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Up in the Air: A Daring Helicopter Rescue in Yosemite

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Feature by Frank Owen for Maxim

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Yosemite National Park

         The rescue began with a cell phone call from an injured climber concerning a severed thumb. The digit in question belonged to — or at least used to, before it became detached from its owner — Michael  Schmoelzer, an Austrian climbing instructor with a weathered face that was now splattered with dirt and blood. Schmoelzer and his partner Richard Edelbacker were ascending El Capitan, a big wall so immense that the mighty Ponderosa pines that decorated the base looked like puny Japanese bonsai trees by comparison

           It was just before 3 pm on September 26, 2011, on the third day of their ascent, when Schmoelzer’s dream of entering the pantheon of the rock gods by climbing this most iconic of obstacles came crashing down the mountainside. Schmoelzer had just clipped an aider — a short ladder made of webbing — into a metal nut he’d wedged into a crack in the warm rock and then pulled his body onto the ladder and moved up a couple of feet to jam a second nut into another crevice. The aider appeared secure as he stepped in it but all of a sudden he felt himself falling backwards. The second nut ripped from the wall and he was now tumbling off the cliff face, but thankfully the safety rope quickly snapped tight and caught him before he could fall any further. Somehow, during the fall, the rope ladder had wrapped around his thumb, severing the finger, leaving behind an ugly mess of exposed bone and hanging tendons. 

         Schmoelzer yelled down to his partner eighty feet below him.

          “Did you see my thumb?”

         “Yes,” came the reply. 

         Oddly enough, the thumb hadn’t bounced off the cliff and into the forest.

         “It’s lying here on the ledge next  to my feet,” said Edelsbacker.  

         Down in the valley, park ranger Dave Pope was feeling beat after finishing up his work as the manager of the Yosemite Medical Clinic when he got a call about a climber in trouble on El Capitan.  Pope — a lean and lofty 29 year-old with a wholesome All-American air and a passion for the outdoors — studied business at the University of Colorado and was headed for a cubicle job in a bank, when his life abruptly changed course five years ago after he joined the Park Service. The pay wasn’t great — $50-$85,000 a year depending on responsibilities — but the sunsets were spectacular and the feeling coming back safely from a successful rescue mission was a high like no other.  In his spare time, Pope had on numerous occasions climbed El Cap, all thirty-six rope lengths of perpendicular granite. He knew practically every nook and cranny. He was intimately familiar with how hazardous the Big Stone could be, even for the most competent climbers.

         Fellow park ranger Jeff Webb was at home in his two-bedroom log cabin getting ready to start his evening shift and was expecting to spend the rest of the day handing out speeding tickets to tourists when his cell phone rang. The skinny, wisecracking 41 year-old adventure addict had spent much of the previous decade working his way around the globe — teaching English in Taiwan, doing odd jobs in Spain, living for a year in Ecuador, pausing along the way to climb Mount McKinley in Alaska and ski the celebrated Haute Route between Chamonix, France and Zermatt, Switzerland. In 2008, he came to Yosemite to become a park ranger, where he soon grew familiar with the hidden dangers behind the park’s pretty pictures. Webb loved his job but he worried about burnout. A head splat here. A broken femur there. Bodies literally split in half from a big fall. It was getting to the point, where every time he looked at the breathtaking scenery, he saw a dead person. Only the previous week another Austrian climber, Markus Praxmarer from Innsbruck, plunged to his death from the nearby Half Dome mountain.   

         Outside, nature was in repose; the weather was warm and the winds blew light. It was a perfect day for a rescue.

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         Pope and Webb are members of YOSAR, the unofficial name for Yosemite Search and Rescue. It’s YOSAR’s job not only to save injured climbers on rock faces, but to track down missing hikers and rescue swimmers from drowning in the park’s raging rivers. They don’t always succeed.

         It had been a tough year for the team. Twenty-one visitors had died making it the worst year for fatalities since 1978 and earning Yosemite the unenviable title of “the most dangerous national park in America”.  A record four million tourists visited the park, which covers an area two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. On some weekends, more than 11,000 cars a day passed through its gates. But the main culprit, most of the crew agreed, wasn’t the crush of people, but the unusually harsh winter which caused record high waters throughout the spring and summer after the snow pack melted. 

       Perhaps the most tragic incident happened in July, when three day-trippers from the St. George Assyrian Christian Church in California’s Central Valley climbed over the safety barrier at the top of Vernal Falls to pose for photographs. Onlookers warned them about the danger. 21 year-old Ramina Badal lost her footing on the slippery rocks and fell 300 feet over the waterfall, quickly followed by Hormiz David, 22, and Ninos Yacoub, 27, who were both trying to save her. 

         The church members angrily criticized YOSAR and accused it of not doing enough to save their fellow congregants. Why didn’t it post a lifeguard at the top of the falls? Why didn’t it put a net at the bottom to catch anybody that fell? Why didn’t it order divers into the water? At the time, Vernal Falls was a Class 6 Rapids: the water was flowing at 800 cubic feet per second, equivalent to the impact of sixty double wide trailers going over a cliff every minute. 

         “No diver in their right mind would have gone into those waters”, says Dov Bock, a former hippie chick who grew up living in a cabin in the woods  wanting to be a botany illustrator before becoming YOSAR’s chief of operations. “It was a wall of white.”

         The deaths tore a hole in the close-knit Assyrian Christian community in Modesto. Even after YOSAR gently explained that some people were simply unsaveable, groups from the church continued to visit YOSAR HQ claiming that they’d received religious visions in which God had told them the young victims were still alive and living in a cave at the bottom of the waterfall.

         “What do you say to people in a situation like that?” says Jeff Webb. “You don’t want to disparage their faith, but I knew they were long dead.”

           Two and a half weeks after the devastating event, a rescue team retrieved the body of Hormiz David after finding him about 240 feet from the base of the waterfall trapped under a rock. The search continued for the two other victims but they have yet to be found.  

         Park personnel rejected the idea that more signs or bigger guard rails could have prevented the tragedy. “We don’t want to fence everything in,” says John Dill, now-retired YOSAR veteran but still a permanent feature around the office as resident search-and-rescue guru and who sports the gaunt leathery look of someone who has spent too much time outdoors.          

         “It’s supposed to be a wilderness,” he said. “We don’t want to turn Yosemite into a petting zoo.” 

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         It was now 3.30 pm, and while the two Austrian climbers waited stoically on the side of EL Capitan for help to arrive, YOSAR HQ bustled with activity. The operations center is housed in a brown wooden building with a rusty corrugated roof that stands in the shadow of North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls. 

       In the middle of June, a depressed 30 year-old named George Penca became separated from his party and went missing at the top of the waterfall. YOSAR launched a Herculean operation involving 140 people, which included helicopters, ground crews, and tracker dogs wearing GPS devices, but after four days, no trace of him was found, not even a foot print.

         Inside the building, the photos of the missing and the dead stared down from the walls, including a glum-looking Penca wearing a black D&G t-shirt just before he disappeared. They were part of YOSAR’s client base: victims of human frailty, bad weather, poor judgement, gross stupidity or simply lousy luck.

        YOSAR team members considered two options to rescue the injured Austrian: one was to use long ropes to lower rescue workers from the top of El Cap and then haul Schmoelzer back to the summit. But that could take hours and might not happen until the next day, which meant that they wouldn’t be able to deliver Schmoelzer to a hospital in time for a surgeon to successfully reattach his thumb. The second option was much quicker but pregnant with danger: fly a helicopter close to the cliff face and pluck Schmoelzer to safety.

         Every major YOSAR mission is ranked as low-risk, medium risk, or high risk (green, yellow, or red) depending on a number of different factors. Before the crew sprung into action, they went down the check list. 

         First, they considered whether they had enough personnel? The answer was affirmative. They had more than enough qualified team members — as well as a backup team of young volunteers called SAR-siters — to pull off both a helicopter rescue, and if that went awry, a traditional rope rescue from the summit.  

         Did they have the right people to execute the mission? Again, yes. A number of seasoned veterans with decades of rescue experience between them were on hand to help. 

          What about the location of the victim? They knew exactly where Schmoelzer was; he was trapped between the Great Roof overhang and Camp V, an address as familiar to serious climbers as 42nd Street and Broadway is to New Yorkers.

         In addition, the weather — always a major factor in deciding whether it’s a go or a no-go — were ideal.

