Richard Miles has no preternatural pull toward stuff, but after he received his compensation from the state of Texas for a wrongful conviction, he did make one purchase of minor extravagance: a majestic-looking chess set, which he had installed at the entryway to his Duncanville, Texas, home. This is what greets his guests: a wooden board checkered in alternating shades of stain, fit with a hand-chiseled animal kingdom (a few bishop-giraffes now missing ears), sitting in a floodlit display case. The base of the display is solid wood, painted a soft white and about the size of an oven. Atop that, the board rests on a circular platform, about six inches tall and fitted with a small motor. In theory, it rotates. In actuality, the function remains turned off. When it’s engaged, the board spins too swiftly, and kings and their men veer off and collapse.
To Miles, the game of chess is the game of life: You have to be on the move while thinking ahead. A chess player should be simultaneously offensive and defensive, productive while defending what’s theirs. Miles developed a taste for the game in prison. “It was either checkers, chess, dominoes — or you’re talking about somebody,” he says.
More than a dozen years into Miles’ sentence, he learned the prosecution had been playing cards with a trick deck. He was freed in 2009. Three years later, when he was fully exonerated of the murder and aggravated assault for which he’d been put away, the state of Texas’ apology came in the form of a $1.2 million check. Now come monthly annuity payments totaling $71,000 a year. As of this writing, the state has paid Miles about $1.5 million.
Those numbers, however, tell a slanted tale. Like most prisoners who do substantial time, exonerees depart life behind bars for an intimidating new world. Things like completing menial tasks and finding and keeping a job — not to mention the prospects of building a fulfilling career and life — prove difficult. But unlike most prisoners who do substantial time, exonerees often don’t have access to the various re-entry resources that await convicts. That can make the process seem a bit like receiving a good luck slap on the back and a check to take home.
People who have been wrongfully imprisoned experience a unique type of mental fallout. A few years ago, when a dozen Dallas exonerees agreed to check in with a psychiatrist, all 12, including Miles, were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Not one was found mentally healthy, and not one has since received serious treatment. Various family members have expressed differing levels of concern about Miles’ state of mind, and his mother’s assessment has been painfully blunt: “A part of him is still dead,” she says one afternoon, “still incarcerated.”
For some of Miles’ exoneree brethren in other states, financial reparations and even the detached sense of regret that accompanies them remain a pipe dream. Texas — Red Texas — has one of the most progressive compensation laws in America, and yet it’s difficult to tell whether the money is spurring mental or emotional recovery. Even a king can topple from a spinning foundation. At different moments, in different lights, the compensation granted to Miles can seem either extraordinarily beneficial or, given the enduring impact of wrongful incarceration, remarkably futile. Read more…
To find belonging, teen girls sometimes form obsessive friendships to fend off the isolation that puberty brings at the twilight of their childhood. In this exceptionally well-researched piece at VQR, Alex Mar recalls two real-life events in which teen-girl duos became murderous and why these obsessive friendships devolved into a pact to do evil.
What is occult is synonymous with what is hidden, orphic, veiled—but girls are familiar with that realm. We have the instinct. Girls create their own occult language; it may be one of the first signs of adolescence. This is a language of fantasy, of the desire for things we can’t yet have (we’re too young), of forces we can’t control (loneliness, an unrequited crush, the actions of our family). This invention of a private language, both visual and verbal, shared with only a chosen few, gives shape to our first allegiances; it grants entry into a universe with its own rationale—the warped rationale of fairy tales. Its rules do not bleed over into the realm of the mundane, of parents and teachers and adult consequences.
But in May 2014, the occult universe of two young girls did spill over into the real. And within days of her twelfth birthday, all of Morgan Geyser’s drawings and scribblings—evidence of the world she had built with her new best friend—were confiscated. More than three years later, they are counted among the state’s exhibits in a case of first-degree intentional homicide.
After some time on the swings, Anissa suggests they play hide-and-seek in the suburban woods at the park’s edge. There, just a few feet beyond the tree line, Morgan, on Anissa’s cue, stabs Bella in the chest.
