The first serial killer I met was Cary Stayner. Well, he might not have been the first, and we didn’t really meet. He froze me with a stare as I rolled out of the lobby of a low-budget motel before casually sauntering away. But I’ll get back to him later.
Years earlier I’d met someone else who chilled me in a similar way. It was on a cold, winter night in Harvard Square. I was coming out of Au Bon Pain and a man was standing on the corner of Mass Ave with a wolfish-looking German Shepard. He had the vibe of a haunted hunter. He stared at me as I approached the crosswalk. Every motherf%&ing hair on my arms, legs, and neck stood on edge. I didn’t want to look like a pussy, so even though I should’ve taken a hard right and wandered up Mass Ave towards the Widener Gate, I kept moving forward, slowing my step and fumbling with my coffee, hoping the light would turn red. It didn’t. We stood in an uncomfortable silence for what seemed like an eternity. I told myself to be chill. I knew both the dog and the men could smell fear. When the light changed, he leaned in close and whispered, “I’ll take you straight to hell.”
He didn’t say it loud, like a crazy drunk, he said it flat and matter-of-factly as if he just told me he liked ham sandwiches. After crossing the street, I looked back from the safety of the Yard. He and the dog hadn’t moved and were both staring at me through blood red eyes. Maybe it was a reflection from the traffic light, but they looked like demons. I don’t know who the dude was, or if he did evil things, I just knew, my BODY knew, he was a stone-cold killer. Stone cold killers (getting back to Cary Stayner), change the molecular weight of the air around them.
I muse about the dark shit. I imagine maybe the guy at the counter at Denny’s complaining about his Grand Slam might have killed somebody the night before, or the dude pissing next to me at a rest stop off the I-70 in Missouri might have a body stuffed in a sleeping bag in his big rig.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not paranoid. I’ve met thousands of people over the course of my life, have had countless interactions that, generally speaking, have been of the pleasant and kind variety. Statistically speaking, for every creepy thing that happens, millions of benign and innocuous ones do, too.
But when things feel dark, I trust my instincts.
This story is about three specific encounters (well, four, including the guy in Harvard Square) that gave me the heebie-jeebies.
The first was in late May, 1989. I was in a washateria (what they call laundrymats in the South) in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d graduated from college off-semester (I’d taken time off to go to drama school in England) and when I returned, I took a job as stage manager with the Cornerstone Theater Company in Port Gibson, Mississippi. The Cornerstone chapter of my life is a book in itself, so I’ll save it for later, but the Theater Company had just moved into residency at the Broad Street Theater in Richmond, Virginia, and since I was the only one without a place to stay at the time, I moved in with my on-again, off-again girlfriend, who was a student at UVA.
After I tossed my clothes in the dryer, someone clicked on an old TV mounted above a cigarette vending machine. A show called “America’s Most Wanted” was on. While it’s now clearly ingrained deeply in the American zeitgeist, at the time, “America’s Most Wanted” was brand new. I’d heard of it, of course, but never seen it. In this episode, the host, John Walsh (who later became a friend) was talking about an unsolved murder from 1971.
As John walked the viewers through the crime, I thought about the whole “America’s Most Wanted” concept. It seemed farcical — like a dystopian Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel about an America of the near future where pictures of fugitives appear on TV screens floating above cities, Blade Runner style. The crime itself, however, was grotesque. A nerdy, church-going accountant named John List had, almost eighteen-years earlier, shot his wife and mother in the home they shared. He then hid behind the front door and waited for his daughters to come home from school, where he shot them both in the head, and finally, stunningly, coldly, he went to his son’s soccer game, before driving him home and gunning him down. List had planned the thing out long in advance. He wrote some letter (the hallmark of religious lunatics) about how he was saving them from a life of evil. He had stopped mail delivery, made excuses that his kids would be out of school, etc. Basically, he bought himself a month to escape and start a new life before anyone was aware of the murders.
As I alternated between the dryer and the TV, I thought of how strange this new form of crime fighting was. On the show, they showed a picture of what John List looked like back in '71 and a sculpture a forensic artist made depicting what List might look like now.
