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.
Ten men raided a house in Gordon, a north shore suburb of Sydney, at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. Some of the federal agents wore shirts that said “Computer Forensics”; one carried a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife, Ramona, at 43 St. Johns Avenue. The warrant was issued at the behest of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Wright, a computer scientist and businessman, headed a group of companies associated with cryptocurrency and online security. Wright and his wife were gone but the agents entered the house by force. As one set of agents scoured his kitchen cupboards and emptied out his garage, another entered his main company headquarters at 32 Delhi Road in North Ryde, another suburb of Sydney. They were looking for “originals or copies” of material held on hard drives and computers; they wanted bank statements, mobile-phone records, research papers, and photographs. The warrant listed dozens of companies whose papers were to be scrutinized, and thirty-two individuals, some with alternative names, or alternative spellings. The name Satoshi Nakamoto appeared sixth from the bottom of the list.
Some of the Wrights’ neighbors at St. Johns Avenue say they were a little distant. She was friendly but he was weird — to one neighbor he was “Cold-Shoulder Craig” — and their landlord wondered why they needed so much extra power: Wright had what appeared to be a whole room full of generators at the back of the property. This fed a rack of computers that he called his “toys,” but the real computer, on which he’d spent a lot of money, was nearly nine thousand miles away in Panama. He had already taken the computers away the day before the raid. A reporter had turned up at the house and Wright, alarmed, had phoned Stefan, the man advising them on what he and Ramona were calling “the deal.” Stefan immediately moved Wright and his wife into a luxury apartment at the Meriton World Tower in Sydney. They’d soon be moving to England anyway, and all parties agreed it was best to hide out for now.
At 32 Delhi Road, the palm trees were throwing summer shade onto the concrete walkways — “Tailor Made Office Solutions,” it said on a nearby billboard — and people were drinking coffee in Deli 32 on the ground floor. Wright’s office on level five was painted red, and looked down on the Macquarie Park Cemetery, known as a place of calm for the living as much as for the dead. No one was sure what to do when the police entered. The staff were gathered in the middle of the room and told by the officers not to go near their computers or use their phones. “I tried to intervene,” one senior staff member, a Dane called Allan Pedersen, remarked later, “and said we would have to call our lawyers.”
Holed up in the Meriton World Tower, Ramona wasn’t keen to tell her family what was happening. The reporters were sniffing at a strange story — a story too complicated for her to explain — so she just told everyone that damp in the Gordon house had forced them to move out. The place they moved into, a tall apartment building, was right in the city and Wright felt as if he was on holiday. On December 9, after their first night in the new apartment, he woke up to the news that two articles, one on the technology site Gizmodo, the other in the tech magazine Wired, had come out overnight fingering him as the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who in 2008 published a white paper describing a “peer-to-peer electronic cash system” — a technology Satoshi went on to develop as bitcoin. Reading the articles on his laptop, Wright knew his old life was over.
By this point, cameras and reporters were outside his former home and his office. They had long heard rumors, but the Gizmodo and Wired stories had sent the Australian media into a frenzy. It wasn’t clear why the police and the articles had appeared on the same day. At about five that same afternoon, a receptionist called from the lobby of Wright’s apartment building to say that the police had arrived. Ramona turned to Wright and told him to get the hell out. He looked at a desk in front of the window: there were two large laptop computers on it — they weighed a few kilos each, with 64 gigabytes of RAM — and he grabbed the one that wasn’t yet fully encrypted. He also took Ramona’s phone, which wasn’t encrypted either, and headed for the door. They were on the sixty-third floor. It occurred to him that the police might be coming up in the elevator, so he went down to the sixty-first floor, where there were office suites and a swimming pool. He stood frozen for a minute before he realized he’d rushed out without his passport.
Ramona left the apartment shortly after Wright. She went straight down to the basement car park and was relieved to find the police weren’t guarding the exits. She jumped into her car, a hire vehicle, and, in her panic, crashed into the exit barrier. But she didn’t stop, and was soon on the freeway heading to north Sydney. She just wanted to be somewhere familiar where she would have time to think. She felt vulnerable without her phone, and decided to drive to a friend’s and borrow his. She went to his workplace and took his phone, telling him she couldn’t explain because she didn’t want to get him involved.
Meanwhile, Wright was still standing beside the swimming pool in his suit, with a laptop in his arms. He heard people coming up the stairs, sped down the corridor, and ducked into the gents’. A bunch of teenagers were standing around but seemed not to notice him. He went to the farthest cubicle and deliberately kept the door unlocked. (He figured the police would just look for an engaged sign.) He was standing on top of the toilet when he heard the officers come in. They asked the youngsters what they were doing, but they said “nothing” and the police left. Wright stayed in the cubicle for a few minutes, then went out and used his apartment keycard to hide in the service stairwell. Eventually, a call came from Ramona on her friend’s phone. She was slightly horrified to discover he was still in the building and told him again to get out. He, too, had a rental car, and had the key in his pocket. He went down sixty flights of stairs to the parking lot in the basement, unlocked his car, and opened the trunk, where he lifted out the spare wheel and put his laptop in the wheel cavity. He drove toward the Harbour Bridge and got lost in the traffic.
As Ramona drove along she began texting the mysterious Stefan, who was at Sydney Airport, having already checked in for a flight to Manila, where he lived. Stefan had to make a fuss to get his bag removed from the plane. He then headed back into Sydney and he spoke en route to Ramona, telling her that Wright would have to get out of the country. She didn’t argue. She called the Flight Centre and asked what flights were leaving. “To where?” asked the saleswoman.
“Anywhere,” Ramona said. Within ten minutes she had booked her husband on a flight to Auckland.
In the early evening, Wright, scared and lost, made his way to the shopping district of Chatswood, an area he knew well and in which he felt comfortable. He texted Ramona to come and meet him, and she immediately texted back saying he should go straight to the airport; she’d booked him a flight. “But I don’t have my passport,” he said. Ramona was afraid she’d be arrested if she returned to their apartment, but her friend said he’d go into the building and get the passport. They waited until the police left the building, then he went upstairs. A few minutes later he came back with the passport, along with the other computer and a power supply.
They met Wright in the airport parking lot. Ramona had never seen him so worried. “I was shocked,” he later said. “I hadn’t expected to be outed like that in the media, and then to be chased down by the police. Normally, I’d be prepared. I’d have a bag packed.” As Ramona gave him the one-way ticket to Auckland, she was anxious about when she would see him again. Wright said New Zealand was a bit too close and wondered what to do about money. Ramona went to an ATM and gave him six hundred dollars. He bought a yellow bag from the airport shop in which to store his computers. He had no clothes. “It was awful saying goodbye to him,” Ramona said.
In the queue for security, he felt nervous about his computers. His flight was about to close when the security staff flagged him down. He was being taken to an interview room when an Indian man behind him started going berserk. It was just after the Paris bombings; the man’s wife was wearing a sari and the security staff wanted to pat her down. The man objected. All the security staff ran over to deal with the situation and Wright was told to go. He couldn’t believe his luck. He put his head down and scurried through the lounge.
Back at Wright’s office, Allan Pedersen was being interviewed by the police. He overheard one of them ask: “Have we got Wright yet?”
“He’s just hopped a flight to New Zealand,” his colleague said. Wright was soon 30,000 feet above the Tasman Sea watching the programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) being chased by unknowable agents in The Matrix. Wright found the story line strangely comforting; it was good to know he wasn’t alone.
At Auckland Airport, Wright kept his phone on flight mode but turned it on to Skype with Stefan using the airport’s Wi-Fi and a new account. They had a discussion about how to get him to Manila. There was a big rock concert that night in Auckland, and all the hotels were full, but he crossed town in a cab and managed to get a small room at the Hilton. He booked two nights, using cash. He knew how to get more cash out of ATMs than the daily limit, so he worked several machines near the hotel, withdrawing five thousand dollars. He ordered room service that night and the next morning went to the Billabong store in Queen Street to buy some clothes. He felt agitated, out of his element: normally he would wear a suit and tie — he enjoys the notion that he is too well-dressed to be a geek — but he bought a T-shirt, a pair of jeans, and some socks. On the way back to the hotel he got a bunch of SIM cards, so that his calls wouldn’t be monitored. Back at the Hilton he was packing up his computers when the dependable Stefan came on Skype. He told Wright to go to the airport and pick up a ticket he’d left him for a flight to Manila. His picture was all over the papers, along with the story that he was trying to escape.
Within hours of Wright’s name appearing in the press, anonymous messages threatened to reveal his “actual history.” Some said he had been on Ashley Madison, the website that sets up extramarital affairs, others that he’d been seen on Grindr, the gay hookup app. During a six-hour layover in Hong Kong, he killed his email accounts and tried to wipe his social media profile, which he knew would be heavy with information he wasn’t keen to publicize: “Mainly rants,” he said later. When he got to Manila airport, Stefan picked him up. They went to Stefan’s apartment and the maid washed Wright’s clothes while he set up his laptops on the dining room table. They spent the rest of Saturday wiping his remaining social media profile. Stefan didn’t want any contact to be possible: he wanted to cut Wright off from the world. The next day he put him on a plane to London.
