I COULDN'T HAVE WISHED for better conditions: the sun was shining, the breeze was fresh, and the meaty hand on the tiller belonged to Gary Paulsen, among the manliest authors in the world. Who better to cruise the waters off the California coast with than a sailor planning to round Cape Horn alone? Who better to entrust my life to than an outdoorsman with 27,000 miles of dog mushing under his belt, a man who could pilot a plane, resuscitate a heart, navigate through Arctic storms, turn rabbit skins into winter garments, whittle his own bows and arrows, and, crucially—if we were to wreck on a deserted island—make a fire with only a hatchet and a rock?
It was that small ax that sucked me into Paulsen’s orbit in the first place. My young daughter and I had recently read Hatchet, his famous 1987 novel about a 13-year-old plane-crash survivor, then ripped through its four follow-ups. Likely the most prolific young-adult author of all time, Paulsen has written more than 200 books since the mid-sixties, which together have sold more than ten million copies. Just this month he came out with Vote, the fourth book in a series about a charming teenage prevaricator, which appeared only four months after Road Trip, about a father and son’s madcap journey to rescue a border collie, which came out just seven months after Crush… you get the picture. Paulsen has published about two books a year for the past decade—mostly lighthearted romps written to pay the bills. But the body of his work, those loners-in-nature sufferfests, have made him a hero to every child in thrall to the literature of survival.
Hatchet starts at 4,000 feet, when the pilot of a small plane succumbs to a fatal heart attack. With fuel running low, the panicked 13-year-old in the copilot’s seat crash-lands on a remote Canadian lake. He struggles to the water’s surface, passes out on shore, and awakens to assess his situation. Materials on hand: just a hatchet. The story of how Brian Robeson endures the next 54 days—how he finds shelter, crafts weapons, kills animals for food and warmth, and learns to make fire—became a bestseller. The novel won a prestigious Newbery Honor Award, for runners-up to the Newbery Medal, and despite the current Y.A. vogue for wizards, vampires, and dystopian futures, it continues to rotate heavily through classrooms.
I’d put Paulsen on a hardcore pedestal long before we met, because I knew that nearly everything Brian does in Hatchet, the author, who is 74, has done in real life. And much more: in just three phone conversations with Paulsen last spring, I learned of his epic runs on Harleys, his bar fights and moose fights, the close calls with frostbite, the storms and starvation, his runaway horses and run-ins with the law. The dude was tough. (And chatty.) Just trying to arrange a face-to-face interview turned into a feat of endurance.
Should we rendezvous at his hideous plastic house in Willow, Alaska? Out of the question: marauding moose. Moreover, the last journalist he invited onto his dogsled ended up with a broken arm, a fist-size cranial hematoma, and temporary amnesia.
Then there was his New Mexico ranch. “We could camp,” I suggested, thinking of Paulsen’s Tucket series, about a boy and his mare alone on the Oregon Trail. “You can show me how to make fire or whittle a spear.”
“I don’t camp anymore,” he said.
“Just a hike then?”
“My knees are shot.”
Paulsen considered. “You know, it’s very muddy and windy in New Mexico now. This kind of wind can peel the paint right off a tank.”
“Huh,” I said. Once, Paulsen was in an Alaskan storm so ferocious, he claimed, that the winds “blew his sled dogs over his head.” On another run, the wind “blew so hard at times it would suck your eyelids away from the eyeball and put snow inside.”
That left his sailboat, a 31-foot cutter named Reunion, which he docked in Southern California at a marina I can’t name (“Too many fans will show up”). Since at least 1997, Paulsen had been talking about his next—or final, depending on his mood—great adventure: sailing single-handed around Cape Horn. Now, all of a sudden, the trip seemed imminent. Paulsen just needed to do a little bit of work on the boat, then he’d run to Hawaii on a shakedown cruise before heading south—big south—in the fall. If I wanted to meet the man, now was my chance.
I hoped there would be enough wind for us to sail.
“I SHAVED FOR YOU,” Paulsen said when we met at his hotel, taking off his billed cap and running his hand around the gray bristles that circumscribe his basketball-size head. He’d also installed on his sailboat a new sleeping bag, a new towel, and a new bucket for me to vomit in. It was hard not to like a guy who showed such consideration.
Paulsen was dressed, as he would be for the next three days, in black Carhartt overalls and a black long-sleeved T-shirt—half hipster, half biker. “Are you hungry?” he asked. My thoughts immediately turned to the exalted morsels of Dogsong (1985), in which Eskimo children tuck into meat that’s “red and had coarse texture and rich yellow fat. All over the children’s faces and in their hair the grease shone and they were happy with it.” Instead we headed toward a seaside restaurant, where the author had a standing order of white rice, veggies, and tofu, hold the veggies. He ordered one of the roughly eight Diet Pepsis he consumes daily.
The meal was surprisingly anemic, but Paulsen compensated with juicy narrative, free-associating from his childhood (“My parents were fucking awful”) to his ailing (and since deceased) mother-in-law (“She hates my guts”) to how animals, over and over again, saved his life. Literally, in the sense that deer fed him when the fridge was empty and sled dogs refused to pull him across thin ice. And metaphorically, when he was in the Army, building warheads that he knew were “gonna just fuck up the block,” and a Weimaraner eased his soul by listening patiently to his doubts.
Unlike dogs, humans have almost always let Paulsen down, starting with his birth in 1939. His father, Oscar: away in the war. His mother, Eunice: a glamorous-looking, round-heeled alcoholic. When a drunk tried to molest four-year-old Gary, she kicked him to death in the alley behind their Chicago apartment. At the age of seven, Gary sailed with Eunice on a Navy troop ship to meet up with Oscar, stationed outside Manila. Crossing the Pacific, the pair watched as a transport plane ditched in the ocean and sharks consumed the women and children swimming for the safety of lifeboats. Paulsen tells these tales, some of which seem beyond fabulous, in his 1993 memoir, Eastern Sun, Winter Moon, which chronicles the first nine years of his life.
Ensconced in a Philippine military compound, Gary escaped his authoritarian, alcoholic father and his philandering mother by tooling around Manila on a bike with the hired houseboy. Once, they crept into a cave filled with cadavers being eaten by rats “as big as small dogs.” On another outing, he visited a prison where American POWs had been burned to death with flamethrowers. Soldiers guarding Paulsen’s compound routinely shot intruders, and the young housemaid, traumatized by the Japanese, routinely sought solace by pulling young Gary into her bed.
Instead of learning to read, Gary played in a downed Mitsubishi Zero and fought in the streets. During a typhoon, he saw a metal roof fly off a building and slice a man in half. His legs continued in one direction, Paulsen remembers, while his head and shoulders pivoted to watch. Other highlights of this period include biting his tongue almost in half, nearly drowning, and watching his houseboy chop the head off a 12-foot snake that had just eaten the neighbor’s pet monkey.
How could so many remarkable things happen to one small boy? I was starting to wonder. But Gary’s adventures were only beginning. In 1949, Oscar Paulsen was restationed in Washington, D.C.—a disaster for the preteen Gary, who had few social skills, couldn’t stand being cooped up, and could barely read. Discharged a couple of years later, Oscar moved the family to Thief River Falls, Minnesota, where they ran a chicken farm. Eunice, trying to counter her son’s slide into juvenile delinquency, frequently shipped him off to rural farms, where kindly Norwegian uncles put him to work: harnessing draft horses, plowing, repairing fences. Gary learned to hunt and trap and, crucially, discovered that the woods were a sanctuary, a place where he was, fundamentally, OK. To avoid his parents, he slept in the woods or in the boiler room of his apartment building. To fill his belly, he hunted with a rifle and a handmade bow and arrow. He lived off of rabbit, grouse, beaver, and deer, which sometimes took him days to drag home, propped on his rattletrap bike.
As a young teen, Paulsen labored for minuscule wages in beet fields and on wheat farms. At 15, he traveled with a carnival. But the wilderness pulled at him. Every cold night on the ground, every missed shot, was a lesson for him. Spending time alone in nature transformed Paulsen, just as it would the characters he’d later invent. Toward the end of Brian’s ordeal in Hatchet, Paulsen writes, “He was not the same now—the Brian that stood and watched the wolves move away and nodded to them was completely changed.”
Paulsen appeals to young people, says Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the children’s literature research collection at the University of Minnesota, “because his characters have to solve their problems using their intelligence, working independently and making alliances. The appeal is less about nature per se than how a child can survive in a world without parents.”
“These are orphan books,” Elizabeth Bird, the New York Public Library’s youth materials collections specialist, says. “They allow no supervision. These books let you live by your wits.” And yes, they’re as much a fantasy as Hogwarts. “But with Harry Potter you know, on some level, that magic doesn’t exist. With Paulsen’s books, you could be that boy surviving in the woods.” Such stories may have new currency, she thinks, at a time when most children don’t go outside. “It’s escapism for kids with helicopter parents.”
I WAS DESPERATE to get aboard Reunion, Paulsen’s Horn-bound cutter. But the weather wasn’t promising. “It’s blowing 30 knots,” Paulsen said, staring at a supersecret military weather website he pulled up on the hotel computer. “You’ll be puking your guts out.”
“I’ve got Dramamine,” I said.
“With this wind, it would take three days to tack back.”
Who was I to argue? We climbed into Paulsen’s Camry and cruised the coast, poking into a boatyard here, a beach parking lot there. Engine idling, Paulsen looked at the waves, the fluttering flags, a digital forecast that scrolls across a brick building. A hibiscus blossom ripped from a shrub and streaked across the parking lot, and suddenly, a trash-can lid took flight, headed for open water. I dashed to intercept it, and Paulsen asked, derisively, “What did you do that for?”
“Maybe we can find a place to rent a boat and do some inland paddling,” I said, picturing the nearby river that wound, through willows and cattails, down to the sea.
“We’re not gonna do that,” he said.
“Why not? I’ll paddle you.” I was thinking of his knees and his three hernias.
“There are scary people in there,” he said. “Homeless druggies.”
I was confused. First it was the wind, then the moose, then the mud around his New Mexico ranch. Now the homeless. Was Paulsen just being protective of me? Or was he perhaps contemptuous of my interest in outdoor recreation? In Paulsen’s world, nature isn’t a theme park to be enjoyed for its own sake. It’s cruel or indifferent, a source of salvation or a potential killer. But it’s never just “fun.”