In both he kind of looked the same — a milquetoast, nerdy accountant. The older version of him was just slightly more jowled and with less hair.
I stared at the life-like bust of List and thought, “This guy looks so AVERAGE, what stops people from watching shows like this and going nuts and dropping dimes on every generic, middle-aged business dork in their town?”
The next morning, I took Caitlin’s (the ex) Honda Accord and drove the back country roads to Richmond, cranking GnR and chain-smoking Marlboro Reds. I was in a quandary. My ex had wanted to have an open relationship when I was in school in Boston and she was down here in Virginia. I didn’t want to. It seemed creepy, wrong, sad. I told her that I wasn’t a “special friend” who came down on the train to visit. I felt like a chump, like I’d show up at UVA and wouldn't have clue what was up, but everyone around me would. I also had a lot of anger — UVA is a preppy f(king place and her scene was frat/sorority heavy. Even though I went to a snooty school, kids at Harvard were generally straight up nerds. UVA is actually a lot closer to what people think of when they think of Harvard — a bunch of Chip Chipster the IIIrds and their Porsche driving buddies. I felt like if I agreed to an open relationship, I would forever be banished to a purgatory of scanning crowds of preppy frat dudes wondering who she was f&*ing. I would be a medieval style cuckold, the horns of cornudo upon me.
When I went off to Mississippi to work, with great pain, I granted her her wish and flew to Jackson, Mississippi, broken-hearted about this open relationship bullshit. I told her that if she wanted to see other people, what could I do? Whatever I said meant nothing. If she wanted to do it — she was free, but it would probably bring about the end of our relationship.
First thing I did when I got to Port Gibson was buy a six pack of Budweiser and a pack of Marlboros. I sat in a rocking chair on the porch of a boarding house, nursing my blues, sucking down a Bud, when an old Ford F250 pulled up and a beautiful woman jumped out. Hmmmm? I thought. Who’s this? And then I remembered — it was a woman we went to college with who my roommate Clay Tarver used to call “She with no name.” She, as it turns out, was Amy Brenneman, a senior we’d see crossing the Yard when we were sophomores and an actress in the Company. It reminded me that there were a lot of women in the world. You’ll be okay, son, I said to myself.
Back to the story. Blasting GnR, my ashtray full, I rolled into Richmond and headed to the Broad Street Theater and took my place behind the stage to get ready for the Company’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In truth it was a brilliant piece of theater. The production included Javanese shadow puppets and a forest comprised of common house lamps that danced and twinkled.
I wasn’t an actor, I was just the guy that switched the lights off and on and made sure props were in place, in good knick, and whatever. After the tech run, I went out in front of the theater for a smoke break. Next door to the theater was a four-story, modern office block I referred to as Generica.
I was sitting there, having a smoke, working through my heart/life issues, when an older guy in a suit, briefcase in hand, wearing thick glasses, walked past me and into the office building. I laughed to myself. I thought, “See how paranoid shows like ‘America’s Most Wanted’ can cause people to get? That guy looked just like the fucking sculpture the 'forensic artist' guy did of John List." If I was a gullible idiot, given to hysteria, I would’ve dropped a dime on him. But I wasn’t and went back inside.
The play went into production and we got busy. But a couple of times over the next week I saw the same dude coming back from lunch when I was taking my smoke breaks.
A couple of days later, I went to a store by the theater where I bought my smokes and a couple of old guys were out front talking. “Damn, they got him,” said one man. “Got who?” I asked. “You didn’t see all the cop cars all here yesterday?”
“No. We weren’t here yesterday.”
“Well,” he said,” “they arrested a guy that killed his whole family up in New Jersey a long time ago. He was an accountant. He was working in this building the whole time!”
Damn. It was him. John List worked next door to the theater.
