When Travis Pilling was 12 years old, he made two decisions. The first was to swear to obey the commandments of the Mormon Church. The second was to scalp four thousand dollars worth of tickets to the 1997 Final Four basketball games.
By the time he turned 30, Travis had become fully embedded in the world of high-end Mormon ticket hustlers, selling tickets everywhere from the World Cup in Germany to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. He’d worked street corners at the Kentucky Derby and hotel lobbies by the Super Bowl, all while evading security guards, police squads, and teams of search helicopters. With a crisp suit and a tidy Mormon haircut, no one suspected a thing.
In The Ticket, Pilling reflects on his journey from the priesthood in Idaho to the barricaded police station in Porto Alegre, Brazil where everything came crashing down. Co-published with SBNation, this is a story about the freedom dirty money provides, the toll it takes on the soul, and whether, once you’ve tasted success as a con artist, you can ever set the the tricks of the trade aside.
It was 1996 and singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan was rapidly ascending through the music industry, with over 2.8 million albums sold. Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, and Tracy Chapman had all hit the top 40. Jewel had gone ten times platinum. The Dixie Chicks had exploded. Shania Twain was the biggest star in America.
But these artists kept hearing “no.” No, we can’t play your song, we already have a woman artist in rotation. No, you can’t put two women on the same concert bill, it's ticket sales poison. McLachlan decided to prove them wrong, assembling a bill of over 250 female superstars to play massive outdoor venues. The festival was called Lilith Fair.
Two decades later, writer Jessica Hopper revisits Lilith Fair’s creation, its swift backlash, and its dual legacy as a visionary event and cultural punchline. Building a Mystery: An Oral History of Lilith Fair,” co-published with Vanity Fair, is the real story of how Lilith came to be—and what it ended up meaning to a generation that had never seen anything like it before.
Late in the winter of 2018, as the tally of guilty pleas and jail sentences from Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation ticked upwards, W. Sam Patten took stock of his resume. The political consultant and lobbyist had spent time in Ukraine, sharing an office with Paul Manafort. He had done very-possibly-kind-of-shady work in Africa and Mexico for Cambridge Analytica. He was in frequent contact with Steve Bannon. On the whole, Patten felt this didn't look great. That was about when the FBI arrived and Patten started to talk.
"Mueller and Me" is a window into the baffling misadventures of W. Sam Patten, who Robert Mueller cites in his 448 page reporta valuable source. This darkly funny, piece—co-published with our partners at New York Magazine—unravels Patten's character, as he learns his way around the Special Council's vending machines and decides to take up boxing to "train to fight in prison." The end result isn’t just a peek behind the curtain of the Mueller investigation—it's a look at a new generation of American lobbyists and consultants-for-hire who went out to impart the good word of democracy and ended up undermining our own.
Tom Justice was a gifted cyclist on track for Olympic gold. From his early years, he was groomed by coaches to represent the US on its national team. A charming and popular high schooler, Justice's peers predicted he'd be on the cover of a Wheaties Box one day.
And then he started robbing banks.
Described by tellers as clean cut, Justice wore a button down, khakis, and, curiously, a Rick James-style wig when he’d walk up to teller windows and politely demand cash. Then he’d thank the employees and calmly exit the bank. Once outside, he'd strip down to a patriotic spandex body suit, snap on a silver helmet, and pedal quietly into the night. For years, Justice evaded police and the FBI, robbing a total of 26 banks across the country. He never used a weapon. And, for years, he never kept the cash.
"The Bicycle Thief" is the story of one of the most prodigious bank robbers in American history. It traces Justice's journey from a teen lavished with praise to a young adult struggling to find a sense of distinction. Justice’s life and historic crime spree is just as much about the American imperative for fame and a life of consequence as it is the thrill of the steal.
Patrick Burleigh was 18 months-old when he grew his first pubic hair. By the time he turned three, he had a mustache and the testosterone levels of a teenager. At nine he could pass for an adult nearly twice his age.
The men in Burleigh’s family carry a gene that causes them to experience an extremely early onset of puberty. From his great grandfather’s stint in WWI at age 11 to the author's own way-too-youthful misadventures with LSD and tagging across Venice Beach in the 1990s, the Burleigh boys have been saddled with the burden and responsibilities of manhood while still children. But it wasn’t until Burleigh was set to have a son himself—a son very much at risk to inherit his genetic mutation—that he dug into his family history and confronted his own tortured childhood.
"Precocious " is a recollection of Burleigh's fraught early years as unnaturally advanced young man, and an incisive examination of the baggage that men pass down to their sons. His condition was extreme, but if illness is metaphor, then Burleigh's story has a lot to say about how we teach our boys how to confront the promise and peril of masculinity.
