It has been 11 years since the NBA player’s catamaran went missing off the coast of Tahiti and the FBI descended upon this small island in the middle of the Pacific, flanked by journalists, asking questions about murder and love and fame. Eleven years since the TV reenactments and the breathless tabloid reports. Eleven years, and the mystery remains unsolved.
Many on the island have forgotten. Others prefer not to speak about what occurred. “It has been so long,” they say, averting their eyes. “That has nothing to do with us.” Tahiti relies on tourism, on its reputation as a paradise on earth; why talk about death?
Dig deeper, though, and you can find those who remember. Not just what happened, but what came before.
“The basketball player?”
says Big Charlie.
“Yes, I met him.”
Big Charlie is tall and, like many Polynesian men with a taste for beer, thick of belly. Three brown teeth are visible when he smiles. Charlie works on the beach at the swanky Sofitel resort on Moorea, a small island neighboring Tahiti; he shows rich honeymooners how to chop a coconut. In his younger, slimmer days he manned the front desk at the Sofitel, and he remembers the handsome green-eyed giant who stayed in one of the over-water bungalows a decade ago. Such a kind man, says Charlie. Big heart. Was here three weeks, and Charlie never even knew he was famous. And his girlfriend—wow! You have never seen anyone so beautiful. Charlie remembers how the pair used to ride a little red scooter along the island’s winding roads, the girl wedged between the player’s legs as he steered them past hidden bays, oyster farms, lush forests and roadside stands selling papayas and pineapples. You could feel their love, Charlie says. He stops smiling. “It was sad, what happened.”
Charlie says he is not the man to talk to, though. There is someone else. His name is Teva. He lives on the far west side of the island, out past the mile markers, and has no cell phone, but ask anyone in Ha’apiti and they will know him. Teva was with the basketball player and his girlfriend every day, for nearly a month, just before the end. He was their last friend. If you are looking for answers, Charlie says, maybe Teva has them.
Those depend on which questions you ask.
It is June 13, 1997, and the United Center in Chicago is a cauldron of joy. The Bulls have just won the NBA championship—their fifth in seven years—in an epic series against the Utah Jazz that included two last-second game-winners and a remarkable flu-ridden performance in Game 5 by Michael Jordan. Now the team gathers on a portable stage erected on the parquet. Red-and-white confetti drifts down, and 24,000 Chicago fans roar. In the midst of it all is Jordan, hugging his Finals MVP trophy and grinning, a flake of red tinsel stuck to his right temple. To his left is coach Phil Jackson, bushy-haired and bearded, and next to him Scottie Pippen. Not far back is Dennis Rodman, scalp the color of a child’s finger-painting, and Steve Kerr, holding his son on his shoulders. But the player closest to Jordan, the one standing just to his right, is Brian Williams, the Bulls’ 6' 10" forward-center.
The two men had become friends after the Bulls signed Williams as a free agent that April. Jordan pushed him to get in shape, to maximize his talent, to truly care about the game. Williams responded. He played a key role in the Bulls’ championship run, logging nearly as many minutes as starting center Luc Longley. Kerr says the team wouldn’t have won the series without Williams.
A childhood track standout who didn’t try organized basketball until the 10th grade, the left-handed Williams played with uncommon grace on the court. He glided and swooped through the game. He was an excellent outlet passer and trailer on the break, if at times an apathetic player. He'd been a McDonald's All-American at Saint Monica Catholic High near Los Angeles and an honorable mention All-America at Arizona before being drafted by the Orlando Magic with the 10th pick in 1991. A season before joining the Bulls he averaged 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Clippers. Still, he’d never experienced anything like this moment in the United Center.
Which is what makes it so interesting in hindsight. Pull up the NBC footage and you can see the 28-year-old Williams on the stage behind Jordan, those pale green eyes staring over MJ’s shoulder as the Bulls celebrate. This was Williams’s first title, but you wouldn’t know it. During what should have been the highlight of his professional career he looked distant, unsmiling, almost disembodied.
Friends recalled that look two years later when, after Williams changed his name to Bison Dele to honor his Cherokee and African heritage, he walked away from the remaining five years and $36.45 million of his contract with the Pistons. No one could believe it. Who walks away from $36 million?
Most assumed he would return. He never did. Instead, drawing on close to $16 million in career earnings, he traveled to the remote corners of the world, exploring the Australian Outback and sailing the South Pacific. His quest eventually took him to French Polynesia and to a woman named Serena, but it also attracted others to him.
That’s the thing about escaping from someplace, or someone. No matter how far you go, you can’t leave everything behind.
To understand why Dele ended up in Tahiti, you must first understand who he was. And few knew him better Patrick Byrne. They made an odd pair: Byrne the white, shaggy-haired son of a GEICO insurance magnate, and Dele, the towering son of a soul singer. They met in 1991 through a mutual friend, Ahmad El Hosseini, the son of a former head of the Lebanese parliament. It was two months before Byrne learned his new friend, then still known as Brian Williams, was an NBA player.