I dropped the subject, and this minor emotional storm lifted. “This isn’t the real world,” Paulsen mused as we drove on, inspecting the waves from various angles. He was referring to the bike paths that looped all around, the boats bobbing in the harbor: it was all too easy. The real world is when you “go inside the diamond”—Paulsen-speak for getting slammed for three days in a violent storm at Point Conception, puking those aforementioned guts out, your useless mate tied to the mast. The real world is getting moose stomped on the Iditarod, bleeding into your bunny boots at minus 40 degrees, the wind so strong it could…
“I’ve gotta get some gas,” Paulsen said, pulling into a service station. “You want a Coke or something?” He filled the tank and went inside. When he returned with a brace of Diet Pepsis, he was scowling.
“Fuckers wanted to charge me ten cents for a bag,” he said, dumping his fix in the backseat.
PAULSEN DIDN'T WRITE his breakout novels, Dogsong and Hatchet, until he was in his forties. But their clarity of tone and specificity owed everything to the crucible of his brutal youth. At 17, Paulsen had had enough of mom and dad. He forged his father’s signature and enlisted in the Army. The experience was hateful, but it honed Paulsen’s electrical-engineering skills so that he could, upon discharge in 1962, track satellites in the California and New Mexico deserts for Lockheed and then Bendix. Until the day he suddenly quit, that is, and split for Hollywood—leaving behind his wife of three years and two children, Lynn and Lance—to become a writer. Why? “I just had to,” he told me. “I didn’t know anything about it. I wanted to write.”
Paulsen was 26. He hired on at a company that published girly magazines, but his bosses quickly realized he couldn’t actually write. And so every Friday night, Paulsen bought three editors martinis in exchange for their critiques of assignments he’d given himself: fiction, nonfiction, essays. This same determination and focus would come into play whether Paulsen was learning to live off the land, run dogs, sail single-handed, or motorcycle long distances.
His articles were eventually published, and he wrote for a few TV shows. “But I started liking the life,” he says, “even while I realized it was full of phonies and people jacking each other up.” Within a year he bolted again, heading for northern Minnesota with his second wife, Pam, in tow.
Back in the woods, Paulsen fished and trapped. A neighbor gave him some dogs and a broken-down sled: he learned to run a team, which allowed him to expand his trap lines by 20 miles. While the dogs rested in the snow, he wrote. Two books found publishers. Fancying himself successful, he left Pam and moved to Taos, New Mexico, to be among the artists. But instead of writing, Paulsen—like his parents—drank.
For six years, he picked bar fights, almost always losing. His marriage broke up. Standing in line at the post office, Paulsen met the artist Ruth Wright, whom he’d eventually marry: “I was like Quasimodo; she was a stocky Mary Tyler Moore.” The couple moved back to northern Minnesota, where Paulsen started attending 12-step meetings and writing—a lot. During the 1970s, he produced as many as seven books a year: westerns, mysteries, how-to’s. The couple had a son by then, Jim. Ruth painted and tended four vegetable gardens. “It was a beautiful life,” she remembers. “It was a fun adventure every day.” All the while, Paulsen continued to trap, running ever longer under starry nights in the bitter cold. Inevitably, Alaska beckoned.
In 1983, Paulsen entered his first Iditarod, finishing 41st, and in 1985 tried again but pulled out early due to injury. (He started again in 2006, at the age of 65, but after his sled hit a gate at mile 85, opening a vein, he scratched.) These trips weren’t a total bust, though: on Paulsen’s first Iditarod, he conceived of the novel that would kick-start his career. Dogsong features 14-year-old Russel Susskit, who travels for months in the Alaskan wilderness with little more than a dog team, a killing lance, and the trance-induced advice of an elderly Inuit. The novel is characterized by rhythmic sentences that loop and repeat à la Hemingway: “The man kept his back to Russel but Russel knew why and didn’t care. He knew that he was the man, knew it and let that knowledge carry him into the man.”
Dogsong won a Newbery Honor and put the author in turnaround. “Movie shitheads started calling,” he says. There were speeches to make. Suddenly, instead of living off of $3,000 a year, the Paulsens had $100,000. After Hatchet came out two years later, winning the second of Paulsen’s three Newbery Honors, the family moved from their remote cabin to a house with a washer and dryer, 15 miles from the small city of Bemidji. “The book changed our lives,” Jim Paulsen, a sculptor in Minnesota with two kids of his own, says today. “We had no running toilets for most of my childhood.”
Hatchet will never approach the stratospheric figures of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, which have sold 450 million and 50 million, respectively. (Paulsen has read neither series.) But this slim novel appears annually on the Publishers Weekly backlist of bestsellers, and it was recently named one of Scholastic Parent and Child magazine’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids.
“Our life didn’t change after Hatchet,” Ruth Paulsen remembers, “just our ability to pay the bills. Gary’s always been the same: nothing has changed him.”
The books and the money kept coming: so, Paulsen says, did a crooked publisher, who he alleges swindled him out of an advance, and then a lawsuit, ultimately dismissed, from a cop in his boyhood town who recognized himself in Paulsen’s Winterkill (1977). Great sums came in, and great sums went out—to lawyers and stockbrokers, for taxes and real estate. Today, Paulsen lives in relative poverty, he says, and carries some serious debt. “That’s why I keep writing. I do one or two books a year,” he says. “I can’t take time to reflect. I’m pulling a thirty-person train.”
IN THE MORNING, we sailed.
“Do you have any sunblock?” Paulsen asked me at the marina. He slathered his Scandinavian skin and shuffled around the boat, hand-folding his legs to climb down into the cabin, stocked with Hormel low-fat chili. He plugged in his electronics, I uncovered the sails, and we motored cautiously out of the harbor, aiming for the Channel Islands.
Paulsen, ever restless, had taken up sailing in the 1990s. He cruised up to Alaska, down to Mexico, and around the South Pacific islands. (During this period, he also motorcycled from New Mexico to Fairbanks, Alaska, and straight back, a road trip of 9,000 miles in less than a month.) Soon, he was dreaming about that voyage around the Horn.
On this day, however, Paulsen and I would stay just a few miles offshore, giving wide berth to an area where humpbacks were recently spotted. “They can turn a boat over,” Paulsen said, warily. I was disappointed to learn that we wouldn’t be sleeping aboard after all: any potential anchorages were dicey, Paulsen said, should the wind come around. The motor stayed on, despite the ten-knot breeze, and the auto-tiller engaged.
Hours passed, dolphins leaped, then my hero briefly shivered. “If I weren’t so tough, I’d be cold,” Paulsen said, laughing. Finally, he decided that it was safe to cut the engine. In the blessed silence, it was my turn to shiver: I was wearing four layers to his two. We watched the pelicans and the ducks. We talked about the recent spate of books about dog intelligence—“The science is all bullshit,” he said—and what Paulsen sees as the public’s misconception of wolves, due mostly to “that drunk” Farley Mowat. “Wolves do kill people, you know.”
The sun passed its zenith. A slave to those Diet Pepsis, Paulsen peed off the bow every 45 minutes. I asked if he ever made up with his parents.
“I was giving a talk in a town where my mother lay dying in the hospital,” he said. “I wouldn’t even visit her.”
And your dad? “That bastard tried to borrow money from me.” No money was lent.
My face must have registered disapproval, for Paulsen ruefully added, “Everyone likes me until I get real.”
Paulsen, it seemed to me, inhabits several different personas, depending on his milieu. He exists angrily in the built environment, which he calls unreal, and more peacefully the farther he gets from people and institutions. And then there’s the alternate world of his fiction, a place where his characters, while confronting their demons, remain nonviolent. Wise and introspective, they don’t curse or beat each other up. They often seek some purity of experience and in the process meld with nature or the object at hand—becoming the doe, the dogsled, the ironworker’s forge.
Paulsen morphs frequently between compassionate authority figure and raging bull. When a football coach invited Paulsen’s son to try out for the team, Paulsen tells me, he threatened to kill him. Football was way too dangerous a sport. Ditto with a high-school Army recruiter, and with an electric-utility clerk who tried to cut the juice for late payment. (It worked: lights on.) As recently as two years ago, Paulsen punched a man who opened his mail. “But he didn’t go down,” he told me.
This is dismaying for Paulsen, a mark of his waning strengths. He mourns not only aging out of fisticuffs and Iditarods, but also the changing social mores. “I’m going extinct,” he said. “I’m not allowed to be anymore: I open doors for women and they get mad. But if someone fucks with you, I’ll fuck them up.”
WE TACKED toward home. When Paulsen moved shakily afore to lower the mainsail, the boat rolling with the swell, I suddenly realized that he wasn’t wearing a life jacket and that we hadn’t discussed any contingency plans. Where was the life ring? The boat hook? Earlier, Paulsen had said, “When I’m ready to go, I’ll just drop over the side. The sharks can finish me off.”
But surely not any time soon?
“I think I’ve got about a year.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Accidents, health issues,” he answered vaguely. “I don’t want you to think I’m a hypochondriac.” Hardly. But I was starting to wonder how much of what Paulsen said, and has written, about himself is true. His life story has the whiff of James Frey’s Million Little Pieces or Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird.
“How can I fact check some of the things that happened to you?” I asked point-blank.
“You can’t, really,” he said, unfazed. “Everyone’s dead.”
I understand that Paulsen writes fiction and that young-adult literature has a glorious tradition of exaggeration. Still, I would have been remiss if I didn’t poke around just a little. Later, I learned that planes ditching in the Pacific during wartime were not uncommon, and whitetip sharks were among the first scavengers. Guards at Clark Air Base, where his family was stationed, did indeed shoot intruders.
I checked out the Hollywood restaurant where Paulsen bought all those martinis: it existed. His three mentors? All dead. The girlie mags? Gone. Top-secret military work in the desert? Bendix, now owned by Honeywell, would neither confirm nor deny Paulsen’s gig. He did start the Iditarod three times and finish once. And that journalist who allegedly broke his arm on Paulsen’s dogsled? It’s true, the journalist told me, a bit sheepishly. “And it was entirely my fault.”
I asked Paulsen’s son, wife, literary agent, publicist, and editor, as well as a New Mexico neighbor, if they ever had reason to doubt his childhood stories. “Never,” they said, surprised by the question. “Gary is an unusual person,” Wendy Lamb, his editor, said. “But he’s consistent and true.”
“I spent time with his dad before he died, so I’d heard about the time in the Philippines,” Jim Paulsen told me. “I’ve seen photos my dad took of the sharks.” Do you think he might embellish just a little? “Not really,” Jim said. “He has an uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I HAD ONE last day with Paulsen, and it didn’t look like I was going to eat yellow fat. We drove to the beach for the 47th time—Paulsen, as usual, wasn’t wearing his seatbelt—and looked at the waves. He cursed a couple for crossing the street when he wanted to make a left. “Fucking idiots.” A woman stepped into his path at a restaurant. “Stupid, rude bitch.”
