402: Save the Day
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Luke was eleven when his family moved from the normal, boring suburbs to what amounted to, basically, the coolest place on earth. His dad got this job as the manager of this tourist park called the Butterfly Farm.
--that had domes filled with rainforest and exotic birds and butterflies and a miniature train track and pony rides and mini bike rides and a launching ramp for the water skiers who came and skied--
Also, a spider house, a picnic area, a snake house, and a guy named Vic, who did a show with his collection of deadly snakes. It's This American Life, by the way, from WBEZ Chicago. And the only bad thing about being 11 and living out in the countryside on the grounds of such an incredible place was the school that Luke attended.
This was in Australia, outside what was then a little town called Wilberforce. And the other students were these tough kids who didn't accept Luke at all, which is why it was such a great day for Luke when his whole class took a field trip to the Butterfly Farm.
It was my place, my kingdom, my turf, and I felt extremely excited and filled with anticipation that I could kind of relax and show off at the same time.
Show off, especially because his dad had asked the snake handler, Vic, to come in and do a show for Luke's class. Normally, Vic didn't work during the week. There weren't big enough crowds to justify it. But Luke's dad, knowing this would be good for Luke, asked him to come in special.
And that meant that I was going to help Vic. We'd been living there for about six months. And now my brothers and I, we were allowed into the snake room, the snake house. And he would deal with the poisonous snakes, and we would deal with the nonpoisonous snakes and the pythons. So that was fun, and that was exciting, as you could imagine, for an 11-year-old boy, being watched behind the glass by his 80 classmates and teachers.
Oh, right, you're going to seem like this brave kid dealing with snakes and getting to do something that's so cool.
Yeah, totally cool, and I would be totally at home with it, because I was by that stage and loved doing it. Every weekend I would watch Vic do his shows. I knew them off by heart. And I just used to love standing there amongst the crowd every weekend and feeling everybody's amazement as he would milk the death adder and show the venom dripping down the glass. And Vic was fearless. That was his world. He was very, very comfortable handling snakes.
And they came up, and all the kids piled out of the buses. And I got to saunter out to the buses and say hi to my teachers. And the day began. And so at a certain point, around the middle of the day, it was time to see the snake show. So then everybody's in the snake house. I'm in there with Vic putting the snakes in the bags. Everybody's watching us through the window.
This is just prep for the show. They would put the snakes into bags, and then they would carry them to the stage for Vic's presentation.
And all of a sudden, this incredible thing happens. Beside me, Vic picks up a tiger snake, the second-deadliest snake in Australia. And it bites him three times, tf, tf, tf, like that. And it made this little sort of thump, thump, thump sound on his hand as it bit him.
Had you ever seen that before?
No, no, nothing had ever gone wrong. I had never seen a snake bite a human being before. And now I saw it from one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and it was massively powerful, the moment of the bite. And it was a triple bite, bang, bang, bang. And Vic drops the snake, and he says, damn, and starts sucking the web of his hand where the snake bit him.
And I'm completely astonished. I'm just on my knees, looking at him, thinking, what happens next? How bad is this? Well, I knew it was bad. I heard him give the talk every weekend about how bad the tiger snake bite is. And Vic says, listen, run down to the kiosk and get me a pint of milk.
So I say, OK, and I run out the door. And I've got a task, now, you know? And there's this little general store, kind of kiosk thing at the place. So I run down. I get the pint of milk. I say, this is for Vic. Like, I don't have to pay. This is the beginning of all the rules of the day being broken, you know? It's one of my clearest memories of this day, is how everything went the way it shouldn't have gone, and all bets were off.
I get the pint of milk. I run back up. He opens it, and he drinks this pint down, drinks the whole thing down in one long mouthful. And I say, so are you OK, Vic? And he's like, yeah, yeah, everything's fine, mate. Everything's fine. Let's do the show.
And this is because like, milk is some sort of thing you do if you get bitten by a deadly snake?
I think the milk thing was just one of those weird old wives tales or one of those Australian Bush recipes that this helps if you get bitten by a snake. So we're ready to go now. We have all the snakes in the bags, and we leave the snake house. And it's this weird Pied Piper kind of thing. It's me and Vic, weighed down with these little blue canvas bags filled with writhing snakes.
And we all walk down to the snake platform where he gave the shows, followed by all of my classmates and our teachers, and the only other people there that day at the Butterfly Farm was a couple of busloads of kids in wheelchairs. They were kind of the spina bifida kids, or kids who are disabled in various ways. And they were there with their minders, these middle-aged women mostly, pushing these very disabled kids in wheelchairs. So they, too, are following us all down for the big snake show.
And the snake platform was about the size of a boxing ring. It was a raised platform, and people would circle the platform on all four sides. And Vic begins the show. And he gets about 10 minutes into the show, and he's holding a green tree snake, which is a thin little whippet-like snake.
And suddenly, he says, uh, ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to have to stop the show now, because-- and he's standing straight up, and his eyes glaze over. And he's instantly unconscious, that's clear, and he starts to fall backwards. And at the instant that he falls backwards, the snake in his hands, he releases it, and it falls over the edge of the platform and into the lap of one of these kids in a wheelchair and starts writhing around in the kid's lap.