Theirs was a friendship based on inhaling life. When Byrne was 21, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. In remission after three years of treatment, he vowed to never waste a moment. He biked across the U.S. solo, trained in Brazilian jujitsu, earned a black belt in taekwondo and got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford. In Williams he found a kindred soul. Williams had overcome a rough childhood to embrace all the world had to offer. In 1989 he journeyed to Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war, ignoring a State Department ban. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona, attended art gallery openings and played the saxophone, violin and trumpet. He loved Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis. He was enamored of William Blake’s poetry and the films of Jim Jarmusch. He and Byrne spent long nights debating politics, race and philosophy. Williams was particularly fond of Friedrich Nietzsche. He read Beyond Good and Evil many times and was heavily influenced by Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s philosophical novel about self-mastery and self-enhancement. Williams’s favorite line: “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”
Dancing was the least of it. Together, Byrne and Williams likely set an unofficial record for activities that violated an NBA contract. They biked together from Salt Lake City to Phoenix with no camping gear, going 50 miles at a time without access to water. They earned pilot's licenses and flew a single-engine plane from New Hampshire to Maine, Byrne in the captain’s seat and Williams on his left, landing on remote lakes and sleeping under the wing. They wrestled and sprinted and skydived. They raced Go-Karts, crashing into each other at such speeds that Williams once sliced part of his Achilles tendon on the afternoon of a game.
Wherever they went, the pair attracted attention—or at least Williams did. One reason was his height and another was his fame, but there was something else about him, something magical. “He was the coolest cat,” says Byrne. “Everyone wanted to hang out with him. You’d meet up and there was Eddie Vedder, or Billy Corgan. [Brian] was so naturally cool that they all wanted to be around him.”
Williams had a particularly powerful effect on women. Lithe and graceful, he appraised the world from behind those green eyes, mysterious and self-confident. Women left him envelopes on his front doorstep. “Mr. Williams, you don’t know me,” one read. “I see you every day when you go to your car. I work in the hair salon [nearby]. I would do anything to spend one night with you, anything. I’ve told my husband. I don’t care if he leaves me.” Byrne remembers watching Williams sort through the letters as most of us would the afternoon mail.
Williams had little tolerance for groupies, but he wasn’t interested in long-term relationships either. He dated singers and starlets, including a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and, for a while, Madonna. He enjoyed the novelty of dating the singer, but he found her self-absorbed. Eventually, when she called, he would hand the phone to Byrne, who would listen to her for 30 minutes, sometimes longer.
One woman was different. Serena Karlan had blazing blue eyes, dark hair and an almost feline face. Williams met her in 1997, when she was 25 years old and rooming with one of his high school friends. One night, returning with mutual friends from a concert in L.A., Serena asked, “Have you ever been in a crowded room and felt like you were the only one there?”
Williams was startled. “Yes, exactly,” he said.
Later, he learned of her unusual background. How 30 people meditated and played music during her birth, in New York City on April 4, 1972. (Her head came out two minutes before the new day, her feet two minutes after, hence her middle name, Midnight). How her parents split when she was one, and she was raised by her mother in Berkeley, Calif. The granddaughter of Huston Smith, a renowned religious scholar, Serena grew into a thoughtful young woman. She came to believe in soulmates and true callings, and spent long nights with her best friend, Stacey Steele, eating coffee ice cream and talking about life. She also possessed deep reserves of empathy. Once, after her mother had broken up with a boyfriend, the six-year-old Serena comforted her by saying, “It’s O.K., Mom. You just don’t want anyone to leave.” Her mother, grateful, and surprised by her daughter’s insight, lay on Serena’s bed until she fell asleep.
Though Serena and Brian had a connection, his peripatetic NBA career—five teams in eight years—made a relationship difficult. She moved on, working in retail but hating it. She turned down offers to model. One evening, at a nightclub in L.A., Prince invited her to his table and, later, out on the town in his limousine. They stayed in touch, and a few years later Prince hired her as a personal assistant. To Serena it was a strange arrangement: she, the rock star and his girlfriend hanging out together. She ended up feeling like a mother figure to the girlfriend. Eventually, wanting more from life, she left.
Every year or so she heard from Brian. Though she resisted his advances, her friends noted how she talked about him. Here was a man who was interested in more than her beauty, who saw the world as she did. That he was an NBA athlete wasn’t important. If anything, Brian went out of his way not to talk about his job. Even so, he could seem emotionally unavailable. In particular, Serena noticed there was one topic Brian rarely spoke about: his family.
At first it was just Eugene Williams and Patricia Phillips. She was a strikingly beautiful teenage bride; he was a soul singer. In 1966, they gave birth to a son, Kevin, and three years later to Brian. In 1970, Eugene was discovered at a nightclub by the R&B group The Platters. The Williamses ended up traveling the world with the band, but in Tokyo and other exotic places Eugene rarely ventured out from the hotel. He was no seeker. Early on it was clear the family’s center wouldn’t hold. Eugene and Patricia separated in '70 and later divorced.
Patricia remarried and settled the kids in Fresno, Calif., but that union unraveled as well. The boys’ stepfather, Ron Barker, frequently berated them as Patricia looked on, Brian and Kevin later told friends. (Patricia says that Barker was “very strict” with the boys; Barker says he doesn’t remember berating them.) When Brian was in the seventh grade, Patricia and Barker split up. She later told the Rocky Mountain News, “I have so banished that man from my conscious mind, I cannot tell you when I married him, how long I was married to him or when I divorced him.”
Kevin grew to 6' 8", but persistent asthma kept him from athletics. He could be socially awkward, and sensitive to a fault, but like his mother he was exceptionally bright. He read a full set of World Book encyclopedias in third grade. Brian was more sociable and naturally curious, with his father’s artistic leanings. He too read voraciously, and played chess at the local Greek café against old men. He was fascinated by life’s small moments of beauty. Once, he biked to the car wash and sat and watched, transfixed, as VWs and Fords were soaped all afternoon.