Technology is constantly changing the lives of people who don’t really understand it — we drive our cars, and care nothing for internal combustion — but now and then a story will break that captures the imagination of the general public. I was one of the people who had never heard of Satoshi Nakamoto or the blockchain — the invention underlying bitcoin, which verifies transactions without the need for any central authority — or that it is the biggest thing in computer science. It was news to me that the banks were grabbing on to the blockchain as the foundation of a future “internet of value.” If it hadn’t been for my involvement with Assange, the story of this mythical computer scientist might never have come my way. I’m not much detained by thoughts of new computer paradigms. (I’m still getting the hang of the first one.) But to those who are much more invested in the world of tomorrow, the Satoshi story has the lineaments of a modern morality tale quite independent of stock realities. There are things, there are always things, that others assume are at the center of the universe but don’t make a scratch on your own sense of the everyday world. This story was like that for me, enclosing me in an enigma I couldn’t have named. A long-form report is a fashioned thing, of course, as fashioned as fiction in its own ways, but I had to overcome my own bafflement — as will you — to enter this world.
A few weeks before the raid on Craig Wright’s house, when his name still hadn’t ever been publicly associated with Satoshi Nakamoto, I got an email from a Los Angeles lawyer called Jimmy Nguyen, from the firm Davis Wright Tremaine (self-described as “a one-stop shop for companies in entertainment, technology, advertising, sports and other industries”). Nguyen told me that they were looking to contract me to write the life of Satoshi Nakamoto. “My client has acquired life story rights … from the true person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto — the creator of the bitcoin protocol,” the lawyer wrote. “The story will be [of ] great interest to the public and we expect the book project will generate significant publicity and media coverage once Satoshi’s true identity is revealed.”
Journalists, it turned out, had spent years looking for Nakamoto. His identity was one of the great mysteries of the internet, and a holy grail of investigative reporting, with writers who couldn’t dig up evidence simply growing their own. For The New Yorker’s Joshua Davis the need to find him seemed almost painful. “Nakamoto himself was a cipher,” he wrote in October 2011:
Before the debut of bitcoin, there was no record of any coder with that name. He used an email address and a Web site that were untraceable. In 2009 and 2010, he wrote hundreds of posts in flawless English, and though he invited other software developers to help him improve the code, and corresponded with them, he never revealed a personal detail. Then, in April, 2011, he sent a note to a developer saying that he had “moved on to other things.” He has not been heard from since.
Davis went on to examine Satoshi’s writing quite closely and concluded that he used British spelling and was fond of the word “bloody.” He then named a twenty-three-year-old Trinity College Dublin graduate student, Michael Clear, who quickly denied it. The story went nowhere and Clear went back to his studies. Then Leah McGrath Goodman wrote a piece for Newsweek claiming Satoshi was a math genius called Dorian Nakamoto, who lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Temple City and didn’t actually know, it turned out, how to pronounce “bitcoin.” When Goodman’s article ran on the magazine’s cover, reporters from all over the world arrived on Dorian’s doorstep. He said he would give an interview to the first person who would take him to lunch. It turned out that his hobby wasn’t alternative currencies but model trains. Someone calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto, and using Satoshi’s original email address, visited one of the forums Satoshi used to haunt and posted the message “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.” Other commentators, including Nathaniel Popper of The New York Times, named Nick Szabo, a cool cryptocurrency nut and the inventor of digital money called Bit Gold, but he denied it profusely. Forbes believed it was Hal Finney, who, the blockchain irrefutably showed, was the first person in the world to be sent bitcoins by Satoshi. Finney, a native Californian, was an expert cryptographer whose involvement in the development of bitcoin was vital. He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2009 and died in 2014. It came to seem that the holy grail would remain out of reach. “Many in the bitcoin community … in deference to the bitcoin creator’s clear desire for privacy … didn’t want to see the wizard unmasked,” Popper wrote in The NewYorkTimes. “But even among those who said this, few could resist debating the clues the founder left behind.”
A man walks past the home of 64-year-old physicist Dorian S. Nakamoto in suburban Los Angeles. In 2014, a Newsweek reporter suggested Nakamoto was the creator of bitcoin, a lead that turned out to be false. (Frederic J. Brown /AFP/Getty Images)
As with every story I’ve ever worked on, I checked the background and made a number of calls before I got back to the lawyers representing the mysterious client. The client’s idea, I then discovered from the lawyers, was that I would have full access to their man, Satoshi, to write a book and have it published as I saw fit. I listened carefully and I took some advice; I wanted to be careful. I had to find out exactly what these clients were looking for and why they’d come to me. This information came slowly, and I let the deal remain vague, I signed nothing, while I worked out who they were. The “Stefan” who was hovering during the raid on Craig Wright’s house and office is Stefan Matthews, an Australian IT expert whom Wright had known for ten years, since they both worked for the online gambling site Centrebet. In those days, around 2007, Wright was often hired as a security analyst by such firms, deploying his skills as a computer scientist (and his experience as a hacker) to make life difficult for fraudsters. Wright was an eccentric guy, Stefan Matthews remembered, but known to be a reliable freelancer. Matthews told me that Wright had given him a document to look at in 2008 written by someone called Satoshi Nakamoto, but Matthews had been busy at the time and didn’t read it for a while. He said that Wright was always trying to get him interested in this new venture called bitcoin. He tried to sell him 50,000 bitcoins for next to nothing, but Matthews wasn’t interested, he told me, because Wright was weird and the whole thing seemed a bit cranky. A few years later, however, Matthews realized that the document he had been shown was, in fact, an original draft of the now famous white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. (Like the governments they despise, bitcoiners deal — when it comes to ideas — in “white papers,” as if they are issuing laws.)
In 2015, when Wright was in financial trouble — his companies were facing bankruptcy and he was at the end of his wits — he approached Matthews several times. By then, Matthews had become friendly with Robert MacGregor, the founder and CEO of a Canada-based money-transfer firm called nTrust. Matthews encouraged MacGregor to come to Australia and assess Wright’s value as an investment opportunity. Wright had founded a number of businesses that were failing and he was deeply embedded in a dispute with the ATO. Nevertheless, Matthews told MacGregor, Wright was almost certainly the man behind bitcoin.
Matthews argued that since Satoshi’s disappearance in 2011, Wright had been working on new applications of the blockchain technology he had invented as Satoshi. He was, in other words, using the technology underlying bitcoin to create new versions of the formula that could, at a stroke, replace the systems of bookkeeping and registration and centralized authority that banks and governments depend on. Wright and his people were preparing dozens of patents, and each invention, in a specific way, looked to rework financial, social, legal, or medical services, expanding on the basic idea of the “distributed public ledger” that constitutes the blockchain. The math behind the technology can be mind-boggling, but bitcoin is a form of digital money where the flow and the integrity of the currency are guaranteed by its appearance on a shared public ledger, updated and refreshed with every single transaction, a “public history” that cannot be corrupted by any single entity. It works by consensus, and is secured by a series of private and public encryption keys. It is like a Google document that can be used and updated by anyone linked into the “chain.” The blockchain can do many things, but the revolutionary aspect is that it takes authoritarianism and sharp practice out of the banking system, embedding all power over the currency within the self-cleansing software itself and the people who use it. Blockchain technology is a hot topic in computer science and banking at the moment, and hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in such ideas. Thus: Matthews’s proposal.
MacGregor came out to Australia in May 2015. After initial skepticism, and in spite of a slight aversion to Wright’s manner, he was persuaded, and struck a deal with Wright, signed on June 29, 2015. MacGregor says he felt sure that Wright was bitcoin’s legendary missing father, and he told me it was his idea, later in the drafting of the deal, to insist that Satoshi’s “life rights” be included as part of the agreement. Wright’s companies were so deep in debt that the deal appeared to him like a rescue plan, so he agreed to everything, without, it seems, really examining what he would have to do. Within a few months, according to evidence later given to me by Matthews and MacGregor, the deal would cost MacGregor’s company $15 million. “That’s right,” Matthews said to me in February 2016. “When we signed the deal, 1.5 million dollars was given to Wright’s lawyers. But my main job was to set up an engagement with the new lawyers … and transfer Wright’s intellectual property to nCrypt” — a newly formed subsidiary of nTrust. “The deal had the following components: clear the outstanding debts that were preventing Wright’s business from getting back on its feet, and work with the new lawyers on getting the agreements in place for the transfer of any noncorporate intellectual property, and work with the lawyers to get Craig’s story rights.” From that point on, the “Satoshi revelation” would be part of the deal. “It was the cornerstone of the commercialization plan,” Matthews said, “with about ten million sunk into the Australian debts and setting up in London.”