OK, crazy, and nobody knows what to do. The snake is on this child's lap. And because Vic has turned stiff as a board--
He doesn't break his fall at all. He's completely unconscious from a standing position. And he hits the wooden platform with this thwack, this enormous thump, a horrible cracking sound of his head hitting the wood. So at the same instant, this kid in the wheelchair, this kid had sort of claw hands and so on, and he's looking down at the snake in his lap. And he starts to just go-- [MOANS] And everybody around the kid in the wheelchair just runs away screaming, including the lady who's looking after him.
At the same instant, Vic has hit the ground, and his arms have spread out, and arms and legs spread in a kind of star shape. And I'm staring at him and the kid. And then I catch the eye of one of my teachers who's looking at me, as if to say, what's going on. So I have to act suddenly. There's this moment now where I suddenly realize that I'm the one with the greatest knowledge, and that my teachers, in a sense, are standing there powerless and beginning to be freaked out and not having a clue what to do. It was an amazing moment.
And an amazing moment for a kid to have at 11. Like, when you're 11, you don't get many situations where you are the one, and adults need to look to you to take control of a situation.
Yeah. So I run over to the kid, and there's this moment where I look in his eye, and I say something like, it's OK. And I take the snake out of his lap in the way that I was taught to do, which is gently and without any jerky movements, and run up the stairs onto the platform. And that's the moment where I see how incredibly bad things are, in terms of Vic's state of health.
And so what does it look like?
First of all, it's horrendously embarrassing, because he's pissed his pants, this guy who I looked up to so much. And it's everywhere. The whole bottom half of his body is soaked, and it's all around him, spreading on these floorboards. It was very much no longer a matter of, this is so good for me because this might change my place in the pecking order amongst these difficult school kids in this difficult situation, but just a matter of, oh, my god, I think Vic's dying, or Vic's dead.
His face is almost black by now. It's this kind of bruised purple-black color. So I put the snake back into the blue canvas bag and tied the knot the way Vic had taught me. And then I said to my teachers, I'll get my dad. And then I proceeded to sprint up the hill to the house, screaming at the top of my lungs, Dad, Dad, Dad!
It was a pretty far way to go. And he gets his dad, and Luke's dad came back with them. And when they got back, none of the adults had taken any action at all. One of Luke's teachers was kneeling next to Vic, but he wasn't administering CPR or doing mouth to mouth or anything at all. He was just kneeling there, not sure what to do.
Luke's dad lifted Vic's limp body into the car, tore off to the hospital. And that was it. Luke gathered up the snakes and put them back where they belonged.
So Vic survived. But the incredibly sad thing was, that was the last snake show he ever gave in his life. He was on a kidney machine for three months. His skin took three months to gradually, gradually return back to its color. And that was it. Yeah. That was kind of, end of career.
When I tell the story, even now, it's absolutely vivid, and it's always vivid in my gut, you know? All of the main moments of what happened that day are still in my gut. It's, to this day, one of the most vivid and intense memories in my life, because in some weird way, it was a turning point. It was one of those series of events heading towards adolescence and heading towards developing a concept of yourself as an autonomous human being, as an adult.
And how often in your life do you have a moment where it suddenly becomes so utterly clear what you have to do and only you can do it?
I think it's really rare. For me, that was it. That was that moment. I mean, I love every moment of my life. And without sounding pretentious, I hope it doesn't sound pretentious, but at some absolutely primal level, it was this deeply satisfying sense of actually doing something heroic.
Well, today on our radio show, stories of people saving the day and what takes them over when they do it. And these stories of people who jump in are just seized by the sense that they have to act. They don't have a choice. They won't be able to live with themselves if they don't jump into action. There's something incredibly pure about it. Our show in two acts, one in the wilds of Mexico, one in the halls of academia. Stay with us.
Act One: Midlife Cowboy
Act 1, Midlife Cowboy. We have this story from James Spring, who lives in a city that's not so far from the Mexican border, San Diego.
At 39, I took a little inventory of my life and found myself to be unremarkable in almost every way. For more than a decade, I'd held a job writing ad copy in radio commercials in San Diego. I had a wife, two kids, two mortgages, TiVo, prescription reading glasses, and about 20 extra pounds that I no longer had the energy or ambition to lose. My 40th birthday was only a couple of months away in April.
My wife, Kelly, had a brighter attitude about it all. We'll throw you a big party, she said. It'll be fun. I don't think so, I said. I didn't want a party. It's your big 4-0, she said. Think about what you want to do for it. I did think about it, for a long time. In the end, what I thought was, I'm going to do something big to help somebody else in a big way. It's going to be a great big thing. And when it's done, I'm going to feel really, really good and helpful.
What do you mean help somebody, my wife said. I don't know, I said. It was still pretty shapeless inside my head. I used to be a boat captain. I knew parts of Mexico better than pretty much anybody. Maybe that was a start. Who are you going to help, my wife said. Help them what? I don't know, I said. Something's going to come up. Maybe an earthquake will hit, and I'll help dig people out. Maybe a helicopter will go down in Baja. I could help find it. This was all met with the most epic of eye-rolling and sighing.
At least twice a week, this conversation continued to divide us. She'd talk about party planning, and I'd have to remind her that I might not even be around. I might be out, you know, rescuing people. April arrived and still no earthquakes or helicopters. So on Friday, about 5 o'clock, right after work, I thought, maybe I should be a little more proactive. I did a Google search on two words that seemed to make the most sense for my plan-- "Baja" and "missing."
It might be time to explain the Baja part. In the late '80s, I worked in the area that the Drug Enforcement Agency calls the Western Mexico Baja Corridor. But I wasn't one of the good guys. It was over 20 years ago. I had just dropped out of college, and I was a little aimless. I reconnected with a friend that I'll call Alex, back in San Diego. Alex had put together an enterprise moving methamphetamine along the West Coast.