Must Paulsen react so vehemently to everything? What makes him so pugnacious, so misanthropic and foul-mouthed? It’s facile to lay this behavior on his hellacious youth. I developed another theory: without any imminent threat to his life—whether from a “shit for brains” moose or an arctic blast—the stuff of everyday life must suffice. The ordinary must be heightened, for a compulsive writer of adventure fiction, into the dramatic.
In the months that followed, I checked in with Paulsen periodically. Did he train in the winter storms off Point Conception? No. Did he tune his boat and make that run to Hawaii? No. But he churned out another two books, made some public appearances, and, with work issues squared away, he was talking, once again, about setting sail for the Horn this fall.
On our last day in California, Paulsen and I ended up on a commercial whale-watching boat and got lucky with a humpback that glided alongside our hull, rolling slowly over and over. The wind tugged at Paulsen’s hood and billowed the sleeves of his foul-weather jacket. After three hours standing at the rail, I asked if he’d like to go inside. “Sure, if you want to,” he said. We sat on a banquette, facing the bow. It was warm inside the catamaran, and the thrumming of the engines and the slap of the swell against the boat was lulling. Within moments, Paulsen’s big, doughy head tilted forward onto his chest, his eyes relaxing into sleep. It occurred to me that outside, only the briskness of the wind had been holding him up.
It was just coming light on an early spring morning when my ten-year-old son James and I set out to find Butch Cassidy’s cabin up the East Fork of the Wind River in Wyoming. When Butch owned a ranch in nearby Dubois, he built the hideout in Alkali Basin, a high valley in the mountains above our own cabin. Butch knew about hideouts, and this was a good one. Almost no one ever went up to Alkali Basin. You could be alone in a way you couldn’t be in most places in America.
When I was young, I spent months humping a pack and an M-16 up and down the Annamite Cordillera in Vietnam. It took me years to want to go out in the mountains again, but now nature was my friend, a consoling, calming presence I wanted to share with my son. I could take the time to look at the wildflowers and wonder if that was—yes, it had to be—fringed gentian, there with the lupine and sticky geranium, and wild irises in the damp ground, and columbine, their delicate petals trailing their fragile tails.
Still, in the high mountains of Wyoming, you didn’t just stroll in the woods. On casual walks and horseback rides we’d find wolf tracks the size of my son’s hand. At night we’d lie awake, listening to the howling of the Washakie pack as our dogs cowered under the beds. The wolves had killed an elk just outside our fence, and as James and I set out on our climb we stopped to examine the bones, which had been pulled apart by coyotes, picked clean by ravens, and bleached white by the sun. I cut the ivories out of the lower jaw with my Leatherman and put them in my pocket. They made good bandanna slides, and I always thought that something of the spirit of the elk would protect my kids.
James took the elk’s hip girdle, turned it upside down, and held it to his face, like a primitive mask. He made spooky noises and we laughed. He found one of the femurs and swung it like Reggie Jackson brandishing a bat.
“Pitch to me?”
It was early in the hike to be playing bone ball, but when you came across a skeleton, you made use of it. I found some dried cow patties and pitched one to him.
On the third pitch, James swung with all his might. The pattie exploded in a cloud of dusty dung.
James smiled, thrilled with himself. Already the hike was worth it.
When I picked my pack back up, I realized I’d forgotten the bear spray. There were grizzlies up in the high country. A big male could be twice the size of a lion, weigh up to a third of a ton, and reach nine feet tall when it stood up. It could kill you and then eat you. You weren’t at the top of the food chain and you could feel it, the way when you went surfing in Ventura you could feel that sizzle in your spine that meant a shark was nearby, and you got out of the water even if the waves were good.
I always took bear spray, and usually I took my pistol, too, an old Colt M1911A1 .45 like the one I’d carried in the war. The .45 was basically useless against a grizzly, but I liked carrying it. Bear spray was far better. It could make the fiercest grizzly turn and run, but only if you could get the canister out of the holster, pull back the safety, depress the trigger, and spray it in the bear’s face, all in a split second. I knew how fear could paralyze a man when he wasn’t hardened by daily contact with it. I hadn’t been that man in a long time—the man who could respond with skill to a sudden onset of fear—so I wasn’t sure that if a grizzly suddenly appeared I would be able to do any of those things. I’d started feeling like the mountains belonged to me. I’d gotten soft and lazy like civilians do.
“We’ve got to go back,” I said. “I forgot the bear spray.”
“Aw, Dad, we’re already on the way.”
For a moment I thought about just heading on up. It was a ways back to the cabin, and we had about 3,000 feet of vertical to cover. If I’d been alone I might have let it go, but I had my son along. We headed back.
I grabbed the bear spray from another pack hanging by our cabin door, attached a canister to each of our belts, and quickly reminded James how to use it.
“See, this is the safety. Pull it back, then squeeze down the trigger. Got it?”
He didn’t look that confident. For a moment I thought of having him practice, but by now the sun was up, so we climbed back over our fence.
THERE WAS NOTHING between us and Yellowstone but a million acres of national forest. We were in the southern Absarokas, near the big Wind River Indian Reservation. Unlike the Wind River Range, which is hard granite carved smooth and clean like Yosemite, the Absarokas are volcanic in origin and sculpted rough and rangy, more like a Gaudí than a Michelangelo.
The land we were climbing was rocky with flint, the meadows were dotted with sage, and in the meadows were worn-down clearings where sage grouse did their mating rituals, throbbing like tom-toms. Every now and then you’d surprise a covey of the big birds. They’d burst up at your feet with a shocking percussive explosion that chilled your spine.
Bare eruptions of sun-dried bentonite lay hidden among the grasses. Some of them were sinkholes that had swallowed up cattle, elk, and moose. Where a creek had carved out the side of one of the sinkholes, we’d found a buffalo skull. The surface looked like solid ground, but if you took a fence rail and poked it, the dried bentonite would jiggle. Poke harder and a gray, thick liquid would pour out like the earth was bleeding. Let go of the fence post and it would sink and disappear.
We made it past the sinkholes and climbed across a narrow bentonite saddle that spanned a deep ravine. You had to be careful on bentonite ridges. If they got any moisture, they would be so slick you could stand still and slide off. Sometimes in the bentonite cliffs we’d find the petrified teeth of ancient crocodiles. They gave off a spooky kind of aura when you held them in your hand.
We followed a narrow game trail around rock outcroppings. Up ahead were yellow fields of arrowleaf balsamroot tucked into the aspen where the sage brush gave out and the grass was green and rich. We surprised an antelope calf that bounded away on spindly legs, whistling for its mother. The mother circled around and bleated at us. I moved between her and my son. You never knew what an animal might do if it thought you were threatening its young.
In the war, I’d walked all day up and down the mountains, carrying a 100-pound pack with only a couple of C-ration crackers and some peanut butter in me. No Gu or Clif Bars or electrolytes, just running on fear—fear and the quiet force of the others. You wanted to quit; it made no sense to walk into the mountains where men waited to kill you. You wanted to hide in the safety of your foxhole. But you didn’t; you went into the mountains because the others were doing it, and you couldn’t be the first to quit. So we all kept going, and most of us came back.
We’d been climbing a couple of hours when I realized we hadn’t seen any black bears this spring. Usually, if the black bears were here, the grizzlies weren’t. But if the grizzlies moved in, they would often kill the black bears or chase them away. Predators don’t want other predators around. The silence up on the mountain felt different now.
I’d started coming to the cabin when my older son, James’s brother, David, went off to Iraq. He’d enlisted after 9/11 and became an Air Force pararescueman, a special operations medic. Each time he went to Iraq or Afghanistan, I couldn’t watch the news, I couldn’t answer the phone at night, I was racked with nightmares. I was helpless to protect him. I knew no one with a son in the war. All the people I knew went on with their lives as if on another part of the planet men and women weren’t dying and killing every day.
My parents had been through the same thing when I was in Vietnam, and I imagine my father’s parents also had in World War II, and my grandfather’s parents in World War I, going back through the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and all the wars my family’s men had gone off to, mostly for reasons long since forgotten. My parents built their own cabin on a remote East Texas lake and retreated there, with no phone or newspapers, just as I had to my cabin up the East Fork.
At any hour of the day, anyplace, the nightmare visions come to me: my children kidnapped by serial killers, swept off the sides of mountains by avalanches, bucked off my horses, hit by a cab on the streets of New York. Their parachutes don’t open, their blood doesn’t clot, the ambulance doesn’t arrive in time. And always, I can’t do anything about it. When that fear came upon me I wanted to hold my children close, keep them in my sight. I wanted to get away from everything that reminded me how far away my son David was, how little anyone else even knew or cared.
I could still see the tiny dot that was our cabin far down the valley. It looked safe.
“Let’s go down,” I said.
“No, Dad, please. I want to see Butch’s cabin.”
“It doesn’t feel right. I’m tired.”
I didn’t want to tell him I was afraid I couldn’t protect him.
“Please, Dad. We’re almost there. I’ll carry your pack.”
That made me smile. I thought about what I was doing. Because I was afraid for one son, I was about to treat the other son like a fearful child and not the confident young man I wanted him to be.
“OK, let’s head up.”
THE WOODS THE TRAIL went through seemed to shimmer. I didn’t want to go into them. I turned and led us off-trail.
“We can bushwhack a while.”
I was looking for a shorter way to get to the high ridge, where the trees weren’t so thick, but we had to go through thick deadfall to get there. The pine beetle had invaded the high forests. Not only the limber pines but also the big old Douglas firs were dead. When the beetles killed a tree, the needles turned red, then gray, then fell to the ground. The dead needles were dry and crisp under our boots. It was like walking through a graveyard. A mule deer stared at us in a small clearing, then bounded away.
In the shadows I lost my bearings. There’s nothing like the feeling of being lost in the woods, especially when people are depending on you to know where you are, and even more when you are scared. In the war, I’d once been so lost that when I called in a spotting round of white phosphorous, I scanned the hostile mountains for miles and couldn’t see a thing. I was in charge of 50 men, and every single one of them knew I didn’t have a clue where we were. I couldn’t call in artillery, I couldn’t call in a medevac, I couldn’t get us rescued. I was lucky I didn’t get us all killed.
A few minutes later, James and I reached the top of the ridge and worked our way down toward Alkali Basin. The woods were quiet, the deadfall had thinned out, and on the trail we could move smoothly and let our thoughts wander. But I was still scanning, looking for the pattern that didn’t belong. In Vietnam you learned to stare into the jungle, looking for that patch of color, that sharp angle, that nature never made. A friend of mine was ambushed in a clearing wreathed in the most beautiful flowers he’d ever seen, so beautiful he didn’t look past them. It took him a split second longer than it should have to register the sound of the AK-47’s.
