After the September 11 attacks, Interior tried to build its own database to track law-enforcement actions across lands managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. (The Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture.) The result, the Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System, is a $50 million Database to Nowhere—last year, only 14 percent of the several hundred reportable incidents were entered into it. The system is so flawed that Fish and Wildlife has said no thanks and refuses to use it.
That leaves the only estimates to civilians and conspiracy theorists. Aficionados of the vanished believe that at least 1,600 people, and perhaps many times that number, remain missing on public lands under circumstances that defy easy explanation.
People regularly disappear on America’s 640 million acres of national forests, national parks, and Bureau of Land Management property. The disappearance of an 18-year old runner in Colorado sent Outsidejournalist Jon Billman to investigate the sheriffs, trackers, amateur detectives, and mourning families who search for the people who go missing in the wild.
In an alternate history, the Army’s presence could have spurred rapid economic development in Hopkinsville. The city might have extended its borders down to the state line, annexing all of that empty farmland, and business leaders could have built new neighborhoods, stores, and a movie theater. This is exactly what happened in Clarksville, Tennessee, on the other side of the post. But it was not to be in Christian County, because the people of Hopkinsville considered the soldiers an “inferior social group,” as Turner put it to me. Parents didn’t want the troopers mingling with their daughters, which they did anyway, and fights were always breaking out at bars. In 1952, a federal grand jury determined that soldiers had been “brutally beaten or killed” by Hopkinsville police, and an Army general threatened to declare the whole city temporarily off-limits for military personnel. The space in between remained a no-man’s-land, with development limited to a few stray trailer parks.
At The Guardian, read an excerpt from The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Finkel’s book on the man who simply walked away from the modern world into the woods of rural Maine in 1986 without any real plan for survival. Living alone for 27 years in a makeshift camp, Knight survived by stealing food, clothes, and provisions from neighboring camps and cabins. Knight committed over 1,000 break-ins during his self-imposed exile — stymying law enforcement and homeowners alike for nearly three decades.
Christopher Knight was only 20 years old when he walked away from society, not to be seen again for more than a quarter of a century. He had been working for less than a year installing home and vehicle alarm systems near Boston, Massachusetts, when abruptly, without giving notice to his boss, he quit his job. He never even returned his tools. He cashed his final pay cheque and left town.
Knight parked the car and tossed the keys on the centre console. He had a tent and a backpack but no compass, no map. Without knowing where he was going, with no particular place in mind, he stepped into the trees and walked away.
The cabins around the ponds in central Maine, Knight noted, had minimal security measures. Windows were often left open, even when the owners were away. The woods offered excellent cover, and with few permanent residents, the area would always be empty during the off-season. A summer camp with a big pantry was nearby. The easiest way to become a hunter-gatherer here was obvious.
And so Knight decided to steal.
To commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience, daring and luck. It also demands a specific understanding of people. “I looked for patterns,” Knight said. “Everyone has patterns.”
He perched at the edge of the woods and meticulously observed the habits of the families with cabins along the ponds. He watched their quiet breakfasts and dinner parties, their visitors and vacancies, the cars moving up and down the road. Nothing Knight saw tempted him to return to his former life. His surveillance was clinical, informational, mathematical. He did not learn anyone’s name. All he sought was to understand migration patterns – when people went shopping, when a cabin was unoccupied. After that, he said, everything in his life became a matter of timing. The ideal time to steal was deep in the night, midweek, preferably when it was overcast, best in the rain.
As the minutes ticked by on the afternoon of April 28, 2015, Harold Vilches watched stoically while customs officers at Santiago’s international airport scrutinized his carry-on. Inside the roller bag was 44 pounds of solid gold, worth almost $800,000, and all the baby-faced, 21-year-old college student wanted was clearance to get on a red-eye to Miami.
Vilches didn’t need this headache. In just two years he had rapidly risen in the ranks of Latin American gold smugglers. Although he was barely old enough to order a beer in Miami, he’d won a $101 million contract to supply a gold dealer in Dubai. That hadn’t exactly worked out—the Dubai company was after him for $5.2 million it says he misappropriated—but still, in a brief career he’d acquired and then resold more than 4,000 lb. of gold, according to Chilean prosecutors. U.S. investigators and Chilean prosecutors suspect almost all of it was contraband.