Then she stabs her again, and again, and again—in her arms, in her leg, near her heart. By the time Morgan stops, she has stabbed her nineteen times.
Though they were both a very young, Midwestern twelve, they had been chosen for a dark and unique destiny which none of their junior-high classmates could possibly understand, drawn into the forest in the service of a force much greater and more mysterious than anything in their suburban-American lives. What drew them out there has a name: Slender Man, faceless and pale and impossibly tall. His symbol is the letter X.
In February of 2012, two duct-taped camping coolers—the kind you might take on a picnic—arrived at Delta Cargo, a freight-shipping warehouse on the northeast side of Detroit Metro airport. The airline’s ground crew tossed the coolers onto a pallet in a climate-controlled storage area. But the tape split, and a reddish liquid splattered out. Because the shipment was said to contain “five human heads with necks, two torsos, and one whole body,” it soon proved to be an expensive leak, requiring extensive biohazard remediation.
It seemed improbable that an entire body could fit inside two picnic coolers, so they pried open the lids. Inside were eight human heads, wrapped in trash bags and sitting in what appeared to be pools of blood. Eight faces, no names.
The United States is an excellent place to be in the body business. By one 2007 estimate, 20,000 human bodies are donated here annually. These donations come about directly. You can bequeath your body to anatomical gift programs operated by many universities, and you may become the “first patient” a surgeon operates on. Donations can also be arranged after death, through a network of independent firms, although in such cases your family may have only a vague notion of where your body will end up. Brokers do business with other brokers, who work with funeral homes and crematoriums that, in turn, get referrals from hospice centers—all of which means that, invariably, some donated remains end up dismembered, beheaded, and shipped around the world for profit.
You cannot legally sell a dead body—yours or anyone else’s. These brokers, instead, turn a profit off a corpse by charging for the service, not the actual goods. Their fees cover the “preparation” of cadaveric material as well as the “matching” and “placing” of remains. These re-allocation fees were once designed simply to cover the cost of transporting remains to and from medical schools.
Manson Family members Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van go to court in 1970. (AP Photo)
In an essay at The Believer, Rachel Monroe lets us tag along as she hangs out with the Manson Bloggers — yes, there are people who blog about Charles Manson — as they gossip about Manson-adjacent people and look for relics. There’s not much new going on with Manson and his followers, most have either died or are still in jail, so the bloggers look for updates on anyone who had any association with the Family.
These photographs would look banal to the uninitiated: a grandmotherly type on a bench, clutching a water bottle; a short woman standing on the beach, flanked by three young men—her sons? These people are infamous not because they’ve killed anyone—they haven’t—but because when they were fourteen or nineteen or twenty-three, they had the bad luck or bad taste to befriend some people who did.
In the intervening four decades, some of these ex–Manson Family members changed their names or became born-again—whatever it took to distance themselves from their turbulent, murder-adjacent youths. Sometimes these people write angry emails to the Manson Bloggers, asking for their photos to be taken down. It’s easy to imagine them looking back at their former selves, shaking their heads, and thinking, That person isn’t me anymore. But the Manson Family Blog is always there to remind them: yes, yes it is.
Monroe’s piece isn’t just about the Manson Family or those who still obsess about him; it’s about whether we ever truly escape ourselves. Do we carry pieces of our younger selves with us, even as we grow and change? Monroe thinks that maybe we do, and maybe that’s a little bit of a miracle — even when those pieces include teenage Manson fandom.
The Amityville Horror house (image in the public domain)
The Amityville Horror and the dozens of subsequent related books and movies are about a real house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, where Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed his parents and four siblings. At Topic, Michelle Deanwalks us through the whole story: the crime, the subsequent owners who claimed the house was haunted, and the more recent tenants who didn’t buy into the tale of terror.
Instead of spirits, the Cromartys complained, they were haunted by what could only be called paranormal tourists, who knocked on the door at all hours of the day and night. These people sometimes called themselves witches. Sometimes they cursed out the Cromartys and told them they would die. Sometimes they were drunk. And sometimes, as the family told Newsday in 1978, they were just odd: “I think one of the funniest things was when we woke up at three o’clock and heard this guy with a bugle playing ‘Taps’ on the front lawn. I opened the window and applauded and said, ‘Kid, you’ve got a real good sense of humor,’” said Jim Cromarty.