Skipping forward ten years (a lot of life goes down) I go a bit mad, have a homeless spell (most of it of the moocher-couch surfing variety), quit drinking, get my shit together, develop a career, and by 1998 I am living pretty free and easy, bouncing between coasts. My ex, Kasey, didn’t like living in NY being pregnant, so we went back to LA. Now, the relationship and the pregnancy had happened quickly, in the space of a few weeks, so I went from being a relatively single, bi-coastal, carefree, loser to “prepping for family mode” quick. I was also in a shit spot career-wise. Things were rolling up until 1998 and, as happens so often in the business I am in, I became cold pizza. The promise I’d shown a few years earlier looked like it wasn’t going to pan out. My agency dumped me. The other agencies that had two-years earlier made hard plays for me weren’t interested anymore. I was panicking.
Kasey (like all reasonable moms to be) was concerned with nesting- getting the baby’s room ready, etc. I, like most dads-to-be, was freaked out about hunting food for the family. It looked like I had scored a commercial- nothing big- a little embarrassing actually, but I was psyched for the job. Then I got the call that it fell through. The combination of the baby coming, mortgage payments, fear, life, whatever, not getting that beer/car/potato chip commercial GUTTED ME.
I looked at Kasey. It was January. Finn was due in less than two months, and I said, “Let’s go to Yosemite.”
She wasn’t into the idea.
I told her that it was the most beautiful place on earth, there’d be snow, it’d be empty since it was off-season, it would be the last chance for us to go anywhere- I begged her.
“We’re taking LuLu,” she said.
“Of course we’re taking LuLu.”
So Kasey, Finn (in utero), LuLu and I packed into the Volvo station wagon and headed for Yosemite. Initially, it really seemed like just the tonic. Kasey was blown away by the trees, by El Capitan. LuLu loved running around in the snow and munching on pine cones.
Later in the afternoon, we made our way to the big, fancy lodge in the park to get a room for the night. As soon as I made my way inside, I knew that it was not going to be a dog-friendly place. A quick conversation with the woman at the front desk confirmed it.
“You might try the El Porto Lodge,” she said.
I got back in the car and started driving out of the park towards the El Portal. It’s was a normal looking joint, just empty due to the fact that it was off-season. I left Kasey and LuLu in the car and went inside. Same story. Nope, sorry, no dogs. The woman there, however, told me that the third option in the park, a place that rented cabins with no TV’s and stuff, however, definitely allowed for dogs and would have vacancy for sure. She gave me the directions and I went outside.
That’s when I froze.
Standing next to the passenger side of the Volvo, way too close, was a handsome, muscular man in his thirties. It was triply weird because the lot was empty save for a blue International Scout on the far end of the lot. I clock Scouts because I used to collect them.
I thought he looked odd to be a hotel employee. He wore a handyman’s uniform, but he was fitter and younger than what I pictured of I thought of a hotel handyman. But then I realized it’s Yosemite. Even the kids working at the first lodge all seemed like outdoor types— mountain bikers and rock-climbers. That’s it, I thought, I bet a bunch of mountain climbers and outdoor types work at the places around here as a way to stay close to what they like to do and make a few bucks. Like ski-bums.
The man was in a half-crouch, staring intensely at Kasey. His face was no more than four inches from the passenger window. She sat frozen, looking forward, beautiful, pregnant, terrified. What was weird about it was Kasey isn’t scared of anything -- well at least anything that has to deal with physical confrontation or telling people off. She was literally a street-fighting slugger from Flint, Michigan.
I looked at the guy thinking there was no way he wasn’t going to break contact, notice me, and awkwardly shuffle away. But that wasn’t the case. He stared at her some more and then slowly rose his head and locked eyes with me with an intensity that sucked the oxygen from the air. My hairs stood on end. It was more he looked through me than at me before wandering off towards the Scout.
“That was fucking weird,” I said, as I got in. “No shit,” said Kasey. “LuLu was tripping, she didn’t like it at all.” I patted the dog on the head and told Kasey the chick inside told me there was a place that would accept dogs.
“Good. I wouldn’t stay here.”
We went to the place with the cabins and as advertised, it was empty. We found our cabin at the far edge of the compound and unloaded food and the dog’s bowl and stuff and once we settled in, I told Kasey I was going to go for a run.
“I’m gonna take a nap.”
