In 2002, after walking away from an NBA contract worth tens of millions, the player once known as Brian Williams set sail from Tahiti with the woman of his dreams. It was the beginning of a new life—and the end
This is an article from the Oct. 21, 2013 issue
IT'S 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 the 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. "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, and those who will talk. Not just about what happened, but about 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 I never even knew he was famous. And his girlfriend—wow! You have never seen anyone so beautiful. Charlie recalls 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 Moorea, out past the mile markers, and has no cellphone, 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.
ANSWERS? 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 Jazz that included two last-second game-winners and a remarkable flu-ridden performance in Game 5 by Michael Jordan. Red, white and blue confetti drifts down, and more than 25,000 fans roar. On a portable stage Jordan hugs his Finals MVP trophy, grinning, a flake of red tinsel stuck to his right temple. Scottie Pippen is there, as are Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman. The person standing closest to Jordan, though, 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 championship run, logging nearly as many minutes as starting center Luc Longley. Chicago guard Steve 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 lefthanded Williams played with uncommon grace. He glided and swooped through the game. He was an excellent outlet passer and trailer on the break. He had 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 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 behind Jordan, those pale green eyes staring over MJ's shoulder. This was Williams's first NBA title, but you wouldn't know it. During what should have been the highlight of his 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 $36.5 million of his contract with the Pistons. No one could believe it; most assumed he would return. He never did. Instead, drawing on $16 million in career earnings, he traveled the world, writing poetry, 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 than 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 took two months for Byrne to learn that his new friend, then still known as Brian Williams, was an NBA player.
Theirs was a friendship based on inhaling life. When Byrne was 22, he was diagnosed with metastasized 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 jiujitsu, 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, the poetry of William Blake and the films of Jim Jarmusch. He and Byrne spent long nights debating politics, race and philosophy. Williams was particularly fond of Friedrich Nietzsche. His favorite line, from Nietzsche's novel Thus Spake Zarathustra: "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 biked from Salt Lake City to Phoenix with no camping gear. They earned pilot's licenses and flew a single-engine plane from New Hampshire to Maine, landing on remote lakes and sleeping under the wing. They wrestled and sprinted and skydived. They raced go-karts, crashing into each other at high speed.
Wherever they went, the pair attracted attention—or at least Williams did. "Everyone wanted to hang out with him," says Byrne. "You'd meet up, and there was Eddie Vedder or Billy Corgan." Williams had a particularly powerful effect on women. They left envelopes at his front door. "Mr. Williams, you don't know me," one read. "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."
Williams had little tolerance for groupies, but he wasn't interested in long-term relationships. He dated starlets, models and singers, including Madonna, though 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 up 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, when 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."
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 on his tour. To Serena it was strange: she, the rock star and his girlfriend hanging out together. She ended up feeling like a mother figure to the girlfriend. Wanting more from life, she left.
Every so often 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 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 declined to venture 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. The boys' stepfather, Ron Barker, frequently berated them as Patricia looked on, Brian and Kevin later told friends. (Patricia says both Eugene Williams and Barker were "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.
Kevin grew to 6'8", but 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 set of World Book encyclopedias in the third grade. Brian was more sociable and naturally curious, with his father's artistic leanings. He too read voraciously, and he played chess at a Greek café against old men. He was fascinated by life's small moments of beauty. Once Brian biked to a car wash 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 Arizona, he settled on basketball, in part because of his height.
As Brian blossomed, Kevin sputtered. He attended De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., but never graduated. He took steroids for his asthma, which was so severe that Patricia had to take 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 he would contact Brian with a 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, at UCLA. He gave Kevin $50,000 on two occasions. At the end of his first season in the NBA, Brian told Byrne that his father was now a limo driver and lounge singer in Las Vegas, and a coke addict. Spontaneously Brian spent $15,000 of a $25,000 NBA bonus check on a new Harley for his dad. When Brian proudly handed Eugene the keys, Byrne says, "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. 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 a Lost Boy 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. 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 called the city "sterile"—and to the 2,000-calorie-a-day diet he was then 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 read on plane rides while others played cards. 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. In Denver once after practice, the team found Williams in McNichols Center, where the ice had been laid for an upcoming hockey game, joyfully gliding around on size-17 skates. "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."