The plan was always clear to the men behind nCrypt. They would bring Wright to London and set up a research and development center for him, with around thirty staff working under him. They would complete the work on his inventions and patent applications — he appeared to have hundreds of them — and the whole lot would be sold as the work of Satoshi Nakamoto, who would be unmasked as part of the project. Once packaged, Matthews and MacGregor planned to sell the intellectual property for upward of a billion dollars. MacGregor later told me he was speaking to Google and Uber, as well as to a number of Swiss banks. “The plan was to package it all up and sell it,” Matthews told me. “The plan was never to operate it.”
Since the time I worked with Julian Assange, my computers have been hacked several times. It isn’t unusual for me to find that material has been wiped — at one point 30,000 emails — and I was careful to make sure the Los Angeles lawyers’ approach wasn’t part of a sting operation. Not long after their initial approach, the lawyers had mentioned that the company behind the deal was called nTrust. I did some research and the lawyers then confirmed that the “client” referred to in the initial email was Robert MacGregor. I was soon in correspondence with MacGregor himself. On Thursday, November 12, I turned up, by appointment, at his office near Oxford Circus, where I signed in under a pseudonym and made my way to a boardroom wallpapered with mathematical formulae. MacGregor came into the room wearing a tailored jacket and jeans, with a blue-edged pocket square in his breast pocket, a scarf, and brown brogue boots. He was forty-seven but looked about twenty-nine. There was something studied about him — the Alexander McQueen scarf, the lawyerly punctilio — and I’d never met anyone who spoke so easily about such large sums of money. When I asked him the point of the whole exercise, he said it was simple: “Buy in, sell out, make some zeroes.”
MacGregor described Wright to me as “the goose that lays the golden egg.” He said that if I agreed to take part I would have exclusive access to the whole story, and to everyone around Wright, and that it would all end with Wright proving he was Satoshi by using cryptographic keys that only Satoshi had access to, those associated with the very first blocks in the blockchain. MacGregor told me this might happen at a public TED talk. He said it would be “game over.” Wright’s patents would then be sold and Wright could get on with his life, out of the public eye. “All he wants is peace to get on with his work,” MacGregor told me at that first meeting. “And how this ends, for me, is with Craig working for, say, Google, with a research staff of four hundred.”
I told MacGregor that there would have to be a process of verification. We talked about money, and negotiated a little, but after several meetings I decided I wouldn’t accept any. I would write the story as I had every other story under my name, by observing and interviewing, taking notes and making recordings, and sifting the evidence. “It should be warts and all,” MacGregor said. He said it several times, but I was never sure he understood what it meant. This was a changing story, and I was the only one keeping account of the changes. MacGregor and his coworkers were already convinced Wright was Satoshi, and they behaved, to my mind, as if that claim was the end of the story, rather than the beginning.
I don’t mean to imply anything sinister. The company was excited by the project and so was I. Very quickly we were working hand in hand: I reserved judgment (and independence) but I was caught up in the thought of the story unfolding as planned. At this point, nobody knew who Craig Wright was, but he appeared, from the initial evidence, to have a better claim to being Satoshi Nakamoto than anyone else had. He seemed to have the technical ability. He also had the right social history, and the timeline worked. The big proof was up ahead, and how could it not be spectacular? I went slowly forward with the project, and said no to everything that would hamper my independence. This would become an issue later on with MacGregor and Matthews, or the men in black, as I’d taken to calling them, but for those first few months, nobody asked me to sign anything and nobody refused me access. Mysteries would open up, and some would remain, but there seemed no mystery about the fact that these people were confident that a supremely important thing was happening and that the entire process should be witnessed and recorded. My emails to MacGregor took it for granted that what would be good for my story, in terms of securing proof, would also be good for his deal, and that seemed perfectly true. Yet I feel bad that I didn’t warn him of the possibility that this might not be what happened, that my story wouldn’t die if the deal died, that human interest doesn’t stop at success.
It was at this point, four weeks after my first meeting with MacGregor, that Wired and Gizmodo reported that Wright might be Satoshi. The news unleashed a tsunami of responses from the cryptocurrency community, and most of it was bad for Wright’s credibility. Had he left artificial footprints to suggest his involvement with bitcoin had been earlier than it was? Had he exaggerated the number and nature of the degrees he’d accumulated from various universities? Why did the company that supplied the supercomputer he claimed to have bought with amassed bitcoin say it had never heard of him?
“The smell,” as one commentator said, “was a mile high.” The nCrypt people were unfazed by this mudslinging, believing that every one of the charges made against Wright could be easily disproved. Wright produced an impressive paper — for internal use only — showing that his “footprint” wasn’t faked and that the “cryptographic” evidence against him was bogus (people continue to argue on this point). The accusation of fraud didn’t seem to bother the nCrypt people. I was a bit confused by the mudslinging, but I kept listening. Wright produced a letter from the supercomputer supplier acknowledging the order. Charles Sturt University provided a photocopy of his staff card, proving he had lectured there, and Wright sent me a copy of the thesis he’d submitted for a doctorate his critics claim he doesn’t have.
I had arrived five minutes early at 28º–50º, a wine bar and restaurant in Mayfair. It was just before 1 p.m. on December 16 and the lunchtime crowd, men in blue suits and white shirts, were eating oysters and baby back ribs and drinking high-end wine by the glass. A jeroboam of Graham’s ten-year-old tawny port stood on the bar, and I was inspecting it when MacGregor arrived with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. That’s what he’d been calling them in his emails to me. Craig Wright, forty-five years old, wearing a white shirt under a black jacket, a pair of blue chinos, a belt with a large Armani buckle, and very green socks, wasn’t the kind of guy who seems comfortable in a swish restaurant. He sat across from me and lowered his head and at first he let MacGregor do the talking. Ramona was very friendly, chatting about their time in London as if they were a couple of holidaymakers who’d just blown into Mayfair. She wasn’t drinking, but the rest of us ordered a glass of Malbec each. When Wright lifted his head to laugh at something, I noticed he had a nice smile but uneven teeth, and a scar that climbed from the top of his nose to the area just above his left eyebrow. He hadn’t shaved for a week, since he’d left Sydney.
Wright told me he was rubbish at small talk. He, too, wanted what I wrote to be “warts and all”; he felt he was being misunderstood by everybody, and normally that wouldn’t bother him but he had to consider the respectability of his work, and his family’s rights. He appeared to ponder this for a moment, then he told me his old neighbors at the house in Gordon hadn’t been friendly.
“They barely even knew your name,” Ramona said. “They do now,” he replied.
I found him easier to talk to than I’d expected. He said his father had worked for the NSA (he could provide no further information), but that, to this day, his mother thinks he worked for NASA. “The few people I care about I care about a lot,” he said, “and I care about the state of the world. But there’s not much in between.” He said he was happy I was writing about him because he wanted “to step into history,” but mainly because he wanted to tell the story of the brilliant people he had collaborated with. He and Ramona were both jet-lagged and anxious about things back home. “We should have been having our company’s Christmas party today,” Ramona said.
MacGregor asked Wright if being a libertarian had influenced his work, or if the work had turned him into a libertarian. “I was always libertarian,” he replied, and then he told me his father had more or less kidnapped him after his parents got divorced. He hated being told what to do — that was one of his main motivations. He believed in freedom, and in what freedom would come to mean, and he said his work would guarantee a future in which privacy was protected. “Where we are,” he said, “is a place where people can be private and part of that privacy is to be someone other than who they were. Computing will allow you to start again, if you want to. And that is freedom.” In fact he never stopped imagining different lives for himself. That afternoon he seemed preoccupied by the case people were making against his being Satoshi. He shook his head a lot and said he wished he could just get on in silence with his work. “If you want to stay sane through this, ignore Reddit,” his wife told him.
The next day, December 17, we met again, in a private room in Claridge’s. You could see outside, over the rooftops, cranes garlanded in fairy lights. Ramona came in looking tired and totally fed up. From time to time, especially when exhausted, she would resent the hold these people had over them. “We have sold our souls,” she said to me in a quiet moment.
MacGregor said he would spend the evening preparing paperwork to be signed by Wright the following day. This would effectively be the final signing over to nCrypt of the intellectual property held by Wright’s companies. This was the main plank in the deal. MacGregor was confident the work was “world historical,” that it would change the way we lived. He regularly described the blockchain as the greatest invention since the internet. He said that what the internet had done for communication, the blockchain would do for value.
MacGregor explained that Wright’s Australian companies were being signed over to nCrypt and that he’d extended an “olive branch” to the ATO, which had responded quickly and positively. A lot of trouble with the ATO had to do with whether bitcoin was a commodity or a currency and how it should be taxed. It also had doubts about whether Wright’s companies had done as much research and development as they claimed, and whether they were therefore entitled to the tax rebates they had applied for. The ATO had said it couldn’t see where the spending was going. Some critics in the media claimed Wright’s companies had been set up only for the purpose of claiming rebates, though not even the ATO went that far.
Wright told me that thanks to the tax office they’d had to lay out all the research for their patents, which had been useful since the nCrypt team was in a hurry: the banks, now alert to crypto-currencies and the effectiveness of the blockchain, are rushing to create their own versions. At that moment, Bank of America was patenting ten ideas for which Craig and his team told me they had a claim to “prior art.” Governments spent a long time denying the value of bitcoin — seeing it as unstable, or the currency of criminals — but now they were celebrating the potential of the technology behind it.