In case you were thinking of digging your bugle out of the attic and paying the current owners a visit, the address has since been changed to discourage tourism. Sorry!
At 5280, Robert Sanchez profiles members of NecroSearch, a Colorado-based volunteer organization made up of dedicated lab experts, scientists, and skilled technicians. NecroSearchers apply decades of specialized experience to help law enforcement officers locate dead bodies. Their reward? Bringing closure to the families of the deceased.
In the past three decades, NecroSearch has helped police and district attorneys with more than 300 cases in 40 states and on four continents. Fifteen bodies have been discovered as a result of that work. They’ve been found in mine shafts and in landfills, hidden under a pile of rocks in the Rocky Mountains, and buried under a suburban patio in Arizona. Once, a victim was discovered stuffed inside the trunk of a car that had been dumped into the Missouri River. Another time, a body was tangled in a Northern California redwood’s root system. When a Tennessee suspect learned authorities enlisted NecroSearch to find his missing wife, the man referred to the group as a bunch of “high-tech witch doctors.”
Just before Christmas in 1985, the coroner in Glenwood Springs asked France for help identifying 12 victims who’d died in a gas-plant explosion. When she arrived, France realized it was just her. Victims were battered and blown apart, many of them burned beyond recognition. Almost immediately, emotions roiled inside her. “It was a defining moment,” she said. She had an epiphany. “I decided I needed to take all those things I was feeling, put them in a box with a bow around it, and put that box on a shelf in my mind,” France told me. “I had to separate emotion from the science.” She worked two straight days to identify the victims, pulling remains out of body bags stored inside the morgue cooler. When she was done, she turned them over to the coroner for burial. “And then,” she said, “I went on with my life.”
“I will think about all of this forever,” France told me as she sat in a chair inside her front office. She was squeezing a miniature foam brain of an orangutan like a stress ball. “I’ve seen too much to forget,” she said. “How can you not have trauma when you do what I do? There will come a time when I have to say I’m done.”
A few months ago, Clark Davenport met me at a bookstore in downtown Denver. The 75-year-old geophysicist was a few weeks from leaving for Russia on a NecroSearch-approved trip during which he would help look for the remains of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, the youngest brother of Tsar Nicholas II. The two men—along with Nicholas’ wife, Alexandra, and three daughters—famously had been murdered and buried in clandestine graves by Bolshevik rebels a year after the February Revolution in 1917. With the rest of the murdered Romanovs discovered in the early 1990s, finding the grand duke was considered the last piece of a historical puzzle. The trip would be Davenport’s fifth to Russia in the past decade. It was work that filled him with excitement and gave him a much-needed respite from the dozen or so ongoing, more pressing NecroSearch cases in which he was involved.
At Outside, Brendan Borrell profiles thru-hiking scam artist Jeff Caldwell, a man who started his life of crime by stealing from his friends. Later, using an outdoorsy trail persona, lies, and rugged good looks, he preyed on lonely single women and the elderly, robbing them not only out their money, but also of their belief in the basic goodness of humanity. Clearly unable to stop himself, Caldwell even started to groom Borrell as a mark during their correspondence for the piece.
Caldwell’s victims typically fell into one of two communities: elderly people and women, whom he often found by participating in Facebook and Meetup groups for hikers, by using the website Couchsurfing.com, and by hanging around trailheads, hostels, and outdoor gear stores. By the time he met Trent, he had been traveling across the West, presenting himself as a free-spirited outdoor archetype, for over a decade.
A pattern emerged with each of Caldwell’s cons, too. He’d scope out a victim, share his tale of woe, then enthrall her with his adventures (“31 wolves talking to each other!”) and quixotic pursuits (“I’m buying land. 155 acres. You can come stay with me. . . putting up a yurt”). Next, he’d give her a sentimental gift—say, an Alaska shot glass or an Appalachian Trail patch—and send her selfies from the mountains. Finally, he would orchestrate a personal crisis that ranged from the plausible to the bizarre, and finish it off by asking for a small loan or else he’d just steal what was lying around. The con might be over within days. In a few cases, he was able to stretch out such a relationship for years.