Right about the time I arrived, a new law had been passed in the US that made it tough to get the main ingredient, ephedrine. But I was pretty sure we could still get it in Mexico. The border was less than a half hour away. The ephedrine pipeline was easy to establish, and soon it got filled with other stuff, too-- coke, marijuana. Personally, the drugs held no attraction for me, which made it easy to justify my actions. I mean, if these dirtbags wanted to ruin their lives with meth, let them.
It turned out I was really good at the job. I got to know my way around Mexico, around the marinas and hidden ranchos and dirt airstrips, around the cops and soldiers. I came to love the Baja Peninsula. But during this time, the business was falling apart back on the US side. Alex and his pals had developed bad drug habits, and they got really sloppy. I'd been away in Mexico during two police raids on the house in San Diego, but I was there for the third one.
I was arrested and taken to jail with the others. But the cops didn't have a warrant, so they had to drop the charges. I moved out of the house. But a couple of weeks later, some bad guys came in the middle of the night, black sweatshirts, black ski masks.
They beat Alex into a coma, raped his girlfriend. They stole everything they could get their hands on. After that, I packed up my red Jeep and I drove south to Baja. I didn't come back for four years.
By the time I moved back to San Diego in 1993, I'd fashioned myself into an upstanding citizen, an ambitious and enthusiastic member of the workforce. And life rolled along pretty much like I suppose it does for most people-- an HMO, a 401(k), a family. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but life was really steady. It was good, far better than I deserved.
And so, on the eve of my 40th birthday, I brought up Google and typed the words "Baja" and "missing." The top result on Google was a day-old newspaper article about a fugitive couple wanted for kidnapping and murder. The story, essentially, was that this couple, Richard Carelli and Michelle Pinkerton, were a pair of chronic meth heads who killed their landlord in San Francisco.
And then they drove to Santa Cruz and kidnapped their own six-year-old daughter from the grandparents who'd been given legal custody. And oh, yeah, also on the run with them, their two-month-old baby girl with Down syndrome. Clearly, these were not great parents. A year earlier they were holed up in a motel when police raided the room and found them with a pile of stolen property and methamphetamines.
Their daughter, Viana, then four years old, was found hiding under the motel bed. The newspaper picture of Viana showed a smiling little girl with blond hair and blue eyes and a dress with pink polka dots. She looked just like my daughter Addie. Police had been searching for Viana and her parents for more than three months. This article said that a month earlier a tourist might have spotted the family in a town called San Quintín on Baja California's Pacific coast.
Meth head kidnapper murderers on the run-- I was a former meth supplier. I absolutely do not believe in destiny, but Jesus Christ. There was a link to a Missing flyer with pictures and a phone number to call. I dialed, and a switchboard operator answered for the San Francisco Police Department. I realized I had no idea what to say. Hi, I said, I'm calling about a flyer for a missing girl, Viana Carelli.
A flyer sir, the operator said. Or I guess a poster, I said, like a Missing poster. Sir, do you know the whereabouts of a missing person? No, I said, I just want to he-- I just need to talk to somebody in charge of the Viana Carelli case. Can you spell that, sir? I spelled the name. She put me on hold three times. Obviously, I hadn't called the right person.
I looked up other contact info for the San Francisco Police Department. I made a couple more calls and quickly realized I needed to fake a little more competence. Here's what I was going to say. Look, I'm certain that there's a team of officers and volunteers conducting canvassing and search parties. I would like to volunteer to join the effort. But the conversation never got that far.
Instead, each time, nobody knew what I was talking about. I finally convinced somebody to transfer me to the Detectives division. I got an answering machine saying that the office was closed until Monday morning. The lack of information, the lack of interest by the police department was surprising-- unbelievable, really. This whole story had become front-page news because of the way the San Francisco police had already bungled it.
The newspaper said that after Carelli and Pinkerton's landlord was reported missing, the police didn't respond for a month. And when they did finally arrive at his building to look for him, they found his tenants, Carelli and Pinkerton, unwilling to let them search the property. A police dog keyed on Carelli's van in the driveway. There were blood stains visible in the open garage, but the officers had no warrant.
They allowed the couple to drive away in their beat-up white Mercury sedan. The cops eventually towed Carelli's van, but then, incredibly, they didn't search it. On the impound lot, somebody finally looked inside and found the body of the landlord. He'd been dead for six weeks.
By this time, Carelli and Pinkerton were already hundreds of miles away. Cell phone records showed that they made it as far as Vegas, and then, for three months, nothing. So maybe the San Francisco police were not the best resource here. I looked online for volunteer groups, flyer passer-outers, candlelight vigils. Again, nothing.
All that was left at this point was the little girl's family, the grandparents and an uncle that the newspaper had called the family spokesman. Probably every nut job in the world was calling them, the smarmy investigators and the psychics, grifters, con men. I found the uncle's phone number and then just sort of dialed. It went exactly like you'd think it would, which is to say, badly. If your main objective in a conversation is to convince someone that you're not crazy, you've already lost.
Essentially, what the uncle said was, thank you for your concern. The police are doing everything they can. We appreciate the support. And then the call was over. I was on my own. To be honest, it felt sort of good, sort of familiar, but better, because I knew without a doubt that this was the right thing to do. I was going to Baja. Now I just had to go home and tell my wife.