         The last category “incident complexity” was the most problematic: It’s no mean feat to hover a helicopter 2,000 feet in the air next to a granite wall. Harder still, when the goal of the mission is to extract an injured party from a stone ledge not much bigger than a kitchen shelf. 

         Incident commander Eric Gabriel mulled the matter over for a moment, then gave the go-ahead. He ordered Dave Pope and Jeff Webb, both trained EMTs, to don their safety helmets and flame-retardant flight suits to prepare to go up in the chopper. 

         He then turned to Dave Pope’s wife, operations chief Dov Bock: “I want you to coordinate the back-up plan. Pack gear, grab ropes, load it up on the truck and when you’re ready, drive to the meadow and meet the helicopter.”

        The afternoon light was beginning to fade. Before long, shadows would start to creep up the mountainside. Soon “Pumpkin Hour” would arrive, the time regulations require the helicopter to return to base.

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         The YOSAR team arrived to find the helicopter — an old school Bell 205 with upgraded rotors for high altitude flying — already skids down in the meadow. Also there to help were the so-called SAR-siters, young dirtbag climbers from Camp 4, the historic campsite that’s not as rowdy and rambunctious as it was back in the Golden Age of Yosemite rock climbing in the 1960s and 70s, but still wild enough that park rangers occasionally have to bust one of the camp residents for pot smoking or underage drinking.  

         Chopper pilot Richard Shatto, who when not helping YOSAR spent most of his time fighting forest fires for the local fire department, whisked Pope and Webb into the air to perform a quick scene assessment. Even after five years flying for YOSAR, the sheer size of El Capitan always made Shatto shudder a little. There’s invariably a large element of danger in any vertical wall rescue. In 2005, during a rescue on Yosemite’s Higher Cathedral Rock, a strong downward current of air sent a helicopter out of control and the rescue victim, who was lying on a stretcher suspended from the chopper at the time, was wrapped around a tree and killed. 

         Shatto thought about refusing the mission but then saw Michael Schmoelzer and Richard Edelbacker huddled together in a recessed nook. Edelbacker spotted the craft and extended his arms above his head in a Y-shape, the international distress symbol used for helicopter rescues which means: “Yes, come and get us.” 

         Shatto made sure there were no other climbers on the wall close to the Austrians. The last thing he wanted was to knock some unsuspecting mountaineer into the meadow because of a rush of air from the rotor blades. Then he shouted over his shoulder: “This is good. I can do this, can you do this?”

       “Dude, if you can keep us in this position, it shouldn’t be too bad,” Jeff Webb yelled back over the roar of the engine.

         The helicopter now spiraled back down to the valley floor, and while the team waited for the helicopter engine to cool down, incident commander Eric Gabriel went over the risks involved in the operation one last time. If the winds started to gust, he told them, they should have no compunction about calling off the rescue. Downdrafts can drop a helicopter a thousand feet in a matter of seconds. 

         The chopper was now ready to go, so Webb and Pope quickly grabbed climbing equipment and medical bags, and then attached themselves to a short haul line which was fastened under the belly of the helicopter. Shatto gently eased the chopper back into the air, this time with the two EMTs dangling from a rope 150 foot below him like a giant pendulum swinging from a clock.

         In the meadow, tourists stared slack-jawed in amazement at the spectacle that was unfolding before them. If Dov Bock was worried about her husband, she made sure not to show it, even though his life was literally hanging from a thread. Meanwhile, John Dill peered at the climbers through a high-powered telescope and braced himself for what was about to happen next. 

         In the 1980s, Dill, a trailblazer in new search and rescue methods, invented a novel way of rescuing climbers on vertical cliff faces called the “bean bag toss,” a technique whereby a baseball-sized bag of sand connected to a nylon rope was thrown to victims from a helicopter. It was intended as a way to deliver food and clothing to stranded climbers to buy some time in an emergency. Climbers would secure the line to the cliff face which allowed the helicopter crew to send over supplies. Before his invention, if a helicopter pilot wanted to deliver equipment to a stranded climber, the pilot would have to sway the aircraft back and forth like a mother rocking a cradle, a dangerous maneuver designed to create enough momentum to swing the load over to the ledge. While Dill’s invention was a big improvement, it was hardly a perfect science. A lot could still go wrong. And he never meant it to be used to ferry such large loads, let alone human ones. Pope and Webb, along with all their equipment, weighed about 500 pounds.

            The pilot approached El Capitan as slowly as he could to avoid swinging the two short-haulers into the side of the cliff. As the giant granite wall loomed ahead, Pope started to call out the distance between the tip of the rotor blades and the cliff face to the helicopter crew through a two way radio imbedded in his helmet: “60 feet rotor clearance, 40 feet rotor clearance, 20 feet rotor clearance.” Any closer would be suicidal.

       The crew chief Eric Small was sitting in the helicopter door with his feet on the skids, ready to rip off the tab from a plastic container and throw the bean bag to the climbers, but when he did, the 75 foot cord to which the bag was fastened was too short to reach them and the bag ended up hanging in space. Shatto dropped the chopper lower and Small tried again but the cord still proved too short. Shatto repositioned the chopper once more and they tried a third time, then a fourth, a fifth and a sixth but without success. By this point, the helicopter crew was starting to panic. Below the chopper, Pope and Webb thought the mission had failed and were ready to head back down to the staging area. However, after ransacking the aircraft, the third crew member Jeff Pirog found another bean bag: “OK, this is the last one”.     

         Shatto hugged as close to the Austrians as sanity allowed, and Small took a deep breath and threw out the final bag. This time it was a success. Edelbacker grabbed hold of the bag and anchored the cord to the wall, while Pope and Webb readied themselves to make the move to the ledge. The bean bag cord was already attached to a regular rope which was then lowered to Pope and Webb from the helicopter in a giant loop. As of that moment, Pope and Webb were connected to the ledge where the climbers waited. The helicopter rose higher so that the two medics were in line with the rock shelf.

        Now came the heart-stopping part of the mission.

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         No helicopter pilot wants to be tethered to a giant rock. It’s something search-and-rescue teams try to avoid. Normally, at this point during the rescue, the helicopter would disconnect from the mountainside, fly around for a while, and then come back to pick up the injured party. But because the crew had used the last bean bag, Shatto felt they had little option but to to stay in position. Even so, as long as Pope and Webb quickly hurried across the 20 foot gap between them and the climbers, he thought he could maintain his position without drifting into the cliff face. 

         The initial idea was for Edelbacker to pull the park rangers over to the ledge, but the Austrian was so weak with exhaustion that the rope kept slipping through his fingers. Pope and Webb motioned for him to tie the rope to the rock and started dragging themselves across to the ledge. It was backbreaking work. At this point, the duo was no longer perpendicular to the aircraft, but at an angle, and as they pulled harder on the rope, the angle increased. Shatto prayed that an unexpected gust of wind didn’t send the chopper into a tailspin. 

         Shatto grew impatient and stared out of the bubble-like vertical reference window on the side of the helicopter that allowed him a clear downward view. By now, he had expected them to have nearly made it across, but they were less than half way there. 

        “Come on, guys,” he thought to himself. “I can’t keep hovering in this position all day.”

         It was the longest ten minutes of Shatto’s life, but the two EMTs eventually succeeded in pulling themselves across to the ledge, where the first thing Webb asked Schmoelzer was “Do you have the thumb?” Conversation was difficult because of the the noise of the rotors slapping against the air, so Schmoelzer simply tapped the breast pocket of his jacket with his left hand to indicate he had the thumb safe and sound, stored in a ziplock bag in his jacket.

         Pope inspected the injured Austrians’s hand and decided that he could wait for medical attention until he got back on the ground, but it took another four or five minutes for Pope to hook him to the short haul rope.It had been decided in advance that Pope would fly off with the injured Schmoelzer, while Webb would spend the night with the other climber for fear of overloading the helicopter.

         Finally, Webb cut the anchor line between the rock and the helicopter and announced the words Shatto had been waiting to hear for thirty long minutes: “Disconnect and clear.” The pilot moved carefully away from the cliff face and flew Pope and the injured climber down to the ground. There, a medical team met Schmoelzer, put his finger on ice and hustled him into another helicopter that flew him to San Francisco’s California Pacific Medical Center, where around one in the morning, a surgeon successfully reattached his thumb.

