Authors: Jason Kersten
A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP AND MURDER
IN THE NEW MEXICO DESERT
And he said to me, “Stand beside me and slay me; for anguish has seized me, and yet my life still lingers.”
So I stood beside him, and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after he had fallen; and I took the crown which was on his head and the armlet which was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.
good friend stabs you in the front.
Rattlesnake Canyon is a remote, mostly unheard-of rift in the New Mexican desert. Compared to monumental terrestrial clefts like the Grand and Bryce Canyons, it is just a crack—five miles long, seven hundred feet deep, and typically bone dry. But in the early hours of Sunday, August 8, 1999, it became a moral fracture as well.
Most of the people who heard Raffi Kodikian’s story found themselves standing on one side or the other. Some believed that what happened there, though horrific, was an understandable act, committed out of compassion under incredible physical and mental duress. Others believed that nothing could justify such a decision, and that only the most careless, insensitive, or deranged human being would act as Kodikian had. And still more were convinced that the story Kodikian told was an ingenious lie, designed to hide the truth of an enraged murder.
It was that very ambiguity, along with an interest in the landscape,
that drew me to write about the Rattlesnake Canyon case in the January 2000 issue of
magazine. After that piece was published, a message board was created on Maxim’s website, and hundreds of young men logged on to comment and debate whether or not Kodikian should be given leniency. The only thing people could agree on was that his story was extraordinary and just plain bizarre. His knife had pierced more than his friend’s heart. It had struck a collective nerve.
As I began writing this book, I felt great pressure to take a side myself. Like most people, I simply could not imagine doing what Kodikian did, to anyone, much less my best friend. And indeed history tells us that the choice he made—despite the hellacious circumstances—is by far the exception, not the rule. The easiest explanation for Kodikian’s behavior has always been that he had motivations other than mercy, and there is certainly ample circumstantial fuel for that fire. But if that is true, then to me it makes his story even more extraordinary, because he appears to be quite a well-adjusted young man. Here was a guy who was raised in an upper-middle-class home by a loving family. He adored books and travel, studied journalism, fell in love during college, wrestled with jobs he didn’t like while pursuing his writing, and had good friends with whom he enjoyed laughing and drinking beer. He could be me or fifty people I know. As far as which side of the canyon I stand on, I will claim the storyteller’s privilege and say only that I’d pity anyone picked to be a juror on a case such as this one.
Re-creating what happened in Rattlesnake Canyon presented certain problems; the only living witness, Raffi Kodikian himself, chose not to be interviewed about the matter any further. That
portion of this book is therefore based on his court testimony, the journal the friends kept, and physical evidence, along with law enforcement documents, my own interviews, and explorations of the terrain. I present it as fact, and leave it up to the reader to believe it or not.
For obvious reasons, I could not include all of the court testimony in the
State of New Mexico v. Raffi Kodikian.
For the purposes of narrative, I shortened both witness testimony and examination by the lawyers, focusing instead on those sections I believe constituted the crux of each argument. I did not, however, alter the chronology of testimony or the quotes used in any way.
Last, if you come across Raffi Kodikian, please leave him in peace. What each of us decides to believe about his motivations probably says more about how we prefer to see ourselves than it does about him. Raffi is, as they say, square with the house, and my intention in writing this book wasn’t to make his life or the lives of the Coughlin family more difficult. It was to tell the story of a criminal case that was one in a million, and at the very least to make people more aware of the precautions they should take if they decide to explore the priceless treasures of America’s deserts.
Rattlesnake Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico.
here’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.