She wasn't happy. You said you were going to help people in an earthquake, she said. This isn't our problem. This isn't your fight. She was crying and yelling. They're drug addicts. They're murderers. She spent a long time listing reasons why I shouldn't go.
I understood why she was worried. Baja's rough. Every couple of weeks, there's another string of beheadings or a government official hung from a bridge, usually thanks to the drug cartels. Last year, a guy nicknamed [SPEAKING SPANISH], the Stew Maker, confessed to dissolving the bodies of more than 300 of his victims in acid. These stories helped keep Baja pristine, free of tourists, free of development, free of laws.
It's like the old Wild West. And like the Old West, there's no cell phone service, so Kelly knew she couldn't even call me down there. I kept repeating the one thing she couldn't argue with. Nobody's looking for those little girls, I said. If I don't go, who will?
The next day, Saturday, I packed-- gas cans, topo maps, GPS, water jugs, fix-a-flat. I sent an email to my boss saying that something sudden had come up and that I'd be taking a vacation week, or maybe two. I took the lousy Missing flyer that I'd found online and redesigned it. I added a picture of the infant and a photo of a car from the Autotrader that matched Richard Carelli's white Mercury. I translated the flyer to Spanish and changed the headline to read [SPEAKING SPANISH], which means kidnapped. I went to Kinko's and printed 2,500 copies.
Baja, California itself is a dusty peninsula that begins near the San Diego-Tijuana border and ends 1,000 miles later in the resort town of Cabo San Lucas. There's only one road that runs from top to bottom. And at various points along the way, it passes tiny villages and military checkpoints, and about two dozen of the state-run Pemex gas stations. Without much to go on, this is what I chose to believe.
Richard Carelli knew nothing of Baja. He spoke no Spanish and had no friends. He had no weapons at this point and no money. The family was still traveling in the Mercury sedan. They would not willingly double-back through military checkpoints or cross into areas where they'd be required to show ID and register. Between the beat-up sedan and the newborn, they had to be somewhere close to the highway.
I spent the first day passing out flyers at gas stations, at police stations, at military checkpoints, where I also passed out old Playboy magazines I had put in my truck to grease the skids with soldiers, a trick I resurrected from the old days. I made countless stops and starts. At every market and rancho near a dusty crossroads, I told the story. Not a single person had heard it before, but they were all titillated now by the drama of the murderous couple and their poor children.
Just before dark, I arrived in San Quintín, the town where the couple might have been spotted a month earlier. Taco stands, bars, hotels, campgrounds, nobody had seen or heard of the family. I went to bed sometime around midnight, but I couldn't fall asleep. I lay on the lumpy mattress and tried to envision every possibility.
Were Carelli and Pinkerton living in a village? Had they squatted in an abandoned ranch? Had they found a benefactor? Were they already dead? I wondered if maybe I was insane to be here. And some time, before I fell asleep, it hit me that they might not even have come to Mexico at all.
The next morning, I woke to the sounds of roosters, day two. I got in my truck and headed south. I had my doubts, but I figured I had to keep going. An hour later, I came to a tiny farming community called Santa Maria. I went into a market and left a stack of flyers. A small group of men was milling around a pot of coffee. When I went back outside to the gas pumps, the guy who ran the market came out with one of the flyers in his hand.
These people, he said, they were here. Really, I said. Somehow I doubted it. He looked at the flyer again. They bought water, milk, and potato chips. They asked if we sold diapers, but we don't. His grocery list was so specific. They were here. They had to be.
What vehicle were they driving, I asked. This one. He pointed at the flyer. How long ago? Three weeks. The timing was exactly right. Did you see the children, I asked. No, he said. I thanked him and left with a new plan. I would race straight down to the Baja Sur state line, the halfway point of the peninsula where the family would be forced to register.
I would bribe the immigration officials for a peek at the book and confirm that Carelli and Pinkerton didn't sneak past. And then I'd double back, and they'd scoop them up like a net. I was driving so fast now that the tire squealed on the turns. Before a half hour passed, I reached the village of El Rosario. The Pemex station there could be the last gas for 200 miles.
I'd probably filled my tank in El Rosario 300 times. It was too important a place to not stop for a minute and hang some flyers. I jammed on the brakes and skidded across the lane into the gas station. I was posting a flyer near a gas pump when one of the attendants approached.
[SPEAKING SPANISH], he said. I saw her, the blonde. Where, I asked. At pump number one, he said. She asked me about a cheap place to eat. When, I said. Three days ago. Three days, I said. You mean three weeks? Days, he said, three days ago.
Next door to the gas station was a small motel. I showed the flyer to the two ladies working behind the reception desk. When they saw it, they both shrieked and covered their mouths. Yes, the family was here in El Rosario. They were living in a small house just two doors away from the home of one of the receptionists. Yes, they were still driving the white car, but they'd been trying to sell it in the village.
And yes, the little girls were still with them. But the infant, whose name was Faith, was very sick. The blonde woman, they told me, was earning money by teaching dance lessons to children in the village for 10 pesos an hour, $1 an hour. The house was 100 meters away, less. What time are the classes, I asked. 3 o'clock, one of them said. I looked at my watch. It was 2:45.
Carelli and Pinkerton were here, now, a block away. Things were moving so fast through my head that it felt like Earth time had stopped. I could suddenly see everything that I needed to do next so clearly. I told the women at the motel not to tell anyone about our conversation. I ran back to the gas station and ripped down the flyers and took back the stack I'd left. I needed to get my truck and its American license plates off the road fast. It was a tiny town. I had to assume that word would soon get back to Carelli and Pinkerton.