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           Three weeks later, YOSAR team members gathered around a lunch table in a spartan meeting room at the helicopter base in the nearby town of El Portal to conduct an “after action review.” The consensus was that the operation could have gone smoother; YOSAR needed more training using the bean bag toss. There was some dispute about why it took so long for Dave Pope and Jeff Webb to reach the climbers. The helicopter crew said the length of the cord was too short. Pope — backed up with diagrams and mathematical calculations supplied by John Dill — claimed it was the position of the helicopter that was at fault.

       All the same, the mission had proved a success. No first responder was injured and Schmoelzer was recuperating at home in Austria, eternally  grateful to the brave men and women of YOSAR for risking their lives to reunite him with his thumb but forever haunted by the blank-faced giant he never got to conquer.

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Read the full article here:

Additional Reporting by Lera Gavin


Hey Guys! Pick up May’s issue of Maxim magazine and check out my latest story about students who make drugs in their dorm rooms. No one has ever covered this before.



Young dude looking for a good time. We’ll get drinks, go back to my place, and then I’ll kill you!
Everybody in the New York sex trade had heard the stories about Craigslist. Like the one about the two bodybuilder types who liked to set up meetings with masseuses, and then flash fake police badges before robbing the women. Or the john who booked a girl for a “casual encounter” through the Web site: She showed up at his hotel room and went to the bathroom to slip into something more comfortable, whereupon two burly guys burst into the room and took the client’s money, credit cards, and clothes. “One of my girlfriends who works in the industry, she knows him and she had to go pick him up,” says Kristin Davis, who insists this story is no urban legend. “He was stranded in this hotel room, no money, no wallet, no clothes, no nothing.”  Davis has a lot of experience in the sex industry herself—over a decade’s worth.

In the spring of 2008, she made headlines as the “Manhattan Madam” in a charge of a high-end escort service that helped bring down New York governor Eliot Spitzer. But Davis also ran a “body work” service—massages with happy endings—that advertised exclusively in the Erotic Services section of Craigslist. She knew well the changes the site had brought to the business—how it created an electronic version of a 42nd Street back alley, with scams and cheap whores galore. But none of this prepared her for what she found one night in April when she spotted one of her girls surfing the web.

Julissa Brisman

Clicking on a link, Davis navigated to breaking news out of Boston: A masseuse had been shot three times on the 20th floor of a Marriott hotel. There was a blurry security-camera image of the man the press had already dubbed the Craigslist Killer, and below that a picture of the victim, a sultry-looking woman with long light brown hair. It was Julissa Brisman, a sweet, funny, street-smart 26-year-old with pouty lips and a serious Paris Hilton fixation who had recently quit Davis’ employ to go independent. She was one of the Manhattan Madam’s favorite girls.
“I was shocked, devastated, heartbroken, but I wasn’t surprised,” says Davis. “I told her to be careful. Craigslist is full of creeps.”

***

It was a simple idea that changed everything: a no-frills hippie flea market updated for the Internet age, a place to go to buy a toaster, rent an apartment, or score some meth and hook up with random strangers for the afternoon. It helped to nearly destroy the newspaper industry in America, and it transformed the sex trade. It began 14 years ago when painfully shy über-nerd Craig Newmark started an e-mail list publicizing tech-themed events and job opportunities in San Francisco. Soon Craigslist was everywhere, a self-governing global community of online buyers and sellers, a for-profit business that operated more like a public service. Today Craigslist is an indispensable resource for tens of millions of people worldwide: With 40 million posts a month and sites in 570 cities and 50 countries, it is one of the icons of Web 2.0, as recognizable a brand as Facebook or Google. Yet it only employs 30 people, and the whole operation is run out of a ramshackle Victorian house in the Sunset District of San Francisco.

One of the new media’s signature success stories, Craigslist symbolizes the possibilities of the brave new online world we’re still in the process of figuring out. “The Internet reminds us that people are basically trustworthy,” Newmark has said. But there’s a lot of wiggle room in that “basically.” Like all online community experiments over the past 20 years—from MySpace to Second Life—the site has a utopian side that leaves it open to any creep with a dark fantasy life. What’s terrifying about the Craigslist Killer is what he represents: how the Internet can make crime push-button easy, and unlock psychosis as easily as libido.

Which is why the brutal murder of Julissa Brisman capped a perfect storm of negative publicity for the embattled Web site. Bad enough that the killer used the Erotic Services section to lure Brisman to the crime scene, but this wasn’t his first time. Four days earlier he allegedly tied up and robbed another masseuse he’d contacted through Craigslist, Trisha Leffler. And two days after the Brisman slaying, he allegedly struck again, this time in Warwick, Rhode Island, holding at gunpoint a stripper who advertised lap dances on Craigslist. The assailant fled only after the stripper’s husband burst into the hotel room.

Phillip Markoff

Phillip Markoff Caught on Camera

Police arrested Phillip Markoff (left). Cameras at a Boston Marriott caught footage (right) of Julissa Brisman’s alleged killer.

Boston cops quickly arrested Philip Markoff, a tall, blond, and outwardly respectable 23-year-old med student at Boston University who fit nobody’s profile of a serial sicko (see below). He was charged with Brisman’s murder in addition to the assaults on the two other women. Investigators searching Markoff’s apartment found a gun hidden in a hollowed-out book, a stash of hand restraints, as well as 16 pairs of women’s panties under the bed. (It’s not yet known how many times Markoff may have struck, but as Kristin Davis points out, many Craigslist sex-related crimes are never reported out of fear and embarrassment.)

The Craigslist Killer fits a disturbing pattern: The month before, New York radio reporter George Weber was stabbed 50 times, allegedly by a troubled teenager he met through a Craigslist posting offering $60 for rough sex. In April chubby-faced teenage misfit Michael Anderson was sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of 24-year-old Katherine Olson, a Minnesota preacher’s daughter who had innocently replied to a fake ad Anderson placed on the site looking for a baby-sitter.

The bad news for Craigslist mounted. Also in April authorities arrested 24-year-old Shawn Skelton in Kent, Washington after he allegedly posted a Craigslist ad titled “A strange desire,” looking for a woman to have sex with and then kill. And in early May convicted sex offender John Steven Burgess pleaded guilty in Los Angeles to involuntary manslaughter in the death of 19-year-old Donna Jou. Burgess said he plied Jou with alcohol, cocaine, and heroin after meeting her on Craigslist, then dumped her body in the ocean when she overdosed.

Adding to the pressure on the company, in early May South Carolina attorney general Henry McMaster threatened the prosecution of Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster for facilitating prostitution. This was the first time a law enforcement official had tried to hold Buckmaster personally responsible for the criminal activity associated with the Web site. Craigslist was being attacked from every direction.

There have always been criminals willing to exploit the latest advances in technology, but the crimes linked to Craigslist of late have become increasingly frequent and bizarre. From murderers, rapists, and child molesters to flimflam men and blackmailing femme fatales, the site stars a cast of characters straight out of a James Ellroy novel.

Trusting strangers is the basis of Craigslist. It’s one big communitarian experiment, all very admirable, except for one thing: The ability to connect vast numbers of strangers to one another is only a good idea if the people being connected are decent human beings.

***

“It’s the anonymity that attracts criminals to Craigslist,” says Trench Reynolds, who runs a blog called CraigsCrimeList. He has counted at least eight killings connected to the site. “When people ask me about the Craigslist Killer, I always say, ‘Which one?’ ”

The prostitution associated with Erotic Services has drawn most of the attention lately, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the past two years the rest of the site has become a virtual playground for fences, petty thieves, con men, and even the occasional bank robber. Last autumn in Monroe, Washington, someone placed an ad for a dozen laborers to dig roads. The men turned up for work dressed, as the ad had instructed, in identical outfits: blue work shirts, yellow vests, respirator masks. Meanwhile, just across the street, another man dressed the same and carrying a pump sprayer walked toward an armored car outside of a Bank of America, sprayed the armed guard in the face with a chemical, then grabbed a bag of money, ran down the street past the startled laborers, and jumped into the nearby Skykomish River. Police say the man who posted the ad was using the laborers as decoys in case he was chased. Eventually, 28-year-old Anthony Curcio was arrested for the robbery.
While some of the cons and capers on Craigslist possess a comic 
aspect, it’s not so funny when you’re one of the victims. Susan (not her real name) is one of those down-on-their-luck pretty young things in recession-hit Miami Beach who scours Craigslist every day looking for freelance gigs: spokesmodel, events coordinator, restaurant hostess, anything that pays more than $10 an hour. So she was more than excited to get a job advertised on Craigslist as a $1,200-a-week personal assistant to a man who claimed to work as a producer for Pharrell and Lil Wayne. He called himself Lorenzo and said he had a side business—a pizza chain that had gone belly up. He needed Susan to help him sell the restaurant equipment on eBay and Craigslist, and got her to open up a Pay-Pal account in her name. She received tens of thousands of dollars in offers for the various ovens, prep tables, and refrigerators. Then she got a call from somebody who knew Lorenzo saying there was no restaurant equipment. “Thank God PayPal flagged it, because none of the money went into my bank account or I would be behind bars right now,” says Susan. Only after Lorenzo was arrested did she discover that she wasn’t the only victim. “He was scamming tons of people on Craigslist, selling everything from puppies to Ping-Pong tables to car parts to sexual favors. I feel like such a fool. My life is a mess because of this guy.”

