The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Media

Slush Funds: How to Cash in on Global Warming

There have been plenty of books documenting the myriad ways that climate change will take us all down. In Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (Penguin, $28), Seattle journalist and frequent Outside contributor McKenzie Funk takes a contrarian approach, reporting on the people—and, in the case of Greenland and Canada, countries—that are poised to profit handsomely from the coming chaos. Funk tracks down Arctic oil strategists, Israeli snowmakers, arable-land grabbers, and those cunning enough to privatize public services, from water delivery to firefighting. So is it pragmatism, opportunism, or pure steely greed?

Outside: How did you figure out there were so many people trying to make a buck off global warming?
Funk: In 2010, I read that there was a Canadian military mission asserting the country's claim on the Northwest Passage. My first thought was, That's absurd. Who's afraid of the Canadian military? My second was, Hey, they're looking for an opportunity. The effects of climate change are real, and there's a rush up there in the Arctic. I decided to look at how others are repositioning for the new reality. Some were predictable, like the burgeoning movement in Greenland to attain independence from Denmark, based on revenue from oil under the melting ice. Others were more surprising, like oil companies buying up water rights in the American West for oil and gas extraction.

You write, "There is something crass about profiting off disaster, certainly, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it." Why not? Aren't you a jerk if, like some Wall Street bankers, you buy up Ukrainian farmland from peasants in exchange for vodka?
I found that example the most difficult. Wall Street has its own set of morals. I write about an American investor partnering with a feared warlord in South Sudan to buy land. As a libertarian, he believed in what he was doing beyond just making money. He thought that private investment was more stable than aid. Would I go partner with a warlord so he would burn down the city of Juba to create a libertarian peace? No. But this investor has a poodle, a wife, kids he loves. He was a nice guy. There aren't that many perfect villains in the world.

You note that the same oil companies that created the climate catastrophe will also be the ones to profit from it. That's not very satisfying. Where's the retribution narrative?
Climate change is a moral failing for the rich, but it's a moral failing for the rest of us, too, because we haven't done anything about it. It takes a lot of complacency to build a seawall around New York and let the problems pile up on the other side of the world. We're going to save ourselves first. A lot of us don't have that much to worry about, and that raises the moral stakes. You're screwing someone else if you're American.

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The Shadiest Man in the Racing Biz

On August 12, 2012, Maureen Lampa, a 61-year-old retired teacher, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend all piled into Lampa’s Chrysler convertible for the three-hour drive from their home in Westminster, Massachusetts, to Freeport, Maine.

In May, the women had signed up for a race called the Freeport Half Marathon, and they'd spent four months running five to ten miles a day, five days a week, to prepare. This would be Lampa's fifth half marathon. For her daughter, Katherine, and her daughter's friend Lauren Laserte, both 21, it was their first.

On August 13, after spending the night in a nearby hotel, the group pulled into downtown Freeport an hour before the race's scheduled 7 A.M. start time. But when they arrived, there was no sign of a race. No start banner, no water stations, no police directing traffic, no markers indicating the course route. Lampa walked into L.L.Bean's flagship store on Main Street to ask about the event. Nobody knew anything about a Freeport Half Marathon. Did Lampa have the wrong day? The wrong location?

The women drove back to their hotel room. As soon as they arrived, Lampa sat down and sent an e-mail to the race's organizer, Dean Reinke, the 60-year-old CEO and president of a five-year-old nationwide series he calls USRA Half Marathon, a company he founded in 2009.

"I am sitting in my hotel room with no race to run," Lampa wrote. "I spent over $100 to register my daughter and me for this race and spent $150 for a hotel room, because we live three hours from the supposed race site.… I want my money back!"

Three hours later, Reinke responded to Lampa—and other runners who'd sent bewildered e-mails—claiming that Howard Spear, the director of a popular annual event in Portland called the Maine Marathon, was to blame for the race getting canceled, apparently acting out of spite. Anybody with a complaint should take it up with him.

{%{"quote":"Spear had nothing to do with the cancelation of Reinke's event. The strange reality is this: the 2012 Freeport Half Marathon was never even scheduled to happen."}%}

"With registration open and plans fully underway, just a few months ago Maine Track Club's Howard Spear submitted some false accusations and lies about the USRA to local politicians," Reinke wrote. "Spear had done the same thing a year ago but was rebuffed by the Freeport USA Tourism Group who were very happy with us and the event.… Due to his actions, our agreement to use the approved course was reneged on despite the support of Freeport USA, Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the State of Maine Tourism." To Lampa, Reinke wrote that Spear "has proven he is a pathological liar."

Lampa and several other runners contacted Spear, who was shocked by the accusation. "I've never even met him," Spear told me when we spoke on the phone. "And I certainly didn't try to block his race." That's true. Spear had nothing to do with the cancelation of Reinke's event. The strange reality is this: the 2012 Freeport Half Marathon was never even scheduled to happen.

A year earlier, Reinke had hosted a half marathon in Freeport and it had gone off without any problems. But after the race, Reinke didn't pay the $1,325 he contractually owed the Freeport police department for traffic-control services. In the meantime, Reinke had already started collecting entry fees for a 2012 race in Freeport, even though he didn't have any permits in hand and hadn't applied for any.

In spring 2012, James Hendricks, a Freeport town-council member, called Reinke and asked him to come to Maine and answer a few questions. Reinke flew in and insisted that there had been a mix-up about the delinquent payment. He wrote a check on the spot and submitted a special-events application for the 2012 event. At meeting's end Reinke was informed that, before his 2012 application could be approved, the town council would have to meet and decide whether to grant him a new permit. "We shared our concerns that we were not happy that the event was advertised as a set event when in fact the Town of Freeport had not approved it," Gerald Schofield, chief of the Freeport police department, told me in an e-mail.

Reinke was invited to attend but told the council he couldn't make it. On May 1, the seven council members voted unanimously to deny his permit. Reinke was informed of the decision, but the USRA website, which he owns and operates, continued to promote and collect entry fees for the race, as did, a separate online-registration forum for people seeking race opportunities. In all, roughly 100 people reportedly paid the $60 entry fee for the race, and 30 complained to Hendricks that they did not receive refunds.

Hendricks encouraged Lampa and other runners to contact the office of Maine's attorney general to file a complaint. The Maine AG referred them all to the Florida AG—Reinke's company is based in Winter Park, near Orlando—who told the runners that the office didn't handle small claims and suggested that they file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. If the runners wanted their money back, they'd need to lawyer up and take Reinke to court.

"That's not worth it," Lampa says. "You'd end up spending more on legal fees to recover the money than on the entry fee itself."