We came out in the Basin, a high green meadow with a spring that became a creek winding lazily through banks of wildflowers. The ground was soft and mushy from the snowmelt. Our feet were wet, but we didn’t care. The basin was a vision of an iconic, unspoiled western Eden. Marlboro Man commercials were filmed here back in the 1960s.
Butch had set his cabin far enough back in the woods so you couldn’t see it from the basin. There was a trick to finding it. You had to look just off the meadow for the ruins of an old wickiup in a stand of limber pine. The Shoshone had made it out of tree trunks. A few poles were still left, leaning into the crook of another tree. Every year there were fewer poles, and it was harder and harder to find.
“Here it is!” James called out.
“How many steps north, Dad?”
James began to step them off, taking giant strides, the size he imagined mine were.
I followed him, relaxed now, and happy. It wasn’t long before we turned into the woods. The shadows were dense, and it was cold out of the sun. At first we couldn’t find the cabin, then James spotted the ruins of the old corral. We pushed deeper into the woods, and there the cabin was. The logs had been crudely cut and laid together at the joint. The chinking was long gone, if there’d been any, and the roof was fallen in. But you could stand in the cabin and look out through the door and have a good firing position in case anyone came too close. There was something safe about it.
We sat down on a sunny log in front of the cabin and ate our lunch in pleasant silence. The log was damp and soaked our trousers, but we didn’t care. After a while, James looked over at me.
“So, Dad, did Butch really die down there in Bolivia? Like in the movie?”
“They say so.”
“Do you say so?”
“Well, a lot of people say they saw Butch and Etta Place years later, that they’d come back and started a store over in the Oregon badlands. Minded their own business.”
James thought a little.
“I hope so.”
“Me, too. But it doesn’t make as good a story. You really couldn’t end the movie with Butch giving change to kids for candy canes.”
“I’d like that ending better.”
“You’d like the candy canes.”
James smiled. “So they died of old age, then.”
I smiled back and stared off into the woods. That had been my own prayer, back in Vietnam. Dear Lord, let me die of old age. And let me die before my children do. Amen.
WE PACKED UP our trash and headed over to the saddle that led down to our cabin. I was feeling safe and content, so I decided we’d go back down the main trail. We jumped the rivulets of snowmelt, keeping our eyes on the ground to avoid the wettest patches.
Suddenly something moved in front of us. Something big, followed by two smaller movements.
It took a moment to realize what they were, the same way it takes just an instant to realize that you are being ambushed, or your car is fishtailing on ice, or you’re having a heart attack. This isn’t happening to me, that’s always the first reaction. And then comes the cold fear.
Yes. It is.
The big movement was a grizzly sow, and the two smaller movements were her cubs. I pushed James behind me, ripped my bear spray out of its holster, and pulled back the safety.
The bear spray was like the CS gas we’d used in the war. When they trained you with it, they filled a container with gas and sent you in with a gas mask on. Right away your crotch and your armpits started to sting, and then they pulled your gas mask off and told you to sing the Marine Corps hymn, and before you could get out “From the Halls of Montezuma” you gagged, and your lungs and eyes were on fire, and there was nothing human left in you: no intelligence, no poetry, no music, no love. You just wanted to get out of there. That was what I was counting on.
I spoke to James without taking my eye off the grizzly.
“Get your bear spray.”
James fumbled to pull it out of the holster.
The bear turned and saw us. It was upwind, which was why it hadn’t caught our scent. The sow stood up on her hind legs. She was enormous, magnificent, terrifying. The cubs circled around her legs, watching their mother. I had my son. She had her cubs.
I thought of charging the bear, running at it with the bear spray, yelling and pulling the trigger, hoping I’d startle her and she’d run. But she’d never retreat without her cubs. And besides, I’d only run into the spray myself, choke, and be helpless.
I glanced down at James. He had the bear spray pointed back in his own face. Damn that I hadn’t made him practice! I’d assumed that today would be a normal day, that we really wouldn’t need the bear spray, like we’d never needed it before. The bear scanned its head side to side but didn’t take its eyes off us. I thought of telling James to run, but the grizzly could run down a deer. I stood still. And the bear stood still. The cubs huddled at her feet.
She’s going to charge, I thought, and this thought like the others was nothing rational like I write it here, not the methodical sorting of options, just a cloud of flashing synapses, fragmentary hesitations, and each moment I stood still took the choices away. I cursed myself for coming here, for going back to the mountains, for putting my son in danger.
I wanted my pistol. I reached with my other hand for the .45, but the holster strap wouldn’t come loose. I’d have to put down the bear spray and lift it off with my other hand, but I couldn’t abandon the bear spray to do that. I’d have to chamber a round and it could jam and it would be too easy to miss or to wound the bear and make it madder.
The bear dropped to all fours and took a step toward us. It could be a false charge, to scare us away, but I didn’t think so. She had those new cubs, and she was still hungry and mad from the winter, and we were a threat. I kneeled down to make myself smaller, and pulled James down beside me.
The breeze picked up and blew in our faces. The bear spray would be useless. All I could do was pray that the bear would pull up right in front of us. But I knew that was unlikely, and once it had tasted our blood it would maul us both. If it didn’t kill us, there was no way we’d get back down if we were hurt. We were off the grid, the way I’d wanted it. There was no way to contact anyone for help. It was just me, my son, and the bear.
Mountain climbers call this an objective hazard, something out of your control, like an avalanche or a storm, or a hold on the rock that breaks. In the war, you could walk over a booby-trapped 105 round, and the next man walked over it, too, and the next, and then the fourth man stepped on it. Why him—why not me? There were no answers. Somewhere in the brain of this beast, a decision was being made. Would we live or die?
The next few moments exist for me out of time. My memories are fragmented, my recollections perhaps altered by imagination and nightmares. I do remember holding my son and turning away from the bear, and knowing that my part in this was over. The bear had center stage, but I didn’t see its star turn. I heard something crashing across the brush, I felt a beastly power rolling toward me, I smelled a foul rank mist, and then I remember—nothing.
Once, when we were ambushed in the mountains west of Da Nang, I could see twigs and leaves flying off branches, I could see big pocks ripped out of the nearby mud, I could feel vibrations in the air, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The intensity of the experience had turned off one of my senses. The bear’s charge wasn’t exactly that, but it was close. I chose not to look. I wanted only to feel my son’s body against mine.
I heard James’s voice. If he was talking he was still alive, and if I heard him so was I.
I looked down at him, just then realizing how tightly I was holding him.
“I think it’s gone,” James said.
I turned and looked and saw the grizzly lead her cubs into the woods. For a long moment I sat on the ground with my son. Neither of us wanted to move. Finally, we stood up.
“Thank you,” I muttered, barely able to speak. I hadn’t realized I’d been shaking so hard.
I gently took James’s bear spray and turned it around.
“You aim it like this.”
Next time we came to the mountains we’d be ready, not that it would make any difference. We hadn’t earned a next time. The bear had given it to us. Grace came as a gift from unexpected givers. And if you weren’t grateful, if you didn’t thank God or nature or the Great Spirit for your life, your children, for being granted the moment to walk on the earth, then a bear might as well eat you and shit you out as a green puddle.
You could get a big house and an expensive car, send your kids to the right schools and give parties for people like yourself, but there would always be that booby trap on the path, the ambush from the flowers, the grizzly in the woods, waiting for you.
We made a wide circle away from where the grizzly and her cubs had gone into the woods, crossed the saddle, and headed down the mountain, walking fast. I couldn’t wait to get back to the cabin.
Many paragliders get into the sport because they want to experience the childlike bliss of flight. But in early April, a video surfaced on YouTube that showed a paramotorist, or "powered paraglider," taking to the air with less than sublime results. (A paramotor is a standard paraglider set-up, but the pilot also carries a motor and propeller.) Although it's since been removed from YouTube, a Facebook upload shows the pilot continuously chasing an owl for nearly seven minutes, and on multiple occasions appearing to kick the owl through the air.
The video is shot from the pilot's helmet-mounted camera (and shows one other paramotorist nearby). The pilot has been identified by many in the paragliding community as Dell Schanze, a 43-year-old paramotor instructor from Salt Lake City and the owner of Flat Top Paramotors. Whoever posted the video to YouTube—presumably not Schanze—included a message identifying Schanze and saying that he should be held accountable.
The video includes a couple clips in which the noise of the motors is removed and dialogue has been overlayed, with the voice of the supposed pilot saying "Who's the predator?! I kicked an owl's butt!" The voice supposedly sounds like that of Schanze.
Furthermore, observers have noted a number of similarities between the owl-chasing pilot's gear and those that Schanze owns. They also note that it appears the pilot's hand is missing a finger – Schanze has a missing finger, as well.
After the video surfaced and a few Salt Lake City news stations aired stories about it, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources picked up the case, shortly thereafter transferring it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Tom Tidwell, the resident agent in charge for U.S. FWS field operations in Colorado and Utah, says its investigation has positively identified the pilot from the video, but would not share his identity because the case is still open.
"The person responsible has violated at least two laws: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Airborne Hunting Act," says Tidwell. "The U.S. Attorney's Office has agreed to prosecute." He says the case should be coming to a head in the coming weeks, and notes that these laws are enforced with "significant fines and up to a year in jail."
The YouTube video was taken down on April 9, with a notice saying "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Dell Schanze." Critics of Schanze say this clearly points to his guilt.
But couldn't whoever posted the video to YouTube have also posed as Schanze when he or she requested it be taken down, in order to implicate Schanze? Tidwell says it doesn't matter, one way or the other. Nor does it matter whether the voice-over in the video is Schanze or someone else.
"The voiceover doesn’t prove anything," he says. "We found other ways to confirm who is in the craft." But, again, he would not confirm whether that person is Schanze.
Though some of his friends are fierce guardians of Schanze's reputation, he is known for a string of paragliding faux pas—what opponents call "reckless activity"—including jumping off buildings and a landmark in Oregon, that have resulted not only in legal trouble for Schanze but, they say, harm the reputations of all paragliders and paramotorists.
Jeff Goin, the founder and president of the U.S. Powered Paragliding Association and author of paramotoring guides, maintains a website called PPGTruth.com, which details the concerns he and other PPG pilots have with the World Powered Paragliding Association, a group that Schanze founded and leads. Goin claims the World Powered Paragliding Association is merely a means for Schanze to promote his company and sell his Flat Top Paramotor equipment and instruction services. Goin directly competes with Schanze (and vice versa) in that they each run paramotoring competitions and organizations. (Goin isn't the only detractor, but he is one of most visible.) Another website, Flattopparamotors.com is fully dedicated to outing Schanze for bad behavior, but its creators are anonymous.