A gifted athlete who later kept up with future major league centerfielder Kenny Lofton during sprints at the University of Arizona, he settled on basketball, in part because of his height. Once he made the NBA, his family began contacting him, asking for money. As Brian blossomed, Kevin sputtered. He bounced from school to school. He attended De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., but never graduated. He took steroids for his asthma, which was so severe that Patricia took him to the ER on several occasions. At times Brian paid Kevin’s medical bills and watched over him. It was not easy. Kevin was moody and given to spurts of anger. He drank heavily. Every few months or so he’d contact Brian with another get-rich-quick scheme.
Brian tried to create distance from his family but found it difficult. He bought his mother a house and spent an estimated $80,000 to put her through college. He gave Kevin $50,000 on two occasions. At the end of his first season in the NBA, he and Byrne embarked on a bike ride from Salt Lake City to Phoenix. Along the way, while at a Best Western in St. George, Utah, Williams told Byrne about his birth father: how Eugene was now a limo driver and lounge singer in Las Vegas, how he had become a coke addict. Spontaneously, Williams decided to spend $15,000 of a $25,000 NBA bonus check on a new Harley for his dad. When Brian proudly handed Eugene the keys to the motorcycle, Byrne says, “It was really touching. And his father just stood with his hand over his mouth, impassive.” Finally Eugene said, “Son, next time just give me the cash.”
Brian was crushed. He withdrew again and formed his own family, a web of friends and acquaintances, none of them teammates. There was Byrne and Hosseini and Jen Gheur, an artist who became Brian’s chef. Gheur remembers those days as the most exciting of her life. “B always opened doors to see what was behind them,” she says. “He was a giant kid who ran wild like one of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.”
There was another friend, a buddy from college named Kevin Porter, whom Williams paid to be his assistant. Later Porter began referring to himself as Williams’s “business manager” and “agent.” But in FBI interviews, various people referred to Porter as Williams’s “gofer.”
Williams’s friends felt he remained haunted by his childhood. While with the Magic he played only 21 games during the 1992–93 season as he battled clinical depression. He was erratic at practices, once passing out while guarding teammate Shaquille O’Neal in a five-on-five drill. One night he swallowed 15 sleeping pills. Another time he crashed his car into a pole. Williams later said the events were overblown, and he related both to his unhappiness in Orlando—he bemoaned the city as “sterile” and “made for tourists”—and the 2,000 calorie-a-day diet he was on. “I grew up a vegetarian, and I wanted to be superhealthy,” he told SI in 1998. “Of course I wasn’t consulting anyone on this. The lack of protein and iron in my diet finally ran me down.”
NBA teammates remember Williams as a strange bird. He kept his distance, reading on plane rides while others played cards. In a league where money trumps all, he asked the Pistons to split his playoff share among ballboys, janitors and trainers. He once teared up while reading a biography of Miles Davis and told teammate Tom Tolbert that he wished he had the passion for basketball that Davis had for music. Another time, Williams’s Detroit teammate Grant Hill asked him what book he was reading in the locker room. “The Tarahumara,” said Williams, looking up from the academic text on the remote Mexican tribe. After practice in Denver once, the team found Williams in McNichols Center, where the ice had been laid down for an upcoming hockey game, joyfully gliding around on size-17 skates. “He was perceived as an athlete first but he had an artist’s heart,” says Tommy Sheppard, then the media-relations director for the Nuggets and now the Wizards’ senior vice president of basketball operations. “I learned something from him which I’ve kept with me to this day: Don’t let your job define who you are.” Because Williams was so smart and charismatic, Sheppard says, people were often jealous of him. Back then, Sheppard had a description for Williams’ approach to life: “He walked between the raindrops.”
To those with an eye for it, there was also basketball greatness in Williams. Jordan saw it. Joe Dumars saw it. Kerr calls Williams, “maybe the most physically gifted player I ever saw.” Most of all, though, Phil Jackson saw it. He said he had “a special relationship with Brian.” After Williams left the NBA, in 1999, Byrne received an email with a message from Hampton Mears, the longtime Lakers scout and Jackson confidant. “If Brian is interested [in returning to the NBA] he should get in touch with Phil, or Jerry West. . . .They need and want him and start with high respect for Brian as a man and as a player.”
Byrne forwarded the message to Williams, who never responded. He was off to explore the world. He lit out for Beirut, where he spent four months with Hosseini. He DJ’ed at nightclubs, invested in a bottled-water plant with his old friend, jet-skied in the Mediterranean. From there Williams made for Australia, disappearing for long stretches into the Outback. Byrne wasn’t surprised. If anything, he wondered why it took his friend so long to leave the NBA. Says Byrne: “His great fear was to be another 40-year-old NBA player, paying the rent by doing car commercials.”
“Maybe I know Teva,” the shirtless man says. “Why do you want to see him?”
The man stands on his concrete steps, squinting. Elaborate tattoos cover much of his brown torso. Nearby, a pitbull lies in the dirt, collar secured to an iron post by a thick metal chain. A quarter-mile away, the shoreline of Moorea is visible, small waves frosting an endless expanse of blue. To the east the mountains rise, small shacks quickly giving way to thick jungle and, finally, serrated peaks smothered in clouds.