And that's where the matter died. The 2012 Freeport Half Marathon, the race that never happened, made Dean Reinke a slightly wealthier man.

To people in the running community, the Freeport incident wasn't surprising. Google Reinke's name and you'll see why: Most results will lead you to angry blog posts and message-board complaints by runners or people linked to running organizations. Going back to 2010, there are stories about charities that worked with Reinke and then never received any of the proceeds they were promised. About races that never happened and refunds that weren't paid. About police departments, race officials, and T-shirt companies that say they were never compensated for the work they did on USRA events.

One blogger describes Reinke as a "con man." A commenter labels him a "snake oil salesman." A poster to a message board called sympathizes with a fellow runner who "fell prey to yet another shady race situation in the long, sordid history of this individual as a race director." In a thread about Reinke, one runner stated that "Reinke managed a half marathon in Lexington, KY this past March. It was the most poorly facilitated race I've ever seen. Reinke only cares about making profit and has no concern for the runner's experience."

The Better Business Bureau gives a solid F to Reinke Sports Group—the LLC behind the USRA Half Marathon Series—and lists 23 user complaints on its website, including allegations of poor race management. There's also a Tumblr site called Reinke Sports Group Race Reviews, which is dedicated to "chronicling the negative reviews and race failures of the USRA Half Marathon Series."

{%{"quote":"On May 1, the seven council members voted unanimously to deny his permit. Reinke was informed of the decision, but the USRA website, which he owns and operates, continued to promote and collect entry fees for the race."}%}

The site contains a glut of negative information, including a letter from the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Bentonville, Arkansas, stating that Reinke never paid two charities—the Bentonville Public School Foundation and the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank—proceeds he'd promised them from a 2010 race, and that Reinke still owed money to the Clarion Hotel and Convention Center for space used during a prerace expo and packet pickup. The visitor bureau eventually covered the amount owed to the charities and the hotel.

Also available on the Tumblr site is a link to a letter from John Sensenig, the owner of John's Run/Walk Shop in Lexington, Kentucky. In it he states: "We had a very bad experience with Mr. Reinke and his USRA race that was held here in Lexington in spring of 2010. John's Run/Walk Shop, the city of Lexington, and even the sponsored charity dropped our support of his race and refused to support him in future races in Lexington."

Sensenig didn't respond to my request for an interview about what went wrong, but I was able to reach Anna Seitz, the client-relations and marketing assistant at Fasig-Tipton, a thoroughbred-auction firm in Lexington that lined up a facility used during the start and finish of the race.

"What didn't go wrong?" Seitz says with a sigh. "He wouldn't pay the charity, Blue Grass Farms, or the vendors, and we ended up doing most of the work." When Reinke walked into a meeting with city officials requesting permits for a 2011 race in Lexington, he denied everything. "Voices were raised," says Seitz. "Then we said, 'We're not going to sit here and argue with you. We're recommending that you not be granted a permit.' It was the first time he shut up."

Not surprisingly, Reinke has had his share of legal disputes. In 2010, in a partnership with the city of Joplin, Missouri, he staged the Mother Road Marathon, an event that drew 1,929 runners. After that race, the city council decided that city employees had done a disproportionate amount of the work and told Reinke they were severing ties. Nonetheless, he moved forward, promoting his own Mother Road Marathon in Joplin. The city of Joplin sued Reinke for rights to the race's title, but he prevailed. According to reports at the time, Joplin settled out of court, paying him $20,000 to give up the name.

Also that year, Reinke petitioned the city of West Lafayette, Indiana, and Purdue University to hold a half marathon that would weave through the city and the Purdue campus. He was denied permission, but he began promoting a race 30 miles away, calling it the Home of Purdue Half Marathon. Purdue sued Reinke for using its name without permission. As part of a settlement, he was barred from appropriating the school's intellectual property and banned for three years from holding races anywhere in Purdue's home county, Tippecanoe.

In 2013, the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, also sued Reinke over unpaid bills, and the city of Barnstable is considering similar action. "I don't understand how he keeps getting away with stuff like this," says Sergeant Andrew McKenna of the Barnstable police department, which worked one of Reinke's races. "Why do places keep hiring him?"

McKenna asked the obvious question. Based on his track record, how is Dean Reinke still in business?

To start with, it's important to note that not all USRA races are flops. Reinke holds 23 events nationwide, and a few are consistently successful, following a simple model that works for race organizers around the nation: charge an ample entry fee, keep costs under control, realize profit. Runners have proven to be remarkably tolerant of fees closing in on $100 for non-marathons and $100 to $150 (and sometimes more) for marathons. Still, profit margins are pretty narrow. If you attract 1,500 people to a half marathon at $60 each, and keep municipal expenses modest, you'll earn a ballpark $15,000.

In 2014, Reinke will oversee three races that have been put on three times before and four that will hit their five-year mark. Since Reinke started his race series, 25,000 people have participated, and the USRA website is plastered with photos of happy runners proudly displaying their finisher medals.

"The USRA races are fun, simple, and low-key, but with an upbeat environment," says Todd Lytle, a race director for several charity events in Clermont, Florida, who has run five of Reinke's races. "The courses are through nice state parks and scenic downtown areas, and they're usually in smaller places where you wouldn't normally find a half marathon. A lot of times, there's bands and pizza after the race, and that's pretty unique."

Reinke also has good working relationships with several people in the towns where his races are held, some of whom defend him. After I called the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police department, looking for information about a late payment Reinke owed the city for a race held there in September 2013, I got a separate call from Ed Carnathan, sports director at the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau. Carnathan said that in the four years he'd held races in Las Cruces, there'd never been a problem.

What about the late bill?

"You've never had a late bill before?" he said. "I've asked him to pay it. I can only ask him so many times."

An essential source for answering questions about Reinke, of course, is Reinke, but for the first few months that I researched this story, he failed to respond. I was able to piece together a basic portrait from various places, so I knew that he was 60, was on the shorter side, and was a former college athlete who'd run varsity track for Indiana University in the 1970s. I also knew that he had close-cropped brown hair and a toothy grin, and was considered a sales genius by some people who'd met him.

"The best I've ever seen," says Mark Crepeau, a consultant in Ormond Beach, Florida, who worked for Reinke from 1989 to 1991 and credits his ex-boss with teaching him how to sell and market events. "He's high-energy, a dynamic presenter, and unbelievably disciplined. He has a schedule and routine, is organized as hell, and has a steel trap for a memory." Others described Reinke as gregarious, extremely smart, and willing to promise just about anything to close a deal.

"That's the problem," said Crepeau, who has mixed feelings about Reinke. "He'll promise the universe but only deliver 20 or so galaxies."