I drove a half block to the town's small payphone office and hid my car behind the building. An operator connected me to the uncle in Santa Cruz. I found them, I said. I told him the story as quickly as I could. He gave me a phone number for a US marshal handling the case, and I got him on the phone. I found them, I said. The US marshal seemed doubtful, annoyed.
I let him know that I could get together a team of local police and go get Carelli. Don't do anything, he said. Call me back in one hour. I looked at my watch again. It was now after 3 o'clock. Dance class was in session. If I called the US marshal back in an hour, and he instructed me to contact the local cops-- which was the only reasonable option-- that whole process might take another hour, maybe more. And it might be too late.
I went across the street to the cinder block police station. Three cops were gathered around a small television watching a movie with Chuck Norris and a midget. I later figured out that the movie was Lone Wolf McQuade, the 1983 classic in which Chuck Norris's character makes an incursion into Mexico to take care of business.
Hey, partner, where are you headed?
Mexico? What the hell for?
They got my daughter.
Well, hold on, I'm coming.
It's not your fight.
[ENGINE STARTING AND TIRES SQUEALING]
I need to speak with the comandante, I said. One of the cops leaned back in his chair. I'm the comandante. What do you want? He was clearly irritated by the interruption, but he led me to a tiny room with a metal desk and closed the door.
When I'd finished telling him the story, he radioed his off-duty cops and told them to report to the station immediately. They called for backup from San Quintín. The dance class was half over. In the police station, bulletproof vests were pulled from lockers. Weapons were loaded. One of the cops found an extra flak jacket that would fit me.
At the one-hour mark, I dialed the US marshal from the telephone in the police station. It's no good, he said. The paperwork's not in order. He told me we'd have to wait until tomorrow. There will be no tomorrow, I said. There are two white men in this town, Richard Carelli and me. Pretty soon, he's going to know it, if he doesn't already. And then, he's going to do whatever it takes to run again.
The marshal exhaled sharply. Ugh, he said. Call me in a half hour. You got to be kidding me, I thought. The Mexican cops stood all around me waiting for the word. I told them that I needed to make one more phone call. I dialed the uncle in Santa Cruz.
Look, I said. The US marshal says that we have to wait until tomorrow. I explained that it didn't have to be this way, that I didn't work for the US Marshal. But this wasn't my decision. It was his family. Only he could decide. He conferred for a few moments with the grandparents. And then he said, the paperwork will be ready by the time it's needed. Go do it.
Mexican federal cops arrived from San Quintín a few moments later, four unmarked truckloads full of guys with big mustaches and leather jackets. Most of them carried assault rifles. One of the trucks was sent out to observe the house. They radioed back to the station that the children were out front with the mother. A few seconds later came the report that the father was now outside, too.
The leader of the federal squad said, vamonos. Then he put a hand on my chest and ordered me to stay put. 10 minutes later, they returned. Michelle Pinkerton and the children were in the back of one truck. Carelli was handcuffed in another.
They jerked him out of his seat and stood him in front of me. And when he saw me, the fight drained out of him. Any fantasy he might have held about the arrest being just a Mexican shakedown was dead. He asked me why he was being arrested. I didn't respond. Viana stared out the door of the other truck, wide-eyed and nervous.
Michelle Pinkerton was working hard to convince her daughter that everything was OK. She held the baby tightly in one arm and hugged Viana with the other, rocking them both gently against her. We caravaned back to the federal headquarters, where a big group of cops whooped as Richard Carelli was pulled from the truck and led up to the station.
Michelle and the girls were taken out of the other truck, and Viana watched in horror as her father was led through the doors. She moved onto the sidewalk and stood next to me. She was really dirty, but she seemed healthy. Hi, I said. Hola, she said. Speaking Spanish now, huh? Si. You OK? Si.
The cops asked me to wait in one of the offices with Michelle and the girls. Viana kept asking about her father. Michelle assured her that he was fine. She was trying to find another blanket to wrap around Faith. The infant was so tiny, and her breathing was raspy. Michelle did everything she could to not look at me.
I sat for a long time, just watching her trying to stave off this new reality. Viana leaned over Faith and kissed her forehead. The baby cooed, and Viana laughed. And Michelle draped her arms around her daughters, and she smiled a smile so sad that I had to look away.
Carelli was next door in a jail cell. He called to me, sir, excuse me sir. Can you please tell me why we're here? Sir, please. One of the cops entered the office where we sat and grabbed a leg shackle, this heavy black iron thing that looked like it belonged in a dungeon. He carried it to Carelli's cell. Viana started to cry.
I have a daughter, I said to her. She's four. She looks just like you. She likes to play princess. Do you play princess, too? Viana nodded. Michelle straightened up in her chair and asked me, are you from here? No, I said. I'm from California. Her eyes teared up and she nodded. Yeah.
This was not what I signed up for. She just seemed like a mom. Where was the screaming, the blaming, the meth head excuses? Where was all the horrible parenting? Had they all been cured by their time here? Suddenly, I didn't really feel like I was riding in on the white horse. I just felt like I was meddling with somebody's family. What right did I have to upend the lives of these two little girls?
What does the baby need, I asked, diapers? Michelle nodded. Yeah, and formula. I drove into town and bought way too many baby supplies and some stuff for Viana, too. Then I stopped at a taco stand and bought three dozen carne asada tacos. Viana lit up when she saw the food. Did you bring food for my daddy, too?