In response to the media storm engulfing Craigslist, CEO Buckmaster defended his company, claiming the percentage of criminals who operated on his Web site was tiny compared to the overwhelming majority of trustworthy users. And that’s true as far as it goes. What Craigslist ignores is the outsize impact of even a small number of criminals: One con man posting on Craigslist can scam scores of people with a single ad.

Take Sean Church, international drifter, one-time DEA informant, former jailbird, consummate con man. Last summer Church was sitting at an outdoor café in Budapest, Hungary, low on funds, when he hit upon the idea of concocting a Parisian bed-and-breakfast scam on Craigslist to fleece unsuspecting tourists. He’d seen similar cons on the site before and figured there was little chance he’d get caught.

“That’s what makes Craigslist so great,” says Church. “There’s no policing. It’s like the Wild West.”

Church (not his real name) went back to his apartment and wrote a carefully worded posting: “Amazing bed and breakfast in the heart of Paris. Just three rooms with unique architectural details like a natural stone wall and a quaint Romeo and Juliet balcony that overlooks the lush courtyard. The price is 50 Euro per night (one person) or 60 Euro per night (two persons).” The address he gave was a nondescript apartment building where he’d once stayed. Then he downloaded a picture of a cozy-looking interior from a magazine, clicked on a button, and, presto: Within minutes the ad was up and running.

Immediately Church was inundated with queries. People wanting to book a room were instructed to send a 50-Euro nonrefundable deposit to Church’s PayPal account. On receipt of the money, Church e-mailed a fake invoice. More than 300 people fell for the scam, and when they couldn’t find the B&B at the address and e-mailed Church, “What happened?” he had every excuse in the book ready: “Maybe you pressed the wrong buzzer” or “Maybe you went to the wrong floor.”

“Most people just write it off,” says Church. “I wasn’t taking big amounts of money. A lot of times it’s only 50 Euros, but if you do that with 300 people, that’s serious money.”

The scam was so lucrative that Church repeated it with phony apartments in Madrid, London, and Washington, D.C. In all, he estimates he made $33,000 without ever leaving Budapest.

By the end of the summer, Craigslist users had caught on. In late August one wrote in the discussion forum on the Web site, “I just got back from Paris, where I had rented a room in a bed and breakfast through Craigslist. When I got to the address, the place was actually owned by a French couple.” Other victims soon responded in kind.

Church was feeling the heat. It was time to skip town, so he booked a flight to Toronto. But he needed a place to bunk once he arrived in Canada, so he went—where else?—on Craigslist to find an apartment. He spotted what looked like a good deal: a one-bedroom with a big den in a nice part of town for $766 a month. Church e-mailed the owner and received a reply from someone claiming to be an African minister who needed to rent out his apartment because he had urgent missionary work to attend to in West Africa. Church let out a laugh. It was the old African-missionary-apartment swindle, one of the most popular cons on the site. Someone was trying to scam the scammer.

Only on Craigslist.

***

Last year the Cook County Sheriff’s Department in Chicago launched a sting operation to test Craigslist’s much vaunted automated self-policing system. Much vaunted, that is, by Buckmaster. “Community moderation as exemplified by our flagging system is arguably the most successful system ever conceived for eliminating inappropriate activity from a massive Internet community,” he wrote this past May on his blog. The Chicago investigators posted two ads. One read “14 year old looking for sex”; the other was “15 year old looking for male companionship.” Neither of the ads was flagged.

“We pulled the ads down after we started getting hits from sex offenders,” says Sheriff Tom Dart, who has spent two years pleading with Buckmaster to do something about the site.

Buckmaster insisted that the company works hand in glove with law enforcement to track down criminals misusing the site and that the Erotic Services section mainly consisted of postings for legal mas-seuses, lap dancers, and escorts. (After agreeing to be interviewed by Maxim, Buckmaster pulled out, claiming he didn’t have time.)

“Jim Buckmaster is out of his mind,” said Sheriff Dart in early May. “Of all the operations we have ever conducted, never once did we get ‘I’m a professional masseuse.’ Not once.”

Dart, a former Deadhead, is not some right-wing law-and-order type looking to whip up a moral 
panic. In fact, Time magazine awarded Sheriff Dart a spot in its “One Hundred Most Influential People” issue. So Dart deserves to be taken seriously when he says Craigslist has become America’s biggest source of prostitution.

“Prostitution is a dangerous field,” he continues. “Women have been beaten up, assaulted, murdered for years. But if you’re looking to harm a woman, what better way than Craigslist?”

The cyber-libertarians at the Electronic Freedom Foundation sprang to Craigslist’s defense: “No one ever suggests that Henry Ford or Alexander Graham Bell is morally culpable for developing technologies that could so clearly aid criminals,” says EFF senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman. “Cars and phones aren’t illegal, even though people obviously 
use them to facilitate crimes, so why should new digital communications technologies be criminalized?”

Kristin Davis, for one,  was well aware of the risks of advertising on Craigslist. Before she was busted last year on charges of money laundering and promoting prostitution, Davis made tons of money using the site: All the traffic kept three locations with 12 girls busy 18 hours a day. Davis set up an overseas call center to handle the volume of replies she received. You’re not supposed to be able to spam on Craigslist, but Davis paid a programmer $10,000 to design software that could bypass the company’s spam filters and post up to 600 ads a day.Still, Davis worried constantly about the safety of her girls. That’s why she warned Brisman that you could never tell who was really on the other end of the phone.

This past November Craigslist entered into an agreement with more than 40 state attorneys general along with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to instigate new measures that would help stamp out any illegal activity on the site. Jim Buckmaster claimed that the new measures led to an immediate 80 percent reduction in postings in the Erotic Services section. But according to some, prostitution on the site soon rebounded to become as rife as ever.

“Buckmaster makes it sound like they should be given some sort of badge because they’re so helpful to law enforcement,” says Dart. “They do the minimum required by law.”

Frustrated with his lack of progress, this March Dart filed a federal lawsuit against the company, claiming it knowingly facilitates prostitution. Buckmaster claimed to be mystified. Newmark insisted the Erotic Services section would remain open for business.

In the end Craigslist caved. On May 13, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan announced that Craigslist had agreed to shut down Erotic Services and replace it with a new Adult Services section monitored by the Craigslist staff. Only those offering legal services—lap dances and the like—would be allowed to post.

Would Craigslist’s new safety measures have prevented Julissa Brisman’s murder? Maybe. But the Web site still doesn’t require people who reply to posts to register. So if Brisman had managed to evade the monitors with a deceptively worded post, Philip Markoff would have still been able to commit the crime. In fact, in June—just weeks after Craigslist closed Erotic Services—a 25-year-old from North Carolina allegedly used the site to enlist a man to rape his own wife. According to authorities, the husband was in the room during the rape, and the couple’s two children were asleep in the house.

So the question remains: Will Adult Services be Erotic Services redux, nothing more than a name change?  “We’re going to keep a very close eye on them to find out,” says Sheriff Dart.


As Columbian traffickers continue their battle to smuggle cocaine onto the streets of America, a new front has developed in the war on drugs: below the surface of the ocean. An inside look at the world of drug subs, and the men trying to catch them.

There’s a popular saying in the port city of Buenaventura : “Those who talk are carried away by the tide.”

So it’s understandable that Diego Morales doesn’t want to reveal too many details about why he agreed to undertake such a perilous mission. All he will say is that his sister owed money to the wrong people. And owing money to the wrong people in Colombia’s new cocaine capital is a good way to end up dead.

“I needed a lot of pesos fast,” says Morales, 52, a sullen-looking fireplug of a man with a scar over his right eye.

So imagine the relief when the offer came: 30,000 American dollars, half now, the other half when the work was completed, a mind-boggling amount of money for someone used to living on the equivalent of $5 a day. And all he had to do, he was told, was go on a fishing trip.