To pitch events, Reinke attends biannual conventions that bring together visitor bureaus, sports commissions, hoteliers, and the like. Typically, he goes after the local tourism center, and to seal the deal, he'll guarantee to get people in hotel beds and at restaurant tables. That's usually enough to prompt the visitor bureaus to sign on. At that point, Reinke often connects with a local liaison, usually somebody from a running club, who'll help map out the course, secure permits, and lock down portable toilets, volunteers, and other race essentials.

But almost always, city officials and others involved in the race go back to their desks and start to research the man behind the USRA Half Marathon Series. They usually run into the flak about him that appears online, and that's when the master salesman really demonstrates his charm and skill.

One person I spoke with—I'll call him Tom, because he asked that I not use his real name—was Reinke's liaison for the Tri Cities Half Marathon in Richland, Washington. Not long after signing on with Reinke in 2011, Tom confronted him over the phone about reports of unpaid bills in various cities. He says Reinke offered a multitude of excuses.

"Dean told me that those cities had experienced great success with his races," he recalls. "Then they decided they could do it without him and they kicked him out. The way he saw it, based on that, he didn't owe them any money."

OK, but why had Reinke opened registration for the Tri Cities race prior to securing permits? Tom remembers Reinke saying: "I've been doing this a long time, and this is how we do it."

"Everything had an answer, and it seemed to make sense," Tom says. "I decided that there were two sides to every story and that he was telling me the truth."

In February 2012, the Tri Cities Half Marathon was executed perfectly. The race drew 659 participants, and Reinke spared no expense to make it a first-class experience. There was plenty of food and refreshment at the finish—pizza, cookies, Gatorade—a band played, and each runner received a T-shirt and a high-quality finisher medal. "The die-cast ones," said Tom. "Not the kind with stickers on them."


The next year, Reinke was determined to grow the event, with the goal of drawing at least 1,000 runners. He also wanted to hold a health and fitness expo in one of the hotel's convention center on the afternoon before the race, something runners would cruise through while they picked up their numbers. To sell vendor spots at the convention, Reinke hired Wendy Harris, a local stay-at-home mom. For each vendor Harris brought in, she'd earn a 15 percent commission.

Tom continued in his role as liaison, but things seemed different to him this time. The year before, when Tom submitted receipts to Reinke for purchases, Reinke sent him a check almost immediately. Now it was taking months. "He blamed it on his billing system," Tom says.

Meanwhile, Tom had discovered that Reinke owed the nearby Yakima Valley Sports Commission $1,500 for a race that had taken place there earlier in the year. "Dean told me he'd applied for a grant and that it had fallen through," Tom explains. "He'd planned on paying that bill using the grant money. It should have raised a red flag, but I was just so excited about what we were doing that I was blinded."

Eight hundred and forty runners turned out for the 2013 Tri Cities Half Marathon. Reinke was so pleased that he decided to move his Yakima race (the one he still owed $1,500 to the city for) to the Tri-Cities area and hold it in July, calling it the Columbia River Half Marathon.

But soon after the 2013 Columbia River event, Tom started getting complaints. Mighty Johns, the company that supplied the portable toilets for the Tri-Cities race, was still owed $550; Russ Zornick, who'd timed a race for Reinke in Edmonds, Washington, was owed $750; Wendy Harris hadn't received all of the commission she'd earned; and the local charity, the Union Gospel Mission, which had provided the volunteers and was promised $225, hadn't been paid, either.

After a local TV station ran a report about the unpaid charity, Reinke immediately sent them a check. As of December 2013, however, Mighty Johns, Zornick, and Harris still hadn't been paid, even though each of them had contacted Reinke several times requesting what they were owed.

By the time Harris found out that other people were still waiting for checks, she was already selling vendor spaces at another health and fitness expo for Reinke's Columbia River Half Marathon. At that point, shortly before the July race, Harris quit, sending Reinke an e-mail that said, "I am not paid to be at the expo or the race. Nor have you paid me for the booth spaces filled.… My time is valuable. I do not and will not work for free."

Reinke replied, calling Harris "unprofessional."

"I am very disappointed," he wrote. "I expected a lot more from you. I guess you don't care what you leave behind since you are leaving the market."

Harris and Tom, who had also told Reinke that he was stepping down from his post, took their case to the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau, telling officials about the unpaid bills. When Reinke caught wind of it he was furious, and Harris says he left a threatening voice mail. "He said I better hope he doesn't run into me the next time he's in town," Harris told me.

But what happened after that is the most puzzling. The Visitor and Convention Bureau ignored the warnings and allowed Reinke to move forward with a 2014 race anyway. Why? "They said they didn't want to get wrapped up in the politics," says Tom.

Dean Reinke is on the phone, and he sounds pissed off. A few weeks ago, I sent him an e-mail requesting an interview. He declined, saying he was too busy. I followed up a week later, telling him I realized he was probably hesitant to speak with me because of allegations made against him in the past, but that I'd love to fly to Florida and give him the opportunity to discuss it. That e-mail went unanswered.

Now, however, he seems fully aware that I've been tracking his business practices. "I'm getting calls from people saying you're trying to bring me down!" Reinke shouts. "I don't need somebody who's trying to do a hatchet job on me. Do you even know anything about me? Have you ever done any of my races?" The conversation is brief, with Reinke repeatedly saying, "I've been doing this for 30-plus years!"

{%{"quote":"Reinke's departure from Brooks was acrimonious. George Dietel, Reinke's boss, fired him after learning about what he viewed as shady business deals. He discovered that Reinke would sometimes provide better sponsorships to race directors if they brought him in as a speaker."}%}

As Reinke says, he's been involved in the running industry since the early 1980s. Prior to that, he was a track and cross-country star at Andrew Jackson High School in South Bend, Indiana. After graduating, in 1971, Reinke went on to compete for Indiana University, where he ran a 4:02 mile and represented the school at several NCAA championship meets. "He was a light-footed runner," recalls Sam Bell, 85, Reinke's coach at Indiana. "We had a pretty good team, and he was our number-two man. He was outgoing, congenial, people liked him."

Reinke graduated from Indiana in 1976 and by the early eighties had landed a job as promotions director at Brooks Sports, the running-shoe company that, at the time, was located in Hanover, Pennsylvania. His job was to sponsor athletes and work out sponsorship deals with running events.

But Reinke's departure from Brooks was acrimonious. George Dietel, Reinke's boss, fired him after learning about what he viewed as shady business deals. For one thing, he discovered that Reinke would sometimes provide better sponsorships to race directors if they brought him in as a speaker—somebody to provide an inspirational message. For that, Reinke would be paid separately.