Nations have long done battle with one another in different ways. These days, they spy from satellites, send viruses to corrupt government software, poach scientists and infiltrate academia. At The Guardian, Daniel Golden describes how international intelligence agencies send operatives to scientific conferences to gather intel, and how the U.S. has worked to convince foreign nuclear scientists to defect.
Scientific conferences attract people from all corners of the world and facilitate the exchange of information. Conferences are also one of the few opportunities for nuclear scientists from Iran to leave the country, so they function as what Golden calls “a modern-day underground railroad” for potential defectors. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely create their own sham conferences through an intermediary in order to isolate their targets and engage them one-on-one. The system has worked on many scientists. It’s fraught with many dangers: how to blend into a relatively small academic community and impersonate a scientist with actual scientific knowledge? How to get the target away from his guards without attracting attention? The larger question is whether this billion-dollar industry keeps the world safer.
“From the Iranian point of view, they would clearly have an interest in sending scientists to conferences about peaceful uses of nuclear power,” Ronen Bergman told me. A prominent Israeli journalist, Bergman is the author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, and is working on a history of Israel’s central intelligence service, the Mossad. “They say, ‘Yes, we send our scientists to conferences to use civilian technology for a civilian purpose.’”
The CIA officer assigned to the case might pose as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor with a booth. His first job would be to peel the guards away from the scientist. In one instance, kitchen staff recruited by the CIA poisoned the guards’ meal, leaving them incapacitated by diarrhoea and vomiting. The hope was that they would attribute their illness to aeroplane food or an unfamiliar cuisine.
With luck, the officer would catch the scientist alone for a few minutes, and pitch to him. He would have boned up on the Iranian by reading files and courting “access agents” close to him. That way, if the scientist expressed doubt that he was really dealing with the CIA, the officer could respond that he knew everything about him, even the most intimate details – and prove it. One officer told a potential defector: “I know you had testicular cancer and you lost your left nut.”
Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 1,800 words (7 minutes)
As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at Penn State, Jason De León spent a decade in Mexico studying debris left behind thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples crafting simple tools out of obsidian. The goal, he says, was to learn about ancient political economies, but he ultimately felt his future career path was too niche. “I looked at 40,000 little shiny pieces of rock and tried to say something meaningful,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I actually succeeded, but I definitely got to the point where I felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time.”
Last week, De León was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant, $625,000 doled out in installments over the next five years with no strings attached. I spoke with De León, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, about the origins of his Undocumented Migration Project, how border crossings have changed in the decade he’s been in the field, and how he’ll use the MacArthur funds.
When you first founded the Undocumented Migration Project, what was your end goal as you were getting it up and running?
I had some pretty simple goals: How can we learn about what border crossing looks like without physically being with migrants crossing the desert? Are there other ways to study that behavior? Is archeology one of those ways?
People have some pretty strong opinions about border crossing. Based on accounts of journalists who have talked to migrants, you tend to get black or white kinds of discussions. So I thought, what would the archeology tell us? Is there a way to study this process? At that point, I was naively thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna be a scientist and study this process and it’ll be this apolitical kind of endeavor.’ It turned out to be an incredibly political endeavor, but it’s definitely science.
Was that something you were fascinated with while you were doing your undergrad and getting your Ph.D. or did this evolve?
I’m a classically trained archeologist. I spent about ten years in Mexico before I began this project. The migration stuff came incredibly late, which is surprising given the fact that I grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border and I have many family members who were immigrants and have undocumented family members. It wasn’t until I started having really deep conversations with people who worked on archaeological projects in Mexico, and hired laborers who told me about their immigration experiences. That’s when I really started getting interested in this as a topic of study.
Archeology uses artifacts from the past to explain the present. But this is archeology as it happens. Has it been difficult to address what you’re finding in terms of how it forms your opinion of what migration means in this 21st century?