“They’re behaving like children,” Wright said of the ATO.
MacGregor looked at his watch. He straightened his cuffs. “I see this as a pivotal moment in history … It’s like being able to go back in time and watch Bill Gates in the garage.” He turned to Wright. “You released this thing into the wild. Some people got it right and some people got it wrong. But you’ve got a vision of where it’s going next and next and next.”
“None of this would have worked without bitcoin,” Wright said, “but it’s a wheel and I want to build a car.”
Ramona looked depressed. She was worried that her husband, as the person claiming to have invented bitcoin, might be held liable for the actions of those who’d used the currency for nefarious purposes. “He didn’t issue a currency,” MacGregor assured her. “This is just technology — it is not money.” Ramona was still anxious. “We’re talking about legal risk … I’m giving you the legal answer,” MacGregor said. “I would stake my career on the fact that the creation of bitcoin is not a prosecutable event.”
Right to the end, the Wrights would express worries about things Craig did as a young computer forensics worker. Much of his professional past looked questionable, but in the meeting room at Claridge’s he simply batted the past away. “It’s what you’re doing now that matters. I’m not perfect. I never will be … All these different people arguing about what Satoshi should be at the moment, it’s crazy.”
Journalist Christopher Goffard of TheLos Angeles Times may be the bard of crime in Orange County, California. Last year, his six-part series “Framed” told the story of fear and loathing in an Irvine PTA. His 2017 opus is “Dirty John,” a seven-part series — and podcast — that unravels the life of a con man as he takes on his final victim.
When Debra Newell met John Meehan for a first date, she thought he was handsome and kind, but shabbily dressed and a little strange. He said he was a doctor, an anesthesiologist; he always wore medical scrubs but he never seemed to go to work. When they married in Las Vegas less than two months later, she kept her family in the dark. It was only after she learned about his past that she began to fear for her life, and the lives of her children.
When I was 15, a teacher I was very close with killed himself over winter break. I found out about it in an AOL chatroom the night before school resumed. My friends were talking about how the elementary school science teacher had died. “The one from when we were kids?” I typed into the chatroom, sitting on the couch between my parents, as the Jennifer Garner show Alias played on our television. “Shit,” one of my classmates typed. “We weren’t supposed to tell her,” another wrote.
In her first print feature for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino profiles iconic anti-discrimination lawyer Gloria Allred, who is currently litigating major cases against Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump and has played a key role in changing attitudes and legislation regarding rape and sexual assault. Allred came by her conviction for that work very personally, after being raped in the early 1970s.
During her first year in California, she went to Acapulco for a vacation. One night, a local physician asked her out to dinner. He had to make a few house calls first, he said, and they stopped by a motel. He took her to an empty room, pulled out a gun, and raped her. She didn’t report the crime to the police, fearing that she wouldn’t be believed. Soon after returning home, she discovered that she was pregnant.
It was seven years before Roe v. Wade, and abortion was illegal in California. She made an appointment for one and went alone, as instructed. She began hemorrhaging after she got home, and the man who had performed the procedure declined to offer guidance. Allred was afraid to go to the hospital. She sat at home, feverish and bleeding; eventually, her roommate called an ambulance, which took her to a hospital ward filled with other women who had had illegal abortions. She didn’t realize until later that patients around her had died. A nurse told her, as she was recovering, “This will teach you a lesson.”
Twin Falls, Idaho is perhaps one of the best well known small towns in America when it comes to the resettlement of refugees. The billionaire owner of Chobani, Hamid Ulukaya, made it a personal mission to use the low-skill jobs available at his yogurt factory in Twin Falls as a jobs program for refugees, and he currently employees 400 of the recently resettled. Idaho has been a destination for refugee resettlement since 1975, when California governor Jerry Brown refused a planeload of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. Idaho stepped in and established the Idaho Office for Refugees, and today resettles people primarily from Iraq, Congo, Burma, Bhutan, and Somalia.
The panic in Twin Falls began when the local newspaper reported that Syrian refugees would be resettled in the town. As Caitlin Dickerson reports for The New York Times Magazine, when a report surfaced of a sexual assault involving two boys, a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old (the boys were refugees from Iraq and Sudan) and a 5-year-old girl, a thread of misinformation began to tear the town apart. Since those involved in the assault were juveniles, the police couldn’t release the details, and the lack of information created a void into which people poured their rage about Muslims and refugees. Then Lee Stranahan, a reporter for Breitbart, came to town.
Below is an excerpt fromThe Death of an Heir, Philip Jett’s absorbing new book of true crime, about the botched kidnapping of Adolph Coors III, the Coors brewery CEO, which launched one of the largest manhunts in US history and seems to have taken its cues from the Hollywood playbook. Our thanks to Jett and St. Martin’s Press for letting us share this story with the Longreads community.
* * *
At barely half a rod wide and three hands deep, Turkey Creek was not unlike hundreds of tributaries snaking their way through Colorado canyons. That would soon change. The creek flowed only a few miles, spanned here and there by rough-hewn lumber bridges like the one in Turkey Creek Canyon, with its crude railings and two wooden tracks burrowed in gravel, wide enough for a single car to cross. Fewer than half a dozen vehicles crossed Turkey Creek Bridge each morning. That included the local school bus and a milk delivery truck—and for the last month, the white-over-turquoise International Harvester Travelall driven by Adolph Herman Joseph Coors III.
The name fit for a crown prince belonged to the forty-four-year-old chairman of the board and CEO of the multimillion-dollar Adolph Coors Company in Golden, Colorado, and first-born grandson of the brewery’s founder. Known simply as “Ad” to most who knew him, he was well-liked by associates and employees for his friendliness and reserve. And despite being the eldest successor to the giant Colorado beer empire and an accomplished man, Ad preferred the simple life on his horse ranch southwest of Denver, where he lived contently with his wife, Mary, and their four young children.
On the crisp, windy morning of Tuesday, February 9, 1960, Ad rose before sunrise and began his daily exercise regime. After showering, he dressed for work and joined Mary at the kitchen table for coffee. They talked as they did every morning.
Before leaving for the brewery, Ad headed outside to check his horses, pitching hay and breaking ice in their troughs. He soon returned to kiss Mary and his children goodbye, but his children had boarded a school bus minutes earlier. Grabbing a tan baseball cap and slipping on his favorite navy-blue nylon jacket, he stepped out onto the carport, started his Travelall, and headed down the driveway. He waved to his ranch manager as he passed. It was 7:55 a.m.
Ad’s normal route to the brewery, twelve miles away, would have carried him less than a mile to paved US Highway 285, but a section of the highway had been closed for construction since January. The closure forced him to detour along a winding, lonely stretch of gravel road for four miles to Turkey Creek Canyon, where it connected to a state road that led back to Highway 285.
As Ad drove along the secluded road that morning, his Travelall rambled around the last bend before reaching Turkey Creek Bridge, just out of view. Waiting on the bridge was thirty-one-year-old Joseph Corbett Jr., who had stalked Ad for many months awaiting the chance to carry out his scheme. The road closure and detour across Turkey Creek Bridge gave him that chance.
Corbett backed his canary-yellow Mercury sedan onto the one-lane bridge just minutes before Ad’s arrival. Handcuffs and leg irons lay on the back seat. A ransom note in an envelope ready for mailing later that day lay in the glove box. Concealing a pistol in his coat pocket, he exited the four-door car, leaving the driver’s door open. He opened a rear door and raised the hood, signaling engine trouble, and stood by the car, waiting for his victim. All he had to do was lure Ad away from his Travelall. Then the Coors CEO and heir wouldn’t be so rich and powerful. Instead, he’d be a hostage worth many times his weight in gold and, if all went according to plan, would make Corbett a very rich man by week’s end.
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As Ad drove around that last bend, he spotted the yellow Mercury stranded on the narrow bridge. It was 8:00 a.m. Just as Corbett had planned, Ad pulled onto the bridge behind the Mercury. He shouted through a rolled-down window, asking if he could help. Corbett shouted back his rehearsed reply. Eager to get going, Ad stepped out of the Travelall and shut the door, leaving the engine running and radio playing. He didn’t expect to be long. He figured he’d help push the stranded car out of the way and give its driver a ride to the nearest filling station.
But as Ad approached, Corbett stepped forward and drew his pistol, taking the beer magnate by surprise. Ad was an intelligent but stubborn man, not the kind to don shackles and meekly slide into an assailant’s car. As Corbett drew nearer, the six-foot-one, 185-pound Ad Coors seized his abductor’s hand that gripped the gun. The two, almost identical in height and weight, struggled. Ad shoved his younger assailant backward, and they slammed against the crude bridge railing. Ad’s baseball cap along with Corbett’s fedora flew into the creek. Ad’s eyeglasses fell, too, cracking the left lens on impact. Ad pushed his antagonist away and made a break for the Travelall. But Corbett, seeing his ransom trying to escape, extended the pistol and fired. The sound of shots echoed up the canyon.