When I called Dietel and told him what I was researching, he chuckled and said, "I'd just as soon have nothing to do with it." But in a 1989 story published in a newsletter put out by Road Race Management, a membership organization, Dietel said that the firing stemmed from "very flagrant double dipping" and involved "a considerable amount of money."

After leaving Brooks, Reinke went back to South Bend, where he was hired by the St. Joseph's Medical Center to create, promote, and direct a 10K that he called the Sportsmed. According to news reports at the time, after three years at the helm of the race, he stopped working with St. Joseph's in 1984, for reasons that I couldn't pin down.

Rather than walk away quietly, Reinke began promoting his own race, one that would take place the same day as the hospital's event. St. Joseph's sued, and Reinke was slapped with a temporary injunction that barred him from "promoting, organizing, sponsoring, advertising, directing, or conducting" any race that overlapped with the St. Joseph's 10K.

According to reports, Reinke ignored the injunction and moved forward, promoting what he called the Sportsfest 10K. At that point, the judge in the case issued a permanent injunction and decreed that Reinke was responsible for paying St. Joseph's $20,000 for damages to the hospital's reputation, plus attorney fees. Reinke agreed to back off, but he couldn't afford to pay the hospital. The court recognized his inability to pay the judgment.

A few months later, Reinke announced that the Chicago Vultures, a team in the American Indoor Soccer Association (AISA), would play an exhibition against the Chicago Sting, from the Major Indoor Soccer League, at the University of Notre Dame. But the Vultures hadn't signed off on the game. "He did not get our permission, nor do any of our teams want to play in anything that is connected with Dean Reinke," Martha Makay, executive assistant to the AISA commissioner, told the South Bend Tribune at the time. "Reinke wants to get paid for promoting our soccer teams, and we have told him before that we can take care of our own promotions. He has caused our league nothing but trouble."

In 1985, it was reported that Reinke filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He owed large sums to various media outlets that had promoted other running events he'd staged in the area, as well as to utility companies and lawyers, to name a few. Roughly $200,000 worth of Reinke's belongings were liquidated and used to pay off the debt, and Reinke moved to Winter Park.

But just two years later, Reinke started an even bigger business, Dean Reinke and Associates, that promoted nearly 100 running races nationwide, including a masters racing circuit for elite runners 40 and older. The masters races attracted big names like Boston and New York City Marathon winner Bill Rodgers, Olympians Marty Liquori and Frank Shorter, and Kenyan sensation Wilson Waigwa. Reinke wanted to do for running what other senior circuits had done for golf and tennis, and by many accounts the races were well produced. But the circuit wasn't without controversy.

According to Rodgers, Reinke skimmed money from appearance fees owed to the celebrity runners. Rodgers recalls a race in Macon, Georgia, that was sponsored by Arby's. "The fee that Dean had given me seemed low," he says. "So I asked the guy from Arby's what I was supposed to get, and it was double what Dean had paid me. I confronted him, and he hemmed and hawed and said, 'You know, Billy, I treat you so well, and I take you to a lot of races.' He was like that. He was always looking to hustle people."

Reinke also continued to have trouble paying his bills. The Road Runner's Club of America's Footnotes, National Masters News, and Running Times—all of which were owed advertising fees—approached Imperial Chemical Industries, Reinke's main sponsor for his masters circuit, to ask it to step in and force Reinke to pay up.

By 1991, the masters series was over. For the next decade, Reinke continued to promote races on a small scale while also taking on a variety of other clients. In the mid-nineties, he served as executive director of the United States Croquet Association. "He just sandbagged his way through that job," says Bob Alman, publisher of Croquet World magazine. "He would take credit for things he had nothing to do with. Everyone wanted him fired." By 2004, he was working for a publisher of sports books.

In 2010, Reinke started the USRA Half Marathon Series, seizing on the surging popularity of the 13.1-mile races. Since 2003, half marathons have grown faster than road races of any other distance. From 2006 to 2012, the number of finishers increased by 10 percent or more each year. During the past five years, Reinke has expanded from 10 to 23 races, with plans for more events. In a November 2013 newsletter e-mailed to past USRA participants, Reinke wrote that he had just attended a conference in Salt Lake City and that he was interested in organizing races in 25 cities. "We love to increase the number of areas where we are placing our events and would love your feedback if you'd like us to come to your area," he wrote.

A little over a week after our first phone call, Reinke agreed to a real interview, with the condition that it wouldn't be recorded. This time there's a different guy on the phone. Reinke speaks very fast but he's jovial. He asks me where I'm from.

I grew up in Vermont, I tell him.

"You see your Catamounts basketball team last night?" he excitedly asks, referring to the University of Vermont's near upset of Duke.

I tell him I missed it.

"Too bad! It was a great game!"

{%{"quote":"I can't help but like this Reinke a little, and I can see why people might find him easy to trust. He tells me about growing up in South Bend, how he'd wanted to be the quarterback at Notre Dame but realized he was built to be a distance runner."}%}

I can't help but like this Reinke a little, and I can see why people might find him easy to trust. He tells me about growing up in South Bend, how he'd wanted to be the quarterback at Notre Dame but realized he was built to be a distance runner. He tells me about his family: three children, one of whom has special needs. And he talks about his father, the head of a construction company who "busted his ass" and taught young Dean that if you "work hard, you get rewarded."

But when I start asking about unpaid bills and canceled races, he gets defensive.

"I don't owe anybody any money," he says firmly.

What about Marathon Sportswear and Gordon Lovie, the T-shirt makers who say they're owed roughly $12,000 and $2,300, respectively? Or Val Lofton, a race timer who claims she's still owed $1,000? Or Mighty Johns? Or Russ Zornick? Or Wendy Harris? Or the Barnstable and Las Cruces police departments?

Reinke pauses. "The thing that you need to understand," he says, "is that I'm not always responsible for the bill. Sometimes it's the convention and visitor bureau, sometimes they were supposed to be paid through a grant, sometimes it's a sponsor that owes them money."

I ask Reinke why, then, he doesn't tell these people that they need to contact somebody else to get paid? Why does he ignore their calls and e-mails?

"I don't ignore them, I've told them this."

I move on to canceled races without refunds. Earlier, I'd spoken to Phil Stewart, editor and publisher at Road Race Management, a company that publishes newsletters and how-to guides about organizing running events. Stewart told me it's common practice for road races to have a no-refund policy for canceled races, but that it usually applies only when a race is shut down because of bad weather or some other circumstance out of management's control—not because the race director failed to secure permits. And when directors do cancel, they typically roll over the entry fee to the next year's race.