The man’s name is Petero, and he runs a boarding house for surfers here, on the remote western coast of Moorea. He knows everybody in the area, or at least that’s what the oyster farmer a few miles back, in Ha’apiti, said. That was after the man at the roadside stand in Vai ‘Anae had claimed to know Teva and provided directions to a nearby shack. All that turned up was a chubby teenager. The owner at the boat rental place said his name was Teva, but he’d never heard of a basketball player. Turns out there are plusieurs Tevas in Moorea. The better part of a day can be spent searching them out.
Big Charlie back at the Sofitel had anticipated this. That’s why he’d mentioned that Teva’s nickname was Ure. “Say that, and people will know him,” Charlie had said. “But do not say this to women.” Ure, Charlie, explained, means “the penis.” It’s a reference to Teva’s skill with women. Charlie had smiled, revealing those three teeth, and said, “He likes it when you use this nickname.”
Now, here at the surf lodge, there is finally someone who knows of Teva Ure. Petero is wary, though. He does not see many Americans here, and never journalists. What could a U.S. writer possibly want with Teva? He takes down a phone number and the writer’s hotel name and room number. He will get a message to Teva, if indeed he knows him. If Teva agrees to talk, he will arrive tonight at the writer’s hotel. If not, he won’t.
It is an hour’s drive back to the hotel, along the same twisting two-lane road that Brian and Serena once traversed on that red scooter. Tahiti is indeed stunningly beautiful, but it’s different from Hawaii, with its polished tourist enclaves. There’s a wildness to Tahiti, and especially the island of Moorea. People sell smoked chicken out of coolers on the roadside, wild dogs laze in the sun, children run around naked. The closest country is New Zealand, 2,500 miles away. The government is ramshackle, a combination of French administration and local graft.
It’s a place where one can easily get lost. A place people go when they want to escape.
Kevin Williams always dreamt of going off the grid. According to friends, he never felt comfortable in his own skin. Worse, he lived in the shadow of his younger brother’s success. Their resemblance made it even tougher. At 6' 8" and 270 pounds, with a wide jaw and short hair, Kevin looked like a thicker, less handsome version of Brian. Growing up, the boys bickered endlessly. As an adult, Kevin felt underappreciated, overlooked. Paul White, his best friend since childhood, calls him “a complicated guy” with “a lot of emotion under the surface.”
Like Brian, Kevin was given to bouts of depression. He tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion using medication. White traces Kevin’s issues to his upbringing. “As a kid,” he says, “you go through a divorce, you have a stepfather who’s jealous of your intellect, your capabilities. And a mother who stands by and watches that happen. White continues: “Both of these boys were looking for something to fill the void inside of them because of their difficult upbringing. A void of feeling loved for who you are, for feeling safe.”
Kevin drifted farther and farther from his family. By the time he showed up in New Zealand to surprise Brian in what Kevin termed an attempt to “heal the bond” in February 2002, it had been four years since either of his parents had heard from him. In the meantime, Brian had empowered Byrne to screen each of his brother’s new business schemes – and those of Porter, who also sought money from Brian. In essence, this meant saying no on Brian’s behalf.
By this point, Byrne had become quite successful on his own. In 1999, he founded an internet company that sold goods at closeout prices. He called it Overstock.com. As the company took off, Byrne began working 16-hour days. There wasn’t time to meet Brian on a moment’s notice or fly around the world with his old friend.
The two kept in touch via email, Byrne walking into the office every few months to see a new message from Zobilove@yahoo.com. (Brian’s nickname among friends was Zobi.) Some emails were cryptic, others direct. There were thoughts, dreams, poems. In one, Williams wrote:
Another time, in July 2000, after Byrne beat back cancer again and rode his bike from San Francisco to Boston, his fourth cross-country trip, he received an email during the final push. It was from Williams, wherever he might be. It read: “Gooo Daddy Go”.
Occasionally Byrne, Gheur and others heard updates on Williams from friends. He was in Monaco. He was chasing girls in Beirut. He was hanging out at a surf shop in Australia. He was camping out of a tricked-out old truck in Fremantle. Later the media would flesh out details. Like how Williams met a painter named Ollie McPherson at a pub in Australia and recruited him to be his traveling partner; they spent months camping in the bush before showing up in Adelaide so dirty that they were taken for aborigines. “He was trying to find peace,” McPherson told an Australian newspaper. “Something was looming out there for him and he was heading towards it, like he was trying to cleanse his life or his spirit.”
Hosseini worried about Brian. He knew Brian had taken to smoking marijuana regularly and dating young women. When Byrne spoke to Hosseini in 2000 and asked how their friend was doing, there was a long pause. Finally Hosseini said, “Zobi’s methods have become unsound.” Byrne wasn’t sure. “It was Kurtz-like,” he says. “Going village to village, the kids would get out of school and worship him and surf with him. [But] to me it sounds fantastic, to be out in a truck in the Outback.”
In early 2000 Brian fulfilled a life-long dream and learned to sail. He bought a catamaran for $650,000 and named it Hukuna Matata, a misspelling of the Swahili phrase for “no worries.” Built in 1997, the boat was 55.7 feet long, with a hull of fiberglass and reinforced plastic. Inside were several bedrooms, a kitchen and a living area that Williams outfitted with a wrap-around padded couch, bean bags and a TV. With a rotating cast of captains, mates and travel partners, Williams sailed the South Pacific from Australia to Paupa New Guinea to the small island of Vanuatu. Stories filtered out. How he’d dock in a small port, go ashore, and a whole village would come out and jam with him around the fire. How he’d project Bob Marley concert films onto the jib, and canoes would line up behind to watch.