Those two shots set off the largest US manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping.
“It was about eight o’clock,” Rosemary Stitt would later testify in the First District Court of Colorado. “Right after I sent my kids off to school, about twenty minutes after. First, it sounded like somebody hollered down at the bridge. I was sittin’ in front of my sewing machine by the window. It sounded like one or two words is all. It was two different people, I think. Then I heard a crackling noise like lightnin’ striking a tree. I looked out the kitchen window to see if a tree fell down out back but didn’t see nothing. So it was then I got to thinking it might be a gunshot. Just one shot. Or, it coulda been two really close together.”
Those two shots set off the largest US manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping. State and local authorities, along with the FBI, burst into action, attempting to locate Ad Coors and arrest his kidnapper. Ad’s influential father demanded that the perpetrator be caught and his son returned, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover gave assurances that he would make it his top priority domestically. Once the evidence pointed to Corbett, Hoover backed up his promises by placing Corbett on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, describing him as the most hunted suspect since John Dillinger. The manhunt would span the continent and involve hundreds of law enforcement officers. Yet as months passed with little success, Ad’s tormented wife and children clutched tenuously to their hopes. Like them, everyone wondered where Colorado’s favorite son and his abductor could be.
The ranch home of Adolph Coors III (AP Photo)
Snow swirled past the windows outside Ad’s barn at eight o’clock on the night of Monday, February 8. Ad wanted to confer with his ranch manager about when they would auction the cattle. They decided to wait a bit, when the market was up. He also asked if his manager could accompany him Saturday to size up some horses in La Junta, and he agreed.
Mary called Ad to dinner. Afterward, Ad sat at the kitchen table near sweat-streaked windows, reviewing some of the ranch accounts. He was bushed and hoped to turn in soon. He’d been back from Miami for forty-eight hours, and his first day at the brewery had been a busy one, with more meetings and telephone conferences scheduled for Tuesday. At least his father was on vacation in Hawaii with his mother and wouldn’t return for another two weeks. Things wouldn’t be as tense with Mr. Coors away.
Cecily was seated across the kitchen table from her father with Spike seated beside her, both doing homework. The youngest of the Coors children, Jim, lay on the den floor in front of the fireplace with a toy truck and horse trailer he’d gotten for Christmas. Mary sat watching television with the volume low so not to disturb those at the table. She’d finished putting the dishes away earlier with the help of Brooke, who now stretched out in the hallway floor with the telephone.
Mary couldn’t help thinking how nice it was to be home with the kids and Ad and her fireplace and her favorite chair and everything feeling like it should. She wished she could freeze the moment and keep things just the way they were forever. She knew things at home were changing and the kids were growing up. What Mary didn’t realize was that night would be the best it would be, forever more.
“Three dollars—regular,” Corbett told gas attendant Lynn Westerbuhr at the Conoco Service Station on East Fourteenth Avenue, around the corner from Corbett’s apartment.
It was a cold night, and the young attendant inserted the hose nozzle into the automobile and turned the pump lever. He stomped his feet on the icy concrete and cupped his gloved hands, blowing on them to provide a little warmth.
“He stopped by regularly, usually once a week. He asked for three dollars’ worth of gas every time,” said Westerbuhr. “Never told me his name. Always paid cash.”
The attendant removed the hose and hooked it on the side of the pump. “That’s three dollars,” said Westerbuhr, waiting for Corbett to slip three bills through the sliver of open window. “Whatcha got back there? Moving?”
“A sleeping bag and tent.”
“You going camping in this weather?” asked the attendant, just like the clerk had at the Sears department store.
“Here’s your money,” said Corbett. He detested snoops.
“He was driving a dark maroon Dodge, ’tween a ’46 to ’49 year model, I think,” Westerbuhr soon would tell authorities. “Around Christmas, I seen him in a bright-yellow Mercury and again in January, ’bout through the second week of January, I’d say. I seen him in several cars over the last year, though—a light blue Ford wagon, gray-and-white Ford sedan. He liked cars. Most times, he was by himself. Sometimes with another man. A big fella, about thirty-five, usually in dirty work clothes, might ’ave been an Indian or an Italian, I don’t know.”
After leaving the station that Monday night, Corbett returned to his Perlmor apartment. Soon, metallic sounds filled the air. Gun chambers snapped, shackles clanked, and handcuffs clattered eerily in the sparse room. Corbett was making ready for the following day. He brushed his coat and spit-shined his shoes, like preparing for a job interview, a compulsion he’d picked up in prison. He’d gotten a haircut earlier in the day. A freshly dry-cleaned suit hung on a doorknob.
Later that evening, Corbett hurried down the back stairs to the first-floor hallway and out the back door. A pistol, a rifle, cuffs, and leg irons draped in a blanket filled his arms. A sedan waited for him across the alley behind his apartment with its trunk raised and front-and rear-passenger doors open on the passenger side. He’d already loaded blankets, canned food, water in glass jugs, and his Coleman stove, lantern, and other camping equipment in the trunk. He checked for anyone who might be watching him before stretching out the blanket and removing the pistol and placing it in the glove compartment.
“He seemed like he was in a hurry,” said Terrence Smith, a tenant in room 106. “I saw blankets on the back seat, two rifle cases, a telescopic case, and a pistol case, all zipped up along the side.”
Corbett slammed the trunk closed, removed his hat, and wiped his forehead, running his fingers through his hair that was soaked with sweat despite the cold night’s sleet pelting down. Scaling flights of stairs half a dozen times made him perspire, but he was also suffering from nervousness, anxiety, and fear of detection. He was afraid, all right, even though he’d spent months, almost thirty of them, planning this job. Despite being proud of his intellect (he’d been tested as having an IQ of 148) and his methodical, almost obsessive analytical approach to things, he knew he wasn’t infallible. After all, he had been captured for shooting a man and imprisoned in California a decade earlier.
To calm himself, he sat in his apartment and turned on the television to Peter Gunn. Soon, he pulled open a drawer and stuffed the letter he’d perfected into the pocket of his coat hanging in the closet. He planned to mail it the next day.
Corbett hadn’t seen his family for ages, and if the letter procured him what he expected, he doubted he’d have a chance to see them for a long time to come. He didn’t have a family of his own, not yet, only a father, stepmother, and stepbrother.
“It says here that he’s got a wife—name’s Marion,” said one of Corbett’s former bosses reviewing his unemployment records with an FBI agent later. “Some of the boys said Walt told ’em he was married. But later he said he was married to ‘Anne’ and listed her as his wife on his company health insurance policy. Seems to me a man should know the name of his wife, and polygamy is frowned on in Colorado.”
His female neighbors, however, never saw a wife or a girlfriend or any woman visiting, for that matter. If any woman said hello, she was lucky to receive eye contact from Corbett, much less a response. Many of his female neighbors who’d been rebuffed by Corbett’s shyness and abrupt exits referred to him as “Mystery Boy.”
“When we’d go to the city café to eat, which we did a lot, he’d never talk to the waitresses,” said one of Corbett’s coworkers. “Some were interested, but he’d never say as much as a how-do-you-do. He’d just order his food.”
“Women aren’t to be trusted,” Corbett would say. “They’re dirty, disagreeable, expensive, and worst of all, can’t keep confidential information to themselves.”
Corbett clicked off the television set. He had things to do tomorrow—confidential things. He stretched out on his sleeper sofa. It was dark, but trails of light passing through the metal venetian blinds laid stripes across a portion of the ceiling and one wall. He stared at the faint luminescent strands above him. It was late. His preparations had taken longer than he’d planned. But he wasn’t sleepy. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. Soon, his mind raced through the details of his plan. It was a good plan.
* * *
Golden is located on the Colorado Front Range, the first upwelling of the Rocky Mountains from the Great Plains. Founded in 1859 as part of the Colorado gold rush, the mining town became the first capital of the Colorado Territory and the seat of Jefferson County. After the gold panned out, German, Swedish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants stayed to make Golden their home. From 1860 to the 1950s, the population seesawed between 1,000 and 2,500 before swelling to more than 8,000 residents by 1960.
Residents of Golden enjoyed a traditional Western way of life. Men and women in boots and cowboys hats walked along sidewalks shared by those in suits and fashionable dresses. On Washington Avenue, the main thoroughfare, automobiles shared the road with horses and an electric trolley. Few communities can boast the picturesque scenery that surrounds the valley town—a river rushing through the middle called Clear Creek. Lookout Mountain to the southwest (where Buffalo Bill is buried), North Table Mountain on the north side, and to the south, South Table Mountain with its Castle Rock casting a crown above the Coors brewing and porcelain companies. And if its citizens wanted a change of pace from the serenity, Denver awaited only fifteen miles to the east.