All archeology really means is we’re studying the past through material traces. We tend to think these must be ancient things. But what happens if you think about the archeology of the recent past, as recently as this morning in some cases? Is that still archeology, or is that something else?
I’ve had to be really defensive when people would say to me, “you’re not an archaeologist.” I’m now at the point where I use archeology to understand border crossings, but that’s not the end of it. I have to draw on other things.
One of the cautionary tales that I tell students is that people love to talk about these migrant objects: the backpacks, the water bottles. It’s very easy for them to empathize with shoes and baby bottles and to be emotionally impacted by a giant wall of backpacks. It becomes more difficult for them to take those feelings and put them in the context of a real individual. It’s okay to think these objects are powerful, but you have to remember they are only powerful because of their connection to these people.
Items left behind by undocumented immigrants on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, 2014. (John Moore/Getty Images)
It’s forming a connection, it’s forming a bond to something that you’re powerless over, or that you find hard toaddress.
Archeology that happens this morning, or yesterday, is a difficult and murky territory. Our interpretations of these materials become very complicated. If you find these things in the desert and you use archeology to try to understand it, you’ll have your own opinions about it. Then a migrant comes by and blows your opinions out of the water; it can become very troubling for some archeologists. If we can’t even figure out what this shit means yesterday, how are we going to understand what these things meant five thousand years ago?
It’s interesting too because history is subjective.
It’s okay to be uncomfortable with this stuff, and it’s okay to embrace ambiguity and subjectivity. I’d rather talk about the diversity of interpretations of the past, or multiple types of explanations for an observed behavior, than to just give you my one expert opinion.
I think that people want definitive answers because they erroneously think about archeology as a truth-finding mission where the artifacts don’t lie. Of course artifacts lie all the time. Think about the manipulation of the past through monuments., There are active, purposeful adjustments to material culture that will subsequently impact the way things are interpreted later.
We’ve been collecting this stuff in the desert for a long time, whereas other objects that were left have been taken away and thrown in the trash. But if someone cleaned up the desert, and then we went back in a hundred years or in five hundred years, you wouldn’t even know the border crossing ever happened. This active destruction of the archeological record that’s occurring in real time really hints at the fact that the archaeology is not always going be truth finding. We’re manipulating it as we go.
In the decades that you’ve been doing this, have the objects that people have brought with them changed over time? Soes that help you sketch out a narrative of how migration is changing?
The technology evolves. Water bottles and clothing come in and out of style. The preferred objects to get through the desert have evolved and adjusted. In the beginning of this project, we would find a lot of personal items, a lot of heirlooms, things that people thought they were going need that were not very useful, so they ended up losing or discarding them.
Over 25 years, people crossing the border have become well informed about the dangers of the journey. The material culture in the aarchaeologicalrecord has become much more focused and more strategic. It’s really about survival, physical survival, mental survival.
People will say ‘I didn’t bring anything with me because I know I’m gonna lose it.’ I’d rather leave it at home or leave it in my home country than risk taking stuff to the desert. And what we’re also seeing now, with this increase in Central American migrants, are people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border with nothing. They have to cross Mexico first before they can to the border, and they have been robbed so many times that they have literally no personal effects when they finally make it to the border.
(John Moore/Getty Images)
Has your project changed to study the archaeological record of Central American migrants?
We’ve definitely been focusing much more attention on Central America since 2015. We’ve done some archeology in Mexico, on the train tracks and other places where migrants are crossing and trying to look at that artifact assemblage as well. I have been working with smugglers as well.
I think the smugglers are an overlooked and misunderstood piece of this puzzle. Everybody, from migrants to law enforcement, loves to scapegoat the smuggler. So if a migrant dies in the desert, it’s because it’s the smuggler’s fault. Clearly, that’s not always the case. Smugglers don’t take migrants through the Arizona desert because they love nature. They’re taking people through the desert because of this border enforcement policy.
Looking at the smugglers, I’m trying to fill in some blanks and really humanize this group of people who obviously are doing some horrible things. At the end of the day, they are complex humans.