The boat was part of Brian’s pitch to Serena, when he contacted her again in 2001. Her journey had been full of false starts and frustrations, working in unfulfilling jobs in retail and PR, forever searching not for a job, but the job. Encouraged by one of her old elementary school teachers, she’d moved to New York City to work in real estate, showing listings. She was good at it but had no passion for the work. More than anything, she wanted to feel a purpose.
After the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, she heard from Williams. He was worried about her. He asked her to join him. Serena mulled the offer, then decided to go for two weeks. Two weeks turned into five. Upon returning, she told her mother she’d had an amazing time but didn’t think it would turn serious. Brian had always been loath to commit. Besides, she wasn’t sure about him yet. A couple weeks later she heard from him again. Come back out, he said. It’s not practical, she replied. She had bills, financial obligations. Not long after, she received a small package from Williams. Inside was a check for $50,000 and a note that read, “This is what I think of your financial situation.” This time he invited her not for a visit but to live with him. Serena talked to her mom and her friends. They encouraged her but knew she was going anyway. “She had deep connections with people,” says her mother, Gael. “But Brian was the only one who got her that way.”
In early 2002 Serena flew out to meet Williams in New Zealand. Whatever had kept them apart before was no longer an issue. Serena told friends she was ecstatic. She’d found something real.
A few months later, Kevin Williams made his unannounced arrival in New Zealand. He wanted to join them. Serena was dismayed. She called Steele, her best friend. It was, Steele says, “the first time I heard her speak negatively about another human being in the 17 years I knew her.”
Here is what we know: Six months later, on the morning of July 6, the Hukuna Matata departed from a harbor in Pape’ete, the capital of Tahiti, bound for the island of Raiatea, 20 hours away, and from there to Hawaii. Four people were on board: Brian Williams (who had changed his name to Bison Dele), Serena Karlan, Kevin Williams (who’d changed his name to Miles Dabord, in honor of Miles Davis and a relative on his mother’s side) and Bernard Saldo, the boat’s French captain.
Over the next two days, four satellite phone calls emanated from the boat. None were distress calls. After that, nothing.
After that, nothing.
Here is what we know: FIve months later, on the morning of July 6, the Hukuna Matata departed from a harbor in Pape’ete, the capital of Tahiti, bound for the island of Raiatea, 20 hours away, and from there to Hawaii. Four people were on board: Bison Dele, Serena Karlan, Kevin Williams (who’d changed his name to Miles Dabord, in honor of Miles Davis and a relative on his mother’s side) and Bertrand Saldo, the boat’s French captain.
Over the next two days, three satellite phone calls emanated from the boat.
After that, nothing.
At 6 p.m. the hotel phone rings. “There is a man here to see you,” the woman at the front desk says. “He is down at the pool bar.”
The sun has dropped below the horizon, but a pink glow remains. Near the beach, just past the sun-and-beer-glazed tourists and the bad acoustic guitar band covering Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours, sits a man with a ponytail tucked into a knit cap. He looks to be about 40 and as if he’s made the most of those years. True to his nickname, he is already chatting up a 20-something blonde tourist, who sits next to him, giggling, a glass of Chardonnay in hand. The man gestures toward a quieter table. “When I heard someone was looking for Brian Williams, I knew I had to come,” he says in French-accented English.
First, though, Teva wants to know why, after all these years, someone is looking for him, wanting to talk about the basketball player. Why now?
It’s a fair question, and a hard one to answer simply. One could talk about the enduring mystery of what happened, or about the strange pull the story has had on so many people over the years—how it still affects lives in ways large and small. But how do you tell someone, in fractured French, that you want to know not about death, as everyone else does, but about an unfinished life? That you are more curious about what led Brian Williams on his quest than why it was never completed? That you want to know if, at the end, he found what he was looking for?
Teva listens, but he is skeptical. He hits his chest, hard, three times. “We were like brothers,” he says. “Serena was like a sister. They are here, in my heart.”
An attempt to turn on a tape recorder is waved off. The story is too private, Teva says, too revealing. He has never told it to anyone, at least no reporter. Finally he considers a trade.
“I will tell you the story,” he says, peering over his beer. “For one hundred dollars.”
For the first couple of months after the boat’s disappearance, there was only confusion. Friends and relatives waited to hear something, anything. In late August, the U.S. Coast Guard sent a telex distress bulletin to all ships within a 1,000-mile radius of Tahiti. Scott Ohlgren, Serena’s stepfather, put together a detailed 24-page “Summary Of Events” and tried to contact the FBI and the White House for help. Gael Rosewood, Serena’s mother, held out hope.
Then, on Sept. 5, the first clue.
At 1:30 that afternoon, in Phoenix, a man claiming to be Bison Dele—a man who looked a lot like Bison Dele and possessed his passport and checkbook—attempted to purchase 460 one-ounce Gold Eagle coins from Certified Mint, Inc., a gold dealer on North Central Ave. The total cost, written in small, neat numbers on a First Union check: $152,096.
The bank notified Kevin Porter, Dele’s assistant, of the check, and Porter contacted Certified Mint and then the Phoenix Police Department, which in turn apprehended Miles Dabord, a.k.a. Kevin Williams. Porter flew in from Detroit. Five hours of questioning followed. Under interrogation, Dabord claimed he was buying the gold on behalf of his brother, who was O.K. the last time he saw him. Since Dele couldn’t be reached to disprove this, the Phoenix P.D. allowed Dabord to leave. It was, the FBI would later say, a crucial mistake.