There was also basketball greatness in Williams. Jordan saw it. Kerr calls Williams "maybe the most physically gifted player I ever saw." Most of all, Bulls and Lakers coach Phil Jackson saw it. After Williams left the NBA, in 1999, Byrne received an email 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 [Lakers general manager] 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 deejayed at nightclubs, invested in a Lebanese bottled-water plant, Jet-Skied in the Mediterranean. From there he made for Australia. Byrne wasn't surprised. 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."
KEVIN WILLIAMS always dreamed 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. Growing up, the boys bickered endlessly. Their resemblance made it even tougher for Kevin. At 270 pounds, with a wide jaw, he looked like a thicker, less handsome version of Brian.
Kevin, too, was given to bouts of depression. He tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion using medication. Paul White, his best friend, 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—a void of feeling loved for who you are, of feeling safe."
Kevin drifted further and further from his family. By the time he showed up in New Zealand to surprise his brother 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.
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, he 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, and occasionally Byrne, Gheur and others heard updates on Williams—known as Zobie to his good friends—from various sources. He was in Monaco. He was chasing girls in Beirut. He was hanging out at a surf shop in Australia. Later the media would flesh out details. Like how Williams met a painter at a pub in Australia and recruited him to be his traveling partner; they spent months camping together in the bush before showing up in Adelaide so dirty that they were taken for aborigines. Some friends worried about Williams's lifestyle, which included smoking marijuana. When Byrne asked El Hosseini in 2000 how Williams was doing, there was a pause. "Zobie's methods have become unsound," El Hosseini said. Byrne wasn't sure. "It was Kurtz-like," he says, "but to me it sounds fantastic, to be out on a truck in the Outback."
In early 2000, Williams fulfilled a lifelong dream and learned to sail. He bought a catamaran for $650,000 and registered it as the Hukuna Matata, a misspelling of the Swahili for "no worries." Built in 1997, the boat was 56 feet long. Inside were several bedrooms, a kitchen and a living area that Williams outfitted with a wraparound 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 Papua 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. He asked her to join him. Serena decided to go for two weeks. Two weeks turned into five. Upon returning, she told her mother she'd had an amazing time but wasn't sure about Williams yet. A couple of weeks later she heard from him again. Come back out, he said. This time he invited her not for a visit but to live with him.
In early 2002, Serena flew out to meet Brian in New Zealand. Whatever had kept them apart 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 Serena and Brian. 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: On the morning of July 6, 2002, the Hukuna Matata departed from a harbor in Pape'ete, the capital of Tahiti, bound for Hawaii. Four people were on board: Bison Dele (né Brian Williams), 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 four satellite phone calls emanated from the boat. None were distress calls. After that, nothing.
FOR THE FIRST couple of months after the boat's disappearance, there was only confusion. In late August the U.S. Coast Guard sent a telex distress bulletin to all ships within a 1,000-mile radius of Tahiti. Then, on Sept. 5, the first clue.
That afternoon at 1:30 a man claiming to be Bison Dele—a man who looked like Dele and possessed his passport and checkbook—tried to buy 460 one-ounce Gold Eagle coins from Certified Mint, Inc., a gold dealer in Phoenix. 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, aka Kevin Williams. Porter flew in from Detroit. Five hours of questioning followed. 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 police 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 would become clear: How a man matching the description of 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. Then, on July 16, a slightly damaged catamaran, now 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 in a marina and left on a flight to L.A., after which he flew to Belize before arriving in Arizona.
Now, after being released in Phoenix, Dabord ran. He disappeared into Mexico. By now the FBI was on his trail. So was Byrne.
Patricia Phillips had heard from her older son. She said he called and said, "Mom, you know me. I could not survive prison." She called Byrne. 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 just want to get B back. I can bring $150,000. I'll meet you in Mexico.
Byrne thought he might be able to bring in Dabord. He crossed the border, stopped in a small town, asked around. That's when he got a call from Phoenix authorities. The boat had been found. There was no sign of the passengers. Authorities believed that Dele, Karlan and the captain were dead.
Standing on a dusty street far from home, Byrne heard the words, and his eyes blurred. He dialed Patricia and told her what he'd heard. There was a long pause. Finally, she said, "You know, Patrick, he never bought me anything."
Byrne was stunned. "Patricia, I thought he paid for you to go to college," he said, "and he told me he bought you a $350,000 house."
"Patrick," she said, "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 says her comment about the 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 find Dabord. On Sept. 15, at 11:30 a.m., a patient described in hospital records as a "30- or 35-year-old gentleman," who had been found unconscious on the beach in Tijuana two days earlier, 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 Sept. 26, 2002, at approximately 10 a.m., Dabord was taken off life support. He was pronounced dead the next day at 8 p.m. The official diagnosis: "Suicide attempt with hypoglycemic brain damage with subsequent discontinuation of life support." He had overdosed on insulin and then lain down on a beach.
