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Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert

Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert

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by Jason Kersten

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Victoria Bruce
“A brilliantly crafted exploration of a profoundly human mystery.”
Anderson Cooper
“A fascinating case, a fascinating book.”
Lawrence Schiller
“A riveting story, a page turner, a book that I couldn’t put down.”
Tony Hillerman
“A true American tragedy, beautifully written.”
National Geographic Adventure
“A powerful story ... one hell of a fascinating ride.”
Tulsa World
“One of those rare books that the reader will be compelled to read in a single sitting...It’s that good.”
New York Times Book Review
“Wholly absorbing...Tells the story of Coughlin and Kodikian with quiet authority, lending unexpected dignity to the whole affair.”
Austin American-Statesman
“A gripping, readable tale”
Boston Herald
“A taut, expertly researched true-crime narrative.”
Time Out New York
Rocky Mountain News
“A story that is inherently interesting.”
“Five stars. As tough to put down as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.”
Kersten’s well-crafted narrative is light and briskly paced, replete with local desert color
Denver Westword
“Deftly penned by Jason Kersten, a rising star in the journalism world ... resounding [and] unforgettable.”
Advertising Age
“A brilliant new book...in the great nonfiction tradition of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.”
The New York Times
Kersten, a senior editor at Maxim, recounts this unhappy story in a spare, understated style that perfectly suits the book's plainspoken secondary characters. One of the book's unexpected pleasures is its portrait of life in New Mexico's dusty desert towns. The police officers and lawyers are presented as uncommonly decent people struggling to sort out a bizarre situation. — Bruce Barcott
Publishers Weekly
An expanded version of Kersten's article in Maxim magazine, where he was a senior editor, this is a well-told account of a fatal 1999 cross-country trip by two best friends, Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin, that ended in the desert near New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns with Coughlin stabbed to death and Kodikian claiming that he had, in effect, committed a mercy killing. Kersten demonstrates, in his first book, good journalism and a flair for the true crime genre. He carefully details the beginnings of the young men's friendship and the pull of the open road that led the Kerouac-loving Kodikian and the rugged, adventurous Coughlin to attempt what should have been an easy journey. Kersten expertly describes the rigors of Rattlesnake Canyon in the Chihuahuan Desert, in which the two men got lost: "not only the largest, but probably the least understood desert in North America." He also unsparingly details the horrible effects dehydration has on the human body, which he uses to illuminate aspects of Kodikian's murder trial and Kodikian's claim that Coughlin had demanded to be put out of his misery. Although Kodikian ultimately pleaded no contest to second-degree murder, Kersten's skillful use of court transcripts and interviews with key law enforcement officials and lawyers shows that there were more questions than answers about what happened, and that the true heart of the matter is the "ambiguity" between what could have been "an understandable act committed out of compassion under incredible physical and mental duress" or "an ingenious lie, designed to hide the truth of an enraged murder." (Aug.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This cautionary tale expands upon the author's Maxim story about two best friends who became desperately stranded in a New Mexico desert. One was found dehydrated but alive, the other dead of a knife through the heart. David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian had been friends for over five years and trusted each other with everything. In summer 1999, Coughlin decided to leave his job in Wellesley, MA, and head to graduate school on the West Coast, with Kodikian, the consummate adventurer, along for the ride. On the way, the pair decided to camp in Carlsbad Caverns National Park for one night, but the next morning they were unable to find their way back to the trail head. Kersten uses court transcripts and journal entries to re-create the details of the days and hours leading up to Coughlin's death at the hands of his best friend. Was it murder or a mercy killing? In the end, Kersten's direct prose creates a very real scene, one so unfathomable that even the reader armed with both Kodikian's version and other speculations can't help but feel for all involved in this perplexing and tragic scenario. Recommended for larger libraries and extensive adventure collections.-Rachel Collins, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut about death in a remote desert canyon and the subsequent murder investigation and trial. Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin, two close friends driving to California from Boston, stopped to camp for the night in Rattlesnake Canyon, New Mexico, and made the fatal mistake of not bringing enough water. When they became lost and wandered about for a few days, they experienced the full brunt of dehydration. As Kodikian told it, Coughlin ultimately asked his friend to kill him and put him out of his torment. Kodikian complied, assuming that he himself would be dead shortly thereafter. But rangers found the survivor, who had to face a murder charge. (As the prosecutor said, "You don't get to kill someone in the state of New Mexico just because they ask you to.") Expanding on an article published by Maxim in 2000, Kersten crafts the unlucky duo's story into a vivid text, despite Kodikian's decision not to grant him an interview. The author provides all manner of historical background for the main characters and the landscapes they passed through. He spells out all the legal ramifications, including forays into involuntary intoxication and the euthanasia defense, and his courtroom scenes are elegant condensations. His narrative builds with the same impetus that the incident developed as it evolved from a small newswire clip to a national story, yet the tone remains steady and even-keeled. Kersten lays before readers the elements of suspicion-possible conflict over a woman, a burnt sleeping bag, a can of uneaten beans-that led some to conclude it wasn't really a mercy killing and explains with clarity the reasons that propelled the judge to hand down a sentence of 15 years suspended to 2,though Kodikian's reputation will be forever tattered from the case's tabloid treatment. Quiet literary journalism that gives these grim circumstances the eerie, twilight quality of tragedy. (8-page b&w photo insert, not seen)

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)

Read an Excerpt

Journal of the Dead
A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert

Chapter One

There'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.

What People are Saying About This

Lawrence Schiller
“A riveting story, a page turner, a book that I couldn’t put down.”
Anderson Cooper
“A fascinating case, a fascinating book.”
Tony Hillerman
“A true American tragedy, beautifully written.”

Meet the Author

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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Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was simply amazing... the way the author told the story of these two men painted a picture in my head after every word I read. I bought this book the day it was released and I couldn't put it down... I finished it the same day. If you like books that make you feel like your in the story or for this book in the courtroom, you'll love this one!
Anonymous 8 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a page turner, especially so because it is true. You can place yourself in some of the same situations in your own life and your experience never got to that level of extreme. While this story is sad of course, i did learn to take certain things along your hike no matter how long you think you will be gone and no matter how light the hike.