Phoenix is a world away from French Polynesia, but eventually the sequence of events leading up to Dabord's arrival in Phoenix would become clear. How a man matching the description of Miles Dabord was spotted on July 8 at the Pearl Resort, on Moorea, where he stayed for the better part of a week with his girlfriend, who had flown in to meet him from Los Angeles. The couple ate well and sat by the pool. Then, on July 16, a slightly damaged catamaran—registered as the Aria Bella, with the vinyl letters that had spelled Hukuna Matata removed from its stern—was piloted into Phaeton Bay on Tahiti’s Southeastern shore by a man fitting Dabord’s description. Dabord stored the boat and left on a flight to Los Angeles, after which he flew to Belize before arriving in Arizona.
Now, after being held overnight and released in Phoenix, Dabord ran. First to Palo Alto, to his girlfriend’s place, and then to the border. He disappeared into Mexico. By now, the FBI was on his trail. So was Byrne.
Patricia Phillips, Brian and Kevin’s mother, had heard from her older son. She said he called and said: “Mom, you know me. I could not survive prison.” Byrne then spoke to her. He was in shock. Then he was angry. He caught the next flight to Phoenix. He met Porter, who put him in touch with Dabord.
I can help you, Byrne told Dabord. I’ve made a lot of money in my business. I can get you out of this situation. I don’t care about the authorities—I just want to get B back. I can bring $150,000 in a suitcase. I’ll meet you in Mexico.
Byrne thought that might work. Maybe he could bring in Dabord. Byrne made it past the border, stopped in a small town, asked around. There weren’t many 6' 8" black men in Mexico, after all. That’s when he got a call from the Phoenix authorities. Reports had come back from Tahiti. The boat had been found. There was no sign of passengers. Authorities believed that Dele, Karlan and the captain were dead.
Standing on a dusty street thousands of miles from home, Byrne heard the words, and his eyes blurred. He’d spent his life being a fighter. He’d beaten cancer. He’d beaten his Wall Street detractors at Overstock. He hadn’t let himself believe that Brian, who seemed so vital, who he referred to as his “superhero friend,” could actually die.
Eventually Byrne dialed Phillips. He told her what he had heard. There was a long pause. Finally, Phillips said, “You know, Patrick, he never bought me anything.”
Byrne was stunned. “Patricia, I thought he paid for you to go to UCLA,” he said. “And he told me he bought you a $350,000 house.”
“Patrick,” she responded, “I’ve met other NBA moms who wear more than that on their wrist.”
(Patricia denies saying that her son never bought her anything, and said that the comment about NBA moms was made in a different context, in a 2003 conversation about Dele’s finances. She says it’s a statement she will “always regret.”)
Byrne never did catch up to Dabord. On Sept. 15, at 11:30 a.m., a patient described in hospital records as a “30 or 35-year-old gentleman who was found down in Mexico” was delivered to Scripps Memorial Hospital in Chula Vista, Calif. He had no reflexes. His pupils were nonresponsive. According to the hospital’s emergency record, “The patient has areas on the right buttock and both wrists of . . . blistering, suggesting that he has been down and not moving for a significant period of time.”
On September 26, 2002, at approximately 10 a.m., Kevin Williams a.k.a. Miles Dabord was taken off life support. He was pronounced dead at 8 p.m. the next day. The official diagnosis: “Suicide attempt with hypoglycemic brain damage with subsequent discontinuation of life support.” Williams had overdosed on insulin and then lain down on a beach, waiting for someone to find him. The following day America’s Most Wanted ran a segment on him.
At a joint funeral for the Williams brothers two weeks later, inside the white brick of the Trinity Baptist Church in central Los Angeles, Patricia Phillips said she loved both her sons. Then a cousin of the family, the Rev. Eugene Marzette, spoke. “The fact of the matter is,” he said, looking out at the gathering of 200, “only God knows the truth.”
Who is the author of a life’s story? Who gets to decide who you were, after you’re gone?
Patrick Byrne sits on a couch in a room at the Fairmount Hotel in Phoenix in June 2013. He is wearing black athletic shorts and a green long-sleeved shirt pulled up to his left elbow, so as not to interfere with the gauze-covered tube that protrudes from his forearm. He has not eaten for two days, and his thick blond hair is disheveled. The previous afternoon he was put to sleep for the 97th time—he keeps a count—as doctors at the nearby Mayo Clinic tried to fix an arrhythmia, another complication from the cancer that he has vanquished for spells but which never truly leaves. At 50, he remains vital. He speaks quickly, his eyes lighting up. He stands to act out stories, his 6' 5" frame still thin and nimble, though after a few minutes he sinks back on the couch, winded.
In the years after the events of Tahiti, Byrne declined nearly all interviews. He hated how the TV shows gave credence to Dabord’s account of what happened, the one he gave to his then-girlfriend, Erica Weise, before committing suicide. It remains the only first-person account. It goes like this: On July 7 Dele and Dabord got in a fight, and Dele accidentally punched Serena in the face. Her head thumped against a steel davit and she died instantly. Saldo, the captain, said they needed to report the death, but Dele became agitated and killed Saldo by hitting him on the head with a wrench. At that point Kevin says he had no choice: Out of self-defense, he shot his brother. Then, scared, he dumped the three bodies overboard and sailed back to Tahiti before fleeing, sure that no one would believe his story.