On the morning of Wednesday, February 10, the citizens of Golden awoke to headlines on the front page of Rocky Mountain News: ADOLPH COORS III FEARED KIDNAPED! and TheDenver Post: ADOLPH COORS III DISAPPEARS; FBI ENTERS SEARCH. They were stunned. It seemed unfathomable to them. The outpouring of concern and kindhearted remarks by the townspeople filled the airwaves and print.
“I don’t know of anybody who didn’t like Ad Coors,” said Walter G. Brown, Golden city manager.
Kriss Barnes, assistant vice president of Golden’s First National Bank, told reporters, “I can’t understand how anybody in the world would have anything against Ad Coors. He’s reassuring, mild-mannered, and considerate.”
“Ad is kind and generous,” said Pete Puck, who worked at the Coors Porcelain plant and helped out on Ad’s ranch. “This disappearance is a terrible thing, a terrible thing.”
Ad’s ranch manager, Bill Hosler, agreed. “He’s just as nice as can be.”
Many people in town knew Ad. They’d gone to school with him, hunted, skied, or transacted business with him. Many had a genuine affinity for the eldest Coors brother.
“He’d always smile and call me by my first name. Just a real nice guy,” said Louis Kubat, who played softball with Ad in the Arvada League when Ad played first base for Golden years earlier.
Almost anyone asked would say he was a good man. Good, despite the fact he was rich. But Goldenites couldn’t begrudge him that. He wore his wealth humbly. That was one of the things people liked most about the Coors family: their humility.
“Nicest guy you’d ever meet,” said Arthur Jensen, the chief brewer in the Coors kettle room. “Always wore a smile and said hello and called you by your first name, and let you call him Ad, not Mr. Coors or whatever. He always seemed interested in what I was doing, and I liked that about him.”
“Everyone in town knew my father,” Spike recounted as an adult. “He was just like Grandpa and Great-Grandpa, a complete workaholic, a financial success, active in the town, and respected by everyone.”
That’s why townspeople were in disbelief. At gas stations, taverns, and beauty and barbershops all around town, everyone was talking about the disappearance. To many, an attack on a Coors was an attack on Golden and everyone in it. Coors was Golden, and Golden was Coors.
Who would do such a thing? That was the question of the day at establishments all around town. Anyone who dared denounce a Coors now did so at his peril. Even a person who had no beef with a Coors could become a suspect just because he was peculiar. For instance, Jack Peters, in charge of Coors plant security, heard from a guard that a man named Robert Everhart should be checked out. Peters telephoned Captain Bray and told him that although he couldn’t put his finger on anything specific, there were “suspicious and odd circumstances surrounding Everhart, too numerable to mention.” He was investigated and eliminated as a suspect.
Others were more specific in their charges. Anyone who’d ever harbored ill feelings toward a Coors was suspected. Anyone in a dispute over property rights years earlier, or someone Ad may have cut off in traffic, or an employee that had been fired by a Coors, any kind of run-in was enough to raise suspicion. The theories and suspects abounded that morning and throughout the day. One possibility in particular made everyone in town a bit nervous: could it be a union man?
“Both major Coors industries have been embroiled in labor strife during the past few years,” reported Rocky Mountain News that day. “Colorado unions, in recent months, have placed an unofficial boycott on Coors products because of what they term unfair labor practices at Coors. . . . Bill Coors, however, did say Tuesday night that he discounted any beliefs his brother’s disappearance stemmed from labor difficulties at the Coors firms.”
“Ad was never a part of the difficulty at the brewery,” Walter Brown said.
Union leaders especially hoped a member hadn’t committed this crime. If he had, the news would drive a stake through Local 366 once and for all.
When asked about the possibility, Joe Coors scoffed. “All we want, all the whole family wants, is Ad’s safe return.” When pressed by a reporter, Joe said, “Ad’s received no threats from anyone, particularly labor. We are completely baffled. Bill and I are very strong in the feeling, however, that this has nothing to do with the labor movement.”
That same morning, a motorcade of four dark, unmarked sedans drove down Washington Avenue, passing beneath the famous banner that stretched across the street:
WELCOME TO GOLDEN
WHERE THE WEST REMAINS
The FBI was officially on the case. Code name: COORNAP. Each sedan carried FBI field agents as unmarked as their cars—dark suits, ties, starched white shirts, fedoras, trench coats, trimmed hair, shaven faces, and sunglasses or eyeglasses. That was the directive from J. Edgar Hoover in Washington, D.C., the agency’s director since 1924. Another fifty officers of the FBI Western Kidnap Squad were combing a thirty-mile radius. Hoover stamped the case top priority. He’d given Mr. Coors his private assurances. A quick resolution of the high-profile case would also give the agency a gold star just as the motion picture The FBI Story was playing in theaters around the country.
One of the bureau-issued sedans dropped two agents at Mr. Coors’s house and Joe’s home to man the telephone surveillance and recording devices that had been set up by Denver undersheriff A. S. Reider and Denver Police chief Walter Nelson, with the help of Golden Telephone Company employee Carl Horblett. Other agents stopped in Golden to question persons in town. The remaining agents stopped at the Adolph Coors Company to question anyone who might have useful information, particularly Bill and Joe Coors, who had returned to work that day.
Similar cars with agents headed to Bill Coors’s house in Denver to operate the telephone recorder and to Ad’s home near Morrison to question Mary and relieve the county deputies who were conducting surveillance inside and outside her home, watching for kidnappers who might be staking out the ranch to drop off a ransom note. One agent joined deputies standing on the road in front of Ad and Mary’s house, stopping all passing cars and trucks and questioning their occupants. Other agents drove to the sheriff’s office to question deputies and investigators, and to Turkey Creek Bridge to question anyone who lived nearby who might have seen or heard anything Tuesday morning.
Agents arriving at the bridge site were met by newsmen from Denver, Golden, and other Colorado towns, and by correspondents from national news services who’d flown into Denver the night before. Reporters in turn were met with a curt “No comment.” All questions were referred to Special Agent in Charge Scott Werner at the FBI office in Denver. “The FBI will maintain complete silence until the release of the victim,” said FBI special agent Edward Kemper. “Our interest is the safe return of Mr. Coors.” The FBI also instructed members of the Coors family not to speak to reporters.
County investigators had completed their collection of evidence at the bridge the day before the FBI’s arrival. The remaining task for the sheriff’s office at Turkey Creek Canyon was to find Ad Coors. Volunteers arrived early that morning and set up tables near the bridge with pots of hot coffee, doughnuts, sandwiches, and water for those men in the mounted posse and jeep patrol who had spent the entire night searching and for those who’d arrived at sunup to join or relieve them.
An H-19 helicopter sent from Lowry Air Force Base outside Denver hovered above the lifting fog, trying to spot a man stranded or hurt, or anything that appeared out of the ordinary among the rocky hills and ravines. US Air Force C-45 and C-47 airplanes and Civil Air Patrol Piper Super Cubs were standing by to take off if needed.
Despite all the manpower, horses, jeeps, and aircraft, there was no sign of Ad Coors. “We haven’t been able to find a thing,” said Captain Morris of the sheriff’s office. “We’re as baffled now as we were yesterday.”
Coors was Golden, and Golden was Coors.
The FBI took a different tactic. Agents, along with some county investigators, visited all houses in the Turkey Creek Canyon area and interviewed their residents.
“It was about eight o’clock,” Mrs. Rosemary Stitt said. “Right after I sent my kids off to school, about twenty minutes after. The bus picks them up around twenty till every morning. First, it sounded like somebody hollered down at the bridge. I can hear people talkin’ down there pretty plain most times. Hear their cars crossing over. I live only ’bout a quarter mile away. But yesterday the wind was blowing really hard so I couldn’t hear so plain. I was sittin’ in front of my sewing machine by the window. It sounded like one or two words is all. It was two different people, I think. Then I heard a cracklin’ noise like lightnin’ striking a tree. As a little girl, I heard lightnin’ split a tree in half right next to the house. That’s what it sounded like. I looked out the kitchen window to see if a tree fell down out back but didn’t see nothin’. So it was then I got to thinkin’ it might be a gunshot. Just one shot. Or, it coulda been two really close together.”
“What type of shot was it? Pistol, rifle, shotgun? Any idea of caliber?” an agent asked Mrs. Stitt.
“I talked to Bill about it last night, that’s my husband, and he asked if it sounded like a .22 that him and my son shoot at rabbits or like a .38 they shoot ever once in a while at targets they set up in the hills. I said it sounded more like the .38 ’cause it sounded like lightnin’. The shot came about a minute or two after I heard the hollerin’. I thought it might be poachers shootin’ game on the preserve. We’ve had some trouble with hunters up here. Or maybe some surveyors I seen workin’. I didn’t hear nothin’ else, so I went back to doin’ housework. . . . Later on in the mornin’, though, about ten thirty, eleven o’clock, I heard summore hollerin’ and a horn honkin’. About fifteen, twenty minutes after that, the milkman showed up and told me about a car blockin’ the bridge down yonder. He asked to use the telephone, but we ain’t got one. So he left and said he’d telephone the police at his next stop.”
