Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desertby Jason Kersten
I killed and buried my best friend today ...
When authorities found Raffi Kodikian barely alive four days after he and his friend David Coughlin became lost in Rattlesnake Canyon, they made a grim and shocking discovery. Kodikian freely admitted that he had stabbed Coughlin twice in the heart. Had there been a darker motive than mercy? And how could
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I killed and buried my best friend today ...
When authorities found Raffi Kodikian barely alive four days after he and his friend David Coughlin became lost in Rattlesnake Canyon, they made a grim and shocking discovery. Kodikian freely admitted that he had stabbed Coughlin twice in the heart. Had there been a darker motive than mercy? And how could anyone, under any circumstances, kill his best friend?
Armed with the journal Kodikian and Coughlin carried into Rattle- snake Canyon, Jason Kersten re-creates in riveting detail those fateful days that led to the killing in an infamously unforgiving wilderness.
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Journal of the Dead
A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert
Chapter OneThere's an old story people still tell their children in New Mexico. It took place in 1598, when the Spanish founders of Santa Fe were forced to cross the hostile Chihuahuan Desert. Stretching from central Mexico to just south of Albuquerque, the Chihuahuan nearly wiped out the two hundred colonists by sapping away their water. They wandered through the cacti and tumbleweeds half mad for a week, and were spared an excruciating death only by a fortuitous rain. Afterward, they came to call the most brutal part of the desert el Jornada del Muerto, "the journey of the dead."
Lance Mattson didn't need to hear the old tales about the Spanish to know what the desert could do to people. As a twenty-eight-year-old ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which sits inside a desiccating arm of the northern Chihuahuan, he had heard far worse stories. Sometimes search-and-rescue crews found lost hikers rambling and incoherent -- often they found them dead.
But on the morning of August 8, 1999, as he drove into the park's backcountry to check on a pair of overdue campers, he did not expect to find anything that dramatic.
With him was John Keebler, a sixty-eight-year-old park volunteer. That morning, Keebler had been driving along a scenic route called Desert Loop Drive when he noticed a red Mazda Protegé parked at a trailhead. An hour later, he mentioned seeing it to Mattson, who realized that he had seen the car himself, two days earlier. The ranger went into a drawer behind the visitor center's information desk, found a camping permit that the hikers had filled out, and discovered that they were three days overdue.
Mattson was hoping the hikers -- a pair of East Coasters in their mid-twenties -- were just extending their stay. Park visitors, after all, rarely lost themselves in Rattlesnake Canyon, the backcountry area that the campers had listed as their destination. In fact, it was rare for people to get lost at all in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. With a total area of about forty-seven thousand acres, it is the sixth smallest national park in the country, and in its sixty-nine-year history not a single person had ever disappeared there.
Back at the park's visitor center, the thermometer read ninety-five, but now it was far hotter as the ranger stepped out of the air-conditioned park service truck and prepared to head down into the canyon, where the sun reflected off the limestone walls and turned the whole place into a giant convection oven that could easily surpass 110 degrees F.
Before he started down, Mattson wrote a note for the hikers telling them to report back at the visitor center if they showed up, then left it under the Mazda's windshield wiper. Then the two men started down the trail into Rattlesnake Canyon. This was Mattson's first search-and-rescue mission, and he wanted to get it right. Only a few months earlier, he'd completed the two years of training necessary to make a major career shift, from education ranger -- a job where he had spent most of his time leading tourists on tours of the caverns -- to protection ranger, which meant that he was now charged with the preservation of not only the park, but also its visitors.
Keebler kept right along with him, despite his sixty-eight years. Mattson was glad to have him along. The older man had been volunteering at the park for fourteen years, knew the desert, and would provide an extra pair of eyes.
After about ten minutes of steady hiking, Mattson told Keebler to continue down the trail without him. The ranger broke off a few hundred yards to the left, toward the canyon's west rim. From there, he'd be about 675 feet above the floor and have a good view of the terrain below.
Sure enough, he spotted the glimmer of a maroon-and-green tent almost the moment he reached the lookout. It was right at the canyon bottom, about a half mile away as the crow flies and 250 feet from where the entrance trail spilled into the canyon.
Mattson yelled for Keebler to wait before proceeding down. The sight of the tent so close the exit trail made the ranger uneasy. "I didn't know what was going on," he later recalled. "I was thinking, you know, Why were the campers late if it was that easy to find them?"
Twenty minutes later, they reached the canyon floor. Eons of flash floods had left the bottom covered with smooth, sun-bleached stones the size of footballs. As the pair made their way toward the campsite, the rocks clacked hollowly and swarmed with heat.
"Let me go in front of you," Mattson told Keebler when they were a few hundred feet away. The campsite ahead of them lay still and seemingly empty, so much so that the feeling Mattson had up on the overlook hardened. He entered the site cautiously, with his senses elevated.
Camping supplies were scattered around the tent in what looked like a debris field: a portable cooking stove, food wrappers, a dirty sock, hiking boots, an empty Gatorade bottle, a blue bed-roll, sunscreen, a camera case -- everywhere he looked there was some significant item that should have been properly stowed. A few yards to the right of the tent were the sooty remains of two fires -- a luxury strictly prohibited in the tinder-dry park. The place looked abandoned, as if the campers had run off and left everything. Glancing to his left, his eyes fell upon a group of rocks that had been arranged in letters -- an incomplete "SOS." The last "S" was only half finished.
Mattson started scanning the cliffs to see if he could locate the campers somewhere, but there was nobody in sight ...Journal of the Dead
A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert. Copyright © by Jason Kersten. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Jason Kersten is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Rolling Stone and Men's Journal, as well as other magazines. He holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and lives in New York City.
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