Byrne does not like to talk about the events on the boat—though he is certain Dabord's version is not true—and hates how others have tried to profit off his friend’s death. He wonders why Dele’s bank account suddenly dried up after he died. When talking about his friend, though, he becomes animated.
“I’ve been waiting 10 years for someone to ask about his life, not his death,” Byrne says, and over two days the tales pour out. About singular moments, adventures shared, unbreakable connections. You can feel the love. Byrne feels his own mortality now, and he cannot tell the stories fast enough. He wants people to know who Brian was, how special he was.
At the same time, Byrne needs something to hold on to. That’s why, along with Hosseini, he commissioned a piece of art made with Dele’s final pairs of hightops. It hangs on the wall in his house an hour outside Salt Lake City: two basketball shoes nailed to a canvas above red ink, scrawled like blood. The quote is from one of Brian and Byrne’s favorite writers, Hunter S. Thompson: “Too weird to live, too rare to die.”
Patricia Phillips is harder to track down. Two years after Dele’s death, she went to Tahiti to claim the boat, which she sold. Speaking from Chapel Hill, N.C., where she now lives, she alternates between anger and grief. She has not spoken publicly since 2002, and has her own version of the story. She says not to trust Porter, Paul White, Hosseini, Serena’s parents, the FBI or Byrne. She believes Dabord was trying to assume his brother’s identity but believes that there’s no way he could have sailed the Hukuna Matata back by himself, that someone else must have been involved. “I had two sons,” she says. “I’m still a mother to both of them. The only way I can maintain any modicum of sanity and understanding is to stick with the truth as I know it.”
Patricia is the only remaining member of the nuclear family. In August 2008, Eugene Williams died in Las Vegas of pancreatic cancer at 64. His newswire obituary focused on his “five-octave voice” and his musical background—his own father had been a performing pianist. The only mention of his progeny came in the second-to-last sentence: “Williams was preceded in death by his sons, Kevin Williams and Brian Williams.”
Dabord still has one defender. White, his childhood friend, says he became Dabord’s attorney during the proceedings of 2002. White, whose office is in Los Angeles, says he is writing a book about what happened. That he’s traveled to Tahiti. That people don’t understand the whole situation. He talks about how Dabord always dreamed of going off the grid and how “he almost did it.” He grants that Dabord had problems, that he clearly “never filled the void inside him,” but he stands by his friend. “Just because you may seem like a loser,” White says, “it doesn’t mean you are a murderer.”
Murderer? Theoretically, the French authorities in Tahiti, who conducted the primary investigation, could weigh in on that. Only when a reporter attempted to retrieve the public court records on the case and to interview the deputy prosecutor, Louis Bounan, it led to a strange scene. After arriving at the Palais de Justice in the capital city of Pape’ete, a two-story building accessible via a staircase manned by two armed guards with heavy smoking habits, the reporter handed over the required paperwork. The secretary said that Monsieur Bounan was gone “through August.” It was early July. The reporter pointed out that he’d spoken to Bounan on the phone just an hour earlier. When pressed further, the secretary made a call and announced that, as it turned out, Bounan was at his desk. Bounan asked the reporter to leave the paperwork. A subsequent attempt to interview Bounan was moderately successful. Despite likely knowing English, he spoke only in French for 25 minutes. He said the case was a long time ago, that he barely remembered it. That it was sad but that it was an American. That the investigating judge on the case could no longer be reached. Then Bounan promised that all of the court records would be sent, via email, within “deux semaines” (two weeks) if not sooner. Three months later, they had yet to arrive, and Bounan had not responded to multiple follow-up emails.
As for Kevin Porter, Brian’s friend and assistant, he has his own project. Earlier this June he called Byrne with a pitch, the first time Byrne had heard from him in years. Porter said he was shopping a screenplay about Dele and that he had momentum. Hollywood was hot for it. He just needed one thing: money. Maybe Byrne would like to put in some cash? Byrne saw red. He told Porter never to call him again.
Porter lives in suburban Atlanta these days, where he is a partner in an online cosmetics company and a manager at a nonprofit that teaches life skills to adults with mental and learning disabilities. He says he had many rough days at first, grieving for his friend, and still does occasionally. The timing of it all was tragic, he says. He believes Brian was ready to come back to the NBA before he died. (Byrne also believes this.) Porter confirms that he has written a screenplay, with a friend, and that it’s about Brian’s life on and off the court, as well as the tragedy.
Porter bristles when Brian’s money is brought up. “Honestly, I didn’t get one red cent from it, and that’s O.K.,” he says. “Obviously Patricia had not thought about me.” He says he hasn’t talked to her since Brian’s death.
The postscript is less complicated on Serena’s side. Here one finds mainly grief, and love. Stacey Steele, Serena’s best friend, says she still misses Serena almost every day. Steele had her first child at 17, and Serena was like a second parent to him. “It was real hard on him at first, so I couldn’t afford to mourn around him,” Steele says. She takes comfort in what she can. “Her life was so clean and well-lived,” Steele says. “She had zero things left unfinished.”
Gael Rosewood, Serena’s mother, still lives in Berkeley, where she works as a Rolf massage therapist. A diploma in osteopathy hangs on the wall of her office. Medical tomes line a bookshelf. At 66, Gael is thin, with gray hair and the same striking blue eyes as her daughter. She remains amazed at the effect Serena had on people. Two high school friends of Serena’s still call Gael three or four times a year, just to talk.