Mrs. Pauline Moore, who lived with her husband, Cloyce, two and a half miles from Turkey Creek Bridge, told the FBI a similar story:
Right around eight o’clock yesterdee, I was hangin’ the wash on a clothesline out back. The wind was blowin’ real hard. I could barely get a clothespin on ’em. Then I heard a shot in the canyon real clear. I usually work on Tuesdays cleanin’ folks’ houses in Denver, but my boss called the night before and told me not to come in. The shot I heard was a far-off shot, not a close up, but a far off-shot, towards the bridge.
After hours of exhaustive interviews, the FBI learned that no one in the area had actually seen Ad Coors or his abductors on the bridge. No one could tell how many kidnappers there were. No one reported seeing a struggle or a shooting. No one saw the abductors’ car leaving the scene. Several did, however, report seeing suspicious vehicles at or near the bridge during the days before the disappearance. There was only one problem. They saw too many.
Mrs. Stitt told the FBI, “My husband said he seen a 1954 blue-green Ford parked on the bridge the week before, once with the doors open and lights on, but nobody around. Coulda been a 1955 or ’56, he said.”
Ranch hand Bill Hosler and Mary Coors’s maid told the FBI they’d seen a late-model green Dodge with red-and-white license plates parked near the ranch on Monday. Both said they saw at least two men in the car that appeared to be watching the ranch for at least an hour. One was tall and thin, and the other was short and stocky with a dark complexion. Hosler said the same car had been there the week before. They also stated he’d seen a yellow car there on more than one occasion.
Hilton Pace, who leased and worked a uranium mine near Turkey Creek Bridge, said he’d seen a man driving a white-over-gray Ford in the area a few times. He’d even spoken with him one day.
Janette Erickson, who lived less than a mile and a half from the bridge, said she’d seen a yellow car near the bridge on that Sunday. Charlotte Carter and Viola Ranch said the same thing. Other witnesses said they saw a car resembling a 1951 Mercury in the vicinity. Three said it was yellow; one said cream. Two said it was a solid color; two said it had a black top. Viola Ranch said it had a green cloth top.
Former Morrison town constable James Cable, a caretaker at the uranium mine leased by Hilton Pace, said he and his wife, Margaret, saw a yellow 1951 or ’52 Mercury near the bridge several times, including at eight o’clock Monday, the morning before the disappearance, about a hundred feet from the bridge. That was the morning Ad took a different route, driving to Denver before going to the brewery.
Miss Nadene Carder said she’d seen a yellow car parked near the bridge three consecutive days when she was on her way to work at the Colorado School of Mines the week before the disappearance. That was while Ad was in Miami.
Jim Massey said he often saw a yellow Mercury near the bridge. He told the FBI he’d seen it around 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, with a man standing beside it wearing a brown hat and eyeglasses. His wife said she’d seen the car around 1:00 p.m. on Monday, a mere nineteen hours before the disappearance.
The one thing all eyewitnesses did agree on was that none had seen any of the cars since the disappearance.
But James Cable saw something no one else had. When interviewed, he gave the FBI a clue so important that without it the case may never have been solved. He had a partial license plate number. “It was a 1960 Colorado-style plate. Read AT-62,” he said. “It may have been AT-6205. I’m not a hundred percent sure about the last two numbers.” A was the county designation for Denver.
Agents hoped the plates weren’t stolen.
When newspapermen asked about rumors of car sightings the evening after Ad’s disappearance, FBI agents said, “Refer all questions to Special Agent in Charge Scott Werner at the Denver office.” When Bill was asked what he knew, he replied, “The FBI has requested that we make no further statements.” Sheriff Wermuth, however, was happy to oblige.
“We’re looking for two, possibly three assailants in a green Dodge that’s been seen parked near Ad Coors’s home,” the sheriff said to reporters. “That’s the strongest lead we’ve got in the case at the present time. . . . I believe we’ll have a break in the case by noon Saturday. . . . I’m basing that on studies of other kidnap cases. The crucial time in other reported cases is thirty-six hours to four and a half days after the abduction is made. . . . Yes, it’s my belief that Ad Coors is alive and held somewhere in the state. . . . According to a witness, the green Dodge had red-and-white license plates, which means it’s an out-of-state car, possibly Utah, Florida, or Ohio. . . . We believe they’ve split up. One of the three men is a good suspect centered around Denver. We’re anxious to check his movements. . . . I can’t tell you that right now. The other two are believed to be somewhere southeast of Golden.”
Reporters continued barking out their questions to the sheriff.
“No, I haven’t positively identified the blood yet. Lew Hawley telephoned me from Washington to tell me the blood found on the bridge is group A, but we haven’t located any medical records that show Ad Coors’s blood type. . . . No, the blood on Kipling Street was canine. That’s right, just a dog hit by a car. No connection there. . . . The tan cap and eyeglasses have been identified as belonging to Ad Coors. . . . No, we’ll keep the mounted posse and jeep patrol out there through tomorrow and then I’ll decide whether to suspend the search depending on the snowstorm they’re calling for late Thursday. . . . Yes, group A. Okay, that’s all I got for now, fellas.”
Amid the barrage of questions, Wermuth told reporters that Mr. and Mrs. Coors were due to land at Denver’s Stapleton Airfield that night. They had boarded a plane very early that morning to make the long flight home. Despite the earliness, reporters were waiting for them as they boarded.
“Mr. Coors! A few words about your son, sir! Please!” one of the correspondents asked, holding a pad and pencil.
The Hawaiian sun beamed on the tarmac at the Honolulu airport. Mr. Coors had telephoned FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who assured Mr. Coors he would personally oversee the investigation into catching the kidnappers and bringing Ad home safely.
“I am dealing with crooks who are in business,” Mr. Coors replied. A hot gust of wind almost blew the gray fedora from his head. “They have something I want to buy—my son. The price is secondary.”
“So you’ve been told your son’s definitely kidnapped?”
“No, but logic tells me he has been kidnapped. It’s a matter of now waiting for an offer. It’s like any other business transaction at this point.”
“You’re treating the kidnapping of your son like a business deal?”
“That’s what it is. Besides, I cannot be emotional about this.”
“Any idea who’d want to kidnap your son?” asked a different reporter.
“The union?” asked another.
“I don’t know. No, we don’t have any enemies in Golden. Excuse us, we have to board now.”
“Good luck, sir!”
FBI agents assigned to coordinate the exchange of evidence with local law enforcement were about to finish up around the bridge site. They’d walked the creek bank on both sides and in the middle. They’d scoped the typography and investigated a pit silo and a cave directly across the state road from the bridge. They dusted for prints, including inside and outside the Travelall, took additional soil samples and bridge scrapings, and reviewed the deputies’ reports. Dale Ryder had shown the agents where the Travelall was found by the milkman and where the cap and hat, eyeglasses, and blood had been discovered. He showed them sketches that county detectives had etched out using precise measurements that revealed the exact locations of the cap, hat, blood, scuff marks, and tire tracks. The last thing was to view the crime-scene photos. The two agents leaned on the hood of their sedan and observed as Dale Ryder flipped through the crisp black-and-white photos he’d taken the day before, one by one.
“The splash pattern was in that direction? Toward the southeast?” The agent nodded in a southeasterly direction as he asked about the blood spray.
“That’s correct,” said Ryder.
“I don’t know. That’s a—” The agent stopped as he spotted Bill walking up to the bridge. He was on his way back to Mary’s after work and saw the officers standing round and decided to stop.
“Go ahead,” said Bill. “Go ahead with what you were saying. I don’t want to interrupt.”
The agent introduced himself. “Now this is just my opinion, you understand, not the official FBI position.” The agent paused.
“Go on,” said Bill.
Mary held a ransom note in her hands. She put on her glasses, fearful of what the letter might say, but grateful to have it at all. She began to read:
Your husband has been kidnaped. His car is by Turkey Creek.
Call the police or F.B.I.: he dies.
Cooperate: he lives.
Ransom: $200,000 in tens and $300,000 in twenties.
There will be no negotiating.
Bills: used / non-consecutive / unrecorded / unmarked.
Warning: we will know if you call the police or record the serial numbers.
Directions: Place money & this letter & envelope in one suitcase
Have two men with a car ready to make the delivery.
When all set, advertise a tractor for sale in Denver Post section 69. Sign ad King Ranch, Fort Lupton.
Wait at NA 9-4455 for instructions after ad appears.
Deliver immediately after receiving call. Any delay will be regarded as a stall to set up a stake-out.
Understand this: Adolph’s life is in your hands. We have no desire
to commit murder. All we want is that money. If you follow the instructions, he will be released unharmed within 48 hours after
the money is received.
Sitting in her chair in the den she enjoyed so much, Mary rested the letter in her lap, removed her glasses, and looked up at the FBI agents standing round. Her eyes were weak from lack of sleep and the dulling effects of sedatives. “Ad’s still alive,” Mary said. “He’s alive. All they want’s the money.”
FBI agents in their dark suits and ties said nothing. It was Wednesday. Ad had been missing almost two days.