It was August 2007 when Morales was picked up in a truck and taken to a damp estuary on the outskirts of Buenaventura, a vast, tangled network of rivers and inlets bordered by dense jungle. He glimpsed men wearing camouflage uniforms and cradling assault rifles guarding something half-submerged in the muddy creek. Morales was expecting a fishing boat, so he was puzzled to see a rusty cigar-shaped metal contraption about 60 feet long and eight feet wide. Suddenly, it dawned on him what it was—anarco-submarino, the latest weapon in the Colombian drug traffickers’ campaign to smuggle cocaine into North America. Morales had heard the stories about fishermen who went on one of these deadly vessels and never came back.

“I didn’t know that I was going to be traveling in a vessel underwater,” he says. “But I couldn’t say no. When someone takes you to one of these things and you say no, you can lose your life.”

The coke was already in place, five tons wrapped in plastic and tightly packed in the fore and aft. Morales was ordered on board, and he squeezed his thick frame through the hatch into the sub, where he saw three figures crouching in the shadows: the burly captain, Arturo Gonzalez; a mechanic named Arley Arraya whose face was blistered with nasty-looking burns; and a Mexican “load guard,” Luis Galindo, a 25-year-old with jug ears who was sent by the drug traffickers to makesure their precious cargo reached its intended destination.

The interior smelled of rusty iron, and the walls dripped with condensation. Morales had worked on some junkers in his nearly four decades as a fisherman, but nothing like this. “There was nothing inside except cocaine—no beds, no toilets, no kitchen,” says Morales. The Captain told him the mission would take about eight days. The assignment was to transport the contraband, worth about $100 million on the streets of America. Though the crew didn’t know it, they were headed some 1,700 miles to Mexico’s Gulf of Tehuantepec. Morales’ job was to help Gonzalez and steer the mini-sub when the captain was asleep.

Ready to go, Captain Gonzalez started up the 350-horsepower diesel engine and rode the receding tide out of the estuary, puttering at a slow and steady five knots into the darkness of the Pacific.

***

The frontline in the war on drugs has now shifted underwater. The U.S. Coast Guard calls these cocaine submarines SPSS s (selfpropelled semi-submersibles) because they don’t dive like military subs but glide just below the surface of the water. Sightings of the vessels have skyrocketed in the last year. Back in 2006, the Coast Guard detected only three; now they are spotting as many as 10 a month. Last year alone, more drug subs were seized at sea and on dry land than in the entire previous decade. According to the DE A, as much as a third of the cocaine that arrives on American shores comes via these sometimes comical conveyances. They’re usually bound for Mexico’s west coast, where the cocaine is off-loaded onto speedboats or fishing vessels and taken ashore, while the sub is scuttled.

“We can’t say exactly how many there are and how many are getting through,” says one DE A source. “But there’s a lot.”

Regarded as a joke by law enforcement when they first appeared in the early 1990s, the prototypes were jerry-built contraptions, difficult to steer and limited in how far they could travel and how much cocaine they could hold. Now, with a new fleet of faster, more seaworthy vessels that can travel as much as 2,000 miles without refueling, the U.S. government officially regards cocaine submarines as “an emerging threat.”

Commander Timothy Espinoza of the U.S. Coast Guard told a recent maritime security conference, “An SPSS can smuggle 10 to 12 tons of coke without detection. What else can they smuggle: money, guns, illegal aliens, terrorists, weapons of mass destruction?”

These subs cost upwards of $1 million, which sounds substantial until you realize that each vessel carries cocaine worth 100 times that amount. They’re built in secret jungle shipyards on the outskirts of Buenaventura, protected by armed guards and shielded from aerial surveillance by a thick canopy of trees and near constant cloud cover. While their construction may be a secret, their existence isn’t. Everybody in Buenaventura knows about the narco-subs. People line up at the dockside for a chance to work on one. For some in the slums, a job on one of these boats is like winning the lottery, a ticket out of deprivation.

***

The first couple of days were intolerable. With nowhere to lie down, the crew had to sleep sitting up, eyes half-closed, leaning on one another’s shoulders. They survived on stale bread and canned tuna, and if they needed to go to the bathroom, the captain had to surface the vessel, and the crew would defecate with the fishes.

Worst of all was the punishing humidity. Morales had to keep pouring water over the engine to prevent it from overheating, releasing clouds of steam that turned the narrow space into a sauna. It was so hot the crew worked in their underwear. The ventilation system that poked up through the surface of the water didn’t provide nearly enough air in the cramped quarters for four people.

Morales’ main role was to steer the submarine when the captain was otherwise occupied. A compass sitting on top of a metal box guided the way, and Morales could see where the vessel was headed by looking through a narrow slit level with the ocean surface. But only the captain was allowed to communicate with the traffickers via the radio.

By the seventh day, the food and drinking water were running low. Things were officially desperate. Where were they going? The captain refused to say. The traffickers had sworn him to secrecy on pain of death.

Then, in the early evening, the Mexican load guard popped his head up through the hatch to get a breath of fresh air and looked up to see a propeller-powered military plane circling overhead. He rushed back below and told his comrades:
Americanos.

The captain turned off the engine, fearful that the U.S. plane might fire at them. And then the sub started to leak. Throughout the voyage, Gonzalez had to stop periodically and surface to let Morales pump out puddles of water. But this time the Pacific Ocean roared into the interior and soon the panicked crew was up to its knees, frantically operating bilge pumps in a futile attempt to halt the tide. They thought about abandoning ship, but were worried about being eaten by sharks. So instead they donned their life vests and clambered onto the deck, where they waved T-shirts in the air in a frantic attempt to attract the attention of the military plane. What if the Americans couldn’t reach them in time? Galindo the load guard predicted that they were all going to die.

***

On the evening of August 20, 2007, the USS De Wert out of Mayflower, Florida was on a routine counter-narcotics patrol in the eastern Pacific about 300 miles southwest of the Mexican-Guatemalan border when the call came in. A U.S. Navy marine patrol airplane had just spotted a suspicious vessel about 35 miles away. “It looks like a fucking submarine,” one of the surprised Navy airmen blurted over the radio.

The captain ordered the De Wert to change course to intercept the SPSS . Below deck, LED T 102, a U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement deployment team led by Petty Officer Nathan Fornicola, was preparing to conduct what is called an ROV (right of visit). At 26, Fornicola had six years service with the Coast Guard. He had joined the service two years out of high school in San Morales and now led a group of guys, many of whom were not long out of high school themselves.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., Fornicola and his five-man team dropped over the side of the De Wert and into a high-speed inflatable boat headed for the target zone. The Navy patrol plane flew overhead to guide them. About a mile from the vessel’s last reported position, they saw a faint light flickering in the distance.

As they closed in on the position, they noticed four people in the water, all of them wearing life jackets, one of them holding a flashlight. Their vessel was gone but the crew was still very much alive.

Officer Steven Lutz shouted in Spanish. “What happened to your boat?”

“It sank,” a voice in the darkness replied.

With rifles and side arms trained on them, the survivors were instructed to swim to the boat one at a time. Once safely onboard, Fornicola told Lutz to ask the crew members where they come from. Three said they were Colombian, the other said he was Mexican. Fornicola noticed that the Colombians were nervous. Not so for the Mexican.

“Relax,” he said in English.

Asked what happened to their vessel, Galindo stamped his foot on the deck and said, “There was a crack in the boat.”

The sub crew had spent about a half-hour in the frigid water, but they looked in fairly good physical shape, so Fornicola brought the survivors aboard the De Wert. The whole crew felt relieved. They were alive, and as far as they knew, they were in the clear, the evidence 3,000 feet below on the ocean floor.

After securing Morales and his pals in the ship’s brig, Fornicola, accompanied by Officer Lutz and Officer Michael Karnoff, headed back out to see if there was any debris left behind. Karnoff, 30, the oldest member of the team, was at the front of the speedboat when he first noticed a plastic water bottle bobbing on the water. Fornicola’s ears pricked up at the news. Then Karnoff spotted what looked like a plastic-covered brick, then another, and another, followed by a burlap sack that contained what looked like 20 individually wrapped kilos of cocaine. Two hour later, two small boats laden with 11 bales and 60 bricks—five tons in all—headed back to the De Wert.