The feud between pro- and anti-Schanze pilots also plays out in two Yahoo groups, PPGTruth (pro) and PPGTruth-Unlimited (anti). (Who knew the world of amateur paragliding was so fraught?)
Schanze, who calls himself "Super Dell," has a colorful legal history and a strong dislike for media. This story from Utah TV station KLSdelves into his litigious missteps, resulting in various lawsuits and an assault charge. In 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration fined Schanze for flying too close to a boat on the Great Salt Lake. Around this time he also ran for Governor of Utah. He also made unsuccessful bids for the mayor's office of Salt Lake City and Saratoga Springs, Utah.
Reached by phone, Schanze said, "It was not my video. That was a hacked video made by a competitor. I've never kicked an owl." He then added: "If you write an article implying that it was me, I will come after you."
THE CITY of San José, Costa Rica, is a sprawling gray mess that doubles as the sex-tourism capital of Latin America.Thanks to legalized prostitution, parts of downtown look like Disneyland for horny, middle-aged Australians. The urban center is a mix of shopping malls, semi-rises, and fast-food outlets that separate streets of grinding poverty from pockets of conspicuous wealth.
Rich expats gravitate to a suburban area called Escazú, because that’s where the embassies are and because misery loves company. It was there, in a high-security apartment complex for short-term diplomats, that I first met Ann Bender, Central America’s most captivating accused murderess.
By this point—October 12, 2012—nearly three years had passed since the strange and bloody death of Ann’s husband, John Felix Bender. John, 44 when he died, was known on Wall Street as the troubled genius who’d quit the billionaire track without explanation in 2000 and retreated to a fortified compound in the Costa Rican jungle. His end came just after midnight on January 8, 2010, in the top-floor bedroom of a circular mansion that looked like something Colonel Kurtz would have imagined in his dreams. John was naked in the bed he shared with Ann, who was then 39. The cause of death was a single pistol shot to the back of the head.
The only witness to the shooting was Ann, who’d spent a dozen years as the yin to John’s yang. Together they’d built the tropical Xanadu that surrounded the mansion: a 5,000-acre wildlife preserve built on and around the highest mountain in the most forbidding rainforest in Costa Rica. They nursed each other through a shared battle with manic depression, and together, thanks to a dicey blend of extreme isolation, mental health challenges, and conflicts with enemies real and imagined, the Benders had apparently gone mad.
On the night in question, Ann was found stroking her dead husband’s hand while saying, “I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t.” She claimed John finally made good on his long history of suicidal behavior. But investigators came to doubt her—partly because of forensic evidence that didn’t appear to match Ann’s story. The day I met her, she was awaiting trial on a murder charge that could put her away for 25 years.
AT ANN'S INSISTENCE, I was driven to our designated meeting place by her security chief and all-around fixer, Jose Pizarro, whose quiet warmth and casual style—close-cropped hair, mustache, polo shirt—did nothing to diminish his standing as a man to be obeyed. Having previously served as chief of Costa Rica’s civilian security force, Pizarro, 45, couldn’t drive ten feet without a cop shouting, “Generale!” or “Don Pizarro!”
I complimented the tattoo on his arm. A cobra. “Sí,” he said. “I did it myself.”
Pizarro’s English was rudimentary, but his message was clear.
“This case is—how you say?—bullshit. Bullshit from motherfuckers, sí?”
Inside the building, Pizarro escorted me up to a two-bedroom unit. “Ann feels safe here,” he said. “And she don’t feel safe anywhere in Costa Rica.”
Several questions sprang to mind. First: Costa Rica? Weren’t we in the peaceable kingdom of eco-lodges, zip-line tours, and romantic episodes of The Bachelor? No juntas, death squads, or drug cartels. No standing army. Nothing but democracy, beaches, and coffee, right?
Second: Was I heading to meet a human train wreck? Ann, during our brief e-mail correspondence—which had been initiated by her brother, who’d contacted me at the suggestion of a reporter I knew in Detroit—told me she was suffering from various physical ailments, among them Lyme disease and a potentially lethal blood clot situated just above her heart. Her afflictions and legal problems had caused her to be, by her own admission, a model of instability. There had been hospitalizations, talk of suicide, and anxious late-night e-mails hinting at dangers and conspiracies.
And then she walked in.
“First question,” she said. “Can I hug you?”
She was a tiny thing—five-three, 105 pounds, but in a sleek, elegant way. Black halter, black skirt, black suede boots; piercing brown eyes and unlined caramel skin; hair pulled back in a shiny ponytail. She displayed only one marker of ill health: an adhesive bandage, located just above her right clavicle, discreetly concealing a catheter that dripped small doses of morphine into her veins, to keep her pain and moods in check. “I’m not stoned,” she said. “Trust me.”
Despite her moods, which could be epic, Ann typically evinced a kind of cockeyed pluck, a hummingbird baseline that stood in contrast to mania. Sometimes she seemed almost too sane for her own good, displaying pointillist recall of details perhaps best forgotten. Blood splatters and bank balances, pillow talk and court testimony: she held it all at her fingertips, literally.
“Make way for the bag lady,” she said.
Ann was pushing a shopping cart stuffed with legal case files, transcripts, and research materials. “When I say ‘I know,’ I will be careful,” she said. “If it’s conjecture, I will say so. Otherwise, operate under the presumption that I have proof.”
Ann’s stockpile pertained to a trifecta of separate but related legal proceedings. Along with the murder rap, she was a suspected jewel smuggler. Police, while investigating John’s death, had found millions of dollars of “undocumented” gems inside the Bender mansion. Meantime, Ann was playing offense against a Costa Rican legal trustee she blamed for swindling her and John’s fortune and sandbagging her to the point of indebted servitude.
The net effect: her life was no longer her own. The Costa Rica criminal court had seized her passport and ordered her to show her face on a weekly basis. The trustee cited John’s death as grounds to seize her purse strings. Now Ann lived on a bare-bones allowance covering little beyond monthly expenses, part of her medical care, and rent on this apartment.
For more than two years, Ann said, she tried to keep her story out of the news, lest she come off as the Ugly Americana in a country she still loved. “But enough,” she said. “I didn’t kill my husband, and I don’t deserve this. That’s why I made the very careful decision to tell you everything. I’m angry. And when I’m angry, I do a lot better than when I’m sad. Sad means passive. And that’s exactly how the powers that be want me.”
She launched into a complicated explication of a financial matter. Then, just as swiftly, she pumped the brakes.
“Too fast?” she asked
“Where should I start?”
She nodded and smiled. “John,” she said.
JOHN BENDER was brilliance descended from brilliance—the oldest of two sons born to Paul and Margie Bender. Paul, a noted legal scholar, held prominent posts in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department and at two major law schools, Penn and Arizona State. Both parents say John’s intelligence was evident very early.
“When I would take the kids grocery shopping, he’d be figuring out price per ounce,” Margie says. “When he was in kindergarten, he’d say, ‘Mom, you could get a better price if you bought a pound.’ ”
“His use of words was precocious,” Paul says. “He didn’t speak early. Then he started speaking in complete sentences. He never did anything until he was absolutely sure he could do it perfectly. He taught himself to read but didn’t display the ability until kindergarten. He said if he’d done so earlier, he feared I would stop reading to him.”
John won math competitions but lost his temper, typically with teachers or students who failed to question everything. The world’s youngest individualist could play well with others, as long as they played his game; failing that he’d bolt, melt down, or both. He was a gifted percussionist who refused to audition and an A student who rejected Harvard because he hated the interview. “People were not John’s favorite thing,” Margie says. When he was in his early teens, John asked, “Mommy, is it alright if I don’t have a birthday party?”
As a teenager, John spent his free time hanging around Penn’s physics department, later enrolling as a student there. He was on track to a physics career until the summer of 1987, which he spent working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a government-sponsored facility in Northern California that works with high-tech weapons. This was during the Reagan-era arms buildup; John concluded that most of his job opportunities in physics would involve “helping out with new ways to kill people.”
His future was decided the day he visited a friend at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, where he discovered options trading—a numbers game he could win or lose based solely on his talents. Almost immediately, he began buying options with his own money. He did well enough that friends staked him with funds to make a go of it.
John, then 22, was built like a football player—six-foot-three, 250 pounds—and on the floor, with its shouters and showmen, fellow traders didn’t know what to make of the shy young behemoth wearing medical scrubs instead of pants. “It was the same pair for a while,” says Bernie Hirsh, one of John’s former floormates. Another ex-trader, Jonathan Kaplan, pegged John as a wallflower with dark shadings. “I definitely recall the social anxiety,” Kaplan says. “He mostly was quiet, listening.”
They both thought he was brilliant, and in time John came clean about the scrubs. “I wore them so everybody would think I was an idiot,” he told Hirsh. “I wanted guys to trade with me.”
At the heart of John’s success was his embrace of game theory, a data-driven mode of strategic decision making based on the anticipated actions of others. Ever the contrarian, he found anomalies in the probability theories most traders viewed as gospel. He used his predictive advantage to successfully bet against the conventional wisdom.
From 1992 to 1996, John’s returns were through the roof. So it was only a matter of time before his hedge fund, Amber Arbitrage, attracted some big whales, among them the famed mogul George Soros. By the time John turned 32, in 1996, he was on pace to become a billionaire by age 40.
THEy MET IN MARCH 1998, at a place called Golden Mountain Farm. The 100-acre spread was located in the lush countryside west of Charlottesville, Virginia. John had purchased the lot two years earlier, telling friends he needed to live “somewhere green.”
Ann, then 28, was a new and exotic addition to rural Virginia. Her looks and style seemed more in keeping with her birthplace, Rio de Janeiro, where she was the second of two children born to Kenneth Patton III, an executive at Chase Manhattan who worked in Rio, and his wife, Gigi. “I wouldn’t say I had a platinum spoon or a gold spoon in my mouth,” Ann says. “Silver-plated, perhaps.”
Her youth was marked by private schools, parties, and white-sand beaches. Then, in classic expat-brat fashion, Ann moved from Rio to Lisbon to London to New York. She earned a degree from Ithaca College, did a stint working at a fine-arts college in Baltimore, and experienced a kind of epiphany. “My mood swings and bipolarity had started ruling my existence,” she says. “By the time I was 22, I’d been pretty much always up and down, up and down. I don’t think my move to Virginia was an incorrect one, but it was definitely something I did in a manic moment.”
Ann arrived in Virginia scared, isolated, and frail. She made friends—including one who invited Ann over to meet her live-in ex-boyfriend, John Bender.
John was Ann’s ideal specimen. He had massive shoulders and thighs the size of armadillos; his face, with its strong cheekbones and wide-set features, projected a quiet intensity that could play as aloofness or arrogance. Or both. Ann had always been “drawn to strong men, physically and mentally,” says her mother.