I asked the cops if it was OK for her to deliver tacos to her father. I helped Viana make a plate and then followed her to the cell where Carelli was cuffed to the bars. Hi, honey, he said. Are you OK? She nodded. He held her face in his hands and kissed the top of her head through the bars. They spoke softly for a few minutes.
I tried to fade as far away as I could. Carelli fought to keep it together. He looked up at me. Are you a bounty hunter? No, I said. What are you? I'm just a guy trying to help. He seemed to hold this for a long moment. Thank you, he said. I looked down. Yeah.
I called the uncle in Santa Cruz, tried to explain what I'd seen. The girls seemed well cared for, that they seemed loved. I told him that things were different than I had expected. Well, he said, Viana loves her grandparents, too.
I drove home the next day. I didn't know it yet, but the media was already in a full frenzy. CNN and CBS and Fox were calling my office. All the news reports were pretty black and white.
--relatives. And after a whole month, police had no luck finding the girls. But one guy did in just two days. James Spring, who's also--
They were calling me a hero, but I didn't feel like one.
All right, James. I'm so--
In a lot of ways, I felt like a homewrecker. I did a couple of interviews, but they went poorly.
How in the world did you pull this off? You went to Mexico, and what did you do?
Basically, I created a flyer in Spanish. And the thing about the Baja--
So I stopped. The one bright spot in all the coverage, the one moment that made me feel like maybe I had done the right thing was some video shot at the airport when Viana got off the plane in the US.
In it, Viana sees her grandmother at the arrival gate, and she yells Grandma and runs into her arms. And they're both crying.
OK, you're home now, OK?
The grandma tells her, it's OK, you're home now.
It's been a hard time, huh?
I must have watched that video 100 times. All week, the phone calls didn't stop. Producers were trying to buy the movie rights. Long-lost relatives tried to reconnect. Everybody was calling, except Viana's grandparents.
I'd been thinking of them a lot. I just wanted to know that the girls were happy. Not happy, but you know, that they were OK, that they were going to be OK. But the grandparents didn't call, and I couldn't call them. They had to be overwhelmed. I felt like maybe I'd intruded into the girls' lives enough already. But I needed to do something.
I sent a huge box of presents to the kids and a notebook for Viana, so she could write letters to her parents. On the inside cover, I wrote her a note. I tried to make her understand why I'd done this. It was kind of an explanation, kind of an apology, even though I knew she was way too young to comprehend any of it. I got no response.
And then I started learning some odd things. On one newspaper's website, I found a comment from a guy who said he was Michelle Pinkerton's brother. He called her white trash, said that he hopes she was brought to justice for her crimes. A reporter told me that he'd interviewed the grandfather and that the guy had made some pretty hateful remarks about Richard Carelli, about hoping that Carelli would become some big black guy's girlfriend in prison.
And then there was a photographer who'd been sent to take pictures of the family who gave an equally depressing report. He said he couldn't shoot any photos in the house, because it didn't look like children even lived there-- no toys, no kid stuff on the walls. Of course, that doesn't mean anything. It's just cosmetic.
It didn't mean they weren't taking good care of them or didn't love them. I didn't know what to believe. I was worried about those little girls, and nothing I'd heard since Baja was making me feel any better.
Eight months passed. A trial date was set. And then one day, in the middle of the week, I got a call from Viana's grandfather. It wasn't a thank you, but it was like a, man, that thing you did in Mexico was really something. And I said, yeah? And then he reiterated his hopes that Viana's father be raped in prison every day for the rest of his life.
He told me that the trial was about to begin, that I might get some phone calls from prosecutors. And then the call was over. Carelli was charged with first-degree murder. He admitted the landlord had died during a fight they had but said it was unintentional.
At trial, the details came out. The landlord's lip was busted open. His nose was broken. He was badly bruised and had been stabbed with a small knife. His body was found wrapped in a sleeping bag bound with duct tape and buried under a pile of trash in the back of the van. The official cause of death was suffocation.
The defense argued that meth had given Carelli a condition called hypofrontality, meaning he couldn't think straight, so he made wacky decisions, like storing a corpse in his van and kidnapping his daughter and fleeing to Baja. In other words, the meth made him do it, which, as a former meth smuggler, didn't make me feel so great. The trial ended with a hung jury, so Richard Carelli wasn't convicted of first-degree murder. He'd have to be retried on a lesser charge.
At some point, I got a phone call from a private investigator. Michelle Pinkerton's public defender had hired the guy to track me down. Miss Pinkerton says that you spent a couple of days with her and the kids in Mexico, he said. I told him that seemed a strange way to describe it. Did you see her, he asked, interacting with the children? I told him that I did. Well, she was thinking you might have some good things to say about what you saw there.
It took me a moment to understand that I'd just been asked to be the character witness for a meth addict and accused murderer who had taken her kids on the run. And in a way, I was really tempted, because she did seem like a good mother on that day, a mother who loved her kids, anyway, and whose kids loved her. But I couldn't do it.
None of this had really turned out like it was supposed to, not like I imagined it would. I was afraid to nudge the outcome again one way or the other. I did not want to put my thumb on the scale. I could think of too many ways my testimony might just make things worse. This was none of my business when I went to Baja, and it wasn't my business now. Only now, I knew it.
James Spring in San Diego. Richard Carelli eventually pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and Michelle Pinkerton to child abduction and violating her probation. Today's show is a rerun, and in the years since James Spring's 40th birthday, dozens of people who heard about what happened have contacted James, asking him to find their missing loved ones.