It was a big win for the U.S. Coast Guard, the sort of bust that garners headlines, which it did on CNN and other news outlets. Fornicola and his team had managed to retrieve enough drugs to send Morales and company to federal prison for long stretches. Still, it nagged at him that they had failed to capture the vessel before it sank. Every time the Coast Guard tried to board one of these subs, the crews would scuttle them, sending boat and cocaine to the bottom of the ocean. If the Coast Guard could actually capture one and thus be able to examine the technology that powers them, it would shed some light on the drug traffickers’ tactics: how they communicate with each other, how they construct these subs. They might even be able to discover who was building them.

***

With the demise of the Cali and Medellín cartels in the 1990s, some observers incorrectly predicted the beginning of the end of the Andean cocaine trade. By 2000 it was practically impossible to ship coke of any great weight through the Caribbean, so drug traffickers turned to Colombia’s untamed Pacific coastline. Instead of declining, cocaine production boomed as the role of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by their Spanish acronym FARC, took on a new importance. The FARC needed the money to buy weapons and to continue to finance their half-century-long struggle against the Colombian government. Now they took on a more active role, not just proitviding protection but also assembling a small navy of drug vessels to transport the contraband on the high seas.

“The FARC became the FedEx of the cocaine business,” says Daniel Castillo, a Tampa-based defense lawyer who has represented a number of foreign maritime cocaine smugglers caught at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. “They don’t own the product, but make money by ensuring that it’s delivered to the right address.”

But the FARC had a problem. The Colombian navy had Buenaventura blockaded. And even if a FARC drug boat made it into international waters, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were there waiting. A multipronged crackdown on maritime cocaine trafficking called Operation Panama Express was eating into the narco-terrorists’ profit margins. “The success of Operation Panama Express in stemming cocaine trafficking over the water is a big part of the reason why the Colombians went underwater,” says Castillo.

The FARC turned to a shadowy Colombian man nicknamed Captain Nemo for help. Enrique Portocarrero was a shrimp fisherman by trade who once worked at a commercial dry dock, where he learned the rudiments of boat design. Short and squat, with the crumpled face of a bulldog, he owned a shipyard about 20 miles south of Buenaventura, where, according to Colombian law enforcement, he invented a new generation of narco-subs—sleek, V-shaped fiberglass boats specially designed for stealth. The only thing visible above the water line was the top of the pilot house, along with the goose-neck-shaped ventilation and exhaust pipes which gave the vessels the appearance of something dreamed up by Jules Verne. Each boat was custom-designed to carry a specific load. A key feature of the boats were the scuttle valves that Portocarrero installed which enabled the crew to flood and sink the vessel along with the incriminating evidence if they were stopped.

Cocaine mini-subs are an old idea updated, and Captain Nemo’s were fairly easy to construct. Portocarrero would build a ship’s mold, put the fiberglass in place, buy a diesel engine, and procure navigation and communication devices. Though the design was simple, the boats took a long time to construct, three months or more, mainly because Portocarrero had to stagger the deliveries of materials to avoid being caught. Captain Nemo’s subs were ideally suited to their task. For the time being, though, Portocarrero remained something of a mystery. Law enforcement didn’t know where or from whom he got his materials, nor how many subs he was capable of churning out. If the authorities could just get their hands on one of his vessels, they would achieve a rousing victory in the war on drugs. They might disrupt the supply lines, halt the trade at the source, maybe even get Captain Nemo himself.

***

A little over a year after Diego Morales and his crew were apprehended in the USS De Wert incident, the Coast Guard received an urgent bulletin from Operation Panama Express saying that a suspicious vessel had left Buenaventura on August 31, 2008 at around nine at night heading north-northwest. Rather than relying on luck to stumble across one of these cocaine submarines in the vastness of the Pacific, this time the Coast Guard had actual advance intelligence. If the operation was planned correctly, they would be able to seize one of Captain Nemo’s vessels before it sank.

Just after midnight on September 17, 2008, Petty Officer Alberto Delgado was relaxing in his bunk on the USS McInerney, when he received the word that he has been waiting for all day. The SPSS had been spotted 350 miles off the coast of Guatemala. Delgado stood in the door of the cramped sleeping quarters and told the members of his crew the good news: “Wake up. We found it.” The five other members of the crew pulled themselves out of their bunks and sprung to attention. Then they went over the plan of attack.

Delgado had 12 years’ experience in the Coast Guard. Over the years he’d boarded hundreds of vessels looking for drugs: trawlers, cargo ships, tankers, you name it. He was proud of the fact that he’d helped seize in total about 16 tons of cocaine worth nearly $300 million.

But that night, equally as important as the cocaine, was the vessel itself. Federal lawyers back in Tampa were having difficulty prosecuting the operators of the SPSS ’s without the vessel as evidence.

In the predawn hours Delgado’s team headed out to capture the SPSS. It was quiet in their small, inflatable boat, the atmosphere a mixture of adrenaline and anticipation.

It took nearly an hour to get to the sub. The only thing Officer Delgado could see through his night-vision goggles was the white foam coming out of the back of the vessel. The sub was thrashing through the water at 10 to 12 knots, a steady clip for a SPSS . Removing his goggles, Delgado instructed one of his team to fire a 40 mm White Star flare. They could now see the strange-looking, goose-neck-shaped exhaust pipes that poked out from the top of the 60-foot sub. The Coast Guard boat pulled up parallel, and Delgado and two of his team jumped onto the top of the moving sub. The deck was slick with seawater, and Delgado had trouble keeping his footing. Once aboard, Delgado, a 9 mm pistol in one hand, used his other to bang on the hull.

Policia. Policia. Americano. Americano!” he shouted.

Suddenly, the sub lurched sharply into reverse, the engine dipping in the ocean, the bow rising out of the water like a surfacing whale.

“Hold on to the pipes,” Delgado shouted at the other guardsmen.

“Watch out for the propellers!” He worried that his team might slide down the slippery deck and be mangled.

The sub then started making erratic side-to-side movements, trying to shake the guardsmen off the hull. The vessel began to sink: six inches at first, then a foot, then three, close to waist high. Somebody inside was trying to wash the Coast Guard into the ocean.

Delgado could see people carrying knives moving around inside through the porthole and shouted at them to halt.

Para el bote. Para el bote.

It seemed to take forever, but after about four or five minutes, the sub crew complied with Delgado’s command. The steel and fiberglass vessel glided to a halt, the hatch slowly opened, and one of the crew popped up his head. Delgado ordered him back inside at gunpoint. He knew it was a trick: Three crew members would squeeze themselves one at a time through the narrow hatch, giving a fourth member enough time to sink the vessel. Not this time. Delgado climbed down into the sub and spotted one of the crew in the engine room preparing to open the scuttle valves. He pointed a gun at the engineer and told him to stop what he was doing and put his hands in the air.

Then the groggy crew members—three of whom were asleep when the Coast Guard came calling—were taken outside and ordered to sit atop the sub with their hands on their heads. After being patted down and searched for weapons, they were handcuffed and told they were being detained by the U.S. Coast Guard.

While the smugglers were taken back to the USS McInerney, Delgado stayed with the sub. Battered but relieved, he took a deep breath and headed inside. The interior smelled like a mix of diesel, salt, and dirty feet, and there was a foot of water on the floor. Another few minutes and the sub would have sunk. But the living conditions weren’t bad as he expected. The crew had plenty to eat, and there was on-board air-conditioning and bunk beds. Despite being at sea two weeks, the quarters were surprisingly tidy. After making sure the vessel was seaworthy, Delgado started to count the coke. There was a lot, maybe as much as seven tons.

Even more surprising to Delgado was the technical intricacy of the vessel. Captain Nemo had done good work. There was a powerful longwave radio, a GPS device, and a satellite telephone. A mariner’s compass sitting on top of a metal box guided the way. The only retro detail was the wooden steering wheel, which looked like something you’d find on the wall in a kitschy seafood restaurant.

The McInerney towed the coke sub to the Costa Rican Coast Guard base of Punta Arenas en route to Key West, where the vessel would be taken apart by investigators. Hopefully they would be able to glean valuable information about how the drug traffickers communicated with one another, how they navigated the vessel, and maybe even proof of who was building these things and where they got their materials, critical advance intelligence that would help the Coast Guard to better plan to interdict these coke subs in the future.

“We were very proud, very excited,” says Delgado. “It was the first of the new generation of semi-subs ever caught by U.S. government.”