In May of 2004, Joshua Casteel, a 22-year old evangelical from Iowa, received a letter of deployment. He’d be going to Abu Ghraib prison. Everyone who knew him was surprised.
Casteel was devout and deeply opposed to the war on terror. And yet he would be an interrogator. And he turned out to be good at it. Casteel sat with Iraqi schoolboys, taxi drivers, farmers, and imams. He asked them about their personal lives, their families, and their children. He gained their trust. And from that, he gained information. He was deeply conflicted, but his superiors were in awe. His platoonmates nicknamed him “Priest.” And he continued his work right up until the day he fell terribly ill.
Our latest article by Jen Percy—published in partnership with Smithsonian—traces Casteel's journey from Cedar Rapids to Baghdad and back. It's an odyssey marked by pain and moral quandary; the story of a brilliant-but-tortured man working to reconcile his own faith with the stark realities of war and crushing expectations of patriotism.
It was sudden. A brilliant fireball flashed over a tiny village high in the Peruvian Andes. A local radio host announced the appearance of a UFO. One villager figured it must be Superman. Others swore it was an antahualla, a mythical creature in local lore that soars between mountaintops, menacing those below. For those on the ground, it was the brightest thing anyone had ever seen in the sky.
What they in fact saw was a rock, ten tons of chondrite burning at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it entered the atmosphere as one of the largest meteorites in living memory. But it was a strange arrival. Scientists were shocked that it left such a large crater. Some locals feared it was a malevolent omen. And collectors wanted a piece of it. Which meant that very soon meteorite hunters—a small, rivalrous clan of field adventurers in the high-end market for rare celestial stones—would be coming for it.
The winter of 2011 wouldn’t be the last time Clancy Martin ended up on psychiatric hold. His whole life has been one long suicide watch, from childhood onward. Martin has rendered his ordeal into a darkly funny autobiographical essay—published in collaboration with The Highline—that takes us through the aftermath of his fifth suicide attempt. From the doctors who give him advice about “how to do it better next time”, to the patients' ghosts who haunt the halls at the Research Psychiatric Center, Martin illuminates the mind of the chronically suicidal with startling candor and insight. And in the process what he learns about humanity has meaning for every one of us.
Perhaps you recall John DeLorean, the engineering prodigy turned playboy automaker? His eponymous car was a symbol of Reaganonomic chic. It was cemented into pop-culture by Marty McFly. It was stylish, it was expensive, it was the future. It was also a fateful disaster.
Perhaps you also recall the grainy footage of DeLorean in an airport hotel, clinking champagne glasses over twenty-seven kilograms of cocaine. It was meant to be a $6.5 million down payment on a larger drug deal to save his doomed company. But it was not meant to be at all. DeLorean’s toast was followed by a tragicomic discovery—that he was the only person in the room not working for the federal government.
“Demon Underneath” by Alex Pappademas revisits DeLorean's notorious yarn. And what a yarn it is. There are palm readers, messengers in mink, proclamations from a nuclear shelter, an ill-conceived toiletry line, and two grocery bags of stolen documents that bring it all crashing down.
Denise McCluggage was the kind of woman who turned heads. Whip-smart, stylish, and poised, she became a pioneering sports journalist and race-car driver in an era when those achievements were all-but-impossible for women. And when she wasn't racing the cars she loved, Denise was leading a free-wheeling American life among the cultural vanguard of her time—hobnobbing with (and occasionally dating) the likes of Miles Davis, Steve McQueen, and Dave Brubeck—and breaking barriers everywhere she went.
Written by Amy Wallace and published in Sports Illustrated, this story brings to life a uniquely modern and largely forgotten Feminist icon who broke through the barriers of her time in her beloved ’49 black MG-TC. Or her Fiat-Abarth 750 Zagato. Or her Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce. And especially in her Ferrari 250 short wheel-base Berlinetta, which is the car Denise drove with verve and bravado in her legendary Sebring win in 1961, the first for a woman behind the wheel in professional racing.
We've got a love story for you: one for the ages. It's the tale of Fred Cruz, a heroin addict, and Frances Jalet, a divorcee, mother, and one of the first women to graduate from Columbia Law School. Inspired by the civil rights movement, Jalet walked away from her sedate New England life to become a legal aid lawyer in Texas. She met Cruz in prison and their complicated romance upended the Texas prison system forever, landing them in the Supreme Court and inspiring the prison reform movement in the US.
This remarkable story from Ethan Watters was produced in conjunction with Texas Monthly and offers a measure of hope that love and conviction can prevail in the most dire of circumstances.