“I like to feel safe,” Ann says.
John, when he first met Ann, noticed her trembling hands right away. “Can I get you some water?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m just on an enormous dose of lithium,” she said, in her unfiltered way. “I’m severely bipolar. So if I act strange, that’s why.”
John, equally unfiltered, volunteered that manic depression had colored his life, too, though to somewhat different effect. His depressions could be every bit as apocalyptic as Ann’s. But where Ann never enjoyed the sparkly side of the condition, John’s mania often fueled long periods of inspiration and productivity. He also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, so it was no wonder he happily put in 20-hour workdays.
Ann and John, during that first day, found too many commonalities between them to count. They shared family histories best described as “complicated.” Mood disorders had brought havoc to both the Pattons and the Benders. Ann’s parental conflicts were mostly related to that; John’s were mostly tied to his father, who sometimes questioned John’s impulsive choices.
Still, both sets of parents had warmly encouraged their children’s passions for things like far-flung travel and wildlife. John, as a child, had always preferred the company of nonhumans. As an adult, he kept dozens of stray cats on his farm. When people asked why, he’d reply, “Because they don’t talk.”
John, who was treated for a mild aneurysm in 2000, told Ann that once he racked up enough money, he would get out of trading, sinking much of his fortune into a bigger, better version of the green idyll he enjoyed in Virginia. He told Ann he’d been scouting potential locations in Costa Rica and Brazil.
“I’ve already been to Brazil,” she pointed out.
THE TOWN of La Florida de Barú looms 2,200 feet above the Pacific, on the southwestern edge of Costa Rica—arguably the country’s most undeveloped region. Prior to 1998, many of the 100 or so people who lived there lacked electricity; most residents lived in weather-beaten farmhouses or tiny cabinas accessible only by narrow dirt roads that turned to slop during the rainy season.
To live there was to submit to the primacy of the rainforest: an area so vast (hundreds of square miles), so wild (deadly pit vipers, warring monkey tribes), and so damned out there that it remained impervious to the gringo land grabbers buying up the northern parts of the country. Nobody bought into this corner of Costa Rica. Not even Costa Ricans.
Then, in 1998, along came these two rich yanquis who dropped $10 million for 5,000 acres in the middle of the highland jungle. The land was composed of separate farms that produced a meager coffee crop and a few grazing areas for cattle. The main issue was accessibility, or lack thereof, thanks to the combination of rugged mountains and a massive escarpment that cut the place off from the world.
“Perfect,” John said. “This is home.”
Construction took four years, with an army of 500-odd workers completing a vast compound that included four separate houses, a moat, and a helipad. The Benders gave it a name that they mistakenly thought was a species of local plant: Boracayan.
Admittedly, plopping a giant house into the rainforest doesn’t sound like environmentalism, but the Benders mitigated that by making the structure eco-friendly, reforesting to undo the soil damage from coffee farming, and operating the place, first and foremost, as a refuge—the region’s only large-scale private haven for endangered, abandoned, or injured animals.
Teams of armed rangers were hired to chase off poachers, who previously had used the land as a hunting ground for birds and animals whose meat fetched top dollar at local markets. Ann hired six full-time caretakers and brought in vets when needed. Virtually overnight, the preserve turned into a summer camp for monkeys, sloths, and parrots; every morning, in the foggy darkness before dawn, the Benders woke to the impatient squawks and stares of macaws dangling upside down from the ledge of their roof.
But the sight of sights was the main house, which sat atop the area’s highest mountain, at roughly 2,500 feet. The interior structure took up 8,000 square feet. The total living area—the porches, sculpture garden, waterfall, reflecting pool stocked with tilapia, and more—approached 120,000 square feet.
The house benefited from Ann’s light decorating touch and John’s design master-stroke: no external walls. The only thing standing between the Benders and the elements was a series of roll-up storm doors. Whenever they were inside—cooking, taking a bath—they were outside. And whatever was outside came in, unabated: birds and lizards and insects, wind and fog. To lie in bed was to sleep in the clouds.
The master bedroom took up the entire top floor. Below, on the third floor, was an office space furnished with a large desk, a few chairs, and a computer. Despite John’s “retirement,” he was constitutionally unable to quit the game altogether. A satellite dish linked him to the outside world.
But every evening, just before sunset, John and Ann had a thing. They’d go to the second floor, which housed a chef’s kitchen and a large dining area. They’d migrate out to a balcony that faced west. From there they could sometimes see all the way to Panama (on the left) and Nicaragua (to the right). And on the best nights, as they peered out over the Pacific, they would see an endless blue sea dotted by whales.
It was ideal. Then it all started going to hell.
THE TROUBLES BEGAN in late April 2001, on a sleepy country road just outside La Florida. John and Ann were in their Ford F-350, on their way to buy seeds, when a car boxed them in. “John Bender!” the driver shouted. “You’re coming with us!”
Two men aimed guns at John’s head, ordered him out of the truck, and started forcing him toward their vehicle. During the confusion, the gunmen fired two warning shots, and one of the rounds sprayed up dirt near John’s legs. Ann screamed. Suddenly, the assailants identified themselves as plainclothes police and arrested John. Hours later, in the local police station, a man John had never met handed him a summons and said, “John Bender, you’ve been served.”
The summons was related to an ugly legal battle John was engaged in at the time. It involved a New York financial manager named Joel Silverman, who had invested seed money in Amber Arbitrage in the mid-nineties. In 2001, Silverman alleged that John had verbally promised him a 25 percent cut of the company’s value, which by then ran in excess of $500 million.
Silverman tried to paint John as a tax mercenary who used foreign tax shelters to hide his money from both Silverman and the U.S. government—an assertion that wasn’t entirely inaccurate. John hated the IRS so much that he renounced his U.S. citizenship when he and Ann moved to Costa Rica. He claimed that Silverman was behind the abduction, stating in a deposition that he had suffered “at the hands of Silverman’s agents.”
Meanwhile, the Benders became unpopular among the Costa Rican locals. Some were hunters tired of getting chased by men with guns; others were just pissed that they hadn’t been hired to work at Boracayan.
A security expert was blunt, telling the Benders: “My advice to you is to get the hell out of here.” After spending three months in Canada, the couple returned and hired security guards with paramilitary training.
Still, Ann couldn’t quite shake her fear and agitation. This triggered a cycle of manic depression, a physical breakdown, and an emergency hysterectomy a few months after the incident with the gunmen.
A second crisis materialized one night in 2002, when guards exchanged gunshots with an armed intruder who was seen heading toward the house. After the intruder fled into the night, Ann spiraled downward. And when she crashed, John did, too. “He was very upset about Ann,” says Brad Glassman, a Washing-ton, D.C., attorney who handled some of John’s legal business. “And when things weren’t working for John, he could go off the deep end. He got very manic, very out there.”
Paranoia took hold. When John wasn’t searching for cures to what ailed Ann, he was fortifying the home and buying weapons. At one point, they again fled the country, this time to New Zealand for three and a half months. Again they were advised to cut their losses and move somewhere else. But no. “We chose Costa Rica,” Ann says. “We were in love.”
Their commitment was rewarded in 2003, when they sponsored and hosted a research team made up of botanists from the U.S., Costa Rica, and Germany. In one week, the team discovered three new species of orchid on the preserve. One belonged to a particular genus (Gongora) known to be uniquely difficult to classify or understand. The team named this species Gongora boracayanensis.
By 2008, John and Ann’s legal battles had been settled, and they had invested the bulk of their liquid assets—roughly $90 million—in a Costa Rica–based trust that promised several benefits. For starters, Costa Rica now rivaled the Caymans as a shelter for foreign wealth. More important, the trust insulated the Benders from future claims against their personal assets, including Boracayan. Legally, they were now mere servants of the trust, which would be administered by a local attorney John had come to respect. The trustee’s name was Juan de Dios Alvarez
BY THE TIME John died, his closest neighbor was Paul Meyer, an American expat who owns a small tree farm in La Florida. Some nights, while driving through the area, Meyer would catch a good view of Boracayan. Mostly it was dark, he said, but the top floor of the main house—the master bedroom—would be glowing “like a clerestory window.”
The glow came from one of Ann’s design touches. She craved bright, colorful lights—the Benders collected Tiffany lamps—a desire that was especially strong during her dark periods, which were increasing in frequency and duration. John would do anything to improve her mood, which explained why, by 2010, the number of Tiffany lamps in their bedroom had reached 550.
Ann’s health had taken a sharp turn for the worse. Now, on top of the Lyme disease and bipolar disorder, she was having trouble walking. John sent her to various specialists in San José, but nothing helped.
John started breaking down, too. Such was the extremity of his devotion to Ann, to fixing her, that he saw his failure as a failure of character. “He was always fanatical about trying to help Ann,” says Pete Delisi, a stockbroker who was one of the few people John kept in touch with. “The abduction, her illness—he felt like he’d failed her.”
That month, when Ann was off seeing a doctor, John sent her an e-mail in which he despaired about everything, from small health maladies to his larger mental condition:
I’m losing my fucking mind right now. First sick again and now this shit. Today is a total fucking nightmare and tomorrow will get worse. Just when I was feeling I could finally learn to be happy, now I get this and I want to be dead. I feel so fucking horrible. I want to kill everyone and then me.… I deserve to die.
Ann describes that period this way: “Every day, during the last six weeks, we would sit down and he would take all the medications we had and put them into piles and say, ‘OK, when am I gonna start taking the pills?’ There would be these suicide dress rehearsals. And if I went along with them, we got through the day.”
John no longer answered to anyone but Ann; anxious e-mails from his parents were ignored. Refuge employees hadn’t seen him in weeks, except for one or two long-distance glimpses of “Don John” carrying Ann from room to room. “Gently,” one of the guards recalls. “Like carrying a sick child.”
John’s life was playing out in an erstwhile dream home now patrolled by no fewer than nine armed guards who were forbidden even to enter it. His personal arsenal included two licensed Ruger pistols and two illegally acquired AK-47’s.
Ann says John was convinced that the water in the area could cure her. He also set up his own treatment regimen: an unknown concoction administered daily by injection.
“He was psychotic,” Ann says. “He started experimenting with me. He was injecting me with certain things. And I allowed this to happen.” She shrugs. “Yeah, I know,” she says. “But there was nothing non-intense about John’s and my relationship.”
THE DAY ANN described the fatal shooting was our fifth together. We’d spent the previous four talking around the subject. She seemed like somebody trying to crawl out of the rabbit hole with a flashlight.