***

And what of the people of Buenaventura? Security for ordinary residents has improved somewhat in the last year thanks to President Alvaro Uribe, who dispatched 2,000 marines and Special Forces trained in urban combat to patrol the slums. The city is hardly calm, but the crackdown is having an effect. Murder rates have dropped by 70 percent since 2006. And the narco-terrorists are feeling the pinch. The St. Petersburg Times reported last November that FARC commanders in Buenaventura were having trouble paying their members because cocaine revenues have been cut in half.

In the meantime, the DEA, in cooperation with the Colombian equivalent of the FBI, is going after the sub builders. In December the culmination of a joint three-year investigation led to the arrest of Buenaventura’s very own Captain Nemo at his home, where police found $200,000 hidden in the spare tire of his car. The next day armed drug agents descended on Portocarrero’s secret shipyard and demolished two of the vessels. Enrique Portocarrero is expected to be extradited to the United States to stand trial in Tampa. What hasn’t improved, and what is unlikely to improve anytime soon, are the appalling living conditions that drive the desperate to risk their lives. As far as real estate goes, for 80 percent of the population it’s still hell with an ocean view.

“I’ve personally heard DEA agents down in Buenaventura say that if they had to grow up in these types of conditions,” says a Spanish interpreter who works with American law enforcement, “they’d be the first one to get on one of these subs.”

Meanwhile, Diego Morales is in federal prison in Florida for the next eight years, thankful that his sister is still alive, though he misses her. He rues the day he ever set foot on the cocaine bathtub.

He sighs in Spanish, “Fueron los peors siete días de mi vida.”

“It was the worst seven days of my life.”

Maxim Magazine


In the notorious neighborhood that has given birth to more top fighters than anywhere else in America, a secret, underground contest for women emerges.
Photos by Janette Beckman

On a chilly December night in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn, the weather so cold even the drug dealers have retreated indoors, 100 or so rowdy young men and women from the adjacent housing projects have gathered inside a windowless garage. In the center is a brightly lit boxing ring stained with dried blood from a previous fight. Standing in the ring, two women dressed in street clothes and wearing martial arts training gloves are punching the frigid air.

In one corner the deceptively slender Danyel Portis (a.k.a. Do Her Own Motherfuckin’ Thing) is using her fingertips to lightly grease her pretty face with Vaseline. She resembles a young Dionne Warwick and wears an impatient expression that says: Let’s just do this. Danyel has no time for the prefight trash talking that usually accompanies these bouts. This single mother of three is not here to pop off her mouth. She’s here for one reason only: to win the $1,000 prize money so she can feed her kids.

In the other corner, a young woman named Aliya Zalk, who has maybe a 20-pound weight advantage over her rival, is also eager for the fight to start but for a different reason than Danyel: “You better make that money quick,” her boyfriend, who is standing at the side of the ring, urges her. “Don’t forget to cover your face.” She is from next door, Flatbush, and exudes pure courage. Brave is the white girl who steps into this arena in a neighborhood where the only pale faces belong to the cops.

Despite the numerous hard-looking characters hanging around, the atmosphere in the room feels more like a family picnic than an illegal fight club. While adults eat McDonald’s and sip Hennessy from plastic cups, baby-faced teenagers flash gang signs and pose for cell phone cameras and toddlers scream with delight, chasing each other around the echoing concrete space. Incongruous sights abound: a father sitting on a folding chair tenderly cradling a baby; a pit bull growling in a cage. Near the ring a film crew that has been hard at work on a documentary about the club prepares for the main event. By the entrance, two behemoths—one female, the other male—pat people down. Everybody gets checked for weapons. As soon as the last person has entered, the brooklynGirlsFightClub_article02.jpgbouncers bolt the metal door shut. No one is allowed to leave until the event is done. If a fire breaks out, we’ll all be goners.

A voice in the audience yells, “Put your bets down now,” and $20 bills appear from baggy trouser pockets and are passed from one hand to the next. While there is no admission charge for the fight, the proceeds from the gambling pays the fighters and finances the evening’s festivities.

Jigga, one of the organizers and the MC for the evening, calls the women to the center of the ring. A lean 6’5″, he is a popular figure in Brownsville, known as “the Mayor” for his talent as a peacemaker. That’s a critical skill when dealing with the boisterous fans who often support fighters based on which public housing development (Tilden Houses, Brownsville Houses, Langston Hughes Houses, Marcus Garvey Houses) they come from. He explains the rules of the contest to the combatants: “No grabbing. No kicking. No scratching. No hair pulling. No biting. Three rounds. Ninety seconds a round.” The fighters nod in acknowledgment. And with the blare of a car horn, the battle begins.

Aliya immediately goes on the attack, catapulting herself across the ring toward Danyel’s corner like a human cannonball. She throws a wild right, which fails to connect after Danyel ducks. Then she throws a left, which also hits air, but this time Danyel is ready and grabs her opponent’s arm in midflight and wraps it around her neck. Danyel is now strangling Aliya with her own limb. Aliya tumbles awkwardly to the canvas gasping for breath. In a flash, Danyel is on top of Aliya, her legs straddling Aliya’s chest. She pummels her face with both fists.

The crowd goes crazy with blood lust. Jigga spots that Aliya is in trouble and dashes across the ring to pull Danyel off her dazed rival and end the round. Jigga grabs Danyel under the arms, and as he heaves her up from the canvas, she gets in one last hard kick, direct to Aliya’s face.

***


brooklynGirlsFightClub_article04.jpgThe 1999 movie Fight Club is commonly credited with setting off the trend for semi-organized underground slugfests among teenage boys and young men, but informal female fight clubs, just like their all-male counterparts, have likely existed for decades in prisons, housing projects, and reformatory schools. In fact, the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club—born in Brownsville, the gritty ghetto that has spawned more top fighters than any other neighborhood in America—began in the late 1980s at the tail end of the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, when whole families lost themselves to the pipe.

“It started on the street with poor girls who desperately needed money to take care of their kids,” says boxer Zab Judah, the former welterweight champion who grew up in Brownsville. “A guy would tell a girl: ‘You’re a tough bitch. I’ve got $500. You fight my tough bitch.’ And the guy’s friends would bet on the fight. A lot of women thought: I got three kids. My lights are getting cut off. My rent is overdue. Where’s the bitch at?”

Then a group of local gangsters decided to organize these street brawls and move them indoors into a boxing ring. Today half the audience assembled at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club is female. The brawlers are recruited from the street, and they fight at the club to further establish their rep in the neighborhood and to get a shot at the prize money. Why not get paid for doing something they would otherwise do every day for free?

The fights occur intermittently, publicized by word of mouth. The location, which changes each time, is kept secret up to the day of the fight. In the afternoon, word will start to spread through the housing projects that an event is in the offing, and people will begin to congregate outside the local barbershop; a car will pull up, and someone inside will announce where the fight is. Not everyone can attend. You have to know the organizers or someone connected to the fighters. Jigga refuses to identify who is behind the club. But it’s a safe bet to assume the people who really run the show have good reason not to want publicity. “When you got a certain system going, if it’s going good, why invite attention,” the 38-year-old Jigga reasons.

Grim doesn’t begin to describe the view from the peeling elevated railway on the corner of Rockaway and Livonia Avenues. Under a gray winter sky, a vast collection of faceless brown housing projects stretches as far as the eye can see. From the top of the projects, you can catch a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline, which might as well be in another country. Brownsville is so insular that many of the residents never leave the neighborhood. As well as being one of the poorest places in New York City, Brownsville—whose unofficial motto is “Never ran, never will”—is also one of the most dangerous; the area’s thought to be so hazardous to human health that U.S. Army field surgeons train for the Iraq War at the nearby Brookdale Hospital. At the moment, however, the neighborhood seems uncharacteristically safe. On nearly every street corner, bored-looking NYPD officers stand in pairs, part of Operation Impact, which has flooded the area with rookie cops. While elsewhere in New York City, murder rates continue to fall to historic lows, last year the 73rd Precinct, which covers Brownsville, posted the only increase in homicides of any precinct in Brooklyn—up 37 percent from the year before.