Strewn about are half a dozen pairs of eyeglasses, 10 dog leashes, six La-Z-Boy chairs, more pillboxes than I could count, a giant box of Wheaties with Steph Curry on the front, four bicycles, 10 fleece blankets, three television sets (two on). When I visited he offered me coffee cake, oranges, and bottled water and told me to come back whenever I wanted, a kindness unparalleled by many people I call friends. His mind drifts when he talks. The plots he spins can be hard to follow. If he ever comes into real money, he told me, he’s going to buy a big boat, a tri-hull that will do 50 knots—“I won’t be hors d’oeuvres for a shark!” He’s then going to sail that boat up the Adriatic coast and move into the castle he once saw in Dubrovnik. When his tough-guy veneer falls, Conetto is very poignant. He has an adult daughter, Kendall, whom he named after himself; he hasn’t seen her since she was 3. “I wasn’t ready to get married,” he told me of his early life failings. “I just stayed away.” He thinks the Bahia emerald is garbage. “That thing is a stinking sack of Siberian seal shit.” Every time I visited Conetto I left feeling sad.
Most of the time my mom and I are a secret team, keeping secrets from my dad. She tells me we’re going to take the city bus because her car is getting fixed and this sounds like a great adventure. We take the bus to her friend’s house in Providence and she leaves me there in the living room, where I watch television until the room begins to darken.
I am good at keeping secrets. I am good at telling lies. I’m so good that years later, when I’m an adult trying to find out more about my mother’s life and death, I’ll have trouble with my own memories: Did I know we were on the bus buying drugs? Did I understand the danger we were in? Did I really believe we were in this together?
Another time, Mom drives me in Grandma’s car to a small house with long steps leading up to the front door from the street. She takes the keys from the ignition and tells me to wait in the car. She leans over and pats the space beneath the dashboard, telling me to get down there and stay until she comes back. “I’ll lock the doors,” she says.
In the real world, my mom’s body will remain off the side of the highway, undiscovered for five months.
People often spoke of Pierce’s opponent, District Attorney Britt, in a whisper, as though he were the Voldemort of Robeson County. Stories of Lumbees and African Americans being coerced to plead guilty in court were as common as the ramshackle tobacco barns that dotted the landscape.
“It’s hard to comprehend how unwholesome and suffocating the system was,” testified Maurice Geiger — an attorney and founder of a nonprofit that monitored Robeson’s courts — in 1991. In a review of thousands of cases from the 1980s, Geiger estimated that at least 1,000 innocent people were wrongfully convicted every year; he also found that Britt’s office used a range of aggressive ploys to force guilty pleas. The court calendar was manipulated to make defendants appear in court for days or weeks on end while they waited for their cases to be called. Others were tricked into signing forms that waived their right to counsel — often easy to do, given the county’s adult illiteracy rate of 30 percent.
Duluth, Minnesota was dank and barren. Ice and mounted snow covered Lake Superior, save for scattered pools of howling waves. I picked this time because the ships weren’t in and wouldn’t be for several weeks. It was, for the moment, safe to stand by that great lake and speak on the silent affliction it routinely ushers to Duluth’s shores—the very same affliction that will spread across four states and infect each Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. I was there to meet Sarah Curtiss, an esteemed Anishinaabe activist at Men As Peacemakers, who’d agreed to an on-camera interview to discuss the predatory violence on this lake and other locations throughout Indian Country, such as oil fields and pipeline camps, that threaten the lives and bodies of Indigenous women on a daily basis. She wasn’t my first documentary interview on this subject, yet my hair raised in anticipation of absorbing more horrific accounts and the immense responsibility of honoring her every word.
Curtiss shook my hand and sighed. Her exhale eased my nerves. “You wouldn’t believe some of the questions I’ve been asked,” she said. “I once had this woman, a reporter, say ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re Indian?’”