He's decided help out in a bunch of these cases. There's the paranoid schizophrenic in the Sierra Juarez, the guy who's been missing for 35 years, a surfer that disappeared in Baja, California, the guy in Oaxaca, who he got to confess to a murder and reveal the location of the body. His current case is tracking down three men who were kidnapped in the Mexican city of Veracruz. He says his wife is not crazy about any of this.
Coming up, the Devil's Advocate, a Devil's Advocate that is so disturbed by the evidence in front of him that he has no choice but to come out on the side of the angels. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, "Save the Day," stories of people who get the impulse to step in where others turn their backs and do good and rescue the needy. We have arrived at Act 2 of our program.
Act Two: I'd Like To Spank The Academy
Act 2, I'd Like to Spank the Academy. Every year since 1998, the University of Montevallo, a small liberal arts college outside of Birmingham, Alabama, has held an event called The Life Raft Debate. It's got a simple premise. There's been a global catastrophe, nuclear war, something has wiped out the world, except, miraculously, the hundreds of students who are in the audience of The Life Raft Debate.
The students are on a life raft. It's only got one spot left. And six professors and other university staffers sit up on the stage and make the case, one by one, that their department, their academic discipline, is the one that deserves that one empty seat, that deserves to be saved, that their academic discipline will help the students survive, will make the students' lives so much more meaningful.
Different professors take part in this every year. There are different winners every year. Nancy Updike heard about the event from a listener, a student back when we first broadcast today's show named Carrie Matthews. Hello, Carrie Matthews. And Nancy looked into this.
The man who started The Life Raft Debate, a philosophy professor at the University of Montevallo named Michael Patton, warned me when he sent a bunch of DVDs of the event that there had been a sort of convergence of silliness at the 2007 debate. And I was looking forward to the silliness as a corrective to what I figured would be a pretty intense overall intellectualism and dryness. Because what else is there to think when someone says, hey, I've got a DVD of university professors arguing about how their area of study is better than anyone else's area of study?
So I popped the 2007 DVD in. And instead of a debate, I watched gimmicks pile up, one after another.
[MUSIC - THE WHO - "BABA O'RILEY"]
The dean of the business school rolled into the gym where the event was being held on a Harley--
--to the tune of the song that's not named "Teenage Wasteland," but that we all know as "Teenage Wasteland." He parked, took off his leather jacket, and strolled up to sit next to the other people on stage. He was the first to make his five-minute pitch to the audience.
Thank you very much. Thank you very much indeed. I'm here tonight to talk to you about strategy. I'm a strategist, so you'll understand what that means. I was trained to take the strengths and weaknesses that you may possess, and to put them together with opportunities. Now, on the life raft, you're going to need this, because there's going to be some women, there's going to be some men, and we need to put together your strengths and your weaknesses. I know I sound like Elvis, but I'm sorry. It just comes out that way.
Dean of the business school. He went on to say that strategy would not be enough on the life raft. He also promised leadership. He did a demonstration, asking the audience to stand.
OK, guys. This is your part.
Do it with me now. Here we go.
Hey, hey, we got some leadership. Yeah, ladies, you get it. You do the other part.
[STOMP, STOMP, CLAP, REPEATING]
We will, we will rock you. Oh, we will, we will--
(ALL) Rock you!
And we will, we will--
Keep in mind that the stage is set up with a lectern, microphones, tables with professors seated at them facing the audience, just like some earnest think-tank-sponsored political discussion or like a college debate. A professor of education showed up on stage in a formal academic robe and then took it off to reveal a superhero costume to audience cheers.
He was Captain Education. To his right was an art history professor, who argued that the post-apocalyptic world would be bleak without images, and the survivors would need an art historian to get the most out of any images they created. Her conclusion, out of the blue--
Art History Professor
We can build a new world, a better world, a world in which women have the power. Remember, it's the men who have got us into this mess.
The chair of the English department tried briefly to argue for the importance of storytelling in human culture, and then used up most of his time reciting a three minute and 15 second poem he made up about a mythical women's football team at the university and its champion kicker, Mighty Mitzi.
English Department Chair
Mighty Mitzi might get to kick once more. She put it through for three good points. Her foot was sure to score.
Watching the debate, I found myself getting strangely mad, like I'd gone to a wrestling match, and all the wrestlers worried that the audience would find wrestling too violent, so they just walked around doing the preening and smack-talking. And as I remember it, pretty much every student getting a liberal arts degree worries at some point that their education might actually be useless.
That's what makes The Life Raft Debate a funny idea and a serious one. It's a forum for the students to say to their professors, make us believe in the value of what we're doing here. That cause seemed lost in this debate. And then the Devil's Advocate got up to rescue us all.
Every Life Raft Debate has a Devil's Advocate. He makes the same argument every year. Vote for no one, and he never wins. In this debate, the Devil's Advocate was an untenured English professor named Jon Smith, who, when he heard how the debate was going, threw out most of his prepared notes and spoke of the cuff, making the most impassioned speech of the entire event and one of the most satisfying speeches I've heard in a long time. I'm going to let it play through the end.
I required my freshmen to come to this, because I thought, because we're covering argument, that they would be exposed to argument.
Guys, I am so sorry.