When Reinke cancels races, he allows runners to transfer into one of his other 22 events. But those are often several months later and several hundred miles away from the original location. When I ask Reinke about this, he stresses: "But I do offer refunds."

This contradicts several people I spoke with, who told me they'd requested refunds after canceled USRA races in Tracy, California; Greenwood, South Carolina; and Freeport, Maine. All have failed to get a refund.

In addition, responding to an online article published after the canceled Greenwood race, Reinke had this to say in the comments section: "Like most major races throughout the country, we too have a no refund policy as stated in our waiver, standard in the industry."

Reinke and I speak for nearly two hours, and he continues to deny allegations. When I ask him why he was fired from Brooks, he tells me he wasn't. "The company wasn't doing well," he says. "I decided to move on." But usually Reinke is focused on trying to shift the conversation toward the great things he's done for people and the sport of running.

"We're creating a tourism destination event to get people active and support a charity," he says, sounding sincere. "I look at people who've had a heart attack or cancer or people whose husband just left them. We take a serious look at these people and how our races change their lives."

When it comes to road races and possible games of deception, Reinke isn't alone. According to Jean Knaack, the executive director of the Road Runner's Club of America (RRCA), small-scale con artists across the country set up races, collect entry fees, then flee town—never to be heard from again. In 2012, an Indiana company called Rapid Running Event Management pulled the plug on three races it never received permits for, pocketing the entry fees and not refunding any of the participants. It subsequently went out of business. "But nobody does this on Reinke's scale," says Knaack.

For its part, the RRCA booted Reinke from its membership (something that Knaack says rarely happens), established a race-management code of ethics, and published an online story called "Buyer Beware," which advised runners to do several things before signing up for any race, including "Google the company or promoter."

But none of that has real teeth. RRCA membership is essentially just a label, and Reinke can always figure out another way to sell his races. In fact, he's already begun going around tourism offices, pitching city mayors and city managers directly. So the real question is this: Is Reinke acting criminally?

"Only if there's intent to deceive," says professor Robert Weisberg, an expert in white-collar crime at Stanford Law School. "But if he's doing these things over and over, you could make the case that he's doing it on purpose. And that's larceny."

Though Reinke has probably pocketed at least $25,000 through unpaid bills and by refusing refunds, that would certainly be enough for the attention of a prosecutor.

Weisberg says that if Reinke is using the -Internet to collect entry fees, thereby reaching across state lines, he could be charged with a federal crime. "But federal prosecutors probably have bigger things to deal with, so they aren't concerned with something like this."

If any law-enforcement agency is looking into criminal charges, it certainly isn't deterring Reinke from pressing forward.

Last December, he e-mailed me a few references, people who he says can vouch for his character and professionalism. One is Chris Hamilton, the executive director at the Aurora, Illinois, Convention and Visitors Bureau. I call Hamilton, only to find out that he has been let go. Instead, I'm directed to Charlie Zine, Reinke's liaison for the inaugural Fox River Trail Half Marathon, held in Aurora in May 2013. Zine tells me that the race went pretty well but Reinke never paid the charity, the Rosary High School track team, which did all the volunteer work and was owed at least $200.

"We use that money to put on meets, buy equipment, and buy food for the races," says Vic Mead, the school's coach. "We do this for a lot of races, and we're usually paid within a month, but I'm still waiting."

Later I speak with Dale Berman, the mayor of North Aurora, a city where part of the race took place. He's aware that the charity hasn't been paid and tells me that "there won't be a race here if I have anything to do with it. The Convention and Visitors Bureau wouldn't support his permit, and as mayor of North Aurora, I wouldn't allow him to race here."

Given that information, it appears unlikely that Reinke's 2014 half marathon in Aurora will happen. But when I log on to the USRA website, I'm able to sign up for the race anyway, paying a $50 entry fee with my credit card. I don't expect to ever run it. And I don't expect to get my money back.

Gordy Megroz is an Outside correspondent.

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Real-Life Dog Tales

What's better than a good dog movie? But we're not talking about Chihuahuas that talk or pasta-slurping Cocker Spaniels. Like our favorite print stories, the best dog films are the ones based on real-life adventures. So grab your pooch and some popcorn; here are six of our favorites:

Hachiko: A Dog's Story


The original tale took place in 1924 in Japan. A rescued Akita named Hachiko waited at the train station everyday for his owner—a professor at the University of Tokyo—to return. One day, the owner doesn't get off the train; he suffered a stroke earlier that day. The story goes that every day for almost ten years, Hachiko waited at the train station for his owner. The loyal Hachiko became somewhat of a celebrity in Japan—there is a statue of him at the Shibuya train station—and he even had his organs preserved when he died in the 1930s.

The 2009 film is set in America instead of Japan, and stars Richard Gere as the professor.



Balto's real-life journey began when a case of diphtheria broke out among the children of Nome, Alaska in January of 1925. Roads were down and the town's single airplane had been put away for the winter. The solution? Sled dogs, naturally. A group of 20 mushers started on the 600-mile trip to Anchorage to get the medicine back to Nome, with Balto bravely leading the way.

As a result, this husky might be the most famous dog yet—he's voiced by Kevin Bacon in the 1995 animated movie Balto: The True Story of An American Hero, his statue is a favorite of visitors to New York City's Central Park, his body is mounted at the Cleveland's Natural History Museum, and his famous trek inspired the legendary Iditarod sled race.

Air Bud


If you don't like the original basketball-playing Air Bud, don't worry—you have about 12 more movies to choose from, including (but not limited to): Air Bud: Strikes Back, where the pooch plays volleyball; Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch, where he plays baseball; and a plethora of Air Buddies films, where, you know, Air Bud has puppies? We're not sure, we didn't watch all six of them.

The true story, though, behind Buddy is much more interesting—and realistic. Buddy was a found in the Sierra Nevada by writer and producer Kevin di Cicco, who later wrote a book, Go Buddy!, about the dog. "I rescued him from abandonment in the mountains, but Buddy also rescued me, giving my life purpose, direction, and a profound sense of relationship I had been missing," he writes. "Our bond saved us both and together we forged a path from that dirt trail near the old mine shaft to international sensation on the silver screen, his eventual fall to cancer but not before siring a litter of puppies that would carry on his iconic legacy for generations to come."

Finding Rin Tin Tin


Arguably the most famous German Shepherd to hit the big screen, Rinty, as he was nicknamed, starred in five seasons of the ABC television series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, and countless movies.

The 2007 film, Finding Rin Tin Tin, is the story of Rinty's rescue from a French battlefield during World War I by American soldier Lee Duncan. The dog was taken back to California by his new owner and quickly became an onscreen favorite, starring in 27 Hollywood films.