It started to snow lightly as I began my run. I made my way past an outdoor skating rink and scores of empty cabins and hit a trailhead that started climbing into the mountains. For some reason, I felt anxious. Part of me thought it was silly, that I was worried about bears. Maybe because I had just read some sign about not leaving any food out or in cars because a bear would tear apart a Toyota just to get an old Big Mac. But it was something else. The snow fell harder and I rounded the trail and could no longer see the cabins below. I stood and stared at the forest. It was dark and foreboding.
I sprinted back. For some reason, I hauled ass. When I got to the cabin, LuLu was agitated and Kasey was pacing around. “I don’t like this place,” she said. “I feel creeped out here.”
I agreed and so we packed up our stuff and headed out of the park towards Fresno. We found some hotel that both allowed dogs and had room service and watched Saturday Night Live and laughed our asses off.
A couple of weeks later (BTW, I’m a news junkie) I read an article about three women from the Bay area who were missing. It was a mother and daughter and a foreign exchange student from Argentina who’d been last seen in Yosemite. A few days after that, the authorities found two, burnt bodies stuffed in the trunk of a car hidden in the woods. Apparently, a note was sent to the police telling them where they could find the body of the mother. She’d been brutally murdered. On her nude body was a note, secured with a knife, which read “We had fun with this one.”
It turns out that the women had been guests at the El Porto Lodge. A short time after that, cops found the body of a decapitated park ranger. Someone had seen a blue International Scout by her cabin and that’s when the pieces fell into place. In the LA Times they ran a picture of the suspected killer, Cary Stayner. The guy who had been standing near the car when I came out. They found him hiding out at a nudist colony in the Bay Area.
It was chilling thinking of having been in the presence of a serial killer pre-spree. All I could imagine was how much his mind was focused on what he was fantasizing about doing. Once the switch was flicked, I bet everyone he saw was potential prey- everything else was just an internal battle between statistical analysis and sick urges. I wondered about the cabin. I wondered if he followed us there and saw me take off. I wonder about how much LuLu (RIP) a big, pit/lab mix, may have made him think twice just enough to stop something crazy from happening. Because, like I said before, the molecular air in the parking lot was different because of this guy. All the air in the Yosemite Valley couldn’t dissipate it.
When I wrote this story, I did research on Cary Stayner on interviews who’d given from Death Row. He talked openly about the being on the prowl the months before the murders and how a couple of his plans had been interrupted either by a man entering the picture or a dog. Another strange coincidence was that the girls were watching “Jerry Maguire” on TV when he came into their room under the pretense of fixing a faucet, a movie I had a small part in.
Red Tank Top, Tight Shorts
In 2003, I bought a ranch up in Oregon. Years earlier, I’d hung out at a farm in Vermont my friend’s grandmother had left to him and his siblings, and it immediately became my life’s obsession to find a beautiful piece of land I could leave to my kids, and to their kids, and so on, and so on.
Anytime I worked on a film in the Carolinas, New England, British Columbia, wherever- I’d cruise around, looking, hunting, plotting. Montana was a consideration at one point, but I figured it was a little hard to get to. The Smoky Mountains in Eastern Tennessee are stunning and I love the Blue Ridge Parkway as it stretches from Virginia into Asheville, NC, but the more I looked, it dawned on me, in a sobering way, the more I thought maybe I was bullshitting myself. Maybe my hobby was 'looking', but I’d never have the balls to pull the trigger on the 'finding'.
Now, on three separate occasions between 1989 and 1995 (and yes, this part of the story merges with the Bullet LaVolta tour), I happened to be in vehicles that broke down in the Rogue River Valley in Southern Oregon. The first was a Ford Van I was driving while road managing BLV. The catalytic convertor gave out north of Yreka and we crawled to the crest of the Siskiyous, before coasting down the grade to the Medford Ford Dealership. The second was the water pump on my International Scout exploding at three AM outside of Ashland, Oregon (again, the mountain climb from Redding, CA had taken a toll). The third was an issue I had with the carburetor in my ’68 El Camino in Grants Pass, Oregon, while driving back to LA from Seattle, after visiting my friend, Greg Dulli.
