The Death of David Oliver Relin

While awaiting further judgment on a case against the accuracy of Three Cups of Tea, the bestseller he co-wrote with Greg Mortenson, Relin committed suicide by putting himself in the path of a moving freight train

David Oliver Relin speaking about Three Cups of Tea.     Photo: Creative Commons

According to a just-released report from the Multnomah County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Office, Three Cups of Tea co-author David Oliver Relin did not leave behind a note or an email explaining why he chose to commit suicide last month, but his wife believes that problems stemming from antidepressant withdrawal may have been a factor.

Relin’s wife, Dawn Relin, did not respond to an interview request from Outside, but in an interview with detectives done on the day Relin died, she said he had been depressed for more than a year, had been seeing two different counselors, and had been taking several medications as he searched for a combination that might prove consistently effective. In a follow-up email to detectives, she speculated that Relin’s attempts to withdraw from one of the drugs—which wasn’t named—could have influenced his decision to end his life by putting himself in the path of a moving freight train.

“David had recently stopped taking an antidepressant—one that is notoriously difficult to get off of,” she wrote on December 4. “I have since learned that one of the possible side effects of the medication may be an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.”

When Dawn was interviewed on November 15, the day Relin died, she mentioned that Relin had aired the topic of suicide in the past, but not lately. “Dawn said that David had made suicidal comments before, but nothing recent,” detective Kenneth D. Yohe wrote in his report. “ ...Dawn talked about how David was a successful author ... and that he ran into problems when there were questions raised about the source of the book and subsequent law suits were filed against David who was a co-author.”

Dawn told detectives that David gave her a list of passwords and pin numbers the night before he killed himself, but she clearly didn’t see that as a signal he was planning something drastic. As the report makes clear, she was utterly shocked and devastated when detectives told her the news of his death at their home, in part because the worst of Relin’s legal problems appeared to be behind him. “[W]hile I mentioned that David had been depressed about the lawsuit, things had started to improve,” she wrote in her email. “The case had been dismissed, and we had reason to believe its dismissal was going to be upheld.”

In addition, Relin had finished work on an important new book about the Himalayan Cataract Project, an effort to treat preventable blindness through affordable cataract surgery in remote parts of the world. In her email, Dawn said he was “looking forward to its publication.” Titled Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest To Restore Sight and Save Lives, the book is still scheduled to be published by Random House in June 2013.

In her reference to a lawsuit, Dawn meant the civil suit brought by several plaintiffs in 2011, after 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer aired and published reports showing that Three Cups of Tea contained numerous fabrications. Relin was named in the suit along with co-author Greg Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute, Penguin Publishing, and MC Consulting (a company owned by Mortenson). It was thrown out of a federal district court in Montana last April but is currently under appeal.

Relin never publicly commented on the suit, which alleged that fabrications in the book amounted to criminal fraud against readers who purchased it. In an interview with Outside done at the time of the 60 Minutes broadcast, Mortenson offloaded some of the blame for the book’s shortcomings on Relin, saying that “omissions and compressions” in the text resulted from long-distance back and forth between them and the use of literary license by both men to streamline stories.

Relin apparently had his own set of grievances about Mortenson. In a New York Times obituary about Relin, his agent, Elizabeth Kaplan, said that he and Mortenson had had a difficult professional relationship, and that Relin thought Mortenson should not have been named as a co-author of Three Cups of Tea.

The county sheriff’s report also fills in the grim details about how Relin chose to end his life. Sometime after midday on the 15th, as a 4,000-foot-long Union Pacific freight train rolled by on a rural stretch of track near the Columbia River east of Portland, Relin lay down close to the track and apparently positioned himself to be struck fatally on the head. The conductor of a second train, Jeffery Brown, saw his body on the track a few minutes later and called 911. Officers were on the scene within minutes. Relin, dressed in blue jeans, a black jacket, and gray athletic shoes, had suffered a large trauma wound to his head and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Before long, other deputies, detectives, and a medical examiner arrived, emptied Relin’s pockets, and put his body on a gurney. Relin was carrying credit cards, his driver’s license, a daily/weekly pill container, an iPhone, and one seemingly odd thing: $2,000 in cash, all in hundreds, tucked inside a bank envelope. There were no last words, just a note with his home phone number, instructing whoever found it to contact Dawn in case of emergency.

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