When zero hour arrived, on a muggy Thursday afternoon, her manner was one of resigned acquiescence. “Will it drive you berserk if I smoke?” she asked, pointing to a pack of Dunhills. It was the first time I’d seen her with a cigarette. She perched on the windowsill for 90 minutes, like a little bird, and took us back to sundown of January 7, 2010.
“After we did our sunset thing, we played Fallout 3,” she said. The video game, which John played obsessively, is part of an action series whose central character roams a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of his missing father. “We would play for two or three hours.… When John said, ‘I’m ready for bed,’ I’d think, ‘OK, got through another day.’ So we go upstairs to our bedroom on the fourth floor.
“John was talking. He was saying some things. I don’t remember exactly what he was saying.… He had a routine ritual. He had to have his pillows arranged a particular way. I was already in bed. I was falling asleep, kind of in and out, and I heard him say something like, ‘You don’t know how it feels to wake up with your spouse half dead next to you.’ I opened my eyes and I saw—and once one has seen it, you know what it is—those two little dots that are the sight of the gun. The glow. And I realized that he had one of the handguns in his hands. And he was lying back on the pillows. And he had the gun pointed at his face as he was talking.
“When I saw the gun I was stunned, and my immediate reaction was to get up on my knees and try to reach for it,” she went on. “The gun was loaded and cocked. I reached for the gun with both hands, and I was up on my knees. And I did put my hands on the gun. And the gun slipped through my hands. And it went off.”
Ann said she ran around to John’s side of the bed, saw blood dripping to the floor, picked up a two-way radio to call for help, and turned on a light. “I think I was in shock, because I was running around—which, given the state I was in, I shouldn’t have been able to do. But I remember I did, like, four laps around the bed as I was waiting for somebody to come up and help me. At this point, I already knew he was dead, because I’d heard that death rattle—that last breath.”
At 12:15 A.M., a guard with an estate security team known as Imperial Park heard a gunshot echo from the upper part of the house. Then he heard a woman’s voice crackle over his radio: “Post Five. Help! Help! Help!”
The guard, Moises Calderon, radioed his supervisor, Osvaldo Aguilar. Five frantic minutes elapsed before Ann and Aguilar were able to give Aguilar access to the secure private elevator. Once he reached the bedroom, Aguilar found Ann kneeling, splattered in blood, and stroking her dead husband’s hand. Near her on the floor lay one of John’s semi-automatic pistols: a 9x19mm Ruger P95.
Aguilar took Ann down to the second floor, where she popped a tranquilizer, sat at her laptop, and e-mailed her parents. Then she called her older brother, Ken Patton IV, at his home in Michigan. Ann’s first words to him: “He finally did it.”
From this point on witness accounts diverge. Ann’s team of lawyers and supporters describe a chaotic scene in which rubber-necking cops were texting snapshots to friends, swiping sunglasses and iPods, and grinning at her. Photos of the crime scene do show quite a crowd, but the prosecution insists everything was done by the book.
By 11 A.M., Ann was an hour inland, in a police station in the nearby city of San Isidro de General. There, she willingly gave investigators a witness statement and phoned Dr. Arturo Lizano, her psychiatrist in San José. “I need you to admit me,” Ann said in a whisper. “My husband just shot himself.”
That night at the hospital, both Lizano and Ann’s attending physician, Dr. Hugo Villegas, were stunned by what they saw. “It was amazing how thin, pale, and weak she was,” Lizano recalls. “She didn’t have the strength to hold a cup of coffee.”
She weighed about 80 pounds. The blood clot near her heart would require the installation of a permanent stent. Her skin was covered with open boils, welts, and infections. Most of the sores turned out to be needle marks from the injections John gave her.
“She was literally blank,” Villegas says. “She had no recollection of what was going on, and she basically was unable to fathom what was going to happen tomorrow. She knew why she was in the hospital but was not aware of it. She knew, Yes, my husband died. But that was it—with no emotion whatsoever.”
The status quo held for more than three months. Finally, Villegas says, “it started hitting her: My husband died. She became a lot clearer about what happened and what the consequences were. Of course, that generated its own levels of anxiety and despair.”
Gradually, Ann came out of it. She called Celine Bouchacourt, an old friend from Switzerland she hadn’t seen since the 1990s. “John was her whole world,” Bouchacourt says. “Ann told me, ‘I didn’t forget about you. I didn’t forget about other people. It was John. He wanted just me. And I felt that was what I had to give him.’”
Folie à deux. That was Dr. Lizano’s assessment. John and Ann had dissolved into a state of shared psychosis. At a certain point, one person’s delusions fed the other’s, and vice versa. Madness by osmosis.
When Ann finally walked out of the hospital after six months, she couldn’t go back to Boracayan, which was now a ghost house: the police had confiscated nearly all the Benders’ belongings. Beyond that, Ann’s two attorneys assured her that she could not be charged because of her inimputabilidad, which basically means mental incapacity. At no point, it seemed, did her lawyers claim she was innocent.
Alarmed by this, Ann turned to the man who had hired the lawyers on her behalf: Juan Alvarez, John’s handpicked trustee, who assured Ann that everything would be taken care of. He said the same thing right up until August 2011, when Ann was arrested and then charged with first-degree murder.
When this happened, Ann found herself at Alvarez’s mercy. He severely restricted the flow of money to both Ann and the refuge, and security cutbacks allowed poachers to return. Alvarez justified his actions by pointing to a postnuptial agreement between John and Ann. The gist of it was that Ann had waived her right to John’s property, and so Alvarez controlled everything on behalf of the refuge. Ann, however, believed that the postnuptial agreement was invalidated when they created the trust.
But then, in the months that followed, Ann caught a couple of breaks. One came in the person of Milton Jimenez, a former accountant at Alvarez’s law firm. Jimenez was so distraught about Ann’s plight that he quit his job and opened the firm’s books to her. He alleged—both to me and in sworn court depositions—that Alvarez had bilked the trust for millions, which he used to finance a lavish lifestyle and grand real estate ventures, including a high-end equestrian center in northern Costa Rica. Alvarez had done so, Jimenez alleged, by exploiting the Benders’ trust. “He believed that he was the sole heir and owner of the trust,” Jimenez said in a deposition.
The second break came during a chance encounter with an attorney named Fabio Oconitrillo, who had just quit the biggest criminal-defense firm in San José and was looking to start his own practice. “I just have to ask you one question,” Oconitrillo said when he spoke with Ann. “Did you at any point confess to shooting John?”
“No,” she said. Oconitrillo told her to plead not guilty and started preparing a defense.
LEADING THE CASE against Ann was an enigmatic, middle-aged county prosecutor named Luis Oses. Laconic and cagey, with a prominent forehead and close-set eyes, Oses relished his street-fighter vibe. “There is very little I can talk about,” he told me when we met in his office last October.
One thing he readily acknowledged: Ann had been under suspicion since the beginning. Within 72 hours of the shooting, Oses was reviewing forensic and police evaluations that cast doubt on her story. “One week after the death,” Oses said, “we had sufficient evidence to consider it not a suicide but a murder.”
According to the indictment, blood-pattern tests showed that the crime scene had been staged postmortem, forensic evidence indicated that the victim had been asleep when shot, and both the murder weapon and a spent shell casing had been found in incriminating locations. Firing a pistol nearly always leaves gun residue on the shooter’s hand, and John’s hands had tested negative for any trace.
But at the heart of the case was the question of why a suicidal man would somehow shoot himself in the back of his head. The entry wound was located to the right of John’s cortex, in the right inferior occipital region of his brain—which means the bullet came from the back and right. John was left-handed. Ann slept to his right. Ergo.
The indictment offered no theory about motive, but in Costa Rica as in the U.S., prosecutors are not required to establish one. Still, a failure to offer a motive tends to reduce the chance of a conviction, so it seemed likely they would come up with something.
Oses wouldn’t discuss this with me, but his smile said plenty. “What I can tell you is that this case is basically divided,” he said. “The murder litigation is taking place here. All the litigation concerning the precious stones that were found on the defendant’s property—that case is being litigated in a separate court in San José.”
And there it was. The prosecution’s not-so-secret theory about motive was a noir classic: the lady wanted the jewels.
On the morning after John’s death, investigators found more than 3,000 gems inside the home: diamonds, rubies, opals. Some lay neatly arranged in custom-made display cases; others sat randomly on counters or were stuffed inside backpacks. According to prosecutors, most had been brought into the country illegally: no receipts, no duties paid.
Ann told me that everything had been legally acquired and that she was working on providing all the paperwork. But for the prosecution, an implied narrative began to form. The Wall Street bubble bursts in 2008. The Benders, facing liquidity problems, hit upon a cash business big on profits and short on tax oversight. But then the femme fatale kills her poor dupe to make off with the loot.
“That’s me,” Ann said sarcastically the day after I met Oses, “a criminal mastermind.”
She showed me a series of photos that police took while cataloging the jewelry collection. The gems included a red diamond (which the Benders bought in a $2.2 million lot with other jewels) and boxes of opals and diamonds worth $8.5 million. “The reason I bring this up,” Ann said, “is how do you make this work with this theory that I killed my husband to be able to run away?” She tapped the images. “This is $15 million,” she said. “I left them. Right on the counter.”
THE TRIAL, conducted in Spanish, began on January 14, 2013, in the eggshell blue court-house that sits in the center of San Isidro. Team Ann had driven down from San José the previous afternoon, in a guarded caravan that included two of Ann’s visiting relatives (her brother, Ken, and their grandmother, Ann Esworthy), her two closest friends (Celine Bouchacourt and Greg Fischer, a burly American she’d met in San José), and two friends of John’s from the U.S., Pete Delisi and Brad Glassman. John’s parents, unable to attend, sent the court statements that were supportive of Ann.
“Until now I hadn’t seen John or Ann in a decade,” Delisi said.
“Same for all their friends,” Glassman said.
Looking weak, Ann leaned on a cane as the group descended the steps of a sunken courtroom the size of a high school chemistry lab. Criminal trials in Costa Rica proceed much as they do in the U.S. One big difference: Costa Rica eschews the jury system in favor of judicial tribunals composed of a chief justice and two associate judges. Verdicts need not be unanimous. The majority rules.
The chief judge in Ann’s trial was José Luis Delgado, a square-jawed alpha male who presided with breezy authority. The two other judges scarcely said a word during the trial, which lasted six days and opened with a whiff of class warfare.
On one side was Fabio Oconitrillo, the immaculate private defender wearing an Italian-cut suit and flanked by an attractive young paralegalista carrying a zebra-skin bag and a white iPhone. Before them was a stack of case materials, neatly codified and color-coded.
Opposite them was Luis Oses, the lunchbucket civil servant wearing Dockers and a cheap dress shirt. Oses worked alone; on his table sat the single dog-eared case file he carried in an old backpack. While Oconitrillo addressed the court, he slumped in his chair, gazing blankly at points unknown.