According to Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the first Academy Awards in 1929, but the Academy decided a human actor should win the award.

My Dog Skip


My Dog Skip is your typical coming-of-age story, but this time with a furry friend along for the journey. The film includes a line-up of well-known actors, including Frankie Muniz, Luke Wilson, Kevin Bacon, and Diane Lane. The story follows a young boy who can't seem to make any friends in his new Mississippi town. To solve the problem, his parents get him a terrier puppy who helps him grow up.

The 2000 film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same title by Willie Morris.

Marley & Me


Warning: If you've ever had yellow labs, this is a hard movie to watch. Based on the autobiographical novelMarley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog by John Grogan, the 2008 feature film stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. The story follows the husband and wife as they get a puppy that never seems to outgrow his energy and mischievousness. If your pooch has ever been kicked out of training class or has a penchant for ignoring you when something more interesting is in nose-range, Marley & Me will resonate deeply. By the time the credits roll, you'll be sobbing into your dog's fur. 

Eight Below


Based on the true story of a Japanese Antarctic expedition in 1958, the 2006 film Eight Below tells the sad story of dogs getting left behind in dangerously cold conditions. A dogsled team is chained outside a research station, while the humans leave in a hurry as winter sets in. The main guide, played by the late Paul Walker, constantly worries about the dogs back at home. Days and months pass, and we are left wondering how many pups survive.

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The Brief, Wondrous Life of Zina Lahr

The mayor was the last person to see Zina Nicole Lahr alive. Sometime in the early afternoon of Wednesday, November 20, Bob Risch, a 73-year-old native of Ouray, Colorado, and its mayor from 2007 until this January, noticed the colorful and well-known local strolling east. She was dressed in pants and a light jacket and was wearing Vibram Five Fingers toe shoes instead of winter boots.

“He saw her going down the alley just to the east of our property,” recalls Risch’s wife, Karen. “It was starting to snow, and it was cold. He didn’t even tell me, because, of course, we didn’t know anything was wrong until her mother called about 6:30 and said that Zina hadn’t come home.”

Bob and Karen, neighbors of the Lahrs,  had watched Zina grow up. When she was ten, Zina had helped Karen train her search dog, Lyra, a shepherd-Labrador mix, to find people in the mountains. Karen would dig a snow cave, and  Zina would climb in with a beacon and radio. “She said once that she loved having Lyra’s paws come through the snow when the dog found her,” Karen says.

Zina had been heading toward Cascade Falls, a popular hiking destination on the Perimeter Trail, a four-year-old footpath that rings the town. Ouray, population 1,000, is in southwestern Colorado, where it sits at the head of a box canyon on the Uncompahgre River, right where U.S. 550—the most dangerously avalanche-prone stretch of highway in the U.S.—descends from Red Mountain Pass. A Main Street billboard for a summer jeep-touring company calls Ouray The Little Switzerland of America. Above town, the peaks and ridgelines of the San Juan Mountains rise so abruptly that their summits are hidden from view by shoulders of ore-rich rock that still keeps many local miners employed.

“Before we had ice climbing, if you came into Ouray in the middle of the winter, it was an incredibly dead place,” says Bob Risch. “At 8 p.m. on Main Street, you were more likely to see deer than people.”


After the Ouray Ice Park formally opened in 2001, the town cemented its position as the sport’s American mecca. Since then, more motels and restaurants have sprouted up, along with new trails that traverse the steep hillsides where Zina hiked most days. On November 20, she snapped some photos with her phone and picked a small bit of moss for her grandmother Patricia that was later found in her pants pocket.

“Zina would go out on an adventure every day, and she would get some little piece of nature—a stone, a fossil, beautiful fall leaves,” says her mother, Cindy Lahr. Cindy commuted to work as the office manager at a dental practice in Montrose, 40 miles north. “They would discuss this little memorabilia that Zina would bring back from her adventure,” says Cindy. “And they would weave it into a story that they were going to write together.”

At some point on the 20th, Zina climbed above the Perimeter Trail, possibly to get a better view of town and its surrounding peaks. Then she slipped. Or rockfall hit her from above, crushing her skull. Nobody is quite sure what happened, but the police ruled out foul play. “From what I understand of the coroner’s report, she was not aware of her impending death, so she didn’t have any adrenaline in her system,” says Sean DeLand, 33, a Telluride-based television producer and musician whom Zina had seen on and off since 2012. Friends and family take solace in the likelihood that she didn’t bleed or suffer much.

After she died, a five-minute video surfaced of Zina standing in her bedroom in her grandmother’s house, which had shelves crammed with robots she’d built and other art projects. In the video, she explains that she has “creative compulsive disorder” and can’t stop making things—especially robots. The video was the first hint at what Zina was: an impossibly innocent and gifted eccentric on the verge of breaking out in the world of animatronics and stop motion. It was an audition for a Los Angeles–based reality show called Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, a SyFy channel program premiering March 25 that’s sort of like Project Runway for animatronics artists. She’d turned down a spot on the show in order to move home and care for her grandmother, who’d been diagnosed with lung cancer in September.

The clip, called “The Work of Zina Nicole Lahr,” went viral and has since been viewed half a million times on Vimeo. There was something about this girl in steampunk chic—with peacock-feather hair falls and aviator goggles always perched on her forehead—that struck people as incredibly genuine. In the video, Zina, looking like a Jules Verne–era tinkerer with some Mad Max thrown in, says she considers herself a canvas as much as anything else.


A Reddit group generated hundreds of comments, most of them from people who wanted to understand how someone like Zina could even be real. “Where the hell does a person like this come from?” wrote one. “I think most people, myself included, eventually become jaded and lose that sense of wonder we once had when we were children. Based on the little bit I’ve seen and read, though, it seems she managed to keep that, which is incredible to me. I feel like there is an incredible lesson to be learned from the way she appears to have lived her life, but I can’t grasp at what it is.”

A few less charitable viewers wondered whether drugs or alcohol might have been a factor in Zina’s death, since she appeared underweight and looked as if she’d just come back from Burning Man.

“Oh, no. Zina’s never been there,” says Stormy Pyeatte, one of her childhood friends and the filmmaker who shot the video. “This girl’s never had a drop of alcohol in her life. She’s never driven a car—but she could take a car engine apart.”

If Zina had a secret, it was virtue rather than vice: Like many of the people who surrounded her, she was a lifelong evangelical Christian, deeply spiritual and devoted to Jesus, though she was not very dogmatic or political. “One of my buddies who I play music with didn’t realize until after her funeral that religion or Christianity or faith was so important to Zina,” says Sean, who had first gotten to know Zina on Facebook because they share similar beliefs.