Curtiss is astute, so I would not put it past her to pop this icebreaker as a litmus quiz for non-people of color documentarians (or journalists), but for me that morning it was an invitation to an honest interview built on trust in our convergent, but different, American experiences as “other.” Her last name, Curtiss, her milk complexion and loose auburn curls were more Anglo than Disney’s Pocahontas, but questioning her blood quantum never crossed my mind. How could it? Being of color, I’d long resigned myself to what most American minorities from families spanning the skin color spectrum know: If one of the three race-defining elements (skin color, features, hair texture) is off stereotype, “Are you sure?” or “What else are you?” looms over every discussion with the uninitiated. But, Curtiss and I were initiated.
We met on a February morning as if we were sorority sisters from distant chapters executing an exclusive greeting in the form of her sigh that said, Thank God I don’t have to explain myself to you. It was unexpected, but I was grateful. We discussed her advocacy in the fight against the epidemic of missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous women plaguing North America; the crisis that led her to divulge, “I do not go a month without someone I have a personal connection to passing away.” More specifically, she spoke of her prominent role combating trafficking on Lake Superior ships that pass through Minnesota’s Duluth Port—the reason for my sojourn to the frigid Midwest.
On a 17-degree day with sharp winds blistering her hands and cheeks, Curtiss stood beside the great lake that keeps sweeping away her stolen sisters. She detailed injustices against many Native women who live unrecognized lives, invisible to all but those who mean them harm—demeaning, brutal harm—and introduced me to invisibility as a handicap, rather than a privilege of gods. Read more…
Mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn investigates the upbringings of defendants to humanize them enough to convince at least one juror to bypass the death penalty for a life in prison without parole. Wynn shares the stories of three of her clients — men charged with murder — whose lives are marked by poverty, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and extreme child neglect. Read the full story by Elon Green at Mel Magazine.
Jennifer Wynn’s job is to make jurors feel sympathy for people who’ve committed unspeakable crimes
“We hear all about the victims,” Jennifer Wynn told me recently, “but we never hear about the defendant’s story.”
Wynn, cheerful and salty, is a mitigation specialist. She is engaged by defense attorneys, mostly in capital cases, to investigate and compile the life story of the defendant. The material Wynn gathers, often heartbreaking and brutal, is used to convince the jury to deliver a sentence other than death. (In non-capital cases the same person is called a sentencing advocate, and they similarly argue for a less-severe sentence.
She has now done mitigation work on 30 murder cases, 25 of which were death penalty-eligible, and won them all.
When people share with you their deepest, darkest secrets — the worst things they’ve done — they need validation. These are people who, for the most part, have been told their whole lives, You’re a piece of shit. They’re bullied, they’re picked on, they’re shot at. Then they act out, and society says, See, you are a monster. Then, people like me come in and say, No, you’re not a monster, and you still do deserve to be part of the human race. The system is fucked up, and I tell them that. It’s the first time they’ve ever heard that.
In Broken Pencil, Susan Read shares short fiction centered on a Kafka-esque interrogation in the back room of a coffee shop — you know, the one where they wear the green aprons — that’s a stinging indictment of the byzantine policies, procedures, and psychology of being a low wage employee.
I wonder if my manager thinks I did this. If my friends think I did this.
I mean, I would think I did this, if I wasn’t me.
It’s hot and I feel anxious and I feel angry and I feel…guilty.
And then I feel even angrier, and I think about how hard I have worked for Tarsucks, how I am probably the best barista at my store, and instead of a farewell party, I will be walking out of this place with my tail between my legs, and my head down, hoping that no one will notice the tears that are now readily streaming down my face in fear and anxiety and frustration.
I take a sip of water.
I lift up the form I was handed and notice another beneath it. It has a similar format: fill in the blanks and sign your name, we’ll take care of the rest.
I _________ do hereby permit __________to ________ me up the _____.
Actually, the form authorizes Tarsucks to compensate the stolen money directly from my paychecks until full restoration of funds is received.
It is a confession, typed up and waiting for me to sign.
I sit back in my chair, crying a little but no longer fidgeting, still sweating in that tiny back office, which I am free to leave at any time. I wait for my tribunal to reconvene.