: What would it be like to believe in this alternative narrative? Would it be terrifying?
As COVID-19 has taken hold of the world, major news networks have tirelessly reported on its unfolding. But Anons and “independent journalists” who look to Q for guidance have reported on the pandemic in a different way. Although Q has been silent about the virus, Anons have decided to construct their own narrative about what the outbreak implies. They believe that the virus is the storm they’ve been expecting. While some Anons believe lockdown restrictions have been put in place for the deep state to exercise their authority, and have taken to the streets to protest, others say COVID-19 was introduced to the public as a military operation to weed out members of the Cabal. The only people who can be affected by the virus are those who have drunk the blood of children. People like Tom Hanks aren’t actually being quarantined when they contract the virus, but arrested.
Some followers have gone a step further and said that the stay-at-home orders are in place so that the military can rescue children who are being held captive underground by the Cabal. Vincent Fuska, the man some Anons believe is JFK Jr., supports the theory. “35,000 and many more to come,” he tweeted recently, supposedly a reference to the number of children rescued, along with a link to an article written by an “independent journalist.”
On one Q-focused website my dad visits, the creator made a meme of Pepe frogs wearing MAGA hats, sitting in a theater while President Trump hands out popcorn and tells them to enjoy the show. The meme alludes to the spread of COVID-19, and the post that followed showed executive orders that President Kennedy signed authorizing seizures of public property in the event of an emergency. These posts are what prompted my dad to hurry off to my brother’s house with his dire warning about the government this March.
“Our democracy is predicated on being suspicious about power,” Timothy Melley, a professor of English at Miami University and author of several books exploring the history of conspiracy theories, tells me. “Whether it’s Obama or Trump, we’re supposed to say, ‘Wait a minute, I want to know for myself.’” The problem, though, he explains, is that President Trump is “willing to personally articulate at his rallies that there are government deep-state elements that are deliberately trying to take him down and undermine him.”
What happens when a nation’s leader is conspiratorial? People who are susceptible to conspiracy theories become manipulated and go into overdrive, because a person in power finally represents them. People, like my dad, lose themselves
Dad, if you’re reading this, please know that I love you and I’m concerned for your well-being. I’m sorry for not always being there for you, emotionally as your son, and taking you for granted. The world right now is a terrifying, confusing place, and the weight of it all can be crushing and demoralizing. But I can’t stand by and watch you give yourself to this groupthink filled with false hopes, while also knowing there are so many others like you.
For readers who also have family members who’ve dabbled or are lost in conspiratorial thinking, please consider them as a human being. Think about: why have they shunned themselves into a world of lies? And what can we do to help them?
In February, I texted my dad to ask if I could interview him about conspiracy theories. He messaged me back, saying, “You mean conspiracy facts!” and “Are you sure you want to be red-pilled?” I told him yes. I am ready for it.
I meet with him on February 27, 2020, and he is eager to talk. Our conversation begins in his garage, with his mechanic tools and NASCAR memorabilia on the walls. The pickled alien looks over it all.
We both light cigarettes, and I sit near an engine block he’s been working on for years. Before he delves into our talk about conspiracy theories, he tells me to look up a song. It’s David Gilmour’s “There’s No Way Out of Here.”
“OK, I want you to listen to the lyrics in this song,” he tells me.
The song opens with a guitar strum and a lonely harmonica that pulses with low tones. There’s no way out of here, when you come in, you’re in for good, Gilmour sings in an apathetic voice.
“OK, who wrote this song?” he asks.
“Gilmour?” I respond.
“That’s what everybody believes, but a guy named Ken Baker did. Who was Ken Baker?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Ah,” he lets out. “Why is it that nobody knows who Ken Baker is? If you look online, you can’t find a single thing about this guy. Keep listening to the lyrics.”
There are no answers here, when you look out, you don’t see in, Gilmour sings. My dad gestures at himself and tells me that there’s an energy being held captive in the body, and that this energy moves from body to body during various life spans.
“Like reincarnation?” I ask him.
“Some people call it that, but who’s keeping that energy in there?”
I shrug again.
“There’s people out there who are trying to keep this information from the world. Now, what happened to Ken Baker?” my dad asks me again, but he quickly answers his own question: “They took him out because he was trying to expose the truth.”
My dad looks me in the eyes. His face is tired with age. He looks confused.
“This shit’s heavy, Reed, you don’t realize how deep it goes. You want to talk about conspiracies, we’ll talk.”
Yes, it is heavy, and it hurts, I want to tell him, butI love you, and I’m sorry that I won’t take the red pill. I hope you can find your way back home.
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