None of the issues were too serious, and none took too long to fix, but one thing was clear- God was trying to tell me something about the Rogue River Valley. Stuck in Grants Pass for two days, waiting for a new carburetor, I rented a car and drove around. I was stunned by the beauty of the place. Topographically, it’s similar to Northern California in terms of forestry and rainfall (Eugene-on-up is when it becomes the wetter, fern-laden, rainforest one associates with the Pacific Northwest), but there is something different and unique about Southern Oregon. Following the Rogue River up to Crater Lake sealed the deal.
For the next six years, on slow nights, I scoured the internet (back in the dial-up days) looking for land in the Rogue River Valley. One night, in 2002, I found it (I’d say Eureka! But that’s California. This was Oregon.) Log Home, five-acre-lake, stables, airplane hangar, landing strip, 148 acre box canyon, all for the price of a shitty one-bedroom apartment in a non-desirable neighborhood in Manhattan.
I inquired about the property and was told it was sold. Damn.
Six months passed, I was busy with life and kids, when I received a phone call from a realtor in Medford, Oregon, who’d remembered I inquired about the property. She informed me that the sale had fallen through,and asked if I was still interested.
At the time, life was complicated. I was living in the Oakwoods in LA (recent split- they should be renamed the “Kids in LA For Pilot Season/Divorced Dads Condos”). I was scared and unsure about the future, but let it never be said about me that I’m not the world’s most impulsive maniac. I said I was interested, and would fly up the next day.
The realtor picked me up at the airport in Medford and we started the twenty-six mile drive to Shady Cove (yes, it’s called Shady Cove). Medford itself is in the flatlands and suffers (at least on the periphery) from an explosion of the generic markers of consumer-commodity culture: Costco, Walmart, Lowes and Home Depot. But as we drove past the Timber Mills off Highway 62 towards the mountains, I started to get a sense of the Valley. Hard working folk, an economy driven by trucking/lumber, and more than anything, it was just flat out beautiful.
At the Shady Cove Market, we got out of the realtor’s car, jumped in the truck of the real estate agent representing the seller, and headed out of town towards the property. The Rogue sparkled below us to the left as we hit a dirt road that climbed into the forest. She was a local, and fairly cool, but every once in a while she would say something snarky that comes with the territory in my line of work. Generally speaking, I’ve learned you just have to bite your tongue. As we climbed up the shale covered, graded path, she lectured me more than a few times that my “Porsche” or “Rolls Royce” would not do well on the mountain.
It’s alright. It’s the kind of passive/aggressive stuff you encounter sometimes as an actor. And in fairness, I had a nice car at the time, if you consider a Toyota Tundra pick-up truck a nice car (and I do). But when you’re an actor and someone knows it, it gives certain people a license to make a thousand absurd assumptions about your life. On her eighth mention of my Porsche not being appropriate for such terrain, tongue-biting time was over. I told her, “I drive a four by four pick-up truck, and if you keep talking to me like I’m a superficial “Hollywood” a-hole with Rolls Royces and more dollars than sense, we can turn around right now, and I can go back to the airport and we can forget about it.”
This was HUGE for me. I had been a tremendous pussy in my past when it came to dealing with passive/aggressive behavior. Maybe it’s an Irish thing, a shame thing, or a Canadian-born part of me that feels the need to apologize all the time for WHATEVER.
But it definitely worked. She stopped the truck and apologized, and I said it was cool, but explained that my job was simply something I did, and who I was, was something else.
We got to the house and I met the owner, a lovely woman who’d lived there with her husband, Chuck (RIP), who'd passed away, and her daughter, Nikki Henry Baker, and son, Derek. It was always Chuck’s dream to live up by that pond and years earlier, they’d bought the land, lived in a trailer and built the home themselves, the kids even hand-peeling the cedar logs before they went to school in the morning. Every inch of that house was built by the Henrys (with help from their Uncle) with logs and lumber milled from the land, and all without power or water (there’s an artesian spring).