No wonder, then, that this compact two-and-a-half-square-mile neighborhood has produced so many celebrated professional fighters. “Brownsville has always been a tough place, dating back to when it was a Jewish ghetto and you had [Mob boss] Meyer Lansky and Murder, Inc.,” says former WBO heavyweight champion Shannon “the Cannon” Briggs, who grew up in public housing in the neighborhood eating “welfare cheese” and wearing “Medicaid sneakers.”

brooklynGirlsFightClub_article03.jpgDuring the 1930s, Jewish pugilists were the first to put Brownsville on the map as a boxing mecca. The most famous was Al “Bummy” Davis, dubbed “the Brownsville Bum” by the newspapers because of his dirty fighting style and the fact that his younger brother was a bagman for Murder, Inc. Davis’ 1938 fight with another Brownsville fighter, Bernie “Schoolboy” Friedkin, attracted 6,000 fans to Madison Square Garden, where Davis KO’d Friedkin in the fourth round with a left hook to the jaw. In 1945, when four stickup guys tried to rob a bar in Brownsville that Davis had recently sold, the fighter punched out one of the robbers and ended up being shot in the throat and killed. He was 25.

Two generations later, Mike Tyson emerged from the same hardscrabble neighborhood. The future Brownsville bomber was just a preteen when he established his reputation as a terrifying street fighter after a teenage gangbanger snapped the neck of one of Tyson’s beloved pigeons. An enraged Tyson beat the boy to a pulp. Another future heavyweight champion, Riddick Bowe, lived nearby and attended the same school. Unlike Tyson, Bowe largely ignored the call of the streets.

Following in the wake of Tyson and Bowe, a new wave of Brownsville fighters rose to prominence, eager to use the sport as their meal tickets out of the ghetto, among them Shannon Briggs, Golden Gloves champion Danny Jacobs, and Zab Judah.

“Brownsville breeds the best fighters in the world,” says Briggs. “What other neighborhood has produced so many champions?”

As the ever-popular Jigga (real name: Jeffrey Shepherd)  walks down the avenue on the way to the liquor store, interrupted every few steps by somebody wanting to shake his hand, he ponders the question of what makes Brownsville a nursery not only for tough guys but tough girls too. The surrounding neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush, and East New York boast their fair share of warrior women who like to brawl in the streets. But Brownsville has a reputation for breeding hard-faced girls willing to “get busy” and “knuckle up” at the slightest provocation.

“You think an epidemic of violence is going to spread through a neighborhood and it’s just going to touch guys?” Jigga shrugs his broad shoulders. “It’s going to touch women too.”

“Girls in Brownsville don’t play,” adds Briggs. “They will tear you a new asshole. Brownsville girls are known for being quick-tempered.”

***

Back at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club, round two is about to begin. The noise of the crowd is deafening. Danyel Portis is standing in the corner, her thumbs hooked in the waistband of her jeans, a look of grim determination spread across her face. All around her is chaos, as friends and relatives in her corner scream advice: “Keep her on the ropes. Choke her out.” Danyel tries to tune out the noise and concentrate on the task at hand. She knows she’s winning. She says to herself: Imagine you’re in a street fight outside.

The contest continues, as Danyel holds her fists up and jabs at Aliya’s face. Her punches show precision. Whack. She hits Aliya on the left side of her face, then the right. Aliya responds with a Hail Mary haymaker that again fails to connect. Danyel hits Aliya one more time in the face and then grabs her around the neck, holding her head like a football, and hauls her roughly around the ring.

Then Danyel loses one of her sneakers, and Aliya sees an opening. As Danyel bends over to pick up her shoe, Aliya attacks her. Danyel fends her off with a number of kicks until Jigga separates the two women and temporarily stops the fight. Jigga picks up the sneaker from the canvas and hands it to Danyel. The brawl resumes.

By now Danyel is feeling winded. She can’t believe that after all the punishment the girl is still standing. Why won’t she stay down? When it comes to technique, Aliya is not much of a fighter, but neither is she a quitter. This white chick sure has heart, Danyel says to herself.

***

Sitting in a shabby steam-table restaurant on Rockaway Avenue is a 33-year-old woman that Zab Judah calls “Brownsville’s top bitch.” Kia Hayden (a.k.a. Bloody Ass Knuckles) arrives for the interview dressed like a rap star in a sparkling winter white outfit complete with rap star attitude. She is a legend in the neighborhood, known for her unparalleled ferocity both in and out of the ring.

“Kia has more fights under her belt than Hagler,” says Jigga.

Kia was raised by her grandmother, along with nine sisters and brothers, all in a two-bedroon apartment in Brownsville. By her early teens, she was beating and robbing people, often sending her victims to the hospital. “They say I’m mean and I’m a troublemaker,” she says. “A lot of niggas out here can’t stand me.” But Kia is unapologetic about her long track record of brawling with other females, even the time she punched out a pregnant women on the street. Asked whether she might have harmed her opponent’s unborn child, she looks up and sniggers: “You ain’t pregnant in the face.”

brooklynGirlsFightClub_article06.jpgKia’s epic tussle two years ago with Danyel Portis at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club is still talked about the way old-school boxing writers remember the Ali-Frazier bouts of the 1970s. A brutal contest that pitted the underdog Danyel against the odds-on favorite Kia, for a while it looked like the Bloody Knuckles had the upper hand, knocking Danyel to the canvas and generally dictating the course of the fight. But by the end of round two, Kia was gasping for breath. Much to the crowd’s surprise, she got up off the stool and left the ring. It was Bloody Knuckles’ first and only loss at the fight club.

“I would have won,” says Kia. “But I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t going to kill myself for a corny fight.”

Kia says she’s tired of fighting and yearns for a better life (“an office job, a nice house”), but in the next breath this high school dropout with a criminal record describes a recent incident at a local nightclub that ended with her repeatedly slamming a rival’s head into the DJ’s turntables.

Lack of self-esteem. Poor impulse control. The stress of ghetto living. Whatever the root cause, violence begins early in Brownsville. Little Keisha (not her real name) is Kia’s niece. She’s used to witnessing mayhem. Last year she saw her mom and her friends involved in a major fracas with the cops in the local park. “I was scared,” she says in her squeaky little voice. “I started crying. The cops sprayed Mommy with mace.”

Keisha is only eight years old, but already she has numerous fights under her belt. “Dozens,” she claims. She says she wants to be a math teacher when she grows up, a goal she’s unlikely to achieve if she continues down her present path. The pretty little girl whose hair is freshly braided and beaded has spent the day at home in the Brownsville Houses watching cartoons on television after being suspended from school for her latest infraction: a brawl in the school lunchroom with a child the same age. “She was drumming on the table,” Keisha says. “I asked her to stop, and she kicked me in the leg. So I punched her in the eye.”

“I fight all the time,” says Keisha. Who taught her that? “I got it from my mother,” she says a little meekly, the violent habits of one generation begetting the violent habits of the next.

***


brooklynGirlsFightClub_article07.jpgAs the third round begins, both Danyel and Aliya are obviously exhausted. Street fighters tend to lack stamina and pacing; after all, a typical corner brawl is over before you know it. Here a fight lasts three long rounds. Danyel rests her left arm on the ropes and tries to fend off Aliya with her right as her supporters scream in her ear: “Just knock her out. You can do it.”

Meanwhile Aliya’s boyfriend is leaning into the ring offering his own advice: “She’s tired. Stay on her. You just got to keep working on her.”

Danyel’s sister hears what Aliya’s boyfriend says and screams across the ring: “Fuck you! She’s not tired. She’s gonna fuck your bitch up.”

Jigga pushes the girls together and warns them if they don’t fight harder, no one gets paid. Within moments both girls are on the floor. Rolling around near Aliya’s corner, Dan yel climbs on top of Aliya’s back, and with a renewed spurt of energy, grabs her ponytail with her left hand, lifts up Aliya’s head, and proceeds to smash the side of her face repeatedly with her right fist. Aliya struggles free and staggers to her feet. Her face and neck are covered with scratches and welts. Dan yel proceeds to wrap both arms around Aliya’s neck and forces her back to her knees and then chokes Aliya till her eyes bulge and her mouthpiece pops out onto the canvas. Aliya, who looks like she’s about to draw her last breath, desperately grabs at Jigga’s shirt. Enough is enough. Jigga declares the fight over and Danyel the winner. The $1,000 is hers. Danyel’s kids will go to bed with full bellies tonight.

Soon after the fight, Danyel retired from the ring and put her $1,000 in winnings toward resettling her family in the less perilous environment of Delaware. “I can’t change the world, but I can change my situation, making it better for my kids so they don’t have to feel like they always have to defend themselves, always have to have their guard up,” she said recently from her new home.

“It’s just growing up in Brownsville. You have to know how to defend yourself. You’re taught from when you’re young, if someone hits you, you hit them back. They grow up fighting, then teach their kids to fight, and it keeps on going and going.”

Maxim Magazine