Mary didn’t appreciate their silence. “It says right here,” she said forcefully, holding up the note. “‘We have no desire to commit murder.’”
Bill spoke up. “Sure he’s alive. That’s the only way the lousy kidnappers collect.”
“Of course he is,” said Gerald Phipps, who’d joined Mary with his wife, Janet, to provide comfort and support on that terrible day. Gerald and Janet were close friends with Ad and Mary. They had hosted a wedding shower for Ad and Mary twenty years earlier, and they traveled in the same elevated circle of affluent Coloradans. Gerald Phipps’s father had been a US senator and an executive at Carnegie Steel. Janet’s father was the head of US Rubber. Also visiting were the elder Mrs. Coors’s brother, Erle Kistler, and the well-to-do Kenneth and Sheilagh Malo.
After hours of exhaustive interviews, the FBI learned that no one in the area had actually seen Ad Coors or his abductors on the bridge.
Mary reached for her gin and tonic on the side table and rose from her chair. “We’ve got to get the money ready. Bill? Joe? How do we do that?” Mary said, ignoring the agents. “Will you two deliver it?”
Special Agent Donald Hostetter, special agent in charge of the Detroit field office and head of the Western Kidnap Squad, interrupted. “May I please have the letter, Mrs. Coors? Thank you.” He handed it to another agent. It was a copy. The original was on its way to the FBI Laboratory. “You’re correct, Mrs. Coors. Your family should begin making arrangements to obtain the money immediately. We will assist you and your bank in coordinating the selection of denominations and recording the serial numbers. I’ll have two agents make the delivery. We don’t want anyone else in harm’s way.”
“But the letter,” said Mary. “It says if we call the police or FBI, or if you mark the money, they’ll hurt Ad. I’m sure we can find some friends or someone at the brewery to deliver the ransom.”
“The kidnappers already know the sheriff and FBI are involved,” Joe said. “It was in the papers this morning.”
“But . . .” Mary placed her drink on the table. “Oh, I don’t know what to do.” She lowered her head and shielded her face with one hand.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Coors. That’s why we’re here. We do know what to do,” said Hostetter. “All kidnappers say don’t contact the authorities. Most victims’ families do because it’s the proper thing to do. The kidnappers had to have known that by leaving your husband’s car on the bridge, law enforcement would become involved. And there’s no way they’ll know we’ve recorded the serial numbers. It’s scare tactics.”
“That’s right,” said Joe. “How would they know something like that?”
“Not possible,” replied Hostetter. “Now, when the time comes, my agents will handle the drop-off. We’ll dress them like ranchers or choose men who resemble your husband’s brothers. I haven’t exactly decided yet, but believe me, we’ll do whatever it takes to procure your husband’s safe return. That’s priority number one. Apprehension is always secondary in these cases.”
“I don’t know. I know you men are professionals at what you do,” began Mary, “but to tell you the truth, I don’t care about the money or if they’re caught. I just want Ad back. What do you think, Bill?”
“I think you have to trust the FBI,” replied Bill. “But I will say this: I agree with Mary that the main thing is getting Ad back. The family doesn’t want anyone, and that includes the FBI, doing anything that jeopardizes Ad’s safe return.”
“We don’t either,” said Hostetter.
Jefferson County investigator William Flint had intercepted the ransom note at the Morrison post office that Wednesday at 9:40 a.m. and immediately turned it over to the FBI, which dusted the envelope and letter for prints and made copies. Postal employee Joe Murphy said, “With the 3:00 p.m. Denver postmark on the envelope, the letter had to have been mailed in Denver on Tuesday, between 1:45 and 2:15 p.m.”
Agents were pleased to have the letter. It represented the first piece of physical evidence, other than the brown felt hat, belonging to the kidnappers. Agents in Denver would receive a report from the FBI Laboratory in Washington two days later detailing the lab’s findings:
In the lower left-hand corner of the envelope was typed the word “PERSONAL”; in the center of the envelope the words “Mrs. Adolph Coors III, Morrison, Colorado,” and on the upper right-hand corner of the envelope were typed the words “SPECIAL DELIVERY.” The envelope bore a postmark “Denver, Colo, 2 1960” on the outer circumference of the circular postmark and in the center of the postmark the letters and numbers “FE 9 3 PM” . . .
The envelope and note were treated for fingerprints by the use of triketohydrindene hydrate and silver nitrate. No latent impressions of value were found . . .
The typist is experienced and made no errors in punctuation or spelling; double spaces after a period, which is taught in typing schools; but does overuse colons and uses only one space after a colon rather than two as is the approved practice in typing.
The author is reasonably well educated; writes well . . .
The letter was typed with either a Hermes or Royalite portable typewriter; both are sold extensively in the United States. The Royalite has been on the market for less than three years. It is an inexpensive machine sold in large drug and department stores. Inquiry was made at the Royal McBee Corporation, manufacturer of Royalite typewriters, to determine retail outlets in the Denver area that sell the Royalite and the serial numbers of typewriters shipped. A representative of the manufacturer advised that two businesses sell the Royalite portable typewriter. They are the Denver Dry Goods Company, 16th & California Streets, and the May-D&F Company, 16th & Tremont. . . . This particular machine has a defect. The letter “s” is defectively applied. It is struck lower than all other type in the letter. . . . The typewriting on the envelope and note were compared with those in the Anonymous Letter File and the National Fraudulent Checks File. No matches were realized . . .
The envelope measures 4.24 inches in width and 9.37 inches in length. The paper has a substance weight of 20, measures 8.42 inches in width and 10.94 inches in length. Both contain the watermark, “EATON’S DIAMOND WHITE BOND BERKSHIRE COTTON FIBER CONTENT,” and are sold by the Eaton Paper Corporation, 75 South Church Street, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A code mark under the first “E” in “BERKSHIRE” indicates the envelope and paper were manufactured in 1959. A representative from the manufacturer advised subject envelope and paper were shipped in reams and boxes after February 10, 1959, to five businesses in the metropolitan Denver area. Only two stores sell both the paper and the envelopes. These are the Denver Dry Goods Company, 16th & California Streets, and the May-D&F Company, 16th & Tremont. Dates and amounts of purchase have been recorded. Interviews of sales clerks at each store to follow.
As Agent Hostetter left Ad and Mary’s home, he instructed two of his agents to relieve those who’d manned the recorder the night before. “I want to remind everyone not to say anything to reporters. If pressed, tell them the FBI told you to remain silent. Not only do leaks about our evidence, suspects, and theories compromise the investigation, more importantly, they put Mr. Coors in added jeopardy.” He would relay the same message by telephone to the foremost offender, Sheriff Wermuth.
More than a year later, Mary testified in a crowded Jefferson County court, “I felt a little bit relieved because the ransom note gave us hope that Ad could still be alive.”
Joseph Corbett, Jr., the FBI’s most-wanted man in 1960 (AP Photo/Ed Johnson)
Hawa Allan| Longreads | September 2017 | 3580 words (15 minutes)
“Big Brother” has become shorthand for the inescapable gaze of governmental authority, first defined by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Everywhere yet nowhere, Big Brother is all-seeing and all-knowing, surveilling not just every person’s movement, but every thought. Where Orwell referred to illicit states of mind as “thoughtcrimes,” Philip K. Dick called them “precrimes” in his 1956 short story “The Minority Report,” in which a futuristic police force arrests subjects for crimes long before they are committed. While Big Brother has become common parlance, the precrime unit illustrated by Dick is a more apt portrayal of the tools authorities have at hand to enforce the law, and commercial entities use to market their goods, in our digital age.
I reached out to Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project for a sober assessment of how the current state of governmental surveillance compares to the dystopian futures imagined by Orwell and Dick. When Target can determine if teenager is pregnant before her parents know, does the end of our anonymity as consumers mean the end of our rights to privacy as citizens?
In a collaboration between The New York Times and The Marshall Project, journalist Eli Hager recently published an investigation into Harvard University’s eleventh-hour flip-flop on its acceptance of ex-convict Michelle Jones to its doctoral program in history. Jones, who spent more than two decades in prison for the murder of her four-year-old son — conceived non-consensually when she was 14 — became a stellar academic and published scholar while incarcerated. She was set to attend Harvard this fall, but after her acceptance, two professors questioned whether she had adequately portrayed her crime in her application — something that was not required — and also whether the former prisoner was up to the challenge of an Ivy League environment.
Jones was supposed to be released in October, but received a two-month reduction of her sentence so she could start a Ph.D. program on time this fall. She applied to eight, with Harvard her first choice because of historians there whose work on incarceration she admired.
While those historians embraced her application, others at Harvard questioned not only whether Jones had disclosed enough information about her past, but whether she could handle its pressure-cooker atmosphere.
“One of our considerations,” Stauffer said in an interview, “was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”
Alison Frank Johnson, director of graduate studies for the history department, dismissed that argument as paternalistic.
“Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X years plus no Harvard,” she said. “Is it that she did not show the appropriate degree of horror in herself, by applying?
“We’re not her priests,” Johnson added, using an expletive.
Jones will be attending New York University instead.