Gael likes to think her daughter was happy in the end, with Brian. “I think they shared this sort of vast yearning for understanding the bigger picture of life and being connected to energy somehow,” she says, sitting at a local cafe. “Brian had this enormous desire to break the chains of familial dysfunction and be free of that. I think that somehow this was something they were working on together.”
The first few years after Serena’s death were the worst for Gael. Then, one day she heard from a friend with a message: Serena had contacted her. It happened again with a different medium. And soon enough Gael felt like she was communicating with her daughter in small ways. A symbol here, a strange coincidence there. It gave her comfort. “I really went through a phase where I felt at the 10-year mark that I’m starting to heal,” Gael says. “Then she stopped. I can’t have conversations with her now. I don’t know why. I think either she reincarnated or it’s time for me to let go.” Gael pauses, looking down into her empty tea cup. “I don’t know.”
For some, letting go is an emotional journey. For others, it is a factual one. Elizabeth Castaneda is the FBI agent who worked on the case. She’s now retired from the San Francisco office, and she recently moved to Phoenix to be with her ailing grandmother. During her career, which began in 1983, she worked on all manner of cases: fugitives, bank robberies, drugs, pornography, violent crimes and abductions. More than most cases, though, Dele’s stuck with her.
Along with 12 other agents, Castaneda went to Tahiti after the murders. Officially the case remains open, but there are no new leads. The only version of events the FBI got on record was Dabord’s, but no one at the bureau bought it. “The explanation that Miles gave to Erica, his girlfriend, forensically it didn’t pan out,” Castaneda says. “According to him, Brian Williams struck the captain in the head with a wrench. That’s going to cause blood spatter....The top of the area where [they would have fought] had a ceiling. There was nothing there, and that’s a massive bleed. . . . It just didn’t make sense.”
Indeed, the eventual scenario that was widely reported, and that the FBI put out to the public, involved Dabord, motivated by a desire to assume his brother’s identity, shooting Dele, Karlan and Captain Saldo, then tying bodybuilding weights to their bodies and dropping them overboard. Castaneda thinks that explanation is close to the truth, but it still doesn’t explain the lack of splatter, or bullet holes. She has a different idea about what happened between the brothers on that day, hundreds of miles from land, in the deep, shark-inhabited waters off the coast of Tahiti. Based on the forensics, she believes it is the only logical conclusion.
“I think Miles put them in the water at gunpoint in the middle of nowhere,” she says, “and then he left them there.”
Back on Moorea, Teva stares across the table. His beer is empty. The light is fading. The blonde is waiting, at the other table. Still, he has a story he wants to tell. Told his $100 price can’t be met—that journalistic ethics prevent paying sources—he becomes frustrated and gets up to leave. Then he stops and leans back in. “O.K.,” he says, “I will tell you the story. For only $50.” In the end Teva shares his tale over a drink. He didn’t come all this way not to talk about what happened.
“I never knew he was a star,” Teva begins in good English. “After he died, I found out.” When Williams showed up at the Sofitel resort, the two men struck up a conversation on the beach, a pair of free spirits connecting. Williams was friendly and carried a basketball with him, dribbling it when he could. He liked Teva’s tattoo—a sun on his right shoulder—and called him Sunny. Serena was likewise outgoing. Says Teva, “She loved him totally.” The three began hanging out. Drinks on the beach. Trips on the boat.
After a couple of weeks, Brian began asking questions about the island, enamored by it. Then one day he pulled his new friend aside. He pointed to a group of condos on a hillside, overlooking the ocean. He asked Teva who owned that land. Then he told Teva to look into it, that he wanted to buy three houses up there: one for himself and Serena, one for his mother and one for Teva. Teva’s eyes widen as he retells the story. “I could not believe it.”
Not long after, Dabord arrived. “But [he] wasn’t nice,” Teva says. “He was busy in the head, he was strange. But Brian loved his brother.” Teva pauses, takes a sip. “The brother never talked. . . . I feel it, something was wrong. Brian was positive, and this guy was negative.”
A couple of days later, Dele asked Teva to come with him on the boat. They were sailing for Hawaii. It would be an adventure. Teva asked his boss at the Sofitel, pleaded for the time off. His boss said no. Teva remains torn about this. Chances are, his life was saved. Then again, maybe he could have prevented Brian’s death.
Teva has his own theory about what happened on the boat that day, and he’s as sure of it as all the others are of their theories. There is no way to fact-check most of what he says. And yet in stories such as this one, maybe it comes down to what you want to believe. Stories are about perspective, after all. After a life of seeking, did Serena and Brian find what they were looking for? Were they finally at peace when they died? That depends on whom you believe.
Here is what Teva believes. He believes that Dabord intended to kill his brother in order to steal away Serena. Teva saw the way the man he knew as Miles looked at Serena. Only something backfired. When Miles fired the gun that day on the boat, Serena leapt in front of Brian, taking the bullet. Teva is sure of it. It is heartbreaking. It is romantic.
Behind Teva, the bartender is now wiping down. It’s been close to two hours, and the tourists are stumbling off to bed. Another day in paradise awaits. Teva has something else to say, though. None of this about the boat is what’s important, he says. What’s important is what Brian and Serena had in those weeks at the Sofitel. Brian never looked at other women, as all the other boyfriends and husbands did. And the look on Serena’s face when she was with Brian was rapturous. “I am a hunter of women, you understand?” Teva says. “I know that look. I was happy for them.”
Nearby, the acoustic duo begins to close up shop. The night is dark. Teva nods, now sure of himself. “It was,” he says, “the beginning of a love story.”