Before her death, Zina had begun to travel away from home for the first time, and it seemed as if life was just beginning for her. “I realize that this body has found its way back to Colorado,” she wrote in a philosophical ramble on her blog, Normally Odd in August 2013. “This is my third venture back to this base since I started my travels to California a little over a year ago for what started as a simple adventure of delivering wedding rings, and turned into an odyssey without a definitive end.”

The Lahrs moved to Ouray from College Station, Texas, in 1987. Zina was born in 1990. Her father left the family when she was seven, and she was raised and homeschooled by her mother and her mother’s parents. Zina’s grandfather, Keith, was an agricultural research scientist at Texas A&M. “My dad’s specialty was wheat,” says Cindy. “He developed some wheat strains with resistance to drought and disease.”

When Zina was eight, Cindy began routinely driving her to the John McConnell Math and Science Center of Western Colorado, in Grand Junction, 100 miles north, for an extracurricular program. McConnell, a former Los Alamos National Laboratories physicist, had started the center as a second career after retiring. He taught Zina how to read electrical schematics and to solder and connect capacitors and resistors to make machines. Then Zina figured out how to make mechanical arms, legs, and wings that moved naturally. She finished high school at 16 with a graduation ceremony on her grandmother’s front steps. “I’ve had lots of girls in programs who did very well, but she was just one of those unique ones who really took a love of this,” says McConnell. He and his wife came to Zina’s graduation, which was performed by her minister.

About a year after her graduation, Zina adopted her steampunk look. Her mom thinks she was inspired by Amelia Earhart or a photo of her paternal grandfather, who was a pilot.


“She could take any bits of scrap and turn them into a sculpture or robot,” says Jim Frank, a radio engineer in Montrose who in 2011 hired Zina as an intern to help him service ridgetop repeater stations. “She had that mechanical intuition that all good engineers have.”

In the summer of 2012, Zina, then 22, traveling with a friend, 18-year-old Lizzy Ficco, left home for the first time. Lizzy had just graduated from high school. They were going to San Diego to deliver a pair of gold wedding rings that Zina had made while working for a jeweler in nearby Ridgeway.

“We got on the California Zephyr—got one-way tickets,” says Lizzy. “We got on the train in Denver. My mom had driven us to the station at four in the morning.”

They spent two and a half days on the rails. “We ate our weight in train food,” Lizzy recalls. “We were all dirty and we smelled horrible, and it was awesome.”

Zina and Lizzy disembarked in Barstow, California, and took a bus to San Diego, arriving at 5 a.m. on the day of the wedding. After delivering the rings, they decided to spend more time in Southern California, staying first with friends and then with an uncle of Zina’s who lived in L.A.

“Anywhere Zina and I would go, people would open up their homes to us,” says Lizzy. “They’d be like, ‘Yeah, you can stay for a couple days,’ and we'd end up staying for, like, two weeks.”

On July 12, they went to San Diego to attend Comic-Con International, a convention for people who are into comics and fantasy. Zina was a fan of a webcomic called Girl Genius and got an ink drawing autographed for Jim Frank, the radio engineer in Montrose. “That was like her mecca,” says Lizzy of Comic-Con. “That was her stomping ground.”

On the last day of the show, Zina and Lizzy met Josh Sharp, a production assistant at Disney. He was carrying a stack of boxes and introduced himself by saying something like, “Oh, I just saw two good-looking girls over here, so I decided to come over and say hello,” Lizzy recalls.

Later, in L.A., he invited them to a pool party. Evangelicals have a way of finding each other even in a city as sprawling as L.A., and at the party, Zina met Alexander Nifong, at the time a 25-year-old model, actor, and Christian seeker. Alex has had the kind of successes that a young actor needs to build a résumé—appearances on Law & Order and an episode of Glee—but that still required him to take on other work like juggling and stilt walking at birthday parties. He also played drums and sang in a band called Covering Fire.

“We spent the first thirty minutes of our meeting in complete silence, just looking at each other,” Alex recalls. “There was a loud kindness in her being.” Zina was in the middle of a 40-day fast (consuming only water and tea for the first 12 days and then drinking smoothies), and Alex had just returned from a spiritual excursion in the desert. He says he was tired of living an inauthentic life, so he went to a camping store, bought a tent and a water jug, packed his Prius, and drove straight into the desert. “I’ve kinda torn all over the place through every religion, through every belief system, looking for I guess what you could call truth,” he says.


“I gave away most of my possessions, settled all of my affairs, gave all of my keys to people I cared about, and said, ‘I don't know when I’m gonna be back, but it’s gonna be okay.’ I left a note for my parents.”

Alex and Zina spent the rest of 2012 together, though Zina, who was celibate, told people it was more of a friendship. She and Lizzy mostly couch-surfed with friends or stayed with Alex and his bandmates until she and Alex eventually grew apart. Zina lived at an Extended Stay hotel, which rents rooms by the week. Lizzy was working on an album as a singer-songwriter, and Zina continued to go to animation and comic conventions like Siggraph and Comikaze.  

At a book signing at Dark Delicacies, a specialty store in Burbank that focuses on horror and fantasy, she introduced herself to Edward Chiodo, one of the three Chiodo Brothers who created the puppets in Team America World Police, clay animations for several episodes of The Simpsons, and Large Marge from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

“I was at the table, and there was a line of people.  And then you look up and boom,” says Chiodo. “She just jumps out at you because of the way she dresses.”

Like many fans of the Chiodo Brothers, Zina asked Edward whether she could visit their studio in Burbank.  “So I brought her in, and everybody she met just really gravitated toward her,” Chiodo says. The team was working on a new skin technology for a walk-around dinosaur suit for the Santa Barbara Zoo. Zina asked for, and got, an internship.

Initially, she unsettled the higher-ups. When they would bring clients through the building, Chiodo recalls, “she would stop, make eye contact with these people, and walk over and introduce herself. It was like, ‘You’re an intern. You really shouldn’t be interjecting into a conversation that we’re having with Disney executives.’ At first, maybe I thought it was a little calculated, just because I have a jaded Hollywood sensibility, but then you spend five minutes with her and you instantly realize that’s not it. It’s just she was genuinely interested.”

Over the summer, a casting agent working for the SyFy channel contacted Ed Chiodo, asking if he knew anybody who could help carry a reality show on special-effects artists. “I told Zina, ‘You have to do this,’” he says. “Obviously, talent has a lot to do with it, but it’s a television show, so your look, who you are, is gonna be a huge draw.”

Deciding between doing the show—which, like most reality programs, would require her to stay locked in seclusion to avoid dishing out spoilers—and staying in Colorado to care for her grandmother wasn’t difficult. Patricia had helped raise her. “Zina and her grandma are real close,” says Cindy, still using the present tense.