Are there are challenges to undertaking this project in the current political climate?
It’s not any more harder now in the Trump era than it was before. It has always been difficult dealing with the politics of the project, and people’s reactions to it. There are also the emotional difficulties of doing this type of research, working with people who are in the midst of so much trauma.
I just saw a report about a professor at UNLV getting called out by the Trump administration for bad-mouthing him in a classroom. We’re in this era where our civil liberties and free speech are being directly attacked by the people in charge. As someone who is committed to this issue, I’ve had to do some real soul searching about what my role would be. Am I gonna get quieter and try to protect myself? Or do I keep doing what I’m doing because I believe that it’s right?
I’ve got a lot of colleagues who didn’t think it was that important to be in the public or to engage with media. They are now trying to translate their work for a general audience. There are a lot of folks now who are so worried about what’s going on in this country that they are getting active and vocal.
What do you plan to use the MacArthur money for?
For many years I’ve wanted to have a research compound in southern Arizona, so we will buy some property in this little town called Arivaca, which is I think the greatest place on earth. I’ll probably start by putting a double wide on there so we have a permanent home base and then we’ll just start building facilities.
Part of this money will also go to buy a truck so I can stop renting vehicles all the time. We’re working on a new exhibition so some of these funds will be used to develop this multi-media traveling exhibition that we hope to launch next year.
The truck, the archeologist’s greatest tool.
You know, I’ve never owned a truck in my life. When I found out about the grant, I knew I could finally get my truck!
Penn State's Beta Theta Pi fraternity house sits empty after being shut down after the death of a pledge. (Abby Drey /Centre Daily Times via AP)
When Tim Piazza fell down the stairs drunk during a fraternity hazing at Beta Theta Pi at Penn State, his frat brothers did nothing to help until it was far too late. Caitlin Flanagan traces the harrowing story of Piazza’s 12 hours between life and death in The Atlantic, from the incident itself to the attitudes and policies that create perverse incentives not to seek medical attention for injured pledges.
Four of the brothers carry Tim up the stairs. By now he has somehow lost his jacket and tie, and his white shirt has ridden up, revealing a strange, dark bruise on his torso. This is from his lacerated spleen, which has begun spilling blood into his abdomen. The brothers put him on a couch, and Rizzo performs a sternum rub—a test for consciousness used by EMTs—but Tim does not respond. Another brother throws beer in his face, but he does not respond. Someone throws his shoes at him, hard. Someone lifts his arm and it falls back, deadweight, to his chest.
At this point, the brothers have performed a series of tests to determine whether Tim is merely drunk or seriously injured. He has failed all their tests. The next day, Tim’s father will ask the surgeon who delivers the terrible news of Tim’s prognosis whether the outcome would have been different if Tim had gotten help earlier, and the surgeon will say—unequivocally—that yes, it would have been different. That “earlier” is right now, while Tim is lying here, unresponsive to the sternum rub, the beer poured on him, the dropped arm.
Of course, the blame isn’t just on university or fraternity policy — it’s on the brothers themselves and their disregard for the young men they haze.
Even a full day after Tim died, some members were, amazingly, still focused on the consequences that could befall them. “Between you and me,” a member texted Young, “what are the chances the house gets shut down?”
“I think very high,” Young replied. “I just hope none of us get into any lawsuits.”
“You think they are going to sue?” asked the brother, to which Young responded in a way that is chilling and that reveals a sophisticated knowledge of how such events play out: “It depends if they want to go through with it, or just distance themselves from us all together.”
They can maintain this disregard because they know what happens next:
The grieving parents will appear on television. In their anger and sorrow, they will hope to press criminal charges. Usually they will also sue the fraternity, at which point they will discover how thoroughly these organizations have indemnified themselves against culpability in such deaths. The parents will try to turn their grief into meaningful purpose, but they will discover how intractable a system they are up against, and how draining the process of chipping away at it is. They will be worn down by the endless civil case that forces them to relive their son’s passing over and over. The ritual will begin to slow down, but then a brand-new pair of parents—filled with the energy and outrage of early grief—will emerge, and the cycle will begin again.