The site was stunning. I’ll get into the Henrys more later (the family’s story is beautiful and moving) but I decided, then and there, to buy it. I met Derek and Nikki, and it was so clear how emotional their attachment to the land was, I told them that they were always welcome there like it was their home (and I hope and think they feel that way).
After I first bought the property, I ventured ninja style up there, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend or my boys, but I soon became friends with the neighbors, Rick Lowe and Lorri Lowe, and others. It’s an awesome community.
But it’s country. Deep country. Deep, rural country.
One day, while hanging out with my kids, fishing on the lake, an old truck drove up to the house and a middle-aged woman got out. Her name was Terry. Terry explained she was friends with Vicki Henry and knew this was a box canyon and asked if she could keep her llamas at my place, since there was no way they could escape as there were only sheer cliffs to the north and a fence line to the south. I said of course, and it would be good to have some animals to keep the grass levels down, but, I added, “What will protect them from the cougars and the bears?”
“Oh, they’re good at taking care of themselves,” she said.
Now Terry was a bad-ass. She had a blue healer and a Pomeranian, I shit you not, that she’d routinely take with her on month-long forays into the forest, packing up the llamas with a tent and minimal supplies. She could live off the land.
It was fun to have the llamas around and they indeed could take care of themselves (when they sensed a predator, they'd circle, ass to ass, and start going off, making crazy sounds and stomping their sharp hooves).
I will skip forward and save some crazier stories for later, but around (unfortunately) the HEIGHT of the housing market, I realized that a 440 acre parcel of land was up for sale that actually touched my property at the top. To create one, large, parcel, I bought it from an old, former marine named Bob.
The land was awesome, but at the time, it was literally sealed off from my house by the canyon walls and a mountain. There was a pond on the back 440 (as we came to call it) and one day, Derek Henry, his girlfriend Holly, me, my boys, Finn and Arlo, and Terry, decided to drive around the mountain on old fire-trails and check out the pond on the back side.
Now it’s hard to describe, but the land of the backside of my property is just the beginning of endless miles of forest. Many times I’ve been lost (on foot, dirt-bike, or quad), until I could catch a glimpse of Mount McGloughlin or get my bearings somehow. It was also around that time that James Kim, a Silicon Valley executive, died wandering in the forest in a snowstorm in the neighboring Josephine County, after his family’s car got stuck and run out of fuel.
Now it was summer and there was no snow, I'm just trying to impress upon you how remote this part of Oregon is.
Now this seems very American and very Oregon for sure, but when I traipse around the woods, I always carry a .357 with me. I didn’t at first (until I ran into some stuff that scared the shit out of me), but when I’m out in the forest alone, I carry a side-arm. Pretty much everyone in my part of Oregon does.
Because it was summer, literally thousands of baby and adult rattlesnakes make their way down from dens in the cliffs to find water. They’re everywhere. Now anyone who knows me, knows I don’t like killing animals. I am a hypocrite, I know. I'm not a vegetarian. I don't judge hunters, I just don't like to kill anything unless it's trying to kill me. But for rattlers, I usually put two rounds of .38 rat-shot into the first two chambers of my revolver, and regular bullets in the other five. The reason being, either snake or cougar, you probably aren’t going to hit something when you’re startled, scared, running, jumping, whatever, but at least you’ll spray some ball bearings that might not hurt a bigger animal, but’ll surely get their attention. But the rat-shot was mostly for snakes.
So we hung out at the pond, fished a bit, had fun with the kids, and decided to head back around the mountain to our home. Now, the fire-roads that eventually lead to the front of my property are a twisting maze of dirt brain-teasers, and part of me had privately wished I had Hansel-ed and Gretel-ed some red ties on tree trunks on the way there so I’d know how to get back. Derek asked if he wanted me to follow him, but I said it was okay, it would be educational (or at least an adventure) for me to find my way back. He said okay and started loading the paddle boat in the back of his truck.
Finn and Arlo hopped in my truck, and Terry rode shotgun. She told me she knew the way, so we’d be cool. We’d gone about a mile and a half when, after rounding a corner, we came upon something strange.