Everyone here came from somewhere else. Even Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait at some point. This is the basic American idea — an identity open to all — but it can be easy to forget from inside. And that’s when politics can turn ugly, as it has recently, with our political narrative becoming a story of blame and fear. “Little America” is meant to counter that narrative with a fuller portrait of our most recent arrivals. Here we present just a few stories. You’ll meet a woman who kissed a car for 50 hours. A man who escaped communism via zip-line. A Hindu Mayor of a small Kansas town. These stories are a small, collective portrait of America’s immigrants. And thereby a portrait of America itself.
Remember Heaven’s Gate? It’s been two decades since 39 members of a millenarian, UFO-obsessed cult laced up identical Nike sneakers, donned matching jumpsuits (with an embroidered patch identifying them as the “Away Team”), ate some applesauce laced with phenobarbital, and laid down to die in unison in a rented mansion outside San Diego.
"Heaven's Gate: The Sequel" is a reprint of a 2007 article about the group, originally published in L.A. Weekly. The piece tells the story of the cult, its members and its beliefs, and a lone survivor named Rio. Because Rio did not stay on Earth because he lost faith or got cold feet. There was a reason, he said, that he was left behind.
In 2002, Hiroshi Ishiguro introduced his five-year-old daughter to her android replica—an identical model he’d built from silicon and servos. "Let's play," the robot said. Ishiguro's daughter looked at her mirror image, a strange, blinking, breathing, human-like thing, and burst into tears.
Ishiguro's goal is to crack the code of "humanness"—to imbue a machine with perfectly life-like features and functions, so that one day we might form a relationship with a robot the way we would another person. For all its eccentricities, the inventor's work is an attempt to understand the intricacies of romance, empathy, and friendship. But the search for human connection can be a deeply lonely place.
T La Rock was one of the pioneers of hip-hop, an old-school legend sampled by Public Enemy and Nas. But after a brutal attack put him in a nursing home, he had to fight to recover his identity, starting with the fact that he’d ever been a rapper at all.
If you looked up into the Phoenix sky in the 1970s and saw a helicopter, it was likely Jerry Foster. An airborne cowboy, exploring a new frontier. He'd fly five feet over morning traffic, beaming his footage to local news, and then head to the desert for an afternoon of search and rescue. Until, of course, he flew too close to the sun.
The things that made Foster want to fly were the things that eventually brought him back to Earth. His is a tale of bravery and mid-air chases and heroic rescues, but also of hubris, drugs, and dark nights of the soul. Foster fell, but not before he lived an incredible life of adventure in the air.
For further reading, please check out Jerry Foster's memoir, Earthbound Misfit.
During Joshuah Bearman's first trip to The Sundance Film Festival in 2007, he wound up floating through the social scene and seeing almost no movies. That year, and all years since, Sundance has felt the same: a weirdly balanced amalgam of high art, modest commerce, and meaningless social frenzy — from which Bearman distilled a strangely adaptable principle of life: The Door is the Party.
Charles and John Deane knew it would be dangerous. But the brothers—raised in the slums of Victorian London—also knew that plundering undersea shipwrecks could make them phenomenally rich. And so, in 1828, they invented the world’s first practical deep-sea diving rig.
Largely forgotten by history, the brothers opened a new frontier for human exploration—and exploitation. They achieved glory but paid the price in suffering, estrangement, and madness.
Dennis Roeper didn’t want to start a war. He drove an ice cream truck in Salem, Oregon, and liked to say that he was in the business of “selling smiles.” He loved rolling into a park and seeing that look of delight in kids' eyes. It was his dream job.
Then Efrain Escobar rolled into town. Efrain worked non-stop and seemed to ignore the informal code of conduct of the Salem ice cream trade. What began as a simple turf war, erupted into an all out ice cream offensive. Before long, the two men couldn’t even remember why they were fighting. Soon, they were on the verge of destroying the thing they loved the most: the joy of ice cream.
Chris Jeon was determined to make it to Wall Street. But after landing his dream college internship with BlackRock, something unexpected happened. Spreadsheets and financial analysis made him feel anxious, stifled. Sitting in his cubicle, he decided it was time to do something drastically different: join the rebels fighting in Libya.
In the midst of one country's revolution to rebuild, grow, and change, Chris saw an opportunity to do the same for himself. But what started as an effort to break with the past escalated into something different; it wasn't long before Libya unleashed a side of Chris that he couldn’t control.
All systems are vulnerable to corruption. In Part II of the true crime saga of the Silk Road, federal agents are mounting a wide-ranging manhunt for the ruthless Dread Pirate Roberts. They are counting on the fact that in the era of informational perpetuity, you only have to be careless once. As they follow the digital breadcrumbs linking DPR to Ross Ulbricht, it becomes clear that Ross’ remarkable transformation from Eagle Scout to ruthless kingpin is complete, proving that ordinary people--sons, friends, boyfriends, idealists--are capable of terrible things.