During a joint funeral for the brothers two weeks later, at Trinity Baptist Church in 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?
Byrne sits on a couch in a room at the Fairmount Hotel in Phoenix in June 2013. 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, a complication from the cancer that he has vanquished for spells but that never truly leaves. At 50, he remains vital. 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.
Byrne hated how TV shows gave credence to Dabord's account of what happened, the one he gave to his girlfriend, Erica Weise, before committing suicide. It remains the only first-person account. It goes like this: On July 7, Dele and Dabord got into 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. Out of self-defense, Dabord said, 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, but he becomes animated talking about his friend. "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. Byrne wants people to know how special Dele was. He 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.
Patricia Phillips is harder to track down. Two years after Dele's disappearance 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 her own version of the story. She believes that Dabord was trying to assume his brother's identity but that he couldn't have sailed the Hukuna Matata back by himself; 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.
As for Porter, this June he called Byrne with a pitch. Porter said he was shopping a screenplay about Dele and that Hollywood was hot for it. He just needed one thing: money. Byrne told Porter never to call him again.
Porter confirms that he's produced a screenplay, which he describes as "really beautiful and well-written." He lives in suburban Atlanta, where he is 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 Dele was ready to come back to the NBA. (Byrne also believes this.)
The postscript is less complicated on Serena's side. Here one finds mainly grief, and love. Stacey Steele says she still misses Serena every day. Steele takes comfort in what she can: "Her life was so clean and well-lived. She had zero things left unfinished."
Gael Rosewood, Serena's mother, still lives in Berkeley, where she works as a Rolf massage therapist. 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 Dele. "I think they shared this sort of vast yearning for understanding the bigger picture of life and being connected to energy somehow," she says. "He 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."
ELIZABETH CASTANEDA is the FBI agent who worked on the Dele case. She's retired from the San Francisco office. After the disappearances, Castaneda went to Tahiti along with 12 other agents. Officially the case remains open, but there are no new leads. The only version of events the FBI ever got on record was Dabord's, but no one at the bureau bought it. "Forensically it didn't pan out," Castaneda says. "According to him, [Dele] struck the captain in the head with a wrench. That's going to cause blood spatter. The top of the area where [they fought] had a ceiling. There was nothing there. 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 narrative is close to the truth but still doesn't explain the lack of blood spatter or bullet holes. She has a different idea about what happened that day in the shark-inhabited waters, far from land. "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 the hotel phone rings at 6 p.m. "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-soaked 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. Teva looks to be about 40 and to have made the most of those years. He is drinking a beer and chatting up a twentysomething blonde tourist, who sits next to him giggling, a glass of Chardonnay in her hand. Teva gestures toward a quieter table. "We were like brothers," he says of Dele. "Serena was like a sister. They are here, in my heart." He hits his chest, hard, three times.
He is reluctant to say more. "I will tell you the story," he finally says, "for one hundred dollars." Told that journalistic ethics prevent paying sources, he 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 he shares his tale over a drink.
"I never knew he was a star," Teva begins. When Dele showed up at the Sofitel resort, the two men struck up a conversation on the beach. Dele 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 Dele pulled his new friend aside. He pointed to a group of condos on a hillside, overlooking the ocean. He told Teva to look into who owned the properties, because 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 tells the story. "I could not believe it."
Not long after, Dabord arrived. "He was busy in the head, he was strange," Teva says. "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 Dele's death.
Teva has his own theory about what happened on the boat. He believes Dabord intended to kill his brother in order to steal away Serena. Teva saw the way Dabord looked at her. But when Dabord fired the gun, Serena leaped in front of Dele, taking the bullet. Teva is sure of it. It is heartbreaking. It is romantic.
Behind Teva the bartender is wiping down. It's been close to two hours, and tourists are stumbling off to bed. Teva has something else to say, though. None of this about the boat is important, he says. What's important is what Dele and Serena had in those weeks at the Sofitel. Dele never looked at other women, as the other boyfriends and husbands did. And the look on Serena's face when she was with Dele 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 pack up. The night is dark. Teva nods, now sure of himself. "It was," he says, "the beginning of a love story."
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For a fuller version of the story of Serena Karlan (above) and Bison Dele, with more text and photos, go to SI.com/longform