It was a truck. An older model, tan, Ford 150, with a camper-shell on it. That in itself, wasn’t odd. A lot of people hang out in the woods. They go up there for any number of reasons, ranging from communing with nature, to drinking beer, hunting (or poaching), checking weed grows, building meth labs, whatever.
The truck was parked right in the middle of the fire road. Again, that in itself wasn’t odd, but that particular stretch of fire-road it was parked smack dab in the middle of, was actually the only 100 meter stretch in probably a million acres that had a shoulder wide enough to allow a car to pull over and park, letting other vehicles pass.
I figured that the person in the truck (I couldn’t see them as the camper shell window was blacked out), would realize there was someone idling behind them, acknowledge us, and then pull over.
Except they didn’t. We sat there for what seemed to be a long while, so I stretched my neck out my window to see if I could catch a glimpse of the driver in the side-mirror of the truck. When I did, the hairs on my arms stood on end. The driver, a man with flaming red hair, was staring back at me with a chilling intensity.
I held my hands up, using the international signal of “what’s up?” but the man didn’t change his stare or demeanor at all.
“What’s going on?” asked Terry.
“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s a guy just sitting there, staring at me.”
I motioned with my finger for him to pull over, but he just continued to stare, not blinking once.
“What’s he doing?” said Terry. “Hit the horn.”
I tapped my horn gently (and yes, it is possible to convey intent and politeness when using your horn. It’s like the difference between deciding to use lower-case or CAPS LOCKED EXCLAMATION POINT when writing an email.)
Still no response.
“I don’t like this,” said Terry, placing my .357 on the dash.
After another thirty-seconds or so, the man got out. He stood beside his truck and eyed us coldly. This is when my mind went into full, statistical calculation mode. He was wearing a red tank top, tight, cut-off jean shorts, brown socks and I swear to God, Florsheim-style dress shoes. Everything about him was OFF. The guy also had (and Dear Lord, I wish I had the power of a real writer to describe what I’m trying to get across with this) a strange bearing in his physicality deeply revealing of his character. For example, he was kind of buff, like he lifted, but he also had a bit of a belly. He was the kind of dude at the gym that only worked the "glamour" muscles. He reminded of a bit of Victor Newman from the Soap Opera “The Young and the Restless,” in the sense he seemed vain about his body, but didn’t quite have the physique he thought he had to justify his level of preening.
Just like with Cary Stayner, I got the heebie-jeebies. As he strode towards my truck, I subtly locked the doors and raised my window a touch.
“Hey,” the man said, as he leaned against my front door.
“Hey,” I said. I clocked him clock the gun on the dash.
“What are you doing up here?” asked Terry.
The man seemed surprised by the question and looked around, as if trying to calculate an answer. He had short, flaming red hair, a neatly-groomed red mustache (overly groomed, I should say) and wore a cheesy, gold, Italian horn chain necklace. The index cards of strange, evidentiary elements were stacking up. He looked like a slightly method out version of the Philadelphia Phillies slugger, Mike Schmidt.
I thought he was vain. He was clearly not a mountain person. He had an air of self-aggrandizement about him that people who absolutely have no right to have, always seem to have. Like guys in low-rent strip joints who wear cheap suits and too much cologne. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I found myself holding my breath.
“How do you get to those bluffs up there?” He asked, pointing to an outcropping of rocks on a mountain to our right.
“You can’t get up there,” said Terry, “it’s all private, Boise land. You ain’t supposed to be up here at all.”
“Well I’m not from here,” the man said. “I’m from up near Portland. I don’t know my way around these parts.”
“What are you doing up here anyway?” asked Terry.
The man rubbed his face. “Uhm,” he said, “I’m burying my dog.”
That’s when the Defcon-One alarm went off. My mind raced. Bury dog? Why? Portland? Portland’s two-hundred seventy-five miles away. Dead dog? Is that an excuse to explain the possible smell of decomposition? I looked back at his truck. Sealed camper-shell, NO LICENSE PLATE! F*%K! He had removed his license plate. I looked to the man, to Terry, to the gun. What was I supposed to do? What could I do? Cover him with the gun and have Terry check the truck? I had two babies with me. Maybe there was someone else in the truck. NO, I thought. He was alone. Dress shoes, gold horn necklace? This was a man who looked like the ideal Platonic form of a cruiser of prostitutes. That’s it! I thought. There’s a prostitute in the back of his truck and he’s looking for the most remote place he could find to dump the body.