Ross Ulbricht was a young, handsome, and charming physics student who played in drum circles, made crystals, and lived in cheap Craigslist shares. Online, he was also the Dread Pirate Roberts, multi-millionaire proprietor of a 21st Century drug empire and the target of a massive federal manhunt.
This extraordinary story chronicles Ross’ transformation from Eagle Scout to Silk Road kingpin, and follows the government’s nationwide race to bring him down. It is a true crime saga for our digital age, a non-fiction novella in two parts that tells a tale of corrupted ideals and the allure of power, and how easy it is to become lost.
The kids at Carl Hayden High School were never expected to succeed. Many were poor and the drop out rate was high. The last thing anyone thought they would do was enter the national underwater robotics championship.
After all, Carl Hayden didn't even have a swimming pool and their robot team consisted of four immigrant kids with no budget. But they figured they'd give it a try, pitting themselves against the best college engineers in the country. MIT would be there, backed by Exxon-Mobil, but these kids didn't know enough to be scared. All they knew was that they had built a damn good robot.
On October 9, 1991, a centuries-old painting was brazenly stolen from the Ducale Palace, one of Venice, Italy’s most famous landmarks. Newspapers declared that “expert thieves” had pulled off the incredible heist, but detective Antonio Palmosi knew it was the work of one man: Vincenzo Pipino, the most accomplished thief the city had seen in a generation.
Pipino had been robbing the rich for decades, but the Ducale caper upended his life. The police knew he was responsible and gave him 20 days to get the art back. The problem: Local mob boss “Angel Face” Maniero now had the painting.
The heist, as it turned out, was only the beginning.
On November 7, 2006, something terrible happened to Nadathe Joassaint, a 26 year old Haitian beauty. Somebody called her out of her house and, when she came back in, she collapsed and died. There were no visible wounds.
Two months later, a large mob gathered in front of Judge Isaac Etienne's home. They demanded a trial and shoved forward two badly beaten men. Nadathe's mother then leveled one of the few accusations in the criminal code more spectacular than murder:
"He turned my daughter into a zombie!" she shouted. "Give her back."
When a gold mine was robbed and two guards killed, Roy Peterson got hired to track down the loot in Southern Peru. Problem was, he had two replaced hips and one blind eye. But the former Special Forces operative was sure that one good job could fix everything.
Maria was a cop in Lima who had been divorced and sitting at a desk for a decade. She wasn’t looking for adventure anymore. Then she met Roy. In the rugged mountains of Peru, the two set off to solve the case with the hope that this time, things would be different for both of them.
In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was overrun by an angry mob. Fifty-two employees were taken hostage, but six Americans escaped and were hiding in Tehran.
CIA agent Tony Mendez got the job of bringing them home. His plan: pretend he was a producer making a science fiction film in Iran, hook up with the hostages, and sneak them out. It wasn't the usual cover for "exfiltrations." Then again, there's a fine line between statecraft and stagecraft. And why not use a movie as cover? This wasn't just any movie. It was a movie that would save six people's lives.
In 2006, a Coast Guard helicopter plucked the panicking crew off the deck of a capsized ship off the coast of Alaska, leaving behind its $100 million dollar payload.
That's when the salvage experts at Titan Maritime showed up, and helicoptered on to the ship. Their mission: flip the 654-foot vessel upright and sail it to shore.
Over 10 days, the Titan team fought the weather, each other, and time to save the stricken vessel. They'd make millions if they succeeded. If they failed, they'd all die.
The kids at Carl Hayden High School were never expected to succeed. Many were poor and the drop out rate was high. The last thing anyone thought they would do was enter the national underwater robotics championship.
After all, Carl Hayden didn't even have a swimming pool and their robot team consisted of four undocumented immigrant kids with no budget. But they figured they'd give it a try, pitting themselves against the best college engineers in the country. MIT would be there, backed by Exxon-Mobil, but these kids didn't know enough to be scared. All they knew was that they had built a damn good robot.
It began with a murder. Writer Stephen Elliott arrived in Venice Beach soon after the killing of a homeless man. As he grapples with the meaning of the crime, he begins to see that the influx of tech money has made Silicon Beach a very complicated place.
Elliott's journey through the underbelly of the tech boom brings him into contact with a commercial landlord who wears a pink leotard, a dominatrix who wants a roommate, and a venture capitalist who ran psychological operations for the US military in Iraq. In the end, the truth about this place is as murky as the haze over the Pacific Coast Highway.