[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
What I'd like to do is to give you a little history of The Life Raft Debate and try to explain how we got to the present pass, by way, I guess, of apology. It used to be that The Life Raft Debate-- it's sponsored by the Philosophy Club, and it was a fairly semi-philosophical discussion about which disciplines truly contributed the most to a liberal education. That's what was being contested.
I haven't been here the whole 10 years they've been doing it. But I've been here five, and I can dimly remember when Michael Patton won. He was funny, but he also made a case. He made a serious argument. Steve Parker, the next year, won. He made a good argument, which is a double achievement, because sociology is not a real discipline.
But something went terribly awry in about 2004. And I can remember this, because I was on the stage. Wilson Fallin stood on a chair and declared that God is a historian.
And the audience ate it up and voted for him. They weren't really voting for Wilson Fallin, the scholar or the historian. I'm sure he's both those things, but they were voting for Wilson Fallin, the Baptist preacher. The next year, you voted for a cook.
And I thought it couldn't get any worse, and the year after that, you voted for an administrator.
You've brought yourself to this.
Because seriously, these are smart people up here. They have stooped to some of the stupidest crap to make you laugh. And all of us who are serious teachers sometimes can fall into that trap. We want to be funny. We want to be entertaining. And we get this sense that, if they're laughing, we must be teaching. It isn't always true.
I think there's a general argumentative fallacy that's gone on with every single one of these poor people up here, and I don't know how they got sucked into it, but it's probably your fault. It's what I call the Sherry Ford fallacy. Sherry, are you here tonight? OK. You may remember this from the 2004 debate. It's always stuck in my mind.
Sherry argued that, because you need to communicate to have sex, you need a communications professor to have sex. I'm pretty sure you don't.
Images are great, but we haven't yet heard the case made, how much do you need an art historian to have images? You're probably going to have images anyway. Education is wonderful, but people were doing education for a couple of thousand years before someone got the idea of having education professors.
People have been telling stories for a long time before there were departments of English and foreign languages and so forth. And I hate to do that, because that's my own discipline that I have to shoot down. But good lord, the guy recited a poem. That's not an argument.
Look, folks, it's gone too far. You may have been entertained for the last half hour or so, 45 minutes, whatever. But I don't think you were intellectually challenged. I don't think a strong case was made for anybody's discipline. And I honestly think The Life Raft Debate has gotten kind of far away from what it initially used to be and what it should be.
You have a chance tonight to change that. To vote for no one is not to say, oh, I don't like any of them, or they're not all funny, or they're not charming, or whatever. It's just to say, come on, treat us like adults. Argue for your discipline. You can do that and be funny. But please, you can send that message, and I hope tonight you will.
Here's what I realized when I felt so thrilled that the students, for the first time ever in The Life Raft Debate, voted for the Devil's Advocate. At some point for me, the whole thing became a metaphor for politics in the US right now-- the non-debates, the pandering, the flimsiness, the endless stagecraft, and all of it swallowing up the serious people along with the vacuous ones.
Part of the time, I was seated in the bleachers watching it. And then part of the time, I was off to the side pacing madly.
Jon Smith, the Devil's Advocate himself, also saw politics in the debate when I got in touch with him after watching.
There's a degree to which we sort of expect public discourse is going to be just horrifically debased, that you're going to have these god-awful arguments. And there's nothing else except crappy emotional appeals that may or may not actually impact on real issues. So one thing that did feel really good is that the students responded. They said, no, we do care about substance.
Caring about substance doesn't mean we have to surround ourselves with massive bores. But it does mean we have to stiffen our spines and raise our standards, which Jon says he's done with help from role models.
People like Simon Cowell, actually, have done wonders for us as teachers.
Simon Cowell of American Idol.
Of American Idol, right. As of the '90s, everybody was so frickin' concerned with everybody's self-esteem, that it was very hard to just actually come out and say something that everybody knew was true, but it would have been perceived as being impolite. It became very hard or unusual if you actually said, this is a bad argument, to a student, on a paper.
And you would think that students who have been brought up being told they're special all the time-- everybody talks about the millennials as the generation that were brought up being told they're special all the time-- would be these fragile narcissists who would collapse at the instant that they got some real criticism. But what I've found is that they're quite robust.
In the years since Jon spoke in 2007, The Life Raft Debate has been more substantive, while still being funny. One year, a history professor told the audience that history shows that in the chaos following a global catastrophe, one person on the life raft, one of you in the audience, he said, would definitely become a dictator. And he, as a historian, would be the ideal advisor to this dictator, to tell them how to be benevolent.
A mathematics professor, all in camouflage gear, calmly argued that without mathematics, the life raft survivors would have trouble navigating anywhere and building anything durable once they got there. He also promised that no one on the life raft would have to do math ever again. He won.
Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our show. In the years since her interview with Jon Smith, he switched schools from Montevallo and teaches elsewhere.
Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Sarah Koenig, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder. Our music consultant for today's show, Jessica Hopper. Our technical director is Matt Tierney, production help from Anna Martin, mixing help today from Jared Floyd. Special thanks today to Liz Armstrong, Mary [? Wattenberg, ?] [INAUDIBLE], Starlee Kine, and Curtis Gilbert.
Luke Davies, who told this story at the beginning of our show, writes poetry and novels and makes films and TV. His newest film, Beautiful Boy, opens at the Toronto Film Festival this week. Our website, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 shows for absolutely free, thisamericanlife.org.
This American Life is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. We were hanging out at the beach just at the end of summer. And I told him, Torey, sunscreen, sunscreen! But he didn't listen.
His skin took three months to gradually, gradually return back to its color.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.