I looked to my phone. Just like in a cheap, horror film, there was no coverage. I knew there’d be no coverage ‘til I got down to our gate, five miles away.
From the back seat, my son Finn (cute as a button, six year old, freckled faced kid that he was) asked, “What did your doggie die of?”
The man got a weird look on his face, grimaced, and said, “Cancer. She had cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” said Finn.
“Listen,” said Terry. “You’re not supposed to be up here. There’s no way up to that bluff. What you need to do is to hang a right at the next fork and keep following that road to the right ‘til you get back to the Tiller Highway, 227.”
The man studied us for a second and said, “I guess you’re right,” abruptly turned and started walking back to his truck.
Now for the final index card. One ass-cheek in his tight, cut-off jean shorts, was completely soaked in some unidentifiable liquid. WTF?
“Ew,” said Terry, “he peed his pants,”
It was true, he had pissed himself while he was standing next to my truck. He hadn’t when he first approached. He was terrified.
The man got into his truck and I tried to take as many mental notes of the vehicle I could.
“It’s sad that his dog died,” said Arlo.
As the man started to drive away, Derek Henry and Holly pulled up next to us in their truck. Derek sensed something off was afoot.
“What was that about?” Derek said.
“Ah,” I looked to my kids. Again more calculations. Should I describe everything to Derek, chase the man down? Derek had a gun and is the kind of man who can handle himself.
I decided it was too much with the kids.
“Something weird,” I said. “I have to get to the gate to use my phone.”
I drove like a banshee to reach the county road to get cell service, I called the Sheriff’s Department. I explained in great detail what had just happened and the woman on the phone could have cared less. She had the kind of tone like she'd written me off the second I started talking.
“He was probably just a hunter,” she said.
“In Dress Shoes and brown socks?! Listen," I said, "I'm not the type of person who ever calls 9-1-1, I'm not a weirdo, I'm not paranoid or suspicious. But why would a dude from Portland say he was in these mountains wearing dress shoes in a truck with a tinted camper shell and no license plate just having driven two-hundred and seventy-five miles to bury his dog?”
“Maybe he was just drinking beer and didn’t want to be bothered.”
I begged. “Please, I said, “He’s still close. He's probably just getting to the bridge on the 50 mile marker off the Tiller Highway. He's in a light brown, late Seventies, Ford F150 with a camper shell. He has no plates, or maybe he put them back on. Please send someone.”
She straight up told me that she thought I was over-reacting and refused to pass me on to a supervisor.
The incident in the woods has always haunted me. I know I'm guilty of seeing way too much Investigation Discovery TV. I've seen every "Forensic Files" and "The First Forty-Eight" at least five times, but I know this dude was burying a body.
I thought of serial killers who had been caught: Gary Ridgway, Ted Bundy- they all talked about having close calls early in their careers where they almost got caught or identified, but skirted through them and went on to kill God knows how many more victims.
Two years later, a silent alarm went off in my barn and I was surprised by a young Sheriff's Deputy knocking on my sliding glass door. Since my gate was locked, he had to make the mile trek up to the house (with its thousand foot rise in elevation) on foot, and was parched and out of breath. I offered him some water and a ride back down the hill. We started shooting the shit and I told him about what had happened two years before. I explained all the details to him and he said, “Sounds like you ran into someone who was looking to bury a body. Since there’s been so many budget cuts in law enforcement down here, a lot of weird stuff’s been happening.”
He wrote down a description of the man and his truck and promised me he’d make a report.
Three weeks after I initially posted this story, the ten-year-old remains of a young woman was found less than a mile from that spot (off the road that ran towards the country highway). Local law enforcement read my post and asked me to walk them through what happened. I told the detective on the line I had called 911 ten years ago when it happened, she said, “Yes, is was July 2006, we have the record here.” As of now, there has been no new news on the case.