Before Zina died, her family had already been through tragedy. On December 26, 2010, Zina’s older sister, Brianna, then 30 and seven months pregnant, was killed in a head-on collision on U.S. 385 near Channing, Texas. Colorado state senator Suzanne Williams was on her way to Vail when she accidentally crossed the median and collided with the car driven by Brianna’s husband, Eric Gomez, who survived. Brianna’s son, Curren, was delivered in the operating room, weighing three pounds one ounce. He’s now three.

Before walking out of her grandmother’s house last November 20 around 1:30 p.m., Zina had made smoothies and put baked potatoes in the oven for lunch with her grandmother. She had to return some library books and a DVD copy of Beasts of the Southern Wild. She must have headed up to the Perimeter Trail shortly after her errands, which was when Bob Risch saw her. When she didn’t come home by 6, Patricia became worried. It was out of character for Zina to just disappear like that. Patricia called Cindy at work.

“There was a blizzard that hit about that time, and so I could only go 30 miles an hour,” says Cindy, who immediately left her office to go home. “I would pull over and call Mom from time to time.”

Cindy also called Sean, whom Zina had been seeing again, in Telluride, as well as Zina’s half brother Brandon White, in Denver. Sean made the hourlong drive and joined a dozen others searching for Zina at around 9 p.m. in the dark and snow. Members of the sheriff’s department put out an all-points bulletin for Zina and joined the search.

By 3 a.m. it was still snowing hard, and there was no sign of Zina.  “I went over and spent the night with Cindy and we prayed,” says Sean.

At 11 the next morning, Steve Tarczewski, an acquaintance of Sean and Zina’s from Ridgway, hiked up toward Cascade Falls via the Perimeter Trail. He noticed a bit of color in the snow above it.

“She had kind of a crimson-colored shirt on, and it had snowed, so a lot of the fabric in her clothing was covered,” says Cindy. Zina’s tumble over a short cliff—maybe 10 to 20 feet—had left her on a slope well above the trail. At around the same time, Sean was searching an area called the Amphitheater, on the south side of town. He called the police to ask whether anybody had found anything. They had. “I said, ‘Is she alive?’ The policeman said, ‘I don’t know yet.’” Sean called Cindy.  


“A friend of mine from the county courthouse had come over, and she took me up to the base of Cascade Falls,” Cindy says. “The police would not let me go up. They restrained me. They wouldn’t tell me if she was still alive. I was frantic. If it hadn’t been them physically holding me back, there’s nothing that could’ve held me.”

When Sean arrived, he didn’t have to ask whether Zina was dead. “I knew based on Cindy’s crying that that’s what had happened.”

They had the funeral at Cedar Hill Cemetery, north of town. Sean, along with friends from church and his bandmates from, Funkdafari, played. Morgan and Dave Hansow, a couple based in Grand Junction whom Zina had known from her time with a national Christian group called Young Life, led the service. Zina had done some animation work on a film called Moving On that the Hansows produced for their ministry in Uganda, Light Gives Heat.

Several people I spoke with told me that Zina had never really understood the idea of having a body. It felt foreign to her. On her blog she wrote, “the body, keeping us living in this world, [is] yet the biggest obstacle within it. It’s a sort of frustration, a growing pain, that can drive us to become inspired and into imaginative creativity.”

At the service, her friends made paper cranes, something Zina used to do absentmindedly. “Sitting at the coffee shop hanging out with her friends, she’d take little bits of paper and she’d fold them into paper cranes,” recalls Cindy. It was hard for even nonbelievers to dismiss the flock of sandhills that flew over during the service. The November 20 storm had blown them 100 miles from their normal migratory route and up an impassable box canyon in the Rocky Mountains.

Zina would have turned 24 today.

Grayson Schaffer wrote about Julia Mancuso in the February issue.

We are sad to report that Zina's grandmother Patricia died on February 18.

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Why Duck Dynasty Can't Be Stopped

Back in December 2013, Phil Robertson, the bearded star of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, said some offensive things about black people and gay people. Robertson became the subject of boycotts and counter-boycotts, Cracker Barrel yanked his Duck Commander merch, and A&E suspended the show.

But outrage requires shock, and Robertson’s views shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his empire. (While I’ve watched only a couple of episodes of Duck Dynasty, I confess to being a waterfowler and a casual fan of Robertson’s more baroque early work, a hook-and-bullet series on the Outdoor Channel called Duck Commander.)

The reality star’s rants about "gross sexual immorality" are all over the Internet. Robertson plays a stereotypically backward Deep South hillbilly. America’s outrage centered on the fact that Robertson embodied his caricature too well.

Robertson is the biggest star of the biggest boom in reality TV: hicksploitation. The genre laughs at (and sometimes with) the last group of people it’s still ostensibly OK to stereotype—white backwoodsy men. The modern iteration launched in 2011 with Animal Planet’s Hillbilly Handfishin’, about Oklahoma catfish noodlers, then MTV offered its West Virginia–based Buckwild. We have now waded deep into swamp country, with Discovery’s Swamp Loggers, the History Channel’s Swamp People, and Animal Planet’s Swamp Wars. But Duck Dynasty has dominated the category since debuting in March 2012. The season four premiere, in August 2013, netted A&E 11.8 million viewers. Last year, Duck Commander merchandise made more than $400 million. Viewers laugh, but the joke isn’t on the men in camo.

"They’re highly intelligent guys who don’t get anything pulled over on them," says Duck Dynasty executive producer Scott Gurney. "And they’re funny."

It’s also not a new trick. "The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction—these were massive hits in the sixties," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "They were called hick-coms back then."

Why are the shows so popular now? It’s hard to say whether Americans like to laugh at rubes or are envious of men who can hunt all day and ignore basic hygiene. One thing is for sure—the shows are immensely profitable, in part because they’re cheaper to produce than man-versus-nature shows like Deadliest Catch. "Duck Dynasty and the rest of them have modest production values and location requirements," says Thompson.

Two days before Christmas, Cracker Barrel returned the Duckmen products to its shelves to appease angry customers. Four days later, A&E reinstated the show. Robertson didn’t comment, but his son Willie, CEO of Duck Commander products, tweeted, "Ole Phil may be a little crude but his heart is good. He’s the Real Deal!"

He’d better be. In January, Animal Planet unveiled its latest show, this one about a family of Canadian trappers called Beaver Brothers. Its star is a 65-year-old trapper named Charlie Landry. "I think you’ll like him for his expertise," says producer Keith Hoffman. "Plus he talks funny."

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