Criminal defendants in Costa Rica are permitted to address the court during trial, and Ann spent more than an hour describing the life and death of her marriage. Her story was consistent with what she’d told me—except for the addition of one anecdote that served to illustrate the depths of John’s self-destructiveness. Two months before John died, Ann said, she’d thwarted his attempt to kill himself by jumping off their open-air elevator. This was news to me.
Ann, having waived her right to remain silent, submitted to questioning. But Oses seemed indifferent to the defendant; Ann, in turn, tended to supply one-word answers. Finally, they were interrupted by Judge Delgado, who asked Ann: “Did [John] give you reasons why he wanted to commit suicide?”
“He told me that he was not a good person, that he had failed to cure me,” Ann replied. “He told me he was tired of living a very hard life with everything he was facing. And he also told me that he was scared that he could harm somebody and that he was sure I would be safer without him.”
That night, with everybody eager to relax after a long day in court, Ann threw on a sparkly green dress and hosted a dinner at an outdoor restaurant specializing in chimichurri and sushi. The mood was reserved euphoria, thanks to a sense that the prosecution was weak. Someone reminded Oconitrillo of a moment earlier in the day when Oses had questioned the veracity of one of his own witnesses. “Just terrible,” Oconitrillo said. “But don’t tell him I said that.”
The twice-divorced Oconitrillo was wearing a pink Izod polo shirt and tight jeans. His paralegalista, now dressed in evening wear, nodded obligingly while he reassured Ann about Judge Delgado. “I know how he works,” Oconitrillo said. “If he’d been skeptical of your testimony, he would have thrown fifty questions at you.”
The relief seemed to make Ann woozy. So in stepped her friend Greg, a former bodybuilder who handled her like a China doll. I was struck with the realization that the friend was actually the boyfriend. During all the time I’d spent with Ann, hashing over the deepest intimacies of her life, she’d never mentioned anything about a relationship. Instead, she described her life as being “almost always alone and isolated.”
Late that night, I expressed bafflement to my translator, Ernesto, a San José hipster wearing oversize Prada glasses. “Accept that you can only know so much,” he said.
FOR THE NEXT three days, everything about the trial—the lawyering, the forensic work—seemed haphazard and baffling.
The best example was one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Dr. Gretchen Flores, a government pathologist who examined Ann after the shooting. Flores was there to prove that John couldn’t have fired the fatal gunshot with his left hand. She made a compelling case, but only up to a point. Ann had repeatedly explained that, during the struggle for the gun, she’d jerked John’s hands toward the right side of his head, at which point the gun discharged. Oconitrillo offered witnesses who testified that John handled guns ambidextrously. He asked the doctor if she’d factored this into her findings. “It would require research,” Flores replied, “since that is a very different condition.”
Meanwhile, evidence of John’s self-destructiveness was everywhere. On the witness stand, Pete Delisi referenced three different times when John had confessed his suicidal urges, usually spurred by his inability to handle disappointment or failure. “Both my and his family knew his condition,” Delisi said. “And we knew it was a matter of time until this moment would come.”
At lunchtime I found Ernesto in the lobby having coffee with Oses. “The lady is going away for a very long time,” Oses told Ernesto. When Ernesto challenged him, Oses smiled and said, “Just wait till Friday.”
He placed a hand on Ernesto’s shoulder. “I don’t necessarily think the defendant is an evil woman,” he said. “I think maybe it’s possible to love someone too much.”
On Friday, the last day of testimony, Oses began by recalling two experts he’d questioned earlier. The first was Luis Aguilar, an investigator for Costa Rica’s top federal forensic unit. A placid giant, Aguilar served as ice to Oses’s fire while they analyzed a series of grisly death-scene photographs. These were projected onto a large video screen. Ann couldn’t look. One of John’s friends nearly passed out.
There, on the left side of his bed, lay the nude, blood-stained body of John Bender. His head was tilted to the left. In the back of his head, on the right, was the fatal wound. His left wrist dangled off the left side of the bed. Beneath his left arm was a river of blood snaking down the side of the mattress. Beside the pool of blood on the floor lay John’s pistol—a sight that made no sense given the location of the wound. We also saw images of the spent bullet casing, which lay behind the bed: closer to Ann’s side than John’s.
Next came Dr. Flores, the pathologist caught in the middle of the left-versus-right controversy. She, like Aguilar, contended that blood patterns on and around John’s body were inconsistent with a self-inflicted gunshot. The same went for the positioning of John’s body. “It shows no sign of struggling,” Flores said, “and is consistent with what we characterize as a body in rest.”
Finally, Flores discussed the significance of John’s right hand, which was shown to be lying flat on a pillow tucked down by John’s right waist. It was a given, she said, that John’s vital functions had ceased the instant the bullet entered his brain. “It is very difficult, anatomically, to shoot in that position,” Flores said. Even if John had done so, she said, his arm would have immediately fallen “en estadio inert.”
“Is it possible to shoot with the right hand and end with the position in which it was found?” Oses asked.
“In my experience,” Flores said, “it is not possible.”
Oses, during his two-hour closing argument, prowled and paced, staring straight at Ann. “She had the mental ability to turn the lights on,” he said. “After that she called on her radio. Then she was able to unlock the elevator mechanism. She was also able to come downstairs and was even capable of turning on the computer and sending e-mails.”
During the 60-plus minutes before the authorities arrived at the scene, Oses said, Ann and her security team had plenty of time to wash her hands and move the gun. He held up the murder weapon and crouched, as if he were on the right side of the Benders’ bed. “Our theory,” Oses said, “is that Ms. Ann got close and, holding the gun sideways, fired at her husband.”
He pulled the trigger: the click was loud enough to make Ann flinch. Then he gestured toward the back of the imaginary bed, where the shell casing was found.
He displayed the gun and said, “I have no approved gun permit and can, with no experience whatsoever, feed it and shoot it.”
He cocked and pulled the trigger. Easily. Repeatedly.
Oses closed by reminding the court that the only Bender who tested positive for gunpowder residue was Ann. “The version of events given by Ms. Ann is false,” he said. “It was Ms. Ann who shot the gun. That’s why her clothes had gunpowder on them. And the elements of the crime scene prove that John Felix Bender did not shoot himself. Considering that she ended the life of her husband in what the penal code defines as a cruel manner, we ask for 25 years in prison.”
OCONITRILLO rose to Ann’s defense. “There is not a single piece of criminalistics evidence from which we can conclude, 100 percent, that my client committed homicide,” he began.
He tried to rebut many of the prosecutor’s assertions. For one thing, there was ample evidence that both the crime scene and the body had been disturbed during the chaos that followed Bender’s death. The crime-scene photos, it turned out, had been taken hours after investigators first found John’s body. And of course Ann’s clothes revealed traces of gunpowder—she’d been lying beside John when the gun went off.
“You don’t kill your husband because ‘Today I’m feeling bad,’ ” Oconitrillo said. “There is no motivation, and with no motivation there is no homicide.… Were they eccentric? Yes. It’s not a crime. Were they millionaires? Not a crime, either. They lived in a four-story castle? Again, not a crime.”
The final words came from Ann, who struggled to hold herself together as she blinked up at the tribunal. “I’m innocent,” she said. “I did not kill John. Since this trial began, on Monday, is the first time in three years that I feel I have rights. It’s been three years of hell. And I feel listened to and protected by the justice system. And I would like to thank you.”
After she finished, Judge Delgado announced that the tribunal would wait until Monday to render its verdict.
On Monday, Team Ann reconvened outside the courtroom—only to be informed that the judges needed a few more hours. Everybody slouched back to the hotel to kill time in the lobby, too spooked and exhausted to manufacture small talk. While I feigned interest in e-mails, I felt a presence materialize beside me. It was Ann.
“Last night I was lying in bed,” she said. “And I was thinking, What would I have done if I’d been in the prosecutor’s position? I would have said, ‘She’s crazy, something set her off, and boom! She killed him in a fit of craziness.’ But no. He goes for the whole enchilada. Which is really crazy.”
Then, just as quickly, she was gone.
An hour later, at the courthouse, a line of spectators snaked through the lobby and out to the street. In court, Ann was a trembling mess as TV cameras trained on her face. Oses didn’t show up, and Judge Delgado deferred to one of his colleagues, Francisco Sanchez. “Based on the evidence presented,” Sanchez said, “we have unanimously decided the defendant is acquitted.”
With good reason, I thought, the tribunal found the prosecution’s case short on evidence, long on conjecture, and devoid of motive. The forensic analysis, Sanchez said, was based on a series of flawed or outright false assumptions.
But then, unbidden, Judge Delgado interrupted. “The tribunal does not count with certainty the criminal responsibility of the defendant,” he said. “We found it possible that the defendant could have killed her husband, but also possible that it could have been a suicide. By not being certain, the tribunal found that the evidence is not conclusive as used by the D.A.”
If the caveat bothered Ann, she didn’t show it. She was too busy hugging her team, ducking cameramen, fumbling for a cigarette, and getting the hell out of San Isidro.
Two hours later, at a roadside diner halfway to San José, I saw her for the last time. She was exhausted; her hands trembled.
“You OK?” I asked. She started to reply, but no words came out.
I LEFT the next morning, relieved to see the drama end. Ann’s counteroffensive against her trustee, Juan Alvarez, proceeded apace. Authorities had raided his office, and a judge had replaced him with an interim trustee who was tasked with determining how much money (if any) remained in the trust. Ann seemed to be headed for a better life, probably in Florida.
Soon came news that the jewelry-smuggling case had gone from dormant to active. Also, on February 12, a Costa Rican TV news outlet reported that prosecutors were investigating whether Ann’s trial was influenced by a past business deal between her attorney and one of the judges who acquitted her. In 2003, Oconitrillo had notarized the sale of a parcel of land to none other than Judge Delgado. In response, Oconitrillo said that a ten-year-old transaction in no way suggested the sort of “close friendship” forbidden by law. Delgado had no comment.
But the biggest twist came when prosecutors announced they would appeal the acquittal. In Costa Rica, prosecutors can complain to a higher court, which may either dismiss the appeal or order a new trial. Although the latter happens only rarely, Ann can’t leave the country until the appeal plays out—a process that could take six months to a year.
On March 14, Ann sent me an e-mail that read, in part:
“I’ve reached the point where I can’t accept on a fundamental level what has happened. Everything I suspected has borne out to be true in the evidence. I can’t sit here, a prisoner for an indefinite period of time, and not fight on all fronts. I’m willing to do anything to expedite ending this.
“The story is far from over,” she concluded. “Nothing is over. Nothing.”